Esposito, Alex


ZelmiraGioachino Rossini - Zelmira

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2009 | Roberto Abbado, Giorgio Barberio Corsetti, Alex Esposito, Kate Aldrich, Juan Diego Flórez, Gregory Kunde, Marianna Pizzolato, Mirco Palazzi, Francisco Brito, Sávio Sperandio | Decca

Rossini’s final opera written for Naples, Zelmira, is rather less well-known now than the greater works written for Paris that immediately follow it - Moïse et Pharaon, Le Comte Ory, Guillaume Tell. It’s an opera that places exceptional demands on the singers, but perhaps no more so than those later works, so that only accounts for part of the reason why it so rarely performed. Produced for the Rossini Opera Festival in 2009, the problems with staging Zelmira would seem to derive from the nature of the work itself as an opera seria. It’s a long work that follows the format of set scenes and emotions that presents challenges that even the musical invention of Rossini or strong singing performances alone can’t overcome. It needs to work dramatically, and unfortunately, Giorgio Barberio Corsetti’s messy and confused production for Pesaro doesn’t do much to help it.

Although there are claims by Roberto Abbado and the Pesaro Festival organisers that Rossini’s music here extends the constraints of opera seria, the structure remains largely intact, and Rossini in reality does little more than play around to bring the form of the da capo aria into what we associate today with bel canto ornamentation. There are some terrific arias and arrangements here in Zelmira, but there is nothing that Rossini hasn’t already taken much further and with better dramatic integrity in earlier work for Naples like La Donna del Lago. The music for Zelmira for the most part - in between the showpiece arias - remains fairly rigid and lacking in variation, building from a canter to a gallop in that famous Rossinian style to create a rising emotional intensity, but its peaks are ill-served and ill-matched to an unexciting plot.

The main problem lies with the fact that the overall structure of the piece is weighed down by the unwieldy conventions of the opera seria form. The plot of Zelmira is mechanical and improbable, relying on standard situations, coincidences and actions that arise from rather one-dimensional character development. In the tradition of Baroque opera, the main dramatic drivers of the action have already taken place even before the opera even starts. Set on the isle of Lesbos, a struggle for power has erupted while Ilo, the husband of Zelmira, has gone to defend the homeland. Azor, the Lord of Mytilene, has launched an attack, burning down the temple of Ceres, where Azor has been led to believe - on the word of Zelmira - that her father, King Polidoro is hiding. Zelmira however has secured her father secretly in the royal mausoleum. Antenore takes advantage of the situation, killing Azor, laying claim to the throne himself and he accuses Zelmira of being complicit in the death of Azor and her father, the king, as well.

Now there are plenty of opportunities for Zelmira to prove her innocence during Act 1 of the actual opera, but Rossini forgoes any realistic dramatic progression to the conventions of opera seria where everyone laments the current state of affairs in arias adorned with repetition and ornamentation. The troops lament the death of Azor, Polidoro is distraught and broken alone in his hiding place, while Zelmira’s protests of innocence fall on deaf ears. Amazingly, there seem to be no witnesses among the public or the troops to back up her claims, and even faced with imprisonment, Zelmira doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to reveal that the king is not actually dead. She is at least able to eventually convince her confidante Emma to take her young son into hiding.

Even when her husband Ilo returns to his homeland (delivering one of Rossini’s great arias - ‘Terra Amica‘), Zelmira’s actions only seem to dig her in deeper and it’s Antenore and his lieutenant Leucippo’s account that Ilo is told. In one of those improbable situations that only occur in opera then, Zelmira - attempting to rescue Ilo from assassination by Leucippo, ends up with the dagger in her own hand and has another crime to answer for. Inevitably, it’s going to take a few more rounds of arias to assimilate the enormity of this new heinous act and the kind of conflicted emotions it engenders in each of characters, before Zelmira eventually produces Polidoro and her son, and the villains are found out.

Ostensibly then Zelmira is very much in the tradition of the opera seria, dealing with rulers, power, corruption and lies, but in reality, as the title of the opera derived from the name of the heroine suggests, it’s more about the heroine, Zelmira. Faced with injustice, false accusations, her innocence and integrity called unjustly into question, Zelmira is very much the early prototype for the bel canto heroines of Donizetti and Bellini. As such, and particularly in how it holds closely to the opera seria style and stretching as it does to three and a quarter hours in length, Zelmira can be a bit of a stretch for anyone interested in strong character development and dramatic credibility, but it does have other compensating factors in the inventiveness of Rossini’s arrangements, the musical colours that he brings to the genre and the opportunities that this provides for the singers to imprint personality and character onto the work through their singing delivery.

If Kate Aldrich isn’t quite able to make her Zelmira work, it’s through no fault of her singing which has real power and expressiveness, but rather more of a question of this being a role that requires a singer of greater stature and personality to bring it to life and make her predicament credible and sympathetic. The same challenge faces all the singers here, but in their case, they really need better stage direction and a better production design than the one provided here. Juan Diego Flórez has plenty of personality and the range to meet the demands of this kind of Rossinian role - strong, resonant, wonderfully musical and expressive, but his high timbre is never the most pleasant and it’s not helped by the acoustics of the stage (set up in Pesaro’s Adriatic basketball arena) and sounds quite piercing at the high notes in a way that is hard on the ears. The sound suits the bass and bass-baritone voices much better, giving a lovely resonance to Alex Esposito’s grave Polidoro and Mirco Palazzi’s Leucippo, whose recitative even sounds beautifully rounded and musical. Gregory Kunde however also comes across well as Antenore, and Marianna Pizzolato almost steals the show with her luxurious mezzo-soprano in the contralto role of Emma.

With a cast this good, a stronger production might have made all the difference, but Giorgio Barberio Corsetti’s concept doesn’t seem to suit the character of the work. Instead of Zelmira’s predicament, the focus is very much upon the nature of war and power, the director setting the production in near darkness, using overhead mirrors to reflect the darker and hidden side of all these power struggles and lies that we don’t normally see, reflecting wounded, tortured and dead troops placed beneath the grilled stage. Apart from not really helping the opera where it needs the support, it actually works against it, making it seem very messy, unfocussed and often downright ugly.

It may have looked better in the theatre, but the darkness of the stage, the figures highlighted in pale yellow light, with confusing reflections in the background mirrors, doesn’t come across well on the screen, even in High Definition. There appears to be some post-production adjustments to balance the contrasts, and even shadowing applied to block out the frequently visible conductor Roberto Abbado at the front of the stage, but this only proves to be even more distracting and messy. The PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks on the Blu-ray disc however are mostly fine, even if there is some harshness in the reverb of the acoustics. The Decca BD also includes a 25-minute Making Of, which contains interesting thoughts and information on the work itself and the production from the cast and the production team.

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.

GiovanniWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Royal Opera House, London, 2012 | Constantinos Carydis, Francesca Zambello, Erwin Schrott, Alex Exposito, Carmela Remigio, Ruxandra Donose, Pavol Breslik, Kate Lindsey, Matthew Rose, Reinhard Hagen | Covent Garden, 26 February 2012

It never ceases to amaze me how it is possible to play Don Giovanni in so many different ways, with subtle shifts of emphasis that can change one’s whole view of the work. That’s possible with most great operas in the hands of an imaginative director, but I find that it is particularly the case with Don Giovanni, a work that was brilliantly designed to be open and ambiguous, giving the appearance of moral rectitude where the villain is punished and his misdeeds reflected over in an epilogue, but in reality being much more complicated than that. I didn’t find that Francesca Zambello’s 2002 production, revived here at the Royal Opera House under director Barbara Lluch, had a whole lot to add to the various interpretations that have added different layers to the character of Don Giovanni, but the joy of the opera is that the Count is often defined by the other characters in the work and that leaves a lot of room for reinterpretation.

There was nothing new in the relationship between Don Giovanni and Leporello here then - the Don is a loveable rogue who can’t help himself when it comes to women, and Leporello is his admiring comedy sidekick, enjoying his adventures in seduction across Europe up until the moment that Don Giovanni’s wicked ways start to catch up with him. If there was a lack of imagination in how this is played out, it’s at least an enjoyable way to see the familiar pleasures of opera, and it may even have been an intentional decision on the part of the director Francesco Zambello, in order to place more emphasis on the female characters and allow them to take more of a central role. The women are by no means overlooked or underdeveloped by Mozart and Da Ponte, but they are often seen as secondary foils who are only there to unravel Don Giovanni’s schemes and bring him to justice for his crimes.

Under Francesca Zambello’s direction, the women are often positioned together, forming a kind of bond of sisterhood. In Donna Elvira’s Act II aria ‘Mi tradì quell’ alma ingrata‘, where she laments her inability to give up her unfaithful man, she is joined in silent sympathy by both Donna Anna and Zerlina, who both have their own problems not only with Don Giovanni, but with the other men in their life. Their bonding is celebrated again with hugs in the opera’s epilogue, but it’s not some kind of proto-feminist solidarity at their success in overthrowing the tyranny of male domination represented by the descent into hell of Don Giovanni - that would be inappropriate for the 18th century setting and contrary to the characterisation as it is defined in the libretto. Rather it’s an acknowledgement of the women of their nature - falling for good looks and charms of a man they know is no good for them, whose words can’t be trusted, who will seduce and abandon them, but who nonetheless makes them feel desired and special. Think how that would feel if he really meant it. That’s an irresistible prospect and the women just can’t help themselves and are powerless against their own impulses and these drives that Don Giovanni awakens in them.

Giovanni

I wouldn’t however give too much credit to Francesca Zambello for bring out this aspect of the work - like so many other interpretations it’s all there in the brilliant libretto and the stunning musical arrangements of the original work and just waiting to be explored - particularly as in most other respects the production here is surprisingly lacking. The stage sets may be well designed to fluidly switch between all the complicated location arrangements that take place in two long acts of the opera, but they are ugly and clunky, the huge bulky woodwork not remaining in the background, but swinging out over the whole of the stage, the positioning of the actors within it meaning that depending where you are seated, they can be often hidden from view. At best the set is functional - it didn’t hamper the progression of the drama or detract from the enjoyment of the fine performances - but it’s unwieldy and unattractive.

If there is not a great deal that’s new to be gained from this particular production, the audience at least has the pleasure of seeing a great work well performed. The last time I saw Erwin Schrott in a production of Don Giovanni (a 2008 Salzburg production on Blu-ray), he was a wonderful twitchy Leporello, but he can do the role of the master just as effectively, making it look effortless. Don Giovanni may not have any arias in the opera, but it’s a difficult role to carry off convincingly. It’s not just that Schrott fulfils the necessary bari-hunk credentials that one needs for the role nowadays, rather gratuitously in this production having to strip down to the waist, (although as he demonstrated to a lady in the Stalls Circle Left at the Royal Opera House, he has no shortage of magnetic charm), but his singing was assured and in character. A little comic exaggeration doesn’t go amiss in Don Giovanni, but when required, Schrott could carry the necessary noble contemptuousness for others while giving the impression of being utterly irresistible in his charms. It wasn’t required here as much as in other productions, but I’m sure he could carry off the nasty and cruel streak in Don Giovanni if the emphasis in a production were in that direction.

The fact that it wasn’t a dark and dangerous Don Giovanni however is by no means a flaw, but a matter of interpretation, particularly when one wants to draw on other aspects of the work. In order to shift the balance over to the female perspective however, it needs very strong singers in the more challenging roles of Donna Anna and Donna Elvira. Carmela Remigio and Ruxandra Donose met the necessary criteria as far as the demands of the production required, the two of them together certainly representing a formidable force to challenge Don Giovanni, their singing strong and filled with character, even if they didn’t always hold up to the technical demands of the more difficult arias. Kate Lindsey was a little anonymous in the role of the flighty Zerlina, and her voice wasn’t the most delicate of tones, but her interaction with the excellent Matthew Rose as Masetto was fine.

If you could say there was a weakness in the female make-up that didn’t necessarily compromise their position as far as the aims of this production went, there was in comparison a general solidity to the all the male roles, with Pavol Breslik an earnest Don Ottavio and Reinhard Hagen a commanding Commendatore. Seen recently as Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, Alex Exposito clearly specialises in strong, comic Mozartian character parts and he fully entered into the spirit of Leporello, with all the comic exaggeration that the role often demands, singing well, as ever, with heartfelt passion. There was no lack of commitment or fire in any of the performances - the orchestra also in form under Constantinos Carydis - and if fire is what you like, there was plenty of that in the final scene of Don Giovanni’s descent into hell, where the heat of the flames could be certainly be felt in the front rows. If the stage directions were questionable elsewhere, the orchestration of the final scenes were well-judged for maximum impact, not least in the final postscript where Don Giovanni seems to be quite at home in the underworld.

GazzaLadraGioachino Rossini - La Gazza Ladra

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro 2007 | Lü Jia, Damiano Michieletto, Mariola Cantarero, Dmitry Korchak, Alex Exposito, Michele Pertusi, Paolo Bordogna, Kleopatra Papatheologou, Manuela Custer, Stefan Cifolelli, Cosmo Panozzo, Vittorio Prato, Matteo Ferrara | Dynamic

There’s an air of familiarity to Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie), and it’s not just the famous overture (reputedly dashed off the evening before the first performance) that is second in popularity only to the composer’s overture to William Tell, nor in this case is it anything to do with the composer’s habit of reusing his music for other compositions. What is familiar to the point of predictability in La Gazza Ladra (written in 1817 between La Cenerentola and Armida) is the manner in which its opera semiseria melodrama plotline plays out.

The plot of the opera is not dissimilar to other later and perhaps more obscure examples of that style – Halévy’s Clari, Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, even Bellini’s La Sonnambula isn’t far off either – featuring and a couple of young lovers from differing classes in an Alpine/provincial setting whose hopes are thwarted by the one set of parents, who wish for a more suitable marriage for their son than to the peasant daughter of humble tenant farmers. Usually the purity and innocence of young woman in question is also unjustly maligned (‘mad scene’ optional at this point), only for the stain on her character resolved and tragedy averted in time for a happy ending. All this is the cause of much romantic reflection, lamenting and rejoicing in high-flown arias employing extravagant coloratura and stratospheric high notes.

La Gazza Ladra adheres closely to this model, but what differentiates it from other lesser examples of the opera semiseria is the fact that – obviously – it’s by Rossini, and being Rossini, the music is always melodically thrilling and inventive. The hook in this particular opera is of course that thieving magpie theme that flits through the opera musically, as well as the recognition of it as a playful dramatic theme, a deus ex machina element that pops in now and again to move the plot along and prevent it from getting bogged down in melodramatic excess. It helps if a production recognises this fact and never takes itself too seriously, but it also helps if you have singers who are capable of meeting the vocal demands and. Fortunately this production of La Gazza Ladra from the 2007 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro mostly lives up to the invigorating tone of the work on both fronts.

GazzaLadra

A period staging won’t cut it in a modern context when the plot can be as stodgy and old-fashioned as this, even with Rossini’s music to enliven it. At the same time, it’s a mistake to get too clever, since the singers have enough on their plates with the extreme technical demands on their singing without being encumbered with elaborate acting and movements. Directed by Damiano Michieletto, this production – like most for this style of opera nowadays – goes for stylised colourful, minimalist, picture-book style imagery with no attempt at realism of locations, and theatrical costumes of no fixed period or style. There’s no grand concept either, though it does have a theme and some unusual touches – a grouping of all-purpose pipes that can be adapted to represent trees, pillars, cannons, prison bars, in the manner of Lepage’s Machine for the Met Ring – and there’s an acrobat dancer to play the part of the magpie, a playful touch that works quite well.

The singing is hit and miss, but by and large it’s a decent account of the opera. Mariola Cantarero is a fine Ninetta, with a lovely tone of voice that is more than capable of reaching all the notes and making them count. Dmitry Korchak has a nice tone of voice, but there’s little character in it and the demands of the Giannetto tenor role are a little beyond him. Alex Exposito is an excellent Fernando, his baritone not quite as strong as the role calls for, but he has a wonderful voice, sings well and, just as importantly, puts a great deal of character and feeling into the role of Ninetta’s conflicted father. Michele Pertusi plays Gottardo, the sleazy magistrate with the hots for the heroine – another convention of the genre and one that Pertusi, as a villainous bass, is well used to playing, and he plays up to the role reasonably well. The orchestra is conducted by Lü Jia give an excellent, lively and sympathetic account of the score, even if the detail of their work isn’t all that clear on this release.

For their first foray into High Definition, Dynamic’s upgrade of this 2007 production isn’t the greatest. Previously available on DVD, the Blu-ray is scarcely an improvement on the Standard Definition version in either video quality or sound. The quality itself isn’t bad, the image remaining colourful, but it’s soft and lacking in fine detail and there is mild movement blurring. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was an up-conversion of the same master used for the SD release. The audio, available in PCM 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS HD Master-Audio 5.1 is rather thin for the orchestration, but the singing is clear throughout. It should be noted however that all the singers are wearing microphones. The BD is also one of those that ‘loads’ and takes over your player, but I didn’t notice it causing any problems. Menus, pop-ups and subtitle selection all work fine. Region free, BD50, 1080i, subtitles in Italian, English, French, German and Spanish.

ZauberfloteWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Teatro alla Scala, Milan 2011 | Roland Böer, William Kentridge, Günther Groissböck, Saimir Pirgu, Albina Shagimuratova, Genia Kühmeier, Ailish Tynan, Alex Esposito, Peter Bronder | Opus Arte

I think the mark of Mozart’s genius in the composition of his strange and still enigmatic final opera is pretty much agreed upon by most critics and its popularity as one of the most performed works in the repertory deservedly still endures, but in terms of presentation on the stage, Die Zauberflöte still represents a challenge that has perhaps been neglected in recent times by the major modern revisionist directors in favour of finding new ways to explore the Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy of works – The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così Fan Tutte. This is perhaps surprising, since The Magic Flute itself is such a rich and interesting work, historically and personally in terms of the nature of its composition towards the end of Mozart’s life, but it’s also notable for the tremendous musical variety and innovation with which Mozart approaches the Singspiel format, the music not only illustrating or illuminating Schikaneder’s playful and sometimes nonsensical libretto, but bringing structure and depth to the work, breathing life into it in a way that makes its mysteries endlessly fascinating. What more can any director possibly bring to the table or bring out of this work that could make it any more entertaining or even comprehensible?

The stage director for this production of Die Zauberflöte at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan may not have any new ideas about the opera’s central theme of light versus darkness being that of man seeking to rise above their baser natures and impulses, seeking enlightenment over obscurantism, or rationalism over superstition, but as an artist, illustrator and animator South African director William Kentridge does at least approach these themes with a very distinct style of his own. The period setting chosen appears to be late 19th century, the beginning of the age of technological advancement, the characters dressed to looking like figures from a Jules Verne or a H.G Wells novel. At the centre of these scientific advances in this production is the camera, a box that in itself represents the use of light – the ingenuity of man – to forge something out of the darkness, much as Mozart uses the music of the magic flute for the same purpose. Within the box of the stage, Kentridge uses shadows and light in a variety of ways that fits in well with this theme, as well as often being visually very striking.

Zauberflote

Thus, in the opening of Act 1, Tamino battles with a snake that is a projection, but rather than being the kind of CGI spectacle that one might expect with the use of modern technology from a production by someone like La Fura dels Baus (one of the conceptual director’s who actually have tackled Die Zauberflöte, but the less said about their unlikely concept of the Magic Flute being a battle between the opposing hemispheres of the brain the better), it’s more in keeping with the chosen time period and created by the three ladies of the Queen of the Night, who form it out of the shadowplay of their arms. So right from the outset, Tamino literally defeats a shadow of the forces of darkness. It might not be as spectacular as some wirework serpents, but it still works effectively and in keeping with a meaningful overall concept. Elsewhere, through black-and-white reversal charcoal designs, animation and even some silent movie footage Kentridge finds a variety of means to illustrate the journey and trials of the protagonists, their acquisition of wisdom and knowledge, as well as reflect the symbolism, numerology and the Masonic imagery that is associated with the themes of the opera.

At times, one might like to see more familiar traditional props and backdrops, but at least the flute and the bells are physical objects here, which is not always something you can count on. Sometimes, the drawings themselves evoke those traditional references, the classic domed canopy of stars that represents the domain of the Queen of Night given a spin here that fits with the artist’s own sense of concept and design. The ideas don’t particularly illuminate this strange, beguiling work in any new way, but neither does the director attempt to impose any ill-fitting concept onto it. It does at the very least have a distinct sense of personality, freshness and originality, which is more than you can say about the only other version of the opera currently on Blu-ray, the Royal Opera House production directed by David McVicar. At times, the imagery here – enhanced it seems by a little post-production overlays for television – is simply spectacular.

In terms of performance however, that earlier mentioned production conducted by Colin Davis, may have the upper hand. The orchestration here sounds somewhat lifeless, and no-one on the stage – with the exception of Alex Exposito’s Papageno, looks like they are having much fun with what should be a delightfully invigorating work. I’m presuming that the arrangement used here by Ronald Böer is period – or more likely semi-period for La Scala – as it’s not orchestrated as lushly as you would normally hear it. That allows for some interesting touches in places that takes it back to its Singspiel origins and there is even continuo for some of the recitative (courtesy of René Jacobs), but it feels like there is a distinct lack of verve in the playing and the performances. In a good interview in the extra features, Böer recognises that Die Zauberflöte contains all the different facets of Mozart’s work, but the complex personality of Mozart himself is in there too, reflected in each of the characters, and that doesn’t always come across here.

Zauberflote

I can’t fault the singing of this production’s Tamino or Pamina. Tamino can be a difficult role to breathe any life into, but you don’t necessarily need to – the character’s (and Mozart’s) purity, youthful idealism and single-minded determination (yet one that is open to new ideas and a sense of betterment) is all there in the music and Saimir Pirgu sings it beautifully. So too does Genia Kühmeier’s Pamina represent the other side of that nature with a similar clear purity of voice – her ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ is one of the loveliest I’ve heard. Alex Exposito is the only figure who demonstrates any kind of life and personality, and he sings Papageno well with clear diction. Where Die Zauberflöte really needs character however, a sense of grandness and imperiousness to give depth and gravity to the work, is in the opposing forces of Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, and unfortunately, neither Albina Shagimuratova nor Günther Groissböck are entirely up to the task. Groissböck, so powerful as the Water Goblin in the controversial Munich Rusalka, is particularly disappointing, not really having the authority in presence or indeed the depth to the voice required for a strong Sarastro. Shagimuratova hits all those notes ok, if a little breathlessly, but she doesn’t command that essential presence or menace either as Queen of the Night.

All in all however, if it’s a little dryly performed and lacking a little bit of spark, this is nonetheless a strong performance of Die Zauberflöte that manages to take a fresh approach to the score and the themes of the work. It’s certainly worthwhile for William Kentridge’s unique approach to production design that makes this never anything less than a rich and imaginative spectacle. The Blu-ray is of the usual high video and audio standards, with extra features consisting of a Cast Gallery and a very interesting twelve-minute Interview with the director and conductor. Region-free, BD50, 1080i, PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1, German language with English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles.