Il Trovatore meets Huis Clos

Dmitri Tcherniakov is an interesting and controversial director.  He’s not afraid to take a very radical approach to a work and that method tends to produce uneven results.  At it’s best, as in his Berlin Parsifal, it’s extraordinary and sometimes; his Wozzeck for example, interesting but perhaps not exactly revelatory, and,again, sometimes; as in his Don Giovanni, polarising.  That said he never does anything merely to shock or show off.  There’s always a logic to what he does and that’s certainly true of his quite radical version of Verdi’s Il Trovatore filmed at Brussels’ La Monnaie in 2012.

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More “oy vey” than “¡Olé!”

First a disclaimer, I’m not a huge Massenet fan and even among his works Don Quichotte would rate pretty low with its cheesy melodies and faux Spanoiserie.  However, a good production has the potential to liven it up and a stellar cast is always a plus.  The run that opened at the Canadian Opera Company last night certainly had the latter in Ferruccio Furlanetto, Quinn Kelsey and Anita Rachvelishvili.  Unfortunately Linda Brovsky’s production looked and felt like one of Mr. Peter Gelb’s attempts to get the Broadway audience into the Met.  It was cluttered, unfocussed, pretty much devoid of ideas and didn’t even really make best use of the acting talents of the principals though Rashvelishvili did her best to inject some life into it.  It’s exactly what I feared when I heard they were going to use a real horse and donkey (later replaced by a mule in one of the more recent of the season’s casting problems at COC).  For me, one of those productions almost best listened to with eyes closed.

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Artificial and cruel Così

In 1988 Jean-Pierre Ponnelle made the last of his lip synched opera films; Mozart’s Così fan tutte.  It carries Ponnelle’s trademark “artificialityeven further than in other of his films that I have seen.  The sets, the costumes, the acting and the camera work never let us forget that this is a work of the, in the director’s words, “greatest artificiality”.  It also becomes increasingly clear as the piece progresses that Ponnelle has a very clear idea of what “the opera is about”.  Continue reading

I vespri Siciliani

Mid period Verdi in a highly traditional La Scala production isn’t usually my cup of tea but I thought that if the usually excellent Opus Arte label thought the thing was worth a reissue it might be worth watching.  With caveats, it was, even for someone who is as allergic to this kind of production as myself.
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Very traditional Don Giovanni from the Metropolitan Opera

The 2000 Metropolitan Opera recording of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is based on Zeffirelli’s 1990 production somewhat modified by director Stephen Lawless.  It’s an entirely traditional “breeches and boobs” affair with baroque painted flats, tricorne hats etc.  Blocking is mostly very basic with a lot of “park and bark” just livened up with a bit of prop twiddling.  It works because it has a superb cast who sing and act (within the limits of the production) extremely well.

At the core is Bryn Terfel in the title role.  You get what you expect; a big voice that can be scaled back to quite beautiful, menace, physical presence and a touch of humour when required.  If you have seen his more recent Scarpia or Mephistopheles you know what to expect.  He’s backed up Ferruccio Furlanetto in a rather broadly comic take on Leporello which, though I find it unsubtle, isn’t inappropriate in this production.  The Terfel/Furlanetto relationship is very much master/servant.  No ambiguity about two sides of one character here! Continue reading

Domingo’s Boccanegra

Simon Boccanegra was the work that persuaded me that maybe I did like Verdi after all. It’s a terrific score and if the plot isn’t without it’s artificialities it’s full of strong characters and strong emotions which Verdi brings to life with fabulous orchestral and vocal writing.

The most recent DVD version to appear is of the 2010 Royal Opera House production that was broadcast live on the BBC. It features Placido Domingo in his baritone incarnation in the title role. There’s a strong supporting cast with Ferrucio Furlanetto as his arch enemy, Fiesco; Jonathan Summers as the villain, Paolo; Joseph Calleja as the young rebel, Gabriele Adorno and Marina Polpavskaya as Boccanegra’s “lost” daughter, Amelia/Maria. The singing and acting are generally very strong. Placido is, of course, terrific. What more can one say? Furlanetto is a strong foil; excellent in both the prologue and the crucial final scenes. Summers is more than adequate though I might have hoped for more of a frisson when he curses himself. The real star for me is Calleja. He has a gorgeous voice and can float out a lovely pianissimo. His big aria early in the second act is particularly good but he is excellent all through the piece. The one weak link is Poplavskaya’s Amelia. It’s not bad. She acts well and looks the part but one really wishes for more beauty of tone. Pieczonka, in the Met HD broadcast, was much closer to the required vocal quality. Ensemble work throughout is excellent and there are some big set pieces! Antonio Pappano conducts brilliantly. He gets really good playing from the orchestra which is pretty crucial as there are some cruelly exposed woodwind and brass lines. He manages drama and urgency while still giving the singers room to do their thing when they need it. All in all, this is musically very satisfying.

The production, by Elijah Moshinsky, is pretty conventional. It’s a period setting with simple designs that suggest renaissance paintings. There are a few nice touches like the graffiti on the walls in the exterior scenes but mostly the look is just undistracting. There’s nothing beyond the text in the way the story is told either. Blocking is fairly basic and there’s a fair bit of “park and bark”. One senses that Moshinsky’s efforts have gone into character development rather than in trying to make any bold statement.

Sue Judd directed for TV and video and it’s a conventional TV view with too many close ups. She needs to watch some of François Roussillon’s recent work. We also get little chats from Pappano between scenes. These probably work OK first time through but I think would get pretty tedious on repeat viewing. There are short bonus features on  WorshippingWorking with Placido Domingo and Rehearsals with Elijah Moshinsky. The technical quality is very good. It was filmed in HD and the picture is clear and detailed. The DTS 5.1 sound is really excellent; detailed, very spacious and coping very well with the more congested passages. There is also LPCM stereo. This really deserves a Blu-ray release but it’s on EMI who so far seem not to have gone that route(1). There are English, French, Spanish, German and Italian subtitles. The documentation is missing from my library copy but apparently contains a track listing, synopsis and “notes”.

This is definitely worth a look and it will be very interesting to do a detailed “compare and contrast” if I can get my hands on the Sony DVD release of the 2010 Met HD broadcast with Domingo, Morris, Giodarno and Pieczonka.

fn1. EMI was recently sold to Universal; parent of Deutsche Grammophon, and Decca so I suppose anything is possible.

A girl called Maria

Maria Ewing has always been a bit of an enigma to me. It’s the range of roles I’ve heard her in; Salome, Dido, Carmen, Rosina. Soprano to mezzo and bel canto to dramatic.  In the recording under consideration here she sings Rosina in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It was recorded at Glyndebourne in 1982 when she was 32. Her performance is typical Ewing. She acts really well, looks great (if her unusual looks work for you – they do for me!)  and sings really well without ever really sounding beautiful and occasionally giving one the feeling one gets watching somebody corner a little too fast on a large motorbike. I find watching her fascinating.

The production is as traditional as one could get and makes the small, old Glyndebourne stage look even smaller. Costumes too are absolutely generic 19th century comic opera. Blocking is basic. Mostly it’s very straightforward “park and bark”. All in all it’s the sort of thing you simply wouldn’t see in a modern opera house (except maybe the Met) and I’m sure it would please the investment banker’s wife in the Salzburg King Arthur. The singing and acting, Ewing aside, backs the production up.

John Rawnsley is a very broad Figaro with winks and big gestures and little mincing footsteps. He sings very well indeed but he has a voice that seems two sizes too loud for the production and tends to dominate ensembles. Max-René Cosotti is the Count. He has an old fashioned Italian tenor voice that works really well in this context. The rest of the cast is perfectly OK too and there’s a bit of a bonus in that Basilio is sung by a 33 year old newcomer called Ferrucio Furlanetto. We are a million miles away from Phillip II here! The London Philharmonic are in the pit under Sylvain Cambreling. They are balanced well back from the voices but seem OK to me. All in all, this is musically quite fine, if rather old fashioned, but dramatically it’s rather like watching superior panto for adults.

Technically this disc is about what one might expect. It’s taken from an ITV broadcast and is very much video directed for small screen. The picture is barely DVD quality 4:3 and the sound is Dolby 2.0. It isn’t particularly good either being slightly muffled and with quite unrealistic balance. Subtitles are available in English, French, German and Spanish. There are no extras and minimal documentation. All in all I think one has to treat this like a dodgy mono sound recording from the 1950s. It’s worth having if one wants a record of these singers but otherwise one is better off looking for something more recent. Certainly Dario Fo’s Amsterdam production is much more fun to watch.