Tuesday 25 June 2013

Verdi - Un Ballo in Maschera

Giuseppe Verdi - Un Ballo in Maschera

Opera Australia, 2013

Andrea Molino, Alex Ollé, La Fura dels Baus, Diego Torre, Tamar Iveri, José Carbó, Mariana Pentcheva, Taryn Fiebig, Luke Gabbedy, Richard Anderson, Jud Arthur, Andrew Brunsdon, Dean Bassett

Opera Australia Cinema Live, 2013

There's always a moment of doubt about a new production by La Fura dels Baus when you wonder if they are going to pull off a spectacular coup in their vision for a particular work (as in their productions of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre and Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, for example) or whether it's going to be a complete fiasco (like their versions of Les Troyens and Die Zauberflöte). There's a moment at the start of the Opera Australia production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera when it looks like they might have taken things a little too far again, but even if there remain a few doubts about the validity of the concept here, the direction unquestionably draws out the full force of Verdi's work.

With La Fura dels Baus' Alex Ollé at the helm here the concept is at least a little more restrained than it might have been in the hands of his colleague Carlus Padrissa. Rather than try to make an opera fit an idea, Alex Ollé is a little more inclined to propose an overall concept and then let the meaning of the work speak for itself through attention to the performance. That was the case with his Tristan und Isolde and, once you get over the initial strangeness of Alfons Flores and Lluc Castells' designs, it proves to be the strength here in a late mid-period Verdi opera that can often be problematic to stage.

It's not however a great stretch to consider the idea of masks as being a central theme of the work, and that indeed is the focus of Alex Ollé's concept. The exposition of this theme, as well as the question of revolution that is inevitably a part of most Verdi works, is laid out during the overture. A screen showing modern projections of war, famine, death and revolution, emphasises those aspects in terms of our own society where there is a marked divide between those in power and the ordinary person on the street. That division is further emphasised through the wearing of masks - literal as well as metaphorical - on the part of King Gustav III and his court, while the ordinary citizens, on the rare occasions we see them, are unmasked and depicted in the style of antiglobalist protesters.

The masks worn by Gustav and the royal court then are not just worn during the Masked Ball in the final act of the opera, but almost throughout the whole work and only very occasionally removed. It's perhaps unfortunate that the flesh coloured masks cover the top of the head and sides of the face and are rather blocky in a way that makes everyone look like the android Kryten in the TV SF-comedy series 'Red Dwarf'. Once you get past this and accept the concept for what it is - that everyone, whether conspirator, friend of the king, or even the king himself must necessarily hide their true face - it's a valid if not particularly deep response to the work.

Barring the costumes (mainly marine blue suits with identifier IDs imprinted on them) and the wearing of masks however, Ollé's direction for the work remains fairly traditional and - up until the final scene at least - sticks closely to the original intentions of the work. There are a few minor touches (references to swords for example) that show the difference between the period setting of the original and the science-fiction like tyrannical dystopia of this production, but there's nothing that takes away from the force of the work. In some cases, such as the horrors of Amelia's midnight expedition to the cemetery showing the real victims of Gustav's reign, the changes actually serve to make the situation more realistic and down to earth.

Applying realism to the setting is exactly what Un Ballo in Maschera needs, and it's refreshing to see the qualities that are undoubtedly there in Verdi's composition not buried behind operatic mannerisms or the theatrical contrivances of the somewhat creaky plot. The benefits of this could be seen in the singing and the acting performances. The most impressive here for me was Tamar Iveri. Amelia is not the easiest role to sing or bring to life, but the Georgian soprano really showed a sense of personality that makes her part in Gustav's downfall credible. Her singing was magnificent throughout, commanding yet sensitive to the characterisation and the situation, never more so than in her spellbinding account of Amelia's Act III aria 'Morrò, ma prima in grazia' - sung significantly with her "human" face revealed from behind the mask seen elsewhere.

Having only previously seen the ludicrous old-fashioned operatic gesticulation of Marcelo Álvarez in two other stage productions of Un Ballo in Maschera, it was refreshing to see Gustav performed here by a fine singer who can also act. Diego Torre brought real dramatic intensity to the king, showing the depth of his love for Amelia as well as his flaws as a ruler in the personal decisions he lets influence them that give his enemies rightful cause to conspire against him. He's no tyrant or romantic fool here, but a real person with human weaknesses and his dilemma is fully felt. As Renato José Carbó started out not so strongly, but gained gravity as the opera progressed, ending up fully embodying the role, which perhaps realistically reflects the development of his character.

As good as each of the singers were in their own right however, the true quality of the work, its dark nature and the conflict of interests between its character, comes out fully in the duets and ensemble pieces. Together, with this kind of singing and intensity of performance, the effect was powerful. Alex Ollé's stage direction played to those strengths, never undercutting the important moments of true drama in the work. And, as I indicated earlier, more than that, he also managed to bring some gravity and realism to the weaker aspects of the plot. It's not clear quite why it's not only Gustav who dies at the end here but all the other guests as well, victims of a gas attack by the conspirators. The fact that they are wearing masks also - gas masks - adds another level to the notion of the masked ball, as well as invoking revolutionary imagery that we have become very familiar with on our televisions recently. And in that respect it's perhaps a more recognisable and realistic result of violent civil war arising out of protests to remove a hated leader.

Friday 21 June 2013

Mozart - La Finta Giardiniera

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - La Finta Giardiniera

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Tobias Moretti, Rudolf Schasching, Eva Mei, Christoph Strehl, Isabel Rey, Liliana Nikiteanu, Julia Kleiter, Gabriel Bermùdez

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Written when Mozart was just 18 years old, La Finta Giardiniera is undoubtedly one of the composer's lesser works.  It's very conventional in its arrangements, the development of the story and the tone owing much to the Neopolitan opera buffa style popularised by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.  The plot is one of unhappy lovers unable to be with the one they love, some with hidden identities that are just waiting to be revealed and, for the most part, the expression of this situation requires little more than a series of arias - one person on the stage at a time - relating the woes of their misfortunes in love, with developments confined to the spoken dialogue sections and revelations in the ensemble Act finales.

For the most part.  With Mozart, as with Pergolesi, however, there's a great deal of interest in the common people and a conflict exists between the serving classes and their masters where the roles are often somewhat reversed.  Appearances are often deceptive, as the hidden identities suggest, as do the gender confusion over the cross-dressing and the filling of male roles by female singers and castrati that are typical of these kind of comedies.  Who really rules the roost and who wears the trousers?  "Let's assume a dignified manner", Arminda advises on the necessity of keeping up appearances here at one point in La Finta Giardiniera, but in reality each of the characters' emotional lives and questions of their identity are in turmoil.

What further distinguishes and exaults Mozart's (and indeed Pergolesi's) treatment of this fairly standard Metastasian situation more than just the realisation of the comic potential within the work,  is the playfulness and the originality of the manner in which he brings order to all the confusion.  It's far from Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, or indeed Così Fan Tutte (but then it doesn't have a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte either), but even in this early work by the composer, the arrangements in La Finta Giardiniera are light and clever, sparkling with wit and invention in a way that belies what could otherwise be a heavy-handed melodrama filed with unlikely contrivances.

Most famously, there's the Podestà Don Anchise's Act I aria 'Dentro il mio petto io sento', where he marshals the sounds of the orchestra to describe his feelings for his gardener Sandrina (the Marchioness Violante in disguise and hiding from her lover Count Belfiore, who stabbed her in a fit of rage and believes her dead).  Nardo (in reality, Violante's servant Roberto), also attempts to woo the Podestà's servant Serpetta by adopting the Italian, French and English manner, which is playful and charming but also related to these questions of identity, and happiness cannot be found while one's true self is kept hidden.  There's a lightness and vibrancy to the work then, a consistency and appropriateness of tone, and that's brought out wonderfully by the La Scintilla orchestra of the Zurich Opera House under Nicholas Harnoncourt.

The singing too is good all around, the cast well-suited to the roles in physical appearance as well as in the tone of voices.  None of them are particularly exceptional, singing either with too little feeling for the characters or too much.  Eva Mei sings Sandrina beautifully, but seems elsewhere and not really engaged with the others around her, while at the other end of the scale, Rudolf Schasching's Podestà's personality is a little over-emphasised to the detriment of the singing.  Christoph Strehl and Isabel Rey have rather a better handle on their characters and are delightful, as is the comic contribution and interaction between Julia Kleiter's Serpetta and Gabriel Bermùdez's Nardo.

Unfortunately, it's rather let down by the staging.  Tobias Moretti's direction never really manages to bring any real life to the admittedly limited opportunities for drama to be found within the arrangements.  With a few pot-plants and twigs scattered around, the clean white designs of the stage scarcely resemble a garden since the all-purpose structure has to make do for the interiors of the Podestà's home as well.  There are a few off-stage amusements and some back and forth interaction between the stage and the orchestra pit that help keep it interesting, and one of two clips of security camera footage that extend the scope to show outside events, but nothing ever comes together thematically or with a consistency of tone.

Still, this is an enjoyable account of a neglected early Mozart work.  It only existed in revised German Singspiel form until the original Italian version was rediscovered in the 1970s and recorded for the first time by Harnoncourt, so there are not too many staged versions available.  (An open-air production at Aix-en-Provence in 2012 takes advantage of its outdoor location and fares rather better with a cast of fresh young singers in the roles).  The Blu-ray release from Arthaus Musik is a reissue of the previous TDK release, retaining the original menus and specifications, only with new packaging.  There's some minor flicker in the encoding of the image, but the sound is fine on the PCM and DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 mixes.  The BD is all-region, with subtitles in English, German, French and Spanish.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Verdi - Macbeth

Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Teatro Regio di Parma, 2006

Bruno Bartoletti, Liliana Cavani, Leo Nucci, Enrico Iori, Sylvie Valayre, Tiziana Tramonti, Roberto Iuliano, Nicola Pascoli, Enrico Turco, Davide Ronzoni, Ricardo di Stefano, Noris Norgogelli

C-Major, Tutto Verdi - DVD

There are quite a few versions of Verdi's Macbeth now available on DVD and BD, some of them using the composer's original 1847 version of the score, others working from the 1865 revision, some of them combining the best elements of both.  Using the full 1865 version written for Paris, complete with ballet sequences, this recording of Macbeth from the Teatro Regio di Parma in 2006 is however simply one of the best.  It's probably also one of the most straightforward in terms of a traditional period staging, but that doesn't mean that it's in any way lacking a strong meaningful visual sensibility, and there are even one or two curious conceptual elements to consider here as well.

Judging by the overhead air raid sirens and WWII searchlights that one can see during the opening credits and by the dress of the chorus sitting to the side like an on-stage audience, Liliana Cavani's production gives the impression of it being an audience from the 1940s watching a performance of Shakespeare's play in London during the war.  Apart from the obvious war parallel, it's unclear what exactly the purpose of this is since it really has little impact on the actual main performance of the work itself, which is traditionally Shakespearean in look and intent.  Whatever the intentions are, it remains nonetheless an impressive account, full of drive, each scene perfectly attuned to the dramatic content and to the precise tone that Verdi also sets for the work.

The strength of the work as a whole becomes evident in the final fourth Act, which can only have the necessary impact if everything leading up to it has been up to the mark.  'Patria opressa!' is delivered emphatically by the chorus, MacDuff's presence lending an air of tragic defiance to the horrors that Macbeth has laid upon the land.  That's followed with a chilling Lady Macbeth sleepwalking scene and then an agonised Macbeth, slumped on the throne, alone in a darkened room, defiantly gripping a sceptre, wanting to believe in the weird sisters' prophesy that his position is secure despite the evidence to the contrary - 'Perfidi! All' anglo contro me v'unite!'.  Only the fight scene leading to Macbeth's being bundled off the stage in his death scene is unconvincingly staged, but without the 'Mal per me' aria in the revised version of Macbeth, the impact here is indeed lessened.

Unusually for a performance of the 1865 version, this production even includes Verdi's added ballet music, with a full 10-minute sequence opening Act III's reappearance of the weird sisters.  Like most ballet inserts they do hold back the dramatic flow to a large extent - which is why they are consequently often cut - and there's nothing particularly imaginative about the choreography here, but it's interesting to see an attempt made to integrate it into the work.  The quality of the playing and the performances enhance the production here even further.  It's a stirring, nuanced account on every level - a little overly controlled and measured perhaps by conductor Bruno Bartoletti, but the murderous intent of the work is handled with sensitivity and consequently it's powerful without ever being bombastic.

The singing is also everything you would expect from a production this committed to the intent of the work, with Leo Nucci giving a marvellous, intense and deeply involved performance that is full of feeling for the character of Macbeth.  'La luce langue' is usually a good indication for the measure of Lady Macbeth and Sylvie Valayre proves to be not only capable of meeting its demands, but she remains strong and consistent throughout the rest of the opera - as indicated above, for example, in the Act IV sleepwalking scene.  There are no weak elements either elsewhere in this Macbeth's Banquo (Enrico Iori) or its MacDuff (Roberto Iuliano).

This 2006 production of Macbeth from the Teatro Regio di Parma is released on DVD and Blu-ray by C-Major as part of their Tutto Verdi collection.  Viewed on DVD, the production looks and sounds well, with a widescreen transfer and audio tracks in PCM Stereo and DTS 5.1, the surround mix in particular packing a punch.  The extra features contain the usual 10 minute Introduction, which places the work in the context of Verdi's career and gives an illustrated synopsis of the plot and characters.  The DVD is region-free, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

Monday 10 June 2013

Handel - Orlando

George Frideric Handel - Orlando

Theater an der Wien, Vienna - 2013

Rubén Dubrovsky, Stefania Panighini, Rupert Enticknap, Cigdem Soyarsian, Gaia Petrone, Anna Maria Sarra, Igor Bakan

Sonostream.tv Internet Streaming, 31 May 2013

There are limitations to what you can do theatrically with a work like Handel's Orlando, particularly in a small venue like the Theater an der Wien.  The work itself doesn't seem to present many opportunities for dramatic action, and even the arias often seem to be poetically allusive and darkly melancholic, full of characters wrapped up in their own torments of anger, jealousy and fear.  Presented here in Vienna at the Vienna Chamber Opera and a young ensemble of singers from the JET, the intricacies of Handel's musical writing and the powerful imagery of the libretto were however fully explored and brought to the fore.

Much of the strength of Handel's Orlando lies not so much within the conventional beauty of the melodies as in how they meet the expressive qualities of the setting for the libretto.  It's not just an opportunity to string together a series of interchangeable arias expressing deep but generic emotional turmoil - even Handel would often reuse and recycle his own work - but an integral work with strong consistent imagery, symbolism and themes.  Even as a magic opera, the intentions are not to produce stage craft and spectacle, but to explore the extremes of the human condition.  Those themes are fully recognised in the stage production - directed by Stefania Panighini with sets by Federica Parolini - which is minimally dressed, but fully integrated with the tone and the intentions of the work.

The areas that Orlando explores then are very dark ones indeed.  There are the familiar Baroque opera themes of love, betrayal and jealousy, with unfaithful lovers or unrequited sentiments.  In Orlando however those sentiments take a darker turn into madness as Orlando, a knight in the Crusades, reacts with violence to the discovery that Angelica, the Queen of Cathay, doesn't love him but Medoro.  He discovers that they are in the house of the shepherdess Dorinda, and burns the house down.  It is only through the intervention of the magician Zoroastro that the situation is resolved and Orlando's mind put at ease, allowing him to return to the holy wars.

There are numerous references that express the conflict within Orlando's mind, his soul and his spirit in terms of the divisions between nature and science, between peace and war.  They are not the standard references of tumultuous raging of the soul - allowing the composer to whip up musical storm effects - but to "tender flakes of falling snow melted in the sunny ray", to streams, trees, flowers, "feather'd choirs" and balmy gales in a setting of fountains and gardens conjured up by the magician Zorastro in an attempt to give Orlando respite from the violence of war and the deranged thoughts that torment him.  It's even on a tree that Orlando finds the entwined engraved names of Angelica and Medoro that tips him over into madness.

The stage set used for this production at the Chamber Opera of the Theater and der Wien then is a simple one that reflects the division that has been introduced between man and nature, an outline frame representing Dorinda's house that can be reconfigured to look like a greenhouse or a birdcage depending on the context, the house adorned with plants that grow out of the heads of busts.  Zoroastro's domain is also alluded to through objects that suggest a temple to magic, science, time and learning, with an anatomy model that straddles the themes of science and nature, particularly in relation to the spiritual nature of the human heart and mind.  In many ways this represents the essential conflict at the core of Orlando, between the soul in love and the soul in torment.

The purity and simplicity of the stage expression of the work is reflected in the musical performance of the Bach Consort Wien conducted by Rubén Dubrovsky, and in the fresh singing of the young performers from the JET.  Countertenor Rupert Enticknap is a sweet-voiced Orlando capable of great expression, if not quite reaching the extremes of the Paladin's condition.  Cigdem Soyarsian, a green-haired Angelica (all the performers had punky-coloured hairstyles), also sang the role well, delivering a particularly good 'Così giusta è questa speme'.  The other roles were also well presented, Anna Maria Sarra's Dorinda combining sweetness and melancholy in regard to Medoro and anguish defeat at the hands of Orlando.  Medoro's role in the opera was slightly trimmed here, but Gaia Petrone made a very good impression, and Igor Bakan was a solid Zoroastro.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Haydn - Orlando Paladino

Franz Joseph Haydn - Orlando Paladino

Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin - 2009

René Jacobs, Nigel Lowery, Amir Hosseinpour, Marlis Petersen, Tom Randle, Victor Torres, Pietro Spagnoli, Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Magnus Staveland, Sunhae Im, Arttu Kataja

EuroArts - Blu-ray

There appear to be two ways to look at this production of Haydn's Orlando Paladino recorded at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin in 2009.  You can either view the bizarre elements as a hodgepodge of ideas and a bit of a mess, or you can accept that it simply reflects the perspective of the state of madness of Count Orlando himself, with a little bit of the humour that Haydn injects into his 'dramma eroicomico' (heroic comedy) version of Ariosto's classic tale of the Crusades.  Since it's not entirely successful, there's a case to be made for either of those views but there's maybe a third way of looking at it that surpasses all such considerations.  As directed by René Jacobs, it's simply a superb account of the work with some outstanding singing performances that bring a real sense of character to the work.

Character is at least something that there is plentiful supply of in the set and production design of directors Nigel Lowery and Amir Hosseinpour.  Haydn's version of the Orlando legend still retains some Baroque elements - there's not too much action and a lot of stage entrances and exits for a series of solo arias.  There is more to this of course, Haydn providing some beautiful duets, comic interludes and interaction and of course the obligatory ensemble finales at the end of each act, all of it set to the composer's stirring and somewhat stately musical arrangements.  The actual drama however can still be theatrically rather static, so the production here at least tries to bring it to life.  Partly that's done through René Jacobs' conducting of the Freiburger Barockorchester and the use of period instruments - which brings considerable character to the work - but as far as the stage direction goes, it's achieved by adopting the perspective of Orlando in his madness.

Apart from the character's wild beard and shock of hair, the most obvious indications of Orlando's madness are the other representations lookalike bearded figures whirling away in the background and sometimes forcing themselves centre-stage between the other figures.  It can be a bit strange then to see these figures pop up, particularly when they are dressed as a bishop or a matador and even in a wedding dress or as a flight hostess uniform.  Evidently these are meant to represent various aspects of Orlando's fractured personality in relation to his time in the crusades and, most significantly, in his jealousy over Angelica deserting him for the Saracen warrior Medoro.  Quite how some of these personalities match isn't always entirely clear, but there's no such doubts about what is meant when Orlando turns into an axe-wielding maniac in the fashion of 'The Shining', cutting his way through the door of the castle where Angelica and Medoro are hiding out.

The production then at least has a sense of humour and it's perfectly in keeping with Haydn's relatively light-hearted version of the work.  Orlando Paladino is a very different work from Handel's dark and melancholic Orlando, so there's room for such playfulness.  Much of it comes through the characters of Eurilla and Pasquale - both of them delightfully played here by Im Sunhae and Victor Torres - but there's also opportunities to have fun with the spells of the enchantress Alcina and even with Radomonte, the King of Barbary.  Dressing the latter up as a pantomime pirate who has an unfortunate habit of accidentally cutting things with his sword (including amputating his own hand) might be taking things too far for some however.  Likewise depicting Angelica as some kind of beauty queen might appear to be making things weird for the sake of it, but Haydn can do melancholic wistfulness just as well as comedy, and the production and the musical performance supports and integrates the variety of tones.

If there's not any single reason why this integrates so well and actually works - an opera must come together on every level - the performances of the cast here nonetheless have a lot to do with it.  I've seen Marlis Petersen sing Reimann (Medea), Verdi (Violetta) and now Haydn - three composers who could hardly be more different - and yet she has been nothing less than stunning in each of them.  Her light, lyrical yet strong and expressive soprano voice however seems particularly well-suited to Haydn (and I could see her doing earlier Baroque music quite effectively as well).  You really have to put personality into the characters like Angelica here, and Petersen has plenty of that.  Tom Randle is a superb Orlando, clear of diction with a deep rounded timbre.  There's nuance of expression here in the singing and the acting, even within such an exaggerated interpretation.  All the other performances are equally strong and integrate well with the musical and dramatic elements.  Im Sunhae however is particularly sparkling and vibrant as Eurilla, and Alexandrina Pendatchanska an effective Alcina.

Released by EuroArts, the Blu-ray presents the performance well, with a good image transfer and clear, bright stereo and surround audio mixes.  The sound is a little bit echoing because of the stage set and the microphone placement (no wireless mics on the performers here), but it's clear and detailed.  There are no extra features on the disc, but there's a good essay in the enclosed booklet.  There's no synopsis either, but a full printed tracklist is useful.  The BD is region-free, full-HD, BD50, with subtitles in English, French, German and Italian.

Sunday 2 June 2013

Meyerbeer - Robert Le Diable

Giacomo Meyerbeer - Robert Le Diable

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden - 2012

Daniel Oren, Laurent Pelly, Bryan Hymel, John Relyea, Jean-François Borras, Marina Poplavskaya, Patrizia Ciofi, Nicolas Courjal, Jihoon Kim, Pablo Bemsch, David Butt Philip, Ashley Riches, Dušica Bijelić

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The folly and the controversy surrounding the Royal Opera House's production of Meyerbeer's Robert Le Diable have been extensively reported elsewhere, from the cast changes and departures through to its critical mauling in the press. While I've no doubt that a full evening of a misconceived five-act Meyerbeer opera could well have been a painful experience live at the Royal Opera House, a filmed recording of the production is however another thing entirely. That's not to say that some of the problems with the production are any less evident, but there are compensating factors that one can perhaps better appreciate from the comfort of one's own living room.

Even the undoubted weaknesses in the production can be offset to a large degree in this case just by the rare opportunity to see one of the greatest works of 19th century opera performed on the stage. Meyerbeer was one of the most important and composers of his time, an influence on both Verdi and Wagner, but his extravagant style and grandeur hasn't remained fashionable, and even his greatest works - huge successes in their day - have fallen from the popular repertoire. Such is the case with Robert le Diable, a work which drew wide acclaim from fellow composers, critics and achieved wide popular international success following its premiere in 1831. The work was last performed at Covent Garden however in 1890, and it hasn't been performed much anywhere in the world over the last century.

The fundamental difficulty with putting on a staging a work of 19th century Grand Opera does indeed have to do with it being at odds with popular tastes and fashions. It's not so much a reflection on the quality of the work as the fact that modern audience has very different expectations from opera, and the old-style can be hard to swallow for a modernist, post-modernist, post-post-modernist audience. It's like expecting a reader of Harlan Coben thrillers to adapt to reading Walter Scott, or for readers of Ian McEwan to engage with the themes of Victor Hugo. The challenge that faced director Laurent Pelly then is not an enviable one. He may not entirely have succeeded, but although his production for the Royal Opera House was heavily criticised in a way Pelly does capture the spirit of Meyerbeer to some extent. Perhaps it's more of a case that audiences still aren't ready for Meyerbeer.

Which is understandable, but a pity nonetheless. If nothing else Robert le Diable is an opera experience like no other. Musically and in terms of plotting it's not the most sophisticated, but Meyerbeer packs the five acts of the opera so full of melodies and dramatic development, underlining it with grand choral refrains, lyrical expression, comic interplay and over-the-top gothic imagery with some ballet sequences thrown in for good measure, that it's never anything less than pure value-for-money entertainment. Pelly's production, unfairly criticised I feel, attempts to put all the colour and the darkness of the work up there on the stage in the sets and costumes, and he does so rather well. It's faithful to the spirit of the work, playing it straight where it ought to be, exaggerating in other places, but never stooping to making fun of the melodramatic developments and wild declarations.

Aiming for the middle ground between period fidelity and modernism, there's a "cardboard cutout" feel to the scenery then that is reminiscent in places of David Hockney's designs for the Glyndebourne production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. It's like an ancient black and white engraving that has been garishly hand-coloured, or even a medieval tapestry that might lack realistic detail and proportion, but nonetheless has the power to evoke the history and the values of another period far from our own. Sometimes this works exceptionally well (Act III's vision of Hell on a mountain pass like something out of an Hieronymus Bosch painting), at other times the imagery feels a little forced (the ultimate battle between the good of Alice and the evil of Bertram in Act V), and sometimes it's just a little too kitsch and reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail to take seriously (the colour of the medieval tournament in Act II).  

In most cases however, even those mentioned above, these are valid responses to the nature and tone of the material itself. Stravinsky and Meyerbeer may have little in common (Gounod's Faust might be a better model to consider), but Robert le Diable does indeed relate an exaggerated morality tale of the battle between good and evil similar to the one in The Rake's Progress. Here, Robert of Normandy is rumoured to be the son of beautiful princess who married a demon from Hell. Robert however has the choice to follow a path of righteousness, and demonstrates his leniency by sparing the life of the minstrel Rimbaut who relates the story of Robert the Devil to assembled knights at an inn in Palermo. He could choose also to win the hand of Isabelle in the traditional way through a tournament, but despite the warnings of his late mother and his foster sister Alice, is laid astray by the machinations of his companion Bertrand, the real devil of the work. If he steals a magic branch from the tomb of Saint Rosalie, he can win Isabelle by other means.

Barring some questionable choices - I'm still in two minds about the choreography of the zombie sisters of St Rosalie during the opera's most famous/notorious Dance of the Nuns ballet - Pelly's staging is sympathetic to the shifts of tone in the work itself and gets fully behind it, never attempting to make it into something else entirely with conceptual cleverness. Daniel Oren too shows great feeling for the work, its rhythms and variations, and - regardless of what you think of the merits or otherwise of Meyerbeer's score - it's simply a delight to see this type of work being put through its paces. There is however one other problem associated with putting on a Meyerbeer opera that the best efforts of the conductor, director and the Royal Opera House seem powerless to influence. It seems like we really don't have the singers for this type of work any longer.

It's understandable that singers who would be suited to or capable of singing Meyerbeer are obviously more focussed on the greater career opportunities afforded by singing Wagner or bel canto. Even good Verdi singers are thin on the ground nowadays and the demands of Meyerbeer are often greater. Singing the title role, Bryan Hymel proves that he is up there and his performance is not only commendable, it's almost heroic. His voice might not be to everyone's taste, and it does start to grate and go a little bit wayward as the opera progresses through the final acts, but the effort is considerable. No less demanding is the role of Bertram and John Relyea handles it superbly and with great character. Despite her commitment, Marina Poplavskaya however is terribly miscast here, as is Patrizia Ciofi, who really doesn't have a large enough voice for this style of work, her singing sounding like a whimper that is lost in the orchestration and big choruses.

It's this aspect of the production that is the most problematic. While there are advantages to watching Robert le Diable on the screen that allow one to better to appreciate the full Meyerbeer experience that Oren and Pelly recreate, it only emphasises the unsuitability of some of the singing. There's no doubting the commitment of the performances however, and for all its flaws this is a sincere and a valiant effort to stage one of the great opera masterworks of yesteryear. The recording of the work and its presentation on the Opus Arte Blu-ray (which comes in a die-cut slipcase) is of course of the highest quality in both image and sound. The extra features however are slim, with only a Cast Gallery and a five-minute presentation on the legacy of the work, which does nonetheless give you an idea of the challenges of putting on this work. There's an essay and a full synopsis in the enclosed booklet. The disc is BD50, Full-HD, Region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Saturday 1 June 2013

Rimsky-Korsakov - Sadko

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - Sadko

Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 1994

Valery Gergiev, Vladimir Galusin, Valentina Tsidipova, Marianna Tarassova, Bulat Minjelkiev, Alexander Gergalov, Gegam Grigorian, Sergei Alexashkin, Larissa Diadkova

Philips - DVD

Opera can take many forms, but apart from Wagner only the High Romantic Russian composers have really exploited its potential to elaborate on the epic power of myth, legend and folklore.  Even then, there can be few composers who have had such an affinity for this type of subject as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  So grand are the extravagant displays of such works as The Golden Cockerel, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and Sadko however that they've been regarded as troublesome and costly to stage and largely neglected in the west.  As a result, Rimsky-Korsakov's reputation as a composer has suffered, or he is at least not held in the same high regard as he is in Russia.

If you really want to appreciate the nature of Rimsky-Korsakov's work then it's best seen in Russia, and a perfect example of that is this magnificent 1994 recording of the rarely performed Sadko at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg conducted by Valery Gergiev.  Musically and in terms of singing it's an impeccable performance and authentically Russian, which means big strong voices of power and precision.  Gergiev conducting of the Kirov orchestra draws out all the lush textures, folk rhythms and the sheer orchestral majesty of Rimsky-Korsakov's wondrous score, which recognises and fully expresses the power and the importance of legends and mythology and their ability to transform our view of the world.

The opera itself, first performed in 1898, is an utterly enthralling fusion of epic storytelling with music and theatre.  Sadko is a 'bylina', an epic medieval folktale that recounts the creation of the river Volkhova that connects Lake Ilmen to the Okian sea, bringing prosperity to the merchants of Novgorod.  That's brought about by Sadko, a clever merchant, adventurer and musician who woos the Sea Princess Volkhova through his playing of the gusli.  Rather than having traditional operatic Acts, Rimsky-Korsakov's opera breaks the story down into seven beautiful, lyrical scenes, with a great deal of spectacle and ballet sequences to enrich it.  The story calls for the transformation of swans on a lake into the Sea Princess and her maidens, huge village scenes and festivals for choruses, the catching of three golden fish, an ocean crossing and the creation of an undersea kingdom, so Sadko is quite a challenge to stage.

The Mariinsky's production, in this video recording dating from 1994, is accordingly very bold and colourful, as well as traditionally theatrical in the Mariinsky style.  Painted backdrops create the impression of vast scale as well as the fairytale picturebook nature of the story, with plenty of room left in the foreground for the huge choruses, the choreographed movements of the chorus and the beautiful ballet sequences.  A "wonder of wonders" and "marvel of marvels" - to use a phrase used often in the libretto - Sadko could hardly look more spectacular, the colourful theatricality and the medieval costumes fully living up to the larger-than-life context of the work and the extravagantly rich orchestration that Rimsky-Korsakov has composed for it.

There's a recognition however of the importance of the smallest details in the grander scale of the composition of the work that is reflected in the attention to detail on the part of both the stage direction and the musical performance.  Within all the spectacle are wonderful lyrical moments and demanding singing passages that require great stamina as well as beauty of expression from the singers.  Considering he is not just the central figure, but a minstrel who charms the Sea Princess, you would at least expect a strong Sadko and Vladimir Galusin gives a commanding and charismatic performance.  He's matched well with Valentina Tsidipova's Volkhova who deals well if not always perfectly with the considerable challenges of the role.

Sadko however also offers a variety of dramatic roles and some colourful set-piece cameos.  In the former category Marianna Tarassova stands out as Sadko's neglected wife, as does Larissa Diadkova as another gusli-playing minstrel narrator.  In the latter category Sergei Alexashkin is suitably impressive as the booming and formidable Sea King, but there are also wonderful moments from the other Novgorod merchants, from the three representatives of foreign lands (Viking, Indian and Venetian), and of course from the chorus.  The Kirov Ballet provide further colour and movement that maintains a wonderful energetic flow to the work in several beautiful dance sequences.

The 1994 performance was directed for the screen by Brian Large, who captures the occasion with his usual professionalism and alertness to the rhythms of the work itself.  It's clearly not filmed in High Definition as you would expect of a more modern recording, but the widescreen image nonetheless looks good on this 2007 DVD from Philips that gets across the colour and magic of the production design as much as it is able.  Audio tracks are in Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and German.