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DiableGiacomo Meyerbeer - Robert Le Diable

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden - 2012 | Daniel Oren, Laurent Pelly, Bryan Hymel, John Relyea, Jean-François Borras, Marina Poplavskaya, Patrizia Ciofi, Nicolas Courjal, Jihoon Kim, Pablo Bemsch, David Butt Philip, Ashley Riches, Dušica Bijelić | Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The folly and the controversy surrounding the Royal Opera House’s production of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable have been extensively reported elsewhere, from the cast changes and departures through to its critical mauling in the press. While I’ve no doubt that a full evening of a misconceived five-act Meyerbeer opera could well have been a painful experience live at the Royal Opera House, a filmed recording of the production is however another thing entirely. That’s not to say that some of the problems with the production are any less evident, but there are compensating factors that one can perhaps better appreciate from the comfort of one’s own living room.

Even the undoubted weaknesses in the production can be offset to a large degree in this case just by the rare opportunity to see one of the greatest works of 19th century opera performed on the stage. Meyerbeer was one of the most important and composers of his time, an influence on both Verdi and Wagner, but his extravagant style and grandeur hasn’t remained fashionable, and even his greatest works - huge successes in their day - have fallen from the popular repertoire. Such is the case with Robert le Diable, a work which drew wide acclaim from fellow composers, critics and achieved wide popular international success following its premiere in 1831. The work was last performed at Covent Garden however in 1890, and it hasn’t been performed much anywhere in the world over the last century.

The fundamental difficulty with putting on a staging a work of 19th century Grand Opera does indeed have to do with it being at odds with popular tastes and fashions. It’s not so much a reflection on the quality of the work as the fact that modern audience has very different expectations from opera, and the old-style can be hard to swallow for a modernist, post-modernist, post-post-modernist audience. It’s like expecting a reader of Harlan Coben thrillers to adapt to reading Walter Scott, or for readers of Ian McEwan to engage with the themes of Victor Hugo. The challenge that faced director Laurent Pelly then is not an enviable one. He may not entirely have succeeded, but although his production for the Royal Opera House was heavily criticised in a way Pelly does capture the spirit of Meyerbeer to some extent. Perhaps it’s more of a case that audiences still aren’t ready for Meyerbeer.

Which is understandable, but a pity nonetheless. If nothing else Robert le Diable is an opera experience like no other. Musically and in terms of plotting it’s not the most sophisticated, but Meyerbeer packs the five acts of the opera so full of melodies and dramatic development, underlining it with grand choral refrains, lyrical expression, comic interplay and over-the-top gothic imagery with some ballet sequences thrown in for good measure, that it’s never anything less than pure value-for-money entertainment. Pelly’s production, unfairly criticised I feel, attempts to put all the colour and the darkness of the work up there on the stage in the sets and costumes, and he does so rather well. It’s faithful to the spirit of the work, playing it straight where it ought to be, exaggerating in other places, but never stooping to making fun of the melodramatic developments and wild declarations.

Aiming for the middle ground between period fidelity and modernism, there’s a “cardboard cutout” feel to the scenery then that is reminiscent in places of David Hockney’s designs for the Glyndebourne production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. It’s like an ancient black and white engraving that has been garishly hand-coloured, or even a medieval tapestry that might lack realistic detail and proportion, but nonetheless has the power to evoke the history and the values of another period far from our own. Sometimes this works exceptionally well (Act III’s vision of Hell on a mountain pass like something out of an Hieronymus Bosch painting), at other times the imagery feels a little forced (the ultimate battle between the good of Alice and the evil of Bertram in Act V), and sometimes it’s just a little too kitsch and reminiscent of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘ to take seriously (the colour of the medieval tournament in Act II).

In most cases however, even those mentioned above, these are valid responses to the nature and tone of the material itself. Stravinsky and Meyerbeer may have little in common (Gounod’s Faust might be a better model to consider), but Robert le Diable does indeed relate an exaggerated morality tale of the battle between good and evil similar to the one in The Rake’s Progress. Here, Robert of Normandy is rumoured to be the son of beautiful princess who married a demon from Hell. Robert however has the choice to follow a path of righteousness, and demonstrates his leniency by sparing the life of the minstrel Rimbaut who relates the story of Robert the Devil to assembled knights at an inn in Palermo. He could choose also to win the hand of Isabelle in the traditional way through a tournament, but despite the warnings of his late mother and his foster sister Alice, is laid astray by the machinations of his companion Bertrand, the real devil of the work. If he steals a magic branch from the tomb of Saint Rosalie, he can win Isabelle by other means.

Barring some questionable choices - I’m still in two minds about the choreography of the zombie sisters of St Rosalie during the opera’s most famous/notorious Dance of the Nuns ballet - Pelly’s staging is sympathetic to the shifts of tone in the work itself and gets fully behind it, never attempting to make it into something else entirely with conceptual cleverness. Daniel Oren too shows great feeling for the work, its rhythms and variations, and - regardless of what you think of the merits or otherwise of Meyerbeer’s score - it’s simply a delight to see this type of work being put through its paces. There is however one other problem associated with putting on a Meyerbeer opera that the best efforts of the conductor, director and the Royal Opera House seem powerless to influence. It seems like we really don’t have the singers for this type of work any longer.

It’s understandable that singers who would be suited to or capable of singing Meyerbeer are obviously more focussed on the greater career opportunities afforded by singing Wagner or bel canto. Even good Verdi singers are thin on the ground nowadays and the demands of Meyerbeer are often greater. Singing the title role, Bryan Hymel proves that he is up there and his performance is not only commendable, it’s almost heroic. His voice might not be to everyone’s taste, and it does start to grate and go a little bit wayward as the opera progresses through the final acts, but the effort is considerable. No less demanding is the role of Bertram and John Relyea handles it superbly and with great character. Despite her commitment, Marina Poplavskaya however is terribly miscast here, as is Patrizia Ciofi, who really doesn’t have a large enough voice for this style of work, her singing sounding like a whimper that is lost in the orchestration and big choruses.

It’s this aspect of the production that is the most problematic. While there are advantages to watching Robert le Diable on the screen that allow one to better to appreciate the full Meyerbeer experience that Oren and Pelly recreate, it only emphasises the unsuitability of some of the singing. There’s no doubting the commitment of the performances however, and for all its flaws this is a sincere and a valiant effort to stage one of the great opera masterworks of yesteryear. The recording of the work and its presentation on the Opus Arte Blu-ray (which comes in a die-cut slipcase) is of course of the highest quality in both image and sound. The extra features however are slim, with only a Cast Gallery and a five-minute presentation on the legacy of the work, which does nonetheless give you an idea of the challenges of putting on this work. There’s an essay and a full synopsis in the enclosed booklet. The disc is BD50, Full-HD, Region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

SadkoNikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - Sadko

Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 1994 | Valery Gergiev, Vladimir Galusin, Valentina Tsidipova, Marianna Tarassova, Bulat Minjelkiev, Alexander Gergalov, Gegam Grigorian, Sergei Alexashkin, Larissa Diadkova | Philips - DVD

Opera can take many forms, but apart from Wagner only the High Romantic Russian composers have really exploited its potential to elaborate on the epic power of myth, legend and folklore. Even then, there can be few composers who have had such an affinity for this type of subject as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. So grand are the extravagant displays of such works as The Golden Cockerel, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and Sadko however that they’ve been regarded as troublesome and costly to stage and largely neglected in the west. As a result, Rimsky-Korsakov’s reputation as a composer has suffered, or he is at least not held in the same high regard as he is in Russia.

If you really want to appreciate the nature of Rimsky-Korsakov’s work then it’s best seen in Russia, and a perfect example of that is this magnificent 1994 recording of the rarely performed Sadko at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg conducted by Valery Gergiev. Musically and in terms of singing it’s an impeccable performance and authentically Russian, which means big strong voices of power and precision. Gergiev conducting of the Kirov orchestra draws out all the lush textures, folk rhythms and the sheer orchestral majesty of Rimsky-Korsakov’s wondrous score, which recognises and fully expresses the power and the importance of legends and mythology and their ability to transform our view of the world.

The opera itself, first performed in 1898, is an utterly enthralling fusion of epic storytelling with music and theatre. Sadko is a ‘bylina‘, an epic medieval folktale that recounts the creation of the river Volkhova that connects Lake Ilmen to the Okian sea, bringing prosperity to the merchants of Novgorod. That’s brought about by Sadko, a clever merchant, adventurer and musician who woos the Sea Princess Volkhova through his playing of the gusli. Rather than having traditional operatic Acts, Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera breaks the story down into seven beautiful, lyrical scenes, with a great deal of spectacle and ballet sequences to enrich it. The story calls for the transformation of swans on a lake into the Sea Princess and her maidens, huge village scenes and festivals for choruses, the catching of three golden fish, an ocean crossing and the creation of an undersea kingdom, so Sadko is quite a challenge to stage.

The Mariinsky’s production, in this video recording dating from 1994, is accordingly very bold and colourful, as well as traditionally theatrical in the Mariinsky style. Painted backdrops create the impression of vast scale as well as the fairytale picturebook nature of the story, with plenty of room left in the foreground for the huge choruses, the choreographed movements of the chorus and the beautiful ballet sequences. A “wonder of wonders” and “marvel of marvels” - to use a phrase used often in the libretto - Sadko could hardly look more spectacular, the colourful theatricality and the medieval costumes fully living up to the larger-than-life context of the work and the extravagantly rich orchestration that Rimsky-Korsakov has composed for it.

There’s a recognition however of the importance of the smallest details in the grander scale of the composition of the work that is reflected in the attention to detail on the part of both the stage direction and the musical performance. Within all the spectacle are wonderful lyrical moments and demanding singing passages that require great stamina as well as beauty of expression from the singers. Considering he is not just the central figure, but a minstrel who charms the Sea Princess, you would at least expect a strong Sadko and Vladimir Galusin gives a commanding and charismatic performance. He’s matched well with Valentina Tsidipova’s Volkhova who deals well if not always perfectly with the considerable challenges of the role.

Sadko however also offers a variety of dramatic roles and some colourful set-piece cameos. In the former category Marianna Tarassova stands out as Sadko’s neglected wife, as does Larissa Diadkova as another gusli-playing minstrel narrator. In the latter category Sergei Alexashkin is suitably impressive as the booming and formidable Sea King, but there are also wonderful moments from the other Novgorod merchants, from the three representatives of foreign lands (Viking, Indian and Venetian), and of course from the chorus. The Kirov Ballet provide further colour and movement that maintains a wonderful energetic flow to the work in several beautiful dance sequences.

The 1994 performance was directed for the screen by Brian Large, who captures the occasion with his usual professionalism and alertness to the rhythms of the work itself. It’s clearly not filmed in High Definition as you would expect of a more modern recording, but the widescreen image nonetheless looks good on this 2007 DVD from Philips that gets across the colour and magic of the production design as much as it is able. Audio tracks are in Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and German.

FrateGiovanni 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 musicaLo 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.

GiocondaAmilcare 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 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.

Macbeth

Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2013 | Massimo Zanetti, Martin Kušej, Zeljko Lucic, 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. Zeljko Lucic, 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 superb 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.

AttilaGiuseppe 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.

ZauberfloteWolfgang 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 merely 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.

There’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.

Pelleas

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.

FigaroWolfgang 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

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.

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