March 2012


OneginPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2012 | Pietari Inkinen, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Heike Grötzinger, Ekaterina Scherbachenko, Alisa Kolosova, Elena Zilio, Simon Keenlyside, Pavol Breslik, Ain Anger, Ulrich Reß | Live Internet Streaming, 25 March 2012

The manner in which elements of Eugene Onegin relate closely to the circumstances of Tchaikovsky’s own life have often been remarked upon, and it undoubtedly contributes to the deep emotional and romantic sweep of the opera, so it’s surprising that – to my knowledge at least – the unspoken subtext within the work hasn’t really been brought out explicitly before in any modern production.

That subtext is, of course, related to Tchaikovsky’s struggle with his homosexuality. At the same time that the composer was writing Eugene Onegin, he had himself started a correspondence with the patron of many of his works, Nadezhda von Meck, an intimate relationship that held a certain awkwardness since the two of them were reluctant to meet each other in person. In May 1877, Tchaikovsky also received a love letter from a pupil at the Moscow Conservatory, Antonina Milyukova. Believing that destiny was in some way playing a hand, and that marriage would help him deny his homosexuality, Tchaikovsky ill-advisedly married Milyukova in July 1877, and immediately regretted the decision. The marriage was a complete failure and led to a mental breakdown and attempted suicide on the part of the composer.

In the opera that Tchaikovsky was writing at the same time, Eugene Onegin, based on the verse novel by Alexander Pushkin, Onegin famously receives a gushing letter from a devoted admirer, Tatyana, a young, bookish, innocent, romantic girl living on a country estate who immediately falls in love with the handsome visitor introduced by their neighbour Lensky. Cruelly rejecting her declaration of love, Onegin claims that he’s not cut out for marriage, cannot bear the idea of being tied down when he is young and when there are so many other options to explore, certain that any marriage between them would inevitably become dull and routine.

Onegin

There would have undoubtedly been some identification on the part of Tchaikovsky with this situation, which certainly at least contributes to the lush romanticism of the score, so it’s not too much of a stretch to consider that Onegin may well have similarly rejected the young girl because he is gay and that, at the end when he comes to regret his callous dismissal of Tatyana after a life of empty and purposeless abandon, it’s possible to see something of the composer’s own dilemma, hoping unrealistically and impossibly for the security of a marriage relationship that would be more acceptable to society.

Actually, having made the parallel and having watched the Bavarian State Opera’s attempt to put something similar across on the stage, I can see why there’s a reluctance to characterise Eugene Onegin as a gay man. It takes some nerve to update a classic work in this way, altering the sexual orientation of the main character in one of the most romantic works ever written, no matter how closely it mirrors the actual real-life circumstances of the composer. As a subtext, it’s certainly something interesting to keep in mind, but it’s a bit more difficult to make it work convincingly on the stage. Accordingly, there’s a sense that while the director might like to make more of the idea, there’s undoubtedly a need to tread carefully with the material at the same time. So in some respects, while there is a feeling that there is some holding back from taking these ideas too far, even what there is here in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production is more than controversial enough.

Rather delightfully, the production is set in the 1970s, a period that is by no means arbitrary, coinciding with the age of growing sexual expression and liberty where coming out was more acceptable in a way that Tchaikovsky – or indeed Onegin – could never have done in their day. I’m not sure that this would have been the case in Russia in the seventies, but (quite the opposite of the recent De Nederlandse production by Stefan Herheim) there’s nothing here in this production that is culturally specific to Russia. So while the first act is by no means anything like the Larina country estate, it at least looks like a fairly well-off family anywhere in Europe during the seventies. I say delightful, and that’s because it’s a loving recreation of the decade in terms of design and colour, with vinyl chairs, bell bottom trousers, coloured leather armchairs and moon landings on the TV, the stage animated by disco lights and dancing queens.

Onegin

It’s the idea of dancing queens however that is the most controversial aspect of Warlikowski’s production, which features Full Monty routines and shirtless males in cowboy hats and some even in bikinis, shuffling around through the famous Polonaise of the opera. I say shuffling, because it’s very tame stuff indeed, lacking the nerve and the verve to really make the production challenging, even if it is still more than enough to make traditional opera-goers very uncomfortable indeed. I don’t know what the Munich audience made of this or of Onegin’s kiss with his “close friend” Lensky, but I thought it was delicately handled within the context – the spat between the two men a rejection of Onegin’s advances, leading Lensky to throw down the challenge of a duel to defend his honour and reputation before a watching public.

If it wasn’t much to look at, and at times rather more static and all-purpose than one would like, the stage design suited the context setting well, looking most of the time like a 70s’ discotheque, but capable of being transformed reasonably effectively into a family living room or Tanya’s bedroom, allowing the first two acts to flow together without an interval. The duel between Onegin and Lensky takes place over a bed, which was something of a daring touch, but one that worked surprisingly well, principally due to the fine performances – in terms of both singing and acting – of Simon Keenlyside and Pavol Breslik. Keenlyside in particular carried the weight of Onegin’s inner struggle without appearing arrogant, adding to the tragedy of the outcome and his final breakdown. Ekaterina Scherbachenko perhaps didn’t carry the vocal strength or force of some of the best recent more mature Tatyanas (Renée Fleming, Krassimira Stoyanova), but she expressed the youthful innocence, confusion and mortification of her character much more convincingly, singing well and without mannerisms.

The idea of approaching Eugene Onegin from a gay perspective is a challenging one, as is setting it in the 1970s, and there were accordingly some inconsistencies in taking this approach and a static quality at times to the stage direction. The strength of the singing and dramatic performances however – notably from Keenlyside and Tatyana – and a good account of Tchaikovsky’s wonderful, heart-breaking score by the Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Pietari Inkinen, combined to brilliantly bring out the real strength of the work as well as the underlying subtext that undoubtedly contributes to its power and tragedy.

PoppeaClaudio Monteverdi - L’incoronazione di Poppea

Gran Theatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2009 | Harry Bicket, David Alden, Miah Persson, Sarah Connolly, Jordi Domenèch, Franz-Josef Selig, Maite Beaumont, Ruth Rosique, Dominique Visse, Guy de Mey, William Berger, Judith van Wanroij, Francisco Vas, Josep Miquel Ramón, Marisa Martins, Olatz Saitua | Opus Arte

As if it’s not enough to be attributed with inventing opera itself – the first through-composed work being L’Orfeo in 1607 – Monteverdi advanced the artform even further with his last work, L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643), written at the age of 76. Previously operas were based only on classic mythological subjects – opera being a 17th century attempt to return to the ideals of Ancient Greek drama, which was then believed to have had a musical form – but, having moved into public theatres, and no longer a diversion for royalty and nobility, L’incoronazione di Poppea would be the first opera to deal with a historical subject and real people. The composer (there is still uncertainty about the authorship of the work, some believing that parts of the work at least may have been written by one of Monteverdi’s students) takes full advantage of this fact, revelling in the possibilities of extending the qualities associated with the musical-dramatic form to show less elevated and more down-to-earth human behaviour.

Directing Monteverdi’s final opera for the Liceu in Barcelona in 2009, David Alden emphasises this aspect in his colourful, modernised production (first produced in Munich in 1997) which certainly takes liberties with the characters and the setting to draw out the bawdiness and humour that is undoubtedly a part of the work, while Harry Bicket’s sensitive conducting of the Liceu’s Baroque orchestra finds the delicacy and sensitivity that it also part of the make-up of the human historical figures caught up in the drama of Nero’s reign in Rome around AD72. It’s a tricky proposition not only to achieve that magnificent balance, but also to find a way to make a 350 year-old work as vital and meaningful to a modern audience as it would have been to its original intended public. There’s no one right way to this, but it helps if you can achieve some balance between the traditional and the modern that captures the spirit of the work.

For Monteverdi, the Prologue to the opera sets out this clash between classicism and modernity in his new approach to representing historical drama in opera, where the typically allegorical figures of Virtue and Fortune battle it out for supremacy only to concede that it’s Love that holds greater sway in human affairs. In this story of revenge, infidelity, murder, lies and deceit, Virtue really doesn’t get a look in. Within this framework, away from the classical allusions to gods and mythological figures, Monteverdi finds a whole new wealth of emotions and personalities – most of them not entirely noble or honourable – to be explored through his innovative musical approach to continuo instrumentation, recitative and arioso. Busenello’s libretto also revels in the irreverence of the satire of these historical figures and the scandalous behaviour depicted, and, in its own way, Alden’s production taps into this for its rich vein of humour and presents it in a way which may be more meaningful to a modern audience.

Poppea

If that approach at times resembles that of a Carry On film, that’s perhaps not as inappropriate as it sounds for this particular work. There is a great deal of sauciness in how Monteverdi and Busenello treat the scandalous behaviour of Nero’s infidelities and Poppea’s scheming. There is real passion in the seductive lines in which Nero and the music describe the hold that Poppea has over him, and there is some suggestiveness and homoeroticism in Nero and Lucan’s drunken celebration at having overthrown the stabilising influence of Seneca, but the activities of the Emperor and his affair with Poppea seems to promote a general licentiousness and scheming elsewhere among their associates. Brought together in this way, if Drusilla were to ask Ottone “Is that an axe in your trousers or are you just pleased to see me?”, or Nero to exclaim, “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in f’ me!”, it wouldn’t be any more out of place than what is actually suggested there in the music and the libretto itself.

That’s essentially how Alden approaches this aspect of the work, using incongruity to play up the humour in the situation. Hence we have Roman soldiers lolling about on a red leather sofa-bed, much play on the cross-dressing and travesti roles (Nero is usually played by a female soprano, as it is here, but it can be done with a tenor), and obvious visual jokes such as the page Valletto being dressed as an old-fashioned hotel pageboy from 1930s movies, and the Nurse dressed in – yes, you guessed it – a medical uniform. The production creates a recognisable environment then for the modern viewer to relate to, one that is attractively designed with plenty of variety in the arrangements, beautifully lit and coloured, witty, ironic and referential without being overly-clever, keeping the spirit of that aspect of the work intact.

There is however much more to L’incoronazione di Poppea than that and the directorial approach is not quite so successful when it comes to approaching the more lyrical qualities of the work. This is best demonstrated by Seneca’s death scene, which should be one of the most moving moments in the whole opera, but it fails to strike the right tone here. Musically, it’s perfect. Harry Bicket’s arrangement and Franz-Josef Selig’s bass have the right measure of gravity, nobility and tragedy, but the staging and the curiously dressed pupils of the philosopher work against the deeper implications that this event is to have on the subsequent course of events. Much of the balance in the production is left then to Bicket and the Baroque orchestra of the Liceu to pick up and, indeed, they do so brilliantly. It’s a sparser arrangement that doesn’t have the same rhythmic verve as the 1993 René Jacobs recording (on Arthaus DVD) that I am familiar with, but every note of the sparingly used chitarrone and harpsichord continuo is beautifully weighed and balanced, all the more to highlight the flute, harp and other affetto instrumentation that gives colour to the characters and emotions through their arias.

Poppea

The emotion and verve of the singing and acting performances also makes up for the slight lack of dynamic in the staging. Miah Persson is terrific as Poppea – much more animated and lyrical here than in anything else I’ve heard her sing (Britten and Stravinsky) – and Sarah Connolly is a fine impassioned Nero, not essentially evil, but in thrall to his passions and power. Jordi Domenèch is a little light as the countertenor Ottone, but the variety of his tone balances the other singers well. Maite Beaumont is outstanding as Ottavia and Franz-Josef Selig, as mentioned earlier, suitably dignified as Seneca. The real highlight of this production however is Dominique Visse, who is also the Nutrice in the above mentioned René Jacobs version, but here he takes on the contralto roles of the Nurse and Arnalta, fully entering into the spirit of Alden’s production. It’s the variety of singing parts that is one of the great qualities of L’incoronazione di Poppea and the casting here is superbly balanced in this respect.

Just as important, in this context, is the quality of the recording, and this release is absolutely stunning to look at and listen to in High Definition. There is a beautiful clarity to the singing and the instrumentation with a wonderful sense of ambience. This is sheer perfection as far as technical specifications go and, as far as this production is concerned, it brings out all the qualities of an extraordinary work of early opera. Extras on the DVD and Blu-ray consist only of a Cast Gallery and a narrated Synopsis, while an essay in the booklet takes a closer look at aspects of David Alden’s production. The subtitles are in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Catalan.

SchattenRichard Strauss - Die Frau ohne Schatten

Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg 2011 | Christian Thielemann, Christof Loy, Stephen Gould, Anne Schwanewilms, Michaela Schuster, Evelyn Herlitzius, Wolfgang Koch, Marius Brück, Steven Humes, Andreas Conrad, Thomas Johannes Mayer, Rachel Frenkel, Peter Sonn, Maria Radner | Opus Arte

Die Frau ohne Schatten has long been considered one of the Strauss’s most challenging works to perform, and it’s such a magnum opus that one attends a performance of the opera – rare though they are – with a sense of high expectation. If you’re going to undertake such a work, it’s reasonable to expect that the production is going to pull out all the stops. The fairytale nature of Die Frau ohne Schatten however presents some challenges for the more experimental stage director used to modernising works, so it was always going to be interesting to see how Christof Loy was going to rework the story for the 2011 Salzburg Festival. Even by Loy’s standards for courting controversy through a very personal conceptual approach, the Salzburg Festpiele Die Frau ohne Schatten must be one of the strangest conceits ever applied to any opera production.

Not unsurprisingly, Loy dispenses with the fairytale setting entirely, ignores the stage directions, would appear to pay scant heed to the libretto, and instead sets Die Frau ohne Schatten in a recording studio in Vienna in 1955. Now, the idea of making the performance the performance, so to speak, isn’t anything new by the standards of Loy’s minimalist semi-staged productions, but this really takes the idea to another level altogether. The set is built to resemble, in meticulous reconstructed detail, the legendary Viennese concert hall, the Sofiensaal (destroyed in a fire in 2001), where, dressed in frumpy 1950s clothing, the singers here appear to recreate the studio sessions for the first recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten by Karl Böhm in 1955.

Schatten

Well, it does and it doesn’t, because although Die Frau ohne Schatten was indeed recorded in Vienna in 1955 by Karl Böhm, it was actually recorded, I believe, in the Musikverein, but, well, doesn’t that just add to the perversity of the concept? The theory behind the concept is considered in the booklet enclosed with this DVD/BD release, but I’m not sure how helpful that will be to anyone. I can’t make head or tail of it myself, and I’m used to and quite enjoy trying to figure out the often bizarre theories applied to modern opera productions. Are we supposed to be interested in the historical performers of the work and relate the tensions of the drama in the opera in some way to their lives? Or is it supposed to operate on a deeper philosophical level on the nature of art and performance? Whatever the rationale, there seems to be little justification for having singers stand at a podium and sing out to the audience in a work as rich and wonderful as Die Frau ohne Schatten.

First of all, it’s a little bit misleading to say that the singers just stand at a pedestal with the score in front of them and sing out to the audience. Replicating the activity in a recording studio, the performers stop to have coffee from a flask, drink a glass of water, take a smoke break, take off their coats, and walk in and out of the concert hall when not required on the sound stage that is marked by a red light during recording. Technicians meanwhile run around and adjust settings or place the singers into position, and there are numerous other extras and choruses filling the stage. Still, there’s not much there to suggest that the production connects in any way with the opera itself. Over the course of the performance however, while the action never moves outside the Sofiensaal concert hall, the story seems to take over the characters, possessing them, drawing them into the powerful emotions expressed in the drama and the score, and the distinction between the singers and what they are singing becomes blurred. It’s bizarrely fascinating to watch, but clearly not everyone will think so.

Schatten

There does seem to be some parallel drawn, perhaps, between the post-WWII setting of the recording of the opera and the time of its composition during the First World War. It seems no less extravagant to be recording such a work at a time of great privations (the concert hall is clearly unheated and there are no luxuries in the conditions or the sandwiches laid on for them), but like Strauss and Hofmannstahl’s intentions (whether you judge them misguided or not, since the work was not well initially received), Die Frau ohne Schatten is an attempt to reconnect through art with the finer qualities of human nature in response to the horror going on in the world at that time. It’s perhaps – and this is entirely my response to the work – the same recognition on the part of the performers in the post-war years of that deeper element in the work that hits the characters so hard, no more so than the confused Empress who is longing to regain a sense of humanity through the acquisition of a shadow, and the horror of the price that has to be paid for it.

Whatever the reason may be, Loy’s production does in some way achieve a strong connection with the intent of a work whose purpose and meaning has always been elusive and enigmatic. In the way that it mixes musical references, asks self-reflexive questions on the nature of art and dramatic representation and has definite philosophical and humanitarian leanings, I can’t help but think that the composer and librettist of such works as Ariadne auf Naxos, Der Rosenkavalier and even Capriccio (based on an idea by Hofmannstahl) would approve of such an approach. The model for Die Frau ohne Schatten according to the composer and librettist was Mozart’s The Magic Flute, but to all intents and purposes the approach is Wagnerian and it’s specifically Parsifal-like in its spiritual dimension and its theme of sacrifice and redemption. “There are higher powers at work” .

Those higher powers are there of course in the music, which, as Strauss intended, takes over where words cannot adequately express. It’s Wagner rather than Mozart that also influences Christian Thielemann’s conducting of the orchestra and the singing performances. Scored for an orchestra of one hundred and seven, Thielemann controls every element of the huge sound that is created by the astonishing performance of the Wiener Philharmoniker, sweeping and powerful at times, and yet full of incredibly intricate, virtuoso touches and more sensitivity and heartfelt emotion than you would expect to find in the strange fairytale nature of the work. It is utterly, utterly beautiful – as fine an account of Strauss’s most extravagant work as you could imagine. And as complete an account as well, the entire three and a half hours of the work presented here in full and uncut. Act III benefits most from this fuller presentation, particularly in relation to the roles of the Nurse and the Empress, restoring a balance to the work as a whole.

Schatten

This is not an opera for discussing the individual qualities of the singing voices. You don’t put on this particular opera unless you have singers capable of meeting its extreme demands, and you certainly don’t put them in front of Thielemann when he is doing Strauss. You could question the casting and singing that is also more Wagnerian than Mozart, but that seems to me to be appropriate for this work, regardless of what Strauss may have claimed were his intentions for it. All of singers are exceptionally good. Anne Schwanewilms and Michaela Schuster, as mentioned above, bring new depths out of the fuller roles of the Empress and the Nurse, but I was particularly impressed by Evelyn Herlitzius as Barak’s wife, who sings the role with extraordinary conviction and power. Along with Wolfgang Koch’s Barak the Dyer, the two of them manage to create that all-important sense of humanity in their relationship that lies at the heart of the piece. That’s evident also in Stephen Gould’s magnificent Emperor, the emotional depth of his ‘Falke du Wiedergefundener’ almost unbearable, forging a connection directly with the music score in a way that makes the intent comprehensible even if the fairytale context of the work does not.

As does Christof Loy’s staging, even if likewise it isn’t immediately apparent how or why. Either it works for the audience or it doesn’t (and clearly it doesn’t for a large proportion of the audience in Salzburg judging by the booing that greeted the production team at the curtain call here), but personally, I found it extraordinarily powerful and moving. It certainly won’t work for everyone and may prove to be a distraction while you try and figure out what point he is trying to make with its 1950s concert staging, but whether you think it works or not, it operates hand-in-hand with Strauss, Hofmannstahl, Thielemann, the Wiener Philharmoniker and with the singers to create the right kind of environment that draws the majesty and mystery out of the work and the music-drama experience. It’s all there and if you don’t feel the full force of it in this production, then you must indeed have been turned to stone.

While this must have been extraordinary to experience live in the Salzburger Grosses Festspielhaus back in July 2011, it’s to the credit of the recording that it’s also an incredible experience in High Definition on the Blu-ray from Opus Arte. The image quality is impressive, but not clinical, with a slight softness that suits it. With a full four hours compressed onto the BD50 disc, there are a few instances of minor wavering and fluctuation in lines, but only if you are looking for them. The audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and both are resolutely clear and powerful, with a gorgeous tone to the orchestration. There’s a certain amount of reverb evident in the acoustics of the stage, which seems to be more pronounced in the stereo option, the surround mix spreading the sound a little better, I found. Extras on the disc include a Cast Gallery and Thielemann in Rehearsal, an interesting 25 minute look at the preparations for the production with interviews. Subtitles are in English, French, German and Spanish.

BarbiereGioachino Rossini - Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Teatro Regio di Parma, 2011 | Andrea Battistoni, Stefano Vizioli, Ketevan Kemoklidze, Luca Salsi, Dmitry Korchak, Giovanni Furlanetto, Bruno Praticò, Gabriele Bolletta, Noris Borgogelli, Natalia Roman | Arthaus Musik

You might detect the influence of Mozart in some of Rossini’s earlier works. It’s there in an opera seria like Semiramide, but it’s perhaps most evident in the buffo style of Il Barbiere di Siviglia, ‘The Barber of Seville’. Most obviously, it shares several of the same characters who appear in The Marriage of Figaro, both works originally written by Beaumarchais, but the similarity is evident in the use of recitative, the ensemble finales, the type of humour in the farcical situations (the librettist, Sterbini, like Da Ponte for Mozart, cutting back on some of the more pointed barbs of Beaumarchais’s revolutionary satire), but principally, it’s the manner in which Rossini approaches the material with a similar sense of dazzling inventiveness and virtuoso touches that would come to define bel canto.

It was Paisiello however, more than Mozart or Beaumarchais, who would have been foremost in the mind of the composer, since Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia had already proven to be a success and was still hugely popular at the time that Rossini decided to tackle the subject, believing that he could do much more with the work than the old-fashioned, outdated, conservative style of the original version. Sterbini evidently thought so too and rather than go back to the original Beaumarchais source, set about reworking Paisiello’s opera, delivering it piecemeal for Rossini to complete in his famously prolific fashion. When asked if Rossini had indeed written the whole of The Barber of Seville in 13 days, Donizetti is reported to have replied, “It is very possible, he is so lazy”.

Barbiere

There reason I think it’s worth mentioning some of the background around the composition of the opera (which caused some fuss on its premiere in Rome in 1816, partly due to favouritism for Paisiello’s work and partly due to some attempts by supporters of Paisiello to actually sabotage its reception), is that this spirit of inventiveness, irreverence and simply just dashing it off in an off-handedly brilliant fashion is crucial to the tone of the work. It’s the same spirit that fires the youthful enthusiasm of Figaro, of Rosina and even of Almaviva and sets them in opposition to the old guard of Doctor Bartolo and Don Basilio. Even if you are unaware of its background, you should really get a sense of this from any production of the work itself, which is why ultimately it’s a little disappointing that this production recorded at the Teatro Regio di Parma in 2011 – otherwise competently produced and very well performed –couldn’t be a bit more lively.

On the positive side, while the stage setting itself initially isn’t much to look at, it’s actually quite inventive, with some appropriately imaginative touches to allow the work to flow through each of the two acts. So while in Act I, Doctor Bartolo’s house looks like a cardboard cut-out, with there being little sense of realism in the location of it actually being in street, much less a street in Seville, there is at least a balcony for Rosina, and some attempt at period costume, and really that’s all that is necessary for the opening scene. The cleverness of the set is revealed in the subsequent scenes when it opens up to reveal the interior of the house – again, quite simply – but through a few smart devices including a mountain of books, and through the colouration and lighting, it captures that sense of improvised brilliance, as well as being functional for the vital flow of the work and its humorous situations.

Barbiere

While the set is well-equipped to handle the flow and spirit of the work, the stage direction of the performers and the situations is however rather lacking in fire, personality and, sadly, in any real sense of humour. It all feels rather flat. The orchestra of Parma are fine under the young 23 year old conductor Andrea Battistoni, giving a vigorous account of the overture (the overture to this work borrowed from another opera, Aureliano, when the original was lost soon after its first production), and the performance of the score throughout is excellent, but after a while it also seems to just drag along with the lifeless stage direction. It’s no fault either of the singers, who are mostly wonderful. Ketevan Kemoklidze’s Rosina in particular is superb, with a sparkling vitality in voice and character, but Luca Salsi’s Figaro and Bruno Praticò’s Bartolo also rise to the challenging and invigorating cavatinas and cabalettas of the work. Dmitry Korchak, while he has a pleasant musical tone of voice (as noted in my review of Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra) unfortunately doesn’t have sufficient force, range or personality to carry off Count Almaviva.

All in all however, this is a reasonably good production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It looks good, it’s well-sung and well-performed, only lacking a spark of imagination in the direction, pacing and humour that really ought to be there to set this dazzling and entertaining work off. Image quality on the Blu-ray release from Arthaus is excellent, the image beautifully clear even in darkened areas of the stage, and there are strong HD sound mixes in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. Other than Trailers for other releases, there are no extra features on the disc. The Blu-ray is BD50, 16:9, 1080i full HD. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese and Korean.

OneginPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam, 2011 | Mariss Jansons, Stefan Herheim, Krassimira Stoyanova, Bo Skovhus, Mikhail Petrenko, Andrej Dunaev, Elena Maximova, Guy de Mey, Roger Smeets, Peter Arink, Richard Prada | Opus Arte

Tchaikovsky’s approach to opera is conventional in some aspects of its Romantic style, but there’s also a distinctive character to his music through its use of folk arrangements that are thoroughly linked to Russian character of those operatic subjects. The operas may seem designed to show off the range of the composer’s abilities, with dancing to mazurkas, polonaises and waltzes, with folk songs and extravagant choral and symphonic interludes, but they are all there just as much to explore fully the broad scope and colour of the Russian character itself. That’s evident as much in The Queen of Spades as in Cherevichki, but perhaps nowhere more effectively than in his most famous opera – and as far as I’m concerned his greatest opera – Eugene Onegin.

What’s most impressive about Eugene Onegin – both from Tchaikovsky’s viewpoint as well as its original author Pushkin’s – is how it manages to compact all those diverse, contradictory, deeply romantic and sometimes self-destructive features of the Russian character into what on the surface seems a simple romantic story of love and rejection. Within this however is the same nature of throwing of one’s self into the hands of fate that gives one of the most suicidal of gambling sports its name – Russian Roulette. It’s there in The Queen of Spades of course, in the belief that one’s life can change on the magical turn of a hand of cards, based on another Pushkin story, and it’s even there in the life of Pushkin himself, who reputedly fought twenty-nine duels and was finally killed in one at the age of 37. It’s there also in Tchaikovsky’s own life, the composer going through a personal crisis at the time of the opera with his homosexuality, yet entering into an ill-advised marriage on the basis that, as he wrote to a friend “No man can escape his destiny”. There are examples of this fatalistic character throughout Russian literature and opera, as in Prokofiev’s The Gambler (adapted from a work by Fyodor Dostoevsky), but it’s richly present throughout Eugene Onegin.

Onegin

It’s there in Act I, in Tatyana, a young girl living on a country estate who is introduced by her neighbour to the handsome figure of Eugene Onegin, when she all but swoons at his presence and immediately pours her heart out to him the same night in a deeply revealing letter where she opens her heart to him. It’s there also Act II, in Onegin’s callous disregard of her sensitivities and his determination to throw himself into life rather than settle down into a marriage that will become stale through habit. It’s there in that typically Russian custom of the duel when Lensky demands satisfaction for behaviour towards the young woman, and finally, and perhaps most powerfully in this work, it’s there in Act III when Onegin reencounters Tatyana and recognises the emptiness that he has pursued all his life and throws himself at her feet only to in turn be cruelly rejected.

It’s a relatively simple storyline, but it’s richly orchestrated by Tchaikovsky to capture all the nuances of the emotional content as well as the deeper cultural drives and impulses that lie beneath them. It’s full of passion and character so it’s surprising then how coldly and calculatingly the opera can often be put across. That will often depend on the interpretation of the conductor and stage director and on how much emphasis to give to Tchaikovsky’s score, but as far as this De Nederlandse production goes, with Mariss Jansons conducting and Stefan Herheim directing, it’s a passionate and expansive account of the opera, though one that many will inevitably feel takes too many liberties with the libretto.

Onegin

As far as the staging goes, the young Norwegian director does place the figures into somewhat irregular configurations. You’ll see that from the outset as Onegin walks onto the stage a scene before he should be formally introduced, looking thoroughly confused and walking moreover into what looks like a hotel lobby, with an elevator and a revolving door, where Tanya and her family are together. Similarly, there are few of the usual separations of characters in scenes that one would be accustomed to. Even when Tanya should be writing her famous love letter to the young man she has just been introduced to, it’s staged here with Onegin actually writing the letter, while her husband, Prince Gremin, lies in bed behind them. This could be thoroughly confusing for anyone who is unfamiliar with the opera, but it will not make a lot of sense to anyone who is familiar with the work and who would be quite happy to see it played out in the traditional linear manner.

The concept applied here, of course (although it might not be that obvious), is that the figures are reflecting back on the events from an older perspective, and the setting picks up on the mirroring of the situations. That’s most evident when Onegin directs his rejection of Tatyana to a silent younger girl in a white dress, while Krassimira Stoyanova, who actually sings the role of Tatyana, wearing a red dress (there may be some colour coding to reflect the differing perspectives) looks on as a spectator on her own past. Whether you consider that this distorts the intentions of Eugene Onegin or whether you feel that it opens it up underlying themes within the work will obviously depend on your taste, but the motivations of the director, inspired or misguided though they may be judged to be, are at least derived from a close attention paid to the work and a genuine attempt to understand it. Eugene Ongein is not a naturalistic work, and this production not only attempts to convey the poetic dream-like quality of the storyline with all its romanticised ideals and passions, but it also attempts to get beneath Tchaikovsky’s own personal relationship with the work and the expression of his own nature in the composition. That seems to me to be a worthwhile endeavour, but whether it’s judged as successful is evidently a matter for the individual listener/viewer.

Onegin

It does however add another level of complication to a work that is already enriched in emotions and in their peculiar Russian expression. In fact its attempt to bring this latter aspect to the fore to increasingly bizarre effect in Act II and Act III might be taking on rather too much and pushing an already quite eccentric production – such as the unusual touches applied to the M. Triquet scene and Onegin’s second at the duel actually being a bottle of wine – a little too far. Act III’s Polonaise attempts to bring in an historical tableau vivant of all walks of Russian life, with a dancing bear, Cosmonauts, Russian gymnasts, Swan Lake dancers, royalty and religious leaders, Red Army troops and sailors, folk dancers, serfs and Prince Gremin heading up a Russian mafia outfit, and if all that sounds like it has nothing to do with Eugene Onegin, you’d be entitled to think so and decide that this is not a production for you, but at the same time it can be seen as historically being a part of everything Russian that is enshrined within the essence of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky’s work.

What I think is beyond question however is that Jansons and Herheim bring out the full latent potential of Eugene Onegin here, without restraint, but also without over-emphasis. Regardless of whether the concept makes rational sense or appeals to personal taste, this is a passionate and moving account of the work on a musical and a dramatic level. The singing is also exceptionally good here. You might like a younger person singing Tatyana, but a younger singer couldn’t sing this role half as well. It needs a mature voice, and Krassimira Stoyanova‘s is wonderfully toned, controlled with impeccable technique and emotionally expressive. Bo Skovhus brings a great intensity also to this Onegin who is tortured by his nature of being Russian. He’s not the strongest voice in the role, but he sings it well. Mikhail Petrenko’s Prince Gremin and Andrej Dunaev’s Lensky are also worthy of the production. The very fine team of the Chorus of the De Nederlandse opera provide their usual sterling work.

Blu-ray specifications are all in order. The video quality is good, the picture clear, even though it is often dark on the stage and there are some slight fluctuations in brightness adjustment. The PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 audio tracks are strong and impressive, with a wonderful tone. Extras on the disc include a Cast Gallery and a 30 minute documentary feature where the director explains – not always convincingly and certainly always clearly to conductor Jansons – his thought-process for the work, with backstage interviews, rehearsals and a look at the costume designs. The booklet contains an essay examining the work and the production and includes a synopsis. The disc is BD50, 16:9, 1080i full HD. Subtitles are in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch.

CoqdorNikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - Le Coq d’Or (The Golden Cockerel)

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 2002 | Kent Nagano, Ennosuke Ichikawa, Isao Takashima, Albert Schagidullin, Ilya Levinsky, Andrei Breus, Ilya Bannik, Elena Manistina, Barry Banks, Olga Trifonova, Yuri Maria Saenz | Arthaus Musik

The Châtelet’s impressive staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel, recorded here in Paris in 2002 (hence the French title) is one that dates back to 1984, a co-production with San Francisco Opera. This recording has already been released on DVD, but it is another one of those productions that are so visually splendid and memorable that it more than merits an upgrade to Blu-ray. Designed by Ennosuke Ichikawa as a Kabuki staging, it’s an impressive production that fits surprisingly well in tone and content with the intentions of the original fairytale opera with a moral.

The opera, Rimsky-Korsakov’s final work, composed in 1906, is based on a Pushkin poem ‘The House of the Weathercock’, and the minimalist simplicity of the set design reflects that transparency of the fairytale’s simple moral message. King Dodon, fearful of his country being invaded by their neighbours and forced by his General to discount the foolish advice of his two sons, puts his trust instead in a Golden Cockerel sold to him by the Astrologer that will crow to warn him when his enemies are about to attack. Despite the warnings of the Cockerel, whose alerts have the king sending armies out to all parts of his kingdom, Dodon fails however to recognise the threat that is posed by the arrival of the Queen of Shemakha. Dodon is “a Tsar in appearance, but a slave in body and soul” when he falls for the Queen’s beauty and allows himself to be seduced by her charms. Acting out of fear, pride, lust, the moral of course is that even noble rulers have basic human weaknesses and are not immune – more likely in fact – to act out of self-interest and for personal gain.

Both Rimsky-Korsakov and the librettist V. Bel’sky laid down very specific remarks about how The Golden Cockerel should be performed (these notes are reproduced in the accompanying booklet in the BD and DVD releases), which as well as disapproving of any cuts to the work or the introduction of any additional interjections by the singers – as might be expected – note that the purpose of the work is “undoubtedly symbolic” and that the purely human character its intent “allows us to place the plot in any surroundings and in any period”, recognising however that there is an essential Russian character involved. It’s clear then that this production, even if it has a somewhat more oriental flavour, is nonetheless completely faithful to the original intentions and even perhaps recognises that the opera was inspired by the conflict between Russia and Japan in 1904 at the time the opera was composed. The suggestions of military incompetence on the part of the authorities would in fact lead to the opera being banned by the censor, only receiving its premiere after the death of the composer.

The basic stage dressing for this production then is accordingly simple and abstract in the manner of a fable where the moral is symbolic, but it is also extraordinarily beautiful with all the magic and fascination of a fairytale. If the stage then consists of little more than a brightly luminous backdrop to reflect the time of day or mood, and there is little on the stage but some steps to suggest a royal palace and stylised trees to represent the kingdom, the colourful costumes and Kabuki make-up reflect the larger-than-life characters and, to a large extent, Rimsky-Korsakov’s rich romantic scoring of the work, filled with fantastical melodies and folk influences, with leitmotifs and a Scheherazade-like middle-Eastern exoticism. It’s given a wonderful warm account here at the Châtelet with Kent Nagano conducting.

Cockerel

The space is needed on the stage moreover to contain all the extras, chorus and dancers – all beautifully costumed – and give room to the principals, because this is after all to a large extent a singer’s opera (rather than say a dramatic opera or a conceptual one), with a wonderful range of voices and expression from bass declamation to soprano coloratura. Using a mainly Russian cast, those roles are in good hands in this Châtelet production, with bass Albert Schagidullin as King Dodon and Olga Trifonova the Queen of Shemakha. In among all those Russians however is Barry Banks, perfectly cast for the specific demands of the high tenor role of the Astrologer. It’s particularly delightful that the singing is of a very high standard throughout, but this is a wonderful production on just about every level.

This beautiful, colourful production certainly benefits from its upgrade to Blu-ray for the High Definition 16:9 widescreen image and for the sound mixes in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 that put over the qualities of the orchestration and singing. It’s really quite breathtaking. The Blu-ray is All-Region, 1080i, a BD25 disc with no extra features, although the booklet is informative and includes a synopsis. Subtitles are English, German, Italian, French, Spanish and Chinese.

ToscaGiacomo Puccini - Tosca

Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova 2010 | Marco Boemi, Adolf Hohenstein, Renzo Giacchierei, Daniela Dessì, Fabio Armiliato, Claudio Sgura, Nikolay Bikov, Paolo Maria Orecchia, Max de Angelis, Angelo Nardinocchi, Roberto Conti, Luca Arrigo | Arthaus Musik

The principal attraction of this 2010 production of Tosca from the Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova is that it the staging is based on Adolf Hohenstein’s original production designs from 1900. The gritty realism of the sets, particularly the Sant’ Andrea chapel of Act I and in the Castel Sant’ Angelo of Act III, look superb, fitting perfectly with the melodramatic verismo nature of a work that is not so much concerned with grand themes or concepts as much as in relating a human drama of love, jealousy and passion set against the backdrop of revolutionary activity, writ large in the sweep and tug of Puccini’s grand score.

In contrast to another recent production at the Royal Opera House also inspired by the realism of the original locations but which looked somewhat cluttered and cramped, there’s a wonderful sense of space here to allow the drama, directed well by Renzo Giacchieri, to play out without any complications. This is how Tosca was originally meant to be seen, and this is as close as you can get to its original intentions. There’s merit in this alone, but it’s even better when the opera is played and sung as well as it’s done here. The singing is outstanding in all the main roles, the husband and wife team of Daniela Dessì and Fabio Armiliato slipping into the roles like a glove. Claudio Sgura isn’t quite as strong as Scarpia, but it’s a fine attempt at a more human performance of a role that is more often played – and unfortunately scored as such by Puccini – as a caricature baddie.

Tosca

It would be all too easy to just go through the motions in such a well-known opera, in a very traditional production – albeit a wonderfully beautiful and lushly decorated one – and it’s easy for the listener to become blasé about yet another production of Tosca, but there’s no sign of any complacency here from any of the main performers and never any danger of the listener remaining detached from it all. There’s a real sense of commitment in Dessì’s Floria Tosca and in Armiliato’s Caravadossi. Neither are as young as they used to be, and the close-ups in High Definition are rather unforgiving, but there’s no substitute for experience. There’s scarcely a weakness anywhere in their performances or their singing, a perfect pairing who work exceptionally well together. You don’t often get that, and it’s something remarkably special when you get such a connection. Both are clearly aware of the inner nature of their roles and how they need to be sung in relation to one another, and they give it their all.

Listening to Dessì and Armiliato sing it, paying attention to every word of the libretto, weighing and balancing it for maximum impact, the qualities of the work and the depths of emotional content within it (so generously underscored by Puccini and perfectly performed here under Marco Boemi) come fully to life. Neither gives any sense of this being a prestige performance, but both are clearly totally involved in the roles for the sake of the drama. It’s unfortunate then that the performance here includes in-the-moment encores for ‘Vissi d’arte’ and ‘E lucevan le stelle’ that disrupts the flow of the drama, but on the other hand, it is a recording of a live performance of a popular work for a paying public and there’s no question that the encores called for here are merited and impressively reprised. They could possibly have been edited out, but that can easily be done by the viewer if so desired on the flick of the chapter switch.

Tosca

There are plenty of versions of Tosca out there (a 2011 Royal Opera House production featuring Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel will be hard to match when released), but this is an outstanding performance that for now is as good as it gets. Superbly directed for TV, capturing all the intensity and passion of the live performance as well as the beauty of the stage production, this Tosca looks and sounds tremendous on Blu-ray. Image and sound are just about flawless. There are no extra features on the disc and no synopsis in the booklet, but the background to the work and its plot are covered in an essay. BD25, 1080i full-HD, PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1, All regions, subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean.

AidaGiuseppe Verdi - Aida

Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Firenze 2011 | Zubin Mehta, Ferzan Ozpetek, Hui Hei, Marco Berti, Luciana D’Intino, Roberto Tagliavini, Giacomo Prestia, Ambrogio Maestri, Saverio Fiore, Catarina di Tonno | Arthaus Musik

Aida is a tricky opera to stage effectively. It doesn’t hold up to modernisation or revisionism, demanding a very specific mood and setting that one messes with at one’s peril. I’ve seen it done before in a Risorgimento updating to Verdi’s time and in Robert Wilson’s particular minimalist style, both of which were interesting, but neither were entirely successful. On the other hand, a traditional approach to Aida requires both a big stage to match the grandeur of Verdi’s compositions of ceremonial marches through ancient monuments, and not everyone has the budget to go for the Full Zeffirelli. Even then however, the lack of dramatic incident and the demands placed on the singers mean that even a traditional setting can be rather static. Directed by Turkish-Italian filmmaker Ferzan Ozpetek, the Florence production of Aida, recorded here in 2011, tends towards the traditional and looks marvellous, but in how it approaches those other considerable challenges that a staging of the opera presents, it unfortunately falls well short of the mark.

That’s disappointing from a musical point of view, particularly as we have as distinguished a musical director as Zubin Metha conducting the orchestra, for if there’s at least one thing you would hope to count on from any production of Aida, it’s that it presents a vigorous account of Verdi’s dynamic score. Aida is one of the most melodic and memorable of late Verdi operas, with hints of grand opera influence, but it’s also one that is attuned to the emotional content of the drama with an exotic flavour for its Egyptian setting. The performance initially feels somewhat perfunctory, for the first Act at least, a run-through with no real commitment on the part of the musicians or the conductor. It improves in subsequent acts, warming to the characters and their situation, but there’s never a sense that Metha is able to get the orchestra to do full justice to the dynamic theatricality of Verdi’s majestic score.

Aida

If that’s the case – and it’s only my opinion – it’s at least in step with the lack of dynamism elsewhere in the production. The stage sets, designed by Dante Ferretti, look marvellous – grand statues and monuments bathed in golden light, with colourful sunsets and deep blue moonlit night scenes – and the costumes are traditional and exotic. Stage director Ferzan Ozpetek however is unable to find anything for the singers do on stage but stand and project out to an audience, while priests and choruses stand grouped or march in solemn procession. There’s no question of their being any acting involved. Only once is there a suggestion of anything with imagination and that occurs briefly when the traditional pomp and patriotic fervour of the Triumphal March is initially undercut by the appearance on the stage of a young bloodstained child, looking bewildered by the celebration of the slaughter that has occurred. It’s a throwaway touch however, soon forgotten under the more traditional, but not particularly imaginatively choreographed battle ballet that follows.

Again, a lack of drama or ideas on the stage wouldn’t be much of a problem – it’s one of the issues with Aida – if only the singers were capable of making up for the slack elsewhere. Unfortunately, there’s not much in the way of strong singing to sufficiently redeem this production. Marco Berti has a fine tone of voice as Radamès, but his technique is all off and his ‘Celeste Aida’ is a struggle. He comes through however in Act IV where it counts. Luciana D’Intino is a weak Amneris, her singing shrill and unpleasant, without sufficient force or personality to carry the role – an unfortunate drawback, since it’s this character who has perhaps the most important central role in the opera. Hui Hei’s Aida is about the best there is here, her Act III duets coming over well, particularly her duet with a fine Ambrogio Maestri as Amanasro. Without a strong enough Amneris however to hammer home Act IV after the rallying that comes through from the cast and orchestra in Act III, it’s all to little avail.

Aida

There are no extra features on the Blu-ray, so the single-layer BD25 is generally fine for the two-and-a-half hour opera. The image quality is excellent throughout, 1080i full-HD, with only a little sign of compression artefacts during a couple of faster pans of the camera. The audio tracks are the customary PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and there’s a decent tone and clarity to both. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean. The disc is All Region.

Benjamin Britten - The Turn of the Screw

NI Opera, 2012 | Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Fiona Murphy, Andrew Tortise, Giselle Allen, Yvonne Howard, Lucia Vernon, Thomas Copeland | Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, 2 March 2012

There was nothing too clever attempted in NI Opera’s new production of The Turn of the Screw, certainly nothing as ambitious as their award-winning production of Tosca on the walls of Derry City, but Britten’s atmospheric little chamber piece doesn’t really need anything more than an intimate environment to achieve optimum effect, and that was certainly achieved with the choice of venue at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey. The attention to detail then was in letting the music and libretto of this powerful little piece speak for itself, and with the benefit of an excellent cast of fine singers that was admirably achieved.

Screw
This is the third production from the recently formed NI Opera that I’ve seen at the Theatre at the Mill (with only one production so far, Hansel and Gretel, at the more traditional venue of the Grand Opera House in Belfast), and while one of those productions was a scaled-down romp through Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (in conjunction with Scottish Opera), the venue has been particularly well-suited to the theatrical intimacy of something like Menotti’s The Medium and now with Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. The smaller-scale staging of course makes the works suitable for touring – an important remit of the opera company to attract new audiences from traditionally neglected parts of the province – but it’s also the best way to introduce an audience to the close relationship between a music score and a theatrical performance that takes expression to another level, and in that respect The Turn of the Screw is perhaps the most challenging of the NI Opera productions thus far.

Henry James’s novella is well-enough known, adapted numerous times for TV and cinema, and highly influential in the field of Victorian ghost stories because of the dark ambiguities that lie at the heart of the work. The story of a Governess who is engaged to look after two children, Flora and Miles, on a country estate, there are disturbing hints of child abuse or at least bad influence in the children’s relationship with two former servants, Quint and Miss Jessel, who had been engaged there previously. The Governess, half in love with the guardian of the children but forbidden from disturbing from his work in the city on any pretext, seems to conjure the spirits of the malevolent former servants – both now dead – partly out of concern for strange behaviour she witnesses in the children, partly from her own repressed urges at the suggestion of Quint and Miss Jessel’s scandalous behaviour, and partly as an excuse to get in touch with the children’s guardian.

Nothing however can be pinned-down to simple cause and effect in The Turn of the Screw and there’s no easy separation of rational and supernatural. All of what happens could be caused by the projections of the mind of the Governess, her behaviour, repression, suspicion and hysteria (heighted by stories told to her by housekeeper Mrs Grose) and her desire to protect the innocence of the children from baser adult desires (that she herself is subject to), in turn creating its own pernicious stifling repressive atmosphere. Or it could indeed be that she and the children do indeed operate under the influence of past events instigated by Quint and Miss Jessel, who are shown as ghosts and apparitions who appear throughout the work and seem to interact with the children, awakening troubling memories.

Screw

The Turn of the Screw is by no means then an easy work on a narrative or musical level, particularly for a newer audience in a non-traditional venue for an opera, but the power of the work and its ability to provoke and unsettle can surely be felt by anyone. It’s not just about creating effects with half-glimpsed apparitions in dark rooms, but it’s rather in the haunting motifs of the score and the singing that other ambiguities and unsettling ideas are suggested. If the set designed by Annemarie Woods for the NI Opera production tended towards functional minimalism, and the direction of Oliver Mears didn’t seem to attempt to add any new conceptual spin to the story, it was all the more to allow the score to speak of these ambiguities itself and not point the listener towards any safe or easy conclusion.

The sets in fact, were highly effective, not only suggesting mood and location with the shifting of walls, doors and windows, but in their arrangement being capable of opening up space or closing it down with suffocating angles. Mears directorial touches did emphasise some unnatural closeness developing in the physical contact between the Governess and Miles, but this relationship with the younger boy is undoubtedly a crucial aspect of the work, certainly in as far as it concerns Britten and his own inclinations (or indeed those of Henry James), and it shouldn’t be overlooked. At the same time, it didn’t attempt to impose a definitive reading, and it’s left – as it should be – to each member of the audience to draw their own conclusions. The Turn of the Screw can indeed be just a ghost story if that’s all you want to see in it, and Britten’s music can be seen as purely spectrally unsettling as well as being suggestive of other abstract notions and concepts.

While the score – brilliantly performed by the orchestra under the direction of Nicholas Chalmers – and the setting for the drama provided much to consider in its own terms, they were most successful in the relationship it formed with the singers. Really, the singing in all the principal roles was beyond reproach, with Fiona Murphy pushing all the ambiguities of the role of the Governess with some fine singing, Andrew Tortise a seductively dangerous Quint, and Giselle Allen reprising the role of Miss Jessel that she performed last year to such powerful effect at Glyndebourne. Yvonne Howard however deserves special mention for Mrs Grose, one of the best singers I’ve heard in the role. The children also, critical to the whole ambiguity between innocence and experience in the opera were, were played well by Lucia Vernon and particularly young Thomas Copeland, who sang Miles wonderfully, his refrain of ‘Malo’ simultaneously wistful, regretful and sinister, and his famous condemnation of Quint at the finale was powerfully effective.

SpezialeFranz Joseph Haydn - Lo Speziale

Théâtre Artistic Athévains, 2012 | Andrée-Claude Brayer, Anne-Marie Lazarini, Jean-François Chiama, Karine Godefroy, Laurent Herbaut, Xavier Mauconduit, L’Orchestra-Studio de Cergy Pontoise | Paris, 29 February 2012

It isn’t often that you get the chance to see a rarity like Haydn’s Lo Speziale performed. Haydn’s thirteen Italian operas, completed during his term as court composer to Prince Eszterházy at Einsenstadt, were eclipsed in their own time by the brilliance and inventiveness of Mozart’s comic operas, and that sadly remains the case today. Who is going to put on a production of an obscurity like Lo Speziale for a few hundred people when you can draw the crowds with another Marriage of Figaro?

Well, how about a small French theatre company in Paris’s 11th Arrondissement? The Théâtre Artistic Athévains has previous experience in this field with a production of Cimarosa’s Secret Wedding and Haydn’s Lo Speziale offers not only an opportunity to put on a lively work of 18th century comic music-theatre, but it also comes with a libretto written by the great Venetian dramatist of the time, Carlo Goldoni. A dramma giocoso per musica, Lo Speziale is not a particularly complex drama, and it has to be said, not a particularly witty one either, but, as with the recent Opéra Liège production of another rare Haydn work, La Vera Costanza, there’s a lot that can be brought out through performers who are able to find the necessary comic rhythm of the piece.

It makes it slightly easier to do this and do it moreover in a small theatre, when there are only four characters in the opera, a consequence of Goldoni’s libretto being trimmed, probably by the original tenor Carl Friberth who played the role of Sempronio, cutting back any serious content in the work to make it a purely comic piece. Essentially then, the drama revolves around the battle for the hand of Grilletta, a young woman under the tutelage of Sempronio, a Venetian speziale, a homoeopathist specialising in the production of medicinal herbs and spices, but also perfumes, tinctures for paints, wax for candles, paper and inks. Grilletta has a number of admirers, among them (as far as this version is concerned), Sempronio’s young apprentice Mengone - who is secretly engaged to the young woman - and Volpino, one of his customers. The master speziale however has designs on marrying Grilletta himself.

Speziale

The comic content inevitably involves lots of trickery and donning of disguises as each of the suitor seeks to gain the upper hand, regardless seemingly of Grilletta having any choice in the matter. Mengone and Volpino turn up disguised as notaries with high-pitched voices at one point and put their own names on the certificate of marriage instead of Sempronio, but their ruse is soon discovered. Eventually Volpino tricks Sempronio with the offer of a commission in Turkey, donning another disguise and making another play for the hand of Grilletta, but having made up their differences, Mengone and Grilletta take advantage of Volpino’s plan, dressing as Turks and getting Sempronio to give his blessing to their union.

Much of the success of making this farce work is down to the performers and the musicians entering into the lively spirit of it all, and that’s achieved here wonderfully through Anne-Marie Lazarini’s stage direction working hand-in-hand with the musical direction of Andrée-Claude Brayer. The six musicians of the Orchestre-Studio de Cergy-Pontoise are placed on a Venetian bridge that overlooks the small piazza of the speziale’s shop, the stage simply decorated but brilliantly evocative of the colours and light of Venice. The musicians interact with the performers in small but entertaining ways, making it look like their rehearsals and playing forms part of the everyday life in the little district. It’s a simple touch, but effective in allowing a rhythm to develop between the music and the singers.

Speziale

And it’s all about the rhythm. It may seem like a simple farce, but the pace and rhythm are essential to make a dramma giocosa like Lo Speziale work well and that was delightfully evident in the production. The singers - Jean-François Chiama as Sempronio, Karine Godefroy as Grilletta, Laurent Herbaut as Volpino (the role changed from a trouser-part down to baritone for this production) and Xavier Mauconduit as Mengone - also clearly recognised that this is by no means an opera seria and accordingly not a work for high-flown individual expression (arias are relatively restrained and shorn of repetition), but one that works collectively, and the interaction between them was perfect. Appropriately handled then as a light and refreshing entertainment in a lovely intimate environment away from the big Parisian opera houses, Lo Speziale is a rare opportunity to see a little-known Haydn work in a delightful production. Performed in Italian with French surtitles that catch the spirit of the original language, it runs at Théâtre Artistic Athévains (www.artistic-athevains.com) until 29th March 2012.

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