Debono, Claire

DidoneFrancesco Cavalli - La Didone

Théâtre de Caen, 2011 | William Christie, Clément Herve-Léger, Anna Bonitatibus, Kresimir Spicer, Xavier Sabata, Maria Streijffert, Terry Wey, Katherine Watson, Tehila Nini Goldstein, Claire Debono, Joseph Cornwell, Victor Torres, Valerio Contaldo, Mariana Rewerski, Matthias Vidal, Francisco Javier Borda | Opus Arte

Depending on the work, depending on who is playing it and depending on how it is staged, Cavalli’s operas - some of the oldest works in existence - can struggle to hold the attention of a modern audience. They can be long, usually based on classical subjects, consist of long stretches of recitative accompanied principally on harpsichord and lyrone basso continuo with a limited range of period string instruments. There’s little in the works that lends itself to exciting staging in the way of, for example, the French regal entertainments of Lully and Campra, with all their ballet sequences and choral arrangements. There are no such difficulties with this particular work - one of Cavalli’s earliest operas first performed in 1641 - a version of the familiar story of the Fall of Troy and the love story of Dido and Aeneas, and with the production being in the hands of William Christie and his company, Les Arts Florissants, there are no concerns either about the musical interpretation of La Didone, which is staged with dramatic intensity by Clément Herve-Léger.

What makes La Didone rather more accessible than some works of early opera is the libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, the librettist responsible for Monteverdi’s ground-breaking L’Incoronazione di Poppea, an opera that daringly put real characters onto the stage for the first time rather than the gods and heroes of ancient mythology. Even though La Didone is related to the mythological figures of Virgil’s epic Latin poem ‘The Aeneid‘, it benefits nonetheless from Busenello’s wonderful humanising of the characters and indeed the gods. The libretto isn’t made up of the usual vague pronouncements and declarations, but is dramatically and poetically expressive of the range of human emotions and passions that are brought out by this expansive work. In the first half - in the model followed by Berlioz in the now more familiar Les Troyens - the libretto captures the true horror and nature of the experience of war, the destruction of one’s country and with it one’s hopes and dreams. The second half also corresponds with Berlioz’s division, with Aeneas’ arrival in Carthage and with the trials that are brought by love and betrayal, expressed in a variety of ways, through Dido’s love for her dead husband, her rejection of Iarbas, and in her love for Aeneas’ that is curtailed by his sense of duty (to the gods) to abandon her and strike out for Italy.

This wonderfully rich story is brilliantly described in Busenello’s libretto, but if it truly achieves the same kind of expression of human passions that can be found in L’Incoronazione di Poppea, it’s also due to the musical compositions of Cavalli, himself a pupil of Monteverdi. William Christie directs this from the harpsichord and the rhythms and tone are clear, precise and dynamically attuned to the emotional content of the work, emphasising the horror with driving chords and accompanying the delicate laments and love-songs with heartfelt lyricism. Even without a synopsis (there isn’t a detailed one with this DVD/BD release unfortunately), it’s not difficult to follow what is going on thanks to the clear libretto where figures introduce themselves naturally, and due to the musical accompaniment that defines them. This is particularly strong in the tricky first Act, where in addition to gods directing the events, numerous figures wander around the dark ruins of Troy in despair, terrorised by marauding Greeks - Coroebus dying in the arms of Cassandra, Hecuba’s despair for the fate of the women, Aeneas’s wife Creusa murdered and returning as a ghostly figure. Appropriately then, it all looks and sounds like the Hades of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo supplanted into the hell of a destroyed Troy.

Things actually become a little more confusing in the Carthage sections in this production with the doubling up of roles, when the same singer who played Aeneas’ dead wife Creusa in Act 1 (Tehila Nini Goldstein) turns up in Act 2 as Juno trying to destroy him. Even trickier, Cupid disguises himself as Aeneas’ son Ascanio in Act 2 to bring about the love between Aeneas and Dido, so although it makes for a convincing disguise when both Cupid and Ascanio are played by the same person (Terry Wey), it could be just a little confusing. (The chaptering, available as a pop-up on BD, will however clarify any other confusion over which characters are singing at any time). The fact that it works is down to the strong direction and staging working in perfect accordance with the music and the drama of the libretto. Clément Herve-Léger keeps the sets simple, employing only one or two large and effective symbolic gestures. It’s not period, but other than the inappropriate scaffolding for the down-to-earth gods and Venus lugging a suitcase for her journey to Carthage - an effort to humanise the appearances of the gods in line with the nature of the work and against the tradition of big fanfares and mechanical stage entrances - there are no distracting modern anachronisms.

With the simplicity of the staging and the sparseness of the orchestration, compared to conventional opera, much depends on the quality of the singing here. Populated extensively from Christie’s ‘Jardin des Voix‘ school for new young talent, the singing is exceptional right across the whole cast. Anna Bonitatibus is a clear, powerful and resonant Didone (Dido), and Kresimir Spicer a gentle lyrical Enea (Aeneas), both of them commanding and deeply expressive in the central roles, but the cast - clearly trained for this kind of singing - is made up of youthful voices filled with passion, clarity and a purity of tone that is well suited to early opera (some however - such as Francisco Javier Borda playing both Ilioneo and Mercury - try a little too hard). La Didone is still not without some longeurs for anyone unfamiliar with early opera, but this is certainly one of the more accessible works of this period, treated to a beautiful looking and fresh sounding production from Les Arts Florissants, that brings a much needed vitality to this rare 370 year-old work.

Opus Arte’s Blu-ray release comes with impressive specifications in terms of High Definition image and sound. The period instruments in particular have a wonderful clarity of tone within the natural reverb of the Caen theatre. It sounds a little bright and there’s no low-frequency range at all in the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix, but it’s distributed well emphasising the fragility of the delicate playing and the strength of the vocal expression. The PCM Stereo mix is also clear and true. The BD is dual-layer BD50, 1080i and all-region compatible, with subtitles in English, French and German only. There are no extra features other than a Cast Gallery and a booklet with an essay on the work which has a brief outline of the story, but there is no detailed synopsis.

ArmideJean-Baptiste Lully - Armide

Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 2008 | Les Arts Florissants, William Christie, Robert Carsen, Stephanie d’Oustrac, Paul Agnew, Laurent Naouri, Claire Debono, Isabelle Druet, Nathan Berg, Marc Mauillon, Marc Callahan, Andrew Torise, Anders J. Dahlin | FRA Musica

It’s difficult to know what balance to strike when putting on a production of a Baroque opera since, in many cases, the works in question are incredibly old and so rarely performed that they are indeed often being introduced for the first time in centuries to a new modern audience. You can’t go too far wrong with a straightforward staging using traditional painted backdrops and period costumes (which I’ve seen on DVD, for example, in productions of Cavalli’s La Calisto, Rameau’s Zoroastre or Landi’s Il Sant’ Alesio). While they would certainly cater to a specialist audience, it’s hard to imagine those kinds of productions reaching a larger audience or even being revived too often. I find however that William Christie, with whatever director he is working with, strikes a much better balance between fidelity to the spirit of the original Baroque opera – using period instruments of course – and making use of modern theatrical techniques that don’t so much revise the work as put it into a context that makes it more accessible to a wider audience. That’s certainly the case when working with the opera director Robert Carsen (Les Boréades), who also manages – whatever period of opera composition he is working in – to align the opera to a unique and workable concept that gets to the essence of the piece and its themes, while also managing to be a remarkable spectacle.

The bridging of the gap between the past and the present is taken quite literally in this 2008 production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide (1686), the prologue traditionally added to French opera of this time to praise and glorify King Louis XIV set out as if it were a tourist excursion to Versailles, where guides describe the history of the subject. Carsen, with film director François Roussillon, even go as far as filming the entire prologue sequence on location at Versailles, with ballet sequences much like the ones traditionally seen in the intervals of the televised New Year’s Day Concerts from Vienna. It’s a device that certainly uses modern technology to extend the scope of the theatre stage and the historical context – which simply has to be taken into account in any modern representation – setting the scene and location more effectively than any painted backdrop will do. And such techniques help bring the work more to life and set it into context for a modern audience, without altering the intent of the original, then why not?

There on the bed of the King of France then, Paul Agnew falls asleep and, like in a dream, goes back to a stylised past where the story of Armide unfolds. Thereafter, there is less cleverness and a more straightforward operatic staging, but like Carsen and Christie’s work on Rameau’s Les Boréades, it’s a highly stylised, fictional period setting, with elegant courtly uniformity of design and colour schemes to suggest location and mood. It’s utterly beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, making striking use of light and colour, but working also in coordination with the tone, mood and rhythm of the music score. Christie, an American, is a recognised national treasure in France for the work he has done breathing life into the dusty, stuffy academicism of old-fashioned French Baroque opera, works his usual wonders here with Lully. Although it follows the usual conventions of the five-act Baroque opera form, with recitative, aria and ballet sequences, there’s a wonderful flow to the piece, which doesn’t have the usual stop/start rhythms, but a musical coherence and gentleness that is closer to Monteverdi than the later heavier dance rhythms of Rameau.

The content of the opera itself – a mythological story of a noble knight who resists the lure of bewitchment from a dangerous siren (Ulysees, Parsifal) – is nothing special and not particularly dramatic, but it’s given a remarkably beautiful and sensitive treatment by Lully and librettist Philippe Quinault in their consideration of the characters and the emotional journey they undergo. The followers of the sorceress Armide are celebrating her latest victory over her rivals, but she herself is not happy, as she has failed to seduce the knight Renaud, who has remained immune to her charms. Over the course of the five acts, Armide eventually succeeds in her enchantment of Renaud, but falls in love with him – even the all-powerful are subject to sentiments that may render them powerless – and this causes her great emotional distress, torn between hatred and love, between glory and wisdom. These are of course personified in characters (Laurent Naouri is a red dress-wearing Hatred), but the production also attempts to implicate the actual audience themselves into the staging, which is a little gimmicky, but effective nonetheless in achieving its intentions.

As tastefully and as pitch-perfectly as Carsen, Christie and Les Arts Florissants present the work, in complete accord with each other and within the themes, tone and tenor of the original work, the singing brings out the wonderful, beautiful human touch and emotional heart of Lully’s opera work. Stephanie d’Oustrac takes Armide through a deeply emotional journey that culminates in her famous aria at the end of Act III (“Enfin, il est en ma puissance”), but she also harmonises beautifully with Paul Agnew’s wonderful Renaud in their Act V duet (“Armide, vous m’aller quitter”). Anders J. Dahlin also has the lovely aria of the fortunate lover in Act V, who advises all to take advantage of the fleeting years of youth and happiness before they are gone forever (again reminiscent of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo). It may seem like little more than a ‘divertissement’, glorifying noble sentiments that have the power to enchant (banishing Hatred and inspiring Love), but the proof of these powers is in the enchantment of Lully’s music itself.

There are no complaints with the presentation of the opera on Blu-ray. The image is clear throughout, conveying the stunning colour schemes perfectly, with bold reds standing out against the subdued uniformity of the silver/grey and gold tones. The soundtrack in the usual PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes gives a wonderful, warm stage to the music and the singing. There’s a fine half-hour extra feature ‘Armide at Versailles’, which has Christie and Carson talking about their approach to the production, but also has a superbly informative contribution from Benôit Dratwicki on the fascinating history of the piece, its relevance to its time and its place in the tradition of the French tragédie-lyrique.