How much of Pelléas et Mélisande did Maeterlinck or Debussy intend to be taken literally? Probably not much and that’s certainly where Dmitri Tcherniakov is coming from in his 2016 production for Opernhaus Zürich. In this version Golaud is a psychiatrist who has brought his patient; the deeply disturbed Mélisande, to live in the Arkel family home. It’s a typical Tcherniakov construct in some ways; a multi-generational haut bourgeois family living in some considerable style but where nothing is quite what it seems to be.
Francesca Zambello’s Carmen for the Royal Opera House has more going for it than is immediately apparent. On the face of it it’s a very traditional, conservative production; period costumes, literal sets, hordes of kids in Acts 1 and 4, live animals, but a close look reveals rather more. Zambello reveals her intentions during the overture where we see a manacled, distraught Don José dragged to execution by a masked executioner. This is going to be Don José’s story rather than one that focuses almost exclusively on the title character. What we see here is a stark contrast between what Don José really wants; respectability, an obedient wife, conformity with the Church, honour and what key choices, accidents and conflicts drive him to; criminality, liminality, execution and, we may suppose, damnation. The staging subtly highlights each of the key moments in Don José’s descent; his arrest and demotion in Act1, the fight with Zuniga in Act 2 and the realisation, in Act 3, that Carmen will never be the women he really wants reinforced by Micaëla’s aria that ironically offers him the choice he can no longer make and does so unmistakeably in terms of Catholic eschatology. There is so much more going on here than a sexy woman and some pretty tunes.
Michael Grandage’s lack lustre Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera made me very curious to see his very well reviewed 2010 production of Britten’s Billy Budd for Glyndebourne. It is now available on DVD and Blu-ray so I did just that. It’s as good as the Don Giovanni wasn’t.
The set design suggests the interior of a warship of the period (1797) which gives scope for galleries around and behind the main stage area. By changing the lighting and sliding panels into place, it easily becomes anywhere desired on the ship. It’s very much an ‘interior’ setting which is appropriate as the sea is as absent in Billy Budd as it is present in Peter Grimes. Having created a working stage arrangement, Grandage focuses on the Personenregie. What’s striking about this production is how the director works the relationship between the characters and the development of the characters as individuals. Claggart is chilling. Vere lacks, in the last analysis, moral courage but his distaste for Claggart and his manifestations is palpable. Billy radiates simplicity and innocence. The lesser parts too are fully developed, not just filler. Dansker really foreshadows what is to come.
Along with this Grandage contrives some truly striking images. In the prologue “old” Vere appears almost disembodied until the ship materialises around him and the action proper starts. Towards the end of Act1 there”s a striking picture of Billy and Claggart in the centre of the picture; Billy on deck,
Claggart above him at the quarter deck rail. In the final scene the men hauling on Billy’s rope could be straight out of Rodin. Needless to say it takes considerable acting skill across the company to pull all this off. Grandage gets this from a solid cast of anglophone singers led by John Mark Ainsley as Vere, Jacques Imbrailo as Billy and Phillip Ens as Claggart. There are lots of quite important supporting roles so here’s the full cast:
Musically too, this is a treat. The real stars here are the London Philharmonic and conductor Mark Elder. The orchestral playing is taut and incisive and shows off a really good score to fine advantage. The singing is glorious too. Clearly this is a work where the needs of the drama trump pretty singing but in the places where beauty is possible we get it. In the prologue one could easily mistake Ainsley for Pears as he floats the high notes. Imbrailo has a gorgeous voice and there’s some fine singing from many others.
The technical team for this production is essentially the same as for The Fairy Queen and the results are equally good. François Roussillon lets us see the stage and only goes close up where it makes sense. This time I watched the DVD rather than the Blu-ray presentation (two DVD9 discs). It’s not quite as good as Blu-ray. The 16:9 anamorphic picture is very good but even on my less than state of the art TV it’s not quite as good as the 1080i Blu-ray. The sound difference is even more marked. The DVD sound is DTS 5.1 and is clear and well balanced but it comes up short on spatial depth compared to DTS-HD Master Audio. (There’s also LPCM stereo). There are English, French, German and Spanish subtitles, decent documentation and a few short extras on the first disc.
I recommended this unreservedly for both die hard Britten fans and those willing to explore but get the Blu-ray version if you can.