Eugen d’Albert is largely forgotten as a composer but his seventh (of twenty) opera, Tiefland, is still performed occasionally in German speaking countries. It’s an odd work. The plot is melodramatic with a cloying degree of sentimentality; sort of Mascagni meets Gounod, while the music is like pastoral Wagner (think the way the woodwinds are used in Tristan) with touches of Carmen and, just occasionally, hints of Sullivan (one of d’Albert’s teachers). For a 1903 work it feels curiously retro.
I guess previous times I’ve seen Janáček’s Jenůfa I haven’t really noticed the role that the idea of “bad blood” or inherited depravity plays in the plot but it’s there almost as starkly as in certain works by Zola and Buchan. Perhaps one of the strengths of Christof Loy’s very clean 2014 production for the Deutsche Oper is that it tends to show up such details. It’s certainly a very low key setting. All the action takes place in a plain white room with minimal furnishing. Costuming is modern (sort of); maybe 1950s or so. Sometimes one gets a hint of rather more going on on the edge of the stage but Brian Large’s typically close up video direction makes it hard to be sure. So, at least on disk, it’s all about the characters and their interactions and they are drawn pretty clearly.
Sometimes one comes across a previously unfamiliar work that just blows one away. Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Simplicius Simplicissimus did that to me. It’s a work written by Hartmann in 1934/5 as he watched the early years of Nazi power and the banning of “degenerate” art. By the time it got its premier in 1949 it’s story of a Germany physically and morally ravaged by war would seem all too prescient. It’s a simple story based on the early chapters of a novel by Grimmelshausen set during the Thirty Years War(1). It concerns a simple shepherd boy who is drawn into the conflict. There are three scenes. In the first, the entirely innocent boy witnesses the brutal destruction of the farm he works on by vagrant Landsknechten. In the second he is befriended by a hermit and undergoes a sort of moral education before once again being left abandoned by the hermit’s death. In the thirdhe becomes jester to the drunken and corrupt Governor; the idiot who tells the truth, until all is overthrown by a Peasant’s Revolt.
Matthias Hartmann’s staging of Carmen for the Opernhaus Zürich recorded in 2008 is starkly simple but very beautiful and provides a perfect vehicle for the considerable talents of Vesselina Kasarova and Jonas Kaufmann. The set consists of a plain backdrop and a raised elliptical disk, reminiscent of a bull ring. A few, very few, props are added as needed. A dog lies asleep at the front of the set (replaced by a cattle skull in the final act).
The 2003 Royal Opera House recording of Die Zauberflöte has a terrific cast and it has Sir Colin Davis conducting. The production is by David McVicar and it’s one of those that make one wonder how he ever got a “bad boy” reputation. It’s perfectly straightforward though rather dark (emotionally and physically) and has a vaguely 18th century vibe. In places it seems a bit minimalist, as if the director couldn’t really be bothered with things like the Trials. The interview material rather suggests that McVicar was a bit overawed by doing Mozart with the great Sir Colin and tried very hard to match his rather old fashioned theatrical sensibilities.