Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame is a rather odd opera. It’s not just that the main plot turns on a pretty bizarre tale of the supernatural but that it also contains a significant number of big set piece numbers that don’t advance the plot at all; the “military children” in Act 1, the Pastoral in Act 2 and the bizarre “Glory to Catherine” chorus in Act 3 aren’t the only ones. One assumes that they are there so that the composer could interpolate some suitably “Russian” bits because without them it’s just any other opera that happens to be in Russian.
I’ve learned not to dismiss Romeo Castellucci’s work on first watching because it has a nasty habit of starting to make sense on reflection. His 2018 production of Richard Strauss’ Salome for the Salzburg Festival may be a case in point. Castellucci seems determined to destroy any preconceptions we have about the work and Franz Welser-Möst in the pit is a willing accomplice.
The 2016 Salzburg recording of Gounod’s Faust is challenging. Perhaps the nine pages of the booklet given over to a concept discussion with the directors should have given me sufficient warning that this was not going to be Faust à la Met. It’s not. It’s extremely complex and I’m not sure I fully understand it or whether all the ideas work but I did find it fascinating visually and dramatically, and musically it’s top notch. That said, traditionalists can save themselves a trip to the ER by walking away now.
Richard Strauss’ Die Liebe der Danae is one of his least performed operas so it’s not very familiar to most opera goers. I wrote about its performance history and provided a plot summary in my review of a 2011 recording at the Deutsche Oper, which is the only video recording besides the 2016 Salzburg one which forms the subject of this post.
Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s stagings of the Mozart/da Ponte operas in Salzburg concluded in 2015 with Le nozze di Figaro. I think it’s the most successful of the three. Bechtolf’s strengths lie in detailed direction of the action rather than bold conceptual statements and Nozze is probably the least in need of, and the least amenable to, the big Konzept. There aren’t any real dramaturgical problems to solve. It just works as written. I don’t think that’s so true for Don Giovanni or Così.
Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s second Mozart/daPonte for Salzburg was Don Giovanni which premiered in 2014. There are some similarities with his Così fan tutte. He uses a symmetrical unit set again and shows a fondness for creating symmetrical tableaux vivants but there the similarities pretty much end. I could find a consistent, believable set of humans in Così but not so much in Don Giovanni. The problem is really the man himself. Bechtolf, in his notes, seems to be arguing that Don Giovanni can make no sense in an age of pervasive accessibility and exposure to all things sexual. Da Ponte’s Don requires a climate of sexual repression for his essence; to Bechtolf a kind of Dionysian force (he cites Kierkegaard), to make any sense as a human. I think I get that but then, I think, the challenge becomes to create a Don Giovanni who does make sense to a 21st century audience as, in their different ways, do Guth and Tcherniakov. Bechtolf seems to treat the character not so much as a human rather than as a kind of energy focus who exists by igniting aspects of the other characters; whether that’s lust or jealousy or hatred. He caps off this idea at the end by having Don Giovanni reappear during the final ensemble as a kind of mischievous presence still chasing anything in a skirt, even if it’s, perhaps, from another world. It’s an idea that I could not really buy into.
Every few years the Salzburg Festival replaces the productions of the three Mozart/da Ponte collaborations with new productions. At least in recent years they have entrusted all three to the same director but the “refresh” happens in different years and not always in the same order. I reviewed Claus Guth’s offerings here (Le nozze di Figaro, 2006; Don Giovanni, 2008; Così fan tutte, 2009) and noted the way that certain linking elements developed over the course of the “cycle”. I was interested to see whether the same thing held for the newest iteration by Sven-Eric Bechtolf. All three have now been released on Blu-ray (though due to availability issues I have the Così on DVD) so I thought I should watch them in the order they appeared at the festival and see what transpires. So here we go with Così fan tutte recorded in 2013 in the Haus für Mozart.
Verdi loved Shakespeare and tried to reflect the psychological depth of his characters in the operas he based on the bard. You really wouldn’t know that watching the 2008 Salzburg Festival production of Otello. There’s a lot to like in both production and performance but the emotionally monochromatic performance of the title role by Aleksandrs Antonenko, who can do every mood from fairly grumpy to furious, and the moustache twirling Jago of Carlos Álvarez rather reduce the piece to pathologically jealous nutter with anger management problem kills wife.
A chance to see the young Edita Gruberova’s near legendary portrayal of Zerbinetta would be reason enough to watch the 1978 Vienna recording of Ariadne auf Naxos but, as it happens, there’s much more. For a start the cast includes Gundula Janowitz, Walter Berry, René Kollo and Trudeliese Schmidt plus Karl Böhm, a man who worked closely with Strauss, is conducting.
It was during the recent run of Cosí fan tutte at the COC that I realised that I really needed to get my hands on the M22 recording (Salzburg 2006). Specifically it was discussing the Salzburg reading of Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann with Thomas Allen and Rachel Andrist; who is the on stage continuo player in the Salzburg recording. It sounded like there might be interesting parallels. And parallels there are. In both cases the girls are aware of the “plot” (in every sense). In both cases four attractive young singers have been cast as the lovers and Don Alfonso and Despina made much older and more cynical. There I think the parallels end. Egoyan’s vision is essentially a positive one about relationships. The Herrmans, I think, are more interested in exploring the psychologically destructive power of love and desire.