The starting point for Peter Mussbach’s 2003 production of La Traviata for the Aix-en-Provence festival is his knowledge, as one trained as a medical doctor, of the effects of TB on a person’s appearance. He argues that the disease produces a strange kind of beauty with the skin translucent and pale. So, here Mireille Delunsch, as Violetta, wears a white dress, a platinum wig and very pale powder throughout while everyone else is dressed in black. Couple this with a high contrast and highly dramatic lighting plot and very sparse sets and you have the essence of the “look”. The blocking and Personenregie reinforces this with Violetta often appearing to be an ethereal, not quite solid, presence surrounded by a rather coarse material world.
Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail is perhaps the most difficult of his major operas to bring off successfully. I dealt with some of the issues in a review of Hans Neuenfel’s production so I won’t repeat myself here. Jérôme Deschamps and Macha Makeïff’s production for the Aix-en-Provence Festival, filmed in 2004, has several interesting features that cast an interesting light on the main characters. The most drastic is the treatment of Osmin. Here he’s rather dignified and far from the fat, brutal, somewhat comic lecher of convention. That side of his character is conveyed by five, mostly silent, sidekicks. These guys are everywhere, portraying both Osmin’s baser nature and the “walls have eyes and ears” aspects of the story. They are made to look rather dim and get some fairly funny business to play with. Next we have Bassa Selim played by a dancer. This makes it easier to portray him as sensitive but not a wimp through the use of extremely virile choreography. Clever! Finally, both Pedrillo and Blondchen are sung by people of colour. That can’t be a coincidence. It certainly puts a very interesting spin on the confrontation between Osmin and Blondchen about how English girls are different from Turks. These ideas are played out against rather dramatically colourful sets and costumes with lots of comic business to make a fast paced and enjoyable romp that makes one think just enough about the underlying meanings.
A few weeks ago I reviewed Phillippe Béziat’s documentary traviata et nous, about the making of the 2011 Aix festival La Traviata. I’ve now had a chance to watch the DVD of the finished product and it’s superb. Forget those Traviatas in which a star soprano simpers vacuously across an overstuffed set, this is compelling drama. François Sivadier’s production is dark, dangerous and incredibly moving. Natalie Dessay’s Violetta is a terrifyingly intense portrait of a woman who knows from the beginning she is dying in “this desert which is known to men as Paris”. There is no further need for heavy symbolism to remind us of the centrality of death to the piece which makes an interesting contrast with Willy Decker’s famous production.
Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten is a problematic work on many levels. Hofmannsthal’s complicated and heavily symbolic libretto places considerable demands on both audience and director. There are ideas about women, marriage and child bearing in the libretto that sit very uncomfortably with modern audiences. It’s also a beast to cast requiring not just a truly Helden tenor and soprano but a second soprano of almost equal heft who can handle some fairly tricky coloratura. It’s also long and requires a large orchestra. In some ways it’s surprising that it gets performed as often as it does although when done well it’s a piece of quite extraordinary beauty and power.
It’s really hard to know where to start with Hans Neuenfels’ Die Fledermaus. It’s a prodcuction that enraged the more conventional patrons when it opened at the Salzburg Festival in 2001. It even provoked a “false pretences” lawsuit! There is so much going on that it almost seems to call for a catalogue raisonnée of the various scenes though one fears that would actually be both tedious and unhelpful. Let’s try instead to explore it thematically. Neuenfels takes very considerable liberties with the libretto. A lot of dialogue is cut, a lot is added and numerous non-canonical characters are inserted. That’s just a start.
Jonathan Kent sets his 2011 Glyndebourne production of The Turn of the Screw in the 1950s. It’s effective enough especially when combined with Paul Brown’s beautiful and ingenious set and Mark Henderson’s evocative lighting. The set centres on a glass panel which appears in different places and different angles but always suggesting a semi-permeable membrane. Between reality and imagination? Knowledge and innocence? Good and evil? All are hinted at. A rotating platform allows other set elements to be rapidly and effectively deployed. There’s also a very clever treatment of the prologue involving 8mm home video.
Handel’s Belshazzar, written as an oratorio, was staged at the Aix-en-Provence festival in 2008. It works really well as a stage work. The plot is straightforward but dramatic. Impious Babylonian king Belshazzar is being besieged by the virtuous Cyrus of Persia. Babylon is impregnable but a combination of Babylonian impiety and divine intervention on behalf of Cyrus(*) leads to Cyrus’ capture of the city, the death of Belshazzar and, almost incidentally, the liberation of the Jews.