Deutsche Grammophon


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.

BolenaGaetano Donizetti - Anna Bolena

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna 2011 | Evelino Pidò, Eric Génovèse, Anna Netrebko, Elīna Garanča, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Francesco Meli, Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Elisabeth Kulman, Peter Jelosits | Deutsche Grammaphon

The first of Donizetti’s operas to be a major international success, Anna Bolena is a tragedia lirica that sets the tone for a number of subsequent works in the same dark, historical vein – Lucrezia Borgia and the two other operas that comprise the composer’s Tudor trilogy, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux. First performed in 1830 and reflecting perhaps the revolutionary spirit of the times – the depiction of Henry VIII here is in marked contrast to that of the merciful Metastasian kings of the past – these works differ considerably in tone from the now mostly forgotten comedy works by Donizetti that preceded them (and indeed from the more popular but considerably better written comic works that followed such as L’Elisir d’Amore and Don Pasquale), but the qualities and the value of Anna Bolena as a key work of the composer itself haven’t always been recognised either. It took an astonishing performance from Maria Callas in her prime in Milan in 1957, in a Luchino Visconti production, to once again bring this particular work to the attention of the opera-going public, and with it a newfound appreciation for Donizetti’s work.

In some ways, with this new production at the Vienna State Opera in 2011, followed by its appearance on the stage at the Met in New York (two different productions but both featuring Anna Netrebko in the title role), Anna Bolena is again proving to be a key work leading to a rediscovery and re-evaluation of Donizetti as being more than just a composer of bel canto, but one capable of developing works with considerable dramatic power and unexpected depth of character. I can’t think of any soprano at the moment who would be capable of drawing new depths in the work in the way Callas did dramatically, but in terms of star-power and personality, as well as having a voice of great substance to match, Anna Netrebko is among the very the best we have for this kind of role. The Vienna production consequently might not be quite such a revelation this time around, but it’s a creditable performance nonetheless that brings out the true qualities of the work, and often it’s even quite exhilaratingly impressive.

Bolena

Everything good that can be learned by the master Rossini is evident here in the disciple’s work, and it’s also possible to see the huge influence that Donizetti’s treatment of historical and romantic intrigues in Anna Bolena would have on Verdi’s mature works, and not just the early ones. I recently noted the use of duets in Donizetti’s late work Linda di Chamounix, but the dramatic and lyrical strengths of Anna Bolena also lie in such ensemble work, creating a fevered intensity to the love duets and to the confrontations between rivals, but creating additional complexity to the arrangements through quartets, quintets and choral work of remarkable power that carry those contradictory emotions and pronouncements. While such moments are hammered home to great effect and underscored by dark menacing tones, Donizetti’s sense of melody is also just as evident here as in the more tender moments and arias. Those elements are superbly brought out by Evelino Pidò and the orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper, the drive of the musical forces being one of the most impressive aspects of this production (and one, I’m pleased to say, that is audible with remarkable detail and dynamism in the High Definition audio channels of the Blu-ray release).

Since the casting and singing is also of an extraordinarily high quality, it’s disappointing then that the stage direction by Eric Génovèse is so rigidly traditional. There is the merest suggestion of the courtly interiors of Windsor Castle, the same mostly fixed location adapted to a throne-room, a courtyard or a park as required, which at least means that there is a fluidity between scenes even if what takes place in them is largely static. It is of course difficult to stage such bel canto works, which are not terribly active dramatically, but the director here finds no imaginative solution, eye-catching arrangements or sets, leaving the performers to stride up and down the stage in the absence of anything much else to do. The costume design is at least impressive, enough to give the production some sense of dramatic realism, and the stage is brightly lit (perhaps with a few additional spotlights for the TV cameras), or at least the stars are well lit to shine brightly against the rather drab backgrounds.

And “stars” is not an accidental choice of words either, because they were undoubtedly the main attraction of this production, generating a great deal of press interest and commanding incredible prices for ticket sales. In the end, they all certainly live up to and almost justify the hype. Anna Netrebko in particular brings great presence to the role of Anne Boleyn. She’s not always the most convincing in the bel canto repertoire – although as Norina in another recent Donizetti role for the Metropolitan Opera’s Don Pasquale, she was outstanding – and this particular role represents a considerable challenge. It’s not just that Netrebko is following in the footsteps of so many great singers who have taken on the role in the past, from Guiditta Pasta – the original Anna B. – through to Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, and unlikely to be able to stand up to the comparison, but her performance in this role also in a way represented more of a personal milestone that would consolidate her standing or define her limitations. In the event, her performance here kind of does both, but it must primarily be judged a great success.

Bolena

Netrebko’s performance of Anna Bolena is a mixed one, but such is her own force of personality and tone of voice that comparisons to other singers soon fall by the wayside, allowing her performance in the role to be judged on its own terms. At times she does seem to be absent from the character, her voice not quite capable either of reaching those deeper emotional depths, failing to find any colour or personality in a scene, but at other times – notably in her duet with Elīna Garanča’s Jane Seymour where she identifies her rival, and in her final death scene – she suddenly seems to let fly with superb control and genuine passion (the same mixed qualities incidentally could also be said applied to Donizetti’s writing for this particular work). She’s at least never anything less than compelling and commanding whenever she is on the stage, the viewer captivated by how she is going to deal with any given scene. The other principals are no less impressive, Garanča in particular entering fully into character and rising to the challenges it represents dramatically and vocally, while Ildebrando D’Arcangelo is a solid and convincing Enrico (Henry VIII). Francesco Meli’s Percy is also worthy of mention, genuinely impassioned and of sound vocal ability, if not always in perfect time with the conductor. Elisabeth Kulman also makes a strong impression in the lesser but vital role of Smeton.

The quality of the Blu-ray release of the 2011 Wiener Staatsoper production of Anna Bolena from Deutsche Grammaphon is outstanding. Filmed for the screen by Brian Large, the veteran opera screen director does well to make the most of the limited dramaturgy and stage movements, the strong lighting making this look just marvellous. The audio tracks, LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0, are, as I mentioned earlier, astounding. There such great depth, dynamic and detail audible in the playing of the orchestra, as well as in the singing that you can’t help but be impressed by the performances. In terms of extra features, there are only brief introductions to each of the two acts in German by Elīna Garanča. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, Spanish and French.

DeadLeoš Janáček - From the House of the Dead

Aix-en-Provence, 2007 | Pierre Boulez, Patrice Chéreau, Olaf Bär, Eric Stokloßa, Steron Margita, John Mark Ainsley, Jan Galla, Peter Hoare, Gerd Srochowski | Deutsche Grammophon

Based on Dostoevsky’s novel Memoirs from the House of the Dead, which recounts many of the author’s own experiences as a prisoner in a Siberian Prison Camp, Janáček’s final opera, first performed in 1930, is inevitably a bleak affair. But like the original work that it is based on, the point of showing such misery and injustice is to highlight all the more the uplifting moments of human compassion that endures there which is never fully extinguished. That’s difficult to bring out of a group of hardened men, many of whom indeed are criminals and murderers, but it’s a work that is all the stronger for meeting this challenge, and conducted by Pierre Boulez and directed for the stage by Patrice Chéreau (the team behind the famous Centenary Wagner Ring Cycle), those qualities are superbly and sympatherically elicited from the singing, the staging and Janáček’s remarkable composition.

Of all Janáček’s work, From the House of the Dead is one that is rarely performed, principally because its difficult subject and its treatment lack a conventional narrative structure or resolution, to such an extent that the opera was considered incomplete at the time of the composer’s death. Even the orchestration itself is sparse, as if not fully scored, but Janáček’s music – so associated with rhythms of speech – has evolved here, finding harsh new sounds to suit its subject, using percussion, blocks, rattling chains and tolling bells, and integrating them into the fabic of a powerful score than needs no further elaboration. The dark tone that Janáček explores here points towards Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and, particularly in its prison setting, Weinberg’s recently rediscovered The Passenger.

Patrice Chéreau’s staging and direction doesn’t so much emphasise the dark setting, as fully envision what is already there in the score and the libretto. Considering Chéreau’s background, it’s entirely theatrical in this respect, the stark high grey walls that enclose the men in Act 1, the improvised stage in Act 2 and the hospital ward of Act 3, the blue-grey-brown tones all perfectly geared towards literal as well as metaphorical representation of the prison. Chéreau doesn’t point towards any specific cultural or political reading, but focuses on the human drama, on the nature of men, the stories they tell each other and the personalities that they reveal. By extension, this also sheds light on the deeper human behaviours that the situation brings out – the basic human needs for equality and freedom, the urge to communicate, the need for a sense of worth, respect and attention that, when denied, can be expressed in assertion of authority and in violent behaviour.

Dead

If the direction does everything to give the best possible staging for the opera and its themes – from the sense of movement and positioning of figures right through to the superb lighting of the stage – everything about the actual performance of this Aix-en-Provence production of From the House of the Dead is likewise as good as it could be. Pierre Boulez conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra through a magnificent performance of a remarkable score (from Sir Charles Mackerras and John Tyrell’s critical edition) that flawlessly captures tone, character and nuance for the situation as well as the characters. The singing is of an exceptionally high standard, not just for the actual singing, but the acting performances that Chéreau teases out of each member of the cast. This is as good a performance as you could possibly hope for of this particular opera.

On DVD, the performance at Aix comes across quite well. The NTSC resolution isn’t the best, and it can look a little blurry in movement, with hand-held camera inserts being used as an extra dimension to the live performance – but it fully captures the sense of the staging. The audio mixes in LPCM stereo and DTS 5.1 are wonderful, both of them exhibiting an impressive level of detail and a lovely tone. The DVD also has a 48-minute Making Of featurette, filmed entirely behind-the-scenes, following the rehearsals without any formal interviews.