The other Otello

Just as Rossini’s version of Il barbiere di Siviglia completely eclipsed Paisiello’s version, so Verdi’s Otello sounded the death knell for an earlier version; ironically enough by Rossini.  It’s a bit surprising as the Rossini version is not bad at all despite having a rather patchy libretto and being hard to cast.  The first thing one notices is that the story isn’t even close to Shakespeare/Verdi.  This is because the libretto was based on a French play by Jean-François Ducis that was popular in the 18th century.  I don’t know whether the plot’s weaknesses are due to Ducis or the librettist but there are a few.  There’s no Cassio so the motivation for Jago’s plotting is unclear.  All the Venetian notables (bar perhaps the Doge) hate Otello but Jago doesn’t seem to have any special reason for animosity.  Between the end of Act 2 and the beginning of Act 3 Otello is exiled.  There is no explanation.  The finale is abrupt and weak.  Immediately after Otello kills Desdemona the gang of notables burst in to the room and appear to be completely reconciled to Otello and to him marrying Desdemona, despite having spent the rest of the opera chewing chips about this.  In fact one could argue that the happy ending variant (yes, there was one) is the more plausible as it would only take the guys to arrive about ten bars sooner for that to be the logical outcome.  As it is, Otello listens with incredulity to the change of heart and, not unreasonably, kills himself.

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For pity’s sake

I’ve been involved in a lot of on-line discussions about various productions; live and DVD, of La clemenza di Tito.  Oddly perhaps, none of them have ever referenced the 2005 Zürich recording with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role.  Today I think I found out why.  Basically it’s rather dull, except where it’s unintentionally funny.

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Grimes goes to Zürich

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.