Kitchen sink duly chucked

There’s a pretty good “making of” extra with the 2013 Glyndebourne recording of Rameau’s rarely performed Hippolyte et Aricie.  In it, director Jonathan Kent argues that there are essentially two ways of dealing with the French baroque; elegance or “throwing the kitchen sink at it”.  To this one might add a weird pastiche of bare chests, stylized gesture and high camp but that’s another story.  My best experiences with Rameau have definitely been of the kitchen sink variety.  I’m thinking of productions like José Montalvo’s Les Paladins.  Kent is a bit more restrained but still pretty inventive which I think is necessary as Hippolyte et Aricie is rather episodic and fragmented and could use some livening up.

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First, the sound quality

The MetHD broadcast of Strauss’ Capriccio has been issued on Blu-ray.  I enjoyed the original broadcast but found watching it again on disk rather unsatisfying.  The main problem is the production.  It’s a John Cox effort from 1998.  The period is updated from ancien régime France to just after WW1, apparently to make the people more contemporary while allowing an opulent, old style Met “all the things” production.  Peter McClintock’s direction of the revival emphasizes the most obvious comedy (the ballerina falling over with her legs in the air, for example) while doing little or nothing to bring out the sheer cleverness of this opera, about an opera, within an opera.  It all seems very heavy handed, in fact the word that popped into my head several times was “vulgar”.

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David Alden’s Poppea

I’m never quite sure what to expect from David Alden.  Some things are predictable; striking images, bold colours and a degree of vulgarity, but beyond that it’s hard to be sure.  Sometimes he seems to be trying to be deep (his Lucia for example), sometimes more kitschy (Rinaldo) and there’s always a slight undercurrent of him thumbing his nose at the audience.  His production of L’incoronazione di Poppea at Barcelona’s Liceu is a curious combination of all these things and I think it works pretty well.

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The Rape of Lucretia

Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, which premiered at Glyndebourne in 1946, is an interesting work in a number of ways.  Musically it marks a distinct break from Peter Grimes and anticipates the later operas in a number of significant ways.  It’s written for much lighter forces than Grimes; string quintet, wind quintet plus harp, percussion and piano and there’s no chorus (in the conventional sense).  It’s also not a “numbers” piece.  There are no set pieces here.  The orchestral writing is spare and somewhat dissonant with that absolute clarity that is so characteristic of Britten.  Sometimes this almost distracts from the drama on stage.

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I came, I saw, I picnicked

The DVD of the 2005 Glyndebourne Festival production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto is one of the most satisfying that I have ever got my hands on. David McVicar’s production is a delight. The cast is consistently excellent with stand out performances from Sarah Connolly as Caesar and Danni de Niese as Cleopatra. William Christie gets wonderful playing from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The production for DVD/Blu-ray is exceptional in every way. There’s even over an hour of worthwhile extras giving a total of over five hours of material.

Let’s start with the production. McVicar and his design team have placed the action firmly in Egypt but moved the time period to the late 19th century with the Romans being portrayed in the manner of the British who effectively ruled Egypt at the time. There are a number of elements taken from Bollywood musicals which seems to have led some reviewers to dismiss it as not being “serious” enough to be a proper Handel production. I think this is misguided. The Bollywood elements are well integrated dramatically and musically and serve a dramatic purpose. They point up the cultural rift between the Romans and the Egyptians without getting into a crude and heavy critique of colonialism. There are a few places where Andrew George’s choreography is a bit over the top but mostly it works and, if nothing else, it’s tremendous fun. McVicar has obviously worked really hard on the and all the main characters and their interactions are clearly defined. The gulf between Romans and Egyptians emerges through these relationships though perhaps the rather overwrought Sesto of Angelika Kirchschlager somewhat undermines the chilly memsahib Cornelia of Patricia Bardon. Throughout there are neat little touches like Cleopatra ditching her cigarette in the urn containing Pompey’s ashes or the Roman/British warships sailing into Alexandria harbour with airship cover during Da tempeste il legno infranto. At the very end, Achilla and Tolomeo, blood soaked, (both are dead at this point) reappear and flank the line of seated dignitaries sipping champagne. It’s weird but works. Notably the production team got one of the biggest ovations of the night when they appeared for a curtain call.

The individual performances range from very good indeed to spectacular. Musically the star is Sarah Connolly. She’s utterly brilliant with completely secure coloratura and ornaments that are far more than just decorative.  Right from Empio, dirò, tu sei where she manages to spit out her disgust while maintaining 100% musicality, to the very end she’s note perfect. Her acting is also really good. She covers a wide range of emotions and her physical acting is genuinely masculine. She really does not look or move like a woman in drag. Then there’s Danielle de Niese! Musically there may be subtler or more refined exponents of the art of Handelian singing but I doubt whether there are any who could handle the role Danni is handed here. (Jane Archibald maybe, just maybe). She sings very well in fact. Some of her big numbers are very well done indeed and Piangerò la sorte mia is very fine and she’s very clever vocally in Da tempeste il legno infranto here she works some ornamentation in to accompany miming firing a sub-machine gun. But singing is only a fraction of the work she gets through. She has a lot of physical acting and several major dance numbers. She’s a very good dancer and, of course, she really looks the part. It’s really quite a performance!

Patricia Bardon acts well in a chilly way and sings beautifully. Priva son d’ogni confortois a real tear jerker. Kirchschlager sings very well but is a bit overwrought in the acting department and doesn’t really come across as a young man set on revenge. Rachid Ben Abdeslam is wonderful as Nireno. He gets the basically scaredy cat (and somewhat effeminate) functionary spot on. Chris Maltman is an appropriately brutal and coarse Achilla without letting the coarseness affect his singing. Alexander Ashworth in a kilt, is a solid, if unexciting, Curio but that’s the role. Christophe Dumaux is brilliant as Tolomeo. He looks like Captain Darling from Blackadder Goes Forth and is similarly petty and petulant. He’s also a vicious, spoiled bully and narcissist. Dumaux brings out all these aspects while singing at the highest level. It’s almost up there with de Niese and Connolly. The musical direction and orchestral playing is of the highest order.

Glyndebourne has been really well treated on video in recent years and this Opus Arte release is no exception.  The production for DVD is both excellent and opulent. The DVD version is spread across three disks (the Blu-ray gets two which is remarkable!). The video direction, by Robin Lough, is sympathetic and unobtrusive. The production was filmed in 1080i (which is what one gets on the Blu-ray) and the DVD rendering of the picture is about as good as DVD gets. The audio choices on DVD are LPCM stereo and DTS 5.0 with the latter being superior. In fact it’s superb; maybe the best sound I’ve come across on DVD. The fidelity with which the brass and woodwinds are captured is exceptional. The Sinfonia just before the final scene is thrilling to listen to. I’d really like to hear what the PCM 5.0 track on the Blu-ray sounds like. There are English, French, German, Italian and Spanish subtitles. Besides a synopsis and cast gallery there are two documentaries incluced. There’s a “making of” called, appropriately “Entertainment is not a dirty word” and a feature on “Danielle de Niese and the Glyndebourne experience”. It’s rather touching as Danni gushes over what an amazing place Glyndebourne is and interviews Gus Christie about what it’s like to live there. I’d like to see the follow up with Mrs Gus Christie, chatelaine!

This really should be watched by anyone who thinks baroque opera is difficult and boring and needs to be dumbed down for the average audience. But I don’t suppose he’s listening.

Let the triumph of love and of beauty be shown

One of the trickiest things about opera productions; baroque opera anyway, is what to do about the dance elements. Time was when opera and ballet were joined at the hip but not so much nowadays beyond sharing premises. In 2009 the Royal Opera House made the bold decision to have choreographer Wayne McGregor direct the combined forces of the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet in a production of Henry Purcell’s pocket masterpiece Dido and Aeneas. The result was broadcast by the BBC and subsequently released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Opus Arte. It’s a fascinating and rewarding production.

Sets and costumes are very spare. Aeneas and the chorus are in greatcoats and wide trousers. The ladies are in unfussy gowns. The dancers are in singlets and booty shorts (both sexes). Carefully detailed direction of the singers and their gestures, bold choreography and imaginative lighting carry the visual side of the production. The use of top quality dancers and a top notch choreographer allows the dance elements to realise their full potential (and not a castanet in sight!). The result is visually stunning.

Now add a superb singing cast. Lucy Crowe almost steals the show as Belinda. She’s fresh and vivacious and her clean sound is just right for Purcell. But it is “almost” because we have Sarah Connolly’s monumental Dido to set against it.(1) She is one of the great Didos. I have heard Kirkby, Te Kanawa, Ewing and Baker in the role and even Flagstad but none exceed the combination of searing intensity and pathos that Connolly brings to the role. She is superb. Other elements of the singing are also admirable. Lucas Meachem is a hunky Aeneas and manages the tricky low notes better than most. The sorceress and witches; Sara Fulgoni with Eri Nakamura and Pumeza Matshikiza playing Siamese twins, don’t do the camped up distorted thing that is so often inflicted on the role. Fulgoni sings with quite a lot of vibrato which is sufficient to create some musical distance between her and the non infernal characters. The minor roles are all pretty good too. The regular Covent Garden orchestra is replaced by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Christopher Hogwood. This is a move that other large houses might think about for earlier repertoire.

All this goodness builds to a searing climax in which Dido slits her wrists with the “tushes far exceeding those that Venus’ huntsman slew” and dies while a haunting projection of a horse plays back of stage. All in all it’s an hour of magic.

Video direction is much better than average. Close ups are minimised and we get to see the choreography in its broadest sense. The picture is superb 16:9 anamorphic (1080i on the Blu-Ray) and sound options are PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 (PCM 2.0 and PCM 5.1 on Blu-Ray). There are English, French, Spanish, German and Italian subtitle options.

Highly recommended.

(1) I do think the balance of voice types between Belinda and Dido is important. It’s like Carmen and Micaëla. If the voices are too similar much texture is lost. Crowe and Connolly are an ideal combination.

A blast from the past

One of the first opera DVDs I bought was John Eliot Gardiner’s Le Nozze di Figaro recorded at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris in 1993. This is a pretty early example of period performance of Mozart. Gardiner was in the middle of his run of recordings for DG Archiv and it was only two years after Opera Atelier’s breakthrough Magic Flute which I saw only because one of my clients was sponsoring it and couldn’t shift the free tickets. This Figaro is pretty traditional in design and features “original instruments” and period singing style without going the whole Opera Atelier style baroque route (there are no castanets). Sets are flats plus bits of furniture. Costumes are breeches, crinolines and wigs. Olivier Mille directed but I’m not sure anybody noticed. At one point the Count looks exactly like Prince George in Blackadder the Third. The buffo characters are over made up and over the top. Regie has no place here.

The cast is excellent. 28 year old Bryn Terfel plays Figaro and already sounds on the big side for a period performance of Mozart. Susanna is the sadly under-recorded Alison Hagley; an ideal Susanna both as singer and actor. Rodney Gilfry plays the Count with a perpetual sneer and other Gardiner regulars such as Hillevi Martinpelto, as the Contessa, are prominent. In the future star department we get Sarah Connolly as one of the contadine. Pacing is a bit breath taking. Terfel in particular takes his recitatives so fast it’s hard to tell if he is actually singing. Despite looking rather old fashioned and having a bit of a feel of period performance for the sake of it, the production does come off really well.

The production for DVD is a bit odd. The opera was filmed as 16:9 but it’s hard coded to disk as 4:3 so if you watch it on a widescreen TV it’s letterboxed both ways. The picture is adequate DVD quality. The only sound option is LPCM stereo and there are IT/EN/DE/FR/ES/CHI subtitle options. The documentation includes a long essay on how they decided to order some of the numbers differently from the autograph score. All in all, an interesting artefact as a very early DVD capturing a very decent performance.

This Youtube clip is of abysmal video quality but it does give a fair idea of the production.

Capriccio

Yesterday’s Met Live in HD transmission was Richard Strauss’ last opera Capriccio. It’s a curious work and I suspect how one thinks about it seriously affects how one reacts to it emotionally. On the surface it’s a sophisticated meta opera about opera with some side splittingly funny gags about unstageable production concepts accompanied by pastiche Wagner. Taken on that level it’s funny but perhaps, ultimately heartless. When one realises that the opera was written in 1941/2 it adds a new dimension. Why has Strauss set this opera in Enlightenment Paris? Where else could be more symbolic of everything the regime he is writing under is not? This work premiered a few weeks before the German defeat at Stalingrad. Does Strauss sense that german is losing the war? Is this less an affectionate farewell to the form from an elderly composer or an elegy for an artform that may not survive the destruction of European civilization which most would have thought the inevitable consequence of a Russo-American victory (who’s to say they weren’t right?). Any way these were the thoughts that were going through my head as I watched yesterday’s broadcast and no doubt helped give the work, for me, a greater emotional intensity.

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