If one thinks comic book fans are a tad over-zealous in filmed approaches to their tight-wearing heroes, then a quick glance at reactions from many American opera fans, to contemporary opera, will reveal that those Marvel boys are a subdued lot. American opera fans tend to approach staged/filmed opera the way some fundamentalist Christians approach the good book, insisting on face value inerrancy and or the King James Version. So impassioned, or insistent on orthodox and/or period staging, are such American Opera fans that their first line of attack is to typically spew the over-used, tiresome, and oh so predictable “EURO-TRASH” slur. The idea, for those inclined, is to keep the composer locked in his or her own boxed time and, thus, shut the composer off to newer generations and fresh interpretations (Traditional Shakespeare fans are almost as bad). However, Mozart is still a vital voice in music, regardless of his worshippers. It is no accident that opera in Europe is far bigger, far more attended, and better supported than it is here in the states where the opera “fans” make a false religion out of the art form, slap an institutional sheen on it and transform breathing theater into a museum piece.
Over two hundred years after its debut, The Marriage of Figaro remains an extraordinarily three dimensional work, which does not flinch from portraying deeply flawed characters. Numerous filmed versions of the opera have been released, but the 2006 Salzburg entry may be the most uncompromising to date. There is, of course, Peter Sellars mid-nineties version which, aptly, takes place in Trump Tower, but the line-up of the 2006 film should be a yield sign to opera fundamentalists. The conductor, Nikolas Harnoncourt, has a well-earned reputation for “weirdness.” In that, Harnoncourt,an Austrian by birth, possibly even surpasses that typically eccentric German music director Michael Gielen. Harnoncourt lead several of the M22 projects but Le nozze di Figaro is Harnoncourt at his most personal and insightful.Harnoncourt’s is not porcelain conducting here; he mirrors the disconcerting underside of Da Ponte’s libretto as interpreted by star director Claus Guth. Harnoncourt’s seasoned pacing reinforces the nuanced poignancy, beauty, mature humor, and prospective, life-affirming drama of this music. Thankfully, Harnoncourt does not try to coat Mozart’s writing with a kind of Rossini whipped topping.
Mozart’s unfinished Zaide is considered a slightly older, less memorable brother to the composer’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail [The Abduction from the Seraglio.]. Zaide is a rescue opera, with a plot based on Voltaire’s “Zaire.” The exiled Christian Gomatz is visited by the Muslim harem slave Zaide, the sultan’s favorite concubine. Zaide falls in love with the enslaved Gomatz, rescues him, and together they flee with the aid of the overseer, Allazim. Zaide chooses spirited freedom over financial security, and invokes the Sultan’s wrath. Zaide and Gomatz are recaptured, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. Awaiting execution in the dungeon, Zaide remains defiant, and the opera abruptly stops with an emotional quartet in which the principals express their anxieties, hopes, and fears. Entfuhrung/Seraglio ended on an optimistic note. Had it been completed, it is doubtful Zaide would have followed suit; Voltaire’s original play ended tragically. Zaide ends with the Sutlan’s decision to kill Zaide and Gomatz. The unhappy ending may have been the reason for Mozart’s eventual abandonment of the project.
For his Salzburg production, Claus Guth’s intertwines Mozart’s neglected, unfinished work with Adama (Earth in Hebrew), by 21st century Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin, commissioned especially for this project. During Mozart’s brief lifetime, he worked with traditional forms and then, especially later in his career, defied those forms. It is one of the great tragedies of music that Mozart did not live another ten to twenty years. His late works (such as the Symphony in G minor ) saw Mozart at his most expansive and innovative. To achieve a true Mozartean spirit, contemporary directors, when interpreting Mozart, should first and foremost forget that this is the work of “THE” Mozart.
There are endlessly fascinating artistic directors working in the art of opera. Then, there are great artists. Claus Guth is a great artist. In his 2009 staging of Handel’s “Messiah,” Guth calls to mind the Protestant theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who believed that the Church had become inadequate in speaking about God. Bonhoeffer was embarrassed by the Church’s failure to convey the shocking, liberating, revolutionary power of the divine ideal. To attain that, Bonhoeffer once symbolically suggested a one hundred year moratorium on the name (and word) God. Perhaps then, the name and word could be attained.
Guth’s “Messiah” inhabits Bonhoeffer’s realm with a strikingly prophetic voice. We are, unwittingly or not, starved for such a challenging and provocative voice. Guth’s productions have never been less than impressive. Fortunately, many of these have been filmed and are available on DVD: Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (2006), the Mozart/Czernowin Zaide (2006), Richard Strauss’ Ariadne Auf Naxos (2006), Franz Schubert’s Fierrabras (2007), Mozart’s Don Giovanni (2008) and 2011’s Cosi fan tutti (Guth’s most uneven production and an odd fit in his Da Ponte trilogy ). From Guth’s body of work on film, it is clear why he is such an in-demand artist.
Still, I was not prepared for his version of Handel’s perennial favorite, Messiah (2010). Guth’s staging has been called agnostic, and that might be an apt description according to the traditional meaning (as opposed to contemporary interpretation) of the word. Simultaneously, this may also be the most “Christian” filmed religious narrative since Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture (1991). Guth’s Messiah makes an overly familiar yuletide narrative startling again. This production was staged for the 250th anniversary of George Frideric Handel’s death. I believe Handel would have approved.
The history of the composition is well known. Handel was in ill health, destitute, and on the verge on being sent to debtor’s prison when he received a commission from librettist Charles Jennens to write an oratorio on Christ’ Nativity, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. The libretto was a pastiche, borrowing from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayers. Handel composed it within three weeks and insisted on its being performed in secular theaters, as opposed to churches. Handel’s decision was harshly criticized by the churches, but it was an enormous success. Handel paid off his debts and used his extra earnings from “Messiah” to feed the poor, clothe the naked, and give comfort to those in prison.