Thursday, 30 December 2010

Mozart - Don Giovanni

GiovanniWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni
Glyndebourne 2010
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Vladimir Jurowski, Jonathan Kent, Gerald Finley, Luca Pisaroni, Brindley Sherratt, Anna Samuil, William Burden, Kate Royal, Anna Virovlansky, Guido Loconsolo
BBC Two
The concept behind Jonathan Kent’s production of Don Giovanni for Glyndebourne 2010 is somewhat tenuous in how its 1950s’ setting relates to the pre-Enlightenment years of the opera’s original period. It’s not that Don Giovanni doesn’t bear up well to modern interpretations – it’s perhaps the Mozart opera most apt and subject to contemporary reworking – it’s just that the production’s supposed "Fellini-esque vision of post-war life" seems a little drab and, even with the free-love of the 1960s just around the corner, it doesn’t really seem to grasp the spirit of the period or present all that convincing a parallel to the Age of Enlightenment.
Mozart and Da Ponte’s treatment of the legend of Don Juan however is still quite shocking and daring right from the outset here, as Don Giovanni rapes Donna Anna and kills her father the Commendatore while trying to escape from her bedroom. Ostensibly a libertine, believing in the pursuit of pleasure above all else – certainly above consideration for other people – the reality is however that the promiscuous nobleman has lost touch with his own humanity and with whatever dubious justifications that could have been made for his beneficent spreading of his love around half of Europe.
The Glyndebourne production at least starts off like it intends to make something of this risqué premise, with a quite brutal enactment of the rape and murder scene, but thereafter, the production settles down to a rather non-committal blandness. The 1950s setting doesn’t really suit the wider European expansive viewpoint of the continental philanderer, but rather closes it down without seeming to bring any exciting or meaningful new ideas to the table in its place. With one of Mozart’s most dynamic scores and Da Ponte’s sparkling, witty libretto that turns at the drop of a hat from comedy to tragedy, that has moments of abject cruelty interspersed with the most exquisite tenderness, there’s no excuse really for a production of Don Giovanni being dull and lifeless.
The drabness and unimaginativeness of the setting (although technically impressive) is unfortunately reflected in the performances, which rather lack commitment. Everyone, but everyone, – particularly Anna Samuil’s Donna Anna – seems to walk around in a trance, scarcely showing any feeling or expression of the predilections and predicaments of their characters. The singing is generally fine throughout, with a delicate touch – the same can be said about the orchestration by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on period instruments under the direction of Vladimir Jurowski – all very nicely and smoothly played, but much too nicely, with no passion, no torment, no raging desire and no agony of betrayal. It’s all performed exceptionally well, but with no real fire.
Giovanni
It’s only towards the end of Act 1 that the purpose of the setting and the Fellini-esque elements come into play, with a wonderfully hedonistic party straight out of La Dolce Vita. For all the lack of fire elsewhere, the close to the first Act quite literally sets the stage alight, as the Don Giovanni’s ambitions are unmasked at the party by his guests, their accusations directed forcefully against the libertine, and with it a condemnation that prefigures the damnation of the nobleman for his crimes against humanity. With his Polaroids of the Don’s conquests, Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello here then is the Paparazzo to the Gerald Finley’s Marcello, the two of them on a search for the ultimate high in the swinging lifestyle of the rich and famous. Like Marcello, Don Giovanni has pushed his hedonistic excesses to their limit, losing his humanity in the process, and his only recourse is towards the spiritual or the supernatural. Don Giovanni’s downfall then lies not so much in any kind of divine or infernal retribution as much as the inevitable result of his hubris for believing himself above mere mortals and worthy of dining with those on an unearthly plane.
While the concept behind the staging comes briefly through at this point and there are one or two other fine moments (a tender scene between Zerlina and Masetto and a blood-spurting finale that is more Night of the Living Dead than La Dolce Vita), the remainder of the production unfortunately seems to rather go through the motions of delivering the story and its moral without adding anything new or challenging to the conventional line. The singers likewise seem to concentrate on delivering their lines and on hitting all the right notes at the right points, but without any real fire or ambition. All in all, it’s a fine production that keeps the story accessible and meaningful, but there’s not much here that can be said to be memorable.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Prokofiev - The Gambler

Sergei Prokofiev - The Gambler
Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin, 2008
Daniel Barenboim, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Vladimir Ognovenko, Kristine Opolais, Misha Didyk, Stefania Toczyska
Unitel Classica - C-Major
Dostoevsky’s short novella The Gambler is usually paired in book form with Poor Folk, the two stories reflecting rather contrasting themes and styles, but also in a way complementing each other. In Poor Folk, (if memory serves me correctly) a letter-writing couple find that their choices are limited, and the nature of their love defined and denied by the more pressing efforts put into simply struggling to exist. The characters in The Gambler on the other hand may appear to have so much money that they can fritter thousands away on the spin of a roulette wheel, but in reality they are similarly trapped in a lifestyle that restricts and distorts their course of their lives and their actions towards other people. In many ways both stories say a lot about social distinctions, but more in a way that reveals various attitudes and aspects of the Russian character.
Prokofiev’s opera version of The Gambler adheres fairly closely to the characters, themes and narrative of Dostoevsky’s book, the action set in a resort town of Roulettenburg, where the General, his family and entourage are staying at a hotel and making use of its casino. Alexsy, the tutor, has recklessly lost all of the General’s step-daughter Polina’s money on a game of roulette, but is determined to do everything he can to not so much win it back – though that would help – as much as win her favour. Polina however is toying with him, at the same time as accepting the advances of the Marquis, urging Alexsy on to act outrageously towards Baron and Baroness Wurmerhelm. The General meanwhile is in serious debt to the Marquis, but is expecting to gain an inheritance from the imminent demise of his mother. His engagement to Blanche rests on this inheritance also, since it is clear that she will not stick around unless the money comes through. To everyone’s great surprise however, the ailing old lady, Babulenka, thought to be on the point of death, turns up in Roulettenburg, with her own ideas on how to spend her money.
Composed in 1916, The Gambler is a little-known and rarely performed early Prokofiev work, and it’s not the easiest opera to like. It’s filled with unsympathetic, rather hateful characters whose sense of reality and the nature of their relationships with other people have been corrupted by money.  The music and singing moreover are not exactly harmonious – you won’t find any hummable arias here. On the other hand, the rising fever pitch that eventually explodes in Act 4 (with some magnificent singing in the last two Acts) is perfectly appropriate for qualities and themes of Dostoevsky’s work, and those are brought out exceptionally well in controversial director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging for the 2008 production at the Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin. A modern-day staging (there’s nothing in this opera that fixes it in any period, and the themes are completely relevant and modern), Tcherniakov assists in putting across the complexity of the relationships between the characters by allowing different rooms of the hotel and casino to be seen simultaneously in a kind of split-screen form, adding to the picture we have of the personalities, even contradicting and contrasting what is being said by the characters with what is really going on behind the scenes.
Prokofiev’s score does much the same thing, underscoring the behaviour of the characters with emphatic woodwind trills, staccato strings and deep notes from the brass section. The DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track on the Blu-ray disc is marvellous for capturing the huge dynamic range of the score, balancing the mix superbly between the singing and the orchestra. Partly that’s down to the scoring being composed not to compete with the singing but rather support it, partly that’s down to Barenboim’s management of the orchestra, and partly it’s down to the excellent surround mix. Consequently the singing dominates and is strong and clear, but when the orchestral parts and flourishes are called for, they are almost overwhelmingly powerful. The 1080/60i transfer is perfectly clear, the direction for television (with some side-stage angles) capturing the flow of what is occurring on the stage. Other than some brief notes in the booklet, there are no extra features on the disc.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Verdi - Don Carlo

Don CarloGiuseppe Verdi - Don Carlo
The Metropolitan Opera, New York
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Nicholas Hytner, Marina Poplavskaya, Anna Smirovna, Roberto Alagna, Simon Keenlyside, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Eric Halfvarson
The Met: Live in HD - December 11, 2010
Verdi’s Don Carlo is a great example of how opera has the power not only to transform and heighten reality, but also to evoke and elevate the nature of human emotions and aspirations in a manner that no other artform can match. It’s not that the original historical circumstances of the real-life Don Carlos need a semi-fictionalised dramatisation, being rather interesting in their own right. Elisabeth de Valois was indeed betrothed to the Spanish prince Don Carlos but eventually married to his father King Philip II, a union between the French and Spanish royalty that would lead to the peace treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559. Where real-life is stranger than fiction is the fact that Elisabeth was actually 13 years old when she married the 32 year-old King, while Don Carlos, aged 14, was a lame, epileptic hunchback with a stutter.
Some creative licence is required then upon the part of the composer and the librettists (Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle), and some suspension of belief is required on the part of the audience to the love-at-first-sight encounter between Carlo and Elisabeth in the forests of Fontainebleau at the beginning of the opera, but it is all towards a greater good and a deeper emotional truth. Of course, it’s not just opera that plays fast and loose with historical accuracy for the sake of drama and art – one need look no further than Shakespeare, or indeed Friedrich Schiller, whose original play is adapted in Verdi’s version of the story of Don Carlo. The encounter between the two young people and the love that briefly inflames them is only the starting point for the great complexity of emotions and conflict that exists between no less than six principal characters, each of them with distinct ambitions and personalities, each of them with different facets to those personalities depending on the person they are dealing with. It is here that opera goes to places that other art forms can’t reach.
It is not common for there to be so many principal characters is an opera and Don Carlo is consequently Verdi’s most complex and sometimes difficult opera – at three and a half-hours long, it is not quite as accessible in its subject, themes or its musicality for example, as the more popular Verdi operas like La Traviata or Aida. Simply listening to Don Carlo on CD isn’t enough to reveal its layers of complexity, and it’s certainly an opera I’ve struggled with in the past for those reasons. Seeing it performed live on stage, undergoing particular interpretations in performance and staging, will bring out the dramatic power of the opera better, revealing how well the dark tones of the music work with the deep brooding performances, but, personally speaking, The Metropolitan Opera’s latest production (a co-production with the ROH, Covent Garden and the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet), broadcast live on December 11, as part of The Met Live in HD’s 2010-11 season to cinema theatres worldwide, was a complete revelation of the opera’s qualities.
What can seem like inconsistencies in the behaviour of the characters and in the performances of the singers, is revealed in this powerful but nuanced production to reflect the multifaceted nature of the characters, their changing moods and temperaments, and the duality of their inner conflicts between duty and their own personal desires. And, my goodness, related to the political turmoil in Europe in the 16th century, taking place between major historical figures and royalty with their duty towards their citizens, and with conflicting political, religious and personal aspirations and ambitions, those are drives on another scale entirely. The sweep that uplifts Don Carlo in his love for Elisabeth at the start of the opera (a relationship that reaches Greek mythological proportions when she becomes his "mother"), only plunges him deeper into despair and to almost dying at the loss of that love in her marriage to his father.Don Carlo
That same dynamic can be seen in each of the character’s own personal struggles, which is impressive enough on this kind of scale, and in so many principal characters, but it is infinitely more complicated when there is interaction between them. A good performance of the opera, mainly in the singing, can bring out subtle nuances of the different levels that the characters are working on, but it also requires strong acting, and that was assuredly in evidence here, particularly on the part of Marina Poplavskaya as Elisabeth, and the most historically complex character of King Philip, marvellously interpreted by Ferruccio Furlanetto. If there were any weaknesses in Poplavskaya’s singing, they were minor and to be expected for a young singer making a name for herself, in a technically difficult role. This was however more than made up for in an impassioned and superbly acted performance that relied heavily on glances and body language as much as in what was said, particularly when the two often contradict one another. Such subtlety can only be conveyed fully when the music is there to support it, and Verdi’s scoring is magnificent in this respect, contributing just as significantly to the definitions of the characters, and that was equally effectively achieved in the orchestration under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Even so, no matter how good the production and the performances, even watching this live in the theatre, you are not going to pick all these qualities up from a seat at the back of the stalls, and it’s here that Opera Live in HD comes into its own, picking up little details in the gestures and expressions of the singers in close-up, emphasising the framing and positioning of the characters in relation to one another on the stage. Nicholas Hytner’s staging is perhaps not as impressive as other Met productions this season, but it succeeds nonetheless in bringing the elements effectively together. One’s appreciation of the efforts put into the production are deepened by the interviews with the cast in the intervals, literally, just as they come off the stage, and even by the behind-the-curtains looks at the stage-hands getting the huge sets into place for the next act. From an eye-catching and ear-splitting opening with Robert Lepage’s Das Rheingold for a new Wagner Ring cycle production, the standard was set a very high level for the Met’s new season of Live in HD broadcasts, and subsequent productions have continued to impress right up to the invigorating and buoyant Don Pasquale last month, but Don Carlo may well top them all.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Gounod - Mireille

MireilleCharles-François Gounod - Mireille
L’Opéra National de Paris, 2009
Marc Minkowski, Nicolas Joel, Inva Mula, Charles Castronovo, Sebastien Droy
FRA Productions
There would appear to be some questions of the value of Gounod’s forgotten 1864 opera and some risks involved in the director of the Paris opera, Nicolas Joel, reviving it for its Paris Opera premiere in 2009, but watching and listening to it now, restored as closely as possible to the original intentions of the composer, it seems extraordinary that Mireille has been overlooked so long and has never been part of the French opera repertoire.
Certainly Mireille and its subject matter are somewhat old-fashioned, the opera tied very strongly to its source in the romantic and bucolic 19th century Provençal poetry of Fredéric Mistral, but Gounod’s musical interpretation of the material is practically perfect.  The pastoral scenes of ordinary workers in the fields, their modest hopes and ambitions for nothing more than a pure love are elevated to a dramatically romantic level by the lush arrangements and beautiful arias, Gounod even introducing folk dances of the region into the score and the performance.  In some ways it’s a five-act version of Cavalleria Rusticana and ultimately, it’s just as emotionally charged.
The Opéra National de Paris’ production is equally as impressive, the staging concretely literal, Joel putting the sun-drenched fields of Provence right up there on the stage of the Palais Garnier.  The themes are certainly of the kind that could perhaps bear a more abstract lyrical interpretation – the sun, the land and religious fervour or faith being dominant themes throughout – but there are no modernisations or clever concepts, and the style remains traditional, but no less amazing for it.
The stage is superbly and brilliantly lit to evoke the light and colours of a cornfield in the south of France in midsummer, darkened to evoke the Rhône at midnight, blazing at the key scene of the Le Crau desert, with sultry dusks and twilights in between.  It’s perhaps over-literal in this respect, the drama accordingly heightened with the evocation of the summer moods and taken to the extremes of religious fervour, but it seems perfectly in keeping with the nature of the region and the lyricism of the Provençal poets.  Inva Mula is positively luminous as Mireille, capturing all the intensity of the extreme emotional journey she undergoes, brilliantly supported by the orchestra of the Paris opera, who are conducted with élan by Marc Minkowski.
The Blu-ray presentation, a Francois Roussillon production, captures the occasion perfectly in High Definition, the golden colours of the set and the lighting exploding off the screen.  The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix catches the tone of the orchestration and singing well and disperses it beautifully.  For some strange reason, the scene selection doesn’t work on my copy, all selections taking you invariably to the beginning of the opera, but the chaptering allows you to get where you want without much difficulty.  The BD comes with an interview featurette and a booklet with a synopsis.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Janáček - Katia Kabanova

KabanovaLeos Janáček - Katia Kabanova
Teatro Real de Madrid, December 2008
Jiri Belohlavek, Robert Carsen, Karita Mattila, Oleq Bryjak, Miroslav Dvorsky, Dalia Schaechter, Guy De Mey, Gordon Gietz, Natascha Petrinsky, Marco Moncloa, Itxaro Mentxaka, María José Suárez
FRA Productions
I liked Robert Carsen’s stage design for the NY Met production of Eugene Onegin where he employed a large three-sided "light-box" with minimal props, but made use of the lighting and autumnal colours to perfectly complement the tone of Tchaikovsky’s dramatic and emotionally turbulent opera. Carsen’s Brechtian design for Katia Kabanova at Madrid’s Teatro Real in 2008 is similarly austere and emotionally resonant, and again it seems to me to be perfectly complementary for an opera whose storyline has the potential to be melodramatic, yet is served so much better if it is coolly and delicately underplayed.
The emotion is downplayed in this production on almost every front of the theatrical presentation to better let the music and the singing speak for itself. The staging is restricted to boarding that is rearranged by what seems like water-nymphs or drowned lost souls, and rests on a couple of inches of water. The intention is to evoke the presence of the Volga, where the drama takes place in the little town of Kalinov, and emphasise the importance of the location and the significance that water plays throughout. If the concept is a little over-pronounced, it nonetheless proves highly effective, creating a calming impression, occasionally showing ripples and casting reflections on the mirrored background. With the use of lighting - impeccably lit and coloured - it establishes a perfect location that connects with the emotional resonance of the drama, without being too heavy-handed or obvious in the symbolism. It just feels absolutely right and it looks marvellous.
The reason why it feels perfect, is that it supports the important elements of the performance without imposing a false presence that could either overstate or take away from the intent of Janáček’s score - wonderfully played by the Teatro Real Orchestra conducted by Jiri Belohlavek - or indeed from the fine performances and singing. Katya is a complex character who undergoes some quite brutal treatment and yet remains despite of it all in thrall to her interior life, and it’s all too easy to highlight the grimness of the external drama at the expense of the beauty of the person inside. The only other staging I’ve seen of the opera placed emphasis - quite effectively, as it happens - on a recreation of a grim East European tenement block - but the concept here seems much more imaginative and in tune with the tone of the music. The contrast in Katya’s personality can also lead to over-emphasis bordering on madness, but Karita Mattila finds a perfect balance here in her acting performance and in her singing, exuberant in the right places, despairing in others, but reserved and internalised where necessary at the key moments.
Everything is pretty much as it should be in terms of the technical specifications of the FRA Blu-ray disc. A 1080i encode, presented in 16:9 widescreen, the image looks slightly soft, perhaps on account of the low lighting, but it fully captures the tones of the subdued but limpid lighting. The soundtrack comes with the standard PCM and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes, both of which perform well. The surround mix disperses the orchestration effectively, but on an empty stage the singing can seem a little echoing at times. It’s never less than powerful however. Really, High Definition and opera is a match made in heaven and this disc shows why. The Blu-ray includes a 24-minute interview with Robert Carsen and Jiri Belohlavek. In the spirit of the production, the booklet includes a detailed synopsis that doubles as a fine interpretative essay on the opera.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Strauss - Elektra

ElektraRichard Strauss - Elektra
Baden-Baden Festspielhaus, 2010
Munich Philharmonic, Christian Thielemann, Herbert Wernicke, Linda Watson, Jane Henschel, Manuela Uhl, René Kollo, Albert Dohmen
Opus Arte
The concept behind the presentation of this 2010 Baden-Baden Festspielhaus production of Elektra is immediately apparent and impactful – it’s a stark and brutal representation of Richard Strauss’ dark, brooding and bloody retelling of the Sophocles’ classic mythological drama. As if to reflect the powerful emotions of despair and sentiments of revenge that dominate the tone of the opera, the staging, the lighting, the choreography – more like a concert performance than a dramatically staged opera – all seek to emphasise the loss and isolation of the principal characters.
The Baden-Baden Festspielhaus is a huge stage, and stage director Herbert Wernicke takes full advantage of it, with stark lighting, and minimal use of backgrounds, props or movement, isolating the characters who are all entirely wrapped up in their own grief and torments. The vast stage is however amply filled by the formidable presence of Linda Watson and Jane Henschel as Electra and Clytemnestra, with their small but imposing stature and powerful singing. The charge that they bring to the complex relationship between the mythological mother and daughter – one that of course has become archetypal – is remarkable. Strauss’ chilling, sinister score is equally effective in filling the void that exists between them, not so much underscoring every jibe, cutting remark, underlying threat and menacing gesture, as much as dissecting it in a manner that the listener can physically feel every nuance of an emotional soundscape that is bristling with murderous intent.
Much like Salome that preceded it, with the imagery of doom and bloodletting even more pronounced here, Elektra is consequently a draining experience, even for its relative shortness, which is precisely how it is meant to feel. Conductor Christian Thielemann brings that out with delicacy and without any blood and thunder – or at least not too much – allowing the Munich Philharmonic to blend with the outstanding singing performances in a manner that allows the piece to resonate with almost unbearable sustained tension and menace. There Karl Böhm Elektra would appear to be the best DVD of this opera to date and the one that this attempts to better, but while I haven’t seen that version and can’t compare relative merits, this is nonetheless a strong and faithful production on its own terms.
The starkness of the staging doesn’t really allow the HD presentation on the Blu-ray to shine, finding it difficult to display the huge blocks of black backgrounds, which consequently look quite grainy. The stark white spotlights and the deep reds however are impressively rendered. The sound balance appears to have been carefully mixed in both the PCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks to allow both singing and orchestration plenty of room to breathe, with deep reverberation on those lower register chords. Other than Cast information, the only extra feature on the disc is a 15-minute Making of Elektra which is an interesting and sufficiently in-depth look at the background of the production.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Rameau - Les Indes Galantes

IndesJean-Philippe Rameau - Les Indes Galantes
L’Opéra National de Paris, 2004
Les Arts Florissants, William Christie, Andrei Serban, Danielle de Niese, João Fernandes, Valérie Gabail, Nicolas Cavallier, Anna Maria Panzarella, Paul Agnew, Nathan Berg, Jaël Azzaretti, François Piolino, Richard Croft, Gaëlle Le Roi, Malin Hartelius, Nicholas Rivenq, Christoph Strehl, Christophe Fel, Patricia Petibon
Opus Arte
This splendid piece of Baroque musical theatre, one of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s earliest works from 1735, is quite different in form from what you would normally associate with familiar opera tradition. Instead of conforming to a typical classical or mythological storyline of early opera, with long arias and recitative, it operates instead within a structure of four separate but thematically linked "entrées" (with a prologue), colourful little tableaux vivants of love adventures in the exotic foreign lands of the "Amorous Indies" – Turkey, Peru, Persia and America.
The nature of those romantic adventures will certainly be the familiar opera tropes of classical figures and archetypes, with stories of love and forbidden passion enlivened by mistaken identities, cross-dressing and extraordinary coincidences. In addition however to the beautiful arias, duets and choral arrangements, once the little romantic complications are resolved, they are celebrated by grand choral arrangements and joyous ballet sections, all of it imaginatively and simply spectacularly staged like some big colourful cartoon.
The question of fidelity to the period doesn’t really come into it and is much less important than the spirit within which it is enacted. The staging certainly makes use of modern techniques, but is timeless and utterly faithful to the nature and intent of the pieces, which is simply to entertain and take pleasure in the beauty of the music, the singing and the playing of the characters. With William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the helm for this remarkable production at the Paris Opéra in 2004, and an exceptional cast, Les Indes Galantes certainly does that. It’s an absolute marvel, a delightful entertainment on so many levels, inventive and visually dazzling, filled with wonderful rhythmic music that will take your breath away. Really, the rediscovery of this wonderful piece and the efforts put into its revival can’t be praised highly enough.
Released on a 2-DVD set by Opus Arte, the quality of the set is of an extremely high standard. Upscaled to 1080p, it often looks as good as a high-definition presentation – with only the colour saturation being slightly less defined. PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 tracks are strong. A 51 minute documentary on the production with contributions from William Christie is well worth viewing.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Haydn - Il Mondo della Luna

LunaJoseph Haydn - Il Mondo della Luna
Theater an der Wien, 2009
Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Tobias Moretti, Bernard Richter, Vivica Genaux, Dietrich Henschel, Christina Landshamer, Anja Nina Bahrmann, Maite Beaumont, Markus Schäfer
Unitel Classica - C-Major
This 2009 production of Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna for the Theater an der Wien, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt for his 80th birthday celebrations, is a treat for anyone interested in seeing rarely performed opera of quality and distinction, and seeing this particular 'dramma giocoso' done playfully and intelligently with respect and understanding for the material.
It’s understandable that some would rather see a faithful period production of the 1777 opera, but there is nothing in Il Mondo della Luna that is period specific or anachronistic in a modern setting. While the one notable event is the fact that man has in the meantime now walked on the moon, its mysteries remain. Those mysteries are delightfully exploited by Ecclitico and his friend Ernesto, the two of them wishing to marry the daughters of Buonafede, while Ecclitico’s servant has designs on his maid, the rather formidable Lisetta. They plan an elaborate scheme to trick the old man into believing that they have transported him to the moon in order to show him the foolishness of his ways and turn his outdated ideas about women against him.
The world on the moon, it transpires, is the mystery of the workings of women, who the opera playfully labels "lunatics", their behaviour strange, mercurial (to mix planetary metaphors), inconstant and inconsistent. It’s a subject evidently that is as contemporary now as it was then, or even when Mozart tackled the subject somewhat later in a similarly humorous manner in Così Fan Tutte (or even perhaps The Magic Flute, to which Il Mondo della Luna feels like a closer relative).
Appropriately, the drama and singing are low key, with no grand exhibitions of vocal virtuosity, the performances rather delicate, modest, playful and charming, each of the singers however all getting their moments in the spotlight in an opera that is principally made up of a running series of arias with short recitative in-between (although there is one beautiful duet towards the end, 'un certo ruscelletto'). The staging is modern and just a bit too glittery, but it uses technology well without ever contradicting the libretto or the intentions of the drama. The craft of the staging is impressive, a revolving stage, imaginative props and some minor acrobatics keeping the action fluid and always interesting.
The technical aspects of the Blu-ray are faultless - the 16:9 image clear and sharp in a 1080i transfer, the sound mix available in LPCM stereo and DTS HD Master-Audio 5.1 giving a good stage to both the orchestration and the singing. A 25 minute Making Of featurette is included and is of particular interest for a good interview with Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

OneginPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin
Metropolitan Opera, 2007
Valery Gergiev, Robert Carsen, Renée Fleming, Ramón Vargas, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Elena Zaremba 
Decca (Universal Classics)
Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is as Russian as they come - from an impeccable literary source (Pushkin), filled with all the classic situations of fatalistic romances, fabulous balls and a duel over a question of honour. The Met’s 2007 production, recorded for their HD-Live series, retains a strong underpinning in the casting and the sensitive conducting of the opera by Valery Gergiev that brings these elements brilliantly to the fore.
Perfectly in line with Tchaikovsky’s original intentions, Robert Carsen’s staging is straightforward and simple, the set uncluttered, with only the bare minimum of props required for the settings, while the all-important tone - primarily an emotional one - is set by the lighting and colouration of the stark backgrounds that tower over and enclose the performers. It gives the opera a truly unique feel, one that is perfectly in tune with the emotional chords struck by the music and the libretto, a tone that is dominated by the interpretation of Onegin here - cold, austere and aloof, calculating even, certainly with a touch of arrogance, but carrying within himself his own torments, distancing himself from others in a remote and self-involved manner that doesn’t take anyone else’s feelings into account.
It’s remarkable then how this chimes with Tchaikovsky’s own personal circumstances at the time, unable to bear the gossip surrounding him over his sexuality, entering inadvisedly into a marriage for convenience where he is unable to offer anything more than “brotherly love”. Accordingly the music in Eugene Onegin is often as heartfelt and emotional as anything Tchaikovsky has composed, but with that customary detached, intellectualised translation of it into pure, precise musical terms. Consequently, it’s utterly gripping when converted into the drama of Onegin, involving the heart as much as the mind.
One couldn’t ask for anything more out of the performers - the starkness of the sets allowing the audience to focus solely on the singing without distractions while the lighting supports the emotions and motivations lying behind them. The singers meet the demands of the roles and the action admirably, Dmitri Hrovostovsky indeed presenting a fine cold, aloof figure in Onegin, contrasted with the fiery passions of Ramón Vargas’s Lenski and the romantic purity of Renée Fleming’s Tatiana.
On Blu-ray, the staging looks magnificent in its colouration and tones. The audio is generally fine, but there are a few issues with microphone placements that don’t give adequate presence to the voices, neither in the LPCM 2.0 or the DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, though this is only an occasional issue particularly in the first act of the opera. A 16-minute Behind the Scenes featurette presents an interesting look at the rehearsals for the opera. Overall, this is a strong presentation of a magnificent performance of a wonderful opera.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Puccini - La Fanciulla del West

FanciullaGiacomo Puccini - La Fanciulla del West
Nederlandse Opera 2009
Carlo Rizzi, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Lucio Gallo, Zoran Todorovich, Roman Sadnik, Diogenes Randes
Opus Arte
I haven’t so much as blinked at some modernised productions of operas set in the most unlikely of environments, but somehow I’ve never been able to get my head around the idea of an opera set in the Wild West - and yet that’s the original setting for Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. So if the Nederlandse Opera want to update the theme of the quest for gold conflated with the treasure of a virginal young woman into the more modern-day setting of Wall Street (references to pickaxes, mines and Wells Fargo notwithstanding), well, in principle, that’s fine by me - there’s no reason why, with a bit of invention and imagination, that shouldn’t work …and even if the opera opens in what looks like a leather gay bar, well, you know, I wouldn’t necessarily see that as unlikely in this Puccini opera, particularly when Johnson makes his entrance among all those rugged men at the Pink Flamingo (I think it’s called that) asking who is going to curl his hair… And wait until you see the set for Act 2! There’s more camp here than a Red Indian Reservation.
La Fancuilla del West isn’t ever going to be considered one of Puccini’s best operas. It’s not his most memorable composition and with a subject that seems better suited to a Rogers and Hammerstein musical, it doesn’t lend itself to the same highs and lows of love, passion and betrayal that you’ll find in Madama Butterfly, La Bohème or Tosca. It certainly doesn’t seem to be the best vehicle for the seriousness of purpose of the composer towards adapting to new modern styles of composition. The Rogers and Hammerstein comparison isn’t really fair however (and a bit snobbish), nor is the criticism that Puccini has abandoned the beautiful melodies of his former work. And if this production, conducted by Carlo Rizzi and directed for the stage by Nicholaus Lehnhoff, brings out anything, it’s the qualities of the score and the varieties of tone that have a delicacy that belies the rather crude narrative and unimaginative storyline.
As for the production, well, I’m afraid it just doesn’t work. If the director had really been committed to going for the Wall Street idea and really set it in modern financial district locations, the production might have been pulled it off (as Michael Haneke did with his production of Don Giovanni for the Paris Opera a few years ago), but this staging is half-hearted and uncommitted, a widescreen Technicolor tribute to Americana that has little rhyme or reason, resulting in the usual hodgepodge of anachronisms. It’s already a Western - how much more American does it really need to be? The playing however is fine and the singing generally good, Eva-Maria Westbroek demonstrating the qualities that Puccini manages to bring to the role of Minnie.
The image quality of Opus Arte’s Blu-ray release isn’t as impressive as other HD presentations, the bold coloured lighting not allowing a lot of detail to be shown, but there are no real issues with the transfer either. Much more important, and where opera on Blu-ray really excels, is in the High Definition audio. Here, there’s a DTS HD Master Audio in a 5.0 mix and a PCM stereo track. Both are a little harsh and over-dynamic and it’s hard to find the right volume level - too loud and it’s booming, too low and the singing is inaudible. There is a happy medium however, if you can find it, where the qualities of the performance can be heard. Overall, this is a good performance of La Fancuilla del West and the stage production is nice to look at, but it doesn’t really bring anything new out of the opera.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Verdi - La Traviata

TraviataGiuseppe Verdi - La Traviata
Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Liliana Cavani, Angela Gheorghiu, Ramon Vargas, Roberto Frontali, Natascha Petrinsky, Lorin Maazel 

Arthaus Musik
There’s no question that this version of La Traviata for the Teatro alla Scala is a quality production on many levels and, available at a budget price, the Blu-ray is nevertheless of a very high standard, but I have a few minor reservations, mainly around the lack of any sense of adventure in the staging. It’s a safe production with a perfectly traditional staging, unimaginatively presented and choreographed, with little to distinguish it from countless other productions of the opera available.
It’s harder to be critical of the actual performance on any other level than that of personal taste and Angela Gheorghiu doesn’t sit well with me. There’s no doubting her technical ability, the sheer control or the strength of her voice, but personally, I find it a little mannered, and I would say the same about her acting. As a result, her Violetta never feels as fragile or as vulnerable as she ought to be - at least from what I would expect of the role. There’s no chemistry whatsoever either with the otherwise fine Ramon Vargas as Alfredo, making this production technically strong, but emotionally weak.
By way of comparison, I find the Willy Decker staging of the opera for the 2005 Salzburg Festspiele La Traviata much more interesting and innovative. A rather minimalist staging, there is however great originality in how it makes the story meaningful, vital and contemporary (whereas this version feels a little bit stuffy and practically like a museum piece by comparison), drawing out all the latent passion and violence out of what should indeed be a highly charged opera. While the question of who is the better singer is certainly debatable, it’s one of Anna Netrebko’s best performances and her acting seems better fitted to this particular role, blending perfectly and credibly with Rolando Villazón and a superb Thomas Hampson.
This version however is certainly a strong, all-round production, with fine performances and, particularly at the current price, it is an excellent introduction to opera on Blu-ray, as well as appealing to traditionalists and fans of Gheorghiu. There are however more exciting and daring versions around for anyone a little more adventurous.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Wagner - Rienzi

RienziRichard Wagner - Rienzi Der Letzte Der Tribunen
Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2010

Sebastian Lang-Lessing, Philipp Stölzl, Torsten Kerl, Kate Aldrich, Camilla Nylund

Arthaus Musik
Normally an abridged version of an opera would not be something one would find acceptable, particularly when the production itself has been updated and modernised, but Wagner’s 1842 opera Rienzi (Rienzi Der Letzte Der Tribunen) - almost forgotten but certainly eclipsed by the composer’s next opera Der fliegende Holländer - is an opera in serious need of rehabilitation, not least because of the infamy of it supposedly being Hitler’s favourite opera. Cut down in half from its original five hour running time, the five acts compressed into two parts, this 2010 Deutsche Oper Berlin production, conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing and directed by pop-video and film director Philipp Stölzl, does however manage to give a new lease of life to the opera, or at least bring out elements in it that suggest that, for all its flaws and its troubled history, it’s time the opera were confronted to determine whether its worthy of reconsideration and re-evaluation.
As the story deals with the rise and fall of the 14th century Roman dictator Cola di Rienzo, it seems appropriate in this production to emphasise the uncanny parallels that the opera has with the rise of Hitler and his downfall. To not do so would be unthinkable, according to the director Philipp Stölzl, and indeed it’s impossible not to see the remarkable coincidences in the common circumstances that give rise to a Rienzi here and those of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin or Ceausescu. Accordingly, being a German production, the opening part of Rienzi with the struggles between the Orsini and the Colonna factions, is clearly set in Germany’s inter-war years. In the midst of these troubled times, Rienzi appears, promising to bring the people freedom, lead them out of their shame and make them a great nation once again, despite the warning from Adriano that “to reach your proud ends, you shall leave a trail of blood”.
Brilliantly, the staging absorbs the cultural references of the times, Rome/Berlin looking like a backdrop of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with German Expressionist angles, while the warring Orsini and Colonna followers are masked and distorted like figures out of a colourful George Grosz painting. This soon changes unsettlingly into the militaristic imagery of a fascist dictatorship, with propaganda films influenced by Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will playing out in the background. As Rome enters into war in the second part of the revised opera, an increasingly embattled Rienzi is seen in a underground bunker, planning his grand vision of a new Rome while the reality above the ground is something quite different. The parallels between Rienzi and Hitler are eerily premonitory, arising as much from the text of the libretto as the production design and never feeling forced.
Apart from the association of Wagner with the Third Reich, in almost all other respects, the Grand Opera of Rienzi scarcely feels like a Wagnerian musical drama. The busy crowded staging and the huge rousing choruses are a recognisable feature and there are one or two prototype Wagner characters in this early opera, but otherwise the drama and storytelling is concise and to the point. Not being familiar with the full 5-hour version of Rienzi, much of this however could be down to the tightening of the focus by the cutting down of the opera for this production, but the decision to revise the opera considerably seems justified by the results.
This is not a great Wagner opera by any means, certainly not when compared to Der fliegende Holländer which immediately followed it, but musically it’s not a bad opera in its own right, with a beautiful overture, some wonderful symphonic passages, and there is a strong study of the conditions that give rise to a dictatorship in its drama. It at least has a certain curiosity value in the fact that Hitler would have seen in this opera the means of his own rise to power and a premonition of his downfall, but it also has an interesting place in the history and development of German opera.
The Blu-ray edition of Rienzi has a 16:9 image that is just about flawless. There’s a strong 5.1 DTS HD-Master Audio mix, although I didn’t notice any LFE subwoofer activity at all - your neighbours however will probably be thankful for this considering the force of the performance and the recording that is still evident. The PCM stereo mix is also terrific. A 27-minute Making Of is not particularly in-depth, but covers the background and the concept of this production through interviews and rehearsal footage.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Cherubini - Medea

MedeaLuigi Cherubini - Medea
Sassari Italy, 2004

Orchestra dell’Ente Concerti, Eric Hull, Giuseppe Sollazzo, Denia Mazzola Gavazzeni, Carlo Cigni, Elisabetta Scano, Cesare Ruta, Chiara Chialli

Kikko Classic
Adaptations of classical Greek mythology are common in opera, particularly Baroque and opera seria, and it’s perhaps for this reason that opera traditionally deals with highly dramatic subjects revolving around the twin passions of love and revenge. With perhaps the exception of Carmen, they don’t come much more impassioned than Luigi Cherubini’s version of the Euripides drama Medea.
More than the actual drama - it’s not a particularly complicated storyline and not a great deal happens - much of the passion is embodied within the character of Medea herself, the sorceress arriving at Colchis to stop the marriage of Jason to Glauce. Turning up on their wedding day, Medea threatens all manner of vengeance should Jason break the vows he has made, under enchantment, to her. Made famous by Maria Callas, which probably accounts for it being the only real Cherubini opera in repertoire, Medea is a role that calls out for a big performance and it does indeed get that here in the figure of Denia Mazzola Gavazzeni.
Recorded in Sassari in 2004 in the revised Italian version of the opera, this is a reasonably good production, traditionally staged, costumed and performed - a solid production that suits the opera and plays to its strengths. The orchestration and singing are both fine, but unfortunately neither are really shown to their best in the rather poor sound reproduction on this DVD release from Kikko Classic in Italy. A live recording, presumably made for television, the sound is Dolby Digital 2.0, but I’m not even sure it’s in stereo, or if it is, there’s not much L-R separation. It might as well be mono, and the mixing accordingly isn’t great, the orchestra mostly drowning out the singing.
The video quality is also lacking. In 4:3, it looks like a TV video master, and is certainly not shot in HD. Grain and blockiness can be seen in the dark backgrounds, there is faint discolouration with exposure varying between cameras. There are even one or two buzz glitches that momentarily affect both image and sound. The biggest problem with the filming is the editing, which makes use of different performances from different nights often within the same scene, the frequent intercutting leading to obvious continuity issues. Even more problematically, this causes the lip-movements to rarely match the singing or the performance.
Most of these issues are relatively minor and wouldn’t individually spoil the enjoyment of what is a fine opera and a good performance of it, but cumulatively, they can be quite niggling and distracting.

Poulenc - Dialogues des Carmélites

CarmelitesFrancis Poulenc - Dialogues des Carmélites
Staatsoper Hamburg, 2008

Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Andreas Morell, Simone Young, Anne Schwanewilms, Alexia Voulgaridou, Nikolai Schukoff, Wolfgang Schöne

Arthaus Musik
Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera, for which he both composed the music and wrote the libretto (from a play by Georges Bernanos), has many distinct and individualistic qualities that set it apart, not least of which is the unique subject matter of the execution of Carmelite nuns by French Revolutionaries in 1794. The treatment however is just as fascinating, the subject of death ominously present not only through the novice nun Blanche’s pathological fear of death, through the suffering of ailing Mother Superior and the eventual martyrdom of the nuns, but also in the delicacy of the musical accompaniments that evoke an almost romantic relationship or fascination with the idea of death.
One other notable and unusual aspect of Dialogues des Carmélites is the dominance and importance of female voices, in recitative dialogue and in relation to one another. The opera really is a celebration of the female voice, ranging from soprano to mezzo-soprano and contralto, all used marvellously and, it has to be said, sung magnificently in this production. There are male roles in the opera and they are not insignificant, lending a welcome variety of colour and tone to the overpowering predominance of female singing that could otherwise become a little tiring at such length.
The staging of this Hamburg production is a masterpiece of the minimalist style, well suited to the dark subject matter and achieving incredible intensity and drama mainly from its use of light and shade and some subtle colouration. It’s perhaps a little too intense and austere when the opera is more lyrically varied in its score and libretto, but it’s true that the sense of death is omnipresent, the questions of faith and life discussed by the nuns all coloured by consideration of death. When combined with the remarkable singing, the power of the denouement is simply shattering. A truly unique opera experience.
The Blu-ray quality is superb, certainly in terms of the audio - an exceptional DTS HD Master Audio 7.1 mix - although, as noted elsewhere, there are issues with the image. Rather than being a flaw with the recording or the transfer, the mosquito noise dots actually seem to be part of the staging, caused by a fine gauze screen at the front of the stage. This is often used in stage productions for light diffusion, but rarely throughout a whole opera. Although it seems a strange decision to film the opera with a screen in-between, it’s presumably part of the production design to soften the otherwise harsh direct lighting. The dots are not always noticeable - only when performers are filmed in close-up and when they are towards the front of the stage. There’s little here however that spoils the enjoyment of this beautifully staged and fascinating opera.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Mozart - Don Giovanni

GiovanniWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni
Haus für Mozart, Salzburg Festspiele, 2008

Wiener Philharmoniker, Bertrand de Billy, Claus Guth, Christopher Maltman, Erwin Schrott, Anatoly Kocherga, Annette Dasch, Matthew Polenzani 

Euroarts
Of all Mozart’s operas, Don Giovanni seems to be the one with themes that make it more open to modern day re-envisioning and reinterpretation. And it’s not so much the subject of the amorous activities of a philandering nobleman that make the opera so timeless as much as the underlying themes of passion, revenge, power and conquest, or - as in this particular production for the 2008 Salzburg Festval - the question of honour.
Accordingly, there’s something of a Godfather feel to the tempestuous Latin passions of love and revenge here that feels perfectly appropriate, the production approaching the opera from a different angle while remaining perfectly true to the strengths of Mozart’s score and the themes of Da Ponte’s wonderful libretto, full of wit and wisdom. It’s certainly more complex and nuanced on the subject of relationships between male and female than their rather more buffa treatment of the subject in Così Fan Tutte. To cite just one example, look at Donna Elvira’s complex feelings for Don Giovanni, expressing hatred, contempt and frustration for Giovanni, but at the same time her actions are fuelled by a deep love and an irrational but no less sincere hope for his redemption.
The staging here is limited entirely to a dark woods setting, but imaginatively deployed on a revolving stage which gives a wonderful three-dimensional quality to the production (well directed for the screen, as ever, by Brian Large). As well observed as the references and updating are - the staging never compromising the integrity of a truly great opera - the performances here are just as nuanced, powerful and dramatic, Christopher Maltman’s near-deranged, wild-eyed obsessive Don Giovanni brilliantly balanced and vocally matched with Erwin Schrott’s amusingly twitchy Leporello. The score is magnificently interpreted, drawing the full darkness and energy out of the opera, as well as bringing out its underlying tenderness and tragedy. In this respect, in addition to strong singing you would expect from all the major roles, Matthew Polenzani gives one of the most sensitive and sympathetic readings of Don Ottavio that I’ve seen for this opera.
The image quality on the Blu-ray - once it takes its time to actually load-up onto the player - is fine, while the orchestration is given a fine presentation in the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix, centrally located and unshowy on the surrounds, and beautifully toned. The singing initially seems a little echoing in this mix, occasionally overwhelmed by the music, but it’s generally good and seems to improve by the end of the first Act. The PCM Stereo mix gives the singing a better stage, but at the cost of the fine separation of the orchestration.
This is not the most traditional production of Don Giovanni, and it certainly isn’t the best I’ve seen or heard, the limitations of the woods setting losing some of the familiar elements that usually make it work so well as a drama (traditionalists will be disappointed by a bus timetable in place of a register of the Don’s conquests, no masks on the wedding guests, a Burger King take-away for a dinner-party, twigs for the Commendatore’s statue and certainly no flames at the finale), but that’s balanced with a reasonably fresh take on the themes, some strong singing and fine acting that is more naturalistic than the usual operatic gesturing, and a fascinating visual presentation in terms of its design and conceptualisation.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Monteverdi - L'Orfeo

OrfeoClaudio Monteverdi - L'Orfeo
De Nederlandse Opera, 1997

Pierre Audi, Stephen Stubbs, John Mark Ainsley, Juanita Lascarro

Opus Arte
It’s appropriate that what is often considered the first opera - or at least the first opera that we can recognise as being more closely associated with the form of the opera as it is widely known today - is a composition in praise of Orpheus and his golden lyre. Written in 1607, bringing together music and drama into an integrated form for the first time, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo seems to delight in the very essence of the resultant new artform that has been created, the alchemy of music, drama and exquisite singing achieving an almost transcendentally beautiful balance and harmony.
Dealing moreover with the legendary subject of Orpheus, Monteverdi’s opera finds a perfect subject to demonstrate the power of the artform, one that can take in subjects as large as life, death, love and art and truly do justice to their importance in the lives of ordinary people. Set in the meadows, hills and woodlands of Thrace, life is simple but hard for the workers in the fields, but Orpheus through his music is able to transform the misery of the people into a thing of beauty. But he “who once made sighs his food and tears his drink”, has since discovered happiness in his love for Eurydice. The happiness is short-lived however, as Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies. Grief-stricken, Orpheus descends to the underworld, to bargain with Charon, cross the River Styx and claim her back from Hades for the living.
A mythological subject, there is poetry and wisdom scattered throughout the gorgeous libretto, warning mortals not to “put your faith in fleeting fragile joy that is so soon gone” observing how often in life “we are lifted high only to be cast down”. The music (the story appropriately is introduced by the muse Music herself) and the singing all combining to give the subject and tragedy the necessary emotional depth. The 1997 production recorded here makes good use of the vast stage of the Muziektheater in Amsterdam, Pierre Audi’s staging at the same time simple but effective. The tone of the period instruments and singing are impeccable, John Mark Ainsley’s voice conveying the warmth, lyricism, charm and beauty that you would expect Orpheus to possess.
Released on DVD by Opus Arte as a 2-disc set, the 16:9 enhanced image is excellent, even in the dim lighting showing detail only slightly less impressive than a HD presentation. There are two audio tracks. The DTS 5.1 is a little echoing, although it does give the opera an appropriate cathedral quality, but the PCM stereo track seems to my ears to have much better depth and clarity. Neither can do much about the sometimes heavy clumping that is made by figures striding across the stage, but this is a minor irritation. The extras are brief but useful, including a Synopsis and a 16 minute introduction that looks behind the scenes at the production and the instruments used.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Berlioz - Les Troyens

TroyensHector Berlioz - Les Troyens
Théâtre du Châtelet Paris, 2003

John Eliot Gardiner, Yannis Kokkos, Peter Maniura, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Susan Graham, Ludovic Tézier, Laurent Naouri

Opus Arte
Presented across two dual-layer BD50 Blu-ray discs, Berlioz’s adaptation of Virgil’s The Aeneid is truly an epic undertaking, both in terms of the production and the opera itself. His penultimate opera, Les Troyens is considered to be the composer’s masterpiece, and indeed it brings together all the elements and the variety that is characteristic of Berlioz’s range, from darkness to light, from blood and thunder to tender lyricism, with rousing choruses, dramatic singing performances, musical interludes and dance sequences.
Despite that, the opera was never performed in full during the lifetime of the composer, the first two acts dealing with the fall of Troy to the Greeks despite Cassandra’s highly emotive premonitions of doom, excised in favour of the Trojans in Carthage section of Acts 3 to 5. There is certainly a strong division between the two parts, with many of the principal’s inevitably dying at the sacking of Troy at the end of Act 2, including Cassandra and her lover Choreobus (Hector already dead before the start of the opera nevertheless makes a highly effective appearance at the start of the Second Act in the form of a projected apparition), but it’s hard to imagine the opera feeling complete without the darkness and the powerful impact of the first half. Anna Caterina Antonacci, in particular, showing what the role of Cassandra has to offer the opera as a whole, a striking contrast to Susan Graham’s Dido, who dominates the second half, though no less effectively.
As the surviving Trojans flee, they receive temporary shelter in the North African city of Carthage established recently by exiles from Tyre, under the rule of Queen Dido. Both exiles, the respective leaders of the two tribes, Aeneas and Dido, find comfort for their loss in love for each other, but only until the gods remind Aeneas of his duty to lead his people to Italy. In contrast to the opening acts, the second half of Les Troyens consequently covers a wider range of emotions and the musical accompaniment is likewise as broad and as colourful as the set designs for Carthage, the tone darkening again at the end in a manner that echoes the restored opening of the opera.
The 2003 production at the Châtelet in Paris is accordingly spectacular, the stage filled with movement and action, but never cluttered, the score dominated often by the power of the choral writing, but individual roles are strong and the performances are exceptional, Gregory Kunde a fine Aeneas to stand alongside Antonacci and Graham. Everything about the production, the orchestra under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, is of the highest order, every single scene offering something of fascination and wonder, whether it is in the music, the singing or the staging. But, particularly in this full version of Les Troyens, there is an overall impression of completeness here. Total opera.
Les Troyens is perfectly presented on Blu-ray, the division between the two parts of the opera much better than on the 3-disc DVD edition. Act 1 and 2 are on the first disc along with the extra features, the other three acts on the second disc. Image and sound can hardly be faulted, the audio presented in PCM 2.0 and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1. The tone on the surround track is soft and warm rather than clean and precise, but the dynamic range is nonetheless excellent, handling the extremes well, and it is well suited to the arrangement. The hour-long documentary features contributions from the main performers and makes some interesting observations, but is over-long, being mostly made up of a complete walk-through of the synopsis by John Eliot Gardiner, illustrated with extended sequences from the opera.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Rameau - Zoroastre

ZoroastreJean-Philippe Rameau - Zoroastre
Drottningholm Slottsteater Sweden, 2006

Pierre Audi, Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques, Anders J. Dahlin, Sine Bundgaad, Anna Maria Panzarella

Opus Arte
First performed in 1749, the reason this wonderful piece of French Baroque opera from Jean-Philippe Rameau, court composer to Louis XV and contemporary of Bach, Scarlatti and Handel, stands up so well today is undoubtedly down to the timeless nature of its subject matter. Rather than being based on Greek gods and legends, Zoroastre rather is set in the fictional land of Bactria and its subject, dealing with the timeless struggle between forces of good and evil, a battle between darkness and light on a vast epic scale, could even lend itself to a science-fiction fantasy interpretation.
Here, Abramane takes advantage of the unexpected death of the King of Bactria to attempt to seize power through an alliance with the Princess Érinice, usurping it from the rightful heir, Amélite, and exiling her lover Zoroastre, who has already spurned the attentions of Érinice. Zoroastre however is inducted into a higher state of awareness by a guru, Oromasès, and returns to Bactria to save Amélite. An epic power struggle develops then between the forces of goodness and love on one side and evil and hatred on the other. It’s a familiar struggle, with Masonic references, that just as easily be connected to The Magic Flute (Zoroastre = Sarastro), as it could be a premonition of the French Revolution (or if you fancy a Eurotrash interpretation, even the Batman mythos and Dracula stories fit the model surprisingly closely).
This production however is utterly faithful to its period setting and presented with magnificent attention to the smallest detail. Performed in an 18th century theatre in Drottningholm in Sweden, with its highly effective original pulley-operated stage scenery, the production is beautifully costumed, impressively staged and immaculately lit, filmed exceptionally well, with unusual close-ups and angles that draw you in (although the semi-obscured shaky overhead shot is over-used and really offers nothing).
The same enthusiasm can be shown towards the performance. Although the plot can be a little obscure and there are indeed some long opera seria arias that can occasionally be testing - without the excess of any da capo singing it has to be said - there is nonetheless a surprising amount of engaging dramatic action and interaction that keeps it well-grounded, as well as some unusual dance moves that add well to the emotional expression. The orgy of bloodlust in the Black Mass sequence that takes up the whole of Act 4 is one of the most dramatically staged scenes you’ll see in any production, darker and more menacing than Don Giovanni’s descent into Hell.
Most effective in this respect is Rameau’s music itself, which has pounding baroque rhythms several hundred years before Michael Nyman appropriated them, but is also dynamic and lyrical, innovatively introducing clarinets into the orchestra ensemble. Les Talens Lyriques ensemble’s playing of this revived piece is exemplary, and the singing flawless, although particular mention should be made of Anna Maria Panzarella’s Érinice for her powerful singing, as well as the sheer emotional force contained within it and her intense performance.
On the technical side, the all-region Blu-ray is also pretty much flawless. 16:9 widescreen, the superbly lit production shows tremendous detail in its 1080i encode. My amplifier identified the audio tracks as full bit-rate PCM, in stereo and in 5.1, though it’s listed as Dolby True HD on the case, but uncompressed the surround track in particular gives wonderful tone and body to the period instrumentation, and offers a full dynamic range to the singing. In an hour-long documentary, the production team offer their thoughts on the opera and its staging. A visual synopsis and cast list is also provided, along with a booklet that puts the opera into context. A fascination production of a little-known baroque opera, this is a strong package all-around, one that certainly merits a couple of viewings.