Cavalli is a rather neglected composer. Something like thirty of his operas exist but few are ever performed and only one, La Calisto, appears at all frequently. It’s hard to see why. He was Monteverdi’s pupil and a worthy successor whose work was decidedly popular in his lifetime. It’s even harder to see why a work like Elena could have been ignored for 350 years before being revived at the Aix en Provence Festival in 2013. It’s really got the same things going for it as Il coronazione di Poppea. There’s sex, homoeroticism, mythology, cross dressing, a weird (Shakespearean?) mix of the serious and the comic and some really lovely music. The only downside I can see is a rather convoluted plot and the fact that one of the leading roles was written for a high castrato.
Patrice Chéreau’s last major opera production was of Strauss’ Elektra for the 2013 Aix-en-Provence Festival where it was recorded. It later appeared with a different cast at the Met and was broadcast in HD but that performance has not yet been released on disk. It’s a very good example of Chéreau’s work. The towering, blocky sets recall his From the House of the Dead and are equally dark and grey. The interest is all in the characters.
Katie Mitchell’s production of Handel ‘s Alcina recorded at Aix-en-Provence in 2015 is extremely interesting. It’s almost complete with maybe twenty minutes of the ballet music cut. None of the ballet is actually staged as such. It’s also a Mitchell special multi-space set (like Written on Skin) with the lower level having Alcina/Morgana’s boudoir, drawing room or whatever at any given moment flanked by two smaller spaces which are the “personal” spaces of the two sisters. When the ladies withdraw from the public/enchanted space they are replaced by actresses who look decades older. Only late in the piece as Alcina’s magic fades do the two worlds get confused. The upper level of the set is taken up with the giant machine that turns Alcina’s victims into taxidermied animals. The overall aesthetic is upscale modern with lots of actors as very competent servants.
Klaus Michael Grüber’s production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, recorded at the Aix-en-Provence festival in 2000, is both stylish and stylised. The stage and costume designs, by Gilles Aillaud and Rudy Sabounghi, are extremely elegant and, at times, very beautiful. The Seneca scenes at the beginning of Act 2, set in a sort of lemon grove, are especially effective as ai the use of painterly backdrops looking like Greek vase paintings reinterpreted by a fauviste. The director complements the designs with a somewhat formalised acting style that fits rather well. He also makes some changes to the narrative to tighten up the drama, dispensing with Ottavia’s nurse and ending with Pur tí miro, rather than Poppea’s coronation. Coupled with excellent acting performances it’s a straightforward but effective way to tell the story.
Philippe Boesmans’ opera Julie; libretto by Luc Bondy and Marie-Louise Bischolberger after Früken Julie by August Strindberg, is unremittingly bleak. In fact, if it lasted much longer than its 75 minutes I could well imagine audience members cutting their throats long before the title character. That said, it’s pretty compelling stuff. It’s a tight drama about a young aristocratic woman kicking against the constraints of her privileged life aided and abetted by her father’s rather spineless valet Jean; a suitable occupation as he is one of nature’s lackeys. The only likeable character is Jean’s young fiancée Kristin, a cook in the household. Buried in this simple melodramatic plot of lust, betrayal and suicide are all kinds of ideas about heredity, social class and behaviour. Broadly speaking the message is “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate” and woe betide you if your plebeian mother married above herself.
Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail is perhaps the most difficult of his major operas to bring off successfully. I dealt with some of the issues in a review of Hans Neuenfel’s production so I won’t repeat myself here. Jérôme Deschamps and Macha Makeïff’s production for the Aix-en-Provence Festival, filmed in 2004, has several interesting features that cast an interesting light on the main characters. The most drastic is the treatment of Osmin. Here he’s rather dignified and far from the fat, brutal, somewhat comic lecher of convention. That side of his character is conveyed by five, mostly silent, sidekicks. These guys are everywhere, portraying both Osmin’s baser nature and the “walls have eyes and ears” aspects of the story. They are made to look rather dim and get some fairly funny business to play with. Next we have Bassa Selim played by a dancer. This makes it easier to portray him as sensitive but not a wimp through the use of extremely virile choreography. Clever! Finally, both Pedrillo and Blondchen are sung by people of colour. That can’t be a coincidence. It certainly puts a very interesting spin on the confrontation between Osmin and Blondchen about how English girls are different from Turks. These ideas are played out against rather dramatically colourful sets and costumes with lots of comic business to make a fast paced and enjoyable romp that makes one think just enough about the underlying meanings.
I’ve been watching a few staged versions of Handel oratorios recently and I’ve come to the conclusion that, in general, I prefer them to his Italian operas. It’s not just that they have really good plots they are also musically much more interesting than the operas. For the stage Handel stuck pretty firmly to the conventions of opera seria. Da capo aria succeeds da capo aria and only occasionally does a chorus or a duet break out and that bit is often the musical highlight of the piece, to my mind at least. Think of Io t’abbraccio in Rodelinda; surely the highlight of the whole work. In the oratorios Handel seems to feel much freer to use multiple forms and, of course, he writes magnificent choruses. Continue reading →
Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni recorded at the 2010 Aix-en-Provence festival is full on Regie. He takes the characters and story of Mozart/DaPonte and recasts them quite radically. Zerlina is Donna Anna’s daughter. Donna Elvira, Donna Anna’s cousin, is married to Don Giovanni. Leporello is a family member too. The sense is of one extended, conventional, bourgeois family in which Don Giovanni is a fatally disruptive intrusion. Tcherniakov changes the time line too. Instead of taking place over a 24 hour period the story plays out over many weeks.
William Christie and Les Arts Florissants recorded Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria in Aix-en-Provence, five years before their Madrid recording. The Aix production was directed by Adrian Noble and featured real life couple Kreśimir Śpicer and Marijana Mijanović as Ulisse and Penelope.
Janáček’s last opera, From the House of the Dead, is a curious piece. It sets certain episodes from Dostoevsky’s account of his life in prison into a collage of stories that doesn’t have a straightforward narrative arc at all. It’s quite brutal, as one might expect, and very male dominated. Few characters stand out as individuals and so the piece becomes very much an exercise in ensemble musical theatre. The music is unusual too. In Pierre Boulez’ words it is “primitive”. Certain phrases are repeated over and over with minimal development to create a sort of “expressionist minimalism”. It’s extremely interesting to listen to and a great sonic match for the brutal and repetitive nature of prison camp life.