August 2010


OrfeoClaudio Monteverdi - L’Orfeo

De Nederlandse Opera, 1997 | Pierre Audi, Stephen Stubbs, John Mark Ainsley, Juanita Lascarro | Opus Arte

It’s appropriate that what is often considered the first opera - or at least the first opera that we can recognise as being more closely associated with the form of the opera as it is widely known today - is a composition in praise of Orpheus and his golden lyre. Written in 1607, bringing together music and drama into an integrated form for the first time, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo seems to delight in the very essence of the resultant new artform that has been created, the alchemy of music, drama and exquisite singing achieving an almost transcendentally beautiful balance and harmony.

Dealing moreover with the legendary subject of Orpheus, Monteverdi’s opera finds a perfect subject to demonstrate the power of the artform, one that can take in subjects as large as life, death, love and art and truly do justice to their importance in the lives of ordinary people. Set in the meadows, hills and woodlands of Thrace, life is simple but hard for the workers in the fields, but Orpheus through his music is able to transform the misery of the people into a thing of beauty. But he “who once made sighs his food and tears his drink”, has since discovered happiness in his love for Eurydice. The happiness is short-lived however, as Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies. Grief-stricken, Orpheus descends to the underworld, to bargain with Charon, cross the River Styx and claim her back from Hades for the living.

A mythological subject, there is poetry and wisdom scattered throughout the gorgeous libretto, warning mortals not to “put your faith in fleeting fragile joy that is so soon gone” observing how often in life “we are lifted high only to be cast down”. The music (the story appropriately is introduced by the muse Music herself) and the singing all combining to give the subject and tragedy the necessary emotional depth. The 1997 production recorded here makes good use of the vast stage of the Muziektheater in Amsterdam, Pierre Audi’s staging at the same time simple but effective. The tone of the period instruments and singing are impeccable, John Mark Ainsley’s voice conveying the warmth, lyricism, charm and beauty that you would expect Orpheus to possess.

Released on DVD by Opus Arte as a 2-disc set, the 16:9 enhanced image is excellent, even in the dim lighting showing detail only slightly less impressive than a HD presentation. There are two audio tracks. The DTS 5.1 is a little echoing, although it does give the opera an appropriate cathedral quality, but the PCM stereo track seems to my ears to have much better depth and clarity. Neither can do much about the sometimes heavy clumping that is made by figures striding across the stage, but this is a minor irritation. The extras are brief but useful, including a Synopsis and a 16 minute introduction that looks behind the scenes at the production and the instruments used.

TroyensHector Berlioz - Les Troyens

Théâtre du Châtelet Paris, 2003 | John Eliot Gardiner, Yannis Kokkos, Peter Maniura, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Susan Graham, Ludovic Tézier, Laurent Naouri | Opus Arte

Presented across two dual-layer BD50 Blu-ray discs, Berlioz’s adaptation of Virgil’s The Aeneid is truly an epic undertaking, both in terms of the production and the opera itself. His penultimate opera, Les Troyens is considered to be the composer’s masterpiece, and indeed it brings together all the elements and the variety that is characteristic of Berlioz’s range, from darkness to light, from blood and thunder to tender lyricism, with rousing choruses, dramatic singing performances, musical interludes and dance sequences.

Despite that, the opera was never performed in full during the lifetime of the composer, the first two acts dealing with the fall of Troy to the Greeks despite Cassandra’s highly emotive premonitions of doom, excised in favour of the Trojans in Carthage section of Acts 3 to 5. There is certainly a strong division between the two parts, with many of the principal’s inevitably dying at the sacking of Troy at the end of Act 2, including Cassandra and her lover Choreobus (Hector already dead before the start of the opera nevertheless makes a highly effective appearance at the start of the Second Act in the form of a projected apparition), but it’s hard to imagine the opera feeling complete without the darkness and the powerful impact of the first half. Anna Caterina Antonacci, in particular, showing what the role of Cassandra has to offer the opera as a whole, a striking contrast to Susan Graham’s Dido, who dominates the second half, though no less effectively.

As the surviving Trojans flee, they receive temporary shelter in the North African city of Carthage established recently by exiles from Tyre, under the rule of Queen Dido. Both exiles, the respective leaders of the two tribes, Aeneas and Dido, find comfort for their loss in love for each other, but only until the gods remind Aeneas of his duty to lead his people to Italy. In contrast to the opening acts, the second half of Les Troyens consequently covers a wider range of emotions and the musical accompaniment is likewise as broad and as colourful as the set designs for Carthage, the tone darkening again at the end in a manner that echoes the restored opening of the opera.

The 2003 production at the Châtelet in Paris is accordingly spectacular, the stage filled with movement and action, but never cluttered, the score dominated often by the power of the choral writing, but individual roles are strong and the performances are exceptional, Gregory Kunde a fine Aeneas to stand alongside Antonacci and Graham. Everything about the production, the orchestra under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, is of the highest order, every single scene offering something of fascination and wonder, whether it is in the music, the singing or the staging. But, particularly in this full version of Les Troyens, there is an overall impression of completeness here. Total opera.

Les Troyens is perfectly presented on Blu-ray, the division between the two parts of the opera much better than on the 3-disc DVD edition. Act 1 and 2 are on the first disc along with the extra features, the other three acts on the second disc. Image and sound can hardly be faulted, the audio presented in PCM 2.0 and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1. The tone on the surround track is soft and warm rather than clean and precise, but the dynamic range is nonetheless excellent, handling the extremes well, and it is well suited to the arrangement. The hour-long documentary features contributions from the main performers and makes some interesting observations, but is over-long, being mostly made up of a complete walk-through of the synopsis by John Eliot Gardiner, illustrated with extended sequences from the opera.

ZoroastreJean-Philippe Rameau - Zoroastre

Drottningholm Slottsteater Sweden, 2006 | Pierre Audi, Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques, Anders J. Dahlin, Sine Bundgaad, Anna Maria Panzarella | Opus Arte

First performed in 1749, the reason this wonderful piece of French Baroque opera from Jean-Philippe Rameau, court composer to Louis XV and contemporary of Bach, Scarlatti and Handel, stands up so well today is undoubtedly down to the timeless nature of its subject matter. Rather than being based on Greek gods and legends, Zoroastre rather is set in the fictional land of Bactria and its subject, dealing with the timeless struggle between forces of good and evil, a battle between darkness and light on a vast epic scale, could even lend itself to a science-fiction fantasy interpretation.

Here, Abramane takes advantage of the unexpected death of the King of Bactria to attempt to seize power through an alliance with the Princess Érinice, usurping it from the rightful heir, Amélite, and exiling her lover Zoroastre, who has already spurned the attentions of Érinice. Zoroastre however is inducted into a higher state of awareness by a guru, Oromasès, and returns to Bactria to save Amélite. An epic power struggle develops then between the forces of goodness and love on one side and evil and hatred on the other. It’s a familiar struggle, with Masonic references, that just as easily be connected to The Magic Flute (Zoroastre = Sarastro), as it could be a premonition of the French Revolution (or if you fancy a Eurotrash interpretation, even the Batman mythos and Dracula stories fit the model surprisingly closely).

This production however is utterly faithful to its period setting and presented with magnificent attention to the smallest detail. Performed in an 18th century theatre in Drottningholm in Sweden, with its highly effective original pulley-operated stage scenery, the production is beautifully costumed, impressively staged and immaculately lit, filmed exceptionally well, with unusual close-ups and angles that draw you in (although the semi-obscured shaky overhead shot is over-used and really offers nothing).

The same enthusiasm can be shown towards the performance. Although the plot can be a little obscure and there are indeed some long opera seria arias that can occasionally be testing - without the excess of any da capo singing it has to be said - there is nonetheless a surprising amount of engaging dramatic action and interaction that keeps it well-grounded, as well as some unusual dance moves that add well to the emotional expression. The orgy of bloodlust in the Black Mass sequence that takes up the whole of Act 4 is one of the most dramatically staged scenes you’ll see in any production, darker and more menacing than Don Giovanni’s descent into Hell.

Most effective in this respect is Rameau’s music itself, which has pounding baroque rhythms several hundred years before Michael Nyman appropriated them, but is also dynamic and lyrical, innovatively introducing clarinets into the orchestra ensemble. Les Talens Lyriques ensemble’s playing of this revived piece is exemplary, and the singing flawless, although particular mention should be made of Anna Maria Panzarella’s Érinice for her powerful singing, as well as the sheer emotional force contained within it and her intense performance.

On the technical side, the all-region Blu-ray is also pretty much flawless. 16:9 widescreen, the superbly lit production shows tremendous detail in its 1080i encode. My amplifier identified the audio tracks as full bit-rate PCM, in stereo and in 5.1, though it’s listed as Dolby True HD on the case, but uncompressed the surround track in particular gives wonderful tone and body to the period instrumentation, and offers a full dynamic range to the singing. In an hour-long documentary, the production team offer their thoughts on the opera and its staging. A visual synopsis and cast list is also provided, along with a booklet that puts the opera into context. A fascination production of a little-known baroque opera, this is a strong package all-around, one that certainly merits a couple of viewings.