War and Peace

No, not the opera by Prokofiev but Robert Carsen’s rather brilliant take on Mozart’s Idomeneo recorded last year at the Teatro Real in Madrid*.  It’s a contemporary Mediterranean setting.  Crete is a completely militarised society.  Everyone is uniformed and carries weapons.  The Trojans are refugees living in a camp with all the pathetic accoutrements of refugee camp life.  Idomeneo and Elettra stand for the traditional “Make Crete Great Again” kind of nationalism while Idamante and Ilia look forward to a world where “Us” and “Them” dissolve in our common humanity.  Carsen, Neptune, this writer and, I think, listening closely to the music, Mozart side with the young lovers.

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Lucio Silla moda grunge

Claus Guth has a way with Mozart.  At his best; with his Salzburg productions of the da Ponte operas for example, he’s superb while I was unconvinced by his Glyndebourne Clemenza, despite its ambition.  I was really keen to see what he would do with an opera like Lucio Silla which, despite some lovely music, is formulaic and potentially very boring.

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A serious take on Les Indes galantes

I’m not really sure that it’s a good idea to take Rameau too seriously, especially a work like Les Indes galantes but that’s what Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui does in his production for the 2016 Münchner Opernfestspiel.  As written, the piece has five separate parts; an allegorical prelude and four scènes, each telling a love story in an “exotic” setting; Turkey, Peru, Persia, among les sauvages of North America.  It’s a spectacle but it uses the exotic settings to poke fun at certain aspects of Western culture in Rameau’s usual irreverent way.  There’s no linking narrative and the characters in each scène (the goddesses Amour and Bellona aside) only appear once.

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The clutter of bodies

The latest Handel oratorio to be given the operatic treatment by Glyndebourne is Saul, which played in 2015 in a production by Australian Barrie Kosky.  It’s quite a remarkable work.  The libretto, as so often the work of Charles Jennens, takes considerable liberties with the version in Samuel and incorporates obvious nods to both King Lear and Macbeth as well as more contemporary events.  David’s Act 3 lament on the death of Saul, for instance, clearly invokes the execution of Charles I.  What emerges is a very classic tragedy.  Saul, the Lord’s anointed, is driven by jealousy and insecurity deeper and deeper into madness and degradation and, ultimately, death.  This is the basic narrative arc of the piece.

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The Machine Stops

This year’s UoT Opera student composed opera sets a libretto by Michael Patrick Albano based on a 1909 story by EM Forster.  It’s a dystopian sci-fi story and OK as these things go though one suspects it felt a whole lot more original in 1909.  Basically, humanity is living underground in pods with limited face to face interaction.  Life is mediated by “The Machine” which increasingly has become an object of veneration as well as utility.  The principal characters are Vashti, a believer, and her rebellious son Kuno who is prone to make illegal excursions to the planet surface where, he realises, there are still people living.  It’s a bit like Logan’s Run but not as sexy.  The Relationship between the two breaks down over their belief systems until The Machine goes belly up at which point there is a reconciliation before everyone dies.  Along the way there’s a fair bit of heavy handed philosophising by the narrator and chorus.

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Stark Jenůfa from Madrid

Stéphane Braunschweig’s production of Janáček’s Jenůfa, recorded at Madrid’s Teatro Real, is austere and effective.  The sets are almost empty.  Mill sails appear from a slot in the floor to suggest the family mill, there’s a cot for the baby in Act 2 and some church benches in Act 3.  That’s it.  The rest of the “setting” is carried by a very effective lighting plot.  I don’t think there are any big ideas here but it’s an effective, straightforward way of telling the story.  Braunschweig also makes effective use of the chorus, especially in Act 1.

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Ercole amante

Cavalli’s Ercole amante was written for the wedding of Louis XIV to Marie-Thérèse, a Habsburg princess.  The marriage itself being the seal on the French victory over Spain in the war that had lasted until 1659.  It’s an odd work considering.  It’s not nearly as weird as, say, Il Giasone or La Didone but it’s hardly what one would expect for the nuptials of Le Roi Soleil.  It’s clear from both the Prologue and the ending that Ercole is Louis but he’s also a most unlikeable character.  In this version of the Hercules story he’s in love with his son’s (Hyllo) girlfriend (Iole) and will stop at nothing to bed her including casting off his wife (Deianira), imprisoning his son and bumping off Iole’s father.  In the end he’s attacked by the spirits of various people he has wronged before succumbing to the trick with the centaur’s poisoned shirt.  He’s made immortal and paired off with Hebe in the heavens but it’s hardly a tale of kingly virtue or marital fidelity.  For good measure, along the way a good chunk of the Graeco-Roman pantheon make an appearance.

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The raptur’d soul

Christof Loy’s production of Handel’s late oratorio Theodora was a critical and popular success at the 2009 Salzburg Festival and deservedly so.  That said, certain decisions seem a bit perverse.  The G minor organ concerto HWV 310 is interpolated in Part 3, which is fine, but why cut a fine number like “Bane of virtue” in Part 1 or “Whither, Princess,do you Fly?” in Part 3?  There are a bunch of other, rather odd, cuts in Part 3.  Still it doesn’t do serious damage to a fine performance of an interesting production.

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David Alden’s Ariodante

Handel’s Ariodante has, broadly, the same plot as Much Ado About Nothing. The King of Scotland’s daughter is framed as “unfaithful” by the bad guy’s disguised accomplice. Her fiancé goes off the deep end. The bad guy betrays his accomplice. She rats on him. He gets killed. All is revealed. Everybody but the bad guy lives happily ever after. In this 1996 production for English National Opera, David Alden seems to be turning it into a very dark plot with madness, intense and perverse sexual desire, hints of anal rape and a nude drowned in a tank. All in all, a pretty run of the mill Regie approach. Flippancy aside, it actually works quite well. It’s a bit of a slow starter. Act 1 is mostly scene setting and it’s not easy to see what Alden is driving at. Ariodante (Ann Murray) in particular seems to be prey to emotions that have, as yet, no obvious origin. To be honest I was quite puzzled at the end of Act 1 though there appeared to be much that was visually striking going on. At least, that’s what I’m guessing because video director Kriss Rusmanis does his level best to hide most of the stage most of the time.

It picks up in Act 2 where we get more extreme emotion but it’s clearer why. In Act 1 Polinesso (Christopher Robson) is obviously the bad guy but his real nastiness emerges in his treatment of his accomplice/lover, Dalinda (Lesley Garrett). Among other indignities, anal rape appears to be suggested before he drags her off to have his henchmen finish her off. To be fair, Dalinda’s attitude to her treatment is quite equivocal so we can add this to a long list of opera productions with sado-masochistic sub texts. Act 3, in which all is revealed is also dramatically strong besides having some of the best music.  All three acts have fairly lengthy ballets. These are strikingly choreographed by Michael Keenan-Dolan. At least the bits we can see on the DVD are. There’s a particularly effective “nightmare” sequence in Act 2 where the princess Ginevra (Joan Rodgers) is trying to make sense of what has happened to her. The sets are quite painterly with effective use of an upstage window which is used to frame subtextual elements while the main action goes on in front. So, all in all, it works pretty well though it would hardly be David Alden if nothing seemed gratuitous!

Like the drama, this got better musically as time went on. In Act 1 I was really questioning the decision to cast a mezzo in the alto castrato role and a traditional countertenor in what was originally a breeches mezzo role. It does work out. Ann Murray sings brilliantly and muscularly throughout and makes, in the end, a completely convincing Ariodante. Christopher Robson’s Polinesso doesn’t totally convince me. That voice type just doesn’t make for a particularly convincing villain but it does make more sense as his sheer nastiness comes out in his excellent acting. Joan Rodger’s Ginevra definitely gets better as things progress. I think she sounds strained in her upper register in the first act. The notes are there but it isn’t a very beautiful sound. In Acts 2 and 3 she sounds much more at ease despite having to sing while being put through not far short of torture(1).

Lesley Garrett’s Dalinda was a pleasure from first to last. The King of Scotland is Gwynn Howell. It’s the sort of bluff, thankless role that Howell seems to play rather often. He sings perfectly well and is bluff. Paul Nilon sings Lurcanio, Ariodante’s brother. he doesn’t have a lot to do but he does have one glorious duet with Dalinda in Act 3. This is closely followed by another lovely duet between Ginevra and Ariodante. I wish there were more duets and ensembles in Handel operas. They happen rarely but when they do they are usually wonderful. Ivor Bolton conducts the ENO orchestra and they sound OK for a modern band (not my first choice for Handel!). Tempi seem on the slow side. The rival DVD version of this opera comes in 20 minutes shorter. Whether that’s due to cuts or tempi though I can’t say. The ENO chorus doesn’t sound great but this may be the recording, see below.

Musically and dramatically I think this is a recommendable performance. Unfortunately, as a DVD, it’s very hard to find good things to say about it. It was recorded for broadcast on the BBC and is given a treatment I’ve not seen before. I assume it’s taken from a live performance but there is no applause and no curtain calls. What we do get are silent film like “story boards” at key points like the beginning of each act.

For example “Polinesso takes advantage of Dalinda’s blind devotion to further his ambition”. Weirdly, the subtitles repeat the message. I don’t particularly like this approach but it’s not fatal. What is is the failure to show us enough of the stage to figure out the director’s intentions. I ranted about this yesterday so I won’t labour the point but it pretty much wrecks this disc. Technically it’s not so hot either. The picture is OK 16:9, no more. There are two sound tracks; Dolby 5.1 and Dolby 2.0. The surround sound version is about the worst sound I’ve ever encountered on an opera DVD. It’s mixed so that the subwoofer booms out the bass line in a most unmusical fashion. It’s horrible. The stereo track is OK though it gets a bit odd in parts of Act 3, especially the final chorus. Either that or the ENO Chorus really is having a bad night. The only sub-titles are English and there is no documentation beyond a chapter list. (This is the North American release on Image. It wouldn’t be unprecedented for the European version to have more acceptable sound).

It’s a bit of a shame. I would really like to have a proper look at this production.