Ema Nikolovska and Steven Philcox

Yesterday was the one vocal element in this year’s virtual Toronto Summer Music; a recital streamed from the Burlington Arts Centre by mezzo Ema Nikolovska and pianist Steven Philcox.  I think this was quite the best on-line event I have seen/heard since this schmozzle started.  It started off with a master class in German Lieder singing.  There were three Beethoven and three Schubert songs and they were just lovely.  Ema’s voice is a lovely rich mezzo and she showed great expression and attention to the text backed up by perfect diction.  Steven, as ever, was an exemplary accompanist.

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Historic Der Freischütz

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Hamburg State Opera cooperated with Polyphon and NDR to make a series of thirteen films for television of assorted operas.  They are all available as a boxed set called Cult Operas of the 1970s but one or two of them are also available separately.  One such is a 1968 recording of Weber’s Der Freischütz.  It was directed for film/TV by Rolf Liebermann and recorded in the studio using the HSO’s stage production.  I think the action is lip synched to a pre-recorded soundtrack (normal practice at the time) but I’m not sure.

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How can peace come from so much pain?

Making a film of an opera rather than filming an opera involves interesting choices and one of the strengths of the DVD of Penny Woolcock’s film of John Adams’ and Alice Goodman’s The Death of Klinghoffer is that includes 47 minutes of Woolcock, Adams and others discussing just how one takes a rather abstractly staged opera (the original staging was, inevitably, by Peter Sellars) and turn it into an essentially naturalistic film.  Of course, naturalism will only go so far with opera but this goes a long way in that direction.  The soloists are filmed mainly on location and they sing to the camera.  The choruses, mainly backed by documentary footage, and the orchestra were recorded in the studio but the actors sing ‘live’.  The one concession to “being operatic” is having a mezzo voice one of the Palestinians though he is played by a male actor.

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Ponnelle’s Ulisse

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria is the third of the Ponnelle/Harnoncourt Monteverdi collaborations and perhaps the best.  Itseems to stick closer to the original Zürich staging and be less obviously a film though it was recorded in the studio and lip synched.  The orchestra and conductor are visible and, in Act 3, Irus descends into the pit throws himself all over Harnoncourt.  It’s the conductor too who gives him the knife he kills himself with.  Is this the first (of many) times when Harnoncourt has been drawn into the theatrical action?

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Campy Poppea

J-P Ponnelle’s 1979 film of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea with Zürich forces conducted by a young Nikolaus Harnoncourt is like his Orfeo only more so.  Sets and costumes are that rather odd “ancient baroque” that Ponnelle is so fond of.  The acting is stylized and hyperkinetic and so is the camera work with close ups from weird angles all over the place.  So far, so Ponnelle.

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Paramore shall welcome woe

Various thoughts about the Channel 4 film of Britten’s Owen Wingrave led to me seeking out the original BBC TV version from 1970, now available on DVD.  It’s extremely interesting and worthwhile.  Britten himself conducts and the cast includes many of the people involved in the first productions of many other Britten operas.  They include Peter Pears (General Wingrave/Narrator), John Shirley-Quirk (Coyle), Benjamin Luxon (Owen), Janet Baker (Kate), Heather Harper Mrs.Coyle) and Jennifer Vyvyan (Mrs. Julian).  The quality of the music making is superb and I found myself constantly surprised and delighted by details brought out by Britten supported by the excellent English Chamber Orchestra.  At the same time, the fluent and idiomatic singing pointed up the excellence of Myfanwy Piper’s libretto.  This really is Britten at his best.

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Back to the beginning

Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo is one of the few 17th works still in the canonical opera repertoire though little performed before the “early music revival”.  So it was quite a bold step when the Opernhaus Zürich in the 1970s staged all three extant Monteverdi operas in productions by J-P ponelle and with Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading an orchestra of period instruments.  All three productions were subsequently made into lip-synched films and have been re-released on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon as a boxed set.

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Campy Clemenza

1.sestovitelliaBesides the production of La Clemenza di Tito still in repertory at the Met, Jean-Pierre Ponelle also made a film of the piece.  It was shot among the ruins of ancient Rome in 1980 and is one of those lip synched opera films popular in that era.  The forces involved are eclectic.  James Levine conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker and the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor with mainly American soloists.  Continue reading

Do not expect the form before the ideal

headThat headline is pretty typical of the English translation of the libretto of Schoenberg’s Aron und Moses.  “Holy is genital power” is another gem.  The whole thing is basically an extended debate about the nature of God with Moses arguing for an extreme degree of abstraction and Aron championing a more populist version that “the people” can relate to.  There are ideas in there that could probably be staged quite spectacularly, such as the Golden Calf scenes and a spot of human sacrifice.  There’s even a fairly decent opportunity for an orgy.  In their 1975 film Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub reject any opportunity for visual excess or even representation almost as rigidly as Moses himself.

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Creepy and claustrophobic Wozzeck

In 1970 Rolf Liebermann took the assembled forces of the Hamburg State Opera down to a castle in South Germany and made a film of Berg’s Wozzeck.  The production is pretty literal.  It’s set in Austria in the late 19th century and everything plays out very literally per the libretto but it’s far from being a routine or dull reading.  A combination of brilliant conducting, slightly over the top acting, pointing up the Expressionist elements in the music and really good cinematography make this a very tense, creepy and claustrophobic experience.  It’s simultaneously rather repellent and hard to watch and deeply engaging.  Continue reading