Tuesday 24 September 2013

Beethoven - Fidelio

Ludwig van Beethoven - Fidelio

Palau de les Arts 'Reina Sofia', Valencia, 2007

Zubin Mehta, Pier' Alli, Waltraud Meier, Matti Salminen, Juha Uusitalo, Peter Seiffert, Ildikó Raimondi, Rainer Trost, Carsten Stabell, Javier Agulló, Nahuel di Pierro

Sky Arts TV

Revised twice after its first performance as Leonore in 1805 and taking its final form as Fidelio in 1814, Beethoven's only opera is a beautiful testament to humanity, its capacity to love and ability to endure and thrive even in the direst of circumstances. Pier' Alli's direction, set and projections for the 2007 production of the work at the Palau de les Arts 'Reina Sofia' in Valencia is largely period, literal and doesn't attempt anything too adventurous, but it accompanies the sentiments of the work perfectly, as does conductor Zubin Mehta, taking the orchestra through a grand and very moving account of the score that Beethoven laboured over for so many years.

Pier' Alli's direction is quite literal in the sets and their depiction of the 18th century Seville prison and dungeons where the entire work takes place. It's dark, the lighting is sombre, imposing high doors shut off any indication of the world outside and spikes, chains and instruments of torture (emphasised in the projections at the start of Act II) testify to the horrors of the State Prison under the command of Don Pizarro, the governor of the jail. Yet even within such a place, love, hope and more noble sentiments still exist in Jaquino's unrequited love for Marzelline, in Marzelline's love for Fidelio, the young man who has earned the trust and admiration of her father the jailor, Rocco. Fidelio is actually Leonore in disguise, the most faithful of all, hoping to find out if her husband Florestan is imprisoned there and do what she can to help him escape.

The direction doesn't really need to do much to emphasise the brightness in the darkness, and you're not going to notice this anyway when everything that is needed to describe this situation is there in Beethoven's magnificent score, in the stirring sentiments of the libretto and expressed so well in the singing voices. The music is as beautiful, noble and warm as Mozart, ennobled further perhaps through the recognition of the darkness in which the finer spirit of mankind endures. That darker side is more evident when Marzelline's hopes for marriage are put aside (but not discounted) in the later scenes of the first Act and in the early part of the second, as Pizarro plots to dispose of the prisoner he is secretly holding in the deepest dungeon. Its most beautiful expression is there in the scene where the other prisoners take hope in the rare glimpse of light on their walk in the courtyard and express their belief that "We shall be free, we shall find peace".

The light is never snuffed out, no matter how bleak it gets and hope, faith and belief in the supremacy of goodness endures in the hearts of the characters of Fidelio. And no more so than in Leonore/Fidelio. The casting for this production gives us such great singers as Waltraud Meier in the title role and Matti Salminen as Rocco. One could question whether their voices - more Wagnerian than Mozartian - are really right for Beethoven, but it's interesting casting. Neither unfortunately are at their peak here, but their abilities, experience and personality contributes enormously to the overall power of the production. For similar reasons, I wasn't particularly keen on Peter Seiffert's singing as Florestan, nor do I think he carries the role well either. The use of the more Mozartian voices of Ildikó Raimondi and Rainer Trost to express the youthful idealism of Marzelline and Jaquino provides good contrast however and they complement well with the Wagnerians, particularly in the outstanding ensemble finale to Act I.

It's a testament to the production and the rich voices of Meier, Salminen, Uusitalo and Seiffert that Fidelio's themes come through even more strongly in the greater bleakness of the Second Act. Pier' Alli's depiction of the deep dungeon that holds Florestan is superb, a projection of images of spikes and chains taking us down there, and a clever mix of real sets and projected staircases (with virtual prison guards?) creating a truly bleak picture of Florestan's predicament. Beethoven's score rises above it all however, and Zubin Mehta is unable to resist including the third Overture from Leonore as a beautiful moment of contemplation before the finale. It's an imperfect solution to the hurried ending in Beethoven's revised version of the opera, but it rounds out an overall very fine performance of this great work.

Saturday 21 September 2013

Verdi - I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata

Giuseppe Verdi - I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata

Teatro Regio di Parma

Daniele Callegari, Lamberto Puggelli, Roberto de Biasio, Michele Pertusi, Christina Giannelli, Dimitra Theodossiou, Roberto Tagliavini, Gregory Bonfatti, Jansons Valdis, Francesco Meli, Daniela Pini

Tutto Verdi, ARTE Live Web

Verdi's skill as a composer was clearly established by the time he came to write I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata in 1843, but he was also increasingly finding himself confined by public expectations, particularly after the success of Nabucco the previous year. In its first act alone, I Lombardi more or less sums just how adept Verdi was at establishing a dramatic situation, combining personal drama with political or nationalist sentiments, and driving it forward with a forceful musical accompaniment, but it also shows its constraints. As the opera develops, the quality of material that has largely been manufactured to fit conventional situations starts to wear thin, but there's nonetheless a lot of great Verdi to enjoy here.

Act I of I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata sets the tone well, if the tone you are striving for is Gothic melodrama overload. The Overture leads seamlessly into a prologue where a choir relates the backstory of a dispute - over a woman inevitably - that has driven two brothers apart. Pagano and Arvino are however about to be reconciled, Pagano welcomed back from exile. Despite appearances of contriteness however, Pagano wants vengeance and plans to abduct Viclinda, who is now Arvino's wife. The kidnap attempt is foiled, but it results in Pagano mistakenly killing his own father. The stage accordingly resounds with fervent prayers (Verdi controversially setting the 'Hail Mary' to music), dark curses ("Dreadful monster of Hell!") and dire pronouncements ("More than the fire and the serpents of Hell, terror consumes my flesh!").

It's fairly standard material for Verdi then, harking back even to his first opera Oberto, but it is certainly handled with greater aplomb here. What sets it apart from a standard family melodrama is the working of the material to incorporate wider political events and calls to duty. That comes with a passing announcement in Act I of preparations for a Crusade, which not only provides a wider sense of drama, but it gives the composer room to invoke some exotic colour in the musical arrangements when the location (and conveniently everyone involved) transfer over to Antioch and the Holy Land. The Eastern inflections feel a little forced, as does the obligato violin introduction to Act IV, and it's no surprise that Verdi attempts to reprise the success of the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves by introducing stirring choral sections at every possible juncture, but it is nonetheless masterfully realised. 

Unfortunately, the change of scenery does feel perfunctory, the questions of religion, war and differing beliefs coming secondary to the personal and romantic drama. There's an attempt to draw them together with the kidnapped Giselda falling in love with Oronte, causing the son of Acciano to consider converting to Christianity, but again, it feels more like Verdi, despite not being a religious man, is trying his hand at the writing of sacred music in all the prayers and devout sentiments expressed in the choral pieces. He does so marvellously, it must be said (if not quite at the level of the Requiem), contrasting hymns with the darkness of the murder, vengeance, parracide and the violent battles that take place. It's the kind of varied and colourful material that, with the addition of even more dramatic elements and ballets, made I Lombardi eminently suitable for rewriting in the Grand Opéra style for the Paris stage as Jérusalem.

Directed by Lamberto Puggelli, the staging of the work at the Teatro Regio di Parma (and released on DVD/BD as part of the Tutto Verdi collection) is almost completely period, traditional and theatrical in a way that suits the work. Conducted by Daniele Callegari, it's a very fine musical account of the work. Other than some strange choices of background projection images (Picasso's Guernica), the lighting and colouration reflects the colours of Verdi's score and the exotic locations. Sand, a few swords and armour scattered around and a huge wall at the back that takes on literal and metaphorical significance, create exactly the right kind of imagery and tone. The literalness is challenged only at the conclusion, where the City of God is invoked and the fallen rise, but it's perfectly in keeping with the heightened tone of the finale.

The singing is also of a very high standard with no weak elements at all, and there are plenty of interludes and scenes to extend the cast (Pirro, Acciano, Viclinda) and the colour of the work. Michele Pertusi is the baddie yet again playing Pagano/the hermit and does well to resist the kind of over-playing that some of the libretto seems to call for. Roberto de Biasio is a fine Arvino, though his is very much a lesser role than either Oronte or Giselda. Dimitra Theodossiou takes on the greater challenges as Giselda, including the fervent prayers and a near mad-scene at the feared death of Oronte. She's just tremendous, almost bringing the house down in Act III with Verdi's dramatic writing and arranging of events. Francesco Meli demonstrates a good Verdi tenor voice as Oronte, harmonising well with Theodossiou.  Not Verdi's finest work then, but with this kind of performance, fully realised and revealing of its merits.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Glass - The Perfect American

Philip Glass - The Perfect American

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2013

Dennis Russell Davies, Phelim McDermott, Christopher Purves, David Pittsinger, Donald Kaasch, Janis Kelly, Marie McLaughlin, Sarah Tynan, Nazan Fikret, Rosie Lomas, Zachary James, John Easterlin, Juan Noval-Moro, Beatriz de Gálvez, Noelia Buñuel

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

It's not too hard to see the point being made about in Philip Glass's new opera based on the last days of Walt Disney. The irony is hammered home repeatedly and with no great subtlety in either the libretto or the musical arrangements. Disney's animation and the safe family-friendly ideals they espouse may be revered by generations of children and their parents, but those values are derived from a rather more flawed human individual. An old-fashioned, small-town country-boy with Republican ideals, intolerant of progress, race equality or union activity, Walt Disney is depicted in The Perfect American as a megalomaniac who not only took the credit for the hard work and talent of others, but he treated them appallingly as well. So he wasn't a nice guy. Why make an opera about him?

Well, if Walt Disney and his works are held up as being the epitome of "the perfect American", even ironically, then there might be some merit in exploring prevailing bigoted attitudes and intolerance in the USA, but there's little evidence of that here.  It doesn't help that Rudy Wurlitzer's libretto is filled with repetitive, expositional and declamatory dialogue that attempts to find significance in banalities. Walt's vision for America is determined by his own small-town upbringing ("Everything that I've become has its roots in Marceline"), and that vision is defined as little more than "a magical place where dreams and miracles come true". Elsewhere, Walt's nature and achievements are summed up in snappy mottos ("Never say die!"), common clichés (Disney and his creations being "more famous than Santa" and "more recognisable than Jesus") and dull observations ("That's what he does, spares everyone the worst").

There is some attempt to find a less literal approach in the consideration of notions of immortality, but the observations are similarly trite. Walt expresses his desire to a nurse at the hospital to be cyrogenically frozen so that he can be revived in the future, and hubristically compares his cartoons to Greek gods, believing that his work and his beliefs in good conservative American values will "live forever". A little more colour is added when Walt is contrasted with Andy Warhol, who was born in the same year, or in a sequence where Walt has a conversation with a reanimated robot of Abraham Lincoln, but even there, it seems like just thrown in as an opportunity to allow Disney to express some pretty distasteful views on the abolition of slavery leading to the degradation of traditional American values. The latter sequences at least allow director Phelim McDermott and designer Dan Potra a bit more freedom to experiment with the staging which, even without having recourse any actual representations of Disney characters, is impressive and colourful throughout.

The cast and performances are also exceptionally good. Despite the deficiencies of the libretto, Christopher Purves and the rest of the cast (in particular Zachary James as Abe Lincoln and Rosie Lomas as Lucy/Josh) manage to inject some personality into their characters and even some sense of melody into the singing. The musical score however is mostly lifeless orchestration of bland repetition, deadened even further by an inordinate amount of tapping percussion. It lacks any real dynamic or variety in tempo and has no sense of a distinct dramatic character or expression for the work. It's a long way from Glass at his most original and operatic best in his early Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha or Akhnaten portrait operas, but Glass has shown himself in more recent times to still be creatively inspired when the subject (Kepler) or the source (Kafka, Cocteau) are worthy. Walt Disney and The Perfect American just don't seem to fire the composer's imagination this time.

On Blu-ray and in High Definition, the recording of the opera during its world premiere run in the Teatro Real in Madrid at least looks terrific. The staging is impressive and it's well filmed, the HD image capturing the wonderful colour and lighting of the production. The audio tracks also give a clear presentation of the music and the singing both in the stereo (LPCM 2.0) and surround options (DTS HD Master Audio 5.1).  Other than a Cast Gallery, there are no extra features on the BD, but there is an essay and a synopsis in the enclosed booklet. Subtitles are in English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese and Korean.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Weber - Hunter's Bride

Carl Maria von Weber - Hunter's Bride

A Film Opera by Jens Neubert

Jens Neubert, Daniel Harding, Simon Halsey, Michael König, Juliane Banse, Michael Volle, Regula Mühlemann, René Pape, Franz Grundheber, Benno Schollum, Olaf Bär

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Considering the amount of pitfalls and difficulties inherent in making an opera film as opposed to making a recording of a live theatrical performance, it's not surprising that there are very few good films of this kind around. Jens Neubert's film opera Hunter's Bride is therefore a pleasant surprise, the director bringing to the screen a work that is not as popular and well-known as Carmen, Tosca or La Bohème, but one that is nonetheless one of the most important works in German opera - Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz. What's even better, and even more rare, is that it proves to be satisfying just as much as a film in its own right as it does as an opera.

There are several crucial elements that it is essential to get right in order for this to work on the screen. Firstly, it's essential that the work doesn't look stagey and theatrical. Despite the supernatural content of the opera's Gothic ghost story origins, Jens Neubert has a very clear focus that he successfully translates into a meaningful real-world context. Recognising that the nature and outlook of the characters in Der Freischütz is shaped and determined very much by what was happening in the world in Weber's own time, Neubert updates the opera from the just after the Thirty Years War (1648) to the time of the composition of the work itself close to the end of the Napoleonic Wars, setting it in Dresden in 1813.

Max and Kasper then are here both soldiers in the army of King Friedrich August I of Saxony just after Napoleon's defeat in Russia around the time of the break-up of his alliance with Austria and Saxony. The nature of the times lends a little more weight then to Max's desire to prove himself a master huntsman, to the importance of his being worthy of Agathe's love and to his bleak pronouncements that "Dark forces that gather round me. I am seized by despair. Does fate rule blind? Is there no God?". If the relationship to those sentiments and the war isn't clear enough, it's emphasised brilliantly in the Wolf's Gorge scene. Here, when Kasper summons Zamiel the Black Hunter to forge a "free bullet" that will ensure Max's victory in the hunting contest, the rocky gorge is filled with the bodies of dead soldiers, some of them dragged over to form a grim pentagram. The supernatural element consequently takes on a very real and sinister aspect.

The other vitally important element that will determine the success or otherwise of a filmed opera story is the performance of the cast. Jens Neubert, in his notes on the production, is very proud that the cast assembled here are world-class singers, and rightly so. With Michael König, Juliane Banse, Michael Volle, René Pape and fresh talent in Regula Mühlemann, it's an outstanding cast that is not only well-suited to this type of German Classical/Romantic-era opera, but they all have good screen presence and can act. It's a very different kind of acting skill that is required here where there is singing involved and it's not so easy to achieve either within the context of this work's supernatural elements. There are however no theatrical mannerisms here whatsoever, every performance pitched perfectly for the requirements of the camera close-up and in terms of the very real historical setting of the work.

That's not to say that the director neglects what are after all the essential Gothic qualities of the work, using special visual effects where necessary and mixing in sound effects. The use of natural sounds means that you don't always get a traditional performance where the emphasis is totally on the opera, but rather a balanced account between the music, the singing and the use of sound effects and natural sounds that would normally be considered intrusive. The director however seems to strike exactly the right balance, giving the score and singing centre stage, but not being afraid to let more natural sounds and dialogue take prominence when it is in service of the dramatic requirements of the story and the naturalistic setting of the film.  

By using the title The Hunter's Bride (in English for the international market), it might appear that the filmmakers are attempting to distance the film or mark it as distinct from the opera Der Freischütz, but this is not the case. The title is taken from Weber's intended title for the opera Die Jägersbraut, and Neubert hopes that reverting to the composer's original title will bring the emphasis of the work back to Agathe rather than shifting the focus, as it is traditionally held, from Max (Der Freischütz means The Marksman).  This is just one of the careful considerations that has gone into making sure that this is as fine and authentic an account of Weber's masterwork as the filmmakers are capable of presenting.  With this kind of cast, that's even more apparent and when combined with the setting in authentic Saxony locations, this Der Freischütz actually feels more at home on film than it does on the modern opera stage.

On Blu-ray, presenting the film at its aspect ratio of 2.35:1, the film looks marvellous in High Definition.  The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 track is also well worth mentioning, the director going to great length to create what he calls a kind of "3-D" presence that incorporates and balances the music and the natural sound effects.  A PCM stereo option is also available.  The audio is of course necessarily studio recorded and then lip-synced for filming, but this works very well, and the performance is superb.  There are numerous extra features, including a 'Making Of' that is almost an hour long, a full-length Director's Commentary, Interviews and a Synopsis.  Further information on the production and a Q&A with the director is also printed on the booklet attached to the inside cover of the digipak case.  Subtitles are provided in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean.  These can only be selected from the pop-up menu when the film is playing, or from the BD player's remote control.

Thursday 5 September 2013

Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Royal Opera House, 2013

Robin Ticciati, Kasper Holten, Simon Keenlyside, Krassimira Stoyanova, Pavol Breslik, Elena Maximova, Peter Rose, Diana Montague, Vigdis Hentze Olsen, Kathleen Wilkinson, Elliot Goldie, Thom Rackett, Christophe Mortagne, Michel De Souza, Jihoon Kim, Luke Price

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The very nature of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin is one that often makes it difficult to cast and present. The opera is all about the arrogance, impetuosity and naivety of youth seen refracted through a lifetime of regret. As such, it has the near impossible task of needing performers capable of expressing both youthful idealism and the regret that comes with experience in the same person and - as if that wasn't difficult enough - express both positions almost simultaneously. Tchaikovsky's remarkable highly romantic musical score is able to do that, but finding singers who have the exact balance of youth and experience needed to express and actually sing the challenging roles is rather more difficult.

If it were a film, it would simply be a matter of just casting younger actors to play the youthful roles and then bring in experienced stars to play their older counterparts. In the opera house it's not possible - or at least not common - to cast in this way, and certainly not for roles like those in Eugene Onegin that have very specific singing and continuity demands.  For the Royal Opera House production, Kasper Holten has opted for using doubles for Onegin and Tatyana, employing dancers to play their younger selves, and having them both on the stage together in order to allow those interlocking sentiments of youth and experience to play out simultaneously in reflection.  As a response to the themes and the actual music itself it's a valid idea, but it's one that is rather more difficult to pull off theatrically.

It's not as if this kind of cast needs the additional dramatic support. Krassimira Stoyanova in particular is just phenomenal, delivering a sensitive and deeply nuanced performance that works well with the concept. When you see the youthful idealism and romanticism embodied in the expressions and the fluid movements of dancer Vigdis Hentze Olsen during Stoyanova's moving account of the letter scene - the older Tatyana regretful of her younger counterpart's painful naivety - it does actually enhance the scene and reflect those contradictory sentiments. Simon Keenlyside is a marvellous actor as well as a fine singer in this role, but the look of nervous excitement on the young Onegin (Thom Rackett) as he picks up a duelling pistol, oblivious to the reality of what he is about to do, while the older Onegin looks on with painful regret and unable to avert the disaster, is also justified and well handled. The death of Lensky, leaving Pavol Breslik lying there at the front of the stage through the remainder of the opera, doesn't work quite so well. The dead branch that he symbolically drags onto the stage would have been enough on its own.

Any such reservations however are few and minor when taken alongside the evident consideration behind the directorial choices elsewhere in this Eugene Onegin. The Polonaise is more than just a beautiful interlude here, throwing Keenlyside's Onegin with abandon into the midst of swirling ballet dancers that he attempts to grasp but is unable to hold. Tainted by his past and his behaviour, it seems like everything he touches just dies in his hands. Mia Stensgaard's set - a framing set of doors, opened or closed as necessary, with suitable backgrounds, colouration and lighting that enhances the moods - is also highly effective in establishing a consistent look and feel for the work. Tchaikovsky's score is superbly performed by the orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Robin Ticciati, who recognises its majestic romanticism but also its aching intimacy.

The colours and tones of the production design come over well on the Blu-ray, as does the music and singing. In addition to an optional introduction and interval feature, Kasper Holten provides a full length director's commentary, which is uncommon on an opera BD. I don't think the production needs explaining, but considering the unwarranted criticism the production received when shown at Covent Garden, the director clearly feels the need to clarify his intentions.  Perhaps this is another case like the ROH Robert le Diable, which may indeed not have worked in the theatre, but its qualities can better be appreciated in close-up on film. The booklet contains a lovely insightful essay on the work itself by Marina Frolova-Walker that considers how Tchaikovsky's music expresses the content. Subtitles on the Blu-ray disc are English, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Korean.

Monday 2 September 2013

Grétry - Guillaume Tell

André-Modest Grétry - Guillaume Tell

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2013

Claudio Scimone, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Marc Laho, Anne-Catherine Gillet, Lionel Lhote, Liesbeth Devos, Patrick Delcour, Stefan Cifolelli

ARTE Live Web, Internet Steaming, June 2013

I've been very impressed with the work that Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera has achieved over the last couple of years as director in charge of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège. There's been a good mix of standard repertoire done with some originality and flair, and there's also been some more adventurous programming of lesser-known but wholly accessible works deserving of rather more exposure (Haydn, Galuppi, early Rossini). This year has been no exception, but to celebrate the opera company's return to their restored home at the Théâtre Royal the 2012-13 season significantly opened and closed with rarely performed works by two composers born in Liège - César Franck (whose early work Stradella opened the new season) and André-Modeste Grétry.

Grétry is another of those composers who were wildly popular in their time but whose work is now considered somewhat unfashionable and unlikely to click with a modern audience. It's true that the spoken dialogue, comic diversions and pleasant melodies of the French opéra-comique operetta form is far removed from the serious Italian or German opera styles prevalent in the standard opera repertoire, and that the humour and musicianship is far from the sophistication of Grétry's contemporary Mozart. Written in 1791 (the year Mozart died) for Paris audiences by a composer who came through the French Revolution, the timing of his version of the William Tell story at least gives it some historical interest. It gives much more than that however in this terrific production from Liège, which goes to great lengths to reproduce the authentic nature and the spirit of the work, and manages to do so to great effect.

Running to only 85 minutes in length, Grétry's version of Guillaume Tell is considerably more concise in its treatment of the historical drama than Rossini's final masterpiece, but by and large the main points are the same. The composer even finds plenty of opportunity within this short running time to introduce all those little colourful interludes and songs that seem to have little relevance to the actual drama but are so much a part of the opéra-comique style. Here, at the opening of Act I it's all to do with the wedding of Melktal, the son of the chief of the canton, to Marie, the daughter of William Tell. Despite his father being away on business, discussing the question of the high taxes that are being demanded by the Austrian governor Gessler, the wedding is going ahead, and there is inevitably much singing and dancing.

The celebrations are however abruptly halted by the news of the elder Melktal's unfortunate run-in with Gessler. A dispute has arisen over the correct form to show respect to a representative of the Emperor and as a lesson, Gessler has demanded that his hat be displayed prominently in the town square, and that respects should be paid to it by everyone who passes. Melktal's father - it is reported rather than actually acted out - indignantly responds that he would never see such a thing, and promptly has his eyes burned out by the cruel governor. William Tell nevertheless also defies the ruling - and similarly we are told this rather than shown it - and is arrested, but is given the chance to save himself from execution if he can demonstrate his ability as the greatest archer in Switzerland by shooting an apple set on the head of his son. That bit we most definitely don't miss out on.

Despite the unusual approach to the development of the drama, with many diversions of local colour and humour, Grétry's Guillaume Tell is nonetheless wonderfully constructed, hitting all the necessary dramatic points with plenty of entertainment and colour. It's also performed that way in this charming production of the work by the Opéra Royal de Wallonie. Quite why there's so much comic exaggeration in the long drawn out phrases and curious intonations of the spoken dialogue, I'm not sure. Is this an historically accurate way of performing an opéra-comique, or is it just making fun of the Swiss Alpine accent in this particular work? It takes a little getting used to, but it does add something to what might otherwise sound silly - even if that is just more silliness. Most disconcertingly, it's even used during the grave account of the elder Melktal's blinding, which makes it curiously funny and disturbing at the same time.

Elsewhere there's a similar approach to the staging, which on the one hand looks cheesy with its old-fashioned Swiss country village setting and painted backdrops (including a wheeled on cow that leaves behind a bit of a mess), but it also captures the contradictory nature of this Guillaume Tell (and perhaps Grétry's ambivalent response to the Revolution which did him little favour as a composer and citizen of Paris) and gets across the spirit of the work in a way that feels authentic, or at least appropriate. Still allowing time for diversions as the drama escalates with William Tell's actions, this tone and its effectiveness is best exemplified in the battle scene which is played out with cardboard cut-out soldiers operated by puppet strings. A little more modern technical wizardry is called for in the critical apple shooting archery scene - a neon-lit arrow flying with slow-motion sureness on the darkened stage towards its goal - but again it all fits marvellously with the tone adopted.

The acting and singing performances are all also very much on the same page. The performances never pretend to be anything other than fully theatrical, but they are taken seriously within this context and never resort to tongue-in-cheek making fun of the work or its stylisations. This has been typical of Opéra Royal de Wallonie productions under Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, and once again it proves to be the best possible way of presenting this kind of material.

Also typical of the Liège company is the use of a strong regular cast of Belgian singers (with occasional imported Italians and other nationalities in works that require a more authentic touch). Accordingly, we have the usual solid performances from Marc Laho as Tell, although his character is somewhat surprisingly not tested with any arias in this work, Anne-Catherine Gillet as his wife (taking most of the main arias and singing them wonderfully), with Lionel Lhote as Gessler and Liesbeth Devos as the Tell's daughter Marie. With this kind of presentation, Grétry's Guillaume Tell becomes more than just a fascinating historical curiosity and comes fully to life once again as a marvellous entertainment.

The Opéra Royal de Wallonie's production of Grétry's Guillaume Tell is available for viewing for free via Internet Streaming on the ARTE Live Web site. There are no subtitles for the broadcast.

Sunday 1 September 2013

Verdi - I Due Foscari

Giuseppe Verdi - I Due Foscari

Teatro Regio di Parma, 2009

Donato Renzetti, Joseph Franconi Lee, Leo Nucci, Roberto De Biasio, Tatiana Serjan, Roberto Tagliavini, Gregory Bonfatti, Marcella Polidori, Mauro Buffoli, Alessandro Bianchini

Tutto Verdi, ARTE Live Web

Composed in 1844 during the composer's 'galley years', Verdi's I Due Foscari is very much an Italian number opera, but it's a number opera par excellence. All the expected emotions and sentiments are there - stirring expressions of patriotism, pleas to God, arias of despair and calls for vengeance - but the development of the plot is far from the usual template, perhaps too far for the work to ever be a solid part of the composer's popular repertoire. There are however other compensations in this lesser-known Verdi that make it well worth seeing, particularly in this fine 2009 production from the Teatro Regio di Parma.

Visually, it's not an exciting production, but it is staged with a sense of understated grandeur that reflects its 15th century Venetian setting as well as suiting Verdi's intentions for the work and its sombre musical tone. Based on a work by Lord Byron, 'The Two Foscari', there's very little dramatic development in a story that is little more than a murder trial where we get to see neither the murder nor the trial. The accused is Jacopo Foscari, son of the Doge of Venice, who is charged with the murder of one of the Donato family and is to be judged by the Council of Ten. One of the Ten, Loredano, is a bitter rival who resists the pleas of mercy from Jacopo's wife Lucrezia, while the Doge himself knows that he can expect no special favours for his son because of his position.

Act I and Act II then consist mainly of Jacopo and his wife Lucrezia separately and together appealing to God, to the Diecie, to Justice and to the hope of the better nature of Man being revealed, but they are resigned to the expectation of cruelty, hatred, villainy and injustice. Even Verdi recognised in his letters to his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, that Byron's work required more dramatic developments to engage the audience, particularly in Act I, but in reality nothing much happens. The only real dramatic conflict seems to be over who is the most affected by the situation, and in the end, that's probably the Doge, Francesco Foscari, torn between being a father and serving his duty (not an uncommon situation in a Verdi opera) finding that even as the ruler of Venice, his power is limited.

Dramatic developments might be few then, but with Verdi this is nonetheless enough to create a compelling drama. It helps if you have great singers to play these roles and, fortunately, the casting for this production in Parma is of the highest order. The names might be unfamiliar, but Roberto De Biasio and Tatiana Serjan as Jacopo and Lucrezia make the first two acts rivetting. De Biasio sings with clarity and purpose, even if the sentiments expressed in prison are fairly standard, as he awaits "a fate worse than death" in exile from his country and his family. Tatiana Serjan however is even more impressive and wins hands down over who is most affected by the charges against Jacopo, taking the largest role in the first two acts.

Act III however belongs to the Doge, and this role is in the experienced hands of Leo Nucci. He doesn't disappoint, his grave intonations perfect for expressing the weight of his character's personal conflict, so great this time that it drives him to his death. If Verdi's musical writing is still quite conventional in places, it's in such moments that his musical invention and experiments with instrumentation bring out the qualities of the work and the splendour of his approach to its construction. A numbers opera it might be, filled with numbers repetitively expressing conventional sentiments, but Verdi allows the intensity to build through the first two acts of I Due Foscari before hitting you with a powerful Act II finale and then following it with a showpiece for the baritone Doge.

The staging by Joseph Franconi Lee is in itself not terribly exciting. The sets are minimal representations of the wooden panels of the Ducal Palace and the prison, but shrouded in darkness they create an appropriately oppressive atmosphere. It's very straightforward and traditional in this respect, the director not even finding any means of representing the traditional scene of gothic horror in the prison cell. The visions here all remain in Jacopo's head. The colour schemes however are effective, the Ten in red, other official figures in black, with the Doge and his throne marked out in vivid gold against the warm brown tones of the Ducal Palace chambers. Nothing too exciting then, but the staging serves the historical context, the dramatic function and the musical tone very well.

Well staged, superbly sung, this then is as good an account of this rare Verdi work as you could possibly expect. I Due Foscari is not great Verdi, it's dramatically restricted by the conventions and the constructions of the number opera, but somehow Verdi manages to overcome its limitations. In some ways the opera is a work that is untypical of the composer, but at the same time it is characteristic of his attention to detail and his unerring ability to find exactly the right tone that best meets the dramatic requirements of the work. It might take you right to the end of Act III however to realise just how masterfully that is achieved.