I’m a bit surprised that Berlioz’ 1838 opera Benvenuto Cellini hasn’t come my way before. It’s got all the operatic elements; romance, politics, murder (and the Pope) etc and some really rather good music. There’s a lovely duet between Cellini and his girl, Teresa, in the first act and Cellini’s aria Sur les monts les plus sauvages is long and demanding in the way that Rossini writes long and demanding tenor arias. The plot maybe has a few holes. One might expect that after the pope has decreed that Cellini will be hanged if he doesn’t finish a statue by nightfall that he might just get on with it rather than running around fighting duels and stuff but there you have it. It’s French opera after all.
Respighi’s La campana sommersa is interesting in that it’s one of comparatively few post-Puccini Italian operas to get some sort of traction. It premiered in Hamburg in 1927 and saw quite a few productions between then and 1939 including one at the Met in 1929. Then it pretty much descended into obscurity before being revived in 2016 by a co-pro between Teatro Lirico di Cagliari (where the recording reviewed here was made) and the revived (more or less) NYCO (which used the Cagliari orchestra and chorus but American soloists). It’s based on a symbolist poem by German poet Gerhart Hauptmann and concerns a bell; which has been hoofed into a lake by fauns, a master bell maker who thinks he is the pagan god Balder, a water sprite, Rautendelein, and assorted mortals, elves, witches, fauns and so on. As with all these works no-one lives happily ever after.
I’m never quite sure what I really think about an operetta like Lehár’s Das Land des Lächelns. I quite like the music, even if it can be a bit cheesey but I’m put off by the casual cultural appropriation (though it’s not nearly as bad as Puccini!). I’m not sure what the best directorial approach is either. Does one play it for froth? Does one try and mine some deeper meaning? Interestingly Andreas Homoki’s approach for his Zürich production filmed in 2017 is to play it straight and let whatever is there appear or not. It works rather well. It;s a typically lavish Zürich production with lots of colour and movement and he creates some spectacular visual effects. But he also allows for a sinister element to appear in the Chinese scenes. It may be over-interpreting but I think one can see shades of proto-Fascism here. It’s reinforced by the score that really has some rather sinister elements that I hadn’t noticed before. I think there’s even a nod to Siegfried’s Funeral March. All in all, quite interesting without being wildly unconventional.
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.
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, seen at Glyndebourne in 2006, is about as traditional as it gets. The story is straightforwardly told and the settings and costumes are 18th century Naples, or at least some operatic approximation of it. That said, it’s immensely enjoyable and, just occasionally, goes beyond the superficial. The strength lies in the casting and in the director’s decision to allow his young singers to behave like young people. Miah Persson as Fiordiligi and Anke Vondung as Dorabella are close to perfect in their exuberant girlishness. Naturally Vondung gets to be a bit ditzier than the angstier Persson because that’s how the thing is written. Both of them sing extremely well too and there’s nothing lacking in the big solos or duets.
Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades is a rather odd opera. It’s got some really good music but it’s dramatically a bit of a mess; it’s episodic and the plot contains highly implausible occult elements. The 2016 production at Dutch National Opera was given to Stefan Herheim to direct which is what piqued my interest. There are few directors as capable of applying some radical rethinking to an opera and coming up with something fully coherent. I think he manages it here.
Dmitri Tcherniakov is an interesting and controversial director. He’s not afraid to take a very radical approach to a work and that method tends to produce uneven results. At it’s best, as in his Berlin Parsifal, it’s extraordinary and sometimes; his Wozzeckfor example, interesting but perhaps not exactly revelatory, and,again, sometimes; as in his Don Giovanni, polarising. That said he never does anything merely to shock or show off. There’s always a logic to what he does and that’s certainly true of his quite radical version of Verdi’s Il Trovatore filmed at Brussels’ La Monnaie in 2012.