Stefano Landi’s Lamorte d’Orfeo of 1619 is interesting for several reasons. It’s one of relatively few operas from this early in the history of the art form that we have enough information on to perform. It was also written in and for Rome so it reflects the clerical influences of that environment rather than the more secular Venice of Monteverdi. It’s also an unusual take on the Orfeo legend. It takes off from where Monteverdi and many others leave off. Euridice is dead, for good this time, and the opera deals with the balance of Orfeo’s life. Briefly, he is heartbroken and renounces Pleasure; including wine and women. He compounds this by not inviting Bacco to a birthday celebration attended by most of the other gods. Bacco and his female followers are not pleased. Orfeo is torn to pieces by the Maenads. Orfeo is quite OK with this because now he will be united with Euridice but Charon refuses to take him; a demi-god, across the Styx. Mercury fetches Euridice from the Elysian Fields but she has drunk from Lethe and doesn’t recognise him. She’s quite clear that she wants nothing to do with this so-called Orfeo. Giove makes it up to Orfeo (who also drinks the water of Lethe and forgets Euridice) by making him into a constellation and all the gods rejoice. (for consistency’s sake I’ve used the Italianised versions of the Roman versions of the various Greek characters in the same way as the libretto).
For probably the first time in almost 200 years the 1809 original version of Gaspare Spontini’s Fernand Cortez ou la conquête de Mexique got a theatrical run last October. It was at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in a new edition by Paolo Petazzi where it was recorded for video release. There’s tons to unpack here because few people will be familiar with the work and if they are it will likely be in the very different 1817 version. It’s also a far from straightforward production.
Directors seem to see the 1950s as the logical time period to stage Verdi’s Falstaff though they come up with very different 1950s. Robert Carsen set his in a rather dark world that pits the nouveau riche against a declining gentry. Richard Jones went for a sort of Carry on film aesthetic that was entirely English. Laurent Pelly in his production filmed at the Teatro Real in Rome in 2019, despite some overtly English elements in the set design, gives us a distinctly continental European feel. Indeed Falstaff, Pistola and Bardolfo might easily be hangovers from the more criminal end of the French resistance. There’s much less of “class struggle” in Pelly’s rather straightforward production. In fact it seems like a fairly light comedy with the darker aspects emerging only rarely.
Resphigi’s La bella dormente nel bosco (libretto by Gian Bistolfi) is a take on the Charles Perreault fairy story. It was originally written for a puppet theatre and later adapted for human performers. Its heritage shows in it that it’s very much a numbers opera and it’s quite short. The three acts come in at around eighty minutes. Musically it’s a bit of a hodge podge. It’s mostly quite atmospheric and colourful (similar to Resphigi’s better known orchestral works) with elements of parody. One can sort of hear echoes of Debussy, Stravinsky and Strauss. It finishes up with a cakewalk and a Broadway style finale which is decidedly odd.
Tony Palmer’s 2006 documentary about the Salzburg Festival is over three hours long and uncomfortable to watch in the way the best films are. He combines interviews with performance and other documentary footage to extremely good effect to go beyond telling the “Salzburg story ” to explore fundamental questions of the arts and the state and the very purpose of art.
Traviata – Vous méritez un avenir meilleur is a theatre piece that combines elements of Verdi’s La Traviata with elements of the source material for it; Dumas fils’ La Dame aux camélias (both the novel and the play). There is also some newly written and composed material. The creators; Benjamin Lazar (director), Florent Hubert (arrangements and musical direction) and Judith Chemla (who sings Violetta) aimed to create a work that goes further than the source material in exploring the inner psychology of the main character.
Verdi’s Il Trovatore is always pretty grim. It’s hard to lighten up an opera with multiple executions, suicide and babies being barbecued. David Bösch in his Covent Garden production (remounted and recorded in 2017 with Julia Burbach directing), probably wisely, doesn’t even try. This is as grim as Grimsby on a wet Sunday in February with extra gratuitous violence. The setting is some roughly contemporary civil war. The Conte di Luna’s troops are a scruffy lot but they have a pretty cool looking tank. The gypsies are a bit gayer though Azucena’s caravan is disturbingly plastered with baby dolls reflecting her obsession. It’s all quite dark. Really only Leonora (and her maid) stand out as they wear white in contrast to the greys of pretty much everyone else. The story is told straightforwardly enough and the sets and costumes do provide some kind of moral differentiation between the two camps with Leonora sort of standing above and apart from the violence.
Olivier Py’s production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, filmed at the Theater an der Wien in 2015, is quite unusual. Usually opera productions either play the story more or less straight or work with a concept of the director’s that is not obviously contained in the libretto. Py doesn’t rally do either of these. What he does is present the narrative as Wagner wrote it but with visuals that act as a sort of commentary on, rather than a literal depiction of, the action being described. One of the things this does is make the viewer realise just how much Wagner is describing! There is much more tell than show.
Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame is a rather odd opera. It’s not just that the main plot turns on a pretty bizarre tale of the supernatural but that it also contains a significant number of big set piece numbers that don’t advance the plot at all; the “military children” in Act 1, the Pastoral in Act 2 and the bizarre “Glory to Catherine” chorus in Act 3 aren’t the only ones. One assumes that they are there so that the composer could interpolate some suitably “Russian” bits because without them it’s just any other opera that happens to be in Russian.
Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina is a bit of a weird opera. It’s ostensibly based on a series of not entirely related events that unfolded during the succession crisis following the death of Tsar Fyodor III (which took about 12 years to play out) into a story that takes place in a day. It’s complicated by the fact that key players in the story; the Tsars Peter and Ivan and the Tsarevna Sofia don’t actually appear because the Russian censorship would not allow members of the dynasty to be portrayed on stage. Perhaps unsurprisingly Tcherniakov isn’t much interested in the details of the history and uses it to make some, not always entirely obvious, points about modernity vs tradition, personal power and the nature of religious cults.