25 Jun 2009
SCHUBERT: Alfonso und Estrella
What is the worst opera with the best music?
It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.
With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.
Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.
If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”
Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.
On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.
Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.
Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.
Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.
The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s ﬁrst great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.
This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.
Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’
Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.
Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.
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.