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?
In 2015 the Metropolitan Opera premiered a new production of Verdi’s Otello directed by Bartlett Sher. It was broadcast in the Met in HD series and subsequently released on Blu-ray and DVD. It’s a bit hard to judge the production on video because of the video direction. I don’t think there are any big ideas but it’s decorative enough with arrangements and rearrangements of plexiglass wall/rooms and some effective video projections for things like the storm scene. Only Act 4 breaks the mould with a sparse stage with just a bed and a few chairs. I strongly suspect though from the occasional wide angle shot that there was a lot more going on visually than one sees on the video. Costumes are 19th centuryish and quite decorative.
The Met’s abridged version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, in English, got an HD broadcast in 2006 and a subsequent DVD release. It’s Julie Taymor’s production and it’s visually spectacular with giant sets, loads of very effective puppets and very good dancers (I wish every opera company used dance as effectively as the Met. Too expensive I guess). It’s more something one might expect to see at Bregenz than at the Four Seasons Centre. Costuming is sometimes a bit weird. The Three Ladies have removable heads and the chorus of priests look like origami angels but it’s never less than interesting visually. There’s nothing about the cuts (it comes in at about an hour and threequarters) that changes the plot in any way that makes it obviously kid friendly beyond being shorter and there’s no attempt to make it anything other than a pretty fairy tale. If one wants a Flute with deep meaning this isn’t it.
Rossini’s La Donna del Lago is based on the Walter Scott poem, itself a deliberately romantic view of Scottish history, simplified until not much is left but the rivalry for the heroine’s hand by her three suitors and a completely unexplained war between the king of Scotland and the Clan Alpine. Dramatically it’s thin indeed but it’s Rossini so there is crazy virtuosic music and it’s very hard to cast. One needs two mezzos; one a mistress of Rossinian coloratura, the other more dramatic, and two tenors; both of which can do the crazy high stuff. The supporting roles aren’t easy either. Realistically only a major house could cast this adequately.
Earlier this year the Metropolitan opera staged Borodin’s Prince Igor for the first time in nearly a hundred years with an HD broadcast and a DVD/Blu-ray release to boot. It’s an odd work. It’s quite long; a prologue and three acts running over three hours and it’s very episodic. The prologue takes place in Ptivl; the principality of which I gor is prince. He’s about to lead his army against the invading Polovtsians. There are dark omens. The next thing we see, as Act 1 opens, is that Igor is defeated and a captive of Khan Konchak who’s daughter is now in love with Igor’s son. It’s all just happened. Cue lots of exotic Polovtsiania. In Act 2 we are back in Ptivl where Galitsky is making trouble for his sister, Igor’s wife, who has been left as Regent. Mostly the trouble seems to be drunken partying and when the Polovtsian army arrives at the gates the brother, Galitsky, drops dead. In Act 3 the city has been sacked and everybody is kind of mooning around in the rubble until a pretty depressed Igor shows up and implores the other Russian princes to get off their arses and do something (unspecified). All the important stuff happens off stage and there really isn’t any resolution. There is some great music though.
Thomas Adès’ 2004 opera The Tempest was given at the Metropolitan Opera in 2012 in a new production by Robert Lepage. It got an HD broadcast and a subsequent DVD release. It’s an interesting work which, on happening, was compared to Peter Grimes as the “next great English opera”. Whether this early hype will turn into a sustained place in the repertoire is yet to be seen. Musically it’s not easy to characterize. Adès very much has his own style; mixing lyricism with atonality and, in this piece, setting one of the roles, Ariel, so high it’s surprising anyone has been found to sing it. Certainly it’s a more aggressively modern style than most of the work currently being produced in North America. The libretto two is unusual. Shakespeare’s own words were, apparently, considered too difficult to sing though, of course, Britten famously set great screeds of unadulterated bard in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For the Tempest, Meredith Oakes has rendered the text into couplets; rhymed or half rhymed. It works quite well with only the occasional touch of Jeremy Sams like banality.
John Cox’s production of Massenet’s Thaïs at the Metropolitan Opera is probably most remembered for the rather extraordinary collection of Christian Lacroix frocks that Met perennial Renée Fleming gets to wear. It’s rather more than that. In fact it’s a pretty good example of what the Met does best. It’s sumptuous and spectacular and has a pretty much ideal cast which, together, go a long way toward making this curious piece rather enjoyable.
Bellini’s I Puritani is one of those 19th century operas that dishes out a version of 16th or 17th century English history that’s all but unrecognisable to anyone with any actual knowledge of the subject. In this case we are in Cromwell’s Commonwealth and the nasty Puritans want to off anyone with a Stuart connection including the widowed queen Henrietta. Various implausibly named Puritan colonels (everyone in the New Model apparently holds that rank) feature as well as a Royalist earl who is, of course, in love with the Roundhead commander’s daughter. Immediately prior to marrying her though he decides to save Henrietta from execution and escapes with her thus triggering the obligatory mad scene, which is probably the main reason for watching this thing at all. Finally Arturo (the earl) returns, is captured and, inevitably, sentenced to death. As he is being led to the block Cromwell’s messenger arrives with the second most improbable reprieve in all of opera. The Stuarts have been defeated and everyone is pardoned. A happy ending with fortissimo soprano high notes ensues.
Today’s MetHD broadcast of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda was a bit of a mixed bag. There were some really good performances. Joyce DiDonato in particular gave what may well have been a truly great performance and I would have loved to have seen it live. David McVicar’s production was much better than his Anna Bolena; visually interesting and with some strong dramatic ideas. However the good was pretty seriously undermined by another really awful piece of video directing by Gary Halvorson. I guessed it was him after about ten minutes. The incessant use of the nose cam and the incredibly irritating low level tracking shots were a dead give away. It was a big disappointment since the last two shows I saw, La Clemenza di Tito and Les Troyens, were filmed by Barbara Willis-Sweete and had given me some faint hope that the Met was capable of self analysis and improvement in this area. Hope that was, alas, sadly dashed today.
Today was the first MetHD broadcast of the season and we got Bartlett Sher’s new production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. It’s what I would call a “steakhouse production”. It’s like a meal in a top end steakhouse. Your steak is a fine piece of meat, they don’t mess it up and ditto your baked potato. And it’s all served in luxurious surroundings with attentive service. It’s a terrific steak dinner but it costs the same as the tasting menu at a place with two Michelin stars and it’s still just a steak dinner.
So, a brilliant cast; Netrebko, Polenzani, Kwiecien and Maestri, singing and acting up a storm in a production that was pretty much devoid of ideas beyond a few odd costuming choices. Since when did Italian peasant girls get to dress like they are attending a ball in a Jane Austen novel? Still the girl singing Nanetta was cute and had the best dress. Gary Halvorson’s video direction was about par for the course in terms of virtually incessant close-ups. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon but ultimately forgettable.