Guth’s Clemenza

Claus Guth’s Salzburg da Ponte cycle is certainly my favourite trifecta and they are right up on my list for top picks for all three operas so I was intrigued to see what he would do with the much less recorded La clemenza di Tito which he directed at Glyndebourne in 2017.  Bottom line, I’m not at all convinced by it.

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60s Figaro from Glyndebourne

No opera says Glyndebourne like Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro.  It opened the first season in 1934 and inaugurated the new theatre in 1994.  Michael Grandage’s production which opened in 2012 was, I think, Glyndebourne’s fifth.  In any event it’s a fairly traditional affair though with the setting updated to the 1960s (though still set in a palace in Seville and I’ve got a nagging feeling that late Franco era Spain didn’t have much in common with the Haight and Carnaby Street but there you go).  The updated setting does allow for some visual gags with ridiculous 1960s dance moves but otherwise it could pretty much be anywhere, anytime.  There’s no concept and Grandage’s focus is on the interactions between the characters and the way they can be expressed in a relatively intimate house.


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Hytner’s Così

Nicholas Hytner’s production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, seen at Glyndebourne in 2006, is about as traditional as it gets.  The story is straightforwardly told and the settings and costumes are 18th century Naples, or at least some operatic approximation of it.  That said, it’s immensely enjoyable and, just occasionally, goes beyond the superficial.  The strength lies in the casting and in the director’s decision to allow his young singers to behave like young people.  Miah Persson as Fiordiligi and Anke Vondung as Dorabella are close to perfect in their exuberant girlishness.  Naturally Vondung gets to be a bit ditzier than the angstier Persson because that’s how the thing is written.  Both of them sing extremely well too and there’s nothing lacking in the big solos or duets.


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The clutter of bodies

The latest Handel oratorio to be given the operatic treatment by Glyndebourne is Saul, which played in 2015 in a production by Australian Barrie Kosky.  It’s quite a remarkable work.  The libretto, as so often the work of Charles Jennens, takes considerable liberties with the version in Samuel and incorporates obvious nods to both King Lear and Macbeth as well as more contemporary events.  David’s Act 3 lament on the death of Saul, for instance, clearly invokes the execution of Charles I.  What emerges is a very classic tragedy.  Saul, the Lord’s anointed, is driven by jealousy and insecurity deeper and deeper into madness and degradation and, ultimately, death.  This is the basic narrative arc of the piece.


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Kitchen sink duly chucked

There’s a pretty good “making of” extra with the 2013 Glyndebourne recording of Rameau’s rarely performed Hippolyte et Aricie.  In it, director Jonathan Kent argues that there are essentially two ways of dealing with the French baroque; elegance or “throwing the kitchen sink at it”.  To this one might add a weird pastiche of bare chests, stylized gesture and high camp but that’s another story.  My best experiences with Rameau have definitely been of the kitchen sink variety.  I’m thinking of productions like José Montalvo’s Les Paladins.  Kent is a bit more restrained but still pretty inventive which I think is necessary as Hippolyte et Aricie is rather episodic and fragmented and could use some livening up.

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Adventure story

Robert Carsen doesn’t seem disposed to treat Handel too reverentially.  Although there is some of the trademark Carsen cool minimalism in his 2011 Glyndebourne production of Rinaldo (not to mention symmetrically arranged furniture) there’s also a degree of humour, as there is in his Zürich Semele.  I find it very effective and, judging by the audience reaction, so did the people who saw it at Glyndebourne.

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Ballet/Opera Fusion

Handel’s Acis and Galatea is a peculiar piece in some ways.  It was written to be performed at Cannon’s, the Edgware residence of the then Earl of Caernavon, presumably for his guests.  Apparently the performance style was to have the singers sing from music stands in front of a painted backdrop.  So, a sort of oratorio with curtains.  It’s not uncommon to stage Handel oratorios as opera these days.  Theodora is done quite often and even Messiah has been staged so it’s no great surprise that Acis and Galatea should be given a similar treatment.  In fact Wayne McGregor’s 2009 Covent Garden production stages it as an opera and a ballet simultaneously combining the resources of the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera.

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Exemplary Blu-ray transfer for Glyndebourne’s Fairy Queen

I’ve reviewed two DVDs of Purcell’s semi-opera King Arthur on this blog. One was excellent and one was terrible and between them they went a long way to showing how difficult these semi-operas are to stage well but how rewarding when they succeed.

In 2009 Jonathan Kent and William Christie combined to produce a version of The Fairy Queen for Glyndebourne. It’s quite different in style from the successful Salzburg King Arthur but it works splendidly on its own terms. The Fairy Queen combines a libretto based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream with songs, masques and dances of a largely allegorical nature. Like the play itself they range from high flown allegory with classical elements to bawdy humour. It is very English. It almost epitomises what separates the English baroque from the French. Kent and Christie tackle this with a robust English sensibility, There are some changes to the dialogue and to the order of the numbers but it all makes sense (so far as this piece can). The allegorical elements are gorgeously and wittily staged making good use of a large circular lift at centre stage that allows fully formed tableaux to rise into our sight. The bawdy elements are tackled head on with a robustly TV Mopsa (Robert Burt) in the “Dialogue of Corydon and Mopsa” and the, by now, notorious bonking bunnies in the “Dance for the Haymakers”. The audience is totally engaged and one hears plenty of that commodity, rather rare in the opera house, uninhibited laughter. The team of designer Paul Brown and lighting designer Mark Henderson make all of this look quite spectacular. The dramatic action is played out in fairly long segments and the parts are taken by actors rather than singers. The fairies are appropriately sinister with wings that look inspired by contemporary prints of fallen angels. The Rude Mechanicals are rude and not too mechanical.  The “humans” are credibly 17th century in manner though dress gets less formal as the action proceeds.  The disparate elements are integrated very well.  There’s plenty of dance and it’s choreographed by Kim Brandstrup in a style that is robustly muscular but solidly in the classical ballet tradition.

The cast of actors, singers and dancers is huge and consistently excellent.

I was particularly impressed with Sally Dexter’s Titania and Desmond Barrit’s Welsh accented Bottom among the actors.  Barrit even got to do some singing with a not too over the top version of the “Song of the Drunken Poet”.  The singing stars were the wonderful, sweet toned Lucy Crowe; her “if love’s a sweet passion” was a delight, and the robust bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams who, among other sings, sang a truly chilling Winter.  Singling out individual performances isn’t the point though.  This is very much an ensemble performance.  Christie directs the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment from the harpsichord and is as idiomatic as one could possibly hope for.

So, how well does the stage production transfer to disc?  Extremely well!  The video director is François Roussillon.  Unlike most of his peers he appears to have realised that opera lovers are not, for the most part, watching on tiny screens anymore.  He makes sure we can see what the designer and director intended.  Sure, there are close ups but never at the expense of the bigger picture.  The technical quality is of a very high order.  There are two formats available; a two DVD set and Blu-Ray.  I watched the latter but I doubt most people would see a huge difference.  It was filmed in 1080i HD and the picture is clearly better than my first generation HD TV can fully do justice to.  The sound is incredibly good.  On Blu-Ray it’s DTS-HD Master Audio (DTS 5.1 on DVD).  The quality is apparent even as Christie is walking to the pit.  The applause simply sounds as if one is in the house rather than the usual muffled fluttering noise.  The balance, clarity and spatial depth are exemplary throughout.  Both formats also have LPCM stereo.  There are English, French, German and Spanish subtitles.  There are useful extras.  The disc includes interviews with Kent and Christie which are well worth watching and the booklet includes an informative essay by Kent as well as a track listing and synopsis.

All in all this is an excellent production given an exemplary transfer to disc.  Here’s the official trailer, unfortunately in less than exemplary Youtube quality:

Arma virumque canunt

Berlioz’ Les Troyens is widely considered to be his masterpiece and it does have a lot going for it both dramatically and musically, especially when given the full on star studded treatment that it got at the Chatelet in 2003. That said, it’s dramatically rather odd, it’s very long (well over four hours) and it requires huge forces; twenty soloists, massive chorus, dancers, supers, acrobats, jugglers etc. It also has preludes, ballets and masques on a scale that seem more appropriate to the 17th than the mid 19th century. Act 4 is particularly marked in this respect. It’s perhaps no wonder that it was never played complete in Berlioz’ lifetime. The story is taken from Books two and four of Virgil’s Aeneid; the first dealing with the wooden horse and the fall of Troy (Acts 1 and 2) and the second with the Trojans at Carthage (Acts 3-5). The problem is that there isn’t much connecting them. In the first part the drama centres around Cassandre. By the end of Act 2 she’s dead and we move on to Carthage where Didon makes her first appearance. The Trojan hero Énée links both halves but he’s a pretty minor presence in the first bit.

In Acts 1 and 2 Troy is a sparse stage with a reflector above it projecting much of the action onto a backdrop of an Italianate cityscape of Troy. It’s a good idea as for most of the act there are a lot of people on stage and it’s not easy to take it all in. Occasionally the cityscape dissolves into some kind of symbolic back projection as with the the horse itself which is just a rather grim projection of a horse’s head. It works pretty well. A similar approach is used to introduce the scene where Hector’s ghost tells Énée he’s got to rebuild Troy in Italy. The camera work for the DVD switches between stage and backdrop with the usual close ups and just occasionally pulls back to let us see what the theatre audience is seeing. All in all I think Peter Maniura is giving us as good a look at Yannis Kokkos’ staging as could reasonably be done on DVD.

Vocally, the first part is all about Cassandre, here played by Anna Caterina Antonacci. She’s stunning. She gives a totally committed performance as the prophetess who everyone thinks is mad until it’s all too late. She stands out visually in a simple white dress against the rest of the Trojans who wear greatcoats of mixed military provenance and otherwise look generally scruffy giving an effect somewhere between Colditz and Les Miz. Her singing and acting are both quite mesmerizing. She is well backed up Gregory Kunde’s Énée although he doesn’t have too much to do. He manages to sound like a bel canto singer while upping the heft to cope with some pretty dense orchestration.

Here’s a clip of Antonacci which gives a pretty good idea of the overall idea.

Act 3 involves a total shift of dramatic and aesthetic gear. Now we are in Carthage where Didon (Susan Graham) is presenting the results of the first Five year Plan to what looks like a cross between a Druidic gorsedd and a meeting of the Carthage Soviet of Workers and Peasants. The plan has met its targets but their idyllic existence is threatened by the king of Numidia who wants to marry Didon and is marching on Carthage. Énée appears and offers to save the peace loving Carthaginians (nb these are not the baby burning, general crucifying Carthaginians I remember from history) by doing the fighting for them. This is followed by a longish section where Didon’s sister Anna (the very fetching Renata Pokupić) tries to persuade her that hooking up with Énée would be a smart move. This continues into Act 4 which rather drags. There’s a long, almost Wagnerian, prelude after which Didon enters, obviously head over heels in love. We can tell this from her little interpretative dance and her spending the next half hour looking like a contented hamster watching several ballets complete with jugglers and acrobats.. The entertainmet concludes with singing, dancing Nubians who could have come straight out of National Geographic c. 1950. Finally we get going again and Didon decides that maybe the Énée thing isn’t such a bad idea after all. She and Énée sing the gorgeous duet “Nuit d’ivresse”. Kunde and Graham are very fine indeed in this as you can see below. Both these acts are played out on a brightly lit stage with lots of bright whites and colours.

The act concludes on an ominous note as Mercure reminds Énée of his Italian destiny.

In Act 5 we are back dramatically and aesthetically more or less where we started. It’s dark, Trojans in greatcoats, the reflector. The ghosts of the dead Trojans remind Aeneas of his quest. He decides to obey. Most of the rest of the act is Susan Graham going through a full gamut of emotions; anger, grief, vengeance, resignation. It gets a bit over the top but she is elemental and always musical. Graham steals the show in the final three acts but she is very well supported by Pokupić’s Anna and Laurent Naouri’s Narbal as well as Kunde. Cassandra (or her ghost) get the last word but nobody is going to believe her.

John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. He pushes things along well without sacrificing grandeur at the needed points. The period instruments give some pleasing variation of tone colour. The chorus is the ever excellent Monteverdi Choir. No problems in those departments.

Peter Maniura’s screen direction maintains its high standard through the second half. So what of the disk package? It’s an Opus-Arte production and it was filmed in high definition. The 16:9 anamorphic picture is superb even on DVD (which is what I watched) but it is also available on Blu-Ray which should be even better, especially as the Blu-Ray is cheaper and two discs versus three DVDs. Sound is LPCM stereo or DTS 5.1 (DTS HD on the Blu-Ray). The DTS track is really good with real depth. There is even adequate documentation and an hour long “Making of” documentary. All in all, it’s what an opera DVD/Blu-Ray release ought to be.

Handel for the Handelians

I think maybe Handel’s Rodelinda is one for the hard-core Handelians. It’s got some lovely music but it’s long (200 minutes), not very dramatic (it’s based on Corneille) and, structurally, is a succession of recitative and da capo arias. There is no chorus and I only recall two numbers that weren’t solos; the concluding quintet and a rather lovely duo between Rodelinda and Bertarido at the end of Act 2. Jean-Marie Villégier’s 1998 production for Glyndebourne rather tends to emphasise the leaning to elegance rather than drama. The basic look and feel is “silent movie era”. Sets and costumes are near monochrome and tend to be emphasised by the lighting. At least when there is a any. Much of this production is very dark, as was fashionable at the time. The direction of the singers is consistent with the silent movie theme. There is much moustache twirling from Umberto Chiummo’s Garibaldo and one feels that Louise Winter could have used one to twirl as Eduige. All in all the concept works well and allows some neat details that you can have the pleasure of finding for yourself. There are also some busy supers in Germanic army uniforms who do a lot of threatening with guns. They may be doing other stuff too but the lighting and video direction don’t make it easy to see what.

Musical direction is by William Christie who has the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the pit. Christie is a master of this sort of repertoire and he gets really idiomatic playing and singing out of his forces with the balance again being towards elegance rather than drama or passion or grandeur. This is reinforced both by pretty relaxed tempi and by the casting choices. The castrato parts of Bertarido and Unulfo are both taken by counter tenors of the type favoured at the start of the early music revival; all head voice. Bertarido is sung by Andreas Scholl who is as good a singer of that type as you can get and he sings with great taste and beauty and acts well too but part of me yearns for the fuller tone of a David Daniels or a Michael Maniaci. Artur Stefanowicz is a slightly camp Unulfo. The title role is played by Anna Caterina Antonacci and she’s terrific. She manages to convey a real range of emotion while remaining entirely, canonically, stylish with beauty of voice all through her range and produces some gorgeous pianissimos. She looks really good too and has some very sparkly costumes. The duet between Scholl and Antonacci at the end of Act 2 is absolutely gorgeous and they sing well together. It’s a shame there isn’t more opportunity for them to do so. Initially I thought Louise Winter was a bit fruity but she improved on me. It seems to be a role that is given to a dramatic type mezzo as Stephanie Blythe has been singing it so maybe that’s the intent. I do think she’s maybe the weak link in the cast but not enough to spoil anything. Kurt Streit sings Grimoaldo and he’s as polished as you would expect a Mozartian tenor of his reputation to be. He seemed to make more dramatic impact in the early scenes than later on but that might just be a question of getting put in the shade a bit by Scholl. Umberto Chiummo’s Garibaldo is very good. There’s more than a bit of Dick Dastardly about the acting and the singing has a touch of basso buffo about it but that’s fine. It’s very consistent with the piece. He also manages to sing with a cigarette in his mouth which I think is rather impressive.

The DVD itself is a very basic production of its time. The production was broadcast on Channel 4 and Humphrey Burton has clearly directed for the “small screen”. At times there is a lot more going on than we see in this picture. The TV show has then been dumped pretty much straight to DVD though at least without the usual “I’m at Glyndebourne and you’re not” interval features. The picture is decent quality 4:3 and the Dolby 2.0 sound is nicely balanced. There are lots of subtitle options but no extras and no documentation beyond a chapter listing.

Here’s Scholl and Antonacci’s duet: