Yuval Sharon’s Lohengrin in 2018 at the Bayreuth Festival was the first production there by an American director and, perhaps unsurprisingly, there are echoes of contemporary events in the US in the show. Specifically Sharon’s Brabant is a conformist theocracy in which society has regressed technologically. Some of the action takes place in and around a prominently placed disused electrical installation of some kind. The Brabanters are cowardly and subservient, initially to Telramund and then, equally, to Lohengrin. The advent of a charismatic leader. does not necessarily equate to liberation or full citizenship. Sharon also claims in his director’s notes that the real dissenter is Ortrud and that it is her actions that liberate Elsa and Gottfried. Whether the staging supports this is, I think, questionable.
Patrice Chéreau’s last major opera production was of Strauss’ Elektra for the 2013 Aix-en-Provence Festival where it was recorded. It later appeared with a different cast at the Met and was broadcast in HD but that performance has not yet been released on disk. It’s a very good example of Chéreau’s work. The towering, blocky sets recall his From the House of the Dead and are equally dark and grey. The interest is all in the characters.
There may be better video recordings of Tristan und Isolde than Daniel Barenboim and Heiner Müller’s 1995 Bayreuth collaboration but I haven’t seen one. It combines a deeply satisfying production, outstanding conducting and brilliant performances from the principals; Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier. The only downside, and it’s not serious, is that, as a 1995 recording, it’s a bit short of the latest and greatest in audio and video quality.
I’ve been looking really hard for a video recording of Tristan und Isolde that I felt I could recommend because, frankly, nothing is worse than a badly executed Tristan as those who suffered through the Met HD broadcast a few years ago will know. In the 2007 La Scala recording I have found one I feel confident about. Is it perfect? No. A perfect Tristan is probably beyond mere mortals. I’m never sure whether I find it more astonishing that anyone can sing this music or that a composer might have imagined that he could find people who could. That said, the La Scala recording is very close to an ideal Gesamtkunstwerk.
When I first encountered Richard Strauss’ Elektra as a teenager I found the music almost unbearably harsh. The more I listen to it the more erroneous that judgement seems. It has its “tough” moments to be sure. How could an opera about Elektra not? But it is also full of lush romanticism and there are some really quite lovely passages. In the 2010 Salzburg Festival recording Daniele Gatti explores both sides of the music in a rather thrilling reading of the score aided and abetted by the Wiener Philharmoniker and a pretty much ideal cast.
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.