Mathis der Maler

My guess is that Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler is an opera most opera amateurs have heard of but which comparatively few have actually seen.  The video release of a 2012 production at Theater an der Wien directed by Keith Warner is therefore very welcome.

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Euryanthe

Weber’s 1823 “Grand-heroic opera” Euryanthe doesn’t get performed very often.  It’s not hard to see why even though Christof Loy’s production for the Theater an der Wien filmed in 2018 has some interesting features.

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Harnoncourt 2 – Don Giovanni

Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 2014 cycle of the Da Ponte operas continues with Don Giovanni.  The recording has much in common with his Le nozze di Figaro, even down to the same essay in the booklet, and I’m not going to repeat what I wrote in that review.  If you haven’t read it, I recommend a look before reading the rest of this.

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Harnoncourt’s Mozart cycle

Back in 2014 Nikolaus Harnoncourt launched a project to present all three Mozart/da Ponte operas, concert style, on the stage of the Theater an der Wien in a single month.  They are now being released on DVD/Blu-ray.  The first is Le nozze di Figaro and it comes with a 52 minute documentary by Felix Breisach; Nikolaus Harnoncourt – Between Obsession and Perfection – part 1.

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Agrippina

Agrippina is definitely one of the most interesting of Handel’s early operas. It has very good and very varied music including a ravishing love duet in Act 3 which reminds one of Monteverdi; perhaps not surprisingly since Poppea is one of the characters singing it! The libretto, too, has something of L’incoronazione about it. It’s smart, sexy and utterly cynical which I suppose is about par for an 18th century cardinal. It’s said that Grimani based the character of Claudio, here portrayed as an oversexed buffoon (oace Robert Graves), on his arch enemy Clemens XI. s a bonus in Robert Carsen’s version there’s a rather shocking ending in which Nerone, literally, gets the last laugh.

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Fidelio 1806

There were, of course, many Beethoven 250 events planned for 2020 and few of them happened.  One, planned for Vienna, was to stage all three versions of Beethoven’s only opera; Leonore (1805), Fidelio (1806) and the final form that modern audiences mostly know, Fidelio (1814).  As far as I know the only one that went ahead was a production of the 1806 version at the Theater an der Wien that was filmed in an empty house and has just got a release on Blu-ray and DVD.  Now, it happens that the 1805 Leonore was staged and recorded by Lafayette Opera in New York the year before.  So we can look at all three versions and the evolution of the piece despite the Vienna cancellations.  For those who want more details on the New York production, it was reviewed by Patrick Dillon in the summer 2020 edition of Opera Canada and there will be a review, by myself, of the recording in a future edition (probably soon).

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Abstracting the Dutchman

Olivier Py’s production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, filmed at the Theater an der Wien in 2015, is quite unusual.  Usually opera productions either play the story more or less straight or work with a concept of the director’s that is not obviously contained in the libretto.  Py doesn’t rally do either of these.  What he does is present the narrative as Wagner wrote it but with visuals that act as a sort of commentary on, rather than a literal depiction of, the action being described.  One of the things this does is make the viewer realise just how much Wagner is describing!  There is much more tell than show.

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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.