Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden is a rather odd opera. It’s set in some sort of idyllic pre-Christian Russia where the tsar is approachable, just and benevolent and the people spend most of their time drinking and having sex. Into this world comes Snow Maiden, the fifteen year old daughter of Winter and Spring. Her parents have various things to do and so decide to park the girl with the local peasantry. Various romantic complications ensue involving a rather nasty, rich merchant Mizguir and the mysterious Lel, who may be a shepherd but likely isn’t mortal either. The mating behaviour of the locals confuses Snow Maiden as she is incapable of falling in love. Eventually Spring grants her that faculty and she gives herself to Mizguir, while really wanting Lel, but the rays of the sun on the first day of summer melt her. The natives ignore her death and get on with singing and dancing.
It’s not often that I’m completely baffled by an opera production but Frank Castorf’s 2018 production of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead (Z Mrtvého Domu) at the Bayerische Staatsoper comes pretty close. Since I really can’t explain what’s going on I’ll try to describe the various elements.
Der Prinz von Homburg is a 1960 opera by Hans Werner Henze setting a libretto by Ingeborg Bachmann based on an 1811 play by Heinrich von Kleist. The essential context is Henze and Bachmann’s rejection of German militarism and authoritarianism that they believed was being built back into the new German Federal Republic. It has been enjoying something of a revival in the last few years, perhaps as a result of the resurgence of the Fascist/nationalist right, with multiple productions in Germany including one in Stuttgart in 2019 which was recorded for video.
I guess Verdi’s Nabucco is even more closely associated with the Risorgimento than his other works so it’s not perhaps surprising that, for his 2017 production for Verona, Arnaud Bernard made the connection explicit. We are in Milan during the Five Days. La Scala; which does duty as the Temple, the Hanging Gardens and itself, stands in the middle of the huge performance space of the Arena di Verona. Italian and Austrian soldiers, including cavalry, ride around the arena or clamber over the terraces. It’s wild and spectacular but it’s more than that.
Dmitri Tcherniakov is an interesting and controversial director. He’s not afraid to take a very radical approach to a work and that method tends to produce uneven results. At it’s best, as in his Berlin Parsifal, it’s extraordinary and sometimes; his Wozzeckfor example, interesting but perhaps not exactly revelatory, and,again, sometimes; as in his Don Giovanni, polarising. That said he never does anything merely to shock or show off. There’s always a logic to what he does and that’s certainly true of his quite radical version of Verdi’s Il Trovatore filmed at Brussels’ La Monnaie in 2012.
I’m not really sure that it’s a good idea to take Rameau too seriously, especially a work like Les Indes galantes but that’s what Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui does in his production for the 2016 Münchner Opernfestspiel. As written, the piece has five separate parts; an allegorical prelude and four scènes, each telling a love story in an “exotic” setting; Turkey, Peru, Persia, among les sauvages of North America. It’s a spectacle but it uses the exotic settings to poke fun at certain aspects of Western culture in Rameau’s usual irreverent way. There’s no linking narrative and the characters in each scène (the goddesses Amour and Bellona aside) only appear once.
Once in a while one comes across a disk that sounds like it could be interesting but turns out to be a bit of a bust. That was certainly my experience with the recording of Mozart’s Davide penitente recorded in Salzburg during Mozart Week in 2015. On the face of it using the Felsenreitschule for something like its original purpose isn’t such a bad idea and the idea of choreographed horse “ballet” to a Mozart cantata is quite intriguing. On the face of it…
Dmitri Tcherniakov’s 2015 production of Wagner’s Parsifal recorded at the Staatsoper in Berlin in 2015 left me emotionally drained as I don’t think I’ve ever been after watching a recording. I can only imagine what it must have been like to experience this live. The combination of the production, exceptional singing and acting and Daniel Barenboim’s conducting is quite exceptional. It’s not going to be easy to unpack it all coherently but here goes…
Where better to record a production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette than in the spectacular Arena at Verona? The productio, dircted by Francesco Micheli with sets by Eduardo Sanchi and costumes by Silvia Aymonino, is as spectacular as the setting and also quite weird in a space opera sort of way, The characters wear huge collars and are colour coded; Yellow for the Montagues, red for Paris and his entourage and blue for the Capulets. Only the non-feuding characters escape this schema notably, of course, the two lovers and Friar Lawrence. There are also lots of colourful cage like structures that character pop in and out of or sing from and a huge chorus and crowd of supers flow all over the vast space. It’s amazing to look at and actually suits a straightforward telling of the story quite well.
Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni recorded at the 2010 Aix-en-Provence festival is full on Regie. He takes the characters and story of Mozart/DaPonte and recasts them quite radically. Zerlina is Donna Anna’s daughter. Donna Elvira, Donna Anna’s cousin, is married to Don Giovanni. Leporello is a family member too. The sense is of one extended, conventional, bourgeois family in which Don Giovanni is a fatally disruptive intrusion. Tcherniakov changes the time line too. Instead of taking place over a 24 hour period the story plays out over many weeks.