Thursday, September 07, 2017

European Summer of 2017

I have not traveled this summer for reasons relating to health and money.  I don't count driving to San Francisco as traveling.  In spite of this my opera cup runneth over.  There has been some pretty spectacular stuff here.  New for me this summer are The Chastity Tree, Artaserse, Oberon, and Theodora.  It is important to notice that all four of these are older operas.  In fact Wozzeck is as close to a modern opera I have gotten this summer.

I have decided to limit this essay to performances originating this summer in Europe.  That eliminates live performances seen in the Bay Area:
It also eliminates reruns from the Metropolitan Opera in HD: 
All the rest are from Europe. There were some older performances I watched on film to broaden my education and catch a glimpse of some favorite singers:
  • Artaserse by Vinci on a libretto by Metastasio from Nancy, France, in 2012.  I have learned in the last few years that there exists in France a school for countertenors.  I don't know if all the five countertenors in this production were from this school, including the star Philippe Jeroussky, but all were extraordinarily powerful for singers in this Fach.  This film is an historical recreation of a true Roman Baroque opera with all the characters played by men.  I watched it for its historical significance and recommend that you do, too.  It's much better than I thought.
  • Theodora by Handel from Glyndebourne in 1996 in a production by Peter Sellars, our own American contribution to Regie Theater.  This is a true example of what is by now the almost standard European production style.  In spite of that it was very beautiful.  Theodora began its life as an oratorio in English.  This viewing was to broaden my experience of Peter Sellars' work to include things I might actually like.  It is also a major film of Lorraine Hunt.
I generally watch European opera to see what is happening now, but these historical performances were worth the time.

That leaves ten performances from Europe that took place this summer, including two traditional productions viewed for the singers rather than the productions:
  • Otello by Verdi from the ROH in London.  This was Jonas Kaufmann's debut in the role of Otello, and was a traditional production for this special occasion.  My feeling was the intimacy of a movie theater presentation enhanced the beauty of the performances.  Jonas dealt with this role by playing to his dramatic side and avoiding over-singing.  His Iago, Marco Vratogna, and his Desdemona, Maria Agresta, supported Jonas's interpretation.  I'd like the opportunity to see this again.
  • Rigoletto by Verdi from Orange, France.  Performances in Orange take place in an ancient Roman theater.  The star of this show was our Nadine Sierra in a perfect role for her.  There was nothing unusual here, though they all appeared in modern clothing.  Leo Nucci arranged for a very nice bis with her.  Leo is a startling contrast to Quinn Kelsey, the Rigoletto in our San Francisco production.
In a wide range of shocking to ordinary the following list of the eight remaining operas includes some very famous directors.
  • Wozzeck by Berg from Salzburg was staged by William Kentridge who staged The Nose and Lulu for the Metropolitan Opera.  All three of these works are considered modern so a modern production is only appropriate.  I don't really like Wozzeck but thought his vision of it was excellent, the best of the trio.  His art is so active on the surface that it tends to overwhelm the characters on stage.  Is its purpose to distract from the opera?  Matthias Goerne sang Wozzeck, an excellent role for him.
  • Tannhäuser by Wagner from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich was staged by Romeo Castellucci.  He is a radical Italian director in both opera and theater.  My reactions were primarily visceral.  When I was presented with half-naked women shooting bows and arrows, I enjoyed it.  When Venus was a giant mound of hideous flesh with three or four men lost in the flab, it didn't really remind me of ecstatic love making.  And don't forget the feet.  This is representative of the extreme ends of theater in Germany today.
  • Don Giovanni by Mozart Aix-en-Provence, France, was directed by Jean-François Sivadier.  This is a French director most famous for a film of him directing Natalie Dessay in her first La Traviata called Becoming Traviata.  His production for Don Giovanni is first in period costumes, then at intermission switches suddenly to modern ones.  It is quite merry and needs Philippe Sly to do all that jumping about.
  • Aida by Verdi from Salzburg was directed by a newcomer to theatrical productions, Shirin Neshat.  I read in Wikipedia, "Her artwork centers on the contrasts between Islam and the West, femininity and masculinity, public life and private life, antiquity and modernity, and bridging the spaces between these subjects."  The production reflected this.  People were sharply divided into specific groups and dressed like others in their group.  It was rather static in its impression but clear in identifying the forces at work in the downfall of Radames and his Aida.  The audience was there primarily for Anna Netrebko in her first outing as Aida.
One pair of productions identified for us a new cultural villain:  the clinical psychiatrist.  I rather agree with this.  In modern democratic societies there remains only one absolute monarch:  the psychiatrist.  His power is greater than anyone else's.  He can have you put away or imprisoned on his word alone.  People go along with what they say primarily because they have no idea what they're talking about.  So two different directors have taken two different operas, removed the original spoken dialog they came with, invented new dialog and created entirely new stories.
  • Carmen by Bizet from Aix-en-Provence, France, was staged by Dmitri Tcherniakov, a Russian.  Tcherniakov is a Russian born in Lithuania.  His early career was in the major Russian theaters the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi and quickly spread to major opera centers around Europe: Berlin, Munich, Zurich and Milan.  So far he hasn't made it across the pond, I don't think.  Instead of a story about a boy from the country who falls for a gypsy who is probably just having him on, we have excitement for bored married couples.  So your life is boring.  We will arrange for a charming young woman to pretend to be attracted to you.  Contracts are signed and progress reviewed.  I'm not sure what is supposed to happen, but it probably isn't that the patient will fall for the therapist and then try to kill her.  He may have to go into hospital.  The therapy of another patient plays in the background to show us how it is supposed to go.  It does clarify something that the usual staging does not:  Escamillo is Carmen's true love while Don Jose is a patsy.
  • Oberon, or The Elf King's Oath by Carl Maria von Weber from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich was directed by Nikolaus Habjan, who works primarily as a puppeteer.  This is another opera that originally came with spoken dialog.  Though it first appeared in English, it is now generally thought of as a German opera.  Some of the characters are from A Midsummer Night's Dream.  The opera has a convoluted and confusing plot about romance with the fairy king acting as a kind of deus ex machina who rescues people at exactly the right moment.  The production changes all that.  Again psychiatrists are at work.  Perhaps psychiatry is seen as the last vestige of absolute power.  Ordinary mortals such as kings and emperors no longer hold this kind of power.  The psychiatrists are quarreling and resolve their argument using their patients.  The whole thing is profoundly unethical and is probably intended to be.  The actual opera is changed beyond recognition.  The dialog reflects the psychiatrists giving orders and expressing opinions, primarily about one another. 
These two changes are shockingly similar, even though they come from different countries and different directors.  I think this is the kind of modernization people object to most.  Can Oberon be saved?  Perhaps not.  But if this is the only chance you get to see it, maybe sticking closer to the plot would be better.

The final operas to consider are two magnificent productions of Mozart's great opera seria La Clemenza di Tito
  • La Clemenza di Tito by Mozart from Glyndebourne was directed by Claus Guth, the king of Regie.  I was annoyed by the stalks of grass everywhere, but actually thrilled by the acting and singing of Alice Coote and Anna Stéphany as Vitelia and Sesto.  This laid out the plot in a way that was always true to Mozart's opera, including the opera seria required happy ending, all things that I did not expect from Claus Guth.  
  • La Clemenza di Tito by Mozart from Salzburg was directed by Peter Sellars.  Music was added to this opera from Mozart's C-Minor Mass.  Riccardo Muti was in town to conduct Aida and was heard objecting to this alteration in the score.  Many don't understand the always happy endings style of opera seria and want to change it to something else.  This is not authentic.  My complaining is now out of the way. The emotional effect of the production overall was profound.  It feels to me that this opera is moving into a position of greatness that it very much deserves.  Interesting productions will help this.
It was an amazing summer.

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