The Harnoncourt show

Unusually, the Theater and der Wien’s 2011 production of Handel’s Rodelinda features a father and son team.  Philippe Harnoncourt directs and Nikolaus conducts.  It’s an interesting production with great acting, very decent singing and the always excellent Concentus Musicus Wien in the pit. 1.wardrobe Continue reading

Staging Handel’s oratorios

Ambur Braid and Chris EnnsI’ve been watching a few staged versions of Handel oratorios recently and I’ve come to the conclusion that, in general, I prefer them to his Italian operas.  It’s not just that they have really good plots they are also musically much more interesting than the operas.  For the stage Handel stuck pretty firmly to the conventions of opera seriaDa capo aria succeeds da capo aria and only occasionally does a chorus or a duet break out and that bit is often the musical highlight of the piece, to my mind at least.  Think of Io t’abbraccio in Rodelinda; surely the highlight of the whole work.  In the oratorios Handel seems to feel much freer to use multiple forms and, of course, he writes magnificent choruses.  Continue reading

Dialogues of the Arkelites

Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is not an opera I’m especially familiar with. It’s a strange piece based on a libretto by Maeterlinck. For much of the time it’s wordy without much action. There is a lot of philosophising. When the action does break out; Golaud’s mad jealousy in Act 3, the killing in Act 4, it gets musically and dramatically quite violent. The music is tonal and mostly quite dreamy. It’s almost mood music. All of this reminds me quite strongly of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites hence the title of this post. Also it’s French. Actually it’s very French.

Laurent Pelly’s 2009 production for Theater an der Wien is also very French; French director, French conductor, almost entirely French cast. In an opera where the words and the relationship between the music and the words matter a lot that’s a distinct advantage. The sets are semi-abstract and placed on a rotating turntable so that scenes can follow on with a minimum of interruption. The forest, the tower, the cave are all suggested rather than made entirely explicit. Even Mélisande’s extra long hair is not depicted explicitly. This fits the indirect nature of both the libretto and the music rather well. The costumes suggest somewhere around 1900 and the colour palette doesn’t stray far from “forest floor”. Lighting is quite dark but evocative. The sense of a gloomy castle in a gloomy (Breton?) forest is quite strong.

With the exception of a few outbursts from Mélisande’s husband, Golaud, and one fairly lyrical love scene between Mélisande and Pélleas the singers have few opportunities for vocal pyrotechnics. They do need to sing stylishly and articulate well though and this cast excels in that department. Natalie Dessay as Mélisande does the fragile Natalie thing which works really well in this role. Perhaps she could create more mystery around her character but her interpretation seems quite valid. Stephane Degout as Pélleas is a good physical actor and is lyrical where he needs to be. I’m not sure that there is much depth to be got out of the character anyway. Perhaps the most interesting role is the insanely jealous Golaud, sung here by the admirable Laurent Naouri. He has a fairly major emotional arc to go through and is strong in the scene of crazy jealousy where he gets his young son, Yniold (well sung and acted by Beate Ritter), to spy on the lovers. It’s a fine all around performance. The part of the old king, Arkel, is sung by Philip Ens. He conveys wisdom, sympathy and a kind of philosophical detachment in an extremely dignified but weary way. It’s a fine job of portraying a very old man without the voice sounding past it. Good supporting performances too from Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Geneviève and Tim Mirfin as the doctor.

Bertrand de Billy is in the pit with the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien. He seems to be thoroughly at home with the score and gets some lovely, transparent, sound out of the orchestra. The chorus, the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, does what little it has to do perfectly adequately.

The video direction, by Landsmann and Landsmann, is pretty sympathetic. A lot of the time not much is happening and they close in on the singer(s) which is fair enough. When there is a stage to be shown they show it. It’s nowhere annoyingly gimmicky. The picture is top DVD quality 16:9 and the DTS 5.0 sound is mellow rather than punchy which seems appropriate. AV quality is pretty much as good as it gets without going to Blu-ray. There are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles. Despite being split over two disks there are no extras. The documentation too is limited to credits (there’s not even a track listing). It;s quite a major omission for a work like this. An interview or an article about the director’s reading of the piece and his approach would be very useful.

There’s some stiff competition for this release, notably from Zurich and WNO, so I’ll certainly be trying to get my hands on some alternative versions in an attempt to deepen my understanding of the work as much as anything.

Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna

Haydn’s operas aren’t performed much but he has a champion in Nikolaus Harnoncourt In 2009, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death and his own 80th birthday, he was asked by der Theater an der Wien to pick a Haydn opera for performance. He chose the 1777 work, Il Mondo della Luna. It’s a quirky comedy composed for the marriage of one of the Esterhazys. Given it’s unfamiliarity, here’s a plot summary. The fake astrologer, Ecclitico, and the young gentleman, Ernesto, are in love with the daughters (Clarice and Flaminia) of the extremely misogynistic but rich, Buonafede who refuses to agree to the matches. Buonafede has designs on his maidservant, Lisetta, who is in love with Ernesto’s servant, Cecco. Ecclitico claims to have built a telescope that can see into the world of the moon and uses it to show Buonafede the “delights” of that place( i.e. how women are properly subordinated to men). Buonafede is entranced and when Ecclitico tells him that he has been summoned to the moon to serve the emperor he is easily able to persuade Buonafede to come too as long as the girls can come along later. An elaborate charade is played out in Eccletico’s garden whereby Buonafede is convinced by the open and honest dealings pf the moon people under their benevolent emperor (Cecco) to allow the marriage of his daughters. Cecco takes Lisetta as his empress. When the fraud is revealed Buonafede, after much huffing and puffing, takes it in good grace and they all live happily ever after. It’s silly but no more so than most Mozart operas and given its fine music its very enjoyable.

The Vienna production is directed for stage by Tobias Moretti and it’s given a modern setting. The “telescope” involves lots of computer screens and a “total immersion” helmet and so on. The sets help make it clear what is going on without being fussy. In places effective use is made of video projection. The video is particularly crucial during the telescope scene which is played out on two levels. Upstairs Buonafede is wired up to watch and, I think, what he thinks he is seeing is projected behind him. Meanwhile downstairs what he is “seeing” is being acted out in front of a camera. There seems to be a significant disconnect between the two but it’s almost impossible to be sure from the DVD which rarely gives us the whole picture at once. The videos also make a crucial appearance in the “ballet” at the start of Act 2.  Here’s the scene with the Nymphs.In the accompanying interview Moretti is very clear that his production concept is driven by the music and I think he does a really good job of realising a pretty tricky piece for a modern audience.

I don’t think I’d seen any of the cast before but they are all young, attractive and very good physical actors as well as very decent singers. The exception is Dietrich Henschel who plays Buonafede. He isn’t young but ypu wouldn’t know it as he throws himself into some of the toughest physical acting in the piece while singing in a very solid bass and being very funny. Bernhard Richter plays Eccletico and he, too, is excellent. He’s almost, but not quite manic, and he has a very pleasing lyric tenor voice. Cecco is played tenor Markus Schäfer. It’s a very broad, perhaps too broad, buffo interpretation with lots of eye rolling and the like. It might not look so extreme in the theatre as it does on DVD. The castrato part of Ernesto is taken by American mezzo Vivica Genaux. She’s technically very assured, especially in the coloratura passages, but the voice has a reedy quality I don’t much care for. Lisetta is sung by Maite Beaumont who manages to be very funny without being as eye rolling as Schäfer This is a Despina sort of role that relies more on acting skills than singing though she sings well enough. Flaminia (the good, dutiful daughter) is well sung by Anja Nina Bahrmann. She has one fiendish display aria, Ragion nell’alma siede which comes off pretty well but without perhaps the assurance that say, Schwarzkopf brought to Come scoglio (and it is that sort of aria!). Christina Landshamer gets to be the disobedient daughter, Clarice. She is very good especially in the first act where she is caught by her father escaping from the house (though we don’t get to find out why he is carrying a wooden coat hanger all through his confrontation with her). So all in all it’s a solid ensemble cast with really good acting and more than adequate singing.

Harnoncourt of course conducts and I imagine he’s also playing the harpsichord for the recitatives but it’s not credited. He gets just the right sound out of the Concentus Musicus Wien. The natural string tones and blaring horns are exactly right. This is not polite court music. This is mature Haydn experimenting at the boundaries as ever and Harnoncourt doesn’t duck bringing this out. I can see how conducted by someone like Karajan this could be a pretty dull score but not here!

The video direction by Felix Breisach is problematic. This cannot have been an easy production to film especially if the director were imagining it being watched on a fairly small screen. There’s a lot happening and yet a good deal of close in action going on too. As I indicated above there are crucial points where I don’t think the video allows us to follow the director’s intention which is unfortunate. For example, here’s one of Buonafede’s “fantasies” from Act 1.That said, it’s better filming than many opera DVDs. The picture itself is very good. It was filmed in HD and it shows. Sound options are PCM stereo and DTS 5.0. The latter is very good and sounds naturally balanced to me. The documentation is good and there’s a useful bonus interview with Morretti and Harnoncourt. It’s available as a 2xDVD9 package (which is what I watched) or Blu-Ray.

I’m converted. I want to see more Haydn operas.