How much of Pelléas et Mélisande did Maeterlinck or Debussy intend to be taken literally? Probably not much and that’s certainly where Dmitri Tcherniakov is coming from in his 2016 production for Opernhaus Zürich. In this version Golaud is a psychiatrist who has brought his patient; the deeply disturbed Mélisande, to live in the Arkel family home. It’s a typical Tcherniakov construct in some ways; a multi-generational haut bourgeois family living in some considerable style but where nothing is quite what it seems to be.
I’m never quite sure what I really think about an operetta like Lehár’s Das Land des Lächelns. I quite like the music, even if it can be a bit cheesey but I’m put off by the casual cultural appropriation (though it’s not nearly as bad as Puccini!). I’m not sure what the best directorial approach is either. Does one play it for froth? Does one try and mine some deeper meaning? Interestingly Andreas Homoki’s approach for his Zürich production filmed in 2017 is to play it straight and let whatever is there appear or not. It works rather well. It;s a typically lavish Zürich production with lots of colour and movement and he creates some spectacular visual effects. But he also allows for a sinister element to appear in the Chinese scenes. It may be over-interpreting but I think one can see shades of proto-Fascism here. It’s reinforced by the score that really has some rather sinister elements that I hadn’t noticed before. I think there’s even a nod to Siegfried’s Funeral March. All in all, quite interesting without being wildly unconventional.
Wozzeck is a tricky piece for a director. There seem to be two possible approaches. One can find a character for Wozzeck himself that resonates with contemporary audiences and treat the piece more or less realistically. That’s the approach taken by both Bieito and Tcherniakov. Alternatively one can run with the overtly expressionist aspects of the piece and present it in a more abstract way as Peter Mussbach did. Andreas Homoki’s 2015 Zürich production takes the second route. The piece is presented as if the characters are puppets in a puppet theatre in a sort of ultra-grim version of Punch and Judy. It’s visually quite arresting and there are some very well composed scenes. To give just one example, immediately after Wozzeck has decapitated Marie the chorus appear as nightmarish Maries while Wozzeck sits nursing the severed head. That said, the concept does pall and maybe hasn’t really got the legs, absent any other real directorial ideas, to carry the piece for two hours.
Schumann’s Genoveva is a rarity. It premiered in 1850 and quickly slipped into obscurity. Recently it has been championed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt who has gone so far as to call it “the most significant opera of the second half of the 19th century”; a slightly eye popping claim. So what’s it about? On the face of it it’s a pretty typical German opera of the period, set during the wars against the Moors in Spain. Siegfried (Graf in the libretto but mysteriously translated as Duke in the disk subtitles) is recently married but must lead his men off to the war leaving behind his young, beautiful, pious and virtuous bride Genoveva. He leaves Golo; a knight but a bastard so apparently not OK for active service, to guard his lands and wife. Golo has the hots for Genoveva but when she rejects his advances he concocts, with the aid of a witch, a plot to make it appear that she’s having an affair with an elderly retainer. She’s locked up by the servants and word is sent to Siegfried; returned from Spain but recovering from wounds in Strasbourg, of what has transpired. He gives Golo his sword and ring and tells Golo to kill Genoveva. Instead Golo tries to get her to run away with him but she refuses and he disappears. The servants too are happy enough to humiliate Genoveva but pretty slow about killing her. This gives time for Siegfried to arrive, having learnt of his wife’s innocence, and save the day. All sing a hymn of praise to God. Along the way there’s a magic mirror, a ghost, a magic potion and a whole lot of cloying sentimentality and piousness.
Matthias Hartmann’s staging of Carmen for the Opernhaus Zürich recorded in 2008 is starkly simple but very beautiful and provides a perfect vehicle for the considerable talents of Vesselina Kasarova and Jonas Kaufmann. The set consists of a plain backdrop and a raised elliptical disk, reminiscent of a bull ring. A few, very few, props are added as needed. A dog lies asleep at the front of the set (replaced by a cattle skull in the final act).
I’ve been involved in a lot of on-line discussions about various productions; live and DVD, of La clemenza di Tito. Oddly perhaps, none of them have ever referenced the 2005 Zürich recording with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. Today I think I found out why. Basically it’s rather dull, except where it’s unintentionally funny.
The most obvious feature of Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s Pelléas et Mélisande is the use of dummies to double up the characters. Much of the time these doubles are lying around or being pushed around the set wheelchairs by the singers. Most of the time the singers address themselves to one of the dummies even when the “real” version of the person they are addressing is on stage. I guess it’s designed to create a kind of emotional distancing or dehumanising that does seem in keeping with the piece and, when the convention is broken, ie; characters interact directly, that seems to heighten the drama at that point.
Claus Guth’s 2001 Zürich production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride is, rather surprisingly, the only video recording of the work currently available. Fortunately it’s a very decent production much preferable to the Met’s over-stuffed overly literal version but not, I think, to be preferred over Robert Carsen’s stark and elegant version seen in Toronto, Washington and elsewhere. The Zürich performance, led by William Christie, is very good but it’s rather let down by the video direction and the production for DVD.
Having had a lot of fun with the Lyon recording of Orphée aux Enfers I decided to try and track down some more Offenbach operetta and managed to find a Zurich recording of La Belle Helène conducted, perhaps surprisingly, by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
It’s not perhaps as wildly funny as the Orphée nor perhaps does it have as many memorable tunes but it’s good fun in an undemanding (at least for the audience) sort of way. The Zurich production, by Helmut Lohner, is painted in pretty broad brush strokes. The costumes a re very colourful, a bit silly and most have writing on them, much of it, oddly, in English. The thunder machine is positively Heath Robinsonish. There’s lots of stage action and fairly silly dancing around. It’s all very fast paced and doesn’t take itself too seriously despite the sleeve notes leading one to expect more in the way of social satire. Harnoncourt is obviously having a whale of a time and occasionally gets caught up in the stage action rather as he does in the Salzburg King Arthur. Continue reading →