One of the interesting things about Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann is that there is no definitive edition so creative teams have a lot of flexibility in how they cut and combine material. Director Tobias Kratzer and conductor Carlo Rizzi created a really interesting take for their production at Dutch National Opera in 2018. It’s a very modern, very dark interpretation that while it keeps Offenbach’s music (though not interpolations like Scintille diamante) and the words are all from (some version of) the libretto the storyline varies a lot from what we are used to while keeping intact the central psychological fact that Hoffmann is incapable of relating to real women.
Stefano Landi’s Lamorte d’Orfeo of 1619 is interesting for several reasons. It’s one of relatively few operas from this early in the history of the art form that we have enough information on to perform. It was also written in and for Rome so it reflects the clerical influences of that environment rather than the more secular Venice of Monteverdi. It’s also an unusual take on the Orfeo legend. It takes off from where Monteverdi and many others leave off. Euridice is dead, for good this time, and the opera deals with the balance of Orfeo’s life. Briefly, he is heartbroken and renounces Pleasure; including wine and women. He compounds this by not inviting Bacco to a birthday celebration attended by most of the other gods. Bacco and his female followers are not pleased. Orfeo is torn to pieces by the Maenads. Orfeo is quite OK with this because now he will be united with Euridice but Charon refuses to take him; a demi-god, across the Styx. Mercury fetches Euridice from the Elysian Fields but she has drunk from Lethe and doesn’t recognise him. She’s quite clear that she wants nothing to do with this so-called Orfeo. Giove makes it up to Orfeo (who also drinks the water of Lethe and forgets Euridice) by making him into a constellation and all the gods rejoice. (for consistency’s sake I’ve used the Italianised versions of the Roman versions of the various Greek characters in the same way as the libretto).
Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades is a rather odd opera. It’s got some really good music but it’s dramatically a bit of a mess; it’s episodic and the plot contains highly implausible occult elements. The 2016 production at Dutch National Opera was given to Stefan Herheim to direct which is what piqued my interest. There are few directors as capable of applying some radical rethinking to an opera and coming up with something fully coherent. I think he manages it here.
Cavalli’s Ercole amante was written for the wedding of Louis XIV to Marie-Thérèse, a Habsburg princess. The marriage itself being the seal on the French victory over Spain in the war that had lasted until 1659. It’s an odd work considering. It’s not nearly as weird as, say, Il Giasone or La Didone but it’s hardly what one would expect for the nuptials of Le Roi Soleil. It’s clear from both the Prologue and the ending that Ercole is Louis but he’s also a most unlikeable character. In this version of the Hercules story he’s in love with his son’s (Hyllo) girlfriend (Iole) and will stop at nothing to bed her including casting off his wife (Deianira), imprisoning his son and bumping off Iole’s father. In the end he’s attacked by the spirits of various people he has wronged before succumbing to the trick with the centaur’s poisoned shirt. He’s made immortal and paired off with Hebe in the heavens but it’s hardly a tale of kingly virtue or marital fidelity. For good measure, along the way a good chunk of the Graeco-Roman pantheon make an appearance.
The second half of the Amsterdam double bill that opened with Iphigénie en Aulide is, of course, Iphigénie en Tauride. In this piece the more usual version of the Aulis story, where Diana substitutes a stag for Iphigenia on the altar and whisks the girl off to be her priestess among the savage Scythians of Tauris, is assumed. So the piece opens with Iphigenia and six other Mycenean priestesses (how they got to Tauris is a mystery) in Diana’s temple at Tauris where their job is to sacrifice any strangers who show up. Almost at once the capture of two Greeks is announced. They turn out to Iphigenia’s brother Orestes and his sidekick Pylades and the the next 90 minutes turns on Iphigenia failing to sacrifice either of them.
Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide is finally available on Blu-ray and DVD. It was staged and recorded as a double bill with Iphigénie en Tauride at De Nederlandse Opera in September 2011 in productions by Pierre Audi. It’s excellent in just about every respect. The cast is to die for, the production is interesting and so is the staging in the rather challenging space of The Amsterdam Music Theatre, which also poses problems for the video director. Backed up, on Blu-ray, by a 1080i picture and DTS-HD-MA sound it’s a pretty compelling package.
Rameau’s Castor et Pollux is a tragédie lyrique in five acts. It’s a mythology based libretto which, ultimately, celebrates the fraternal love of the twins who rise to immortality while rather callously discarding the female human love interest. Pierre Audi’s 2008 production for De Nederlandse Opera nods both to the baroque and to the mythological by staging the work in a rather abstract Sci-Fi sort of way but with moving sets and Fx that suggest, rather than reproduce, the stagecraft of the baroque.
The first time I tried to watch Willy Decker’s 2004 production of Verdi’s Don Carlo at De Nederlandse Opera I failed to get past Rolando Villazón in doublet and hose. To anyone familiar with British TV comedy of a certain era the resemblance is just too close and I couldn’t get beyond the idea of Stephen Fry as Felipe II and Miranda Richardson as Elisabetta. This time around I watched the highly illuminating video introduction and read Wily Decker’s useful essay on his production concept before tackling the piece proper. I’m glad I did that and I’m glad I came back to this recording because it is very fine and it was very useful to have Decker and Chailly’s perspectives on the dramaturgy and the music.
Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise is an astonishing piece of music theatre and Pierre Audi’s Amsterdam staging of it is equally extraordinary. There is very little “plot”. The work consists of eight loosely linked tableaux taken from 16th century accounts of St. Francis’ life and ministry. There is theology and leprosy and ornithology and it goes on for four and a quarter hours. It ought not to work but it does. Continue reading →