I guess many opera goers in the English speaking world will have at least a passing acquaintance with Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle but I suspect fewer will have seen Offenbach’s take on Perreault’s rather grim tale. It will probably come as no great surprise that Offenbach’s Barbe-bleue is a somewhat tongue in cheek version of the story of the notorious serial killer.
So I’m in Montreal for the Concours musical international de Montréal – Chant. Today was very much about preliminaries. There was a press event where we were introduced to the judging panel and a short performance by the contestants. There was also the chance to catch up with old friends over lunch. The real business starts with the preliminary rounds of the art song competition tomorrow afternoon and evening.
Despite a thin to non-existent plot and music that sounds like a remix of all the other Offenbach operettas, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, performed by largely French forces and recorded at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 2004 is a highly enjoyable romp. The plot centres on the susceptibility of the Grand-Duchess to fall rather hard for younger men. This makes it a perfect vehicle for Felicity Lott who rather seems to specialise in such roles; whether Strauss’ Marschallin or La Belle Hélène. She’s brilliant. She sings gorgeously except where she doesn’t want to and her comic timing is impeccable. She’s well backed up by Yann Beuron as the young soldier Fritz who she promotes from private to général-en-chef without swaying his affections for his sweetheart Wanda sung by the irrepressible and cute Sandrine Piau. The slapstick element is provided by François Le Roux, as Le Général Boum, Franck Leguérinet as Le Baron Puck and Eric Huchet as Le Prince Paul who are set on getting the Grand-Duchess to marry Paul even if it means murdering Fritz. They get lots of up tempo numbers that sound as if they are singing a Korean restaurant menu.
It has been said that the best music in Richard Strauss’ Intermezzo is in the orchestral interludes that link the various scenes. It’s probably true and certainly the singers don’t get much interesting to sing with the best music given to the orchestra even during the scenes. That said, all of the music is vastly better than the truly cringe-worthy libretto, also by Strauss. It’s in prose, much of it is spoken and there are odd interjections of more vernacular German for the servants, rather in the manner of the random cockney in ancient Ealing films. The plot is based on an, aaparently real life, episode in the married life of the Strausses, here thinly disguised as the Storches, in which Frau Storch gets the wrong end of the stick about suspected infedelity by her husband and threatens divorce. If Frau Strauss ever saw the piece, which is apparently unlikely, she might reasonably have seen the portrayal of herself by her husband as much sounder grounds for dumping him. Christine Storch is the sort of woman one wants to tie up in a sack and drown!
Poulenc’s La voix humaine is as a rather peculiar little piece. It’s only 40 minutes long and it features a single singer, a soprano. It’s not exactly a monologue as what we hear is one end of a telephone conversation with implied contributions from the woman’s lover, the telephone operator, the lover’s manservant etc. A lot of what happens is an artefact of the French telephone system at the time (1928) that Cocteau wrote the play that supplies the libretto with operators, party lines, dropped calls etc. Continue reading →
Carlos Kleiber didn’t record much despite enjoying something of a cult following as a conductor. In 1994, shortly before his death, he conducted four performances of Der Rosenkavalier at the Wiener Staatsoper; the first of which was recorded. It’s clearly Kleiber’s night. His appearances at the start of each act are greeted with cheers and wild applause. One can only guess at the reception he got afterwards because the curtain calls don’t make it onto the recording. And, yes, it is a masterly conducting performance with fine support for the singers, beautifully shaped lines and an infectious sense of fun.
When I reviewed the 1997 Zurich production of La Belle Helène about a week ago the commentariat was strong in the belief that I should take a look at the 2000 Paris-Châtelet production. So I did and they were right. It’s excellent. It also reinforced my belief that operetta; English, French or German, works best when it’s taken seriously by which I mean using the best available singer/actors, a good director and a top notch orchestra, chorus and conductor. All of these are in place in this Paris production. Continue reading →
Having watched quite a few opera recordings from the 70s and 80s recently I can well see why David Hockney’s designs for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at Glyndebourne were such a big deal back in the day. They look they were designed by an artist rather than being lifted from an expensive department store furniture catalogue. And, of course, they are still in use. Beyond the design issues, this has a kind of transitional feel as a production. Occasionally some acting breaks out and quite imaginative use is made of the chorus but there is a lot of “park and bark”; perhaps somewhat inevitable on the old, small Glyndebourne stage but very noticeable. It’s hard not to feel that director John Cox could have done a lot more with a neat staging and a talented cast. Continue reading →
Peter Hall’s 1981 Glyndebourne production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was quite celebrated in its day. How does it wear, thirty years later? The bottom line is it looks and sounds a bit tired.
The production was innovative in its day. The scenery in the forest is inhabited by supers who make it, in a sense, “enchanted” and the lighting is interesting (at least so far as one can tell on the DVD). The problem is it never manages to generate any sense of menace from the world of the Fairies without which, to me at least, Dream (Britten’s version or Shakespeare’s) is insipid. Part of this lies in the old fashioned counter tenor sound of James Bowman and part in the very childlike fairies. As a result the first act starts very slowly and the Hermia (Cynthia Buchan) and Lysander (Ryland Davies) scene fails to spark. The “I swear to thee” duet is really slow and a bit lack lustre. Things do liven up a bit with the entry of Demetrius (Dale Duesing) and Helena (Felicity Lott). All in all Act One is a bit of a snooze.
Act Two is better and the cat fight between Hermia and Helena is funny but there is still little element of menace. Oberon can’t even make “This is thy negligence” threatening and even the scenes with Bottom having an ass’ head don’t really have any bite. The Act Three lovers’ quartet is lively but Act Three really turns on whether the Rude Mechanicals are actually funny. That takes close to a miracle from both director and singers and a miracle just doesn’t happen here. Both Bottom (Curt Applegren) and Flute (Patrick Power) have their moments but it never gels. Throughout it’s fairly static with only Damien Nash’s “cheeky chappy” Puck creating much movement. So, lack of both menace and humour rather undermines some interesting design elements.
Musically this is pretty mixed too. Especially in the first act the orchestral playing seems oddly unfocussed. It’s partly a matter of tempi. Bernard Haitink is eight minutes slower overall compared to the composer’s studio recording for Decca. He also fails to get the rhythmic attack and dynamic range out of the LPO that Britten gets from the LSO. (Part of the problem here may be the soft recorded sound versus John Culshaw’s excellent Decca recording). The overall effect is a bit insipid. The singing is OK but really only Duesing and Lott stand out vocally. Ileana Cotrubas as Tytania is oddly anonymous.
Dave Heather directed for TV and video and it’s a typical early 1980s directed for TV effort. I don’t think the whole stage (and this is the old, small Glyndebourne stage) is visible even once. The picture is 1981 quality too. It’s soft by DVD standards. There is flickering on the subtitles. Don’t watch from too close on a modern TV. The Dolby 2.0 sound is barely average. There’s no real depth and at times the orchestra seems to be muffled. It’s not remotely as good as the sound on the 1966 studio recording. There are English, French and Spanish subtitles, no extras and minimal documentation.
I haven’t seen the only other Dream currently available but it’s a recent Robert Carsen production from Barcelona with Harry Bicket in the pit and David Daniels as Oberon plus video direction is by the excellent Francois Roussillon. I’d certainly advise taking a look at that before buying this one.