Teatro alla Scala


GrimesBenjamin Britten - Peter Grimes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

ZauberfloteWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Teatro alla Scala, Milan 2011 | Roland Böer, William Kentridge, Günther Groissböck, Saimir Pirgu, Albina Shagimuratova, Genia Kühmeier, Ailish Tynan, Alex Esposito, Peter Bronder | Opus Arte

I think the mark of Mozart’s genius in the composition of his strange and still enigmatic final opera is pretty much agreed upon by most critics and its popularity as one of the most performed works in the repertory deservedly still endures, but in terms of presentation on the stage, Die Zauberflöte still represents a challenge that has perhaps been neglected in recent times by the major modern revisionist directors in favour of finding new ways to explore the Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy of works – The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così Fan Tutte. This is perhaps surprising, since The Magic Flute itself is such a rich and interesting work, historically and personally in terms of the nature of its composition towards the end of Mozart’s life, but it’s also notable for the tremendous musical variety and innovation with which Mozart approaches the Singspiel format, the music not only illustrating or illuminating Schikaneder’s playful and sometimes nonsensical libretto, but bringing structure and depth to the work, breathing life into it in a way that makes its mysteries endlessly fascinating. What more can any director possibly bring to the table or bring out of this work that could make it any more entertaining or even comprehensible?

The stage director for this production of Die Zauberflöte at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan may not have any new ideas about the opera’s central theme of light versus darkness being that of man seeking to rise above their baser natures and impulses, seeking enlightenment over obscurantism, or rationalism over superstition, but as an artist, illustrator and animator South African director William Kentridge does at least approach these themes with a very distinct style of his own. The period setting chosen appears to be late 19th century, the beginning of the age of technological advancement, the characters dressed to looking like figures from a Jules Verne or a H.G Wells novel. At the centre of these scientific advances in this production is the camera, a box that in itself represents the use of light – the ingenuity of man – to forge something out of the darkness, much as Mozart uses the music of the magic flute for the same purpose. Within the box of the stage, Kentridge uses shadows and light in a variety of ways that fits in well with this theme, as well as often being visually very striking.

Zauberflote

Thus, in the opening of Act 1, Tamino battles with a snake that is a projection, but rather than being the kind of CGI spectacle that one might expect with the use of modern technology from a production by someone like La Fura dels Baus (one of the conceptual director’s who actually have tackled Die Zauberflöte, but the less said about their unlikely concept of the Magic Flute being a battle between the opposing hemispheres of the brain the better), it’s more in keeping with the chosen time period and created by the three ladies of the Queen of the Night, who form it out of the shadowplay of their arms. So right from the outset, Tamino literally defeats a shadow of the forces of darkness. It might not be as spectacular as some wirework serpents, but it still works effectively and in keeping with a meaningful overall concept. Elsewhere, through black-and-white reversal charcoal designs, animation and even some silent movie footage Kentridge finds a variety of means to illustrate the journey and trials of the protagonists, their acquisition of wisdom and knowledge, as well as reflect the symbolism, numerology and the Masonic imagery that is associated with the themes of the opera.

At times, one might like to see more familiar traditional props and backdrops, but at least the flute and the bells are physical objects here, which is not always something you can count on. Sometimes, the drawings themselves evoke those traditional references, the classic domed canopy of stars that represents the domain of the Queen of Night given a spin here that fits with the artist’s own sense of concept and design. The ideas don’t particularly illuminate this strange, beguiling work in any new way, but neither does the director attempt to impose any ill-fitting concept onto it. It does at the very least have a distinct sense of personality, freshness and originality, which is more than you can say about the only other version of the opera currently on Blu-ray, the Royal Opera House production directed by David McVicar. At times, the imagery here – enhanced it seems by a little post-production overlays for television – is simply spectacular.

In terms of performance however, that earlier mentioned production conducted by Colin Davis, may have the upper hand. The orchestration here sounds somewhat lifeless, and no-one on the stage – with the exception of Alex Exposito’s Papageno, looks like they are having much fun with what should be a delightfully invigorating work. I’m presuming that the arrangement used here by Ronald Böer is period – or more likely semi-period for La Scala – as it’s not orchestrated as lushly as you would normally hear it. That allows for some interesting touches in places that takes it back to its Singspiel origins and there is even continuo for some of the recitative (courtesy of René Jacobs), but it feels like there is a distinct lack of verve in the playing and the performances. In a good interview in the extra features, Böer recognises that Die Zauberflöte contains all the different facets of Mozart’s work, but the complex personality of Mozart himself is in there too, reflected in each of the characters, and that doesn’t always come across here.

Zauberflote

I can’t fault the singing of this production’s Tamino or Pamina. Tamino can be a difficult role to breathe any life into, but you don’t necessarily need to – the character’s (and Mozart’s) purity, youthful idealism and single-minded determination (yet one that is open to new ideas and a sense of betterment) is all there in the music and Saimir Pirgu sings it beautifully. So too does Genia Kühmeier’s Pamina represent the other side of that nature with a similar clear purity of voice – her ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ is one of the loveliest I’ve heard. Alex Exposito is the only figure who demonstrates any kind of life and personality, and he sings Papageno well with clear diction. Where Die Zauberflöte really needs character however, a sense of grandness and imperiousness to give depth and gravity to the work, is in the opposing forces of Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, and unfortunately, neither Albina Shagimuratova nor Günther Groissböck are entirely up to the task. Groissböck, so powerful as the Water Goblin in the controversial Munich Rusalka, is particularly disappointing, not really having the authority in presence or indeed the depth to the voice required for a strong Sarastro. Shagimuratova hits all those notes ok, if a little breathlessly, but she doesn’t command that essential presence or menace either as Queen of the Night.

All in all however, if it’s a little dryly performed and lacking a little bit of spark, this is nonetheless a strong performance of Die Zauberflöte that manages to take a fresh approach to the score and the themes of the work. It’s certainly worthwhile for William Kentridge’s unique approach to production design that makes this never anything less than a rich and imaginative spectacle. The Blu-ray is of the usual high video and audio standards, with extra features consisting of a Cast Gallery and a very interesting twelve-minute Interview with the director and conductor. Region-free, BD50, 1080i, PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1, German language with English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles.

OrfeoClaudio Monteverdi - L’Orfeo

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 2009 | Rinaldo Alessandrini, Robert Wilson, Georg Nigl, Roberta Invernizzi, Sara Mingardo, Luigi de Donato, Raffaella Milanesi | Opus Arte

The minimalist staging of Robert Wilson’s opera productions is not something that is to everyone’s taste, but it is certainly unique and idiosyncratic, and no matter how familiar you are with a particular opera, you can be sure that Wilson’s stage direction will provide a new way of looking at a piece and bring out elements or propose ideas that you might never have considered before. It is however not suited to every kind of opera. His production for Aida several years ago at the Royal Opera House was visually striking in its beauty and in the wondrous and carefully considered colour-coded light schemes, but the static nature of the production simply sucked the life out of one particular opera that merits a slightly more vibrant approach, if not necessarily always quite as flamboyant as Zeffirelli’s.

On the other hand, the stripped-down staging works better, it seems to me, when applied to more abstract subjects or at least the more archetypal matters of Greek mythology in opera seria and Baroque opera. Wilson’s work for the Paris Châtelet productions of Alceste and Orphée et Eurydice, for example, is appropriate and perfectly in accordance with Gluck’s reforming of over-elaborate and long-winded opera. The same should apply, one would think, to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the work that is considered the first opera proper - first performed in Mantua in 1607 - and, for many, the model to which opera should aspire. All the huge archetypes are there in its mythological subject - Heaven and Hades, with Eros, Fate, Hope and, most significantly, Music itself personified and indeed the main narrative force who introduces and tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as the means by which the opera expresses itself.

This is the kind of material that is perfect for Robert Wilson’s interpretations, and all the familiar characteristics of his approach are here in this production for La Scala in 2009 - static figures making strange poses with enigmatic hand movements, stage props reduced to geometric shapes, the colour scheme a limited palette of greys, pale blues and pale green. In contrast to his non-specific approach to Orphée et Eurydice, L’Orfeo is practically period - in the period of Monteverdi, that is - inspired by Titian’s Venus with Cupid and an Organist (1548), with Thrace a Renaissance version of the Garden of Eden, by way perhaps of Gainsborough. On a first viewing, I’m not convinced that such a staging brings anything new from Monteverdi’s famous opera this time, but it is interesting and worth considering.

As for the opera and its performance, well, L’Orfeo is a masterpiece that does indeed wield a heavy influence over the artform, or for at least a hundred and fifty years afterwards. It’s a celebration of man’s ability, intellect and ingenuity, taming nature and the seas, speaking with the voice of the Gods through music and, through Orpheus, even challenging Death itself through his singing and its expression of the finest human passions and sentiments. It’s a worthy subject for what is generally considered the first opera - an artform that would unite so many artistic qualities, not least of which is music and singing. Monteverdi’s opera accordingly lives up to the high standards it sets.

L’Orfeo is more detailed in its scoring and specification of instruments than Monteverdi’s final opera Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria, for example, but how it is performed is highly interpretative nonetheless. Early music specialist Rinaldo Alessandrini’s conducting of the opera of La Scala is therefore not for me to criticise, but I would find it hard to find any serious fault with it other than the actual sound mix not quite having the transparency of other versions I’ve heard - notably the Pierre Audi 1997 recording for DVD at the Muziektheater in Amsterdam. I would however state a preference for John Mark Ainsley’s lyrical Orpheus in that version over the rather deeper tenor of Georg Nigl. The contrasts and differences should be appreciated however, as it is through them that new thoughts and ideas still arise out of an opera that is now over 400 years old - and on that basis, this is a fine production.

The quality of the presentation on the Opus Arte Blu-ray is as good as you would expect, with a clear 16:9 High Definition transfer, PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes. The only extras on the disc however are a Cast Gallery and an Illustrated Synopsis. The thin booklet presents some background on the history of the opera, but there is no information at all on the production itself.

TraviataGiuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Teatro alla Scala, Milan | Liliana Cavani, Angela Gheorghiu, Ramon Vargas, Roberto Frontali, Natascha Petrinsky, Lorin Maazel | Arthaus Musik

There’s no question that this version of La Traviata for the Teatro alla Scala is a quality production on many levels and, available at a budget price, the Blu-ray is nevertheless of a very high standard, but I have a few minor reservations, mainly around the lack of any sense of adventure in the staging. It’s a safe production with a perfectly traditional staging, unimaginatively presented and choreographed, with little to distinguish it from countless other productions of the opera available.

It’s harder to be critical of the actual performance on any other level than that of personal taste and Angela Gheorghiu doesn’t sit well with me. There’s no doubting her technical ability, the sheer control or the strength of her voice, but personally, I find it a little mannered, and I would say the same about her acting. As a result, her Violetta never feels as fragile or as vulnerable as she ought to be - at least from what I would expect of the role. There’s no chemistry whatsoever either with the otherwise fine Ramon Vargas as Alfredo, making this production technically strong, but emotionally weak.

By way of comparison, I find the Willy Decker staging of the opera for the 2005 Salzburg Festspiele La Traviata much more interesting and innovative. A rather minimalist staging, there is however great originality in how it makes the story meaningful, vital and contemporary (whereas this version feels a little bit stuffy and practically like a museum piece by comparison), drawing out all the latent passion and violence out of what should indeed be a highly charged opera. While the question of who is the better singer is certainly debatable, it’s one of Anna Netrebko’s best performances and her acting seems better fitted to this particular role, blending perfectly and credibly with Rolando Villazón and a superb Thomas Hampson.

This version however is certainly a strong, all-round production, with fine performances and, particularly at the current price, it is an excellent introduction to opera on Blu-ray, as well as appealing to traditionalists and fans of Gheorghiu. There are however more exciting and daring versions around for anyone a little more adventurous.