Earlier this month I was reviewing a new CD recording of Britten’s Peter Grimes for Opera Canada (you should be able to read it in the issue that’s currently at the printers). It’s a rather good performance from the Bergen Philharmonic with Stuart Skelton in the title role. In digging into previous recordings while writing that review I came across a 1995 recording with Philip Langridge in the title role. I was familiar with his ENO performance which was brilliant and is captured on DVD but there are serious issues with that recording so I was delighted to be able to have another listen.
Krystyna Zywulska was a Polish resistance fighter who was captured and sent to Auschwitz. She took to writing lyrics and setting them to an eclectic mix of tunes as a way of coping with the horror of the camp. Somehow this was pleasing to the powers that be and she found herself with a relatively soft job processing the possessions of arriving prisoners. She survived to write a number of memoirs about her experience. The story is oddly similar to that of Zofia Posmysz, who inspired Weinberg’s The Passenger. This time the opera is Another Sunrise; a collaboration of Gene Scheer and Jake Heggie commissioned by Music of Remembrance and premiered in 2012. There’s a companion piece by the same team; Farewell Auschwitz, which sets some of the Zywulska texts, in translation and reworking by Scheer, to a wide range of the kinds of music that Zywulska used. Last night both pieces got their Canadian premiers in a production by Electric Bond Ensemble at Beth Tzedec directed by Aaron Willis.
So last night I intended to catch both the FAWN fundraiser/announcement gig at Electric Perfume and AtG’s opera pub night. I figured I could spend an hour up on the Danforth and still hit the Esplanade soon after the start at 9pm. The first part went fine. I saw a most enjoyable performance by Adam Scime of Kurtàg’s Message Consolation with some lovely movement work on the floor by Jenn Nichols. Also I was there long enough to hear Adanya Dunn and Katherine Watson do Anna Höstman’s Children’s Paradise for soprano and flute. There was news too that FAWN is working with Anna on a new full scale opera for some time in the future. I had to leave before the rest of the announcements but I’ll pass the news on when I get it.
There’s a pretty good “making of” extra with the 2013 Glyndebourne recording of Rameau’s rarely performed Hippolyte et Aricie. In it, director Jonathan Kent argues that there are essentially two ways of dealing with the French baroque; elegance or “throwing the kitchen sink at it”. To this one might add a weird pastiche of bare chests, stylized gesture and high camp but that’s another story. My best experiences with Rameau have definitely been of the kitchen sink variety. I’m thinking of productions like José Montalvo’s Les Paladins. Kent is a bit more restrained but still pretty inventive which I think is necessary as Hippolyte et Aricie is rather episodic and fragmented and could use some livening up.
For the performances of Elektra at the 2010 Baden-Baden festival the Powers that Be chose to revive Herbert Wernicke’s 1997 Munich production with Bettina Göschl directing. The production concept seems to have been inspired by classical Greek drama. Sets and costumes are very simple, even austere, and the singers often address the audience directly. On stage this probably worked quite well as the overall effects are visually striking and the relative lack of interaction between the characters is perhaps appropriate for a work that is so much about alienation.
Oddly enough, given the post previous to this, Reiner Moritz’s essay in the booklet accompanying this recording of Cavalli’s La Didone brings up the Harnoncourt/Ponelle Monteverdi recordings as a precursor to what he sees as Bill Christie’s similar championing of Cavalli. I guess the big difference is that only three of Monteverdi’s operas survive while we have 27 of Cavalli’s. I think he may have a point though. It seems to me that 17th century Italian opera works on an aesthetic which is very in tune with today. The relative spareness and clarity of the music seems closer to Britten than to Verdi and the cynicism and explicit sexuality of the libretti closer to Anna Nicole than La Bohème.
Handel’s Acis and Galatea is a peculiar piece in some ways. It was written to be performed at Cannon’s, the Edgware residence of the then Earl of Caernavon, presumably for his guests. Apparently the performance style was to have the singers sing from music stands in front of a painted backdrop. So, a sort of oratorio with curtains. It’s not uncommon to stage Handel oratorios as opera these days. Theodora is done quite often and even Messiah has been staged so it’s no great surprise that Acis and Galatea should be given a similar treatment. In fact Wayne McGregor’s 2009 Covent Garden production stages it as an opera and a ballet simultaneously combining the resources of the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera.
The Royal Opera House’s 2008 production of Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel makes no concessions to the idea that this is a sort of operatic Nutcracker to be staged for the kiddies at Christmas. Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s production is firmly in the grim, and Grimm, tradition of central European folk tales and it’s sung in German.
For Act 1, designer Christian Fernouillet has created a claustrophobic bedroom with surfaces at odd angles in which the children (Angelika Kirschlager and Diana Damrau) play out their hunger displacement games until their angry mother (Elizabeth Connell) sends them off to forest to gather berries. The father (Thomas Allen) returns with food and this relief from hunger is played out in a scene heavy with sexual innuendo between mother and father. It’s quite creepy. Finally they realise that the children are missing and set off in search.
Act 2 starts in a classic fairy tale forest which rapidly darkens into a place of real menace. The sandman (Pumeza Matshikiza) is a strange distorted creature who puts the children to sleep. In the dream sequence the fourteen guardian angels, with animal heads, carry in a bunch of furniture, including a fireplace, to create a fireside scene of bourgeois domesticity. Two of the animal angels reveal themselves as the mother and father and give the children gifts. Inside each elaborate package is a single sandwich which is devoured with rapt concentration.
Act 3 opens with the Dew Fairy, here a pink confection played by Anita Watson, waking the children. The witch (Anja Silja), a vicious looking old woman with comedy breasts and a Zimmer frame, leaves a miniature gingerbread house for the children to explore. This transforms to the full size version with dead children hanging in a glass fronted cupboard and industrial scale ovens for the witch’s child based confectionery experiments. There is no concession whatever to comedy. The witch is scary as all hell and the scene in which she is shoved in the oven involves some serious pyrotechnics. The conventional happy ending descends into an orgy of face stuffing as the revived children fall on the cake/corpse of the witch. The production is consistent in its essential seriousness and is supported by fine acting across the board. In line with the concept nobody camps up their part. It’s all in earnest.
Musically it’s a really strong performance. Both Kirschlager and Damrau are quite excellent and work really well together. Kirschlager has quite a rich tone which blends nicely with Damrau’s cleaner sound. Thomas Allen is also really good. He’s quite chilling in the Hexenritt for example. Anja Silja’s Witch is a tour de force. She is every inch the witch/hag of nightmares without descending into cheap vocal trickery. Matshikiza sings very sweetly. Connell and Watson are quite good too but didn’t really register strongly with me. Colin Davis gets a suitably Wagnerian sound out of the orchestra and seems to balance drama and beauty very nicely. He’s well supported by the ROH orchestra, especially the brass and woodwinds, and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Children’s Chorus. The sheer beauty of the piece really comes out in the finale with Erlöst, befreit, für alle Zeit which manages to be gorgeous while avoiding dipping into excessive sentimentality.
The video direction of Sue Judd is good. She isn’t fixated with close ups though, since this isn’t a terribly busy production, she brings the camera in when there’s not much else to watch. There aren’t any gimmicks and it’s a good approximation to how one would watch from a decent seat which is what video directors ought to give us. The sound and picture quality are very good. It was shot in 1080i and the DVD picture is generally crisp and clear. The DTS 5.1 soundtrack is absolutely first class; vivid and with spatial depth and everything clearly located. This is also available on Blu-ray. Audio choices there are LPCM 2.0 and 5.1. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. There’s a useful “Making of” documentary, an interview with Colin Davis plus cast and synopsis material on the disks. The package includes an unusually lavish tri-lingual leaflet.
ETA 23 May 2019: I have now had a look at the Blu-ray. It is, as expected, even better from an AV point of view. The LPCM 5.1 sound track is especially good with real depth and sense of spaciousness. The stereo is not bad either but switching it to it from surround the reduction in the width and depth of the sound field is tangible. Also note that at time of writing this recording is available as part of a three disk set called Fairytale Operas that also contains the Glyndebourne Cunning Little Vixen and Jonathan Dove’s The Adventures of Pinocchio.
I hesitate to compare this Hansel und Gretel with the roughly contemporary Metropolitan Opera version. They are very different but both worthwhile in their own way.