September 2012


LucreziaGaetano Donizetti - Lucrezia Borgia

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2009 | Bertrand de Billy, Christof Loy, Edita Gruberova, Pavol Breslik, Franco Vassallo, Alice Coote, Bruno Ribeiro, Christian Rieger, Christopher Magiera, Erik Årman, Steven Humes, Emanuele D’Aguanno, Christian van Horn, Elisabeth Haag | EuroArts

I can easily understand why many might not like Christof Loy’s opera stage productions. If I didn’t know better myself, I’d swear that he’s having a laugh with this 2009 production of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia for the Bavarian State Opera. When I say I know better however, that’s taking a superior stance, but rather speaking from experience that no matter how minimally staged, no matter how ludicrous the proposition or inappropriate the costume design, and as far removed as they seem to be from the original stage directions, each of his recent productions that I have seen (Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Les Vêpres Siciliennes, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Theodora) have, without exception, been as powerful a performance of the work in question as any I’ve ever seen. That’s why, despite initial reservations that he surely can’t be serious with this bizarre staging of Lucrezia Borgia, it only takes a few moments of actually listening to the performances to see that, whatever he’s doing, the full power and beauty of the work is all there and coming across.

This Lucrezia Borgia, I have to say, doesn’t look like any bel canto opera production you’ve seen before, but it does look a lot like a typical Christof Loy production - bare minimally decorated stage, everyone wearing dinner jackets, a couple of chairs scattered around. That’s 15th century Venice of the Prologue. The only real distinguishing feature is the distinguished figure of Edita Gruberova as Lucrezia Borgia, wearing a period costume in bold red while everyone else is dressed in black and white and the stage is grey, and the words LUCREZIA BORGIA spelt out in big block letters along the back wall. That’s something at least, meaning that it will allow one letter to be dropped at a significant point in the First Act, even if that’s about as much as a concession as you’ll find here to the stage directions in the libretto. Oh, and Orsini and his men look like public schoolboys, with floppy hair and their trousers rolled-up to just below the knees. What on earth is that all about?

Despite confusion over just what exactly Christof Loy’s intentions could possibly be, and the nagging feeling that he really is displaying nothing but contempt for the work, your ears should tell a different story and you might even begrudgingly admit that somehow - without really being able to put your finger on the reason why - the production does actually work. Lucrezia Borgia is not an easy opera to make work on the stage. The plot line, derived from a work by Victor Hugo and awkwardly adapted for Donizetti by Francesco Maria Piave, is rather ridiculous, weighed down by exposition and unlikely coincidences. If we’re to accept the conflict within Lucrezia over her maternal feelings for Gennaro and her monstrous activities as part of the murderous Borgia family, you have to find some humanity in there, and that’s not easily found within the libretto. Although Donizetti’s scoring can seem a little bit bel canto by numbers, and even with Bertrand de Billy conducting it does tend to plod along in places, there are nonetheless some marvellous opportunities for a singer to bring out that underlying humanity, but really you need a singer like Joan Sutherland to be capable of expressing it. Or Edita Gruberova.

Commanding terrific presence from the moment she appears in her red period dress while all around her speak of youth and modernism, Gruberova - with respect - looks like a relic from the past. And this is perhaps where Christof Loy’s production - created specifically for the Bayerische Staatsoper following Loy and Gruberova’s previous collaboration on Roberto Devereux - comes into its own. Lucrezia Borgia is indeed a relic of the past, the latest in a long line of a dynasty of terror whose crimes have not been forgotten by Orsini and his men, who are at long last speaking out against the tyranny of the Borgias. The challenges of playing the role of Lucrezia Borgia then are not so much in the singing - which, to say the least, is challenge enough - but in making Lucrezia work as a real character. On paper it doesn’t work, the libretto filled with flaws and inconsistencies that are nearly impossible to reconcile within the personality of one person. Is Lucrezia Borgia a monster? Undoubtedly. The libretto and the testimony of Orsini and his colleagues and her revenge upon them make that quite evident even within the opera itself, never mind the historical record. Even her reaction to the insult to the family name that is perpetrated by Gennaro shows that the same heartless monster still resides within, regardless of the sensitivity she has shown earlier. Is she really capable of loving motherly sentiments and compassion or are they just an expression of self-interest in her own family name, of a mother for her son? Making you like the character or sympathise with her is not the issue however, making her come to life is the real challenge, and Edita Gruberova can do that. Not many others can.

Donizetti’s style and the rather static nature of the bel canto repertoire, which involves more standing around and singing than action or drama, is also a relic of the past and, perhaps recognising that, Christof Loy plays up to it. No amount of props and costumes and period detail is going to make Lucrezia Borgia any more convincing as a drama, but creating an environment that gives the necessary space to the actual real strengths of the work - the arias and the coloratura given expression by singers of sufficient stature and quality - and actually highlighting them against the rather drab background, seems to me to be working with the nature, qualities and weaknesses of the opera itself. Yes, some of the directorial choices can seem wilfully bizarre, but the basic simplicity of having the words LUCREZIA BORGIA in capital letters on the backdrop throughout reminds you that this is history and character writ large, played large by Donizetti, and performed the only way it can be performed. It takes singers of sufficient strength of personality and the necessary ability to rise to the heights required to make this grotesque and absurd relic of another age meaningful, comprehensible and even beautiful.

The decision then, following their previous collaboration on the stunning Munich production of Roberto Devereux, to build this new production of Lucrezia Borgia around Gruberova, proves to be a great success, and is perhaps the only way it would work. It might as well say EDITA GRUBEROVA on the backdrop. She is simply mesmerising to watch and to listen to, rising to the challenges that the nature of her character represents and meeting the demanding nature of the arias. In fact, she shows that they are one and the same, that the complex nature of the character can only be expressed though the phrasing and the delivery, with full command and awareness of how one’s own tone of voice can be used towards meeting that objective. Experience, if you like, but it’s more than that. For Lucrezia Borgia to succeed it needs more than just a good technique and experience, it needs a voice of real substance and personality, and Edita Gruberova certainly has that. It helps considerably though if you have a strong Gennaro and Pavol Breslik is one of the finest young tenors around. I don’t think there is sufficient attention paid to making his character “work” within the dramatic context of the opera and to a large extent the other roles - Alice Coote’s Orsini and Franco Vassallo’s Don Alfonso - are similarly sung well, but weakly characterised (there are limits admittedly to what a stage director or performer can do with this libretto), but - as is made clear here - the opera is all about LUCREZIA BORGIA, and this is one production that is worthy of being capitalised.

There is a slight downside to the production choices however in that it doesn’t always come across as effectively as it might on the screen, or indeed in the audio mixing. The use of metal plates for a raised platform causes a fair amount of clatter and rattling, while the boxed empty stage leads to an echoing tone that affects the acoustics of the singing and, it seems, the orchestration. The quality of the singing is evident - and Edita Gruberova doesn’t have too much trouble being heard - but the tone is metallic and far from the warm sound you would expect for a bel canto opera. Within the limitations of the mostly bare stage, Brian Large directs as well as he can for the small screen, taking in the impact of the whole stage with edits that are attuned to the rhythms of the music, but it still never really manages to bring the staging to life. The image quality is strong in the High Definition presentation, the audio tracks - PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0 - are however rather limited in dynamic range by the acoustics. The Blu-ray also includes a fascinating hour-long documentary ‘The Art of Bel Canto - Edita Gruberova’, charting the career of the Czech-Slovak soprano and her approach to opera. The BD is region-free and subtitles for the main feature are English, German, French, Italian and Spanish.

SamsonCamille Saint-Saëns - Samson et Dalila

Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe, 2010 | Jochem Hochstenbach, José Cura, Julia Gertseva, Stefan Stoll, Lukas Schmid, Ulrich Schneider, Andreas Heideker, Sebastian Haake, Alexander de Paula | Arthaus Musik

The question of whether Samson et Dalila might not be better suited to the setting of an oratorio than an opera has been a problematic issue ever since Saint-Saëns started work on it back in 1867, ten years before its first performance. With its biblical subject and choral emphasis, the original intention of the composer himself was that it should be an oratorio, but he was persuaded by the librettist Ferdinand Lemaire to turn it into an opera. The reality is that the completed work lies somewhere between opera and oratorio, omitting a great deal of the dramatic episodes that occur in the story of Samson and Delilah, while even some of the most famous and well-known scenes occur off-stage. In an attempt to make the function better as a drama, Argentinean tenor and stage director José Cura injects some contemporary references into his 2010 production of the work for Badisches Staatsoper, but while the quality of the work and its performance here are pretty much beyond reproach, the question of the work’s nature and its suitability for the stage remains unresolved as far as this production is concerned.

Designed and directed by Cura himself, it’s not a terribly imaginative production. The concessions towards modern relevance and contemporary allusion are half-hearted and heavy-handed, not really going much further than relating the enslavement of the Hebrew people and conflict in the Middle East to the corporate ambitions of oil companies in the region by setting a few oil-rigs on the stage. It’s a static set design that remains unchanged throughout Act I and Act III, the lighting permanently dark chiaroscuro, the only variation being the rather clichéd imagery of silhouetting the rigs against a burning red sunset in the first act and against the midnight blue of night in the third. It’s also uncommitted with regard to the contemporary setting, since although Samson and the Hebrews and even the soldiers wear modern or casual clothes, Delilah and her priestesses wear traditional white tunics, and Act II goes to some length, despite the sparseness of the decoration, to wrap Samson in the curtain backdrop in order to ensure that it retains the look and feel of traditional biblical imagery.

There’s little consistency to the concept and it’s so lacking any insightful observations about contemporary issues in the region that you wonder what the purpose is in (half-)updating it at all. If it’s an attempt to create a workable dramatic context for the work, it doesn’t really succeed, since the actual stage direction within these limiting sets remains fairly static, and even the ‘Danse des prêtresses de Dagon‘ consists of nothing more than a traditional processional march (although the beautiful young women seem fond of kissing and fondling each other elsewhere). Musically however, and in terms of the singing - with José Cura reprising a signature role and Julia Gertseva providing the necessary persuasive glamour as Delilah - there’s more than enough dramatic expression to make up for the lack of stagecraft and it’s here that the true qualities of the work, regardless of the uncertainties in its categorisation, are revealed. Cura, I find is a little too stentorian, sacrificing clarity of French diction for sonority in an old-fashioned way, but it’s a committed performance that, certainly in the third act, draws out and enhances the deepening sense of the visceral brutality of the drama and dark betrayal that it there to some extent in the score. The fine performance of Gertseva however, particularly in her duet with Cura, singing a powerful ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre a sa voix‘, ensures that there are no weaknesses in the other vital aspects of this magnificent work.

The actual filming of the production itself however also raises some questions. The sleeve and booklet notes on the DVD (Cura even writing the liner notes) go to pains to convince us that this performance was recorded LIVE, but it’s clearly filmed without an audience present and, since some of the lip-syncing doesn’t match, it’s possibly edited together from a couple of different performances or has even been overdubbed. Certainly in the case of José Cura, his lip-movements and performance don’t reflect the delivery at the start of the first act, and he sings most of the third act from beneath a hood, so the full dramatic performance isn’t always there in the way that it might be before a live audience. Also, curiously, some of the other singing is done off-stage to the extent that you aren’t always sure whose voice you are hearing. In the case of the old Hebrew, for example, an actor (Walter Schreyeck) plays the role but the actual singing of the role is performed off-stage by another person (Ulrich Schneider). Again however, although there are close-ups and some different angles used, there doesn’t seem to be any actual trade-off in making this filmed performance any more visually interesting. Other than a brief flashback montage at the start of Act III though, there’s nothing too clever or distracting attempted either.

These curiosities in the staging and filming are however minor considerations and don’t take away from the fact that overall this is a terrific performance of Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. The orchestra of the Badisches Staatstheater, conducted by Jochem Hochstenbach, give a strong account of the lyricism and the dark power of the work and they are assisted considerably in achieving the necessary impact by principals and by the outstanding work of the chorus. On the DVD release, there is a certain amount of reverb on the singing that takes away from the clarity a little, but the recording of the chorus and orchestration is fine, exhibiting lovely detail and tone. There’s good presence in the 5.1 surround mix, and the PCM stereo option is also excellent. The widescreen image quality is reasonably clear, considering the sharp contrasts on the darkened stage. The DVD is region-free, NTSC, dual-layer. Subtitles are English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Korean. There are no extra features, but the booklet contains notes by Cura and a full synopsis.

MacabreGyörgy Ligeti - Le Grand Macabre

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 2011 | Michael Boder, Àlex Ollé, Valentina Carrasco, Werner van Mechelen, Chris Merritt, Frode Olsen, Ning Liang, Barbara Hannigan, Brian Asawa, Inès Moraleda, Ana Puche, Francisco Vas, Simon Butteriss | Arthaus Musik

Although it may be one of the most popular works of contemporary opera, you aren’t going to see too many productions of György Ligeti’s only opera, Le Grand Macabre due to its demanding nature and its limited appeal to a rather specialised opera audience. So when the Liceu in Barcelona (with La Monnaie in Brussels and the ENO in London) decide to put on a rare production of the work and go as far as to make a world premiere video recording of it, you can be thankful that the challenge of finding an appropriate look for the all-important visual representation of this work has been given to La Fura dels Baus, the experimental Catalan production team perhaps most in tune with such an unusual work and capable of relating to its status as an “anti-anti-opera”, which is not quite the same thing, as you might imagine, as just an opera.

Le Grand Macabre most certainly isn’t “just” an opera, but it is one that fully exploits the full range of dramatic, musical and singing opportunities for expression that the medium is capable of. Often dissonant and cacophonic, it’s not however unmusical and indeed is made up of quite expressive musical passages and “quotations” that draw from a wide range of classical influences that demand a certain musical virtuosity, creating a complex soundscape of musical language and sonic textures. The singing in particular is extremely demanding, full of flourishes and vocal gymnastics in near-impossible tessitura. The difference between Le Grand Macabre and this kind of musical expression in other Ligeti compositions lies however in the visual and dramatic nature of opera, which is equally if not even more important for this particular work, and in that respect this extraordinary production, spectacularly imagined and directed by Àlex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus with Valentina Carrasco, enables the viewer to experience the work in its fullest expression.

Based on the play ‘La balade du Grand Macabre‘ by Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode, quite what the opera is an expression of however can be rather difficult to determine from the playful wordplay, gross vulgarity and nonsense dialogue that makes up most of its libretto. Like the musical accompaniment however, the tone of the words and the highly expressive delivery of them all serve to add to the sonic picture of its depiction of the imaginary Breughelland, with all the grotesque characterisation and the end-of-times connotations for our own reality that the name suggests. In the midst of all the absurd, lascivious, perverse and violent activity of the characters on the stage however, the main narrative thread is clear enough when Nekrotzar, the Grand Macabre, arrives in Breughelland and announces to Piet the Pot that the end of the world is nigh. The moral, when this prediction is proved to be false, is made clear at the end and delivered in traditional operatic fashion - face fear and it will pass, enjoy life without worrying about death or putting your faith in those who would claim to know better acting as guides and leaders.

All men on earth must perish” - even Piet the Pot knows that, “…but no-one knows the hour“, Nekrotzar, tells him. Àlex Ollé appropriately seems to choose to set the production of the Liceu’s Le Grand Macabre indeed during the few seconds preceding the imminent death of an overweight woman - seen in a short video introduction - who has enjoyed the excesses of a Big Mac-abre junk-food feast and is lunging for that last pizza slice when she suffers a heart attack. A huge model of this woman in her death throes dominates the stage, her face contorted in agony, those final moments and the excess that has clearly been part of her life, drawn out and encapsulated within the surreal and nightmarish situation depicted by Ligeti through the operatic medium. The huge splayed naked body revolves 360-degrees between the four scenes of the two acts and is clambered over and dissected in a disturbing fashion, with a wiggling tongue, detachable nipples and other moveable parts and orifices that the characters delve into and appear from. Costumes too are cleverly designed to suggest body parts, organs and musculature. Technically, with the impressive use of projections, it’s a theatrical tour-de-force by La Fura dels Baus, but more than just spectacle, it’s a brilliant interpretation that adds further levels of resonance and involvement to a work already quite rich in symbolism and suggestion.

I don’t think this work could be performed in any other way than with complete abandonment of any sense of propriety or dignity - and perhaps even comprehension - but it does demand extraordinary discipline on the part of the singers and commitment to the unusual methods of expression that Ligeti resorts to. The English diction isn’t always perfect here with some of the Spanish members of the cast, but it’s hardly the most important consideration. That’s not a problem for Barbara Hannigan, but her challenges lie elsewhere in the vocal exertions that are demanded from her in the roles of Venus and Gepopo, the Chief of Secret Police. She not only handles these with astonishing facility, but also with verve and character, as difficult as the roles must be to play. Similar commitment and flights up and down the vocal range are called for from Chris Merritt as Piet the Pot and Frode Olsen as the Astronomer Astradamors, but really, there isn’t anyone in this cast who doesn’t impress on a number of levels in how they rise to the challenges presented by this work.

Le Grand Macabre is still a rather demanding work that can be loud, vulgar and disorienting in its absurdity and nonsense, not seeming to have anything particularly enlightening to reveal for all the effort that is required to view and listen to it, but this is all undoubtedly an essential part of what the work is about. As an anti-anti-opera, it does seem to work both within the framework and as a reaction to the original anti-opera inclinations of Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht, exploring similar field of the baseness of human impulses that can be found in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny (also impressively produced by La Fura dels Baus recently at the Liceu and also available on DVD and BD), not in any elevated or theatrical manner, but in a way that revels in and supports the basic (or base) intents that lie at its heart. This production and its performance at the Liceu in Barcelona can hardly be faulted for the imaginativeness of its vision, the boldness of its interpretation and the technical brilliance of its presentation.

Undoubtedly a production that it would be better to experience live in the opera house, Le Grand Macabre nonetheless comes across very well on the small screen. It’s very well filmed to focus on the details of the performance, while keeping you in mind of the larger picture that, in any case, would be hard to ignore. The quality of the High Definition Blu-ray transfer is excellent, the 2-hour work fitting comfortably onto a single-layer BD25 disc, the image quality near-flawless, handling the darkness of the stage lighting well. The audio tracks are a vital aspect of the whole experience and they come across well in both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes. The BD also includes a good in-depth conference-style Making Of feature that has all the key players in the stage production discussing the development of the ideas, influences and technical considerations behind the concept, and an interview with Michael Boder on the musical side of things. The BD is all-region, full-HD, with subtitles in Italian, German, French, Spanish, Korean and Catalan.

SigismondoGioachino Rossini - Sigismondo

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2010 | Michele Mariotti, Damiano Michieletto, Daniela Barcellona, Olga Peretyatko, Antonino Siragusa, Andrea Concetti, Manuela Bisceglie, Enea Scala | Arthaus Musik

Updating an opera and setting it in an asylum isn’t a terribly original idea and it does usually have a sense of desperation about it, but there is a tradition of mad scenes in Italian bel canto opera, so it’s not entirely an inappropriate or all that far-out an idea. All the more so since Rossini’s rarely heard 1814 opera Sigismondo actually opens with a mad scene of sorts rather than builds up to one, where Sigismondo, the king of Poland, is still tormented by the loss of his wife Aldimira, who he had executed 15 years ago after accusations of infidelity had been laid against her. The loss and the agonising doubts about the truth of these accusations - or just his inability to accept them - has left the king raving and delirious, his kingdom unprepared for the attack that is being launched against him by Ulderico of Bohemia, Aldimira’s father.

Sigismondo belongs to another traditional opera theme, that of innocent women unjustly accused of infidelity or having their maidenly honour called into question by a jealous admirer who has had his advances rejected. This theme of innocent women whose purity has been impugned would become a popular theme in bel canto and opera semiseria works - Halévy’s Clari, Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, Bellini’s La Sonnambula - for its ability to drive the heroine to madness and consequently to the heights of coloratura vocal abstraction. Starting the way it does however, already wading in the depths of madness, Rossini’s Sigismondo would seem to have other ambitions towards a psychological drama more closely aligned to that of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello - worked into an opera of course not just by Verdi but by Rossini himself soon after Sigismondo - and to the medieval legend of the saintly Genoveva, the subject of Schumann’s only opera.

Directed by Damiano Michieletto for the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro in 2010 and conducted by Michele Marotti, there’s certainly a belief here that Sigismondo - the last of Rossini’s early works written just before the move to Naples that would take his career in a whole new direction - is worthy of more serious consideration and capable of bearing that more rigorous approach. Although there are a lot of familiar Rossini melodies and characteristic touches here (the composer re-using the best elements in later works after the failure of Sigismondo), it isn’t always the case however that the music or Giuseppe Foppa’s libretto are strong enough to bear any real dramatic conviction, but the opera is certainly more experimental in its arrangements than some of Rossini’s earlier work and it does indeed build up to a forceful expression of the situation in an impressive series of arias, duets and ensembles in the distinctly Mozartian Second Act.

As a two-act opera, there’s no great call for scene changes, so the viewer has to bear with the asylum set for the entire First Act, whether they like it or not. Although it doesn’t leave the king not looking terribly regal, rolling around under a blanket in a filthy nightgown with his hair hacked back short, the madhouse setting is not inappropriate considering the rather dark tone that is adopted here, which is more a reflection of the state of Sigismondo’s mind than the reality of the outside world. There are other effective touches that bear this out, such as the three identical Aldimiras who torment both Sigismondo and Ladislao - the scheming First Minister who has betrayed and denounced the former Queen after being rejected by her - and by the other asylum inmates who, since they all carry over into the palatial Stateroom of the Second Act, are clearly intended to be representations of the psychological mindsets of the characters as expressed in the music rather than actual real figures.

The sense of ghostly apparitions haunting the characters also works well within the context of the drama, since (probably no surprise to opera-goers here) Aldimira is not actually dead, but having been rescued from her unjust fate 15 years ago returns in the guise of Egelinda, the daughter of the noble Zenovito. On the one hand this helps restore the king’s sanity when it is suggested that since she looks so like Queen Aldimira she could pretend to be her in order to forestall Ulderico’s attack, but it also reignites the feelings Sigismondo had for his wife, and his guilt over what has happened. It also reawakens the desire and the suspicions of Ladislao, giving the production team the opportunity to restage what amounts to a re-enactment of the attempted rape of the Queen that led to the First Minister’s denunciation of her. If the plot inevitably slips into high melodrama, the staging does however manage to show that there are powerful feelings expressed with considerable skill by Rossini in this near-forgotten work.

It’s tremendous then to have the opportunity to see this work - and many others like it - revived by the Rossini Opera Festival and now being made available on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s particularly interesting to see these works being given the best possible representation in terms of musical performance and staging and being cast with fine singers capable of handling the specific demands of Rossini opera. Such is the case with Sigismondo, which gives the singers the opportunity to really shine if they are up to it and are capable of making these characters even half-way convincing, and fortunately they’re all exceptionally good here. As Sigismondo, mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona (yes, it’s a trouser role) brings a brooding intensity that underplays the potential for raving melodrama, her vocal expression of the king’s torment alone powerfully emotive, particularly - as it should be - in the king’s direct encounters with Egelinda/Aldimira. As Aldimira, Olga Peretyatko’s rich, dark soprano suits the nature of her character’s steely determination to resist the injustice of her fate. It’s not a coloratura role, but there are certainly vocal demands in the role, and she handles them more than capably, working particularly well with Barcellona in the ‘Tomba di morte e amore‘ duet. It’s the tenor role of Ladislao however that has more of the coloratura arias (’Giusto ciel che i mali miei‘), which are sung terrifically well by Antonino Siragusa.

Despite the faith the Pesaro team have in it, I don’t think Sigismondo is a 5-star Rossini opera by any means, but this is certainly a 5-star production of an interesting work preceding and prefiguring Rossini’s Neapolitan period that merits the effort and the commitment put into its revival here. It’s well filmed and recorded, looking and sounding very good in High Definition on the Blu-ray release. It’s mostly filmed ’straight’, but the director does use split-screen effects a few times, although only for a few occasions of ensemble singing where it’s actually good to be able to see all the performers. Discreet radio mics are also used by the cast, but the sound and mixing sounds natural in both the PCM stereo and the upfront DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks. The Blu-ray is all-region compatible and contains subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese and Korean.

MeistersingerRichard Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg

Glyndebourne, 2011 | Vladimir Jurowski, David McVicar, Gerald Finley, Marco Jentzsch, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Alastair Miles, Anna Gabler, Topi Lehtipuu, Michaela Selinger, Colin Judson, Andrew Slater, Henry Waddington, Robert Poulton | Opus Arte

It’s tempting to make a snap judgement about a production of a Wagner opera right from the first note, and it’s surprising how just accurate that judgement can often turn out to be. I’d suggest that you can get a feel for the tone of the whole 2011 Glyndebourne production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg just from Vladimir Jurowski’s conducting of the London Philharmonic Orchestra through the opera’s beautiful overture. Being Wagner, everything is there upfront in the Vorspiel to Act I, and in such a work with its richness of meaning and infinite ways of interpretation, you could aim for an approach that is respectful and serious, emphatic and declamatory, sensitive and romantic, even playful and irreverent and you would still be touching on vital ingredients that are all part of the make-up of Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg. You might well pick up elements of those qualities in this Glyndebourne production - and by rights they should all be in there - but from the very first note my overriding impression was that there was a particularly English touch to the delivery that emphasises the qualities in this remarkable work that one doesn’t find so readily in the composer’s other grand music dramas - a lightness, a warmth, a sense of humour and an air of melancholy, the tug of deep human emotions bound up in something great and beautiful.

Fortunately, the whole production is working from the same hymn sheet - quite literally, as the curtain rises in Act I on the domed arches of the interior of St Catherine’s Church in Nuremburg, the figures in the pews suffused in the bright midsummer morning light, and the youthful, lyrical voices of this production’s Walther, David, Eva and Lena confirm the initial impression. Die Meistersinger however is a work of magnificent balance and it needs to be. The lightness of the ecstatic emotions of youthful love and idealism expressed in the opening scenes must be tested against the realities of the world when Walther realises that his only hope of marrying this beautiful girl Eva is to win her by proving himself as a Meistersinger. It’s a mark of the depth of his love, a proof of his own individual worth and talent, and a sign of respect for the tradition, the hard work and the craft of the townspeople of Nuremburg. It’s not enough here then for Wagner to focus on the all-consuming passion of love (we have Tristan und Isolde for that), but here he explores how that kind of idealistic purity - expressed in the singing in the music - can find its own voice while respecting tradition and achieving the acceptance of the wider public.

That encompasses a lot of intangibles - expressed powerfully nonetheless in Wagner’s near-miraculous score - relating to the feelings and the experience of the older generation, as personal, unfathomable and unreachable in the past (in the case of Hans Sachs) or as ridiculous (as in the case of Beckmesser) as they might sometimes appear to the youthful apprentices. Wagner accords equal importance to the lives of these characters, respecting their traditions and the craft, finding beauty and truth in it, something that the younger generation can learn from, expand upon and develop into something new, original and personal, yet at the same time something still inherently German. Evidently, the opera - apart from everything else - is also a case of special pleading for Wagner’s own reform of the music-drama and art as the highest expression and extension of true German tradition and values, and he could hardly make a finer case for it than Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg, the work demonstrating the poetic beauty and complexity of the composer’s writing at its highest maturity, not weighed down by the heavy declamation and language of ancient myths, nor overburdened with leitmotifs and symbolism as in some of his other works, but the one Wagner opera most open to the wonder of the human soul, as expressed in the human voice and in musical accompaniment, in art or simply in the craft of honest labour.

This is a light, delicate and sensitive treatment of a beautifully balanced, thoughtful and considered work then, a far cry from the most recent Bayreuth production. I don’t always like the odd touches that David McVicar adds to his productions and I often find him weak on a cohesive concept, but I can rarely fault him on his ability to hit on the perfect mood and find the most effective way of expressing it through the performers and in their relationship with all the other aspects of the production and musical performance. His work for this Glyndebourne production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg is just about flawless. It’s perhaps a little unadventurous - setting the work within the years of Wagner’s “apprenticeship” around 1820 rather than the original 16th century setting - but his handling of the diverse moods and rhythms of the work is masterful throughout. Having established that mood in the church scene of Act I and achieved the balance though the sacred test of Walther’s Meistersinger ambitions, McVicar likewise strikes the perfect balance between the tricky mood swings of Act II, between the romantic idealism of Eva, the melancholy of Sachs, the despair and hope of Walther through to the comedy of Beckmesser’s serenade and the uproar of the finale. It’s a complete night of midsummer madness, and absolutely riveting. The incredible journey of Act III’s even wider range of emotions that has Hans Sachs at its heart, takes in all the melancholy of the Vorspeil, the slapstick of Beckmesser’s interfering, the community aspect of the festival and the ‘Prize Song’ without ever missing a beat or hitting an incongruous note that isn’t suggested by the score.

Everything about the production respects this, having a cohesiveness in the period design, in the enclosed sacred locations - the church as much as the craftsman’s workshop or the community square - in the lighting, in the little touches of humour and irreverence. There’s also a recognition that everything important that needs to be expressed is there in the music itself, within the very structure of Wagner’s composition which is the very definition of his views on the strength and power of the music-drama, the two aspects conjoined and inseparable, each supporting the other to create a rhythm and balance between the surface drama and the inner nature, with all the contradictions and complexity that this implies. It’s enough to give the work room to breathe and allow the performers of the music and the singing to consider the detail, interpret it and express it through their individual strengths of personality. There’s never a moment where you are waiting to get to the next more interesting scene, every moment has its own magic and Jurowski and McVicar give the singers all the opportunity they need to luxuriate in the beauty and the rich wonder of Wagner’s incredible score, revealing it in all its majestic glory.

Gerald Finley’s performance of Hans Sachs is the best example of this. Rarely have I ever seen Finley look so at home in a role, his lovely baritone sounding warm, rounded and unforced, not over-expressive, but arising naturally out of consideration for his character, rolling around the beauty and the very sound of the words, taking the time to consider their meaning and luxuriate in their phrasing. But it’s far from the only impressive singing performance, the clear lyrical lightness of Marco Jentzsch’s Walther and Topi Lehpituu’s David both perfect foils for Anna Gabler’s emotional Eva and Michaela Selinger’s Lena. If their singing could be considered to lack traditional Wagnerian force, the work gains from their youthful sincerity of feeling. On the other side of the coin, but perfectly complementary, Alastair Miles displays a studious good natured gravity and solemnity as Pogner with a tone that is as beautiful as it is expressive. You could listen to this for hours. Beckmesser’s comic value is easy to overplay and demonise and the role consequently has a tendency to be underrated in comparison to the earnestness of the other characters, but he’s no less a vital component to the overall structure and tone and Johannes Martin Kränzle brings colour and personality to the role, with lots of comic grimacing, slapstick and double-takes, all of which fit in perfectly with the tone presented here.

This is as memorable as Meistersinger as any you’ll find, one that capitalises on the intimacy of the Glyndebourne theatre and finds an appropriate tone in the performance, the staging and the singing to delve more deeply into the particular human qualities that are unique to this Wagner music-drama, expressing everything that is great about this work on levels I’ve never considered before. The Glyndebourne effect and the challenges of staging Wagner there is explored in the concise extra features, in interviews with Jurowski, McVicar and Finley, with particular consideration on the approach taken for this work. The Glyndebourne relationship with Wagner is also covered in the accompanying booklet, which also contains a full synopsis. The quality of the Opus Arte Blu-ray production is exemplary in every respect, from the screen direction by François Roussillon, to the well-lit High Definition image and the lovely detail revealed in the HD audio mixes. The 2-disc BD set is of course compatible for all regions, but includes only English, French and German subtitles.