It’s the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by troops of the Red Army and I’ve been watching a recording of Miecyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger. The opera was written in 1968 but the political climate in the then Soviet Union meant that, despite the advocacy of Dmitri Shostakovich, it had to wait until 2010 before it was given a fully staged performance. That happened, and was recorded, at the Bregenz festival in a production directed by David Pountney.
One has to recalibrate when reviewing productions from the lake stage at Bregenz. The challenges for set designer and director are very different from designing/directing in a conventional theatre. There’s an interview with Es Devlin on the disk of the 2017 production of Bizet’s Carmen that explains the issues very well but broadly it’s a question of creating a single, giant set that can be used throughout the opera and which makes a statement that integrates the work with the environment of the Bodensee. The challenge for the director, as well, as the usual ones, is to communicate the characters and story when they are rather dwarfed by the setting. S/he also has to figure out how to fit the lake itself into the story. I think Devlin and director, Kasper Holten, manage this remarkably well.
Franco Faccio’s 1865 work Amleto disappeared from the opera repertoire after the disastrous opening night of its 1871 revival at La Scala only to be “rediscovered” in recent years and featured at the 2016 Bregenz Festival. It was Faccio’s second, and last opera, though he enjoyed a career as a conductor, that included eighteen years as Music Director at La Scala before being institutionalized due to the effects of syphilis. So, one naturally asks, is it any good? The answer is an emphatic “yes”. It’s not only good but seems quite advanced for an Italian opera of that date. It’s closer in spirit to Puccini than bel canto. Indeed the soliloquy Essere o non essere sounds curiously like E lucevan le stelle. It’s similar to later Verdi and, indeed, Puccini in that it’s through sung with recitative like passages and set piece arias and ensemble numbers and it’s more conventionally tonal than its contemporary Tristan und Isolde. Arguably the orchestral writing is more interesting than that for voice (Ophelia’s funeral march is very fine) and certainly the weakest parts are the ensembles. It’s probably also fair to say that there is no big hummable melody. Still, Faccio was twenty five when he wrote it and there aren’t many better operas by twenty five year olds.
André Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice was written in the years leading up to his premature death in 1982 but, despite interest from ENO in the 1980s, it did not get a full performance until David Pountney decided to stage it at the the 2013 Bregenz Festival with Keith Warner directing. It’s hard to explain the neglect though Pountney ascribes it some degree as the fate of the emigré (the composer being a Polish Jew domiciled in the UK). The Merchant of Venice is a really solid piece. It’s got all the elements; a strong story, a really interesting but not overly intimidating score and really good writing for voice (it really is singable). It’s the right length at around two and a half hours and it doesn’t call for unreasonable orchestral or vocal forces. John O’Brien’s libretto even manages to overcome some of the objections to staging Shakespeare’s play. While one might consider the Shakespeare piece to be antisemitic, O’Brien’s libretto is much more clearly about anti-semitism. There’s also a clear homoerotic element in the Antonio – Bassanio relationship and perhaps too in Portia – Nerissa.