An anti-Salome?

I’ve learned not to dismiss Romeo Castellucci’s work on first watching because it has a nasty habit of starting to make sense on reflection.  His 2018 production of Richard Strauss’ Salome for the Salzburg Festival may be a case in point.  Castellucci seems determined to destroy any preconceptions we have about the work and Franz Welser-Möst in the pit is a willing accomplice.

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Muddled Figaro from La Scala

The 2016 production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro from La Scala had me really puzzled after three acts.  There’s nothing to help with the production in either the booklet or on the disk so I went looking on line.  According to the Financial Times, Frederic Wake-Walker’s production replaced a much revered version by Girgio Strehler and is a sort of homage to him filled with references to other of his productions.

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Spectacular Die Liebe der Danae

Richard Strauss’ Die Liebe der Danae is one of his least performed operas so it’s not very familiar to most opera goers.  I wrote about its performance history and provided a plot summary in my review of a 2011 recording at the Deutsche Oper, which is the only video recording besides the 2016 Salzburg one which forms the subject of this post.

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Tiefland

Eugen d’Albert is largely forgotten as a composer but his seventh (of twenty) opera, Tiefland, is still performed occasionally in German speaking countries.  It’s an odd work.  The plot is melodramatic with a cloying degree of sentimentality; sort of Mascagni meets Gounod, while the music is like pastoral Wagner (think the way the woodwinds are used in Tristan) with touches of Carmen and, just occasionally, hints of Sullivan (one of d’Albert’s teachers).  For a 1903 work it feels curiously retro.

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Abstract Fidelio

Fidelio is an interesting piece.  The music is great and it has a powerful, very straightforward, plot.  There are no convoluted subplots here.  But there is a lot of spoken dialogue which slows things down.  Is it necessary?  Claus Guth doesn’t think so and in his 2015 Salzburg production he replaces the dialogue with ambient noise and also doubles up Leonora and Don Pizarro with silent actor “shadows”; the former using sign language in the manner of the narrator character in Guth’s Messiah.  It works remarkably well.  The ambient noise sections are quite disturbing and the “shadows” add some depth, especially the frantic signing in the final scene.  Perhaps worth noting that the “noise” contains a lot of very low bass and precise spatial location.  It may need a pretty good sound system to have the intended effect.

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For pity’s sake

I’ve been involved in a lot of on-line discussions about various productions; live and DVD, of La clemenza di Tito.  Oddly perhaps, none of them have ever referenced the 2005 Zürich recording with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role.  Today I think I found out why.  Basically it’s rather dull, except where it’s unintentionally funny.

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Pelléas for dummies

The most obvious feature of Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s Pelléas et Mélisande is the use of dummies to double up the characters.  Much of the time these doubles are lying around or being pushed around the set wheelchairs by the singers.  Most of the time the singers address themselves to one of the dummies even when the “real” version of the person they are addressing is on stage.  I guess it’s designed to create a kind of emotional distancing or dehumanising that does seem in keeping with the piece and, when the convention is broken, ie; characters interact directly, that seems to heighten the drama at that point.

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Sister swap

Richard Strauss’ Arabella is a bit of a peculiarity.  The music is top notch Strauss and the libretto is by von Hofmannsthal so it ought to be quite superb.  It doesn’t quite get there though.  It’s hard not to think that if von Hofmannsthal had lived a little longer he would have tightened up the libretto.  Act 1 works fine but Acts 2 and 3 seem rather contrived and could definitely use a few cuts.  I’m not sure that the whole Fiakermilli thing works either.  It’s almost as if Prince Orlofsky’s party mislaid Johann and found Richard by accident.  That said there is some very beautiful music.  Aber der Richtige, wenn’s einem gibt is going straight onto my list of top soprano duets.

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Scintillating Il Turco in Italy from Zurich

I don’t suppose anybody watches a Rossini comedy for profundity or great insights into human nature but there’s no denying that done well they can be great fun.  This 2002 performance of Il Turco in Italia from the Opernhaus Zürich certainly manages to be that.

The basic plot is predictably silly and full of stock characters; gypsies, flirty young wife, dim older husband, lecherous Turk etc. but wrapped around this is the idea of a poet who is recording what he is seeing as the basis for a new play while, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, trying to influence the action to meet his needs.  It’s quite clever and often very funny.

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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.