Friday, 28 February 2020

Creative Doubles: how combining roles can change how we look at an opera

Luigi Bassi in the title role of Don Giovanni in 1787.
Luigi Bassi in the title role
of Don Giovanni in 1787.
When Mozart's opera Don Giovanni premiered in Prague in 1787 the same singer, Giuseppe Lolli, performed the roles of Masetto and the Commendatore, and the same doubling with a different singer happened at the work's Viennese premiere in 1788. Whilst nowadays, we would be unlikely to cast the same singer in both roles (the Commendatore is normally sung by a darker, heavier voice than Masetto), this type of doubling of roles was quite common. It made perfect economic sense and made a more interesting challenge for the singer. The same sort of doubling had taken place at the premiere of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro in Vienna in 1786, with Michael Kelly singing Basilio and Don Curzio, and Francesco Bussani singing Bartolo and Antonio, doublings of pairs of smaller roles which make ample practical sense but do not always happen nowadays.

Audiences of the time would not have made anything of this type of doubling, operas with large casts frequently had singers playing multiple roles. The fact that the same person appeared as, say, Masetto and the Commendatore did not say anything special about either character.

But modern audiences can experience a different kind of creative doubling, where having the same singer playing multiple roles links the roles psychologically, making them seem as if they are aspects of the same person, or in some cases creating a single composite character from multiple disparate roles.

Britten: Death in Venice - Gerald Finley and the players - Royal Opera ((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)
Britten: Death in Venice - Gerald Finley and the players - Royal Opera
((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)
Benjamin Britten wrote the lead baritone role in Death in Venice (1973) in this way. By linking seven apparently disparate roles Britten provides a mysterious and ominous thread running alongside Aschenbach's journey of self-revelation. Aschenbach seems to be accompanied by this strange character who plays a variety of functions at key moments on Aschenbach's journey. And whilst it is tempting to see this as very much a post-Freudian operatic development, one of Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper's inspirations must have been the multiple baritone roles in Jacques Offenbach's final opera, Les Contes d'Hoffman.

Les Contes d'Hoffman, with libretto by Jules Barbier, is based on short stories by ETA Hoffman. By making the same singers play the four heroines, and the four villains, Offenbach and Barbier provided an interesting psychological linkage between the stories, making each an aspect of the poet hero's psychological disintegration. The use of the word psychological may be anachronistic (whilst the word has been around since the 17th century it is only from the end of the 19th century it came to be seen as the science of the mind), but clearly some such similar thought was going through Barbier's head. And by combining these roles, and writing different style music for each, Offenbach created single multifaceted roles which become a supreme challenge for the singers.

And conversely, if the linkages are unpicked then the psychological aspects of the opera are reduced. The sheer challenge of performing the four soprano roles or the four baritone roles means that some companies choose to cast with different singers, with the result that one underlying aspect to the drama is reduced and the opera can appear to be little more than a picaresque narrative.

Such a psychological interpretation can be applied even if the composer did not envisage it. In his 1987 production of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel for English National Opera, David Pountney set the piece in the 1950s and made the witch and her house simply glamorous, prosperous versions of the mother and the children's house. Mother is downtrodden, struggling financially, testy of temper but ultimately deeply caring, whilst the Witch is glamorous, prosperous, and apparently friendly but ultimately evil. This combined role also provides an interesting challenge for the performer, Humperdinck wrote the Mother as a soprano and the Witch as a mezzo-soprano (this latter role is sometimes taken by tenors and I have seen it sung by a counter-tenor), but combining the two requires a soprano with a wide range, thus creating an interesting vocal challenge for the singer in addition to the multi-faceted dramatic role.

Gwynneth Jones as Venus in Wagner's Tannhauser at the Bayreuth Festival
Gwynneth Jones as Venus in
Wagner's Tannhauser at the Bayreuth Festival
Similarly, Wagner's Tannhauser features the title character's interaction with the goddess of Love, Venus, and the personification of the eternal (and saintly) feminine, Elisabeth. The two roles were written for different singers, and Venus is often sung by a mezzo-soprano whilst Elisabeth is a soprano. But occasionally the same soprano undertakes the dramatic challenge, though it requires a singer of some dramatic weight to encompass both roles in an evening. Birgit Nilsson did it and so did Gwyneth Jones, this latter singer performed the double role at Bayreuth in 1972 in Götz Friedrich production (seen as controversial at the time) which depicts Tannhäuser as the universal artist, torn between idealism and raw desires as personified by Gwyneth Jones as an alluring but morbid Venus and the innocent Elisabeth (a duality which occurs regularly in 19th century opera), thus pushing the drama further into the metaphysical. [A DVD of the 1978 incarnation of this production is available].

Perhaps the most intriguing Richard Strauss doubling came about by accident, when a singer pulled out at the very last minute for a concert performance of Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten, and Gwyneth Jones agreed to sing both the Empress and the Dyer's Wife. The two DO share a limited amount of stage time so this would not make a viable production, to say nothing of the sheer physical stamina needed to sing both roles. But it provides an interestingly different way into the story.

Of course, this does not always work. Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci are now almost universally performed as a double bill, but they were not written so. But from quite early on, these two Verismo classics have been linked, in fact the two operas virtually define Italian Verismo opera. This has led producers to try to make sense of the double bill by having the same singers in each (quite a challenge for the tenor), but dramatically this concept usually struggles to add coherence to what are in fact two rather disparate stories. At Opera Holland Park in 2013 Stephen Barlow played the two in the same village, but with a time-lapse and the play-within-a-play in Pagliacci became a farcical version of Cavalleria Rusticana [see my review], whereas other directors (Ian Judge in the old English National Opera production, Damiano Michieletto at Covent Garden [see my review]) create a simpler linkage by setting the two in the same village.

When Barrie Kosky directed Handel's Saul at Glyndebourne in 2015 [see my review], his vividly conceived, yet abstract production was set in a loosely Georgian setting. Whilst the mis-en-scene kept the basis of the original plot, Kosky combined four of the smaller tenor roles (Abner, the High Priest, the Amalekite and Doeg) into a single role which became a sort of Shakespearian fool, thus giving the singer (at the premiere Benjamin Hulett) a far greater dramatic challenge and making something satisfyingly complex out of a group relatively ordinary roles. Of course, this required adjustments to the dramaturgy which not everyone would enjoy, but after all Saul was not originally written to be staged. Here we see not the creation of a psychological view, but rather the assemblage of a single composite character.

Puccini: Manon Lescaut Act 3 - Elizabeth Llewellyn - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
Puccini: Manon Lescaut Act 3 - Elizabeth Llewellyn - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
A similar thing happened at Opera Holland Park last year [see my review] when Karolina Sofulak's production ingeniously solved one of the opera's inherent problems. For a relatively compact opera, the piece has an unwieldy 12 named roles; when the action moves to the docks at Le Havre the work acquires an entirely new set of four minor characters who appear nowhere else in the opera. By doubling these four new characters with existing characters from the opera, Sofulak made the piece make more economic sense for a small company, and provided an interesting slant on the story with the second half of the work taking on more of a metaphysical aspect (something not everyone liked).

When used intelligently, creative doubling can provide new and different insights into existing works, as well as giving singer some interesting challenges. With myth and fairy tale based stories, such doubling of roles can dig into some of the more psychological aspects of the piece in ways which are fascinatingly creative.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Pianist Iyad Sughayer in Khachaturian, Mozart and Liszt for the City Music Foundation  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Spareness, clarity, quirkiness: William Howard plays Howard Skempton (★★★★) - cd review
  • The cello sonata from early Beethoven to Shostakovich: Anglo-French duo Lydia Shelley & Nicolas Stavy at Conway Hall - concert review
  • The shipwrecked world, and nature extinct: Musica Antica Rotherhithe gives the UK premiere of Michelangelo Falvetti's Il Diluvio Universale in aid of Operation Noah  - concert review
  • The two are very different disciplines: best known as a film & TV composer, I chat to Stuart Hancock about 'Raptures' his new disc of concert music  - interview
  • The art of the lute: Thomas Dunford and the Academy of Ancient Music put the Baroque lute in the spotlight from concertos to trio sonatas and a solo suite (★★★★) - concert review
  • Wild Waves & Woods from Sweden: the Västerås Sinfonietta at Kings Place  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Ductus est Jesus: music from the Portuguese Golden Age from Gramophone Award-winning Portuguese ensemble Cupertinos (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Welcome rarity: Verdi's Luisa Miller receives a strong musical performance in Barbora Horáková's new production at ENO (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Extinction, Nature overwhelmed and toxic masculinity: music by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, Laurence Osborn, Liza Lim from the Riot Ensemble at Kings Place (★★★½) - concert review
  • Teamwork, resilience, self-discipline: teaching life-skills through music, I chat to Truda White of MiSST (Music in Secondary Schools Trust)  - interview
  • Vividly engaged: Schubert's Death and the Maiden from the conductorless string orchestra, 12 Ensemble (★★★★) - CD review
  • Home

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