I woke up this morning to the very sad news that Nikolaus Harnoncourt had died. He was one of my favourite conductors of baroque opera and Mozart and, if I didn’t always think his ventures into the 19th century were fully successful, they were always stimulating. His partnership with the Zürich opera and its brilliant period instruments ensemble La Scintilla was as interesting as in work in Austria with Concentus Musicus Wien. He’ll be missed. There’s a very good obituary in the Guardian.
Here are a few of my favourite Harnoncourt recordings:
Schumann’s Genoveva is a rarity. It premiered in 1850 and quickly slipped into obscurity. Recently it has been championed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt who has gone so far as to call it “the most significant opera of the second half of the 19th century”; a slightly eye popping claim. So what’s it about? On the face of it it’s a pretty typical German opera of the period, set during the wars against the Moors in Spain. Siegfried (Graf in the libretto but mysteriously translated as Duke in the disk subtitles) is recently married but must lead his men off to the war leaving behind his young, beautiful, pious and virtuous bride Genoveva. He leaves Golo; a knight but a bastard so apparently not OK for active service, to guard his lands and wife. Golo has the hots for Genoveva but when she rejects his advances he concocts, with the aid of a witch, a plot to make it appear that she’s having an affair with an elderly retainer. She’s locked up by the servants and word is sent to Siegfried; returned from Spain but recovering from wounds in Strasbourg, of what has transpired. He gives Golo his sword and ring and tells Golo to kill Genoveva. Instead Golo tries to get her to run away with him but she refuses and he disappears. The servants too are happy enough to humiliate Genoveva but pretty slow about killing her. This gives time for Siegfried to arrive, having learnt of his wife’s innocence, and save the day. All sing a hymn of praise to God. Along the way there’s a magic mirror, a ghost, a magic potion and a whole lot of cloying sentimentality and piousness.
I’m really not sure what to make of Jürgen Flimm’s 2004 production of Fidelio for the Zürich Opera House. It’s not offensive and it doesn’t really get in the way of the story but it seems quite devoid of originality beyond mixing styles in a way one might describe as anachronistic if one could figure out when synchronistic would be. Rocco wears a sort of frock coat with, apparently, goatskin pants, Marzellina’s dress looks probably 20th century, bolt action magazine fed rifles are apparently muzzle loaded and metal cartridge cases filled by hand. Then to cap it off when Don Fernando shows up he looks like he’s stepped straight out of a Zeffirelli production of Der Rosenkavalier. So “nul points” for coherence. For once one rather appreciates that so much of the action takes place in the dark.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt has long been one of my favourite conductors, particularly for pieces that require a strong sense of period. The same goes for the wonderful Zürich Opera House Orchestra who, uniquely as far as I know, can change up their instruments to suit the piece. For Weber’s Der Freischütz, recorded in 1999, they use valveless brass but, as best I can tell, modern woodwinds and it all sounds great especially in the many hunting scenes.
Unusually, the Theater and der Wien’s 2011 production of Handel’s Rodelinda features a father and son team. Philippe Harnoncourt directs and Nikolaus conducts. It’s an interesting production with great acting, very decent singing and the always excellent Concentus Musicus Wien in the pit. Continue reading →
Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria is the third of the Ponnelle/Harnoncourt Monteverdi collaborations and perhaps the best. Itseems to stick closer to the original Zürich staging and be less obviously a film though it was recorded in the studio and lip synched. The orchestra and conductor are visible and, in Act 3, Irus descends into the pit throws himself all over Harnoncourt. It’s the conductor too who gives him the knife he kills himself with. Is this the first (of many) times when Harnoncourt has been drawn into the theatrical action?
J-P Ponnelle’s 1979 film of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea with Zürich forces conducted by a young Nikolaus Harnoncourt is like his Orfeo only more so. Sets and costumes are that rather odd “ancient baroque” that Ponnelle is so fond of. The acting is stylized and hyperkinetic and so is the camera work with close ups from weird angles all over the place. So far, so Ponnelle.
Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo is one of the few 17th works still in the canonical opera repertoire though little performed before the “early music revival”. So it was quite a bold step when the Opernhaus Zürich in the 1970s staged all three extant Monteverdi operas in productions by J-P ponelle and with Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading an orchestra of period instruments. All three productions were subsequently made into lip-synched films and have been re-released on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon as a boxed set.
In 1988 Jean-Pierre Ponnelle made the last of his lip synched opera films; Mozart’s Così fan tutte. It carries Ponnelle’s trademark “artificiality” even further than in other of his films that I have seen.The sets, the costumes, the acting and the camera work never let us forget that this is a work of the, in the director’s words, “greatest artificiality”. It also becomes increasingly clear as the piece progresses that Ponnelle has a very clear idea of what “the opera is about”. Continue reading →
Having had a lot of fun with the Lyon recording of Orphée aux Enfers I decided to try and track down some more Offenbach operetta and managed to find a Zurich recording of La Belle Helène conducted, perhaps surprisingly, by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
It’s not perhaps as wildly funny as the Orphée nor perhaps does it have as many memorable tunes but it’s good fun in an undemanding (at least for the audience) sort of way. The Zurich production, by Helmut Lohner, is painted in pretty broad brush strokes. The costumes a re very colourful, a bit silly and most have writing on them, much of it, oddly, in English. The thunder machine is positively Heath Robinsonish. There’s lots of stage action and fairly silly dancing around. It’s all very fast paced and doesn’t take itself too seriously despite the sleeve notes leading one to expect more in the way of social satire. Harnoncourt is obviously having a whale of a time and occasionally gets caught up in the stage action rather as he does in the Salzburg King Arthur. Continue reading →