Yesterday I finally managed to do something bike related in conjunction with Bicycle Opera Project’s current tour of Sweat. I got an early train out to Aldershot, biked to Hamilton and joined up with the bike tour of historic Hamilton organised by the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre to complement the opera, before seeing the afternoon performance of Sweat at WAHC. I’ll add some bikey/historical observations at the end but since this is an opera blog let’s cut to the chase.
Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Berg’s Lulu (it’s the three act version with the Cerha completion) recorded at Brussel’s La Monnaie in 2012 is so stuffed full of symbolism it’s really hard to fully unpack. There’s a sense that Lulu represents Everywoman, for some rather twisted definition of “woman”. She’s Lilith. She’s Pandora. She’s the Black Swan and the White Swan. She’s lost or corrupted childhood and she’s love gone wrong. Maybe she’s even the phantom of Berg’s estranged daughter. All these symbols recur again and again in various combinations. In fact, on DVD, it’s pretty much impossible to keep track of them.
Phyllida Lloyd’s 2000 BBC film of Britten’s Gloriana, based on her production for Opera North, is quite fascinating. The bonus interviews reveal the utter disdain for films/videos of stage opera productions held by pretty much everyone involved in the project. It’s an interesting perspective to hear in a world where Cinema and streaming HD broadcasts are increasingly common and where Blu-ray/DVD has clearly overtaken CD as the preferred medium for opera recordings. In some ways, of course, it’s because the technology has improved enormously. DVD was still relatively new in 2000 and widescreen, flat screen TVs were yet to come. In any event, this attitude led to the creation of a rather interesting film.
A new recording of Britten’s Gloriana is to be welcomed, even when it’s less than perfect. It’s an unusual work for Britten. It’s very grand. The orchestra is large and the music doesn’t seem to be as transparent and detailed as much of his work. This is especially true in Act 1 where I almost wondered whether Britten was sending up “grand opera”. It’s also a grand opera sort of plot. The libretto is based on Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex and deals with the late life romance between the queen and the young Robert Devereux, earl of Essex and deputy in Ireland. It has some fine moments; notably the lute songs in Act 2 and the choral dances in Act 2. Act 3 is also dramatically quite effective; dealing with Essex’ abortive rebellion and execution. Curiously, in the final scene, Britten resorts to a lot of spoken dialogue, as he does briefly with Balstrode’s admonition in Peter Grimes. It’s almost as if he has no musical vocabulary for the highest emotional states; a sort of anti-Puccini.
Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, which premiered at Glyndebourne in 1946, is an interesting work in a number of ways. Musically it marks a distinct break from Peter Grimes and anticipates the later operas in a number of significant ways. It’s written for much lighter forces than Grimes; string quintet, wind quintet plus harp, percussion and piano and there’s no chorus (in the conventional sense). It’s also not a “numbers” piece. There are no set pieces here. The orchestral writing is spare and somewhat dissonant with that absolute clarity that is so characteristic of Britten. Sometimes this almost distracts from the drama on stage.
Mitridate, rè di Ponto is a three act opera seria by a fourteen year old kid called Mozart with a libretto based on Racine. Like most operas with a libretto based on Racine, and there are many, it isn’t exactly a barrel load of laughs. While it’s fair to say that the music may well be the best ever composed by a fourteen year old and it is recognisably Mozart it’s still not really quite enough to carry three hours of recitative and da capo arias about the troubled love life and familial relations of a first century BC King of Pontus and his fractious sons. In short, it gets a bit tedious. For a modern audience it’s not improved by the fact that all the male voices are high. Originally the score called for three castrati and two tenors. In the 1993 Royal Opera House production two of the three castrato roles were taken by mezzos and the third, inevitably the baddy, by a countertenor. For the record, here’s the full cast:
The director – Graham Vick, designer – Paul Brown and choreographer – Ron Howell do a pretty good job of injecting some life into the production with fairly extreme use of colour in the costume design, sets and makeup. The choreography and blocking is also quite striking at times but it still ends up being rather a wash of coloratura. The singers too do a worthy job but after a while it all starts to sound the same. Good work too from conductor, Paul Daniel, and the ROH orchestra but ultimately a bit blah.
Video director Derek Bailey does a pretty good job for the period. It’s hard to object to closing in on the singer during a da capo aria and he does pull out when there is stage wide action. He’s not helped by pretty average picture quality that lacks the definition needed to make long shots fully effective. Technically it’s a typical Kultur release of the period. The less than brilliant picture is coupled with so-so Dolby 2.0 sound, hard coded English sub-titles and minimum documentation. It’s also a bit quirky in that the overture comes on, with lead in credits, as soon as the disc is inserted. There’s no “set-up” menu.