I’m not a huge bel canto fan so it’s probably no surprise that I had, previous to this DVD, only seen Bellini’s La sonnambula once. That was in Mary Zimmermann’s messy production at the Met which had left me with the impression that it was a rather feeble comedy with formulaic music and not much improved by Zimmermann’s attempts to sex it up. I did wonder if it might be improved by the full on Regie treatment and so I was quite happy to have a chance to see the DVD of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s 2013 Stuttgart production, especially as it had played to significant critical acclaim and won a bunch of awards. I was surprised and impressed. Far from being a cavalcade of extraneous elements (the usual charge levelled at Regie), this production probed the libretto and the source materials in a highly intelligent way to produce something really rather moving. The music is still what it is; tuneful, well crafted but hardly deep, but there you go.
Aribert Reimann’s Lear is a pretty good example of how to create a thoroughly modern opera within a thoroughly traditional framework. It’s a classic story of course. Here librettist Claus Henneberg has taken the classic German translationof the Shakespeare play and condensed it in a highly intelligent fashion; retaining all the emotional drama while sacrificing some fairly peripheral narrative. Reimann’s score is modern though not strictly twelve tone. He creates a distinct musical voice for each character; speech/Sprechstimme for the Fool, weird coloratura for General etc. This is reinforced by many of the characters having a tone row that serves as a sort of leitmotiv. Atonality and quarter tones are used for varying effects from the violence of the Blasted Heath scene; apparently inspired by the composer’s experience, as a nine year old, of the bombing of Potsdam, to the shimmering, ethereal quarter tones of Lear’s final monologue. For anyone with even a vague tolerance for “modern” music it’s a fascinating listen.