September 2010


TraviataGiuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Teatro alla Scala, Milan | Liliana Cavani, Angela Gheorghiu, Ramon Vargas, Roberto Frontali, Natascha Petrinsky, Lorin Maazel | Arthaus Musik

There’s no question that this version of La Traviata for the Teatro alla Scala is a quality production on many levels and, available at a budget price, the Blu-ray is nevertheless of a very high standard, but I have a few minor reservations, mainly around the lack of any sense of adventure in the staging. It’s a safe production with a perfectly traditional staging, unimaginatively presented and choreographed, with little to distinguish it from countless other productions of the opera available.

It’s harder to be critical of the actual performance on any other level than that of personal taste and Angela Gheorghiu doesn’t sit well with me. There’s no doubting her technical ability, the sheer control or the strength of her voice, but personally, I find it a little mannered, and I would say the same about her acting. As a result, her Violetta never feels as fragile or as vulnerable as she ought to be - at least from what I would expect of the role. There’s no chemistry whatsoever either with the otherwise fine Ramon Vargas as Alfredo, making this production technically strong, but emotionally weak.

By way of comparison, I find the Willy Decker staging of the opera for the 2005 Salzburg Festspiele La Traviata much more interesting and innovative. A rather minimalist staging, there is however great originality in how it makes the story meaningful, vital and contemporary (whereas this version feels a little bit stuffy and practically like a museum piece by comparison), drawing out all the latent passion and violence out of what should indeed be a highly charged opera. While the question of who is the better singer is certainly debatable, it’s one of Anna Netrebko’s best performances and her acting seems better fitted to this particular role, blending perfectly and credibly with Rolando Villazón and a superb Thomas Hampson.

This version however is certainly a strong, all-round production, with fine performances and, particularly at the current price, it is an excellent introduction to opera on Blu-ray, as well as appealing to traditionalists and fans of Gheorghiu. There are however more exciting and daring versions around for anyone a little more adventurous.

RienziRichard Wagner - Rienzi Der Letzte Der Tribunen

Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2010 | Sebastian Lang-Lessing, Philipp Stölzl, Torsten Kerl, Kate Aldrich, Camilla Nylund | Arthaus Musik

Normally an abridged version of an opera would not be something one would find acceptable, particularly when the production itself has been updated and modernised, but Wagner’s 1842 opera Rienzi (Rienzi Der Letzte Der Tribunen) - almost forgotten but certainly eclipsed by the composer’s next opera Der fliegende Holländer - is an opera in serious need of rehabilitation, not least because of the infamy of it supposedly being Hitler’s favourite opera. Cut down in half from its original five hour running time, the five acts compressed into two parts, this 2010 Deutsche Oper Berlin production, conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing and directed by pop-video and film director Philipp Stölzl, does however manage to give a new lease of life to the opera, or at least bring out elements in it that suggest that, for all its flaws and its troubled history, it’s time the opera were confronted to determine whether its worthy of reconsideration and re-evaluation.

As the story deals with the rise and fall of the 14th century Roman dictator Cola di Rienzo, it seems appropriate in this production to emphasise the uncanny parallels that the opera has with the rise of Hitler and his downfall. To not do so would be unthinkable, according to the director Philipp Stölzl, and indeed it’s impossible not to see the remarkable coincidences in the common circumstances that give rise to a Rienzi here and those of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin or Ceausescu. Accordingly, being a German production, the opening part of Rienzi with the struggles between the Orsini and the Colonna factions, is clearly set in Germany’s interwar years. In the midst of these troubled times, Rienzi appears, promising to bring the people freedom, lead them out of their shame and make them a great nation once again, despite the warning from Adriano that “to reach your proud ends, you shall leave a trail of blood”.

Brilliantly, the staging absorbs the cultural references of the times, Rome/Berlin looking like a backdrop of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with German Expressionist angles, while the warring Orsini and Colonna followers are masked and distorted like figures out of a colourful George Grosz painting. This soon changes unsettlingly into the militaristic imagery of a fascist dictatorship, with propaganda films influenced by Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will playing out in the background. As Rome enters into war in the second part of the revised opera, an increasingly embattled Rienzi is seen in a underground bunker, planning his grand vision of a new Rome while the reality above the ground is something quite different. The parallels between Rienzi and Hitler are eerily premonitory, arising as much from the text of the libretto as the production design and never feeling forced.

Apart from the association of Wagner with the Third Reich, in almost all other respects, the Grand Opera of Rienzi scarcely feels like a Wagnerian musical drama. The busy crowded staging and the huge rousing choruses are a recognisable feature and there are one or two prototype Wagner characters in this early opera, but otherwise the drama and storytelling is concise and to the point. Not being familiar with the full 5-hour version of Rienzi, much of this however could be down to the tightening of the focus by the cutting down of the opera for this production, but the decision to revise the opera considerably seems justified by the results.

This is not a great Wagner opera by any means, certainly not when compared to Der fliegende Holländer which immediately followed it, but musically it’s not a bad opera in its own right, with a beautiful overture, some wonderful symphonic passages, and there is a strong study of the conditions that give rise to a dictatorship in its drama. It at least has a certain curiosity value in the fact that Hitler would have seen in this opera the means of his own rise to power and a premonition of his downfall, but it also has an interesting place in the history and development of German opera.

The Blu-ray edition of Rienzi has a 16:9 image that is just about flawless. There’s a strong 5.1 DTS HD-Master Audio mix, although I didn’t notice any LFE subwoofer activity at all - your neighbours however will probably be thankful for this considering the force of the performance and the recording that is still evident. The PCM stereo mix is also terrific. A 27-minute Making Of is not particularly in-depth, but covers the background and the concept of this production through interviews and rehearsal footage.

CarmelitesFrancis Poulenc - Dialogues des Carmélites

Staatsoper Hamburg, 2008 | Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Andreas Morell, Simone Young, Anne Schwanewilms, Alexia Voulgaridou, Nikolai Schukoff, Wolfgang Schöne | Arthaus Musik

Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera, for which he both composed the music and wrote the libretto (from a play by Georges Bernanos), has many distinct and individualistic qualities that set it apart, not least of which is the unique subject matter of the execution of Carmelite nuns by French Revolutionaries in 1794. The treatment however is just as fascinating, the subject of death ominously present not only through the novice nun Blanche’s pathological fear of death, through the suffering of ailing Mother Superior and the eventual martyrdom of the nuns, but also in the delicacy of the musical accompaniments that evoke an almost romantic relationship or fascination with the idea of death.

One other notable and unusual aspect of Dialogues des Carmélites is the dominance and importance of female voices, in recitative dialogue and in relation to one another. The opera really is a celebration of the female voice, ranging from soprano to mezzo-soprano and contralto, all used marvellously and, it has to be said, sung magnificently in this production. There are male roles in the opera and they are not insignificant, lending a welcome variety of colour and tone to the overpowering predominance of female singing that could otherwise become a little tiring at such length.

The staging of this Hamburg production is a masterpiece of the minimalist style, well suited to the dark subject matter and achieving incredible intensity and drama mainly from its use of light and shade and some subtle colouration. It’s perhaps a little too intense and austere when the opera is more lyrically varied in its score and libretto, but it’s true that the sense of death is omnipresent, the questions of faith and life discussed by the nuns all coloured by consideration of death. When combined with the remarkable singing, the power of the denouement is simply shattering. A truly unique opera experience.

The Blu-ray quality is superb, certainly in terms of the audio - an exceptional DTS HD Master Audio 7.1 mix - although, as noted elsewhere, there are issues with the image. Rather than being a flaw with the recording or the transfer, the mosquito noise dots actually seem to be part of the staging, caused by a fine gauze screen at the front of the stage. This is often used in stage productions for light diffusion, but rarely throughout a whole opera. Although it seems a strange decision to film the opera with a screen in-between, it’s presumably part of the production design to soften the otherwise harsh direct lighting. The dots are not always noticeable - only when performers are filmed in close-up and when they are towards the front of the stage. There’s little here however that spoils the enjoyment of this beautifully staged and fascinating opera.

MedeaLuigi Cherubini - Medea

Sassari Italy, 2004 | Orchestra dell’Ente Concerti, Eric Hull, Giuseppe Sollazzo, Denia Mazzola Gavazzeni, Carlo Cigni, Elisabetta Scano, Cesare Ruta, Chiara Chialli | Kikko Classic

Adaptations of classical Greek mythology are common in opera, particularly Baroque and opera seria, and it’s perhaps for this reason that opera traditionally deals with highly dramatic subjects revolving around the twin passions of love and revenge. With perhaps the exception of Carmen, they don’t come much more impassioned than Luigi Cherubini’s version of the Euripides drama Medea.

More than the actual drama - it’s not a particularly complicated storyline and not a great deal happens - much of the passion is embodied within the character of Medea herself, the sorceress arriving at Colchis to stop the marriage of Jason to Glauce. Turning up on their wedding day, Medea threatens all manner of vengeance should Jason break the vows he has made, under enchantment, to her. Made famous by Maria Callas, which probably accounts for it being the only real Cherubini opera in repertoire, Medea is a role that calls out for a big performance and it does indeed get that here in the figure of Denia Mazzola Gavazzeni.

Recorded in Sassari in 2004 in the revised Italian version of the opera, this is a reasonably good production, traditionally staged, costumed and performed - a solid production that suits the opera and plays to its strengths. The orchestration and singing are both fine, but unfortunately neither are really shown to their best in the rather poor sound reproduction on this DVD release from Kikko Classic in Italy. A live recording, presumably made for television, the sound is Dolby Digital 2.0, but I’m not even sure it’s in stereo, or if it is, there’s not much L-R separation. It might as well be mono, and the mixing accordingly isn’t great, the orchestra mostly drowning out the singing.

The video quality is also lacking. In 4:3, it looks like a TV video master, and is certainly not shot in HD. Grain and blockiness can be seen in the dark backgrounds, there is faint discolouration with exposure varying between cameras. There are even one or two buzz glitches that momentarily affect both image and sound. The biggest problem with the filming is the editing, which makes use of different performances from different nights often within the same scene, the frequent intercutting leading to obvious continuity issues. Even more problematically, this causes the lip-movements to rarely match the singing or the performance.

Most of these issues are relatively minor and wouldn’t individually spoil the enjoyment of what is a fine opera and a good performance of it, but cumulatively, they can be quite niggling and distracting.

GiovanniWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Haus für Mozart, Salzburg Festspiele, 2008 | Wiener Philharmoniker, Bertrand de Billy, Claus Guth, Christopher Maltman, Erwin Schrott, Anatoly Kocherga, Annette Dasch, Matthew Polenzani | Euroarts

Of all Mozart’s operas, Don Giovanni seems to be the one with themes that make it more open to modern day re-envisioning and reinterpretation. And it’s not so much the subject of the amorous activities of a philandering nobleman that make the opera so timeless as much as the underlying themes of passion, revenge, power and conquest, or - as in this particular production for the 2008 Salzburg Festval - the question of honour.

Accordingly, there’s something of a Godfather feel to the tempestuous Latin passions of love and revenge here that feels perfectly appropriate, the production approaching the opera from a different angle while remaining perfectly true to the strengths of Mozart’s score and the themes of Da Ponte’s wonderful libretto, full of wit and wisdom. It’s certainly more complex and nuanced on the subject of relationships between male and female than their rather more buffa treatment of the subject in Così Fan Tutte. To cite just one example, look at Donna Elvira’s complex feelings for Don Giovanni, expressing hatred, contempt and frustration for Giovanni, but at the same time her actions are fuelled by a deep love and an irrational but no less sincere hope for his redemption.

The staging here is limited entirely to a dark woods setting, but imaginatively deployed on a revolving stage which gives a wonderful three-dimensional quality to the production (well directed for the screen, as ever, by Brian Large). As well observed as the references and updating are - the staging never compromising the integrity of a truly great opera - the performances here are just as nuanced, powerful and dramatic, Christopher Maltman’s near-deranged, wild-eyed obsessive Don Giovanni brilliantly balanced and vocally matched with Erwin Schrott’s amusingly twitchy Leporello. The score is magnificently interpreted, drawing the full darkness and energy out of the opera, as well as bringing out its underlying tenderness and tragedy. In this respect, in addition to strong singing you would expect from all the major roles, Matthew Polenzani gives one of the most sensitive and sympathetic readings of Don Ottavio that I’ve seen for this opera.

The image quality on the Blu-ray - once it takes its time to actually load-up onto the player - is fine, while the orchestration is given a fine presentation in the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix, centrally located and unshowy on the surrounds, and beautifully toned. The singing initially seems a little echoing in this mix, occasionally overwhelmed by the music, but it’s generally good and seems to improve by the end of the first Act. The PCM Stereo mix gives the singing a better stage, but at the cost of the fine separation of the orchestration.

This is not the most traditional production of Don Giovanni, and it certainly isn’t the best I’ve seen or heard, the limitations of the woods setting losing some of the familiar elements that usually make it work so well as a drama (traditionalists will be disappointed by a bus timetable in place of a Register of the Don’s conquests, no masks on the wedding guests, a Burger King take-away for a dinner-party, twigs for the Commendatore’s statue and certainly no flames at the finale), but that’s balanced with a reasonably fresh take on the themes, some strong singing and fine acting that is more naturalistic than the usual operatic gesturing, and a fascinating visual presentation in terms of its design and conceptualisation.