Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame is a rather odd opera. It’s not just that the main plot turns on a pretty bizarre tale of the supernatural but that it also contains a significant number of big set piece numbers that don’t advance the plot at all; the “military children” in Act 1, the Pastoral in Act 2 and the bizarre “Glory to Catherine” chorus in Act 3 aren’t the only ones. One assumes that they are there so that the composer could interpolate some suitably “Russian” bits because without them it’s just any other opera that happens to be in Russian.
Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail is a problematic opera. It’s got some great music but the libretto is pretty weak and its depiction of Turks is pretty unflattering. Maybe it seemed edgy less than a hundred years after the Ottomans besieged Vienna but today it just seems mildly embarrassing. Fortunately it’s a singspiel with dialogue rather than opera with recitatives so it’s fairly easy to play with the story line. For his 1998 production Stuttgart at the Staatsoper Stuttgart, Hans Neuenfels goes much further. He double each of the singers with an actor and pretty much rewrites the dialogue. He also introduces an element of metatheatre. This is a performance and everyone knows it. For example when Pedrillo is asked how he’s going to get hold of a ladder for the escape scene he replies that he’ll use the one they always use in this opera.
It’s really hard to know where to start with Hans Neuenfels’ Die Fledermaus. It’s a prodcuction that enraged the more conventional patrons when it opened at the Salzburg Festival in 2001. It even provoked a “false pretences” lawsuit! There is so much going on that it almost seems to call for a catalogue raisonnée of the various scenes though one fears that would actually be both tedious and unhelpful. Let’s try instead to explore it thematically. Neuenfels takes very considerable liberties with the libretto. A lot of dialogue is cut, a lot is added and numerous non-canonical characters are inserted. That’s just a start.
I guess Lohengrin is one of those operas that’s so loaded up with symbols it just begs directors to deconstruct it. Well that’s what Hans Neuenfels’ Bayreuth production, recorded in 2011, does and then some. There is so much going on in this production that I think it would take many viewings to really get inside it. The bit most critics have fastened on is the costuming of the chorus as rats or, on occasion, half rat, half human. It’s visually interesting and since there are also ‘handlers’ in Hazmat suits it’s clear that some sort of experiment is being alluded to. Add in bonus rat videos at key points and there’s a lot to think about. One thing this does do is solve the Teutonic war song problem. A chorus of rather timid looking rats singing with martial ardour is a good deal less Nurembergesque than a similar chorus in armour or military uniforms. Rats aside the story is really told in a quite straightforward and linear way while providing all sorts of moments that one might want to interrogate further,