December 2010


GiovanniWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Glyndebourne 2010 | Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Vladimir Jurowski, Jonathan Kent, Gerald Finley, Luca Pisaroni, Brindley Sherratt, Anna Samuil, William Burden, Kate Royal, Anna Virovlansky, Guido Loconsolo | BBC Two

The concept behind Jonathan Kent’s production of Don Giovanni for Glyndebourne 2010 is somewhat tenuous in how its 1950s’ setting relates to the pre-Enlightenment years of the opera’s original period. It’s not that Don Giovanni doesn’t bear up well to modern interpretations – it’s perhaps the Mozart opera most apt and subject to contemporary reworking – it’s just that the production’s supposed “Fellini-esque vision of post-war life” seems a little drab and, even with the free-love of the 1960s just around the corner, it doesn’t really seem to grasp the spirit of the period or present all that convincing a parallel to the Age of Enlightenment.

Mozart and Da Ponte’s treatment of the legend of Don Juan however is still quite shocking and daring right from the outset here, as Don Giovanni rapes Donna Anna and kills her father the Commendatore while trying to escape from her bedroom. Ostensibly a libertine, believing in the pursuit of pleasure above all else – certainly above consideration for other people – the reality is however that the promiscuous nobleman has lost touch with his own humanity and with whatever dubious justifications that could have been made for his beneficent spreading of his love around half of Europe.

The Glyndebourne production at least starts off like it intends to make something of this risqué premise, with a quite brutal enactment of the rape and murder scene, but thereafter, the production settles down to a rather non-committal blandness. The 1950s setting doesn’t really suit the wider European expansive viewpoint of the continental philanderer, but rather closes it down without seeming to bring any exciting or meaningful new ideas to the table in its place. With one of Mozart’s most dynamic scores and Da Ponte’s sparkling, witty libretto that turns at the drop of a hat from comedy to tragedy, that has moments of abject cruelty interspersed with the most exquisite tenderness, there’s no excuse really for a production of Don Giovanni being dull and lifeless.

The drabness and unimaginativeness of the setting (although technically impressive) is unfortunately reflected in the performances, which rather lack commitment. Everyone, but everyone, – particularly Anna Samuil’s Donna Anna – seems to walk around in a trance, scarcely showing any feeling or expression of the predilections and predicaments of their characters. The singing is generally fine throughout, with a delicate touch – the same can be said about the orchestration by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on period instruments under the direction of Vladimir Jurowski – all very nicely and smoothly played, but much too nicely, with no passion, no torment, no raging desire and no agony of betrayal. It’s all performed exceptionally well, but with no real fire.

Giovanni

It’s only towards the end of Act 1 that the purpose of the setting and the Fellini-esque elements come into play, with a wonderfully hedonistic party straight out of La Dolce Vita. For all the lack of fire elsewhere, the close to the first Act quite literally sets the stage alight, as the Don Giovanni’s ambitions are unmasked at the party by his guests, their accusations directed forcefully against the libertine, and with it a condemnation that prefigures the damnation of the nobleman for his crimes against humanity. With his Polaroids of the Don’s conquests, Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello here then is the Paparazzo to the Gerald Finley’s Marcello, the two of them on a search for the ultimate high in the swinging lifestyle of the rich and famous. Like Marcello, Don Giovanni has pushed his hedonistic excesses to their limit, losing his humanity in the process, and his only recourse is towards the spiritual or the supernatural. Don Giovanni’s downfall then lies not so much in any kind of divine or infernal retribution as much as the inevitable result of his hubris for believing himself above mere mortals and worthy of dining with those on an unearthly plane.

While the concept behind the staging comes briefly through at this point and there are one or two other fine moments (a tender scene between Zerlina and Masetto and a blood-spurting finale that is more Night of the Living Dead than La Dolce Vita), the remainder of the production unfortunately seems to rather go through the motions of delivering the story and its moral without adding anything new or challenging to the conventional line. The singers likewise seem to concentrate on delivering their lines and on hitting all the right notes at the right points, but without any real fire or ambition. All in all, it’s a fine production that keeps the story accessible and meaningful, but there’s not much here that can be said to be memorable.

RigolettoThe Best of European Opera 2010

BBC Four, Sat 25th December 2010, 7:00pm

BBC Four’s The Best of European Opera 2010 focussed on a number of extraordinarily inventive stage productions of mostly lesser-known or at least lesser-performed operas over the last year, showing that, regardless of the avant-garde nature of some of the works, there is no lack of ambition or drive to attract and engage new audiences. That drive has been evident in the BBC’s programming, most of it for BBC Four, with a series of programmes dedicated to different aspects of opera from a historical and a modern perspective. Anyone who has been following the TV programming of opera will have at least come across two of the exceptional productions featured in this programme, both of them featuring Plácido Domingo in his new reinvented form towards the end of his singing career, as a baritone. Much was made of his debuting his new singing voice (although Domingo did in fact begin his career briefly as a baritone) in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, broadcast live from the Royal Opera House, and reprised in concert form for the 2010 Proms, and he was indeed in spectacular form, vocally, as well as demonstrating his marvellous acting ability. The two go hand-in-hand, making him still a formidable presence on the stage and, on the evidence of this and the other television highlight of the year, still not ready yet for retirement.

That other event, featured also in the programme, was the live performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto, shot in Mantua, directed by the great Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio with Vittorio Storaro as director of photography. Broadcast over two nights, on the actual palatial locations specified in the libretto and at the corresponding times of the day, broadcast live to over 140 countries over the world on prime-time TV, this was an enormous logistically challenge, as well as highly demanding of the performers, but the results were simply spectacular. Magnificently lit and choreographed, the roles were not only superbly sung, but also extremely well-acted, giving the opera a sense of authenticity in the tense emotions on display. The clip shown, a spellbinding scene from the short but pivotal Second Act, gives some indication of just how good this was, with Julia Novokova measuring up well as Gilda to Domingo’s hunchbacked court jester.

The other performances highlighted in the programme were no less inventive in their state-of-the-art theatrical productions. Perhaps surprisingly – but perhaps not, when it is easier to play safe – many of the more risky ventures were not from the major European opera houses. The Birmingham Opera Company, under the direction of Graham Vick, used an abandoned warehouse on an industrial estate for their contemporary, multi-ethnic production of Verdi’s Othello, spectators and performers intermingling in what must have been a thrilling and engaging experience (it would fare less well it seems on screen). A similar new way of engaging the audience in an unconventional theatrical environment was evident in the ever inventive Willy Decker’s production of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron for the Ruhr Triennale, with the seating on moving platforms and the performance taking place in between, making use of projections and the unique qualities of a decommissioned factory floor space.

Moses

The Gran Teatre de Liceu in Barcelona however showed what could be done in a conventional environment, the programme highlighting a remarkable performance by Diana Damrau as Kostanz in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, showing a remarkable new talent in the making. At La Monnaie in Belgium on the other hand, one of the greats, José van Dam, bowed out in style in a spectacular production of Massanet’s Don Quichotte. In Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam, Martin Kuöej staged Wagner’s Die fliegende Holländer in a contemporary setting, with the Dutchman’s crew a band of refugees set against a conflict between the have-nots and a rich elite.  Two relatively new opera houses had notable productions, the Baltic Opera near Gdansk in Poland setting Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in a lunatic asylum in Marek Weiss’s staging, while Oslo’s new Den Norske Opera’s new 2008 opera-house staged an inventive new opera by Gisle Kverndokk, Around The World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg and Passepartout travelling through the world of opera (a clip showed the couple in Paris attending one of la Violetta Valéry’s parties from La Traviata).

A fine addition to the opera programming by the BBC this year, BBC Four’s guide to the Best of European Opera 2010 was a heartening reminder of the enormous vitality and healthy state of modern and classic opera around the world – creatively at least, if not always financially, in these economically difficult times.

The Best of European Opera 2010 will be re-broadcast on BBC Four on Sunday 3rd January 2011 at 7pm.

GamblerSergei Prokofiev - The Gambler

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin, 2008 | Daniel Barenboim, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Vladimir Ognovenko, Kristine Opolais, Misha Didyk, Stefania Toczyska | Unitel Classica - C-Major

Dostoevsky’s short novella The Gambler is usually paired in book form with Poor Folk, the two stories reflecting rather contrasting themes and styles, but also in a way complementing each other. In Poor Folk, (if memory serves me correctly) a letter-writing couple find that their choices are limited, and the nature of their love defined and denied by the more pressing efforts put into simply struggling to exist. The characters in The Gambler on the other hand may appear to have so much money that they can fritter thousands away on the spin of a roulette wheel, but in reality they are similarly trapped in a lifestyle that restricts and distorts their course of their lives and their actions towards other people. In many ways both stories say a lot about social distinctions, but more in a way that reveals various attitudes and aspects of the Russian character.

Prokofiev’s opera version of The Gambler adheres fairly closely to the characters, themes and narrative of Dostoevsky’s book, the action set in a resort town of Roulettenburg, where the General, his family and entourage are staying at a hotel and making use of its casino. Alexsy, the tutor, has recklessly lost all of the General’s step-daughter Polina’s money on a game of roulette, but is determined to do everything he can to not so much win it back – though that would help – as much as win her favour. Polina however is toying with him, at the same time as accepting the advances of the Marquis, urging Alexsy on to act outrageously towards Baron and Baroness Wurmerhelm. The General meanwhile is in serious debt to the Marquis, but is expecting to gain an inheritance from the imminent demise of his mother. His engagement to Blanche rests on this inheritance also, since it is clear that she will not stick around unless the money comes through. To everyone’s great surprise however, the ailing old lady, Babulenka, thought to be on the point of death, turns up in Roulettenburg, with her own ideas on how to spend her money.

Composed in 1916, The Gambler is a little-known and rarely performed early Prokofiev work, and it’s not the easiest opera to like. It’s filled with unsympathetic, rather hateful characters whose sense of reality and the nature of their relationships with other people have been corrupted by money.  The music and singing moreover are not exactly harmonious – you won’t find any hummable arias here. On the other hand, the rising fever pitch that eventually explodes in Act 4 (with some magnificent singing in the last two Acts) is perfectly appropriate for qualities and themes of Dostoevsky’s work, and those are brought out exceptionally well in controversial director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging for the 2008 production at the Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin. A modern-day staging (there’s nothing in this opera that fixes it in any period, and the themes are completely relevant and modern), Tcherniakov assists in putting across the complexity of the relationships between the characters by allowing different rooms of the hotel and casino to be seen simultaneously in a kind of split-screen form, adding to the picture we have of the personalities, even contradicting and contrasting what is being said by the characters with what is really going on behind the scenes.

Prokofiev’s score does much the same thing, underscoring the behaviour of the characters with emphatic woodwind trills, staccato strings and deep notes from the brass section. The DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track on the Blu-ray disc is marvellous for capturing the huge dynamic range of the score, balancing the mix superbly between the singing and the orchestra. Partly that’s down to the scoring being composed not to compete with the singing but rather support it, partly that’s down to Barenboim’s management of the orchestra, and partly it’s down to the excellent surround mix. Consequently the singing dominates and is strong and clear, but when the orchestral parts and flourishes are called for, they are almost overwhelmingly powerful. The 1080/60i transfer is perfectly clear, the direction for television (with some side-stage angles) capturing the flow of what is occurring on the stage. Other than some brief notes in the booklet, there are no extra features on the disc.

Don CarloGiuseppe Verdi - Don Carlo

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Nicholas Hytner, Marina Poplavskaya, Anna Smirovna, Roberto Alagna, Simon Keenlyside, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Eric Halfvarson. | The Met: Live in HD - December 11, 2010

Verdi’s Don Carlo is a great example of how opera has the power not only to transform and heighten reality, but also to evoke and elevate the nature of human emotions and aspirations in a manner that no other artform can match. It’s not that the original historical circumstances of the real-life Don Carlos need a semi-fictionalised dramatisation, being rather interesting in their own right. Elisabeth de Valois was indeed betrothed to the Spanish prince Don Carlos but eventually married to his father King Philip II, a union between the French and Spanish royalty that would lead to the peace treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559. Where real-life is stranger than fiction is the fact that Elisabeth was actually 13 years old when she married the 32 year-old King, while Don Carlos, aged 14, was a lame, epileptic hunchback with a stutter.

Some creative licence is required then upon the part of the composer and the librettists (Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle), and some suspension of belief is required on the part of the audience to the love-at-first-sight encounter between Carlo and Elisabeth in the forests of Fontainebleau at the beginning of the opera, but it is all towards a greater good and a deeper emotional truth. Of course, it’s not just opera that plays fast and loose with historical accuracy for the sake of drama and art – one need look no further than Shakespeare, or indeed Friedrich Schiller, whose original play is adapted in Verdi’s version of the story of Don Carlo. The encounter between the two young people and the love that briefly inflames them is only the starting point for the great complexity of emotions and conflict that exists between no less than six principal characters, each of them with distinct ambitions and personalities, each of them with different facets to those personalities depending on the person they are dealing with. It is here that opera goes to places that other art forms can’t reach.

It is not common for there to be so many principal characters is an opera and Don Carlo is consequently Verdi’s most complex and sometimes difficult opera – at three and a half-hours long, it is not quite as accessible in its subject, themes or its musicality for example, as the more popular Verdi operas like La Traviata or Aida. Simply listening to Don Carlo on CD isn’t enough to reveal its layers of complexity, and it’s certainly an opera I’ve struggled with in the past for those reasons. Seeing it performed live on stage, undergoing particular interpretations in performance and staging, will bring out the dramatic power of the opera better, revealing how well the dark tones of the music work with the deep brooding performances, but, personally speaking, The Metropolitan Opera’s latest production (a co-production with the ROH, Covent Garden and the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet), broadcast live on December 11, as part of The Met Live in HD’s 2010-11 season to cinema theatres worldwide, was a complete revelation of the opera’s qualities.

What can seem like inconsistencies in the behaviour of the characters and in the performances of the singers, is revealed in this powerful but nuanced production to reflect the multifaceted nature of the characters, their changing moods and temperaments, and the duality of their inner conflicts between duty and their own personal desires. And, my goodness, related to the political turmoil in Europe in the 16th century, taking place between major historical figures and royalty with their duty towards their citizens, and with conflicting political, religious and personal aspirations and ambitions, those are drives on another scale entirely. The sweep that uplifts Don Carlo in his love for Elisabeth at the start of the opera (a relationship that reaches Greek mythological proportions when she becomes his “mother”), only plunges him deeper into despair and to almost dying at the loss of that love in her marriage to his father.Don Carlo

That same dynamic can be seen in each of the character’s own personal struggles, which is impressive enough on this kind of scale, and in so many principal characters, but it is infinitely more complicated when there is interaction between them. A good performance of the opera, mainly in the singing, can bring out subtle nuances of the different levels that the characters are working on, but it also requires strong acting, and that was assuredly in evidence here, particularly on the part of Marina Poplavskaya as Elisabeth, and the most historically complex character of King Philip, marvellously interpreted by Ferruccio Furlanetto. If there were any weaknesses in Poplavskaya’s singing, they were minor and to be expected for a young singer making a name for herself, in a technically difficult role. This was however more than made up for in an impassioned and superbly acted performance that relied heavily on glances and body language as much as in what was said, particularly when the two often contradict one another. Such subtlety can only be conveyed fully when the music is there to support it, and Verdi’s scoring is magnificent in this respect, contributing just as significantly to the definitions of the characters, and that was equally effectively achieved in the orchestration under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Even so, no matter how good the production and the performances, even watching this live in the theatre, you are not going to pick all these qualities up from a seat at the back of the stalls, and it’s here that Opera Live in HD comes into its own, picking up little details in the gestures and expressions of the singers in close-up, emphasising the framing and positioning of the characters in relation to one another on the stage. Nicholas Hytner’s staging is perhaps not as impressive as other Met productions this season, but it succeeds nonetheless in bringing the elements effectively together. One’s appreciation of the efforts put into the production are deepened by the interviews with the cast in the intervals, literally, just as they come off the stage, and even by the behind-the-curtains looks at the stage-hands getting the huge sets into place for the next act. From an eye-catching and ear-splitting opening with Robert Lepage’s Das Rheingold for a new Wagner Ring cycle production, the standard was set a very high level for the Met’s new season of Live in HD broadcasts, and subsequent productions have continued to impress right up to the invigorating and buoyant Don Pasquale last month, but Don Carlo may well top them all.

MireilleCharles-François Gounod - Mireille

L’Opéra National de Paris, 2009 | Marc Minkowski, Nicolas Joel, Inva Mula, Charles Castronovo, Sebastien Droy | FRA Productions

There would appear to be some questions of the value of Gounod’s forgotten 1864 opera and some risks involved in the director of the Paris opera, Nicolas Joel, reviving it for its Paris Opera premiere in 2009, but watching and listening to it now, restored as closely as possible to the original intentions of the composer, it seems extraordinary that Mireille has been overlooked so long and has never been part of the French opera repertoire.

Certainly Mireille and its subject matter are somewhat old-fashioned, the opera tied very strongly to its source in the romantic and bucolic 19th century Provençal poetry of Fredéric Mistral, but Gounod’s musical interpretation of the material is practically perfect.  The pastoral scenes of ordinary workers in the fields, their modest hopes and ambitions for nothing more than a pure love are elevated to a dramatically romantic level by the lush arrangements and beautiful arias, Gounod even introducing folk dances of the region into the score and the performance.  In some ways it’s a five-act version of Cavalleria Rusticana and ultimately, it’s just as emotionally charged.

The Opéra National de Paris’ production is equally as impressive, the staging concretely literal, Joel putting the sun-drenched fields of Provence right up there on the stage of the Palais Garnier.  The themes are certainly of the kind that could perhaps bear a more abstract lyrical interpretation – the sun, the land and religious fervour or faith being dominant themes throughout – but there are no modernisations or clever concepts, and the style remains traditional, but no less amazing for it.

The stage is superbly and brilliantly lit to evoke the light and colours of a cornfield in the south of France in midsummer, darkened to evoke the Rhône at midnight, blazing at the key scene of the Le Crau desert, with sultry dusks and twilights in between.  It’s perhaps over-literal in this respect, the drama accordingly heightened with the evocation of the summer moods and taken to the extremes of religious fervour, but it seems perfectly in keeping with the nature of the region and the lyricism of the Provençal poets.  Inva Mula is positively luminous as Mireille, capturing all the intensity of the extreme emotional journey she undergoes, brilliantly supported by the orchestra of the Paris opera, who are conducted with élan by Marc Minkowski.

The Blu-ray presentation, a Francois Roussillon production, captures the occasion perfectly in High Definition, the golden colours of the set and the lighting exploding off the screen.  The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix catches the tone of the orchestration and singing well and disperses it beautifully.  For some strange reason, the scene selection doesn’t work on my copy, all selections taking you invariably to the beginning of the opera, but the chaptering allows you to get where you want without much difficulty.  The BD comes with an interview featurette and a booklet with a synopsis.