Just as Rossini’s version of Il barbiere di Siviglia completely eclipsed Paisiello’s version, so Verdi’s Otello sounded the death knell for an earlier version; ironically enough by Rossini. It’s a bit surprising as the Rossini version is not bad at all despite having a rather patchy libretto and being hard to cast. The first thing one notices is that the story isn’t even close to Shakespeare/Verdi. This is because the libretto was based on a French play by Jean-François Ducis that was popular in the 18th century. I don’t know whether the plot’s weaknesses are due to Ducis or the librettist but there are a few. There’s no Cassio so the motivation for Jago’s plotting is unclear. All the Venetian notables (bar perhaps the Doge) hate Otello but Jago doesn’t seem to have any special reason for animosity. Between the end of Act 2 and the beginning of Act 3 Otello is exiled. There is no explanation. The finale is abrupt and weak. Immediately after Otello kills Desdemona the gang of notables burst in to the room and appear to be completely reconciled to Otello and to him marrying Desdemona, despite having spent the rest of the opera chewing chips about this. In fact one could argue that the happy ending variant (yes, there was one) is the more plausible as it would only take the guys to arrive about ten bars sooner for that to be the logical outcome. As it is, Otello listens with incredulity to the change of heart and, not unreasonably, kills himself.
Eugen d’Albert is largely forgotten as a composer but his seventh (of twenty) opera, Tiefland, is still performed occasionally in German speaking countries. It’s an odd work. The plot is melodramatic with a cloying degree of sentimentality; sort of Mascagni meets Gounod, while the music is like pastoral Wagner (think the way the woodwinds are used in Tristan) with touches of Carmen and, just occasionally, hints of Sullivan (one of d’Albert’s teachers). For a 1903 work it feels curiously retro.
Rossini’s Le Comte Ory is extremely silly. It’s a crazy, gender bending romp with no real substance but plenty of rather crude humour and good tunes. I suspect it’s beyond the wit of any director than do more than make sure the mad cap elements are mad enough but one is, I suppose, bound to try. For their 2012 production in Zürich, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier chose to set the piece in immediately post war France. It works well enough and allows for a few visual gags but it doesn’t really add much to the piece. Nor, though, does it detract.
I’m really not sure what to make of Jürgen Flimm’s 2004 production of Fidelio for the Zürich Opera House. It’s not offensive and it doesn’t really get in the way of the story but it seems quite devoid of originality beyond mixing styles in a way one might describe as anachronistic if one could figure out when synchronistic would be. Rocco wears a sort of frock coat with, apparently, goatskin pants, Marzellina’s dress looks probably 20th century, bolt action magazine fed rifles are apparently muzzle loaded and metal cartridge cases filled by hand. Then to cap it off when Don Fernando shows up he looks like he’s stepped straight out of a Zeffirelli production of Der Rosenkavalier. So “nul points” for coherence. For once one rather appreciates that so much of the action takes place in the dark.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt has long been one of my favourite conductors, particularly for pieces that require a strong sense of period. The same goes for the wonderful Zürich Opera House Orchestra who, uniquely as far as I know, can change up their instruments to suit the piece. For Weber’s Der Freischütz, recorded in 1999, they use valveless brass but, as best I can tell, modern woodwinds and it all sounds great especially in the many hunting scenes.
Claus Guth’s 2006 production of Ariadne auf Naxos recorded at the Opernhaus Zürich in 2006 is a compelling piece of theatre. It’s one of those Regietheater pieces that combines a workable concept with compelling Personenregie to create a whole that’s extremely illuminating. The entire Vorspiel is played out, in modern dress, in front of a grey curtain. We get an immediate idea of how Guth is going to explore/exploit metatheatricality as soon as the Haushofmeister appears. He’s played by none other than Zürich Intendant Alexander Pereira. Who is calling the shots? This is reinforced when he drops the bombshell that the opera seria must be combined with Zerbinetta’s farce. This speech is delivered by Pereira from among his guests in the Intendant’s box. It’s very clever. But there’s so much more going on during the Vorspiel. The Komponist is getting seriously deranged; perhaps even more so after he begins his infatuation with Zerbinetta. There’s a moment when it looks like a love triangle is being set up. The diva just gives one look that suggests that she’s got her eyes on the Komponist. It’s a typical moment. A look, a gesture, seems to convey so much. It all concludes with the deranged Komponist shooting himself.
Katharina Thalbach sets her Fidelio, filmed at Zürich in 2008, somewhere in the early 20th century. Most of the costuming suggests very early but Don Pizzaro’s suit suggests 20s/30s gangster. Maybe he’s just fashion forward. The story telling is fairly straightforward and there’s no big concept. There are a few, smallish, touches. For example, the prisoners seem to be playing basketball with Don Pizarro’s head in the conclusion. The sets are literal but evocatively lit and rather effective.
Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria is the third of the Ponnelle/Harnoncourt Monteverdi collaborations and perhaps the best. Itseems to stick closer to the original Zürich staging and be less obviously a film though it was recorded in the studio and lip synched. The orchestra and conductor are visible and, in Act 3, Irus descends into the pit throws himself all over Harnoncourt. It’s the conductor too who gives him the knife he kills himself with. Is this the first (of many) times when Harnoncourt has been drawn into the theatrical action?
J-P Ponnelle’s 1979 film of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea with Zürich forces conducted by a young Nikolaus Harnoncourt is like his Orfeo only more so. Sets and costumes are that rather odd “ancient baroque” that Ponnelle is so fond of. The acting is stylized and hyperkinetic and so is the camera work with close ups from weird angles all over the place. So far, so Ponnelle.
Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo is one of the few 17th works still in the canonical opera repertoire though little performed before the “early music revival”. So it was quite a bold step when the Opernhaus Zürich in the 1970s staged all three extant Monteverdi operas in productions by J-P ponelle and with Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading an orchestra of period instruments. All three productions were subsequently made into lip-synched films and have been re-released on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon as a boxed set.