A couple of years ago I produced a series of “best of” lists for video recordings, which I’ve updated from time to time. One can find them on the Index of DVD reviews page. So, for fun, I thought I’d put together a “weirdest” list. Mostly this captures operas that are intrinsically weird but I’ve included the odd recording where the director has gone a bit nuts in an attempt to get something out of non too promising material. So, in alphabetical order by composer, here is the “weird list”.
Albéniz – Merlin: This is an attempt to create an epic Wagnerian trilogy out of Arthurian material. It was, apparently, at one time a “thing”. Healey Willan. for example, tried to create a sort of Tristan und Isolde set in Ulster. The libretto for Merlin was by Francis Burnett Money-Coutts of the banking dynasty and it attempts to do for English verse what Wagner did for German. It’s very odd. Otherwise to be honest the piece isn’t all that bad.
Cherubini – Kourkourgi: A French revolutionary allegorical comedy is a rare beast indeed, which is largely why it makes this list. Cherubini’s Chinese story of the rivalry between an aristocratic glutton and his virtuous and heroic plebeian rival isn’t exactly subtle but, like Merlin, taken on it’s own terms it’s quite fun.
Franck – Stradella: This one is on the list as an example of a director desperately trying to breathe life into a turkey and failing. The plot mixes a banal love story with sentimentality and too much 19th century religiosity. The music is equally mawkish. The rescue attempt turns on creating a bad 1950s sci-fi movie aesthetic so think Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Gounod’s Faust.
Glass – Spurren der Verirrten: This was created as a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk for the opening of the new Landestheater in Linz. It’s more ballet/theatre than opera and has nothing resembling a plot. Rather it’s a sort of meditation on the hopelessness of the human condition in a nuclear age. It’s bizarrely like Monty Python reinvented by German intellectuals.
Ligeti – Le Grand Macabre: I know some people consider this to be a great masterpiece but I don’t get it. The scatological humour is laid on with a JCB and the music is pretty much the same. How many fart jokes does one opera need? I stick with my original summary; “it’s like watching a two hour episode of The Two Ronnies accompanied by a band of raccoons with dustbins”.
Meyerbeer- Dinorah: The original goat opera. There’s a cursed treasure but mostly there’s sheep and goats. Goat ballet. Pastoral with sheep and goats. Lullabye to a goat with bagpipe accompaniment. “Ghastly” enchanted glen with pet goat. “Goat ooh” I say, “Goat ooh!”
Mosca – Signor Goldoni: A recent La Fenice commission written, oddly enough, in English. Or at least whatever language it is Jeremy Sams wrote Enchanted Island in. The archangel Rafael conducts the dead Goldoni, a Venetian playwright, to Venice during Carnival where he meets Shakespeare disguised as Othello, more Shakespearean characters and most of the commedia. It’s very odd.
Mozart – Ascanio in Alba: This one gets in for the production. In 2006 the Salzburg Festival did all the Mozart operas including the juvenilia and the turkeys. For Ascanio in Alba they picked up a production from the National Theatre in Mannheim and juiced up the cast by adding Diana Damrau. The production serves as an awful warning as to what happens when less than brilliant directors try to do Regietheater. The gumby android chorus is just the beginning.
Schoenberg – Aron und Moses: Schoenberg’s “opera” is weird enough, being not much more than a long dialogue about opposed theological positions, but the Straub-Huillet film takes “weird” to whole new levels. Think Monty Python’s John Kenneth Longeur with a bit of low budget ’70s soft porn thrown in.