25 Jun 2009
SCHUBERT: Alfonso und Estrella
What is the worst opera with the best music?
Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as the last opera in its current subscription season.
‘The plot is perhaps the least moral in all opera; wrong triumphs in the name of love and we are not expected to mind.’
Anthony Minghella’s production of Madame Butterfly for ENO is wearing well. First seen in 2005, it is now being aired for the sixth time and is still, as I observed in 2013, ‘a breath-taking visual banquet’.
This concert version of La straniera felt like a compulsory musicology field trip, but it had enough vocal flashes to lobby for more frequent performances of this midway Bellini.
As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.
From experiments with musique concrète in the 1940s, to the Minimalists’ explorations into tape-loop effects in the 1960s, via the appearance of hip-hop in the 1970s and its subsequent influence on electronic dance music in the 1980s, to digital production methods today, ‘sampling’ techniques have been employed by musicians working in genres as diverse as jazz fusion, psychedelic rock and classical music.
On May 7, 2016, San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, an opera by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. McNally’s original libretto pokes fun at everything from football to bel canto period opera. It includes snippets of nineteenth century tunes as well as Heggie's own bel canto writing.
A foiled abduction, a castle-threatening inferno, romantic infatuation, guilt-laden near-suicide, gun-shots and knife-blows: Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto for Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, certainly does not lack dramatic incident.
Opera as an art form has never shied away from the grittier shadows of life. Nor has Manitoba Opera, with its recent past productions dealing with torture, incest, murder and desperate political prisoners still so tragically relevant today.
Published in 1855 as an entertainment for his two daughters, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring is a burlesque fairy-tale whose plot — to the author’s wilful delight, perhaps — defies summation and elucidation.
What more fitting memorial for composer Peter Maxwell Davies (d. 03/14/2016) than a splendid performance of The Lighthouse, the third of his eight works for the stage.
I suspect that many of those at the Wigmore Hall for The King’s Consort’s performance of the La Senna festeggiante (The Rejoicing Seine) were lured by the cachet of ‘Antonio Vivaldi’ and further enticed by the notion of a lover’s serenade at which the generic term ‘serenata’ seems to hint.
Having enjoyed superb singing by a young cast of soloists in Classical Opera’s UK premiere of Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso the previous evening, I was delighted that the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final at the Wigmore Hall confirmed the strength and depth of talent possessed by the young singers studying in and emerging from our academies and conservatoires.
On February 7, 1786, Emperor Joseph II of Austria had brand new one-act operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri performed in the Schönbrunn Palace’s Orangery.
Those poor opera lovers in Cologne have a never ending problem with the city’s opera house. Together with the rest of city, the construction of the new opera house is mired in political incompetence.
London remains starved of Wagner. This season, its major companies offer but two works, Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera and Tristan from ENO.
Dmitry Bertman’s hilarious staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s political sex-comedy The Golden Cockerel in Düsseldorf.
On April 16, 2016, San Diego Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s sixth opera, Madama Butterfly, in an intriguing production by Garnett Bruce. Roberto Oswald’s scenery included the usual Japanese styled house with many sliding doors and walls. On either side, however, were blooming cherry trees with rough trunks and gnarled branches that looked as though they had been growing on the property for a hundred years.
New Co-Production Tristan und Isolde with Metropolitan: Simon Rattle and Westbroek electrify Treliński’s Opera-Noir.
In an operatic world crowded with sure-fire bread and butter repertoire, Opera San Jose has boldly chosen to lavish a new production on a dark horse, Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire.
What is the worst opera with the best music?
Some might vote for Bizet’s Les Pecheurs de Perles, which has tunes so magnificent that they help to mitigate against a hopeless libretto, enticing companies to stage the opera from time to time. A somewhat more obscure candidate could be Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount - the suite from which sweetens the playlist of many a classical radio station. Naxos has released both the original Metropolitan Opera broadcast from the 1930s, in very poor sound, and a more recent concert recording, with Gerald Schwartz conducting. In both, the music engages while the drama distracts.
Now Naxos’s series of operas on DVD presents another possibility for that lamentable title: Franz Schubert’s Alfonso und Estrella, composed to a libretto by Franz von Schober. The score can’t be said to boast any of Schubert’s immortal melodies, but it has some fine ones nonetheless. Arias, duets, trios, ensembles - the score may be a crazy quilt of “pieces,” but each in itself is tuneful and evocative. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is not always the most stylish of conductors, but he has a flair for Schubert, especially the dramatic minor-key passages, as well as the more rhythmically exciting passages. He leads the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in an excellent performance.
The singers get caught in the middle, with such fine music to sing and such dopey drama to enact. Director Jürgen Flimm gives the drama every opportunity to succeed. On Erich Wonder’s dark, atmospheric set, the singers move about as if actually motivated by recognizable human emotions. But the story is simply too thin and predictable. An exiled king worries over his noble son, who is in love with a woman who just happens to be the daughter of the man that deposed her lover’s father. It all ends in a sanctimonious bout of forgiveness and redemption, vaguely recalling Beethoven’s Fidelio. A clumsy translation doesn’t help matters for the non-German speaker. One example will serve: “Monster! Ha, avaunt!” Avaunt to be alone.
Recorded in 1997 at the Vienna Festival, the singers are all in fine, fresh voice. Made up as an old man, Thomas Hampson lays on the “feebleness” a bit much, but his voice is strong. Olaf Bär sings the “bad” king without letting his nefariousness mar the musical line. As the young lovers, Luba Orgonasova and Endrik Wottrich are attractive both vocally and personally.
Once seen, viewers may not be interested in returning to Alfonso und Estrella as a music drama. However, such are the pleasures of its score that this DVD is well worth considering, if no other opportunity can be found for enjoying its music.