As November 11th comes around for the 94th time since the guns were, very temporarily, silenced I thought it might be interesting to look at how war has been seen by librettists and composers over the years. Very early on we get a very gritty take on the subject in Monteverdi’s extremely compact Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda but not so long after the path for the next three centuries is set with Purcell’s broadly comic King Arthur. As far as I can see from Purcell to 1945, with very minor exceptions, the message is largely “war is fun”. War is an excuse for a big parade (Aida; unless Tim Albery is directing!), an excuse for a drinking song (Faust), just plain comedic (La Fille du Regiment), a plot device (Cosí fan tutte) or a background event (Tosca, various versions of the Armida story). The only opera, pre 1945, that I can think of that deals with the horror of war is Les Troyens, and that of course takes place in a distant, mythical, past.
Director Gilbert Deflo was inspired by the Hall of Mirrors in the ducal palace in Mantua, scene of the first performance of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, to try and create something similar for the much larger Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. The result is an almost extreme HIP approach. Sets, costumes, acting and singing style are all what we have come to expect from HIP performances of baroque works. In this case even the conductor and orchestra wear period dress which is quite effective as conductor Jordi Savali looks remarkably like Monteverdi. For reasons I don’t understand though the lighting plot is one that could never have been realised with baroque forces. To further advance the “hall of mirrors” idea Deflo makes quite a lot of use of mirrors on stage reflecting the house back on itself which doesn’t really come off on video but I imagine, based on my experience with the COC’s staging of Semele, that it could work well if one was in the right part of the theatre. There’s also a fair amount of characters entering via the auditorium including a dramatic entrance for Savali as the brass and percussion play the opening toccata from stage boxes.
Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda must be, at twenty two minutes, one of the shortest operas around. In typical Monterverdi style though it crams a lot of music and emotion into a very short space. Based on a story by Torquato Tasso, it concerns a Christian knight, Tancredi, and a Moorish princess, Clorinda. Somehow they have managed to fall in love but are still fighting on opposite sides They meet on the battlefield but as each has their visor down they don’t recognize each other. They fight a long and bloody single combat in which Tancredi mortally wounds Clorinda. When their helmets are removed they recognize each other and Clorinda asks Tancredi to baptize her so they can be united in heaven. It’s pretty dodgy theology but great theatre.
I’m not sure whether it was director Pierre Audi’s intention or a lack of chemistry between the principals but the 1994 Amsterdam production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, while extremely elegant, lacks gut punch. The stage has been extended to mostly cover the pit leaving the band (only seventeen musicians) in a triangular space cut into the extended stage. Much use is made of a staircase into the pit for entrances and exits. The large stage area is sparsely furnished with objects suggesting, rather than being, rocks, furniture etc. The costumes, by Emi Wada, are odd indeed ranging from a nurse who appears to be wearing sculpture to a Seneca who wears what looks like an old bedspread that the cat has used as a scratchy toy. Within this fairly artificial and abstract concept Audi manoeuvers his singers in complex ways (or at least he seems to when the video director lets us see) supported by a complex and atmospheric lighting plot. It really ought to be terrific but it just doesn’t get there. Continue reading