There’s been a lot of opera related programming broadcast on BBC TV recently. Probably the biggest event was Jonas Kaufmann’s role debut as Otello in the Verdi opera conducted by Antonio Pappano but there’s also been a 90 minute documentary on Kaufmann and a two part series called Lucy Worsley’s Nights at the Opera and a broadcast of Brett Dean’s new Hamlet from Glyndebourne. I haven’t yet watched the Hamlet but here are some thoughts on the other three shows, plus an extra bonus.
The Otello is very good indeed. It’s probably a stronger cast than one can currently find on Blu-ray/DVD and Keith Warner’s production is competent, if not as striking as some others I’ve seen. The production is mostly dark and monumental with towering walls and only intermittent visual relief. It has its moments though. The storm scene is dramatic with flags, a dropping backdrop, severed heads and acrobats. The entry of the Venetian ambassadors in Act 3 is also spectacular with a switch to a red and white palette and a giant Lion of San Marco. Much of the time though it’s just a black box which causes video director Jonathan Haswell to offer a lot of head shots. This is especially apparent in the opening scene of Act 3 when that’s pretty much it. HD Kaufmann chops. In terms of interpretation I think the main thing is the way Warner presents Otello’s madness at the end of Act 3. It’s an absolute collapse and he very clearly is in Iago’s power. It’s actually quite chilling.
The glory though is in the performances. Kaufmann has all the bases covered. He’s as Heldentenor as any other Otello in the scenes that require it, like the Esultate, but he’s incredibly lyrical and delicate when he needs to be, as in the Act 1 duet. He’s also very convincing dramatically and actually looks like a victorious general. Maria Agreste is a great match as Desdemona. Her singing is lovely when it counts and she embodies her character’s bewilderment and naivety. Marco Vratogna is the best Iago I have seen. Yes he’s an evil bastard but he can, when needs be, sing like an angel and his dissimulation with Otello is masterly. It’s a very multi-dimensional take. Frédéric Antoun is a pretty dood Cassio too! Papano and the ROH orchestra always seem to be at their best in red blooded Italian stuff. This performance is no exception. The program was broadcast in 720p HD and so better than DVD quality. I imagine there will be a Blu-ray eventually though since Kaufmann has a deal with Decca I wouldn’t guarantee that.
The companion documentary, Jonas Kaufmann – Tenor for the Ages, is really fun. As well as some interesting technical stuff about how Kaufmann looks after his voice (and his recent problems) there’s a lot on Kaufmann on and off stage. We learn about his passion for Bayern München, shortbread and afternoon tea for example. We also get his side of the Vienna Tosca story. There are some hints about future plans too. Short term it sounds like he’s got a Tannhäuser lined up somewhere. Tristan, unsurprisingly, is on the radar and so too, perhaps less predictably, is Peter Grimes. Maybe, at long last we’ll get a tenor with real heft who can actually sing Now the Great Bear and Pleiades. I’m not sure there has really been anyone since Philip Langridge who covered all the bases though Tony Dean-Griffey is pretty good! And this show has Antonio Pappano too!
Lucy Worsley’s two shows are a bit slight but fun. Each show visits various cities and looks at four operas at what she considers to be pivotal moments in opera history, and the operas they produced. Venice showcases Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, the first work which featured real historical characters. Vienna yields Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro which held a mirror up to a society where the Enlightenment was beginning to break down the old feudal order, and Beethoven’s Fidelio, an opera that further explores radical ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood. To close the first show, Lucy travels to Milan, where Verdi’s Slaves’ Chorus in Nabucco encapsulated the hopes and dreams of the Italian people in their struggle for independence.
In the second programme, Lucy investigates cities in France and Germany and four operas of a new kind that swept away conventions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In Paris, Bizet’s Carmen exposed the gritty realities of life for Paris’s underclass and the upper classes’ fear of them, albeit through a Spanish lens. Puccini’s La Boheme, at the turn of the centuries, showed a group of young people exploring the new personal and sexual freedoms available. In Bayreuth it’s back to national identity and the role Wagner’s Ring Cycle played in transforming and solidifying the German version. Finally we are taken to Dresden, where Richard Strauss premiered Salome, a work that explored perverted female pleasure in a way that owed much to the radical new psychological theories of the day.
Worsley is Curator of the Historical Royal Palaces and she’s a bit precious in a very British/Oxbridge sort of way. She likes dressing up in opera costumes to make her point for example. Still there’s plenty of good information and the show is easy on the eye. And, inevitably, Antonio Pappano.
Not opera, but closer in some ways to Worsley’s real expertise, is Elizabeth I’s Battle for God’s Music. It’s a look at how the music of the Chapel Royal (and English church music in general) evolved during the reigns of Henry VIII and his three children. Starting with textually incomprehensible polyphony to support the mystery of the Mass, moving on to much simply, text driven settings, such as metrical psalms, under Edward (and back under Mary) to reach a typically English compromise under Elizabeth who liked her reformed theology spiced up with appropriately royal ceremonial elements. Interesting stuff especially for 16th century history geeks.