Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Donizetti - Pietro il Grande (Bergamo, 2019)

Gaetano Donizetti - Pietro il Grande

Fondazione Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo, 2019

Rinaldo Alessandrini, Marco Paciotti, Lorenzo Pasquali, Roberto de Candia, Loriana Castellano, Paola Gardina, Nina Solodovnikova, Francisco Brito, Marco Filippo Romano, Tommaso Barea, Marcello Nardis, Stefano Gentili

Dynamic - Blu-ray

There are definitely surprises and even some great underrated and largely unknown works by Donizetti being rediscovered and revived - the best being mainly perhaps his later French operas - but it's hard to imagine that anyone would consider the young composer's second opera Pietro il Grande (Peter the Great) to be a great opera. And yet even lesser Donizetti has much to recommend and enjoy, whether you are interested in exploring the influences on the composer's early work, whether you are interested in seeing how the work can be adapted and brought to modern audience, or whether you just want to be entertained by a pleasant light musical drama. There's definitely a bit of something for everyone in Pietro il Grande.

Although it might sound like a historical epic, Donizetti's opera is no Boris Godunov, more of a light comedy, an opera buffa. In Pietro il Grande, Peter the Great, the Czar of Russia comes to Livonia, thinly disguised as a government official called Menzikoff, arriving at the inn of Madam Fritz. He's looking for someone called Carlo who he believes might be Scavronsky, the lost brother of the Czarina. It's not all good news for Carlo, a humble carpenter, as he is in love with Annetta, who also has a mysterious secret background. Her father is Mazepa, the Ekman of the Cossacks, a traitor to his country and enemy of the Czar. How can this intolerable situation be resolved?

Well, that's the stuff and magic of opera, and somehow Donizetti and his librettist the Marquis Gherardo Bevilacqua Aldobrindini, manage to stretch out this thin plot more with colourful characters and musical situations than with any real dramatic action. They are the kind of character types you expect to find in a Donizetti or Rossini comedy, and often it's the secondary characters who deliver the most entertainment by stirring things up. In this case that's Madam Fritz and the pompous local magistrate Cuccupis, and this production is fortunate to have two excellent singers and performers in those roles; Paola Gardina and Marco Filippo Romano.

As far as musical setting goes, it's fairly conventional early Donizetti, but delivered of course with a variety of situations and melodic flair. There are the inevitable romantic situations and complications involving a great ruler and a lot of recitative which harks back to  not so distant opera seria times, but also drinking songs, hunting songs and plenty of choral interludes pointing to what lies ahead. With secret identities and comic revelations Pietro il Grande is all very opéra-comique, and could easily pass for one of Offenbach's playful historical satires. Pompous characters are put in their place and ordinary people are shown to have far more respectable characteristics and more noble ideas of justice.

Like those works, it's not to be taken seriously but it is essential to enter into the spirit of the work, particularly on the part of the singers. Paola Gardina's Madam Fritz and Marco Filippo Romano's Cuccupis are, as I've mentioned, very much the comic driving force behind the work, particularly when playing off one another, with the magistrate even getting some of those Rossini rapid-fire tongue-twisters. The other roles are rather less interesting - even Roberto de Candia's Pietro - but Donizetti nonetheless provides plenty of opportunities to play up the comedy if a director is willing to work with it.

You at least get plenty of colour and spectacle to match the tone in the 2019 Festival Donizetti Opera production at the Teatro Sociale in Bergamo. No stuffy historical period costumes here, the set looks like it was designed by Paul Klee with Wassily Kandinsky helping out with the costume designs. That's a lot of colour! As if that's not enough there are occasional projections of geometric patterns to add to the backgrounds. It's just a little bit over the top, but it does suits the colourful situations of the cartoonish comedy-drama and add a little bit of spectacle to those scenes that tend to drag out what is after all a fairly thin plot.

With Ondadurto Teatro's Marco Paciotti and Lorenzo Pasquali directing, dull moments however are few and far between. At 2 hours and 45 minutes there's plenty of entertainment and some pleasant music to enjoy, with Rinaldo Alessandrini's conducting thoroughly in the spirit of Donizetti. Just as you think the orchestra sound like they might be flagging or losing interest in the routine parts of the score, there's a chorus or an increase in tempo or a Rossini-run to rev things up again.

The 2019 Donizetti Festival production is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Dynamic, who have really upped their game in terms of releasing interesting opera rarities and in the quality of their HD releases. The Blu-ray image here is fantastic, the screen exploding with colour. The soundtracks are in the usual Hi-Res PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 surround, both excellent quality with good clarity. There might not be a lot of nuance and detail in the actual score, but this gets the performance across well. The extras are all in the booklet and are useful and informative, looking at the history of the work and providing a tracklist and synopsis. The BD is all-region, with subtitles in Italian, English, French, German, Korean and Japanese.

Links: Donizetti Opera Festival

Monday, 18 January 2021

Korngold - Die Tote Stadt (Brussels, 2020)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold - Die Tote Stadt

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2020

Lothar Koenigs, Mariusz Treliński, Roberto Saccà, Marlis Petersen, Dietrich Henschel, Bernadetta Grabias, Martina Russomanno, Lilly Jørstad, Florian Hoffmann, Nikolay Borchev, Mateusz Zajdel

La Monnaie Streaming - November 2020

As far as the arts are concerned, the Covid pandemic has changed everything over the last year. Those productions that have managed to be performed in the brief gaps between lockdown measures have had to be rethought and reworked for safety, both for the audience and the performers. In the case of Die Tote Stadt at La Monnaie, it's been particularly challenging for a director like Mariusz Treliński, the Polish film director who likes to take a flamboyant hi-tech approach to his opera productions, using movie references movie and cinematic techniques. Here it's like his toys have been taken away from him, but as I've noted before, this is such a powerful work in its own right that it needs little in the way of theatrical enhancement.

The production, intended to celebrate the centenary of the work, did start out rather differently when it was first produced in Warsaw, and it did indeed originally have all of the director's familiar enhanced theatrical and cinematic visuals. By the time it came to La Monnaie in Brussels - Belgium hit particularly bad by the spread of the virus - it was necessary to have a rethink to involve less technicians and put as much social distancing between the performers, the orchestra and the audience as possible.

I have to admit, as someone who has enjoyed this director's work in the past Manon Lescault, The Fiery Angel, Iolanta, Duke Bluebeard's Castle) I would have loved to see the full-blown production aligned to Korngold's extravagant orchestrations and melodies, but there is no doubt that the Brussels version of this particular work, re-orchestrated for 57 musicians with the runtime reduced to under two hours, benefits from letting the macabre elements of the Symbolist drama and the concentration of Korngold's musical composition speak for itself.

To say nothing of how it speaks a little more directly than ever before of the nature of the times we are living in, where the idea of a dead city is very much a real thing, and where many can undoubtedly identify with the loss of loved ones. Unsurprisingly, since it relates to a living double replacing a dead woman, Treliński relies on Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' as a reference, and the correlation it has with that work is again in these times much more evident and real, the focus turned very much more inward on the mindset of someone who has been disturbed by the death of a loved one.

The revised production design makes use of three boxes that provide some social distancing, but also serve as a way of showing mental distancing from reality and, although neon-lit, may even remind you of coffins. Ghosts reach out and cling to Paul, naked bodies lie under shrouds that he tries to reanimate. Sung with fervour by Roberto Saccà and with Lothar Koenigs ramping up Korngold musical forces with the reduced orchestration scarcely noticeable, you almost think he could do it. Some enhancements in the way of projections are sparingly and effectively used as background to allude to the location of the dead city being a projection of a disturbed mind rather than specifically Bruges or any real concrete place.

It's appropriate then that much as Paul is unable to see the beauty of the living Marietta as longs for an impossible ideal of the perfection of the past that is Maria, opera too now has to deal with a much less perfect reality. That comes through in the performances which have been adapted to the new reality, allowing flesh and blood singers to convey everything that is great about Die Tote Stadt and everything that Korngold makes of it. Marlis Petersen embodies that in her singing and in her superb acting performance. Her 'Marietta's Lied' is just phenomenal in this context, and Paul/Roberto Saccà can be seen to be visibly moved by the beauty of life being breathed into music.

The orchestra of La Monnaie also take centre stage here. Almost literally. They are on the stage behind the performers, probably masked. The orchestra pit is used to extend the boundaries of Paul's mind, the singers donning protective face masks when they venture close to the socially distanced audience at the front of the theatre. Rather than be distracting this actually adds a frisson of real world concern and meaning to the subject. There's no happy ending to Paul's grief and delusion in
Mariusz Treliński's take on the story; the nightmare is the reality. Paul remains locked in, in lockdown; there's no escape from the city of death or the madness that descends.

Like in many other areas of our lives, there's clearly a need for opera to adjust to the new reality. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I have to say that La Monnaie have always been creative in their approach to opera, whether it was while holding productions in other locations during the restoration of the theatre or in pioneering free streamed live broadcasts. Working with a director like Treliński on Korngold they prove that it might not be necessarily be a bad thing to rethink approaches to opera and music and get back to basics. The new reality imposed by the pandemic is something that we might have to live with for a much longer time, but when opera, theatre does comes back, as it surely will, there's hope that it can be stronger than before.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt

Friday, 8 January 2021

Janáček - Věc Makropulos (Geneva, 2020)

Leoš Janáček - Věc Makropulos

Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2020

Tomáš Netopil, Kornél Mundruczó, Rachel Harnisch, Aleš Briscein, Sam Furness, Anna Schaumlöffel, Michael Kraus, Julien Henric, Karoly Szemeredy, Ludovit Ludha, Rodrigo Garcia, Iulia Surdu

GTG Digital - 20 October 2020

The subject of Janáček's Věc Makropulos is definitely not a traditional one; it's a science fiction story derived from a play by Karel Čapek about a woman who has been blessed/cursed with the secret of eternal life. Science fiction and the fantastical are probably more common than you think in opera and long before the 20th century, not just in such overtly classic SF themes as Haydn's Il Mondo Della Luna, but you could even include the magical fantasy elements of such works as The Magic Flute, and Handel's Orlando and Alcina. As with literature however it's the human element that is essential, the SF or fantasy genre presenting a new prism through which to explore the limits of what makes us human. That, aligned with Janáček's modernist approach to opera offers many possibilities for The Makropulos Affair.

The most obvious theme and clearly one of the principal questions that the story explores is the human relationship to time. In a way this aligns the opera with similar themes in The Cunning Little Vixen; the need to accept the span of a lifetime as being wondrous in itself, but there comes a time when life needs to be renewed, the old making way for the new. It's not unreasonable then particularly considering Emilia Marty's profession as an opera singer who has lived down through the ages, her origins coinciding with the birth of opera, to see that idea applied to opera itself and the need for the artform to reinvent itself in order for it to have continued relevance and meaning.

In that respect Janáček's Věc Makropulos, created in 1926, is very much a twentieth century opera, the composer also striking out for new musical ground. Here he expands on the psychological music drama of Káťa Kabanová and would take it even further in his final work From the House of the Dead, leaving behind the folk influence and conventions of his earlier works - as fresh and original as his approach to them was - and take opera in a new direction, pushing the idea of singing to follow vocal patterns, rather then vocals following musical rhythms. And yet time and timing is also a factor in Věc Makropulos, compressing a complex story with diverse characters and the relationships between them into a relatively short opera, the music measuring out its own idea of time.

If the Hungarian film director Kornél Mundruczó considers the idea of the work being representative of opera through the years, it's in pretty bad shape by the time Emilia Marty makes her appearance in this Grand Théâtre de Genève production recorded between Covid lockdowns in October 2020, with pre-recorded orchestra and chorus for social distancing reasons. She may impress young admirer Krista with her singing voice, dazzle Albert Gregor with her beauty and drive Janek Prus to distraction and suicide, but this Emilia Marty is noticeably rough around the edges, close to being on her last legs. As she removes layers of clothing, sores, stitches, weeping wounds and bandages are visible, all trying to hold her together, By the time we get to the second Act, she's connected up to an intravenous drip.

That idea of stagnating life (or opera) has been explored in other productions (Robert Carsen's Venice production made more of the theatricality aspect), but Mundruczó chooses to approach the idea of Emilia Marty or Elina Makropulos in a more open and modern context. Choosing androgyny rather than the usual beautiful femme fatale or opera diva, EM here can be seen in Janáček's opera and Čapek's story as the prototype of the enigmatic modern day rock star, like Bowie or Tida Swinton's Marianne Lane in Luca Guadagino's film A Bigger Splash, her own personality submerged behind identities and reinventions of herself, until she loses sense of her true identity and becomes a hollow shell of a person.

What way you want to look at Emilia Marty or Elina Makropulos - whether diva or rock star or movie idol - she is an ideal that can never live up to the reality, as Janek's father Prus finds out when he sleeps with her. She is in fact the personification of everybody's dream and ideal, a cipher that everyone uses as an object onto which they project their own dreams, ideals and insecurities. You can also read into that the fate of the objectification of women, EM doing what she needs to do to get by through the ages, to survive at the hands of men and their laws. For Emilia, that's borne out here also in the struggle she has to get around the ideas of inheritance that favour first-born sons, but it soon becomes clear that she has suffered in other ways through the ages.

While Mundruczó doesn't over-emphasise these themes, he allows them to become more evident by removing the second act from its theatrical setting. Act II takes place in Marty's own apartment, one carefully designed to reflect her true personality, inspired by the modernist design of Hungarian-American architect Marcel Breuer. And what consequently comes out in this production is the strength it takes to face up to who you are. By accepting the reality instead of living the dream. Life only has meaning when it is finite. True immortality, or at least a version of it, is offered to Krista, as a singer, but she refuses take the easy option. It - personality, identity - has to be earned.

As likewise does gaining an understanding of what makes EM tick. Janáček's music goes some way to exploring the unusual psychology of Marty, who turns out to be a surprisingly modern phenomenon. Initially fragile and weak, holding no consistent musical theme or melody but just jagged pieces that do not hold comfortably together, her vocal lines strengthen towards the later part of the work, soaring to a conclusion of release or recognition. Mundruczó follows those rhythms, divesting Marty of her clothing and layers of identity until she re-enters time - the furniture and objects of the room floating in space at the moment of revelation - as she becomes truly human.

The singing performances are good, although there's a little uncertainty at first that Rachel Harnisch could carry off the role of Emilia Marty with the necessary charisma, as she is not made up to look like an ageless, timeless beauty. It's a deceptive impression - one that Janáček indeed writes as such - as she powers through to the conclusion in a state of undress. There are no concerns about Aleš Briscein, soaring and lyrical as Albert. All the performances are impressive, which is quite an achievement because Makropulos is a hugely demanding opera on performers, on musicians and on the audience. Without any intervals, the opera is still challenging and it demands total concentration to follow the implications of the court drama and psycho-drama. The rewards however are great, and with Tomáš Netopil conducting, this production holds you rapt and does lead you to consider the circumstances of the characters, and feel the weight of the challenges time and life present to them.

Links: Grand Théâtre de Genève

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Cesti - La Dori (Innsbruck, 2019)

Pietro Antonio Cesti - La Dori (Innsbruck, 2019)

Innsbruck Festival of Early Music, 2019

Ottavio Dantone, Stefano Vizioli, Francesca Ascioti, Rupert Enticknap, Federico Sacchi, Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, Emőke Baráth, Bradley Smith, Pietro Di Bianco, Alberto Allegrezza

Naxos - Blu-ray

Considering that it was first performed in 1657 and the plot is almost impenetrable, you'd be forgiven thinking that only half of Cesti's opera La Dori had survived. It's actually one of those early operas that has a complicated backstory that is almost as long as the opera itself; its revelations thrown out there only in the last few minutes of the opera. In some cases you wonder even whether it isn't the better part of the opera that has been left out. With a bit of preparation about the history of the characters however, it doesn't take long to see why the focus of the opera is mostly in the aftermath of the more dramatic part of the story, nor see the qualities that Cesti is able to bring to the then still developing art form of opera.

Including the backstory on the opera would in fact probably only make La Dori more difficult than easier to follow. It's one of those stories (see Shakespeare's late Romances for other examples) where babies are stolen by pirates, where princesses get lost at sea, where identities are switched and where everyone important feels the need for obscure reasons to change their identity by adopting a disguise as someone of the opposite sex. If you factor in that the singer can be a woman playing a man's role who switches to a female disguise and vice-versa, (the use of castrati in the original only complicating the matter further), then really it's better off just getting a vague idea of who the characters are, who they are in love with and the torment it causes them trying to do the right thing for the person they love.

If you're happy enough you've got a basic handle on that then you won't be too concerned about following the various obstacles and additional familiar complications thrown their way. And, rather, you will see why Cesti and his librettist Apolloni choose to commence the story of La Dori at the point it does. It's not about creating action drama as much as human drama in music that carries the sense of backstory within the characters, following through on the path that fate has placed before them. In some baroque opera they stay in this conflicted state until fate or a deus ex machina resolves their dilemma and re-establishes order. That's not necessarily how Cesti treats them in his opera.

There's a greater sense of the human agency here, where the disguises they wear are only a means to suggest that there is more to them than they seem to outward appearances. They carry the troubles that fate has left them and face up to the challenges in front of them and strive to turn things around. There's a richness and strength of personality in each that you can be sure will win through diversity. If that is able to come through despite the complications of the plot, it's down to Cesti's music and the way he uses it to progress the development of the characters and the drama, notably in the use of aria and arioso, expanding the language of opera away from expositional recitative.

In terms of plotting it may seem like La Dori is filled with familiar devices that now seem contrived and lacking credibility, but it's here that those devices were first played out and would have a major influence on opera in the following century. If you can look beyond the magic death potion being switched for a love potion in Tristan und Isolde and instead relate to the depth of feelings that are revealed instead  by this device, you should have no problem that an identical switch takes place here. True, this comes on top of a lot of identity and gender switching and a complicated backstory, as well as early baroque conventions like the lusty comic nurse Dirce, but again these are just ways of getting through that everyone, young and old, commoners and royals, have such feelings and ensure similar troubles.

It's not as if you have to work out the knots of a convoluted plot then, since the music makes the characters real and convincing, all the more so when they are sung well in this 2019 production at the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music. Some of the most complicated identities in fact are not necessarily the expected principals, Dori or Arsinoe the bride who is to marry Oronte in her stead since Dori was stolen by pirates. Take Celinda for example, Arsinoe's maid who is actually Dori's brother Tolomeo, in disguise as a woman who has (as a man) fallen in love with Arsinoe. You have someone like Emőke Baráth singing this and suddenly, like Mozart a century later, you can see that there is no such thing as secondary characters but everyone has an equal and important part to play in the drama of life.

Which evidently is to take nothing away from the other characters and singers who are all equally wonderful. The expression of the characters and their development, shown through the singing, is what holds you in the drama not despite the plot, but as the plot. Oronte's early appearances - lyrically sung by countertenor Rupert Enticknap - all carry a sense of elegance and forbearance on his entrances, only to become imperious and irritable at not being able to control events. Alongside Alessandro Melani, also recently revived with L'Empio Punito, an eye-opening early version of Don Giovanni, with Cesti you can see that Handel's mastery and refinement of Italian opera didn't exactly come out of nowhere.

As with any early opera with a complicated plot and a less familiar form, it can be a challenge to stage something like this in a way that helps engage and audience, but the Innsbruck production directed by Stefano Vizioli does it very well. The period settles for a classical 17th century version of antiquity, period costumes and a kind of palatial room that opens out into Babylonian sands and skies, the director making great use of light and colour to accompany the musical expression.

There's much of historical value in the work, but primarily the performance here is fascinating just to hear the music Cesti composed played and with Ottavio Dantone on harpsichord conducting the Accademia Bizantina on period instruments, it sounds incredible here. There's a real kick to the music, the rhythms that comes across exceptionally well with pristine clarity and detail in the Hi-Res LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes. There are no extras on the Blu-ray but the booklet contains a tracklist, an essay on the history of the work and an absolutely essential synopsis. It's an all-region BD50, with subtitles in  Italian, English, German, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Innsbruck Festival of Early Music

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Wagner - Lohengrin (Stuttgart, 2018)

Richard Wagner - Lohengrin

Staatsoper Stuttgart, 2018

Cornelius Meister, Árpád Schilling, Goran Jurić, Michael König, Simone Schneider, Martin Gantner, Okka von der Damerau, Shigeo Ishino, Torsten Hofmann, Heinz Göhrig, Andrew Bogard, Michael Nagl, Elisabeth von Stritzky, Heike Beckmann, Simone Jackel, Jie Zhang

BelAir Classiques - Blu-ray

Not every Wagner opera needs a production that deconstructs it and bears its intentions up for scrutiny in the present day. There's a place for that, and it's often at the seat of Wagner in Bayreuth, but the eloquence of the music and the setting can clearly speak for itself. In some cases indeed less is often more with Lohengrin, undercutting the potential pomposity of the work with its grand treatment of nationalism as something sacred, or even just worshipping at the altar of Richard Wagner. Dmitri Tcherniakov is good at deflating any such high-flown sentiments and bringing the human element back in, even if sometimes perhaps too far in the other direction.

A sense of under-playing is also the impression you get initially from Árpád Schilling's 2018 Stuttgart production, but then Lohengrin is a problematic opera with nationalistic connotations and it needs to be approached carefully. To place this one between two extremes, there is little of the high-concept of experimental laboratory mice of Hans Neuenfels' Bayreuth production, nor does it pander to the gaudy medieval kitsch of Christine Mielitz's Dresden production. Indeed the dull grey bomber jackets and shabby overalls of the people of Brabant are similar to the rather less glorious image of the Knights of the Grail in Tcherniakov's Berlin Parsifal, and perhaps with a similar intent. These are poor ordinary citizens who doubtless have had to endure the hardships of the wars constantly being waged between King Heinrich der Vogler and neighbouring lands, and need a little more persuasion to take up arms under a new hero.

The complete dressing down of the sets and costume design has another intention, and it is indeed to confront the central problems with the work. In Act I the stage and set is bare, consisting of nothing but a faint outline of a chalk circle at the centre of the stage. You might expect that to be just a way to strike a contrast between the reality of the world and the rather more heavenly aspirations that the people have for a hero to lead them to glory against their foreign enemies, but that isn't what happens. The dramatic fanfare to herald the entrance of Elsa's noble mystical knight could hardly be more striking a buildup under Cornelius Meister's musical direction, but instead of a glimmering knight borne by a swan, the rabble shove one citizen forward, a reluctant bearded man who looks like a down and out, as the one chosen to defend Elsa's honour. The swan is nothing more than a small soft toy concealed in his jacket, belonging presumably to Elsa's lost brother Gottfried, a memento that she desperately grasps onto.

Is this deflating the myth or is it showing us that Elsa is being patronised for her delusion in the dream of a great hero coming to save her? Or is it showing that there is a deeper and human side to the grand gestures of Wagner's imperfect vision of a German nation and people, a darker side that is very much tied up within the ambiguous nature of the work and the intentions of all of the characters? The performances bear this out, refusing to accept a Manichean view between good and evil, and it certainly makes a change from eye-rolling evil baddie stereotype of Telramund and Ortrud being contrasted with the shining beauty and innocence of Elsa and Lohengrin.

It's still not exactly the most probing account of Lohengrin, and unfortunately Act II doesn't have much else to offer either in visual cues to its intent and it remains a struggle for the opera to hold attention. The plain black box of the set is open at the back to allow a platform to descend into mists. The chalk circle is still there this time a magician's circle on which Ortrud calls on the old gods, on Wotan, casting a spell of doubt on Elsa and luring her into her confidence. The women help the men of Brabant out of their grey jackets which are revealed to have blue linings that are laid down to form a winding river for the swans.

If Wagner's score is taken as it stands it can feel too calculated, too triumphalist, with little in its sentiments to engage with emotionally or on a human level that we can relate to from a modern perspective or outlook. That can be compensated for by the singing and musical performances which can deliver all the unquestionable power of the work, and that is certainly very much the case here. Martin Gantner is a Friedrich von Telramund to be taken seriously and Okka von der Damerau elevates the role and influence of Ortrud well with a fine performance. The singing of these two and Simone Schneider's Elsa helps get through what without any real ideas or visual interest can feel like an interminable second act, but it still feels hollow, lacking any clear direction or purpose.

Act III at least is a little more colourful, the citizens wearing summer-wear and T-shirts but again far from the traditional pageantry of the idealised nationalistic sentiments of King Heinrich and Lohengrin's regret for the failure of the people to be deserving of such a hero. The director's ambivalence for the work, or perhaps an ambivalence he sees within the work itself, at least comes through emphatically at the conclusion. There is no charismatic leader that is going to lead the people to glory; not Telramund, not Heinrich and not Lohengrin. And neither is Gottfried restored to them in this production. The lyrical heartfelt singing of Michael König's Lohengrin in the final scene really hits the tragedy of this unresolvable and problematic situation home as another fool is plucked from the crowd to be the new figurehead, one who will support Ortrud's plan to use the people's prejudices and fears for her own evil ends.

The BelAir Blu-ray release of this 2018 recording of Lohengrin at the Staatsoper Stuttgart looks fine, the image clear and coping well with the very dark lighting on the stage. There is only one audio mix in LPCM Stereo, which tends to be a little bit harsh in louder passages, particularly in the huge choral parts of which there are many in this work. There is good definition and detail there however and the quality of the work and its performance under conductor Cornelius Meister is clear. The singing comes across well in the mix. The booklet contains a tracklist, a synopsis and an interview where Árpád Schilling expresses his views on the opera and intentions for the production. The Blu-ray is all-region, with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Korean and Japanese.

Links: Staatsoper Stuttgart

Thursday, 17 December 2020

Melani - L'Empio Punito (Rome, 2019)

Alessandro Melani - L'Empio Punito

Reate Festival, Rome - 2019

Alessandro Quarta, Cesare Scarton, Alessandro Ravasio, Michaela Guarrera, Carlotta Colombo, Sabrina Cortese, Mauro Borgioni, Giacomo Nanni, Alessio Tosi, Riccardo Pisani, Luca Servoni, Maria Elena Pepi, Gugliemo Buonsanti

Dynamic - Blu-ray

Although it's evidently a rare work that you might not have heard of before - composed in 1669 this is the first performance of the work in modern times - the plotting and subject of Alessandro Melani's L'Empio Punito will definitely be familiar. You might pick it up early from the title and its correspondence with the full title of Mozart's Don Giovanni o Il Dissoluto Punito, and indeed both operas are derived from the same source material, Tirso de Molina's El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de Piedra. More than just being of academic interest as the first opera adaptation of the Don Juan story, this remarkable Rome production turns out to be an important and wonderful opera in its own right, scarcely less compelling than Mozart's Don Giovanni and in some ways just as important to the development of the operatic form.

In L'Empio Punito, the rake punished at the end of the opera by the ghostly intervention of a stone statue is Acrimante, a notorious womaniser who has just abandoned his wife Atamira and is already setting about picking up a couple of pretty shepherdesses with his servant and co-conspirator, Bibi, the two of them giving fake names. They are caught in the act by Atamira, and like Donna Elvira to Acrimante's Don Giovanni, she bemoans her fate to have married an unfaithful man in a way that sounds familiar. ("Though betrayed I still adore you: do you still add new infidelities?").

King Atrace of Macedonia hears her despairing laments and falls in love with her, even though she remains faithful to her errant husband. At the royal court, Ipomene, the king's sister soon falls into the clutches of the charming Acrimante, (her frisky nurse Delfa picked up in tandem by Bibi), unaware of the danger she faces. To woo her away from her lover Cloridoro, master and servant swap costumes, Don Giovanni and Leporello like, and steal into her chambers. Bibi dressed as Acrimante is spotted by Cloridoro, who is devastated at the betrayal. The king outraged orders Acrimante to be put to death.

There are some differences in the plotting, but by and large, L'Empio Punito matches many of the situations and the overall intent of Mozart's version of Don Giovanni, with only slight tweaks of characteriation and emphasis. Here in Melani's opera, Atamira loves Arrimante too much to let him die when the time comes for him to pay for his sins. Yet despite her mercy saving him from execution, the rake pursues his lustful intentions and in the process kills Timeno, one of the king's court. Revived as a stone statue, Timeno arrives to take vengeance on his killer.

There may be strong similarities in the plotting and characters, but evidently the music of Melani's opera, written almost one hundred years before Don Giovanni, is quite different. In one respect the model used by Melani is similar to Mozart's blending of genres, comedy and tragedy, farce and romance - something that would have been more common in Melani's time than Mozart's. There may be nothing particularly showy about the music of L'Empio Punito, but the music of course was not scored in the same way in these early operas, and much is left to elaboration, interpretation and even improvisation by the musicians. Even so, the music is lovely, with some beautiful arias that are brief and direct without any of the excesses of late baroque.

It might not be Mozart, but as one of the first musical accounts of this type of drama Melani's opera has other notable qualities and interest, and can clearly be to have contributed to now familiar opera archetypes. Although the comic value of the travesti nurse is still here, you can hear Handel more than Monteverdi or Cavalli in this 1669 opera, and as such it almost acts like a missing link in the progression of the opera form, not least of course for the influence this would have on Mozart when he came to write his Don Giovanni.

As the first performance in modern times the Reate Festival production at the Teatro di Villa Tortlonia in Rome is superbly directed by Cesare Scarton to get maximum conviction out of character actions and behaviour, treating them with the same psychological acuity as Mozart and Da Ponte. The set contributes wonderfully to this, with platforms like tilted blocks that simply and effectively permit the positioning of figures to be shown acting in their own interests, in pairs or to shared purposes. Semi-transparent marbled gauze net screens also suggest hidden motives and foul play and are used in a clever way to depict the eerie quality of Timeno statue coming to life. The costume design is also excellent.

In terms of performance, the singing is faultless, while the musical direction under Alessandro Quarta perfectly attuned to settings, the emotions, the dramatic pace and content and there is some lovely playing from the Reate Festival Baroque Ensemble. Initially the sound recording appears a little more echoey compared to the pristine Hi-Res recordings you might be used to on Blu-ray, but it captures a more authentic theatre sound. There are no radio body mics used here. and the natural acoustic resonance suits the baroque instruments. You can hear everything clearly with a good balance between music and singing. There's a little stage noise, but there's not a great deal of heavy movement in the production.

The image quality on the Dynamic Blu-ray is excellent and the production is well captured on video. There are some good extras on the disc in the form an interview with music director Quarta and stage director Scarton on the challenges of taking on this opera and the decisions made on how to present it. The booklet contains an essay on the history of the opera and its composer, a short synopsis and a full tracklist. The Blu-ray is all region compatible and has subtitles in Italian, English, French, German, Korean and Japanese.

Links: Reate Festival

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Dvořák - Rusalka (Glyndebourne, 2019)

Antonín Dvořák - Rusalka

Glyndebourne, 2019

Robin Ticciati, Melly Still, Sally Matthews, Evan Leroy Johnson, Alexander Roslavets, Patricia Bardon, Colin Judson, Alix Le Saux, Zoya Tsererina, Vuvu Mpofu, Anna Pennisi, Altona Abramova, Adam Marsden

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Based on a fairy-tale suggestive of some troubling undercurrents, opera productions of Rusalka have consequently seen a wide variety of interpretations and inspired some of the most dark and imaginative stage productions I've ever seen in opera. Unquestionably that approach is very much supported by the fire of Dvořák's music, a glorious melodic concoction that conjures up not just a magical fantasy world or a deeply romantic one of deep emotions, but also hints at a young woman being mistreated and abused. Unlike Martin Kušej (Bavarian State Opera, 2010) or Stefan Herheim (La Monnaie, 2012), there are no bold or radical reinterpretations of the story here in Melly Still's Glyndebourne production, but playing to the sweep of drama, with Robin Ticciati conducting and Sally Matthews singing the title role, the production nonetheless finds a way to unleash the opera's considerable inner forces.

It's so well realised here - musically and visually - that you can see clearly how Dvořák's orchestration of myth and legend corresponds to the Wagnerian method right from the opening Act. With a little more of a reliance on folk and tradition, Dvořák nonetheless uses the same kind of power of music aligned to deep mythological themes in the very Das Rheingold-like opening of Rusalka, the water nymphs here the equivalent of the Rhinemaidens, tryannised by the Alberich-like water goblin Vodnik (Alberich). Rusalka's dream of the redemptive power of love making us human is also as powerful and charged (and as fatal an attraction) as Senta's dream of the Dutchman in Der fliegende Holländer.

Using marvellous theatrical techniques and emphatic drive and musical colouration, director Melly Still and conductor Robin Ticciati hammer home the Wagnerian force of those mythological Romantic sentiments at the key moments. With its lush orchestration and fairy-tale setting, Rusalka begs for just such a magical treatment and Glyndebourne delivers. There's plenty that is impressive in the Das Rheingold inspired gleaming blues and greens of the water world of Rusalka, her mermaid sisters descending with long tails and floating above the stage in an impressive coup de théâtre. And while it has you in its grasp, Rusalka sweeps down on wires to kiss the Prince in a dreamlike scene that almost leaves you breathless.

There's little to fault then in the impact that the Glyndebourne production achieves, where the ideas are kept relatively simple and in service of the musical drama. While you have to give credit to the singers doing acrobatics on wires, there is however not really a great deal of imagination in staging or in illustrating the darker themes of the work. The set retains a pit at the centre, a reminder of the water home that Rusalka can't quite escape, so you could also see that as something of an emotional void that holds the woman in the power of others, manipulated and exploited to some extent. Even the fact that there are dark 'invisible' figures moving Rusalka around in choreographed movements can be seen to highlight this.

The focus however is very much on expressing the deep emotional undercurrents of the work and the central tragedy of the work comes in Act II when Rusalka begins to lose her charm and mystery over the Prince as he becomes distracted by the more obvious attractions of the Foreign Princess in a Brünnhilde/Siegfried way. As if that's not heartbreaking enough, Vodnik rubs it in with his "I told you so". For this to have maximum impact it just needs the musical and singing forces to be in place and Sally Matthews is by no means only one of the cast to impress here, her silence through most of Act II in particular giving the other roles a chance to shine. Evan Leroy Johnson has a lovely heroic tenor quality that invites more sympathy for the Prince than disappointment. Zoya Tsererina is an excellent Foreign Princess who only needs to be glamorous and hit those notes to work, and she does both very well.

If you are focussing on getting to the heart of real human emotions over any kind of concept to illustrate it, Rusalka finding her voice at the end of Act II always has a visceral impact and Sally Matthews makes it count here. Matthews has been an asset to Glyndebourne for a number of years now and impresses here yet again. I can't testify to her Czech but her performance here as Rusalka is lovely, delving into the heart of the character, making her dilemma heartfelt with beautiful singing. Having achieved maximum impact, Act III consolidates what has come before musically and scenically with a reprise of the water nymphs descent, but if the conclusion is truly effective in its tragedy it's down to the touching performances from Sally Matthews and Evan Leroy Johnson that make it feel almost devastating.

It helps of course it the music also pushes the singing to those heights and musically I've never felt the Wagner influence on Dvořák so pronounced as it is here under Robin Ticciati. There's a fullness of the orchestral sound that comes through very well in the Opus Arte Blu-ray's Hi-Res stereo and surround audio tracks. Visually, the High Definition image is also impeccable, capturing the mood of the stage lighting. The usual Glyndebourne behind-the-scenes featurettes has interviews with cast and crew with a look at the descent of the water nymphs scene. An excellent essay in the booklet covers the writer Jaroslav Kvapil's efforts to get Czech composers interested in his libretto with consideration of how other productions have treated the dark subject of the fairy-tale in recent years.

Links: Glyndebourne