The first time I saw a DVD recording of Gluck’s Alceste I put my reaction of utter tedium down to Robert Wilson’s highly stylized and static production. This time I looked at a production, recorded at Staatsoper Stuttgart in 2006, by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Marabito, who did a rather good job on the rather dreary La Somnambula, expecting rather more. Actually I think they have some good ideas but they can’t obscure the fact that this is basically a very dull opera.
Sometimes one comes across a previously unfamiliar work that just blows one away. Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Simplicius Simplicissimus did that to me. It’s a work written by Hartmann in 1934/5 as he watched the early years of Nazi power and the banning of “degenerate” art. By the time it got its premier in 1949 it’s story of a Germany physically and morally ravaged by war would seem all too prescient. It’s a simple story based on the early chapters of a novel by Grimmelshausen set during the Thirty Years War(1). It concerns a simple shepherd boy who is drawn into the conflict. There are three scenes. In the first, the entirely innocent boy witnesses the brutal destruction of the farm he works on by vagrant Landsknechten. In the second he is befriended by a hermit and undergoes a sort of moral education before once again being left abandoned by the hermit’s death. In the thirdhe becomes jester to the drunken and corrupt Governor; the idiot who tells the truth, until all is overthrown by a Peasant’s Revolt.
Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail is a problematic opera. It’s got some great music but the libretto is pretty weak and its depiction of Turks is pretty unflattering. Maybe it seemed edgy less than a hundred years after the Ottomans besieged Vienna but today it just seems mildly embarrassing. Fortunately it’s a singspiel with dialogue rather than opera with recitatives so it’s fairly easy to play with the story line. For his 1998 production Stuttgart at the Staatsoper Stuttgart, Hans Neuenfels goes much further. He double each of the singers with an actor and pretty much rewrites the dialogue. He also introduces an element of metatheatre. This is a performance and everyone knows it. For example when Pedrillo is asked how he’s going to get hold of a ladder for the escape scene he replies that he’ll use the one they always use in this opera.