The Rake at 35

David Hockney and John Cox’s production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress first saw the light of day at Glyndebourne in 1975 and there’s a video of it from back then.  It’s been revived umpteen times since, all with Cox directing rather than an overawed revival director.  It was done again in 2010, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting, recorded and issued on Blu-ray and DVD.  It’s fascinating.

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Intermezzo

It has been said that the best music in Richard Strauss’ Intermezzo is in the orchestral interludes that link the various scenes.  It’s probably true and certainly the singers don’t get much interesting to sing with the best music given to the orchestra even during the scenes.  That said, all of the music is vastly better than the truly cringe-worthy libretto, also by Strauss.  It’s in prose, much of it is spoken and there are odd interjections of more vernacular German for the servants, rather in the manner of the random cockney in ancient Ealing films.  The plot is based on an, aaparently real life, episode in the married life of the Strausses, here thinly disguised as the Storches, in which Frau Storch gets the wrong end of the stick about suspected infedelity by her husband and threatens divorce.  If Frau Strauss ever saw the piece, which is apparently unlikely, she might reasonably have seen the portrayal of herself by her husband as much sounder grounds for dumping him.  Christine Storch is the sort of woman one wants to tie up in a sack and drown!

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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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Renée and her frocks

John Cox’s production of Massenet’s Thaïs at the Metropolitan Opera is probably most remembered for the rather extraordinary collection of Christian Lacroix frocks that Met perennial Renée Fleming gets to wear.  It’s rather more than that.  In fact it’s a pretty good example of what the Met does best.  It’s sumptuous and spectacular and has a pretty much ideal cast which, together, go a long way toward making this curious piece rather enjoyable.

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Hockney’s Flute

It seems to be “looking back at older Metropolitan Opera productions” week here in the blogosphere.  Over at The Earworm there’s a series of posts on a 1980 production of Don Carlos.  Our subject will be the 1991 Die Zauberflöte.

The production was designed by David Hockney and the look varies from the whimsical; the opening scene, to the grandiose; the final scene, with bits of Egyptiana in between.  It’s very handsome.  The direction is described as “original direction” by John Cox and “direction” by Guus Mostart.  I’m not entirely sure what this means as there doesn’t really seem to be a production concept and the Personeregie is pretty basic.  Basically it looks like acting is considered to be an optional extra.  Some of the singers are good actors and some don’t even try.  There’s no consistency.  The impression is that the “production” is just a backdrop for the singers to do their thing. Continue reading

Hockney’s Rake

Having watched quite a few opera recordings from the 70s and 80s recently I can well see why David Hockney’s designs for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at Glyndebourne were such a big deal back in the day. They look they were designed by an artist rather than being lifted from an expensive department store furniture catalogue. And, of course, they are still in use. Beyond the design issues, this has a kind of transitional feel as a production. Occasionally some acting breaks out and quite imaginative use is made of the chorus but there is a lot of “park and bark”; perhaps somewhat inevitable on the old, small Glyndebourne stage but very noticeable. It’s hard not to feel that director John Cox could have done a lot more with a neat staging and a talented cast.  Continue reading

Pelléas et Mélisande in the Valleys

The Gramophone Classical Music Guide 2010 describes the DVD of the 1992 Welsh National Opera performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande thusly:

This is, in every respect, a model of what a DVD ought to be, a perfect realisation in picture and sound of Debussy’s sole and inspired opera.

Followed by a good deal more in the same vein.  This, regrettably, tells us more about the Gramophone Guide than about this DVD(1).  Actually it’s not bad at all by 1992 standards but “a perfect realisation” it isn’t.

Peter Stein’s production is semi-abstract and monotone.  The tone is “dark”.  There’s some interesting lighting but visually it’s pretty nondescript.  The director’s focus is clearly on the actors and their interactions and in a work like Pelléas et Mélisande that makes sense.  There is some very good acting, especially from Alison Hagley as Mélisande.  The tower scene is brought off rather well with perhaps the most extravagant hair extension in the history of opera.  This also features in a disturbingly violent Act 4 Scene 2.  Act 4 also sees a brief appearance by a live sheep, no doubt in deference to local sensibilities.  I’m not entirely convinced that Stein gets enough complexity from his cast to really raise the psychology beyond the cardboard cut out level.  Donald Maxwell’s rather crude and coarse Golaud doesn’t really make a case for his descent into jealousy, madness and murderous rage based on not much at all really.  He’s not helped by the rather colourless Pelléas of Neill Archer.  On the other hand Alson Hagley conveys the fragility and mystery of her character exceptionally well.  (I also wondered whether a visual reference to Gerald of Wales’ Melusine was being made in the tower scene but maybe that’s over-theorising).  She’s very much in the same frantic and febrile mould here as Natalie Dessay on the Theater an der Wien recording.  Kenneth Cox gives a strongly characterised Arkel with particularly good chemistry with Hagley.  Stein uses a boy treble, Samuel Burkey, in the role of Yniold.  It works dramatically but I don’t much care for it musically.

In general the singing is very good.  All the principals have adequate French at least, though they can’t quite match Vienna’s line up of Francophone star talent.  Pierre Boulez conducts.  He gets a very detailed, transparent reading from the WNO orchestra while occasionally pushing out a genuinely Wagnerian dramatic climax.  No complaints here.

Stein also directed for TV/DVD.  It’s pretty conventional 1992 TV direction.  There are lots of close ups but generally there’s no sense that one is missing anything.  Although recorded live, there is no applause and no sign of an audience.  During the orchestral interludes we get film of the orchestral score which is an interesting treatment but tends even more to make this like a film rather than a theatre performance.

The picture is average DVD 16:9 and the sound options are PCM stereo, Dolby 5.1 and DTS 5.1.  The surround tracks were created from an original stereo source using DG’s AMSI II technology.  The DTS track is very decent but not quite up to best modern standards.  Extras include a trailer, a picture gallery and some DG promo material.  Subtitles are French, English, German, Spanish and Chinese.  There’s a trilingual booklet with track listings, synopsis and a short, not very useful essay.

This is a good (though far from perfect!) effort.  It’s definitely worth a look though I personally prefer the more recent Vienna recording.

fn1. I’ve long been skeptical about reviewers who claim that the best recording of a well known work is one made by Fritz Busch in his garden shed in 1935.

 

A girl called Maria

Maria Ewing has always been a bit of an enigma to me. It’s the range of roles I’ve heard her in; Salome, Dido, Carmen, Rosina. Soprano to mezzo and bel canto to dramatic.  In the recording under consideration here she sings Rosina in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It was recorded at Glyndebourne in 1982 when she was 32. Her performance is typical Ewing. She acts really well, looks great (if her unusual looks work for you – they do for me!)  and sings really well without ever really sounding beautiful and occasionally giving one the feeling one gets watching somebody corner a little too fast on a large motorbike. I find watching her fascinating.

The production is as traditional as one could get and makes the small, old Glyndebourne stage look even smaller. Costumes too are absolutely generic 19th century comic opera. Blocking is basic. Mostly it’s very straightforward “park and bark”. All in all it’s the sort of thing you simply wouldn’t see in a modern opera house (except maybe the Met) and I’m sure it would please the investment banker’s wife in the Salzburg King Arthur. The singing and acting, Ewing aside, backs the production up.

John Rawnsley is a very broad Figaro with winks and big gestures and little mincing footsteps. He sings very well indeed but he has a voice that seems two sizes too loud for the production and tends to dominate ensembles. Max-René Cosotti is the Count. He has an old fashioned Italian tenor voice that works really well in this context. The rest of the cast is perfectly OK too and there’s a bit of a bonus in that Basilio is sung by a 33 year old newcomer called Ferrucio Furlanetto. We are a million miles away from Phillip II here! The London Philharmonic are in the pit under Sylvain Cambreling. They are balanced well back from the voices but seem OK to me. All in all, this is musically quite fine, if rather old fashioned, but dramatically it’s rather like watching superior panto for adults.

Technically this disc is about what one might expect. It’s taken from an ITV broadcast and is very much video directed for small screen. The picture is barely DVD quality 4:3 and the sound is Dolby 2.0. It isn’t particularly good either being slightly muffled and with quite unrealistic balance. Subtitles are available in English, French, German and Spanish. There are no extras and minimal documentation. All in all I think one has to treat this like a dodgy mono sound recording from the 1950s. It’s worth having if one wants a record of these singers but otherwise one is better off looking for something more recent. Certainly Dario Fo’s Amsterdam production is much more fun to watch.