Not too many CDs of new opera recordings, at least of mainstream repertoire, come my way these days. Studio recordings have become rare and the usual medium is a video recording, itself a spin off from a live broadcast; TV, cinema or web, of a live performance. This makes sense to me. Just listening to an opera has always seemed a second best. Anyway, that’s all by way of saying that I was a bit surprised to find myself listening to a CD edition of a live recording of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut from the 2016 Salzburg Festival. How did this recording happen you ask? The answer is on the box, where Anna Netrebko in the title role, gets top billing, even over the composer.
There’s a lot on today. Handel’s Ariodante opens at the COC at 2.30pm. There’s also a concert featuring Russell Braun with the Amici Ensemble at 3pm in the Mazzoleni Concert Hall at the Conservatory. The Elmer Iseler Singers and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir also have concerts. Thursday sees the opening of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at Opera Atelier with Wallis Giunta and Chris Enns as the lovers which promises both eye and ear candy. That’s at the Elgin at 7.30pm. Then on Saturday there’s Singing Stars of Tomorrow, the result of a Sondra Radvanovsky intensive, at the Alliance Française at 7.30 pm. The line up is Valerie Belanger,soprano; Stephanie De Ciantis, soprano; Natalya Gennadi, soprano; Beth Hagerman, soprano; Jessica Scarlato, soprano; Sara Schabas, soprano; Caitlin Wood, soprano; Danielle MacMillan, mezzo-soprano; Marjorie Maltais, mezzo-soprano; Asitha Tennekoon, tenor. Quite a mix, from people I’ve never heard of to one who has already made her COC debut.
In other news, the COC and Show One Productions have announced a gala concert to take place at the Four Seasons Centre on April 25th next year. It’s billed (modestly) as Trio Magnifico: The Ultimate Opera Gala and the big draw is the Canadian debut of Anna Netrebko. She will appear with her husband tenor Yusif Eyazov and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. They will be accompanied by the COC Orchestra conducted by Jader Bignamini. Given that Dima alone turned Koerner Hall into a frenzy of screaming Russian grannies, this could get interesting.
Royal Opera House cinema screenings are back at the Bloor Cinema and it seems that the full season will be available. ENO are you watching or is your sense of Ontario gepography akin to your business acumen?
First up, tomorrow, at noon they’re screening Giordano’s Andrea Chenier directed by David McVicar with Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek.
March 22nd sees Tim Albery’s production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer with Adrienne Pieczonka and Bryn Terfel. Ms. Pieczonka will be on hand to introduce the piece.
On June 28th we get a new John Fulljames production of Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny with Anne Sofie von Otter.
July 26th sees John Copley’s venerable production of Puccini’s La Bohème. This production is almost as old as I am. Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja play Mimi and Rodolfo.
Finally, on August 30th we can see a new production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell directed by Damiano Michieletto with Antonio Pappano conducting. The cast includes Gerry Finley and Malin Bystrom.
Bellini’s I Puritani is one of those 19th century operas that dishes out a version of 16th or 17th century English history that’s all but unrecognisable to anyone with any actual knowledge of the subject. In this case we are in Cromwell’s Commonwealth and the nasty Puritans want to off anyone with a Stuart connection including the widowed queen Henrietta. Various implausibly named Puritan colonels (everyone in the New Model apparently holds that rank) feature as well as a Royalist earl who is, of course, in love with the Roundhead commander’s daughter. Immediately prior to marrying her though he decides to save Henrietta from execution and escapes with her thus triggering the obligatory mad scene, which is probably the main reason for watching this thing at all. Finally Arturo (the earl) returns, is captured and, inevitably, sentenced to death. As he is being led to the block Cromwell’s messenger arrives with the second most improbable reprieve in all of opera. The Stuarts have been defeated and everyone is pardoned. A happy ending with fortissimo soprano high notes ensues.
After a less than satisfactory introduction to Donizetti’s Anna Bolena in a MetHD broadcast last year it was with some trepidation that I approached the DVD version recorded at the Wiener Staatsoper and also starring Anna Netrebko. I need not have worried because it’s very good indeed. It has a stronger cast, Eric Genovese’s relatively simple production trumps David McVicar’s overstuffed effort and Evelino Pido doesn’t try and make the orchestra sound like it’s playing Wagner. The sound on the DVD is also way better than it was on that broadcast.
Today was the first MetHD broadcast of the season and we got Bartlett Sher’s new production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. It’s what I would call a “steakhouse production”. It’s like a meal in a top end steakhouse. Your steak is a fine piece of meat, they don’t mess it up and ditto your baked potato. And it’s all served in luxurious surroundings with attentive service. It’s a terrific steak dinner but it costs the same as the tasting menu at a place with two Michelin stars and it’s still just a steak dinner.
So, a brilliant cast; Netrebko, Polenzani, Kwiecien and Maestri, singing and acting up a storm in a production that was pretty much devoid of ideas beyond a few odd costuming choices. Since when did Italian peasant girls get to dress like they are attending a ball in a Jane Austen novel? Still the girl singing Nanetta was cute and had the best dress. Gary Halvorson’s video direction was about par for the course in terms of virtually incessant close-ups. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon but ultimately forgettable.
So says Rolando Villazón towards the end of the “Making of” documentary that accompanies Robert Dornhelm’s 2008 film of Puccini’s La Bohème. Fortunately for us Dornhelm, Villazón and the rest of those involved provide another piece of evidence that films of operas can indeed be made, and made very successfully. This one is a curious hybrid. It uses just about every technique that I’ve seen used in such a venture. The whole thing was originally recorded in the studio and most of the film is lip-synched using a mixture of the singers and actors who weren’t art of the singing cast but some of the arias were sung on set to a taped orchestral track. I’m not sure why and I couldn’t tell which was what. It all works pretty well anyway.
Massenet’s Manon is a glitzy 19th century set piece. It’s very French and very much a star vehicle. In this 2007 production from the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, director Vincent Paterson’s decides to to stage it in the 1950s and make Manon somewhat cinema obsessed, in a narcissistic way, which works rather well. It’s a self consciously glitzy affair with a bright gold curtain and technicians with Klieg lights following Manon much of the time. Even the “squalid” bits are treated with glamour. The only jarring element, deliberately I guess, is the use of giant reproductions of 19th century paintings as backdrops; notably Liberty Leading the People in Act 3.
I’ve watched the Blu-ray version of the 2006 Salzburg production of Le Nozze di Figaro a few times now but sitting through it with notepad at the ready made me realise how much I hadn’t seen on the previous viewings. My notes are copious. I usually take a couple of pages or so. This time I covered four pages and it could easily have been more. You have been warned.
I’ve been wondering about whether to bother with the Decker production of La Traviata when it gets its MetHD broadcast in April since I own the Blu-ray of the original Salzburg 2005 production. So, it seemed like a good time to take another look at the disc.
I like this production more every time I see it. The overall concept of a Violetta who knows she is dying and is pretty consciously counting off the days works really well. The set is basically a curved wall with a clock and some sofas. There’s a lot of empty space and that’s entirely deliberate and serves effectively to reinforce Violetta’s alienation. The use of the chorus is interesting too. This is no jolly band of party goers. Rather, the chorus comes across as quite feral; a pack of wild dogs in evening dress. The character of the doctor does double duty too. He haunts the set almost throughout and from the very beginning. It’s hard not to think of him as Death though I don’t think Decker ever came clean on whether it’s supposed to be that explicit. When Violetta sings of “sterile pleasure” it’s quite clear what she means.
In Act 2, the country idyll is symbolised by flowery drapes over the sofas and, crucially, the clock. It’s the only time the clock is hidden. Violetta and Alfredo romp in flowery dressing gowns and underwear. The Germont senior arrives and as Violetta’s hopes dissolve she rips the flowery drapes away revealing both the clock and herself. The countdown has begun again. Back in Paris, the chorus is more cruel than ever playing out a vicious pantomime of Violetta before becoming a crowd of leering onlookers as Alfredo stuffs money into Violetta’s dress and mouth. The entry of Germont senior parallels actions of the doctor/Death earlier in the piece. There’s no break at the end of Act 2. The doctor very slowly forces the chorus off stage taking the clock and the pantomime Violetta with them to leave the stage completely bare. The rest of the action plays out with the characters widely spaced across this vast empty space.
It’s all very well thought through and consistent. There are many, many deft directorial touches (probably far more than we see on disc – see below) and the overall effect is very powerful.
It’s pretty much a dream cast. Netrebko in 2005 was just about perfect in every way for Violetta and she throws herself into the role with abandon. She’s not at all afraid to take physical risks and she sings really well. Her voice has power and brightness and her coloratura is spot on. She can also be lyrical and affecting when needed. Her interpretation is absolutely at one with Decker’s. Her “sempre libera” is quite chilling and there is real intensity in “Addio del passata”. Rolando Villazon’s Alfredo is a very good match. Salzburg caught him, too, at his very best and he doesn’t put a foot wrong. I’d go on at more length but this really is the Netrebko show! Thomas Hampson as Germont senior is a bit more of a conumdrum. Is he sincere or is his whole persona an elaborate bourgeois facade? Hampson doesn’t really tell us though he sings with his customary refinement and intelligence. Luigi Roni as the doctor deserves a special mention too. He only has a few lines to sing but his overall presence is huge. Carlo Rizzi conducts a polished performance from the Wiener Philharmoniker.
So where’s the fly in the ointment? Surprise! It’s the video direction of Brian Large. Emptiness and space are central to this production and Large can’t bear to give us space. We do get just enough framing shots to allow us, with a bit of imagination, to figure out what the director is doing but mostly it’s relentless close ups. He produces a particularly pointless example of switching back and forth between close ups in “Che e cio?” when he seems to think he’s filming Wimbledon. It doesn’t help that the framing shots we do get are, unaccountably, taken from high stage left. So grrr (and not the word I have written on my notepad because my mother may read this).
Technically the disc is very good. The picture is 1080i HD (maybe just a hint of ghosting on low light level shots) and the sound is very vivid DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 (LPCM stereo optional). Subtitles are IT, FR, EN, ES, DE, IT and CH. The documentation is a bit more generous than usual with a track listing and a synopsis in EN, FR and DE. There’s a useful and entertaining “making of” documentary which suggests that directing Villazon and Netrebko is easier and a lot more fun than directing Hampson! (Some people are perhaps just too smart).
So after all that how do I feel about seeing the Met production? If I could see it live I’d be there in a moment. Can I bear to see it butchered by another inept video director? I don’t know. It should be a good vehicle for Natalie Dessay though.
Pretty much all of this production is available on YouTube if that’s your thing. Here’s an excerpt.