Well conceived and executed Cosi Fan Tutte

John Eliot Gardiner’s 1992 Cosi Fan Tutte is, on the face of it, very similar to the Il Nozze di Figaro he recorded the following year. Both feature period costumes and sets and no attempt is made to hide that these are stage productions in a theatre (the Châtelet). Both productions feature young, attractive singers of talent drawn from Gardiner’s orbit. However , where the Figaro seems devoid of original dramatic ideas, the Cosi is more densely constructed. Gardiner produced this himself and although he leaves the detailed stage direction to Stephen Medcalf the concept is clearly his. He sees the piece being largely about the development of the two sisters from essentially undifferentiated stereotypical unmarried girls of their class in Act 1 into fully self aware adults in Act 2. He roots this interpretation in the score arguing that Mozart wasn’t even sure which of the girls he was writing for in the first act. To support this concept he casts two similar sounding sopranos. To cast a mezzo as Dorabella is, says Gardiner, “a 20th century aberration”. In Act 1 they are dressed identically transitioning in the final scene to mirror images of each other. In Act 2 they are visually fully differentiated. This overall idea is backed up bu careful direction of the singers and painterly sets evoking the Bay of Naples. Good use is made of the auditorium as well as the stage especially in Guglielmo’s Act 2 aria “Donne mie, la fate a tanti”. So, it’s pretty to look at but there’s a good deal more to it than that.

Musically it’s of the highest quality; at least if you like period instruments in Mozart and I do. From the very first bars of the overture; taken at a pretty fair lick, I bounced to the spritely sound of the English Baroque Soloists. The singers are excellent. Amanda Roocroft is Fiordiligi and she manages a vocally sure but psychologically conflicted “Come scoglio” with aplomb. She also sings a really lovely “Per pietà”. Rosa Mannion is not far behind as Dorabella though, of course, she has rather fewer opportunities for display. Rainer Trost is a wonderfully lyrical Ferrando with a lbeautiful rendering of “Un’aura amorosa”. Rodney Gilfrey is a muscular, even macho, Guglielmo. Mezzo Eirian James plays Despina and is more convincing than many in that role especially in the doctor/attorney scenes. She’s the scheming maid to the life. Don Alfonso is played by baritone Claudio Nicolai and he’s much lighter voiced than is usual for the role. This fits with an interpretation that is nuanced rather than buffo. Ensemble work is consistently excellent.

Peter Mumford directed for DVD. I think this was specifically recorded for home use rather than for TV broadcast and, for the era, it’s really good. He uses some unusual camera angles but never gratuitously and we can see what we need to see to understand the production. There are a few moments of gratuitous artsiness with head shots fading to backdrop and so on but it’s not really troubling. The picture is 16:9 and good DVD quality though not on a par with true modern HD. The production was recorded in stereo but DGG have worked some digital wizardry to produce Dolby 5.1 and DTS 5.1. The DTS is pretty vivid and well balanced. The only extras are some trailers for other Gardiner Mozart recordings. The documentation includes an interesting essay by Gardiner. There are English, German, French, Italian , Spanish and Chinese subtitles.

All in all, this is well worth seeing for anyone interested in HIP versions of mozart or just looking for a solid, undistracting well played and sung version. It won’t do much for the Regie fans though.

A blast from the past

One of the first opera DVDs I bought was John Eliot Gardiner’s Le Nozze di Figaro recorded at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris in 1993. This is a pretty early example of period performance of Mozart. Gardiner was in the middle of his run of recordings for DG Archiv and it was only two years after Opera Atelier’s breakthrough Magic Flute which I saw only because one of my clients was sponsoring it and couldn’t shift the free tickets. This Figaro is pretty traditional in design and features “original instruments” and period singing style without going the whole Opera Atelier style baroque route (there are no castanets). Sets are flats plus bits of furniture. Costumes are breeches, crinolines and wigs. Olivier Mille directed but I’m not sure anybody noticed. At one point the Count looks exactly like Prince George in Blackadder the Third. The buffo characters are over made up and over the top. Regie has no place here.

The cast is excellent. 28 year old Bryn Terfel plays Figaro and already sounds on the big side for a period performance of Mozart. Susanna is the sadly under-recorded Alison Hagley; an ideal Susanna both as singer and actor. Rodney Gilfry plays the Count with a perpetual sneer and other Gardiner regulars such as Hillevi Martinpelto, as the Contessa, are prominent. In the future star department we get Sarah Connolly as one of the contadine. Pacing is a bit breath taking. Terfel in particular takes his recitatives so fast it’s hard to tell if he is actually singing. Despite looking rather old fashioned and having a bit of a feel of period performance for the sake of it, the production does come off really well.

The production for DVD is a bit odd. The opera was filmed as 16:9 but it’s hard coded to disk as 4:3 so if you watch it on a widescreen TV it’s letterboxed both ways. The picture is adequate DVD quality. The only sound option is LPCM stereo and there are IT/EN/DE/FR/ES/CHI subtitle options. The documentation includes a long essay on how they decided to order some of the numbers differently from the autograph score. All in all, an interesting artefact as a very early DVD capturing a very decent performance.

This Youtube clip is of abysmal video quality but it does give a fair idea of the production.

Arma virumque canunt

Berlioz’ Les Troyens is widely considered to be his masterpiece and it does have a lot going for it both dramatically and musically, especially when given the full on star studded treatment that it got at the Chatelet in 2003. That said, it’s dramatically rather odd, it’s very long (well over four hours) and it requires huge forces; twenty soloists, massive chorus, dancers, supers, acrobats, jugglers etc. It also has preludes, ballets and masques on a scale that seem more appropriate to the 17th than the mid 19th century. Act 4 is particularly marked in this respect. It’s perhaps no wonder that it was never played complete in Berlioz’ lifetime. The story is taken from Books two and four of Virgil’s Aeneid; the first dealing with the wooden horse and the fall of Troy (Acts 1 and 2) and the second with the Trojans at Carthage (Acts 3-5). The problem is that there isn’t much connecting them. In the first part the drama centres around Cassandre. By the end of Act 2 she’s dead and we move on to Carthage where Didon makes her first appearance. The Trojan hero Énée links both halves but he’s a pretty minor presence in the first bit.

In Acts 1 and 2 Troy is a sparse stage with a reflector above it projecting much of the action onto a backdrop of an Italianate cityscape of Troy. It’s a good idea as for most of the act there are a lot of people on stage and it’s not easy to take it all in. Occasionally the cityscape dissolves into some kind of symbolic back projection as with the the horse itself which is just a rather grim projection of a horse’s head. It works pretty well. A similar approach is used to introduce the scene where Hector’s ghost tells Énée he’s got to rebuild Troy in Italy. The camera work for the DVD switches between stage and backdrop with the usual close ups and just occasionally pulls back to let us see what the theatre audience is seeing. All in all I think Peter Maniura is giving us as good a look at Yannis Kokkos’ staging as could reasonably be done on DVD.

Vocally, the first part is all about Cassandre, here played by Anna Caterina Antonacci. She’s stunning. She gives a totally committed performance as the prophetess who everyone thinks is mad until it’s all too late. She stands out visually in a simple white dress against the rest of the Trojans who wear greatcoats of mixed military provenance and otherwise look generally scruffy giving an effect somewhere between Colditz and Les Miz. Her singing and acting are both quite mesmerizing. She is well backed up Gregory Kunde’s Énée although he doesn’t have too much to do. He manages to sound like a bel canto singer while upping the heft to cope with some pretty dense orchestration.

Here’s a clip of Antonacci which gives a pretty good idea of the overall idea.

Act 3 involves a total shift of dramatic and aesthetic gear. Now we are in Carthage where Didon (Susan Graham) is presenting the results of the first Five year Plan to what looks like a cross between a Druidic gorsedd and a meeting of the Carthage Soviet of Workers and Peasants. The plan has met its targets but their idyllic existence is threatened by the king of Numidia who wants to marry Didon and is marching on Carthage. Énée appears and offers to save the peace loving Carthaginians (nb these are not the baby burning, general crucifying Carthaginians I remember from history) by doing the fighting for them. This is followed by a longish section where Didon’s sister Anna (the very fetching Renata Pokupić) tries to persuade her that hooking up with Énée would be a smart move. This continues into Act 4 which rather drags. There’s a long, almost Wagnerian, prelude after which Didon enters, obviously head over heels in love. We can tell this from her little interpretative dance and her spending the next half hour looking like a contented hamster watching several ballets complete with jugglers and acrobats.. The entertainmet concludes with singing, dancing Nubians who could have come straight out of National Geographic c. 1950. Finally we get going again and Didon decides that maybe the Énée thing isn’t such a bad idea after all. She and Énée sing the gorgeous duet “Nuit d’ivresse”. Kunde and Graham are very fine indeed in this as you can see below. Both these acts are played out on a brightly lit stage with lots of bright whites and colours.

The act concludes on an ominous note as Mercure reminds Énée of his Italian destiny.

In Act 5 we are back dramatically and aesthetically more or less where we started. It’s dark, Trojans in greatcoats, the reflector. The ghosts of the dead Trojans remind Aeneas of his quest. He decides to obey. Most of the rest of the act is Susan Graham going through a full gamut of emotions; anger, grief, vengeance, resignation. It gets a bit over the top but she is elemental and always musical. Graham steals the show in the final three acts but she is very well supported by Pokupić’s Anna and Laurent Naouri’s Narbal as well as Kunde. Cassandra (or her ghost) get the last word but nobody is going to believe her.

John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. He pushes things along well without sacrificing grandeur at the needed points. The period instruments give some pleasing variation of tone colour. The chorus is the ever excellent Monteverdi Choir. No problems in those departments.

Peter Maniura’s screen direction maintains its high standard through the second half. So what of the disk package? It’s an Opus-Arte production and it was filmed in high definition. The 16:9 anamorphic picture is superb even on DVD (which is what I watched) but it is also available on Blu-Ray which should be even better, especially as the Blu-Ray is cheaper and two discs versus three DVDs. Sound is LPCM stereo or DTS 5.1 (DTS HD on the Blu-Ray). The DTS track is really good with real depth. There is even adequate documentation and an hour long “Making of” documentary. All in all, it’s what an opera DVD/Blu-Ray release ought to be.

Orphée et Eurydice – Gardiner DVD

John Eliot Gardiner chose to videorecord the French version of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice at the Théâtre Musical de Paris – Châtelet. Choosing the French version is consistent with Gardiner’s other Gluck recordings. The Paris cast is a bit less starry than his Lyon CD version but more than adequate. Orphée is sung by mezzo Magdalena Kozena, Eurydice by Madeline Bender and Amour by Patricia Petitbon. Gardiner uses his usual forces for chorus and orchestra; the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Choreography is by Giuseppe Frigeni, stage direction by Robert Wilson and video direction by Brian Large. The DVD is on EMI, has 16:9 video and Dolby 2.0 sound. It was recorded in 2000.

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