I due Figaro

Mercadante’s I due Figaro(1) is one of a number of operas that continue the story of Figaro, Almaviva etc into a third instalment.  It sets a libretto by Felice Romani based on Les deux Figaro by Honoré-Antoine Richaud Martelly.  It premiered in Madrid in 1835 but was lost for many years before being rediscovered in 2009 and given at the 2011 Ravenna Festival.  Yesterday in got its Canadian premier at VOICEBOX:Opera in Concert.


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Drink! Drink! Drink!

jennifertOddly enough, what Toronto Operetta Theatre does best is operetta and the production of Romberg’s The Student Prince that opened yesterday afternoon is a pretty good example of why.  I suppose, technically, that it’s a Broadway musical but everything about it, down to the humour and sentimentality seems Teutonic enough.  Anyway, there’s a solid trio in the lead roles, the key back ups are thoroughly professional and the minor roles and chorus are filled out by talented and enthusiastic young singers.  The band is big enough to cover all the colours of the score and the staging is appropriate and not overly ambitious.  The piece gets to do its tuneful, rather bittersweet thing.

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Lulu in HD

649x486_lulu_introYesterday I went to a Met “live in HD” broadcast for the first time since The Nose two years ago.  It was an interesting and ultimately rather depressing experience.  This review really falls into two parts; a review of the production and performance, including how it was filmed for broadcast, and a piece on how the Met is “presenting” the work and how that seems to fit in with its overall HD strategy.  The latter may turn into a bit of a rant.

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Ben Heppner at Toronto Reference Library

heppnerLast night’s event in the Star Talks series at the Toronto Reference Library involved Richard Ouzounian interviewing Ben Heppner who is in town to sing the title role in Peter Grimes.  It was a very genial interview; no tough questions about elitism or whether opera was dying.  Rather it was very much the tale of the kid from Dawson Creek who beats Renee Fleming and Susan Graham in the Met auditions and becomes a superstar.  It was curiously like Desert Island Discs without the music.

There were a couple of interesting stories.  The best concerned Heppner and Richard Jones’ production of Lohengrin (available on DVD/Blu-ray with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role).  It’s the one where Lohengrin and Elsa build a house then Lohengrin burns it down.  Well it turns out the the three year old Ben Heppner managed to burn the family home down and during the dress of Lohengrin had a pretty strong repressed memory reaction at the point where he had to set the cradle alight.  It says a lot for his professionalism that the first night went off without incident.

I did get to ask him for his views on different kinds of tenor singing the role of Grimes.  After all it was created for one of the most ethereal operatic tenors ever but ids frequently sung today by full on heldentors.  He said he didn’t think the voice was as important as how fully the singer inhabited the character and singled out Philip Langridge in that regard.  I have to agree with him.  I love Langridge’s Grimes.  It’s a real pity the video recording of it is so awful.

Peter Grimes runs for seven performances at the COC starting October 5th.

Jealousy, rage, love and fear

It’s a curious thing how some works get over recorded and others are almost entirely neglected.  For example, there’s only one video recording of Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper and that a 1931 film that omits huge chunks of the stage work.  It’s inspiration fares little better.  There’s only one video recording of The Beggar’s Opera by Johann Pepusch and John Gay.  It’s a 1963 BBC TV production of Benjamin Britten’s reworking of the piece for the English Opera Group based on a stage production by Colin Graham. [ETA: There are actually two other versions; a 1953 movie version with Lawrence Olivier and a 1980s version with Roger Daltrey and John Eliot Gardiner].

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Now includes dwarf tossing

Berlioz’ Les Troyens is opera on a grand scale.  Only a really big company like the Met could possibly afford to stage it.  Yesterday’s performance used a chorus of 110, a larger orchestra, at least twelve soloists and a bunch of dancers.  It also lasted 5 1/2 hours including the intervals.  Was it worth it?  For the most part I’d say yes.

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La Clemenza di Tito – Paris 2005

The Opéra national de Paris 2005 production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito is very fine.  Ironically it’s actually quite a conventional production overall though one scene, the one where Tito makes his first appearance, is so weird that it provides the generic name used in some circles I frequent for an entirely inexplicable production element (see below).

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Beautiful simplicity

I don’t think I’ve ever been to an opera with higher expectations than last night. The show was a piece I love; Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. My favourite director, Robert Carsen, was directing. The cast; Susan Graham (Iphigénie), Russell Braun (Oreste), Joseph Kaiser (Pylade), Mark Doss (Thoas) with solid young singers in the minor roles, was as starry as I have seen at the Four Seasons Centre. How could it live up to my expectations? All I can say is that it did.

The stage design for Carsen’s production is about as minimalist as it gets. The raked stage is enclosed by three plain grey walls in the form of a regular trapezoid. Occasionally a rectangular slab (altar) appears centre stage. The chorus chalk the words AGAMEMNON, IPHIGENIE, KLYTEMNESTRE on the walls and later Iphigénie erases them. The rest is done with lighting (Peter van Praet). Even the lighting plot is spare. The palette is predominantly blue-grey with orange/red appearing to symbolise the Furies and the violence of the history of the house of Atreus. Only at the very end does the gloom and claustrophobia lift. Within the gloom though van Praet creates ominous giant shadows of the characters which enormously enhance key scenes.

To play out the drama in this gloomy space Carsen uses dancers and places the chorus in the orchestra pit. Occasionally this leads to minor balance issues between the soloists and chorus but it is a small price to pay for the action on stage. In one particularly effective scene, the Furies carry Oreste and force him to walk sideways across the text of KLYTEMNESTRE. In another they turn into writhing serpents who back Oreste into a corner. In the final scene the “dea ex machina” element is handled about as well as I have ever seen it done. Diana (Lauren Segal) sings, unlit, from what sounded like Ring 4 stage left. The characters on stage are frozen. She resolves the drama and the stage walls rise about six feet to flood the stage with very white light. Unfussy and effective. All in all one feels that Gluck’s ideal of a “beautiful simplicity” is achieved. The one place where the minimalism is a bit of an issue is that all the characters pretty much look the same to the point where it isn’t always obvious who is singing. A good pair of opera glasses, a decent seat and knowing what the main singers look like helps here. I think the approach works in part because the drama moves ahead at a breathless pace. Wagner would need about fifteen hours to get through a story that Gluck manages in less than two hours.

Musically the evening was about as good as it gets. Pablo Heras-Casado pushed things along at a pretty fair pace but didn’t lose the drama. He was helped by some gorgeous woodwinds. The soloists were all quite excellent. Susan Graham owns this part, her rather bright mezzo suits the role and she sounded utterly in command. Joseph Kaiser and Russell Braun worked really well together in a reading that wasn’t as obviously homoerotic as some I’ve seen. Kaiser has a lovely Mozartian tenor and Braun has power and beauty of tone to spare. Mark Doss was appropriately violent as Thoas and I’d really like to see what he could do with something more lyrical. The minor roles were all more than adequately covered by local singers who will be familiar to anyone who frequents the Four Seasons Centre.

So, my unrealistic expectations were met and I thoroughly enjoyed one of the best evenings I’ve spent in an opera house. I’m late to the party though. If you want to catch this show Susuan Graham is singing just one more time on October 12th and there is a final performance with Katherine Whyte in the title role on October 15th.

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.