I’ve tried several times in the past to watch the DVD recording of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole and never made it past the second scene, which is revolting and, I still think, rather patronising. This time though I made it all the way through and I think, taken as a whole, this is a pretty impressive piece with a clever libretto and some real musical depth. It’s also, in the true and technical sense, a tragedy, and a very operatic one at that.
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.
Damiano Michieletto’s production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera House in 2015 was controversial because of the replacement of the Act 3 scene where Austrian soldiers force Swiss girls to dance with them with something far more explicit. It is a tough scene to watch but it’s absolutely consistent with a very thoughtful overall approach to the piece. After all what do occupying troops do with village girls? The director, rightly I think, sees the piece as being about the brutality of military occupation and colonialism but also recognises that the Tell legend, especially in its Schiller version is overlaid with euphemising Romanticism. Michieletto’s production both strips away and draws attention to the Romanticisation. He sets the piece in a roughly contemporary setting. To me, the civilians look 1950s but Gesler’s men look more modern. The actual action is played out unsentimentally, indeed brutally, in this time period. The ballets, one of the principal euphemising agents, are all replaced by more realistic action. To draw attention to how the legend has been transmitted two devices are introduced. Tell’s son Jemmy has a comic book version of Schiller which he consults at key points and there’s a silent character; medieval Tell, straight out of the legend with feathered cap etc who appears whenever the morale of actual Tell or the Swiss in general needs a boost. It sounds a bit corny but it really does the job.
One rather gets the feeling that the 2016 Glyndebourne production of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia was built around the lady of the house. It makes a lot of sense. There may have been better singers in the role of Rosina but I doubt there has ever been a better mover than Danielle de Niese. She’s matched move for move, eye candy for eye candy by the guys; Björn Burger as Figaro and Taylor Stayton as Almaviva. There’s more mature comedy from the always fantastic Alessandro Corbelli as Bartolo and the irrepressible Janis Kelly as Berta.
There are some seriously obscure Rossini operas and Il signor Bruschino is one of them. It’s scarcely an opera at all really. It’s a one act farsa running about an hour and a quarter. By the time he wrote this one at age twenty Rossini has already had several hits in the genre and knew how to pull out a crowd pleaser but oddly Il signor Bruschini was a colossal flop. The plot was too convoluted and the music too advanced for the tastes of the farsistas. If one wanted to think about the plot one went to a proper opera house like La fenice rather than the fairly obscure Venetian theatre where the work premiered. It even offended the critics by, horror of horrors, asking the second violins to tap on their music stands with their bows during certain passages of the sinfonia.
Rossini’s Maometto II is one of those pieces that has a somewhat complex performance history. The recent David Alden production seen at Santa Fe and the COC was a carefully reconstructed edition of the original Naples production of 1820 which was considered musically radical at the time. Two years later, for Venice, Rossini produced a new version with cuts, new music and borrowings from other works. He also changed the ending to a happy one. The net effect is a far more conventional bel canto opera. That Venice version forms the basis of the only video recording in the catalogue, recorded at La Fenice in 2005.
The 2016 Salzburg recording of Gounod’s Faust is challenging. Perhaps the nine pages of the booklet given over to a concept discussion with the directors should have given me sufficient warning that this was not going to be Faust à la Met. It’s not. It’s extremely complex and I’m not sure I fully understand it or whether all the ideas work but I did find it fascinating visually and dramatically, and musically it’s top notch. That said, traditionalists can save themselves a trip to the ER by walking away now.