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.

Don Carlos

There aren’t too many examples of the French version of Verdi’s Don Carlos on DVD. The one reviewed here is a 1996 Luc Bondy production from the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. It’s billed as the original 1867 five act version but I think some of the 1883 cuts are made. There’s no useful documenation so I can’t be sure. It features a very strong cast. Robert Alagna sings the title role, Thomas Hampson is Posa, Karita Mattila (looking very young!) is Elisabeth de Valois, José van Dam is Philip, Eric Halfvarson sings the Grand Inquisitor and, rather unexpectedly, Waltraud Meier is Eboli. Anthony Pappano conducts the Orchestre de Paris.

The set designs (Gilles Aillaud) are slightly stylized but essentially literal, simple and easy on the eye. Costumes (Moidele Bickel) are a sort of historical eclectic. There are nods to the 16th century but the women’s gowns could be any period or none, the Flemish deputies wear the sort of collar the vet puts on your pet after surgery and Alagna looks like he’s stepped out of Pirates of the Caribbean. That sounds negative but it’s actually just undistracting. There’s no high concept here so the whole thing turns on the Personenregie and, of course, the music. Bondy gets pretty impressive performances out of his players, creates some interesting stage pictures in the crowd scenes and doesn’t over egg the auto da fe. It’s not fancy but it works.

Musically this is a really good performance. All of the singers (except Halfvarson) tend to the light but beautiful end of the spectrum for their voice type and it all makes for an experience that seems especially apt for the french text. The revelation for me was Mattila. I’ve seen her only in heavier roles and I really had no idea she could sing so beautifully too. She is especially ravishing in the final scene where “Toi qui sus le néant” brought the house down. The chemistry between Hampson and Alagna is excellent and their voices blend well. Halfvarson is a stentorian and truly creepy Inquisitor. Meier seems a bit mannered at times but she pulls off the big moments fairly spectacularly. Pappano gets lovely playing from the orchestra but the voices are balanced quite a long way forward so we don’t get the full effect. All in all, it’s pretty compelling to watch.

Yves André Hubert is the video director. He does a good job. There isn’t a lot going on on stage other than the interaction between the principals most of the time so close ups there are fine and he does pull back when there’s something to pull back for. Picture quality (16:9) anamorphic is OK but not HD by any means. There are two sound options. I started with the Dolby 5.1 which I found lacks clarity and depth. The Dolby 2.0 alternative, while not of the highest quality, is much better. The whole 210 minutes with two soundtracks is crammed into 7.4 GB on a single DVD9 so top quality is hardly to be expected. There are English, French, Spanish and Japanese subtitles and documentation is minimal. Extras are limited to a cast list and synopsis.

All in all this is well worth seeing.