Stanisław Moniuszko’s Halka is sometimes regarded as Poland’s national opera. It’s one of those mid 19th century works that tries to create some kind of national idiom broadly within the framework of the musical style of the age (the composer was conservatory trained in Berlin). It’s really quite good but rarely performed outside Poland so it’s interesting to look at it, especially in a rather good production by Mariusz Treliński that was given and recorded at Theater an der Wien in 2019.
Tim Albery’s production of Richard Strauss’ 1933 opera Arabella, first seen at Santa Fe in 2012, finally made it to Toronto last night. It’s, I believe, a Canadian premiere for the piece, which is a bit shocking for an important opera by a major composer. It’s not a perfect piece. The librettist, the incomparable Hugo von Hofmannsthal, died before he and Strauss could revise the second and third acts and there are places where it feels a bit unfinished but it’s still an impressive work. The plot’s a bit contrived perhaps, though no more so than many more famous operas, but there’s real depth of humanity and Mandryka, the landowner/tribal chief from the southern fringes of the Habsburg empire, is a really fascinating study.
Richard Strauss’ Die Liebe der Danae is one of his least performed operas so it’s not very familiar to most opera goers. I wrote about its performance history and provided a plot summary in my review of a 2011 recording at the Deutsche Oper, which is the only video recording besides the 2016 Salzburg one which forms the subject of this post.
Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s second Mozart/daPonte for Salzburg was Don Giovanni which premiered in 2014. There are some similarities with his Così fan tutte. He uses a symmetrical unit set again and shows a fondness for creating symmetrical tableaux vivants but there the similarities pretty much end. I could find a consistent, believable set of humans in Così but not so much in Don Giovanni. The problem is really the man himself. Bechtolf, in his notes, seems to be arguing that Don Giovanni can make no sense in an age of pervasive accessibility and exposure to all things sexual. Da Ponte’s Don requires a climate of sexual repression for his essence; to Bechtolf a kind of Dionysian force (he cites Kierkegaard), to make any sense as a human. I think I get that but then, I think, the challenge becomes to create a Don Giovanni who does make sense to a 21st century audience as, in their different ways, do Guth and Tcherniakov. Bechtolf seems to treat the character not so much as a human rather than as a kind of energy focus who exists by igniting aspects of the other characters; whether that’s lust or jealousy or hatred. He caps off this idea at the end by having Don Giovanni reappear during the final ensemble as a kind of mischievous presence still chasing anything in a skirt, even if it’s, perhaps, from another world. It’s an idea that I could not really buy into.
Fidelio is an interesting piece. The music is great and it has a powerful, very straightforward, plot. There are no convoluted subplots here. But there is a lot of spoken dialogue which slows things down. Is it necessary? Claus Guth doesn’t think so and in his 2015 Salzburg production he replaces the dialogue with ambient noise and also doubles up Leonora and Don Pizarro with silent actor “shadows”; the former using sign language in the manner of the narrator character in Guth’s Messiah. It works remarkably well. The ambient noise sections are quite disturbing and the “shadows” add some depth, especially the frantic signing in the final scene. Perhaps worth noting that the “noise” contains a lot of very low bass and precise spatial location. It may need a pretty good sound system to have the intended effect.
Berndt Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten was something of a sleeper hit at the 2012 Salzburg festival and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s a peculiar work. It’s very episodic and requires massive forces. There are 16 singing and 10 non-singing roles, a 100 piece orchestra, a jazz band and more. At Salzburg the scale was magnified by staging it in the Felsenreitschule, using the full 40m width and enormous height of the stage. I’ve included some full stage shots in the screen caps to give an idea of how huge this all is. They can be expanded to full size Blu-ray caps (roughly three times the size of the image in the review).
Richard Strauss’ Arabella is a bit of a peculiarity. The music is top notch Strauss and the libretto is by von Hofmannsthal so it ought to be quite superb. It doesn’t quite get there though. It’s hard not to think that if von Hofmannsthal had lived a little longer he would have tightened up the libretto. Act 1 works fine but Acts 2 and 3 seem rather contrived and could definitely use a few cuts. I’m not sure that the whole Fiakermilli thing works either. It’s almost as if Prince Orlofsky’s party mislaid Johann and found Richard by accident. That said there is some very beautiful music. Aber der Richtige, wenn’s einem gibt is going straight onto my list of top soprano duets.