Wednesday 5 May 2010

Mozart - Don Giovanni (Joseph Losey, 1979)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Lorin Maazel, Joseph Losey, Ruggero Raimondi, José van Dam, Edda Moser, John Macurdy, Kenneth Riegel, Teresa Berganza, Malcolm King, Kiri Te Kanawa

Second Sight DVD

Joseph Losey’s 1979 screen version of Mozart and da Ponte’s opera was a production beset with difficulties. Undertaken as a commission, Losey saw it as an opportunity to make a classic work and thrilling story more accessible by taking it out of the opera house and bringing it to a new audience at the cinema, with the advantages of the newly developed Dolby Stereo Surround process for the score. And take it out of the opera house is quite literally what Losey did, using world class opera performers and filming Don Giovanni in real Venetian locations. The intentions were good, but the results were never entirely satisfactory, either from a technical or artistic viewpoint, but recently restored by Gaumont and brought to DVD in the UK by Second Sight in a lavish 3-disc set with a DTS soundtrack, the qualities of Losey’s version of Mozart’s dark masterpiece can certainly be better appreciated.

The exploits of Don Giovanni are renowned the world over, his seduction of ladies across the continent – young and old, ugly and beautiful, rich and poor alike (anything in a skirt really) - constituting an impressive tally (2065 at the last count), one that is dutifully noted and recorded by his valet Leporello (José van Dam). On one particular night however, Don Giovanni (Ruggero Raimondi) takes his libertine ways a little too far, slipping into the room of Donna Anna (Edda Moser) for an attempted seduction, but in his haste to remain anonymous and beat a hasty retreat, he kills her father, Il Commendatore (John Macurdy), who has arrived to defend her honour. Donna Anna is devastated by what has occurred and calls on her fiancé Don Ottavio (Kenneth Riegel), in the manner of any good dramatic opera, to avenge his blood.

They’ll have to move quickly to keep up with Don Giovanni however, who has quickly moved on to his next conquest – a young peasant girl named Zerlina (Teresa Berganza), who he rakishly intends to seduce on the eve of her marriage to Masetto (Malcolm King). They find an ally however in the form of Donna Elvira (Kiri Te Kanawa), another woman who has fallen victim to his charms only to be immediately abandoned after their wedding. Discovering that Don Giovanni is up to his old tricks, she does everything in her power to save other women from a similar fate. Pursued on all sides – Masetto is none too pleased with the behaviour of the cavalier either – Don Giovanni’s wicked past is about to catch up with him.

Mozart’s darkest opera, based on a long literary tradition going back to Tirso de Molina, is a subject with a fascinating variety of social and behavioural issues, with enough complex themes and contradictory elements to provide rich ground for any director to work with (it was recently effectively updated into a modern setting for the Paris Opéra by the filmmaker Michael Haneke under the opera’s original title - Il dissoluto punito ossia il Don Giovanni). Joseph Losey’s film version however is rather traditional in its period setting and, barring the superb use of original locations, is also somewhat unimaginative in its staging. Certainly, the conditions of the filming present a number of difficulties, using world class opera singers, taking them away from the familiar surroundings of a opera stage and subjecting them to a cinematic stop-start form of performance very different from what they are used to, one that is dependent upon the setting up of technical equipment and outdoor weather conditions. Moreover, the singers have to concentrate on lip-syncing to already recorded performances, since dragging the orchestra of the Opéra de Paris around the locations for the length of the production for a live recording is completely unfeasible.

Even despite the evident technical constraints however, there is little evidence of Losey placing any kind of personal stamp or interpretation on the material. Technically, it is often brilliant – the use of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda Venetian mansion provides a perfect, stunning backdrop for the performances, and Losey certainly manages to direct and stage the opera’s female characters - whose role is so vital to the dynamic of the piece - extremely well. The scene where Donna Anna recognises the murderer of her father is chilling - image, tone and performance coming together in perfect harmony. Her character is balanced with the resigned, but determined Donna Elvira, who believes despite all evidence that Don Giovanni’s salvation can be still somehow be attained, and the flighty and independent Zerlina, who believes she can handle the cavalier (and her husband Masetto) on her own terms. The principal male characters are less well defined, with surprisingly little evidence of the black humour, complicity and even the latent homosexuality that can be drawn from the relationship between Don Giovanni and his valet Leporello. The use of real opera singers doesn’t help make a successful transition from stage to screen either. The performers are all fine actors, and the female performances are often exceptional, but they remain stage performances, prone to mannerisms and exaggeration - the worst offender being Masetto, who overacts dreadfully - which don’t work well or at all naturally on the screen.

All is not lost however. The locations are well used, and Mozart and da Ponte’s opera is so rich, musically, lyrically and thematically that even a straightforward traditional depiction of its power play, sexual politics and thrilling revenge story make the film an often thrilling romp, with Ruggero Raimondi a fine Don Giovanni. And in terms of the opera itself, there is certainly much to admire in the performances of the singers and things to discover in the minor tweaking in the instrumentation of Mozart’s brooding, playful and lyrical music score. While the staging is period, traditional and certainly operatic in dramatic terms, Losey does manage to impose a tone on the piece with the presence of a “black valet” in a non-singing role. This figure does manage to bring some sense of ambiguity to the proceedings, but his impassive presence is more that of an impartial spectator, mournful but resigned to inevitable downfall and death of his master, but even this is something that is already implicit within the music, the libretto and most obviously within the nature of Don Giovanni himself.

Don Giovanni is released in the UK by Second Sight as a 3-disc set. The film is spread across two dual-layer discs separating the opera with a natural division between Act 1 and Act 2. The extra features are contained on a third dual-layer disc. The set is in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.

The extra features go into quite a bit of detail on the restoration and remastering of the audio track, but there is no mention of how much work went into cleaning-up the image quality. On the evidence of what you can see however, there must have been quite a bit of work done for the image to look as impressive as it does here, although some elements of the transfer are less than perfect. The print itself looks remarkably clear, free from even the smallest mark or dustspot. The original 1.66:1 aspect ratio is retained and presented with anamorphic enhancement, transferred progressively. As a result, the image is remarkably stable and free from any brightness flicker whatsoever, to such an extent that in places the film looks as if it had been shot yesterday in Digital High Definition.

Such an appearance does give the impression that the image has been heavily filtered and indeed, contrast is not strong, with the image tending towards brightness, dulled colours and flattened blacks, making the film look like it is permanently in the shadow of dusk. Skin tones, often a good indicator of the correctness of colouration, look slightly off and lacking fine detail, though the performers are certainly heavily made-up in line with the period. Close-ups however reveal a rainbow cross-colouration effect. There are some other minor issues with the digital transfer, with some stepping in lines caused by compression and edge-enhancement. Surprisingly, considering that the film is spread across 2 dual-layer discs, the full capacity of the discs hasn’t been taken advantage of, Disc One taking up 6.08GB and Disc Two only 5.64GB. Overall however, the transfer is stable, detail is good and the print itself is just about flawless.

Clearly the most important aspect in an opera film is to get the music right, and in this area it’s hard to find fault. It clearly wasn’t an easy task, since Losey and Raimondi were never happy with the original mix provided by a Dolby Stereo system still in its early stages of development. An enormous amount of work however has gone into finding and restoring the original 16-track master, and the results speak for themselves. Reworked by the original sound engineers, the new DTS 5.1 96/24 mix is astonishingly good, achieving a wonderfully warm rounded tone with good definition in the low-frequency range, while remaining stable and free from distortion on the higher end. Much of the recitative was done on location and still suffers slightly from the reverb of the original surroundings, but has been remixed and improved as much as possible to fit in with the pre-recorded elements. While the music and singing obviously dominates, the use of surround effects is also well distributed, not making the surrounds overly busy, but blending in well with the natural ambience.

All of this wouldn’t be worth the effort if the sound was not pitch corrected to allow for the 4% PAL speed-up issues when transferring the elements to DVD for home viewing, but thankfully and essentially, that seems to have been done at least for both the DTS mix and for the new remastered Dolby Digital Surround score. The much-maligned original Dolby Digital Surround mix is also included, but is of little value other than for comparison to the thundering DTS mix, which is really in a different league altogether. It’s hard to imagine how the original elements could be made to sound much better than this.

The opera is sung in the original Italian, with optional English subtitles provided in a clear white font. The subtitles are fine and do a reasonable job of translating the libretto.

About Don Giovanni (26:17)
An archive French television documentary covers the making of the film in quite a bit of detail. Losey and a narrator guide the viewer through the locations and the reasoning behind the filming choices made. There is extensive footage of the director on set, shooting scenes and numerous retakes.

Losey and Don Giovanni (15:21)
Subtitled “a thematic analysis by Michel Ciment”, the French film critic for Positif covers the history, and reputation of Losey from a French perspective and examines the revolutionary themes in Don Giovanni which he feels mirror Losey’s own circumstances to some extent and are recurrent in the director’s work.

The Sound Odyssey 1978 – 2006 (41:19)
The most detailed documentary among the extra features covers the extensive work that went into recovering and restoring the original masters as closely as they could be to the intention Losey had but was unable to achieve with the technology of the time. At the same time, there is a desire to correct original errors and improve on the original through remixing. The restoration process - literally “baking” the original masters - is explained in great detail, making this a fascinating feature, one that makes the achievement of the restoration team even more admirable.

Trailer (3:46)
The original trailer makes use of selected striking scenes from the film and is set to the opera’s overture, and is very effective.

Joseph Losey’s screen movie version of Don Giovanni certainly takes the opera out of the theatre, but doesn’t manage to take the theatricality out of the opera. Other than the use of real locations, there is little imagination shown in the rather stiff period staging, and little invention shown in the interpretation of the characters or themes of the opera. Mozart and da Ponte’s genius remains clearly evident however, and even though traditionally staged, Don Giovanni remains a lively, lyrical, provocative, dynamic and timeless masterpiece. Those qualities are brought out in the astonishing restoration work that has been carried out on the film’s original score for this DVD release, which Second Sight have certainly done justice to in their lavish Deluxe 3-disc set.

This review was originally published in DVD Times/The Digital Fix in 2008

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Kusturica's Le Temps des Gitans: A Punk Opera (Paris, 2007)

Nenad Jankovic, Dejan Sparavalo, Stribor Kusturica - Le Temps des Gitans

Opéra National de Paris, 2007

Dejan Sparavalo, Emir Kusturica, Nenad Jankovic, Ognjen Sucur, Gorica Popovic, Marijana Bizumic, Dejan Sparavalo, Milica Todorovic, Stevan Andelkovic, Stanko Tomic, Zlatko SakulskiI, Natasa Tomic

Opéra Bastille, Paris - 26th June 2007 (World Premiere)

Pushing life and music to the maximum, heightened, exaggerated, full of exuberance, joy and tragedy, there is something operatic about most of Emir Kusturica’s films, but the most musically lyrical and balanced in terms of structure must be Time Of The Gypsies, a film that in many ways would become the template that the Yugoslavian/Boznia-Herzegovinian director would follow in nearly all of his subsequent work to increasing levels of freewheeling madness. Bringing the story to the stage of the Paris Opéra at the Bastille as a “punk opera”, Kusturica perhaps unsurprisingly directs it as if it were a film – one hour and forty-five minutes without an intermission. Intermission? In an Emir Kusturica production? No – once started, you in for the ride through the raucous tragedy that is Time Of The Gypsies.

On stage, the story remains largely the same as the 1988 film, opening in a gypsy camp where the orphan Perhan lives with his grandmother Hatidza, his gambling and womanising uncle Brandes (Merzan in the film) and his sister Danira. Perhan is in love with Azra, but her mother refuses to let them marry, hoping to find someone with more money as a husband for her daughter. Perhan’s sister is crippled, but the big gangster Ahmed owes the Perhan’s grandmother a favour for saving his sick son, and agrees to take her to the hospital in Ljubjana for treatment. Instead, Ahmed puts the young girl out begging on the streets of Milan – part of a people trafficking operation he is running with his brothers. Perhan has no choice but to work with Ahmed, but the business of thievery, begging and prostitution is a lucrative one and soon Perhan makes his fortune in Italy. He returns to marry Azra, but finds that she is now pregnant, apparently with the child of his uncle. It’s a situation that is to end in tragedy for all concerned.

While there were some initial doubts at the opening night of the opera’s world premiere in Paris about Kusturica’s ability to stage and choreograph a live opera as well as his films – it’s much harder to fill the huge Bastille stage than it is to fill a movie screen – the director does his best. The stage is littered with as many colourful acrobats, dwarfs and gypsies as you like (Fellini coming more to mind than ever with Kusturica), bicycles, tractors and caravans crisscross the stage, there’s a widescreen plasma TV, the essential accessory for the gangster in his bath and – yes, believe it or not, there are even live animals running around – a well-trained flock of geese, which earned an appreciative round of applause from the audience recognising this Kusturica trademark. The action is also raised up to fill the vertical space with a departing caravan scene over the hills, roofs held suspended over houses, Azra’s ascent to heaven and a full-length façade of the Milan cathedral above which the cast are elevated 'Miracle in Milan'-style at the end of the opera.

Inevitably though much of the brilliance, charm and quirkiness of the original film is missing here, the cut-down libretto (in the original Romany) lacking the poetic resonance and off-centre humour of the movie through a modernisation that brings in references to David Beckham, George Bush, Fox and MTV. The poetic use of supernatural motifs is also all but gone – the wedding veil, the turkey, even Perhan’s powers of hypnotism and magnetism are only referenced through a projected clip from the 1988 film, the use of boxes becoming the main motif employed in the opera. Projections are used throughout to fill in gaps, drawing on footage from the original film for example in Perhan’s wedding dream sequence on the river with Azra, with the new cast members superimposed, but there is also some new footage, clips of Robert De Niro in 'Taxi Driver' (“Are you talkin’ to me?”) and, most bafflingly, Maradona scoring against England in the World Cup in Mexico 1986. Consequently the delicate touch of one of Kusturica’s most balanced films is somewhat lost in favour of the freewheeling qualities of his later work.

The Time Of The Gypsies punk opera does however gain momentum after a slow start and benefits from some condensing of the material. One scene brilliantly combines Perhan’s robbery operations in Italy with a scene of his uncle Merzan’s seduction of Azra, filling her head with dreams of being a Hollywood starlet and working with Tom Cruise. The same uncle is shot quite spectacularly by Perhan at his wedding to Azra, the sudden shock precipitating her giving birth prematurely and dying. Perhan’s dream sequence while in Italy is also very effectively staged.

Inevitably however, where the opera really comes to life is in the music. Performed by the Garbage Serbian Philharmonica (stage left) and the No Smoking Orchestra (stage right, and occasionally straying onto the stage itself), the score has been almost completely re-written. It retains only two of themes from the brilliant original Goran Bregovic score, the musical credits here citing Dejan Sparavalo, Nenad Janovic and Stribor Kusturica as the composers of the new piece. It’s those original themes however that are the most memorable in the opera – or perhaps just more recognisable - achieving a marvellous lyrical tone where the remainder of the new material settles in the main for foot-stomping oomp-pah-pah arrangements. In a live environment however it works as it should, particularly in the rousing wedding sequence. At the world premiere performance, the French opera-going audience clapped along rather self-consciously at first, but by the end were completely caught up in the infectious Neo-Primitivism gypsy-punk music, awarding the cast, musicians, production team and the director himself with a whole-hearted standing ovation.

Le Temps des Gitans runs at the Opéra Bastille in Paris for only fifteen performances until 15th July. It will be staged again at the Palau des les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain in June 2008.

This review first appeared on DVD Times/The Digital Fix in 2007

Monday 3 May 2010

Mozart - Don Giovanni (Paris, 2007)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Il Dissoluto Punito ossia il Don Giovanni

Opéra National de Paris, 2007

Michael Güttler, Michael Haneke, Peter Mattei, Mikhail Petrenko, Carmela Remigio, Shawn Mathey, Arpiné Rahdjian, Luca Pisaroni, David Bizic, Aleksandra Zamojska

Opéra Bastille, Paris - 2nd February 2007

There has always been a strong link between cinema and opera with several directors - Losey, Visconti, Zeffirelli, Chéreau and even Tarkovsky – working successfully in both disciplines. In recent years, the Paris Opera have been particularly experimental in their productions, exploiting this connection with cinema and commissioning work from the avant garde Catalan group La Fura dels Baus (Fausto 5.0), and a forthcoming punk opera in June directed by Emir Kusturica featuring his No Smoking Orchestra based on his film Time of the Gypsies. For their 2006 celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart, the Paris Opera invited the controversial Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke to direct one of his operas.

As Haneke’s roots are in theatre the move to opera is not such a great leap, but even so it’s difficult to see how the film director’s particular austere, minimal approach could be reconciled with the grandeur usually witnessed at the Palais Garnier and the Opéra Bastille. There could only be one Mozart opera that lies within Haneke’s range and remit. Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito, at either ends of Mozart’s mature career, are too classical in origin, their dramatic structure mired in the long-winded demands of the opera seria. While there are certainly intriguing themes in The Marriage of Figaro, Così Fan Tutte and Die Entführung aus dem Serail, they have perhaps too many farcical elements for Haneke’s seriousness of purpose. The Magic Flute is more notable for its lyricism than its themes, which are perhaps too esoteric and removed from everyday concerns for the Austrian director – not to mention that the La Fura dels Baus’ recent ludicrous ‘Mozart on Bouncy Castles’ re-conceptualisation of the opera for the Bastille is perhaps too fresh in the memory for it to undergo yet another modernisation. Don Giovanni on the other hand is certainly Mozart’s darkest opera. Tense, dramatic and bipolar, it reflects the full range of Mozart’s extraordinary personality, flipping between outrageous exuberant irreverence and bleak meditations on death, grief, guilt and revenge. It’s perfect material for a director like Haneke to work with, particularly as its story of serial seduction, murder and revenge makes its subject the one most amenable to modern-day reinterpretation.

The successful production revived in 2007 for the Paris Opera at the Bastille, Michael Haneke’s Don Giovanni - reverting back to its original title of Il Dissoluto Punito ossia il Don Giovanni ('The Dissolute Punished or Don Giovanni') – takes the world of business executives in a modern high-rise office complex as its setting, its large windows affording a view of a built-up downtown business district. Working late one night, Junior Director Donna Anna is sexually assaulted by a dark figure who enters her office. Her father, the Chief Executive, Il Commendatore, hears the commotion and tries to intervene, but is brutally murdered by the unknown assailant, who makes his escape pursued by Anna’s fiancé Ottavio. The killer is a young Junior Executive, Don Giovanni, a notorious womaniser who, with the assistance of his PA, Leporello – a personal poodle to support him in his crimes and deceits – continues his attempts at serial seduction undeterred by recent events, even trying to get off with Zerlina, a cleaning lady who is just celebrating her marriage to Masetto. With thousands of similar seductions enacted by the high-flying jet-setter across the globe (one thousand and three conquests in Spain alone!), Don Giovanni has quite a history, but his past is about to catch up with him. Donna Elvira, a Senior Executive at a firm where Don Giovanni once worked, is looking for him and when she meets Anna and Ottavio hunting for the killer of the Commendatore, she believes she recognises the modus operandi of her former husband who has deserted her. Masked, they make their appearance at one of the young executive’s orgiastic office parties, seeking retribution.

While it may still be difficult to recognise any familiar Haneke themes from what sounds like a fairly typical modern updating of an opera or drama into the world of corporate affairs, power-dressing and designer suits, the director nevertheless perceptively draws out the essence of the characters – already powerfully and lyrically expressed by Mozart and Da Ponte, but given a characteristically darker twist by Haneke. The Don Giovanni of this production is less of an adventurer and seducer than an aggressor and a rapist - a pumped-up young executive full of his own self-importance and confident in his charms, but unable to handle rejection, reacting violently to any challenges to his authority. Underlying this behaviour there is a strong sense of guilt, fuelled not so much by his avoidance of commitment as an unwillingness to accept that his actions have consequences on other people. Along with the use of masks throughout the opera, the theme of keeping one’s true nature hidden, a refusal to accept personal responsibility for violence enacted on other people, self-destructive behaviour and a generalised subtext that can be read as an oblique critique of corporate globalisation or US foreign policy, you have fairly familiar material for Michael Haneke to get his teeth into.

What is not seen so often in Haneke’s own work is the counterpart of this sickness in society and the individual – the more laudable aspects of human behaviour, their ability to deal with adversity, their capacity for forgiveness and their desire to do good. It’s an aspect that is perhaps only really notable in Haneke’s film The Time of the Wolf - which is consequently one of the director’s best films - and from the way that he handles the character of Donna Elvira, it’s a pity that this strength is not explored by him more often. Elvira sees through his mask and recognises the true darkness in Don Giovanni’s nature ("Da quel ceffo si dovria/ La ner’alma giudicar"), but is convinced that she can reach out to his better nature. It’s one of the strengths of the opera that she is of course wrong – Don Giovanni is too far gone. Consumed by guilt, ashamed of his actions and weighed down by his past, and with perhaps some sense of his own self-importance, he willingly accepts the dramatic nature of his fate.

Haneke, of course makes the most of this in his direction - the single unchanging low-lit stage set sterile and bleak, neutrally coloured and shrouded almost permanently in shadows. The modern setting and updating of the characters is fairly easy to accept, remaining open enough to allow personal identification and interpretation. By the second act, any novelty in the office setting sinks into the background and the sheer strength of Mozart and Da Ponte’s arias, the performance of the Paris orchestra and the exceptional cast regains ground. It’s to the credit of the direction that it doesn’t over-impose itself in this way, working with the dramatic, lyrical and thematic strengths of piece and the performers. That is not to say that Haneke’s hand remains invisible, but reasserts itself exactly where required and with the force you would expect from this director. The characteristic shocking flash of violence that he does so well in his films of course has its counterpart here in the first scene of the opera with the senseless killing of Il Commendatore, but Haneke even manages to shock the audience with another unexpected killing at the end. While Don Giovanni’s demise at the end of the opera is never in doubt, the manner in which Haneke brings it about is quite stunning.

I have seen many spectacular representations on the stage of Don Giovanni being dragged down to the fiery depths of Hell, but none are quite as powerfully violent as Haneke’s staging. There is no place in Haneke’s modern rationalist vision for ghosts, demons or animated statues – strapped to an office chair, the bloody corpse of the Commendatore is wheeled on by the masked figures of Elvira, Anna and Ottavio. The other masked figures of the revellers at the party (bizarrely, the masks are all Mickey Mouse faces – a symbol perhaps of the worldwide economic and cultural rape by corporate America?), also represent the other nameless, faceless victims of the Junior Executive’s lying, his rapes and his conquests. Together the victims confront the Don with the real-life consequences of his actions and enact a more immediate and earthly vengeance. Anna plunges a knife into Don Giovanni’s black heart, the exploited masses propel his screaming form from the office windows where he plunges to a violent and spectacular death. As well as being symmetrical in dramatic terms, it’s a death that moreover makes the moralising epilogue that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword just that little bit darker, more menacing and perhaps more politically pointed.

This review was first published in DVD Times/The Digital Fix in 2007

Sunday 2 May 2010

Puccini - La Bohème (Robert Dornhelm, 2006)

Puccini - La Bohème

Bertrand de Billy, Robert Dornhelm, Rolando Villazón, Anna Netrebko, George von Bergen, Boaz Daniel, Nicole Cabelle, Vitalij Kowaljow, Adrian Eröd, Stéphane Degout,

Axiom Blu-ray

There is no reason, in theory, why it should be any more difficult to bring an opera to the film screen than any other piece of musical theatre. In the case of opera, actually, one would think it should be relatively straightforward – the most popular repertory operas have at least a hundred or two hundred years of conventional productions and experimental stagings behind them, ample time to explore and fine tune the dramatic core of a piece. With opera however, there are however other technical considerations and conceptual decisions that have to be made when adapting it for the screen as a movie as opposed to the more common approach of shooting it as a filmed stage production. At its most successful, in Brian Large’s live TV film version of Tosca or in Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni, there is a something to be gained from the filming of scenes in the actual locations specified in the libretto (The Roman locations of Castel San Angelo and others in Tosca and the Venetian Palladian constructs of Don Giovanni), that go some way to helping the viewer see past the exaggerated theatrical mannerisms and problematic issue of integrating and syncing the live or recorded singing performances to the dramatic action.

A literal approach may in some cases be the best way of counteracting the heightened emotional realism of conventional opera performances when brought to the screen, but, just as with stage performances of opera, there is room for a more naturalistic or experimental approach when the themes are sufficiently universal and not necessarily tied to the period. Such would perhaps be expected to be the case with Puccini’s La Bohème, which relates a familiar subject that has not dated in the 100 or so years since its writing. It may be set in a Paris of the 1830s, where guards patrol the gates to the city, where starving poets and artists suffer for their art in freezing garrets, and pale heroines die long drawn-out deaths from tuberculosis in the name of love, but essentially the theme is as old as the hills – it’s about the joys and the vicissitudes of love. It’s somewhat surprising then that the film’s director, Robert Dornhelm, with two of the brightest young stars in opera on board for a feature film adaptation of Puccini’s classic tearjerker La Bohème, settles for an approach that remains resolutely stage-bound – not filmed live, on location or during performance, but using opera production values, sets, lighting, costumes, theatrical acting and mannerisms that belong very much to a traditional period staging of the opera.

Naturalism is not the operative word for Dornhelm’s approach to this film version of La Bohème, but then really, naturalism has little to do either with Puccini’s adaptation of Henry Murger’s collection of stories in Scènes de la vie Bohème. Even accepting the notion of love at first sight, the romance that develops here between a seamstress and a poet is rather precipitous (particularly in this film version which takes their introduction a little bit further than usual with a bedroom coda to Act 1) and the structure of the opera is somewhat schematic, the four acts being divided fairly equally into the birth of love, the joy of love, the torment of love and the death of love. What gives this romance conviction in Puccini’s musical scoring is the harmonisation, both vocal and emotional, that exists between the two leads, and the counterbalance to this in the tempestuous relationship between Musetta and Marcello, which brilliantly follows a similar trajectory but practically in reverse. Quite wonderfully, Puccini's score plays on this reversal and counterpoint in the overall structure with the repetition of themes - in one scene making Mimi's theme express the discovery of love, and in another using the same theme to express the end of love, as if they are indeed just flip-sides of the same emotion.

There can be no doubts about the evident chemistry between Netrebko and Villazón, a partnership that has achieved much acclaim and success in recent years, and that is successfully carried across to the screen in this film version of La Bohème. Rolando Villazón’s intensity, enthusiasm and expressiveness is well suited to the overheated emotional content of a Puccini opera and particularly to the role of Rodolfo, but his acting remains very much in the theatrical style. Anna Netrebko’s more demure and reserved performance perhaps fares somewhat better when transferred to the screen, without losing any of her character’s necessary reserves of emotional depth. The character of Mimi, signalled quite clearly from early on as being ready to pop her clogs at any moment, can be somewhat pathetic (in the pathos sense of the word), but Netrebko, as we’ve already seen in her performance of Violetta in La Traviata alongside Villazón again (reviewed here), has the ability to play the doomed heroine who is unlucky in love without sentimentality. Despite the urgent emotional underscoring of Puccini’s music that almost demands a heightened performance to match, she manages to give her character a small sense of dignity and nobility, reacting to her circumstances with quiet passion and internalised desperation. Netrebko’s breakdown scene with Rodolfo in the snow by the tavern in Act 3 in particular is magnificent, her Mimi writhing around like a soul in torment, on the verge of breaking up with her love and close to death, yet driven to keep going by the sheer force of the love that exists between them – one that is fully felt despite the vast ellipses in the storyline between acts. The beautiful heart-rending quartet with Musetta and Marcello that ends this scene is also marvellously performed, another highlight of the production.

As good as all this is in operatic terms, Robert Dornhelm’s filming of La Bohème doesn’t particularly distinguish itself on the screen. While there are one or two distinctive and effective moments, nothing really feels inspired and, at best, the direction can be described as functional, serving the material reasonably well in a traditional staging that feels familiar from countless other productions right down to the lighting, colouration and décor. At worst however, the dissolves, superimpositions and split screens employed are simply a distraction, being particularly overused in Mimi and Rodolfo’s respective introductions in their garret scene ("Chi son? Sono un poeta" and "Si, mi chiamano Mimi"), while the lip-syncing – technically largely unavoidable, though some of it was recorded live – only adds to the lack of naturalism.

Uninspired and uninspiring though this may be, ultimately this production of La Bohème is indeed about the singing and playing of Netrebko and Villazón, and Dornhelm’s production, for all its safe and traditional staging, provides a more than adequate platform for that to be enjoyed by audiences for years to come, and succeeds moreover in wringing out all the emotional charge from what still remains a powerful and moving opera.

La Bohème is released on Blu-ray in the UK by Axiom Films. The disc is BD50 and the film comes with a 1080/50i encode. Inevitably, this has an impact on the running time, which consequently runs to 109 minutes as opposed to the theatrical running time of 115. Whether this has an impact depends on the original source - it may have been shot at 25fps and slowed down for theatrical release, but I have no information to suggest this is the case. If the image has been speeded up to make it 50i, this could have implications for the accuracy of the audio, but the Blu-ray this may have been pitch corrected to allow for this. Extra features are Standard Definition PAL (576/50i). The disc is All Region.

While the film often looks great, and there are certainly no serious problems with the transfer, the benefits of the High Definition transfer are not always evident on this Blu-ray release. Perhaps on account of the colour timing and the bright lighting that looks more theatrical than naturalistic, contrasts are strong and shadows are exceptionally dark. The transfer does exhibit signs of being somewhat DVNR processed, with haloing also being visible in places, but overall detail and colouration however are good and the image does retains a little grain that keeps it looking like it is from a proper 35mm film negative. Stability and fluidity are relatively good, but some minor flicker may be detected in backgrounds.

The audio track comes in the form of a fine DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, with a supplemental Dolby Digital 2.0 track. The handling of the sound is wonderful on the lossless DTS track, the surround distribution enveloping and effective. Vocals remains up front and, in the main, the singing is clear and warmly toned, hitting the high points without any trouble and balancing vocal harmonisation well. I thought I could detect some distracting microphone sounds and noise on the track in one or two places where the recording is less than perfect, but not with any kind of frequency. I detected no such problems with the orchestration, the lossless audio track enabling the instrumentation to achieve a wonderful natural tone, with fine dynamic, particularly in the clear rounded bass tones.

English subtitles only are included. They are optional and in a white font. When spread across two lines, the subtitles lie partly in and partly outside the frame. I wasn’t entirely happy with the translation which is just plain inaccurate in places, and also prone to miss out not insignificant lines. Apparently, the subtitles were supervised personally by the director, so I think this is another area where his decisions are less than effective.

Interviews are conducted with the director Robert Dornhelm (23:14), with Anna Netrebko (6:00) on the character of Mimi as opposed to Musetta, with Rolando Villazón (5:10) on the film experience and how it differs from opera, with Nicole Cabelle (2:47) on her toning down of Musetta and with Geroge von Bergen on the opera itself and Marcello’s role in it. It’s Dornhelm’s interview which is most revealing, the director admitting that he initially edited the film with numerous green-screen effects and blending (the utterly kitsch results can be seen briefly in the Making Of). He confesses that he has no great feeling for opera, and that in the case of La Bohème he believes that there was no reason to reinvent or modernise, since opera it is a dying artform that belongs in a museum – an incredible and telling admission that I personally couldn’t disagree with more.

The Making of La Bohème (28:31) however is rather good – taking time to interview the cast on their feelings (most of the interview footage is reused here), before getting behind the scenes and eavesdropping in on the rehearsal and filming. Since an opera film production is rather different from a regular film production, this is very interesting indeed. There are also some very funny outtakes at the end, and – of course – footage of Villazón goofing around on the set. Great fun.

The extras are rounded out with a Trailer (1:30) and a Stills Gallery of 21 promo stills. A booklet is also included with the package.

While there is no substitute for the ambience of a live performance in an opera house, the High Definition image and sound on Axiom’s Blu-ray release of La Bohème is certainly the next best thing and, for most of us, the only real option to see the pairing of Netrebko and Villazón in one of the most dramatic and romantic of operas. Yet again, their collaboration and respective qualities proves to be perfectly matched, and even within the limitations of a filmed performance and Robert Dornhelm’s mostly rather uninspired, traditional staging that plays safe in aiming for the opera fan more than the cinema-goer, there are nonetheless some truly great moments that make it all more than worthwhile.

This review was first published on DVD Times/The Digital Fix in 2006

Saturday 1 May 2010

Verdi - La Traviata (Salzburg, 2005)

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Salzburg Festival, 2005

Carlo Rizzi, Willy Decker, Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón, Thomas Hampson, Helene Schneiderman, Paul Gay, Diane Pilcher

Deutsche Grammaphon - DVD

Verdi’s La Traviata is certainly one of the world’s most famous operas, perhaps because, like La Bohême, Madama Butterfly and Carmen, it has all the dramatic elements that one associates with opera – a romantic affair that is too passionate or ill-matched to be sustained and a fallen woman who is destined to succumb to a tragic and untimely death. Adapted from a novel by Alexandre Dumas (‘La Dame aux Camelias’), based on a real life lover of his, Marie Duplessis, La Traviata also benefits from having the whiff of scandal about it (the title itself literally means, ‘The Fallen Woman’, suggesting ‘The Prostitute’). However, the real reason for its continued popularity must be down to two things – the timeless nature of its romantic subject matter and the sheer strength and character of some of the finest arias and music ever composed for opera.

Although there would scarcely be any courtesans around today as there would have been in 1840’s Paris, the subject matter of La Traviata is still universally recognisable. Violetta Valery is a scandalous, but glamorous woman, a celebrated Parisian courtesan who has known many lovers in her time, but never true love. She longs for acceptance into noble society, but her past haunts her – to such an extent that even when she does find a man who truly loves her, she finds she must give him up to protect his family from scandal. Slowly dying from consumption, she knows she must also spare him the ravages of her illness and tragically gives up her chance for love and respectability. The contemporariness of the emotional content and celebrity lifestyles also allows the opera to be imaginatively and inventively restaged. It is just such a modern updating of the story that was presented by Willy Decker for the 2005 Salzburger Festspiele, conducted by Carlo Rizzi with Anna Netrebko in the role of Violetta, and Rolando Villazón in the role of Alfredo.

The dramatic staging is initially very striking – the set design minimalist, yet thoroughly effective at conveying the tone and emotional pitch of the story. Verdi’s beautifully melancholic preludio is played out over a vast crescent shaped backdrop, adorned only by a large clock marking out the passing of time, Violetta to one side of the stage symbolically trying to escape the mysterious figure at the other end – The Doctor, a premonition of her approaching death, who nevertheless reaches her and passes her a single white camellia. Snapped out of her reverie, her weariness and disillusionment with the course of her life Violetta must fall back into the role of entertainer expected from her, as the guests from the party rush in – “I put my faith in pleasure, as a cure for all my ills”. The scene is brilliantly and colourfully staged to evoke a contemporary celebrity who fits the modern-day courtesan role-model equally well - Marilyn Monroe singing 'Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend' (or Madonna singing 'Material Girl' if you prefer).

These are bold strokes to be sure, but accurate and evocative. While there isn't quite anything else to match this fine and innovative opening act, the hard work has already been done, perfectly establishing the tone and content of what is to follow. Maintaining the minimalist staging Willy Decker then focuses on keeping the already concise and lean storyline (at only two hours long it’s rather nippy for an opera) moving along even through what can be dry, prosaic monologues by using some imaginative, unconventional and quite powerfully dynamic stage direction and performances. This is to say little of the opera itself, which has a great many delights, from Francesco Maria Piave’s incisive libretto to Verdi’s efficient yet brilliant score which is perfectly balanced in terms of light and shade, hitting the most effervescent of joys (the famous Brindisi and "Sempre libera") and the most lyrical of romantic arias ("Un di felice, eterea"), as well as the most bitter cruelty ("Ogni suo aver tal femmina") and the most tragic of death sequences ("Addio del passato"). The opera even manages to showcase an invigorating cabaret sequence and matador ballet that is a little incongruous to the dramatic unfolding of the story (although imaginatively staged here with Alfredo as the unfortunate bull), but emphasises the gulf between Violetta’s life of unbridled pleasure and the tragic circumstances to follow.

The production is also graced with two fine and compelling lead performances from the current “dream couple” teaming of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón. Individually, they are both superb, Villazón particularly impassioned as Alfredo Germont. Unlike most readings of the role that I have seen, he is no impetuous, jealous young lover, weakly bowing down to his domineering father. Villazón’s Alfredo is ferociously single-minded in his passion, who fights all the way but cannot win, since it is Violetta herself who makes the final break for his sake. The young Russian soprano Netrebko is also technically flawless and really quite stunning in a role that is very demanding both dramatically and vocally. Although rather young to be playing an aging courtesan, she brings great character to the role – partly as I’ve indicated, through the clever staging, which presents her in a modern-day Marilyn Monroe role, but mainly through the impressive tone and range of her extraordinarily pure voice. Even with all this, I don’t think the opera would work quite as well if it didn’t have a strong, commanding presence from Alfredo’s father, and Thomas Hampson gives just that, adding the necessary baritone vocal weight and dramaturgical counterbalance.

This recording of La Traviata is released in the UK by Deutsche Grammaphon. The DVD, manufactured for international release is in NTSC format and is not region-encoded. It is available in a standard single-disc edition as well as a 2-disc Premium Edition, containing a number of extra features on the second disc. The Premium Edition is presented in a fold-out digipack and includes a booklet, which documents the event that was La Traviata at the 2005 Salzburg Festival, also providing a scene-by-scene synopsis and track-by-track listing. The booklet is in English, German and French.

The opera is presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen. Filmed live for television broadcast, probably in High Definition Digital Video, it therefore is flawless in respect of any analogue marks or damage and inevitably looks very impressive. With the minimalist staging of the opera and the big bold expanses of colour, any digital flaws in the transfer would be readily apparent, yet there is scarcely a flicker or even a hint of any macro-blocking compression artefacts to be detected, nor aliasing or stepping in diagonal lines. The image is slightly soft, perhaps on account of the amount of red and blue lighting, but this only serves to take the edge of the overly clinical look of the image, which during brightly lit scenes has a disconcertingly immediate and lifelike presence. Colours and blacks are all reasonably well defined, with only a touch of blue line bleed and edge enhancement visible in some scenes. The only real issue that prevents the image from being quite perfect is some slight movement blurring.

Dispensing with Dolby Digital mixes, the opera is presented with a choice of higher quality DTS 5.1 and PCM Stereo options. The DTS mix is strong, clear and warmly toned, showing no obvious distortion or difficulties with reaching the highest notes and loudest of chorus singing. It does tend to slightly flatten out at higher levels and lose something in the higher dynamic range, but it copes with this with a pleasant rounded clarity. There is also a certain “airiness” in some passages, but this is nothing more than you would expect from the use of stage microphones recording a live performance. This is really as good as it gets. The PCM Stereo mix handles these issues a little more cleanly and accurately, but not by any great margin. The surround-sound for the DTS track is well mixed, singing being resolutely centre channel for individual voices, with choruses opening out slightly across the front channels for a quite effective wider dispersal of the sound. The orchestration is discretely mixed around all channels, often seemingly floating and filling the room from no direct source, which perhaps doesn’t give enough colour and detail to the individual sections of the orchestra. They are however brought forward and well placed towards the front for the major arias, complementing the centre channel singing, yet allowing it to remain distinct and clearly audible. Audience noise is similarly well dispersed, but tending towards the rear speakers.
As I noted above, the PCM Stereo mix is marginally clearer, stronger and more accurate in tone, but the enveloping DTS mix has a warmer, in-the-theatre sound and is probably the better option.

Optional English subtitles are provided and are slightly on the large and bold side. I’m always happy to see the original libretto provided on opera DVDs, and this is here on the Italian option. German, French, Spanish and Chinese options are also included.

Documentary: Behind The Scenes – The Rehearsals for La Traviata (43:58)
As the latest “dream couple”, the young performers are aware of the pressures on them to deliver, but seem to be completely at ease with their talent, having a great deal of fun during the rehearsals - Villazón in particular is irrepressible - but they are completely professional when it comes to performing, putting heart and soul into their preparations. With lots of interviews with cast and crew (although strangely mostly ignoring the conductor and the orchestra's rehearsals), this is a very insightful film into the process of putting a production like this together.

Introduction by Rolando Villazón (3:03)
Assuming the role of Alfredo, Villazón, speaking in German, gives a synopsis of the whole opera, doubtlessly recorded to introduce the acts to the TV audience.

Picture Gallery (2:17)
A selection of stills are played in a slideshow to the Brindisi.

A Netrebko Discography
Cover illustrations for Anna Netrebko's CD and DVD recordings for Deutsche Grammaphon.

Trailer: Anna Netrebko “The Woman – The Voice” (10:56)
A sample of the DVD is shown here and what I could see of it looked interesting, the director making promo-style videos for the soprano's performances. However, playback problems on my copy of the DVD prevented me from watching this in full.

Mainly delving through their back-catalogue for classic opera performances, Deutsche Grammaphon have perhaps lost a lot of ground to the likes of Arthaus and TDK when it comes to presenting new recordings of opera on DVD. Scooping the acclaimed 2005 Salzburger Festspiele production of La Traviata with the rising talents of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón is a bit of a coup however and DG gives it the royal treatment it richly deserves in their 2-disc Premium Edition, superbly directed for television, as ever, by Brian Large. Not too many people were fortunate or rich enough to meet the extraordinary prices being asked for tickets at the original performance of this production at the Salzberg Festival, so we are fortunate enough to now be able to share in the experience and the buzz of this world-class opera production, and see it presented so well.

This review was first published in DVD Times/The Digital Fix in 2005