It’s not often someone takes the piss out of one of my favourite operas and leaves me laughing like a drain but Chris Gillett has done it with his synopsis of a recently discovered Britten opera Tyco the Vegan.
This may inspire me to go further with describing the late Puccini “masterpiece” Lorenzo d’Arabia featuring belly dancers, dodgy Arabs, stiff upper lipped Brits, sheep’s eyeballs, a trio by Ali, Abdul and Achmet and a touching final scene where the beautiful princess Salima sings desperately of her abandonment by Lorenzo while buried up to the neck in sand. Of course she dies. Horribly.
Zubin Mehta seems to be making a habit of teaming up with Chinese film directors to stage Turandot. This time the director is Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) and he chose Liu King and Chen Tong Xun to do the sets and costumes. The production in question took place at Valencia’s I Festival del Mediterrani in 2008. It’s actually in an opera house rather than on location in the Forbidden City but this production ends up having a rather similar look and feel to Zhang Yimou’s earlier one.
With a month or so to go before the Canadian Opera Company officially announces its 2013/14 season it’s surely time for some uninformed speculation.
There are three big anniversaries in 2013; the bicentenaries of Verdi and Wagner and the centenary of Benjamin Britten. One would think all would be represented but maybe not. We know Verdi will be. Gerald Finley announced at the Rubies that he would make his role debut in the title role in Falstaff at COC in 2013/14 so we can ink that one in. Britten seems probable. There’s a Houston/COC co-pro of Peter Grimes, directed by Neil Armfield that is due to to come to Toronto. I think we can pencil that one in. No idea on casting but I would love to see Stuart Skelton myself. Wagner, I’m not so sure. Maybe February’s run of Tristan und Isolde will be COC’s sole nod to Wagner. Certainly the next most likely candidate; the Lyon/Met/COC Parsifal is, apparently, not expected before 2015.
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.
So says Rolando Villazón towards the end of the “Making of” documentary that accompanies Robert Dornhelm’s 2008 film of Puccini’s La Bohème. Fortunately for us Dornhelm, Villazón and the rest of those involved provide another piece of evidence that films of operas can indeed be made, and made very successfully. This one is a curious hybrid. It uses just about every technique that I’ve seen used in such a venture. The whole thing was originally recorded in the studio and most of the film is lip-synched using a mixture of the singers and actors who weren’t art of the singing cast but some of the arias were sung on set to a taped orchestral track. I’m not sure why and I couldn’t tell which was what. It all works pretty well anyway.
The audience at this 1988 San Francisco Opera production of La Bohème clearly thought very highly of it. There is even some applause for the scenery. I’m less impressed. Seen as a star vehicle for Pavarotti and Freni it’s quite adequate, though both are decidedly on the mature side for Rodolfo or Mimi. Other than that it’s rather dull, the video direction doesn’t help it any and the technical quality is no more than adequate. Continue reading →
Continuing the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle marathon we come to his 1974 film of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly with Mirella Freni in the title role and a young Placido Domingo as Pinkerton. Musically this is the most satisfying of the Ponelle productions I’ve yet come across. Freni is superb. Radiant is not too strong a term, Domingo sings pretty much as well (we’ll come to points of dramatic interpretation later) and the supporting cast is flawless. There’s some serious luxury casting here with Christa Ludwig as a superb Suzuki. Robert Kerns is an excellent Sharpless and Michel Sénéchal equally good as Goro. Herbert von Karajan conducts. He tends to go for sheer beauty of sound rather than maximum drama but what beauty of sound! The soloists are wonderfully backed up by the Wirner Philharmoniker and the Staatsopernchor. Continue reading →
Being an opera lover would probably be easier if I liked Puccini more, given how much air, DVD and stage time his works get, but I really struggle with him. I think it’s that concepts like “subtlety”, “elegance”, “verisimilitude” and “cultural sensitivity” completely passed him by. In an Italian setting his bombast and melodrama are somewhat made up for by the catchy tunes but move him to China or Japan or the United States and my ability to override my reality chip fails me. Which is a long winded way of saying Turandot is not my favourite opera.
Last night I saw the Canadian Opera Company’s double bill of Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. I had a pretty good idea what to expect having attended the dress rehearsal a couple of weeks ago. I said then that I thought that there was something in this show for everyone, even the most traditionalist, and I would still hold to that view if I hadn’t read the very silly review by Arthur Kaptainis in the National Post. Apparently there are people who can’t cope with a simple change of time setting and there are editors who let them write for real newspapers. It’s very puzzling. So let’s just say something for anyone with a smidgeon of imagination or dramatic instinct. Continue reading →
This 2000 La Scala recording of Puccini’s Tosca is straightforward and rather good. It’s a revival of Luca Ronconi’s 1996 production which I’m somewhat astonished to read was regarded as controversial. Sure, the sets are sort of fractured and feature some weird angles but everything else seems to be “by the book” down to the smallest details like the candlesticks and cross. Regietheatre this isn’t. In this performance the acting is OK, if tending to the “stand and wave your arms about” default Italian mode. The stand out exception is Leo Nucci’s Scarpia. He doesn’t have the physical presence to be brutal in the way that, say, Bryn Terfel can be but he manages to project a very nasty securocrat indeed. This is a Scarpia who would be good at making Powerpoint presentations to his bosses detailing how many women and children his unmanned drones had killed today.