Soltesz, Stefan


HugenottenGiacomo Meyerbeer - Die Hugenotten

Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1991 | Stefan Soltesz, John Dew, Angela Denning, Lucy Peacock, Richard Leech, Harmut Welker, Camille Capasso, Martin Blasius, Marcia Bellamy, Lenus Carlson, David Griffith, Otto Leuer, Friedrich Molsberger, Iván Sárdi, Josef Becker | Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Poor Giacomo Meyerbeer. The once highly regarded titan of the 5-Act Grand Opéra is now not only long out of fashion, but on the rare occasion when his work is revived it is scarcely treated with the seriousness and sincerity in which it was undoubtedly composed. I didn’t see the Royal Opera House’s recent widely derided production of Robert Le Diable, but judging it on the merits of the performance alone via its broadcast on Radio 3, it at least sounded interesting and probably deserving of a more sympathetic staging than the one devised by Laurent Pelly. Meyerbeer’s follow-up to Robert Le Diable (1831) was another beast of an opera, Les Huguenots (1836) and, unfortunately, it’s another work that - even more so now - that most opera houses would consider too expensive to risk putting on and no doubt also difficult to cast. This performance, dating back to 1991 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, casts the work well and tried a novel approach to the difficulties of staging the work.

Conducted by Stefan Soltesz and directed by John Dew, this is inevitably not a version that will satisfy purists (should such a thing as a Meyerbeer purist exist in this day and age). As imperfect as it is in some respects, the Deutsche Oper Die Hugenotten is at the moment the only opportunity you have to see one of the big important opera works of yesteryear, and it’s worthwhile for that alone. The first thing you will note about this Blu-ray release however is that the title has been rendered in German (unlike its previous DVD release) to reflect the fact that it is a German-language edition of the original French Les Huguenots performed here. That’s not so much of an issue, since Meyerbeer was actually of German origin and this version dates from an 1837 edition prepared by Ignatz Franz Castelli, so it should be close enough to the original work.

Les Huguenots does actually suit the German tongue surprisingly well, but of more concern is the fact that Castelli’s version to a large extent played down the conflict between the Catholics and Protestants that is critical to the work’s historical account of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 during the reign of King Charles IX. That historical content is furthermore all but abandoned in the German version of Castelli’s translation prepared by John Dew for the Deutsche Oper, which sets the work in the Berlin of the period that was then divided by the Berlin Wall. This recording of the production dates from 1991 after the breaking down of the wall, but even then it still dates from a period when the imagery still held real significance to the people of Berlin.

Quite how the situation in divided Berlin corresponds with religious conflict in Les Huguenots is however difficult to establish. In Meyerbeer’s opera - with a libretto from the illustrious team of Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps - Marguerite de Valois is to marry the Protestant King Henry of Navarra as a gesture of peace between the two sides. To further strengthen this union, the Count de Nevers accordingly invites the Huguenot Raoul de Nangis to his castle in Touraine and offers him marriage to Valentine de Saint-Bris, but Raoul has already seen a beautiful vision of loveliness and fallen in love unwittingly with Marguerite de Valois herself. After some romantic complications Raoul agrees to marry Valentine, but when he gets wind of a plot by the Catholics to massacre the Huguenots it only deepens the conflict between his duty and his heart.

How do we know this? Because just in case we miss it, Raoul tells us directly - “Duty… my heart… a difficult battle“, and Meyerbeer’s scoring only emphasises the obvious conflict even further. When there is something of a lack of subtlety (or taste), you can see why modern directors feel the need to play up the unintentional campness of Meyerbeer’s work. How else, for example, are you meant to stage Marcel’s “Piff, paff, poff!” aria nowadays other than having everyone skip around the stage in a half-dance? I’m not sure, but I think I’d like to see a more serious-minded director try it and not necessarily in a traditional context, since even in this shortened version (only two and a half hours for a 5-Act Grand Opéra?) Meyerbeer’s management and control of the number opera is evidently masterful, presenting a broad scope of melodrama, romance and entertainment in its varied situations with an abundance of melody and drive.

Are the Royalist Catholics meant to represent the Communist forces of East Germany and the Protestants the small population of the surrounded West Berliners? How will a marriage smooth relations in such a situation? The production might not correspond perfectly to its Berlin setting but neither does it really detract from the strength of the work or indeed from the performances in this production. The singing is exceptionally good from all the main performers. Richard Leech has the right kind of strong, resonant lyrical voice for Grand Opéra, reminding me a little of Roberto Alagna in places. He copes well with all the high-Cs thrown his way, but it’s Angela Denning who has the difficult role of Marguerite de Valois. Her opening Act II aria is fiendishly difficult and it shows her limitations, but she is good elsewhere. Lucy Peacock’s Valentine is marvellous and there’s good work also from Harmut Welker as the Comte de Saint-Bris and Camille Capasso as the Page. Only Martin Blasius’ Marcel isn’t up to the mark. To say the least.

Brian Large directs the production for the screen. I’m not sure what technology was available at the time in 1991, but the widescreen image is certainly HD quality and it looks excellent. The audio isn’t quite so good. Only a PCM stereo option is available and the lower-frequencies can be a little booming if you are playing this at any volume using a subwoofer. On headphones, the sound dynamic is better distributed to the L-R channels. The detail in the orchestration is there, if it’s not as clean and precise as we’re now used to with HD recordings, and the singing is relatively clear also. There are no extra features on the Blu-ray. The disc is all-region with subtitles in English, French and Spanish.

SalomeRichard Strauss - Salome

Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, 2011 | Stefan Soltesz, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Angela Denoke, Alan Held, Kim Begley, Doris Soffel, Marcel Reijans, Jurgita Adamonyte | Arthaus

It’s somewhat difficult to grasp the nature of the concept behind director Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s 2011 production of Strauss’ Salome or understand quite how it works, but it is delivered so powerfully in this Festspielhaus Baden-Baden staging that it’s not so hard to get a sense that he’s doing something absolutely right. The best thing you can do – and this ought to come naturally anyway if it’s done properly – is just focus on the singing and the music of this extraordinary, ground-breaking work of opera and the rest will fall into place, even if you don’t really understand why. There’s certainly a sense of dislocation then when you initially view this production, which has none of the superficial visual reference points that you would normally associate with its biblical Judean setting, and little even of the stylised imagery of moonlight nights and shadows of death suggested by a text derived from Oscar Wilde’s beautifully decadent overwrought imagery. Yet, as the opera itself takes shape, the surroundings fall into the background and instead simply provide an appropriate environment with space that allows Richard Strauss’ music to take centre stage.

In some respects you can see Lehnhoff’s work here as an extension of his approach to the symphonic tone poems of his Strauss and Wagner productions, most notably in Parsifal and, as a companion piece to this work, his Baden-Baden production of Elektra. Partly, those productions are representative of an interior mindset – particularly the latter – but they also are abstractly expressive of the tones and textures of the music itself and the themes that arise from the subject. The fractured, slightly titled landscape here in Salome suggests a psychological imbalance, while the contrasts that are expressed in the music and the characters are reflected in the textures of the walls and floors of the unconventional stage arrangement, with a dark glossy reflective centre-stage surrounded by crumbling plaster, broken tiles and rotting whitewashed wooden panels.

Salome

It’s far from naturalistic, but then there’s nothing naturalistic about the situation or the aggressive music that pushes the boundaries of the tonal system. Strauss’ Salome (drawn from imagery suggested by the paintings of Gustave Moreau and elaborated on by Flaubert, Mallarmé and Wilde) is far from a straightforward biblical tale, but rather an expression of dark sexual pathology, of the fulfilment of dangerous desires, of obsession and lust, a lurid study of the power that those perverse drives confer on both the object and the subject of those desires and how it differentiates men and women. That dark fascination of this Liebestod situation and conflict is there in Strauss’ orchestration, the composer scoring directly in response to the flow and the tone of Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Wilde’s drama, and the music is accordingly intense, intimate, perverse and disturbing, but with a romantic sweep that captures the grander epic nature of the lurid melodrama.

In his notes for the production – included in the booklet with the DVD/BD – Lehnhoff refers to the idea of the setting as taking place on the edge of a volcano. Whether this is meaningful to the viewer or not, it proves to be an effective analogy that not only suits the music and the drama, but gives it the appropriate space to work within without becoming over-imposing. Initially, the characters and the action take place on the outer rim of the stage, but gradually, as the focus of the drama and the music tightens on the nature of Salome, Jochanaan and Herod, the drama moves to the centre of this cauldron towards the centre piece Dance of the Seven Veils and a conclusion that shocked the censors back in 1905 and which still has a tremendous impact today. The tone of the production is vital to support the impact of these two key scenes, which should be dark, melancholy and perversely sordid as well as erotically suggestive, and that’s certainly the case here. The head of Jochanaan is also, I have to say, one of the most frighteningly realistic I’ve ever seen in a production of Salome. Theatrical prosthetics have come a long way over the years.

Salome

The approach to the tone of the drama and the music and how it is reflected is important, but equally as important is how it is interpreted. The cast assembled here for the Baden-Baden production deliver superb performances to match the attentive detail that is brought out of the score by the orchestra under Stefan Soltesz. Angela Denoke plays Salome as if she is in thrall to the bizarre situation and the potential that it suggests, and that suits the production perfectly. There’s a rising intensity in the performance that is in line with the score and she seems to be attuned to the slightest variations of tone within it. Alan Held is a rather more animated Jochanaan than others I have seen, less mystical and more of a firebrand prophet, and that works well with the heightened aggression on display. The singing is extremely good elsewhere, from Kim Begley as Herod and Doris Soffel as Herodias, but Marcel Reijans and Jurgita Adamonyte also make an impression in the smaller parts of Narraboth and the Page.

The Blu-ray from Arthaus is of the usual exceptionally high standards. The image is crystal clear to catch the full lighting, colour and contrasts of the set. The audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0, breathtaking in High Definition clarity. This is really an amazing way to view and listen to this extraordinary work. The production, incidentally, is clearly a live performance, but there are no signs of an audience being present at the opening or close of this one-act opera – much like the Lehnhoff sister production of Elektra for Baden-Baden, already available on DVD. There are no extra features, but the booklet contains a good essay on the work, a full synopsis and notes on the production by the director. The disc is BD25, region-free, 1080i full-HD, subtitles are German, English, Italian, French, Spanish and Korean.