Domingo, Plácido


BoccanegraGiuseppe Verdi - Simon Boccanegra

Teatro alla Scala, Milan 2010 | Daniel Barenboim, Federico Tiezzi, Plácido Domingo, Ferruccio Furlanetto , Massimo Cavalletti, Ernesto Panariello, Anja Harteros, Fabio Sartori, Antonello Ceron, Alisa Zinovjeva | Arthaus

Coming just before the mature final works, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra – along with Un Ballo in Maschera, Les Vêpres Siciliennes, La Forza del Destino and Don Carlos – occupy a strange but fascinating hinterland in the career of the composer. Each of the operas, influenced by Verdi’s political involvement in the Risorgimento for the reunification of Italy during the period, are very much concerned with the exercise of power, but they all rely on typically operatic conventions of bel canto and French Grand Opéra in their use of personal tragedies and unlikely twists of fate to highlight the human feelings and weaknesses that lie behind their historical dramas. Written in 1859, but revised by the composer in 1881, Piave’s libretto given an uncredited reworking by Arrigo Boito, Simon Boccanegra is consequently one of the more interesting works from this period, certainly from a musical standpoint. Aware of the flaws in the earlier version of the opera, Verdi can be seen to be striving in its revised form to take it away from the aria/cabaletta conventions towards the more fluid form of music-drama and expression of character that would come to fruition in Otello.

In many ways, the central relationship that defines the tone and the nature of the drama in Simon Boccanegra – a father-daughter relationship that is common in Verdi’s work – is similar to the one played-out in Rigoletto. The mother is dead (in the case of Simon Boccanegra, the wife happening to be one of the daughters of Jocopo Fiesco, the head of a rival Genoa family), and Simon must necessarily keep his relationship with his daughter secret. The difficulties of the political situation, and a desire to keep his daughter (who has been lost only to be conveniently rediscovered 25 years after the opera’s prologue in the house of his rival) out of the complicated political affairs, and some over-protectiveness on his part with regards to her choice of men, affect Boccanegra’s judgements and open up those weak points at a time of vulnerability during his reign as Doge. This kind of situation leads to an old-fashioned but quite literally blood-and-thunder conclusion in Rigoletto, which is the most masterful of Verdi’s work in this style, but while the plot twists and conclusions are no less dramatic in Simon Boccanegra, the musical treatment – certainly in the revised version of the opera at least – is less reliant on convention and closer to the purer and personal mature Verdi style that is deeper, intricate and more nuanced in characterisation.

Boccanegra
It’s perhaps with this in mind that the 2010 production of Simon Boccanegra from La Scala in Milan adopts a kind of hybrid form of traditional staging with some modernist touches that, like the opera’s own make-up, don’t blend together entirely successfully, but are no less fascinating for how they throw their contradictory elements into relief. There’s nothing too jarring or experimental in Federico Tiezzi staging – this is La Scala after all – nothing that distracts from the essential directness of the drama or Barenboim’s conducting of the powerful musical accompaniment that drives it relentlessly forward to a gradually building tragic conclusion that, like Don Carlo, has a sense of the Shakespearean grandeur that the composer was working towards. The staging is perfect in terms of giving a sense of historical 14th century period, the costumes beautifully designed with eye-catching colour schemes that make the divisions between the rival factions clear, the stage itself uncluttered – as Verdi himself specified – evoking mood, character and location as much through the lighting as any props. There are one or two more modern touches of stage technique however – descending trees onto the stage in Act II, a sea of blocks that suggests seismic activity and a huge reproduction of Casper David Friedrich’s Das Eismeer – that suggest that this shouldn’t be taken simple as a straightforward historical drama, but as one that has greater conceptual meaning with regards to the questions of the nature of power and the place of human relationships within it.

This style of presentation works perfectly with the imperfection of the opera itself and the contradictions inherent within these concepts. It would be less than satisfying however if the opera itself didn’t have the kind of casting that it really needs to carry them off and, fortunately, that’s where the real strength of this particular production lies. With the likes of Plácido Domingo, Ferruccio Furlanetto and Anja Harteros this opera could hardly be in safer hands. Domingo, of course, isn’t the true baritone that is required for the role, but he had all the necessary qualities and experience – as he approached his 70th birthday – to take on the challenge of two significant Verdi baritone roles in 2010 (and it’s probably no coincidence that the other was that complementary character of Rigoletto). His tone of voice, so dramatically attuned, brings a great deal of that necessary flawed humanity to the role of Boccanegra. Ferruccio Furlanetto is of course one of the great Verdi basses of our time and it’s particularly wonderful to watch two such fine performers and voices complement each other so well in this rival roles. Their Act III ‘Piango, perché me parla’ is absolutely stunning. Harteros sings Maria/Amelia well – as you would expect – but I didn’t get the same sense of father/daughter chemistry that existed when Domingo was paired with Marina Poplavskaya for the Covent Garden production of this opera the same year.

Boccanegra

This is a fine, marvellously looking production then, meticulously directed and conducted to bring out the full conceptual nature of the staging and the abstraction of the opera’s music, but it’s the human interpretation that is perhaps the most vital aspect of Simon Boccanegra. It’s not just experience that is required either on the part of the singers, but rather the ability of Domingo, Furlanetto and Harteros to inhabit their characters and give them a deeply human sense of expression through their delivery that ultimately lifts this production above being merely a faithful and appropriate treatment to one that explores the intriguing potential of the opera, with all its fascinating flaws and contradictions.

The Blu-ray release from Arthaus presents the production exceptionally well, with a clear, sharp full-HD image, and two sound mixes in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 that are superbly detailed and toned. There are no extra features on the disc, and only a brief essay on the opera and the production in the enclosed booklet. A synopsis to explain the historical context of the opera’s setting would have been useful, but I imagine you can find that on line somewhere if necessary. Region-free, BD25, 1080i, subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean.

PostinoDaniel Catán - Il Postino

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris | Jean-Yves Ossonce, Ron Daniels, Plácido Domingo, Daniel Montenegro, Amanda Squitieri, Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, Patricia Fernandez, Victor Torres, Laurent Alvaro, Pepe Martinez, David Robinson, Théo Vandecasteele | Paris, France - 30 June 2011

The death of the composer Daniel Catán in April this year, just as the first-run production of his fifth opera Il Postino (The Postman) was being prepared for its performances at the Châtelet Theatre in Paris was undoubtedly a great loss not only to the music world, but to the development of Spanish language opera. Alongside work done by Plácido Domingo, who helped Catán bring this production to the stage, the creation of a new school of Spanish opera was one of the principal aims of Catán, and his ability to do that is demonstrated well in the composer’s final opera. What Il Postino also demonstrates is that Catán’s death is also a great loss to a type of modern opera that can touch on simple but meaningful subjects in a way that is accessible to new audiences.

Those audience-pleasing qualities are already evident in the source material – the novel ‘Ardiente Paciencia‘ by Antonio Skármeta, but even more so from the 1994 film Il Postino directed by Michael Radford - a simple story of a postman on an Italian island who learns about life and poetry from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who is living there in exile. If the practice of making an opera out of a recent film seems pointless, it’s worth pointing out that opera in the past has always traditionally drawn from the popular entertainments and artforms of its day, whether from popular literature or theatre, and although film does indeed have a rather more “fixed” sense of imagery, it also has many other facets that can be expanded on and explored in opera through other means – primarily musical, but also through a different kind of intimacy through the the theatrical experience. Catán’s Il Postino presents the work wonderfully through this medium.

Postino

On the surface however, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of difference in how the opera approaches the subject and how the story is recounted in the film version. The storyline remains simple. Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, has been exiled form his home country for his Communist leanings, and has taken up residence on the small island of Cala di Sotto (Neruda was indeed exiled for a period from Chile, but actually lived a short time on the island of Capri, and the story recounted here is otherwise entirely fictional). It’s a poor island, the inhabitants have no running water (despite promises from local politicians), but while his other brothers have left for America to look for work, Mario Ruoppolo remains and is given the job of postman for the new arrival – the only person on the island to receive any mail, and all of it, it seems to Mario, from women. Hoping to gain some understanding of this power that Neruda seems to have over women, and observing his close, sensual relationship with his wife that Neruda has immortalised in poetry (Desnuda – “Naked”), Mario hopes to gain some tips from the great poet. With Neruda’s instruction in the use of metaphors and some borrowing of ideas and actual lines from his work, the postman is able to win the love of Beatrice Russo, the beautiful girl that he has seen working in the local bar.

The opera follows the original film closely, working in short scenes. Catán states that he went back to Skármeta’s source novel in order to bring out the political dimension that is just as important in a consideration of Neruda, his life and his work, but it still remains very much in the background to the fictional love story and the friendship between Neruda and the Postman. What does come out more – and surely justifying the film being made into an opera – is the depth and force of those relationships, which are beautifully sketched in scene by scene, and how they tie into the nature and rhythms of life. These are wonderfully evoked in the libretto and in the music which clearly bears the marks of the acknowledged Puccini and Debussy influences on the composer. The intention is to find the right expression for each scene and emotion, and if that means it evokes other composers, it’s no less effective for it. What helps it is the fluidity with which one scene flows into the next, each building on the previous to deepen the characters, the emotions and the connections between them. The flowing stage design – directed by Ron Daniels – capturing a sense of sea and clouds, carries us smoothly through the first two acts which are the main body of the production.

Postino

The libretto is also of vital importance since, when you get right down to it, the opera is essentially about the power of words. They appear on the screens behind and in front of the performers throughout, and, as a Spanish opera, it couldn’t be more important to have the poetry and the sound of those words expressed and highlighted in this way. Words, poetry, sun, sea and clouds are all there in the original film, but what gives them another dimension of expression and – most importantly – what brings them all together, is the power of the music and the singing, and on those fronts, the opera is most persuasive. The themes and their presentation in this respect also reminded me of Richard Strauss – another influence on Catán – particularly Capriccio which considers the construction of words, music and theatre in opera perhaps from a more academic viewpoint, but in intent, Il Postino is also about the individual power of each of these elements combining in a way that gives its subject the best means of expression.

The singing in this production could hardly be faulted. Daniel Montenegro sang well in the the role the part of Mario Ruoppolo on the night I caught the performance (sharing the role in this run in Paris with the equally fine Charles Castranovo), with a fine clear lyrical tenor that befitted the role and differentiated it from the deeper tenor of Domingo. Cristina Gallardo-Domâs made a strong impression as Neruda’s wife Matilde, and the other main female roles of Beatrice Russo (Amanda Squitieri) and her mother Donna Rosa (Patricia Fernandez) were also well cast, bringing different tones of light and shade to the singing and to the characteration. It helps too if you have someone as charismatic and still as powerful and emotive a performer as Plácido Domingo in the main role of Neruda, but the singer is also a voice for Spanish opera and it is wonderful to hear him express the rich poetic resonances of the words in the libretto so masterfully in his native tongue. It’s a wonderful role, trailor made for him and he defines it utterly. If Il Postino is to succeed in the future – and one would like to think that it has the necessary qualities that would see it more widely performed – it will need an equally charismatic presence in that role, but that will surely follow.

CyranoFranco Alfano - Cyrano de Bergerac

Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, 2007 | Patrick Fournillier, Michal Znaniecki, Plácido Domingo, Sondra Radvanovsky, Arturo Chacón Cruz, Rod Gilfry, Corrado Carmelo Caruso, Roberto Accurso, Javier Franco | Naxos

The story of Edmond Rostand’s epic romantic drama ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ (1897) should be known to most audiences from the various film versions that have been made – some of them even predating Alfano’s 1937 opera – the most notable being Gérard Depardieu’s performance as the long-nosed character in Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s popular French film from 1990, but it may also be known to more through Steve Martin’s modern updating of the role in Roxane. The story however is essentially the same, that of a man with an exceedingly large nose that disfigures his face, who believes that he is ugly and unworthy of the love of his beautiful cousin Roxane. Working closely to Rostand’s original text, Rappeneau’s film captured all the comedy, wit, romance and tragedy of the situation, retaining the verse format of the original, and did it so well that it’s impossible for anyone who knows and loves the film version not to measure up Franco Alfano’s opera against it. It has to be said that the opera compares very favourably, working so naturally that one wonders why it isn’t better known and more frequently performed.

Alfano, who is now only really known for the rarely performed Cyrano and for completing Puccini’s final opera Turandot after the composer’s death, only succeeds intermittently in finding the right tone and melody to engage the audience in the drama, but he is wholly convincing in the areas where it counts most – in the romantic expressions of love between Cyrano (acting on behalf of another man) and Roxane. The arias and duets that consolidate the nature of their love (“Sens to mon âme un peu dans cette ombre qui monte?” and “Je lisais, je relisais. J’étais à toi”) achieve a perfect expression of the highly florid nature of the romantic declarations and the underlying depth and sincerity of the sentiments with all the mastery of a student of Puccini. If it were just for these two arias alone, Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac does complete justice to the work, but there is great skill in how the essence of the story fits around it. The dramatic action is somewhat condensed in the opera but it retains all the essential qualities that make the work so charming and doesn’t lose a fraction of the emotional depth or spirit of the original.

It does so of course, because that is the great strength of opera, allowing expression of such elements through the music and the singing, and Alfano plays to these strengths. In the film version, I find Roxane comes across as somewhat bland, insipid and superficial, and you need to will a sense of disbelief to understand what inspires such passion in Cyrano apart from her beauty, but here she has a much more active role and is much better characterised, principally through the musical arrangements, and, of course through the singing. Here we have Sondra Radvanovsky, who conveys the full force of her character’s nature and passion through her singing, if not so well in her acting or facial expressions. Rod Gilfry is marvellous as De Guiche, actually almost making his character sympathetic and less of a moustache-twirling villain. Arturo Chacón Cruz is fine as Christian, but it’s a thankless role that has no real arias and is always upstaged by Cyrano. As Cyrano, you couldn’t have anyone more charismatic than Plácido Domingo. His French diction isn’t the strongest, but he has all the passion and charm that the swashbuckling hero demands and is in fine voice in his 121 role.

The staging at the Palau des Arts in Valencia is fine, striking a good balance between the period and a modern approach to staging it, without introducing any incongruous elements. The stage however is a little dark and the recording, even in High Definition on the Blu-ray, doesn’t enable you to see the detail and the overall impact of it all. The audio, even in lossless LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1, is also lacking, but mainly due to how it was recorded. The microphones are clearly far from the singers, as there is a lot of ambient noise and stage clatter, the singing sounding rather echoing, occasionally drowning out the rather thin orchestration but at other times being overwhelmed by it. For the most part however, the qualities of the singing and the music, and the opera itself are no less evident. Overall, it’s a slightly imperfect live recording, but an otherwise fine presentation and performance of an opera that really deserves to be better known.

IphigenieChristoph Willibald Gluck - Iphigénie en Tauride

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Patrick Summers, Stephen Wadsworth, Susan Graham, Plácido Domingo, Paul Groves, Gordon Hawkins | The Met: Live in HD - February 26, 2011

It was through his French opera works that Christoph Willibald Gluck would bring to fruition the reforms to opera he had begun in Vienna in 1762 and 1767 with Orfeo ed Eurydice and Alceste (which themselves would later be revised in French versions), culminating in his 1779 masterwork Iphigénie en Tauride. Returning to the origins of where opera derived – an attempt to recreate ancient Greek drama with the accompaniment of music – Gluck’s intention was similarly to strip back anything that didn’t serve to primarily support and enhance the drama.

Gone then are the excessive arias with their da capo repetitions designed to show of the coloratura of the star singers, gone is the recitativo secco left to fill in the narrative, and gone is the inexpressive sound of the harpsichord of Baroque opera. In its place Gluck would use the orchestration, continuo singing, and significantly make stronger use of the chorus, to enhance and give psychological depth to the characterisation and the drama, to the extent that, famously in Ihpigénie en Tauride, characters can say one thing while the music reveals the contradicting meaning to what they are saying. The reforms of opera instigated by Gluck were hugely influential and very important, leading the way towards the more modern form of opera as we know it today.

It’s that sheer depth of human emotion and psychological drama that comes out of the Stephen Wadsworth’s production of Ihpigénie en Tauride for the Metropolitan Opera, their production to be broadcast live in HD. Less cerebral than Claus Guth’s 2001 Freudian interpretation of the Euripides drama for the Opernhaus Zurich, the Met orchestra is also rather fuller than William Christie’s period arrangements for that production, but both in their way get to the heart of the human tragedy of Greek proportions that are at the core of the opera. There’s not too much scene setting in this version of Iphigenia in Tauris, a silent dramatic prelude re-enacting the horror of Iphigenia’s execution at the hand of her father Agamemnon at Aulis, in an effort to appease Artemis on his way to fight the war in Troy, only to be spirited away at the last moment by the goddess Diana (the event recounted in an earlier Gluck opera, Iphigéne en Aulide). After 15 years in Tauris, a priestess now to King Thoas, the trauma remains so deep that she is unable to recognise her brother Orestes, who has arrived in shipwrecked in Tauris, and who is about to be sacrificed to the Gods by his sister, according to the custom of the land.

Iphigenie

Dramatically, Iphigénie en Tauride is a sequel to Iphigéne en Aulide then, but it has links also to Elektra (where Orestes has just taken revenge on his mother Clytemnestra for the murder of his father Agamemnon, and is equally as traumatised by the experience), and the brooding melancholy of Gluck’s score in some ways sets the tone that Strauss would match, even more discordantly, some time later in his opera Elektra. The same qualities of deep remorse mixed with guilt lie at the heart of both – the traumatic events that Ihpigenia and Orestes have endured have had a profound impact on their personalities (one indeed with pre-Freudian connotations, as in the initial encounter between brother and sister when Orestes, coming out of a nightmare, calls out “Mother” on seeing Iphigenia) – and, like Elektra, Iphigénie en Tauride is likewise stripped down to its pure emotional core, the singing is allowed to stand alone and express the heart of the drama more through the voice than through any narrative drive.

The split stage is effective, reducing the stage down into distinct areas where the psychological drama can be enclosed and heightened in suffocating prison cells and sacrificial tombs. It may have just been the sound mix to the cinemas or perhaps the less than perfect French diction of the singers, but the staging also seemed to affect the acoustics of the voice. Scarcely a word could be made out of Gordon Hawkins’ delivery as Thoas, but Susan Graham and Plácido Domingo’s singing also seemed to have a little too much reverb. Both however were in fine voice – and wonderful voices they are – despite both suffering from a cold. There were noticeable sniffles from Graham in Act 1 and 2, but whatever remedy she was taking kicked in after the interval, resulting in a commanding singing and dramatic performance in the final two acts. Domingo seemed to be holding back and conserving his energy, but by the same token he is not a grandstanding scene-stealing kind of performer and played within the confines of the role (as I’m sure Gluck would have approved), graciously allowing both Graham and Paul Groves to give full account of their voices and the roles they played.

RigolettoThe Best of European Opera 2010

BBC Four, Sat 25th December 2010, 7:00pm

BBC Four’s The Best of European Opera 2010 focussed on a number of extraordinarily inventive stage productions of mostly lesser-known or at least lesser-performed operas over the last year, showing that, regardless of the avant-garde nature of some of the works, there is no lack of ambition or drive to attract and engage new audiences. That drive has been evident in the BBC’s programming, most of it for BBC Four, with a series of programmes dedicated to different aspects of opera from a historical and a modern perspective. Anyone who has been following the TV programming of opera will have at least come across two of the exceptional productions featured in this programme, both of them featuring Plácido Domingo in his new reinvented form towards the end of his singing career, as a baritone. Much was made of his debuting his new singing voice (although Domingo did in fact begin his career briefly as a baritone) in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, broadcast live from the Royal Opera House, and reprised in concert form for the 2010 Proms, and he was indeed in spectacular form, vocally, as well as demonstrating his marvellous acting ability. The two go hand-in-hand, making him still a formidable presence on the stage and, on the evidence of this and the other television highlight of the year, still not ready yet for retirement.

That other event, featured also in the programme, was the live performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto, shot in Mantua, directed by the great Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio with Vittorio Storaro as director of photography. Broadcast over two nights, on the actual palatial locations specified in the libretto and at the corresponding times of the day, broadcast live to over 140 countries over the world on prime-time TV, this was an enormous logistically challenge, as well as highly demanding of the performers, but the results were simply spectacular. Magnificently lit and choreographed, the roles were not only superbly sung, but also extremely well-acted, giving the opera a sense of authenticity in the tense emotions on display. The clip shown, a spellbinding scene from the short but pivotal Second Act, gives some indication of just how good this was, with Julia Novokova measuring up well as Gilda to Domingo’s hunchbacked court jester.

The other performances highlighted in the programme were no less inventive in their state-of-the-art theatrical productions. Perhaps surprisingly – but perhaps not, when it is easier to play safe – many of the more risky ventures were not from the major European opera houses. The Birmingham Opera Company, under the direction of Graham Vick, used an abandoned warehouse on an industrial estate for their contemporary, multi-ethnic production of Verdi’s Othello, spectators and performers intermingling in what must have been a thrilling and engaging experience (it would fare less well it seems on screen). A similar new way of engaging the audience in an unconventional theatrical environment was evident in the ever inventive Willy Decker’s production of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron for the Ruhr Triennale, with the seating on moving platforms and the performance taking place in between, making use of projections and the unique qualities of a decommissioned factory floor space.

Moses

The Gran Teatre de Liceu in Barcelona however showed what could be done in a conventional environment, the programme highlighting a remarkable performance by Diana Damrau as Kostanz in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, showing a remarkable new talent in the making. At La Monnaie in Belgium on the other hand, one of the greats, José van Dam, bowed out in style in a spectacular production of Massanet’s Don Quichotte. In Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam, Martin Kuöej staged Wagner’s Die fliegende Holländer in a contemporary setting, with the Dutchman’s crew a band of refugees set against a conflict between the have-nots and a rich elite.  Two relatively new opera houses had notable productions, the Baltic Opera near Gdansk in Poland setting Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in a lunatic asylum in Marek Weiss’s staging, while Oslo’s new Den Norske Opera’s new 2008 opera-house staged an inventive new opera by Gisle Kverndokk, Around The World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg and Passepartout travelling through the world of opera (a clip showed the couple in Paris attending one of la Violetta Valéry’s parties from La Traviata).

A fine addition to the opera programming by the BBC this year, BBC Four’s guide to the Best of European Opera 2010 was a heartening reminder of the enormous vitality and healthy state of modern and classic opera around the world – creatively at least, if not always financially, in these economically difficult times.

The Best of European Opera 2010 will be re-broadcast on BBC Four on Sunday 3rd January 2011 at 7pm.