Suppose one were responsible for marketing the Royal Opera or ENO’s product in Canada what would you do? Personally I wouldn’t worry about signing up loads of suburban and small town fleapits. I’d go for the where the opera audience is in the downtown areas of the cities that have opera companies and maybe university towns. I’d also go for the upscale theatres with decent sound and bars with decent beer and that sort of thing. In Toronto that would be the TIFF Lightbox and Bloor Hot Docs. Elsewhere I don’t know but I’d like to push the idea with the ROH marketing folks so any ideas on the “right” cinemas in Montreal or Vancouver or even Hamilton would be most welcome.
I have now received the cinemaHD line ups from the Royal Opera House and the ENO. Basically if you live in Canada you are probably screwed. The baleful effects of the Met’s exclusive with Cineplex Odious are all too apparent. If one compares the ROH ballet line up with opera it’s clear. Whereas you can catch the ballet in just about every major population centre, the opera coverage is, at best, spotty. There’s nothing at all in Quebec and Ontario is represented by four screens in Waterloo, Kingston, Whitby and Orleans. It’s not much better elsewhere. And ENO apparently hasn’t figured out that Canada exists which sucks because I really want to see my favourite crazy lady’s Queen of the Night.
I really wonder about the Met’s motivation. They talk a great game about extending the audience for opera but then put barriers in the way of anything except their own rather boring product. I also wonder why on earth Cineplex agreed to an exclusive. When you pretty much have a monopoly you don’t need to take that shit from the Met. Without Cineplex they are screwed too. So it goes.
In an age of co-productions many opera productions are seen in multiple houses. Some of them we get to see in multiple guises. For example I’ve seen Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni on DVD and will be seeing it live later this season in Toronto. Spmething that’s been fermenting in my brain for a while now is why the same production can get a drastically different reception in different places. The piece that first made me think about this was Chris Alden’s Die Fledermaus. This was generally well received in Toronto (more perhaps by my friends and acquaintances than the print media but that’s par for the course) but universally panned in London when it played at ENO. Bryan’s interesting comments about the Carsen Falstaff kicked off the train of thought again and made me want to put some tentative thoughts into writing.
The latest entrant to the live HD cinema broadcast market is ENO. The first broadcast, on 23rd February, will be the current David Alden production of Britten’s Peter Grimes which will, current lurgy permitting, feature Stuart Skelton in the title role. As his is a Grimes I haven’t seen and particularly want to, I am not best pleased that no cinemas in Greater Robfordia seem to be carrying this program. You can check out the details here. May the tidal force be with you!
Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, which premiered at Glyndebourne in 1946, is an interesting work in a number of ways. Musically it marks a distinct break from Peter Grimes and anticipates the later operas in a number of significant ways. It’s written for much lighter forces than Grimes; string quintet, wind quintet plus harp, percussion and piano and there’s no chorus (in the conventional sense). It’s also not a “numbers” piece. There are no set pieces here. The orchestral writing is spare and somewhat dissonant with that absolute clarity that is so characteristic of Britten. Sometimes this almost distracts from the drama on stage.
English National Opera’s new season includes two Christopher Alden productions that originated at COC. Die Fledermaus is brilliant and a must see. Rigoletto may be a bit more of an acquired taste though it certainly has its strong points. The London cast for Fledermaus doesn’t look as strong (to me) as the Toronto cast but the Rigoletto has the estimable Quinn Kelsey in the title role, Barry Banks as the Duke and Anna Christy as Gilda.
My reviews of the Toronto performances; Die Fledermaus, with Ambur Braid and with Mireille Asselin (as Adele) and Rigoletto, with Lynch, Lomelli and Osborne and with Kelsey, Pittas and Sadovnikova (Rigoletto, Duke, Gilda).
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.
Handel’s Ariodante has, broadly, the same plot as Much Ado About Nothing. The King of Scotland’s daughter is framed as “unfaithful” by the bad guy’s disguised accomplice. Her fiancé goes off the deep end. The bad guy betrays his accomplice. She rats on him. He gets killed. All is revealed. Everybody but the bad guy lives happily ever after. In this 1996 production for English National Opera, David Alden seems to be turning it into a very dark plot with madness, intense and perverse sexual desire, hints of anal rape and a nude drowned in a tank. All in all, a pretty run of the mill Regie approach. Flippancy aside, it actually works quite well. It’s a bit of a slow starter. Act 1 is mostly scene setting and it’s not easy to see what Alden is driving at. Ariodante (Ann Murray) in particular seems to be prey to emotions that have, as yet, no obvious origin. To be honest I was quite puzzled at the end of Act 1 though there appeared to be much that was visually striking going on. At least, that’s what I’m guessing because video director Kriss Rusmanis does his level best to hide most of the stage most of the time.
It picks up in Act 2 where we get more extreme emotion but it’s clearer why. In Act 1 Polinesso (Christopher Robson) is obviously the bad guy but his real nastiness emerges in his treatment of his accomplice/lover, Dalinda (Lesley Garrett). Among other indignities, anal rape appears to be suggested before he drags her off to have his henchmen finish her off. To be fair, Dalinda’s attitude to her treatment is quite equivocal so we can add this to a long list of opera productions with sado-masochistic sub texts. Act 3, in which all is revealed is also dramatically strong besides having some of the best music. All three acts have fairly lengthy ballets. These are strikingly choreographed by Michael Keenan-Dolan. At least the bits we can see on the DVD are. There’s a particularly effective “nightmare” sequence in Act 2 where the princess Ginevra (Joan Rodgers) is trying to make sense of what has happened to her. The sets are quite painterly with effective use of an upstage window which is used to frame subtextual elements while the main action goes on in front. So, all in all, it works pretty well though it would hardly be David Alden if nothing seemed gratuitous!
Like the drama, this got better musically as time went on. In Act 1 I was really questioning the decision to cast a mezzo in the alto castrato role and a traditional countertenor in what was originally a breeches mezzo role. It does work out. Ann Murray sings brilliantly and muscularly throughout and makes, in the end, a completely convincing Ariodante. Christopher Robson’s Polinesso doesn’t totally convince me. That voice type just doesn’t make for a particularly convincing villain but it does make more sense as his sheer nastiness comes out in his excellent acting. Joan Rodger’s Ginevra definitely gets better as things progress. I think she sounds strained in her upper register in the first act. The notes are there but it isn’t a very beautiful sound. In Acts 2 and 3 she sounds much more at ease despite having to sing while being put through not far short of torture(1).
Lesley Garrett’s Dalinda was a pleasure from first to last. The King of Scotland is Gwynn Howell. It’s the sort of bluff, thankless role that Howell seems to play rather often. He sings perfectly well and is bluff. Paul Nilon sings Lurcanio, Ariodante’s brother. he doesn’t have a lot to do but he does have one glorious duet with Dalinda in Act 3. This is closely followed by another lovely duet between Ginevra and Ariodante. I wish there were more duets and ensembles in Handel operas. They happen rarely but when they do they are usually wonderful. Ivor Bolton conducts the ENO orchestra and they sound OK for a modern band (not my first choice for Handel!). Tempi seem on the slow side. The rival DVD version of this opera comes in 20 minutes shorter. Whether that’s due to cuts or tempi though I can’t say. The ENO chorus doesn’t sound great but this may be the recording, see below.
Musically and dramatically I think this is a recommendable performance. Unfortunately, as a DVD, it’s very hard to find good things to say about it. It was recorded for broadcast on the BBC and is given a treatment I’ve not seen before. I assume it’s taken from a live performance but there is no applause and no curtain calls. What we do get are silent film like “story boards” at key points like the beginning of each act.
For example “Polinesso takes advantage of Dalinda’s blind devotion to further his ambition”. Weirdly, the subtitles repeat the message. I don’t particularly like this approach but it’s not fatal. What is is the failure to show us enough of the stage to figure out the director’s intentions. I ranted about this yesterday so I won’t labour the point but it pretty much wrecks this disc. Technically it’s not so hot either. The picture is OK 16:9, no more. There are two sound tracks; Dolby 5.1 and Dolby 2.0. The surround sound version is about the worst sound I’ve ever encountered on an opera DVD. It’s mixed so that the subwoofer booms out the bass line in a most unmusical fashion. It’s horrible. The stereo track is OK though it gets a bit odd in parts of Act 3, especially the final chorus. Either that or the ENO Chorus really is having a bad night. The only sub-titles are English and there is no documentation beyond a chapter list. (This is the North American release on Image. It wouldn’t be unprecedented for the European version to have more acceptable sound).
It’s a bit of a shame. I would really like to have a proper look at this production.
Britten’s Peter Grimes is pretty well served on DVD. Peter Pears’ performance was captured in a BBC broadcast in 1969 and John Vicker’s radical interpretation was captured on video in 1981. More recently Christopher Ventris and Tony Dean Griffey have also made it onto video disc. There is also Philip Langridge in Tim Albery’s 1994 ENO production which is the focus of this review.
Discussions of interpreting Grimes tend to fall into a Pears vs. Vickers dichotomy. Vickers offers a rather brutal portrayal which is consistent with the libretto but tends to downplay the subtlety of the music while Pears is almost lyrical and dreamy. Notoriously the composer greatly preferred Pears’ version and had little good to say about Vickers. Langridge doesn’t really fit either of these models. His reading is intense, veers on madness from the beginning and is totally convincing in the “mad scene” in Act 3 Scene 2. What’s harder to reconcile with this reading is the violence that can’t be avoided. Langridge’s Peter just doesn’t come across as the sort of man who would suddenly strike a woman in the face. That said, it’s a fascinating and compelling reading. It’s also beautifully sung. Parts of the role lie cruelly high (certainly too high for Vickers) but Langridge copes with ease and beauty of tone. It’s a performance to stand alongside any of the others. He’s very well backed up by Alan Opie as Balstrode who is as good as anyone else who has taken on the role (and that’s an exalted list) Janice Cairns is a pretty good Ellen Orford. She starts a bit slow but by the second act she’s singing and acting beautifully. The rest of the cast is also pretty good. Unfortunately the orchestra (conducted by the usually excellent David Atherton) and chorus aren’t up to the standard one might hope for. They are certainly not in the same league as the Metropolitan Opera forces on the DVD recorded as part of the “Live in HD” series and they just don’t have either the punch in the gut impact in the final scene that one would like or the shimmering beauty that Runnicles finds in the Sea Interludes. Some of this may be the recording (see below) but some I think is intrinsic to the performance.
Tim Albery’s production is interesting. On one level it’s quite conventional with somewhat stylized but essentially naturalistic sets; fishing boats, nets, a tavern etc. Costumes too are in the same vein; set perhaps a few decades later than originally but not jarringly so. On another it’s less obvious. He makes use of video projections in the interludes. They are black and white and switch from grainy, almost posterized, sea scenes (including some rather odd fish) to projections of Peter and his apprentice later on. They also make an appearance during the storm scene in the pub. They look a bit clunky to me. Whether that’s deliberate or the best that 1994 technology could manage I’m not sure. The detailed stage direction, both of principals and chorus, is at times very good indeed. I suspect that it’s actually even better than the DVD allows us to see. The Act 1 scene between Balstrode and Grimes made me realize that Grimes really is a tragedy. The protagonist has choices but his pride forces him towards his nemesis. I’ve never previously seen that so well brought out. The menace in the crowd scenes is palpable too. Where I’m less convinced is in Albery’s focus on the apprentice. We see visuals of him all the time and the opera closes on a projection of his corpse. He’s also portrayed as utterly terrified all the time. It’s somewhat at odds with the portrayal of Grimes and makes it quite hard to see why Ellen and Balstrode don’t smell a rat. Also, the focus on the relation between Peter and the boy downplay the role of the sea as a player in the drama. For me, the inexorability of the sea is a constant chorus element in this opera but it doesn’t come out in this production.
Now for the disappointing bit. The DVD sucks. I so wish I had seen this live! The video direction was very clearly for small screen (its from a BBC broadcast) and odd angles and super close-ups abound. One has to work quite hard to mentally reconstruct what Albery was aiming for. The sound too is poor. The only option is Dolby 2.0 and it lacks clarity. The chorus at times sounds pretty awful and I’m sure a big part of that is the recording. To cap it off there are no subtitles. That might not matter if the recording were super clean but it isn’t. The only documentation is a chapter listing. Now I was watching the North American release on the notorious Kultur label (when I hear the word “Kultur” I reach for my Browning). In Europe it was released on Euroarts and based on past experience and reviews that might well be a different story.
If the best you can do is a copy of the Kultur pressing I’d say this is definitely worth a look, if only for Langridge’s performance, but it’s by no means the best recording out there.