Magic Flute for kids

The Met’s abridged version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, in English, got an HD broadcast in 2006 and a subsequent DVD release.  It’s Julie Taymor’s production and it’s visually spectacular with giant sets, loads of very effective puppets and very good dancers (I wish every opera company used dance as effectively as the Met.  Too expensive I guess).  It’s more something one might expect to see at Bregenz than at the Four Seasons Centre.  Costuming is sometimes a bit weird.  The Three Ladies have removable heads and the chorus of priests look like origami angels but it’s never less than interesting visually. There’s nothing about the cuts (it comes in at about an hour and threequarters) that changes the plot in any way that makes it obviously kid friendly beyond being shorter and there’s no attempt to make it anything other than a pretty fairy tale.  If one wants a Flute with deep meaning this isn’t it.

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Cold Mountain

CD-Cold-Mountain-CDThis review first appeared in the print edition of Opera Canada.

Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, which premiered at Santa Fe in 2015, is an example of what seems to be becoming the standard American formula for new opera. It takes a story from a best selling book that has already been made into a Hollywood film and turns it into an opera. Add to that that it’s a melodrama set in the currently fashionable Civil War South. Melodramatic it certainly is. Within five minutes Owens (Robert Pomakov) has been stabbed and buried alive and his son (Adrian Kramer) bound, gagged and dragged off to the army. A little later our hero, a Confederate deserter played by Nathan Gunn, rescues Laura (Andrea Nūnez) from being thrown from a cliff by her preacher boyfriend (Roger Honeywell). He ends up as part of a heap of chained together corpses. This production is rough on Canadian singers. There’s much more in the same vein with summary executions, baby torture, a choir of dead soldiers and the hero dying with the last shot of the piece. All of this is spun around the romance between the hero, Inman, and his classy but clueless girlfriend Ada (Isabel Leonard) who is busy dodging the attentions of the creepy and repulsive Teague (Jay Hunter-Morris) with the help of the sassy but practical Ruby (Emily Fons).

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Rob Kapilow’s Christmas offering

PolarGertrude pr FINAL VERSIONSo it’s that time of year when Christmas records start appearing.  The latest to come my way consists of musical settings by Rob Kapilow of Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express and Dr. Seuss’ Gertrude McFuzz.  Yes, it’s American and aimed at kids and if you were to place it on a spectrum of Christmas music that ran from Frosty the Snowman to Carols from King’s it would be decidedly closer to the former. Continue reading

Dessay is a spectacular Zerbinetta

A recording featuring Deb Voigt and Natalie Dessay, both high on my list of singers I’d like to party with, obviously has to be seen.  They feature in a 2003 recording of Ariadne auf Naxos from the Met.  It’s a Moshinsky production, directed for this run by Laurie Feldman.  It’s pretty traditional in most respects though there are some interesting touches in the second act.  We are squarely in the house of the richest man in Vienna c. 1750.  No Konzept here.  In fact, the first act is traditional too in that the acting is broad, going on coarse grained.  Dessay brings a touch of distinction, managing to effectively portray the more vulnerable side of Zerbinetta.  Voigt too is very fine, and very much with the overall mood, as a completely over the top stroppy diva.  She’s definitely playing for laughs.  Susanne Mentzner’s Composer and Wolgang Brendel’s Music Master are both quite competent but suffer a bit from the pantomime acting the director appears to want.

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Giulio Cesare in Australia

Opera DVDs from Australia are as rare as Canadian ones and for the same reason. The national broadcaster’s approach to the arts would put the Philistines to shame so opera broadcasts from which DVDs can be produced are passing rare. The one under review here is a 1994 production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare from the Sydney Opera House.

There’s a lot to like about it. The stage production by Francisco Negrin is fairly conventional but attractive to look at and contains some very effective touches. He makes good use of an apron in front of the pit and he uses the rather minor character of Nireno to some effect as a sort of silent chorus on the action. Costumes are sort of 1900ish with odd touches like breastplates and Egyptian dancers and supers in white body and face make up. Sets are mostly simple with typical Egyptian iconography. Cleopatra is naked in her bath when she receives Caesar which would probably be too much for the more staid North American houses today, let alone twenty years ago. The choreography by Gregory Nash makes very effective use of a talented group of dancers. Best if all from the point of view of watching on DVD the video direction by Peter Butler is very respectful of Negrin’s intentions and gives us a real good view of all of the action.

On top of that there is some excellent singing especially by Graham Pushee in the title role. Not everyone likes to see a countertenor in this role but Pushee makes a good case for it. He’s fuller toned than most and has excellent control of his coloratura and ornamentation. He’s also a very good actor. Overall, he may be the best in this role that I have seen. The Tolomeo of Andrew Dalton makes a good foil. He’s a reedy, nasal counter tenor of an older type but that works quite well for the weak and scheming character he portrays. The Achilla of Stephen Bennett is also top notch building to a fine climax in Act 3 with “In tal’ modi si premia”. Rodney Gilchrist as Nireno doesn’t have a lot to do vocally but he’s present and contributing so much of the time that he deserves a special mention. The orchestra under Richard Hickox uses modern instruments but doesn’t go heavy or mushy.

I was initially somewhat ambivalent about Yvonne Kenny’s Cleopatra. I’ve got used to this role being sung by much younger singers than the 44 year old Kenny and it has to be that she looks and sounds very mature for Cleopatra. That said she sings with great gusto and bold coloratura. She acts well too but she does struggle a bit to be the sex kitten who seduces the stuffy Caesar. Despite this by the third act and, especially, her really committed “Da tempeste il legno infranto” I was pretty much won over by her sheer enthusiasm. There’s something of the same problem with Rosemary Gunn’s Cornelia. It’s hard to think of Ms. Gunn as the bombshell who has half of Egypt lusting after her, despite a pretty decent performance overall..

What’s not to like? Not too much really. Elizabeth Campbell’s Sesto is a bit shrill and generally not very convincing dramatically. The biggest negative though is the technical quality of the disk which scarcely does justice to Butler’s efforts. The sound, Dolby 2.0, is OK but the 4:3 picture really isn’t all that great. There’s no way one can fit 207 minutes of opera onto a single DVD9 and have great video quality. 4:3 doesn’t help either as the stage is the sets are wide but not very high (so I guess an extra bonus point for avoiding the close up trap). The subtitles are English only and the documentation is limited to a chapter list. Bottom line, a good effort rather spoiled by el cheapo production for disk(1).

This version does have the merit of being inexpensive but it’s up against strong competition from Copenhagen and Glyndebourne. Both houses offer much more recent productions at much higher technical quality. At a price.

fn1. This performance appears to be available in a different package outside North America. It has Dolby 5.1 and DTS sound tracks and, I suspect, is spread across two disks. Certainly the track numbering n the version I watched and the way it behaves if played with vlc suggests two VIDEO-TS folders crammed onto one disk.