Bayerische Staatsoper


Macbeth

Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2013 | Massimo Zanetti, Martin Kušej, Zeljko Lucic, Goran Jurić, Nadja Michael, Evgeniya Sotnikova, Wookyung Kim, Emanuele D’Aguanno, Christoph Stephinger, Andrea Borghini, Rafał Pawnuk, Iulia Maria Dan, Tölzer Knabenchor | Live Internet Streaming, 11 May 2013

I’ve seen enough serial-killer horror films to know what it means when a room is “decorated” in plastic sheeting. I’ve also seen enough Martin Kušej stage productions to know he likes to mess up the stage with splashes of blood around the place. I also know Verdi’s Macbeth well enough (better than Shakespeare’s original work admittedly) to know that there’s ample opportunity then for the red stuff to flow liberally in the Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production. With promotional images showing a stage filled with 16,000 skulls, it looked like someone was going to have quite a job hosing down the sheeting at the end of this one. So how come this production never quite lived up to its potential?

On paper - and in promotional images - it all looks good. There’s a strong, dark concept here to match the darkness of Shakespeare’s vision and Verdi’s brooding 1847 account of it. “If we can’t make something great out it”, Verdi wrote to his librettist Piave, “let’s at least try to make it something out of the ordinary”. Verdi’s Macbeth is indeed a pale shadow of the original work, but in its own way it is something extraordinary. Martin Kušej likewise looks well placed to bring something extraordinary out if the work, if not indeed something great. His productions, as I’ve noted in the past (in Die Fliegende Höllander, in Genoveva, in Rusalka) are often concerned with elements of class, and there’s plenty of social climbing ambition to be found in Verdi’s Macbeth.

Verdi’s choruses, his placing of the voices of the people up there on the stage, provide a clear dividing line between the machinations of the royal titled nobility and the common people. Kušej acknowledges those divisions, but also recognises that in Verdi’s work the voice of the people is a rather more complex one. They’re the driving force that celebrates the victories of Macbeth and Banquo, are sincere in their outpouring of unrestrained grief at the death of Duncan and, most obviously, are the motivating force that overthrows their country from the repressive regime that it descends into under Macbeth’s bloody reign.

The masses also represent a certain fantastic element in Verdi’s version of Shakespeare’s play, since the witches here are not three weird sisters, but a chorus who determine the direction of fate and the destiny of the major players. There’s a level of complicity then in their actions that endorses, idolises (lighters aloft) and encourages the ambitions of the ruling classes, even turning a blind eye (wearing hoods here) to Macbeth’s crimes. They are no mere background chorus then in Kušej ’s production, and it’s hard not to notice their presence and their hand in the playing out of the drama here.

The foreground characters are however rather less well defined. Partly that’s Verdi’s fault in his reduction of the complexity of Shakespeare’s play and his breakdown of the work into four acts that really never flow in a convincingly dramatic way. Within each of those four acts however there is a wealth of characterisation that can be brought out when attention is paid to the score and the vocal writing, but there was something lacking on that front in this production. Zeljko Lucic, as he demonstrated recently in the Metropolitan Opera’s Rigoletto, has a lovely lyrical Verdian baritone, but he doesn’t have the presence, the steel or the personality to bring something greater to the character of Macbeth.

Nadja Michael, it must be said, is not lacking in personality or presence. Even if her singing performances can lack discipline and attention to detail, that’s not so much of an issue with her character here. Verdi didn’t want a beautiful voice for Lady Macbeth, but someone with indeed the kind of personality to bring dramatic expression to the role. Nadja Michael would seem to fit the bill perfectly then and she was indeed quite formidable in aspect, pacing the stage with determination, her face bathed in dark shadows. Her vocal delivery however left something to be desired. She seemed rather restrained in her ‘La luce langue‘ (1865 revised version of the opera performed here), but her deficiencies became more pronounced in the later acts when she really ought to dominate proceedings.

Without the necessary personality and singing ability in these critical roles, it’s difficult to make Macbeth work, no matter how strong the concept, but particularly when they are meant to represent a “killing machine” force. Visually, with the performers and the chorus often balanced on top of a mount of 16,000 skulls, the ‘killing fields’ concept was strong and it would be hard to imagine a darker account of ‘Patria oppressa!‘ than the one that takes place here in a slaughterhouse with naked bodies suspended upside-down from meathooks. There were inevitably some curiosities in the actions of the chorus and in the symbolism of a tent on the stage that seemed representative of royalty or just death, but they did have an unsettling character that worked, particularly when the dying bloody Duncan is seen crawling out of the opening of the tent. Overall however, it all felt very detached from the musical drama, with neither the chorus or the principals ever managing to match the force and darkness of the actual work.

The disjointed approach of the staging perhaps reflects Verdi’s piecemeal approach to the work, but it can be overcome with the right production and casting. Unfortunately, the frequent fades to black with brief pauses for scene changes drain all the energy out of the performances and stall the flow of a work that at least has a strong thematic consistency in the musical composition. Some of the work’s potential was realised at the conclusion, which benefitted also from a beautifully sung Macduff (Wookyung Kim), but it was definitely too little and too late. The score was at least given a superb account from the Bayerisches orchestra under Massimo Zanetti, but the production never allowed those essential characteristics that make Verdi’s Macbeth a powerful if flawed work to assert themselves and hold all the various elements together.

This performance of Macbeth was broadcast live on 11th May 2013 via the Bayerische Staatsoper’s own Live Internet Streaming service.

GodunovModest Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2013 | Kent Nagano, Calixto Bieito, Alexander Tsymbaluk, Yulia Sokolik, Eri Nakamura, Heike Grötzinger, Gerhard Siegel, Markus Eiche, Anatoli Kotscherga, Sergey Skorokhodov, Vladimir Matorin, Ulrich Reß, Okka von der Damerau, Kevin Conners, Goran Jurić, Dean Power, Tareq Nazmi, Christian Rieger | ARTE Internet Streaming, March 2013

A modern updating of a historical subject is always going to be controversial, particularly when it’s a production by Calixto Bieito. In the case of a work like Boris Godunov however, you have to ask whether the purpose of Mussorgsky’s opera is to provide a character portrait of a 16th century ruler of Russia or whether the opera is more concerned with more universal questions on the nature of power, leadership and the cost that has to be paid for it. Even performed in a traditional historical context it would be hard not to feel the full force of those themes expressed in Mussorgsky’s magnificent score, so what advantage would there be in attempting to make a parallel between the past and the present? Surprisingly, the purpose of Bieito’s production would seem to be not to use Boris Godunov to make a comment about the present day as much as use familiar images to help us better relate to the past.

One of the qualities of art, and particularly opera in this context, is that it can indeed illuminate and provide new living insight on a figure who existed nearly 500 years ago by simply looking at human nature itself today, since that hasn’t changed greatly in all that time. Placing Boris Godunov in a historical context however can place a distance between the subject and a modern audience - although, as I said, Mussorgsky’s music makes it fully relatable - but a modern setting can make those situation more real and immediate without betraying the essential sentiments and the spirit of the work. Calixto Bieito’s staging has a considerable part to play in the success of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production, but it must operate in accordance with the music, and Kent Nagano’s musical direction ensures that this is a thoughtful and powerful account of a great work.

The actions and the will of the people play just as important a part in history as its more famous leaders and Mussorgsky’s gives them equal voice in Boris Godunov. Calixto Bieito finds a modern-day equivalent of the voice of the people and their relationship with their leaders here in what looks to be an anti-globalisation protest at a G8 summit, or perhaps even an anti-austerity protest. The people, herded in by police in riot-gear, are looking for someone to lead them out of crisis. They don’t carry icons of the saints here, but instead wave placards in the air showing images of Sarkozy, Putin, Cameron, Holland and other world leaders. Only one lone protester - a punk in a Sex Pistols T-shirt advocating anarchy - rejects all of them and is beaten to the ground by the police. Is this a fair representation of the intent of the opening scene of Boris Godunov? It certainly captures the nature of the situation without tying it directly and imperfectly to any specific modern political context. It also sets the tone well for the underlying violence that isn’t always entirely explicit in the work, but which is undoubtedly an important part of the power dynamic.

There are inevitably a few curious touches that Bieito adds to highlight this characteristic, but all of them feel entirely appropriate to the work. Boris Godunov tries to be a good ruler to the people, but he feels the pressure of responsibility, hears the murmurings of discontent and fears the uprising of a new Pretender. His conscience - like anyone who has to dirty their hands to get into a position of power and influence - isn’t entirely clear either, and he has the blood of the young Tsar on his hands, tormenting him in nightmares. Bieito’s version, again highlighting the power and responsibility of the common people in their choice or acceptance of leaders, shows them exercising that power by putting weapons (guns) into their hands, making this bloody period of history even more realistically violent. The Pretender too executes Boris’ children at the end of the opera, which fits in with the theme of the cycles of history and violence and gives it greater force.

All of this must be borne out in the music of course, and the Bayerische Staatsoper production in Munich took an equally interesting approach to the complicated history of the work and its various revisions. This was a stripped back production that used Mussorgsky’s 1869 original version as its basis, but further removed any other diversions - the Fountain scene and the Polonaise (basically the whole of Act III) - that weren’t directly related to expression of the work’s fundamental themes. This enabled the entire opera to be performed as a single two-and-a-quarter hour performance without any breaks. There were considerable benefits to be gained from this approach. On the one hand, we had all the force of Mussorgsky’s scoring with its conversational language rhythms and unique expression, but with a greater fluidity that brought unity to each of the separate scenes. With Kent Nagano conducting with complete sensitivity for those rhythms, we didn’t lose any of the beauty of the orchestration that is found in Rimsky-Korsakov’s revisions either. As a result, the work maintained its epic immensity, force and beauty.

So too does the singing here, particularly Alexander Tsymbaluk as Boris and Anatoli Kotscherga as Pimen. Both evidently are vital roles that carry the action and the spiritual elements of the work, and much of that is brought out through the grave, deep tone of the singing itself. Not only were the casting and performances superb in this respect for those roles, but the same consideration was given to all the casting elsewhere. There was scarcely a weak element anywhere here, all of the cast and chorus coming together - alongside a considered production and musical performance - to give full force to this remarkable work. The set designs also played an important part in keeping up this momentum, fluidly moving from one scene to the next, providing a meaningful dark and minimal setting that served the situations without being over-literal or too incongruously modern either.

This performance of Boris Godunov was broadcast on ARTE Live Web and is currently still available for viewing via internet streaming. Depending on whether you use the .fr or .de sites, subtitles are either in French or German. The Bayerische Staatsoper will broadcast another live performance of this production via their own Live Streaming service during their summer Opera Festival season on the 26th July. The next live streaming event from Munich is Verdi’s Macbeth on 11th May, directed by Martin Kušej and conducted by Massimo Zanetti.

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.

BabylonJörg Widmann - Babylon

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

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

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

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

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

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

IdomeneoWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Idomeneo

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2008 | Kent Nagano, Dieter Dorn, John Mark Ainsley, Pavol Breslik, Annette Dasch, Rainer Trost, juliane Banse, Guy de Mey, Steven Humes | Euroarts

Mozart had already written twelve operas by the time he was commissioned to write Idomeneo for Munich in 1780 (his earliest opera written when he was just eleven years old), and although many of those earlier works show moments of the talent and genius that would flourish in later years and are often astonishingly accomplished considering the age of the composer, they are mostly conventional in nature. It’s generally accepted that Mozart’s mature opera works commence with Idomeneo, written when he was 25 years old, but even then the implication is often that this earliest mature work, written to the dictates of the opera seria style that was even then considered outdated, is among the composer’s lesser works. Certainly, it can’t compare to Mozart at his most brilliant in The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute, but in its own way - perhaps seen more as the peak of the youthful Mozart rather than the beginning of his maturity - Idomeneo is remarkably innovative in its treatment of the opera seria style and in the distinctive graceful character that the young Mozart brings to the work.

The subject however, particularly as it is laid-out in the libretto by Abbé Varesco, is resolutely in keeping with the demands of the opera seria style. The theme is classical and mythological Greek in origin (although form a French source), relating to the fall of Troy it deals with ancient rulers who have to make difficult and wise decisions that the fate of their people and the happiness of young lovers depend on, and in line with convention, it’s refashioned at the conclusion to bring about a happy ending. At the centre of the drama is Ilia, the daughter of King Priam, who has been carried off as a prisoner of King Idomeneo to Crete. Ilia has been rescued by Idamante, the son of Idomeneo, from a storm that destroyed the fleet (there are plenty of those in this opera) and which is believed to have claimed the life of King Idomeneo. Ilia is in love with Idamante, but as he has been promised to Electra, the daughter of Agamemnon, she is unsure of his feelings towards her, and is therefore unaware that he also loves her.

The crisis at the heart of the drama is not so much the love triangle - although this does provide the opportunity for some fine arias of anguish for the scorned Electra - as much as Idomeneo’s fateful vow (one reminiscent of the biblical story Jephtha, the subject of a Handel oratorio) to sacrifice the first living creature he sees in gratitude for escaping a watery death in the clutches of Neptune. Inevitably, the first person he encounters is how own son, Idamante. Hoping to find a way to avoid this terrible fate, Idomeneo plans to send his son away with Electra to her homeland in Argos, which - apart from upsetting Ilia obviously - also leads to another huge storm and an attack by a sea monster. After self-sacrificing gestures from Ilia and Idamante, accommodation and the requisite happy end is reached when Neptune declares that Idomeneo must abdicate in favour of his son who will rule with Ilia by his side.

What is fascinating about Mozart’s approach to this conventional classical drama, written to cater for generic arias of anguish and despair at the whims of the gods and sentiments of love betrayed or lovers kept apart, is the unifying force of the music that makes it develop and work as a dramatic whole. There’s very little recitativo secco, more often the recitative is accompanied, flowing into ariosos and arias without the expected breaks and exits. The arias and recitatives moreover develop - very unusually for Italian opera seria - into duets, trios, into a magnificent quartet and into choruses. The continuous dramatic progression, the variations of the scenes, with ballet interludes, divertimenti, marches and choral arrangements show that Mozart was taking into account the reformist ideas of Gluck, but they show more the influence of the French style, particularly in the use of ‘le merveilleux‘ elements of spectacle - storms, sea monsters, messages from the gods. More than just introducing them for the purposes of stagecraft, Mozart uses the musical arrangements and the chorus to conjure up such imagery and apply them to the expression of each of the characters’ torments.

The Bayerische Staatsoper production, recorded in 2008 at the recently restored Cuvilliés-Theater (formerly the Residenztheater) where Idomeneo was actually first premiered in 1781, takes this idea a little bit to extremes. For the most part Jürgen Rose’s basic set designs strip the work of anything that could appear as clever stagecraft into order to, presumably, let the music alone express the dramatic content. This works to some extent, drawing the attention to the qualities of Mozart’s wonderful score and his innovative approach, but it makes for a very dull stage set in this beautiful theatre. It’s difficult to find any meaning, concept or consistency to Dieter Dorn’s stage direction, which during the Overture seems to characterise the Trojan warriors as samurai and has ninja dragging Idomeneo down beneath the waves (actually down through an open hatch in the stage), but it remains largely faithful to the action detailed in the libretto, using more traditional, if somewhat sparse, sets designs and classical costumes, with good use made of a revolving platform in the third act. Apart from one or two key scenes where the mood calls for it, the majority of the production however looks like it is set in a rehearsal studio, under bright studio lighting.

If the production isn’t much to look at, the performances give a good account of the work itself, revealing its true qualities. Best of all are the casting of John Mark Ainsley and Pavol Breslik for the father and son team of Idomeneo and Idamante. Both look the part, are completely committed to the roles and the dilemmas facing their characters and both are blessed with gorgeous light lyrical voices that nonetheless can express power and depth of emotional feeling where required. And in Mozart’s Idomeneo, it’s those little details in the singing that are all important. Annette Dasch is also powerful as Electra. In some ways it’s a thankless role - one that relies on going through the motions of the angry spurned woman - but Dasch brings an edge of dangerous passion to the role, particularly in her Act III aria (”D’Oreste, d’Aiace ho in seno i tormenti“) while assailed by ninjas (who indeed are actually Furies). I wasn’t initially so keen on Juliane Banse’s interpretation of Ilia, but she carries hesitant anguish of the role well, and can hardly be faulted for her singing performance. The ubiquitous Guy de Mey again delivers the goods as the High Priest, and the production is also fortunate to have a strong Arbace in Rainer Trost, the production including all his arias, which in the past have often been cut.

With only a few small trims to recitative and Idamante’s final aria (which was cut before the first performance in any case) absent, Kent Nagano clearly intends to keep the focus on maintaining the dramatic flow of the work. That’s done well, with an authentically smaller sized orchestra for the size of the theatre. If there are any minor reservations about the production, the singing or the playing however, everything comes together in the marvellous Act III. It’s here that Mozart’s innovations and the brilliance of the composer to come can be heard fighting their way through the opera seria constraints, and the cast rising to meet those moments in the famous quartet “Andrò ramingo e solo“, in Ainsley’s gorgeous rendition of Idomeneo’s heartfelt prayer to Neptune in the Cavatina and Chorus “Accogli, o re del mar“, and - as mentioned previously - in Annette Dasch’s “D’Oreste, d’Aiace“. The orchestra take centre stage on a raised platform for the other highpoint of the work, the Chaconne that concludes the work, reportedly the longest single orchestral movement composed by Mozart. In the absence of anything happening on stage, TV director Brian Large chooses to show us some of the features of the restoration work on the Cuvilliés-Theater, which considering its historical importance in the context of this work, is not inappropriate.

Like all Blu-ray releases from Euroarts, the disc seems to load up into the memory of the player and takes over controls to some extent, although other than not showing running times on the player display, I didn’t find this caused any problems. Image quality is fine and there’s a beautiful clarity to the PCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes that seems to capture the natural reverb and ambience of the theatre. Other than Trailers for other titles, there are no extra features on the disc, but a booklet contains information on the opera’s composition and includes a short synopsis. The disc is all-region, 1080i full-HD, subtitles are in Italian (matching the libretto), English, French, German and Spanish.

DevereuxGaetano Donizetti - Roberto Devereux

Nationaltheater, Munich 2005 | Friedrich Haider, Christof Loy, Edita Gruberová, Roberto Aronica, Albert Schagidullin, Jeanne Piland, Manolito Mario Franz, Steven Humes, Nikolay Borchev, Johannes Klama | Deutsche Grammaphon

Sometimes when it comes to deciding how to stage an opera, whether in a traditional style or otherwise, it’s more than enough to just set the scene in as simple a fashion as possible and let the work speak for itself. This can be tricky in the case of a bel canto opera, particularly with Donizetti and certainly with his Tudor trilogy of operas (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux), where there is often not a great deal going on dramatically. Many directors will try to cover up the lack of dramatic action with elaborate sets and costumes, but not Christof Loy. Even though there isn’t indeed a great deal to the sets here in this 2005 production for the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and, yes, even though it is inevitably taken out of its original historical Tudor setting, Loy nonetheless clearly recognises where the real strengths of the work lie and gives them prominence through attention to character and the acting performances, particularly in how they are expressed through the singing.

Devereux

What passes for a plot in the case of Roberto Devereux is not particularly complex and not exactly faithful to historical fact in the first place, but it does deal with recognisable and timeless operatic themes like love and betrayal. There doesn’t appear to be a lot going on musically to explore these themes and the emotions they give rise to in any kind of depth or complexity, but you might be surprised at how much can be drawn from it if the work is treated respectfully and with a keenness of observation. The opera is actually quite compact, neatly structured and balanced in how it blends the political issues with the romantic ones and plays them off against each other. Devereux, Earl of Essex, faces a charge of treason for being merciful to the enemy forces he has routed in Ireland, but Queen Elizabeth I, in love with him, is of a mind to be lenient herself and save him from a sentence of death. As long as he is true to her and the ring that she has given him as a token of her protection. Devereux however is too concerned with his feelings for Sarah who has abandoned him and married Nottingham while Devereux was in Ireland. What is clever about the arrangement is the swapping of tokens (a ring and a scarf) which at the same time could save Devereux or see him condemned to death. There are worse kinds of betrayal than political failure.

While there is a neat symmetry to the construction, the strengths of the work lie not so much in the plot or the libretto as much as in how the drama is expressed musically - through exquisite melodies, arias and, of course, through the expressive ornamentation of the coloratura. which in this case is admirably much more restrained than is typical for a bel canto lyrical tragedy. The interpretation given by the singers is therefore of primary importance, and in a theatrical environment that can be enhanced further through a considered stage direction that gives the performers the necessary space for expression. It’s this sense of dramatic potential and expression that I’ve always found to be one of the strengths of Christof Loy as a director. With a terrific cast here in the four main roles to take care of the singing confidently - particularly with Edita Gruberova as Queen Elizabeth I - Loy places the emphasis on the central theme and ensures that the acting and interaction between the characters works to bring that out to the fullest. The result is a simply chillingly and powerful account of a work that - like Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda - has far more going for it than just being a romanticised historical drama.

Devereux

For director Christof Loy, his principal interest in the work is indeed the human feelings that lie beneath the surface impressions of a woman in power. It’s not surprising then, considering the English setting, that in updating the work to a modern context, Loy makes reference to a woman more recognisable than Elizabeth I and more politically powerful and dangerous than Elizabeth II. There’s unquestionably a similarity to Margaret Thatcher here in the dress sense and hair styling of Edita Gruberova’s Queen Elizabeth. With a wry sense of humour then, nearly all the action takes place indeed in Westminster, but in a modern-day government press-office that is all wood panelling and leather armchairs, where the functionaries in smart business suits gossip by the water cooler over the latest headlines in the tabloid press - “Seducer Returns”, “Off With His Head”. It’s a nice touch, one that makes the most of the chorus, showing them muttering to each other, whispering rumours and rolling eyes, creating the kind of environment of gossip and scandal played out in public that drives the intrigue throughout.

It’s remarkably effective, characteristically Christof Loy, maximising the potential of the conflict between faithless treacherous men and blazing vengeful women at the heart of the drama in the simplest way possible, giving it an air of naturalism that one isn’t accustomed to find in a production of an operatic historical drama. The same kind of detail, with particular attention to the acting, is of course evident in all the main performances. There is a fine performance from Roberto Aronica as Devereux, which includes a lovely heartfelt Act III ‘A te dirò negli ultimo singhiozzi’ and a fine ‘Dacché tomasti, ahi misera’ duet between Devereux and Jeanne Piland’s excellent Sarah. Albert Schagidullin demonstrates a fine legato line and beautifully clear diction as Nottingham, his soft dignified bass befitting the nature of his character. It’s Edita Gruberova however who delivers the truly standout performance of the evening. Given terrific motivation through the direction, her performance is committed and perfectly controlled, delivering vengeful utterances with ringing authority and conviction, drawing full expression out of the magnificent coloratura. Her crumbling self-destruction at the end of the opera is simply devastating and it brings the house down.

Devereux

The DVD from Deutsche Grammaphon also includes a fine 20-minute documentary on the making of the production. Half of the featurette is on the production itself, with input from Christof Loy and Friedrich Haider, who interestingly calls Roberto Devereux “the Elektra of bel canto opera, and you can see where he’s coming from. The other half of the featurette focuses on the filming of the production by Brian Large, getting behind the scenes and showing the work and planning involved in recording an opera for the screen. The quality of the DVD itself is excellent in terms of audio and video quality (in widescreen). Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Chinese.

OneginPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2012 | Pietari Inkinen, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Heike Grötzinger, Ekaterina Scherbachenko, Alisa Kolosova, Elena Zilio, Simon Keenlyside, Pavol Breslik, Ain Anger, Ulrich Reß | Live Internet Streaming, 25 March 2012

The manner in which elements of Eugene Onegin relate closely to the circumstances of Tchaikovsky’s own life have often been remarked upon, and it undoubtedly contributes to the deep emotional and romantic sweep of the opera, so it’s surprising that – to my knowledge at least – the unspoken subtext within the work hasn’t really been brought out explicitly before in any modern production.

That subtext is, of course, related to Tchaikovsky’s struggle with his homosexuality. At the same time that the composer was writing Eugene Onegin, he had himself started a correspondence with the patron of many of his works, Nadezhda von Meck, an intimate relationship that held a certain awkwardness since the two of them were reluctant to meet each other in person. In May 1877, Tchaikovsky also received a love letter from a pupil at the Moscow Conservatory, Antonina Milyukova. Believing that destiny was in some way playing a hand, and that marriage would help him deny his homosexuality, Tchaikovsky ill-advisedly married Milyukova in July 1877, and immediately regretted the decision. The marriage was a complete failure and led to a mental breakdown and attempted suicide on the part of the composer.

In the opera that Tchaikovsky was writing at the same time, Eugene Onegin, based on the verse novel by Alexander Pushkin, Onegin famously receives a gushing letter from a devoted admirer, Tatyana, a young, bookish, innocent, romantic girl living on a country estate who immediately falls in love with the handsome visitor introduced by their neighbour Lensky. Cruelly rejecting her declaration of love, Onegin claims that he’s not cut out for marriage, cannot bear the idea of being tied down when he is young and when there are so many other options to explore, certain that any marriage between them would inevitably become dull and routine.

Onegin

There would have undoubtedly been some identification on the part of Tchaikovsky with this situation, which certainly at least contributes to the lush romanticism of the score, so it’s not too much of a stretch to consider that Onegin may well have similarly rejected the young girl because he is gay and that, at the end when he comes to regret his callous dismissal of Tatyana after a life of empty and purposeless abandon, it’s possible to see something of the composer’s own dilemma, hoping unrealistically and impossibly for the security of a marriage relationship that would be more acceptable to society.

Actually, having made the parallel and having watched the Bavarian State Opera’s attempt to put something similar across on the stage, I can see why there’s a reluctance to characterise Eugene Onegin as a gay man. It takes some nerve to update a classic work in this way, altering the sexual orientation of the main character in one of the most romantic works ever written, no matter how closely it mirrors the actual real-life circumstances of the composer. As a subtext, it’s certainly something interesting to keep in mind, but it’s a bit more difficult to make it work convincingly on the stage. Accordingly, there’s a sense that while the director might like to make more of the idea, there’s undoubtedly a need to tread carefully with the material at the same time. So in some respects, while there is a feeling that there is some holding back from taking these ideas too far, even what there is here in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production is more than controversial enough.

Rather delightfully, the production is set in the 1970s, a period that is by no means arbitrary, coinciding with the age of growing sexual expression and liberty where coming out was more acceptable in a way that Tchaikovsky – or indeed Onegin – could never have done in their day. I’m not sure that this would have been the case in Russia in the seventies, but (quite the opposite of the recent De Nederlandse production by Stefan Herheim) there’s nothing here in this production that is culturally specific to Russia. So while the first act is by no means anything like the Larina country estate, it at least looks like a fairly well-off family anywhere in Europe during the seventies. I say delightful, and that’s because it’s a loving recreation of the decade in terms of design and colour, with vinyl chairs, bell bottom trousers, coloured leather armchairs and moon landings on the TV, the stage animated by disco lights and dancing queens.

Onegin

It’s the idea of dancing queens however that is the most controversial aspect of Warlikowski’s production, which features Full Monty routines and shirtless males in cowboy hats and some even in bikinis, shuffling around through the famous Polonaise of the opera. I say shuffling, because it’s very tame stuff indeed, lacking the nerve and the verve to really make the production challenging, even if it is still more than enough to make traditional opera-goers very uncomfortable indeed. I don’t know what the Munich audience made of this or of Onegin’s kiss with his “close friend” Lensky, but I thought it was delicately handled within the context – the spat between the two men a rejection of Onegin’s advances, leading Lensky to throw down the challenge of a duel to defend his honour and reputation before a watching public.

If it wasn’t much to look at, and at times rather more static and all-purpose than one would like, the stage design suited the context setting well, looking most of the time like a 70s’ discotheque, but capable of being transformed reasonably effectively into a family living room or Tanya’s bedroom, allowing the first two acts to flow together without an interval. The duel between Onegin and Lensky takes place over a bed, which was something of a daring touch, but one that worked surprisingly well, principally due to the fine performances – in terms of both singing and acting – of Simon Keenlyside and Pavol Breslik. Keenlyside in particular carried the weight of Onegin’s inner struggle without appearing arrogant, adding to the tragedy of the outcome and his final breakdown. Ekaterina Scherbachenko perhaps didn’t carry the vocal strength or force of some of the best recent more mature Tatyanas (Renée Fleming, Krassimira Stoyanova), but she expressed the youthful innocence, confusion and mortification of her character much more convincingly, singing well and without mannerisms.

The idea of approaching Eugene Onegin from a gay perspective is a challenging one, as is setting it in the 1970s, and there were accordingly some inconsistencies in taking this approach and a static quality at times to the stage direction. The strength of the singing and dramatic performances however – notably from Keenlyside and Tatyana – and a good account of Tchaikovsky’s wonderful, heart-breaking score by the Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Pietari Inkinen, combined to brilliantly bring out the real strength of the work as well as the underlying subtext that undoubtedly contributes to its power and tragedy.

Carlo

Giuseppe Verdi - Don Carlo

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich 2012 | Asher Fisch, Jürgen Rose, René Pape, Jonas Kaufmann, Boaz Daniel, Eric Halfvarson, Steven Humes, Anja Harteros, Anna Smirnova, Laura Tatulescu, Francesco Petrozzi, Evgeniya Sotnikova, Tim Kuypers, Goran Juric, Levente Molnár, Christian Rieger, Christoph Stephinger, Rüdiger Trebes | Live Internet Streaming - 22 January 2012

It’s become popular of late, even more so with the recent 150th anniversary of the reunification of Italy, to view Verdi’s operas less in the historical period of their setting than in the time and the politics of their composition. Dealing with power, religion, the rule of fear and the merciless suppression of revolutionary elements that threaten the prevailing authorities, Don Carlos in particular fits in very well with the complexity of the political situation during the Risorgimento, but then it was undoubtedly meant to. If this production of Verdi’s magnificent 1867 Five-Act Grand Opera for the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich doesn’t make overt reference to the Italian political situation of the time, it at least fully draws out those elements that Verdi, a prominent figure in the Risorgimento, raises in relation to the exercise of power.

At the time of the opera’s composition in 1866, the unification of Italy was still underway but unresolved with regard to the position of the Papal State in the new nation, and it wouldn’t be until 1871 that Rome finally became part of the new Italy and its capital. The writing of the opera coincides also with the Papal Syllabus of Errors 1864 that resolutely set the Catholic church in opposition to those revolutionary ideals of freedom of speech and religious tolerance, and there is consequently a strong anticlerical stance in Don Carlo that also reflects Verdi’s complex relationship with the Church. The Bayerische Staatsoper production, broadcast live on the internet on the 22nd January 2012, uses the more commonly performed Italian version of the opera that was originally written in French, and judging from the lack of prelude and extended prison scene, it would appear to be the original rather than the revised version of the opera. The production focuses less on the romantic element of the story at the centre of the opera between Don Carlos and Elisabeth – their unexpected love for each other at an arranged marriage of political convenience cruelly dashed by the decision of Carlo’s father Philip II to marry Elisabeth himself – and instead places emphasis on the unjust wielding of power by an old conservative establishment and the denial of liberty that this represents.

Carlo
The staging, if it is rather stark and dimly lit throughout, reflects Carlo’s deep despair at the turn of events which seems to be less to do with romantic inclinations here than a deeper personal crisis at being rendered powerless to control his own destiny by higher powers, one that he attempts to restore through his subsequent throwing himself into the affairs of the Flemish struggle. Stark it may be, but two elements dominate the set throughout and have an important influence over the whole tone of the production. The first is a huge crucifix that hangs over the setting of all five acts, whether it’s the Forest of Fontainbleau, the Cloister at San Yuste, the bedroom/study of the King or a prison cell, its presence dark and oppressive (like much of the score) rather than comforting, and the second is the image of the Friar/the ghost of Philip’s father, who is not only a brooding ambiguous figure in the opera, but a hooded image of him holding a skull also materialises in the background, usually at the beginning and end of acts, again with religious significance for death and the afterlife.

There is only one point in the opera where neither of these images are present, and that is during the auto-da-fé scene at the end of Act III, but the only brightness there is here is cast by the flames of burning heretics condemned by the Grand Inquisitor, and a garish procession of tableaux vivants depicting Catholic iconography in all its glorious bloody violence. It’s the one scene in the opera that strives to make a big impression and, coming as it does during Verdi’s famous March and Chorus at the Grand Finale of Act III, it’s meant to be a powerful sequence, one where Don Carlo finally rebels and is moved to political activism against the cruelty of the ruling powers. Everything about the production, though it may not be pretty to look at, consequently is completely in service to Verdi’s themes and works to put the emphasis in all the right places. Even the division of the opera with the two hours of first three acts ambitiously played without an interval (the basic setting allowing for this), allows the division between the two halves of the opera to be all the more strikingly contrasted.

Carlo

This, of course, is a vital aspect of the whole opera, the divisions not just being political, but between love and duty, between the personal and the public faces presented by each of the figures, and by the changing nature of their relationships to one another. This aspect was magnificently drawn out in last season’s production of Don Carlo at the Met, particularly in the fine acting of the principals, but while there is less nuance in the acting in this production, the singing is of a sufficiently high standard to convey everything that is implicit in the libretto and the score. Most impressive is Rene Papé, whose first words in the aria ‘Ella giammai m’amo! (“She never loved me!”), coming as they do directly after the interval, typify that divide in the opera and the characters, the merciless authority that Philip yielded in the first half, now seen in private as a man who may wear a crown and can bend others to his will, but would give it all up to be able to understand and sway the human heart. Pape’s terrific performance makes Philip’s dilemma real – that there is a higher power, albeit in the earthly guise of the Church, that even he must obey – his delivery of the aria revealing the humanity beneath the hard surface that is buckling under the demands of duty in such a way that one can’t help but sympathise with him.

The same conflicts, and the dark fatalism that underlies it, are likewise brilliantly expressed in the main arias of each of the figures, in Eboli’s Act IV ‘O don fatale’, wonderfully delivered by Anna Smirnova; in Elisabeth’s ‘Tu che le vanità conoscesti del mondo’ (“You who knew the vanities of the world, and enjoy in the tomb profound repose”), another strong performance from Anja Harteros, where she concludes that “the heart has one desire: the peace of the grave!”; and in the figures who indeed take that idealism to the grave with them – Rodrigo and Carlo, in the belief that they will find a better place for them in the afterlife. Jonas Kaufmann may seem to make less of an impression here than he usually does, but Carlo indeed is not a leading role that takes centre stage. He’s the catalyst by which we define the divisions and the conflicts within each of the characters, an idealist who himself is defined by and at the mercy of those forces that are greater than himself, whichever direction he turns.

Kaufmann doesn’t seek to make Carlo any more romantic or heroic than he is, remaining within the defined limits of the character, but within that – as written and scored by Verdi – there is a great deal of development that can be seen to reach a peak at the opera’s finale. Here Kaufmann’s powerful delivery and the considered performance of the role shows the true quality of his voice and his ability to suit the demands of a thoughtful and well-performed production of Don Carlo that strikes a perfect balance in every respect to Verdi’s arrangements and their intentions.

MedeaGiovanni Simone Mayr - Medea in Corinto

Bayerisches Staatsoper, Munich 2010 | Ivor Bolton, Hans Neuenfels, Nadja Michael, Ramón Vargas, Alastair Miles, Alek Shrader, Elena Tsallagova, Kenneth Robertson, Francesco Petrozzi, Laura Nicorescu | Arthaus

The Medea myth has provided great material for opera composers over the years, and it’s not difficult to see why. It has all the ingredients – as it’s played here in this version – for the operatic favourite, the ‘melodramma tragico’. A Greek mythological tale of royal kingdoms at war, marriage alliances and a sorceress who seeks to disrupt it all, it’s a storyline nonetheless that can be accessible to a modern audience, dealing with very real human emotions. There’s a joyous wedding – between Creusa and Jason – but a psycho ex-wife, Medea, who still represents a threat to the union, and a struggle over custody of the kids from her and Jason’s previous marriage, which he wants annulled based on the fact that the witch cast a spell over him. Don’t they all. And would you believe it, the ex turns up at the wedding and causes a bit of a scene. Nightmare.

There are many other facets to this storyline, from the classical mythological view of the relationship between humans and the gods to the character-driven human drama full of emotional turmoil and conflicts between duty and desire. It’s a subject consequently that has been covered many times in opera over the centuries, and is still returned to even by modern composers, with Aribert Reimann’s 2010 Medea viewing Jason’s entering into prestigious marriage to Creusa as an act of social climbing, leaving behind his past for an alliance with Corinth. For the director of this production of Mayr’s 1813 opera Medea in Corinto, Hans Neuenfels, the story is about people living in fear and acting out of fear. You might not get that quite so much from the original score and libretto, but that at least is the spin put on this production of a rarely performed opera recorded in 2010 at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich.

Medea

In Medea in Corinto, the forthcoming union between Creusa and Jason (Giasone in Italian) is a promise to the end of the long wars that have devastated the nation and an end to living in fear. But right from the beginning, Neuenfel’s radical staging puts forward a view that Corinth – perhaps on account of having to deal with the constant threat of violence – has become a corrupt and violent police state, with a cruel and sadistic king, Creon/Creonte. There are threats to the marriage also not only from Medea, who has turned up demanding an audience with Giasone, but – in this version – from Aegeus/Egeo, who is still engaged to Creusa and has brought his own personal army with him to push forward his claim to the throne.

Much of this interpretation of the myth is, it has to be said, suggested by the staging rather more than anything in the score or the libretto. That kind of practice can often be a valid exercise of theatrical interpretation, but it’s perhaps a little more dubious here since it seems to be acting in a way that is contrary to the intent of the piece, the kind of director-imposed regietheater view that is despised by a certain (intransigent) section of the opera-viewing public. In the opening scenes then, while Creon is talking about peace, he and his troops are at the same time engaged in the abuse, torture and execution of ordinary citizens in a sadistic manner that clearly evokes Pasolini’s Salò (thankfully without its worst excesses). In other scenes, either the director doesn’t trust the singing to be strong enough or the score to be deep or interesting enough, and includes silent background figures of Hymen and Amor, who play out mimes in the background, as well as solo musicians to highlight and contrast the actions with the words of the libretto.

Whether it’s true to Mayr’s vision of the Medea myth, this kind of reworking of the material is of course valid in the context of the nature of the opera’s theme of shifting political agendas, where the stated aims of those in power is often contrary to their actions and their actual intent. More than that however, without a little bit of subversion to enliven it, Medea in Corinto might otherwise be a very dull opera indeed. Musically, the studied classicism of Mayr’s arrangements – stately Mozart-like opera seria without the recitative and singing that is heading towards bel canto – is quite beautiful, but can come across as rather bland, certainly when compared to Cherubini’s fiery version, which is an evident model here. Although the qualities of his composition here are debatable, or at least unfashionable as far as modern opera tastes go, the composer now almost forgotten in the history of opera, Mayr could once count both Bellini and Donizetti as pupils, and Medea in Corinto is consequently not without a considerable amount of interest.

Medea

If the Bayerische Staatsoper production then is somewhat radical, it at least tries to make the classical themes relevant to a modern audience, the three-level stage reflecting the three periods through which the audience view this opera – a modern view of Mayr’s period interpretation of classical antiquity. The motivations and intentions can however be a bit dubious in some other respects – Medea first appearing in a witch-doctor costume, Aegeus bizarrely killing his own men in the second act – but it certainly holds the attention better than a more straightforward traditional production might. The production however also benefits here from some fine singing, Nadja Michael in particular delivering a fabulous rich deep almost mezzo performance as Medea – here as elsewhere a real showpiece role – but the singing all round is of a very high quality. A slimmed-down Ramón Vargas is notable as Giasone, but the role requires a deeper near-baritone range in some parts that the Mexican tenor can’t reach with sufficient force. Unfashionable it may be, but if you are looking to study the often fascinating intricacies and colour of the score, it’s superbly delivered by the Bayerisches Staatsorcheter under Ivor Bolton.

Enjoyment of this rare opera is assured however by the High Definition quality of the Arthaus Blu-ray release. The image quality is flawless, the filming making use of frequent close-ups, but also allowing the (sometimes distracting) background drama to be followed. The audio tracks are LPCM Stereo and HD Master Audio 5.0, both of which are simply outstanding with remarkable clarity and bass presence, and only a little reverb of stage ambience on occasion from the microphone placements. Extra features include a 30-minute Making of – which is made up entirely of interviews with the cast and production team – and a very informative 16-minute Interview with the president of the Simone Mayr institute.

CarmelitesFrancis Poulenc - Dialogues des Carmélites

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich 2010 | Kent Nagano, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Alain Vernhes, Susan Gritton, Bernard Richter, Sylvie Brunet, Soile Isokoski, Susanne Resmark, Hélène Guilmette, Heike Grötzinger, Anaïk Morel, Kevin Conners | Bel Air Classiques

Clever modern concept stagings of opera are all very well in the right place and with the right kind of opera. Sometimes however, it just seems perverse to take them out of their original context, particularly when the opera applies to a specific historical period or event that is explicitly referred to in the libretto. There seems little value then in “updating” Poulenc’s 1956 opera Dialogues des Carmélites away from its French Revolutionary setting or the historical incident in 1794 where sixteen nuns from a Carmelite convent in Compiègne were executed for resisting the confiscation of the church’s assets and the dissolution of the order.

You just know however that a controversial director like Dmitri Tcherniakov is never going to go down a conventional route, or even find an intermediary space (like the fine 2008 Nikolaus Lehnhoff production in Hamburg), where the actual themes of the opera beyond the historical setting can be examined, themes relating to the question of life in the face of death, fear of death and the nature of martyrdom for a cause. No, Tcherniakov doesn’t follow any expected route, but what clearly is his intention – as it is in all his productions, whether they actually work for an audience or not – is to attempt to cut the distance between the themes that are sometimes obscured by an overly elaborate and literal period setting, and strip back the staging in order to give the music and the singing the necessary environment that will allow provoke a reaction in the viewer towards the subtext. In the right kind of opera, it’s not so much about imposing a concept or an interpretation or being deliberately obscure for the sake of it, as allowing the audience the space to relate to the themes in their own personal way.

Whether that is achieved in this production of Dialogues des Carmélites recorded at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich is however debatable, as the staging seems to do its utmost to actually distance itself from the audience and box it into its own little world (the box within a box idea is also used in Tcherniakov’s staging for Verdi’s Macbeth, released by Bel Air alongside this). The period is non-specific but modern (even though the De la Force family still have a servant and chauffeur-driven coach), and Blanche de la Force certainly doesn’t enter any traditional kind of convent where the nuns wear habits. Perhaps reflecting Blanche’s fear of the world outside – and despite the Prioress Madame de Croissy’s insistence that it is not a refuge – the convent does resemble a women’s refuge, with all the sisters wearing heavy woollen cardigans and sensible skirts, all nursing mugs of hot tea.

There is no reason however why the questions that arise in the opera – making sense of life in the face of approaching death, finding order and meaning in it, and examining how each person individually comes to terms with their mortality – can’t be examined outside of the historical context of the French revolution. Poulenc based the opera on a play by Georges Bernanos, which in turn was based on an original 1931 novel by Gertrud von le Fort (’Die Letzte am Schafott‘), which itself used the subject as a means of commenting on German social disorder following the fall of the Weimar Republic – so it’s certainly artistically valid for Tcherniakov to update the work if it’s in the service of throwing a new light on the themes. What is rather more controversial is that the director radically changes the original ending – which is a really powerful conclusion. Tchernaikov’s finale, which practically turns the original on its head, is just as powerful and dramatic in its own right, but whether it “improves” or casts any further light on the actions of Blanche de la Force is debatable. It could just be that it’s the complete disregard of the traditional approach that is what is really shocking about the ending here, and it results in an equal amount of audible booing and cheers at the director’s curtain call.

At the very least however, Tcherniakov’s staging forces the audience to think about the subject again in a different way, and it’s an opera that really does have a lot of deeper subtexts to be drawn out of it. What makes this production even more worthwhile in this respect is the conducting of Kent Nagano. The music in Dialogues des Carmélites can be a little strange and unsettling, even with some hauntingly beautiful melodies that evoke Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélissande, but Nagano seems to bring out those ambiguous qualities of the opera and its similarities to Debussy even more strongly, with a greater sense of warmth and harmony than, for example the Hamburg production. That harmony and warmth is also more evident in the singing – although not in every case – so I wouldn’t necessarily say that one is better than the other, but I certainly find the interpretation here much more intriguing, creating new resonances and opening up the opera in an unexpected way.

Whether the staging works or not in a live context, it certainly doesn’t come across well on DVD or Blu-ray. The majority of the opera takes place (as you can see from the cover) within a boxed room on the stage. This means that crossbeams frequently get in the way, obscuring the view of the singers, which is further hampered by a gauze screen that softens the image, desaturates the colours and causes hazy netting effects. The HD reproduction of this consequently isn’t good, and the encoding doesn’t really help matters, looking rather blurry in movements. Between the net effect and the encoding, this does appear to be a visually substandard release. (Although the cover states it’s a BD25 disc it is however, as you would expect, BD50 – ie. dual-layer). The audio tracks are better, the singing mostly clear, the orchestration warm and enveloping, but also revealing a good amount of colour and detail. It’s no match for the precise crystalline clarity of the DTS HD-MA 7.1 mix on the Hamburg Staatsoper production, and if you would prefer a more faithful version of the opera I would highly recommend that release, but there are enough intriguing elements in the Nagano/Tcherniakov production to make this certainly worth your time.