Verdi’s Falstaff, of course, is a farce so there’s no reason why a director shouldn’t treat it as one but all three of the other productions I’ve seen in the last few years have transposed it to the 1950s and put a spin on it. Sven-Eric Bechtolf, in his production for the 2021 Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, just doesn’t do that. It’s a 1590s (ish) setting and it’s played very broad. There are big costumes, big gestures, entrances and exits and characters “hidden in plain view”. It could be Dario Fo or Brian Rix.
Purcell’s King Arthur contains some wonderful music but it also poses real staging issues. How much of the play that the music supports does one include? How to contextualise the unfamiliar version of the King Arthur story? How to deal with the rather crude nationalism? Sven-Eric Bechtolf and Julian Crouch come up with a very interesting approach for their 2017 production at the Staatsoper Berlin.
Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s stagings of the Mozart/da Ponte operas in Salzburg concluded in 2015 with Le nozze di Figaro. I think it’s the most successful of the three. Bechtolf’s strengths lie in detailed direction of the action rather than bold conceptual statements and Nozze is probably the least in need of, and the least amenable to, the big Konzept. There aren’t any real dramaturgical problems to solve. It just works as written. I don’t think that’s so true for Don Giovanni or Così.
Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s second Mozart/daPonte for Salzburg was Don Giovanni which premiered in 2014. There are some similarities with his Così fan tutte. He uses a symmetrical unit set again and shows a fondness for creating symmetrical tableaux vivants but there the similarities pretty much end. I could find a consistent, believable set of humans in Così but not so much in Don Giovanni. The problem is really the man himself. Bechtolf, in his notes, seems to be arguing that Don Giovanni can make no sense in an age of pervasive accessibility and exposure to all things sexual. Da Ponte’s Don requires a climate of sexual repression for his essence; to Bechtolf a kind of Dionysian force (he cites Kierkegaard), to make any sense as a human. I think I get that but then, I think, the challenge becomes to create a Don Giovanni who does make sense to a 21st century audience as, in their different ways, do Guth and Tcherniakov. Bechtolf seems to treat the character not so much as a human rather than as a kind of energy focus who exists by igniting aspects of the other characters; whether that’s lust or jealousy or hatred. He caps off this idea at the end by having Don Giovanni reappear during the final ensemble as a kind of mischievous presence still chasing anything in a skirt, even if it’s, perhaps, from another world. It’s an idea that I could not really buy into.
Every few years the Salzburg Festival replaces the productions of the three Mozart/da Ponte collaborations with new productions. At least in recent years they have entrusted all three to the same director but the “refresh” happens in different years and not always in the same order. I reviewed Claus Guth’s offerings here (Le nozze di Figaro, 2006; Don Giovanni, 2008; Così fan tutte, 2009) and noted the way that certain linking elements developed over the course of the “cycle”. I was interested to see whether the same thing held for the newest iteration by Sven-Eric Bechtolf. All three have now been released on Blu-ray (though due to availability issues I have the Così on DVD) so I thought I should watch them in the order they appeared at the festival and see what transpires. So here we go with Così fan tutte recorded in 2013 in the Haus für Mozart.
The most obvious feature of Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s Pelléas et Mélisande is the use of dummies to double up the characters. Much of the time these doubles are lying around or being pushed around the set wheelchairs by the singers. Most of the time the singers address themselves to one of the dummies even when the “real” version of the person they are addressing is on stage. I guess it’s designed to create a kind of emotional distancing or dehumanising that does seem in keeping with the piece and, when the convention is broken, ie; characters interact directly, that seems to heighten the drama at that point.
Richard Strauss’ Arabella is a bit of a peculiarity. The music is top notch Strauss and the libretto is by von Hofmannsthal so it ought to be quite superb. It doesn’t quite get there though. It’s hard not to think that if von Hofmannsthal had lived a little longer he would have tightened up the libretto. Act 1 works fine but Acts 2 and 3 seem rather contrived and could definitely use a few cuts. I’m not sure that the whole Fiakermilli thing works either. It’s almost as if Prince Orlofsky’s party mislaid Johann and found Richard by accident. That said there is some very beautiful music. Aber der Richtige, wenn’s einem gibt is going straight onto my list of top soprano duets.