Castellucci’s Moses und Aron

Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron is a very peculiar opera.  It’s pretty much an extended debate about the nature of God cast in highly abstract terms.  So who better to direct it than the almost unbearably cerebral Romeo Castellucci.  Previous encounters with his work have been puzzling, thought provoking (and WTF provoking) but never dull.  All those terms could be deployed to describe the production recorded at L’Opéra nationale de Paris in 2015.

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The clutter of bodies

The latest Handel oratorio to be given the operatic treatment by Glyndebourne is Saul, which played in 2015 in a production by Australian Barrie Kosky.  It’s quite a remarkable work.  The libretto, as so often the work of Charles Jennens, takes considerable liberties with the version in Samuel and incorporates obvious nods to both King Lear and Macbeth as well as more contemporary events.  David’s Act 3 lament on the death of Saul, for instance, clearly invokes the execution of Charles I.  What emerges is a very classic tragedy.  Saul, the Lord’s anointed, is driven by jealousy and insecurity deeper and deeper into madness and degradation and, ultimately, death.  This is the basic narrative arc of the piece.

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Albert Herring

Britten’s Albert Herring is mysteriously under represented in the DVD catalogue.  The work is performed quite often being relatively inexpensive to mount and suitable for smaller venues but the many productions haven’t led to many recordings.  I have only been able to find one and that dates back to 1985 when it was recorded at Glyndebourne.  That’s appropriate enough as that’s the house the piece premiered in in 1947.  At least it’s a  fair and effective representation of the work.  Peter Hall’s production takes few liberties with the libretto and is a rather literal and effective, if necessarily somewhat caricatured,  representation of life in a Suffolk village.  The sets and costumes are evocative; especially the hall of Lady Billows’ house which really evokes a 17th century Great Hall and, as the view through the window tells us, is set in or close to the village, not in an isolated park.  There’s quite a lot of that kind of attention to detail in this production.

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Grimes on Blu-ray

There is, finally, a recording of Britten’s Peter Grimes on Blu-ray.  It’s a Richard Jones production with a largely British cast, recorded at La Scala in 2012.  The sound and picture quality are first rate.  Unfortunately the production and performances aren’t so much.

1.moothallRichard Jones has chosen to set the piece in the 1980s and to portray the inhabitants of the Borough as a sort of inbred hive mind fuelled by prejudice, alcohol and drugs.  Actually it’s not a bad concept but it comes off as exaggerated with cast and chorus repeatedly making more or less coordinated middle aged disco moves.  He also portrays the nieces as the sort of permanently stoned bubble heads one wants to avoid on the last train home. There are some neat touches.  The Moot Hall, The Boar and Grimes’ hut are all formed by box like spaces that are tilted and rotated to good effect.  The lighting is effective too.  Unusually for a modern production Jones doesn’t provide any staging for the interludes, leaving the theatre dark with the curtain down.  Overall, it’s a production I’d want to take a second look at but I suspect it’s just painted too broadly to be really effective.

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Four decades of Peter Grimes

Having now had a chance to watch and review all five currently available video recordings of Peter Grimes I thought I might do a summary of the strengths and weaknesses of each. All of them have some merit and I doubt that there would be consensus on a “winner”. Anyway, here goes…

BBC film 1969
Grimes – Peter Pears
Conductor – Benjamin Britten
Director – Joan Cross & Brian Large

This is an essential historical document with both composer and the creator of the role involved. The production is straightforward and naturalistic. The sound and video quality is surprisingly good for the period. It does, though, leave one with the feeling that there is more to the role of Grimes than Pears finds.

Royal Opera House 1981
Grimes – Jon Vickers
Conductor – Colin Davis
Director – Elijah Moshinsky

Also a historical landmark being the first major production where Grimes wasn’t sung by Peter Pears. It has the excellent Heather Harper as Ellen Orford. The production is quite dull and very dimly lit. Vickers’ Grimes is controversial. In places he sounds fantastic and in others sorely taxed. His acting is oddly stilted. Norman Bailey fails to convince as Balstrode.  Sound and picture quality are OK.

English National Opera 1994
Grimes – Philip Langridge
Conductor – David Atherton
Director – Tim Albery

This is the production with most sense of the sea as a character brought out through innovative use of video projection. Langridge’s Grimes is intense, convincing and beautifully sung. Alan Opie is a very strong Balstrode. Unfortunately the orchestra and chorus aren’t up to rival versions and all aspects of the DVD; video direction, sound quality and picture quality are rather poor.

Opernhaus Zürich 2005
Grimes – Christopher Ventris
Conductor – Franz Welser-Möst
Director – David Pountney

This is a very fine and thought provoking production with any number of magical moments. Ventris is a first class Grimes combining power and sensitivity and the supporting performances all have merit, save perhaps for Alfred Muff’s sub-par Balstrode. The orchestra and chorus are quite superb. The performance gets a thoroughly sympathetic treatment on DVD with good video directing backed up by quite excellent sound and picture quality.

Metropolitan Opera 2008
Grimes – Anthony Dean Griffey
Conductor – Donald Runnicles
Director – John Doyle

This is a rather dull and dark production given a very eccentric treatment by the video director. Dean Griffey is a lyrical and sympathetic Grimes well backed up by the supporting cast, especially Anthony Michaels-Moore as Balstrode and Teddy Tahu-Rhodes as Ned Keene. The orchestra and chorus are excellent and Runnicles is fairly convincing though the first act drags a bit. The sound and picture quality is excellent.

La Scala, 2012
2.theboarGrimes: John Graham-Hall
Conductor: Robin Ticciati
Director: Richard Jones

Richard Jones’ production, updated to the 1980s, is quirky. John Graham-Hall is quite lyrical as Grimes but slips into pseudo speech a lot. Susan Gritton fails to convince as Ellen Orford. The supporting cast, the orchestra and the conducting are first rate but the chorus is decidedly sub-par. The Blu-ray sound and picture outclasses all previous versions but, overall, this recording fails to convince.

Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach, 2013
1.prologueGrimes: Allan Oke
Conductor: Steuart Bedford
Director: Tim Albery/Margaret Williams

This film is a record of the unique production staged on Aldeburgh beach by Tim Albery and filmed by Margaret Williams. It’s highly atmospheric and features a brilliant performance by Alan Oke but conditions were not ideal for the singers and musically this cannot match the best available recordings from the theatre.

Searing Kat’a Kabanová

The searing intensity of this 1988 Glyndebourne recording of Janáček’s Kat’a Kabanová overcomes a rather indifferent DVD transfer to great effect.

The production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff focuses on the inner emotions, or lack of them, of the principal characters especially Kat’a and the Kabanovicka. This focus is greatly aided by the simple but colourful semi-abstract sets that bring to mind Chagall or Kandinsky in their bold use of colour. The execution of the concept is first class. Nancy Gustavson, in the title role, gives a quite breathtaking portrayal of a mental breakdown, especially intense in the confession scene. She also sings quite superbly. Felicity Palmer as her mother in law is as chilling as one could possibly wish, nowhere more so than in the final scene as she walks away from Kat’a’s body. The Varvara, Louise Winter, the facilitator of Kat’a’s fatal affair, brings some real charm to what would otherwise be pretty unrelentingly grim.

The men have less to do and the only real stand out is bass Donald Adams as Dikoj. His scene with Palmer is oddly compelling in a revolting sort of way. The other men are perfectly adequate but it’s the women who carry the show here. The other real star is the LPO under Andrew Davis. This is a hell of a score and Davis, wonderfully supported by his players, makes the most of it. I just wish the sound quality had been better.

The production for DVD is adequate. Helped by the small stage of the old theatre at Glyndebourne video director Derek Bailey lets us see what is happening and only in Act 3 does he get a bit close up happy. All in all it’s not a bad job for a 1988 TV broadcast. The picture is tolerable. It’s 4:3 with hard English subtitles. As all 100 minutes of the opera are crammed onto one DVD5 it’s perhaps surprising it’s as good as it is. Sound is Dolby 2.0 and again “adequate” is as good as it gets. There are no extras or documentation beyond a chapter listing. The european release on a different label may be a little less Spartan.

Technical reservations aside, this is well worth seeing.