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13.2.05

New Opera on Richard III

Giorgio Battistelli's new opera, Richard III, premiered on January 30 at the Opéra Flamand (De Vlaamse Opera) in Antwerp (you can look at these photographs of the production). Nicolas Blanmont wrote a preview (Richard III, portrait d'un dictateur, January 25) for La Libre Belgique. Battistelli and his librettist, Ian Burton, kept the libretto in English so that it would be as close to Shakespeare as possible (my translation):

Certainly, musical demands are such that Burton had to cut more than two-thirds of the play, completely eliminating certain characters (Marguerite d'Anjou, notably) and narrative developments (like the part of the play where Richard courts Queen Elizabeth in the hope of making a dynastic union with her daughter). On the other hand, Burton has amplified the three coronation scenes (Edward IV, Richard himself, and Henry VIII) by giving each one an individual atmosphere, as a way to trace Richard's progression throughout the opera. He has also imagined several scenes not found in the original, in order to have some chorus numbers.
Giorgio Battistelli (b. 1953), a student of Henze and Berio, has already composed the operas Prova d'orchestra (after the Fellini film) and Impressions d'Afrique. For Richard III, Luca Pfaff conducts and Robert Carsen directs. Another reviewer, Martine D. Mergeay («Richard III» dans l'arène, February 1) writing for La Libre Belgique, said that "the premiere performance left us sceptical" (my translation):
In Battistelli's music, several elements encumbered the dramatic process: an opaque orchestration, concentrated in the middle registers and too often covering the voices; a simplistic rhythmic quality, without contrast or dynamics; a startling lack of color. If we had reservations about the music, Robert Carsen's direction merits admiration yet again by its rigor and poetic power. Radu and Miruna Boruzescu's sets and costumes contain the action within a closed circus, at once amphitheater and arena, a track in the foreground and steps (slightly askew, as if an earthquake had already happened) leading up to the wings. The characters were all costumed entirely in black and bowler hats, with minor variations. There are only three types of props: weaponry (sword, musket, executioner's axe), umbrellas, and wheelbarrows.
Richard III, De Vlaamse Opera, photograph by Annemie AugustijnsThe sand in the arena is red, which creates a "coercive environment," she concludes. A German review (Ein Höllenhund ertrinkt: Battistellis "Richard III" in Antwerpen, February 7) by Stefan Keim for Die Welt, also praised Robert Carsen's production but said that Battistelli's music "bores" (my translation):
Carsen has succeeded with one of his best creations. The scenery recalls the Globe Theatre. Richard lies in the shape of a cross on the soil, pretending to be a dreamer unconcerned with the world. Nothing is genuine. Richard forgets his feigned handicap again and again and jumps quickly back into his hunched posture. When people come across him, he is like a puppeteer, watching himself, how people copy him and suddenly they are standing there with a hunched shoulder. The manipulator has achieved his goal. [...] At the end of the opera, Richard reaches for his horse and strains in the red sand. A new king promises a better world and climbs the steps slowly toward the light. His way leads him by a cemetery. There is no one left to govern anymore. A grandiose picture. It would be almost worthwhile to have new music composed for Robert Carsen's production.
He adds that a Carsen production of Shakespeare's play would have been brilliant, but an opera must be judged on its music. Finally, there was one review in English (A bold take on 'Richard III', February 9) by George Loomis for the International Herald Tribune:
Battistelli's post-modernist style offers its own take on astringent 20th-century atonality, which fits hand and glove with the subject. There is a real difference between an opera like "Richard III" and new operas in the United States, which tend to use atonality cautiously - if at all - along with, say, jazz rhythms and the occasional hummable tune. The boar hunt depicted in the orchestral prelude, with its wavy textures, percussion gasps, wordless choral voices and anguished cries from lower strings, arrestingly sets the tone. Thereafter the opera proceeds in an unbroken flow of fragmented utterances, assertive repeated-figures and a few recurring themes, such as the choral tribute to the newly crowned Richard at the end of Act 1. Yet a couple of pieces bear the label of aria, and the opera's compelling scene structure sometimes gives the sense of set numbers.

The chief fault of "Richard III" lies in its text setting. Proponents of opera in English - "Richard III" was written in English and performed with Flemish supertitles - argue that if only singers enunciate clearly and conductors keep the orchestra under control, words will come through. But Battistelli stacks the deck against them with heavy, though interesting orchestration, and angular vocal writing with long note values doesn't help.
Read the whole thing, because it is interesting. Having concluded its series of performances in Antwerp, De Vlaamse Opera will take Richard III to Ghent, with performances scheduled for February 16, 18, 20, and 23.

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