Osborn, John


PuritaniVincenzo Bellini - I Puritani

De Nederlandse Opera 2009 | Mariola Cantarero, John Osborn, Scott Hendrix, Riccardo Zanellato, Fredrika Brillembourg, Daniel Borowski, Gregorio Gonzalez | Opus Arte

Although it’s set during a period of considerable interest in English history - the Interregnum that takes in the conflict between the Cromwell’s Roundheads and Royalists loyal to the Charles I and the Stuarts - the libretto for Bellini’s I Puritani makes little use of the historical circumstances but rather, not surprisingly for an Italian bel canto opera, merely uses it as a backdrop for a story of romantic intrigue. If the libretto follows a well-worn generic line in this respect, I Puritani - Bellini’s last work before his early death - is however rather more interesting musically, having more in common with Verdi than Rossini or Donizetti and showing the composer at his most imaginative and inspired. Despite the weaknesses in the libretto, the opera is not just a situation for a series of arias and cabalettas, but shows rather greater musical attention paid to the characterisation and situation, and it’s particularly notable for its strong chorus work.

It’s fortunate then that there is great emphasis and attention paid to this musical aspect in the De Nederlandse production from 2009, but effort is made in other areas of the production in an attempt to make the work a little stronger and more coherent that it might otherwise be. There’s not a great deal one can do with the limitations of the plot, which amounts to little more than a historical romance, and a not very imaginative one at that. The central conflict at the heart of the work is less that of civil war opposition of ideologies, religion or allegiance to the crown as much as a romantic tussle for the hand of Elvira, the daughter of a prominent puritan clergyman. Her father has bowed to her own wishes to marry her beloved Arturo (Arthur Talbot), despite having promised her to Riccardo (Richard Forth).

Just before they are about to be married however, Arturo - who has royalist sympathies - takes advantage of an opportunity to rescue a prisoner about to be executed when he recognises her to be the queen, Enrichetta (Henrietta). Riccardo lets them escape, happy to see his rival disappear and be labelled a traitor, but Elvira is more devastated by what she sees as a betrayal, since Arturo has absconded with a prisoner who uses her own wedding veil as a disguise to help her escape. In the great operatic tradition, she of course goes mad, and her delusion persists when Arturo returns and tries to explain his actions and reaffirm his love for her, causing her to be responsible for his death.

The historical setting heightening the notions of romantic betrayal to the level of melodrama, replete with obligatory mad scene for the leading diva, I Puritani would seem to designed to fit the standard bel canto template, but Bellini’s score is far more varied and darker in tone than is customary, and the vocal writing isn’t there merely to show off the range of the soprano. Even so, it’s still a difficult opera to make work dramatically, and it does have singing challenges of its own. The apparent weaknesses and insubstantiality of the plot are however given something of a boost here by conductor Guiliano Carella returning to the original Paris score of 1835 and reinstating a number of scenes - some of them quite significant - that fill out the detail in the characterisation, and demonstrate the qualities of Bellini’s writing even further. Assisted by a very strong visual concept of the set designs by Es Devlin and by the stage direction of Francisco Negrin, the De Nederlandse production would be in contention for one of the best productions of this work but for the singing, which is good in most parts, but far from the standard needed to really lift this work to the level that is aspired to here.

Visually, the production design strikes an excellent balance between period (or theatrical period) in the costumes and a more modern conceptual approach to the stage design. Made up of rows of sheets that in Act I create ramparts for the soldiers in one scene before rolling smoothly into another where they show a committee of puritans in rows, there’s a wonderful sense of fluidity and continuity created that establishes the somewhat confusing political context and the drama in the most effective and eye-catching manner possible. Act II and III by contrast are relatively static, but again find strong visual ways to represent both the court that pronounces Arturo’s fate and reflect the horror that has afflicted Elvira’s mind. Conceptually, emphasis is also given to words, the steel sheets marked by bullet-holes and rivets that actually form a Braille background (the words of the Bible, I believe, in Dutch), with projections of words of passion and madness from the libretto projected in the latter scenes.

Despite efforts to make this a dramatically strong presentation, the singing isn’t quite as consistent. Mariola Cantarero is a little high and light for the dramatic range required for Elvira and consequently doesn’t always make the mark. She’s at her best in Act II, in her scenes of mad delusion, delivering a lovely ‘O rendetemi la speme‘, but her acting is limited elsewhere, and her high notes tend towards a screech. John Osborn is a terrific lyrical tenor who I like a lot, and he is excellent here throughout as Arturo, but he seems to me to find the role dramatically limiting and doesn’t really succeed in bringing the character to life. There’s a little more to get your teeth into in the role of Riccardo, but Scott Hendrix has a tendency to chew the scenery, and considering it’s made of steel here, that’s quite a mouthful. He gives it everything of course and sings the role well, but there’s more aggression here than art. The other roles are similarly variable never quite entirely holding it together either dramatically or vocally, although Fredrika Brillembourg is the best here as Enrichetta.

If the main roles don’t stand out as they might, the support they are given by the Chorus of the De Nederlandse Opera is superb, as is the work of the Amsterdam orchestra, who deliver an impassioned performance that is attuned to the dramatic content, directed from the pit by Guiliano Carella who clearly has a lot of love for the work and very specific ideas about how it should be presented. That passion comes through in the extra features on the Blu-ray disc, which look at the rehearsals and consider the variations of the Paris version of I Puritani in interesting detail. The quality of the recording is also of a very high standard, with a clear image and strong, detailed High-Definition audio tracks in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. The BD is all-region, BD50 dual layer, 1080i full HD, with subtitles in English, French, German and Dutch. The booklet contains an essay on the work and a full synopsis.

Gioachino Rossini - Otello ossia Il Moro di Venezia

Opernhaus Zurich, 2012 | Muhai Tang, Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier, John Osborn, Cecilia Bartoli, Peter Kálmán, Javier Camarena, Edgardo Rocha, Liliana Nikiteanu, Nicola Pamio, Ilker Arcayürek | Mezzo.tv, Live Internet Steaming, 8th March 2012

There’s always going to be some difficulty in staging Rossini’s Otello ossia Il Moro di Venezia, and it’s not just because of the liberties that Rossini’s opera takes with Shakespeare’s work. True, the libretto by Francesco Maria Berio di Salsi doesn’t really keep to the development or characterisation of Shakespeare’s work, but it does manage to get to the heart of the drama and retain some of the dark mood of the piece. No, much of the difficulty with staging Otello is due to the often static nature of the work which is still tied closely to the conventions of opera seria, with long-winded expressions of agonising emotions and a great deal of repetition.

Otello

It’s only the brilliance of Rossini’s musical inventiveness in the scoring that makes it work so well as an opera, matching the music more closely to the moods, reducing recitative and solo lamentations in favour of concerted pieces that carry the drama through, playing out the drama through sung conversations. It doesn’t always manage to break free from the restrictions of the format however, which can be rather punishing on the singers and the audience, so a stage production requires a certain amount of inventiveness as well. Directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, who failed to enliven Halévy’s semiseria Clari for the Zurich Opera, despite the best efforts of its champion Cecilia Bartoli and John Osborn (also on board here), the team fare rather better with Otello, but one suspects that the reason for its success here – and why their previous collaboration wasn’t quite so successful – has much to do with Rossini’s rather more invigorating writing.

Initially, things don’t look promising in the rather dreary Act I. There’s nothing at all wrong with the updating the work to a modern setting, to a “corridors of power” wood-panelled waiting room, populated by figures in formal suits and high-ranking military naval uniforms, with rooms leading off in the background where various committees no doubt plan future strategies. It’s as good as setting as any for the plotting and scheming that lies at the heart of the work, but unfortunately, it proves to be rather dreary and static for the opening dramatic exposition. Figures standing around, there’s a bit of slow pacing up and down, and little to enliven the characterisation or solemn declamation as the Moor Otello returns battle, having defeated the Turks and regained Cyprus for Venice as the centre of the Adriatic Republic.

Otello

While there is professional jealousy over Otello’s success on the part of Rodrigo and Iago that is set-up in Act I, and some consideration of the Moor’s outsider status as a black-skinned African, evidently the main focus of the rivalry is over Otello gaining favour with Desdemona. In this version however, Otello is already secretly married to Desdemona, so when Iago suggests that she may be unfaithful, it really requires no great manipulation – Otello, insecure about his own position, is all too ready to mistrust Desdemona. Being somewhat opera seria in structure, the expressions of emotional turmoil are however given precedence over any consistency in characterisation or motivation, which makes this dramatically weak and inconsistent. The nature of Otello and Desdemona’s relationship has scarcely been established by the plot and by little actual confidences shared between them (Verdi would do this much better in his version), only in Desdemona’s expressions of her love to Emilia, her lady in waiting. If it’s all insufficiently established in dramatic terms, the music makes it much more compelling.

Act II and Act III in particular see Rossini at his best, breaking free of those operatic restrictions, using duets, ensembles and rising repetition to ramp up the tension and emotional fever pitch of the situation. Even if the stage direction gives the performers little to do in the absence of any conventional drama, Rodrigo’s ‘Che ascolto’ in Act II could hardly be more chilling, given a particularly powerful delivery here by Javier Camarena. In an opera that requires no less than three tenors in demanding singing roles, that intensity is matched in Otello and Iago’s Act II scene. If dramatically it’s less than convincing, musically it’s powerful, avoiding recitative and putting the emotion into the singing. Working with this kind of material, John Osborn does a good line in all-consuming jealousy in ‘Non m’inganno’ that is matched by Edgardo Rocha’s Iago enjoying the thrill of twisting people to his will, Rossini managing to encapsulate both emotions within the duetto.

Desdemona is rather less well-defined, carrying an over-urgency in everything she sings, which means that Cecilia Bartoli often sounds rather strident. No, not shrill – never that. Bartoli is still one of the finest – if not the finest – mezzo-soprano bel canto coloratura singers in the world, at her best when singing Rossini, and she is in terrific voice here. Barring her Act III ‘Willow Song’ however, the role is lacking in colour and shading, and it comes across more perhaps as exaggeratedly strident. It’s still an astonishingly display of singing virtuosity, Bartoli moreover also managing to bring real character to her role. She is absolutely chilling at the end of Act II and throughout Act III, making her inevitable fate at the hands of Otello (the scene had been reworked for a happy end, but the original is used here), dramatically shocking and highly effective. And does Act III contain the earliest example of a ‘mad scene’? It comes close and is certainly depicted as such in the production, Desdemona scrawling on the walls, the whole scene working well with the score.

Happily then, after the rather unimaginative first Act and start of the second, Leiser and Caurier’s stage direction picks up to meet the exceptionally high standard of the singing and the intensity of the musical arrangements – superbly conducted under Muhai Tang. The cold emptiness of Desdemona’s bedroom at the start of Act II and in Act III (perhaps this is how it’s intended to appear for a reason) are necessarily minimal, but the success of the production hinges on the playing out of the seeds of jealousy sown by Iago. This scene takes place in what looks like a seedy Turkish bar, with a fridge and a pool table. If the contrast to the preceding (and subsequent) scenes only underlines the outsider status of Otello, it’s effective, but it also proves to be the ideal place for the barroom brawl that erupts between the highly charged natures (wound up of course by Iago) of Otello and Rodrigo, the two men grabbing pool cues and heading for the back alley through the fire-doors at the back, despite Desdemona’s vain (over-urgent and strident) attempts to restrain them.

It’s clear then that the directors have recognised the difficulties of staging Otello and approached it well, using broader strokes in the sets to contrast the nature of the Moor with those of the state, using lighting effectively for mood, but also seeking to find smaller details to highlight. It isn’t always possible to bring any great subtlety to the work within the restrictions of the libretto and the almost opera seria-like arrangements, but this is more than compensated for by the vibrant delivery of the score and the outstanding singing performances.

The opera is currently available to view in its entirety and for free on the Medici.tv web site.

ClariJacques Fromental Halévy - Clari

Opernhaus Zürich, 2008 | Adam Fischer, Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier, Cecilia Bartoli, John Osborn, Eva Liebau, Oliver Widmar, Giuseppe Scorsin, Carlos Chausson, Stefania Kaluza | Decca

It’s very rare to see any work by Jacques Fromental Halévy performed nowadays, and he may indeed be an unjustly neglected composer, but discovered by Cecilia Bartoli while exploring the repetoire of the famous Rossinian mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran, this early work, Clari from 1828, composed to allow her to demonstrate her extraordinary range, is certainly one of his most obscure and forgotten works by the composer. Respectfully played with period instruments by the Zurich La Scintilla orchestra under the baton of Adam Fischer, treated to a fresh production from Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier to give some character to a dreary and uneventful plot, and with Bartoli demonstrating her wonderful vocal range, Zurich Opera certainly give the opera a fair shot, but whether Clari is an opera that merits such treatment is debatable, and the overall feeling is that it really wouldn’t have been such a great loss if it had remained buried.

Composed for an Italian libretto, before Halévy’s more famous, or at least more celebrated, French opéra comique work, Clari is an opera semiseria, which doesn’t mean that it’s only half-serious and plays its silly plot out with tongue firmly in cheek (although the production half-heartedly and perhaps out of necessity plays it that way). Rather, it’s a kind of mixture of opera seria (long after it had gone out of fashion even in 1828) and bel canto, full of long arias pondering internalised emotions expressed with extravagant coloratura in the da capo singing. This is fine if an opera has an involving plot and strong characterisation that can bear the weight of all the deep expressions of guilt and shame that are agonised over in Clari, but the story is not so much ludicrous as flat and pedestrian.

It involves a young peasant girl, Clari, who leaves her family in the provinces and runs off with a rich Duke in search of wealth, a better life and, most importantly love – or at least at the bare minimum, marriage. The Duke however hasn’t fulfilled his promises in this respect – to the great shame of her parents – and when he starts referring to Clari as his cousin, the young woman is further dismayed with the situation she is in. When the Duke’s servants Germano, Bettina and Luca put on a play for Clari before assembled guests at a birthday party in her honour, the story so resembles her own situation that Clari – believing it to be real (!) – faints out of shame. That’s about as far as any plot goes in Act I. Act II has each of the characters agonise over the situation until Clari eventually recovers from the shock and decides she has to run away, returning to her home in the country to try to gain the forgiveness of her parents in Act III.

As far as dramatic and emotional content, that’s about as far as it goes. One doesn’t necessarily expect a complex or credible plot in a bel canto opera, but really, the libretto, by Pietro Giannone, is pretty banal and sparseness of the plot and hollowness of the emotional charge scarcely merits all the moaning and wailing about wanting to die of the shame and guilt of it all that is expressed at length in the arias. None of it feels sincere, although it not for want of trying on the part of the performers or the stage direction team. Leiser and Caurier go for a non-specific relatively modern time period, glitzy and colourful with big props in the style of Richard Jones, adding humorous and self-knowing little touches, but none of it is enough to breathe any life into this corpse of an opera, and their efforts consequently feel leaden and fall flat.

The Zurich audience don’t seem to be sure what to make of it either, laughing politely at one or two places, but are clearly bewildered about what to make of the character of Clari herself or the amount of effort and technique Cecilia Bartoli expends on the empty phrases of the libretto, all in the vain attempt to make her character come to life. It’s only in Act III that they belatedly decide to applaud the efforts of John Osborn’s Duke and give an enthusiastic and deserved ovation for Bartoli – but one feels they might have mistaken her garguantuan efforts as signaling the end of the opera a little before its time. Eva Liebau as Bettina and Carlos Chausson as Clari’s father also make notable contributions, but it’s hard to take their roles seriously or indeed “semiseriously”.

Released on DVD only as a 2-disc set, the colourful qualities of the staging suffer a little from the lack of a High Definition presentation. The image looks reasonably well in the brighter sequences, but it’s a little murkier in the scenes at the end of Act II and start of Act III. Perhaps being spoilt by DTS HD-Master Audio mixes, the quality of the audio lacks precision of tone, particularly on the lower frequencies, but it’s actually not bad on either mix, although I think the LPCM Stereo wins out over the DTS 5.1 Surround. There are no extra features on the DVD set, but there is a worthwhile booklet enclosed which includes an interview with Bartoli, an introduction to the work, productions notes, a synopsis and even a photo-novella of the opera.