Massenet’s Werther

Thackeray thought Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther was so boring and idiotic that he wrote a satirical poem about it (you can find it at the bottom of the page).  Massenet’s reaction, alas, was to write a three hour opera based on it.  Add to the implausible and dull plot (altered but slightly from Goethe’s original) Massenet’s overblown romantic music and penchant for any sentimentality he can find (at the end, a children’s chorus sings a Christmas song while Werther is bleeding to death in Charlotte’s arms) and it’s well nigh unbearable.

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All star Carmélites

The 2013 recording of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites from the Théâtre des Champs Elysées has a cast that reads like a roll call of famous French singers; Petitbon, Piau, Gens and Koch are all there.  Throw in Rosalind Plowright and Topi Lehtipuu and one gets some idea of the star power on display.

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Fan – tastic

It was during the recent run of Cosí fan tutte at the COC that I realised that I really needed to get my hands on the M22 recording (Salzburg 2006).  Specifically it was discussing the Salzburg reading of Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann with Thomas Allen and Rachel Andrist; who is the on stage continuo player in the Salzburg recording.  It sounded like there might be interesting parallels.  And parallels there are.  In both cases the girls are aware of the “plot” (in every sense).  In both cases four attractive young singers have been cast as the lovers and Don Alfonso and Despina made much older and more cynical.  There I think the parallels end.  Egoyan’s vision is essentially a positive one about relationships.  The Herrmans, I think, are more interested in exploring the psychologically destructive power of love and desire.

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Die Frau ohne Geisterwelt

Christoph Loy, in his 2011 Salzburg production of Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten, avoids the problem of how to represent the Spirit World by essentially eliminating it.  Instead we get a Konzept based on Böhm’s first recording of the work in Vienna’s Sofiensalle in 1955.  Vienna is still recovering from the war and the hall is unheated and the singers unpaid.  The Empress is rising star Leonie Rysanek and the Nurse is long time favourite Elisabeth Höngen.  They represent the generations separated by the war.  The Emperor is an American singing in Europe for the first time and, crucially, Barak and his wife are a real life married couple.  Initially we see a lot of recording studio action as singers are moved about by actors in this experiment in early stereo.  Then the action, particularly the Barak/Wife interaction slips more and more off stage.  For the finale, we get a sort of celebratory concert in evening dress.  It’s not a bad concept and this cast handles it very well but I fancy it’s a tough introduction to this far from straightforward opera and it does lose the magic of the Spirit World. (In other words I’m glad I saw the Met production before this one.)

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Ariadne auf Dresden

Marco Arturo Marelli’s 2000 production of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos is fascinating and compelling. He sets the work in the present at a very posh, arty party. Throughout there are extras playing party guests all over the place. The “opera” itself takes place in the middle of the main salon where the party is taking place. There are many interesting touches. For example, the Komponist features extensively in Act 2. Obviously smitten with Zerbinetta, he appears to accompany her on piano at the beginning of Groß mächtige Prinzessin and frequently watches from the side of the room as she is drooled over by various male party guests. Only at the end does the staging shift from the party to something that suggests some sort of reality in the relationship between Bacchus and Ariadne before dropping us right back into the party where the guests have completely ignored this piece of transcendence to go and watch the fireworks in the garden. The directorial take on Zerbinetta is interesting too. No flighty airhead here but rather a somewhat cynical and worldly young woman. It works rather well.

The performances are a bit mixed. The Act 1/Prologue is uniformly strong. Sophie Koch is an excellent Komponist. She sings well and acts very well indeed. Her, non singing, portrayal of the character in the second act as a gauche and geeky young man socially and emotionally out of his depth is really quite funny and touching. Friedrich-Wilhelm Junge is excellent as the Major-Domo. He has just the right touch of disdain. Moving on to the main action it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Iride Martinez’ Zerbinetta is a tour de force. She is completely consistent in her portrayal of the character to the extent of, at times, somewhat suppressing the beauty of the music in favour of dramatic verisimilitude. That’s not to say she sings badly. She sings very well but to a particular purpose. Susan Anthony’s Ariadne didn’t really convince me as much. She’s OK but “OK” isn’t a description I want to use about someone singing Es gibt ein Reich. It should make the hair stand up on the back of one’s neck and Anthony’s doesn’t. To be fair she’s not helped by the recording (see below). Jon Villars’ Bacchus is pretty good and the supporting nymphs and players are more than adequate. The players in particular have a lot of business and they handle it with considerable comic flair. Surprisingly, Sir Colin Davis’ reading of the score seems a bit bland. He doesn’t point the rhythms nearly as incisively as Levine on the Met recording or, even better, as Andrew Davies did in Toronto last year. The orchestra sounds a bit undercooked too. The recording may be a significant part of the problem here too.

Technically this isn’t too, too bad for a budget Kultur effort. The video direction by Felix Breisach is very good. He shows us the whole stage often enough to appreciate the complexity of the director’s concept and its execution and his close ups aren’t excessively close. It’s a good balance. It’s a pity he’s not better served by the picture quality. It’s fairly good 16:9 (not 4:3 as the box and most on-line references suggest). It works pretty well on close ups but the lack of definition is a bit annoying on the longer shots.  This production would definitely have benefitted from being shot in HD. The sound is Dolby 2.0 and it’s at best OK. There’s no real sense of space and it’s a bit dry. It certainly doesn’t do Susan Anthony or the orchestra any favours. Subtitles are English only and documentation is limited to a track listing.

There aren’t a lot of versions of Ariadne on DVD. There’s a recent Guth production with Emily Magee, which is said to be quite good, an ancient film with Karl Böhm and a 1988 Met version. The Met version is musically far superior to the Dresden offering but features a deadly dull production that looks like it was first given half a century before Ariadne was written. Given that, I think this Dresden version is well worth a look.

The house that Elsa built

I guess Richard Jones’ 2009 Munich production of Lohengrin isn’t to everyone’s taste but I found it quite compelling. He’s set it in the 1930s and Elsa is building a house; a symbol for rebuilding the state and society of Brabant torn apart by the loss of her brother and general internal disorder. In the prologue we see her designing the house on a drawing board and then it gets built by stages culminating in a topping out ceremony as Elsa marries Lohengrin. At key points of the action the symbolism is manifest. Telramund kicks over half finished walls in the scene where he accuses Elsa and Lohengrin, having defeated Telramund in the duel, joins Elsa for a spot of bricklaying. After Elsa breaks her oath to Lohengrin he burns the house down so the final scene is played out on a more or less empty stage. There’s some really skilled stage handing going on to support all that! For contrast, and to facilitate the practicalities of the concept, some of the scenes are played out in front of a plain flat decorated solely with some coats of arms and a door. The alternation of very stark and very busy is intriguing. Inevitably there are times when the concept is stretching possible interpretations of the libretto right to the limit and the duel between Lohengrin and Telramund is a bit lame but mostly for me it worked.

Within the overall concept Jones has obviously given a lot of thought to the relationships between the characters. The Personenregie seems almost obsessively detailed and he seems to have taken his cast along with him because the acting is first class. Every look and gesture, especially from Wolfgang Koch as Telramund and Anja Harteros as Elsa, carry a depth of meaning. It’s very impressive.

The singing performances are very strong across the board. Again, for me, Koch and Harteros are the standouts. Harteros is really lovely to listen to even when she’s cranking out the decibels and Koch was never less than musical even in his angry outbursts where the temptation to shout or bark must be strong . Michaela Schuster as Ortrud and Jonas Kaufmann in the title role are pretty much as good. Schuster gets a bit strident but that’s not inappropriate to the role and Kaufmann has moments when he is just gorgeous to listen to. His hushed and unearthly “In fernem Land” was gripping. Christof Fischesser was a solid Heinrich and Evgeny Nikitin (a superb Dutchman in Toronto a few months later) made more of the Heerrufer than some might. All of this is very well supported by the orchestra under Kent Nagano.

The production for DVD is pretty good. Karina Fibich directs for video. She gives us a pretty good idea of the overall set and blocking and rations her closeups. It’s hard to argue with going to close up when there are just one or two singers in front of a flat. She gets a bit overambitious in the more crowded scenes and experiments with camera angles that are quite confusing. Sometimes the shot even seems to be behind the action. Overall though it’s a decent presentation and it’s backed up by a sharp 16:9 anamorphic picture and solid DTS 5.1 sound (LPCM stereo as an alternative). There are English, French, Spanish and Chinese subtitles. There are no extras but the trilingual booklet (English, French, German) includes a synopsis and a short essay about the production.