Conventional wisdom may suggest that in a duel between a stage director and the plot of Il trovatore, the director is never going to win. This libretto is, er, complicated, and it belongs to a kind of lurid sensationalism that we often assume has nothing under its surface shock and awe. So the most we dare wish for is mere comprehensibility, hence pro forma efforts like David McVicar’s Met production. I don’t mind that production that much, it does what it has to do, but it sets a fairly low bar.
That’s not the only option, though. La Monnaie had a great Tcherniakov production a few years back that took the plot’s complexity not as an insurmountable problem but rather as its subject, becoming a bunch of people in a room experiencing a claustrophobic series of flashbacks. And there was that Olivier Py job in Munich a few years ago, which I saw only on a technically challenged internet stream and thus believe I can only describe as batshit crazy. And there are more.
And now, I hoped, we would have David Bösch’s at the Royal Opera House too. We did, but we also didn’t.
Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (AKA Евге́ний Оне́гин, Yevgeny Onegin, Evgeny Onegin, Yevgeniy Onegin, Jewgeni Onegin, etc.) is subtitled “lyric scenes.” Barrie Kosky’s striking Komische Oper production is similarly modest, ambiguous of time and place. It revolves around a few striking images and keeps the focus, for better or worse, on the characters.
What happens when you combine Little Shop of Horrors and German romantic opera? Something like the Komische Oper’s production of Der Vampyr, maybe, an unusual concoction of Grand Guignol and postmodern metatheater. Granted, this might not be quite what one would expect from Marschner, a German Romantic active a little after Weber. (Today Marschner is today probably best known for the prominent appearance of his Hans Heiling in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus.) But hey, why not?
That’s the sound of someone running directly into a wall in Barrie Kosky’s Komische Oper Berlin production of Castor et Pollux. It seems to be their response to any kind of frustration, tragedy, or annoyance. Frustrated in love? Thunk! Brother dead? Thwack! Phébé thought of going to Hades first? Thump!
This is a very serious production, and as usual the KOB ensemble runs into those walls with impressive conviction. But after a while the effect begins to wear off.
Damiano Michieletto’s new production of Massenet’s Cendrillon at the Komische Oper appears gentle and heartfelt, but underneath lies something tough. Set in a snake pit disguised as a fairy tale wonderland—that is, a ballet school—it’s a very clever concept that mostly works, and benefits from a winning cast.
If you’ve ever seen a production directed by Calixto Bieito, imagine what his take on Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny would look like. Congratulations! You are correct. If you haven’t seen any Bieito, imagine the Florida Man Twitter feed as rewritten by Michel Houellebecq. Take out all the gators, because local color isn’t on Bieito’s agenda. However, somebody’s face is perpetually in danger of being eaten.
Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades is an opera that swerves between the apparently conventional and the obviously unsettling. As Dostoevskian antihero Herman crashes through 1790s St. Petersburg in search of the three cards that will always win, we can never quite tell what’s real and what’s the product of his feverish, anachronistic mind. And that’s before Stefan Herheim got around to directing it.
But now Herheim has, and on the way to Berlin for some work I went to Amsterdam to see it.
When you study or teach music history, Christoph Willibald Gluck has a very specific function: he swoops down and cuts through the extravagance of Baroque opera with his reform opera. Most of the works by Gluck performed today are from this reform era, namely both Iphigénie operas, Alceste, and, most famously, Orfeo ed Euridice. They’re beautiful, they’re elegant, they’re austere, they can sometimes be, IMO, rather boring.
But Gluck wrote lots of operas before he–as most music history surveys would have it–posted his 95 theses on some stage door. Such is his 1750/revised 1763 opera Ezio, the first half of the Boston company Odyssey Opera’s “When in Rome” festival. (The second half, Mozart’s early Lucio Silla, will be performed next week.) Note that 1763 is actually a year after the premiere of Orfeo, suggesting that we (i.e., those of us who are used to teaching our one class on Gluck) shouldn’t treat reform opera like a teleological lightning bolt. Ezio‘s libretto is a golden Metastasio oldie, and was also set by Handel and Porpora and almost everyone else. The Wikipedia summary of the Gluck is hilariously dismissive of the plot:
And honestly that’s kind of the feeling I got when watching it. The “many plot turns” are indeed many and none seem to have a ton of gravity. In usual opera seria fashion, the arias are reactions to these recitative plot twists, and since arias are much more exciting and showy than recit this means you tend to forget why this reacting is happening and just enjoy it (or, er, not enjoy it). Sometimes the characterization is not so much nuanced as just odd: villainous Massimo spends way more time singing lovely lyrical arias about streams and flowers than he does swearing vengeance, even though the plot is basically powered by his tireless and treacherous quest for vengeance. (The emperor tried to seduce his wife.) The arias are almost all da capo affairs. There’s one trio and a little lieto fine ensemble, no chorus or dances. In other words, that’s a lot of arias. So it seems to me that the main attraction is the range of moods and sentiments offered by these arias, not the plot as such.
It’s an intriguing but also a peculiar repertoire choice (particularly for a city with a very spotty history of opera–it’s not like everyone could compare it to the Alceste they saw in the fall). Odyssey is a new company that emerged from the wreckage of Opera Boston, and I don’t pretend to understand the complex topography or history of Boston’s many companies. They obviously don’t have huge resources but this was a respectably cast, well played, and musically very credible production. The 900-seat Boston University Theatre (while we still can call it that, while it still exists) is an ideal size for this sort of opera. The small, modern instrument orchestra played with energy and sparkle, and Gil Rose’s conducting was mostly on the speedy side.
Staging, however, was another matter. Despite some fine singing, this opera never convinced me of its necessity. Joshua Major’s production was very basic. Jian Jung’s set gave us an indeterminate set of walls and some square columns and Rachel Padula Shufelt’s costumes vaguely mixed modern and ancient Roman elements by way of, for maiden Fulvia, senior prom. It established the relationships between the characters, but the opera never seemed to reflect any kind of larger world or idea. The blocking kept people moving around the stage, but much of it isn’t clearly motivated (character stands up, two flunkies move the cube he was sitting on to a different part of the stage, he goes and sits down there). The direction illuminates the, er, more involved elements of the plot, but it rarely develops stuff beyond their basic motivation.
I almost wonder if this is a staging more fit for the lean later Gluck. This utter simplicity is an easier sell with reform opera’s linear action and clear dramatic stakes. But pre-reform opera requires a little more dramatic variety and creativity to make things interesting, and this production ends up being very bland. The best staging in this production is Fulvia’s final aria: for almost the first time, the whole stage darkens and she’s illuminated by a special (a lighting instrument that highlights a particular moment) sitting extreme downstage right. It creates a unique, intimate, dark atmosphere we hadn’t seen before. But most of the arias don’t get this kind of unique treatment and it tends to run together.
It also helped that Jennifer Holloway, as Fulvia, gave the strongest performance of the whole cast. From her bio it sounds like she’s not sure right now whether she wants to call herself a soprano or a mezzo, and I’d probably find either label credible: she has a bit of mezzo darkness but not as much as most mezzos, and she occasionally got a chance to sing some soprano-like high notes. More importantly, she sings both musically and dramatically and knows how to make a da capo aria into an emotional journey. She was the only cast member who made a complete performance out of the rather meager staging’s material.
The rest of the cast was decent. As Massimo, William Hite sang elegantly and precisely with a Mozartian sort of tenor, but didn’t quite decode this character’s odd mix of paternal protectiveness and reckless vengeance. As Ezio, Brenda Patterson showed a rich, dark mezzo and acted with determination, though perhaps with the scale for a much larger theater. She didn’t always seem comfortable with role’s low tessitura and her ornamentation was sometimes blurred in its coloratura. As Onoria, soprano Erica Petrocelli (a grad student at NEC) has an intriguing and promising instrument, a distinctive and spicy timbre with a bit of an edge to it. She sang quite musically, but always at an aggressive full tilt, and I would have enjoyed a bit more lyricism. As Valetiniano, countertenor Randall Scotting was emphatic. Tenor Jessie Darden as guard Varo has a pleasant voice, to my ears slightly Rossinian.
So an experience more musically than dramatically satisfying. Maybe Gluck was right about all this reform stuff.
Yesterday I finally checked out Boston’s famed early music scene by going to the Handel and Haydn Society’s performance of Handel’s Saul in Symphony Hall. I sat behind a gentleman with a score and in front of another gentleman who beforehand mansplained the oratorio by invoking Malcolm Gladwell and then during proceeded to sing along at various points in Act 1.* So I guess I don’t know quite what to make of Boston early music audiences yet.
Anyway. Proper historically informed orchestras are as rare as hen’s teeth in the US and I was happy to hear a very credible one. The Handel and Haydn orchestra has a rather glassy, close to vibrato-free sound (which you might think is a given but among current groups really is not). The winds are quite accurate and, despite there being quite a few of them in this piece, not too loud. Most importantly, it’s a real orchestra that doesn’t sound like a pickup group. Nor did the smallish but substantial-sounding chorus, whose sound blended very nicely.
Conductor and music director Harry Christophers’s priority seemed to be sheer tonal beauty. Sometimes he would draw out a phrase to luxuriate, ridiculous length (most obviously the sigh motive on “virtue” in Jonathan’s first air). Tempos tended toward the slower side side. Choruses were beautifully layered and seemed to stop time. While Saul has a lot of beautifully mournful music, particularly around the last half hour (from the famous “Dead March” on), it’s also a very dramatic piece with madness, love, etc., and frequently receives full staging, for example in this Glyndebourne production last summer.
But operatic oratorio wasn’t on the menu here. I must admit that I found Christophers’s placid approach rather bland and at times even boring. There wasn’t much dynamic variation or even differentiation of articulation. Despite a ton of energetic gestures from the concertmaster rhythmic life was often lacking, and I missed the kinds of accents and momentum you can get in this music. There are rage arias here (Saul in particular), a brief appearance by a witch in Act 3, and heroic stuff too, but everything bubbled along at a medium temperature. OK, I’m one of those people who likes René Jacobs, which means I’m a glutton for sforzandos, weird tempo changes, and talkative continuos, and in comparison this Saul was very plain.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here is Christophers conducting “Let the bright Seraphim” from Handel’s Samson (I believe the soprano is Lynne Dawson).
In comparison, here is another recording of the same piece, this one sung by Karina Gauvin and conducted by Alexander Weimann.
Christophers and Dawson are very pretty and tidy, but to me, Gauvin and Weimann are sparkier, more alive, and way more interesting. Christophers’s school of Handel certainly has a long tradition, most particularly in the UK (from which almost the entire cast of this performance hailed), but as an opera person I gravitate towards a more operatic approach.
Based on audience response, Iestyn Davies as David stole the show. His countertenor is of the ethereal, angelic type (like the orchestra, very little vibrato), and while David is a heroic character Handel gives him a lot of lyrical music. Davies’s voice has wonderful presence in Symphony Hall: light and clear but absolutely filling the space like none of the rest of the cast. This puts him in tune with Christophers, but he also has a sense of character and drama that supplied some of what was otherwise lacking–perhaps he got it from being in that Glyndebourne staging I mentioned above.
I also liked Joélle Harvey’s Michal, sung with a very beautiful, limpid tone. She’s a very communicative, earnest singer, though her diction doesn’t always quite back her up. She and Davies blended excellently in their duets. Elizabeth Atherton’s Merab was certainly a contrast to Harvey, but her lean soprano often sounded thin and tight. She improved over the course of the performance, though. As Saul, Jonathan Best sounded appropriately senior and authoritative, but didn’t seem to have the charisma befitting a title character nor the facility to carry off all the coloratura. Finally, Robert Murray was a pleasant Jonathan.
This was a totally respectable, sometimes even excellent performance that rarely was fully absorbing. Maybe this is what happens when you go to see Handel after a lot of Elektra but I could have used a little more blood.
*I never found out if he sang for the rest because I moved during intermission.
In 1697, the Comédie-Italienne almost managed to make fun of the court of Louis XIV but were forcibly disbanded for their trouble. In 1710, André Campra’s opera-ballet Les fêtes vénitiennes tried to bring the italianisme and the politics back to Paris.
Last weekend, Les Arts Florissants brought it to New York.