I was somewhat underwhelmed by my first encounter with Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. Watching this recording of a 2004 La Scala production by Robert Carsen really opened my eyes. It’s the conducting that makes it I think, Riccardo Muti seems to find much more in the score than Jan Latham-Koenig. There are passages of great meditative beauty interspersed with quite shocking violence, all within an essentially tonal framework. It’s very striking. He’s helped by the sound on the DVD which is exceptionally vivid and three dimensional, even using the LPCM stereo option, though the Dolby 5.1 track is even better.
Hans Werner Henze conceived of L’Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe as his farewell to the stage although, as it turned out, it wasn’t. It’s a combination of Arabian Nights type themes crossed with elements from German folklore not unlike Die Zauberflöte, which is an obvious infuence. So obvious, in fact, that in the scene where Kasim rescues his beloved she is given a line straight out of Schikaneder. For the 2003 world premiere in the Kleinesfestspielhaus in Salzburg, director Dieter Dorn and designer Jürgen Rose chose a simple stage concept. The action is encircled by an arch, at the apex of which is a tower room. The old man, the ruler of the principality, inhabits the room. The action mostly takes place in brightly coloured scenes under the arch.
My DVD of Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude arrived the day before his death at the weekend and so went straight to the top of the reviewing pile. It’s an intriguing piece. It’s based on the same Abbé Prevost novel as all the other versions of Manon but updated to the period of composition (1952) and told from the viewpoint of des Grieux rather than Manon. In this version des Grieux picks Manon up at a railway station while she is on her way to finishing school in Lausanne. They run away to Paris but des Grieux is broke and Manon’s brother pimps her to a rich old man, Lilaque. The brother robs the old man’s house which gets them both kicked out. Manon has a brief fling with des Grieux before her brother pimps her out again; this time to Lilaque’s son. By this time des Grieux has a pretty serious cocaine problem. The cocaine, naturally, is supplied by Lescaut. Lescaut is in the process of stealing a painting from Lilaque fils when Lilaque père shows up. Lescaut hands Manon a gun and she kills the old man. In the last scene we are back at the railway station where a disconsolate des Grieux waits for one last glance at Manon as she is taken to prison.
The Infernal Comedy: Confesions of a serial killer is a “Drama for one actor, two singers and orchestra” based around the story of real-life serial killer Jack Unterweger. It features John Malkovich, Laura Aikin, Aleksandra Zamojka and the Wiener Akademie under Martin Haselböck. It was written and directed by Michael Sturminger and filmed in front of a live audience in Vienna’s Kronacher Theater in 2009. It’s a really creepy piece in which Malkovich plays the dead Unterweger on a book tour promoting his posthumous memoirs. Unterweger’s string of anecdotes, puzzles and philosophising is punctuated by arias from the two sopranos from works by Vivaldi, Mozart, Weber and others on the theme of women’s mistreatment by men. During much of this Malkovich is portraying the humiliation and murder that Unterweger inflicted on his victims on the two singers. This is probably the only chance, short of a Stefan Herheim production, that you’ll get to see Laura Aikin strangled with her own bra. It’s really creepy.
The performances are really good. Malkovich, of course, is that rarity; a Hollywood star who can actually act. Not only does act, and very well, he does it with an Austrian accent. He is very convincing as Unterweger. Some of his angry outbursts are really quite terrifying. The girls sing really well and are totally committed to doing what they have to do on stage, which largely consist of putting up with considerable indignities from Malkovich/Unterweger while still managing to sing. The orchestra, on period instruments, sounds just right. The whole thing is very well filmed and has really good DTS 5.1 sound (DD 2.0 and 5.1 as well). The English subtitles for the arias are a bit odd. I have no idea what “I encore you to Lethe’s opposite bank” means! There’s a 45 minute “making of” documentary on the disk as well but it’s not very illuminating.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail is probably the major Mozart opera I know least well so I don’t have too many comparators for this performance from Amsterdam by De Nederlandse Opera from 2008. So I can’t say that this is better or worse than other available productions but I can say I enjoyed this one immensely.
The production, directed by Johan Simons, uses fairly uncluttered sets and costumes that switch between pantomime Aladdin and, most of the time, modern dress. The take on the characters is interesting. Osmin is pretty much the classic infatuated old Turk, played brilliantly by Kurt Rydl, but the infatuation is reflected by the distinctly dominatrix like Blonde played by the rather lovely Mojca Erdmann in kinky boots, a tight short skirt and a belt that she’s quite prepared to use on the men in her life. At least in the first two acts there’s plenty of ambiguity in Laura Aikin’s Konstanze. Is she actually at least a little bit in love with Bassa Selim, played very well by Martin van Westmeulen. Certainly she has him twisted around her little finger and in Martern aller Arten seems to be very much “topping from the bottom”. To round the cast out, Michael Smallwood is a cheeky chappy Pedrillo, very much under Blonde’s thumb and Edgaras Montvidas is a suitably sappy Belmonte. It’s mostly fast paced good fun but does strike a more serious note in the final scenes. Funny how that always seems to happen with Mozart “comedies”.
Musically it’s pretty good too. Constantinos Carydis conducts a fast paced and nimble reading from the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. The vocal star is clearly Laura Aikin who has the difficult coloratura parts of Konstanze’s music nailed. This is particularly praiseworthy as she does it while doing some pretty intense physical acting. It can’t be easy to nail Martern aller Arten with Bassa Selim firmly lodged in your cleavage. The men are perfectly adequate. I thought Michael Smallwood was particularly sweet toned. The one weakness, and I hate to say this, was Mojca Erdmann. Her upper register is a bit harsh and shrill. This is surprising as most reviews of Ms. Erdmann praise her beauty of tone. Maybe she was just pushing a little too hard in this performance. The ensemble work was generally first class.
The recording is available from Opus Arte on DVD and Blu-Ray. I watched the latter using the Dolby TrueHD 5.0 soundtrack. The picture is 1080i HD 16:9. It looks and sounds great on my system and would doubtless look even better on a more modern TV. Definitely worth a look.