Moors and Christians

Schubert could write great melodies and he had a real affinity for the voice so one might expect him to have been successful when he turned his hand to opera.  He wasn’t with Fierrabras which wasn’t performed until decades after his death and has been revived seldom since, most recently at Salzburg in 2014 where it was recorded. It’s easy to see why.  The libretto is awful and even if the music were really amazing, which it isn’t but more of that later, I doubt it would have made much impact.

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Pelléas et Mélisande in the Valleys

The Gramophone Classical Music Guide 2010 describes the DVD of the 1992 Welsh National Opera performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande thusly:

This is, in every respect, a model of what a DVD ought to be, a perfect realisation in picture and sound of Debussy’s sole and inspired opera.

Followed by a good deal more in the same vein.  This, regrettably, tells us more about the Gramophone Guide than about this DVD(1).  Actually it’s not bad at all by 1992 standards but “a perfect realisation” it isn’t.

Peter Stein’s production is semi-abstract and monotone.  The tone is “dark”.  There’s some interesting lighting but visually it’s pretty nondescript.  The director’s focus is clearly on the actors and their interactions and in a work like Pelléas et Mélisande that makes sense.  There is some very good acting, especially from Alison Hagley as Mélisande.  The tower scene is brought off rather well with perhaps the most extravagant hair extension in the history of opera.  This also features in a disturbingly violent Act 4 Scene 2.  Act 4 also sees a brief appearance by a live sheep, no doubt in deference to local sensibilities.  I’m not entirely convinced that Stein gets enough complexity from his cast to really raise the psychology beyond the cardboard cut out level.  Donald Maxwell’s rather crude and coarse Golaud doesn’t really make a case for his descent into jealousy, madness and murderous rage based on not much at all really.  He’s not helped by the rather colourless Pelléas of Neill Archer.  On the other hand Alson Hagley conveys the fragility and mystery of her character exceptionally well.  (I also wondered whether a visual reference to Gerald of Wales’ Melusine was being made in the tower scene but maybe that’s over-theorising).  She’s very much in the same frantic and febrile mould here as Natalie Dessay on the Theater an der Wien recording.  Kenneth Cox gives a strongly characterised Arkel with particularly good chemistry with Hagley.  Stein uses a boy treble, Samuel Burkey, in the role of Yniold.  It works dramatically but I don’t much care for it musically.

In general the singing is very good.  All the principals have adequate French at least, though they can’t quite match Vienna’s line up of Francophone star talent.  Pierre Boulez conducts.  He gets a very detailed, transparent reading from the WNO orchestra while occasionally pushing out a genuinely Wagnerian dramatic climax.  No complaints here.

Stein also directed for TV/DVD.  It’s pretty conventional 1992 TV direction.  There are lots of close ups but generally there’s no sense that one is missing anything.  Although recorded live, there is no applause and no sign of an audience.  During the orchestral interludes we get film of the orchestral score which is an interesting treatment but tends even more to make this like a film rather than a theatre performance.

The picture is average DVD 16:9 and the sound options are PCM stereo, Dolby 5.1 and DTS 5.1.  The surround tracks were created from an original stereo source using DG’s AMSI II technology.  The DTS track is very decent but not quite up to best modern standards.  Extras include a trailer, a picture gallery and some DG promo material.  Subtitles are French, English, German, Spanish and Chinese.  There’s a trilingual booklet with track listings, synopsis and a short, not very useful essay.

This is a good (though far from perfect!) effort.  It’s definitely worth a look though I personally prefer the more recent Vienna recording.

fn1. I’ve long been skeptical about reviewers who claim that the best recording of a well known work is one made by Fritz Busch in his garden shed in 1935.