Salzburg Festspiele


LabyrinthPeter von Winter - Das Labyrinth

Residenzhof, Salzburg, 2012 | Ivor Bolton, Alexandra Liedtke, Christof Fischesser, Julia Novikova, Malin Hartelius, Michael Schade, Thomas Tatzl, Regula Mühlemann, Anton Scharinger, Ute Gfrerer, Nina Bernsteiner, Christina Daletska, Monika Bohinec, Klaus Kuttler, Clemens Unterreiner | Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Such is the supremacy and brilliance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute that it’s tempting to think of Peter von Winter’s sequel as something of a novelty. Written in 1798, only seven years after the original, both librettos were however the work of the same man, Emanuel Schikaneder, so in reality there’s no reason why Das Labyrinth shouldn’t be seen as a legitimate work on its own terms. Rossini’s Barber of Seville after all is a worthy prequel to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro since both works are drawn from the same source in the plays of Beaumarchais. De Winter’s opera is no novelty, but rather a fascinating work that has languished in obscurity for far too long. It’s still nowhere near on a par with The Magic Flute, but then what is?

Well, it has to be said that unfortunately Das Labyrinth does indeed try too hard to be The Magic Flute, and on that level it can’t help but struggle. Schikaneder’s approach to writing a sequel for an immensely popular success is much the same as the one usually employed by movie studios today. He and de Winter simply repeat the formula of the original with emphasis on the bits that the audience enjoyed the most. As an entertainment this is a foolproof method and there is consequently much to enjoy in seeing these wonderful characters revived and put through new situations. On the other hand, without Mozart to bring his unique vision to the work and dignify the libretto with some internal musical consistency and his deep humanism, the plot of Das Labyrinth more often feels like a lot of random incidents haphazardly strung together with little in the way of originality.

Certainly, the central element that drives the plot doesn’t initially appear to differ greatly from the original. Picking up straight after the events in The Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night - who is apparently called Luna, we discover here - is plotting to get her daughter back. You didn’t think she would give up that easily, did you? With the help of the Three Ladies and Monostatos, who evidently holds a grudge against Sarastro for his treatment in the earlier work, the forces of darkness intend to disrupt the wedding of Tamino and Pamina, wrest the young woman away and marry her instead to the despicable Tipheus, King of Paphos. For some not entirely explained reason, Sarastro also requires Tamino and Pamina to undergo a further trial and find their way through the labyrinth. It’s there that Tipheus and his men, the Three Ladies having failed in their previous attempt to carry out the abduction, capture Pamina and take her to the Queen’s hideaway on the Moon.

In addition to the main plot, there are evidently other random exploits for Papageno and Papagena, whose marriage is also put on hold until Pamina is recovered and their relationship is likewise challenged. This involves many of the same kind of “trials” that were in The Magic Flute, with the Three Ladies appealing to Papageno’s baser instincts and Monostatos also getting in on the act to lead him astray. He disguises himself as Papageno and his blackamoor origins played upon in a way that makes him the butt of some dubious jokes. To get her own back on Papageno however for flirting with ladies of darker skin colour, Papagena runs away with Monostatos. This means that Papageno must be involved in the rescue of Pamina if he wants to ensure his own happiness is restored.

There are just as many musical references to match the familiar plot elements, with plenty of glockenspiel playing, Papageno bird whistles and acres of pseudo-Mozart arrangements. The music is consequently often quite light and charming, even if has none of the memorable melodies of Mozart and little of the composer’s carefree imagination, grace and dignity to elevate the pomposity and the silliness of much of the plot. Ivor Bolton however conducts this work with just as much respect, affording Von Winter’s compositions the same loving care and attention that he would Die Zauberflöte. This certainly contributes towards making Das Labyrinth feel truly Mozartian and consequently a more interesting work than it might otherwise have been. At the very least it makes this a delightful curiosity that’s hard to resist.

The production at the Salzburg Festival isn’t quite so compelling. The costumes are lovely, but the sets are not the most suitable for the work. These are limited to some extent by the venue, which is the open-air courtyard of the Residenzhof, meaning that there is only room for a few narrow platforms and an all-purpose backdrop. The backdrop consists in the main of a wall of lights, which is nonetheless versatile enough to represent the canopy of stars of the domain of Königin der Nacht, flicker with storm effects, and break up into columns to represent the labyrinth. It comes into play more as the evening darkens, and there are a few nice additional mechanical effects such as Pamino seated on a crescent moon, but it is otherwise quite limiting.

Christof Fischesser is a wonderful Sarastro, his warm and comforting tones assuring you that this is a character who is powerful and can be trusted. Michael Schade’s lovely lyrical tenor similarly presents a warmer and more sympathetic Tamino than is often found in the Magic Flute, and that’s all to the benefit of Das Labyrinth. Julia Novikova cuts a suitably impressive figure as Luna, Queen of the Night, but she struggles a little with the challenging coloratura that has been written for the character’s extended role in this work. As Pamina, Malin Hartelius often finds that the tessitura of the role is beyond her comfort zone and the timbre of her voice isn’t always the most pleasant at those heights. She seems to gain in confidence in Act II however and handles her individual arias quite well. Thomas Tatzl is an excellent Papageno and Regula Mühlemann a charming Papagena.

The Blu-ray release of Das Labyrinth is region-free with subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean. The filming isn’t as polished as it might be, but undoubtedly there are difficulties presented by the unconventional location. The video looks reasonably good even though it only uses a BD25 disc. The audio tracks however are excellent, with good wide use of the surrounds on the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix.

Gezeichneten Franz Schreker - Die Gezeichneten

Salzburger Festspiele, 2005 | Kent Nagano, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Robert Brubaker, Anne Schwanewilms, Michael Volle, Robert Hale, Wolfgang Schöne, Bernard Richter, Markus Petsch, Mel Ulrich, Thomas Oliemans, Guillaume Antoine, Stephen Gadd | EuroArts

There’s a gorgeous and somewhat disturbing sense of decadence about this Salzburg Festival production of Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten that nonetheless feels wholly appropriate for the work. Schreker is a neglected and now unfashionable early twentieth century German composer who saw his influence and popularity fall into decline with the arrival of the Nazis. The lush orchestration of his extravagant romanticism likewise felt out of place in a harsh new world that had been rocked by two brutal world wars in the first half of the century. His work however - tentatively finding its way back into the repertoire - retains a certain fascination precisely for this unique character of that path of post-Wagnerian German Romanticism that was forever lost in the new reality of the world.

That character - and that extraordinary musical style - is very much in evidence in Die Gezeichneten, a title that is difficult to translate, since it means ‘the drawn man’ (i.e. the object of an artist’s work), but it also implies ‘a marked man’. Written on the request of fellow “degenerate composer” Alexander Zemlinsky, the story is about the tragedy of an ugly man, a hunchback, who is unable to find love. It’s a subject that seems to close to the heart of Zemlinsky, who himself a short opera adapted from an Oscar Wilde story based on this theme (Der Zwerg - The Birthday of the Infanta), the composer having been famously rejected by Alma Mahler, who described him as “a hideous dwarf”. Zemlinsky was supposed to have scored Schreker’s libretto, but in the end it was Schreker who completed the entire work himself.

Revived for the Salzburg Festival in 2005, performed in the outdoor setting of the Felsenreitschule, it’s an extraordinary experience to hear the wonderful lush Romanticism of Schreker’s flowing orchestration with all its Tristan und Isolde-like unresolved dissonances creating a sustained tension, given full expression under the musical direction of Kent Nagano, but it’s one that also works well with Nicholas Lehnhoff’s stage direction. Set in 16th century Genoa, the work opens with a group of rich decadent nobles, dressed here in extravagant exaggerated costumes, bemoaning the possibility that they might lose access to the wonderful island paradise of Elysium that has been created by Alviano Salvago for their pleasure. Salvago is a hunchback who believes he is too ugly to set foot on the island himself and, abandoning any hope of ever being loved or accepted, he is about to give the island back to the common people, leaving the nobles without any place to practice their secret vices against the daughters of Genoa.

Lehnoff’s set captures the essence of this situation, matching the musical description with a stage that consists of one huge toppled statue, one hand clawing at the air with the head detached, and having the performers clamber over the pitted and broken surface that hints at and eventually reveals the dark concealed depths of the grotto within it. More than just accompanying the musical content however, the elaborate set also mirrors to some extent the nature of Salvago himself. Salvago starts to nurse hopeful expectations when he meets Carlotta Nardi, the daughter of the Podestà who describes herself as a painter of souls, who is intrigued by the hunchback and wants to paint him. Salvago starts to believe that she is someone who can recognise his inner beauty - revealing himself to be the same as everyone else - and Carlotta consequently loses her fascination for him the moment she finishes the painting.

Musically and lyrically, Die Gezeichneten is a fascinating and beautiful work that could only have been written at this time - in 1918 - the fin de siècle decadence of the nobles coming crashing down with the harsh realities that are revealed about the workings of the world. That’s apparent very clearly and evocatively in the musical construction, the early part of the opera awash with Strauss-like extravagance in the tones and textures - reminiscent of how Strauss would approach the later Die Liebe der Danae (1940) - but also with that Wagnerian Tristan und Isolde-like sensibility of suspending chords and leaving unresolved dissonances to float around and intermingle to create an unsettling yet compelling soundscape. Schreker’s libretto is equally lyrical and extravagant in its pronouncements and in its dramatic tensions, particularly in the eloquent descriptions of the arrogance of the nobility and in the wounded pride of Graf Vitelozzo at being rejected by Carlotta in favour of Salvago.

All the decadent poetic musing however (”Life seemed to me a source of constant joy… When I stretched out my hand, I held a rose, drew in its fragrance and pulled the petals off”), comes crashing down when an actual name - Ginevra Scotti - is attached to the vices, revealing their nature as being rather more sinister, involving child abduction and abuse. The exquisite floating dreamlike reverie of the musical arrangements similarly coalesces into something much more concrete at this point, revealing the nature of the dissonance that has been hovering at the edges of the work. Evoking Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut‘ orgy scene in Act III with the assembled guests hiding behind masks, Lehnhoff’s stage direction is completely on the same page as the score, and the statue of grand nobility that has retained some dignity and grandeur even in its toppled form up to this stage, is split open to reveal its corrupt inner nature.

The complex nature of the various characters is perhaps most powerfully described - or at least is more obviously evident - in the nature of the writing for the singing voices. Fortunately, the cast are all extraordinarily good here. Anne Schwanewilms in particular is just outstanding as Carlotta - I’ve never heard her sing better, even in some of the more challenging Strauss roles. There’s a lushness to her tone here, the vocal writing and her character giving her the opportunity to demonstrate an impressive range, rising to soaring heights in a flowing legato, particularly in Carlotta’s Act II scenes with Alviano Salvago. The writing for Salvago is also very interesting, the character written for a Heldentenor voice (or at least performed here as such), even though he is an outwardly weak and physically deformed. The contradiction between his inner and outward nature is expressed very well in this manner by Robert Brubaker. Michael Volle’s lush Straussian baritone rounds out this impressively cast production as the decadent Count Vitelozzo.

Only available on DVD, the performance does seem at least to have been shot in HD, and even in the Standard Definition format, the 16:9 widescreen image looks beautiful, with good detail, clarity and colour saturation. The audio tracks, LPCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, are also fine, capturing all the warmth and colour of the orchestration that Nagano reveals so well. There are no extra features here, and no full synopsis in the booklet, although there’s a good essay that covers the main points in outline, along with some background information on the composer and the work. The DVD is NTSC, Region-free, with subtitles in German, English, French and Spanish.

CesareGeorge Frideric Handel - Giulio Cesare in Egitto

Salzburg Festival, Haus für Mozart, 2012 | Giovanni Antonini, Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier, Andreas Scholl, Cecilia Bartoli, Anne Sofie von Otter, Philippe Jaroussky, Christophe Dumaux, Jochen Kowalski, Ruben Drole, Peter Kálmán | ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming, 27 May 2012

The question of how to stage a Baroque opera, rather different in form from the more familiar narrative drama form established in 19th century opera, has been a tricky issue that has had to be addressed in order to bring these works back into the modern opera repertoire. How do you make a rather long-winded and out-dated style of opera appealing enough to engage an audience through all the ornate embellishments and opera seria conventions? It helps of course if the score is by Handel, and it helps if the opera in question has a subject as juicy as Julius Cesar’s campaign in Egypt and his romantic encounter with Cleopatra, with some beautiful, memorable arias, and a considerable amount of profuse romantic declarations and rejections, and large amounts of political plotting and scheming. Despite being the most popularly staged Handel opera, the work - four hours long and featuring no less than four principal countertenor/castrato roles - does present considerable challenges in the staging of these event, since most of the action is alluded to only in the brief recitative and usually takes place off-stage. An “authentic” period treatment for the four hours of Giulio Cesare in Egitto could be a bit of a slog for an audience without some visual entertainment, and it seems to be with that principle in mind that Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s production of Handel’s 1724 opera for the 2012 Salzburg Pentecost Festival (newly under the directorship of Cecilia Bartoli) is certainly nothing like a period treatment.

Let’s just take a couple of early examples to see how they approach the long drawn-out expressions of deep emotions that establishes the characters and their relation to each other in the critical First Act. Cornelia, aghast at the murder of her husband Pompeo, his head cut off and presented to Cesare by Tolomeo in a misguided attempt to gain favour and the rule of Egypt, sings of her loss in an exquisite lament (‘Priva son d’ogni conforto’) that doesn’t actually require her to do anything dramatically, just emote the pain. Sung eloquently and movingly by Anne Sofie von Otter, the sentiments don’t really need any further elaboration, but Leiser and Caurier choose to show the depths of Cornelia’s despair by having her place her head in the jaws of a crudely manufactured giant rubber crocodile. Or - how should one stage the aria ‘L’empio, sleale, indegno’, where Tolomeo vents his anger at Cesare, while standing alone on the stage? Well, Leiser and Caurier have him tear apart a foam dummy of Cesar (one that bizarrely has arrived earlier on the top of the limousine bearing the arrival of the Roman Emperor), pulling bloody innards out of the stomach and biting into them.

Evidently such scenes clearly bear no relation to naturalism, never mind tradition, and as the early booing from the audience at Tolomeo’s tantrum here demonstrates, it’s clearly not for everyone. Whether it’s to your taste or not, in both cases, it can’t be denied that the visual expression of those scenes don’t really do anything more than simply match the extravagance and depth of feelings as they are expressed by both characters through the excessively ornate terms of the da capo aria. The nature of the convention and its lack of adherence to any kind of naturalism in dramatic situations is even played upon in Act II, when Cesare’s General, Curio - dressed in modern army combat gear - looks on in a frustrated manner as he tries to get the Emperor into a bulletproof vest and away from a group of assassins approaching them in Cleopatra’s palace, only for Cesare to insist on returning to the front of the stage to finish the long repetitions of his da capo aria. It’s clever, it’s knowing, it’s aware of the conventions and working within them, but most importantly, Leiser and Caurier’s production of Giulio Cesare in Egitto is never boring.

Updating the involvement of a major Western power in the turmoil of the Middle-East to a modern setting is however clearly always going to generate some amount of controversy and to their credit, Leiser and Caurier don’t shy away from scenes that, in some cases, almost seem designed to shock and provoke a reaction. Little of that however relates to any actual commentary on real-life modern-day situations other than in the broadest of terms, but there are certainly recognisable features of present-day Egypt, the wider Middle-East conflict and recent Arab Spring rebel uprisings, with the stage bearing all the signs of a desert war, littered with burning tanks and, um, giant lizards. As head of the invading foreign power, Cesare here is keen to strike up a deal with the new regime, installing Tolomeo as the new puppet ruler in an arrangement that will be beneficial to Rome for the setting up of oil wells in the region. In this context, having seen his father killed by this cruel regime, Sesto becomes a terrorist and straps a bomb around his waist for a suicide attack, assisted by his grieving mother. Bombs rain down in a shock-and-awe battle towards the end of the conflict, as the rebels take on the government forces. Without having to make any overt commentary on the Middle East, it’s a scenario that a modern audience would be able to relate to - certainly more than Cesar’s campaign in Egypt in 48 BC - but what is even more surprising is how well it actually works hand-in-hand with the themes, if not the actual historical events, recounted in Handel’s work.

The directors however - depending on your view - could be seen as pushing things a little too far into parody. Certainly the abuse of power, the sexual improprieties and the mistreatment of women that go along with it are all part and parcel of the exercise of political authority and ambition - as is Cleopatra’s use of seduction to try to gain power herself - but the manner in which these scenes are depicted seems to be fully considered according to the nature of the characters and not merely put in to shock the audience. For Cleopatra’s part, it all seems to be done with a sense of fun, and Cecilia Bartoli (well used to working with this directing team) throws herself bravely into the role, and not just in singing terms - which you would expect anyway. She seems to enjoy playing the part of this sexy temptress, vamping it up in a leather outfit that emphasises her ample bosom, or as a dancing girl with feather fans, even dancing like an Egyptian while wearing a wig of the Queen’s famous bob hairstyle. At one point in Act II she even rides a rocket bomb (as Cupid’s dart) into the sky, which earns huge applause, although her stunning delivery of the aria might have had something to do with that. Her character’s slip into lamentations in the second half of the work however is handled without any such fuss or spectacle (although she also feels like sacrificing herself to the rubber crocodile at one point). So too, the enslavement of Cornelia and the attempts to use her as a bargaining tool for sale on is treated with great delicacy, but the “villains” less so, Tolomeo shown jerking off to a porn mag while singing “Belle dee di questo core”.

More than simply setting out to shock or upset, the impression given is that, in their attempt to prove that opera seria doesn’t have to be just a long series of tedious arias with short sections of recitative to set them up, the directors have perhaps just gone too far in the other direction and thrown in far too many ideas that don’t always work. This Giulio Cesare in Egitto is just overflowing with ideas and there’s almost too much to take in. But one thing for sure is that it’s never, ever boring, and in a four-hour Handel opera, that’s quite an achievement. Just as importantly, it doesn’t detract from what it the most important element of the work, and that is its expression through the singing. Bartoli, as noted above, is just outstanding, fully entering into the role and singing it beautifully, powerfully and with genuine feeling and understanding for the character of Cleopatra. Andreas Scholl’s delicate countertenor also fully embodies the character of Cesare, the singing impassioned, the da capo coloratura both expressive and impressive. The real key to the success of this production however lies in the equal attention given to the superb casting and performances of the other roles, particularly Anne Sofie von Otter’s Cornelia and Philippe Jaroussky’s Sesto. Their expressions of deep anguish underpin the seriousness of drama and its conviction, and they are both outstanding in individual arias, but particularly impressive in their ‘Son nata a lagrimar’ duet. Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo, Jochen Kowalski as Nireno, Peter Kálmán as Curio and Ruben Drole as Achilla also give fine performances that ensure that there are no weak elements here as far as the singing is concerned.

Giulio Cesare in Egitto was recorded on 27th May 2012 and broadcast live by the French/German television channel ARTE. It is currently available to view in its entirety for free on their ARTE Live Web site.

SchattenRichard Strauss - Die Frau ohne Schatten

Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg 2011 | Christian Thielemann, Christof Loy, Stephen Gould, Anne Schwanewilms, Michaela Schuster, Evelyn Herlitzius, Wolfgang Koch, Marius Brück, Steven Humes, Andreas Conrad, Thomas Johannes Mayer, Rachel Frenkel, Peter Sonn, Maria Radner | Opus Arte

Die Frau ohne Schatten has long been considered one of the Strauss’s most challenging works to perform, and it’s such a magnum opus that one attends a performance of the opera – rare though they are – with a sense of high expectation. If you’re going to undertake such a work, it’s reasonable to expect that the production is going to pull out all the stops. The fairytale nature of Die Frau ohne Schatten however presents some challenges for the more experimental stage director used to modernising works, so it was always going to be interesting to see how Christof Loy was going to rework the story for the 2011 Salzburg Festival. Even by Loy’s standards for courting controversy through a very personal conceptual approach, the Salzburg Festpiele Die Frau ohne Schatten must be one of the strangest conceits ever applied to any opera production.

Not unsurprisingly, Loy dispenses with the fairytale setting entirely, ignores the stage directions, would appear to pay scant heed to the libretto, and instead sets Die Frau ohne Schatten in a recording studio in Vienna in 1955. Now, the idea of making the performance the performance, so to speak, isn’t anything new by the standards of Loy’s minimalist semi-staged productions, but this really takes the idea to another level altogether. The set is built to resemble, in meticulous reconstructed detail, the legendary Viennese concert hall, the Sofiensaal (destroyed in a fire in 2001), where, dressed in frumpy 1950s clothing, the singers here appear to recreate the studio sessions for the first recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten by Karl Böhm in 1955.

Schatten

Well, it does and it doesn’t, because although Die Frau ohne Schatten was indeed recorded in Vienna in 1955 by Karl Böhm, it was actually recorded, I believe, in the Musikverein, but, well, doesn’t that just add to the perversity of the concept? The theory behind the concept is considered in the booklet enclosed with this DVD/BD release, but I’m not sure how helpful that will be to anyone. I can’t make head or tail of it myself, and I’m used to and quite enjoy trying to figure out the often bizarre theories applied to modern opera productions. Are we supposed to be interested in the historical performers of the work and relate the tensions of the drama in the opera in some way to their lives? Or is it supposed to operate on a deeper philosophical level on the nature of art and performance? Whatever the rationale, there seems to be little justification for having singers stand at a podium and sing out to the audience in a work as rich and wonderful as Die Frau ohne Schatten.

First of all, it’s a little bit misleading to say that the singers just stand at a pedestal with the score in front of them and sing out to the audience. Replicating the activity in a recording studio, the performers stop to have coffee from a flask, drink a glass of water, take a smoke break, take off their coats, and walk in and out of the concert hall when not required on the sound stage that is marked by a red light during recording. Technicians meanwhile run around and adjust settings or place the singers into position, and there are numerous other extras and choruses filling the stage. Still, there’s not much there to suggest that the production connects in any way with the opera itself. Over the course of the performance however, while the action never moves outside the Sofiensaal concert hall, the story seems to take over the characters, possessing them, drawing them into the powerful emotions expressed in the drama and the score, and the distinction between the singers and what they are singing becomes blurred. It’s bizarrely fascinating to watch, but clearly not everyone will think so.

Schatten

There does seem to be some parallel drawn, perhaps, between the post-WWII setting of the recording of the opera and the time of its composition during the First World War. It seems no less extravagant to be recording such a work at a time of great privations (the concert hall is clearly unheated and there are no luxuries in the conditions or the sandwiches laid on for them), but like Strauss and Hofmannstahl’s intentions (whether you judge them misguided or not, since the work was not well initially received), Die Frau ohne Schatten is an attempt to reconnect through art with the finer qualities of human nature in response to the horror going on in the world at that time. It’s perhaps – and this is entirely my response to the work – the same recognition on the part of the performers in the post-war years of that deeper element in the work that hits the characters so hard, no more so than the confused Empress who is longing to regain a sense of humanity through the acquisition of a shadow, and the horror of the price that has to be paid for it.

Whatever the reason may be, Loy’s production does in some way achieve a strong connection with the intent of a work whose purpose and meaning has always been elusive and enigmatic. In the way that it mixes musical references, asks self-reflexive questions on the nature of art and dramatic representation and has definite philosophical and humanitarian leanings, I can’t help but think that the composer and librettist of such works as Ariadne auf Naxos, Der Rosenkavalier and even Capriccio (based on an idea by Hofmannstahl) would approve of such an approach. The model for Die Frau ohne Schatten according to the composer and librettist was Mozart’s The Magic Flute, but to all intents and purposes the approach is Wagnerian and it’s specifically Parsifal-like in its spiritual dimension and its theme of sacrifice and redemption. “There are higher powers at work” .

Those higher powers are there of course in the music, which, as Strauss intended, takes over where words cannot adequately express. It’s Wagner rather than Mozart that also influences Christian Thielemann’s conducting of the orchestra and the singing performances. Scored for an orchestra of one hundred and seven, Thielemann controls every element of the huge sound that is created by the astonishing performance of the Wiener Philharmoniker, sweeping and powerful at times, and yet full of incredibly intricate, virtuoso touches and more sensitivity and heartfelt emotion than you would expect to find in the strange fairytale nature of the work. It is utterly, utterly beautiful – as fine an account of Strauss’s most extravagant work as you could imagine. And as complete an account as well, the entire three and a half hours of the work presented here in full and uncut. Act III benefits most from this fuller presentation, particularly in relation to the roles of the Nurse and the Empress, restoring a balance to the work as a whole.

Schatten

This is not an opera for discussing the individual qualities of the singing voices. You don’t put on this particular opera unless you have singers capable of meeting its extreme demands, and you certainly don’t put them in front of Thielemann when he is doing Strauss. You could question the casting and singing that is also more Wagnerian than Mozart, but that seems to me to be appropriate for this work, regardless of what Strauss may have claimed were his intentions for it. All of singers are exceptionally good. Anne Schwanewilms and Michaela Schuster, as mentioned above, bring new depths out of the fuller roles of the Empress and the Nurse, but I was particularly impressed by Evelyn Herlitzius as Barak’s wife, who sings the role with extraordinary conviction and power. Along with Wolfgang Koch’s Barak the Dyer, the two of them manage to create that all-important sense of humanity in their relationship that lies at the heart of the piece. That’s evident also in Stephen Gould’s magnificent Emperor, the emotional depth of his ‘Falke du Wiedergefundener’ almost unbearable, forging a connection directly with the music score in a way that makes the intent comprehensible even if the fairytale context of the work does not.

As does Christof Loy’s staging, even if likewise it isn’t immediately apparent how or why. Either it works for the audience or it doesn’t (and clearly it doesn’t for a large proportion of the audience in Salzburg judging by the booing that greeted the production team at the curtain call here), but personally, I found it extraordinarily powerful and moving. It certainly won’t work for everyone and may prove to be a distraction while you try and figure out what point he is trying to make with its 1950s concert staging, but whether you think it works or not, it operates hand-in-hand with Strauss, Hofmannstahl, Thielemann, the Wiener Philharmoniker and with the singers to create the right kind of environment that draws the majesty and mystery out of the work and the music-drama experience. It’s all there and if you don’t feel the full force of it in this production, then you must indeed have been turned to stone.

While this must have been extraordinary to experience live in the Salzburger Grosses Festspielhaus back in July 2011, it’s to the credit of the recording that it’s also an incredible experience in High Definition on the Blu-ray from Opus Arte. The image quality is impressive, but not clinical, with a slight softness that suits it. With a full four hours compressed onto the BD50 disc, there are a few instances of minor wavering and fluctuation in lines, but only if you are looking for them. The audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and both are resolutely clear and powerful, with a gorgeous tone to the orchestration. There’s a certain amount of reverb evident in the acoustics of the stage, which seems to be more pronounced in the stereo option, the surround mix spreading the sound a little better, I found. Extras on the disc include a Cast Gallery and Thielemann in Rehearsal, an interesting 25 minute look at the preparations for the production with interviews. Subtitles are in English, French, German and Spanish.

Castor et Pollux George Frideric Handel - Theodora

Salzburg Festspiele, 2009 | Christof Loy, Ivor Bolton, Freiburger Barockorchester, Salzburger Backchor, Christine Schäfer, Bejun Mehta, Joseph Kaiser, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Bernarda Fink, Ryland Davies | Unitel Classica - C-Major

Presented at the Salzburg Festival in 2009 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death, Theodora isn’t a Handel opera, but rather a staged version of his 1750 oratorio. It would however be more accurate to say that this is semi-staged, and perhaps even more accurate to say it’s barely staged at all. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination, and it certainly doesn’t place any demands on the costume or set designers, to scatter a few chairs about the stage and have the chorus and principal singers dress in the modern formal black evening-dress of a concert performance, unless there’s some hidden significance in updating the martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus from Antioch in 3AD to a concert stage. It’s semi-staged in that rather than face the audience, the singers move around a bit, remove the occasional item of clothing and put a little more acting into the singing.

As it turns out though, it doesn’t matter in the slightest if it seems like the production team earned an easy paycheque for this one, because it works. Theodora is not an oratorio that lends itself easily to a dramatic staging and attempts to do so (such as Peter Sellars’ Glyndebourne production) can potentially detract from the true qualities of this remarkable work, so thankfully this version hasn’t been messed around with at all. The oratorio considers the fate of Theodora, a Christian woman who tries to hold her virtue from the assaults of the Roman governor Valens and refuses to worship Jupiter, who is eventually martyred along with a young Roman soldier Didymus who attempts to help her escape from the life of forced prostitution that is her punishment. It’s a religious work, made up of contemplative prayers that espouse virtue and chastity, but, along with the fate of Didymus, who loves Theodora in a pure fashion, there are other noble sentiments in the work that celebrate valour in the face of tyranny and martyrdom.

The music itself – really some of the most exquisite music Handel ever composed – expresses this perfectly and as evocatively as you could imagine. The music is warmly rapturous, the singing heavenly and the choruses inspiringly uplifting. The producers clearly recognise where the strengths of the piece are and give them centre stage, doing nothing in the loose dramatisation that could interfere with the singing performances. Those performances are magnificent, the English diction perfect in every case, with Christine Schäfer’s Theodora exhibiting fragility turning into steely determination, Bejun Mehta a glorious countertenor Didymus and Joseph Kaiser a fine, emotionally moved Septimus. Ivor Bolton conducts the Freiburger Barockorchester with great sensitivity through a breathtaking performance. This is a stunningly beautiful work, perfectly performed and very well presented in High Definition, with a terrifically detailed image and two fine audio tracks in LPCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, where every element of the mix is crystal clear and perfectly balanced.

ElektraRichard Strauss - Elektra

Wiener Philharmoniker, Salzburg Festspiele, 2010 | Daniele Gatti, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Iréne Theorin, Waltraud Meier, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Robert Gambill, René Pape, Oliver Zwarg | Arthaus

The 2010 production of Elektra for the Salzburg Festspiele is an impressive production, Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s staging as intense and claustrophobic as a staging of Strauss’ opera ought to be. In addition, this production also benefits from a superlative cast including Iréne Theorin, Waltraud Meier, Eva-Maria Westbroek and René Pape, with Daniele Gatti conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker. It doesn’t come much better than this and it does live up to expectations …unless you already have a strong preference for another production.

Unsurprisingly, for a director like Lehnhoff working with such an opera, the stage setting is a reflection of the internal torment of Elektra, fixated as she is on the death of her father Agamemnon and the desire for vengeance against his murderers, her mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. She’s waiting on her brother Orestes to exact that vengeance for her, but, hearing of his death from her sister Chrysothemis, she prepares to carry out the foul deed herself. Lehnhoff envisages the tempestuous fluctuations of Elektra’s state of mind as a grey barren landscape, undulating and tilted, full of fractures and chasms from which horrors torment her and into which she is about to drop into at any moment. It’s reminiscent of his 1999 stage setting for Wagner’s Parsifal, forcing one to draw interesting comparisons between Wagner’s score for that opera and Strauss’, the themes being similar in respect of Elektra in an eternal state of suffering and torment seeking release or purification.

If the stage setting is highly effective in this respect, it’s impact is somewhat lessened by the lack of wide-shots to take in the whole stage, the filming for television focussing for the most part on close-ups of Iréne Theorin’s fixed mask of madness, which is powerful, but limiting and not quite so effective as what is evoked by the stage set as a whole, and by her position alongside the other characters within that space, since Lehnhoff is very considered about the movement and placement of characters in relation to one another. Fortunately, there is much more expressed in this opera through the score and the singing than through the acting, and here Theorin is terrific, cutting an imposing figure vocally and through her physical presence that dictates the whole tone of the piece. Elektra is a notoriously difficult role for a singer, Theorin having to sing pretty much for an hour and a half without break in the one-act opera, and she rises to the challenge, seeming to grow in strength and intensity right up to the devastating conclusion.

The other singers likewise live up to expectations. René Pape, as you would expect is a strong Orestes, even if he lacks the necessary dramatic qualities here. Westbroek sometimes seems to be danger of going a little shrill and harsh, but shows nevertheless fine control and manages to remain a lyrical Chrysothemis, contrasting well with Theorin’s Elektra. Theorin is also well-pitted against Waltraud Meier, but sparks don’t fly as they might between Elektra and Clytemnestra, the production here finding a sense of deep mutual like-mother-like-daughter recognition in the two figures, both in the nature of their own internal conflict and in the depths that they are prepared to sink to. It’s an interesting variation on the mythological relationship, but it doesn’t capture the fullest extent of the conflict within of their relationship that is a little more “complex” (sorry!) and expressed with greater precision in the discordance of Richard Strauss’ score.

Although it’s hard to justify a preference for Linda Watson and Jane Henschel over Theorin and Meier, Watson’s acting in particular being limited to the adoption of a haughty expression that is no match whatsoever for the brooding anguish of Theorin’s interpretation, the 2010 Baden-Baden production is sung and played terrifically well with a striking staging, and I feel that Christian Thielemann’s conducting brings out the dynamism in the opera and an edge that is missing here. That’s a personal preference however, just as others might equally prefer the Karl Böhm version, since otherwise there’s little to fault about the performances, staging or conducting of this fine production.

Other than the predominance of close-ups, there’s little to fault with its presentation on Blu-ray either, the opera looking and sounding terrific in High Definition. Audience applause at the start and bows at the end have been eliminated, and I rather liked the dramatic integrity this gave the opera. Subtitles are in English, French, Spanish and Italian, but no German. Other than trailers for other releases, there are no extra features and only a brief essay and a synopsis in the booklet.

Benvenuto CelliniHector Berlioz - Benvenuto Cellini

Wiener Philharmoniker, Salzburg Festspiele, 2007 | Valery Gergiev, Philipp Stölzl, Burkhard Fritz, Maija Kuvalevska, Laurent Naouri, Brindley Sherratt, Mikhail Petrenko, Kate Aldrich | Naxos

I’m in two minds about Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini but I don’t think it has anything to do with Philipp Stölzl’s extravagant and somewhat eccentric direction of the composer’s lesser-known opera produced here for the Salzburg Festspiele in 2007. A huge colourful cartoonish spectacle, with a Metropolis-like retro-futuristic city populated by clunky robots standing in for 16th century Rome, it’s surely far from what Berlioz would have imagined for a staging, and one wonders whether it best serves the subject of the Florentine sculptor working on a commission for Pope Clement VII who becomes embroiled in a romantic tug-of war with a rival over the daughter of the papal Treasurer.

On the other hand, Benvenuto Cellini is hardly a serious opera, written principally for entertainment, seeming to play with all the tools of operatic composition. It shows some of the sense of playful academicism that you would find in Rameau, particularly something like Les Indes Galantes (the William Christie production is a must-see) – a huge colourful pageant that delights in showing off its over-the-top dramatic situations with elaborate staging and extravagant musical flourishes. So while Stölzl’s outrageous production seems to go out of its way to irritate those who like their opera done in a period traditional manner, it perfectly suits the tone of the musical and dramatic content and serves it well. Done any other way, taken more seriously, one would imagine that the whole enterprise would end up looking and sounding dreadfully self-important.

Where I really have doubts however is in regards to whether the opera is actually any good, or whether Berlioz indeed doesn’t really go over-the-top in his scoring of the huge dramatic swathes of music, with big arrangements that underscore everything, self-indulgent singing that is close to bel canto, and huge raucous, rousing choruses dropped in at every available opportunity. The same approach applies to Les Troyens, where, not being one to do anything by halves, Berlioz throws in everything and stretches it out to two brilliant full-length operas. Even his cantata La Damnation de Faust attracts big-scale operatic productions from the likes of La Fura dels Baus and, at the time of writing, no less than Terry Gilliam is directing a production for the English National Opera.

The subject in Benvenuto Cellini does however seem to demand such an extravagant approach. Teresa, the daughter of the papal treasurer Balducci, is to be married to Fieramosca, but she is in love with the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. Teresa and Cellini plan to use the confusion and fancy dress of the partying to elope, but Fieramosca has got wind of their plans and intends to take his place disguised as a Capuchin monk. It’s a dramatic situation that seems to conform to the stereotypes of Latin passions, religious fervour and artistic licentiousness and, having resided in Italy prior to writing the opera Berlioz, although professing a dislike of the Italian style, certainly seems to have absorbed the nature of the Italian temperament here. Setting the first act of the opera on Shrove Tuesday during a Mardi Gras parade is all the justification that is needed to indulge in extravagant displays of orchestration and singing.

Since everything about Berlioz’s scoring for Act 1 suggests over-the-top operatic conventions, Philipp Stölzl stages the drama accordingly. One can’t fault the performers who likewise enter into the spirit of the piece and they all sing well, even if the lines of the duets, trios and quartets don’t blend together all that well. Whether through the fault of imperfect scansion or the tone of the voices, I’m not certain – it’s certainly not as polished as Mozart’s ensemble work in the Marriage of Figaro, for example. Act II has a slightly more varied tone, much as the two parts of Les Troyens show different qualities in Berlioz’s writing, but there’s a sense that it is still rather pompous in its solemnity, particularly when Pope Clement arrives on the scene. Unable to play this with a straight face, Stölzl opts for the camp qualities that are inherent within the scene, which is certain to infuriate traditionalists.

It’s difficult to judge the qualities of the opera when it is played this way, when another interpretation might convincingly put another complexion on it entirely – not that we are likely to see too many productions of this work – but that’s what opera is all about. Regardless of whether this particular version is to one’s taste, it’s approached with genuine feeling for the work and launched into vigorously under the baton of Valery Gergiev. At the very least, it’s highly entertaining. Moreover, it looks and sounds terrific in High Definition on the Naxos Blu-ray. A word of warning however – it is one of those discs that takes time to load up into the player, a pointless practice that can introduce some player-related problems. Personally, I found it impossible to access the pop-up menu for chapter selection during play, but I didn’t come across anything more serious than this.

GiovanniWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Haus für Mozart, Salzburg Festspiele, 2008 | Wiener Philharmoniker, Bertrand de Billy, Claus Guth, Christopher Maltman, Erwin Schrott, Anatoly Kocherga, Annette Dasch, Matthew Polenzani | Euroarts

Of all Mozart’s operas, Don Giovanni seems to be the one with themes that make it more open to modern day re-envisioning and reinterpretation. And it’s not so much the subject of the amorous activities of a philandering nobleman that make the opera so timeless as much as the underlying themes of passion, revenge, power and conquest, or - as in this particular production for the 2008 Salzburg Festval - the question of honour.

Accordingly, there’s something of a Godfather feel to the tempestuous Latin passions of love and revenge here that feels perfectly appropriate, the production approaching the opera from a different angle while remaining perfectly true to the strengths of Mozart’s score and the themes of Da Ponte’s wonderful libretto, full of wit and wisdom. It’s certainly more complex and nuanced on the subject of relationships between male and female than their rather more buffa treatment of the subject in Così Fan Tutte. To cite just one example, look at Donna Elvira’s complex feelings for Don Giovanni, expressing hatred, contempt and frustration for Giovanni, but at the same time her actions are fuelled by a deep love and an irrational but no less sincere hope for his redemption.

The staging here is limited entirely to a dark woods setting, but imaginatively deployed on a revolving stage which gives a wonderful three-dimensional quality to the production (well directed for the screen, as ever, by Brian Large). As well observed as the references and updating are - the staging never compromising the integrity of a truly great opera - the performances here are just as nuanced, powerful and dramatic, Christopher Maltman’s near-deranged, wild-eyed obsessive Don Giovanni brilliantly balanced and vocally matched with Erwin Schrott’s amusingly twitchy Leporello. The score is magnificently interpreted, drawing the full darkness and energy out of the opera, as well as bringing out its underlying tenderness and tragedy. In this respect, in addition to strong singing you would expect from all the major roles, Matthew Polenzani gives one of the most sensitive and sympathetic readings of Don Ottavio that I’ve seen for this opera.

The image quality on the Blu-ray - once it takes its time to actually load-up onto the player - is fine, while the orchestration is given a fine presentation in the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix, centrally located and unshowy on the surrounds, and beautifully toned. The singing initially seems a little echoing in this mix, occasionally overwhelmed by the music, but it’s generally good and seems to improve by the end of the first Act. The PCM Stereo mix gives the singing a better stage, but at the cost of the fine separation of the orchestration.

This is not the most traditional production of Don Giovanni, and it certainly isn’t the best I’ve seen or heard, the limitations of the woods setting losing some of the familiar elements that usually make it work so well as a drama (traditionalists will be disappointed by a bus timetable in place of a Register of the Don’s conquests, no masks on the wedding guests, a Burger King take-away for a dinner-party, twigs for the Commendatore’s statue and certainly no flames at the finale), but that’s balanced with a reasonably fresh take on the themes, some strong singing and fine acting that is more naturalistic than the usual operatic gesturing, and a fascinating visual presentation in terms of its design and conceptualisation.