Christian Chaudet’s Le Rossignol

Christian Chaudet’s film of Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol started life as a 1999 studio sound recording of the piece conducted by James Conlon.  Chaudet became somewhat obsessed with the recording and decided to turn it into a film, recruiting the original singers as part of the project.  It’s an ambitious film which mixes live action, animation and a series of special effects to create something really rather weird and wonderful.  It frames the Hans Christian Anderson tale in a modern setting involving a mobile phone, a weird internet cafe and a reality talent show.  He throws in some Gilliamesque animation and a live nightingale for good measure.

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Banned by the Nazis

Both Viktor Ullmann and Alexander Zemlinsky were among the group of composers persecuted by the Nazi regime. Ullman would die in Auschwitz, Zemlinsky in exile and obscurity.  This 2008 recording from Los Angeles Opera’s “Recovered Voices” series brings together two one act operas; Ullman’s Der zerbrochene Krug and Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg.  in productions directed by Darko Tresnjak and conducted by James Conlon.

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Lady Macbeth in Florence

Shostakovich’s The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District is becoming quite a staple of the opera repertoire. Even so, I’m still a bit surprised to see a production from the Teatro del Maggio Musicale di Fiorentino making it onto DVD and Blu-ray. It’s a 2008 recording with James Conlon conducting and Lev Dodin directing a mostly Russian cast though with Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet in the title role.

The production is fairly conventional. A wooden set serves variously as the interior of the Izmailov’s warehouse, the police station, some external scenes and, with minor changes, the convict’s camp. There are various galleries and a sort of eyrie that serves as Katerina’s bedroom. The production is not particularly exciting. The seduction/rape in Act 1 is depicted by Katerina’s bedroom light swaying increasingly wildly while a minor character clowns across the stage. It really stays in much the same key until Act 4 where everything goes blue and white and “snow” pours down continuously onto the stage. Sergei and Sonyetka get it on under a big white sheet while the rest of the convicts look on. The push/jump into the river happens so suddenly and unobtrusively that if one didn’t know the plot one might miss it.

Maybe it’s the essential dullness of the production that causes video director Andrea Bevilacqua to take the approach he does, which is highly interventionist. Sometimes we get to see the action more or less as the theatre audience does but often we get extreme closeups or weird angles; backstage, side stage, from the pit, the works. He also indulges in some video trickery. At least I think that’s what’s happening in the scene with Boris’ ghost which is very white and somewhat out of focus. I don’t think the effect could be produced with stage lighting. In Act 4 Bevilacqua also pulls out the fades, dissolves and superpositioned shots. As a video in its own right it is quite interesting. As a record of a stage production it largely fails so whether one likes it or not becomes largely a question of point of view on what a video recording of a live opera performance should be. The disk includes an introductory credits sequence which involves what appear to be black and white portraits of the cast put through Photoshop’s oil painting filter. It really is a taste of things to come.

Musically this is a mixed bag. James Conlon takes an unusually lyrical view of the score and at times his Florentine orchestra sounds almost more like Verdi than Shostakovich. I was sufficiently surprised by his reading of the first act, especially the scene at the end between Sergei and Katarina that I put on the Amsterdam production (Mariss Jansons conducting the Concertgebouw) for a comparison. It’s night and day. Conlon shapes long legato phrases and the percussion is quite restrained. Jansons is strident and staccato with incisive percussion and blaring brass. Jansons sounds much more like the music I fell in love with as a teenager! Conlon is not quite as extreme in the remaining acts but it’s still very restrained Shostakovich. The singing is generally pretty good. The stand out is Vladimir Vaneev as the brutally lecherous father in law. Sergei Kunaev is an adequate Sergei but he’s not terribly charismatic and the chemistry between him and Charbonnet never really gets going. She’s OK too but her vibrato increases with volume and is really quite obtrusive when she’s singing loud.

Technically the DVD production is pretty good. It was filmed in 1080i and is generously spread across two DVD9 disks. The picture is comparable with DVD releases from the MetHD series. Sound options are LPCM stereo, Dolby 5.1 and DTS 5.1. As to be expected the DTS track is the best bet. It’s clear, spacious and detailed. The dynamic range seems a bit limited but I think that’s probably the orchestra and the house acoustics rather than a fault in the recording. There are Russian, English, Italian, German, French and Spanish subtitles. There are no extras but the booklet includes casting, a full track listing, a historical essay and a plot synopsis.

People who find the dramatic liberties that Martin Kusej takes with his Amsterdam production really irritating may prefer this. Most people, I suspect, will prefer that version. So I guess I’d better do a full review sometime.

Curiously bland Brecht/Weill

Brecht and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is an awkward work for an opera company. It’s been said, rightly I think, that one can/must situate it in a triangle of which the vertices are opera, musical theatre and Brechtian theatre. John Doyle’s 2007 production for Los Angeles Opera is strong on the opera and musical theatre dimensions but decidedly unBrechtian. Despite a good idiomatic translation by Michael Feingold this production seems unwilling to skewer capitalism in the manner Brecht intended. It’s the polar opposite of the Salzburg recording that left no Marxist cliche unexplored. Maybe it’s a failure of nerve. Maybe capitalism in LA is already such a parody of itself that further skewering is impossible. Who knows? Even Act 2, which is all about the commoditization of basic human pleasures doesn’t really fire. Sure we get excess and commoditized sex but there’s no sense that the commoditization is dehumanising or transgressive. Sex for sale? Of course! It does get a bit darker in the final act with the trial and execution of Jimmy and finishes strongly on “Still we only built this Mahagonny” but by then it’s very much too little, too late. The lack of edge is reinforced by the orchestra under James Conlon. It’s all just too civilized. There’s none of the spiky dissonance one is used to in the score and the brass, in particular, sound like they are playing in the Palm Court of the Hilton.

It’s a shame because the singing performances are mostly very good. The leading female roles are played by Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald who both have Broadway backgrounds. LuPone sounds like that’s where she’s from too though McDonald manages a much wider range and pretty much steals the show. It helps that she is very good looking and practically naked. The guys are mostly from opera backgrounds; notably Anthony Dean Griffey as Jimmy McIntyre and Donnie Ray Albert as Trinity Moses. Both sing well and idiomatically. The sets are sort of Vegas lite with none of the inexplicable weirdness of the Salzburg production but not much interest either. Again things look up a bit in the last act with effective use of a giant video screen in the trial scene and moving slogans over the finale. Blocking is very Broadway, especially the big chorus numbers that look more Rodgers and Hammerstein than Brecht and Weill.

Video direction is by Gary Halvorson and it’s judicious. There’s often not much set to look at so we might as well have close ups of Ms. McDonald. The technical package is solid. The picture is high quality 16:9. The sound choices are PCM stereo, DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1. The last is nicely balanced and clear There are French, German and Spanish subtitles. There’s a useful essay in the booklet which gives full track listings and a 20 minute interview with the director.

More Carsen genius

I’m a big fan of Robert Carsen. His Orfeo ed Euridice was one of the highlights of last year’s COC season and his Iphigénie en Tauride promises to be one of the events of the upcoming season. So, as you can imagine, I had high expectations for the DVD of his 2002 Paris production of Dvořák’s Rusalka with Renée Fleming in the title role. I wasn’t disappointed. The production is pure magic. It’s almost a mathematician’s production. In Act 1 he gives us symmetry in the horizontal plane. There’s a bedroom reflected horizontally floating above the water sprites’ abode which resolves itself into the bedroom that is the setting for Rusalka’s initial encounter with the prince. In Act 2 we get the same bedroom but in a left right symmetry and the movements of the characters are also mirrored with non singing actors mirroring the singers. The symmetry continues with Rusalka balanced against the foreign princess. It’s very cool. I’m guessing that Carsen is suggesting the distance between the world of the sprites and the human world diminishing then opening up again. In Act 3 we get geometrical chaos as Ježibaba’s hut is presented at crazy angles poised above the stage and all sorts of dissolution goes on before we again get the symmetrical bedroom in which the final tragedy plays out. The general concept is supported by a superb lighting plot (Carsen and Peter van Praet) that brilliantly brings out the moods of the different scenes. And there’s no clutter. Scene follows scene pretty much seamlessly. It’s terrific stagecraft.

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