DVD


SadkoNikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - Sadko

Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 1994 | Valery Gergiev, Vladimir Galusin, Valentina Tsidipova, Marianna Tarassova, Bulat Minjelkiev, Alexander Gergalov, Gegam Grigorian, Sergei Alexashkin, Larissa Diadkova | Philips - DVD

Opera can take many forms, but apart from Wagner only the High Romantic Russian composers have really exploited its potential to elaborate on the epic power of myth, legend and folklore. Even then, there can be few composers who have had such an affinity for this type of subject as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. So grand are the extravagant displays of such works as The Golden Cockerel, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and Sadko however that they’ve been regarded as troublesome and costly to stage and largely neglected in the west. As a result, Rimsky-Korsakov’s reputation as a composer has suffered, or he is at least not held in the same high regard as he is in Russia.

If you really want to appreciate the nature of Rimsky-Korsakov’s work then it’s best seen in Russia, and a perfect example of that is this magnificent 1994 recording of the rarely performed Sadko at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg conducted by Valery Gergiev. Musically and in terms of singing it’s an impeccable performance and authentically Russian, which means big strong voices of power and precision. Gergiev conducting of the Kirov orchestra draws out all the lush textures, folk rhythms and the sheer orchestral majesty of Rimsky-Korsakov’s wondrous score, which recognises and fully expresses the power and the importance of legends and mythology and their ability to transform our view of the world.

The opera itself, first performed in 1898, is an utterly enthralling fusion of epic storytelling with music and theatre. Sadko is a ‘bylina‘, an epic medieval folktale that recounts the creation of the river Volkhova that connects Lake Ilmen to the Okian sea, bringing prosperity to the merchants of Novgorod. That’s brought about by Sadko, a clever merchant, adventurer and musician who woos the Sea Princess Volkhova through his playing of the gusli. Rather than having traditional operatic Acts, Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera breaks the story down into seven beautiful, lyrical scenes, with a great deal of spectacle and ballet sequences to enrich it. The story calls for the transformation of swans on a lake into the Sea Princess and her maidens, huge village scenes and festivals for choruses, the catching of three golden fish, an ocean crossing and the creation of an undersea kingdom, so Sadko is quite a challenge to stage.

The Mariinsky’s production, in this video recording dating from 1994, is accordingly very bold and colourful, as well as traditionally theatrical in the Mariinsky style. Painted backdrops create the impression of vast scale as well as the fairytale picturebook nature of the story, with plenty of room left in the foreground for the huge choruses, the choreographed movements of the chorus and the beautiful ballet sequences. A “wonder of wonders” and “marvel of marvels” - to use a phrase used often in the libretto - Sadko could hardly look more spectacular, the colourful theatricality and the medieval costumes fully living up to the larger-than-life context of the work and the extravagantly rich orchestration that Rimsky-Korsakov has composed for it.

There’s a recognition however of the importance of the smallest details in the grander scale of the composition of the work that is reflected in the attention to detail on the part of both the stage direction and the musical performance. Within all the spectacle are wonderful lyrical moments and demanding singing passages that require great stamina as well as beauty of expression from the singers. Considering he is not just the central figure, but a minstrel who charms the Sea Princess, you would at least expect a strong Sadko and Vladimir Galusin gives a commanding and charismatic performance. He’s matched well with Valentina Tsidipova’s Volkhova who deals well if not always perfectly with the considerable challenges of the role.

Sadko however also offers a variety of dramatic roles and some colourful set-piece cameos. In the former category Marianna Tarassova stands out as Sadko’s neglected wife, as does Larissa Diadkova as another gusli-playing minstrel narrator. In the latter category Sergei Alexashkin is suitably impressive as the booming and formidable Sea King, but there are also wonderful moments from the other Novgorod merchants, from the three representatives of foreign lands (Viking, Indian and Venetian), and of course from the chorus. The Kirov Ballet provide further colour and movement that maintains a wonderful energetic flow to the work in several beautiful dance sequences.

The 1994 performance was directed for the screen by Brian Large, who captures the occasion with his usual professionalism and alertness to the rhythms of the work itself. It’s clearly not filmed in High Definition as you would expect of a more modern recording, but the widescreen image nonetheless looks good on this 2007 DVD from Philips that gets across the colour and magic of the production design as much as it is able. Audio tracks are in Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and German.

Gezeichneten Franz Schreker - Die Gezeichneten

Salzburger Festspiele, 2005 | Kent Nagano, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Robert Brubaker, Anne Schwanewilms, Michael Volle, Robert Hale, Wolfgang Schöne, Bernard Richter, Markus Petsch, Mel Ulrich, Thomas Oliemans, Guillaume Antoine, Stephen Gadd | EuroArts

There’s a gorgeous and somewhat disturbing sense of decadence about this Salzburg Festival production of Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten that nonetheless feels wholly appropriate for the work. Schreker is a neglected and now unfashionable early twentieth century German composer who saw his influence and popularity fall into decline with the arrival of the Nazis. The lush orchestration of his extravagant romanticism likewise felt out of place in a harsh new world that had been rocked by two brutal world wars in the first half of the century. His work however - tentatively finding its way back into the repertoire - retains a certain fascination precisely for this unique character of that path of post-Wagnerian German Romanticism that was forever lost in the new reality of the world.

That character - and that extraordinary musical style - is very much in evidence in Die Gezeichneten, a title that is difficult to translate, since it means ‘the drawn man’ (i.e. the object of an artist’s work), but it also implies ‘a marked man’. Written on the request of fellow “degenerate composer” Alexander Zemlinsky, the story is about the tragedy of an ugly man, a hunchback, who is unable to find love. It’s a subject that seems to close to the heart of Zemlinsky, who himself a short opera adapted from an Oscar Wilde story based on this theme (Der Zwerg - The Birthday of the Infanta), the composer having been famously rejected by Alma Mahler, who described him as “a hideous dwarf”. Zemlinsky was supposed to have scored Schreker’s libretto, but in the end it was Schreker who completed the entire work himself.

Revived for the Salzburg Festival in 2005, performed in the outdoor setting of the Felsenreitschule, it’s an extraordinary experience to hear the wonderful lush Romanticism of Schreker’s flowing orchestration with all its Tristan und Isolde-like unresolved dissonances creating a sustained tension, given full expression under the musical direction of Kent Nagano, but it’s one that also works well with Nicholas Lehnhoff’s stage direction. Set in 16th century Genoa, the work opens with a group of rich decadent nobles, dressed here in extravagant exaggerated costumes, bemoaning the possibility that they might lose access to the wonderful island paradise of Elysium that has been created by Alviano Salvago for their pleasure. Salvago is a hunchback who believes he is too ugly to set foot on the island himself and, abandoning any hope of ever being loved or accepted, he is about to give the island back to the common people, leaving the nobles without any place to practice their secret vices against the daughters of Genoa.

Lehnoff’s set captures the essence of this situation, matching the musical description with a stage that consists of one huge toppled statue, one hand clawing at the air with the head detached, and having the performers clamber over the pitted and broken surface that hints at and eventually reveals the dark concealed depths of the grotto within it. More than just accompanying the musical content however, the elaborate set also mirrors to some extent the nature of Salvago himself. Salvago starts to nurse hopeful expectations when he meets Carlotta Nardi, the daughter of the Podestà who describes herself as a painter of souls, who is intrigued by the hunchback and wants to paint him. Salvago starts to believe that she is someone who can recognise his inner beauty - revealing himself to be the same as everyone else - and Carlotta consequently loses her fascination for him the moment she finishes the painting.

Musically and lyrically, Die Gezeichneten is a fascinating and beautiful work that could only have been written at this time - in 1918 - the fin de siècle decadence of the nobles coming crashing down with the harsh realities that are revealed about the workings of the world. That’s apparent very clearly and evocatively in the musical construction, the early part of the opera awash with Strauss-like extravagance in the tones and textures - reminiscent of how Strauss would approach the later Die Liebe der Danae (1940) - but also with that Wagnerian Tristan und Isolde-like sensibility of suspending chords and leaving unresolved dissonances to float around and intermingle to create an unsettling yet compelling soundscape. Schreker’s libretto is equally lyrical and extravagant in its pronouncements and in its dramatic tensions, particularly in the eloquent descriptions of the arrogance of the nobility and in the wounded pride of Graf Vitelozzo at being rejected by Carlotta in favour of Salvago.

All the decadent poetic musing however (”Life seemed to me a source of constant joy… When I stretched out my hand, I held a rose, drew in its fragrance and pulled the petals off”), comes crashing down when an actual name - Ginevra Scotti - is attached to the vices, revealing their nature as being rather more sinister, involving child abduction and abuse. The exquisite floating dreamlike reverie of the musical arrangements similarly coalesces into something much more concrete at this point, revealing the nature of the dissonance that has been hovering at the edges of the work. Evoking Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut‘ orgy scene in Act III with the assembled guests hiding behind masks, Lehnhoff’s stage direction is completely on the same page as the score, and the statue of grand nobility that has retained some dignity and grandeur even in its toppled form up to this stage, is split open to reveal its corrupt inner nature.

The complex nature of the various characters is perhaps most powerfully described - or at least is more obviously evident - in the nature of the writing for the singing voices. Fortunately, the cast are all extraordinarily good here. Anne Schwanewilms in particular is just outstanding as Carlotta - I’ve never heard her sing better, even in some of the more challenging Strauss roles. There’s a lushness to her tone here, the vocal writing and her character giving her the opportunity to demonstrate an impressive range, rising to soaring heights in a flowing legato, particularly in Carlotta’s Act II scenes with Alviano Salvago. The writing for Salvago is also very interesting, the character written for a Heldentenor voice (or at least performed here as such), even though he is an outwardly weak and physically deformed. The contradiction between his inner and outward nature is expressed very well in this manner by Robert Brubaker. Michael Volle’s lush Straussian baritone rounds out this impressively cast production as the decadent Count Vitelozzo.

Only available on DVD, the performance does seem at least to have been shot in HD, and even in the Standard Definition format, the 16:9 widescreen image looks beautiful, with good detail, clarity and colour saturation. The audio tracks, LPCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, are also fine, capturing all the warmth and colour of the orchestration that Nagano reveals so well. There are no extra features here, and no full synopsis in the booklet, although there’s a good essay that covers the main points in outline, along with some background information on the composer and the work. The DVD is NTSC, Region-free, with subtitles in German, English, French and Spanish.

SamsonCamille Saint-Saëns - Samson et Dalila

Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe, 2010 | Jochem Hochstenbach, José Cura, Julia Gertseva, Stefan Stoll, Lukas Schmid, Ulrich Schneider, Andreas Heideker, Sebastian Haake, Alexander de Paula | Arthaus Musik

The question of whether Samson et Dalila might not be better suited to the setting of an oratorio than an opera has been a problematic issue ever since Saint-Saëns started work on it back in 1867, ten years before its first performance. With its biblical subject and choral emphasis, the original intention of the composer himself was that it should be an oratorio, but he was persuaded by the librettist Ferdinand Lemaire to turn it into an opera. The reality is that the completed work lies somewhere between opera and oratorio, omitting a great deal of the dramatic episodes that occur in the story of Samson and Delilah, while even some of the most famous and well-known scenes occur off-stage. In an attempt to make the function better as a drama, Argentinean tenor and stage director José Cura injects some contemporary references into his 2010 production of the work for Badisches Staatsoper, but while the quality of the work and its performance here are pretty much beyond reproach, the question of the work’s nature and its suitability for the stage remains unresolved as far as this production is concerned.

Designed and directed by Cura himself, it’s not a terribly imaginative production. The concessions towards modern relevance and contemporary allusion are half-hearted and heavy-handed, not really going much further than relating the enslavement of the Hebrew people and conflict in the Middle East to the corporate ambitions of oil companies in the region by setting a few oil-rigs on the stage. It’s a static set design that remains unchanged throughout Act I and Act III, the lighting permanently dark chiaroscuro, the only variation being the rather clichéd imagery of silhouetting the rigs against a burning red sunset in the first act and against the midnight blue of night in the third. It’s also uncommitted with regard to the contemporary setting, since although Samson and the Hebrews and even the soldiers wear modern or casual clothes, Delilah and her priestesses wear traditional white tunics, and Act II goes to some length, despite the sparseness of the decoration, to wrap Samson in the curtain backdrop in order to ensure that it retains the look and feel of traditional biblical imagery.

There’s little consistency to the concept and it’s so lacking any insightful observations about contemporary issues in the region that you wonder what the purpose is in (half-)updating it at all. If it’s an attempt to create a workable dramatic context for the work, it doesn’t really succeed, since the actual stage direction within these limiting sets remains fairly static, and even the ‘Danse des prêtresses de Dagon‘ consists of nothing more than a traditional processional march (although the beautiful young women seem fond of kissing and fondling each other elsewhere). Musically however, and in terms of the singing - with José Cura reprising a signature role and Julia Gertseva providing the necessary persuasive glamour as Delilah - there’s more than enough dramatic expression to make up for the lack of stagecraft and it’s here that the true qualities of the work, regardless of the uncertainties in its categorisation, are revealed. Cura, I find is a little too stentorian, sacrificing clarity of French diction for sonority in an old-fashioned way, but it’s a committed performance that, certainly in the third act, draws out and enhances the deepening sense of the visceral brutality of the drama and dark betrayal that it there to some extent in the score. The fine performance of Gertseva however, particularly in her duet with Cura, singing a powerful ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre a sa voix‘, ensures that there are no weaknesses in the other vital aspects of this magnificent work.

The actual filming of the production itself however also raises some questions. The sleeve and booklet notes on the DVD (Cura even writing the liner notes) go to pains to convince us that this performance was recorded LIVE, but it’s clearly filmed without an audience present and, since some of the lip-syncing doesn’t match, it’s possibly edited together from a couple of different performances or has even been overdubbed. Certainly in the case of José Cura, his lip-movements and performance don’t reflect the delivery at the start of the first act, and he sings most of the third act from beneath a hood, so the full dramatic performance isn’t always there in the way that it might be before a live audience. Also, curiously, some of the other singing is done off-stage to the extent that you aren’t always sure whose voice you are hearing. In the case of the old Hebrew, for example, an actor (Walter Schreyeck) plays the role but the actual singing of the role is performed off-stage by another person (Ulrich Schneider). Again however, although there are close-ups and some different angles used, there doesn’t seem to be any actual trade-off in making this filmed performance any more visually interesting. Other than a brief flashback montage at the start of Act III though, there’s nothing too clever or distracting attempted either.

These curiosities in the staging and filming are however minor considerations and don’t take away from the fact that overall this is a terrific performance of Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. The orchestra of the Badisches Staatstheater, conducted by Jochem Hochstenbach, give a strong account of the lyricism and the dark power of the work and they are assisted considerably in achieving the necessary impact by principals and by the outstanding work of the chorus. On the DVD release, there is a certain amount of reverb on the singing that takes away from the clarity a little, but the recording of the chorus and orchestration is fine, exhibiting lovely detail and tone. There’s good presence in the 5.1 surround mix, and the PCM stereo option is also excellent. The widescreen image quality is reasonably clear, considering the sharp contrasts on the darkened stage. The DVD is region-free, NTSC, dual-layer. Subtitles are English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Korean. There are no extra features, but the booklet contains notes by Cura and a full synopsis.

CavalleriaPietro Mascagni - Cavalleria Rusticana

Antiche Terme Romana, Baia 2007 | Zhang Jiemin, Maurizio Scaparro, Ildiko Komlosi, Sing Kyu Park, Cinzia De Mola, Marco di Felice, Barbara Di Castri | Arthaus Musik

You would of course usually expect to see a performance of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana paired with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in the popular Cav/Pag double bill of one-act operas, but it’s good once in a while to have the opportunity to consider these works on their own terms. Particularly, as far as I’m concerned, the musically and dramatically stronger of the two works, Cavalleria Rusticana (”Rustic Chivalry”), one of the most beautifully melodic opera works ever composed, and it’s even more interesting to consider it on its own in this particular open-air setting at the Antiche Terme Romana, the ancient Roman hot baths in Baia in 2007.

Late on what looks like a balmy summer’s evening, this authentically Italian Mediterranean location of seismic activity forms an impressive natural backdrop for the volcanic passions that erupt in the Sicilian village setting of Mascagni’s tense rural melodrama. The strengths of the work reside not just in the melodic invention of the work, but in how it is tied through its folk rhythms, religious processional music and heartfelt emotions to the simplicity of the beliefs and passions of ordinary people in a rural location. Underpinning the score, with its mounting tension masterfully rising to the surface, is the suggestion of a dark and tragic undercurrent that reflects not just the dramatic developments, but the nature of where those conflicts arise in the conflicts between human passions, where male pride and female jealousy run up against religious beliefs, tradition and family honour.

Progressing almost in real-time and played out significantly on Easter outside a church and in a square in front of the whole village community, it’s the concision of the concentrated short work that benefits the intensity of its simple, direct storyline. That aspect of the action taking place under the watchful eyes of the community, the chorus representing not just the villagers but, as the choir of the Easter procession, the religious community that the pregnant peasant girl Santuzza is excluded from, is certainly emphasised in the open-air location at Baia. It’s the rejection of her lover Turridu however that stings even more deeply, particularly as he has been seen with his Lola, the girl he once loved who is now married to Alfio. It doesn’t take much more than insinuation for this situation of jealousy and pride for this to spill over into that dark, violent and tragic conclusion that has been simmering there in Mascagni’s brooding, melancholic score.

Although it’s not an ideal place to stage the work and it does present some problems, director Maurizio Scaparro makes the most of the open-air location to bring all these elements to the fore in the production design that places the orchestra right at the very heart of the performance. There is minimal use of props and settings - everything that is required is supplied by the location and the resonances of its historical and geological background. It’s enclosed enough to emphasise that hothouse sense of community and characters wrapped up in their own intense feelings, yet open enough to suggest that it takes place in that all-important verismo aspect of the real-world and ordinary people. If the singing then is not exceptional in this production, it’s strong enough in the context and it still gets across all the emotional and dramatic requirements of the piece, hitting those key moments with the necessary forcefulness.

If the acoustics of the outdoor location don’t benefit the singers the way that a custom-built theatre might, requiring them to use discreet microphones and perhaps project a little bit more than necessary, it seems to work better for the orchestra nestled basin-like within the action. Zhang Jiemin conducts the orchestra of the Teatro di San Carlo of Naples through a powerful performance of the opera that draws out all the joy, tragedy, passion and tension out of the work. It comes across particularly well in the DTS 5.1 audio track which has a punchy low-frequency range and cymbal crashes that lend full emphasis to those key scenes. PCM stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes are also included. The 16:9 widescreen image looks fine on the dual-layer DVD9 disc and the DVD is Region 0, NTSC. Subtitles are English, German, French, Spanish and Italian. The DVD includes a 30-minute documentary that is part tour guide to the region and its history, but also gives a good account of the production through rehearsal footage and interviews, mainly with director Maurizio Scaparro.

MontezumaCarl Heinrich Graun - Montezuma

Deutsche Oper, Markgräfflichen Opernhaus, Bayreuth 1982 | Hans Hilsdorf, Herbert Wernicke, Alexandra Papadjiakou, Sophie Boulin, Gudrun Sieber, Catherine Gayer, Barbara Vogel, Walton Grönroos, Karl-Ernst Mercker | Arthaus

Released as part of the Deutsche Oper Archive series, this 1982 recording of Carl Heinrich Graun’s Montezuma may not be the most authentic representation of a rare work of Baroque opera seria or the best quality in terms of video presentation, but it’s a performance that is well worth preserving for a number of reasons. Although there are have been some revivals and discoveries of the operas of J.A. Hasse and J.C. Bach in recent years, there are very few recordings available of any of Graun’s work, despite the fact that he was an important figure in German opera composition of the period, working as Kapellmeister to King Friedrich II of Prussia, Frederick the Great. It’s his relationship with the latter which is the most notable aspect of this particular work, Montezuma (1755) - aside from the fine musical qualities of the work itself - with the King himself even providing the libretto for the opera, and it’s this aspect that is considered in the actual production, recorded in the suitably regal venue of the Markgräfflichen Opernhaus at Bayreuth.

It’s not difficult to see what would have attracted Frederick the Great to the subject of Montezuma, as not only is the subject that considers the duty of a great ruler towards his people a popular subject for opera seria - they were written for royal courts - particularly compositions written or following the Metastasian model, but it’s one that evidently has political relevance here for the librettist himself. Montezuma accordingly is characterised as a benevolent ruler, who sees his duty to resolve human misery, not to rule over his subjects by force. Mexico under the Aztec ruler therefore is a kind of a Golden Age, the people happy and contented, secure in their love for their ruler and the peace his great reign promises against the threat of weaker neighbours. Convention would insist on a romantic aspect to the opera, and here, happiness eludes Montezuma until he finds someone worthy to share his throne with him. That person is Eupaforice, the Queen of Tlascála, who will also ally him with another empire and strengthen his position and the security of his people.

It’s a fairly conventional opera seria then in this respect. Montezuma sings of length of his devotion to his people and his duty, and of striving for personal happiness. The plot ties both aspects together rather well with the arrival of the Spanish, Montezuma’s general Plipatoè warning him that Cortes poses a serious threat, while Eupaforice intimates that she has premonitions of doom. In his goodness and with faith in human nature, Montezuma however invites Cortes and Narvès to his wedding, only to be betrayed. If the relevance to Friedrich II’s time isn’t obvious - the Seven Years’ War would commence a year later in 1756, plunging Prussia into conflict with Austria and then Sweden the year after that - the relevance of the work when viewed in the light of historical events is made apparent in the staging of this production by Herbert Wernicke. Clearly not set in any exotic location, but rather in a more European palatial setting and gardens, the Aztecs moreover wear the period costume of the courts of the 18th century with powdered wigs, ball gowns and military greatcoats. The production would also seem to end with a reading of Frederick the Great’s actual declaration of war, as if the preceding opera has just been a warning that kindness and wisdom in a ruler is admirable, but sometimes he needs to be wise enough to chose when to fight for those freedoms.

If there are some minor liberties taken with the setting to put the work into context (and considering the writer of the libretto, it’s certainly a valid approach), the approach taken with the actual performance would be less justifiable today than they were perhaps when this production was recorded back in 1982. The first clue is that the work only runs to 2 hours and 20 minutes in length, when you could expect an opera seria of this period to be between three to four hours long. Considerable cuts have been applied therefore, and - considering that most of the expository recitative would appear to have been left intact to carry the plot, much of those cuts would have been applied to the long repetitions of the aria da capo with some perhaps excised altogether. That’s understandable for a performance of a very rare Baroque opera, when the performance of any Baroque opera at all - even Handel - would have been very rare indeed. To make it a little easier on the audience, Montezuma is also sung here in German, rather than the original Italian (it was probably written in French by Friedrich II before being translated to the common Italian for opera seria). Although inauthentic, this however works in favour of the production’s parallel to the historical Prussian Empire.

Thirty years ago, part of the reason why Baroque opera was so rarely performed was that there simply weren’t musicians trained to play the period instruments. Accordingly, other than the use of the harpsichord, the music has been arranged to fit modern orchestra instruments, but the whole pace and rhythm of the performance nonetheless feels absolutely right. Back in 1982, there weren’t any countertenors who could specialise in taking on the castrato roles of the work, so they are taken up here by female sopranos and mezzo-sopranos, which actually has the impact of making all the Aztecs in this production of Montezuma female and the Spanish male. If the work is mostly fairly conventional and not terribly dramatic, with stately marching rhythms and expressions of noble sentiments, there are nonetheless some lovely arias and one particularly fine duet between Montezuma and Eupaforice in Act III (’Ach, nur für Dich’ in German). The singing is also exceptionally good, particularly mezzo-soprano Alexandra Papadjiakou as Montezuma, and the performance of the Deutsche orchestra is also strong, performed with an elegant brio.

Released on DVD only, the video quality isn’t up to the standards you would expect today, but certainly acceptable and even very good despite the limitations of the source material. Clearly shot on video 4:3 for television broadcast, there’s a certain amount of noise and shimmer in the background, a level of graininess, and chroma noise, but it has nonetheless clearly been fully restored, the colours well-defined, strongly contrasted and a surprising level of sharpness and detail evident. The transfer is also very stable, with no flicker or wobble. The audio track is PCM stereo only and it’s also fine, with decent clarity to the orchestration and singing, holding relatively firm on the sustained higher notes. There are no extra features, but there is an informative essay and a synopsis included in the DVD’s booklet. The dual layer DVD is region free, NTSC, with subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish and Italian.

KoukourgiLuigi Cherubini - Koukourgi

Stadttheater Klagenfurt, 2010 | Peter Marschik, Josef E. Köpplinger, Daniel Prohaska, Çiğdem Soyarslan, Johannes Chum, Daniel Belcher, Peter Edlemann, Leonardo Galeazzi, Stefan Cerny, Alexander Puhrer, Kap-Sung Ahn | Arthaus

Luigi Cherubini is one of the great neglected composers of the Classical age, known now, if at all, for his formal but dramatically near-operatic compositions of Requiems and Coronation Masses as Court Composer during the times of Revolutionary France, but his twenty-five actual operas are mostly unheard of and only a few of them are on rare occasions performed. There is a perception that Cherubini’s music is a little bit academic and conventional, with an impeccable sense of melody, counterpoint and situation every bit as delightful as Haydn, but without the spark of genius or originality of Mozart. There’s some degree of truth in that perception, but at the same time Cherubini is certainly worthy of being considered alongside these two more famous near-contemporary composers, and one need only look to the only one of his operas that is regularly performed, Medea, to see Cherubini’s qualities as an opera composer of genuine merit.

Whether his other works match up to Medea - which is only well-known now because of Maria Callas and for the dramatic opportunities in the singing range that it offers a leading soprano - is rather more difficult to judge due to the rarity of ever seeing one of his operas actually performed. An opéra-comique, Koukourgi is probably not the most representative of Cherubini’s dramatic and classical-based works, but it is certainly one of the rarest. Composed around 1792, Koukourgi - for reasons unknown - was left unfinished and, up until its premiere here at the Stadttheater Klagenfurt in 2010, had never been previously staged. The spoken dialogues are lost, but are not difficult to determine from the progression of the plot and have been rendered in German here for the Klagenfurt audience, although almost certainly not in the form they take here. The overture is taken from Cherubini’s Ifigenia in Aulide (1788) and the finale ‘Viva Amore‘ was an insert composed by Cherubini for a French production of a Paisiello opera.

As for the opera itself, it does tend to confirm the idea of Cherubini’s work being written to suit the conventions of the opéra-comique. It’s a little bit dry and academic in places, with familiar character types and situations, the obligatory thunderstorm and a spectacular march of soldiers, but with no great narrative drive that inspires any impressive musical or singing feats. In its own way however, Koukourgi is a lovely little example of its type, as light and entertaining as a Haydn opera, but with a modest French buffo character that avoids the excesses of the more florid Italian singing. That character is maintained in the Klagenfurt production, delicately played by the Kärtner Sinfonieorchester as conducted by Peter Marschik, which sets the tone by having Koukourgi play the part of narrator. It is unlikely that the character would have performed this role in the original spoken dialogue for the work, but it works effectively in the context here, making asides and confidences to the audience about the opera itself as well as about his own indolent nature, inviting them to laugh along with him at the rather more serious attitude adopted by the other characters in what doesn’t really amount to a great deal.

Although it is set in China, where the ruler Fohi comes under assault from the invading masses of the Tartars, Koukourgi could be seen as a reflection of the character and spirit of the times in revolutionary France. Set against this backdrop of the struggles of the royals to regain control, there is a romance that could also be seen as a reflection of the differences in class and attitudes. The great warrior Amazan is an orphan who has grown up in the castle and is in love with Zulma, but the ruler Fohi doesn’t consider him an acceptable match for his daughter, preferring Koukourgi, the son of his General Zamti. As the Tartar’s invade, are repulsed and invade again, it’s the Amazan who bravely launches himself into the fray, while the commander of the troops, Koukourgi, refuses to get involved, preferring to eat well, drink and attempt to seduce the repulsed Zulma, giving Amazan only his weakest troops in the hope that he might end up getting killed. Against the odds however, Amazan succeeds and wins the love of Zulma, courage is rewarded, indolence leads to nothing, and love conquers all.

The tone of the production and stage setting is also well fitted to the drama, not striving for any realism or strictly period setting, but being a thoroughly theatrical construct. All the chorus and extras wear grotesque masks, leaving the focus on the main characters with their face-painted Asian designs, but masks also play a part in the backgrounds. The back and forth nature of the off-stage attacks leads to a good running joke has one of the principal troops arrive on the stage at regular intervals with an arrow in his back announcing that the Tartars are invading again, before expiring with a trumpet call. It’s funnier than anything else that is in the actual libretto, but, as is often the case with this type of work, a lot depends on the charm and the delivery of the performers. Daniel Prohaska has a great deal of fun as the irreverent Koukourgi, but finds suitable companions for his cowardly nature in Daniel Belcher’s Sécuro and Peter Edlemann’s Phaor. Çiğdem Soyarslan’s Zulma and Johannes Chum’s Amazan meanwhile play the romantic drama wonderfully straight, Amazan ready to fly off to brave all the Tartar attacks without a moment’s cause for reflection.

Koukourgi is by no means a major discovery, but it’s entertaining in its own right, delightfully staged and performed, and with the scarcity of Cherubini operas available in any form, this is a true rarity that does indeed throw new light on the variety and quality of the composer’s work. It’s only available on DVD - no Blu-ray release - but the specifications are excellent, with a clean, sharp widescreen transfer and good audio mixes in PCM Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1. The disc is Region-free, NTSC format, with subtitles in French, English, German, Spanish, Italian and Korean.

QuichotteJules Massenet - Don Quichotte

La Monnaie/De Munt, Brussels 2010 | Marc Minkowski, Laurent Pelly, Silvia Tro Santafé, José van Dam, Werner Van Mechelen, Julie Mossay, Camille Merckx, Vincent Delhoume, Gijs Van der Linden, Bernard Villier | Naive

With piles of papers and documents piled up on the stage, Laurent Pelly’s production design for this 2010 performance of Massenet’s Don Quichotte at La Monnaie-De Munt in Brussels looks like something from an art installation, but it serves the opera well and in the process provides a suitable platform for José van Dam’s final bow from the opera stage. Taking a dream-like overview of the subject, Act I shows what looks like a the Don’s drawing room, where the aging knight is resting sitting in an armchair, a man past his prime, dreaming of better times, of his love for the beautiful Dulcinea that once inspired him to write verses of praise in her name - all of which are piled up in a small mountain below her balcony - and the idealism that drove him to what he believes to be chivalrous and intrepid acts of valour.

The dream world of the knight’s idealism in the subsequent four acts is similarly filled with sierras and landscapes made of hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper, reflecting the recreation of Don Quichotte’s exploits on paper and the lack of substantiality that these dreams are based on, the valiant knight forgetting that he is now just a foolish old man whose youth has faded. After a 50 year career, José van Dam’s voice may also lost some of its youthful vigour and strength, but the passion and sincerity is still there, and in that respect it’s a perfect fit for the role of Don Quixote that makes his performance of the role all the more poignant.

I’ve never really been able to find a distinctive stamp to Massenet’s varied opera styles, finding little that has made an impression beyond his most famous creations of Werther, Manon and Thaïs, but I’m always interested to find what can be brought out of the other works, particularly when they are fully staged. Don Quichotte seems like a rather slight work in this respect, but the composer nonetheless seems to find the right tone throughout for this ‘comédie-héroique en cinq actes’. A five-act opera, it is however surprisingly sprightly, each of the short brief scenes - the entire work coming in at under two hours - finding the right balance of adventure and nobility, foolishness and dignity, with little Spanish-inflected arrangements but also a certain French character. I don’t know if it gets to the essence of Cervantes (Massenet worked on a French adaptation “Le Chevalier de la Longue Figure” by Jacques Le Lorrain), but it seems to strike the right tone throughout that fits the character of the work.

Laurent Pelly’s production likewise seems an exceptionally good fit. The astonishing set designed by Barbara de Limburg is mostly static, but there are subtle changes over the course of the opera that reflect the deterioration of Don Quichotte’s mind, and a few neat touches - the battle with the windmills is well achieved - that bring the work to life at the right moments. The casting is also perfectly appropriate for this modest little work that is nonetheless not short on charm or beauty. Van Dam is Don Quixote incarnate, carrying himself as the “errant knight who rights wrongs” with exactly the right kind of proud nobility amid the confusion of old-age. He might not hold the low notes with the same rock-solid sureness, but it’s a lovely and thoughtful performance, sung very well indeed. Silvia Tro Santafé is a lovely Dulcinea, with a light, rich, sparkling tone to her French, even if the vibrato applied makes her at times sound like an old-time French cabaret singer, evoking Edith Piaf in places. Werner van Mechelen provides solid support as Sancho. Combined they form the kind of strong varied and sensitive trio of principals that the work needs, but the quartet roles and the chorus are also wonderful here.

Released on DVD only, the presentation of the performance is fine, if the image quality and sharpness is not quite as impressive as it might have been in HD. The audio likewise is disappointingly lower-spec, Dolby Digital 2.0 only, but the sound is clear and the tone is warm. The orchestration, conducted beautifully by Marc Minkowski, sounds wonderful, and the singing is mostly strong and clear in the mix. There are a few slight dips in the sound, usually only audible around the audience applause, but occasionally on the stage also, as if the microphones levels are being adjusted, but it’s a relative minor issue. The DVD includes an excellent hour-long feature that goes behind the scenes on the production in some detail.

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.

DestinoGiuseppe Verdi - La Forza del Destino

Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg 1998 | Valery Gergiev, Elijah Moshinsky, Grigory Kaasev, Galina Gorchakova, Nikolai Putilin, Gegam Grigorian, Marianna Tarasova, Sergei Alexashkin, Georgy Zashavny, Lia Shevtsova, Yevegeny Nikitin, Nikolai Gassiev, Yun Laptev | Arthaus Musik

The principal attraction of this recording of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino is that it’s a performance of the rarely heard original St Petersburg version, written by the composer for the Imperial Opera in 1862. It was subsequently revised in 1867 for Milan and it’s the later version that has become the more commonly performed or at least better known principally for the famous extended overture that Verdi added. In reality, although there is clearly an attempt by the composer to bring a better musical and dramatic integrity to the piece, the differences between the two versions aren’t all that significant, but in addition to having a rare opportunity to compare them, there is the pleasure alone of seeing a fine performance of the earlier version actually being performed in St Petersburg in 1998 at the Mariinsky Theatre under Valery Gergiev.

If there’s still a lack of coherence to the drama in both versions, and a failure to conform to the expected romantic models (up until the tragic denouement of the opera Don Alvaro and Leonora only meet briefly in the short Act 1 and not in circumstances best suited to a romantic duet) - which may be considered a point in its favour - Verdi’s musical motifs bring a sense of that force of destiny that directs the course of three lives and draws them together. After Alvaro’s accidental killing of her father, the Marchese di Calatrava, as they prepare to go against his wishes and elope, Leonora (like many of Verdi’s opera heroines by no means a straightforward virtuous character) casts herself into the hands of fate and becomes a hermit. Alvaro, fleeing from the disaster, bemoans his fate not to be a noble of ancient Inca blood, but a man forced to run from the horror of the death he has unwittingly caused, and the love of Leonora that he has lost. Leonora’s brother Don Carlo di Vargas meanwhile is forced to strive to find his father’s killer and restore the honour of the Calatrava name.

Destino

Although it remains imperfect in both versions, Verdi’s later attempts to add characterisation and musical refinement still not being enough to compensate for a dramatic structure that remains disjointed with some implausible twists of fate, there’s some interest certainly in seeing the original version played out with a little more of that punchy earlier Verdi style. Not being quite so concerned with a dramatic flow, but being made up more evidently of a variety of little scenes and choral set-pieces, the St Petersburg version of La Forza del Destino follows the Italian aria-cabaletta opera model a little more closely. These are reduced in the later version, with some arias cut through the restructuring of the drama - notably Don Alvaro’s ‘Quel sangue sparsi’, delivered at the end of Act III when Carlo is believed dead in a duel that is not interrupted by troops as in the later version - and through attempts by Verdi to bring a sense of reconciliation, or perhaps accommodation with one’s fate in a manner that is slightly less harsh than the original, Alvaro throwing himself from a cliff at the conclusion here.

Despite the revisions made to the Italian version, the essential dramatic arc and the fate of the characters however remain largely unchanged. The coincidences that tie these figures are still not entirely convincing, but they are made compelling - in both versions - by the strength in Verdi’s musical writing that aligns character so beautifully not just to Wagnerian leitmotifs, but to melodies that are expressive of their condition. It might have a mid-eighteenth century setting, but it’s clear that Verdi doesn’t have to look too far beyond his own time to relate in some meaningful way with these figures who in better times might have been friends and lovers, but whose lives have been torn apart by greater forces beyond their control - the tides of war, fate and the demands of honour.

Destino

Directed for the stage by Elijah Moshinsky, this 1998 recording at the Mariinsky Theatre is a very traditional period staging, but the theatricality of the painted backdrops that set the scene for the Seville locations, army camps and monasteries suits the punchier, melodramatic style of the earlier version of the work, the dark lighting of the stage working also with the dark tones in Verdi’s score. That’s brought out wonderfully by Valery Gergiev in this production, finding nonetheless a romantic sweep and sensitivity within the score that works hand-in-hand with the heavier dramatic colouring. I’m not familiar with any of the Russian singers here but they are well cast and handle the Italian phrasing well. Galina Gorchakova is a fine Leonora, carrying the nature and interior conflict of her character well, her singing strong and consistent. Gegam Grigorian is a lovely lyrical Don Alvaro, but doesn’t always seem to be dramatically involved. His ‘Della natal sua terra’ aria at the start of Act III is beautifully sung, but he’s not as strong in ‘Quel sangue sparsi’ by the end of the act. Nikolai Putilin is a solid, earnest Don Carlo, but I didn’t find Marianna Tarasova made such a strong impact as Preziosilla.

Directed for the screen by Brian Large, the production comes across well giving a good impression of the whole stage while capturing all the little details in the drama without any excessive editing trickery or close-ups, although there is one awkward edit at the end of Act III. A 1998 recording, it is not filmed in High Definition, so there’s no Blu-ray release, but the quality of the 16:9 widescreen image for DVD is excellent nonetheless, as is the quality of the PCM 2.0 stereo audio track. Other than notes on the opera and the production in the enclosed booklet, there are no extra features on the disc itself, the 2 hours 45 minutes of the opera on a dual-layer disc in NTSC format. The disc is compatible for all regions. Subtitles are in English, German, French, Dutch and Spanish only - there is no Italian for anyone wanting to read the original libretto.

InimicoBaldassare Galuppi - L’inimico delle donne

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège 2011 | Rinaldo Alessandrini, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Filippo Adami, Federica Carnevale, Liesbeth Devos, Juri Gorodezki, Priscille Laplace, Anna Maria Panzarella, Alberto Rinaldi, Daniele Zanfardino | Dynamic

Born on the island of Burano in the Venetian Republic, Baldassare Galuppi (1706 – 1785) is another case of a composer who was highly popular and successful in his own lifetime, but whose work soon fell into obscurity after his death. After a spell in London at the Kings Theatre, Galuppi, nonetheless served two terms as maestro di capella at St Marks in Venice, spent several years in Russia in-between as court composer for Catherine the Great, and left behind over a hundred operas, few of which have ever been revived. L’inimico delle donne is therefore a welcome opportunity to hear performed one of the later works for which Galuppi was celebrated in his day, the opera buffa.

Galuppi’s early work was in the fashionable opera seria style of the day, like everyone else working to librettos by Metastasio, but it was in the dramma giocoso, working in collaboration with the playwright Carlo Goldoni that Galuppi found a form more in tune with his style of composition that not only achieved great success and popularity, but left behind a certain amount of influence that can be seen in the works of Haydn (Lo Speziale, with a libretto also by Goldoni, and Il mondo della luna, for example) and Mozart, particularly on the style of Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail. It’s the latter than comes to mind often in L’inimico delle donne’s exploits of a lady who has arrived on an exotic foreign land and becomes embroiled in the romantic and political affairs of its ruler, but influential musical touches – particularly the ensemble finales, a characteristic that Galuppi would become known for – are also delightfully evident here.

It’s not Goldoni, but Giovanni Bertati (known also as the librettist for Cimarosa’s The Secret Wedding) who adapted the Zon-zon, principe di Kibin-kanka for Galuppi’s 1771 opera, and indeed, much of the buffa conventions are all in place here in L’inimico delle donne (“The Enemy of Women”). Agensina has been shipwrecked on the oriental land of Kibin-kan-ka with her father, escaping from rich noble suitors that pursue her, since she has a profound dislike for men. Zon-zon, the prince of Kibin-kan-ka, is obliged by the law of the land to get married, but similarly he doesn’t like women, finds their scent revolting and considers them about as attractive as toads. Inevitably, after squaring up to each other when they are introduced, Zon-zon begins to find Agnesina not quite as disgusting as the suitable women lined-up for him by his retainers, while Agnesina for her part finds herself strangely flattered by the attentions of this foreign prince.

Inimico

I say inevitably, but clearly there’s nothing inevitable about it except in terms of convention. There’s no real reason why Zon-zon would find Agnesina any more attractive than the other women presented to him, and there’s no reason why Agnesina would put aside her lifelong distaste for men either, but it’s just accepted that this is the natural course of events. As characters, they are far from fully-formed or convincing, and the situations – for all the comic potential they hold – are likewise scarcely developed and simply just resolve themselves. The most amusing moments occur when Agnesina’s father, Geminiano, is called upon to pretend to be the Idol Kakakinkara Kinkanaka in order to announce the marriage of Zon-zon and Agnesina as being the will of the gods – a deus ex machina which helps out Zon-zon as well as helping to make the plot work – and there is some entertaining rivalry when Xunchia is called upon to instruct the innocent foreign girl in the arts of love (she could do with some fashion tips too), but little of this is really exploited or even carried through to a satisfactory conclusion.

Surprisingly, the potential isn’t really exploited in musical terms either. The opera is spritely paced, with lively Baroque dance rhythms, but it’s all fairly conventional and not greatly aligned to emotional expression other than through slight variations of tempo. There’s very little recitative and even arias are brief and restrained, with no high-flown sentiments or great displays of vocal dexterity, but this treatment seems well-suited to the light-hearted subject. It’s also possible that Baroque music specialist Rinaldo Alessandrini has cut back on some of the excesses in his arrangement of the work to make this a bit more accessible in a modern context. Even so, the opera remains musically interesting, particularly in how horns and woodwind are employed in the score.

L’inimico delle donne is a modest affair then that in itself is not particularly funny, but there’s a lot of fun that can be drawn from it with the right kind of staging, and every effort is certainly put into it in this rare 2011 production by the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège. The stage direction by Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera respects the period, the tone and the buffa conventions with its colourful Mikado-like Oriental setting, though it introduces a few twists of its own in the form of shadow projections in the background. These work well for the shipwreck sequence at the start, but rather strangely set the futile Turandot-like (song instead of riddle) attempts of the Court ladies to win the hand of Prince Zon-zon to back-projected sporting events. Overall however, the tone is perfect, the costumes appropriately outlandish and exaggerated, with some fun and imaginative props.

The music and the staging are well judged then, but what helps carry it all off are the performances. The singing is terrific from Anna Maria Panzarella (who will be familiar from various Rameau productions) as Agnesina and from Filippo Adami and Zon-zon, who both enter into the spirit of it in their acting performances without over-egging it. It’s Agnesina’s father Geminiano however who has some of the best lines and comic moments in the opera, and he’s wonderfully played by Alberto Rinaldi. There are no weak elements either in the Court ladies or retainers to the prince, with Liesbeth Devos standing out as the feisty Xunchia.

Released by Dynamic on DVD only, the quality of the image is generally good but not all that impressive. It doesn’t look like the production was shot in HD, but presented in Standard Definition NTSC it’s still quite good. Contrast is high, and there is some slight shimmering breaking up lines, but the colourful staging looks good and the camera work captures the occasion well. Audio tracks are LPCM stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 and there’s a lovely tone to the orchestration and clarity in the singing. There is a little bit of ambient noise and stage clatter and one or two pops on the recording, but nothing that detracts from the overall quality. Subtitles are in Italian, English, French, German and Spanish.

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