Brisk and attractive Figaro

This recording of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro was made in 2004 and released on DVD, which won a Grammy.  It’s now been remastered and released on Blu-ray.  It was recorded at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris and directed by Jean-Louis Martinoty.  The production is visually attractive and well thought out but not concept driven in any way.  The sets are largely made up of 16th century paintings while the costumes are the operatic version of the 17th or maybe 18th century; low necklines, full skirts, breeches etc.  There are a few interesting touches.  Act 3 is set in the count’s curio room with dead reptiles, skulls and so on and it seems somehow to provoke extreme nostalgia in the countess during Dove sono.  For the most part it’s a highly competent, well paced effort though with nothing new or different to say.

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I came, I saw, I picnicked

The DVD of the 2005 Glyndebourne Festival production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto is one of the most satisfying that I have ever got my hands on. David McVicar’s production is a delight. The cast is consistently excellent with stand out performances from Sarah Connolly as Caesar and Danni de Niese as Cleopatra. William Christie gets wonderful playing from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The production for DVD/Blu-ray is exceptional in every way. There’s even over an hour of worthwhile extras giving a total of over five hours of material.

Let’s start with the production. McVicar and his design team have placed the action firmly in Egypt but moved the time period to the late 19th century with the Romans being portrayed in the manner of the British who effectively ruled Egypt at the time. There are a number of elements taken from Bollywood musicals which seems to have led some reviewers to dismiss it as not being “serious” enough to be a proper Handel production. I think this is misguided. The Bollywood elements are well integrated dramatically and musically and serve a dramatic purpose. They point up the cultural rift between the Romans and the Egyptians without getting into a crude and heavy critique of colonialism. There are a few places where Andrew George’s choreography is a bit over the top but mostly it works and, if nothing else, it’s tremendous fun. McVicar has obviously worked really hard on the and all the main characters and their interactions are clearly defined. The gulf between Romans and Egyptians emerges through these relationships though perhaps the rather overwrought Sesto of Angelika Kirchschlager somewhat undermines the chilly memsahib Cornelia of Patricia Bardon. Throughout there are neat little touches like Cleopatra ditching her cigarette in the urn containing Pompey’s ashes or the Roman/British warships sailing into Alexandria harbour with airship cover during Da tempeste il legno infranto. At the very end, Achilla and Tolomeo, blood soaked, (both are dead at this point) reappear and flank the line of seated dignitaries sipping champagne. It’s weird but works. Notably the production team got one of the biggest ovations of the night when they appeared for a curtain call.

The individual performances range from very good indeed to spectacular. Musically the star is Sarah Connolly. She’s utterly brilliant with completely secure coloratura and ornaments that are far more than just decorative.  Right from Empio, dirò, tu sei where she manages to spit out her disgust while maintaining 100% musicality, to the very end she’s note perfect. Her acting is also really good. She covers a wide range of emotions and her physical acting is genuinely masculine. She really does not look or move like a woman in drag. Then there’s Danielle de Niese! Musically there may be subtler or more refined exponents of the art of Handelian singing but I doubt whether there are any who could handle the role Danni is handed here. (Jane Archibald maybe, just maybe). She sings very well in fact. Some of her big numbers are very well done indeed and Piangerò la sorte mia is very fine and she’s very clever vocally in Da tempeste il legno infranto here she works some ornamentation in to accompany miming firing a sub-machine gun. But singing is only a fraction of the work she gets through. She has a lot of physical acting and several major dance numbers. She’s a very good dancer and, of course, she really looks the part. It’s really quite a performance!

Patricia Bardon acts well in a chilly way and sings beautifully. Priva son d’ogni confortois a real tear jerker. Kirchschlager sings very well but is a bit overwrought in the acting department and doesn’t really come across as a young man set on revenge. Rachid Ben Abdeslam is wonderful as Nireno. He gets the basically scaredy cat (and somewhat effeminate) functionary spot on. Chris Maltman is an appropriately brutal and coarse Achilla without letting the coarseness affect his singing. Alexander Ashworth in a kilt, is a solid, if unexciting, Curio but that’s the role. Christophe Dumaux is brilliant as Tolomeo. He looks like Captain Darling from Blackadder Goes Forth and is similarly petty and petulant. He’s also a vicious, spoiled bully and narcissist. Dumaux brings out all these aspects while singing at the highest level. It’s almost up there with de Niese and Connolly. The musical direction and orchestral playing is of the highest order.

Glyndebourne has been really well treated on video in recent years and this Opus Arte release is no exception.  The production for DVD is both excellent and opulent. The DVD version is spread across three disks (the Blu-ray gets two which is remarkable!). The video direction, by Robin Lough, is sympathetic and unobtrusive. The production was filmed in 1080i (which is what one gets on the Blu-ray) and the DVD rendering of the picture is about as good as DVD gets. The audio choices on DVD are LPCM stereo and DTS 5.0 with the latter being superior. In fact it’s superb; maybe the best sound I’ve come across on DVD. The fidelity with which the brass and woodwinds are captured is exceptional. The Sinfonia just before the final scene is thrilling to listen to. I’d really like to hear what the PCM 5.0 track on the Blu-ray sounds like. There are English, French, German, Italian and Spanish subtitles. Besides a synopsis and cast gallery there are two documentaries incluced. There’s a “making of” called, appropriately “Entertainment is not a dirty word” and a feature on “Danielle de Niese and the Glyndebourne experience”. It’s rather touching as Danni gushes over what an amazing place Glyndebourne is and interviews Gus Christie about what it’s like to live there. I’d like to see the follow up with Mrs Gus Christie, chatelaine!

This really should be watched by anyone who thinks baroque opera is difficult and boring and needs to be dumbed down for the average audience. But I don’t suppose he’s listening.

Puzzling but well sung Don Giovanni

I looked at the cast list for the 1999 Wiener Staatsoper Don Giovanni and almost drooled. Carlos Alvarez, Franz-Josef Selig, Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, Adrianne Pieczonka, Anna Catarina Antonacci, Michael Schade, Angelika Kirchschlager and Lorenzo Regazzo. Add to that Riccardo Muti in the pit and musically it’s going to be hard to miss. So, unsurprisingly it turns out musically excellent across the board. I particularly enjoyed Michael Schade’s Don Ottavio. His supremely stylish singing and excellent acting added up to perhaps the best interpretation I’ve seen of perhaps opera’s dullest character. One might have reservations about Pieczonka’s Donna Anna but I think it’s a matter of taste. She can sing very prettily as she shows in her final duet with Schade but when she ups the volume she has great power but significantly less beauty of tone. It really boils down to one’s personal feelings about casting a genuine dramatic soprano in the role. I guess casting a mezzo as Zerlina is a bit unusual too but Kirchschlager is very good indeed. All in all it’s as well sung a Don Giovanni as I have heard.

So, what about Roberto de Simon’s production and, supporting it, the acting? First, this production was performed at the Theater an der Wien so space on stage is tight and there’s a tendency for the singers to migrate to front centre stage for their big numbers giving a bit of a “park and bark” feeling. This is reinforced on the DVD by excessive use of close ups. If there is anything else going on we mostly don’t see it. This is a problem because there are some potentially interesting ideas in the production that don’t seem to be fully developed and that may be because the DVD viewer doesn’t see them develop. The first “big idea” is that as the piece progresses the costumes get more modern. Characters update roughly a hundred years on each appearance starting in the 16th century and going up to around 1900. The progression though is uneven and even my resident costume historian had trouble decoding some of the statements. It has to be said too that the early costumes in particular are sometimes bizarrely stylized. Don Giovanni gets visibly younger as the action progresses too. Add to that that there are two statues of the Commendatore; a 16th century one and a 19th century one. The former accepts Don Giovanni’s dinner invitation but the latter shows up. What are we to read into these elements and are they connected? To say that the characters are “timeless archetypes” seems to be a total “so what?” but I don’t have a deeper explanation. The second element is a flirtation with commedia. It’s never full on but we see glimpses of Harlequin in Leporello. In the opening scene he’s wearing what looks like a Harlequin costume that’s been desaturated in Photoshop as well as clown face. Don Giovanni’s acting too has some commedia elements. In particular there’s heavy use of the right-hand-shielding-left-side-of-the-face gesture in the opening scene with Donna Anna and it recurs in the final scene with the statue of the Commendatore. It gives Don Giovanni a sort of cheeky chappy quality at two of the most serious moments of the opera. Why? I don’t know. There are other, more or less isolated, visual references to the commedia sprinkled through the piece.

The final element of commedia is that Masetto is played as a complete clod. He’s the stock dim peasant rather than someone who recognizes Don Giovanni for what he is, the class enemy, from the get go. This is then set against an even more knowing than usual Zerlina.  Certainly in “Batti, batti” she appears to be offering far more than poor old Masetto can begin to grasp. Whatever it’s all supposed to mean, the cast give it their all and are clearly acting their hearts out and at least it’s never dull.

The biggest problem with the disc though is the video direction. Once again it’s Brian “close up” Large. With such a small stage it ought to be quite easy to show us what is happening but instead we get super close up on super close up. I particularly hate it when several people are singing and the director is just showing us a headshot of one of them. It interferes with my ability to hear the rest apart from anything else. Besides I don’t have a tonsil fetish. This comes to a final utterly annoying climax in the confrontation between the Commendatore and Don Giovanni. Large keeps cutting back and forth between full screen head shots of the pair of them. Ugh!

Technically it’s OK for a 1999 DVD recording. The picture is decent 16:9 and the LPCM stereo soundtrack is OK but not stunning. There are English, French, German, Italian and Spanish subtitles. There are no extras which is no surprise as it’s all squashed onto one DVD9 disc.

All in all, definitely worth a look but if you figure out what the director is driving at please let me know!