Here’s a preview of things to see/listen to next week. It’s Met in HD season again and the next two Saturdays have broadcasts. On the 7th it’s Bellini’s Norma with Sondra Radvanovsky and Joyce DiDonato. It’s a David McVicar production and no prizes for guessing what happens when you cross McVicar and druids. On the 14th it’s Die Zauberflöte with the Resident Groundhog conducting. It’s the Julie Taymor production but given in full in German rather than the abridged ‘for kids” version. The best thing about the cast is René Pape’s Sarastro.
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.
In the booklet accompanying David McVicar’s production of Le nozze di Figaro, recorded at the Royal Opera house in 2006, there’s an essay by the director in which he raises all kinds of questions about the rise of the bourgeoisie, the nature of revolution and romantic conceptions of love. He even appears to draw a parallel between Joseph II and Tony Blair. Then he declines to explain how he has embodied all these ideas on the stage and challenges us to “Watch, listen, participate”. Well I did and I’m none the wiser. What I see her is an essentially traditional approach; transferred cosmetically to 1830s France but so what? It’s darker than some Figaro’s but not nearly as dark as, say, Guth. Curiously, the main “extra” on the disks “Stage directions encoded in the music” tees this up much more clearly than the essay.
Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda featured in the MetHD series in January 2013 and has now been released on DVD. My review of the cinema broadcast is here. It’s always a bit different watching the DVD rather than the cinema version but in this case I think my somewhat different reaction has a lot to do with having recently seen various versions of the other Schiller/Donizetti Tudor queen operas, especially Stephen Lawless’ Roberto Devereux at the COC.
The 2003 Royal Opera House recording of Die Zauberflöte has a terrific cast and it has Sir Colin Davis conducting. The production is by David McVicar and it’s one of those that make one wonder how he ever got a “bad boy” reputation. It’s perfectly straightforward though rather dark (emotionally and physically) and has a vaguely 18th century vibe. In places it seems a bit minimalist, as if the director couldn’t really be bothered with things like the Trials. The interview material rather suggests that McVicar was a bit overawed by doing Mozart with the great Sir Colin and tried very hard to match his rather old fashioned theatrical sensibilities.
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is one of those pieces that really deserves the descriptor “sprawling epic” and, if anyone can make an epic sprawl it’s David McVicar. This production, recorded at the Royal Opera House in 2012, is typical of McVicar’s more recent work. It’s visually rather splendid and the action is well orchestrated but it’s short on ideas and long on McVicar visual cliches; acrobats, gore and urchins (but mercifully no animals). I don’t want to be too hard on McVicar. This piece is based on the sort of “Ancient History” one used to learn at prep school (British usage) and McVicar pretty much runs with that making no attempt to find deeper meaning, despite superficially translating at least the first two acts to the time of first performance; the era of European colonialism.
Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, which premiered at Glyndebourne in 1946, is an interesting work in a number of ways. Musically it marks a distinct break from Peter Grimes and anticipates the later operas in a number of significant ways. It’s written for much lighter forces than Grimes; string quintet, wind quintet plus harp, percussion and piano and there’s no chorus (in the conventional sense). It’s also not a “numbers” piece. There are no set pieces here. The orchestral writing is spare and somewhat dissonant with that absolute clarity that is so characteristic of Britten. Sometimes this almost distracts from the drama on stage.