Ainsley, John Mark


IdomeneoWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Idomeneo

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

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is often that this earliest mature work, written to the dictates of the opera seria style that was even then considered outdated, is among the composer’s lesser works.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DeadLeoš Janáček - From the House of the Dead

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

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

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

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

Dead

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

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

Billy BuddBenjamin Britten - Billy Budd

Glyndebourne, 2010 | Mark Elder, Michael Grandage, London Philharmonic Orchestra, John Mark Ainsley, Jacques Imbrailo, Phillip Ens, Iain Paterson, Darren Jeffery, Ben Johnson, Jeremy White | Opus Arte

Mark Elder, the conductor for this production of Billy Budd at Glyndebourne 2010 notes that all Britten’s opera works are in some way about the loss of innocence. It’s an interesting observation that, if too neat and reductive a way to describe the qualities and the approach that Britten takes on the subject in Billy Budd, at least shows that it’s a subject that means something important to the composer. Elder, of course, isn’t intending to summarise the power and complexity of this opera or Britten’s work in a single phrase, and his deep understanding of the wider themes of Billy Budd is evident in his conducting of this remarkable production.

More than just being about the loss of innocence, it’s the different manner in which that innocence is corrupted in each of Britten’s operas (Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw), that makes them such intriguing works, works that are consequently capable of creating a deep impression on the listener. And although on the surface, Billy Budd, adapted from a short novel by Herman Melville, seems simple enough in its broad depiction of the malicious and deliberate destruction by cruel and heartless authorities of an innocent young man – a common sailor on board the HMS Indomitable in 1797, hard-working, of good heart, kind to his comrades, respectful of his superiors and loyal to the crown – the question of what motivates such behaviour (in the form of John Claggart, the ship’s master-of-arms) and how it is sanctioned, or at least tolerated (in the weakness of Captain Vere) is a much more complex and interesting subject that the opera touches upon.

According to James Fenton, writing about the opera in the Guardian in 2005, “Because this sort of surreptitious persecution and its counterpart, favouritism, are familiar to us from childhood as among the injustices that affect us most deeply, there is a power in the story of Billy Budd that grips us by analogy with our own experience. We want to know what motivates Claggart to persecute Billy.” That’s a complex question to which there might be no real satisfactory answer, but it is undoubtedly the principal reason why the opera holds a compelling fascination for the listener and touches deeply. There is certainly a sense that Claggart sees the respect and love that the crew have for Billy Budd’s innocence, kindness and beauty as a threat or a rebuke to the position of respect he has gained through the cruelty and fear that he exercises over the men, and he wants to show that such innocence is weakness has no place in a world where it can be mercilessly crushed.

Billy Budd

What experiences have led Claggart to this view aren’t clear, but it is certainly a part of the on-board culture of the British Navy during this period (where Budd, like the other new recruits, has been press-ganged onto the crew) and in the differences of class, rank and education. Much in the way that Turn of the Screw is about the repressed sexuality of a Victorian governess, there is very definitely a sense of repressed homosexuality and homoeroticism in Britten’s treatment of the story, particularly in the libretto of E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier. The use of language is magnificent in this respect, using nautical references and period idiom as well as playing on the sweetness of Billy Budd’s name (he’s frequently called Baby Budd and Beauty), all of which give a wonderful tanglible quality to the nature of the characters and life aboard the Indomitable, while also creating other resonances and connotations. Britten’s powerful score adds to those impressions, with sea shanty musical references and an emotional heart that is perfectly attuned to the dramatic content, binding characters, forging a sense of solidarity between them in some powerful chorus work, but also probing to the nature of their differences.

The nature of those drives that lead to such abuse of the innocent and the inexplicable failure of those with intelligence and authority to do anything about them might not be fully comprehensible, but the nature of how they are expressed in the opera and the wider implications of the piece is given a masterful comprehensive presentation in this production at Glyndebourne in 2010 by Mark Elder and Michael Grandage with the London Philharmonic. This is an outstanding production in every respect, conducted and played with verve and passion, capturing the full dynamic and range of the score, bringing it vividly to life. The set design by Christopher Oram is most impressive, aiming for solidity and period authenticity, while also being magnificently designed to keep the fluidity that Britten strove to achieve in the reduction of the opera to two acts. The singing and characterisation is great across the board, Jacques Imbrailo singing wonderfully while expressing all the innocence and passion of Billy Budd in every movement and gesture, Philip Ens a charmingly sinister presence as Claggart, and John Mark Ainsley a superb Captain Vere, the conflicted heart and mind caught between the polar extremes of the two men’s position. With all this, and fine performances in the other roles, this exceptional staging of Billy Budd is never less than gripping, dazzling and thought-provoking.

A fantastic, near-definitive production of the opera, it’s given an equally fine presentation on Blu-ray from Opus Arte. Directed for the screen by François Roussillon, the production looks magnificent, striking a perfect balance between close-ups and letting the full impact of the staging to be experienced. The image is clear and detailed, the sound mix both in LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 dynamic and resoundingly powerful. Extra features consist of a 10 minute overview of the opera and the production, and a look at the costume designs.

OrfeoClaudio Monteverdi - L’Orfeo

De Nederlandse Opera, 1997 | Pierre Audi, Stephen Stubbs, John Mark Ainsley, Juanita Lascarro | Opus Arte

It’s appropriate that what is often considered the first opera - or at least the first opera that we can recognise as being more closely associated with the form of the opera as it is widely known today - is a composition in praise of Orpheus and his golden lyre. Written in 1607, bringing together music and drama into an integrated form for the first time, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo seems to delight in the very essence of the resultant new artform that has been created, the alchemy of music, drama and exquisite singing achieving an almost transcendentally beautiful balance and harmony.

Dealing moreover with the legendary subject of Orpheus, Monteverdi’s opera finds a perfect subject to demonstrate the power of the artform, one that can take in subjects as large as life, death, love and art and truly do justice to their importance in the lives of ordinary people. Set in the meadows, hills and woodlands of Thrace, life is simple but hard for the workers in the fields, but Orpheus through his music is able to transform the misery of the people into a thing of beauty. But he “who once made sighs his food and tears his drink”, has since discovered happiness in his love for Eurydice. The happiness is short-lived however, as Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies. Grief-stricken, Orpheus descends to the underworld, to bargain with Charon, cross the River Styx and claim her back from Hades for the living.

A mythological subject, there is poetry and wisdom scattered throughout the gorgeous libretto, warning mortals not to “put your faith in fleeting fragile joy that is so soon gone” observing how often in life “we are lifted high only to be cast down”. The music (the story appropriately is introduced by the muse Music herself) and the singing all combining to give the subject and tragedy the necessary emotional depth. The 1997 production recorded here makes good use of the vast stage of the Muziektheater in Amsterdam, Pierre Audi’s staging at the same time simple but effective. The tone of the period instruments and singing are impeccable, John Mark Ainsley’s voice conveying the warmth, lyricism, charm and beauty that you would expect Orpheus to possess.

Released on DVD by Opus Arte as a 2-disc set, the 16:9 enhanced image is excellent, even in the dim lighting showing detail only slightly less impressive than a HD presentation. There are two audio tracks. The DTS 5.1 is a little echoing, although it does give the opera an appropriate cathedral quality, but the PCM stereo track seems to my ears to have much better depth and clarity. Neither can do much about the sometimes heavy clumping that is made by figures striding across the stage, but this is a minor irritation. The extras are brief but useful, including a Synopsis and a 16 minute introduction that looks behind the scenes at the production and the instruments used.