Aix-en-Provence Festival


DavidMarc-Antoine Charpentier - David et Jonathas

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2012 | William Christie, Les Arts Florissantes, Andreas Homoki, Pascal Charbonneau, Ana Quintans, Neal Davies, Frédéric Caton, Krešimir Špicer, Dominique Visse, Pierre Bessière | Aix-en-Provence - 11 July 2012

Marc-Antoine Charpentier worked for many years in the shadow of the officially appointed court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and it seems he has remained in his shadow ever since, largely overlooked even as French Baroque music is being rediscovered in modern times, favouring Lully and his successor Rameau over Charpentier and Campra. There may be genuine musicological reasons for this choice, but judging by this rare performance of Charpentier’s David et Jonathas for the 2012 Aix-en-Provence Festival - the first staged performance of the work in over 300 years - the problem seems to lie with the difficulty of adapting this kind of work for a modern stage, since musically it is rather something of a delight.

First performed in 1688, a year after the death of Lully, David et Jonathas, a “Biblical tragedy in five acts with a prologue” is based on the friendship between David - slayer of Goliath - and Jonathas, the son of King Saul. The difficulty with adapting this work to a stage production is similar to the nature of attempting to stage Handel’s religious oratorios, the libretto by Père François de Paule Bretonneau in this case making it somewhat difficult to grasp a clear dramatic or narrative thread. Essentially however, the main thrust of the work is relatively straightforward, dealing with Saul’s growing mistrust of the shepherd boy David, who he has initially welcomed into his company. David is shown to be a popular hero, the people celebrating his successes in battle, but Saul suspects that he may be using his popularity and his friendship with his son Jonathas as a means to overthrow his rule and replace him as king of Israel.

Another reason why the work may be difficult to follow was that it was originally written to be performed as musical interludes inserted into a performance of the theatrical drama Saul. The Aix production does its best to create some dramatic situations out of this Biblical story, adding flashback scenes during what would have been musical ballet sequences that fill out the background of the historical conflicts, building up the childhoods of David and Jonathas and including other significant incidents such as the death of Saul’s wife, all of which seems to have an impact on destabilising the king’s mind, leading to more wars and a tragic outcome. The Aix production also notionally sets this staging of the opera during the Palestinian Civil War and the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, which may or may not be necessary as a meaningful parallel for the audience - but other than perhaps influencing the costume design, in reality there’s little direct reference made to the origins of the modern political conflict in the region.

The stage design rather places the action within a box of bare wood panelling, sparsely decorated with nothing more than wooden chairs and a long table, giving the impression more of a Quaker community room, or even occasionally looking like something out of a Western. Cleverly designed (I still can’t work out quite how they manage it), the walls and ceilings move to compress the space, open it out or split it into several rooms, blocking and boxing in to create a dramatic focus and tension to the singing. It’s hardly necessary, since the singing itself is more than capable of finding the right dramatic tone, and if anything the staging tends to over-emphasise it and place it at odds with the often delicate elegance of Charpentier’s beautiful musical arrangements and joyous choruses.

More often it’s simply trying to make the opera visually more interesting and dramatic than it might otherwise be. The production sparks into life during those magnificent choral arrangements, celebrating David’s successes in battle, and there are many of those. It’s less successful in providing psychological justification - and even suggestion of sexual attraction in the closeness of the relationship between the two men (notwithstanding the role of Jonathas being performed by a female singer). If the libretto and the flashback scenes don’t really bring this out sufficiently, it is however made impressively real and on occasion genuinely touching through Charpentier’s beautiful use of melody and his use of woodwind instruments - evocatively brought out by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants (who incidentally, take their name from a Charpentier opera) - and through the fine singing performances.

As David, Pascal Charbonneau has a powerful presence and voice, wonderfully expressive in a way that gives genuine character to the role, but it does tend to sound slightly constricted and nasal on those more stretched emotional sections - and this is a tragedy where the despairing cry of ‘Hélas!’ features heavily. I don’t think the actual acoustic of the boxed stage helps though. Elsewhere the singing and dramatic performances were excellent, even if the true quality of Ana Quintans singing only really came through in the very moving final act death scene of Jonathas. Neal Davies sang Saul with force and passion, but the stage direction and imagery used to convey his descent into paranoia suspicion and grief wasn’t always convincing. Still, this is clearly an extremely difficult work to adapt dramatically to the modern stage, but more than worthwhile for the opportunity of seeing this rarity from a neglected composer given full dramatic consideration and performed so well.

This performance of David et Jonathas was recorded at the Aix-en-Provence Festival on 11th July 2012 and viewed via internet streaming. It is currently still available to view on the ARTE WebLive web site or via the ArtsFlo Media site. Some region restrictions might apply.

FintaWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Le Nozze di Figaro

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2012 | Jérémie Rhorer, Richard Brunel, Paulo Szot, Malin Byström, Patricia Petibon, Kyle Ketelsen, Kate Lindsey, Anna Maria Panzarella, Mario Luperi, John Graham-Hall, Emanuele Giannino, Mari Eriksmoen, René Schirrer | Aix-en-Provence - 12 July 2012

In all my time watching opera I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad production of The Marriage of Figaro. No matter how familiar the Mozart’s score is, no matter how well known all the little twists and quirks of Da Ponte’s libretto, the opera is always simply just a delight - dazzling, witty, virtuoso, it’s simply one of the greatest works of opera. That will always be the case no matter what kind of production it’s given, whether period or modern-day, traditional or experimental, and that in my experience always comes through even if the singing isn’t of the very highest standard. The production of Le Nozze di Figaro for the 2012 Aix-en-Provence festival, for example, combines a modern staging with a fresh light touch in the musical direction which finds an appropriate rhythm for the comic situations that entertains and delights even if the singing doesn’t always come up to the mark.

Richard Brunel’s production updates the action from the mansion of the libidinous Conte di Almaviva to the modern-day office of the Count’s legal practice. This changes the social and class satire context of the original work where he is attempting to seduce his wife’s maid Susanna before she is married to Figaro, making it more a case of sexual harassment in the workplace against a female employee. That at least is a situation more recognisable for a modern audience who might not have heard of ‘droit du seigneur‘ (which is actually called the ‘le droit de cuissage‘ in French), but in a work that had already stripped away most of the revolutionary class satire from Beaumarchais’ original controversial drama, it doesn’t greatly alter - or indeed add to - the situational comedy of the relationships between men and women that is the focus of the actual opera. It is interesting however to see those situations enacted in an office environment, Susanna and Figaro’s forthcoming marriage celebrated as an office romance by their colleagues amid the shredders and photocopiers, even if their employer offering them a back-office room behind the filing cabinets to set up their marital bed doesn’t quite fit into that concept quite so well.

Otherwise, Brunel’s production works quite well in this universally recognisable modern-day environment. In this office, a smart-suited Figaro is Almaviva’s junior law secretary and Cherubino is the junior office boy (looking uncannily, whether intentionally or not, like Gareth from the TV comedy series ‘The Office’). Office politics play a part in the everyday life of the employees and there is some friction between Susanna and one of the older ladies employed there, Marcellina, which descends into a cat fight where they end up throwing ladies underwear at each other - for some reason. The legal practice also works well with the judicial case taken out by Bartolo and Marcellina against Figaro, as well as providing an appropriate occupation where Almaviva has a responsibility to behave in a manner that is in accordance with his position. Chantal Thomas’ stage set moves fluidly then between each of the locations, between the office, the store room and the bedroom with its siderooms, giving you a good cross-section view of events even if the actual layout and configuration isn’t the neatest for the comedy that is enacted between them.

If the dramatic and musical qualities of Le Nozze di Figaro make it somewhat foolproof as a brilliant and dazzlingly witty entertainment, it’s not however immune to weak casting in the singing roles. The main roles here at the 2012 Aix production are mostly fine, some of them good, but it’s fortunate that Jérémie Rhorer conducts the Le Cercle de l’Harmonie with a lightness and delicacy, as most would be drowned out by the usual full orchestral arrangement. If the musical accompaniment is bright and perky, the acting and the passions aren’t fully conveyed with the necessary abandon in the relatively lightweight singing of the majority of the cast. Kyle Ketelsen’s Figaro is the best here, a strong and confident baritone who seems to fit into the modern-day office role for his character perfectly. Paulo Szot’s Almaviva also looks the part. He’s not quite the fearful an employer you would expect the Count to be, but just as the Count isn’t entirely sure of his position in the enlightened times of the original period of the work, so too the lawyer - or magistrate - Almaviva is unsure how far he can push his attentions here as an employer for fear of being brought up before a tribunal for harassment. Szot gets this across and sings well, and if he doesn’t have the necessary weight for the role, it’s the right size of voice for this particular production as a whole.

The same could be said of Kate Lindsey’s Cherubino. Her ‘Voi che sapete‘ is sung well enough, and if it isn’t the showiest display of singing nor as impassioned as it could be, you could put that down to the relatively youthful naivety of the character. Still, it lacks the kind of impact you would expect in the singing, although the role is delightfully played for its comic potential. If Patricia Petibon is also not exactly what you expect from a traditional Susanna, again rather lighter and more naturally toned without the usual operatic mannerisms, she does however in this way make the role her own. Personally, I found Anna Maria Panzarella disappointing as Marcellina. She’s a fabulous singer, powerful in her Baroque opera roles, but here the role of Marcellina didn’t seem a good fit for her talents. It’s not easy to make any such excuses for Malin Byström, who just didn’t have a voice with the range or colour necessary to convey the emotional journey of the Countess, singing without any real conviction or feeling for the role. Her ‘Porgi amor‘ and ‘Sull’aria‘ duet with Susanna are sadly thrown away, which is a real pity.

Yet, Le Nozze di Figaro still survives these weaknesses. The stage design is a little cold and, other than subverting the happy ending with the suggestion that a leopard can’t change its spots and that Almaviva has already turned to his old philandering ways, the concept doesn’t really add anything particularly new to the work.  The set is at least lovely to look at and it functions quite well.  Likewise, if the singing performances don’t deliver all the verve and energy you might like with this opera, it’s made up for by the precise tempo and delicate playing of the orchestra which brings out plenty of detail in the arrangements. The production reviewed here was viewed via Internet streaming and is currently still available for viewing on the ARTE WebLive site.

FintaWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - La Finta Giardiniera

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2012 | Andreas Spering, Vincent Boussard, Colin Balzer, Layla Claire, Julian Pregardien, Ana Maria Labin, Julie Robard-Gendre, Sabine Devieilhe, John Chest | ARTE Live Web, Internet streaming, Aix-en-Provence - 10 July 2012

Written in 1774 for performance in Munich when Mozart was just 18 years of age, La Finta Giardiniera (’The Fake Gardener‘) is never likely to be regarded as anything more than the work of an inexperienced composer who wouldn’t really find his own distinctive voice until the composition of Idomeneo (1781). Mozart had however already written seven operas by this time, and if La Finta Giardiniera doesn’t sparkle with the brilliance of those later mature masterpieces, there are nonetheless interesting parallels and prototypical characters here that would be depicted with greater detail and finesse in The Marriage of Figaro. In its own right however, La Finta Giardiniera is still an enjoyable little opera buffa of modest ambition that seems well suited to the surroundings of a summer evening in the gardens of the Théâtre du Grand Saint-Jean in Aix (even if you are viewing it via internet streaming).

As performed by the orchestra of Le Cercle de l’Harmonie, conducted by Andreas Spering, the music of La Finta Giardiniera is as sprightly, pleasant and beautifully arranged as a Haydn opera, with delicate arias and recitative to play out the comic situation, and even if the work is mostly fairly conventional, it does have some delightful Mozartian touches. Dramatically, the situation doesn’t add up to much more than the typical opera seria plot given a bit of a buffa treatment, but even then, consisting of the old standard of mismatched couples finally finding their proper arrangement, it never really takes off dramatically or extends much beyond that. The most dramatic incident has already taken place before the opera even begins, with the Marquise Violante having survived an attack on her person by her fiancé the Count Belfiore in a fit of jealous rage. He believes that he has killed the woman that he loves, but in reality, Violante, along with her servant Roberto, calling themselves Sandrina and Nardo, are working in disguise as gardeners on the estate of the Podestà.

The opera itself operates within the romantic complications that arise out of this situation where there are characters in disguise and believed dead. The Podestà is in love with Sandrina, which infuriates his maid Serpetta. The rejected Serpetta is therefore in no mood for the attentions of Nardo who is persistently pursuing her. The Podestà moreover hopes to make a marriage of his niece Arminda to a rich noble, who turns out to be none other than the Count Belfiore. Don Ramiro, who is in love with Arminda, is evidently displeased by this. When the Count arrives for the wedding, Sandrine faints and the Count recognises her. Could it really be Violante? His love reawakened and his sense of guilt, Belfiore declares that he cannot marry Arminda. Everyone evidently is deeply unhappy and they spend their time moping and decrying their woes in arias. “Oh, how terrible things are, I don’t know what to do”, kind of sums up the content of these arias that describe their feelings of indignation, betrayal, unjust treatment and their confusion.

Oh yes, there’s lots of confusion, but evidently the idea is to somehow sort out all these mismatched couples and bring everything to a happy conclusion. In contrast however to the rather more accomplished and richly characterised Marriage of Figaro, for example, there is something rather pleasantly slapdash about the approach to resolution in La Finta Giardiniera, which is brought about by not much more than endless pleading after which the Podestà finally declares “Oh just marry whoever you want” to them all. The fact that there is an odd number of characters - seven - also means that at least one going to be left out of the rearrangements. Dramatically then, it’s far from satisfactory, since there is very little that happens to sustain interest in this situation for nearly three hours.

Musically however, the work is far from slapdash, though it is conventional and shows little in the way of inspiration or imagination. There are however one or two lovely little touches. In Act I, the Podestà describes his feelings for Sandrina as a symphony in the aria “Dentro il mio petto“, evoking instruments and sounds that the orchestra play to accompany his florid declarations. Breaking away from the strict solo aria, duet, recitative and ensemble arrangements, Mozart also manages to have the characters interact in these ensembles rather than all sing together or at cross purposes. It’s far from the complex Figaro arrangements however, as is the rather less well-developed dark garden setting for the confusion of identities and declarations of true feelings that ensue at the end of La Finta Giardiniera’s second Act, where Belfiore and Violante bewilderingly believe themselves to be Greek gods.

There are then modest pleasures to be found in La Finta Giardiniera, and they are brought out well in this production at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Filmed on an outdoor stage, the sun setting during Act 1, the exterior location suits the garden setting beautifully. Accordingly, there is little need for stage props, the reflective floors, white chairs and the long-stemmed white roses that double as lamps providing the additional illumination and effects required for the limited drama. The sound recording is wonderful for an outdoor shoot, with no sign of intrusive microphones attached to the performers, the tone lovely and warm, with natural reverb coming from I don’t know where. The singers appear to be all new young artists, all very well cast for their respective roles with sweet voices well-suited to this early Mozart. There’s nothing too strenuous expected in the acting or the singing, and all sound and play this light buffo drama marvellously. If it’s slightly dull in places, lacking in any real verve or personality, that’s unfortunately down to the nature of the work itself.

La Finta Giardiniera is currently available to view via internet streaming on the ARTE Live Web site. Some region restrictions may apply.

SkinGeorge Benjamin - Written on Skin

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2012 | George Benjamin, Katie Mitchell, Christopher Purves, Barbara Hannigan, Bejun Mehta, Rebecca Jo Loeb, Allan Clayton | ARTE Live Web, Internet streaming, Aix-en-Provence - 14 July 2012

Commissioned by the Aix-en Provence Festival to have a Provençal theme, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin takes an interesting approach to the task in his second opera. With a libretto written by Martin Crimp, Benjamin mixes classicism with the avant-garde to powerful effect in his 21st century perspective on a 12th century legend composed by the troubadour poet Guillaume de Cabestany. It’s not just in the unusual mix of musical instruments that have been used however - the orchestration coloured by as varied a range as a viola de gamba, mandolins and glass harmonica - or even the use of a countertenor in a modern opera, but it’s the necessity of viewing the past through the eye of the present, of breaking down myth into reality, that is evident throughout every element of the production. Viewed here via internet streaming during its world premiere run at Aix on 14th July 2012, Written on Skin is consequently an intense operatic experience.

The story itself seems to be a relatively minor one, but it does nonetheless make some interesting observations about the nature of self-deception, the exercise of power over others and the difficulty of coming to terms with an understanding of one’s true nature. The drama plays out principally between only three main characters - a man, a woman and a boy. The man, known as the Protector, is a landowner, a man “addicted to purity and violence”, proud of his achievements (”I own the fields, I own everyone in them”) who likewise regards his wife as part of his property. He engages the Boy, an artisan, to create an illuminated book for him to record his great achievements and to depict the glorious ascent to Paradise that awaits him. The woman, Agnès, however seeks something else in the Boy, is attracted to him and asks him to create “another woman” for her, one who can open the eyes of her husband to his failings. For the Protector, the book is to put a spin on his belief in himself as a great man, for Agnès, it’s an opportunity to reveal the real woman and her desires that are suppressed by the man. Vanitas vanitatem. The outcome is inevitably tragic.

What makes this simple story rather more interesting is in how it is viewed from a modern perspective. The story is narrated by three Angels - the Boy is also one of the Angels, the other two play the parts of Marie, the sister of Agnès and her husband - who seem to exist in a separate dimension, and along with other stagehands, they seem to be recreating the events, directing the actors into their places, viewing the sequence of events as they play out and commenting on them. All the characters recite their words as if reading them from a narrative text - Boy:”What do you want, says the Boy”, Agnès: “To see, says the woman”. Vicki Mortimer’s stage designs, the stage divided into discreet locations seem to emphasis these separations between the reality and the meta-reality, between the story and its creation, between action and commentary on it. Most of the drama takes place in a thin lower strip of the stage, wooden, brown coloured that becomes a room and a bedroom leading to an exterior or a staircase, while the “angels” and their assistants look on form a modern blue-lit side-room and upper level “back office”.

While you are made aware of the characters relating their own words, playing a role, recreating events, it in no way however takes away from the intensity with which the story is depicted through the singing, the performances and in the brooding, probing, revealing musical score - the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted here by Benjamin himself - and through Katie Mitchell’s stage direction. The strength and power of the voices, as well as their combination of soprano, baritone and countertenor, are well arranged to achieve the necessary impact, but the actual casting of Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves and Bejun Mehta is critical in the ringing clarity of tones and in performances that push the violent passions to their limits. “Shatter the printing press. Make each new book a precious object written on skin“. Can you exhume and invoke the passions of the past and bring them to back to life in a manner that makes them meaningful and immediate to a modern audience? With opera - and the richness of musical and theatrical resources that it places at the disposal of a composer with the necessary ability - apparently you can.

Written on Skin is currently available to view via internet streaming on the ARTE Live Web and on the Medici website. Some region restrictions may apply. The new work will also be able to be seen at the De Nederlandse opera in Amsterdam and at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden later this year.

Oscar Bianchi - Thanks to my Eyes

Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2011 | Franck Ollu, Joël Pommerat, Hagen Matzeit, Brian Bannatyne-Scott, Keren Motseri, Fflur Wyn, Anne Rotger, Antonie Rigot | Bel Air Media, La Monnaie Internet streaming

Eyes

Writing his first opera, commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence Festival and premiered there in 2011, Swiss-Italian composer Oscar Bianchi took a French drama by Joël Pommerat (‘Grâce à mes yeux’) as the source of Thanks to my Eyes, but took the unusual step of asking the author to adapt the work into the English language for the libretto. The reason for the change of language, according to the composer, working very much in the modern musical idiom, was purely technical and related to the more discordant sounds and textures evoked by the work that suited English singing better than the more musical-sounding French. I can think of another reason not explicitly stated by the composer why you would be cautious about setting a French-language drama to music, and that’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

Even then, while there might be the occasional reminder of the more spooky elements of Britten’s Turn of the Screw in the chamber instruments, it still proves impossible to escape the huge influence of Debussy’s only opera and its extraordinary ability to fuse music to Maeterlinck’s already existing play, while keeping the original almost entirely intact. Bianchi’s approach to creating a musical ambience for Pommerat’s drama works - and works reasonably well to often striking effect, it has to be said - in a similar way. Cutting the original work back extensively to fit an opera work that is only about one hour and ten minutes long, the short scenes in Thanks to my Eyes have a similar feeling of incompleteness, interruption and open abstraction that is there in Debussy and Maeterlinck’s symbolist work. The similarities however exist more than just on the surface approach of connecting the music to the drama.

Eyes

While the story and themes are quite different to Pelléas et Mélisande, there are similarities in the theatrical representation of the drama. A young man, Aymar, timid and solitary, is dominated by his famous father, a great comedian who, in the first scene, is shown handing one of the suits he uses in his act to his son, clearly expecting him to follow in his footsteps. His dominance of Aymar however also extends to control over finding a suitable woman for the young man, suggesting and trying to influence Aymar into choosing a woman like his own mother, much as he chose his wife based on his own mother. Aymar however is torn between two women, a Young Blond Woman and a mysterious cloaked Young Woman in the Night who keeps her face covered, who he secretly meets on a mountain top away from the eyes of his family. He knows however that he must break off this relationship, but is too timid to even be able to take that step.

Reducing the drama down to key scenes, although maintaining a linear, serial flow, even if some of the scenes are rather abstract in nature, does have the impact of bringing any undercurrents and symbolism directly to the surface. Like Debussy however, even though he is working in a much different musical language, the intention of Bianchi is to convey a sense of deeper meaning and suggestion beyond actual language and physical expression. While on the one hand then the figures all fit into regular types - domineering father, passive mother, child seeking to find his own sense of self and expression apart from them - there are other intriguing elements that are indeed evoked by the drama scenes, lighting and the use of the atmospheric chamber music. It may not be the most memorable or melodic music, but its intent is to integrate more fully into the whole theatrical process as a Gesamkunstwerk, as does the expression through the singing.

Eyes

The singing on this recording at the opera’s world premiere run in Aix-en-Provence, is of an exceptionally high standard, and when I say exceptionally high, I’m not just referring to the unusual use of a countertenor voice for Aymar, sung by Hagen Matzeit. This is an appropriate choice for the figure, emphasising his difference from his (not unexpected) bass-baritone father, Brian Bannatyne-Scott. The singing and sometimes wayward phrasing weave in complex ways, and work well off each other in this context. Interestingly, while the two women are sopranos (both singing the roles wonderfully, Fflur Wyn in particular having to reach some extraordinary high notes), the mother has a speaking-role only, and speaks in French, as do the others when speaking to her. The dramatic reasons for this are remain unexplained - it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that their mother might be a native French speaker - but it does introduce another intriguing dramatic and vocal element that contributes to the overall complexity of the meaning contained within the overall soundscape.

The tone of the music and singing and the effect it creates is matched by the staging, directed by the original author and librettist, Joël Pommerat. Locations are generic - outdoors, indoors, on a mountain top, at a edge of a cliff - uniformly grey in the darkness (barring a sunrise and some atmospheric lighting effects here and there), sparse and solitary, clearly evoking an emotional landscape more than a literal one. On the whole, regardless of what you judge to be the qualities of the often obscure motivations and actions in the drama or whether you find the style of music pleasant or not, the work does indeed transport you into another world entirely and hold you in its thrall for over an hour.

Broadcast via the Internet streaming service of La Monnaie-De Munt, (available on-line until 5th May 2012) this recording unusually isn’t of the current production running in Brussels, but a recording made at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2011. I’m not sure how this would have been presented on the stage, but the television recording allows the disparate scenes to flow and change without any breaks in the music, using frequent intertitles (in French) along the lines of “A few moments later, in the same place” or “That night, on the mountain top” to effect the rapid switches in time and location. Yes, Thanks to my Eyes is a rather strange, experimental piece of avant-garde music-theatre whose meaning may be difficult to fathom, with music and singing that may be challenging to the ears, but it does succeed in creating an alternative means of expression that comes across effectively on the screen and I’m sure even more so in a theatre.

DeadLeoš Janáček - From the House of the Dead

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

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

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

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

Dead

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

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

BelshazzarGeorge Frideric Handel - Belshazzar

Grand Théâtre de Provence, Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2008 | Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik, RIAS Kammerchor, Christof Nel, René Jacobs, Kenneth Tarver, Rosemary Joshua, Bejun Mehta, Kristina Hammerström | Harmonia Mundi

Belshazzar, written in 1744, was among the first English oratorios composed by Handel after he had abandoned the Italian opera form, and consequently has an interesting place among the composer’s works, still retaining some the dramatic content and style of opera composition. The dramatic content comes about due to the nature of the subject, which is biblical in nature, if not entirely a religious piece of work. So while there are contemplative hymns to God and fervent pleas for deliverance sung throughout, the historical and religious conflicts means that there is a bit more variety to the content and the tone, as well as the opportunity for a staging to apply other meaningful references that could have some present-day significance.

Taking place in 539BC, the Babylon of King Belshazzar is under siege from Cyrus, Prince of the Medes and Persians. The king’s mother Nitocris has a grim foreboding that the city will fall, and this is confirmed by the prophet Daniel. Cyrus has comes up with a plan to divert the Euphrates, and enter the city through its channel while Belshazzar and his men are celebrating the feast of Sesach, the god of wine. Despite warnings and pleas from Nitocris and Daniel, Belshazzar uses the occasion to extend the drunkenness to sacrilegious behaviour that horrifies the Jewish population that are held in captivity in the city. Cyrus enters the city and liberates the Jews from bondage, promising to set up a new Jerusalem.

The plot is not overly complicated for a three-act, almost three-hour oratorio, but there is a certain amount of dramatic ground to cover, which means that there is more opera seria-like recitative in Balshazzar, and consequently, it may not be always quite as musical and melodious as later Handel oratorios. And if the individual sections are not the most memorable or notable Handel however, the impact of the oratorio is on a dramatic level and in the piece as a whole. It’s staged here for the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2008 by Christof Nel in a manner that doesn’t set any modern agenda or updated interpretation of the work, letting the dramatic action be dictated by the words of the libretto. One can see nonetheless that Belshazzar is not just a biblical or historical work, but that it applies as much to the role of a monarch or ruler, which has meaning for the period that the work was written, as well as having relevance to present-day conflicts not so far away from where this is set in antiquity.

René Jacobs conducts the Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik and the RIAS Kammerchor through a fine live performance of Belshazzar at Aix. The singing in English, from principals and chorus soloists alike, is uniformly wonderful across the whole range of voices – tenor, counter-tenor, soprano, mezzo-soprano, bass and male alto – that Handel brilliantly composes for and blends together. Bejun Mehta (whose crystal clear countertenor can also be heard to terrific effect in a recent production of Handel’s Theodora) is notable here as Cyrus and Kenneth Tarver is fine as Belshazzar, but even more impressive are Rosemary Joshua as Nitocris and Kristina Hammerström as Daniel. Such fine singing could not have been easy either with the acting demanded – a drenched Tarver clearly finds it too much – but a good balance between both is achieved in the staging.

I’m not entirely happy with the HD transfer on the Blu-ray from Harmonia Mundi. Even though it’s on a BD50 disc, the encoding is not great, resulting in a faint jerkiness and blurring when there is movement on the screen. The effect may be variable on different players with better refresh rates, but this is the first BD I’ve come across with such a problem. There isn’t enough movement on the screen for this to become a significant issue, but it could be a minor irritation. The audio tracks are in the standard PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and are both fine for the demands of the orchestration and the singing. Subtitles are in English, French and German only. Other than a text synopsis, there are no extra features on the Blu-ray disc.