Once in a while one comes across a disk that sounds like it could be interesting but turns out to be a bit of a bust. That was certainly my experience with the recording of Mozart’s Davide penitente recorded in Salzburg during Mozart Week in 2015. On the face of it using the Felsenreitschule for something like its original purpose isn’t such a bad idea and the idea of choreographed horse “ballet” to a Mozart cantata is quite intriguing. On the face of it…
Despite a thin to non-existent plot and music that sounds like a remix of all the other Offenbach operettas, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, performed by largely French forces and recorded at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 2004 is a highly enjoyable romp. The plot centres on the susceptibility of the Grand-Duchess to fall rather hard for younger men. This makes it a perfect vehicle for Felicity Lott who rather seems to specialise in such roles; whether Strauss’ Marschallin or La Belle Hélène. She’s brilliant. She sings gorgeously except where she doesn’t want to and her comic timing is impeccable. She’s well backed up by Yann Beuron as the young soldier Fritz who she promotes from private to général-en-chef without swaying his affections for his sweetheart Wanda sung by the irrepressible and cute Sandrine Piau. The slapstick element is provided by François Le Roux, as Le Général Boum, Franck Leguérinet as Le Baron Puck and Eric Huchet as Le Prince Paul who are set on getting the Grand-Duchess to marry Paul even if it means murdering Fritz. They get lots of up tempo numbers that sound as if they are singing a Korean restaurant menu.
Gounod’s Mireille is a bit of a rarity and with good reason. It’s got everything that modern audiences find hard to take in 19th century French opera. It’s revoltingly wholesome with a bit of the supernatural, some patriarchal nastiness and a whole lot of Catholic schmaltz thrown in culminating in a final scene where the dying heroine (of course the heroine dies!) is carried off to heaven by angels while everybody else is suitably pious. It also has some pretty good tunes and a fiendishly difficult soprano lead part.
The 2011 production of Handel’s Alcina at the Wiener Staatsoper marked the first time Handel, or any other baroque work, had appeared in the house since Karajan’s reign in the 1960s. In mounting it they went big. There’s a starry cast headed by Anja Harteros, Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre – Grenoble, a large group of dancers and former Royal Shakespeare Company boss Adrian Nobel. It paid off.
Klaus Michael Grüber’s production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, recorded at the Aix-en-Provence festival in 2000, is both stylish and stylised. The stage and costume designs, by Gilles Aillaud and Rudy Sabounghi, are extremely elegant and, at times, very beautiful. The Seneca scenes at the beginning of Act 2, set in a sort of lemon grove, are especially effective as ai the use of painterly backdrops looking like Greek vase paintings reinterpreted by a fauviste. The director complements the designs with a somewhat formalised acting style that fits rather well. He also makes some changes to the narrative to tighten up the drama, dispensing with Ottavia’s nurse and ending with Pur tí miro, rather than Poppea’s coronation. Coupled with excellent acting performances it’s a straightforward but effective way to tell the story.
Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail is perhaps the most difficult of his major operas to bring off successfully. I dealt with some of the issues in a review of Hans Neuenfel’s production so I won’t repeat myself here. Jérôme Deschamps and Macha Makeïff’s production for the Aix-en-Provence Festival, filmed in 2004, has several interesting features that cast an interesting light on the main characters. The most drastic is the treatment of Osmin. Here he’s rather dignified and far from the fat, brutal, somewhat comic lecher of convention. That side of his character is conveyed by five, mostly silent, sidekicks. These guys are everywhere, portraying both Osmin’s baser nature and the “walls have eyes and ears” aspects of the story. They are made to look rather dim and get some fairly funny business to play with. Next we have Bassa Selim played by a dancer. This makes it easier to portray him as sensitive but not a wimp through the use of extremely virile choreography. Clever! Finally, both Pedrillo and Blondchen are sung by people of colour. That can’t be a coincidence. It certainly puts a very interesting spin on the confrontation between Osmin and Blondchen about how English girls are different from Turks. These ideas are played out against rather dramatically colourful sets and costumes with lots of comic business to make a fast paced and enjoyable romp that makes one think just enough about the underlying meanings.
It’s really hard to know where to start with Hans Neuenfels’ Die Fledermaus. It’s a prodcuction that enraged the more conventional patrons when it opened at the Salzburg Festival in 2001. It even provoked a “false pretences” lawsuit! There is so much going on that it almost seems to call for a catalogue raisonnée of the various scenes though one fears that would actually be both tedious and unhelpful. Let’s try instead to explore it thematically. Neuenfels takes very considerable liberties with the libretto. A lot of dialogue is cut, a lot is added and numerous non-canonical characters are inserted. That’s just a start.