Gran Teatre del Liceu


ArianePaul Dukas - Ariane et Barbe-bleue

Gran Teatre del Liceu, 2011 | Stéphane Denêve, Claus Guth, Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, José van Dam, Patricia Bardon, Gemma Coma-Alabert, Beatriz Jiménez, Elena Copons, Salomé Haller, Alba Valldaura, Pierpaolo Palloni, Xavier Martínez, Dimitar Darlev | Opus Arte

There are many meanings and cautionary messages that can be drawn from the fairytales of Charles Perrault, but ‘Bluebeard‘ - the tale of an aristocratic serial killer who murders his wives - is surely one of the most gruesome and darkly enigmatic. Even more so in Ariane et Barbe-bleue, the version penned by the Symbolist Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck, the author of Pelléas et Mélisande, who himself adapted the work - again practically intact - as a libretto for the French composer Paul Dukas. Comparisons with Debussy’s opera - written only five years previously in 1902 - are inevitable, but if the musical influences that Dukas draws from are more evident and less distinctive than Debussy, the turn of the 20th century psychological exploration of the characters through the combination of Maeterlinck’s words and Dukas’s music is no less endlessly fascinating and deeply compelling.

In Maeterlinck’s hands, the perspective of the Bluebeard folktale is rather different from Perrault’s, the dark horror and cautionary note of the serial killer storyline rather less prominent than the exploration of the psychology of the female protagonists who seem to willingly submit to the thrall of masculine power and domination through marriage. The story here does indeed touch on the dark fascination of female curiosity for the violent danger of a male sexuality that simultaneously attracts and repels. In Maeterlinck’s story, Bluebeard’s latest bride, Ariane, has given herself in marriage to the notorious aristocrat who is believed to have murdered his previous five wives, but she has not submitted entirely to his authority. The six silver keys he has given that open doors to wonderful treasures represent the rewards and the boundaries of what Ariane can expect by following the rules set out by the marriage - each of the doors opening to rooms containing amethysts, sapphires, pearls, emeralds, rubies and, finally, diamonds - pure and eternal. That doesn’t stop Ariane however from opening the forbidden door locked by the gold key - “After diamonds, there can only be fire and death”, she observes.

The final door inevitably holds the secret to the fate of Bluebeard’s previous five wives, and it relates to some extent to a female curiosity based on an urge on the part of Ariane to explore the sexual history of her husband. While there is some psychological exploration of that impulse that verges on self-destructive, Maeterlinck and Dukas use that drive towards a more progressive feminist view in Ariane et Barbe-bleue. Ariane may driven by unknown impulses and working to guidelines set out by Bluebeard, but she is not in the thrall of the “enchantment” of her husband in the same way as the other wives. Their charms - the flaming hair of Mélisande, the delicate arms of Ygraine, the fair shoulders of Bellangère - have been hidden by marriage, whereas Ariane is forceful and secure in asserting her own personality and determined to help the other women achieve their own independence and expression. Like Pelléas et Mélisande however, Maeterlinck’s work and symbolism defies any simple allegorical meaning and one shouldn’t be strictly be applied to the exclusion of other resonances and mysteries that lie within it.

Although it is rather more emphatic in highlighting the specifics of the drama and the words than Debussy, Dukas’ score also hints at those other meanings and ambiguities. The references to Debussy’s impressionism may be apparent - just as Maeterlinck uses characters from his other works (like Mélisande) for Bluebeard’s wives - but Dukas more obviously draws from Wagner and particularly Strauss in Salome (in the scoring of the dark undercurrents in the relationship between Salome and Jochanaan) for more explicit, direct expression. It’s a fascinating and rich musical exploration by Dukas in his only opera work, powerful, beautiful and modern, possibly even more influential than Debussy’s unique and inimitable opera, with the associations and female psychology explored here evidently influential on Strauss and Hofmannstahl’s fairytale-like Die Frau ohne Schatten and its extraordinary use of female voices is matched only by Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites.

Considering the psychological nature of the work and the necessity of allowing its openness, ambiguity and symbolism to speak for itself, it’s perhaps not surprising that director Claus Guth doesn’t follow the libretto too literally. He avoids what would now be considered clichéd imagery in the opening scene of mobs of angry townspeople bearing pitchforks and firebrands, as the latest young bride seems to go willingly to her doom in Bluebeard’s castle. The castle here is nothing more than a modern suburban residence, but it’s what it represents that is important, and evidently the house is Bluebeard himself and it’s the uncomfortable and dangerous nature of the masculinity that Ariane examines, challenges and delves into, not only opening doors, but breaking through the surface of the floor to the horrors that lie underneath. The set design works well in this respect, keeping the visuals clean, simple and symbolic, allowing the singers the necessary space to express the layers of meaning that lie within Maeterlinck’s libretto and Dukas’ seething score.

Much of the power of the work is indeed delivered through the scoring for powerful mezzo-soprano and contralto female voices and this cast proves to be highly effective in conveying its force. Ariane requires a strong Wagnerian soprano to express her character’s inner strength of personality and purposefulness and Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet’s rich tone is commanding and persuasive, yet sensitive to the shimmering suggestion of the score. She is well supported by an equally strong and wonderfully measured Patricia Bardon as the nurse, but all of the female cast here are impressive here as the other wives, although Gemma Coma-Alabert’s fiery Sélysette is the only one with a significant role. As the male at the centre of the work, Bluebeard is evidently an important role in Ariane et Barbe-bleue, even if the singing is limited to only a few lines. José van Dam - who has mostly retired from big-scale stage productions - is no longer in possession of a voice as commanding as it once was, but there’s consequently a vulnerability as well as a necessary strength of personality here that puts an interesting spin on his Barbe-bleue.

This is an extremely rare work but one that deserves to be better known, and - appearing for the first time on either DVD or Blu-ray - this is a marvellous production of a fascinating work, emphatically delivered with force and sensitivity by the orchestra of the Liceu under Stéphane Denêve. The quality of the Blu-ray’s HD image and high resolution sound mixes ensures that the performance is given the best possible presentation. I personally found the surround DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix a little too open, and that it suited the more direct stereo PCM mix better, with the full detail of the orchestration clearer through headphones. Other than a Cast Gallery, there are no extra features on the disc, but the booklet contains a good essay by Gavin Plumley, whose reading of Ariane striking out towards the 20th century while the others refuse to take the freedom offered is a good one, and there’s a full, detailed synopsis. The BD is all-region compatible with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Japanese and Korean.

MacabreGyörgy Ligeti - Le Grand Macabre

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 2011 | Michael Boder, Àlex Ollé, Valentina Carrasco, Werner van Mechelen, Chris Merritt, Frode Olsen, Ning Liang, Barbara Hannigan, Brian Asawa, Inès Moraleda, Ana Puche, Francisco Vas, Simon Butteriss | Arthaus Musik

Although it may be one of the most popular works of contemporary opera, you aren’t going to see too many productions of György Ligeti’s only opera, Le Grand Macabre due to its demanding nature and its limited appeal to a rather specialised opera audience. So when the Liceu in Barcelona (with La Monnaie in Brussels and the ENO in London) decide to put on a rare production of the work and go as far as to make a world premiere video recording of it, you can be thankful that the challenge of finding an appropriate look for the all-important visual representation of this work has been given to La Fura dels Baus, the experimental Catalan production team perhaps most in tune with such an unusual work and capable of relating to its status as an “anti-anti-opera”, which is not quite the same thing, as you might imagine, as just an opera.

Le Grand Macabre most certainly isn’t “just” an opera, but it is one that fully exploits the full range of dramatic, musical and singing opportunities for expression that the medium is capable of. Often dissonant and cacophonic, it’s not however unmusical and indeed is made up of quite expressive musical passages and “quotations” that draw from a wide range of classical influences that demand a certain musical virtuosity, creating a complex soundscape of musical language and sonic textures. The singing in particular is extremely demanding, full of flourishes and vocal gymnastics in near-impossible tessitura. The difference between Le Grand Macabre and this kind of musical expression in other Ligeti compositions lies however in the visual and dramatic nature of opera, which is equally if not even more important for this particular work, and in that respect this extraordinary production, spectacularly imagined and directed by Àlex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus with Valentina Carrasco, enables the viewer to experience the work in its fullest expression.

Based on the play ‘La balade du Grand Macabre‘ by Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode, quite what the opera is an expression of however can be rather difficult to determine from the playful wordplay, gross vulgarity and nonsense dialogue that makes up most of its libretto. Like the musical accompaniment however, the tone of the words and the highly expressive delivery of them all serve to add to the sonic picture of its depiction of the imaginary Breughelland, with all the grotesque characterisation and the end-of-times connotations for our own reality that the name suggests. In the midst of all the absurd, lascivious, perverse and violent activity of the characters on the stage however, the main narrative thread is clear enough when Nekrotzar, the Grand Macabre, arrives in Breughelland and announces to Piet the Pot that the end of the world is nigh. The moral, when this prediction is proved to be false, is made clear at the end and delivered in traditional operatic fashion - face fear and it will pass, enjoy life without worrying about death or putting your faith in those who would claim to know better acting as guides and leaders.

All men on earth must perish” - even Piet the Pot knows that, “…but no-one knows the hour“, Nekrotzar, tells him. Àlex Ollé appropriately seems to choose to set the production of the Liceu’s Le Grand Macabre indeed during the few seconds preceding the imminent death of an overweight woman - seen in a short video introduction - who has enjoyed the excesses of a Big Mac-abre junk-food feast and is lunging for that last pizza slice when she suffers a heart attack. A huge model of this woman in her death throes dominates the stage, her face contorted in agony, those final moments and the excess that has clearly been part of her life, drawn out and encapsulated within the surreal and nightmarish situation depicted by Ligeti through the operatic medium. The huge splayed naked body revolves 360-degrees between the four scenes of the two acts and is clambered over and dissected in a disturbing fashion, with a wiggling tongue, detachable nipples and other moveable parts and orifices that the characters delve into and appear from. Costumes too are cleverly designed to suggest body parts, organs and musculature. Technically, with the impressive use of projections, it’s a theatrical tour-de-force by La Fura dels Baus, but more than just spectacle, it’s a brilliant interpretation that adds further levels of resonance and involvement to a work already quite rich in symbolism and suggestion.

I don’t think this work could be performed in any other way than with complete abandonment of any sense of propriety or dignity - and perhaps even comprehension - but it does demand extraordinary discipline on the part of the singers and commitment to the unusual methods of expression that Ligeti resorts to. The English diction isn’t always perfect here with some of the Spanish members of the cast, but it’s hardly the most important consideration. That’s not a problem for Barbara Hannigan, but her challenges lie elsewhere in the vocal exertions that are demanded from her in the roles of Venus and Gepopo, the Chief of Secret Police. She not only handles these with astonishing facility, but also with verve and character, as difficult as the roles must be to play. Similar commitment and flights up and down the vocal range are called for from Chris Merritt as Piet the Pot and Frode Olsen as the Astronomer Astradamors, but really, there isn’t anyone in this cast who doesn’t impress on a number of levels in how they rise to the challenges presented by this work.

Le Grand Macabre is still a rather demanding work that can be loud, vulgar and disorienting in its absurdity and nonsense, not seeming to have anything particularly enlightening to reveal for all the effort that is required to view and listen to it, but this is all undoubtedly an essential part of what the work is about. As an anti-anti-opera, it does seem to work both within the framework and as a reaction to the original anti-opera inclinations of Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht, exploring similar field of the baseness of human impulses that can be found in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny (also impressively produced by La Fura dels Baus recently at the Liceu and also available on DVD and BD), not in any elevated or theatrical manner, but in a way that revels in and supports the basic (or base) intents that lie at its heart. This production and its performance at the Liceu in Barcelona can hardly be faulted for the imaginativeness of its vision, the boldness of its interpretation and the technical brilliance of its presentation.

Undoubtedly a production that it would be better to experience live in the opera house, Le Grand Macabre nonetheless comes across very well on the small screen. It’s very well filmed to focus on the details of the performance, while keeping you in mind of the larger picture that, in any case, would be hard to ignore. The quality of the High Definition Blu-ray transfer is excellent, the 2-hour work fitting comfortably onto a single-layer BD25 disc, the image quality near-flawless, handling the darkness of the stage lighting well. The audio tracks are a vital aspect of the whole experience and they come across well in both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes. The BD also includes a good in-depth conference-style Making Of feature that has all the key players in the stage production discussing the development of the ideas, influences and technical considerations behind the concept, and an interview with Michael Boder on the musical side of things. The BD is all-region, full-HD, with subtitles in Italian, German, French, Spanish, Korean and Catalan.

PoppeaClaudio Monteverdi - L’incoronazione di Poppea

Gran Theatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2009 | Harry Bicket, David Alden, Miah Persson, Sarah Connolly, Jordi Domenèch, Franz-Josef Selig, Maite Beaumont, Ruth Rosique, Dominique Visse, Guy de Mey, William Berger, Judith van Wanroij, Francisco Vas, Josep Miquel Ramón, Marisa Martins, Olatz Saitua | Opus Arte

As if it’s not enough to be attributed with inventing opera itself – the first through-composed work being L’Orfeo in 1607 – Monteverdi advanced the artform even further with his last work, L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643), written at the age of 76. Previously operas were based only on classic mythological subjects – opera being a 17th century attempt to return to the ideals of Ancient Greek drama, which was then believed to have had a musical form – but, having moved into public theatres, and no longer a diversion for royalty and nobility, L’incoronazione di Poppea would be the first opera to deal with a historical subject and real people. The composer (there is still uncertainty about the authorship of the work, some believing that parts of the work at least may have been written by one of Monteverdi’s students) takes full advantage of this fact, revelling in the possibilities of extending the qualities associated with the musical-dramatic form to show less elevated and more down-to-earth human behaviour.

Directing Monteverdi’s final opera for the Liceu in Barcelona in 2009, David Alden emphasises this aspect in his colourful, modernised production (first produced in Munich in 1997) which certainly takes liberties with the characters and the setting to draw out the bawdiness and humour that is undoubtedly a part of the work, while Harry Bicket’s sensitive conducting of the Liceu’s Baroque orchestra finds the delicacy and sensitivity that it also part of the make-up of the human historical figures caught up in the drama of Nero’s reign in Rome around AD72. It’s a tricky proposition not only to achieve that magnificent balance, but also to find a way to make a 350 year-old work as vital and meaningful to a modern audience as it would have been to its original intended public. There’s no one right way to this, but it helps if you can achieve some balance between the traditional and the modern that captures the spirit of the work.

For Monteverdi, the Prologue to the opera sets out this clash between classicism and modernity in his new approach to representing historical drama in opera, where the typically allegorical figures of Virtue and Fortune battle it out for supremacy only to concede that it’s Love that holds greater sway in human affairs. In this story of revenge, infidelity, murder, lies and deceit, Virtue really doesn’t get a look in. Within this framework, away from the classical allusions to gods and mythological figures, Monteverdi finds a whole new wealth of emotions and personalities – most of them not entirely noble or honourable – to be explored through his innovative musical approach to continuo instrumentation, recitative and arioso. Busenello’s libretto also revels in the irreverence of the satire of these historical figures and the scandalous behaviour depicted, and, in its own way, Alden’s production taps into this for its rich vein of humour and presents it in a way which may be more meaningful to a modern audience.

Poppea

If that approach at times resembles that of a Carry On film, that’s perhaps not as inappropriate as it sounds for this particular work. There is a great deal of sauciness in how Monteverdi and Busenello treat the scandalous behaviour of Nero’s infidelities and Poppea’s scheming. There is real passion in the seductive lines in which Nero and the music describe the hold that Poppea has over him, and there is some suggestiveness and homoeroticism in Nero and Lucan’s drunken celebration at having overthrown the stabilising influence of Seneca, but the activities of the Emperor and his affair with Poppea seems to promote a general licentiousness and scheming elsewhere among their associates. Brought together in this way, if Drusilla were to ask Ottone “Is that an axe in your trousers or are you just pleased to see me?”, or Nero to exclaim, “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in f’ me!”, it wouldn’t be any more out of place than what is actually suggested there in the music and the libretto itself.

That’s essentially how Alden approaches this aspect of the work, using incongruity to play up the humour in the situation. Hence we have Roman soldiers lolling about on a red leather sofa-bed, much play on the cross-dressing and travesti roles (Nero is usually played by a female soprano, as it is here, but it can be done with a tenor), and obvious visual jokes such as the page Valletto being dressed as an old-fashioned hotel pageboy from 1930s movies, and the Nurse dressed in – yes, you guessed it – a medical uniform. The production creates a recognisable environment then for the modern viewer to relate to, one that is attractively designed with plenty of variety in the arrangements, beautifully lit and coloured, witty, ironic and referential without being overly-clever, keeping the spirit of that aspect of the work intact.

There is however much more to L’incoronazione di Poppea than that and the directorial approach is not quite so successful when it comes to approaching the more lyrical qualities of the work. This is best demonstrated by Seneca’s death scene, which should be one of the most moving moments in the whole opera, but it fails to strike the right tone here. Musically, it’s perfect. Harry Bicket’s arrangement and Franz-Josef Selig’s bass have the right measure of gravity, nobility and tragedy, but the staging and the curiously dressed pupils of the philosopher work against the deeper implications that this event is to have on the subsequent course of events. Much of the balance in the production is left then to Bicket and the Baroque orchestra of the Liceu to pick up and, indeed, they do so brilliantly. It’s a sparser arrangement that doesn’t have the same rhythmic verve as the 1993 René Jacobs recording (on Arthaus DVD) that I am familiar with, but every note of the sparingly used chitarrone and harpsichord continuo is beautifully weighed and balanced, all the more to highlight the flute, harp and other affetto instrumentation that gives colour to the characters and emotions through their arias.

Poppea

The emotion and verve of the singing and acting performances also makes up for the slight lack of dynamic in the staging. Miah Persson is terrific as Poppea – much more animated and lyrical here than in anything else I’ve heard her sing (Britten and Stravinsky) – and Sarah Connolly is a fine impassioned Nero, not essentially evil, but in thrall to his passions and power. Jordi Domenèch is a little light as the countertenor Ottone, but the variety of his tone balances the other singers well. Maite Beaumont is outstanding as Ottavia and Franz-Josef Selig, as mentioned earlier, suitably dignified as Seneca. The real highlight of this production however is Dominique Visse, who is also the Nutrice in the above mentioned René Jacobs version, but here he takes on the contralto roles of the Nurse and Arnalta, fully entering into the spirit of Alden’s production. It’s the variety of singing parts that is one of the great qualities of L’incoronazione di Poppea and the casting here is superbly balanced in this respect.

Just as important, in this context, is the quality of the recording, and this release is absolutely stunning to look at and listen to in High Definition. There is a beautiful clarity to the singing and the instrumentation with a wonderful sense of ambience. This is sheer perfection as far as technical specifications go and, as far as this production is concerned, it brings out all the qualities of an extraordinary work of early opera. Extras on the DVD and Blu-ray consist only of a Cast Gallery and a narrated Synopsis, while an essay in the booklet takes a closer look at aspects of David Alden’s production. The subtitles are in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Catalan.

SerailWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2010 | Ivor Bolton, Christof Loy, Christoph Quest, Diana Damrau, Olga Peretyako, Christoph Strehl, Norbert Ernst, Franz-Josef Selig | Unitel Classica - C-Major

There’s an in-built difficulty in Mozart’s earliest ‘mature’ comic opera that every modern opera stage director must consider a challenge – the long passages of spoken dialogue and recitative that are scattered throughout. Yes, the actual drama of Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail is a bit silly too and the libretto isn’t the most sophisticated, but even if you manage to make the plot work dramatically (having good singers can help gloss over the inconsistencies which is certainly the case here), you’re still left with those lulls between Mozart’s beautiful musical passages that can potentially kill the opera dead in its tracks. This production by Christof Loy at the Liceu in Barcelona, aided and abetted by an outstanding cast and an exhilarating performance of the score from the Liceu orchestra under Ivor Bolton, crucially takes account of those weaknesses, and if the result is still not entirely convincing, it’s nonetheless still one of the best versions of this Mozart opera that you’re ever likely to come across.

Traditionally, the way of handling the recitative in Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail is to heavily trim the dialogue and just get it out of the way as quickly as possible so as to move on to the music, but such an approach fails to adequately take into account the fact that the main dramatic drive of the opera actually lies in between the musical numbers and arias. In some respects, it could be argued that the spoken parts are equally as important as the arias, if not even more so in this particular case since Mozart’s music for Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail is not the most lyrically attuned to the emotional content. At this stage, even if there are occasional flashes of genius in the work, Mozart’s compositions are conventional and still very much mired in the Baroque tradition. How does Belmonte express his desire to be reunited with Konstanze in his Act I aria? “I tremble and falter, I waver and hesitate. My heart leaps in my breast.” - “O wie ängstlich, o wie feurig…” “How ardently and fearfully my loving heart beats”. Like the majority of the arias in the opera, it’s lovely but dull, and hardly advances the plot or even describes any complex emotional state.

Entfuhrung

Christof Loy attempts to address the vacuity of the arias and the dead-space of the spoken dialogue by getting the singers to act properly. In terms of opera performance, that can often be as simple as just toning down on the theatrical delivery, but Loy clearly believes that there are deeper sentiments and qualities to this opera, particularly in the spoken passages, which he retains in full and gives them rather more attention than they would normally receive. The treatment of the dialogue and how it works alongside the musical pieces is immediately apparent at the arrival of Pasha Selim. Arriving on-stage to that ringing chorus of the people, he seems weary of the acclaim, his position as ruler made only more weighty by his inability to win the heart of the woman he loves. This is not an uncommon position for a ruler to be in, particularly in Baroque opera, but it’s rarely treated with this kind of realism, and Loy takes advantage of the fact that – uncommonly for a major character in an opera – the Pasha is a non-singing role, and he accordingly makes the fine Christoph Quest the central acting focus for the others to work off.

What pervades the opera and characterises the approach to the spoken passages in this production, even before the appearance of the Pasha, is an air of melancholy. There’s nothing particularly new about viewing Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail in that regard, but such a sentiment is usually drawn from the arias and it’s rarely extended in any kind of realistic way to the recitative. There is no declamation of the lines here as they would more commonly be expressed, but rather Loy directs the performers to deliver dialogue naturalistically and makes use of their silences in the same way that he makes use of space on the stage to define the relationship between them. That use of space is as effective here as elsewhere in Loy’s work, even if the set for the Liceu’s production is not as sparse as the director usually decorates them. Yes, there are a usual few chairs scattered around, and little more than a painted backdrop of the sky for the most part (which is blithely lifted whenever Pedrillo makes an entrance), but other more decorated and naturalistic sets are shown, although they often remain viewed as if through a window in the background while the main action takes place in the foreground stage. Inevitably, the costumes don’t reflect any specific period, but there is a nod towards a middle-eastern flavour in some of the attire.

Entfuhrung

Loy’s direction isn’t really geared towards appeasing traditionalists then, but it should at least be evident that it is a respectful production that is aimed towards making the best out of what is imperfect opera, one that the director clearly thinks deserves to be considered more than just a lightweight entertainment. He doesn’t always succeed, but it’s an impressive attempt that does manage to make a strong case for the work and bring it closer to the latter Mozart operas, the relationships and structure here more evidently a prototype for characters better developed in The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute. It helps that Ivor Bolton also brings out a terrific, lively account of the score that works well in conjunction with the staging, revealing its qualities and making those connections to later works evident. If you’ve been less than convinced by this particular Mozart opera, this performance reveals just how dazzlingly clever and brilliant it can be.

You shouldn’t need to be convinced that there are great and quite demanding arias in the opera, but it is terrific to see them delivered so well in such a sympathetic production. The performance of Diana Damrau deserves to be singled out as it’s not only one of the best Konstanze’s you’ll ever hear, but when placed in the context of this fine treatment of the opera, it’s an incredible tour de force performance that highlights the extraordinary abilities of one of the best sopranos in the world today. Most pleasingly for the sake of the opera, rather than being merely a showcase for the soprano, the singing is of an exceptionally high standard right across the board. Really, it’s just thrilling to hear Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail sung and acted so well – everything working together in perfect harmony. Franz-Josef Selig’s rich bass and cool deliberation makes his Osmin more than just a second-rate Monostatos, while the performance of Olga Peretyako and Norbert Ernst makes the Blonde and Pedrillo partnership more than just a subsidiary relationship to the more complicated main ones. Christoph Strehl is perhaps the weakest element, but he works well in the context of the casting, where the tones of all the singers are perfectly complementary, always bringing out the best of Mozart’s ensemble writing.

An exceptional production – one of the best I’ve ever seen – the Blu-ray is just as impressive. There are no extra features, but the HD image quality and the sound reproduction are amazing. Region-free, BD50, 1080i, subtitles are in German, English, French, Spanish, Catalan, Chinese and Korean.

ChamounixGaetano Donizetti - Linda di Chamounix

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

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

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

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

Chamounix

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

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

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

Chamounix

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

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

CarmenGeorges Bizet - Carmen

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2010 | Marc Piollet, Calixto Bieto, Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Roberto Alagna, Marina Poplovskaya, Erwin Schrott, Eliana Bayón, Itxaro Mentxaka, Marc Canturro, Francisco Vas | Unitel Classica - C-Major

As one of the most popular operas in the repertory, and one where opera houses are reluctant to stray too far from the stock traditional performance, Bizet’s Carmen is all too often just being trotted out without a great deal of thought put into it, and there’s consequently a danger of the opera fan becoming somewhat jaded about yet another production. Carmen is Carmen, as far as I’m concerned, and personally, I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it again. Fantastic opera, brilliantly scored in a way that is full of life and passion, consummately operatic, but done to death, to the extent that it’s almost become a cliché, removed and detached from whatever real human emotions used to underlie it.

Consequently, until the recent Carmen in 3-D production from the Royal Opera House, I hadn’t seen or really listened to the opera in about ten years, and Francesca Zambello’s conventional and unimaginative staging for that production reminded me why. The production itself wasn’t bad, but there was just nothing new in it. It would really take something extraordinary to make me sit up and notice Carmen again, and not only notice it, but actually listen to it again in a new way. Calixto Bieto’s production for the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, conducted by Marc Piollet, updating the opera to what looks like the 1970s is not then a staging that will appeal to traditionalists, but, personally, it most certainly is a version to make you sit up and notice just how incredible an opera Carmen can be.

From the standpoint of the casting alone however, there are plenty of good reasons to like this production, which has the right kind of blend that is needed in terms of experience for the two principal roles and up-and-coming young singers for the supporting roles. With Roberto Alagna and mezzo-soprano Béatrice Uria-Monzon, both native French, the roles of Don José and Carmen are not just in reliable hands, but both invest a great deal into the interpretation, singing wonderfully and maintaining a strong presence on the stage. Erwin Schrott is a good Escamillo, again another fine actor willing to push interpretation as well as possessing a fine baritone voice – but this is a minor role for his talent. Marina Poplovskaya finds the right blend of freshness, innocence and purity that the opera needs as Michaëla.

Carmen

As good as each of the cast are in their own right, the famous arias as good here as any interpretations I’ve heard – Alagna’s ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’ is terrific – they work wonderfully together and it’s the duets and ensembles that make the biggest impression, presenting a refreshing new perspective on the opera. The orchestra and the performance are also superb. It’s everything you expect Carmen to be, but with enough character, verve and energy of its own, and a willingness to explore the dynamic that make this something more vibrant and alive, (the HD sound reproduction on the Blu-ray is also outstanding), the music seeming once again to be organically part of the drama rather than illustrating a bunch of clichéd routines. It’s a long time since I’ve heard this particular opera sounding so fresh.

How much of this is down to the stage production is debatable. Other than modernising the period setting however, the essence of the drama isn’t touched or played around with, the emphasis shifted slightly perhaps to emphasise the masculine aspect of the opera and the culture of machismo (although a full-frontal naked bullfighter might be too much for the more sensitive traditionalist). Even if it were just for the fact of stripping away all those old routines and hackneyed gypsy imagery, Calixto Bieto’s production, often minimal, the stage permanently giving the impression of a bullring, at least forces the viewer to focus once again on the characters and how they express themselves through Bizet’s score and the libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, and that alone is a bit of a revelation. Yes, everyone knows that Carmen is all about jealousy, lust and Latin passions, but removing the set-pieces goes some way towards restoring the balance of the other more noble aspects the theme of love beyond all reason (“Love is a gypsy child who knows nothing of the law”) in the unconditional familial love on the part of Don José’s mother and also in the purity of Michaëla’s love for him. Whether it’s obvious or not (and all the better if it’s not), I’d say that the production and direction is certainly instrumental in achieving this.

Pique DamePyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades)

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2010 | Michael Boder, Gilbert Deflo, Misha Didyk, Lado Ataneli, Ludovic Tézier, Ewa Podés, Emily Magee, Francisco Vas, Alberto Feria, Mikhail Vekua, Kurt Gysen | Opus Arte

Adapted from a short story by Pushkin, The Queen of Spades is something of a ghost story, but its roots lie firmly within the Russian tradition, and those aspects are emphasised brilliantly, with a few additional extensions to meet the demands of Grand Opera in Tchaikovsky’s version, first performed in 1890. The booklet notes in the Blu-ray release of this 2010 production from the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona also note the influence of Dostoevsky’s writing, and while that deeper psychology isn’t fully brought out in the performance of Misha Didyk, who plays Hermann with no greater subtlety than near foaming at the mouth, eye-rolling madness, the work itself certainly taps into a certain fatalistic Russian quality seen also in Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler (made into a fine opera by Prokofiev that complements Pique Dame well). It’s not so much that this relates to the rush of gambling or the acquisition of money, but on the extravagant romantic notion of its main characters only being able to live life to the fullest by throwing oneself into the hands of fate and risking everything – a circumstance that would, of course, lead to the early death of the author of The Queen of Spades himself in a duel.

That single-minded determination to win at any cost drives Hermann, who is unlucky in gambling and in love, discovering that the mysterious woman he has been observing and preparing to approach – even though she is clearly above his station – has just become engaged to Prince Yeletsky. Hermann however has heard the stories about Lisa’s aged mother, the Countess, once known as the Venus of Moscow, and now known as the Queen of Spades. Legend has it that she has learned the secret desired by gambler of three winning cards. She has shared this secret with two others and cannot reveal it to a third – but Hermann becomes obsessed with the myth and is determined to discover the mystery of the three cards. The interest of this intense young officer in her hasn’t gone unnoticed by Lisa however, so even though surprised by his appearance on her balcony one night, she resolves to help him – with inevitably tragic consequences for all involved.

Tchaikovsky’s music is designed to impress, the period of Catherine the Great (1762-96) and the romantic Russian nature of the piece matched by a tone of splendour, stateliness and order as well as the hint of underlying madness that struggles beneath the surface of the lives of these characters. The full range of the situation and the emotions of the characters is expressed in beautiful duets, in the chorus of the St Petersburg society, and in the tormented arias of Hermann and his obsessive refrain about the mystery of the three cards – but, playing to the conventions of Grand Opera, there is room for Tchaikovsky to introduce additional colour and take those sentiments into the medium of a Mozartian pastorale in Act II. There’s a certain coldness and calculation involved in the composition, as I often find with Tchaikovsky, but it’s well suited to the character of the work here.

The staging for the Liceu by Gilbert Deflo, at least superficially matches the splendour and opulence of the work, the classicism of the storyline and the tone of Tchaikovsky’s work, but it doesn’t really manage to delve into the deeper themes raised in the opera. Where it does try to make the effort, it’s rather unimaginative and awkward, using black screens to block off parts of the backgrounds or the whole of it, isolating Hermann in his madness from the rest of society (while also serving to allow quick changes to be made to the set behind the screens). There’s a similar lack of imagination in the characterisation of Hermann on the part of Misha Didyk, who wanders in a daze across the set with limited acting ability, a wide-eyed madman consumed with his own inner torment and obsessions. Didyk’s steely tenor doesn’t allow for any subtler range of expression in his singing either, hard and constricted, spitting out the harsh Russian consonants with admirable force and expressiveness, but it’s limited in terms of musicality and nuance.

If one isn’t looking for anything deeper out of the operas themes, this serves reasonably well however, and it’s a strong enough performance on that level alone. It certainly lends an edge to his encounter with Countess (sung with an equally dramatic edge by Ewa Podés) that leads to her death as well as in his reencounter with her ghost on the bridge (which is hauntingly staged using simple smoke and lighting effects), and it’s also effective in the magnificent duet scene with Lisa – a strong performance also from Emily Magee – that in turn leads to her doom (which could have been better staged). There’s a lot to like about the singing, the performances (the orchestra, conducted by Michael Boder deliver a fine account of the score), and a fairly traditional staging that at least has a coherence and consistency with the production, but a little more subtlety in the singing and imagination in the staging along the lines of Dmitri Tcherniakov’s direction of Prokofiev’s The Gambler, could have brought much more out of this particular opera.

The Blu-ray from Opus Arte looks and sounds fine, with a clear, sharp and colourful transfer, and good sound mixes in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. There are no extra features on the disc other than a Cast Gallery, but a brief introduction to the work and a synopsis is provided in the enclosed booklet.

MacbethDmitri Shostakovich - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 2002 | Alexander Anissimov, Stein Winge, Nadine Secunde, Christopher Ventris, Francisco Vas, Anatoli Kotcherga, Graham Clark, Juha Kotilainen, Yevgeny Nesterenko | EMI Classics

Written in 1934 and being subject to intense criticism after meeting with Stalin’s disfavour due to its perceived lack of moral character, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is however one of those operas that is groundbreaking as much for its content and means of musical expression as for its historical importance. Musically, it’s an incredibly rich opera that doesn’t hold to any distinct style or school of music, but mixes and matches styles to suit the content. What is even more remarkable is that it finds such a variety of tone and mood – from comic to tragic – within the narrow range of its subject, which indeed, as Stalin feared, doesn’t exactly show the best side of human nature or the Russian temperament.

So even when it deals with the boredom of Katerina Lvovna’s life, married to the rich merchant Ismailov who is unable to give her a child, and subjected to the unwanted advances of her father-in-law who is quite willing to do what it takes to have an heir, Shostakovich finds expression in the music for the nature of her personal situation and, through the raucous activities and interaction with the workers, the entrapment of her social position. The score goes on to cover the range of emotions and the journey she is about to undertake takes when she starts to flirt with Sergey, a handsome, womanising new worker who has just been hired. Much trouble can come out of boredom and it also nurtures a prurient interest in the activities of the Ismailov household that leads the police force in Act 3 to investigate the subsequent activities that arise around the deaths of Katya’s husband and father-in-law.

The production, designed by Stein Winge, plays up these elements well, capturing the harshness of the setting in the dark and sparse sets, working with the music as well as the libretto. Beds feature prominently in this particular production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, recorded in 2002 at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, even in scenes where they would not be expected to appear. Apart from the necessary fluidity that it allows in the sparse staging, there’s a continuity in Katya’s omnipresent bed in the first two acts, followed by the beds of the police barracks and the camp beds of the forced prison march on the steppes in Act 4, that suggests not only the sense of lassitude that exists, but also that bedroom activities are never far from the minds of the protagonists in an opera where sex and lust features prominently.

With all its passion, jealousy and murder, Carmen frequently comes to mind when following Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, but Shostakovich uses a greater variety of influences and references, including huge rousing Verdi-like choruses for the sense of wild abandon, drunkenness and licentiousness that is aroused in the general population, but also achingly intimate arrangements and musical interludes to touch on other aspects of the intensely fatalistic Russian character of the piece, without ever making use of traditional folk melodies or music of a conventional Russian nature. Along with a terrific performance from the orchestra of the Liceu, the singing and dramatic presentation, with a few personal quirks and touches, are all superb, in particular Nadine Secunde as Katerina and Anatoli Kotcherga as the father-in-law.

I don’t think there’s any beauty in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, at least not in the traditional sense of the word, but there is a brilliance and a sort of terrible beauty in the way that Shostakovich finds expression for the darker side of human nature and the “huge black waves” that the Russian nature is prone to on a personal as well as a national level. As such this production allows the opera to work on a wider level than just being tied to a historical regime and period.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is released on DVD by EMI Classics a two-disc set. The video, although widescreen enhanced at 16:9, is slightly lacking, partly due to the darkness of the stage, but also due to an inability of some of the camera operators to be able to focus their cameras. It’s reasonably well filmed however, getting the impact of the stage setting across well and covering the actions of the performers. There are three audio mixes, LPCM stereo, DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1. All are excellent, with good dynamic range and clarity. The surround mixes in particular are strong, although the DD 5.1 is a little on the harsh side. There are no extra features on the set other than a showreel of other EMI titles, but the DVD insert contains details of the cast and production team and a PDF file on the disc has a short essay on the opera.