Damrau, Diana


RigolettoGiuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

The Metropolitan Opera, 2013 | Michele Mariotti, Michael Mayer, Željko Lučić, Diana Damrau, Piotr Beczala, Oksana Volkova, Štefan Kocán, Maria Zifchak, Jeff Mattset, David Crawford, Robert Pomakov, Alexander Lewis, Emalie Savoy, Catherine Choi, Earle Patriarco | The Met: Live in HD, 16th February 2013

Diana Damrau and Željko Lučić appeared in one of the promotional slots during an interval in last month’s Met Live in HD broadcast of Maria Stuarda to promote their appearance in the Met’s forthcoming new production of Rigoletto. When asked whether they thought that Verdi’s opera would benefit in any way from an updating of its 16th century Mantua court setting to a casino in 1960s Las Vegas run by members of the Rat Pack, Damrau and Lučić just laughed. Of course not. Verdi’s brilliant work is strong enough to withstand most interpretations, but, who knows?, it might just be fun to see it in the context of the colourful sets and situation developed by Broadway director Michael Mayer and his creative team.

In the event that’s exactly how the Met’s new production turned out. Rigoletto doesn’t gain anything at all by setting it in Las Vegas in the 1960s, but the idea has a certain merit and fascination in how it aligns characters from the opera to real Rat Pack figures. Here, the Duke of Mantua is a Frank Sinatra-like owner of a casino with a coterie of hangers-on willing to indulge his every whim, while comedian Don Rickles is the basis for the acerbic comedy of Rigoletto - or Rickletto, if you like. With Count Monterone a wealthy Arab sheik backer of the casino, Mayer’s production is as an effective way as any of putting across the glamour and power struggles as well as the respective positions of the characters in Verdi’s mid-period masterwork.

The production’s greatest impact came, not unexpectedly, in the licentious First Act, the Old Blue Eyes Duke in a white dinner jacket, grabbing a microphone to “croon” ‘Questa o quella‘ for his guests, accompanied by Las Vegas dancers with colourful fans. Visually, it looked magnificent, and it did get across all the necessary glamour and cruelty of the situation, with all the back-biting asides and casual sexism generated by the Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin-like members of the pack towards “dolls” anyone outside of their little group. A few subtle tweaks in the subtitles to reflect the swinging sixties dialogue worked well in this context, matching the intent and raising a few smiles without being too far removed from the original.

The setting didn’t over-impose itself however, or else it ran out of ideas, fading mostly into the background after the colourful opening scene, and allowing the mechanics of the drama that is driven by Verdi’s magnificent through-composed scoring and duets to assert its rightful position as the true engine of the work. Nonetheless, all the important dramatic points of the opera were made to fit into the setting fairly well, without too much awkwardness. The abduction of Gilda from Rigoletto’s apartment in the casino’s hotel using a lift worked best, the setting of the tavern in a strip club complete with pole-dancer perhaps a little gratuitous but workable, the dumping of her body into the boot of a Cadillac at the end a little less so. It was a nice touch, but it just made things a little difficult for Diana Damrau to get across the poignancy of Gilda’s final moments in her ‘Lassù in cielo’, and it was hard to feel any sense of remorse in her father either. If that doesn’t work, you’ve got a major problem with your Rigoletto.

It’s the dramatic conviction in the singing that ultimately determines the level of success of any production of Rigoletto, and while it was hard to fault the singing from any of the cast, that necessary commitment and direction wasn’t always there. The Met’s production at least benefitted from casting that mixed youth with experience, often within the same person. It was noted by both the singers and the director that Diana Damrau and Željko Lučić already had considerable experience in these roles and have often even performed them together in their time at Frankfurt. Piotr Beczala too has performed the Duke before - there’s a Zurich production on BD/DVD - and is clearly quite capable in the role as well as being boyishly bright-eyed and charming. It seemed however that for the most part they weren’t directed enough by Mayer - or indeed by the conductor Michele Mariotti - but left to bring their own experience with the characters to this production, with the result that they never seemed entirely comfortable with how that fitted into the Las Vegas setting.

Damrau - recently returning to the stage after giving birth to her second child - seemed to show a little more effort in her singing than before, but with such a wonderful and expressive voice, it was more of a problem that she didn’t really seem to be able to connect with this Gilda and her dilemma come to life. These are relatively minor points since the singing from Damrau, Lučić and Beczala was just superb, but Rigoletto is indeed an opera where such considerations and attention can make all the difference. These are much richer characters than they were allowed to be in this rather superficial production. Curiously, there actually seemed to be more effort put into drawing the secondary roles, Štefan Kocán in particular standing out as the Sparafucile. With a deeply toned and wonderfully controlled bass, he was a refreshingly youthful assassin and consequently even more dangerous in a character role more often given over to veterans. Superficial but fun and wonderfully sung, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the Met’s Las Vegas updating of Rigoletto that a little more attention to the characterisation and a tighter hold on the conducting couldn’t improve.

MignonAmbroise Thomas - Mignon

Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2012 | Frédéric Chaslin, Jean-Louis Benoît, Sophie Koch, Paolo Fanale, Diana Damrau, Nicolas Courjal, Carine Séchaye, Emilio Pons, Frédéric Goncalves, Laurent Delvert | Geneva, 16 May 2012

There seems to have been some initial confusion over whether Mignon was destined to be a grand opera or an opéra comique. The libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré was first offered to Meyerbeer, who refused it, then Gounod, before being taken on by Ambroise Thomas now in his 50s at the time of writing in 1866, as a commission for the Opéra Comique in Paris. Based on Goethe’s famous Bildungsroman, ‘The Apprentice Years of Wilhelm Meister’ (1795), there were however certain changes that required that altered the original intentions of the work, such as expanding the role of Philine for a lyric soprano and rewriting the ending from the tragic conclusion of the original. Whatever the intentions of the original librettists, Thomas found a perfect expression for the work in the lighter of the two opera styles, composing with pleasant melodies as well as with delicacy for the emotional content and Mignon was a great success, the greatest of his career thus far (two years before his next success in Hamlet), the work even surviving past the fire that destroyed the Salle Favart in 1887 to run beyond a 1000 performances in Paris.

Those qualities in Thomas’s writing, particularly in the characterisation assigned to each of the main roles, was certainly evident in the 2012 revival production of the opera at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, which benefitted moreover from the outstanding casting of the French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch in the title role of Mignon. A young innocent of indeterminate gender who has been brought up by gypsies, Mignon has been forced to perform what seems to be a rather humiliating egg dance for the public, finally refusing to continue any longer at a show in the courtyard of a country inn where Wilhelm Meister is present. Taking pity on her predicament and attracted to the ambiguous nature of this strange creature dressed in boyish clothes, Wilhelm buys her freedom from Jarno, the leader of the gypsies. To protect her from the attentions of a crazed troubadour, Lothario, mad from the loss of his daughter, Wilhelm allows Mignon to accompany him as his page.

Mignon

References to such figures, many derived from Goethe’s Mignon, are common in literature in figures such as Lolita as well as in the cinema - Gelsomina in Fellini’s La Strada, for example - but some such as Lulu have also travelled through to opera and continue to exercise the same strange fascination. In some respects, the Mignon figure, looking for a father-figure, a lover, a husband, contains a purity which can inspire the artist (who can forget the poetic raptures of Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita?), but the same figure can also reflect darker and more ambiguous impulses that are protective and dangerously possessive. It’s perfect material for musical and poetical expression, but while there is a great deal of such qualities in Thomas’s writing, his opera Mignon perhaps doesn’t always reflect both sides of the coin with equal success. It’s a lovely little opera to listen to, but perhaps a little old-fashioned and restricted in this respect by the conventions of the opéra comique style.

It could be enlivened certainly through inventive stage direction and perhaps an updating of the settings, but there was nothing like that in Jean-Louis Benoît’s production for Geneva. If the props however were reduced to a bare minimum on the stage, it was to leave all the more room for it to be filled with singers and chorus, all dressed in fine, period costumes. A little character was introduced with a humorous setting up of chairs which became a game of skittles every time someone made a rushed entrance to the stage through them, and there was a minor skit involving the flames that destroy Baron Rosemburg’s castle at the end of the second act, but little else of note to suggest a theme or concept being explored. Even so, with the fine costume designs and the actual stage direction - Diana Damrau in particular being a swirling, sparkling presence as Philine - the production looked well and was never less than effective for the purposes of a traditional, theatrical presentation.

It was left to the singers to bring whatever they could to the roles through the performances. Sophie Koch brought a fabulous air of wistful melancholy to the famous aria ‘Connais-tu le pays où fleurent l’oranger?/Le pays des fruits d’or et les roses vermeilles?’ (“Do you know the land where orange flowers bloom?/A land of golden fruit and crimson roses?”), which along with her boyish appearance, lent some interesting ambiguity to the androgynous character and how she is perceived by both Wilhelm and Lothario. There was a hint here of other depths that could be explored, but neither Thomas’s music not the direction seemed capable of drawing anything more out of this as the performance progressed. Koch however was fabulous in the role, singing a choice mezzo-soprano role wonderfully. Taking on a broad range of roles that stretch from this light lyrical opéra comique to heavier Wagner roles, there really doesn’t seem to be anything she isn’t capable of, and she sounds more and more impressive each time I hear her.

Mignon

It was a double luxury then to also have Diana Damrau as Philine in this production. She played a crucial part in the success of the production, and her role is also crucial to making the opera work so well. Her flowing coloratura in the soprano range certainly adds considerable colour to the range of voices as well as some well-needed sparkle to a story that lacks the depth that it might have acquired in a tragic grand opera style, but there’s much more to her character than that and the role serves a vital dramatic function. Philine, along with sidekick Laërte as the leaders of a bohemian troupe of actors, is the catalyst that brings Wilhelm Meister and Mignon together, but Philine also has other outgoing feminine qualities and her flirting introduces the necessary element of conflict that pushes the romantic element to the fore. Her extravagant character and the extravagant singing that goes along with it were well-served here by Diana Damrau. Her ‘Je suis Titania la blonde’ polonaise, given after a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the baron’s castle, was every bit as rivetting and magnetic as it ought to be.

The two exceptionally talented leading ladies were well supported by an excellent Paolo Fanale as Wilhelm Meister, by Nicholas Courjal’s beautifully lucid baritone Lothario, and by Emilio Pons as Laërte. All of them sang very well, but none were really able to make much more of the parts beyond the limitations of the original characterisation and within the constraints of the unexceptional stage direction. A good energetic and entertaining performance from Carine Séchaye in the trouser-role of Frédéric also added to the overall quality and dynamic of the singing. Frédéric Chaslin conducted the orchestra of the Suisse Romande delightfully through Thomas’s lovely score, the production using the original version of the opera with spoken dialogue (only a few short passages) rather than the later revised German version with recitative that, like Thomas’s similar rearrangement of Hamlet, attempted to come closer to the tragic ending for an audience more familiar with the original work. The happy ending however seemed very much in line with the lightness and delicacy of touch that characterised the whole production here in Geneva.

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.

ChamounixGaetano Donizetti - Linda di Chamounix

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2012 | Marco Armiliato, Emilio Sagi, Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Flórez, Bruno de Simone, Simón Orfila, Pietro Spagnoli, Silvia Tro Santafé, Jordi Casanova, María José Suárez, Mariola Cantarero, Ismael Jordi, Paolo Bordogna, Mirco Palazzi, Ketevan Kemoklidze, Fabio Capitanucci | 7 and 8 January 2012

As an example of the semiseria opera tradition, where tragedy ensues but everything nonetheless works through to a happy end, the plot of Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix shares a familiar plot line that is more than a little overwrought and even in parts ridiculous. Like Halévy’s semiseria Clari, recently rediscovered and revived (not entirely convincingly) by Cecilia Bartoli, it involves a young woman from the country, an Alpine virgin, who runs away to Paris on the promise of marriage to a rich man and in the process not only risks destroying the good name of her family but also losing her virtue and losing her mind when her fiancée seems to be unable to or is prevented from making an honest woman out of her.

In Haléy’s opera - written for the soprano Maria Malibran - this is an occasion then for long-winded opera-seria like virtuoso bel canto singing with extravagant coloratura to suggest the depths of despair, torment and eventual breakdown its heroine endures, as well as emphasising the importance of virtue in a manner that seems terribly old-fashioned by today’s standards and scarcely worthy of revival. Also rarely performed nowadays, Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix is similarly encumbered by stern moralising, but the challenges of producing it lie more in the difficulty of finding bel canto singers capable of meeting its comparatively modest, but no less demanding singing roles. This new production from Emilio Sagi for the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona with Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Flórez in the main roles of Linda and Carlo, demonstrated the importance of the casting for this opera, one that is vital for it to work even half way convincingly.

Making this overall plot work is quite a challenge, but set-up in Act 1 at least is conventional enough. Linda is a pure and beautiful young country girl, the daughter of tenant farmers in the Alpine Savoy region of France in 1760. She is being pursued by the landowner, the Marquis de Boisfleury, a notorious libertine and seducer of young girls, who believes he has some claim to her, having extended her family’s lease on their factory. Warned of the intentions of Boisfleury by the Prefect, her father sends her away to Paris, entrusting her to her childhood friend Pierotto, but it means that Linda has to leave behind her true love, Carlo. Carlo, who has been keeping his identity secret, is the nephew of the Marquis de Boisfleury, promises “before God and man” that he will make Linda his wife, but his mother has other ideas and a more suitable match for the young viscount than a poor country girl.

Chamounix

Many of the difficulties with swallowing the dramatic developments occur in Act 2, where Linda, having been reduced to singing in the streets after Pierotto had fallen ill, has now been rescued by Carlo and installed in a luxurious Parisian apartment. By amazing coincidence, over the course it seems of an hour, she is joyously reunited with Pierotto; is then visited by the Marquis who suspects she is living in such surroundings on the expense of a rich admirer and believes it gives him freedom to make another play for her; is visited by Carlo who is concerned about the upcoming marriage that has been arranged for him; is then petitioned by her father who, when he discovers that the viscount’s mistress is none other than his daughter Linda, furiously repudiates her. To top it all, Pierotto returns to tell Linda that he has seen the preparations for Carlo’s marriage to another woman. Having endued all this, Linda, inevitably, and in the great opera tradition, goes mad.

The plot might sound outlandish and governed by extraordinarily unlikely coincidences, but Act 2 nonetheless manages to present the different facets of Linda’s situation with economical precision. Really, you couldn’t make the complications of Linda’s predicament any clearer. What helps matters and makes the contrivances rather more palatable, is of course the wonderful musical arrangements and the singing. Musically, Linda di Chamounix, coming several years after Lucia di Lammermoor and preceding the masterful Don Pasquale, is a rather more sophisticated affair than earlier Donizetti works. Characters are defined and identified by leitmotifs and the composer’s use of duets allows the dramatic flow to be maintained without the excesses of emotion expression in long arias. Even Linda’s ‘mad scene’ is a rather more restrained affair than the one in Lucia di Lammermoor, and so well orchestrated are the events that lead up to it, and so precise in delivery and expression is the scene, that it’s actually even more moving and tragic without all the excess.

While there may be few and shorter showcase arias than is customary, those that we have are demanding nonetheless and, when delivered by a singer of exceptional quality, certainly have their dramatic and emotional impact and linger in the mind, as much through the fine melodies of the mature Donizetti style as through the sentiments expressed in them and what they reveal about the characters. Diana Damrau’s mad scene consequently received long and enthusiastic applause at the Liceu, as did Juan Diego Flórez’s confidently delivered ‘Se tanto in ira agli uomini‘ in Act 2. Their expression of the characters in this difficult Act 2 was such that Act 3’s happy resolution of Linda being cured from the madness that has afflicted her by the refrain of Carlo’s promise, is capable of being musically satisfying as well as dramatically convincing. In the other roles, Simón Orfila had powerful presence and authority as the religious and moral guide, the Prefect, while Pietro Spagnoli was fine as Linda’s father Antonio.

Chamounix

The difference that this makes was evident from a viewing of another performance of the same production the previous evening with an alternate cast. Surprisingly however, the difference wasn’t exclusively down to the vocal characteristics alone. Both Mariola Cantarero and Ismael Jordi sang well - Jordi in particular fully deserving of the applause received for a fine performance that was a worthy alternative to Flórez, if Cantarero didn’t have quite the beauty of tone or range of Damrau, particularly when it came to holding that high note at the end of the mad scene. There was however a marked difference embodied in their characters, Damrau and Flórez a much more convincing couple who were able to breathe life into the characters that was lacking in the performance of the alternate cast. Mirco Palazzi was a good Prefect here, if not quite as powerful as Simón Orfilia, but I preferred Ketevan Kemoklidze’s Pierotto of the alternate cast over Silvia Tro Santafé, who has a pretty voice but irritatingly sang every note with vibrato. Fabio Capitanucci also made a stronger impression as Antonio, particularly in his duets with Linda and with the Prefect. Paolo Bordogna played the role of the Marquis de Boisfleury with a little more of a comic touch that seems right for the character, but Bruno de Simone’s Boisfleury fitted in better with the more sensitive touch of the Damrau/Florez pairing.

Emilio Sagi’s staging was perfectly in service of the opera without being overly conceptual or too literal. The nature of the Alpine Savoy region was evoked in clean, pure, classical lines, the inhabitants all dressed in white and far more fashionably and expensively than one would expect tenant farmers of a provincial region - but the outer garments were perhaps more of a representation of the inner nature of the characters. The same sense of classical design of Act 2 likewise reflected Linda’s inner purity, even when to outside eyes she appears to be an immoral kept woman in an expensive Parisian apartment. Marco Armiliato directed the orchestra of the Liceu delicately through Donizetti’s score, like the singers and in line with the restrained musical arrangements, maintaining a fine balance that held back any heavy-handed over-emphasis that might tip the work over into sentimental melodrama.

ComteOryGioachino Rossini - Le Comte Ory

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Juan Diego Flórez, Michele Pertusi, Joyce DiDonato, Stéphane Degout, Diana Damrau, Susanne Resmark, Monica Yunus | The Met: Live in HD - April 9, 2011

The big selling point of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s 2010/11 season has of course been the start of their new Ring cycle, the season opening with a technically impressive set and some wonderful singing for Wagner’s Das Rheingold, and it is due to end the season and prove the worth of its Ring cycle with the second instalment of the tetralogy Die Walküre later in the month. In between however, while there have been many highlights among the varied productions broadcast around the world live in HD, it’s undoubtedly been the bel canto operas that have stood out like sparkling little gems amidst the rather more solid fare of Boris Godunov, Don Carlo and Iphigénie en Tauride during the Met’s current season.

Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Lucia de Lammermoor where however revivals of successful Met productions, with Anna Netrebko and Nathalie Dessay slipping almost effortlessly into roles that they can be relied upon to perform exceptionally well, but the challenges of producing Le Comte Ory by Rossini, the father of bel canto, are rather different. One of the final operas composed by Rossini in France, a year before he prematurely retired from opera writing in 1829, Le Comte Ory features some of the composer’s most challenging singing roles in a rather more sophisticated composition that would draw on arrangements from some of his earlier Italian operas. Less well-known than the more famous Rossini works, it’s not so much then that Le Comte Ory is a lesser work by any means, but rather that it’s only recently that singers of sufficient ability have been trained to tackle the formidable challenges that Le Comte Ory – and indeed many other bel canto operas that are currently undergoing revival – present.

We’re talking evidently of Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, one of a very few tenors who can consistently hit and hold the High Cs and Ds littered throughout the minefields of operas like La Fille du Regiment and Le Comte Ory to catch out and expose tenors who are rather less nimble and lacking in the kind of stamina they demand. Receiving its first performance ever at the Met for these reasons, it is indeed difficult to imagine anyone else but Juan Diego Flórez being able to carry off the role of the Count off with any conviction. It’s not however just a matter of being able to find a lead tenor who can meets the demands of the opera, Le Comte Ory also presents challenging roles for soprano and mezzo-soprano, and with Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato being drafted in to form a remarkable trio, the Met can justifiably make excuses for waiting so long to be able to assemble a worthy cast for Rossini’s late masterpiece.

ComteOry

Even after these successful performances, whether the opera is a masterpiece or not is however still open to question. The plot of the comic opera, based on a one-act 1816 vaudeville written by Eugène Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson – who also produced the libretto for the opera – is not the most sophisticated. The story is little more than a Carry-on affair revolving around the activities of a notorious libertine who dons disguises in order to seduce as many of the women of the land as possible while their husbands are away fighting in the Crusades. In Act 1, wearing a long black flowing beard, he passes himself off as a wise hermit who dispenses advice to the women folk in exchange for offerings and one-on-one “consultations”. His ultimate aim is to bed the beautiful Countess Adèle, sister of the Count of Formoutiers, but he has a rival in the form of his own page, Isolier. His disguise rumbled by his own tutor, Ory regroups his forces and plans another assault on the women of the castle by disguising himself and his big bearded men as nuns on a pilgrimage.

The fact that Le Comte Ory is a comedy is in itself no reason why the opera can’t be great and reveal deeper truths about men, women, love and lust – Mozart’s operas with Da Ponte stand as testament to the deeper human urges and the tragic impulses that lie beneath them, expressed both through the music and the subtleties of the libretto. Le Comte Ory isn’t on the same level musically or in the libretto, but it is certainly a little more musically sophisticated than most other bel canto operas, and if the libretto doesn’t reveal any great truths or insights, the quality of the singing does at least raise it to another level. Flórez, unsurprisingly, is dazzling as the Count – even despite being up all the night previous to this performance and taking to the stage only a half hour after assisting his wife give birth – playing with verve and perfect comic timing, making it all look effortless yet consistently hitting all the high notes with not so much as a flutter or waver in tone. Diana Damrau was even more impressive as Adèle – her singing role equally if not even more challenging than that of the Count – adding colouratura and displaying impeccable legato in a performance that was not only technically flawless, but accompanied by fine, entertaining comic acting.

Despite having wonderfully written singing roles to demonstrate the exceptional singing ability and technique, the real test of the opera and its true brilliance is found however in the interaction of the singers, and in this respect, Flórez, Damrau and DiDonato formed a delightful team that fully justified the Met’s efforts to bring them together in this way. In this particular opera that close interaction is tested to its limit in a three-in-a-bed ménage-a-trois romp in Act II that not only lived up to the sauciness that was promised in the advance publicity for the opera – the scene exploiting the fact that DiDonato was in a trouser-role – but was as expertly orchestrated and choreographed as anything out of The Marriage of Figaro’s most complex mistaken identity denouements, with five to ten minutes of the most dazzlingly brilliant singing and entertainment delivered between the trio in the most tricky of acting situations. Simply stunning.

ComteOry

The stars all made their big impression then, but elsewhere they were well supported by a fine all-round production. Even though he explained the rationale behind the reduced scale of the production during his between act interview on the HD broadcast, I’m still not entirely clear why Bartlett Sher chose to stage the opera as a period opera staging-within-a-staging. It certainly put a little necessary comic distance between the theatricality of the old-style farce drama, but was also effective in allowing the performance to flow without long scene-change interruptions, which was ultimately to the benefit of the piece. The conducting of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the Chorus by Maurizio Benini similarly played to the strengths of the opera’s fast-paced rhythms, and there was fine singing and performances also by Susanne Resmark as Dame Ragonde, the castle stewardess, and Michele Pertusi as the tutor.

RosenkavalierRichard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

Baden-Baden Festspielhaus, 2009 | Munich Philharmonic, Christian Thielemann, Herbert Wernicke, Renée Fleming, Sophie Koch, Diana Damrau, Franz Hawlata, Franz Grundheber, Jonas Kaufmann, Jane Henschel | Decca

The staging for this Festspiele Baden-Baden production, directed by Herbert Wernicke and conducted by Christian Thielemann, is as sumptuous as Richard Strauss’s score and, surrounded by mirrors that amplify the stage, it’s as languidly self-reflective as Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s original libretto. The choice not to stage it as strictly period in the setting of Marie-Therese’s Vienna around 1740 is somewhat contrary to the composers’ desire to recreate a sense of the light indulgence of the period (and in the process break away from the dark dissonance of Strauss’s previous operas Salome and Elektra), but the libretto and score are, in most sections, strong enough on their own, and so well thematically constructed that Der Rosenkavalier can stand up to a modern, or, in this case, an almost fairy-tale pantomime-like setting.

There is a richness of means by which to enjoy Strauss’s most popular opera, which flits from moment to moment, slipping from happiness into despair, from love into comedy, but principally, it is indeed about being in the moment, living in the moment, but that even within the moment, there are many contradictory thoughts and emotions pulling at one. All this is contained within the playful storyline and within the music that underscores it. Like all Strauss’s work, Der Rosenkavalier takes the language of post-Wagner late-Romanticism opera another stage further into modernity, not just accompanying the voice, not just heightening the emotional tone of the drama or just using leitmotifs to form a musical coherency and symbolism, but presenting the phrasing with an infinite number of meanings and inflections, hinting at deeper underlying psychology and richness of character, living in the moment and crystallising it in melody, but with a deeper consideration for the personality of the characters and particularly in the intricate web that is created through human interaction.

In Act One of the opera, the Feldmarshallin, Princess Marie-Therese, is living in the moment of bliss in her boudoir with her young 17 year-old lover Octavian, heedless of the clamour outside, but dealing in her own time with the levee visitors, including Ochs, the Baron von Lerchenau, who is looking for a relative to deliver a traditional Silver Rose to his young 15 year-old fiancée Sophie. Over the course of the morning, the Marschallin comes to a recognition that she will get old and that Octavian will also move on in time and become like the boorish woman-chasing Baron himself. All these thoughts crowd into the moment at the end of the first Act, leaving her melancholic and reflective, the whole morning flowing to this point and then unstoppably beyond, aided by the lush, evocative scoring by Strauss that draws on a wealth of references and motifs.

Rosenkavalier

In Act Two Sophie is also living in the moment as a young bride-to-be, but when the rose is delivered by Octavian the two young people fall in love with each other, the two of them also caught up in the moment, living for the wonder of the sensation, Octavian begging of Sophie to “remain as you are”. As Octavian plans to rescue Sophie from the clutches of the decrepit Baron, donning his disguise from Act 1’s bedroom farce as the Marschallin’s maid Mariandel for Act 3’s comedy situations, Der Rosenkavalier becomes – for me personally – rather less compelling, at least up until the reappearance of the Marschallin (which here has the additional benefit of some exceptional singing and subtle acting from the ever-wonderful, self-possessed and appropriately regal Renée Fleming), ending with a set of the most exquisite duets and the opera’s incredible trio. In between however, as the characters self-reflexively note, it’s “a farce and nothing more”, “a Viennese masquerade and nothing more”.

Well, it is and it isn’t – nothing is so straightforward in Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss is fully aware of the buffa conventions he is playing with, all of which are complementary to the period in opera terms – not least in the Cherubino-style cross-dressing of a female singer playing a male character who dresses up as a female – and he approaches the scoring of the farce with no less detail and underlying thoughtfulness than anywhere else, knowing that – as Ariadne auf Naxos made explicit – that the strength of the work is in how the diparate elements work off each other. Personally, I feel that it’s often rather too clever for its own good however and, like much of Strauss’s work, it’s rather distanced, controlled and too precise, allowing in little real human feeling or ambiguity, creating a perfect semblance of life like the crystallised silver rose that this production rather ambitiously replaces with a real one at the end.

I’m not entirely convinced by Herbert Wernicke’s production, created for Salzburg and played here at the Festspiele Baden-Baden in 2009 with the Munich Philharmonic under Thielemann, but it does at least create a productive environment for the singers. The 1962 film version starring Elisabeth Schwarzkopf casts a long shadow over the work, but no opera work should ever be considered definitive, and every one of the main performers here – an exceptional cast that includes Renée Fleming, Sophie Koch, Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann – brings something interesting to their characters, with fine performances in both singing and acting terms, as does the ever interesting Thielemann when interpreting Strauss. The Blu-ray edition from Decca/Unitel Classica looks and sounds marvellous, the performance directed for the screen by the ever reliable Brian Large. Audio tracks are the usual LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. Subtitles are English, French, German, Spanish and Chinese. The Blu-ray also contains a 32 minute look at the opera from the perspective of the conductor and the main singers, who all provide interesting views on the piece, and a booklet with synopsis and a superb essay on the opera by Bryan Gilmore.