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