van Dam, José


ZauberfloteWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, 2013 | Simon Rattle, Robert Carsen, Pavol Breslik, Ana Durlovski, Dimitry Ivashchenko, Kate Royal, Michael Nagy, Chen Reiss, Annick Massis, Magdalena Kožená, Nathalie Stutzmann, José van Dam, James Elliott | ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming, 1st April 2013

There’s not much magic in Robert Carsen’s new production of The Magic Flute for the 2013 Easter Festival at the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden. There’s a flute at least, and you can’t always take that for granted - but Carsen very purposely brings this production very much down to earth. There are no big entrances and no grand effects, the settings are all related to nature and death. A rather grave Die Zauberflöte, you could say, which doesn’t provide much in the way of spectacle. Mozart’s music however can sustain that, but that might be more to do with the fine account of the score given by Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Simon Rattle and some strong singing performances than with anything that Robert Carsen brings to the production.

Carsen at least applies a viable and consistent concept to the work, cutting through all the Masonic rituals and ceremonies to the heart of the conflict that lies between the opposing forces of the Queen of the Night and Sarastro. It does a little more than that and actually attempts to update some of the work’s less-enlightened views on women to give a more equality-minded view of the differences between the two sexes in regard to the rational and the emotional capacity of all human beings. One is not necessarily superior to the other here. Despite some of the inconsistencies with this position within the work itself - which only enhances its ambiguity and richness - it’s the joining of those two forces through the union of Tamino and Pamina to create a better world that undoubtedly forms the heart and the meaning of the work.

Carsen merely emphasises this union by showing it not so much in contrast to the entrenched positions of Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, as much it being the beginning of a new age that has the blessing of these once mortal enemies. In Carsen’s staging, both Sarastro and Königen present a united force, putting aside differences for the sake of a better future, coming together even in scenes where they don’t usually appear together to offer silent support to the other side, even if their stated position indicates the opposite. You’ll find women (and even Königen’s Three Ladies) then alongside the men in Sarastro’s temple and - just to get the point across - even the Three Boys are transformed into Three Girls wearing dresses to call Pamina back from her despair and attempted suicide.

This all requires a bit of an adjustment from viewer used to the traditional certainties within Die Zauberflöte, of which there are few enough as it is. In place of the old-fashioned obscure Masonic imagery and rituals - and indeed the traditional spectacular set-pieces - Carsen’s staging takes the opera back to a more natural setting, with the emphasis on Life and Death. There are no big spectacular effects scenes here, the location consisting for the most part of a cemetery of open graves set against the backdrop of a projection of woods. The opening scene then merely sees Tamino scramble out of a grave to be rescued from what isn’t anything more than a big snake by the Three Ladies in dressed in mourning attire. Papagena makes her first appearance during Papageno’s trial of silence not as an old hag, but as a skull-faced corpse climbing out of a coffin. Even the orchestra, surrounded by a platform, seem to be contained within one big pit.

There’s a constant and deliberate attempt to cut back on the flash and wonder. There’s no grand entrance even for Königen der Nacht, who simply walks onto the stage with a minimum of ceremony. If she still presents a formidable figure, that’s conveyed in the singing delivery of that famous opening aria, and that alone is more than enough. In keeping with the sober funereal imagery, Monostatos is a gravedigger here, the Three Boys are just three boys (when they aren’t Three Boys dressed as girls) with no magic flying balloons to transport them. The Speaker and Sarastro are also dressed in formal mourning coats, wearing blindfolds. In the one place where you would at least expect to see magic effects, the playing of the magic flute, we merely see shadows of birds flitting around in the trees in the background.

Carsen’s staging then does take away a lot of the wonder and the humour that contributes to the richness of Die Zauberflöte without really bringing anything new out of it. What holds the viewer however, and what the staging only emphasises, is the richness of the music itself and the quality of the performances. Die Zauberflöte wouldn’t be part of the normal repertoire of the Berlin Philharmonic, but perhaps because of that they seem to relish in the beauty of the work’s symphonic qualities. You’d hardly think Die Zauberflöte was just a Singspiel, but of course the work is much more than that and Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker give a warm account of the work that contrasts with Carsen’s direction but at the same time enhances it. It may give every visual appearance of being a dark, morbid version of the opera, but there’s more warmth and forgiveness here that you usually find in what can sometimes be a cold and rigidly performed work. It’s hugs all around at the end here with even Monostatos being welcomed back into the big love-in finale.

The casting and the singing also make this an absolutely gorgeous Die Zauberflöte to listen to. With his pure lyrical tenor and fresh, sincere delivery, Pavol Breslik is a natural for Tamino. Alongside Kate Royal’s Pamina, a more idealistically perfect couple would be hard to find. Both look good, can act well and have simply beautiful singing voices. Royal’s ‘Ach ich Fühls‘ in particular is just exquisitely heartbreaking. And there are no disappointments elsewhere in the cast. Ana Durlovski stepped in at short notice to replace an unwell Simone Kermes as Königen der Nacht and did so very impressively. Dimitry Ivashchenko’s Sarastro sounded fine, but had a tendency to work to his own timing rather than follow the conductor. The toning down of the comedy and strong principals meant that there was not danger of Michael Nagy’s Papageno stealing the show here, but rather it was a fine performance that was still funny but fitted in well with the overall production.

This production of Die Zauberflöte at the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus was recorded on the 1st April 2013 and broadcast via internet streaming throught the ARTE Live Web site, where it is currently still available for viewing until July. Subtitles on the broadcast are in German only.

ArianePaul Dukas - Ariane et Barbe-bleue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

QuichotteJules Massenet - Don Quichotte

La Monnaie/De Munt, Brussels 2010 | Marc Minkowski, Laurent Pelly, Silvia Tro Santafé, José van Dam, Werner Van Mechelen, Julie Mossay, Camille Merckx, Vincent Delhoume, Gijs Van der Linden, Bernard Villier | Naive

With piles of papers and documents piled up on the stage, Laurent Pelly’s production design for this 2010 performance of Massenet’s Don Quichotte at La Monnaie-De Munt in Brussels looks like something from an art installation, but it serves the opera well and in the process provides a suitable platform for José van Dam’s final bow from the opera stage. Taking a dream-like overview of the subject, Act I shows what looks like a the Don’s drawing room, where the aging knight is resting sitting in an armchair, a man past his prime, dreaming of better times, of his love for the beautiful Dulcinea that once inspired him to write verses of praise in her name - all of which are piled up in a small mountain below her balcony - and the idealism that drove him to what he believes to be chivalrous and intrepid acts of valour.

The dream world of the knight’s idealism in the subsequent four acts is similarly filled with sierras and landscapes made of hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper, reflecting the recreation of Don Quichotte’s exploits on paper and the lack of substantiality that these dreams are based on, the valiant knight forgetting that he is now just a foolish old man whose youth has faded. After a 50 year career, José van Dam’s voice may also lost some of its youthful vigour and strength, but the passion and sincerity is still there, and in that respect it’s a perfect fit for the role of Don Quixote that makes his performance of the role all the more poignant.

I’ve never really been able to find a distinctive stamp to Massenet’s varied opera styles, finding little that has made an impression beyond his most famous creations of Werther, Manon and Thaïs, but I’m always interested to find what can be brought out of the other works, particularly when they are fully staged. Don Quichotte seems like a rather slight work in this respect, but the composer nonetheless seems to find the right tone throughout for this ‘comédie-héroique en cinq actes’. A five-act opera, it is however surprisingly sprightly, each of the short brief scenes - the entire work coming in at under two hours - finding the right balance of adventure and nobility, foolishness and dignity, with little Spanish-inflected arrangements but also a certain French character. I don’t know if it gets to the essence of Cervantes (Massenet worked on a French adaptation “Le Chevalier de la Longue Figure” by Jacques Le Lorrain), but it seems to strike the right tone throughout that fits the character of the work.

Laurent Pelly’s production likewise seems an exceptionally good fit. The astonishing set designed by Barbara de Limburg is mostly static, but there are subtle changes over the course of the opera that reflect the deterioration of Don Quichotte’s mind, and a few neat touches - the battle with the windmills is well achieved - that bring the work to life at the right moments. The casting is also perfectly appropriate for this modest little work that is nonetheless not short on charm or beauty. Van Dam is Don Quixote incarnate, carrying himself as the “errant knight who rights wrongs” with exactly the right kind of proud nobility amid the confusion of old-age. He might not hold the low notes with the same rock-solid sureness, but it’s a lovely and thoughtful performance, sung very well indeed. Silvia Tro Santafé is a lovely Dulcinea, with a light, rich, sparkling tone to her French, even if the vibrato applied makes her at times sound like an old-time French cabaret singer, evoking Edith Piaf in places. Werner van Mechelen provides solid support as Sancho. Combined they form the kind of strong varied and sensitive trio of principals that the work needs, but the quartet roles and the chorus are also wonderful here.

Released on DVD only, the presentation of the performance is fine, if the image quality and sharpness is not quite as impressive as it might have been in HD. The audio likewise is disappointingly lower-spec, Dolby Digital 2.0 only, but the sound is clear and the tone is warm. The orchestration, conducted beautifully by Marc Minkowski, sounds wonderful, and the singing is mostly strong and clear in the mix. There are a few slight dips in the sound, usually only audible around the audience applause, but occasionally on the stage also, as if the microphones levels are being adjusted, but it’s a relative minor issue. The DVD includes an excellent hour-long feature that goes behind the scenes on the production in some detail.