David Pountney is rarely afraid of taking risks in pursuit of an idea and that seems to be what’s going on in his 2008 Wiener Staatsoper production of Verdi’s La forza del destino. The basic concept seems to be to draw as much distinction as possible between the piece’s predominantly dark tone while making the ‘scherzo’ like elements as mad as possible. And occasionally mixing up the two to create deliberate confusion. To this end he uses a lot of moving set elements and projections; often fuzzily superimposed on stage action. Preziosilla and the camp followers are hot pants clad cowgirls. The full effect is seen in the Act 3 “orgy” where hospital patients, some on drips etc, interact with cow girls and a marching band while giant fuzzy B&W projections of WW2 armour play on the scrim. It’s really busy and takes some decoding.
Unusually, the Theater and der Wien’s 2011 production of Handel’s Rodelinda features a father and son team. Philippe Harnoncourt directs and Nikolaus conducts. It’s an interesting production with great acting, very decent singing and the always excellent Concentus Musicus Wien in the pit. Continue reading →
Written on Skin; music by George Benjamin, text by Martin Crimp, was first seen at the Aix en Provence festival in 2012. The following yewar it was given, in the same production by Katie Mitchell and with substantially the same cast, at Covent Garden. Both versions were televised and now the ROH version has been released on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s an unusual, complex and rewarding work. 21st century angels decide, for reasons not entirely clear, to return to the 13th century to create and participate in a human drama. The medieval humans are The Protector; a rich man of mature years utterly confident of his privileged position and his own righteousness, and his wife Agnès; younger, illiterate, downtrodden. Into their world comes The Boy; one of the angels in fact, who will create for The Protector an illuminated book; a precious object celebrating his wealth and worthiness. Inevitably, The Boy and Agnès fall in love and The Protector’s revenge, whipped up by the angels, is quite revoltingly violent. It’s essentially a simple and classic plot but Crimp shapes it skilfully with carefully placed anachronisms and by using the device of having the characters, sometimes, narrate their own actions in the third person. Benjamin’s score is in a modern idiom. He’s not afraid of atonality and he uses a very wide range of colours to create a score that ranges from meditational to almost unbearably violent. Certainly words and music work together here to great effect.
Handel’s Belshazzar, written as an oratorio, was staged at the Aix-en-Provence festival in 2008. It works really well as a stage work. The plot is straightforward but dramatic. Impious Babylonian king Belshazzar is being besieged by the virtuous Cyrus of Persia. Babylon is impregnable but a combination of Babylonian impiety and divine intervention on behalf of Cyrus(*) leads to Cyrus’ capture of the city, the death of Belshazzar and, almost incidentally, the liberation of the Jews.
Christof Loy’s production of Handel’s late oratorio Theodora was a critical and popular success at the 2009 Salzburg Festival and deservedly so. That said, certain decisions seem a bit perverse. The G minor organ concerto HWV 310 is interpolated in Part 3, which is fine, but why cut a fine number like “Bane of virtue” in Part 1 or “Whither, Princess,do you Fly?” in Part 3? There are a bunch of other, rather odd, cuts in Part 3. Still it doesn’t do serious damage to a fine performance of an interesting production.
Zubin Mehta seems to be making a habit of teaming up with Chinese film directors to stage Turandot. This time the director is Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) and he chose Liu King and Chen Tong Xun to do the sets and costumes. The production in question took place at Valencia’s I Festival del Mediterrani in 2008. It’s actually in an opera house rather than on location in the Forbidden City but this production ends up having a rather similar look and feel to Zhang Yimou’s earlier one.
It’s a rare and valuable experience when a performance makes one reconsider a perhaps overly familiar work. That’s the effect that Claus Guth’s 2009 staging of Handel’s Messiah had on me. I don’t think that there is any piece I’m more familiar with than Messiah. I feel like I’ve known it all my life. I’ve sung it. I own a vocal score (rare indeed for me!). I couldn’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard it. And yet here it came up entirely fresh and had me thinking about it in completely new ways.
Being an opera lover would probably be easier if I liked Puccini more, given how much air, DVD and stage time his works get, but I really struggle with him. I think it’s that concepts like “subtlety”, “elegance”, “verisimilitude” and “cultural sensitivity” completely passed him by. In an Italian setting his bombast and melodrama are somewhat made up for by the catchy tunes but move him to China or Japan or the United States and my ability to override my reality chip fails me. Which is a long winded way of saying Turandot is not my favourite opera.