Earlier this year the Metropolitan opera staged Borodin’s Prince Igor for the first time in nearly a hundred years with an HD broadcast and a DVD/Blu-ray release to boot. It’s an odd work. It’s quite long; a prologue and three acts running over three hours and it’s very episodic. The prologue takes place in Ptivl; the principality of which I gor is prince. He’s about to lead his army against the invading Polovtsians. There are dark omens. The next thing we see, as Act 1 opens, is that Igor is defeated and a captive of Khan Konchak who’s daughter is now in love with Igor’s son. It’s all just happened. Cue lots of exotic Polovtsiania. In Act 2 we are back in Ptivl where Galitsky is making trouble for his sister, Igor’s wife, who has been left as Regent. Mostly the trouble seems to be drunken partying and when the Polovtsian army arrives at the gates the brother, Galitsky, drops dead. In Act 3 the city has been sacked and everybody is kind of mooning around in the rubble until a pretty depressed Igor shows up and implores the other Russian princes to get off their arses and do something (unspecified). All the important stuff happens off stage and there really isn’t any resolution. There is some great music though.
So I finally found a way of getting the Kultur release of the 2008 Staatsoper unter den Linden production of Prokofiev’s The Gambler to work, with subtitles and all, though I had to go to my back up DVD player. As you will read below this is a very interesting and worthwhile DVD but whatever you do, don’t buy the Kultur release which is technically wonky and features sub-standard Dolby 2.0 sound. For heaven’s sake who is doing Dolby 2.0 on an opera DVD in 2008! The same recording is available on regionless DVD and Blu-ray from C-Major and in that release it features PCM 5.1 and LPCM stereo choices. There may even be some useful documentation which, as ever with Kultur, is minimal. There are also more subtitle choices on the C-Major version.
There are only two video recordings of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina currently available. The 1989 Vienna recording, which I wrote about yesterday, and a 2007 production from Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu which I’ve also just had a chance to see.
The two productions make for interesting contrasts on many levels. In Barcelona, music director Michal Boder, while opting to use the Shostakovich orchestration as a basis modifies it in places with elements of the Rimsky-Korsakoff version. He also uses Voronhov’s lower key alternative to the Stravinsky in the final chorus and he makes some cuts; most notably the Susannah scene in Act 3. He also gets quite a different sound from the orchestra. Where Abbado in Vienna is very refined, one might almost say Viennese, Boder is brasher. In places the music almost sounds like Shostakovich with the characteristic braying brass. Admittedly some of this may be due to the quality of the recorded sound. The Vienna recording is rather soft focussed Dolby 2.0 while Barcelona gets very crisp and detailed DTS 5.1 (There’s LPCM stereo too but I didn’t check it out).
The stage productions too are very different. Stein Winge in Barcelona eschews the opulence of 1620s Russia and opts for a bleak 1950s setting. This actually works quite well in bringing out the self serving agendas of the three main characters as well as their essential smallness when deprived of their bullying platform. There are some neat touches. Khovansky senior has a dwarf. The respect and affection with which he treats the dwarf compared to his son highlights the impotence and irrelevance of the latter. Chillingly it’s the dwarf who delivers the fatal blow in act 4 after a scene with his dancers that makes Khovansky seem more like Silvio Berlusconi than a powerful warlord. It’s even oddly unerotic. The Persian dancers are straight out of a Disney version of the Arabian Nights which is a rather stark contrast with Kirchner’s lesbian BDSM near porn scene. The final mass suicide in Barcelona is played out in a low key but effective way with the stage lit only by candles that are extinguished one by one. The pathos is heightened by the inclusion of children among the Believers.
In terms of performance there are pros and cons to both recordings. The acting, clearly more closely directed, is more theatrical and less old fashioned operatic in the Barcelona production. Vocally, it’s a mix. Ghiaurov for Abbado is a much more charismatic Khovansky than Vladimir Ognovenko. Graham Clark’s Scribe in Barcelona makes much more of the part than his Vienna equivalent and Vladimir Vaseev’s Gosifei for Boder is more lyrical than his opposite number. I didn’t see much to choose between the other male characters. The biggest differenceis in the Marfas. Elena Zeremba’s vibrato is really quite excessive and mars a good acting performance. She’s very much a weak link compared to the excellent Ludmila Semtschuk in Vienna.
Technically the newer recording is much, much better. The sound, as mentioned above, is far superior and the 16:9 anamorphic picture is much better than Vienna’s near TV quality. The Barcelona disc also has useful extras; a synopsis and a good interview with Boder as well as documentation including a useful essay by Winge. The subtitles; English, French, German, Italian, Castilian and Catalan, are much less obtrusive though quite legible.
Surprisingly the video direction for Barcelona isn’t a huge improvement on Vienna. Angel Luis Ramirez does manage to stay back from the action more than Brian Large but he gets rushes of blood to the head in the big choruses in both Acts 3 and 5. In both cases there is a very full stage and a picture carefully composed by the director. In both cases Ramirez keeps cutting back and forward between wide shots and completely irrelevant close ups with a full arsenal of fades, dissolves and superpositions (see the third screen cap above). The farcical drunken chorus of the Streltsy in Act 3 can almost survive the treatment but it does much to undermine the deliberate simplicity of the final suicide.