The 2021 production, by Keith Warner, of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto at the Theater an der Wien uses Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre as a framing device. Sometimes the action is clearly the actors, producers, cigarette girls etc involved in the screening of a silent German movie version of “Caesar and Cleopatra”. Other times they are performing the action of the film/opera. Sometimes the cinema screen shows clips from the movie. Other times it shows pictures of the characters on stage. For example, at the beginning of Act 2 Tolomeo, whose other persona is some kind of sleazy mafioso movie exec, is shooting up. There’s a B&W picture of him on the screen that slowly changes to bright colours and then becomes more and more a depiction of a pretty heavy trip.
I’ve been taking another look at the Glyndebourne production of Berg’s Lulu that I first reviewed in April 2011. I think a reappraisal is in order. It’s a 1996 production directed by Graham Vick with Andrew Davis conducting and Christine Schäfer in the title role. When it first appeared it got rave reviews with Gramophone awards and the like.
Toronto Masque Theatre’s latest effort is a Purcell show called Fairest Isle. It’s semi-staged performance of excerpts from Purcell works, mainly the four stage works; Dido and Aeneas, The Fairy Queen, The Indian Queen and King Arthur (Wot! No Diocletian you cry) interspersed with readings from the plays and a narrative about Purcell’s life performed by actors Derek Boyes and Arlene Mazerolle. The staging involves frequent short dance pieces, in a recognisably period style (heels, long skirts, arms never above the shoulder) by Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière. The six singers, costumed throughout in dark suits or dresses, mostly sang from music stands though some pieces were blocked. There was an eight piece ensemble; two violins (Larry Beckwith/Kathleen Kajioka), viola (Karen Moffat), two oboes (John Abberger/Gillian Howard), cello (Margaret Gay), lute/guitar (Lucas Harris) and keyboards (Christopher Bagan) directed by Beckwith. Continue reading →
There are, I think, eighteen DVD versions of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro currently available so there needs to be something very special about a recording for it to stand out. Unfortunately Stephen Medcalf’s 1994 Glyndebourne production doesn’t really despite having a strong looking cast. It’s a pretty traditional looking production with breeches and crinolines and sets which look a bit like a giant doll’s house. The Personenregie is well thought out and the stage picture often artfully composed. The acting is almost uniformly excellent. It’s a good solid production but with nothing original in the least about it. Continue reading →
Mitridate, rè di Ponto is a three act opera seria by a fourteen year old kid called Mozart with a libretto based on Racine. Like most operas with a libretto based on Racine, and there are many, it isn’t exactly a barrel load of laughs. While it’s fair to say that the music may well be the best ever composed by a fourteen year old and it is recognisably Mozart it’s still not really quite enough to carry three hours of recitative and da capo arias about the troubled love life and familial relations of a first century BC King of Pontus and his fractious sons. In short, it gets a bit tedious. For a modern audience it’s not improved by the fact that all the male voices are high. Originally the score called for three castrati and two tenors. In the 1993 Royal Opera House production two of the three castrato roles were taken by mezzos and the third, inevitably the baddy, by a countertenor. For the record, here’s the full cast:
The director – Graham Vick, designer – Paul Brown and choreographer – Ron Howell do a pretty good job of injecting some life into the production with fairly extreme use of colour in the costume design, sets and makeup. The choreography and blocking is also quite striking at times but it still ends up being rather a wash of coloratura. The singers too do a worthy job but after a while it all starts to sound the same. Good work too from conductor, Paul Daniel, and the ROH orchestra but ultimately a bit blah.
Video director Derek Bailey does a pretty good job for the period. It’s hard to object to closing in on the singer during a da capo aria and he does pull out when there is stage wide action. He’s not helped by pretty average picture quality that lacks the definition needed to make long shots fully effective. Technically it’s a typical Kultur release of the period. The less than brilliant picture is coupled with so-so Dolby 2.0 sound, hard coded English sub-titles and minimum documentation. It’s also a bit quirky in that the overture comes on, with lead in credits, as soon as the disc is inserted. There’s no “set-up” menu.
When the Royal Opera House mounted a new production of Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1975 with Canadian heldentenor Jon Vickers in the title role it was controversial. Whatever else one could say about it Vickers’ interpretation of Grimes was very different from that of Peter Pears for whom the part was written. Britten, it was said, hated it. I saw it that summer and was pretty impressed but then seventeen year olds impress easily. I certainly never expected that the young baritone singing Ned Keene would end up as a knight and Chancellor of the university where I began my degree a few weeks later. When the production was revived in 1981 there were some significant cast changes. Norman Bailey had replaced the retired Geraint Evans as Balstrode, Philip Gelling was in for Thomas Allen as Ned Keene and one John Tomlinson had taken over as Hobson the carter. The incomparable Heather Harper remained as Ellen Orford. It’s the revival cast that was recorded and broadcast by the BBC and which is available on DVD from Kultur in the Americas and Warner Video elsewhere.
Sir Peter Hall’s production of Strauss’ Salome caused a bit of a sensation when it was first seen at the Royal Opera House and when it was broadcast on Channel 4 because Lady Hall, Maria Ewing, finishes up naked at the end of the Dance of the Seven Veils. How well does it wear after twenty years? First a couple of caveats. My DVD copy is the Kultur release of a few years ago. It now seems to be available from Opus Arte and it’s possible, indeed likely that some of the sound issues have been fixed in that release. If anybody has seen the Opus Arte version please let me know in comments. Anyway, the Kultur release has rather muffled sound with the voices balanced well back from the orchestra and no real solidity to the sound stage which is a pity in this particular work and obviously affects my view.
The production is really pretty conventional. There are lots of greens, greys and blue. It’s quite dark and the set is stagey and conventional. Almost all the visual interest revolves around Ewing’s Salome though Michael Devlin’s scantily clad and palely made up Jochanaan is quite arresting too. Narraboth (Robin Legate) is an unremarkable actor and Herod (Kenneth Riegel) and Herodias (Gillian Knight) look uncomfortably like a couple of drag queens. The latter though does manage a pretty effective hissy fit. For the sound reasons mentioned above it’s hard to be sure whether the rather insipid vocal performances by Devlin and Leggate are really their faults. There’s also no change in acoustic when Jochanaan is singing from the cistern which is odd. Riegel and Knight do better at projecting themselves beyond the orchestra and turn in OK performances.
All that said, one feels from beginning to end that this was set up to be the Maria Ewing show. One really can’t fault her acting which is quite compelling and manages by turns to be chilling, hypnotic, seductive, perverse, frenzied and orgasmic. The choreographer (Elizabeth Keen) does a pretty good job of creating credible dance moves for someone who clearly isn’t a great dancer though there’s no doubting her commitment to what she does. Vocally she gets away with a voice that’s really not big enough for the role. Somehow she manages a lot of projection from not so much volume and her vocal acting is good. It’s an extreme case of Ewing pretty much making things work when really they ought not to. The orchestra under Edward Downes sounds OK but also suffers from the recording.
The recording, directed by Derek Bailey, is about what one would expect from a 1992 TV broadcast. The picture quality is acceptable but not great 4:3 with hard coded English subtitles. Sound, as mentioned, is barely adequate. There are no extras and no documentation.
This is probably worth having a look at as a record of an iconic performance by Ewing but I can’t imagine anyone would choose it as the definitive Salome.
And just for fun, here’s a non-operatic bonus; a set of pictures of my copy of the 1938 edition of Wilde’s Salomé with pochoir illustrations by André Derain.