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July 24, 2011 7:05 pm
Luck plays a big role at Bregenz. The 6,000-seat floating stage, tucked into the Austrian corner of Lake Constance, specialises in open-air spectacle, and you just have to hope your night is not the one to be rained off. I’ve been to a Fidelio in which the second half was sung in a downpour, but I’ve also seen Un ballo in maschera against the backdrop of an unforgettable sunset. This year’s Andrea Chénier was touch-and-go until the last minute. Our luck was in. The rain, which had all but spoilt the day, stopped. The show went on.
Such are the twists of fate – a theme picked up by Judith Weir in her new opera, Miss Fortune, which received its premiere in Bregenz’s indoor theatre the previous evening and will travel to Covent Garden next March. The English title is a play on words – the heroine, unmarried daughter of Lord and Lady Fortune, suffers all sorts of misfortune before winning the lottery – but the German title, Achterbahn (roller-coaster), is more to the point.
Life, the opera tells us, is full of ups and downs, and it pays to take both in your stride, for sooner or later your luck will turn. Such homespun philosophy doesn’t bear much pondering – any more than the libretto, which Weir created herself. Banalities such as “We know what we know. Good luck! Life is a mystery” and “In the end we’ll all be dead” recall the worst moments of Michael Tippett’s now-forgotten late operas.
Part fairy tale, part soap opera, the story has its twists and turns, but the telling of it is too flat to shape up dramatically. Weir’s dispassionate aesthetic, a mixture of Brittenesque lyricism, glistening textures and lurching sound-blocks, fails to engage our sympathy for the characters. Tina (Emma Bell, excellent) comes off best: with high-flying soprano lines radiating intensity, she resembles a figure out of Greek mythology. Fate (countertenor Andrew Watts) is capricious and amoral – and far too shadowy.
Paul Daniel, conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, does his utmost to inject life into the workmanlike score. The show’s saviour is the staging – a fabulous concoction of abstract shapes, translucent colours and break dancing, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng and designed by Tom Pye, Han Feng, Scott Zielinski and flora&faunavisions.
As luck would have it, Giordano’s Andrea Chénier makes much the same up-and-down impact. Directed by Keith Warner and designed by David Fielding, it does what it needs to do – entertain Bregenz’s tourist public with an eye-goggling array of effects and stunts. But the mountainous set, inspired by David’s “The Death of Marat”, an icon of French revolutionary art, is a triumph of spectacle over elucidation: despite excellent amplification, it’s often impossible to know who is singing. Héctor Sandoval sings Chenier with ardour and style. Scott Hendricks is the powerful Gérard, Norma Fantini a sympathetic Maddalena, Ulf Schirmer conducts with brio.
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