I’m rather a fan of the productions on the lake stage at Bregenz. It can be a bit hokey and the productions, though spectacular, aren’t usually particularly deep but they are fun to watch. The 2019 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto might just be the best I’ve seen. It takes spectacular to new heights, it’s got some interesting ideas and the performances are very good indeed.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 2014 cycle of the Da Ponte operas continues with Don Giovanni. The recording has much in common with his Le nozze di Figaro, even down to the same essay in the booklet, and I’m not going to repeat what I wrote in that review. If you haven’t read it, I recommend a look before reading the rest of this.
Back in 2014 Nikolaus Harnoncourt launched a project to present all three Mozart/da Ponte operas, concert style, on the stage of the Theater an der Wien in a single month. They are now being released on DVD/Blu-ray. The first is Le nozze di Figaro and it comes with a 52 minute documentary by Felix Breisach; Nikolaus Harnoncourt – Between Obsession and Perfection – part 1.
There were, of course, many Beethoven 250 events planned for 2020 and few of them happened. One, planned for Vienna, was to stage all three versions of Beethoven’s only opera; Leonore (1805), Fidelio (1806) and the final form that modern audiences mostly know, Fidelio (1814). As far as I know the only one that went ahead was a production of the 1806 version at the Theater an der Wien that was filmed in an empty house and has just got a release on Blu-ray and DVD. Now, it happens that the 1805 Leonore was staged and recorded by Lafayette Opera in New York the year before. So we can look at all three versions and the evolution of the piece despite the Vienna cancellations. For those who want more details on the New York production, it was reviewed by Patrick Dillon in the summer 2020 edition of Opera Canada and there will be a review, by myself, of the recording in a future edition (probably soon).
What is this anguish that each of us carries inside? That’s the central question of Thomas Larcher’s chamber opera Das Jagdgewehr that premiered at the Bregenz Festival in 2018. It’s based on a 1949 novel by Yasushi Inoue about a hunter, the three women in his life and the poet to whom he sends the women’s letters. It’s a stark, intense tale of love, death, secrecy, loss and betrayal told in a prologue and eleven scenes over about an hour and a quarter.
Beatrice Cenci is an opera by Berthold Goldschmidt; a composer who moved from Germany to London in the 1930s for the usual reason. Beatrice Cenci was written in 1950 but the orchestral style sounds rather earlier. Comparisons with Mahler have been made though I don’t really see that. Richard Strauss or Korngold perhaps? In any event the work didn’t get performed at all until the 1980s and had to wait until the 2018 Bregenz Festival for its first fully staged production directed by Johannes Erat. Curiously, though originally composed with an English libretto it was given in German in Bregenz.
It’s the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by troops of the Red Army and I’ve been watching a recording of Miecyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger. The opera was written in 1968 but the political climate in the then Soviet Union meant that, despite the advocacy of Dmitri Shostakovich, it had to wait until 2010 before it was given a fully staged performance. That happened, and was recorded, at the Bregenz festival in a production directed by David Pountney.
Franco Faccio’s 1865 work Amleto disappeared from the opera repertoire after the disastrous opening night of its 1871 revival at La Scala only to be “rediscovered” in recent years and featured at the 2016 Bregenz Festival. It was Faccio’s second, and last opera, though he enjoyed a career as a conductor, that included eighteen years as Music Director at La Scala before being institutionalized due to the effects of syphilis. So, one naturally asks, is it any good? The answer is an emphatic “yes”. It’s not only good but seems quite advanced for an Italian opera of that date. It’s closer in spirit to Puccini than bel canto. Indeed the soliloquy Essere o non essere sounds curiously like E lucevan le stelle. It’s similar to later Verdi and, indeed, Puccini in that it’s through sung with recitative like passages and set piece arias and ensemble numbers and it’s more conventionally tonal than its contemporary Tristan und Isolde. Arguably the orchestral writing is more interesting than that for voice (Ophelia’s funeral march is very fine) and certainly the weakest parts are the ensembles. It’s probably also fair to say that there is no big hummable melody. Still, Faccio was twenty five when he wrote it and there aren’t many better operas by twenty five year olds.
Eugen d’Albert is largely forgotten as a composer but his seventh (of twenty) opera, Tiefland, is still performed occasionally in German speaking countries. It’s an odd work. The plot is melodramatic with a cloying degree of sentimentality; sort of Mascagni meets Gounod, while the music is like pastoral Wagner (think the way the woodwinds are used in Tristan) with touches of Carmen and, just occasionally, hints of Sullivan (one of d’Albert’s teachers). For a 1903 work it feels curiously retro.
André Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice was written in the years leading up to his premature death in 1982 but, despite interest from ENO in the 1980s, it did not get a full performance until David Pountney decided to stage it at the the 2013 Bregenz Festival with Keith Warner directing. It’s hard to explain the neglect though Pountney ascribes it some degree as the fate of the emigré (the composer being a Polish Jew domiciled in the UK). The Merchant of Venice is a really solid piece. It’s got all the elements; a strong story, a really interesting but not overly intimidating score and really good writing for voice (it really is singable). It’s the right length at around two and a half hours and it doesn’t call for unreasonable orchestral or vocal forces. John O’Brien’s libretto even manages to overcome some of the objections to staging Shakespeare’s play. While one might consider the Shakespeare piece to be antisemitic, O’Brien’s libretto is much more clearly about anti-semitism. There’s also a clear homoerotic element in the Antonio – Bassanio relationship and perhaps too in Portia – Nerissa.