I’ve been impressed by Jonathan Dove’s art songs so I was glad to be able to take a look at one of his operas. It’s The Adventures of Pinocchio and it was recorded in a production by Opera North at Sadlers Wells in 2008. I feel a bit ambivalent about it. I really like the music but I’m not hugely engaged by the libretto. I think this is largely because of the subject matter so it may come off better for someone else.
The 2014 recording of Verdi’s La forza del destino from the Bayerischen Staatsoper has the kind of cast one hardly dares dream of. The elusive Anja Harteros sings Leonora with the almost equally hard to catch Jonas Kaufmann as Alvaro. Chucking in Ludovic Tézier as Don Carlo and Vitalij Kowaljow doubling the Marchese and Padre Guardiano only improves matters and the rest of the cast is very good indeed. It was pretty much sure to be a winner and it is.
Claus Guth’s 2006 production of Ariadne auf Naxos recorded at the Opernhaus Zürich in 2006 is a compelling piece of theatre. It’s one of those Regietheater pieces that combines a workable concept with compelling Personenregie to create a whole that’s extremely illuminating. The entire Vorspiel is played out, in modern dress, in front of a grey curtain. We get an immediate idea of how Guth is going to explore/exploit metatheatricality as soon as the Haushofmeister appears. He’s played by none other than Zürich Intendant Alexander Pereira. Who is calling the shots? This is reinforced when he drops the bombshell that the opera seria must be combined with Zerbinetta’s farce. This speech is delivered by Pereira from among his guests in the Intendant’s box. It’s very clever. But there’s so much more going on during the Vorspiel. The Komponist is getting seriously deranged; perhaps even more so after he begins his infatuation with Zerbinetta. There’s a moment when it looks like a love triangle is being set up. The diva just gives one look that suggests that she’s got her eyes on the Komponist. It’s a typical moment. A look, a gesture, seems to convey so much. It all concludes with the deranged Komponist shooting himself.
Melly Still’s 2012 Glyndebourne production of Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen is straightforward and rather beautiful. Certainly the staging matches the magic of this extraordinary score. There are really two ideas underpinning the designs. The animals are very human rather than the furries sometimes seen. Their specific nature is hinted at rather than made terribly explicit. They are differentiated from the humans by being very boldly coloured. In contrast, the human world is a sort of monochrome 1920’s Moravia; all greys and browns. Within this framework there are some neat touches. The foxes carry their tales and use them to great demonstrative effect. The chickens are portrayed as sex workers with the cockerel as, sort of, their pimp. It’s not overdone and it’s very effective. The sets are centred round a stylized tree with other structures as needed being erected on the fly with flats so the action never really stops.
Handel’s Giulio Cesare presents an interesting casting challenge. The piece has four high voiced male roles; Cesare, Nireno, Tolomeo and Sesto. The original production featured three castrati and a soprano en travesti. I have never seen Sesto cast as other than a trouser role and Nireno and Tolomeo are invariably sung by countertenors. Cesare himself though seems mostly to go to low mezzo/contralto types. Indeed it’s seen, I think, as something of a “plum” trouser role. (Which is interesting as in the production that i will get to describing in a minute, Cesare wears plum trousers). I’ve seen both Ewa Podleś and Sarah Connolly in the role. For their 2005 production Royal Danish Opera cast Andreas Scholl as Cesare. It’s a good choice. He’s a masculine looking and sounding counter tenor and at least he is taller than his Cleopatra. It also makes for an interesting set of countertenors. Tolomeo is sung by the much less masculine Christopher Robson and Nireno by the “more a male soprano than a countertenor” Michael Maniaci. Sesto goes, conventionally enough, to Tuva Semmingsen, who seems very much to specialize in these types of role. Apart from the countertenors the piece was cast from the considerable resources of the RDO ensemble with Inger Dam-Jensen as Cleopatra, Randi Stene as Cornelia, John Lundgren as Curio and Palle Knudsen as Achilla.
It was during the recent run of Cosí fan tutte at the COC that I realised that I really needed to get my hands on the M22 recording (Salzburg 2006). Specifically it was discussing the Salzburg reading of Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann with Thomas Allen and Rachel Andrist; who is the on stage continuo player in the Salzburg recording. It sounded like there might be interesting parallels. And parallels there are. In both cases the girls are aware of the “plot” (in every sense). In both cases four attractive young singers have been cast as the lovers and Don Alfonso and Despina made much older and more cynical. There I think the parallels end. Egoyan’s vision is essentially a positive one about relationships. The Herrmans, I think, are more interested in exploring the psychologically destructive power of love and desire.
If you have ever wondered why a slapstick comedy is so called then look no further than Gilbert Deflo’s production of Prokofiev’s L’Amour des trois oranges recorded by L’Opéra de Paris in 2005. There’s a great deal of smacking with sticks; most of it by Barry Banks who gleefully whacks just about any bottom, male or female, that comes within range. The production is also slapstick in the generally understood sense of broad physical comedy. There are elements of commedia del arte and lots of circus; jugglers, clowns, fire swallowers, all wrapped up in a sort of 20s vamp aesthetic. It’s wildly chaotic in a rather fun way though it’s all a bit overwhelming and probably worked better in the theatre than on DVD.
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.
The Opéra national de Paris 2005 production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito is very fine. Ironically it’s actually quite a conventional production overall though one scene, the one where Tito makes his first appearance, is so weird that it provides the generic name used in some circles I frequent for an entirely inexplicable production element (see below).
Martin Kušej’s 2010 production of Dvořák’s Rusalka at the Bayerisches Staatsoper is exactly the sort of production traditionalists fume about over their port and cigars. It’s loosely based on the Fritzl and Kampusch imprisonment/child abuse cases. The Water Goblin, aided by his wife, Ježibaba, have their children; Rusalka and her sisters, imprisoned in a wet cellar under their house. The Water Gnome is clearly indulging in sexual abuse of the girls to the total indifference of his wife. Rusalka dreams of a life among humans and of love. She begs her mother to make her human/set her free. This happens and Rusalka, mute and tottering on red heels, is free to pursue her romance with the prince. Is this literal or all in Rusalka’s imagination? Does it matter? Continue reading →