Opernhaus Zürich


PelleasClaude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Opernhaus Zürich, 2004 | Franz Welser-Möst, Sven-Eric Bechtolf, Rodney Gilfrey, Isabel Rey, Michael Volle, László Polgár, Cornelia Kallisch, Eva Liebau, Guido Götzen | Arthaus Musik

The 2004 Zurich production of Pelléas et Mélisande is a curious one, but then Debussy’s only complete opera is a strange and enigmatic work. It’s a work that is founded on ambience and ambiguity, as much in the libretto - Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama brought over almost intact - as in the haunting qualities of Debussy’s music, which do not underscore or emphasise specific emotions in the traditional manner as much as suggest otherworldly mood and mystery in the hidden depths that lie within it. The production design consequently also goes for a non-specific, otherworldly location within a snow-bound world that seems to work well with Debussy’s floating lines, the coldness and detachment of the expressions, as well as the enclosed intimacy and oppressiveness of the subconscious passions that underlie them.

By far the strangest element of Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production however is the use of life-size dummies, looking uncannily like the characters themselves, which are carried around by them or maintain a presence throughout the performance. Not only are these dummies carried around, sometimes propelled around the stage in wheelchairs, but the characters interact more with the dummies than the actual people they represent. The key to this, of course, is that they are indeed representational and symbolic - the word symbolism deriving from a separation into halves between the real and the representational - and this feels entirely appropriate within an opera that, derived from a symbolist drama, is about much more than the surface interaction between the characters. The idea emphasises not only a failure to connect meaningfully with the other characters, but that they even suffer from a sense of detachment from their own sentiments and feelings.

This is expressed wonderfully within the drama itself in a number of enigmatic scenes that rely on creating resonances and sensations, and Debussy adds to the growing sense of unease through his unsettling scoring and linking musical interludes. Rolf Glittenberg’s set designs for the Zurich production, although strange, create an equally unsettling and ambiguous atmosphere that works well with the nature of the work, while even the strange marbled stone suits worn by the inhabitants of the royal castle (but not Mélisande) raise questions or create impressions about their inner nature.

The minimalism, the symbolism and the obsessive repetition, all emphasised in this production through the division between the disembodied figures and their mannequins, seems to reflect a similar haunted quality to the one in Robert Wilson’s distinctive production of this opera, where the characters seem to be ghostly figures acting out roles and gestures that have been played out many times before, perhaps at the instigation of Golaud - or even obsessively inside his own head - though his inability to discover, or recognise “the truth”. There’s a fatalistic quality in the work that bears out this idea, Arkel in particular for example mentioning, at the news of Golaud’s marriage to Mélisande - the woman with no past - that “we only ever see the reverse side of destiny, the reverse even of our own”, that Golaud “knows his future better than I”, and that “perhaps nothing that happens is meaningless”. These figures all seem to be searching for meaning and significance in objects, in rings, in towers (a Citroen car here), in a golden ball, and even in the indecipherable blank expressions of dummies. By the end they seem to be no nearer to an answer and the eternal mystery of Pelléas et Mélisande persists.

The production design won’t be to everyone’s taste, but this is a good all-round performance of the opera. Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Zurich orchestra marvellously through the beautiful floating score with a mood and tempo that matches the ambience of the snow-smothered production and the fluid revolutions of the set. The singing and the performances are excellent, particularly Rodney Gilfrey, who seems to delve deeply into the character as Pélleas, but Isabel Rey is also a fine Mélisande, Michael Volle a particularly tormented Golaud, bringing a remarkable intensity and much needed dynamic to the work, and László Polgár brings deep beautiful tones, to a dignified but somewhat opaque Arkel.

The Blu-ray release from Arthaus is a repackage of the previous TDK release, retaining even the label on the disc itself and the original TDK menus. The HD picture quality is very good, the sound well distributed with a cool tone on the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 mixes. There are no extra features on the disc itself, which is region-free. Subtitles are in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian.

RigolettoGiuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006 | Nello Santi, Gilbert Deflo, Leo Nucci, Piotr Beczala, Elena Moşuc, László Polgár, Katharina Peetz, Kismara Pessati, Rolf Haunstein | Arthaus Musik

Judged on its own merits, this 2006 production of Rigoletto from the Zurich Opera House is a good traditional production, more than competently played and sung, even if it doesn’t have any great qualities to distinguish it from countless other productions. Packaged here however as a budget-priced promotional release, including a full-length opera alongside 45 trailers from the Arthaus Blu-ray catalogue, this is a good value option that serves as an introduction to just how good opera can look and sound in the format, as well as providing samples of other catalogue titles. As one of the most impressive works in the repertoire, Verdi’s Rigoletto is also a fine accessible opera that sits well alongside the previous Arthaus catalogue samplers - La Traviata and Tosca - all good solid productions of works with proven dramatic and musical qualities and plenty of familiar melodies.

Gilbert Deflo’s staging is traditional then but it looks good, keeping things simple but effective in how they relate to the drama. The opening scene, for example, captures a sense of the decadence of the Duke of Mantua’s orgies at his palace, with extravagant period costumes and the hunchbacked Rigoletto appropriately devilish in a bright red jester’s costumes, taunting the Count of Monterone, whose daughter is being seduced by the Duke. There’s a similar sense of working effectively with the mood and situation in the subsequent scenes, in the blue-lit night-time alley where Rigoletto encounters Sparafucile, the assassin-for-hire and the contrasting sense of comfort in home surroundings where Rigoletto can be himself with his daughter Gilda. There’s no cleverness attempted in the balcony abduction of Gilda, nor in the stormy night setting at the inn in Act III, the sets designed to look good and not unduly trouble the performers as they move through the mechanics of the plot.

It’s all nice and tastefully done, with no modern cleverness to frighten the traditionalists, and the same can be said about the singing performances and the playing. It all feels a little too restrained however, lacking dramatic fire and urgency. There’s a pleasant transparent openness to the orchestration under Nello Santi which captures the lyrical beauty of Verdi’s score, but there little of the passion and the urgency that you ought to find in it and in the performances. Piotr Beczala is probably the best here as the Duke, singing well with a distinctive and robust tenor voice, but Elena Moşuc is also fine as Gilda. She’s a little unsteady in Act I’s ‘Gualtier Malde‘ aria and doesn’t always bring a great deal of acting fire to the role, but she comes through strongly where it counts in the Act II duets, in the fabulous Act III quartet and her sacrificial scene. Leo Nucci isn’t the strongest Verdi baritone and lacks the necessary personality to really bring out the conflict of fatherly emotions that lie behind the jester’s mask, but it’s by no means a bad performance, just one that fits in with the overall uninventive tone of the production.

All in all however, if it lacks any real edge and passion, this is nonetheless a solidly performed and dramatically effective production of a terrific opera that will serve - as it is intended here - as a reasonably good introduction to opera on Blu-ray for anyone - perhaps inspired by the Verdi bicentenary - who might be curious about sampling it. It’s looks good and sounds good in High Definition (with a PCM stereo and a DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 mix), although the live sound recording is a little echoing and the lower-frequency sounds are a little booming. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean. This particular edition of Rigoletto also includes 130 minutes worth of trailers from 45 opera, ballet and documentaries available on Blu-ray from Arthaus Musik, which can be very useful in determining the nature of the production and the singing and whether it might appeal to you or not. There are better productions of Rigoletto available elsewhere (and personally, I’d like to see a BD release for the fine 2010 Rigoletto with Plácido Domingo filmed live in the actual locations in Ferrara), but at around £8, you can’t really go wrong with this.

ElektraRichard Strauss - Elektra

Opernhaus Zürich, 2005 | Christoph von Dohnányi, Martin Kušej, Eva Johansson, Marjana Lipovšek, Melanie Diener, Rudolf Schasching, Alfred Muff, Renhard Mayr, Cassandra McConnell, Christine Zoller, Andreas Winkler, Morgan Moody, Margaret Chalker | Arthaus Musik

I don’t know if Electra’s age is recorded in Sophocles’ account of ancient Greek mythology that forms the basis for the play and the libretto that Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote for Richard Strauss’ one-act opera, but in Martin Kušej’s 2005 stage production of Elektra for the Zurich Opera, at the time when she is plotting the death of her mother on Mycenae, Electra is a surly rich-kid teenager in a hooded top, with a shock of punkish blonde hair, who is contemptuous of the world around her and everybody in it, not least of which her parents. As far as this Electra is concerned, they can all just f-off and die. So when her sister urges her to grow up and get real, make life easier for herself otherwise her parents are going to ground her, she regards Chrysothemis as nothing more than a sell-out who has forgotten her principles and has bought into the glamour of her rich family’s decadent lifestyle.

This Electra evidently has a bit of an attitude problem, but that’s understandable even without the director’s modern interpretative touches. She has seen her father Agamemnon murdered by her own mother Clytemnestra, who has since gone on and married Aegisthus, so there’s no love lost between her and her mother and undoubtedly she nurses a deep hatred for the step-father who has taken his place, to say the least. There’s also undoubtedly considerable trauma involved in the events she has witnessed and experienced as a young child, and it’s this psychological element that is delved into deeply in Hofmannsthal’s writing, under the influence of the studies and the artwork contemporaneously being undertaken by other Viennese artists, intellectuals and philosophers around the turn of the 20th century. Richard Strauss would likewise reflect this psychological mindset in the most expressionistic and clinical musical language of Elektra that matches the traumatic experience in all its disturbing complexity.

Elektra

Electra is a victim of profound psychological damage, so when she talks about “the child who will never return… lingering there in chasms of horror”, it’s reflected in the discordant notes of the score and it’s reflected here in the stage direction where Electra buries a younger child version of herself within the dark cavern that she literally and metaphorically inhabits. Mixed in with this trauma are also feelings of rage, obsession and a desire for vengeance, which she believes will be carried out by her brother Orestes, even though she is told that her brother is no longer alive. But she has to believe in it, as it is the only thing that keeps her going. Once those drives are sated however, she has nothing left to live for and expires in a mad dance of release.

Despite the fact then that there is not a great deal of action that takes place on the stage, there is evidently then considerable complexity in the characterisation and psychology that represents a challenge for the stage director as much as putting it across in musical terms is a tremendous challenge for the musical director and the performers. Other than the dramatic events of the conclusion however, there’s not much room left in the extraordinarily intricate and acute characterisation of Strauss’s music for any additional interpretation to be imposed on the work, but there are certainly layers of sociological and psychological relevance that can be teased out of the work and can be explored without compromising the integrity of the piece as a mythological subject.

Elektra

Not unsurprisingly, considering his treatment of the De Nederlandse productions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Der Fliegende Höllander as well as his particular take on Schumann’s Genoveva, Martin Kušej also sees some kind of class conflict in the make-up of Electra. Certainly, she’s the daughter of a rich, noble family, but she’s been relegated to the status of a servant, who resides in what appears to be the cavernous basement of the house that is filled with mounts of dust, among the “rabble living in a cave”, and it’s from this lowly position that she sets herself up in opposition to the bloated self-interest and corruption of the elderly elite class. Whether this is meaningful or appropriate or even relevant is a matter of interpretation, but it’s an element that is worthy of consideration, putting the ancient mythology and feelings into a modern context that one can relate to.

At the very least then, the staging of the dark cavern with mounds of dust, with doors connecting this dark underbelly to seemingly every part of the house, is visually striking but it also seems to capture the expressionistic tone of the music and the dark undercurrents that can be read in the libretto. The performances work well in conjunction with the production, hitting all the dramatic and confrontational high points with requisite force and intensity, building in pitch towards that powerful conclusion that releases the ecstasy and the disillusionment in a frenzied dance of joy and death. Whether the inclusion of Brazilian Mardi Gras dancers at that stage at that point is appropriate or not is another matter however, but it fits with the stage invasions that occur throughout, showing perhaps that the pathology is more widespread than the confines of Electra’s mind and the cavern.

All the main roles are exceptionally well sung - Eva Johansson as Elektra, Marjana Lipovšek as Clytemnestra, Melanie Diener as Chrysothemis and Alfred Muff as Orestes. Rather than consider them in terms of individual qualities, it would be better to note that they constitute a relatively strong cast who work well with each other and match the tone of the production and the score. The sound recording or mixing doesn’t always allow them to be fully audible over the orchestra playing in the first half of the recording, but the full force of the work singing and the orchestration is evident certainly by the latter half and the conclusion. The new Arthaus release would seem to be a direct port of the previously released TDK edition (the disc itself retains the TDK labelling and artwork on my copy), with PCM Stereo and DTS HD-MA 7.1 audio options. On a BD25 disc, the 1080i full-HD image quality is excellent. The disc is All Region and subtitles are available in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian. There are no extra features other than a booklet that has an essay and synopsis.

GenovevaRobert Schumann - Genoveva

Opernhaus Zürich, 2008 | Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Martin Kušej, Juliane Banse, Shawn Mathey, Martin Gantner, Cornelia Kallisch, Alfred Muff, Ruben Drole, Tomasz Slawinski, Matthew Leigh | Arthaus Musik

Genoveva (1850), Robert Schumann’s only opera, was composed around the same time that Richard Wagner was working on material for Lohengrin and the Ring of the Niebelungen and it represents an interesting alternative view of how folklore, mythology and legends could be used as an expression of essential Germanic characteristics elevated through the art of the opera or music drama. Genoveva however was regarded as a failure when it was first produced, and Schumann would consequently never compose another opera, so it’s the Wagnerian model that has succeeded as the dominant influence, but Schumann’s approach would appear to be more deeply rooted in relating these characteristics elevated in mythology back down to the nature of the individual, and that consequently makes the story of Genoveva rather an interesting one.

Ostensibly, the work is an account of the medieval legend of the martyrdom of St Genevieve, the story promoting the virtues of truth and purity when Genoveva, the Countess of Brabant, is unjustly accused of infidelity, imprisoned and (in the original legend) executed only for her innocence later to be discovered. Schumann’s approach to the work is rather more complicated in its focus and in its unconventional depiction of the varied characters. In the story, Genoveva rejects the advances of her head servant Golo while her husband Siegfried is away fighting in Charles Martel’s crusade against the Saracen army of Abdur Rahman that is threatening to invade Europe. Consumed by desire for the Count’s wife and smarting from her rejection, Golo conspires to have Genoveva denounced for adultery by arranging for another servant, an old man, Drago, to be found in her bedroom. While one should expect sympathy to lie with the unjustly maligned Genoveva and with the husband whose trust has been abused by his servant, a large part of the opera is given over to consideration of the “lower orders”, giving depth to Golo, Margaretha and Drago, and it’s there that we find, perhaps, more interesting facets of human nature and German character.

Genoveva

That approach is emphasised very much in Martin Kušej’s staging of the rarely performed work for the Zurich Opernhaus in 2008. As with his De Nederlandse productions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Der Fliegende Höllander, and perhaps even in his Bayerische Staatsoper production of Rusalka, there’s a sense of class conflict within the consuming passions that is emphasised also in Kušej’s Genoveva. Using a boxed-in set of pure white walls (although they don’t stay that way for long), the set design bears little resemblance to the medieval period setting of the work. Within this space, the four figures of the central drama are often present, even if they aren’t required to be on the stage. In the case of Siegfried, for example, even though we know he’s gone to fight in the crusades in Act II, he’s physically still present there on the stage while the drama unfolds between Golo and Genoveva, even if he doesn’t take part in the action. It’s a rather avant-garde Brechtian theatrical device, but it serves to keep the focus on the drama and the overheated emotions between each of the characters – other action usually takes place off to the sides of the boxed area – showing that the influence or “presence” of the key players is important, even if they aren’t actually there.

Kušej also makes use of his now trademark shock tactics of minor nudity and plenty of blood also to tremendous effect. Distancing techniques – the characters laughing uncontrollably during the overture, squashing invisible insects and wrestling with a slippery dead fish – are used to suggest that the libretto shouldn’t be taken entirely literally when Siegfried refers to Genoveva as “a woman of true German stock”, while she for her part observes that it’s “a blessing to be the wife of a hero”, and Schumann’s score would tend to suggest that this indeed shouldn’t be taken entirely at face value. While such aspirations are noble, and one would be accustomed to accepting them as such in a Wagner opera, there are characters of lower orders present in Schumann’s opera with genuine grievances about their treatment and station, even if their means of wresting back some kind of justice can only be achieved through violence and subversion. Without taking anything away from the noble characteristics of Genoveva then (Siegfried is shown in a less heroic light by Schumann and certainly in Kušej’s staging, enjoying the pleasures of the witch Margaretha at the opening of Act III), the suggestion is perhaps that these figures have a voice that needs to be heard if such actions are to be avoided.

Genoveva

Kušej accordingly sets the opera in Schumann’s own period to reflect the social and political climate as he would have known it around 1848. Whether you buy into the devices and techniques employed by the director, the staging nonetheless has a striking, distinctive look that commands attention where the drama as it is outlined in the libretto ordinarily might not. Genoveva is not considered to be a dramatically strong work, and the criticism is often levelled against it that it’s a failed work because of this, so it’s even more to the credit of Kušej’s staging that it better reveals the distinctions of the characterisation that are clearly there. It is perhaps true that, musically at least, Schumann doesn’t manage to find a distinct voice for each of the characters – musically, it’s restrained, with few grand gestures and only some gentle choruses to punctuate the long monologues – but considerable impact can be drawn from the subject with commitment from the performers and a conductor who is keen to get to the heart of an important but underrated work in the history of German opera.

Fortunately, it has that not only with Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the helm and a fine performance of the orchestra of the Opernhaus Zürich, but in the singing of an exceptionally fine and committed cast who are often called upon to sing in difficult positions and occasionally perform somewhat undignified or just plain bizarre actions. Juliane Banse in particular is outstanding in the rather demanding role of Genoveva, but Shawn Mathey is a committed Golo and Martin Gantner a fine Siegfried. Cornelia Kallish and Alfred Muff also make a strong impression in the roles of Margaretha and Drago. This is far from bel canto however, and if the singing appears unexceptional in some parts, the acting and commitment to the roles proves just as important. The booklet included with the BD includes a fine thought-provoking essay on the work by Ronny Dietrich, the principal dramatic advisor of the Zurich Opera. It may take some persuading to accept Kušej’s belief that Golo is the central figure of the work and not Genoveva, but it is worth considering that the composer would have probably identified with Golo in his troubled relationship with Clara Schumann’s father.

The quality of the Blu-ray presentation itself is good, and the image is relatively clear. Some minor blue-edges and a little bit of vertical shimmer could have been avoided with a BD50 disc instead of a BD25 for the two-and-a-half-hour opera. It in no way however detracts from the overall quality or sharpness of the image or the fine high quality audio tracks in DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 and PCM 2.0, where there is only a slight dullness in the voices at times due to the boxed-in stage set.

Gioachino Rossini - Otello ossia Il Moro di Venezia

Opernhaus Zurich, 2012 | Muhai Tang, Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier, John Osborn, Cecilia Bartoli, Peter Kálmán, Javier Camarena, Edgardo Rocha, Liliana Nikiteanu, Nicola Pamio, Ilker Arcayürek | Mezzo.tv, Live Internet Steaming, 8th March 2012

There’s always going to be some difficulty in staging Rossini’s Otello ossia Il Moro di Venezia, and it’s not just because of the liberties that Rossini’s opera takes with Shakespeare’s work. True, the libretto by Francesco Maria Berio di Salsi doesn’t really keep to the development or characterisation of Shakespeare’s work, but it does manage to get to the heart of the drama and retain some of the dark mood of the piece. No, much of the difficulty with staging Otello is due to the often static nature of the work which is still tied closely to the conventions of opera seria, with long-winded expressions of agonising emotions and a great deal of repetition.

Otello

It’s only the brilliance of Rossini’s musical inventiveness in the scoring that makes it work so well as an opera, matching the music more closely to the moods, reducing recitative and solo lamentations in favour of concerted pieces that carry the drama through, playing out the drama through sung conversations. It doesn’t always manage to break free from the restrictions of the format however, which can be rather punishing on the singers and the audience, so a stage production requires a certain amount of inventiveness as well. Directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, who failed to enliven Halévy’s semiseria Clari for the Zurich Opera, despite the best efforts of its champion Cecilia Bartoli and John Osborn (also on board here), the team fare rather better with Otello, but one suspects that the reason for its success here – and why their previous collaboration wasn’t quite so successful – has much to do with Rossini’s rather more invigorating writing.

Initially, things don’t look promising in the rather dreary Act I. There’s nothing at all wrong with the updating the work to a modern setting, to a “corridors of power” wood-panelled waiting room, populated by figures in formal suits and high-ranking military naval uniforms, with rooms leading off in the background where various committees no doubt plan future strategies. It’s as good as setting as any for the plotting and scheming that lies at the heart of the work, but unfortunately, it proves to be rather dreary and static for the opening dramatic exposition. Figures standing around, there’s a bit of slow pacing up and down, and little to enliven the characterisation or solemn declamation as the Moor Otello returns battle, having defeated the Turks and regained Cyprus for Venice as the centre of the Adriatic Republic.

Otello

While there is professional jealousy over Otello’s success on the part of Rodrigo and Iago that is set-up in Act I, and some consideration of the Moor’s outsider status as a black-skinned African, evidently the main focus of the rivalry is over Otello gaining favour with Desdemona. In this version however, Otello is already secretly married to Desdemona, so when Iago suggests that she may be unfaithful, it really requires no great manipulation – Otello, insecure about his own position, is all too ready to mistrust Desdemona. Being somewhat opera seria in structure, the expressions of emotional turmoil are however given precedence over any consistency in characterisation or motivation, which makes this dramatically weak and inconsistent. The nature of Otello and Desdemona’s relationship has scarcely been established by the plot and by little actual confidences shared between them (Verdi would do this much better in his version), only in Desdemona’s expressions of her love to Emilia, her lady in waiting. If it’s all insufficiently established in dramatic terms, the music makes it much more compelling.

Act II and Act III in particular see Rossini at his best, breaking free of those operatic restrictions, using duets, ensembles and rising repetition to ramp up the tension and emotional fever pitch of the situation. Even if the stage direction gives the performers little to do in the absence of any conventional drama, Rodrigo’s ‘Che ascolto’ in Act II could hardly be more chilling, given a particularly powerful delivery here by Javier Camarena. In an opera that requires no less than three tenors in demanding singing roles, that intensity is matched in Otello and Iago’s Act II scene. If dramatically it’s less than convincing, musically it’s powerful, avoiding recitative and putting the emotion into the singing. Working with this kind of material, John Osborn does a good line in all-consuming jealousy in ‘Non m’inganno’ that is matched by Edgardo Rocha’s Iago enjoying the thrill of twisting people to his will, Rossini managing to encapsulate both emotions within the duetto.

Desdemona is rather less well-defined, carrying an over-urgency in everything she sings, which means that Cecilia Bartoli often sounds rather strident. No, not shrill – never that. Bartoli is still one of the finest – if not the finest – mezzo-soprano bel canto coloratura singers in the world, at her best when singing Rossini, and she is in terrific voice here. Barring her Act III ‘Willow Song’ however, the role is lacking in colour and shading, and it comes across more perhaps as exaggeratedly strident. It’s still an astonishingly display of singing virtuosity, Bartoli moreover also managing to bring real character to her role. She is absolutely chilling at the end of Act II and throughout Act III, making her inevitable fate at the hands of Otello (the scene had been reworked for a happy end, but the original is used here), dramatically shocking and highly effective. And does Act III contain the earliest example of a ‘mad scene’? It comes close and is certainly depicted as such in the production, Desdemona scrawling on the walls, the whole scene working well with the score.

Happily then, after the rather unimaginative first Act and start of the second, Leiser and Caurier’s stage direction picks up to meet the exceptionally high standard of the singing and the intensity of the musical arrangements – superbly conducted under Muhai Tang. The cold emptiness of Desdemona’s bedroom at the start of Act II and in Act III (perhaps this is how it’s intended to appear for a reason) are necessarily minimal, but the success of the production hinges on the playing out of the seeds of jealousy sown by Iago. This scene takes place in what looks like a seedy Turkish bar, with a fridge and a pool table. If the contrast to the preceding (and subsequent) scenes only underlines the outsider status of Otello, it’s effective, but it also proves to be the ideal place for the barroom brawl that erupts between the highly charged natures (wound up of course by Iago) of Otello and Rodrigo, the two men grabbing pool cues and heading for the back alley through the fire-doors at the back, despite Desdemona’s vain (over-urgent and strident) attempts to restrain them.

It’s clear then that the directors have recognised the difficulties of staging Otello and approached it well, using broader strokes in the sets to contrast the nature of the Moor with those of the state, using lighting effectively for mood, but also seeking to find smaller details to highlight. It isn’t always possible to bring any great subtlety to the work within the restrictions of the libretto and the almost opera seria-like arrangements, but this is more than compensated for by the vibrant delivery of the score and the outstanding singing performances.

The opera is currently available to view in its entirety and for free on the Medici.tv web site.

ClariJacques Fromental Halévy - Clari

Opernhaus Zürich, 2008 | Adam Fischer, Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier, Cecilia Bartoli, John Osborn, Eva Liebau, Oliver Widmar, Giuseppe Scorsin, Carlos Chausson, Stefania Kaluza | Decca

It’s very rare to see any work by Jacques Fromental Halévy performed nowadays, and he may indeed be an unjustly neglected composer, but discovered by Cecilia Bartoli while exploring the repetoire of the famous Rossinian mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran, this early work, Clari from 1828, composed to allow her to demonstrate her extraordinary range, is certainly one of his most obscure and forgotten works by the composer. Respectfully played with period instruments by the Zurich La Scintilla orchestra under the baton of Adam Fischer, treated to a fresh production from Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier to give some character to a dreary and uneventful plot, and with Bartoli demonstrating her wonderful vocal range, Zurich Opera certainly give the opera a fair shot, but whether Clari is an opera that merits such treatment is debatable, and the overall feeling is that it really wouldn’t have been such a great loss if it had remained buried.

Composed for an Italian libretto, before Halévy’s more famous, or at least more celebrated, French opéra comique work, Clari is an opera semiseria, which doesn’t mean that it’s only half-serious and plays its silly plot out with tongue firmly in cheek (although the production half-heartedly and perhaps out of necessity plays it that way). Rather, it’s a kind of mixture of opera seria (long after it had gone out of fashion even in 1828) and bel canto, full of long arias pondering internalised emotions expressed with extravagant coloratura in the da capo singing. This is fine if an opera has an involving plot and strong characterisation that can bear the weight of all the deep expressions of guilt and shame that are agonised over in Clari, but the story is not so much ludicrous as flat and pedestrian.

It involves a young peasant girl, Clari, who leaves her family in the provinces and runs off with a rich Duke in search of wealth, a better life and, most importantly love – or at least at the bare minimum, marriage. The Duke however hasn’t fulfilled his promises in this respect – to the great shame of her parents – and when he starts referring to Clari as his cousin, the young woman is further dismayed with the situation she is in. When the Duke’s servants Germano, Bettina and Luca put on a play for Clari before assembled guests at a birthday party in her honour, the story so resembles her own situation that Clari – believing it to be real (!) – faints out of shame. That’s about as far as any plot goes in Act I. Act II has each of the characters agonise over the situation until Clari eventually recovers from the shock and decides she has to run away, returning to her home in the country to try to gain the forgiveness of her parents in Act III.

As far as dramatic and emotional content, that’s about as far as it goes. One doesn’t necessarily expect a complex or credible plot in a bel canto opera, but really, the libretto, by Pietro Giannone, is pretty banal and sparseness of the plot and hollowness of the emotional charge scarcely merits all the moaning and wailing about wanting to die of the shame and guilt of it all that is expressed at length in the arias. None of it feels sincere, although it not for want of trying on the part of the performers or the stage direction team. Leiser and Caurier go for a non-specific relatively modern time period, glitzy and colourful with big props in the style of Richard Jones, adding humorous and self-knowing little touches, but none of it is enough to breathe any life into this corpse of an opera, and their efforts consequently feel leaden and fall flat.

The Zurich audience don’t seem to be sure what to make of it either, laughing politely at one or two places, but are clearly bewildered about what to make of the character of Clari herself or the amount of effort and technique Cecilia Bartoli expends on the empty phrases of the libretto, all in the vain attempt to make her character come to life. It’s only in Act III that they belatedly decide to applaud the efforts of John Osborn’s Duke and give an enthusiastic and deserved ovation for Bartoli – but one feels they might have mistaken her garguantuan efforts as signaling the end of the opera a little before its time. Eva Liebau as Bettina and Carlos Chausson as Clari’s father also make notable contributions, but it’s hard to take their roles seriously or indeed “semiseriously”.

Released on DVD only as a 2-disc set, the colourful qualities of the staging suffer a little from the lack of a High Definition presentation. The image looks reasonably well in the brighter sequences, but it’s a little murkier in the scenes at the end of Act II and start of Act III. Perhaps being spoilt by DTS HD-Master Audio mixes, the quality of the audio lacks precision of tone, particularly on the lower frequencies, but it’s actually not bad on either mix, although I think the LPCM Stereo wins out over the DTS 5.1 Surround. There are no extra features on the DVD set, but there is a worthwhile booklet enclosed which includes an interview with Bartoli, an introduction to the work, productions notes, a synopsis and even a photo-novella of the opera.

PelleasClaude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Opernhaus Zürich, 2004 | Franz Welser-Möst, Sven-Eric Bechtoff, Rodney Gilfry, Isabel Rey, Michael Volle, Lázló Polgár, Cornelia Kallisch, Eva Liebau, Guido Götzen | TDK

Debussy’s only full-length opera, composed in 1902, could be considered somewhat difficult, and indeed part of the reason for its difficulty could lie in the composer consciously striving not to imitate Wagner. If the Wagner influence is still evident in Pelléas et Mélisande however, Debussy takes the idea of music-drama a little bit further, making it difficult to find conventional melodies, leitmotifs or even a clearly definable plot, the almost mythological storyline flowing rather to its own pace, rhythm and purpose. In reality, it’s not a difficult opera at all, unless you bring such expectations to it, but rather, left to work to its own unique operatic language, allowing yourself to go with the flow, it’s actually easy to become caught up in the strange world that Debussy creates.

The strange nature of the opera and the musical arrangement that it consequently adopts undoubtedly have more to do with the nature of the source work for the opera, a symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck that relates less to the conventions of narrative cause-and-effect drama, but more to the internal states of the characters being made manifest in the world around them through objects, environments, landscapes. Their behaviours are therefore less easily defined, unconstrained as they are by conventional means of expression and communication. Musically, this is also how Debussy’s score operates. Trying to associate the music with the singers through the traditional form of expression then can be problematic and not lead to expected rational conclusions. Much better to let those elements just seep in, create their own resonances that are less literal and more impressionistic and suggestive.

As such Pelléas et Mélisande is not an opera that needs to be tied to any specific period – unless a director wants to make a specific statement – and to tie it to a particular time or place is likely to create social/environmental meanings that may be contrary to the intention of the piece. This means that the opera can either be set in that vague non-time-specific no-man’s land that opera does so well, or, rather more controversially, it is open to rather more extreme interpretations. The staging here by Sven-Eric Bechtoff for the Opernhaus Zürich in 2004 consequently can be seen as being either wilfully bizarre or just perfectly suited to the unusual nature of the opera. In outline, the story is not that complicated. Lost in a forest while hunting a boar, Prince Goland discovers a young woman, Mélisande, weeping by the side of a lake. He doesn’t know who she is, although there is a crown at the bottom of the lake, but rescues her and they are married. Mélisande however forms a closer attachment to Goland’s brother Pelléas, a relationship that, inevitably, is to have tragic consequences.

There is however more going on between the characters than is evident on the surface, each of them having hidden natures, each of them unable to fully relate to or communicate with one another. As a means of bringing this out, Bechtoff places the characters in some kind of winter fairy-tale kingdom to emphasise the nature of their isolation, while he employs full-size look-alike dummies for each of the characters to act as doubles for them, the characters more often speaking to the dummy counterparts and pushing them around in wheelchairs than relating to the actual people. It all seems rather obvious and it’s tempting to see the device as just an expression of how people are puppets being used by others for their own purposes, but that is also too obvious and, in a symbolist work where there is just as much emphasis on objects – hair, rings, towers – it’s appropriate that the characters are objects themselves (the split into halves indeed being the original definition of symbolism). In this light, and on a non-rational basis, what appears to be a bizarre conceit proves to be uncannily effective, and when the characters do communicate directly with each other – as opposed to interacting with dummies – it does force you to take more notice of what is being said.

How much you will buy into this depends largely on your tolerance for high-concept modern stagings and how much credence you give to the symbolist movement, since other than perhaps in the film work of Antonioni and his disciples, their style doesn’t have a great deal of relevance or influence and is not held in great regard nowadays, certainly not from a literary viewpoint. It’s important to note however that the staging is not a distortion of the intentions of the opera on the part of the producers, but rather, if it doesn’t adhere to the letter of the work, it is nonetheless perfectly in keeping with the spirit of it, and certainly matches the spirit of Debussy’s musical composition. Making use of a revolving stage, the production is certainly effective in its dreamy fluidity, but it’s also exceptionally well sung, particularly by Rodney Gilfry as Pélleas, but Isabel Rey as Mélisande, Michael Volle as Goland and László Polgár as King Arkel are all marvellous. The orchestra playing is superb, particularly in the excellent High Definition sound reproduction on the Blu-ray.

AriadneRichard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006 | Christoph von Dohnányi, Claus Guth, Alexander Pereira, Michael Volle, Michelle Breedt, Roberto Saccà, Guy de Mey, Elena Moşuc, Emily Magee, Gabriel Bermúdez | TDK

Claus Guth’s opera productions are known for being psychologically-based – delving into an old, familiar work – as in his productions of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas, or in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride – and seeing whether a more modern outlook and a wider consideration of the composer’s intentions can’t illuminate some aspects of the characters’ behaviour. As such, it would seem that Guth has had all his work done for him when it comes to this 2006 production for the Opernhaus Zürich of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera about the composing of an opera that is so self-reflexive that it surely doesn’t need any further deconstruction.

One wonders whether Strauss was thinking in part about his own opera Der Rosenkavalier, when he came to write Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera about an opera that mixes opera seria with opera buffa, that is played out in the most farcical, old fashioned and self-absorbed manner, while at the same time making a comment on serious deeper underlying aspects that the farce helps illuminate. Der Rosenkavalier is even self-reflexive itself on the nature of opera composition, on the history of opera, on the ability of opera to mix singing, drama and music, to be able to mix serious elements and low-brow comedy and through this unusual combination of elements be able to reach deeper truths about life, about love, about time and our place in it all.

It’s already been done in Der Rosenkavalier, so is there anything else that can be brought out of the idea by making the idea the entire purpose of Ariadne auf Naxos? Well, in the very premise – a wealthy patron decides to combine two operas that he has commissioned, one a commedia dell’arte farce, the other a serious treatment of a classical subject, so that both will be finished in time to entertain his guests with a fireworks display at 9 o’clock – there’s certainly a satire on the commerce of opera. Opera can aspire to high art, but it also needs to entertain and the two need not be mutually exclusive. There’s also a great deal of satire involved at the expense of the precious composer who cannot bear to see others destroy all his work and serious intentions, who also has to deal with the conflicting demands of his leading singers and their egos.

If the prologue is almost stultifyingly predictable in its high-brow cleverness and in the so-called comedy of this set-up – played out largely unmusically in near-recitative parlando – the proof of the concept is in the “opera” itself. Even using commedia dell’arte standard character type and classical archetypes, the manner in which they collide with each other brings out underlying truths about human nature in each of them, aided and assisted by the power of music, “the holiest of arts”. Thus the humble Zerbinetta, seemingly at ease and taking pleasure in the nature of love affairs between men and women, is nonetheless able to understand the deep suffering that Ariadne, abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, is undergoing, but although “the grief of illustrious and noble persons mustn’t be measured by the standards of mere mortals”, Zerbinetta asks, “But are we not both women?”, and she herself has been abandoned to countless desert islands. When Bacchus arrives then, himself in torment, Ariadne recognises that her suffering hasn’t been in vain, but rather leaves her born anew, with a new god to worship – not man as a god, but the love that springs up in this new ground that lies between them – and Zerbinetta smiles in silent recognition.

In some ways, the truth of Ariadne auf Naxos and the collision between life and art is borne out in the actual difficulties of its composition and the struggle between Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal to strike a balance between communicating ideas through the words and expressing it in the music – an idea developed further in Capriccio – making the opera entertaining and having something important to say, while also being comprehensible. Out of the dialectic collision in Ariadne auf Naxos (and Der Rosenkavalier) of the German opera influences of Mozart’s buffa tragic-comedies and Wagner’s lyrical romanticism, Strauss and von Hofmannsthal hope to demonstrate their theory and move towards a more modern form of opera. It may not be considered as important or as revolutionary as Wagner’s theories (the musical and thematic concerns of Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal are very evident in Ariadne auf Naxos), or Gluck’s before him, and the balance between theory and practice may not be entirely satisfactory, but it would lead the way to further developments in Strauss’s career and have an undeniable impact on the modern form of opera as we know it today.

Ariadne

That the opera itself is set in the present, or in a relatively modern context as opposed to its antiquity or commedia dell’arte setting, isn’t unexpected from Claus Guth – but what is strange is that at least up until the close of the double curtains, there is never any sense of it being an opera – a compromised opera – within an opera. The meta-level of the Prologue is kept almost completely separate from the main opera (apart of course from the flawed human actors who are metamorphosed through the magic of opera into exquisite beings) and it is played completely straight, notwithstanding the fact that the setting – not an island, but a detailed representation of the famous Kronenhalle restaurant in Zurich, where Ariadne is lamenting her woes over a bottle of wine – is much too elaborate to be a small production for assembled guests at a dinner party.

Going to such detail and with such realism, one has to conclude that Guth clearly wants to make the opera meaningful to a Swiss audience, drawing lines between the aristocracy and the lower classes in the split between the serious and the comedy, between the mythological characters and the opera buffa characters, and is trying to find something relevant to the operas themes in this opera-class conflict. Perhaps a Swiss audience is able to derive some deeper meaning from this than myself, but it’s certainly a valid aim to present a 21st century take on an opera that is itself a 20th century take on older styles of opera composition, continually refreshing it and exploring the contrasts for some new resonance.

Much as I find some aspects of Ariadne unsatisfying as an opera – mostly with it trying just too hard to be clever and witty – it does at least have this to always making it interesting and always capable of revealing new ideas. If that fails – and I’m not sure it works terribly well in this case, only adding to the self-referential complexity – there is at least always the most beautiful music and singing in the monologues of Ariadne and Zerbinetta, Strauss as ever writing beautifully for women’s voices, and in particular putting some of the most challenging singing in the entire opera repertoire into the role of Zerbinetta. The singing in this production is superb – Elena Moşuc a vibrant Zerbinetta, Emily Magee a strong, elegant Ariadne, Roberto Saccà a beautifully lyrical tenor Bacchus – but then in this opera, it really can’t be anything else.

TDK’s Blu-ray of the production is fine, the transfer showing the detail in the well-lit sets. Audio options are LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1, the surround track having the advantage of the wider range and sounding marvellous. Other than a couple of Trailers, there are no extra features, interviews or looks behind-the-scenes.

TieflandEugen D’Albert - Tiefland

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006 | Franz Welser-Möst, Matthias Hartmann, Matthias Goerne, Peter Seiffert, Petra Maria Schnitzer, Lázló Polgár | EMI Classics

Born in Glasgow in 1864, Eugen D’Albert’s musical education in Austria is however one that, based on what is evident in his opera Tiefland (1903), indicates that he is very much a disciple of the Wagnerian school, with even a bit of verismo in his choice of subject and its handling. Apparently Bizet’s Carmen was also an influence on the composer, but although there are a few musical leitmotifs that bear the mark of the original Catalan/Pyrenean setting of Tiefland (based on the play Tierra Baixa - The Lowlands - by Àngel Guimerà, also made into a controversial film by Leni Riefenstahl), the influence is more in the subject of romance, passion and jealousy in a bucolic setting leading to tragedy (a hint of Gounod’s Mireille in there also) than in the actual musical arrangements.

The poor fool caught in the middle of a romantic entanglement here that eventually stirs killing passions is Pedro, a simple shepherd in the mountains who is offered the hand of the miller’s daughter Marta and a place down in the lowland valley by the landlord Sebastiano. Pedro innocently accepts, unaware of the reality of the situation that is known to everyone else in the lord’s household. Sebastiano is in debt and needs to marry a rich woman, but that won’t happen as long as the knowledge of his affair with Marta is widely known and spoken about. His intention then is to safely marry her off to an innocent fool that she couldn’t possibly love so as to keep up appearances of respectability while she remains his “bit on the side”.

Musically, Tiefland follows the Wagnerian model, with long solo singing of emotional intensity that purposefully drives the drama forward, with little in the way of conventional arias, duets or choral arrangements, but the music has a strong musical presence and leitmotifs that support the singing and indicate the nature of the characters and their motivations. Matthias Goerne is strongest, both in voice and dramatically, making Pedro’s wide-eyed naivety convincing while at the same time showing that he has inner depths and integrity that could indeed draw Marta to rather precipitously fall in love with him. Petra Maria Schnitzer perhaps doesn’t look like she has natural gypsy dancer roots, but sings well as Marta. Peter Seiffert doesn’t quite have the fullness of tone or the menacing build that you would associate with Sebastiano, but takes on the villain role with some relish and without overplaying.

The staging of this 2006 production at the Opernhaus in Zurich attempts to visually steer the drama away from its obvious models and references, and is thereby quite successful in allowing the piece to stand on its own. Some of the decisions are quite bizarre – the opening prologue takes place in what looks like a science-fiction laboratory where the announcement of Pedro’s engagement takes place in a virtual reality, cleverly assembled on projected screens – but thereafter, up until its reappearance in the final scene, the rest of the production is more naturalistic, taking place however in a lush stately house rather than in any period country exteriors.

The 140 minute opera is spread across two-discs on the EMI Classics DVD. The image is 16:9, the image fine, showing a well-lit stage. Audio tracks are LPCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.0 and DTS 5.0. The sound is a little thin without the low-end, and sometimes a little echoing, but the singing and orchestra can all be heard clearly. Subtitles are in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian.