Tuesday, 15 January 2019

The ten greatest/funniest/etc. operas I've recently watched, Part 2: Der Rosenkavalier, Bluebeard's Castle, Katya Kabanova, Wozzeck and Lady Macbeth of Mtensk

(You can find the first part of this post here.)

6. I hope I manage to squeeze in another viewing of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier (1911), which is, quite simply, one of the most enjoyable operas I've ever seen - and the music is certainly some of the loveliest I've ever heard. While Der Rosenkavalier harks back to frolicsome, melody-laden, semi-comic operas of earlier eras - in particular, to Mozart (as well as to more recent operettas, such as Franz Lehar's amusing soufflé, The Merry Widow), many of its themes are surprisingly adult - the way the Marschallin acknowledges the impending loss of her sexual allure by helping her young lover, Count Octavian, to unite him with his true love, the innocent Sophie (who's far closer to his own age), by helping him to prise the girl from the grasp of the her fiancé, the morally disgusting Baron Ochs, is truly touching...

...René Fleming is in knock-out form in this 2009 performance, with Christian Thielemann conducting the Munich Philharmonic at Baden-Baden (it's three-and-a-half hours long, but feels half that length):

While contemporary audiences immediately fell in love with Der Rosenkavalier (special trains had to be laid on to ferry audiences to the opera house), Salome (1904-1905) must have shocked them to the very core. For instance, it contains a sequence where the lascivious, half-naked title character actually snogs the decapitated head of John the Baptist, which still has the power to make one feel distinctly queasy 114 years after it was first performed. Strauss always looks so respectable and stiffly Teutonic in photographs, it's genuinely astonishing to discover that he wrote something like this - evidently an interesting man.

Salome, by the way, is much more than a shocker to titillate the bourgeoisie - it's also musically magnificent. I also loved Strauss's opera-within-an-opera, Ariadne auf Naxos (1916), which turns out not really to be about Ariadne on Naxos, but about a rich man demanding that two seemingly irreconcilable works - a serious opera and a comic operetta - somehow be performed simultaneously for a group of houseguests at his country mansion, in order to hurry things along. It all works magnificently, because Strauss effortlessly combines broad comedy, light romance, poignancy and truly beautiful music - and pokes merciful fun at opera composers who take themselves far too seriously. (I'm hoping to get through Strauss's other major works - I've always wandered why he hadn't produced more symphonic/programme music along the lines of Death & Transfiguration and Also Sprach Zarathustra: I now know it's because he was far too busy knocking out a stream of operatic masterpieces).

While what follows is the same spectacularly entertaining Glyndebourne version I saw, it doesn't have English subtitles - apologies:

7. I've been listening to the music from Béla Bartók's hour-long Bluebeard's Castle  (1918) for years, without knowing what it's about. Well, it's a horror opera, pure and simple - spooky, oppressive, unsettling, and shot through with sado-masochism. In brief, it's astonishing. It's only an hour long, and here's the whole of it, with English subtitles:

8. I've been enjoying a suite, arranged by Peter Breiner, made up of the great Czech composer Leoš Janáček's heart-piercingly lovely music from his 1921 opera, Katya Kabanova, for ten years now. I've adored Janacek's strange, spiky, gloriously melodic music for 20 years (my favourite 20th Century British composer is Vaughan Williams, my favourite French composer is Ravel, Richard Strauss is now firmly ensconced as my favourite German composer... and Janacek is, by a mile, my "rest of the world" winner),  but even I was surprised by the tenderness and lyricism contained in the Kabanova suite. Having finally seen the opera, which concerns the sexual longings of a woman married to a dull provincial mummy's boy whose hypocritical, hyper-critical live-in mother devotes her energies to crushing her daughter-in-law's spirit, I can report that it is a work of towering genius. Its emotional energy and the sympathy it evokes for Katya, who finally gives way to her need for love by conducting a passionate affair with the son of a businessman (whose father constantly denigrates him, much as Katya's mother-in-law does Katya) while her husband is away on a business trip she had begged him not to take, may have been fuelled by the unhappily-married composer's long-term platonic relationship with a younger woman, who acted as his muse in his later years, when he was at his most productive.

Janacek, himself a provincial, was shabbily treated by the Prague musical establishment, who tended to ignore the work of their greatest contemporary composer. This might help explain why it took a shocking 30 years for this 20th Century operatic masterpiece to receive its first London performance. As I couldn't find an online version of the opera with English subtitles (I had to buy the libretto on Amazon), I'll let the orchestral suite whet your appetite:

Janacek's earlier Jenufa (1904) - about a village girl left up the duff by a feckless lover who dumps her and promptly marries a more upmarket candidate - is also well worth watching (the girl's almost demonic stepmother, who, unbeknownst to Jenufa, kills her illegitimate child in order to cover up the scandal, is genuinely scary - what was it with Janacek and mothers?). Here's the excellent Gran Teatre del Licieu, Barcelona, production I saw:

9. Wozzeck (1925) took the Austrian composer Alban Berg eight years to compose. It consists of 15 scenes, each based on a different musical form - lullaby, military march, fugue etc. The main character is a soldier stuck in a grubby, provincial dump with a wife and baby. He is suffering from some unidentified stress-related, depressive psychiatric illness, which is exacerbated by everyone he comes in contact with, including his deranged, egotistical doctor and his puffed-up brute of a captain. He grows increasingly bonkers as the opera progresses, and ends up killing his wife, whom he suspects of being unfaithful. It is deeply depressing and the music's a bit too modern for my tastes (although it has undeniable power and a strange beauty). I watched a film version of it which practically left me wanting to slit my wrists - and yet I've just recorded what looks like a first-rate 2017 Salzburg Festival production of it, which I'm thoroughly looking forward to watching. Go figure! 

Here is the whole of the 1970 film version I saw, complete with subtitles:

10. I'll complete my list with an unexpected stunner - Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk District by Dmitri Shostakovich. The bored wife of a provincial businessman's son (there were a lot of them about, evidently) starts a steamy affair with a roguish new worker (to be frank, he's a brute and a bit rapey) at her horrible, boorish father-in-law's factory while her husband's away on a business trip. (Yes, all very reminiscent of Katya Kabanova). When her suspicious father-in-law catches the two lovers at it, and the factory worker has been imprisoned in the basement by a servant, Lady Macbeth kills dad by feeding him poisonous mushrooms, and the lovers end up in prison.

There's a lot of distinctly flabby flesh on display (Lady Macbeth spends most of the opera in her underwear), quite a bit of simulated rumpy-pumpy, a rotting corpse, Keystone Kops-style policemen, the prison scenes are horrible, much of the music is essentially parodic, it's all distinctly coarse - and yet it all works triumphantly, partly because we retain some sympathy for the heroine, and because the music is wonderful. (It's worth noting that the opera was composed during the height of Stalin's purges: astonishingly, the mass-murderer initially approved of it, and a hundred performances were given before Uncle Joe inevitably changed his mind, and it was suppressed. How Shostakovich managed to come up with anything this good in those nightmarish circumstances is anyone's guess.) Here's a small sample of the excellent production I watched, which, unfortunately, isn't available - at least, with subtitles - on YouTube.

At the end of the "Peace" section of Prokofiev's monumental operatic version of War and Peace, it would have been a shoo-in for this list - but it unravels during the "War" section, brought to a crashing halt by a surfeit of patriotic fervour and peasant-worship. Understandable, given that it was the middle of Second World War and the composer had Stalin breathing down his neck - but, in terms of posterity, what a missed opportunity. Still, if you come across a subtitled version, I heartily recommend giving it a go, but be prepared to fast-forward quite a bit when the war's on.

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