I keep trying with Bellini’s I Puritani. People I respect admire it a lot but I just cannot find a way to like it despite there being, undoubtedly, some very fine music in Acts 2 and 3. I think there are, essentially, two problems and I could maybe cope with either in isolation but taken together my brain just starts to turn off. The first is plot and there are two huge problems with this piece. It’s complete garbage historically. It makes Donizetti’s Tudor operas look like Geoffrey Elton. But worse, it makes no sense in it’s own terms. It’s just a string of improbable coincidences. The second problem is emotional dissonance. Too often the emotional tenor of the music is just way inappropriate to the stage action. This is common to all bel canto of course and on its own I can deal. I just can’t take the two things together.
Thackeray thought Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther was so boring and idiotic that he wrote a satirical poem about it (you can find it at the bottom of the page). Massenet’s reaction, alas, was to write a three hour opera based on it. Add to the implausible and dull plot (altered but slightly from Goethe’s original) Massenet’s overblown romantic music and penchant for any sentimentality he can find (at the end, a children’s chorus sings a Christmas song while Werther is bleeding to death in Charlotte’s arms) and it’s well nigh unbearable.
The 2014 recording of Verdi’s La forza del destino from the Bayerischen Staatsoper has the kind of cast one hardly dares dream of. The elusive Anja Harteros sings Leonora with the almost equally hard to catch Jonas Kaufmann as Alvaro. Chucking in Ludovic Tézier as Don Carlo and Vitalij Kowaljow doubling the Marchese and Padre Guardiano only improves matters and the rest of the cast is very good indeed. It was pretty much sure to be a winner and it is.
The 2009 production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro from Madrid’s Teatro Real had me doing a bit of a double take. It’s all pouffy wigs, breeches and heaving bosoms. In fact it’s so traditional that it wouldn’t be out of place in Winnipeg or Omaha but comes as something of a surprise in a major European house. In the “Making of” feature, included as an extra, director Emilio Sagi suggests that the opera is so “perfect” that only a “hyper-realist” approach is appropriate. It’s an interesting idea but “hyper-realist” here turns out to mean a bunch of established opera conventions that bear as much of a relationship to “reality” as, say, a James Bond film does. There is one minor directorial intervention. A air of buxom extras appear in almost every scene. I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps they are the Wonderbra of the production as their sole purpose seems to be to uplift the cleavage quotient. For the record, the piece is presented uncut so Basilio and Marcellina get their big arias in the last act. The traditional approach, I know, has its adherents. I’m not one of them. I could have used a few ideas!
A few weeks ago I reviewed Phillippe Béziat’s documentary traviata et nous, about the making of the 2011 Aix festival La Traviata. I’ve now had a chance to watch the DVD of the finished product and it’s superb. Forget those Traviatas in which a star soprano simpers vacuously across an overstuffed set, this is compelling drama. François Sivadier’s production is dark, dangerous and incredibly moving. Natalie Dessay’s Violetta is a terrifyingly intense portrait of a woman who knows from the beginning she is dying in “this desert which is known to men as Paris”. There is no further need for heavy symbolism to remind us of the centrality of death to the piece which makes an interesting contrast with Willy Decker’s famous production.
traviata et nous is a documentary by Philippe Béziat about the creation of the 2011 Aix Festival production of Verdi’s La Traviata. The stars are stage director Jean-François Sivadier and his leading lady, Natalie Dessay. It’s two hours long and is much more insightful than the average “making of” bonus feature. This really gets inside the heads of the director and the performers (we see a fair bit of Charles Castronovo and Ludovic Tézier as well as Dessay) as they begin to understand and then elaborate on the director’s ideas. Dessay comes across, as one would expect from her performances, as an exceptionally intelligent, thoughtful and hard working person. Sivadier too is très sympa; worlds removed from the caricature of a German Regie director ruthlessly imposing his ideas on libretto and performers alike. I found it interesting that when Sivadier is working with Dessay or Tézier French is spoken but at pretty much all other times the working language, even in a French house like Aix, is English.