Saturday, 1 April 2017

Fooling around: name that opera



I challenge you to Name That Opera in this example of Regietheater run wild. Click on the image for a better view. If you've seen the picture in context, or the production, don't answer. Obviously I chose it because it seemed when I saw it live, and still seems, a rather unlikely and absurd setting for the opera in question, despite the discipline of the movement; not for this director the messy blocking of Kasper Holten's Meistersinger. Production and credit to be given in due course.  I'll refrain from 'yes' or 'no' below until I've got a good few replies (if I'm lucky).

UPDATE (SPOILER ALERT: if you haven't been following this and you want to make a guess, look no further): 'The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve',  and no, it's NOT A Midsummer Night's Dream, though Christopher Alden's ENO production set in a 1960s school would have been another counter-intuitive proposition, if only so many folk hadn't seen it.

No, the opera was guessed in the nick of time, and with the previous 25 or so having been declared as not the one, by my dear blogging pal from over the pond Susan Scheid. It is indeed Janáček's From the House of the Dead, aka Z mrtvého domu, that last and probably oddest of all his operas, based on Dostoyevsky's Siberian prison memoirs. The production is by young Czech Turk, if you see what I mean, Daniel Špinar for Prague's National Theatre (Národni divadlo). I saw it there during last year's Prague Festival and you can read all about my impressions - as presumably nobody did, or if they did they forgot, and Sue promises she was winging it - some way down in this Arts Desk piece on the Festival.

If I'd have put up a photo from the first two acts you would have got it. The below and above images by Patrik Borecký.


So what's with the concert-hall, tuxedoed setting for Act Three? I never did really work it out. The best I can do is that since the Goryanchikov character in the novella is Dostoyevsky's alter ego, Špinar makes him Janáček's. So he's a composer/performer and the first part of Act Three must be his fantasy, which makes the end hellish confusing. Aincha sick of directors' "it was only a dream" ideas? The worst recently was how Kasper Holten makes Act Two of Die Meistersinger Sachs's dream - a total mess. 

The top photo is nicely deceptive, since you can't tell whether the figure on the piano is a man or a woman. In fact it's a real twist on Janáček's characterisation of Alyeya/Alyosha the Tatar boy, usually played by a soprano but here cast as a fey young man sung by a tenor, Goryanchikov's prison bitch. 


Added dodginess in that last act was a woman wearing only panties, chucked choreographically around the stage as the narrative of intense cruelty to a poor girl unfurled. Anyway, now you know.  

So, sweet friends (at least those on UK time), to bed. 

STOP PRESS: my Czech friend Jan told me that someone's put the entire film of the production up on YouTube. Snag: no subtitles, and if ever you needed to understand the words in an opera, it's this one. Still, you might like to dip to hear how good the singing and playing are, and what goes on in Act 3... The lead picture would make it even harder for anyone to guess what opera (there would be many Traviatas, I suspect. Remember, this lady doesn't keep her clothes on for long).


LATEST: The Royal Opera has just announced its 2017-18 season. And what's finally arriving at Covent Garden? From the House of the Dead, in a new production by Krzysztow Warlikowski, whose Phaedra(s) with Isabelle Huppert was stunning. Expect the setting to be as wacky as the above, though.

45 comments:

David Thompson said...

Aha, very good. Goodness, something featuring a lot of men, but not, I imagine, Billy Budd. Tannhauser?

Isabel Morgan said...

Obviously La Traviata. The party goers at Flora's have sensibly donned protective masks knowing that Violetta's back in town and that TB is highly contagious, especially from someone who insists on opening her mouth very w-i-d-e indeed, in order to sing.

Vivien Yule said...

Oh dear – it could be any opera in the hands of today’s directors, given the distortions to which they are prone. It might be easier to guess what it could not be (Midsummer Night’s Dream probably my No.1 for that accolade).

Sebastian Cody said...

David, a swift Google suggests Die Liebe der Danae. That's cheating of course and may even be wrong.

David said...

I'll just respond to that one - it's cheating and it's wrong! I know the production you mean, though, which also features an upside-down piano.

Christopher Gunness said...

Magic Flute Act Two?

Isabel Morgan said...

Proper guess this time. It's surely something where nature or the outdoors is key. Cunning Little Vixen?

Matilda Palmer said...

Lots of men in black and white … it must be “What the Butler Saw”!!!!

David said...

If there were an opera on that subject, then not a bad guess - I suppose the nearest we might get would be Gerald Barry's fabulous operatic treatment of The Importance of Being Earnest, but all those men would somewhat defeat the object of its being a chamber opera with no live chorus...

David Thompson said...

One more thought - Tales of Hoffmann? Though the chorus appear to be silenced...

David said...

Again, not implausible; following Isabel's first all-too-logical train of thought, the inhabitants of Luther's cellar might be anxious not to catch any of Hoffmann's diseases... Anyway, the guesses are mounting nicely; I've also had Nabucco as a good surmise over on LinkedIn. But I shall reveal nothing until the stroke of midnight (even if the joke is on the sender at noon on April Fool's day, officially - many of our American friends have still to awaken and venture a choice...)

Gillian Frumkin said...

Parsifal?

Isabel Morgan said...

Cendrillon? La Cenerentola? Falstaff?

David said...

Come now, Isabel, that's five guesses and everyone - I should have said - is allowed three only. You may choose the same as someone else, since I haven't, with one exception, ruled any choice out.

Paul Cannon said...

Gotterdammerung?Oedipus Rex?Fanciulla del West?

Paul Cannon said...

Gotterdammerung?
Oedipus Rex?
Fanciulla del West?

David Palmer said...

Rosenkavalier?

Joe Smouha said...

There is a challenge. I'll guess Ballo in Maschera. Is he/she the page?

Liam said...

It's Parsifal

Liam said...

Maybe the Merry Widow?

Willym said...

I'm going with Billy Budd... because.....

Willym said...

well okay let's try Fidelio - the prisoners are afraid of catching a chill from the fresh air?

Edwina Ashton said...

I guessed Strauss (because it reminded me of the wedding scene in the recent ROH
Rosenkavalier production)and then through internet skullduggery I think it is Harms'
version of Die Liebe der Danae.

Joe Smouha said...

I'm sticking with Verdi. Rigoletto - messenger scene after abduction. Act2?

Sebastian Cody said...

My friend says it could be anything except Aida - so I guess Aida.

David said...

With one hour to go before the midnight announcement - seems I'm click-whoring here, but it's fun - I can tell you that none of the above answers is right. They nearly all COULD be, but like I put it above, it's actually counter-intuitive. I like the idea of it being an outdoors opera because it's so obviously indoors.

Sebastian Cody said...

Counter-intuitive? For lines of people dressed in black and white? The Carmelites?

Susan said...

And I have NO idea, even though it's probably a version of something I recently saw. How about From The House of the Dead?

Deborah van der Beek said...

Die Fledermaus!

Toby Purser said...

Intriguing! From the piano, I'm wondering about La Rondine- but that doesn't work as the chorus seems to be all-male. My other guess was Rigoletto, the moment Gilda runs in in act 2, but seems equally unlikely...

Deborah van der Beek said...

Die Fledermaus!

Josie said...

Don't think it's an opera (yet) but how about: "All the President's Men"? Except of course they are all currently leaking like the crew of the good ship USS Colander.

David said...

A nice twist to the day from Josie there, and the answer is now above. Well done, all, every one plausible, as probably the correct one isn't, entirely. I did say it was counterintuitive.

David Damant said...

I wonder if this proves that operatic productions have now only a limited connection with the libretto?

David said...

It proves nothing, other than that this one did (IMO), and there are plenty of others. But never say never. C Alden's ENO Midsummer Night's Dream, with Oberon as a paedophile 1960s schoolmaster, shouldn't have worked, but it did, partly because of the rigour of the staging, and partly because the idea was followed through. Too often one concept which fits a brief stretch of the opera twists everything around it to accommodate that concept. As I explained above, this production started out corresponding with the prison drama and went off the rails in Act Three (though the choreography was pretty dire and campy throughout).

David Damant said...

During a recent interview, Renee Fleming said, almost en passant ( and the point not being taken up by the interviewer), that nowadays the musical performance in an opera had declined in relative importance in favour of the production, and of the acting by the singers. If that is correct ( and in my limited experience it seems so) why has this occurred? I suppose that it may be due to the fact that if one wants the music alone the best singers and performances in the world are there at home on a CD

David said...

Reactionary approach. If you want 'the music alone', then you're no lover of opera as an art-form. You are entitled to opinions I know very well by now, but you came late to the party with (as usual) tangential reflections (not that I don't often enjoy them). In this case you did not see the production in question, and whether it worked or not - in my opinion it didn't - would be the provenance of those who did.

David Damant said...

I was only asking your view on Renee Fleming's comment about the relative ( only relative) decline in the importance of the music as compared with the acting and the production. She seemed to report this as a known fact. The business of CDs at home I only mentioned as a possible reason why this relative change has occurred. I certainly agree that opera is a gesamtkunstwerke

David said...

Thanks for your patience. I see and hear no decline in musical standard, and I'm sure we live in good times when good singers are also excellent actors - though that may affect the perception of 'star quality' - and directors have something interesting to say. If 75 per cent of the time it's a Gesamtkunstwerk fail, then that's the difficult nature of the hybrid beast.

Edwina Ashton said...

Curses, dear David. I was so sure I 'd found it - ah well.

How many opera designs have suspended pianos?

David said...

But you CHEATED, dear Edsy, along with Sebastian - putting 'suspended piano opera production' into Google Search would have disqualified you if the right one had come up...fortunately the Czech language was on my side.

More than you would think, would be the answer to your question. Pountney used to have things hanging upside down (though I don't remember a piano). The piano in Valentina Carrasco's brilliant Lyon production of The Turn of the Screw got caught up in an immense cat's cradle. And even here I suspect the director was cribbing the production of Die Liebe der Danae you cited. The only opera in which I've seen the prima donna climb into the piano and close the lid on herself was a much-maligned ENO production of Delius's Fennimore and Gerda which, perversely, I rather liked.

John Gittens said...

I did not realise the time limit on this was two midnights ago. I was going to offer yesterday morning L'Italiana in Algeri (the opening chorus for bass eunuchs) but as it was wrong it did not matter. A wacky Fidelio Prisoners Chorus was my runner-up. At least that was a prison!

Nicholas Spence said...

I wouldn't have guessed that in a month of Sundays! Curiously, I was thinking only recently about From the House of the Dead and wondering when somebody might be staging it again since although I have seen it a few times over the years I feel I know it about least of all Janacek's mature operas. I somehow don't think I would go to Prague should they revive it there though.

Just received the Guildhall brochure today and delighted to see they are doing Menotti's The Consul in the autumn, which I saw in the early 50s and have often wondered if it would ever come back.

David said...

Bad luck, John - but thanks for adding another colourful suggestion - Italian Girl, why not? After all Laurent Pelly managed to drain all the colour out of the Mediterranean airs Berlioz gives Beatrice et Benedict, so stranger things have happened.

Nick, I want to see it here too. I remember my first experience, at Scottish Opera when I was a student - maybe I was sickening but it knocked me so sideways that I went down with a high fever, the worst bout of flu I can remember. ENO did an excellent job in Paul Daniel's day, but I don't think it's ever been seen at the Royal Opera (could they resurrect the Chereau which was done at the Met?)

As for The Consul, that too brings back memories - not of having seen it, but of reading the depressing story in a book of opera tales when I was a kid, and having nightmares about the woman putting her head in a gas oven at the end. Did see The Medium, pure hokum, in a double bill with The Telephone at the Edinburgh Festival. That was the time when two critics came up with the same phrase, 'post-Puccinian grand guignol', in their reviews... Consul is often excerpted in student showcase evenings, and I should guess that in many respects it's still topical, so good choice for the Guildhall.

David said...

NB: my Czech friend Jan alerted me to the entire production just lodged on YouTube - look down the main piece for the link.