October 2011


AdrianoGiovanni Battista Pergolesi - Adriano in Siria

Teatro G. B. Pergolesi, Jesi, 2010 | Ottavio Dantone, Ignacio García, Accademia Bizantina, Marina Comparato, Lucia Cirillo, Annamaria dell’Oste, Nicole Heaston, Stefano Ferrari, Francesca Lombardi, Monica Bacelli, Carlo Lepore | Opus Arte

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s opera works were popular in his lifetime, and the subject even of a famous dispute in France between those in favour of the Italian buffa opera style that he innovated and model followed by Lully and Rameau, but the composer died in 1736 at the age of 26 with only six operas to his name, and his works are rarely performed nowadays. Best known now for mainly for his Stabat Mater, few will have heard of Pergolesi’s Adriano di Siria, one of the composer’s opera seria works from 1734, so the opportunity to hear it played in authentic period style at the Teatro G. B. Pergolesi in the composer’s home town of Jesi is tremendously exciting, particularly with the superb 2010 performance presented here on Blu-ray disc from Opus Arte.

You might not have heard of Adriano in Siria or be familiar with Pergolesi, but the chances are that if you’ve any familiarity with Baroque opera, you will at least have heard of Pietro Metastasio, the poet and dramatist responsible for librettos that were used and reused in literally hundreds of early compositions (Adriano in Siria had already been set to music several times before Pergolesi) – and if that’s the case then you will have a fair idea of what to expect from the development of the plot and its treatment in an opera seria work. Historically or classically based, Metastasio’s librettos often feature a powerful king or ruler, who is usually in love with a woman who is engaged to be married to another man. There are often a few additional variable complications where the man she is engaged to is in love for someone else, who is turn is actually in love with the king, and so on…

…cue confrontations between each of the principal figures during the recitative, with long heartfelt, reflective and repetitive virtuoso arias of despair, anger, love and compassion, according to the turn of events. These power-play games, which are more romantic in nature than political or historical, are usually wrapped up neatly with the ruler exercising their power wisely and each of the characters being matched to their appropriate partner. That applies as much to Adriano in Siria (relating to the Roman emperor Hadrian) as it does to Ezio, Il Re Pastore or La Clemenza di Tito (or even Tamerlano, which is not by Metastasio but clearly follows the model he defined). What distinguishes the adapting any Metastasio’s libretto to music is of course the interpretation of the composer, and in this case Pergolesi’s handling of this fairly dry and static dramatic material is every bit as brilliant and enchanting as Handel, Gluck or Mozart.

Adriano

It’s possible that more could be made of the actual drama in the staging, but as far as this production at Jesi goes, there doesn’t appear to be any attempt to impose a modern reworking or concept onto the opera, which is played and performed in a quite traditional manner. The set design is fairly static, the location an all-purpose, generic, classical ruin of antiquity, the costumes those of the period – togas, tunics and robes. The ruins however, while they relate to the results of the war between Rome and the Parthians in Antioch, can also been taken as a metaphor for the romantic conflict and the anguish that it causes each of the characters. Another metaphor in this production relates to birds, a real-life bird of prey carried on at the start of the opera, and caged birds are seen elsewhere, being particularly relevant during Farnaspe’s gorgeous aria at the end of Act I, ‘Lieto così tal volta’ (“At times the nightingale is heard, still happily singing in its captivity”), which, sung by Annamaria dell’Oste with an onstage solo oboe accompaniment that evokes birdsong, gives an indication of the beauty and the wholeness of the production, singing, music and libretto working together in perfect harmony.

Elsewhere the musical arrangements perfectly reflect the nature of the characters and their emotional state at any given time. Later parts of the libretto make reference to tempests and torments (emotional as well as meteorological) and the Accademia Bizantina appropriately whip up a storm in the pit with a huge sound from what appears to be only an 18-piece orchestra. Most of the roles are female, or are females in some of the male roles (the part of Farnaspe however was originally a mezzo-soprano castrato role – one can only imagine how that would have sounded!), but the music is notably more aggressive with heavy percussive harpsichord rhythms, for example, when the only male character, Osroa (Stefano Ferrari), is on stage, full of jealousy or rage and with threats of violence. When contrasted with the aforementioned ‘Lieto così tal volta’, you get a sense of the whole dynamic of Adriano in Siria, which is sung simply and beautifully by all the performers, with da capo but no excessive ornamentation.

If that’s not enough on its own, you get two works for the price of one here that demonstrate the range and innovation of Pergolesi. A comic opera Intermezzo would often be performed in the breaks between acts, and one of Pergolesi’s buffa operas, ‘Livietta e Tracollo’, composed for a Neapolitan audience, is included in this performance in two parts in the intervals between the acts of Adriano in Siria as it would originally have been presented. There’s very little plot to speak of here either, just disguises and farce as Livietta sets a trap for a notorious thief Tracollo and ends up marrying him, but it has two good parts for singers and they are entertainingly delivered with gusto and plenty of comic gesticulation by Monica Bacelli and Carlo Lepore.

The Blu-ray release for Opus Arte looks and sounds terrific, with a clear, sharp colourful transfer, the music and singing superbly reproduced in both the PCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks with crystal clarity and depth of tone, capturing the detail of the instruments and the ambience of the old theatre. Extras include a Cast Gallery and an Interview with conductor Ottavio Dantone. The inner booklet notes the intention of the Pergolesi Spontini Foundation to record and issue all of Pergolesi’s surviving operas on DVD, which, if this first release is anything to go by, will be highly anticipated.

RakesProgressIgor Stravinsky - The Rake’s Progress

Glyndebourne, 2010 | Vladimir Jurowski, John Cox, David Hockney, Miah Persson, Topi Lehtipuu, Clive Bayley, Matthew Rose, Susan Gorton, Elena Manistina, Graham Clark, Duncan Rock | Opus Arte

Although it evidently depends on the opera in question, there is always room nonetheless for a wide range of expression and interpretation in how productions of operas are staged. There are however no hard and fast rules – a baroque opera composed according to very strict musical conventions can take on a new life when subjected to a modern, avant-garde stage production, while relatively modern and difficult works can be opened up by a traditional straightforward staging that reveals their references, origins and underlying intent. Few works however seem so perfectly matched and strike such a perfect balance between the intentions of the opera work and its presentation on the stage as David Hockney’s designs for the classic Glyndebourne production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.

The measure of the success of the production is that it was first put on at Glyndebourne in 1975 and, as this 2010 performance at the festival shows, it is still delighting and wowing audiences thirty-five years later and will no doubt continue to be revived for many more years. There aren’t many productions that have that kind of staying power. A modern artist surely not to everyone’s taste, one might expect something relatively avant-garde from David Hockney when called upon to design the set for a 20th century opera, but in reality, his approach almost perfectly mirrors Stravinsky’s method of composition for The Rake’s Progress. Seeking inspiration directly from the source of William Hogarth original drawings made in the 1730s, Hockney’s sets reproduce the intricate cross-hatching in bold, colourful strokes on flat board backdrops – a modern interpretation of a classical design.

RakesProgress

It works so well because, after all, that’s exactly what Stravinsky’s opera does also. Composed in 1951, the composer working in the neo-classical form (before he moved on to serial composition), The Rake’s Progress accordingly plays to the conventions of the 18th century opera. Classically structured into three acts, with three scenes in each, Stravinsky’s 20th century composition even uses recitative with harpsichord continuo and da capo arias in his treatment of a subject that has many resonances with Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni, but has an even a greater range of references to draw from over the subsequent expansions of the form and subject through Donizetti, Rossini and Gounod, to name but a few.

Since it wears its references openly, the names of the characters even reflecting their types – Tom Rakewell leaving behind his beloved Anne Trulove on the instigation of his demonic alter-ego Nick Shadow for a life of dissolution in London – The Rake’s Progress can be an opera that is easier to admire more than to really love. The symmetrical construction of the opera conforms to a predetermined order of the classical subject – a young man, coming-of-age, uncommitted to settling down to a life of domesticity in marriage and a solid career, decides to explore the endless pleasures that life offers, only to find in the end that there’s something to be said for a more simple lifestyle. It’s an A-B-A structure that is even mirrored in the structure of the three scenes in each of the three acts. It’s all very clever but a little dull and constricting, and the opera can consequently be a little static when performed.

There are however compensating factors that prevent The Rake’s Progress from being merely a pastiche that is too clever for its own good. The libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman is quite beautiful – direct but allusive and elusive, knowing but hinting at deeper underlying truths. The same can be said of Stravinsky’s score, which doesn’t just reference various styles, but expands on them with extraordinary arrangements that do indeed force you to reflect on the nature of the characters as well as how their lives and relationships are constructed and revealed through opera techniques. The blending together of the libretto with the score through the singing isn’t always perfect – and the moral at the ending is a little trite (il dissoluto punito) – but there are some wonderful and dazzling ensemble pieces with duos and trios that are as good as anything by Mozart. Well, almost.

RakesProgress

What this particular Glyndebourne production has going for it as well, is of course the production by David Hockney and John Cox. If it’s a little static in places, that’s often more to do with the nature of the opera itself, which is more reflection than action, and the decision to adhere closely to the Hogarth arrangements. Every scene however is an absolute delight, breathtaking in some places, with marvellous little touches that bring out the humour of the situations well. Vladimir Jurowski treats the opera very much as a Russian work, while being mindful of its English and international aspects. These are brought out fully in the casting and the singing, which is of fine quality throughout, with Miah Persson and Topi Lehtipuu demonstrating perfect English diction. If their acting performances are unremarkable, it’s probably more a failing with the nature of the opera itself – but there are enough compensating factors in the singing, the staging and the performance to make this a highly entertaining experience.

With the kind of cross-hatching that you have in the production design, the last thing you want is aliasing in the transfer, but the transfer copes very well with only a faint hint of instability in one or two places in the textures of the costumes, particularly tweeds. It’s very minor however, and for me it just drew attention to the fact that the detail of the overall production concept is taken through to the costume design. Otherwise, the full impact of the colourful production is well captured in the High Definition transfer and in the actual filming. LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks capture the detail of the musical performance brilliantly and dynamically. Extra features include a Cast Gallery, a brief Introduction to The Rake’s Progress that contains recent interviews with Hockney and Cox about the production, and a wider look at the opera in a 12-minute Behind The Rake’s Progress featurette.

Anne FrankGrigory Frid - The Diary of Anne Frank

Opera Theatre Company, 2011 | Andrew Synnott, Annilese Miskimmon, Ingrid Craigie, Ani Maldijan | Waterfront Studio, Belfast - 20th October 2011

As the recent rediscovery of Weinberg’s The Passenger has shown at its long delayed premiere at Bregenz in 2010 and in the transfer of that highly acclaimed production to the English National Opera, in the hands of a good composer stories around the Holocaust can be dealt with in opera not only in a sensitive manner, but in a way that manages to get to the heart of a subject that is difficult to express through a more conventional dramatic format. As the title and consequently the source of Grigory Frid’s opera work suggests however, a rather different and more intimate approach is required for such an important and well-known work as The Diary of Anne Frank.

Composed in 1972 as a one-act mono-opera (to be sung by one person), there is thankfully no attempt by the Russian composer, now 96 years old, to extend the scope of the diary by dramatising scenes and introducing any of the family or peripheral characters that Anne Frank writes about. While this maintains an integrity and an intimacy to the nature of the diary-format, it provides other considerable challenges for the composer. Not only does Frid have to compress Anne’s thoughts and remarkable observations down into a work that is under an hour long while retaining the essence and importance of what she writes about, but the sheer enormity of expressing those thoughts and emotions through music, through a chamber orchestra of nine musicians moreover, must also surely have been a daunting prospect.

It’s to the credit of Grigory Frid – and also to the performers of the Opera Theatre Company’s 2010 production of The Diary of Anne Frank revived here for the 2011 Belfast Arts Festival – that the qualities of Anne Frank’s writing and its impact is perfectly accompanied by the music in a manner that is wholly appropriate. There’s a difficult balance to maintain however in accompanying the libretto (taken directly from Anne’s diary and not rewritten) with theatre music that matches the tone and the tempo of the writing, but which is also expressive in its own right without over-emphasising the words and without imposing any false sentimentality, which would be so easy to do. The piano led-score with the chamber orchestration however is surprisingly varied and inventive, slightly avant-garde in places, jazzy in others, plaintive and reflective when necessary, yet always seeming to be perfectly pitched towards the content, the emotions and the underlying implications about the Holocaust that aren’t directly expressed in the libretto.

It’s difficult also to approach a staging of such a work with only one singer, but the production design by Nicky Shaw and the simple but remarkably effective lighting design by Tina MacHugh were equally as impressive here, the staging as imaginative and inventive and as complementary to the opera work as anything I’ve seen on a grander scale. With only a single piece of background, the stage was nevertheless transformed by its opening up, like a book or diary flipped open by the singer herself, the “pages” containing windows and relief designs that evoked the enclosed world of Anne Frank. Other props were drawn from under floorboards, again giving the impression of hiding and secrecy, of being pop-ups from a book, as well as being imagery drawn from Anne’s own personal world. The simple profile outline of a child, reflected in light and shadow during Anne’s dream of her friend Liess, perhaps the best example of enormous effectiveness through such simple means.

That applies to the score, it applies to the staging, but it also applies to the singing. A perfectly pitched performance from Ani Maldijan took into consideration the nature of the subject of the libretto as well the fact that it is being delivered by a young girl and she sang it simply, heart-felt yet unadorned, allowing the strength of the words – drawn directly from Anne Frank’s writing – to speak for themselves without any inappropriate or unnecessary over-emphatic mannerisms. A beautiful and powerful little work, the Opera Theatre Company’s impressive staging and performance of The Diary of Anne Frank was not only considerate of the nature of the work and its source, but like Frid’s composition itself, it helps keep the meaning of Anne Frank’s diary relevant and alive, reaching out to more and more people. Long may it continue to run.

LuluAlban Berg - Lulu

Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Michael Schønwandt, Willy Decker, Laura Aikin, Jennifer Larmore, Andrea Hill, Marlin Miller, Wolfgang Schöne, Kurt Streit, Scott Wilde, Franz Grundheber, Robert Wörle, Victor Von Halem, Julie Mathevet, Marie-Thérèse Keller, Marianne Crebassa, Damien Pass, Ugo Rabec | Opéra Bastille, Paris - 18th October 2011

I know it’s considered one of the major works of 20th century opera, and it’s certainly one of the most important and influential works advocating the twelve-tone system – but I still find Lulu a difficult opera to love. Surprisingly, it’s less to do with the complexities of the musical arrangements, which actually feel perfectly fitting for the nature of the opera’s subject – with the use, abuse, decline and horrible murder of a woman at its core, it’s not supposed to be pretty – as much as failing to find a strong dramatic thread or conventional character development to grasp onto. But then, Alban Berg was presumably challenging these traditional concepts also.

It’s questionable then whether an opera that is built upon the deaths of many of Lulu’s lovers and which ends with her own murder as a prostitute at the hands of no less than Jack the Ripper, should be “prettified” by the impressive set designs and eye-catching choreography of Willy Decker’s production. Brightly lit with clean lines, Decker’s production has a sense of design and colour that makes it look like a Pet Shop Boys concert set in an IKEA store. Whether it looked appropriate or not, it at least felt right and, most importantly, it worked on a conceptual level, proposing an interesting new way of looking at Lulu.

Central to the opera and the image of Lulu is a portrait painted of her in the first scene of Act 1 – a critical scene that sets the tone for what is to follow. Interestingly, in Decker’s vision, the painting is made up of several canvasses that isolate and fetishise each part of her naked body like an exquisite corpse. An exquisite corpse – now that’s a great central concept and image for Lulu, for the objectification of the young woman under the gaze of countless men, each projecting their own lusts and desires upon a figure who is a composite of so many female and feminist archetypes.

Lulu

That of course is the strength of the opera itself, but it’s also the aspect that is equally difficult to pin down dramatically or in any sense of characterisation, so Decker’s staging makes that a little more meaningful. Decker’s arrangements, placing the action within an arena for this combat of the sexes that ensues, the whole colourful cabaret watched over by a chorus of dark-suited anonymous figures in hats, all work towards this vision, even taking into consideration (definitely a part of the intention of Berg’s opera itself), the audience itself voyeuristically being a part of this woman’s abasement and destruction, all for their entertainment.

I still didn’t feel that I gained any greater understanding of the complicated parade of characters that flit through Lulu’s life (which may be a good thing), but every expression of lust, jealousy, joy, anguish, anger and violence was certainly fully felt and brought out in the production, in the singing and in the incredible performance of the Paris Orchestra. As compelling as events were on the stage, my attention was constantly drawn to Michael Schønwandt conducting the infinitesimally detailed score, drawing it all together remarkably. Lulu is one of Laura Aikin’s signature roles – I’ve seen her sing it before on DVD in a fine performance in Zurich under Franz Welser-Möst – but she still looks and sounds terrific. Utterly commanding in the role, she is riveting to watch. There were however no weak elements whatsoever in this production for the Paris Opéra, with Jennifer Larmore a wonderful Count Geschwitz, and Kurt Streit notable in the role of Alwa.

The production used the now common 1979 version of the opera, with the third act, left unfinished after Berg’s death in 1937, completed by Friedrich Cerha. The performance of the score by the Paris orchestra, as mentioned above, was something of a revelation – or perhaps, since this was the first time I had been to a live performance of Lulu, it just needs to be experienced in the theatre with a truly world class orchestra. That’s what we were treated to here, with the addition of great singing and a visually impressive but thoughtful stage production.

Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser

Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Sir Mark Elder, Robert Carsen, Christof Fischesser, Christopher Ventris, Stéphane Degout, Stanislas De Barbeyrac, Tomasz Konieczny, Eric Huchet, Wojtek Smilek, Nina Stemme, Sophie Koch | Opéra Bastille, Paris - 17th October 2011

As one might expect from Robert Carsen – or indeed any modern director really who is confronted with the challenge of updating Richard Wagner’s grand subjects into a meaningful setting – the stage director has little time for the trappings of Tannhäuser’s ancient Teutonic mythology. He determines – quite correctly – that Tannhäuser is all about the struggle of the artist to find new challenges and inspiration and not rest on the laurels of acclaim and easy public acceptance (a subject no doubt close to the heart of the composer himself). Accordingly, there are no dramatic classical vistas of Venusberg with nymphs, fauns and satyrs all skipping around in his production for the Paris Opera, but rather, right from the outset of the wonderful overture to this opera, Carsen strips back everything to the essence of an artist driven but tormented in his attempts to paint the naked Venus, his inspiration, his obsession, his aphrodisiac – the urges all intertwined into everything that makes him an artist.

Tannhauser

The stage, still during the overture, consequently becomes filled with this obsession, the artist appearing in multiple forms, producing fevered canvasses – the paintings, the artists, the stage itself, all smeared and dripping with red paint, their own lifeblood. It’s a dark obsession, and the dark stage, stripped down, filled with frenzied activity, perfectly choreographed and atmospherically lit, captures everything that is there in the overture and expanded upon in the first Act. With great simplicity of design and movement, the nature of Tannhäuser’s predicament is fully achieved by making him a painter, his necessity to look elsewhere and start anew reflected in the blank canvasses that form a backdrop to the contest at Wartburg in Act II.

If there are any doubts about the approach to take with regard to the opera’s themes, one need only listen to the music itself. Tannhäuser was composed in 1849, when Wagner was still searching for a new form of expression for German art, leading towards the music-drama, yet had not yet totally escaped the conventions of the traditional form of Grand Opera. The need to confront the conflict between physical and spiritual urges, the imperfections that arise out of this, and the necessity for those imperfections in order to create a dialogue or dialectic, are there within Tannhäuser itself. Heinrich seeks to and needs to push the boundaries of convention and challenge the public and risk offending their delicate sensibilities, ultimately to serve God or a higher purpose. It’s what Wagner does also, and it’s what Carson, in a way, does in turn when he extends the scope of the stage in Act II by having characters walk down the aisles, as if the Paris audience were stepping onto the stage. That’s an old trick of course, but it’s meaningful here, since it directly addresses the question of public perception of art, and even the notorious response to the opera when it was first performed in Paris.

Tannhauser

Such an approach doesn’t always fully cover the complexities of Wagner’s vision and imagination – Tannhäuser to my mind is almost as esoteric, indefinable and personal to Wagner as Parsifal – and I’m not sure how any stage production could be, but the direct focus on the theme of art at least allows attention to be focussed on the characters, and here at the Bastille, the performances were extraordinarily good. Christopher Ventris handled the most demanding role of Tannhäuser terrifically. He has a beautifully toned voice and sung the role well, embodying the enthusiasm and the conflict of the struggling artist with every gesture and vocal expression. Nina Stemme’s Elisabeth also lived up to the high expectations that were placed on her, but the most pleasant surprises were Sophie Koch’s commanding and clarion-voiced Venus, and Stéphane Degout’s well-rounded baritone was consistently impressive as the conflicted Wolfram. The quality of the lower end of the vocal register is just as important to sustaining the whole scope of the opera’s musical and artistic themes, and we certainly got that here.

On that front also, the Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris was in magnificent voice (and isn’t Tannhäuser a glorious opera for Wagnerian choruses?) both off-stage and on-stage as sirens and pilgrims. With Sir Mark Elder conducting the orchestra wonderfully through the score, this was – as you would hope for considering the themes of the opera itself – an evening of supreme artistic effort.

Charles Gounod - Faust

Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Alain Altinoglu, Jean-Louis Martinoty, Roberto Alagna, Paul Gay, Tassis Christoyannis, Alexander Duhamel, Inva Mula, Angélique Noldus, Marie-Ange Todorovitch | Opéra Bastille, Paris – 16th October 2011

When is Gounod’s Faust not Gounod’s Faust? For many people who think they know the opera well, I’m sure that they would find the new 2011 production for the Paris Opera unfamiliar in many respects – but the question is historically a great deal more complicated than that. A great admirer of Goethe’s work, Gounod had been planning an opera on Faust for almost thirty years, but between finally starting work on it in 1855, it receiving its first production at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris in 1859 in a heavily cut form, and its appearance at the Paris Opera, many subsequent revisions were made to the work.  With additional arias inserted later to suit singers in productions around Europe, with the whole work revised again by Gounod in 1866 to eliminate spoken dialogue and make it a fully-fledged opera, it can be difficult to determine what exactly is the true form of Gounod’s Faust.

Faust has probably been debased even further over the intervening years. A popular favourite, the dramatic representation and any sense of coherence has often come secondary to ensuring that the crowd-pleasing songs, marches and waltzes showcasing the extravagance of the orchestration, the singing and the famous setpieces meet audience expectations. Many operas have scenes of iconic power, but are there any with quite so many in each act as Faust? With its initial meeting between Faust and Mephistopheles, the Fairground waltz and the Ivan the Terrible soldier’s march in Act 2, Marguerite’s Jewel song in Act 3, Valentin’s duel in Act 4 and the Walpurgis Night debauch in Act 5 – to name just a few of the stand-out moments – Gounod’s Faust is one long procession of memorable moments, drama and melodrama, mixed up in meditations on love, romance, nihilism, philosophy and religion. With so much to cover and so many expectations to meet – and with such a history of cuts and revisions – there’s not however much sense of coherency in Faust, and there’s little that bears resemblance to the original work and themes of Goethe.

Faust

How much of the opera is as Gounod intended is difficult then to determine, but it has certainly been molded a great deal by the necessity of meeting the demands and conventions of the French Grand Opera tradition. That’s how it’s traditionally presented, that’s how I am familiar with it, and that’s pretty much the way it was played at the fine Royal Opera House production directed by David McVicar broadcast in HD around the world just a few weeks ago. Surprisingly then, few of the familiar conventions were adhered to in the Opéra National de Paris’ new 2011 production at the Bastille directed by Jean-Louis Martinoty and conducted by Alain Altinoglu (after the departure of Alain Lombard early in the production). If there is some inevitable disappointment that all the old favourites aren’t played out quite as you remember them or would like them, the new Paris Opera production is at least a brave attempt to restore some of the true qualities of the work back to its original form. If you are going to radically rework a familiar opera however, you need to have something else to pique the interest of the audience, and while that is admirably achieved here to a certain degree, some of the decisions are nonetheless questionable and some of the staging is quite curious.

The staging, as is often the case at the Bastille, appears to be aiming to fill the large stage with as much impressive set design, spectacle and colour as possible, rather than being quite so faithful to the demands of the opera. In the case of Faust however, there are certainly plenty of showcase scenes to merit the spectacle, and some of them really have an impact. The main body of the stage – as it was with McVicar’s producton last month – uses the scientist’s study as the basis for the whole opera. Here, the semi-circular raised rows of bookcases are a constant reminder – while there is often not much else to remind you in the opera – of the desire for knowledge, experience and answers that has ultimately led the doctor Faust into a bargain with the demon Mephistopheles, selling his soul for a life of abandon and debauchery that, up until her dramatic sacrifice and salvation, almost also claims the pure and innocent soul of Marguerite.

Great vertical use is made of the stage, with huge crosses and an enormous skeleton descending down to the stage, as well as raising figures and objects, and no small amount of smoky dry ice from “down below”. If some of the choices are curious, not exactly naturalistic and perhaps not quite how we are used to seeing Faust depicted –the aforementioned skeleton and Marguerite’s bed covered in greenery and forming part of the garden scene some of the stranger elements – they all at least fit into the main themes and concepts of the battle between good and evil, science and nature, knowledge and the purposes that it is turned towards.

Faust

Some of this works however and some of it doesn’t. The skeleton forms one of the best effects during the waltz during the fair of Act II, whirling and trailing ribbons over Mephistopheles as he leads the dance beneath. On the other hand, Roberto Alagna’s transformation from old academic to young man isn’t the most inventive. Employing an actor who lip-sync mimes to Alagna’s off-stage singing, it avoids the tricky transformation (clevery done in quick change mode by Vittorio Grigolo in the ROH production) – but Alagna makes enough of an impression when he does appear to make up for this. Valentin’s death also lacks traditional impact, since he has no sword and is struck by Faust with an oblique blow (which indicates of course that it is Mepistopheles behind the action), but the extraordinary manner of him dying standing on his feet is quite striking.

Another reason for the seemingly deliberate lack of traditional impact however is the measured tempo of Alain Altinoglu’s conducting of the Paris Orchestra which avoids all the usual added punchy emphasis, sounding almost like how one would approach Wagner’s German Romanticism more than how we are accustomed to hearing Gounod played. The playing of the orchestra was marvellous and, although one misses all the usual tics, this more thoughtful and lyrical approach did however cast an entirely different perspective on the work and indeed worked marvellously with the romantic and religious elements that dominate it. The opera unfortunately still has many gaps and lapses of dramatic continuity that prevents such an approach from fully coming together, so it wasn’t entirely satisfactory, raising perhaps more questions in the curiosity and unfamiliarity of the staging instead of making it any clearer or coherent, but it was a welcome approach nonetheless.

Even if the dramatic action or the musical interpretation didn’t always play into the hands of the singer looking to make an impression in these great operatic roles, the singing was nonetheless wonderful. Roberto Alagna was in fine shape physically for the role and in good singing voice also. Personally speaking, I don’t find him the most charismatic of performers, but by the same token he’s not show-offy, he does have a beautiful tone to his voice and always delivers a flawless singing performance. You couldn’t ask for more from a Faust. Inva Mula, who I last saw singing wonderfully in the Paris Opera’s revision and restoration of Gounod’s almost forgotten Mireille (on Blu-ray), is in even finer voice here as Marguerite, her French pretty much faultless, her singing glorious, appropriate and in keeping with her character. Paul Gay didn’t always carry the kind of seductive charm of Mephistopheles or sound entirely firm on the lower register, but his performance was warmly received by the audience, as was Tassis Christoyannis – an excellent Valentin, even if he wasn’t given much leeway with the role.

MedeaGiovanni Simone Mayr - Medea in Corinto

Bayerisches Staatsoper, Munich 2010 | Ivor Bolton, Hans Neuenfels, Nadja Michael, Ramón Vargas, Alastair Miles, Alek Shrader, Elena Tsallagova, Kenneth Robertson, Francesco Petrozzi, Laura Nicorescu | Arthaus

The Medea myth has provided great material for opera composers over the years, and it’s not difficult to see why. It has all the ingredients – as it’s played here in this version – for the operatic favourite, the ‘melodramma tragico’. A Greek mythological tale of royal kingdoms at war, marriage alliances and a sorceress who seeks to disrupt it all, it’s a storyline nonetheless that can be accessible to a modern audience, dealing with very real human emotions. There’s a joyous wedding – between Creusa and Jason – but a psycho ex-wife, Medea, who still represents a threat to the union, and a struggle over custody of the kids from her and Jason’s previous marriage, which he wants annulled based on the fact that the witch cast a spell over him. Don’t they all. And would you believe it, the ex turns up at the wedding and causes a bit of a scene. Nightmare.

There are many other facets to this storyline, from the classical mythological view of the relationship between humans and the gods to the character-driven human drama full of emotional turmoil and conflicts between duty and desire. It’s a subject consequently that has been covered many times in opera over the centuries, and is still returned to even by modern composers, with Aribert Reimann’s 2010 Medea viewing Jason’s entering into prestigious marriage to Creusa as an act of social climbing, leaving behind his past for an alliance with Corinth. For the director of this production of Mayr’s 1813 opera Medea in Corinto, Hans Neuenfels, the story is about people living in fear and acting out of fear. You might not get that quite so much from the original score and libretto, but that at least is the spin put on this production of a rarely performed opera recorded in 2010 at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich.

Medea

In Medea in Corinto, the forthcoming union between Creusa and Jason (Giasone in Italian) is a promise to the end of the long wars that have devastated the nation and an end to living in fear. But right from the beginning, Neuenfel’s radical staging puts forward a view that Corinth – perhaps on account of having to deal with the constant threat of violence – has become a corrupt and violent police state, with a cruel and sadistic king, Creon/Creonte. There are threats to the marriage also not only from Medea, who has turned up demanding an audience with Giasone, but – in this version – from Aegeus/Egeo, who is still engaged to Creusa and has brought his own personal army with him to push forward his claim to the throne.

Much of this interpretation of the myth is, it has to be said, suggested by the staging rather more than anything in the score or the libretto. That kind of practice can often be a valid exercise of theatrical interpretation, but it’s perhaps a little more dubious here since it seems to be acting in a way that is contrary to the intent of the piece, the kind of director-imposed regietheater view that is despised by a certain (intransigent) section of the opera-viewing public. In the opening scenes then, while Creon is talking about peace, he and his troops are at the same time engaged in the abuse, torture and execution of ordinary citizens in a sadistic manner that clearly evokes Pasolini’s Salò (thankfully without its worst excesses). In other scenes, either the director doesn’t trust the singing to be strong enough or the score to be deep or interesting enough, and includes silent background figures of Hymen and Amor, who play out mimes in the background, as well as solo musicians to highlight and contrast the actions with the words of the libretto.

Whether it’s true to Mayr’s vision of the Medea myth, this kind of reworking of the material is of course valid in the context of the nature of the opera’s theme of shifting political agendas, where the stated aims of those in power is often contrary to their actions and their actual intent. More than that however, without a little bit of subversion to enliven it, Medea in Corinto might otherwise be a very dull opera indeed. Musically, the studied classicism of Mayr’s arrangements – stately Mozart-like opera seria without the recitative and singing that is heading towards bel canto – is quite beautiful, but can come across as rather bland, certainly when compared to Cherubini’s fiery version, which is an evident model here. Although the qualities of his composition here are debatable, or at least unfashionable as far as modern opera tastes go, the composer now almost forgotten in the history of opera, Mayr could once count both Bellini and Donizetti as pupils, and Medea in Corinto is consequently not without a considerable amount of interest.

Medea

If the Bayerische Staatsoper production then is somewhat radical, it at least tries to make the classical themes relevant to a modern audience, the three-level stage reflecting the three periods through which the audience view this opera – a modern view of Mayr’s period interpretation of classical antiquity. The motivations and intentions can however be a bit dubious in some other respects – Medea first appearing in a witch-doctor costume, Aegeus bizarrely killing his own men in the second act – but it certainly holds the attention better than a more straightforward traditional production might. The production however also benefits here from some fine singing, Nadja Michael in particular delivering a fabulous rich deep almost mezzo performance as Medea – here as elsewhere a real showpiece role – but the singing all round is of a very high quality. A slimmed-down Ramón Vargas is notable as Giasone, but the role requires a deeper near-baritone range in some parts that the Mexican tenor can’t reach with sufficient force. Unfashionable it may be, but if you are looking to study the often fascinating intricacies and colour of the score, it’s superbly delivered by the Bayerisches Staatsorcheter under Ivor Bolton.

Enjoyment of this rare opera is assured however by the High Definition quality of the Arthaus Blu-ray release. The image quality is flawless, the filming making use of frequent close-ups, but also allowing the (sometimes distracting) background drama to be followed. The audio tracks are LPCM Stereo and HD Master Audio 5.0, both of which are simply outstanding with remarkable clarity and bass presence, and only a little reverb of stage ambience on occasion from the microphone placements. Extra features include a 30-minute Making of – which is made up entirely of interviews with the cast and production team – and a very informative 16-minute Interview with the president of the Simone Mayr institute.

CarmenGeorges Bizet - Carmen

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2010 | Marc Piollet, Calixto Bieto, Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Roberto Alagna, Marina Poplovskaya, Erwin Schrott, Eliana Bayón, Itxaro Mentxaka, Marc Canturro, Francisco Vas | Unitel Classica - C-Major

As one of the most popular operas in the repertory, and one where opera houses are reluctant to stray too far from the stock traditional performance, Bizet’s Carmen is all too often just being trotted out without a great deal of thought put into it, and there’s consequently a danger of the opera fan becoming somewhat jaded about yet another production. Carmen is Carmen, as far as I’m concerned, and personally, I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it again. Fantastic opera, brilliantly scored in a way that is full of life and passion, consummately operatic, but done to death, to the extent that it’s almost become a cliché, removed and detached from whatever real human emotions used to underlie it.

Consequently, until the recent Carmen in 3-D production from the Royal Opera House, I hadn’t seen or really listened to the opera in about ten years, and Francesca Zambello’s conventional and unimaginative staging for that production reminded me why. The production itself wasn’t bad, but there was just nothing new in it. It would really take something extraordinary to make me sit up and notice Carmen again, and not only notice it, but actually listen to it again in a new way. Calixto Bieto’s production for the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, conducted by Marc Piollet, updating the opera to what looks like the 1970s is not then a staging that will appeal to traditionalists, but, personally, it most certainly is a version to make you sit up and notice just how incredible an opera Carmen can be.

From the standpoint of the casting alone however, there are plenty of good reasons to like this production, which has the right kind of blend that is needed in terms of experience for the two principal roles and up-and-coming young singers for the supporting roles. With Roberto Alagna and mezzo-soprano Béatrice Uria-Monzon, both native French, the roles of Don José and Carmen are not just in reliable hands, but both invest a great deal into the interpretation, singing wonderfully and maintaining a strong presence on the stage. Erwin Schrott is a good Escamillo, again another fine actor willing to push interpretation as well as possessing a fine baritone voice – but this is a minor role for his talent. Marina Poplovskaya finds the right blend of freshness, innocence and purity that the opera needs as Michaëla.

Carmen

As good as each of the cast are in their own right, the famous arias as good here as any interpretations I’ve heard – Alagna’s ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’ is terrific – they work wonderfully together and it’s the duets and ensembles that make the biggest impression, presenting a refreshing new perspective on the opera. The orchestra and the performance are also superb. It’s everything you expect Carmen to be, but with enough character, verve and energy of its own, and a willingness to explore the dynamic that make this something more vibrant and alive, (the HD sound reproduction on the Blu-ray is also outstanding), the music seeming once again to be organically part of the drama rather than illustrating a bunch of clichéd routines. It’s a long time since I’ve heard this particular opera sounding so fresh.

How much of this is down to the stage production is debatable. Other than modernising the period setting however, the essence of the drama isn’t touched or played around with, the emphasis shifted slightly perhaps to emphasise the masculine aspect of the opera and the culture of machismo (although a full-frontal naked bullfighter might be too much for the more sensitive traditionalist). Even if it were just for the fact of stripping away all those old routines and hackneyed gypsy imagery, Calixto Bieto’s production, often minimal, the stage permanently giving the impression of a bullring, at least forces the viewer to focus once again on the characters and how they express themselves through Bizet’s score and the libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, and that alone is a bit of a revelation. Yes, everyone knows that Carmen is all about jealousy, lust and Latin passions, but removing the set-pieces goes some way towards restoring the balance of the other more noble aspects the theme of love beyond all reason (“Love is a gypsy child who knows nothing of the law”) in the unconditional familial love on the part of Don José’s mother and also in the purity of Michaëla’s love for him. Whether it’s obvious or not (and all the better if it’s not), I’d say that the production and direction is certainly instrumental in achieving this.

DeadLeoš Janáček - From the House of the Dead

Aix-en-Provence, 2007 | Pierre Boulez, Patrice Chéreau, Olaf Bär, Eric Stokloßa, Steron Margita, John Mark Ainsley, Jan Galla, Peter Hoare, Gerd Srochowski | Deutsche Grammophon

Based on Dostoevsky’s novel Memoirs from the House of the Dead, which recounts many of the author’s own experiences as a prisoner in a Siberian Prison Camp, Janáček’s final opera, first performed in 1930, is inevitably a bleak affair. But like the original work that it is based on, the point of showing such misery and injustice is to highlight all the more the uplifting moments of human compassion that endures there which is never fully extinguished. That’s difficult to bring out of a group of hardened men, many of whom indeed are criminals and murderers, but it’s a work that is all the stronger for meeting this challenge, and conducted by Pierre Boulez and directed for the stage by Patrice Chéreau (the team behind the famous Centenary Wagner Ring Cycle), those qualities are superbly and sympatherically elicited from the singing, the staging and Janáček’s remarkable composition.

Of all Janáček’s work, From the House of the Dead is one that is rarely performed, principally because its difficult subject and its treatment lack a conventional narrative structure or resolution, to such an extent that the opera was considered incomplete at the time of the composer’s death. Even the orchestration itself is sparse, as if not fully scored, but Janáček’s music – so associated with rhythms of speech – has evolved here, finding harsh new sounds to suit its subject, using percussion, blocks, rattling chains and tolling bells, and integrating them into the fabic of a powerful score than needs no further elaboration. The dark tone that Janáček explores here points towards Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and, particularly in its prison setting, Weinberg’s recently rediscovered The Passenger.

Patrice Chéreau’s staging and direction doesn’t so much emphasise the dark setting, as fully envision what is already there in the score and the libretto. Considering Chéreau’s background, it’s entirely theatrical in this respect, the stark high grey walls that enclose the men in Act 1, the improvised stage in Act 2 and the hospital ward of Act 3, the blue-grey-brown tones all perfectly geared towards literal as well as metaphorical representation of the prison. Chéreau doesn’t point towards any specific cultural or political reading, but focuses on the human drama, on the nature of men, the stories they tell each other and the personalities that they reveal. By extension, this also sheds light on the deeper human behaviours that the situation brings out – the basic human needs for equality and freedom, the urge to communicate, the need for a sense of worth, respect and attention that, when denied, can be expressed in assertion of authority and in violent behaviour.

Dead

If the direction does everything to give the best possible staging for the opera and its themes – from the sense of movement and positioning of figures right through to the superb lighting of the stage – everything about the actual performance of this Aix-en-Provence production of From the House of the Dead is likewise as good as it could be. Pierre Boulez conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra through a magnificent performance of a remarkable score (from Sir Charles Mackerras and John Tyrell’s critical edition) that flawlessly captures tone, character and nuance for the situation as well as the characters. The singing is of an exceptionally high standard, not just for the actual singing, but the acting performances that Chéreau teases out of each member of the cast. This is as good a performance as you could possibly hope for of this particular opera.

On DVD, the performance at Aix comes across quite well. The NTSC resolution isn’t the best, and it can look a little blurry in movement, with hand-held camera inserts being used as an extra dimension to the live performance – but it fully captures the sense of the staging. The audio mixes in LPCM stereo and DTS 5.1 are wonderful, both of them exhibiting an impressive level of detail and a lovely tone. The DVD also has a 48-minute Making Of featurette, filmed entirely behind-the-scenes, following the rehearsals without any formal interviews.