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.
I’m really not sure what to make of Jürgen Flimm’s 2004 production of Fidelio for the Zürich Opera House. It’s not offensive and it doesn’t really get in the way of the story but it seems quite devoid of originality beyond mixing styles in a way one might describe as anachronistic if one could figure out when synchronistic would be. Rocco wears a sort of frock coat with, apparently, goatskin pants, Marzellina’s dress looks probably 20th century, bolt action magazine fed rifles are apparently muzzle loaded and metal cartridge cases filled by hand. Then to cap it off when Don Fernando shows up he looks like he’s stepped straight out of a Zeffirelli production of Der Rosenkavalier. So “nul points” for coherence. For once one rather appreciates that so much of the action takes place in the dark.
Katharina Thalbach sets her Fidelio, filmed at Zürich in 2008, somewhere in the early 20th century. Most of the costuming suggests very early but Don Pizzaro’s suit suggests 20s/30s gangster. Maybe he’s just fashion forward. The story telling is fairly straightforward and there’s no big concept. There are a few, smallish, touches. For example, the prisoners seem to be playing basketball with Don Pizarro’s head in the conclusion. The sets are literal but evocatively lit and rather effective.
Hans Werner Henze conceived of L’Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe as his farewell to the stage although, as it turned out, it wasn’t. It’s a combination of Arabian Nights type themes crossed with elements from German folklore not unlike Die Zauberflöte, which is an obvious infuence. So obvious, in fact, that in the scene where Kasim rescues his beloved she is given a line straight out of Schikaneder. For the 2003 world premiere in the Kleinesfestspielhaus in Salzburg, director Dieter Dorn and designer Jürgen Rose chose a simple stage concept. The action is encircled by an arch, at the apex of which is a tower room. The old man, the ruler of the principality, inhabits the room. The action mostly takes place in brightly coloured scenes under the arch.
I guess it’s a sign that work has attained a certain maturity when it is performed outside it’s own “cultural zone”. Peter Grimes has surely reached that point. A quick look at Operabase suggests fifteen productions worldwide in 2010-12 with only two of those in English speaking countries. That said, four of the five video recordings in the catalogue were recorded in Britain or the United States. The fifth, from Opernhaus Zürich is the subject of this review.
David Pountney’s 2005 production uses a single set, designed by Robert Israel, with gantries at different levels and members of the Borough suspended in chairs above the action. In some ways the concept is similar to the “wall” at the Met but it’s less compartmentalised and not as bleak to look at. It provides a flexible, abstract space which Pountney uses with minor detailing to great effect. Some aspects seem almost Brechtian. The pub scene could be straight out of Mahagonny while “Now is gossip put on trial” takes on quite a militaristic aspect. The set realises it’s potential to greatest impact in the closing scene. Grimes staggers on stage carrying the mast of his boat which he plants on a rocking platform at centre stage. On either side of the stage sit Ellen and Balstrode, each with a dead boy in their lap. As Peter departs to his death, he unships the cruciform mast, shoulders it and walks slowly upstage. It’s stark, beautifully composed and breathtakingly moving.
Pountney is also very careful in his direction of the interpersonal relationships though the Grimes/Balstrode chemistry doesn’t come off as well as in some productions. The Grimes/Ellen relationship is very well delineated. This Ellen is a tough cookie. She stands up to Grimes in the Sunday morning scene and while peter appears desperate and hopeful by turns throughout Act 2 there’s a real finality about Ellen’s “We’ve failed” and it’s followed by a very effective scene with Ellen, Auntie and the Nieces which strongly conveys both “sisters under the skin” and the sense that they, with Grimes, stand outside the tight knit community of the Borough. There are many other deft touches.
The performances are generally strong. Christopher Ventris’ Grimes is wonderful. He’s a full on Heldentenor who can sing a simply gorgeous pianissimo and he can act. It’s a more subtle performance than Vickers and less ethereal than Pears. He’s a Grimes who just doesn’t really get why the Borough hates him. Even when the lynch mob is heading for his hut at the end of Act 2 he’s more puzzled than angry. We never see him maltreat the boy and he doesn’t really hit Ellen either. He’s magnificent in the final scene. Arguably his is the best Grimes currently available on video.
Emily Magee’s Ellen is interesting too. Hers is a more obviously dramatic voice than, say, Heather Harper and not as sweet toned. At times she is a bit squally though at others very lyrical. It fits the interpretation though. As noted above, her Ellen is a tough cookie. I didn’t really care for Alfred Muff’s Balstrode. It’s OK and generally better in the scenes that don’t involve Grimes. He doesn’t achieve the relationship with Grimes though that shines through with Geraint Evans (sadly not recorded) or Anthony Michaels-Moore. Cheyne Davidson makes Ned Keene a more serious and forceful character than his rivals and Richard Angas’ Swallow, is very well characterised indeed, drunk or sober. Liliana Nikiteanu’s Auntie and the Nieces of Liuba Chuchrova and Sandra Trattnigg make a distinctly Continental feeling trio and leave us in little doubt that they are, as the libretto insists, “the chief attractions of the Boar”. Cornelia Kallisch is superb as Mrs. Sedley, maybe even better than Felicity Palmer. She seems to be getting a really creepy sexual pleasure out of her “murder investigation”.
The chorus, orchestra and conductor (Franz Welser-Möst) get absolutely top marks. Welser-Möst directs a consistently incisive, even thrilling, reading of the score and his forces respond magnificently. The chorus is arguably even better than the Met’s and their English diction is almost impeccable.
Video direction is by Felix Breisach and it’s very good indeed. he’s reasonably judicious with his close ups and doesn’t muck about with silly angles. Generally i felt the camera was going pretty much where I would if I were watching in the theatre. In an attempt to do his camerawork justice the screencaps in this post are full sized. Click to get the large version.
The 16:9 anamorphic picture is first class. The sound options are LPCM stereo, Dolby 5.1 and DTS 5.1. The last is clear, detailed and focussed with excellent dynamic range. It’s markedly better than the options. There are English, German, French, Spanish and Italian subtitles. Extras are restricted to some EMI promos which do include some interesting Maria Callas material. Documentation is limited to a short generic essay about the history of Peter Grimes. It’s a shame really. With two DVD9 discs to play with there’s definitely room for a conductor and/or director interview. A chapter listing would be nice too!
Quibbles about the packaging aside, this is a very fine DVD set. For those interested, David Pountney has a rather interesting blog.