Verdi got a commission from the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1857. He was to write an opera to be premiered a year later during the Neapolitan Carnival. The composer then secured Antonio Somma to provide a libretto for what had been Verdi’s lifelong dream: an operatic setting of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
After a few months of work, practicality prevailed, and both composer and librettist turned their sights to an easier subject matter: an opera about an 18th century Swedish king, victim of an assassination.
But this was Italy in 1858, and the Austrian censors stopped Verdi’s project demanding another subject matter or at the very least a change of time and place. They wanted something more remote, just in case any Italian patriot got the wrong idea.
Déjà vu Rigoletto.
So the Swedish King became the Governor of Boston in Colonial America, and the opera had its premiere in 1859. Verdi described this rocky journey from Stockholm to Boston as one of the low points of his musical travels, and these days the opera is staged in its Swedish setting, which Verdi much preferred.
I have no idea of what the time and place are meant to be in Johannes Erath’s surrealist staging for the Bayerisches Staatsoper, now available on a UNITEL DVD.
From the look of the set and costumes one might conclude we are in an unnamed European country in the late 19th century, or possibly in the first decade of the 20th.
We can guess time and location from the top hats and cutaways of the male members of the chorus, even though some of the male principals don Don Corleone outfits straight out of The Godfather.
The costumes for the two female principals (Oscar is a pants-role) come from different eras: Ulrica, described in Somma’s libretto as a hag, is here given an evening gown with a plummeting décolletage. Amelia, here played by the ever elegant Anja Harteros is given modestly subdued Edwardian gowns.
There is a unit set with a giant staircase going nowhere, lots of shadowy corners, a giant disappearing and reappearing King-size bed where Riccardo likes to conduct both his kingly and carnal businesses in an appliquéd dressing gown.
There’s a large dummy which the King likes to put to work at key moments, such as in Di tu se Fedele. There are white globes meant to symbolize the Earth that everyone gets to play with.
These are largely the facts as much as one can be factual in describing the visual elements of a production. For a better idea, the reader may want to look on line at some of the photographs of this production and make up his or her mind.
The big guns cast members certainly know what they are up to vocally, starting with Piotr Beczala in the demanding role of Gustav III. Verdi conceived this tenore di forza role for Gaetano Fraschini, who had scored a success as Manrico years before.
Beczala who has so far in his carefully managed career steered clear of the more dramatic Verdi parts here reveals himself as a Verdian tenor of the first order. And he can act convincingly the role of the conflicted ruler in love with the wife of his best friend.
Anja Harteros can and does sing just about anything and does so with stylish and vocal assurance, her Amelia being no exception. She stops the show twice: first with an impassioned Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa, and later with a moving Morrò, ma prima in grazia. With her tall figure and jet black hair she looks great, and she acts her assignment with conviction.
The part of Renato is sung by the vocally and dramatically impressive George Petean. From his first entrance, beautifully capped by a gorgeous Dalla vita che t’arride to his formidably sung Eri tu, the Rumanian baritone convinces one that he is a rightful heir to the great dramatic baritone crown earlier worn by his compatriot Nicolae Herlea.
Okka von der Damerau is a vocally light though visually stunning Ulrica. Sofia Fomina is a pert Oscar with plenty of voice. Zubin Mehta conducts idiomatically.
Rafael de Acha