Tuesday 29 December 2020

Cesti - La Dori (Innsbruck, 2019)

Pietro Antonio Cesti - La Dori (Innsbruck, 2019)

Innsbruck Festival of Early Music, 2019

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

Naxos - Blu-ray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Innsbruck Festival of Early Music

Thursday 24 December 2020

Wagner - Lohengrin (Stuttgart, 2018)

Richard Wagner - Lohengrin

Staatsoper Stuttgart, 2018

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

BelAir Classiques - Blu-ray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Staatsoper Stuttgart

Thursday 17 December 2020

Melani - L'Empio Punito (Rome, 2019)

Alessandro Melani - L'Empio Punito

Reate Festival, Rome - 2019

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

Dynamic - Blu-ray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Reate Festival

Wednesday 25 November 2020

Dvořák - Rusalka (Glyndebourne, 2019)

Antonín Dvořák - Rusalka

Glyndebourne, 2019

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

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Glyndebourne

Thursday 12 November 2020

Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin (Vienna, 2020)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Wiener Staatsoper, 2020

Tomáš Hanus, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Liubov Orfenova, Helene Schneiderman,
Nicole Car, Anna Goryachova, Larissa Diadkova, Andrè Schuen, Bogdan Volkov, Dimitry Ivashchenko, Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Mykola Erdyk, Johanna Mertinz

Staatsoper Live - 31 October 2020

The perspective that the present gives us on the past should be one of age and wisdom looking back on the foolish acts of youth, but all to often the view from a comfortable distance is just as untrustworthy, leading us to look back fondly and nostalgically on times that were actually painfully difficult to live through and, for better or worse, character forming. Perspective and the passing of time is very much at the heart of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, and that's the focus of Dmitri Tcherniakov's new production for the Vienna State Opera.

Always at his best when directing Russian masterpieces, Dmitri Tcherniakov alerts us to the untrustworthiness of memory and nostalgia right from the outset of this production. There are no peasants and labourers toiling in the fields singing songs that ennoble the nature of working the land. Here in the Vienna production rather we see a large family gathered around a dinner table in a room that is a comforting sea of beige ("a golden dream"), where the guests join in and make fun of Madame Larina's nostalgic reminiscences. The old harvesting songs are also romanticised and sung as a dinner party recital by Tatiana and Olga.

It's a frivolous world, comfortably detached from real world feelings and concerns. Even Lensky's effusive poetry to Olga here seems playful, a fond recognition of the ways of a more innocence age. No doubt the sentiments are genuine, but they are made to look out of place here. Even Madame Larina no longer retains any of the romantic novelistic illusions of her youth. This opening setting proposes diametrically opposed views of the world between the dreamer and the reality, which of course only enforces and emphasises the distance between the impressionable bookish dreamer Tatyana and the aloof, arrogant 'man of the world' Onegin.

Although that delves further into the melancholy of such sentiments expressed in the music than most, it's far from the most original observation to make about Tchaikovsky's masterpiece. The queer interpretation by Krzysztof Warlikowski (Munich 2012), the expansive view of Russian society and culture in Stefan Herheim's production (Amsterdam, 2011), the doubling with dancers in Kasper Holten's production (Royal Opera House, 2013) autumnal moods of light and colour of Robert Carsen (The Met, 2007) all found innovative ways to tap into the many undercurrents that lie within this extraordinary opera. Tcherniakov more recently does seem to rein in indulgences and seem to play a little safer using beige-coloured living-rooms as a way to satirise the middle class, using them as a microcosm of society, but it can still be challenging and appropriate. Here the mood is intensified by the production never leaving the dining room, neither to spend the sleepless night in Tatyana's bedroom, nor even the duel scene.

Evidently then, the more pointed commentary is revealed in other little touches and in the direction of performers, all of them contributing to emphasise the central themes. The utter sincerity of Tatyana's depth of feeling at the conclusion of the letter scene is in heartbreaking contrast to the frivolity of Onegin and all the others around her. It even seems to embody that distinctly paradoxical Russian characteristic of frivolous sincerity and sincere frivolity that lies very much at the heart of the work. Perhaps it's in that character that Tcherniakov dispenses entirely with Monsieur Triquet and instead has Lensky sing the birthday ode to Tatyana (in Russian), the party descending into sheer playful mayhem that is in complete contrast to how Tatyana is feeling. And indeed Lensky.

In this production, it seems that Lensky has an even greater shattering of illusions than Tatyana, or it can certainly seem as such when it is sung and performed with such heartfelt sincerity as it is here by Bogdan Volkov. Lensky's experience proves to be just as critical to the impact and meaning of the work as a whole when it's permitted to be (Warlikowski also for example using the quarrel between him and Onegin as a way of tapping into those deeper sentiments). Here only Tatyana understands how he feels while the others laugh and mock. The duel is no less shocking for taking place in front of all the family and friends in the dining room, reduced to a tussle over a shotgun that accidentally goes off. The impact is every bit as tragic and devastating as it ought to be in the context of this highly charged romantic masterwork.

Considered against Lensky and Tatyana, Onegin is reduced to a mockery in the opera named after him. His return to society in Act III and his self-important tale of his difficult years is met with icy disdain and casual dismissal at the high society function in another elegant dining room, this one a blaze of rich red and formality compared to the easy golden nostalgia of the Larin estate dining room. Onegin finds himself unwelcome, not some tragic romantic figure as he is in Deborah Warner's somewhat misguided 2013 Met production, and certainly not the one he thinks he is. The Russian society here is changed too, now one of ostentatious wealth where outsiders are not made comfortable, detached from their roots and the past.

Tomáš Hanus carried much of Tchaikovsky's romantic melancholy and Russian-ness in his conducting and it was played well; a little bit broad in its sweep I felt, but the music has a lot to cover. Onegin is an inconstant man, difficult to really grasp, particularly when he is played as someone superficial and unsympathetic here. André Schuen never really convinces of any sincerity but that seems to be what Tcherniakov is aiming for here. It's only at the conclusion that he lets go and reveals or becomes aware of his true feelings and expresses everything of the ignominy of a rejected lover. It put one in mind at this time of the level of self-delusion turning to realisation of a populist US President who can't quite believe that he has been rejected by an electorate who used to hang on his every word and tweet. As mentioned earlier, Bogdan Volkov raises Lensky to a new level of importance in this opera with a heartfelt performance that is in complete contrast to Onegin.

The role of Tatyana is a difficult one, needing a singer capable of covering the range of naive youth with a more reflective mature experience. And yet, do we ever really change? Is Tatyana not the same, even after the passing of years? Doesn't she prove to be still capable of making a foolish mistake, still capable of following her heart, following a self-destructive urge and throw caution to the wind. Is she not Russian? No one is immune to such feelings at any age, as Prince Gremlin also testifies in "All men surrender to love's power". Tcherniakov recognises and so does Nicole Car, presenting a consistent vision of the romantic that lies at the heart of anyone who has seen, understood and been moved by the extraordinary beauty and sadness of life through love as its portrayed in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.

Links: Vienna State Opera, Wiener Staatsoper Live

Wednesday 4 November 2020

Braunfels - Die Vögel (Munich, 2020)

Walter Braunfels - Die Vögel (Munich, 2020)

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2020

Ingo Metzmacher, Frank Castorf, Wolfgang Koch, Charles Workman, Michael Nagy, Caroline Wettergreen, Günter Papendell, Bálint Szabó, Emily Pogorelc, Yajie Zhang, Eliza Boom, Theodore Platt, George Vîrban

Staatsoper TV - 31 October 2020

A previous production I saw of Walter Braunfel's Die Vögel for LA Opera in 2009 kept the work fairly neutral in a magical fairy-tale world, but whether you choose to relate the obvious parable in Aristophanes' tale to any contemporary situation or not, it most certainly has something to say about power, social division and inequality. Directed by Frank Castorf (Bayreuth Ring, From the House of the Dead), I think you could pretty much guess beforehand how this was going to be handled in the Bavarian State Opera production. Or broadly guess at least, since while all the more familiar Castorf imagery, symbolism and references are present, it is of course impossible to imagine all the unusual and strange details that the director will throw in.

There is at the very least a case for delving beneath the surface beauty of Braunfels' musical arrangements and trying to get to the root of what the composer might have wanted to say about the underlying themes in the fairy-tale. Braunfels was one of many German and Austrian composers who suffered under the hands of the Nazis because of his Jewish heritage, but his refusal to write an anthem for the Nazi party wouldn't have gone down well either and Braunfels found his music classified as Entartete ("Degenerate"). It's not difficult to see some concerns about the post-first world war divisions in society and where it might lead to in his 1920 opera Die Vögel (The Birds).

In Braunfels' version of the story by Aristophenes, the division is characterised between two men who both have idealistic names, Ratefreund (Loyal Friend) and Hoffegut (Good Hope), who set out to leave behind the world of men, to escape the confines of bourgeois society and culture, and aspire to artistic greatness. They turn to Hoopoe, the Emperor of the birds who was once human, and propose the building of a grand city in the skies, where the birds can reassert their dominion above humans and even the gods. Inevitably the ideal of such a utopia is weakened by the vanity of assuming such power, and Prometheus is there to warn them of where this is all going to lead.

Braunfels started writing Die Vögel before the First World War, and it's not difficult to imagine that the opera might reflect the concerns that the composer could have had about the changes in society during the period of the writing up to its completion in 1919. Castorf's production attempts to reflect those divisions and the human weaknesses that corrupt the idealism of a utopia in harmony with nature. Hoffegut's hope for emotional fulfilment turns into an obsession for the beauty of the nightingale, while Ratefreund's desire for power higher than Zeus leads both to effectively (in this production at least) become Nazis.

It's impossible not to think of Richard Strauss's lushly orchestrated fantasies Die Frau ohne Schatten or Daphne, both musically as well as in the fairy-tale subject matter of Die Vögel. Braunfels composes some ravishing but not particularly challenging music that is at least persuasive of the possibility of a utopia, with bird trills feeding into the score. The second half goes all-out with Hoffegut's wooing of the Nightingale, the long instrumental ballet music for the wedding between Mister Pigeon and Miss Dove, but it's all brought down to earth (literally) with the arrival of Prometheus, and Castorf is determined not to let the fantasy and musical extravagance overshadow the darker message. If anyone can make Die Vögel just that bit edgier it's undoubtedly Frank Castorf.

Inevitably when it comes to this director, it's very much hit and miss. Nothing is going to be presented literally or as a pure allegorical fantasy as in the LA Opera production, and the imagery and the symbolism don't correlate with underlying themes in any obvious way. What works and what doesn't will depend on your perspective, but there's certainly plenty to take in and work with in the set design. For Act I Alexander Denic provides a familiar Castorf 360 degree rotating three-level platform of makeshift rusting scaffolding, steel staircases and plastic sheeting with a wooden hut at the top. The ground floor likewise looks like a refugee camp with shipping containers, wooden fence and chairs.

As you also often find with Castorf there are handheld cameras projecting close-ups and backstage action up onto screens, the set also decorated with little details that reference consumerist society (a Coca-Cola dispenser) as well as more obscure references to the subject of birds in concert posters for The Eagles and one for The Byrds backed by The Flying Burrito Brothers. Running in a similar free-association way, Act II after the interval features a huge billboard of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, with clips from the film showing on an array of satellite dishes as the inevitable horror of this (capitalist?) citadel to man's vanity comes crashing down to earth.

Whether you can make anything clear out of Castorf's production, there's no shortage of ideas and it does look spectacular. The birds' costumes are beautifully extravagant like nightclub showgirls and dancers, with feathers in their hair and plumage on wire harnesses. The arrival of Prometheus amidst the cacophony of life, ideas, references, emotional and political conflict in Castorf's intentionally cluttered stage is extraordinary, capturing the beauty and the ugliness, the mundane and the mysterious, the whole glorious spectacle and the ignominious collapse of it all. Performed in an almost empty theatre, the premiere and final performance of this production before the National Theatre goes into lockdown, certainly lends a strange atmosphere to the piece, where culture is again at the mercy of social upheaval.

The casting and of course the musical performance under Ingo Metzmacher certainly helps contribute to emphasise the contrasts between the lush music and the on-stage furore. I always enjoy Charles Workman's singing and he's very good here as Hoffegut, bringing a suitable little bit of an edge to his usually soft lyrical tenor. It's rather hard for anyone else to be relatable on a human level either - for obvious reasons in this fantasy - but there are songbirds aplenty and excellent performances from Wolfgang Koch as Prometheus, Günter Papendell as Wiedhopf (Hoopoe), Michael Nagy as Ratefreund and Caroline Wettergreen as the Nightingale.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper TV

Friday 30 October 2020

Messager - Fortunio (Paris, 2019)

André Messager - Fortunio

Opéra Comique, Paris - 2019

Louis Langrée, Denis Podalydès, Cyrille Dubois, Anne-Catherine Gillet, Franck Leguérinel, Jean-S
ébastien Bou, Philippe-Nicholas Martin, Pierre Derhet, Thomas Dear, Aliénor Feix, Luc Bertin-Hugault, Geoffroy Buffière, Sarah Jouffroy, Laurent Podalydès

Naxos - Blu-ray

I don't think that André Messager is going to make a big comeback in popularity outside of France any time soon, but fortunately they look after the legacy of their opera history at the Opéra Comique in Paris. Like some recent revivals of Messager's French contemporaries and teachers, Camille Saint-Saëns and Gabriel Fauré, his 1907 opera Fortunio proves to be a pleasant surprise, even if it remains very much of its time. Which is nonetheless a time that still saw some major works and significant developments in the world of opera.

Messager's contribution to early 20th century music is perhaps more for his fame as the conductor of the world premiere of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, and for his work in the promoting the Wagnerian repertoire in France. His own compositions may not be quite as groundbreaking in the world of opera as those two composers but when considered alongside the likes of Massenet or even Puccini, who was also composing his greatest works around the same period, Messager's operas are very much in the running in terms of melody, drama and intensity of deep romantic feelings.

While he made a significant contribution to the French opera world then in terms of his conducting and in his appointment as director of the Paris Opera, it doesn't appear that Messager had any great ambitions to progress the world of opera through his own compositions. His was the world of the light comic operetta, but in Fortunio he brings a deceptive lightness of touch to the more through-composed form of the opera-lyrique, with a traditional subject based on Alfred de Musset's 1835 comedy 'Le Chandelier', a work that was guaranteed to delight French audiences of the period.

Directed by Denis Podalydès, the Opéra Comique production very much aligned to a period style and tradition that will bring the best out of the work. In subject and treatment it often reminded me of elements Massenet's Manon and Werther. Fortunio is a naive country boy who has fallen hopelessly in love with Jacqueline, the coquettish wife of his employer, the notary Maître André. She uses his innocent devotion as a way to distract her husband from a much more serious affair that she is carrying on with her lover, the womanising Captain Clavaroche. Even though he becomes aware that he is being misused, Fortunio only grows even more devoted in the hope that his desires and faithfulness might be rewarded, despairing at the same time that he is surely unworthy of such love, a love so consuming that he could die of it or die for it.

Messager's skill is that he pours these sentiments into the most beautiful heartfelt arias, the music soaring in accompaniments as these feelings grow in intensity. Like Werther, if you have singers that can deliver on that the work itself will soar, and that's very much the case here. Cyrille Dubois is wonderful as Fortunio with a gorgeous lyrical range that brings the drama and the opera fully to life. Anne-Catherine Gillet's Jacqueline is also excellent in a tricky role that challenges ones sympathy with her coquettishness being indulged, a plaything for all three men, but there are indications that she doubts her own intentions and feelings, and Gillet captures that ambiguity and uncertainty well. Maître André and Clavaroche are much more caricatures, the foolish cuckolded husband and the womaniser, and both played to the hilt, as they should be in the context by Franck Leguérinel and Jean-Sébastien Bou.

The Opéra Comique of Paris are unparalleled at putting on French light opera of this period and the production here is outstanding, well up to their usual high standards. The musical direction by Louis Langrée is superb, putting a spring in the music, which is full of verve and emotion, and even shows important influences with some Debussy-like impressionistic and atmospheric touches. Eric Ruf's set designs are traditional and period with no ironic subtexts or winks to the audience. It's played for what it is. Although Messager is not a composer I'm at all familiar with, this production and performance here makes a strong case for this opera being worthy of sitting alongside more famous works in the repertoire.

The Blu-ray edition of Fortunio from Naxos is very nice. The High Definition image is clear with a touch of warmth and softness that captures the qualities of the theatrical lighting. The music is likewise warm and detailed, soaring in both Hi-Res LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio surround mixes. There are no extra features on the disc, but there's a full tracklist, commentary on the work and a synopsis in the enclosed booklet. The BD50 is all-region, with subtitles in French, English, German, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Opéra Comique

Sunday 25 October 2020

Donizetti - L'Ange de Nisida (Bergamo, 2019)

Gaetano Donizetti - L'Ange de Nisida

Fondazione Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo, 2019

Jean-Luc Tingaud, Francesco Micheli, Florian Sempey, Roberto Lorenzo, Konu Kim, Lidia Fridman, Federico Benetti

Dynamic - Blu ray

Although it was always a mark of prestige, 19th century Italian opera composers often ran into considerable difficulties when writing for the Paris stage. For all the work involved, major operas would often receive limited performances and end up in now more familiar Italian versions that were cut back for an Italian audience and to avoid censorship, the French originals often almost lost in the process. Verdi managed to rework his French compositions into Italian versions with variable success, but the French versions are still rarely performed, and in the case of Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims, the lost opera was only recovered in 1984. The rediscovery and new critical editions of these works is therefore always fascinating, but few involve as much effort in reconstruction and revival as Donizetti's lost opera L'ange de Nisida.

L'ange de Nisida is such a rarity that not only did Donizetti never see it performed, the work has actually never even been fully staged until this Fondazione Teatro Donizetti production in Bergamo in 2019. The original French opera was abandoned when the Renaissance Theatre in Paris went bankrupt in May 1840 and it appears that any original manuscripts of the opera were dismembered and overwritten to be reused in the composer's next French opera, La Favorite. As a consequence there remained no complete score to be unearthed from the archives. Even the French version of the new work La Favorite is itself a rarity, but anyone who has seen it in one of several recent productions (Toulouse 2014, Munich 2016) and recognised it for the gem it is, will be fascinated to see the work it derived from restored and reconstructed.

Not unexpectedly, La Favorite not only has musical similarities with L'ange de Nidisa but since the music was written for specific situations, the opera shares similar characterisation, plotting and themes. Not that it was ever a complicated plot in the first place. Essentially both works boil down to a ruler who is taking advantage of a young girl that he cannot marry. Here, Don Fernand d'Aragon's lover is La comtesse Sylvia Linarès, an innocent girl whose circumstances as the king's mistress are so unfortunate that she is regarded as an angel by the population of the island of Nisida. In order to appease the Pope, who is scandalised by the arrangement, Fernand marries Sylvia off to a soldier, Leone, unaware that the brave young man who has fled Naples is in love with her. Realising he is being used however causes something of a crisis of conscience for Leone and he rejects Sylvia, retreating to a monastery. With tragic consequences, evidently.

That's more or less it, and barring some reconfiguration of the characters and situations, it's very similar to La Favorite. The plot might appear thin, short on any real incident, the anguish and sentiments over-stretched by the musical and vocal extravagance, but - much like La Favorite - the settings certainly provide Donizetti with the opportunity to deliver colourful musical drama in the form of regal choruses, religious sentiments and solemn chastisements that cover personal moments of love, anguish and confusion, all leading to the kind of melodramatic tragic conclusion that Donizetti does better than most.

The challenge of staging any Donizetti opera is making its plot half way credible, but the material is there to work with. Despite the apparent lightness of the melodies and conventional numbers, there is often a darkness in the stories that is actually reflected in the musical composition. Compared to Linda di Chamounix or La Favorite, Donizetti perhaps doesn't succeed quite as well here in capturing the depth of feeling or the dark undercurrents of personal suffering, loss of pride and innocence in an abusive relationship by a supposedly respectable person of power. If it feels like there is a lot of French opera and Baroque opera hangover "filler" in L'ange de Nisida, Donizetti nonetheless delivers the key moments of sweeping sentiments with thunderous and thrilling crescendos.

The material is there if a director wants to probe the dark corners of the work, but you can't fault Francesco Micheli's adventurous production for Bergamo, nor could you complain of any failings in the musical or singing performances under the musical direction of Jean-Luc Tingaud. If the idea is to make the drama a little more three-dimensional the production succeeds to a large extent by the opening up of the Teatro Donizetti while it was in the process of being restored, the stalls area without seats becoming the stage and a bank of stalls seats moved up onto the stage. The opera is then performed in the round, with Tingaud conducting the orchestra facing away from the stage.

Whether this plays any part in opening up the work at all, it does nonetheless find a fresh way to consider the work and even enhance its character as a rarity. There is actually a valid underlying idea behind this, seeing the composition and reconstruction of the opera in the context of renovating the Teatro Donizetti, the floor littered in the first half with scattered pages, with even the "death" of the opera being suggested at the conclusion. There are numerous little touches like this - even some of the costumes are made of paper - all of which add to the unique character of the production without over-stretching the work beyond its limitations. One practical intervention is where the Naples mob that Leone fought in Act I come back at the conclusion to find a way to explain Sylvia's sudden death, and by granting the king his vengeance it does add to the darkness at the heart of the work.

Partly through adapting his work for a French audience but also undoubtedly to a growing maturity in the writing, there's less of Donizetti's ostentatious cabalettas and virtuoso coloratura in L'ange de Nisida, the vocal arrangements more attuned - notwithstanding the melodramatic and high romantic sentiments - to a more relatable human level of dramatic expression. The vocal challenges are still there however and if you just want to enjoy the musical qualities of the opera purely for the singing, this production presents it at very high standard indeed. Lidia Fridman is superb, a darkly blazing Sylvia, Konu Kim lyrical as Leone, and the roles of King Fernand (Florian Sempey), Gaspar (Roberto Lorenzo) and the monk (Federico Benetti) are all full of character. The performance and impact of the chorus - often performing from the gods - is spectacular.

The image quality on the Dynamic Blu-ray is very good considering that the complications of camera positioning, lighting and downward projections lead to some slight variations of tone and colouration. In the main however the performance is captured well with plenty of closeups and angles that you wouldn't normally get on a DVD recording. The audio recording and mixing is also a little variable, but again mostly down to the unconventional staging and the rustling of the beautifully designed paper costumes. The mixing isn't quite right in Act I, Don Gaspar's mic sounds artificially boosted, overwhelming the music, but this soon balances out and both stereo and surround mixes carry a warm musical accompaniment. Occasionally, there are minor continuity differences noted in visual and audio syncing from editing several performances together.

The extra features on the BD/DVD release are very informative. There's a very engaging interview with the director on the disc that explains his ideas for the production well and gives some background to how it was developed. The accompanying booklet contains a fascinating account and analysis of the historical place of L'ange de Nisida as well as a thorough examination of how it was reconstructed though extensive research by Candida Mantova, detailing the thought processes behind the editorial decisions made in order to present an authentic and complete performing score with as little compromise as possible. The BD50 disc is all region compatible and has subtitles in French, English, Italian, German, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Fondazione Teatro Donizetti

Tuesday 20 October 2020

Verdi - Don Carlos (Vienna, 2020)

Giuseppe Verdi - Don Carlos

Wiener Staatsoper, 2020

Bertrand de Billy, Peter Konwitschny, Vera Nemirova, Michele Pertusi, Jonas Kaufmann, Igor Golovatenko, Roberto Scandiuzzi, Malin Byström, Eve-Maud Hubeaux, Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Virginie Verrez, Robert Bartneck, Johanna Wallroth, Katie La Folle

Vienna State Opera Live - 4th October 2020

Don Carlos, the full Five-Act French version, is probably Verdi's most ambitious work, and if it was never quite a success its flaws only add to its fascination. In the right hands those flaws don't necessarily need to be weaknesses, and like much mid-period Verdi, with judicious cuts, good singers and some creative directorial ideas, the genius of the work is very much in evidence. Unfortunately if you don't have one of those elements, or indeed all of them, you're in for a struggle with this work. With this Vienna State Opera production of the full-length French version of Don Carlos clocking in at 5 hours including intervals, it's a glorious epic nonetheless even if it seems that the director Peter Konwitschny does more to highlight the opera's flaws than find a way to make them work.

Even so, I wouldn't say that the Vienna production is a struggle by any means. It's got a cast that is hard to fault and a conductor and director who should be capable of bringing fire to the work, but rather than seek to mitigate against or even exploit the works flaws, somehow Konwitschny just seems to emphasise them. What is most evidently lacking however is any kind of central idea to give it purpose, drive, energy and momentum. It has moments of excitement, mainly due to Verdi's scoring and the inner fire of the work that still smoulders, but you're left with the feeling that it should be so much more. That however is a not an uncommon feeling to have with Verdi operas of this period.

It's not as if there is any shortage of themes to latch onto in Don Carlos; love versus duty, personal lives and public faces, honour versus betrayal, family, friendship, politics and religion, war and peace, wielding power over a kingdom but having no control over human feelings and emotions. Any one of these can be expanded upon and Verdi provides the means to do so with stirring music that has strong dramatic drive and character definition, even if it's perhaps not always the most subtle. The opening Fontainebleau scene in this version can provide vital context for the love that Don Carlos has for his "mother" that Verdi melodramatically characterises as incestuous, but here it feels long drawn out and emotionally distant, Byström and Kaufmann failing to igniting any genuine passion. 

Subsequent acts show little of interest or imagination, the background is plain, costumes are traditional style, the whole things very monochrome. A tree planted at Fontainebleau remains lit throughout at front of stage, a symbol perhaps of a new life, the potential of a new beginning, one that may be closer to nature, but the tree and idea never really takes root - which may be the intention. There are a few curiously exaggerated nods and winks to the audience, particularly in the dead Charles V disguised as a monk, but there is also a lot of just plain bad acting, particularly on part of Kaufmann. Don Carlos needs control, direction and purpose to find a way through the abundance of themes and personalities, and notwithstanding the strengths of Verdi's score, it just won't work if it doesn't have adequate dramatic conviction to support them.

If there's little evidence of a directorial hand in the first half, the production shows a little more ambition after the interval. Unfortunately those are more in the nature of little touches rather than serving any grand scheme or purpose, as if to give the audience a moment's respite from the heaviness of the melodrama. This is particularly evident in the French version's unfamiliar and rarely performed ballet sequence. Entitled Eboli's Dream, it takes a more modern outlook, updating the setting to a comfortable little mid-twentieth century home. Eboli is a pregnant wife cooking for her husband Carlos when he returns home tired from work, getting ready for a little family dinner party with in-laws, the king and queen. It's played mainly for laughs, Carlos is tired and clumsy, the cooking is inevitably a disaster and they have to order in pizza. It's quite silly, but a welcome change of tone and it's always a treat to have the ballet music included in Verdi's French operas.

What Peter Konwitschny brings out then is not so much the dramatic character as emphasise the dramatic colour of the work, which being a French Verdi opera has all the range and ability of the composer in it. It may not necessarily make the best use of it, and it rather demonstrates that it is hard to match the drama with the music without it appearing very heavy-handed. Colour there certainly is though, even if some of those touches often feel distracting. In the context of a mostly through-composed opera, the Spanish colouration of the music in the friendship of Carlos and Rodrigo (and its maudlin reprises), the Andalusian gypsy music of Eboli's Veil Song and even the ballet, all feel like crowd-pleasing filler playing to convention rather than making any meaningful contribution to the drama. All are enjoyable in their own way and the production at least seeks to include them for that.

Another of those breakaway moments occurs when the opera is taken out into the foyer of the Vienna State Opera for Verdi's big choral auto-da-fé set piece, with an announcer, a film crew and photographers following the action. The heretics, looking like staff of the opera house or formally dressed members of the audience, are rounded up and beaten. Again, this is very much playing to the colour of the piece rather then illustrate it with any meaningful dramatic context. For Act IV's "Elle ne m'aime pas" ("Ella giammai m'amò" in the Italian) it's made clear that Eboli has obviously enjoyed some revenge sex with Philippe having brought Elisabeth's casket to him, only for the king to regret it the next morning. It adds a little more of a frisson to the king's condition, his conscience spiked further by the arrival of the Inquisitor, who is blind and doesn't see Eboli in his room.

If the dramatic conviction of the opera is lacking, there is at least considerable compensation in the musical and singing performances conducted by Bertrand de Billy. Surprisingly however, despite having sung this role capably before (even if I wasn't impressed by the version I attended at the Bastille in 2017)
Jonas Kaufmann appears to be showing further signs of strain. More than any minor issues with the singing, I was more surprised more by his lack of any sense of real engagement with the character of Carlos and his dilemma. You could blame the director (or revival director Vera Nemirova) for that, but either way, the cracks are showing.

Malin Byström is a fabulous singer and you can't underestimate how impressive she is singing a fiendishly difficult role, although ideally a little more force and experience is needed perhaps to really put personality behind Elisabeth. Eve-Maud Hubeaux's Eboli is fabulous, well-sung, showing plenty of personality and character. Michele Pertusi and Igor Golovatenko also give fine performances as Philippe and Rodrigo. No great revelations perhaps but regardless of any minor complaints with the production and performances, the opportunity to hear such an astonishing work performed at this level is always a treat.

Links: Vienna State Opera, Wiener Staatsoper Live

Monday 5 October 2020

Massenet - Don Quichotte (Bregenz Festival, 2019)

Jules Massenet - Don Quichotte

Bregenz Festival, 2019

Daniel Cohen, Mariame Clément, Gábor Bretz, David Stout, Anna Goryachova, Léonie Renaud, Vera Maria Bitter, Paul Schweinester, Patrik Reiter, Elie Chapus, Felix Defèr

Unitel/C-Major - Blu-ray

Good music is timeless of course but styles can go out of fashion, and the history of opera is lined with bodies of work by composers who have been the victim to changing trends, social upheaval and censorship. Jules Massenet is by no means a neglected or forgotten composer, but for me the majority of his work is very old fashioned and unlikely to inspire in today's opera world. There are certain exceptions - the remarkable Werther above all - and it's looking increasingly like his Don Quichotte is one of those works whose charms and qualities are proving to be timeless. Which is fortunate because that's pretty much what the opera is about.

And it's that idea that director Mariame Clément sets about demonstrating right from the outset of her 2019 Bregenz production. Even before the opera starts it's necessary to make some things clear, because as timeless as its music and themes are, the noble knight's gallant and chivalrous attitudes, his deference and respect towards beautiful women, his wooing and serenading and duelling love rivals, could be seen in a modern context as not only a little old fashioned and out of date, but even offensive by some. That just wouldn't do. Don Quichotte should leave you with that impression that he (and the opera) may be a relic of the past, but it's just a little bit sad that such ways have been left behind. Even as we respect and mourn their lack of relevance to the present day, perhaps there may even still be something to be learned from it.

Clément's Bregenz production rather catches the audience off guard however by opening with a slick modern Gillette advertisement showing that masculine gallantry is demeaning to women and that the new man should be much more progressive and egalitarian in their outlook. The modern man would scoff at the ways of Don Quixote, his lauding of women and putting them on a pedestal, and indeed that is exactly what happens in the opening act of the opera, where it's not just some uncouth villagers mocking the old Chevalier but a couple of modern opera goers mocking these outdated ideas from an on-stage audience.

The clever, very realistic advertisement, the meta-theatrical outbursts from a planted extra in the audience and the commentary from the 'front row' are clever enough to plant the seed of the idea that is developed in the rest of the opera. Clément doesn't rest on that however but employs a few other tricks in order to retain something of the traditional presentation of the opera while viewing it at a slight modern remove. In this case of course it's an entirely valid approach, as what is lost between the innocence of the old ways and the enlightened new ways is precisely what the opera is about, and not only that, but it even describes Massenet's opera itself.

Although it's undoubtedly necessary to make the comparison, Clément risks losing the audience by using each of the acts to present a different Don Quixote in each of the Acts. In Act II, a more modern Quixote and Sancho look quite different from their classical versions, Quixote here having a groomed and shaved appearance (Gillette presumably), Panza looking like a biker with tattoos and expressing a less favourable view of womankind. The two are in the bathroom of their hotel presumably, where Don Quixote sets himself against not a windmill but an extractor fan (maybe Sancho here is his drug dealer). It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but Clément just about gets away with it through her usual modus operandi of providing humour and spectacle, as the back wall opens up to a giant fan. More than anything however, it's the singing that provides all the necessary conviction.

The ambition of creating a Don Quixote through the ages where "we could be heroes" carries over again with no real continuity into Act III. Against a background of a graffiti covered wall in a suburban wasteland or HLM complex, Don Quixote is this time dressed - unfathomably - as Spider-Man confronting a gang of hoodlums in the 90s on his mission for Dulcinea. Act IV takes place in an office workplace with something of a Lois Lane and Clark Kent vibe about it. Any one of these ideas might have sufficient as a modernisation and provided greater consistency to the production (and opera), but it might not have established the necessary contrast between the gradual move away from the age of chivalry to the present day quite as well.

Behind it all - most evident in Massenet's score - there's a longing to believe that such heroism, romance, nobility, sincerity, pureness of heart and warmth of soul is still possible in our own time. That's blended in beautifully with the fear and sadness that Dulcinea expresses in Act V that even if it existed we probably aren't worthy of it, and as such it is scorned. The closest we have to an acceptance of heroes is that it's the stuff of movies, Dulcinea in Act V viewing the final moments of the wandering knight as if on a movie screen. Massenet's handling of the underlying emotional charge of this is just beautiful, and it's all the more touching when these characters are sung as well as they are in this Bregenz production.

Quite simply there are superb performances across all the principal roles. Gábor Bretz is a rich, soulful Don Quichotte and he’s matched for depth and warmth of baritone timbre by David Stout’s Sancho. In voice and presence, Anna Goryachova's Dulcinea presents a worthy object for the attentions of the noble chevalier. The conductor Daniel Cohen doesn’t hold back either on the emotional richness or dramatic impact of the music, powering the Wiener Symphoniker orchestra through Massenet’s wonderful score.

The all-region compatible Blu-ray presentation of the 2019 Bregenz Don Quichotte from Unitel/C-Major is impressive. Filmed in 4K, it looks marvellous in the 1080i Blu-ray HD resolution and comes with glorious Hi-Res soundtrack mixes in PCM Stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, both of which give the singing in particular a wonderful resonance, warmth, and clarity. The only extras are in the booklet; a detailed tracklist and synopsis, with a note on the composition of the work by Massenet and some observations on the production by
Mariame Clément where she puts the variety of each act down to the lack of narrative continuity in the almost separate scenes of the opera itself.

Links: Bregenzer Festspiele