Couperin’s Leçons de Ténèbre sets texts from Lamentations and is incredibly beautiful in a very French baroque way as well as rather bing music to cut your wrists to. There’s a new CD recording of it by English sopranos Lucy Crowe and Elizabeth Watts with La Nuova Musica directed by David Bates. It’s very fine. Both Crowe and Watts give exemplarty performances. They use minimal vibrato; just enough to create some resonance in louder passages and both have a wonderfully expressive trill. Coupled with really expressive playing from Jonathan Rees – viola da gamba, Alex McCartney – theorbo and David Bates – organ, it’s a real pleasure to listen to. Interestingly the three sections of the Leçons are separated by two trio sonatas by Sébastian de Brossard where the instrumentalists are joined by Bojan Čičić and Sabine Stoffer – violins. It works really well. The disc is rounded out by Brossard’s Stabat Mater, another rather lovely piece of Lenten dolorosity. The singers on this last are Miriam Allan, James Arthur, Nicholas Scott and Simon Wall with Jonathan Rees – viola da gamba, Judith Evans – double bass, Alex McCartney – theorbo and Silas Woolaston – organ. The recording, made in St. Augustine’s Kilburn, is clear and well balanced with an ambience that suits the music well.
The latest Handel oratorio to be given the operatic treatment by Glyndebourne is Saul, which played in 2015 in a production by Australian Barrie Kosky. It’s quite a remarkable work. The libretto, as so often the work of Charles Jennens, takes considerable liberties with the version in Samuel and incorporates obvious nods to both King Lear and Macbeth as well as more contemporary events. David’s Act 3 lament on the death of Saul, for instance, clearly invokes the execution of Charles I. What emerges is a very classic tragedy. Saul, the Lord’s anointed, is driven by jealousy and insecurity deeper and deeper into madness and degradation and, ultimately, death. This is the basic narrative arc of the piece.
Melly Still’s 2012 Glyndebourne production of Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen is straightforward and rather beautiful. Certainly the staging matches the magic of this extraordinary score. There are really two ideas underpinning the designs. The animals are very human rather than the furries sometimes seen. Their specific nature is hinted at rather than made terribly explicit. They are differentiated from the humans by being very boldly coloured. In contrast, the human world is a sort of monochrome 1920’s Moravia; all greys and browns. Within this framework there are some neat touches. The foxes carry their tales and use them to great demonstrative effect. The chickens are portrayed as sex workers with the cockerel as, sort of, their pimp. It’s not overdone and it’s very effective. The sets are centred round a stylized tree with other structures as needed being erected on the fly with flats so the action never really stops.
Back to the Four Seasons Centre last night for a second look at Peter Sellars’ production of Handel’s Hercules. This time we were sitting lower down in the house, in the front, left of the orchestra ring. As predicted the set wasn’t as effective as when seen from higher up but in some ways the lighting effects were more successful. Given the house’s acoustic properties favour the rings I’d say this is definitely one to see from somewhere other than the orchestra.
What did I particularly notice compared to opening night? First off, Richard Croft. I think I was so wrapped up in Lucy Crowe and Eric Owen’s singing the first time around that I almost failed to notice what a fine performance he gave. His voice is very mature for a tenor now but he’s a terrific interpreter of text and has flawless technique. His intensity remains remarkable. And the schtick with the crutches? It turns out he recently had hip surgery.
There’s a unit set; some marble flags, a few broken columns surrounding a “fire pit”. Even this is stripped down for much of Act 2 which takes place on the stage apron in front of a plain curtain. There are five singers, a chorus and an orchestra. That, plus Peter Sellars, is all it takes to produce an extraordinary piece of music drama.
Today’s MetHD broadcast was Mozart’s last, and arguably best, opera La Clemenza di Tito. J-P Ponnelle’s production has been around for a while and offers nothing to offend traditionalists. There’s not a baked potato, muscle suit or child sacrifice in sight. The set, maybe more Italian Renaissance than Imperial Rome is elegant, undistracting and very singer friendly. The costumes are a rather eclectic mix of late 17th century and Republican Rome with a bit of Lady Capulet thrown in but only the black number with the big panniers that Vitellia gets in Act 2 would excite much comment. Direction then focuses rather on the characters and their relationships.
I’ve reviewed two DVDs of Purcell’s semi-opera King Arthur on this blog. One was excellent and one was terrible and between them they went a long way to showing how difficult these semi-operas are to stage well but how rewarding when they succeed.
In 2009 Jonathan Kent and William Christie combined to produce a version of The Fairy Queen for Glyndebourne. It’s quite different in style from the successful Salzburg King Arthur but it works splendidly on its own terms. The Fairy Queen combines a libretto based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream with songs, masques and dances of a largely allegorical nature. Like the play itself they range from high flown allegory with classical elements to bawdy humour. It is very English. It almost epitomises what separates the English baroque from the French. Kent and Christie tackle this with a robust English sensibility, There are some changes to the dialogue and to the order of the numbers but it all makes sense (so far as this piece can). The allegorical elements are gorgeously and wittily staged making good use of a large circular lift at centre stage that allows fully formed tableaux to rise into our sight. The bawdy elements are tackled head on with a robustly TV Mopsa (Robert Burt) in the “Dialogue of Corydon and Mopsa” and the, by now, notorious bonking bunnies in the “Dance for the Haymakers”. The audience is totally engaged and one hears plenty of that commodity, rather rare in the opera house, uninhibited laughter. The team of designer Paul Brown and lighting designer Mark Henderson make all of this look quite spectacular. The dramatic action is played out in fairly long segments and the parts are taken by actors rather than singers. The fairies are appropriately sinister with wings that look inspired by contemporary prints of fallen angels. The Rude Mechanicals are rude and not too mechanical. The “humans” are credibly 17th century in manner though dress gets less formal as the action proceeds. The disparate elements are integrated very well. There’s plenty of dance and it’s choreographed by Kim Brandstrup in a style that is robustly muscular but solidly in the classical ballet tradition.
The cast of actors, singers and dancers is huge and consistently excellent.
I was particularly impressed with Sally Dexter’s Titania and Desmond Barrit’s Welsh accented Bottom among the actors. Barrit even got to do some singing with a not too over the top version of the “Song of the Drunken Poet”. The singing stars were the wonderful, sweet toned Lucy Crowe; her “if love’s a sweet passion” was a delight, and the robust bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams who, among other sings, sang a truly chilling Winter. Singling out individual performances isn’t the point though. This is very much an ensemble performance. Christie directs the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment from the harpsichord and is as idiomatic as one could possibly hope for.
So, how well does the stage production transfer to disc? Extremely well! The video director is François Roussillon. Unlike most of his peers he appears to have realised that opera lovers are not, for the most part, watching on tiny screens anymore. He makes sure we can see what the designer and director intended. Sure, there are close ups but never at the expense of the bigger picture. The technical quality is of a very high order. There are two formats available; a two DVD set and Blu-Ray. I watched the latter but I doubt most people would see a huge difference. It was filmed in 1080i HD and the picture is clearly better than my first generation HD TV can fully do justice to. The sound is incredibly good. On Blu-Ray it’s DTS-HD Master Audio (DTS 5.1 on DVD). The quality is apparent even as Christie is walking to the pit. The applause simply sounds as if one is in the house rather than the usual muffled fluttering noise. The balance, clarity and spatial depth are exemplary throughout. Both formats also have LPCM stereo. There are English, French, German and Spanish subtitles. There are useful extras. The disc includes interviews with Kent and Christie which are well worth watching and the booklet includes an informative essay by Kent as well as a track listing and synopsis.
All in all this is an excellent production given an exemplary transfer to disc. Here’s the official trailer, unfortunately in less than exemplary Youtube quality:
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.
(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.