'The Aspern Papers' is a great story, it's thematically intriguing, with an unforgettable double climax that one can discuss and rave about for hours and a tension reminiscent of a mystery story, and has fully realised, complex characters. It was, and still is, very highly regarded by critics and even James himself was proud of it, and quite rightly.
Dominick Argento's opera based on the story is an interesting and very well done opera, as long as one accepts that it is not Henry James and the story he wrote. Occupations of characters are changed, especially Aspern, now a composer rather than a poet, and Juliana, now an opera singer, and Venice is now Lake Como. These changes though work, don't work against the atmosphere and done with taste and grace and while the characters are not as complex as James' characters they are still interesting and suitably conflicted. Argento's music is incredibly clever, very atmospheric, melodious while with an unmistakable contemporary feel, has coherence and never works against the story or characters. He also knows how the voices work, how to write for the voice and challenges the singers while not over-parting them.
This 1988 production is the opera's world premiere and it is a treasure that deserves to be widely available. Because it is a perfect example of how to do an opera production that looks good and is tastefully and compellingly staged. It couldn't have been a more perfect representation of the opera and does it justice. It is even better than a lot of more accessible and famous productions from the 80s, and a production that many productions today should learn from.
Visually, the Lake Como setting may be simpler than the original Venice setting but is rich in haunting atmosphere and looks very handsome. The sliding sets solve potential staging problems and the dark subtlety of the lighting adds a lot to the drama. The staging is understated but absorbing and never static or overblown, with clever use of flashbacks and the characters of Sonia and Barelli and the 'Medea' lost opera are don't seem too distracting to the main plot and actually intrigue.
Musically, the production benefits from the clear, powerful, nuanced and precise orchestral playing and Nicola Rescigno conducts with a feeling for the drama but not neglecting the needs of the performers, nothing is too slack and nothing feels rushed.
Elisabeth Soderstrom amazes here, she already had had a long career and still sounds great here, her singing is envious on a technical front, in an intelligent and communicative performance that shows the character's fragility wonderfully. Federica Von Stade shows off her versatility, showing the ability to be wonderful in the likes of Baroque opera, Mozart and Rossini and Debussy, Berlioz. Strauss and Massenet and then be equally as good in a role that is a completely different kettle of fish, a darker and more conflicted role to usual and she looks and sounds wonderful and conveys the complex drama with adept ease.
Richard Stilwell is an authoritative lodger, likewise with the impresario Barelli of Eric Halvarson (have never seen him look so young). Katherine Ciesinski sings and acts strongly. Everything here looks and sounds so well prepared, and speaking from experience premieres are incredibly daunting and performers and crew alike are plagued with what if thoughts.
Overall, a treasure. 10/10 Bethany Cox
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