Saul og David

Carl Nielsen’s operas don’t get performed much outside his native Denmark so it’s no surprise that the only video recording of his 1902 opera Saul og David was recorded in Copenhagen.  The libretto is a fairly straightforward telling of the familiar story of Saul, David, Goliath, Samuel and so on.  The music is very much of its time.  It’s bold and lyrical; perhaps reminiscent of Strauss in a conventional mood or, perhaps, Elgar.  There are some really good choruses and David and Michal get a gorgeous duet in Act 3.

1-ox

Continue reading

Lulu in HD

649x486_lulu_introYesterday I went to a Met “live in HD” broadcast for the first time since The Nose two years ago.  It was an interesting and ultimately rather depressing experience.  This review really falls into two parts; a review of the production and performance, including how it was filmed for broadcast, and a piece on how the Met is “presenting” the work and how that seems to fit in with its overall HD strategy.  The latter may turn into a bit of a rant.

Continue reading

Christine Goerke debuts as Brünnhilde at COC.

Christine Goerke made her stage debut as Brünnhilde last night in Atom Egoyan’s production of Die Walküre at the COC.  She didn’t disappoint.  It’s a big voice with ringing high notes that ping over the orchestra.  No scooping on the high notes either.  She’s probably the next great Brünnhilde and that’s probably what last night will best be remembered for.  With all the Elektras in her calendar it may also be a a case of “catch it while you can”.  The rest of the singing was pretty distinguished too.  Johan Reuter was a firm toned, perfectly solid Wotan.  Heidi Melton, from beginning to end, was a wonderful Sieglinde to listen to; accurate, sweet of tone (for a dramatic soprano) and almost matching Goerke for power.  Clifton Forbis, the Siegmund, still has genuine Helden high notes and was pleasant to listen to.  One might have wished for a slightly more ardent approach to the Winterstürme scene but it was more than decent.  Dimitry Ivaschshenko was a genuine solid bass Hunding who sounded just right and acted more, and better, than most. Janina Baechle made the most of her cameo as Fricka.  The octet of junior Valkyries, made up of mostly younger singers, injected some youthful vigour into the whole enterprise to good effect.  Johannes Debus in the pit impressed as a Wagnerian once more with a tightly structured and, at appropriate points, opulent reading of the score.  The COC orchestra, always admirable, as so often last night pulled out their best for Johannes.  So, admirable music making.

walkure1 Continue reading

Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Met

We caught Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Met on Wednesday night.  Expectations were high.  It’s Strauss, and rare Strauss at that.  It was our first time at the Met.  The on-line opera world was abuzz with Christine Goerke’s performance as the Dyer’s Wife.  By and large we weren’t disappointed.

frau1 Continue reading

The Copenhagen Ring – Das Rheingold

This 2006 Copenhagen production of Wagner’s Ring has been written about a lot.  It’s been dubbed “the feminist Ring” and a lot has been made of the frequent camera cuts and odd angles.  Actually what struck me most about it was the comparative goriness.  The video direction (by Uffe Borgwandt) didn’t strike me as particularly unusual.  I’d say it was better edited than a typical Halvorson Met broadcast but not so terribly different in spirit.  The main difference is that this is very much presented as a film rather than a documentary record of a live performance.  Oddly it begins very much in live performance mode with footage of the Queen of Denmark taking her seat and of the conductor (Michael Schønwandt) complete with miniatures of his decorations on his tail coat going to the pit.  From then on though we get anything but what the audience in the house saw.

1.rhinemaidens Continue reading

But in me life has halted

It’s perhaps odd that somebody like me, who got into Janáček’s music as a teenager, should have taken so long to discover his operas but I’m so glad I did.  The latest discovery is Věk Makropulos in a 2011 recording from the Groβes Festspielhaus in Salzburg with Angela Denoke as the 337 year old diva Emilia Marty.  It’s a strange work dramatically; a sort of fantastic detective story.  Apparently it’s based on a comedy (by Karel Čapek, the guy who coined the modern meaning of “robot”) though how it got from a comedy to the opera is a bit of a mystery.  It’s weird, compelling and creepy but not at all funny.  It also has a terrific score. Continue reading

The gods look down and laugh

Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur premiered at the Royal Opera House in 2008 and got a DVD and Blu-ray release on Opus Arte not long after. It’s the sort of work I’m susceptible to. It’s a truly integrated music drama based on a classical, indeed universal, theme carried off without any kowtowing to current ideas of trendiness. I’ve watched it a few times now and like most modern works of substance it reveals more with a bit of time and effort.

Librettist David Harsent’s take on the Minotaur myth is not at odds with versions many people will be familiar with (though whether in this day and age I’m not at all sure it’s safe to assume, as Harsent does, that “people are going in with a basic knowledge of the story”) but it does add some interesting ideas. His Minotaur, Asterios in this story, is articulate as a human only in his dreams and his dying moments. At these times he sings in English. As the awake monster in the Labyrinth he is restricted to inarticulate grunts. Also original is Harsent’s take on the relationship between Theseus and Ariadne. He sees this as a thoroughly corrupt relationship based on mutual need but riddles with disgust rather than love and so looking forward to the abandonment on Naxos. It works rather well. With those concepts in place we get a pretty straightforward account of the standard myth with some thoroughly brutal scenes of Asterios killing (and in one case raping) the Innocents in the Labyrinth to the blood curdling encouragement of a masked chorus of spectators. Another non-canonical addition at this point is the introduction of the truly horrific Keres who appear to feast on the bodies and the souls of the victims. It all leads up naturally to the death of Asterios at the hands of Theseus.

Birtwistle’s score is dense, multilayered and uncompromising. It’s clearly Birtwistle and makes no concessions to the current trend to try and make opera sound like a Broadway show. It’s not an easy listen but it repays a bit of effort and contains many interesting and deft ideas. For example Ariadne is paired throughout with the alto saxophone. Sometimes it takes up her singing line and carries it forward, sometimes it doubles her line and so on but nowhere does the saxophone interact with any other character. There’s a similar relationship between Theseus and the more conventional woodwind elements of the orchestra.

The design and direction; Alison Chitty and Stephen Langridge respectively, are very well integrated and are brilliantly supported by the lighting design of Paul Pyant. The result is some quite striking stage imagery that supports the changing moods of the piece really well. They also give us the mask that Asterios wears. It’s a framework affair so depending on the lighting Asterios can be fully beast or his human face under the mask can be made more present. It’s subtle and effective.

The performances are pretty much flawless. John Tomlinson, as Asterios, excels in a piece created for him. Christine Rice as Ariadne manages some really difficult music and a really long sing (she’s on stage nearly all the time) equally well. Johan Reuter (Theseus) has slightly off English intonation but sings powerfully and acts well. There are some excellent performances in the minor roles. For my money the best of these is the First Innocent of Rebecca Bottone who manages to look incredibly fragile but totally convincing during what is perhaps the most visceral scene of all where she is raped and killed by Asterios. There are very good cameos too from Amanda Echalaz as Ker and Philip Langridge as Hiereus. Antonio Pappano conducts and gets the necessary out of both orchestra and chorus.

The video direction is very good indeed. It appears to be a joint effort by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer. The balance of setting shots and close ups is judicious and the close ups aren’t too close. They eschew silly camera angles. The picture on Blu-ray is 16:9 1080i and very good indeed. Sound is DTS 5.0 HD Master Audio and presents a vivid sound picture with good depth and breadth (PCM stereo also available). There are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles. The documentation includes a useful essay on the music and the disk has a 32 minute “Making of” documentary that is more informative than most of its kind.

All in all, this is a very impressive work, beautifully realised on stage and well presented on disk.

For the record the Opus Arte trailer and the whole piece are available on YouTube but the AV quality is appalling.