I rather like recordings from the Macerata Festival where the performances take place in the enormous amphitheatre of the Arena Sferisterio. Bellini’s Norma is a good choice for such as setting and the 2016 production directed by Luigi di Gangi and Ugo Giacomazzi makes good use of the space. It also uses string. The sets are stringy. The very scruffy Gauls wear shapeless tunics with lots of string over them. The slightly smarter Romans also wear string. And everybody plays with string. There are more strings than in the Princeton Physics Department. There’s lots of face paint too. The production also makes use of a spectacular multi-coloured lighting plot but, apart from the visuals, is pretty conventional and straightforward.
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.
The catalogue is full of La Bohèmes from regional houses sung by serviceable casts. The version recorded at the Teatro Regio Torino in 2016 is another. My reason for wanting to look at it is because the production was directed by Àlex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus and I hoped it would prove as insightful as Stefan Herheim’s Oslo production. It doesn’t really. He gives the piece a fairly gritty modern setting but I don’t think it speaks to our modern insecurities the way Herheim does. Rather it plays pretty much as a gritty 19th century setting, which is, admittedly, vastly preferable to Zeffischenk excess or ne0-Broadway tweeness.
I’m ambiguous about Italian regional houses in general but what I’ve seen of the Teatro Regio Torino has impressed. They have a fine orchestra and a chorus that can sing and act and they are not afraid to take risks. All of that is very much in evidence on their recording of Gounod’s Faust made in 2015. The production is designed, directed and choreographed by Stefano Poda and, like rather a lot of his work, it’s long on big architectural statements and large scale stage pictures.
Vincent Brossard’s production of Verdi’s Otello for the 2016 Salzburg Easter Festival is both elegant and subtle; the latter quality being backed up by superb singing and acting from the principals. In many ways the production is clean and straightforward with a focus on character development but it also makes use of elegant lines and sharply contrasting darks and lights in creating the stage picture. There’s also a really cool use of mirrors during Già nella notte densa that I can’t quite figure out.
Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira is a rarity for a whole host of reasons. There’s no definitive edition. Many of the extant scores have much easier versions of the main arias for the tenor titular character. Quite a bit of the music was reused for Il barbiere di Siviglia, often in ways that seem quite odd after hearing it in its original context. Finally, the plot is a bit thin. Not that that usually worries bel canto aficianados.
Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s stagings of the Mozart/da Ponte operas in Salzburg concluded in 2015 with Le nozze di Figaro. I think it’s the most successful of the three. Bechtolf’s strengths lie in detailed direction of the action rather than bold conceptual statements and Nozze is probably the least in need of, and the least amenable to, the big Konzept. There aren’t any real dramaturgical problems to solve. It just works as written. I don’t think that’s so true for Don Giovanni or Così.