Palestrina and the prattling prelates

Pfitzner’s Palestrina has had some pretty extravagant claims made for it.  Bruno Walter said “The work has all the elements of immortality”.  I’m not so sure.  The music is very appealing but it’s structurally problematic.  It’s ostensibly about Palestrina and the struggle to convince Pius IV that polyphony had a legitimate place in church music but while the first and third acts are just that they frame a second act that’s about the various squabbles at the Council of Trent, of which the question of music was but one.  I think it’s meant to be a satyr on church politics of the time but it feels heavy handed, overly long and introduces a vast number of minor characters.  These are not only confusing but probably make the work unstageable for all but the very richest houses.  There are over 40 named solo parts but only one is a woman (and she’s dead) so major Bechdel fail here too.  I think if one took a chainsaw to Act 2 a pretty decent opera might come out of it because the human story is quite affecting and the music is distinctive and rather good.  Although premiered in 1917 it’s stylistically anti-modern and would likely appeal to a lot of people who are not normally drawn to 20th century opera.

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Up close with Aschenbach

Death in Venice is a curious opera.  Based on a Thomas Mann novella, it concerns the aging writer Gustav von Aschenbch and his meditations on aging and art, as well as his obsession with a Polish boy encountered at his Venice hotel.  Very little actually happens.  Aschenbach has a series of encounters with quotidien characters such as the hotel manager and a hairdresser but mostly he observes and what we hear are a series of inner monologues.  To work as theatre Aschenbach must capture our interest and our sympathy.  If he doesn’t the piece can be incredibly boring and irritating.

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A gentler Lady Macbeth?

Stein Winge’s 2002 production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District at Barcelona’s Liceu is fairly straightforward in a minimalist sort of way.  The first scene establishes the tone for sets.  There’s a bed and a window and that’s about it.  The succeeding eight scenes are equally stark.  There’s an unusual, and disturbingly creepy, sexual tension between Katerina and Boris Ismailov; played here less boorishly than usual by Anatoli Kotcherga.  The three “difficult” scenes; the rape of Aksinya, the seduction and the death of Katerina are all handled pretty well.  It’s all less “in your face” than Martin Kušej’s Amsterdam production but it’s effective.  There’s also an element of “black slapstick”, especially in the scenes involving the police, that seems to fit the music rather well. Continue reading

Orgasm and murder

Martin Kušej’s 2006 production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District for De Nederlandse Opera is occasionally puzzling but mostly brilliant.  The performance, with a strong cast centering on Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Katerina, inspired conducting from Mariss Jansons and consistent excellence from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit and the Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera on stage is unbeatable.  Combine that with decent video direction and superb audio-visual quality and the Opus Arte Blu-ray package becomes very attractive indeed.

Kušej’s Konzept really turns on two ideas; the exploration of sex, violence and power or, as he puts it, orgasm and murder, and the universality of the piece which causes Kušej to downplay the Russianness of the piece.  The set, pretty much throughout, consists of two elements a well lit glass “cage” and, surrounding it, a peripheral region of dark and dirt.  Katerina is trapped in the glass cage.  Her meaningless bourgeois existence is symbolised by more shoes than Imelda Marcos ever owned.  Most of the violence takes place in the peripheral area.  The scene where Aksinya is raped is played out in a sea of mud.  It is quite revolting and rightly so.  It also features one of the finest pieces of operatic singing and acting in extreme conditions I have ever seen and Carole Wilson, the Aksinya, really deserves some kind of medal.  The somewhat less violent but no less intense sex scene between Katerina and Sergei is played out on a strobe lit stage.  It brilliantly avoids the impossibility of portraying realistic sex on stage while letting the very explicit music tell the story.

The extreme acting continues through a bloody flogging scene and a brilliant drunk scene where Alexandre Kravets, as the Shabby Peasant, staggers around all over the place before finding Zinovy’s body and hauling it off to the police station.  Those who know the work well will realise that this involves a departure from what the libretto is telling us.  I didn’t find it problematic.  There’s a similar, perhaps larger, issue in Act 4 which is set in a prison not an overnight rest stop on the march to Siberia.  There’s no material rationae for Sonyetka to want Katerina’s stockings but perhaps the power to humiliate is even more convincing as a motivation than a simple desire to keep warm.  There’s no river and no suicide.  In this version the convicts hang Katarina with her own stockings.  It’s not what the libretto is saying but it is dramatically powerful.  All up, I felt Kušej’s Konzept and his realisation of it were very powerful and true to the spirit of the piece.

The individual performances are excellent.  Clearly, everyone concerned is totally committed to bringing off this production.  Eva-Maria Westbroek is really impressive.  At the beginning she oozes anger and sexual frustration, at the end, despair.  She sings brilliantly throughout.  She’s very well supported by Christopher Ventris as Sergei  He oozes sexual menace and arrogance.  Vladimir Vaneev is appropriately brutal, coarse and lecherous as the patriarch Boris.  Besides Carole Wilson and Kravets there are excellent performances from Lani Poulson as Sonyetka, Alexander Vassiliev as the Priest and Nikita Storojev as the Chief of Police.  Ludovit Ludha does a pretty decent job in making something interesting out of the rather thankless role of Zinovy.

I can’t imagine a better reading of the score than Janson’s or more idiomatic and incisive playing than the Concertgebouw provide.  If you have heard this orchestra play Shostakovich symphonies you wil know what to expect.  It’s quite thrilling and fully justifies Kušej and Jansons’ decision to play the interludes in front of a blank curtain.  The chorus sings splendidly despite some extreme acting demands.

The video direction by Thomas Grimm is OK.  We get enough to see, most of the time, what Kušej is up to although are were many occasions when he has the camera in way too close and some of the camera angles are a bit odd.  In the interludes he chooses to focus on Jansons who is extremely energetic!  It’s not the best video direction ever but it’s better than the typical Large or Halvarson production.

Technical quality is a s good as it gets which is about par for Opus Arte Blu-ray.  The picture is 16:9 1080i and crystal clear.  The sound is extremely vivid PCM 5.0 (there’s also a PCM stereo option) although there are times when I think the voices are balanced a little further forward than they should be.  There are subtitles in English, French, Italian, Dutch, German and Spanish. Extras include a synopsis, a cast gallery and a one hour “making of” documentary by Reiner Moritz.  It’s pretty much essential viewing for this production.  The trilingual booklet includes a track listing, a historical essay and short notes by the director.

I still don’t have a way of doing screen caps from Blu-ray so, in lieu, here’s a Youtube clip.  It includes the Aksinya rape scene which gives a pretty good idea of the overall commitment involved in this production.  It is, quite emphatically, not safe for work.

Four decades of Peter Grimes

Having now had a chance to watch and review all five currently available video recordings of Peter Grimes I thought I might do a summary of the strengths and weaknesses of each. All of them have some merit and I doubt that there would be consensus on a “winner”. Anyway, here goes…

BBC film 1969
Grimes – Peter Pears
Conductor – Benjamin Britten
Director – Joan Cross & Brian Large

This is an essential historical document with both composer and the creator of the role involved. The production is straightforward and naturalistic. The sound and video quality is surprisingly good for the period. It does, though, leave one with the feeling that there is more to the role of Grimes than Pears finds.

Royal Opera House 1981
Grimes – Jon Vickers
Conductor – Colin Davis
Director – Elijah Moshinsky

Also a historical landmark being the first major production where Grimes wasn’t sung by Peter Pears. It has the excellent Heather Harper as Ellen Orford. The production is quite dull and very dimly lit. Vickers’ Grimes is controversial. In places he sounds fantastic and in others sorely taxed. His acting is oddly stilted. Norman Bailey fails to convince as Balstrode.  Sound and picture quality are OK.

English National Opera 1994
Grimes – Philip Langridge
Conductor – David Atherton
Director – Tim Albery

This is the production with most sense of the sea as a character brought out through innovative use of video projection. Langridge’s Grimes is intense, convincing and beautifully sung. Alan Opie is a very strong Balstrode. Unfortunately the orchestra and chorus aren’t up to rival versions and all aspects of the DVD; video direction, sound quality and picture quality are rather poor.

Opernhaus Zürich 2005
Grimes – Christopher Ventris
Conductor – Franz Welser-Möst
Director – David Pountney

This is a very fine and thought provoking production with any number of magical moments. Ventris is a first class Grimes combining power and sensitivity and the supporting performances all have merit, save perhaps for Alfred Muff’s sub-par Balstrode. The orchestra and chorus are quite superb. The performance gets a thoroughly sympathetic treatment on DVD with good video directing backed up by quite excellent sound and picture quality.

Metropolitan Opera 2008
Grimes – Anthony Dean Griffey
Conductor – Donald Runnicles
Director – John Doyle

This is a rather dull and dark production given a very eccentric treatment by the video director. Dean Griffey is a lyrical and sympathetic Grimes well backed up by the supporting cast, especially Anthony Michaels-Moore as Balstrode and Teddy Tahu-Rhodes as Ned Keene. The orchestra and chorus are excellent and Runnicles is fairly convincing though the first act drags a bit. The sound and picture quality is excellent.

La Scala, 2012
2.theboarGrimes: John Graham-Hall
Conductor: Robin Ticciati
Director: Richard Jones

Richard Jones’ production, updated to the 1980s, is quirky. John Graham-Hall is quite lyrical as Grimes but slips into pseudo speech a lot. Susan Gritton fails to convince as Ellen Orford. The supporting cast, the orchestra and the conducting are first rate but the chorus is decidedly sub-par. The Blu-ray sound and picture outclasses all previous versions but, overall, this recording fails to convince.

Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach, 2013
1.prologueGrimes: Allan Oke
Conductor: Steuart Bedford
Director: Tim Albery/Margaret Williams

This film is a record of the unique production staged on Aldeburgh beach by Tim Albery and filmed by Margaret Williams. It’s highly atmospheric and features a brilliant performance by Alan Oke but conditions were not ideal for the singers and musically this cannot match the best available recordings from the theatre.

Grimes goes to Zürich

I guess it’s a sign that work has attained a certain maturity when it is performed outside it’s own “cultural zone”. Peter Grimes has surely reached that point. A quick look at Operabase suggests fifteen productions worldwide in 2010-12 with only two of those in English speaking countries. That said, four of the five video recordings in the catalogue were recorded in Britain or the United States. The fifth, from Opernhaus Zürich is the subject of this review.

David Pountney’s 2005 production uses a single set, designed by Robert Israel, with gantries at different levels and members of the Borough suspended in chairs above the action. In some ways the concept is similar to the “wall” at the Met but it’s less compartmentalised and not as bleak to look at. It provides a flexible, abstract space which Pountney uses with minor detailing to great effect. Some aspects seem almost Brechtian. The pub scene could be straight out of Mahagonny while “Now is gossip put on trial” takes on quite a militaristic aspect. The set realises it’s potential to greatest impact in the closing scene. Grimes staggers on stage carrying the mast of his boat which he plants on a rocking platform at centre stage. On either side of the stage sit Ellen and Balstrode, each with a dead boy in their lap. As Peter departs to his death, he unships the cruciform mast, shoulders it and walks slowly upstage. It’s stark, beautifully composed and breathtakingly moving.

Pountney is also very careful in his direction of the interpersonal relationships though the Grimes/Balstrode chemistry doesn’t come off as well as in some productions. The Grimes/Ellen relationship is very well delineated. This Ellen is a tough cookie. She stands up to Grimes in the Sunday morning scene and while peter appears desperate and hopeful by turns throughout Act 2 there’s a real finality about Ellen’s “We’ve failed” and it’s followed by a very effective scene with Ellen, Auntie and the Nieces which strongly conveys both “sisters under the skin” and the sense that they, with Grimes, stand outside the tight knit community of the Borough. There are many other deft touches.

The performances are generally strong. Christopher Ventris’ Grimes is wonderful. He’s a full on Heldentenor who can sing a simply gorgeous pianissimo and he can act. It’s a more subtle performance than Vickers and less ethereal than Pears. He’s a Grimes who just doesn’t really get why the Borough hates him. Even when the lynch mob is heading for his hut at the end of Act 2 he’s more puzzled than angry. We never see him maltreat the boy and he doesn’t really hit Ellen either. He’s magnificent in the final scene. Arguably his is the best Grimes currently available on video.

Emily Magee’s Ellen is interesting too. Hers is a more obviously dramatic voice than, say, Heather Harper and not as sweet toned. At times she is a bit squally though at others very lyrical. It fits the interpretation though. As noted above, her Ellen is a tough cookie. I didn’t really care for Alfred Muff’s Balstrode. It’s OK and generally better in the scenes that don’t involve Grimes. He doesn’t achieve the relationship with Grimes though that shines through with Geraint Evans (sadly not recorded) or Anthony Michaels-Moore. Cheyne Davidson makes Ned Keene a more serious and forceful character than his rivals and Richard Angas’ Swallow, is very well characterised indeed, drunk or sober. Liliana Nikiteanu’s Auntie and the Nieces of Liuba Chuchrova and Sandra Trattnigg make a distinctly Continental feeling trio and leave us in little doubt that they are, as the libretto insists, “the chief attractions of the Boar”. Cornelia Kallisch is superb as Mrs. Sedley, maybe even better than Felicity Palmer. She seems to be getting a really creepy sexual pleasure out of her “murder investigation”.

The chorus, orchestra and conductor (Franz Welser-Möst) get absolutely top marks. Welser-Möst directs a consistently incisive, even thrilling, reading of the score and his forces respond magnificently. The chorus is arguably even better than the Met’s and their English diction is almost impeccable.

Video direction is by Felix Breisach and it’s very good indeed. he’s reasonably judicious with his close ups and doesn’t muck about with silly angles. Generally i felt the camera was going pretty much where I would if I were watching in the theatre. In an attempt to do his camerawork justice the screencaps in this post are full sized. Click to get the large version.

The 16:9 anamorphic picture is first class. The sound options are LPCM stereo, Dolby 5.1 and DTS 5.1. The last is clear, detailed and focussed with excellent dynamic range. It’s markedly better than the options. There are English, German, French, Spanish and Italian subtitles. Extras are restricted to some EMI promos which do include some interesting Maria Callas material. Documentation is limited to a short generic essay about the history of Peter Grimes. It’s a shame really. With two DVD9 discs to play with there’s definitely room for a conductor and/or director interview. A chapter listing would be nice too!

Quibbles about the packaging aside, this is a very fine DVD set. For those interested, David Pountney has a rather interesting blog.