Aldrich, Kate


ZelmiraGioachino Rossini - Zelmira

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2009 | Roberto Abbado, Giorgio Barberio Corsetti, Alex Esposito, Kate Aldrich, Juan Diego Flórez, Gregory Kunde, Marianna Pizzolato, Mirco Palazzi, Francisco Brito, Sávio Sperandio | Decca

Rossini’s final opera written for Naples, Zelmira, is rather less well-known now than the greater works written for Paris that immediately follow it - Moïse et Pharaon, Le Comte Ory, Guillaume Tell. It’s an opera that places exceptional demands on the singers, but perhaps no more so than those later works, so that only accounts for part of the reason why it so rarely performed. Produced for the Rossini Opera Festival in 2009, the problems with staging Zelmira would seem to derive from the nature of the work itself as an opera seria. It’s a long work that follows the format of set scenes and emotions that presents challenges that even the musical invention of Rossini or strong singing performances alone can’t overcome. It needs to work dramatically, and unfortunately, Giorgio Barberio Corsetti’s messy and confused production for Pesaro doesn’t do much to help it.

Although there are claims by Roberto Abbado and the Pesaro Festival organisers that Rossini’s music here extends the constraints of opera seria, the structure remains largely intact, and Rossini in reality does little more than play around to bring the form of the da capo aria into what we associate today with bel canto ornamentation. There are some terrific arias and arrangements here in Zelmira, but there is nothing that Rossini hasn’t already taken much further and with better dramatic integrity in earlier work for Naples like La Donna del Lago. The music for Zelmira for the most part - in between the showpiece arias - remains fairly rigid and lacking in variation, building from a canter to a gallop in that famous Rossinian style to create a rising emotional intensity, but its peaks are ill-served and ill-matched to an unexciting plot.

The main problem lies with the fact that the overall structure of the piece is weighed down by the unwieldy conventions of the opera seria form. The plot of Zelmira is mechanical and improbable, relying on standard situations, coincidences and actions that arise from rather one-dimensional character development. In the tradition of Baroque opera, the main dramatic drivers of the action have already taken place even before the opera even starts. Set on the isle of Lesbos, a struggle for power has erupted while Ilo, the husband of Zelmira, has gone to defend the homeland. Azor, the Lord of Mytilene, has launched an attack, burning down the temple of Ceres, where Azor has been led to believe - on the word of Zelmira - that her father, King Polidoro is hiding. Zelmira however has secured her father secretly in the royal mausoleum. Antenore takes advantage of the situation, killing Azor, laying claim to the throne himself and he accuses Zelmira of being complicit in the death of Azor and her father, the king, as well.

Now there are plenty of opportunities for Zelmira to prove her innocence during Act 1 of the actual opera, but Rossini forgoes any realistic dramatic progression to the conventions of opera seria where everyone laments the current state of affairs in arias adorned with repetition and ornamentation. The troops lament the death of Azor, Polidoro is distraught and broken alone in his hiding place, while Zelmira’s protests of innocence fall on deaf ears. Amazingly, there seem to be no witnesses among the public or the troops to back up her claims, and even faced with imprisonment, Zelmira doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to reveal that the king is not actually dead. She is at least able to eventually convince her confidante Emma to take her young son into hiding.

Even when her husband Ilo returns to his homeland (delivering one of Rossini’s great arias - ‘Terra Amica‘), Zelmira’s actions only seem to dig her in deeper and it’s Antenore and his lieutenant Leucippo’s account that Ilo is told. In one of those improbable situations that only occur in opera then, Zelmira - attempting to rescue Ilo from assassination by Leucippo, ends up with the dagger in her own hand and has another crime to answer for. Inevitably, it’s going to take a few more rounds of arias to assimilate the enormity of this new heinous act and the kind of conflicted emotions it engenders in each of characters, before Zelmira eventually produces Polidoro and her son, and the villains are found out.

Ostensibly then Zelmira is very much in the tradition of the opera seria, dealing with rulers, power, corruption and lies, but in reality, as the title of the opera derived from the name of the heroine suggests, it’s more about the heroine, Zelmira. Faced with injustice, false accusations, her innocence and integrity called unjustly into question, Zelmira is very much the early prototype for the bel canto heroines of Donizetti and Bellini. As such, and particularly in how it holds closely to the opera seria style and stretching as it does to three and a quarter hours in length, Zelmira can be a bit of a stretch for anyone interested in strong character development and dramatic credibility, but it does have other compensating factors in the inventiveness of Rossini’s arrangements, the musical colours that he brings to the genre and the opportunities that this provides for the singers to imprint personality and character onto the work through their singing delivery.

If Kate Aldrich isn’t quite able to make her Zelmira work, it’s through no fault of her singing which has real power and expressiveness, but rather more of a question of this being a role that requires a singer of greater stature and personality to bring it to life and make her predicament credible and sympathetic. The same challenge faces all the singers here, but in their case, they really need better stage direction and a better production design than the one provided here. Juan Diego Flórez has plenty of personality and the range to meet the demands of this kind of Rossinian role - strong, resonant, wonderfully musical and expressive, but his high timbre is never the most pleasant and it’s not helped by the acoustics of the stage (set up in Pesaro’s Adriatic basketball arena) and sounds quite piercing at the high notes in a way that is hard on the ears. The sound suits the bass and bass-baritone voices much better, giving a lovely resonance to Alex Esposito’s grave Polidoro and Mirco Palazzi’s Leucippo, whose recitative even sounds beautifully rounded and musical. Gregory Kunde however also comes across well as Antenore, and Marianna Pizzolato almost steals the show with her luxurious mezzo-soprano in the contralto role of Emma.

With a cast this good, a stronger production might have made all the difference, but Giorgio Barberio Corsetti’s concept doesn’t seem to suit the character of the work. Instead of Zelmira’s predicament, the focus is very much upon the nature of war and power, the director setting the production in near darkness, using overhead mirrors to reflect the darker and hidden side of all these power struggles and lies that we don’t normally see, reflecting wounded, tortured and dead troops placed beneath the grilled stage. Apart from not really helping the opera where it needs the support, it actually works against it, making it seem very messy, unfocussed and often downright ugly.

It may have looked better in the theatre, but the darkness of the stage, the figures highlighted in pale yellow light, with confusing reflections in the background mirrors, doesn’t come across well on the screen, even in High Definition. There appears to be some post-production adjustments to balance the contrasts, and even shadowing applied to block out the frequently visible conductor Roberto Abbado at the front of the stage, but this only proves to be even more distracting and messy. The PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks on the Blu-ray disc however are mostly fine, even if there is some harshness in the reverb of the acoustics. The Decca BD also includes a 25-minute Making Of, which contains interesting thoughts and information on the work itself and the production from the cast and the production team.

Benvenuto CelliniHector Berlioz - Benvenuto Cellini

Wiener Philharmoniker, Salzburg Festspiele, 2007 | Valery Gergiev, Philipp Stölzl, Burkhard Fritz, Maija Kuvalevska, Laurent Naouri, Brindley Sherratt, Mikhail Petrenko, Kate Aldrich | Naxos

I’m in two minds about Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini but I don’t think it has anything to do with Philipp Stölzl’s extravagant and somewhat eccentric direction of the composer’s lesser-known opera produced here for the Salzburg Festspiele in 2007. A huge colourful cartoonish spectacle, with a Metropolis-like retro-futuristic city populated by clunky robots standing in for 16th century Rome, it’s surely far from what Berlioz would have imagined for a staging, and one wonders whether it best serves the subject of the Florentine sculptor working on a commission for Pope Clement VII who becomes embroiled in a romantic tug-of war with a rival over the daughter of the papal Treasurer.

On the other hand, Benvenuto Cellini is hardly a serious opera, written principally for entertainment, seeming to play with all the tools of operatic composition. It shows some of the sense of playful academicism that you would find in Rameau, particularly something like Les Indes Galantes (the William Christie production is a must-see) – a huge colourful pageant that delights in showing off its over-the-top dramatic situations with elaborate staging and extravagant musical flourishes. So while Stölzl’s outrageous production seems to go out of its way to irritate those who like their opera done in a period traditional manner, it perfectly suits the tone of the musical and dramatic content and serves it well. Done any other way, taken more seriously, one would imagine that the whole enterprise would end up looking and sounding dreadfully self-important.

Where I really have doubts however is in regards to whether the opera is actually any good, or whether Berlioz indeed doesn’t really go over-the-top in his scoring of the huge dramatic swathes of music, with big arrangements that underscore everything, self-indulgent singing that is close to bel canto, and huge raucous, rousing choruses dropped in at every available opportunity. The same approach applies to Les Troyens, where, not being one to do anything by halves, Berlioz throws in everything and stretches it out to two brilliant full-length operas. Even his cantata La Damnation de Faust attracts big-scale operatic productions from the likes of La Fura dels Baus and, at the time of writing, no less than Terry Gilliam is directing a production for the English National Opera.

The subject in Benvenuto Cellini does however seem to demand such an extravagant approach. Teresa, the daughter of the papal treasurer Balducci, is to be married to Fieramosca, but she is in love with the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. Teresa and Cellini plan to use the confusion and fancy dress of the partying to elope, but Fieramosca has got wind of their plans and intends to take his place disguised as a Capuchin monk. It’s a dramatic situation that seems to conform to the stereotypes of Latin passions, religious fervour and artistic licentiousness and, having resided in Italy prior to writing the opera Berlioz, although professing a dislike of the Italian style, certainly seems to have absorbed the nature of the Italian temperament here. Setting the first act of the opera on Shrove Tuesday during a Mardi Gras parade is all the justification that is needed to indulge in extravagant displays of orchestration and singing.

Since everything about Berlioz’s scoring for Act 1 suggests over-the-top operatic conventions, Philipp Stölzl stages the drama accordingly. One can’t fault the performers who likewise enter into the spirit of the piece and they all sing well, even if the lines of the duets, trios and quartets don’t blend together all that well. Whether through the fault of imperfect scansion or the tone of the voices, I’m not certain – it’s certainly not as polished as Mozart’s ensemble work in the Marriage of Figaro, for example. Act II has a slightly more varied tone, much as the two parts of Les Troyens show different qualities in Berlioz’s writing, but there’s a sense that it is still rather pompous in its solemnity, particularly when Pope Clement arrives on the scene. Unable to play this with a straight face, Stölzl opts for the camp qualities that are inherent within the scene, which is certain to infuriate traditionalists.

It’s difficult to judge the qualities of the opera when it is played this way, when another interpretation might convincingly put another complexion on it entirely – not that we are likely to see too many productions of this work – but that’s what opera is all about. Regardless of whether this particular version is to one’s taste, it’s approached with genuine feeling for the work and launched into vigorously under the baton of Valery Gergiev. At the very least, it’s highly entertaining. Moreover, it looks and sounds terrific in High Definition on the Naxos Blu-ray. A word of warning however – it is one of those discs that takes time to load up into the player, a pointless practice that can introduce some player-related problems. Personally, I found it impossible to access the pop-up menu for chapter selection during play, but I didn’t come across anything more serious than this.

RienziRichard Wagner - Rienzi Der Letzte Der Tribunen

Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2010 | Sebastian Lang-Lessing, Philipp Stölzl, Torsten Kerl, Kate Aldrich, Camilla Nylund | Arthaus Musik

Normally an abridged version of an opera would not be something one would find acceptable, particularly when the production itself has been updated and modernised, but Wagner’s 1842 opera Rienzi (Rienzi Der Letzte Der Tribunen) - almost forgotten but certainly eclipsed by the composer’s next opera Der fliegende Holländer - is an opera in serious need of rehabilitation, not least because of the infamy of it supposedly being Hitler’s favourite opera. Cut down in half from its original five hour running time, the five acts compressed into two parts, this 2010 Deutsche Oper Berlin production, conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing and directed by pop-video and film director Philipp Stölzl, does however manage to give a new lease of life to the opera, or at least bring out elements in it that suggest that, for all its flaws and its troubled history, it’s time the opera were confronted to determine whether its worthy of reconsideration and re-evaluation.

As the story deals with the rise and fall of the 14th century Roman dictator Cola di Rienzo, it seems appropriate in this production to emphasise the uncanny parallels that the opera has with the rise of Hitler and his downfall. To not do so would be unthinkable, according to the director Philipp Stölzl, and indeed it’s impossible not to see the remarkable coincidences in the common circumstances that give rise to a Rienzi here and those of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin or Ceausescu. Accordingly, being a German production, the opening part of Rienzi with the struggles between the Orsini and the Colonna factions, is clearly set in Germany’s interwar years. In the midst of these troubled times, Rienzi appears, promising to bring the people freedom, lead them out of their shame and make them a great nation once again, despite the warning from Adriano that “to reach your proud ends, you shall leave a trail of blood”.

Brilliantly, the staging absorbs the cultural references of the times, Rome/Berlin looking like a backdrop of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with German Expressionist angles, while the warring Orsini and Colonna followers are masked and distorted like figures out of a colourful George Grosz painting. This soon changes unsettlingly into the militaristic imagery of a fascist dictatorship, with propaganda films influenced by Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will playing out in the background. As Rome enters into war in the second part of the revised opera, an increasingly embattled Rienzi is seen in a underground bunker, planning his grand vision of a new Rome while the reality above the ground is something quite different. The parallels between Rienzi and Hitler are eerily premonitory, arising as much from the text of the libretto as the production design and never feeling forced.

Apart from the association of Wagner with the Third Reich, in almost all other respects, the Grand Opera of Rienzi scarcely feels like a Wagnerian musical drama. The busy crowded staging and the huge rousing choruses are a recognisable feature and there are one or two prototype Wagner characters in this early opera, but otherwise the drama and storytelling is concise and to the point. Not being familiar with the full 5-hour version of Rienzi, much of this however could be down to the tightening of the focus by the cutting down of the opera for this production, but the decision to revise the opera considerably seems justified by the results.

This is not a great Wagner opera by any means, certainly not when compared to Der fliegende Holländer which immediately followed it, but musically it’s not a bad opera in its own right, with a beautiful overture, some wonderful symphonic passages, and there is a strong study of the conditions that give rise to a dictatorship in its drama. It at least has a certain curiosity value in the fact that Hitler would have seen in this opera the means of his own rise to power and a premonition of his downfall, but it also has an interesting place in the history and development of German opera.

The Blu-ray edition of Rienzi has a 16:9 image that is just about flawless. There’s a strong 5.1 DTS HD-Master Audio mix, although I didn’t notice any LFE subwoofer activity at all - your neighbours however will probably be thankful for this considering the force of the performance and the recording that is still evident. The PCM stereo mix is also terrific. A 27-minute Making Of is not particularly in-depth, but covers the background and the concept of this production through interviews and rehearsal footage.