Coronavirus: Will the DVD do? Music correspondent Brian Hick contemplates opera under lockdown

Hastings based music correspondent and opera lover Brian Hick continues his series looking at how music lovers can get through the lockdown.

Friday, 3rd April 2020, 12:23 pm
Updated Friday, 3rd April 2020, 12:24 pm
Eugene Onegin at White Rock Theatre presented by Opera South  East SUS-180423-152423001
Eugene Onegin at White Rock Theatre presented by Opera South East SUS-180423-152423001

He writes: At the end of Week One of the lockdown we found ourselves watching The Dancing Years.

Now I love Ivor Novello and so indulged myself for a couple of hours but it started me thinking. In the last few weeks we have been inundated with suggestions for what we can watch, or catch up on, online, to say nothing of the vast collections of DVDs which many of us have and the ease with which we can obtain or download new ones. However, my collection of films and particularly opera does not necessarily provide the comforting gratification of many produced earlier last century, be it The Dancing Years or Oh Rosalinda.

While a challenging production – like ENO’s recent Luisa Miller – may be acceptable live in the theatre, it is quite another thing in the comfort, to say nothing of distractions, of your own living room. To this one might add the reality of trying to get isolated with one’s other half. No matter how well we get on, our musical tastes are not quite the same and given the open-plan nature of our house, sound carries. If Sally is listening to Scala Radio upstairs it drifts down to where I am, and there is a limit to how much Wagner or Strauss she wants to hear, particularly mid-morning.

The compromise would normally be headphones but I have to admit I find these uncomfortable for any length of time, and I don’t like watching opera on a very small screen. A few years ago, when I was working regularly in Bristol, I recall watching Parsifal on my phone, with headphones, on GWR. It was not quite the Bayreuth experience Wagner anticipated.

Which brings me back to The Dancing Years. Taken superficially this is little more than an escapist dream of an over-romanticised Vienna. Yet there is more going on here than the chocolate-box delights of the highly studio-bound sets. The Nazi threat is hinted at rather than exposed, and the moral implications of a child out of wedlock lead inevitably to a tear-jerking finale. As a viewer we can choose to overlook these implications and simply indulge in the sentimentality. For those of us who hope to get a deeper emotional and intellectual experience from art forms, there are significant layers to be explored.

I suspect that this is the problem of many of our most recent opera productions. If some Metropolitan Opera stagings seem old-fashioned, they are at least sumptuous to look at. By contrast the constant insistence on modern dress revivals and ‘relevance’ from a large number of recent productions, both here and across Europe, can too often tip the viewer in the opposite direction, putting the viewer off just when the director wants them to engage. Thankfully there are many directors who can find the right balance between the two and, from the plethora of releases in the last few months, may I recommend a few if you really don’t know where to start – together with a fine ballet performance and potentially the best Bach you will ever encounter on the piano.

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde Teatro Opera Rome, Daniele Gatti CMAJOR 752208

The finest recent recording and the third act is overwhelming.

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin Bolshoi Opera, Alexander Vedernikov BELAIR BAC246

A slightly unusual approach but it works well and is musically fine.

Verdi: La Traviata Royal Opera House, Antonello Manacorda OPUS ARTE OA12920

Surprisingly traditional for a recent production but hugely enjoyable.

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake Ballet Company of the National Opera of Ukraine BELAIR BAC174

About as traditional as possible but exactly what you might need for a cosy evening.

Bach: Well-tempered Clavier Book I & II Andras Schiff, piano NAXOS 2.110653 & 2.110654

Recorded at the 2018 Prom concerts this is a wonderful live recording with an audience fully concentrated and rapt.

Hopefully these, and others, will tide us over until we can sit next to each other again to enjoy live opera from Opera South East, Ellen Kent and Ensemble OrQuesta.