Earlier this month I was reviewing a new CD recording of Britten’s Peter Grimes for Opera Canada (you should be able to read it in the issue that’s currently at the printers). It’s a rather good performance from the Bergen Philharmonic with Stuart Skelton in the title role. In digging into previous recordings while writing that review I came across a 1995 recording with Philip Langridge in the title role. I was familiar with his ENO performance which was brilliant and is captured on DVD but there are serious issues with that recording so I was delighted to be able to have another listen.
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.
Long before I got my hands on the Royal Opera House/Royal Ballet Dido and Aeneas, the film version from 1995, directed by Peter Manuira and with Maria Ewing in the title role, was my go to version. How does it stack up today?
Some things that strike me. It’s very naturalistic. It seems to be set in and around a Tudor mansion and the costumes are vaguely that way too. The interludes that are normally danced are filled in with “busy” scenes that try to inject some feeling but aren’t nearly as effective as Wayne McGregor’s dancers. The hunt scene has dogs and spears and a real boar’s head (which Aeneas touchingly present to Dido in her bath). There is a lot of fire including a full blown pyre at the end. For all that it doesn’t seem any more “true” than Wayne McGregor’s much sparer vision. It’s also very emotionally restrained. It’s not really until the final confrontation between Aeneas and Dido that any real emotion intrudes and even then it’s quite restrained This is actually very effective and Maria Ewing is truly affecting in the final couple of scenes. Ewing is good throughout both in the singing and acting department and her looks help (OK I know not everyone goes for Ewing but I think she’s gorgeous!). Karl Daymond is fine as Aeneas. We get a sort of composite Belinda/Second Woman set up with some of Belinda’s music given to the Second Woman and them doubling up on other bits. While Rebecca Evans and Patricia Rosario are fine there really isn’t enough musical or emotional contrast between them and Ewing. Richard Hickox conducts the Collegium Musicum and it’s all a bit low key in common with much else. It’s worth watching for Ewing’s performance in the final act but is otherwise a bit of a snooze.
Technically it’s very 1995. The 16:9 picture is hard letterboxed in a 4:3 frame and it’s pretty soft grained. Sound is adequate LPCM stereo. There are English, French and German subtitles.
The usual way to do an opera DVD is to film a live stage performance. I guess because this is also the cheapest way. Various alternative ways of committing opera to film have been tried; some using the singers as actors and some using more photogenic actors with the singing dubbed over. In 2004 BBC Wales made a version of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw using the singers as actors. It makes for an interesting film. For example it allows for an appropriately aged girl to play Flora where in the opera house the role has to given to a young adult soprano. It also allows for the interior monologues, which feature a lot in this piece, to be sung with the actor not moving his/her lips. It also allows for some notable location shots by the lake and in the churchyard (Highgate Cemetery was used). Director, Katie Mitchell, makes good use of the options available to her to play with the elements of perception vs reality which are quite hard to communicate on stage.
The singing and playing are excellent and thoroughly idiomatic throughout. Mark Padmore (Prologue/Quint) sounds as if Peter Pears has come to haunt the production. Lisa Milne is thoroughly competent as the troubled governess and the ever dependable Diana Montague is an excellent foil as Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. Catrin Wyn Davis is a very good Miss Jessel; scary as Hell but just not quite completely demented. The children are excellent. Nicholas Kirby Johnson as Miles and Caroline Wise as Flora look and sound like children. Better, they inhabit the roles of upper class Edwardian children almost uncannily. The tricky score (the vocal scenes are each preceded by a variation on a twelve tone theme) is played really well by the London Sinfonietta under Richard Hickox. All in all this is a really good presentation of one of Britten’s most interesting but problematic works.
The DVD is released by Opus Arte and it’s pretty much up to the standard of their recent offerings. The 16:9 picture is average to good DVD quality. Sound options are LPCM stereo or Dolby 5.1. A range of subtitles are included. English speakers won’t need the subtitles as the diction and articulation throughout are exemplary and the voices are never overwhelmed by the band, and nor should they be when a work is scored for thirteen musicians.
The Opus Arte trailer gives a pretty good idea of what to expect.