Karel Szymanowski’s 1924 opera Król Roger is surely the only opera in Polish in anything like the standard rep. Maybe that’s one reason it’s not performed all that often because it’s really rather good and Kasper Holten’s 2015 production at Covent Garden makes a pretty good case for it. The story is set in 12th century Sicily, though as we shall see , that really doesn’t matter. The Church is complaining to the king about a heretical prophet, the Shepherd, who is leading people astray with a strange doctrine of Love and Nature. Roger’s queen is much taken with the Shepherd and helps protect him. The king, who is clearly battling demons rooted in a bloody past, vacillates. Eventually he’s persuaded and the opera closes with Roger singing an ecstatic hymn to the rising sun.
One has to recalibrate when reviewing productions from the lake stage at Bregenz. The challenges for set designer and director are very different from designing/directing in a conventional theatre. There’s an interview with Es Devlin on the disk of the 2017 production of Bizet’s Carmen that explains the issues very well but broadly it’s a question of creating a single, giant set that can be used throughout the opera and which makes a statement that integrates the work with the environment of the Bodensee. The challenge for the director, as well, as the usual ones, is to communicate the characters and story when they are rather dwarfed by the setting. S/he also has to figure out how to fit the lake itself into the story. I think Devlin and director, Kasper Holten, manage this remarkably well.
Kasper Holten’s Royal Opera House production of Don Giovanni, seen in cinemas, is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s a visually and dramatically complex production so it’s probably as well that there’s plenty of explanatory material on the disks and in the booklet. Es Devlin’s set is a two storey structure that rotates and serves as a screen for a heavy use of video projections by Luke Halls. These start wth the 2065 names of the women Don Giovanni has seduced and seem to be mostly about what’s going on in Don Giovanni’s head. The sequence during Fin ch’han dal vino calda la testa is particularly spectacular.
Kasper Holten shows his customary inventiveness in his production of Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, recorded at Finnish National Opera in 2010. He places the whole opera inside Paul’s “Marie museum” with a chaotic, higgledy, piggledy model of the the city of Brugge as a back wall. He emphasises the dream elements of acts 2 and 3 through devices such as having the troupe of players and their boat emerge through Paul’s bed or assorted ecclesiastics popping up randomly in the “city model”. He also inserts a non-speaking Marie who is present throughout the piece, often to very interesting effect.
We got to see Kasper Holten’s new Don Giovanni from the Royal Opera House in Toronto yesterday. It wasn’t live but I really don’t think that matters. I’m not going to dwell too much on production or performance because it’s already been extensively reviewed elsewhere. I concur with the general tenor of the reviews that the singing and acting is extremely strong. Certainly Holten got a more intense performance out of Mariusz Kwiecien than Michael Grandage did at the Met and Veronique Gens was a very fine Donna Elvira. There really weren’t any weak links.
The concluding instalment of Kasper Holten’s Copenhagen Ring really does wrap it up as Brünnhilde’s story. It’s very effective in so doing too. Holten states that the central problem in interpreting the Ring is the ending and he points out that Wagner struggled with it for years before resorting to what Holten sees as a cop out; the tired, patriarchal device of wrapping things up by having the heroine sacrifice herself for her man. Holten rejects this and instead offers us a living Brünnhilde as a symbol of hope and renewal at the end of a century of terrible strife. I wish I were as optimistic.
So, onto Siegfried. Now we are in 1968 but it’s a rather laid back Danish 1968. It doesn’t reference any of the canonical events of that momentous year though there is a bit of a youth vs experience vibe. Holten doesn’t let us forget that Siegfried is 18 and Stig Anderson, at 60, manages to pull off the look very well. James Johnson’s Wotan, on the other hand, is shown in decline; the elder statesman who can’t retire gracefully, like a Berlusconi or Murdoch. Mime is an ageing nobody hunched over his typewriter and still yearning for some “success”.
In Kasper Holten’s production, recorded at Royal Danish Opera in 2009, Tannhäuser is a poet torn between family and the conventional world of the Landgraf’s court and his creative processes symbolized by Venus and Venusberg. There are numerous visual clues that perhaps we are even supposed to identify Tannhäuser with Wagner himself. Far from being a young man, this Tannhäuser is middle aged, married to Eizabeth and has a son. He has withdrawn into a psychological world of his own and Venus, his muse, and Venusberg are in his imagination. Only after death is he recognized as a genius. Of the rest, how much is supposed to be external and how much internal to Tannhäuser’s imagination is a bit hard to grasp. If nothing else it goes some way to making the sixty year old Stig Andersen as Tannhäuser and the equally mature Susanne Resmark as Venus almost believable. The 1900ish setting works quite well for the sexually repressed court of the Landgraf von Thüringen though a chorus of pilgrims returning from Rome in full evening dress is a bit of a jar. The concept is quite interesting but really probably stretches further than the libretto can accommodate. This Venus isn’t remotely credible as a goddess of love and the matronly Elisabeth singing about being a pure, young maiden is just odd.
The Copenhagen Ring has been dubbed the feminist Ring with good reason and we’ll come back to that in looking at the relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde. It might also be called the drinkers’ Ring. There’s an astonishing amount of boozing going on. It was there in Rheingold with Loge’s hangover and Alberich staggering drunkenly after the Rhinemaidens. It’s back in Die Walküre. Hunding and Siegmund knock off the best part of a bottle of Bushmill’s Malt (Add a few cigars and this scene would be perfect for Stuart Skelton and Iain Paterson), Wotan has a flask in his pocket and the Walkyries; Ride is like a sorority party. Actually it reminds me a lot of Denmark so maybe it just seemed natural.
This 2006 Copenhagen production of Wagner’s Ring has been written about a lot. It’s been dubbed “the feminist Ring” and a lot has been made of the frequent camera cuts and odd angles. Actually what struck me most about it was the comparative goriness. The video direction (by Uffe Borgwandt) didn’t strike me as particularly unusual. I’d say it was better edited than a typical Halvorson Met broadcast but not so terribly different in spirit. The main difference is that this is very much presented as a film rather than a documentary record of a live performance. Oddly it begins very much in live performance mode with footage of the Queen of Denmark taking her seat and of the conductor (Michael Schønwandt) complete with miniatures of his decorations on his tail coat going to the pit. From then on though we get anything but what the audience in the house saw.