Nederlandse Opera


DeidamiaGeorge Frideric Handel - Deidamia

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam 2012 | Ivor Bolton, David Alden, Sally Matthews, Veronica Cangemi, Olga Pasichnyk, Silvia Tro Santafé, Andrew Foster-Williams, Umberto Chiummo, Jan-Willen Schaafsma | Opus Arte

There has been some terrific work done in recent years in terms of critical editions, in the development and playing of period instruments and through inventive stage productions, all of which have gone some way to revive even the most obscure of Handel’s operas and help restore the composer’s reputation to the place it deserves. There was however a reason why the Baroque form of opera seria went out of fashion, consigning all but a few of Handel’s operas to obscurity for several hundred years. They can be frightfully dull.

Even Handel, towards the end of career, moved away from the overly restrictive conventions of the form in preference for the oratorio, but even his late operas show a diminishing of interest and invention, and they would certainly have appeared as rather old fashioned by the time that Gluck’s reforms and Mozart’s invention took the form into a dynamic new direction. Written in 1741, Handel’s last opera, Deidamia - which only ran for three performances - is not the most involving work by the composer in its subject or treatment. With its classical theme, limited dramatic action and interaction, it might as well be an oratorio, composed as it is around da capo arias, brief recitative and the occasional duet. On the other hand, it’s still Handel, and with a little involvement and invention, even the driest of Handel’s opera serias can be enhanced with a strong and sympathetic production.

There’s a tendency to take Handel very seriously indeed, but his works are littered with comic references and many of his classical opera seria works - Flavio, Partenope and even Serse can be seen as playing with or even parodying the form. Robert Carsen recognised this in his Glyndebourne production of Rinaldo, and David Alden likewise approaches Deidamia the only way that would make it watchable for a modern audience, by exaggerating the humour that is very much a part of Handel’s musical palette and certainly a part of this opera. The influence of Neapolitan opera buffa shows clearly in the situation that Handel develops through a minor figure in the story of the Greek-Trojan war, and - much like Mozart would do in Die Entführung aus dem Serail and later to perfection in Le Nozze di Figaro - Handel recognises that there’s lots of humour to be derived from hidden identities and cross-dressing. It’s evident immediately from the moment that Deidamia, on the island of Scyros, expresses her frustration that her lover - the great hero Achilles - is unable to keep in character in his female disguise. Having been sent there by his father to hide - an oracle having warned him of Achilles fate should he join the war with Troy - Achilles is disguises as a young girl, Pyrrha. Instead of picking flowers and doing some needlework, Achilles is unable to resist his red-blooded masculine urges and is off in the woods hunting wild animals.

In David Alden’s production for the De Nederlandse Opera - beautifully stylised as well as humorously inclined - Achilles (a trouser role, just to add to the confusion and humour about the nature of the character) stomps onto the stage at this moment in a frilly pink dress throwing air punches, a bloody deer carcass slung over his shoulder with what looks like a few bits chomped out of it by the Greek warrior in his predatory zeal. It’s evidently not the image that Pyrrha should be projecting, particularly since Ulysses/Odysseus has just arrived in Scyros. Ulysses (disguised as Antilochus) has managed to gain the support and warships of the Scyros’ ruler Lycomedes in the war against Troy for the abduction of Helen, but he has heard reports that Achilles is on the island and is currently looking for him. Ulysses however is not blind to the charms of Deidamia (and with Sally Matthews sporting a series of attractive swimsuits in this production, it’s not difficult to see why), and Deidamia for her part is inevitably flattered by his attentions, which only enrages the headstrong Achilles when he observes them flirting with each other from his hiding place.

Deidamia then, apart from the classical Trojan war subject populated by figures of mythological standing, is an opera that is filled of lovers who express their woes in anguished da capo arias - “You are unfaithful, you do not love me” and “You have robbed me of my happiness” are sentiments expressed here and there are others along the same lines. That’s not to say that some of the arias aren’t exquisitely beautiful - it’s still Handel after all - and, to take Odysseus’ ‘Perdere il bene amato‘ as an example, capable of expressing genuine feeling and emotion, particularly when it is sung as finely as it is here by Silvia Tro Santafé. That’s the great strength of Alden’s production - it might look tongue-in-cheek and visually stylised with little concession to reality - but it doesn’t neglect to give Handel’s beautiful musical arrangements the expression they deserve, and with Ivor Bolton conducting the Concerto Köln wonderfully through this elegant score, there’s not much chance of it being anything but respectful and attuned to all the colours of the work.

And, despite being an opera seria, despite the repetition of the aria da capo arrangements, Deidamia is indeed a colourful work that blends the humour and parody of the situation with some genuine expressions of beauty and feeling. Appropriately then, the actual set designs are equally colourful, elegant and beautiful in their simplicity. You could even see the three main characters reflected in the three acts. Deidamia’s nature is exotic, based around a tropical island theme of Act I, the little island of Scyros an Aegean paradise surrounded by a limpid sea that reflects the sun-tinted blooms of cloud in its clear blue skies. Achilles’ wild and untameable nature is reflected in the jungle of Act II, while the Greek classicism and nobility of Ulysses is the theme of the third act’s developments. There’s maybe nothing naturalistic about the sets or the costumes - submarines that convey the Greeks to the island where they hop off and walk along the reflective surface of the sea - but it relates to the characters well and looks simply gorgeous from whatever angle it is viewed (and it is beautifully filmed here on this BD release). There are more than enough reasons in Handel’s music alone for this lesser work to be of considerable interest, but Alden’s stunning sets and the stylised costumes enhance the majesty and beauty in the music even further. And the comedy.

The combination of Handel, Bolton and Alden provides good enough reason alone, but the best reason for watching this production is for the singing performances. There are a few weaker elements in the cast - Victoria Cangemi’s Nerea isn’t always capable of sustaining a pure line and has a tendency to come apart on the high notes, and Umberto Chiummo’s Lycomedes isn’t the steadiest either - but in the three main roles where it counts, the performances are utterly delightful. There are considerable singing challenges in the roles of Deidamia, Ulysses and Achilles, which are compounded by the three of them having to find a way of bringing these character’s fairly routine sentiments to life and work together dramatically. Silvia Tro Santafé, I mentioned earlier brings a forcefulness of expression and depth of sentiment that is perfectly matched by beauty and lightness of Sally Matthews’ nonetheless robust singing and her eye-catching performance, each of them further contrasted by Olga Pasichnyk performance of Achilles’ impetuous masculine vigour and enthusiasm. Although the aria form doesn’t give much of an opportunity for these characters to interact, the strength of Handel’s work is in providing just such a contrast of personalities, situations and emotional tones, and this cast really makes that work in a way that is simply spellbinding.

Beautifully staged, with wonderful colour schemes and lighting, this spectacle looks outstanding in High Definition on Blu-ray, but the HD audio tracks are most impressive. There’s a brightness and clarity and luxuriousness of tone in both the PCM stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes that really highlights the qualities of the period instruments in a Baroque orchestra. Directed by Ivor Bolton, the qualities of the score, the construction and rhythm of the music are all the more apparent and impressive. The BD also has an interesting 24-minute featurette that looks behind-the-scenes at the music and stage rehearsals, interviewing those involved, as well as a Cast Gallery. The booklet examines the themes in Handel’s work in more depth and there’s a full synopsis. The disc is all-region, BD50, Full HD, with subtitles in English, French, German and Dutch only.

PuritaniVincenzo Bellini - I Puritani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OneginPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam, 2011 | Mariss Jansons, Stefan Herheim, Krassimira Stoyanova, Bo Skovhus, Mikhail Petrenko, Andrej Dunaev, Elena Maximova, Guy de Mey, Roger Smeets, Peter Arink, Richard Prada | Opus Arte

Tchaikovsky’s approach to opera is conventional in some aspects of its Romantic style, but there’s also a distinctive character to his music through its use of folk arrangements that are thoroughly linked to Russian character of those operatic subjects. The operas may seem designed to show off the range of the composer’s abilities, with dancing to mazurkas, polonaises and waltzes, with folk songs and extravagant choral and symphonic interludes, but they are all there just as much to explore fully the broad scope and colour of the Russian character itself. That’s evident as much in The Queen of Spades as in Cherevichki, but perhaps nowhere more effectively than in his most famous opera – and as far as I’m concerned his greatest opera – Eugene Onegin.

What’s most impressive about Eugene Onegin – both from Tchaikovsky’s viewpoint as well as its original author Pushkin’s – is how it manages to compact all those diverse, contradictory, deeply romantic and sometimes self-destructive features of the Russian character into what on the surface seems a simple romantic story of love and rejection. Within this however is the same nature of throwing of one’s self into the hands of fate that gives one of the most suicidal of gambling sports its name – Russian Roulette. It’s there in The Queen of Spades of course, in the belief that one’s life can change on the magical turn of a hand of cards, based on another Pushkin story, and it’s even there in the life of Pushkin himself, who reputedly fought twenty-nine duels and was finally killed in one at the age of 37. It’s there also in Tchaikovsky’s own life, the composer going through a personal crisis at the time of the opera with his homosexuality, yet entering into an ill-advised marriage on the basis that, as he wrote to a friend “No man can escape his destiny”. There are examples of this fatalistic character throughout Russian literature and opera, as in Prokofiev’s The Gambler (adapted from a work by Fyodor Dostoevsky), but it’s richly present throughout Eugene Onegin.

Onegin

It’s there in Act I, in Tatyana, a young girl living on a country estate who is introduced by her neighbour to the handsome figure of Eugene Onegin, when she all but swoons at his presence and immediately pours her heart out to him the same night in a deeply revealing letter where she opens her heart to him. It’s there also Act II, in Onegin’s callous disregard of her sensitivities and his determination to throw himself into life rather than settle down into a marriage that will become stale through habit. It’s there in that typically Russian custom of the duel when Lensky demands satisfaction for behaviour towards the young woman, and finally, and perhaps most powerfully in this work, it’s there in Act III when Onegin reencounters Tatyana and recognises the emptiness that he has pursued all his life and throws himself at her feet only to in turn be cruelly rejected.

It’s a relatively simple storyline, but it’s richly orchestrated by Tchaikovsky to capture all the nuances of the emotional content as well as the deeper cultural drives and impulses that lie beneath them. It’s full of passion and character so it’s surprising then how coldly and calculatingly the opera can often be put across. That will often depend on the interpretation of the conductor and stage director and on how much emphasis to give to Tchaikovsky’s score, but as far as this De Nederlandse production goes, with Mariss Jansons conducting and Stefan Herheim directing, it’s a passionate and expansive account of the opera, though one that many will inevitably feel takes too many liberties with the libretto.

Onegin

As far as the staging goes, the young Norwegian director does place the figures into somewhat irregular configurations. You’ll see that from the outset as Onegin walks onto the stage a scene before he should be formally introduced, looking thoroughly confused and walking moreover into what looks like a hotel lobby, with an elevator and a revolving door, where Tanya and her family are together. Similarly, there are few of the usual separations of characters in scenes that one would be accustomed to. Even when Tanya should be writing her famous love letter to the young man she has just been introduced to, it’s staged here with Onegin actually writing the letter, while her husband, Prince Gremin, lies in bed behind them. This could be thoroughly confusing for anyone who is unfamiliar with the opera, but it will not make a lot of sense to anyone who is familiar with the work and who would be quite happy to see it played out in the traditional linear manner.

The concept applied here, of course (although it might not be that obvious), is that the figures are reflecting back on the events from an older perspective, and the setting picks up on the mirroring of the situations. That’s most evident when Onegin directs his rejection of Tatyana to a silent younger girl in a white dress, while Krassimira Stoyanova, who actually sings the role of Tatyana, wearing a red dress (there may be some colour coding to reflect the differing perspectives) looks on as a spectator on her own past. Whether you consider that this distorts the intentions of Eugene Onegin or whether you feel that it opens it up underlying themes within the work will obviously depend on your taste, but the motivations of the director, inspired or misguided though they may be judged to be, are at least derived from a close attention paid to the work and a genuine attempt to understand it. Eugene Ongein is not a naturalistic work, and this production not only attempts to convey the poetic dream-like quality of the storyline with all its romanticised ideals and passions, but it also attempts to get beneath Tchaikovsky’s own personal relationship with the work and the expression of his own nature in the composition. That seems to me to be a worthwhile endeavour, but whether it’s judged as successful is evidently a matter for the individual listener/viewer.

Onegin

It does however add another level of complication to a work that is already enriched in emotions and in their peculiar Russian expression. In fact its attempt to bring this latter aspect to the fore to increasingly bizarre effect in Act II and Act III might be taking on rather too much and pushing an already quite eccentric production – such as the unusual touches applied to the M. Triquet scene and Onegin’s second at the duel actually being a bottle of wine – a little too far. Act III’s Polonaise attempts to bring in an historical tableau vivant of all walks of Russian life, with a dancing bear, Cosmonauts, Russian gymnasts, Swan Lake dancers, royalty and religious leaders, Red Army troops and sailors, folk dancers, serfs and Prince Gremin heading up a Russian mafia outfit, and if all that sounds like it has nothing to do with Eugene Onegin, you’d be entitled to think so and decide that this is not a production for you, but at the same time it can be seen as historically being a part of everything Russian that is enshrined within the essence of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky’s work.

What I think is beyond question however is that Jansons and Herheim bring out the full latent potential of Eugene Onegin here, without restraint, but also without over-emphasis. Regardless of whether the concept makes rational sense or appeals to personal taste, this is a passionate and moving account of the work on a musical and a dramatic level. The singing is also exceptionally good here. You might like a younger person singing Tatyana, but a younger singer couldn’t sing this role half as well. It needs a mature voice, and Krassimira Stoyanova‘s is wonderfully toned, controlled with impeccable technique and emotionally expressive. Bo Skovhus brings a great intensity also to this Onegin who is tortured by his nature of being Russian. He’s not the strongest voice in the role, but he sings it well. Mikhail Petrenko’s Prince Gremin and Andrej Dunaev’s Lensky are also worthy of the production. The very fine team of the Chorus of the De Nederlandse opera provide their usual sterling work.

Blu-ray specifications are all in order. The video quality is good, the picture clear, even though it is often dark on the stage and there are some slight fluctuations in brightness adjustment. The PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 audio tracks are strong and impressive, with a wonderful tone. Extras on the disc include a Cast Gallery and a 30 minute documentary feature where the director explains – not always convincingly and certainly always clearly to conductor Jansons – his thought-process for the work, with backstage interviews, rehearsals and a look at the costume designs. The booklet contains an essay examining the work and the production and includes a synopsis. The disc is BD50, 16:9, 1080i full HD. Subtitles are in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch.

AtomicJohn Adams - Doctor Atomic

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam 2007 | Lawrence Renes, Peter Sellars, Gerald Finley, Jessica Rivera, Eric Owens, Richard Paul Fink, James Maddalena, Thomas Glenn, Jay Hunter Morris, Ellen Rabiner | Opus Arte

There is no reason why opera can’t deal with really big subjects. Even in its earliest form, going right back to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and dealing with ancient classical mythology, right through to Verdi and Wagner, or even the treatment of the Holocaust in Weinberg’s The Passenger, through the combined artforms of drama and the abstraction of music given expression through human performance, opera has been able to delve deeply into the nature of humanity when faced by the big questions of existence – God, Love, War and the essential matters of Life and Death.

Obviously, those subjects are no less central to many aspects of our lives today and no less important to modern composers. It’s in this context that the operas of John Adams (Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer) deal with contemporary or recent ‘headline’ subjects that have had a major impact of our lives or say something significant about the world we live in today. Dealing with Oppenheimer’s development and testing of the first Atom Bomb in June 1945, leading to its deployment in Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Doctor Atomic tackles with one of the most significant developments of the 20th century – if not actually the biggest since it deals with the potential annihilation of the entire human race – but one wonders whether this subject may indeed not be too big for opera, or at least for the limitations of composer John Adams and librettist and director Peter Sellars.

Atomic
Whether they succeed in their aims or not, no-one at least can accuse the authors of lacking in ambition. The decision to condense all the personal, moral, philosophical, political and military considerations around the development of the Atom Bomb into a 24 hour period, confining it (with some significant temporal twists) to the preparations for the first test of the bomb at Los Alamos in New Mexico is perhaps necessary from a dramatic perspective, but it does make it somewhat difficult to get to the human heart of the subject and the personalities involved. In some ways, of course, this reflects the dilemma of the scientists working on the project, caught up in the science of the work and in the middle of a war, there’s some urgency involved that doesn’t perhaps leave a lot of time for consideration of the moral and political implications, to say nothing of the personal toll that the results of the project will later exert over the consciences and lives of those men.

There is consequently some discussion and disagreement in Doctor Atomic between Oppenheimer and Teller not only over the estimated yield of the explosion and the possibly global catastrophic consequences that are as yet unknown, but also concerns voiced about the military application of their work on the Japanese people – without warning – particularly since Germany has already surrendered the war. The tense confrontations between scientists and the military advisors as well as the approaching deadline for the first test create a fraught situation that in only heightened and its dangers made real by the electrical storm that has arrived just at the critical moment.

The opera consequently maintains a high edge of intensity throughout. It’s evident in the discordant notes, and staccato strings of Adams’ score, underscored by rumbling percussion; it’s evident also in the sparse staging and stark lighting for this production at the De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam – a mobile set of wooden scaffolding over a “ground zero” circle that allows for a reasonable flow to me maintained between scenes. Aside from the busyness of Lucinda Childs’ dancers over the circle, the intensity of the production is even more pronounced however – perhaps to a state of being somewhat overwrought – by the singing performances and the delivery of a rather portentous libretto. Drawn from released declassified official documents, with the addition of some passages from Baudelaire and the Bhagavad Gita, the libretto may have authenticity and a sense of poetry that is certainly in keeping with the grandness of the subject, but it does indeed often sound like notes from scientific documents and personal journal observations rather than actual dialogue, and it consequently lacks any deeper insight into the nature of the people involved, or any sense of real human feeling.

Atomic

With a libretto taking in questions of life and death from the god-like stance in relation to such matters wielded by the figures involved, and with nature invoked in the forms of thunder and lightning (to say nothing of consideration of radioactive rain and visions of “cloud-flower” structures), such weighty pronouncements are moreover sung by a cast of powerful deep voices that are predominately baritone or bass-baritone for the main masculine roles (Gerald Finley, James Maddalena, Eric Owens, Richard Paul Fink) and mezzo-soprano for the two significant female roles (although Adams reworked Kitty Oppenheimer for soprano Jessica Rivera for this production, it’s still at the lower end of the soprano tessitura). The declarative delivery, against such a musical, scenic and dramatic background with a Chorus that has all the portentousness of a Greek Chorus, is, barring a few brief scenes, consequently never anything less than overwhelmingly tortured and angst-ridden.

Is such an approach justified? Would all these moral questions really have been weighted-up and agonised over in this way over such a short intense period of time, or is this a retrospective look at a significant moment taking in all the implications in the light of what would subsequently transpire in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Either approach would be valid and the scope and nature of the subject itself undoubtedly calls out for just such a treatment, but does it work? There’s no doubting the ability of the composer and librettist to draw these diverse historical references, documents and characters together, poetically working nature and elements into the equation in a manner that is certainly powerful and – by the time one gets to the conclusion – dramatically effective, but rather than being in any way enlightening or instructive about the subject, the overwhelming feeling is that Doctor Atomic is just overwhelming.

Opus Arte’s Blu-ray release of this 2007 production at De Nederlandse Opera is a strong presentation of the work. It’s filmed often in extreme close-up (under the direction of Peter Sellars) and in High Definition under stark bright lighting, you might get to see right into the pores of the singers more than you would like to. Radio microphones are used for this production and visible on all the performers – whether this was for the stage or to allow better mixing for the recording, I’m not sure, but the Dolby TrueHD 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks are well presented. In addition to a detailed on-screen synopsis and cast gallery, there are several short background mini-documentaries on the production, and an extended interview with Peter Sellars.

VepresGiuseppe Verdi - Les Vêpres Siciliennes

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam 2010 | Paolo Carignani, Christof Loy, Barbera Haveman, Burkhard Fritz, Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester, Balint Szabo, Jeremy White, Christophe Fel, Lívia Ághová, Fabrice Farina, Hubert Francis, Roger Smeets, Rudi de Vries | Opus Arte

In the behind-the-scenes featurette on the BD for this opera, Frank, one of the nearly 100 strong chorus of the Nederlandse Opera, says that he feels like he is not just one of the crowd in this production, he’s part of history. And in a way, there is definitely something momentous about Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes (1855). It’s not just the fact that it’s Verdi in full-blown Grand Opéra mode, in French moreover, or that it’s based around an historical event that has contemporary and political significance for the revolutionary-minded composer himself – but it’s also a lesser-known Verdi opera, very rarely performed or recorded, even more rarely in its full French version complete with a half-hour ballet in the middle. The Dutch production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes in Amsterdam is certainly an historic occasion then, and what a fascinating, thrilling and momentous event it turns out to be.

The original historical events referred to in the opera date back to 1282, when the Sicilian people rose up against the cruel French occupying forces after one outrage too many committed against the ordinary citizens. You would imagine that Verdi was less interested in the historical Vespri Siciliani than he was about the revolution in Italy in his own time, and stage director Christof Loy likewise isn’t concerned about setting this production of the opera to any specific historical time period. Nominally however, it’s set in the 1960s (the dates of birth of the young protagonists are given as the early 1940s), which would seem to draw a parallel with events in French-occupied Algeria, but there is nothing culturally specific that makes any reference to this. Loy’s direction then is by no means the fiasco that has been suggested elsewhere. The director’s touches are distinctive certainly, and not for everyone, but taking the opera out of its natural time period – which would have no meaning or significance for a modern audience anyway and arouse none of the passions Verdi undoubtedly was aiming for – Loy manages nonetheless not only to do great service to the opera and even help cover over some of its flaws.

The staging has much of the same look as Loy’s Salzburg production of Handel’s Theodora, and it has a very loose thematic connection in it being about citizens standing up to the abuse of a foreign power. Similarly, the sets are kept minimal, with rarely anything more than a few chairs scattered around the stage, creating a sense of timelessness that is reflected in the costumes. The French, like the Romans in Theodora, for the most part wear formal dinner jackets, the Sicilians casual jeans and shirts, with only Hélène – the Duchess – wearing a man’s suit and tie. The political and social distinctions are therefore much more meaningful to a modern audience than any period costumes. Props and effects are rarely used, but when they are (bottles and glasses, slides and projections) they are employed to good effect and for maximum impact. The main part of the Loy’s work however is in his directing of the singers, their movements, placement and their interaction, and it’s hard to see him putting a foot wrong anywhere in this respect, as the full impact of the complex relations between the characters, their backgrounds and motivations all come through.

Vepres

Where the plot and the libretto are less convincing, Verdi music fills in the gaps and Loy steps back and lets it speak for itself (the otherwise static Act IV for example is powerful simply through a magnificent set of duets, trio and quartet). In the places where even Verdi’s judgement of the occasion is questionable – the start of Act V for example, Loy steps in and manages to make something more meaningful out of it. The director chooses the Four Seasons ballet in Act III to be the thematic centrepoint of his interpretation (controversially it would seem), giving motivation to Henri’s later actions that are otherwise difficult to reconcile, the revelations about his own origins and his father leading him to idealise or just imagine how things might have been different. This illusory ideal leads him to believe that his marriage to Hélène at the start of Act V (the same fantasy home setting of the ballet is used here) – otherwise an improbably joyous occasion considering the circumstances – could bring a true peaceful union between France and Sicily. It’s a thoughtful interpretation by a director who clearly cares enough to play to the opera’s strengths and mitigate its weaknesses. At the very least, it’s certainly preferable to simply cutting the ballet, as would be more common (if the opera were indeed more commonly performed), and letting it limp by with its inherent flaws.

Although there are some unfamiliar elements, the opera itself is recognisably and whole-heartedly Verdi, with romantic tragedy, dire threats of revenge and rousing revolutionary sentiments. Musically, Les Vêpres Siciliennes doesn’t always feel like the Verdi we know, but, like Don Carlo (a much better opera admittedly), there’s something fascinating and appropriately dramatic about having the Verdi experience filtered through the French Grand Opéra idiom, with its echoes of Un Ballo in Maschera and even Rigoletto and La Traviata here, with its rousing choruses and its grand Overture (placed strangely between Acts I and II here, but no less effectively), but with unexpected delicacy and with musical arrangements that I’ve never heard from Verdi before, such as in the wonderful ballet music. The orchestra and the chorus, under Paolo Carignani, are outstanding in their delivery, the opera approached with a real Verdian sweep.

The singing – even though there are some difficult passages and coloratura to navigate right at the end of a long opera – is for the most part beyond reproach. Barbera Haveman is a great presence, the charismatic figure that Hélène needs to be, her singing strong and heartfelt throughout. Burkhard Fritz is a lovely lyrical tenor who manages to make the difficult nature of Henri’s plight sympathetic. Balint Szabo’s bass makes for a grave, dignified, yet compelling revolutionary voice as Procida. Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester is fine, but the weakest of the principals, not really cutting a strong enough figure as Montfort, and his singing isn’t as clear and resonant as the others. Les Vêpres Siciliennes isn’t great Verdi by any means, but it’s a side to Verdi that we rarely see in his most popular works, and it’s thrilling for that alone. We can be grateful to the Nederlandse Opera for bring the full opera in its full original form (with only one slight tweak of the placement of the Overture), but also to have a director like Christof Loy, who clearly cares enough to put the additional effort into making the opera relevant and meaningful.

The quality of the Blu-ray release from Opus Arte is good, if not exceptional. The large mostly dark stage and stark lighting makes it difficult to get an entirely satisfactory exposure level, but the image is relatively clear, the opera well-filmed and there are no noticeable defects. There’s not much to choose between the LPCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 audio mixes. The surround track is firmly to the front and centre, with little but ambience in the rear speakers. The 2-channel mix, by the same token eliminates some of the reverb. Otherwise, both tracks are more than adequate for a live recording, achieving a good balance between singing and the orchestra. The half-hour Introduction to the opera is an entertaining and informative look mainly behind the scenes at the rehearsals and presentation of the opera.

Castor et PolluxJean-Philippe Rameau - Castor et Pollux

De Nederlandse Opera, 2008 | Pierre Audi, Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques, Anna Maria Panzarella, Véronique Gens, Judith van Wanroij, Finnur Bjarnason, Henk Neven, Nicholas Testé | Opus Arte

The production notes in the DVD of Castor et Pollux note that Jean-Philippe Rameau quickly came to be regarded as the successor to Lully after his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, was performed in Paris, and his importance is certainly evident in his third opera Castor et Pollux, (first performed in 1737 but revised in 1754, the latter version used for this recording). The story of love triumphing over death through a trip into Hades to rescue a deceased loved-one is certainly of common mythological origin going back to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, which is regarded as the first opera, so it’s no surprise that Handel’s Admeto and Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice and Alceste also come to mind when watching Castor et Pollux, but the similarities and the influence that Rameau would have on his successors is evident just as much in the musical treatment and arrangements.

Rameau’s following of the mythology is relatively straightforward in terms of plotting, the subject efficiently laid out in the opening two acts, but the conflicting sentiments of four different figures, some mortal and others immortal, make the opera rather more complicated, and it’s in the expression of these through the music and the singing that the brilliance of Rameau’s tragédie lyrique is evident. Pollux the immortal son of Jupiter marries Télaïra, but becoming aware that she is in love with his twin moral brother Castor and he is in love with her, he gives up his wife and unites her with Castor, rather than hurt them both and see his brother go off into exile. This would be all noble and fine but for Télaïra’s sister Phébé, who is in love with Castor herself, but doesn’t have her feelings reciprocated. She arranges for Télaïra to be kidnapped by Lincée, but it is Castor who is killed in the battle that ensues. As Phébé has the ability to open up the gates of Hades, Pollux agrees to go look for his brother, knowing that he will have to take his place there so that Castor can live again, the two of them taking their place as immortals as stars in the constellation of Gemini.

Performed here at De Nederlandse Opera with the same production team behind the spectacular Drottningholm version of Rameau’s Zoroastre, stage director Pierre Audi and Christophe Rousset, the musical director of Les Talens Lyriques, create another remarkable spectacle out of all the elements – singing, music, dance, stage, lighting, costumes – that combine to make Rameau’s operas so invigorating. There’s a magnificent sound mix (in LPCM stereo and DTS 5.1) that captures the astounding performance of Les Talens Lyriques, played on period instruments, with clarity and perfect tone, creating a wonderful fullness of sound, particularly when the off-stage chorus is employed (in a manner that brings to mind Mozart’s Requiem particularly during the funeral of Castor). The Baroque and Rameau specialist singers such as Anna Maria Panzarella, Véronique Gens and Nicholas Testé are accompanied also by fine singing from Judith van Wanroij (as Cléone), Henk Neven (as Pollux) and Finnur Bjarnason (as Castor).

The staging and lighting are just as important, making use of an almost bare stage, with minimal backdrops of crossbeams, columns and geometric objects that nonetheless create a perfect impression of mythological antiquity, the costumes, colours and lighting emphasising the passions and emotional language of the characters that is expressed with such drama and depth in the musical arrangements and the singing. Anna Maria Panzarella in particular gives one of her finest Rameau performances here, giving a wonderful rendition of Act 2’s “Tristes apprêts” lament for Castor. The dancing is well employed, not as a divertissement as it is often used in Baroque opera, but to add another level to the unspoken sentiments of the characters and in how they relate to one another. On every level, this is an outstanding production of one of the finest Baroque operas.

It’s released on DVD only by Opus Arte, which is a pity as this would look stunning on High Definition media. It still looks and sounds excellent on the 2-DVD set. Extras consist of a booklet that covers the history of the opera and the production, but there is no synopsis given. The story is covered to some extent on the 16 minute Making of on the disc, through interviews with Pierre Audi, the production team, the cast and the dancers. The rehearsals give some idea of the amount of effort that went into making this an amazing spectacle.

TraviataRichard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer

De Nederlandse Opera, 2010 | Hartmut Haenchen, Martin Kušej, Robert Lloyd, Catherine Naglestad, Marco Jentzsch, Marina Prudenskaja, Oliver Ringelhahn, Juha Uusitalo | Opus Arte

If you like your Wagner staged in the traditional manner, then this production won’t be for you. If however you think that the themes in Wagner’s work – fatalistic romantic destinies, love, duty, power, suffering, the conflict between tradition and modernity – have a timeless quality and can resonate with its subject no matter what the setting, then you might be inclined to at least understand why a producer might want to relate those themes in a way that is relevant to a modern audience. The question with the De Nederlandse Opera production of Der fliegende Holländer however is whether they take it too far and perhaps take too many liberties with the opera.

Der fliegende Holländer however, is not a late Wagner work, the composition not conforming precisely to the musical standards that the composer would later set, nor indeed in the very specific manner in which it should be presented. Written around the same time as Rienzi, Der fliegende Holländer certainly points towards that direction and is a fascinating opera to examine the beginning of Wagner’s progression, but it is still curiously imbalanced between the newer style and the influences of old, more conventional Italianate opera practices, and the switch between them can be quite jarring in parts of the opera. Since we can’t go back however and consider the opera and its relevance afresh through the eyes of a 19th century audience – and since even Wagner used mythology to speak to a contemporary audience of modern ideas for a Germanic art and principles – we have no choice but to consider the opera from a modern perspective in any case.

Director Martin Kušej takes advantage of the somewhat schizophrenic split in the opera itself between tradition and modernity in order to present it meaningfully to a modern-day Dutch audience.  There are no longer sailing ships sailing the seven seas for years at a time - ship navigation, seafaring and commerce are all very different now, so if you think about it in modern terms, it shouldn’t really be surprising to see shipping in terms of cruises and ferries, the Dutchman here arriving on a Norwegian ferry, his crew asylum seekers, looking for a homeland, a place to settle after a lifetime of being tossed around as refugees on the seas of conflict and revolution.  It shouldn’t be difficult either to consider the arrival of these figures being perceived as a threat to those who enjoy a comfortable western bourgeois lifestyle.

Whether those multicultural subjects have any place in a Wagner opera is for the opera lover to consider (or not, should such interpretations not hold any interest for traditionalists), but it strikes me as a valid response to the themes of Der fliegende Holländer, and – most importantly – it’s presented here in a manner that doesn’t undermine or lessen the importance of the other eternal themes in the opera and the subjects that held meaning for Richard Wagner, namely the loss of one’s homeland, a consideration of what is a sense of homeland, and all the associated themes that go alongside it where love, family, stability and security count for more than richness and social climbing in a globalised society where money talks. Those subjects are treated with utmost reverence in this production, and the reason why they can be given a modern spin is because the opera is so powerful in its expression of them, tying them deeply into a mythology that does indeed hold mystique and attraction in the legend of the Flying Dutchman, but also in the use of the sea itself – a powerful symbol in any guise, but even more so here in the musical expression and embryonic use of leitmotif that Wagner employs so evocatively.

While I feel that the opera’s themes are done justice to in this production then – but I can quite understand why it might not work for everyone – what is just as important, and ultimately persuasive here is the performance of the opera itself. Quite simply, it is sung and played magnificently, and comes across particularly well in the stunning sound reproduction that is presented on the Blu-ray edition. Not only are the voices of Juha Uusitalo and Catherine Naglestad superb in their range, control and power, but they blend together most marvellously as a singers and as the couple of the Dutchman and Senta. This is totally a 5-star production in terms of performance and singing alone (as well as for the quality of the Blu-ray) – but it is also a sincere, interesting and fascinating attempt to relate the opera to modern themes. If the concept is perhaps a slightly imperfect fit, or slightly inconsistent with the original intentions of the opera, Der fliegende Holländer was always an imperfect opera in the first place – but, like this production, no less fascinating for those perceived flaws and inconsistencies.

FanciullaGiacomo Puccini - La Fanciulla del West

Nederlandse Opera 2009 | Carlo Rizzi, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Lucio Gallo, Zoran Todorovich, Roman Sadnik, Diogenes Randes | Opus Arte

I haven’t so much as blinked at some modernised productions of operas set in the most unlikely of environments, but somehow I’ve never been able to get my head around the idea of an opera set in the Wild West - and yet that’s the original setting for Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. So if the Nederlandse Opera want to update the theme of the quest for gold conflated with the treasure of a virginal young woman into the more modern-day setting of Wall Street (references to pickaxes, mines and Wells Fargo notwithstanding), well, in principle, that’s fine by me - there’s no reason why, with a bit of invention and imagination, that shouldn’t work …and even if the opera opens in what looks like a leather gay bar, well, you know, I wouldn’t necessarily see that as unlikely in this Puccini opera, particularly when Johnson makes his entrance among all those rugged men at the Pink Flamingo (I think it’s called that) asking who is going to curl his hair… And wait until you see the set for Act 2! There’s more camp here than a Red Indian Reservation.

La Fancuilla del West isn’t ever going to be considered one of Puccini’s best operas. It’s not his most memorable composition and with a subject that seems better suited to a Rogers and Hammerstein musical, it doesn’t lend itself to the same highs and lows of love, passion and betrayal that you’ll find in Madama Butterfly, La Bohème or Tosca. It certainly doesn’t seem to be the best vehicle for the seriousness of purpose of the composer towards adapting to new modern styles of composition. The Rogers and Hammerstein comparison isn’t really fair however (and a bit snobbish), nor is the criticism that Puccini has abandoned the beautiful melodies of his former work. And if this production, conducted by Carlo Rizzi and directed for the stage by Nicholaus Lehnhoff, brings out anything, it’s the qualities of the score and the varieties of tone that have a delicacy that belies the rather crude narrative and unimaginative storyline.

As for the production, well, I’m afraid it just doesn’t work. If the director had really been committed to going for the Wall Street idea and really set it in modern financial district locations, the production might have been pulled it off (as Michael Haneke did with his production of Don Giovanni for the Paris Opera a few years ago), but this staging is half-hearted and uncommitted, a widescreen Technicolor tribute to Americana that has little rhyme or reason, resulting in the usual hodge-podge of anachronisms. It’s already a Western - how much more American does it really need to be? The playing however is fine and the singing generally good, Eva-Maria Westbroek demonstrating the qualities that Puccini manages to bring to the role of Minnie.

The image quality of Opus Arte’s Blu-ray release isn’t as impressive as other HD presentations, the bold coloured lighting not allowing a lot of detail to be shown, but there are no real issues with the transfer either. Much more important, and where opera on Blu-ray really excels, is in the High Definition audio. Here, there’s a DTS HD Master Audio in a 5.0 mix and a PCM stereo track. Both are a little harsh and over-dynamic and it’s hard to find the right volume level - too loud and it’s booming, too low and the singing is inaudible. There is a happy medium however, if you can find it, where the qualities of the performance can be heard. Overall, this is a good performance of La Fancuilla del West and the stage production is nice to look at, but it doesn’t really bring anything new out of the opera.

OrfeoClaudio Monteverdi - L’Orfeo

De Nederlandse Opera, 1997 | Pierre Audi, Stephen Stubbs, John Mark Ainsley, Juanita Lascarro | Opus Arte

It’s appropriate that what is often considered the first opera - or at least the first opera that we can recognise as being more closely associated with the form of the opera as it is widely known today - is a composition in praise of Orpheus and his golden lyre. Written in 1607, bringing together music and drama into an integrated form for the first time, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo seems to delight in the very essence of the resultant new artform that has been created, the alchemy of music, drama and exquisite singing achieving an almost transcendentally beautiful balance and harmony.

Dealing moreover with the legendary subject of Orpheus, Monteverdi’s opera finds a perfect subject to demonstrate the power of the artform, one that can take in subjects as large as life, death, love and art and truly do justice to their importance in the lives of ordinary people. Set in the meadows, hills and woodlands of Thrace, life is simple but hard for the workers in the fields, but Orpheus through his music is able to transform the misery of the people into a thing of beauty. But he “who once made sighs his food and tears his drink”, has since discovered happiness in his love for Eurydice. The happiness is short-lived however, as Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies. Grief-stricken, Orpheus descends to the underworld, to bargain with Charon, cross the River Styx and claim her back from Hades for the living.

A mythological subject, there is poetry and wisdom scattered throughout the gorgeous libretto, warning mortals not to “put your faith in fleeting fragile joy that is so soon gone” observing how often in life “we are lifted high only to be cast down”. The music (the story appropriately is introduced by the muse Music herself) and the singing all combining to give the subject and tragedy the necessary emotional depth. The 1997 production recorded here makes good use of the vast stage of the Muziektheater in Amsterdam, Pierre Audi’s staging at the same time simple but effective. The tone of the period instruments and singing are impeccable, John Mark Ainsley’s voice conveying the warmth, lyricism, charm and beauty that you would expect Orpheus to possess.

Released on DVD by Opus Arte as a 2-disc set, the 16:9 enhanced image is excellent, even in the dim lighting showing detail only slightly less impressive than a HD presentation. There are two audio tracks. The DTS 5.1 is a little echoing, although it does give the opera an appropriate cathedral quality, but the PCM stereo track seems to my ears to have much better depth and clarity. Neither can do much about the sometimes heavy clumping that is made by figures striding across the stage, but this is a minor irritation. The extras are brief but useful, including a Synopsis and a 16 minute introduction that looks behind the scenes at the production and the instruments used.