Christopher Gillett and I have a fair bit in common. We are both English and much the same age. We are both on second marriages to performers; the failure of our first marriages being at least partly related to the vagaries of travelling for work. We are also both tenors. There the similarities end. Mr. Gillett sings for a living which I, to the great relief of the music loving public, do not. He also does not like cats. This makes me a bit suspicious but whatever.
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
Lully’s Armide is pretty much the archetypal tragédie en musique. It features an allegorical prologue praising Louis XIV’s multiple virtues, delivered as a dialogue by La Gloire and La Sagesse followed by five acts based on the Armida/Rinaldo story from Tasso. There are also, of course, lots of ballet interludes. As such, it isn’t all that easy to stage for a modern audience. Robert Carsen and William Christie’s approach for their 2008 Paris production is to frame the story in the context of Versailles.
Robert Carsen doesn’t seem disposed to treat Handel too reverentially. Although there is some of the trademark Carsen cool minimalism in his 2011 Glyndebourne production of Rinaldo (not to mention symmetrically arranged furniture) there’s also a degree of humour, as there is in his Zürich Semele. I find it very effective and, judging by the audience reaction, so did the people who saw it at Glyndebourne.
Robert Carsen’s producton of Janáček’s Kat’a Kabanová is typically simple and elegant. Recorded at the teatro Real in Madrid it features a flooded stage with a large number of wooden pieces, like palettes, that are rearranged to form the set. At the beginning of Act 1 the pieces form a pathway through the water simulating the banks of the Volga. Later they are rearranged int a square at centre stage to represent the claustrophobic Kabanov house. All this rearrangement is done by the ladies of the chorus who roll around in the water in white shifts. No breaks are needed between scenes, just the intermezzi the composer provided for the purpose. A mirror at the back of the stage reflecting the water and an elegant and effective lighting plot complete the staging.
Robert Carsen’s production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is as visually striking as any of his productions. It’s also one that’s done the rounds, playing in Aix and Lyon before being recorded by a strong cast at the Liceu in Barcelona in 2005. The challenge with Dream is to create visual worlds for the Fairies and the Mortals that are different but work together. Carsen and his usual design team do this very well in this case. The Fairies are given striking green and blue costumes with red gloves. The mortals mostly run to white and cream and gold and they seem to spend a lot of time in their underwear. The lighting, as always with Carsen, forms an important part of the overall design. Carsen completists will also notice certain other characteristic touches like starkly arranged furniture.
Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is a strange and compelling piece. Dramatically it is very “slow burn” with a narrative arc that builds over almost two hours to a final scene of searing intensity. Without that final scene the piece would have no reason but it justifies all and only one “fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils” could possibly leave the theatre unmoved. It’s not just moving, done well it’s emotionally devastating. And that’s the state I left the Four Seasons Centre in last night after a near perfect performance of Robert Carsen’s extraordinary production.
Wagner’s Tannhäuser is the earliest of the canonical works. In some ways it’s very Wagnerian. It has screwed up theology with a heavy dose of misogyny and some recognisably Wagnerian music. On the other hand it is structured more like a French grand opera and some of the music definitely has more than a hint of Meyerbeer to it.The basic plot is that of the hero seduced into sin by the pagan love goddess Venus and then redeemed by the love (and death) of the chaste virgin Elisabeth.
Robert Carsen’s production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann does a very decent job of presenting this rather muddled and overly long piece. He sets it in and around a production of Don Giovanni in which Hoffmann’s current infatuation, Stella, is singing Donna Anna. There are several quite clever DG references scattered around. By and large it works and is one of the better “theatre in theatre” treatments that I’ve seen.
So I thought the obvious antidote to Robert Carsen’s Dialogues des Carmélites would be the recording of Ollie Knussen’s Where The Wild Things Are and Higglety, Pigglety, Pop that was sitting in my ‘to watch’ pile. It’s a 1985 Glyndebourne recording and the Associate Director is one Robert Carsen, assisting Frank Corsaro. So it goes. Actually it was rather fun, if a bit irritating in the way that children’s literature written for kids with ADD seems to be. The music is terrific and not at all dumbed down. The sets and designs, as well as the libretto, are by Maurice Sendak himself and there’s some pretty neat lighting by Robert Bryan. The Wild Things are really cool and almost make up for the fact that Max (played here by Karen Beardsley) is an appalling little s$%t who needs a good kick in the backside. HHP is a bit more restrained and simultaneously manages to be less fun but also less annoying. It has a rather splendid lion and Cynthia Buchan does rather well as, to the best of my knowledge, the only Sealyham terrier in opera. Knussen conducts the London Sinfonietta and they sound really good. Continue reading