The Passenger revisited

Something over three years ago I wrote a review of the video of the 2010 Bregenz Festival production of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger. There’s now been a second fully staged production, at Graz, recorded in 2021 (without an audience i think but otherwise no obvious COVID concessions). The Bregenz review contains a whole lot of information on the performance history of the piece as well as a plot summary so I’ll not repeat that. Having a quick look at it before reading on will likely make the rest of this post more comprehensible.


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The end of all human dignity

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?


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Beatrice Cenci

Beatrice Cenci is an opera by Berthold Goldschmidt; a composer who moved from Germany to London in the 1930s for the usual reason.  Beatrice Cenci was written in 1950 but the orchestral style sounds rather earlier.  Comparisons with Mahler have been made though I don’t really see that.  Richard Strauss or Korngold perhaps?  In any event the work didn’t get performed at all until the 1980s and had to wait until the 2018 Bregenz Festival for its first fully staged production directed by Johannes Erat.  Curiously, though originally composed with an English libretto it was given in German in Bregenz.


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Faccio’s Amleto

Franco Faccio’s 1865 work Amleto disappeared from the opera repertoire after the disastrous opening night of its 1871 revival at La Scala only to be “rediscovered” in recent years and featured at the 2016 Bregenz Festival.  It was Faccio’s second, and last opera, though he enjoyed a career as a conductor, that included eighteen years as Music Director at La Scala before being institutionalized due to the effects of syphilis.  So, one naturally asks, is it any good?  The answer is an emphatic “yes”.  It’s not only good but seems quite advanced for an Italian opera of that date.  It’s closer in spirit to Puccini than bel canto.  Indeed the soliloquy Essere o non essere sounds curiously like E lucevan le stelle.  It’s similar to later Verdi and, indeed, Puccini in that it’s through sung with recitative like passages and set piece arias and ensemble numbers and it’s more conventionally tonal than its contemporary Tristan und Isolde.  Arguably the orchestral writing is more interesting than that for voice (Ophelia’s funeral march is very fine) and certainly the weakest parts are the ensembles.  It’s probably also fair to say that there is no big hummable melody.  Still, Faccio was twenty five when he wrote it and there aren’t many better operas by twenty five year olds.

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First, the sound quality

The MetHD broadcast of Strauss’ Capriccio has been issued on Blu-ray.  I enjoyed the original broadcast but found watching it again on disk rather unsatisfying.  The main problem is the production.  It’s a John Cox effort from 1998.  The period is updated from ancien régime France to just after WW1, apparently to make the people more contemporary while allowing an opulent, old style Met “all the things” production.  Peter McClintock’s direction of the revival emphasizes the most obvious comedy (the ballerina falling over with her legs in the air, for example) while doing little or nothing to bring out the sheer cleverness of this opera, about an opera, within an opera.  It all seems very heavy handed, in fact the word that popped into my head several times was “vulgar”.

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The raptur’d soul

Christof Loy’s production of Handel’s late oratorio Theodora was a critical and popular success at the 2009 Salzburg Festival and deservedly so.  That said, certain decisions seem a bit perverse.  The G minor organ concerto HWV 310 is interpolated in Part 3, which is fine, but why cut a fine number like “Bane of virtue” in Part 1 or “Whither, Princess,do you Fly?” in Part 3?  There are a bunch of other, rather odd, cuts in Part 3.  Still it doesn’t do serious damage to a fine performance of an interesting production.


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Beautiful simplicity

I don’t think I’ve ever been to an opera with higher expectations than last night. The show was a piece I love; Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. My favourite director, Robert Carsen, was directing. The cast; Susan Graham (Iphigénie), Russell Braun (Oreste), Joseph Kaiser (Pylade), Mark Doss (Thoas) with solid young singers in the minor roles, was as starry as I have seen at the Four Seasons Centre. How could it live up to my expectations? All I can say is that it did.

The stage design for Carsen’s production is about as minimalist as it gets. The raked stage is enclosed by three plain grey walls in the form of a regular trapezoid. Occasionally a rectangular slab (altar) appears centre stage. The chorus chalk the words AGAMEMNON, IPHIGENIE, KLYTEMNESTRE on the walls and later Iphigénie erases them. The rest is done with lighting (Peter van Praet). Even the lighting plot is spare. The palette is predominantly blue-grey with orange/red appearing to symbolise the Furies and the violence of the history of the house of Atreus. Only at the very end does the gloom and claustrophobia lift. Within the gloom though van Praet creates ominous giant shadows of the characters which enormously enhance key scenes.

To play out the drama in this gloomy space Carsen uses dancers and places the chorus in the orchestra pit. Occasionally this leads to minor balance issues between the soloists and chorus but it is a small price to pay for the action on stage. In one particularly effective scene, the Furies carry Oreste and force him to walk sideways across the text of KLYTEMNESTRE. In another they turn into writhing serpents who back Oreste into a corner. In the final scene the “dea ex machina” element is handled about as well as I have ever seen it done. Diana (Lauren Segal) sings, unlit, from what sounded like Ring 4 stage left. The characters on stage are frozen. She resolves the drama and the stage walls rise about six feet to flood the stage with very white light. Unfussy and effective. All in all one feels that Gluck’s ideal of a “beautiful simplicity” is achieved. The one place where the minimalism is a bit of an issue is that all the characters pretty much look the same to the point where it isn’t always obvious who is singing. A good pair of opera glasses, a decent seat and knowing what the main singers look like helps here. I think the approach works in part because the drama moves ahead at a breathless pace. Wagner would need about fifteen hours to get through a story that Gluck manages in less than two hours.

Musically the evening was about as good as it gets. Pablo Heras-Casado pushed things along at a pretty fair pace but didn’t lose the drama. He was helped by some gorgeous woodwinds. The soloists were all quite excellent. Susan Graham owns this part, her rather bright mezzo suits the role and she sounded utterly in command. Joseph Kaiser and Russell Braun worked really well together in a reading that wasn’t as obviously homoerotic as some I’ve seen. Kaiser has a lovely Mozartian tenor and Braun has power and beauty of tone to spare. Mark Doss was appropriately violent as Thoas and I’d really like to see what he could do with something more lyrical. The minor roles were all more than adequately covered by local singers who will be familiar to anyone who frequents the Four Seasons Centre.

So, my unrealistic expectations were met and I thoroughly enjoyed one of the best evenings I’ve spent in an opera house. I’m late to the party though. If you want to catch this show Susuan Graham is singing just one more time on October 12th and there is a final performance with Katherine Whyte in the title role on October 15th.

Salome – DVD of 2008 ROH production

Strauss’ Salome is not for the faint hearted. It contains perversions including, but not limited to, necrophilia, paedophilia and incest. I think this makes David McVicar an obvious choice as director. In fact, by McVicar standards, this 2008 Covent Garden production is fairly restrained and straightforward. McVicar gves the work a 1930s setting which works just fine. The action evolves on a rather elegant two level set; upstairs is Herod’s banquet and downstairs is a sort of guardroom including Jokanaan’s cistern. It’s all quite elegant in light blues and greys and essentially all the action takes place downstairs. There are a few supers including a naked woman and another not far off floating around for no apparent reason except perhaps to suggest that the Judean army is not the Brigade of Guards.


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Yesterday’s Met Live in HD transmission was Richard Strauss’ last opera Capriccio. It’s a curious work and I suspect how one thinks about it seriously affects how one reacts to it emotionally. On the surface it’s a sophisticated meta opera about opera with some side splittingly funny gags about unstageable production concepts accompanied by pastiche Wagner. Taken on that level it’s funny but perhaps, ultimately heartless. When one realises that the opera was written in 1941/2 it adds a new dimension. Why has Strauss set this opera in Enlightenment Paris? Where else could be more symbolic of everything the regime he is writing under is not? This work premiered a few weeks before the German defeat at Stalingrad. Does Strauss sense that german is losing the war? Is this less an affectionate farewell to the form from an elderly composer or an elegy for an artform that may not survive the destruction of European civilization which most would have thought the inevitable consequence of a Russo-American victory (who’s to say they weren’t right?). Any way these were the thoughts that were going through my head as I watched yesterday’s broadcast and no doubt helped give the work, for me, a greater emotional intensity.

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