Monday, 27 May 2013

Pergolesi - Lo frate 'nnamorato

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi - Lo frate 'nnamorato

Teatro G.B Pergolesi, Jesi - 2011

Fabio Biondi, Willy Landin, Nicola Alaimo, Elena Belfiore, Patrizia Biccirè, Jurgita Adamonyte, Barbara di Castri, David Alegret, Laura Cherici, Rosa Bove, Filippo Morace

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

It's remarkable.  Up until only a year or two ago, Pergolesi's reputation rested mainly on a few important sacred compositions (notably his Stabat Mater) and a few comic opera works that were perhaps more famous for the historical significance than for their musical qualities.  Now, thanks to the work of the Pergolesi-Spontini Foundation and the release of all his operas on DVD (only his earliest religious drama Le conversione e morte di S. Guglielmo has yet to be released), we have a much more complete picture of a composer who tragically died in 1736 at the age of only 26.  It's been something of a revelation.

The two most famous Pergolesi operas prior to these new editions of his other work - La Serva Padrona and Lo frate 'nnamorato - now actually prove to be among the lesser of Pergolesi's compositions when compared to his achievements in the opera seria style (particularly his incomparable version of L'Olimpiade).  The place of these two works in opera history however is still assured and significant on account of the part they played in the Querelle des buffons, with the Italian opera buffa style moving away from the rigid formalism of royal entertainments on classical themes.  Dealing with subjects relating to common people, they can undoubtedly be seen to have had an important influence on Mozart in this respect.  Written in the Neapolitan dialect, the 'commedia per musica' Lo frate 'nnamorato has an even more down-to-earth quality and a more complex arrangement than the Intermezzo origins and the domestic revolutionary sentiments of La Serva Padrona.



The plot of Lo frate 'nnamorato - which is one of Pergolesi's earliest works - now seems quite typical of the genre that he helped create.  There's a complicated web of romantic entanglements where everyone is in love with someone who doesn't love them, a situation that would likely end in unhappiness for all concerned were it not for some late revelations about lost relatives, secret identities and unexplained mysterious backgrounds.  The social context however doesn't appear to be particularly significant - the marriages being arranged are more for convenience than for gaining of social status.  The primary mover, for example, is an elderly gentleman, Marcaniello who hopes to marry one of his friend Carlo's nieces Nina along with his son Don Pietro marrying the other niece Nena, in exchange for a match being made for Carlo with his own daughter Luggrezia.  Unfortunately Luggrezia is in love with Ascanio, so that messes up the arrangement somewhat, particularly since Ascanio is more drawn to Carlo's nieces.

The significance of Lo frate 'nnamorato of course is that this complicated set of affairs is played not for the sentiments of melancholy and despair over betrayal and unrequited love, but for the humour implicit in the situation.  Little of that however comes from the main characters, although Don Pietro is certainly a bit of a joker who likes to flirt with the maids and tries certain unconventional methods of romantic persuasion while the others just seem to prefer bemoaning the lot that fate has drawn for them.  It's actually the maids Vanella and Cardella however who are the real heart of the work - down-to-earth, a little more realistic about life, taking no nonsense from Don Pietro or indeed any of the other men and masters, two "serva padronas" irreverently making fun of their self-indulgence, false hopes, illusions and self-deceptions.



Without the seemingly minor contributions of Vanella and Cardella, Lo frate 'nnamorato would indeed be a rather conventional account of characters in the throes of despair over the trials of unrequited love, but the work also gains from Pergolesi's musical arrangements, his inventive comic writing and the earthy character of the libretto's Neapolitan dialect.  That's given a fine account here in the 2011 production at Jesi by Fabio Biondi leading his Europa Galante ensemble on violin.  It's a small ensemble of about 12 musicians, but as such the precision playing is all the more evident, as is the inherent warmth and lyricism within the score itself.  It's a beautiful performance of the work that, unfortunately, isn't entirely matched by the production itself or the singing, which often feels rather lacking in life.

The singing on all the Pergolesi performances from Jesi so far has been of an exceptional standard, but their Lo frate 'nnamorato isn't the strongest.  The problem could be that there are quite a number of demanding roles to fill here that require strong singers experienced and capable enough to handle the lyrical coloratura, and that's a bit lacking in some places.  The young cast however are all good, the voices fresh, lyrical and distinctive, particularly in the roles where it counts.  Patrizia Biccirè's Nena is one of the best performers here and Elena Belfiore - the mezzo-soprano used for the Ascanio countertenor/castrato role - is also excellent.  The Act II trio between Ascanio, Nena and Nina ('Se 'l foco mio t' infiamma') is accordingly one of the highlights.



If the coloratura is tricky and shows up weaknesses in some of the singers, the staging itself isn't particularly helpful.  The sets for Willy Landin's production are attractive however and the updating of the period to what looks like the 1950s doesn't do the work any harm at all.  It's beautifully lit and coloured with warm sepias, oranges and browns, a provincial Italian village with gossipy neighbours and maids looking on and flirting with Don Pietro who arrives on the set on his moped.  The stage directions however, although they try to keep the singers involved in some occupation, don't really succeed in making it come to life.  The best performances then tend to be the ones then who manage to strike a good balance between the singing requirements and entering into the spirit of the work.  Fortunately, in that respect the maids Vanella and Cardella played by Laura Cherici and Rosa Bove are both excellent, keeping the work vital and entertaining to such an extent that it drags a little when they are not on the stage.

Arthaus provide another quality BD release for Lo frate 'nnamorato.  The image quality is superb, clear with warm colouration, and the audio tracks capture all the detail of the musical arrangements and the singing.  The disc is a BD50, compatible for all regions.  Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean.  There are no extra features other than Trailers for the other Arthaus Pergolesi titles and a booklet with an essay on the work.  There is no synopsis, but the plot is covered briefly in the essay and there is a full track listing that helps initially identify all the characters.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Ponchielli - La Gioconda


Amilcare Ponchielli - La Gioconda

Opéra National de Paris, 2013

Daniel Oren, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Violeta Urmana, Luciana D’Intino, Orlin Anastassov, María José Montiel, Marcelo Álvarez, Claudio Sgura

Viva l'Opéra Cinema Live in HD, 13 May 2013

Ponchielli's La Gioconda is a work that seems ideal for the French lyric stage, but although written in 1876, it has never been performed before at the Paris Opera.  Watching it via cinema broadcast from the Opéra National de Paris in its first ever production there, a few reasons come to mind why this work of undoubted quality hasn't been performed more often.  Firstly, it probably falls into the same category as Meyerbeer's operas, works that are a bit old-fashioned and overly ornate, their melodramatic content too exaggerated with Grand Operatic mannerisms for the tastes of a modern audience.  Ponchielli was a contemporary of Verdi, but perhaps more significantly, Puccini was one of his pupils and the verismo style of the next generation of Italian composers undoubtedly played a large part in consigning many of the absurdities of the old style to the past.

The other reason why La Gioconda perhaps hasn't been performed more often is probably for much the same reason that the bel canto repertoire fell into neglect for almost a century - it really takes exceptional singers of personality and stature to really bring its qualities to life.  It's no surprise that the last time the work enjoyed popularity was when it was performed by Maria Callas and by Renata Tebaldi in the 1950s, but it's rarely been heard since then.  I wouldn't say that Violeta Urmana is in the category of the world's greatest sopranos, even by contemporary standards, but she certainly attacked the role with passion and distinction here in the Paris Opera's production.  What the Paris La Gioconda revealed however is that the work doesn't just rely on the quality of the soprano singing the title role, but that there are five other difficult and challenging roles that it is essential to get right.  Here, the Paris production was less convincing.


The set design for the opera's Venetian locations at least looked terrific.  Pier Luigi Pizzi creates the kind of typical big, bold design in primary colours that works so well at the Bastille, and works particularly well for this work.  The action in the first two acts takes place on a piazza in Venice, and that's recreated here well in Pizzi's neo-classical style with canals and gondolas that seem to float naturally along them.  A good sense of space is also created with bridges that serve to bring the choruses and the principals onto the scene.  It's all rendered in black and red, with a bright background that sets it in silhouette against a blazing sunset over the lagoon.  The latter two acts simplify the design to a series of steps that allow space for the work's most famous centrepiece, the Dance of Hours ballet, while also creating the necessary space for the focus to remain on the dramatic developments of the denouement.  The set looks good and it functions well with the requirements of the drama.

The acting direction however is simply dreadful.  Rarely do the singers interact with one another, but rather they pace up and down the stage in an old-fashioned style, directing their performance out to the audience.  Once again, Marcelo Álvarez is the worst culprit.  He's a fine singer, but he has no sense of character and plays every role in exactly the same declamatory way, striking a pose, one arm stretched out, hand clasped in a fist and then swung into his chest, his delivery pitched at the back of the gallery with big gestures so that the audience can see the sincerity of his emotions.  It looks even more ridiculous in close-up in a filmed performance.  La Gioconda's ripe melodrama, it has to be said however, does call out for this kind of performance from Enzo, and Álvarez has clearly been encouraged to play it to the hilt.


The other male roles could use this kind of energy and conviction, but it wasn't much in evidence in Claudio Sgura's Barnaba or Orlin Anastassov's Alvise.  Barnaba is an out-and-out villain, the scheming jealous mastermind who manipulates all of the characters, but is unable nonetheless to achieve the one thing he wants - making la Gioconda love him.  It's not particularly strong characterisation - Arrigo Boito's libretto isn't as refined here as it is for Verdi's later works (although some of that may be to do with Victor Hugo's source since Barnaba is no Iago) - but Sgura isn't strong enough for the vocal demands that might make him more convincing.  Even if his actions are equally villainous, Alvise is perhaps a little more nuanced in character, but it would require a singer with more acting ability than Orlin Anastassov to bring it out.

These are extremely difficult roles to sing however, almost as challenging in their range and expression as the writing for the character of La Gioconda, and what the work really needs then to really achieve its impact is six strong singers.  The female singers thankfully fared rather better than the male roles.  Violeta Urmana's top notes aren't particularly beautiful and getting up there is not a smooth process, but her interpretation has all the passion and strength of character required here and she copes exceptionally well with a very challenging role.  Luciana D’Intino also sings Laura well, and the two ladies stand-off in Act II over who loves Enzo more was, as it ought to be, one of the highlights of the evening.

Laura: I challenge your heart, o rival!
Gioconda: You blaspheme!
Laura: You lie!  I love him as the light of Creation.  Like the air that enlivens the breath. Like the heavenly and blessed dream from which came my first sigh.
Gioconda: I love him as the lion loves blood and the whirlwind its flight.  And lightning its peaks, and halcyons the whirlpools and the eagle the sun!

This is a prime example of the kind of ripe and floridly over-written lines that the singers are expected to deliver in La Gioconda, so full credit to Violeta Urmana for being able to sing "I love him as the lion loves blood" and being able to convincingly look as if she could eat her rival alive as well.  Urmana's scenes with her blind mother La Ciega are also excellent throughout on account of another strong performance from María José Montiel.


La Gioconda might be a work of a bygone age and the Paris Opera might not have made a totally convincing case that it can be staged well, but there are a couple of reasons why Ponchielli's work has the ability to endure.  One is the beautiful and famous Dance of Hours ballet sequence, which was exceptionally well-choreographed here and impressively performed, even if it wasn't particularly in context with the rest of the work.  With gold-coloured topless male and female lead dancers, it looked more like something from the Crazy Horse on the other side of town.

The other reason is the final fourth Act, which fully lives up to the contrived melodrama of the previous scenes.  La Gioconda is a surprisingly dark work - and it's in this you can see the impact the Ponchielli would have on the next generation of Italian verismo composers - with what little romance there is in it is tainted by jealousy, bitterness and hatred with one of the bleakest and unforgiving endings in an opera prior to Puccini's Tosca.  If the singing couldn't always reach those heights, the full power of the work's qualities were at least brought out in a terrific performance by the Paris Orchestra conducted with true dramatic energy by Daniel Oren.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Verdi - Macbeth



Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2013

Massimo Zanetti, Martin Kušej, Željko Lučić, Goran Jurić, Nadja Michael, Evgeniya Sotnikova, Wookyung Kim, Emanuele D'Aguanno, Christoph Stephinger, Andrea Borghini, Rafał Pawnuk, Iulia Maria Dan, Tölzer Knabenchor

Live Internet Streaming, 11 May 2013

I've seen enough serial-killer horror films to know what it means when a room is "decorated" in plastic sheeting.  I've also seen enough Martin Kušej stage productions to know he likes to mess up the stage with splashes of blood around the place.  I also know Verdi's Macbeth well enough (better than Shakespeare's original work admittedly) to know that there's ample opportunity then for the red stuff to flow liberally in the Bayerische Staatsoper's new production.  With promotional images showing a stage filled with 16,000 skulls, it looked like someone was going to have quite a job hosing down the sheeting at the end of this one.  So how come this production never quite lived up to its potential?


On paper - and in promotional images - it all looks good.  There's a strong, dark concept here to match the darkness of Shakespeare's vision and Verdi's brooding 1847 account of it.  "If we can't make something great out it", Verdi wrote to his librettist Piave, "let's at least try to make it something out of the ordinary".  Verdi's Macbeth is indeed a pale shadow of the original work, but in its own way it is something extraordinary.  Martin Kušej likewise looks well placed to bring something extraordinary out if the work, if not indeed something great.  His productions, as I've noted in the past (in Die Fliegende Höllander, in Genoveva, in Rusalka) are often concerned with elements of class, and there's plenty of social climbing ambition to be found in Verdi's Macbeth.

Verdi's choruses, his placing of the voices of the people up there on the stage, provide a clear dividing line between the machinations of the royal titled nobility and the common people.  Kušej acknowledges those divisions, but also recognises that in Verdi's work the voice of the people is a rather more complex one.  They're the driving force that celebrates the victories of Macbeth and Banquo, are sincere in their outpouring of unrestrained grief at the death of Duncan and, most obviously, are the motivating force that overthrows their country from the repressive regime that it descends into under Macbeth's bloody reign.


The masses also represent a certain fantastic element in Verdi's version of Shakespeare's play, since the witches here are not three weird sisters, but a chorus who determine the direction of fate and the destiny of the major players.  There's a level of complicity then in their actions that endorses, idolises (lighters aloft) and encourages the ambitions of the ruling classes, even turning a blind eye (wearing hoods here) to Macbeth's crimes.  They are no mere background chorus then in Kušej's production, and it's hard not to notice their presence and their hand in the playing out of the drama here.

The foreground characters are however rather less well defined.  Partly that's Verdi's fault in his reduction of the complexity of Shakespeare's play and his breakdown of the work into four acts that really never flow in a convincingly dramatic way.  Within each of those four acts however there is a wealth of characterisation that can be brought out when attention is paid to the score and the vocal writing, but there was something lacking on that front in this production.  Željko Lučić, as he demonstrated recently in the Metropolitan Opera's Rigoletto, has a lovely lyrical Verdian baritone, but he doesn't have the presence, the steel or the personality to bring something greater to the character of Macbeth.

Nadja Michael, it must be said, is not lacking in personality or presence.  Even if her singing performances can lack discipline and attention to detail, that's not so much of an issue with her character here.  Verdi didn't want a beautiful voice for Lady Macbeth, but someone with indeed the kind of personality to bring dramatic expression to the role.  Nadja Michael would seem to fit the bill perfectly then and she was indeed quite formidable in aspect, pacing the stage with determination, her face bathed in dark shadows.  Her vocal delivery however left something to be desired.  She seemed rather restrained in her 'La luce langue' (1865 revised version of the opera performed here), but her deficiencies became more pronounced in the later acts when she really ought to dominate proceedings.


Without the necessary personality and singing ability in these critical roles, it's difficult to make Macbeth work, no matter how strong the concept, but particularly when they are meant to represent a "killing machine" force.  Visually, with the performers and the chorus often balanced on top of a mount of 16,000 skulls, the 'killing fields' concept was strong and it would be hard to imagine a darker account of 'Patria oppressa!' than the one that takes place here in a slaughterhouse with naked bodies suspended upside-down from meathooks.  There were inevitably some curiosities in the actions of the chorus and in the symbolism of a tent on the stage that seemed representative of royalty or just death, but they did have an unsettling character that worked, particularly when the dying bloody Duncan is seen crawling out of the opening of the tent.  Overall however, it all felt very detached from the musical drama, with neither the chorus or the principals ever managing to match the force and darkness of the actual work.

The disjointed approach of the staging perhaps reflects Verdi's piecemeal approach to the work, but it can be overcome with the right production and casting.  Unfortunately, the frequent fades to black with brief pauses for scene changes drain all the energy out of the performances and stall the flow of a work that at least has a strong thematic consistency in the musical composition.  Some of the work's potential was realised at the conclusion, which benefitted also from a beautifully sung Macduff (Wookyung Kim), but it was definitely too little and too late.  The score was at least given a very powerful account from the Bayerisches orchestra under Massimo Zanetti, but the production never allowed those essential characteristics that make Verdi's Macbeth a powerful if flawed work to assert themselves and hold all the various elements together.

This performance of Macbeth was broadcast live on 11th May 2013 via the Bayerische Staatsoper's own Live Internet Streaming service.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Verdi - Attila


Giuseppe Verdi - Attila

Teatro Verdi di Busseto, 2010

Andrea Battistoni, Pier Francesco Maestrini, Giovanni Battista Parodi, Sebastian Catana, Susanna Branchini, Roberto de Biasio, Christiano Cremonini, Zyian Atfeh

C-Major - Blu-ray

By the time he came to write Attila for La Fenice in Venice in 1846, Verdi had firmly established, consolidated and refined a style and a structure that would be recognisable in nearly all his subsequent works.  Attila is made up of a number of stock situations involving war, vengeanace, romance and betrayal and Verdi packs it with big dramatic numbers and choruses that match the intensity of the emotions.  There's nothing inspired here however, nothing that provides any great insights or revelations into the characters or human behaviour.  Even worse, there are no great memorable arias or musical numbers.

Dramatically however there's never a dull moment in Attila.  Much of the reason for that is down to Verdi's sense of arrangement and his scoring for situation.  You can see how all the elements that are to define the drama and the conflict are laid out forcefully, strongly and concisely in the opening scene.  Here you have all the euphoria of the Huns' victory in the capture and plunder of Aquilera mixed in with the shame of defeated.  In Attila's sense of invulnerability and the proud defiance of Odabella, the daughter of the defeated king, you have the sowing of the seeds of a deeply personal revenge that is only heightened by Odabella's appearance of compliance and subservience.  It may be feigned, but her lover Foresto doesn't know that, and just to add further emotional turmoil to the situation, he accuses her of unfaithfulness to him, her father and her country.


And there you have the typical Verdi dramatic situation that stirs the emotions like nothing else, particularly when the composer directs it towards the people of an Italian nation seeking its own independence.  The situation between the Roman general Ezio and Attila emphasises the position further.  Ezio seeks agreement that Attila will venture no further into Italy, but buoyed by success Attila refuses.  "In vain!  Who now can restrain the onslaught of the consuming wave?", as the colourful libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and Temistocle Solera puts it, and the intensity of the sentiments in this powerful stand-off situation between two formidable warriors who are respectful of the position of each other is matched by the grave intonations of Verdi's scoring for the bass/bass-baritone roles that play those parts.

The qualities of Verdi's dramatic writing are all there then and the cast for this 2010 production of Attila at the Teatro Verdi di Busseto are more than capable of bringing them out.  The theatre - seen previously in the 'Tutto Verdi' release of Oberto - has a tiny stage that you'd scarcely think capable of putting on a work as big and ambitious as this.  The use of 3D-CG projections in Pier Francesco Maestrini's direction might not be the ideal solution, but it's a reasonable means of covering the epic settings of battlefields, ships, stormy seas, Roman camps and forest glades.  It's a little cheesy, but probably no more so than painted backdrops, which would be the only other feasible option for a stage this size.  (In the case of Oberto, Pier' Alli went mainly for minimal props and plain dark backgrounds).


There's still not much room for the singers to do anything more than stand and belt out Verdi's big numbers, but the costumes, the stage directions and the performances all make reasonably good use of the limited resources.  Occasionally, for no other reason than having no room to do anything else, the singers run off the stage and back on again to finish their number.  The singing performances are mostly fine.  If they lack some precision in places the voices are at least all more than big enough for the work and the size of the theatre.

Giovanni Battista Parodi is a fine Attila, and if he doesn't particularly come to life, that's as much to do with Verdi's writing.  Robert de Biasio has a classic Italian tenor voice for Foresto.  He's not always on the note, but in the context of the live performance, it's fine and he makes a good overall impression.  Susanna Branchini's technique could do with some refinement and doesn't have the smoothest legato, but she also gives Odabella all the force and character required.  No problems however with Sebastian Catana, who makes a fine Ezio, but this is perhaps the only convincing character in the drama.

The Blu-ray here is part of C-Major's 'Tutto Verdi' collection.  The quality of transfer is reasonably good.  There's a little bit of flicker in the image but it's generally stable and detailed.  The audio doesn't quite have the pristine clarity we expect from High Definition and there's very little surround presence on the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix, but it's fine and it gets across the forceful delivery of the opera as conducted by Andrea Battistoni.  The BD is all-region, BD25, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese subtitles.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Mozart - Die Zauberflöte


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, 2013

Simon Rattle, Robert Carsen,  Pavol Breslik, Ana Durlovski, Dimitry Ivashchenko, Kate Royal, Michael Nagy, Chen Reiss, Annick Massis, Magdalena Kožená, Nathalie Stutzmann, José van Dam, James Elliott

ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming, 1st April 2013

There's not much magic in Robert Carsen's new production of The Magic Flute for the 2013 Easter Festival at the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden. There's a flute at least, and you can't always take that for granted - but Carsen very purposely brings this production very much down to earth. There are no big entrances and no grand effects, the settings are all related to nature and death. A rather grave Die Zauberflöte, you could say, which doesn't provide much in the way of spectacle. Mozart's music however can sustain that, but that might be more to do with the fine account of the score given by Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Simon Rattle and some strong singing performances than with anything that Robert Carsen brings to the production.

Carsen at least applies a viable and consistent concept to the work, cutting through all the Masonic rituals and ceremonies to the heart of the conflict that lies between the opposing forces of the Queen of the Night and Sarastro. It does a little more than that and actually attempts to update some of the work's less-enlightened views on women to give a more equality-minded view of the differences between the two sexes in regard to the rational and the emotional capacity of all human beings. One is not necessarily superior to the other here. Despite some of the inconsistencies with this position within the work itself - which only enhances its ambiguity and richness - it's the joining of those two forces through the union of Tamino and Pamina to create a better world that undoubtedly forms the heart and the meaning of the work.



Carsen merely emphasises this union by showing it not so much in contrast to the entrenched positions of Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, as much it being the beginning of a new age that has the blessing of these once mortal enemies. In Carsen's staging, both Sarastro and Königen present a united force, putting aside differences for the sake of a better future, coming together even in scenes where they don't usually appear together to offer silent support to the other side, even if their stated position indicates the opposite. You'll find women (and even Königen's Three Ladies) then alongside the men in Sarastro's temple and - just to get the point across - even the Three Boys are transformed into Three Girls wearing dresses to call Pamina back from her despair and attempted suicide.

This all requires a bit of an adjustment from viewer used to the traditional certainties within Die Zauberflöte, of which there are few enough as it is. In place of the old-fashioned obscure Masonic imagery and rituals - and indeed the traditional spectacular set-pieces - Carsen's staging takes the opera back to a more natural setting, with the emphasis on Life and Death. There are no big spectacular effects scenes here, the location consisting for the most part of a cemetery of open graves set against the backdrop of a projection of woods. The opening scene then sees Tamino scramble out of a grave to be rescued from what isn't anything more than a big snake by the Three Ladies in dressed in mourning attire. Papagena makes her first appearance during Papageno's trial of silence not as an old hag, but as a skull-faced corpse climbing out of a coffin. Even the orchestra, surrounded by a platform, seem to be contained within one big pit.



It's a constant and deliberate attempt to cut back on the flash and wonder. There's no grand entrance even for Königen der Nacht, who simply walks onto the stage with a minimum of ceremony. If she still presents a formidable figure, that's conveyed in the singing delivery of that famous opening aria, and that alone is more than enough. In keeping with the sober funereal imagery, Monostatos is a gravedigger here, the Three Boys are just three boys (when they aren't Three Boys dressed as girls) with no magic flying balloons to transport them. The Speaker and Sarastro are also dressed in formal mourning coats, wearing blindfolds. In the one place where you would at least expect to see magic effects, the playing of the magic flute, we merely see shadows of birds flitting around in the trees in the background.

Carsen's staging then does take away a lot of the wonder and the humour that contributes to the richness of Die Zauberflöte without really bringing anything new out of it. What holds the viewer however, and what the staging only emphasises, is the richness of the music itself and the quality of the performances. Die Zauberflöte wouldn't be part of the normal repertoire of the Berlin Philharmonic, but perhaps because of that they seem to relish in the beauty of the work's symphonic qualities. You'd hardly think Die Zauberflöte was just a Singspiel, but of course the work is much more than that and Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker give a warm account of the work that contrasts with Carsen's direction but at the same time enhances it. It may give every visual appearance of being a dark, morbid version of the opera, but there's more warmth and forgiveness here that you usually find in what can sometimes be a cold and rigidly performed work. It's hugs all around at the end here, with even Monostatos being welcomed back into the big love-in finale.



The casting and the singing also make this an absolutely gorgeous Die Zauberflöte to listen to. With his pure lyrical tenor and fresh, sincere delivery, Pavol Breslik is a natural for Tamino. Alongside Kate Royal's Pamina, a more idealistically perfect couple would be hard to find. Both look good, can act well and have simply beautiful singing voices. Royal's 'Ach ich Fühls' in particular is just exquisitely heartbreaking. And there are no disappointments elsewhere in the cast. Ana Durlovski stepped in at short notice to replace an unwell Simone Kermes as Königen der Nacht and did so very impressively. Dimitry Ivashchenko's Sarastro sounded fine, but had a tendency to work to his own timing rather than follow the conductor. The toning down of the comedy and strong principals meant that there was not danger of Michael Nagy's Papageno stealing the show here, but rather it was a fine performance that was still funny but fitted in well with the overall production.

This production of Die Zauberflöte at the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus was recorded on the 1st April 2013 and broadcast via internet streaming throught the ARTE Live Web site, where it is currently still available for viewing until July. Subtitles on the broadcast are in German only.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande



Claude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2013

Ludovic Morlot, Pierre Audi, Anish Kapoor, Stéphane Degout, Monica Bacelli, Dietrich Henschel, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Frode Olsen, Patrick Bolleire, Alexandre Duhamel, Valérie Gabail

La Monnaie Internet Streaming, April 2013

There are many ways to approach a work as mysterious, suggestive and as unique as Pelléas et Mélisande, and the stage production in particular is one that is open to free and imaginative interpretation.  The opera is already symbolist and dreamlike in its origin and nature, so the question of whether to make a stage production traditional or modernist isn't so much the issue.  For the stage director, the challenge rather is whether to impose some sense of reading onto it or to give free rein to the work's beautiful abstraction.  

Ideally perhaps a production should have a balance of both elements in order to match Debussy's intention to create "a mysterious correspondence between Nature and the Imagination" in his composition of the music for Maurice Maeterlinck's play.  With this in mind, La Monnaie's Pelléas et Mélisande would seem to be well-placed to provide both elements with Pierre Audi's direction giving the work a meaningful context connected to human Nature, while the set designs by Anish Kapoor bring that other essential ingredient of abstraction and Imagination.  The correspondence between them is more difficult to define, but that's perhaps where Debussy's music lies.



Owing something to Henry Moore's huge curved sculptures, the centrepiece of Kapoor's all-purpose set design is both abstract and organic in design, a large scooped-out object supported by steel girders with a staircase and a platform.  From some angles it resembles or suggests an ear, an eye or a womb - all of which can be seen as relevant symbols for this work - which through rotation presents different aspects that represent a cavern, a castle, a tower or an immovable rock.  It's sufficiently abstract then to match the nature of the work that wouldn't be as well-served by a more literal depiction of those objects.

Audi's direction works effectively around this strong, resonant central image, requiring almost nothing else in the way of props.  He resorts to a little bit of abstraction and symbolism also - it would be hard not to with the suggestiveness of this work - particularly with regard to the figure of Mélisande.  In fact, everything in the production seems to be based on or seen in relation to Mélisande.  From the moment she is discovered by Golaud, an open wound on her stomach can be seen through her dress, is caressed later by Pelléas and becomes fully vivid and bloody at her death scene.  There's certainly a case that Mélisande is at the heart of the work.  All the other characters are defined by their relationship with her, and Mélisande herself becomes an object that is defined by how others see her.



This could perhaps explain why - as absurd as it might seem particularly when her hair plays such a symbolic element in the drama - that Mélisande here is also actually bald for the most part.  When she leans down from the tower then in the opera's critical scene, it's not her hair that Pelléas caresses, but a silk scarf.  Emphasising a symbol though its absence seems a strange thing to do, but it's the meaning rather than the object that is important, and the impact and relevance of the scene here is scarcely lessened.  What counts more than the pleasure of Pelléas is the response of Golaud since this is to have a much more profound impact on Mélisande, and Golaud is everywhere in this production, watching and seeing but not understanding, or not wishing to understand.

Audi's direction and Kapoor's abstract symbolism don't perhaps fully connect to bring any new resonance out of this Pelléas et Mélisande, but Debussy's impressionistic score is always suggestive and responds well to new ideas and new approaches.  Ludovic Morlot, the new music director at La Monnaie, is alert to the lyricism of the work but he also brings out its expressiveness.  This is not an entirely floating dreamlike account of the score, but one that seeks to indeed assert the music's position as the intermediary between Nature and the Imagination.



It certainly brought out a fine performance from Stéphane Degout as Pelléas.  With a lovely soft lyrical baritone and clear French diction that is alive to the rhythms of Debussy's conversational writing for the voice, Degout is currently one of the best interpreters of this role.  This is the third time I've seen him sing Pelléas and he brings a new deeper resonance and expressiveness to the role here.  Monica Bacelli's sings a fine Mélisande, with perfect timing, good French diction and a delivery that complements Degout well, if not with the same distinction.  In a production that had an alternative cast, there were good performances also here from Dietrich Henschel as Golaud, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo as Géneviève and Frode Olsen as Arkel, with Valérie Gabail a bright Yniold.

This recording of La Monnaie's production of Pelléas et Mélisande was made on the 17th and 19th of April 2013 and broadcast via their free web streaming service from 4th to 24th May.  Subtitles are available in Dutch and French only.  The final web broadcast of La Monnaie's 2012-13 season, a production of Mozart's Così Fan Tutte by the Oscar-winning Austrian film director Michael Haneke (Amour), will be available for free viewing for three weeks from 26th June.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Mozart - Le nozze di Figaro


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Le nozze di Figaro

Glyndebourne, 2012

Robin Ticciati, Michael Grandage, Sally Matthews, Vito Priante, Andrun Iversen, Lydia Teuscher, Isabel Leonard, Ann Murray, Andrew Shore, Sarah Shafer, Colin Judson, Alan Oke, Nicholas Folwell, Ellie Laugharne, Katie Bray

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Much like their recent production of Don Giovanni, Glyndebourne's 2012 production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro updates the work to the 1960s, finding it to be a period that acts as a good modern equivalent for the changing social attitudes that are to be found in Mozart and Beaumarchais' time.  If it's not quite a perfect fit here, it works well enough for the purposes of Mozart's version of the work, which is less concerned with the social and political climate than the richness of human values that the work expresses.  What is rather more important in Le nozze di Figaro then is how its characters are brought to life, and it's clear from the superb casting here and the fine singing, that this is the principal strength of Glyndebourne's new production.

It's very easy to get complacent about yet another production of The Marriage of Figaro, but one can surely never come away from a performance of this remarkable work with anything but deep admiration and appreciation for the artistry of the work itself.  It's a masterfully constructed dramatic farce that nonetheless makes acute observations about human nature and interaction in relation to those important institutions of love and marriage.  Le nozze di Figaro also has fully fleshed-out characters of real depth of personality and Mozart's incomparable music that gives it another extra dimension, developing themes, connecting them, bringing a whole unity to the work with warmth and compassion.  I doubt that any other composer, past or present, could have achieved what Mozart does with Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto and Beaumarchais' play.



One can never become complacent about the work itself then, but having been fortunate to have only seen first-rate performances of The Marriage of Figaro, it's easy to think that all the hard work has already been done by Mozart and Da Ponte.  Far from it.  More than anything else, this 2012 Glyndebourne production reminded me that not only are the singing performances vitally important (in what opera are they not?), but that it's a work that is exceptionally demanding not only on one or two principal roles, but that practically every single role has to be carefully considered for the impact and the interaction they have with the other characters.  Will Le nozze di Figaro work with a weak Susanna, Figaro, Almaviva or Countess?  What about those "secondary" characters like Cherubino, Marcellina, Bartolo, Don Basilio and Barbarina?  The work is undoubtedly strong enough to get along without luxury casting in the lesser roles, but imagine how it great it can be with it.

You only need listen to the music that Mozart has written for them to understand that all its roles are lovingly created and have an important part to play in the whole fabric of the work.  That's a lot of roles that it's not only important to get right, but they have to be right with each other.  That's the brilliance of Mozart, and it's one of his greatest advancements on the development of opera as an important dramatic artform.  It's not all about the arias - although even there The Marriage of Figaro has some of the greatest and most popular arias ever written - but the duets and the ensembles also contribute just as much to the work as a whole.  In that respect, Le nozze di Figaro is not only a complete work of undisputed genius, but some 230 years later it's still practically unsurpassed.



You can set the opera in just about any period then and get away with it, even with its references to 'droit de seigneur'.  There have always been sleazy bosses after all, and the 1960s is as good a setting then as any.  The period however is not taken advantage of to any great extent here other than for purposes of style.  In fact, other than showing an exaggerated lack of taste in the clothing styles with flowery wide-collar shirts and big hairdos, there's a curious separation between the characters and the setting which, on the whole, remains for no discernible reason in a country manor in Seville.  That's the original setting of course, but it has no specific 60s context.  If you had dressed the characters here in period costumes, the set - barring the appearance of a sports car during the overture - would have functioned just as well.

As you would expect from a Glyndebourne production however (and this is from the same team that put together the astonishing Billy Budd), the set design by Christopher Oram is impressive in its attention to detail.  The locations are recreated with remarkable realism in the Moorish designs of the architecture, the tiles and the brickwork, and in the the lighting that casts warm orange-brown tones.  The set rotates from one scene to the next fluidly, the lighting finding the perfect mood for each scene, the configurations of the rooms working to the requirements of the drama's comic situations.  The stage direction from Michael Grandage however seems a little detached and on the serious side, never allowing the figures room to abandon themselves to the glorious wealth of warm, funny and touching sentiments expressed in the work.



I think the same thing could be said about Robin Ticciati's conducting.  It's a perfectly good account of the work, but it never reacts to the sentiments or the staging in a way that would bring out its full potential.  Which is a little bit of a pity, because there's an exceptional singing cast here that is more than capable of getting to the heart of Mozart's delightful creations.  Vito Priante is a big-voiced Figaro with the capability of being almost soulful in his delivery, while Lydia Teuscher is a comparatively lovely and delicate Susanna, innocent more than feisty.  Sally Matthews gives us a wonderful melancholic Countess where everything that is essential comes through in the expression of her voice.  Andrun Iversen's Almaviva is more of a blustering buffoon than a sleazy predator, and his voice suits that kind of delivery as well as being well-suited to the Glyndebourne stage.

Proving that the secondary roles can raise this work to even greater heights, particularly when you have a strong Cherubino, Isabel Leonard knocked the socks off the Glyndebourne audience, and you can see why in her sparkling, bright performance with a voice of immense richness.  The character parts of Bartolo, Barberina and Don Basilio were all delightfully played as well, but I was particularly delighted to see Ann Murray still looking and sounding wonderful as Marcellina.  The video recording of the performance is excellent, the colour and the detail all rendered beautifully in the HD-image on the Blu-ray, with fine audio mixes.  There are a couple of short features showing the work put into the props and sets, and interviews with the cast that consider the qualities of Mozart's work itself.  The Opus Arte dual-layer Blu-ray is all-region compatible, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Scarlatti - Dove è amore è gelosia


Giuseppe Scarlatti - Dove è amore è gelosia

Český Krumlov Castle, 2011

Vojtěch Spurný, Ondřej Havelka, Lenka Máčiková, Aleš Briscein, Kateřina Kněžíková, Jaroslav Březina, Bohumil Klepl, Tat'ána Kupcová

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Dove è amore è gelosia (Where there is Love, there is Jealousy) was written in 1768 by Giuseppe Scarlatti (a nephew of the more famous Domenico Scarlatti) as a commission for Prince Joseph Adam of Schwarzenberg, the Duke of Krumlov to celebrate the wedding of his son Jan Nepomuk to Maria Eleonora, the Countess of Oettingen-Wallerstein on 24 July 1768.  It was the first opera to be performed in the newly renovated theatre of Český Krumlov Castle, and as such it seemed appropriate then to choose this rare work to be the first opera performed in this UNESCO heritage site when it was restored to its full glory in 2011.

There's historical justification alone in reviving this extremely rare work, but the opera itself isn't without merit either, even if the name of Giuseppe Scarlatti means little nowadays.  You can gauge a few things about Dove è amore è gelosia from the title alone, and the fact that it is an opera buffa written in 1768.  You would expect the comedy to play out along similar lines to Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro or Così Fan Tutte, and those examples will give you a good idea of the tone of the comedy and the arrangements if not the exact musical quality.  Haydn might be a closer point of comparison, since the work was also written to commission for a royal court and composed to certain specifications that included the Prince's daughter Maria Theresia singing one of the principal roles.


Composed for a small orchestra of Baroque instruments then, Dove è amore è gelosia can't hold up to the sophistication of Mozart's treatment of the opera buffa, but it's as delightful an example of this kind of work as you'll find.  The musical arrangements are driven by a vigorous harpsichord rhythms, with a small string accompaniment and some limited horns and woodwind, but it consequently has a lovely clear, bright sound, with jaunty buffo rhythms and a strong sense of structure.  As far as the treatment of the plot goes, it's similarly stripped down and, written for only four roles, far from the complexity of one of Mozart's works.  You could probably write this one yourself, so familiar is it with the conventions of the comic opera of this period.

The four principals are, inevitably, divided into two couples - one from the nobility and one from the servant class.  The Marquise Clarice and Count Orazio are involved in yet another bitter dispute on account of the Count's jealousy, always on the point of breaking up and calling off the wedding until a reconciliation is reached.  The other couple are of course their servants, Vespetta (the Marquise's maid) and Patrizio (the Count's manservant).  Their problem is the opposite of their masters, since Patrizio seems to be immune to sentiments of jealousy and unconcerned about Vespetta's suggestions of flirtations with other men.  How can he truly love her if he never gets jealous?  It sounds like both men need to be taught a lesson, and you know how that's going to turn out...


So yes, you can expect a plot to involve letters falling into the wrong hands, disguises requiring cross-dressing and resulting in mistaken identities, with people grasping the wrong end of the stick.  Hilarity inevitably ensues and lessons are learnt by all concerned.  And that's exactly what you get.  Dove è amore è gelosia is skillfully arranged, if not particularly inspired in this respect, but it's a light, undemanding and enjoyable entertainment.  The music likewise is light and pleasant, with clever little solo arias bemoaning the inconstancy of one's lover and some playful little duets that keep the comic interaction going.  With minimal stage direction to include plenty of comic touches, gestures and playful expressions, you can't go wrong, and that's pitched perfectly in delivered in Ondřej Havelka's stage direction and in the musical performance under the baton - or rather rolled-up music scroll - of Vojtěch Spurný.

The note about the rolled-up music scroll incidentally is a clue to this productions intentions to perform the work as close to period authenticity as possible.  There are good reasons for this, since Český Krumlov Castle is the only authentic working Baroque theatre in the world.  All the props, backdrops and stage effects are operated using the original rope and pulley systems (and it's most impressive to see these in action), the costumes and setting are period - with even the conductor and orchestra wearing period costumes and wigs - and the whole stage is entirely illuminated by candlelight.  You can't get much more historically authentic than that, and in the case of this particular work and for this setting it's perfectly appropriate.


This is however also a very good performance in its own right.  It might not be one of the great undiscovered works of opera buffa, but neither does Dove è amore è gelosia deserve to remain lying in obscurity.  This is a lovely production, sung well by a good cast, performed with verve and with a feel for the qualities of the work, its arrangements and its intentions.  The filmmakers want you to get an impression of just how authentic this is and there are consequently a few backstage cutaways to show the mechanical effects in operation, but for the most part Dove è amore è gelosia is filmed like any other opera performance and it looks marvellous.

There's a slight softness of tone then in the quality of the High Definition image in the Blu-ray, but that's entirely down to the use of natural candlelight.  The audio tracks in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 are marvellous, giving a wonderful brightness and clarity to the musical performances and the singing.  The BD also has an interesting 52-minute documentary on the history and renovation of Český Krumlov.  It's a quite stunning building in a beautiful setting, and the detail on the workings of a Baroque theatre are of immense interest.  The disc is compatible for all-regions and has subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov


Modest Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2013

Kent Nagano, Calixto Bieito, Alexander Tsymbaluk, Yulia Sokolik, Eri Nakamura, Heike Grötzinger, Gerhard Siegel, Markus Eiche, Anatoli Kotscherga, Sergey Skorokhodov, Vladimir Matorin, Ulrich Reß, Okka von der Damerau, Kevin Conners, Goran Jurić, Dean Power, Tareq Nazmi, Christian Rieger   

ARTE Internet Streaming, March 2013

A modern updating of a historical subject is always going to be controversial, particularly when it's a production by Calixto Bieito.  In the case of a work like Boris Godunov however, you have to ask whether the purpose of Mussorgsky's opera is to provide a character portrait of a 16th century ruler of Russia or whether the opera is more concerned with more universal questions on the nature of power, leadership and the cost that has to be paid for it.  Even performed in a traditional historical context it would be hard not to feel the full force of those themes expressed in Mussorgsky's magnificent score, so what advantage would there be in attempting to make a parallel between the past and the present?  Surprisingly, the purpose of Bieito's production would seem to be not to use Boris Godunov to make a comment about the present day as much as use familiar images to help us better relate to the past.

One of the qualities of art, and particularly opera in this context, is that it can indeed illuminate and provide new living insight on a figure who existed nearly 500 years ago by simply looking at human nature itself today, since that hasn't changed greatly in all that time.  Placing Boris Godunov in a historical context however can place a distance between the subject and a modern audience - although, as I said, Mussorgsky's music makes it fully relatable - but a modern setting can make those situation more real and immediate without betraying the essential sentiments and the spirit of the work.  Calixto Bieito's staging has a considerable part to play in the success of the Bayerische Staatsoper's new production, but it must operate in accordance with the music, and Kent Nagano's musical direction ensures that this is a thoughtful and powerful account of a great work.



The actions and the will of the people play just as important a part in history as its more famous leaders and Mussorgsky's gives them equal voice in Boris Godunov.  Calixto Bieito finds a modern-day equivalent of the voice of the people and their relationship with their leaders here in what looks to be an anti-globalisation protest at a G8 summit, or perhaps even an anti-austerity protest.  The people, herded in by police in riot-gear, are looking for someone to lead them out of crisis.  They don't carry icons of the saints here, but instead wave placards in the air showing images of Sarkozy, Putin, Cameron, Holland and other world leaders.  Only one lone protester - a punk in a Sex Pistols T-shirt advocating anarchy - rejects all of them and is beaten to the ground by the police.  Is this a fair representation of the intent of the opening scene of Boris Godunov?  It certainly captures the nature of the situation without tying it directly and imperfectly to any specific modern political context.  It also sets the tone well for the underlying violence that isn't always entirely explicit in the work, but which is undoubtedly an important part of the power dynamic.

There are inevitably a few curious touches that Bieito adds to highlight this characteristic, but all of them feel entirely appropriate to the work.  Boris Godunov tries to be a good ruler to the people, but he feels the pressure of responsibility, hears the murmurings of discontent and fears the uprising of a new Pretender.  His conscience - like anyone who has to dirty their hands to get into a position of power and influence - isn't entirely clear either, and he has the blood of the young Tsar on his hands, tormenting him in nightmares. Bieito's version, again highlighting the power and responsibility of the common people in their choice or acceptance of leaders, shows them exercising that power by putting weapons (guns) into their hands, making this bloody period of history even more realistically violent.  The Pretender too executes Boris' children at the end of the opera, which fits in with the theme of the cycles of history and violence and gives it greater force.



All of this must be borne out in the music of course, and the Bayerische Staatsoper production in Munich took an equally interesting approach to the complicated history of the work and its various revisions.  This was a stripped back production that used Mussorgsky's 1869 original version as its basis, but further removed any other diversions - the Fountain scene and the Polonaise (basically the whole of Act III) - that weren't directly related to expression of the work's fundamental themes.  This enabled the entire opera to be performed as a single two-and-a-quarter hour performance without any breaks. There were considerable benefits to be gained from this approach.  On the one hand, we had all the force of Mussorgsky's scoring with its conversational language rhythms and unique expression, but with a greater fluidity that brought unity to each of the separate scenes.  With Kent Nagano conducting with complete sensitivity for those rhythms, we didn't lose any of the beauty of the orchestration that is found in Rimsky-Korsakov's revisions either.  As a result, the work maintained its epic immensity, force and beauty.

So too does the singing here, particularly Alexander Tsymbaluk as Boris and Anatoli Kotscherga as Pimen.  Both evidently are vital roles that carry the action and the spiritual elements of the work, and much of that is brought out through the grave, deep tone of the singing itself.  Not only were the casting and performances superb in this respect for those roles, but the same consideration was given to all the casting elsewhere.  There was scarcely a weak element anywhere here, all of the cast and chorus coming together - alongside a considered production and musical performance - to give full force to this remarkable work.  The set designs also played an important part in keeping up this momentum, fluidly moving from one scene to the next, providing a meaningful dark and minimal setting that served the situations without being over-literal or too incongruously modern either.



This performance of Boris Godunov was broadcast on ARTE Live Web and is currently still available for viewing via internet streaming.  Depending on whether you use the .fr or .de sites, subtitles are either in French or German. The Bayerische Staatsoper will broadcast another live performance of this production via their own Live Streaming service during their summer Opera Festival season on the 26th July.  The next live streaming event from Munich is Verdi's Macbeth on 11th May, directed by Martin Kušej and conducted by Massimo Zanetti.