I guess many opera goers in the English speaking world will have at least a passing acquaintance with Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle but I suspect fewer will have seen Offenbach’s take on Perreault’s rather grim tale. It will probably come as no great surprise that Offenbach’s Barbe-bleue is a somewhat tongue in cheek version of the story of the notorious serial killer.
The Salzburg Festival rarely does operetta but in 2019 they decided to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Offenbach’s birth with a new production of Orphée aux enfers by Barrie Kosky. With Kosky and comedy one sort of knows what to expect but there’s always something very original. Here, in order to get the (German) dialogue as crisp as possible he takes it away from the singers and gives it to a new character; John Styx, played by actor Max Hopp, who not only speaks all the dialogue in an amazingly wide range of voices but also produces all the sound effects. The only other character who speaks is Anne Sofie von Otter as L’Opinion publique and even she is doubled by Hopp. Not that the singers have nothing to do during the dialogues. They pantomime their words, often in quite an exaggerated fashion and to great effect.
It’s that time of year when it’s traditional to do best of the year lists. Fortunately this is all about music because in most other respects 2016 was a bit of a horror show. So here goes. As far as opera proper was concerned it was a pretty good year. There were no real howlers in the COC’s season. It was solid and, at its best, better than that, For me, Ariodante was the standout; an intelligent, thought provoking production backed up by extremely good acting and singing. I was really expecting to like the Claus Guth Marriage of Figaro more than I did. I enjoyed it but I was a bit perplexed by the lightening up that had taken place since Salzburg in 2006. Opera Atelier had their best show in quite a while with Lucio Silla but even Wallis Giunta couldn’t save a misconceived Dido and Aeneas.
The latest Handel oratorio to be given the operatic treatment by Glyndebourne is Saul, which played in 2015 in a production by Australian Barrie Kosky. It’s quite a remarkable work. The libretto, as so often the work of Charles Jennens, takes considerable liberties with the version in Samuel and incorporates obvious nods to both King Lear and Macbeth as well as more contemporary events. David’s Act 3 lament on the death of Saul, for instance, clearly invokes the execution of Charles I. What emerges is a very classic tragedy. Saul, the Lord’s anointed, is driven by jealousy and insecurity deeper and deeper into madness and degradation and, ultimately, death. This is the basic narrative arc of the piece.