In May of this year I reviewed a recording of Janáček’s Jenůfa from the Staatsoper unter den Linden that impressed me enough to get onto my all time favourites list. I really did not expect to come across another as good for a very long time, let alone one that is, perhaps, even better within a few months but I have. It’s the 2021 recording from the Royal Opera House and it’s really fine.
Covid fan tutte is the best opera thing I’ve seen come out of the pandemic yet. It’s from Finnish National Opera and it uses the music of Così fan tutte (mostly) and a new libretto (in Finnish natch) to poke fun at every aspect of the current situation. To quote the blurb:
On stage, singers are rehearsing Die Walküre, when they are suddenly interrupted. As management has been laid off and the news of a global virus spreads rapidly, the Wagnerians are suddenly instructed to perform a modern satire on the situation.
It’s fully staged with a socially distanced orchestra and a virtual chorus. There appears to have been some sort of live audience in the house. They weren’t mucking about here. Both Karita Mattila and Esa-Pekka Salonen are involved. Bottom line; it’s very well done and genuinely funny with a few really sad bits like where a man sings an aria to his mother to the closed window of the old people’s home. There are subtitles for those whose Finnish isn’t up to it.
You can find it on Youtube on the Operavision channel. Brexit supporters should stay away as Operavision is funded by those nasty cultured foreigners, the EU.
I finally got to see Rufus Wainwright’s new opera Hadrian, to a libretto by Daniel Macivor, at the Four Seasons Centre last night. There’s been a lot of hype around it and I was interested; the few bits of music from it that I had heard intrigued me but I’m no fan of his earlier work Prima Donna. One thing was certain. The piece does not lack ambition. There are four acts totalling something like 160 minutes. There’s a large cast, a large orchestra, a large chorus and an epic storyline. It’s clearly an attempt to produce a “grand opera” for our times. Does it succeed?
The imminent death of the art song recital is perhaps an even more prevalent trope than “opera is dying” doomandgloomery. It reached something of a crescendo in Toronto when the Aldeburgh Connection shut up shop after thirty years. Oddly enough there still seem to be plenty of recitals of various kinds but unquestionably there has been something of a shift away from “two dudes in tails with a piano”.
The last major concert of this year’s Toronto Summer Music Festival was a recital by Finnish soprano Karita Mattila and pianist Bryan Wagorn. Talk about ending on a high note. This was an exceptional performance by a mature artist at the height of her powers. In her mid-fifties, she is starting to transition to older roles. For example she will sing Kostelnička, rather than the title role, in her next Jenůfa. She has really acquired an ability to darken her voice which she used to great effect, especially in the set of Sallinen songs she sang after the interval but she hasn’t lost the vocal qualities that made her a star.
There may not be a lot of opera per se in Hogtown during the summer but there’s a fair amount of music of interest to the likes of us.
Toronto Summer Music Festival has some interesting offerings. The opening night concert, Americans in Paris, features Measha Brueggergosman in works by Gershwin, Bolcom and copland as well as instrumental pieces. And pretty much closing the festival out is a Karita Mattila recital with Bryan Wagorn on piano, on August 7th in a recital that includes works by Strauss, Sibelius and Sallinen. Details at www.torontosummermusic.com.
For those of you who won’t be glued to the underwater cycling at the Pan-Am games there is actually music on in Toronto over the summer. The tenth Toronto Summer Music Festival features a wide range of events in many genres. The ones likely to be of most interest to AR readers follow.
Robert Carsen’s producton of Janáček’s Kat’a Kabanová is typically simple and elegant. Recorded at the teatro Real in Madrid it features a flooded stage with a large number of wooden pieces, like palettes, that are rearranged to form the set. At the beginning of Act 1 the pieces form a pathway through the water simulating the banks of the Volga. Later they are rearranged int a square at centre stage to represent the claustrophobic Kabanov house. All this rearrangement is done by the ladies of the chorus who roll around in the water in white shifts. No breaks are needed between scenes, just the intermezzi the composer provided for the purpose. A mirror at the back of the stage reflecting the water and an elegant and effective lighting plot complete the staging.
There aren’t too many examples of the French version of Verdi’s Don Carlos on DVD. The one reviewed here is a 1996 Luc Bondy production from the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. It’s billed as the original 1867 five act version but I think some of the 1883 cuts are made. There’s no useful documenation so I can’t be sure. It features a very strong cast. Robert Alagna sings the title role, Thomas Hampson is Posa, Karita Mattila (looking very young!) is Elisabeth de Valois, José van Dam is Philip, Eric Halfvarson sings the Grand Inquisitor and, rather unexpectedly, Waltraud Meier is Eboli. Anthony Pappano conducts the Orchestre de Paris.
The set designs (Gilles Aillaud) are slightly stylized but essentially literal, simple and easy on the eye. Costumes (Moidele Bickel) are a sort of historical eclectic. There are nods to the 16th century but the women’s gowns could be any period or none, the Flemish deputies wear the sort of collar the vet puts on your pet after surgery and Alagna looks like he’s stepped out of Pirates of the Caribbean. That sounds negative but it’s actually just undistracting. There’s no high concept here so the whole thing turns on the Personenregie and, of course, the music. Bondy gets pretty impressive performances out of his players, creates some interesting stage pictures in the crowd scenes and doesn’t over egg the auto da fe. It’s not fancy but it works.
Musically this is a really good performance. All of the singers (except Halfvarson) tend to the light but beautiful end of the spectrum for their voice type and it all makes for an experience that seems especially apt for the french text. The revelation for me was Mattila. I’ve seen her only in heavier roles and I really had no idea she could sing so beautifully too. She is especially ravishing in the final scene where “Toi qui sus le néant” brought the house down. The chemistry between Hampson and Alagna is excellent and their voices blend well. Halfvarson is a stentorian and truly creepy Inquisitor. Meier seems a bit mannered at times but she pulls off the big moments fairly spectacularly. Pappano gets lovely playing from the orchestra but the voices are balanced quite a long way forward so we don’t get the full effect. All in all, it’s pretty compelling to watch.
Yves André Hubert is the video director. He does a good job. There isn’t a lot going on on stage other than the interaction between the principals most of the time so close ups there are fine and he does pull back when there’s something to pull back for. Picture quality (16:9) anamorphic is OK but not HD by any means. There are two sound options. I started with the Dolby 5.1 which I found lacks clarity and depth. The Dolby 2.0 alternative, while not of the highest quality, is much better. The whole 210 minutes with two soundtracks is crammed into 7.4 GB on a single DVD9 so top quality is hardly to be expected. There are English, French, Spanish and Japanese subtitles and documentation is minimal. Extras are limited to a cast list and synopsis.
Apparently the 2000 production of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Met was controversial. It’s very hard to see why. Although Jürgen Flimm has moved the setting to the mid 20th century and some unspecified country that looks vaguely Germanic the storyline is followed to the letter, bar a few changes to dialogue, and there is no risk at all of any dangerous ideas surfacing. It’s actually a very good example of what the Met does when it’s on form; assemble an all star cast, stick them in an inoffensive production and let the music do its thing. Here we have an enviable cast. Leonora/Fidelio is sung by Karita Matila who looks and sounds spectacular (although maybe the fact that she’s the only “male” among the principals with no facial hair should have triggered a little cluefulness). Vocally she is most assured and never seems under any strain at all. She acts well too. Ben Heppner, as Florestan, is also vocally solid and even quite lyrical in the big trio “Euch werde Lohn in besseren Welten”. The acting though is best passed over in discrete silence. René Pape is fascinating as Rocco, the gaoler. I’m used to seeing Pape playing magisterial roles like Boris Gudonov or Sarastro. Here, the big voice is coupled with almost bumbling acting as he plays a morally weak character. It’s most interesting. A young Matthew Polenzani, one of my favourite tenors, sings Jacquino and he sings quite beautifully. Marzellini is Jennifer Welch-Babidge who I had never heard before but was sufficiently impressed to go look her up. It seems she’s busy with four kids in Utah and doesn’t spend much time at all in opera houses these days. It’s rather a pity. Falk Struckmann’s Don Pizarro is appropriately villainish and musically solid like everyone else. James Levine conducts and right from the overture launches us into a very intense, muscular reading of the score backed up by a very high standard orchestra. Musically and dramatically this is very satisfying albeit in a thoroughly conservative way.
The production was recorded for TV broadcast and it shows. The sets are already pretty claustrophobic but Brian Large’s video direction amplifies that. One gets the feeling that this is being directed for a 27 inch screen and it looks a bit lost on anything much larger. That said, the picture is more than decent and the DTS 5.1 soundtrack is top notch (Dolby 5.1 and LPCM stereo are also offered). The English subtitles are a bit odd. For some reason “Gouverneur” is translated as “Colonel” and “König” as “President”. I didn’t check the French, German, Spanish or Chinese subs for similar oddness. Bonus material is minimal but the documentation is fairly decent. All in all it’s a typical Deutsche Grammophon release of its period.
This excerpt from Act 1 (Gut, Söhnchen, gut) is pretty typical.