I’ve seen Robert Pomakov and the Gryphon Trio perform together a few times now and it’s always interesting. Today’s lunchtime concert in the RBA was no exception. Four of Mozart’s concert arias for bass and orchestra, arranged for string trio by Bohdana Frolyak, were interspersed with movements of Heather Schmidt’s Lunar Reflections; a 2008 piece commissioned by the Gryphons inspired by the moon in different seasons of the year. It was stimulating. The concert arias (K.432, K.513, K.512 and K.612) all showcase the bass voice with tectonic low notes and plenty of opportunity for virtuosity. I think they suited Robert pretty well. He’s perhaps not the most subtle of singers but he’s exciting (and loud!) and the trio accompaniment provided so much more than piano alone could.
The Schmidt piece was also enjoyable. It’s fairly approachable and the five movements are quite varied. The first two; Blue Moon and Pink Moon, are quite lyrical, even lush in a slightly post romantic sort of way then comes Wolf Moon which is in an altogether darker place; slower, louder and more dissonant with lots of work for the low notes on the cello. Snow Moon continues in a slower, somewhat dissonant vein but is much lighter textured and the piece concludes quite violently with the aggressive and abrasive Thunder Moon which puts serious demands on all three players but especially the piano. Unsurprisingly, I feel I’ve probably not done this piece justice. I find I need to hear work of this kind more than once to fully appreciate it.
So it’s early November and a recital titled Songs of Remembrance. One might of expected something like the program Chris Maltman presented just down Philosophers’ Walk last year but no, Monica Whicher and Rachel Andrist’s program was gentler. Dare we say “more feminine”? This concert was about remembrance of childhood and love; happy and not so happy. Framed by Roger Quilter’s settings of Blake we got two “concocted cycles” drawn from very diverse sources; English, French and German texts; art song and popular song; composers from Schubert to Richard Rogers and Hans Eisler. It was effective.
A chance to see the young Edita Gruberova’s near legendary portrayal of Zerbinetta would be reason enough to watch the 1978 Vienna recording of Ariadne auf Naxos but, as it happens, there’s much more. For a start the cast includes Gundula Janowitz, Walter Berry, René Kollo and Trudeliese Schmidt plus Karl Böhm, a man who worked closely with Strauss, is conducting.
Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria is the third of the Ponnelle/Harnoncourt Monteverdi collaborations and perhaps the best. Itseems to stick closer to the original Zürich staging and be less obviously a film though it was recorded in the studio and lip synched. The orchestra and conductor are visible and, in Act 3, Irus descends into the pit throws himself all over Harnoncourt. It’s the conductor too who gives him the knife he kills himself with. Is this the first (of many) times when Harnoncourt has been drawn into the theatrical action?
Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo is one of the few 17th works still in the canonical opera repertoire though little performed before the “early music revival”. So it was quite a bold step when the Opernhaus Zürich in the 1970s staged all three extant Monteverdi operas in productions by J-P ponelle and with Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading an orchestra of period instruments. All three productions were subsequently made into lip-synched films and have been re-released on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon as a boxed set.
Johann Strauss’ Eine Nacht in Venedig is a pretty slight piece. In fact it makes Die Fledermaus look like Parsifal. It’s set during Carnival. There’s a visiting duke who is out to bed the last woman in Venice he hasn’t already slept with, the young wife of a doddery senator, but she’s being impersonated by her maid and her foster sister for reasons of their own while she gets off with her nephew. The duke fails to seduce anyone. Ash Wednesday arrives and everybody, on the surface, returns to her proper partner. All this serves as an excuse for lots of boob and thigh flashing, some big dance numbers and lots of, by Fledermaus standards, rather dull music. Continue reading →
There are, I think, eighteen DVD versions of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro currently available so there needs to be something very special about a recording for it to stand out. Unfortunately Stephen Medcalf’s 1994 Glyndebourne production doesn’t really despite having a strong looking cast. It’s a pretty traditional looking production with breeches and crinolines and sets which look a bit like a giant doll’s house. The Personenregie is well thought out and the stage picture often artfully composed. The acting is almost uniformly excellent. It’s a good solid production but with nothing original in the least about it. Continue reading →
Nest season the Canadian Opera Company is presenting a production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. It’s not a work I’ve had any exposure to and it sounded enough like Catholic snuff porn for me not to have bothered before. However, in the interests of furthering my education I got my paws on the library copy of DVD of a 1999 production from Opéra National du Rhin. I actually ended up quite liking the piece though the libretto might well have been written by Gide in one of his darker moments. The score is so tonal that it could almost have been written a hundred years earlier but it’s pleasant enough in a movie soundtrack sort of way. The production in question, by Marthe Keller, is very restrained. Much of the time it’s quite dark with very little happening. The drama is all in the words and expressions of the singers which must have made it quite hard to appreciate from the cheap seats. It’s also very traditional and period in costume and set design while remaining essentially simple. Given that most of the “action” is a series of dialogues that could have been lifted from a theology text this isn’t a bad set of choices. The final scene is almost impossible to stage literally as it involves the mass guillotining of the nuns. Here it’s handled effectively enough by having the nuns step forward in turn and collapse on stage to the successive sounds of the guillotine falling. The final reconnection of Blanche and Constance is really quite affecting. The cast is huge (full list below) There are a few key roles that have to convince for the piece to work. Foremost among these is Blanche de la Force aka Soeur Blanche de l’Agonie du Christ, here played by Anne Sophie Schmidt. She’s a character of deep religious devotion but also getting on for batshit insane. It’s not an easy role to play. Schmidt is really convincing in what could be a bit of a cardboard cutout role if not handled carefully. She also sings very well though occasionally sounds a bit strained in the upper register. The other young nun is Soeur Constance, a very optimistic young lady, played utterly charmingly by Patricia Petitbon. There are also lots of older nuns. I had to keep looking up who was who because it’s a bit like trying to pick out a suspect in a penguin identity parade. The important one’s are the old prioress (Nadine Denize), who dies in the first act, Blanche’s mentor, Mère Marie (Hedwig Fassbender), and the replacement prioress, also Mère Marie (Valérie Millot). All three ladies play their parts convincingly and sing appropriately for the character. Among the men, the stand out for me was the Aumônier of Léonard Pezzino who has a lovely voice. Really though, Blanche aside, this is an ensemble piece with no real opportunities for vocal fireworks. Here the ensemble worked well and was well supported by Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg under Jan Latham-Koenig. I’m not sure how I feel about Don Kent’s video direction. He starts off with artsy stuff in the title sequence and it’s not entirely clear where the credits end and the piece begins. There is something to be said for showing the conductor going to the pit and starting the show. He stays very close in on the singers most of the time which normally drives me nuts but here seems unavoidable and, to be fair, when there is a stage tableau to be seen we see it. There are also grainy black and white images used during some of the orchestral interludes. It’s not entirely clear whether they are projections in the house or inserts in the video. I think the latter but I can’t be sure. It’s perhaps best to enjoy this as a video and not worry too much about how well it reflects what is going on on stage. Technically this isn’t a bad DVD. The 16:9 picture is quite decent and the LPCM Stereo sound is OK though not in the class of the best recent releases. The only subtitle options are English and Chinese. There is a trilingual (English, French, German) booklet with track listing, synopsis and a brief historical essay. The only real competition for this work on DVD is a much starrier La Scala cast in the Robert Carsen production that will be seen in Toronto so this Strasbourg version is probably worth a look for anyone with a serious interest in the work. There’s also an old (1984) Opera Australia version sung in English still in the catalogue.