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GiocondaAmilcare Ponchielli - La Gioconda

Opéra National de Paris, 2013 | Daniel Oren, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Violeta Urmana, Luciana D’Intino, Orlin Anastassov, María José Montiel, Marcelo Álvarez, Claudio Sgura | Viva l’Opéra Cinema Live in HD, 13 May 2013

Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is a work that seems ideal for the French lyric stage, but although written in 1876, it has never been performed before at the Paris Opera. Watching it via cinema broadcast from the Opéra National de Paris in its first ever production there, a few reasons come to mind why this work of undoubted quality hasn’t been performed more often. Firstly, it probably falls into the same category as Meyerbeer’s operas, works that are a bit old-fashioned and overly ornate, their melodramatic content too exaggerated with Grand Operatic mannerisms for the tastes of a modern audience. Ponchielli was a contemporary of Verdi, but perhaps more significantly, Puccini was one of his pupils and the verismo style of the next generation of Italian composers undoubtedly played a large part in consigning many of the absurdities of the old style to the past.

The other reason La Gioconda perhaps hasn’t been performed more often is probably for much the same reason that the bel canto repertoire fell into neglect for almost a century - it really takes exceptional singers of personality and stature to really bring its qualities to life. It’s no surprise that the last time the work enjoyed popularity was when it was performed by Maria Callas and by Renata Tebaldi in the 1950s, but it’s rarely been heard since then. I wouldn’t say that Violeta Urmana is in the category of the world’s greatest sopranos, even by contemporary standards, but she certainly attacked the role with passion and distinction here in the Paris Opera’s production. What the Paris La Gioconda revealed however is that the work doesn’t just rely on the quality of the soprano singing the title role, but that there are five other difficult and challenging roles that it is essential to get right. Here, the Paris production was less convincing.

The set design for the opera’s Venetian locations at least looked terrific. Pier Luigi Pizzi creates the kind of typical big, bold design in primary colours that works so well at the Bastille, and works particularly well for this work. The action in the first two acts takes place on a piazza in Venice, and that’s recreated here well in Pizzi’s neo-classical style with canals and gondolas that seem to float naturally along them. A good sense of space is also created with bridges that serve to bring the choruses and the principals onto the scene. It’s all rendered in black and red, with a bright background that sets it in silhouette against a blazing sunset over the lagoon. The latter two acts simplify the design to a series of steps that allow space for the work’s most famous centrepiece, the Dance of Hours ballet, while also creating the necessary space for the focus to remain on the dramatic developments of the denouement. The set looks good and it functions well with the requirements of the drama.

The acting direction however is simply dreadful. Rarely do the singers interact with one another, but rather they pace up and down the stage in an old-fashioned style, directing their performance out to the audience. Once again, Marcelo Álvarez is the worst culprit. He’s a fine singer, but he has no sense of character and plays every role in exactly the same declamatory way, striking a pose, one arm stretched out, hand clasped in a fist and then swung into his chest, his delivery pitched at the back of the gallery with big gestures so that the audience can see the sincerity of his emotions. It looks even more ridiculous in close-up in a filmed performance. La Gioconda’s ripe melodrama, it has to be said however, does call out for this kind of performance from Enzo, and Álvarez has clearly been encouraged to play it to the hilt.

The other male roles could use this kind of energy and conviction, but it wasn’t much in evidence in Claudio Sgura’s Barnaba or Orlin Anastassov’s Alvise. Barnaba is an out-and-out villain, the scheming jealous mastermind who manipulates all of the characters, but is unable nonetheless to achieve the one thing he wants - making La Gioconda love him. It’s not particularly strong characterisation - Arrigo Boito’s libretto isn’t as refined here as it is for Verdi’s later works (although some of that may be to do with Victor Hugo’s source since Barnaba is no Iago) - but Sgura isn’t strong enough for the vocal demands that might make him more convincing. Even if his actions are equally villainous, Alvise is perhaps a little more nuanced in character, but it would require a singer with more acting ability than Orlin Anastassov to bring it out.

These are extremely difficult roles to sing however, almost as challenging in their range and expression as the writing for the character of La Gioconda, and what the work really needs then to really achieve its impact is six strong singers. The female singers thankfully fared rather better than the male roles. Violeta Urmana’s top notes aren’t particularly beautiful and getting up there is not a smooth process, but her interpretation has all the passion and strength of character required here and she copes exceptionally well with a very challenging role. Luciana D’Intino also sings Laura well, and the two ladies stand-off in Act II over who loves Enzo more was, as it ought to be, one of the highlights of the evening.

Laura: I challenge your heart, o rival! Gioconda: You blaspheme! Laura: You lie! I love him as the light of Creation. Like the air that enlivens the breath. Like the heavenly and blessed dream from which came my first sigh. Gioconda: I love him as the lion loves blood and the whirlwind its flight. And lightning its peaks, and halcyons the whirlpools and the eagle the sun!.

This is a prime example of the kind of ripe and floridly over-written lines that the singers are expected to deliver in La Gioconda, so full credit to Violeta Urmana for being able to sing “I love him as the lion loves blood” and being able to convincingly look as if she could eat her rival alive as well. Urmana’s scenes with her blind mother La Ciega are also excellent throughout on account of another strong performance from María José Montiel.

La Gioconda might be a work of a bygone age and the Paris Opera might not have made a totally convincing case that it can be staged well, but there are a couple of reasons why Ponchielli’s work has the ability to endure. One is the beautiful and famous Dance of Hours ballet sequence, which was exceptionally well-choreographed here and impressively performed, even if it wasn’t particularly in context with the rest of the work. With gold-coloured topless male and female lead dancers, it looked more like something from the Crazy Horse on the other side of town.

The other reason is the final fourth Act, which fully lives up to the contrived melodrama of the previous scenes. La Gioconda is a surprisingly dark work - and it’s in this you can see the impact the Ponchielli would have on the next generation of Italian verismo composers - with what little romance there is in it is tainted by jealousy, bitterness and hatred with one of the bleakest and unforgiving endings in an opera prior to Puccini’s Tosca. If the singing couldn’t always reach those heights, the full power of the work’s qualities were at least brought out in a terrific performance by the Paris Orchestra conducted with true dramatic energy by Daniel Oren.

ParsifalRichard Wagner - Parsifal

The Metropolitan Opera, 2013 | Daniele Gatti, François Girard, Jonas Kaufmann, Katarina Dalayman, René Pape, Peter Mattei, Evgeny Nikitin, Rúni Brattaberg, Kiera Duffy, Lei Xu, Irene Roberts, Haeran Hong, Katherine Whyte, Heather Johnson, Ryan Speedo Green, Lauren McNeese, Jennifer Forni, Mark Schowalter, Andrew Stenson, Mario Chang, Maria Zifchak | The Met: Live in HD, 2 March 2013

If it did nothing else The Met’s new production of Wagner’s Parsifal at least emphatically confirmed a few points. Firstly, Parsifal is one of the most unique, beautiful and truly spiritual works ever written for the stage. No great revelation there, but it’s good to come out of a performance of this remarkable work feeling that it has been proven. Secondly, Jonas Kaufmann, singing the title role, is one of the best tenors in the world today - if not actually the very best. Again, although he has only sung this particular role once before, this won’t come as a surprise to anyone. A third point that many people also already know, is that Parsifal is an incredibly difficult work to stage. Unfortunately, François Girard’s production for the Met’s production confirmed that point, and just as emphatically as the other two points were made.

Part of the reason why Parsifal is such a difficult work to stage of course is because it is not an opera in the strictest sense, and not even a Wagnerian music-drama. Wagner coined a new category for the work for its presentation at Bayreuth, calling it a Bühnenweihfestspiel (”A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage”), which seems like a minor distinction (or a rather pompously Wagnerian one, take your pick), but in reality, with its religious subject matter, Parsifal is indeed closer to an oratorio than an opera. In terms of dramatic action, there’s not much that happens over the course of the three acts that take up over four and a half hours running time. While there may be little in the way of incident, much of the dramatic action conveyed through narration in long recitatives expressing noble sentiments and grand choruses of heavenly praise, Parsifal is nonetheless a remarkably dense work, filled with Christian imagery, Buddhist philosophy and ancient mythology. The meaning, the mystery and the ambiguity of the work, as well as its sheer beauty, is given its fullest expression however in Wagner’s music, the majestic summit of his career, some forty years in the making, completed in 1882 just six months before his death.

In the Met’s production however, Daniele Gatti’s conducting of the score tended towards a languorous levelling of pace and dynamic towards an enveloping somnolence. The only dimension that the viewer was likely to enter in this transcendentally spiritual work was that of unconsciousness. It wasn’t dull, it wasn’t boring, it was performed and sung magnificently and often with great sensitivity by a wonderful cast - but Parsifal is a work with countless levels of meaning and interpretation and there was no particular vision in either Gatti’s solemn even-handed conducting of the work or in Girard’s stage production. Set in a dark vaguely futuristic/timeless post-apocalyptic landscape, the knights dressed in modern black trousers and white shirts instead of armour, there was certainly a concerted effort to remove or at least downplay the traditional imagery and specific Christian elements in the work (in complete contrast to the recent Philipp Stölzl production that I saw at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin) in favour of a more universal spirituality.

This certainly worked for the First Act, reflecting the onerous task of the knights in their defence of the Grail, creating a sense of dark despair that weighs on Gurnemanz over the loss of the Spear, and emphasising the near overwhelming sense of pain that is felt by Amfortas in his eternal suffering from a grave wound that never heals. The black, cracked and scorched earth is further divided by a stream that has women on one side and knights on the other. Even Kundry cannot cross this river, which runs red with blood and widens at the end of the act, creating a powerful impression that feels in tune with the tone of the work and the wound of Amfortas, but the symbolism doesn’t particular add anything to what is expressed in Wagner’s score and libretto, nor does it encourage the viewer to consider the themes of the work anew. Returning to the same set in Act III - as dark, barren and desolate as it was in Act I - doesn’t give any sense of the redemptive force of Parsifal’s purity of purpose and sense of healing compassion.

Act II however is at least highly striking and original in its dark imagery of Klingsor and his vampy, ghostly Flower Maidens with spears wading in blood. Avoiding traditional interpretations of this scene, it at least contrasts with the seductiveness of Wagner’s score or could be said to draw out its sinister undercurrents, but it’s hard to imagine Parsifal being seduced by either the maidens or Kundry here. As the most ambiguous figure within the work, there is certainly a case for emphasising Kundry’s different roles as a woman in the work - and the symbolism certainly suggested as much - but it’s difficult to establish a sense of the character being anything more than all things to all men. She’s a mother with deep reserves of love and compassion, a lover, a whore and a temptress a distraction from the man with purity of purpose. She doesn’t need to be quite so open, but like all the other concepts in this production, it seemed unable to settle for any one interpretation or even unifying concept, leaving all possibilities there to be read as desired.

If there was a lack of vision in the production’s visual and conceptual interpretation of the work, it often looked marvellous and at least provided a suitable platform for the singers to bring a much needed sense of humanity and meaning to the words. The Met’s casting was the principal attraction here. Jonas Kaufmann was a memorable Parsifal, his performance here likely to be the standard that any modern production of Parsifal in the world today is likely to be judged against. His voice, his delivery and his interpretation made this an almost soulful performance. We had to really wait until the third act to get the full impact - his Act II duets alongside Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry were less effective than those in Act III with René Pape’s Gurnemanz - but this was glorious, dreamy singing and deeply persuasive of the real character and meaning of the work that was lacking elsewhere in the production itself.

It helped that Pape was able to reach deeply into his character also with a beautiful soft Wagnerian line free of bluster. He was strong in his long first Act narration, but unassisted by anything to work with in the production design and concept, it wasn’t until the transcendental third Act that he was able to lift this to another level, presumably buoyed by Kaufmann’s sensitive performance. Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry was wonderfully sung, but I failed to gain any sense of who or what her character was supposed to be from this production or from her interaction with Kaufmann’s Parsifal. Philipp Stölzl’s recent Deutsche Oper production of Parsifal had its flaws certainly, but it at least put Kundry at the centre of the work and Evelyn Herlitzius explored the vocal and emotional range of the character more effectively. Dalayman’s performance was by no means weak however, and there were no weaknesses to be found elsewhere in Peter Mattei’s painfully agonised and deeply moving Amfortas, while Evgeny Nikitin brought a sense of real danger and purpose to his Klingsor that avoided all the evil-villain clichés - notwithstanding his being bathed in and wading in blood throughout the second Act.

You could go down as far as Rúni Brattaberg’s Titurel the individual Flower Maidens here and you’d still not find a single weak link in the singing performances. Gatti’s conducting, which I found more persuasive divorced from the images when I listened back to the performance on the radio broadcast, the beautiful playing of the work by the Met orchestra and the strong consistent singing of a fine cast, all did at least work hand-in-hand with Girard’s direction and Michael Levine’s set designs. Even if it lacked a visionary edge to match Wagner’s majestic final testament, this was a mesmeric Parsifal that did justice to one of the greatest works in all of opera.

RigolettoGiuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria StuardaGaetano Donizetti - Maria Stuarda

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2013 | Maurizio Benini, David McVicar, Joyce DiDonato, Elza van den Heever, Matthew Polenzani, Joshua Hopkins, Matthew Rose | The Met Live in HD - January 19th 2013

I take it all back. Well, maybe not all of it. Musically and dramatically, I think Anna Bolena - done right - is certainly still the strongest and most convincing work in Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy, but David McVicar’s new production of Maria Stuarda - the second opera in of the three that he is directing for the Metropolitan Opera following last season’s Anna Bolena - has persuaded me that the work is more than just a romantic love-triangle bel canto piece in period costume and a historical setting, and it’s more than just an opportunity for a mezzo-soprano/soprano coloratura firework display between the two duelling divas playing the Queens.

The historical relevance of the rivalry between the Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots - the Tudor descendant - and Queen Elizabeth - whose legitimacy is questionable after the execution of her mother Anne Boleyn - is an important one, but their background also determines the character of each of the women to a large extent. This is indeed as much about two women as it is about two Queens, two women who have to live up to the weight and responsibility of history and their position, but they are not precluded from normal human feelings and reactions of pride, love and jealousy.

Based on a drama by Friedrich Schiller, the human drama in Maria Stuarda then hinges on a fictitious and fractious encounter between two women who in reality may have had a tense relationship, but never actually met in real-life. The imagined meeting at Fotheringhay Castle, where Mary Stuart was imprisoned, could realistically have happened - Elizabeth once passing quite close to the place while Mary was there - but although invented, the encounter is nonetheless a valid dramatic device that provides an opportunity and a release and expression of the very real rivalry and conflict that exists between the two women and their Protestant and Catholic followers.

Dramatic licence then and an invented love-triangle situation involving Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, may provide the context for those expressions to be brought together and for the respective personalities of the women - and their enmity for each other - to be aired, but where opera excels is in the emotional heightening of that reality through the music and the singing. It’s Donizetti’s score - conventional though it is in places - that gives further depth and personality to the characters, and hint at other aspects that lie beyond the remit of history books. Opera is good at this and Donizetti proves to be capable of raising the situation to the necessary heights in Maria Stuarda. The opera however still needs to be convincingly staged and sung, and bel canto opera presents considerable challenges for the director and the cast in that respect.

Working with an unfamiliar style of opera that has those special demands, David McVicar again - as with the earlier Anna Bolena - didn’t attempt anything too radical, keeping the work in period and refraining from introducing any concepts that aren’t evident in the libretto. This has some disadvantages - the opera, like most bel canto opera, tends to be rather static and devoid of any real action - but McVicar recognises that the strength and the real dramatic content of the work lies in the historical situation and that its import is best brought out by the singing. In fact, Maria Stuarda relies principally on a couple of key pieces - the famous confrontation scene at the end of Act I where the Queens spit insults at each other (’vil bastarda’), and the Act II scenes and arias leading up to Mary’s execution. McVicar’s handling of these vital scenes was flawless, the staging and lighting having the necessary impact that was almost spine-tingling.

That doesn’t come about by chance however, nor does the full impact come across in isolation from the rest of the work. The build-up to the scenes and the character exploration that leads up to them is just as important and that aspect wasn’t neglected by McVicar, or by set and costume designer John MacFarlane either. The effort put into this was perhaps most evident in the depiction of Elizabeth, in the choice of costumes and wigs, in the almost masculine swagger and in the actual physical size of Elza ven den Heever dominating over the much smaller Joyce DiDonato, but the little details that show her weaknesses and vulnerabilities also came across in movements and subtle moments of reflection that are tied closely to the music. If the attention given towards ven den Heever’s Elizabeth (and her dedication at going so far as to shave off her hair in order to make that famous bewigged look all the more convincing) was more evidently worked upon, the characterisation of Mary by McVicar, and of course by Joyce DiDonato, as one of an intense sincerity of purpose that tips over into barely controlled passion, is just as important to strike the necessary contrast in personality, background and character.

That contrast between the women is of course also explored in the blistering arias and the explosive duet that make the work famous (leading to at least one notorious real-life kicking and punching match between the original two leading ladies in the opposing roles), but in the case of this production, the match is never an equal one - at least in terms of singing. It’s not left up to two leading divas of competing equal ability to determine between them who is the most fiery, but it’s one predetermined by the casting and the direction choices. There’s really no contest or doubt about where the sympathies lie here, and no attempt to strike a balance - although Elizabeth is, as mentioned earlier, strikingly characterised in a way that is wonderfully human and real. Elza ven den Heever plays and sings the part well, but she’s no match for the power of Joyce DiDonato’s portrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Bel canto leading roles often demand a singer of extraordinary ability, needing technique as well as personality and a necessary degree of acting ability, and DiDonato proved here that she is one of the best mezzo-sopranos in the world in that respect. This was a thoughtful, considered and committed performance, one that demonstrates understanding of her character and finds a manner to express Mary’s inner qualities though the weight and timing of delivery, through the coloratura and through the very tone and timbre of the voice itself. If the full impact is felt at the close of the opera - like Anna Bolena ending with another flash of red, but one her that is historically documented as Mary’s choice of red martyrdom dress - it’s mainly due to DiDonato’s ability to make it utterly and chillingly real.

It’s evidence, if any further evidence is needed, that such bel canto operas can only work - and have only ever been successfully revived - when there is an artist of sufficient stature, technique and ability to carry them. DiDonato is clearly up there. The jewel however requires a setting to allow it to shine, and there were no elements at all here to tarnish the lustre of DiDonato in any way. Matthew Polenzani’s Leicester was adequately sung. It wasn’t a role best-suited to Polenzani, and I’ve seen him perform much better than this - but as it is written, Leicester’s part in the love-triangle never seems the most convincing aspect of the work, or the real motivation for the rivalry between the two queens, merely a pretext to draw them together. Joshua Hopkins as Cecil and Matthew Rose as Talbot also dutifully and more than adequately filled their roles in the drama, but everything that counted in making this production come together depended on Joyce DiDonato, and more than anything else, it was her performance that made this an impressive and even unforgettable Maria Stuarda.

Anna BolenaGaetano Donizetti - Anna Bolena

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2011 | Marco Armiliato, David McVicar, Anna Netrebko, Ekaterina Gubanova, Ildar Abdrazakov, Keith Miller, Stephen Costello, Eduardo Valdes, Tamara Mumford | Sky Arts, The Met Live in HD - Oct 15th 2011

The Metropolitan Opera in New York chose the first of Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy of operas, Anna Bolena, to open its 2011-12 season and also be the first of its Live in HD broadcasts for the season. With David McVicar now also directing Donizetto’s second Tudor opera Maria Stuarda for the 2012-13 season (broadcast this weekend Live in HD), and presumably in line to complete the trilogy with Roberto Devereux next season, it seemed a good point to catch up with the earlier production since it is currently available for viewing on the Sky Arts channel in the UK.

Moreso than the other two works in Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy, and indeed unlike most bel canto historical period dramas - Lucrezia Borgia and I Puritani, for example - Anna Bolena is a work that uses its history as rather more than just a colourful backdrop for the usual romantic intrigues leading to betrayal and despair. Those elements are certainly a part of what makes the story of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, human and relatable, but Donizetti’s work also takes into consideration the wider historical perspective and nature of the characters - particularly in what is revealed about Henry from his earlier marriage to Catherine of Aragon. It also takes into account the vast historical impact and the constitutional crisis that his desire to dissolve his marriage to Anne Boleyn would have on the English nation.

The first Act of Donizetti’s opera, opening in the oppressive atmosphere of the court of Greenwich Castle, establishes the context exceptionally well. Courtiers mill around, wary of the evident problems in the royal marriage that hasn’t borne Henry a male heir, while Anne looks troubled, feels isolated, her thoughts dark and gloomy. Even her Smeaton’s love-song ballad - the pageboy in love with the Queen himself - only reminds Anne of the way love can go wrong. Yet, she still can’t sense the guilt that is weighing upon Jane Seymour, or the seriousness of the threat that is posed by her lady-in-waiting’s affair with the King. Henry promises Jane “a husband, a sceptre, a throne”, but for Jane her personal sense of shame can only be alleviated by the legitimacy of marriage and that will come at a price. In order to break with Anne, Henry recalls the exiled Richard Percy, believing he can find justification in Percy’s prior relationship with Anne Boleyn to annul the marriage, but the unexpected presence of the love-struck Smeaton in Anne’s bedchamber gives Henry the opportunity to go even further.

The dilemma is laid out very clearly in Felice Romano’s libretto, but even more so in Donizetti’s brooding score which captures all of the drama and the dark foreboding of what lies ahead. That needs to come across in the setting as well as in the music and the singing performances, and by and large David McVicar’s production manages to get to the heart of those sentiments. It’s resolutely period in setting and somewhat stiffly arranged, the sets amounting to nothing more really than walls and doors - big doors, mind you - but this is an opera that works as a piece, a work driven by the dramatic flow rather than adhering to the standard bel canto number format, and the director manages to maintain a consistency of tone and purpose, allowing room for manoeuvre and expression over and beyond the words in the singing and in the coloratura of the singing. And for that you need exceptional singing talent.

The singing here, while very good across all the roles and showing no fatal weaknesses, was however not what you’d call exceptional. Ekaterina Gubanova perhaps comes across best as Jane Seymour, singing well and with feeling, making you really care about her character’s predicament and even pitying her not only for being in love with a nasty figure like Henry, but for having to admit it to Anne. She is very convincing in her dilemma, and her confession scene with Anna Netrebko’s Anna is consequently one of the best scenes in this production. Evidently however, all eyes are on Netrebko, but for the most part she is curiously stiff and even strangely vacuous, never delivering a performance as good as the one she delivered in this role in Vienna only a few months earlier (available on Blu-ray and DVD). When it’s needed however, she really gets her voice behind the extreme emotions and anguish of Anna Boleyn, if not always finding the variety of expression required in the coloratura, and even on occasion sounding a little hoarse on the high notes. Often it just sounds forced and operatically mannered, which is not something I’ve heard before in Netrebko’s usually more expressive and considered delivery.

Bearing the weight of history and a role that could so easily be simplified into an operatic ‘baddie’, it’s tough to bring any kind of degree of humanity and realism to the role of Henry. Donizetti and Romani recognise however that there is a man behind the crown (”May Henry be kind, even if the King is cruel”) and they rather brilliantly capture that in the music and the libretto. It’s particularly relevant in scene when Henry realises that Boleyn was “Percy’s wife. Before Henry” and in his subsequent scene with Jane Seymour that seals Anne’s fate, the whole sequence epitomising and encapsulating Henry’s attitude, his male pride, his kingly pride and the realisation that he can use that information and privileged position to his advantage. These are crucial scenes to the work where a singer has to make Henry’s dangerous authority and his ability to command a situation clear. Donizetti certainly nails it in the music, and fortunately so does Ildar Abdrazakov in the singing here.

Stephen Costello doesn’t have the most melodic tone as Percy, but is firm and steady and his singing is not without considerable feeling for the role. The importance of Mark Smeaton shouldn’t be underestimated in this opera and fortunately it was well-cast with Tamara Mumford in the trouser role, and the part was well-directed by David McVicar. There’s a sense of the bloody reality of Henry’s reign brought home in Smeaton’s confession under torture, McVicar bringing a certain realism that emphasises the horror of the situation and the brutality of the period. That’s balanced however with a rather more delicate touch in the symbolic fall of a blood red curtain at the execution scene. It’s the little touches that often count with McVicar and he brought them to bear effectively where they were most needed in a work that elsewhere didn’t quite have the urgency of the Vienna production.

BalloGiuseppe Verdi - Un Ballo in Maschera

The Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2012 | Fabio Luisi, David Alden, Sondra Radvanovsky, Kathleen Kim, Stephanie Blythe, Marcelo Alvarez, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Keith Miller, David Crawford | The Met Live in HD, 8th December 2012

Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) is an opera of wild dynamism, marrying together scenes of jarring contrasts in a way that makes it difficult opera to stage dramatically and musically in any coherent or consistent way. It certainly not an opera I’ve seen handled convincingly on the stage, but David Alden’s production for the Metropolitan Opera, if it doesn’t quite bring it all together, at least points towards a way that might work. Not playing it entirely straight, not playing it up for laughs either, but playing it scene by scene the way Verdi wrote it.

Quite what Verdi’s true intentions for the work were is of course open to speculation. The work, originally entitled Gustavo III, based on the real-life historical assassination of King Gustav III at a Masked Ball in Sweden in 1792, was notoriously banned by the strict censorship laws of the period in revolutionary Risorgimento Italy, who were unhappy about the depiction of an assassination of a monarch, forcing Verdi to rewrite and rename the characters involved. Even then, the changes applied to the new version, called Una Vendetta in Dominò, weren’t enough to appease the censors in Naples, so a furious Verdi took the work to Rome where it was first performed with the setting changed to Boston in North America as Un Ballo in Maschera in 1859. The work is now performed, as it is here at the Met, in its original Swedish setting, but clearly Verdi was forced or felt the need to make compromises to the work in order to avoid censorship even in Rome.

None of this however is likely to have had much of an impact on Verdi’s choices for the musical scoring of the piece and, seeking to show off his range and work with musical arrangements and arias more along the lines of La Traviata than the more through compositional style that he was gradually moving towards, Un Ballo in Maschera consequently has some of the composer’s most beautiful melodies, striking arrangements and dramatic situations. Every dramatic situation is pushed to its emotional limits - whether it’s the love of Gustavo for Amelia, the wife of his secretary, the friendship of Gustavo and Renato which is to fall apart on the discovery of the affair, or the hatred felt by the king’s adversaries - all of it is characterised by Verdi with an extravagance of passion.

An extravagance of melody too which, accompanying the melodramatic developments of the plot’s regal and historical intrigue, to say nothing of incidents involving gypsy fortune tellers, can lead the work to switch dramatically at a moment’s notice between the most romantic of encounters to the deepest gloom, from declarations of love to dire threats of vengeance. The key to presenting the work coherently - if it’s at all possible - is to try to ensure that these moments don’t jar, and with Fabio Luisi conducting the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera here, musically this was a much more fluent and consistent piece than it might otherwise have been, without there being any alteration or variation to the essential tone of the work.

Inevitably, any director is going to look for a consistency of style in the approach to the stage direction, but that’s probably a mistake with this work. It’s not a mistake that David Alden makes. I must admit, having seen Alden’s fondly humorous day-glo productions of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and Handel’s Deidamia, I had a suspicion that Alden might settle for playing up the camp comic side of Un Ballo in Maschera - which is certainly there and probably a more convincing way of playing the work than attempting to do it completely straight if the Madrid Teatro Real production is anything to go by - but I was wrong. Alden plays every single scene in accordance with the tone established by Verdi, light in some places, thunderingly dramatic and brooding in others, but always operating hand in hand with Fabio Luisi to ensure that this can be made to work musically and dramatically.

Where the staging has consistency of theme and a consideration for a meaningful context for the work however, was in Alden’s typically stylish and stylised production designs, created here by set designer Paul Steinberg and costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Evoking a turn of the twentieth century setting that takes the work entirely out of its historical context (notwithstanding the personages reverting to their original Swedish names), the production had the appearance of a Hollywood Musical melodrama, as lavishly stylised as a Bette Davis melodrama, but consistent within its own worldview, and it worked splendidly on this level. The set was a little overworked in places, with dramatic boxed-in angles and heavy Icarus symbolism in a prominent painting, but it clearly responded to the nature of the work, playing more to the sophistication that’s there in the music than the often ludicrous libretto. Alden however even found a way to incorporate this into the production with little eccentric touches - such as the eye-rolling madness of Count Horn, which is not a bad idea.

Similar consideration was given towards the singing and the dramatic performances of the cast assembled here, which was - as it needs to be - forceful and committed. The combination of voices was also well judged, the Met bringing together a few Verdi specialists well-attuned to the Verdi line - Marcelo Álvarez (who I’ve seen singing the role of Gustavo/Riccardo before), Sondra Radvanovsky and lately, Dmitri Hvorostovsky - all of them strong singers in their own right, but clearly on the same page as far as the production was concerned. A few regular Met all-rounders like Stephanie Blythe and Kathleen Kim also delivered strong performances in the lesser roles of Madame Arvidsson and Oscar that really contributed significantly to the overall dynamic. This was strong casting that brought that much needed consistency to a delicately balanced work where one weak element could bring the whole thing down.

Alden and Luisi were clearly aware of this and played to the strengths of the charged writing for these characters. Act II’s duet between Álvarez and Radvanovsky was excellent, hitting all the right emotional buttons, each of the characters delving deeply to make something more of the characters than is there on the page of the libretto. Hvorostovsky brought a rather more tormented intensity to Renato in his scenes with Radvanovsky’s Amelia that seemed a little overwrought, but this paid off in how it made the highly charged final scene work. Un Ballo in Maschera is still a problematic work, but with Luisi and Alden’s considered approach and this kind of dramatic involvement from the singers, the qualities of the opera were given the best possible opportunity to shine.

TempestThomas Adès - The Tempest

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2012 | Thomas Adès, Robert Lepage, Simon Keenlyside, Audrey Luna, Alan Oke, Isabel Leonard, Alek Shrader, Toby Spence, William Burden, Kevin Burdette, Iestyn Davies, Christopher Feigum, John Del Carlo | The Met Live in HD, 10th November 2012

Following the furore surrounding his controversial high-tech production of Wagner’s Ring cycle for the Metropolitan Opera across their past two seasons, Robert Lepage returns somewhat to his roots as a traditional theatre director for a work that may not be equal in scale and stature to Wagner’s epic work, but is ambitious and challenging nonetheless, to say nothing of a bit of a commercial gamble. Lepage, as was made clear repeatedly in interviews and in programme notes, has directed Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tempest‘ eight times in his career, so you would expect him to know what works and what doesn’t (something that might not have been so clear in his handling of the Ring). An opera based on ‘The Tempest‘ is however a different prospect altogether, particularly one that has been necessarily condensed and ‘translated into English’, and requires a very different approach to staging. Fortunately, in this production for the Metropolitan Opera, ambitiously broadcast live in HD to cinema theatres across the world, Lepage was considerate of the different requirements that opera and Shakespearean theatre demand. It’s fortunate also that composer Thomas Adès also has a very clear view of the work and brings it across marvellously and musically in The Tempest.

Shakespeare usually has to be considerably reworked when adapted to an opera, meaning that it is necessarily condensed, streamlined and stripped largely of its poetry. Having a kind of musical element of its own, ‘The Tempest‘ however would appear to be a work that is more open to musical adaptation than most other Shakespeare works. Considering its scope and range - taking in comedy, family drama and political intrigue - but most notably having a supernatural and musical element that takes in the spirits of the spheres through Ariel and the baseness of the earthy Caliban, the whole drama taking place on a magical island of “noises sounds and sweet airs” - The Tempest would appear to be both a challenge and a gift for a capable musician. Adès manages to integrate all the rich elements of Shakespeare’s work wonderfully, not just accompanying the various strands of comedy, drama and romance that are rather compressed in the dramatic playing, but making up for the lack of poetry in the libretto by deepening the sentiments through the musical dimension. It’s not always the most melodic of arrangements, but it’s wholly appropriate to the context of the scenes, never discordant and often quite beautiful in its symphonic sweep.

The most difficult element - from the point of view of composition, from the nature of the singing challenges and from the assault on the ears of the listener - is undoubtedly in the tricky characterisation of Ariel. It’s necessary that Ariel appear to be a spirit creature from another, higher dimension, but held under the power of Prospero the pain of his captivity and his desire to escape from earthly bonds should also be an element in the character’s make-up. Adès expresses this in the highest extremes of the soprano range, which is by no means easy on the ear or even entirely intelligible, but it does have an otherworldly quality. That however is just the most extreme example. Elsewhere Adès shows himself capable of strong individual characterisation in each of the roles and personalities, in the comedy of Stefano and Trinculo, in the romance of Miranda and Ferdinand, in the dark scheming of Antonio and Sebastian, and in the nobility of the King of Naples in his grief for Ferdinand whom he believes dead. What is marvellous about Adès’ writing for The Tempest is that he not only fully characterises and enriches expression of each individual character - without having recourse to themes or leitmotifs - but that he makes them coexist and work together. In drama that’s difficult enough, but to bring those musical elements together into a coherent piece is much more challenging. That’s however where opera traditionally excels and Adès shows wonderful facility for this necessary ability.

And then, of course, there’s Prospero, with his thoughts of revenge for having being usurped from the throne of Milan by his brother, his enslavement of Ariel and Caliban, his exercise of power over the island and his daughter Miranda, and the relinquishing of all those powers and claims by the end of the work. Not only must the development of Prospero’s character arc encompass all these elements, but his personality must be seen (and heard) to exert an influence over everything that happens - his watchful eye monitoring the activity of the crew that his storm has shipwrecked on the island. If the final realisation and capitulation of his powers still seems a little hurried and arrived at without too much deliberation or conflict, Adès nonetheless manages to characterise this as successfully as it could possibly be. Much inevitably depends on the quality of the singer, and Simon Keenlyside (reprising a role that he helped create in the original 2004 Covent Garden production of the work) is a commanding presence that brings Prospero to life and brings a necessary degree of humanity to the part. It’s an extremely challenging role - particularly in the singing - and Keenlyside did show a little strain in places, but nothing that couldn’t be seen as characterisation of Prospero’s own personal conflicts and dilemmas.

The singing and characterisation was marvellous almost right across the board here, and it went some considerable way towards making a difficult work much more accessible and enjoyable. Audrey Luna was simply astonishing as Ariel, as lithe and agile in her movements as in her voice (Lepage effectively keeping Ariel almost exclusively floating up and above or outside the drama as a mischievous but otherworldly sprite), and the casting of Isabel Leonard and Alek Shrader as the beautiful couple of Miranda and Ferdinand - the great hope for the future - could hardly be more perfect. Leonard’s rich and luxurious mezzo-soprano was wonderfully expressive with clear diction and real strength of character, blending wonderfully with Shrader’s handsome tenor voice. Caliban might have been a little marginalised as a character here, never really working his way into the main drama, but Alan Oke made something wonderful of the role in his singing and performance, interacting well with the character pieces of Stefano and Trinculo. Countertenor Iestyn Davies - who made a strong impression in last season’s Rodelinda at the Met - again demonstrated a voice of incredible beauty and clarity. Adès’ writing is so strong that it provides notable roles also for Toby Spence (the original Ferdinand) as Antonio and particularly William Burden who gave wonderful expression to the grief-stricken sentiments of Naples. Only bass-baritone John Del Carlo seemed to struggle with the difficult range of the vocal writing of Gonzalo, but nonetheless sang his Act III solo piece (not quite an aria) very well.

If the singing went some way towards making a potentially difficult work more accessible, Robert Lepage’s stage direction and Jasmine Catudal’s clever set designs played their part in helping it all flow together marvellously. The importance of the direction shouldn’t be underestimated, as it any one element in the machinery of an opera can impact on all the others, and - working perfectly in accord with the music as opposed to a preconceived idea of Shakespearean ought to look like - Lepage’s contribution was a perfect fit for the work. The setting of the first act within a reproduction of the La Scala theatre certainly ties in with the notion of music, theatre, opera and even Prospero’s claim to be Duke of Milan, but more than being notional, it provided a conceptual approach to the theatricality of the staging, with figures slipping beneath the platform of the stage, and dropping into the prompter’s box. The Native Indian tattoos and markings on Prospero beneath his military greatcoat, with feathers woven into his hair, and the shaman-like appearance of the disinherited Caliban hinted at some of the underlying themes in the work relating to colonisation and exploitation of native populations, without needing to take this any further and over-complicate the progression of the drama.

The colour and spectacle of the production was well-served then by the simple magic of theatre props and machinery, the planks of the stage replacing the rather more high-tech planks of the unwieldy (but nonetheless impressive) Machine for Lepage’s Ring cycle - and it was a simplicity that worked alongside the music and with the themes here rather than try an impose a presence on them. As a consequence, with the composer Thomas Adès himself directing the orchestra from the pit, working to the strengths of the singing and to the movements on the stage, this felt like a truly complete opera production, one where all the elements work with and support the other to create that particular magic that comes only from this particular fusion of music and theatre - opera.

RigolettoGiuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Royal Opera House, London 2012 | John Eliot Gardiner, David McVicar, Leah Hausman, Ekaterina Siurina, Dimitri Platanias, Vittorio Grigolo, Matthew Rose, Christine Rice, Gianfranco Montresor, Jihoon Kim, Elizabeth Sikora, Pablo Bemsch, Susana Gaspar, Zhengzhong Zhou, Andrea Hazell, Nigel Cliffe | Royal Opera House Cinema Season, Live in HD, 17th April 2012

I’ve rarely been entirely convinced by any David McVicar production I’ve seen (other than perhaps his Der Rosenkavalier for the English National Opera). I think I know what he’s doing, and it seems clear enough that he’s simply using whatever means necessary to create the right mood that is appropriate for a particular work, even if that means introducing a hotchpotch of incongruous and anachronistic elements into a nominally period set and costume design. That’s fine and I can live with that, even if it is often a little messy and inelegant, but I don’t think he always gives the same consideration or shows understanding of the characters when it comes to directing the performers.

Originally created in 2001, McVicar’s production of Rigoletto for the Royal Opera House comes under the stage direction of Leah Hausman for its 2012 revival (viewed here in a live HD broadcast part of Opus Arte and the Royal Opera House’s Cinema Season on 17th April 2012), but there’s not a lot of room for the director to develop beyond the oppressiveness of the production’s uniformly dark set design that somewhat overshadows the broader range of human emotions and behaviour that are part of Verdi and Piave’s magnificent account of Victor Hugo’s ‘Le Roi S’Amuse’. Fortunately, John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, along with some very fine singing performances from a strong cast, were enough to draw out some of the finer qualities that are missing in McVicar’s presentation of the work.

Rigoletto

If then Act I, Scene 1 of this Rigoletto in the palace of the Duke of Mantua is somewhat dark and grungy-looking, and has some trademark McVicar shock elements of topless women running around and full-frontal male nudity, it is at least in keeping with the depraved and sordid quality of the Duke’s entertainments that are indeed described in the libretto by Count Monterone as orgies. It’s appropriate to show this rather dark side of the Duke’s character emphasised by the abuse endured by Monterone’s young daughter who walks around in a state of nervous shock, an unpleasant side that is to set courtiers against him and result in the curse of vengeance that is to resound throughout the work. The sinister qualities of this behaviour laid out in Act I need to be sufficiently established, and McVicar certainly aims for that, even if such “realism” and naked cavorting proves to be distracting and not entirely convincing on the stage of an opera house. Verdi portrays this much more vividly in his music score than anything McVicar can visualise on the stage.

There’s no problem however with carrying this sinister outlook through to the second scene of Act I, since the references to Monterone’s curse against Rigoletto for his part in the Duke’s crimes continue to be recalled by the jester and echo throughout the score. So too does the introduction of the assassin Sparafucile and the abduction of Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda add to the oppressive nature of a drama that leads to such a dark, melodramatic conclusion at the inn in Act III, a place that Gilda observes is like a scene from Hell itself. It probably doesn’t need any further emphasis from the director, who keeps the stage dark throughout, and retains the grungy feel with sheets of corrugated iron and wire-mesh fencing, but in its own way much of this reflects Rigoletto’s keeping of secrets and his protective attitude towards his daughter, which is to lead to such tragic circumstances. The skeleton masks used by the abductors at the end of Act I likewise suggest that the kidnapping of Gilda isn’t just fun and games, as if that isn’t already obvious.

Rigoletto

That’s all very well then, and certainly in keeping with the nature and tone of Verdi’s moody melodramatics, but there is much more to Rigoletto than this and a far more rounded view of the characters that is not really given sufficient coverage in the limiting darkness of McVicar’s production. There’s also love and protectiveness in the father/daughter relationship that stems from Rigoletto’s sentiments towards the mother of his daughter, a woman who was able to love a deformed specimen like himself. It’s a twisted kind of love certainly, as is the love of the Duke for Gilda - his nature not allowing him to treat her in any other way than how he treats other women - and it’s the inability to deal with the contradictions within that kind of love on the part of her father and the Duke of Mantua that in the end drives Gilda to make an otherwise inexplicable sacrifice. If you aren’t able to show both sides of the contradictions within the characters however, then the behaviour from each of them risks seeming irrational.

Fortunately for this production, not only does a close listening to Verdi’s writing for these figures reveal the kind of complexity that is missing from this production, but it’s brought out wonderfully in John Eliot Gardiner’s working of the Royal Opera House orchestra and it’s also sung with genuine feeling for the nature of the characters and their predicament by an exceptional cast. Dimitri Platanias is an earnest and tormented Rigoletto, one made even more complicit in the crimes of the Duke in this production, yet Platinias’s singing brought out the other finer qualities in the character well. Vittorio Grigolo, reprising a role he performed in 2010 live television broadcast of Rigoletto filmed in the actual locations in Mantua, seems to continue to grow in confidence and stature as the Duke here, likewise combining the charm of the character as well as his flaws. Ekaterina Siurina’s voice seemed occasionally lost among the strong voices around her, but then that’s the position the young Gilda finds herself here, and she rose to the other singing challenges of her role (including a beautiful ‘Caro nome’) marvellously and sympathetically. It all went a long way to adding the necessary lightness to McVicar’s otherwise shady production.

GotterdammerungRichard Wagner - Götterdämmerung

Metropolitan Opera, New York 2012 | Fabio Luisi, Robert Lepage, Deborah Voigt, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Waltraud Meier, Jay Hunter Morris, Iain Paterson, Eric Owens, Hans-Peter König, Erin Morley, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Tamara Mumford, Maria Radner, Elizabeth Bishop, Heidi Melton | The Met: Live in HD, Feb 11th 2012

The evolution of the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring cycle has been gradual but noticeable through each of the four parts spread across its 2010/11 and 2011/12 seasons. Initially in the prologue, Das Rheingold, the spectacle of Robert Lepage’s Machine was clearly an impressive and revolutionary piece of stage technology, but its concept and purpose were not entirely proven. At the very least however, the opening section of the Met’s Ring cycle delighted with a stunning display of powerful singing. Neither the staging nor the singing were entirely consistent across Die Walküre nor Siegfried, but as James Levine’s illness forced him to gave way to Fabio Luisi on the conductor’s podium, a more equitable balance seemed to develop between the production and the performance that played to the strengths of Wagner’s masterwork, even if that meant a little less power in the vocal delivery. If Siegfried held out the promise that Lepage’s vision could end up being a memorable Ring production, that promise was satisfyingly achieved in its epic final evening. With Götterdämmerung, the Met’s Ring has come full circle.

Following on from Siegfried, Fabio Luisi again conducted a Wagner of Romantic sweep over the traditional heavy Germanic declamation, perhaps in favour of two leads who don’t have the full force that is usually demanded for the roles of Siegfried and Brünnhilde – Jay Hunter Morris and Deborah Voigt. The toning down of the dramatics and tone also worked fittingly with a subtlety in the stage design that belies the sheer weight and imposing presence of the Machine. Like Wagner’s score for Götterdämmerung, the underlying power of the tools at one’s disposal can be a temptation for overstatement, but it can be even more effective if that huge mass of force is suggested and used only sparingly. Clearly both Luisi and Lepage understand that. This is a Ring for the 2010s then, faithful to Wagner’s vision of the power of mythology and of the music drama as the highest expression of human artistic endeavour, taking it to a new level through the modern technology that is at the disposal of an imaginative director.

Gotterdammerung
Lepage’s vision for the production didn’t appear to yield any grand conceptual theme other than how best to make Wagner’s daunting and problematic series of operas work in a modern context without all its accumulated history and tradition. Particularly in the earlier parts, the morphing planks and projections worked mainly on a literal basis to create the imposing presence of Valhalla, an impenetrable forest or a mountain cave housing a dragon, but as the cycle progressed, the emphasis shifted more towards the abstract conceptual. The polymorphous nature of the technology was still well-employed to give solidity to the physicality of the story – the riverside playground of the Rhinemaidens for example actually looking more realistic here than how it was projected during Das Rheingold – but the colours, lighting and abstract patterns elsewhere in Götterdämmerung seemed to be more attuned to mood.

It may seem like making excuses for slightly underpowered performances, but it was actually refreshing to find a Siegfried and a Brünnhilde playing not as mythical god-like figures, but as the human characters they essentially and necessarily are. No excuses however need to be made, even for the fact that both Jay Hunter Morris and Deborah Voigt were taking on enormous challenges way beyond anything they have ever done in their careers; on their own terms their performances were exceptionally good and fitting for the production. The chemistry that seemed to be there between them at the end of Siegfried didn’t extend however through to the first act of Götterdämmerung, both seeming a little overwhelmed, the lack of lower depth in both their voices even more noticeable when combined. Voigt however raised her game when paired with the formidable and experienced Wagernian mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier as Brünnhilde’s sister Valkyrie, Waltraude. Their sequence together was simply magnificent. For his part Morris won through from sheer determination and stamina in a severely testing role that demands a concentrated effort for six hours, but he also had a down-to-earth personality and charm that made the final scenes of the opera intimate and touching as well as being epically apocalyptic.

Gotterdammerung

If there were any misgivings about the appropriate Wagnerian tenor of the main roles not quite matching the earlier powerhouse performances of the likes of Bryn Terfel, Stephanie Blythe, Eric Owens and Jonas Kaufmann, there was again magnificent support here not only from Waltraud Meier, but Wendy Bryn Harmer proved to be a fine Gutrune, Hans-Peter König a formidable Hagen – blankly sinister in acting, but deeply menacing in tone of voice – and there was another impressive turn from Eric Owens who made the brief reappearance of Alberich more than memorable, particularly as his character is a vital link (and leitmotif) that sustains the overarching development and tone of the entire work. Only Iain Paterson failed to make his presence felt either as Gunther, but his weak-willed character was at least dramatically appropriate and fitting, and certainly not a weak element.

I can’t say what the experience would have been like in the theatre, but there was no evidence during the HD-Live broadcast of any noise from the stage equipment, or indeed any of the problematic breakdowns that have been the cause of complaints in some quarters. Everything on the stage flowed smoothly and impressively. On the big screen, Götterdämmerung was as grandly spectacular and as intimately moving as it ought to be, perfectly attuned to the score and the performances. The camerawork – directed a strong visual flair as usual by Gary Halvorson – was also well-judged to pick out the strengths in the performances and the production design, working with it, flowing with the mood of the piece. Although there are a few Ring productions still to come this year and next (the Munich one in particular should be interesting), when eventually viewed together as a full Ring cycle (it will be interesting to see if the first two are revised slightly to suit Luisi’s approach to the work) I think the full impact and consistency of this Met Ring will be better appreciated and it may even be regarded as one of the best of recent times.

RodelindaGeorge Frideric Handel - Rodelinda

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Harry Bicket, Stephen Wadsworth, Renée Fleming, Stephanie Blythe, Andreas Scholl, Iestyn Davies, Joseph Kaiser, Shenyang | The Met: Live in HD - December 3, 2011

The challenges of staging a Baroque opera for a modern audience are difficult enough through trying to find a way to make the rather static nature of the drama more interesting to watch and bring the archaic musical conventions of the opera seria alive. By nature a more intimate drama, the difficulties of reaching out to a large audience in a major opera house, or even indeed to a worldwide audience watching live through a HD broadcast link must be even greater. With their production of Handel’s Rodelinda, the Met certainly made every effort to keep the drama and action moving through an inventive, appropriate, period set with direction by Stephen Wadsworth, and consideration was clearly given to the casting of strong singers to project the deeper emotional drama of the piece, but there was the feeling that the Met really isn’t the right venue for such works and the full impact of one of Handel’s most lyrical and dramatic operas was never fully achieved here.

Although it has a reputation for having a complex plot, the dramatic action of Rodelinda is actually not all that difficult to follow, and on the surface at least, it’s actually one of Handel’s least complicated situations. Updated in this production to Milan in the early 18th century, the King of Lombardy, Bertarido, has been deposed by Grimoaldo, and is believed dead. Grimoaldo, had been planning to marry Bertarido’s sister Eduige in order to gain a legitimate claim to the throne, but resolves instead to marry the queen, Rodelinda. Grimoaldo’s henchman, Garibaldo, puts pressure on Rodelinda, threatening the life of her son, and she reluctantly is forced to accept Grimoaldo’s proposal. Her husband Bertarido however is not dead, but has been smuggled into the city by his friend Unulfo, who still remains loyal. Overhearing Rodelinda’s agreement to marry Grimoaldo, Bertarido is forced to reveal that he is still alive, a selfless act that causes Grimoaldo to reconsider his intentions. The remainder of the storyline falls into conventional lines of resolution of both the political and, more importantly, the romantic situations that have become entangled.

Rodelinda
Even if it is fairly conventional in this respect, there is however still rather more dramatic action than you usually find in a Handel opera, with plenty of confrontations between opposing rivals and reunions between lost lovers. The real drama however goes on beneath the surface, the inner turmoil expressed, as it it often is in Baroque opera, through long repetitive da capo arias. Rodelinda is one of Handel’s most beautiful works for how these inner conflicts are expressed in the singing and in the music. It’s more than the usual, “I’ve been betrayed, how can I live with the shame?” type of situations, and the resolution is more than the person in the wrong coming to their senses and bringing about an honourable resolution that restores the political and romantic order of things. Superficially, it has to be admitted, Rodelinda does fit this template to a large extent, but it’s how those characters grapple with those difficult decisions, and it’s how those sentiments are expressed in the singing voice in some lovely poetic arias, through the achingly tender musical accompaniment, and in how the characters evolve over the course of the three acts, that the opera excels as one of Handel’s finest, most involving and most beautiful works.

From interval discussions behind the scenes during the HD-Live broadcast, it’s clear that the singers and conductor Harry Bicket are fully aware of the qualities of the work, of how those dramatic situations need to be presented, and how those deeper emotional conflicts and character development can be expressed in the improvisational coloratura of the seemingly rigid form of the da capo aria. Somehow, however, this never managed to be convincingly conveyed in either the dramatic staging, the singing or the performance of the orchestra. The Met’s Rodelinda treated Handel’s opera with skill, respect and consideration, but it just never felt like a Handel opera. As good as each of the singers is individually, the casting here was perhaps not the most appropriate for this particular opera. Personally, I’m not usually of the opinion that there’s only one way to present a work or that certain singers should only stick to a certain repertoire for which they are best suited – I like seeing a singer stretch their capabilities as much as I enjoy seeing a familiar opera transformed by a new interpretation – but few if any of the Met’s stellar cast seemed entirely comfortable in their roles here.

Rodelinda

Renée Fleming championed this work and helped get it performed at the Met when it was first produced in 2004, and she is a terrific dramatic singer who brings an attentive intelligence to the role of Rodelinda. Fleming demonstrated that she is capable of meeting the extraordinary vocal challenges in her own way, but – even though she is experienced in this type of opera – perhaps the demands of the Baroque technique got in the way in this performance, because she never succeeded in bringing the Queen’s drama to life. Neither did Stephanie Blythe fit well in the role of Eduige. She sang more than adequately, but you just didn’t get a sense that she was feeling her character’s predicament. Bertarido, with his deep reserves of love, honour and bravery, is perhaps the most interesting character in the opera, but Andreas Scholl’s light countertenor was too small for the Met production and didn’t always bring enough underlying steeliness of his character’s core. Iestyn Davies’ countertenor Unulfo however fared much better. Joseph Kaiser and Shenyang were good fits for their roles as the baddies, but even Kaiser failed to draw the full extent of Grimoaldo’s conflict and the change that he undergoes from the beautiful arias that Handel gives this character.

Ultimately however, the singers were competing with an enormous stage set that was certainly inventive and brilliantly designed by Thomas Lynch to keep the action flowing, providing a sense of realism and spectacle, but – like Wadsworth’s production for Iphigénie en Tauride last season – it was much too elaborate for the smaller intimate scale of the human drama that is played out in such a work. The same can be said for the Met Orchestra, which played the score of Rodelinda well enough, but only partially using period instruments and arranged to fill a larger opera house, it lacked the rhythm, the simplicity, the beauty and the delicate touch of a Baroque orchestra. As ever with the Met then, we got a typically top-class opera production, with top-flight singers and an intelligent and considered approach to the work, but either the venue, the occasion or the medium of HD-Live is all wrong for Baroque opera, because this version of Handel’s Rodelinda just never came across as movingly, involvingly and lovingly as it should.

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