Euroarts


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.

LucreziaGaetano Donizetti - Lucrezia Borgia

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2009 | Bertrand de Billy, Christof Loy, Edita Gruberova, Pavol Breslik, Franco Vassallo, Alice Coote, Bruno Ribeiro, Christian Rieger, Christopher Magiera, Erik Årman, Steven Humes, Emanuele D’Aguanno, Christian van Horn, Elisabeth Haag | EuroArts

I can easily understand why many might not like Christof Loy’s opera stage productions. If I didn’t know better myself, I’d swear that he’s having a laugh with this 2009 production of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia for the Bavarian State Opera. When I say I know better however, that’s taking a superior stance, but rather speaking from experience that no matter how minimally staged, no matter how ludicrous the proposition or inappropriate the costume design, and as far removed as they seem to be from the original stage directions, each of his recent productions that I have seen (Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Les Vêpres Siciliennes, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Theodora) have, without exception, been as powerful a performance of the work in question as any I’ve ever seen. That’s why, despite initial reservations that he surely can’t be serious with this bizarre staging of Lucrezia Borgia, it only takes a few moments of actually listening to the performances to see that, whatever he’s doing, the full power and beauty of the work is all there and coming across.

This Lucrezia Borgia, I have to say, doesn’t look like any bel canto opera production you’ve seen before, but it does look a lot like a typical Christof Loy production - bare minimally decorated stage, everyone wearing dinner jackets, a couple of chairs scattered around. That’s 15th century Venice of the Prologue. The only real distinguishing feature is the distinguished figure of Edita Gruberova as Lucrezia Borgia, wearing a period costume in bold red while everyone else is dressed in black and white and the stage is grey, and the words LUCREZIA BORGIA spelt out in big block letters along the back wall. That’s something at least, meaning that it will allow one letter to be dropped at a significant point in the First Act, even if that’s about as much as a concession as you’ll find here to the stage directions in the libretto. Oh, and Orsini and his men look like public schoolboys, with floppy hair and their trousers rolled-up to just below the knees. What on earth is that all about?

Despite confusion over just what exactly Christof Loy’s intentions could possibly be, and the nagging feeling that he really is displaying nothing but contempt for the work, your ears should tell a different story and you might even begrudgingly admit that somehow - without really being able to put your finger on the reason why - the production does actually work. Lucrezia Borgia is not an easy opera to make work on the stage. The plot line, derived from a work by Victor Hugo and awkwardly adapted for Donizetti by Francesco Maria Piave, is rather ridiculous, weighed down by exposition and unlikely coincidences. If we’re to accept the conflict within Lucrezia over her maternal feelings for Gennaro and her monstrous activities as part of the murderous Borgia family, you have to find some humanity in there, and that’s not easily found within the libretto. Although Donizetti’s scoring can seem a little bit bel canto by numbers, and even with Bertrand de Billy conducting it does tend to plod along in places, there are nonetheless some marvellous opportunities for a singer to bring out that underlying humanity, but really you need a singer like Joan Sutherland to be capable of expressing it. Or Edita Gruberova.

Commanding terrific presence from the moment she appears in her red period dress while all around her speak of youth and modernism, Gruberova - with respect - looks like a relic from the past. And this is perhaps where Christof Loy’s production - created specifically for the Bayerische Staatsoper following Loy and Gruberova’s previous collaboration on Roberto Devereux - comes into its own. Lucrezia Borgia is indeed a relic of the past, the latest in a long line of a dynasty of terror whose crimes have not been forgotten by Orsini and his men, who are at long last speaking out against the tyranny of the Borgias. The challenges of playing the role of Lucrezia Borgia then are not so much in the singing - which, to say the least, is challenge enough - but in making Lucrezia work as a real character. On paper it doesn’t work, the libretto filled with flaws and inconsistencies that are nearly impossible to reconcile within the personality of one person. Is Lucrezia Borgia a monster? Undoubtedly. The libretto and the testimony of Orsini and his colleagues and her revenge upon them make that quite evident even within the opera itself, never mind the historical record. Even her reaction to the insult to the family name that is perpetrated by Gennaro shows that the same heartless monster still resides within, regardless of the sensitivity she has shown earlier. Is she really capable of loving motherly sentiments and compassion or are they just an expression of self-interest in her own family name, of a mother for her son? Making you like the character or sympathise with her is not the issue however, making her come to life is the real challenge, and Edita Gruberova can do that. Not many others can.

Donizetti’s style and the rather static nature of the bel canto repertoire, which involves more standing around and singing than action or drama, is also a relic of the past and, perhaps recognising that, Christof Loy plays up to it. No amount of props and costumes and period detail is going to make Lucrezia Borgia any more convincing as a drama, but creating an environment that gives the necessary space to the actual real strengths of the work - the arias and the coloratura given expression by singers of sufficient stature and quality - and actually highlighting them against the rather drab background, seems to me to be working with the nature, qualities and weaknesses of the opera itself. Yes, some of the directorial choices can seem wilfully bizarre, but the basic simplicity of having the words LUCREZIA BORGIA in capital letters on the backdrop throughout reminds you that this is history and character writ large, played large by Donizetti, and performed the only way it can be performed. It takes singers of sufficient strength of personality and the necessary ability to rise to the heights required to make this grotesque and absurd relic of another age meaningful, comprehensible and even beautiful.

The decision then, following their previous collaboration on the stunning Munich production of Roberto Devereux, to build this new production of Lucrezia Borgia around Gruberova, proves to be a great success, and is perhaps the only way it would work. It might as well say EDITA GRUBEROVA on the backdrop. She is simply mesmerising to watch and to listen to, rising to the challenges that the nature of her character represents and meeting the demanding nature of the arias. In fact, she shows that they are one and the same, that the complex nature of the character can only be expressed though the phrasing and the delivery, with full command and awareness of how one’s own tone of voice can be used towards meeting that objective. Experience, if you like, but it’s more than that. For Lucrezia Borgia to succeed it needs more than just a good technique and experience, it needs a voice of real substance and personality, and Edita Gruberova certainly has that. It helps considerably though if you have a strong Gennaro and Pavol Breslik is one of the finest young tenors around. I don’t think there is sufficient attention paid to making his character “work” within the dramatic context of the opera and to a large extent the other roles - Alice Coote’s Orsini and Franco Vassallo’s Don Alfonso - are similarly sung well, but weakly characterised (there are limits admittedly to what a stage director or performer can do with this libretto), but - as is made clear here - the opera is all about LUCREZIA BORGIA, and this is one production that is worthy of being capitalised.

There is a slight downside to the production choices however in that it doesn’t always come across as effectively as it might on the screen, or indeed in the audio mixing. The use of metal plates for a raised platform causes a fair amount of clatter and rattling, while the boxed empty stage leads to an echoing tone that affects the acoustics of the singing and, it seems, the orchestration. The quality of the singing is evident - and Edita Gruberova doesn’t have too much trouble being heard - but the tone is metallic and far from the warm sound you would expect for a bel canto opera. Within the limitations of the mostly bare stage, Brian Large directs as well as he can for the small screen, taking in the impact of the whole stage with edits that are attuned to the rhythms of the music, but it still never really manages to bring the staging to life. The image quality is strong in the High Definition presentation, the audio tracks - PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0 - are however rather limited in dynamic range by the acoustics. The Blu-ray also includes a fascinating hour-long documentary ‘The Art of Bel Canto - Edita Gruberova’, charting the career of the Czech-Slovak soprano and her approach to opera. The BD is region-free and subtitles for the main feature are English, German, French, Italian and Spanish.

IdomeneoWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Idomeneo

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2008 | Kent Nagano, Dieter Dorn, John Mark Ainsley, Pavol Breslik, Annette Dasch, Rainer Trost, juliane Banse, Guy de Mey, Steven Humes | Euroarts

Mozart had already written twelve operas by the time he was commissioned to write Idomeneo for Munich in 1780 (his earliest opera written when he was just eleven years old), and although many of those earlier works show moments of the talent and genius that would flourish in later years and are often astonishingly accomplished considering the age of the composer, they are mostly conventional in nature. It’s generally accepted that Mozart’s mature opera works commence with Idomeneo, written when he was 25 years old, but even then the implication is often that this earliest mature work, written to the dictates of the opera seria style that was even then considered outdated, is among the composer’s lesser works. Certainly, it can’t compare to Mozart at his most brilliant in The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute, but in its own way - perhaps seen more as the peak of the youthful Mozart rather than the beginning of his maturity - Idomeneo is remarkably innovative in its treatment of the opera seria style and in the distinctive graceful character that the young Mozart brings to the work.

The subject however, particularly as it is laid-out in the libretto by Abbé Varesco, is resolutely in keeping with the demands of the opera seria style. The theme is classical and mythological Greek in origin (although form a French source), relating to the fall of Troy it deals with ancient rulers who have to make difficult and wise decisions that the fate of their people and the happiness of young lovers depend on, and in line with convention, it’s refashioned at the conclusion to bring about a happy ending. At the centre of the drama is Ilia, the daughter of King Priam, who has been carried off as a prisoner of King Idomeneo to Crete. Ilia has been rescued by Idamante, the son of Idomeneo, from a storm that destroyed the fleet (there are plenty of those in this opera) and which is believed to have claimed the life of King Idomeneo. Ilia is in love with Idamante, but as he has been promised to Electra, the daughter of Agamemnon, she is unsure of his feelings towards her, and is therefore unaware that he also loves her.

The crisis at the heart of the drama is not so much the love triangle - although this does provide the opportunity for some fine arias of anguish for the scorned Electra - as much as Idomeneo’s fateful vow (one reminiscent of the biblical story Jephtha, the subject of a Handel oratorio) to sacrifice the first living creature he sees in gratitude for escaping a watery death in the clutches of Neptune. Inevitably, the first person he encounters is how own son, Idamante. Hoping to find a way to avoid this terrible fate, Idomeneo plans to send his son away with Electra to her homeland in Argos, which - apart from upsetting Ilia obviously - also leads to another huge storm and an attack by a sea monster. After self-sacrificing gestures from Ilia and Idamante, accommodation and the requisite happy end is reached when Neptune declares that Idomeneo must abdicate in favour of his son who will rule with Ilia by his side.

What is fascinating about Mozart’s approach to this conventional classical drama, written to cater for generic arias of anguish and despair at the whims of the gods and sentiments of love betrayed or lovers kept apart, is the unifying force of the music that makes it develop and work as a dramatic whole. There’s very little recitativo secco, more often the recitative is accompanied, flowing into ariosos and arias without the expected breaks and exits. The arias and recitatives moreover develop - very unusually for Italian opera seria - into duets, trios, into a magnificent quartet and into choruses. The continuous dramatic progression, the variations of the scenes, with ballet interludes, divertimenti, marches and choral arrangements show that Mozart was taking into account the reformist ideas of Gluck, but they show more the influence of the French style, particularly in the use of ‘le merveilleux‘ elements of spectacle - storms, sea monsters, messages from the gods. More than just introducing them for the purposes of stagecraft, Mozart uses the musical arrangements and the chorus to conjure up such imagery and apply them to the expression of each of the characters’ torments.

The Bayerische Staatsoper production, recorded in 2008 at the recently restored Cuvilliés-Theater (formerly the Residenztheater) where Idomeneo was actually first premiered in 1781, takes this idea a little bit to extremes. For the most part Jürgen Rose’s basic set designs strip the work of anything that could appear as clever stagecraft into order to, presumably, let the music alone express the dramatic content. This works to some extent, drawing the attention to the qualities of Mozart’s wonderful score and his innovative approach, but it makes for a very dull stage set in this beautiful theatre. It’s difficult to find any meaning, concept or consistency to Dieter Dorn’s stage direction, which during the Overture seems to characterise the Trojan warriors as samurai and has ninja dragging Idomeneo down beneath the waves (actually down through an open hatch in the stage), but it remains largely faithful to the action detailed in the libretto, using more traditional, if somewhat sparse, sets designs and classical costumes, with good use made of a revolving platform in the third act. Apart from one or two key scenes where the mood calls for it, the majority of the production however looks like it is set in a rehearsal studio, under bright studio lighting.

If the production isn’t much to look at, the performances give a good account of the work itself, revealing its true qualities. Best of all are the casting of John Mark Ainsley and Pavol Breslik for the father and son team of Idomeneo and Idamante. Both look the part, are completely committed to the roles and the dilemmas facing their characters and both are blessed with gorgeous light lyrical voices that nonetheless can express power and depth of emotional feeling where required. And in Mozart’s Idomeneo, it’s those little details in the singing that are all important. Annette Dasch is also powerful as Electra. In some ways it’s a thankless role - one that relies on going through the motions of the angry spurned woman - but Dasch brings an edge of dangerous passion to the role, particularly in her Act III aria (”D’Oreste, d’Aiace ho in seno i tormenti“) while assailed by ninjas (who indeed are actually Furies). I wasn’t initially so keen on Juliane Banse’s interpretation of Ilia, but she carries hesitant anguish of the role well, and can hardly be faulted for her singing performance. The ubiquitous Guy de Mey again delivers the goods as the High Priest, and the production is also fortunate to have a strong Arbace in Rainer Trost, the production including all his arias, which in the past have often been cut.

With only a few small trims to recitative and Idamante’s final aria (which was cut before the first performance in any case) absent, Kent Nagano clearly intends to keep the focus on maintaining the dramatic flow of the work. That’s done well, with an authentically smaller sized orchestra for the size of the theatre. If there are any minor reservations about the production, the singing or the playing however, everything comes together in the marvellous Act III. It’s here that Mozart’s innovations and the brilliance of the composer to come can be heard fighting their way through the opera seria constraints, and the cast rising to meet those moments in the famous quartet “Andrò ramingo e solo“, in Ainsley’s gorgeous rendition of Idomeneo’s heartfelt prayer to Neptune in the Cavatina and Chorus “Accogli, o re del mar“, and - as mentioned previously - in Annette Dasch’s “D’Oreste, d’Aiace“. The orchestra take centre stage on a raised platform for the other highpoint of the work, the Chaconne that concludes the work, reportedly the longest single orchestral movement composed by Mozart. In the absence of anything happening on stage, TV director Brian Large chooses to show us some of the features of the restoration work on the Cuvilliés-Theater, which considering its historical importance in the context of this work, is not inappropriate.

Like all Blu-ray releases from Euroarts, the disc seems to load up into the memory of the player and takes over controls to some extent, although other than not showing running times on the player display, I didn’t find this caused any problems. Image quality is fine and there’s a beautiful clarity to the PCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes that seems to capture the natural reverb and ambience of the theatre. Other than Trailers for other titles, there are no extra features on the disc, but a booklet contains information on the opera’s composition and includes a short synopsis. The disc is all-region, 1080i full-HD, subtitles are in Italian (matching the libretto), English, French, German and Spanish.

GiovanniWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Haus für Mozart, Salzburg Festspiele, 2008 | Wiener Philharmoniker, Bertrand de Billy, Claus Guth, Christopher Maltman, Erwin Schrott, Anatoly Kocherga, Annette Dasch, Matthew Polenzani | Euroarts

Of all Mozart’s operas, Don Giovanni seems to be the one with themes that make it more open to modern day re-envisioning and reinterpretation. And it’s not so much the subject of the amorous activities of a philandering nobleman that make the opera so timeless as much as the underlying themes of passion, revenge, power and conquest, or - as in this particular production for the 2008 Salzburg Festval - the question of honour.

Accordingly, there’s something of a Godfather feel to the tempestuous Latin passions of love and revenge here that feels perfectly appropriate, the production approaching the opera from a different angle while remaining perfectly true to the strengths of Mozart’s score and the themes of Da Ponte’s wonderful libretto, full of wit and wisdom. It’s certainly more complex and nuanced on the subject of relationships between male and female than their rather more buffa treatment of the subject in Così Fan Tutte. To cite just one example, look at Donna Elvira’s complex feelings for Don Giovanni, expressing hatred, contempt and frustration for Giovanni, but at the same time her actions are fuelled by a deep love and an irrational but no less sincere hope for his redemption.

The staging here is limited entirely to a dark woods setting, but imaginatively deployed on a revolving stage which gives a wonderful three-dimensional quality to the production (well directed for the screen, as ever, by Brian Large). As well observed as the references and updating are - the staging never compromising the integrity of a truly great opera - the performances here are just as nuanced, powerful and dramatic, Christopher Maltman’s near-deranged, wild-eyed obsessive Don Giovanni brilliantly balanced and vocally matched with Erwin Schrott’s amusingly twitchy Leporello. The score is magnificently interpreted, drawing the full darkness and energy out of the opera, as well as bringing out its underlying tenderness and tragedy. In this respect, in addition to strong singing you would expect from all the major roles, Matthew Polenzani gives one of the most sensitive and sympathetic readings of Don Ottavio that I’ve seen for this opera.

The image quality on the Blu-ray - once it takes its time to actually load-up onto the player - is fine, while the orchestration is given a fine presentation in the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix, centrally located and unshowy on the surrounds, and beautifully toned. The singing initially seems a little echoing in this mix, occasionally overwhelmed by the music, but it’s generally good and seems to improve by the end of the first Act. The PCM Stereo mix gives the singing a better stage, but at the cost of the fine separation of the orchestration.

This is not the most traditional production of Don Giovanni, and it certainly isn’t the best I’ve seen or heard, the limitations of the woods setting losing some of the familiar elements that usually make it work so well as a drama (traditionalists will be disappointed by a bus timetable in place of a Register of the Don’s conquests, no masks on the wedding guests, a Burger King take-away for a dinner-party, twigs for the Commendatore’s statue and certainly no flames at the finale), but that’s balanced with a reasonably fresh take on the themes, some strong singing and fine acting that is more naturalistic than the usual operatic gesturing, and a fascinating visual presentation in terms of its design and conceptualisation.