That headline is taken from the eighth movement of Jonathan Dove’s 2016 work for orchestra and children’s chorus; A Brief History of Creation, which takes us in thirteen movements from the stars to man via, inter alia, rain, sharks, whales and monkeys. The text, by Alasdair Middleton, is clever, engaging and singable. The music is eclectic. There are elements of atonality but also intense lyricism. It’s by turns shimmery, frantic, doom laden and meditative. It engages beautifully with the text and Dove has a very sure sense of what is and is not reasonable to ask of a children’s choir. Some short text sections are left as spoken (with a very authentic Mancunian accent). All in all, it’s a witty and enjoyable piece that doesn’t outstay it’s 45 minutes or so.
I’m a bit surprised that Berlioz’ 1838 opera Benvenuto Cellini hasn’t come my way before. It’s got all the operatic elements; romance, politics, murder (and the Pope) etc and some really rather good music. There’s a lovely duet between Cellini and his girl, Teresa, in the first act and Cellini’s aria Sur les monts les plus sauvages is long and demanding in the way that Rossini writes long and demanding tenor arias. The plot maybe has a few holes. One might expect that after the pope has decreed that Cellini will be hanged if he doesn’t finish a statue by nightfall that he might just get on with it rather than running around fighting duels and stuff but there you have it. It’s French opera after all.
Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur isn’t performed very often and, when it is, it’s usually because some great diva of the day wants to do it. That’s the case with the 2010 Covent Garden production which was created by David McVicar for Angela Gheorghiu. Actually I am a bit surprised it’s not done more often. It’s not a great masterpiece but it’s no worse than a great many commonly done pieces and, if the plot is a bit implausible, it’s not as offensive as half of Puccini’s output. I would have thought it would have great appeal to that opera middle ground to which I don’t belong.
David Pountney’s 1986 ENO production of Dvorak’s Rusalka is set in an Edwardian nursery. The action is all a dream or a figment of Rusalka’s imagination in which her grandfather, in a wheelchair, becomes the Water Gnome, her sisters water sprites, her governess the witch Jezibaba and so on. In Act 1 it works reasonably well. Clearly we are looking at a metaphor of Rusalka escaping the nursery for adult life with all the risks and discoveries that involves. It starts to get pretty strained in Act 2. There’s some not very subtle loss of virginity imagery but that’s about it. By Act 3 Pountney seems to have run out of ideas and the final denouement is played out pretty straightforwardly. Certainly there’s nothing in the ending to bring closure to the concept which seems like a cop out.
The performances, in English this being ENO, are mostly OK but not stellar. Elaine Hannan has a clear bright voice which suits the idea of Rusalka as a young girl but she doesn’t have the range of colour or dynamic range of, say, Renee Fleming. John Treleaven is rather good, if a bit stiff, as the Prince. You can definitely hear heldentenorish qualities in the voice. It’s a shame that, with his ‘tache and sideburns, he looks like a 1970s lounge lizard. Ann Howard is vocally competent as the governess/witch/Jezibaba but while she’s be fairly scary in a schoolroom she isn’t really the stuff of nightmares the part needs. Rodney Macann is a straightforwardly effective grandfather/Water Gnome but he doesn’t really dominate. The other parts are all quite well sung tough far from thrilling.Mark Elder conducts a rather routine sounding reading from the ENO Orchestra and Chorus. To be fair, part of the problem may be the sound, see below.
The video direction by Derek Bailey needs to be taken on its own terms for a record of what’s happening on stage it isn’t. There are lots of superpositions and some weird camera angles. It does reinforce the “dream” aspects of the production so I think it can be considered a valid approach.
Technically this is not a great disk. The 4:3 picture is 1986 TV to DVD quality. I suppose that, in a way, reinforces the dream quality too. The sound is very average Dolby 2.0. At times it’s worse than that. At the end of Act 1 it sounds like Treleaven is singing from the bottom of a well and nowhere does it do the orchestra any favours. There are no subtitles and the less than vivid sound makes it even harder than it otherwise might be to figure out the words. Documentation is limited to a track listing.
Given that Robert Carsen’s fascinating Paris production; strongly cast and well recorded, is also available on DVD it’s a bit hard to see why anyone would bother with this one.
Michael Grandage’s lack lustre Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera made me very curious to see his very well reviewed 2010 production of Britten’s Billy Budd for Glyndebourne. It is now available on DVD and Blu-ray so I did just that. It’s as good as the Don Giovanni wasn’t.
The set design suggests the interior of a warship of the period (1797) which gives scope for galleries around and behind the main stage area. By changing the lighting and sliding panels into place, it easily becomes anywhere desired on the ship. It’s very much an ‘interior’ setting which is appropriate as the sea is as absent in Billy Budd as it is present in Peter Grimes. Having created a working stage arrangement, Grandage focuses on the Personenregie. What’s striking about this production is how the director works the relationship between the characters and the development of the characters as individuals. Claggart is chilling. Vere lacks, in the last analysis, moral courage but his distaste for Claggart and his manifestations is palpable. Billy radiates simplicity and innocence. The lesser parts too are fully developed, not just filler. Dansker really foreshadows what is to come.
Along with this Grandage contrives some truly striking images. In the prologue “old” Vere appears almost disembodied until the ship materialises around him and the action proper starts. Towards the end of Act1 there”s a striking picture of Billy and Claggart in the centre of the picture; Billy on deck,
Claggart above him at the quarter deck rail. In the final scene the men hauling on Billy’s rope could be straight out of Rodin. Needless to say it takes considerable acting skill across the company to pull all this off. Grandage gets this from a solid cast of anglophone singers led by John Mark Ainsley as Vere, Jacques Imbrailo as Billy and Phillip Ens as Claggart. There are lots of quite important supporting roles so here’s the full cast:
Musically too, this is a treat. The real stars here are the London Philharmonic and conductor Mark Elder. The orchestral playing is taut and incisive and shows off a really good score to fine advantage. The singing is glorious too. Clearly this is a work where the needs of the drama trump pretty singing but in the places where beauty is possible we get it. In the prologue one could easily mistake Ainsley for Pears as he floats the high notes. Imbrailo has a gorgeous voice and there’s some fine singing from many others.
The technical team for this production is essentially the same as for The Fairy Queen and the results are equally good. François Roussillon lets us see the stage and only goes close up where it makes sense. This time I watched the DVD rather than the Blu-ray presentation (two DVD9 discs). It’s not quite as good as Blu-ray. The 16:9 anamorphic picture is very good but even on my less than state of the art TV it’s not quite as good as the 1080i Blu-ray. The sound difference is even more marked. The DVD sound is DTS 5.1 and is clear and well balanced but it comes up short on spatial depth compared to DTS-HD Master Audio. (There’s also LPCM stereo). There are English, French, German and Spanish subtitles, decent documentation and a few short extras on the first disc.
I recommended this unreservedly for both die hard Britten fans and those willing to explore but get the Blu-ray version if you can.