Among the plethora of offerings the COVID-19 pandemic has forced online are plenty of the usual suspects – the Carmens, the Traviatas and the Bohèmes. But for those looking for something new, something that might not be likely to pop up anytime soon in their local opera house, there’s a real smorgasbord to enjoy. So, this week I thought I’d flag up some of the opera world’s rara avises (or rarae aves to be strictly correct). From a festival of Russian opera, to a semi-forgotten German masterpiece, and the most interesting of productions of The Rake’s Progress from Aix-en-Provence.
I’ve sung the praises of OperaVision before. Supported by the European Union’s Creative Europe program, the site is wonderfully curated with operas usually available free for six months, which means you can pick and choose your time to view. This week and next they have put together a mini Russian Festival with most of the offerings still works that are all too rarely seen in the West.
Already posted is a searing Dutch National Opera staging of Shostakovich’s visceral Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk from 2006 conducted by the late, great Mariss Jansons and directed by the always provocative, but equally always thoughtful Martin Kušej. The Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, already at the very top of her game, delivers a sizzling interpretation of the complex Katerina Izmailova. Trapped in her glass cage of a home and surrounded by leering neighbours, her transition from sex object to killer is brilliantly charted. Christopher Ventris is her weak, bespectacled husband Sergey with Vladimir Vaneev utterly repellent as her brutal father-in-law Boris Timofejevitsj – you can practically smell the foul breath.
Equally compelling is DNO’s 2012 staging of Rimsky Korsakov’s last opera, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. A combination of historical pageant and dark fairy tale, the opera juxtaposes the natural world epitomised by the innocent forest maiden Ferovnia with an outside world at war focussed on the city of Kitezh which – as a miraculous legend has it – turned invisible in the face of a Tatar invasion. Marc Albrecht conducts with great authority and the visually stunning staging and sets are by Dmitri Tcherniakov (the director of the Met’s spectacular Prince Igor). Prince Yuri Vsevolodovich is sung by Vladimir Vaneev with Maxim Aksenov as his son Prince Vsevolod. Svetlana Ignatovich is the innocent Fevronia and John Daszak – recently seen in Opera Australia’s Wozzeck – delivering an intense performance as the twisted anti-hero Grishka.
Coming soon, are a Russian production of Prokofiev’s masterly War and Peace (May 26) that promises a cast of 400 (!!) as well as an open-air Bulgarian staging of Boris Godunov (May 29). But for a real rarity, hang on until May 31 and you can see Barrie Kosky’s Komische Opera Berlin production of Mussorgsky’s Sorochintsy Fair. Based on a Gogol short story, it was unfinished at the composer’s death, hence why it’s seldom seen. The plot concerns a devil whose visit to a Ukrainian village finds him meddling in the lives of a hen-pecked farmer whose daughter cannot marry her lover – here the excellent Australian tenor Alexander Lewis – because of her mean-spirited stepmother (who, by the way, is having an affair with the village priest). Kosky stages it as a riotous romp of a folk play full of greedy peasants and drinking songs. The opera famously contains a Witches Sabbath in the form of the choral version of Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bald Mountain. No spoilers…
A couple of hours out of New York, Fisher Center at Bard College mounts an annual summer festival that shines a light on a single composer and his influences. In 2011 it was Richard Strauss, and the survey of his music included a rare staging of his 1940 opera Die Liebe der Danae, a work often dismissed as awkward, irrelevant and uninspired. “The libretto, we’ve been confidently told, is lethally uneven. Its effects – a shower of gold, the transformation of a woman into a statue – are unstageable. The main roles are too difficult to cast satisfactorily. And why bother? The music is second-rate. Well, no, no, no and, especially, no,” raved The New York Times, and watching it online nine years later I wouldn’t disagree. Kevin Newbury’s updated – but not too updated – staging takes us to the money-spinning New York of the early 1960s and is supported by outstanding musical direction from Leon Botstein in charge of his 85-strong American Symphony Orchestra. In fact, Strauss’s take on the myth of Jupiter’s competition with King Midas for the love of the beautiful Danae turns out to be surprisingly modern in its “material girl” resonances, while much of the music turns out to possess a Mozartean grace and lightness of touch. The all-American cast are fine: Meagan Miller as Danae, Roger Honeywell as Midas and Carsten Wittmoser as Jupiter. Do watch this – it’s a gem.
For those who find Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress a neo-classical diamond, but all sparkle, no heart, try Simon McBurney’s take from the 2017 Aix-en-Provence Festival. First performed on September 11, 1951 in Venice, Stravinsky and his librettists, WH Auden and Chester Kallman, based their work on the famous series of 18th-century paintings by William Hogarth. The result is a lyrical delight which offsets its musical archaisms with spiky rhythmic devices while revelling in linguistic trickery that’s knowingly faux-Baroque and endlessly clever. Previous stagings – like the sumptuous Hockney-designed production for Glyndebourne – tend to prettify matters, but not McBurney, who uses all his Complicité-infused nous to turn the opera inside out while never losing site of the human story at its heart.
American tenor Paul Appleby is an excellent Tom, the rake of the title, whose choice between his faithful Anne Trulove – here the incandescent Julia Bullock – leads him from the country to the city, and then, bit by bit, from the brothel to the madhouse. The sinister Nick Shadow is Kyle Ketelsen with wonderful cameos from Hilary Summers as the proprietorial brothel-keeper Mother Goose, Alan Oke as the flamboyant auctioneer Sellem, and especially countertenor Andrew Watts who turns Tom’s bearded-lady wife, Baba the Turk – usually a mezzo – into the campiest of drag queens. Michael Levine set made of white paper takes a series of telling projections from skylines and London cabs to the stock exchange and the Orchestre de Paris play well for Eivind Gullberg Jensen (though I’ve heard beefier accounts of the score). But watch it for Appleby and especially Bullock who is simply the most moving Anne I’ve seen.