Yuval Sharon’s Lohengrin in 2018 at the Bayreuth Festival was the first production there by an American director and, perhaps unsurprisingly, there are echoes of contemporary events in the US in the show. Specifically Sharon’s Brabant is a conformist theocracy in which society has regressed technologically. Some of the action takes place in and around a prominently placed disused electrical installation of some kind. The Brabanters are cowardly and subservient, initially to Telramund and then, equally, to Lohengrin. The advent of a charismatic leader. does not necessarily equate to liberation or full citizenship. Sharon also claims in his director’s notes that the real dissenter is Ortrud and that it is her actions that liberate Elsa and Gottfried. Whether the staging supports this is, I think, questionable.
Stanisław Moniuszko’s Halka is sometimes regarded as Poland’s national opera. It’s one of those mid 19th century works that tries to create some kind of national idiom broadly within the framework of the musical style of the age (the composer was conservatory trained in Berlin). It’s really quite good but rarely performed outside Poland so it’s interesting to look at it, especially in a rather good production by Mariusz Treliński that was given and recorded at Theater an der Wien in 2019.
The recently released recording of Puccini’s Tosca from the Wiener Staatsoper was recorded in 2019 but, as best I can tell, the production, by Margarethe Wallmann, dates back to 1957 and it feels that old. It’s entirely literal and, beyond basic blocking, the singers appear to have been left to their own devices as far as acting goes. It also clearly was not designed with video in mind. Cavaradossi’s execution is quite remarkably unsanguine.
I don’t spend a lot of time listening to disks of opera arias. I’s music I much prefer live and in context but right now a dose of good old fashioned verismo tenoring is very welcome! Piotr Beczala’s new CD Vincerò absolutely delivers it. There’s a reason this guy (normally) spends his time commuting between Vienna, Zurich, Salzburg and New York with the odd side trip to Bayreuth. He’s the real deal. There’s power to burn allied to control and proper ringing high notes. His diction is excellent too. There are no unnecessary histrionics, just top class delivery.
I’m never quite sure what I really think about an operetta like Lehár’s Das Land des Lächelns. I quite like the music, even if it can be a bit cheesey but I’m put off by the casual cultural appropriation (though it’s not nearly as bad as Puccini!). I’m not sure what the best directorial approach is either. Does one play it for froth? Does one try and mine some deeper meaning? Interestingly Andreas Homoki’s approach for his Zürich production filmed in 2017 is to play it straight and let whatever is there appear or not. It works rather well. It;s a typically lavish Zürich production with lots of colour and movement and he creates some spectacular visual effects. But he also allows for a sinister element to appear in the Chinese scenes. It may be over-interpreting but I think one can see shades of proto-Fascism here. It’s reinforced by the score that really has some rather sinister elements that I hadn’t noticed before. I think there’s even a nod to Siegfried’s Funeral March. All in all, quite interesting without being wildly unconventional.
The 2016 Salzburg recording of Gounod’s Faust is challenging. Perhaps the nine pages of the booklet given over to a concept discussion with the directors should have given me sufficient warning that this was not going to be Faust à la Met. It’s not. It’s extremely complex and I’m not sure I fully understand it or whether all the ideas work but I did find it fascinating visually and dramatically, and musically it’s top notch. That said, traditionalists can save themselves a trip to the ER by walking away now.
For some reason the Metropolitan opera decided, in 2014, to give an HD broadcast to Otto Schenk’s 1993 version of Dvorák’s Rusalka with revival direction by Laurie Feldman. This production must have seriously old fashioned even then and actually looks and feels like it was created fifty years before the opera was written. It’s not just the dark, dreary, over detailed Arthur Rackham like sets and costumes or even the the stock acting and the lame choreography. The biggest problem is that it completely ignores that Rusalka is essentially about sex and its pathologies. Does Schenk think that Rusalka wants to hold hands with the Prince at the cinema or take the Foreign Princess to the ball instead of Rusalka? You would think so from this Disneyfied version. Has the man even heard of Freud (let’s be clear Dvorák had)? The result then is stultifyingly dull and actually just rather silly. I’ve seen panto with more psychological depth.
I guess being young, talented, hard working and a lovely person all help. A leg up from Marilyn Horne does no harm either. All of which is by way of saying that Simone Osborne makes her Carnegie Hall debut on Saturday in the Marilyn Hall Song Celebration. Simone has already made a big impression in Toronto (Pamina, Gilda and Lauretta at COC) and across Canada as well as in Japan while taking time out to charm sharks in the Indian Ocean and Lotfi Mansouri (no relation) in Zurich. There are some other singers too, including one Piotr Beczala, so New Yorkers might want to check this one out.
Robert Carsen’s 2004 production of Der Rosenkavalier at the Salzburg Festival was apparently enormously controversial at the time. In many ways that says more about the iconic status of the piece in Salzburg tradition than about Carsen’s production. There are a few controversial elements. He has updated the period to 1914 and the third act is set in a brothel with a fair amount of nudity. Beyond that, the production is pretty faithful to the libretto and has, I think characteristic Carsen touches like long lines of tables and chairs and a certain geometric elegance. He seems to be using the sides of the stage to comment on the action which tends to be fixed centre stage. I say seems because the video direction (by Brian Large) is utterly perverse and makes it extraordinarily difficult to see what Carsen is doing, let alone decode it. We see the whole stage, maybe, for three seconds in the whole piece. Otherwise 99% of what we get is either close up and even closer up or apparently shot from the restricted view seats high up and close to the side of the stage. The other 1% is just plain nuts and includes a section of the Sophie/Octavian duet in Act 2 where, on stage, Octavian is maybe twenty feet to Sophie’s right but on camera he’s standing right up close on her left hand side. I could go on but I won’t. Suffice it to say the video direction comes close to wrecking an otherwise excellent DVD.
This is another of those Arthaus Blu-ray disks that’s sold at a silly cheap price as a carrier for two hours of trailers from the Arthaus catalogue. That said, it’s very high quality indeed. GIlbert Deflo’s production is, in the end, quite conventional though with careful and effective Personenregie. He does trick us a bit at the start. The scene opens with what is, apparently, a rather louche 16th century court entertainment/orgy. There are bare breasted women and dancers of both sexes dressed as Satanic imps. Everyone is in period costume including Rigoletto with jester hat, bells etc. The scene is, perhaps, what we expect. The “ladies” are very receptive to the duke’s advances. The men are resentful but not actively so. Then in comes Monterone in mid 19th century dress to denounce the proceedings and we, perhaps slowly, realise that this is a costume party. From there on there’s nothing very tricksy. The story gets told effectively and straightforwardly. We have been pulled, effortlessly, from the time of the libretto to the time of first performance and the parallels are drawn.