Gluck’s Orfeo/Orphée is one of those works where things get a bit complicated because an Italian and a French version wre produced and then all kinds of mash ups of the two versions. It’s a bit like Don Carlo/Don Carlos or Guglielmo Tell/Guillaume Tell. The original Orfeo ed Euridice, which premiered in Vienna is quite short and has Orfeo written for a castrato. The Paris version spreads the piece out over three acts, adds both new vocal music and lots more dance music and has Orphée written for haut-contre. Today, when people do the French version they usually cut some of the new music and us the higher Orphée music; casting either a mezzo or a counter-tenor. This is true of both recordings (Paris 2000 and Munich 2003) which have come my way in the past.
The 2016 production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro from La Scala had me really puzzled after three acts. There’s nothing to help with the production in either the booklet or on the disk so I went looking on line. According to the Financial Times, Frederic Wake-Walker’s production replaced a much revered version by Girgio Strehler and is a sort of homage to him filled with references to other of his productions.
It’s sometimes a bit of a mystery why some works disappear from the opera repertoire while other, not obviously superior, works enjoy lasting success so it’s always a pleasure to discover an obscure work that is really good (1). Salieri’s Europa Riconosciuta fits that description in my view. It’s basically an opera seria much along the lines of Mozart’s opere serie (opera serias? – who knows?(2)) except that there’s a longish ballet at the end of Act 1. There are long, florid, arias with, for the two female leads, very high tessitura. Two of the three male roles were written for castrati and the one intact male role is for that sort of heroic tenor who crops up in Idomeneo or La Clemenza di Tito. It’s not as formulaic as works of 50 years earlier. There are far more ensemble and choral numbers than in any of Handel’s Italian works. It’s also just plain rather good. Salieri understands singers and he writes really good melodies. I guess he was just a bit unfortunate to have that pesky Salzburger as competition.
Looking at a (perhaps inadequate) sample of video recordings from La Scala I begin to come to the conclusion that there is a pretty strong pattern in what they do well, and not so well. 1800-1920 Italian classics with strong casts in visually attractive but not overly deep productions seems to be the sweet spot. Stray far from this and the wheels tend to come off. Fortunately this week I’ve seen two of the good ones recorded 30 years apart. A couple of days ago I posted a review of the recent I due Foscari and now I’ve jumped in the Tardis to watch a 1986 recording of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The similarities are striking.
Verdi’s sixth opera, I due Foscari, is probably not well known to many readers so a brief description may be in order. It’s a rather grim tale of injustice and revenge. Francesco Foscari is the aged Doge of Venice. His son, Jacopo, has been stitched up by the family rival Jacopo Loredano and exiled to Crete. He returns to try and clear his name but is fitted up again. This time for the murder of one Donato. Despite torture he refuses to confess and is sentenced to return to exile in Crete. The first three quarters of the opera is mostly either father or son bemoaning their fate (Francesco has already lost three sons. Lady Bracknell would be unimpressed) or Lucrezia, Jacopo’s wife, pleading for mercy to anyone who will listen. Then there’s a final scene where Francesco receives proof of his son’s innocence, closely followed by news of his death, closely followed by news that the Council and Senate are sacking him. Loredano gloats. Foscari dies. Structurally it’s very much a “numbers” opera with a succession of short scenes mostly featuring various combinations of the three Foscaris and the chorus. There are a lot of quite sophisticated ensemble pieces as well as a couple of solo arias for each of the principals. It’s musically rather distinguished in fact. The three Foscari roles are big sings. Nobody else has much to do.
I just got my hands on the La Scala recording of Mozart’s Lucio Silla. It’s the Marshall Pynkoski production that was done at Salzburg, then La Scala, then in somewhat modified form at Opera Atelier in Toronto, which I saw. It has provoked lots of thoughts about the work itself, how well the OA aesthetic transfers to another house and how seeing a production on video differs from seeing it live.
La Scala and Riccardo Chailly have embarked on a project to record all the Puccini operas. The first one, recorded in 2015, is Turandot with a new completion of the third act by Berio rather than the usual Alfano version. The director was Nikolaus Lehnhoff with Nina Stemme as Turandot and Aleksandrs Antonenko as Calaf.
Last night I ventured forth to experience another way of presenting “opera” at the cinema. It was a film called Jonas Kaufmann – An evening with Puccini and was based around a recording of a concert Herr Kaufmann gave at La Scala last year with the Filarmonica della Scala conducted by Jochen Rieder. The full program is here.
In an age of co-productions many opera productions are seen in multiple houses. Some of them we get to see in multiple guises. For example I’ve seen Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni on DVD and will be seeing it live later this season in Toronto. Spmething that’s been fermenting in my brain for a while now is why the same production can get a drastically different reception in different places. The piece that first made me think about this was Chris Alden’s Die Fledermaus. This was generally well received in Toronto (more perhaps by my friends and acquaintances than the print media but that’s par for the course) but universally panned in London when it played at ENO. Bryan’s interesting comments about the Carsen Falstaff kicked off the train of thought again and made me want to put some tentative thoughts into writing.
There are over 40 video recordings of Don Giovanni in the catalogue, dating back to 1954, and Thomas Allen sings the title role in quite a few of them. This one was recorded at La Scala in 1987 and features a very strong cast in a careful, traditional staging. It’s also pretty decent technical quality for the era. The director was Giorgio Strehler in a comparatively rare opera outing. His sets and costumes are of some vague aristocratic past with liveried footmen, big hats and twirling capes. It’s quite handsome but not in any way revelatory. Nor is any aspect of the production really. We are clearly in an aristocratic milieu. Tom Allen’s Don Giovanni is arrogant and proud with plenty of swagger. There’s no hint of ambiguity about Edita Gruberova’s Donna Anna or Ann Murray’s Donna Elvira and Francisco Araiza is a properly dutiful chump of a Don Ottavio. It’s all quite serious with comic relief only in the most obvious places. Having said that, there are some very effective scenes; especially the ending which has a an interesting lighting plot and manages not to be anti-climactic.