I’m not sure that I had ever heard anything by Heinrich Schütz before this afternoon but I’m glad that I have now. His St. John Passion formed the first half of the closing concert of the Toronto Bach Festival at St. Barnabas on the Danforth this afternoon. Written in 1666, towards the end of his life ,it’s steeped in the Lutheran tradition. There’s no orchestra. The main burden of the Gospel is taken by the Evangelist as narrator in a style not very far from the Anglican traditional style of singing metrical psalms. The emphasis is on the text; indeed on The Word. Members of the chorus contribute in similar style as Jesus, Pilate and so on. The narrative is interspersed with polyphonic choruses with sparse organ accompaniment perhaps hinting at an even older tradition where the meaning of the words mattered less.
Nicole Brook’s Obeah Opera is described as a “Nicole Brooks vision” which is probably a good starting point for an opera this isn’t. It’s an a capella stage piece with an all female cast, composed and taught to the performers orally and performed with mikes. If it resembles anything it’s a musical but really it’s a unique concept. It’s also clearly rooted in the oral traditions of African-American slavery and a kind of idealisation of the world they had left behind. For example, every slave women is a powerful sorceress from a long lineage rather as every Welshman is a gentleman who can trace his ancestry from King Arthur. It’s a musically rich and powerful tradition and this forms much the most effective element in the piece, especially as it’s where Brooks’ own talents and energy are most focussed.
Jonathan Kent sets his 2011 Glyndebourne production of The Turn of the Screw in the 1950s. It’s effective enough especially when combined with Paul Brown’s beautiful and ingenious set and Mark Henderson’s evocative lighting. The set centres on a glass panel which appears in different places and different angles but always suggesting a semi-permeable membrane. Between reality and imagination? Knowledge and innocence? Good and evil? All are hinted at. A rotating platform allows other set elements to be rapidly and effectively deployed. There’s also a very clever treatment of the prologue involving 8mm home video.
I’ve reviewed two DVDs of Purcell’s semi-opera King Arthur on this blog. One was excellent and one was terrible and between them they went a long way to showing how difficult these semi-operas are to stage well but how rewarding when they succeed.
In 2009 Jonathan Kent and William Christie combined to produce a version of The Fairy Queen for Glyndebourne. It’s quite different in style from the successful Salzburg King Arthur but it works splendidly on its own terms. The Fairy Queen combines a libretto based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream with songs, masques and dances of a largely allegorical nature. Like the play itself they range from high flown allegory with classical elements to bawdy humour. It is very English. It almost epitomises what separates the English baroque from the French. Kent and Christie tackle this with a robust English sensibility, There are some changes to the dialogue and to the order of the numbers but it all makes sense (so far as this piece can). The allegorical elements are gorgeously and wittily staged making good use of a large circular lift at centre stage that allows fully formed tableaux to rise into our sight. The bawdy elements are tackled head on with a robustly TV Mopsa (Robert Burt) in the “Dialogue of Corydon and Mopsa” and the, by now, notorious bonking bunnies in the “Dance for the Haymakers”. The audience is totally engaged and one hears plenty of that commodity, rather rare in the opera house, uninhibited laughter. The team of designer Paul Brown and lighting designer Mark Henderson make all of this look quite spectacular. The dramatic action is played out in fairly long segments and the parts are taken by actors rather than singers. The fairies are appropriately sinister with wings that look inspired by contemporary prints of fallen angels. The Rude Mechanicals are rude and not too mechanical. The “humans” are credibly 17th century in manner though dress gets less formal as the action proceeds. The disparate elements are integrated very well. There’s plenty of dance and it’s choreographed by Kim Brandstrup in a style that is robustly muscular but solidly in the classical ballet tradition.
The cast of actors, singers and dancers is huge and consistently excellent.
I was particularly impressed with Sally Dexter’s Titania and Desmond Barrit’s Welsh accented Bottom among the actors. Barrit even got to do some singing with a not too over the top version of the “Song of the Drunken Poet”. The singing stars were the wonderful, sweet toned Lucy Crowe; her “if love’s a sweet passion” was a delight, and the robust bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams who, among other sings, sang a truly chilling Winter. Singling out individual performances isn’t the point though. This is very much an ensemble performance. Christie directs the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment from the harpsichord and is as idiomatic as one could possibly hope for.
So, how well does the stage production transfer to disc? Extremely well! The video director is François Roussillon. Unlike most of his peers he appears to have realised that opera lovers are not, for the most part, watching on tiny screens anymore. He makes sure we can see what the designer and director intended. Sure, there are close ups but never at the expense of the bigger picture. The technical quality is of a very high order. There are two formats available; a two DVD set and Blu-Ray. I watched the latter but I doubt most people would see a huge difference. It was filmed in 1080i HD and the picture is clearly better than my first generation HD TV can fully do justice to. The sound is incredibly good. On Blu-Ray it’s DTS-HD Master Audio (DTS 5.1 on DVD). The quality is apparent even as Christie is walking to the pit. The applause simply sounds as if one is in the house rather than the usual muffled fluttering noise. The balance, clarity and spatial depth are exemplary throughout. Both formats also have LPCM stereo. There are English, French, German and Spanish subtitles. There are useful extras. The disc includes interviews with Kent and Christie which are well worth watching and the booklet includes an informative essay by Kent as well as a track listing and synopsis.
All in all this is an excellent production given an exemplary transfer to disc. Here’s the official trailer, unfortunately in less than exemplary Youtube quality: