Daniele Abbado’s production of Verdi’s Nabucco, recorded at Covent Garden in 2013 was the vehicle for Placido Domingo taking on yet another Verdi baritone role. It’s set in the 1940’s because, Jews. At least it’s costumed that way because nothing else about the production has any kind of sense of time or place. It’s virtually monochrome and quite abstract. The Temple is represented by a set of upright rectangular blocks which are toppled at the appropriate moment. The idol of Baal is a sort of wire frame that comes apart rather undramatically and so on. There’s also nothing in the direction to suggest any kind of concept. It’s quite straightforward with rather a lot of “park and bark”. There’s some use of video projections behind and above the action but it’s rather hard to figure them out on video as they tend to appear in shot rather fleetingly.
Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci are not only a commonly coupled pair of operas but pretty much define the genre we call verismo. It’s a curious genre in a lot of ways. Musically it defines a style, brought to its highest state by Puccini, that is a sort of Fukuyama-esque “end of opera” after which everything is, for a section of the opera audience, modern, inaccessible and frightening. It’s also dramatically an attempt to get away from stories from myth and history and root the drama in “stories of everyday folk”. Which is fine, I suppose, if one believes the only things “everyday folk” care about are female constancy and the more pagan end of Catholicism for these stories tend to be a touch unsubtle; “she done him wrong so he killed her” (and her dog and he probably crashed her truck too). It’s actually quite ironic that Puccini, held up as the arch exponent of verismo, rarely actually goes down this path. Il Tabarro perhaps, maybe Suor Angelica, at a stretch Tosca but in large part his material is drawn from the usual well of opera plots. So Cav and Pag is interesting as almost pure verismo.
Richard Eyre’s production of La Traviata at the Royal Opera House, filmed in 2009, is a pretty good example of how to do a traditional production. There’s nothing conceptual or thought provoking to it but the direction is careful and tells the story clearly and well. The designs are mid 19th century with crinolines and tail coats but with the odd imaginative touch and a welcome refusal to succumb to the “more stuff” syndrome that plagues so many Verdi and Puccini productions. Backed up by excellent music making it probably makes a near ideal introduction to the piece, even if it won’t entirely displace Willy Decker’s brilliant and disturbing Salzburg production in my affections.