Is Poppea one of those director-proof operas where, whatever is thrown at it in the way of quirky production values, it still emerges triumphant? It certainly seems that way, with two new Spanish contenders vying for the crown released in quick succession, both containing eyebrow-raising moments. From Barcelona, there is David Alden’s production, originally for Welsh National Opera in 1997 but making its Liceu debut in 2009 – the first time Monteverdi’s opera had been performed in that theatre. In direct competition, from Madrid’s Teatro Real, comes Pier Luigi Pizzi’s 2010 effort, a co-production with La Fenice. Both productions boast leading Baroque conductors in the pit: Harry Bicket in Barcelona and William Christie in Madrid. The latter boasts Danielle de Niese as Poppea, who had already starred in the 2008 Glyndebourne production by Robert Carsen, which is also preserved on DVD, a series of plush, red velvet curtains containing a contemporary morality tale.
Scholars now cast doubt on Lucrezia Borgia’s credentials as mass poisoner, but Donizetti’s operatic treatment on her historical character would have us believe she spiked drinks with cantarella and laced dishes with deadly nightshade like nobody’s business. Lucrezia, here on her fourth marriage (in reality, her third) to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, is reunited with Gennaro, her long-lost son. Unfortunately, she withholds this vital information from him and from her husband, who suspects her of conducting an affair. After the Borgia crest is defaced by Gennaro’s friends (whose families have suffered at her murderous hands), the young man is arrested. Alfonso forces Lucrezia to offer Gennaro a poisoned chalice, which she does, knowing she has an antidote, which she then administers. It’s as free an interpretation as the lusty television series The Borgias, which never got as far as this in Lucrezia’s marital history, but none the worse for that.
Verdi: I vespri siciliani (C Major)
One of the most notoriously difficult mature Verdi operas to bring off is I vespri siciliani and it is the least performed of his post-Rigoletto works. In its original French incarnation, it is even rarer, although there is a Nederlandse Opera production on DVD and the opera has just been unveiled for the first time at Covent Garden, in Stefan Herheim’s production, setting it in the Salle le Peletier, where the first performance took place in 1855. Pier Luigi Pizzi likewise places the action in the mid-nineteenth century for Parma’s Verdi Festival, when the Risorgimento and struggles for Italian unification were at their height, although there’s little that could be Sicilian here; we could almost be in the same Parisian salon as the Parma production of La traviata which also features in C Major’s titanic Tutto Verdi box.
‘Ne me touchez pas, ne me touchez pas,’ protests Mélisande when Golaud discovers her in the forest in the opening scene of Debussy’s opera. I declared early on in my viewing that Mélisande need have nothing to fear in this production from the Opéra Bastille. The only points of contact between any of the characters occurs in the climactic moment of Act IV, where the ‘embrace’ between Pelléas and Mélisande is a grasping of hands, swiftly followed by the death blow dealt (minus sword) to his brother by Golaud, her husband. It was no surprise to read ‘Mise en scène: Robert Wilson’ on the stylish cover of this DVD. His characters drift around his abstract set in slow motion, arms held aloft in a strangely choreographed semaphore. The long distance interactions puzzle, then infuriate. Quite how Mélisande gets pregnant is anybody’s guess.
The Britten centenary has led to numerous performances of his operas in the UK, but the year’s two important operatic releases on film – thus far – have come from Italy.Richard Jones directs Peter Grimes, with a largely British cast, at La Scala, whileDeath in Venice comes from La Serenissima itself, in Pier Luigi Pizzi’s 2008 La Fenice production, previously issued on DVD, but now released in Blu-ray format. Both can be considered controversial, though for different reasons; a gritty 1980s updating of Grimes opposite an opulent, but ultimately camp, Venice.
Since my first report from the operatic trenches, my second feature covering the operas in C Major Entertainment’s Parma-based series Tutto Verdi from Alzira to Rigoletto has appeared in International Record Review. As previously promised, here is a potted version of that 4-page article for Opera Britannia readers. The set itself is impressive in its presentation. It’s the size of a boxed set of LPs, two inches thick. The case contains a huge booklet (120 pages) with each opera occupying four pages: photograph, cast list, track listing and synopsis. The DVDs or Blu-rays themselves are housed in a hard-backed book rather like a photograph album, discs on one side of the page, cover art from the individual releases opposite. Its sumptuous presentation is worthy of the project’s ambition.
Slavs square up as Attila - Abdrazakov scores knockout
In a pivotal scene in Verdi’s early opera, Pope Leo squares up to the defiant Attila, causing the Hun to turn tail. Here, two leading Slavic basses – Russian Ildar Abdrazakov and Bulgarian Orlin Anastassov – go head to head in the title role, but it proves to be something of an uneven contest due both to their supporting casts and the conditions in which the two performances were captured on film. Both are fairly traditionally staged and costumed, which should satisfy those pining for the days when Huns looked like Huns, but a few minutes viewing of each disc is enough to separate the wheat from the operatic chaff. In the blue corner, Arturo Gama’s production from the Mariinsky Theatre, released on its own label; in the red corner, a rudderless affair laughably attributed to director Plamen Kartaloff, recorded in the ruins of the Bulgarian fortress of Tsaverets.
C Major Entertainment, Mark Pullinger
Kasper Holten faced something of a critical backlash (not from these quarters) for his use of dancer doubles in his recent Royal Opera production of Eugene Onegin, yet their use in this opera isn’t unique – Stefan Herheim did the same in Amsterdam. Both employed flashback techniques to explore the memories of the protagonists looking back on their past. In his production for the Polish National Opera, but filmed in Valencia, film, theatre and opera director Mariusz Trelinski adds a new twist. Who is the mysterious figure clad in white, with deathly pallor, stalking Tatyana and almost directing events?
Opus Arte, Mark Pullinger
As if to remind us that summer festivals are just around the corner, despite the prevailing frozen conditions over much of Britain, Opus Arte has issued its new production of Janacek’s evergreen opera The Cunning Little Vixen, which opened Glyndebourne’s 2012 season. Although Melly Still’s production didn’t meet with universal acclaim and is clumsily directed at times, the performances here have much to recommend them, not least the feisty Vixen of Lucy Crowe and the weathered Forester of Sergei Leiferkus.
The Teatro Regio di Parma has launched Verdi’s bicentenary year in great style, issuing a doorstep of a box containing DVDs or Blu-rays of all 26 of his operas, plus the Requiem. I covered the first eight releases in this series when they were released individually in January’s International Record Review and shall cover the rest in a series of round-up articles during 2013; however, readers here may appreciate a flavour of what my initial impressions are on some of those early operas in the series.
Firstly, the title. Tutto Verdi isn’t quite the whole story...
Recent months have seen a concerted effort by Opera Australia to join the ranks of the Royal Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and the Liceu, Barcelona, among others, in getting their productions aired to the widest possible audience. The spring saw a number of productions beamed to cinemas in the UK and now several have been issued on their own label in DVD, Blu-ray and audio CD formats. Opera Britannia reviewed the broadcast of La traviata, shortly to join the CD and DVD catalogue, and I’ve recently had the opportunity to watch two such productions on Blu-ray (also available in DVD format).
Can it really have been close on a year since Richard Jones’ production of Il trittico opened the new Royal Opera season? Two new panels of the Puccini triptych joined the already familiar Gianni Schicchi from 2009 (although the Opus Arte booklet incorrectly states that 12th September 2011 was the first performance of this production) and its success was only matched or bettered in the closing months of the season with a rollicking Falstaff, Les Troyens and a superbly cast revival of Otello.
The cover photo of this Blu-ray release of the Netherlands Opera Yevgeny Onegin, directed by Stefan Herheim, fires a clear warning shot. Onegin is seated at a desk, writing a letter while behind him, clad in her nightie, Tatyana caresses his shoulders. Is this really Tatyana dictating her Act I letter to Onegin or is it Onegin himself writing his Act III letter, summoning up the spirit of Tatyana? Gremin is asleep in a luxurious bed, so one would assume we’re in Act III, but who knows? Onegin gets to sing the same melody that Tatyana sings in her Letter Scene and their physical interaction here may indicate a ‘what might have been’, but it’s not at all transparent what is going on. Herheim’s desire to explore the psychologies of Onegin and Tatyana is admirable in this glossy production, but the results are sometimes muddled and sometimes just plain irritating.
Video projections depicting clouds of smoke billowing above classical ruins may promise much in terms of atmosphere and period setting in a staging of Berlioz’s operatic epic Les Troyens from La Fura dels Baus. Then the Imperial Storm-troopers gather and you suspect that this isn’t going to be a conventional reading. Directed by Carlus Padrissa, who was responsible for the calamitous Mariinsky Ring cycle, this effort is more akin to Berlioz Meets Star Wars, in a futuristic production which has more than its fair share of risible moments. Question today’s general public about Trojans and you’ll probably receive a response relating to hacking and computer viruses. Well, in this production, the ‘horse’ brought in as a parting gift from the Greeks turns out to be a Space Age construction, glinting bright light off its prism like surfaces, from which laptops are peeled and distributed to the gathering crowds, infecting the city and causing its destruction. It may have raised a laugh at the planning stage, but seriously?
Taking on the role of Anna Bolena must be one of the most daunting tasks facing a bel canto soprano, not least one who could frequently have been labelled ‘bel can’t’ in this sort of repertoire. To have not one, but two productions mounted especially for you, in Vienna and New York of all places, and to have them both filmed for wider consumption across the globe, is to meet those challenges head on. Anna Netrebko has rarely convinced me in bel canto, apart from a memorably golden Giulietta at Covent Garden in 2009. Her technique has lacked clarity in its coloratura, allied to an absence of a recognisable trill. However, her Met Lucia and Elvira were both dramatically strong, making one suspect that Anna Bolena might just be the role for her to prove her critics (happily) wrong. Having seen the cinema relay of her Met performance in David McVicar’s uncharacteristically stolid production, it’s interesting that it’s her Vienna performance from six months earlier, in Eric Génovèse’s staging, which Deutsche Grammophon has chosen to release. On balance, I think it’s chosen wisely.
Fairy tales usually have dark undercurrents – witches, wolves and wicked stepmothers destined to give children sleepless nights before eventually arriving at a Happily Ever After. There’s no happy ending to Rusalka, but the concept which director Martin Kušej has created is nightmarish in a way Dvorak wouldn’t have anticipated at all and will divide viewers of this 2010 production from the Bavarian State Opera. It is an opera ripe for reinterpretation; David Pountney’s Victorian nursery setting for English National Opera, a Freudian dreamscape exploring an adolescent Rusalka’s sexual awakening, works well, while Robert Carsen’s mirror imagery in Paris (with Renée Fleming in the title role) reflects the duality of Rusalka’s two worlds. I have nothing against updated relocations as long as they respect the composers’ intentions. With this in mind, I was less than enthusiastic to discover that Kušej turns the Water Goblin into a Josef Fritzl figure, who keeps Rusalka and her sisters trapped in a waterlogged basement while subjecting them to systematic sexual abuse.
Here are four recent DVD/ Blu-ray releases from the summer months:
Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov starring Orlin Anastassov in Andrei Konchalovsky's Turin production (Opus Arte)
Britten's Billy Budd from Glyndebourne, directed by Michael Grandage, starring Jacques Imbrailo and John Mark Ainsley (Opus Arte)
Puccini's Madama Butterfly from the Sferisterio Festival in Macerata, conducted by Daniele Callegari (C Major)
Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame from Barcelona, starring Misha Didyk and Emily Magee (Opus Arte)
Here are reviews to five DVD/ Blu-ray new releases:
Donizetti’s Don Pasquale starring Anna Netrebko from The Met, New York (DG)
Puccini’s Tosca with Emily Magee, Jonas Kaufmann and Thomas Hampson from Zürich (Decca)
Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac starring Plácido Domingo from Valencia (Naxos)
Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila with Torsten Kerl and Marianna Tarasova in a controversial Belgian production (Euroarts)
Mussorgsky’s original version of Boris Godunov starring Matti Salminen in a Willy Decker production from Barcelona (Arthaus)
When Richard Eyre’s production of La traviata was first unveiled at Covent Garden in December 1994, the BBC schedules were hastily cleared to allow one of the next performances to be broadcast live. It was the first time that Georg Solti had conducted the opera but, even more importantly, it shot to fame a certain Romanian soprano by the name of Angela Gheorghiu, who fitted the role of Violetta Valéry like a glove. A star was born and the resulting DVD has been a mainstay of my collection. The production has been a vehicle for any number of sopranos since, including Renée Fleming in the summer of 2009. No need to wait for BBC cameras this time: the Royal Opera House has its own hi-definition equipment and, through Opus Arte, the means to distribute its performances to a wider audience. But how does this performance stack up against the original on Decca?
‘I think traditional Wagnerians will find it quite challenging!’ intones Robert Lloydduring cast interviews for this Blu-ray/ DVD release, without giving away whether he actually approves or disapproves of Martin Kusej’s take on Der fliegende Holländer; ‘It’s unlike any production I’ve ever been involved in.’ What is certain is that whether it’s really that challenging or not, traditional Wagnerians will not necessarily be surprised that the director doesn’t set the action in Norway (or Scotland), but the sunnier climes of the Mediterranean, aboard Daland’s cruise liner (or yacht, or ferry… we can’t be sure), the Dutchman’s crew transformed into a mysterious bunch of asylum seekers.
The Civil War’s only serious contribution to the operatic stage is Bellini’s I Puritani, which sees Henrietta Maria, widow of Charles I, smuggled to safety from her imprisonment in Plymouth thanks to brave Cavalier, Arturo Talbot. Unfortunately, he is betrothed to Elvira, daughter of Walton, the Roundhead commander holding the queen captive. Such historical bunkum never got in the way of a good tune or two and Bellini’s last opera is full of them. However, it’s tricky to stage as much of the action is static. The most dramatic episode concerns Henrietta’s escape, wearing Elvira’s bridal veil, although by this point in Act I you’ve already lost sympathy for the young girl who places the veil onto the prisoner herself and then, inexplicably, departs without it. Schoolgirl error.
Metastasio called Artaserse “the most fortunate of all my children.” The first of nearly one hundred eventual settings was by Metastasio’s favourite composer Leonardo Vinci. The English historian Charles Burney (1726 - 1814) wrote that Vinci was the first composer who “since the invention of recitative by Jacopo Peri, in 1600, seems to have occasioned any considerable revolution in the musical drama.” This is quite a statement considering that Burney personally knew Hasse and Handel and was acquainted with the music of Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach and Fux.
In recent years, Thaïs has become an increasingly popular opera with audiences, largely through the advocacy of Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson in the leading roles. That other divas wish to assay the title role is encouraging, and it’s good that opera houses, such as Turin, are prepared to mount new productions of one of Massenet’s Egyptian-based operas (oh that they would stage Cléopâtre as well!), in this case in a staging by Stefano Poda. This is a brave attempt at presenting the work in an expensive looking production on a grand scale; that it largely fails on all accounts is both frustrating and disappointing.
Evidently, productions of Der Rosenkavalier have a habit of outliving their directors. In a positive flurry of recent revival activity that has seen the work severally staged at Covent Garden, the Metropolitan and, as preserved on this DVD, the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, each of the original directors was no longer around to supervise his show's latest outing. This matters less, of course, in stagings that cleave close to the scenic and theatrical givens of the work as conceived by Hofmannsthal and Strauss in microscopic detail, than in ones like that under consideration here that avail themselves of varying degrees of liberty and licence. Herbert Wernicke’s show – for show it is, and indisputably all his since he both directed and designed the sets and costumes: auteur-opéra, in fact – was originally mounted at the 1995 Salzburg Festival as a co-production with the Opéra de Paris at the Bastille, where it subsequently fetched up.
Despite the very fine performances from its principals, it is Rome itself which is the real star in this performance of Tosca, for this is the film which was originally broadcast live around the globe in July 1992 in the exact settings and at the times specified in Puccini’s score. I remember well watching the first two acts, but missing Act III having overslept past the 6am start! Those live broadcasts were on BBC2 in the UK, whilst Channel 4 showed all three acts together on the following evening. On a trip to Rome last year, I saw each of the locations in the opera: Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese (now the French Embassy) and the Castel Sant’Angelo. I spent a good deal of time in Sant’Andrea which is a truly beautiful basilica church, although the Attavanti Chapel doesn’t really exist. There is a special thrill in seeing the opera performed in these locations and quite remarkable that it was all broadcast live.
Handel’s delightful comedy Partenope (1730) used to be something of a baroque rarity, but in the past year European audiences were treated to at least three different productions – at English National Opera, the Theater an der Wien in Vienna and this brilliant and very witty staging from The Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, directed by Francisco Negrin and recorded in October 2008. Having been fortunate enough to see all three productions live, it was undoubtedly the Danish offering (starring German countertenor Andreas Scholl) which came out the overall winner, despite some stiff competition from the brilliant David Daniels in Vienna and a very strong ensemble cast led by Christine Rice and Rosemary Joshua in ENO’s hilariously farcical 1920s setting.
Metastasio originally conceived L’ Olimpiade for Antonio Caldara in 1733 to celebrate the birthday of the Empress Elisabeth. Despite Metastasio’s uneasy relationship with Caldara, who premiered many of his operas, L’Olimpiade was a huge success. More than 60 composers used the libretto for their own renditions including Hasse, Vivaldi (in an attack on Metastasio), and even an unfinished version by Donizetti! The story takes place in Ancient Greece at the time of the Olympic games. It concerns the amorous exploits and rivalry of two best friends, Megacle and Licida. L’Olimpiade was only trumped in popularity by Artaserse and Alessandro nell’Indie. It must be noted that for a modern audience the drama in this opera may be considered somewhat weak, tenuous and melodramatic. (The idea of Megacle being a substitute for Licida as well as all the attempted suicides in Acts two and three all seem really incredible.) It is known that Metastasio modelled the role of Megacle to the strengths and weaknesses of the castrato Salimbeni. And this accounts for the more than unusual stiffness of Megacle’s character. Other successful Megacle’s included the castrati Monticelli and Marchesi – the dazzling version by Cimarosa for Marchesi attests to this.
Rossini’s Ermione was premièred in Naples in 1819, only receiving five complete performances before sinking without trace. It wasn’t even reviewed in the newspapers, so we can only speculate as to why it failed to capture the public’s imagination. Rossini was in a rich vein of form and had assembled singers who had helped with the success of previous operas, not least the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran who took the title role. Perhaps it was too experimental a work, ‘written for posterity’ as Rossini was supposed to have remarked. The opera had to wait until 1987 for a staging at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, which marked its resurrection. Glyndebourne took up the opera in 1995 and since then Ermione has appeared in several cities around the world, most recently in London earlier this year (in concert) but it’s back to Pesaro for this DVD release from Dynamic, filmed in August 2008. The director is Daniele Abbado, Claudio’s son, whilst cousin Roberto is in the pit.
Britten set himself a tall order when approaching Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With outstanding musical settings by the likes of Purcell and Mendelssohn, Britten had to pull out all the stops for this opera. I have always felt that ‘quite a few’ rather than ‘all’ the stops were pulled out. It is by no means a disaster, and certainly ranks higher than the rather dismal offerings of Owen Wingrave and Gloriana. At the same time though, it certainly doesn’t reach the dizzy heights of Peter Grimes or The Turn of the Screw. Like Beethoven’s Fidelio, this is an opera which is good, but needs excellent performances from all concerned to really make it work.
The genre of the ‘children’s opera’ cannot boast a particularly wide repertoire. It is all the more welcome then, when a composer of Oliver Knussen’s talent comes along in the 1980s and produces not only one but two of some of the best children’s operas since Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. However it is not so much Humperdinck’s as Ravel’s influence that is very much evident in this Glyndebourne double bill of Higglety Pigglety Pop! and Where the Wild Things Are. While the former includes the Mother Goose World Theatre, which performs its own opera-within-an-opera at the end, Where the Wild Things Are has frequently been compared to L’enfant et les sortileges, due to the narrative similarity between the two works.
Anyone capable of putting up with the gargantuan ego of Richard Wagner deserves a certain degree of respect. Engelbert Humperdinck was an assistant to Wagner at Bayreuth, and although his contribution to the world of opera can scarcely be compared to that of his formidable contemporary, he produced one work that has endured the test of time very well, delighting adults and children for over a century. Taken from the Brothers Grimm tale, Hänsel und Gretel is a ‘Märchenspiel’ (Fairytale) opera, often described as a ‘children’s opera’. This Royal Opera production from December 2008 clearly takes a different approach, and is aimed much more at an adult audience.
The Staatskapelle Weimar’s exciting new Ring cycle comes to its inevitable conclusion with this rather bleak production of Götterdämmerung. Musically much of it was truly excellent, but unfortunately the directorial concepts of stage director Michael Schulz and dramaturgist Wolfgang Willaschek were about as clear as the muddy depths of the Rhine. If the viewer is obliged to read detailed programme notes in the DVD booklet in order to understand what the director is trying to say then surely something has gone wrong?
The third instalment of Weimar’s imaginative new Ring cycle is this spirited and splendidly sung production of Siegfried, recorded live from the Deutsches Nationaltheater in Weimar and just released on DVD and Blu-ray disc by Arthaus Musik. I should start by confessing that Siegfried is my least favourite opera in Wagner’s great tetralogy, but the Staatskapelle Weimar’s dark and minimalist modern-dress staging (directed by Michael Schulz) offered plenty to maintain my interest.
Recently released on DVD and Blu-ray by Arthaus Musik, the second part of the Staatskapelle Weimar’s new Ring cycle continues with a bold and innovative production of Die Walküre, recorded live from the Deutsches Nationaltheater in Weimar.
Recently released on DVD and Blu-ray disc by Arthaus Musik, this quirky production of Das Rheingold from the Deutsches Nationaltheater in Weimar is a breath of fresh air and certainly makes very interesting viewing, despite some of the more unorthodox elements of the staging. An ambitious project for a smaller German company like the Staatskapelle Weimar but a highly successful one; the entire cycle was recorded live in 2008 and the individual operas will be released separately by
Debussy’s Mélisande: The Lives of Georgette Leblanc, Mary Garden and Maggie Teyte by Gillian Opstad (Boydell & Brewer)
“‘What a marvellous thing Pelléas is,’ cried the young Mme de Cambremer, ‘I’m mad about it.’” Her decidedly advanced musical tastes, shrilly on display in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, was intended as a riposte to all those who found Debussy’s revolutionary masterwork a step too far. Proust himself had become bewitched by the opera, often listening to it live at home (direct from the Opéra-Comique on the telephone) in pre- radio days: “I’m perpetually asking for Pelléas on the theatrophone,” he wrote to Reynaldo Hahn.
The Grove Book of Opera Singers published by Oxford University Press is an invaluable reference tool for all discerning opera-goers. It is in toto a remarkable achievement, with over 1500 mini-biographies of singers from all generations provided. The quality of the contributions is also largely excellent, but extra value is provided in the way of an index of roles with the names of their creator, an index of voice types which present the singers included in this book under their relevant heading, and an alphabetical list of operas with the names of their composers. From a reference perspective alone it provides the reader with an accessible and concise way of obtaining useful information.