May 2011


Giacomo Puccini - Il Tabarro & Gianni Schicchi

English Touring Opera | Michael Rosewell, James Conway. Liam Steel, Simon Thorpe, Julie Unwin, Charne Rochford, Richard Mosley-Evans, Paula Sides, Clarissa Meek, Ashley Catling, Andrew Glover, Jacqueline Varsey | Grand Opera House, Belfast - May 26, 2011

Right up to the end of his career, Puccini never allowed himself to be constrained by the limitations of traditional opera subjects or indeed the limitations of the verismo school - even though he often used literature for a source, Puccini would also draw from popular theatre and tackle contemporary subjects. Latter Puccini, for example, takes in the clash of tradition and modernity in Madama Butterfly, while La Fanciulla del West, set in the American Wild West, also sees the composer acknowledging the influence of Wagner and a new approach to musical composition for drama. His last completed work (Turandot was finished and produced posthumously), Il Trittico (1918), being composed of three short one-act operas – Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi – is in many ways a summary and consolidation of his work and themes across a range of subjects, as well as a further extension of what is possible within the operatic medium.

While there are benefits in seeing all three parts of Il Trittico performed one after another for the rich thematic and musical journey that they cover as a complementary set, each of the one-act operas stands alone, and each have very different themes and musical treatments and they are more commonly performed either a duo or singly in conjunction with another one-act opera by a different composer. All of these are valid ways of performing the operas, and it’s often in such double-bills that certain different qualities are highlighted. The English Touring Opera’s Spring 2011 programme pairs two of the operas from Il TritticoIl Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi – that present an interesting contrast in styles, but which together demonstrate the range and ability of Puccini at the end of his career.

Tabarro
Il Tabarro (The Cloak) is based on a play by Didier Gold, ‘La houpperlande‘, that Puccini saw in Paris in 1913. Set in the docklands on the banks of the Seine at the outskirts of Paris, there are certain similarities with Puccini’s other wonderful Parisian opera La Bohème in the opening scenes, where the crew of Michele and Giorgetta’s barge celebrate the unloading of their cargo with a drink and some dancing, disguising the fact temporarily that the times are hard and that tough decisions need to be made about how to continue. Set against the poverty of their situation, Frugola the wife of one of the crew Talpa who is to be laid off, still has dreams of owning a cottage in the country, while Giorgetta would love to just settle down in Paris. It’s a dream that is shared by another of the crew Luigi, who has been having a secret affair with Giorgetta. The loss of their young baby, the sense of a family that Michele would wrap within his cloak, has created a distance between the husband and wife, but also stirred dark passions.

Il Tabarro has all the elements for a romantic melodrama that is to end in violence and tragedy, but what is remarkable about the piece is that, even compressing its story into under an hour, it never manipulates the emotions quite in the same way as La Bohème, nor does it overstate through sweeping strings and overwrought arias. The Wagner influence is there in that the drama is allowed to flow without stopping for interludes, conventional arias or extraneous detail, but it’s still pure Puccini in terms of melody. While still adhering to the dramatic plot, Puccini is still able to capture the colour and flavour of Paris in the musical character, which does recall La Bohème, not least in a cheeky reference to Mimi. Even that however – the coming of spring, the hope of a new beginning – is pertinent to the drama. The touches are smaller, more subtle – a lighted candle, a lover’s encounter above – but masterfully arranged and orchestrated so that they have all the impact of a full-scale opera without the overstatement.

The English Touring Opera’s set design and direction by James Conway was similarly subtle but fully effective, evoking mood, using two levels to show the world on the docks and hints of the world above that reflects and contrasts the situation of the barge owner and his crew. It kept the focus fixed on the relationship between the characters within this intense and highly concentrated drama with gripping performances from the main cast, Simon Thorpe a dark imposing Michele, Julie Unwin a beautifully toned Giorgetta and Charne Rocheford a passionate Luigi, although his voice was occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra.

Gianni Schicchi was inspired by a figure who appears in Dante’s Inferno, whose sin was to “dress himself up as Buoso Donati” to “draw up and sign his will”. Here, Puccini depicts him as a lawyer that the odious Donati family, faking their tears at the deathbed of the recently deceased old man Buoso Donati and angry that he has left all his wealth and property to the monastery at Signa, have engaged to find a loophole that will “correct” the mistake and give them what they believe is their due. Since no-one else is yet aware that the old man has died, Schicchi disguises himself as Buoso Donati and dictates a new will that does indeed reallocate the wealth to the family, but also bequests himself the choicest properties.

Tabarro
Even though there are few even lighthearted moments to be found in any of Puccini’s work – I can’t think of anything outside of a few moments in Act 1 and Act 2 of La Bohème – the composer takes to Gianni Schicchi with a terrific sense of its comic potential and evident black humour. Right from the start of the piece, Puccini puts the sobs of the Donati family to music in a manner that indicates that they are fake and, well, to be laughed at, and his compositions are just as inventive and sprightly elsewhere. Again, Puccini takes full advantage of the format – one would imagine that a comic piece of this type would soon tire very quickly in full-length opera. Certainly, the bel canto composers show that farce can be done at greater length – Don Pasquale, The Barber of Seville and Le Comte D’Ory come to mind as comedies that remain fizzingly entertaining throughout, but Puccini does so within his own musical idiom, while continuing to be ever inventive at propelling the action and the comedy forward.

The staging of the opera by the ETO was simply dazzling in its hilarity, playing-up the full comic potential of the short opera with additional slapstick elements that were perfectly in keeping with the musical and comic timing of the piece. All of characters were grotesque caricatures with pansticked white faces and crooked eyebrows, every gesture was measured and pronounced, but all of it serving to heighten the comedy. As a rather large ensemble piece working within the relatively confined space of a bedroom, everything was nonetheless choreographed to perfection under Liam Steel’s direction. At any given time there would be something funny going on in every corner – although the upper level, to where Schicchi’s innocent daughter Lauretta was banished during all the devious scheming, didn’t feel quite as appropriate here as when it was used for Il Tabarro. It’s Lauretta who gets the most notable aria in Gianni Schicchi (“O mio babbino caro”), admirably delivered by Paula Sides, and although it’s also worth noting Richard Mosley-Evans fine performance as the lawyer Schicchi himself, every one of the cast acquitted themselves marvellously.

The performances of Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi at the Grand Opera House in Belfast were the final shows of the English Touring Opera Spring tour. The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden however will be staging performances of all three operas in a new production of Puccini’s Il Trittico from September 2011.

The ETO’s Autumn tour features three Baroque operas (Handel’s Flavio, Xerxes and Purcell’s The Fairy Queen). Tour dates can be found on the English Touring Opera’s website.

CyranoFranco Alfano - Cyrano de Bergerac

Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, 2007 | Patrick Fournillier, Michal Znaniecki, Plácido Domingo, Sondra Radvanovsky, Arturo Chacón Cruz, Rod Gilfry, Corrado Carmelo Caruso, Roberto Accurso, Javier Franco | Naxos

The story of Edmond Rostand’s epic romantic drama ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ (1897) should be known to most audiences from the various film versions that have been made – some of them even predating Alfano’s 1937 opera – the most notable being Gérard Depardieu’s performance as the long-nosed character in Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s popular French film from 1990, but it may also be known to more through Steve Martin’s modern updating of the role in Roxane. The story however is essentially the same, that of a man with an exceedingly large nose that disfigures his face, who believes that he is ugly and unworthy of the love of his beautiful cousin Roxane. Working closely to Rostand’s original text, Rappeneau’s film captured all the comedy, wit, romance and tragedy of the situation, retaining the verse format of the original, and did it so well that it’s impossible for anyone who knows and loves the film version not to measure up Franco Alfano’s opera against it. It has to be said that the opera compares very favourably, working so naturally that one wonders why it isn’t better known and more frequently performed.

Alfano, who is now only really known for the rarely performed Cyrano and for completing Puccini’s final opera Turandot after the composer’s death, only succeeds intermittently in finding the right tone and melody to engage the audience in the drama, but he is wholly convincing in the areas where it counts most – in the romantic expressions of love between Cyrano (acting on behalf of another man) and Roxane. The arias and duets that consolidate the nature of their love (“Sens to mon âme un peu dans cette ombre qui monte?” and “Je lisais, je relisais. J’étais à toi”) achieve a perfect expression of the highly florid nature of the romantic declarations and the underlying depth and sincerity of the sentiments with all the mastery of a student of Puccini. If it were just for these two arias alone, Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac does complete justice to the work, but there is great skill in how the essence of the story fits around it. The dramatic action is somewhat condensed in the opera but it retains all the essential qualities that make the work so charming and doesn’t lose a fraction of the emotional depth or spirit of the original.

It does so of course, because that is the great strength of opera, allowing expression of such elements through the music and the singing, and Alfano plays to these strengths. In the film version, I find Roxane comes across as somewhat bland, insipid and superficial, and you need to will a sense of disbelief to understand what inspires such passion in Cyrano apart from her beauty, but here she has a much more active role and is much better characterised, principally through the musical arrangements, and, of course through the singing. Here we have Sondra Radvanovsky, who conveys the full force of her character’s nature and passion through her singing, if not so well in her acting or facial expressions. Rod Gilfry is marvellous as De Guiche, actually almost making his character sympathetic and less of a moustache-twirling villain. Arturo Chacón Cruz is fine as Christian, but it’s a thankless role that has no real arias and is always upstaged by Cyrano. As Cyrano, you couldn’t have anyone more charismatic than Plácido Domingo. His French diction isn’t the strongest, but he has all the passion and charm that the swashbuckling hero demands and is in fine voice in his 121 role.

The staging at the Palau des Arts in Valencia is fine, striking a good balance between the period and a modern approach to staging it, without introducing any incongruous elements. The stage however is a little dark and the recording, even in High Definition on the Blu-ray, doesn’t enable you to see the detail and the overall impact of it all. The audio, even in lossless LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1, is also lacking, but mainly due to how it was recorded. The microphones are clearly far from the singers, as there is a lot of ambient noise and stage clatter, the singing sounding rather echoing, occasionally drowning out the rather thin orchestration but at other times being overwhelmed by it. For the most part however, the qualities of the singing and the music, and the opera itself are no less evident. Overall, it’s a slightly imperfect live recording, but an otherwise fine presentation and performance of an opera that really deserves to be better known.

Castor et Pollux George Frideric Handel - Theodora

Salzburg Festspiele, 2009 | Christof Loy, Ivor Bolton, Freiburger Barockorchester, Salzburger Backchor, Christine Schäfer, Bejun Mehta, Joseph Kaiser, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Bernarda Fink, Ryland Davies | Unitel Classica - C-Major

Presented at the Salzburg Festival in 2009 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death, Theodora isn’t a Handel opera, but rather a staged version of his 1750 oratorio. It would however be more accurate to say that this is semi-staged, and perhaps even more accurate to say it’s barely staged at all. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination, and it certainly doesn’t place any demands on the costume or set designers, to scatter a few chairs about the stage and have the chorus and principal singers dress in the modern formal black evening-dress of a concert performance, unless there’s some hidden significance in updating the martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus from Antioch in 3AD to a concert stage. It’s semi-staged in that rather than face the audience, the singers move around a bit, remove the occasional item of clothing and put a little more acting into the singing.

As it turns out though, it doesn’t matter in the slightest if it seems like the production team earned an easy paycheque for this one, because it works. Theodora is not an oratorio that lends itself easily to a dramatic staging and attempts to do so (such as Peter Sellars’ Glyndebourne production) can potentially detract from the true qualities of this remarkable work, so thankfully this version hasn’t been messed around with at all. The oratorio considers the fate of Theodora, a Christian woman who tries to hold her virtue from the assaults of the Roman governor Valens and refuses to worship Jupiter, who is eventually martyred along with a young Roman soldier Didymus who attempts to help her escape from the life of forced prostitution that is her punishment. It’s a religious work, made up of contemplative prayers that espouse virtue and chastity, but, along with the fate of Didymus, who loves Theodora in a pure fashion, there are other noble sentiments in the work that celebrate valour in the face of tyranny and martyrdom.

The music itself – really some of the most exquisite music Handel ever composed – expresses this perfectly and as evocatively as you could imagine. The music is warmly rapturous, the singing heavenly and the choruses inspiringly uplifting. The producers clearly recognise where the strengths of the piece are and give them centre stage, doing nothing in the loose dramatisation that could interfere with the singing performances. Those performances are magnificent, the English diction perfect in every case, with Christine Schäfer’s Theodora exhibiting fragility turning into steely determination, Bejun Mehta a glorious countertenor Didymus and Joseph Kaiser a fine, emotionally moved Septimus. Ivor Bolton conducts the Freiburger Barockorchester with great sensitivity through a breathtaking performance. This is a stunningly beautiful work, perfectly performed and very well presented in High Definition, with a terrifically detailed image and two fine audio tracks in LPCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, where every element of the mix is crystal clear and perfectly balanced.

Castor et PolluxJean-Philippe Rameau - Castor et Pollux

De Nederlandse Opera, 2008 | Pierre Audi, Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques, Anna Maria Panzarella, Véronique Gens, Judith van Wanroij, Finnur Bjarnason, Henk Neven, Nicholas Testé | Opus Arte

The production notes in the DVD of Castor et Pollux note that Jean-Philippe Rameau quickly came to be regarded as the successor to Lully after his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, was performed in Paris, and his importance is certainly evident in his third opera Castor et Pollux, (first performed in 1737 but revised in 1754, the latter version used for this recording). The story of love triumphing over death through a trip into Hades to rescue a deceased loved-one is certainly of common mythological origin going back to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, which is regarded as the first opera, so it’s no surprise that Handel’s Admeto and Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice and Alceste also come to mind when watching Castor et Pollux, but the similarities and the influence that Rameau would have on his successors is evident just as much in the musical treatment and arrangements.

Rameau’s following of the mythology is relatively straightforward in terms of plotting, the subject efficiently laid out in the opening two acts, but the conflicting sentiments of four different figures, some mortal and others immortal, make the opera rather more complicated, and it’s in the expression of these through the music and the singing that the brilliance of Rameau’s tragédie lyrique is evident. Pollux the immortal son of Jupiter marries Télaïra, but becoming aware that she is in love with his twin moral brother Castor and he is in love with her, he gives up his wife and unites her with Castor, rather than hurt them both and see his brother go off into exile. This would be all noble and fine but for Télaïra’s sister Phébé, who is in love with Castor herself, but doesn’t have her feelings reciprocated. She arranges for Télaïra to be kidnapped by Lincée, but it is Castor who is killed in the battle that ensues. As Phébé has the ability to open up the gates of Hades, Pollux agrees to go look for his brother, knowing that he will have to take his place there so that Castor can live again, the two of them taking their place as immortals as stars in the constellation of Gemini.

Performed here at De Nederlandse Opera with the same production team behind the spectacular Drottningholm version of Rameau’s Zoroastre, stage director Pierre Audi and Christophe Rousset, the musical director of Les Talens Lyriques, create another remarkable spectacle out of all the elements – singing, music, dance, stage, lighting, costumes – that combine to make Rameau’s operas so invigorating. There’s a magnificent sound mix (in LPCM stereo and DTS 5.1) that captures the astounding performance of Les Talens Lyriques, played on period instruments, with clarity and perfect tone, creating a wonderful fullness of sound, particularly when the off-stage chorus is employed (in a manner that brings to mind Mozart’s Requiem particularly during the funeral of Castor). The Baroque and Rameau specialist singers such as Anna Maria Panzarella, Véronique Gens and Nicholas Testé are accompanied also by fine singing from Judith van Wanroij (as Cléone), Henk Neven (as Pollux) and Finnur Bjarnason (as Castor).

The staging and lighting are just as important, making use of an almost bare stage, with minimal backdrops of crossbeams, columns and geometric objects that nonetheless create a perfect impression of mythological antiquity, the costumes, colours and lighting emphasising the passions and emotional language of the characters that is expressed with such drama and depth in the musical arrangements and the singing. Anna Maria Panzarella in particular gives one of her finest Rameau performances here, giving a wonderful rendition of Act 2’s “Tristes apprêts” lament for Castor. The dancing is well employed, not as a divertissement as it is often used in Baroque opera, but to add another level to the unspoken sentiments of the characters and in how they relate to one another. On every level, this is an outstanding production of one of the finest Baroque operas.

It’s released on DVD only by Opus Arte, which is a pity as this would look stunning on High Definition media. It still looks and sounds excellent on the 2-DVD set. Extras consist of a booklet that covers the history of the opera and the production, but there is no synopsis given. The story is covered to some extent on the 16 minute Making of on the disc, through interviews with Pierre Audi, the production team, the cast and the dancers. The rehearsals give some idea of the amount of effort that went into making this an amazing spectacle.

BoreadesJean-Philippe Rameau - Les Boréades

Opéra National de Paris, Palais Garnier, 2003 | Robert Carsen, Les Arts Florissants, William Christie, La La La Human Steps, Barbara Bonney, Paul Agnew, Toby Spence, Laurent Naouri, Stéphane Degout, Nicolas Rivenq, Anna-Maria Panzarella, Jaël Azzaretti | Opus Arte

It’s hard to imagine how Rameau’s last opera would have been staged 250 years ago – particularly since, written a year before the composer’s death in 1765, it was abandoned unperformed and has since disappeared into near-obscurity – but Robert Carsen’s typically brilliant direction finds an appropriate perfect balance between simplicity and modernity that allows the music, singing and the dancing to be seen in the best possible light.

The emphasis, as ever with Carsen, is on the lighting and colour to achieve the appropriate mood and atmosphere, but every other element works perfectly alongside it. The costumes are smart and elegant, a classic formal 1940s Dior look, which you might not think of as being the dress of ancient mythology, but the opera itself uses familiar figures and creates its own mythology from them, much like Rameau’s Zoroastre. The sets are minimal, but props, when they are used, are used to impressive effect, the director finding a perfect balance between the colours and the tones of the dress, never letting the stage become cluttered even when it is filled with singers, chorus and dancers.

There’s a sense of harmony in the stage arrangement then that is appropriate for the subject of the opera that is bound up in nature and the seasons. Alphisa, the Queen of the mythical land of Bactria (the same fictional kingdom used in Zoroastre), is bound by law to marry one of the sons of Boreas, the God of the North wind, but she is in love with Abaris, a man of unknown descent. It turns out of course that he is the son of Apollo and one of Boreas’ nymphs, making him of Borean descent and capable of marrying Alphisa, but there is a lot of turmoil and tempestuous exchanges before this little fact is dramatically revealed. That conflict is expressed in the seasons in the most colourfully theatrical manner with an immaculate sense of the musical, dramatic and aesthetic principles of the opera.

It’s a French Baroque opera, of course, so there are also ballet elements, and the intricate modern movements and gestures of the La La La Human Steps fit perfectly into the overall spectacle. And a wonderful spectacle is what it is intended to be. Regardless of the intricacies or the meaninglessness of the plot, with its Masonic overtones and pre-Revolutionary class conflict, Les Boréades is a supreme diversion and an entertainment, combining all the elements that make up Baroque opera and where the noble expressions of love, honour and liberty are restored and win out over the twists of fate and whims of the gods.

We are fortunate to be able to have someone like William Christie to bring this kind of opera back to the stage, who, along with Robert Carsen, has such a deep understanding and love for the Rameau and his works. The performance of Les Arts Florissantes under Christie’s direction is marvellous, attacking the rhythmic dance score with verve, but also with a degree of sensitivity for the sentiments of love expressed in the arias. The same can be said of the terrific cast – particularly in Barbara Bonney’s strong and impressive Queen Alphisa, and Paul Agnew’s gorgeously lyrical high-tenor Abaris (listen out for his heartbreaking aria ‘Je cours fléchir un dieu sévère’ in Act IV) .

Filmed in HD, if only available on Standard Definition DVD, the recording of performance still looks and sounds extremely good, the sound mixes in LPCM Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 (there is no DTS track here). The opera is spread over two discs but, since the five acts of the opera are played straight through without even any natural breaks between the acts, the split is unfortunate but unavoidable. There is also an hour-long documentary on the opera, which is relatively informative but over-long. A fine package.

WalkureRichard Wagner - Die Walküre

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | James Levine, Robert Lepage, Deborah Voigt, Bryn Terfel, Stephanie Blythe, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Jonas Kaufmann, Hans-Peter König | The Met: Live in HD - May 14, 2011

The second part of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Die Walküre, closed the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series for a 2010-11 season that had opened with the first of the Met’s new and ambitious Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold. Robert Lepage’s production of the prelude of the epic opera cycle certainly showed a lot of ambition and ingenuity, with a specially designed and constructed piece of twisting, revolving high-tech machinery that would serve as a backdrop and stage over and above the (reinforced) Met stage, but as to whether this Ring cycle would be one of the greats, well, like any staging of the complete work, judgements really need to be reserved until we get to Die Walküre. On the basis of now having two parts of Wagner’s massive work performed (with the remaining two parts Siegfried and Götterdämmerung to be staged in the Met’s 2011-12 season), it’s still a little too early to say, but the Lepage production is certainly looking like being a highly memorable new staging of the Ring Cycle.

What was at least already evident from Das Rheingold, beyond the obvious and impressive ingenuity of the morphing huge mechanical structure of “planks”, was the quality of the singing that lent the prelude’s entertaining fairytale of gods, giants and dwarfs with their lust for gold and power a deeper and rather more human quality than the opening part of the story is traditionally accorded. Whether that element would be sustained in Die Walküre was however in little doubt, with Bryn Terfel and Stephanie Blythe reprising their roles as Wotan and Fricka and a terrific casting that would see Deborah Voigt in the role of the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, Eva-Maria Westbroek (recently seen at the Royal Opera House as Anna Nicole) playing Sieglinde, Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund and Hans-Peter König as Hunding.

Die Walküre is structured in such a way that all these roles are of vital importance and any one weak link could bring the whole construction down. Act One depends on a strong bond being developed between Siegmund and Sieglinde, two twins, human Wälsung offspring of Wotan, separated at birth who meet and fall in love in an incestuous relationship that is to produce the important figure of Siegfried; Act Two is largely sustained and dramatically driven by the argument between Wotan and Fricka over Wotan’s meddling in human affairs and the threat to the sanctity of marriage that this incestuous relationship represents; Act Three, and really the opera as a whole, relies on the bond that exists between Wotan and Brünnhilde, his favourite daughter and leader of the Valkyrie, a warrior band of sisters whose task it is to lead heroes who have died in battle to Valhalla, who defies the will of her father to tragic consequences.

Walkure

As fine as the singers all are in these roles, Wagner’s Die Walküre presents tremendous vocal challenges that can expose those unused to its demands, so there were nonetheless potential dangers in each of the music-drama’s key relationships. More used to lyrical Italian tenor roles, Jonas Kaufmann however switched to a different register without too much difficulty, while Eva-Maria Westbroek, who I’ve seen do Puccini, Strauss and Turnage, clearly seems to be best suited to being a Wagner soprano, delivered the finest performance I have ever seen from her to date. Stephanie Blythe succeeded in making her Fricke seem more than a bitter shrew in the Second Act, the audience able to sympathise to some extent with her position, short-reaching and motivated by personal jealousy though it is, while Bryn Terfel’s Wotan at the same time did not seem weak in bowing to her demands, but rather fatalistically yielding to the inevitable fate that has been predicted by Erda at the end of Das Rheingold. The conclusion to Act II that brings all the characters together was therefore every bit as effective and doom-laden as it ought to be.

Where Die Walküre stands or falls however is in the father-daughter relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde, and it was by no means certain that it would work in this production any better than the most recent Bayreuth production (on Blu-ray). Deborah Voigt showed a few wobbles in her earlier Met performances as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, while Bryn Terfel – as terrific a singer and performer as we all know he is – failed to make a significant impression as Wotan in a Rheingold filled with much stronger Wagnerian voices. The real test of his Wotan however is in Die Walküre. It’s an opera I’ve seen him sing before most powerfully back in 2005 (in concert for the BBC Proms), and if anything his singing here was even better and his interpretation of the role much improved. And that is saying something. Deborah Voigt didn’t have the rich middle register that you’d ideally like to hear in the role of Brünnhilde, but she sang the role superbly and her lighter voice actually worked well in establishing her as an impetuous child torn between pleasing her father and incurring his wrath through an act – intervening in the fate of Siegmund – that she believes is necessary.

Walkure

The relationship between father and daughter is critical in dramatic terms and in human terms for the tragedy that unfolds, and Terfel and Voigt get it right, and not just in the Third Act. Act II establishes the nature of their relationship well, with some playful kidding around and punches to the shoulder that other productions would find difficult to countenance as being the actions of dark, serious immortals. The nature of the relationship changes as the drama progresses, and at every stage the two singers seem to be on the same page, Voigt’s sensitive Brünnhilde supporting the depth of feeling that Terfel draws out of Wotan’s terrible dilemma, truly giving him something to agonise over. It’s absolutely wonderful to see.

Also wonderful is watching the Met’s Ring Machine in operation, transforming fluidly in an instant from the dark and imposing forest of the opera’s stormy Vorspeil to Hunding’s lodge, the synchronised projections creating the necessary textures. It’s not overused either in a way that would dominate over the drama or the singing, blending subtly rather to meets the demands of the narrative and the mood, as it should. I would prefer it however if it was a little more integral to the opera and had some more obvious conceptual meaning. In an interview for ‘Opera News’ Robert Lepage makes interesting observations about Time and about the Ring Cycle being not so much a circle as a series of spiralling events, but it’s difficult to grasp this from watching Das Rheingold and Die Walküre alone. The remaining two instalments will prove whether something is made of that necessary conceptual element that will determine whether this is to be a truly great Ring Cycle or not, but even from a spectacle viewpoint and from the quality of the performances so far – not least with James Levine leading a storming Metropolitan orchestra performance – this is shaping up to be a memorable staging of one of the opera’s greatest achievements.

ElektraRichard Strauss - Elektra

Wiener Philharmoniker, Salzburg Festspiele, 2010 | Daniele Gatti, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Iréne Theorin, Waltraud Meier, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Robert Gambill, René Pape, Oliver Zwarg | Arthaus

The 2010 production of Elektra for the Salzburg Festspiele is an impressive production, Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s staging as intense and claustrophobic as a staging of Strauss’ opera ought to be. In addition, this production also benefits from a superlative cast including Iréne Theorin, Waltraud Meier, Eva-Maria Westbroek and René Pape, with Daniele Gatti conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker. It doesn’t come much better than this and it does live up to expectations …unless you already have a strong preference for another production.

Unsurprisingly, for a director like Lehnhoff working with such an opera, the stage setting is a reflection of the internal torment of Elektra, fixated as she is on the death of her father Agamemnon and the desire for vengeance against his murderers, her mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. She’s waiting on her brother Orestes to exact that vengeance for her, but, hearing of his death from her sister Chrysothemis, she prepares to carry out the foul deed herself. Lehnhoff envisages the tempestuous fluctuations of Elektra’s state of mind as a grey barren landscape, undulating and tilted, full of fractures and chasms from which horrors torment her and into which she is about to drop into at any moment. It’s reminiscent of his 1999 stage setting for Wagner’s Parsifal, forcing one to draw interesting comparisons between Wagner’s score for that opera and Strauss’, the themes being similar in respect of Elektra in an eternal state of suffering and torment seeking release or purification.

If the stage setting is highly effective in this respect, it’s impact is somewhat lessened by the lack of wide-shots to take in the whole stage, the filming for television focussing for the most part on close-ups of Iréne Theorin’s fixed mask of madness, which is powerful, but limiting and not quite so effective as what is evoked by the stage set as a whole, and by her position alongside the other characters within that space, since Lehnhoff is very considered about the movement and placement of characters in relation to one another. Fortunately, there is much more expressed in this opera through the score and the singing than through the acting, and here Theorin is terrific, cutting an imposing figure vocally and through her physical presence that dictates the whole tone of the piece. Elektra is a notoriously difficult role for a singer, Theorin having to sing pretty much for an hour and a half without break in the one-act opera, and she rises to the challenge, seeming to grow in strength and intensity right up to the devastating conclusion.

The other singers likewise live up to expectations. René Pape, as you would expect is a strong Orestes, even if he lacks the necessary dramatic qualities here. Westbroek sometimes seems to be danger of going a little shrill and harsh, but shows nevertheless fine control and manages to remain a lyrical Chrysothemis, contrasting well with Theorin’s Elektra. Theorin is also well-pitted against Waltraud Meier, but sparks don’t fly as they might between Elektra and Clytemnestra, the production here finding a sense of deep mutual like-mother-like-daughter recognition in the two figures, both in the nature of their own internal conflict and in the depths that they are prepared to sink to. It’s an interesting variation on the mythological relationship, but it doesn’t capture the fullest extent of the conflict within of their relationship that is a little more “complex” (sorry!) and expressed with greater precision in the discordance of Richard Strauss’ score.

Although it’s hard to justify a preference for Linda Watson and Jane Henschel over Theorin and Meier, Watson’s acting in particular being limited to the adoption of a haughty expression that is no match whatsoever for the brooding anguish of Theorin’s interpretation, the 2010 Baden-Baden production is sung and played terrifically well with a striking staging, and I feel that Christian Thielemann’s conducting brings out the dynamism in the opera and an edge that is missing here. That’s a personal preference however, just as others might equally prefer the Karl Böhm version, since otherwise there’s little to fault about the performances, staging or conducting of this fine production.

Other than the predominance of close-ups, there’s little to fault with its presentation on Blu-ray either, the opera looking and sounding terrific in High Definition. Audience applause at the start and bows at the end have been eliminated, and I rather liked the dramatic integrity this gave the opera. Subtitles are in English, French, Spanish and Italian, but no German. Other than trailers for other releases, there are no extra features and only a brief essay and a synopsis in the booklet.

MacbethDmitri Shostakovich - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 2002 | Alexander Anissimov, Stein Winge, Nadine Secunde, Christopher Ventris, Francisco Vas, Anatoli Kotcherga, Graham Clark, Juha Kotilainen, Yevgeny Nesterenko | EMI Classics

Written in 1934 and being subject to intense criticism after meeting with Stalin’s disfavour due to its perceived lack of moral character, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is however one of those operas that is groundbreaking as much for its content and means of musical expression as for its historical importance. Musically, it’s an incredibly rich opera that doesn’t hold to any distinct style or school of music, but mixes and matches styles to suit the content. What is even more remarkable is that it finds such a variety of tone and mood – from comic to tragic – within the narrow range of its subject, which indeed, as Stalin feared, doesn’t exactly show the best side of human nature or the Russian temperament.

So even when it deals with the boredom of Katerina Lvovna’s life, married to the rich merchant Ismailov who is unable to give her a child, and subjected to the unwanted advances of her father-in-law who is quite willing to do what it takes to have an heir, Shostakovich finds expression in the music for the nature of her personal situation and, through the raucous activities and interaction with the workers, the entrapment of her social position. The score goes on to cover the range of emotions and the journey she is about to undertake takes when she starts to flirt with Sergey, a handsome, womanising new worker who has just been hired. Much trouble can come out of boredom and it also nurtures a prurient interest in the activities of the Ismailov household that leads the police force in Act 3 to investigate the subsequent activities that arise around the deaths of Katya’s husband and father-in-law.

The production, designed by Stein Winge, plays up these elements well, capturing the harshness of the setting in the dark and sparse sets, working with the music as well as the libretto. Beds feature prominently in this particular production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, recorded in 2002 at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, even in scenes where they would not be expected to appear. Apart from the necessary fluidity that it allows in the sparse staging, there’s a continuity in Katya’s omnipresent bed in the first two acts, followed by the beds of the police barracks and the camp beds of the forced prison march on the steppes in Act 4, that suggests not only the sense of lassitude that exists, but also that bedroom activities are never far from the minds of the protagonists in an opera where sex and lust features prominently.

With all its passion, jealousy and murder, Carmen frequently comes to mind when following Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, but Shostakovich uses a greater variety of influences and references, including huge rousing Verdi-like choruses for the sense of wild abandon, drunkenness and licentiousness that is aroused in the general population, but also achingly intimate arrangements and musical interludes to touch on other aspects of the intensely fatalistic Russian character of the piece, without ever making use of traditional folk melodies or music of a conventional Russian nature. Along with a terrific performance from the orchestra of the Liceu, the singing and dramatic presentation, with a few personal quirks and touches, are all superb, in particular Nadine Secunde as Katerina and Anatoli Kotcherga as the father-in-law.

I don’t think there’s any beauty in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, at least not in the traditional sense of the word, but there is a brilliance and a sort of terrible beauty in the way that Shostakovich finds expression for the darker side of human nature and the “huge black waves” that the Russian nature is prone to on a personal as well as a national level. As such this production allows the opera to work on a wider level than just being tied to a historical regime and period.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is released on DVD by EMI Classics a two-disc set. The video, although widescreen enhanced at 16:9, is slightly lacking, partly due to the darkness of the stage, but also due to an inability of some of the camera operators to be able to focus their cameras. It’s reasonably well filmed however, getting the impact of the stage setting across well and covering the actions of the performers. There are three audio mixes, LPCM stereo, DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1. All are excellent, with good dynamic range and clarity. The surround mixes in particular are strong, although the DD 5.1 is a little on the harsh side. There are no extra features on the set other than a showreel of other EMI titles, but the DVD insert contains details of the cast and production team and a PDF file on the disc has a short essay on the opera.

Tristan und IsoldeRichard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Bayreuthe Festspiele 2009 | Christoph Marthaler, Peter Schneider, Iréne Theorin, Robert Dean Smith, Michelle Breedt, Jukka Rasilainen, Robert Holl, Ralf Lukas | Opus Arte

It’s well known that Richard Wagner broke off the composition of his masterwork The Ring of the Nielbeung after the completion of the first two parts of the tetralogy (and up to the second act of Siegfried) in order to write his two other magnificent late music-dramas, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg. There are various political and commercial reasons for this break, but there remains a clear connection between the themes of these two works and those of the Ring that suggests to me that Wagner needed another outlet for the powerful themes that couldn’t fit within the tetralogy – as huge and encompassing a life-work as it is.

Die Meistersinger seems to want to consider another aspect of the nature of German art and culture and the creation of something new from a revered tradition that is part of what the Ring is about, but approached in a very different manner with a comic tone that can’t be found elsewhere in Wagner’s work. Tristan und Isolde seems to me to be very much connected with the love between Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre, a deeper exploration of the nature of love that is so powerful and so beyond our control that it surpasses any rational attempt to contain it, master it or even describe it, not least when it is a love that defies traditional moral constraints, something no doubt inspired by Wagner’s relationship with his mistress Mathilde Wesendonck.

Difficult to describe maybe, but in Tristan und Isolde Wagner makes one of his most persuasive accounts of those mystical feelings and powerful drives, not least through some of the most sublime music ever composed – almost equal to his final masterpiece Parsifal – that weaves contrasting leitmotifs together into a near frenzy of emotional outpourings and conflicting desires. In the same way that Parsifal would dwell at great length at the question of pain and suffering as a redemptive purifying force, Tristan und Isolde contains little real action and little dramatic intrigue in its four-hour-plus running time, leaving plenty of room for the opera to wallow in the sentiments it is concerned with.

Explored in depth they most certainly are, but even so, the structure of the opera would seem to work against a conventional expression of romantic sentiments, contriving rather to keep the two lovers apart or on guard for most of the opera. In Act 1, Tristan strives to keep his distance from the Irish princess that he has promised as a bride for King Marke, transporting her from Ireland to Cornwall, refusing requests from Isolde for a meeting, even accepting when they do meet what he suspects is a poison meant for both of them. Isolde is furious that she has feelings for the young man who, despite his disguise, she recognised and as the one who had killed her former betrothed, Lord Morold, yet still nursed him back to health. To make reparation she plots to give Tristan a poison and herself, for her weakness, but her maid Brangäne switches the draught for a love potion. Act 2 consists only of a furtive encounter between the two secretive lovers that is eventually discovered by the King, while Act 3 sees their separation and reencounter only in death.

Tristan

In spite of, or perhaps precisely because of the unconventional nature of the love story, Tristan und Isolde is all the more powerful in its means of expression. The tension that exists in Act 1 is violently broken down by the imbibing of a potion – as a rather melodramatic device one can take this literally or not, but the intent is the same – that removes all constraints, pretences and reveals their true feelings for each other. It’s in Act 2 that the expression of those feelings is given voice – through the words, through the singing and through the music. The expression of that forbidden love is principally characterised by contrasts – in distance and nearness, in hatred and love, in darkness and light, in life and death, but principally through the day and night. Theirs is a love where, through its origin where they expected death in a potion but instead found the birth of love, everything is reversed and meaning turned upside down. Through their furtive encounters when the King is absent, signalled to Tristan by the extinguishing of Isolde’s bedroom light, theirs is also a love that is “consecrated to the night”, existing in a terrible but unquenchable yearning and state of tension that is only fully realised and consummated in the death that comes in Act 3.

With its expression of love as an endless eternal state thriving on contradictions, Tristan und Isolde is reminiscent in this way of Parsifal in its elevation of suffering to a mythical, mystic state, and Wagner’s musical expression of this state is simply astounding and also somewhat punishing (for the performers as well as the audience, the opera at the time of its composition being rejected by Dresden after fifty-four rehearsals as being impossible to play). It maintains an incredible state of mounting tension, constantly revisiting and revising leitmotifs, playing them off each other, only bringing them to a form of release in the climax of the ‘Liebestod‘. It’s a moment of utter musical genius that one can feel more intensely than almost any other dramatic operatic scene has ever achieved.

In terms of dramatic representation, there’s not really much you can do with Tristan und Isolde, which conversely means that an imaginative director can do just about anything with it. Bayreuth doesn’t really seem interested in staging traditional productions of Wagner’s operas, but in an opera like Tristan und Isolde, that shouldn’t matter in the slightest. It’s not a historical opera tied to a specific period, it’s a mythological opera about the mysterious forces of love. Christoph Marthaler’s 2005 production for the Bayreuth Festival, recorded here in a 2009 performance, finds a good balance between making the drama and the interaction between the characters intriguing to consider, while still being faithful to the opera’s themes.

Tristan

From the costumes and the décor of the ships interior in Act 1, it looks like it is randomly set in the 1930s, but not over-realistically so – the sets there to create a specific environment that ends up working quite well, rising into three tiers for each of the three acts, maintaining a fluidity and consistency in the piece. The main visual theme however – considering its significance in the second act – is that of lights, from the neon ring “stars” in the sky in Act 1, to the light switches of Act 2, and the pulsing rings of Act 3 that could represent love or life, or the two combined in death. Obviously, this is highly conceptual in a manner that those who like a more concrete, literal stagy representation dislike, but it suits the nature of the opera, and certainly suits the nature of Wagner’s conceptual themes, without distracting from them or imposing a false reading. The performers fit well into the stage directions laid out for them – looking a little incongruous and a little uncomfortable at times with the eccentric mannerisms, but mostly finding a perfect accommodation between the words, the emotions and dramatic interaction with each other.

Iréne Theorin is fairly magnetic throughout as Isolde, capturing her haughtiness and conflicted feelings for Tristan in Act 1 with a degree of precision, and finding a similar level of emotion in the contradictory impulses of the ‘Liebestod‘ in Act 3. Through much of Act 2 she appears to be in a love-potion-induced trance, acting without volition, almost in a state of madness, which may not be how one would expect Isolde to be played, but her childish, playful eagerness to switch off the lights does capture a perfect sense of complete abandon to her condition to the disregard of any rational sensibility. Her singing is strong, only occasionally faltering, but a fine representation of her character nonetheless. It may take a while to warm to Robert Dean Smith as Tristan, but any doubts should be dispelled by his handling of the incredibly demanding final act soliloquy that he delivers magnificently with such impassioned yearning that you almost fear that he, like Tristan, is going to push himself over the edge. Michelle Breedt is a fine Brangäne, her singing strong, her acting in character throughout, and Jukka Rasilanen as Kurwenal delivers a touching performance, particularly in his sympathy for and fidelity to his master in the final act. If there are any minor irritations with interpretation and staging in the first two acts, all should be redeemed by Act 3, and that is certainly delivered here under the baton of Peter Schneider.

The Opus Arte Blu-ray looks good for the most part in terms of the 16:9 video transfer. There are some problems with the quality of the audio, but they are mainly down to the recording, positioning of the actors and the acoustics of the live performance on the Bayreuth stage. The minimal staging, the positioning of the performers and the surrounding walls give a somewhat echoing quality to the singing in places. In Act II’s “Isolde! Geliebte! Tristan! Geliebter!” for example, with Theorin and Dean Smith backed up against the walls, the singing fails to rise above the orchestration. The orchestra isn’t ideally clear either and doesn’t make a great deal of use of the surrounds, tending to be mainly focussed towards a centre stage. Extras include an optional conductor camera visible in a small box at the bottom of the screen (a pointless feature when Bayreuth productions otherwise do their utmost to keep the orchestra and conductor invisible in line with the composer’s intentions), as well as an illustrated synopsis and a 25 minute making of that looks behind the scenes at the staging of the production at Bayreuth.

Benvenuto CelliniHector Berlioz - Benvenuto Cellini

Wiener Philharmoniker, Salzburg Festspiele, 2007 | Valery Gergiev, Philipp Stölzl, Burkhard Fritz, Maija Kuvalevska, Laurent Naouri, Brindley Sherratt, Mikhail Petrenko, Kate Aldrich | Naxos

I’m in two minds about Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini but I don’t think it has anything to do with Philipp Stölzl’s extravagant and somewhat eccentric direction of the composer’s lesser-known opera produced here for the Salzburg Festspiele in 2007. A huge colourful cartoonish spectacle, with a Metropolis-like retro-futuristic city populated by clunky robots standing in for 16th century Rome, it’s surely far from what Berlioz would have imagined for a staging, and one wonders whether it best serves the subject of the Florentine sculptor working on a commission for Pope Clement VII who becomes embroiled in a romantic tug-of war with a rival over the daughter of the papal Treasurer.

On the other hand, Benvenuto Cellini is hardly a serious opera, written principally for entertainment, seeming to play with all the tools of operatic composition. It shows some of the sense of playful academicism that you would find in Rameau, particularly something like Les Indes Galantes (the William Christie production is a must-see) – a huge colourful pageant that delights in showing off its over-the-top dramatic situations with elaborate staging and extravagant musical flourishes. So while Stölzl’s outrageous production seems to go out of its way to irritate those who like their opera done in a period traditional manner, it perfectly suits the tone of the musical and dramatic content and serves it well. Done any other way, taken more seriously, one would imagine that the whole enterprise would end up looking and sounding dreadfully self-important.

Where I really have doubts however is in regards to whether the opera is actually any good, or whether Berlioz indeed doesn’t really go over-the-top in his scoring of the huge dramatic swathes of music, with big arrangements that underscore everything, self-indulgent singing that is close to bel canto, and huge raucous, rousing choruses dropped in at every available opportunity. The same approach applies to Les Troyens, where, not being one to do anything by halves, Berlioz throws in everything and stretches it out to two brilliant full-length operas. Even his cantata La Damnation de Faust attracts big-scale operatic productions from the likes of La Fura dels Baus and, at the time of writing, no less than Terry Gilliam is directing a production for the English National Opera.

The subject in Benvenuto Cellini does however seem to demand such an extravagant approach. Teresa, the daughter of the papal treasurer Balducci, is to be married to Fieramosca, but she is in love with the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. Teresa and Cellini plan to use the confusion and fancy dress of the partying to elope, but Fieramosca has got wind of their plans and intends to take his place disguised as a Capuchin monk. It’s a dramatic situation that seems to conform to the stereotypes of Latin passions, religious fervour and artistic licentiousness and, having resided in Italy prior to writing the opera Berlioz, although professing a dislike of the Italian style, certainly seems to have absorbed the nature of the Italian temperament here. Setting the first act of the opera on Shrove Tuesday during a Mardi Gras parade is all the justification that is needed to indulge in extravagant displays of orchestration and singing.

Since everything about Berlioz’s scoring for Act 1 suggests over-the-top operatic conventions, Philipp Stölzl stages the drama accordingly. One can’t fault the performers who likewise enter into the spirit of the piece and they all sing well, even if the lines of the duets, trios and quartets don’t blend together all that well. Whether through the fault of imperfect scansion or the tone of the voices, I’m not certain – it’s certainly not as polished as Mozart’s ensemble work in the Marriage of Figaro, for example. Act II has a slightly more varied tone, much as the two parts of Les Troyens show different qualities in Berlioz’s writing, but there’s a sense that it is still rather pompous in its solemnity, particularly when Pope Clement arrives on the scene. Unable to play this with a straight face, Stölzl opts for the camp qualities that are inherent within the scene, which is certain to infuriate traditionalists.

It’s difficult to judge the qualities of the opera when it is played this way, when another interpretation might convincingly put another complexion on it entirely – not that we are likely to see too many productions of this work – but that’s what opera is all about. Regardless of whether this particular version is to one’s taste, it’s approached with genuine feeling for the work and launched into vigorously under the baton of Valery Gergiev. At the very least, it’s highly entertaining. Moreover, it looks and sounds terrific in High Definition on the Naxos Blu-ray. A word of warning however – it is one of those discs that takes time to load up into the player, a pointless practice that can introduce some player-related problems. Personally, I found it impossible to access the pop-up menu for chapter selection during play, but I didn’t come across anything more serious than this.