Minkowski, Marc


IphigenieChristoph Willibald Gluck - Iphigénie en Aulide/Iphigénie en Tauride

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam, 2011 | Marc Minkowski, Pierre Audi, Véronique Gens, Salomé Haller, Nicholas Testé, Anne Sofie von Otter, Frédéric Antouin, Martijn Cornet, Christian Helmer, Laurent Alvaro, Mireille Delunsch, Laurent Alvaro, Jean-François Lapointe, Yann Beuron, Simone Riksman, Rosanne von Sandwijk, Peter Arink, Harry Teenwen | Opus Arte

You don’t see productions of Iphigénie en Aulide coming along very often, or indeed much of C.W. Gluck’s works these days which, considering the importance of the composer to the world of opera, is something of a mystery. Even more rarely do you see it paired the way it is here at the De Nederlandse Opera with its sister work Iphigénie en Tauride, but the two works are perfectly complementary. Composed at different times with a different approach to Gluck’s reformist agenda, they were perhaps never intended to be performed together, but the pairing of the two works side-by-side like this at least allows those differences in approach - so important to the progress and development of the traditional form of the modern opera - to be better appreciated. And at a time when you can see numerous complete productions of Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens, there’s no reason why Gluck’s smaller scale and more intimate take on a related Greek mythological story shouldn’t also be seen in this kind of staging.

As it happens, the intimacy and relative simplicity of the work make Gluck’s two Iphigénie operas rather more difficult to stage by a company with the resources to take it on in a relatively large modern theatre. Those challenges are taken on by Pierre Audi, the artistic director of De Nederlandse in the setting of the Amsterdam Music Theatre, while the musical challenges of presenting the works is placed in the experienced hands of Marc Minkowski and his remarkable period-instrument ensemble, Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble. The difficulties in presenting the two works aren’t entirely overcome by the innovative approach employed here - playing largely in the round, compressing the drama into a small area at the front of the stage and putting the orchestra at the back, with the chorus section arranged oratorio behind them - but it’s a staging that works well in as far as it draws the full dramatic power out of the works. Which is what Gluck is all about really.

The subjects may be classical ones from Euripides, but by getting right back to basics of dramatic situation and expression, Gluck was able to find deeply human characteristics - love, anger, betrayal, vengeance - in mythological situations that elevated those feelings and emotions by placing them in the grander picture of questions of war, honour, duty, fate, destiny if you like, or the will of the Gods. There’s consequently an intimacy as well as an epic quality that gives Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride immense power. They are stories of great simplicity and utmost gravity, and they require little more - as Pierre Audi recognises here - than a few strong images and symbols to help define their essential characteristics and at the same time serve to link them together. In Iphigénie en Aulide, the image and the notion of a blade (an axe here) pressed to a daughter’s breast by her father in an act of sacrifice to the goddess Diana, is one that resonates throughout the whole work, influencing and directing the complex emotions and family issues that arise out of this terrible and tragic situation. In Iphigénie en Tauride, the image of sacrifice and family tragedy is also central to the work, Iphigenia now a priestess of Diana and about to unwittingly execute her brother Orestes, who (as any good opera goer knows from Strauss’s Elektra) has been involved in a situation that has seen him take bloody justice upon their mother Clytemnestra for the death of their father Agamemnon.

Pierre Audi does reasonably well to give dramatic action to the poetry of the libretti in both works, retaining the intimacy of the emotional focus, while at the same time finding a way to project that out to an audience at the Amsterdam Music Theatre. He does that by reducing the size of the stage, focussing in on a central area flanked by scaffolding staircases that is emphasised here on the filmed recording by some overhead views of a circle that from one scene to the next can represent a sacrificial altar or a pit. It’s not much to look at, and the costumes are far from classical, the colours, materials and camouflage patterns emphasising the military aspect of the Greek-Trojan war background in Iphigénie en Aulide, although Iphigénie en Tauride is a little more traditional in the gowns of the priestesses- but it’s sufficient to hint at the greater sequence of events that set these dramas into motion without over-dramatising or over-emphasising actions over the expression though the words, the singing and the music.

And that perfect balance is precisely what Gluck’s reformist agenda set out to achieve. It’s hard then to fault the presentation and the careful equilibrium that is maintained by Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble in conjunction with the stage direction and the singing. I’m not as familiar with Iphigénie en Aulide as I am with Iphigénie en Tauride, but it’s clear by the spirited orchestral performance of the latter, wonderfully expressive, delivered with controlled ferocity in places even, that the music director has taken into consideration the relative merits of the two different approaches that the individual works represent and dealt with them accordingly, using each to highlight, contrast with and complement the other. In the case of Iphigénie en Tauride, I’ve heard it performed with more beauty and lyricism by William Christie and Les Arts Florissantes (in a Claus Guth production on DVD), but never quite so forcefully in a way that integrates it so well with the musical drama.  Both works are performed moreover on period instruments tuned to the original pitch.

The singing is also strong in the performances of both works, with only Salomé Haller’s Diana common to both. Iphigenia in Iphigénie en Aulide is sung and performed marvellously by Veronique Gens with her customary attention to detail and the requirements of Baroque opera singing. There are no mannerisms and no exaggeration by any of the performers, who treat the work with the necessary dramatic gravity and sincerity. Surprisingly, as she is such a wonderful singer of Gluck, and has even recorded the role of Clytemnestra in this opera before, only Anne Sofie von Otter seemed underpowered and unable to match the intensity of the performances.

In Iphigénie en Tauride, Iphegenia is sung by Mireille Delunsch, a soprano in a role that is more often sung by a mezzo-soprano. More than just capably sung, Delunsch has a nice tone and timbre that suits arrangement here and proves to be strong enough to make the necessary impression. The casting for this work however favours and puts more emphasis on the fate and the friendship of Orestes and Plyade. Orestes is sung wonderfully by Jean-François Lapointe, who not only bears a certain similarity in appearance to Bryn Terfel but also has a comparable voice. Strong, with clear diction and good expression (if a little stiff in acting), he certainly makes more of an impression as a true baritone than Plácido Domingo did at the Metropolitan Opera a few seasons ago. He also works wonderfully off Yann Beuron’s excellent Pylade, the two combined bringing another dimension to the work.

The presentation on Blu-ray is strong with a clear, bright and detailed image. The audio mixes, on account of the acoustics, are a little bright and echoing, losing focus in the surround DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix. The PCM track through headphones however reveals the qualities of the sound and the performances very well. As well as two full-length operas on this release, there are also two 20-minute Behind the Scenes Introductions on the BD, one for each opera, and Cast Galleries. The booklet contains an essay and two full synopses. The BD is All-region compatible, with subtitles in English, French, German, Dutch and Korean.

TrovatoreGiuseppe Verdi - Il Trovatore

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2012 | Marc Minkowski, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Scott Hendricks, Misha Didyk, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Marina Poplavskaya, Giovanni Furlanetto | La Monnaie Internet Streaming - 15 June 2012

There’s a case to be made for putting a little distance between the drama and the telling of it in Verdi’s potboiler, Il Trovatore. The plot is a difficult one to carry-off convincingly - a gypsy curse, a witch burned at the stake, a child kidnapped in revenge and thrown into the burning embers by the daughter of the gypsy, the whole affair creating hidden secrets and unrevealed identities. As it happens, all of these melodramatic events are kept at a certain distance already, the dark history related at the start of the opera by the Captain of the Guard at the start of Act I, and with a different spin put on it by the gypsy Azucena in Act II. Storytelling is moreover part and parcel of the whole work, Leonora relating her encounter and love for a handsome dark stranger, the opera itself getting its title from a troubadour, a wandering lyrical storyteller.

It’s undoubtedly with this in mind that Dmitri Tcherniakov stages Verdi’s 1853 opera Il Trovatore at La Monnaie in Brussels with the framing device of it being related, relived and re-enacted at some date in the future by the main protagonists. Considering the bloody fates of many of those characters, it is however a bit of a stretch to imagine them meeting up some years later on the instigation of Azucena. Like some Agatha Christie mystery where the main suspects have been assembled, the five main characters in Verdi’s drama turn up in the silent prologue - Leonora in a dark wig and wearing sunglasses, Manrico in a snakeskin jacket - greet each other after years of separation or warily edge around each other as Azucena locks the door to the room, keeping them captive there to work through the events that have occurred in order to “shed light on the tragic past that has united their destinies”.

In this way the director also removes many of the old traditional stage conventions and tired mannerisms that have become associated with this old standard, which itself has become a story that is just related, its heavy delivery and declamation detaching the work any sense of real meaning that might once have lain behind it (although one doubts that there are any serious intentions behind this Verdi opera). In Tcherniakov’s production this is no 15th century Spain in the Aragon region, there are no Biscay mountains here, no convent or nuns and there’s no traditional Anvil Chorus. The chorus is there, but they remain off-stage at all times, the work - one of Verdi’s most bombastic - reduced in the process to a chamber piece. Most significantly, the cast are thus reduced entirely down to five people, Inez and Ruiz among those roles which are not actually suppressed but sung through the doubling up of roles in the small cast - an idea that fits in fine with the role-playing concept. The whole opera is there, it’s just reduced to taking place within the confines of a single room.

If the intention is to similarly downplay the singing, then that’s achieved with the performances here, although some might think that the singing lacks the necessary dynamic, power and expansiveness. It’s an interesting cast then, but not one that particularly impresses. Scott Hendricks comes across the best here as the Conte di Luna, letting himself go with the flow of the concept, although he does also have perhaps the most expressive role in the opera. Misha Didyk is not my kind of Verdi singer, although with his choked back anguished delivery lacking any variety in vocal expression and showing no real acting ability, I’m not fond of his style of singing in Russian opera either. Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo is a smaller-scale Azucena than is usually required, but she suits the tone here, as does Marina Poplavskaya as Leonora. Her technique isn’t always the smoothest when making the transition to the higher notes, but she has exactly that kind of expressive voice that is needed to bring depth to characterisation. She looks a little uncomfortable here however, a little restricted perhaps by the concept, and was surprisingly absent from the curtain call (”unwell” according to conductor Marc Minkowski when he took to the stage). Giovanni Furlanetto sang well as Ferrando (and Ruiz).

Overall however, Tcherniakov’s direction felt a bit weak, cutting away much of the baggage of the work certainly, but also restricting the drama with a concept that didn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. One might be happy to make some allowances in credibility to see something fresh and new brought out that would shed new light on Il Trovatore, but other than one or two scenes - the closing bloodbath ending certainly registered the requisite shocks - this was rarely achieved in dramatic terms. Musically however, Marc Minkowski’s conducting of the La Monnaie orchestra - his first time conducting Verdi - was much more interesting, his treatment suiting Tcherniakov’s idea of a chamber production, while at the same time indeed finding the strengths in Verdi’s score and successfully getting its underlying power across without unnecessary overemphasis. Otherwise the overall impression was that there was quite a bit of heat generated here, but not enough fire.

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.

AlcinaGeorg Friedrich Handel - Alcina

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna 2011 | Adrian Noble, Marc Minkowski, Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, Anja Harteros, Vesselina Kasarova, Veronica Cangemi, Kristina Hammarström, Alois Mühlbacher, Benjamin Bruns, Adam Plachetka | Arthaus

If it doesn’t do the mostly static and uneventful nature of Handel’s 1735 opera any favours, it’s at least appropriate that director Adrian Noble chooses to stage this production for the Weiner Staatsoper entirely within the ballroom of a stately house. Alcina does indeed feel small and intimate – some might say dry and mechanical – the kind of entertainment put on for the amusement of a gathering of nobles at an 18th century dinner party. That’s not exactly high-concept, but it’s about as adventurous as you’re going to get for a rare performance of a Baroque opera at the Vienna Staatsoper (the first in 50 years), and if it doesn’t do much for the opening up of Alcina, it at least recognises its limitations and, under the baton of the excellent Marc Minkowski, it’s about as good an account of the opera as you could expect.

The play within a play concept is only really nominally adhered to, the overture used to set the occasion within Devonshire House, where Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire and some guests (you would only know this from the production notes) put on a performance that perhaps appeals to or reflects their nature. The Duchess becomes the sorceress Alcina, who enchants men and then casts them off, changing them into wild beasts, trees or ghosts, left to roam her island. Her latest conquest is Ruggiero, who is unaware of his fate, but when his betrothed Bradamante (disguised as a man, Ricciardo) and Melisso, her tutor, come to rescue him, Alcina recognises that she may indeed have real feelings for him. There’s not a whole lot more to the opera than this. There are a few additional complications added with Alcina’s sister Morgana falling in love with Ricciardo (not realising he is actually Bradamante), which enrages Oronte, Alcina’s general who is in love with her. There’s another figure, Oberto, taken in after he and his father were shipwrecked on the island (his father since turned into a wild beast). And just in case that’s all not confusing enough, there are the usual identity problems with trouser roles to come to terms with. Not only is the young boy Oberto played by a female, but Ruggiero is a woman playing a male role who is betrothed to a woman dressed as a man.

AlcinaT

That’s complicated enough to get your head around without having to consider that Adrian Noble’s production has historical figures playing these roles, but it’s not as complex as it sounds. The dramatic action is limited and the emotional content isn’t that deep, the endless da capo arias expressing no profound wisdom or inner turmoil and no noble sentiments beyond simple expressions of love, rejection and love again, repetitively back and forth as awareness of identities and natures are revealed. Essentially, it’s a case of the power of true love prevailing. Handel’s Italian operas can be rather dramatically limited in this respect – certainly when compared to his oratorios – and Alcina seems relatively straightforward in its playing out of the situation, with arrangements that aren’t particular complex. Mood and character however are tastefully evoked throughout, but there are indeed also some beautiful heart-rending arias and melodies by the time the characters reach the crux of their situation at the end of Act II and in Act III.

If the staging is slightly static in an opera where nothing much happens – a fact only emphasised by non-participant guests sitting around watching the performance – Adrian Noble at least makes it all look very lovely indeed, with striking lighting, colours and simple effects that are appropriate to the occasion but highly effective. The tone is matched by Minkowski’s conducting of the Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, finding the rhythmic centre of the score, the whole ensemble bright, vivid and dynamic, but with a delicate touch to individual instruments which are picked out beautifully in the sound mix. The single greatest thing about the choice of staging however is indeed the use of a small core of musicians on the stage creating a wonderful connection in their accompaniment of the singers.

The most notable singing here is from Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova as Ruggiero, demonstrating a remarkable range from deep notes to high coloratura seemingly effortlessly. Her delivery and acting can be slightly mannered and even distracting, perhaps on account of playing a male role, but I don’t think the Vienna audience give her the credit she deserves here. Kristina Hammarströmn is a good Bradamante and Anja Harteros fine as Alcina, if a little lacking in character. There are a few off-notes here and there, but her Act II aria “Ah! Mio cor! Schernito sei!” is one of several beautiful Handel compositions here and sung very well. As Oberto, Alois Mühlbacher thankfully adds some variety to the voices and the repetitive romantic declarations and expressions of disappointment in rejection.Drawn out to three and a half-hours, those sentiments can become rather tedious after a while, but while Alcina isn’t the greatest Handel opera and is fairly static and limited in its dramatic situation, its overall construction is carefully considered and it’s worth persevering with for the some wonderful moments and beautiful arrangements that arise out of it as a whole. The staging and performances from the orchestra and the singers all ensure that those qualities come through.

As do the specifications of the Blu-ray from Arthaus. The sumptuous staging is finely detailed and extraordinarily colourful and, other than the use of fades and one lapse of rapid cross-cutting, the filming is fine. The PCM stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio mixes are impressive. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese and Korean. A twenty-minute behind-the-scenes featurette is included.

MireilleCharles-François Gounod - Mireille

L’Opéra National de Paris, 2009 | Marc Minkowski, Nicolas Joel, Inva Mula, Charles Castronovo, Sebastien Droy | FRA Productions

There would appear to be some questions of the value of Gounod’s forgotten 1864 opera and some risks involved in the director of the Paris opera, Nicolas Joel, reviving it for its Paris Opera premiere in 2009, but watching and listening to it now, restored as closely as possible to the original intentions of the composer, it seems extraordinary that Mireille has been overlooked so long and has never been part of the French opera repertoire.

Certainly Mireille and its subject matter are somewhat old-fashioned, the opera tied very strongly to its source in the romantic and bucolic 19th century Provençal poetry of Fredéric Mistral, but Gounod’s musical interpretation of the material is practically perfect.  The pastoral scenes of ordinary workers in the fields, their modest hopes and ambitions for nothing more than a pure love are elevated to a dramatically romantic level by the lush arrangements and beautiful arias, Gounod even introducing folk dances of the region into the score and the performance.  In some ways it’s a five-act version of Cavalleria Rusticana and ultimately, it’s just as emotionally charged.

The Opéra National de Paris’ production is equally as impressive, the staging concretely literal, Joel putting the sun-drenched fields of Provence right up there on the stage of the Palais Garnier.  The themes are certainly of the kind that could perhaps bear a more abstract lyrical interpretation – the sun, the land and religious fervour or faith being dominant themes throughout – but there are no modernisations or clever concepts, and the style remains traditional, but no less amazing for it.

The stage is superbly and brilliantly lit to evoke the light and colours of a cornfield in the south of France in midsummer, darkened to evoke the Rhône at midnight, blazing at the key scene of the Le Crau desert, with sultry dusks and twilights in between.  It’s perhaps over-literal in this respect, the drama accordingly heightened with the evocation of the summer moods and taken to the extremes of religious fervour, but it seems perfectly in keeping with the nature of the region and the lyricism of the Provençal poets.  Inva Mula is positively luminous as Mireille, capturing all the intensity of the extreme emotional journey she undergoes, brilliantly supported by the orchestra of the Paris opera, who are conducted with élan by Marc Minkowski.

The Blu-ray presentation, a Francois Roussillon production, captures the occasion perfectly in High Definition, the golden colours of the set and the lighting exploding off the screen.  The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix catches the tone of the orchestration and singing well and disperses it beautifully.  For some strange reason, the scene selection doesn’t work on my copy, all selections taking you invariably to the beginning of the opera, but the chaptering allows you to get where you want without much difficulty.  The BD comes with an interview featurette and a booklet with a synopsis.