August 2012


PuritaniVincenzo Bellini - I Puritani

De Nederlandse Opera 2009 | Mariola Cantarero, John Osborn, Scott Hendrix, Riccardo Zanellato, Fredrika Brillembourg, Daniel Borowski, Gregorio Gonzalez | Opus Arte

Although it’s set during a period of considerable interest in English history - the Interregnum that takes in the conflict between the Cromwell’s Roundheads and Royalists loyal to the Charles I and the Stuarts - the libretto for Bellini’s I Puritani makes little use of the historical circumstances but rather, not surprisingly for an Italian bel canto opera, merely uses it as a backdrop for a story of romantic intrigue. If the libretto follows a well-worn generic line in this respect, I Puritani - Bellini’s last work before his early death - is however rather more interesting musically, having more in common with Verdi than Rossini or Donizetti and showing the composer at his most imaginative and inspired. Despite the weaknesses in the libretto, the opera is not just a situation for a series of arias and cabalettas, but shows rather greater musical attention paid to the characterisation and situation, and it’s particularly notable for its strong chorus work.

It’s fortunate then that there is great emphasis and attention paid to this musical aspect in the De Nederlandse production from 2009, but effort is made in other areas of the production in an attempt to make the work a little stronger and more coherent that it might otherwise be. There’s not a great deal one can do with the limitations of the plot, which amounts to little more than a historical romance, and a not very imaginative one at that. The central conflict at the heart of the work is less that of civil war opposition of ideologies, religion or allegiance to the crown as much as a romantic tussle for the hand of Elvira, the daughter of a prominent puritan clergyman. Her father has bowed to her own wishes to marry her beloved Arturo (Arthur Talbot), despite having promised her to Riccardo (Richard Forth).

Just before they are about to be married however, Arturo - who has royalist sympathies - takes advantage of an opportunity to rescue a prisoner about to be executed when he recognises her to be the queen, Enrichetta (Henrietta). Riccardo lets them escape, happy to see his rival disappear and be labelled a traitor, but Elvira is more devastated by what she sees as a betrayal, since Arturo has absconded with a prisoner who uses her own wedding veil as a disguise to help her escape. In the great operatic tradition, she of course goes mad, and her delusion persists when Arturo returns and tries to explain his actions and reaffirm his love for her, causing her to be responsible for his death.

The historical setting heightening the notions of romantic betrayal to the level of melodrama, replete with obligatory mad scene for the leading diva, I Puritani would seem to designed to fit the standard bel canto template, but Bellini’s score is far more varied and darker in tone than is customary, and the vocal writing isn’t there merely to show off the range of the soprano. Even so, it’s still a difficult opera to make work dramatically, and it does have singing challenges of its own. The apparent weaknesses and insubstantiality of the plot are however given something of a boost here by conductor Guiliano Carella returning to the original Paris score of 1835 and reinstating a number of scenes - some of them quite significant - that fill out the detail in the characterisation, and demonstrate the qualities of Bellini’s writing even further. Assisted by a very strong visual concept of the set designs by Es Devlin and by the stage direction of Francisco Negrin, the De Nederlandse production would be in contention for one of the best productions of this work but for the singing, which is good in most parts, but far from the standard needed to really lift this work to the level that is aspired to here.

Visually, the production design strikes an excellent balance between period (or theatrical period) in the costumes and a more modern conceptual approach to the stage design. Made up of rows of sheets that in Act I create ramparts for the soldiers in one scene before rolling smoothly into another where they show a committee of puritans in rows, there’s a wonderful sense of fluidity and continuity created that establishes the somewhat confusing political context and the drama in the most effective and eye-catching manner possible. Act II and III by contrast are relatively static, but again find strong visual ways to represent both the court that pronounces Arturo’s fate and reflect the horror that has afflicted Elvira’s mind. Conceptually, emphasis is also given to words, the steel sheets marked by bullet-holes and rivets that actually form a Braille background (the words of the Bible, I believe, in Dutch), with projections of words of passion and madness from the libretto projected in the latter scenes.

Despite efforts to make this a dramatically strong presentation, the singing isn’t quite as consistent. Mariola Cantarero is a little high and light for the dramatic range required for Elvira and consequently doesn’t always make the mark. She’s at her best in Act II, in her scenes of mad delusion, delivering a lovely ‘O rendetemi la speme‘, but her acting is limited elsewhere, and her high notes tend towards a screech. John Osborn is a terrific lyrical tenor who I like a lot, and he is excellent here throughout as Arturo, but he seems to me to find the role dramatically limiting and doesn’t really succeed in bringing the character to life. There’s a little more to get your teeth into in the role of Riccardo, but Scott Hendrix has a tendency to chew the scenery, and considering it’s made of steel here, that’s quite a mouthful. He gives it everything of course and sings the role well, but there’s more aggression here than art. The other roles are similarly variable never quite entirely holding it together either dramatically or vocally, although Fredrika Brillembourg is the best here as Enrichetta.

If the main roles don’t stand out as they might, the support they are given by the Chorus of the De Nederlandse Opera is superb, as is the work of the Amsterdam orchestra, who deliver an impassioned performance that is attuned to the dramatic content, directed from the pit by Guiliano Carella who clearly has a lot of love for the work and very specific ideas about how it should be presented. That passion comes through in the extra features on the Blu-ray disc, which look at the rehearsals and consider the variations of the Paris version of I Puritani in interesting detail. The quality of the recording is also of a very high standard, with a clear image and strong, detailed High-Definition audio tracks in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. The BD is all-region, BD50 dual layer, 1080i full HD, with subtitles in English, French, German and Dutch. The booklet contains an essay on the work and a full synopsis.

RavelMaurice Ravel - L’Heure Espagnole, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges

Glyndebourne, 2012 | Kazushi Ono, Laurent Pelly, Elliot Madore, François Piolino, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Alek Shrader, Paul Gay, Khatouna Gadelia, Elodie Méchain, Julie Pasturaud, Kathleen Kim, Natalia Brzezinska, Hila Fahima, Kirsty Stokes | Live Internet Streaming - 19 August 2012

It seems only natural to bring together the two short one-act operas by Maurice Ravel, the only two opera works written by the French composer, but they are strangely - perhaps on account of the different challenges presented by the two works - more commonly performed separately or alongside short works by other composers (Zemlimsky’s fairytale Der Zwerg is often seen as a younger audience-friendly companion for L’Enfant et les Sortilèges than the risqué comedy of L’Heure Espagnole). Glyndebourne’s production for the 2012 Festival therefore provides an interesting opportunity to compare two works that aren’t often performed, all the more so since they are both directed for the stage by Laurent Pelly, a director with a good affinity for the works who is able to highlight both their commonalities and their contrasts.

One thing that both operas have in common, even if they use different means of expression, is Ravel’s playful and inventive approach to musical accompaniment. L’Enfant et les Sortilèges might be made up of apparently more conventional set pieces for singing, while L’Heure Espagnole is more declamatory in recitative than sung, but both make use of American influenced jazz and ragtime and other unconventional arrangements and instruments in order to express the variety of situations, movements, gestures and attitudes that take place from moment to moment over the course of both of the works.

Ravel

Set inside a clock shop in Toledo, if the music of L’Heure Espagnole isn’t conventionally rhythmic outside of the famous synchronised ticking of three different clock times at its intro, there is nonetheless a definite metronomic timing to the pace of the opera itself. While the clockmaker is out of the shop for an hour - by deliberate arrangement - checking the town clocks, the presence of a customer, the muleteer, forces his wife Concepción to have her lovers transported pendulum-like back and forth to and from her bedroom inside grandfather clocks by the unwitting but brawny muleteer. The opera has all the timing and rhythm of a typical French farce of slamming doors and hiding of a succession of lovers in wardrobes, and the rhythm of all these comings and goings even reflects the sexual implications that are suggested but not shown.

If that seems a bit of a limp subject for an opera, well imagine how this only reflects the disappointment felt by the clockmaker’s wife at the disappointing performances of the poet Gonzalve and the banker Don Iñigo Gómez who talk a good line but prove to be not really up to the job - unlike the muleteer Ramiro who handles all the exertions demanded of him by Concepción unfailingly. All such considerations are taken into account by Ravel, as lightweight as they might seem, including the suggestive double-entendres that come along with talk of pendulums, and the work is scored accordingly with flirtatious melodies, bursts of bluster, and shrill lines of frustration and disappointment, everything moreover seeming to play to the deliberate pace dictated by the presence of the muleteer. Ravel’s knowing treatment belies the apparent lightness of the work - the nod-and-a-wink ensemble finale offers no moral other than the intention of the work to “stress the rhythm, spice up the lines, with a soupcon of Spain” - but it’s never so clever as to get in the way of the genuine comic potential and satire of the subject.

Ravel

L’Heure Espagnole is not an opera that you would think requires much in the way of sets or props, but set designers Caroline Ginet and Florence Evrard pull out all the stops for this Glyndebourne production, fitting out the Toledo clock shop with a variety of timepieces, religious icons and assorted junk. It serves the purpose of being eye-catching as well as perfectly functional for the farcical operations of the plot, but it also serves that perfect sense of situation that you find in Laurent Pelly productions, where you feel not so much in a real-world location as in the world of the music itself. Evidently, in such a work it’s all about the timing and Pelly, along with conductor Kazushi Ono, find that ideal pace of rhythm and direct the five-person cast through the work wonderfully well.

The singers too realise that it’s all there in the music and match the tone of their performances to the sense of comic timing and the intricacies of the score. Stephanie d’Oustrac is alternately flirtatious and ferocious as the man-eater Concepción, commandingly delivering lines that demand obedience and satisfaction. Alex Shrader puts on a fine comic performance as the poetry-spinning Jim Morrison-lookalike Gonzalve, with a lovely tenor voice to match his lyrical musings, while Paul Gay’s bass-baritone seems better suited to the lighter comic delivery of Don Iñigo Gómez here than the heavier dramatic roles such as Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust that I’ve seen him sing before. Elliot Madore was excellent in the vital role of Ramiro, as was François Piolino as Torquemada.

With its surreal imagery, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges is a stage designer’s dream (or perhaps nightmare), but there is a deeper psychological element to author Colette’s original libretto of a naughty schoolboy and its treated to some ravishingly beautiful as well as inventive and playful arrangements by Ravel. In the case of the Glyndebourne production, it’s definitely a dream to have the imagination of Laurent Pelly set loose on a work like this. You get a sense of being somewhere unique with Pelly at the best of times, but it’s even more the case with a work like this. By the laugh raised from the Glyndebourne audience right from the moment the curtain opens on an over-large table and chair that miniaturises Khatouna Gadelia as an ‘enfant’, you can tell that the stage design has already made the right kind of impact. But there are still considerable challenges that have to be met not only to have the child’s mother appear as a grown-up within this set (it’s very well done), but in the rapid changes of scene that are required over the course of the rest of this short work that also relies on the keeping of a regular rhythm.

Having a tantrum at being told he has to do his homework, the victims of the child’s violent and selfish actions come back to haunt him as enchanted objects, each forming a little scene of their own. A dancing Sofa and an Armchair give way to a spinning Clock, than a Teapot and a China Cup, the Flames from the fireplace and then the Shepherd and Shepherdess from the wallpaper that the child has torn in his bad temper, each of them scolding the child for his behaviour, the Princess from the ripped-up storybook making him tearfully aware of the consequences of his actions. The separate pieces slip in and out of the dark like flitting figments of a child’s imagination, each imaginatively assembled, but contributing to create a surreal mood that has more sinister, or perhaps just deeper psychological significance that becomes clear with the final cry of ‘Maman’ at the arises out of the musical arrangements as much as from the psyche of the child.

The challenge of staging the work then is not just in keeping that procession of scenes moving, but in linking them together in a way that they lead to that natural conclusion. That progression is there in the music too, which seems to be made up of a variety of styles, some melodic, others less so, some abstract and playful, such as the song of the Cats, whose mewling vocalises their discontent just as effectively as an words. L’Enfant et les Sortilèges does feel at times like it’s trying to be too clever in this regard - and exercise in mood expressed very precisely and evocatively in musical and visual terms - all the more so considering the light subject of a naughty child being scolded by the objects that he has inflicted his anger upon, and it might indeed come across like that were it not for the ending in Colette’s libretto and the interpretation placed on it by the strong combination of Pelly’s direction and Ono’s approach to the score.

That really comes together then, as it should, in the final scenes where the knife-scored trees and the creatures of the woods - squirrels, dragonflies and frogs - bring us back to nature and, through them, to the essential nature of the child itself. L’Enfant et les Sortilèges isn’t just a clever theatrical show of animated objects and anthromophism - well, it is and it needs to be, but it’s also more than that. The director and conductor have their part to play in making the work more meaningful than that, in making its meaning come to life, but the singers have a large part to play in that as well, and it’s a work that is just as challenging in that regard. Khatouna Gadelia isn’t the strongest of singers to rise above this cacophony, but she doesn’t have to be, and it’s much more important that she gets across that this is the journey of a child’s experience. Kathleen Kim takes on the challenge of the coloratura Fire, Princess and Nightingale roles well, but there’s strong work here also from L’Heure Espagnole’s team of d’Oustrac, Gay, Madore and Piolino. The work of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Glyndebourne Chorus was also instrumental in maintaining that continuity within the work as well as in the combination of the two works as a fascinating double-bill.

The Ravel Double Bill was reviewed here from the Live Internet Streaming broadcast via The Guardian.

DavidMarc-Antoine Charpentier - David et Jonathas

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2012 | William Christie, Les Arts Florissantes, Andreas Homoki, Pascal Charbonneau, Ana Quintans, Neal Davies, Frédéric Caton, Krešimir Špicer, Dominique Visse, Pierre Bessière | Aix-en-Provence - 11 July 2012

Marc-Antoine Charpentier worked for many years in the shadow of the officially appointed court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and it seems he has remained in his shadow ever since, largely overlooked even as French Baroque music is being rediscovered in modern times, favouring Lully and his successor Rameau over Charpentier and Campra. There may be genuine musicological reasons for this choice, but judging by this rare performance of Charpentier’s David et Jonathas for the 2012 Aix-en-Provence Festival - the first staged performance of the work in over 300 years - the problem seems to lie with the difficulty of adapting this kind of work for a modern stage, since musically it is rather something of a delight.

First performed in 1688, a year after the death of Lully, David et Jonathas, a “Biblical tragedy in five acts with a prologue” is based on the friendship between David - slayer of Goliath - and Jonathas, the son of King Saul. The difficulty with adapting this work to a stage production is similar to the nature of attempting to stage Handel’s religious oratorios, the libretto by Père François de Paule Bretonneau in this case making it somewhat difficult to grasp a clear dramatic or narrative thread. Essentially however, the main thrust of the work is relatively straightforward, dealing with Saul’s growing mistrust of the shepherd boy David, who he has initially welcomed into his company. David is shown to be a popular hero, the people celebrating his successes in battle, but Saul suspects that he may be using his popularity and his friendship with his son Jonathas as a means to overthrow his rule and replace him as king of Israel.

Another reason why the work may be difficult to follow was that it was originally written to be performed as musical interludes inserted into a performance of the theatrical drama Saul. The Aix production does its best to create some dramatic situations out of this Biblical story, adding flashback scenes during what would have been musical ballet sequences that fill out the background of the historical conflicts, building up the childhoods of David and Jonathas and including other significant incidents such as the death of Saul’s wife, all of which seems to have an impact on destabilising the king’s mind, leading to more wars and a tragic outcome. The Aix production also notionally sets this staging of the opera during the Palestinian Civil War and the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, which may or may not be necessary as a meaningful parallel for the audience - but other than perhaps influencing the costume design, in reality there’s little direct reference made to the origins of the modern political conflict in the region.

The stage design rather places the action within a box of bare wood panelling, sparsely decorated with nothing more than wooden chairs and a long table, giving the impression more of a Quaker community room, or even occasionally looking like something out of a Western. Cleverly designed (I still can’t work out quite how they manage it), the walls and ceilings move to compress the space, open it out or split it into several rooms, blocking and boxing in to create a dramatic focus and tension to the singing. It’s hardly necessary, since the singing itself is more than capable of finding the right dramatic tone, and if anything the staging tends to over-emphasise it and place it at odds with the often delicate elegance of Charpentier’s beautiful musical arrangements and joyous choruses.

More often it’s simply trying to make the opera visually more interesting and dramatic than it might otherwise be. The production sparks into life during those magnificent choral arrangements, celebrating David’s successes in battle, and there are many of those. It’s less successful in providing psychological justification - and even suggestion of sexual attraction in the closeness of the relationship between the two men (notwithstanding the role of Jonathas being performed by a female singer). If the libretto and the flashback scenes don’t really bring this out sufficiently, it is however made impressively real and on occasion genuinely touching through Charpentier’s beautiful use of melody and his use of woodwind instruments - evocatively brought out by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants (who incidentally, take their name from a Charpentier opera) - and through the fine singing performances.

As David, Pascal Charbonneau has a powerful presence and voice, wonderfully expressive in a way that gives genuine character to the role, but it does tend to sound slightly constricted and nasal on those more stretched emotional sections - and this is a tragedy where the despairing cry of ‘Hélas!’ features heavily. I don’t think the actual acoustic of the boxed stage helps though. Elsewhere the singing and dramatic performances were excellent, even if the true quality of Ana Quintans singing only really came through in the very moving final act death scene of Jonathas. Neal Davies sang Saul with force and passion, but the stage direction and imagery used to convey his descent into paranoia suspicion and grief wasn’t always convincing. Still, this is clearly an extremely difficult work to adapt dramatically to the modern stage, but more than worthwhile for the opportunity of seeing this rarity from a neglected composer given full dramatic consideration and performed so well.

This performance of David et Jonathas was recorded at the Aix-en-Provence Festival on 11th July 2012 and viewed via internet streaming. It is currently still available to view on the ARTE WebLive web site or via the ArtsFlo Media site. Some region restrictions might apply.

CavalleriaPietro Mascagni - Cavalleria Rusticana

Antiche Terme Romana, Baia 2007 | Zhang Jiemin, Maurizio Scaparro, Ildiko Komlosi, Sing Kyu Park, Cinzia De Mola, Marco di Felice, Barbara Di Castri | Arthaus Musik

You would of course usually expect to see a performance of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana paired with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in the popular Cav/Pag double bill of one-act operas, but it’s good once in a while to have the opportunity to consider these works on their own terms. Particularly, as far as I’m concerned, the musically and dramatically stronger of the two works, Cavalleria Rusticana (”Rustic Chivalry”), one of the most beautifully melodic opera works ever composed, and it’s even more interesting to consider it on its own in this particular open-air setting at the Antiche Terme Romana, the ancient Roman hot baths in Baia in 2007.

Late on what looks like a balmy summer’s evening, this authentically Italian Mediterranean location of seismic activity forms an impressive natural backdrop for the volcanic passions that erupt in the Sicilian village setting of Mascagni’s tense rural melodrama. The strengths of the work reside not just in the melodic invention of the work, but in how it is tied through its folk rhythms, religious processional music and heartfelt emotions to the simplicity of the beliefs and passions of ordinary people in a rural location. Underpinning the score, with its mounting tension masterfully rising to the surface, is the suggestion of a dark and tragic undercurrent that reflects not just the dramatic developments, but the nature of where those conflicts arise in the conflicts between human passions, where male pride and female jealousy run up against religious beliefs, tradition and family honour.

Progressing almost in real-time and played out significantly on Easter outside a church and in a square in front of the whole village community, it’s the concision of the concentrated short work that benefits the intensity of its simple, direct storyline. That aspect of the action taking place under the watchful eyes of the community, the chorus representing not just the villagers but, as the choir of the Easter procession, the religious community that the pregnant peasant girl Santuzza is excluded from, is certainly emphasised in the open-air location at Baia. It’s the rejection of her lover Turridu however that stings even more deeply, particularly as he has been seen with his Lola, the girl he once loved who is now married to Alfio. It doesn’t take much more than insinuation for this situation of jealousy and pride for this to spill over into that dark, violent and tragic conclusion that has been simmering there in Mascagni’s brooding, melancholic score.

Although it’s not an ideal place to stage the work and it does present some problems, director Maurizio Scaparro makes the most of the open-air location to bring all these elements to the fore in the production design that places the orchestra right at the very heart of the performance. There is minimal use of props and settings - everything that is required is supplied by the location and the resonances of its historical and geological background. It’s enclosed enough to emphasise that hothouse sense of community and characters wrapped up in their own intense feelings, yet open enough to suggest that it takes place in that all-important verismo aspect of the real-world and ordinary people. If the singing then is not exceptional in this production, it’s strong enough in the context and it still gets across all the emotional and dramatic requirements of the piece, hitting those key moments with the necessary forcefulness.

If the acoustics of the outdoor location don’t benefit the singers the way that a custom-built theatre might, requiring them to use discreet microphones and perhaps project a little bit more than necessary, it seems to work better for the orchestra nestled basin-like within the action. Zhang Jiemin conducts the orchestra of the Teatro di San Carlo of Naples through a powerful performance of the opera that draws out all the joy, tragedy, passion and tension out of the work. It comes across particularly well in the DTS 5.1 audio track which has a punchy low-frequency range and cymbal crashes that lend full emphasis to those key scenes. PCM stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes are also included. The 16:9 widescreen image looks fine on the dual-layer DVD9 disc and the DVD is Region 0, NTSC. Subtitles are English, German, French, Spanish and Italian. The DVD includes a 30-minute documentary that is part tour guide to the region and its history, but also gives a good account of the production through rehearsal footage and interviews, mainly with director Maurizio Scaparro.

IdomeneoWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Idomeneo

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2008 | Kent Nagano, Dieter Dorn, John Mark Ainsley, Pavol Breslik, Annette Dasch, Rainer Trost, juliane Banse, Guy de Mey, Steven Humes | Euroarts

Mozart had already written twelve operas by the time he was commissioned to write Idomeneo for Munich in 1780 (his earliest opera written when he was just eleven years old), and although many of those earlier works show moments of the talent and genius that would flourish in later years and are often astonishingly accomplished considering the age of the composer, they are mostly conventional in nature. It’s generally accepted that Mozart’s mature opera works commence with Idomeneo, written when he was 25 years old, but even then the implication is often that this earliest mature work, written to the dictates of the opera seria style that was even then considered outdated, is among the composer’s lesser works. Certainly, it can’t compare to Mozart at his most brilliant in The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute, but in its own way - perhaps seen more as the peak of the youthful Mozart rather than the beginning of his maturity - Idomeneo is remarkably innovative in its treatment of the opera seria style and in the distinctive graceful character that the young Mozart brings to the work.

The subject however, particularly as it is laid-out in the libretto by Abbé Varesco, is resolutely in keeping with the demands of the opera seria style. The theme is classical and mythological Greek in origin (although form a French source), relating to the fall of Troy it deals with ancient rulers who have to make difficult and wise decisions that the fate of their people and the happiness of young lovers depend on, and in line with convention, it’s refashioned at the conclusion to bring about a happy ending. At the centre of the drama is Ilia, the daughter of King Priam, who has been carried off as a prisoner of King Idomeneo to Crete. Ilia has been rescued by Idamante, the son of Idomeneo, from a storm that destroyed the fleet (there are plenty of those in this opera) and which is believed to have claimed the life of King Idomeneo. Ilia is in love with Idamante, but as he has been promised to Electra, the daughter of Agamemnon, she is unsure of his feelings towards her, and is therefore unaware that he also loves her.

The crisis at the heart of the drama is not so much the love triangle - although this does provide the opportunity for some fine arias of anguish for the scorned Electra - as much as Idomeneo’s fateful vow (one reminiscent of the biblical story Jephtha, the subject of a Handel oratorio) to sacrifice the first living creature he sees in gratitude for escaping a watery death in the clutches of Neptune. Inevitably, the first person he encounters is how own son, Idamante. Hoping to find a way to avoid this terrible fate, Idomeneo plans to send his son away with Electra to her homeland in Argos, which - apart from upsetting Ilia obviously - also leads to another huge storm and an attack by a sea monster. After self-sacrificing gestures from Ilia and Idamante, accommodation and the requisite happy end is reached when Neptune declares that Idomeneo must abdicate in favour of his son who will rule with Ilia by his side.

What is fascinating about Mozart’s approach to this conventional classical drama, written to cater for generic arias of anguish and despair at the whims of the gods and sentiments of love betrayed or lovers kept apart, is the unifying force of the music that makes it develop and work as a dramatic whole. There’s very little recitativo secco, more often the recitative is accompanied, flowing into ariosos and arias without the expected breaks and exits. The arias and recitatives moreover develop - very unusually for Italian opera seria - into duets, trios, into a magnificent quartet and into choruses. The continuous dramatic progression, the variations of the scenes, with ballet interludes, divertimenti, marches and choral arrangements show that Mozart was taking into account the reformist ideas of Gluck, but they show more the influence of the French style, particularly in the use of ‘le merveilleux‘ elements of spectacle - storms, sea monsters, messages from the gods. More than just introducing them for the purposes of stagecraft, Mozart uses the musical arrangements and the chorus to conjure up such imagery and apply them to the expression of each of the characters’ torments.

The Bayerische Staatsoper production, recorded in 2008 at the recently restored Cuvilliés-Theater (formerly the Residenztheater) where Idomeneo was actually first premiered in 1781, takes this idea a little bit to extremes. For the most part Jürgen Rose’s basic set designs strip the work of anything that could appear as clever stagecraft into order to, presumably, let the music alone express the dramatic content. This works to some extent, drawing the attention to the qualities of Mozart’s wonderful score and his innovative approach, but it makes for a very dull stage set in this beautiful theatre. It’s difficult to find any meaning, concept or consistency to Dieter Dorn’s stage direction, which during the Overture seems to characterise the Trojan warriors as samurai and has ninja dragging Idomeneo down beneath the waves (actually down through an open hatch in the stage), but it remains largely faithful to the action detailed in the libretto, using more traditional, if somewhat sparse, sets designs and classical costumes, with good use made of a revolving platform in the third act. Apart from one or two key scenes where the mood calls for it, the majority of the production however looks like it is set in a rehearsal studio, under bright studio lighting.

If the production isn’t much to look at, the performances give a good account of the work itself, revealing its true qualities. Best of all are the casting of John Mark Ainsley and Pavol Breslik for the father and son team of Idomeneo and Idamante. Both look the part, are completely committed to the roles and the dilemmas facing their characters and both are blessed with gorgeous light lyrical voices that nonetheless can express power and depth of emotional feeling where required. And in Mozart’s Idomeneo, it’s those little details in the singing that are all important. Annette Dasch is also powerful as Electra. In some ways it’s a thankless role - one that relies on going through the motions of the angry spurned woman - but Dasch brings an edge of dangerous passion to the role, particularly in her Act III aria (”D’Oreste, d’Aiace ho in seno i tormenti“) while assailed by ninjas (who indeed are actually Furies). I wasn’t initially so keen on Juliane Banse’s interpretation of Ilia, but she carries hesitant anguish of the role well, and can hardly be faulted for her singing performance. The ubiquitous Guy de Mey again delivers the goods as the High Priest, and the production is also fortunate to have a strong Arbace in Rainer Trost, the production including all his arias, which in the past have often been cut.

With only a few small trims to recitative and Idamante’s final aria (which was cut before the first performance in any case) absent, Kent Nagano clearly intends to keep the focus on maintaining the dramatic flow of the work. That’s done well, with an authentically smaller sized orchestra for the size of the theatre. If there are any minor reservations about the production, the singing or the playing however, everything comes together in the marvellous Act III. It’s here that Mozart’s innovations and the brilliance of the composer to come can be heard fighting their way through the opera seria constraints, and the cast rising to meet those moments in the famous quartet “Andrò ramingo e solo“, in Ainsley’s gorgeous rendition of Idomeneo’s heartfelt prayer to Neptune in the Cavatina and Chorus “Accogli, o re del mar“, and - as mentioned previously - in Annette Dasch’s “D’Oreste, d’Aiace“. The orchestra take centre stage on a raised platform for the other highpoint of the work, the Chaconne that concludes the work, reportedly the longest single orchestral movement composed by Mozart. In the absence of anything happening on stage, TV director Brian Large chooses to show us some of the features of the restoration work on the Cuvilliés-Theater, which considering its historical importance in the context of this work, is not inappropriate.

Like all Blu-ray releases from Euroarts, the disc seems to load up into the memory of the player and takes over controls to some extent, although other than not showing running times on the player display, I didn’t find this caused any problems. Image quality is fine and there’s a beautiful clarity to the PCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes that seems to capture the natural reverb and ambience of the theatre. Other than Trailers for other titles, there are no extra features on the disc, but a booklet contains information on the opera’s composition and includes a short synopsis. The disc is all-region, 1080i full-HD, subtitles are in Italian (matching the libretto), English, French, German and Spanish.

RinaldoGeorge Friedrich Handel - Rinaldo

Glyndebourne, 2011 | Ottavio Dantone, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Robert Carsen, Sonia Prina, Varduhi Abrahamyan, Tim Mead, Anett Fritsch, Brenda Rae, Luca Pisaroni, William Towers | Opus Arte

It’s always good to have a fresh outlook placed on the subjects of Handel’s Baroque operas - or at least I think so anyway. Whether it’s traditional (although I’ve never seen a Handel opera done “authentically” period), whether it’s in a modern setting, or according to a more abstract conception, it helps if there is a strong vision that is able to reconsider what the essential themes of the work are and how they can be best presented to a modern audience. In the case of Rinaldo, a staging of the work in its libretto specified setting during the first Crusade is sufficiently remote from modern beliefs, attitudes and experience as to be possibly a distraction from the real themes that underpin the work. The purpose of any production, modern dress or otherwise, must surely be to reflect on what the work is actually about, not recreate a historical performance, and if it can break through the rigid formalism of opera seria and actually make it entertaining at the same time, well then so much the better.

Which brings us to Robert Carsen’s very distinctive but carefully considered Glyndebourne 2011 production of Handel’s first London opera from 1711. Recognising that it’s not the most consistent work, the majority of it cobbled together like a remix of Handel’s earlier greatest hits, it certainly does no harm to try and make it look as fresh and meaningful as Handel somehow manages to make it all sound. Carsen makes his intentions clear from the outset, asking the question “Were the Crusades political or inspired by an act of personal vengeance?” This message is written in chalk across a blackboard and it’s an English boys’ boarding school that acts as the backdrop or framing device to delve into the personal sentiments expressed so beautifully if somewhat generically in what is after all a patched together piece. In response to this history lesson question, a young boy, bullied and teased by his classmates, his life made a misery by his authoritarian teachers, imagines himself the great warrior Rinaldo and sees the mighty forces of Goffredo coming out from behind the blackboard to slay his tormentors.

Setting a Crusades war within the confines of a boarding school, the action taking place in classrooms, bike-sheds, dorms and locker rooms, with a gym turned into a torture chamber (there’s a difference?) and an epic battle taking place on a football pitch, the production could however just as easily be seen as placing itself at a distance from the actual events described and sung about in the libretto, but Carsen manages nonetheless to faithfully retain the entire sense of the original work within this setting. At the centre of the events relating to the siege of Jerusalem, Rinaldo’s promised love, Almirena - daughter of Goffredo - is abducted by Argante, the General of the Saracen army during a three-day truce, recognising that Rinaldo is the key to the outcome of the battle. Almirena is placed under the enchantment of the sorceress and Saracen Queen, Armida - but it’s the enchantress and her General fall prey to their own sentimental weaknesses in relation to this heroic couple. In the mind of a schoolboy, this story is wrapped up in teasing by his classmates over his girlfriend, and the dark figures of authority that keep them apart are those of the school teachers. Mix in some Furies that have a bit of a St Trinian’s thing going on and sadistic teachers in rubber bondage outfits and it certainly adds another dimension to the passions and characterisation of these mythological figures.

Through this blending of fiction, reality and fantasy, the Glyndebourne production of Rinaldo captures the essential sense of the power of mythology and identification with the sense of empowerment that lies within it - something that is much more relevant (although the case could be argued otherwise) than the sense of nationalistic pride and moral righteousness that comes with battling the dark sorcery of dangerous foreign infidels. Robert Carsen’s production, I would argue, however doesn’t entirely discount these themes either but brings them out in other ways. There are lots of clever little details in the props, uniforms and locations of a English public boarding school that reveal the same institutionalised nationalistic and militaristic attitudes. Quite correctly however, these are secondary to the love story whose purity is reflected perfectly in the innocence of first-love in the playground and by the bike-sheds. It also manages to find an imaginative way around those tricky stage directions calling for armies on horseback launching into epic battles.

Many of these directorial choices provoke laughs from the audience at Glyndebourne, which you might not consider appropriate for an opera seria work, but it shows that there is genuine engagement with the work. Whether it also inspires the performers I couldn’t say, but musically and in terms of the singing, this is a magnificent production, so at least it clearly isn’t a distraction. All the main roles are sung terrifically well. Tim Mead is one of the best Handel countertenors, but I’ve never heard him singing so well as Eustazio, his voice as angelically pure as a schoolboy soprano, so perhaps the production does indeed help in that respect. The purity and idealism of young love and innocent idealism also works in favour of contralto Sonia Prina’s Rinaldo and Anett Fritsch’s Almirena - both combining expressiveness with a gorgeous clarity and tone; and if being a sadistic headmaster and a kinky dominatrix school teacher gives force to the commanding performances of Luca Pisaroni and Brenda Rae as Argante and Armida - both of them demonstrating masterful coloratura - then I’ve no problem with that either. Varduhi Abrahamyan’s Goffredo sounds strong enough at the start, but she isn’t able to sustain this through to the final act.

The whole thing however is held together and driven along musically by the outstanding performance of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Ottavio Dantone and anchored by his scintillating harpsichord playing, and it’s given additional emphasis in the clarity of the audio tracks on this DVD/BD release. It’s particularly impressive in the High Definition Blu-ray presentation. I don’t think I praise the actual quality of the sound reproduction on Blu-ray releases quite enough, but when you hear the tone of the Baroque period instruments in orchestral playing like this and exceptionally good singing, it just sounds incredible. This is a very fine recording. Image quality too is near flawless, the production covered well in the editing with no distractions. The Opus Arte release also contains a few excellent short features on the production and the musical interpretation in the extra features interviews (it’s good to hear the musicians views for a change), and there’s a booklet with an essay on the work and a full synopsis. The BD is all-region, 1080i Full-HD, with PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes. Subtitles are in English, French and German only.

GiovanniWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Oper Stuttgart, 2012 | Antony Hermus, Andrea Moses, Shigeo Ishino, Simone Schneider, Atalla Ayan, Matthias Hölle, André Morsch, Rebecca von Lipinski, Pumeza Matshikiza, Ronan Collett | Staatsoper Stuttgart, Internet streaming - 25 July 2012

You’ve got quite a few masterpieces to choose from - Die Zauberflöte and Le Nozze di Figaro to name the two most likely candidates - but in Don Giovanni I think you have perhaps Mozart’s richest work of opera. Musically and in terms of the range of characters and the arias composed for them, it’s certainly one of Mozart’s strongest compositions. Added to that, Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto is one of the most brilliant, containing universal sentiments in witty yet incisive writing and strong psychological observations. A ‘dramma giocoso‘, the opera is however much wider in its reach, comedy and tragedy, love and lust, cynicism and romanticism all coexisting in the work without conflicting, expressing so many different and contrasting facets of human nature. This is why Don Giovanni is the one Mozart work most amenable to variations of interpretation and modernisation. The 2012 Stuttgart production - broadcast on television, to outdoor screens and via internet streaming in a new initiative to reach out to a wider audience - isn’t the most consistent of concepts, but it’s strong and ambitious enough to meet that outreach, and it comes through most successfully through some fine singing performances.

By and large, the setting developed by Andrea Moses for the Stuttgart State Opera is modern present-day. The set, designed by Christian Wiehle, is based around a hotel owned by Don Giovanni - one that seems to be going through difficult times in the current economic climate, with a Sale sign stuck up in what appears to be his own personal living room. The hotel proves to be a good all-purpose set for the opera, with its compartmentalised spaces and, crucially, bedrooms. There’s also a bar there where Don Giovanni can pick up Donna Anna during the opera’s overture, leaving Leporello to get her fiancé Don Ottavio drunk while he attempts to have his way with her. The modern touch is used also when the uninvited guests come to Don Giovanni’s party wearing sunglasses instead of masks, but it’s most effective in Leporello’s use of a smartphone to catalogue his master’s conquests, the images projected on a backdrop for Donna Elvira.

For most of the characters, the dress is also fairly generic modern, the wealthier characters of Donna Elvira and Donna Anna wear designer dresses, Don Ottavio is always seen in a smart suit, while the lower classes wear modern casual, Leporello in jeans and a leather cap, Masetto and Zerlina in more glitzy urban street clothes, Masetto in a Puffa body-warmer and with lightning-strike tattoos down his arm. The one exception to the modern-style dress is Don Giovanni, who wears a white suit with panama hat and fur coat and carries a gun, looking like a gangster from the 1930s, and with his unreconstructed attitudes, it is perhaps intentional that he appears to be an anachronism in this world. The distinction between the class of the characters is a feature in the opera - not an important feature, but it has relevance in a work where the sentiments of love, betrayal and revenge are shown as universal.

Distinctions of class however mean something different to Don Giovanni, who doesn’t care whether he beds a servant or a countess, as long as they are female. It’s his position however as a nobleman - or in this case, a gangster who owns his own hotel - that allows him to abuse his position of authority. There’s that and there’s the actual magnetic charm of his personality itself, which allows him to get away with much more, though perhaps not murder. This production however doesn’t seek to place too much emphasis on a traditional interpretation of Don Giovanni. It neither characterises him as a heartless demon or a misunderstood romantic seeking love and affection but unable to commit to just one woman. What does come through uniquely here, mainly through the performance and the singing, is the idea of Don Giovanni as the complete egotist. He’s not interested in the social class or distinctions of personality in who he beds, he’s only interested in what he can get for himself. As we well know from his behaviour towards his faithful servant Leporello.

It’s the betrayal of this relationship and Don Giovanni’s egotistical self-importance to the exclusion of the feelings of everyone else that play an important part then in how the normal course of events play out in this Stuttgart production. The Commendatore isn’t actually killed here by Don Giovanni in the opening scene then, but wounded and pulled aside by Leporello who uses him to get his own back on his boss after more grievous mistreatment that almost gets him lynched. There’s no talking statue here then either, but rather an attempt to put the fear of God into Don Giovanni for his crimes, Leporello ensures that Don Giovanni is quite drunk when the apparition appears. The complete egotism of the Don is carried through brilliantly. There’s no wavering of doubt, no remorse, no fear of retribution in the afterlife - he’s above it all. What appears to be some regret over his treatment of Donna Elvira, pointing a gun at his head while he uses Leporello to seduce here again, is nothing more than his own self-pity, and it’s appropriate then that his death at the finale is by his own hand. It’s a smart interpretation that works well, with enough ambiguity to leave it open to other interpretations.

It’s the performances however that are crucial to making this work, particularly the principal role of Don Giovanni. Shigeo Ishino is simply terrific, singing marvellously, credibly presenting an air of complete arrogance and self-importance that is based on Don Giovanni’s justifiable sense of self-belief. There’s never a waver in the voice or the characterisation. André Morsch isn’t quite as strong of voice, but fills the role of Leporello appropriately. There are good performances also from Pumeza Matshikiza as Zerlina and Ronan Collett as Masetto, but Matthias Hölle’s Commendatore is rather weaker than he should be, particularly in this context where he is very much alive. Other than the Don, the strengths in the casting are best placed in the roles of the three avenging angels, and all are excellent here. Simone Schneider is an outstanding Donna Anna. She has a lovely tone of voice that is able to push her character’s anger to the limit with strength and conviction yet still retain a melodic quality that reflects the purity of her nature. That’s not something that is always taken for granted with this character (does she lead the Don on in Act I or is her naivety taken advantage of?), but it’s emphasised here in her relationship with Don Ottavio. Atalla Ayan is also strongly characterised and well sung so as not to appear the weak figure that he is often portrayed as being. Rebecca von Lipinski ’s Donna Elvira remains a worthy opponent for Don Giovanni, although she’s not quite as strong a character here as the production’s Donna Anna.

Conducted by Antony Hermus, the Staatsorchester Stuttgart give a fine account of Mozart’s scintillating score that hits all the emotional and virtuosic high points of the work, the pace and tone suiting the production and supporting the singing very well. In every respect, this was a production that rose to the challenges of Mozart’s great work, finding something new to draw from its rich endless source of inspiration, while at the same time making sure that the wider audience it was reaching out towards would find plenty that was memorable and entertaining in its traditional musical and dramatic strengths.

The production reviewed here was viewed via Internet streaming on the ARTE WebLive site but was only made available for viewing for a week after the live broadcast.