Magic Flute for kids

The Met’s abridged version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, in English, got an HD broadcast in 2006 and a subsequent DVD release.  It’s Julie Taymor’s production and it’s visually spectacular with giant sets, loads of very effective puppets and very good dancers (I wish every opera company used dance as effectively as the Met.  Too expensive I guess).  It’s more something one might expect to see at Bregenz than at the Four Seasons Centre.  Costuming is sometimes a bit weird.  The Three Ladies have removable heads and the chorus of priests look like origami angels but it’s never less than interesting visually. There’s nothing about the cuts (it comes in at about an hour and threequarters) that changes the plot in any way that makes it obviously kid friendly beyond being shorter and there’s no attempt to make it anything other than a pretty fairy tale.  If one wants a Flute with deep meaning this isn’t it.

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The Met’s Maria Stuarda on DVD

Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda featured in the MetHD series in January 2013 and has now been released on DVD.  My review of the cinema broadcast is here.  It’s always a bit different watching the DVD rather than the cinema version but in this case I think my somewhat different reaction has a lot to do with having recently seen various versions of the other Schiller/Donizetti Tudor queen operas, especially Stephen Lawless’ Roberto Devereux at the COC.

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High contrast Traviata

The starting point for Peter Mussbach’s 2003 production of La Traviata for the Aix-en-Provence festival is his knowledge, as one trained as a medical doctor, of the effects of TB on a person’s appearance.  He argues that the disease produces a strange kind of beauty with the skin translucent and pale.  So, here Mireille Delunsch, as Violetta, wears a white dress, a platinum wig and very pale powder throughout while everyone else is dressed in black.  Couple this with a high contrast and highly dramatic lighting plot and very sparse sets and you have the essence of the “look”.  The blocking and Personenregie reinforces this with Violetta often appearing to be an ethereal, not quite solid, presence surrounded by a rather coarse material world.

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An AIDS Quilt Songbook

aidsquiltI just listened to my new copy of An AIDS Quilt Songbook:Song for Hope and I’m in a bit of a state of shock.  It’s nearly 80 minutes of music featuring many of America’s best singers and musicians singing songs inspired by AIDS along with some poetry readings.  Participants include Yo Yo Ma, Joyce DiDonato, Tony Deane-Griffey, Matthew Polenzani, Isobel LeonardSharon Stone and many more.  All profits go to amFAR; the Foundation for AIDS Research.  www.amfar.org

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More Tudor queens

confrontationToday’s MetHD broadcast of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda was a bit of a mixed bag.  There were some really good performances.  Joyce DiDonato in particular gave what may well have been a truly great performance and I would have loved to have seen it live.  David McVicar’s production was much better than his Anna Bolena; visually interesting and with some strong dramatic ideas.  However the good was pretty seriously undermined by another really awful piece of video directing by Gary Halvorson.  I guessed it was him after about ten minutes. The incessant use of the nose cam and the incredibly irritating low level tracking shots were a dead give away.  It was a big disappointment since the last two shows I saw, La Clemenza di Tito and Les Troyens, were filmed by Barbara Willis-Sweete and had given me some faint hope that the Met was capable of self analysis and improvement in this area.  Hope that was, alas, sadly dashed today.

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Into the woods

Claus Guth’s 2008 Salzburg production of Don Giovanni divided the critics along entirely predictable lines.  It’s a very unusual treatment of Don Giovanni but the concept is stuck to with real consistency and it works to create a compelling piece of music theatre.  The treatment on video too is not straightforward and, in a sense, the DVD/Blu-ray version is as much the work of Brian Large as it is of Claus Guth.

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L’Elisir di Steakhouse

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.

Fidelio – Metropolitan Opera 2000

Apparently the 2000 production of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Met was controversial. It’s very hard to see why. Although Jürgen Flimm has moved the setting to the mid 20th century and some unspecified country that looks vaguely Germanic the storyline is followed to the letter, bar a few changes to dialogue, and there is no risk at all of any dangerous ideas surfacing. It’s actually a very good example of what the Met does when it’s on form; assemble an all star cast, stick them in an inoffensive production and let the music do its thing. Here we have an enviable cast. Leonora/Fidelio is sung by Karita Matila who looks and sounds spectacular (although maybe the fact that she’s the only “male” among the principals with no facial hair should have triggered a little cluefulness). Vocally she is most assured and never seems under any strain at all. She acts well too. Ben Heppner, as Florestan, is also vocally solid and even quite lyrical in the big trio “Euch werde Lohn in besseren Welten”. The acting though is best passed over in discrete silence. René Pape is fascinating as Rocco, the gaoler. I’m used to seeing Pape playing magisterial roles like Boris Gudonov or Sarastro. Here, the big voice is coupled with almost bumbling acting as he plays a morally weak character. It’s most interesting. A young Matthew Polenzani, one of my favourite tenors, sings Jacquino and he sings quite beautifully. Marzellini is Jennifer Welch-Babidge who I had never heard before but was sufficiently impressed to go look her up. It seems she’s busy with four kids in Utah and doesn’t spend much time at all in opera houses these days. It’s rather a pity. Falk Struckmann’s Don Pizarro is appropriately villainish and musically solid like everyone else. James Levine conducts and right from the overture launches us into a very intense, muscular reading of the score backed up by a very high standard orchestra. Musically and dramatically this is very satisfying albeit in a thoroughly conservative way.

The production was recorded for TV broadcast and it shows. The sets are already pretty claustrophobic but Brian Large’s video direction amplifies that. One gets the feeling that this is being directed for a 27 inch screen and it looks a bit lost on anything much larger. That said, the picture is more than decent and the DTS 5.1 soundtrack is top notch (Dolby 5.1 and LPCM stereo are also offered). The English subtitles are a bit odd. For some reason “Gouverneur” is translated as “Colonel” and “König” as “President”. I didn’t check the French, German, Spanish or Chinese subs for similar oddness. Bonus material is minimal but the documentation is fairly decent. All in all it’s a typical Deutsche Grammophon release of its period.

This excerpt from Act 1 (Gut, Söhnchen, gut) is pretty typical.