Monday, 25 February 2013

Glass - The Perfect American


Philip Glass - The Perfect American

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2013

Dennis Russell Davies, Phelim McDermott, Christopher Purves, David Pittsinger, Donald Kaasch, Janis Kelly, Marie McLaughlin, Sarah Tynan, Nazan Fikret, Rosie Lomas, Zachary James, John Easterlin, Juan Noval-Moro, Beatriz de Gálvez, Noelia Buñuel

Medici.tv / ARTE Internet Streaming, 5th February 2013

It's not too hard to see the point being made about in Philip Glass's new opera based on the last days of Walt Disney.  The irony is hammered home repeatedly and with no great subtlety in either the libretto or the musical arrangements.  His animation and the safe family-friendly ideals they espouse may be revered by generations of children and their parents, but those values are derived from a rather more flawed human individual.  An old-fashioned, smalltown country-boy with Republican ideals, intolerant of progress and union activity, Walt Disney is depicted in The Perfect American as a megalomaniac who not only took the credit for the hard work and talent of others, but he treated them appallingly as well.  So he wasn't a nice guy.  Why make an opera about him?  Well, if Walt Disney and his works are held up as being the epitome of "The Perfect American", even ironically, then there might be some merit in exploring prevailing bigoted attitudes and intolerance.  If that's its purpose however, the opera singularly fails to make its case.


Whether Walt Disney should be accorded the stature of being the subject for opera isn't so much in question then as much as whether a study of the animation giant as the "Perfect American" really has as much to say about the society we live in today as the subjects of previous Glass biographical works - Einstein (Einstein on the Beach), Gandhi (Satyagraha) or the great reforming Egyptian pharaoh (Akhnaten).  Whatever you think of Walt Disney or his children's animation films, he's not exactly the first person who comes to mind when you look around for a representative icon of American values.  Yes, the Disney animation studio was certainly one of the earliest and biggest exports of American family values, the empire of the Mouse and the Duck expanding to conquer and achieve universal recognisability in even the most remote corners of the world.  As for whether the personal attitudes of Disney persist and hold influence, there's a case could certainly be made for that, but not laid specifically at the door of Walt Disney the man.

The idea that he may have been as important as Thomas Edison or Henry Ford may form a part of Walt Disney's self-delusion, but there is no reason given why the audience should believe it or even any suggestion that anyone takes the comparison seriously.  This is a fault that lies throughout the whole premise of the opera.  Based on a novel by Peter Stephen Jungk, a fictionalised account of Walt Disney that recounts the last few months of his life, The Perfect American seems to be attempting to suggest that the flaws and delusions of one man have some kind of wider implication, but in reality it just presents the twisted views of one small-minded individual that seem to have no place or purpose on the operatic stage.  The same could perhaps be said about Mark Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole, but the tragic story of the rise and demise of Anna Nicole Smith could arguably be said to reflect the pitfalls in following the American Dream with a broader historical scope (Marilyn Monroe) and more cutting social observation, at least on the compromised position of women within that Dream.


Like Anna Nicole, The Perfect American similarly relies heavily on a depiction of the corrupting influence of smalltown America.  But whereas Anna Nicole Smith saw it as a "shithole" that she had to escape from, Walt Disney - in the kind of obvious expositional language that is prevalent throughout Rudy Wurlitzer's libretto ("Everything that I've become has its roots in Marceline"), looks back fondly on his origins, seeing in his hometown all the good old-fashioned American values that he holds dear.  Just to emphasise his position as a reactionary and an unpleasant man, his relationship with Wilhelm Dantine - an animator on 'The Sleeping Beauty' - and their fall-out over union activities is the linking element between the three acts, but Dantine is still devastated when Walt dies.  The libretto's idea of any other kind of character development is limited to snappy mottos ("Never say die!"), common clichés (Mickey Mouse being "more famous than Santa" and "more recognisable that Jesus") and banal observations ("That's what he does, spares everyone the worst") that don't so much highlight the nature of Disney as illustrate the lack of imagination of the libretto and the treatment.

Even those areas where the work tries a less literal approach, the implications are no less obvious and at the same time no more revealing of the man other than the scale of his self-delusion.  He expresses his desire to a nurse at the hospital to be cryogenically frozen so that he can be revived in the future, and hubristically compares his cartoons to Greek gods, believing that his work and his beliefs in good conservative American values will "live forever".  A little more colour is added when Walt is contrasted with Andy Warhol, who was born in the same year, or in a sequence where Walt has a conversation with a robot Abraham Lincoln, but even there, it seems like just thrown in as an opportunity to allow Disney to express some pretty distasteful views on the abolition of slavery leading to the degradation of traditional American values.


The latter sequences allow director Phelim Mc Dermott and designer Dan Potra a bit more freedom to experiment with the staging, but to be honest, it's impressive throughout.  It's not on the same scale of brilliance of McDermott and his Improbable ensemble's work for Glass's sublime Satyagraha a few years ago, but that narrative-free work called out for a strong collaborative theatrical expression.  Here however, they still manage nonetheless to find an imaginative way to work with the rather more banal reality of The Perfect American, keeping it visually engaging and thematically relevant through projected animation sequences and supernumeraries playing the larger-than-life rabbits of Disney's mind, avoiding any Mom and Apple-Pie clichés or overly literal depictions of small-town Americana.

The performances of the cast at the Madrid world premiere run in the Teatro Real (viewed via Internet streaming) were also exceptionally good.  Christopher Purves was an outstanding Walt Disney, but all the cast managed to inject some personality into their characters and even some sense of melody into their singing.  As scored by Glass however, there wasn't much of that in the lifeless orchestration of bland repetition that lacked and real dynamic or variety in tempo and seemed to have no sense of a distinct dramatic character or expression for the work.  It's a long way from Glass at his most original and operatic best in Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha or Akhnaten, but Glass has shown himself in more recent times to still be creatively inspired when the subject (Kepler) or the source (Kafka, Cocteau) are worthy.  Walt Disney and The Perfect American doesn't seem to fire the composer's imagination this time, and it seems hardly likely to excite audiences when it comes to the English National Opera this summer.

The Perfect American is available to view via internet streaming - with some region restrictions to the UK - on Medici.tv and on ARTE Live Web.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin




Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Royal Opera House, 2013

Robin Ticciati, Kasper Holten, Simon Keenlyside, Krassimira Stoyanova, Pavol Breslik, Elena Maximova, Peter Rose, Diana Montague, Vigdis Hentze Olsen, Kathleen Wilkinson, Elliot Goldie, Thom Rackett, Christophe Mortagne, Michel De Souza, Jihoon Kim, Luke Price

Royal Opera House Cinema Season Live, 20th February 2013

The very nature of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin is one that often makes it difficult to cast and present.  The opera is all about the arrogance, impetuosity and naivety of youth seen refracted through a lifetime of regret.  As such, it has the near impossible task of needing its performers to be able to express both youthful idealism and the regret that comes with experience through same person and - just to make it more difficult - express both positions almost simultaneously.  Tchaikovsky's remarkable highly romantic musical score is able to do that, but finding singers who have the exact balance of youth and experience needed to express and actually sing the challenging roles is rather more difficult to achieve.



If it were a film, it would simply be a matter of just casting younger actors to play the youthful roles in Eugene Onegin and then bring in experienced stars to play their older counterparts.  In the opera house it's not possible - or at least not common - to cast in this way, and certainly not for roles like those in Eugene Onegin that have very specific singing and continuity demands.  Certainly in the case of the young romantic and bookish 16-year old Tatyana, the director has the choice only of casting a younger singer who looks credible in the role but who may not be able to meet the extremely difficult singing demands, or else sacrifice credibility for a singer with the voice, maturity and the experience to make it work musically.  In the days of High Definition broadcasts, the chances are that the director will opt for the former (as in the case of Kyzysztof Warlikowski's 2012 Bavarian State Opera production with Ekaterina Scherbachenko), when the latter is what the work really needs.  There is however another way, a way explored by Norwegian director Stefan Herheim for example in the 2011 production for De Nederlandse Opera, but it involves the kind of directorial playing around with the essential elements and timeline of the work that some find intrusive in what ought to be a stripped-back and intimate work.

Directing the Royal Opera House's new production, and clearly focussing on those essential themes of love and regret, Kasper Holten has opted for an approach similar to Stefan Herheim, using doubles for Onegin and Tatyana - dancers who enact their younger selves - and having them both on the stage together in order to allow both those interlocking sentiments to play out simultaneously.  As a response to the themes and the actual music itself it's a valid idea, but it's one that is rather more difficult to pull off theatrically.  Holten's direction, it has to be said, is rather less convoluted than Herheim's all-encompassing approach that takes in aspects of the Russian temperament revealed in the work across the ages, and in that respect the Royal Opera House production works quite well while at the same time being relatively more faithful to the intentions of the composer.  One can't help but wishing however that the director (both Herheim and Holten) would just put their trust in the singer when they a Tatyana as accomplished as Krassimira Stoyanova who is capable of delivering such a sensitive and deeply nuanced performance as she does here.



And not just Stoyanova.  The Royal Opera House's production benefitted from the casting and terrific performances of Simon Keenlyside and Pavol Breslik as Onegin and Lensky.  Both played these roles opposite each other in last year's Bayerische Staatsoper production and were marvellous there.  Here, unconstrained by the Kyzysztof Warlikowski's attempts to bring out a gay subtext in their relationship (attempts it has to be said that were largely successful and certainly relevant to the composer's own personal circumstances), they were free to concentrate on those expressions of deep emotional wounding and eternal regret.  The title of the interval feature 'Love and Regret' describes Kasper Holten's focus for this production, and he couldn't have been better assisted in getting this across than the exceptional, nuanced and deeply moving performances from the cast or from the superb account of Tchaikovsky's majestic score from the Royal Opera House orchestra superbly conducted by Robin Ticciati.

A performance of Eugene Onegin perhaps doesn't need anything more than that, but there were more than a few other beautiful little touches that validated the director's approach.  When you see the youthful idealism and romanticism embodied in the expressions and the fluid movements of dancer Vigdis Hentze Olsen during Stoyanova's moving account of the letter scene - the older Tatyana regretful of her younger counterpart's painful naivety - it does actually enhance the scene and reflect those simultaneous contradictory sentiments.  Keenlyside is a marvellous actor as well as a fine singer in this role, but the look of nervous excitement on the young Onegin (Thom Rackett) as he picks up a duelling pistol, oblivious to the reality of what he is about to do, while the older Onegin looks on with painful regret, unable to avert the disaster, is also justified and well handled.  The death of Lensky, leaving Pavol Breslik lying there at the front of the stage through the remainder of the opera, doesn't work quite so well.  The dead branch that he symbolically drags onto the stage would have been enough on its own.



Any such reservations however are few and minor when taken alongside the evident consideration behind the directorial choices elsewhere in this Eugene Onegin.  The Polonaise was more than just a beautiful interlude, but threw Keenlyside's Onegin with abandon into the midst of swirling ballet dancers that he would attempt to grasp but be unable to hold.  Tainted by his past and his behaviour, it seemed like everything he touched would just die in his hands.  Mia Stensgaard's set - a framing set of doors, opened or closed as necessary, with suitable backgrounds and lighting - was also highly effective in establishing a consistent look and feel for the work.  The role of the chorus - again often neglected for their dramatic contribution in favour of providing "folk" colour - were recognised here as being the social context of the work.  The Royal Opera House have been criticised, with some justification, for a lack of adventure in their recent programming of revivals and some failed or misguided experiments (Rusalka, Robert le Diable), but when they bring together a strong cast for a thoughtful account of a major work like the 2011 Tosca or this year's Eugene Onegin, they are simply unbeatable.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Puccini - Manon Lescaut




Giacomo Puccini - Manon Lescaut

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2013

Carlo Rizzi, Mariuz Treliński, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Brandon Jovanovich, Giovanni Furlanetto, Aris Argiris, Julien Dran, Alexander Kravets, Guillaume Antoine, Camille Merckx, Amalia Avilán, Anne-Fleur Inizian, Audrey Kessedjian, Julie Mossay

Internet Streaming, January 2013

The story is the same one that opera-goers will be more familiar with from Massenet's Manon (1884), but former filmmaker Mariuz Treliński's modern-day updating of Puccini's Manon Lescaut (1893) transports it into a world that will be more familiar with cinema-goers who have seen the David Lynch films 'Blue Velvet' and 'Lost Highway'.  Following on the heels of La Monnaie's similarly hard-hitting and highly acclaimed modern takes on the sordid reality of two other opera heroines who are debased by a hypocritical and exploitative patriarchal society - Lulu and Violetta - Manon Lescaut has two very hard acts to follow.  If inevitably it can't touch those outstanding productions, the fault is less to do with the casting or the direction than the fact that Puccini's early work - and his first real opera success - falls well short of Berg's and Verdi's masterpieces.

As elaborately deconstructed and as beautifully designed as it may be - Boris Kudlicka's sets matching and complementing the bright, clean, colourful neon-lit modernist productions we've come to associate with La Monnaie of late (La Traviata, Lulu, Rusalka) - Mariuz Treliński isn't able to make quite as much of an impression on Manon Lescaut, and doesn't find a method that gives any new meaning or new life to the work.  It's not for want of trying, for a lack of ideas or for any shortcomings in the material.  The Abbé Prevost's scandalous novel, banned on publication in 1731, provides plenty of scandal, adventure and colourful locations in its lurid melodrama, and these are factors that can't help but be enhanced to a considerable degree when the strange worlds of the filmmakers David Lynch and Luis Buñuel are brought into the mix.



Much of the story in this production then takes place in a railway station, or is framed by an opening and closing in a railway station with elements of it interjecting at certain points - a payphone, a bench of waiting room chairs, a subway map and timetable - in a way suggests that it might even be all taking place in the head of Des Grieux, who lies sleeping at the opening here. Trains race past through the underground station to strobing light and a digital station clock marks the passing of time, effects representing the place where the story starts and the beginning of what turns out to be a long journey for Des Grieux.  He immediately falls in love with Manon at first sight, rescuing her from a fate in a convent, or worse, left in the hands of a lecherous rich old man (Geronte de Ravoir based rather disturbingly on Frank Booth as played by Dennis Hopper with oxygen mask in 'Blue Velvet').  It's an encounter and an infatuation that, for better or worse, determines the direction of the rest of his life.

Puccini's version of the Manon story - the libretto worked on by numerous uncredited writers including Ruggero Leoncavallo and Luigi Illica - differs only in minor respects that one might consider regrettable only if familiar with the Massenet version.  The modest little table that provides such poignancy in Massenet's opera is only referred to in passing here, since Puccini's version excises the period of Des Grieux and Manon's humble little sojourn in Paris, saving Manon's arrest and deportation to America for her attempt to leave Geronte's apartment with her jewels and luxury goods when Des Grieux reappears in her life.  In Puccini's version, Manon doesn't die in Le Havre while waiting for the prison ship, but is transported to America, and Des Grieux with her, where she succumbs to a horrible death, dying of thirst in the desert outside New Orleans.  In Treliński's production, obviously, they never physically leave the train station.

Puccini makes this version very much his own, finding in it material, isolated situations at different time periods and a structure that he would put to work in a much more satisfactory manner and with considerably more artistry in La Bohème.  Musically however, although it does have some lyrical and heartfelt moments, Manon Lescaut is a much weaker work, the score almost insipid, with few melodies, arrangements or character definition that can compare to Puccini's later work.  It's unfortunate that the composer, at this stage in his career, isn't musically up to the material, because otherwise all the elements for the melodrama of the tragic Puccini heroine are all in place.  That suits Mariuz Treliński, who is able to work with characters that are less one-dimensional than in the Massenet version.  His modern, fractured narrative construction recognises Manon's position as a commodity whose vanity and materialism - much like Lulu - plays a part in her fate or at least in terms of how men are able to exploit her weaknesses.  To fit with his concept however, the director imposes more emphasis on Manon as an elusive movie "femme fatale", an "Obscure Object of Desire" to fire the passions of unwary men.



Manon Lescaut is certainly a lesser Puccini work, but it's possible to imagine that it could be made to work in the right setting and with the right singers. I'm not sure however that Treliński's ideas work entirely with the nature of Puccini's scoring, and the singing in some areas seemed to have a similar problem reconciling the characters as they are defined in this production with the musical descriptions.  Eva-Maria Westbroek has the right kind of voice for the stronger Puccini heroine (like Minnie in La Fanciulla del West), but she sounded a little breathy here in places and not always fully committed to what she was singing. Treliński's directions to the singer that she must be an "impossible puzzle" and that "each scene must be played as if by a completely different actor", might not have helped matters.  When required however, she was certainly able to rise to the occasion.  Brandon Jovanovich however was simply superb, demonstrating a gorgeous tone with wonderful voice control. With that strong, lyrical voice, and a well-judged dramatic performance, he was able to be expressive in a way that brought out the impetuosity of his character and infatuation, making this production a great deal more credible that it might otherwise have been.  His indisposition on one of the nights during this run (a performance broadcast on Belgian radio) when he was replaced after the interval by Hector Sandoval must surely have been a surreal experience straight out of Lynch's 'Lost Highway' or indeed Buñuel's 'That Obscure Object of Desire' that could surely only have enhanced Mariuz Treliński's treatment.

La Monnaie's production of Manon Lescaut is available to view from their free on-line streaming service until 4th March 2013.  Subtitles are in French and Dutch only.  Their next streamed opera is Lucrezia Borgia, available for three weeks month from March 22nd.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Verdi - Rigoletto


Giuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

The Metropolitan Opera, 2013

Michele Mariotti, Michael Mayer, Željko Lučić, Diana Damrau, Piotr Beczala Oksana Volkova, Štefan Kocán, Maria Zifchak, Jeff Mattset, David Crawford, Robert Pomakov, Alexander Lewis, Emalie Savoy, Catherine Choi, Earle Patriarco

The Met: Live in HD, 16th February 2013

Diana Damrau and Željko Lučić appeared in one of the promotional slots during an interval in last month's Met Live in HD broadcast of Maria Stuarda to promote their appearance in the Met's forthcoming new production of Rigoletto.  When asked whether they thought that Verdi's opera would benefit in any way from an updating of its 16th century Mantua court setting to a casino in 1960s Las Vegas run by members of the Rat Pack, Damrau and Lučić just laughed.  Of course not.  Verdi's brilliant work is strong enough to withstand most interpretations but, who knows?, it might just be fun to see it in the context of the colourful sets and situation developed by Broadway director Michael Mayer and his creative team

In the event that's exactly how the Met's new production turned out.  Rigoletto doesn't gain anything at all by setting it in Las Vegas in the 1960s, but the idea has a certain merit and fascination in how it aligns characters from the opera to real Rat Pack figures.  Here, the Duke of Mantua is a Frank Sinatra-like owner of a casino with a coterie of hangers-on willing to indulge his every whim, while comedian Don Rickles is the basis for the acerbic comedy of Rigoletto - or Rickletto, if you like.  With Count Monterone a wealthy Arab sheik backer of the casino, Mayer's production is as an effective way as any of putting across the glamour and power struggles as well as the respective positions of the characters in Verdi's mid-period masterwork.



The production's greatest impact came, not unexpectedly, in the licentious First Act, the Old Blue Eyes Duke in a white dinner jacket, grabbing a microphone to "croon" 'Questa o quella' for his guests, accompanied by Las Vegas dancers with colourful fans.  Visually, it looked magnificent, and it did get across all the necessary glamour and cruelty of the situation, with all the back-biting asides and casual sexism generated by the Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin-like members of the pack towards "dolls" anyone outside of their little group.  A few subtle tweaks in the subtitles to reflect the swinging sixties dialogue worked well in this context, matching the intent and raising a few smiles without being too far removed from the original.

The setting didn't over-impose itself however, or else it ran out of ideas, fading mostly into the background after the colourful opening scene, and allowing the mechanics of the drama that is driven by Verdi's magnificent through-composed scoring and duets to assert its rightful position as the true engine of the work.  Nonetheless, all the important dramatic points of the opera were made to fit into the setting fairly well, without too much awkwardness.  The abduction of Gilda from Rigoletto's apartment in the casino's hotel using a lift worked best, the setting of the tavern in a strip club complete with pole-dancer perhaps a little gratuitous but workable, the dumping of her body into the boot of a Cadillac at the end a little less so.  It was a nice touch, but it just made things a little difficult for Diana Damrau to get across the poignancy of Gilda's final moments in her 'Lassù in cielo', and it was hard to feel any sense of remorse in her father either.  If that doesn't work, you've got a major problem with your Rigoletto.



It's the dramatic conviction in the singing however that ultimately determines the level of success of any production of Rigoletto, and while it was hard to fault the singing from any of the cast, that necessary commitment and direction wasn't always there.  The Met's production at least benefitted from casting that mixed youth with experience, often within the same person.  It was noted by both the singers and the director that Diana Damrau and Željko Lučić already had considerable experience in these roles and have often even performed them together in their time at Frankfurt.  Piotr Beczala too has performed the Duke before - there's a Zurich production on BD/DVD - and is clearly quite capable in the role as well as being boyishly bright-eyed and charming.  It seemed however that for the most part they weren't directed enough by Mayer - or indeed by the conductor Michele Mariotti - but left to bring their own experience with the characters to this production, with the result that they never seemed entirely comfortable with how that fitted into the Las Vegas setting.

Damrau - recently returning to the stage after giving birth to her second child - seemed to show a little more effort in her singing than before, but with such a wonderful and expressive voice, it was more of a problem that she didn't really seem to be able to connect with this Gilda and her dilemma come to life.  These are relatively minor points since the singing from Damrau, Lučić and Beczala was just superb, but Rigoletto is indeed an opera where such considerations and attention can make all the difference.  These are much richer characters than they were allowed to be in this rather superficial production.  Curiously, there actually seemed to be more effort put into drawing the secondary roles, Štefan Kocán in particular standing out as the Sparafucile.  With a deeply toned and wonderfully controlled bass, he was a refreshingly youthful assassin and consequently even more dangerous in a character role more often given over to veterans.  Superficial but fun and wonderfully sung, there's nothing inherently wrong with the Met's Las Vegas updating of Rigoletto that a little more attention to the characterisation and a tighter hold on the conducting couldn't improve.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Wagner - The Flying Dutchman


Richard Wagner - The Flying Dutchman

NI Opera, 2013

Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Bruno Caproni, Giselle Allen, Stephen Richardson, Paul McNamara, Adrian Dwyer, Doreen Curran

Grand Opera House, Belfast, 15th & 17th February 2013


The outcome was never really in doubt.  NI Opera's award-winning track record has been impressive since their inception two years ago, the scale and calibre of the works presented increasingly ambitious, from Menotti's The Medium and Puccini's site-specific Tosca in Derry through to newly commissioned work for NI Opera Shorts and a production of Noye's Fludde that travelled to Beijing.  Putting on a Wagner opera however is a challenge on another scale entirely.  Even if Der Fliegende Holländer is one of the composer's shorter works, it is scarcely any less demanding in the very specific orchestral and singing requirements that are quite different from the popular aria-driven Italian opera.

Admittedly however, while the First Act of the English language version of The Flying Dutchman was capably performed here at the Grand Opera House in Belfast - the first ever fully-staged performance of the work in Northern Ireland - it did feel a little flat.  Something was missing.  Still, no cause for immediate concern.  The First Act of The Flying Dutchman is quite difficult, the stormy overture a prelude to a gloom-laden hour of long passages of deep, grave male singing - mostly basses and baritones - as the dark figure of the Dutchman recounts the horror of his curse, doomed to sail the seas for eternity, finding land again after seven years in the vain hope that the love of a good and faithful woman will set him free.  There's not a whole lot of light and shade here, much less dramatic action and, even with the familiarity now of Wagner's brilliant leitmotifs and their hints of what is to come, it's always been a fairly demanding opening sequence.



Like much of Wagner though you just have to bear with it, as the forthcoming rewards more often than not merit the long drawn-out pacing and slow development of situations.  (And yes, I realise that this review seems to be adopting the same principle - long-windedly positing doom and gloom with the promise of redemption to come).  That's because Wagner has a secret weapon in reserve for the Second Act, which is the arrival of Senta.  It's a device that Wagner would unleash in a more fluid manner in the revised version of the opera - played straight through with linking sections and no breaks between acts - but if you listen carefully she's there in a leitmotif during the Vorspiel to Act One.  Recognising this, NI Opera's production did indeed effectively and with musical validity try to lift the First Act by bringing forward Senta's first appearance to the dreamily melancholic Senta leitmotif in the overture, the young woman walking across a stormy shoreline as the snow starts to fall.  And it even sounded to me like conductor Nicholas Chalmers wrung an extra ounce of romantic sensitivity out of the Ulster Orchestra during this sequence.  Despite the dramatic shortcomings then and musical unevenness of the weighty first Act (Daland and the Dutchman's duet sounding like something that has wandered in from an Italian opera) with a staging was unable to give it any kind of boost, this nonetheless boded promisingly for what was to come.

We had to wait until after the interval then for the deployment of Wagner's incendiary device, but NI Opera clearly also had one or two secret weapons of their own in their armoury to ensure that this Dutchman took flight.  One was the remarkable performance of Giselle Allen as Senta, the other was the energetic drive and virtuosity of the Ulster Orchestra.  OK, nothing there that will really come as any great surprise to those of us familiar with the qualities Northern Ireland's finest, but the way they were brought into play was impressive nonetheless.  You could virtually hear a sigh of relief from the audience as the curtain lifted on what looked like a church assembly hall in the 1970s - a bright, colourful scene-shift from the gloom of Act One - where the ladies sat spinning at their Singer sewing machines, the beauty of the assembled female voices soaring with optimism and hope that the sea would deliver the safe return of their men.

Doreen Curran's glowering Mary wonderfully kept the proceedings from getting too cheery, but it was of course the ringing tones of Giselle Allen's Senta whose romantic spinning of the tale of the cursed captain and his crew dominated and directed the whole tone of the Second Act.  Responding to the urgings of her fellow seamstresses, this Senta did indeed seem to be possessed by a demon, sitting down and seeming to slip into a trance as she recounted the myth of the Flying Dutchman.  Much as Chalmers managed to place some emphasis on the Vorspiel's dreamy Senta leitmotif, stage director Oliver Mears similarly allowed Senta's romanticism to invade the whole work whenever she was present, allowing the necessary spell to be woven that would make the Dutchman's arrival - and the long silent gaze that lies between them - all the more dramatic.  Retaking the same positions into this locked gaze after their duet, it was as if the romanticism of the encounter takes place in more in Senta's head than in reality.



Dramatically then, as well as in the all-important delivery of the exceptional singing demands that are necessary to make this work convincingly, NI Opera's The Flying Dutchman succeeded at least in finding the right tone.  It even allowed for one or two moments of humour to sit well alongside all the weighty recounting of ancient legends, such as Senta's father Daland approving of the couple making each other's acquaintance while they are in the middle of a hot-and-heavy, passionate, sweeping-everything-off-the-table kind of entanglement on the nearest available substitute for a bed.  Quite why the setting of the seventies was chosen however wasn't entirely clear.  There didn't appear to be any real attempt to connect the legend of the Dutchman to the Troubles, even if there is a certain amount of recognition of Belfast's history as a port and ship-building city.  There's no obligation of course for NI Opera to make every local production site-specific, and attempting to do so with Wagner could lead to some ill-advised and ill-fitting parallels that would never work convincingly (Senta a militant activist waiting for the delivery of an arms shipment?  The homeless "Dutchman" seeking to rid himself of the curse of his nation's occupation?), so perhaps allowing the work to speak for itself in the 70s is enough.  It certainly worked on those terms alone.

Well, not quite alone.  Both the male and the female choruses were in wonderful voice and with the driving accompaniment of the orchestra, their powerful contribution to the impact of the overall work was well directed and delivered.  Crucially however there were also solid performances from the main roles in Bruno Caproni's brooding Dutchman and Giselle Allen's obsessive Senta.  The Belfast soprano sustained a magnificent tension right the second act and the close of the third, a veritable Senta-bomb that exploded on the stage of the Grand Opera House in a blood-drenched death scene climax of nerve-shattering high notes.  If my own reaction is anything to go by, the audience were surely gasping for breath by that point.  If you can't achieve that kind of impact doing Wagner though, there's really no point even attempting it, but when you have Giselle Allen and the Ulster Orchestra at your disposal and operating on the kind of form shown here, there was never likely to be any serious concern about the outcome.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Gluck - Iphigénie en Aulide/Iphigénie en Tauride


Christoph Willibald Gluck - Iphigénie en Aulide/Iphigénie en Tauride


De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam, 2011

Marc Minkowski, Pierre Audi, Véronique Gens, Salomé Haller, Nicholas Testé, Anne Sofie von Otter, Frédéric Antouin, Martijn Cornet, Christian Helmer, Laurent Alvaro

Mireille Delunsch, Laurent Alvaro, Jean-François Lapointe, Yann Beuron, Simone Riksman, Rosanne von Sandwijk, Peter Arink, Harry Teenwen

Opus Arte

You don't see productions of Iphigénie en Aulide coming along very often, or indeed much of C.W. Gluck's works these days which, considering the importance of the composer to the world of opera, is something of a mystery.  Even more rarely do you see it paired the way it is here at the De Nederlandse Opera with its sister work Iphigénie en Tauride, but the two works are perfectly complementary.  Composed at different times with a different approach to Gluck's reformist agenda, they were perhaps never intended to be performed together, but the pairing of the two works side-by-side like this at least allows those differences in approach - so important to the progress and development of the traditional form of the modern opera - to be better appreciated.  And at a time when you can see numerous complete productions of Berlioz's epic Les Troyens, there's no reason why Gluck's smaller scale and more intimate take on a related Greek mythological story shouldn't also be seen in this kind of staging.



As it happens, the intimacy and relative simplicity of the work make Gluck's two Iphigénie operas rather more difficult to stage by a company with the resources to take it on in a relatively large modern theatre.  Those challenges are taken on by Pierre Audi, the artistic director of De Nederlandse in the setting of the Amsterdam Music Theatre, while the musical challenges of presenting the works is placed in the experienced hands of Marc Minkowski and his remarkable period-instrument ensemble, Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble.  The difficulties in presenting the two works aren't entirely overcome by the innovative approach employed here - playing largely in the round, compressing the drama into a small area at the front of the stage and putting the orchestra at the back, with the chorus section arranged oratorio behind them - but it's a staging that works well in as far as it draws the full dramatic power out of the works.  Which is what Gluck is all about really.

The subjects may be classical ones from Euripides, but by getting right back to basics of dramatic situation and expression, Gluck was able to find deeply human characteristics - love, anger, betrayal, vengeance - in mythological situations that elevated those feelings and emotions by placing them in the grander picture of questions of war, honour, duty, fate, destiny if you like, or the will of the Gods.  There's consequently an intimacy as well as an epic quality that gives Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride immense power.  They are stories of great simplicity and utmost gravity, and they require little more - as Pierre Audi recognises here - than a few strong images and symbols to help define their essential characteristics and at the same time serve to link them together.  In Iphigénie en Aulide, the image and the notion of a blade (an axe here) pressed to a daughter's breast by her father in an act of sacrifice to the goddess Diana, is one that resonates throughout the whole work, influencing and directing the complex emotions and family issues that arise out of this terrible and tragic situation.  In Iphigénie en Tauride, the image of sacrifice and family tragedy is also central to the work, Iphigenia now a priestess of Diana and about to unwittingly execute her brother Orestes, who (as any good opera goer knows from Strauss's Elektra) has been involved in a situation that has seen him take bloody justice upon their mother Clytemnestra for the death of their father Agamemnon.



Pierre Audi does reasonably well to give dramatic action to the poetry of the libretti in both works, retaining the intimacy of the emotional focus, while at the same time finding a way to project that out to an audience at the Amsterdam Music Theatre.  He does that by reducing the size of the stage, focussing in on a central area flanked by scaffolding staircases that is emphasised here on the filmed recording by some overhead views of a circle that from one scene to the next can represent a sacrificial altar or a pit.  It's not much to look at, and the costumes are far from classical, the colours, materials and camouflage patterns emphasising the military aspect of the Greek-Trojan war background in Iphigénie en Aulide, although Iphigénie en Tauride is a little more traditional in the gowns of the priestesses- but it's sufficient to hint at the greater sequence of events that set these dramas into motion without over-dramatising or over-emphasising actions over the expression though the words, the singing and the music.

And that perfect balance is precisely what Gluck's reformist agenda set out to achieve.  It's hard then to fault the presentation and the careful equilibrium that is maintained by Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble in conjunction with the stage direction and the singing.  I'm not as familiar with Iphigénie en Aulide as I am with Iphigénie en Tauride, but it's clear by the spirited orchestral performance of the latter, wonderfully expressive, delivered with controlled ferocity in places even, that the music director has taken into consideration the relative merits of the two different approaches that the individual works represent and dealt with them accordingly, using each to highlight, contrast with and complement the other.  In the case of Iphigénie en Tauride, I've heard it performed with more beauty and lyricism by William Christie and Les Arts Florissantes (in a Claus Guth production on DVD), but never quite so forcefully in a way that integrates it so well with the musical drama.  Both works are performed moreover on period instruments tuned to the original pitch.



The singing is also strong in the performances of both works, with only Salomé Haller's Diana common to both.  Iphigenia in Iphigénie en Aulide is sung and performed marvellously by Veronique Gens with her customary attention to detail and the requirements of Baroque opera singing.  There are no mannerisms and no exaggeration by any of the performers, who treat the work with the necessary dramatic gravity and sincerity.  Surprisingly, as she is such a wonderful singer of Gluck, and has even recorded the role of Clytemnestra in this opera before, only Anne Sofie von Otter seemed underpowered and unable to match the intensity of the performances.

In Iphigénie en Tauride, Iphegenia is sung by Mireille Delunsch, a soprano in a role that is more often sung by a mezzo-soprano.  More than just capably sung, Delunsch has a nice tone and timbre that suits arrangement here and proves to be strong enough to make the necessary impression.  The casting for this work however favours and puts more emphasis on the fate and the friendship of Orestes and Plyade.  Orestes is sung wonderfully by Jean-François Lapointe, who not only bears a certain similarity in appearance to Bryn Terfel but also has a comparable voice.  Strong, with clear diction and good expression (if a little stiff in acting), he certainly makes more of an impression as a true baritone than Plácido Domingo did at the Metropolitan Opera a few seasons ago.  He also works wonderfully off Yann Beuron's excellent Pylade, the two combined bringing another dimension to the work.



The presentation on Blu-ray is strong with a clear, bright and detailed image.  The audio mixes, on account of the acoustics, are a little bright and echoing, losing focus in the surround DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix.  The PCM track through headphones however reveals the qualities of the sound and the performances very well.  As well as two full-length operas on this release, there are also two 20-minute Behind the Scenes Introductions on the BD, one for each opera, and Cast Galleries.  The booklet contains an essay and two full synopses.  The BD is All-region compatible, with subtitles in English, French, German, Dutch and Korean.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Rossini - Adelaide di Borgogna


Gioachino Rossini - Adelaide di Borgogna

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2011

Dmitri Jurowski, Pier' Alli, Daniela Barcellona, Jessica Pratt, Bogdan Mihai, Nicola Ilivieri, Jeanette Fischer, Francesca Pierpaoli, Clemente Antonio Dalotti

Arthaus Musik

Composed in 1817 for Rome between the writing of Armida and Mosè in Egitto for Naples, Adelaide di Borgogna has all the signs of being a commission hastily filled by the composer to a classic template of war, revolution and romance, with a historical background of Italian significance.  It's the kind of subject that Verdi would later make his own and, without underestimating the importance of the Rossini influence, often do it with considerably more character than it is done here in Adelaide di Borgogna. It's not the composer's greatest work then, but being Rossini it's not entirely without merit either, and the right kind of singing and staging could certainly bring out its qualities. Recorded at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro in 2011, director Pier' Alli and conductor Dmitri Jurowski certainly make the best of the work and are assisted with some fine singing performances, but overall the work still remains problematic.

The main problem with Adelaide di Borgogna is that proves to be a difficult opera to stage dramatically. There's a solid historical foundation to the work, which is based around the year 951 on the campaigns of the German Emperor Otto the Great, even if it has all the usual operatic mannerisms, coincidences and twists that we have become familiar with in historical romances. The opera opens with the defeat of Adelaide (Adelheid, Queen of Burgundy), besieged in Canossa on Lake Guarda (the geography is a bit imprecise), by Berengario on the pretence that she is responsible for the murder of her husband Lothario (King Lothar). Bergengario wishes to use the situation to his advantage and gain access to the throne by having his son Adelberto marry Adelaide.



Berengario however fears the intervention of Ottone and his German army who have been making progress over the Alps on the invitation of Iroldo, the governor of Canossa, and tries to head off a confrontation by asking Ottone to come and judge the situation for himself. Ottone however falls in love with Adelaide the moment they meet and proposes marriage to bring resolution to the conflict. The people are delighted, singing choruses of praise and joy, but Berengario and Adelberto use the moment to launch their strike against the Emperor and make their claim for the rule of Italy.

There's not much wrong with the set-up of Adelaide di Borgogna then, the strong historical situation with its Italian patriotic sentiments and the various romantic entanglements giving Rossini plenty of material to work with. The principal pleasure of the work then is indeed in listening to Rossini's spirited musical arrangements for the piece, and the performance of it here under Dmitri Jurowski is simply wonderful. Regardless of whether the music is the most expressive - sometimes it's fairly conventional, repetitive and monotonous - Jurowski varies the pace and seems to pitch the tone perfectly for demands of each scene. You could hardly ask for a more sympathetic account, and it makes all the difference. Dramatically however - particularly in Act II, which consists of a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between Adelberto and Ottone gaining a hold over the battle for Canossa and Adelaide with almost all of the action taking place off-stage - the work is still a little creaky and it also needs some theatrical assistance to bring it across.



Pier' Alli's production is also a little creaky in places and a little baffling in others, but it does manage to enliven the proceedings somewhat. The approach to the sets and costume design is classically traditional for the most part, with some ravishing gold and green colour schemes. To give it a little extra dimension however, Alli uses back projections of filmed sequences and some 3-D modelling, with an emphasis (I'm not sure why) on water and rain. Although there are one or two questionable touches - soldiers in raincoats duelling with umbrellas - the visuals are striking enough to give some dramatic focus to the work and help it get through some of the duller or less inspired sections of the work. Even if they don't entirely succeed, the musical performance and the staging do their best to bring this work to life. So too do the singers, and rather more impressively.

As Adelaide, Jessica Pratt gives a strong performance of a tricky role in terms of its dramatic and singing demands, and she manages to bring the role to life with some degree of character. The drama might revolve around Adelaide, but Ottone is another critical role and it's in safe hands with Daniela Barcellona. If there are any minor weaknesses in delivery of one or two notes, it's entirely down to the demands of live performance, as otherwise they are most impressive individually and in how the voices blend and complement each other. The Adelaide/Ottone Act I duet 'Mi dai corone e vita' is just marvellous. Similarly, Bogdan Mihai and Nicola Ilivieri are good fits for the roles of Adelberto and Berengario and work well within the whole ensemble. This is demonstrated most notably in the quartet at the end of Act I, which is typically well-organised in Rossini's management and orchestration of the rising drama. Even if it never entirely comes together convincingly as a whole, it's such moments that make Adelaide di Borgogna well worth viewing as an enjoyable minor Rossini opera.



Arthaus give us another nice Blu-ray package for this 2011 Rossini Opera Festival production. On a BD50 disc, the image is fine and detailed, with the usual fine PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks. There is a wonderful rich, fullness of sound in this production from a relatively small orchestra that comes across well and gives the production an extra musical boost. There is a 17-minute Making Of feature on the disc, which has interviews with Jurowski and Alli, with emphasis on the unique elements of this production of the work. The disc is all-region compatible, and subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Pergolesi - La Salustia


Giovanni Battista Pergolesi - La Salustia

Teatro G.B. Pergolesi, Jesi, 2011

Corrado Rovaris, Juliette Deschamps, Vittorio Prato, Serena Malfi, Laura Polverelli, Florin Cezar Ouata, Giacinta Nicotra, Maria Hinojosa Montenegro

Arthaus Musik

There are one or two aspects of Pergolesi's La Salustia that immediately mark it out as quite different from the previous rare opera works by the composer (Adriano in Siria, Il Prigionier Superbo and Il Flaminio) recently revived and subjected to new critical editions by the Fondazione Pergolesi-Spontini in Jesi.  Most obviously, as the composer's first opera, written to a libretto that had been reworked from an earlier work (Alessando Severo), La Salustia (1732) fits more conventionally into the standard opera seria style than any of Pergolesi's later work in the dramma per musica category.  It's interesting nonetheless to see how Pergolesi operates even within this more restrictive format, particularly when the singing performances presented here at this production in Jesi surpass the already exceptionally high standards already achieved on the earlier DVD/BD releases of his other works.



Even though it is set in ancient Rome, La Salustia doesn't really take advantage of the specific period and the setting (other than an interesting development in Act III where one of the main characters is thrown to the lions in the arena - and wins!), but rather uses it to present a fairly generic power struggle plot.  What is interesting about the plot and conflict that develops in La Salustia however is that the rivalry and jealousy that exists here for the love of the Emperor Alessandro is between his wife, Salustia, and his mother Giulia.  This leads then not so much to the usual long anguished arias of anger, jealousy and betrayal (although similar sentiments are indeed expressed, da capo style), but a rather more complicated state of affairs.  Giulia isn't at all happy that her son's marriage has elevated Salustia to the throne, relegating her own power and influence, and it leads to a fierce rivalry between the wife and her mother-in-law that eventually builds up to a plot to murder Giulia.  

It might not be the typical Metastian plot of rulers displaying wisdom and clemency and reuniting lovers who have been separated by cruel twists of fate or the whims of kings, but that doesn't mean that the plot of La Salustia is any less improbable in its dramatic developments.  Giulia's plan to regain influence is simply to trick her son the Emperor into signing without reading a document that removes Salustia from the throne.  Alessandro, not unexpectedly, is torn with remorse for what he has done, but far too weak to do anything about it except sing long arias of anguish.  Salustia's father Marziano however is prepared to go further, and taking advantage of Giulia's attraction to him, he hatches a plot with Claudio, the Captain of the Guard, to poison her.  Albina, who is in love with Claudio, overhears their plotting and warns Salustia, who - despite the enmity shown towards her - saves Giulia's life, and thereby condemns her own father to death.  The outcome of his sentence to be thrown to the lions, as indicated earlier, isn't any more realistic than what has come before, but it does of course bring about the necessary happy ending for an ensemble finish.


There may be plenty of occasion then for the requisite interchangeable and largely indistinguishable opera seria number arias reflecting generic emotions of anguish and torment, and in order to move the plot forward, there is evidently a requirement for more recitative than we've seen so far in Pergolesi later operas, but the composer's approach here has nonetheless some interesting musical touches of its own.  By and large, La Salustia is quite Handelian in arrangement, with a few stormy Vivaldi-like flurries to reflect spiralling emotions.  It might not have the elegance and attractiveness of either of those composers (and the performance here, it has to be said, doesn't seem quite as polished as other Jesi productions), but by the same token, the musical writing isn't quite as conventional in its arrangements and orchestration.  There are some interesting discordant sounds and effects introduced in particular in Giulia's Act I aria, 'Se tumida l'onda' ("When the tall wave threatens the shore") and in the Act II 'Odio di figlia altera', that reflect the nature of the character and associate them with weather conditions, but the primary expression in those arias and the strength of this particular work as a whole is in the writing for voices.

In that respect, La Salustia may be more reminiscent of the often extravagant singing demands of the typical opera seria work - and in marked contrast to the less elaborate and more cohesive ensemble approach of Pergolesi's later work - but his writing and expression through the voice is quite thrilling and invigorating nonetheless.  As if recognising the importance of the voices used here and in the contrast between them, Jesi employ a countertenor for the first time (previously using female sopranos for the castrato roles in the other works) for Alessandro (although they retain a soprano for Claudio), and it really does give the work the necessary dynamic, particularly when there is such strong singing demanded of the soprano (Giulia), mezzo-soprano (Salustia) and baritone (Marziano) roles.  (The accompanying booklet notes that the role of Marziano was revised from a castrato to a tenor for the first performance, and although the first version has been performed at Jesi in an alternative critical edition, it's the first performance edition that is presented in this 2011 production - albeit that the tenor and soprano roles (Marziano and Salustia) are sung by a baritone (Vittorio Prato) and a mezzo-soprano (Serena Malfi).



The contrast in voices works well however, the casting of the majority of these roles given to up-and coming young singers, and they are all most impressive.  More than meeting the demands of the challenging arias written for each role, there's a purity of tone and clarity of diction from each of them and a refreshing lack of mannerism that allows for a wonderful sincerity of expression.  If the improbable mechanics of the plot and the conventionality of much of the music don't always make as much of an impression as later Pergolesi work, the quality of the vocal writing and the expressiveness of the singing performances gives the characters considerably more credibility than might otherwise be the case.  The static stage design and straightforward direction by Juliette Deschamps - the mechanics of the Teatro G.B. Pergolesi seemingly not really allowing for any elaborate scene changes - doesn't seem to have much to contribute to the success of the production, but despite a few odd and jarring touches (it's more 18th century than ancient Rome) it does actually work quite well through some effective lighting and a few bold gestures.

The staging and the lighting are well represented in High Definition on the Blu-ray release, the sound recording less so.  The clarity and detail is all there in the singing and the orchestration, but there's considerable reverb and a harshness that lacks the warmth and roundness of tone on previous Pergolesi releases.  Other than perhaps one instance in Act III where countertenor Florin Cezar Ouata's radio mic seems to pick up some interference, there are however no other real problems.  The 3-hour opera requires a BD50 disc, and subtitles are provided in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean.  Apart from trailers for the other Arthaus Pergolesi titles (Il Prigionier Superbo and Il Flaminio), there are no extra features on the disc itself and no synopsis provided, although the background to the work and a very brief outline of the plot are covered in an essay in the enclosed booklet.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Schreker - Die Gezeichneten


Franz Schreker - Die Gezeichneten

Salzburger Festspiele, 2005

Kent Nagano, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Robert Brubaker, Anne Schwanewilms, Michael Volle, Robert Hale, Wolfgang Schöne, Bernard Richter, Markus Petsch, Mel Ulrich, Thomas Oliemans, Guillaume Antoine, Stephen Gadd

EuroArts - DVD

There's a gorgeous and somewhat disturbing sense of decadence about this Salzburg Festival production of Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten that nonetheless feels wholly appropriate for the work. Schreker is a neglected and now unfashionable early twentieth century German composer who saw his influence and popularity fall into decline with the arrival of the Nazis. The lush orchestration of his extravagant romanticism likewise felt out of place in a harsh new world that had been rocked by two brutal world wars in the first half of the century. His work however - tentatively finding its way back into the repertoire - retains a certain fascination precisely for this unique character of that path of post-Wagnerian German Romanticism that was forever lost in the new reality of the world.



That character - and that extraordinary musical style - is very much in evidence in Die Gezeichneten, a title that is difficult to translate, since it means 'the drawn man' (i.e. the object of an artist's work), but it also implies 'a marked man'. Written on the request of fellow "degenerate composer" Alexander Zemlinsky, the story is about the tragedy of an ugly man, a hunchback, who is unable to find love. It's a subject that seems to close to the heart of Zemlinsky, who himself a short opera adapted from an Oscar Wilde story based on this theme (Der Zwerg - The Birthday of the Infanta), the composer having been famously rejected by Alma Mahler, who described him as "a hideous dwarf". Zemlinsky was supposed to have scored Schreker's libretto, but in the end it was Schreker who completed the entire work himself.

Revived for the Salzburg Festival in 2005, performed in the outdoor setting of the Felsenreitschule, it's an extraordinary experience to hear the wonderful lush Romanticism of Schreker's flowing orchestration with all its Tristan und Isolde-like unresolved and dissonant chords creating a sustained tension, given full expression under the musical direction of Kent Nagano, but it's one that also works well with Nicholas Lehnhoff's stage direction. Set in 16th century Genoa, the work opens with a group of rich decadent nobles, dressed here in extravagant exaggerated costumes, bemoaning the possibility that they might lose access to the wonderful island paradise of Elysium that has been created by Alviano Salvago for their pleasure. Salvago is a hunchback who believes he is too ugly to set foot on the island himself and, abandoning any hope of ever being loved or accepted, he is about to give the island back to the common people, leaving the nobles without any place to practice their secret vices against the daughters of Genoa.



Lehnoff's set captures the essence of this situation, matching the musical description with a stage that consists of one huge toppled statue, one hand clawing at the air with the head detached, and having the performers clamber over the pitted and broken surface that hints at and eventually reveals the dark concealed depths of the grotto within it. More than just accompanying the musical content however, the elaborate set also mirrors to some extent the nature of Salvago himself. Salvago starts to nurse hopeful expectations when he meets Carlotta Nardi, the daughter of the Podestà who describes herself as a painter of souls, who is intrigued by the hunchback and wants to paint him. Salvago starts to believe that she is someone who can recognise his inner beauty - revealing himself to be the same as everyone else - and Carlotta consequently loses her fascination for him the moment she finishes the painting.

Musically and lyrically, Die Gezeichneten is a fascinating and beautiful work that could only have been written at this time - in 1918 - the fin de siècle decadence of the nobles coming crashing down with the harsh realities that are revealed about the workings of the world. That's apparent very clearly and evocatively in the musical construction, the early part of the opera awash with Strauss-like extravagance in the tones and textures - reminiscent of how Strauss would approach the later Die Liebe der Danae (1940) - but also with that Wagnerian Tristan und Isolde-like sensibility of suspending dissonant chords to float around and intermingle to create an unsettling yet compelling soundscape. Schreker's libretto is equally lyrical and extravagant in its pronouncements and in its dramatic tensions, particularly in the eloquent descriptions of the arrogance of the nobility and in the wounded pride of Graf Vitelozzo at being rejected by Carlotta in favour of Salvago.

All the decadent poetic musing however ("Life seemed to me a source of constant joy... When I stretched out my hand, I held a rose, drew in its fragrance and pulled the petals off"), comes crashing down when an actual name - Ginevra Scotti - is attached to the vices, revealing their nature as being rather more sinister, involving child abduction and abuse. The exquisite floating dreamlike reverie of the musical arrangements similarly coalesces into something much more concrete at this point, revealing the nature of the dissonance that has been hovering at the edges of the work. Evoking Stanley Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut' orgy scene in Act III with the assembled guests hiding behind masks, Lehnhoff's stage direction is completely on the same page as the score, and the statue of grand nobility that has retained some dignity and grandeur even in its toppled form up to this stage, is split open to reveal its corrupt inner nature.



The complex nature of the various characters is perhaps most powerfully described - or at least is more obviously evident - in the nature of the writing for the singing voices.  Fortunately, the cast are all extraordinarily good here. Anne Schwanewilms in particular is just outstanding as Carlotta - I've never heard her sing better, even in some of the more challenging Strauss roles. There's a lushness to her tone here, the vocal writing and her character giving her the opportunity to demonstrate an impressive range, rising to soaring heights in a flowing legato, particularly in Carlotta's Act II scenes with Alviano Salvago. The writing for Salvago is also very interesting, the character written for a Heldentenor voice (or at least performed here as such), even though he is an outwardly weak and physically deformed. The contradiction between his inner and outward nature is expressed very well in this manner by Robert Brubaker. Michael Volle's lush Straussian baritone rounds out this impressively cast production as the decadent Count Vitelozzo.

Only available on DVD, the performance does seem to have been at least shot in HD, and even in the Standard Definition format, the 16:9 widescreen image looks beautiful, with good detail, clarity and colour saturation. The audio tracks, LPCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, are also fine, capturing all the warmth and colour of the orchestration that Nagano reveals so well. There are no extra features here, and no full synopsis in the booklet, although there's a good essay that covers the main points in outline, along with some background information on the composer and the work. The DVD is NTSC, Region-free, with subtitles in German, English, French and Spanish.