The 2013 production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte from Madrid’s Teatro Real is one of German film director Michael Haneke’s comparatively rare forays into opera. Naturally I was expecting a highly conceptual interpretation but, although his vision is far from conventional, Konzept found I not. What I saw was a collection of ideas that didn’t quite cohere for me. Costume and sets are a mix of 18th century modern. We are in Don Alfonso’s inconsistently modernised mansion. There are enormous 18th century paintings and chandeliers but also leatherette banquettes and the Giant Fridge of Booze. The boys and girls wear contemporary party attire, including a rather fetching red dress for Fiordiligi, but Don Alfonso is in full 18th century gard and Despina seems to be dressed as Pierrot. Perhaps it’s some sort of party where some of the guests have decided to do the costume thing and some haven’t? When the boys go off to the army they do so in some sort of distant past opera version of military uniform; wigs and swords.
Here’s another fine example of how well Handel’s oratorios can work when staged. It’s a recording of Hercules made at Paris’ Palais Garnier in 2004. The staging is by Luc Bondy and William Christie and Les Arts Florissants are joined by a youngish cast of extremely good singers. It’s compelling stuff. I think what, for me, makes the oratorios much more interesting than most of Handel’s opera seria is structural. The operas tend to alternate recit and da capo aria with maybe a duet or chorus to close an act but they are pretty predictable. In the oratorios Handel makes much more use of ensembles and the chorus and, for me, that’s vastly preferable.
Robert Lepage’s 2007 Brussels production of The Rake’s Progress is fascinating on many levels. I think all good opera productions start with the music and this is no exception. Lepage sees a crucial relationship between Stravinsky at the time the work was written (1948) and film and television. It was an era when insubstantial visual imagery was being supported emotionally by pretty impressive music. Lepage works with that idea; setting the work in the 40s and incorporating film and film making imagery extensively. I think this decision also frees up the music. By taking the piece out of the 18th century it becomes possible to take the 18th century out of the piece. For instance, there are elements in the libretto that mimic 18th century street ballads but Stravinsky absolutely avoids writing the kind of phrasing one might expect and quite deliberately breaks up the line. That phrasing is respected here whereas I have often heard a false legato imposed on some of those phrases. In a way, the production is helping the viewer to hear the music differently which is perhaps the highest compliment one can pay an opera production. There are other intriguing relationships between Lepage’s vision and Stravinsky’s. Lepage sees Stravinsky as playing with time in a cinematic way i.e. rendering it non-linear. Lepage seeks to mirror this in the spatial dimension by using some odd perspectives and some cinema devices; notably Anne driving her car in front of a moving backdrop just like a studio movie of the period. There’s a lot going on and it would be tedious to describe it in detail.