La morte d’Orfeo

Stefano Landi’s La morte d’Orfeo of 1619 is interesting for several reasons.  It’s one of relatively few operas from this early in the history of the art form that we have enough information on to perform.  It was also written in and for Rome so it reflects the clerical influences of that environment rather than the more secular Venice of Monteverdi.  It’s also an unusual take on the Orfeo legend.  It takes off from where Monteverdi and many others leave off.  Euridice is dead, for good this time, and the opera deals with the balance of Orfeo’s life.  Briefly, he is heartbroken and renounces Pleasure; including wine and women.  He compounds this by not inviting Bacco to a birthday celebration attended by most of the other gods.  Bacco and his female followers are not pleased.  Orfeo is torn to pieces by the Maenads.  Orfeo is quite OK with this because now he will be united with Euridice but Charon refuses to take him; a demi-god, across the Styx.  Mercury fetches Euridice from the Elysian Fields but she has drunk from Lethe and doesn’t recognise him.  She’s quite clear that she wants nothing to do with this so-called Orfeo.  Giove makes it up to Orfeo (who also drinks the water of Lethe and forgets Euridice) by making him into a constellation and all the gods rejoice.  (for consistency’s sake I’ve used the Italianised versions of the Roman versions of the various Greek characters in the same way as the libretto).

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Fear and loathing in Corinth

Cherubini’s 1797 opéra comique Médée was one of the first to use the form for serious drama.  Krzysztof Warlikowski’s 2011 production filmed at La Monnaie in Brussels is certainly that.  Jason, Medea and the rest are very contemporary characters though we often see them against a backdrop of 1960s style home movies and the chorus too, which tends to remain in the background also seems to be from the same period.The meaning of this juxtaposirtion isn’t clear and there is nothing on the disks or in the documentation to help.  We are also told that the libretto was adapted by Warlikowski and dramaturge Christian Longchamp but nothing more than that.  This is definitely a production where the director’s notes would be a major plus.

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Brotherly love

Rameau’s Castor et Pollux is a tragédie lyrique in five acts.  It’s a mythology based libretto which, ultimately, celebrates the fraternal love of the twins who rise to immortality while rather callously discarding the female human love interest.  Pierre Audi’s 2008 production for De Nederlandse Opera nods both to the baroque and to the mythological by staging the work in a rather abstract Sci-Fi sort of way but with moving sets and Fx that suggest, rather than reproduce, the stagecraft of the baroque.

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Beyond Good and Evil

Rameau’s Zoroastre is a tragédie lyrique in five acts.  It’s basically a story of love, power and revenge coupled with a metaphysical struggle between Good and Evil.  It has a seriously convoluted plot involving demons, incantations, good and evil spirits, a magical talisman book and human sacrifice.  Watching the illustrated synopsis on the disk is strongly recommended!  Being the baroque French beast that it is this work also has lots of ballets.  Pierre Audi’s production was staged and filmed at the court theatre at Drottningholm and is a sort of almost, but not quite, HIP concept, somewhat akin to Robert Carsen’s production of Les Boréades.

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Poppea without passion

I’m not sure whether it was director Pierre Audi’s intention or a lack of chemistry between the principals but the 1994 Amsterdam production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, while extremely elegant, lacks gut punch.  The stage has been extended to mostly cover the pit leaving the band (only seventeen musicians) in a triangular space cut into the extended stage.  Much use is made of a staircase into the pit for entrances and exits.  The large stage area is sparsely furnished with objects suggesting, rather than being, rocks, furniture etc.  The costumes, by Emi Wada, are odd indeed ranging from a nurse who appears to be wearing sculpture to a Seneca who wears what looks like an old bedspread that the cat has used as a scratchy toy.  Within this fairly artificial and abstract concept Audi manoeuvers his singers in complex ways (or at least he seems to when the video director lets us see) supported by a complex and atmospheric lighting plot.  It really ought to be terrific but it just doesn’t get there. Continue reading

Stylish gender bending

I guess Serse gets performed as often as any Handel opera but there only appears to be one DVD version in the original Italian available. It’s a 2000 production from the Dresdner Musikfestspiele. Michael Hampe directs a cast of, then, fairly young singers, few of them familiar to me. Christophe Rousset conducts Les Talens Lyriques and the Ludwigshafener Theaterchor. It’s a really good DVD. The costumes and sets, by Carlo Tommasi, are a sort of mid 19th century European with “exotic” touches. There’s a consistent palette of black, white, grey and silver with a little deep blue and cream intruding. It’s all very elegant. The direction is more than competent. The relationships between characters are explored and Sandrine Piau, as Atalanta gets to exploit her considerable comic talents. To cap it all off we get a few, very apt, pyrotechnic surprises right at the end.

The singing is uniformly excellent. Paula Rasmussen, a mezzo, is cast in the castrato title role. It’s a role where personally I’d prefer a David Daniels or a Lawrence Zazzo but she manages to look and sound masculine enough. The same is true for Ann Hallenberg as “his” brother Arsamene; a genuine mezzo role. Patricia Bardon sings Amastre, Serse’s discarded lover who spends 9/10 of the opera disguised as a man. Ms Bardon manages the difficult feat of acting a woman pretending to be a man convincingly which is obviously quite different from a woman acting a man. I won’t try and describe the singing performances individually because I would just end up using “stylish” way too much. These are all thoroughly idiomatic Handel performances with tasteful decoration, lovely legato and accurate coloratura. The two sisters Romilda and Atalanta are played by sopranos Isobel Bayrakdarian and Sandrine Piau. It was a real pleasure to be reminded of what a fine Handelian Bayrakdarian was right at the start of her career. Her singing is just gorgeous. Piau is great too. She has great comic timing in a role that really needs it and she also gets the most coloratura fireworks which she handles very well indeed. The guys who play guys are Marcello Lippi as girls’ father, Ariodate, and Matteo Peirone as the servant, Elviro. These are both essentially buffo roles and both men are well up to them. I don’t think I’ve heard M.Rousset and his Les Talens Lyriques before but they are as good a Baroque band as I have come across. The chorus doesn’t have much to do but it does fine with what it does have. All in all, it’s very satisfying musically and dramatically.

Direction for TV/DVD is by Philip Behrens and it’s OK. There aren’t too many intrusive close ups though it’s a 4:3 picture so some of that is a bit inevitable. Picture quality is pretty typical of TV to VD productions. Sound options are PCM stereo or Dolby 5.1. The surround version sounded very good. There are no extras on the disk and the documentation is pretty basic. It’s a Euroarts production.

There’s a ten minute trailer up on Youtube that gives a really pretty good idea of what to expect though it’s a bit short on comedy and there’s no Sandrine Piau. Here it is.

And here’s some Sandrine Piau.