Dream team casting

The 2014 recording of Verdi’s La forza del destino from the Bayerischen Staatsoper has the kind of cast one hardly dares dream of.  The elusive Anja Harteros sings Leonora with the almost equally hard to catch Jonas Kaufmann as Alvaro.  Chucking in Ludovic Tézier as Don Carlo and Vitalij Kowaljow doubling the Marchese and Padre Guardiano only improves matters and the rest of the cast is very good indeed.  It was pretty much sure to be a winner and it is.

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Puzzling Genoveva from Zürich

Schumann’s Genoveva is a rarity. It premiered in 1850 and quickly slipped into obscurity.  Recently it has been championed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt who has gone so far as to call it “the most significant opera of the second half of the 19th century”; a slightly eye popping claim.  So what’s it about?  On the face of it it’s a pretty typical German opera of the period, set during the wars against the Moors in Spain.  Siegfried (Graf in the libretto but mysteriously translated as Duke in the disk subtitles) is recently married but must lead his men off to the war leaving behind his young, beautiful, pious and virtuous bride Genoveva. He leaves Golo; a knight but a bastard so apparently not OK for active service, to guard his lands and wife.  Golo has the hots for Genoveva but when she rejects his advances he concocts, with the aid of a witch, a plot to make it appear that she’s having an affair with an elderly retainer.  She’s locked up by the servants and word is sent to Siegfried; returned from Spain but recovering from wounds in Strasbourg, of what has transpired.  He gives Golo his sword and ring and tells Golo to kill Genoveva.  Instead Golo tries to get her to run away with him but she refuses and he disappears.  The servants too are happy enough to humiliate Genoveva but pretty slow about killing her.  This gives time for Siegfried to arrive, having learnt of his wife’s innocence, and save the day.  All sing a hymn of praise to God.  Along the way there’s a magic mirror, a ghost, a magic potion and a whole lot of cloying sentimentality and piousness.

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Summer second thoughts

The heat and humidity of a Toronto summer aren’t especially conducive to dealing with most of what’s in my DVD review pile right now (Wagner chiefly!) and the live music pickings are slim as, Toronto Summer Music Festival aside, music has departed for the land of moose and loon.  I thought, therefore, that I might take another look at some old favourites and see how they shape up to a second look.  I thought I’d focus on works where I have seen many subsequent productions or, perhaps, on works once seen only on DVD but which I had more recently been able to see live.

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Secret Senta

Martin Kušej’s production of Der fliegender Holländer for De Nederlandse Opera recorded in 2010 is high concept and it’s worth looking at the interviews with the cast and conductor before watching the main event.  Certainly the essay in the booklet will do little to prepare you.  For Kušej, Daland’s ship is a cruise ship or pleasure yacht full of expensively dressed partygoers.  The Dutchman’s “crew” are refugees or desperate economic migrants.  The Dutchman himself has made his pile in human trafficking.  The framework of the “outsiders” wanting a share of the “insiders'” goodies is the backdrop for the interpersonal drama of Senta, the Dutchman and Erik.

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Kušej’s Elektra

I don’t think Richard Strauss’ Elektra is an easy opera to stage.  The story is straightforward and really well known and the opera is constructed largely as a series of dialogues so designing visual and dramatic elements that enhance the drama is a real challenge.  In his 2005 production for the Opernhaus Zürich Martin Kušej tries hard to do so but rather comes up short.  Fortunately his detailed direction of the singers is effective and pretty much makes up for the “Kušej bingo card” elements of the production.

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A grim and gritty Rusalka

Martin Kušej’s 2010 production of Dvořák’s Rusalka at the Bayerisches Staatsoper is exactly the sort of production traditionalists fume about over their port and cigars.  It’s loosely based on the Fritzl and Kampusch imprisonment/child abuse cases.  The Water Goblin, aided by his wife, Ježibaba, have their children; Rusalka and her sisters, imprisoned in a wet cellar under their house.  The Water Gnome is clearly indulging in sexual abuse of the girls to the total indifference of his wife.  Rusalka dreams of a life among humans and of love.  She begs her mother to make her human/set her free.  This happens and Rusalka, mute and tottering on red heels, is free to pursue her romance with the prince.  Is this literal or all in Rusalka’s imagination?  Does it matter?  Continue reading

Don Giovanni – choices and futures

This is a continuation of a discussion of how Martin Kušej treats sex in his Salzburg Don Giovanni. The first installment, dealing with Act 1, is here.

At the conclusion of Act 1 the cycle of, at least apparently, consensual kinky sex has been broken by the first clearly non-consensual action; Zerlina has been hunted down by Don Giovanni and forcibly borne off by the sisters of Persephone. Where is this going? Continue reading

Don Giovanni – delusion and collusion

This is a follow up to yesterday’s review of Martin Kušej’s Salzburg production of Don Giovanni.  What I want to explore here is how Kušej treats issues of collusion, consent and delusion as it applies to sexual relations.

There are some real problems in updating Don Giovanni.  After all, central to the plot is the death in a fight/duel of a man fighting to defend his daughter’s “honour”.  Since the notion that female “honour” is a simple matter of pre-marital chastity and post-marital fidelity makes no sense in the setting Kušej has chosen something else has to be seen to be happening. Continue reading

Don Giovanni in the 21st century

After a week of nostalgia wallowing in ancient “productions” from the met and the COC it’s back to Regietheater with a vengeance for the 100th DVD review on this blog.  The subject is Martin Kušej’s Salzburg production of Don Giovanni which premiered in 2002 but was recorded in 2006 as part of the M22 project.

For a start there’s nothing giocoso about this dramma. It’s a very bleak and complex production with lots of ideas; some of which work and some of which are more problematic, and it’s provoked more discussion at the Kitten Kondo than just about any other recording we’ve watched recently.  Rather than write a 3000 word review I’m going to write a normal length review and follow it up with one or more posts on aspects of the production that seem particularly worth exploring. Continue reading

Orgasm and murder

Martin Kušej’s 2006 production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District for De Nederlandse Opera is occasionally puzzling but mostly brilliant.  The performance, with a strong cast centering on Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Katerina, inspired conducting from Mariss Jansons and consistent excellence from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit and the Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera on stage is unbeatable.  Combine that with decent video direction and superb audio-visual quality and the Opus Arte Blu-ray package becomes very attractive indeed.

Kušej’s Konzept really turns on two ideas; the exploration of sex, violence and power or, as he puts it, orgasm and murder, and the universality of the piece which causes Kušej to downplay the Russianness of the piece.  The set, pretty much throughout, consists of two elements a well lit glass “cage” and, surrounding it, a peripheral region of dark and dirt.  Katerina is trapped in the glass cage.  Her meaningless bourgeois existence is symbolised by more shoes than Imelda Marcos ever owned.  Most of the violence takes place in the peripheral area.  The scene where Aksinya is raped is played out in a sea of mud.  It is quite revolting and rightly so.  It also features one of the finest pieces of operatic singing and acting in extreme conditions I have ever seen and Carole Wilson, the Aksinya, really deserves some kind of medal.  The somewhat less violent but no less intense sex scene between Katerina and Sergei is played out on a strobe lit stage.  It brilliantly avoids the impossibility of portraying realistic sex on stage while letting the very explicit music tell the story.

The extreme acting continues through a bloody flogging scene and a brilliant drunk scene where Alexandre Kravets, as the Shabby Peasant, staggers around all over the place before finding Zinovy’s body and hauling it off to the police station.  Those who know the work well will realise that this involves a departure from what the libretto is telling us.  I didn’t find it problematic.  There’s a similar, perhaps larger, issue in Act 4 which is set in a prison not an overnight rest stop on the march to Siberia.  There’s no material rationae for Sonyetka to want Katerina’s stockings but perhaps the power to humiliate is even more convincing as a motivation than a simple desire to keep warm.  There’s no river and no suicide.  In this version the convicts hang Katarina with her own stockings.  It’s not what the libretto is saying but it is dramatically powerful.  All up, I felt Kušej’s Konzept and his realisation of it were very powerful and true to the spirit of the piece.

The individual performances are excellent.  Clearly, everyone concerned is totally committed to bringing off this production.  Eva-Maria Westbroek is really impressive.  At the beginning she oozes anger and sexual frustration, at the end, despair.  She sings brilliantly throughout.  She’s very well supported by Christopher Ventris as Sergei  He oozes sexual menace and arrogance.  Vladimir Vaneev is appropriately brutal, coarse and lecherous as the patriarch Boris.  Besides Carole Wilson and Kravets there are excellent performances from Lani Poulson as Sonyetka, Alexander Vassiliev as the Priest and Nikita Storojev as the Chief of Police.  Ludovit Ludha does a pretty decent job in making something interesting out of the rather thankless role of Zinovy.

I can’t imagine a better reading of the score than Janson’s or more idiomatic and incisive playing than the Concertgebouw provide.  If you have heard this orchestra play Shostakovich symphonies you wil know what to expect.  It’s quite thrilling and fully justifies Kušej and Jansons’ decision to play the interludes in front of a blank curtain.  The chorus sings splendidly despite some extreme acting demands.

The video direction by Thomas Grimm is OK.  We get enough to see, most of the time, what Kušej is up to although are were many occasions when he has the camera in way too close and some of the camera angles are a bit odd.  In the interludes he chooses to focus on Jansons who is extremely energetic!  It’s not the best video direction ever but it’s better than the typical Large or Halvarson production.

Technical quality is a s good as it gets which is about par for Opus Arte Blu-ray.  The picture is 16:9 1080i and crystal clear.  The sound is extremely vivid PCM 5.0 (there’s also a PCM stereo option) although there are times when I think the voices are balanced a little further forward than they should be.  There are subtitles in English, French, Italian, Dutch, German and Spanish. Extras include a synopsis, a cast gallery and a one hour “making of” documentary by Reiner Moritz.  It’s pretty much essential viewing for this production.  The trilingual booklet includes a track listing, a historical essay and short notes by the director.

I still don’t have a way of doing screen caps from Blu-ray so, in lieu, here’s a Youtube clip.  It includes the Aksinya rape scene which gives a pretty good idea of the overall commitment involved in this production.  It is, quite emphatically, not safe for work.