Who knew? To the right of the Royal Box at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is the Bedford Box, its identical twin, but nearer the stage. Same private entrance, same butler-run dining-room, even the same china/thunderbox private loo. It’s the only privately-owned box in the ROH and belongs to some generous people who occasionally give the use of it to our equally generous friend – who took us to see the revival of the RO’s 2013 Les Vêpres sicilienne, a rare production of Verdi’s 1855 original version for the Paris Opéra. We saw and heard the same male principals as in 2013, Bryan Hymel as the Sicilian patriot Henri, who learns he is the son-by-rape of Guy de Monfort, the French Governor of Sicily, sung by Michael Volle, and Erwin Schrott, the tricky Sicilian leader, Jean Procida. They were uniformly magnificent in this baggy four-hour monster grand opera, with special kudos for stamina to Hymel, who manages the lengthy spinto tenor role with completely accurate pitch and only a little sweat on the brow. The Uruguayan bass-baritone Schrott, who was the best Figaro and one of the best Don Giovannis I can remember, is in his vocal prime, and simply owns the stage every time he sets foot on it. From our box’s vantage point into the wings, we saw him change his shirt, and can tell you that he frequents the gym and has a prominent tattoo across his splendid pecs, though we couldn’t actually read it. We did not see him change into his black ball-gown, to do the final scene in mystifying but glorious drag, but when havoc was called for, he wreaked it wonderfully.
One of the most curious things about the Vespers is that it has only a single female role, Hélène, a Sicilian who has lost her brother to the horrid French, and falls in love with Henri. This only shows that Verdi was as acute (and a little soppy) about father/son relationships as about dads’ with their daughters. She was sung, with increasing accuracy of pitch, by Swedish soprano Malim Byström, who seemed to have the good sense to keep something in reserve for Act V, when every note of her coloratura passages was spot on.
Maurizio Benini conducted the seldom performed score with aplomb, his task perhaps made harder by the near-constant presence of the “ballet girls” (as they were called by both Verdi and Degas, whose pictures of them I wrote about here recently), complicating the cues no ends. I pretty much lost count of them, though I was riveted, as I always am by dancers en pointe, especially when bands of them leave the stage backwards on tip-toe. Stefan Herheim, the Norwegian who directed the original production, cut only the 30-minute Paris 1855 ballet, Les Quatres Saisons. (This was Verdi’s improvement on Meyerbeer’s “ballet for skaters” for Le Prophète, which lasts a mere 19 minutes or so.)
This is all about the traditions of grand opera in mid-19th century Paris, where the composers’ contracts stipulated five acts, including a (usually unrelated to the plot) dance divertissement in Act II or III, or often both. It had to be late enough in the piece that it gave the members of the Jockey Club, who were major Opéra supporters, time to drink and dine, before they slipped into their boxes and ogled the ballet girls with their outsize opera-glasses, choosing the one they hoped to engage backstage to spend the night with them. (A sort of mass Harvey Weinstein manoeuvre.) Strangely enough, to us anyway, training for the ballet often led to prostitution. This does not explain why, in Act IV, a couple of bearded, moustachioed French soldiers were wearing white tutus under their military coats.
Herheim seems to have decided to distribute the dancing through all five acts, and attempts to relate the ballets to the plot. This only fails miserably in Act V, where there are two scenes of musical and dramatic fluff even without an unrelated half-hour of dance. One of the reasons Les Vêpres is so seldom staged is the expense of the huge orchestra, chorus and corps de ballet, and Herheimer and set designer Philipp Fürhofer have added another layer of expenditure to this by setting the opera inside the pre-Palais Garnier (opened 1875) Paris Opéra, rue le Peletier. The back wall of the stage becomes the Opéra’s boxes, populated by Parisians, looking out at the London audience – and so forth. I am not convinced this is very helpful, but it looks splendid, of course. But I must moan a little: in the duets and ensembles, the singers only rarely make eye contact with each other. Even amateur voice coaches know that the first rule of opera is that a duet is always sung to someone else on stage, and hardly ever to the audience. It makes me cross, and wanting to lay a near-criminal charge against directors who do not observe this First Law of Opera.
Still, it was a great adventure, as was the great Oxford Lieder Festival’s screening of the 1926 silent film of Der Rosenkavalier with a new score by Richard Strauss, who conducted it himself at its first outing at the Dresden Semperoper. The film, cut by about a thousand feet, was shown later that year in London, where it was heralded as the greatest achievement of the cinema in (its brief) history. Strauss’ librettist for the opera, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, had the idea to make the film, and was helped by Max Reinhardt, who, with the other two, founded the Salzburg Festival in 1920. Indeed, I’m pretty sure that in one shot I recognised the gardens of Reinhardt’s Salzburg home, Schloss Leopoldskron, where I’ve been privileged to stay, though most of the film was shot at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, perfect for the 1740 date of the opera. The very idea of filming an opera without singers seems weird, but Hofmannsthal seemed to believe that gestures could substitute for singing. Seeing this film reminds you that one of the reason we have difficulty nowadays with silent films is the over-acting and huge, broad gestures typical of pre-talkies; yet, I think Hofmannsthal was right in this case, and the swooning and swaying and gesticulating, nudged a little by the titles, do convey genuine heightened emotion.
That is, of course, thanks almost entirely to Strauss’ through-composed “soundtrack” (this could easily count as the first of these ever made). The three artists responsible for the concept of the film altered the story of the opera, adding a good deal of back story. The Field Marshal, for example, is seen leading his troops (to new music), and in the film, receives a letter telling him his wife has taken a lover. Following a victorious battle, he orders his forces back to Vienna. When almost there, he gets impatient with the speed of his coach, stops everything, orders an officer to dismount, and gallops away on his horse. I’m sure you’ve seen something like this in a silent movie, and remember how gently funny it is. Another addition is a glimpse into the seedy home-life of Baron Ochs. We see his decaying Schloss, his decrepit servants and how they smarten up his tatty clothes so that he can go to Vienna to ask the favour of his cousin, the Marschallin. The last 15-20% of the film is lost, except for some stills, but it appears that the ending is different, and the black page-boy appears throughout the film, and not just in the final bars of the opera. Though Hofmannsthal was credited with the screenplay, it wasn’t used by the film’s director, Robert Wiene, who made The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, but regarded Hofmannsthal’s ideas as too complicated. Just as it had a celebrated Expressionist director, the sets were designed by a Secessionist, Alfred Roller, who had worked with Mahler.
This conductor of the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Thomas Kemp, has done an amazing job in synchronising the score and this new print of the film – it’s not like the original screening, when the conductor could signal the projectionist to slow down, or speed up. It was obviously a labour of love to reconstruct the score – and this was one of those events I’d not have missed for anything. But the orchestration takes some getting used to – there are only five strings, 1st and 2nd violin, viola, cello and bass and lots of woodwind, brass, two percussionists and two keyboard players. Strauss composed the score for the resident chamber groups found in the big picture houses of the era – but it can’t help but sound a little unbalanced. The Oxford Lieder Festival (which continues until 28 Oct.) was the premiere of this venture which, thank heavens, is touring, including Hereford on Tues. 24 Oct., Thu 17 May 2018 at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, and Fri. 25 May 2018 at Konzerthaus, Vienna.
This is quality time for opera here, with the BBC broadcasting special programmes on both radio and TV, including a good many documentaries. I haven’t seen them yet, but have heard the odd whinge (perhaps justified) from colleagues. At the Victoria & Albert Museum, however, is a genuine, virtuous blockbuster of an exhibition “Opera: Passion, Power and Politics” (until 25 Feb 2018). Conceived by the former director of the V&A. the late Martin Roth, and by the former director of opera of the Royal Opera, Kasper Holten, it is curated by Kate Bailey, inaugurating the V& A’s new wing by Amanda Levete. If only Mr Holten’s productions for the RO had been half as good as this show, maybe he’d have stayed on in London and not returned to Denmark.
The show, which has a soundtrack, of course, is organised in 8 parts – seven cities whose history is partially reflect by seven operas: Venice, Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea; London, Handel’s Rinaldo; Vienna, Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro; Milan, Verdi’s Nabucco; Paris, Wagner’s Tannhäuser; Dresden, Strauss’ Salome; Leningrad, Shostakovich, and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsnesk District. Part 8 deals with contemporary opera and speculation about the future of opera. The brilliant technical part of the exhibition is that the audio equipment is cutting-edge, and as you progress from room to room, the appropriate sound-track is automatically triggered. This means you should allow at least 90 minutes so you can hear the entire thing, which includes both specially recorded and historic versions of arias and ensembles, plus overtures and some auditory surprises. The items exhibited range from sets and costumes to autograph scores, instruments and a couple of first-rate paintings; and, in one setting, about 20 screens showing different productions of the same opera. The accompanying catalogue, edited by Kate Bailey, is a gem. Not only does it have essays by performers – e.g. Danielle De Niese on singing Poppea; Antonio Pappano on conducting Mozart’s Figaro; and Placido Domingo on becoming a baritone Nabucco; but also the subject essays are written by genuine experts, e.g., Shostakovich is by Elizabeth Wilson.