Europa Riconosciuta

It’s sometimes a bit of a mystery why some works disappear from the opera repertoire while other, not obviously superior, works enjoy lasting success so it’s always a pleasure to discover an obscure work that is really good (1).  Salieri’s Europa Riconosciuta fits that description in my view.  It’s basically an opera seria much along the lines of Mozart’s opere serie (opera serias? – who knows?(2)) except that there’s a longish ballet at the end of Act 1.  There are long, florid, arias with, for the two female leads, very high tessitura.  Two of the three male roles were written for castrati and the one intact male role is for that sort of heroic tenor who crops up in Idomeneo or La Clemenza di Tito.  It’s not as formulaic as works of 50 years earlier.  There are far more ensemble and choral numbers than in any of Handel’s Italian works.  It’s also just plain rather good.  Salieri understands singers and he writes really good melodies.  I guess he was just a bit unfortunate to have that pesky Salzburger as competition.

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Grumpy Otello

Verdi loved Shakespeare and tried to reflect the psychological depth of his characters in the operas he based on the bard.  You really wouldn’t know that watching the 2008 Salzburg Festival production of Otello.  There’s a lot to like in both production and performance but the emotionally monochromatic performance of the title role by Aleksandrs Antonenko, who can do every mood from fairly grumpy to furious, and the moustache twirling Jago of Carlos Álvarez rather reduce the piece to pathologically jealous nutter with anger management problem kills wife.

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Don Tom

There are over 40 video recordings of Don Giovanni in the catalogue, dating back to 1954, and Thomas Allen sings the title role in quite a few of them.  This one was recorded at La Scala in 1987 and features a very strong cast in a careful, traditional staging.  It’s also pretty decent technical quality for the era.  The director was Giorgio Strehler in a comparatively rare opera outing.  His sets and costumes are of some vague aristocratic past with liveried footmen, big hats and twirling capes.  It’s quite handsome but not in any way revelatory.  Nor is any aspect of the production really.  We are clearly in an aristocratic milieu.  Tom Allen’s Don Giovanni is arrogant and proud with plenty of swagger.  There’s no hint of ambiguity about  Edita Gruberova’s Donna Anna or Ann Murray’s Donna Elvira and Francisco Araiza is a properly dutiful chump of a Don Ottavio.  It’s all quite serious with comic relief only in the most obvious places.  Having said that, there are some very effective scenes; especially the ending which has a an interesting lighting plot and manages not to be anti-climactic.

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Revelatory Carmélites from La Scala

I was somewhat underwhelmed by my first encounter with Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites.  Watching this recording of a 2004 La Scala production by Robert Carsen really opened my eyes.  It’s the conducting that makes it I think,  Riccardo Muti seems to find much more in the score than Jan Latham-Koenig.  There are passages of great meditative beauty interspersed with quite shocking violence, all within an essentially tonal framework.  It’s very striking.  He’s helped by the sound on the DVD which is exceptionally vivid and three dimensional, even using the LPCM stereo option, though the Dolby 5.1 track is even better.

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I vespri Siciliani

Mid period Verdi in a highly traditional La Scala production isn’t usually my cup of tea but I thought that if the usually excellent Opus Arte label thought the thing was worth a reissue it might be worth watching.  With caveats, it was, even for someone who is as allergic to this kind of production as myself.
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Puzzling but well sung Don Giovanni

I looked at the cast list for the 1999 Wiener Staatsoper Don Giovanni and almost drooled. Carlos Alvarez, Franz-Josef Selig, Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, Adrianne Pieczonka, Anna Catarina Antonacci, Michael Schade, Angelika Kirchschlager and Lorenzo Regazzo. Add to that Riccardo Muti in the pit and musically it’s going to be hard to miss. So, unsurprisingly it turns out musically excellent across the board. I particularly enjoyed Michael Schade’s Don Ottavio. His supremely stylish singing and excellent acting added up to perhaps the best interpretation I’ve seen of perhaps opera’s dullest character. One might have reservations about Pieczonka’s Donna Anna but I think it’s a matter of taste. She can sing very prettily as she shows in her final duet with Schade but when she ups the volume she has great power but significantly less beauty of tone. It really boils down to one’s personal feelings about casting a genuine dramatic soprano in the role. I guess casting a mezzo as Zerlina is a bit unusual too but Kirchschlager is very good indeed. All in all it’s as well sung a Don Giovanni as I have heard.

So, what about Roberto de Simon’s production and, supporting it, the acting? First, this production was performed at the Theater an der Wien so space on stage is tight and there’s a tendency for the singers to migrate to front centre stage for their big numbers giving a bit of a “park and bark” feeling. This is reinforced on the DVD by excessive use of close ups. If there is anything else going on we mostly don’t see it. This is a problem because there are some potentially interesting ideas in the production that don’t seem to be fully developed and that may be because the DVD viewer doesn’t see them develop. The first “big idea” is that as the piece progresses the costumes get more modern. Characters update roughly a hundred years on each appearance starting in the 16th century and going up to around 1900. The progression though is uneven and even my resident costume historian had trouble decoding some of the statements. It has to be said too that the early costumes in particular are sometimes bizarrely stylized. Don Giovanni gets visibly younger as the action progresses too. Add to that that there are two statues of the Commendatore; a 16th century one and a 19th century one. The former accepts Don Giovanni’s dinner invitation but the latter shows up. What are we to read into these elements and are they connected? To say that the characters are “timeless archetypes” seems to be a total “so what?” but I don’t have a deeper explanation. The second element is a flirtation with commedia. It’s never full on but we see glimpses of Harlequin in Leporello. In the opening scene he’s wearing what looks like a Harlequin costume that’s been desaturated in Photoshop as well as clown face. Don Giovanni’s acting too has some commedia elements. In particular there’s heavy use of the right-hand-shielding-left-side-of-the-face gesture in the opening scene with Donna Anna and it recurs in the final scene with the statue of the Commendatore. It gives Don Giovanni a sort of cheeky chappy quality at two of the most serious moments of the opera. Why? I don’t know. There are other, more or less isolated, visual references to the commedia sprinkled through the piece.

The final element of commedia is that Masetto is played as a complete clod. He’s the stock dim peasant rather than someone who recognizes Don Giovanni for what he is, the class enemy, from the get go. This is then set against an even more knowing than usual Zerlina.  Certainly in “Batti, batti” she appears to be offering far more than poor old Masetto can begin to grasp. Whatever it’s all supposed to mean, the cast give it their all and are clearly acting their hearts out and at least it’s never dull.

The biggest problem with the disc though is the video direction. Once again it’s Brian “close up” Large. With such a small stage it ought to be quite easy to show us what is happening but instead we get super close up on super close up. I particularly hate it when several people are singing and the director is just showing us a headshot of one of them. It interferes with my ability to hear the rest apart from anything else. Besides I don’t have a tonsil fetish. This comes to a final utterly annoying climax in the confrontation between the Commendatore and Don Giovanni. Large keeps cutting back and forth between full screen head shots of the pair of them. Ugh!

Technically it’s OK for a 1999 DVD recording. The picture is decent 16:9 and the LPCM stereo soundtrack is OK but not stunning. There are English, French, German, Italian and Spanish subtitles. There are no extras which is no surprise as it’s all squashed onto one DVD9 disc.

All in all, definitely worth a look but if you figure out what the director is driving at please let me know!