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.
David Hockney and John Cox’s production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress first saw the light of day at Glyndebourne in 1975 and there’s a video of it from back then. It’s been revived umpteen times since, all with Cox directing rather than an overawed revival director. It was done again in 2010, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting, recorded and issued on Blu-ray and DVD. It’s fascinating.
Richard Jones chose to set his 2009 production of Verdi’s Falstaff in Windsor in 1946. I suspect it’s driven by similar reasoning to Robert Carsen’s 1950s production. Falstaff plays out very nicely as a conflict between an older order of things and a more thrusting kind of bourgeoisie and 1940s/50s England works well for that. The “just after the war” setting also allows Jones to present Fenton as a G.I. which adds another twist to Ford’s distrust of him. Although the jumping off point for Jones and Carsen is the same the results are quite different. Jones seems to be operating in the traditions of English farce, à la Brian Rix, or maybe Carry on films,which works pretty well. Falstaff is a farce rather than a comedy of manners. So, besides the obligatory entrances and exits, couples caught in flagrante etc we also get a certain geometric precision in the blocking that borders on choreography. In Act 1 Scene 2, for instance, the ladies rather military perambulation in a garden of very precisely aligned cabbages is doubled up by Brownies and a rowing four countermarching.
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.
Katherina Thoma not unreasonably chooses to set her 2013 Glyndebourne production of Ariadne auf Naxos in a country house in the south of England (though I suppose equating the Christies with a rather boorish Viennese bourgeois might be thought a touch unkind). She also chooses to set it in 1940 which sets us up for an almost Marxian dialectic not just between high art and low art but between art and life; especially where life and death are concerned.
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.
Adelaide di Borgogna is one of those rather odd “serious” Rossini works where bel canto collides with opera seria. The plot is fairly accurately based on an episode from 10th century history and is most definitely not a comedy. The form has progressed well beyond a succession of da capo arias with multiple ensemble numbers and quite a few choruses. But there’s a throwback to an earlier tradition in the use of high voices for heroic male roles though it seems that by 1817 castrati were rather rare and the crucial role of Ottone, the German emperor, was from the beginning sung by a female contralto.