Not all smiles

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.

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Wozzeck as puppet theatre

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.

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Puzzling Genoveva from Zürich

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.

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Starkly beautiful Carmen

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).

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For pity’s sake

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.

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Pelléas for dummies

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.

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