Opera videos of performances before 1980 are quite rare and are mostly films. Recordings of live performances are extremely uncommon and often quite interesting. A couple have just been rereleased on DVD. The one reviewed here is an Ariadne auf Naxos from the 1965 Salzburg Festival (the other is a recording, in German, of Don Giovanni with Fischer-Dieskau – watch this space). It’s an old ORF TV broadcast with a grainy 4:3 black and white picture and less than stellar mono sound but it does provide an idea of what audiences saw and heard fifty years ago.
Le miracle d’une voix is a compilation of scenes from various recordings in which Natalie Dessay featured made between 1993 and 2003. It’s especially interesting in that a couple of pieces feature more than once. There are three Les oiseaux dans les charmilles; Olymia’s aria from Les contes d’Hoffmann and two Grossmächtigen Prinzessin from Ariadne auf Naxos. Thrse demonstarte what I have always believed to be Dessay’s greatest strength; her ability to recreate a character to fit in a particular production. The two Zerbunetta arias illustrate this perfectly. In the first, a Salzburg production from 2001, Zerbinetta is a depressed, heavy drinking, prostitute who celebrates a kind of deeply sad sisterhood with Ariadne before being dragged off by a very sleazy Russell Braun. In the second, from the Palais Garnier in 2003, she’s a bubble headed tourist in bikini and wrap who pesters poor Ariadne all around what looks like a Mediterranean building site. They are completely different characterisations but both highly effective. The same is true of the three Olympias who range from very conventional doll to inmate in some sort of asylum or home.
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.
Last night saw the third performance in the current run of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Canadian Opera Company.
It’s a peculiar work. It was Offenbach’s first and only foray into grand opera and he didn’t live to complete it. This leaves all sorts of performance issues regarding orchestration, sequence of the acts and spoken dialogue vs accompanied recitatives among others. The COC version uses the conventional act order; Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta, and recitatives with orchestral accompaniment which makes for a long night but is probably the best fit with director Lee Blakeley’s take on the piece, previously seen at Vlaamse Opera in 2000.
Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet is a very grand French opera based loosely on various (loose) French adaptations of the play by Shakespeare. If one discards any notion that one is going to see Shakespeare with music and takes the piece on its own terms it’s really pretty good. In recent years it’s been doing the international opera circuit in a production by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser that originated in Geneva in 1996 and was, for example, seen in the Met HD series a year or two ago. Most productions have featured Simon Keenleyside as Hamlet and Natalie Dessay as Ophélie. The available DVD version, recorded at the Liceu in Barcelona in 2003 features both of them.
Really all this opera needs to work is a baritone with exemplary French who can sing with power and lyricism for three hours and really, really act. That, I guess, is why Keenleyside owns the role. He’s superb. He probably peaks in the really quite amazing second act where he does a sort of mad scene as the “play within a play” misfires but he’s superb throughout. The second requirement is someone who can do a compelling mad scene with lots of blood and coloratura. Natalie Dessay seems to have trouble cutting her wrists but is otherwise brilliant and is rewarded with what is probably the longest applause for a single aria ever committed to DVD.
The rest of the cast is mostly very good. Alain Vernhes’ Claudius is very strong, vocally and dramatically; certainly much better than James Morris at the Met. Béatrice Uria-Monzon is occasionally a bit squally as Gertrude but acts really well, especially in the confrontation with Hamlet in Act 3. I didn’t care much for Daniil Shtoda’s Laërte. he sounded too “Italian” and not at all idiomatic. Overall though really great singing backed up by a very crisp performance from the orchestra under Bertrand de Billy. They sounded more lyrical and less bombastic than in the Met version.
The production is not especially exciting. It’s very plain with just a few moving “faux marble” walls. Most of the scenic effects are left to the lighting plot which is effective though hard to film (see below). Costumes are a sort of generic late 19th century with breastplates thrown in in odd places for some reason. It all provides an effective enough backdrop for some carefully directed and well executed acting. There’s no high concept here but the story gets told.
The video direction by Toni Bergallo is pretty good. It’s a tough ask. Often the light levels are low with a really brutal lighting focus on a single character. The Act 2 scene between Hamlet and the ghost is a great example. It’s very hard to make something like that look good on video. The cameras start to lose definition with the low light levels and then the high local contrast sort of blurs out. I found myself watching from quite close up even on a sixty inch screen! The DTS 5.1 sound track is OK but not demonstration quality. There’s not a lot of spatial depth and sometimes the singers sound as if they have been miked too close. The Dolby surround and LPCM stereo mixes aren’t any better. It’s not bad overall technically but it’s not up with the latest from a label like Opus Arte. There are subtitles in English, French, German, Italian, Castilian and Catalan. The only extra is EMI’s standard teaser reel.
Overall, this is well worth seeing. It’s a pretty good little known work, Keenleyside is exceptional and the production for DVD is pretty decent.