Oliver Mears’ production of Verdi’s Rigoletto recorded at Covent Garden in 2021 looks and feels like the work of a British theatre director. There’s nothing particularly weird about it. The Personenregie is careful and precise and the emphasis is on text and story telling. The opera house element perhaps comes into play in the rather impressive visuals including an extremely dramatic storm scene.
The thing that struck me most about the Royal Opera House’s 2018 recording of Wagner’s Die Walküre is how lyrical it is. It’s not without excitement in the appropriate places, far from it, but there’s such lovely singing. Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde is tender and poetic and the combo of Stuart Skelton and Emily Magee as the twin lovers is really good. Throw in a nuanced Wotan from John Lundgren and a typically elegant performance from Sarah Connolly as Fricka and it’s really a pleasure to listen to. Ain Anger is not so lyrical as Hunding but it’s a fine menacing performance. Antonio Pappano and the house orchestra are equally fine.
A couple of week’s ago I reviewed the recording of the 2020 revival of Richard Jones’ production of La Bohème at Covent Garden. I said in that review that I wanted to get hold of the original first run recording, which I have done, albeit on DVD rather than Blu-ray. Comparing them was really very interesting.
If you didn’t catch it live last night there’s a really lovely concert up on the Royal Opera House Youtube channel which should be available for a couple of weeks. Tony Pappano is at the piano with Louise Alder singing Britten, Strauss and Handel, Toby Spence with some Butterworth plus Gerald Finley with Finzi, Turnage and Britten. The boys finish off with the Pearl Fishers duet. Along the way, Morgen is sung by Louise and danced quite beautifully to choreography by Wayne McGregor by Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales. It’s weird, and even eerie, to see a concert from a large empty theatre but there we are. Highly recommended.
Karel Szymanowski’s 1924 opera Król Roger is surely the only opera in Polish in anything like the standard rep. Maybe that’s one reason it’s not performed all that often because it’s really rather good and Kasper Holten’s 2015 production at Covent Garden makes a pretty good case for it. The story is set in 12th century Sicily, though as we shall see , that really doesn’t matter. The Church is complaining to the king about a heretical prophet, the Shepherd, who is leading people astray with a strange doctrine of Love and Nature. Roger’s queen is much taken with the Shepherd and helps protect him. The king, who is clearly battling demons rooted in a bloody past, vacillates. Eventually he’s persuaded and the opera closes with Roger singing an ecstatic hymn to the rising sun.
The recording of Bellini’s Norma made at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2016 is about as good as video recordings of opera go. It has it all; a well thought through and well executed production concept, very fine musical values, great acting, judicious camera work and top notch sound and picture. It doesn’t get much better.
There’s been a lot of opera related programming broadcast on BBC TV recently. Probably the biggest event was Jonas Kaufmann’s role debut as Otello in the Verdi opera conducted by Antonio Pappano but there’s also been a 90 minute documentary on Kaufmann and a two part series called Lucy Worsley’s Nights at the Opera and a broadcast of Brett Dean’s new Hamlet from Glyndebourne. I haven’t yet watched the Hamlet but here are some thoughts on the other three shows, plus an extra bonus.
I’ve tried several times in the past to watch the DVD recording of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole and never made it past the second scene, which is revolting and, I still think, rather patronising. This time though I made it all the way through and I think, taken as a whole, this is a pretty impressive piece with a clever libretto and some real musical depth. It’s also, in the true and technical sense, a tragedy, and a very operatic one at that.
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.
What’s become of David McVicar? His 2015 production of Giodarno’s Andrea Chénier for the Royal Opera House seems typical of his recent work. It looks expensive. It features a starry cast. He flirts with dramatic risk but in the last analysis it comes off as a bit tame and even sloppy. Basically when the principals are at the centre of the drama it’s compelling stuff but when they are not it’s not and there are curious inconsistencies.