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.
There’s been a lot of opera related programming broadcast on BBC TV recently. Probably the biggest event was Jonas Kaufmann’s role debut as Otello in the Verdi opera conducted by Antonio Pappano but there’s also been a 90 minute documentary on Kaufmann and a two part series called Lucy Worsley’s Nights at the Opera and a broadcast of Brett Dean’s new Hamlet from Glyndebourne. I haven’t yet watched the Hamlet but here are some thoughts on the other three shows, plus an extra bonus.
What’s become of David McVicar? His 2015 production of Giodarno’s Andrea Chénier for the Royal Opera House seems typical of his recent work. It looks expensive. It features a starry cast. He flirts with dramatic risk but in the last analysis it comes off as a bit tame and even sloppy. Basically when the principals are at the centre of the drama it’s compelling stuff but when they are not it’s not and there are curious inconsistencies.
The 2014 recording of Verdi’s La forza del destino from the Bayerischen Staatsoper has the kind of cast one hardly dares dream of. The elusive Anja Harteros sings Leonora with the almost equally hard to catch Jonas Kaufmann as Alvaro. Chucking in Ludovic Tézier as Don Carlo and Vitalij Kowaljow doubling the Marchese and Padre Guardiano only improves matters and the rest of the cast is very good indeed. It was pretty much sure to be a winner and it is.
UoT’s show Porgi amor consisted of a series of staged and costumed scenes from Mozart operas with linking commentary, all designed by Michael Patrick Albano. The operas ranged from La finta giardiniera to La clemenza di Tito with all the major bases in between covered off. The emphasis was on ensemble numbers and providing opportunities for as many singers as possible so there was a cast of thousands. It was well structured, quite slick and there was some very decent singing. One expects a reasonably high standard from UoT Opera and we got it. As I usually do with this kind of show I’ll refrain from a play-by-play and just talk about a few highlights and do some “talent spotting”.
Jonas Kaufmann made a double role debut as Turiddu and Canio in the classic verismo double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 2015, The productions were directed by Philipp Stölzl and Christian Thielemann conducted with the Staatskapelle Dresden in the pit.
Fidelio is an interesting piece. The music is great and it has a powerful, very straightforward, plot. There are no convoluted subplots here. But there is a lot of spoken dialogue which slows things down. Is it necessary? Claus Guth doesn’t think so and in his 2015 Salzburg production he replaces the dialogue with ambient noise and also doubles up Leonora and Don Pizarro with silent actor “shadows”; the former using sign language in the manner of the narrator character in Guth’s Messiah. It works remarkably well. The ambient noise sections are quite disturbing and the “shadows” add some depth, especially the frantic signing in the final scene. Perhaps worth noting that the “noise” contains a lot of very low bass and precise spatial location. It may need a pretty good sound system to have the intended effect.