Loy, Christof


LucreziaGaetano Donizetti - Lucrezia Borgia

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2009 | Bertrand de Billy, Christof Loy, Edita Gruberova, Pavol Breslik, Franco Vassallo, Alice Coote, Bruno Ribeiro, Christian Rieger, Christopher Magiera, Erik Årman, Steven Humes, Emanuele D’Aguanno, Christian van Horn, Elisabeth Haag | EuroArts

I can easily understand why many might not like Christof Loy’s opera stage productions. If I didn’t know better myself, I’d swear that he’s having a laugh with this 2009 production of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia for the Bavarian State Opera. When I say I know better however, that’s taking a superior stance, but rather speaking from experience that no matter how minimally staged, no matter how ludicrous the proposition or inappropriate the costume design, and as far removed as they seem to be from the original stage directions, each of his recent productions that I have seen (Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Les Vêpres Siciliennes, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Theodora) have, without exception, been as powerful a performance of the work in question as any I’ve ever seen. That’s why, despite initial reservations that he surely can’t be serious with this bizarre staging of Lucrezia Borgia, it only takes a few moments of actually listening to the performances to see that, whatever he’s doing, the full power and beauty of the work is all there and coming across.

This Lucrezia Borgia, I have to say, doesn’t look like any bel canto opera production you’ve seen before, but it does look a lot like a typical Christof Loy production - bare minimally decorated stage, everyone wearing dinner jackets, a couple of chairs scattered around. That’s 15th century Venice of the Prologue. The only real distinguishing feature is the distinguished figure of Edita Gruberova as Lucrezia Borgia, wearing a period costume in bold red while everyone else is dressed in black and white and the stage is grey, and the words LUCREZIA BORGIA spelt out in big block letters along the back wall. That’s something at least, meaning that it will allow one letter to be dropped at a significant point in the First Act, even if that’s about as much as a concession as you’ll find here to the stage directions in the libretto. Oh, and Orsini and his men look like public schoolboys, with floppy hair and their trousers rolled-up to just below the knees. What on earth is that all about?

Despite confusion over just what exactly Christof Loy’s intentions could possibly be, and the nagging feeling that he really is displaying nothing but contempt for the work, your ears should tell a different story and you might even begrudgingly admit that somehow - without really being able to put your finger on the reason why - the production does actually work. Lucrezia Borgia is not an easy opera to make work on the stage. The plot line, derived from a work by Victor Hugo and awkwardly adapted for Donizetti by Francesco Maria Piave, is rather ridiculous, weighed down by exposition and unlikely coincidences. If we’re to accept the conflict within Lucrezia over her maternal feelings for Gennaro and her monstrous activities as part of the murderous Borgia family, you have to find some humanity in there, and that’s not easily found within the libretto. Although Donizetti’s scoring can seem a little bit bel canto by numbers, and even with Bertrand de Billy conducting it does tend to plod along in places, there are nonetheless some marvellous opportunities for a singer to bring out that underlying humanity, but really you need a singer like Joan Sutherland to be capable of expressing it. Or Edita Gruberova.

Commanding terrific presence from the moment she appears in her red period dress while all around her speak of youth and modernism, Gruberova - with respect - looks like a relic from the past. And this is perhaps where Christof Loy’s production - created specifically for the Bayerische Staatsoper following Loy and Gruberova’s previous collaboration on Roberto Devereux - comes into its own. Lucrezia Borgia is indeed a relic of the past, the latest in a long line of a dynasty of terror whose crimes have not been forgotten by Orsini and his men, who are at long last speaking out against the tyranny of the Borgias. The challenges of playing the role of Lucrezia Borgia then are not so much in the singing - which, to say the least, is challenge enough - but in making Lucrezia work as a real character. On paper it doesn’t work, the libretto filled with flaws and inconsistencies that are nearly impossible to reconcile within the personality of one person. Is Lucrezia Borgia a monster? Undoubtedly. The libretto and the testimony of Orsini and his colleagues and her revenge upon them make that quite evident even within the opera itself, never mind the historical record. Even her reaction to the insult to the family name that is perpetrated by Gennaro shows that the same heartless monster still resides within, regardless of the sensitivity she has shown earlier. Is she really capable of loving motherly sentiments and compassion or are they just an expression of self-interest in her own family name, of a mother for her son? Making you like the character or sympathise with her is not the issue however, making her come to life is the real challenge, and Edita Gruberova can do that. Not many others can.

Donizetti’s style and the rather static nature of the bel canto repertoire, which involves more standing around and singing than action or drama, is also a relic of the past and, perhaps recognising that, Christof Loy plays up to it. No amount of props and costumes and period detail is going to make Lucrezia Borgia any more convincing as a drama, but creating an environment that gives the necessary space to the actual real strengths of the work - the arias and the coloratura given expression by singers of sufficient stature and quality - and actually highlighting them against the rather drab background, seems to me to be working with the nature, qualities and weaknesses of the opera itself. Yes, some of the directorial choices can seem wilfully bizarre, but the basic simplicity of having the words LUCREZIA BORGIA in capital letters on the backdrop throughout reminds you that this is history and character writ large, played large by Donizetti, and performed the only way it can be performed. It takes singers of sufficient strength of personality and the necessary ability to rise to the heights required to make this grotesque and absurd relic of another age meaningful, comprehensible and even beautiful.

The decision then, following their previous collaboration on the stunning Munich production of Roberto Devereux, to build this new production of Lucrezia Borgia around Gruberova, proves to be a great success, and is perhaps the only way it would work. It might as well say EDITA GRUBEROVA on the backdrop. She is simply mesmerising to watch and to listen to, rising to the challenges that the nature of her character represents and meeting the demanding nature of the arias. In fact, she shows that they are one and the same, that the complex nature of the character can only be expressed though the phrasing and the delivery, with full command and awareness of how one’s own tone of voice can be used towards meeting that objective. Experience, if you like, but it’s more than that. For Lucrezia Borgia to succeed it needs more than just a good technique and experience, it needs a voice of real substance and personality, and Edita Gruberova certainly has that. It helps considerably though if you have a strong Gennaro and Pavol Breslik is one of the finest young tenors around. I don’t think there is sufficient attention paid to making his character “work” within the dramatic context of the opera and to a large extent the other roles - Alice Coote’s Orsini and Franco Vassallo’s Don Alfonso - are similarly sung well, but weakly characterised (there are limits admittedly to what a stage director or performer can do with this libretto), but - as is made clear here - the opera is all about LUCREZIA BORGIA, and this is one production that is worthy of being capitalised.

There is a slight downside to the production choices however in that it doesn’t always come across as effectively as it might on the screen, or indeed in the audio mixing. The use of metal plates for a raised platform causes a fair amount of clatter and rattling, while the boxed empty stage leads to an echoing tone that affects the acoustics of the singing and, it seems, the orchestration. The quality of the singing is evident - and Edita Gruberova doesn’t have too much trouble being heard - but the tone is metallic and far from the warm sound you would expect for a bel canto opera. Within the limitations of the mostly bare stage, Brian Large directs as well as he can for the small screen, taking in the impact of the whole stage with edits that are attuned to the rhythms of the music, but it still never really manages to bring the staging to life. The image quality is strong in the High Definition presentation, the audio tracks - PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0 - are however rather limited in dynamic range by the acoustics. The Blu-ray also includes a fascinating hour-long documentary ‘The Art of Bel Canto - Edita Gruberova’, charting the career of the Czech-Slovak soprano and her approach to opera. The BD is region-free and subtitles for the main feature are English, German, French, Italian and Spanish.

DevereuxGaetano Donizetti - Roberto Devereux

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

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

Devereux

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

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

Devereux

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

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

Devereux

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

SchattenRichard Strauss - Die Frau ohne Schatten

Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg 2011 | Christian Thielemann, Christof Loy, Stephen Gould, Anne Schwanewilms, Michaela Schuster, Evelyn Herlitzius, Wolfgang Koch, Marius Brück, Steven Humes, Andreas Conrad, Thomas Johannes Mayer, Rachel Frenkel, Peter Sonn, Maria Radner | Opus Arte

Die Frau ohne Schatten has long been considered one of the Strauss’s most challenging works to perform, and it’s such a magnum opus that one attends a performance of the opera – rare though they are – with a sense of high expectation. If you’re going to undertake such a work, it’s reasonable to expect that the production is going to pull out all the stops. The fairytale nature of Die Frau ohne Schatten however presents some challenges for the more experimental stage director used to modernising works, so it was always going to be interesting to see how Christof Loy was going to rework the story for the 2011 Salzburg Festival. Even by Loy’s standards for courting controversy through a very personal conceptual approach, the Salzburg Festpiele Die Frau ohne Schatten must be one of the strangest conceits ever applied to any opera production.

Not unsurprisingly, Loy dispenses with the fairytale setting entirely, ignores the stage directions, would appear to pay scant heed to the libretto, and instead sets Die Frau ohne Schatten in a recording studio in Vienna in 1955. Now, the idea of making the performance the performance, so to speak, isn’t anything new by the standards of Loy’s minimalist semi-staged productions, but this really takes the idea to another level altogether. The set is built to resemble, in meticulous reconstructed detail, the legendary Viennese concert hall, the Sofiensaal (destroyed in a fire in 2001), where, dressed in frumpy 1950s clothing, the singers here appear to recreate the studio sessions for the first recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten by Karl Böhm in 1955.

Schatten

Well, it does and it doesn’t, because although Die Frau ohne Schatten was indeed recorded in Vienna in 1955 by Karl Böhm, it was actually recorded, I believe, in the Musikverein, but, well, doesn’t that just add to the perversity of the concept? The theory behind the concept is considered in the booklet enclosed with this DVD/BD release, but I’m not sure how helpful that will be to anyone. I can’t make head or tail of it myself, and I’m used to and quite enjoy trying to figure out the often bizarre theories applied to modern opera productions. Are we supposed to be interested in the historical performers of the work and relate the tensions of the drama in the opera in some way to their lives? Or is it supposed to operate on a deeper philosophical level on the nature of art and performance? Whatever the rationale, there seems to be little justification for having singers stand at a podium and sing out to the audience in a work as rich and wonderful as Die Frau ohne Schatten.

First of all, it’s a little bit misleading to say that the singers just stand at a pedestal with the score in front of them and sing out to the audience. Replicating the activity in a recording studio, the performers stop to have coffee from a flask, drink a glass of water, take a smoke break, take off their coats, and walk in and out of the concert hall when not required on the sound stage that is marked by a red light during recording. Technicians meanwhile run around and adjust settings or place the singers into position, and there are numerous other extras and choruses filling the stage. Still, there’s not much there to suggest that the production connects in any way with the opera itself. Over the course of the performance however, while the action never moves outside the Sofiensaal concert hall, the story seems to take over the characters, possessing them, drawing them into the powerful emotions expressed in the drama and the score, and the distinction between the singers and what they are singing becomes blurred. It’s bizarrely fascinating to watch, but clearly not everyone will think so.

Schatten

There does seem to be some parallel drawn, perhaps, between the post-WWII setting of the recording of the opera and the time of its composition during the First World War. It seems no less extravagant to be recording such a work at a time of great privations (the concert hall is clearly unheated and there are no luxuries in the conditions or the sandwiches laid on for them), but like Strauss and Hofmannstahl’s intentions (whether you judge them misguided or not, since the work was not well initially received), Die Frau ohne Schatten is an attempt to reconnect through art with the finer qualities of human nature in response to the horror going on in the world at that time. It’s perhaps – and this is entirely my response to the work – the same recognition on the part of the performers in the post-war years of that deeper element in the work that hits the characters so hard, no more so than the confused Empress who is longing to regain a sense of humanity through the acquisition of a shadow, and the horror of the price that has to be paid for it.

Whatever the reason may be, Loy’s production does in some way achieve a strong connection with the intent of a work whose purpose and meaning has always been elusive and enigmatic. In the way that it mixes musical references, asks self-reflexive questions on the nature of art and dramatic representation and has definite philosophical and humanitarian leanings, I can’t help but think that the composer and librettist of such works as Ariadne auf Naxos, Der Rosenkavalier and even Capriccio (based on an idea by Hofmannstahl) would approve of such an approach. The model for Die Frau ohne Schatten according to the composer and librettist was Mozart’s The Magic Flute, but to all intents and purposes the approach is Wagnerian and it’s specifically Parsifal-like in its spiritual dimension and its theme of sacrifice and redemption. “There are higher powers at work” .

Those higher powers are there of course in the music, which, as Strauss intended, takes over where words cannot adequately express. It’s Wagner rather than Mozart that also influences Christian Thielemann’s conducting of the orchestra and the singing performances. Scored for an orchestra of one hundred and seven, Thielemann controls every element of the huge sound that is created by the astonishing performance of the Wiener Philharmoniker, sweeping and powerful at times, and yet full of incredibly intricate, virtuoso touches and more sensitivity and heartfelt emotion than you would expect to find in the strange fairytale nature of the work. It is utterly, utterly beautiful – as fine an account of Strauss’s most extravagant work as you could imagine. And as complete an account as well, the entire three and a half hours of the work presented here in full and uncut. Act III benefits most from this fuller presentation, particularly in relation to the roles of the Nurse and the Empress, restoring a balance to the work as a whole.

Schatten

This is not an opera for discussing the individual qualities of the singing voices. You don’t put on this particular opera unless you have singers capable of meeting its extreme demands, and you certainly don’t put them in front of Thielemann when he is doing Strauss. You could question the casting and singing that is also more Wagnerian than Mozart, but that seems to me to be appropriate for this work, regardless of what Strauss may have claimed were his intentions for it. All of singers are exceptionally good. Anne Schwanewilms and Michaela Schuster, as mentioned above, bring new depths out of the fuller roles of the Empress and the Nurse, but I was particularly impressed by Evelyn Herlitzius as Barak’s wife, who sings the role with extraordinary conviction and power. Along with Wolfgang Koch’s Barak the Dyer, the two of them manage to create that all-important sense of humanity in their relationship that lies at the heart of the piece. That’s evident also in Stephen Gould’s magnificent Emperor, the emotional depth of his ‘Falke du Wiedergefundener’ almost unbearable, forging a connection directly with the music score in a way that makes the intent comprehensible even if the fairytale context of the work does not.

As does Christof Loy’s staging, even if likewise it isn’t immediately apparent how or why. Either it works for the audience or it doesn’t (and clearly it doesn’t for a large proportion of the audience in Salzburg judging by the booing that greeted the production team at the curtain call here), but personally, I found it extraordinarily powerful and moving. It certainly won’t work for everyone and may prove to be a distraction while you try and figure out what point he is trying to make with its 1950s concert staging, but whether you think it works or not, it operates hand-in-hand with Strauss, Hofmannstahl, Thielemann, the Wiener Philharmoniker and with the singers to create the right kind of environment that draws the majesty and mystery out of the work and the music-drama experience. It’s all there and if you don’t feel the full force of it in this production, then you must indeed have been turned to stone.

While this must have been extraordinary to experience live in the Salzburger Grosses Festspielhaus back in July 2011, it’s to the credit of the recording that it’s also an incredible experience in High Definition on the Blu-ray from Opus Arte. The image quality is impressive, but not clinical, with a slight softness that suits it. With a full four hours compressed onto the BD50 disc, there are a few instances of minor wavering and fluctuation in lines, but only if you are looking for them. The audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and both are resolutely clear and powerful, with a gorgeous tone to the orchestration. There’s a certain amount of reverb evident in the acoustics of the stage, which seems to be more pronounced in the stereo option, the surround mix spreading the sound a little better, I found. Extras on the disc include a Cast Gallery and Thielemann in Rehearsal, an interesting 25 minute look at the preparations for the production with interviews. Subtitles are in English, French, German and Spanish.

SerailWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2010 | Ivor Bolton, Christof Loy, Christoph Quest, Diana Damrau, Olga Peretyako, Christoph Strehl, Norbert Ernst, Franz-Josef Selig | Unitel Classica - C-Major

There’s an in-built difficulty in Mozart’s earliest ‘mature’ comic opera that every modern opera stage director must consider a challenge – the long passages of spoken dialogue and recitative that are scattered throughout. Yes, the actual drama of Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail is a bit silly too and the libretto isn’t the most sophisticated, but even if you manage to make the plot work dramatically (having good singers can help gloss over the inconsistencies which is certainly the case here), you’re still left with those lulls between Mozart’s beautiful musical passages that can potentially kill the opera dead in its tracks. This production by Christof Loy at the Liceu in Barcelona, aided and abetted by an outstanding cast and an exhilarating performance of the score from the Liceu orchestra under Ivor Bolton, crucially takes account of those weaknesses, and if the result is still not entirely convincing, it’s nonetheless still one of the best versions of this Mozart opera that you’re ever likely to come across.

Traditionally, the way of handling the recitative in Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail is to heavily trim the dialogue and just get it out of the way as quickly as possible so as to move on to the music, but such an approach fails to adequately take into account the fact that the main dramatic drive of the opera actually lies in between the musical numbers and arias. In some respects, it could be argued that the spoken parts are equally as important as the arias, if not even more so in this particular case since Mozart’s music for Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail is not the most lyrically attuned to the emotional content. At this stage, even if there are occasional flashes of genius in the work, Mozart’s compositions are conventional and still very much mired in the Baroque tradition. How does Belmonte express his desire to be reunited with Konstanze in his Act I aria? “I tremble and falter, I waver and hesitate. My heart leaps in my breast.” - “O wie ängstlich, o wie feurig…” “How ardently and fearfully my loving heart beats”. Like the majority of the arias in the opera, it’s lovely but dull, and hardly advances the plot or even describes any complex emotional state.

Entfuhrung

Christof Loy attempts to address the vacuity of the arias and the dead-space of the spoken dialogue by getting the singers to act properly. In terms of opera performance, that can often be as simple as just toning down on the theatrical delivery, but Loy clearly believes that there are deeper sentiments and qualities to this opera, particularly in the spoken passages, which he retains in full and gives them rather more attention than they would normally receive. The treatment of the dialogue and how it works alongside the musical pieces is immediately apparent at the arrival of Pasha Selim. Arriving on-stage to that ringing chorus of the people, he seems weary of the acclaim, his position as ruler made only more weighty by his inability to win the heart of the woman he loves. This is not an uncommon position for a ruler to be in, particularly in Baroque opera, but it’s rarely treated with this kind of realism, and Loy takes advantage of the fact that – uncommonly for a major character in an opera – the Pasha is a non-singing role, and he accordingly makes the fine Christoph Quest the central acting focus for the others to work off.

What pervades the opera and characterises the approach to the spoken passages in this production, even before the appearance of the Pasha, is an air of melancholy. There’s nothing particularly new about viewing Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail in that regard, but such a sentiment is usually drawn from the arias and it’s rarely extended in any kind of realistic way to the recitative. There is no declamation of the lines here as they would more commonly be expressed, but rather Loy directs the performers to deliver dialogue naturalistically and makes use of their silences in the same way that he makes use of space on the stage to define the relationship between them. That use of space is as effective here as elsewhere in Loy’s work, even if the set for the Liceu’s production is not as sparse as the director usually decorates them. Yes, there are a usual few chairs scattered around, and little more than a painted backdrop of the sky for the most part (which is blithely lifted whenever Pedrillo makes an entrance), but other more decorated and naturalistic sets are shown, although they often remain viewed as if through a window in the background while the main action takes place in the foreground stage. Inevitably, the costumes don’t reflect any specific period, but there is a nod towards a middle-eastern flavour in some of the attire.

Entfuhrung

Loy’s direction isn’t really geared towards appeasing traditionalists then, but it should at least be evident that it is a respectful production that is aimed towards making the best out of what is imperfect opera, one that the director clearly thinks deserves to be considered more than just a lightweight entertainment. He doesn’t always succeed, but it’s an impressive attempt that does manage to make a strong case for the work and bring it closer to the latter Mozart operas, the relationships and structure here more evidently a prototype for characters better developed in The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute. It helps that Ivor Bolton also brings out a terrific, lively account of the score that works well in conjunction with the staging, revealing its qualities and making those connections to later works evident. If you’ve been less than convinced by this particular Mozart opera, this performance reveals just how dazzlingly clever and brilliant it can be.

You shouldn’t need to be convinced that there are great and quite demanding arias in the opera, but it is terrific to see them delivered so well in such a sympathetic production. The performance of Diana Damrau deserves to be singled out as it’s not only one of the best Konstanze’s you’ll ever hear, but when placed in the context of this fine treatment of the opera, it’s an incredible tour de force performance that highlights the extraordinary abilities of one of the best sopranos in the world today. Most pleasingly for the sake of the opera, rather than being merely a showcase for the soprano, the singing is of an exceptionally high standard right across the board. Really, it’s just thrilling to hear Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail sung and acted so well – everything working together in perfect harmony. Franz-Josef Selig’s rich bass and cool deliberation makes his Osmin more than just a second-rate Monostatos, while the performance of Olga Peretyako and Norbert Ernst makes the Blonde and Pedrillo partnership more than just a subsidiary relationship to the more complicated main ones. Christoph Strehl is perhaps the weakest element, but he works well in the context of the casting, where the tones of all the singers are perfectly complementary, always bringing out the best of Mozart’s ensemble writing.

An exceptional production – one of the best I’ve ever seen – the Blu-ray is just as impressive. There are no extra features, but the HD image quality and the sound reproduction are amazing. Region-free, BD50, 1080i, subtitles are in German, English, French, Spanish, Catalan, Chinese and Korean.

VepresGiuseppe Verdi - Les Vêpres Siciliennes

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam 2010 | Paolo Carignani, Christof Loy, Barbera Haveman, Burkhard Fritz, Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester, Balint Szabo, Jeremy White, Christophe Fel, Lívia Ághová, Fabrice Farina, Hubert Francis, Roger Smeets, Rudi de Vries | Opus Arte

In the behind-the-scenes featurette on the BD for this opera, Frank, one of the nearly 100 strong chorus of the Nederlandse Opera, says that he feels like he is not just one of the crowd in this production, he’s part of history. And in a way, there is definitely something momentous about Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes (1855). It’s not just the fact that it’s Verdi in full-blown Grand Opéra mode, in French moreover, or that it’s based around an historical event that has contemporary and political significance for the revolutionary-minded composer himself – but it’s also a lesser-known Verdi opera, very rarely performed or recorded, even more rarely in its full French version complete with a half-hour ballet in the middle. The Dutch production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes in Amsterdam is certainly an historic occasion then, and what a fascinating, thrilling and momentous event it turns out to be.

The original historical events referred to in the opera date back to 1282, when the Sicilian people rose up against the cruel French occupying forces after one outrage too many committed against the ordinary citizens. You would imagine that Verdi was less interested in the historical Vespri Siciliani than he was about the revolution in Italy in his own time, and stage director Christof Loy likewise isn’t concerned about setting this production of the opera to any specific historical time period. Nominally however, it’s set in the 1960s (the dates of birth of the young protagonists are given as the early 1940s), which would seem to draw a parallel with events in French-occupied Algeria, but there is nothing culturally specific that makes any reference to this. Loy’s direction then is by no means the fiasco that has been suggested elsewhere. The director’s touches are distinctive certainly, and not for everyone, but taking the opera out of its natural time period – which would have no meaning or significance for a modern audience anyway and arouse none of the passions Verdi undoubtedly was aiming for – Loy manages nonetheless not only to do great service to the opera and even help cover over some of its flaws.

The staging has much of the same look as Loy’s Salzburg production of Handel’s Theodora, and it has a very loose thematic connection in it being about citizens standing up to the abuse of a foreign power. Similarly, the sets are kept minimal, with rarely anything more than a few chairs scattered around the stage, creating a sense of timelessness that is reflected in the costumes. The French, like the Romans in Theodora, for the most part wear formal dinner jackets, the Sicilians casual jeans and shirts, with only Hélène – the Duchess – wearing a man’s suit and tie. The political and social distinctions are therefore much more meaningful to a modern audience than any period costumes. Props and effects are rarely used, but when they are (bottles and glasses, slides and projections) they are employed to good effect and for maximum impact. The main part of the Loy’s work however is in his directing of the singers, their movements, placement and their interaction, and it’s hard to see him putting a foot wrong anywhere in this respect, as the full impact of the complex relations between the characters, their backgrounds and motivations all come through.

Vepres

Where the plot and the libretto are less convincing, Verdi music fills in the gaps and Loy steps back and lets it speak for itself (the otherwise static Act IV for example is powerful simply through a magnificent set of duets, trio and quartet). In the places where even Verdi’s judgement of the occasion is questionable – the start of Act V for example, Loy steps in and manages to make something more meaningful out of it. The director chooses the Four Seasons ballet in Act III to be the thematic centrepoint of his interpretation (controversially it would seem), giving motivation to Henri’s later actions that are otherwise difficult to reconcile, the revelations about his own origins and his father leading him to idealise or just imagine how things might have been different. This illusory ideal leads him to believe that his marriage to Hélène at the start of Act V (the same fantasy home setting of the ballet is used here) – otherwise an improbably joyous occasion considering the circumstances – could bring a true peaceful union between France and Sicily. It’s a thoughtful interpretation by a director who clearly cares enough to play to the opera’s strengths and mitigate its weaknesses. At the very least, it’s certainly preferable to simply cutting the ballet, as would be more common (if the opera were indeed more commonly performed), and letting it limp by with its inherent flaws.

Although there are some unfamiliar elements, the opera itself is recognisably and whole-heartedly Verdi, with romantic tragedy, dire threats of revenge and rousing revolutionary sentiments. Musically, Les Vêpres Siciliennes doesn’t always feel like the Verdi we know, but, like Don Carlo (a much better opera admittedly), there’s something fascinating and appropriately dramatic about having the Verdi experience filtered through the French Grand Opéra idiom, with its echoes of Un Ballo in Maschera and even Rigoletto and La Traviata here, with its rousing choruses and its grand Overture (placed strangely between Acts I and II here, but no less effectively), but with unexpected delicacy and with musical arrangements that I’ve never heard from Verdi before, such as in the wonderful ballet music. The orchestra and the chorus, under Paolo Carignani, are outstanding in their delivery, the opera approached with a real Verdian sweep.

The singing – even though there are some difficult passages and coloratura to navigate right at the end of a long opera – is for the most part beyond reproach. Barbera Haveman is a great presence, the charismatic figure that Hélène needs to be, her singing strong and heartfelt throughout. Burkhard Fritz is a lovely lyrical tenor who manages to make the difficult nature of Henri’s plight sympathetic. Balint Szabo’s bass makes for a grave, dignified, yet compelling revolutionary voice as Procida. Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester is fine, but the weakest of the principals, not really cutting a strong enough figure as Montfort, and his singing isn’t as clear and resonant as the others. Les Vêpres Siciliennes isn’t great Verdi by any means, but it’s a side to Verdi that we rarely see in his most popular works, and it’s thrilling for that alone. We can be grateful to the Nederlandse Opera for bring the full opera in its full original form (with only one slight tweak of the placement of the Overture), but also to have a director like Christof Loy, who clearly cares enough to put the additional effort into making the opera relevant and meaningful.

The quality of the Blu-ray release from Opus Arte is good, if not exceptional. The large mostly dark stage and stark lighting makes it difficult to get an entirely satisfactory exposure level, but the image is relatively clear, the opera well-filmed and there are no noticeable defects. There’s not much to choose between the LPCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 audio mixes. The surround track is firmly to the front and centre, with little but ambience in the rear speakers. The 2-channel mix, by the same token eliminates some of the reverb. Otherwise, both tracks are more than adequate for a live recording, achieving a good balance between singing and the orchestra. The half-hour Introduction to the opera is an entertaining and informative look mainly behind the scenes at the rehearsals and presentation of the opera.

Castor et Pollux George Frideric Handel - Theodora

Salzburg Festspiele, 2009 | Christof Loy, Ivor Bolton, Freiburger Barockorchester, Salzburger Backchor, Christine Schäfer, Bejun Mehta, Joseph Kaiser, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Bernarda Fink, Ryland Davies | Unitel Classica - C-Major

Presented at the Salzburg Festival in 2009 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death, Theodora isn’t a Handel opera, but rather a staged version of his 1750 oratorio. It would however be more accurate to say that this is semi-staged, and perhaps even more accurate to say it’s barely staged at all. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination, and it certainly doesn’t place any demands on the costume or set designers, to scatter a few chairs about the stage and have the chorus and principal singers dress in the modern formal black evening-dress of a concert performance, unless there’s some hidden significance in updating the martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus from Antioch in 3AD to a concert stage. It’s semi-staged in that rather than face the audience, the singers move around a bit, remove the occasional item of clothing and put a little more acting into the singing.

As it turns out though, it doesn’t matter in the slightest if it seems like the production team earned an easy paycheque for this one, because it works. Theodora is not an oratorio that lends itself easily to a dramatic staging and attempts to do so (such as Peter Sellars’ Glyndebourne production) can potentially detract from the true qualities of this remarkable work, so thankfully this version hasn’t been messed around with at all. The oratorio considers the fate of Theodora, a Christian woman who tries to hold her virtue from the assaults of the Roman governor Valens and refuses to worship Jupiter, who is eventually martyred along with a young Roman soldier Didymus who attempts to help her escape from the life of forced prostitution that is her punishment. It’s a religious work, made up of contemplative prayers that espouse virtue and chastity, but, along with the fate of Didymus, who loves Theodora in a pure fashion, there are other noble sentiments in the work that celebrate valour in the face of tyranny and martyrdom.

The music itself – really some of the most exquisite music Handel ever composed – expresses this perfectly and as evocatively as you could imagine. The music is warmly rapturous, the singing heavenly and the choruses inspiringly uplifting. The producers clearly recognise where the strengths of the piece are and give them centre stage, doing nothing in the loose dramatisation that could interfere with the singing performances. Those performances are magnificent, the English diction perfect in every case, with Christine Schäfer’s Theodora exhibiting fragility turning into steely determination, Bejun Mehta a glorious countertenor Didymus and Joseph Kaiser a fine, emotionally moved Septimus. Ivor Bolton conducts the Freiburger Barockorchester with great sensitivity through a breathtaking performance. This is a stunningly beautiful work, perfectly performed and very well presented in High Definition, with a terrifically detailed image and two fine audio tracks in LPCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, where every element of the mix is crystal clear and perfectly balanced.