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.
I’ve tried several times in the past to watch the DVD recording of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole and never made it past the second scene, which is revolting and, I still think, rather patronising. This time though I made it all the way through and I think, taken as a whole, this is a pretty impressive piece with a clever libretto and some real musical depth. It’s also, in the true and technical sense, a tragedy, and a very operatic one at that.
Damiano Michieletto’s production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera House in 2015 was controversial because of the replacement of the Act 3 scene where Austrian soldiers force Swiss girls to dance with them with something far more explicit. It is a tough scene to watch but it’s absolutely consistent with a very thoughtful overall approach to the piece. After all what do occupying troops do with village girls? The director, rightly I think, sees the piece as being about the brutality of military occupation and colonialism but also recognises that the Tell legend, especially in its Schiller version is overlaid with euphemising Romanticism. Michieletto’s production both strips away and draws attention to the Romanticisation. He sets the piece in a roughly contemporary setting. To me, the civilians look 1950s but Gesler’s men look more modern. The actual action is played out unsentimentally, indeed brutally, in this time period. The ballets, one of the principal euphemising agents, are all replaced by more realistic action. To draw attention to how the legend has been transmitted two devices are introduced. Tell’s son Jemmy has a comic book version of Schiller which he consults at key points and there’s a silent character; medieval Tell, straight out of the legend with feathered cap etc who appears whenever the morale of actual Tell or the Swiss in general needs a boost. It sounds a bit corny but it really does the job.
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.
Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci are not only a commonly coupled pair of operas but pretty much define the genre we call verismo. It’s a curious genre in a lot of ways. Musically it defines a style, brought to its highest state by Puccini, that is a sort of Fukuyama-esque “end of opera” after which everything is, for a section of the opera audience, modern, inaccessible and frightening. It’s also dramatically an attempt to get away from stories from myth and history and root the drama in “stories of everyday folk”. Which is fine, I suppose, if one believes the only things “everyday folk” care about are female constancy and the more pagan end of Catholicism for these stories tend to be a touch unsubtle; “she done him wrong so he killed her” (and her dog and he probably crashed her truck too). It’s actually quite ironic that Puccini, held up as the arch exponent of verismo, rarely actually goes down this path. Il Tabarro perhaps, maybe Suor Angelica, at a stretch Tosca but in large part his material is drawn from the usual well of opera plots. So Cav and Pag is interesting as almost pure verismo.
Pappano’s Classical Voices is a series of four TV programmes that aired on the BBC last November. I’ve just rewatched it and I’m even more impressed than I was first time around. It’s fronted by Tony Pappano, the Royal Opera’s music director, and he comes across as committed, likeable and inquisitive. Each show features a different voice type and combines archive footage with interviews with contemporary singers. There’s tons of information on how different voice types developed and also a surprising amount of technical singing stuff. This may be a bit ho hum for professional musicians but for amateurs seriously interested in how singers do what they do it’s really interesting.
Historical singers featured range from Maria Callas and Kathleen Ferrier to Enrico Caruso and Tito Gobbi. Interviewees include Anna Netrebko, Felicity Palmer, Sarah Connolly, Jonas Kaufmann, Bryn Terfel and John Tomlinson. There are many more in both categories. Other highlights include Tony Pappano taking a singing lesson from Thomas Allen.
I have no idea how one might lay hands on these shows as they are not available on DVD or iPlayer but if they do come your way, grab them.
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.