Just as Rossini’s version of Il barbiere di Siviglia completely eclipsed Paisiello’s version, so Verdi’s Otello sounded the death knell for an earlier version; ironically enough by Rossini. It’s a bit surprising as the Rossini version is not bad at all despite having a rather patchy libretto and being hard to cast. The first thing one notices is that the story isn’t even close to Shakespeare/Verdi. This is because the libretto was based on a French play by Jean-François Ducis that was popular in the 18th century. I don’t know whether the plot’s weaknesses are due to Ducis or the librettist but there are a few. There’s no Cassio so the motivation for Jago’s plotting is unclear. All the Venetian notables (bar perhaps the Doge) hate Otello but Jago doesn’t seem to have any special reason for animosity. Between the end of Act 2 and the beginning of Act 3 Otello is exiled. There is no explanation. The finale is abrupt and weak. Immediately after Otello kills Desdemona the gang of notables burst in to the room and appear to be completely reconciled to Otello and to him marrying Desdemona, despite having spent the rest of the opera chewing chips about this. In fact one could argue that the happy ending variant (yes, there was one) is the more plausible as it would only take the guys to arrive about ten bars sooner for that to be the logical outcome. As it is, Otello listens with incredulity to the change of heart and, not unreasonably, kills himself.
Handel’s Giulio Cesare is pretty well served in terms of video recordings. The very fine Glyndebourne and Copenhagen versions get some serious competition from the 2012 production that inaugurated Cecilia Bartoli’s reign as director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival. The production is by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. It’s set in somewhere like Iraq in an immediately post-war period. It’s quite dark, probably darker than Negrin’s in Copenhagen and world’s away from McVicar’s almost RomCom version. There’s a lot of violence and some pretty sleazy sex. A lot of this centres around Tolomeo who is portrayed as beyond revolting. There’s a scene where he rips guts out of a statue of Caesar and starts to gnaw on them and there is a fair bit in that vein. Caesar and Cleopatra are portrayed ambiguously too. Sure they are the “heroes” of the piece but Cleopatra’s delight in flogging off her country’s oil wealth to the Romans shows a degree of cynicism. This is not a production for the Konzept averse but I think all the choices made have a point and the overall effect is coherent. It’s not without humour either. Cleopatra sings V’adore pupille in a 70s blonde wig while riding a cruise missile with Caesar watching through 3D glasses.
The 2011 production of Handel’s Alcina at the Wiener Staatsoper marked the first time Handel, or any other baroque work, had appeared in the house since Karajan’s reign in the 1960s. In mounting it they went big. There’s a starry cast headed by Anja Harteros, Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre – Grenoble, a large group of dancers and former Royal Shakespeare Company boss Adrian Nobel. It paid off.
Rameau’s Castor et Pollux is a tragédie lyrique in five acts. It’s a mythology based libretto which, ultimately, celebrates the fraternal love of the twins who rise to immortality while rather callously discarding the female human love interest. Pierre Audi’s 2008 production for De Nederlandse Opera nods both to the baroque and to the mythological by staging the work in a rather abstract Sci-Fi sort of way but with moving sets and Fx that suggest, rather than reproduce, the stagecraft of the baroque.
Tan Dun’s Marco Polo is hugely ambitious. He uses Marco Polo’s legendary journey as a metaphor for Space and Time. He fuses a range of Western musical styles with Chinese, Tibetan and Indian instruments and vocal styles. Although most of the work is sung in English there are sections in Italian and Chinese and other bits in a sort of random polyglot. The cast includes a range of real, allegorical and psychological figures. Marco and Polo are in fact two characters; one representing action and the external and the other the psychological and internal. Kublai Khan, Dante, Shakespeare, Sheherazada and Mahler put in appearances and much of the narrative is carried by a Chinese opera singer playing the part of Rustichello; “the questioner”. To be honest, despite having read the booklet, watched Reiner Moritz’s “Making of” documentary and studied the chart below, most of the time I had no idea what was actually happening. It’s really all too abstract and involved to really work as music drama.
Once in a while a video recording comes my way that’s just pure delight. The 1995 recording of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen from the Théâtre du Châtelet is one. The creative team of director Nicholas Hytner (director), Bob Crowley (designer), Jean-Claude Gallotta (choreagrapy) and Jean Kalman (lighting) created a spectacle that is as much ballet as opera with vivid costumes and simple sets It’s a rather splendid and touching adult fairy tale. Continue reading →
Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise is an astonishing piece of music theatre and Pierre Audi’s Amsterdam staging of it is equally extraordinary. There is very little “plot”. The work consists of eight loosely linked tableaux taken from 16th century accounts of St. Francis’ life and ministry. There is theology and leprosy and ornithology and it goes on for four and a quarter hours. It ought not to work but it does. Continue reading →