Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina is a bit of a weird opera. It’s ostensibly based on a series of not entirely related events that unfolded during the succession crisis following the death of Tsar Fyodor III (which took about 12 years to play out) into a story that takes place in a day. It’s complicated by the fact that key players in the story; the Tsars Peter and Ivan and the Tsarevna Sofia don’t actually appear because the Russian censorship would not allow members of the dynasty to be portrayed on stage. Perhaps unsurprisingly Tcherniakov isn’t much interested in the details of the history and uses it to make some, not always entirely obvious, points about modernity vs tradition, personal power and the nature of religious cults.
David Pountney is rarely afraid of taking risks in pursuit of an idea and that seems to be what’s going on in his 2008 Wiener Staatsoper production of Verdi’s La forza del destino. The basic concept seems to be to draw as much distinction as possible between the piece’s predominantly dark tone while making the ‘scherzo’ like elements as mad as possible. And occasionally mixing up the two to create deliberate confusion. To this end he uses a lot of moving set elements and projections; often fuzzily superimposed on stage action. Preziosilla and the camp followers are hot pants clad cowgirls. The full effect is seen in the Act 3 “orgy” where hospital patients, some on drips etc, interact with cow girls and a marching band while giant fuzzy B&W projections of WW2 armour play on the scrim. It’s really busy and takes some decoding.
Pfitzner’s Palestrina has had some pretty extravagant claims made for it. Bruno Walter said “The work has all the elements of immortality”. I’m not so sure. The music is very appealing but it’s structurally problematic. It’s ostensibly about Palestrina and the struggle to convince Pius IV that polyphony had a legitimate place in church music but while the first and third acts are just that they frame a second act that’s about the various squabbles at the Council of Trent, of which the question of music was but one. I think it’s meant to be a satyr on church politics of the time but it feels heavy handed, overly long and introduces a vast number of minor characters. These are not only confusing but probably make the work unstageable for all but the very richest houses. There are over 40 named solo parts but only one is a woman (and she’s dead) so major Bechdel fail here too. I think if one took a chainsaw to Act 2 a pretty decent opera might come out of it because the human story is quite affecting and the music is distinctive and rather good. Although premiered in 1917 it’s stylistically anti-modern and would likely appeal to a lot of people who are not normally drawn to 20th century opera.
Christoph Loy, in his 2011 Salzburg production of Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten, avoids the problem of how to represent the Spirit World by essentially eliminating it. Instead we get a Konzept based on Böhm’s first recording of the work in Vienna’s Sofiensalle in 1955. Vienna is still recovering from the war and the hall is unheated and the singers unpaid. The Empress is rising star Leonie Rysanek and the Nurse is long time favourite Elisabeth Höngen. They represent the generations separated by the war. The Emperor is an American singing in Europe for the first time and, crucially, Barak and his wife are a real life married couple. Initially we see a lot of recording studio action as singers are moved about by actors in this experiment in early stereo. Then the action, particularly the Barak/Wife interaction slips more and more off stage. For the finale, we get a sort of celebratory concert in evening dress. It’s not a bad concept and this cast handles it very well but I fancy it’s a tough introduction to this far from straightforward opera and it does lose the magic of the Spirit World. (In other words I’m glad I saw the Met production before this one.)
So I finally found a way of getting the Kultur release of the 2008 Staatsoper unter den Linden production of Prokofiev’s The Gambler to work, with subtitles and all, though I had to go to my back up DVD player. As you will read below this is a very interesting and worthwhile DVD but whatever you do, don’t buy the Kultur release which is technically wonky and features sub-standard Dolby 2.0 sound. For heaven’s sake who is doing Dolby 2.0 on an opera DVD in 2008! The same recording is available on regionless DVD and Blu-ray from C-Major and in that release it features PCM 5.1 and LPCM stereo choices. There may even be some useful documentation which, as ever with Kultur, is minimal. There are also more subtitle choices on the C-Major version.
After a week of nostalgia wallowing in ancient “productions” from the met and the COC it’s back to Regietheater with a vengeance for the 100th DVD review on this blog. The subject is Martin Kušej’s Salzburg production of Don Giovanni which premiered in 2002 but was recorded in 2006 as part of the M22 project.
For a start there’s nothing giocoso about this dramma. It’s a very bleak and complex production with lots of ideas; some of which work and some of which are more problematic, and it’s provoked more discussion at the Kitten Kondo than just about any other recording we’ve watched recently. Rather than write a 3000 word review I’m going to write a normal length review and follow it up with one or more posts on aspects of the production that seem particularly worth exploring. Continue reading →
I guess Richard Jones’ 2009 Munich production of Lohengrin isn’t to everyone’s taste but I found it quite compelling. He’s set it in the 1930s and Elsa is building a house; a symbol for rebuilding the state and society of Brabant torn apart by the loss of her brother and general internal disorder. In the prologue we see her designing the house on a drawing board and then it gets built by stages culminating in a topping out ceremony as Elsa marries Lohengrin. At key points of the action the symbolism is manifest. Telramund kicks over half finished walls in the scene where he accuses Elsa and Lohengrin, having defeated Telramund in the duel, joins Elsa for a spot of bricklaying. After Elsa breaks her oath to Lohengrin he burns the house down so the final scene is played out on a more or less empty stage. There’s some really skilled stage handing going on to support all that! For contrast, and to facilitate the practicalities of the concept, some of the scenes are played out in front of a plain flat decorated solely with some coats of arms and a door. The alternation of very stark and very busy is intriguing. Inevitably there are times when the concept is stretching possible interpretations of the libretto right to the limit and the duel between Lohengrin and Telramund is a bit lame but mostly for me it worked.
Within the overall concept Jones has obviously given a lot of thought to the relationships between the characters. The Personenregie seems almost obsessively detailed and he seems to have taken his cast along with him because the acting is first class. Every look and gesture, especially from Wolfgang Koch as Telramund and Anja Harteros as Elsa, carry a depth of meaning. It’s very impressive.
The singing performances are very strong across the board. Again, for me, Koch and Harteros are the standouts. Harteros is really lovely to listen to even when she’s cranking out the decibels and Koch was never less than musical even in his angry outbursts where the temptation to shout or bark must be strong . Michaela Schuster as Ortrud and Jonas Kaufmann in the title role are pretty much as good. Schuster gets a bit strident but that’s not inappropriate to the role and Kaufmann has moments when he is just gorgeous to listen to. His hushed and unearthly “In fernem Land” was gripping. Christof Fischesser was a solid Heinrich and Evgeny Nikitin (a superb Dutchman in Toronto a few months later) made more of the Heerrufer than some might. All of this is very well supported by the orchestra under Kent Nagano.
The production for DVD is pretty good. Karina Fibich directs for video. She gives us a pretty good idea of the overall set and blocking and rations her closeups. It’s hard to argue with going to close up when there are just one or two singers in front of a flat. She gets a bit overambitious in the more crowded scenes and experiments with camera angles that are quite confusing. Sometimes the shot even seems to be behind the action. Overall though it’s a decent presentation and it’s backed up by a sharp 16:9 anamorphic picture and solid DTS 5.1 sound (LPCM stereo as an alternative). There are English, French, Spanish and Chinese subtitles. There are no extras but the trilingual booklet (English, French, German) includes a synopsis and a short essay about the production.