Wagner’s Parsifal has been served rather well on Blu-ray and DVD in the last few years. The 2016 Bayreuth recording is another interesting addition to the list. Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s production is not exactly traditional but it’s not “in your face” conceptual either. The setting is contemporary and various visual clues locate it where Europe meets Asia; perhaps the Southern Caucasus. The grail temple is run down. There are soldiers and refugees and tourists, as well as the Grail knights. There’s plenty of Christian symbolism around. The “swan scene” is played straight. The “communion scene” uses Amfortas as the source of the communion blood; an idea which seems common enough. Here he’s wearing a crown of thorns (and not much else) and there’s lots of blood.
In 2015 the Metropolitan Opera premiered a new production of Verdi’s Otello directed by Bartlett Sher. It was broadcast in the Met in HD series and subsequently released on Blu-ray and DVD. It’s a bit hard to judge the production on video because of the video direction. I don’t think there are any big ideas but it’s decorative enough with arrangements and rearrangements of plexiglass wall/rooms and some effective video projections for things like the storm scene. Only Act 4 breaks the mould with a sparse stage with just a bed and a few chairs. I strongly suspect though from the occasional wide angle shot that there was a lot more going on visually than one sees on the video. Costumes are 19th centuryish and quite decorative.
It’s the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by troops of the Red Army and I’ve been watching a recording of Miecyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger. The opera was written in 1968 but the political climate in the then Soviet Union meant that, despite the advocacy of Dmitri Shostakovich, it had to wait until 2010 before it was given a fully staged performance. That happened, and was recorded, at the Bregenz festival in a production directed by David Pountney.
I rather like recordings from the Macerata Festival where the performances take place in the enormous amphitheatre of the Arena Sferisterio. Bellini’s Norma is a good choice for such as setting and the 2016 production directed by Luigi di Gangi and Ugo Giacomazzi makes good use of the space. It also uses string. The sets are stringy. The very scruffy Gauls wear shapeless tunics with lots of string over them. The slightly smarter Romans also wear string. And everybody plays with string. There are more strings than in the Princeton Physics Department. There’s lots of face paint too. The production also makes use of a spectacular multi-coloured lighting plot but, apart from the visuals, is pretty conventional and straightforward.
Verdi’s sixth opera, I due Foscari, is probably not well known to many readers so a brief description may be in order. It’s a rather grim tale of injustice and revenge. Francesco Foscari is the aged Doge of Venice. His son, Jacopo, has been stitched up by the family rival Jacopo Loredano and exiled to Crete. He returns to try and clear his name but is fitted up again. This time for the murder of one Donato. Despite torture he refuses to confess and is sentenced to return to exile in Crete. The first three quarters of the opera is mostly either father or son bemoaning their fate (Francesco has already lost three sons. Lady Bracknell would be unimpressed) or Lucrezia, Jacopo’s wife, pleading for mercy to anyone who will listen. Then there’s a final scene where Francesco receives proof of his son’s innocence, closely followed by news of his death, closely followed by news that the Council and Senate are sacking him. Loredano gloats. Foscari dies. Structurally it’s very much a “numbers” opera with a succession of short scenes mostly featuring various combinations of the three Foscaris and the chorus. There are a lot of quite sophisticated ensemble pieces as well as a couple of solo arias for each of the principals. It’s musically rather distinguished in fact. The three Foscari roles are big sings. Nobody else has much to do.
I keep trying with Bellini’s I Puritani. People I respect admire it a lot but I just cannot find a way to like it despite there being, undoubtedly, some very fine music in Acts 2 and 3. I think there are, essentially, two problems and I could maybe cope with either in isolation but taken together my brain just starts to turn off. The first is plot and there are two huge problems with this piece. It’s complete garbage historically. It makes Donizetti’s Tudor operas look like Geoffrey Elton. But worse, it makes no sense in it’s own terms. It’s just a string of improbable coincidences. The second problem is emotional dissonance. Too often the emotional tenor of the music is just way inappropriate to the stage action. This is common to all bel canto of course and on its own I can deal. I just can’t take the two things together.
Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker is a well known, rather avant garde Belgian choreographer and not, perhaps, the obvious choice to direct an opera production but that’s the assignment she took at Opéra nationale de Paris in 2017 with Mozart’s Così fan tutte which was recorded at the Palais Garner. Her approach is to double each of the six characters with a dancer and develop an elaborate, largely abstract and severely modern choreography for all twelve players though, naturally enough, with the more technical dance elements going to the dancers. The choreography, as is apparently often the case with De Keersmaeker is explicitly geometric. The stage is marked with circles and other geometric figures which inform or constrain the choreography. Much of the time this results in a lot of running round in circles or standing in semicircles swaying backwards and forwards. Indeed right up to Ah, guarda, sorella that’s pretty much all that happens though as things hot up emotionally the dancers get more to do with most of the big arias being paired with a dance solo and so on.