Though perhaps not one of Handel's finest operas, Mr Alden's production of Partenope plays up its farcical tendencies past the point of ridiculousness and vulgarity and never really climbs out of the dishwater. A farce, even the silliest one, is still emotional, in fact it depends on emotions, however simple, to work, but it becomes cold when played as a series of jokes without wit. In addition, for some cheap intellectualism, Mr Alden imposes references to Man Ray's surrealist photography, but forced without honest reason, onto an opera which doesn't even have any interest in being surreal, they become clunky and arbitrary.
If Carmen is a femme fatale, then her opera could play as a kind of hybrid of an Anthony Mann western and film noir. It has the gun runners and even a climactic fight on a rocky crag, but also the weak man haunted by his past, falling in love with the woman he later remembers he doesn't particularly like. Micaëla would be the innocent girl he really loves, but in trying to protect her from himself, just draws her into his disastrous life. This production, however, is different. Carmen becomes as sympathetic as one could imagine, with no material desires, she loves only freedom but to the point of self-banishment, to paraphrase John Donne. At least, she is sympathetic in contrast with a Don José who is an extreme introvert, more haunted and broken than weak, who eventually succumbs to insanity. Carmen is a rather extreme extrovert which brings its own problems, and the concept of opposites attracting is played convincingly: the pair's initial mutual fascination and affection becomes binding and they continuously rub each-other the wrong way until they mutually annihilate.
One could say that Madama Butterfly is a distilled and simplified presentation of the stereotypical opera plot. It is a romance told very straight with spurning, madness leading to the female lead's suicide with good songs and a bit of exoticism, but it lacks the twists in the plot which Mozart's operas have (at least Donna Elvira tries to chase down Don Giovanni) to deepen the characters' relationships. This leaves all the characterization to the music and I don't think Puccini's is up to it. Cio-Cio-San is too pathetic and doormat-ish and it's hard to feel into her character when the music doesn't sink deeply enough into the listener to help them understand her or link her into the greater universe. Perhaps that is unfair to the music since the libretto and story itself doesn't give much to go on to divine her motivations, but Puccini did choose the story. Pinkerton too isn't exactly 4-dimensional. He is a cad with neither redeeming qualities, magnetism nor charm. Having said that, the opera can be enjoyable at some level if, as in this case, the music is well played and sung, making the more dragging parts of Act II bearable, though this enjoyment was marred by a certain noisy leading tenor.
Though one hundred years old and a comedy set in 1740's Vienna, Der Rosenkavalier is still fresh. This is partly because the opera is timeless because, as Robert Gibson and Andrew Riemer's interesting program notes point out, it is an anachronistic mixture of different bits of Viennese cultural. For instance one can nitpick the fact the romantic waltzes Richard Strauss incorporated into the opera's music and plot wouldn't exist until the 19th Century (they were barely dancing l'Allemande with linked hands in the mid 18th Century). Thus the opera is about as logical and historically accurate as a myth is -- it is a rich Dobos torte (whose recipe Dobos donated to the Budapest Pastry and Honey-bread Makers' Guild five years before the opera's première, for what it's worth) of many integrated layers, some chocolate, some nutty, some sugary, and some disturbing, ashy and mawkish. Present also is something of Sigmund Freud's contemporaneous Vienna, not just in the way we see how his patients' inherited neuroses manifested themselves some generations prior, but also as psychology as one of the last frontiers of the enlightenment. The famous final duet is to be sung "träumerisch": the young hero Octavian sings "Ist ein Traum..." just as the "secret of his dream is revealed" (see photo of tablet below). He wakes up from the intense love affair with the Marschallin and realises the true nature of his feelings. This happens only after he has convinced his rival the Baron Ochs of his insanity by simulating hallucinations in a kind of upside down abreaction in the form of a Viennese masked ball. Octavian awakens to the realisation that his love for the Marschallin is "mere" warm friendship and discovers true love for the young Sophie who is fresh from the convent. He had refused to face the dawn in Act I, but by Act III he comes to act on the dreams, or at least the strange events, of the intervening scenes in which he undergoes two transformations to the opposite sex, encounters a symbolic silver rose, tries to duel Ochs and sets up said masked ball, before fixing his and Sophie's lives. Octavian, knightly and hot headed though he is, has a manly grace. He forsakes brute force in the end to find a third alternative to his problems, which should be relevant today when the beastly Baron Ochs' style of greed of is often valued over character, civility and proper thinking. Or at least relevant to those who more reasonably mistake romantic love for friendship or believe one necessarily precludes the other for all time.
I usually don't like to pick favourites, but of the Mozart operas it's hard to deny Le Nozze di Figaro. As such it has become familiar without become at all tired, and has probably sublimated a rather particular image of itself in my mind's eye and ear. The story of love giving way to jealousy, and then despair, and finally forgiveness, under the roof of an aristo ripe for Revolution, is bound to develop a thin farcical crust, but it never seemed a straight comedy, let alone a farce, to me. The characters are so genuine, even the myriad of supporting roles are so strong, that it's easy to sympathise with their harrowing trials. I see the opera more as the Orpheus and Eurydice story with a happy ending which makes sense. It also lovingly portrays the noble and logical humanist belief that (to paraphrase John F. Kennedy) it is not impossible for human beings to solve problems that they themselves created. No parts for any God or gods nor even Cupid here. This production, directed by Neil Armfield perhaps wasn't exactly my idea of Figaro or quite sat on my sense of humour, but it did try some new things. Armfield does try to play it for laughs by filling the opera with over-the-top physical comedy, but he often risks hamminess. It is hard to keep up that kind of farce for over three hours and he doesn't always succeed in creating dark comedy in putting a fluff of laughter on violent, frightening or dark situations. He never ruins the comedy intrinsic to the libretto or the music, in fact at his best moments he even compliments this by adding detail to the scene with subtler acting in the background.