Thomas Adès’ latest opera, The Exterminating Angel, is probably his most ambitious and best to date. It received its US premiere at the Met in 2017 and was broadcast as part of the Met in HD series, subsequently being released on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s based on the surrealist 1962 Buñuel film. It’s a very strange plot. A group of more or less upper class guests attend a dinner after an opera performance. All the servants except the butler have (inexplicably) left the house. The guests seem unable to leave the room they are in nor can anyone from outside enter it. This goes on for days(??) during which the guests accuse each other of various perversions including incest and paedophilia and turn violent while still expressing delicate aristocratic sensibilities like an inability to stir one’s coffee with a teaspoon. There’s a suicide pact, a bear and several sheep involved before the “spell” to escape the room is discovered. What happens afterwards is unclear. (The opera omits the closing scenes of the film). It’s very weird and quite unsettling; Huis Clos meets Lord of the Flies?
Claus Guth’s Salzburg da Ponte cycle is certainly my favourite trifecta and they are right up on my list for top picks for all three operas so I was intrigued to see what he would do with the much less recorded La clemenza di Tito which he directed at Glyndebourne in 2017. Bottom line, I’m not at all convinced by it.
What are we to make of Handel’s Ariodante? The plot centres on the notion that female chastity is the be all and end all of life. It’s not a notion that would find much support in 21st century Toronto, even among a Sunday afternoon audience at the Four Seasons Centre. Ginevra, princess of Scotland and heir to the king, is betrothed to Ariodante. Ariodante has a rival, Polinesso who is loved in a besotted kind of way by Ginevra’s maid, Dalinda. Polinesso claims to have slept with Ginevra and offers to prove it to Ariodante. He drugs Ginevra and gets Dalinda to put on Ginevra’s clothes and invite him into her room. Ariodante disappears, apparently having committed suicide in a fit of despair. On the flimsiest of evidence Ginevra, who has no idea what happened, is condemned to death. Her accusers, including her father, don’t even bother to ask who the man in her room was. Polinesso tries to remove the now inconvenient Dalinda from the scene but fails and when Ariodante shows up again she spills the beans. Polinesso is killed by Ariodante’s brother in a duel but not before confessing. All is forgiven and everyone carries on as if nothing in the least traumatising just happened. So, what to do with this?
Edita Gruberova in recent years has pretty much cut her repertoire down to a handful of bel canto roles; Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux and the title roles in Anna Bolena, La Straniera, Norma and Lucrezia Borgia. The last of these was recorded in Munich in 2009 in a production by Christof Loy for the Bayerisches Staatsoper. It shows that Gruberova still very much at the height of her powers but the production is less satisfactory.
There’s a unit set; some marble flags, a few broken columns surrounding a “fire pit”. Even this is stripped down for much of Act 2 which takes place on the stage apron in front of a plain curtain. There are five singers, a chorus and an orchestra. That, plus Peter Sellars, is all it takes to produce an extraordinary piece of music drama.
Massenet’s Cendrillon is less often performed than Rossini’s take on the same basic story. I’m really not sure why. Rossini’s take is a bit weird (in a good way), especially in the Ponelle production, but Massenet’s is much more interesting musically. Oddly enough there’s only one version on DVD; a 2011 recording from the Royal Opera House. Fortunately it’s very good. The production is by Laurent Pelly and it has quite a bit in common with his La Fille du Regiment. Here the set is made up of pages from the original syory by Perrault rather than military maps but the effect is similar. Costumes are quite cartoonish (shades of the recent Alice in Wonderland ballet) except for Cendrillon herself, the prince and her father. There’s a strong emphasis on the humorous side of the piece and the “ballets” are thoroughly subverted.
Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel was one of the earlier “Live in HD” broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera and has been out on DVD for some time. The newness of the concept is immediately apparent in Renée Fleming’s almost awed tone as she introduces the work. She certainly sounds more blasé these days. Hansel and Gretel, given here in David Pountney’s English translation is an odd work. The libretto is much more than a Disney fairy tale. There is poverty, hunger, drunkenness, threats of beatings and murder. There is also a layer of religious sentimentality so thick it could only be 19th century and German. The score is astonishingly heavyweight given the subject matter. Humperdinck worked with Wagner and that is very, very apparent in this piece.
Unsurprisingly, modern directors have tended to emphasize the darker side of the work and Richard Jones is no exception. Hunger is the driving force here and each act is set in a kitchen. A poor peasant cottage in Act 1, a dream like banquetting facility in Act 2 and the Witch’s nightmarish cake factory cum kitchen in Act 3. Much food is thrown around and smeared over people. It’s pretty succesful as a concept if a bit one dimensional.
The performances are spectacular and based on some serious luxury casting. Alice Coote and Christine Schäfer as Hansel and Gretel are terrific, especially Schäfer. It’s a wonder to me that a beautiful and elegant woman like her can do grubby so well but she nails it every time (Cherubino in Salzburg, Lulu at Glyndebourne) and this is no exception. Alan Held is a booming father; as big in voice as he is in stature. Rosalind Plowright doesn’t sing prettily but she is utterly convincing as the depressed, shrewish, drug addled mother. Then there is the much missed Philip Langridge camping it up as the Witch. He’s like an incredibly messy Julia Child on speed. He’s hilarious. Sasha Cooke plays the Sandman and Lisette Oropesa plays the Dew Fairy complete with washing up joke. Vladimir Jurowski conducts the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra as if he was conducting The Ring and they play beautifully for him. The very well drilled Met Children’s Chorus also get a look in in the final scenes. Overall, the performance has a high degree of integrity and very high musical values. It’s a good bet for this work which I still can’t really bring myself to like.
Technically this is what you would expect from a Met “Live in HD”. No video director is credited (so far as I can tell) but it’s got about the usual quota of super close ups, including a completely gratuitous foot shot, which is actually a bit odd as the sets for Acts 1 and 2 are basically confined to a thirty foot cube so it would be easy to encompass the whole picture. The picture quality is good, not stunning, DVD standard. The DTS 5.1 soundtrack is excellent and is particularly good at bringing out the very precise orchestral playing. There is also LPCM stereo. It has the usual HD Broadcast extras. There are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles. The documentation (English only) includes track listings, a synopsis and a short essay. There is additional information in English, French and German in a PDF on the disc itself.
Last night’s Ariadne auf Naxos at the Four Seasons Centre was a delight. It’s a peculiar opera and clearly a section of the audience hadn’t done their homework and were rather confused. It’s in two parts. In the prologue arrangements are being made for two pieces to be performed at a big party at the home of “The richest man in Vienna”. The first is an opera seria; Ariadne in fact written by a young earnest composer and to be performed by a stereotypically haughty diva and tenor. The second is a buffo piece to be performed by the dancer Zerbinetta and her troop of Harlequins. There is much huffing and puffing by the serious opera crowd, especially the composer, about having to perform in such undignified company but the boss is the boss and money talks. The final indignity is when the Major Domo announces his master’s decision that both pieces must be presented simultaneously. Last night this was played out in modern dress on a set that faithfully, at least as I remember it, recreated the rather drab back stage areas of the Four Seasons Centre. I have no idea how many people got the joke but I thought it was funny. Alice Coote, as the composer, and Richard Stilwell, as his mentor, the music master, were excellent and everyone else contributed as needed to make for a very funny first half. It was almost, but not quite, enough to distract attention from some truly gorgeous orchestral playing by the COC Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis.
The opera proper is a classical myth based story about Ariadne being abandoned by Theseus and wishing to die on her desert island where she is accompanied only by three nymphs who comment on her condition. Ariadne’s big aria, “Es gibt ein Reich”, is all about longing for solace in death. Adrienne Pieczonka sang gorgeously and was well supported by the three nymphs; Simone Osborne, Teiya Kasahara, Lauren Segal. The orchestral playing just kept hitting the spot. All this was played out in front of a very drab backdrop with holes torn in it through which Zerbinetta and her boys were observing the action. This is where it gets weird again as first the Harlequins appear and try to cheer Ariadne up with a bit of comic singing and dancing. She is unmoved. The boys having failed, Zerbinetta herself appears and explains her views on their shared plight as women and her rather cynical philosophy of love. This happens in a coloratura aria of truly fiendish length and difficulty (“Großmächtige Prinzessin”). Jane Archibald brought it off with aplomb and brought the house down. Then it all gets serious again. Bacchus arrives (raving about having been bewitched by Circe, or not). Bacchus and Ariadne sing at each other heroically and rather at cross purposes until they realise that they have redeemed, transformed or something each other through love. Zerbinetta briefly reappears to remind everyone that “a new God always comes”. Ariadne and Bacchus get even more ecstatic, all sorts of starry things start to appear projected on the stage and backdrops, the orchestra goes nuts, and the curtain falls. It shouldn’t work. It’s Strauss and Hofmannsthal perhaps being too clever for their own good but, miraculously, it does work and the music is fabulous. When the performances are as good as last night it’s all really rather wonderful.
The audience reaction was interesting. A non trivial number of seats were empty after the interval and one couple left rather abruptly half way through the opera proper. Those who stayed were very enthusiastic. Makes me wonder what’s happening with the COC audience. Thoughts on that will form part of a season round up post I think.