O Fortuna!

At Roy Thomson Hall last night for the TSO playing Carl Orff’s extravaganza Carmina Burana.  It was fun.  I don’t think it’s a piece to over-intellectualize.  Big orchestra, enormous choir (Toronto Mendelssohn Choir augmented by the Toronto Youth Choir plus the Toronto Children’s Chorus), bawdy Latin lyrics and so on.  It’s big, brash and mostly quite loud though I think Donald Runnicles did a fine job of balancing orchestra and voices, especially when the soloists or the children were singing.

Mendelssohn Choir-06-2019- Nick Wons--35

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Jessye Norman’s Glenn Gould Prize

Last night the main stage of the Four Seasons Centre was the setting for celebrating the award of the twelth Glenn Gould prize to the great Jessye Norman.  There were speeches, of course, celebrating Ms. Norman’s life as a singer rising to the top of the profession from unpromising origins as well as her lifetime of educational and philanthropic endeavours.  They were decently short and to the point allowing us to get onto to the music, though not before we had heard Ms. Norman’s heartfelt and very touching acceptance speech.

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It’s in the blood

I guess previous times I’ve seen Janáček’s Jenůfa I haven’t really noticed the role that the idea of “bad blood” or inherited depravity plays in the plot but it’s there almost as starkly as in certain works by Zola and Buchan.  Perhaps one of the strengths of Christof Loy’s very clean 2014 production for the Deutsche Oper is that it tends to show up such details.  It’s certainly a very low key setting.  All the action takes place in a plain white room with minimal furnishing.  Costuming is modern (sort of); maybe 1950s or so.  Sometimes one gets a hint of rather more going on on the edge of the stage but Brian Large’s typically close up video direction makes it hard to be sure.  So, at least on disk, it’s all about the characters and their interactions and they are drawn pretty clearly.

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Dusty Capriccio

The 1993 San Francisco Opera production of Strauss’ Capriccio is about as literal a take on the work as one could imagine.  Stephen Lawless’ production sticks to the stage directions as laid down with an almost fetishistic fidelity.  This is backed up by highly decorated costumes and sets firmly placed in a slightly over elaborated 1775.  The traditionalists dream?  I suppose so if one thinks that Strauss and Krauss meant the work to be taken literally.  I don’t.  This is an opera about an opera about opera.  It begs to be deconstructed and the time and circumstances of its composition tend to reinforce the idea that all is not as it seems.  To take it at face value is actually a bit absurd but that’s what happens here and the result is rather dull and unsatisfying. Continue reading

Four decades of Peter Grimes

Having now had a chance to watch and review all five currently available video recordings of Peter Grimes I thought I might do a summary of the strengths and weaknesses of each. All of them have some merit and I doubt that there would be consensus on a “winner”. Anyway, here goes…

BBC film 1969
Grimes – Peter Pears
Conductor – Benjamin Britten
Director – Joan Cross & Brian Large

This is an essential historical document with both composer and the creator of the role involved. The production is straightforward and naturalistic. The sound and video quality is surprisingly good for the period. It does, though, leave one with the feeling that there is more to the role of Grimes than Pears finds.

Royal Opera House 1981
Grimes – Jon Vickers
Conductor – Colin Davis
Director – Elijah Moshinsky

Also a historical landmark being the first major production where Grimes wasn’t sung by Peter Pears. It has the excellent Heather Harper as Ellen Orford. The production is quite dull and very dimly lit. Vickers’ Grimes is controversial. In places he sounds fantastic and in others sorely taxed. His acting is oddly stilted. Norman Bailey fails to convince as Balstrode.  Sound and picture quality are OK.

English National Opera 1994
Grimes – Philip Langridge
Conductor – David Atherton
Director – Tim Albery

This is the production with most sense of the sea as a character brought out through innovative use of video projection. Langridge’s Grimes is intense, convincing and beautifully sung. Alan Opie is a very strong Balstrode. Unfortunately the orchestra and chorus aren’t up to rival versions and all aspects of the DVD; video direction, sound quality and picture quality are rather poor.

Opernhaus Zürich 2005
Grimes – Christopher Ventris
Conductor – Franz Welser-Möst
Director – David Pountney

This is a very fine and thought provoking production with any number of magical moments. Ventris is a first class Grimes combining power and sensitivity and the supporting performances all have merit, save perhaps for Alfred Muff’s sub-par Balstrode. The orchestra and chorus are quite superb. The performance gets a thoroughly sympathetic treatment on DVD with good video directing backed up by quite excellent sound and picture quality.

Metropolitan Opera 2008
Grimes – Anthony Dean Griffey
Conductor – Donald Runnicles
Director – John Doyle

This is a rather dull and dark production given a very eccentric treatment by the video director. Dean Griffey is a lyrical and sympathetic Grimes well backed up by the supporting cast, especially Anthony Michaels-Moore as Balstrode and Teddy Tahu-Rhodes as Ned Keene. The orchestra and chorus are excellent and Runnicles is fairly convincing though the first act drags a bit. The sound and picture quality is excellent.

La Scala, 2012
2.theboarGrimes: John Graham-Hall
Conductor: Robin Ticciati
Director: Richard Jones

Richard Jones’ production, updated to the 1980s, is quirky. John Graham-Hall is quite lyrical as Grimes but slips into pseudo speech a lot. Susan Gritton fails to convince as Ellen Orford. The supporting cast, the orchestra and the conducting are first rate but the chorus is decidedly sub-par. The Blu-ray sound and picture outclasses all previous versions but, overall, this recording fails to convince.

Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach, 2013
1.prologueGrimes: Allan Oke
Conductor: Steuart Bedford
Director: Tim Albery/Margaret Williams

This film is a record of the unique production staged on Aldeburgh beach by Tim Albery and filmed by Margaret Williams. It’s highly atmospheric and features a brilliant performance by Alan Oke but conditions were not ideal for the singers and musically this cannot match the best available recordings from the theatre.

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