Opera! July 2015 was my month of three operas. Unless you’re Eric the Phantom (of the Opera), this probably sounds a touch excessive. It did to me, too, when I looked at the diary and saw what I had done.
But they were all just a touch odd. And very different.
Opera overwhelms me. I laugh, I cry, I sit on the edge of my seat at the drama. And there’s always a chance I will be exalted into out-of-the body bliss by the beauty of the music. The sheer power of an orchestra and chorus going quiet is tingle-up-the-spine time. I find opera mysterious, dangerous, sometimes almost threatening.
La Locandiera, Warden’s Garden, New College, Oxford
Sometimes, it’s not so intense, though. La Locandiera (roughly the Lady Who Runs the Inn) is an all but forgotten opera by Salieri. That’s the composer whom Pushkin and Peter Shaffer cast as Mozart’s Nemesis. In fact, he seems to have been rather helpful to the Mozart family after Wolfgang’s death. With a text by Goldoni, it is, as you’d expect, a farce and has some pithy things to say about stupid aristocrats, overbearing suitors and clever women.
There is no doubt whose opera it is, and the lady inn-keeper plays her various suitors with skill. She flirts charmingly while never giving more than she wants. She ends marrying Fabrizio, the waiter, whom she fancied all along — a delicious performance by Rachel Shannon.
In the Warden’s garden, with spot-on comic timing from singers who inhabit the baroque with nonchalant ease – and augmented from time to time to time by a visiting song thrush – it was pure magic.
Turandot, Bregenz Festival
At the other end of the scale was the spectacular open-air production of Puccini’s masterpiece in the giant amphitheatre on the shores of Lake Constance. The action takes place on an island, built to contain stage and massive set, on the lake itself.
The sheer size of the undertaking, not to mention the interpolation of wind and waves — and, on the night we went, lashing rain as well — demands amplification. It was a surreal experience. Tiny figures moved about the distant stage. But when you looked at the screens dotted about the open-air theatre, you could see them in in all their make-up and finery, acting their socks off, while Puccini’s big harmonies filled the great bowl. Strange, scary and memorable.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Glyndebourne
This is almost the strangest opera of the lot — in one way purest Mozart, with his wonderful dance between the orchestra and the singers, fantastic vitality, sense of character and irreverent humour. Ostensibly it is the story of a gallant young nobleman (Belmonte) rescuing his beloved Konstanze from incarceration in a Pasha’s Harem, with a side order of brilliantly funny servants.
BUT, right from the start, the young gallant is a bit of a twerp. Yet his beloved is clearly altogether a more complex, self-aware and conflicted character. Shades of Goldoni-Salieri, there.
And then we see Pasha Selim. And he, not callow Belmonte, is a Man of the Enlightenment, moderate, thoughtful, generous, tender to his family. The Works.
And Mozart doesn’t let him sing. Not a note.
From a twenty-first century perspective, Selim is the hero, no question. You even find out that he only became a Pasha after his Christian father was cruelly dispossessed by Belmonte’s own brutal papa. When Konstanze decides to leave with Belmonte, Selim allows it but warns her darkly that she may come to regret it if the boy turns out to resemble his father.
So does Selim tempt Konstanze, notwithstanding his harem habit?
Well, that depends on the production. I’d say, from the music, that he does. It’s in the orchestra as much as what she sings. But then I’m a romantic novelist in whom the Sheikh hero is probably hard-wired. In the Austrian Court, with Turkish invaders at the gates of Vienna only a hundred years before, it must have been unthinkable. And Mozart? He was very young when he wrote Seraglio. I think Konstanze probably got away from him.
And where did this Glyndebourne production come down? Well, what do you think?