May 2012


OrlandoGeorge Frideric Handel - Orlando

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2012 | René Jacobs, Pierre Audi, Bejun Metha, Sophie Karthäuser, Kristina Hammarström, Sunhae Im, Konstantin Wolff | Internet Streaming, 12 May 2012

As conductor René Jacobs observes in the programme notes for this production of Orlando for La Monnaie-De Munt (watched via their Internet streaming service), Handel - like many other composers who have tackled the subject - must have felt somewhat inspired by the subject of Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’, for in contrast to some of his works for the Kings Theatre in London where he reworked music from other earlier pieces, Orlando is composed of entirely new music. It may even be the case that Handel took a hand in the writing of the libretto itself, drawing from a libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, introducing some new characters and arrangements to suit his own ideas.

Ever the businessman, there is clearly a calculated approach to Handel’s arrangements for Orlando, which works within the strict conventions of opera seria that audiences and singers would have expected, but seeking to make Italian opera a success in London, Handel also ensured that there is something in it for everyone. Even within the limitations of dramatic action that you can expect from such Baroque work, Handel extended the frame of the unrequited love story between the great warrior Orlando and Angelica, the Queen of Cathay through the introduction of the characters Dorinda and Zorastro - neither of whom appear in Ariosto’s source work - bringing a lighter element and even some comedy with the former and a supernatural aspect with the latter. This gives Handel scope to extend the emotional range of the work to some extent, but the majority of the work is still based around the expression and hiding of feelings between characters who still conform very much to commedia dell’arte types.

Orlando

The origins of the work extend back to ‘Le Chanson de Roland’, written by a monk at the end of the 11th century, which relates the tale of Roland (who becomes Orlando the story was developed into Italian by Ariosto) set against the background of Charlemagne’s campaign against the Saracens in 778. At the heart of the work is the supremacy of reason - symbolically shown with the appearance of an eagle in the third act - which helps quell the fires of passion that have been aroused during the romantic complications that have taken place. Dorinda is in love with Medoro, the wounded soldier she has been tending, but he is in love with Angelica, who shares his feelings. Orlando however is also in love with Angelica, but she can’t bring herself to admit to the heroic warrior who has saved her life that she is really in love with Medoro and, having been warned by Zorastro of Orlando’s jealous rages, she is somewhat frightened of the consequences should Orlando find out about her love for Medoro. And she has good reason to be cautious, for when Orlando discovers their names carved together on a tree, he burns down Dorinda’s house with Medoro inside and attempts to murder Angelica, until Zorastro’s intervention finally brings him back to his senses.

Concerned very much with inner feelings and emotions expressed and kept hidden, their force given expression through a descent into madness, Orlando does inevitably present a challenge when it comes to staging it. For Pierre Audi, the director of the De Nederlandse Opera, Orlando is very much a psychological drama, and his production accordingly uses the burning of Dorinda’s house as the key symbol of Orlando’s state of mind throughout. It’s certainly a valid way to approach the work, but Audi’s method introduces a few complications that don’t always seem to be entirely coherent or successful. The decision to portray Orlando as a fireman in Act I is a strange one - although one can see how it relates to a modern depiction of his heroism and the esteem that he is held in, as well as relating it to the notion of playing with fire, the fire of passion, and the pyromaniac actions that ensue later - but apart from the wearing of a helmet and some barrels and hoses on the stage, this occupation isn’t over-emphasised. Perhaps even more difficult to grasp however is the fluid approach towards the timeline of events that Audi sees as a reflection of Orlando’s perspective in his madness.

Orlando

In Act I then, Dorinda’s house has already been burned, the charred remains of its frame are all that are left of it, and Orlando and his firecrew are gathering the hoses back in. An altered view of the destroyed house is shown in the second act, which is where the derangement of Orlando’s nightmare is most pronounced, believing himself to be on the banks of the Styx and drawn to the land of the dead. Projections are used to emphasise his delirium, with repeated imagery of Orlando walking through fields of fire. Act III, where the house is actually burnt down, instead focuses on reconstruction, with a new frame being built, although - in line with the open ending - the rebuilding is necessarily left incomplete. Audi’s other idea for the stage treatment is to often have the characters remain on the stage even after their have sung their aria and should normally be making their exit. This is a fairly standard Brechtian device now, revealing the construct behind the drama, and it has relevance to the psychological nature of the opera’s themes, reflecting the mindset of Orlando’s nightmarish descent into madness, the jumbling of timelines in his mind and his presence at scenes where he is not normally involved reflecting his imagining or reconstruction of events in his mind.

Orlando

I’m not sure that this reorganisation of the events or their altered perspective really makes anything any clearer, whether it really gets into the mind of the character, or even that it makes the stage action any more compelling to watch, but it does seem to work well with the rather complex psychology and inner turmoil that is sung about and reflected in the score. That is brought out wonderfully by René Jacobs and the playing of the Baroque Orchestra B’Rock, Jacobs making the most of the freedom open to the conductor and the resources at their disposal by expanding the instrumentation for the basso continuo for the brief excerpts of recitative for a more fluid arrangement. The casting for this production is also very strong for all five main roles. Bejun Metha sings Orlando with an otherworldly quality that doesn’t however always seem to get to the heart of his passion and rage, but he is a very fine countertenor. Sophie Karthäuser is a marvellous Angelica and mezzo-soprano Kristina Hammarström handles the role of Medoro well, but again, you never feel any of them completely get to grips with the characters. In line with Handel’s revisions of the character dynamic in the work however, Sunhae Im displays the most personality as Dorinda, singing with a light beautiful Mozartian voice, and Konstantin Wolff adds the necessary weight as Zorastro.

Orlando is available for viewing free online on the Internet streaming service of La Monnaie-De Munt until 2nd June 2012.

FarnaceAntonio Vivaldi - Farnace

Opéra National du Rhin, 2012 | George Petrou, Lucinda Childs, Max Emanuel Cencic, Mary Ellen Nesi, Ruxandra Donose, Carol Garcia, Vivica Genaux, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Juan Sancho | Strasbourg, France, 18 May 2012

Originally created in 1729 for the Teatro Sant’ Angelo in Venice, Farnace was subjected to revisions by Vivaldi in 1738 for a new production in Ferrare, the composer adapting the airs and recitative for the tessitura for the Ferrare singers, but also seeking to rework the opera in the Neapolitan ‘galant style’. The performances were however cancelled - for reasons unknown - and Vivaldi left the new version of the work unfinished after revising only the first two of the opera’s three acts. Fascinated by Vivaldi’s work on the Ferrare version, one of the last pieces of work written by the composer, and considering it worth reviving and preserving, George Petrou, along with Frédéric Delaméa and Diego Fasolis, undertook the task of continuing the revisions made by Vivaldi through to the third act, and the revised Farnace was given its first ever complete live performance (it was recorded in 2010) by the Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg on 18th May 2012, premiered some 274 years after it was written by Vivaldi.

The resulting work then is perhaps not musically 100% pure Vivaldi, but as a best guess interpretation of the composer’s intentions, the work has certainly been carried out with scholarly authority and it’s probably no less “authentic” than just about any interpretation of the music, style, tempo and instrumentation for most Baroque opera seria works of this period. If the first two acts were to ever be reconstructed and performed, it was however essential to either rewrite the third act or simply play the opera in its incomplete state. Simply grafting the original third act from the Venice Farnace onto the revised Ferrare version wouldn’t have worked, so small but significant modifications had to be undertaken for the sake of the singers. Directed for the stage at Strasbourg by Lucinda Childs, the validity of the new version or the power of Vivaldi’s energetic writing for the content of the opera itself was never in question, although whether the stage production managed to find an expression that was equally as successful was less certain.

Farnace

Lucinda Childs is better known for her ballet creations and choreography for the US avant-garde musicians and directors who came to prominence in the 1960s - Childs most notably being involved in the Gesamkunstwerk of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach. She has however increasingly been working as an opera director in recent years, although ballet inevitably plays a part in her style, and indeed in her Farnace for the Opéra National du Rhin Childs pairs each of the singers with a “double” who dances the role while the other sings. Farnace is however not an opera-ballet and Childs recognises this, so the dancing doesn’t play as large a part in the stage direction as you might imagine, but what is used is well placed and appropriate. The rhythms of Baroque music certainly lend themselves to expression in this way, helping to bring out the emotional undercurrents and turmoil of a very heated dramatic situation where Farnace, the King of Pontus, son of Mitridate, has been defeated by the Roman army under Pompeo with the aid of Berenice, his own mother-in-law. He orders his wife Tamari to commit suicide with their young son rather than be taken by the enemy, and, driven to distraction by the events that are unfolding, and gaining an opportunity through his sister Selinda sowing discord and gaining favour among the Roman military command, he attempts to assassinate Pompeo.

Childs’ direction and the use of dancers do work to an extent in getting across the dark drama that unfolds, and combined with the stage designs of Bruno de Lavenère and some interesting choreography by Childs it does prove to be an effective way of overcoming the challenge that the rather static nature of opera seria drama often presents, finding a way of getting to the heart of the characters’ inner turmoil, albeit in a fairly conventional theatrical way that isn’t particularly inspired, but shouldn’t upset traditionalists either. If it doesn’t always find a way of bringing the work to life, Vivaldi’s furiously energetic writing is fortunately more than capable of achieving the necessary impact on its own. Perhaps not enough to sustain an audience through the somewhat gruelling two hours of the first two acts, which were combined without a break, but it helps if the singing is of a high quality and, with most of the principal cast from Diego Fasolis’s 2010 recording of the Ferrare version reprising their roles onstage here at Strasbourg and the score propelled forward by the Concerto Köln under George Petrou, that at least was achieved in no uncertain terms.

Farnace

The star attraction was undoubtedly the singing and performance of Max Emanuel Cencic, a countertenor with remarkable strength in this high register, much more forceful than you would normally expect to hear from this kind of singer, yet he loses none of the underlying lightness and lyricism that is required also. This was exactly the tone you would like to hear in the character of Farnace, considering the extreme range of emotions and development that he undergoes throughout the opera, and Cencic handled the flowing coloratura of the da capo arias impressively and expressively in this respect. Force was evident also in the casting of the four mezzo-soprano roles in the opera, the most commanding of which was undoubtedly Mary Ellen Nesi as the formidable Berenice, but Ruxandra Donose was also a strong, determined and driven Tamiri. Vivica Genaux was also notable as Gilade, and Carol Garcia fine as Selinda. The tenor roles of Auilo (Emiliano Gonzalez) and Pompeo (Juan Sancho) were also well performed.

The Opéra National du Rhin production at Strasbourg will be recorded for broadcast on France 3 television, and will be made available to international audiences via internet streaming on ARTE Live Web from 30th May 2012.

AriodanteGeorg Friedrich Handel - Ariodante

Theater Basel, 2012 | Luca Tittoto, Franziska Gottwald, Maya Boog, Nikolay Borchev, Christiane Bassek, Agata Wilewska, Noel Hernández Lopez | Basel, Switzerland, 17 May 2012

This is obviously very much a personal view, but the best approach to staging Baroque opera seems to be to avoid the traditional approach at all costs. By all means stick to the traditional in terms of singing and period instrumentation - there really isn’t any alternative that works better - but in my experience, if you want to find a way to engage a modern audience and take them through the rather static drama and the rather stiff conventions of the repetitive da capo arias of Baroque opera, it helps if there is some inventiveness and an imaginative approach to the staging. Done straight, it can be difficult to lift or support the emotions that are being expressed at length in the long arias between the few moments of dramatic content - although this obviously depends on the composer and Handel is certainly an exception - but until relatively recently, it was supposed that hardly any Baroque opera, not even Handel, could ever be presented to a modern audience.

Thankfully, through painstaking research, restoration and training in period instruments from Baroque musical experts like William Christie, Jordi Savall, René Jacobs and Christophe Rousset, have proved that these works are of much more than just interest to music historians. Staging these works however is another matter altogether, and it often requires a radical approach. I’m thinking of Doris Dörrie’s Noh-theatre inspired direction of Handel’s Admeto, the Royal Opera House’s 2010 production of Steffani’s Niobe or, as when I last visited the Theater Basel, the WWII updating of Gluck’s Telemaco, but as seen with William Kentridge’s production of Die Zauberflöte, there are also a wider range of tools that can be at service to a director of personal vision and imagination. In my experience - again this is very much a personal viewpoint - it’s surprising just how successful some of the more radical presentations can be in this respect, the more abstract conceptual stage approach tapping into the emotional content over and above the dry recounting of the narrative of the libretto. I don’t think however that I’ve ever seen anything quite as ambitious as director Stefan Pucher and the Theater Basel’s wonderful willingness to experiment with Baroque opera through modern theatrical tools in their extraordinary 2012 production of Handel’s Ariodante.

Ariodante

When you speak about the stage direction here however, it’s necessary to consider the input from the innovative and visually impressive set design by Barbara Ehnes and the costumes of Annabelle Witt, as Stefan Pucher’s stage direction is truly a multimedia event. It’s through these different layers - along with the lighting, the use of projected images and even filmed sequences projected onto the sets - that the different layers of the music, the interaction of the characters and the heightened emotions are fully explored, much more so than the usual static delivery of the long arias. It’s not that all the necessary qualities aren’t already there in Handel’s exquisite compositions that capture the sentiments of its characters so well, but the staging simply allows an audience to see them visualised and respond to those qualities from an older operatic tradition that would otherwise seem almost unfathomable to anyone used to a more modern or traditional approach.

There’s nothing particularly inspiring about Ariodante’s late-eighth century Scottish setting, but theatre director Stefan Pucher - in his first opera production - clearly recognises that this ancient setting and the opera seria music that accompanies it is so far removed from what we are familiar with as to be practically abstract anyway. What is still relevant is the opera’s human story of love, jealousy, deception and revenge, and that was given utmost consideration. Act I then accordingly provided a tartan overload in the most extravagant of colours and weaves that, if they might not relate to any specific clan, certainly gave each of the figures their own strong definition. The tartan stretched to the brightly lit and visually impressive set designs that seems to create an enhanced 3-D effect through the still images, gothic paintings (by 17th century artist Otto Marseus van Schrieck), slow moving projections and lighting effects on the foreground screens, while the singing platform was set back on a revolving stage within a wide inverted cross. The sets inside were rather minimal, with a few eccentric touches in keeping with the Schrieck imagery such as giant bugs and slugs in an orange room in Act 1, but the frequent refreshing of the set from scene to scene all contributed to keep attention from flagging.

Ariodante

Even this would eventually have become tiresome over the course of the whole opera, but the designers also managed to find a distinct visual look for each of the subsequent two acts, if it was never a look that related naturalistically to any location specified in the libretto. A kick-boxing match standing-in for the battle between Polinesso and Ariodante on the jousting grounds was perhaps the strangest sight in Act III. Showing that there was a complete understanding of the structure of the works however and the necessary impact that was written into the chorus and ballet finales of each of the acts, the director pulled out all the stops at these points, inviting the audience to sing along to ‘Sì godete al vostro amor’ from music sheets handed out to the audience when entering the theatre (a surprisingly invigorating experience), and using filmed outdoor sequences featuring the cast, which was also extremely effective in suggesting the depths of Ginevra’s madness and inner turmoil at the end of Act II. More than just being visually stunning, the whole multimedia experience encompassed the tone and the intent of the music score, as well as drawing in the viewer and involving them fully in the experience. It made the production - the finest I think I’ve seen during the 2011-12 season - absolutely riveting.

Ariodante

It was not so riveting however that attention wouldn’t occasionally be drawn to the wonderful playing of this magnificent opera on period instruments by the La Cetra Barockorchester Basel under the direction of Andrea Marcon. Even they were visually integrated into the spectacle, placed on a platform that would rise and sink at the start and end of each act like an old-fashioned cinema organist, allowing the music to take centre stage where appropriate. Just as importantly, there was full attention given to the direction of the performers, who were never allowed to become just singing props that fitted into the overall package, and with the kind of singing we were hearing here, there was even less likelihood of them being overwhelmed by the spectacle. Mezzo-sporano Franziska Gottwald demonstrated a breathtaking range and facility for the demanding arias assigned to Ariodante, and was particularly impressive in Act II’s ‘Scherza infida’. Maya Boog however was just as impressive as Ginevra, handling the arias with aplomb, but also acting with genuine emotional and dramatic conviction throughout. There were however no weak elements in the casting which also included Agata Wilewska as Dalinda, Luca Tittoto as the King, Nikolay Borchev as Lurciano and Christiane Bassek as a disturbingly moustachioed, long-haired villain Polinesso, and Noel Hernández Lopez as Odoardo.

MignonAmbroise Thomas - Mignon

Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2012 | Frédéric Chaslin, Jean-Louis Benoît, Sophie Koch, Paolo Fanale, Diana Damrau, Nicolas Courjal, Carine Séchaye, Emilio Pons, Frédéric Goncalves, Laurent Delvert | Geneva, 16 May 2012

There seems to have been some initial confusion over whether Mignon was destined to be a grand opera or an opéra comique. The libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré was first offered to Meyerbeer, who refused it, then Gounod, before being taken on by Ambroise Thomas now in his 50s at the time of writing in 1866, as a commission for the Opéra Comique in Paris. Based on Goethe’s famous Bildungsroman, ‘The Apprentice Years of Wilhelm Meister’ (1795), there were however certain changes that required that altered the original intentions of the work, such as expanding the role of Philine for a lyric soprano and rewriting the ending from the tragic conclusion of the original. Whatever the intentions of the original librettists, Thomas found a perfect expression for the work in the lighter of the two opera styles, composing with pleasant melodies as well as with delicacy for the emotional content and Mignon was a great success, the greatest of his career thus far (two years before his next success in Hamlet), the work even surviving past the fire that destroyed the Salle Favart in 1887 to run beyond a 1000 performances in Paris.

Those qualities in Thomas’s writing, particularly in the characterisation assigned to each of the main roles, was certainly evident in the 2012 revival production of the opera at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, which benefitted moreover from the outstanding casting of the French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch in the title role of Mignon. A young innocent of indeterminate gender who has been brought up by gypsies, Mignon has been forced to perform what seems to be a rather humiliating egg dance for the public, finally refusing to continue any longer at a show in the courtyard of a country inn where Wilhelm Meister is present. Taking pity on her predicament and attracted to the ambiguous nature of this strange creature dressed in boyish clothes, Wilhelm buys her freedom from Jarno, the leader of the gypsies. To protect her from the attentions of a crazed troubadour, Lothario, mad from the loss of his daughter, Wilhelm allows Mignon to accompany him as his page.

Mignon

References to such figures, many derived from Goethe’s Mignon, are common in literature in figures such as Lolita as well as in the cinema - Gelsomina in Fellini’s La Strada, for example - but some such as Lulu have also travelled through to opera and continue to exercise the same strange fascination. In some respects, the Mignon figure, looking for a father-figure, a lover, a husband, contains a purity which can inspire the artist (who can forget the poetic raptures of Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita?), but the same figure can also reflect darker and more ambiguous impulses that are protective and dangerously possessive. It’s perfect material for musical and poetical expression, but while there is a great deal of such qualities in Thomas’s writing, his opera Mignon perhaps doesn’t always reflect both sides of the coin with equal success. It’s a lovely little opera to listen to, but perhaps a little old-fashioned and restricted in this respect by the conventions of the opéra comique style.

It could be enlivened certainly through inventive stage direction and perhaps an updating of the settings, but there was nothing like that in Jean-Louis Benoît’s production for Geneva. If the props however were reduced to a bare minimum on the stage, it was to leave all the more room for it to be filled with singers and chorus, all dressed in fine, period costumes. A little character was introduced with a humorous setting up of chairs which became a game of skittles every time someone made a rushed entrance to the stage through them, and there was a minor skit involving the flames that destroy Baron Rosemburg’s castle at the end of the second act, but little else of note to suggest a theme or concept being explored. Even so, with the fine costume designs and the actual stage direction - Diana Damrau in particular being a swirling, sparkling presence as Philine - the production looked well and was never less than effective for the purposes of a traditional, theatrical presentation.

It was left to the singers to bring whatever they could to the roles through the performances. Sophie Koch brought a fabulous air of wistful melancholy to the famous aria ‘Connais-tu le pays où fleurent l’oranger?/Le pays des fruits d’or et les roses vermeilles?’ (“Do you know the land where orange flowers bloom?/A land of golden fruit and crimson roses?”), which along with her boyish appearance, lent some interesting ambiguity to the androgynous character and how she is perceived by both Wilhelm and Lothario. There was a hint here of other depths that could be explored, but neither Thomas’s music not the direction seemed capable of drawing anything more out of this as the performance progressed. Koch however was fabulous in the role, singing a choice mezzo-soprano role wonderfully. Taking on a broad range of roles that stretch from this light lyrical opéra comique to heavier Wagner roles, there really doesn’t seem to be anything she isn’t capable of, and she sounds more and more impressive each time I hear her.

Mignon

It was a double luxury then to also have Diana Damrau as Philine in this production. She played a crucial part in the success of the production, and her role is also crucial to making the opera work so well. Her flowing coloratura in the soprano range certainly adds considerable colour to the range of voices as well as some well-needed sparkle to a story that lacks the depth that it might have acquired in a tragic grand opera style, but there’s much more to her character than that and the role serves a vital dramatic function. Philine, along with sidekick Laërte as the leaders of a bohemian troupe of actors, is the catalyst that brings Wilhelm Meister and Mignon together, but Philine also has other outgoing feminine qualities and her flirting introduces the necessary element of conflict that pushes the romantic element to the fore. Her extravagant character and the extravagant singing that goes along with it were well-served here by Diana Damrau. Her ‘Je suis Titania la blonde’ polonaise, given after a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the baron’s castle, was every bit as rivetting and magnetic as it ought to be.

The two exceptionally talented leading ladies were well supported by an excellent Paolo Fanale as Wilhelm Meister, by Nicholas Courjal’s beautifully lucid baritone Lothario, and by Emilio Pons as Laërte. All of them sang very well, but none were really able to make much more of the parts beyond the limitations of the original characterisation and within the constraints of the unexceptional stage direction. A good energetic and entertaining performance from Carine Séchaye in the trouser-role of Frédéric also added to the overall quality and dynamic of the singing. Frédéric Chaslin conducted the orchestra of the Suisse Romande delightfully through Thomas’s lovely score, the production using the original version of the opera with spoken dialogue (only a few short passages) rather than the later revised German version with recitative that, like Thomas’s similar rearrangement of Hamlet, attempted to come closer to the tragic ending for an audience more familiar with the original work. The happy ending however seemed very much in line with the lightness and delicacy of touch that characterised the whole production here in Geneva.

TraviataGiuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2012 | Luciano Acocella, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Annick Massis, Xavier Cortes, Giovanni Meoni, Alexise Yerna, Cristiano Cremonini, Julie Bailly, Roger Joakim, Ziyan Atfeh, Patrick Delcour, Marcel Arpots, Iouri Lel, Marc Tissons | Live Internet Streaming, 26 April 2012

It’s almost becoming de rigueur for nudity and topless women to feature in opera productions these days, but up until Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera’s production for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège, I’d never seen it done before in La Traviata. A popular repertory work, Verdi’s La Traviata is usually done in a straightforward traditional period manner, but Verdi - himself subject to gossip and rumour about his relationship with Giuseppina Strepponi at the time of writing the work - wanted the opera to challenge contemporary attitudes towards unconventional relationships, and the frank directness of the La Traviata was indeed quite shocking for its time. Now all we have to “shock” an audience is a flash of a topless woman. I don’t want to be seen to be making excuses for the practice, but you can see how it could be valid in the context of Verdi’s other shocker of this period, Rigoletto, where nudity featured during the orgies of the Duke of Mantua in David McVicar’s production at the Royal Opera House, and I suppose the same case could be made for La Traviata. When you think about it, Violetta Valéry’s profession as a courtesan - the “fallen woman” of the opera’s title, necessarily treated with circumspection due to censorship restrictions in Verdi’s time - is likewise often also delicately glossed over in stage productions. Not so here.

One could make a case then that the use of nudity in all three acts in the Liège production is not just there for shock or titillation, but that it’s relevant to the themes and tied in with the structure of La Traviata itself. Originally titled ‘Love and Death’ during its composition, these two themes are vital to the impact of the work and they are where Verdi places the most emphasis in his scoring, with Violetta considering the possibilities of true love in the beautiful ‘Ah, fors’è lui’ in Act I, and reflecting on her death in ‘Addio del passato’ in Act III. On their own, certainly, these pieces are strong enough to encompass the beauty, the tragedy and complexity of emotions that have been engendered in Violetta over the short period of her time with Alfredo, but if the staging can draw the attention of the audience to what is being expressed, then so much the better. In Act I then, the aria is set alongside beside the revelry of the guests on a huge bed during ‘Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora’, while in Act III, there is an echo of a reminder of these times as Violetta hears the revelry of party-goers from her death bed. Act II meanwhile uses the nudity effect of the “bella ritrosetta” (“saucy little beauty”) to emphasis the connection between Love and Death in the play of Gastone and the Bullfighters, which otherwise seems like a piece of entertainment unconnected with the work.

Traviata

Unfortunately, while there is relevance in how this all fits in with the opera and its themes - scored brilliantly by Verdi at his most melodic and inventive - there’s not a great deal else that stands out in the direction of this production, which struggles to find any interesting way to respond to the challenge of staging the familiar settings of the work. The first scene of Act II in particular really drags along. As heartfelt as the emotions are during the long scene between Violetta and Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont as he tries to persuade her to give up her love affair with his son for the sake of his reputation and his family, and as well sung as these key moments of appeal are from both sides here during ‘Pura siccome un angelo’ and ‘Ah, dite alla giovine’, they gain nothing from having the two principals sit at the front of the stage and sing out towards the audience. There needs to be a little more connection felt, or at least tension between them over their respective desires and fears, and that’s hard to achieve without some good stage direction.

Aside from the use of brief nudity, the other two acts and the second scene of Act II then are otherwise unexceptional, but the staging does at least serve its function reasonably well. Even if the budget doesn’t always stretch to elaborate sets and designs, the Opéra at Liège under the direction of Mazzonis di Pralafera, seem to me at least to always manage to include a few original touches that allow them to strike a strong balance between traditional theatricality and some personal character. There are a few other minor touches here - Alfredo clutching Violetta’s bloodstained white nightgown during the overture, the guests at the society parties seated as if to watching the unfolding of the latest theatrical developments in society - which are interesting without straining the traditional narrative too much. The same principal would apply, it would seem, to the casting of singers who more than meet the demands of the work if not perhaps with any great distinction. As Alfredo, Xavier Cortes sings well - clear, strong and resonant, and Giovanni Meoni is a grave and dignified Germont Snr., but neither bring any great interpretation to the roles and they don’t look like they have been given a great deal of acting direction either.

Traviata

Demonstrating however, in line with the rest of the production, that they know exactly the right places to place the emphasis, the performance of the orchestra under Luciano Acocella is marvellous and Annick Massis stands out as an exceptional Violetta Valéry. Even during the otherwise dull staging of the Germont/Violetta duets in Act II, the tempo and balance is considered throughout to give the performers the opportunity to really enter into the emotions of this critical scene. If the staging doesn’t work in favour of the singers there, elsewhere it has all the necessary impact, particularly in those aforementioned key moments of Act I and III, and their fine delivery by Annick Massis. She perhaps doesn’t have the fragile delicacy of Violetta in Act I, hitching up her skirt, hopping on a table with a glass of champagne and kicking off her shoes for her ‘Sempre libera’, but it captures the nature of the extraordinary new sensations awakened within her and it’s sung with strength, passion and character. On the flipside of those emotions, her ‘Addio del passato’ is filled with all the longing and heartrending emotion that likewise underpins the strength of the third Act. It’s a superb performance.

If the Opéra Royal de Wallonie’s production then doesn’t always demonstrate great originality, it does nonetheless manage to find its own character within the limitations of the setting, but more significantly, it knows exactly where to place the emphasis for the maximum impact and it takes great care with the casting to ensure that those moments can be achieved. With Annick Massis as an impressive Violetta Valéry, particularly strong in the Act III conclusion, and with Luciano Acocella directing the orchestra through a terrific performance that draws all those considerable qualities out of Verdi’s great score, this production, broadcast live via the website of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège, amounted to a very fine and occasionally impressive La Traviata.

DestinoGiuseppe Verdi - La Forza del Destino

Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg 1998 | Valery Gergiev, Elijah Moshinsky, Grigory Kaasev, Galina Gorchakova, Nikolai Putilin, Gegam Grigorian, Marianna Tarasova, Sergei Alexashkin, Georgy Zashavny, Lia Shevtsova, Yevegeny Nikitin, Nikolai Gassiev, Yun Laptev | Arthaus Musik

The principal attraction of this recording of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino is that it’s a performance of the rarely heard original St Petersburg version, written by the composer for the Imperial Opera in 1862. It was subsequently revised in 1867 for Milan and it’s the later version that has become the more commonly performed or at least better known principally for the famous extended overture that Verdi added. In reality, although there is clearly an attempt by the composer to bring a better musical and dramatic integrity to the piece, the differences between the two versions aren’t all that significant, but in addition to having a rare opportunity to compare them, there is the pleasure alone of seeing a fine performance of the earlier version actually being performed in St Petersburg in 1998 at the Mariinsky Theatre under Valery Gergiev.

If there’s still a lack of coherence to the drama in both versions, and a failure to conform to the expected romantic models (up until the tragic denouement of the opera Don Alvaro and Leonora only meet briefly in the short Act 1 and not in circumstances best suited to a romantic duet) - which may be considered a point in its favour - Verdi’s musical motifs bring a sense of that force of destiny that directs the course of three lives and draws them together. After Alvaro’s accidental killing of her father, the Marchese di Calatrava, as they prepare to go against his wishes and elope, Leonora (like many of Verdi’s opera heroines by no means a straightforward virtuous character) casts herself into the hands of fate and becomes a hermit. Alvaro, fleeing from the disaster, bemoans his fate not to be a noble of ancient Inca blood, but a man forced to run from the horror of the death he has unwittingly caused, and the love of Leonora that he has lost. Leonora’s brother Don Carlo di Vargas meanwhile is forced to strive to find his father’s killer and restore the honour of the Calatrava name.

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Although it remains imperfect in both versions, Verdi’s later attempts to add characterisation and musical refinement still not being enough to compensate for a dramatic structure that remains disjointed with some implausible twists of fate, there’s some interest certainly in seeing the original version played out with a little more of that punchy earlier Verdi style. Not being quite so concerned with a dramatic flow, but being made up more evidently of a variety of little scenes and choral set-pieces, the St Petersburg version of La Forza del Destino follows the Italian aria-cabaletta opera model a little more closely. These are reduced in the later version, with some arias cut through the restructuring of the drama - notably Don Alvaro’s ‘Quel sangue sparsi’, delivered at the end of Act III when Carlo is believed dead in a duel that is not interrupted by troops as in the later version - and through attempts by Verdi to bring a sense of reconciliation, or perhaps accommodation with one’s fate in a manner that is slightly less harsh than the original, Alvaro throwing himself from a cliff at the conclusion here.

Despite the revisions made to the Italian version, the essential dramatic arc and the fate of the characters however remain largely unchanged. The coincidences that tie these figures are still not entirely convincing, but they are made compelling - in both versions - by the strength in Verdi’s musical writing that aligns character so beautifully not just to Wagnerian leitmotifs, but to melodies that are expressive of their condition. It might have a mid-eighteenth century setting, but it’s clear that Verdi doesn’t have to look too far beyond his own time to relate in some meaningful way with these figures who in better times might have been friends and lovers, but whose lives have been torn apart by greater forces beyond their control - the tides of war, fate and the demands of honour.

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Directed for the stage by Elijah Moshinsky, this 1998 recording at the Mariinsky Theatre is a very traditional period staging, but the theatricality of the painted backdrops that set the scene for the Seville locations, army camps and monasteries suits the punchier, melodramatic style of the earlier version of the work, the dark lighting of the stage working also with the dark tones in Verdi’s score. That’s brought out wonderfully by Valery Gergiev in this production, finding nonetheless a romantic sweep and sensitivity within the score that works hand-in-hand with the heavier dramatic colouring. I’m not familiar with any of the Russian singers here but they are well cast and handle the Italian phrasing well. Galina Gorchakova is a fine Leonora, carrying the nature and interior conflict of her character well, her singing strong and consistent. Gegam Grigorian is a lovely lyrical Don Alvaro, but doesn’t always seem to be dramatically involved. His ‘Della natal sua terra’ aria at the start of Act III is beautifully sung, but he’s not as strong in ‘Quel sangue sparsi’ by the end of the act. Nikolai Putilin is a solid, earnest Don Carlo, but I didn’t find Marianna Tarasova made such a strong impact as Preziosilla.

Directed for the screen by Brian Large, the production comes across well giving a good impression of the whole stage while capturing all the little details in the drama without any excessive editing trickery or close-ups, although there is one awkward edit at the end of Act III. A 1998 recording, it is not filmed in High Definition, so there’s no Blu-ray release, but the quality of the 16:9 widescreen image for DVD is excellent nonetheless, as is the quality of the PCM 2.0 stereo audio track. Other than notes on the opera and the production in the enclosed booklet, there are no extra features on the disc itself, the 2 hours 45 minutes of the opera on a dual-layer disc in NTSC format. The disc is compatible for all regions. Subtitles are in English, German, French, Dutch and Spanish only - there is no Italian for anyone wanting to read the original libretto.