November 2012


BabylonJörg Widmann - Babylon

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2012 | Kent Nagano, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Claron McFadden, Anna Prohaska, Jussi Myllys, Willard White, Gabriele Schnaut, Kai Wessel, August Zirner | Internet Streaming

The first opera for the new 2012/13 season of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich was something of a bold statement of intent. A new modern opera receiving its world premiere, Babylon is an almost three-hour long epic with lavish production values that seem to fly in the face of European austerity measures and defy restraints on budgets in the arts. With a libretto written moreover by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and music composed by Jörg Widmann, the 39 year old student of Hans Werner Henze, it seemed something of an omen that Henze should die mere hours before the opening performance, leaving the way for his protégé to make a mark on modern opera with an important new work. There was consequently a weight of expectation surrounding the opening of Babylon, and with a visually astonishing production from Carlus Padrissa of La Fura dels Baus that was perfectly in accord with the colourful nature of the work, the opera certainly made an impression, even if its impact was inevitably somewhat reduced for those watching it (and experiencing technical difficulties) with its Live Internet Streaming broadcast on the 3rd November.

Babylon relates back to Biblical times and ancient Mesopotamian mythology, to human sacrifice practiced by the Babylonians and the repudiation of it by the Jews, to the destruction of the walls of Jericho and the founding of urban civilisation. Central to the work then, with its invocations of the mystical number seven, is the formation of order out of chaos, an order associated with numerology that is reflected in the establishment of the seven days of the week. It’s a love story that is both the cause of the chaos that ensues as well as what brings about redemption and order. Widmann’s opera opens then with a prologue showing a scene of apocalyptic devastation, a scorpion man walking through the ruins, before the Soul arrives to open up the first of the opera’s seven scenes, mourning the loss of Tammu, a Jewish exile living in Babylon who has fallen in love with Inanna, a Babylonian priestess in the Temple of Free Love.

The visions of chaos and destruction continue unabated as Tammu lies with Inanna, and is awoken through love and some herbal induced visions - the seven planets and even the Euphrates itself bearing testimony - to the truth that their world is founded on chaos that the Gods have unleashed upon the universe. (Mozart and Schikaneder’s The Magic Flute is obviously drawn from the same sources - Tamino and Pamina recognisably relating to Tammu and Inanna). It’s this chaos that the Babylonians hold at bay through human sacrifice, a “truth” that is hidden by Ezekiel in his teachings of the Jewish law and the stories of Noah and the flood. When Tammu is chosen as the next human sacrifice however and is executed by the High Priest following the New Year celebrations, Inanna joins with the Soul in her lament for his loss. Inanna pleads with Death to allow her to journey to the Underworld to bring Tammu back.

Undoubtedly the most striking thing about Babylon is the direction of this vast undertaking by Carlus Padrissa of La Fura dels Baus, with its spectacular production designs by Roland Olbeter. Every element of the ambitious libretto, with all its mystical symbolism, dreams, visions and mythology, is presented in visual terms that aren’t merely literal, but connect on an intimate level with the music and the concepts wrapped up within it. In its seven scenes (with a prologue and an epilogue) a Tower of Babel is erected and destroyed, the seven planets appear during Tammu’s visions, the River Euphrates is personified as well as represented by a stream of words and letters that flood and overflow, seven phalluses and vulvas appear with seven apes during the New Year celebrations, flaming curtains give way to sudden downpours during the sacrifice of Tammu, and Innana wades through a seething mass of (projected) bodies, discarding seven garments (a dance of the seven veils), as she journeys into the Underworld. The stage is never static, there’s an incredible amount going on, with extraordinary detail in background projections, processions, with supernumeraries in all manner of costumes and guises.

Babylon is therefore, opera in its purest sense. The music and singing alone don’t stand up on their own, the spectacle alone isn’t enough, but the work needs each of the elements of the libretto, the music, the performance and the theatrical presentation to work together and in accord to put across everything that is ambitiously covered in the work. Widmann perhaps takes on too much across its great expanse of scenes and musical styles - cutting suddenly between twelve-tone dodecaphony, jazz, cabaret and Romanticism - to the extent that it can feel episodic and difficult to take in as an integral and consistent work. Babylon however has a solid foundation in its subject, in Kent Nagano’s marshalling and conducting of the orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper, in Padrissa’s impressive command of the visual elements, and in Anna Prohaska’s extraordinary performance as Innana that goes beyond singing. Babylon is opera in the purest sense also in that it undoubtedly needs to be experienced in a live theatrical context in order for its full power to be conveyed. On a small screen, viewed via internet streaming, the rich scope, scale and ambition of the work were nonetheless clearly evident.

BohemeGiacomo Puccini - La Bohème

Den Norske Opera, Oslo, 2012 | Eivind Gullberg Jensen, Stefan Herheim, Diego Torre, Vasilij Ladjuk, Marita Sølberg, Jennifer Rowley, Giovanni Battista Parodi, Espen Langvik, Svein Erik Sagbråten, Teodor Benno Vaage | Electric Picture

The first notes you hear in this 2012 Den Norske Opera production of Puccini’s La Bohème are the beeps of a heart monitor on a life support system that Mimi lies attached to in a hospital bed. The beeps take that familiar flatline tone as Mimi breathes her last and doctors rush in to the opening chords of the score proper in a vain attempt to resuscitate her, while Rodolfo looks on aghast, completely lost in his own grief. This evidently isn’t a traditional way to start La Bohème, but it is very much a typical Stefan Herheim touch where the standard linear approach is just not an option. As a director, Herheim is clearly interested in getting into the minds of characters whose actions and motivations we can take for granted from over-familiarity, and La Bohème is a very familiar opera. Not here it isn’t.

Having established that Mimi dies - which, let’s face it, even if you weren’t familiar with the opera, it’s a fate that is signalled clearly enough by Puccini right from the moment she totters and stumbles into Rodolfo’s garret, often with a hefty tubercular cough for good measure - Herheim is more interested in the impact her death has on Rodolfo after the opera ends, considering the times and the troubles they have shared together. Here then, viewed in flashback, La Bohème becomes a study of grief and bereavement that Rodolfo struggles to work through and eventually come to an acceptance of his loss through his poetry and his friends. If anyone can make such an idea work, working within the fabric of Puccini’s scoring without necessarily contradicting sentiments that are implicitly there in the nature of the music itself, it’s Herheim. Whether you think there’s any value in distorting the work to that extent is of course debatable, but there is certainly more intelligence in this thoughtful and considered approach than your average straight production that merely “performs” the work, Herheim taking into account the very real emotions and troubles of characters whose lives are played out in art and poverty. It’s certainly at least a refreshing alternative for anyone who is more than familiar with the long-running Copley and Miller productions of the work at the Royal Opera House and the Coliseum in London.

His grief played out in flashback then, the past and the present coexist simultaneously for Rodolfo, who has no means of pulling them together. The hospital ward seen at the start then opens up to a more traditional view of the past in Rodolfo’s Parisian garret where he and Mimi first met, the cleaner, surgeon and nurse taking up roles as the other characters (introducing Musetta into the process rather earlier too). The sense of perspective however shifts in a subtle way to tinge the meeting with that sense of grief for the inevitability of what has happened/will happen. When Rodolfo poses the question ‘Qui sono?‘ to himself here then - looking thoroughly confused - it takes on an entirely different meaning, one that involves real soul-searching, as well as a certain existential dilemma. Compressing and overlapping time in this way simultaneously concentrates all the joy and happiness of that fleeting moment of beauty, while forcing one to consider how brief and vulnerable are the flames of love on those candles that are so soon to burn out. The same flames of love will burn Rodolfo as well as provide warmth through the winter. Rather than contradict the emotions of a beautiful piece (Act 1 of La Bohème is for me something incredibly powerful), this production genuinely enhances what is already there.

There are lots of touches however that aren’t going to be to everyone’s liking. Already in this First Act, Mimi collapses, her wig is removed to reveal a bald head that bears the signs of chemotherapy (this Mimi is dying from the rather more contemporary killer of cancer rather than the traditional old-fashioned disease of tuberculosis), and she is ushered back into that modern hospital bed that looms at the corner of Rodolfo’s consciousness. The shifting of the off-kilter sets from one ‘reality’ to the next - incredibly well designed to transform so smoothly - have an unsettling effect not only on Rodolfo but on the viewer also, leaving them unsure at times about what exactly is going on, and why the familiar figures in the work don’t behave in character in the way that we expect. Mimi “dies” again at the end of Act II, for example, and her medical chart is added to the Café Momus “bill” that has to be paid at the end. I think the implication is clear enough. Unwilling to “pay the bill” however the near-demented Rodolfo here is so impassioned that you get the impression he believes he could bring her ghost back to life by the end of the opera. Wouldn’t that be something? But no, Herheim stays faithful to the intentions of the work. “Per richiamarla in vita non basta amore” - “Love alone will not suffice to bring her back to life”, he says in Act III. It’s all there in the libretto if you want to look for it.

The absurd modern twists on an otherwise faithful staging can be a little off-putting - or will be simply intolerable to some viewers - but they can also be extremely powerful. If you consider that Puccini’s writing here is extremely manipulative and has a tendency towards heavy pathos, sentimentality and schmaltz, Herheim’s staging forces you to listen to the music in a different context, and the effect is phenomenal. Puccini, like the listener, knows Mimi’s fate from the outset, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. The tragedy isn’t so much that Rodolfo doesn’t know it, or that he is unwilling to face up to her flirtatious and mercenary nature, or even the realisation that she’s seriously ill and going to die, but rather, that he is on some level aware of it, but still loves her despite it all. All those implications are there in Puccini’s score and brought out in the development of the opera if you want to explore them, and Herheim does. Using Rodolfo’s inability to come to terms with his grief as a means of showing his struggle to deal with the inevitability of what must occur not only makes this almost indescribably sad, it’s also an effective way of dealing with some of the problematic issues surrounding Puccini’s generously expressive scoring.

Aside from the technicalities and impressions created by Herheim’s direction and Heike Scheele’s set designs, the performance of the work itself is overall very good. The added dramatic twists moreover rather than getting in the way of the performances only seemed to intensify their impassioned delivery. More so Rodolfo than Mimi, it has to be said, Diego Torre singing the role superbly, with consideration for the different nuances of meaning applied to his character. By focussing the attention on Rodolfo’s state of mind and resigning Mimi to little more than a ghost however, the consequence is that it weakens Marita Sølberg’s contribution to the work, but she sings it well in the context. The subjective view of Rodolfo also has a consequence of reducing the relevance of the other characters to relatively minor roles, but even if it loses some of the contrasting elements of the nature of relationships that is brought out by the Marcello and Musetta pairing (adequately sung by Vasilij Ladjuk and Jennifer Rowley), the tightening of the focus isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this work either. Svein Erik Sagbråten’s recurring Death-like presence as the landlord Benoît, Parpignol, Alcindoro and a Toll gate keeper could also be seen as bringing more of a consistency to the colourful but marginal episodes of the work.

On Blu-ray, the production looks and sounds as good as you would expect from a recent HD recording. The singing sounds a little echoing in both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes, but I found that the stereo track sounded much clearer through headphones. The recording and mixing of the orchestra however is gorgeous, with lovely tone and detail in the orchestration. It’s a good account of the work - Eivind Gullberg Jensen directing the opera for the first time - attuned to the performances and only slightly adjusted in one or two places for the tempo and tone to match the production. There are a few very short interviews on the disc (around a minute each) with the director, conductor and cast, done backstage in the intervals presumably during a television broadcast of the live performance. The BD is all-region, with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Korean.

TroyensHector Berlioz - Les Troyens

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 2012 | David McVicar, Antonio Pappano, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Fabio Capitanucci, Bryan Hymel, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Brindley Sherratt, Hanna Hipp, Barbara Senator, Robert Lloyd, Pamela Helen Stephen, Jihoon Kim, Ashley Holland, Ji Hyun Kim, Lukas Jakobski, Daniel Grice, Ji Min Park, Adrian Clarke, Jeremy White, Ed Lyon | Royal Opera House, Cinema Season Live 2012/13

It’s ironic that Berlioz’s epic creation based on Virgil’s ‘Aeneid‘ was never performed in full during the composer’s lifetime, yet we’ve had enough opportunities now to view the work to realise that Les Troyens is unquestionably a masterpiece. Having had the opportunity to see several productions however, it’s also possible to see why the opera would have been such a tricky proposition to stage in the first place. It’s a vast, all-encompassing work, one that not only demonstrates the complete range of the composer, but one that also takes in the considerable musical studies, theories and passions that were as much a part of the lifework of Hector Berlioz. Written over two years (1856-58) for the Paris Opéra (the only house with the resources to possibly stage it), a deeply personal undertaking that drew from the composer’s childhood imagination-inspiring readings of the ‘Aeneid‘ and his love for the Shakespearean epic drama, Les Troyens proved to be too ambitious an undertaking for the city’s major opera house and, eventually, only a cut-down version of the second part of the five-act opera was performed at the Théâtre Lyrique.

Now we have Blu-ray releases of no less than two complete productions of Les Troyens to be able to judge the quality of the work - the revelatory 2003 Châtelet production in Paris (in an impressive account conducted by John Eliot Gardiner) and the rather less successful attempt to modernise the opera by La Fura dels Baus in the 2009 Valencia production. A comparison between the two suggests that if it’s not a case of less is more (that’s something that you couldn’t say about Berlioz’s writing here), it is nonetheless a work where it’s necessary - and difficult enough - to strike a balance between the extravagance of the compositional elements with a huge dynamic that is inherent within the division of the two parts of the work that represent the Fall of Troy and the Trojans in Carthage, while at the same time also living up to the epic grandeur that it represents. Trying to impose an alternative reading or concept on top of Les Troyens (much less one as misguided as La Fura del Baus’ Trojan Horse computer virus concept) is risky and likely to conflict with the intentions and tone of the work. David McVicar therefore had quite a challenge in this new major production of the work for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and while it didn’t exactly meet with universal critical acclaim at the time, the weaknesses in the production seem rather less pronounced when viewed on the screen in this fine recording made for the Royal Opera House’s Cinema Season 2012/13.

The fact that David McVicar and set designer Es Devlin went for their familiar industrial Steampunk style in the first act with weapons and military uniforms that were clearly not related to Ancient Greek mythology (or Roman in this case) proved neither here nor there. As ever with McVicar, the detail is less important than the overall impact, and both the Troy and Carthage scenes went for a mood and grandeur of scale that was commensurate with the work itself. The tone of the first half is inevitably dark, the celebrations of the Trojans at the departure of the Greek army after ten years of siege short-lived, giving way to ceremonial mourning for the loss of so many great warriors, dire premonitions of doom from an increasingly hysterical Cassandra, and the mass suicide of the Trojan women as the warriors flee for Italy, the city having been breached by the Greek soldiers through the ruse of the horse. It’s the huge mechanical construction of the Trojan Horse that is the imposing image of the first half and it’s suitably impressive. If the direction is otherwise fairly static in this section, it at least allows attention to be drawn to the magnificent musical construction of the first two acts, and it gives plenty of room for Anna Caterina Antonacci to dominate as Cassandra.

As directed for the screen, the frequent use of close-ups here went some way towards focussing on those strong points in the tone that was effectively established and in highlighting the qualities of Antonacci’s mesmerising performance, even if the actual staging and the power of the singing weren’t quite up to the demands of the music itself, superbly put across by the Royal Opera House Orchestra under Antonio Pappano’s direction. Fortunately, most of The Fall of Troy section relies on choral arrangements of celebrations and lamentations and these also came across wonderfully. The strengths and weaknesses within Les Troyens and the difficulty of coping with them in a staged production were emphasised here by the treatment of the rather different second half. The warmth of tone and presentation of the Trojans in Carthage section is in marked contrast to the darkness of the first half, but Berlioz’s arrangements are no less epic in his depiction of the utopian society of Carthage under the rule of their beloved Queen Dido. Even Bryan Hymel, who didn’t quite manage to rise above the dramatic power of the Troy section as Aeneas, seemed to find the North African climate more to his liking. The challenges of the second half of Les Troyens however lie in the presentation of those sentiments, and that wasn’t quite so well achieved as the first half.

Again, there is no faulting McVicar and Es Devlin’s approach to the stage design. Carthage is laid out in all the epic grandeur and warmth that is suggested in the score. While there’s much that’s beautiful about Berlioz’s scoring for these scenes, all the ballets and the celebratory love-fests can be a little bit too much - the rush into battle with Iarbas and the Numidians the only confrontational element in the first part and even that is given only a cursory treatment. The dances and celebrations can also be particularly difficult to stage in a way that retains the interest of an audience who has by that stage already had very nearly a full evening’s worth of Grand Opéra. As Dido, Eva-Maria Westbroek sang beautifully and was excellent at conveying the dilemma of the Carthaginian Queen over her feelings for Aeneas and her promise to remain faithful to the memory of her dead husband. Westbroek has a fullness of tone and sufficient power in her soprano, but not quite the necessary colour that the role - written for a mezzo-soprano - demands. This was particularly noticeable for the lack of sufficient and complementary contrast that ought to be there in her ‘Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie‘ duet with Hymel - a key moment in their relationship which never really came across here as it should.

Allowing for the longeurs in Act III and the inability of the director to make them sufficiently interesting, there was however still a lot to enjoy musically and in the singing during the final three acts. In addition to the strong performances of Hymel and Westbroek, there were some beautiful sounds coming from Brindley Sherratt’s concerned Narbal and Hanna Hipp’s devoted Anna, both providing the necessary counterweight to Dido’s mental disintegration in the closing acts. Masterfully orchestrated in musical and dramatic terms by Berlioz, Hylas’s song of longing for home at the beginning of Act Five, sweetly sung by Ed Lyon, the lure of the seas and the call of Italy urged by dark forces of the ghosts of the dead Trojans, combined well with the frisson of betrayal between Dido and Aeneas more strongly characterised than their romance, ensured that the conclusion at least was sufficiently tragic.

LuluAlban Berg - Lulu

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels 2012 | Paul Daniel, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Barbara Hannigan, Natascha Petrinsky, Frances Bourne, Tom Randle, Dietrich Henschel, Charles Workman, Pavlo Hunka, Ivan Ludlow, Albrecht Kludzuweit, Rúni Brattaberg, Mireille Capelle, Beata Morawska, Benoît De Leersnyder, Gerard Lavalle, Charles Dekeyser, Anna Maistriau, Rosalba Torres Guerrero, Claude Bardouil | La Monnaie Internet Streaming

As a work that it was necessary to subject to some interpolation of the music score on account of its final Act being left largely unfinished by the composer at the time of his death in 1935, there’s a richness to Lulu that leaves it open to infinite rearrangement of its elements. The openness of its subject - the eternal ambiguity that is Lulu, or indeed the eternal ambiguity that is the fate of a woman in the modern world - and the nature of the writing means that even within the two acts that were fully scored by Alban Berg, there is a multiplicity of meaning that can be applied to its themes through the imposition of emphasis on different elements of the work. For Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski in his 2012 production for La Monnaie-De Munt in Brussels (viewed here via the opera house’s internet streaming service), the principal idea that is emphasised - the one that expresses the inner nature of Lulu before it becomes corrupted by the reality of her circumstances - is that of her childhood ambition to be a successful dancer.

To add further weight to this idea - a valid idea that doesn’t needs any further justification - Warlikowski refers to a little-known biographical detail in Berg’s life, an unacknowledged daughter, Albine, who he fathered with a woman twice his age who worked for the family. Later in life, Albine - a painter and a model - made contact with Berg, looking for a father or a father-figure, but also hoping perhaps to be taken seriously through her association with Berg in her dream of being an artist. For the director, it’s hard not to consider that the nature of this relationship would have found its way into the composition of Lulu, and it’s certainly an interesting detail that adds to the mystery and ambiguity of the work. Tied in with this is the parallel writing, incorporating elements of Lulu that would be used for the scoring of the unfinished third act in 1979 by Friedrich Cerha, of the violin concerto which would become a requiem for the 17 year old daughter of Alma Mahler and architect Walter Gropius. Another less likely reference that Warlikowski seems to drawn upon to express this desire to be a successful artist, the internal pressures that reveal cracks in the female psyche and the requiem “to the memory of an angel”, is Darren Aronofsky’s lurid melodrama ‘Black Swan‘.

The most obvious reference to this is in an extended dance sequence added to the end of the first act, where a dancer in a black tutu (Rosalba Torres Guerrero), stripping down to waist, performs the dance of the dying swan with extraordinary intensity, but there are other rather disturbing references that have a David Lynch quality (particularly with dual-killing at the end of the work of the blonde Lulu and the dark Countess Geschwitz), with dark masked figures always on the stage, in the background and on occasions taking over the roles of other characters who are complicit in her downfall. Young girls in ballet outfits also populate the stage, often within a glass cage - at least one of whom is presumably meant to represent Lulu’s innocence - but others reflect explicit references in the work to the sale into prostitution and the exploitation of women. Most directly however, Lulu herself is frequently dressed in tutus and dancer costumes, moves around en pointe, dancing to her doom.

Barbara Hannigan throws herself fearlessly into the role, but there’s really no other way to play Lulu. There’s a necessary balance that must be struck between a sense of abandon to her fate and the discipline that is required to maintain her sense of self, and playing the role as a dancer works very well with this idea. Hannigan was involved with the dance/opera collaboration in her last role this season at La Monnaie - Pascal Dupasin and Sasha Waltz’s Passion - and she puts the strength, flexibility and stamina demanded in that role to good use here, being metaphorically flung around and twisted, but also physically rolling around, holding dance poses and singing at the same time, while also being in a state of undress in provocative positions. Hannigan’s superb control of her high range and light soprano was perfect for the role of Lulu, and evidently it was tested to its limits here, with additional demands placed on the role by the nature of the dancing, but she was impressively capable throughout. She perhaps doesn’t have the robustness or the experience required for the darker side of her character’s development and downfall in the latter half of the work, but it could also be that the direction and the limitations of the concept (or its expansiveness) didn’t really give her a clear enough focus to work with. Regardless, Hannigan brought her own focus and intensity to the part and, by any standard, this was simply an extraordinary performance of Lulu.

There are many personalities and realities wrapped up within the complex powerplay of characters, in Berg’s extraordinary score and in Friedrich Cerha’s completion of the work that make this a difficult work to grasp entirely, and this production at least tries to capture the whole range of possibilities that this gives rise to within its design. It looks terrific, with a great deal going on in the foreground and the background - almost too much to take in really. Effective use is made of screens and projections, with additional dancers and figures presenting a disturbing freak-show display in a glass cage and a final act that is set in a ballet school dormitory (by way of an underground station) that feels frightening and exploitative. This Lulu was decadent where it ought to be, wild and abandoned, but also precise and intense on the points that matter. With a lavish production filled with ideas and resonances, Lulu’s extremely complex cast of personalities was given additional force through an all-round strong cast. Natascha Petrinsky brought a softer, more vulnerable but strong sensibility to the usually difficult to characterise Countess Geschwitz, Charles Workman was a handsomely voiced and driven Alwa, and Dietrich Henschel suitably and impressively menacing as Dr. Schön and Jack The Ripper.

This production of Lulu is available to view on-line for free for 21 days until 28th November, through the La Monnaie web site. Subtitles are available only in French and Dutch.

TempestThomas Adès - The Tempest

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2012 | Thomas Adès, Robert Lepage, Simon Keenlyside, Audrey Luna, Alan Oke, Isabel Leonard, Alek Shrader, Toby Spence, William Burden, Kevin Burdette, Iestyn Davies, Christopher Feigum, John Del Carlo | The Met Live in HD, 10th November 2012

Following the furore surrounding his controversial high-tech production of Wagner’s Ring cycle for the Metropolitan Opera across their past two seasons, Robert Lepage returns somewhat to his roots as a traditional theatre director for a work that may not be equal in scale and stature to Wagner’s epic work, but is ambitious and challenging nonetheless, to say nothing of a bit of a commercial gamble. Lepage, as was made clear repeatedly in interviews and in programme notes, has directed Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tempest‘ eight times in his career, so you would expect him to know what works and what doesn’t (something that might not have been so clear in his handling of the Ring). An opera based on ‘The Tempest‘ is however a different prospect altogether, particularly one that has been necessarily condensed and ‘translated into English’, and requires a very different approach to staging. Fortunately, in this production for the Metropolitan Opera, ambitiously broadcast live in HD to cinema theatres across the world, Lepage was considerate of the different requirements that opera and Shakespearean theatre demand. It’s fortunate also that composer Thomas Adès also has a very clear view of the work and brings it across marvellously and musically in The Tempest.

Shakespeare usually has to be considerably reworked when adapted to an opera, meaning that it is necessarily condensed, streamlined and stripped largely of its poetry. Having a kind of musical element of its own, ‘The Tempest‘ however would appear to be a work that is more open to musical adaptation than most other Shakespeare works. Considering its scope and range - taking in comedy, family drama and political intrigue - but most notably having a supernatural and musical element that takes in the spirits of the spheres through Ariel and the baseness of the earthy Caliban, the whole drama taking place on a magical island of “noises sounds and sweet airs” - The Tempest would appear to be both a challenge and a gift for a capable musician. Adès manages to integrate all the rich elements of Shakespeare’s work wonderfully, not just accompanying the various strands of comedy, drama and romance that are rather compressed in the dramatic playing, but making up for the lack of poetry in the libretto by deepening the sentiments through the musical dimension. It’s not always the most melodic of arrangements, but it’s wholly appropriate to the context of the scenes, never discordant and often quite beautiful in its symphonic sweep.

The most difficult element - from the point of view of composition, from the nature of the singing challenges and from the assault on the ears of the listener - is undoubtedly in the tricky characterisation of Ariel. It’s necessary that Ariel appear to be a spirit creature from another, higher dimension, but held under the power of Prospero the pain of his captivity and his desire to escape from earthly bonds should also be an element in the character’s make-up. Adès expresses this in the highest extremes of the soprano range, which is by no means easy on the ear or even entirely intelligible, but it does have an otherworldly quality. That however is just the most extreme example. Elsewhere Adès shows himself capable of strong individual characterisation in each of the roles and personalities, in the comedy of Stefano and Trinculo, in the romance of Miranda and Ferdinand, in the dark scheming of Antonio and Sebastian, and in the nobility of the King of Naples in his grief for Ferdinand whom he believes dead. What is marvellous about Adès’ writing for The Tempest is that he not only fully characterises and enriches expression of each individual character - without having recourse to themes or leitmotifs - but that he makes them coexist and work together. In drama that’s difficult enough, but to bring those musical elements together into a coherent piece is much more challenging. That’s however where opera traditionally excels and Adès shows wonderful facility for this necessary ability.

And then, of course, there’s Prospero, with his thoughts of revenge for having being usurped from the throne of Milan by his brother, his enslavement of Ariel and Caliban, his exercise of power over the island and his daughter Miranda, and the relinquishing of all those powers and claims by the end of the work. Not only must the development of Prospero’s character arc encompass all these elements, but his personality must be seen (and heard) to exert an influence over everything that happens - his watchful eye monitoring the activity of the crew that his storm has shipwrecked on the island. If the final realisation and capitulation of his powers still seems a little hurried and arrived at without too much deliberation or conflict, Adès nonetheless manages to characterise this as successfully as it could possibly be. Much inevitably depends on the quality of the singer, and Simon Keenlyside (reprising a role that he helped create in the original 2004 Covent Garden production of the work) is a commanding presence that brings Prospero to life and brings a necessary degree of humanity to the part. It’s an extremely challenging role - particularly in the singing - and Keenlyside did show a little strain in places, but nothing that couldn’t be seen as characterisation of Prospero’s own personal conflicts and dilemmas.

The singing and characterisation was marvellous almost right across the board here, and it went some considerable way towards making a difficult work much more accessible and enjoyable. Audrey Luna was simply astonishing as Ariel, as lithe and agile in her movements as in her voice (Lepage effectively keeping Ariel almost exclusively floating up and above or outside the drama as a mischievous but otherworldly sprite), and the casting of Isabel Leonard and Alek Shrader as the beautiful couple of Miranda and Ferdinand - the great hope for the future - could hardly be more perfect. Leonard’s rich and luxurious mezzo-soprano was wonderfully expressive with clear diction and real strength of character, blending wonderfully with Shrader’s handsome tenor voice. Caliban might have been a little marginalised as a character here, never really working his way into the main drama, but Alan Oke made something wonderful of the role in his singing and performance, interacting well with the character pieces of Stefano and Trinculo. Countertenor Iestyn Davies - who made a strong impression in last season’s Rodelinda at the Met - again demonstrated a voice of incredible beauty and clarity. Adès’ writing is so strong that it provides notable roles also for Toby Spence (the original Ferdinand) as Antonio and particularly William Burden who gave wonderful expression to the grief-stricken sentiments of Naples. Only bass-baritone John Del Carlo seemed to struggle with the difficult range of the vocal writing of Gonzalo, but nonetheless sang his Act III solo piece (not quite an aria) very well.

If the singing went some way towards making a potentially difficult work more accessible, Robert Lepage’s stage direction and Jasmine Catudal’s clever set designs played their part in helping it all flow together marvellously. The importance of the direction shouldn’t be underestimated, as it any one element in the machinery of an opera can impact on all the others, and - working perfectly in accord with the music as opposed to a preconceived idea of Shakespearean ought to look like - Lepage’s contribution was a perfect fit for the work. The setting of the first act within a reproduction of the La Scala theatre certainly ties in with the notion of music, theatre, opera and even Prospero’s claim to be Duke of Milan, but more than being notional, it provided a conceptual approach to the theatricality of the staging, with figures slipping beneath the platform of the stage, and dropping into the prompter’s box. The Native Indian tattoos and markings on Prospero beneath his military greatcoat, with feathers woven into his hair, and the shaman-like appearance of the disinherited Caliban hinted at some of the underlying themes in the work relating to colonisation and exploitation of native populations, without needing to take this any further and over-complicate the progression of the drama.

The colour and spectacle of the production was well-served then by the simple magic of theatre props and machinery, the planks of the stage replacing the rather more high-tech planks of the unwieldy (but nonetheless impressive) Machine for Lepage’s Ring cycle - and it was a simplicity that worked alongside the music and with the themes here rather than try an impose a presence on them. As a consequence, with the composer Thomas Adès himself directing the orchestra from the pit, working to the strengths of the singing and to the movements on the stage, this felt like a truly complete opera production, one where all the elements work with and support the other to create that particular magic that comes only from this particular fusion of music and theatre - opera.

StradellaCésar Franck - Stradella

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège 2012 | Paolo Arrivabeni, Jaco Van Dormael, Marc Laho, Isabelle Kabatu, Werner van Mechelen, Philippe Rouillon, Xavier Rouillon, Giovanni Iovino, Patrick Mignon, Roger Joakim | ARTE Live Web, Internet Streaming

The choice of opera for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie’s 2012-13 season at the restored Théâtre Royal in Liège was an unusual one. Stradella is an unfinished work by César Franck - better known for his symphonic writing and pieces for the piano and organ - written in 1842 when the composer was just 15 years old and only rediscovered in 1984. There may not be too many classic Belgian opera composers to choose from, much less one who was actually born in Liège, but in the event, the production team and the completion of the orchestration by composer Luc Van Hove filled out the sweep of Franck’s lush Romanticism to make something more of this otherwise relatively slight work in its first ever staging. Directed by filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael (Toto le Héro), with some strong singing performances, it was moreover an appropriately near all-Belgian opening production and as such a memorable way to mark the occasion.

The plot of Stradella is relatively simple and unburdened with anything like psychological motivation or even depth of character. The Duke of Pesaro has ordered his lieutenant Spadoni to abduct the beautiful maiden Leonor in the middle of the Carnival in Venice. Having locked her away in his mansion, the Duke tries to win her love by employing the famous singer Stradella to woo her, unaware that Stradella and Leonor are actually an item. As well as being one mighty coincidence, one would think the Duke might have taken some time to investigate Leonor’s love-life, but as I say, such details seem to be of little concern to the young Franck, who instead focuses his attention on exploring the romantic tragedy aspects that this situation gives rise to. Franck’s symphonic scoring is certainly influenced by Wagner to some extent, but the composer clearly favours the more melodic approach of Gounod - Faust sounding like an influence in the ‘À demain‘ duet between Stradella and Leonor early in the first act before the abduction - and it bears a close relation with the composer’s near-contemporary Massenet in this regard.

With an abundance of water on the stage that on occasion tended to get in the way of the performance, the production certainly favoured spectacle over musical or dramatic integrity. It was dramatically justified to some extent by the opera’s Venetian Carnival setting of the opera, but the fact that just about everyone was kitted out in wetsuits or wearing Macs and carrying umbrellas should tell you that there was rather a lot more water than was strictly necessary both on the stage itself - the singers wading waist deep in it for most of the performance - but also in the English summer amount of rain (yeah, that much!) falling from the skies for long sections of the performance. Vincent Lemaire’s sets looked spectacular however, creating a fabulous atmosphere, but it was also more than a little noisy - particularly in one or two scenes from the First Act when Leonor is abducted by the Duke’s men from a canal in the middle of a thunderous downpour. It did however, particularly in the brilliantly staged finale with a floating fish, come over as something of an impressive technical achievement.

The deluge of water (45,000 litres apparently) and the design of the sets however had something of an absorbing effect or dampening of the sound (in more ways than one!) that didn’t really show off the acoustics of the theatre or allow the musical qualities of the work to carry, and it certainly did no favours to the singers who had to remain semi-submerged in it for the entire length of the work. Soprano Isabelle Kabatu had the necessary range and depth for the role of Leonor, but struggled nonetheless on one or two occasions to rise above the stage noise and the orchestration. There were so such problems for the Belgian lyric tenor Marc Laho however, who let none of the bizarre stage directions get in the way of a well-delivered performance, his singing clear and resonant with lovely tone, expression and diction. Bass-baritone Werner van Mechelen was a worthy counterpart to Laho’s Stradella as the Duke’s lieutenant Spadoni, but other than wearing a surreal floating cape borne aloft by black balloons Philippe Rouillon didn’t really make a strong enough impression as the Duc de Pesaro.

Under the musical direction of Paolo Arrivabeni and artistic direction of Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, this was overall an impressive gathering of Belgian opera talent for an interesting and eye-catching opener to the 2012-13 season at the Théâtre Royal in Liège following their ambitious run at the temporary Palais Royal venue last year. Franck’s recently rediscovered early opera doesn’t prove to be a major work by any means, but it’s a lovely little piece nonetheless and a fascinating addition to the French-Belgian repertoire.

Recorded on the 25 and 27th of September 2012, Stradella was viewed via an internet streaming broadcast on the ARTE website, where it can still be viewed - in French language, with no subtitles - up until October 2013.

DeidamiaGeorge Frideric Handel - Deidamia

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam 2012 | Ivor Bolton, David Alden, Sally Matthews, Veronica Cangemi, Olga Pasichnyk, Silvia Tro Santafé, Andrew Foster-Williams, Umberto Chiummo, Jan-Willen Schaafsma | Opus Arte

There has been some terrific work done in recent years in terms of critical editions, in the development and playing of period instruments and through inventive stage productions, all of which have gone some way to revive even the most obscure of Handel’s operas and help restore the composer’s reputation to the place it deserves. There was however a reason why the Baroque form of opera seria went out of fashion, consigning all but a few of Handel’s operas to obscurity for several hundred years. They can be frightfully dull.

Even Handel, towards the end of career, moved away from the overly restrictive conventions of the form in preference for the oratorio, but even his late operas show a diminishing of interest and invention, and they would certainly have appeared as rather old fashioned by the time that Gluck’s reforms and Mozart’s invention took the form into a dynamic new direction. Written in 1741, Handel’s last opera, Deidamia - which only ran for three performances - is not the most involving work by the composer in its subject or treatment. With its classical theme, limited dramatic action and interaction, it might as well be an oratorio, composed as it is around da capo arias, brief recitative and the occasional duet. On the other hand, it’s still Handel, and with a little involvement and invention, even the driest of Handel’s opera serias can be enhanced with a strong and sympathetic production.

There’s a tendency to take Handel very seriously indeed, but his works are littered with comic references and many of his classical opera seria works - Flavio, Partenope and even Serse can be seen as playing with or even parodying the form. Robert Carsen recognised this in his Glyndebourne production of Rinaldo, and David Alden likewise approaches Deidamia the only way that would make it watchable for a modern audience, by exaggerating the humour that is very much a part of Handel’s musical palette and certainly a part of this opera. The influence of Neapolitan opera buffa shows clearly in the situation that Handel develops through a minor figure in the story of the Greek-Trojan war, and - much like Mozart would do in Die Entführung aus dem Serail and later to perfection in Le Nozze di Figaro - Handel recognises that there’s lots of humour to be derived from hidden identities and cross-dressing. It’s evident immediately from the moment that Deidamia, on the island of Scyros, expresses her frustration that her lover - the great hero Achilles - is unable to keep in character in his female disguise. Having been sent there by his father to hide - an oracle having warned him of Achilles fate should he join the war with Troy - Achilles is disguises as a young girl, Pyrrha. Instead of picking flowers and doing some needlework, Achilles is unable to resist his red-blooded masculine urges and is off in the woods hunting wild animals.

In David Alden’s production for the De Nederlandse Opera - beautifully stylised as well as humorously inclined - Achilles (a trouser role, just to add to the confusion and humour about the nature of the character) stomps onto the stage at this moment in a frilly pink dress throwing air punches, a bloody deer carcass slung over his shoulder with what looks like a few bits chomped out of it by the Greek warrior in his predatory zeal. It’s evidently not the image that Pyrrha should be projecting, particularly since Ulysses/Odysseus has just arrived in Scyros. Ulysses (disguised as Antilochus) has managed to gain the support and warships of the Scyros’ ruler Lycomedes in the war against Troy for the abduction of Helen, but he has heard reports that Achilles is on the island and is currently looking for him. Ulysses however is not blind to the charms of Deidamia (and with Sally Matthews sporting a series of attractive swimsuits in this production, it’s not difficult to see why), and Deidamia for her part is inevitably flattered by his attentions, which only enrages the headstrong Achilles when he observes them flirting with each other from his hiding place.

Deidamia then, apart from the classical Trojan war subject populated by figures of mythological standing, is an opera that is filled of lovers who express their woes in anguished da capo arias - “You are unfaithful, you do not love me” and “You have robbed me of my happiness” are sentiments expressed here and there are others along the same lines. That’s not to say that some of the arias aren’t exquisitely beautiful - it’s still Handel after all - and, to take Odysseus’ ‘Perdere il bene amato‘ as an example, capable of expressing genuine feeling and emotion, particularly when it is sung as finely as it is here by Silvia Tro Santafé. That’s the great strength of Alden’s production - it might look tongue-in-cheek and visually stylised with little concession to reality - but it doesn’t neglect to give Handel’s beautiful musical arrangements the expression they deserve, and with Ivor Bolton conducting the Concerto Köln wonderfully through this elegant score, there’s not much chance of it being anything but respectful and attuned to all the colours of the work.

And, despite being an opera seria, despite the repetition of the aria da capo arrangements, Deidamia is indeed a colourful work that blends the humour and parody of the situation with some genuine expressions of beauty and feeling. Appropriately then, the actual set designs are equally colourful, elegant and beautiful in their simplicity. You could even see the three main characters reflected in the three acts. Deidamia’s nature is exotic, based around a tropical island theme of Act I, the little island of Scyros an Aegean paradise surrounded by a limpid sea that reflects the sun-tinted blooms of cloud in its clear blue skies. Achilles’ wild and untameable nature is reflected in the jungle of Act II, while the Greek classicism and nobility of Ulysses is the theme of the third act’s developments. There’s maybe nothing naturalistic about the sets or the costumes - submarines that convey the Greeks to the island where they hop off and walk along the reflective surface of the sea - but it relates to the characters well and looks simply gorgeous from whatever angle it is viewed (and it is beautifully filmed here on this BD release). There are more than enough reasons in Handel’s music alone for this lesser work to be of considerable interest, but Alden’s stunning sets and the stylised costumes enhance the majesty and beauty in the music even further. And the comedy.

The combination of Handel, Bolton and Alden provides good enough reason alone, but the best reason for watching this production is for the singing performances. There are a few weaker elements in the cast - Victoria Cangemi’s Nerea isn’t always capable of sustaining a pure line and has a tendency to come apart on the high notes, and Umberto Chiummo’s Lycomedes isn’t the steadiest either - but in the three main roles where it counts, the performances are utterly delightful. There are considerable singing challenges in the roles of Deidamia, Ulysses and Achilles, which are compounded by the three of them having to find a way of bringing these character’s fairly routine sentiments to life and work together dramatically. Silvia Tro Santafé, I mentioned earlier brings a forcefulness of expression and depth of sentiment that is perfectly matched by beauty and lightness of Sally Matthews’ nonetheless robust singing and her eye-catching performance, each of them further contrasted by Olga Pasichnyk performance of Achilles’ impetuous masculine vigour and enthusiasm. Although the aria form doesn’t give much of an opportunity for these characters to interact, the strength of Handel’s work is in providing just such a contrast of personalities, situations and emotional tones, and this cast really makes that work in a way that is simply spellbinding.

Beautifully staged, with wonderful colour schemes and lighting, this spectacle looks outstanding in High Definition on Blu-ray, but the HD audio tracks are most impressive. There’s a brightness and clarity and luxuriousness of tone in both the PCM stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes that really highlights the qualities of the period instruments in a Baroque orchestra. Directed by Ivor Bolton, the qualities of the score, the construction and rhythm of the music are all the more apparent and impressive. The BD also has an interesting 24-minute featurette that looks behind-the-scenes at the music and stage rehearsals, interviewing those involved, as well as a Cast Gallery. The booklet examines the themes in Handel’s work in more depth and there’s a full synopsis. The disc is all-region, BD50, Full HD, with subtitles in English, French, German and Dutch only.

MoseGioachino Rossini - Mosè in Egitto

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2011 | Graham Vick, Roberto Abbado, Riccardo Zanellato, Alex Esposito, Olga Senderskaya, Dmitri Korchak, Sonia Ganassi, Yijie Shi, Enea Scala, Chiara Amarù | Opus Arte

Director Graham Vick and set designer Stuart Nunn, as well as the administration team of the Pesaro Rossini Opera Festival, go to great pains in interviews on the ‘Making Of’ extra feature included on this release to emphasise that their 2011 production of Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto doesn’t take sides and offers no solutions, but rather strives to present a balanced account of the impact of conflict and oppression on a population, specifically in a modern-day Middle East context. Balanced it may be, but that doesn’t mean that this production plays it safe in any way. Far from it. Vick depicts Rossini’s Biblical epic in terms of suicide bombers, terrorists, torture, self-immolation and - perhaps most controversially - styling Moses as an Osama Bin Laden figure, wielding a Kalashnikov and stirring up a Holy War against their oppressors through inflammatory video recordings.

Many people who take a very traditional view of opera would argue that Moses in Egypt should reflect the original period of its Biblical subject and that a director has no right to update it or impose a modern-day concept onto a work that it wasn’t written to express. It’s true that works can often be twisted from their original context into something that they were never meant to be, which if less than faithful can nonetheless produce interesting results. Without contradicting the intent of a single word of the original libretto here however, Graham Vick shows that there is a case for opera not to be entirely subservient to the words alone, but that it should also take into account an interpretation of what the music is expressing. Rossini’s score isn’t set in any specific period, but is abstractly aligned rather to timeless human feelings and emotions. As a director, Vick clearly wants the production of Rossini’s great work to express those sentiments in a meaningful way to a modern-day audience, and the extraordinarily powerful nature of its presentation here clearly justifies that approach.

Graham Vick - admirably in my view - is noted for taking a “community” approach to opera. It’s not an elite entertainment for a selected few, it’s not a museum for the historical representation of works that are hundreds of years old, nor is it about putting on a so-called definitive performance to demonstrate the vocal techniques of singing stars and divas, but rather it’s about viewing opera as a living artform that has something meaningful to communicate to a broad range of people in the present day. That requires the involvement and participation of the audience, and even if that’s just engagement with the issues presented, then that’s an achievement alone. In order to shake the audience out of passive reception however, Vick and set designer Stuart Nunn strive to break down the barriers between the stage and the audience in other ways. Here at the Rossini Opera Festival for Mosè in Egitto, that involves using a venue in Pesaro that isn’t a traditional opera theatre - it’s a basketball arena - and dressing it in a way (like a refugee camp side by side with a modern palace) that feels more recognisable to what an audience would be familiar with from recent events in television news reports.

Vick’s approach the 2011 Pesaro Mosè in Egitto is borne out by the nature of the work itself as an ‘azione tragico-sacra‘ in three acts. Written for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1818, Moses in Egypt saw Rossini move away from his comic operas into a new period of mature works that were to some extent constrained by specific structural conventions and the demands of certain singers, but the composer managed nonetheless to attune these mannerisms brilliantly to serve the nature of the dramatic content. That’s immediately apparent from the lack of Overture in the opera and the fact that it opens instead with the ‘Plague of Darkness’ choral lament, which the director stages powerfully by having blood-stained Arabs walking through the audience, holding out photographs of friends and relatives lost in the latest bombardment/plague carried out on the word of Moses in retribution for the enslavement of the Hebrew people by the Egyptian Pharaoh, plastering the pictures and messages on walls in front of the orchestra pit. It’s a meaningful image that brings the power of Rossini’s writing home, and the same approach is used throughout, consistently and often to quite striking effect, the final scenes in particular making a unforgettable impression that underlines the relevance and importance of making the work say something about the world today.

I say “orchestra pit”, but it’s clear - and not just from the informal dress of the musicians - that the orchestra are also very much a part of the action - particularly in this production were the music carries much more than the libretto does alone. If there are any doubts about the efficacy of the treatment, the powerhouse performance of the Orchestra Teatro Comunale di Bologna will quickly put any doubts to rest. Directed by Roberto Abbado this is a sparkling, sensitive performance that captures the verve, rhythm and lyrical lightness of Rossini’s versatile arrangements. The singers in most of the principal roles on the Egyptian side aren’t heavy-weights by any means, but singers like Alex Esposito, Dmitri Korchak and Olga Senderskaya are all lyrically qualified and well-suited to the roles of Faraone, Osiride and Amaltea. There’s a little more personality and weight required however for the parts of Mosè and Elcia, both in terms of their vocal demands and the necessity of having the strength of personality to bring together the political and human elements that combine in the drama, and those demands are more than capably met by Riccardo Zanellato and Sonia Ganassi. Excellent and noteworthy performances from Yijie Shi (Aronne/Aaron), Enea Scala (High Priest Mambre) and Chiara Amarù (Amenofi) really contribute to the overall power and quality of the work and the performance as a whole.

The 2011 Pesaro Mosè in Egitto isn’t pretty to look at, but it’s not meant to be. It does make some controversial references, but there’s nothing here that can’t be justified as a genuine reflection of human nature and how people live in the world today. That might not be what you expect to see in an opera performance of Moses in Egypt, but the brilliance of the production here is that it works both ways, drawing inspiration from Rossini’s remarkable score, finding a meaningful modern way to bring its themes to life, while the same time injecting its ancient Biblical story with a heavy dose of reality. It’s a testimony to Rossini’s brilliant writing and Andrea Leone Tottola’s poetic libretto that, musically and dramatically, Mosè in Egitto is more than capable of bearing it. If it’s the intention of the Rossini Opera Festival to look afresh are both familiar and rarely performed works by the composer in order to reevaluate qualities and strengths that are clearly there but which have been buried under decades of operatic mannerisms, then this kind of production achieves that most impressively. Stripped right back to its expressive power, this 2011 production of Mosè in Egitto is consequently something of a revelation.

As with all the recent Pesaro Rossini releases, that revelation extends to being able to see and hear these performance presented so well in High Definition on Blu-ray. Outstanding image quality in full-HD 1080/60i, detailed and beautifully toned high resolution audio mixes only enhance the efforts of the performers. Mainly due to the unconventional nature of the venue, radio mics are used, presumably only for recording purposes, but the mixing is well done and comes across naturally here. As well as a booklet that covers the production and gives a synopsis, there is a Cast Gallery and a 25-minute long behind-the-scenes ‘Making Of’ with interviews that explain the intentions behind the concept very well. The BD is region-free, with subtitles in English, French and German.

DemetrioGioachino Rossini - Demetrio e Polibio

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2010 | Corrado Rovaris, Davide Livermore, María José Moreno, Victoria Zaytseva, Yijie Shi, Mirco Palazzi | Arthaus Musik

There’s a wonderful double-take moment at the start of this 2010 Rossini Opera Festival production of Rossini’s Demetrio e Polibio, which turns out to be a thoughtful way to present the work and at the same time manages to strike the perfect balance between the traditional performance and more modern conceptual. The stage curtain draws back at the opening to reveal a final curtain call of a performer for an unseen audience out the back of the stage. His self-congratulations out of the way, the stage hands having moved the sets to the wings, the scene is set for some ancient ‘ghosts of opera past’ to arise out of the packing cases to re-enact a historic performance of the drama of Rossini’s Demetrio e Polibio.

It’s a clever and effective compromise between traditional and conceptual that works well for this one particular Rossini opera that needs a thoughtful and considered approach. Demetrio e Polibio, a ‘dramma serio‘ in two acts, is Rossini’s first opera, which he started to compose when he was only 14 years old. It was composed piecemeal in individual sections as a commission for the Mombelli family’s quartet of singers - some parts perhaps written by the Mombelli father - customised to meet the requirements of the particular characteristics of the singers, but also written to adhere to standard classical opera drama arrangements of arias and duets, with familiar plot devices that involve mistaken and hidden identities. It’s also one of those Metastasian-style dramas where a significant part of the dramatic action has already to a large extent taken place before the opera starts, leaving the characters in a position to bemoan their fate as they strive to find a resolution over the two acts of the opera.

Before the opera even starts, you need to know that Demetrius, the King of Syria, has entrusted his son to a loyal friend Minteus while he is involved in a terrible struggle over royal succession. Minteus however dies before he can reveal the nature of his royal identity to the boy, Siveno, who is taken in by Polibius, the King of Parthia, as his adopted son. As the opera starts some years later, Polibio plans to marry Siveno to his own daughter Lisinga, but Demetrio, having resolved matters in Syria, has come looking for his son, in disguise (of course) as Eumeno, a Syrian ambassador. Polibius - believing that Siveno is the son of Minteaus - doesn’t accept Eumeno’s claims on the boy, forcing Demetrio to make plans to abduct his own son. By mistake, it’s Lisinga who is abducted, which leads to a stand-off confrontation between Demetrio and Polibio over their respective offspring.

The nature of this ‘dramma serio‘ dictates that Rossini’s first opera leans more towards the model of composition of the 18th century rather than towards the new Italian opera model of the 19th century that Rossini would play such an important part in establishing. The influence of Mozart is also evident in the musical approach in an early La Finta Giardiniera or Apollo et Hyacinthus style, if somewhat less adventurous in arrangements and technique, but it’s surprising just how much of the Rossini sound is evident even at this early stage. The first act is made-up almost entirely of duets, with only the bare minimum of recitative, allowing the bonds to be established between the characters much more effectively than solipsistic arias of emotional turmoil, and it builds up wonderfully towards the quartets that mark the confrontation of Demetrio and Polibio (Siveno and Lisinga are not passive figures in the drama by any means) and the brief ensemble finale. The arrangement may have been tailor-made for the Mombelli family, but it also works to the advantage of the musical drama.

Demetrio e Polibio would still however be little more than an early Rossini curiosity, a pleasant but dull and conventional drama, were it not for the wonderful effort put into every aspect of the work for the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, the first modern production of the work in 150 years. As well as evoking the spirit of the Mombelli family through the period costume ghosts that inhabit a modern opera stage and thereby taking the origin of the work into account, director Davide Livermore also uses the haunted stage element to make the opera something wonderful to watch by employing plenty of Illusionist trickery. There’s relevance in this as well as entertainment, acknowledging the “old-style” theatricality of the work, but also using handheld flames to evoke the sparking of love and anger, while the proliferation of doubles, mirror images and disappearing acts all reflect the shifting identities of the characters. It makes a rather academic work seem much more meaningful and consistently entertaining.

The consideration given towards the presentation of this extremely rare work is also reflected in the delightful performance of the musicians, directed by Corrado Rovaris, and the singing performances. Bearing in mind that the difficulty of the roles as written was determined by the capabilities of the original cast, the singing is good across all the roles. Lisinga has the most challenging singing and María José Moreno takes in all the high notes - sometimes a little effortfully - but with great expressiveness. Demetrio has the most active role in the work as the villain of the piece (or perceived villain) and Yijie Shi demonstrates a fine Rossinian Italian tenor style that suits the role perfectly. The breeches role of Siveno doesn’t have quite so many demands placed on it in terms of singing but mezzo-soprano Victoria Zaytseva is absolutely fine for the part, while Mirco Palazzi’s reliable bass fulfils the requirements for Polibio with characteristic Rossinian verve. In terms of duets and ensemble work, the combination of their voices works beautifully in these lovely little arrangements.

On Blu-ray, this is another lovely package of a Rossini Opera Festival production. The High Definition transfer looks superb, and the stage design and direction is so strong that Tiziano Mancini doesn’t have to resort to video trickery to make it any more interesting. The usual high quality audio tracks in PCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 give a detailed account of the fine music and the singing performance, making this curiosity all the more fascinating to listen to. The subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean. The English subtitles have some curiosities of translation - “No more husband have I, a villain has subtracted him from me” is one example, but they are mostly fine if a little stiff and literal. As well as some words on the production and a full synopsis in the accompanying booklet, there is a fine 14-minute ‘Making Of’ with interviews and behind the scenes footage on the disc itself.