Patchy Figaro

There are, I think, eighteen DVD versions of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro currently available so there needs to be something very special about a recording for it to stand out. Unfortunately Stephen Medcalf’s 1994 Glyndebourne production doesn’t really despite having a strong looking cast. It’s a pretty traditional looking production with breeches and crinolines and sets which look a bit like a giant doll’s house. The Personenregie is well thought out and the stage picture often artfully composed. The acting is almost uniformly excellent. It’s a good solid production but with nothing original in the least about it. Continue reading

Pelléas et Mélisande in the Valleys

The Gramophone Classical Music Guide 2010 describes the DVD of the 1992 Welsh National Opera performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande thusly:

This is, in every respect, a model of what a DVD ought to be, a perfect realisation in picture and sound of Debussy’s sole and inspired opera.

Followed by a good deal more in the same vein.  This, regrettably, tells us more about the Gramophone Guide than about this DVD(1).  Actually it’s not bad at all by 1992 standards but “a perfect realisation” it isn’t.

Peter Stein’s production is semi-abstract and monotone.  The tone is “dark”.  There’s some interesting lighting but visually it’s pretty nondescript.  The director’s focus is clearly on the actors and their interactions and in a work like Pelléas et Mélisande that makes sense.  There is some very good acting, especially from Alison Hagley as Mélisande.  The tower scene is brought off rather well with perhaps the most extravagant hair extension in the history of opera.  This also features in a disturbingly violent Act 4 Scene 2.  Act 4 also sees a brief appearance by a live sheep, no doubt in deference to local sensibilities.  I’m not entirely convinced that Stein gets enough complexity from his cast to really raise the psychology beyond the cardboard cut out level.  Donald Maxwell’s rather crude and coarse Golaud doesn’t really make a case for his descent into jealousy, madness and murderous rage based on not much at all really.  He’s not helped by the rather colourless Pelléas of Neill Archer.  On the other hand Alson Hagley conveys the fragility and mystery of her character exceptionally well.  (I also wondered whether a visual reference to Gerald of Wales’ Melusine was being made in the tower scene but maybe that’s over-theorising).  She’s very much in the same frantic and febrile mould here as Natalie Dessay on the Theater an der Wien recording.  Kenneth Cox gives a strongly characterised Arkel with particularly good chemistry with Hagley.  Stein uses a boy treble, Samuel Burkey, in the role of Yniold.  It works dramatically but I don’t much care for it musically.

In general the singing is very good.  All the principals have adequate French at least, though they can’t quite match Vienna’s line up of Francophone star talent.  Pierre Boulez conducts.  He gets a very detailed, transparent reading from the WNO orchestra while occasionally pushing out a genuinely Wagnerian dramatic climax.  No complaints here.

Stein also directed for TV/DVD.  It’s pretty conventional 1992 TV direction.  There are lots of close ups but generally there’s no sense that one is missing anything.  Although recorded live, there is no applause and no sign of an audience.  During the orchestral interludes we get film of the orchestral score which is an interesting treatment but tends even more to make this like a film rather than a theatre performance.

The picture is average DVD 16:9 and the sound options are PCM stereo, Dolby 5.1 and DTS 5.1.  The surround tracks were created from an original stereo source using DG’s AMSI II technology.  The DTS track is very decent but not quite up to best modern standards.  Extras include a trailer, a picture gallery and some DG promo material.  Subtitles are French, English, German, Spanish and Chinese.  There’s a trilingual booklet with track listings, synopsis and a short, not very useful essay.

This is a good (though far from perfect!) effort.  It’s definitely worth a look though I personally prefer the more recent Vienna recording.

fn1. I’ve long been skeptical about reviewers who claim that the best recording of a well known work is one made by Fritz Busch in his garden shed in 1935.


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.