January 2013


Maria StuardaGaetano Donizetti - Maria Stuarda

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2013 | Maurizio Benini, David McVicar, Joyce DiDonato, Elza van den Heever, Matthew Polenzani, Joshua Hopkins, Matthew Rose | The Met Live in HD - January 19th 2013

I take it all back. Well, maybe not all of it. Musically and dramatically, I think Anna Bolena - done right - is certainly still the strongest and most convincing work in Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy, but David McVicar’s new production of Maria Stuarda - the second opera in of the three that he is directing for the Metropolitan Opera following last season’s Anna Bolena - has persuaded me that the work is more than just a romantic love-triangle bel canto piece in period costume and a historical setting, and it’s more than just an opportunity for a mezzo-soprano/soprano coloratura firework display between the two duelling divas playing the Queens.

The historical relevance of the rivalry between the Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots - the Tudor descendant - and Queen Elizabeth - whose legitimacy is questionable after the execution of her mother Anne Boleyn - is an important one, but their background also determines the character of each of the women to a large extent. This is indeed as much about two women as it is about two Queens, two women who have to live up to the weight and responsibility of history and their position, but they are not precluded from normal human feelings and reactions of pride, love and jealousy.

Based on a drama by Friedrich Schiller, the human drama in Maria Stuarda then hinges on a fictitious and fractious encounter between two women who in reality may have had a tense relationship, but never actually met in real-life. The imagined meeting at Fotheringhay Castle, where Mary Stuart was imprisoned, could realistically have happened - Elizabeth once passing quite close to the place while Mary was there - but although invented, the encounter is nonetheless a valid dramatic device that provides an opportunity and a release and expression of the very real rivalry and conflict that exists between the two women and their Protestant and Catholic followers.

Dramatic licence then and an invented love-triangle situation involving Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, may provide the context for those expressions to be brought together and for the respective personalities of the women - and their enmity for each other - to be aired, but where opera excels is in the emotional heightening of that reality through the music and the singing. It’s Donizetti’s score - conventional though it is in places - that gives further depth and personality to the characters, and hint at other aspects that lie beyond the remit of history books. Opera is good at this and Donizetti proves to be capable of raising the situation to the necessary heights in Maria Stuarda. The opera however still needs to be convincingly staged and sung, and bel canto opera presents considerable challenges for the director and the cast in that respect.

Working with an unfamiliar style of opera that has those special demands, David McVicar again - as with the earlier Anna Bolena - didn’t attempt anything too radical, keeping the work in period and refraining from introducing any concepts that aren’t evident in the libretto. This has some disadvantages - the opera, like most bel canto opera, tends to be rather static and devoid of any real action - but McVicar recognises that the strength and the real dramatic content of the work lies in the historical situation and that its import is best brought out by the singing. In fact, Maria Stuarda relies principally on a couple of key pieces - the famous confrontation scene at the end of Act I where the Queens spit insults at each other (’vil bastarda’), and the Act II scenes and arias leading up to Mary’s execution. McVicar’s handling of these vital scenes was flawless, the staging and lighting having the necessary impact that was almost spine-tingling.

That doesn’t come about by chance however, nor does the full impact come across in isolation from the rest of the work. The build-up to the scenes and the character exploration that leads up to them is just as important and that aspect wasn’t neglected by McVicar, or by set and costume designer John MacFarlane either. The effort put into this was perhaps most evident in the depiction of Elizabeth, in the choice of costumes and wigs, in the almost masculine swagger and in the actual physical size of Elza ven den Heever dominating over the much smaller Joyce DiDonato, but the little details that show her weaknesses and vulnerabilities also came across in movements and subtle moments of reflection that are tied closely to the music. If the attention given towards ven den Heever’s Elizabeth (and her dedication at going so far as to shave off her hair in order to make that famous bewigged look all the more convincing) was more evidently worked upon, the characterisation of Mary by McVicar, and of course by Joyce DiDonato, as one of an intense sincerity of purpose that tips over into barely controlled passion, is just as important to strike the necessary contrast in personality, background and character.

That contrast between the women is of course also explored in the blistering arias and the explosive duet that make the work famous (leading to at least one notorious real-life kicking and punching match between the original two leading ladies in the opposing roles), but in the case of this production, the match is never an equal one - at least in terms of singing. It’s not left up to two leading divas of competing equal ability to determine between them who is the most fiery, but it’s one predetermined by the casting and the direction choices. There’s really no contest or doubt about where the sympathies lie here, and no attempt to strike a balance - although Elizabeth is, as mentioned earlier, strikingly characterised in a way that is wonderfully human and real. Elza ven den Heever plays and sings the part well, but she’s no match for the power of Joyce DiDonato’s portrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Bel canto leading roles often demand a singer of extraordinary ability, needing technique as well as personality and a necessary degree of acting ability, and DiDonato proved here that she is one of the best mezzo-sopranos in the world in that respect. This was a thoughtful, considered and committed performance, one that demonstrates understanding of her character and finds a manner to express Mary’s inner qualities though the weight and timing of delivery, through the coloratura and through the very tone and timbre of the voice itself. If the full impact is felt at the close of the opera - like Anna Bolena ending with another flash of red, but one her that is historically documented as Mary’s choice of red martyrdom dress - it’s mainly due to DiDonato’s ability to make it utterly and chillingly real.

It’s evidence, if any further evidence is needed, that such bel canto operas can only work - and have only ever been successfully revived - when there is an artist of sufficient stature, technique and ability to carry them. DiDonato is clearly up there. The jewel however requires a setting to allow it to shine, and there were no elements at all here to tarnish the lustre of DiDonato in any way. Matthew Polenzani’s Leicester was adequately sung. It wasn’t a role best-suited to Polenzani, and I’ve seen him perform much better than this - but as it is written, Leicester’s part in the love-triangle never seems the most convincing aspect of the work, or the real motivation for the rivalry between the two queens, merely a pretext to draw them together. Joshua Hopkins as Cecil and Matthew Rose as Talbot also dutifully and more than adequately filled their roles in the drama, but everything that counted in making this production come together depended on Joyce DiDonato, and more than anything else, it was her performance that made this an impressive and even unforgettable Maria Stuarda.

Anna BolenaGaetano Donizetti - Anna Bolena

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2011 | Marco Armiliato, David McVicar, Anna Netrebko, Ekaterina Gubanova, Ildar Abdrazakov, Keith Miller, Stephen Costello, Eduardo Valdes, Tamara Mumford | Sky Arts, The Met Live in HD - Oct 15th 2011

The Metropolitan Opera in New York chose the first of Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy of operas, Anna Bolena, to open its 2011-12 season and also be the first of its Live in HD broadcasts for the season. With David McVicar now also directing Donizetto’s second Tudor opera Maria Stuarda for the 2012-13 season (broadcast this weekend Live in HD), and presumably in line to complete the trilogy with Roberto Devereux next season, it seemed a good point to catch up with the earlier production since it is currently available for viewing on the Sky Arts channel in the UK.

Moreso than the other two works in Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy, and indeed unlike most bel canto historical period dramas - Lucrezia Borgia and I Puritani, for example - Anna Bolena is a work that uses its history as rather more than just a colourful backdrop for the usual romantic intrigues leading to betrayal and despair. Those elements are certainly a part of what makes the story of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, human and relatable, but Donizetti’s work also takes into consideration the wider historical perspective and nature of the characters - particularly in what is revealed about Henry from his earlier marriage to Catherine of Aragon. It also takes into account the vast historical impact and the constitutional crisis that his desire to dissolve his marriage to Anne Boleyn would have on the English nation.

The first Act of Donizetti’s opera, opening in the oppressive atmosphere of the court of Greenwich Castle, establishes the context exceptionally well. Courtiers mill around, wary of the evident problems in the royal marriage that hasn’t borne Henry a male heir, while Anne looks troubled, feels isolated, her thoughts dark and gloomy. Even her Smeaton’s love-song ballad - the pageboy in love with the Queen himself - only reminds Anne of the way love can go wrong. Yet, she still can’t sense the guilt that is weighing upon Jane Seymour, or the seriousness of the threat that is posed by her lady-in-waiting’s affair with the King. Henry promises Jane “a husband, a sceptre, a throne”, but for Jane her personal sense of shame can only be alleviated by the legitimacy of marriage and that will come at a price. In order to break with Anne, Henry recalls the exiled Richard Percy, believing he can find justification in Percy’s prior relationship with Anne Boleyn to annul the marriage, but the unexpected presence of the love-struck Smeaton in Anne’s bedchamber gives Henry the opportunity to go even further.

The dilemma is laid out very clearly in Felice Romano’s libretto, but even more so in Donizetti’s brooding score which captures all of the drama and the dark foreboding of what lies ahead. That needs to come across in the setting as well as in the music and the singing performances, and by and large David McVicar’s production manages to get to the heart of those sentiments. It’s resolutely period in setting and somewhat stiffly arranged, the sets amounting to nothing more really than walls and doors - big doors, mind you - but this is an opera that works as a piece, a work driven by the dramatic flow rather than adhering to the standard bel canto number format, and the director manages to maintain a consistency of tone and purpose, allowing room for manoeuvre and expression over and beyond the words in the singing and in the coloratura of the singing. And for that you need exceptional singing talent.

The singing here, while very good across all the roles and showing no fatal weaknesses, was however not what you’d call exceptional. Ekaterina Gubanova perhaps comes across best as Jane Seymour, singing well and with feeling, making you really care about her character’s predicament and even pitying her not only for being in love with a nasty figure like Henry, but for having to admit it to Anne. She is very convincing in her dilemma, and her confession scene with Anna Netrebko’s Anna is consequently one of the best scenes in this production. Evidently however, all eyes are on Netrebko, but for the most part she is curiously stiff and even strangely vacuous, never delivering a performance as good as the one she delivered in this role in Vienna only a few months earlier (available on Blu-ray and DVD). When it’s needed however, she really gets her voice behind the extreme emotions and anguish of Anna Boleyn, if not always finding the variety of expression required in the coloratura, and even on occasion sounding a little hoarse on the high notes. Often it just sounds forced and operatically mannered, which is not something I’ve heard before in Netrebko’s usually more expressive and considered delivery.

Bearing the weight of history and a role that could so easily be simplified into an operatic ‘baddie’, it’s tough to bring any kind of degree of humanity and realism to the role of Henry. Donizetti and Romani recognise however that there is a man behind the crown (”May Henry be kind, even if the King is cruel”) and they rather brilliantly capture that in the music and the libretto. It’s particularly relevant in scene when Henry realises that Boleyn was “Percy’s wife. Before Henry” and in his subsequent scene with Jane Seymour that seals Anne’s fate, the whole sequence epitomising and encapsulating Henry’s attitude, his male pride, his kingly pride and the realisation that he can use that information and privileged position to his advantage. These are crucial scenes to the work where a singer has to make Henry’s dangerous authority and his ability to command a situation clear. Donizetti certainly nails it in the music, and fortunately so does Ildar Abdrazakov in the singing here.

Stephen Costello doesn’t have the most melodic tone as Percy, but is firm and steady and his singing is not without considerable feeling for the role. The importance of Mark Smeaton shouldn’t be underestimated in this opera and fortunately it was well-cast with Tamara Mumford in the trouser role, and the part was well-directed by David McVicar. There’s a sense of the bloody reality of Henry’s reign brought home in Smeaton’s confession under torture, McVicar bringing a certain realism that emphasises the horror of the situation and the brutality of the period. That’s balanced however with a rather more delicate touch in the symbolic fall of a blood red curtain at the execution scene. It’s the little touches that often count with McVicar and he brought them to bear effectively where they were most needed in a work that elsewhere didn’t quite have the urgency of the Vienna production.

CenerentolaGioachino Rossini - La Cenerentola

RAI Television, 2012 | Carlo Verdone, Gianluigi Gelmetti, Lena Belkina, Edgardo Rocha, Anna Kasyan, Annunziata Vestri, Carlo Lepore, Simone Alberghini, Lorenzo Regazzo | BBC Television

La Cenerentola is the latest production from Andrea Andermann, who every year provides Italian television and the world with an ambitious live performance of a popular Italian opera, shot in the actual locations and at the times specified in the libretto, and broadcast live as it is filmed for television. With operas like Tosca and Rigoletto (the latter in particular spectacularly filmed in and around the Ducal Palace in Mantua two years ago), there is an element of the works that is enhanced to some extent by being able to view them in their exact historical locations - locations that also happen to look quite stunning. But Rossini’s version of the Cinderella story, La Cenerentola? Well, you can see the problem. How can a fairytale possibly benefit from or even be enhanced by the kind of realism that goes into an Andrea Andermann production?

The notion of setting it in Turin has more to it than helping spread around the benefits that an Andermann production gives to the Italian tourist industry. Turin is traditionally the home of the Italian Royal family, and since Cinderella’s marriage to a Prince is a central part of the work, there is some merit and justification in the choice. It doesn’t take you long past the opening titles - the Overture at least pleasantly animated to give Cinderella a background that leads to her being an orphan now with a stepfather and stepsisters - to get the feeling however that the whole production is fundamentally misconceived. Setting Don Magnifico’s baronial mansion of Act I under harsh overly bright studio lighting for television viewing makes it look neither fairytale-like nor realistic. There are no dark chimney corners, no opulent rooms - it just looks like a studio set with cheap stage costumes and operatic acting. There is some benefit in how it allows the camera to flow along with the action outside the house into the garden for the arrival of the Prince, but otherwise, the opera style seems out of place in its “actual location” surroundings.

More than that, taking La Cenerentola away from the stage actually diminishes the work and reduces the magic of the opera’s wonderful centrepiece scenes - the transformation of Cinderella and the coach journeys. Here, in a live setting and in real locations, those scenes can only be done through the animation framing sequences that are inserted periodically to link scenes and acts. Again, one can’t help feel that introducing realism to La Cenerentola somewhat defeats the purpose of the work, but it doesn’t even have the benefit of theatrical “magic” either. Attempts to add some of that sparkle back in through the sprinkling of “magic dust” and kaleidoscopic effects added in post-production doesn’t really make up for what is missing here, and it actually comes across as quite kitsch instead. To its credit, the ballroom scenes filmed in a palace are every bit as spectacular as you would imagine, and much better than anything that could be achieved on the stage.

If the live on-location idea is misconceived for Cinderella, Rossini’s work is magical enough to work on its own terms - severely cut though it is here to fit television schedules - and fortunately that’s the saving grace of this production. Latvian mezzo-soprano Lena Belkina proved to be very pleasing to the eyes and the ears with a classic dark beauty of Anna Netrebko and even a similarity in appearance with Maria Callas. She doesn’t really have the depth, the power or the richness of voice of those singers, or even the fullness of tone and expression that Cecilia Bartoli, for example, has brought to this particular role - but she is well suited to this slightly lighter (lightweight?) production of a Rossini work that should be played with delicacy of tone and bright wit.

Unfortunately, quite aside from the live and on-location issues, the direction of Gianluigi Gelmetti doesn’t really exploit the comic brilliance of the work. As well sung as the roles of Cinderella and Don Ramiro are, neither Belkina nor Edgardo Rocha are given enough to do, and their characters come over as rather bland. Even Thisbe and Clorinda, the ugly step-sisters, aren’t fully developed here or used to the advantages that Anna Kasyan and Annunziata Vestri are vocally and dramatically capable of bringing to the roles. Only Carlo Lepore’s Don Magnifico comes across with the requisite strength of character and voice that lifts the dynamic of the production above the merely functional.

There’s no particular flair to the filming either this time around. With Rigoletto in 2010 we had direction and cinematography by filmmakers as renowned as Marco Bellochio and Vittorio Storaro, but La Cenerentola has no such distinction. There’s an attempt to bring some visual character by involving a ball of yarn to the “tangled knot” revelation scene, but by and large the direction is rather leaden, and never manages to bring the work to life or match the dazzling wit and sparkling nature of Rossini’s music. It’s a made-for-TV La Cenerentola, nothing more, that sadly has little to do with Rossini or real opera.

Second WomanFrédéric Verrières - The Second Woman

Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris, 2012 | Jean Deroyer, Guillaume Vincent, Jean-Yves Aizic, Jean-Sébastien Bou, Elizabeth Calleo, Jeanne Cherhal, Marie-Ève Munger, Philippe Smith | ARTE Live Web Internet streaming, 22 December 2012

At first, with long patches of spoken dialogue and little musical accompaniment, it’s difficult to establish where The Second Woman lies in the boundaries between theatre, music theatre and opera. Composed by Frédéric Verrières, the work is inspired by the John Cassavetes film ‘Opening Night‘ (1977), the story of an actress Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands), who goes through a mental breakdown following the accidental death of a fan, drinking heavily and behaving erratically during rehearsals just before the opening night of a play called ‘The Second Woman’. Life and art start mirroring each other for Myrtle to the extent that it becomes difficult to establish where the performance ends and the real person begins.

It’s probably appropriate then that Verrières’ opera proves similarly hard to define or pin down. Rather than being set during the rehearsals for a play, The Second Woman is a behind-the-scenes view of the preparations for the first performance of a new opera which is called - just to blur the lines further in a very post-modern way - The Second Woman. (I wonder what the actual rehearsals for this must have been like - the mind boggles). The opening scenes therefore take place as a rehearsal for a performance, with a répétiteur at the piano and a director struggling with his temperamental (is there any other kind) artists to block out the dramatic action, get the lighting right and deal with the personal conflicts, animosity and artistic differences between the performers. Everything comes together eventually for an actual straight performance of the short opera in Act III, which even then is not entirely without incident and disruption.

There is of course a precedent for this in Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, the prelude of which outlines a farcical situation that leads to two entirely different operas, one serious and one a comedy, being put on together at the same time due to time restrictions. There is also some self-reflexive musing on opera and the creative process by Strauss and Hofmannsthal in Capriccio and essentially, the purpose of The Second Woman isn’t that far removed from such considerations. It may all look haphazard, no-one seems to know what they should be doing - least of all the “director” - or at least they all have very different personal views on what they want to bring to the work, but that’s how the collaborative creative process works. It starts from an idea, and if allowed to develop naturally, it can bring in other references and inspirations and acquire personal interpretations that allow it to take unanticipated form and substance.

Since The Second Woman is both an opera and an opera-within-an-opera, it’s difficult to make a distinction then between what is original and what is, so to speak, second-hand - although I’m not sure it’s even meaningful to make a distinction between them. The songs in the rehearsals take place to piano accompaniment, and most of the dialogue in the earlier scenes is unaccompanied, but there is also a more modern use of sampled sounds and ambient drone noises, as well as specific operatic references which include mention of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore and a duet between the “cantatrice” and her coloratura sister (the opera’s woman-in-the-mirror equivalent to the dead fan in ‘Opening Night‘) that is re-worked from the ‘Viens, Mallika‘ duet in Delibes’ Lakmé. Outside of the rehearsals, the actual opera (or “opera”) is made up of a patchwork of different styles and references that takes in folk, pop, Steve Reich-like minimalist passages and even Baroque stylisations.

In between the rehearsals and the actual opera, and through its specific layering of operatic and other musical references, The Second Woman does manage to peel back the layers of its characters, or at least that of the singer, the cantatrice. Born into an artistic family, her father a tenor singing Verdi and Puccini, she and her sister would create their own operas, and her latter-day personal identity crisis seems to come about from being regarded in her childhood as “nothing but a voice”. It’s little wonder then that the crisis that develops in The Second Woman can only be expressed in musical terms.

Director Guillaume Vincent has his work cut out trying to unravel these layers in a way that makes it comprehensible to an audience, as does American soprano Elizabeth Calleo as the singer, but they achieve this remarkably well, slipping fluidly between the musical styles, between English dialogue and French singing (with some Italianate references), between the humour and the drama, the reminiscence and reverie, the rehearsal and the opera, and the actuality of the real performance. The audience at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris certainly found the whole playing up of the artistic temperaments and personal differences very amusing, but there was a wit and intelligence to the music also, directed from the back of the stage - curtain after curtain falling along with the layers of the drama - by Jean Deroyer.

Broadcast live via Internet Streaming, The Second Woman is still available for viewing on the ARTE Live Web site. The work is performed mainly in French and English, but there are no subtitles provided.

Traviata

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

La Monnaie, Brussels, 2012 | Ádám Fischer, Andrea Breth, Simona Šaturová, Salomé Haller, Carole Wilson, Sébastien Guèze, Scott Hendricks, Dietmar Kerschbaum, Till Fechner, Jean-Luc Ballestra, Guillaume Antoine, Gijs Van der Linden, Matthew Zadow, Kris Belligh | Internet streaming, 15 December 2012

Let’s not beat around the bush here, because this controversial new production of Verdi’s La Traviata directed by Andrea Breth for La Monnaie in Brussels certainly makes its point directly and in no uncertain terms right from the outset. Prostitution is a nasty business. Courtesans, like Violetta Valéry in La Traviata, may once have had a glamorous allure, but the reality was and is quite different. The ultimate fate of any woman in those circumstances as the years and the lifestyle takes its toll, as they struggle to maintain appearances and simply survive, dependent upon the goodwill of others, is not a pretty one. Giuseppe Verdi acknowledged this as far as censorship allowed in La Traviata - and even then it would not allow the work to be depicted as Verdi wanted as a contemporary drama - showing a ‘fallen woman’ unable to find love and happiness. Director Andrea Breth goes much further.

Violetta’s origins are shown right from the outset of the La Monnaie production during the Overture, the young woman being brought in from some East European country via a human trafficking operation and sold off to a prostitution ring. The opening party scene of the work then retains the forced glamour depicted by Verdi’s setting of the scene, while at the same time showing that the underlying reality is not so pleasant. Semi-naked women pose glamorously from display windows behind a party that seems to be taking place in a high-class brothel, one that does a line in S&M, of which Violetta appears to be the Madame. Amid the drunken revelry, one of the guests, wearing a plaster cast, his trousers half on and half around his ankles, vomits over one of the semi-conscious female guests. At the end of the evening as Violetta ponders the shy advances of a new young admirer Alfredo (’Ah! Fors’è lui…‘), one straggling reveller, in a state where she is unable to find her stockings and shoes, snorts some cocaine in the background.

That’s not a typical way to depict Act I of La Traviata, but the brilliance of this production - a controversial one certainly that has stirred up a great deal of debate and which eventually forced La Monnaie to issue a statement with backing from other artists on the freedom of artistic expression - is that it remains musically and thematically faithful to the strengths of Verdi’s writing and the subject, making it contemporary and realistic in a way that the composer himself was prevented from doing by the censor. It’s not out to shock through a controversial treatment as much as to shock the audience into understanding and relating to the reality that Verdi was trying to get across. It’s a measure of the success of the treatment that this version of La Traviata - a work that unfortunately has all too often become a glamorous star turn for a big-name diva - is one of the most powerful of recent years, revitalised and sparkling, modern and relevant. It’s what La Traviata is all about.

The modern revisionist elements and the controversial sexual content of the production elsewhere similarly manage to strike a near-perfect balance between modern relevance and fidelity to the original intentions of the work. Scene 2 of Act I does little more than show an Alfredo so transported with love that he paints some graffiti love messages on a residence that currently has the workmen in. It’s the depiction of the revelry however in the pivotal Act II confrontation that is the most troubling part of the work - and it should indeed be a troubling scene. Keeping to the theme of the unpleasant reality of prostitution and the exploitation of women, Breth uses strong imagery and behaviour that is reminiscent of Pasolini’s film ‘Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom‘. (No, that’s not chocolate that one of the older guests is smearing over a young under-aged schoolgirl’s face). As a very difficult, near-unwatchable work about the dehumanisation and commoditisation of the human body, the corruption of wealth and power (money speaking just as much in Verdi’s day as in the present), Salò is a relevant work to reference. It isn’t taken to quite the same lengths in La Traviata here, but there’s enough to make a point in the strongest way possible, and enough evidently, to cause quite a stir in the world of opera.

As troubling as all this is intended to be, the ultimate degradation of Violetta and women in her position should be just as forceful in the final Act, as Breth’s vision proves to be quite as perceptive and capable of conveying the full intent and force of the underlying meaning with all the necessary impact. Violetta’s maidservant Annina is forced to pay the doctor through services provided on her knees, out on streets in a dark alley where her mistress is dying, wrapped up in plastic sheeting, as a heroin user shoots up further down from her. It’s as powerful an expression as you can imagine of the abject misery that is more than likely to be the fate of any aging prostitute who is seriously ill and has bills to pay. It may not be the romantic death of a tragic heroine through consumption in the bedroom of an elegant Parisian mansion that is more commonly shown in productions of this opera, but this version gets more directly to the heart of what Verdi was writing about and it is actually relatively mild to the harsh daily reality of the violence, abuse and exploitation that takes place on the streets in real life.

While the dramatic and thematic concept has been carefully thought through and put across with fidelity and a sense of purpose, that’s only half the battle with putting on La Traviata. The singing and performance of the work itself needs to be just as considerate of the work, and fortunately the casting and the conducting of the La Monnaie orchestra by Ádám Fischer were perfectly in accord with the staging. Early on, I liked how rhythm and tempo employed during Violetta’s ‘Sempre libera‘ matched Violetta’s tentative exhilaration at the discovery of love, tempered at the same time by the first signs of her illness. The judgement of each of the subsequent scenes however is just as sensitive and precise to the characterisation and the content, while also finding a way to make those diverse scenes and emotions flow naturally one after another. A most impressive account.

The singing is more of a mixed bag, but by and large it worked hand-in-hand with the drama. I always find it difficult to adjust to a new singer in one of the most famous roles in opera, but if Simona Šaturová didn’t have the force or technique of some of the more notable sopranos who have sung the role, she nonetheless made a deep impression and gained greater credibility and strength as the work progressed. All the roles were well-cast from the point of view of age and looks - that doesn’t often happen - and if Sébastien Guèze wasn’t the strongest singer who has ever sung the role, he reflected Alfredo’s youth and inexperience well, and with some degree of distinction and personality. Scott Hendricks wouldn’t be my ideal Giorgio Germont, but he also fits in well with the production. He can be a bit wayward and over-enthusiastic, but here he was relatively restrained, if still a little mannered and imprecise. In his ‘pura siccome un angelo‘, there’s a neat twist where the father uses its seductive appeal as a come-on to Violetta - another instance of the abuse of power - and Hendrix makes it work. It’s just one example of how the relationships have been thought through here - the father/son relationship between Hendrix and Guèze also works well - creating a convincing and realistic dynamic, showing a fine and considered understanding of the characters and the situations they find themselves in.

There’s a reason why La Traviata is the most performed opera in the world. Verdi’s magnificent writing is of course the primary reason.  The composer’s later works are more sophisticated with greater dramatic expression and through-composition, but La Traviata is unmatched for the brilliance of melody and situational invention that brings its drama to life. But it’s also notable for the universality of the uncompromising sentiments the work and the music expresses on human relationships, on love, betrayal and mortality that still have the ability to reach us and touch us through their relevance. La Traviata was designed to show off Verdi’s brilliance as a composer - and it does - but it was also intended to create a scandal in its frank depiction of the attitudes of a corrupt and hypocritical society towards “fallen women” who strayed outside the boundaries of what was deemed respectable. This scandalous production at La Monnaie is a thrilling reminder of just how vital a work La Traviata remains.

The live broadcast of the 15th December performance of La Traviata is still available for free viewing on the ARTE Live Web site, without subtitles. La Monnaie’s recording of the production, taken from performances of 15th and 18th December, is also available for free viewing from their own website, with French and Dutch subtitles only.

RigolettoGiuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2012 | Marco Armiliato, Árpád Schilling, Joseph Calleja, Franco Vassallo, Patricia Pettibon, Dimitry Ivashchenko, Nadia Krasteva, Tim Kuypers, Dean Power, Christian Rieger | Live Internet Streaming, 30 December 2012

Despite appearances, with a production that made use of some eccentric touches in each of the scenes, the Bayerische Staatsoper production of Verdi’s Rigoletto didn’t really seem to have anything new or even meaningful to add to a popular and brilliant work from the composer that will surely have more memorable outings in the year of his bicentenary. Better sung ones too, undoubtedly, but that might have been a problem with the failure of director Árpád Schilling to give the fine singers here any meaningful characterisation and direction to work with.

There’s little doubt about where the focus of interest in the opera is from Verdi’s perspective. It’s not about the King’s or, in this case, the Duke’s amusements (the work derived from Victor Hugo’s ‘Le Roi s’amuse‘), as much as the dilemma of the little man, Rigoletto, his court jester, who is caught up in the intrigues and less capable of dealing with the fall-out that results from the Duke of Mantua’s wilder and more licentious activities. What’s intriguing about the work is how Rigoletto is not entirely a sympathetic figure (and the Duke is not entirely without some redeemable features either), and that he is in many ways the agent of his own downfall - even though he can’t see that as being anything more than the curse of one courtier, Count Monterone, whose daughter has been seduced by the Duke.

That much is retained in Schilling’s version for Munich, and it would be hard to present Rigoletto in any other way, such is the precision of Verdi’s structuring of the work and his purposeful musical arrangements, the opera driven by a series of duets that establish the characterisation and the relationships between each of the figures. Rigoletto is indeed shown - perhaps through no fault of his own having been born a hunchback and otherwise unable to attain love and acceptance through ordinary means - to be a lapdog to the Duke of Mantua, complicit in his schemes, believing himself secure in his favoured position. He’s not completely naive however. He knows the true nature of the Duke and looks to protect his own little idealised existence - his daughter - from the kind of corruption that he himself is party to. Rigoletto is “an amoral petty bourgeois man” according to Schilling, “who dreams of innocence”, and who in the end is destroyed by his own attempts to defend this untenable position.

That’s fine as far as it goes, and if it doesn’t present any new ideas on the nature of Rigoletto, it at least adheres to Verdi’s dramatic and musically astute depiction of this intriguing figure. There’s no necessity either for Rigoletto to be dressed as a court jester or bear his deformity in order to draw his character - Verdi has it so well written in his musical arrangements. If the costume designer chooses to dress him in a shirt, chinos and a neckscarf, changing to a white bow-tie, top-hat and tails for the final scene, that’s just as fine a way of distinguishing his social aspirations. And if the Duke slums around in slacks, a chunky cardigan and vest shirt, and Gilda wears a jumper and jeans or a bathrobe, well, it doesn’t look like much, but Rigoletto need not be as much about class and clothes as personality and love. And since Gilda loves Gualtier Malde whether he is a poor student or a nobleman, there’s no need here for lavish period costumes.

It still doesn’t look like much. What passes for distinctiveness in the production in the absence of any social or period context however is unfortunately rather odd. In Act 1, the court of the Duke is represented by a stepped platform, a viewing gallery from which the courtiers watch the proceedings. In the second scene, the assassin Sparafucile’s weapon isn’t a sword, but a wheelchair with oversize wheels - or more precisely, a flick-knife and a tin of black paint that he uses on his victims having lured them to sit in the strange wheeled apparatus. A huge statue of a rearing horse is wheeled out briefly as the climax to Act 2 for no apparent reason or significance, and Act 3 brings back the steps for the inn scene. It’s all very representational - if the meaning isn’t entirely clear - but it doesn’t unfortunately create the necessary impression.

In such a context, neither unfortunately does the singing. Joseph Calleja sings well enough, but his Duke lacks regal arrogance and boyish charm and there’s a curious lack of feeling in his delivery. There’s a little more urgency to Franco Vassallo’s Rigoletto and Patricia Pettibon’s rather more sympathetic Gilda, but the direction never allows them to express the roles with any sense of feeling for the drama. One other curious touch in the casting that might have significance is the duality or contrast made by casting Dimitry Ivashchenko as both Monterone and Sparafucile and having Nadia Krasteva play Maddalena and Gilda’s maidservant Giovanna - but again, what this adds exactly to the work remains elusive. Still, despite the best efforts of the production design and direction to undermine it, the Bavarian State Opera production of Rigoletto benefitted from reasonably good singing performances, and ultimately won through by virtue alone of the wonder of Verdi’s score and its performance by the Munich orchestra under Marco Armiliato.

Rigoletto was viewed via live Internet Streaming from the Bayerische Staatsoper.TV website. The next free live broadcast will be Janáček’s Jenufa starring Karita Mattila on 9th March 2013.

GiovannaGiuseppe Verdi - Giovanna D’Arco

Teatro Regio di Parma, 2008 | Bruno Bartoletti, Gabriele Lavia, Evan Bowers, Renato Bruson, Svetla Vassileva, Luigi Petroni, Maurizio Lo Piccolo | C-Major

By the time Verdi came to compose Giovanna D’Arco in 1845, the composer was eager to take on more substantial works of literary merit with the kind of romantic scope and emotional range that suited and appealed to his musical sensibility. He had engaged the young poet Francisco Maria Piave to work on his Victor Hugo adaptation, Ernani, and he would soon come to tackle his first Shakespeare work with Macbeth the following year. For Giovanna D’Arco, Verdi found inspiration in Friedrich von Schiller’s story of Joan of Arc, finding material for a true dramma lirico that was a match for his developing talent, but also clearly responding personally to the revolutionary sentiments that echoed with the contemporary reality of Risorgimento Italy.

The grand epic nature of the story and Verdi’s responsiveness towards it is immediately evident in the composer’s scoring for the overture and in his personal reworking of the material. The first Act alone establishes a strong and stirringly emotive context for the drama that unfolds. Set during the 100 Years’ War in 1429, King Charles VII of France (Carlos in the opera) announces - to the dismay of his followers - his abdication from the throne, and the necessity of surrendering to the English in order to spare his people from further suffering. He resolves to lay down his weapons at a shrine to the Virgin Mary that has appeared to him in a dream.

Despite the warnings of his followers that the shrine he describes exists in the nearby village of Domrémy, but that it is a cursed place, Carlos goes to the shrine and is inspired by the passionate figure of Joan he discovers there. Empowered by heavenly spirits to be an emissary for the Virgin Mary, Joan wishes to bear arms against the English in a holy war. Her father however, believes Joan to be in league with the devil, and betrays her to the English by turning her own followers and the King against her. In Verdi’s version of the work - quite different from Schiller’s work and the known historical accounts of Joan of Arc - Joan’s dilemma is depicted as being one of maintaining a sworn vow to remain pure from serving any earthly love, but the young warrior is unable to keep back her feelings for the king, feelings that are reciprocated by an admiring Carlos.

Giovanna D’Arco therefore deals with a classic high Romantic subject in the conflict between love and duty, caught up in a tense dramatic situation that involves war, revolution, family and religion - subjects that Verdi would often deal with, and there’s a similarity between this work and something like La Forza del Destino. While later Verdi would be more refined in characterisation and dramatic development - neither Giovanna D’Arco nor Macbeth are matches for the later Schiller and Shakespeare adaptations of Don Carlos or Otello, nor indeed is earlier Ernani comparable to his work on the later Hugo Rigoletto - but Verdi’s earlier work has its attractions, principally here in the composer’s beautiful melodic line and the consistency of his treatment of the opera’s themes. Broken down into Grand Opéra-like scenes - the King’s vision, the chorus of angels and demons in Act I alone - the construction may be conventional and not exactly inspired but it is exceptionally well crafted, pointing clearly towards the direction and the strengths of the later Verdi.

The quality of this rarely performed and underrated work is made evident here in this 2008 performance at the Teatro Regio di Parma’s Verdi Festival through a handsome production that is sympathetic to the style and nature of the work, and it also benefits from some excellent singing performances. Other than a painted backdrop depicting a Risorgimento cavalry charge - nothing more than a hint of what might have been on Verdi’s mind while composing - the production design and costumes are traditional and naturalistic to the Joan of Arc story itself. It’s beautifully lit and staged, transforming smoothly from one scene to the next, finding an appropriate look and tone that brings out the full impact of each highly charged situation. The placing of the performers - the stage often filled with the huge choruses composed by Verdi - also works to the best dramatic purpose, with little in the way of stagy theatrics or operatic mannerisms.

The singing of all three lead roles is excellent. Svetla Vassileva’s performance - as it ought to be for a figure like Joan of Arc - is powerful, impassioned, lively and precise in delivery, working fully in the spirit of the work itself. If there are any reservations about Evan Bowers’ performance as Carlos, they are only in respect of the writing for the role itself. It’s a similarly committed performance, well sung and acted, that works marvellously in the context of the work. Renato Bruson sounded a little unsteady in his first scene, but is solid where it counts later in the opera, as vocal challenges rise correspondingly with the emotionally charged dramatic developments. The orchestra, conducted by Bruno Bartoletti, and the chorus are also in fine form here, the cast and production working in common accord to present about as good an account of this rare Verdi work as you could imagine.

This recording of Giovanna d’Arco is released here on Blu-ray as part of the ‘Tutto Verdi’ series from C-Major, a collection that is made up of performances of all Verdi’s opera work recorded at the Teatro Regio di Parma. Some trailers for other works in the collection are included on the disc, as well as a visual introduction/synopsis for Giovanna d’Arco. The quality of the HD image is excellent, with good detail even in the darker scenes. There audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and both give a warm, clear account of the invigorating music, chorus and singing. The Blu-ray is all-region, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

ArianePaul Dukas - Ariane et Barbe-bleue

Gran Teatre del Liceu, 2011 | Stéphane Denêve, Claus Guth, Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, José van Dam, Patricia Bardon, Gemma Coma-Alabert, Beatriz Jiménez, Elena Copons, Salomé Haller, Alba Valldaura, Pierpaolo Palloni, Xavier Martínez, Dimitar Darlev | Opus Arte

There are many meanings and cautionary messages that can be drawn from the fairytales of Charles Perrault, but ‘Bluebeard‘ - the tale of an aristocratic serial killer who murders his wives - is surely one of the most gruesome and darkly enigmatic. Even more so in Ariane et Barbe-bleue, the version penned by the Symbolist Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck, the author of Pelléas et Mélisande, who himself adapted the work - again practically intact - as a libretto for the French composer Paul Dukas. Comparisons with Debussy’s opera - written only five years previously in 1902 - are inevitable, but if the musical influences that Dukas draws from are more evident and less distinctive than Debussy, the turn of the 20th century psychological exploration of the characters through the combination of Maeterlinck’s words and Dukas’s music is no less endlessly fascinating and deeply compelling.

In Maeterlinck’s hands, the perspective of the Bluebeard folktale is rather different from Perrault’s, the dark horror and cautionary note of the serial killer storyline rather less prominent than the exploration of the psychology of the female protagonists who seem to willingly submit to the thrall of masculine power and domination through marriage. The story here does indeed touch on the dark fascination of female curiosity for the violent danger of a male sexuality that simultaneously attracts and repels. In Maeterlinck’s story, Bluebeard’s latest bride, Ariane, has given herself in marriage to the notorious aristocrat who is believed to have murdered his previous five wives, but she has not submitted entirely to his authority. The six silver keys he has given that open doors to wonderful treasures represent the rewards and the boundaries of what Ariane can expect by following the rules set out by the marriage - each of the doors opening to rooms containing amethysts, sapphires, pearls, emeralds, rubies and, finally, diamonds - pure and eternal. That doesn’t stop Ariane however from opening the forbidden door locked by the gold key - “After diamonds, there can only be fire and death”, she observes.

The final door inevitably holds the secret to the fate of Bluebeard’s previous five wives, and it relates to some extent to a female curiosity based on an urge on the part of Ariane to explore the sexual history of her husband. While there is some psychological exploration of that impulse that verges on self-destructive, Maeterlinck and Dukas use that drive towards a more progressive feminist view in Ariane et Barbe-bleue. Ariane may driven by unknown impulses and working to guidelines set out by Bluebeard, but she is not in the thrall of the “enchantment” of her husband in the same way as the other wives. Their charms - the flaming hair of Mélisande, the delicate arms of Ygraine, the fair shoulders of Bellangère - have been hidden by marriage, whereas Ariane is forceful and secure in asserting her own personality and determined to help the other women achieve their own independence and expression. Like Pelléas et Mélisande however, Maeterlinck’s work and symbolism defies any simple allegorical meaning and one shouldn’t be strictly be applied to the exclusion of other resonances and mysteries that lie within it.

Although it is rather more emphatic in highlighting the specifics of the drama and the words than Debussy, Dukas’ score also hints at those other meanings and ambiguities. The references to Debussy’s impressionism may be apparent - just as Maeterlinck uses characters from his other works (like Mélisande) for Bluebeard’s wives - but Dukas more obviously draws from Wagner and particularly Strauss in Salome (in the scoring of the dark undercurrents in the relationship between Salome and Jochanaan) for more explicit, direct expression. It’s a fascinating and rich musical exploration by Dukas in his only opera work, powerful, beautiful and modern, possibly even more influential than Debussy’s unique and inimitable opera, with the associations and female psychology explored here evidently influential on Strauss and Hofmannstahl’s fairytale-like Die Frau ohne Schatten and its extraordinary use of female voices is matched only by Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites.

Considering the psychological nature of the work and the necessity of allowing its openness, ambiguity and symbolism to speak for itself, it’s perhaps not surprising that director Claus Guth doesn’t follow the libretto too literally. He avoids what would now be considered clichéd imagery in the opening scene of mobs of angry townspeople bearing pitchforks and firebrands, as the latest young bride seems to go willingly to her doom in Bluebeard’s castle. The castle here is nothing more than a modern suburban residence, but it’s what it represents that is important, and evidently the house is Bluebeard himself and it’s the uncomfortable and dangerous nature of the masculinity that Ariane examines, challenges and delves into, not only opening doors, but breaking through the surface of the floor to the horrors that lie underneath. The set design works well in this respect, keeping the visuals clean, simple and symbolic, allowing the singers the necessary space to express the layers of meaning that lie within Maeterlinck’s libretto and Dukas’ seething score.

Much of the power of the work is indeed delivered through the scoring for powerful mezzo-soprano and contralto female voices and this cast proves to be highly effective in conveying its force. Ariane requires a strong Wagnerian soprano to express her character’s inner strength of personality and purposefulness and Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet’s rich tone is commanding and persuasive, yet sensitive to the shimmering suggestion of the score. She is well supported by an equally strong and wonderfully measured Patricia Bardon as the nurse, but all of the female cast here are impressive here as the other wives, although Gemma Coma-Alabert’s fiery Sélysette is the only one with a significant role. As the male at the centre of the work, Bluebeard is evidently an important role in Ariane et Barbe-bleue, even if the singing is limited to only a few lines. José van Dam - who has mostly retired from big-scale stage productions - is no longer in possession of a voice as commanding as it once was, but there’s consequently a vulnerability as well as a necessary strength of personality here that puts an interesting spin on his Barbe-bleue.

This is an extremely rare work but one that deserves to be better known, and - appearing for the first time on either DVD or Blu-ray - this is a marvellous production of a fascinating work, emphatically delivered with force and sensitivity by the orchestra of the Liceu under Stéphane Denêve. The quality of the Blu-ray’s HD image and high resolution sound mixes ensures that the performance is given the best possible presentation. I personally found the surround DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix a little too open, and that it suited the more direct stereo PCM mix better, with the full detail of the orchestration clearer through headphones. Other than a Cast Gallery, there are no extra features on the disc, but the booklet contains a good essay by Gavin Plumley, whose reading of Ariane striking out towards the 20th century while the others refuse to take the freedom offered is a good one, and there’s a full, detailed synopsis. The BD is all-region compatible with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Japanese and Korean.