Thursday 28 May 2020

Larcher - Das Jagdgewehr (Bregenz, 2018)

Thomas Larcher - Das Jagdgewehr (Bregenz, 2018)

Bregenzer Festspiele, 2018

Michael Boder, Karl Markovics, Sarah Aristidou, Giulia Peri, Olivia Vermeulen, Robin Tritschler, André Schuen

C-Major - Blu-ray

Ideally the best works of opera should be the ones that achieve a perfect balance between musical expression, dramatic content and delivery of the singing performances, all coordinated by a good director. It's of course by no means obligatory, least of all in a contemporary opera where there isn't the same pressure or even expectation that a work should conform to any preconceived ideas or rules. The balance however can be compensated for however and the right impact achieved through good direction that harmonises with the intent of the piece (assuming it has a specific intent) and in that respect contemporary opera has the advantage of giving the director the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with the composer to make those intentions clear. Thomas Larcher's Das Jagdgewehr (The Hunting Gun), premiered at the 2018 Bregenz Festival, is a fine example of what contemporary opera can achieve when all those elements fall perfectly into place.

All the effort of composition, playing and direction is to little avail of course unless the opera has something meaningful to say and the subject is one that is worth setting to music, a subject that has wider relevance and depth that can reveal different aspects through interpretation and performance. And, rather like the music as well, it helps if it's not just a formal experiment. There is however at least an intriguing formal device in Larcher's opera that is based on a similar device used in the original book by Yasushi Inoue, in that Das Jagdgewehr is based around three letters. The story and the truth within the situation they describe lies within those three different perspectives. Even with four people involved, the three writers of the letter and the person they are addressed to, with a fifth person reading them, there's room for a great deal of interpretation as to where the truth lies.

There's nothing new about this Rashomon-like idea, where even one of the people relating the story in The Hunting Gun is also a dead person whose words live on in a letter, but it does present opportunities and challenges for a composer. Not only is it essential to keep those strands clear and relatable, but the music can also find connections and perhaps even some measure of truth that can be picked up on by the audience, perhaps with the assistance of skillful stage direction to tease those elements out. The structure of the work then is more than just a framing device, as it might have been in the original book, and more than just experimental, but a way of looking beyond the words to discover the true nature of the people involved and perhaps finding something there in the music and the direction.

The person notionally at the centre of the work is the hunter, Josuke Misugi. Although by no means a devotee of literature, the hunter has nonetheless been moved by a verse that he has read in which a poet living nearby seems to have seen him and described him perfectly in a way he could never express. He gives the poet three letters that he has received, asking him to read them and make of them what he will. One of the letters is from his lover Saiko, now dead, the second an accusatory letter from her niece Shoko, and the third from Josuke's wife Midori, who is appears has been aware of her betrayal but has remained silent about it.

On its own terms this story of an illicit affair that has ended badly seems fairly commonplace, and even with the prospect of having to read between the lines of the words of the people involved to determine who is responsible for the tragedy, it doesn't hold out much promise of any great insights or revelations. The difference however is of course that Das Jagdgewehr is an opera and offers considerable extra scope for expression and interpretation on the part of the composer, the director, the singers and for the audience to bring their own impressions and interpretation to it.

Some of the issues and questions that the work considers are expressed in the words and the situation. Who can tell what motivates people to act as they do, particularly in a love affair? In her letter - noting from the outset that she will be dead by the time this letter is read -
the mistress Saiko considers egoism, jealousy, destiny and karma all playing a part in what is to follow, some parts perhaps more than others. Midori, the wife, finds the human need to love and to be loved makes humans pathetic, keeping secrets from one another like an impregnable fortress. Despite the apparent simplicity of the situation there are numerous questioning conflicting emotions involved, but Larcher's music holds attention throughout, inviting the audience to actually feel these emotions and engage with the characters and the drama.

Conducted by Michael Boder, Larcher's music comes across as intricate and detailed, lyrical and expressive, measuring out the nuances of meaning and expression contained within the words and the drama, probing the various layers with extraordinary precision. Considering the nature of the subject and the imagery of a hunting gun in the background, there is always with a hint of menace not far beneath the surface of the tensions, but the emotions and situations are more complex than that, with no need to follow Chekhov's dictum to its conclusion. The imagery is poetic and it's presented as such, almost dream-like in the stage direction, exploring another level that lies somewhere in the questioning and overlapping content of the letters, the director Karl Markovics finding the simplest way to open up and give each of these elements room for expression and interpretation.

There's even the additional element of a vocal ensemble - beautiful harmonies from the Schola Heidelberg - that brings emphasis to certain scenes, boosting expression and almost a kind of harmonisation between the divergent conflicting personal viewpoints. All the roles are scored and sung to perfection, Robin Tritschler's Poet a clear and lyrical voice that tries to bring order and rationality to the story, while Sarah Aristidou on the other hand is pure emotion as the niece Shijo, exploring the wild range and stratospheric highs of those emotions incredibly well. Josuke remains an enigma at the centre, hoping that the Poet can explore the depths of his soul, even without knowing him. But there are no answers; just letters, words and human behaviour which refuses to be pinned down, each carrying their own truth like a snake within.

It doesn't surprise me that this opera successfully transferred to Aldeburgh, very much within the idiom of Britten's intense chamber operas, the narrative and emotional complexity and the ominous undercurrents of Death in Venice and The Rape of Lucretia very much coming to mind. If it comes across as a powerful experience, it's undoubtedly assisted by the quality of this recording made at the 2018 Bregenz Festival and the remarkable detail that can be heard in the High Resolution audio tracks.
This is a work that pushes the dynamic range in the music and in the voices crystal clear yet fully rounded and resonant. I got the most impact from the LPCM stereo mix on headphones, but you could lose yourself in the equally detailed DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix. This is an impressive new opera in a first-class presentation.

Links: Bregenzer Festspiele

Monday 18 May 2020

Wagner - Die Walküre (London, 2018)

Wagner - Die Walküre

Royal Opera House, London - 2018

Antonio Pappano, Keith Warner, Stuart Skelton, Emily Magee, Ain Anger, John Lundgren, Nina Stemme, Sarah Connolly, Lise Davidson

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

In contrast to Das Rheingold, which has a more obvious dramatic narrative and a number of wonderful theatrical set pieces, Die Walküre is much more contemplative as a standalone work, a conflict between the opposing forces that have been set in motion during the first day Prelude. Musically however and in terms of overall importance to the development of any Der Ring des Niebelungen (as well as the sheer exhilaration of any performance of Ride of the Valkyrie) it's Die Walküre that counts. Likewise if you are going to give a representative part of a the tetraology a DVD release, and Keith Warner's not greatly loved Royal Opera House Ring cycle first seen back in 2006 doesn't look likely to be getting a full release on DVD, this is the one you want to see. So how does Warner's Die Walküre stand up on its own terms?

Well in most respects it's a perfectly serviceable production but as is often the case with Die Walküre, its chances of a successful revival are reliant to a large extent on the strength of the casting. It's not that a strong concept and direction aren't important but the nature of this work demands singers who can bring the kind of intense dramatic conviction that this opera needs. This particular recording has a superlative cast of experienced Wagnerians and it gets off to an impressive set with its cast for Act I where Stuart Skelton is the standout, a Siegmund  of heroic magnificence. Ain Anger as Hunding and Emily Magee aren't quite at the same level but both are resolute and steady. Directing them however, Warner ensures that there's no standing around or histrionics, they incarnate the nature of the characters and put everything into expression of their dilemma, making them far more three-dimensional that is usually the case, and that sets up the whole tone of what follows in the subsequent Acts.

With its long Acts and tiring monologues it might be short on conventional drama, but it's hard to imagine a more dramatic musical opening that the thundering Vorspiel to Die Walküre. In the first few impressions of this production, Warner attempts to get across a sense of all that darkness of a world left in turmoil due to the weakening influence of the gods, but the production design also has the benefit of this being a place outside of time. The depiction of Hunding's lodge is semi-abstract then, expressionistic and dark, a box within a spiral. Sieglinde is seen hovering nervously in the fearful captivity of her husband, bewildered by the arrival of a stranger in exhaustion and distress. Roots and branches twist through the furnishings in the room, Nothung embedded in a smouldering beam.

Act II uses much of the same set with only the box room removed to establish a connection and reveal a shattered rundown Valhalla. It's difficult to make Act II dramatically engaging but the singing and musical performance alone are more than enough to make this compelling. Warner matches the highs and lows in the actions and movements, leaving it to the simmering rumble of the music to hold you in the grip of the predicament of Fricka, Wotan and Brünnhilde. Siegmund and Sieglinde's reappearance using a red rope that I presume is related to the Norn's Cord of Destiny, stumble into the room where Brünnhilde has just learned the history of Das Rheingold, the fate of the brother and sister tied up with the gods and their inevitable downfall.

Keith Warner manages to play Act II with the same attention to characterisation and motivation, showing more than just a bitter domestic dispute between an arrogant god who is henpecked and reduced down to size by a jealous and vengeful wife. There is a fire to their relationship that still burns even in such moments as this current crisis, and you can see the balance of power play out on a sexual level between them. It makes them more than just ciphers and suggests that their dispute is more than just a domestic quarrel, but that deeper forces drive their words and actions. John Lundgren and Sarah Connolly give a charged account of what can otherwise be a very dry scene in dramatic terms, Pappano musically holding the tension throughout. Only Nina Stemme disappoints somewhat, not living up to the expectations you might have for her Brünnhilde.

Act III's opening Ride of the Valkyrie however is disappointingly underwhelming as far as Warner's staging goes, the Valkyrie looking like Shakespearean Weird Sisters holding horse skulls, but musically at least it certainly packs a punch under Antonio Pappano and ROH orchestra, and it helps too when you have Lise Davidsen among the number as Ortlinde. Elsewhere in the third Act there's impact aplenty where there needs to be, Lundgren's Wotan a fearsome presence, the Valkyrie and Brünnhilde credibly cowering before his rage. But again the third Act's sheer force is all there in the performances, Nina Stemme and Emily Magee raising their game impressively, the playing and of course the music itself just phenomenal.

In terms of production design you would hope for more in Act III, but the abstract approach is consistent in its follow through, a huge wall thrown up here between Wotan and Brünnhilde and her sisters. If the major part of the Act is very dull and unimaginative as far as Valkyrie scenes go in Die Walküre, it at least gives the closing conflagration scene a little more of a spark, so to speak, in a way that closes the opera on a huge emotional high. Warner's Die Walküre is not a classic production by any means but my goodness this gets across everything that is great about this work and it sounds like it near brings the house down during the curtain call of this 2018 performance.

Whether you consider Antonio Pappano as effective conducting Wagner as he is with Puccini and Verdi in the Italian repertoire, I liked his blood and thunder interpretation here. The Vorspiel to Act I seems to collapse in on itself at the end but elsewhere he really does draw out all the beauty, lyricism and simmering emotion that is built into the highly charged scenes. The state-of-the-art High Resolution audio recording and superb mixing certainly helps hear the quality, detail and sheer glorious weight of the musical performance. I don't think I've ever heard a recording of this work with such depth and dynamic range. You can just revel luxuriously in the sound world of Wagner here, particularly in the simmering eroticism buried in the Act II confrontation between Wotan and Fricka, which is just as gripping as any of the more familiar key scenes. But all the high points are emphatically hit here.

The HD presentation on the Opus Arte BD is impeccable. The image is clear and detailed, but as mentioned above it's in the High Resolution uncompressed soundtracks where the real benefit of the HD format really comes into its own, the spacious uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix in particular capturing all the dynamic and detail of the performance. The English translation is also good, the subtitles making this easier to follow than the archaic language more often used without distorting the meaning in any way. The usual short features on ROH productions give a brief overview of what goes into a production like this. The booklet contains a synopsis and a good essay on the influence of Feuerbach on Wagner's Ring of the Niebelung by Barry Millington.

Links: Royal Opera House

Monday 11 May 2020

Mozart - Idomeneo (Madrid, 2019)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Idomeneo

Teatro Real, Madrid - 2019

Ivor Bolton, Robert Carsen, Eric Cutler, David Portillo, Anett Fritsch, Eleonora Buratto, Benjamin Hulett, Oliver Johnston, Alexander Tsymbalyuk

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

With every new production, Idomeneo is proving to be one of the most exciting of Mozart's operas, and that's even when measured up against a catalogue of mature works where each and every one is a masterpiece. It's not just the number of productions that are elevating it comfortably into the canon of regularly performed Mozart operas - even if you don't rate it as great Mozart, this early work of youth is still head and shoulders above most opera of its century - but each production seems to find new depths in the work. Not only has Mozart created marvellously drawn, living, breathing people out of these Metastasian opera seria characters, but through them you can already see the enlightened ideas and themes that are there in his mature works. What is also amazing is how a work of Greek antiquity with a late 18th century score can still be so fresh and modern, its themes remaining relevant to the present day.

Robert Carsen certainly emphasises the contemporary relevance of the work right from the outset in the Teatro Real production by hitting you with an image that looks like it is straight off a TV news broadcast; a group of refugees clinging desperately to a wire fence that cages them in. Having suffered in a terrible war and displaced from their homeland, Ilia and the Trojan refugees wonder what harsher fate have the gods in store for them. If it's not exactly a new or original perspective on Idomeneo it's only because there's nothing new in such images repeated throughout history, but they still remain relevant and powerful, a scene repeated with depressing regularity.

Imagine a world where human love and compassion could inspire a leader to assist those less fortunate? Well, Mozart could imagine that the good in mankind would always win out over greed, jealousy and lust, where love triumphs and the dissolute are punished, where goodness its own reward. It's a theme that you can see consistently throughout his opera work right through to La Clemenza di Tito. It's one thing to imagine and believe in that but it's quite another greater thing to make it seem like a genuine possibility in the composition of music that expresses such emotions and intentions.

Robert Carsen knows that it's all there in Mozart's music, and with good singers to interpret it and a conductor sensitive to the rhythm, pace and dynamic of the score, Idomeneo speaks for itself. The Madrid production fares well on all those fronts, but it would be over-simplifying to say that Carsen does no more than throw out a few powerful iconic and emotive images. As with some of his more recent productions (Glanert's Oceane also in 2019) the director uses the full dimensions of the stage with projections of nature, sea and sky, raging seas and stormy skies to create a sense of wide open space in which an opera can truly breathe.

There are some strikingly realistic, powerful images used here. The horrors wreaked on Crete by Neptune's sea monster couldn't be any more devastating than the real life images of war torn Syrian towns used here, and it gives the work added authenticity and a sense of classic timelessness. The very Parsifal-like way the production is concluded is also successful, touching on the deeper truths to be found in mythology, how tyranny can be overthrown, how compassion and innocence will save the world and rebuild it anew.

There's not really enough however to carry the narrative though in an engaging way. There are a few spectacular projection effects that capture a sense of inner conflict and turmoil, but the uniformity of the military uniforms works against a stronger sense of character definition, and by making the people an army it goes against the idea of it being ordinary people suffering at the hands of higher powers. There's too much Duty and not enough Humanity. This is recognised in the conclusion to an extent when, the war ended, the uniforms are shed and the people are able to live as humans once again.

Although the singing is excellent there's also little in the way of character interpretation to give it more context and depth. Sure, it doesn't go for black and white the way other productions might in terms of painting Elettra and Idomeneo as misguided villains and Ilia and Idamante as the great young hope for the future, but there's room for finding nuance and highlighting the differences within those worldviews. Carsen's production looks great and it makes an important contemporary commentary but a work of opera seria like Idomeneo needs a little more focus on making the narrative drive more engaging. Even Mozart's opera seria.

There are moments when it comes together, particularly in Act III. Despite the staging of Idamante and Ilia social distancing amidst a beach full of life jackets, the love declarations of the 'Spiegarti non poss'io' duet between Anett Fritsch and Benjamin Hurlett is sung beautifully and accompanied by delicate playing from the pit. The subsequent quartet with Eric Cutler and
Eleonora Buratto is also superb, underling that the conflict is not an ideological one between tradition and progress, between being tied to a sense of duty and the freedom to make individual choices, but just four people and two sides that find themselves in a difficult and irreconcilable position. Buratto's final aria as Elettra is also marvellous. Ivor Bolton's handling of the very different dramatic and emotional tones is just superb.

What is also evident right from the overture is that Ivor Bolton is returning the work back to its historically informed period instrumentation, using harpsichord and slightly reduced orchestration that gives it a wholly different feel from the more classical sounding Idomeneo of Mozart. There is consequently a lighter spacious sound with extra delicacy and punch as it hits all the points in the dynamic range. Hearing Mozart this way is always a revelation and the score is lively and percussive in drive but opening up to reveal more detail and beauty in the scoring and playing of individual instruments. Bolton himself plays the recitative accompaniment.

The quality of the production comes across well on the Blu-ray release from Opus Arte, presenting a clear image with bold contrasts that helps bring out the impact of the staging. The PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes emphasise the dynamic of the historically informed instrumentation. The surround mix in particular gives a wonderfully spacious soundstage for the orchestration, the harpsichord pinging away throughout. The only extra on the BD is a Cast Gallery but the booklet insert has a tracklist, a synopsis and a brief overview of Robert Carsen's take on the opera. Subtitles are in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Teatro Real

Wednesday 6 May 2020

Spontini - Fernand Cortez (Florence, 2019)

Gaspare Spontini - Fernand Cortez ou la Conquète du Mexique

Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, 2019

Jean-Luc Tingaud, Cecilia Legorio, Dario Schmunck, Alexia Voulgaridou, Luca Lombardo, David Ferri Durà, André Courville, Gianluca Margheri, Lisandro Guinis, Davide Ciarrocchi, Nicolò Ayroldi, Leonardo Melani, Davide Siega Silvia Capra, Delia Palmieri

Dynamic DVD

The early-to-mid 19th Century is crowded with opera classics but those we see regularly tend to be the works of a small number of Italian composers, mostly Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, who dominate the era and push any other notable composers into the shade. Certainly by the time that Verdi and Wagner came along, the fate of those who came before was sealed as being somewhat old-fashioned and destined to fall into neglect and obscurity. When composers like Paer, Catalani, Mercadante or Ponchielli do get some recognition, it's usually for one celebrated work that occasionally gets a revival. In Spontini's case that work is La Vestale, an opera that stands up more as an example of good craftsmanship where any real creativity has been stifled by the necessity of  formal adherence to conventional numbers, a style that means that such works have little to offer the world today. But, is it fair to judge a composer on a single work, and should we not be looking further into this neglected back catalogue?

Well, thankfully that's what the Pergolesi Spontini Foundation have been doing for two significant composers associated with the town of Jesi in the Marche region of Italy over the last decade or so. Several rare Pergolesi masterpieces have been unearthed and new critical editions established leading to some revelatory productions. The efforts of the Foundation are also aimed now at boosting the profile of Gaspare Spontini and, on the basis of this Maggio Musicale Fiorentino production of his 1809 French opera Fernand Cortez, ou La conquête du Mexique, early 19th century Spontini doesn't seem to be quite as tied to opera seria as Rossini or Donizetti but more forward looking, already pointing in the direction of Meyerbeer, Verdi and Berlioz.

There's plenty to grab the attention in the situation, plotting and aspirations towards grand-opera in the opening scenes of this almost three hour long opera. Set during of the conquest of Mexico, the forces of the Conquistador Hernán Cortés are starting to get restless, fearing that they will eventually have to pay a high price for their commander's drive for glory against the Aztec emperor Montezuma. There's inevitably a romantic angle brought into the opera through Amazily, a Mexican princess who Cortez has saved from death, and who in turn has also saved his life, and their love for each other also faces challenges. Another danger is that Montezuma has acquired weapons and is threatening to sacrifice Cortez's brother Alvaro and two of his men.

All of this in Act I provides opportunities for declarations of love, war and peace, with exotic colour, marches, large choruses and ballets, Spontini making the most of these promising situations with an explosive finale at the end of the Act that you would expect. There's nothing out of the ordinary here - as with La Vestale Spontini approaches the drama with a sense of beauty and melody that is somewhat conventional - but it certainly holds attention. The Maggio Musicale Fiorentino production likewise plays it fairly conventionally in historical period costumes and theatrical in its presentation, in the main letting the music get on with the hard work. The chorus of 'Enfants du dieu de la lumière', for example, where the Mexican women seduce the Spanish troops with their charms, is done sitting down and is very static.

By way of contrast however the subsequent scene has seven ballets. Traditionally in a modern revival of a work like this, these would likely be cut, as they often slow down the drama. Director Cecilia Legorio however doesn't take the easy option and recognises that the ballet scenes are key to the work. In this sequence the different music composed for each of the sections serves to emphasise the difference and disparity between the opposing forces. The women of the Mexican tribes are freer and closer to nature but somehow heathen and dangerously unholy with their human sacrifices. while the marching of European conquistadors, trampling underfoot, are masters of their own fate, guided by lust for power, gold and conquest, a machine that marches onward, destroying whatever stands in its way. It's a little reductive but it's meant to be, and musically at least Spontini's expression comes into its element in these scenes, creating a huge sound with large orchestral forces.

If it seems somewhat heavy-handed, it needs to be borne in mind that Spontini wrote Fernand Cortez as a commission for Napoleon who in 1808 was waging a campaign against Spain. In order to counteract this propaganda somewhat, the director adds a little of a framing device at the beginning and end of each act. It's nothing too elaborate, just extracts from the diary of Moralez, one of Cortez's officers, but it helps put into context the rationale behind those who follow Cortez on his conquest, and it's doubtless the same rationale that led to the support of Napoleon in France. That provides a necessary sense of reflection on the work, and it's notable that after fall of Napoleon, Spontini himself reworked elements of the opera in 1817 to put a different perspective on it, but work here is as close to the original performed 1809 Paris version as possible, and the first performance of it in modern times.

After the impressive set up of Act I, Act II and III hold little in the way of surprises or deviation from what we expect to see in most Conquistador operas (see Graun's Montezuma, Gomes' Lo Schiavo or Verdi's Alzira), where family concerns and romance mix with captures and hostage swaps, leading to threats of human sacrifice and offers of self-sacrifice. Spontini enlivens the conventional developments with choruses, dances, marches and a lovely unaccompanied harmonised trio from Alvaro and his two companion prisoners. Cecilia Legorio takes full advantage of the opportunities in the music however and the concluding ballets to show what might not always be evident in the work, hinting that behind the glorious image of conquest, subjugation of the savages and bringing of civilisation, there lies a darker truth and reality.

The quality of the singing is excellent in this 2019 Florence production. Dario Schmunck is solid, authoritative and impressive as Cortez. Alexia Voulgaridou has a challenging vocal line and holds her own against Schmunck, although she is pushed to her limits in more ways than one in the singing and drama of Act II. There's notable singing too from Luca Lombardo as Amazily's brother Telasco. If the family torn apart by war is conventional in many ways, the experience of Amazily, Telasco and their mother is essential to the humanising of the story beyond the typical intrigues of plot and the performers bring this out do this well. There are no weaknesses elsewhere in the singing, David Ferri Durà as Alvaro leads the beautiful trio 'Créateur de ce nouveau monde' and André Courville cuts an imposing figure as an Aztec High Priest.

Instead of the Blu-ray I picked up Dynamic's 2-DVD edition of Fernand Cortez by mistake but the presentation is excellent, the NTSC standard definition image clear, colourful and reasonably detailed. The DVD still has an uncompressed LPCM stereo track in addition to the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track and the sound mixing on both is excellent, exhibiting a beautiful warm orchestral sound that shows the quality and detail of the composition and the performance. On the DVD are interviews with the conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud and director Cecilia Legorio. In the booklet there's a detailed tracklisting, a synopsis and good historical background info on Cortez and on the composition history of Spontini's opera.

Links: Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Monday 4 May 2020

Wagner - Der fliegende Höllander (Florence, 2019)

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Höllander

Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, 2019

Fabio Luisi, Paul Curran, Thomas Gazheli, Marjorie Owens, Mikhail Petrenko, Bernhard Berchtold, Annette  Jahns, Timothy Oliver

C-Major - Blu-ray

There's no question that Paul Curran's 2019 Maggio Musicale Fiorentino production gets the mood and tone of Der fliegende Höllander exactly as you would expect a spooky maritime ghost story to look, populated by dark dishevelled figures and bathed in an eerie cold green-blue light. This mood of menace is enhanced through a large projected backdrop of raging seas as Daland's ship is run aground and a dark ship with tattered sails materialises, silhouetted against the background of a stormy sky. Keeping in that vein with no modern costumes or props, Act I of this production holds no real surprises, just the appropriate tone to set up Wagner's tale of an exiled wanderer seeking redemption and the love of a good woman.

There are however various strands you can develop out of that; the self-portrait of an artist in exile, an outsider with great riches to share daring to brave the tides of public opinion, but the strongest theme and the one that certainly overrides all the others by the time we get to the end of Wagner's first successful exploration of his own developing means of expression, is of course that of redemption. It's the Dutchman who is saved, but it's Senta who saves him and she is the centre of the opera, structurally, musically and thematically.

For director Paul Curran the idea appears to be that she's a woman who doesn't fit in with her time; she's a feminist before there was a movement, a figurehead if not a leader. In this production she's not sitting sewing with the other women as she should be while her man is out at sea, but she's prepared to believe in a different dream where a woman can make her own choices, as grotesque as that idea might appear to the other women. But is Senta really a proto-feminist? Does she not willingly enter into a marriage of convenience so that her father can line his pockets with his son-in-law's rare wealth? Well, that's for the production to persuade us, and it doesn't totally convince.

In contrast to the coldness and darkness of Act I, Act II is consequently bathed in warmth. The gathering of ladies sewing are all dressed in soft neutral dull brown and yellow colours that sets off the fiery individuality of Senta who stands out from them in a Gothic green silk and satin gown and blazing red hair. Perhaps more crucially, the Florence production has the extra benefit of having in Marjorie Owens a voice that can express that warmth and longing in her voice. Her's is a gorgeous lyrical Senta of rare beauty that holds you mesmerised as she relates her story of the Flying Dutchman. I've often found that Fabio Luisi is a conductor who pays close attention to the stage and the singers, pacing to their strengths, leaving them room to truly express the depth of feeling that lies within this hugely melodramatic opera storyline, and he strikes up an effective relationship that really brings the best out of Owens and consequently out of the work as a whole.

With an emphasis on mood again in Act III - this production of Der fliegende Höllander using the three separate act version rather than the no-interval run-together version - there is again good use made of the projections on a front screen as well as the back screen to capture the ghostly appearance of the Dutchman's crew. Musically, Luisi doesn't really get behind this scene quite as well, but handles the subsequent scene between Senta and Erik with gentle poignant lyricism. The closing moments of the opera however are a thing of beauty, both in terms its staging of Senta's sacrifice and redemption and in how Luisi allows the majesty of the moment to hit home.

There's little here however to carry through any definitive view on Senta as a feminist other than her making her own choices, but if there's nothing strikingly original or distinctive about the production there is nonetheless something compelling and refreshing about how Paul Curran approaches the emotional content of the work. It works well in conjunction with how Luisi conducts the work gracefully rather than stridently or overly forcefully - although he can hit those dramatic punches when required - but also evidently in how it's sung. The combination of those elements creates its own identity that blends beautifully with Wagner's Romantic vision. I personally found it spellbinding.

I'm not greatly familiar with the singers here but pleasantly surprised with the quality of the singing and the interpretation. Marjorie Owens as I've already mentioned is impressive and I look forward to hearing her again. Mikhail Petrenko is an excellent Daland, wonderfully rich timbre and enunciation, even if Daland rarely makes any great impression as a character. Thomas Gazheli's Dutchman is suitably charismatic in a dark enigmatic and slightly dishevelled fraying at the edges kind of way, persuasively capturing that sense of the melancholic suffering artist eternally searching for a Romantic truth. Again Fabio Luisi supports and works with his voice wonderfully. Bernhard Berchtold is also good as Erik.

The Blu-ray from C-Major presents this production well with a vividly detailed HD image filmed in 4K Ultra HD and warm stereo and surround audio mixes. Subtitles are provided in German, English, Korean and Japanese. There are no extra features on the disc and the booklet contains just a tracklist, a brief overview of the work with a few observations on the production and a synopsis, but it's an excellent presentation of the production.

Links: Maggio Musicale Fiorentino