El Niño

John Adams’ El Niño was conceived as an oratorio but thoughts turned to it being staged early in the creative process.  The final result, as staged at Paris’ Châtelet in 2000, defies easy characterization.  There are singers and dancers on stage but they don’t represent unique characters.  So, for example, at one moment Willard White is Herod and at another Joseph.  To further complicate matters video is constantly projected onto a screen above the stage space.  It was specially created for the piece being shot on location in Super 8.  There’s no clear narrative either.  To some extent it tells the Christmas story but it’s at least as much about the feminine experience of giving birth as anything from Isiah or the Gospels.  It also uses a very eclectic mix of texts; from the Bible, from the Apocrypha, from female Latin American poets, from Hildegard of Bingen and so on.  There are lots off Sellars’ trademarks in the staging too; semaphore and so on.  Does it work?  I don’t really know as it’s really hard to tell from the video recording (see para 3).

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Theodora redux

Peter Sellars’ 1996 Glyndebourne production of Handel’s Theodora just gets better with every viewing. I utterly retract my original view that the music isn’t Handel at his finest. It’s very good indeed and the production and performances on this disk are fantastic. Despite not being the best recording ever (though the recent Blu-ray release is an improvement) it remains a “must see” for any fan of Baroque opera or challenging music theatre.

What makes it so compelling? I think it’s two factors. The first is the production. The contemporary American setting works with very little violence to the libretto or music and yet speaks directly to very contemporary concerns. It’s particularly effective that current reality is inverted with respect to mainstream Christianity. Added to this are some extraordinarily intense performances led by the late Lorraine Hunt as Irene, the leader of the Christians. “As with rosy steps the morn” and “Lord to thee, each night and day” bring me out in goosebumps every time. The chemistry between David Daniels and Richard Croft is also palpable and Dawn Upshaw could hardly be bettered in the title role. Even Christine Schäfer in the only competing recording doesn’t come close.

One of the notes I made while watching this the other night reads “anybody not moved by this is an emotional cripple”. It’s a fair summary.


Kathleen Battle steals the show again

In this next episode of our wallow in Met nostalgia we  are looking at the 1988 production of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos.  It’s a starry affair with James Levine conducting, Jessye Norman in the title role, James King as Bacchus, Kathleen Battle as Zerbinetta and Tatiana Troyanos as the Komponist.  There’s even a bit of luxury casting in the minor roles with Barbara Bonney and Dawn Upshaw among the nymphs.  It’s also as old fashioned as one could possibly imagine, being a revival of a production that premiered in 1962. Continue reading

L’Amour de Loin on DVD

I put off watching Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin on DVD until after the run at the Canadian Opera Company because I didn’t want to prejudge the piece.  Now, having seen it live twice and listened to Kent Nagano’s Berlin CD recording it seemed like time to look at the DVD.  The DVD is of the original Salzburg production directed by Peter Sellars but it was recorded at Finnish National Opera in Helsinki.  It features the original cast of Gerald Finley (Jaufré Rudel), Dawn Upshaw (Clémence) and Monica Groop (Pilgrim).  Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts with the Orchestra and Chorus of Finnish National Opera.  If you are unfamiliar with the piece you might want to check out my review of the COC production which gives a plot summary etc.

The production concept is simple enough.  At each side of the stage is a spiral tower representing Jaufré’s castle in Blaye and the Citadel in Tripoli.  The towers stand in a lake which the Pilgrim traverses in a sort of crystal boat.  It’s simple and effective but much less spectacular than Daniele Finzi Pasca’s production seen at COC.  Colour is used to symbolise the two sides and the journey; blues and greens for Blaye, reds and oranges for Tripoli and black and white for the journey.  In typical Sellars style there is a fair amount of stylized and elaborate gesturing.  It all seems to work pretty well.

The performances are excellent.  All three singers have complete mastery of their parts and can act vocally as well as sing.  Some of the acting is a bit overwrought but I think that’s Sellars.  At key moments, and especially in the beautiful final scene, this very intense approach works much less well than the more understated approach taken in Toronto which seems more at one with what the music is doing.  The Orchestra and, off-stage, chorus are just fine.  Salonen has worked a lot with Saariaho and knows what’s required.

Where I have serious reservations with this recording is the video direction.  Sellars directs this himself and like his Nixon in China Met HD broadcast it’s really quite bizarre.  All video directors use close ups.  Most use too many of them.  Sellars takes this to extremes with bizarre partial face shots or body extremities filling the whole screen.  Coupled with the exaggerated acting style, which might just be OK at a distance, this makes for a very overwrought effect that is at serious odds with the music.  I’ve included four entirely typical screen caps at the end of the post to show what I mean.

Technically the disk is OK.  The picture is European TV quality 16:9.  One might have expected a little better for a 2004 disk.  The sound is decent DTS 5.1 (Dolby 5.1 and PCM stereo alternatives).  It’s quite vivid though I think the voices are balanced artificially forward.  Documentation is pretty decent and the subtitle options are English, French, German and Spanish.  There are very informative interviews with Sellars, Saariaho and Salonen that are all well worth watching. This is the only DVD of the piece and it’s pretty adequate. I wish someone would film Daniele Finzi Pasca’s production though.

OK, here are some screen caps of close ups.  These are not cropped.  This is the screen you see watching the DVD.


Handel’s Theodora was conceived and first performed as an oratorio and it was a flop. closing after three performances. I’m not sure why. It may not be Handel’s best work but it’s got some very good numbers and it’s dramatically very strong.

1.valensIn 1996 Glyndebourne staged an operatic version conceived by Peter Sellars. Occasionally Mr. Sellars frustrates me but most of the time I think he’s a genius who stages some of the most thought provoking music theatre out there. This Theodora is pure genius. Sellars sets the piece in contemporary America. The President of Antioch, Valens, (Frode Olsen) is a typical American politician; a nasty mixture of imperialist bluster, bonhomie and crass consumerism and he’s well supported by a brightly clad coke can bearing heathen chorus. The Roman soldiers wear US Navy helicopter pilot uniforms. By contrast the Christians wear combinations of black and white in pretty restrained cuts and combinations. The set is mostly bare but for some giant shattered glass vases and, as needed, a few props such as a lectern, chairs and, most chillingly, the gurneys on which Theodora and Didymus are executed by lethal injection. It all works really well. Although conceived 15 years ago it could have been last week. The idea that one can’t be a “proper Roman/American” if one doesn’t adhere to the state and socially approved approved religion and the chilling, deadly self righteousness of Valens seem especially contemporary in a week that sees an IRA supporter chairing a House investigation into Muslim disloyalty.

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