In 2015 the Metropolitan Opera premiered a new production of Verdi’s Otello directed by Bartlett Sher. It was broadcast in the Met in HD series and subsequently released on Blu-ray and DVD. It’s a bit hard to judge the production on video because of the video direction. I don’t think there are any big ideas but it’s decorative enough with arrangements and rearrangements of plexiglass wall/rooms and some effective video projections for things like the storm scene. Only Act 4 breaks the mould with a sparse stage with just a bed and a few chairs. I strongly suspect though from the occasional wide angle shot that there was a lot more going on visually than one sees on the video. Costumes are 19th centuryish and quite decorative.
For some reason the Metropolitan opera decided, in 2014, to give an HD broadcast to Otto Schenk’s 1993 version of Dvorák’s Rusalka with revival direction by Laurie Feldman. This production must have seriously old fashioned even then and actually looks and feels like it was created fifty years before the opera was written. It’s not just the dark, dreary, over detailed Arthur Rackham like sets and costumes or even the the stock acting and the lame choreography. The biggest problem is that it completely ignores that Rusalka is essentially about sex and its pathologies. Does Schenk think that Rusalka wants to hold hands with the Prince at the cinema or take the Foreign Princess to the ball instead of Rusalka? You would think so from this Disneyfied version. Has the man even heard of Freud (let’s be clear Dvorák had)? The result then is stultifyingly dull and actually just rather silly. I’ve seen panto with more psychological depth.
It’s nearly five years since I saw the MetHD broadcast of Carmen with Alagna and Garanča. I remember being quite impressed at the time. Watching it again on Blu-ray I came away with a less favourable impression. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s not. It just feels a bit lacklustre in a very crowded field. Let’s start with the positives. Elina Garanča is a very good Carmen. She sings superbly and grows into the role dramatically as the work progresses. She’s also a very good dancer and the production exploits that. In fact dance is used very well throughout with specialist dancers used to stage a sort of prologue to each act as well as the obvious places being reinforced with “real” dancers. As always, the Met doesn’t stint on this element and the dancers used are first rate.
After all the negatives about McAnuff Faust my expectations for this afternoon’s HD broadcast were pretty low. I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t think the production is perfect but I don’t think it’s incoherent let alone dull. It also made me think a lot about the opera and the characters and that’s a good thing. Overall, it’s the sort of production I’d like to see more of. Far better a production that slightly over reaches than dull mediocrity.
I thought it opened quite strongly which is probably because Marguerite hardly appears in the first two acts. The idea of Faust as a disillusioned atomic scientist is a neat one though it might fit better with Goethe or Marlowe’s knowledge seeking Faust than Gounod’s rather shallow pleasure seeker. Still there’s a certain coherence in then moving back in time to the point where the events that lead to Hiroshima begin; in the first world war. It began to unravel a little bit as McAnuff tried to get to grips with Marguerite and I think it’s clear why. Marguerite simply isn’t a real human character which is massively problematic as the story becomes largely about her. She’s a projection of mid 19th century male neuroses about women; the “Angel in the House” personified. That’s not a character that can be sympathetically portrayed to a 21st century audience or easily placed in a 20th century setting. Add on to that the rather repellent religiosity of the final scene and we can that the problem here is not McAnuff but Gounod and his librettist. To McAnuff’s credit what he doesn’t do is fall back on slapstick humour to cover the bits that are essentially impossible to stage as written. He sticks with the core of the libretto story but it’s a stretch to find Valentin’s reaction to his sister’s seduction believable. Similarly the soldiers’ chorus in Act 3 rings hollow. The sentiments are not those of people who have come back from Verdun as anyone who has ever tried to talk to a WW1 veteran will know (my grandfather served on the Somme and at third Ypres). I liked McAnuff’s attempt to desentimentalise this scene but it didn’t go nearly far enough. The Walpurgis Night scene seemed like a missed opportunity too. The element of decadent glamour was completely absent which seems odd to me given the time periods chosen. I liked the ironic use of humour in Mephistopheles character. It was balanced and that’s important again because irony is not a mid Victorian strong suit as anybody who has ever read back issues of Punch will know. I’d watch it again quite happily and I’m sure I would see any number of things I missed first time through.
Musically it was top class all the way through. Nezet-Seguin has this score down pat. The singers were all terrific. Pape was athletic vocally and physically and played his role with real panache. Kaufmann was almost overpowering for the role (though that might be the usual overblown cinema sound) and Poplavskaya was utterly committed to her interpretation. I thought she sang as well as I have ever heard her. Top marks too to the ever reliable Russell Braun and, new to me, Michele Losier.
Technically this was better than many of the Met broadcasts. Mostly the camera direction respected the rather clear way in which the stage picture was set up. Sound got muddy at times but wasn’t too bad (though there were a few drop outs). I suspect I’ll buy the DVD when it becomes available. I want to take another look at the production and better than cinema quality sound will be a bonus.
Final thought; the interval interviews are starting to get utterly tedious. Someone think up some new questions please. Even Danni de Niesse bubbling over couldn’t wring any life out of them.