Makes me want to cut my throat too

Philippe Boesmans’ opera Julie; libretto by Luc Bondy and Marie-Louise Bischolberger after Früken Julie by August Strindberg, is unremittingly bleak.  In fact, if it lasted much longer than its 75 minutes I could well imagine audience members cutting their throats long before the title character.  That said, it’s pretty compelling stuff.  It’s a tight drama about a young aristocratic woman kicking against the constraints of her privileged life aided and abetted by her father’s rather spineless valet Jean; a suitable occupation as he is one of nature’s lackeys.  The only likeable character is Jean’s young fiancée Kristin, a cook in the household.  Buried in this simple melodramatic plot of lust, betrayal and suicide are all kinds of ideas about heredity, social class and behaviour.  Broadly speaking the message is “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate” and woe betide you if your plebeian mother married above herself.

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Julie

julie_02The Canadian Stage season brochure for 2015/16 landed in my mailbox yesterday.  I was intrigued to see that, among the ten productions on offer, there was an opera and a contemporary one at that.  Julie is a 2005 adaptation of Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie with a libretto by Luc Bondy and music by Belgian Philippe Boesmans.  Matthew Jocelyn directs.  There will be eight performances at the 867 seat Bluma Appel Theatre from November 17th to November 29th 2015.  More details here.

It seems like the Toronto contemporary opera scene is coming to life.  As well as Tapestry’s ongoing efforts we had Airline Icarus, Shelter and When the Sun Comes Out this summer and who knows what’s to come.  It almost makes up for the COC commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1 by programming nothing written since then.

With tender pity swells

Here’s another fine example of how well Handel’s oratorios can work when staged.  It’s a recording of Hercules made at Paris’ Palais Garnier in 2004.  The staging is by Luc Bondy and William Christie and Les Arts Florissants are joined by a youngish cast of extremely good singers.  It’s compelling stuff.  I think what, for me, makes the oratorios much more interesting than most of Handel’s opera seria is structural.  The operas tend to alternate recit and da capo aria with maybe a duet or chorus to close an act but they are pretty predictable.  In the oratorios Handel makes much more use of ensembles and the chorus and, for me, that’s vastly preferable.

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Don Carlos

There aren’t too many examples of the French version of Verdi’s Don Carlos on DVD. The one reviewed here is a 1996 Luc Bondy production from the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. It’s billed as the original 1867 five act version but I think some of the 1883 cuts are made. There’s no useful documenation so I can’t be sure. It features a very strong cast. Robert Alagna sings the title role, Thomas Hampson is Posa, Karita Mattila (looking very young!) is Elisabeth de Valois, José van Dam is Philip, Eric Halfvarson sings the Grand Inquisitor and, rather unexpectedly, Waltraud Meier is Eboli. Anthony Pappano conducts the Orchestre de Paris.

The set designs (Gilles Aillaud) are slightly stylized but essentially literal, simple and easy on the eye. Costumes (Moidele Bickel) are a sort of historical eclectic. There are nods to the 16th century but the women’s gowns could be any period or none, the Flemish deputies wear the sort of collar the vet puts on your pet after surgery and Alagna looks like he’s stepped out of Pirates of the Caribbean. That sounds negative but it’s actually just undistracting. There’s no high concept here so the whole thing turns on the Personenregie and, of course, the music. Bondy gets pretty impressive performances out of his players, creates some interesting stage pictures in the crowd scenes and doesn’t over egg the auto da fe. It’s not fancy but it works.

Musically this is a really good performance. All of the singers (except Halfvarson) tend to the light but beautiful end of the spectrum for their voice type and it all makes for an experience that seems especially apt for the french text. The revelation for me was Mattila. I’ve seen her only in heavier roles and I really had no idea she could sing so beautifully too. She is especially ravishing in the final scene where “Toi qui sus le néant” brought the house down. The chemistry between Hampson and Alagna is excellent and their voices blend well. Halfvarson is a stentorian and truly creepy Inquisitor. Meier seems a bit mannered at times but she pulls off the big moments fairly spectacularly. Pappano gets lovely playing from the orchestra but the voices are balanced quite a long way forward so we don’t get the full effect. All in all, it’s pretty compelling to watch.

Yves André Hubert is the video director. He does a good job. There isn’t a lot going on on stage other than the interaction between the principals most of the time so close ups there are fine and he does pull back when there’s something to pull back for. Picture quality (16:9) anamorphic is OK but not HD by any means. There are two sound options. I started with the Dolby 5.1 which I found lacks clarity and depth. The Dolby 2.0 alternative, while not of the highest quality, is much better. The whole 210 minutes with two soundtracks is crammed into 7.4 GB on a single DVD9 so top quality is hardly to be expected. There are English, French, Spanish and Japanese subtitles and documentation is minimal. Extras are limited to a cast list and synopsis.

All in all this is well worth seeing.