Malmö might not seem the most obvious place to record Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande but in 2016 the opera there assembled a mostly French cast and two young French rising stars; Maxime Pascal as conductor and Benjamin Lazar as director. The result is interesting, rather good and very French.
One has to recalibrate when reviewing productions from the lake stage at Bregenz. The challenges for set designer and director are very different from designing/directing in a conventional theatre. There’s an interview with Es Devlin on the disk of the 2017 production of Bizet’s Carmen that explains the issues very well but broadly it’s a question of creating a single, giant set that can be used throughout the opera and which makes a statement that integrates the work with the environment of the Bodensee. The challenge for the director, as well, as the usual ones, is to communicate the characters and story when they are rather dwarfed by the setting. S/he also has to figure out how to fit the lake itself into the story. I think Devlin and director, Kasper Holten, manage this remarkably well.
Sometimes curiosity just gets the better of me. I rather enjoyed Toronto Operetta Theatre’s production of Oscar Straus’ The Chocolate Soldier so I was prepared to take a look at the 1955 made for TV version directed by Max Liebman. I probably shouldn’t have bothered. There’s so much weird here. First off the plot is changed out of all recognition, besides being cut down to 77 minutes. Nothing much is left apart from the basic idea of the heroine Nadine falling for the Swiss soldier who is chased into her bedroom rather than her bumptious fiancé Alexius. His escape and return are replaced with a silly impersonation of a visiting general and a farcical court martial. In mucking about with the plot most of the humour and essentially all the satire is lost leaving just a very silly and dated Broadway style romcom.
The catalogue is full of La Bohèmes from regional houses sung by serviceable casts. The version recorded at the Teatro Regio Torino in 2016 is another. My reason for wanting to look at it is because the production was directed by Àlex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus and I hoped it would prove as insightful as Stefan Herheim’s Oslo production. It doesn’t really. He gives the piece a fairly gritty modern setting but I don’t think it speaks to our modern insecurities the way Herheim does. Rather it plays pretty much as a gritty 19th century setting, which is, admittedly, vastly preferable to Zeffischenk excess or ne0-Broadway tweeness.
Thackeray thought Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther was so boring and idiotic that he wrote a satirical poem about it (you can find it at the bottom of the page). Massenet’s reaction, alas, was to write a three hour opera based on it. Add to the implausible and dull plot (altered but slightly from Goethe’s original) Massenet’s overblown romantic music and penchant for any sentimentality he can find (at the end, a children’s chorus sings a Christmas song while Werther is bleeding to death in Charlotte’s arms) and it’s well nigh unbearable.
For quite some time I have wondered whether it’s possible to reinterpret Puccini’s Tosca or whether the specificity as to time and place in the libretto makes it effectively impossible? Indeed I had never even seen it tried. All this despite the many and obvious anachronisms in the libretto. All the Toscas I had seen were clearly set in Rome in that one week in 1800 (or at least the implausible version of it that’s contained in the libretto)! Phillip Himmelmann’s production for the 2017 Baden-Baden Easter Festival breaks the mould in giving it a contemporary, or perhaps near future, setting.
The first time I saw a DVD recording of Gluck’s Alceste I put my reaction of utter tedium down to Robert Wilson’s highly stylized and static production. This time I looked at a production, recorded at Staatsoper Stuttgart in 2006, by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Marabito, who did a rather good job on the rather dreary La Somnambula, expecting rather more. Actually I think they have some good ideas but they can’t obscure the fact that this is basically a very dull opera.