Blu-ray


DiableGiacomo Meyerbeer - Robert Le Diable

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden - 2012 | Daniel Oren, Laurent Pelly, Bryan Hymel, John Relyea, Jean-François Borras, Marina Poplavskaya, Patrizia Ciofi, Nicolas Courjal, Jihoon Kim, Pablo Bemsch, David Butt Philip, Ashley Riches, Dušica Bijelić | Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The folly and the controversy surrounding the Royal Opera House’s production of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable have been extensively reported elsewhere, from the cast changes and departures through to its critical mauling in the press. While I’ve no doubt that a full evening of a misconceived five-act Meyerbeer opera could well have been a painful experience live at the Royal Opera House, a filmed recording of the production is however another thing entirely. That’s not to say that some of the problems with the production are any less evident, but there are compensating factors that one can perhaps better appreciate from the comfort of one’s own living room.

Even the undoubted weaknesses in the production can be offset to a large degree in this case just by the rare opportunity to see one of the greatest works of 19th century opera performed on the stage. Meyerbeer was one of the most important and composers of his time, an influence on both Verdi and Wagner, but his extravagant style and grandeur hasn’t remained fashionable, and even his greatest works - huge successes in their day - have fallen from the popular repertoire. Such is the case with Robert le Diable, a work which drew wide acclaim from fellow composers, critics and achieved wide popular international success following its premiere in 1831. The work was last performed at Covent Garden however in 1890, and it hasn’t been performed much anywhere in the world over the last century.

The fundamental difficulty with putting on a staging a work of 19th century Grand Opera does indeed have to do with it being at odds with popular tastes and fashions. It’s not so much a reflection on the quality of the work as the fact that modern audience has very different expectations from opera, and the old-style can be hard to swallow for a modernist, post-modernist, post-post-modernist audience. It’s like expecting a reader of Harlan Coben thrillers to adapt to reading Walter Scott, or for readers of Ian McEwan to engage with the themes of Victor Hugo. The challenge that faced director Laurent Pelly then is not an enviable one. He may not entirely have succeeded, but although his production for the Royal Opera House was heavily criticised in a way Pelly does capture the spirit of Meyerbeer to some extent. Perhaps it’s more of a case that audiences still aren’t ready for Meyerbeer.

Which is understandable, but a pity nonetheless. If nothing else Robert le Diable is an opera experience like no other. Musically and in terms of plotting it’s not the most sophisticated, but Meyerbeer packs the five acts of the opera so full of melodies and dramatic development, underlining it with grand choral refrains, lyrical expression, comic interplay and over-the-top gothic imagery with some ballet sequences thrown in for good measure, that it’s never anything less than pure value-for-money entertainment. Pelly’s production, unfairly criticised I feel, attempts to put all the colour and the darkness of the work up there on the stage in the sets and costumes, and he does so rather well. It’s faithful to the spirit of the work, playing it straight where it ought to be, exaggerating in other places, but never stooping to making fun of the melodramatic developments and wild declarations.

Aiming for the middle ground between period fidelity and modernism, there’s a “cardboard cutout” feel to the scenery then that is reminiscent in places of David Hockney’s designs for the Glyndebourne production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. It’s like an ancient black and white engraving that has been garishly hand-coloured, or even a medieval tapestry that might lack realistic detail and proportion, but nonetheless has the power to evoke the history and the values of another period far from our own. Sometimes this works exceptionally well (Act III’s vision of Hell on a mountain pass like something out of an Hieronymus Bosch painting), at other times the imagery feels a little forced (the ultimate battle between the good of Alice and the evil of Bertram in Act V), and sometimes it’s just a little too kitsch and reminiscent of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘ to take seriously (the colour of the medieval tournament in Act II).

In most cases however, even those mentioned above, these are valid responses to the nature and tone of the material itself. Stravinsky and Meyerbeer may have little in common (Gounod’s Faust might be a better model to consider), but Robert le Diable does indeed relate an exaggerated morality tale of the battle between good and evil similar to the one in The Rake’s Progress. Here, Robert of Normandy is rumoured to be the son of beautiful princess who married a demon from Hell. Robert however has the choice to follow a path of righteousness, and demonstrates his leniency by sparing the life of the minstrel Rimbaut who relates the story of Robert the Devil to assembled knights at an inn in Palermo. He could choose also to win the hand of Isabelle in the traditional way through a tournament, but despite the warnings of his late mother and his foster sister Alice, is laid astray by the machinations of his companion Bertrand, the real devil of the work. If he steals a magic branch from the tomb of Saint Rosalie, he can win Isabelle by other means.

Barring some questionable choices - I’m still in two minds about the choreography of the zombie sisters of St Rosalie during the opera’s most famous/notorious Dance of the Nuns ballet - Pelly’s staging is sympathetic to the shifts of tone in the work itself and gets fully behind it, never attempting to make it into something else entirely with conceptual cleverness. Daniel Oren too shows great feeling for the work, its rhythms and variations, and - regardless of what you think of the merits or otherwise of Meyerbeer’s score - it’s simply a delight to see this type of work being put through its paces. There is however one other problem associated with putting on a Meyerbeer opera that the best efforts of the conductor, director and the Royal Opera House seem powerless to influence. It seems like we really don’t have the singers for this type of work any longer.

It’s understandable that singers who would be suited to or capable of singing Meyerbeer are obviously more focussed on the greater career opportunities afforded by singing Wagner or bel canto. Even good Verdi singers are thin on the ground nowadays and the demands of Meyerbeer are often greater. Singing the title role, Bryan Hymel proves that he is up there and his performance is not only commendable, it’s almost heroic. His voice might not be to everyone’s taste, and it does start to grate and go a little bit wayward as the opera progresses through the final acts, but the effort is considerable. No less demanding is the role of Bertram and John Relyea handles it superbly and with great character. Despite her commitment, Marina Poplavskaya however is terribly miscast here, as is Patrizia Ciofi, who really doesn’t have a large enough voice for this style of work, her singing sounding like a whimper that is lost in the orchestration and big choruses.

It’s this aspect of the production that is the most problematic. While there are advantages to watching Robert le Diable on the screen that allow one to better to appreciate the full Meyerbeer experience that Oren and Pelly recreate, it only emphasises the unsuitability of some of the singing. There’s no doubting the commitment of the performances however, and for all its flaws this is a sincere and a valiant effort to stage one of the great opera masterworks of yesteryear. The recording of the work and its presentation on the Opus Arte Blu-ray (which comes in a die-cut slipcase) is of course of the highest quality in both image and sound. The extra features however are slim, with only a Cast Gallery and a five-minute presentation on the legacy of the work, which does nonetheless give you an idea of the challenges of putting on this work. There’s an essay and a full synopsis in the enclosed booklet. The disc is BD50, Full-HD, Region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

FrateGiovanni Battista Pergolesi - Lo frate ‘nnamorato

Teatro G.B Pergolesi, Jesi - 2011 | Fabio Biondi, Willy Landin, Nicola Alaimo, Elena Belfiore, Patrizia Biccirè, Jurgita Adamonyte, Barbara di Castri, David Alegret, Laura Cherici, Rosa Bove, Filippo Morace | Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

It’s remarkable. Up until only a year or two ago, Pergolesi’s reputation rested mainly on a few important sacred compositions (notably his Stabat Mater) and a few comic opera works that were perhaps more famous for the historical significance than for their musical qualities. Now, thanks to the work of the Pergolesi-Spontini Foundation and the release of all his operas on DVD (only his earliest religious drama Le conversione e morte di S. Guglielmo has yet to be released), we have a much more complete picture of a composer who tragically died in 1736 at the age of only 26. It’s been something of a revelation.

The two most famous Pergolesi operas prior to these new editions of his other work - La Serva Padrona and Lo frate ‘nnamorato - now actually prove to be among the lesser of Pergolesi’s compositions when compared to his achievements in the opera seria style (particularly his incomparable version of L’Olimpiade). The place of these two works in opera history however is still assured and significant on account of the part they played in the Querelle des buffons, with the Italian opera buffa style moving away from the rigid formalism of royal entertainments on classical themes. Dealing with subjects relating to common people, they can undoubtedly be seen to have had an important influence on Mozart in this respect. Written in the Neapolitan dialect, the ‘commedia per musicaLo frate ‘nnamorato has an even more down-to-earth quality and a more complex arrangement than the Intermezzo origins and the domestic revolutionary sentiments of La Serva Padrona.

The plot of Lo frate ‘nnamorato - which is one of Pergolesi’s earliest works - now seems quite typical of the genre that he helped create. There’s a complicated web of romantic entanglements where everyone is in love with someone who doesn’t love them, a situation that would likely end in unhappiness for all concerned were it not for some late revelations about lost relatives, secret identities and unexplained mysterious backgrounds. The social context however doesn’t appear to be particularly significant - the marriages being arranged are more for convenience than for gaining of social status. The primary mover, for example, is an elderly gentleman, Marcaniello who hopes to marry one of his friend Carlo’s nieces Nina along with his son Don Pietro marrying the other niece Nena, in exchange for a match being made for Carlo with his own daughter Luggrezia. Unfortunately Luggrezia is in love with Ascanio, so that messes up the arrangement somewhat, particularly since Ascanio is more drawn to Carlo’s nieces.

The significance of Lo frate ‘nnamorato of course is that this complicated set of affairs is played not for the sentiments of melancholy and despair over betrayal and unrequited love, but for the humour implicit in the situation. Little of that however comes from the main characters, although Don Pietro is certainly a bit of a joker who likes to flirt with the maids and tries certain unconventional methods of romantic persuasion while the others just seem to prefer bemoaning the lot that fate has drawn for them. It’s actually the maids Vanella and Cardella however who are the real heart of the work - down-to-earth, a little more realistic about life, taking no nonsense from Don Pietro or indeed any of the other men and masters, two “serva padronas” irreverently making fun of their self-indulgence, false hopes, illusions and self-deceptions.

Without the seemingly minor contributions of Vanella and Cardella, Lo frate ‘nnamorato would indeed be a rather conventional account of characters in the throes of despair over the trials of unrequited love, but the work also gains from Pergolesi’s musical arrangements, his inventive comic writing and the earthy character of the libretto’s Neapolitan dialect. That’s given a fine account here in the 2011 production at Jesi by Fabio Biondi leading his Europa Galante ensemble on violin. It’s a small ensemble of about 12 musicians, but as such the precision playing is all the more evident, as is the inherent warmth and lyricism within the score itself. It’s a beautiful performance of the work that, unfortunately, isn’t entirely matched by the production itself or the singing, which often feels rather lacking in life.

The singing on all the Pergolesi performances from Jesi so far has been of an exceptional standard, but their Lo frate ‘nnamorato isn’t the strongest. The problem could be that there are quite a number of demanding roles to fill here that require strong singers experienced and capable enough to handle the lyrical coloratura, and that’s a bit lacking in some places. The young cast however are all good, the voices fresh, lyrical and distinctive, particularly in the roles where it counts. Patrizia Biccirè’s Nena is one of the best performers here and Elena Belfiore - the mezzo-soprano used for the Ascanio countertenor/castrato role - is also excellent. The Act II trio between Ascanio, Nena and Nina (’Se ‘l foco mio t’ infiamma‘) is accordingly one of the highlights.

If the coloratura is tricky and shows up weaknesses in some of the singers, the staging itself isn’t particularly helpful. The sets for Willy Landin’s production are attractive however and the updating of the period to what looks like the 1950s doesn’t do the work any harm at all. It’s beautifully lit and coloured with warm sepias, oranges and browns, a provincial Italian village with gossipy neighbours and maids looking on and flirting with Don Pietro who arrives on the set on his moped. The stage directions however, although they try to keep the singers involved in some occupation, don’t really succeed in making it come to life. The best performances then tend to be the ones then who manage to strike a good balance between the singing requirements and entering into the spirit of the work. Fortunately, in that respect the maids Vanella and Cardella played by Laura Cherici and Rosa Bove are both excellent, keeping the work vital and entertaining to such an extent that it drags a little when they are not on the stage.

Arthaus provide another quality BD release for Lo frate ‘nnamorato. The image quality is superb, clear with warm colouration, and the audio tracks capture all the detail of the musical arrangements and the singing. The disc is a BD50, compatible for all regions. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean. There are no extra features other than Trailers for the other Arthaus Pergolesi titles and a booklet with an essay on the work. There is no synopsis, but the plot is covered briefly in the essay and there is a full track listing that helps initially identify all the characters.

AttilaGiuseppe Verdi - Attila

Teatro Verdi di Busseto, 2010 | Andrea Battistoni, Pier Francesco Maestrini, Giovanni Battista Parodi, Sebastian Catana, Susanna Branchini, Roberto de Biasio, Christiano Cremonini, Zyian Atfeh | C-Major - Blu-ray

By the time he came to write Attila for La Fenice in Venice in 1846, Verdi had firmly established, consolidated and refined a style and a structure that would be recognisable in nearly all his subsequent works. Attila is made up of a number of stock situations involving war, vengeanace, romance and betrayal and Verdi packs it with big dramatic numbers and choruses that match the intensity of the emotions. There’s nothing inspired here however, nothing that provides any great insights or revelations into the characters or human behaviour. Even worse, there are no great memorable arias or musical numbers.

Dramatically however there’s never a dull moment in Attila. Much of the reason for that is down to Verdi’s sense of arrangement and his scoring for situation. You can see how all the elements that are to define the drama and the conflict are laid out forcefully, strongly and concisely in the opening scene. Here you have all the euphoria of the Huns’ victory in the capture and plunder of Aquilera mixed in with the shame of defeated. In Attila’s sense of invulnerability and the proud defiance of Odabella, the daughter of the defeated king, you have the sowing of the seeds of a deeply personal revenge that is only heightened by Odabella’s appearance of compliance and subservience. It may be feigned, but her lover Foresto doesn’t know that, and just to add further emotional turmoil to the situation, he accuses her of unfaithfulness to him, her father and her country.

And there you have the typical Verdi dramatic situation that stirs the emotions like nothing else, particularly when the composer directs it towards the people of an Italian nation seeking its own independence. The situation between the Roman general Ezio and Attila emphasises the position further. Ezio seeks agreement that Attila will venture no further into Italy, but buoyed by success Attila refuses. “In vain! Who now can restrain the onslaught of the consuming wave?“, as the colourful libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and Temistocle Solera puts it, and the intensity of the sentiments in this powerful stand-off situation between two formidable warriors who are respectful of the position of each other is matched by the grave intonations of Verdi’s scoring for the bass/bass-baritone roles that play those parts.

The qualities of Verdi’s dramatic writing are all there then and the cast for this 2010 production of Attila at the Teatro Verdi di Busseto are more than capable of bringing them out. The theatre - seen previously in the ‘Tutto Verdi’ release of Oberto - has a tiny stage that you’d scarcely think capable of putting on a work as big and ambitious as this. The use of 3D-CG projections in Pier Francesco Maestrini’s direction might not be the ideal solution, but it’s a reasonable means of covering the epic settings of battlefields, ships, stormy seas, Roman camps and forest glades. It’s a little cheesy, but probably no more so than painted backdrops, which would be the only other feasible option for a stage this size. (In the case of Oberto, Pier’ Alli went mainly for minimal props and plain dark backgrounds).

There’s still not much room for the singers to do anything more than stand and belt out Verdi’s big numbers, but the costumes, the stage directions and the performances all make reasonably good use of the limited resources. Occasionally, for no other reason than having no room to do anything else, the singers run off the stage and back on again to finish their number. The singing performances are mostly fine. If they lack some precision in places the voices are at least all more than big enough for the work and the size of the theatre.

Giovanni Battista Parodi is a fine Attila, and if he doesn’t particularly come to life, that’s as much to do with Verdi’s writing. Robert de Biasio has a classic Italian tenor voice for Foresto. He’s not always on the note, but in the context of the live performance, it’s fine and he makes a good overall impression. Susanna Branchini’s technique could do with some refinement and doesn’t have the smoothest legato, but she also gives Odabella all the force and character required. No problems however with Sebastian Catana, who makes a fine Ezio, but this is perhaps the only convincing character in the drama.

The Blu-ray here is part of C-Major’s ‘Tutto Verdi’ collection. The quality of transfer is reasonably good. There’s a little bit of flicker in the image but it’s generally stable and detailed. The audio doesn’t quite have the pristine clarity we expect from High Definition and there’s very little surround presence on the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix, but it’s fine and it gets across the forceful delivery of the opera as conducted by Andrea Battistoni. The BD is all-region, BD25, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese subtitles.

FigaroWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Le nozze di Figaro

Glyndebourne, 2012 | Robin Ticciati, Michael Grandage, Sally Matthews, Vito Priante, Andrun Iversen, Lydia Teuscher, Isabel Leonard, Ann Murray, Andrew Shore, Sarah Shafer, Colin Judson, Alan Oke, Nicholas Folwell, Ellie Laugharne, Katie Bray | Opus Arte

Much like their recent production of Don Giovanni, Glyndebourne’s 2012 production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro updates the work to the 1960s, finding it to be a period that acts as a good modern equivalent for the changing social attitudes that are to be found in Mozart and Beaumarchais’ time. If it’s not quite a perfect fit here, it works well enough for the purposes of Mozart’s version of the work, which is less concerned with the social and political climate than the richness of human values that the work expresses. What is rather more important in Le nozze di Figaro then is how its characters are brought to life, and it’s clear from the superb casting here and the fine singing, that this is the principal strength of Glyndebourne’s new production.

It’s very easy to get complacent about yet another production of The Marriage of Figaro, but one can surely never come away from a performance of this remarkable work with anything but deep admiration and appreciation for the artistry of the work itself. It’s a masterfully constructed dramatic farce that nonetheless makes acute observations about human nature and interaction in relation to those important institutions of love and marriage. Le nozze di Figaro also has fully fleshed-out characters of real depth of personality and Mozart’s incomparable music that gives it another extra dimension, developing themes, connecting them, bringing a whole unity to the work with warmth and compassion. I doubt that any other composer, past or present, could have achieved what Mozart does with Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto and Beaumarchais’ play.

One can never become complacent about the work itself then, but having been fortunate to have only seen first-rate performances of The Marriage of Figaro, it’s easy to think that all the hard work has already been done by Mozart and Da Ponte. Far from it. More than anything else, this 2012 Glyndebourne production reminded me that not only are the singing performances vitally important (in what opera are they not?), but that it’s a work that is exceptionally demanding not only on one or two principal roles, but that practically every single role has to be carefully considered for the impact and the interaction they have with the other characters. Will Le nozze di Figaro work with a weak Susanna, Figaro, Almaviva or Countess? What about those “secondary” characters like Cherubino, Marcellina, Bartolo, Don Basilio and Barbarina? The work is undoubtedly strong enough to get along without luxury casting in the lesser roles, but imagine how it great it can be with it.

You only need listen to the music that Mozart has written for them to understand that all its roles are lovingly created and have an important part to play in the whole fabric of the work. That’s a lot of roles that it’s not only important to get right, but they have to be right with each other. That’s the brilliance of Mozart, and it’s one of his greatest advancements on the development of opera as an important dramatic artform. It’s not all about the arias - although even there The Marriage of Figaro has some of the greatest and most popular arias ever written - but the duets and the ensembles also contribute just as much to the work as a whole. In that respect, Le nozze di Figaro is not only a complete work of undisputed genius, but some 230 years later it’s still practically unsurpassed.

You can set the opera in just about any period then and get away with it, even with its references to ‘droit de seigneur’. There have always been sleazy bosses after all, and the 1960s is as good a setting then as any. The period however is not taken advantage of to any great extent here other than for purposes of style. In fact, other than showing an exaggerated lack of taste in the clothing styles with flowery wide-collar shirts and big hairdos, there’s a curious separation between the characters and the setting which, on the whole, remains for no discernible reason in a country manor in Seville. That’s the original setting of course, but it has no specific 60s context. If you had dressed the characters here in period costumes, the set - barring the appearance of a sports car during the overture - would have functioned just as well.

As you would expect from a Glyndebourne production however (and this is from the same team that put together the astonishing Billy Budd), the set design by Christopher Oram is impressive in its attention to detail. The locations are recreated with remarkable realism in the Moorish designs of the architecture, the tiles and the brickwork, and in the the lighting that casts warm orange-brown tones. The set rotates from one scene to the next fluidly, the lighting finding the perfect mood for each scene, the configurations of the rooms working to the requirements of the drama’s comic situations. The stage direction from Michael Grandage however seems a little detached and on the serious side, never allowing the figures room to abandon themselves to the glorious wealth of warm, funny and touching sentiments expressed in the work.

I think the same thing could be said about Robin Ticciati’s conducting. It’s a perfectly good account of the work, but it never reacts to the sentiments or the staging in a way that would bring out its full potential. Which is a little bit of a pity, because there’s an exceptional singing cast here that is more than capable of getting to the heart of Mozart’s delightful creations. Vito Priante is a big-voiced Figaro with the capability of being almost soulful in his delivery, while Lydia Teuscher is a comparatively lovely and delicate Susanna, innocent more than feisty. Sally Matthews gives us a wonderful melancholic Countess where everything that is essential comes through in the expression of her voice. Andrun Iversen’s Almaviva is more of a blustering buffoon than a sleazy predator, and his voice suits that kind of delivery as well as being well-suited to the Glyndebourne stage.

Proving that the secondary roles can raise this work to even greater heights, particularly when you have a strong Cherubino, Isabel Leonard knocked the socks off the Glyndebourne audience, and you can see why in her sparkling, bright performance with a voice of immense richness. The character parts of Bartolo, Barberina and Don Basilio were all delightfully played as well, but I was particularly delighted to see Ann Murray still looking and sounding wonderful as Marcellina. The video recording of the performance is excellent, the colour and the detail all rendered beautifully in the HD-image on the Blu-ray, with fine audio mixes. There are a couple of short features showing the work put into the props and sets, and interviews with the cast that consider the qualities of Mozart’s work itself. The Opus Arte dual-layer Blu-ray is all-region compatible, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

AmoreGelosiaGiuseppe Scarlatti - Dove è amore è gelosia

Český Krumlov Castle, 2011 | Vojtěch Spurný, Ondřej Havelka, Lenka Máčiková, Aleš Briscein, Kateřina Kněžíková, Jaroslav Březina, Bohumil Klepl, Tat’ána Kupcová | Opus Arte

Dove è amore è gelosia (Where there is Love, there is Jealousy) was written in 1768 by Giuseppe Scarlatti (a nephew of the more famous Domenico Scarlatti) as a commission for Prince Joseph Adam of Schwarzenberg, the Duke of Krumlov to celebrate the wedding of his son Jan Nepomuk to Maria Eleonora, the Countess of Oettingen-Wallerstein on 24 July 1768. It was the first opera to be performed in the newly renovated theatre of Český Krumlov Castle, and as such it seemed appropriate then to choose this rare work to be the first opera performed in this UNESCO heritage site when it was restored to its full glory in 2011.

There’s historical justification alone in reviving this extremely rare work, but the opera itself isn’t without merit either, even if the name of Giuseppe Scarlatti means little nowadays. You can gauge a few things about Dove è amore è gelosia from the title alone, and the fact that it is an opera buffa written in 1768. You would expect the comedy to play out along similar lines to Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro or Così Fan Tutte, and those examples will give you a good idea of the tone of the comedy and the arrangements if not the exact musical quality. Haydn might be a closer point of comparison, since the work was also written to commission for a royal court and composed to certain specifications that included the Prince’s daughter Maria Theresia singing one of the principal roles.

Composed for a small orchestra of Baroque instruments then, Dove è amore è gelosia can’t hold up to the sophistication of Mozart’s treatment of the opera buffa, but it’s as delightful an example of this kind of work as you’ll find. The musical arrangements are driven by a vigorous harpsichord rhythms, with a small string accompaniment and some limited horns and woodwind, but it consequently has a lovely clear, bright sound, with jaunty buffo rhythms and a strong sense of structure. As far as the treatment of the plot goes, it’s similarly stripped down and, written for only four roles, far from the complexity of one of Mozart’s works. You could probably write this one yourself, so familiar is it with the conventions of the comic opera of this period.

The four principals are, inevitably, divided into two couples - one from the nobility and one from the servant class. The Marquise Clarice and Count Orazio are involved in yet another bitter dispute on account of the Count’s jealousy, always on the point of breaking up and calling off the wedding until a reconciliation is reached. The other couple are of course their servants, Vespetta (the Marquise’s maid) and Patrizio (the Count’s manservant). Their problem is the opposite of their masters, since Patrizio seems to be immune to sentiments of jealousy and unconcerned about Vespetta’s suggestions of flirtations with other men. How can he truly love her if he never gets jealous? It sounds like both men need to be taught a lesson, and you know how that’s going to turn out…

So yes, you can expect a plot to involve letters falling into the wrong hands, disguises requiring cross-dressing that result in mistaken identities, with people grasping the wrong end of the stick. Hilarity inevitably ensues and lessons are learnt by all concerned. And that’s exactly what you get. Dove è amore è gelosia is skillfully arranged, if not particularly inspired in this respect, but it’s a light, undemanding and enjoyable entertainment. The music likewise is light and pleasant, with clever little solo arias bemoaning the inconstancy of one’s lover and some playful little duets that keep the comic interaction going. With minimal stage direction to include plenty of comic touches, gestures and playful expressions, you can’t go wrong, and that’s pitched perfectly in delivered in Ondřej Havelka’s stage direction and in the musical performance under the baton - or rather rolled-up music scroll - of Vojtěch Spurný.

The note about the rolled-up music scroll incidentally is a clue to this productions intentions to perform the work as close to period authenticity as possible. There are good reasons for this, since Český Krumlov Castle is the only authentic working Baroque theatre in the world. All the props, backdrops and stage effects are operated using the original rope and pulley systems (and it’s most impressive to see these in action), the costumes and setting are period - with even the conductor and orchestra wearing period costumes and wigs - and the whole stage is entirely illuminated by candlelight. You can’t get much more historically authentic than that, and in the case of this particular work and for this setting it’s perfectly appropriate.

This is however also a very good performance in its own right. It might not be one of the great undiscovered works of opera buffa, but neither does Dove è amore è gelosia deserve to remain lying in obscurity. This is a lovely production, sung well by a good cast, performed with verve and with a feel for the qualities of the work, its arrangements and its intentions. The filmmakers want you to get an impression of just how authentic this is and there are consequently a few backstage cutaways to show the mechanical effects in operation, but for the most part Dove è amore è gelosia is filmed like any other opera performance and it looks marvellous.

There’s a slight softness of tone then in the quality of the High Definition image in the Blu-ray, but that’s entirely down to the use of natural candlelight. The audio tracks in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 are marvellous, giving a wonderful brightness and clarity to the musical performances and the singing. The BD also has an interesting 52-minute documentary on the history and renovation of Český Krumlov. It’s a quite stunning building in a beautiful setting, and the detail on the workings of a Baroque theatre are of immense interest. The disc is compatible for all-regions and has subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

VixenLeoš Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen

Glyndebourne 2012 | Vladimir Jurowski, Melly Still, Sergei Leiferkus, Lucy Crowe, Emma Bell, Mischa Schelomianski, William Dazeley, Jean Rigby, Adrian Thompson, Colin Judson, Sarah Pring | Opus Arte

With its charming depiction of life and nature, with the animals of the forest featuring throughout as characters, it’s common to see Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen staged like a pantomime and aimed at a younger audience, even though some of the behaviour of the creatures is indeed quite frankly “animalistic”. The opera is not of course essentially about animals but about life and, indeed, the facts of life, so it’s interesting to see the opera treated with a more mature outlook for the 2012 production at Glyndebourne. It may perhaps lose a little bit of its innocent charm in the process, but there’s more than enough gained from the usual fine attention that Glyndebourne give to the production - and the opera - as a complete package.

Rather than having children and older performers dressed in the usual colourful animal suits, the creatures of the forest are still characterised as animals here, but without the full make-up. Instead they carry only an object by which they can be identified, the idea seeming to be to remind us that their animal behaviour isn’t all that different from humans. A man holds an udder in his hand for the forester to milk, the dog, Lapák, holds a snake-like tail an shakes it about, the cockerel waves his dangly bits proudly and menacingly for the lady hens who are all in frilly lace underwear. As for the vixen, she’s dressed like a gypsy girl, in a woolly jumper with a hooped pattern, flowing gypsy skirt, trilby hat and scarf, with a shaggy mane of red hair, carrying a bushy tail and a hunter’s knife instead of sharp teeth. The characterisation is a bit of a half-way house and doesn’t always allow the anthromorphic elements to come fully to life, but combined with other elements of the stage setting, it does work to express the themes on a literal level as well figuratively.

The set itself places man both within this natural world and at the same time outside it, showing nature to be bold and colourful, while the indoors scenes - kept in the Janacek’s period and Moravian setting - are drab by comparison. Two features however dominate Tom Pye’s set designs that serve to bring those two different worlds together. One is a large winding path rising vertically at the back of the stage which at one time can be a path and at other times a burrow. It seems a little over-elaborate, requiring the use of stand-ins on harnesses, but it works. The other more significant feature however is a huge tree made up of a swirl of planks that alone functions as the strongest image and is at the centre of the stage for most of the production. It’s the one enduring constant that stands there throughout the seasons and the passing of generations, serving as a home for the birds, as a place to protect Forester from the sun while he sleeps, it’s where Sharp Ears the vixen is tied-up on the farm and it’s her shelter and home for her family later, made over into a den after the old badger has been driven out. Eventually, towards the end, even little saplings appear around the tree as well.

The strongest element of the production however, and the one that most eloquently describes the natural world it depicts, is undoubtedly Janáček’s music itself, which is wonderfully played by the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski. This gorgeous music - for me the most evocative and beautiful of all Janáček’s work - is almost achingly beautiful in its apparently simple rhythms. Not only does it flow however to Janáček’s familiar speech patterns and folk-like textures, but it’s also almost onomatopoeic in its capturing of the sounds, the rhythm and the flow of life, the passing of time and the eternal timelessness of nature. In its melodies also however it seems to mingle joy and sadness, beauty and cruelty, the spontaneity of living and the wisdom of ages. It’s undoubtedly this element that everything else must respond to in a production of The Cunning Little Vixen and, with only a few minor concerns, Melly Still’s direction - and particularly the beautiful choreography of the dancers - seems to respond to the music and its meaning as does the exceptionally fine performance of the orchestra conducted by Jurowski.

If there’s any one concern it’s a minor one about the pacing. Not the tempo. The rhythm and flow feel marvellous, but everything seems to fly past so quickly as if in a haste to get to the next scene, and it’s all over before you knew it. A bit like life I suppose - which may have been the intention. It’s true that The Cunning Little Vixen is not a long work and Janáček deliberately leaves no time for sentimentality about the natural order of things passing on and making way for renewal, but at the same time there seems to be little time in this production for you to connect with some of the most beautiful key moments and let them sink in. There may even be a few trims to the score to indeed prevent the audience from dwelling too long on events that ultimately are just another stage in the greater scheme of things, to be played out continually in the cycle of life.

This is particularly evident in the singing, which is fine throughout but tends to keep the singers - and consequently the audience - a little step removed from the characters, preventing them from really springing into life. Lucy Crowe however handles the complex Czech language requirements with its flow of consonants well, maintaining the necessary rhythm while performing fox-like moves very impressively. Emma Bell too sang beautifully and fitted well into the role of Golden Mane. There is perhaps rather more care given to the human figures, the Forester (Sergei Leiferkus) and his colleagues, and their disillusionment or sense of detachment with the true nature of the world - too caught up in themselves to see their part in the greater scheme of things. If the intention is to restore the human element back into a work where there can be too much emphasis placed on the cute antics of the animals, Melly Still’s production certainly manages that, and in conjunction with the overall tone of the production it works well, revealing all the magnificent beauty of one of the finest works in all opera, even if it loses just a little bit of its innocent charm in the process.

The production comes across reasonably well on the Blu-ray release. Some of the darker scenes have some post-production brightening applied, which creates a ringing halo around figures, but this isn’t evident in more than one or two scenes. Otherwise, the full colourful quality of the work is evident. The audio tracks are the usual PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. Extras include a Cast Gallery and a 22-minute Making Of featurette, with interviews covering the concept, the music and the production design with some rehearsal footage. The BD is all-region, BD25 (for a 97 minute opera), with subtitles in English, French, German and Korean.

HugenottenGiacomo Meyerbeer - Die Hugenotten

Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1991 | Stefan Soltesz, John Dew, Angela Denning, Lucy Peacock, Richard Leech, Harmut Welker, Camille Capasso, Martin Blasius, Marcia Bellamy, Lenus Carlson, David Griffith, Otto Leuer, Friedrich Molsberger, Iván Sárdi, Josef Becker | Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Poor Giacomo Meyerbeer. The once highly regarded titan of the 5-Act Grand Opéra is now not only long out of fashion, but on the rare occasion when his work is revived it is scarcely treated with the seriousness and sincerity in which it was undoubtedly composed. I didn’t see the Royal Opera House’s recent widely derided production of Robert Le Diable, but judging it on the merits of the performance alone via its broadcast on Radio 3, it at least sounded interesting and probably deserving of a more sympathetic staging than the one devised by Laurent Pelly. Meyerbeer’s follow-up to Robert Le Diable (1831) was another beast of an opera, Les Huguenots (1836) and, unfortunately, it’s another work that - even more so now - that most opera houses would consider too expensive to risk putting on and no doubt also difficult to cast. This performance, dating back to 1991 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, casts the work well and tried a novel approach to the difficulties of staging the work.

Conducted by Stefan Soltesz and directed by John Dew, this is inevitably not a version that will satisfy purists (should such a thing as a Meyerbeer purist exist in this day and age). As imperfect as it is in some respects, the Deutsche Oper Die Hugenotten is at the moment the only opportunity you have to see one of the big important opera works of yesteryear, and it’s worthwhile for that alone. The first thing you will note about this Blu-ray release however is that the title has been rendered in German (unlike its previous DVD release) to reflect the fact that it is a German-language edition of the original French Les Huguenots performed here. That’s not so much of an issue, since Meyerbeer was actually of German origin and this version dates from an 1837 edition prepared by Ignatz Franz Castelli, so it should be close enough to the original work.

Les Huguenots does actually suit the German tongue surprisingly well, but of more concern is the fact that Castelli’s version to a large extent played down the conflict between the Catholics and Protestants that is critical to the work’s historical account of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 during the reign of King Charles IX. That historical content is furthermore all but abandoned in the German version of Castelli’s translation prepared by John Dew for the Deutsche Oper, which sets the work in the Berlin of the period that was then divided by the Berlin Wall. This recording of the production dates from 1991 after the breaking down of the wall, but even then it still dates from a period when the imagery still held real significance to the people of Berlin.

Quite how the situation in divided Berlin corresponds with religious conflict in Les Huguenots is however difficult to establish. In Meyerbeer’s opera - with a libretto from the illustrious team of Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps - Marguerite de Valois is to marry the Protestant King Henry of Navarra as a gesture of peace between the two sides. To further strengthen this union, the Count de Nevers accordingly invites the Huguenot Raoul de Nangis to his castle in Touraine and offers him marriage to Valentine de Saint-Bris, but Raoul has already seen a beautiful vision of loveliness and fallen in love unwittingly with Marguerite de Valois herself. After some romantic complications Raoul agrees to marry Valentine, but when he gets wind of a plot by the Catholics to massacre the Huguenots it only deepens the conflict between his duty and his heart.

How do we know this? Because just in case we miss it, Raoul tells us directly - “Duty… my heart… a difficult battle“, and Meyerbeer’s scoring only emphasises the obvious conflict even further. When there is something of a lack of subtlety (or taste), you can see why modern directors feel the need to play up the unintentional campness of Meyerbeer’s work. How else, for example, are you meant to stage Marcel’s “Piff, paff, poff!” aria nowadays other than having everyone skip around the stage in a half-dance? I’m not sure, but I think I’d like to see a more serious-minded director try it and not necessarily in a traditional context, since even in this shortened version (only two and a half hours for a 5-Act Grand Opéra?) Meyerbeer’s management and control of the number opera is evidently masterful, presenting a broad scope of melodrama, romance and entertainment in its varied situations with an abundance of melody and drive.

Are the Royalist Catholics meant to represent the Communist forces of East Germany and the Protestants the small population of the surrounded West Berliners? How will a marriage smooth relations in such a situation? The production might not correspond perfectly to its Berlin setting but neither does it really detract from the strength of the work or indeed from the performances in this production. The singing is exceptionally good from all the main performers. Richard Leech has the right kind of strong, resonant lyrical voice for Grand Opéra, reminding me a little of Roberto Alagna in places. He copes well with all the high-Cs thrown his way, but it’s Angela Denning who has the difficult role of Marguerite de Valois. Her opening Act II aria is fiendishly difficult and it shows her limitations, but she is good elsewhere. Lucy Peacock’s Valentine is marvellous and there’s good work also from Harmut Welker as the Comte de Saint-Bris and Camille Capasso as the Page. Only Martin Blasius’ Marcel isn’t up to the mark. To say the least.

Brian Large directs the production for the screen. I’m not sure what technology was available at the time in 1991, but the widescreen image is certainly HD quality and it looks excellent. The audio isn’t quite so good. Only a PCM stereo option is available and the lower-frequencies can be a little booming if you are playing this at any volume using a subwoofer. On headphones, the sound dynamic is better distributed to the L-R channels. The detail in the orchestration is there, if it’s not as clean and precise as we’re now used to with HD recordings, and the singing is relatively clear also. There are no extra features on the Blu-ray. The disc is all-region with subtitles in English, French and Spanish.

LabyrinthPeter von Winter - Das Labyrinth

Residenzhof, Salzburg, 2012 | Ivor Bolton, Alexandra Liedtke, Christof Fischesser, Julia Novikova, Malin Hartelius, Michael Schade, Thomas Tatzl, Regula Mühlemann, Anton Scharinger, Ute Gfrerer, Nina Bernsteiner, Christina Daletska, Monika Bohinec, Klaus Kuttler, Clemens Unterreiner | Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Such is the supremacy and brilliance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute that it’s tempting to think of Peter von Winter’s sequel as something of a novelty. Written in 1798, only seven years after the original, both librettos were however the work of the same man, Emanuel Schikaneder, so in reality there’s no reason why Das Labyrinth shouldn’t be seen as a legitimate work on its own terms. Rossini’s Barber of Seville after all is a worthy prequel to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro since both works are drawn from the same source in the plays of Beaumarchais. De Winter’s opera is no novelty, but rather a fascinating work that has languished in obscurity for far too long. It’s still nowhere near on a par with The Magic Flute, but then what is?

Well, it has to be said that unfortunately Das Labyrinth does indeed try too hard to be The Magic Flute, and on that level it can’t help but struggle. Schikaneder’s approach to writing a sequel for an immensely popular success is much the same as the one usually employed by movie studios today. He and de Winter simply repeat the formula of the original with emphasis on the bits that the audience enjoyed the most. As an entertainment this is a foolproof method and there is consequently much to enjoy in seeing these wonderful characters revived and put through new situations. On the other hand, without Mozart to bring his unique vision to the work and dignify the libretto with some internal musical consistency and his deep humanism, the plot of Das Labyrinth more often feels like a lot of random incidents haphazardly strung together with little in the way of originality.

Certainly, the central element that drives the plot doesn’t initially appear to differ greatly from the original. Picking up straight after the events in The Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night - who is apparently called Luna, we discover here - is plotting to get her daughter back. You didn’t think she would give up that easily, did you? With the help of the Three Ladies and Monostatos, who evidently holds a grudge against Sarastro for his treatment in the earlier work, the forces of darkness intend to disrupt the wedding of Tamino and Pamina, wrest the young woman away and marry her instead to the despicable Tipheus, King of Paphos. For some not entirely explained reason, Sarastro also requires Tamino and Pamina to undergo a further trial and find their way through the labyrinth. It’s there that Tipheus and his men, the Three Ladies having failed in their previous attempt to carry out the abduction, capture Pamina and take her to the Queen’s hideaway on the Moon.

In addition to the main plot, there are evidently other random exploits for Papageno and Papagena, whose marriage is also put on hold until Pamina is recovered and their relationship is likewise challenged. This involves many of the same kind of “trials” that were in The Magic Flute, with the Three Ladies appealing to Papageno’s baser instincts and Monostatos also getting in on the act to lead him astray. He disguises himself as Papageno and his blackamoor origins played upon in a way that makes him the butt of some dubious jokes. To get her own back on Papageno however for flirting with ladies of darker skin colour, Papagena runs away with Monostatos. This means that Papageno must be involved in the rescue of Pamina if he wants to ensure his own happiness is restored.

There are just as many musical references to match the familiar plot elements, with plenty of glockenspiel playing, Papageno bird whistles and acres of pseudo-Mozart arrangements. The music is consequently often quite light and charming, even if has none of the memorable melodies of Mozart and little of the composer’s carefree imagination, grace and dignity to elevate the pomposity and the silliness of much of the plot. Ivor Bolton however conducts this work with just as much respect, affording Von Winter’s compositions the same loving care and attention that he would Die Zauberflöte. This certainly contributes towards making Das Labyrinth feel truly Mozartian and consequently a more interesting work than it might otherwise have been. At the very least it makes this a delightful curiosity that’s hard to resist.

The production at the Salzburg Festival isn’t quite so compelling. The costumes are lovely, but the sets are not the most suitable for the work. These are limited to some extent by the venue, which is the open-air courtyard of the Residenzhof, meaning that there is only room for a few narrow platforms and an all-purpose backdrop. The backdrop consists in the main of a wall of lights, which is nonetheless versatile enough to represent the canopy of stars of the domain of Königin der Nacht, flicker with storm effects, and break up into columns to represent the labyrinth. It comes into play more as the evening darkens, and there are a few nice additional mechanical effects such as Pamino seated on a crescent moon, but it is otherwise quite limiting.

Christof Fischesser is a wonderful Sarastro, his warm and comforting tones assuring you that this is a character who is powerful and can be trusted. Michael Schade’s lovely lyrical tenor similarly presents a warmer and more sympathetic Tamino than is often found in the Magic Flute, and that’s all to the benefit of Das Labyrinth. Julia Novikova cuts a suitably impressive figure as Luna, Queen of the Night, but she struggles a little with the challenging coloratura that has been written for the character’s extended role in this work. As Pamina, Malin Hartelius often finds that the tessitura of the role is beyond her comfort zone and the timbre of her voice isn’t always the most pleasant at those heights. She seems to gain in confidence in Act II however and handles her individual arias quite well. Thomas Tatzl is an excellent Papageno and Regula Mühlemann a charming Papagena.

The Blu-ray release of Das Labyrinth is region-free with subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean. The filming isn’t as polished as it might be, but undoubtedly there are difficulties presented by the unconventional location. The video looks reasonably good even though it only uses a BD25 disc. The audio tracks however are excellent, with good wide use of the surrounds on the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix.

GrimesBenjamin Britten - Peter Grimes

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 2012 | Robin Ticciati, Richard Jones, John Graham-Hall, Susan Gritton, Christopher Purves, Felicity Palmer, Ida Falk Winland, Simona Mihai, Peter Hoare, Daniel Okulitah, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Christopher Gillett, George von Bergen, Stephen Richardson, Francesco Malvuccio | Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The main strength of Britten’s Peter Grimes, and one of its main themes of course, is its essentially English character. That is challenged in two ways in this 2012 production of the opera. One is that it is performed at La Scala in Milan and not at Aldeburgh or somewhere more appropriate with a feeling for the vitally English smalltown seaside location of the work. The second challenge to the integrity of the work is that the period of the setting is somewhat inevitably updated to the near-present by director Richard Jones. In the event not only do neither of these choices prove detrimental to the piece, but they actually manage to bring something new and fresh out of the work. With an opera like Peter Grimes and the sensitive subjects and themes it touches on, that’s exactly the kind of challenge and contemporary relevance you want to remind you of the importance of this work in the composer’s centenary year.

The principal theme of Peter Grimes is one that underlies much of Britten’s work and is evidently one that has significance and meaning for the composer himself - the corruption of innocence. That theme is developed in a much wider context however here in Britten’s first fully orchestrated opera than it is, for example, in The Turn of the Screw or Billy Budd. At the same time, Peter Grimes itself is a much more intimate and personal case, since it takes in the circumstances of individual identity that is corrupted by the nature of the wider society in which it struggles to exist. This is a society where money is respected and where what is deemed respectable behaviour is determined by the nasty, narrow-minded parochialism, wagging tongues, gossip and pointing the finger at others.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? You don’t have to look far beyond the headlines of today’s Daily Mail to see that those attitudes persist and are not confined to small English seaside towns. Based on a poem by George Crabbe called ‘The Borough‘, I’m sure that’s exactly what Benjamin Britten wanted to get across. An unconventional outsider, himself the subject of gossip, rumours and attacks in the press, living at the time in California with his partner Peter Pears as a conscientious objector against the war, this was a subject that was close to the composer’s heart. Britten’s approach to the work is consequently all the more daring and challenging for Peter Grimes not in any way being painted as sympathetic character, but he’s certainly preferable to the vicious, prejudiced mob who hound him for his inability to behave in any conventional manner.

Who is really to blame for what happens to the fisherman’s apprentices? By today’s standards Grimes would hardly meet regulations governing health and safety or child employment legislation and social services would undoubtedly have something to say about allowing children to be in close contact with such an individual. Ultimately however the pressures placed on Grimes that drive him to make mistakes are those of social acceptance. He may want to marry Ellen Orford, but he needs to earn enough money to make that alliance worthy in the eyes of the general public and he consequently takes risks that place the young boys in his care in unacceptable levels of danger. It’s the interference and the spreading of gossip by busybodies that create such an environment of instability and uncertainty that things inevitably take a turn for the worst.

There are no easy answers to be found in such a situation and all the complexity of the character of Peter Grimes and his reaction against social norms is there within Britten’s score. And more besides, the composer’s own sensibility refracted through Crabbe’s drama in an intriguing and personal way. Britten finds a language for the anti-hero individual set against the mob in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtensk and in Berg’s Wozzeck, but the expression is entirely Britten’s own and its temperament is completely English. His first traditionally structured and fully orchestrated opera, there’s consequently a sweep to Peter Grimes that you don’t find in any of Britten’s other works, the score weaving in sea-shanties to haunting and sinister effect, creating an evocation of lives being subject to the brutal force of tides - tides of public opinion as much as the sea.

You might expect that an English orchestra might be more attuned to these rhythms, but the orchestra of La Scala conducted by the young English music director Robin Ticciati give a remarkable account of the work. There is always the danger of over-emphasis or heavy-handedness within Peter Grimes but Ticciati directs with quiet reserve, allowing the swells to rise and the rhythms to assert their authority, building towards the tragedy in a manner and with a drive that seems as unstoppable as the outcome is inevitable. There are no concerns about the singing either, but wisely that’s because there’s a predominately English/British cast. John Graham-Hall sings Peter Grimes with the right tone of edgy fragility and steely determined defiance, never seeking to endear him to the audience, but rather plunging right into the dangerous nature of this impassioned but deluded character. Most impressive of all however is Susan Gritton’s Ellen Orford. It can be possible to underestimate her character, but she is the heart and conscience of the opera and Gritton makes you quite aware of that with her heartwrenching performance. With a cast that also includes the impeccable Christopher Purves and a fine Auntie in the form of Felicity Palmer this is a most impressive and complete account of the work.

The choice of Richard Jones is also a good one for bringing out the essentially English character of the work, particularly in a modern-day context. (It’s nominally set in the money-loving 1980s, but that makes little or no difference to its contemporary relevance). All the little details are there without any sense of caricature or parody which can always be a danger with Jones. You might see football tops and trainers and all the indications of class and profession that are equally an important part of the work, but the telling details are in the gestures and movements. Whether it’s Auntie’s “nieces” swaying down the street in their high-heels curling fingers through hair, whether it’s figures in the background smoking cigarettes and chewing gum, dancing in Moan Hall or whether it’s more ominous rows of the chorus, watching, observing and passing judgement, it’s as good a visual representation of the social context of the work as Britten’s music.

Stuart Laing’s sets also reflect the context well and even if there are a few curious touches here and there, not least of which is the intriguing final image of Ellen that we are left with. All of this nonetheless gives cause for reflection on the deeper meaning of the work and the ambiguities that lie within it. There is little sense of a seaside town, although static seagulls are mounted on the walls of the buildings and seem to become increasingly agitated - in a static kind of way - as the work goes on. The rooms of each of the scenes all seem to be self-contained and “boxed-in”, again reflecting the nature of this society. Some of them even tilt and sway, rocking from side to side in the stormy conditions and according to the general instability of what is going on. It’s by no means a flattering portrait of the English, but then Peter Grimes isn’t supposed to be.

The Blu-ray from Opus Arte looks and sounds great in High Definition. The sound mixes are in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. The BD is region-free and subtitles are in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean. The booklet has an essay that makes good points about the production, particularly relating to the use of movement and dancing in it, and also some interesting observations about Britten learning from Verdi and Strauss. There’s also a good set of interviews on the disc itself and a cast gallery.

IphigenieChristoph Willibald Gluck - Iphigénie en Aulide/Iphigénie en Tauride

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam, 2011 | Marc Minkowski, Pierre Audi, Véronique Gens, Salomé Haller, Nicholas Testé, Anne Sofie von Otter, Frédéric Antouin, Martijn Cornet, Christian Helmer, Laurent Alvaro, Mireille Delunsch, Laurent Alvaro, Jean-François Lapointe, Yann Beuron, Simone Riksman, Rosanne von Sandwijk, Peter Arink, Harry Teenwen | Opus Arte

You don’t see productions of Iphigénie en Aulide coming along very often, or indeed much of C.W. Gluck’s works these days which, considering the importance of the composer to the world of opera, is something of a mystery. Even more rarely do you see it paired the way it is here at the De Nederlandse Opera with its sister work Iphigénie en Tauride, but the two works are perfectly complementary. Composed at different times with a different approach to Gluck’s reformist agenda, they were perhaps never intended to be performed together, but the pairing of the two works side-by-side like this at least allows those differences in approach - so important to the progress and development of the traditional form of the modern opera - to be better appreciated. And at a time when you can see numerous complete productions of Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens, there’s no reason why Gluck’s smaller scale and more intimate take on a related Greek mythological story shouldn’t also be seen in this kind of staging.

As it happens, the intimacy and relative simplicity of the work make Gluck’s two Iphigénie operas rather more difficult to stage by a company with the resources to take it on in a relatively large modern theatre. Those challenges are taken on by Pierre Audi, the artistic director of De Nederlandse in the setting of the Amsterdam Music Theatre, while the musical challenges of presenting the works is placed in the experienced hands of Marc Minkowski and his remarkable period-instrument ensemble, Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble. The difficulties in presenting the two works aren’t entirely overcome by the innovative approach employed here - playing largely in the round, compressing the drama into a small area at the front of the stage and putting the orchestra at the back, with the chorus section arranged oratorio behind them - but it’s a staging that works well in as far as it draws the full dramatic power out of the works. Which is what Gluck is all about really.

The subjects may be classical ones from Euripides, but by getting right back to basics of dramatic situation and expression, Gluck was able to find deeply human characteristics - love, anger, betrayal, vengeance - in mythological situations that elevated those feelings and emotions by placing them in the grander picture of questions of war, honour, duty, fate, destiny if you like, or the will of the Gods. There’s consequently an intimacy as well as an epic quality that gives Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride immense power. They are stories of great simplicity and utmost gravity, and they require little more - as Pierre Audi recognises here - than a few strong images and symbols to help define their essential characteristics and at the same time serve to link them together. In Iphigénie en Aulide, the image and the notion of a blade (an axe here) pressed to a daughter’s breast by her father in an act of sacrifice to the goddess Diana, is one that resonates throughout the whole work, influencing and directing the complex emotions and family issues that arise out of this terrible and tragic situation. In Iphigénie en Tauride, the image of sacrifice and family tragedy is also central to the work, Iphigenia now a priestess of Diana and about to unwittingly execute her brother Orestes, who (as any good opera goer knows from Strauss’s Elektra) has been involved in a situation that has seen him take bloody justice upon their mother Clytemnestra for the death of their father Agamemnon.

Pierre Audi does reasonably well to give dramatic action to the poetry of the libretti in both works, retaining the intimacy of the emotional focus, while at the same time finding a way to project that out to an audience at the Amsterdam Music Theatre. He does that by reducing the size of the stage, focussing in on a central area flanked by scaffolding staircases that is emphasised here on the filmed recording by some overhead views of a circle that from one scene to the next can represent a sacrificial altar or a pit. It’s not much to look at, and the costumes are far from classical, the colours, materials and camouflage patterns emphasising the military aspect of the Greek-Trojan war background in Iphigénie en Aulide, although Iphigénie en Tauride is a little more traditional in the gowns of the priestesses- but it’s sufficient to hint at the greater sequence of events that set these dramas into motion without over-dramatising or over-emphasising actions over the expression though the words, the singing and the music.

And that perfect balance is precisely what Gluck’s reformist agenda set out to achieve. It’s hard then to fault the presentation and the careful equilibrium that is maintained by Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble in conjunction with the stage direction and the singing. I’m not as familiar with Iphigénie en Aulide as I am with Iphigénie en Tauride, but it’s clear by the spirited orchestral performance of the latter, wonderfully expressive, delivered with controlled ferocity in places even, that the music director has taken into consideration the relative merits of the two different approaches that the individual works represent and dealt with them accordingly, using each to highlight, contrast with and complement the other. In the case of Iphigénie en Tauride, I’ve heard it performed with more beauty and lyricism by William Christie and Les Arts Florissantes (in a Claus Guth production on DVD), but never quite so forcefully in a way that integrates it so well with the musical drama.  Both works are performed moreover on period instruments tuned to the original pitch.

The singing is also strong in the performances of both works, with only Salomé Haller’s Diana common to both. Iphigenia in Iphigénie en Aulide is sung and performed marvellously by Veronique Gens with her customary attention to detail and the requirements of Baroque opera singing. There are no mannerisms and no exaggeration by any of the performers, who treat the work with the necessary dramatic gravity and sincerity. Surprisingly, as she is such a wonderful singer of Gluck, and has even recorded the role of Clytemnestra in this opera before, only Anne Sofie von Otter seemed underpowered and unable to match the intensity of the performances.

In Iphigénie en Tauride, Iphegenia is sung by Mireille Delunsch, a soprano in a role that is more often sung by a mezzo-soprano. More than just capably sung, Delunsch has a nice tone and timbre that suits arrangement here and proves to be strong enough to make the necessary impression. The casting for this work however favours and puts more emphasis on the fate and the friendship of Orestes and Plyade. Orestes is sung wonderfully by Jean-François Lapointe, who not only bears a certain similarity in appearance to Bryn Terfel but also has a comparable voice. Strong, with clear diction and good expression (if a little stiff in acting), he certainly makes more of an impression as a true baritone than Plácido Domingo did at the Metropolitan Opera a few seasons ago. He also works wonderfully off Yann Beuron’s excellent Pylade, the two combined bringing another dimension to the work.

The presentation on Blu-ray is strong with a clear, bright and detailed image. The audio mixes, on account of the acoustics, are a little bright and echoing, losing focus in the surround DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix. The PCM track through headphones however reveals the qualities of the sound and the performances very well. As well as two full-length operas on this release, there are also two 20-minute Behind the Scenes Introductions on the BD, one for each opera, and Cast Galleries. The booklet contains an essay and two full synopses. The BD is All-region compatible, with subtitles in English, French, German, Dutch and Korean.

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