Where’s the Champagne?

It’s really hard to know where to start with Hans Neuenfels’ Die Fledermaus.  It’s a prodcuction that enraged the more conventional patrons when it opened at the Salzburg Festival in 2001.  It even provoked a “false pretences” lawsuit!  There is so much going on that it almost seems to call for a catalogue raisonnée of the various scenes though one fears that would actually be both tedious and unhelpful.  Let’s try instead to explore it thematically.  Neuenfels takes very considerable liberties with the libretto.  A lot of dialogue is cut, a lot is added and numerous non-canonical characters are inserted.  That’s just a start.

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Baldrick, you’ld laugh at a Shakespeare comedy

Peter Hall’s 1981 Glyndebourne production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was quite celebrated in its day. How does it wear, thirty years later? The bottom line is it looks and sounds a bit tired.

The production was innovative in its day. The scenery in the forest is inhabited by supers who make it, in a sense, “enchanted” and the lighting is interesting (at least so far as one can tell on the DVD). The problem is it never manages to generate any sense of menace from the world of the Fairies without which, to me at least, Dream (Britten’s version or Shakespeare’s) is insipid. Part of this lies in the old fashioned counter tenor sound of James Bowman and part in the very childlike fairies. As a result the first act starts very slowly and the Hermia (Cynthia Buchan) and Lysander (Ryland Davies) scene fails to spark. The “I swear to thee” duet is really slow and a bit lack lustre. Things do liven up a bit with the entry of Demetrius (Dale Duesing) and Helena (Felicity Lott). All in all Act One is a bit of a snooze.

Act Two is better and the cat fight between Hermia and Helena is funny but there is still little element of menace. Oberon can’t even make “This is thy negligence” threatening and even the scenes with Bottom having an ass’ head don’t really have any bite. The Act Three lovers’ quartet is lively but Act Three really turns on whether the Rude Mechanicals are actually funny. That takes close to a miracle from both director and singers and a miracle just doesn’t happen here. Both Bottom (Curt Applegren) and Flute (Patrick Power) have their moments but it never gels. Throughout it’s fairly static with only Damien Nash’s “cheeky chappy” Puck creating much movement. So, lack of both menace and humour rather undermines some interesting design elements.

Musically this is pretty mixed too. Especially in the first act the orchestral playing seems oddly unfocussed. It’s partly a matter of tempi. Bernard Haitink is eight minutes slower overall compared to the composer’s studio recording for Decca. He also fails to get the rhythmic attack and dynamic range out of the LPO that Britten gets from the LSO. (Part of the problem here may be the soft recorded sound versus John Culshaw’s excellent Decca recording). The overall effect is a bit insipid. The singing is OK but really only Duesing and Lott stand out vocally. Ileana Cotrubas as Tytania is oddly anonymous.

Dave Heather directed for TV and video and it’s a typical early 1980s directed for TV effort. I don’t think the whole stage (and this is the old, small Glyndebourne stage) is visible even once. The picture is 1981 quality too. It’s soft by DVD standards. There is flickering on the subtitles. Don’t watch from too close on a modern TV. The Dolby 2.0 sound is barely average. There’s no real depth and at times the orchestra seems to be muffled. It’s not remotely as good as the sound on the 1966 studio recording. There are English, French and Spanish subtitles, no extras and minimal documentation.

I haven’t seen the only other Dream currently available but it’s a recent Robert Carsen production from Barcelona with Harry Bicket in the pit and David Daniels as Oberon plus video direction is by the excellent Francois Roussillon. I’d certainly advise taking a look at that before buying this one.

As lovely as sin itself

Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is without doubt a work of genius but it’s also a huge downer from start to finish and that can make it pretty difficult to watch. Perhaps the true measure of the 1996 recording from Frankfurter Oper is that it manages to be so consistently visually engaging that the relentless cruelty and horror becomes much more bearable. The production is described as “recorded under studio conditions from the stage of the Frankfurter Oper”. I’m not entirely sure, beyond the absence of an audience, what that means. It looks pretty much like any other DVD filmed from a stage production but maybe some of the scene to scene transitions incorporate non-stage effects. Who knows?

Director and designer Peter Mussbach offers us a largely abstract expressionist staging. Each scene takes place in a cube at centre stage, framed in neon and populated for the most part by a few shapes in primary colours. Only at the beginning of Act 3, where Wozzeck watches Marie “betray” him with the Drum Major does it just for a moment bend towards a more naturalistic aesthetic. Costumes are similarly stark. The Hauptmann in particular wears something that looks like a red and pink chicken suit with epaulettes whereas Wozzeck is dressed in a simple white (almost) shirt and trousers. Only the drum major gets the almost realistic over the top military tailoring look. In the transitions between acts a cube filling, well, cube, apparently made of breeze block or cork or some similar textured substance, appears and spins around and does stuff before dropping back to give us a new cube set. Only right at the end are there characters or scenery outside the cube, albeit grotesquely masked children, as the camera pulls back to reveal the whole artifice of the stage machinery. It’s hard to describe but it does work rather well.

 

The singing and acting are very good indeed. Dale Duesing gives a horrifically convincing performance as the mentally tortured Wozzeck while remaining absolutely vocally secure and even lyrical on the odd occasion he has the chance. Kristine Ciesinski is equally affecting as Marie. Dieter Bundschuh’s Captain and Frode Olsen’s Doctor are well over the top but that’s clearly what the production calls for. The acting is as stylized as the sets. Ronald Hamilton’s Drum Major is a seething mass of testosterone (is there a more unpleasant character in all of opera?). Barry Banks, as Andres, comes close to bringing a touch of sanity to proceedings and is lovely to listen to. Sylvain Cambreling conducts and is quite satisfactory.

No video director is credited so I assume Mussbach took on that role. He uses a lot of close ups but given how stark the sets are and how little is going on apart from the main characters that seems perfectly reasonable. The only place it becomes problematic is in the last scene of act 2 where there is quite a lot going on including puppet doubles for Marie and the Drum Major and a cart load of musicians. I would like to see more of the overall picture here. Small caveats aside it all works pretty well as a film.

The DVD package is pretty basic. The picture is a decent quality 16:9 anamorphic. The only sound option is Dolby 2.0. The only subtitles are English and they are huge; at least twice the size they need to be, and quite intrusive. The only documentation is a chapter listing.