Street Scene in Madrid

It’s not easy to figure out how to stage Kurt Weill’s Street Scene.  On the one hand it’s a gritty story of violence and poverty and hopelessness.  On the other hand it’s got classic Broadway elements; romance, glitzy song and dance numbers etc.  It’s also, cleverly and deliberately, musically all over the place with just about every popular American musical style of the period incorporated one way or another.

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The Devil it is

Boito’s Mefistofele is a rather odd work.  It’s truer to the original Goethe than other operatic versions of the Faust legend which means it’s very episodic and focuses on the Faust/Mefistofele relationship rather than on Margherita.  In fact she’s dead with an act and an epilogue still to go.  It’s hard to categorize musically too.  Some parts are rather bombastic, vulgar even, yet at other times we seem to be drifting into bel canto territory.  So it’s a bit uneven; listenable enough but not very memorable.

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Madama Butterfly revived but not revitalised

The COC’s production of Madama Butterfly opened last night at the Four Seasons Centre.  I’m not a huge Madama Butterfly fan and it takes a really good production and a really good performance to get me past my instinctive dislike for a libretto based on child rape and sex tourism backed by Puccini soup with an infusion of Mikado.  This production, being revived for the umpty umpth time (It dates back to the Brian Dickie era) just wasn’t that.  Director Brian Macdonald writes in the programme “We both (he and Dickie) had had experience at the Stratford Festival.  That meant wood, simple props, no decoration that wouldn’t bespeak the essence of the play”.  Throw in an Allen key and it would sound like a trip to IKEA.  Which is pretty much what the designs are like; clean, functional and inoffensive.  Throw in costumes and gestures straight from the Mikado and you have it.  Not bad.  Just meh.

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The COC’s 2014/15 season announced

Russell Braun as Don Giovanni - Photo Credit Javier del Real

Russell Braun as Don Giovanni – Photo Credit Javier del Real

Yesterday evening saw the announcement of the line up for the COC’s 2014/15 season.  The usual rather prosaic press conference was replaced with a glitzy reception and main stage show featuring Brent Bambury of the COC interviewing Alexander Neef, Johannes Debus and others plus piano accompanied performances by Simone Osborne, Russel Braun, Robert Gleadow, Charlotte Burrage and Aviva Fortunata.

There were few surprises, in itself no surprise given the number of official and unofficial “leaks” this time around.  There are three productions new to Toronto, all COC copros, and three revivals so it’s an “all COC” season with no rentals or other imports.  Here’s what’s coming up:

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The Met’s Peter Grimes

I liked the 2008 MetHD broadcast of Britten’s Peter Grimes enough to buy the DVD as soon as it came out. After something of a hiatus I just watched it again.

It’s an odd production. The director (Tony award winning – run for the hills) John Doyle, was the first to use, I think, what has now become a Met cliché; a wall with windows running the whole width and height of the set. In this case it can be moved forward and back but mostly it’s forward compressing the depth of the stage. The idea is to convey the claustrophobic nature of the Borough which is fair enough but mostly what it does it confine the enormous chorus to a space it barely fits in meaning there are few options but to have it face straight forward in serried ranks and sing. To be fair, there are scenes where it’s very effective; the opening inquest scene for example and “Peter, we’ve come to take you home” in Act 3. It’s much less successful in, for example, the pub scene. The production is also very dark. This always bothers me because despite eating vast quantities of carrots my night vision isn’t great. I don’t really get it.

Dark as a metaphor is pretty blatant and comes at a heavy cost in terms of the production’s ability to convey anything else. Only at the end, in the final chorus, is the wall removed and the stage lit less funereally. The sea interludes are played out in front of a blank wall. No effort is made to give them visual accompaniment. The “wall” and the naked Interludes both tend to banish the sea from the production. There’s really no sense that the Borough is a fishing village and therefore the whole role that the sea plays in the psyche of people who make their living from it is lost.

The video director, Gary Halvorson, appears either to hate the production or think that the cinema/DVD audience is too thick to get it because he relentlessly undermines it. Unable to present the dark, stark stage that Doyle has called for he gives us a compilation of super closeups and really weird camera angles; pointing up from the side of the pit, pointing down from what looks like the cheapest seats at the outermost edge of Ring 4 and so on. He also can’t accept that the director doesn’t want to distract from the music during the Interludes so we get a succession of close ups on audio members and, more especially, on conductor Donald Runnicles. This is particularly unfortunate as Runnicles conducts like a hyperactive and self regarding pterodactyl.

The above got over with there’s much to like in this DVD set. The performances are generally very good. Tony Dean Griffey is a highly effective Peter Grimes as well as singing very well. He’s close to Peter Pears in his almost dreamy interpretation. He lacks the intensity of Langridge or the brutality of Vickers but its a valid and compelling portrayal. Anthony Michaels-Moore almost steals the show as Balstrode. This is surely the best take on the role since Geraint Evans. The sense that he’s the one man who really wants to help Grimes but knows when enough is enough is overwhelming. There are good performances in the other male roles especially from Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Ned Keene. The women are more of a mixed bag. I still can’t really get into Patricia Racette’s Ellen Orford. She acts well and is sometimes very lyrical but at other times she seems shrill and her vibrato too much for my taste. The Auntie of Jill Groves though is really good. Even toned and with a suitably cynical but not unkind persona she nails the role. The Mrs. Sedley of the timeless(1) Felicity Palmer is also quite excellent. She’s acid without being unmusical and not at all caricature like. Donald Runnicles takes things at a generally rather leisurely pace which makes the first act in particular drag a bit but the tension does build and there’s no disputing the beauty of the orchestral playing. The chorus is excellent throughout.

Technically it’s a typical DVD transfer of a MetHD broadcast. The picture quality is very good and the DTS 5.1 sound is excellent (LPCM also available). There are subtitles in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. There’s a track listing, synopsis and unhelpful essay printed in English (French and German versions in PDF on the disk). The interval features are typical but livened up a bit by Natalie Dessay who seems more willing to go off script than the other Met regulars (probably why she no longer seems to appear).

Bottom line, it’s good but I’m still searching for the ultimate DVD Grimes.

fn1 timeless as in I saw the, then, Ms. Palmer sing Pamina the month after I saw Vickers sing Grimes in 1975