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.

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