El Niño

John Adams’ El Niño was conceived as an oratorio but thoughts turned to it being staged early in the creative process.  The final result, as staged at Paris’ Châtelet in 2000, defies easy characterization.  There are singers and dancers on stage but they don’t represent unique characters.  So, for example, at one moment Willard White is Herod and at another Joseph.  To further complicate matters video is constantly projected onto a screen above the stage space.  It was specially created for the piece being shot on location in Super 8.  There’s no clear narrative either.  To some extent it tells the Christmas story but it’s at least as much about the feminine experience of giving birth as anything from Isiah or the Gospels.  It also uses a very eclectic mix of texts; from the Bible, from the Apocrypha, from female Latin American poets, from Hildegard of Bingen and so on.  There are lots off Sellars’ trademarks in the staging too; semaphore and so on.  Does it work?  I don’t really know as it’s really hard to tell from the video recording (see para 3).

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Gluck à l’outrance

Gluck’s Alceste is not as well known as Orfeo ed Eurydice or the Iphigénie operas but in some ways it’s an even better example of what Gluck meant by “reform”.  It’s simple, restrained and elegant.  The plot has some similarities with Orfeo.  The good king of Thessaly, Admète, is doomed to die unless someone else volunteers in his place.  Naturally enough, this being opera, his wife Alceste volunteers.  There is much dignified lamenting.  She descends to Hades.  Husband and wife reproach each other for their selfishness in being the one to die.  Hercules shows up and, in gratitude for earlier hospitality, saves the day.  There is (dignified) rejoicing.  It;s an easy score to listen to with plenty of good tunes but no blockbuster, memorable, numbers.

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Can’t get no Atisfaction

Despite also featuring William Christie, Les Arts Florissants and François Roussillon, the 2004 Châtelet production of Rameau’s Les Paladins could hardly be more different from the recording of Lully’s Atys that I reviewed yesterday.  The work is based on Orlando Furioso and is an utterly anarchic parody of pretty much everything that Rameau had previously written.  It was considered shocking in its day.  The production by José Montalvo with choreographic help from Dominique Hervieu is completely mad and tremendous fun.

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Thomas Allen and Eva Jenis in The Cunning Little Vixen

Once in a while a video recording comes my way that’s just pure delight.  The 1995 recording of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen from the Théâtre du Châtelet is one.  The creative team of director Nicholas Hytner (director), Bob Crowley (designer), Jean-Claude Gallotta (choreagrapy) and Jean Kalman (lighting) created a spectacle that is as much ballet as opera with vivid costumes and simple sets  It’s a rather splendid and touching adult fairy tale. Continue reading

La Belle Helène in Paris

When I reviewed the 1997 Zurich production of La Belle Helène about a week ago the commentariat was strong in the belief that I should take a look at the 2000 Paris-Châtelet production.  So I did and they were right.  It’s excellent.  It also reinforced my belief that operetta; English, French or German, works best when it’s taken seriously by which I mean using the best available singer/actors, a good director and a top notch orchestra, chorus and conductor.  All of these are in place in this Paris production. Continue reading

Well conceived and executed Cosi Fan Tutte

John Eliot Gardiner’s 1992 Cosi Fan Tutte is, on the face of it, very similar to the Il Nozze di Figaro he recorded the following year. Both feature period costumes and sets and no attempt is made to hide that these are stage productions in a theatre (the Châtelet). Both productions feature young, attractive singers of talent drawn from Gardiner’s orbit. However , where the Figaro seems devoid of original dramatic ideas, the Cosi is more densely constructed. Gardiner produced this himself and although he leaves the detailed stage direction to Stephen Medcalf the concept is clearly his. He sees the piece being largely about the development of the two sisters from essentially undifferentiated stereotypical unmarried girls of their class in Act 1 into fully self aware adults in Act 2. He roots this interpretation in the score arguing that Mozart wasn’t even sure which of the girls he was writing for in the first act. To support this concept he casts two similar sounding sopranos. To cast a mezzo as Dorabella is, says Gardiner, “a 20th century aberration”. In Act 1 they are dressed identically transitioning in the final scene to mirror images of each other. In Act 2 they are visually fully differentiated. This overall idea is backed up bu careful direction of the singers and painterly sets evoking the Bay of Naples. Good use is made of the auditorium as well as the stage especially in Guglielmo’s Act 2 aria “Donne mie, la fate a tanti”. So, it’s pretty to look at but there’s a good deal more to it than that.

Musically it’s of the highest quality; at least if you like period instruments in Mozart and I do. From the very first bars of the overture; taken at a pretty fair lick, I bounced to the spritely sound of the English Baroque Soloists. The singers are excellent. Amanda Roocroft is Fiordiligi and she manages a vocally sure but psychologically conflicted “Come scoglio” with aplomb. She also sings a really lovely “Per pietà”. Rosa Mannion is not far behind as Dorabella though, of course, she has rather fewer opportunities for display. Rainer Trost is a wonderfully lyrical Ferrando with a lbeautiful rendering of “Un’aura amorosa”. Rodney Gilfrey is a muscular, even macho, Guglielmo. Mezzo Eirian James plays Despina and is more convincing than many in that role especially in the doctor/attorney scenes. She’s the scheming maid to the life. Don Alfonso is played by baritone Claudio Nicolai and he’s much lighter voiced than is usual for the role. This fits with an interpretation that is nuanced rather than buffo. Ensemble work is consistently excellent.

Peter Mumford directed for DVD. I think this was specifically recorded for home use rather than for TV broadcast and, for the era, it’s really good. He uses some unusual camera angles but never gratuitously and we can see what we need to see to understand the production. There are a few moments of gratuitous artsiness with head shots fading to backdrop and so on but it’s not really troubling. The picture is 16:9 and good DVD quality though not on a par with true modern HD. The production was recorded in stereo but DGG have worked some digital wizardry to produce Dolby 5.1 and DTS 5.1. The DTS is pretty vivid and well balanced. The only extras are some trailers for other Gardiner Mozart recordings. The documentation includes an interesting essay by Gardiner. There are English, German, French, Italian , Spanish and Chinese subtitles.

All in all, this is well worth seeing for anyone interested in HIP versions of mozart or just looking for a solid, undistracting well played and sung version. It won’t do much for the Regie fans though.

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.