Discovering a new opera that’s really good is one of life’s small pleasures and my latest is Benet Casablancas’ L’enigma di Lea. It’s a collaboration between the composer and the writer and theorist Rafael Argullol and it premiered at the Liceu in Barcelona in 201`9.
Kevin Newbury’s production of Bellini’s Norma made it to Toronto via San Francisco, Barcelona and Chicago with Sondra Radvanovsky singing the title role (at least some of the time) in all four cities. It was recorded for DVD and Blu-ray at the Liceu in Barcelona in 2015. Watching the DVD didn’t change my opinion of the production. Here’s what I said about it on opening night in Toronto:
Kevin Newbury’s production is perhaps best described as serviceable. I have seen various rather desperate efforts made to draw deep meaning from it but I really don’t think there is any. That said, it looks pretty decent and is efficient. The single set allows seamless transitions between scenes which is a huge plus. So, what does it look like? It’s basically a sort of cross between a barn and a temple with a back wall that can raised or moved out of the way to expose the druids’ sacred forest. There’s also a sort of two level cart thing which characters ascend when they have something especially important to sing. Costumes were said to have been inspired by Game of Thrones; animal skins, leather, tattoos (which actually don’t really read except up very close), flowing robes. Norma herself appears to be styled, somewhat oddly, on a Klingon drag queen. The lighting is effective and there are some effective pyrotechnics at the end. All in all a pretty good frame for the story and the singing.
There did seem to be far fewer pyrotechnics in the Barcelona staging though (either that or the video direction pretty much ignores them).
Rewatching Le Grand Macabre after four years has rather changed my opinion. It still seems weird and sometimes hard to watch but I think I see a certain logic in it now that completely escaped me before. So the End of the World is approaching and all the Powers that Be can do is squabble, exchange scatological insults and get very, very drunk while the one sane (if rather weird) character (Gepopo) can’t find a language to communicate the enormity of what’s happening to them. Sound vaguely familiar? (Coincidentally, I’m writing this on the day that Andrew Scheer said that the Federal Government should give more heroin to the addicts in Alberta because otherwise they’ll get in a snit). Of course, in Ligeti’s version Death gets so drunk that he screws up terminating the space-time continuum but we probably won’t be so lucky. So yes the fart jokes and the raccoon on bins orchestra is still there but it now seems to me in service of something rather more profound than I previously gave it credit for. Also, Hannigan is not just brilliant vocally. It’s also, even by her standards, an amazing physical performance. (Original review under the cut).
Laurent Pelly’s 2013 production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Liceu is one of those productions that’s a bit hard to take in at first go. Part of it is the performing edition used (Michael Kay and Jean-Christophe Keck) which seems to have added a lot of dialogue compared to any version I’ve seen before and includes Hoffmann killing Giulietta in Act 3. This produces a constant sense of “where they heck are we in the piece”. It doesn’t help that the DVD package contains no explanatory material at all. There are no interviews on the disks and the documentation is sub-basic.
I suppose in some ways Bellini’s I Puritani is the perfect bel canto opera. It has lots of great tunes, a wicked coloratura soprano part and an utterly ridiculous plot (my comments on the plot can be found in my review of the Met/Netrebko recording) and, of course, a mad scene. In this recording from Barcelona’s Liceu the soprano role of Elvira is taken by Edita Gruberova, surely one of the greatest ever in this genre. At 54 she doesn’t look ideal for the young bride to be but she can act and she gives a master class in bel canto style. What she has to yield to Netrebko in terms of looks and physical commitment she makes up for in sheer technical prowess.
I’m never quite sure what to expect from David Alden. Some things are predictable; striking images, bold colours and a degree of vulgarity, but beyond that it’s hard to be sure. Sometimes he seems to be trying to be deep (his Lucia for example), sometimes more kitschy (Rinaldo) and there’s always a slight undercurrent of him thumbing his nose at the audience. His production of L’incoronazione di Poppea at Barcelona’s Liceu is a curious combination of all these things and I think it works pretty well.
Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-bleue is a setting of a libretto by the symbolist poet and playwright Maeterlinck. It’s roughly contemporary with both Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Strauss’ Salome. It shows. It really is a product of a particular fin de siècle world view. Like Debussy’s piece, Ariane is loosely based on a folk tale. In this case it’s the gory story of Duke Bluebeard and his six wives but here it’s curiously etiolated. It’s as if Maeterlinck is reacting to the ultra-realism of, say, Zola, by retreating into a strange inner world. It’s not even the troubled inner world of Freud or Jung either. It’s colourless (and we’ll come back to that). All this is reinforced by Maeterlinck’s style of telling rather than showing. Much of what “action” there is takes place off stage and is narrated by the on stage characters. Both words and music are used to fill in the gaps.
Calixto Bieito has a reputation as one of opera’s “bad boys” but there is nothing particularly shocking about his production of Carmen filmed at Barcelona’s Liceu in 2011. The action is updated to maybe the 1970s (there’s a phone box and a camera that uses film) and there are lots of cars on stage. For Bieito, this is a story of people living on the margins where sex is a commodity that women use as a trade currency and where violence, especially toward women, is endemic. It’s enough to disturb, as this piece did its original audience, without being gratuitous.
Robert Carsen’s production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is as visually striking as any of his productions. It’s also one that’s done the rounds, playing in Aix and Lyon before being recorded by a strong cast at the Liceu in Barcelona in 2005. The challenge with Dream is to create visual worlds for the Fairies and the Mortals that are different but work together. Carsen and his usual design team do this very well in this case. The Fairies are given striking green and blue costumes with red gloves. The mortals mostly run to white and cream and gold and they seem to spend a lot of time in their underwear. The lighting, as always with Carsen, forms an important part of the overall design. Carsen completists will also notice certain other characteristic touches like starkly arranged furniture.
Wagner’s Tannhäuser is the earliest of the canonical works. In some ways it’s very Wagnerian. It has screwed up theology with a heavy dose of misogyny and some recognisably Wagnerian music. On the other hand it is structured more like a French grand opera and some of the music definitely has more than a hint of Meyerbeer to it.The basic plot is that of the hero seduced into sin by the pagan love goddess Venus and then redeemed by the love (and death) of the chaste virgin Elisabeth.