Love and Death, cynical play with love, mature love, and love of power

.Otto Schenk’s production of Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier is visibly more than 30 years old. Schenk’s tendency to show everything in a “prettified” way does not really fit the topic of the opera, i.e. a love and execution drama during the French revolution. The poet Chénier whose sultry lyrics about spring, nature, beauty and Heimat affect the heart of the aristocratic Maddalena sympathizes with the social and political upheaval of the revolutionaries, but as a result of an intrigue by a revolutionary leader who also is infatuated with Maddalena (Gérard) is condemned to death by Fouquault. Maddalena sees no more sense in life, and with the help of Gérard swaps clothes with a condemned woman and joins Andrea on the way to the Guillotine. The singing was excellent, especially by Norma Fantini as Maddalena, Marco die Felice as Gérard and –of course – Johan Botha as Andrea. Apart from Botha whose physical figura and acting ability reminds me of old-time static Wagner singers, the acting was excellent. But the staging so annoying that I had to lean back in my seat and concentrate on the music without being offended by the scenery and costumes. The Vienna State Opera should let this production go the way of all things and let not see it its 100th performance. 

A really exhilarating opera event was Covent Garden’s Cosi fan Tutte. There was a staging, as exciting as appropriate, even though the opera was set into the 21st century. Today costumes, abundant cellphone use, very convincing upperclass behaviour by the lovers and their cynical spoiler Alfonso make surprising sense. Since the production is not the opera buffa as frequently produced as a light comedy, but rather the cynical game of a misogynist who eventually destroys the lives of 4 young people, the production brings out its timeless validity. Very simple whitewashed walls without decoration, a large mirror in which the ladies, Despina, Alfonso and the young men admire themselves or freshen up their appearance, is all that is needed.

When the young men are called to arms, they appear in UN-soldier fatigues with blue berets and later helmets. When they reappear disguised, they are hilariously dressed as tattooed, longhaired punks. Even this goes well with the Daponte text – and is no more outlandish to these uppity girls than in more usual productions when they appear dressed as “Turks or Valachs”. Their behavior is similarly grotesque.

The singing is fabulous: especially Malin Bystöm as Giordiligi excels after a slower start, mastering high and low, coloratura and recitative and acting loving, vain, prudish and finally falling for her sister’s fiancé; equally strong of voice is Nikoly Borchev as Guglielmo, also very funny as actor; refreshingly bubbly and cunning – and again fantastic singing by Rosemary Joshua’s Despina; Thomas Allen as Alfonso was a masterly cynical schemer with a very good voice; Michele Losier a convincing and beautifully intoning Dorabella, Charles Castronovo a strong Ferrando. The women’s duets were of the finest singing. Sir Colin Davis as conductor started extremely slow, but had the orchestra in beautiful shape. A real delight. 

A “Rosenkavalier” in English National Opera once more lets a native Germanspeaker initially cringe when instead of a Viennese twang Marie-Therese and Octavian whisper to each other in English. This is a very traditional production with little change of scenery: all 3 acts play in the same baroque room, which serves as the boudoir of the Marschallin, Faninal’s city palace and the country inn where Ochs attempts to seduce his Mariandel. This is fine, since the inner decoration of the room changes according to act. Slightly unfitting was the Marschallin’s dress in act 3 which reminded more of (English) Elizabethan dress (too severe and sober) than of Austrian baroque (lavish, decollaged and flowing). Amanda Roocroft sang a beautiful Marschallin, ranging from the self-forgotten lover to the (ostensibly) ageing lady (she is in “reality” all of 34 years of age) bemoaning but accepting her turn in life, when her 17-year old lover Octavian falls in love with his age-peer. Equally impressive is Octavian, sung by Sarah Connolly, torn between his love to the Marschallin and his sudden infatuation with Sophie. The production does him/her a disservice when putting him in shining silver breastplate when offering the rose to Sophie: this makes him still and rigid. John Tomlinson’s Ochs von Lerchenau puts on a fantastic show of a country gentleman boor, a sexual predator, a self-important despiser of the “lower classes” to which he “descends”. He is best in his screaming when scraped by Octavian’s rapier and later when it finally dawns on him that his “Mariandel” whom he first met in the Marschallin’s bedchamber is the same as Octavian. The star of the evening is Sophie Bevan’s Sophie whose voice soars easily into absurd heights and whose pianissimo brought tears to my eyes. Edward Gardner conducted a very well-disposed orchestra who always stayed away from kitsch without sacrificing a Viennese touch. 

The tiny New Diorama Theatre at Great Portland Street put on a stripped-down version of Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart. The play with its central piece, the non-historic meeting between the warring queens Elizabeth and Mary, is performed in – my words – typical English Shakespeare fashion: much running, very fast talking, too much shouting. This gives the play a lot of dynamics, but at the expense of understanding (also for my accompanying English native speaker). While Schiller’s original play deals a lot with the religious conflict, the competing justifications for the throne, the moral-political justifications of Mary’s imprisonment in Fotheringhay, this performance puts these motivations aside in favour of two women competing for love and for the throne as an image of power. Elizabeth, initially unsure of how to deal with Mary, proves unable to afford her prisoner at their “accidental” meeting a single word of sympathy for her dismal situation and provokes Mary into insulting outrages against all she detests in her rival, eventually leading Elizabeth to condemn her to the sword, without owning up to this verdict. Thus, while the minimalist staging and ambitious acting brings a refreshing reading, the performance falls short of Schiller’s intentions by reducing it to a female hen-fight. I wonder whether the excellent reviews the play had were not mainly due to the fact that the reviewers do not really know Schiller or read the play.


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