Rossini, Mozart and Britten

Nights at the Opera: Mar., 2011

A scene from The Rape of Lucretia | Photo: APA

One of the great attractions of opera is its diversity. Operas can be very long, seriously heavy – even dunkel – and challenging in various ways, but at the other end of the spectrum they can be bright, breezy, cheerful and comical entertainment, and no less significant for being so. The last performance this season of the Volksoper’s revival of the 1996 production of Rossini’s side-splitting comic opera, La Cenerentola (Cinderella) was a charming mix of delightfully melodic music and song with very competent voices excelling in the several ensemble pieces that are so much part of Rossini.

The production and outrageous costumes were constantly driving towards fun and lots of it. In fact, it could easily have replaced a Christmas pantomime except that the evil father was applauded instead of being loudly boohed at the end of it all. Audience reactions varied from a curt “I’ve seen better” to a call the next day saying “I enjoyed it so much, I wished they would have started it all over again.” During the interval, the cast toured the house to allow us make a little contribution towards the care of sick children. In the circumstances it felt like a privilege.

Figaro, the Barber of Seville provides a convenient link between Rossini’s and Mozart’s operas of Beaumarchais plays. The Staatsoper has now staged two of Mozart’s three operas with libretti by Da Ponte: Don Giovanni and now Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), in a new production cycle, this time by Jean-Louis Martinoty with the General Music Director, Franz Welser-Most in the pit.

This production of Le Nozze takes a bit of getting used to: the already complex sets of relationships are further complicated by the addition of an art collection which distracts as its relevance is sometimes obscure. The worst was a painting of a great range of cheeses, all of which I attempted to  identify instead of concentrating on the action. Some of the first night performances seemed a bit restrained. Happily, later ones seemed more free and were the more enjoyable for it.

Returning to diversity, the two Britten operas in February, Billy Budd and The Rape of Lucretia, were more demanding. This Billy Budd is a familiar piece in the Staatsoper and its return was warmly welcomed, particularly for the performances of Neil Shicoff as the tormented Captain Vere; Adrian Erod as Billy, the victim of several things, some of his own making; and Peter Rose as the fiercely tyrannical Master-at-Arms, Claggart.

Theater an der Wien scored yet another hit with a very compelling production and staging of The Rape of Lucretia. The enormous scale of the stage, which at first glance looked like the world’s largest wine cellar (until the bottles turned out to be lights) reflected the enormity of the evil event.

We are guided through the background and the subsequent events by the choruses, in the sense of classical Greek theatre. They are two: the Male Chorus is a possible professor of Classics in his Library, played very convincingly by Kim Begley Even his heart attack was quite scary. The Female Chorus is a gorgeous, leggy, young thing in a very untidy apartment who spends most of her time at her laptop or in restless sleep, or jumping in and out of a miniskirt (with great decorum). She is played by Angel Blue, who incidentally, was a Miss Hollywood and a Miss California before becoming Clara in Porgy and Bess to start an operatic career.

Significantly, it is the Female Chorus, who is the deus ex machina who languidly drops the dagger which allows Lucretia to bring the horror to its tragic conclusion at the appropriate moment.

The undoubted centrepiece of this canvas is Lucretia herself. The surrounding characters, including Tarquinius, were as good as their roles permitted, but for vocal mastery and spellbinding dramatic sensitivity before, during and after her violation, Angelika Kirchschlager was riveting as the ill-fated Lucretia. If possible, this performance only adds to her standing as one of the greats.

One of the minor irritations at opera is when an enthusiastic audience begins to applaud before the music has ended. In contrast, a truly great performance of a serious topic is sometimes greeted with a silence, the silence of an audience overcome. Then the applause begins, at first slowly and then more rapidly and intensively as the audience escapes from the spell. It is a great experience when it happens, as it did for this performance of The Rape of Lucretia.

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