What’s black and white and red all over?

The 2010 Oslo recording of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea is one of the strangest opera videos I have ever seen.  Besides having an almost complete set of the characteristics that critics pejoratively assign to Regietheatre it also has a very unusual video treatment that goes well beyond quirky camera angles and overly intrusive close-ups.  So the box is being entirely accurate when it states “Based on a performance directed by Ole Anders Tandberg.  Adapted and filmed by Anja Stabell and Stein-Roger Bull”.

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Let trumpets blow

A new recording of Britten’s Gloriana is to be welcomed, even when it’s less than perfect.  It’s an unusual work for Britten.  It’s very grand.  The orchestra is large and the music doesn’t seem to be as transparent and detailed as much of his work.  This is especially true in Act 1 where I almost wondered whether Britten was sending up “grand opera”.  It’s also a grand opera sort of plot.  The libretto is based on Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex and deals with the late life romance between the queen and the young Robert Devereux, earl of Essex and deputy in Ireland.  It has some fine moments; notably the lute songs in Act 2 and the choral dances in Act 2.  Act 3 is also dramatically quite effective; dealing with Essex’ abortive rebellion and execution.  Curiously, in the final scene, Britten resorts to a lot of spoken dialogue, as he does briefly with Balstrode’s admonition in Peter Grimes.  It’s almost as if he has no musical vocabulary for the highest emotional states; a sort of anti-Puccini.

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I came, I saw, I picnicked

The DVD of the 2005 Glyndebourne Festival production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto is one of the most satisfying that I have ever got my hands on. David McVicar’s production is a delight. The cast is consistently excellent with stand out performances from Sarah Connolly as Caesar and Danni de Niese as Cleopatra. William Christie gets wonderful playing from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The production for DVD/Blu-ray is exceptional in every way. There’s even over an hour of worthwhile extras giving a total of over five hours of material.

Let’s start with the production. McVicar and his design team have placed the action firmly in Egypt but moved the time period to the late 19th century with the Romans being portrayed in the manner of the British who effectively ruled Egypt at the time. There are a number of elements taken from Bollywood musicals which seems to have led some reviewers to dismiss it as not being “serious” enough to be a proper Handel production. I think this is misguided. The Bollywood elements are well integrated dramatically and musically and serve a dramatic purpose. They point up the cultural rift between the Romans and the Egyptians without getting into a crude and heavy critique of colonialism. There are a few places where Andrew George’s choreography is a bit over the top but mostly it works and, if nothing else, it’s tremendous fun. McVicar has obviously worked really hard on the and all the main characters and their interactions are clearly defined. The gulf between Romans and Egyptians emerges through these relationships though perhaps the rather overwrought Sesto of Angelika Kirchschlager somewhat undermines the chilly memsahib Cornelia of Patricia Bardon. Throughout there are neat little touches like Cleopatra ditching her cigarette in the urn containing Pompey’s ashes or the Roman/British warships sailing into Alexandria harbour with airship cover during Da tempeste il legno infranto. At the very end, Achilla and Tolomeo, blood soaked, (both are dead at this point) reappear and flank the line of seated dignitaries sipping champagne. It’s weird but works. Notably the production team got one of the biggest ovations of the night when they appeared for a curtain call.

The individual performances range from very good indeed to spectacular. Musically the star is Sarah Connolly. She’s utterly brilliant with completely secure coloratura and ornaments that are far more than just decorative.  Right from Empio, dirò, tu sei where she manages to spit out her disgust while maintaining 100% musicality, to the very end she’s note perfect. Her acting is also really good. She covers a wide range of emotions and her physical acting is genuinely masculine. She really does not look or move like a woman in drag. Then there’s Danielle de Niese! Musically there may be subtler or more refined exponents of the art of Handelian singing but I doubt whether there are any who could handle the role Danni is handed here. (Jane Archibald maybe, just maybe). She sings very well in fact. Some of her big numbers are very well done indeed and Piangerò la sorte mia is very fine and she’s very clever vocally in Da tempeste il legno infranto here she works some ornamentation in to accompany miming firing a sub-machine gun. But singing is only a fraction of the work she gets through. She has a lot of physical acting and several major dance numbers. She’s a very good dancer and, of course, she really looks the part. It’s really quite a performance!

Patricia Bardon acts well in a chilly way and sings beautifully. Priva son d’ogni confortois a real tear jerker. Kirchschlager sings very well but is a bit overwrought in the acting department and doesn’t really come across as a young man set on revenge. Rachid Ben Abdeslam is wonderful as Nireno. He gets the basically scaredy cat (and somewhat effeminate) functionary spot on. Chris Maltman is an appropriately brutal and coarse Achilla without letting the coarseness affect his singing. Alexander Ashworth in a kilt, is a solid, if unexciting, Curio but that’s the role. Christophe Dumaux is brilliant as Tolomeo. He looks like Captain Darling from Blackadder Goes Forth and is similarly petty and petulant. He’s also a vicious, spoiled bully and narcissist. Dumaux brings out all these aspects while singing at the highest level. It’s almost up there with de Niese and Connolly. The musical direction and orchestral playing is of the highest order.

Glyndebourne has been really well treated on video in recent years and this Opus Arte release is no exception.  The production for DVD is both excellent and opulent. The DVD version is spread across three disks (the Blu-ray gets two which is remarkable!). The video direction, by Robin Lough, is sympathetic and unobtrusive. The production was filmed in 1080i (which is what one gets on the Blu-ray) and the DVD rendering of the picture is about as good as DVD gets. The audio choices on DVD are LPCM stereo and DTS 5.0 with the latter being superior. In fact it’s superb; maybe the best sound I’ve come across on DVD. The fidelity with which the brass and woodwinds are captured is exceptional. The Sinfonia just before the final scene is thrilling to listen to. I’d really like to hear what the PCM 5.0 track on the Blu-ray sounds like. There are English, French, German, Italian and Spanish subtitles. Besides a synopsis and cast gallery there are two documentaries incluced. There’s a “making of” called, appropriately “Entertainment is not a dirty word” and a feature on “Danielle de Niese and the Glyndebourne experience”. It’s rather touching as Danni gushes over what an amazing place Glyndebourne is and interviews Gus Christie about what it’s like to live there. I’d like to see the follow up with Mrs Gus Christie, chatelaine!

This really should be watched by anyone who thinks baroque opera is difficult and boring and needs to be dumbed down for the average audience. But I don’t suppose he’s listening.

Stylish gender bending

I guess Serse gets performed as often as any Handel opera but there only appears to be one DVD version in the original Italian available. It’s a 2000 production from the Dresdner Musikfestspiele. Michael Hampe directs a cast of, then, fairly young singers, few of them familiar to me. Christophe Rousset conducts Les Talens Lyriques and the Ludwigshafener Theaterchor. It’s a really good DVD. The costumes and sets, by Carlo Tommasi, are a sort of mid 19th century European with “exotic” touches. There’s a consistent palette of black, white, grey and silver with a little deep blue and cream intruding. It’s all very elegant. The direction is more than competent. The relationships between characters are explored and Sandrine Piau, as Atalanta gets to exploit her considerable comic talents. To cap it all off we get a few, very apt, pyrotechnic surprises right at the end.

The singing is uniformly excellent. Paula Rasmussen, a mezzo, is cast in the castrato title role. It’s a role where personally I’d prefer a David Daniels or a Lawrence Zazzo but she manages to look and sound masculine enough. The same is true for Ann Hallenberg as “his” brother Arsamene; a genuine mezzo role. Patricia Bardon sings Amastre, Serse’s discarded lover who spends 9/10 of the opera disguised as a man. Ms Bardon manages the difficult feat of acting a woman pretending to be a man convincingly which is obviously quite different from a woman acting a man. I won’t try and describe the singing performances individually because I would just end up using “stylish” way too much. These are all thoroughly idiomatic Handel performances with tasteful decoration, lovely legato and accurate coloratura. The two sisters Romilda and Atalanta are played by sopranos Isobel Bayrakdarian and Sandrine Piau. It was a real pleasure to be reminded of what a fine Handelian Bayrakdarian was right at the start of her career. Her singing is just gorgeous. Piau is great too. She has great comic timing in a role that really needs it and she also gets the most coloratura fireworks which she handles very well indeed. The guys who play guys are Marcello Lippi as girls’ father, Ariodate, and Matteo Peirone as the servant, Elviro. These are both essentially buffo roles and both men are well up to them. I don’t think I’ve heard M.Rousset and his Les Talens Lyriques before but they are as good a Baroque band as I have come across. The chorus doesn’t have much to do but it does fine with what it does have. All in all, it’s very satisfying musically and dramatically.

Direction for TV/DVD is by Philip Behrens and it’s OK. There aren’t too many intrusive close ups though it’s a 4:3 picture so some of that is a bit inevitable. Picture quality is pretty typical of TV to VD productions. Sound options are PCM stereo or Dolby 5.1. The surround version sounded very good. There are no extras on the disk and the documentation is pretty basic. It’s a Euroarts production.

There’s a ten minute trailer up on Youtube that gives a really pretty good idea of what to expect though it’s a bit short on comedy and there’s no Sandrine Piau. Here it is.

And here’s some Sandrine Piau.