Verdi’s Il Trovatore is always pretty grim. It’s hard to lighten up an opera with multiple executions, suicide and babies being barbecued. David Bösch in his Covent Garden production (remounted and recorded in 2017 with Julia Burbach directing), probably wisely, doesn’t even try. This is as grim as Grimsby on a wet Sunday in February with extra gratuitous violence. The setting is some roughly contemporary civil war. The Conte di Luna’s troops are a scruffy lot but they have a pretty cool looking tank. The gypsies are a bit gayer though Azucena’s caravan is disturbingly plastered with baby dolls reflecting her obsession. It’s all quite dark. Really only Leonora (and her maid) stand out as they wear white in contrast to the greys of pretty much everyone else. The story is told straightforwardly enough and the sets and costumes do provide some kind of moral differentiation between the two camps with Leonora sort of standing above and apart from the violence.
George Benjamin’s latest opera Lessons in Love and Violence debuted at Covent Garden last year. It was broadcast on the BBC and is still available on the web from Arte and has also been released on DVD and Blu-ray. This review is based on the Blu-ray version.
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.
What’s Mozart’s Così fan tutte about? I doubt there’s a good answer to that question but one element of what it’s about is artifice. That appears to be Jan Philipp Gloger’s jumping off point for his Royal Opera House production filmed in 2016. I have pages of notes on how the setting changes and who is singing to whom about what at which point in the opera. It starts with the “cast”, in 18th century dress, taking a curtain call during the overture but it soon turns out to be a bit more complex. Dorabella, Fiordiligi, Ferrando and Guglielmo appear in the auditorium in smart modern dress as late comers taking their seats. Soon the boys are on stage in front of the curtain with Don Alphonso (for some reason dressed as a 17th century divine) while the girls hide in embarrassment behind their programmes.
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.