Janáček’s Jenůfa was staged and recorded at the Staatsoper unter den Linden in 2021 under COVID conditions. There’s no audience and the chorus members, in black, are distributed all around the auditorium. Even without a live audience it’s extremely dramatic and intense.
Damiano Michieletto’s production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera House in 2015 was controversial because of the replacement of the Act 3 scene where Austrian soldiers force Swiss girls to dance with them with something far more explicit. It is a tough scene to watch but it’s absolutely consistent with a very thoughtful overall approach to the piece. After all what do occupying troops do with village girls? The director, rightly I think, sees the piece as being about the brutality of military occupation and colonialism but also recognises that the Tell legend, especially in its Schiller version is overlaid with euphemising Romanticism. Michieletto’s production both strips away and draws attention to the Romanticisation. He sets the piece in a roughly contemporary setting. To me, the civilians look 1950s but Gesler’s men look more modern. The actual action is played out unsentimentally, indeed brutally, in this time period. The ballets, one of the principal euphemising agents, are all replaced by more realistic action. To draw attention to how the legend has been transmitted two devices are introduced. Tell’s son Jemmy has a comic book version of Schiller which he consults at key points and there’s a silent character; medieval Tell, straight out of the legend with feathered cap etc who appears whenever the morale of actual Tell or the Swiss in general needs a boost. It sounds a bit corny but it really does the job.
Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci are not only a commonly coupled pair of operas but pretty much define the genre we call verismo. It’s a curious genre in a lot of ways. Musically it defines a style, brought to its highest state by Puccini, that is a sort of Fukuyama-esque “end of opera” after which everything is, for a section of the opera audience, modern, inaccessible and frightening. It’s also dramatically an attempt to get away from stories from myth and history and root the drama in “stories of everyday folk”. Which is fine, I suppose, if one believes the only things “everyday folk” care about are female constancy and the more pagan end of Catholicism for these stories tend to be a touch unsubtle; “she done him wrong so he killed her” (and her dog and he probably crashed her truck too). It’s actually quite ironic that Puccini, held up as the arch exponent of verismo, rarely actually goes down this path. Il Tabarro perhaps, maybe Suor Angelica, at a stretch Tosca but in large part his material is drawn from the usual well of opera plots. So Cav and Pag is interesting as almost pure verismo.