Dark but straightforward Zauberflöte

The 2003 Royal Opera House recording of Die Zauberflöte has a terrific cast and it has Sir Colin Davis conducting.  The production is by David McVicar and it’s one of those that make one wonder how he ever got a “bad boy” reputation.  It’s perfectly straightforward though rather dark (emotionally and physically) and has a vaguely 18th century vibe.  In places it seems a bit minimalist, as if the director couldn’t really be bothered with things like the Trials.  The interview material rather suggests that McVicar was a bit overawed by doing Mozart with the great Sir Colin and tried very hard to match his rather old fashioned theatrical sensibilities.

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David Alden’s Poppea

I’m never quite sure what to expect from David Alden.  Some things are predictable; striking images, bold colours and a degree of vulgarity, but beyond that it’s hard to be sure.  Sometimes he seems to be trying to be deep (his Lucia for example), sometimes more kitschy (Rinaldo) and there’s always a slight undercurrent of him thumbing his nose at the audience.  His production of L’incoronazione di Poppea at Barcelona’s Liceu is a curious combination of all these things and I think it works pretty well.

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Best of 2013

So what was I most impressed with on the opera and related scene in in 2013?

Big house opera

frau1The COC had a pretty good twelve months.  I enjoyed everything I saw except, maybe, Lucia di Lammermoor.  Making a choice between Christopher Alden’s probing La Clemenza di Tito, the searing opening night of Peter Sellars’ Tristan und Isolde; the night when I really “got” why people fly across oceans to see this piece, Robert Carsen’s spare and intensely moving Dialogues des Carmélites or Tony Dean Griffey’s intense and lyrical portrayal of the title character in Peter Grimes is beyond me.  So, I shall be intensely disloyal to my home company and name as my pick in this category the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten.  Wernicke’s production is pure magic and Anna Schwanewilms was a revelation.

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An anti-Valentine

selig_franz_josefToday’s lunchtime recital in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre was a recital of Schubert and Strauss songs on the theme “Love’s Dark Shore”.  The performers were German bass Franz-Josef Selig, in town singing King Marke in Tristan und Isolde, and the COC’s own Rachel Andrist at the piano.  There wasn’t much about “Love” in the pieces chosen but there was plenty of death, depression and despair.  One might think it would be a complete downer but nobody could possibly be depressed witnessing the artistry of Selig.

Those who have heard Selig in Tristan know that he has a massive voice.  It was fascinating to hear him turn it to lieder.  He is a very German lieder singer in the best possible way.  He enunciates with great clarity and gets full value out of the meaning of every phrase.  He clearly loves the texts.  He also manages his huge voice wonderfully.  Mostly he sang quite quietly with beautiful legato and perfect control but when he wanted volume it was there in abundance and without strain.  He also has a real range of tone colour and sheer beauty of tone.  Often he sounded more like a baritone than a bass but he could get almost tectonically low when he needed to.  It was very impressive.  Rachel’s accompaniment was perfectly fine too though I think most of the audience was focussed on the voice.

I did hear a few grumbles about the unrelieved darkness of the material but I felt the works suited the singer and it was, as these things are, a fairly short programme so the lack of variety didn’t really bother me.  All in all, a very worthwhile way to spend one’s lunch break.

Back to Tristan

Last night the lemur and I braved the biggest snow storm in several years to catch Tristan und Isolde at the Four Seasons Centre.  It was the same production I saw last Tuesday but with Michael Baba and Margaret Jane Wray replacing Ben Heppner and Melanie Diener in the title roles.  I was also sitting at the front of the Orchestra Ring which is a very different sight line than the back of Ring 3.  There’s no way to avoid saying this, it was hugely disappointing and especially so as it was the first time the lemur had seen the show and I had been talking it up excitedly since Tuesday.  Baba and Wray sounded underpowered and under-rehearsed.  The big Act 2 duet, O sink’ hernieder, Nacht der Liebe, that had left me literally shaking on Tuesday merely left me shaking my head.  What had been a glorious, transcendent, hypnotic wave of sound had turned to mush.  It was a relief when Franz-Josef Selig, King Marke, took over.  At last we got some Wagnerian singing of style and class.  Act 3 wasn’t much better.  To be fair, the rest of the cast was just as good as on opening night and the orchestra deservedly got the loudest and longest applause of the night.  But Tristan und Isolde needs, as Isolde points out, Tristan and Isolde.

Tristan und Isolde - 0013 - Credit Chris Hutcheson

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Highest, purest joy

12-13-03-MC-D-0022-21After seeing Peter Sellars on Monday night I decided that (a) I had to see Ben Heppner as Tristan and (b) I couldn’t wait until next Friday when I have tickets to see Michael Baba in the role.  So, I skipped out of the office yesterday morning and with a little help (thanks Sergey!) scored a standing room ticket for last night’s opening.  (At $12 for nearly five hours music this was a remarkable bargain!).  I’m back at my desk on five hours sleep and I’m still in shock.  This will go down in legend.

I’d only seen Tristan und Isolde once before, in a disastrous MetHD broadcast, which had been so irritating that the music left little impression.  Other times I’d attempted it on DVD I couldn’t get past the nothinghappensness of it.  Last night I finally got it.  In Sellars’ production not much happens on stage.  The singers, in non descript monochrome outfits, come and go or stand around in square light spots.  They gesture in characteristically Sellarian fashion but it’s almost classic “park and bark”.  But, and it’s a huge but, behind them there is a giant screen on which videos by Bill Viola play more or less continuously and through them he evokes time and place and we see the inner journeys of the characters.  It’s really hard to describe but it works brilliantly.  To counterpoint the long meditative sections, when there is action it often happens off stage.  The chorus sing off stage from various parts of the house and characters, too, appear on the orchestra apron or high up in the Rings.  These action moments are often accompanied by lighting that encompasses the auditorium and implicates us in the action (but not the dark inner journey of Tristan and Isolde).  It’s great.  (1)

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Free Concert Series 2012/13

The COC has announced the line up for the 2012/13 series of free concerts in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre. There’s the usual mix of vocal, instrumental, jazz, world music and dance. There are plenty of opportunities to see the Ensemble Studio members as well as solo gigs by Franz-Josef Selig and Anna Christy. For fans of Indian classical music there’s also a sarangi recital by Aruna Narayan. Also of interest is a concert by Queen of Puddings Music Theatre “Inspired by Lorca”.

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Puzzling but well sung Don Giovanni

I looked at the cast list for the 1999 Wiener Staatsoper Don Giovanni and almost drooled. Carlos Alvarez, Franz-Josef Selig, Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, Adrianne Pieczonka, Anna Catarina Antonacci, Michael Schade, Angelika Kirchschlager and Lorenzo Regazzo. Add to that Riccardo Muti in the pit and musically it’s going to be hard to miss. So, unsurprisingly it turns out musically excellent across the board. I particularly enjoyed Michael Schade’s Don Ottavio. His supremely stylish singing and excellent acting added up to perhaps the best interpretation I’ve seen of perhaps opera’s dullest character. One might have reservations about Pieczonka’s Donna Anna but I think it’s a matter of taste. She can sing very prettily as she shows in her final duet with Schade but when she ups the volume she has great power but significantly less beauty of tone. It really boils down to one’s personal feelings about casting a genuine dramatic soprano in the role. I guess casting a mezzo as Zerlina is a bit unusual too but Kirchschlager is very good indeed. All in all it’s as well sung a Don Giovanni as I have heard.

So, what about Roberto de Simon’s production and, supporting it, the acting? First, this production was performed at the Theater an der Wien so space on stage is tight and there’s a tendency for the singers to migrate to front centre stage for their big numbers giving a bit of a “park and bark” feeling. This is reinforced on the DVD by excessive use of close ups. If there is anything else going on we mostly don’t see it. This is a problem because there are some potentially interesting ideas in the production that don’t seem to be fully developed and that may be because the DVD viewer doesn’t see them develop. The first “big idea” is that as the piece progresses the costumes get more modern. Characters update roughly a hundred years on each appearance starting in the 16th century and going up to around 1900. The progression though is uneven and even my resident costume historian had trouble decoding some of the statements. It has to be said too that the early costumes in particular are sometimes bizarrely stylized. Don Giovanni gets visibly younger as the action progresses too. Add to that that there are two statues of the Commendatore; a 16th century one and a 19th century one. The former accepts Don Giovanni’s dinner invitation but the latter shows up. What are we to read into these elements and are they connected? To say that the characters are “timeless archetypes” seems to be a total “so what?” but I don’t have a deeper explanation. The second element is a flirtation with commedia. It’s never full on but we see glimpses of Harlequin in Leporello. In the opening scene he’s wearing what looks like a Harlequin costume that’s been desaturated in Photoshop as well as clown face. Don Giovanni’s acting too has some commedia elements. In particular there’s heavy use of the right-hand-shielding-left-side-of-the-face gesture in the opening scene with Donna Anna and it recurs in the final scene with the statue of the Commendatore. It gives Don Giovanni a sort of cheeky chappy quality at two of the most serious moments of the opera. Why? I don’t know. There are other, more or less isolated, visual references to the commedia sprinkled through the piece.

The final element of commedia is that Masetto is played as a complete clod. He’s the stock dim peasant rather than someone who recognizes Don Giovanni for what he is, the class enemy, from the get go. This is then set against an even more knowing than usual Zerlina.  Certainly in “Batti, batti” she appears to be offering far more than poor old Masetto can begin to grasp. Whatever it’s all supposed to mean, the cast give it their all and are clearly acting their hearts out and at least it’s never dull.

The biggest problem with the disc though is the video direction. Once again it’s Brian “close up” Large. With such a small stage it ought to be quite easy to show us what is happening but instead we get super close up on super close up. I particularly hate it when several people are singing and the director is just showing us a headshot of one of them. It interferes with my ability to hear the rest apart from anything else. Besides I don’t have a tonsil fetish. This comes to a final utterly annoying climax in the confrontation between the Commendatore and Don Giovanni. Large keeps cutting back and forth between full screen head shots of the pair of them. Ugh!

Technically it’s OK for a 1999 DVD recording. The picture is decent 16:9 and the LPCM stereo soundtrack is OK but not stunning. There are English, French, German, Italian and Spanish subtitles. There are no extras which is no surprise as it’s all squashed onto one DVD9 disc.

All in all, definitely worth a look but if you figure out what the director is driving at please let me know!