Opus Arte


DiableGiacomo Meyerbeer - Robert Le Diable

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden - 2012 | Daniel Oren, Laurent Pelly, Bryan Hymel, John Relyea, Jean-François Borras, Marina Poplavskaya, Patrizia Ciofi, Nicolas Courjal, Jihoon Kim, Pablo Bemsch, David Butt Philip, Ashley Riches, Dušica Bijelić | Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The folly and the controversy surrounding the Royal Opera House’s production of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable have been extensively reported elsewhere, from the cast changes and departures through to its critical mauling in the press. While I’ve no doubt that a full evening of a misconceived five-act Meyerbeer opera could well have been a painful experience live at the Royal Opera House, a filmed recording of the production is however another thing entirely. That’s not to say that some of the problems with the production are any less evident, but there are compensating factors that one can perhaps better appreciate from the comfort of one’s own living room.

Even the undoubted weaknesses in the production can be offset to a large degree in this case just by the rare opportunity to see one of the greatest works of 19th century opera performed on the stage. Meyerbeer was one of the most important and composers of his time, an influence on both Verdi and Wagner, but his extravagant style and grandeur hasn’t remained fashionable, and even his greatest works - huge successes in their day - have fallen from the popular repertoire. Such is the case with Robert le Diable, a work which drew wide acclaim from fellow composers, critics and achieved wide popular international success following its premiere in 1831. The work was last performed at Covent Garden however in 1890, and it hasn’t been performed much anywhere in the world over the last century.

The fundamental difficulty with putting on a staging a work of 19th century Grand Opera does indeed have to do with it being at odds with popular tastes and fashions. It’s not so much a reflection on the quality of the work as the fact that modern audience has very different expectations from opera, and the old-style can be hard to swallow for a modernist, post-modernist, post-post-modernist audience. It’s like expecting a reader of Harlan Coben thrillers to adapt to reading Walter Scott, or for readers of Ian McEwan to engage with the themes of Victor Hugo. The challenge that faced director Laurent Pelly then is not an enviable one. He may not entirely have succeeded, but although his production for the Royal Opera House was heavily criticised in a way Pelly does capture the spirit of Meyerbeer to some extent. Perhaps it’s more of a case that audiences still aren’t ready for Meyerbeer.

Which is understandable, but a pity nonetheless. If nothing else Robert le Diable is an opera experience like no other. Musically and in terms of plotting it’s not the most sophisticated, but Meyerbeer packs the five acts of the opera so full of melodies and dramatic development, underlining it with grand choral refrains, lyrical expression, comic interplay and over-the-top gothic imagery with some ballet sequences thrown in for good measure, that it’s never anything less than pure value-for-money entertainment. Pelly’s production, unfairly criticised I feel, attempts to put all the colour and the darkness of the work up there on the stage in the sets and costumes, and he does so rather well. It’s faithful to the spirit of the work, playing it straight where it ought to be, exaggerating in other places, but never stooping to making fun of the melodramatic developments and wild declarations.

Aiming for the middle ground between period fidelity and modernism, there’s a “cardboard cutout” feel to the scenery then that is reminiscent in places of David Hockney’s designs for the Glyndebourne production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. It’s like an ancient black and white engraving that has been garishly hand-coloured, or even a medieval tapestry that might lack realistic detail and proportion, but nonetheless has the power to evoke the history and the values of another period far from our own. Sometimes this works exceptionally well (Act III’s vision of Hell on a mountain pass like something out of an Hieronymus Bosch painting), at other times the imagery feels a little forced (the ultimate battle between the good of Alice and the evil of Bertram in Act V), and sometimes it’s just a little too kitsch and reminiscent of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘ to take seriously (the colour of the medieval tournament in Act II).

In most cases however, even those mentioned above, these are valid responses to the nature and tone of the material itself. Stravinsky and Meyerbeer may have little in common (Gounod’s Faust might be a better model to consider), but Robert le Diable does indeed relate an exaggerated morality tale of the battle between good and evil similar to the one in The Rake’s Progress. Here, Robert of Normandy is rumoured to be the son of beautiful princess who married a demon from Hell. Robert however has the choice to follow a path of righteousness, and demonstrates his leniency by sparing the life of the minstrel Rimbaut who relates the story of Robert the Devil to assembled knights at an inn in Palermo. He could choose also to win the hand of Isabelle in the traditional way through a tournament, but despite the warnings of his late mother and his foster sister Alice, is laid astray by the machinations of his companion Bertrand, the real devil of the work. If he steals a magic branch from the tomb of Saint Rosalie, he can win Isabelle by other means.

Barring some questionable choices - I’m still in two minds about the choreography of the zombie sisters of St Rosalie during the opera’s most famous/notorious Dance of the Nuns ballet - Pelly’s staging is sympathetic to the shifts of tone in the work itself and gets fully behind it, never attempting to make it into something else entirely with conceptual cleverness. Daniel Oren too shows great feeling for the work, its rhythms and variations, and - regardless of what you think of the merits or otherwise of Meyerbeer’s score - it’s simply a delight to see this type of work being put through its paces. There is however one other problem associated with putting on a Meyerbeer opera that the best efforts of the conductor, director and the Royal Opera House seem powerless to influence. It seems like we really don’t have the singers for this type of work any longer.

It’s understandable that singers who would be suited to or capable of singing Meyerbeer are obviously more focussed on the greater career opportunities afforded by singing Wagner or bel canto. Even good Verdi singers are thin on the ground nowadays and the demands of Meyerbeer are often greater. Singing the title role, Bryan Hymel proves that he is up there and his performance is not only commendable, it’s almost heroic. His voice might not be to everyone’s taste, and it does start to grate and go a little bit wayward as the opera progresses through the final acts, but the effort is considerable. No less demanding is the role of Bertram and John Relyea handles it superbly and with great character. Despite her commitment, Marina Poplavskaya however is terribly miscast here, as is Patrizia Ciofi, who really doesn’t have a large enough voice for this style of work, her singing sounding like a whimper that is lost in the orchestration and big choruses.

It’s this aspect of the production that is the most problematic. While there are advantages to watching Robert le Diable on the screen that allow one to better to appreciate the full Meyerbeer experience that Oren and Pelly recreate, it only emphasises the unsuitability of some of the singing. There’s no doubting the commitment of the performances however, and for all its flaws this is a sincere and a valiant effort to stage one of the great opera masterworks of yesteryear. The recording of the work and its presentation on the Opus Arte Blu-ray (which comes in a die-cut slipcase) is of course of the highest quality in both image and sound. The extra features however are slim, with only a Cast Gallery and a five-minute presentation on the legacy of the work, which does nonetheless give you an idea of the challenges of putting on this work. There’s an essay and a full synopsis in the enclosed booklet. The disc is BD50, Full-HD, Region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

FigaroWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Le nozze di Figaro

Glyndebourne, 2012 | Robin Ticciati, Michael Grandage, Sally Matthews, Vito Priante, Andrun Iversen, Lydia Teuscher, Isabel Leonard, Ann Murray, Andrew Shore, Sarah Shafer, Colin Judson, Alan Oke, Nicholas Folwell, Ellie Laugharne, Katie Bray | Opus Arte

Much like their recent production of Don Giovanni, Glyndebourne’s 2012 production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro updates the work to the 1960s, finding it to be a period that acts as a good modern equivalent for the changing social attitudes that are to be found in Mozart and Beaumarchais’ time. If it’s not quite a perfect fit here, it works well enough for the purposes of Mozart’s version of the work, which is less concerned with the social and political climate than the richness of human values that the work expresses. What is rather more important in Le nozze di Figaro then is how its characters are brought to life, and it’s clear from the superb casting here and the fine singing, that this is the principal strength of Glyndebourne’s new production.

It’s very easy to get complacent about yet another production of The Marriage of Figaro, but one can surely never come away from a performance of this remarkable work with anything but deep admiration and appreciation for the artistry of the work itself. It’s a masterfully constructed dramatic farce that nonetheless makes acute observations about human nature and interaction in relation to those important institutions of love and marriage. Le nozze di Figaro also has fully fleshed-out characters of real depth of personality and Mozart’s incomparable music that gives it another extra dimension, developing themes, connecting them, bringing a whole unity to the work with warmth and compassion. I doubt that any other composer, past or present, could have achieved what Mozart does with Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto and Beaumarchais’ play.

One can never become complacent about the work itself then, but having been fortunate to have only seen first-rate performances of The Marriage of Figaro, it’s easy to think that all the hard work has already been done by Mozart and Da Ponte. Far from it. More than anything else, this 2012 Glyndebourne production reminded me that not only are the singing performances vitally important (in what opera are they not?), but that it’s a work that is exceptionally demanding not only on one or two principal roles, but that practically every single role has to be carefully considered for the impact and the interaction they have with the other characters. Will Le nozze di Figaro work with a weak Susanna, Figaro, Almaviva or Countess? What about those “secondary” characters like Cherubino, Marcellina, Bartolo, Don Basilio and Barbarina? The work is undoubtedly strong enough to get along without luxury casting in the lesser roles, but imagine how it great it can be with it.

You only need listen to the music that Mozart has written for them to understand that all its roles are lovingly created and have an important part to play in the whole fabric of the work. That’s a lot of roles that it’s not only important to get right, but they have to be right with each other. That’s the brilliance of Mozart, and it’s one of his greatest advancements on the development of opera as an important dramatic artform. It’s not all about the arias - although even there The Marriage of Figaro has some of the greatest and most popular arias ever written - but the duets and the ensembles also contribute just as much to the work as a whole. In that respect, Le nozze di Figaro is not only a complete work of undisputed genius, but some 230 years later it’s still practically unsurpassed.

You can set the opera in just about any period then and get away with it, even with its references to ‘droit de seigneur’. There have always been sleazy bosses after all, and the 1960s is as good a setting then as any. The period however is not taken advantage of to any great extent here other than for purposes of style. In fact, other than showing an exaggerated lack of taste in the clothing styles with flowery wide-collar shirts and big hairdos, there’s a curious separation between the characters and the setting which, on the whole, remains for no discernible reason in a country manor in Seville. That’s the original setting of course, but it has no specific 60s context. If you had dressed the characters here in period costumes, the set - barring the appearance of a sports car during the overture - would have functioned just as well.

As you would expect from a Glyndebourne production however (and this is from the same team that put together the astonishing Billy Budd), the set design by Christopher Oram is impressive in its attention to detail. The locations are recreated with remarkable realism in the Moorish designs of the architecture, the tiles and the brickwork, and in the the lighting that casts warm orange-brown tones. The set rotates from one scene to the next fluidly, the lighting finding the perfect mood for each scene, the configurations of the rooms working to the requirements of the drama’s comic situations. The stage direction from Michael Grandage however seems a little detached and on the serious side, never allowing the figures room to abandon themselves to the glorious wealth of warm, funny and touching sentiments expressed in the work.

I think the same thing could be said about Robin Ticciati’s conducting. It’s a perfectly good account of the work, but it never reacts to the sentiments or the staging in a way that would bring out its full potential. Which is a little bit of a pity, because there’s an exceptional singing cast here that is more than capable of getting to the heart of Mozart’s delightful creations. Vito Priante is a big-voiced Figaro with the capability of being almost soulful in his delivery, while Lydia Teuscher is a comparatively lovely and delicate Susanna, innocent more than feisty. Sally Matthews gives us a wonderful melancholic Countess where everything that is essential comes through in the expression of her voice. Andrun Iversen’s Almaviva is more of a blustering buffoon than a sleazy predator, and his voice suits that kind of delivery as well as being well-suited to the Glyndebourne stage.

Proving that the secondary roles can raise this work to even greater heights, particularly when you have a strong Cherubino, Isabel Leonard knocked the socks off the Glyndebourne audience, and you can see why in her sparkling, bright performance with a voice of immense richness. The character parts of Bartolo, Barberina and Don Basilio were all delightfully played as well, but I was particularly delighted to see Ann Murray still looking and sounding wonderful as Marcellina. The video recording of the performance is excellent, the colour and the detail all rendered beautifully in the HD-image on the Blu-ray, with fine audio mixes. There are a couple of short features showing the work put into the props and sets, and interviews with the cast that consider the qualities of Mozart’s work itself. The Opus Arte dual-layer Blu-ray is all-region compatible, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

AmoreGelosiaGiuseppe Scarlatti - Dove è amore è gelosia

Český Krumlov Castle, 2011 | Vojtěch Spurný, Ondřej Havelka, Lenka Máčiková, Aleš Briscein, Kateřina Kněžíková, Jaroslav Březina, Bohumil Klepl, Tat’ána Kupcová | Opus Arte

Dove è amore è gelosia (Where there is Love, there is Jealousy) was written in 1768 by Giuseppe Scarlatti (a nephew of the more famous Domenico Scarlatti) as a commission for Prince Joseph Adam of Schwarzenberg, the Duke of Krumlov to celebrate the wedding of his son Jan Nepomuk to Maria Eleonora, the Countess of Oettingen-Wallerstein on 24 July 1768. It was the first opera to be performed in the newly renovated theatre of Český Krumlov Castle, and as such it seemed appropriate then to choose this rare work to be the first opera performed in this UNESCO heritage site when it was restored to its full glory in 2011.

There’s historical justification alone in reviving this extremely rare work, but the opera itself isn’t without merit either, even if the name of Giuseppe Scarlatti means little nowadays. You can gauge a few things about Dove è amore è gelosia from the title alone, and the fact that it is an opera buffa written in 1768. You would expect the comedy to play out along similar lines to Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro or Così Fan Tutte, and those examples will give you a good idea of the tone of the comedy and the arrangements if not the exact musical quality. Haydn might be a closer point of comparison, since the work was also written to commission for a royal court and composed to certain specifications that included the Prince’s daughter Maria Theresia singing one of the principal roles.

Composed for a small orchestra of Baroque instruments then, Dove è amore è gelosia can’t hold up to the sophistication of Mozart’s treatment of the opera buffa, but it’s as delightful an example of this kind of work as you’ll find. The musical arrangements are driven by a vigorous harpsichord rhythms, with a small string accompaniment and some limited horns and woodwind, but it consequently has a lovely clear, bright sound, with jaunty buffo rhythms and a strong sense of structure. As far as the treatment of the plot goes, it’s similarly stripped down and, written for only four roles, far from the complexity of one of Mozart’s works. You could probably write this one yourself, so familiar is it with the conventions of the comic opera of this period.

The four principals are, inevitably, divided into two couples - one from the nobility and one from the servant class. The Marquise Clarice and Count Orazio are involved in yet another bitter dispute on account of the Count’s jealousy, always on the point of breaking up and calling off the wedding until a reconciliation is reached. The other couple are of course their servants, Vespetta (the Marquise’s maid) and Patrizio (the Count’s manservant). Their problem is the opposite of their masters, since Patrizio seems to be immune to sentiments of jealousy and unconcerned about Vespetta’s suggestions of flirtations with other men. How can he truly love her if he never gets jealous? It sounds like both men need to be taught a lesson, and you know how that’s going to turn out…

So yes, you can expect a plot to involve letters falling into the wrong hands, disguises requiring cross-dressing that result in mistaken identities, with people grasping the wrong end of the stick. Hilarity inevitably ensues and lessons are learnt by all concerned. And that’s exactly what you get. Dove è amore è gelosia is skillfully arranged, if not particularly inspired in this respect, but it’s a light, undemanding and enjoyable entertainment. The music likewise is light and pleasant, with clever little solo arias bemoaning the inconstancy of one’s lover and some playful little duets that keep the comic interaction going. With minimal stage direction to include plenty of comic touches, gestures and playful expressions, you can’t go wrong, and that’s pitched perfectly in delivered in Ondřej Havelka’s stage direction and in the musical performance under the baton - or rather rolled-up music scroll - of Vojtěch Spurný.

The note about the rolled-up music scroll incidentally is a clue to this productions intentions to perform the work as close to period authenticity as possible. There are good reasons for this, since Český Krumlov Castle is the only authentic working Baroque theatre in the world. All the props, backdrops and stage effects are operated using the original rope and pulley systems (and it’s most impressive to see these in action), the costumes and setting are period - with even the conductor and orchestra wearing period costumes and wigs - and the whole stage is entirely illuminated by candlelight. You can’t get much more historically authentic than that, and in the case of this particular work and for this setting it’s perfectly appropriate.

This is however also a very good performance in its own right. It might not be one of the great undiscovered works of opera buffa, but neither does Dove è amore è gelosia deserve to remain lying in obscurity. This is a lovely production, sung well by a good cast, performed with verve and with a feel for the qualities of the work, its arrangements and its intentions. The filmmakers want you to get an impression of just how authentic this is and there are consequently a few backstage cutaways to show the mechanical effects in operation, but for the most part Dove è amore è gelosia is filmed like any other opera performance and it looks marvellous.

There’s a slight softness of tone then in the quality of the High Definition image in the Blu-ray, but that’s entirely down to the use of natural candlelight. The audio tracks in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 are marvellous, giving a wonderful brightness and clarity to the musical performances and the singing. The BD also has an interesting 52-minute documentary on the history and renovation of Český Krumlov. It’s a quite stunning building in a beautiful setting, and the detail on the workings of a Baroque theatre are of immense interest. The disc is compatible for all-regions and has subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

VixenLeoš Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen

Glyndebourne 2012 | Vladimir Jurowski, Melly Still, Sergei Leiferkus, Lucy Crowe, Emma Bell, Mischa Schelomianski, William Dazeley, Jean Rigby, Adrian Thompson, Colin Judson, Sarah Pring | Opus Arte

With its charming depiction of life and nature, with the animals of the forest featuring throughout as characters, it’s common to see Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen staged like a pantomime and aimed at a younger audience, even though some of the behaviour of the creatures is indeed quite frankly “animalistic”. The opera is not of course essentially about animals but about life and, indeed, the facts of life, so it’s interesting to see the opera treated with a more mature outlook for the 2012 production at Glyndebourne. It may perhaps lose a little bit of its innocent charm in the process, but there’s more than enough gained from the usual fine attention that Glyndebourne give to the production - and the opera - as a complete package.

Rather than having children and older performers dressed in the usual colourful animal suits, the creatures of the forest are still characterised as animals here, but without the full make-up. Instead they carry only an object by which they can be identified, the idea seeming to be to remind us that their animal behaviour isn’t all that different from humans. A man holds an udder in his hand for the forester to milk, the dog, Lapák, holds a snake-like tail an shakes it about, the cockerel waves his dangly bits proudly and menacingly for the lady hens who are all in frilly lace underwear. As for the vixen, she’s dressed like a gypsy girl, in a woolly jumper with a hooped pattern, flowing gypsy skirt, trilby hat and scarf, with a shaggy mane of red hair, carrying a bushy tail and a hunter’s knife instead of sharp teeth. The characterisation is a bit of a half-way house and doesn’t always allow the anthromorphic elements to come fully to life, but combined with other elements of the stage setting, it does work to express the themes on a literal level as well figuratively.

The set itself places man both within this natural world and at the same time outside it, showing nature to be bold and colourful, while the indoors scenes - kept in the Janacek’s period and Moravian setting - are drab by comparison. Two features however dominate Tom Pye’s set designs that serve to bring those two different worlds together. One is a large winding path rising vertically at the back of the stage which at one time can be a path and at other times a burrow. It seems a little over-elaborate, requiring the use of stand-ins on harnesses, but it works. The other more significant feature however is a huge tree made up of a swirl of planks that alone functions as the strongest image and is at the centre of the stage for most of the production. It’s the one enduring constant that stands there throughout the seasons and the passing of generations, serving as a home for the birds, as a place to protect Forester from the sun while he sleeps, it’s where Sharp Ears the vixen is tied-up on the farm and it’s her shelter and home for her family later, made over into a den after the old badger has been driven out. Eventually, towards the end, even little saplings appear around the tree as well.

The strongest element of the production however, and the one that most eloquently describes the natural world it depicts, is undoubtedly Janáček’s music itself, which is wonderfully played by the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski. This gorgeous music - for me the most evocative and beautiful of all Janáček’s work - is almost achingly beautiful in its apparently simple rhythms. Not only does it flow however to Janáček’s familiar speech patterns and folk-like textures, but it’s also almost onomatopoeic in its capturing of the sounds, the rhythm and the flow of life, the passing of time and the eternal timelessness of nature. In its melodies also however it seems to mingle joy and sadness, beauty and cruelty, the spontaneity of living and the wisdom of ages. It’s undoubtedly this element that everything else must respond to in a production of The Cunning Little Vixen and, with only a few minor concerns, Melly Still’s direction - and particularly the beautiful choreography of the dancers - seems to respond to the music and its meaning as does the exceptionally fine performance of the orchestra conducted by Jurowski.

If there’s any one concern it’s a minor one about the pacing. Not the tempo. The rhythm and flow feel marvellous, but everything seems to fly past so quickly as if in a haste to get to the next scene, and it’s all over before you knew it. A bit like life I suppose - which may have been the intention. It’s true that The Cunning Little Vixen is not a long work and Janáček deliberately leaves no time for sentimentality about the natural order of things passing on and making way for renewal, but at the same time there seems to be little time in this production for you to connect with some of the most beautiful key moments and let them sink in. There may even be a few trims to the score to indeed prevent the audience from dwelling too long on events that ultimately are just another stage in the greater scheme of things, to be played out continually in the cycle of life.

This is particularly evident in the singing, which is fine throughout but tends to keep the singers - and consequently the audience - a little step removed from the characters, preventing them from really springing into life. Lucy Crowe however handles the complex Czech language requirements with its flow of consonants well, maintaining the necessary rhythm while performing fox-like moves very impressively. Emma Bell too sang beautifully and fitted well into the role of Golden Mane. There is perhaps rather more care given to the human figures, the Forester (Sergei Leiferkus) and his colleagues, and their disillusionment or sense of detachment with the true nature of the world - too caught up in themselves to see their part in the greater scheme of things. If the intention is to restore the human element back into a work where there can be too much emphasis placed on the cute antics of the animals, Melly Still’s production certainly manages that, and in conjunction with the overall tone of the production it works well, revealing all the magnificent beauty of one of the finest works in all opera, even if it loses just a little bit of its innocent charm in the process.

The production comes across reasonably well on the Blu-ray release. Some of the darker scenes have some post-production brightening applied, which creates a ringing halo around figures, but this isn’t evident in more than one or two scenes. Otherwise, the full colourful quality of the work is evident. The audio tracks are the usual PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. Extras include a Cast Gallery and a 22-minute Making Of featurette, with interviews covering the concept, the music and the production design with some rehearsal footage. The BD is all-region, BD25 (for a 97 minute opera), with subtitles in English, French, German and Korean.

GrimesBenjamin Britten - Peter Grimes

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 2012 | Robin Ticciati, Richard Jones, John Graham-Hall, Susan Gritton, Christopher Purves, Felicity Palmer, Ida Falk Winland, Simona Mihai, Peter Hoare, Daniel Okulitah, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Christopher Gillett, George von Bergen, Stephen Richardson, Francesco Malvuccio | Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The main strength of Britten’s Peter Grimes, and one of its main themes of course, is its essentially English character. That is challenged in two ways in this 2012 production of the opera. One is that it is performed at La Scala in Milan and not at Aldeburgh or somewhere more appropriate with a feeling for the vitally English smalltown seaside location of the work. The second challenge to the integrity of the work is that the period of the setting is somewhat inevitably updated to the near-present by director Richard Jones. In the event not only do neither of these choices prove detrimental to the piece, but they actually manage to bring something new and fresh out of the work. With an opera like Peter Grimes and the sensitive subjects and themes it touches on, that’s exactly the kind of challenge and contemporary relevance you want to remind you of the importance of this work in the composer’s centenary year.

The principal theme of Peter Grimes is one that underlies much of Britten’s work and is evidently one that has significance and meaning for the composer himself - the corruption of innocence. That theme is developed in a much wider context however here in Britten’s first fully orchestrated opera than it is, for example, in The Turn of the Screw or Billy Budd. At the same time, Peter Grimes itself is a much more intimate and personal case, since it takes in the circumstances of individual identity that is corrupted by the nature of the wider society in which it struggles to exist. This is a society where money is respected and where what is deemed respectable behaviour is determined by the nasty, narrow-minded parochialism, wagging tongues, gossip and pointing the finger at others.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? You don’t have to look far beyond the headlines of today’s Daily Mail to see that those attitudes persist and are not confined to small English seaside towns. Based on a poem by George Crabbe called ‘The Borough‘, I’m sure that’s exactly what Benjamin Britten wanted to get across. An unconventional outsider, himself the subject of gossip, rumours and attacks in the press, living at the time in California with his partner Peter Pears as a conscientious objector against the war, this was a subject that was close to the composer’s heart. Britten’s approach to the work is consequently all the more daring and challenging for Peter Grimes not in any way being painted as sympathetic character, but he’s certainly preferable to the vicious, prejudiced mob who hound him for his inability to behave in any conventional manner.

Who is really to blame for what happens to the fisherman’s apprentices? By today’s standards Grimes would hardly meet regulations governing health and safety or child employment legislation and social services would undoubtedly have something to say about allowing children to be in close contact with such an individual. Ultimately however the pressures placed on Grimes that drive him to make mistakes are those of social acceptance. He may want to marry Ellen Orford, but he needs to earn enough money to make that alliance worthy in the eyes of the general public and he consequently takes risks that place the young boys in his care in unacceptable levels of danger. It’s the interference and the spreading of gossip by busybodies that create such an environment of instability and uncertainty that things inevitably take a turn for the worst.

There are no easy answers to be found in such a situation and all the complexity of the character of Peter Grimes and his reaction against social norms is there within Britten’s score. And more besides, the composer’s own sensibility refracted through Crabbe’s drama in an intriguing and personal way. Britten finds a language for the anti-hero individual set against the mob in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtensk and in Berg’s Wozzeck, but the expression is entirely Britten’s own and its temperament is completely English. His first traditionally structured and fully orchestrated opera, there’s consequently a sweep to Peter Grimes that you don’t find in any of Britten’s other works, the score weaving in sea-shanties to haunting and sinister effect, creating an evocation of lives being subject to the brutal force of tides - tides of public opinion as much as the sea.

You might expect that an English orchestra might be more attuned to these rhythms, but the orchestra of La Scala conducted by the young English music director Robin Ticciati give a remarkable account of the work. There is always the danger of over-emphasis or heavy-handedness within Peter Grimes but Ticciati directs with quiet reserve, allowing the swells to rise and the rhythms to assert their authority, building towards the tragedy in a manner and with a drive that seems as unstoppable as the outcome is inevitable. There are no concerns about the singing either, but wisely that’s because there’s a predominately English/British cast. John Graham-Hall sings Peter Grimes with the right tone of edgy fragility and steely determined defiance, never seeking to endear him to the audience, but rather plunging right into the dangerous nature of this impassioned but deluded character. Most impressive of all however is Susan Gritton’s Ellen Orford. It can be possible to underestimate her character, but she is the heart and conscience of the opera and Gritton makes you quite aware of that with her heartwrenching performance. With a cast that also includes the impeccable Christopher Purves and a fine Auntie in the form of Felicity Palmer this is a most impressive and complete account of the work.

The choice of Richard Jones is also a good one for bringing out the essentially English character of the work, particularly in a modern-day context. (It’s nominally set in the money-loving 1980s, but that makes little or no difference to its contemporary relevance). All the little details are there without any sense of caricature or parody which can always be a danger with Jones. You might see football tops and trainers and all the indications of class and profession that are equally an important part of the work, but the telling details are in the gestures and movements. Whether it’s Auntie’s “nieces” swaying down the street in their high-heels curling fingers through hair, whether it’s figures in the background smoking cigarettes and chewing gum, dancing in Moan Hall or whether it’s more ominous rows of the chorus, watching, observing and passing judgement, it’s as good a visual representation of the social context of the work as Britten’s music.

Stuart Laing’s sets also reflect the context well and even if there are a few curious touches here and there, not least of which is the intriguing final image of Ellen that we are left with. All of this nonetheless gives cause for reflection on the deeper meaning of the work and the ambiguities that lie within it. There is little sense of a seaside town, although static seagulls are mounted on the walls of the buildings and seem to become increasingly agitated - in a static kind of way - as the work goes on. The rooms of each of the scenes all seem to be self-contained and “boxed-in”, again reflecting the nature of this society. Some of them even tilt and sway, rocking from side to side in the stormy conditions and according to the general instability of what is going on. It’s by no means a flattering portrait of the English, but then Peter Grimes isn’t supposed to be.

The Blu-ray from Opus Arte looks and sounds great in High Definition. The sound mixes are in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. The BD is region-free and subtitles are in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean. The booklet has an essay that makes good points about the production, particularly relating to the use of movement and dancing in it, and also some interesting observations about Britten learning from Verdi and Strauss. There’s also a good set of interviews on the disc itself and a cast gallery.

IphigenieChristoph Willibald Gluck - Iphigénie en Aulide/Iphigénie en Tauride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ArianePaul Dukas - Ariane et Barbe-bleue

Gran Teatre del Liceu, 2011 | Stéphane Denêve, Claus Guth, Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, José van Dam, Patricia Bardon, Gemma Coma-Alabert, Beatriz Jiménez, Elena Copons, Salomé Haller, Alba Valldaura, Pierpaolo Palloni, Xavier Martínez, Dimitar Darlev | Opus Arte

There are many meanings and cautionary messages that can be drawn from the fairytales of Charles Perrault, but ‘Bluebeard‘ - the tale of an aristocratic serial killer who murders his wives - is surely one of the most gruesome and darkly enigmatic. Even more so in Ariane et Barbe-bleue, the version penned by the Symbolist Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck, the author of Pelléas et Mélisande, who himself adapted the work - again practically intact - as a libretto for the French composer Paul Dukas. Comparisons with Debussy’s opera - written only five years previously in 1902 - are inevitable, but if the musical influences that Dukas draws from are more evident and less distinctive than Debussy, the turn of the 20th century psychological exploration of the characters through the combination of Maeterlinck’s words and Dukas’s music is no less endlessly fascinating and deeply compelling.

In Maeterlinck’s hands, the perspective of the Bluebeard folktale is rather different from Perrault’s, the dark horror and cautionary note of the serial killer storyline rather less prominent than the exploration of the psychology of the female protagonists who seem to willingly submit to the thrall of masculine power and domination through marriage. The story here does indeed touch on the dark fascination of female curiosity for the violent danger of a male sexuality that simultaneously attracts and repels. In Maeterlinck’s story, Bluebeard’s latest bride, Ariane, has given herself in marriage to the notorious aristocrat who is believed to have murdered his previous five wives, but she has not submitted entirely to his authority. The six silver keys he has given that open doors to wonderful treasures represent the rewards and the boundaries of what Ariane can expect by following the rules set out by the marriage - each of the doors opening to rooms containing amethysts, sapphires, pearls, emeralds, rubies and, finally, diamonds - pure and eternal. That doesn’t stop Ariane however from opening the forbidden door locked by the gold key - “After diamonds, there can only be fire and death”, she observes.

The final door inevitably holds the secret to the fate of Bluebeard’s previous five wives, and it relates to some extent to a female curiosity based on an urge on the part of Ariane to explore the sexual history of her husband. While there is some psychological exploration of that impulse that verges on self-destructive, Maeterlinck and Dukas use that drive towards a more progressive feminist view in Ariane et Barbe-bleue. Ariane may driven by unknown impulses and working to guidelines set out by Bluebeard, but she is not in the thrall of the “enchantment” of her husband in the same way as the other wives. Their charms - the flaming hair of Mélisande, the delicate arms of Ygraine, the fair shoulders of Bellangère - have been hidden by marriage, whereas Ariane is forceful and secure in asserting her own personality and determined to help the other women achieve their own independence and expression. Like Pelléas et Mélisande however, Maeterlinck’s work and symbolism defies any simple allegorical meaning and one shouldn’t be strictly be applied to the exclusion of other resonances and mysteries that lie within it.

Although it is rather more emphatic in highlighting the specifics of the drama and the words than Debussy, Dukas’ score also hints at those other meanings and ambiguities. The references to Debussy’s impressionism may be apparent - just as Maeterlinck uses characters from his other works (like Mélisande) for Bluebeard’s wives - but Dukas more obviously draws from Wagner and particularly Strauss in Salome (in the scoring of the dark undercurrents in the relationship between Salome and Jochanaan) for more explicit, direct expression. It’s a fascinating and rich musical exploration by Dukas in his only opera work, powerful, beautiful and modern, possibly even more influential than Debussy’s unique and inimitable opera, with the associations and female psychology explored here evidently influential on Strauss and Hofmannstahl’s fairytale-like Die Frau ohne Schatten and its extraordinary use of female voices is matched only by Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites.

Considering the psychological nature of the work and the necessity of allowing its openness, ambiguity and symbolism to speak for itself, it’s perhaps not surprising that director Claus Guth doesn’t follow the libretto too literally. He avoids what would now be considered clichéd imagery in the opening scene of mobs of angry townspeople bearing pitchforks and firebrands, as the latest young bride seems to go willingly to her doom in Bluebeard’s castle. The castle here is nothing more than a modern suburban residence, but it’s what it represents that is important, and evidently the house is Bluebeard himself and it’s the uncomfortable and dangerous nature of the masculinity that Ariane examines, challenges and delves into, not only opening doors, but breaking through the surface of the floor to the horrors that lie underneath. The set design works well in this respect, keeping the visuals clean, simple and symbolic, allowing the singers the necessary space to express the layers of meaning that lie within Maeterlinck’s libretto and Dukas’ seething score.

Much of the power of the work is indeed delivered through the scoring for powerful mezzo-soprano and contralto female voices and this cast proves to be highly effective in conveying its force. Ariane requires a strong Wagnerian soprano to express her character’s inner strength of personality and purposefulness and Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet’s rich tone is commanding and persuasive, yet sensitive to the shimmering suggestion of the score. She is well supported by an equally strong and wonderfully measured Patricia Bardon as the nurse, but all of the female cast here are impressive here as the other wives, although Gemma Coma-Alabert’s fiery Sélysette is the only one with a significant role. As the male at the centre of the work, Bluebeard is evidently an important role in Ariane et Barbe-bleue, even if the singing is limited to only a few lines. José van Dam - who has mostly retired from big-scale stage productions - is no longer in possession of a voice as commanding as it once was, but there’s consequently a vulnerability as well as a necessary strength of personality here that puts an interesting spin on his Barbe-bleue.

This is an extremely rare work but one that deserves to be better known, and - appearing for the first time on either DVD or Blu-ray - this is a marvellous production of a fascinating work, emphatically delivered with force and sensitivity by the orchestra of the Liceu under Stéphane Denêve. The quality of the Blu-ray’s HD image and high resolution sound mixes ensures that the performance is given the best possible presentation. I personally found the surround DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix a little too open, and that it suited the more direct stereo PCM mix better, with the full detail of the orchestration clearer through headphones. Other than a Cast Gallery, there are no extra features on the disc, but the booklet contains a good essay by Gavin Plumley, whose reading of Ariane striking out towards the 20th century while the others refuse to take the freedom offered is a good one, and there’s a full, detailed synopsis. The BD is all-region compatible with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Japanese and Korean.

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.

MoseGioachino Rossini - Mosè in Egitto

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2011 | Graham Vick, Roberto Abbado, Riccardo Zanellato, Alex Esposito, Olga Senderskaya, Dmitri Korchak, Sonia Ganassi, Yijie Shi, Enea Scala, Chiara Amarù | Opus Arte

Director Graham Vick and set designer Stuart Nunn, as well as the administration team of the Pesaro Rossini Opera Festival, go to great pains in interviews on the ‘Making Of’ extra feature included on this release to emphasise that their 2011 production of Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto doesn’t take sides and offers no solutions, but rather strives to present a balanced account of the impact of conflict and oppression on a population, specifically in a modern-day Middle East context. Balanced it may be, but that doesn’t mean that this production plays it safe in any way. Far from it. Vick depicts Rossini’s Biblical epic in terms of suicide bombers, terrorists, torture, self-immolation and - perhaps most controversially - styling Moses as an Osama Bin Laden figure, wielding a Kalashnikov and stirring up a Holy War against their oppressors through inflammatory video recordings.

Many people who take a very traditional view of opera would argue that Moses in Egypt should reflect the original period of its Biblical subject and that a director has no right to update it or impose a modern-day concept onto a work that it wasn’t written to express. It’s true that works can often be twisted from their original context into something that they were never meant to be, which if less than faithful can nonetheless produce interesting results. Without contradicting the intent of a single word of the original libretto here however, Graham Vick shows that there is a case for opera not to be entirely subservient to the words alone, but that it should also take into account an interpretation of what the music is expressing. Rossini’s score isn’t set in any specific period, but is abstractly aligned rather to timeless human feelings and emotions. As a director, Vick clearly wants the production of Rossini’s great work to express those sentiments in a meaningful way to a modern-day audience, and the extraordinarily powerful nature of its presentation here clearly justifies that approach.

Graham Vick - admirably in my view - is noted for taking a “community” approach to opera. It’s not an elite entertainment for a selected few, it’s not a museum for the historical representation of works that are hundreds of years old, nor is it about putting on a so-called definitive performance to demonstrate the vocal techniques of singing stars and divas, but rather it’s about viewing opera as a living artform that has something meaningful to communicate to a broad range of people in the present day. That requires the involvement and participation of the audience, and even if that’s just engagement with the issues presented, then that’s an achievement alone. In order to shake the audience out of passive reception however, Vick and set designer Stuart Nunn strive to break down the barriers between the stage and the audience in other ways. Here at the Rossini Opera Festival for Mosè in Egitto, that involves using a venue in Pesaro that isn’t a traditional opera theatre - it’s a basketball arena - and dressing it in a way (like a refugee camp side by side with a modern palace) that feels more recognisable to what an audience would be familiar with from recent events in television news reports.

Vick’s approach the 2011 Pesaro Mosè in Egitto is borne out by the nature of the work itself as an ‘azione tragico-sacra‘ in three acts. Written for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1818, Moses in Egypt saw Rossini move away from his comic operas into a new period of mature works that were to some extent constrained by specific structural conventions and the demands of certain singers, but the composer managed nonetheless to attune these mannerisms brilliantly to serve the nature of the dramatic content. That’s immediately apparent from the lack of Overture in the opera and the fact that it opens instead with the ‘Plague of Darkness’ choral lament, which the director stages powerfully by having blood-stained Arabs walking through the audience, holding out photographs of friends and relatives lost in the latest bombardment/plague carried out on the word of Moses in retribution for the enslavement of the Hebrew people by the Egyptian Pharaoh, plastering the pictures and messages on walls in front of the orchestra pit. It’s a meaningful image that brings the power of Rossini’s writing home, and the same approach is used throughout, consistently and often to quite striking effect, the final scenes in particular making a unforgettable impression that underlines the relevance and importance of making the work say something about the world today.

I say “orchestra pit”, but it’s clear - and not just from the informal dress of the musicians - that the orchestra are also very much a part of the action - particularly in this production were the music carries much more than the libretto does alone. If there are any doubts about the efficacy of the treatment, the powerhouse performance of the Orchestra Teatro Comunale di Bologna will quickly put any doubts to rest. Directed by Roberto Abbado this is a sparkling, sensitive performance that captures the verve, rhythm and lyrical lightness of Rossini’s versatile arrangements. The singers in most of the principal roles on the Egyptian side aren’t heavy-weights by any means, but singers like Alex Esposito, Dmitri Korchak and Olga Senderskaya are all lyrically qualified and well-suited to the roles of Faraone, Osiride and Amaltea. There’s a little more personality and weight required however for the parts of Mosè and Elcia, both in terms of their vocal demands and the necessity of having the strength of personality to bring together the political and human elements that combine in the drama, and those demands are more than capably met by Riccardo Zanellato and Sonia Ganassi. Excellent and noteworthy performances from Yijie Shi (Aronne/Aaron), Enea Scala (High Priest Mambre) and Chiara Amarù (Amenofi) really contribute to the overall power and quality of the work and the performance as a whole.

The 2011 Pesaro Mosè in Egitto isn’t pretty to look at, but it’s not meant to be. It does make some controversial references, but there’s nothing here that can’t be justified as a genuine reflection of human nature and how people live in the world today. That might not be what you expect to see in an opera performance of Moses in Egypt, but the brilliance of the production here is that it works both ways, drawing inspiration from Rossini’s remarkable score, finding a meaningful modern way to bring its themes to life, while the same time injecting its ancient Biblical story with a heavy dose of reality. It’s a testimony to Rossini’s brilliant writing and Andrea Leone Tottola’s poetic libretto that, musically and dramatically, Mosè in Egitto is more than capable of bearing it. If it’s the intention of the Rossini Opera Festival to look afresh are both familiar and rarely performed works by the composer in order to reevaluate qualities and strengths that are clearly there but which have been buried under decades of operatic mannerisms, then this kind of production achieves that most impressively. Stripped right back to its expressive power, this 2011 production of Mosè in Egitto is consequently something of a revelation.

As with all the recent Pesaro Rossini releases, that revelation extends to being able to see and hear these performance presented so well in High Definition on Blu-ray. Outstanding image quality in full-HD 1080/60i, detailed and beautifully toned high resolution audio mixes only enhance the efforts of the performers. Mainly due to the unconventional nature of the venue, radio mics are used, presumably only for recording purposes, but the mixing is well done and comes across naturally here. As well as a booklet that covers the production and gives a synopsis, there is a Cast Gallery and a 25-minute long behind-the-scenes ‘Making Of’ with interviews that explain the intentions behind the concept very well. The BD is region-free, with subtitles in English, French and German.

MeistersingerRichard Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg

Glyndebourne, 2011 | Vladimir Jurowski, David McVicar, Gerald Finley, Marco Jentzsch, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Alastair Miles, Anna Gabler, Topi Lehtipuu, Michaela Selinger, Colin Judson, Andrew Slater, Henry Waddington, Robert Poulton | Opus Arte

It’s tempting to make a snap judgement about a production of a Wagner opera right from the first note, and it’s surprising how just accurate that judgement can often turn out to be. I’d suggest that you can get a feel for the tone of the whole 2011 Glyndebourne production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg just from Vladimir Jurowski’s conducting of the London Philharmonic Orchestra through the opera’s beautiful overture. Being Wagner, everything is there upfront in the Vorspiel to Act I, and in such a work with its richness of meaning and infinite ways of interpretation, you could aim for an approach that is respectful and serious, emphatic and declamatory, sensitive and romantic, even playful and irreverent and you would still be touching on vital ingredients that are all part of the make-up of Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg. You might well pick up elements of those qualities in this Glyndebourne production - and by rights they should all be in there - but from the very first note my overriding impression was that there was a particularly English touch to the delivery that emphasises the qualities in this remarkable work that one doesn’t find so readily in the composer’s other grand music dramas - a lightness, a warmth, a sense of humour and an air of melancholy, the tug of deep human emotions bound up in something great and beautiful.

Fortunately, the whole production is working from the same hymn sheet - quite literally, as the curtain rises in Act I on the domed arches of the interior of St Catherine’s Church in Nuremburg, the figures in the pews suffused in the bright midsummer morning light, and the youthful, lyrical voices of this production’s Walther, David, Eva and Lena confirm the initial impression. Die Meistersinger however is a work of magnificent balance and it needs to be. The lightness of the ecstatic emotions of youthful love and idealism expressed in the opening scenes must be tested against the realities of the world when Walther realises that his only hope of marrying this beautiful girl Eva is to win her by proving himself as a Meistersinger. It’s a mark of the depth of his love, a proof of his own individual worth and talent, and a sign of respect for the tradition, the hard work and the craft of the townspeople of Nuremburg. It’s not enough here then for Wagner to focus on the all-consuming passion of love (we have Tristan und Isolde for that), but here he explores how that kind of idealistic purity - expressed in the singing in the music - can find its own voice while respecting tradition and achieving the acceptance of the wider public.

That encompasses a lot of intangibles - expressed powerfully nonetheless in Wagner’s near-miraculous score - relating to the feelings and the experience of the older generation, as personal, unfathomable and unreachable in the past (in the case of Hans Sachs) or as ridiculous (as in the case of Beckmesser) as they might sometimes appear to the youthful apprentices. Wagner accords equal importance to the lives of these characters, respecting their traditions and the craft, finding beauty and truth in it, something that the younger generation can learn from, expand upon and develop into something new, original and personal, yet at the same time something still inherently German. Evidently, the opera - apart from everything else - is also a case of special pleading for Wagner’s own reform of the music-drama and art as the highest expression and extension of true German tradition and values, and he could hardly make a finer case for it than Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg, the work demonstrating the poetic beauty and complexity of the composer’s writing at its highest maturity, not weighed down by the heavy declamation and language of ancient myths, nor overburdened with leitmotifs and symbolism as in some of his other works, but the one Wagner opera most open to the wonder of the human soul, as expressed in the human voice and in musical accompaniment, in art or simply in the craft of honest labour.

This is a light, delicate and sensitive treatment of a beautifully balanced, thoughtful and considered work then, a far cry from the most recent Bayreuth production. I don’t always like the odd touches that David McVicar adds to his productions and I often find him weak on a cohesive concept, but I can rarely fault him on his ability to hit on the perfect mood and find the most effective way of expressing it through the performers and in their relationship with all the other aspects of the production and musical performance. His work for this Glyndebourne production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg is just about flawless. It’s perhaps a little unadventurous - setting the work within the years of Wagner’s “apprenticeship” around 1820 rather than the original 16th century setting - but his handling of the diverse moods and rhythms of the work is masterful throughout. Having established that mood in the church scene of Act I and achieved the balance though the sacred test of Walther’s Meistersinger ambitions, McVicar likewise strikes the perfect balance between the tricky mood swings of Act II, between the romantic idealism of Eva, the melancholy of Sachs, the despair and hope of Walther through to the comedy of Beckmesser’s serenade and the uproar of the finale. It’s a complete night of midsummer madness, and absolutely riveting. The incredible journey of Act III’s even wider range of emotions that has Hans Sachs at its heart, takes in all the melancholy of the Vorspeil, the slapstick of Beckmesser’s interfering, the community aspect of the festival and the ‘Prize Song’ without ever missing a beat or hitting an incongruous note that isn’t suggested by the score.

Everything about the production respects this, having a cohesiveness in the period design, in the enclosed sacred locations - the church as much as the craftsman’s workshop or the community square - in the lighting, in the little touches of humour and irreverence. There’s also a recognition that everything important that needs to be expressed is there in the music itself, within the very structure of Wagner’s composition which is the very definition of his views on the strength and power of the music-drama, the two aspects conjoined and inseparable, each supporting the other to create a rhythm and balance between the surface drama and the inner nature, with all the contradictions and complexity that this implies. It’s enough to give the work room to breathe and allow the performers of the music and the singing to consider the detail, interpret it and express it through their individual strengths of personality. There’s never a moment where you are waiting to get to the next more interesting scene, every moment has its own magic and Jurowski and McVicar give the singers all the opportunity they need to luxuriate in the beauty and the rich wonder of Wagner’s incredible score, revealing it in all its majestic glory.

Gerald Finley’s performance of Hans Sachs is the best example of this. Rarely have I ever seen Finley look so at home in a role, his lovely baritone sounding warm, rounded and unforced, not over-expressive, but arising naturally out of consideration for his character, rolling around the beauty and the very sound of the words, taking the time to consider their meaning and luxuriate in their phrasing. But it’s far from the only impressive singing performance, the clear lyrical lightness of Marco Jentzsch’s Walther and Topi Lehpituu’s David both perfect foils for Anna Gabler’s emotional Eva and Michaela Selinger’s Lena. If their singing could be considered to lack traditional Wagnerian force, the work gains from their youthful sincerity of feeling. On the other side of the coin, but perfectly complementary, Alastair Miles displays a studious good natured gravity and solemnity as Pogner with a tone that is as beautiful as it is expressive. You could listen to this for hours. Beckmesser’s comic value is easy to overplay and demonise and the role consequently has a tendency to be underrated in comparison to the earnestness of the other characters, but he’s no less a vital component to the overall structure and tone and Johannes Martin Kränzle brings colour and personality to the role, with lots of comic grimacing, slapstick and double-takes, all of which fit in perfectly with the tone presented here.

This is as memorable as Meistersinger as any you’ll find, one that capitalises on the intimacy of the Glyndebourne theatre and finds an appropriate tone in the performance, the staging and the singing to delve more deeply into the particular human qualities that are unique to this Wagner music-drama, expressing everything that is great about this work on levels I’ve never considered before. The Glyndebourne effect and the challenges of staging Wagner there is explored in the concise extra features, in interviews with Jurowski, McVicar and Finley, with particular consideration on the approach taken for this work. The Glyndebourne relationship with Wagner is also covered in the accompanying booklet, which also contains a full synopsis. The quality of the Opus Arte Blu-ray production is exemplary in every respect, from the screen direction by François Roussillon, to the well-lit High Definition image and the lovely detail revealed in the HD audio mixes. The 2-disc BD set is of course compatible for all regions, but includes only English, French and German subtitles.

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