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).
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is widely considered to be his masterpiece and it does have a lot going for it both dramatically and musically, especially when given the full on star studded treatment that it got at the Chatelet in 2003. That said, it’s dramatically rather odd, it’s very long (well over four hours) and it requires huge forces; twenty soloists, massive chorus, dancers, supers, acrobats, jugglers etc. It also has preludes, ballets and masques on a scale that seem more appropriate to the 17th than the mid 19th century. Act 4 is particularly marked in this respect. It’s perhaps no wonder that it was never played complete in Berlioz’ lifetime. The story is taken from Books two and four of Virgil’s Aeneid; the first dealing with the wooden horse and the fall of Troy (Acts 1 and 2) and the second with the Trojans at Carthage (Acts 3-5). The problem is that there isn’t much connecting them. In the first part the drama centres around Cassandre. By the end of Act 2 she’s dead and we move on to Carthage where Didon makes her first appearance. The Trojan hero Énée links both halves but he’s a pretty minor presence in the first bit.
In Acts 1 and 2 Troy is a sparse stage with a reflector above it projecting much of the action onto a backdrop of an Italianate cityscape of Troy. It’s a good idea as for most of the act there are a lot of people on stage and it’s not easy to take it all in. Occasionally the cityscape dissolves into some kind of symbolic back projection as with the the horse itself which is just a rather grim projection of a horse’s head. It works pretty well. A similar approach is used to introduce the scene where Hector’s ghost tells Énée he’s got to rebuild Troy in Italy. The camera work for the DVD switches between stage and backdrop with the usual close ups and just occasionally pulls back to let us see what the theatre audience is seeing. All in all I think Peter Maniura is giving us as good a look at Yannis Kokkos’ staging as could reasonably be done on DVD.
Vocally, the first part is all about Cassandre, here played by Anna Caterina Antonacci. She’s stunning. She gives a totally committed performance as the prophetess who everyone thinks is mad until it’s all too late. She stands out visually in a simple white dress against the rest of the Trojans who wear greatcoats of mixed military provenance and otherwise look generally scruffy giving an effect somewhere between Colditz and Les Miz. Her singing and acting are both quite mesmerizing. She is well backed up Gregory Kunde’s Énée although he doesn’t have too much to do. He manages to sound like a bel canto singer while upping the heft to cope with some pretty dense orchestration.
Here’s a clip of Antonacci which gives a pretty good idea of the overall idea.
Act 3 involves a total shift of dramatic and aesthetic gear. Now we are in Carthage where Didon (Susan Graham) is presenting the results of the first Five year Plan to what looks like a cross between a Druidic gorsedd and a meeting of the Carthage Soviet of Workers and Peasants. The plan has met its targets but their idyllic existence is threatened by the king of Numidia who wants to marry Didon and is marching on Carthage. Énée appears and offers to save the peace loving Carthaginians (nb these are not the baby burning, general crucifying Carthaginians I remember from history) by doing the fighting for them. This is followed by a longish section where Didon’s sister Anna (the very fetching Renata Pokupić) tries to persuade her that hooking up with Énée would be a smart move. This continues into Act 4 which rather drags. There’s a long, almost Wagnerian, prelude after which Didon enters, obviously head over heels in love. We can tell this from her little interpretative dance and her spending the next half hour looking like a contented hamster watching several ballets complete with jugglers and acrobats.. The entertainmet concludes with singing, dancing Nubians who could have come straight out of National Geographic c. 1950. Finally we get going again and Didon decides that maybe the Énée thing isn’t such a bad idea after all. She and Énée sing the gorgeous duet “Nuit d’ivresse”. Kunde and Graham are very fine indeed in this as you can see below. Both these acts are played out on a brightly lit stage with lots of bright whites and colours.
The act concludes on an ominous note as Mercure reminds Énée of his Italian destiny.
In Act 5 we are back dramatically and aesthetically more or less where we started. It’s dark, Trojans in greatcoats, the reflector. The ghosts of the dead Trojans remind Aeneas of his quest. He decides to obey. Most of the rest of the act is Susan Graham going through a full gamut of emotions; anger, grief, vengeance, resignation. It gets a bit over the top but she is elemental and always musical. Graham steals the show in the final three acts but she is very well supported by Pokupić’s Anna and Laurent Naouri’s Narbal as well as Kunde. Cassandra (or her ghost) get the last word but nobody is going to believe her.
John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. He pushes things along well without sacrificing grandeur at the needed points. The period instruments give some pleasing variation of tone colour. The chorus is the ever excellent Monteverdi Choir. No problems in those departments.
Peter Maniura’s screen direction maintains its high standard through the second half. So what of the disk package? It’s an Opus-Arte production and it was filmed in high definition. The 16:9 anamorphic picture is superb even on DVD (which is what I watched) but it is also available on Blu-Ray which should be even better, especially as the Blu-Ray is cheaper and two discs versus three DVDs. Sound is LPCM stereo or DTS 5.1 (DTS HD on the Blu-Ray). The DTS track is really good with real depth. There is even adequate documentation and an hour long “Making of” documentary. All in all, it’s what an opera DVD/Blu-Ray release ought to be.