July 2011


TurandotGiacomo Puccini - Turandot

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2009 | Andris Nelsons, Franco Zeffirelli, Maria Guleghina, Marcello Giordani, Marina Poplavskaya, Samuel Ramey, Charles Anthony, Joshua Hopkins, Tony Stevenson, Eduardo Valdes | Decca

It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that Turandot is an underrated opera, but its most famous aria, ‘Nessun Dorma’, has tended to overshadow the other qualities that the work has to offer. Puccini’s final opera (the last scene completed after his death by Franco Alfano) also has more to it than a superficial look at the fairy-tale nature of the story – based on a work by the 18th century Venetian dramatist Carlo Gozzi – might suggest, or indeed the exotic Oriental inflections of the opera’s music score. Turandot actually contains some of Puccini’s finest musical compositions, the composer bringing his considerable talent to bear on the overall structure and arrangement, while also finding – as he always does – beautiful melodies that express a depth of emotion and character that one might not expect to find in the piece.

There’s a human heart in the story of a cruel princess, Turandot, who demands that anyone seeking her hand in marriage must first give the answer to three riddles that she sets – and where there’s a human heart, few are as expressive as Giacomo Puccini. Despite the consequence of failure being beheading, many noble princes have tried and failed to answer the riddles set by Turandot, and the deaths of so many have cast a long and bloody stain on the Emperor’s reign and despair on the people of his kingdom. An unknown prince however is determined to take his chance, despite the dangers, despite the warnings from the royal court, and despite the pleas of those closest to him, one of whom is Liu, a slave girl who is in love with him.

Puccini sets up the nature of this situation beautifully in Act 1, capturing the full range of the conflicting sentiments of each of the main players, and if the actual staging of the riddle contest in Act 2 is less than perfectly arranged, it’s an occasion for a terrific duel of singing voices between the soprano and the tenor. Although it seems like we have to wait until Act 3 to fully understand what is at stake (and get Nessun Dorma), there are nonetheless hints to the nature of the characters and the conflicting issues between them in the answers to the riddles. It’s hope that lies within Calef, but it is due to die at dawn, his answers to the riddles having failed to melt the burning ice of Turandot, and it’s only through the blood of Liu that the situation is resolved and the true nature of love is revealed. If this doesn’t quite add up to full character development, the beauty of Puccini’s musical arrangements makes up the difference. The Oriental touches are not merely pastiche either – Puccini seems to understand the nature of this foreign and discordant music and the sentiments that lie within it, and he meaningfully and skilfully weaves it into his score to great effect.

Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish production for The Met could also be accused of extravagance, kitsch and overstatement, but in reality it’s perfectly in keeping with the tone and the nature of Puccini’s drama. Zeffirelli’s huge sets capture the grandness of the occasion, the decadence of the royal court and the magical qualities of the fairy-tale nature of the subject, but it also pays attention to the details in the costume design, as well as in the position of the characters within the sets and in relation to one another. Those qualities are also borne out in the performance of the Metropolitan Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons, who grasp the full force and dymanic of this extraordinary opera, and in the singing performances from a fine cast. Guleghina and Giordani play well together and rise to the exceptional demands of their roles, but it’s Marina Poplavskaya who positively shines as Liu. Poplavskaya can sometimes be a little inconsistent and out of her depth in certain roles, but she has a great emotional quality in her voice and it comes through here brilliantly. In every respect this production is just magnificent – there’s no other word for it.

The Blu-ray release from Decca has an unfortunate fault with the English subtitles – at least on the initial batch of copies. English subtitles are a full 37 seconds out of sync with the voices, though they seem fine on the other languages (I got by on French). The subs work fine if you access Act 3 directly from the chapter menu (if you want to get to Nessun Dorma, for example), but they cannot be made to synchronise for any of the other acts through this method. It’s a pity, because in all other respects, this is a superb High Definition presentation of the Met’s 2009 Live in HD recording that brings out the full colourful glory of Zeffirelli’s production, and packs a punch on the HD sound mixes. The recording keeps the same format as the HD Live broadcasts, introduced here by Patricia Racette, who also conducts interviews with Maria Guleghina, Marcello Giordani, and Charles Anthony during the interval between Act 2 and 3.

ButterflyGiacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Sferisterio Opera Festival Macerata, 2009 | Daniele Callegari, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Raffaella Angeletti, Massimiliano Pisapia, Annunziata Vestri, Claudio Sgura, Thomas Morris, Enrico Cossutta, Enrico Iori, Nino Batatunashvili | Unitel Classica - C-Major

I know it’s one of the most performed and most popular crowd-pleasers in the opera repertoire, I’ve heard it and seen it performed any number of times (usually in a fairly traditional staging), I know that, derived from a piece of popular theatre by David Belasco, it’s emotionally manipulative, racially stereotypical, riddled with cliché with little cultural authenticity or ethnic realism – but I still won’t hear a bad word said about Madama Butterfly. Even in its most unadventurous and traditional of stagings Madama Butterfly just works. You might not buy the story for a second, but Puccini’s score makes you want to believe it is real, and he does so convincingly.

I won’t have anything bad said about Puccini either. Easy listening it may be, and unchallenging to some, but familiarity hasn’t made his work any less impressive for me, but rather every listening, every new production of his operas, reveals something new about the structure, the composition of his works, his ability to build a scene and hit you exactly the right way at exactly the right moment for maximum impact – and not necessarily in a deliberately calculated or manipulative way, but truthfully, with every sentiment perfectly balanced and weighted. Even now, with the availability on CD and DVD of a much wider range of composers and rare compositions, Puccini’s brilliance never wanes, but rather, one can see how he is the culmination of a long line of a tradition of Italian opera, who is able to draw from the lyricism of bel canto and combine it with the melodrama of Verdi, but also, in his later works, show an influence or awareness of Wagner in his approach to dramatic structuring. Puccini is undoubtedly one of the masters.

So perfect an opera is Madama Butterfly moreover, that it doesn’t need any modern revisionism or high concept staging. It already works on multiple levels – like all Puccini’s work – and if you want it to see it as a straightforward clash between Japanese and American culture that inevitably results in tragedy, then that’s more than enough for it to work successfully. There are other clashes, divisions and incompatibilities brought out in the opera – from the division of imperialism and isolation, destiny or self-determination, modernity versus tradition to simply the clash of ideals between men and women in respect of what each of them hope to gain from a relationship. All these ideas exist in Madama Butterfly, and some of them can be tweaked for emphasis in individual productions, but they are all there to be drawn out by the listener in even the most basic of stagings.

Directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi, this production for the Sferisterio Opera Festival in Macerata in 2009 isn’t exactly basic, but it is fairly traditional, aiming for a stylised Japanese setting with silk kimonos, bamboo and paper houses on wooden struts and a cherry tree in bloom. Puccini’s Madama Butterfly can bear such idealism, since in many respects, there is an unrealistic idealism in the minds of the two main protagonists, the American sailor B.F. Pinkerton and the young 15 year-old Japanese bride he has bought, Cio-Cio-Can, known as Butterfly – both however clearly have different ideas about what they expect to gain out of this arrangement. This production makes use of the interlude music after the Humming Song to introduce a dreamlike ballet sequence that depicts this idealised version of the relationship, perhaps in Butterfly’s mind as she sleeps awaiting the return of Pinkerton, and it’s a nice touch that works very well with this idea.

The other notable thing about this production is the open-air performance at the arena which is not traditionally theatre shaped. The long wings to the side of the stage however are well used for processional marches, as well as giving a greater sense of isolation of Cio-Cio-San from the world outside. The walls behind the stage however do add to the reverb on the voices, but not in any overly detrimental way. It does tend to lend a stridency to the singing of Raffaella Angeletti who can certainly hold the high notes as Butterfly, but doesn’t have the delicacy that is required in other passages. She does however deliver where she needs to. Massimiliano Pisapia is a robust and traditional Pinkerton, alternating between confidence and cowardice, between being arrogant and being loving. I liked the tone of his voice here throughout. Claudio Sgura’s Sharpless demonstrates good clear diction, but the microphone or the mixing gives his voice too much reverb, and both his voice and Angeletti’s can occasionally be a little piercing in places. Overall however, the singing is good and this is a fine production of Madama Butterfly, presented on a fine Blu-ray with a strong picture and – allowing for the slight extra reverb of the open-air location – good sound-mixes in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1.

ArmideJean-Baptiste Lully - Armide

Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 2008 | Les Arts Florissants, William Christie, Robert Carsen, Stephanie d’Oustrac, Paul Agnew, Laurent Naouri, Claire Debono, Isabelle Druet, Nathan Berg, Marc Mauillon, Marc Callahan, Andrew Torise, Anders J. Dahlin | FRA Musica

It’s difficult to know what balance to strike when putting on a production of a Baroque opera since, in many cases, the works in question are incredibly old and so rarely performed that they are indeed often being introduced for the first time in centuries to a new modern audience. You can’t go too far wrong with a straightforward staging using traditional painted backdrops and period costumes (which I’ve seen on DVD, for example, in productions of Cavalli’s La Calisto, Rameau’s Zoroastre or Landi’s Il Sant’ Alesio). While they would certainly cater to a specialist audience, it’s hard to imagine those kinds of productions reaching a larger audience or even being revived too often. I find however that William Christie, with whatever director he is working with, strikes a much better balance between fidelity to the spirit of the original Baroque opera – using period instruments of course – and making use of modern theatrical techniques that don’t so much revise the work as put it into a context that makes it more accessible to a wider audience. That’s certainly the case when working with the opera director Robert Carsen (Les Boréades), who also manages – whatever period of opera composition he is working in – to align the opera to a unique and workable concept that gets to the essence of the piece and its themes, while also managing to be a remarkable spectacle.

The bridging of the gap between the past and the present is taken quite literally in this 2008 production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide (1686), the prologue traditionally added to French opera of this time to praise and glorify King Louis XIV set out as if it were a tourist excursion to Versailles, where guides describe the history of the subject. Carsen, with film director François Roussillon, even go as far as filming the entire prologue sequence on location at Versailles, with ballet sequences much like the ones traditionally seen in the intervals of the televised New Year’s Day Concerts from Vienna. It’s a device that certainly uses modern technology to extend the scope of the theatre stage and the historical context – which simply has to be taken into account in any modern representation – setting the scene and location more effectively than any painted backdrop will do. And such techniques help bring the work more to life and set it into context for a modern audience, without altering the intent of the original, then why not?

There on the bed of the King of France then, Paul Agnew falls asleep and, like in a dream, goes back to a stylised past where the story of Armide unfolds. Thereafter, there is less cleverness and a more straightforward operatic staging, but like Carsen and Christie’s work on Rameau’s Les Boréades, it’s a highly stylised, fictional period setting, with elegant courtly uniformity of design and colour schemes to suggest location and mood. It’s utterly beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, making striking use of light and colour, but working also in coordination with the tone, mood and rhythm of the music score. Christie, an American, is a recognised national treasure in France for the work he has done breathing life into the dusty, stuffy academicism of old-fashioned French Baroque opera, works his usual wonders here with Lully. Although it follows the usual conventions of the five-act Baroque opera form, with recitative, aria and ballet sequences, there’s a wonderful flow to the piece, which doesn’t have the usual stop/start rhythms, but a musical coherence and gentleness that is closer to Monteverdi than the later heavier dance rhythms of Rameau.

The content of the opera itself – a mythological story of a noble knight who resists the lure of bewitchment from a dangerous siren (Ulysees, Parsifal) – is nothing special and not particularly dramatic, but it’s given a remarkably beautiful and sensitive treatment by Lully and librettist Philippe Quinault in their consideration of the characters and the emotional journey they undergo. The followers of the sorceress Armide are celebrating her latest victory over her rivals, but she herself is not happy, as she has failed to seduce the knight Renaud, who has remained immune to her charms. Over the course of the five acts, Armide eventually succeeds in her enchantment of Renaud, but falls in love with him – even the all-powerful are subject to sentiments that may render them powerless – and this causes her great emotional distress, torn between hatred and love, between glory and wisdom. These are of course personified in characters (Laurent Naouri is a red dress-wearing Hatred), but the production also attempts to implicate the actual audience themselves into the staging, which is a little gimmicky, but effective nonetheless in achieving its intentions.

As tastefully and as pitch-perfectly as Carsen, Christie and Les Arts Florissants present the work, in complete accord with each other and within the themes, tone and tenor of the original work, the singing brings out the wonderful, beautiful human touch and emotional heart of Lully’s opera work. Stephanie d’Oustrac takes Armide through a deeply emotional journey that culminates in her famous aria at the end of Act III (“Enfin, il est en ma puissance”), but she also harmonises beautifully with Paul Agnew’s wonderful Renaud in their Act V duet (“Armide, vous m’aller quitter”). Anders J. Dahlin also has the lovely aria of the fortunate lover in Act V, who advises all to take advantage of the fleeting years of youth and happiness before they are gone forever (again reminiscent of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo). It may seem like little more than a ‘divertissement’, glorifying noble sentiments that have the power to enchant (banishing Hatred and inspiring Love), but the proof of these powers is in the enchantment of Lully’s music itself.

There are no complaints with the presentation of the opera on Blu-ray. The image is clear throughout, conveying the stunning colour schemes perfectly, with bold reds standing out against the subdued uniformity of the silver/grey and gold tones. The soundtrack in the usual PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes gives a wonderful, warm stage to the music and the singing. There’s a fine half-hour extra feature ‘Armide at Versailles’, which has Christie and Carson talking about their approach to the production, but also has a superbly informative contribution from Benôit Dratwicki on the fascinating history of the piece, its relevance to its time and its place in the tradition of the French tragédie-lyrique.

TroyensHector Berlioz - Les Troyens

Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, 2009 | Valery Gergiev, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Lance Ryan, Daniela Barcellona, Elisabete Matos, Gabriele Viviani, Giorgio Giuseppini, Stephen Milling, Eric Cutler, Oksana Shilova, Zlata Bulicheva | Unitel Classica - C-Major

In principle, I’m all for the approach and the use of new technology that the experimental Catalan theatre group la Fura dels Baus bring to opera productions. In practice however, I can never get past the dumb ideas that they sometimes base their concepts upon. Although I have avoided it myself, a lot of people like their Valencia Ring cycle, and I can see how their approach to total music theatre would work with Wagner (a recent production of Tristan und Isolde was handled very appropriately) – much as it suits, in principle, the dramatic theatricality of Hector Berlioz (they’ve done La Damnation de Faust in the past). In practice however, I’m afraid it just doesn’t work for me in the case of Les Troyens.

I’ve seen Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte destroyed by la Fura’s “concept” of the split in the hemispheres of the brain that could be seen as marking the divisions between enlightenment and obscurantism in that opera taken to the extreme of putting inflatable brains on the stage with the singers hanging suspended over them – a wooly concept taken over-literally that added nothing to Mozart (I won’t even get into them removing the recitative and replacing it with poems read out by French actors). The same sense of facile concept not thought-through in any meaningful way and taken over-literally applies also to the approach taken in this Fura production of Les Troyens. Thinking of the notion of a Trojan Horse in modern computer technology parlance, they apply the concept to the computer network of ancient Troy being the victim of a computer virus. Seriously.

What genius (that would be Carlus Padrissa) though it would be a great idea to take the metaphor of the Trojan Horse virus back to its source and make it literal? The phrase, “Beware of Greeks or other outside hostile agencies bearing gifts of laptops carrying viruses that may compromise the integrity of your system”, doesn’t really have all that great a ring to it. Even if you were to find this feeble concept worthy of more than a minute’s consideration, there’s little to support it in this staging, which is an impressive spectacle certainly (you are always guaranteed that at least from la Fura dels Baus), but it’s also a complete hotchpotch of ideas and concepts that look a complete mess and don’t come across particularly well on video. There’s little sense of and physical location of Troy in the first part of the opera (presented here in its entirety as originally intended as a 5-act opera, rather than two operas), but I suppose in this version it is supposed to be a virtual world. Quite why the cast are dressed in sports padding, hockey helmets, Tae kwon-do outfits and what looks like Stormtroopers costumes from Star Wars is however anyone’s guess.

Troyens

There are nonetheless impressively staged scenes mixing projections and live action – and inevitably, much wire work, hanging singers and acrobats from cables – which enhances the nightmarish visions of Cassandra and representing the death of Laco’on well in the first half. The idea of designing Carthage as a particle accelerator to represent the idea of a modern technical paradise in the second half of the opera (Acts III to IV) at least carries the concept through, the Trojans spreading their virus before leaving for an ideal (in Mars!) and it looks impressive – but really, does this bring anything meaningful out of the work, or is it just half-baked concepts and Cirque du Soleil spectacle? More often however, the spectacle doesn’t really come to life, failing to find anything meaningful to do in the ballet sequences – a boxing match? a fashion parade of warrior fetish costumes? – and it is actually quite static, particularly when compared to the active, inventive and always impressive production at the Châtelet.

Conducted by Valery Gergiev, the Valencia production at least remains hugely entertaining from a musical viewpoint, although I wouldn’t put it above the John Eliot Gardner version. The singing is mostly of a good standard, particularly the two female leads Elisabete Matos (Cassandra) and Daniela Barcellona (Dido), but again, personally, I prefer the performances of Anna Caterina Antonacci and Susan Graham in the Châtelet production. Gregory Kunde is however certainly a better Aeneas than Lance Ryan here, who I thought delivered everything in a dreary declamatory fashion and in a tone that becomes unpleasantly nasal on the high notes. His poor diction moreover painfully murders the French libretto.

The quality of the Blu-ray itself – the entire opera on a single BD50 disc – is reasonably good, the image as clear as it can be on a dark stage that uses a lot of back and front-screen projections. The audio tracks – PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 HD master audio – are both fine, if there is little to choose between them. Overall, if you don’t think too much about the terrible concept and are able to simply just enjoy the spectacle of the staging, this isn’t a bad version of Les Troyens, and it’s certainly well performed – but there is a much better version out there already on Blu-ray in terms of production values, spectacle and overall quality of the performance.

PostinoDaniel Catán - Il Postino

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris | Jean-Yves Ossonce, Ron Daniels, Plácido Domingo, Daniel Montenegro, Amanda Squitieri, Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, Patricia Fernandez, Victor Torres, Laurent Alvaro, Pepe Martinez, David Robinson, Théo Vandecasteele | Paris, France - 30 June 2011

The death of the composer Daniel Catán in April this year, just as the first-run production of his fifth opera Il Postino (The Postman) was being prepared for its performances at the Châtelet Theatre in Paris was undoubtedly a great loss not only to the music world, but to the development of Spanish language opera. Alongside work done by Plácido Domingo, who helped Catán bring this production to the stage, the creation of a new school of Spanish opera was one of the principal aims of Catán, and his ability to do that is demonstrated well in the composer’s final opera. What Il Postino also demonstrates is that Catán’s death is also a great loss to a type of modern opera that can touch on simple but meaningful subjects in a way that is accessible to new audiences.

Those audience-pleasing qualities are already evident in the source material – the novel ‘Ardiente Paciencia‘ by Antonio Skármeta, but even more so from the 1994 film Il Postino directed by Michael Radford - a simple story of a postman on an Italian island who learns about life and poetry from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who is living there in exile. If the practice of making an opera out of a recent film seems pointless, it’s worth pointing out that opera in the past has always traditionally drawn from the popular entertainments and artforms of its day, whether from popular literature or theatre, and although film does indeed have a rather more “fixed” sense of imagery, it also has many other facets that can be expanded on and explored in opera through other means – primarily musical, but also through a different kind of intimacy through the the theatrical experience. Catán’s Il Postino presents the work wonderfully through this medium.

Postino

On the surface however, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of difference in how the opera approaches the subject and how the story is recounted in the film version. The storyline remains simple. Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, has been exiled form his home country for his Communist leanings, and has taken up residence on the small island of Cala di Sotto (Neruda was indeed exiled for a period from Chile, but actually lived a short time on the island of Capri, and the story recounted here is otherwise entirely fictional). It’s a poor island, the inhabitants have no running water (despite promises from local politicians), but while his other brothers have left for America to look for work, Mario Ruoppolo remains and is given the job of postman for the new arrival – the only person on the island to receive any mail, and all of it, it seems to Mario, from women. Hoping to gain some understanding of this power that Neruda seems to have over women, and observing his close, sensual relationship with his wife that Neruda has immortalised in poetry (Desnuda – “Naked”), Mario hopes to gain some tips from the great poet. With Neruda’s instruction in the use of metaphors and some borrowing of ideas and actual lines from his work, the postman is able to win the love of Beatrice Russo, the beautiful girl that he has seen working in the local bar.

The opera follows the original film closely, working in short scenes. Catán states that he went back to Skármeta’s source novel in order to bring out the political dimension that is just as important in a consideration of Neruda, his life and his work, but it still remains very much in the background to the fictional love story and the friendship between Neruda and the Postman. What does come out more – and surely justifying the film being made into an opera – is the depth and force of those relationships, which are beautifully sketched in scene by scene, and how they tie into the nature and rhythms of life. These are wonderfully evoked in the libretto and in the music which clearly bears the marks of the acknowledged Puccini and Debussy influences on the composer. The intention is to find the right expression for each scene and emotion, and if that means it evokes other composers, it’s no less effective for it. What helps it is the fluidity with which one scene flows into the next, each building on the previous to deepen the characters, the emotions and the connections between them. The flowing stage design – directed by Ron Daniels – capturing a sense of sea and clouds, carries us smoothly through the first two acts which are the main body of the production.

Postino

The libretto is also of vital importance since, when you get right down to it, the opera is essentially about the power of words. They appear on the screens behind and in front of the performers throughout, and, as a Spanish opera, it couldn’t be more important to have the poetry and the sound of those words expressed and highlighted in this way. Words, poetry, sun, sea and clouds are all there in the original film, but what gives them another dimension of expression and – most importantly – what brings them all together, is the power of the music and the singing, and on those fronts, the opera is most persuasive. The themes and their presentation in this respect also reminded me of Richard Strauss – another influence on Catán – particularly Capriccio which considers the construction of words, music and theatre in opera perhaps from a more academic viewpoint, but in intent, Il Postino is also about the individual power of each of these elements combining in a way that gives its subject the best means of expression.

The singing in this production could hardly be faulted. Daniel Montenegro sang well in the the role the part of Mario Ruoppolo on the night I caught the performance (sharing the role in this run in Paris with the equally fine Charles Castranovo), with a fine clear lyrical tenor that befitted the role and differentiated it from the deeper tenor of Domingo. Cristina Gallardo-Domâs made a strong impression as Neruda’s wife Matilde, and the other main female roles of Beatrice Russo (Amanda Squitieri) and her mother Donna Rosa (Patricia Fernandez) were also well cast, bringing different tones of light and shade to the singing and to the characteration. It helps too if you have someone as charismatic and still as powerful and emotive a performer as Plácido Domingo in the main role of Neruda, but the singer is also a voice for Spanish opera and it is wonderful to hear him express the rich poetic resonances of the words in the libretto so masterfully in his native tongue. It’s a wonderful role, trailor made for him and he defines it utterly. If Il Postino is to succeed in the future – and one would like to think that it has the necessary qualities that would see it more widely performed – it will need an equally charismatic presence in that role, but that will surely follow.

OtelloJacques Offenbach - Les Brigands

Opéra Comique, Paris | François-Xavier Roth, Macha Makeieff and Jérôme Deschamps, Éric Huchet, Julie Boulianne, Daphné Touchais, Franck Leguérinel, Philippe Talbot, Francis Dudziak, Martial Defontaine, Fernand Bernardi, Löic Félix, Léonard Pezzino | Théâtre de l’Opéra Comique, Paris, France - 29 June 2011

With a few notable exceptions in the bel canto repertoire, comic opera, buffa, and particularly operetta, have never been taken seriously by lovers of the more traditional romantic, dramatic and tragic opera. Comedy, of course, shouldn’t be taken seriously, but it is nonetheless another aspect of life that opera is equally as good as representing, and it can be no less intelligent in this form, and no less incisive and satirical on social and political issues – sometimes even moreso than earnest attempts at political commentary.

But let’s not get carried away too soon. Offenbach’s Les Brigands (1869) – one of the composer’s lesser known operettas, certainly not well known outside France – is first and foremost a sparkling, bright entertainment set to catchy tunes, full of humorous incident, intrigue and dressing-up in disguises. Notionally drawn from a work by Friedrich Schiller, it taps into a popular setting of bandits, smugglers and gypsies that would reach its peak in Bizet’s Carmen (1875). In fact, the first laugh of the evening at this production of Les Brigands at the Opéra Comique in Paris was raised from the outset, as the orchestra launched straight into the overture from Carmen before descending into chaos as the fake conductor’s ruse was discovered. It was an appropriate opening for an operatta that rather knowingly plays with the conventions of the artform, but not at all in a deprecating way.

Brigandes

The setting for Les Brigands is, after all, the geographically impossible location of the mountains that border Spain and Italy, where a political alliance is to be made between a Princess of the Court of Grenada and the Duke of Mantua. When the notorious brigand Falsacoppa and his gang get wind of a dowry of three million that comes with the alliance, they come up with a plan to capture the Spanish party and pass themselves off as the royal entourage, having substituted a picture of Falsacoppa’s daughter Fiorella (who just happened to recently have her portrait done in a fancy gown), delivered to Italy by a messanger. This scheme proves to be more complicated than they initially thought, as the brigands have to hold-up the staff at the inn where the Spanish royal party are due to arrive, disguise themselves as hoteliers, and then as carabinieri when they unexpectedly turn up, and finally as the Spanish, before making their way to Mantua.

It’s all played as a tremendous farce (every time a gun is fired in the air, it invariably brings down a bird, and on one occasion a rabbit), making great fun at the expense of the carabinieri whose loud boots ensure that they always arrive too late (“nous arrivons toujours trop tard” – the most famous and memorable tune of the opera, reprised at the end of each of the three acts), at the exaggerated Flamenco gestures and hissing speech of the Spanish (who insist on claiming that they are real Spanish, which distinguishes them from fake Spanish), and at the conventions of operetta comedy itself, with multiple disguises within disguises (and even one breeches role to complicate matters further). The staging in this production by Macha Makeieff and Jérôme Deschamps (a revival of their 1993 production for the Bastille), using old-style painted backdrops and generic costumes, was most effective in conveying the necessary comic tone. The stage was often populated by up to fifty people and by numerous live animals that includes donkeys and hens running around, yet it never appeared cluttered.

Brigandes

It’s easy to dismiss Les Brigands as low farcical entertainment, but the skill with which the situation in the operetta is arranged and performed (there are no great virtuoso singing performances here, but it’s played with verve and gusto by all the main roles), the drive of the score (full of can-can style jaunty rhythms), and the playing out of the clever libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (the librettists for Bizets Carmen), reveals great sophistication. Not only is it in tune with the political and social climate at the end of the Second French Empire of Napoleon III, making reference to the financial scandals of the time which has resonance today (emphasised at one point when the coffers are revealed to be empty with a distainful interjection of ‘Banquiers!’), but Offenbach’s work, and that of the French opera-comique, has a quintessential French quality that one doesn’t find elsewhere, and which – judging by its reception at the Théâtre de l’Opéra Comique on a hot evening at the end of June – is still as thoroughly entertaining and accessible today.

OtelloGiuseppe Verdi - Otello

Opéra National de Paris | Marco Armiliato, Andrei Serban, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Sergei Murzaev, Michael Fabiano, Francisco Almanza, Carlo Cigni, Roberto Tagliavini, Renée Fleming, Nona Javakhidze, Chae Wook Lim | Opéra Bastille, Paris, France - 28 June 2011

The relative restraint and respect for the source that Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito afford Shakespeare’s drama is all the more apparent to me for having a few nights previously watched a production of Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet (and also relatively recently, a Blu-ray recording of Verdi’s Macbeth). While Shakespearean drama suits the familiar big Verdi subjects of romance, jealousy and revenge, Otello (1887) however marks a change in Verdi’s approach to opera composition, moving away from the bel canto tradition in Italian opera that has been influential in his composition of great arias to express the blood-and-thunder nature of the subjects, towards a more dramatic focus with emphasis on psychologically realistic characterisation and a musical integrity that doesn’t stop at intervals to let the diva show off her vocal talents.

The amount of effort that went into consideration of the nature of the drama and the make-up of the characters is clearly evident in the way the drama plays out and in the respectful reading in the performance by the Opéra National de Paris at the Bastille that adhered to these intentions with a relatively low-key approach to a highly emotive subject – jealousy. The programme however revealed detailed notes made by the librettist Arrigo Boito on each of the characters and on how they out should be played. In the case of Desdemona, for example, he notes that “the serene and chaste figure of Desdemona must present a profound experience of love, purity, nobility, goodness, innocence and devotion… the more natural and measured her playing, the better she will arouse the sympathy of the spectator”. There could hardly be a better description than that of the performance of Desdemona in this production by Renée Fleming, although I would also add that her honey-inflected voice brought out another level to the nature of her character that was thrilling to see played-out to its inevitable and moving conclusion. Unfortunately, while Fleming came out of it better than most, I don’t feel that the direction or the dramatic staging in the revival of this 2004 production by Andrei Serban helped her or any of the other performers.

Otello

There’s a need to remain controlled and restrained, but there’s also a need to let go in Otello, even if it’s just a flash of emotional torment, rage, desire, jealousy or cruelty. It’s certainly there in the musical composition, which is measured and calculated both within the score and the libretto to achieve the maximum impact of the necessary condensation of the original drama, we saw it also in some of the performances, but it wasn’t brought out or enhanced by the sets or the stage direction. Visually, the sets looked fine during each of the three acts, in a typically tasteful Paris Opera fashion, making good use of the full width and height of the stage through a mixture of uncluttered props, organised choreography, strong colours and lighting and a considered amount of projections. It was however, too brightly lit, too colourful, too clean-cut and smooth-edged to be appropriate for the sombre tone of the opera itself, and there consequently remained a disparity between the content of the opera and how it actually looked.

It’s hard not to identify that the principal theme of Otello is jealousy, but what is marvellous is the subtle way that Verdi and Boito handle the potentially melodramatic situation that develops between Othello and Desdemona. The composer takes time to establish all the courage of the Moorish governor of Cyprus, all the charm, beauty and innocence of Desdemona and the love and devotion that they share, but he shows the utter devastation that jealousy can wreak on even the most stable of personalities and relationships, and this slow-acting poison is introduced brilliantly in the form of Iago. We were perhaps fortunate that on the performance I attended we had Sergei Murzaev in the role of Iago, since on alternate nights, Lucio Gallo took over the role and, by most accounts, played the part in his usual baritone baddie manner that was ill-suited to this particular role. Murzaev was a much more subtle and insidious presence, which is really how it should be, because, regardless of the order of billing or the actual amount of singing, it’s Iago who has the most important role in determining the course of events.

Otello

In an opera that doesn’t have any particularly big moments – apart obviously from Desdemona’s death scene, which was indeed extraordinarily moving here – one of the most famous arias in the opera (one not directly drawn from Shakespeare, it must be noted) is Iago’s Credo, where he lays out the nature of his cynicism in a powerful manner that the subverts Christian belief system. Wonderfully, and clearly thought through by Verdi and Boito, even if it does adhere to familiar stereotyping of the tenor, soprano and baritone types, the declamatory nature of the baritone villain in this section is balanced by the lyrical beauty of the soprano and the noble tenor elsewhere. They too each have their moments, but they are far from the usual playing of such roles. It’s Iago who runs this show, and his presence, his very existence, removes any trace of romantic idealism. If there is necessarily less ambiguity in the characterisation within the compressed libretto, Verdi makes these colourations in the score and in the very structure of the opera that refuses to play according to type.

All of this came through marvellously in this Paris Opera production, the orchestra finding those subtleties of shading, and the singers by and large finding and expressing the nature of their characters, particularly Sergei Murzaev and Renée Fleming. Aleksandrs Antonenko sang well and was a strong presence, but I would have liked to see him let his mask slip on occasion, as he appeared to suffer from the operatic version of the some Shakespearean actors’ gravitas and solemnity, intoning the scared words and going through the motions on cue, without ever hinting at any deeper understanding of his character. True, Othello is manipulated throughout by Iago like a puppet, but there should always remain the deeper resolve within Othello that the character exhibits earlier in the drama, which is not so much broken down as twisted into a perversion of its original nature in a way that reflects Iago’s Credo. The stage direction was somewhat lacking in this respect, failing to suit the drama or find a unifying theme or concept that would support the wonderful coherency and intelligence within Verdi’s opera, but the performance alone, aligned with the strong themes of the original work, was strong enough nonetheless to carry this through.

HamletAmbroise Thomas - Hamlet

Opéra National du Rhin | Patrick Fournillier, Vincent Boussard, Stéphane Degout, Ana Camelia Stefanescu, Marie-Ange Todorovitch, Nicolas Cavallier, Christophe Berry, Vincent Pavesi, Mark Van Arsdale, Jean-Gabriel Saint-Martin, Dimitri Pkhaladze | Strasbourg, France - 26 June 2011

To be or not to be… an opera… that is the question.

That’s a bit of a predictable way to start a review of Ambroise Thomas’ opera version of Hamlet, but it’s still a relevant question that has divided opera-goers for years. Your view on that is likely to depend on whether you are an English-speaker and familiar with the Shakespeare drama or otherwise, and if you are more attuned to the traditions of French grand opera. The problem with Shakespeare in French – even though his work is venerated there almost as much as in the UK – is that it’s not really Shakespeare. In French it has none of the poetry of his Elizabethan period verse, and it translated into a rather prosaic, ordinary, commonplace (I know these all mean the same thing, I’m just listing them for effect) French that is almost indistinguishable from how modern French is spoken.

Adapting Shakespeare to opera is not without its problems either, but there are plenty of examples from Berlioz to Wagner, but most notably Rossini and Verdi, to indicate that there’s no reason why a lyrical presentation of the Bard’s dramas can’t work, and in some cases… dare I say it… even improve on the original. Well, maybe not improve, but there are certainly examples, such as Iago’s Credo in Verdi’s Otello, where the original elements are expanded upon to superb effect, but it’s hard to see how even the Gesamtkunstwerk nature of opera can add much that isn’t already contained within the original Shakespearean drama.

Particularly Hamlet, which in my view, and many others, is the greatest drama ever written. I may have been biased from the outset then, but, never having had the opportunity before to see Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet – or indeed anything by one of France’s most respected if little-known composers – I was keen to take the opportunity to see it performed on French soil in Strasbourg. Ambroise Thomas’ works are rarely performed, with only Hamlet and Mignon staged with any kind of regularity in France, but even here at the Opéra National du Rhin, Hamlet was billed as a rare classic rediscovered. Try as I might however, I couldn’t get the original text out of my head as the rather drab, colourless, dull (yes, for effect) and prosaic French libretto singularly failed to bring the drama and the poetry to life.

Hamlet

Act I and II set out the dramatic content of the opera. It opens with the marriage of Gertrude to Claudius (a invented scene not in the original, but effective enough to establish the context of the drama) two months after his brother King Hamlet’s death, and is then followed by the appearance of the ghost of the father talking to his son Prince Hamlet, telling him that he was poisoned by Claudius and that he must be avenged (“but go easy on Gertrude”, he bizarrely warns), and Act II ends with the travelling players re-enacting the crime (strangely and confusingly in this production, implicating the real people into the drama and not leaving much room for ambiguity).

Musically, it’s hard to find anything attractive about the early scenes, the score conventional and dull, full of old-fashioned academicism that has little relation to the dramatic tone or context of the piece, with one-note continuo during speaking sections and only the chorus coming in from time to time to add dramatic emphasis. Any attempts at originality are quite eccentric, such as a solo saxophone at one point. The staging at Strasbourg Opéra didn’t really find any interesting way to make this come to life (the appearance of the King’s ghost walking vertically down a wall notwithstanding), with a generic Court setting that never changed, with variation only in the lighting – but it did at least keep the dramatic action fluid.

Act III and IV however, post interval, present a totally different side to the opera, putting aside the exposition of the dramatic plot and allowing the emotional tone to find its own footing through some lovely duets and arias – in Hamlet’s confrontation with the Queen, and particularly in Ophelia’s extended lament and death scene. It becomes more like scenes from Hamlet (or inspired by Hamlet) set to music, and it certainly kills the plot progression stone dead, but the musical qualities work in favour of the opera and this is certainly preferable to the dreary dramatisation of the first half. As wonderful as this might be, it comes at the cost of the excision of some important and famous scenes, with several of the characters given short shrift. Laertes has a walk-on/walk-off part (pointlessly wandering through the dramatic scene between Hamlet and Ophelia with a suitcase at one point in this production), there are no Rosencrantz or Guildenstern (not a loss really), and alas, poor Yorick’s name is forgotten by the gravediggers, giving Hamlet no opportunity to pose with a skull and meditate upon life (although he does so here, and quite effectively, in relation to Ophelia’s death). Even Polonius is reduced to a bit-part of about three lines, playing no significant part in the drama, and consequently coming out of the drama alive!

Hamlet

As do many other characters, for Thomas and his librettists Michel Carré and Jules Barbier (taken admittedly from a reworking of the drama by Alexandre Dumas) – suddenly realise that they need to find a way to quickly wrap-up this non-drama. Shakespeare is thrown out the window and instead they tack on their own ending where the ghost of the dead King appears before the assembled guests, hands a knife to Hamlet and tells him to get on with it (“but don’t forget, go easy on your mother”). Hamlet duly obliges, despatching Claudius before himself expiring over the grave of Ophelia. To say I was bemused at the finale would be an understatement – flabberghasted, perhaps – and this is the revised version of the opera that was forced upon Thomas for the English permiere of the opera, as it was felt that the English audience wouldn’t accept the happy ending in the original version where Hamlet lives on and is crowned King! Putting Shakespeare aside however – and the developments of Act III and IV are such a thoroughly enjoyable musical experience that one is finally able to do this – it was a however a dramatically effective conclusion.

It helped that the singing at Strasbourg was of a fairly high standard. Hamlet is a baritone role, which one feels it should be even though it’s not a great operatic role (he’s even upstaged by Ophelia), but we had Stéphane Degout here (who I’ve previously seen doing Rameau) and he was in fine voice, as was Nicolas Cavallier in the bass role of Claudius. Hamlet of course notes that women are fickle and inconstant, and there was some inconsistency to the Romanian Ana Camelia Stefanescu as Ophelia, and Marie-Ange Todorovitch’s Gertrude, but they were mainly hampered by the dramatic expression of the first two acts and both came through to excellent effect in the final two acts, particularly in Ophelia’s beautifully heartfelt lament. Despite the liberties taken with Shakespeare’s verse and characterisation then, and despite some conservative grand opera tedium in the drama of the first half, and with the help of some judicious pruning by Patrick Fournillier of the opera’s ballet sequences, Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet proved to be such an experience that one can see why the opera remains popular in France, as well as why it’s not so highly thought of elsewhere.

TelemacoChristoph Willibald Gluck - Telemaco, ossia L’isola di Circe

Theater Basel | Anu Tali, Tobias Kratzer, Freiburger Barockorchester, Tomasz Zagorski, David DQ Lee, Agneta Eichenholz, Solenn’ Lananant-Linke, Maya Boog, Christopher Bolduc | Basel, Switzerland - 24 June 2011

Gluck’s Telemaco, ossia L’isola di Circe (Telemachus, or Circe’s Island, 1765) comes at an interesting point in the composer’s career that has historical significance as well as great musical interest for its place in the opera repertoire. Written during his Italian period, while the composer was still forming his ideas for the reform of opera, Telemaco (dramma per musica in two acts) sits between two important operas (Orfeo ed Eurydice and Alceste) that – in their later French revisions at least – would transform opera, taking it away from empty stylisations and displays of vocal virtuosity towards a more dramatic form of opera as we know it today. The groundwork towards this reform can already be clearly seen in the lesser-known Telemaco.

Even though it still adheres largely to the opera seria form, with drama played out in semi-recitative and fluid continuo (with no harpsichord), the traditional longer arias express the emotions felt with some repetition, but there is nonetheless a restrained simplicity to the arrangements and a clear focus on the drama, with no unnecessary da capo adornments. Most of all however, there is a sense in Telemaco of the wonderful humanism that Gluck is able to find in the human drama unfolding in this particular episode of Homer’s Odyssey and in how he brings it out through the music with a naturalness and fluidity. That’s wonderfully apparent in the playing of the Freiburger Barockorchester conducted by Anu Tali (a rarity seeing a female conductor in the pit) at this production for the Theatre Basel in Switzerland.

Telemaco

Tobias Kratzer’s staging for this production boldly went for a few modernising reforms of its own, seeing Odysseus as a WWII fighter pilot who has been brought down and is now held captive with his crew by Circe on a tropical Pacific island. The opening scene where Penelope receives and rejects her suitors in a late 1940s drawing room in Ithaca, Odysseus having been missing for six years, is then violently transformed into a jungle, vines bursting through the walls as Telemachus vows to go in search of his father and bring him home. Played as a dual role, Penelope quick-changes into Circe, the madame of an Asian brothel, Penelope’s ladies in waiting dropping their knitting and stripping down to sirens in slips that hold Odysseus and his men in their power.

Quite what the intentions were in the modernisation, in closely relating the two worlds and in the division of Penelope/Circe is difficult to judge (this is a very rare opera and I can find no recording of it in existence, or even an English synopsis of the original libretto – although the subject is a familiar mythological one, done many times in opera), but it certainly creates an interesting contrast to consider. What is less in doubt however is the ability of the music and the singing to draw the human drama out of the story.

telemaco

As Odysseus, Tomasz Zagorski was a strong and commanding tenor, with clear Italian diction. In the alto-castrato role of Telemachus, Canadian countertenor David DQ Lee came into form wonderfully in Act II during his vision of the death of Penelope, bringing out the full extent of the nature of his character and his conflicted feelings. Agneta Eichenholz was a little inconsistent as Penelope and Circe, but the dual-role is clearly a challenging one. The heart of the opera however would seem to lie in the character of Asteria and in her relationship with Telemachus. It’s in her transformation from a nymph through her love for the son of Odysseus, and coming to be recognised as a sister by Merione that the most powerful and human moments are expressed in the opera, and Maya Boog captured that wonderfully, particularly in her heartbreaking Act II aria, but it was also evident in the fine ensemble work of the cast and the chorus as a whole.

Composed as a commission for the Hapsburg monarch and Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II and his wife Maria Josepha of Bavaria, who had just come to power after the reign of his mother Maria Teresa and attempt to usher in modernising reforms, there are evidently parallels and guiding principles brought out in Gluck’s Telemaco (much in the way Mozart opera seria La Clemenza di Tito was written for Leopold II in 1791), but regardless of the setting in antiquity, in the time of Joseph II, or in post-WWII, the qualities and strengths of this rare opera are timeless and still relevant, as is Gluck’s prototypal vision of the modern dramatic opera.

OrangesSergei Prokofiev – L’Amour des Trois Oranges

Grand Théâtre de Genève | Benno Besson, Ezio Toffolutti, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Michail Jurowski, Jean Teitgen, Chad Shelton, Katherine Rohrer, Nicholas Testé, Emilio Pons, Heikki Kilpeläinen, Michail Milanov, Jeanne Piland, Clémence Tilguin | Geneva, Switzerland - 23 June 2011

One would imagine that Prokofiev’s 1921 absurdist opera The Love for Three Oranges would be somewhat difficult for anyone more used to a traditional opera format. There are no nice principal characters to sympathise with in their predicaments, there are no memorable arias – even the fact that it deliberately avoids any traditional form is a kind of in-joke dating back to 1761, the original drama by author Carlo Gozzi intentionally avoiding theatrical conventions of the comic and romantic tragedies of the commedia dell’ arte thereby setting himself into opposition against the two major proponents of this form, Pietro Chiari and Carlo Goldini. In reality however, Prokofiev’s opera version is an absolute delight throughout, remaining faithful to the anarchic, nonsensical and childish absurdism of Gozzi’s original, while setting it to some of the most beautiful theatre music that playfully matches the mood and tone of the piece, setting leitmotifs to the characters and themes in a way that adds fluency and consistency to the work as a whole.

In the hands of a sympathetic stage director – and there could hardly be a more appropriate choice for this staging at the Grand Théâtre de Genève than the renowned theatre director Benno Besson, a collaborator and friend of Bertolt Brecht, who has staged several Carlo Gozzi works and is familiar with his themes – this can be wonderful material to play with. Working in collaboration with Ezio Toffolutti, the Geneva production is a wonderful but knowing staging – one that adheres to the original themes and, surprisingly, manages to even illuminate some of their meaning, showing that it is not entirely absurd just for the sake of it. On the face of it however, the story of a hypochondriac Prince, son of the King of Clubs, who strives to overcome his debilitating weakness through laughter, only to be forced on a quest for the love of three oranges, does sound rather silly – and it is entertainingly played in this way, with all the colour, spectacle and well-rehearsed slapstick of a pantomime.

Oranges

Watching all this nonsense however – presented as it is on a stage within a stage – is an audience from Venice’s La Fenice theatre, supporters of Goldini and Chiari, looking for traditional romance and drama, who interrupt the opera from time to time to clash with proponents of this new absurdist form of drama. It adds another level to the drama and the entertainment, as well as an appropriate sense of theatricality to the proceedings. It’s such turgid traditional drama fed to the Prince as Marcellian verse by Leandro, the Prime Minister, that is partly responsible for his condition, so a heavy does of absurdist nonsense is just the ticket. The planned and rehearsed antics of the jester Truffoldino however fail to rouse so much as a chuckle with the prince (although they do entertain the real audience), and it is only when Leandro’s co-consiprator, the witch Fata Morgana, accidentally falls over on her backside, legs in the air, that the prince gets an unrehearsed eyeful of reality …and, no doubt, a spark of desire. No matter that this desire can only be satisfied, having braved the dreaded ladle of the Cook, by a quest for the love of three oranges, the peeled back skin of oranges clearly indicate the female anatomical parts that are to bring the Prince happiness when he draws Ninette from one of them.

Oranges

All this absurdity falls into place meaningfully partly due to the wonderful stage direction, but also if it has any coherence and meaning for a modern audience, it’s down to Prokofiev’s playful, richly brilliant scoring. It’s impossible not to be fully drawn into the proceedings with so much to enjoy from moment to moment, particularly since the score was given a superb, vivacious performance the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under the baton of Michail Jurowski. Whether you actually cared for the characters never mattered – they sang no wonderful arias to persuade you of their charm or depth of soul – but the singing and acting here were of a fine standard nonetheless to keep the audience enthralled, entertained and, in this production, educated even in the finer points of mid-eighteenth century Italian theatre.

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