It seems that the tumultuous fate of Somma’s libretto, moved to three different settings, was not enough. Director Erath makes the whole action of the opera take place in a…bed, and around it – to make it more intimate and inward, he says! Not only does the bed dominate the unique set of the production, but it is mirrored by a second bed hanging from the ceiling – a symbol that makes us think that politics, friendship, morality and religion are, in fact, simply dictated by sexual attraction. The period is not clear, but seems to favour the 1930s. The space has staircases going both upwards and downwards and there is never any logic to the entries and exits.
The performance opens with dancing figures projected onto a veil, thus anticipating the final ball. Riccardo is sitting on the bed, mirrored by a woman in black seated on the ceiling bed. Behind the stage bed – a woman turning her back to the audience, who will turn out to be Ulrica, a constant presence meant to govern the whole train of events.
From the beginning, the complete lack of credibility of all the characters is glaring: Riccardo tries to shoot himself, the two conspirators sit on his bed still wearing their top-hats, Oscar is wearing tails with spangles and a toque, Renato points a gun at his best friend when he is not looking, Il Primo Giudice is blind (like Justice) and Riccardo makes sure he cannot see, Oscar takes away his black spectacles, sings his aria manoeuvring a ventriloquist’s doll and dancing with a spherical lampshade meant to suggest the witch’s magic globe.
Ulrica’s scene starts with Riccardo on stage, in a robe, and his dead lookalike on the bed. All the men are dressed identically and they all want to shoot the women.
The gallows scene – obviously – opens with Amelia and Renato in…bed, the wife attempting to smother her husband! The mirroring ceiling-bed holds a frenzied Riccardo. Renato wakes up in the middle of the love duet. The chorus during the revelation of Amelia’s identity is conceived as a Broadway vaudeville.
Act III follows directly and Renato tries to rape Amelia. The subsequent conjugal closeness is improbable, but at least human. The baritone sings his aria in Riccardo’s robe and points his gun at the ceiling-bed that suddenly lights up. Oscar is downright impudent and behaves outrageously.
The last scene is introduced through the same projections of dancers. There is not one mask in the ball and almost no colour, with the exception of several wigs and feathers. Amelia is wearing a wedding dress.
Oscar sings his aria performing striptease on the bed, revealing his long hair, opening his shirt and kissing Riccardo on the mouth in an unfathomable gesture.
The shooting scene is accompanied by disco-ball flashes. Unexpectedly, it is Renato who falls, surrounded by the chorus. Riccardo climbs the stairs towards an omnipresent Ulrica, while it is the lookalike that is dead.
Vocally, Borras is too lyrical for the part, with a caprino voice and often resorting to falsetto, transforming his scenes into chamber opera, without any dramatic force.
The star of the evening was incontestably Anja Harteros who, despite several strained, guttural or slurred notes, showed great mastery of her full voice and heartfelt interpretation.
Piazzola often sang other notes and out of time, but his breathing technique is very good and the recapitulation of his “Eri tu” in piano was truly moving.
Damerau was a vocally sound Ulrica, but with no mystery or power of fascination. In all fairness, the bedroom setting would be challenging for any interpreter of the part.
A drop of delight was Romanian soprano Paula Iancic as Oscar – fresh, pretty, sonorous and captivating.
Maestro Fisch’s tempi were generally very slow, and the orchestra was often extremely loud.
The whole musical rendition of the score was hampered by a staging that is profoundly illogical and that goes against the grain of the libretto.
- By Giuseppe Verdi
- Directed by Johannes Erath
- Libretto by Antonio Somma
- Cast includes: Jean-François Borras, Simone Piazzola, Anja Harteros, Okka von der Damerau, Paula Iancic
- Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich