Barcellona, Daniela


AdelaideGioachino Rossini - Adelaide di Borgogna

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2011 | Dmitri Jurowski, Pier’ Alli, Daniela Barcellona, Jessica Pratt, Bogdan Mihai, Nicola Ilivieri, Jeanette Fischer, Francesca Pierpaoli, Clemente Antonio Dalotti | Arthaus Musik

Composed in 1817 for Rome between the writing of Armida and Mosè in Egitto for Naples, Adelaide di Borgogna has all the signs of being a commission hastily filled by the composer to a classic template of war, revolution and romance, with a historical background of Italian significance. It’s the kind of subject that Verdi would later make his own and, without underestimating the importance of the Rossini influence, often do it with considerably more character than it is done here in Adelaide di Borgogna. It’s not the composer’s greatest work then, but being Rossini it’s not entirely without merit either, and the right kind of singing and staging could certainly bring out its qualities. Recorded at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro in 2011, director Pier’ Alli and conductor Dmitri Jurowski certainly make the best of the work and are assisted with some fine singing performances, but overall the work still remains problematic.

The main problem with Adelaide di Borgogna is that proves to be a difficult opera to stage dramatically. There’s a solid historical foundation to the work, which is based around the year 951 on the campaigns of the German Emperor Otto the Great, even if it has all the usual operatic mannerisms, coincidences and twists that we have become familiar with in historical romances. The opera opens with the defeat of Adelaide (Adelheid, Queen of Burgundy), besieged in Canossa on Lake Guarda (the geography is a bit imprecise), by Berengario on the pretence that she is responsible for the murder of her husband Lothario (King Lothar). Bergengario wishes to use the situation to his advantage and gain access to the throne by having his son Adelberto marry Adelaide.

Berengario however fears the intervention of Ottone and his German army who have been making progress over the Alps on the invitation of Iroldo, the governor of Canossa, and tries to head off a confrontation by asking Ottone to come and judge the situation for himself. Ottone however falls in love with Adelaide the moment they meet and proposes marriage to bring resolution to the conflict. The people are delighted, singing choruses of praise and joy, but Berengario and Adelberto use the moment to launch their strike against the Emperor and make their claim for the rule of Italy.

There’s not much wrong with the set-up of Adelaide di Borgogna then, the strong historical situation with its Italian patriotic sentiments and the various romantic entanglements giving Rossini plenty of material to work with. The principal pleasure of the work then is indeed in listening to Rossini’s spirited musical arrangements for the piece, and the performance of it here under Dmitri Jurowski is simply wonderful. Regardless of whether the music is the most expressive - sometimes it’s fairly conventional, repetitive and monotonous - Jurowski varies the pace and seems to pitch the tone perfectly for demands of each scene. You could hardly ask for a more sympathetic account, and it makes all the difference. Dramatically however - particularly in Act II, which consists of a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between Adelberto and Ottone gaining a hold over the battle for Canossa and Adelaide with almost all of the action taking place off-stage - the work is still a little creaky and it also needs some theatrical assistance to bring it across.

Pier’ Alli’s production is also a little creaky in places and a little baffling in others, but it does manage to enliven the proceedings somewhat. The approach to the sets and costume design is classically traditional for the most part, with some ravishing gold and green colour schemes. To give it a little extra dimension however, Alli uses back projections of filmed sequences and some 3-D modelling, with an emphasis (I’m not sure why) on water and rain. Although there are one or two questionable touches - soldiers in raincoats duelling with umbrellas - the visuals are striking enough to give some dramatic focus to the work and help it get through some of the duller or less inspired sections of the work. Even if they don’t entirely succeed, the musical performance and the staging do their best to bring this work to life. So too do the singers, and rather more impressively.

As Adelaide, Jessica Pratt gives a strong performance of a tricky role in terms of its dramatic and singing demands, and she manages to bring the role to life with some degree of character. The drama might revolve around Adelaide, but Ottone is another critical role and it’s in safe hands with Daniela Barcellona. If there are any minor weaknesses in delivery of one or two notes, it’s entirely down to the demands of live performance, as otherwise they are most impressive individually and in how the voices blend and complement each other. The Adelaide/Ottone Act I duet ‘Mi dai corone e vita’ is just marvellous. Similarly, Bogdan Mihai and Nicola Ilivieri are good fits for the roles of Adelberto and Berengario and work well within the whole ensemble. This is demonstrated most notably in the quartet at the end of Act I, which is typically well-organised in Rossini’s management and orchestration of the rising drama. Even if it never entirely comes together convincingly as a whole, it’s such moments that make Adelaide di Borgogna well worth viewing as an enjoyable minor Rossini opera.

Arthaus give us another nice Blu-ray package for this 2011 Rossini Opera Festival production. On a BD50 disc, the image is fine and detailed, with the usual fine PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks. There is a wonderful rich, fullness of sound in this production from a relatively small orchestra that comes across well and gives the production an extra musical boost. There is a 17-minute Making Of feature on the disc, which has interviews with Jurowski and Alli, with emphasis on the unique elements of this production of the work. The disc is all-region compatible, and subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean.

SigismondoGioachino Rossini - Sigismondo

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2010 | Michele Mariotti, Damiano Michieletto, Daniela Barcellona, Olga Peretyatko, Antonino Siragusa, Andrea Concetti, Manuela Bisceglie, Enea Scala | Arthaus Musik

Updating an opera and setting it in an asylum isn’t a terribly original idea and it does usually have a sense of desperation about it, but there is a tradition of mad scenes in Italian bel canto opera, so it’s not entirely an inappropriate or all that far-out an idea. All the more so since Rossini’s rarely heard 1814 opera Sigismondo actually opens with a mad scene of sorts rather than builds up to one, where Sigismondo, the king of Poland, is still tormented by the loss of his wife Aldimira, who he had executed 15 years ago after accusations of infidelity had been laid against her. The loss and the agonising doubts about the truth of these accusations - or just his inability to accept them - has left the king raving and delirious, his kingdom unprepared for the attack that is being launched against him by Ulderico of Bohemia, Aldimira’s father.

Sigismondo belongs to another traditional opera theme, that of innocent women unjustly accused of infidelity or having their maidenly honour called into question by a jealous admirer who has had his advances rejected. This theme of innocent women whose purity has been impugned would become a popular theme in bel canto and opera semiseria works - Halévy’s Clari, Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, Bellini’s La Sonnambula - for its ability to drive the heroine to madness and consequently to the heights of coloratura vocal abstraction. Starting the way it does however, already wading in the depths of madness, Rossini’s Sigismondo would seem to have other ambitions towards a psychological drama more closely aligned to that of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello - worked into an opera of course not just by Verdi but by Rossini himself soon after Sigismondo - and to the medieval legend of the saintly Genoveva, the subject of Schumann’s only opera.

Directed by Damiano Michieletto for the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro in 2010 and conducted by Michele Marotti, there’s certainly a belief here that Sigismondo - the last of Rossini’s early works written just before the move to Naples that would take his career in a whole new direction - is worthy of more serious consideration and capable of bearing that more rigorous approach. Although there are a lot of familiar Rossini melodies and characteristic touches here (the composer re-using the best elements in later works after the failure of Sigismondo), it isn’t always the case however that the music or Giuseppe Foppa’s libretto are strong enough to bear any real dramatic conviction, but the opera is certainly more experimental in its arrangements than some of Rossini’s earlier work and it does indeed build up to a forceful expression of the situation in an impressive series of arias, duets and ensembles in the distinctly Mozartian Second Act.

As a two-act opera, there’s no great call for scene changes, so the viewer has to bear with the asylum set for the entire First Act, whether they like it or not. Although it doesn’t leave the king not looking terribly regal, rolling around under a blanket in a filthy nightgown with his hair hacked back short, the madhouse setting is not inappropriate considering the rather dark tone that is adopted here, which is more a reflection of the state of Sigismondo’s mind than the reality of the outside world. There are other effective touches that bear this out, such as the three identical Aldimiras who torment both Sigismondo and Ladislao - the scheming First Minister who has betrayed and denounced the former Queen after being rejected by her - and by the other asylum inmates who, since they all carry over into the palatial Stateroom of the Second Act, are clearly intended to be representations of the psychological mindsets of the characters as expressed in the music rather than actual real figures.

The sense of ghostly apparitions haunting the characters also works well within the context of the drama, since (probably no surprise to opera-goers here) Aldimira is not actually dead, but having been rescued from her unjust fate 15 years ago returns in the guise of Egelinda, the daughter of the noble Zenovito. On the one hand this helps restore the king’s sanity when it is suggested that since she looks so like Queen Aldimira she could pretend to be her in order to forestall Ulderico’s attack, but it also reignites the feelings Sigismondo had for his wife, and his guilt over what has happened. It also reawakens the desire and the suspicions of Ladislao, giving the production team the opportunity to restage what amounts to a re-enactment of the attempted rape of the Queen that led to the First Minister’s denunciation of her. If the plot inevitably slips into high melodrama, the staging does however manage to show that there are powerful feelings expressed with considerable skill by Rossini in this near-forgotten work.

It’s tremendous then to have the opportunity to see this work - and many others like it - revived by the Rossini Opera Festival and now being made available on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s particularly interesting to see these works being given the best possible representation in terms of musical performance and staging and being cast with fine singers capable of handling the specific demands of Rossini opera. Such is the case with Sigismondo, which gives the singers the opportunity to really shine if they are up to it and are capable of making these characters even half-way convincing, and fortunately they’re all exceptionally good here. As Sigismondo, mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona (yes, it’s a trouser role) brings a brooding intensity that underplays the potential for raving melodrama, her vocal expression of the king’s torment alone powerfully emotive, particularly - as it should be - in the king’s direct encounters with Egelinda/Aldimira. As Aldimira, Olga Peretyatko’s rich, dark soprano suits the nature of her character’s steely determination to resist the injustice of her fate. It’s not a coloratura role, but there are certainly vocal demands in the role, and she handles them more than capably, working particularly well with Barcellona in the ‘Tomba di morte e amore‘ duet. It’s the tenor role of Ladislao however that has more of the coloratura arias (’Giusto ciel che i mali miei‘), which are sung terrifically well by Antonino Siragusa.

Despite the faith the Pesaro team have in it, I don’t think Sigismondo is a 5-star Rossini opera by any means, but this is certainly a 5-star production of an interesting work preceding and prefiguring Rossini’s Neapolitan period that merits the effort and the commitment put into its revival here. It’s well filmed and recorded, looking and sounding very good in High Definition on the Blu-ray release. It’s mostly filmed ’straight’, but the director does use split-screen effects a few times, although only for a few occasions of ensemble singing where it’s actually good to be able to see all the performers. Discreet radio mics are also used by the cast, but the sound and mixing sounds natural in both the PCM stereo and the upfront DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks. The Blu-ray is all-region compatible and contains subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese and Korean.

TroyensHector Berlioz - Les Troyens

Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, 2009 | Valery Gergiev, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Lance Ryan, Daniela Barcellona, Elisabete Matos, Gabriele Viviani, Giorgio Giuseppini, Stephen Milling, Eric Cutler, Oksana Shilova, Zlata Bulicheva | Unitel Classica - C-Major

In principle, I’m all for the approach and the use of new technology that the experimental Catalan theatre group la Fura dels Baus bring to opera productions. In practice however, I can never get past the dumb ideas that they sometimes base their concepts upon. Although I have avoided it myself, a lot of people like their Valencia Ring cycle, and I can see how their approach to total music theatre would work with Wagner (a recent production of Tristan und Isolde was handled very appropriately) – much as it suits, in principle, the dramatic theatricality of Hector Berlioz (they’ve done La Damnation de Faust in the past). In practice however, I’m afraid it just doesn’t work for me in the case of Les Troyens.

I’ve seen Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte destroyed by la Fura’s “concept” of the split in the hemispheres of the brain that could be seen as marking the divisions between enlightenment and obscurantism in that opera taken to the extreme of putting inflatable brains on the stage with the singers hanging suspended over them – a wooly concept taken over-literally that added nothing to Mozart (I won’t even get into them removing the recitative and replacing it with poems read out by French actors). The same sense of facile concept not thought-through in any meaningful way and taken over-literally applies also to the approach taken in this Fura production of Les Troyens. Thinking of the notion of a Trojan Horse in modern computer technology parlance, they apply the concept to the computer network of ancient Troy being the victim of a computer virus. Seriously.

What genius (that would be Carlus Padrissa) though it would be a great idea to take the metaphor of the Trojan Horse virus back to its source and make it literal? The phrase, “Beware of Greeks or other outside hostile agencies bearing gifts of laptops carrying viruses that may compromise the integrity of your system”, doesn’t really have all that great a ring to it. Even if you were to find this feeble concept worthy of more than a minute’s consideration, there’s little to support it in this staging, which is an impressive spectacle certainly (you are always guaranteed that at least from la Fura dels Baus), but it’s also a complete hotchpotch of ideas and concepts that look a complete mess and don’t come across particularly well on video. There’s little sense of and physical location of Troy in the first part of the opera (presented here in its entirety as originally intended as a 5-act opera, rather than two operas), but I suppose in this version it is supposed to be a virtual world. Quite why the cast are dressed in sports padding, hockey helmets, Tae kwon-do outfits and what looks like Stormtroopers costumes from Star Wars is however anyone’s guess.

Troyens

There are nonetheless impressively staged scenes mixing projections and live action – and inevitably, much wire work, hanging singers and acrobats from cables – which enhances the nightmarish visions of Cassandra and representing the death of Laco’on well in the first half. The idea of designing Carthage as a particle accelerator to represent the idea of a modern technical paradise in the second half of the opera (Acts III to IV) at least carries the concept through, the Trojans spreading their virus before leaving for an ideal (in Mars!) and it looks impressive – but really, does this bring anything meaningful out of the work, or is it just half-baked concepts and Cirque du Soleil spectacle? More often however, the spectacle doesn’t really come to life, failing to find anything meaningful to do in the ballet sequences – a boxing match? a fashion parade of warrior fetish costumes? – and it is actually quite static, particularly when compared to the active, inventive and always impressive production at the Châtelet.

Conducted by Valery Gergiev, the Valencia production at least remains hugely entertaining from a musical viewpoint, although I wouldn’t put it above the John Eliot Gardner version. The singing is mostly of a good standard, particularly the two female leads Elisabete Matos (Cassandra) and Daniela Barcellona (Dido), but again, personally, I prefer the performances of Anna Caterina Antonacci and Susan Graham in the Châtelet production. Gregory Kunde is however certainly a better Aeneas than Lance Ryan here, who I thought delivered everything in a dreary declamatory fashion and in a tone that becomes unpleasantly nasal on the high notes. His poor diction moreover painfully murders the French libretto.

The quality of the Blu-ray itself – the entire opera on a single BD50 disc – is reasonably good, the image as clear as it can be on a dark stage that uses a lot of back and front-screen projections. The audio tracks – PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 HD master audio – are both fine, if there is little to choose between them. Overall, if you don’t think too much about the terrible concept and are able to simply just enjoy the spectacle of the staging, this isn’t a bad version of Les Troyens, and it’s certainly well performed – but there is a much better version out there already on Blu-ray in terms of production values, spectacle and overall quality of the performance.