I’ve been impressed by Jonathan Dove’s art songs so I was glad to be able to take a look at one of his operas. It’s The Adventures of Pinocchio and it was recorded in a production by Opera North at Sadlers Wells in 2008. I feel a bit ambivalent about it. I really like the music but I’m not hugely engaged by the libretto. I think this is largely because of the subject matter so it may come off better for someone else.
New Yorkers will get a chance to see Zhang Huan’s somewhat controversial production of Handel’s Semele at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in March. The COC is touring the production, seen in Toronto in 2012, with the wonderful Jane Archibald again taking the title role. The supporting cast is, on paper at least, more than a match for the one seen at COC. Colin Ainsworth is the god Jupiter, and Welsh contralto Hilary Summers portrays both Jupiter’s jealous wife, Juno, and Ino, Semele’s sister. Katherine Whyte playsJuno’s messenger, Iris and Kyle Ketelsen sings both Semele’s father, Cadmus, and the god of sleep, Somnus. Athamas will be sung by Lawrence Zazzo. Christopher Moulds conducts with the COC Orchestra and Chorus.
In 1985 the Royal Opera House staged film director john Schlesinger’s production of Der Rosenkavalier to mark the 25th anniversary of Sir Georg Solti’s house debut. It’s an essentially traditional production. We are in 1740s Vienna and both costumes and set are highly elaborate. The opening scene stars one of the largest beds ever seen on an opera stage. That said, it’s well put together. The chemistry between the principals is good and the nonsense at the beginning of Act 3 is deftly handled. There are a number of small touches that help set the tone too. For example, at the beginning of Act 2 fake books are being installed in the Faninal “library”.
Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick has been successful in a way few contemporary operas are. Since its Dallas premiere in 2010 it has been given in Adelaide, Calgary, San Diego and, most recently, San Francisco where it was recorded in 2012. It’s not hard to see why it has been a success. The subject is dramatic and has been skilfully compressed into a little over two hours by librettist Gene Scheer and the score steers the fine line between accessibility and triviality. Add to that a visually appealing production and it’s a winning package.
Deborah Warner’s entry point to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is the, almost certainly apocryphal, story about it premiering in a girls’ boarding school. At various points in the action we get a chorus of schoolgirls in modernish uniforms commenting silently on the action. They are on stage during the overture, are seen in dance class during some of the dance music and queue up for the Sailor’s autograph. It’s quite touching and adds to the pathos of the basic, simple, tragic story. Warner also adds a prologue (the original is lost). In Warner’s version Fiona Shaw declaims, and acts out, poems by Ovid/Ted Hughes, TS Eliot and WB Yeats. These additions aside the piece is presented fairly straightforwardly in a sort of “stage 18th century” aesthetic. The witch scenes are quite well handled with Hilary Summers as a quite statuesque sorceress backed up by fairly diminutive (and, for witches, quite cute) Céline Ricci and Ana Quintans. Their first appearance is quite restrained but they go to town quite effectively in their second appearance.
Bellini’s I Puritani is one of those 19th century operas that dishes out a version of 16th or 17th century English history that’s all but unrecognisable to anyone with any actual knowledge of the subject. In this case we are in Cromwell’s Commonwealth and the nasty Puritans want to off anyone with a Stuart connection including the widowed queen Henrietta. Various implausibly named Puritan colonels (everyone in the New Model apparently holds that rank) feature as well as a Royalist earl who is, of course, in love with the Roundhead commander’s daughter. Immediately prior to marrying her though he decides to save Henrietta from execution and escapes with her thus triggering the obligatory mad scene, which is probably the main reason for watching this thing at all. Finally Arturo (the earl) returns, is captured and, inevitably, sentenced to death. As he is being led to the block Cromwell’s messenger arrives with the second most improbable reprieve in all of opera. The Stuarts have been defeated and everyone is pardoned. A happy ending with fortissimo soprano high notes ensues.
Simon Boccanegra was the work that persuaded me that maybe I did like Verdi after all. It’s a terrific score and if the plot isn’t without it’s artificialities it’s full of strong characters and strong emotions which Verdi brings to life with fabulous orchestral and vocal writing.
The most recent DVD version to appear is of the 2010 Royal Opera House production that was broadcast live on the BBC. It features Placido Domingo in his baritone incarnation in the title role. There’s a strong supporting cast with Ferrucio Furlanetto as his arch enemy, Fiesco; Jonathan Summers as the villain, Paolo; Joseph Calleja as the young rebel, Gabriele Adorno and Marina Polpavskaya as Boccanegra’s “lost” daughter, Amelia/Maria. The singing and acting are generally very strong. Placido is, of course, terrific. What more can one say? Furlanetto is a strong foil; excellent in both the prologue and the crucial final scenes. Summers is more than adequate though I might have hoped for more of a frisson when he curses himself. The real star for me is Calleja. He has a gorgeous voice and can float out a lovely pianissimo. His big aria early in the second act is particularly good but he is excellent all through the piece. The one weak link is Poplavskaya’s Amelia. It’s not bad. She acts well and looks the part but one really wishes for more beauty of tone. Pieczonka, in the Met HD broadcast, was much closer to the required vocal quality. Ensemble work throughout is excellent and there are some big set pieces! Antonio Pappano conducts brilliantly. He gets really good playing from the orchestra which is pretty crucial as there are some cruelly exposed woodwind and brass lines. He manages drama and urgency while still giving the singers room to do their thing when they need it. All in all, this is musically very satisfying.
The production, by Elijah Moshinsky, is pretty conventional. It’s a period setting with simple designs that suggest renaissance paintings. There are a few nice touches like the graffiti on the walls in the exterior scenes but mostly the look is just undistracting. There’s nothing beyond the text in the way the story is told either. Blocking is fairly basic and there’s a fair bit of “park and bark”. One senses that Moshinsky’s efforts have gone into character development rather than in trying to make any bold statement.
Sue Judd directed for TV and video and it’s a conventional TV view with too many close ups. She needs to watch some of François Roussillon’s recent work. We also get little chats from Pappano between scenes. These probably work OK first time through but I think would get pretty tedious on repeat viewing. There are short bonus features on WorshippingWorking with Placido Domingo and Rehearsals with Elijah Moshinsky. The technical quality is very good. It was filmed in HD and the picture is clear and detailed. The DTS 5.1 sound is really excellent; detailed, very spacious and coping very well with the more congested passages. There is also LPCM stereo. This really deserves a Blu-ray release but it’s on EMI who so far seem not to have gone that route(1). There are English, French, Spanish, German and Italian subtitles. The documentation is missing from my library copy but apparently contains a track listing, synopsis and “notes”.
This is definitely worth a look and it will be very interesting to do a detailed “compare and contrast” if I can get my hands on the Sony DVD release of the 2010 Met HD broadcast with Domingo, Morris, Giodarno and Pieczonka.
fn1. EMI was recently sold to Universal; parent of Deutsche Grammophon, and Decca so I suppose anything is possible.