June 2011


Billy BuddBenjamin Britten - Billy Budd

Glyndebourne, 2010 | Mark Elder, Michael Grandage, London Philharmonic Orchestra, John Mark Ainsley, Jacques Imbrailo, Phillip Ens, Iain Paterson, Darren Jeffery, Ben Johnson, Jeremy White | Opus Arte

Mark Elder, the conductor for this production of Billy Budd at Glyndebourne 2010 notes that all Britten’s opera works are in some way about the loss of innocence. It’s an interesting observation that, if too neat and reductive a way to describe the qualities and the approach that Britten takes on the subject in Billy Budd, at least shows that it’s a subject that means something important to the composer. Elder, of course, isn’t intending to summarise the power and complexity of this opera or Britten’s work in a single phrase, and his deep understanding of the wider themes of Billy Budd is evident in his conducting of this remarkable production.

More than just being about the loss of innocence, it’s the different manner in which that innocence is corrupted in each of Britten’s operas (Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw), that makes them such intriguing works, works that are consequently capable of creating a deep impression on the listener. And although on the surface, Billy Budd, adapted from a short novel by Herman Melville, seems simple enough in its broad depiction of the malicious and deliberate destruction by cruel and heartless authorities of an innocent young man – a common sailor on board the HMS Indomitable in 1797, hard-working, of good heart, kind to his comrades, respectful of his superiors and loyal to the crown – the question of what motivates such behaviour (in the form of John Claggart, the ship’s master-of-arms) and how it is sanctioned, or at least tolerated (in the weakness of Captain Vere) is a much more complex and interesting subject that the opera touches upon.

According to James Fenton, writing about the opera in the Guardian in 2005, “Because this sort of surreptitious persecution and its counterpart, favouritism, are familiar to us from childhood as among the injustices that affect us most deeply, there is a power in the story of Billy Budd that grips us by analogy with our own experience. We want to know what motivates Claggart to persecute Billy.” That’s a complex question to which there might be no real satisfactory answer, but it is undoubtedly the principal reason why the opera holds a compelling fascination for the listener and touches deeply. There is certainly a sense that Claggart sees the respect and love that the crew have for Billy Budd’s innocence, kindness and beauty as a threat or a rebuke to the position of respect he has gained through the cruelty and fear that he exercises over the men, and he wants to show that such innocence is weakness has no place in a world where it can be mercilessly crushed.

Billy Budd

What experiences have led Claggart to this view aren’t clear, but it is certainly a part of the on-board culture of the British Navy during this period (where Budd, like the other new recruits, has been press-ganged onto the crew) and in the differences of class, rank and education. Much in the way that Turn of the Screw is about the repressed sexuality of a Victorian governess, there is very definitely a sense of repressed homosexuality and homoeroticism in Britten’s treatment of the story, particularly in the libretto of E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier. The use of language is magnificent in this respect, using nautical references and period idiom as well as playing on the sweetness of Billy Budd’s name (he’s frequently called Baby Budd and Beauty), all of which give a wonderful tanglible quality to the nature of the characters and life aboard the Indomitable, while also creating other resonances and connotations. Britten’s powerful score adds to those impressions, with sea shanty musical references and an emotional heart that is perfectly attuned to the dramatic content, binding characters, forging a sense of solidarity between them in some powerful chorus work, but also probing to the nature of their differences.

The nature of those drives that lead to such abuse of the innocent and the inexplicable failure of those with intelligence and authority to do anything about them might not be fully comprehensible, but the nature of how they are expressed in the opera and the wider implications of the piece is given a masterful comprehensive presentation in this production at Glyndebourne in 2010 by Mark Elder and Michael Grandage with the London Philharmonic. This is an outstanding production in every respect, conducted and played with verve and passion, capturing the full dynamic and range of the score, bringing it vividly to life. The set design by Christopher Oram is most impressive, aiming for solidity and period authenticity, while also being magnificently designed to keep the fluidity that Britten strove to achieve in the reduction of the opera to two acts. The singing and characterisation is great across the board, Jacques Imbrailo singing wonderfully while expressing all the innocence and passion of Billy Budd in every movement and gesture, Philip Ens a charmingly sinister presence as Claggart, and John Mark Ainsley a superb Captain Vere, the conflicted heart and mind caught between the polar extremes of the two men’s position. With all this, and fine performances in the other roles, this exceptional staging of Billy Budd is never less than gripping, dazzling and thought-provoking.

A fantastic, near-definitive production of the opera, it’s given an equally fine presentation on Blu-ray from Opus Arte. Directed for the screen by François Roussillon, the production looks magnificent, striking a perfect balance between close-ups and letting the full impact of the staging to be experienced. The image is clear and detailed, the sound mix both in LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 dynamic and resoundingly powerful. Extra features consist of a 10 minute overview of the opera and the production, and a look at the costume designs.

RigolettoGiuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Scottish Opera | Tobias Ringborg, Matthew Richardson, Eddie Wade, Nadine Livingston, Edgaras Montvidas, Jonathan May, Louise Collett | Grand Opera House, Belfast - June 16, 2011

It’s hard to imagine how Verdi’s choice of Victor Hugo’s drama ‘Le Roi s’amuse’ could have caused such a stir in 1850 when it was used as the basis for his opera Rigoletto, but censorship problems would dog the composer all through his early career, partly due to the revolutionary political content of his work, but also partly due to Verdi’s headstrong challenging of authority for most of his life. One can understand to some extent that, even with the arbitrary nature of censorship that would depend on where the opera was being first performed (Verdi famously would subsequently withdraw Un ballo in maschera from Naples and take it to Rome after already being forced to make sweeping changes to its original incarnation as Gustavo III) , that the authorities wouldn’t look too kindly upon the subject of a libertine king being involved in scandalous affairs with the wives of his courtiers and being subject to a death plot, but there are other shocking events introduced to the opera stage in Rigoletto by Verdi that we take almost for granted nowadays.  A good production of this opera however should ensure that it still has an impact today.

In the end, Verdi was forced to relocate Rigoletto away from the behaviour of royalty in post-revolutionary France to Mantua in Italy, but surprisingly, he was still able to make an obvious allusion to the notoriety of Vincenzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua. While Verdi might not have got away with depicting a libertine king consorting with prostitutes, a Duke indulging in that kind of behaviour on a stage was scarcely less shocking, but no more so that the fact that Verdi, who would be a great revolutionary in giving common people a voice on the opera stage, would depict anyone at all taking part in the rather sordid lowlife dealings that occur over the course of the opera’s intensely dramatic three acts. This was just not the sort of behaviour that one expected to see in an opera.

In my recent review of Macbeth, I mentioned how Verdi loved to mix political fire with the oil of relationship melodrama in his early works – Un ballo in maschera is another stormy later example of this style – but occasionally, the forumula changes in interesting ways, with Stiffelio for example combining a pot-boiling infidelity melodrama with religious rather than a political conviction and sense of duty. Rigoletto is also fascinating for its variation on a theme, where the central relationship under threat is not a romantic one (although it does have a romantic aspect), but the relationship between a father and his daughter. What is just as intriguing about the father-daughter relationship in Rigoletto is that it is not idealised, and the flawed character of Rigoletto can be seen as being fatally over-protective of his daughter, Gilda. When there is a libertine like the Duke of Mantua running around, whose reputation Rigoletto knows well as his court jester and co-conspirator, one can understand his concerns for the daughter that the brute of a man with many enemies has – and they prove to be well-founded – but the downside is that his over-protectiveness leads Gilda to react and assert her freedom of choice in a rather dramatic and tragic way.

Rigoletto

All of this adds spice to the characterisation, for while Rigoletto is certainly a blood-and-thunder Verdi melodrama (quite literally with the third-act bloodletting taking place during a thunderstorm), the composer does overturn some of the usual conventions. If Rigoletto is the standard clown, whose joking hides a sensitive disposition and whose ugliness of his deformity disguises the beauty of his love for his daughter, it’s his jealousy, his pride and his superstition (Verdi reminding us regularly of the curse that has been placed on him by Count Monterone for his complicity in the Duke’s crimes), that end up distorting the genuine love he has for his daughter. On the other hand, the villain of the piece, the Duke, manages through the privilege of his position and his handsomeness, as well as a carefree attitude, to get away with his infidelity and his use of people for his own pleasures. Rather than predictably show that all men are equal, Rigoletto emphasises rather the social inequalities that persist and how their weaknesses can be exploited by the less scrupulous – seen here in the form of the assassin, Sparafucile.

Whether these considerations really make Rigoletto anything more than a melodramatic potboiler is however difficult to justify, and indeed there’s little in Verdi’s score to suggest any greater subtleties. As a pure example of the Verdi style however, it’s a remarkably effective and superbly structured musical drama. Although it is principally concerned with introducing the characters, showing their temperaments and setting up the drama that is to later unfold, Act 1 does so most efficiently and has some fine musical moments and arias that are to reverberate through the remainder of the opera. Scottish Opera’s staging likewise tried to make this efficient as possible, viewing it not in period costume or set in Mantua (with the Marco Bellochio’s 2010 live telecast from Mantua still fresh in the mind, it could hardly compete with the real-life locations), but more like an old-fashioned cabaret or variety show, with Rigoletto in tights and pottering across the stage like Max Wall. With traditional backdrop stage-curtains and doors, chorus-line dancers and glitterballs, it set the tone well in this respect, but, like Verdi’s composition, the real test of the opera is in the second and third acts.

Rigoletto

The pivotal second act, made up of a series of stunning arias and duets, determines not only whether the singers are up to the challenge, but also whether the production is able to make it work in dramatic terms. It would be hard to get it so wrong that the drama doesn’t work – Verdi’s score is lean and strong enough on its own terms and the action well choreographed to pull it through – but thankfully, the quality of the singing and acting in Scottish Opera’s production was also up to the task. The three principal roles are all challenging, but vital, and they all need to work in common accord. Rigoletto’s lyrical baritone should ensure that it is anything but a buffone role, and Eddie Wade managed to convey the contradiction and confusion in the character’s make-up through his acting and through his fine singing performance of the role. Edgaras Montvidas came across as a little cocky and self-satisfied in his delivery as the Duke, but that’s how he ought to be. There’s a little room for early ambiguity which might not quite have been caught in his relationship with Gilda, since he has to be persuasive enough for her to trust him and fall in love with him, but elsewhere, and particularly in the famous third act aria La donna è mobile, the tone and the quality of the singing were excellent. It’s Gilda however that the opera ultimately rests upon, and although a little inexperienced, that innocent quality stood Nadine Livingston in good stead, making her predicament and fate genuinely touching and almost credible (there are limits to how convincing the denouement can be dramatically).

While it was harder to relate the relevance of the staging – an open room with a leather sofa and a glitterball littered with parts of showroom dummies in Act 2, a tilted-box representation of the inn in Act 3 – to any overall theme or concept, the choreography was fine and didn’t work against the drama. Combined with the strong singing and Verdi’s powerful score, this production hit all the right notes in all the right places, the darkness of the operas themes and its daring treatment still powerful enough for a modern day audience to in some way understand why it caused such a sensation over 150 years ago.

CarmelitesFrancis Poulenc - Dialogues des Carmélites

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich 2010 | Kent Nagano, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Alain Vernhes, Susan Gritton, Bernard Richter, Sylvie Brunet, Soile Isokoski, Susanne Resmark, Hélène Guilmette, Heike Grötzinger, Anaïk Morel, Kevin Conners | Bel Air Classiques

Clever modern concept stagings of opera are all very well in the right place and with the right kind of opera. Sometimes however, it just seems perverse to take them out of their original context, particularly when the opera applies to a specific historical period or event that is explicitly referred to in the libretto. There seems little value then in “updating” Poulenc’s 1956 opera Dialogues des Carmélites away from its French Revolutionary setting or the historical incident in 1794 where sixteen nuns from a Carmelite convent in Compiègne were executed for resisting the confiscation of the church’s assets and the dissolution of the order.

You just know however that a controversial director like Dmitri Tcherniakov is never going to go down a conventional route, or even find an intermediary space (like the fine 2008 Nikolaus Lehnhoff production in Hamburg), where the actual themes of the opera beyond the historical setting can be examined, themes relating to the question of life in the face of death, fear of death and the nature of martyrdom for a cause. No, Tcherniakov doesn’t follow any expected route, but what clearly is his intention – as it is in all his productions, whether they actually work for an audience or not – is to attempt to cut the distance between the themes that are sometimes obscured by an overly elaborate and literal period setting, and strip back the staging in order to give the music and the singing the necessary environment that will allow provoke a reaction in the viewer towards the subtext. In the right kind of opera, it’s not so much about imposing a concept or an interpretation or being deliberately obscure for the sake of it, as allowing the audience the space to relate to the themes in their own personal way.

Whether that is achieved in this production of Dialogues des Carmélites recorded at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich is however debatable, as the staging seems to do its utmost to actually distance itself from the audience and box it into its own little world (the box within a box idea is also used in Tcherniakov’s staging for Verdi’s Macbeth, released by Bel Air alongside this). The period is non-specific but modern (even though the De la Force family still have a servant and chauffeur-driven coach), and Blanche de la Force certainly doesn’t enter any traditional kind of convent where the nuns wear habits. Perhaps reflecting Blanche’s fear of the world outside – and despite the Prioress Madame de Croissy’s insistence that it is not a refuge – the convent does resemble a women’s refuge, with all the sisters wearing heavy woollen cardigans and sensible skirts, all nursing mugs of hot tea.

There is no reason however why the questions that arise in the opera – making sense of life in the face of approaching death, finding order and meaning in it, and examining how each person individually comes to terms with their mortality – can’t be examined outside of the historical context of the French revolution. Poulenc based the opera on a play by Georges Bernanos, which in turn was based on an original 1931 novel by Gertrud von le Fort (’Die Letzte am Schafott‘), which itself used the subject as a means of commenting on German social disorder following the fall of the Weimar Republic – so it’s certainly artistically valid for Tcherniakov to update the work if it’s in the service of throwing a new light on the themes. What is rather more controversial is that the director radically changes the original ending – which is a really powerful conclusion. Tchernaikov’s finale, which practically turns the original on its head, is just as powerful and dramatic in its own right, but whether it “improves” or casts any further light on the actions of Blanche de la Force is debatable. It could just be that it’s the complete disregard of the traditional approach that is what is really shocking about the ending here, and it results in an equal amount of audible booing and cheers at the director’s curtain call.

At the very least however, Tcherniakov’s staging forces the audience to think about the subject again in a different way, and it’s an opera that really does have a lot of deeper subtexts to be drawn out of it. What makes this production even more worthwhile in this respect is the conducting of Kent Nagano. The music in Dialogues des Carmélites can be a little strange and unsettling, even with some hauntingly beautiful melodies that evoke Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélissande, but Nagano seems to bring out those ambiguous qualities of the opera and its similarities to Debussy even more strongly, with a greater sense of warmth and harmony than, for example the Hamburg production. That harmony and warmth is also more evident in the singing – although not in every case – so I wouldn’t necessarily say that one is better than the other, but I certainly find the interpretation here much more intriguing, creating new resonances and opening up the opera in an unexpected way.

Whether the staging works or not in a live context, it certainly doesn’t come across well on DVD or Blu-ray. The majority of the opera takes place (as you can see from the cover) within a boxed room on the stage. This means that crossbeams frequently get in the way, obscuring the view of the singers, which is further hampered by a gauze screen that softens the image, desaturates the colours and causes hazy netting effects. The HD reproduction of this consequently isn’t good, and the encoding doesn’t really help matters, looking rather blurry in movements. Between the net effect and the encoding, this does appear to be a visually substandard release. (Although the cover states it’s a BD25 disc it is however, as you would expect, BD50 – ie. dual-layer). The audio tracks are better, the singing mostly clear, the orchestration warm and enveloping, but also revealing a good amount of colour and detail. It’s no match for the precise crystalline clarity of the DTS HD-MA 7.1 mix on the Hamburg Staatsoper production, and if you would prefer a more faithful version of the opera I would highly recommend that release, but there are enough intriguing elements in the Nagano/Tcherniakov production to make this certainly worth your time.

MacbethGiuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Opéra National de Paris, 2009 | Teodor Currentzis, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Dimitris Tiliakos, Violeta Urmana, Furruccio Furlanetto, Letitia Singleton, Stefano Secco, Alfredo Nigro, Yuri Kissin | Bel Air Classiques

Dmitri Tcherniakov (now there’s a name to strike fear into the heart of every lover of traditional opera stagings) comes up with an interesting concept for this 2009 production for the Paris Opera. He sees the Scottish play in terms of a kind of American Beauty satire of modern life, with GoogleEarth-style 3-D overhead projections zooming into the map of a small surburban town, where we are treated to a peak through the windows into the drawing room of one particular moderately wealthy middle-class family. There erupts a power battle of social climbing, domestic disputes, vanity and identity crises that culminates in moral, social and personal breakdown.

That’s all very well, but Macbeth is Macbeth and American Beauty is American Beauty, and I imagine that some people would rather that the two remain entirely separate entities – except Verdi’s Macbeth was never really Shakespeare in the first place. Verdi does revenge and revolution well, and he also does drawing room melodrama well (it’s hard to beat La Traviata for that), and it’s hard to see Verdis Macbeth – which is certainly more domestic than political – as anything other than a Verdi opera, resounding with cries of “Vendetta!”. In the Italian translation, there’s little of Shakespeare’s poetry here (although the English subtitles do attempt to bring it back to the source drama), so if it’s all right for Verdi to adapt it to his favourite themes, isn’t it ok for Tcherniakov to adapt it in a way that it relates to a modern-day audience?

Well, evidently that’s for the individual to decide, but although it’s not without its problems, this production of Macbeth is spectacularly staged and sung, with real feeling for the piece and the underlying psychology that it exposes. Principally, there are only two real sets, one for the drawing room drama, the other for the people of the revolution (the people and the three witches converted into a kind of neighbourhood watch) – which perfectly captures the Verdian division of the essence of the drama. The sets are simple, but imaginatively employed, with dark clouds projected over the street scenes, the 3-D graphics superb for all the scene-setting that is required, and the drama within them is brilliantly and effectively staged. Banco’s death, for example, avoids all the usual on-stage dramatic clichés, and he is found left slumped on the ground as a whirlwind of people disperse.

Whether you buy into the staging or not, the performances are absolutely marvellous. Dimitris Tiliakos’ beautifully soft-toned baritone and his sensitive acting performance (again no opera theatrics here) make for a complex and nuanced Macbeth, working in perfect coordination with an equally intriguing Violeta Urmana, who also avoids all the usual Lady Macbeth clichés and even manages a few conjouring tricks while singing with conviction and personality. Furruccio Furlanetto, in duffel coat, is a superb Banco and Teodor Currentzis conducts the Paris orchestra through a powerful and dynamic rendition of the opera, which is as it should be.

Although quite minimalist, Tcherniakov’s set causes some problems with audio and video reproduction, but the issues are relatively minor. With much of it taking place within a box on the stage, the sound isn’t always as dynamic as it could be, and the choruses aren’t quite as full-bodied as you might like, but the detail is there and the impact is fully achieved with a definite woomph to those big Verdi moments. The staging also takes place behind a fine mesh screen, which slightly softens the image (although it suits the tone and lighting of this production), but the netting is only really evident in close-up and is not a major problem. The disc also includes an excellent 32 minute feature which gives a good idea of the ideas and personalities behind the production, with interviews and rehearsal footage.

BelshazzarGeorge Frideric Handel - Belshazzar

Grand Théâtre de Provence, Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2008 | Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik, RIAS Kammerchor, Christof Nel, René Jacobs, Kenneth Tarver, Rosemary Joshua, Bejun Mehta, Kristina Hammerström | Harmonia Mundi

Belshazzar, written in 1744, was among the first English oratorios composed by Handel after he had abandoned the Italian opera form, and consequently has an interesting place among the composer’s works, still retaining some the dramatic content and style of opera composition. The dramatic content comes about due to the nature of the subject, which is biblical in nature, if not entirely a religious piece of work. So while there are contemplative hymns to God and fervent pleas for deliverance sung throughout, the historical and religious conflicts means that there is a bit more variety to the content and the tone, as well as the opportunity for a staging to apply other meaningful references that could have some present-day significance.

Taking place in 539BC, the Babylon of King Belshazzar is under siege from Cyrus, Prince of the Medes and Persians. The king’s mother Nitocris has a grim foreboding that the city will fall, and this is confirmed by the prophet Daniel. Cyrus has comes up with a plan to divert the Euphrates, and enter the city through its channel while Belshazzar and his men are celebrating the feast of Sesach, the god of wine. Despite warnings and pleas from Nitocris and Daniel, Belshazzar uses the occasion to extend the drunkenness to sacrilegious behaviour that horrifies the Jewish population that are held in captivity in the city. Cyrus enters the city and liberates the Jews from bondage, promising to set up a new Jerusalem.

The plot is not overly complicated for a three-act, almost three-hour oratorio, but there is a certain amount of dramatic ground to cover, which means that there is more opera seria-like recitative in Balshazzar, and consequently, it may not be always quite as musical and melodious as later Handel oratorios. And if the individual sections are not the most memorable or notable Handel however, the impact of the oratorio is on a dramatic level and in the piece as a whole. It’s staged here for the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2008 by Christof Nel in a manner that doesn’t set any modern agenda or updated interpretation of the work, letting the dramatic action be dictated by the words of the libretto. One can see nonetheless that Belshazzar is not just a biblical or historical work, but that it applies as much to the role of a monarch or ruler, which has meaning for the period that the work was written, as well as having relevance to present-day conflicts not so far away from where this is set in antiquity.

René Jacobs conducts the Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik and the RIAS Kammerchor through a fine live performance of Belshazzar at Aix. The singing in English, from principals and chorus soloists alike, is uniformly wonderful across the whole range of voices – tenor, counter-tenor, soprano, mezzo-soprano, bass and male alto – that Handel brilliantly composes for and blends together. Bejun Mehta (whose crystal clear countertenor can also be heard to terrific effect in a recent production of Handel’s Theodora) is notable here as Cyrus and Kenneth Tarver is fine as Belshazzar, but even more impressive are Rosemary Joshua as Nitocris and Kristina Hammerström as Daniel. Such fine singing could not have been easy either with the acting demanded – a drenched Tarver clearly finds it too much – but a good balance between both is achieved in the staging.

I’m not entirely happy with the HD transfer on the Blu-ray from Harmonia Mundi. Even though it’s on a BD50 disc, the encoding is not great, resulting in a faint jerkiness and blurring when there is movement on the screen. The effect may be variable on different players with better refresh rates, but this is the first BD I’ve come across with such a problem. There isn’t enough movement on the screen for this to become a significant issue, but it could be a minor irritation. The audio tracks are in the standard PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and are both fine for the demands of the orchestration and the singing. Subtitles are in English, French and German only. Other than a text synopsis, there are no extra features on the Blu-ray disc.

MascheraGiuseppe Verdi - Un Ballo in Maschera

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2008 | Jesús López Cobos, Mario Martone, Marcelo Álvarez, Violeta Urmana, Marco Vratogna, Elena Zaremba, Allessandra Marianelli | Opus Arte

I’m always surprised that the likes of Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), Stiffelio, Oberto and some other early to mid-period Verdi operas, are not better known and more frequently performed. They certainly have the right balance and full complement of revolutionary plots, illicit liaisons, dire threats of revenge (what’s a Verdi opera without an exclamation of “Vendetta!” somewhere in it?), rousing choruses and good old-fashioned belt-em-out crowd-pleasing melodies and arias. What they lack in sophistication – certainly when compared to later Verdi – they make up for in the pure thrills, sensation and entertainment that are the principal reasons why Verdi’s most famous operas (La Traviata, Aida, Rigoletto) remain popular favourites.

Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Melodrama in 3 Acts”) has all the above criteria in spades. It’s far from sophisticated, it has a revolutionary plot combined with an illicit romantic love and doomed relationships and it has some terrific singing roles for the performers to show their range. It’s the kind of storyline that is laughably ridiculous and wouldn’t work convincingly anywhere outside of an opera stage. But it is an opera, and if it works there (although not everyone will think it does) it’s because Verdi’s propulsive score carries you through the weaknesses with such memorable tunes that you are swept along (humming to yourself) rather than trying to assess the credibility of the drama.

Perhaps surprisingly, the plot is at least loosely based on the real-life assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, the libretto written by Antonio Somma, based on a work by Eugène Scribe. Un Ballo in Maschera was indeed originally composed as Gustavo III, but the opera was banned by the authorities while it was in rehearsals in Naples in 1858 after the attempted assasination of Napoleon III , as the opera contained a conspiracy plot.  The opera was reworked for Rome with the setting changed to America where Riccardo, the Earl of Warwick, is the English governor of Boston, Massachusetts. His rule is not universally accepted and there is consequently plots brewing for deaths that have occurred under his governance, but Riccardo refuses to let such rumours restrict his movements or his social gatherings. When papers are delivered to him to have a fortune-teller Ulrica banished from the state, Riccardo, out of curiosity, dons a disguise and takes his guests to see her. She also foresees death for Riccardo, and at the hands of a close friend.

You don’t need to be a fortune-teller however, just a familiarity with Verdi operas, to guess that his death will come to pass at the hands of his secretary and best friend Renato, since Riccardo has been seeing Renato’s wife, Amelia in secret. That familiarity with opera conventions will also serve you well as far as swallowing other expositional elements of the plot and the dialogue. “Heavens, my husband!”, exclaims Amelia, when the two secret lovers are in danger of being discovered, and when Renato does start plotting with the conspirators to carry out the deed (“Vendetta!”) at the convenient occasion of a masked ball, the skulk around whispering a secret password so that they can recognise one another. The secret password? “Death!”, of course.

Un Ballo in Maschera is consequently not the kind of opera for modern updating or interpretation, it’s firmly tied into the opera tradition of the period, and accordingly, this production from the Teatro Real in Madrid is a very conservative affair, a period production with stand-and-deliver performances in the Grand Opera tradition. It’s hard to put any real dramatic feeling behind this kind of a plot, what it really needs is a strong bravura performance to carry it through, and that’s what you get with Marcelo Álvarez as Riccardo. There’s no real acting ability here, Álvarez conveying everything by striking standard opera poses with his arms, but the Madrid audience just laps it up. The other singers similarly fit into this old-fashioned style, delivering a by-the-book production that alone would be good enough, but it helps when the performances are committed and that’s certainly the case here.

This 2008 production at the Teatro Real looks rather dark, which leads to strong contrasts in the Blu-ray HD presentation, but the image is sharp and deeply saturated. The audio tracks – LPCM Stereo and HD Master Audio 5.1 – are both superb in their clarity and dynamic range. Other than a Synopsis and Cast, there are no extra features on the BD.

Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

English Touring Opera | Richard Lewis, James Conway, Mark Wilde, Gillian Ramm, Rhona McKail, Julia Riley, Charlotte Stephenson, Philip Spendley | Grand Opera House, Belfast - May 28, 2011

Despite its position among Mozart’s compositions, his penultimate opera La Clemenza di Tito has never had the same reputation or attention given to the Mozart and Da Ponte operas that preceded it, nor has it been as highly regarded as the other final works written around the same time – the Requiem and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). Part of the reason for the opera’s neglect has been due to the history of its composition – it was commissioned for the coronation of the Hapsburg emperor Leopold II in 1791 – and the fact that it accordingly has a rather dry historical subject, performed moreover in the opera seria style that what was rather old-fashioned even then. While the rather dry and serious nature of the drama wasn’t entirely overcome in the English Touring Opera’s staging for their Spring 2011 tour, La Clemenza di Tito is nonetheless a late Mozart work, which means Mozart in his prime.

Perhaps not unexpectedly for Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito is a little bit more than a typical opera seria, where the action is usually limited to plot developments that take place during the dry recitative (ie. spoken dialogue), which is then meditated upon in flowery terms through long repetitive da capo arias. The problem with this is that the plot can tend to become quite complicated and, since it is mostly delivered through dialogue than action or acting, difficult to follow. There are certainly complications in the plot of La Clemenza di Tito, which deals with the history of the Roman Emperor Titus Vespasianus in 78AD, where the usual operatic love complications of trying to match up couples takes on a rather more serious aspect of political manoeuvring – but the plot – the text derived from an old Metastasio libretto that had been used many times – has been stripped back of superfluous subplots (not to mention numerous long arias), and any remaining complications are made rather more easy to follow through Mozart’s sympathetic consideration of the characters through his beautiful musical arrangements.

Tito

Principally however, the complications that arise in the plot all serve the purpose of the nature of the commission for the coronation of Leopold II, which is to show how a noble ruler should behave in the face of challenges, exercising compassion and understanding and putting his people’s interests before his own. In La Clemenza di Tito, those qualities have to be exercised by Titus immediately upon being appointed ruler, the previous despot Vitellius having just been overthrown. Aware that his consort Berenice, a Judean, is unlikely to be welcomed as his mistress, Titus sends her away and chooses to marry Servilla, the sister of his friend and comrade Sextus. Vitellia is furious at the news, as she expected to be chosen to rule alongside Titus, and she urges Sextus, who is in love with her, to stir up a rebellion against the new leader. When Titus finds out that Servilla is already betrothed to Annius, a friend of Sextus, he reconsiders and agrees to marry Vitellia, but an insurrection against Titus has already started that will require all his diplomacy and clemency to resolve.

Part of the difficulty with engaging with La Clemenza di Tito is that it is difficult to relate to the principal character of the opera. Titus, although he is certainly conflicted by the choices he has to make, and contemplates them in some very beautiful arias, does however feel more of a symbol or a model of virtue and never comes to life as a real person. As the director of the English Touring Opera’s production James Conway notes however in the programme notes “You know you can love La Clemenza di Tito if you love Sextus”, and there is some truth in this. Despite the title of the opera, it’s not Titus who in many ways is not the principal character but Sextus, and it’s the conflicts and decisions that put him in opposition to his friend and ruler that the listener needs to relate to in order for the opera to have deeper meaning. If we are to go along with that proposition, the opera needs a strong singer in the role of Sextus (a tricky proposition since it is male soprano role often sung, as here, by a female), and that is indeed marvellously achieved here in a terrific performance by Julia Riley.

This is an interesting proposition from the ETO, and placing the emphasis this way on Sextus certainly presents an alternative way of looking at the opera, but I am not entirely convinced that it is enough. Titus is a difficult character to relate to, but he can be made more sympathetic with the right singer (I’ve seen the role extremely well performed in a production at the Paris Opera some time ago), and although Mark Wilde sings well here and is appropriately soft-toned lyrical tenor for a thoughtful, considerate ruler, it’s not sufficient to convey the depth of the nature of the personal conflicts he undergoes nor the nobility and wisdom that he shows in the decisions towards the clemency that he exercises at the close of the drama. With minimal staging and a lack of dramatic action, there wasn’t any other way of making these feelings apparent, and the opera did indeed often feel like its reputation as a dry, difficult and overly-earnest work was merited. The English Touring Opera’s production, resting on the strengths of Sextus with Julia Riley in the role, did however present an interesting view on an opera that certainly merits being brought to a wider audience and that is certainly preferable to another new production of The Marriage of Figaro or Così Fan Tutte.