The back half of October

marionandbeastComing up later this month…

On October 14th at 7.30pm in the MacMillan Theatre, the UoT Symphony, UoT Opera and the MacMillan singers are joining forces for a programme of opera ensemble numbers.

October 20th at 8pm in the Ernest Balmer Studio sees the first show in the new Confluence series; Sovereignty Voiced.  Actor Cole Alvis, mezzo soprano Marion Newman, composer/pianist Ian Cusson, poet/filmmaker Armand Garnet Ruffo and singer/songwiter Aqua Nibii Waawaaskone and others share poems, songs and stories in an intimate cabaret.

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Arabella with Fleming and Hampson

Thomas Hampson and Renée Fleming teamed up for Strauss’ Arabella at the 2014 Salzburg Osterfestspiel.  The production is directed by Florentine Klepper and it’s set late 19th/early 20th century and is conventional in many ways though there are a few interesting touches.  There may be more than a few but video director Brian Large focusses quite relentlessly on the singers 99% of the time so it’s hard to tell.  I noticed a few things.  The hotel set in Act 1 is multi-room but it’s very rare that we see other than the room the principal action is in so who knows what might have been going on.  There’s a use of body doubles during the Act 2 duet to create a sort of “portrait” of Mandryka and Arabella that broods over the stage for the rest of the act.  The fortune teller reappears with the “trouble” card during the “key” scene.  The whole Fiakermilli episode is difficult to interpret because the video gives such a fragmentary view of it.  There’s certainly a couple of suggestive giant dolls.  Otherwise this scene just comes off as pretty crude and lame.  I suspect that there may be much going on here that isn’t on the video.  This all tends to reinforce the weaknesses of the second half of Act 2 and the start of Act 3 which certainly are not Strauss and von Hofmannsthal’s best work.

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Renée and her frocks

John Cox’s production of Massenet’s Thaïs at the Metropolitan Opera is probably most remembered for the rather extraordinary collection of Christian Lacroix frocks that Met perennial Renée Fleming gets to wear.  It’s rather more than that.  In fact it’s a pretty good example of what the Met does best.  It’s sumptuous and spectacular and has a pretty much ideal cast which, together, go a long way toward making this curious piece rather enjoyable.

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Conspicuous Consumption

Richard Eyre’s production of La Traviata at the Royal Opera House, filmed in 2009, is a pretty good example of how to do a traditional production.  There’s nothing conceptual or thought provoking to it but the direction is careful and tells the story clearly and well.  The designs are mid 19th century with crinolines and tail coats but with the odd imaginative touch and a welcome refusal to succumb to the “more stuff” syndrome that plagues so many Verdi and Puccini productions.  Backed up by excellent music making it probably makes a near ideal introduction to the piece, even if it won’t entirely displace Willy Decker’s brilliant and disturbing Salzburg production in my affections.

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Don Giovanni in the 21st century

After a week of nostalgia wallowing in ancient “productions” from the met and the COC it’s back to Regietheater with a vengeance for the 100th DVD review on this blog.  The subject is Martin Kušej’s Salzburg production of Don Giovanni which premiered in 2002 but was recorded in 2006 as part of the M22 project.

For a start there’s nothing giocoso about this dramma. It’s a very bleak and complex production with lots of ideas; some of which work and some of which are more problematic, and it’s provoked more discussion at the Kitten Kondo than just about any other recording we’ve watched recently.  Rather than write a 3000 word review I’m going to write a normal length review and follow it up with one or more posts on aspects of the production that seem particularly worth exploring. Continue reading

That little red dress

I’ve been wondering about whether to bother with the Decker production of La Traviata when it gets its MetHD broadcast in April since I own the Blu-ray of the original Salzburg 2005 production. So, it seemed like a good time to take another look at the disc.

I like this production more every time I see it. The overall concept of a Violetta who knows she is dying and is pretty consciously counting off the days works really well. The set is basically a curved wall with a clock and some sofas. There’s a lot of empty space and that’s entirely deliberate and serves effectively to reinforce Violetta’s alienation. The use of the chorus is interesting too. This is no jolly band of party goers. Rather, the chorus comes across as quite feral; a pack of wild dogs in evening dress. The character of the doctor does double duty too. He haunts the set almost throughout and from the very beginning. It’s hard not to think of him as Death though I don’t think Decker ever came clean on whether it’s supposed to be that explicit. When Violetta sings of “sterile pleasure” it’s quite clear what she means.

In Act 2, the country idyll is symbolised by flowery drapes over the sofas and, crucially, the clock. It’s the only time the clock is hidden. Violetta and Alfredo romp in flowery dressing gowns and underwear. The Germont senior arrives and as Violetta’s hopes dissolve she rips the flowery drapes away revealing both the clock and herself. The countdown has begun again. Back in Paris, the chorus is more cruel than ever playing out a vicious pantomime of Violetta before becoming a crowd of leering onlookers as Alfredo stuffs money into Violetta’s dress and mouth. The entry of Germont senior parallels actions of the doctor/Death earlier in the piece. There’s no break at the end of Act 2. The doctor very slowly forces the chorus off stage taking the clock and the pantomime Violetta with them to leave the stage completely bare. The rest of the action plays out with the characters widely spaced across this vast empty space.

It’s all very well thought through and consistent. There are many, many deft directorial touches (probably far more than we see on disc – see below) and the overall effect is very powerful.

It’s pretty much a dream cast. Netrebko in 2005 was just about perfect in every way for Violetta and she throws herself into the role with abandon. She’s not at all afraid to take physical risks and she sings really well. Her voice has power and brightness and her coloratura is spot on. She can also be lyrical and affecting when needed. Her interpretation is absolutely at one with Decker’s. Her “sempre libera” is quite chilling and there is real intensity in “Addio del passata”. Rolando Villazon’s Alfredo is a very good match. Salzburg caught him, too, at his very best and he doesn’t put a foot wrong. I’d go on at more length but this really is the Netrebko show! Thomas Hampson as Germont senior is a bit more of a conumdrum. Is he sincere or is his whole persona an elaborate bourgeois facade? Hampson doesn’t really tell us though he sings with his customary refinement and intelligence. Luigi Roni as the doctor deserves a special mention too. He only has a few lines to sing but his overall presence is huge. Carlo Rizzi conducts a polished performance from the Wiener Philharmoniker.

So where’s the fly in the ointment? Surprise! It’s the video direction of Brian Large. Emptiness and space are central to this production and Large can’t bear to give us space. We do get just enough framing shots to allow us, with a bit of imagination, to figure out what the director is doing but mostly it’s relentless close ups. He produces a particularly pointless example of switching back and forth between close ups in “Che e cio?” when he seems to think he’s filming Wimbledon. It doesn’t help that the framing shots we do get are, unaccountably, taken from high stage left. So grrr (and not the word I have written on my notepad because my mother may read this).

Technically the disc is very good. The picture is 1080i HD (maybe just a hint of ghosting on low light level shots) and the sound is very vivid DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 (LPCM stereo optional). Subtitles are IT, FR, EN, ES, DE, IT and CH. The documentation is a bit more generous than usual with a track listing and a synopsis in EN, FR and DE. There’s a useful and entertaining “making of” documentary which suggests that directing Villazon and Netrebko is easier and a lot more fun than directing Hampson! (Some people are perhaps just too smart).

So after all that how do I feel about seeing the Met production? If I could see it live I’d be there in a moment. Can I bear to see it butchered by another inept video director? I don’t know. It should be a good vehicle for Natalie Dessay though.

Pretty much all of this production is available on YouTube if that’s your thing. Here’s an excerpt.