November 2010


KabanovaLeos Janáček - Katia Kabanova

Teatro Real de Madrid, December 2008 | Jiri Belohlavek, Robert Carsen, Karita Mattila, Oleq Bryjak, Miroslav Dvorsky, Dalia Schaechter, Guy De Mey, Gordon Gietz, Natascha Petrinsky, Marco Moncloa, Itxaro Mentxaka, María José Suárez | FRA Productions

I liked Robert Carsen’s stage design for the NY Met production of Eugene Onegin where he employed a large three-sided “light-box” with minimal props, but made use of the lighting and autumnal colours to perfectly complement the tone of Tchaikovsky’s dramatic and emotionally turbulent opera. Carsen’s Brechtian design for Katia Kabanova at Madrid’s Teatro Real in 2008 is similarly austere and emotionally resonant, and again it seems to me to be perfectly complementary for an opera whose storyline has the potential to be melodramatic, yet is served so much better if it is coolly and delicately underplayed.

The emotion is downplayed in this production on almost every front of the theatrical presentation to better let the music and the singing speak for itself. The staging is restricted to boarding that is rearranged by what seems like water-nymphs or drowned lost souls, and rests on a couple of inches of water. The intention is to evoke the presence of the Volga, where the drama takes place in the little town of Kalinov, and emphasise the importance of the location and the significance that water plays throughout. If the concept is a little over-pronounced, it nonetheless proves highly effective, creating a calming impression, occasionally showing ripples and casting reflections on the mirrored background. With the use of lighting - impeccably lit and coloured - it establishes a perfect location that connects with the emotional resonance of the drama, without being too heavy-handed or obvious in the symbolism. It just feels absolutely right and it looks marvellous.

The reason why it feels perfect, is that it supports the important elements of the performance without imposing a false presence that could either overstate or take away from the intent of Janáček’s score - wonderfully played by the Teatro Real Orchestra conducted by Jiri Belohlavek - or indeed from the fine performances and singing. Katya is a complex character who undergoes some quite brutal treatment and yet remains despite of it all in thrall to her interior life, and it’s all too easy to highlight the grimness of the external drama at the expense of the beauty of the person inside. The only other staging I’ve seen of the opera placed emphasis - quite effectively, as it happens - on a recreation of a grim East European tenement block - but the concept here seems much more imaginative and in tune with the tone of the music. The contrast in Katya’s personality can also lead to over-emphasis bordering on madness, but Karita Mattila finds a perfect balance here in her acting performance and in her singing, exuberant in the right places, despairing in others, but reserved and internalised where necessary at the key moments.

Everything is pretty much as it should be in terms of the technical specifications of the FRA Blu-ray disc. A 1080i encode, presented in 16:9 widescreen, the image looks slightly soft, perhaps on account of the low lighting, but it fully captures the tones of the subdued but limpid lighting. The soundtrack comes with the standard PCM and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes, both of which perform well. The surround mix disperses the orchestration effectively, but on an empty stage the singing can seem a little echoing at times. It’s never less than powerful however. Really, High Definition and opera is a match made in heaven and this disc shows why. The Blu-ray includes a 24-minute interview with Robert Carsen and Jiri Belohlavek. In the spirit of the production, the booklet includes a detailed synopsis that doubles as a fine interpretative essay on the opera.

ElektraRichard Strauss - Elektra

Baden-Baden Festspielhaus, 2010 | Munich Philharmonic, Christian Thielemann, Herbert Wernicke, Linda Watson, Jane Henshel, Manuela Uhl, René Kollo, Albert Dohmen | Opus Arte

The concept behind the presentation of this 2010 Baden-Baden Festspielhaus production of Elektra is immediately apparent and impactful – it’s a stark and brutal representation of Richard Strauss’ dark, brooding and bloody retelling of the Sophocles’ classic mythological drama. As if to reflect the powerful emotions of despair and sentiments of revenge that dominate the tone of the opera, the staging, the lighting, the choreography – more like a concert performance than a dramatically staged opera – all seek to emphasise the loss and isolation of the principal characters.

The Baden-Baden Festspielhaus is a huge stage, and stage director Herbert Wernicke takes full advantage of it, with stark lighting, and minimal use of backgrounds, props or movement, isolating the characters who are all entirely wrapped up in their own grief and torments. The vast stage is however amply filled by the formidable presence of Linda Watson and Jane Henschel as Electra and Clytemnestra, with their small but imposing stature and powerful singing. The charge that they bring to the complex relationship between the mythological mother and daughter – one that of course has become archetypal – is remarkable. Strauss’ chilling, sinister score is equally effective in filling the void that exists between them, not so much underscoring every jibe, cutting remark, underlying threat and menacing gesture, as much as dissecting it in a manner that the listener can physically feel every nuance of an emotional soundscape that is bristling with murderous intent.

Much like Salome that preceded it, with the imagery of doom and bloodletting even more pronounced here, Elektra is consequently a draining experience, even for its relative shortness, which is precisely how it is meant to feel. Conductor Christian Thielemann brings that out with delicacy and without any blood and thunder – or at least not too much – allowing the Munich Philharmonic to blend with the outstanding singing performances in a manner that allows the piece to resonate with almost unbearable sustained tension and menace. There Karl Böhm Elektra would appear to be the best DVD of this opera to date and the one that this attempts to better, but while I haven’t seen that version and can’t compare relative merits, this is nonetheless a strong and faithful production on its own terms.

The starkness of the staging doesn’t really allow the HD presentation on the Blu-ray to shine, finding it difficult to display the huge blocks of black backgrounds, which consequently look quite grainy. The stark white spotlights and the deep reds however are impressively rendered. The sound balance appears to have been carefully mixed in both the PCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks to allow both singing and orchestration plenty of room to breathe, with deep reverberation on those lower register chords. Other than Cast information, the only extra feature on the disc is a 15-minute Making of Elektra which is an interesting and sufficiently in-depth look at the background of the production.