The recently released recording of Puccini’s Tosca from the Wiener Staatsoper was recorded in 2019 but, as best I can tell, the production, by Margarethe Wallmann, dates back to 1957 and it feels that old. It’s entirely literal and, beyond basic blocking, the singers appear to have been left to their own devices as far as acting goes. It also clearly was not designed with video in mind. Cavaradossi’s execution is quite remarkably unsanguine.
There are only two video recordings of Giodarno’s Fedora in the catalogue. There’s a classic 1996 recording from the Met and, now, a 2015 production from the Teatro Carlo Fenice in Genoa. The Genoa version, directed by Rosetta Cucchi, attempts to inject some serious ideas into the piece, which the Met production most certainly does not. Whether this is a good idea is questionable for Fedora, even though it contains some good numbers and some great melodies is, dramatically, about as clichéd as it gets. Cucchi attacks this problem in two ways. First, an old version of Loris Ipanov is on stage throughout observing the action and dies at the end. I’m not sure what this adds. Second, at various points a mime/ballet sequence is staged behind the main stage area. This seems like an attempt to link the narrative specifically to WW1 and the death of the Romanovs which seems odd as the ending makes no sense in a post-revolutionary context. So, I’m not sure the idea is sound and I’m not sure the piece would carry the freight even if it were. The rather quirky video direction by Matteo Ricchetti doesn’t help either as it’s often hard to figure out what is going on in total.
Not too many CDs of new opera recordings, at least of mainstream repertoire, come my way these days. Studio recordings have become rare and the usual medium is a video recording, itself a spin off from a live broadcast; TV, cinema or web, of a live performance. This makes sense to me. Just listening to an opera has always seemed a second best. Anyway, that’s all by way of saying that I was a bit surprised to find myself listening to a CD edition of a live recording of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut from the 2016 Salzburg Festival. How did this recording happen you ask? The answer is on the box, where Anna Netrebko in the title role, gets top billing, even over the composer.
Verdi’s Il Trovatore really is a peculiar piece. It’s a bit of a musical hybrid with huge, rousing choruses interspersed with bel canto arias which I suppose is fairly typical of middle period Verdi. It has a truly silly plot (perhaps based on Blackadder’s lost novel) with gypsies, dead babies and improbable coincidences galore. It’s also notoriously hard to cast with five very demanding roles combining a need for flawless bel canto technique with lots of power. David McVicar’s production at the Metropolitan Opera was broadcast in HD in April 2011 and subsequently released on Blu-ray and DVD. I saw the HD broadcast and enjoyed it enough to buy the Blu-ray.
Puccini’s La Rondine has a plot that’s lightweight even by opera standards but it also has some really good tunes and plenty of opportunities for a star tenor and soprano to show off. In 2009 the Metropolitan Opera presented it as a vehicle for on again, off again couple Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu. Judging by the body language on and off stage this was definitely an “on again” phase. The production (Nicolas Joël), staging (Stephen Barlow) and design (Ezio Frigerio) don’t have a single thing in them that would cause concern to the most conservative of opera goers. The whole thing oozes old fashioned opulence. It’s the first time I’ve heard an audience applaud the sets! (Baldrick, you’ld laugh at a Shakespeare comedy). So no Regie here!
What we get is a beautifully sung and played performance. Gheorghiu sings gorgeously throughout and Alagna is not far behind. Their acting hows off some real sexual chemistry and if Gheorghiu tends to play the dive, well it’s that sort of role and that sort of production. They get well supported by Marius Brenciu, as the poet Prunier, and Lisette Oropesa, as the maid Lisette. These two basically provide the comic relief to the slightly cloying romantic main plot. Monica Yunus, Alyson Cambridge, Liz DeShong and Samuel Ramey take the other important roles and all are perfectly competent and true to character. The only aspect of the staging that doesn’t quite come off is the bar scene in Act 2. It’s all a bit too busy and there is some not very well thought through “drunk” choreography. Otherwise it’s basically a drawing room drama so not too, too hard to pull off. The orchestral playing is unsurprisingly good with the kind of music the Met orchestra excels in and Marco Armiliato conducting.
The video direction by Brian Large is OK. Given how much of the piece is two people talking, snogging or groping close ups seem a perfectly reasonable choice much of the time. The approach doesn’t work so well in Act 2 where a little more distance would have helped. Technically the DVD is an absolutely standard EMI treatment of a MetHD broadcast. The picture is very good 16:9 and the DTS 5.1 soundtrack is clear and spacious (LPCM stereo available too). English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles and rather basic documentation in English with French and German PDF versions on the disk. Renée Fleming does the interval interviews which are about as revealing as usual (not at all).
All in all, it’s a lightweight piece but enjoyable and it would be hard to imagine a much better performance.