What are we to make of Handel’s Ariodante? The plot centres on the notion that female chastity is the be all and end all of life. It’s not a notion that would find much support in 21st century Toronto, even among a Sunday afternoon audience at the Four Seasons Centre. Ginevra, princess of Scotland and heir to the king, is betrothed to Ariodante. Ariodante has a rival, Polinesso who is loved in a besotted kind of way by Ginevra’s maid, Dalinda. Polinesso claims to have slept with Ginevra and offers to prove it to Ariodante. He drugs Ginevra and gets Dalinda to put on Ginevra’s clothes and invite him into her room. Ariodante disappears, apparently having committed suicide in a fit of despair. On the flimsiest of evidence Ginevra, who has no idea what happened, is condemned to death. Her accusers, including her father, don’t even bother to ask who the man in her room was. Polinesso tries to remove the now inconvenient Dalinda from the scene but fails and when Ariodante shows up again she spills the beans. Polinesso is killed by Ariodante’s brother in a duel but not before confessing. All is forgiven and everyone carries on as if nothing in the least traumatising just happened. So, what to do with this?
Richard Jones chose to set his 2009 production of Verdi’s Falstaff in Windsor in 1946. I suspect it’s driven by similar reasoning to Robert Carsen’s 1950s production. Falstaff plays out very nicely as a conflict between an older order of things and a more thrusting kind of bourgeoisie and 1940s/50s England works well for that. The “just after the war” setting also allows Jones to present Fenton as a G.I. which adds another twist to Ford’s distrust of him. Although the jumping off point for Jones and Carsen is the same the results are quite different. Jones seems to be operating in the traditions of English farce, à la Brian Rix, or maybe Carry on films,which works pretty well. Falstaff is a farce rather than a comedy of manners. So, besides the obligatory entrances and exits, couples caught in flagrante etc we also get a certain geometric precision in the blocking that borders on choreography. In Act 1 Scene 2, for instance, the ladies rather military perambulation in a garden of very precisely aligned cabbages is doubled up by Brownies and a rowing four countermarching.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland premiered at the BayerischeStaatsoper in 2007 in a production by Achim Freyer. It’s a curious work. It cleaves fairly closely to Carroll but the beginning and ending are altered to make it clear this is all a dream. In between those two short scenes we get all the familiar stuff; Cheshire Cat, Caterpillar, Tea Party, Croquet Lawn, Trial etc. It’s all staged on a steeply raked stage with a sort of set of “advent calendar” openings. Lines of light are used to suggest scale changes and the characters (almost) all wear mesh masks and have puppet selves too. It’s a look that won costume designer Nina Weitzner an award. Everybody seems to be wearing an aerial wire and there’s a fair bit of flying about. It looks, on the face of it, visually inventive and psychologically convincing.
The Glenn Gould School’s production of Offenbach’s 1864 operetta La belle Hélène opened at Koerner Hall last night. Overall, it’s an enjoyable show with some strong performances though there are aspects of it that, in my view, rather missed the mark. Certainly it made me realise just what a difficult piece to really bring off really well La belle Hélène is. There are some very difficult singing roles and yet they need to sound effortless. It needs the exquisite comic timing of a bedroom farce. There’s also a difficult to define quality; very French and with a sexiness of the “I know it when I see it” variety. I think it was a shortage of this last that was largely the problem last night.
Yesterday the Talisker Players ventured into new territory for them with a program of Irving Berlin songs entitled Puttin’ on the Ritz. I’m no expert on Broadway in general or Tin Pan Alley in particular but, I suppose like most people, I’ve been exposed to a lot of this music through TV and films. The Talisker presentation was interesting and unusual in that they employed a string quartet and two classically trained singers rather than a dance band or a pianist and voices from a different tradition.
And so, at last to Götterdämmerung. The scene with the Norns is dark, very dark. There’s a rope and not much goes on (at least that is visible) but the singing is good. The “dawn” scene comes off more effectively here than the final scene of Siegfried but it’s still not great. I think the problem is a combination of Manfred Jung’s dry, rather nasal tone and Boulez rather fast tempu. It seems rushed rather than ecstatic and the Rhine Journey doesn’t thrill. I was concerned at this point that I was being unfair to a renowned production so I put on the same scene from Kupfer/Barenboim. It’s much better. Siegfried Jerusalem sounds truly heroic, Anne Evans richer tone blends better than Gwyneth Jones’ (though this could be an artefact of the recording) and, crucially, Barenboim gives the singers room to sing before markedly speeding up for the orchestral music. At least there is no naff attempt to depict a literal Grane in Chéreau’s version. At the conclusion of this scene Brian Large pulls off the first of his artsy effects. During the Rhine music he holds a close up of Brünnhilde for a rather long time before pulling out to a full stage shot which he then shrinks until there is just a tiny square of picture in the middle of a black screen which, when he slowly expands it, has transformed to the Gibichung hall. He does the same thing a couple more times. It seems odd to introduce that kind of thing at such a late stage in the cycle.
Chéreau’s Siegfried is even less obviously “industrial” than his Die Walküre. There’s a forge of course but there rather has to be. Other than that we get workshop, forest and lair pretty much as one might imagine until, of course, we end up back at the ruin where Brünnhilde waits. Brian Large injects lots of smoke at every opportunity.