March 2011


AriadneRichard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006 | Christoph von Dohnányi, Claus Guth, Alexander Pereira, Michael Volle, Michelle Breedt, Roberto Saccà, Guy de Mey, Elena Moşuc, Emily Magee, Gabriel Bermúdez | TDK

Claus Guth’s opera productions are known for being psychologically-based – delving into an old, familiar work – as in his productions of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas, or in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride – and seeing whether a more modern outlook and a wider consideration of the composer’s intentions can’t illuminate some aspects of the characters’ behaviour. As such, it would seem that Guth has had all his work done for him when it comes to this 2006 production for the Opernhaus Zürich of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera about the composing of an opera that is so self-reflexive that it surely doesn’t need any further deconstruction.

One wonders whether Strauss was thinking in part about his own opera Der Rosenkavalier, when he came to write Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera about an opera that mixes opera seria with opera buffa, that is played out in the most farcical, old fashioned and self-absorbed manner, while at the same time making a comment on serious deeper underlying aspects that the farce helps illuminate. Der Rosenkavalier is even self-reflexive itself on the nature of opera composition, on the history of opera, on the ability of opera to mix singing, drama and music, to be able to mix serious elements and low-brow comedy and through this unusual combination of elements be able to reach deeper truths about life, about love, about time and our place in it all.

It’s already been done in Der Rosenkavalier, so is there anything else that can be brought out of the idea by making the idea the entire purpose of Ariadne auf Naxos? Well, in the very premise – a wealthy patron decides to combine two operas that he has commissioned, one a commedia dell’arte farce, the other a serious treatment of a classical subject, so that both will be finished in time to entertain his guests with a fireworks display at 9 o’clock – there’s certainly a satire on the commerce of opera. Opera can aspire to high art, but it also needs to entertain and the two need not be mutually exclusive. There’s also a great deal of satire involved at the expense of the precious composer who cannot bear to see others destroy all his work and serious intentions, who also has to deal with the conflicting demands of his leading singers and their egos.

If the prologue is almost stultifyingly predictable in its high-brow cleverness and in the so-called comedy of this set-up – played out largely unmusically in near-recitative parlando – the proof of the concept is in the “opera” itself. Even using commedia dell’arte standard character type and classical archetypes, the manner in which they collide with each other brings out underlying truths about human nature in each of them, aided and assisted by the power of music, “the holiest of arts”. Thus the humble Zerbinetta, seemingly at ease and taking pleasure in the nature of love affairs between men and women, is nonetheless able to understand the deep suffering that Ariadne, abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, is undergoing, but although “the grief of illustrious and noble persons mustn’t be measured by the standards of mere mortals”, Zerbinetta asks, “But are we not both women?”, and she herself has been abandoned to countless desert islands. When Bacchus arrives then, himself in torment, Ariadne recognises that her suffering hasn’t been in vain, but rather leaves her born anew, with a new god to worship – not man as a god, but the love that springs up in this new ground that lies between them – and Zerbinetta smiles in silent recognition.

In some ways, the truth of Ariadne auf Naxos and the collision between life and art is borne out in the actual difficulties of its composition and the struggle between Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal to strike a balance between communicating ideas through the words and expressing it in the music – an idea developed further in Capriccio – making the opera entertaining and having something important to say, while also being comprehensible. Out of the dialectic collision in Ariadne auf Naxos (and Der Rosenkavalier) of the German opera influences of Mozart’s buffa tragic-comedies and Wagner’s lyrical romanticism, Strauss and von Hofmannsthal hope to demonstrate their theory and move towards a more modern form of opera. It may not be considered as important or as revolutionary as Wagner’s theories (the musical and thematic concerns of Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal are very evident in Ariadne auf Naxos), or Gluck’s before him, and the balance between theory and practice may not be entirely satisfactory, but it would lead the way to further developments in Strauss’s career and have an undeniable impact on the modern form of opera as we know it today.

Ariadne

That the opera itself is set in the present, or in a relatively modern context as opposed to its antiquity or commedia dell’arte setting, isn’t unexpected from Claus Guth – but what is strange is that at least up until the close of the double curtains, there is never any sense of it being an opera – a compromised opera – within an opera. The meta-level of the Prologue is kept almost completely separate from the main opera (apart of course from the flawed human actors who are metamorphosed through the magic of opera into exquisite beings) and it is played completely straight, notwithstanding the fact that the setting – not an island, but a detailed representation of the famous Kronenhalle restaurant in Zurich, where Ariadne is lamenting her woes over a bottle of wine – is much too elaborate to be a small production for assembled guests at a dinner party.

Going to such detail and with such realism, one has to conclude that Guth clearly wants to make the opera meaningful to a Swiss audience, drawing lines between the aristocracy and the lower classes in the split between the serious and the comedy, between the mythological characters and the opera buffa characters, and is trying to find something relevant to the operas themes in this opera-class conflict. Perhaps a Swiss audience is able to derive some deeper meaning from this than myself, but it’s certainly a valid aim to present a 21st century take on an opera that is itself a 20th century take on older styles of opera composition, continually refreshing it and exploring the contrasts for some new resonance.

Much as I find some aspects of Ariadne unsatisfying as an opera – mostly with it trying just too hard to be clever and witty – it does at least have this to always making it interesting and always capable of revealing new ideas. If that fails – and I’m not sure it works terribly well in this case, only adding to the self-referential complexity – there is at least always the most beautiful music and singing in the monologues of Ariadne and Zerbinetta, Strauss as ever writing beautifully for women’s voices, and in particular putting some of the most challenging singing in the entire opera repertoire into the role of Zerbinetta. The singing in this production is superb – Elena Moşuc a vibrant Zerbinetta, Emily Magee a strong, elegant Ariadne, Roberto Saccà a beautifully lyrical tenor Bacchus – but then in this opera, it really can’t be anything else.

TDK’s Blu-ray of the production is fine, the transfer showing the detail in the well-lit sets. Audio options are LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1, the surround track having the advantage of the wider range and sounding marvellous. Other than a couple of Trailers, there are no extra features, interviews or looks behind-the-scenes.

RosenkavalierRichard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

Baden-Baden Festspielhaus, 2009 | Munich Philharmonic, Christian Thielemann, Herbert Wernicke, Renée Fleming, Sophie Koch, Diana Damrau, Franz Hawlata, Franz Grundheber, Jonas Kaufmann, Jane Henschel | Decca

The staging for this Festspiele Baden-Baden production, directed by Herbert Wernicke and conducted by Christian Thielemann, is as sumptuous as Richard Strauss’s score and, surrounded by mirrors that amplify the stage, it’s as languidly self-reflective as Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s original libretto. The choice not to stage it as strictly period in the setting of Marie-Therese’s Vienna around 1740 is somewhat contrary to the composers’ desire to recreate a sense of the light indulgence of the period (and in the process break away from the dark dissonance of Strauss’s previous operas Salome and Elektra), but the libretto and score are, in most sections, strong enough on their own, and so well thematically constructed that Der Rosenkavalier can stand up to a modern, or, in this case, an almost fairy-tale pantomime-like setting.

There is a richness of means by which to enjoy Strauss’s most popular opera, which flits from moment to moment, slipping from happiness into despair, from love into comedy, but principally, it is indeed about being in the moment, living in the moment, but that even within the moment, there are many contradictory thoughts and emotions pulling at one. All this is contained within the playful storyline and within the music that underscores it. Like all Strauss’s work, Der Rosenkavalier takes the language of post-Wagner late-Romanticism opera another stage further into modernity, not just accompanying the voice, not just heightening the emotional tone of the drama or just using leitmotifs to form a musical coherency and symbolism, but presenting the phrasing with an infinite number of meanings and inflections, hinting at deeper underlying psychology and richness of character, living in the moment and crystallising it in melody, but with a deeper consideration for the personality of the characters and particularly in the intricate web that is created through human interaction.

In Act One of the opera, the Feldmarshallin, Princess Marie-Therese, is living in the moment of bliss in her boudoir with her young 17 year-old lover Octavian, heedless of the clamour outside, but dealing in her own time with the levee visitors, including Ochs, the Baron von Lerchenau, who is looking for a relative to deliver a traditional Silver Rose to his young 15 year-old fiancée Sophie. Over the course of the morning, the Marschallin comes to a recognition that she will get old and that Octavian will also move on in time and become like the boorish woman-chasing Baron himself. All these thoughts crowd into the moment at the end of the first Act, leaving her melancholic and reflective, the whole morning flowing to this point and then unstoppably beyond, aided by the lush, evocative scoring by Strauss that draws on a wealth of references and motifs.

Rosenkavalier

In Act Two Sophie is also living in the moment as a young bride-to-be, but when the rose is delivered by Octavian the two young people fall in love with each other, the two of them also caught up in the moment, living for the wonder of the sensation, Octavian begging of Sophie to “remain as you are”. As Octavian plans to rescue Sophie from the clutches of the decrepit Baron, donning his disguise from Act 1’s bedroom farce as the Marschallin’s maid Mariandel for Act 3’s comedy situations, Der Rosenkavalier becomes – for me personally – rather less compelling, at least up until the reappearance of the Marschallin (which here has the additional benefit of some exceptional singing and subtle acting from the ever-wonderful, self-possessed and appropriately regal Renée Fleming), ending with a set of the most exquisite duets and the opera’s incredible trio. In between however, as the characters self-reflexively note, it’s “a farce and nothing more”, “a Viennese masquerade and nothing more”.

Well, it is and it isn’t – nothing is so straightforward in Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss is fully aware of the buffa conventions he is playing with, all of which are complementary to the period in opera terms – not least in the Cherubino-style cross-dressing of a female singer playing a male character who dresses up as a female – and he approaches the scoring of the farce with no less detail and underlying thoughtfulness than anywhere else, knowing that – as Ariadne auf Naxos made explicit – that the strength of the work is in how the diparate elements work off each other. Personally, I feel that it’s often rather too clever for its own good however and, like much of Strauss’s work, it’s rather distanced, controlled and too precise, allowing in little real human feeling or ambiguity, creating a perfect semblance of life like the crystallised silver rose that this production rather ambitiously replaces with a real one at the end.

I’m not entirely convinced by Herbert Wernicke’s production, created for Salzburg and played here at the Festspiele Baden-Baden in 2009 with the Munich Philharmonic under Thielemann, but it does at least create a productive environment for the singers. The 1962 film version starring Elisabeth Schwarzkopf casts a long shadow over the work, but no opera work should ever be considered definitive, and every one of the main performers here – an exceptional cast that includes Renée Fleming, Sophie Koch, Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann – brings something interesting to their characters, with fine performances in both singing and acting terms, as does the ever interesting Thielemann when interpreting Strauss. The Blu-ray edition from Decca/Unitel Classica looks and sounds marvellous, the performance directed for the screen by the ever reliable Brian Large. Audio tracks are the usual LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. Subtitles are English, French, German, Spanish and Chinese. The Blu-ray also contains a 32 minute look at the opera from the perspective of the conductor and the main singers, who all provide interesting views on the piece, and a booklet with synopsis and a superb essay on the opera by Bryan Gilmore.

LammermoorGaetano Donizetti – Lucia di Lammermoor

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Patrick Summers, Mary Zimmerman, Natalie Dessay, Joseph Calleja, Ludovic Tézier, Kwangchul Youn | The Met: Live in HD - March 19, 2011

Donizetti’s bel canto operas, with their emphasis on elaborate ornamentation of extremely challenging vocal parts that would give their lead players an opportunity to demonstrate the virtuosity of their singing, were considered somewhat old-fashioned even by the end of the nineteenth century when the huge influence of Richard Wagner put dramatic content back at the heart of the music-drama. Of all Donizetti’s operas, it’s the dramatic tragedy of Lucia de Lammermoor (1835) that is considered to be the opera that gives its prima donna the opportunity to demonstrate her vocal prowess.

It’s a role therefore that Natalie Dessay, along with perhaps La Fille du Regiment, is most associated with, and it’s clearly a role that the French soprano relishes. Dessay starred in the first run of the oft-criticised Mary Zimmerman’s much-maligned 2007 production, and, indulged by the current conductor Patrick Summers, she clearly delights in adding a capella embellishments to the coloratura – particularly in Lucia’s “Mad Scene” at her wedding. There were some worrying signs at the start of the performance that her voice might no longer be quite up to it or that it was showing signs of tiredness perhaps from rather overdoing things in the current run of performances (this Live in HD broadcast was the last Lucia of the season), but Dessay in her interval interview put it down to a dry throat, and certainly didn’t let it affect her extraordinary performance elsewhere.

What is even more wonderful about her performance is that, while fully rising to the challenges of Lucia’s vocal parts, she also managed to remain focussed on her character’s dramatic journey of gradual disintegration. Lucia is torn between she man she loves, Edgardo di Ravenswood, and the duty towards her family, the Ashtons, and comes to feel that she is being used in the great feud that has existed between the two families. Those concerns are heightened by her own fragile state of mind, one perhaps made fragile because of the long-running rivalry that has seen other tragic events take place, events in the past that leave ghosts in the grounds of Lammermoor castle that still haunt Lucia.

Based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott, this is the stuff of pure melodrama however, and it can’t honestly be said that Donizetti seeks to give it any greater psychological depth or dramatic credibility, either through the playing out of the intense scenes or through any subtlety in the musical composition of the piece. It’s straightforward blood-and-thunder melodrama fuelled by jealousy and political rivalry (one can see the huge influence the piece has on the works of Verdi in this respect, as well as in some of the musical arrangements), with expressions of deeply romantic and forbidden love, swooning heroines, challenges to duels – the restored Wolf’s Crag scene, often cut, is intact here at the beginning of Act 3, only adding to an already over-heated situation – and of course a descent into pure madness and death with thunderstorms raging outside.

Lammermoor

All of which would seem to give credence to the rather old-fashioned nature of the opera as little more than a dramatic piece for the leading diva to show off her credentials, and in some cases even make a name for herself. To mess about with any of these elements or to try to downplay those excesses could prove fatal to the sheer crowd-pleasing enjoyment that the opera, with its beautiful melodies and dramatic sense of purpose nevertheless contains. This production somehow manages to successfully retain all these elements, while also managing to give a little more depth to the piece, or at least, by even including the presence of real ghosts, throw up other elements for consideration.

Partly, that’s down to the fine production that stirs up echoes of the best cinematic equivalents – the likes of Hitchcock’s Rebecca, the 1943 Jane Eyre starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine and even Dreyer’s silent film Michael – films likewise of a bygone age, made during the silent period or shortly afterwards, made to a style that is somewhat old-fashioned now, but still retaining an enormous power of the “they don’t make them like that anymore” kind. They don’t make operas like Lucia di Lammermoor anymore either, but they should be cherished and lavished with a sympathetic presentation and that is fully achieved in the elaborate sets that reach upwards, like an old film in academy ratio rather than in widescreen. If filmed, and shown in black-and-white, this Lucia di Lammermoor could convincingly pass for a film from the late 1930s or early 1940s, in its style, in its content and in its production values.

Given that kind of stage to work with, each of the singers fully enter into the spirit of the drama, but some try to bring a little more shading to the characters. Vocally, all fully meet the demands – Dessay, evidently, but Joseph Callejo is a bit of a revelation, with a classic tenor voice that, with a bit more robustness and fitting of it into a more solid dramatic context, will be a fine singer of bel canto and Verdi dramas. In his interval interview, Ludovic Tézier made some interesting observations about his Enrico, seeing him not just as a stereotypical baritone baddie, but as a character who is as cracked and has been pushed as close to madness as Lucia, adding a further dimension to the tragedy.

On the actual Met Live in HD production itself, Lucia di Lammermoor was one of the more fascinating broadcasts of the season from a backstage point of view, Renée Fleming presenting and managing to get a wealth of behind-the-scenes information from the performers, from the Irish Wolfhound handlers and from backstage crew managers. The two intervals drew out a relatively swift moving opera to excessive lengths (there have been some criticisms of this in the press), but the sheer scale of the elaborate production was revealed in such fascinating detail that the audience at the cinema I attended sat glued to the screen watching the stage-hands manoeuvre it all into place. Along with the success of this particular performance, the clever promotion for the next production, Le Comte Ory, another star-studded bel canto opera, will ensure that the growing attendance at these broadcasts will all be back for more of the same in two weeks time.

TieflandEugen D’Albert - Tiefland

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006 | Franz Welser-Möst, Matthias Hartmann, Matthias Goerne, Peter Seiffert, Petra Maria Schnitzer, Lázló Polgár | EMI Classics

Born in Glasgow in 1864, Eugen D’Albert’s musical education in Austria is however one that, based on what is evident in his opera Tiefland (1903), indicates that he is very much a disciple of the Wagnerian school, with even a bit of verismo in his choice of subject and its handling. Apparently Bizet’s Carmen was also an influence on the composer, but although there are a few musical leitmotifs that bear the mark of the original Catalan/Pyrenean setting of Tiefland (based on the play Tierra Baixa - The Lowlands - by Àngel Guimerà, also made into a controversial film by Leni Riefenstahl), the influence is more in the subject of romance, passion and jealousy in a bucolic setting leading to tragedy (a hint of Gounod’s Mireille in there also) than in the actual musical arrangements.

The poor fool caught in the middle of a romantic entanglement here that eventually stirs killing passions is Pedro, a simple shepherd in the mountains who is offered the hand of the miller’s daughter Marta and a place down in the lowland valley by the landlord Sebastiano. Pedro innocently accepts, unaware of the reality of the situation that is known to everyone else in the lord’s household. Sebastiano is in debt and needs to marry a rich woman, but that won’t happen as long as the knowledge of his affair with Marta is widely known and spoken about. His intention then is to safely marry her off to an innocent fool that she couldn’t possibly love so as to keep up appearances of respectability while she remains his “bit on the side”.

Musically, Tiefland follows the Wagnerian model, with long solo singing of emotional intensity that purposefully drives the drama forward, with little in the way of conventional arias, duets or choral arrangements, but the music has a strong musical presence and leitmotifs that support the singing and indicate the nature of the characters and their motivations. Matthias Goerne is strongest, both in voice and dramatically, making Pedro’s wide-eyed naivety convincing while at the same time showing that he has inner depths and integrity that could indeed draw Marta to rather precipitously fall in love with him. Petra Maria Schnitzer perhaps doesn’t look like she has natural gypsy dancer roots, but sings well as Marta. Peter Seiffert doesn’t quite have the fullness of tone or the menacing build that you would associate with Sebastiano, but takes on the villain role with some relish and without overplaying.

The staging of this 2006 production at the Opernhaus in Zurich attempts to visually steer the drama away from its obvious models and references, and is thereby quite successful in allowing the piece to stand on its own. Some of the decisions are quite bizarre – the opening prologue takes place in what looks like a science-fiction laboratory where the announcement of Pedro’s engagement takes place in a virtual reality, cleverly assembled on projected screens – but thereafter, up until its reappearance in the final scene, the rest of the production is more naturalistic, taking place however in a lush stately house rather than in any period country exteriors.

The 140 minute opera is spread across two-discs on the EMI Classics DVD. The image is 16:9, the image fine, showing a well-lit stage. Audio tracks are LPCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.0 and DTS 5.0. The sound is a little thin without the low-end, and sometimes a little echoing, but the singing and orchestra can all be heard clearly. Subtitles are in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian.

WalkureRichard Wagner - Die Walküre

Bayreuther Festspiele 2010 | Christian Thielemann, Tankred Dorst, Johan Botha, Kwangchul Yun, Albert Dohmen, Edith Haller, Linda Watson, Mihoko Fujimura, Sonja Mühleck, Anna Gabler, Martina Dike, Simone Schröder, Miriam Gordon-Stewart, Wilke te Brummelstroete, Annette Küttenbaum, Alexandra Petersamer | Opus Arte

Traditionally, Die Walküre is seen as the start of the Ring story proper, the previous episode Das Rheingold being only a prelude, musically as well as thematically, for what is to follow. It’s in Die Walküre moreover that what is seen as the human element enters into the story after the mythological struggle of dwarves, giants and gods in the first part. Personally, I’d argue that the human element is there from the first notes of Das Rheingold, the origins of the Ring being inextricably tied up in Wagner’s philosophy towards the creation of a new German art form, and the expression and attainment of those highest ideals that humanity can aspire to is evident in every aspect of the mythological symbolism of the whole work, as well as in its method of operatic expression. That’s perhaps a debate for another time, but in as far as it concerns this 2010 Bayreuther Festspiele production, one would have hoped to see more of the underlying humanism in the story brought out than is actually achieved here.

As if mindful of the need to relate the great struggle that continues to be fought out largely on an epic scale level to some kind of human level, Tankred Dorst introduces a few irritating and ultimately pointless elements into the staging. The opera opens with a very brief sequence showing a modern-day family, seemingly on a picnic, wandering through a deserted, semi-ruined manor house, the young boy unveiling the figure of Sieglinde and in the process setting off the retelling of the ancient myth that is to follow. In Act 2, the father sits in the background throughout, reading his newspaper, his bicycle by his side, while Wotan and Fricke carry on what I suppose could be termed a domestic argument, albeit one on which the eventual fate of all humanity depends.

As pointless as these kind of intrusions are, they are minor and easily blocked out, feeling little more than half-hearted attempts to introduce an underlying concept that doesn’t bear much scrutiny and doesn’t in the end impose much of a presence either. The minor tweaks to the staging relating to the position of the sword in a lamp-post that has fallen through the wall of the ruined hunting lodge, is likewise a minor conceit that doesn’t affect the overall purpose of the drama or how it is played out. It does in fact introduce a strong sense of ruin and decline that is to be the eventual fate of the gods, and indeed the inevitable end for all those who strive for ultimate power. Elsewhere however the staging feels a little anonymous and unimaginative, even somewhat restrictive, the performers not really given anything to do for most of the time other than statically sing their parts and attempt to express everything through the poetry of the libretto and the voices alone.

Fortunately, in that respect, the singers are all exceptionally good, if not quite good enough for the most part to make up for the deficiencies elsewhere in the production. Only Johan Botha really stands out, and he may even be considered to be one of the best Siegmund’s you’re ever likely to hear, with a wonderful voice that contains all the warmth of humanity that should be in his character’s make-up. That characteristic is just a little bit lacking in the others, although Edith Haller sings wonderfully and interacts well with Botha. Part of the problem might well be Christian Thielemann’s conducting of the Bayreuther Festspiele orchestra. Thielemann is a superb conductor of Strauss and Wagner when working with material that suits his style, but that style is often too clinical, intellectualised and, particularly in the case of Die Walküre, a little too aggressive. Whatever the reason, the richness in the melody and the wealth of the emotional content of the tragedy just isn’t found here.

Overall however, this is a worthwhile production, fairly traditional in its setting (not something you can always say about Bayreuther Festspiele productions), and more than competently performed – exceptionally so in the case of Botha and Haller – lacking only a little spark of warmth or inspiration that might have made all the difference. It’s presented well on the Opus Arte Blu-ray with a fine, detailed and strongly coloured picture, with the usual strong PCM stereo and DTS HD Master-Audio 5.1 mixes. There’s a good 18 minute made-for-television featurette on the production on the disc, which is not in-depth, but sets the scene well (barring a horribly inappropriate modern jingle-style soundtrack).

CarmenGeorges Bizet - Carmen

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 2010 | Constantinos Carydis, Francesca Zambello, Christine Rice, Bryan Hymel, Aris Argiris, Maija Kovalevska, Dawid Kimberg, Nicolas Courjal, Elena Xanthoudakis, Paula Murrihy, Adrian Clarke, Harry Nicoll | Real-D Inc

To my mind, there are two ways to play Carmen for maximum effect – one is slow and sultry, the other is fast and passionate. I will admit though that I haven’t seen a production of Carmen in well over ten years, so I was prepared to accept that there may be other aspects that could be brought out of the opera. With a 3-D version on a theatrical run in the cinema, it seemed like a perfect opportunity then to consider what other ‘dimensions’ could indeed be found in Bizet’s opera. While the Royal Opera House production did indeed reveal that there are indeed deeper elements to an opera with more than its share of terrific, universally-known, crowd-pleasing tunes, it never really settled however on any one approach, and, perhaps most disappointingly – although perhaps not unexpectedly considering the experience of 3-D movies at the cinema – it failed to convince that the 3-D experience is anything more than a gimmick that doesn’t work all that well.

This is a production that never really comes to life, and the use of 3-D, in an attempt to bring you closer to the experience, doesn’t make up for failings in the performance itself. Opera already has an extra dimension that cinema and theatre don’t traditionally have in their acting and storytelling, and that is the expression of sentiments, actions and themes through the music and the singing. There is nothing lacking in opera – and if anything the 3-D production confirms this – that needs to be brought out by any other means than the interpretation of the performers under the direction of the conductor and stage director. Francesca Zambello’s stage direction for this production of Carmen is in this respect fairly conventional, working with the opera and playing to its traditional strengths, a composite almost of every cliché associated with the opera’s vision of Spanish gypsy culture, but not really having anything new to contribute to it, no modern reinterpretation and – I suppose we should be thankful for this at least – nothing added to make it more accessible for either television viewing or 3-D cinema projection. It’s a traditional, old-favourite opera, and it’s played very safely.

As to whether the performance, more importantly, gets to the emotional core of the opera – personally, I found it unconvincing. The pace of Act 1 opts, I presume, for slow and sultry, with gypsy girls aplenty, legs spread, arms akimbo, skirts hitched up and much heaving cleavage on show during la Havanaise – “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”, but the real expression of the underlying passions and temptations are better expressed in the music and singing, and here it just feels lifeless with a tempo that drags. There is little wrong with the singing of Christine Rice and Bryan Hymel in the principal roles, but whether they felt the pressure of performing before cameras that get in much closer than usual in filmed opera – although there was no toning down of theatre mannerisms – the performances felt perfunctory, never getting beneath the surface of whatever dark passions drive the characters to their tragic fates. Only Maija Kovalevska in the role of Micaela, brought out that other dimension I was looking for in the opera in her Act 3 “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante”, showing that there are more noble sentiments and a more pure love can exist, but that it doesn’t really stand a chance against the all-consuming lust and the jealousy that fires Don José and Carmen.

Carmen

If the lust doesn’t come across convincingly, the painful jealousy that is going to lead to the tragic conclusion is there also to some degree in Act 3 of this production, but it’s too little and too late when the connection that brings Don José and Carmen together hasn’t been sufficiently established. To its credit then this production at least convinced me that there are other ways of playing Carmen than slow and sultry or fast and passionate, and that really, a balanced production should incorporate all those elements, as well as the more noble sentiments of Micaela’s love and a mother’s concern for her son. All those elements are there in this production, but none of them seem to reach the heights demanded, nor indeed work in common accord. The failure to achieve this is likewise across the board, the staging not really finding a way of exploring these emotions in any depth, the singing and acting feeling largely perfunctory, and the filming for the screen never succeeding in bringing it to life.

The RealD 3-D filming, directed for the screen by Julian Napier, was extremely disappointing in this respect. The most effective use of the 3-D effects were backstage at the start of the opera, where the lighting is strong enough to set figures in the foreground against the background, and in the opening shot on stage when an imprisoned Don José stretches out his hands pleadingly – one of the few original touches that indicate that both deaths foretold in the Carmen’s card-reading come to pass. Elsewhere, backgrounds were black or too dark, and figures were not close enough in the foreground to achieve anything like the same effect, save for the very occasional close-up arrangement, and only one or two obvious attempts to project images towards the camera. Where the 3-D also fared badly in comparison to regular High Definition live broadcasts and particularly with the exceptionally high standard of Blu-ray discs, was in the artificiality of the shimmery digital image that was created, one that also blurred excessively in movement and, even when static, failed to produce a sharp or detailed enough image.

MariaStuardaGaetano Donizetti – Maria Stuarda

Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 2010 | Fabrizio Maria Carminati, Denis Krief, Fiorenza Cedolins, Sonia Ganassi, José Bros, Mirco Palazzi | Unitel Classica - C-Major

One might expect a certain amount of historical detail and political intrigue in an opera about the English crown during the turbulent Tudor era but, based on a play by Friedrich Schiller, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, like many of his bel canto historical works, keeps the plot and the psychology relatively simple, relating to it more on a romantic than a political level. Here, the political element is practically non-existent, the rivalry that lies between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth being for the affections of the Earl of Leicester, and the dominant tone – powerfully stated – is one of the deepest jealousy.

“Is she pretty?”, Elisabeth can’t help herself asking Leicester who has just delivered a message from Mary and has shown indifference to the news that she is considering a marriage proposal from France, and you can imagine her reaction when Leicester has the indelicacy of detailing Mary’s virtues in loving tones while, strangely in this production, his hands are wandering all over her. The latter point highlights the problem that Denis Krief has with staging the opera. There is really no action, the characters just stand around and sing, and with no great depth to the love-triangle rivalry, the stage director is left to just emphasise, and in some cases inappropriately overstate, those surface emotions that are brought out in the libretto.

And to a large extent, the opera works on that surface level, but it’s mostly through its expression in Donizetti’s sizzling score and the delivery of those bitter cat-fighting moments in the extraordinary challenging arias, than through anything that the staging comes up with. There may not be much to get to grips with in the plot, the acting is stiff and weak (mainly on account of the characters having nothing to do), but if you want to see a mezzo and a soprano tear strips off each other vocally, and coming close to physical violence (there are looks that could kill here), then Sonia Ganassi as Elizabeth and Fiorenza Cedolins as Mary, deliver that in the most powerful manner. Inevitably, the soprano is going to win in the singing stakes, Cedolins having plenty of extravagant arias with all the coloratura, and she delivers them with remarkable control and force, but Ganassi’s Elizabeth has the more juicy lines in the libretto and devastating put-downs. Coming between these two powerful women, the thin tenor voice of José Bros can’t help but seem a bit lost, hitting the notes well enough, but with a tone that isn’t the most pleasant to the ear.

If a stage director is wise then, he will also just keep out of the way and let the two women get on with it, and to a large extent that’s what Krief does. There is no period setting, the costumes are generic traditional rather than modern, there are practically no props whatsoever, the stage converted into a tilted forward labyrinth (reminiscent of the Berlin Holocaust memorial or, less kindly, like a Pac-Man arena when it is populated by moving characters) that does nevertheless give emphasis to the romantic intrigue through its lighting and shadows. It’s not particularly imaginative or dynamic, but it looks fine and works through its very simplicity. There’s not much drama then, no real staging to speak of, not much in the way of acting or movement – it might as well be a concert performance – but the opera works through its musical vibrancy and some terrific arias alone.

On Blu-ray, the stage setting and the lighting come across exceptionally well, and the audio tracks are just as impressive, voices ringing clear, the orchestration beautifully defined, the strings in particular being dominant, with deep rounded bass in the low-frequency range. The audience however sounds strangely muted in the surround mix. There is a little bit of ambient noise or low microphone feedback on a few moments, but nothing that affects the overall impact. There are no extra features on the disc, just some brief notes on the opera and its staging, with a similarly short synopsis.

Passenger Mieczyslaw Weinberg – The Passenger

Bregenzer Festspiele, 2010 | Teodor Currentzis, David Pountney, Michelle Breedt, Roberto Saccà, Elena Kelessidi, Artur Rucinski, Svetlana Doneva, Angelica Voje | Unitel Classica - NEOS

Is an opera dealing with Auschwitz automatically worthy of acclaim simply through its dealing with a subject that can’t help but be powerful and emotive? Or are some subjects are just so taboo that they shouldn’t be turned into art, since any attempts to do so will almost certainly diminish them? The approach to Schindler’s List, for example, with its theatricality, its glossy, immaculately-lit and carefully composed cinematography, is certainly questionable, as is the means through which Spielberg chooses to approach the Holocaust, but surely even dealing with the subject and bringing awareness to a wider younger audience has its merit? Written in 1967-8, it’s taken over 40 years for Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera The Passenger to receive its World Premiere at the Bregenzer Festspiele in 2010, and on the basis of this remarkable production, it seems that opera is the perfect and perhaps the only art-form really capable of dealing with the complex questions that the subject give rise to.

Dealing with events that took place in Auschwitz from the perspective of looking back on what happened, those questions relate here to the issues of guilt and conscience, specifically over the involvement and culpability of ordinary German people in the atrocities committed during the war in the Nazi concentration camps. The subject is raised as a German official, Walter, is about to set sail with his wife to take up a diplomatic post in Brazil during the 1960s. His wife, Lisa, becomes upset however when she sees a passenger on the ship, a woman who reminds her of a dark episode in her past that she has never told her husband about. The woman reminds her of Marta, a Polish prisoner at Auschwitz, where Lisa was an SS camp overseer.

This is an extraordinary subject to make an opera about, and, as you would expect, it’s treated with the utmost seriousness and gravity and has the potential to be deeply upsetting, the imagery and the setting taking on further significance through its performance in Austria, close to where similar events took place in the past. More than just dealing with the subject in a grim manner – which is easy enough to do through the dramatic situation alone – Weinberg’s The Passenger brings an incredibly more powerful dimension to the subject by making everyone, Nazis and Jews alike, sing. The power of the singing voice can be taken for granted in an opera, but rarely has it been aligned to a subject that is so emotive in its own right, and it serves to intensify both the evil pronouncements of the Nazi camp attendants as well as the laments of the prisoners. But it also has relevance to the story – yes, even in Auschwitz, music was played, and the image this evokes is truly pitiable.

Passenger

The libretto by Alexander Medvedev, based on a novel by camp survivor Zofia Posmysz (the only one of original writer involved in the opera still alive and present at this performance), manages to evoke these deep and dark sentiments through disturbing poetic imagery (included in full in an accompanying booklet and well worth reading on its own) of the “Pitch black wall of death, the last thing you saw before oblivion“.  That brings to mind the “huge black wave” of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the influence of Shostakovich is evident also in the music.  Weinberg’s extraordinary arrangements include jazz, swing music, waltz and simple theatrical accompaniments but it also has folk laments and dark jabs of strings, woodwind and percussion that underscore emotions of a kind that are rarely, if ever, dealt with in opera. Libretto and score combine then to get to the heart of the subject in the most direct and powerful manner, questioning the attempt of Lisa and Walter to wipe away the memory of the past and move on with their lives, comparing it to the Nazi’s looking for an easy solution to dispose of 20,000 bodies a day. This horrifying concern over practicalities seems to dominate over guilt and conscience and over any deeper consideration of what those actions mean.

The staging at Bregenz is remarkably effective, with incredible multi-level set designs that keep the action fluid, retaining the connection between past and present, the ship above the concentration camp below – an arrangement that culminates in Lisa’s spectacular metaphorical descent into hell. It’s the genius of the opera also that it primarily considers the subject from the viewpoint of Lisa, a former SS Overseer in Auschwitz. It takes in not just those who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis, but also necessarily takes into account the people who carried out the atrocities, and tries to consider how they can live with themselves afterwards. Forgiving and forgetting, however, is not an option.

The video quality of the Blu-ray release is superb – possibly the best I’ve seen in High Definition – the whites and creams of the ship scenes contrasted with the sepia tones in the Auschwitz scenes, which show remarkable detail for being so dark. The audio is not perfect on account of it being a live performance and with the difficulties of setting up microphones. The music booms and is a little echoing in places, occasionally overwhelming the singing, but more often it’s clear enough to hear the detail and the colour. There is only one track, DTS HD Master-Audio 5.0, which is centrally focussed, but it downmixes to stereo quite well for those with only a 2-speaker option. Subtitles are in German, English, French, Polish and Russian, with an additional Multilingual option for the libretto which uses several languages. A superb half-hour documentary ‘In der Fremde’ covers the background of Weinberg and the history of the opera, including an interview with Zofia Posmysz.

LohengrinRichard Wagner - Lohengrin

Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, 2006 | Kent Nagano, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Hans-Peter König, Klaus Florian Vogt, Solveig Kringelborn, Tom Fox, Waltraud Meier, Roman Trekel | Opus Arte

This romantic opera from the end of Wagner’s early period, just before embarking on his more mature work, is rather more conventional and accessible than, for example, the romance of Tristan und Isolde, but by the same token Lohengrin doesn’t have the conceptual weight of later Wagner dramas. The characters are rather one dimensional, divided quite clearly as being on the side of light or darkness, and the score is not as refined as later Wagner. On the other hand, there are some wonderful singing roles, some dynamic scoring that colours the difference between the physical and the spiritual, a terrific drama, and of course the opera is of great interest for the thematic links it has with the composer’s more celebrated works, to say nothing of the fact that the traditional Wedding March originates from this opera.

Lohengrin starts off like a courtroom drama, but it’s one that, being a Wagner opera, is dressed up in regal grandness, heroic declamations and with a strong element of ancient Teutonic mythology underlying it all. On the eve of going to war against Hungary, King Heinrich calls a tribunal meeting to settle a dispute that has arise over the territory of Brabant. Friedrich von Telramund has accused Elsa, the daughter of the late Duke of Brabant, of murdering Gottfried, her brother and the rightful heir to Brabant. Elsa defends her position and calls on a heroic knight of her visions to take up arms and defend herself in combat against Telramund. Her knight in shining armour (quite literally) cannot reveal his name, and begs her not to ask of it, but it transpires – no surprise here since it is the title of the opera – that he is Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal, guardian of the Holy Grail, who is himself the subject of Wagner’s final opera. The themes of this opera deal similarly – if not quite as abstractly – with questions of virtue, purity and innocence, but above all here with the noble virtues of complete love and unconditional trust.

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s 2006 production for the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, conducted by Kent Nagano, brings a new dimension to those themes. His use of the stage, as ever, is simply magnificent, the use of props minimal, the sets nonetheless majestic and impressive, yet simple and not overly ornate. The stage is immaculately lit, balancing light and shade, foreground and background, using colours to highlight and give appropriate emphasis. Whatever angle you look at this from – and the cameras do a fine job in their coverage – the stage and the positions of the characters within achieves maximum impact. At the same time, by making the period non-specific, although certainly more modern than its middle-ages origins, Lehnhoff downplays the fairytale trappings of a heroic knight borne on a chariot drawn by a wild swan (as well as leaning it well away from any troubling National Socialist conceptions that could be applied to the themes), while still remaining true to the opera and its purpose, without over-emphasising or lessening the impact of its musical strengths.

Solveig Kringelborn’s Elsa doesn’t have quite the power of the other singers, nor indeed does Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin, but the nature of their characters is purer than the others, with a bond of trust between them that their counterparts Ostrund and Telramund do not possess, and consequently their voices are softer – more angelically toned than the more typical Wagnerian heldentenor in the case of Lohengrin – but clear, ringing and forceful where required. Tom Fox, as Telramund and Waltraud Meier as Ostrund are however terrific, playing their baddies to the hilt and with delightfully over-the-top almost pantomime eye-rolling madness in the case of Meier’s sorceress – both perfectly appropriate nonetheless for this particular opera and for roles that shouldn’t be underplayed. Kent Nagano conducts the Deutsches Symphonic-Orchester of Berlin for similar dramatic force, but the dynamic and subtle tones are there also, brought out in the fine PCM surround sound mix that comes on the Blu-ray.

The Blu-ray quality cannot be faulted either on its image quality, or the manner in which it is filmed. It captures perfectly the qualities of the stage sets and the lighting and allows you to get right up close with the performers. A 68-minute documentary is also included on the 2-disc set which looks at the opera and its staging in some detail with interviews from most of the principals involved, but it is overlong in its walk-through description of the plot, extensively illustrated with scenes from the opera. Kent Nagano however provides interesting analysis on the tone and complexities of the score, particularly in the preludes to each of the three acts.

MedeaAribert Reimann - Medea

Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna, 2010 | Michael Boder, Marco Arturo Marelli, Marlis Petersen, Michaela Selinger, Elisabeth Kulman, Michael Roider, Adrian Eröd, Max Emanuel Cencic | Arthaus

With very little to compare it to, the best way I can think of to describe Aribert Reimann’s Medea is that it can be very difficult to listen to. But, with it being a modern opera, you probably could have guessed as much anyway. As a world premiere, recorded in 2010 at the Vienna Staatsoper, it’s not even as if you can measure or contrast the performance against other recordings. What you can be sure of however, since the composer is still alive and taking an active part in its production – even down to writing the libretto himself, choosing the cast and writing specifically for their voices (as opera would have been traditionally done in the past) – is that this version of Medea is, for better or worse, as close as it is possible to be to Reimann’s intentions.

Whether it’s difficult or not is not what matters then, whether it’s not the most harmonious or beautiful sounds you’ve ever heard in an opera, nor whether it’s completely faithful to the composer’s intentions (though it is undoubtedly is all of the above), as much as whether it works as an opera on its own terms, that its story or message connects with the listener on some level and that its presentation is suited to the content. Medea is a familiar figure in the opera world – Cherubini’s version of the Greek tragedy and Maria Callas’ interpretation of it are almost legendary – a formidable female role on a par with Salome and Electra, and perhaps in that respect the name of Strauss can be invoked in the intensity and psychological acuity with which Reimann scores his version of the Medea legend.

The source is classical, of course, but Reimann draws from other sources than Euripides, bringing in the legend of the Golden Fleece and the Argonauts from Franz Grillparzer’s version of the stories. Reimann is known for his literary adaptations (particularly for his version of Lear), but as to what purpose or intent a modern opera looks back at classical subjects is difficult to say. Surprisingly, the composer seems to view Medea’s dilemma as being one of class anxiety and social climbing, both on her part from her background of Colchis - she is seen by herself and others as a barbarian - and on the part of Jason who, after suspicion has fallen on them for the death of Pelias, has fled Jolkos and sought sanctuary from King Creon, abandoning Medea in the process for the sophisticated life of Corinth and the hand of his rather more beautiful daughter Creusa.

Medea

Relating this conflict between old world and the new, between past and present – the set contrasting the bleak lunar landscape inhabited by Medea with the almost space-age nature of Corinth – the orchestration is accordingly made up of slow, discordant notes that are stretched and bent, a strangled string section, with woodwind trills, flatulent brass and deep percussive, almost industrial sounds. But it’s the voices that are the most expressive of the dilemma of the characters – high, emotional, intentionally strained, notes of anger, betrayal and despair that come close to a scream, yet – particularly in the case of Marlis Petersen as Medea – always remaining tuneful and musical. Medea consequently is not for those seeking beautiful melodies or harmonies, but rather a deeper expression of darker natures, uncomfortable alliances and fractured relationships in an intense retelling of the ancient Greek myth. On that level, Reimann’s Medea expresses everything the story ought to and as forcefully as it ought to be.

On Blu-ray, the opera looks and sounds magnificent (or indeed terrifying and deeply unsettling). The High Definition image is superbly clear, with strong contrasts and deep, well-defined colours. Both the PCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks carry the full force of the music, the surround mix in particular deep and reverberating on the lower frequencies. Other than some notes on the composition and its performance in an accompanying booklet, there are no extra features on the Arthaus disc.