Nicholas Hytner’s production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, seen at Glyndebourne in 2006, is about as traditional as it gets. The story is straightforwardly told and the settings and costumes are 18th century Naples, or at least some operatic approximation of it. That said, it’s immensely enjoyable and, just occasionally, goes beyond the superficial. The strength lies in the casting and in the director’s decision to allow his young singers to behave like young people. Miah Persson as Fiordiligi and Anke Vondung as Dorabella are close to perfect in their exuberant girlishness. Naturally Vondung gets to be a bit ditzier than the angstier Persson because that’s how the thing is written. Both of them sing extremely well too and there’s nothing lacking in the big solos or duets.
Stefan Herheim’s 2012 production of Dvořák’s Rusalka for Brussels’ La Monnaie Theatre is predictably ambitious and complex. He takes an explicitly Freudian (by way of Lacan) view of the piece(*). The female characters are representations of male views of the female and, sometimes it seems, vice versa. It’s seen most clearly in Act 2 and I found unpacking Act 1 much easier after seeing it so I’m going to start there. We open not with bucolic, if coarse, peasants preparing for a wedding feast. We are on a street in a scruffy part of, I guess, Brussels. The gamekeeper and kitchen boy are replaced by a priest and a policeman. The traditional dismembered game animals become a female chorus, many of them nuns, with exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics. There is, essentially, an orgy. Clearly the human world that Rusalka cannot enter is about sex in its most physical aspects not meaty Central European banquet platters! Rusalka and the Foreign Princess are dressed and wigged identically. They are quite freely interchanged. Lines that are canonically addressed to one are addressed to the other and so forth. It’s pretty clear that each represents, albeit imperfectly, the Prince’s ideal woman. Rusalka is the unattainable feminine ideal; flawed in that she cannot engage in fully satisfying sexual activity. The foreign Princess is sexually satisfying but falls short precisely by not being unattainable. Some less clear male duality is suggested by the appearance of the Vodnik dressed as the Prince. It just gets weirder from there with the ballet of nuns, prostitutes, fish, squid and heaven knows what else spilling over into the auditorium while the Prince and Foreign Princess watch from a box and Rusalka and the Vodnik get caught up in the action. At the conclusion of the act it’s Rusalka not the Princess that he begs for help.
David Hockney and John Cox’s production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress first saw the light of day at Glyndebourne in 1975 and there’s a video of it from back then. It’s been revived umpteen times since, all with Cox directing rather than an overawed revival director. It was done again in 2010, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting, recorded and issued on Blu-ray and DVD. It’s fascinating.
In the booklet accompanying David McVicar’s production of Le nozze di Figaro, recorded at the Royal Opera house in 2006, there’s an essay by the director in which he raises all kinds of questions about the rise of the bourgeoisie, the nature of revolution and romantic conceptions of love. He even appears to draw a parallel between Joseph II and Tony Blair. Then he declines to explain how he has embodied all these ideas on the stage and challenges us to “Watch, listen, participate”. Well I did and I’m none the wiser. What I see her is an essentially traditional approach; transferred cosmetically to 1830s France but so what? It’s darker than some Figaro’s but not nearly as dark as, say, Guth. Curiously, the main “extra” on the disks “Stage directions encoded in the music” tees this up much more clearly than the essay.
I’m never quite sure what to expect from David Alden. Some things are predictable; striking images, bold colours and a degree of vulgarity, but beyond that it’s hard to be sure. Sometimes he seems to be trying to be deep (his Lucia for example), sometimes more kitschy (Rinaldo) and there’s always a slight undercurrent of him thumbing his nose at the audience. His production of L’incoronazione di Poppea at Barcelona’s Liceu is a curious combination of all these things and I think it works pretty well.
Jonathan Kent sets his 2011 Glyndebourne production of The Turn of the Screw in the 1950s. It’s effective enough especially when combined with Paul Brown’s beautiful and ingenious set and Mark Henderson’s evocative lighting. The set centres on a glass panel which appears in different places and different angles but always suggesting a semi-permeable membrane. Between reality and imagination? Knowledge and innocence? Good and evil? All are hinted at. A rotating platform allows other set elements to be rapidly and effectively deployed. There’s also a very clever treatment of the prologue involving 8mm home video.
Don Giovanni is one of the most fascinating operas in part because it can be reinterpreted in so many different ways. There’s also the tension between a story with elements of murder, rape, revenge and damnation and broad humour. It’s tricky to find a balance. There’s also a decision to be made between a concept based production and a more laissez faire approach. Francesca Zambello’s production for the Royal Opera House, recorded in 2008 doesn’t really have a concept and sort of goes with the flow mixing very broad humour with lots of Catholic kitsch and some flamboyant stage effects. As a production I find it distinctly underwhelming.
Robert Carsen’s 2004 production of Der Rosenkavalier at the Salzburg Festival was apparently enormously controversial at the time. In many ways that says more about the iconic status of the piece in Salzburg tradition than about Carsen’s production. There are a few controversial elements. He has updated the period to 1914 and the third act is set in a brothel with a fair amount of nudity. Beyond that, the production is pretty faithful to the libretto and has, I think characteristic Carsen touches like long lines of tables and chairs and a certain geometric elegance. He seems to be using the sides of the stage to comment on the action which tends to be fixed centre stage. I say seems because the video direction (by Brian Large) is utterly perverse and makes it extraordinarily difficult to see what Carsen is doing, let alone decode it. We see the whole stage, maybe, for three seconds in the whole piece. Otherwise 99% of what we get is either close up and even closer up or apparently shot from the restricted view seats high up and close to the side of the stage. The other 1% is just plain nuts and includes a section of the Sophie/Octavian duet in Act 2 where, on stage, Octavian is maybe twenty feet to Sophie’s right but on camera he’s standing right up close on her left hand side. I could go on but I won’t. Suffice it to say the video direction comes close to wrecking an otherwise excellent DVD.
In 2009 Claus Guth wrapped up his Da Ponte cycle for Salzburg with Cosí fan tutte. I really like his Le Nozze di Figaro and after seeing this Così I’ll certainly be seeking out the Don Giovanni too.
This production was staged in the Haus für Mozart and uses a single set. It’s the girls’ apartment; a very expensive looking two level loft with a broad staircase that recalls the Figaro. The setting is contemporary and it opens on the aftermath of what appears to have been a rather good party. The men are preparing to leave when Don Alfonso issues his challenge. It’s the edgiest version of the scene I’ve watched with quite an undertone of violence. This is clearly not going to be a light comedy. By Una bella serenata the characteristic feathers of the Figaro have appeared. The edginess continues throughout the first act with many deft touches, especially a power cut staging of Come Scoglio. When the “Albanians” appear there is only the most perfunctory effort at disguise. No slapstick moustaches here. Continue reading →