The Liceu never ceases to amaze. Its courage and initiative is admirable, especially at a time when most great opera houses dish up a continuous string of surefire popular operas (Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La traviata, Rigoletto, etc.) to guarantee seats are filled when the curtain rises. It has no more financial backing than other theatres of similar calibre, but unlike them it seems to refuse to lower its sights.
Thus, in one (short) month, indeed, in one week, we have had two brave offerings: Quartett by contemporary Italian composer Luca Francesconi, which made its fiercely atonal debut at La Scala, Milan, in 2011, and the somewhat less risky but still hardly mainstream Vivaldi opera Teuzzone. Two extremes of musical taste—the first in a style that few regular audience members have adjusted to, and the second in a form that many, brought up on 18th and 19th-century fluid, romantic opera, often find too rigid and stilted to be lovable.
Quartett is an operatic version of playwright Heiner Muller’s 20th-century play, itself a version of the original play by Choderlos de Laclos, Les liaisons dangereuses, which attained overblown popularity during the past 20 years or so.
Francesconi makes use of a combination of live performance and a recorded visual and vocal background. The latter did not seem to have very much to offer or explain. I gather the original production made it very clear that the action took place in a post-apocalyptic bunker, but in this production it does not become explicitly clear until the very end. What we have is the story, even more viciously enacted than in the original, of the warped love-to-the-death relationship of the Marquise de Merteuil (the sexual puppet-master of the situation) and Valmont, who will take any sexual challenge thrown his way.
The opera skirts the very edge of pornography and is beautifully performed, if not always attractive. Already known from earlier versions for their sexually charged, taunting relationship, Merteuil and Valmont now apparently find themselves alone in a vacant post-apocalyptic world, with nothing left but their habits. In this production, it is unclear why these two savage lovers become confined together in a claustrophobic cube, suspended elegantly above the stage floor by myriads of radiating wires. Earlier productions made it obvious that this was a fractured and ruined world, but stage director Àlex Ollé does not show this truth until the very last minute, choosing to concentrate on the relationship rather than its placement. Thus the unsavory pair play out their warped desire for each other by pretending to be the earlier seducer and victim.
But for the rich and forceful mezzo of the Marquise, Allison Cook, one would have been entirely focused on the rampant sexuality of the role. She is the dominant partner (if one can talk of partnership in such a tortured relationship), served well by baritone Robin Adams, whose vocal role was tightly controlled and more subdued. As a pair, they were fully immersed in their roles and the acting and singing were equally superb.
That said, I must confess that I am unable to understand the attraction of atonal music. I try to learn, but have not yet succeeded. I'm glad that the Liceu offered us this opportunity but was able to sink with relief into the production that followed later the same week.
On Friday the Liceu did what I think it does best of all: a concert performance of Vivaldi’s “Chinese” opera Teuzzone. To many of us, Vivaldi signifies ‘Four Seasons’, and a trip to Venice will certainly convince you that that is all he ever wrote, since that is all they ever perform! But in fact, he wrote about 50 operas, all of which faded into the woodwork for several centuries—why we must show our gratitude to Jordi Savall, his Concert des Nations and the Liceu for coming together in this delightful showing.
Apart from the lively and tuneful music, the beautifully controlled small orchestra and the animation of the singers, the whole presentation was refined and elegant, down to the minute details. While the body of the orchestra wore traditional black, Jordi Savall donned a black, silk, Chinese-style jacket with narrow red piping as his conductor’s outfit, and the two Chinese instrumentalists stood out in contrasting outfits, one of which was a beige/gold robe that added a visual lightness to the ensemble.
One aspect that makes concert performances so enjoyable is that the singers can’t help but act subtly, so that one gets a sense of the story even though there is no staging. In some ways, it makes the experience more intimate and the music more central. One is not distracted by loving or loathing the production. And it works particularly well for an opera of Vivaldi’s era, when acting the parts was of lesser importance than when the Romantic era occurred.
The three women—Marta Fumagalli as the scheming widowed queen, Sonia Prina as Zelinda, beloved of the heir to the throne and Roberta Mameli as the (male) politician-courtier with ambivalent loyalties—were all in great form. Paulo Lopez, with a clear choir boy’s voice, was an attractive Teuzzone, struggling for his inheritance.
That all being said, the evening was clearly a triumph for Jordi Savall, and I thank him for it.
As if the past week was not exhilarating enough, on March 1st and 4th, the Liceu is presenting concert performances of Jules Massanet’s Thais, with the justifiably beloved Plácido Domingo in the role of the monk who hopes to convert the courtesan Thais but becomes entangled in his own emotions. Nino Machaidze, coloratura soprano from the country of Georgia, sings the complex role of Thais and given her career up to this point, it will be something to look forward to. Tickets flew out of the box office, but it is always worth trying.
More information here.