I ended up with this by accident, in the way that sometimes you go to a used record/CD store in New Jersey and you end up with things because, well, they are there and they are cheap and you have money.
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As noted, Theodora is a stickler. In the original story the oratorio is based on, Theodora is tossed into the brothel specifically because she has been ordered to marry and she refuses, preferring to dedicate her life to religion. The marriage part is not in the oratorio. But either way, she is one of those people who stick to principle, consequences be damned. At the same time, she is still a very much a human being. The music itself reveals it, although the story does too if you pay attention.
This is one of those operas where the sex is very much present by the fact that it emphatically does not happen. I have yet to see a version of it where the two main characters fling caution and clothing completely to the winds – that would make no sense – but these two tormented souls get pretty close.
During a beautifully rendered “deeds of kindness,” Didymus (Bejun Mehta) disrobes, item by item, and in Irene’s aria “defend her, heav’n,” that follows right after, the lines about preserving Theodora’s virtue seem to be voiced not by Irene, but by Didymus’s own conscience. In the end, he intends by “sweet rose and lily” to be satisfied with only a smile for his reward – and he gets one almost immediately, but not from Theodora.
We get an unusual kind of bonus in this production of Theodora from Salzburg, directed by Christoph Loy. In Part III, in addition to the regularly scheduled music, we are treated to Handel’s Organ Concerto in G minor, HWV 310. This is not as odd as it might sound – Handel’s organ concertos HWV 306-11 were written to be performed with his oratorios, although they are separate pieces and as far as I know it’s not standard to put this one where it is in this performance. At least, none of the versions of the oratorio for which I could locate the track listing contain it.
The dramatic function of the concerto in this Salzburg production is to put some of Theodora’s inside thoughts on the outside. The additional music is inserted at a key point, after Theodora has been freed from captivity by Didymus but before she returns to give herself up to the authorities. As the music is performed, we get a kind of silent drama in which Theodora’s thoughts about the meaning of her escape are played out.
So I was watching a DVD of Handel’s Theodora, one from Salzburg, filmed in 2009. Theodora in this instance is Christine Schäfer, whose moving performance was somewhat blighted by a weird sound-recording issue on the DVD, but more about that later. Schäfer is German and when she sings in English her accent is hard to miss. During the section in Part III where Theodora shows up to offer herself for death alongside Didymus, the words seemed on the verge of tripping her up.
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There are a lot of really interesting performances in this. I don’t know if it’s my favorite Giovanni musically – I am not sure I have one of those – but there’s plenty to like about it. Melanie Diener as Donna Elvira has a lovely ringing resonant sound to her voice; the last high notes in “taci, ingiusto core” were really pretty. There is something solid, even at times careful about the interpretation.
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That a production of Don Giovanni might contain some scantily clad women is not going to surprise anyone. (Well, with some exceptions.) But the women in this are not necessarily there to be ogled. There are the women in fur coats who appear during “madamina, e catologo e questo” – but then there are the women cleaning, and later on a little girl. (This reminded me of the Peter Sellars version, which also had a little girl, but she appeared later. Also, come to think of it, that version also played with the question of whether Leporello and Giovanni were different people, like this one.)
Martin Kusej’s production of Don Giovanni is alternately buzzing white light and blue dimness. The thing begins with a large flat image of a group of women in nothing but stockings, lounging on the floor with their backs to the audience. There is a door in this image, and during the overture we see women in trench coats and heels approaching the door, opening it, and stepping inside.
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One more thing about the Cherub and Cherubino. I was reminded yesterday (thanks, Rob!) of the moment in Act I when Cherubino finds one of the Cherub’s feathers on the floor and then reaches back, startled, to feel behind his own shoulder as if to check if something is missing. As if the names didn’t make it plain enough, he has a special connection to this other character. After all, Cherubino is sort of an odd and ambiguous little thing, right? He’s a boy played by a woman; he’s neither a child nor an adult; he exercises a rather strange erotic pull on the Countess; he infuriates the count, who accidentally kisses him at one point in the story; his relationship to Susanna seems almost sisterly, but then he tries to either kiss her or grope her or some variation thereof when he meets her in the garden in Act IV; he is consistently places he should not be and causing problems others would rather not deal with. Given both the Cherub’s role in this story and Cherubino’s identification with the Cherub, it makes a certain kind of sense that the Count and Figaro basically torture the kid during “non più andrai” at the end of Act I. Figaro slices him up with a piece of glass and the count gleefully joins in the mayhem. Figaro and the Count are at odds, but the type of things that the Cherub/Cherubino pair represent are in the interest of neither of them.
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This production has an additional character, listed as ‘Cherub.’ The Cherub is a young man (the performer’s name is Uli Kirsch) who is dressed in the same clothes – navy shorts suit, gray knee socks – as Cherubino, although he has wings. He leaps in via the window during the overture. On stage at this point are three couples, all frozen still: Bartolo and Marcellina, Figaro and Susanna, and the Count and Countess. Bartolo is reading something; Marcellina’s attention is elsewhere; Figaro is mentally measuring something and Susanna is thinking; the Count is nervously mopping his face and the Countess is gazing out into space towards the audience looking as if she is going to cry. The Cherub places an apple near each of the pairs, and moves his hands over them. Everyone seems to wake up. Marcellina moves toward Figaro, Susanna wanders up the stairs toward the Count, who turns to look at his wife, who walks, as if in a trance, up the stairs. Everyone’s unadmitted and even unwanted desires, in other words, have been unlocked.
This appears to be the function of the Cherub in this production. He releases the aspects of the characters’ selves that make them uncomfortable. He literally rides around on the Count’s shoulder at one point, and in general is often to be found pushing or pulling or otherwise influencing the characters. Whenever someone does something that might cause some confusion or trouble (Figaro’s plan in Act II, or Susanna’s “deh, vieni”) the Cherub sometimes stands with his back to the person in question, so that that character is for that moment “wearing” his wings. No one can quite see him – like the touch of the feathers he blows or lets fall, he’s just barely perceptible. (Susanna writes the note in “canzonetta sull’aria” with a feather from one of his wings, and during “deh, vieni” picks up and toys with a Cherub feather. The feathers seem to communicate how the emotions the Cherub awakens seem to the characters: sometimes just barely perceptible, sometimes blowing in gusts; these are objects that convey a physical sense of being touched by something that might not actually be there at all, and which if it is is certainly not something you want to rely on. And if you try to grab it you might end up with nothing but fuzz. Feathers might actually be a good metaphor for subtext, when you think about it.)
The Cherub appears to have quite an influence on Cherubino in particular. When Cherubino enters in Act II the Cherub draws him into the room, and the Countess stares at him as if he’s the most amazing little thing she’s ever seen in her life. He stares back. He tries to flee to avoid singing his song, but the Cherub stops him. Cherubino sings “voi che sapete” and – well, ladies and gentlemen, this is one magic pageboy. Both the Countess and Susanna rest against the wall, looking dazed. The Countess in particular has an expression on her face that suggests she is, for the moment, in a very, very happy place. The effect is more than ably assisted by the truly lovely sound of Christine Schäfer’s voice – here and elsewhere in this performance she is sheer happiness to listen to. Later, during “venite, inginocchiatevi” Susanna strips Cherubino down to his shorts and t-shirt, but does not dress him up in girl’s clothes. Rather, all three of them take turns stretching out on the count’s fur-lined coat on the floor and everyone feels up Cherubino. And the two women take turns lying down so that Cherubino can touch them. (Cherubino, once he’s gazing down, rapt, at the Countess, clearly knows where he wants to put his hands, but doesn’t quite dare; he settles for a snog instead.) The point is, Cherubino is a particular focus of the Cherub’s attention and seems to communicate it to others as well. In addition to this he is often completely overwhelmed by what is going on around him. At the very end of the opera, when all the couples have been appropriately paired up again, and the Cherub despite all his efforts cannot wrest them apart, which causes him to leave, Cherubino – after a parting caress from the Cherub – collapses onto the floor. Poor little guy.
So, the Cherub is a sort of external expression of everyone’s mixed desires. He’s a figure of disorder and temptation and desire (all those apples!). It’s worth noting that the one person he has no effect on at all is Basilio, who – as his aria in Act IV expresses; this is one of the few productions I’ve ever seen where this aria really seems to do something – has long ago settled on being duplicitous, and as such, is so thoroughly fake that he apparently has none of the sort of self-deception or ambivalence which allows the Cherub an in with the other characters. Whereas Cherubino is the opposite: he doesn’t know who he is or what he wants or what he’s doing half the time – he’s the perfect access point.
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Based on my unscientific sampling of 1. YouTube comments and 2. people I know on the internet, this production tends to elicit strong reactions. Some of us squealed with delight from the very first viewing. Others could only sit there, knees to chest, shivering and rocking back and forth and hugging a tattered program from the Metropolitan Opera for comfort. Still others of us engaged in a certain amount of snide commentary while nevertheless buying the DVD and watching bits of it over and over. I was in the third category. I have been known to squeal and jump up and down in certain opera-related situations, but I didn’t – initially – for this. And I am not a booklet-cuddler under any circumstances.
[previous section here.]
So. About the music. There are some good performances here. I already mentioned Christine Schäfer, who despite having to scamper all over the stage during “Martern aller Arten” for example, sounded consistently very nice. (She also sings the role of Konstanze on this recording, which has the added bonus of being just a CD, so there is no barbed wire unless you want to imagine it yourself.)
[part one here.]
This production has a way of leading you away from the opera, to the point where it is often a little startling when the opera reappears. The beginning of Act II is perhaps the best example of this. The act begins with a burst of ululation — I think that’s what it’s supposed to be — from some of the actors, who are veiled in white, and then the scene moves into a sequence of more ney and percussion music and some dancing. A young woman in a fatigue jacket throws the blue book Selim had earlier into the fountain in anger. One of the others fishes it out again. Selim gives a reading of either poetry or philosophy from a different book that he carries about with him, and the sense is again that there is a story unfolding here quite independent of the one we are used to following in the opera.
You know how sometimes familiarity with a given opera can make an unusual production of it seem like something hurled in out of left field? Well, this production has a way of making the opera seem like something hurled in out of left field. This is a rather extraordinary achievement on the part of the production designers and director. Whether it is a good idea or not is another question.