Today’s summer second thought is the 2004 Salzburg festival production of Purcell’s King Arthur. I really enjoyed this first time around and I think it stands up extremely well to repeat viewing. I pretty much stand by my original review but certain aspects of the production did stand out on repeat viewing. The first thing that struck me is how these English 17th century works are very much a blend of the vulgar and the sublime (one could argue that that is the defining characteristic of English culture; from Chaucer to Trooping the Colour). This production, like Jonathan Kent’s The Fairy Queen, successfully blends the two elements. There’s a really good example at the very end where Michael Schade’s panty strewn rock star “Harvest Home” is followed by a gorgeous and dignifieed “Fairest Isle from Barabara Bonney but there’s lots more; much of reinforced by the sort of special effects that a Restoration audience would have loved. There’s also some real depth in how it’s done. First up I found the Merlin dressed as banker’s wife episode very funny but just that. On rewatching I realised that much more is going on as the scene segs into Merlin explaining to Arthur that everything around him is an illusion.
Great though my admiration for Benjamin Britten’s music is I wouldn’t consider him a creator of memorable female characters. There’s Ellen Orford, of course, but one struggles to find a Tosca, Lucia or Violetta in his oeuvre. I open with this because what struck me watching the 2001 Channel 4 film of Owen Wingrave for a second time was how generally unsympathetic the female characters are. This is an opera with a female librettist (Myfanwy Piper) and the film has a female director (Margaret Williams) yet, with the exception of the fairly ineffectual Mrs. Coyle, the female characters embody an unthinking militarism and behave with extreme malevolence towards Wingrave; none more so than his “girlfriend” Kate. The filming reinforces this with close up scenes of groups of the women spitting venom at young Wingrave.
Peter Sellars’ 1996 Glyndebourne production of Handel’s Theodora just gets better with every viewing. I utterly retract my original view that the music isn’t Handel at his finest. It’s very good indeed and the production and performances on this disk are fantastic. Despite not being the best recording ever (though the recent Blu-ray release is an improvement) it remains a “must see” for any fan of Baroque opera or challenging music theatre.
What makes it so compelling? I think it’s two factors. The first is the production. The contemporary American setting works with very little violence to the libretto or music and yet speaks directly to very contemporary concerns. It’s particularly effective that current reality is inverted with respect to mainstream Christianity. Added to this are some extraordinarily intense performances led by the late Lorraine Hunt as Irene, the leader of the Christians. “As with rosy steps the morn” and “Lord to thee, each night and day” bring me out in goosebumps every time. The chemistry between David Daniels and Richard Croft is also palpable and Dawn Upshaw could hardly be bettered in the title role. Even Christine Schäfer in the only competing recording doesn’t come close.
One of the notes I made while watching this the other night reads “anybody not moved by this is an emotional cripple”. It’s a fair summary.
The heat and humidity of a Toronto summer aren’t especially conducive to dealing with most of what’s in my DVD review pile right now (Wagner chiefly!) and the live music pickings are slim as, Toronto Summer Music Festival aside, music has departed for the land of moose and loon. I thought, therefore, that I might take another look at some old favourites and see how they shape up to a second look. I thought I’d focus on works where I have seen many subsequent productions or, perhaps, on works once seen only on DVD but which I had more recently been able to see live.