Gruberova as Lucrezia

Edita Gruberova in recent years has pretty much cut her repertoire down to a handful of bel canto roles; Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux  and the title roles in Anna Bolena, La Straniera, Norma and Lucrezia Borgia.  The last of these was recorded in Munich in 2009 in a production by Christof Loy for the Bayerisches Staatsoper.  It shows that Gruberova still very much at the height of her powers but the production is less satisfactory.

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Cendrillon

Massenet’s Cendrillon is less often performed than Rossini’s take on the same basic story.  I’m really not sure why.  Rossini’s take is a bit weird (in a good way), especially in the Ponelle production, but Massenet’s is much more interesting musically.  Oddly enough there’s only one version on DVD; a 2011 recording from the Royal Opera House.  Fortunately it’s very good.  The production is by Laurent Pelly and it has quite a bit in common with his La Fille du Regiment.  Here the set is made up of pages from the original syory by Perrault rather than military maps but the effect is similar.  Costumes are quite cartoonish (shades of the recent Alice in Wonderland ballet) except for Cendrillon herself, the prince and her father.  There’s a strong emphasis on the humorous side of the piece and the “ballets” are thoroughly subverted.

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Into the woods

Claus Guth’s 2008 Salzburg production of Don Giovanni divided the critics along entirely predictable lines.  It’s a very unusual treatment of Don Giovanni but the concept is stuck to with real consistency and it works to create a compelling piece of music theatre.  The treatment on video too is not straightforward and, in a sense, the DVD/Blu-ray version is as much the work of Brian Large as it is of Claus Guth.

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Maybe opera is not made for film… shit!

So says Rolando Villazón towards the end of the “Making of” documentary that accompanies Robert Dornhelm’s 2008 film of Puccini’s La Bohème.  Fortunately for us Dornhelm, Villazón and the rest of those involved provide another piece of evidence that films of operas can indeed be made, and made very successfully.  This one is a curious hybrid.  It uses just about every technique that I’ve seen used in such a venture.  The whole thing was originally recorded in the studio and most of the film is lip-synched using a mixture of the singers and actors who weren’t art of the singing cast but some of the arias were sung on set to a taped orchestral track.  I’m not sure why and I couldn’t tell which was what.  It all works pretty well anyway.

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Chav Giovanni

Calixto Bieito’s 2002 production of Don Giovanni from Barcelona’s Liceu theatre is a drink and drug fuelled nightmare. The general atmosphere will be familiar enough to anybody who has been around the “entertainment district” of a large city around chucking out time. Besides chemical stimulants and a great deal of enthusiastic bonking there’s also lots of violence, some of it quite disturbing, and buckets of blood but, as far as I could tell, only one rape.  It’s bold and never dull but I think it stretches the libretto to its very limits and perhaps beyond.

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Dialogues of the Arkelites

Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is not an opera I’m especially familiar with. It’s a strange piece based on a libretto by Maeterlinck. For much of the time it’s wordy without much action. There is a lot of philosophising. When the action does break out; Golaud’s mad jealousy in Act 3, the killing in Act 4, it gets musically and dramatically quite violent. The music is tonal and mostly quite dreamy. It’s almost mood music. All of this reminds me quite strongly of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites hence the title of this post. Also it’s French. Actually it’s very French.

Laurent Pelly’s 2009 production for Theater an der Wien is also very French; French director, French conductor, almost entirely French cast. In an opera where the words and the relationship between the music and the words matter a lot that’s a distinct advantage. The sets are semi-abstract and placed on a rotating turntable so that scenes can follow on with a minimum of interruption. The forest, the tower, the cave are all suggested rather than made entirely explicit. Even Mélisande’s extra long hair is not depicted explicitly. This fits the indirect nature of both the libretto and the music rather well. The costumes suggest somewhere around 1900 and the colour palette doesn’t stray far from “forest floor”. Lighting is quite dark but evocative. The sense of a gloomy castle in a gloomy (Breton?) forest is quite strong.

With the exception of a few outbursts from Mélisande’s husband, Golaud, and one fairly lyrical love scene between Mélisande and Pélleas the singers have few opportunities for vocal pyrotechnics. They do need to sing stylishly and articulate well though and this cast excels in that department. Natalie Dessay as Mélisande does the fragile Natalie thing which works really well in this role. Perhaps she could create more mystery around her character but her interpretation seems quite valid. Stephane Degout as Pélleas is a good physical actor and is lyrical where he needs to be. I’m not sure that there is much depth to be got out of the character anyway. Perhaps the most interesting role is the insanely jealous Golaud, sung here by the admirable Laurent Naouri. He has a fairly major emotional arc to go through and is strong in the scene of crazy jealousy where he gets his young son, Yniold (well sung and acted by Beate Ritter), to spy on the lovers. It’s a fine all around performance. The part of the old king, Arkel, is sung by Philip Ens. He conveys wisdom, sympathy and a kind of philosophical detachment in an extremely dignified but weary way. It’s a fine job of portraying a very old man without the voice sounding past it. Good supporting performances too from Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Geneviève and Tim Mirfin as the doctor.

Bertrand de Billy is in the pit with the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien. He seems to be thoroughly at home with the score and gets some lovely, transparent, sound out of the orchestra. The chorus, the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, does what little it has to do perfectly adequately.

The video direction, by Landsmann and Landsmann, is pretty sympathetic. A lot of the time not much is happening and they close in on the singer(s) which is fair enough. When there is a stage to be shown they show it. It’s nowhere annoyingly gimmicky. The picture is top DVD quality 16:9 and the DTS 5.0 sound is mellow rather than punchy which seems appropriate. AV quality is pretty much as good as it gets without going to Blu-ray. There are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles. Despite being split over two disks there are no extras. The documentation too is limited to credits (there’s not even a track listing). It;s quite a major omission for a work like this. An interview or an article about the director’s reading of the piece and his approach would be very useful.

There’s some stiff competition for this release, notably from Zurich and WNO, so I’ll certainly be trying to get my hands on some alternative versions in an attempt to deepen my understanding of the work as much as anything.

Être ou ne pas être

Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet is a very grand French opera based loosely on various (loose) French adaptations of the play by Shakespeare. If one discards any notion that one is going to see Shakespeare with music and takes the piece on its own terms it’s really pretty good. In recent years it’s been doing the international opera circuit in a production by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser that originated in Geneva in 1996 and was, for example, seen in the Met HD series a year or two ago. Most productions have featured Simon Keenleyside as Hamlet and Natalie Dessay as Ophélie. The available DVD version, recorded at the Liceu in Barcelona in 2003 features both of them.

Really all this opera needs to work is a baritone with exemplary French who can sing with power and lyricism for three hours and really, really act. That, I guess, is why Keenleyside owns the role. He’s superb. He probably peaks in the really quite amazing second act where he does a sort of mad scene as the “play within a play” misfires but he’s superb throughout. The second requirement is someone who can do a compelling mad scene with lots of blood and coloratura. Natalie Dessay seems to have trouble cutting her wrists but is otherwise brilliant and is rewarded with what is probably the longest applause for a single aria ever committed to DVD.

The rest of the cast is mostly very good. Alain Vernhes’ Claudius is very strong, vocally and dramatically; certainly much better than James Morris at the Met. Béatrice Uria-Monzon is occasionally a bit squally as Gertrude but acts really well, especially in the confrontation with Hamlet in Act 3. I didn’t care much for Daniil Shtoda’s Laërte. he sounded too “Italian” and not at all idiomatic. Overall though really great singing backed up by a very crisp performance from the orchestra under Bertrand de Billy. They sounded more lyrical and less bombastic than in the Met version.

The production is not especially exciting. It’s very plain with just a few moving “faux marble” walls. Most of the scenic effects are left to the lighting plot which is effective though hard to film (see below). Costumes are a sort of generic late 19th century with breastplates thrown in in odd places for some reason. It all provides an effective enough backdrop for some carefully directed and well executed acting. There’s no high concept here but the story gets told.

The video direction by Toni Bergallo is pretty good. It’s a tough ask. Often the light levels are low with a really brutal lighting focus on a single character. The Act 2 scene between Hamlet and the ghost is a great example. It’s very hard to make something like that look good on video. The cameras start to lose definition with the low light levels and then the high local contrast sort of blurs out. I found myself watching from quite close up even on a sixty inch screen! The DTS 5.1 sound track is OK but not demonstration quality. There’s not a lot of spatial depth and sometimes the singers sound as if they have been miked too close. The Dolby surround and LPCM stereo mixes aren’t any better. It’s not bad overall technically but it’s not up with the latest from a label like Opus Arte. There are subtitles in English, French, German, Italian, Castilian and Catalan. The only extra is EMI’s standard teaser reel.

Overall, this is well worth seeing. It’s a pretty good little known work, Keenleyside is exceptional and the production for DVD is pretty decent.