Fel, Christophe


DestinoGiuseppe Verdi - La Forza del Destino

Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Philippe Jordan, Jean-Claude Auvray, Mario Luperi, Violeta Urmana, Vladimir Stoyanov, Marcelo Álvarez, Nadia Krasteva, Kwangchul Youn, Nicola Alaimo, Nona Javakhidze, Christophe Fel, Rodolphe Briand, François Lis | Opéra Bastille, Paris (via Internet streaming) 8 December 2011

Verdi’s Il Forza del Destino is one of those fascinating mature works by the composer – along with Simon Boccanegra and Un Ballo in Maschera – which draw on the best elements from the composer’s earlier work in terms of melody, drive, pacing and plotting, but which have the benefit of a little more complexity in the orchestration, hinting at the greatness of the later final opera compositions – Don Carlos, Aida, Otello and Falstaff. The characters in La Forza del Destino, like the other works from this period, are somewhat limited by the conventionality of the melodramatic plotline, but Verdi’s score hints that there are other depths that can be drawn from the work. Consequently it’s a work that requires a little more thought given to the staging and a cast of performers who have the ability not only to meet the singing demands, but be able to give something to the acting. The direction of the current production for the Opéra National de Paris unfortunately doesn’t quite live up to those challenges, but that doesn’t prevent their La Forza del Destino from being any less brilliant musically.

I’m not sure it helps at all to displace the opera’s famous Overture, but it’s become something of a convention now (and not just here, but also recently in the Amsterdam production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes) and here it’s delayed until after the first act. The Overture of La Forza del Destino is now so familiar that it can be easy to forget that it has a dramatic function, and it’s the contention of Philippe Jordan, the musical director of the production, that it works better in that context as an introduction to the opera’s themes following Act 1, which is really just a prologue. Whether that’s the case or not is debatable, but what is not in question is just how impressively it is delivered. The filmed recording of the production, broadcast in French cinemas and available for Internet streaming from the Paris Opera web site, demonstrates Jordan’s controlled and precise direction of the Overture and confirms my belief from recent visits (Lulu, Tannhäuser) that the Paris Orchestra is one of the best in the world at the moment. The same musical intelligence and virtuosity is evident not just in the Overture, but throughout this production.

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While the staging and the performances of a strong cast are more than adequate, they aren’t given anything much to do in a storyline that doesn’t quite deserve the beauty and intelligence of Verdi’s score, which is moving away from the convenienze of Italian opera and the yoke of the cabaletta towards a purer musical form of dramatic expression. That’s the case with most of the composer’s melodramas during this period, where there are moments of greatness and brilliance, but overall there isn’t an entirely satisfactory match between content and the growing confidence and complexity of Verdi’s musical arrangements. The religious themes, the question of honour and duty and the fighting of a duel remind one of Stiffelio, while the music and Spanish setting tug more in the direction of Don Carlos.

Despite some of the superficial similarities in the outline, La Forza del Destino is a Verdi opera that is far beyond the straightforward dramatic plotting of a work like Stiffelio. The religious and philosophical questions behind La Forza del Destino are, like the title itself (The Force of Destiny), rather more allusive for a Verdi opera, most of which are named directly after its principal character (Oberto, Rigoletto, Don Carlo) or an historical event (Il Battaglia di Legnano, Les Vêpres Siciliennes). It’s a title that, particularly in the context of the religious themes of the work, got Verdi into trouble with the censor, the opera indeed seeming to consider the power of destiny and fate and man’s attempts to control it through war, debts of honour or religious observance. Those seemingly subsidiary elements of the opera – Preziosilla, the fortune teller, Melitone, the monk and the soldiers going to war – are in the end just as important, if not more so, than the melodrama of Leonora, Don Alvaro and Don Carlo di Vargas. Where do the common people, torn between sinning and God, asked to take part in these wars, fit into the greater scheme of things?

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As such, it should be possible for an innovative director to make something of those contradictions and the darker undercurrents in the score or the libretto as with Tcherniakov for Macbeth, or Christof Loy for Les Vêpres Siciliennes, but Jean-Claude Auvray’s production doesn’t attempt anything quite as radical. It’s not unusual for directors to update the older historical periods of Verdi operas to the composer’s own time and align the revolutionary elements of the plots with the struggle for the reunification of Italy, the Risorgmiento, and that’s the case here, but the Viva V.E.R.D.I. (“Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia”) slogans and flag-waving fit awkwardly and confusingly with the Spanish setting of the opera. The religiously sparse and ascetic sets however make the environment less concrete, allowing the wider dimension of the opera’s themes to be applied, where the backdrops, like the changes and whims of fate, are fluid, temporary and changeable, capable of being rolled-up and spirited away at a moment’s notice.

Somehow however – and it’s not necessarily a fault with the direction, since the opera itself is imperfect in this respect – the main characters lack substance within such an environment, caught up in extraordinary coincidences and twists of fate. It’s hard therefore to make that in any way realistic, despite the best efforts of Verdi’s score, the outstanding performance of it by the Paris Opera orchestra, and the generally fine singing of a strong cast. Marcelo Álvarez demonstrates why he is one of the most sought-after and foremost Verdi tenors at the moment, a fiery Don Alvaro, but one who embodies a sense of conflict and honour in his struggle with the cruel twists of fate that occur. Violeta Urmana also seems to be the Verdi soprano of choice at the moment, but isn’t always the most versatile of singers or the best of actresses. She has some fine moments here and is generally impressive, but she clearly struggles with the high notes in places and it’s by no means a distinguished performance. There’s good solid support however from Vladimir Stoyanov as Don Carlo, Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla, Kwangchul Youn as Padre Guardiano and Nicola Alaimo as Brother Melitone – all of which are enough to make this a solid and entertaining La Forza del Destino, even if it is somewhat lacking in adventure.

The Opéra National de Paris’ La Forza del Destino is available for viewing on their website until February 2012.

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.

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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.

IndesJean-Philippe Rameau - Les Indes Galantes

L’Opéra National de Paris, 2004 | Les Arts Florissants, William Christie, Danielle de Niese, João Fernandes, Valérie Gabail, Nicolas Cavallier, Anna Maria Panzarella, Paul Agnew, Nathan Berg, Jaël Azzaretti, François Piolino, Richard Croft, Gaëlle Le Roi, Malin Hartelius, Nicholas Rivenq, Christoph Strehl, Christophe Fel, Patricia Petibon  | Opus Arte

This splendid piece of Baroque musical theatre, one of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s earliest works from 1735, is quite different in form from what you would normally associate with familiar opera tradition. Instead of conforming to a typical classical or mythological storyline of early opera, with long arias and recitative, it operates instead within a structure of four separate but thematically linked “entrées” (with a prologue), colourful little tableaux vivants of love adventures in the exotic foreign lands of the “Amorous Indies” – Turkey, Peru, Persia and America.

The nature of those romantic adventures will certainly be the familiar opera tropes of classical figures and archetypes, with stories of love and forbidden passion enlivened by mistaken identities, cross-dressing and extraordinary coincidences. In addition however to the beautiful arias, duets and choral arrangements, once the little romantic complications are resolved, they are celebrated by grand choral arrangements and joyous ballet sections, all of it imaginatively and simply spectacularly staged like some big colourful cartoon.

The question of fidelity to the period doesn’t really come into it and is much less important than the spirit within which it is enacted. The staging certainly makes use of modern techniques, but is timeless and utterly faithful to the nature and intent of the pieces, which is simply to entertain and take pleasure in the beauty of the music, the singing and the playing of the characters. With William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the helm for this remarkable production at the Paris Opéra in 2004, and an exceptional cast, Les Indes Galantes certainly does that. It’s an absolute marvel, a delightful entertainment on so many levels, inventive and visually dazzling, filled with wonderful rhythmic music that will take your breath away. Really, the rediscovery of this wonderful piece and the efforts put into its revival can’t be praised highly enough.

Released on a 2-DVD set by Opus Arte, the quality of the set is of an extremely high standard. Upscaled to 1080p, it often looks as good as a high-definition presentation – with only the colour saturation being slightly less defined. PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 tracks are strong. A 51 minute documentary on the production with contributions from William Christie is well worth viewing.