English National Opera’s new season includes two Christopher Alden productions that originated at COC. Die Fledermaus is brilliant and a must see. Rigoletto may be a bit more of an acquired taste though it certainly has its strong points. The London cast for Fledermaus doesn’t look as strong (to me) as the Toronto cast but the Rigoletto has the estimable Quinn Kelsey in the title role, Barry Banks as the Duke and Anna Christy as Gilda.
It comes as no surprise that an opera by Atom Egoyan comes across as somewhat cinematic but it’s hard not to use the term of his production of Richard Strauss’ Salome at Canadian Opera Company. It’s quite a spare production. There’s a raked stage; the raised end providing a sort of dungeon for Jochanaan and the back and side walls used for projections, especially of a giant mouth prophesying (shades of Big Brother here) and shadow puppets. Costumes are simple and in shades of red, white and green. The concept is based on the idea that Salome is a very young girl who has a history of sexual abuse at the hands of Herod that explains her “monstrousness”. It’s most vividly explored during the dance of the seven veils where Salome rises above the stage on a swing and her robes form a scrim on which a video is projected. It starts with a very young girl in a garden and gets progressively darker until it finishes up with today’s Salome being raped by her stepfather’s entourage. Fittingly, the opera ends with Herod himself strangling Salome, perhaps more to silence her than out of disgust.
Richard Strauss’ Salome opens April 21st at Canadian Opera Company in a production by Atom Egoyan. Curiously, this is a piece I know well in three languages as besides the Hedwig Lachmann German translation I own a bilingual edition containing both the original French text and Wilde’s own English translation. My copy is one of a limited edition published by the Limited Edition Club in 1938. It contains the English text with reproductions of the original Beardsley illustrations as well as a separate volume of the French text illustrated with pochoirs by Fauvist André Derain. Here’s an example.
There are a dozen photos of text and illustrations from the French volume here for people who like that sort of thing.
I seem to be in the middle of a run of operas full of dodgy theology. First it was the Met’s Parsifal where Wagner à la Girard dished up a puzzling mixture of misogyny, sacred wounds, centuries long curses, bastardization of the Eucharist and weird holy weapons. There’s a really good conversation about this over at Likely Impossibilities. Today I was at Opera in Concert’s semi-staged production of Massenet’s Thaïs. (My review of this should be in the summer edition of Opera Canada). So today was more misogyny, hairshirts, lots of penance and the idea that the road to sainthood is to be a tart until one’s looks start to go and then torture oneself to death in an appropriately aesthetic manner. Also, showing empathy for anyone not exactly like oneself leads to doubts, expulsion and damnation. Coming up soon, Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, in which salvation is achieved by rejecting anything to do with the Enlightenment and being guillotined. There’s a Salome in there too somewhere though I’m not sure there’s anything that could be called coherent theology at all in that.
Today’s lunchtime recital in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre was a recital of Schubert and Strauss songs on the theme “Love’s Dark Shore”. The performers were German bass Franz-Josef Selig, in town singing King Marke in Tristan und Isolde, and the COC’s own Rachel Andrist at the piano. There wasn’t much about “Love” in the pieces chosen but there was plenty of death, depression and despair. One might think it would be a complete downer but nobody could possibly be depressed witnessing the artistry of Selig.
Those who have heard Selig in Tristan know that he has a massive voice. It was fascinating to hear him turn it to lieder. He is a very German lieder singer in the best possible way. He enunciates with great clarity and gets full value out of the meaning of every phrase. He clearly loves the texts. He also manages his huge voice wonderfully. Mostly he sang quite quietly with beautiful legato and perfect control but when he wanted volume it was there in abundance and without strain. He also has a real range of tone colour and sheer beauty of tone. Often he sounded more like a baritone than a bass but he could get almost tectonically low when he needed to. It was very impressive. Rachel’s accompaniment was perfectly fine too though I think most of the audience was focussed on the voice.
I did hear a few grumbles about the unrelieved darkness of the material but I felt the works suited the singer and it was, as these things are, a fairly short programme so the lack of variety didn’t really bother me. All in all, a very worthwhile way to spend one’s lunch break.
Richard Strauss’ Arabella is a bit of a peculiarity. The music is top notch Strauss and the libretto is by von Hofmannsthal so it ought to be quite superb. It doesn’t quite get there though. It’s hard not to think that if von Hofmannsthal had lived a little longer he would have tightened up the libretto. Act 1 works fine but Acts 2 and 3 seem rather contrived and could definitely use a few cuts. I’m not sure that the whole Fiakermilli thing works either. It’s almost as if Prince Orlofsky’s party mislaid Johann and found Richard by accident. That said there is some very beautiful music. Aber der Richtige, wenn’s einem gibt is going straight onto my list of top soprano duets.
When I first encountered Richard Strauss’ Elektra as a teenager I found the music almost unbearably harsh. The more I listen to it the more erroneous that judgement seems. It has its “tough” moments to be sure. How could an opera about Elektra not? But it is also full of lush romanticism and there are some really quite lovely passages. In the 2010 Salzburg Festival recording Daniele Gatti explores both sides of the music in a rather thrilling reading of the score aided and abetted by the Wiener Philharmoniker and a pretty much ideal cast.
Richard Strauss’ last opera Die Liebe der Danae has a pretty chequered production history. It was scheduled to premiere at the 1944 Salzburg Festival but that was scuppered when all theatres were closed following the July bomb plot. A special exception was made for Die Liebe der Danae in that a single, public dress rehearsal was allowed at the conclusion of which Strauss is said to have bid farewell to the Wiener Philharmoniker with the words quoted in the title. It then remained unperformed until the 1952 festival where it got its true premier followed by productions over the next two years in most major European houses. After that it pretty much dropped out of the repertoire with occasional performances in Germany but apparently the production recorded at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2011 is only the sixteenth production all told. It’s a bit hard to see why it has been so neglected. The music is perfectly good Strauss though maybe it lacks a headline aria of the “Es gibt ein Reich” variety. Maybe the subject matter was just too frivolous for the immediately post-war world; it’s described as “A Joyful Mythology in Three Acts”. In any event, I was happy to discover it.
A series of blog posts discussing time, perceptions of time and historically informed performance (HIP) plus seeing Opera Atelier’s Der Freischütz got me thinking along some curiously convergent lines and arriving at the conclusion that HIP isn’t and can’t be what it is often purported to be; a fairly faithful attempt to reproduce a work as it would have been seen by its first viewers or “as the composer intended” or something like that. Not, of course, that even if it was, we would see and hear it as the original audience did but that perhaps is a topic for another day.
Robert Carsen’s 2004 production of Der Rosenkavalier at the Salzburg Festival was apparently enormously controversial at the time. In many ways that says more about the iconic status of the piece in Salzburg tradition than about Carsen’s production. There are a few controversial elements. He has updated the period to 1914 and the third act is set in a brothel with a fair amount of nudity. Beyond that, the production is pretty faithful to the libretto and has, I think characteristic Carsen touches like long lines of tables and chairs and a certain geometric elegance. He seems to be using the sides of the stage to comment on the action which tends to be fixed centre stage. I say seems because the video direction (by Brian Large) is utterly perverse and makes it extraordinarily difficult to see what Carsen is doing, let alone decode it. We see the whole stage, maybe, for three seconds in the whole piece. Otherwise 99% of what we get is either close up and even closer up or apparently shot from the restricted view seats high up and close to the side of the stage. The other 1% is just plain nuts and includes a section of the Sophie/Octavian duet in Act 2 where, on stage, Octavian is maybe twenty feet to Sophie’s right but on camera he’s standing right up close on her left hand side. I could go on but I won’t. Suffice it to say the video direction comes close to wrecking an otherwise excellent DVD.