June 2012


ManonJules Massenet - Manon

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2012 | Patrick Davin, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Silvia Vázquez, Ismaël Jordi, Massimiliano Gagliardo, Marcel Vanaud, Guy de Mey, Roger Joakim, Alexise Yerna, Sabine Conzen, Marie-Laure Coenjaerts | Live Internet Streaming, 20 June 2012

Manon is all about the impetuosity and the folly of youth, the love of the glamour of the here and now, living in the moment, wanting it all, making mistakes along the way and taking all that comes with it with no regrets. That at least is how it is for Manon Lescaut herself, a 16 year-old about to enter a convent and about to see those delicious possibilities put forever out of reach. For Chevalier des Grieux, the young student who sees her, falls in love with her and sweeps her away to Paris, there’s evidently some of the same youthful impetuosity, but he also has dreams and illusions about the future in a manner that isn’t quite compatible with the ambitions of Manon, and it’s in the conflict of their ideals and their experience with the realities of the world that ends up destroying the brief period of their little idyll - the innocence of youth is fleeting - and ultimately leads to tragedy.

The setting isn’t that important then, since these are universal characteristics and their consequences are all too recognisable and inevitable. What is important as far as making Massenet’s opera work on the stage is finding the right tone that captures that sense of youthful idealism, flightiness, inconstancy, innocence and flirtatiousness in the first half that develops into something darker and more substantial in the second. On that account, the orchestra of the Opéra Liège, if perhaps a little sluggish in some earlier parts of the opera, give an overall fine account of Massenet’s deceptively light five-act opera-comique in this new production for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, conductor Patrick Davin guiding them particularly well through in the darker passions of the latter half.

Manon must be seen as a journey in this respect, and if the first half feels slight, that’s how Massenet composed it, with its real strength and beauty only becoming apparent by the time we get to the conclusion. It’s undoubtedly with this in mind that Liège’s current director in residence Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera structures the production to come around in a full circle, the Prologue and initial scene of Act 1 opening where the opera closes, with Manon and des Grieux meeting again at Le Havre and looking back over the happiness of their time together, the past initially behind a screen but gradually coming to life again as if it has all been ‘relived’ by Manon in her final moments at the end of Act 5. The flashback idea is by no means an original one - there was even a hint of it in Mazzonis di Pralafera’s last production for Liège, La Traviata - but there is a valid reason for it here that is echoed in the repeated musical references at the end of both works, that is vital for tying the whole work together, blending the joy with the tragedy in a manner that makes the journey all the more significant. It’s a typically perceptive response to the work on the part of Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, and it’s one that helps carry the weaker elements in the production - although, really, there are few of those in this excellent production.

There’s at least not much to be concerned about as far as the singing is concerned. Manon demands two strong and capable singers of absolute conviction and the casting of two young Spanish singers, Silvia Vázquez and Ismaël Jordi, certainly meets those requirements admirably. Both need to be capable of conveying that sense of youthful innocence and wonder, capable of being swept off their feet by the discovery of new sensations, caught up in the glamour of themselves and the possibilities open to them. They both however need to be capable of demonstrating a deeper emotional register for the second half of the work, and again, there are no serious failings there. As Manon Lescaut, Silvia Vázquez has a strong enough voice and is capable of hitting all the emotional and vocal requirements, only sounding slightly out of pitch at the highest points. She carries the transformation of Manon from the impetuous youth of Act 1 to social butterfly on the Cour-la-reine promenade in Act 3 with the absolute conviction necessary.

Ismaël Jordi, who impressed me in the alternate cast for the Liceu’s 2011-12 production of Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, again shows himself to be a terrific up-and-coming lyric tenor as des Grieux here. His acting isn’t always the strongest, but some responsibility for this must go to the director, who, like his La Traviata, doesn’t always find something for the principals to do other than project out to the audience. When you are getting singing however like Jordi’s Act 3 ‘Je suis seul! …Ah fuyez, douce image!‘, as fine a rendition of Manon and des Grieux’s duet ‘N’est-ce plus ma main‘ and as powerful a scene as the one here between des Grieux and his father - wonderfully sung by Marcel Vanaud - those concerns are rendered relatively minor by the quality of the vocal expression of the sentiments the characters are experiencing.

It’s actually in this magnificent performance of the second scene of Act 3 that you can really see the production and the qualities of the structure and singing start to come together, reflecting the strengths of the work itself. Placing the single interval in the middle of Act 3 proves to be most effective in this regard, as there is a natural separation there between the different tones of the two halves of the opera. The sets and costumes are, for the most part, functional, never really establishing any unique character but, always busy with characters, chorus and extras, it works perfectly well for the purposes of the work with the overall structure of the piece. It’s well enough designed however so that the first three acts flow together with scarcely a pause for a scene change, which is quite a feat. One might like a bit more time to get to know the characters and enjoy the scenes - I think there may have been a few careful cuts in the dialogue passages here and there - but in a way it reflects the rush of youth, and, in the end, you come back to see these scenes through the light of experience later, which is perfectly appropriate and indeed well-considered for achieving the maximum impact, the opera ending powerfully with Manon returning to ‘notre petite table‘ of Act 2.

Manon is the final free Live Internet Streaming Broadcast of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie at Liège’s 2011-12 season at the temporary structure of the Palais Opéra while renovation work is being carried out at the Théâtre Royal. Recordings are available to view again in full on the Dailymotion site for one weekend, usually a few weeks after the initial broadcast. The 2012-12 Season, recently announced on their web-site, has a great deal to look forward to on their return to the main opera house, including Verdi’s I Due Foscari and rarely performed works by César Franck and André-Modeste Grétry.

KoukourgiLuigi Cherubini - Koukourgi

Stadttheater Klagenfurt, 2010 | Peter Marschik, Josef E. Köpplinger, Daniel Prohaska, Çiğdem Soyarslan, Johannes Chum, Daniel Belcher, Peter Edlemann, Leonardo Galeazzi, Stefan Cerny, Alexander Puhrer, Kap-Sung Ahn | Arthaus

Luigi Cherubini is one of the great neglected composers of the Classical age, known now, if at all, for his formal but dramatically near-operatic compositions of Requiems and Coronation Masses as Court Composer during the times of Revolutionary France, but his twenty-five actual operas are mostly unheard of and only a few of them are on rare occasions performed. There is a perception that Cherubini’s music is a little bit academic and conventional, with an impeccable sense of melody, counterpoint and situation every bit as delightful as Haydn, but without the spark of genius or originality of Mozart. There’s some degree of truth in that perception, but at the same time Cherubini is certainly worthy of being considered alongside these two more famous near-contemporary composers, and one need only look to the only one of his operas that is regularly performed, Medea, to see Cherubini’s qualities as an opera composer of genuine merit.

Whether his other works match up to Medea - which is only well-known now because of Maria Callas and for the dramatic opportunities in the singing range that it offers a leading soprano - is rather more difficult to judge due to the rarity of ever seeing one of his operas actually performed. An opéra-comique, Koukourgi is probably not the most representative of Cherubini’s dramatic and classical-based works, but it is certainly one of the rarest. Composed around 1792, Koukourgi - for reasons unknown - was left unfinished and, up until its premiere here at the Stadttheater Klagenfurt in 2010, had never been previously staged. The spoken dialogues are lost, but are not difficult to determine from the progression of the plot and have been rendered in German here for the Klagenfurt audience, although almost certainly not in the form they take here. The overture is taken from Cherubini’s Ifigenia in Aulide (1788) and the finale ‘Viva Amore‘ was an insert composed by Cherubini for a French production of a Paisiello opera.

As for the opera itself, it does tend to confirm the idea of Cherubini’s work being written to suit the conventions of the opéra-comique. It’s a little bit dry and academic in places, with familiar character types and situations, the obligatory thunderstorm and a spectacular march of soldiers, but with no great narrative drive that inspires any impressive musical or singing feats. In its own way however, Koukourgi is a lovely little example of its type, as light and entertaining as a Haydn opera, but with a modest French buffo character that avoids the excesses of the more florid Italian singing. That character is maintained in the Klagenfurt production, delicately played by the Kärtner Sinfonieorchester as conducted by Peter Marschik, which sets the tone by having Koukourgi play the part of narrator. It is unlikely that the character would have performed this role in the original spoken dialogue for the work, but it works effectively in the context here, making asides and confidences to the audience about the opera itself as well as about his own indolent nature, inviting them to laugh along with him at the rather more serious attitude adopted by the other characters in what doesn’t really amount to a great deal.

Although it is set in China, where the ruler Fohi comes under assault from the invading masses of the Tartars, Koukourgi could be seen as a reflection of the character and spirit of the times in revolutionary France. Set against this backdrop of the struggles of the royals to regain control, there is a romance that could also be seen as a reflection of the differences in class and attitudes. The great warrior Amazan is an orphan who has grown up in the castle and is in love with Zulma, but the ruler Fohi doesn’t consider him an acceptable match for his daughter, preferring Koukourgi, the son of his General Zamti. As the Tartar’s invade, are repulsed and invade again, it’s the Amazan who bravely launches himself into the fray, while the commander of the troops, Koukourgi, refuses to get involved, preferring to eat well, drink and attempt to seduce the repulsed Zulma, giving Amazan only his weakest troops in the hope that he might end up getting killed. Against the odds however, Amazan succeeds and wins the love of Zulma, courage is rewarded, indolence leads to nothing, and love conquers all.

The tone of the production and stage setting is also well fitted to the drama, not striving for any realism or strictly period setting, but being a thoroughly theatrical construct. All the chorus and extras wear grotesque masks, leaving the focus on the main characters with their face-painted Asian designs, but masks also play a part in the backgrounds. The back and forth nature of the off-stage attacks leads to a good running joke has one of the principal troops arrive on the stage at regular intervals with an arrow in his back announcing that the Tartars are invading again, before expiring with a trumpet call. It’s funnier than anything else that is in the actual libretto, but, as is often the case with this type of work, a lot depends on the charm and the delivery of the performers. Daniel Prohaska has a great deal of fun as the irreverent Koukourgi, but finds suitable companions for his cowardly nature in Daniel Belcher’s Sécuro and Peter Edlemann’s Phaor. Çiğdem Soyarslan’s Zulma and Johannes Chum’s Amazan meanwhile play the romantic drama wonderfully straight, Amazan ready to fly off to brave all the Tartar attacks without a moment’s cause for reflection.

Koukourgi is by no means a major discovery, but it’s entertaining in its own right, delightfully staged and performed, and with the scarcity of Cherubini operas available in any form, this is a true rarity that does indeed throw new light on the variety and quality of the composer’s work. It’s only available on DVD - no Blu-ray release - but the specifications are excellent, with a clean, sharp widescreen transfer and good audio mixes in PCM Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1. The disc is Region-free, NTSC format, with subtitles in French, English, German, Spanish, Italian and Korean.

CesareGeorge Frideric Handel - Giulio Cesare in Egitto

Salzburg Festival, Haus für Mozart, 2012 | Giovanni Antonini, Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier, Andreas Scholl, Cecilia Bartoli, Anne Sofie von Otter, Philippe Jaroussky, Christophe Dumaux, Jochen Kowalski, Ruben Drole, Peter Kálmán | ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming, 27 May 2012

The question of how to stage a Baroque opera, rather different in form from the more familiar narrative drama form established in 19th century opera, has been a tricky issue that has had to be addressed in order to bring these works back into the modern opera repertoire. How do you make a rather long-winded and out-dated style of opera appealing enough to engage an audience through all the ornate embellishments and opera seria conventions? It helps of course if the score is by Handel, and it helps if the opera in question has a subject as juicy as Julius Cesar’s campaign in Egypt and his romantic encounter with Cleopatra, with some beautiful, memorable arias, and a considerable amount of profuse romantic declarations and rejections, and large amounts of political plotting and scheming. Despite being the most popularly staged Handel opera, the work - four hours long and featuring no less than four principal countertenor/castrato roles - does present considerable challenges in the staging of these event, since most of the action is alluded to only in the brief recitative and usually takes place off-stage. An “authentic” period treatment for the four hours of Giulio Cesare in Egitto could be a bit of a slog for an audience without some visual entertainment, and it seems to be with that principle in mind that Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s production of Handel’s 1724 opera for the 2012 Salzburg Pentecost Festival (newly under the directorship of Cecilia Bartoli) is certainly nothing like a period treatment.

Let’s just take a couple of early examples to see how they approach the long drawn-out expressions of deep emotions that establishes the characters and their relation to each other in the critical First Act. Cornelia, aghast at the murder of her husband Pompeo, his head cut off and presented to Cesare by Tolomeo in a misguided attempt to gain favour and the rule of Egypt, sings of her loss in an exquisite lament (‘Priva son d’ogni conforto’) that doesn’t actually require her to do anything dramatically, just emote the pain. Sung eloquently and movingly by Anne Sofie von Otter, the sentiments don’t really need any further elaboration, but Leiser and Caurier choose to show the depths of Cornelia’s despair by having her place her head in the jaws of a crudely manufactured giant rubber crocodile. Or - how should one stage the aria ‘L’empio, sleale, indegno’, where Tolomeo vents his anger at Cesare, while standing alone on the stage? Well, Leiser and Caurier have him tear apart a foam dummy of Cesar (one that bizarrely has arrived earlier on the top of the limousine bearing the arrival of the Roman Emperor), pulling bloody innards out of the stomach and biting into them.

Evidently such scenes clearly bear no relation to naturalism, never mind tradition, and as the early booing from the audience at Tolomeo’s tantrum here demonstrates, it’s clearly not for everyone. Whether it’s to your taste or not, in both cases, it can’t be denied that the visual expression of those scenes don’t really do anything more than simply match the extravagance and depth of feelings as they are expressed by both characters through the excessively ornate terms of the da capo aria. The nature of the convention and its lack of adherence to any kind of naturalism in dramatic situations is even played upon in Act II, when Cesare’s General, Curio - dressed in modern army combat gear - looks on in a frustrated manner as he tries to get the Emperor into a bulletproof vest and away from a group of assassins approaching them in Cleopatra’s palace, only for Cesare to insist on returning to the front of the stage to finish the long repetitions of his da capo aria. It’s clever, it’s knowing, it’s aware of the conventions and working within them, but most importantly, Leiser and Caurier’s production of Giulio Cesare in Egitto is never boring.

Updating the involvement of a major Western power in the turmoil of the Middle-East to a modern setting is however clearly always going to generate some amount of controversy and to their credit, Leiser and Caurier don’t shy away from scenes that, in some cases, almost seem designed to shock and provoke a reaction. Little of that however relates to any actual commentary on real-life modern-day situations other than in the broadest of terms, but there are certainly recognisable features of present-day Egypt, the wider Middle-East conflict and recent Arab Spring rebel uprisings, with the stage bearing all the signs of a desert war, littered with burning tanks and, um, giant lizards. As head of the invading foreign power, Cesare here is keen to strike up a deal with the new regime, installing Tolomeo as the new puppet ruler in an arrangement that will be beneficial to Rome for the setting up of oil wells in the region. In this context, having seen his father killed by this cruel regime, Sesto becomes a terrorist and straps a bomb around his waist for a suicide attack, assisted by his grieving mother. Bombs rain down in a shock-and-awe battle towards the end of the conflict, as the rebels take on the government forces. Without having to make any overt commentary on the Middle East, it’s a scenario that a modern audience would be able to relate to - certainly more than Cesar’s campaign in Egypt in 48 BC - but what is even more surprising is how well it actually works hand-in-hand with the themes, if not the actual historical events, recounted in Handel’s work.

The directors however - depending on your view - could be seen as pushing things a little too far into parody. Certainly the abuse of power, the sexual improprieties and the mistreatment of women that go along with it are all part and parcel of the exercise of political authority and ambition - as is Cleopatra’s use of seduction to try to gain power herself - but the manner in which these scenes are depicted seems to be fully considered according to the nature of the characters and not merely put in to shock the audience. For Cleopatra’s part, it all seems to be done with a sense of fun, and Cecilia Bartoli (well used to working with this directing team) throws herself bravely into the role, and not just in singing terms - which you would expect anyway. She seems to enjoy playing the part of this sexy temptress, vamping it up in a leather outfit that emphasises her ample bosom, or as a dancing girl with feather fans, even dancing like an Egyptian while wearing a wig of the Queen’s famous bob hairstyle. At one point in Act II she even rides a rocket bomb (as Cupid’s dart) into the sky, which earns huge applause, although her stunning delivery of the aria might have had something to do with that. Her character’s slip into lamentations in the second half of the work however is handled without any such fuss or spectacle (although she also feels like sacrificing herself to the rubber crocodile at one point). So too, the enslavement of Cornelia and the attempts to use her as a bargaining tool for sale on is treated with great delicacy, but the “villains” less so, Tolomeo shown jerking off to a porn mag while singing “Belle dee di questo core”.

More than simply setting out to shock or upset, the impression given is that, in their attempt to prove that opera seria doesn’t have to be just a long series of tedious arias with short sections of recitative to set them up, the directors have perhaps just gone too far in the other direction and thrown in far too many ideas that don’t always work. This Giulio Cesare in Egitto is just overflowing with ideas and there’s almost too much to take in. But one thing for sure is that it’s never, ever boring, and in a four-hour Handel opera, that’s quite an achievement. Just as importantly, it doesn’t detract from what it the most important element of the work, and that is its expression through the singing. Bartoli, as noted above, is just outstanding, fully entering into the role and singing it beautifully, powerfully and with genuine feeling and understanding for the character of Cleopatra. Andreas Scholl’s delicate countertenor also fully embodies the character of Cesare, the singing impassioned, the da capo coloratura both expressive and impressive. The real key to the success of this production however lies in the equal attention given to the superb casting and performances of the other roles, particularly Anne Sofie von Otter’s Cornelia and Philippe Jaroussky’s Sesto. Their expressions of deep anguish underpin the seriousness of drama and its conviction, and they are both outstanding in individual arias, but particularly impressive in their ‘Son nata a lagrimar’ duet. Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo, Jochen Kowalski as Nireno, Peter Kálmán as Curio and Ruben Drole as Achilla also give fine performances that ensure that there are no weak elements here as far as the singing is concerned.

Giulio Cesare in Egitto was recorded on 27th May 2012 and broadcast live by the French/German television channel ARTE. It is currently available to view in its entirety for free on their ARTE Live Web site.

TritticoGiacomo Puccini - Il Trittico

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones, Lucio Gallo, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Alan Oke, Jeremy White, Ermonela Jaho, Anna Larsson, Irena Mishura, Elena Zilio, Elizabeth Sikora, Ekaterina Siurina, Francesco Demuro, Rebecca Evans, Gwynne Howell | Opus Arte

An essay in the booklet for the Blu-ray release of the Royal Opera House’s 2011 production of Puccini’s Il Trittico remarks that there’s always a temptation to try and find a common theme between the three short operas that the composer wrote to be performed together, but that essentially they were written mainly to complement each other only in so far as the contrast they provide. That still doesn’t stop producers (or those writing about the work) from trying to find connections between them. Antonio Pappano in his introduction here sees the overall theme as deception, which I like, and it’s a useful theme to keep in mind, but although there could be other commonalities found between the works - young love and dreams being stifled or weighed down by events from the past - the main uniting theme is indeed the diversity of the works. Il Trittico will make you laugh and it will make you cry - you can count on that - but, should you want to, there’s a wealth of riches to explore here in Puccini’s masterful scoring and the variety of themes that he covers.

The variety of the subjects and the manner in which they are written and played out however is more than just for the entertainment of the audience (although this is evidently the primary consideration and there is something for everyone here), but it seem to me that they are also purposely diverse in subject matter, tone and treatment in order to give Puccini as much scope as possible to stretch himself and develop into new musical areas that had been opened up in the post-Wagner world of 20th century opera. Even if the romantic melodrama of Il Tabarro or the tragic opera heroine theme of Suor Angelica are familiar areas for Puccini (the comedy of Gianni Schicchi is however another matter entirely), one can see that he is working musically outside the comfort zone of traditional Italian opera arrangements and arias, working within the constraints of the shorter form in order to concentrate on finding the purest expression of the dramatic and emotional content of the works.

Il Tabarro however is far from familiar Puccini. It is certainly a close relation to La Bohème, being set in Paris, concerned with the hopes and dreams of the lower classes looking for love and security in their lives, their romantic lives stifled by their poverty, and it even makes a few minor references to Mimi and the music of La Bohème behind the scenes, but Puccini’s mature musical perspective is quite different, darker and far heavier. Pappano makes reference to the influence of Debussy and impressionism, which is most obviously evident in the opening sounds of the canal dockyard blending into the music itself, creating a perfectly evocative atmosphere for the dark, misty setting, but the music throughout seems to express the underlying social context, the inner lives of the characters and their pasts, as much as it illustrates the dramatic events that occur in the present. There are no major arias, but the sense of their history and their social position as vagabonds, a life that is slowly grinding them down, is expressed in the singing and in the voices, the intensity of the emotion and expression of temperament as important as they actual words they sing, if not even more so. Puccini brings all that out, fully and with considerable depth, fitting it in with the dramatic developments, all within the compressed space of a one-act opera. It’s masterful.

The dark gritty realism extends through to the sets in Richard Jones’s production that recreates the dark Parisian streets at the banks of the Seine as effectively as Puccini’s score. The excellent lighting is particularly instrumental in establishing the mood. The cast too are terrific, able to spark life into these characters and reveal them in all their humanity. Eva-Maria Westbroek in particular is very strong as Giorgetta, with her Wagnerian range that still has a lovely lyricism. Gallo has the reputation of mugging characters, but he’s strong here as the dark and intense Michele. He doesn’t really have the depth of voice or the acting quality to reveal any unexpected qualities, but he sings the role quite well. There are no concerns at all with Aleksandrs Antonenko, who sings powerfully and brings out that extra dimension that Puccini scores in his revealing duet with Westbroek’s Giorgetta. If Il Tabarro is never thought of as the strongest section of Il Trittico, this production presents it as well as it can be done, Pappano in particular directing the orchestra of the Royal Opera House magnificently through the strains and the sweep of Puccini’s score.

If Il Tabarro has a kind of spiritual connection with La Bohème, the fatal tragedy of the romantic heroine of Suor Angelica is aligned closely with the circumstances and the fate of Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly. If there are differences in the plot, and particularly in the cultural background and the individual circumstances of the central figures, at heart however the emotions and what engenders them is similar, and Puccini couches those female sentiments in much the same kind of musical language. There is however considerable maturity in the through composition of the opera and in Puccini’s attempt here not so much to accompany the action as much as describe the otherworldly aspects that drive it. Aware of the wide range of opportunities this offers - even in a short work of this length - Puccini doesn’t focus solely on the complications of Sister Angelica’s situation, but also delves into the inner lives, the playfulness, devotion, contemplation and secret desires of the other nuns, their conflict between earthly being and a search for heavenly grace all contributing to the fullness of the character study of Angelica.

Forced into a convent, having given birth to an illegitimate child that would bring shame to the noble family name that she belongs to, living in hope for some kind of news from the family that has disowned her, the developments when combined with a religious experience could certainly tip the work over into high melodrama, particularly when scored with such feeling by Puccini. I’m sure there are many who feel that this is indeed the case with Suor Angelica, but it’s clear that Puccini is seeking to express a deeper, more complex view of extreme very specific female emotions where a sense of motherhood has been denied, caught up in religious devotion and monastic discipline. That balance also needs to be maintained in the stage presentation, particularly the handling of the dramatic conclusion, and Richard Jones managed to bring out that inner world described in the music well, with subtle but telling touches. More important than anything else however is the performance of Suor Angelica herself, and Ermonela Jaho not only sings it exceptionally well, but she is completely involved in a role that demands acting of concentrated intensity.

Buoso Donati has just died, his family and loved ones surrounding him, but in the third part of Puccini’s Il Trittico, Gianni Schicchi, this is not the usual tragic opera deathbed scene, and if there are any tears shed by the assembled mourners it’s on account of their being disinherited in the old man’s will, while it’s more likely to be tears of laughter on the part of the audience (and that’s no exaggeration). The comic opera is certainly not a style you would associate with Puccini, but his treatment of the humour in Gianni Schicchi is nothing short of brilliant. Closer to Verdi’s Falstaff than say Donizetti’s clever but broader slapstick, there’s no heavy comic underscoring here (whatever that might entail, I’m not sure), but rather an almost furtive, subtle, insidious expression of the nature this mixed bag of greedy, grasping, backstabbing, moneygrubbers in all their scheming self-importance. It’s dazzling to hear how a composer of Puccini’s experience and maturity handles himself in this unfamiliar register, from the false sobs scored into the opening notes, through the knowing self-parody of heartfelt (yet still justly famous) arias that don’t express ‘Addio del passato’ as much as ‘Addio to the money’, to the frantic jostling for positions of influence of this motley mob and their eventual well-deserved comeuppance.

Richard Jones’s setting for the Royal Opera House production again fits quite admirably, finding its own sense of style without having to adhere to the period. Somehow the slick sixties suits and garish dresses express the tasteless vulgarity of the rich Donati family and their brood, as does the tacky flowered wallpaper Buoso’s over-sized bedroom. There’s no sharp spiv suit either for the scheming lawyer Gianni Schicchi, but a suitably seedy quality nonetheless to his open-shirted swagger, looking as if he’s just been dragged away from a different kind of bar than the one expected for his profession, differentiating his social class from the pretensions of the Donati family. It’s spot-on characterisation, wonderfully played and sung by the cast - Lucio Gallo switching register wonderfully from the very different role of Michele in Il Tabarro. As Antonio Pappano notes however in the introduction, the comedy in Gianni Schicchi relies greatly on the timing, and while this production gets those laughs, when compared to the English Touring Opera’s recent hilarious production that is still fresh in my mind, Jones’s stage direction doesn’t always make the most of the potential that Puccini’s score and the witty situations of the work present.

It’s Antonio Pappano’s contribution to the production as a whole however that proves to be the critical factor in its overall resounding success. All this richness and diversity, the sense of fun and drama, along with the serious musicological insight and consideration of the deeper qualities of the work is borne out in Pappano’s conducting of the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, who give a mesmerising performance. With excellent casting and singing, and an appropriate staging, you really couldn’t ask for more.

Opus Arte however also package the set extremely well. In addition to the impeccable technical presentation on Blu-ray, with a crystal clear High Definition transfer and outstanding HD sound mixes in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 that reproduce the music and the singing exceptionally well, each of the three hour-long operas are presented separately and given their own optional introduction that briefly sets out the premise and the treatment. An additional Extra Feature follows Lucio Gallo through make-up, warm-up and last-minute preparations with the conductor for his two roles as Michele and Gianni Schicchi. The full-HD Blu-ray is region-free, dual layer BD50, with English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles.

QuichotteJules Massenet - Don Quichotte

La Monnaie/De Munt, Brussels 2010 | Marc Minkowski, Laurent Pelly, Silvia Tro Santafé, José van Dam, Werner Van Mechelen, Julie Mossay, Camille Merckx, Vincent Delhoume, Gijs Van der Linden, Bernard Villier | Naive

With piles of papers and documents piled up on the stage, Laurent Pelly’s production design for this 2010 performance of Massenet’s Don Quichotte at La Monnaie-De Munt in Brussels looks like something from an art installation, but it serves the opera well and in the process provides a suitable platform for José van Dam’s final bow from the opera stage. Taking a dream-like overview of the subject, Act I shows what looks like a the Don’s drawing room, where the aging knight is resting sitting in an armchair, a man past his prime, dreaming of better times, of his love for the beautiful Dulcinea that once inspired him to write verses of praise in her name - all of which are piled up in a small mountain below her balcony - and the idealism that drove him to what he believes to be chivalrous and intrepid acts of valour.

The dream world of the knight’s idealism in the subsequent four acts is similarly filled with sierras and landscapes made of hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper, reflecting the recreation of Don Quichotte’s exploits on paper and the lack of substantiality that these dreams are based on, the valiant knight forgetting that he is now just a foolish old man whose youth has faded. After a 50 year career, José van Dam’s voice may also lost some of its youthful vigour and strength, but the passion and sincerity is still there, and in that respect it’s a perfect fit for the role of Don Quixote that makes his performance of the role all the more poignant.

I’ve never really been able to find a distinctive stamp to Massenet’s varied opera styles, finding little that has made an impression beyond his most famous creations of Werther, Manon and Thaïs, but I’m always interested to find what can be brought out of the other works, particularly when they are fully staged. Don Quichotte seems like a rather slight work in this respect, but the composer nonetheless seems to find the right tone throughout for this ‘comédie-héroique en cinq actes’. A five-act opera, it is however surprisingly sprightly, each of the short brief scenes - the entire work coming in at under two hours - finding the right balance of adventure and nobility, foolishness and dignity, with little Spanish-inflected arrangements but also a certain French character. I don’t know if it gets to the essence of Cervantes (Massenet worked on a French adaptation “Le Chevalier de la Longue Figure” by Jacques Le Lorrain), but it seems to strike the right tone throughout that fits the character of the work.

Laurent Pelly’s production likewise seems an exceptionally good fit. The astonishing set designed by Barbara de Limburg is mostly static, but there are subtle changes over the course of the opera that reflect the deterioration of Don Quichotte’s mind, and a few neat touches - the battle with the windmills is well achieved - that bring the work to life at the right moments. The casting is also perfectly appropriate for this modest little work that is nonetheless not short on charm or beauty. Van Dam is Don Quixote incarnate, carrying himself as the “errant knight who rights wrongs” with exactly the right kind of proud nobility amid the confusion of old-age. He might not hold the low notes with the same rock-solid sureness, but it’s a lovely and thoughtful performance, sung very well indeed. Silvia Tro Santafé is a lovely Dulcinea, with a light, rich, sparkling tone to her French, even if the vibrato applied makes her at times sound like an old-time French cabaret singer, evoking Edith Piaf in places. Werner van Mechelen provides solid support as Sancho. Combined they form the kind of strong varied and sensitive trio of principals that the work needs, but the quartet roles and the chorus are also wonderful here.

Released on DVD only, the presentation of the performance is fine, if the image quality and sharpness is not quite as impressive as it might have been in HD. The audio likewise is disappointingly lower-spec, Dolby Digital 2.0 only, but the sound is clear and the tone is warm. The orchestration, conducted beautifully by Marc Minkowski, sounds wonderful, and the singing is mostly strong and clear in the mix. There are a few slight dips in the sound, usually only audible around the audience applause, but occasionally on the stage also, as if the microphones levels are being adjusted, but it’s a relative minor issue. The DVD includes an excellent hour-long feature that goes behind the scenes on the production in some detail.

LohengrinRichard Wagner - Lohengrin

Bayreuth Festival 2011| Andris Nelsons, Hans Neuenfels, Reinhard von der Thannen, Georg Zeppenfeld, Klaus Florian Vogt, Annette Dasch, Jukka Rasilainen, Petra Lang, Samuel Youn, Stefan Heibach, Willem van der Heyden, Rainer Zaun, Christian Tschelebiew | Opus Arte

It’s refreshing to see Wagner approached with a critical eye, one that doesn’t just accept his work with a deferential, respectful attitude, played straight and full of grandiose pomposity, but rather strives to find the deeper qualities in his work and consider how - or even whether - they still have meaning and relevance to the world of opera and to the world in general. It’s also refreshing - surprising for some, shocking for others - that it’s at Bayreuth, the home of Wagner and under the directorship of the composer’s great-daughter Katarina Wagner, that some of the most radical and irreverent productions are being undertaken. Hans Neuenfels’ 2010 production of Lohengrin, recorded here at the Festival in 2011, is consequently another radical reworking of Wagner’s own mythology that has generated some amount of controversy and bewilderment, and it’s not hard to see why.

Lohengrin has always been one of the most difficult Wagner operas to approach, partly because of where it stands in the development of the composer finding his own voice and partly because of the history that has become attached to it through its association with Nazism. Even though the work is often grouped as one of the three earlier operas (along with Der Fliegende Höllander and Tannhäuser) that saw Wagner still finding his way towards the reformation of opera into a music-drama artform that would exalt and give expression to essential German characteristics as expressed in ancient myths and legends, it is nonetheless the most clear and consistently ‘Wagnerian’ of those earlier works. If there is any fault with the work, it’s not so much musical as the fact that it tends to put across those ideals of German purity across in a way that allowed them to be treated simplistically and seized upon in later years as an expression of Aryan supremacy. With its bold choruses of Germanic voices chanting ‘Sieg Heil’, the subsequent history of the work beyond the composer’s lifetime can’t be ignored, and it means that a director needs to be very careful about how such scenes are staged.

Lohengrin

Hans Neuenfels’ idea then isn’t in itself necessarily a bad one. He correctly sees that there is much more to Lohengrin than solemn declarations of Germanic might and purity, but that there is an essential element of humanity and romanticism in the work. And not only does it subject those noble characteristics to examination, but there is a wider consideration and a deep understanding in Lohengrin of the flaws and weaknesses in the German character also, as well as a sense of humour that is often ignored in Wagner. In some respects then for Neuenfels, Lohengrin represents a kind of social experiment for Wagner, where he pits conflicting German characteristics against each other - often in very broad terms of good and evil - and explores the impact they have on society, here in its setting of Brabant. Little did Wagner realise how those German characteristics would later find expression in Nazism, or how much the work itself would play a part in the formation of those ideals, but perhaps Lohengrin’s social experiment does indeed prophetically shed a light on just how German society can give rise to those kind of sentiments.

The difficulty with Neuenfels’ direction of Lohengrin for Bayreuth however is in how he and production designer Reinhard von der Thannen take the idea of the opera as a social experiment through a reductio ad absurdum where Brabant literally becomes a laboratory and its citizens run around for the most part dressed in black, white and pink mouse costumes. It all looks very silly indeed and definitely not how you expect to see Wagner traditionally produced. But then again it’s clearly the intention of the director to totally break down those preconceptions and the historical baggage that comes with the opera, and at the very least you can safely say that there has never been a Lohengrin like this one. The staging is colourful and well-choreographed, while the modernist, clean-line, brightly lit stage that is now a distinctive feature of Bayreuth in recent years is far from the dark theatricality that you normally associate with opera productions. Using animated sequences moreover, the production takes a Rashomon-like perspective on the nature of Truth (Wahrheit) in relation to the alleged drowning of Gottfried, the heir to the throne of Brabant, by his sister Elsa, and highlights the changing reaction of the people (the rats), to the unfolding of these events. Along with the people’s reaction to the call to arms by King Heinrich “The Fowler” to fight against Hungary that comes at the same time, this is definitely an interesting angle to explore.

Lohengrin

As a theme then, the production certainly has validity and relevance to Wagner’s work, remaining relatively faithful to its narrative progression despite the often absurd imagery that is used, and it is at least fascinating to watch and highly original. Rather than bringing out any underlying complexity in the work however, it seems to either just exaggerate the broad black-and-white characterisation in the most simplistic terms with blatant symbolism (swans on one side, rats on the other) and obvious colour-coding, or else smother it in obscure references and imagery when the fit isn’t quite perfect. It hardly deals with the more problematic questions raised by the work and its historical legacy, and despite the attempt to draw out the type of humour from the work that you might find more readily in Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg, it doesn’t seem to work particularly well with the musical language employed by Wagner either. It’s more of a “commentary” on Lohengrin than a vision that makes a true meaningful connection with the work. Whether this failing to fully connect with the heart of the piece is a problem for the performers or not is hard to say, but although it’s wonderfully played by the orchestra, Andris Nelsons at least seems to struggle to find a tone to match the uneven and bizarre antics on the stage.

The singing too - something unfortunately not always given due consideration at Bayreuth - is again not really strong enough here to make the idea work, although some singers manage better than others. Klaus Florian Vogt is simply made to play Lohengrin, singing it here - as he does in the Kent Nagano/Nikolaus Lehnhoff production already available on Blu-ray - with a beautiful lyrical purity of tone that seems wonderfully fitted to his character. His voice could hardly be more of a contrast to that of Jonas Kaufmann who sang the role in this production last year. Georg Zeppenfeld is also very impressive as King Henry, singing wonderfully with authority but also with an edge of character instability that works well with the concept here. Petra Lang alone gives the kind of powerful, commanding Wagnerian performance you would expect. She is absolutely stunning on those high passages - although not always as strong across the range - and she consequently cuts an appropriately fearsome figure as Ortrud. She seems to adapt better to the ‘baddie’ role than Jukka Rasilainen, who looks and sounds hopelessly out of place here as Telramund. Annette Dasch too clearly finds the singing and the interpretation something of a struggle - but Elsa is by no means an easy role and there are enough good points to admire in her performance here. The chorus work - notwithstanding its members having to wear rat costumes - is simply outstanding.

Lohengrin

On Blu-ray in High Definition, the brightly lit and colourful stage looks most impressive, the cameras finding plenty of low and high angles to capture the whole scope of the stage direction without getting too carried away. The audio tracks, in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 are exceptionally good, with the orchestra and singing well recorded and mixed. Instead of the usual bland Bayreuth Making Of feature, the extras principally consist of four five minute interviews with Katarina Wagner, Hans Neuenfels, Klaus Florian Vogt and Annette Dasch, but also include a Cast Gallery and the three animated Wahrheit sequences. The booklet contains an essay with further information and interpretation of the ideas in the production, and a full synopsis.

LakmeLéo Delibes - Lakmé

Opera Australia, Sydney Opera House 2011 | Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, Roger Hodgman, Emma Matthews, Dominica Matthews, Roxane Hislop, Jane Parkin, Angela Brun, Aldo Di Toro, Luke Gabbedy, Stephen Bennett, Edmond Choo | Opera Australia Cinema Season, 2012-13

There’s a line in Act III of Delibes’ Lakmé, when British soldier Gérald is being nursed back to health by Lakmé the beautiful daughter of the Brahmin priest who has attempted to kill him, Gérald awakening to the sounds and the vivid beauty of the world around him that has been heightened by his love for Lakmé, which he describes it being like a caress passing over you. In that phrase you have a summation of everything that Delibes achieves through the lushness of the scoring for the opera, the brilliance and enchantment of the melody and the sheer enveloping beauty and romanticism with which it captures the exoticism of its impossible love story between two people of very different cultures that goes against the prevailing attitudes in an India under British rule in the 1800s.

Léo Delibes is better known now for his ballets than his opera work, with Coppélia and Sylvia still frequently performed as repertory standards, but although Delibes achieved considerable success with his opera compositions, mainly in the operetta and opéra comique style, which show the influence of Bizet and Meyerbeer, but they are regarded as being old-fashioned and very much of their time and few are ever revived. Only Lakmé (1883) has made an enduring impression, principally on account of the exquisite ‘Flower Song’ duet for sopranos (which frequently turns up in television advertisements, most notably some years ago for British Airways), and for the challenging showpiece ‘Bell Aria’ which allows a coloratura soprano to demonstrate her virtuosity, but even Lakmé is rarely performed in its entirety as a opera. I’m not sure if that’s because the work is now considered old-fashioned, or because it has other singing and acting challenges beyond those famous arias that demand a soprano of extraordinarily high quality, but thankfully Opera Australia had the astonishing Emma Matthews on hand for this revival of their exquisite 2006 production for the Sydney Opera House that reveals the full beauty of the work.

Lakme

Lakmé is an example of a European and a particularly French interest in Orientalism around the latter half of the 19th century that sparked the imagination of many writers, artists and composers. In the opera world, it is most clearly evident in Bizet’s The Pearlfishers (Les pêcheurs de perles) (1867) and Verdi’s Aida (1871) - echoes of both can perhaps be heard in Lakmé’s oriental themes - and the opera is derived from a popular book from this period ‘Le Marriage de Loti’ by Pierre Loti (a pseudonym for Julien Viaud, a captain in the French navy), the setting changed from Tahiti in the book to India in the mid-1800s. The influence of Orientalism and the lure of the exotic however extends well into the beginning of the 20th century, and the bold colours, lush idealised imagery of Mark Thompson’s set designs for the Indian jungles and temples of this Opera Australia production of Lakmé strongly evoke the paintings of Henri Rousseau, finding in them the perfect expression of Delibes’ gorgeous melodies and romantic situations.

In this respect, certainly in the lushness of melody and its exotic romantic sweep, one might also detect something turn-of-the-century Orientalism of Puccini’s Turandot, and particularly note the similarities that Lakmé’s clash of cultures romance story has with Madama Butterfly. Lakmé similarly depicts a romance that blossoms between a western military officer, Gérald and a young exotic beauty, Lakmé, the daughter of Nilakantha, a Brahmin priest. The taboo romance here also meets with stern disapproval from the young woman’s family, and it likewise proves to be unsustainable when the exotic lure of the situation that has gripped the soldier gives way to the sense of duty that he has momentarily forgotten. Puccini may indeed have been responding entirely in his own way to the situation as it is depicted in George Belasco’s play, and I’ve never seen any references about whether he may have regarded Lakmé as a model or not, but Puccini’s musical approach is similar in how it captures that irresistible lure of the exotic, and the conclusion is similarly tragic for the innocent Eastern native whose purity of feeling is unable to coexist with the rather different notions of love, duty and tradition from the western perspective. Quite why Lakmé isn’t as popular as Madama Butterfly then is something of a mystery.

Lakme

Perhaps however Lakmé just hasn’t been treated as well in the past as it is here by Opera Australia. In every respect this is a wonderful production that trusts that the opera is strong enough to work on its own terms, in a traditional period staging, without needing any clever concepts to make it accessible to a modern audience. Everything however is put into the costumes, the sets, the colour and the warm lighting with its subtle shading, to ensure that it matches and supports the work as it is expressed in the libretto and the music score. It’s also sung and acted with complete conviction by an exceptionally strong cast. Emma Matthews is most impressive in the hugely demanding singing role of Lakmé, the singing performance flawlessly delivered. Her ‘Flower Song’ duet with Dominica Matthews’ Mallika is perfect, and her handling of the coloratura throughout is exemplary, but it’s a performance that works on much more than a purely technical level with a brightness and warmth of tone in her delivery that matches her character’s temperament and purity. Gérald is also very well performed by Aldo Di Toro, but it’s even better that there seems to be genuine chemistry between the performers and a harmony of voices that, when caught up in the sweep of the melodies and the beauty of the stage setting, makes it their story all the more involving and believable.

Lakmé was viewed in the cinema as part of Opera Australia Cinema Season 2012/13 programme, but this recording is also available on DVD and in High Definition on Blu-ray disc.

DevereuxGaetano Donizetti - Roberto Devereux

Nationaltheater, Munich 2005 | Friedrich Haider, Christof Loy, Edita Gruberová, Roberto Aronica, Albert Schagidullin, Jeanne Piland, Manolito Mario Franz, Steven Humes, Nikolay Borchev, Johannes Klama | Deutsche Grammaphon

Sometimes when it comes to deciding how to stage an opera, whether in a traditional style or otherwise, it’s more than enough to just set the scene in as simple a fashion as possible and let the work speak for itself. This can be tricky in the case of a bel canto opera, particularly with Donizetti and certainly with his Tudor trilogy of operas (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux), where there is often not a great deal going on dramatically. Many directors will try to cover up the lack of dramatic action with elaborate sets and costumes, but not Christof Loy. Even though there isn’t indeed a great deal to the sets here in this 2005 production for the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and, yes, even though it is inevitably taken out of its original historical Tudor setting, Loy nonetheless clearly recognises where the real strengths of the work lie and gives them prominence through attention to character and the acting performances, particularly in how they are expressed through the singing.

Devereux

What passes for a plot in the case of Roberto Devereux is not particularly complex and not exactly faithful to historical fact in the first place, but it does deal with recognisable and timeless operatic themes like love and betrayal. There doesn’t appear to be a lot going on musically to explore these themes and the emotions they give rise to in any kind of depth or complexity, but you might be surprised at how much can be drawn from it if the work is treated respectfully and with a keenness of observation. The opera is actually quite compact, neatly structured and balanced in how it blends the political issues with the romantic ones and plays them off against each other. Devereux, Earl of Essex, faces a charge of treason for being merciful to the enemy forces he has routed in Ireland, but Queen Elizabeth I, in love with him, is of a mind to be lenient herself and save him from a sentence of death. As long as he is true to her and the ring that she has given him as a token of her protection. Devereux however is too concerned with his feelings for Sarah who has abandoned him and married Nottingham while Devereux was in Ireland. What is clever about the arrangement is the swapping of tokens (a ring and a scarf) which at the same time could save Devereux or see him condemned to death. There are worse kinds of betrayal than political failure.

While there is a neat symmetry to the construction, the strengths of the work lie not so much in the plot or the libretto as much as in how the drama is expressed musically - through exquisite melodies, arias and, of course, through the expressive ornamentation of the coloratura. which in this case is admirably much more restrained than is typical for a bel canto lyrical tragedy. The interpretation given by the singers is therefore of primary importance, and in a theatrical environment that can be enhanced further through a considered stage direction that gives the performers the necessary space for expression. It’s this sense of dramatic potential and expression that I’ve always found to be one of the strengths of Christof Loy as a director. With a terrific cast here in the four main roles to take care of the singing confidently - particularly with Edita Gruberova as Queen Elizabeth I - Loy places the emphasis on the central theme and ensures that the acting and interaction between the characters works to bring that out to the fullest. The result is a simply chillingly and powerful account of a work that - like Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda - has far more going for it than just being a romanticised historical drama.

Devereux

For director Christof Loy, his principal interest in the work is indeed the human feelings that lie beneath the surface impressions of a woman in power. It’s not surprising then, considering the English setting, that in updating the work to a modern context, Loy makes reference to a woman more recognisable than Elizabeth I and more politically powerful and dangerous than Elizabeth II. There’s unquestionably a similarity to Margaret Thatcher here in the dress sense and hair styling of Edita Gruberova’s Queen Elizabeth. With a wry sense of humour then, nearly all the action takes place indeed in Westminster, but in a modern-day government press-office that is all wood panelling and leather armchairs, where the functionaries in smart business suits gossip by the water cooler over the latest headlines in the tabloid press - “Seducer Returns”, “Off With His Head”. It’s a nice touch, one that makes the most of the chorus, showing them muttering to each other, whispering rumours and rolling eyes, creating the kind of environment of gossip and scandal played out in public that drives the intrigue throughout.

It’s remarkably effective, characteristically Christof Loy, maximising the potential of the conflict between faithless treacherous men and blazing vengeful women at the heart of the drama in the simplest way possible, giving it an air of naturalism that one isn’t accustomed to find in a production of an operatic historical drama. The same kind of detail, with particular attention to the acting, is of course evident in all the main performances. There is a fine performance from Roberto Aronica as Devereux, which includes a lovely heartfelt Act III ‘A te dirò negli ultimo singhiozzi’ and a fine ‘Dacché tomasti, ahi misera’ duet between Devereux and Jeanne Piland’s excellent Sarah. Albert Schagidullin demonstrates a fine legato line and beautifully clear diction as Nottingham, his soft dignified bass befitting the nature of his character. It’s Edita Gruberova however who delivers the truly standout performance of the evening. Given terrific motivation through the direction, her performance is committed and perfectly controlled, delivering vengeful utterances with ringing authority and conviction, drawing full expression out of the magnificent coloratura. Her crumbling self-destruction at the end of the opera is simply devastating and it brings the house down.

Devereux

The DVD from Deutsche Grammaphon also includes a fine 20-minute documentary on the making of the production. Half of the featurette is on the production itself, with input from Christof Loy and Friedrich Haider, who interestingly calls Roberto Devereux “the Elektra of bel canto opera, and you can see where he’s coming from. The other half of the featurette focuses on the filming of the production by Brian Large, getting behind the scenes and showing the work and planning involved in recording an opera for the screen. The quality of the DVD itself is excellent in terms of audio and video quality (in widescreen). Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Chinese.