High contrast Traviata

The starting point for Peter Mussbach’s 2003 production of La Traviata for the Aix-en-Provence festival is his knowledge, as one trained as a medical doctor, of the effects of TB on a person’s appearance.  He argues that the disease produces a strange kind of beauty with the skin translucent and pale.  So, here Mireille Delunsch, as Violetta, wears a white dress, a platinum wig and very pale powder throughout while everyone else is dressed in black.  Couple this with a high contrast and highly dramatic lighting plot and very sparse sets and you have the essence of the “look”.  The blocking and Personenregie reinforces this with Violetta often appearing to be an ethereal, not quite solid, presence surrounded by a rather coarse material world.

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Abduction in Aix

Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail is perhaps the most difficult of his major operas to bring off successfully.  I dealt with some of the issues in a review of Hans Neuenfel’s production so I won’t repeat myself here.  Jérôme Deschamps and Macha Makeïff’s production for the Aix-en-Provence Festival, filmed in 2004, has several interesting features that cast an interesting light on the main characters.  The most drastic is the treatment of Osmin.  Here he’s rather dignified and far from the fat, brutal, somewhat comic lecher of convention.  That side of his character is conveyed by five, mostly silent, sidekicks.  These guys are everywhere, portraying both Osmin’s baser nature and the “walls have eyes and ears” aspects of the story.  They are made to look rather dim and get some fairly funny business to play with.  Next we have Bassa Selim played by a dancer.  This makes it easier to portray him as sensitive but not a wimp through the use of extremely virile choreography.  Clever!  Finally, both Pedrillo and Blondchen are sung by people of colour.  That can’t be a coincidence.  It certainly puts a very interesting spin on the confrontation between Osmin and Blondchen about how English girls are different from Turks.  These ideas are played out against rather dramatically colourful sets and costumes with lots of comic business to make a fast paced and enjoyable romp that makes one think just enough about the underlying meanings.

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Woman on the edge

A few weeks ago I reviewed Phillippe Béziat’s documentary traviata et nous, about the making of the 2011 Aix festival La Traviata.  I’ve now had a chance to watch the DVD of the finished product and it’s superb.  Forget those Traviatas in which a star soprano simpers vacuously across an overstuffed set, this is compelling drama.  François Sivadier’s production is dark, dangerous and incredibly moving.  Natalie Dessay’s Violetta is a terrifyingly intense portrait of a woman who knows from the beginning she is dying in “this desert which is known to men as Paris”.  There is no further need for heavy symbolism to remind us of the centrality of death to the piece which makes an interesting contrast with Willy Decker’s famous production.

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Spectacular Die frau ohne Schatten from the Mariinsky

Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten is a problematic work on many levels.  Hofmannsthal’s complicated and heavily symbolic libretto places considerable demands on both audience and director.  There are ideas about women, marriage and child bearing in the libretto that sit very uncomfortably with modern audiences.  It’s also a beast to cast requiring not just a truly Helden tenor and soprano but a second soprano of almost equal heft who can handle some fairly tricky coloratura.  It’s also long and requires a large orchestra.  In some ways it’s surprising that it gets performed as often as it does although when done well it’s a piece of quite extraordinary beauty and power.

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Where’s the Champagne?

It’s really hard to know where to start with Hans Neuenfels’ Die Fledermaus.  It’s a prodcuction that enraged the more conventional patrons when it opened at the Salzburg Festival in 2001.  It even provoked a “false pretences” lawsuit!  There is so much going on that it almost seems to call for a catalogue raisonnée of the various scenes though one fears that would actually be both tedious and unhelpful.  Let’s try instead to explore it thematically.  Neuenfels takes very considerable liberties with the libretto.  A lot of dialogue is cut, a lot is added and numerous non-canonical characters are inserted.  That’s just a start.

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The ceremony of Innocence is drowned

Jonathan Kent sets his 2011 Glyndebourne production of The Turn of the Screw in the 1950s.  It’s effective enough especially when combined with Paul Brown’s beautiful and ingenious set and Mark Henderson’s evocative lighting.  The set centres on a glass panel which appears in different places and different angles but always suggesting a semi-permeable membrane.  Between reality and imagination?  Knowledge and innocence?  Good and evil?  All are hinted at.  A rotating platform allows other set elements to be rapidly and effectively deployed.  There’s also a very clever treatment of the prologue involving 8mm home video.

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A feast of a Belshazzar

Handel’s Belshazzar, written as an oratorio, was staged at the Aix-en-Provence festival in 2008.  It works really well as a stage work.  The plot is straightforward but dramatic.  Impious Babylonian king Belshazzar is being besieged by the virtuous Cyrus of Persia.  Babylon is impregnable but a combination of Babylonian impiety and divine intervention on behalf of Cyrus(*) leads to Cyrus’ capture of the city, the death of Belshazzar and, almost incidentally, the liberation of the Jews.

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Let us laugh at heaven and earth

Rameau’s Plateé is a comedy in three acts with the obligatory allegorical prologue and lots of ballets.  It tells the story of the bizarrely ugly water nymph Plateé.  In an attempt to calm down Juno who, as usual, is angry at Jupiter’s infidelities, Mercury and the satyr Citheron arrange for Jupiter to pretend to fall in love with and marry Plateé.  Juno arrives during the wedding in a fury but when she sees Plateé she realises the joke and is reconciled with Jupiter.  Plateé returns, distraught, to her swamp.  It’s all really rather cruel but does have a few good jokes.. and lots of ballets.

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Gerry Finley’s Don Giovanni

Jonathan Kent’s 2010 Glyndebourne production of Don Giovanni has a great cast and high ambitions but, ultimately, doesn’t really come off, largely because the relationships between the characters too often fall short of anything interesting.  The concept, as explained in the two short bonus segments, is that Don Giovanni is set in a society in transition and that the title character is a sort of harbinger of the new mores.  The “society in transition” chosen by Kent is a sort of hybrid of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and the last years of Franco’s regime in Spain.  He might have done better to just pick one as the Fellini elements get pretty much reduced to the costumes and the Franco elements really don’t go anywhere.

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And then there were nun

Nest season the Canadian Opera Company is presenting a production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. It’s not a work I’ve had any exposure to and it sounded enough like Catholic snuff porn for me not to have bothered before. However, in the interests of furthering my education I got my paws on the library copy of DVD of a 1999 production from Opéra National du Rhin. I actually ended up quite liking the piece though the libretto might well have been written by Gide in one of his darker moments. The score is so tonal that it could almost have been written a hundred years earlier but it’s pleasant enough in a movie soundtrack sort of way. The production in question, by Marthe Keller, is very restrained. Much of the time it’s quite dark with very little happening. The drama is all in the words and expressions of the singers which must have made it quite hard to appreciate from the cheap seats. It’s also very traditional and period in costume and set design while remaining essentially simple. Given that most of the “action” is a series of dialogues that could have been lifted from a theology text this isn’t a bad set of choices. The final scene is almost impossible to stage literally as it involves the mass guillotining of the nuns. Here it’s handled effectively enough by having the nuns step forward in turn and collapse on stage to the successive sounds of the guillotine falling. The final reconnection of Blanche and Constance is really quite affecting. The cast is huge (full list below) There are a few key roles that have to convince for the piece to work. Foremost among these is Blanche de la Force aka Soeur Blanche de l’Agonie du Christ, here played by Anne Sophie Schmidt. She’s a character of deep religious devotion but also getting on for batshit insane. It’s not an easy role to play. Schmidt is really convincing in what could be a bit of a cardboard cutout role if not handled carefully. She also sings very well though occasionally sounds a bit strained in the upper register. The other young nun is Soeur Constance, a very optimistic young lady, played utterly charmingly by Patricia Petitbon. There are also lots of older nuns. I had to keep looking up who was who because it’s a bit like trying to pick out a suspect in a penguin identity parade. The important one’s are the old prioress (Nadine Denize), who dies in the first act, Blanche’s mentor, Mère Marie (Hedwig Fassbender), and the replacement prioress, also Mère Marie (Valérie Millot). All three ladies play their parts convincingly and sing appropriately for the character. Among the men, the stand out for me was the Aumônier of Léonard Pezzino who has a lovely voice. Really though, Blanche aside, this is an ensemble piece with no real opportunities for vocal fireworks. Here the ensemble worked well and was well supported by Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg under Jan Latham-Koenig. I’m not sure how I feel about Don Kent’s video direction. He starts off with artsy stuff in the title sequence and it’s not entirely clear where the credits end and the piece begins. There is something to be said for showing the conductor going to the pit and starting the show. He stays very close in on the singers most of the time which normally drives me nuts but here seems unavoidable and, to be fair, when there is a stage tableau to be seen we see it. There are also grainy black and white images used during some of the orchestral interludes. It’s not entirely clear whether they are projections in the house or inserts in the video. I think the latter but I can’t be sure. It’s perhaps best to enjoy this as a video and not worry too much about how well it reflects what is going on on stage. Technically this isn’t a bad DVD. The 16:9 picture is quite decent and the LPCM Stereo sound is OK though not in the class of the best recent releases. The only subtitle options are English and Chinese. There is a trilingual (English, French, German) booklet with track listing, synopsis and a brief historical essay. The only real competition for this work on DVD is a much starrier La Scala cast in the Robert Carsen production that will be seen in Toronto so this Strasbourg version is probably worth a look for anyone with a serious interest in the work. There’s also an old (1984) Opera Australia version sung in English still in the catalogue.