Turandot as symbolism

Robert Wilson’s take on Turandot is interesting.  It’s symbolic, even ritualistic and it’s perhaps best seen as a performance of a performance.  It’s certainly not in any way naturalistic.  Throughout the characters are “abstracted” by colour scheme in costume and make up and they move in highly stylized patterns.  This is especially apparent in Act 3 where when Liù dies nothing happens.  She just stands in a pose.  She and Timur then walk back and forth across the stage a few times before slowly processing into the wings.  It’s the same with the final scene with Calaf and Turandot.  They never even touch each other which makes Calaf’s rather lurid description of what he’s going to do to Turandot seem even rapier than usual.  The words and the music (the IMHO overblown Alfano completion) seem at odds but maybe make sense in a ritualistic way.  The approach does make for some very striking stage pictures though.

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Grim Trovatore

Verdi’s Il Trovatore is always pretty grim.  It’s hard to lighten up an opera with multiple executions, suicide and babies being barbecued.  David Bösch in his Covent Garden production (remounted and recorded in 2017 with Julia Burbach directing), probably wisely, doesn’t even try.  This is as grim as Grimsby on a wet Sunday in February with extra gratuitous violence.  The setting is some roughly contemporary civil war.  The Conte di Luna’s troops are a scruffy lot but they have a pretty cool looking tank.  The gypsies are a bit gayer though Azucena’s caravan is disturbingly plastered with baby dolls reflecting her obsession.  It’s all quite dark.  Really only Leonora (and her maid) stand out as they wear white in contrast to the greys of pretty much everyone else.  The story is told straightforwardly enough and the sets and costumes do provide some kind of moral differentiation between the two camps with Leonora sort of standing above and apart from the violence.

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Newbury’s Norma on DVD

Kevin Newbury’s production of Bellini’s Norma made it to Toronto via San Francisco, Barcelona and Chicago with Sondra Radvanovsky singing the title role (at least some of the time) in all four cities.  It was recorded for DVD and Blu-ray at the Liceu in Barcelona in 2015.  Watching the DVD didn’t change my opinion of the production.  Here’s what I said about it on opening night in Toronto:

Kevin Newbury’s production is perhaps best described as serviceable.  I have seen various rather desperate efforts made to draw deep meaning from it but I really don’t think there is any.  That said, it looks pretty decent and is efficient.  The single set allows seamless transitions between scenes which is a huge plus.  So, what does it look like?  It’s basically a sort of cross between a barn and a temple with a back wall that can raised or moved out of the way to expose the druids’ sacred forest.  There’s also a sort of two level cart thing which characters ascend when they have something especially important to sing.  Costumes were said to have been inspired by Game of Thrones; animal skins, leather, tattoos (which actually don’t really read except up very close), flowing robes.  Norma herself appears to be styled, somewhat oddly, on a Klingon drag queen. The lighting is effective and there are some effective pyrotechnics at the end.  All in all a pretty good frame for the story and the singing.

There did seem to be far fewer pyrotechnics in the Barcelona staging though (either that or the video direction pretty much ignores them).

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Arma virumque canunt

Berlioz’ Les Troyens is widely considered to be his masterpiece and it does have a lot going for it both dramatically and musically, especially when given the full on star studded treatment that it got at the Chatelet in 2003. That said, it’s dramatically rather odd, it’s very long (well over four hours) and it requires huge forces; twenty soloists, massive chorus, dancers, supers, acrobats, jugglers etc. It also has preludes, ballets and masques on a scale that seem more appropriate to the 17th than the mid 19th century. Act 4 is particularly marked in this respect. It’s perhaps no wonder that it was never played complete in Berlioz’ lifetime. The story is taken from Books two and four of Virgil’s Aeneid; the first dealing with the wooden horse and the fall of Troy (Acts 1 and 2) and the second with the Trojans at Carthage (Acts 3-5). The problem is that there isn’t much connecting them. In the first part the drama centres around Cassandre. By the end of Act 2 she’s dead and we move on to Carthage where Didon makes her first appearance. The Trojan hero Énée links both halves but he’s a pretty minor presence in the first bit.

In Acts 1 and 2 Troy is a sparse stage with a reflector above it projecting much of the action onto a backdrop of an Italianate cityscape of Troy. It’s a good idea as for most of the act there are a lot of people on stage and it’s not easy to take it all in. Occasionally the cityscape dissolves into some kind of symbolic back projection as with the the horse itself which is just a rather grim projection of a horse’s head. It works pretty well. A similar approach is used to introduce the scene where Hector’s ghost tells Énée he’s got to rebuild Troy in Italy. The camera work for the DVD switches between stage and backdrop with the usual close ups and just occasionally pulls back to let us see what the theatre audience is seeing. All in all I think Peter Maniura is giving us as good a look at Yannis Kokkos’ staging as could reasonably be done on DVD.

Vocally, the first part is all about Cassandre, here played by Anna Caterina Antonacci. She’s stunning. She gives a totally committed performance as the prophetess who everyone thinks is mad until it’s all too late. She stands out visually in a simple white dress against the rest of the Trojans who wear greatcoats of mixed military provenance and otherwise look generally scruffy giving an effect somewhere between Colditz and Les Miz. Her singing and acting are both quite mesmerizing. She is well backed up Gregory Kunde’s Énée although he doesn’t have too much to do. He manages to sound like a bel canto singer while upping the heft to cope with some pretty dense orchestration.

Here’s a clip of Antonacci which gives a pretty good idea of the overall idea.

Act 3 involves a total shift of dramatic and aesthetic gear. Now we are in Carthage where Didon (Susan Graham) is presenting the results of the first Five year Plan to what looks like a cross between a Druidic gorsedd and a meeting of the Carthage Soviet of Workers and Peasants. The plan has met its targets but their idyllic existence is threatened by the king of Numidia who wants to marry Didon and is marching on Carthage. Énée appears and offers to save the peace loving Carthaginians (nb these are not the baby burning, general crucifying Carthaginians I remember from history) by doing the fighting for them. This is followed by a longish section where Didon’s sister Anna (the very fetching Renata Pokupić) tries to persuade her that hooking up with Énée would be a smart move. This continues into Act 4 which rather drags. There’s a long, almost Wagnerian, prelude after which Didon enters, obviously head over heels in love. We can tell this from her little interpretative dance and her spending the next half hour looking like a contented hamster watching several ballets complete with jugglers and acrobats.. The entertainmet concludes with singing, dancing Nubians who could have come straight out of National Geographic c. 1950. Finally we get going again and Didon decides that maybe the Énée thing isn’t such a bad idea after all. She and Énée sing the gorgeous duet “Nuit d’ivresse”. Kunde and Graham are very fine indeed in this as you can see below. Both these acts are played out on a brightly lit stage with lots of bright whites and colours.

The act concludes on an ominous note as Mercure reminds Énée of his Italian destiny.

In Act 5 we are back dramatically and aesthetically more or less where we started. It’s dark, Trojans in greatcoats, the reflector. The ghosts of the dead Trojans remind Aeneas of his quest. He decides to obey. Most of the rest of the act is Susan Graham going through a full gamut of emotions; anger, grief, vengeance, resignation. It gets a bit over the top but she is elemental and always musical. Graham steals the show in the final three acts but she is very well supported by Pokupić’s Anna and Laurent Naouri’s Narbal as well as Kunde. Cassandra (or her ghost) get the last word but nobody is going to believe her.

John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. He pushes things along well without sacrificing grandeur at the needed points. The period instruments give some pleasing variation of tone colour. The chorus is the ever excellent Monteverdi Choir. No problems in those departments.

Peter Maniura’s screen direction maintains its high standard through the second half. So what of the disk package? It’s an Opus-Arte production and it was filmed in high definition. The 16:9 anamorphic picture is superb even on DVD (which is what I watched) but it is also available on Blu-Ray which should be even better, especially as the Blu-Ray is cheaper and two discs versus three DVDs. Sound is LPCM stereo or DTS 5.1 (DTS HD on the Blu-Ray). The DTS track is really good with real depth. There is even adequate documentation and an hour long “Making of” documentary. All in all, it’s what an opera DVD/Blu-Ray release ought to be.