One has to recalibrate when reviewing productions from the lake stage at Bregenz. The challenges for set designer and director are very different from designing/directing in a conventional theatre. There’s an interview with Es Devlin on the disk of the 2017 production of Bizet’s Carmen that explains the issues very well but broadly it’s a question of creating a single, giant set that can be used throughout the opera and which makes a statement that integrates the work with the environment of the Bodensee. The challenge for the director, as well, as the usual ones, is to communicate the characters and story when they are rather dwarfed by the setting. S/he also has to figure out how to fit the lake itself into the story. I think Devlin and director, Kasper Holten, manage this remarkably well.
Kasper Holten’s Royal Opera House production of Don Giovanni, seen in cinemas, is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s a visually and dramatically complex production so it’s probably as well that there’s plenty of explanatory material on the disks and in the booklet. Es Devlin’s set is a two storey structure that rotates and serves as a screen for a heavy use of video projections by Luke Halls. These start wth the 2065 names of the women Don Giovanni has seduced and seem to be mostly about what’s going on in Don Giovanni’s head. The sequence during Fin ch’han dal vino calda la testa is particularly spectacular.
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is one of those pieces that really deserves the descriptor “sprawling epic” and, if anyone can make an epic sprawl it’s David McVicar. This production, recorded at the Royal Opera House in 2012, is typical of McVicar’s more recent work. It’s visually rather splendid and the action is well orchestrated but it’s short on ideas and long on McVicar visual cliches; acrobats, gore and urchins (but mercifully no animals). I don’t want to be too hard on McVicar. This piece is based on the sort of “Ancient History” one used to learn at prep school (British usage) and McVicar pretty much runs with that making no attempt to find deeper meaning, despite superficially translating at least the first two acts to the time of first performance; the era of European colonialism.
Sir Peter Hall’s production of Strauss’ Salome caused a bit of a sensation when it was first seen at the Royal Opera House and when it was broadcast on Channel 4 because Lady Hall, Maria Ewing, finishes up naked at the end of the Dance of the Seven Veils. How well does it wear after twenty years? First a couple of caveats. My DVD copy is the Kultur release of a few years ago. It now seems to be available from Opus Arte and it’s possible, indeed likely that some of the sound issues have been fixed in that release. If anybody has seen the Opus Arte version please let me know in comments. Anyway, the Kultur release has rather muffled sound with the voices balanced well back from the orchestra and no real solidity to the sound stage which is a pity in this particular work and obviously affects my view.
The production is really pretty conventional. There are lots of greens, greys and blue. It’s quite dark and the set is stagey and conventional. Almost all the visual interest revolves around Ewing’s Salome though Michael Devlin’s scantily clad and palely made up Jochanaan is quite arresting too. Narraboth (Robin Legate) is an unremarkable actor and Herod (Kenneth Riegel) and Herodias (Gillian Knight) look uncomfortably like a couple of drag queens. The latter though does manage a pretty effective hissy fit. For the sound reasons mentioned above it’s hard to be sure whether the rather insipid vocal performances by Devlin and Leggate are really their faults. There’s also no change in acoustic when Jochanaan is singing from the cistern which is odd. Riegel and Knight do better at projecting themselves beyond the orchestra and turn in OK performances.
All that said, one feels from beginning to end that this was set up to be the Maria Ewing show. One really can’t fault her acting which is quite compelling and manages by turns to be chilling, hypnotic, seductive, perverse, frenzied and orgasmic. The choreographer (Elizabeth Keen) does a pretty good job of creating credible dance moves for someone who clearly isn’t a great dancer though there’s no doubting her commitment to what she does. Vocally she gets away with a voice that’s really not big enough for the role. Somehow she manages a lot of projection from not so much volume and her vocal acting is good. It’s an extreme case of Ewing pretty much making things work when really they ought not to. The orchestra under Edward Downes sounds OK but also suffers from the recording.
The recording, directed by Derek Bailey, is about what one would expect from a 1992 TV broadcast. The picture quality is acceptable but not great 4:3 with hard coded English subtitles. Sound, as mentioned, is barely adequate. There are no extras and no documentation.
This is probably worth having a look at as a record of an iconic performance by Ewing but I can’t imagine anyone would choose it as the definitive Salome.
And just for fun, here’s a non-operatic bonus; a set of pictures of my copy of the 1938 edition of Wilde’s Salomé with pochoir illustrations by André Derain.