George Benjamin’s latest opera Lessons in Love and Violence debuted at Covent Garden last year. It was broadcast on the BBC and is still available on the web from Arte and has also been released on DVD and Blu-ray. This review is based on the Blu-ray version.
A new opera by Australian Brett Dean based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet premiered at Glyndebourne this summer. A recording of it was broadcast on BBC television on 22nd October. I’ve now had a chance to watch it in full. I wasn’t sure what to expect as it get somewhat mixed reviews. I was impressed. Very impressed. First off, Matthew Jocelyn, who wrote the libretto, and Dean know how to turn a play into an opera. They understand that it’s not just about taking a bunch of dialogue and giving it a soundtrack. What they do is very clever. All the text is Shakespeare but it’s split up and moved around. There’s repetition and sometimes words are reassigned to different characters. Characters sing parallel lines. Then, of course, there’s a chorus. A good example is when the players appear before performing The Death of Gonzago. They get lines taken from various of Hamlet’s soliloquies chopped up and rearranged. It’s effective and allows the main elements of the story to be told in under three hours of opera. The main bit that’s missing is the whole Fortinbras and the Norwegians thing but that often gets cut anyway.
There’s been a lot of opera related programming broadcast on BBC TV recently. Probably the biggest event was Jonas Kaufmann’s role debut as Otello in the Verdi opera conducted by Antonio Pappano but there’s also been a 90 minute documentary on Kaufmann and a two part series called Lucy Worsley’s Nights at the Opera and a broadcast of Brett Dean’s new Hamlet from Glyndebourne. I haven’t yet watched the Hamlet but here are some thoughts on the other three shows, plus an extra bonus.
Pappano’s Classical Voices is a series of four TV programmes that aired on the BBC last November. I’ve just rewatched it and I’m even more impressed than I was first time around. It’s fronted by Tony Pappano, the Royal Opera’s music director, and he comes across as committed, likeable and inquisitive. Each show features a different voice type and combines archive footage with interviews with contemporary singers. There’s tons of information on how different voice types developed and also a surprising amount of technical singing stuff. This may be a bit ho hum for professional musicians but for amateurs seriously interested in how singers do what they do it’s really interesting.
Historical singers featured range from Maria Callas and Kathleen Ferrier to Enrico Caruso and Tito Gobbi. Interviewees include Anna Netrebko, Felicity Palmer, Sarah Connolly, Jonas Kaufmann, Bryn Terfel and John Tomlinson. There are many more in both categories. Other highlights include Tony Pappano taking a singing lesson from Thomas Allen.
I have no idea how one might lay hands on these shows as they are not available on DVD or iPlayer but if they do come your way, grab them.
Phyllida Lloyd’s 2000 BBC film of Britten’s Gloriana, based on her production for Opera North, is quite fascinating. The bonus interviews reveal the utter disdain for films/videos of stage opera productions held by pretty much everyone involved in the project. It’s an interesting perspective to hear in a world where Cinema and streaming HD broadcasts are increasingly common and where Blu-ray/DVD has clearly overtaken CD as the preferred medium for opera recordings. In some ways, of course, it’s because the technology has improved enormously. DVD was still relatively new in 2000 and widescreen, flat screen TVs were yet to come. In any event, this attitude led to the creation of a rather interesting film.
Various thoughts about the Channel 4 film of Britten’s Owen Wingrave led to me seeking out the original BBC TV version from 1970, now available on DVD. It’s extremely interesting and worthwhile. Britten himself conducts and the cast includes many of the people involved in the first productions of many other Britten operas. They include Peter Pears (General Wingrave/Narrator), John Shirley-Quirk (Coyle), Benjamin Luxon (Owen), Janet Baker (Kate), Heather Harper Mrs.Coyle) and Jennifer Vyvyan (Mrs. Julian). The quality of the music making is superb and I found myself constantly surprised and delighted by details brought out by Britten supported by the excellent English Chamber Orchestra. At the same time, the fluent and idiomatic singing pointed up the excellence of Myfanwy Piper’s libretto. This really is Britten at his best.
The usual way to do an opera DVD is to film a live stage performance. I guess because this is also the cheapest way. Various alternative ways of committing opera to film have been tried; some using the singers as actors and some using more photogenic actors with the singing dubbed over. In 2004 BBC Wales made a version of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw using the singers as actors. It makes for an interesting film. For example it allows for an appropriately aged girl to play Flora where in the opera house the role has to given to a young adult soprano. It also allows for the interior monologues, which feature a lot in this piece, to be sung with the actor not moving his/her lips. It also allows for some notable location shots by the lake and in the churchyard (Highgate Cemetery was used). Director, Katie Mitchell, makes good use of the options available to her to play with the elements of perception vs reality which are quite hard to communicate on stage.
The singing and playing are excellent and thoroughly idiomatic throughout. Mark Padmore (Prologue/Quint) sounds as if Peter Pears has come to haunt the production. Lisa Milne is thoroughly competent as the troubled governess and the ever dependable Diana Montague is an excellent foil as Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. Catrin Wyn Davis is a very good Miss Jessel; scary as Hell but just not quite completely demented. The children are excellent. Nicholas Kirby Johnson as Miles and Caroline Wise as Flora look and sound like children. Better, they inhabit the roles of upper class Edwardian children almost uncannily. The tricky score (the vocal scenes are each preceded by a variation on a twelve tone theme) is played really well by the London Sinfonietta under Richard Hickox. All in all this is a really good presentation of one of Britten’s most interesting but problematic works.
The DVD is released by Opus Arte and it’s pretty much up to the standard of their recent offerings. The 16:9 picture is average to good DVD quality. Sound options are LPCM stereo or Dolby 5.1. A range of subtitles are included. English speakers won’t need the subtitles as the diction and articulation throughout are exemplary and the voices are never overwhelmed by the band, and nor should they be when a work is scored for thirteen musicians.
The Opus Arte trailer gives a pretty good idea of what to expect.