David Pountney is rarely afraid of taking risks in pursuit of an idea and that seems to be what’s going on in his 2008 Wiener Staatsoper production of Verdi’s La forza del destino. The basic concept seems to be to draw as much distinction as possible between the piece’s predominantly dark tone while making the ‘scherzo’ like elements as mad as possible. And occasionally mixing up the two to create deliberate confusion. To this end he uses a lot of moving set elements and projections; often fuzzily superimposed on stage action. Preziosilla and the camp followers are hot pants clad cowgirls. The full effect is seen in the Act 3 “orgy” where hospital patients, some on drips etc, interact with cow girls and a marching band while giant fuzzy B&W projections of WW2 armour play on the scrim. It’s really busy and takes some decoding.
It’s the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by troops of the Red Army and I’ve been watching a recording of Miecyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger. The opera was written in 1968 but the political climate in the then Soviet Union meant that, despite the advocacy of Dmitri Shostakovich, it had to wait until 2010 before it was given a fully staged performance. That happened, and was recorded, at the Bregenz festival in a production directed by David Pountney.
André Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice was written in the years leading up to his premature death in 1982 but, despite interest from ENO in the 1980s, it did not get a full performance until David Pountney decided to stage it at the the 2013 Bregenz Festival with Keith Warner directing. It’s hard to explain the neglect though Pountney ascribes it some degree as the fate of the emigré (the composer being a Polish Jew domiciled in the UK). The Merchant of Venice is a really solid piece. It’s got all the elements; a strong story, a really interesting but not overly intimidating score and really good writing for voice (it really is singable). It’s the right length at around two and a half hours and it doesn’t call for unreasonable orchestral or vocal forces. John O’Brien’s libretto even manages to overcome some of the objections to staging Shakespeare’s play. While one might consider the Shakespeare piece to be antisemitic, O’Brien’s libretto is much more clearly about anti-semitism. There’s also a clear homoerotic element in the Antonio – Bassanio relationship and perhaps too in Portia – Nerissa.
Carl Nielsen’s operas don’t get performed much outside his native Denmark so it’s no surprise that the only video recording of his 1902 opera Saul og David was recorded in Copenhagen. The libretto is a fairly straightforward telling of the familiar story of Saul, David, Goliath, Samuel and so on. The music is very much of its time. It’s bold and lyrical; perhaps reminiscent of Strauss in a conventional mood or, perhaps, Elgar. There are some really good choruses and David and Michal get a gorgeous duet in Act 3.
The recently announced death of Jon Vickers has had me thinking a lot about connections. Vickers sang the title role in the second opera I saw live; Peter Grimes at Covent Garden in July 1975. Oddly, the first was The Rhinegold, at ENO, conducted by Reginald Goodall who also conducted the premiere performance of Peter Grimes in 1945. The summers of 1975 and 1976 were the first real chance, and the last for a while, that I had to see opera live. I worked those summer vacations in banks in central London which meant that I could use my lunchbreak to get a rush ticket for the evening performance. Living thirty miles out with a train to catch meant it wasn’t something I could do often but I did catch a couple of performances in each of those summers and, as I look back, there are so many beginnings and endings and connections.
Spuren der Verirrten (The Lost) is described on the box as an opera by Philip Glass. That’s pretty misleading. It’s more a theatre piece/ballet by David Pountney and Amin Hosseinpour with a soundtrack by Philip Glass. It was created for the opening of the new Landestheater Linz at the instigation of Artistic Director Rainer Mennicken (carefully trimmed beard, wire rimmed glasses) who wanted a piece that would encapsulate all the various theatrical forms the new building would stage, as well as show off its technical capabilities. Mennicken also wrote the “libretto” based on a highly abstract play by Peter Handke which seems to deal with the hopelessness of the human condition in some sort of post apocalyptic world. There’s no plot as such and the work unfolds in a series of scenes. For example there’s a ballerina point shoeing across the stage followed by a “spectator” in the auditorium commenting on the action followed by dancers with roadsigns followed by a Gumby like couple sitting under a table followed by more narration. Then come more dancers in Hosseinpour’s signature “jerky” style followed by a woman with an anti-nuclear sign having a row with her boyfriend in front of a giant green brain. And that’s just the first ten minutes of a piece that goes on for nearly two hours. Along the way we get a reality TV show in which the characters discuss whether a serial killer is worse than a goalkeeper who lets in a soft goal, a confrontation between the patriarch Abraham and a giant rabbit and a scene where a naked woman cuddles a human head while two dancers do the fish slapping dance around her. The piece concludes with the orchestra on stage and the chorus in the pit miming playing instruments and singing “blah, blah, blah” which actually fits the music pretty well.
David Pountney’s 1986 ENO production of Dvorak’s Rusalka is set in an Edwardian nursery. The action is all a dream or a figment of Rusalka’s imagination in which her grandfather, in a wheelchair, becomes the Water Gnome, her sisters water sprites, her governess the witch Jezibaba and so on. In Act 1 it works reasonably well. Clearly we are looking at a metaphor of Rusalka escaping the nursery for adult life with all the risks and discoveries that involves. It starts to get pretty strained in Act 2. There’s some not very subtle loss of virginity imagery but that’s about it. By Act 3 Pountney seems to have run out of ideas and the final denouement is played out pretty straightforwardly. Certainly there’s nothing in the ending to bring closure to the concept which seems like a cop out.
The performances, in English this being ENO, are mostly OK but not stellar. Elaine Hannan has a clear bright voice which suits the idea of Rusalka as a young girl but she doesn’t have the range of colour or dynamic range of, say, Renee Fleming. John Treleaven is rather good, if a bit stiff, as the Prince. You can definitely hear heldentenorish qualities in the voice. It’s a shame that, with his ‘tache and sideburns, he looks like a 1970s lounge lizard. Ann Howard is vocally competent as the governess/witch/Jezibaba but while she’s be fairly scary in a schoolroom she isn’t really the stuff of nightmares the part needs. Rodney Macann is a straightforwardly effective grandfather/Water Gnome but he doesn’t really dominate. The other parts are all quite well sung tough far from thrilling.Mark Elder conducts a rather routine sounding reading from the ENO Orchestra and Chorus. To be fair, part of the problem may be the sound, see below.
The video direction by Derek Bailey needs to be taken on its own terms for a record of what’s happening on stage it isn’t. There are lots of superpositions and some weird camera angles. It does reinforce the “dream” aspects of the production so I think it can be considered a valid approach.
Technically this is not a great disk. The 4:3 picture is 1986 TV to DVD quality. I suppose that, in a way, reinforces the dream quality too. The sound is very average Dolby 2.0. At times it’s worse than that. At the end of Act 1 it sounds like Treleaven is singing from the bottom of a well and nowhere does it do the orchestra any favours. There are no subtitles and the less than vivid sound makes it even harder than it otherwise might be to figure out the words. Documentation is limited to a track listing.
Given that Robert Carsen’s fascinating Paris production; strongly cast and well recorded, is also available on DVD it’s a bit hard to see why anyone would bother with this one.