Thu 22 Dec 2011
Posted by keris9 under Blu-ray
, Verdi, Giuseppe
, Traviata, La
, Arthaus Musik
, Petersen, Marlis
, Evans, Tecwyn
, Konwitchny, Peter
, Oper Graz
, Varano, Giuseppe
, Rutherford, JamesNo Comments
Giuseppe Verdi – La Traviata
Oper Graz, 2011 | Tecwyn Evans, Peter Konwitchny, Marlis Petersen, Giuseppe Varano, James Rutherford, Kristina Antonie Fehrs, Fran Lubahn, Taylan Memioglu, Ivan Oreščanin, David McShane, Konstantin Sfiris | Arthaus
There’s a tendency now for some producers, when confronted with some of the best-known and popular works, to strip them right back to the bone. In some cases, it can certainly be justified by the amount of fat that certain operas have gained through lazy convention, just rolled-out and played in a traditional staging with little thought for the relevance of their subjects to a modern audience. The assumption is undoubtedly that the public just want to hear the famous familiar arias and sob into their hankies at the end, and who is going to risk denying the audience that in an opera like La Traviata? Verdi’s opera, the only one he wrote with a contemporary subject (although even that was eventually denied him by the censor), is however one that could certainly withstand and perhaps even benefit from a fresh perspective, as Willy Decker’s production for Salzburg (now currently at the Met in New York) demonstrated. This somewhat minimally staged 2011 Oper Graz production by Peter Konwitchny certainly puts a different emphasis on the score and the drama, but does perhaps cut it back a little too much.
The case for this production, apart from the smaller nature of the venue, is one assumes that the storyline of La Traviata is now so familiar that it doesn’t need all the period accoutrements and props that are surely only a distraction from the brilliance of an opera – Verdi’s finest work up until his final four masterpieces – that is surely capable of standing purely on the strength of the singing and the music alone. It undoubtedly is and, with a few reservations, this performance is as good as any you’ll hear – one that even allows you to hear the emotions expressed in a fresh and genuinely touching human way, particularly if you are tired of the grand mannerisms of divas showing off their range and routines in a stuffy, period social setting of barons and courtesans. La Traviata is a brilliant work on that level, expressing the strength and the weakness of human sentiments on the subject of love. Surely, that’s what really counts? Well, perhaps not when you have so many other interpretations to choose from and with many classic performances of a great work already available. Each version has its own strengths and weaknesses, so what is gained from this production much will depend on one’s personal taste for singers and for modern, minimalist stagings.
Personally, I find Marlis Petersen, singing the role for the first time, wonderfully refreshing in the role of Violetta Valéry. Her principal Act 1 aria ‘Ah fors è lui’ and cabaletta are sung beautifully, purely and without mannerisms, sifting through the conflicting emotions of a woman who believed she was incapable of finding true love suddenly confronted with thrilling sensations when least expected, but cautious about the dangers of headlong abandon into the pleasures of loving and being loved. Her Act 3 ‘Addio del passato’, where she confronts the flipside of those emotions, the loss of love and the approach of death, is just as effective and affecting. A curtain, a chair, a fine singer – does Verdi and Piave’s work need anything more than this to bring it to life? Well, yes, it does perhaps need a little more than that, and it doesn’t always get it in this production.
Going against more common interpretation, Giuseppe Varano’s Alfredo Germont isn’t the cocky young man or the impetuous hothead as seen recently on Blu-ray recordings featuring Ramón Vargas, Rolando Villazón or Joseph Calleja. Here, he’s a bespectacled nerd, a bookworm in a duffel coat, a shy, inexperienced romantic dreamer who seeks inspiration in his books of poetry. His voice isn’t as strong as the aforementioned tenors either, but, by the same token, the performance consequently loses all the operatic mannerisms and finds a way to express more realistically the inner nature of his character. James Rutherford sings well as Germont-père, but here he’s characterised as rough and abrasive, with little sympathy or understanding for Violetta’s plight when he asks her to give up Alfredo, even wheeling in his schoolgirl-aged daughter in person, beating her and manhandling her in order to blackmail Violetta’s feelings.
Such interpretations are valid and viable if they can be made to work, but not if they undermine or contradict the strengths of the original musical and lyrical intent. One would think that ‘Pura siccome un angelo’ ought to be more poignant for the presence of the girl in question, but it’s not, and Violetta’s capitulation of ‘Ah dite alla giovine!’ consequently doesn’t feel justified here. There should be a sense of paternal care for his children certainly that may make Germont blind and even inconsiderate to the suffering of others, but that’s not entirely how the libretto or the music depict his character. In order to make it work that way, you would need to mess with the score and make some judicious cuts, and unfortunately, that’s where this production is on rather dubious ground.
Cuts in even the most famous operas are not uncommon – even in La Traviata – but this production is particularly ruthless in wielding the knife in order to make it fit to a design that differs from the original intention. In some cases, the cuts are justifiable in focussing the drama back on Violetta and Alfredo and in moving the story along. We lose the gypsy dance and the matador chorus from the start of Act 2 entirely, just so we can get back to Alfredo’s confrontation with Violetta after the break-up. Personally, while the music is marvellous, I’ve always felt that this was rather out of place in the opera and did indeed bring the dramatic flow to a standstill (although Willy Decker did indeed manage to put an interesting spin on this section to integrate it back into the work), so it’s absence here is understandable if nonetheless regrettable. Other cuts and trims however (Violetta’s Act 2 letter-writing, Germont’s ‘No, non udrai rimproveri’, the cutting of references to the baron and the duel, the excision of the doctor’s presence from the start of Act 3) feel arbitrary, or worse, are done with the intention of twisting the narrative design.
In some respects, this allows the opera to work towards its own ends without causing too much damage to the dramaturgy of the original. It’s a very lean version of La Traviata consequently and it fairly flies along, running to only one hour and fifty minutes, launching from act to act without time even for an interval. The minimal stage sets – curtains and a chair for the most part, but with strong warm lighting schemes to enhance the overheated nature of the opera – allow for such quick changes, but the dramatic context is just as important as a concept, and that’s unclear here. It’s fine to use curtains in a Brechtian manner to suggest life as a series of scenes in which we often assume the role of characters, but I don’t think this is any more truthful to the human content of the work. It just switches one set of dramatic conventions for another.
Fitting in with the stripped-down nature of the production, there are no big gestures either from the orchestra under the musical direction of Tecwyn Evans. It’s nice to hear the detail of the score without it being smothered in punchy grand gestures and mannerisms, but it’s questionable whether this is true to the nature of Verdi’s dynamism and sweeping arrangements. Actually, it’s not questionable at all, since it often feels like a mechanical run-though, not giving sufficient sense of the passing of time or the context of the relationship between Alfredo and Violetta, and it does reduce the heightened emotions and impact of the drama. That’s clearly the intention of the music and artistic directors here and, while it may not be traditional, it does put a different and interesting perspective on the work that is worth considering, even if it doesn’t always work.
It’s perhaps only the final scene that has the necessary impact, with the requisite timing that leaves room for the emotions to sink in. Thanks to Petersen’s fine performance, it also just about passes the crucial tear-in-the-eye test. With all the cuts to the score and lack of dramatic setting, this 2011 Graz production is not recommended to anyone watching La Traviata for the first time, but it is not without its merits and it is certainly worthwhile for anyone who has despaired of ever hearing La Traviata approached with some originality, freshness and daring, even if it doesn’t entirely work and certainly doesn’t get to the emotional heart of the work in the way that Verdi intended.
On a BD25 disc, the 1080i image is not exceptional simply because there’s little detail to be seen on stage, and what is there is fairly washed out by the strong orange lighting, but the disc itself is technically sound. The audio mixes, in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0, are wonderful however for anyone who wants to hear the fine detail of the (subdued) orchestral performance and singing. Extras include a 20-minute making of that gets right behind the scenes of the rehearsals and the booklet includes a short interview and a synopsis by the director Peter Konwitchny, which give some idea of his intentions for the production.
Tue 20 Dec 2011
Posted by keris9 under Verdi, Giuseppe
, Opera review
, Opéra National de Paris, L'
, Kwangchul, Yun
, Fel, Christophe
, Alvarez, Marcelo
, Urmana, Violeta
, Krasteva, Nadia
, Internet streaming
, Jordan, Philippe
, Auvray, Jean-Claude
, Luperi, Mario
, Stoyanov, Vladimir
, Forza del Destino, LaNo Comments
Giuseppe Verdi - La Forza del Destino
Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Philippe Jordan, Jean-Claude Auvray, Mario Luperi, Violeta Urmana, Vladimir Stoyanov, Marcelo Álvarez, Nadia Krasteva, Kwangchul Youn, Nicola Alaimo, Nona Javakhidze, Christophe Fel, Rodolphe Briand, François Lis | Opéra Bastille, Paris (via Internet streaming) 8 December 2011
Verdi’s Il Forza del Destino is one of those fascinating mature works by the composer – along with Simon Boccanegra and Un Ballo in Maschera – which draw on the best elements from the composer’s earlier work in terms of melody, drive, pacing and plotting, but which have the benefit of a little more complexity in the orchestration, hinting at the greatness of the later final opera compositions – Don Carlos, Aida, Otello and Falstaff. The characters in La Forza del Destino, like the other works from this period, are somewhat limited by the conventionality of the melodramatic plotline, but Verdi’s score hints that there are other depths that can be drawn from the work. Consequently it’s a work that requires a little more thought given to the staging and a cast of performers who have the ability not only to meet the singing demands, but be able to give something to the acting. The direction of the current production for the Opéra National de Paris unfortunately doesn’t quite live up to those challenges, but that doesn’t prevent their La Forza del Destino from being any less brilliant musically.
I’m not sure it helps at all to displace the opera’s famous Overture, but it’s become something of a convention now (and not just here, but also recently in the Amsterdam production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes) and here it’s delayed until after the first act. The Overture of La Forza del Destino is now so familiar that it can be easy to forget that it has a dramatic function, and it’s the contention of Philippe Jordan, the musical director of the production, that it works better in that context as an introduction to the opera’s themes following Act 1, which is really just a prologue. Whether that’s the case or not is debatable, but what is not in question is just how impressively it is delivered. The filmed recording of the production, broadcast in French cinemas and available for Internet streaming from the Paris Opera web site, demonstrates Jordan’s controlled and precise direction of the Overture and confirms my belief from recent visits (Lulu, Tannhäuser) that the Paris Orchestra is one of the best in the world at the moment. The same musical intelligence and virtuosity is evident not just in the Overture, but throughout this production.
While the staging and the performances of a strong cast are more than adequate, they aren’t given anything much to do in a storyline that doesn’t quite deserve the beauty and intelligence of Verdi’s score, which is moving away from the convenienze of Italian opera and the yoke of the cabaletta towards a purer musical form of dramatic expression. That’s the case with most of the composer’s melodramas during this period, where there are moments of greatness and brilliance, but overall there isn’t an entirely satisfactory match between content and the growing confidence and complexity of Verdi’s musical arrangements. The religious themes, the question of honour and duty and the fighting of a duel remind one of Stiffelio, while the music and Spanish setting tug more in the direction of Don Carlos.
Despite some of the superficial similarities in the outline, La Forza del Destino is a Verdi opera that is far beyond the straightforward dramatic plotting of a work like Stiffelio. The religious and philosophical questions behind La Forza del Destino are, like the title itself (The Force of Destiny), rather more allusive for a Verdi opera, most of which are named directly after its principal character (Oberto, Rigoletto, Don Carlo) or an historical event (Il Battaglia di Legnano, Les Vêpres Siciliennes). It’s a title that, particularly in the context of the religious themes of the work, got Verdi into trouble with the censor, the opera indeed seeming to consider the power of destiny and fate and man’s attempts to control it through war, debts of honour or religious observance. Those seemingly subsidiary elements of the opera – Preziosilla, the fortune teller, Melitone, the monk and the soldiers going to war – are in the end just as important, if not more so, than the melodrama of Leonora, Don Alvaro and Don Carlo di Vargas. Where do the common people, torn between sinning and God, asked to take part in these wars, fit into the greater scheme of things?
As such, it should be possible for an innovative director to make something of those contradictions and the darker undercurrents in the score or the libretto as with Tcherniakov for Macbeth, or Christof Loy for Les Vêpres Siciliennes, but Jean-Claude Auvray’s production doesn’t attempt anything quite as radical. It’s not unusual for directors to update the older historical periods of Verdi operas to the composer’s own time and align the revolutionary elements of the plots with the struggle for the reunification of Italy, the Risorgmiento, and that’s the case here, but the Viva V.E.R.D.I. (“Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia”) slogans and flag-waving fit awkwardly and confusingly with the Spanish setting of the opera. The religiously sparse and ascetic sets however make the environment less concrete, allowing the wider dimension of the opera’s themes to be applied, where the backdrops, like the changes and whims of fate, are fluid, temporary and changeable, capable of being rolled-up and spirited away at a moment’s notice.
Somehow however – and it’s not necessarily a fault with the direction, since the opera itself is imperfect in this respect – the main characters lack substance within such an environment, caught up in extraordinary coincidences and twists of fate. It’s hard therefore to make that in any way realistic, despite the best efforts of Verdi’s score, the outstanding performance of it by the Paris Opera orchestra, and the generally fine singing of a strong cast. Marcelo Álvarez demonstrates why he is one of the most sought-after and foremost Verdi tenors at the moment, a fiery Don Alvaro, but one who embodies a sense of conflict and honour in his struggle with the cruel twists of fate that occur. Violeta Urmana also seems to be the Verdi soprano of choice at the moment, but isn’t always the most versatile of singers or the best of actresses. She has some fine moments here and is generally impressive, but she clearly struggles with the high notes in places and it’s by no means a distinguished performance. There’s good solid support however from Vladimir Stoyanov as Don Carlo, Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla, Kwangchul Youn as Padre Guardiano and Nicola Alaimo as Brother Melitone – all of which are enough to make this a solid and entertaining La Forza del Destino, even if it is somewhat lacking in adventure.
The Opéra National de Paris’ La Forza del Destino is available for viewing on their website until February 2012.
Fri 16 Dec 2011
Posted by keris9 under Blu-ray
, Puccini, Giacomo
, Arthaus Musik
, Oren, Daniel
, Cedolins, Fiorenza
, Alvarez, Marcelo
, Arena di Verona
, De Ana, Hugo
, Raimondi, Ruggero
, Spotti, Marco
, Previati, FabioNo Comments
Giacomo Puccini - Tosca
Arena di Verona, 2006 | Daniel Oren, Hugo de Ana, Fiorenza Cedolins, Marcelo Álvarez, Ruggero Raimondi, Marco Spotti, Fabio Previati, Enrico Facini, Angelo Nardinocchi, Ottavia Dorrucci | Arthaus
This budget release of Tosca by Arthaus (available for around £6 from online retailers) is an accessible and affordable introduction for anyone interested in discovering just how amazing opera can look and sound on Blu-ray. In the early days of DVD, Arthaus released a couple of ‘DVD Samplers’ that highlighted the latest releases in their catalogue with a selection of trailers, key arias or scenes from their opera, ballet and music documentary titles. This gave a flavour of how certain opera productions were staged, and whether they would be to your taste or not. Arthaus have however come up with a much better idea to introduce new audiences to their Blu-ray catalogue, and that is to include an entire opera along with all the samples, so that newcomers can get a sense of the whole dramatic and musical power of a complete production.
The choices so far have been good ones. The first release, Verdi’s La Traviata, with a stellar cast including Angela Gheorghiu, Ramón Vargas and Thomas Hampson and a sumptuous set at the Scala in Milan, could hardly be a better advertisement for opera on Blu-ray or a better introduction for the newcomer. La Traviata is full of magnificent and familiar melodies, demonstrates virtuoso singing and has a strong dramatically involving and emotionally engaging storyline that moves rapidly along. If that particular production was a little traditional and unimaginative, it is at least a safe option that cannot fail to impress. The same can certainly be said, on just about every level, for the choice of Arthouse’s second ‘Blu-ray Sampler’, Puccini’s Tosca.
Filmed in 2006 in the stunning outdoor location of the ancient Roman arena in Verona, there are no grand or avant-garde concepts attached to the production, just a solid, straightforward account of Puccini’s melodrama of a love affair that becomes embroiled in revolutionary political affairs of state and ends in tragedy. No clever concepts need to be applied to Tosca – its themes are there on the surface and not politically engaged in the manner that Verdi would deal with such subject matter – and it’s underscored by the powerful tugging sweep of Puccini’s hugely romantic score. Employing Wagnerian leitmotifs none too subtly, (Dah-dah, DAH every time the villain Scarpia is even mentioned), compressing the drama down to a series of escalating events, the three acts clocking in at under two hours, Tosca is a superbly calculated and orchestrated music drama.
The stage setting here by Hugo de Ana is actually rather unspectacular for a Verona production, but it’s not an opera that needs the extravagant grandeur of a Zeffirelli setting. A few statues are scaled up to create an imposing presence of religion and the state over the affairs, but there are few changes made to the necessarily all-purpose stage for each of the acts. The only real set-piece is the ‘Te Deum’ at the end of Act 1, which involves cannons firing on the stage and the opening of the screen at the back to reveal a line-up of skull-faced bishops, and it’s highly effective, with shock and awe in all the right places. The two other famous set-pieces in the opera – the ceremonial decorating of Scarpia’s corpse with candles and the plunge of Tosca at the finale – are not exactly muted (it’s impossible for them to be muted with Puccini’s score powering them), but they just don’t take them to their usual lengths and they do consequently slightly lose their traditional impact.
If the scenes work and are scarcely less effective than usual, it’s down to Puccini’s score to a large extent, but it also needs strong casting to put it across, and this production certainly has that. Best of all is Marcelo Álvarez – better known for his Verdi tenor roles than for Puccini, but Cavaradossi suits him well in this particular opera. Fiorenza Cedolins is fine and occasionally brilliant as Flora Tosca, and Scarpia (Dah-dah, DAH) is in the capable hands of the great Ruggero Raimondi. Obviously each is going to be judged by their showpiece aria – Scarpia’s ‘Te Deum’ in Act 1, Tosca’s ‘Vissi d’arte’ in Act 2 and Cavaradossi’s ‘E lucevan le stelle’ in Act 3 – and all of them are impressively delivered in singing and in dramatic terms. Daniel Oren conducts here and it’s an adequate account of the work, but a little too smooth, the instrumentation not always well balanced in the sound mix for maximum effect. This is not the best Tosca you’ll see by a long shot, but it’s a good performance nonetheless.
The quality of the Blu-ray is excellent. The image is clear and colourful, the high quality PCM and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 sound mixes well distributed, with nice detail. Subtitles are English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. There are no extra features relating to the Verona production of Tosca on this budget release. Intended to showcase the Arthaus catalogue, the 47 trailers on the BD total 140 minutes of extracts from their TDK and Arthaus releases, which are right bang up-to-date and well worth a look through. There are however no subtitles on any of the trailers.
Wed 7 Dec 2011
Posted by keris9 under Blu-ray
, Strauss, Richard
, Arthaus Musik
, Deutsche Oper Berlin
, Liebe der Danae, Die
, Litton, Andrew
, Harms, Kirsten
, Uhl, Manuela
, Delavan, Mark
, Klink, Matthias
, Blondelle, Thomas
, Ulrich, Burkhard
, Sabirova, HulkorNo Comments
Richard Strauss - Die Liebe der Danae
Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 2011 | Andrew Litton, Kirsten Harms, Manuela Uhl, Mark Delavan, Matthias Klink, Thomas Blondelle, Burkhard Ulrich, Hulkor Sabirova | Arthaus
The penultimate opera by Richard Strauss, Die Liebe der Danae was written in 1940 before his last opera Capriccio, but withheld until after the war for fear that the time wasn’t right for its rich, extravagant orchestration of a mythological tale that seemed to have little relevance to the times. The time it seems has never been right for Die Liebe der Danae, the opera only receiving its premiere in 1952 after Strauss’ death, and it would appear to have had even less relevance in the post-war years and in an world of German opera that was embracing the earthier, discordant sounds of Berg, Hindemith and Weill. Consequently, Die Liebe der Danae has rarely been performed (according to the notes on this release there have been only 16 productions worldwide in the last 60 years), but at a time when economic concerns have banking institutions and large countries teetering on the brink of crisis, perhaps the time is finally right for Strauss’ neglected late masterwork. This 2011 production at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin certainly makes a persuasive case for it.
The classical subject of the opera relates to another of Jupiter’s mythological liaisons (Semele, Leda and one or two other conquests also appear in this opera), in his attempts to seduce Danae, the daughter of King Pollux of Eos. With the kingdom of Eos near bankruptcy through the extravagant lifestyle of the King, Jupiter knows that Danae’s weakness is gold, and since the king is keen to marry his daughter to a rich suitor in order to restore his fortunes, how could they resist an offer of marriage from Midas, the legendary King of Lydia, whose touch will turn anything into gold? Jupiter disguises himself therefore as Midas, and forces Midas himself to act as his messenger Chrysopher and make the necessary arrangements. Danae however, against the odds and her love of gold, rejects the disguised Jupiter and falls in love with the real Midas instead, unaware of who he really is. It’s a choice that is to have grave repercussions.
The libretto for Die Liebe der Danae was written by Joseph Gregor, who was never as successful in his collaborations with the composer as Hugo von Hofmannsthal, but based on some original ideas by Hofmannsthal, there are more interesting themes within the storyline than are obvious on the surface, and inevitably some amount of operatic references and self-referentiality on the part of the composer. The mythological elements have some similarity to Die Walküre – the allure and the power of the Gods diminishing, the strength of human love that takes its place expressed in the union of Midas and Danae – and the score accordingly sees some of Strauss’ most Wagnerian touches, certainly in Act II at least. It’s tempting to see, as the author of the booklet notes on this release points out, Strauss in the role of Jupiter, considering his position at this stage in his life and concerned about his legacy in a world that may no longer need him.
There is however it seems to me something of Strauss in Midas also, “cursed” with a gift that turns everything to gold – Die Liebe der Danae is scored as beautifully, extravagantly, lushly and with infinite levels complexity as some of the greatest of Strauss’ works – but it’s a gift that carries with it the danger of turning whatever it touches into something cold and lifeless. Much of Strauss’ operatic work could certainly be considered as being too intellectualised and self-referential, as cool and lifeless as the golden rose in Der Rosenkavalier – an image that is even used again in this opera with the turning of a natural flower into a beautiful but lifeless gold object. But, considering the nature of opera again in his final work Capriccio, the composer seems to come to an accommodation that the underlying truth and life in his work will endure and still find a way to reach out and touch the human spirit. All that glitters may not always be gold, but sometimes it is.
It’s taken a long time for recognition to be given to this particular opera, which makes this release all the more welcome. The Deutsche Oper production of this beautiful but rarely performed work is an absolute delight and a real treat for fans of Richard Strauss. Directed by Kirsten Harms, there is perhaps some attempt to make a personal identification of the opera’s themes with the composer by hanging an upturned piano over the set in all three acts with falling pages of a music score instead of golden rain, but otherwise this is a relatively straightforward and faithful staging of the opera, set in a timeless mythological world that is neither period nor modern. It looks marvellous and comes across well on the screen, the sets perfectly appropriate for the scale and the nature of the subject. The casting is good and the singing excellent with Manuela Uhl as Danae, Mark Delavan as Jupiter and Matthias Klink as Midas. If there are a few minor areas where the strength of the singing is competing to be heard above the sumptuous, layered score, it’s nonetheless as good as you could hope for from a live performance.
The High Definition PCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.0 audio tracks on the Blu-ray however really work marvellously, the mixing giving the voices adequate space, while putting across the full splendour and luscious beauty of a score that, superbly performed by the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper under Andrew Litton, ranges from delicate, sparkling playfulness to brooding, contemplative melancholy. Consummately Richard Strauss then, and this performance amply demonstrates the qualities and strengths of an opera that, like much of the composer’s late work, remains largely unknown, underperformed, underrated and surely ripe for rediscovery.
Tue 6 Dec 2011
Posted by keris9 under HD-Live
, Handel, George Frideric
, Metropolitan Opera
, Opera review
, Fleming, Renée
, Wadsworth, Stephen
, Kaiser, Joseph
, Blythe, Stephanie
, Bicket, Harry
, Scholl, Andreas
, Davies, Iestyn
, ShenyangNo Comments
George Frideric Handel - Rodelinda
The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Harry Bicket, Stephen Wadsworth, Renée Fleming, Stephanie Blythe, Andreas Scholl, Iestyn Davies, Joseph Kaiser, Shenyang | The Met: Live in HD - December 3, 2011
The challenges of staging a Baroque opera for a modern audience are difficult enough through trying to find a way to make the rather static nature of the drama more interesting to watch and bring the archaic musical conventions of the opera seria alive. By nature a more intimate drama, the difficulties of reaching out to a large audience in a major opera house, or even indeed to a worldwide audience watching live through a HD broadcast link must be even greater. With their production of Handel’s Rodelinda, the Met certainly made every effort to keep the drama and action moving through an inventive, appropriate, period set with direction by Stephen Wadsworth, and consideration was clearly given to the casting of strong singers to project the deeper emotional drama of the piece, but there was the feeling that the Met really isn’t the right venue for such works and the full impact of one of Handel’s most lyrical and dramatic operas was never fully achieved here.
Although it has a reputation for having a complex plot, the dramatic action of Rodelinda is actually not all that difficult to follow, and on the surface at least, it’s actually one of Handel’s least complicated situations. Updated in this production to Milan in the early 18th century, the King of Lombardy, Bertarido, has been deposed by Grimoaldo, and is believed dead. Grimoaldo, had been planning to marry Bertarido’s sister Eduige in order to gain a legitimate claim to the throne, but resolves instead to marry the queen, Rodelinda. Grimoaldo’s henchman, Garibaldo, puts pressure on Rodelinda, threatening the life of her son, and she reluctantly is forced to accept Grimoaldo’s proposal. Her husband Bertarido however is not dead, but has been smuggled into the city by his friend Unulfo, who still remains loyal. Overhearing Rodelinda’s agreement to marry Grimoaldo, Bertarido is forced to reveal that he is still alive, a selfless act that causes Grimoaldo to reconsider his intentions. The remainder of the storyline falls into conventional lines of resolution of both the political and, more importantly, the romantic situations that have become entangled.
Even if it is fairly conventional in this respect, there is however still rather more dramatic action than you usually find in a Handel opera, with plenty of confrontations between opposing rivals and reunions between lost lovers. The real drama however goes on beneath the surface, the inner turmoil expressed, as it it often is in Baroque opera, through long repetitive da capo arias. Rodelinda is one of Handel’s most beautiful works for how these inner conflicts are expressed in the singing and in the music. It’s more than the usual, “I’ve been betrayed, how can I live with the shame?” type of situations, and the resolution is more than the person in the wrong coming to their senses and bringing about an honourable resolution that restores the political and romantic order of things. Superficially, it has to be admitted, Rodelinda does fit this template to a large extent, but it’s how those characters grapple with those difficult decisions, and it’s how those sentiments are expressed in the singing voice in some lovely poetic arias, through the achingly tender musical accompaniment, and in how the characters evolve over the course of the three acts, that the opera excels as one of Handel’s finest, most involving and most beautiful works.
From interval discussions behind the scenes during the HD-Live broadcast, it’s clear that the singers and conductor Harry Bicket are fully aware of the qualities of the work, of how those dramatic situations need to be presented, and how those deeper emotional conflicts and character development can be expressed in the improvisational coloratura of the seemingly rigid form of the da capo aria. Somehow, however, this never managed to be convincingly conveyed in either the dramatic staging, the singing or the performance of the orchestra. The Met’s Rodelinda treated Handel’s opera with skill, respect and consideration, but it just never felt like a Handel opera. As good as each of the singers is individually, the casting here was perhaps not the most appropriate for this particular opera. Personally, I’m not usually of the opinion that there’s only one way to present a work or that certain singers should only stick to a certain repertoire for which they are best suited – I like seeing a singer stretch their capabilities as much as I enjoy seeing a familiar opera transformed by a new interpretation – but few if any of the Met’s stellar cast seemed entirely comfortable in their roles here.
Renée Fleming championed this work and helped get it performed at the Met when it was first produced in 2004, and she is a terrific dramatic singer who brings an attentive intelligence to the role of Rodelinda. Fleming demonstrated that she is capable of meeting the extraordinary vocal challenges in her own way, but – even though she is experienced in this type of opera – perhaps the demands of the Baroque technique got in the way in this performance, because she never succeeded in bringing the Queen’s drama to life. Neither did Stephanie Blythe fit well in the role of Eduige. She sang more than adequately, but you just didn’t get a sense that she was feeling her character’s predicament. Bertarido, with his deep reserves of love, honour and bravery, is perhaps the most interesting character in the opera, but Andreas Scholl’s light countertenor was too small for the Met production and didn’t always bring enough underlying steeliness of his character’s core. Iestyn Davies’ countertenor Unulfo however fared much better. Joseph Kaiser and Shenyang were good fits for their roles as the baddies, but even Kaiser failed to draw the full extent of Grimoaldo’s conflict and the change that he undergoes from the beautiful arias that Handel gives this character.
Ultimately however, the singers were competing with an enormous stage set that was certainly inventive and brilliantly designed by Thomas Lynch to keep the action flowing, providing a sense of realism and spectacle, but – like Wadsworth’s production for Iphigénie en Tauride last season – it was much too elaborate for the smaller intimate scale of the human drama that is played out in such a work. The same can be said for the Met Orchestra, which played the score of Rodelinda well enough, but only partially using period instruments and arranged to fill a larger opera house, it lacked the rhythm, the simplicity, the beauty and the delicate touch of a Baroque orchestra. As ever with the Met then, we got a typically top-class opera production, with top-flight singers and an intelligent and considered approach to the work, but either the venue, the occasion or the medium of HD-Live is all wrong for Baroque opera, because this version of Handel’s Rodelinda just never came across as movingly, involvingly and lovingly as it should.