Once in a while a video recording comes my way that’s just pure delight. The 1995 recording of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen from the Théâtre du Châtelet is one. The creative team of director Nicholas Hytner (director), Bob Crowley (designer), Jean-Claude Gallotta (choreagrapy) and Jean Kalman (lighting) created a spectacle that is as much ballet as opera with vivid costumes and simple sets It’s a rather splendid and touching adult fairy tale. Continue reading
There’s lots to like in the 2003 Glyndebourne recording of Die Fledermaus. Let’s start with Stephen Lawless’ production. It’s attractively designed, quite slick and has a few good new gags without going overboard. The sets aer designed with striking diagonals and staircases and gantries. Rotation is used both as a device to change the setting and as an element in the scene composition. The overall effect is that the scene changes from drawing room to a sort of “gilded cage” for Orlofsky’s party – which opens out to create space for the action – to a prison with minimum disruption to us or the action. Spots are used to create stagey effects and at one point Jurowski in the pit ostentatiously upstages the actors on stage. Lawless never lets us forget this is a “show”. Continue reading
The 1983 Royal Opera house production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut is probably a pretty good representation of what that annoying person at your local opera company’s season launch means when they ask why they can’t have productions the way they used to be. Except it’s a rather exceptionally good example of what s/he means.
The production is by Götz Friedrich with set and costume designs by Günther Schneider-Siemssen and Aliute Meczies. The first three acts look as if a not particularly good 18th century genre painting has come to life. Act 4 looks like something out of Dune. Every stage direction is followed literally and their is nothing to disturb or excite the imagination. It’s very pretty and provides an eye candy backdrop for some fine singing.
The cast is stellar. Placido Domingo sings Des Grieux with Kiri Te Kanawa as Manon and Tom Allen as her brother/pimp. Forbes Robinson is Geronte di Ravoir. They are all very good though Placido steals the show. This must have been just about his peak as a romantic tenor and he is beautiful and exciting to listen to. In the first two acts Kiri tends to do that thing where she generates a beautiful sound without much expression or emotion. She comes to life though whenever Placido is on stage and in Acts 3 and 4 she really acts rather better than I thought she could. Who can not be moved by the last two acts of this piece anyway? Allen and Robinson act and sing very well and make good foils for the lovers.
Giuseppe Sinopoli is in the pit. To me, the orchestra sounds a bit too refined and civilized for Puccini but part of that I think is the recording. In any event the orchestra doesn’t get in the way.
Technically this recording shows its age. The 4:3 picture is very soft grained and maybe a little washed out. The Dolby 2.0 sound track is barely adequate. The soloists are balanced a long way forward and both orchestra and chorus sound rather thin. In the circumstances it’s hard to fault Humphrey Burton’s video direction. Close ups are inevitable given the period and the relatively poor picture resolution.
The disk package is basic in the extreme. Documentation is limited to a chapter listing. There’s not even a cast sheet. There are no extras. Subtitle options are English, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Japanese.
Despite showing its age rather badly this recording is a useful record of two very fine singers in their primes.
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. The PCM stereo isn’t quite as good. This may or may not be available on Blu-Ray as well. The Opus Arte website doesn’t mention it but Amazon in the US and Canada claim to have it. 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.
I hesitate to compare this with the roughly contemporary Metropolitan Opera version. They are very different but both worthwhile in their own way.
I saw Thomas Allen sing Ned Keene in Peter Grimes at the Royal Opera House in July 1975, some two months before I became an undergraduate at the university he is now Chancellor of. He follows in the footsteps of some distinguished predecessors including Margot Fonteyn and Peter Ustinov. The photo on the left is from the programme for that Peter Grimes.