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