PUCCINI: La Bohème
DUKAS: Ariane et Barbe-bleue
Salzburg likes to shake up opera lovers; they surely did so with their modernistic production of La traviata in 2005 which had a glamorous cast headed by Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón and Thomas Hampson (REVIEW). They have done it again, but even more so with this dreadful Bohème from the 2012 Festival. Sets, costumes and direction bring us a contemporary view of Puccini's masterpiece that manages to destroy its tenderness and beauty. Sets are perhaps the ugliest, cheapest looking you'll see for any major opera production. There is a large sign onstage reading Paris, the only way one could possibly tell where the opera takes place. A particularly egregious effect is a huge white-gloved hand slowly printing the name "Mimi" on the huge windows in the rear just after her death. Did they think we forgot who she was? Costumes stay with the contemporary look except that Mimi, a very glamorous Anna Netrebko, appears more like a highly-mascared street walker, very far removed from a timid seamstress. The cast throughout is uniformly excellent, but the fine singing cannot compensate for this miserable staging of Bohème. I haven't seen the Robert Dornhelm film of La Bohème with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón. It reportedly is superb, and surely is preferable to this disappointing new version.
Ingelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) is famous for Hansel and Gretel, premiered in 1893 in Weimar with Richard Strauss on the podium. The famed composer called the opera a masterpiece, and it has become a staple of most opera houses. Humperdinck composed other operas: The King's Children, The Seven Little Kids, Sleeping Beauty, The Reluctant Marriage, and a light opera, but nothing could equal the incredible success of Hansel. Königskinder dates from 1910. The libretto by Ernst Rosmer started as a play for children and later was expanded into an opera. The fairy-tale plot includes a wicked witch who has cast a spell on a king's daughter and kept her as a goose-herd, and a wandering prince who falls in love with the girl. The convoluted plot doesn't make much sense—after all, it is an opera as well as a fairy tale. In the final scene, the prince and the goose-girl, outcast by the stupid villagers, are lost in a snowstorm and starving to death. The prince barters his crown for a loaf of bread, but it turns out to be poisoned by the witch, and the two die. There is much beautiful—but not memorable—music in this opera, except for the death scene in the final act. It's easy to understand why performances are few, and we are fortunate to have this splendid Zurich production. The cast could not be bettered, particularly Jonas Kaufmann as the prince, and Isabel Rey as the bewitched girl. Mathis Neidhardt's costume are adequate, but the single set does not impress. Conductor Metzmacher and the fine orchestra do their work well, and the DVD offers splendid video and audio. Königskinder is a long opera (about three hours) of limited interest no matter how well performed. The Zurich Opera surely did what could be done for it.
Paul Dukas' seldom-heard Ariane et Barbe-bleue is given a superlative performance from Gran Teatre del Liceu. Dukas (1865-1935), a composer, critic, scholar and teacher, was highly respected during his time. He was highly critical of his own compositions, and few survive, primarily this opera, the famous The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the ballet La Peri, a sonata for piano, and a symphony. He destroyed most of his other works, including four operas, two ballets, and a second symphony—a tragic loss for the musical world. Ariane and Bluebeard was adapted from Maurice Maeterlinck's symbolic play; it is intriguing that the author originally wished to have it set to music by Grieg, but when the Norwegian abandoned the project, it was offered to Dukas who worked on it for seven years. The premiere was at the Paris Opera May 10, 1907 conducted by Alexander von Zemlinsky, and received high praise from Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. Arturo Toscanini made an orchestral suite which is available on an NBC broadcast. The opera tells the story of the demonic Bluebeard who killed his wives. His latest victem, Ariane, for some odd reason believes Bluebeard is innocent and goes to his castle to marry him. There she encounters all of his fabulous treasures as well as his previous wives, who are still alive. They are a disturbed lot and seem to be content with their fate; in the final scene they prefer to stay with the wounded Bluebeard. The single set is the bleak interior of a large room which surely doesn't look like any kind of respectable castle. All of the wives are dressed in white uniforms. The seven doors are simple and plain, and when they open we do not see the brilliant treasures behind them—a missed opportunity for producers who could have provided respite from the bland scenes. The cast in this performance is superb throughout; this is demanding music for all concerned. It does seem odd that Dukas didn't write more music for Bluebeard— he has little to sing, but veteran José Van Dam does so impressively. A real star here is Stéphane Denéve, dynamic young conductor who has made impressive recordings of French music for Naxos and Chandos. He extracts every bit of the luxurious score's beauty, and the orchestra responds magnificently. Video and audio are state-of-the-art. Production-wise, as happens so often, much important information is in small print in grey over a darker grey, virtually impossible to decipher.
R.E.B. (March 2013)