Theatre Gargantua’s production of Michael Gordon Spence’s The Wager, which opened last night at Theatre Passe Muraille takes as its starting point Alfred Russell Wallace’s (the other natural selection guy) bet with a Flat Earther to prove that the Earth is round. He does do, of course. Or at least to the satisfaction of any reasonable person but merely succeeds in provoking a storm of personal abuse and insults from the Flat Earther. All of which tends to prove the old adage that arguing with a crackpot is like wrestling with a pig. You get covered in s**t and the pig enjoys it.
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.
The COC’s production of Madama Butterfly opened last night at the Four Seasons Centre. I’m not a huge Madama Butterfly fan and it takes a really good production and a really good performance to get me past my instinctive dislike for a libretto based on child rape and sex tourism backed by Puccini soup with an infusion of Mikado. This production, being revived for the umpty umpth time (It dates back to the Brian Dickie era) just wasn’t that. Director Brian Macdonald writes in the programme “We both (he and Dickie) had had experience at the Stratford Festival. That meant wood, simple props, no decoration that wouldn’t bespeak the essence of the play”. Throw in an Allen key and it would sound like a trip to IKEA. Which is pretty much what the designs are like; clean, functional and inoffensive. Throw in costumes and gestures straight from the Mikado and you have it. Not bad. Just meh.
Back to the Four Seasons Centre last night for a second look at Peter Sellars’ production of Handel’s Hercules. This time we were sitting lower down in the house, in the front, left of the orchestra ring. As predicted the set wasn’t as effective as when seen from higher up but in some ways the lighting effects were more successful. Given the house’s acoustic properties favour the rings I’d say this is definitely one to see from somewhere other than the orchestra.
What did I particularly notice compared to opening night? First off, Richard Croft. I think I was so wrapped up in Lucy Crowe and Eric Owen’s singing the first time around that I almost failed to notice what a fine performance he gave. His voice is very mature for a tenor now but he’s a terrific interpreter of text and has flawless technique. His intensity remains remarkable. And the schtick with the crutches? It turns out he recently had hip surgery.
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.
Peter Sellars’ 1996 Glyndebourne production of Handel’s Theodora just gets better with every viewing. I utterly retract my original view that the music isn’t Handel at his finest. It’s very good indeed and the production and performances on this disk are fantastic. Despite not being the best recording ever (though the recent Blu-ray release is an improvement) it remains a “must see” for any fan of Baroque opera or challenging music theatre.
What makes it so compelling? I think it’s two factors. The first is the production. The contemporary American setting works with very little violence to the libretto or music and yet speaks directly to very contemporary concerns. It’s particularly effective that current reality is inverted with respect to mainstream Christianity. Added to this are some extraordinarily intense performances led by the late Lorraine Hunt as Irene, the leader of the Christians. “As with rosy steps the morn” and “Lord to thee, each night and day” bring me out in goosebumps every time. The chemistry between David Daniels and Richard Croft is also palpable and Dawn Upshaw could hardly be bettered in the title role. Even Christine Schäfer in the only competing recording doesn’t come close.
One of the notes I made while watching this the other night reads “anybody not moved by this is an emotional cripple”. It’s a fair summary.
I confess to having mixed, nay conflicted, feelings about the 2003 Palais Garnier recording of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes. On the one hand there is some really good music, idiomatically played and sung by musicians utterly at home in this repertoire, there’s some brilliant dance; both the choreography and the execution, and there is spectacle on a grand scale. On the other hand there’s a nagging sense of cultural appropriation and, perhaps worse, a feeling that the whole thing may just be a giant piss take. Actually in some ways it’s all of the above and if one can get into the spirit of the thing it sort of works.
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is opera on a grand scale. Only a really big company like the Met could possibly afford to stage it. Yesterday’s performance used a chorus of 110, a larger orchestra, at least twelve soloists and a bunch of dancers. It also lasted 5 1/2 hours including the intervals. Was it worth it? For the most part I’d say yes.
It’s a rare and valuable experience when a performance makes one reconsider a perhaps overly familiar work. That’s the effect that Claus Guth’s 2009 staging of Handel’s Messiah had on me. I don’t think that there is any piece I’m more familiar with than Messiah. I feel like I’ve known it all my life. I’ve sung it. I own a vocal score (rare indeed for me!). I couldn’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard it. And yet here it came up entirely fresh and had me thinking about it in completely new ways.
The first time I tried to watch Willy Decker’s 2004 production of Verdi’s Don Carlo at De Nederlandse Opera I failed to get past Rolando Villazón in doublet and hose. To anyone familiar with British TV comedy of a certain era the resemblance is just too close and I couldn’t get beyond the idea of Stephen Fry as Felipe II and Miranda Richardson as Elisabetta. This time around I watched the highly illuminating video introduction and read Wily Decker’s useful essay on his production concept before tackling the piece proper. I’m glad I did that and I’m glad I came back to this recording because it is very fine and it was very useful to have Decker and Chailly’s perspectives on the dramaturgy and the music.