A couple of years ago I produced a series of “best of” lists for video recordings, which I’ve updated from time to time. One can find them on the Index of DVD reviews page. So, for fun, I thought I’d put together a “weirdest” list. Mostly this captures operas that are intrinsically weird but I’ve included the odd recording where the director has gone a bit nuts in an attempt to get something out of non too promising material. So, in alphabetical order by composer, here is the “weird list”. Continue reading
Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine was a huge hit in Paris, London and New York when it premiered in 1865. I’m not sure why. It has all of the things that make Meyerbeer seem very dated and not as much of the good stuff as Les Huguenots, or even Dinorah. It’s ostensibly about Vasco de Gama but that’s just a peg to pin a love triangle and a bunch of exoticism on. Are we actually supposed to believe that the Portugese wanted to find a way around the Cape to find out what was there? It would have been a lot easier to get hold of a copy of Herodotus. It’s also long. Even with cuts it runs well over three hours in the version recorded at San Francisco Opera in 1988.
Meyerbeer’s Dinorah ou le Pardon de Ploërmel must be a very strong candidate for the silliest opera ever written. It concerns a young girl, Dinorah, who is deserted on her wedding day by her fiancé Hoël who disappears in search of a cursed treasure. She goes mad. There’s sheep and goat ballet, a lullabye to a goat accompanied on the bagpipes, more sheep and goat ballet and a scene where Dinorah sings a very difficult aria to her own shadow. There’s a “ghastly” enchanted glen scene at the end of which Dinorah, pursuing her pet goat, falls into a river; apparently fatally. Rather than resolve this we then get another half hour of pastoral with a hunter and a reaper and assorted shepherdesses and, inevitably, dancing sheep and goats before Hoël shows up having rescued Dinorah. He persuades her that the last twelve months have all been a bad dream and they get married accompanied by much pious singing.
In many ways Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots is a typical mid 19th century French grand opéra. It takes a sweeping, epic story; in this case the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and grafts onto it the elements the paying public demanded; spectacle, ballet, showpiece arias etc. The result is unwieldy and, when applied to such grim subject matter, almost grotesque. The 1991 Deutsche Oper production by John Dew (performed in German as Die Hugenotten) takes these disparate elements and works with them; mixing laugh out loud and extremely grim to create a piece of music theatre that is truly disturbing.
It’s 1990 and Dame Joan Sutherland is retiring. Australian Opera decide to stage Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots as a farewell gala. In some ways it’s an odd choice as the Sutherland character, Marguerite de Valois, only appears in two of the five acts of an opera that’s rather long despite cuts. Still, as a vehicle for an ageing coloratura it’s not a bad choice. The production is by Lotfi Mansouri so there is nothing to get in the way of the plot and, by the same token, nothing much to think about. It’s also, equally characteristically, quite dark in places. Everything then rests on the performances. Continue reading