Pappano, Antonio


TroyensHector Berlioz - Les Troyens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TritticoGiacomo Puccini - Il Trittico

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones, Lucio Gallo, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Alan Oke, Jeremy White, Ermonela Jaho, Anna Larsson, Irena Mishura, Elena Zilio, Elizabeth Sikora, Ekaterina Siurina, Francesco Demuro, Rebecca Evans, Gwynne Howell | Opus Arte

An essay in the booklet for the Blu-ray release of the Royal Opera House’s 2011 production of Puccini’s Il Trittico remarks that there’s always a temptation to try and find a common theme between the three short operas that the composer wrote to be performed together, but that essentially they were written mainly to complement each other only in so far as the contrast they provide. That still doesn’t stop producers (or those writing about the work) from trying to find connections between them. Antonio Pappano in his introduction here sees the overall theme as deception, which I like, and it’s a useful theme to keep in mind, but although there could be other commonalities found between the works - young love and dreams being stifled or weighed down by events from the past - the main uniting theme is indeed the diversity of the works. Il Trittico will make you laugh and it will make you cry - you can count on that - but, should you want to, there’s a wealth of riches to explore here in Puccini’s masterful scoring and the variety of themes that he covers.

The variety of the subjects and the manner in which they are written and played out however is more than just for the entertainment of the audience (although this is evidently the primary consideration and there is something for everyone here), but it seem to me that they are also purposely diverse in subject matter, tone and treatment in order to give Puccini as much scope as possible to stretch himself and develop into new musical areas that had been opened up in the post-Wagner world of 20th century opera. Even if the romantic melodrama of Il Tabarro or the tragic opera heroine theme of Suor Angelica are familiar areas for Puccini (the comedy of Gianni Schicchi is however another matter entirely), one can see that he is working musically outside the comfort zone of traditional Italian opera arrangements and arias, working within the constraints of the shorter form in order to concentrate on finding the purest expression of the dramatic and emotional content of the works.

Il Tabarro however is far from familiar Puccini. It is certainly a close relation to La Bohème, being set in Paris, concerned with the hopes and dreams of the lower classes looking for love and security in their lives, their romantic lives stifled by their poverty, and it even makes a few minor references to Mimi and the music of La Bohème behind the scenes, but Puccini’s mature musical perspective is quite different, darker and far heavier. Pappano makes reference to the influence of Debussy and impressionism, which is most obviously evident in the opening sounds of the canal dockyard blending into the music itself, creating a perfectly evocative atmosphere for the dark, misty setting, but the music throughout seems to express the underlying social context, the inner lives of the characters and their pasts, as much as it illustrates the dramatic events that occur in the present. There are no major arias, but the sense of their history and their social position as vagabonds, a life that is slowly grinding them down, is expressed in the singing and in the voices, the intensity of the emotion and expression of temperament as important as they actual words they sing, if not even more so. Puccini brings all that out, fully and with considerable depth, fitting it in with the dramatic developments, all within the compressed space of a one-act opera. It’s masterful.

The dark gritty realism extends through to the sets in Richard Jones’s production that recreates the dark Parisian streets at the banks of the Seine as effectively as Puccini’s score. The excellent lighting is particularly instrumental in establishing the mood. The cast too are terrific, able to spark life into these characters and reveal them in all their humanity. Eva-Maria Westbroek in particular is very strong as Giorgetta, with her Wagnerian range that still has a lovely lyricism. Gallo has the reputation of mugging characters, but he’s strong here as the dark and intense Michele. He doesn’t really have the depth of voice or the acting quality to reveal any unexpected qualities, but he sings the role quite well. There are no concerns at all with Aleksandrs Antonenko, who sings powerfully and brings out that extra dimension that Puccini scores in his revealing duet with Westbroek’s Giorgetta. If Il Tabarro is never thought of as the strongest section of Il Trittico, this production presents it as well as it can be done, Pappano in particular directing the orchestra of the Royal Opera House magnificently through the strains and the sweep of Puccini’s score.

If Il Tabarro has a kind of spiritual connection with La Bohème, the fatal tragedy of the romantic heroine of Suor Angelica is aligned closely with the circumstances and the fate of Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly. If there are differences in the plot, and particularly in the cultural background and the individual circumstances of the central figures, at heart however the emotions and what engenders them is similar, and Puccini couches those female sentiments in much the same kind of musical language. There is however considerable maturity in the through composition of the opera and in Puccini’s attempt here not so much to accompany the action as much as describe the otherworldly aspects that drive it. Aware of the wide range of opportunities this offers - even in a short work of this length - Puccini doesn’t focus solely on the complications of Sister Angelica’s situation, but also delves into the inner lives, the playfulness, devotion, contemplation and secret desires of the other nuns, their conflict between earthly being and a search for heavenly grace all contributing to the fullness of the character study of Angelica.

Forced into a convent, having given birth to an illegitimate child that would bring shame to the noble family name that she belongs to, living in hope for some kind of news from the family that has disowned her, the developments when combined with a religious experience could certainly tip the work over into high melodrama, particularly when scored with such feeling by Puccini. I’m sure there are many who feel that this is indeed the case with Suor Angelica, but it’s clear that Puccini is seeking to express a deeper, more complex view of extreme very specific female emotions where a sense of motherhood has been denied, caught up in religious devotion and monastic discipline. That balance also needs to be maintained in the stage presentation, particularly the handling of the dramatic conclusion, and Richard Jones managed to bring out that inner world described in the music well, with subtle but telling touches. More important than anything else however is the performance of Suor Angelica herself, and Ermonela Jaho not only sings it exceptionally well, but she is completely involved in a role that demands acting of concentrated intensity.

Buoso Donati has just died, his family and loved ones surrounding him, but in the third part of Puccini’s Il Trittico, Gianni Schicchi, this is not the usual tragic opera deathbed scene, and if there are any tears shed by the assembled mourners it’s on account of their being disinherited in the old man’s will, while it’s more likely to be tears of laughter on the part of the audience (and that’s no exaggeration). The comic opera is certainly not a style you would associate with Puccini, but his treatment of the humour in Gianni Schicchi is nothing short of brilliant. Closer to Verdi’s Falstaff than say Donizetti’s clever but broader slapstick, there’s no heavy comic underscoring here (whatever that might entail, I’m not sure), but rather an almost furtive, subtle, insidious expression of the nature this mixed bag of greedy, grasping, backstabbing, moneygrubbers in all their scheming self-importance. It’s dazzling to hear how a composer of Puccini’s experience and maturity handles himself in this unfamiliar register, from the false sobs scored into the opening notes, through the knowing self-parody of heartfelt (yet still justly famous) arias that don’t express ‘Addio del passato’ as much as ‘Addio to the money’, to the frantic jostling for positions of influence of this motley mob and their eventual well-deserved comeuppance.

Richard Jones’s setting for the Royal Opera House production again fits quite admirably, finding its own sense of style without having to adhere to the period. Somehow the slick sixties suits and garish dresses express the tasteless vulgarity of the rich Donati family and their brood, as does the tacky flowered wallpaper Buoso’s over-sized bedroom. There’s no sharp spiv suit either for the scheming lawyer Gianni Schicchi, but a suitably seedy quality nonetheless to his open-shirted swagger, looking as if he’s just been dragged away from a different kind of bar than the one expected for his profession, differentiating his social class from the pretensions of the Donati family. It’s spot-on characterisation, wonderfully played and sung by the cast - Lucio Gallo switching register wonderfully from the very different role of Michele in Il Tabarro. As Antonio Pappano notes however in the introduction, the comedy in Gianni Schicchi relies greatly on the timing, and while this production gets those laughs, when compared to the English Touring Opera’s recent hilarious production that is still fresh in my mind, Jones’s stage direction doesn’t always make the most of the potential that Puccini’s score and the witty situations of the work present.

It’s Antonio Pappano’s contribution to the production as a whole however that proves to be the critical factor in its overall resounding success. All this richness and diversity, the sense of fun and drama, along with the serious musicological insight and consideration of the deeper qualities of the work is borne out in Pappano’s conducting of the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, who give a mesmerising performance. With excellent casting and singing, and an appropriate staging, you really couldn’t ask for more.

Opus Arte however also package the set extremely well. In addition to the impeccable technical presentation on Blu-ray, with a crystal clear High Definition transfer and outstanding HD sound mixes in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 that reproduce the music and the singing exceptionally well, each of the three hour-long operas are presented separately and given their own optional introduction that briefly sets out the premise and the treatment. An additional Extra Feature follows Lucio Gallo through make-up, warm-up and last-minute preparations with the conductor for his two roles as Michele and Gianni Schicchi. The full-HD Blu-ray is region-free, dual layer BD50, with English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles.

MacbethGiuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Phyllida Lloyd, Harry Fehr, Simon Keenlyside, Raymond Aceto, Liudmyla Monastyrska, Elisabeth Meister, Nigel Cliffe, Ian Lindsay, Steven Ebel, Dimitri Pittas, Will Richardson | Opus Arte

If the concept behind Phyllida Lloyd’s direction at the Royal Opera House production of Verdi’s Macbeth (the 2002 production revived here under director Harry Fehr) isn’t immediately obvious and doesn’t seem totally coherent, it’s perhaps because the marriage of Verdi and Shakespeare itself in this earlier opera of the composer (unlike the magnificent later adaptations Otello and Falstaff) isn’t the most consistent or coherent either. Rather than attempt to impose a personal reading into some kind of structure or workable concept onto the work, or bring it closer into line with the dramatic intentions of Shakespearean original, Lloyd’s production rather impressively remains faithful to Verdi’s imperfect interpretation of the work, working closely to mirror the tone of the production with what Simon Keenlyside, in an accompanying interview on the DVD and Blu-ray, vividly describes as the “black tides” of Verdi’s score.

There are a couple of strong themes within the work that the director successfully latches onto in order to put that wonderful score right up there on the stage in visual terms. The most evident is the colour scheme (reflected in the poster designs and the packaging of the DVD) of black, white and red. That’s an obvious means to reflect the moral absolutes that are raised in the work, as well as the bloody violence that ensues from their transgressions, but it also effectively matches the colour of Verdi’s musical dynamic. Gold also features, as the prize of the crown, but also the “gilded cage” that entraps Macbeth. The other theme, one that is perhaps reflects the Shakespearean themes as much as Verdi’s treatment of them, is in how the production strives to make the horror itself and the full consequences of it visible. Here the violence is not something that takes place off-stage, but rather its true nature is made ever present, and its consequences must be lived with. The reign of blood that is embarked upon is visible throughout here and no amount of hand-washing will completely erase it.

Macbeth
Accordingly, right from the opening of Act 1, the witches - red turbaned and mono-browed – make their prophesies to Macbeth and Banquo, but instead of vanishing into the mist, they remain on the stage and appear throughout the opera at key moments – a witch can for example be seen delivering Macbeth’s letter directly to his wife, and one places the crown into Macbeth’s hands, another hands him the knife that takes the lives of the children of his rivals – a constant visual reminder to the audience of their prophesy being fulfilled, just as it the score and libretto also make direct reference to it. The stage is often littered with the bodies of Macbeth’s crimes that usually take place off-stage, the consequences of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s actions here made plainly visible in all their horror. The announced execution of the former Thane of Cawdor, leading to the fulfilment of the first of the prophesies, is shown here and made real – Banquo’s ghost is not just the figure of a fevered imagination, his dead body serves as a physical reminder and his apparition is up there on the stage. There’s no holding back either on the “original sin” of Duncan’s death, his bloody and mutilated body displayed for all to see. Nor is there any sparing from showing the killing of children or the masses of victims among his own people that number among the king’s crimes. And since all this is so vividly described in Verdi’s score, why should it not be?

Macbeth

Verdi’s Macbeth is an opera nonetheless that needs a little bit of personality injected into it. It’s not entirely successful on its own terms, and playing as such, it can never entirely convince. Directing the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Antonio Pappano seems determined to tease out some greater subtleties in the score that aren’t really there. It’s consequently a little bit too delicate, when a bit of a heavier punch would be more appropriate, but it does manage to tease that gloomy darkness out of the work. This Macbeth isn’t Shakespeare, it’s early Verdi, and yes, there are signs of the composer’s later greatness here, modernising and moving away from the Italian opera conventions for a purer dramatic tone (the bel canto coloratura of Lady Macbeth’s arias ‘Si colmi il calice di vino eletto’ and Macbeth’s mad scene notwithstanding) that is in keeping with the darker tone of the work, but with its Verdian patriotic laments and choruses (‘Patria oppressa!) it’s still not the most sophisticated or faithful treatment of Shakespeare.

Or perhaps I’m underestimating Verdi’s work here, because there are interesting elements that can be drawn out of the opera’s score and its treatment of the subject. The rather more daring 2010 production at the Paris Opéra under the direction of Dmitri Tcherniakov with Teodor Currentzis conducting makes a strong case for it, but if there’s any attempt to bring those elements out here, there’s a sense that the performances, the orchestration and the staging of the Royal Opera House production aren’t always working in common accord. For all its efforts to put the horror up on the stage and the close attention paid to the score, there’s initially a detachment between the orchestration and the performances in Act I at least, which seems to be down to there not being enough attention paid to the acting. Things warm up a little by the end of Act II, Act III’s potions, prophesies and apparitions are delightfully staged, and thereafter the deepening horror of the drama and the score starts to make the full extent of its presence felt.

At the very least, the listener will be beaten into submission – as they should be – by the singing and presence of Lady Macbeth. The formidable ringing tone and sheer power of Ukranian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska’s voice certainly achieves that, even if there isn’t always an emotional depth behind her pronouncements and her acting ability is practically non-existent. With that voice, and Verdi behind it, that’s not something to worry about in this particular opera however. On the lighter end of the register Simon Keenlyside is a true Verdi baritone. His consideration of his lines and delivery of them makes real the forced bravado and the underlying horror of his fate that lies in his character. That’s quite impressive, particularly in his death scene aria ‘Mal per me’ (the opera working from Verdi’s 1865 revision of the opera, but successfully reinstating some of the 1847 cuts). Banquo is also well served by American bass, Raymond Aceto, and his Gran Scena ‘Studia il passo, o mio figlio’ is sung very well.

The Blu-ray release of Macbeth is up to the expected high standards, the strong high contrast lighting showing good detail, while the mixing on both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks give a fine account of the score, the mixing (along with Pappano’s conducting), achieving a good balance between the orchestration and the singing voices. Extras on the BD include a Cast Gallery. Behind the Scenes Rehearsals and Interviews with Simon Keenlyside, Raymond Aceto and Liudmyla Monastyrska. I enjoyed listening to their views here on their characters and the challenges of the opera. The booklet contains an essay by Mike Ashman which considers the nature of the opera as it is presented in this production, and revival director Harry Fehr provides a detailed walk-through synopsis that is related to what is sung.

ToscaGiacomo Puccini - Tosca

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Jonathan Kent, Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann, Bryn Terfel, Lukas Jakobski, Jeremy White, Hubert Francis, Zhengzhong Zhou, William Payne, John Morrisey | Opus Arte, BBC2

I recently reviewed a production of Tosca on Blu-ray recorded at the Arena di Verona and summed it up by saying “This is not the best Tosca you’ll see by a long shot, but it’s a good performance nonetheless.” As if to prove the point, just a few weeks later comes a version of Tosca recorded at the Royal Opera House earlier this year that, if not the best Tosca you’ll ever see (though it could make claims to be up there among the best) you could at least safely say that it is certainly among the best you will hear being produced anywhere in the world at the moment.

In terms of concept, design and staging, there is nothing particularly innovative, imaginative, original or even too exciting about Jonathan Kent’s direction for this Royal Opera House production, which dates back to 2006. It adheres to the period locations and action as they are laid out in the original libretto, each of the three acts recognisably taking place in specific locations in Rome - Act 1 in the church of Sant’ Andrea, Act 2 in the Palazzo Farnese, Act 3 on top of the Castel Sant’ Angelo - actual locations that have been used in the past for filmed versions of Puccini’s opera. If there’s little that is striking about the stage designs, which are functional at best, Kent stages the dramatic action within them to the full extent of the verismo realism that the opera calls out for. All those major moments within each of the three acts - the Te Deum at the end of Act 1, the death of Scarpia in Act 2, and the powerful climax of Act 3 - are designed to achieve maximum impact. Everything is as you would expect it, there’s nothing clever attempted, and really nothing needs to be done with this particular opera. If it’s staged according to the indications of the libretto, if the dramatic action simply allows the score to dictate the pace and drive of the developments and the emotional pitch, and if it’s sung well, you’re more than half-way there with Tosca.

Tosca

What distinguishes a good traditional production of Tosca from many others, including the aforementioned Arena di Verona production, and what makes this Royal Opera House production something special, is the casting and the ability of those performers to bring something of their own unique character and ability to the work. It’s hard to imagine a more stellar contemporary cast in the three principal roles than the one assembled here. As Floria Tosca, Angela Gheorghiu is the ultimate diva playing a diva - a fact that she acknowledges and clearly relishes. Those characteristics can often be pushed a little too far with this particular singer, who often plays the diva whether it’s called for or not, but here at least it’s appropriate and Gheorghiu is totally convincing. It’s more than just good casting of course, since, as ever, Gheorghiu sings superbly. And not just from a technical viewpoint - which is hard to fault - but it’s also an impassioned performance that is perfectly judged with complete understanding of her character and fits in well with the overall tone of the whole production. Consummately professional then - you would expect no less - but Gheorghiu is also genuinely impressive on every level.

Jonas Kaufmann is another performer who continues to impress, slipping effortlessly into whatever role he plays with a great deal of personality, but more than impress, the manner in which he brings that extraordinary voice to bear on such familiar roles is absolutely astonishing and quite unlike any previous account you might have heard of that role, so far is it from a typical tenor voice. His recent version of Massanet’s Werther for Vienna and the Paris Opéra, for example, couldn’t have been more different than that of Rolando Villazon at Covent Garden in one of his signature roles, and likewise, Kaufmann’s powerfully controlled, dark near-baritone boom makes his Cavaradossi here totally unlike Marcelo Alvarez or indeed any how any other classic tenor would perform the role. There is a fear that with such a powerful voice he could end up bellowing the role, particularly as there is ample opportunity for it, but Kaufmann retains complete control over the voice and the character, dropping it to quieter phrasing where it is required. I’m not totally convinced by the heroic nature of his performance here, which doesn’t let in a great deal of humanity, but I suppose that’s how Puccini mainly scores the role.

Tosca

Bryn Terfel as Scarpia likewise has to make the most of how his role is scored and try to strike a balance between a human and a caricature. He also sings wonderfully and certainly looks the part with enough physical presence and steel in his vocal delivery to make the evil pronouncements of the Chief of Police, heavily underscored as they are by Puccini, more than menacing enough, so the additional grimaces and sneers perhaps aren’t all that necessary. The singing performances are all marvellous then, making the most of the roles and trying to find some balance and level of humanity in the characters - which isn’t always easy in this opera - but best of all is how well they work together. On a vocal level the singing is perfectly complementary and there appears to be no struggle for dominance on the acting side either, each of them existing within their own characters but working with each other in a dramatically convincing manner. It makes it very easy then for the viewer to become wrapped up in the melodramatic events that occur over the 24 hour period of the story.

That’s as much to do with the staging however, so while you can criticise Jonathan Kent’s lack of imagination in the production design and the stage direction, it does at least work effectively on a dramatic level. Part of the reason for this is the decision not to downplay the opera’s controversial depictions of violence. Make no mistake, it’s all there in the libretto, from the extended torture scene through to the attempted rape, murder and executions, but some directors might choose to underplay these elements, particularly to mitigate against Puccini’s full-blooded score. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, and there’s certainly no right or wrong way to do it. If you are aiming for realism in the set designs and you have singers who are also good actors, then it makes sense to let them fully enter into the roles and the cast here manage to do that without too much operatic grimacing or mannerisms. Matched with a perfectly judged performance of the Royal Opera House orchestra under Antonio Pappano (that has all the dynamism that is lacking in the aforementioned Verona production), the result is an impressive, involving and, yes, near perfect account of Puccini’s “shabby little shocker” as you could expect to see done anywhere in the world today.

AnnaNicoleMark-Anthony Turnage - Anna Nicole

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Alan Oke, Gerald Finley, Susan Bickley, Loré Lixenberg, Peter Hoare, Rebecca de Pont Davies, Allison Cook, Andrew Rees, Grant Doyle, Wynne Evans | Opus Arte

Dealing with a low-brow subject, treating it to an outlandish and tasteless staging, with crude language and bad-taste humour, there is a danger that Anna Nicole, an opera by Mark Anthony Turnage about the former Playboy model who died of a drug overdose in 2007, could be accused of making Eurotrash out of American Trash, but the language and the staging befits the tone of its subject. The barrage of rhyming couplets in the libretto from Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer the Opera) may clearly signal their intention to rhyme at the end with four-letter words and other mildly shocking profanities, but at the same time there is wit and pathos here in a libretto that actually manages to cut through the niceties directly to harsh crude reality of the circumstances of Anna Nicole Smith’s life, unpalatable though that might be to the average opera-going audience. Benjamin Britten and particularly Billy Budd comes to mind in the use of language, in its subject – which is also about a kind of loss of innocence on a bigger level than just the personal – and in Turnage’s score, which also adopts his usual jazz and American influences, successfully finding the right tone for each occasion.

The colourful, tastefully tacky set-designs by Richard Jones also adopt the right tone with plenty of eye-catching sights not commonly seen in an opera house, including a sequence in a lap-dancing parlour replete with artificial breast-enhanced women twirling themselves gymnastically and provocatively from poles. The decision to present the opera as if it were a reality-TV show in which a chorus of TV hosts interview Anna Nicole Smith, already dead but looking back over her life and tracing the path from smalltown girl to media celebrity that will ultimately lead to her destruction, is a masterstroke and it imbues the piece with a slightly sinister edge that grows as the opera proceeds. The tone darkens considerably by the second half, when it does indeed become a tragedy, as the people in Smith’s life disappear to be replaced by masses of ominous black figures with TV cameras for heads.

Antonio Pappano, conducting the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, does well to allow the music score to assert its presence and not be overshadowed by the spectacle or the libretto. Eva-Maria Westbroek is marvellous in the title role, and well supported by Gerald Finlay and Alan Oke. As more of a Wagnerian soprano, Westbroek is not really tested by the limited singing demands of the role, but she sings exceptionally well and manages to bring out the inherent humanity of her character, never letting her be merely an icon, nor indeed, allowing the performance to descend into parody. Whether the opera ultimately has anything new to say or whether it touches on anything deeper in its subject – if indeed there is anything deeper to be drawn from its subject – is questionable, but Anna Nicole demonstrates nonetheless that opera can still be a vital artform to address contemporary subjects in a powerful manner that can connect with a modern audience.

On Blu-ray from Opus Arte, the opera – opening with a legal disclaimer that it is “not intended to be an actual factual depiction of any person” – looks every bit as bold as it should, the striking colours deeply saturated, with strong blacks and contrasts, and a good level of detail. This often looks just stunning, and it is well filmed, picking out the singers at the right moments, while also allowing the overall impact of the set to be appreciated. The audio tracks in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 are also effective in allowing the detail of the musical arrangements to come through. Subtitles are in English (so you can check that they actually sang what you thought they sang but couldn’t quite believe), French, German and Spanish. Aside from a Cast Gallery, the only other extra on the disc is a brief Production Report (8:25), introduced by Pappano, which nonetheless covers the development of the opera well with interviews with Turnage, Thomas and Westbroek.

TraviataGiuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

The Royal Opera - Covent Garden, 2010 | Antonio Pappano, Richard Eyre, Renée Fleming, Joseph Calleja, Thomas Hampson, Monika-Evelin Liiv, Sarah Pring, Haoyin Xue, Eddie Wade | Opus Arte

Renée Fleming has matured into one of the finest sopranos around at the moment, a true star with a sparkling personality and a velvet-toned voice that is capable of wringing the finest emotions out of works by Strauss and Tchaikovsky that from a lesser singer could sound rather cold and clinical. I wouldn’t have thought her voice would be so well suited to Violetta Valéry in La Traviata, and it does take some getting used to, but I think she at least brings a distinct quality to the role with an emotional heart that isn’t always necessarily there when a leading diva uses it primarily as a display for her vocal talents. It’s served well also by Antonio Pappano’s conducting of the Royal Opera House Orchestra in a traditional but effective production by Richard Eyre.

There’s only one way to really measure the true performance of La Traviata however, and that is by the qualities of the soprano. Renée Fleming does seem a little faltering in the first act, the warm enveloping richness of her tone perhaps not quite bringing out the clarity of the Italian diction. The production also seems a little disjointed in Act 1, setting up the great arias well (and is there any opera that has quite so many memorable, technically and dramatically impressive arias?), but not really sure what to do with the performers in between. Fleming’s ‘È strano …ah forsè’lui‘ however is excellent, the soprano most definitely singing it her own way, putting a different complexion and personal interpretation on the opera.

If Act I doesn’t flow as well as one might hope, Act II however is superb in every respect – singing, dramatic representation, the precision and timing of the orchestration all played to perfection in both scenes. Fleming’s duet with Hampson’s Germont Sr., ‘Ah! Dite alla giovine‘, is technically stunning, but at the same time full of heartfelt emotion. I’ve rarely seen it done so well and it’s capable of leaving you dead in your tracks. Much as I sometimes find Act III a little gruelling in this opera, here it also comes across with great emotional force, again primarily down to Fleming’s superb acting talent, but also to how well she blends with Joseph Calleja. Calleja is a tenor very much in the classic mould of a Pavarotti or Domingo, and as such is perfectly suited to a role such as Alfredo. There is some maturing to be done in his voice, and he certainly doesn’t have the personality or range of the greats, but his voice has a beautiful tone and blends well with Fleming here.

It’s hard then to find fault with the production or the performances, but there are so many versions of La Traviata out there that a new version really needs something special to entice you into reconsidering it anew (such as in the fascinating Willy Decker production with Anna Netrebko). This is a straightforward, traditional, period staging – it doesn’t add anything new, it doesn’t make the viewer reconsider the whole tone of the piece or allow them to plunge into its emotional heart – but it has Renée Fleming, and it’s worthwhile for that alone. Other than for Fleming however, one can’t help but feel that this would indeed be just another La Traviata.

The quality of the Blu-ray release is good, but not great. The lighting is rather soft, so it doesn’t have the clarity you might expect, but it does seem to capture a sense of the ambience of Covent Garden. The audio likewise doesn’t really have a full depth of tone. The violins dominate, but feel slightly detached from the rest of the orchestration in the 5.1 mix, only occasionally achieving the thunderous tone that is often demanded. The PCM stereo mix however is excellent and may be the better option. The extras on the disc consists of a worthwhile 21-minute interview of Fleming by Pappano, where the soprano acknowledges the personal challenges the role represents, and describes her technical approach.

AnnaNicoleMark-Anthony Turnage - Anna Nicole

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London | Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Alan Oke, Gerald Finley, Susan Bickley, Loré Lixenberg, Peter Hoare, Rebecca de Pont Davies, Allison Cook, Andrew Rees, Grant Doyle, Wynne Evans | World Premiere - February 17th, 2011

A few eyebrows will have been raised, and no little amount of scepticism expressed, when it was announced that Mark-Anthony Turnage would be writing an opera for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden about Anna Nicole Smith, a former Playboy model who died of a drug overdose in 2007. In reality, however there’s nothing at all new about opera dealing with women who live scandalous lives and come to an untimely end. If Turnage’s Anna Nicole is unlikely however to be considered a masterpiece on the scale of Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, La Traviata or Lulu, it at least has the advantage of dealing with a contemporary subject with the kind of social lifestyle and aspirations that a modern audience can relate to more easily. And if the merits of Anna Nicole as an opera can certainly be questioned, there is at least no doubt, judging from the headlines and media attention that it has generated, that is indeed a worthy subject of great interest to the general public.

Commissioned by the Royal Opera House under the direction currently of Antonio Pappano – a great supporter of opening up opera to a wider audience – the general public would at least have been no doubt familiar with the subject of the opera, Anna Nicole Smith, and have some familiarity with the nature of her “career” and the circumstances of her death at the age of only 39. What was rather less certain was the tone that would be adopted by Mark-Anthony Turnage (Greek, The Silver Tassie) – a composer who can be rather experimental in his work, and is known for incorporating jazz and other forms of modern music into his compositions. It didn’t take too long for it to be established that the tone of the opera would be heavily influenced by the choice of Richard Thomas as librettist, the resulting barrage of rhyming couplets, with a high swearword quotient, bring Anna Nicole closer to Thomas’ work on Jerry Springer the Opera than to Turnage’s Greek.

Initial and surface impressions however prove to be deceptive, for while Anna Nicole Smith’s early life, her escape from the “shithole” backwater of Mexia (pronounced Mu-HAY-ah, we are told, as if it gives the town some kind of distinction) and her first marriage to Billy Smith is very much the kind of material that US daytime TV shows thrive on, it does nonetheless have a relevance to how a large proportion of society live and it reflects their aspirations, unpalatable thought they may appear to an opera-going audience. Just as significantly, the manner in which the opera is initially presented and the tone it strikes is vitally important, and indeed it ought to match and be appropriate to the content. The decision then to present it through the medium of a chorus of TV hosts to whom Anna Nicole, already dead but looking back over her life in the manner of a reality TV show and tracing the path that will ultimately lead to her destruction, is a masterstroke, imbuing the piece with a slightly sinister edge that grows as the opera proceeds. The opera darkens considerably by the second half, when it does indeed become a tragedy, as the people in her life disappear to be replaced by masses of ominous black figures with TV cameras for heads.

AnnaNicole

While there are certainly plenty of eye-catching sights in the imaginative, colourful, tastefully tacky set-designs (by Richard Jones) to provide entertainment, with strong language and even a sequence in a lap-dancing parlour replete with breast-enhanced women twirling themselves gymnastically and provocatively from poles – all things that are, I think it’s safe to say, not all that common on the stage of the Royal Opera House and likely therefore to generate interest and headlines it’s easy to be distracted from what is going on musically and in the opera as a whole. Richard Thomas’ rhyming couplets, which deliberately clearly signal their intentions to rhyme at the end with four-letter words and other mildly shocking profanities, actually manage to cut through the niceties directly to harsh realities of the circumstances of Anna Nicole’s life in a tone that is appropriate and understandable to a modern-day audience. It’s reality-TV language, but there’s something in the phenomenon and popularity of reality-TV as a representation of the American Dream that is worth examining, and Thomas’ libretto gets to the hard truths and the tragedy of it all, wrapping it up cleverly in pithy, satirical and witty phrases.

It’s easy also to be distracted from what Turnage is doing musically, but he, likewise, succeeds allowing the nature of the opera’s subject to establish the correct tone rather than imposing his own upon it. In doing so moreover, Turnage nonetheless finds a perfect expression for his own musical language and the often American influences that he draws from and incorporates into his music. Anna Nicole Smith’s leaving of Mexia (pronounced Mu-HAY-ah), for Huston, where she works in a Wal-Mart store, is set to a blues rhythm that matches the zombie-like movements of its employees, a swinging jazz percussion accompaniment is used for the strip-club scene, while other scenes evoke George Gershwin. Antonio Pappano, conducting the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, succeeded in allowing the music score to assert its presence at such times, darkening the tone considerably in the tragedy of the Second Act, by which stage the audience were thoroughly in the grip of the piece and solemnly mindful of where it was leading. Much credit for the embodiment of the tragedy that Anna Nicole’s life would represent has to go to the Eva-Maria Westbroek. As a Wagnerian soprano, her voice wasn’t at all tested by the limited singing demands of the role, but she sang exceptionally well and managed to bring out the inherent humanity of her character, never letting her be merely an icon, nor indeed, allowing it to descend into parody.

Whether Anna Nicole is ultimately considered a success as an opera – it received a very warm reception at its World Premiere from the audience at Covent Garden and a guardedly positive response from the national press – it is at least a success as far as the Royal Opera House is concerned, selling out its initial short run of six shows, but more importantly generating more interest and front page headlines than any other important opera event, premiere or any drawing of the biggest names in the opera to the house have achieved. Beyond its artistic merits, whether the opera ultimately has anything new to say or whether it touches on anything deeper in its subject – all of which are debatable and subjective – what Anna Nicole demonstrates is that opera can still be a vital artform that can address contemporary subjects in a powerful manner that connects with a modern audience.