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?
A new opera by Australian Brett Dean based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet premiered at Glyndebourne this summer. A recording of it was broadcast on BBC television on 22nd October. I’ve now had a chance to watch it in full. I wasn’t sure what to expect as it get somewhat mixed reviews. I was impressed. Very impressed. First off, Matthew Jocelyn, who wrote the libretto, and Dean know how to turn a play into an opera. They understand that it’s not just about taking a bunch of dialogue and giving it a soundtrack. What they do is very clever. All the text is Shakespeare but it’s split up and moved around. There’s repetition and sometimes words are reassigned to different characters. Characters sing parallel lines. Then, of course, there’s a chorus. A good example is when the players appear before performing The Death of Gonzago. They get lines taken from various of Hamlet’s soliloquies chopped up and rearranged. It’s effective and allows the main elements of the story to be told in under three hours of opera. The main bit that’s missing is the whole Fortinbras and the Norwegians thing but that often gets cut anyway.
Just been checking out the Glyndebourne 2017 season announcement. Not that I’ll be going or anything but one production did catch my eye. There’s a new Hamlet opera from Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn to be directed by Neil Armfield and conducted by Vladimir Jurowski which sounds promising enough but look at this cast: Allan Clayton (Hamlet), Sarah Connolly (Gertrude), Barbara Hannigan (Ophelia), Rod Gilfry (Claudius), Kim Begley (Polonius), John Tomlinson (Ghost of Old Hamlet). There had better be a DVD.
Oh yes and they’ve unearthed yet another previously (more or less) unheard of Cavalli.
The most obvious feature of Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s Pelléas et Mélisande is the use of dummies to double up the characters. Much of the time these doubles are lying around or being pushed around the set wheelchairs by the singers. Most of the time the singers address themselves to one of the dummies even when the “real” version of the person they are addressing is on stage. I guess it’s designed to create a kind of emotional distancing or dehumanising that does seem in keeping with the piece and, when the convention is broken, ie; characters interact directly, that seems to heighten the drama at that point.
Claus Guth’s 2001 Zürich production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride is, rather surprisingly, the only video recording of the work currently available. Fortunately it’s a very decent production much preferable to the Met’s over-stuffed overly literal version but not, I think, to be preferred over Robert Carsen’s stark and elegant version seen in Toronto, Washington and elsewhere. The Zürich performance, led by William Christie, is very good but it’s rather let down by the video direction and the production for DVD.
It’s hard to think of a play that would make a better basis for an opera libretto than Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Henri Cain’s adaptation is rather good; somewhat simplifying and tightening up the plot in a similar manner to that later taken by Britten and Pears with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s a shame Franco Alfano’s music doesn’t really rise to the same heights. It has its moments, especially later in the opera, but much of the time it’s dull and impressionistic; more like a film soundtrack than an opera score. I guess the lesson is that one just can’t do verismo while trying to avoid vulgarity and excessive melodrama. It also has to be said that much of the time the music seems to be fighting the natural rhythm of the words rather than supporting it. What the music does have is Alfano’s trademark torturing of his singers, especially the principal four roles of Cyrano, Roxane, Christian and De Guiche.
Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise is an astonishing piece of music theatre and Pierre Audi’s Amsterdam staging of it is equally extraordinary. There is very little “plot”. The work consists of eight loosely linked tableaux taken from 16th century accounts of St. Francis’ life and ministry. There is theology and leprosy and ornithology and it goes on for four and a quarter hours. It ought not to work but it does. Continue reading →
One of the first opera DVDs I bought was John Eliot Gardiner’s Le Nozze di Figaro recorded at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris in 1993. This is a pretty early example of period performance of Mozart. Gardiner was in the middle of his run of recordings for DG Archiv and it was only two years after Opera Atelier’s breakthrough Magic Flute which I saw only because one of my clients was sponsoring it and couldn’t shift the free tickets. This Figaro is pretty traditional in design and features “original instruments” and period singing style without going the whole Opera Atelier style baroque route (there are no castanets). Sets are flats plus bits of furniture. Costumes are breeches, crinolines and wigs. Olivier Mille directed but I’m not sure anybody noticed. At one point the Count looks exactly like Prince George in Blackadder the Third. The buffo characters are over made up and over the top. Regie has no place here.
The cast is excellent. 28 year old Bryn Terfel plays Figaro and already sounds on the big side for a period performance of Mozart. Susanna is the sadly under-recorded Alison Hagley; an ideal Susanna both as singer and actor. Rodney Gilfry plays the Count with a perpetual sneer and other Gardiner regulars such as Hillevi Martinpelto, as the Contessa, are prominent. In the future star department we get Sarah Connolly as one of the contadine. Pacing is a bit breath taking. Terfel in particular takes his recitatives so fast it’s hard to tell if he is actually singing. Despite looking rather old fashioned and having a bit of a feel of period performance for the sake of it, the production does come off really well.
The production for DVD is a bit odd. The opera was filmed as 16:9 but it’s hard coded to disk as 4:3 so if you watch it on a widescreen TV it’s letterboxed both ways. The picture is adequate DVD quality. The only sound option is LPCM stereo and there are IT/EN/DE/FR/ES/CHI subtitle options. The documentation includes a long essay on how they decided to order some of the numbers differently from the autograph score. All in all, an interesting artefact as a very early DVD capturing a very decent performance.
This Youtube clip is of abysmal video quality but it does give a fair idea of the production.