Now that I am back from vacation, I am back to work and back to my regular schedule of watching opera online (or in rare cases going to the movie theater). So in the last week I have tried to catch up a bit by watching several opera productions that I have had on my list for a while.
Cosi fan Tutte - Aix-en-Provence - This new production opening this past summer and has been fairly controversial, which is why I wanted to start with it. I finally was able to watch it and I will start by saying that I thought the cast did a nice job. The production was very demanding physically and of course vocally. And they all did a nice job. I especially liked Lenneke Ruiten as Fiordiligi as well as Kate Lindsay as Dorabella and Rod Gilfrey as Don Alonso. The boys were fine but I have mixed feelings about the Despina. However, the orchestra was just not up to the standards I expect from Aix or from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. The playing was sloppy: ensemble problems abounded, they almost completely fell apart at one point and the horns were a disappointment, especially in "Per pietá."
I began the opera expecting to like it. I had seen an extended clip and had read several reviews and the idea of expanding the opera's dealing with the objectification of women to include systemic racism I thought might actually work. But in the end I felt that it was a muddle, with a lot of inconsistencies. Set in Italian occupied Africa (not sure I ever caught the country) during the late 1930's (Il Duce appears prominently at several points) we begin during the overture with the scene of occupation and really horrible abuse of the native African population. Partially naked black prostitutes are abused by the Italian soldiers - including Guglielmo. With the number of Italian soldiers milling around it reminded me more of the opening of Carmen and here then is the first disconnect. So I assume this is some kind of base, complete with a commanding officer. This means these soldiers are on active duty. Ok, so are we then supposed to believe that they are just going to all abandon their posts because Alfonso pays them some cash that enable G and F to play this trick on their girlfriends. And were they even boyfriend and girlfriend? What was their relationship? I wasn't sure they had much of a relationship with the girls to begin with. It was all kind of muddy. So, they all ship out - to where who knows. But when the boys come back they are now dressed as Africans in dark make-up. This in and of itself doesn't bother me. But here begins all the confusion. There is such a divide between the Italians and Africans. Alfonso and Despina seem to be residents as they get along with the Africans (Despina seems to have an African boyfriend - but exactly who is she anyway, she is not a maid, and doesn't appear to be a friend of any of the rest of the cast. I was totally confused by her character in this production.) But the girls and the boys both treat the Africans terribly: it is violent and hateful and racist. Ok given that then we are next to believe that they are falling for these faux black men?
The bottom line problem is that there is no epiphany. The violent racist behavior continues all the way to the end of the opera. And then when the black make up starts to rub off it becomes obvious who these guys are. Ferrando even appears to Fiordiligi with the make-up mostly wiped off and she then begins to cover her own body and face with make-up. But when we get to the act 2 finale it is a big surprise that the boys had dressed up. So what was the point? And how can that be? And it also seemed to me that Despina was fully aware and complicit throughout but yet she seems totally surprised by the revelation. In the end none of the characters are very likable, they were all kind of horrid. The only characters I developed any sympathy for were the African supers. But yet I was fascinated to see what the director was going to do next hoping we would move these charcters forward about towards enlightenment. But it never happens. Ultimately Cosi is making a statement about a shared humanity - "Women are like that" - they are human beings too! They are not to be put on pedestels, they are not the virgin/whore - they are simply human beings like all the rest of us. This was Da Ponte's effort to undermine one of the more troubling strains of the late 18th century enlightenment. In the libretto we have moved to this and Ferrando can accept it and Guglielmo is not able to accept it. But there is movement nontheless. That is what I do not like about this production - no movement. There is no sense that there is any new understanding of a shared humanity with the Africans. After the curtain comes down the violent racist abuse will simply continue along with the terrible misogyny which is a part of the behavior of the male characters in particular, but also the women.
Parsifal - Bayreuth 2016 - I thought the singing was really terrific, especially from Pantratova, Zeppenfelds and McKinney - I also liked Vogt. The chorus was terrific as was the orchestra and the conducting by Haenschen was outstanding. Others had written about finding the production disturbing and one commentator on YouTube felt that the production was "anti-religion." I disagree with these assessments. I did not find the production disturbing at all, in fact it seemed to me that the production was lifting up the imagery of bondage/freedom, with the key to freedom being forgiveness. Parsifal is always blaming himself, he blames himself for his mother's death and for Titural's death. Both Amfortas and Kundry are also in bondage and ultimately they are freed only through an act of love - in Kundry's case it is her act of washing Parsifal's feet (like Mary - not Magdalene BTW - does in John 12.) Acts 1 and 2 seemed to be all bound up with the oppression of bondage, but act 3 gives us a new creation, a Garden of Eden, spring emerges after winter, and refreshing water is abundant. At the end the instruments of oppression, the symbols of religious oppression are placed in the casket: "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust." In act 1 - the community was forcing Amfortas to take on the role of the redeemer but he simply can not do it. Parsifal in act 3 does not take on the role but simply begins to process of opening up the community to freedom. This is how I read it anyway. I felt this production transcended nationalities and was pretty universal. The imagery was predominantly Christian at first but in act 3 opened up to bring all religions together. I did not see it as anti-religious just anti using religion as a tool of bondage (which happens all too often, and has historically). Maybe I missed the point but this is what I experienced. I will say that not everything worked. The big green plant in act 3 look like someone at Mount Salvat had traded a cow for some magic beans. But I really liked the set of act 2 and the flower maidens.
Beatrice and Benedict - Glyndebourne 2016 - I truly enjoyed this opera which I had never seen before and this production, though it is very light on plot! The Shakespeare play "Much Ado About Nothing," upon which the opera is based, is darker with much more complex. The plot of the play is pretty much gone here though. And what remains is one single thread and a characterization thread at that: the relationship of banter and wit between Beatrice and Benedict. This now becomes the entirety of the plot for the entire opera with really nothing else from the play. Yes Hero and Claudio are also getting married, but that is incidental for the most part - though I loved the act 1 finale where Hero shows Ursula her wedding dress - what a lovely scene. Berlioz did add a music master character and utilized the chorus extensively which, in my view, is the one thing that really redeems this opera. The chorus writing is terrific and the Glyndebourne chorus obviously had a great time doing this. Great fun. The music master Somarone is based on Berlioz himself (in the production anyway) and was really very funny. I wonder if Berlioz was drawn not only to this play but to focus on this thin plot line because true love and happy marriage was one thing that eluded him all of his life. His marriage to Harriet Smithson had been a disaster and his relationships with women tended to be obsessive and short-lived. So in this perhaps there is something of a sense of loss and regret in the score. But at the same time it is rather celebrative and the production is rather fun. Laurant Pelly portrays marriage as a box - both restrictive and secure. I really enjoyed it, but it would never be even a favorite Berlioz. Damnation and Cellini are much more substantial works. This opera does not even have much memorable music, except for the overture and the final duet (which uses music from the overture - or vice versa). It is fun to see though. Paul Appleby was terrific as Benedict and Stephanie d'Oustrac was terrific as Beatrice. The rest of the cast was quite good. The Ursula was quite outstanding and actually her part is more extensive than in the play. But the stars of the show were really the orchestra under conductor Antonello Manacora and the chorus. It is available for a couple more days on the Glyndebourne website and then I think it may be going to Sonostream where it can be watched for a small fee.
Fanciulla del West - La Scala - I got to see this production in the movie theater. It was a really interesting and entertaining production. Robert Carsen takes his starting point with old western movies and he begins and ends there. And in between we always have the sense that we are in the movie. I found the experience to be fun! The cast was great. The score was really fun. The plot is a little silly. This is really the quintessential Spaghetti Western ("dooda, dooda, dooda day). It is not completely politically correct either - stereotypes abound: Mexican bandits and a drunk Indian - but the music is lovely. Seems maybe Andrew Lloyd Weber might be a fan of this opera, one of the beautiful souring melodic motifs reminded me a lot of a tune from Phantom of the Opera (even the way it is orchestrated!). Barbara Haveman was terrific as Minnie, I thought. She was tough and feisty and kind and gentle. Roberto Aronica was fine as Dick Johnson (Ramirez). He is not a great actor but he pulled it off. Carlo Bossi was great as Nick but my favorite in the cast was Claudio Sgura as Jack Rance. He was terrific. The chorus and all of the many small roles were all very well performed. The chorus has a beautiful blend in their sound that was quite effective. For me act 2 is a masterpiece musically and dramatically. Puccini moves the plot forward effectively through Minnie's discovery of her betrayal, Dick's wounding and then the climax with Minnie and Jack playing a very high stakes poker game. Sgura was really terrific in this act. I was on the edge of my seat, and I felt like I was at the movies! (Maybe a little too much blood running down the wall, if there had been that much blood he would have bled to death!) The denoument in act 3 is a little silly and a bit of a let down which may be why Carsen recast it all in front of the movie theater. I thought it was great and really effective. And on the whole it was a fun night going out to Tivoli theater in St. Louis for dinner and a movie - which happened to be an opera set as an old movie.
2 years ago