Thomas Adès’ 2004 opera The Tempest was given at the Metropolitan Opera in 2012 in a new production by Robert Lepage. It got an HD broadcast and a subsequent DVD release. It’s an interesting work which, on happening, was compared to Peter Grimes as the “next great English opera”. Whether this early hype will turn into a sustained place in the repertoire is yet to be seen. Musically it’s not easy to characterize. Adès very much has his own style; mixing lyricism with atonality and, in this piece, setting one of the roles, Ariel, so high it’s surprising anyone has been found to sing it. Certainly it’s a more aggressively modern style than most of the work currently being produced in North America. The libretto two is unusual. Shakespeare’s own words were, apparently, considered too difficult to sing though, of course, Britten famously set great screeds of unadulterated bard in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For the Tempest, Meredith Oakes has rendered the text into couplets; rhymed or half rhymed. It works quite well with only the occasional touch of Jeremy Sams like banality.
The 2003 Royal Opera House recording of Die Zauberflöte has a terrific cast and it has Sir Colin Davis conducting. The production is by David McVicar and it’s one of those that make one wonder how he ever got a “bad boy” reputation. It’s perfectly straightforward though rather dark (emotionally and physically) and has a vaguely 18th century vibe. In places it seems a bit minimalist, as if the director couldn’t really be bothered with things like the Trials. The interview material rather suggests that McVicar was a bit overawed by doing Mozart with the great Sir Colin and tried very hard to match his rather old fashioned theatrical sensibilities.
Verdi’s Macbeth is one of those early works where he seems to be trying to grow out of bel canto but not quite making it. There is some splendidly dramatic music and some that just seems completely incongruous given the subject matter. The witches’ chorus at the beginning of Act 3 is a case in point. That said Phyllida Lloyd’s production for the Royal Opera House takes the piece seriously and does a pretty good job of presenting the drama in a straightforward but visually attractive way.
Don Giovanni is one of the most fascinating operas in part because it can be reinterpreted in so many different ways. There’s also the tension between a story with elements of murder, rape, revenge and damnation and broad humour. It’s tricky to find a balance. There’s also a decision to be made between a concept based production and a more laissez faire approach. Francesca Zambello’s production for the Royal Opera House, recorded in 2008 doesn’t really have a concept and sort of goes with the flow mixing very broad humour with lots of Catholic kitsch and some flamboyant stage effects. As a production I find it distinctly underwhelming.
Thomas Adès’ The Tempest has had something like eight runs since its premiere at Covent Garden in 2004. It recently opened at the Metropolitan Opera in a new production by Robert Lepage which was broadcast as part of the Met in HD series this afternoon. It’s an interesting work musically. Some of the vocal writing is reminiscent of Britten. It all tends to a high tessitura for the voice type concerned and goes to extremes in that direction for the soprano part of Ariel where parts are so high that clear articulation of the words is impossible. Writing for voice and orchestra ranges from dissonant to extremely lyrical (the act 2 duet between Miranda and Ferdinand). Key and time signature changes are legion and many of the intervals for the singers are extreme. It must be extremely difficult to perform but it’s rather lovely to listen to.
The 1993 San Francisco Opera production of Strauss’ Capriccio is about as literal a take on the work as one could imagine. Stephen Lawless’ production sticks to the stage directions as laid down with an almost fetishistic fidelity. This is backed up by highly decorated costumes and sets firmly placed in a slightly over elaborated 1775. The traditionalists dream? I suppose so if one thinks that Strauss and Krauss meant the work to be taken literally. I don’t. This is an opera about an opera about opera. It begs to be deconstructed and the time and circumstances of its composition tend to reinforce the idea that all is not as it seems. To take it at face value is actually a bit absurd but that’s what happens here and the result is rather dull and unsatisfying. Continue reading
Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet is a very grand French opera based loosely on various (loose) French adaptations of the play by Shakespeare. If one discards any notion that one is going to see Shakespeare with music and takes the piece on its own terms it’s really pretty good. In recent years it’s been doing the international opera circuit in a production by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser that originated in Geneva in 1996 and was, for example, seen in the Met HD series a year or two ago. Most productions have featured Simon Keenleyside as Hamlet and Natalie Dessay as Ophélie. The available DVD version, recorded at the Liceu in Barcelona in 2003 features both of them.
Really all this opera needs to work is a baritone with exemplary French who can sing with power and lyricism for three hours and really, really act. That, I guess, is why Keenleyside owns the role. He’s superb. He probably peaks in the really quite amazing second act where he does a sort of mad scene as the “play within a play” misfires but he’s superb throughout. The second requirement is someone who can do a compelling mad scene with lots of blood and coloratura. Natalie Dessay seems to have trouble cutting her wrists but is otherwise brilliant and is rewarded with what is probably the longest applause for a single aria ever committed to DVD.
The rest of the cast is mostly very good. Alain Vernhes’ Claudius is very strong, vocally and dramatically; certainly much better than James Morris at the Met. Béatrice Uria-Monzon is occasionally a bit squally as Gertrude but acts really well, especially in the confrontation with Hamlet in Act 3. I didn’t care much for Daniil Shtoda’s Laërte. he sounded too “Italian” and not at all idiomatic. Overall though really great singing backed up by a very crisp performance from the orchestra under Bertrand de Billy. They sounded more lyrical and less bombastic than in the Met version.
The production is not especially exciting. It’s very plain with just a few moving “faux marble” walls. Most of the scenic effects are left to the lighting plot which is effective though hard to film (see below). Costumes are a sort of generic late 19th century with breastplates thrown in in odd places for some reason. It all provides an effective enough backdrop for some carefully directed and well executed acting. There’s no high concept here but the story gets told.
The video direction by Toni Bergallo is pretty good. It’s a tough ask. Often the light levels are low with a really brutal lighting focus on a single character. The Act 2 scene between Hamlet and the ghost is a great example. It’s very hard to make something like that look good on video. The cameras start to lose definition with the low light levels and then the high local contrast sort of blurs out. I found myself watching from quite close up even on a sixty inch screen! The DTS 5.1 sound track is OK but not demonstration quality. There’s not a lot of spatial depth and sometimes the singers sound as if they have been miked too close. The Dolby surround and LPCM stereo mixes aren’t any better. It’s not bad overall technically but it’s not up with the latest from a label like Opus Arte. There are subtitles in English, French, German, Italian, Castilian and Catalan. The only extra is EMI’s standard teaser reel.
Overall, this is well worth seeing. It’s a pretty good little known work, Keenleyside is exceptional and the production for DVD is pretty decent.