Resurrection

resurrectionThis review first appeared in the print edition of Opera Canada.

The 1994 recording of Peter Maxwell Davies’ opera Resurrection, previously released on Collins has now been re-released on the Naxos label. It’s a hugely ambitious and somewhat confusing work; even harder to get to grips with on CD than it might be with visuals. It’s an anarchic parody of establishment figures and attitudes executed via a pastiche of multiple musical styles.

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The three countertenors

Handel’s Giulio Cesare presents an interesting casting challenge.  The piece has four high voiced male roles; Cesare, Nireno, Tolomeo and Sesto.  The original production featured three castrati and a soprano en travesti.  I have never seen Sesto cast as other than a trouser role and Nireno and Tolomeo are invariably sung by countertenors.  Cesare himself though seems mostly to go to low mezzo/contralto types.  Indeed it’s seen, I think, as something of a “plum” trouser role.  (Which is interesting as in the production that i will get to describing in a minute, Cesare wears plum trousers).  I’ve seen both Ewa Podleś and Sarah Connolly in the role.  For their 2005 production Royal Danish Opera cast Andreas Scholl as Cesare.  It’s a good choice.  He’s a masculine looking and sounding counter tenor and at least he is taller than his Cleopatra.  It also makes for an interesting set of countertenors.  Tolomeo is sung by the much less masculine Christopher Robson and Nireno by the “more a male soprano than a countertenor” Michael Maniaci.  Sesto goes, conventionally enough, to Tuva Semmingsen, who seems very much to specialize in these types of role.  Apart from the countertenors the piece was cast from the considerable resources of the RDO ensemble with Inger Dam-Jensen as Cleopatra, Randi Stene as Cornelia, John Lundgren as Curio and Palle Knudsen as Achilla.

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The ur Grimes

In 1969 the BBC’s new Director of Music and recording producer of genius, John Culshaw, contrived to align the heavens to permit the recording and broadcast for television of Britten’s Peter Grimes with Peter Pears in the title role and Britten conducting. What’s more it was recorded on a stage set (at The Maltings) with the orchestra in the same room as the singers who sang ‘live’. So, unusually for the time there was neither a double studio set up nor a studio audio recording that was lip synched to the stage performance. There’s a great little essay in the DVD booklet that explains how this all came to pass.

All that said, it’s a 1969 TV broadcast and I expected it to be of largely historic interest. I didn’t expect to get completely sucked in which is what happened. The design and production is very literal. The Boar is a pub. Grimes’ hut is a hut and so on. The people of the Borough are dressed in a range of working class clothes of sometime in the 19th century. They don’t look like a flock of crows on a telephone wire. Oddly, this makes their conformity all the more telling. The direction is a collaboration between Joan Cross who, we are told, directed the singers and Brian Large (who must have been about twelve at the time) who directed the cameras. As you would expect for a 1969 TV production there are lots of close ups which is fine as there was no “house view” here. The orchestral interludes are played out to either abstract patterns (which sometimes look a bit like those gel slides popular in discos of the period) and continuity shots. We don’t see the orchestra or, worse, a heavily perspiring conductor. It’s all straightforward but effective. There are some interesting interpretative nuances. For example in the storm scene in the pub I’ve never seen Grimes’ otherness so well brought out. Also, it’s absolutely starkly clear that Ellen and Balstrode have given up on Peter during Act 2 Scene 1 but he persists most compellingly in his hope until the ‘prentice falls at the end of the act. Pears’ reading of the part at this point is so hopeful that I had to go back and check that the bit where he accuses the boy of betraying him hadn’t been cut.

The performances are mostly strong. Pears’ Grimes is what it is. It’s beautifully sung and the lyrical passages like “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” are gorgeous. It’s not totally convincing though. When he punches Ellen it comes out of nowhere. This dreamy, haunted Grimes just doesn’t have the violent side that the Borough and, ultimately Ellen, see. Heather Harper’s Ellen is gorgeous. She sounds younger and sweeter than in the later Vickers recording. Bryan Drake’s Balstrode is well sung but he’s more of the Borough and less the more broadly travelled and worldly wise character than others make of him. Both Gregory Dempsey as Bob Boles and Elizabeth Bainbridge as Auntie are more delineated than is often the case and Ann Robson gives a decidedly sinister Mrs. Sedley. Other supporting roles are perfectly adequate. Britten conducts the LSO and gives, especially, in the interludes, an even more taut and compelling reading than on the audio recording with the ROH Orchestra ten years earlier. This, for sure, is definitive.

Technically this disc is amazingly good. The 4:3 picture is a bit soft grained but amazing for 1969 TV. The sound is “enhanced Dolby mono” and while, obviously, it doesn’t produce any width or depth it’s clear and bright. (There’s also LPCM mono but its not nearly as good). There are English, French, German and Spanish subtitles.

All in all this is so much more than “just” a historical document. In every way it’s a performance worth watching.

David Alden’s Ariodante

Handel’s Ariodante has, broadly, the same plot as Much Ado About Nothing. The King of Scotland’s daughter is framed as “unfaithful” by the bad guy’s disguised accomplice. Her fiancé goes off the deep end. The bad guy betrays his accomplice. She rats on him. He gets killed. All is revealed. Everybody but the bad guy lives happily ever after. In this 1996 production for English National Opera, David Alden seems to be turning it into a very dark plot with madness, intense and perverse sexual desire, hints of anal rape and a nude drowned in a tank. All in all, a pretty run of the mill Regie approach. Flippancy aside, it actually works quite well. It’s a bit of a slow starter. Act 1 is mostly scene setting and it’s not easy to see what Alden is driving at. Ariodante (Ann Murray) in particular seems to be prey to emotions that have, as yet, no obvious origin. To be honest I was quite puzzled at the end of Act 1 though there appeared to be much that was visually striking going on. At least, that’s what I’m guessing because video director Kriss Rusmanis does his level best to hide most of the stage most of the time.

It picks up in Act 2 where we get more extreme emotion but it’s clearer why. In Act 1 Polinesso (Christopher Robson) is obviously the bad guy but his real nastiness emerges in his treatment of his accomplice/lover, Dalinda (Lesley Garrett). Among other indignities, anal rape appears to be suggested before he drags her off to have his henchmen finish her off. To be fair, Dalinda’s attitude to her treatment is quite equivocal so we can add this to a long list of opera productions with sado-masochistic sub texts. Act 3, in which all is revealed is also dramatically strong besides having some of the best music.  All three acts have fairly lengthy ballets. These are strikingly choreographed by Michael Keenan-Dolan. At least the bits we can see on the DVD are. There’s a particularly effective “nightmare” sequence in Act 2 where the princess Ginevra (Joan Rodgers) is trying to make sense of what has happened to her. The sets are quite painterly with effective use of an upstage window which is used to frame subtextual elements while the main action goes on in front. So, all in all, it works pretty well though it would hardly be David Alden if nothing seemed gratuitous!

Like the drama, this got better musically as time went on. In Act 1 I was really questioning the decision to cast a mezzo in the alto castrato role and a traditional countertenor in what was originally a breeches mezzo role. It does work out. Ann Murray sings brilliantly and muscularly throughout and makes, in the end, a completely convincing Ariodante. Christopher Robson’s Polinesso doesn’t totally convince me. That voice type just doesn’t make for a particularly convincing villain but it does make more sense as his sheer nastiness comes out in his excellent acting. Joan Rodger’s Ginevra definitely gets better as things progress. I think she sounds strained in her upper register in the first act. The notes are there but it isn’t a very beautiful sound. In Acts 2 and 3 she sounds much more at ease despite having to sing while being put through not far short of torture(1).

Lesley Garrett’s Dalinda was a pleasure from first to last. The King of Scotland is Gwynn Howell. It’s the sort of bluff, thankless role that Howell seems to play rather often. He sings perfectly well and is bluff. Paul Nilon sings Lurcanio, Ariodante’s brother. he doesn’t have a lot to do but he does have one glorious duet with Dalinda in Act 3. This is closely followed by another lovely duet between Ginevra and Ariodante. I wish there were more duets and ensembles in Handel operas. They happen rarely but when they do they are usually wonderful. Ivor Bolton conducts the ENO orchestra and they sound OK for a modern band (not my first choice for Handel!). Tempi seem on the slow side. The rival DVD version of this opera comes in 20 minutes shorter. Whether that’s due to cuts or tempi though I can’t say. The ENO chorus doesn’t sound great but this may be the recording, see below.

Musically and dramatically I think this is a recommendable performance. Unfortunately, as a DVD, it’s very hard to find good things to say about it. It was recorded for broadcast on the BBC and is given a treatment I’ve not seen before. I assume it’s taken from a live performance but there is no applause and no curtain calls. What we do get are silent film like “story boards” at key points like the beginning of each act.

For example “Polinesso takes advantage of Dalinda’s blind devotion to further his ambition”. Weirdly, the subtitles repeat the message. I don’t particularly like this approach but it’s not fatal. What is is the failure to show us enough of the stage to figure out the director’s intentions. I ranted about this yesterday so I won’t labour the point but it pretty much wrecks this disc. Technically it’s not so hot either. The picture is OK 16:9, no more. There are two sound tracks; Dolby 5.1 and Dolby 2.0. The surround sound version is about the worst sound I’ve ever encountered on an opera DVD. It’s mixed so that the subwoofer booms out the bass line in a most unmusical fashion. It’s horrible. The stereo track is OK though it gets a bit odd in parts of Act 3, especially the final chorus. Either that or the ENO Chorus really is having a bad night. The only sub-titles are English and there is no documentation beyond a chapter list. (This is the North American release on Image. It wouldn’t be unprecedented for the European version to have more acceptable sound).

It’s a bit of a shame. I would really like to have a proper look at this production.