Creepy Wozzeck

Alban Berg’s Wozzeck seems to attract just about every possible treatment from directors other than a straightforwardly literal one.  Krzysof Warlikowski’s approach, seen at Dutch National Opera in 2017, is to go back to the original story on which the Büchner play, in its turn the source for the opera, is based.  Wrapped around that are several interesting ideas which I can’t fully unpack but which make for a rather creepy but compelling production.  Alas, the disk package has nothing to say about the production so, interpretively, one is on one’s own.

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Nobody vomits on Dolly Parton’s shoes

I’ve tried several times in the past to watch the DVD recording of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole and never made it past the second scene, which is revolting and, I still think, rather patronising.  This time though I made it all the way through and I think, taken as a whole, this is a pretty impressive piece with a clever libretto and some real musical depth.  It’s also, in the true and technical sense, a tragedy, and a very operatic one at that.

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Patchy Andrea Chénier

What’s become of David McVicar?  His 2015 production of Giodarno’s Andrea Chénier for the Royal Opera House seems typical of his recent work.  It looks expensive.  It features a starry cast.  He flirts with dramatic risk but in the last analysis it comes off as a bit tame and even sloppy.  Basically when the principals are at the centre of the drama it’s compelling stuff but when they are not it’s not and there are curious inconsistencies.

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Cav and Pag

Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci are not only a commonly coupled pair of operas but pretty much define the genre we call verismo.  It’s a curious genre in a lot of ways.  Musically it defines a style, brought to its highest state by Puccini, that is a sort of Fukuyama-esque “end of opera” after which everything is, for a section of the opera audience, modern, inaccessible and frightening.  It’s also dramatically an attempt to get away from stories from myth and history and root the drama in “stories of everyday folk”.  Which is fine, I suppose, if one believes the only things “everyday folk” care about are female constancy and the more pagan end of Catholicism for these stories tend to be a touch unsubtle; “she done him wrong so he killed her” (and her dog and he probably crashed her truck too).  It’s actually quite ironic that Puccini, held up as the arch exponent of verismo, rarely actually goes down this path.  Il Tabarro perhaps, maybe Suor Angelica, at a stretch Tosca but in large part his material is drawn from the usual well of opera plots.  So Cav and Pag is interesting as almost pure verismo.

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ROH cinema screenings return to Bloor Hotdocs

15830210743_c7a53486abRoyal Opera House cinema screenings are back at the Bloor Cinema and it seems that the full season will be available.  ENO are you watching or is your sense of Ontario gepography akin to your business acumen?

First up, tomorrow, at noon they’re screening Giordano’s Andrea Chenier directed by David McVicar with Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek.

March 22nd sees Tim Albery’s production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer with Adrienne Pieczonka and Bryn Terfel.  Ms. Pieczonka will be on hand to introduce the piece.

On June 28th we get a new John Fulljames production of Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny with Anne Sofie von Otter.

July 26th sees John Copley’s venerable production of Puccini’s La Bohème.  This production is almost as old as I am.  Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja play Mimi and Rodolfo.

Finally, on August 30th  we can see a new production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell directed by Damiano Michieletto with Antonio Pappano conducting. The cast includes Gerry Finley and Malin Bystrom.

Seamen from a distant Eastern shore

Berlioz’ Les Troyens is one of those pieces that really deserves the descriptor “sprawling epic” and, if anyone can make an epic sprawl it’s David McVicar.  This production, recorded at the Royal Opera House in 2012, is typical of McVicar’s more recent work.  It’s visually rather splendid and the action is well orchestrated but it’s short on ideas and long on McVicar visual cliches; acrobats, gore and urchins (but mercifully no animals).  I don’t want to be too hard on McVicar.  This piece is based on the sort of “Ancient History” one used to learn at prep school (British usage) and McVicar pretty much runs with that making no attempt to find deeper meaning, despite superficially translating at least the first two acts to the time of first performance; the era of European colonialism.

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Il Trittico

Puccini’s Il Trittico is a collection of three one act operas designed to be performed on a single evening.  They rarely are.  Perhaps this is because performing all three makes for a rather long evening (and for a huge cast) or maybe it’s because two of the three aren’t all that great.  In any event, while most opera goers will likely have seen the comedy Gianni Schicchi, most will likely not have seen the two tragedies that precede it; Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica.  However, all three works were performed as a triple bill at the Royal Opera House in 2011.  The show was broadcast by the BBC and is available on Blu-ray and DVD.  All three pieces were directed by Richard Jones and Anthony Pappano conducted.

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Full of sound and Furies

When I first encountered Richard Strauss’ Elektra as a teenager I found the music almost unbearably harsh.  The more I listen to it the more erroneous that judgement seems.  It has its “tough” moments to be sure.  How could an opera about Elektra not?  But it is also full of lush romanticism and there are some really quite lovely passages.  In the 2010 Salzburg Festival recording Daniele Gatti explores both sides of the music in a rather thrilling reading of the score aided and abetted by the Wiener Philharmoniker and a pretty much ideal cast.

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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.

Die Walküre

Once in a while an opera performance really blows you away and it becomes quite hard to write about, especially when the work is as long and dense as Die Walküre because even with a great performance one is in overload by the end. Yesterday’s broadcast from the Met was one of those experiences. Here’s what I think I saw!

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