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.
Franco Faccio’s 1865 work Amleto disappeared from the opera repertoire after the disastrous opening night of its 1871 revival at La Scala only to be “rediscovered” in recent years and featured at the 2016 Bregenz Festival. It was Faccio’s second, and last opera, though he enjoyed a career as a conductor, that included eighteen years as Music Director at La Scala before being institutionalized due to the effects of syphilis. So, one naturally asks, is it any good? The answer is an emphatic “yes”. It’s not only good but seems quite advanced for an Italian opera of that date. It’s closer in spirit to Puccini than bel canto. Indeed the soliloquy Essere o non essere sounds curiously like E lucevan le stelle. It’s similar to later Verdi and, indeed, Puccini in that it’s through sung with recitative like passages and set piece arias and ensemble numbers and it’s more conventionally tonal than its contemporary Tristan und Isolde. Arguably the orchestral writing is more interesting than that for voice (Ophelia’s funeral march is very fine) and certainly the weakest parts are the ensembles. It’s probably also fair to say that there is no big hummable melody. Still, Faccio was twenty five when he wrote it and there aren’t many better operas by twenty five year olds.
Eugen d’Albert is largely forgotten as a composer but his seventh (of twenty) opera, Tiefland, is still performed occasionally in German speaking countries. It’s an odd work. The plot is melodramatic with a cloying degree of sentimentality; sort of Mascagni meets Gounod, while the music is like pastoral Wagner (think the way the woodwinds are used in Tristan) with touches of Carmen and, just occasionally, hints of Sullivan (one of d’Albert’s teachers). For a 1903 work it feels curiously retro.
André Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice was written in the years leading up to his premature death in 1982 but, despite interest from ENO in the 1980s, it did not get a full performance until David Pountney decided to stage it at the the 2013 Bregenz Festival with Keith Warner directing. It’s hard to explain the neglect though Pountney ascribes it some degree as the fate of the emigré (the composer being a Polish Jew domiciled in the UK). The Merchant of Venice is a really solid piece. It’s got all the elements; a strong story, a really interesting but not overly intimidating score and really good writing for voice (it really is singable). It’s the right length at around two and a half hours and it doesn’t call for unreasonable orchestral or vocal forces. John O’Brien’s libretto even manages to overcome some of the objections to staging Shakespeare’s play. While one might consider the Shakespeare piece to be antisemitic, O’Brien’s libretto is much more clearly about anti-semitism. There’s also a clear homoerotic element in the Antonio – Bassanio relationship and perhaps too in Portia – Nerissa.
I’m really not sure what to make of Jürgen Flimm’s 2004 production of Fidelio for the Zürich Opera House. It’s not offensive and it doesn’t really get in the way of the story but it seems quite devoid of originality beyond mixing styles in a way one might describe as anachronistic if one could figure out when synchronistic would be. Rocco wears a sort of frock coat with, apparently, goatskin pants, Marzellina’s dress looks probably 20th century, bolt action magazine fed rifles are apparently muzzle loaded and metal cartridge cases filled by hand. Then to cap it off when Don Fernando shows up he looks like he’s stepped straight out of a Zeffirelli production of Der Rosenkavalier. So “nul points” for coherence. For once one rather appreciates that so much of the action takes place in the dark.
Matthias Hartmann’s staging of Carmen for the Opernhaus Zürich recorded in 2008 is starkly simple but very beautiful and provides a perfect vehicle for the considerable talents of Vesselina Kasarova and Jonas Kaufmann. The set consists of a plain backdrop and a raised elliptical disk, reminiscent of a bull ring. A few, very few, props are added as needed. A dog lies asleep at the front of the set (replaced by a cattle skull in the final act).
Spuren der Verirrten (The Lost) is described on the box as an opera by Philip Glass. That’s pretty misleading. It’s more a theatre piece/ballet by David Pountney and Amin Hosseinpour with a soundtrack by Philip Glass. It was created for the opening of the new Landestheater Linz at the instigation of Artistic Director Rainer Mennicken (carefully trimmed beard, wire rimmed glasses) who wanted a piece that would encapsulate all the various theatrical forms the new building would stage, as well as show off its technical capabilities. Mennicken also wrote the “libretto” based on a highly abstract play by Peter Handke which seems to deal with the hopelessness of the human condition in some sort of post apocalyptic world. There’s no plot as such and the work unfolds in a series of scenes. For example there’s a ballerina point shoeing across the stage followed by a “spectator” in the auditorium commenting on the action followed by dancers with roadsigns followed by a Gumby like couple sitting under a table followed by more narration. Then come more dancers in Hosseinpour’s signature “jerky” style followed by a woman with an anti-nuclear sign having a row with her boyfriend in front of a giant green brain. And that’s just the first ten minutes of a piece that goes on for nearly two hours. Along the way we get a reality TV show in which the characters discuss whether a serial killer is worse than a goalkeeper who lets in a soft goal, a confrontation between the patriarch Abraham and a giant rabbit and a scene where a naked woman cuddles a human head while two dancers do the fish slapping dance around her. The piece concludes with the orchestra on stage and the chorus in the pit miming playing instruments and singing “blah, blah, blah” which actually fits the music pretty well.