Bregenz lies at one end of Lake Konstanz in Austria. There every summer they present one opera on the huge Lake Stage to an Amphitheatre that seats 6,800, and another (usually lesser performed one) inside in the auditorium. This year it was Puccini’s Madame Butterfly out in the open, and Verdi’s Ernani inside.
Ernani, based on Victor Hugo’s play Hernani, soon became Verdi’s most popular opera, until superseded by Il Trovatore in his middle period some nine years later. The story involves a young woman, Elvira, who is loved by three men. One is the bandit Ernani (who turns out to be the dispossessed Don Juan of Aragon), one is Silva (Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, after whom the opera was originally named), and finally King Carlo (later to become the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V), who first appears disguised as a peasant. The production is simple but bloody, particularly when Silva is tortured.
In the end the king blesses the marriage of Elvira with Ernani, but Silva recalls a vow Ernani once made and silently hands him a dagger. After stabbing himself in the heart, Ernani dies in Elvira’s arms. Such is opera, often reflecting days past when vows, particularly in Spain where this one takes place, were taken seriously.
Lotte de Beer’s production brought out the visceral reality of a society dominated by warfare. Fierce looking, blood spattered warriors were aided by lively choreography from a group of similarly clad dancers, and wonderful musicality from the Prague Philharmonic Choir and the Prague Symphony Orchestra, all under the baton of Enrique Mazzola. Terrific singing too from Saimir Pirgu as a passionate Ernani, bass Goran Jurić as an elderly but determined Silva, Franco Vassallo as the king singing well (but looking rather too pleased with himself), and Guanqun Yu as a lovely Elvira.
Verdi was a master of dealing with dramatic personal relationships, but for operatic spectacle such as Puccini’s Madame Butterfly it is hard to beat the Lake Stage, where even the water itself can play a role. The vast stage, shaped like the waves of the sea, showed traditional Japanese culture, contrasting strongly with the brash novelty of American power personified by the tiny figures of Naval Lieutenant Pinkerton and US Consul Sharpless. The Consul fears that Japanese traditions are being trifled with by the idiotic Pinkerton, who marries 15-year old Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) for a few weeks of fun. For her, it’s for life.
Setting the scene are 36 elegant Japanese ladies making their way slowly down from the highest point of the vast stage, in a broad zig-zag. Cio-Cio-San is making a fatal error, as she discovers when her uncle, the brightly coloured Bonze, appears from nowhere to disown her. She is now pregnant and left alone to bring up her baby. The marriage broker soon sees an opportunity to make more money, “selling” her to the rich Yamadori. He arrives in an immense red cloak, carried on a raft by six sturdy fellows wading waist deep through the water — an impressive sight.
When her baby grows to be a little boy, he sails a paper boat off from the edge of the stage, and it vanishes into the darkness. Yet Cio-Cio-San defies everyone with her belief that Pinkerton will return, and we see a distant steamer projected onto the stage. As warmer colours appear the little boy’s boat reappears in enlarged form — can the boy recover his lost father? White-clad figures crowd together on stage and move apart revealing Pinkerton himself. Cio-Cio-San runs into his arms, he warmly picks up the boy and the family are reunited. But it is not to be.
The white-clad figures crowd together again and as they separate we see Cio-Cio-San lying asleep. This dream sequence is an unusual innovation, and hugely effective. This terrific production ends with huge flames spewing forth from behind the top of the stage, and projections of flames engulfing the entire stage as Cio-Cio-San commits her final act of seppuku (ritual suicide).
The orchestra, hidden in the main auditorium behind the audience, played their hearts out under the baton of Enrique Mazzola. Broadcast to the huge amphitheatre, along with the subtly miked singers, via 400 loudspeakers, one can scarcely tell it from performance in an opera house. On a warm, rainless evening, this setting is perfection.
The long rehearsal period, allowing risky technicalities to be smoothed out, means that the most famous opera singers will give this a miss, but among the three casts, Barno Ismattullaeva as Butterfly, Annalise Stroppa as her servant Suzuki, Otar Jorjikia as Pinkerton and Brett Polegato as Sharpless on the opening night performed superbly together. The saccharine sentimentality of some productions was entirely absent. This was opera spectacle of the finest order, well worth the trip.
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