A new opera by Australian Brett Dean based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet premiered at Glyndebourne this summer. A recording of it was broadcast on BBC television on 22nd October. I’ve now had a chance to watch it in full. I wasn’t sure what to expect as it get somewhat mixed reviews. I was impressed. Very impressed. First off, Matthew Jocelyn, who wrote the libretto, and Dean know how to turn a play into an opera. They understand that it’s not just about taking a bunch of dialogue and giving it a soundtrack. What they do is very clever. All the text is Shakespeare but it’s split up and moved around. There’s repetition and sometimes words are reassigned to different characters. Characters sing parallel lines. Then, of course, there’s a chorus. A good example is when the players appear before performing The Death of Gonzago. They get lines taken from various of Hamlet’s soliloquies chopped up and rearranged. It’s effective and allows the main elements of the story to be told in under three hours of opera. The main bit that’s missing is the whole Fortinbras and the Norwegians thing but that often gets cut anyway.
One rather gets the feeling that the 2016 Glyndebourne production of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia was built around the lady of the house. It makes a lot of sense. There may have been better singers in the role of Rosina but I doubt there has ever been a better mover than Danielle de Niese. She’s matched move for move, eye candy for eye candy by the guys; Björn Burger as Figaro and Taylor Stayton as Almaviva. There’s more mature comedy from the always fantastic Alessandro Corbelli as Bartolo and the irrepressible Janis Kelly as Berta.
Continuing my struggle with Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia I got hold of the Blu-ray recording of Fiona Shaw’s 2015 Glyndebourne production. I’m beginning, I think, to see my way to understanding the problems inherent in the libretto and some of the strategies that can be used to overcome them. The more minor problem is Junius and the odd scene early in Act 2 where he seems to be inciting the Romans to revolt while acting as a general in Tarquinius’ army while, also, apparently, been in some sense complicit in the rape. So we have a two faced power hungry schemer who is oblivious to the consequences of his mischief making; whether rape or rabble rousing (a sort of Roman Boris Johnson). Most productions ignore this aspect of things and probably rightly.
The latest Handel oratorio to be given the operatic treatment by Glyndebourne is Saul, which played in 2015 in a production by Australian Barrie Kosky. It’s quite a remarkable work. The libretto, as so often the work of Charles Jennens, takes considerable liberties with the version in Samuel and incorporates obvious nods to both King Lear and Macbeth as well as more contemporary events. David’s Act 3 lament on the death of Saul, for instance, clearly invokes the execution of Charles I. What emerges is a very classic tragedy. Saul, the Lord’s anointed, is driven by jealousy and insecurity deeper and deeper into madness and degradation and, ultimately, death. This is the basic narrative arc of the piece.
David Hockney and John Cox’s production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress first saw the light of day at Glyndebourne in 1975 and there’s a video of it from back then. It’s been revived umpteen times since, all with Cox directing rather than an overawed revival director. It was done again in 2010, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting, recorded and issued on Blu-ray and DVD. It’s fascinating.
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.
Katherina Thoma not unreasonably chooses to set her 2013 Glyndebourne production of Ariadne auf Naxos in a country house in the south of England (though I suppose equating the Christies with a rather boorish Viennese bourgeois might be thought a touch unkind). She also chooses to set it in 1940 which sets us up for an almost Marxian dialectic not just between high art and low art but between art and life; especially where life and death are concerned.