Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Francesca da Rimini (Met Live in HD); Die Feen (COG)

It was an interesting weekend, defined for me--operatically, at least--by two neglected works. First was Saturday evening's Francesca da Rimini, live, in all its HD glory, from the Met. And Piero Faggioni's unashamedly lavish production--necessitating three long-ish intervals breaking up and elongating an opera that fits easily onto two CDs--certainly deserves its close-ups: the detailing is incredible, the evident effort that went into the production of every studded doublet and wispily embroidered frock very impressive. It made me suspect, not for the first time, that it's no bad thing that the big opera houses keep a few of such extravagant productions in their repertoire as reminders of a once-dominant aesthetic; once they all go, there's no way, in the present artistic and financial climate, that a house would be able to justify, artistically or financially, replacing them with anything so straightforwardly pictorial or unapologetically lavish.

Anyway, I was impressed by Riccardo Zandonai's score, which was first heard in Turin in 1914 (and heard at Covent Garden the same year), before going on the standard couple-of-decade global trip route towards obscurity. It's gorgeously overwrought and tortuous, as if the composer left meaty chunks of Strauss, Debussy, Puccini and generous sprinklings of all the other standard early-20th-century influences out to fester in the Italian heat. Having a libretto by the 'colourful' Gabriele D'Annunzio adds to its sweet-and-sour pungency (it reminded me to get hold of the interesting-looking new biography by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, the review of which on the Guardian elicited one sole pithy comment: 'what a remarkably vile human being'), while the work has a similar, remarkable sense inescapable fate hanging over it as does Tristan (referenced, of course, in D'Annunzio's eclectic libretto) but without the slightest glimmer of any transfiguration--and, obviously, virtually everything else that makes Wagner's score what it is. With lateness now dignified as an aesthetic of considered ascetism, too, to refer to such a work as 'late Romantic' seems very strange; I'm not sure what would serve as an alternative, though.

Anyway, here's a bit of the love duet from when Faggioni's production was new, with the somewhat starrier pairing of Renata Scotto (Francesca) and Placido Domingo (Paolo) than was assembled this time round, committed and highly admirable though Eva-Maria Westbroek and Marcello Giordano were.

Mark Delavan, clad in some impressively heavy-duty leather, was fabulously vivid as Francesca's husband, the bellicose Giovanni, and Robert Brubaker a viciously nasty Malatestino dall'Occhio--you know, the one with(out) the eye. And both were wonderfully chummy and engaging in their interval chats, a great feature of these broadcasts but one that seems to fundamentally undercut their apparent desire for cinematic immersion.

Finally, a quick mention of the Chelsea Opera Group's performance of the 20-year-old Wagner's Die Feen. The official Bayreuth line dictates that these early works be dismissed as negligible, of mere academic interest; but, despite some technical ropiness, Dominic Wheeler and his forces gave a pretty good idea of what a lively, inventive piece this is. It's probably wildly optimistic to imagine its return to the repertory--it makes some pretty exacting demands on a large cast, which were dealt with bravely on this occasion--but there's some delightful music in it. I was unprepared for quite how many portents of things to come there were, too, and, if you'll excuse a slight detour into Strauss-Hofmannsthalia, it was fascinating to see how the early Wagner dealt with what would later be one of many sources for that 'late Romantic' work par excellence, Die Frau ohne Schatten. Peter Branscombe cited Die Feen itself as a source for Frau, but it seems unlikely, even though Strauss was himself heavily involved in the posthumous premiere of Wagner's work, that Hofmannsthal wasn't just going straight to Gozzi's La donna serpente.

In any case, the 20-year-old Wagner's ending is fascinating in the way that it sees Ada and Arindal united as fairies, whereas Frau is all about becoming human; and the related Rusalka-Undine stories founder on the irreconcilability of these worlds. The performance was cut a bit, and we missed out on a buffo duet between Gernot and Drolla, a fact that slightly over-emphasized how Wagner, as he did with Heine for Die fliegende Hollaender, missed the humour that was central to the Gozzi source. Here it is, though, with a young Cheryl Studer and Jan-Hendrik Rootering.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Elitism in Opera

The idea of opera as elitist is never going to go away, I fear, and nor, I suppose, should it. It sets up camp regularly in comments sections beneath reviews, is a standard observation of anyone charting the cultural landscape, and seems to hover behind every press release or PR campaign to do with this extravagant art-form--ENO's much maligned 'undress for the opera' perhaps being a low-point for a company whose PR this season has had a few, and it was hardly a coincidence that it was yoked to its poor Don Giovanni. 

I have no intention to dive headlong into the debate here: it's too often fruitless, with those, basically, who love opera locking horns with those who, basically, don't. And it's also a debate shot through with highly problematic language, with the word 'elite' slipping treacherously in meaning between 'unashamedly excellent', 'prohibitively expensive' and 'only for the social elite'. Opera is often compared with sport--particularly by those trying to defend the price of the former, arguing that it is really no worse value than the latter--and it is remarkable how the word 'elite' can exist in a state of grace when it comes to sport, while it is weighed down with all manner of self-flagellating guilt and shame when applied to opera or classical music (witness the phenomenon of technical proficiency in music being seen, somehow, as morally suspect--much better a performance by a plucky amateur).

This, of course, is in part down to the historical position of opera and ballet as entertainment funded by wealthy courts, as a brief article by Sarah Crompton, who chairs a debate this Monday at the Royal Opera House, notes. I won't be there, alas, since I've got a ticket to Written on Skin, but will be interested to hear if anything new comes out of it (and to see if the stream will be available after the event, too). The timing seems propitious, given a certain amount of not unrelated activity in the blogosphere, reacting, for example, to the BBC's two recent programmes to deal with C20th music: here are interesting pieces from Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Gavin Plumley and Gavin Dixon, which have in turn inspired some fascinating comments. It coincides, too, with Nicholas Hyntner's stinging critique of the BBC's arts coverage. 

One of the UK's main faces of operatic accessibility is Kasper Holten, who provides a typically passionate introduction to the debate below, albeit one that only really sticks to the line, 'Opera isn't elitist because, well, it's really good'. This seems largely to equate 'elitist' and 'off-puttingly different'--perhaps the first thing to do on Monday will be to define what exactly is meant by 'elitist', whether we're talking intellectually, socially or financially... 

I'm inclined to prefer the argument put forward by Marek Weiss of Opera Bałtycka in Gdańsk, which I came across this morning when researching something else. What he says--from around 9'16; what comes before is specific to the company's premiere of Elżbieta Sikora’s Madame Curie a couple of years ago--is laced with a healthy dose of cultural pessimism (particularly from around 11'10). I don't know if this is shared by Holten, but it seems such thoughts are taboo when it comes to the debate in this country--which surely doesn't help anyone.