Nagano, Kent


GodunovModest Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2013 | Kent Nagano, Calixto Bieito, Alexander Tsymbaluk, Yulia Sokolik, Eri Nakamura, Heike Grötzinger, Gerhard Siegel, Markus Eiche, Anatoli Kotscherga, Sergey Skorokhodov, Vladimir Matorin, Ulrich Reß, Okka von der Damerau, Kevin Conners, Goran Jurić, Dean Power, Tareq Nazmi, Christian Rieger | ARTE Internet Streaming, March 2013

A modern updating of a historical subject is always going to be controversial, particularly when it’s a production by Calixto Bieito. In the case of a work like Boris Godunov however, you have to ask whether the purpose of Mussorgsky’s opera is to provide a character portrait of a 16th century ruler of Russia or whether the opera is more concerned with more universal questions on the nature of power, leadership and the cost that has to be paid for it. Even performed in a traditional historical context it would be hard not to feel the full force of those themes expressed in Mussorgsky’s magnificent score, so what advantage would there be in attempting to make a parallel between the past and the present? Surprisingly, the purpose of Bieito’s production would seem to be not to use Boris Godunov to make a comment about the present day as much as use familiar images to help us better relate to the past.

One of the qualities of art, and particularly opera in this context, is that it can indeed illuminate and provide new living insight on a figure who existed nearly 500 years ago by simply looking at human nature itself today, since that hasn’t changed greatly in all that time. Placing Boris Godunov in a historical context however can place a distance between the subject and a modern audience - although, as I said, Mussorgsky’s music makes it fully relatable - but a modern setting can make those situation more real and immediate without betraying the essential sentiments and the spirit of the work. Calixto Bieito’s staging has a considerable part to play in the success of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production, but it must operate in accordance with the music, and Kent Nagano’s musical direction ensures that this is a thoughtful and powerful account of a great work.

The actions and the will of the people play just as important a part in history as its more famous leaders and Mussorgsky’s gives them equal voice in Boris Godunov. Calixto Bieito finds a modern-day equivalent of the voice of the people and their relationship with their leaders here in what looks to be an anti-globalisation protest at a G8 summit, or perhaps even an anti-austerity protest. The people, herded in by police in riot-gear, are looking for someone to lead them out of crisis. They don’t carry icons of the saints here, but instead wave placards in the air showing images of Sarkozy, Putin, Cameron, Holland and other world leaders. Only one lone protester - a punk in a Sex Pistols T-shirt advocating anarchy - rejects all of them and is beaten to the ground by the police. Is this a fair representation of the intent of the opening scene of Boris Godunov? It certainly captures the nature of the situation without tying it directly and imperfectly to any specific modern political context. It also sets the tone well for the underlying violence that isn’t always entirely explicit in the work, but which is undoubtedly an important part of the power dynamic.

There are inevitably a few curious touches that Bieito adds to highlight this characteristic, but all of them feel entirely appropriate to the work. Boris Godunov tries to be a good ruler to the people, but he feels the pressure of responsibility, hears the murmurings of discontent and fears the uprising of a new Pretender. His conscience - like anyone who has to dirty their hands to get into a position of power and influence - isn’t entirely clear either, and he has the blood of the young Tsar on his hands, tormenting him in nightmares. Bieito’s version, again highlighting the power and responsibility of the common people in their choice or acceptance of leaders, shows them exercising that power by putting weapons (guns) into their hands, making this bloody period of history even more realistically violent. The Pretender too executes Boris’ children at the end of the opera, which fits in with the theme of the cycles of history and violence and gives it greater force.

All of this must be borne out in the music of course, and the Bayerische Staatsoper production in Munich took an equally interesting approach to the complicated history of the work and its various revisions. This was a stripped back production that used Mussorgsky’s 1869 original version as its basis, but further removed any other diversions - the Fountain scene and the Polonaise (basically the whole of Act III) - that weren’t directly related to expression of the work’s fundamental themes. This enabled the entire opera to be performed as a single two-and-a-quarter hour performance without any breaks. There were considerable benefits to be gained from this approach. On the one hand, we had all the force of Mussorgsky’s scoring with its conversational language rhythms and unique expression, but with a greater fluidity that brought unity to each of the separate scenes. With Kent Nagano conducting with complete sensitivity for those rhythms, we didn’t lose any of the beauty of the orchestration that is found in Rimsky-Korsakov’s revisions either. As a result, the work maintained its epic immensity, force and beauty.

So too does the singing here, particularly Alexander Tsymbaluk as Boris and Anatoli Kotscherga as Pimen. Both evidently are vital roles that carry the action and the spiritual elements of the work, and much of that is brought out through the grave, deep tone of the singing itself. Not only were the casting and performances superb in this respect for those roles, but the same consideration was given to all the casting elsewhere. There was scarcely a weak element anywhere here, all of the cast and chorus coming together - alongside a considered production and musical performance - to give full force to this remarkable work. The set designs also played an important part in keeping up this momentum, fluidly moving from one scene to the next, providing a meaningful dark and minimal setting that served the situations without being over-literal or too incongruously modern either.

This performance of Boris Godunov was broadcast on ARTE Live Web and is currently still available for viewing via internet streaming. Depending on whether you use the .fr or .de sites, subtitles are either in French or German. The Bayerische Staatsoper will broadcast another live performance of this production via their own Live Streaming service during their summer Opera Festival season on the 26th July. The next live streaming event from Munich is Verdi’s Macbeth on 11th May, directed by Martin Kušej and conducted by Massimo Zanetti.

Gezeichneten Franz Schreker - Die Gezeichneten

Salzburger Festspiele, 2005 | Kent Nagano, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Robert Brubaker, Anne Schwanewilms, Michael Volle, Robert Hale, Wolfgang Schöne, Bernard Richter, Markus Petsch, Mel Ulrich, Thomas Oliemans, Guillaume Antoine, Stephen Gadd | EuroArts

There’s a gorgeous and somewhat disturbing sense of decadence about this Salzburg Festival production of Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten that nonetheless feels wholly appropriate for the work. Schreker is a neglected and now unfashionable early twentieth century German composer who saw his influence and popularity fall into decline with the arrival of the Nazis. The lush orchestration of his extravagant romanticism likewise felt out of place in a harsh new world that had been rocked by two brutal world wars in the first half of the century. His work however - tentatively finding its way back into the repertoire - retains a certain fascination precisely for this unique character of that path of post-Wagnerian German Romanticism that was forever lost in the new reality of the world.

That character - and that extraordinary musical style - is very much in evidence in Die Gezeichneten, a title that is difficult to translate, since it means ‘the drawn man’ (i.e. the object of an artist’s work), but it also implies ‘a marked man’. Written on the request of fellow “degenerate composer” Alexander Zemlinsky, the story is about the tragedy of an ugly man, a hunchback, who is unable to find love. It’s a subject that seems to close to the heart of Zemlinsky, who himself a short opera adapted from an Oscar Wilde story based on this theme (Der Zwerg - The Birthday of the Infanta), the composer having been famously rejected by Alma Mahler, who described him as “a hideous dwarf”. Zemlinsky was supposed to have scored Schreker’s libretto, but in the end it was Schreker who completed the entire work himself.

Revived for the Salzburg Festival in 2005, performed in the outdoor setting of the Felsenreitschule, it’s an extraordinary experience to hear the wonderful lush Romanticism of Schreker’s flowing orchestration with all its Tristan und Isolde-like unresolved dissonances creating a sustained tension, given full expression under the musical direction of Kent Nagano, but it’s one that also works well with Nicholas Lehnhoff’s stage direction. Set in 16th century Genoa, the work opens with a group of rich decadent nobles, dressed here in extravagant exaggerated costumes, bemoaning the possibility that they might lose access to the wonderful island paradise of Elysium that has been created by Alviano Salvago for their pleasure. Salvago is a hunchback who believes he is too ugly to set foot on the island himself and, abandoning any hope of ever being loved or accepted, he is about to give the island back to the common people, leaving the nobles without any place to practice their secret vices against the daughters of Genoa.

Lehnoff’s set captures the essence of this situation, matching the musical description with a stage that consists of one huge toppled statue, one hand clawing at the air with the head detached, and having the performers clamber over the pitted and broken surface that hints at and eventually reveals the dark concealed depths of the grotto within it. More than just accompanying the musical content however, the elaborate set also mirrors to some extent the nature of Salvago himself. Salvago starts to nurse hopeful expectations when he meets Carlotta Nardi, the daughter of the Podestà who describes herself as a painter of souls, who is intrigued by the hunchback and wants to paint him. Salvago starts to believe that she is someone who can recognise his inner beauty - revealing himself to be the same as everyone else - and Carlotta consequently loses her fascination for him the moment she finishes the painting.

Musically and lyrically, Die Gezeichneten is a fascinating and beautiful work that could only have been written at this time - in 1918 - the fin de siècle decadence of the nobles coming crashing down with the harsh realities that are revealed about the workings of the world. That’s apparent very clearly and evocatively in the musical construction, the early part of the opera awash with Strauss-like extravagance in the tones and textures - reminiscent of how Strauss would approach the later Die Liebe der Danae (1940) - but also with that Wagnerian Tristan und Isolde-like sensibility of suspending chords and leaving unresolved dissonances to float around and intermingle to create an unsettling yet compelling soundscape. Schreker’s libretto is equally lyrical and extravagant in its pronouncements and in its dramatic tensions, particularly in the eloquent descriptions of the arrogance of the nobility and in the wounded pride of Graf Vitelozzo at being rejected by Carlotta in favour of Salvago.

All the decadent poetic musing however (”Life seemed to me a source of constant joy… When I stretched out my hand, I held a rose, drew in its fragrance and pulled the petals off”), comes crashing down when an actual name - Ginevra Scotti - is attached to the vices, revealing their nature as being rather more sinister, involving child abduction and abuse. The exquisite floating dreamlike reverie of the musical arrangements similarly coalesces into something much more concrete at this point, revealing the nature of the dissonance that has been hovering at the edges of the work. Evoking Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut‘ orgy scene in Act III with the assembled guests hiding behind masks, Lehnhoff’s stage direction is completely on the same page as the score, and the statue of grand nobility that has retained some dignity and grandeur even in its toppled form up to this stage, is split open to reveal its corrupt inner nature.

The complex nature of the various characters is perhaps most powerfully described - or at least is more obviously evident - in the nature of the writing for the singing voices. Fortunately, the cast are all extraordinarily good here. Anne Schwanewilms in particular is just outstanding as Carlotta - I’ve never heard her sing better, even in some of the more challenging Strauss roles. There’s a lushness to her tone here, the vocal writing and her character giving her the opportunity to demonstrate an impressive range, rising to soaring heights in a flowing legato, particularly in Carlotta’s Act II scenes with Alviano Salvago. The writing for Salvago is also very interesting, the character written for a Heldentenor voice (or at least performed here as such), even though he is an outwardly weak and physically deformed. The contradiction between his inner and outward nature is expressed very well in this manner by Robert Brubaker. Michael Volle’s lush Straussian baritone rounds out this impressively cast production as the decadent Count Vitelozzo.

Only available on DVD, the performance does seem at least to have been shot in HD, and even in the Standard Definition format, the 16:9 widescreen image looks beautiful, with good detail, clarity and colour saturation. The audio tracks, LPCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, are also fine, capturing all the warmth and colour of the orchestration that Nagano reveals so well. There are no extra features here, and no full synopsis in the booklet, although there’s a good essay that covers the main points in outline, along with some background information on the composer and the work. The DVD is NTSC, Region-free, with subtitles in German, English, French and Spanish.

BabylonJörg Widmann - Babylon

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2012 | Kent Nagano, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Claron McFadden, Anna Prohaska, Jussi Myllys, Willard White, Gabriele Schnaut, Kai Wessel, August Zirner | Internet Streaming

The first opera for the new 2012/13 season of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich was something of a bold statement of intent. A new modern opera receiving its world premiere, Babylon is an almost three-hour long epic with lavish production values that seem to fly in the face of European austerity measures and defy restraints on budgets in the arts. With a libretto written moreover by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and music composed by Jörg Widmann, the 39 year old student of Hans Werner Henze, it seemed something of an omen that Henze should die mere hours before the opening performance, leaving the way for his protégé to make a mark on modern opera with an important new work. There was consequently a weight of expectation surrounding the opening of Babylon, and with a visually astonishing production from Carlus Padrissa of La Fura dels Baus that was perfectly in accord with the colourful nature of the work, the opera certainly made an impression, even if its impact was inevitably somewhat reduced for those watching it (and experiencing technical difficulties) with its Live Internet Streaming broadcast on the 3rd November.

Babylon relates back to Biblical times and ancient Mesopotamian mythology, to human sacrifice practiced by the Babylonians and the repudiation of it by the Jews, to the destruction of the walls of Jericho and the founding of urban civilisation. Central to the work then, with its invocations of the mystical number seven, is the formation of order out of chaos, an order associated with numerology that is reflected in the establishment of the seven days of the week. It’s a love story that is both the cause of the chaos that ensues as well as what brings about redemption and order. Widmann’s opera opens then with a prologue showing a scene of apocalyptic devastation, a scorpion man walking through the ruins, before the Soul arrives to open up the first of the opera’s seven scenes, mourning the loss of Tammu, a Jewish exile living in Babylon who has fallen in love with Inanna, a Babylonian priestess in the Temple of Free Love.

The visions of chaos and destruction continue unabated as Tammu lies with Inanna, and is awoken through love and some herbal induced visions - the seven planets and even the Euphrates itself bearing testimony - to the truth that their world is founded on chaos that the Gods have unleashed upon the universe. (Mozart and Schikaneder’s The Magic Flute is obviously drawn from the same sources - Tamino and Pamina recognisably relating to Tammu and Inanna). It’s this chaos that the Babylonians hold at bay through human sacrifice, a “truth” that is hidden by Ezekiel in his teachings of the Jewish law and the stories of Noah and the flood. When Tammu is chosen as the next human sacrifice however and is executed by the High Priest following the New Year celebrations, Inanna joins with the Soul in her lament for his loss. Inanna pleads with Death to allow her to journey to the Underworld to bring Tammu back.

Undoubtedly the most striking thing about Babylon is the direction of this vast undertaking by Carlus Padrissa of La Fura dels Baus, with its spectacular production designs by Roland Olbeter. Every element of the ambitious libretto, with all its mystical symbolism, dreams, visions and mythology, is presented in visual terms that aren’t merely literal, but connect on an intimate level with the music and the concepts wrapped up within it. In its seven scenes (with a prologue and an epilogue) a Tower of Babel is erected and destroyed, the seven planets appear during Tammu’s visions, the River Euphrates is personified as well as represented by a stream of words and letters that flood and overflow, seven phalluses and vulvas appear with seven apes during the New Year celebrations, flaming curtains give way to sudden downpours during the sacrifice of Tammu, and Innana wades through a seething mass of (projected) bodies, discarding seven garments (a dance of the seven veils), as she journeys into the Underworld. The stage is never static, there’s an incredible amount going on, with extraordinary detail in background projections, processions, with supernumeraries in all manner of costumes and guises.

Babylon is therefore, opera in its purest sense. The music and singing alone don’t stand up on their own, the spectacle alone isn’t enough, but the work needs each of the elements of the libretto, the music, the performance and the theatrical presentation to work together and in accord to put across everything that is ambitiously covered in the work. Widmann perhaps takes on too much across its great expanse of scenes and musical styles - cutting suddenly between twelve-tone dodecaphony, jazz, cabaret and Romanticism - to the extent that it can feel episodic and difficult to take in as an integral and consistent work. Babylon however has a solid foundation in its subject, in Kent Nagano’s marshalling and conducting of the orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper, in Padrissa’s impressive command of the visual elements, and in Anna Prohaska’s extraordinary performance as Innana that goes beyond singing. Babylon is opera in the purest sense also in that it undoubtedly needs to be experienced in a live theatrical context in order for its full power to be conveyed. On a small screen, viewed via internet streaming, the rich scope, scale and ambition of the work were nonetheless clearly evident.

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.

CoqdorNikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - Le Coq d’Or (The Golden Cockerel)

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 2002 | Kent Nagano, Ennosuke Ichikawa, Isao Takashima, Albert Schagidullin, Ilya Levinsky, Andrei Breus, Ilya Bannik, Elena Manistina, Barry Banks, Olga Trifonova, Yuri Maria Saenz | Arthaus Musik

The Châtelet’s impressive staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel, recorded here in Paris in 2002 (hence the French title) is one that dates back to 1984, a co-production with San Francisco Opera. This recording has already been released on DVD, but it is another one of those productions that are so visually splendid and memorable that it more than merits an upgrade to Blu-ray. Designed by Ennosuke Ichikawa as a Kabuki staging, it’s an impressive production that fits surprisingly well in tone and content with the intentions of the original fairytale opera with a moral.

The opera, Rimsky-Korsakov’s final work, composed in 1906, is based on a Pushkin poem ‘The House of the Weathercock’, and the minimalist simplicity of the set design reflects that transparency of the fairytale’s simple moral message. King Dodon, fearful of his country being invaded by their neighbours and forced by his General to discount the foolish advice of his two sons, puts his trust instead in a Golden Cockerel sold to him by the Astrologer that will crow to warn him when his enemies are about to attack. Despite the warnings of the Cockerel, whose alerts have the king sending armies out to all parts of his kingdom, Dodon fails however to recognise the threat that is posed by the arrival of the Queen of Shemakha. Dodon is “a Tsar in appearance, but a slave in body and soul” when he falls for the Queen’s beauty and allows himself to be seduced by her charms. Acting out of fear, pride, lust, the moral of course is that even noble rulers have basic human weaknesses and are not immune – more likely in fact – to act out of self-interest and for personal gain.

Both Rimsky-Korsakov and the librettist V. Bel’sky laid down very specific remarks about how The Golden Cockerel should be performed (these notes are reproduced in the accompanying booklet in the BD and DVD releases), which as well as disapproving of any cuts to the work or the introduction of any additional interjections by the singers – as might be expected – note that the purpose of the work is “undoubtedly symbolic” and that the purely human character its intent “allows us to place the plot in any surroundings and in any period”, recognising however that there is an essential Russian character involved. It’s clear then that this production, even if it has a somewhat more oriental flavour, is nonetheless completely faithful to the original intentions and even perhaps recognises that the opera was inspired by the conflict between Russia and Japan in 1904 at the time the opera was composed. The suggestions of military incompetence on the part of the authorities would in fact lead to the opera being banned by the censor, only receiving its premiere after the death of the composer.

The basic stage dressing for this production then is accordingly simple and abstract in the manner of a fable where the moral is symbolic, but it is also extraordinarily beautiful with all the magic and fascination of a fairytale. If the stage then consists of little more than a brightly luminous backdrop to reflect the time of day or mood, and there is little on the stage but some steps to suggest a royal palace and stylised trees to represent the kingdom, the colourful costumes and Kabuki make-up reflect the larger-than-life characters and, to a large extent, Rimsky-Korsakov’s rich romantic scoring of the work, filled with fantastical melodies and folk influences, with leitmotifs and a Scheherazade-like middle-Eastern exoticism. It’s given a wonderful warm account here at the Châtelet with Kent Nagano conducting.

Cockerel

The space is needed on the stage moreover to contain all the extras, chorus and dancers – all beautifully costumed – and give room to the principals, because this is after all to a large extent a singer’s opera (rather than say a dramatic opera or a conceptual one), with a wonderful range of voices and expression from bass declamation to soprano coloratura. Using a mainly Russian cast, those roles are in good hands in this Châtelet production, with bass Albert Schagidullin as King Dodon and Olga Trifonova the Queen of Shemakha. In among all those Russians however is Barry Banks, perfectly cast for the specific demands of the high tenor role of the Astrologer. It’s particularly delightful that the singing is of a very high standard throughout, but this is a wonderful production on just about every level.

This beautiful, colourful production certainly benefits from its upgrade to Blu-ray for the High Definition 16:9 widescreen image and for the sound mixes in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 that put over the qualities of the orchestration and singing. It’s really quite breathtaking. The Blu-ray is All-Region, 1080i, a BD25 disc with no extra features, although the booklet is informative and includes a synopsis. Subtitles are English, German, Italian, French, Spanish and Chinese.

CarmelitesFrancis Poulenc - Dialogues des Carmélites

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich 2010 | Kent Nagano, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Alain Vernhes, Susan Gritton, Bernard Richter, Sylvie Brunet, Soile Isokoski, Susanne Resmark, Hélène Guilmette, Heike Grötzinger, Anaïk Morel, Kevin Conners | Bel Air Classiques

Clever modern concept stagings of opera are all very well in the right place and with the right kind of opera. Sometimes however, it just seems perverse to take them out of their original context, particularly when the opera applies to a specific historical period or event that is explicitly referred to in the libretto. There seems little value then in “updating” Poulenc’s 1956 opera Dialogues des Carmélites away from its French Revolutionary setting or the historical incident in 1794 where sixteen nuns from a Carmelite convent in Compiègne were executed for resisting the confiscation of the church’s assets and the dissolution of the order.

You just know however that a controversial director like Dmitri Tcherniakov is never going to go down a conventional route, or even find an intermediary space (like the fine 2008 Nikolaus Lehnhoff production in Hamburg), where the actual themes of the opera beyond the historical setting can be examined, themes relating to the question of life in the face of death, fear of death and the nature of martyrdom for a cause. No, Tcherniakov doesn’t follow any expected route, but what clearly is his intention – as it is in all his productions, whether they actually work for an audience or not – is to attempt to cut the distance between the themes that are sometimes obscured by an overly elaborate and literal period setting, and strip back the staging in order to give the music and the singing the necessary environment that will allow provoke a reaction in the viewer towards the subtext. In the right kind of opera, it’s not so much about imposing a concept or an interpretation or being deliberately obscure for the sake of it, as allowing the audience the space to relate to the themes in their own personal way.

Whether that is achieved in this production of Dialogues des Carmélites recorded at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich is however debatable, as the staging seems to do its utmost to actually distance itself from the audience and box it into its own little world (the box within a box idea is also used in Tcherniakov’s staging for Verdi’s Macbeth, released by Bel Air alongside this). The period is non-specific but modern (even though the De la Force family still have a servant and chauffeur-driven coach), and Blanche de la Force certainly doesn’t enter any traditional kind of convent where the nuns wear habits. Perhaps reflecting Blanche’s fear of the world outside – and despite the Prioress Madame de Croissy’s insistence that it is not a refuge – the convent does resemble a women’s refuge, with all the sisters wearing heavy woollen cardigans and sensible skirts, all nursing mugs of hot tea.

There is no reason however why the questions that arise in the opera – making sense of life in the face of approaching death, finding order and meaning in it, and examining how each person individually comes to terms with their mortality – can’t be examined outside of the historical context of the French revolution. Poulenc based the opera on a play by Georges Bernanos, which in turn was based on an original 1931 novel by Gertrud von le Fort (’Die Letzte am Schafott‘), which itself used the subject as a means of commenting on German social disorder following the fall of the Weimar Republic – so it’s certainly artistically valid for Tcherniakov to update the work if it’s in the service of throwing a new light on the themes. What is rather more controversial is that the director radically changes the original ending – which is a really powerful conclusion. Tchernaikov’s finale, which practically turns the original on its head, is just as powerful and dramatic in its own right, but whether it “improves” or casts any further light on the actions of Blanche de la Force is debatable. It could just be that it’s the complete disregard of the traditional approach that is what is really shocking about the ending here, and it results in an equal amount of audible booing and cheers at the director’s curtain call.

At the very least however, Tcherniakov’s staging forces the audience to think about the subject again in a different way, and it’s an opera that really does have a lot of deeper subtexts to be drawn out of it. What makes this production even more worthwhile in this respect is the conducting of Kent Nagano. The music in Dialogues des Carmélites can be a little strange and unsettling, even with some hauntingly beautiful melodies that evoke Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélissande, but Nagano seems to bring out those ambiguous qualities of the opera and its similarities to Debussy even more strongly, with a greater sense of warmth and harmony than, for example the Hamburg production. That harmony and warmth is also more evident in the singing – although not in every case – so I wouldn’t necessarily say that one is better than the other, but I certainly find the interpretation here much more intriguing, creating new resonances and opening up the opera in an unexpected way.

Whether the staging works or not in a live context, it certainly doesn’t come across well on DVD or Blu-ray. The majority of the opera takes place (as you can see from the cover) within a boxed room on the stage. This means that crossbeams frequently get in the way, obscuring the view of the singers, which is further hampered by a gauze screen that softens the image, desaturates the colours and causes hazy netting effects. The HD reproduction of this consequently isn’t good, and the encoding doesn’t really help matters, looking rather blurry in movements. Between the net effect and the encoding, this does appear to be a visually substandard release. (Although the cover states it’s a BD25 disc it is however, as you would expect, BD50 – ie. dual-layer). The audio tracks are better, the singing mostly clear, the orchestration warm and enveloping, but also revealing a good amount of colour and detail. It’s no match for the precise crystalline clarity of the DTS HD-MA 7.1 mix on the Hamburg Staatsoper production, and if you would prefer a more faithful version of the opera I would highly recommend that release, but there are enough intriguing elements in the Nagano/Tcherniakov production to make this certainly worth your time.

LohengrinRichard Wagner - Lohengrin

Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, 2006 | Kent Nagano, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Hans-Peter König, Klaus Florian Vogt, Solveig Kringelborn, Tom Fox, Waltraud Meier, Roman Trekel | Opus Arte

This romantic opera from the end of Wagner’s early period, just before embarking on his more mature work, is rather more conventional and accessible than, for example, the romance of Tristan und Isolde, but by the same token Lohengrin doesn’t have the conceptual weight of later Wagner dramas. The characters are rather one dimensional, divided quite clearly as being on the side of light or darkness, and the score is not as refined as later Wagner. On the other hand, there are some wonderful singing roles, some dynamic scoring that colours the difference between the physical and the spiritual, a terrific drama, and of course the opera is of great interest for the thematic links it has with the composer’s more celebrated works, to say nothing of the fact that the traditional Wedding March originates from this opera.

Lohengrin starts off like a courtroom drama, but it’s one that, being a Wagner opera, is dressed up in regal grandness, heroic declamations and with a strong element of ancient Teutonic mythology underlying it all. On the eve of going to war against Hungary, King Heinrich calls a tribunal meeting to settle a dispute that has arise over the territory of Brabant. Friedrich von Telramund has accused Elsa, the daughter of the late Duke of Brabant, of murdering Gottfried, her brother and the rightful heir to Brabant. Elsa defends her position and calls on a heroic knight of her visions to take up arms and defend herself in combat against Telramund. Her knight in shining armour (quite literally) cannot reveal his name, and begs her not to ask of it, but it transpires – no surprise here since it is the title of the opera – that he is Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal, guardian of the Holy Grail, who is himself the subject of Wagner’s final opera. The themes of this opera deal similarly – if not quite as abstractly – with questions of virtue, purity and innocence, but above all here with the noble virtues of complete love and unconditional trust.

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s 2006 production for the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, conducted by Kent Nagano, brings a new dimension to those themes. His use of the stage, as ever, is simply magnificent, the use of props minimal, the sets nonetheless majestic and impressive, yet simple and not overly ornate. The stage is immaculately lit, balancing light and shade, foreground and background, using colours to highlight and give appropriate emphasis. Whatever angle you look at this from – and the cameras do a fine job in their coverage – the stage and the positions of the characters within achieves maximum impact. At the same time, by making the period non-specific, although certainly more modern than its middle-ages origins, Lehnhoff downplays the fairytale trappings of a heroic knight borne on a chariot drawn by a wild swan (as well as leaning it well away from any troubling National Socialist conceptions that could be applied to the themes), while still remaining true to the opera and its purpose, without over-emphasising or lessening the impact of its musical strengths.

Solveig Kringelborn’s Elsa doesn’t have quite the power of the other singers, nor indeed does Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin, but the nature of their characters is purer than the others, with a bond of trust between them that their counterparts Ostrund and Telramund do not possess, and consequently their voices are softer – more angelically toned than the more typical Wagnerian heldentenor in the case of Lohengrin – but clear, ringing and forceful where required. Tom Fox, as Telramund and Waltraud Meier as Ostrund are however terrific, playing their baddies to the hilt and with delightfully over-the-top almost pantomime eye-rolling madness in the case of Meier’s sorceress – both perfectly appropriate nonetheless for this particular opera and for roles that shouldn’t be underplayed. Kent Nagano conducts the Deutsches Symphonic-Orchester of Berlin for similar dramatic force, but the dynamic and subtle tones are there also, brought out in the fine PCM surround sound mix that comes on the Blu-ray.

The Blu-ray quality cannot be faulted either on its image quality, or the manner in which it is filmed. It captures perfectly the qualities of the stage sets and the lighting and allows you to get right up close with the performers. A 68-minute documentary is also included on the 2-disc set which looks at the opera and its staging in some detail with interviews from most of the principals involved, but it is overlong in its walk-through description of the plot, extensively illustrated with scenes from the opera. Kent Nagano however provides interesting analysis on the tone and complexities of the score, particularly in the preludes to each of the three acts.