Bel Air Classiques


Oscar Bianchi - Thanks to my Eyes

Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2011 | Franck Ollu, Joël Pommerat, Hagen Matzeit, Brian Bannatyne-Scott, Keren Motseri, Fflur Wyn, Anne Rotger, Antonie Rigot | Bel Air Media, La Monnaie Internet streaming

Eyes

Writing his first opera, commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence Festival and premiered there in 2011, Swiss-Italian composer Oscar Bianchi took a French drama by Joël Pommerat (‘Grâce à mes yeux’) as the source of Thanks to my Eyes, but took the unusual step of asking the author to adapt the work into the English language for the libretto. The reason for the change of language, according to the composer, working very much in the modern musical idiom, was purely technical and related to the more discordant sounds and textures evoked by the work that suited English singing better than the more musical-sounding French. I can think of another reason not explicitly stated by the composer why you would be cautious about setting a French-language drama to music, and that’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

Even then, while there might be the occasional reminder of the more spooky elements of Britten’s Turn of the Screw in the chamber instruments, it still proves impossible to escape the huge influence of Debussy’s only opera and its extraordinary ability to fuse music to Maeterlinck’s already existing play, while keeping the original almost entirely intact. Bianchi’s approach to creating a musical ambience for Pommerat’s drama works - and works reasonably well to often striking effect, it has to be said - in a similar way. Cutting the original work back extensively to fit an opera work that is only about one hour and ten minutes long, the short scenes in Thanks to my Eyes have a similar feeling of incompleteness, interruption and open abstraction that is there in Debussy and Maeterlinck’s symbolist work. The similarities however exist more than just on the surface approach of connecting the music to the drama.

Eyes

While the story and themes are quite different to Pelléas et Mélisande, there are similarities in the theatrical representation of the drama. A young man, Aymar, timid and solitary, is dominated by his famous father, a great comedian who, in the first scene, is shown handing one of the suits he uses in his act to his son, clearly expecting him to follow in his footsteps. His dominance of Aymar however also extends to control over finding a suitable woman for the young man, suggesting and trying to influence Aymar into choosing a woman like his own mother, much as he chose his wife based on his own mother. Aymar however is torn between two women, a Young Blond Woman and a mysterious cloaked Young Woman in the Night who keeps her face covered, who he secretly meets on a mountain top away from the eyes of his family. He knows however that he must break off this relationship, but is too timid to even be able to take that step.

Reducing the drama down to key scenes, although maintaining a linear, serial flow, even if some of the scenes are rather abstract in nature, does have the impact of bringing any undercurrents and symbolism directly to the surface. Like Debussy however, even though he is working in a much different musical language, the intention of Bianchi is to convey a sense of deeper meaning and suggestion beyond actual language and physical expression. While on the one hand then the figures all fit into regular types - domineering father, passive mother, child seeking to find his own sense of self and expression apart from them - there are other intriguing elements that are indeed evoked by the drama scenes, lighting and the use of the atmospheric chamber music. It may not be the most memorable or melodic music, but its intent is to integrate more fully into the whole theatrical process as a Gesamkunstwerk, as does the expression through the singing.

Eyes

The singing on this recording at the opera’s world premiere run in Aix-en-Provence, is of an exceptionally high standard, and when I say exceptionally high, I’m not just referring to the unusual use of a countertenor voice for Aymar, sung by Hagen Matzeit. This is an appropriate choice for the figure, emphasising his difference from his (not unexpected) bass-baritone father, Brian Bannatyne-Scott. The singing and sometimes wayward phrasing weave in complex ways, and work well off each other in this context. Interestingly, while the two women are sopranos (both singing the roles wonderfully, Fflur Wyn in particular having to reach some extraordinary high notes), the mother has a speaking-role only, and speaks in French, as do the others when speaking to her. The dramatic reasons for this are remain unexplained - it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that their mother might be a native French speaker - but it does introduce another intriguing dramatic and vocal element that contributes to the overall complexity of the meaning contained within the overall soundscape.

The tone of the music and singing and the effect it creates is matched by the staging, directed by the original author and librettist, Joël Pommerat. Locations are generic - outdoors, indoors, on a mountain top, at a edge of a cliff - uniformly grey in the darkness (barring a sunrise and some atmospheric lighting effects here and there), sparse and solitary, clearly evoking an emotional landscape more than a literal one. On the whole, regardless of what you judge to be the qualities of the often obscure motivations and actions in the drama or whether you find the style of music pleasant or not, the work does indeed transport you into another world entirely and hold you in its thrall for over an hour.

Broadcast via the Internet streaming service of La Monnaie-De Munt, (available on-line until 5th May 2012) this recording unusually isn’t of the current production running in Brussels, but a recording made at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2011. I’m not sure how this would have been presented on the stage, but the television recording allows the disparate scenes to flow and change without any breaks in the music, using frequent intertitles (in French) along the lines of “A few moments later, in the same place” or “That night, on the mountain top” to effect the rapid switches in time and location. Yes, Thanks to my Eyes is a rather strange, experimental piece of avant-garde music-theatre whose meaning may be difficult to fathom, with music and singing that may be challenging to the ears, but it does succeed in creating an alternative means of expression that comes across effectively on the screen and I’m sure even more so in a theatre.

MahagonnyKurt Weill - Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Teatro Real Madrid, 2010 | Pablo Heras Casado, Alex Ollé, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Jane Henschel, Donald Kaasch, Willard White, Measha Brueggergosman, Michael König, John Easterlin, Otto Katzameier, Steven Humes | Bel Air Media

When it was originally composed in 1930, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht intended Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny) to be as much a satire of opera and a reaction to the state of the Weimar Republic. Now, when taken alongside such like-minded work contemporary works by Hindemith and Berg, it just sounds like great opera – but it still functions as a scathing satire on all the subjects it deals with, particularly the nature of capitalism, on which it still has very relevant points to make.

You can call it music theatre if you like, but Weill’s score for Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is considerably more sophisticated than that, working in a variety of styles to create a deliberate alienating effect, drawing on specific references, creating dissonance and unsettling arrangements, using unexpected plot points to keep the listener engaged and keep them from complacently and unquestioningly accepting operatic conventions. It does all that and it has great tunes as well, the most notable of which, Alabama Song, sung by down-and-out prostitute Jenny Smith (”Oh, show me the way to the next Whisky Bar“), is almost like the flip-side of the Libiamo sung in celebration at the party of La Traviata’s courtesan, Violetta Valéry.

If you need any convincing that Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny can aspire to great opera however, this 2010 production at the Teatro Real in Madrid, directed by La Fura dels Baus might be just the ticket. I’m not the biggest fan of La Fura – I’ve seen several of their productions fall well short of the mark – but when they get it right and are working with the right kind of material, they can succeed in a spectacular fashion. Their unconventional approach to opera staging, which could even be considered anti-theatre, certainly has a Brechtian influence, so it’s no surprise to find that that the Catalan group are absolutely perfect for this particular work.

Mahagonny

Directed by Alex Ollé and Carlus Padrissa, there are no projections this time – other than the titles of each of the sections (in Spanish here, not translated on the screen) – no elaborate designs, no wire acrobatics or off-the-wall concepts. Everything is tailored directly towards the expression of the ideas in the work, finding the most imaginative and impactful way of putting it across, without relying on stagy conventions. The decision then to have the the trio of Widow Begbick, Fatty and Trinity Moses arrive as if dumped from a refuge collection and set about founding the City of Mahagonny on the edge of a rubbish dump is perfect for the nature of their intentions to make as much money as cheaply as possible by appealing to the lowest nature of their visitors, offering them booze, girls and boxing.

It’s important to get the basic concept in place, but the directors find the right tone for each scene, with many wonderful little touches – from Jimmy’s imagined return sea journey to Alaska with the raised legs of the hookers forming the waves, to his trial taking place in a circus ring – all of which give an additional satirical edge that not works along with the material, showing an understanding of its nature, its playfulness and its bitterness, without feeling the need to over-emphasise or add on any additional commentary. The opera is satirical of all these subjects – from the expectations of the individual to the concept of justice – all within the umbrella of the capitalist system, and it doesn’t need any specific or easy-target anti-American agenda attached for the concept to stand on its own and be applied by the listener to their own experience of the system.

Mahagonny

I’m not sure why it was chosen to use the US revision of the original opera, singing it in English and changing Jimmy Mahoney to Jimmy MacIntyre, particularly as there are a few native German speakers in the cast here and others, like Henschel, have a strong footing in German opera. If it’s another attempt at alienation effect to keep the audience guessing, then it works here. Most importantly however, the casting and singing is superb. Jane Henschel is superbly capable in the whole range from singspiel-like dialogue to more conventional opera singing, as well as being a fine actress in the role of Widow Begbick. Jenny Smith is an important piece of casting, and Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman makes an incredible impression, oozing sensuality and absolutely electric in her scenes with Michael König’s fine Jimmy MacIntyre. The balance right across the board in the other roles seems perfect, consistently hitting the right note, as do the Chorus of the Teatro Real, who give their all in the scantiest of costumes and in the most… well… indelicate situations. One can’t fault the commitment either of the Madrid orchestra under Pablo Heras Casado.

I don’t know if it’s to do with the encoding, but Bel Air releases often look a little juddery in motion on both my Blu-ray set-ups (most evident here when the Spanish captions move across the screen), and can lack definition in the darker scenes. I haven’t heard anyone else mention any issues with previous releases, so perhaps it’s specific to one’s set-up. Generally however, the image is fine, and even if movements aren’t smooth, I didn’t find it too distracting. The audio tracks, in LPCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, are both fine, but there’s not much to choose between them. I found the PCM worked better using headphones to keep the sound focussed, and it’s very impressive this way. There are no extra features on the disc, and only a synopsis in the booklet.

TurandotGiacomo Puccini - Turandot

Arena di Verona 2010 | Giuliano Carella, Franco Zeffirelli, Maria Guleghina, Carlo Bosi, Luiz-Ottavio Faria, Salvatore Licitra, Tamar Iveri, Leonardo Lòpez Linares, Gianluca Bocchino, Saverio Fiore, Giuliano Pelizon, Angel Harkatz Kaufman | BelAir Classiques

It’s not as if there is a gap in the market for yet another performance of Turandot, with there being a few versions already out on Blu-ray, and even one that uses the same Franco Zeffirelli production recorded here at the Arena di Verona in 2010. Taking advantage perhaps of Decca’s recall of their Zeffirelli production of Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera in New York due to a fault with the English subtitles, BelAir’s release is a timely one that comes out in the gap before the Met reissue. There’s certainly room in anyone’s collection for another version of Puccini’s final masterpiece, but perhaps not yet another one of this production.

Recorded at the huge stage in the Roman arena at Verona at least gives Zeffirelli quite a bit more scope and an impressive location for the sumptuous sets for this fairy-tale opera. The Met production isn’t exactly understated, but here at Verona, the director can at least double the number of supernumeraries, have room for acrobatics and Chinese parade dragons, but bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better (although try telling Franco Zeffirelli that!). Attempting to fill the stage with people could be seen as making things a little more cluttered, but – provided you don’t have an aversion to Zeffirelli glittery gold extravagance – it does at least give sets like the Royal Palace an appropriate sense of grandeur.

Where there’s room for improvement over the Met version of this classic production – not much, as it’s very good, but just a little in one or two areas – is in the singing. Blow for blow however, there’s not much to choose between the two casts other than personal taste and, perhaps more significantly, the impact of the acoustics on the respective recordings. Maria Guleghina is Turandot on both versions, and here – whether it’s through trying to project to a bigger arena, I’m not sure – she sounds a little shrill and strained in her riddle duel with Calaf, but she’s not perfect on the Met recording either. She does however come through with great regal presence and drama towards the conclusion. Tamar Ivéri sings Liù very well indeed, and I’d be happy with her performance if I didn’t still have Marina Poplavskaya’s deeply emotional performance and unique tone fresh in my mind. Salvatore Licitra is a fine Calaf, but his voice doesn’t always carry and he certainly doesn’t sustain his high notes on Nessun Dorma, although he gives it another worthy effort in an encore (this is Verona and the principal aim is one of popular crowd-pleasing), but he performs reasonably well considering the challenges of the outdoor arena setting.

Ultimately, it’s the occasion and the acoustics of the Arena di Verona that make the difference here at least as far as the singing is concerned. The acting is perhaps turned up a notch to project to the arena and performers all make use of discreet microphones, which means that it doesn’t consequently have the same natural ambience of a traditional theatrical production. If the Met production has the edge then in this regard, the Verona recording has other aspects to recommend. The setting and the occasion are impressive alone, but the performance of the orchestra under Giuliano Carella is also noteworthy and has great presence in both the LPCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 sound mixes.

In all other respects, the same qualities that can be found in the Met’s production also work here. The settings and arrangements fully capture the fairy-tale scale of the opera, but the direction sensitively brings out an appropriate sense of the nature of the characters as expressed though the libretto and in what Turandot’s riddles tell us about the respective personalities involved and how love arises from them. Most importantly, Zeffirelli’s production is perfectly in accordance with the tone of Puccini’s fascinating Oriental-inflected score, and the sense of occasion that the Arena di Verona lends it.

The quality of the Blu-ray release from BelAir is quite good, through not perfect. There is good detail in the image and strong colouration that captures the full glory of the production, but the encoding isn’t the best and movements aren’t the smoothest. This will probably vary according to individual systems however. The audio mixes in LPCM and DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 are both good, allowing finer detail to be heard in the orchestral the arrangements, and covering the singing reasonably well considering the acoustics and use of attached mics. I didn’t however particularly note any extra dynamic on the surround mix. There are no extra features on the disc, and only a detailed synopsis and credits in the enclosed booklet.

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.

MacbethGiuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Opéra National de Paris, 2009 | Teodor Currentzis, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Dimitris Tiliakos, Violeta Urmana, Furruccio Furlanetto, Letitia Singleton, Stefano Secco, Alfredo Nigro, Yuri Kissin | Bel Air Classiques

Dmitri Tcherniakov (now there’s a name to strike fear into the heart of every lover of traditional opera stagings) comes up with an interesting concept for this 2009 production for the Paris Opera. He sees the Scottish play in terms of a kind of American Beauty satire of modern life, with GoogleEarth-style 3-D overhead projections zooming into the map of a small surburban town, where we are treated to a peak through the windows into the drawing room of one particular moderately wealthy middle-class family. There erupts a power battle of social climbing, domestic disputes, vanity and identity crises that culminates in moral, social and personal breakdown.

That’s all very well, but Macbeth is Macbeth and American Beauty is American Beauty, and I imagine that some people would rather that the two remain entirely separate entities – except Verdi’s Macbeth was never really Shakespeare in the first place. Verdi does revenge and revolution well, and he also does drawing room melodrama well (it’s hard to beat La Traviata for that), and it’s hard to see Verdis Macbeth – which is certainly more domestic than political – as anything other than a Verdi opera, resounding with cries of “Vendetta!”. In the Italian translation, there’s little of Shakespeare’s poetry here (although the English subtitles do attempt to bring it back to the source drama), so if it’s all right for Verdi to adapt it to his favourite themes, isn’t it ok for Tcherniakov to adapt it in a way that it relates to a modern-day audience?

Well, evidently that’s for the individual to decide, but although it’s not without its problems, this production of Macbeth is spectacularly staged and sung, with real feeling for the piece and the underlying psychology that it exposes. Principally, there are only two real sets, one for the drawing room drama, the other for the people of the revolution (the people and the three witches converted into a kind of neighbourhood watch) – which perfectly captures the Verdian division of the essence of the drama. The sets are simple, but imaginatively employed, with dark clouds projected over the street scenes, the 3-D graphics superb for all the scene-setting that is required, and the drama within them is brilliantly and effectively staged. Banco’s death, for example, avoids all the usual on-stage dramatic clichés, and he is found left slumped on the ground as a whirlwind of people disperse.

Whether you buy into the staging or not, the performances are absolutely marvellous. Dimitris Tiliakos’ beautifully soft-toned baritone and his sensitive acting performance (again no opera theatrics here) make for a complex and nuanced Macbeth, working in perfect coordination with an equally intriguing Violeta Urmana, who also avoids all the usual Lady Macbeth clichés and even manages a few conjouring tricks while singing with conviction and personality. Furruccio Furlanetto, in duffel coat, is a superb Banco and Teodor Currentzis conducts the Paris orchestra through a powerful and dynamic rendition of the opera, which is as it should be.

Although quite minimalist, Tcherniakov’s set causes some problems with audio and video reproduction, but the issues are relatively minor. With much of it taking place within a box on the stage, the sound isn’t always as dynamic as it could be, and the choruses aren’t quite as full-bodied as you might like, but the detail is there and the impact is fully achieved with a definite woomph to those big Verdi moments. The staging also takes place behind a fine mesh screen, which slightly softens the image (although it suits the tone and lighting of this production), but the netting is only really evident in close-up and is not a major problem. The disc also includes an excellent 32 minute feature which gives a good idea of the ideas and personalities behind the production, with interviews and rehearsal footage.