On Roller Coaster Tour: ‘Troyens’ To ‘Elegy’ and ‘Carmen’

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La Scala's 'Les Troyens' is a co-production with Covent Garden, the Vienna State Opera and San Francisco Opera.
La Scala’s ‘Les Troyens’ is a co-production with Covent Garden, the Vienna State Opera and San Francisco Opera.
By James L. Paulk

A quick tour of major European opera houses revealed a range of approaches in works of the 19th and 20th centuries. Here’s a look at three productions.

Les Troyens – Milan

The massive David McVicar production of Les Troyens, staged in 2012 at London’s Covent Garden, will travel to Vienna and San Francisco. But there is something thrilling about hearing “Italie! Italie! Italie!” in the fabled high temple of operatic Italy, Teatro alla Scala, which co-produced it with the other three companies. As it happens, this was also the La Scala debut of British-born conductor Antonio Pappano, music director at Covent Garden.

The Trojan horse arrives in Berlioz's 'Les Troyen' at La Scala.
The Trojan horse arrives in Berlioz’s ‘Les Troyens’ at La Scala.

The production (seen April 12) is bold and mildly abstract, updating things to mid-19th-century France, about the time the opera was written. Sets were designed by Es Devlin. The first two acts feature massive, multi-story, metal cylindrical walls that rotate open and shut, and a gigantic, stunning horse’s head made of discarded weaponry, which can move and rotate onstage and breathe fire, and which works both as a representation of the Trojan horse and as an art installation.

For the Carthage scenes, we apparently go to Africa, where we get a concave multi-story sand castle set on which the chorus can be arrayed, and a miniature city in the center of the stage. As with the sets, Moritz Junge’s costumes were designed for aesthetic effect rather than for historic relevance. The decision to leave out nothing makes for a long evening in the theater with this opera, more than five and a half hours. Much of the extra time came from extensive ballet scenes, which might have worked better on a less cluttered stage. And the dance music is frankly not the most compelling in the opera. But it did convey a sense of what French grand opera was all about, especially with such a vast dance corps, and the choreography seemed suitably old-fashioned.

Daniela Barcellona made an unforgettable Dido.
Daniela Barcellona made an unforgettable Dido.

Among the many extras filling the stage at every opportunity was a large contingent of children. Opera audiences are never more ecstatic than when children are onstage and gigantic sets are moving hydraulically. But if there was ever an opera that called for big effects, this is it. Les Troyens is formidably difficult to cast, yet this was a night for great singing.

Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Cassandra was on fire, dramatically and vocally. And the Dido of Daniela Barcellona was dramatically unforgettable. She sang with a large, rich, albeit sometimes unfocused voice. As Aeneas, Gregory Kunde was in great form with an effortless high C, registering the hero’s various moods persuasively. Among the vast cast, Maria Radner stood out as Dido’s sister, Anna.

Pappano drew wonderful colors and balances. His pacing dragged at times in the first two acts, then picked up steam. The orchestra seemed a bit lazy on this night. And there were some surprising coordination issues in the first act, perhaps owing to the decision to spread the huge chorus out, with some singing from the audience rings and other cast members placed in the back of the stage. All told, this was a satisfying production and an exciting performance overall. And the notoriously finicky La Scala audience agreed.

Henze: Elegy for Young Lovers – Venice

Hans Werner Henze, one of the most intelligent and imaginative composers of the 20th Century, is also among its most neglected, especially in the U.S. Even in his native Germany and in Italy, where he lived, his operas are revived only sporadically. Still, La Fenice’s new production of his Elegy for Young Lovers attracted a full house on April 6 and seemed to mix Henze enthusiasts with regular subscribers.

A scene from Hans Werner Henze's 'Elegy for Young Lovers' in Venice. (Michele Crasera)
A scene from Hans Werner Henze’s ‘Elegy for Young Lovers’ in Venice. (Michele Crasera)

With a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, the opera is the story of a famous poet, Mittenhofer, who manipulates his acolytes into providing inspiration for his work while taking care of his medical and sexual needs as well.

The text is pure poetry, worth reading all by itself. As a libretto, however, it presents major problems. It’s much too wordy, and much of it just doesn’t lend itself to musical setting. Rather than sending it back for shrinkage, Henze worked with what he had. The result is a mix of spoken recitative, punctuated with a range of sounds from the piano and various elements of the orchestra; lightly sung poetry, always set over the far-ranging counterpoint of which Henze was the great master; arias; and madrigal-like ensembles.

Elegy premiered in 1961 at the Schwetzingen Festival, in a German translation, with the composer conducting. Henze revised the opera in 1987 for La Fenice, and this is the version, in English, which the company presented this season. Instead of the main house, it was performed in Teatro Malibran, an exquisite 700-seat venue used for chamber operas that was  built in 1678, more than a century before the original La Fenice.

Hans Werner Henze composed the opera in 1961. (Richard Haughton)
Hans Werner Henze composed the opera in 1961. (Richard Haughton)

The work calls for seven singers, all well-cast here. Particularly noteworthy was Gladys Rossi, who sang the demanding coloratura role of Hilda Mack, whose “visions” are transcribed by Mittenhofer and passed off as his work. Rossi is riveting on stage, her dramatic authority nicely measured, her voice precise and agile. Baritone Giuseppe Altomare showed nice flexibility and ample power in the role of Mittenhofer. Conductor Jonathan Webb drew a lucid, accurate, and dramatic effort from the small ensemble.

The production, by Pier Luigi Pizzi, featured a steeply raked, nearly bare stage and costumes of uncertain period. Mittenhofer was clearly dressed and made up to resemble Rasputin. As is the usually the case with younger singers these days, the physical acting and stage movement were impeccable. Elegy deserves more attention than it seems to get. The two complete recordings (one in English) are out of print, but excerpts of a Deutsche Oper Berlin performance conducted by Henze, with a cast including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, are available in MP3 format at Amazon.

Carmen – Berlin

Austrian theater director Sebastian Baumgarten attracted considerable notoriety for his Tannhäuser, which opened in 2011 at Bayreuth. A highly complex deconstruction, it probably ranks second only to Katharina Wagner’s Die Meistersinger as the most subversive production ever mounted in the Festspielhaus. The following year, Baumgarten produced Carmen for the Komische Oper Berlin, and that production was revived this season.

Don Jose (Timothy Richards) confronts Carmen (Stella Doufexis) in the Komische Oper Berlin production. (Iko Freese)
Don Jose confronts Carmen in the Berlin production staged by Sebastian Baumgarten.

Whatever Baumgarten’s faults, one cannot accuse him of laziness or a lack of imagination. Indeed, it’s safe to say, based on the April 9 performance, that there’s never been a Carmen with so much going on. Baumgarten took quite a few liberties with the text and the score. But mainly he added a vast overlay of information by way of projections, sets, extra characters, interludes, and the like.

His starting point was the original opera comique version (virtually never seen in American theaters), which uses spoken dialogue rather than recitative. And, as is the long-standing custom at the Komische Oper, the singing was in French but the dialogue was in German. We also got movie segments showing José (the excellent Timothy Richards) testifying at his murder trial, explaining his feelings for Carmen and how she’d provoked him.

These were in English. (Perhaps he was an American mercenary?) And there was a lot of text that had clearly been added. A flamenco dancer became part of the gypsy troupe, but she also performed several dances, accompanied by a couple of guitarists. And in video segments, she ratted out José to Zuniga.

Stella Doufexis  as Carmen in the Berlin production. (???)
Carmen stirs up a pungent brew in the Berlin production. (Iko Freese)

It all happened in a bombed-out urban setting, which included a former Santander Bank branch for the first act, morphing into the Grand Hyatt Berlin for the bullring scene. The band of gypsies became political demonstrators. Instead of weapons, they smuggled pamphlets and held demonstrations at which they hoisted portraits of Marx and Lenin.

Carmen first appeared in a sort of voodoo death mask, wearing naughty underwear. Micaëla was costumed as Our Lady of Lourdes, complete with crown. Whenever she arrived, she did so in a haze of smoke, and in the final act she came in a sort of swan boat. The letter from José’s mom (attached to a huge laminated photo of his village) was read aloud mockingly by the other soldiers. One odd thing was that the dialogue was spoken almost entirely in the third person. For example, Escamillo would say: “Escamillo makes gallant approaches to Carmen; she keeps him guessing.” Brechtian distancing? I’m not sure.

When the text was augmented, it was often to coarsen it. For example, José and Escamillo, both speaking the same line before they fight: “Let’s see how strong you are, and if you piss yourself like a coward.” In case any traditionalists had not fled the theater by the final act, there was a rape scene: José pulled his pants down and raped Carmen before stabbing her. At the end, José pulled out a cigarette to smoke while waiting for the authorities, but the lighter wouldn’t work.

Günter Papendell portrayed Escamillo "with a pronounced limp."
Günter Papendell portrayed Escamillo with a pronounced limp.

It’s hard for singing to compete with such a production, and in truth this was not a performance you’d want to record. The Carmen, Ezgi Kutlu, certainly looked the part, but lacked the requisite high notes. The Escamillo, Günter Papendell, was dramatically and physically compelling, but his singing was uneven. His “Toreador Song” at the end of Act III was badly flat. Dressed in a black leather jacket, he was given a pronounced limp and walked with a cane at times. Johanni van Oostrum’s Micaëla was beautifully sung, but Timothy Richards, as José, won the evening’s vocal honors.

Henrik Nànàsi conducted with an edge bordering on brittleness, which seemed about right for this version of Carmen. Berlin took it rather well, with mild applause and no booing. It was reminiscent of the scene in Babette’s Feast where the villagers stoically act as if Babette’s meal is standard fare. The flamenco dancer, naturally, got the biggest ovation.

James L. Paulk is a freelance critic and writes regularly for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.