Later this month I’ll be attending a double bill of Barber’s A Hand of Bridge and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos. The latter, for those who don’t know the play, is the one with the famous line “L’Enfer; c’est les autres”. I posted the details earlier. Anyway, this led me on a train of thought that ended with the idea of Nihilist Night at the Opera; a sort of antidote to Rossini. Ideally Nihilist Night would feature a double or triple bill of unrelievedly depressing operas and should leave the audience with no hope at all for humanity.
What might qualify? Wozzeck coupled with Moses und Aron seems just about ideal. Want something more contemporary? How about Turnage’s Greek coupled with Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy?
I confess to having mixed, nay conflicted, feelings about the 2003 Palais Garnier recording of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes. On the one hand there is some really good music, idiomatically played and sung by musicians utterly at home in this repertoire, there’s some brilliant dance; both the choreography and the execution, and there is spectacle on a grand scale. On the other hand there’s a nagging sense of cultural appropriation and, perhaps worse, a feeling that the whole thing may just be a giant piss take. Actually in some ways it’s all of the above and if one can get into the spirit of the thing it sort of works.
The 1987 recording of Berg’s Wozzeck from the Vienna State Opera is a bit of a mixed bag. Claudio Abbado’s reading of the score is incredibly intense and powerful and he gets great support from the orchestra, There’s also some very good singing. Dramatically it’s a bit of a mixed bag and the DVD production isn’t particularly good. Continue reading →
In 1970 Rolf Liebermann took the assembled forces of the Hamburg State Opera down to a castle in South Germany and made a film of Berg’s Wozzeck. The production is pretty literal. It’s set in Austria in the late 19th century and everything plays out very literally per the libretto but it’s far from being a routine or dull reading. A combination of brilliant conducting, slightly over the top acting, pointing up the Expressionist elements in the music and really good cinematography make this a very tense, creepy and claustrophobic experience. It’s simultaneously rather repellent and hard to watch and deeply engaging. Continue reading →
After what seems like an interminable series of reviews of DVDs that don’t do full justice to the product on stage I finally got to look at one that presented the production almost as if one had been in the theatre. It’s an Opus Arte disc of Calixto Bieito’s production of Berg’s Wozzeck staged in Barcelona in 2007. Bielto is seen by many as the epitome of Regietheater directors and many people will write off any of his productions without further ado. Not me. I found this Wozzeck by turns powerful, compelling, revolting and sometimes puzzling but never dull or disrespectful. Its set in a chemical factory. The workers, including Wozzeck and Marie, inhabit the lowest, most polluted levels, wear overalls and are dirty. The higher caste characters inhabit the upper levels and get fancier costumes. Marie’s affair with the Drum Major is signified both by her physical elevation and her change of clothes to a slinky dress. There are any number of striking visual images from the doctor carrying out a grisly autopsy through the Drum Major, dressed like an Elvis impersonator, humping Marie’s child’s rocking horse, to the eerie green and red lighting of the penultimate scene where a nude (why?) chorus dance around Wozzeck with Marie’s corpse. Not all the details are obvious but the overall impression of Wozzeck as an untermensch alienated and degraded, driven to madness and murder by a society that cares nothing for him or his like is compelling. I’m including more and larger screen caps than usual because much of it is hard to describe. The Personenregie is exceptional. The chorus in particular is handled with great dramaturgical skill. All in all, really good theatre.
The singing and acting are really strong. My opinion of Franz Hawlata, who plays the title role, continues to soar. He is superb and it’s a measure of his acting skills that I didn’t even recognize him at first. Angela Denoke sings Marie and she brings a lyricism to the role that is almost terrifying amongst the general bleakness. Johann Tilli is the doctor. He seems a bigger presence in this production than some others. Fine support, too from the other roles. Sebastian Weigle conducts and he gets some really incisive playing out of his orchestra, helped by the recorded sound quality.
For once, the production for DVD is near perfect. The video director, Pietro d’Agostino, isn’t seduced into closing in too much on the action and lets us see much of Bieito’s complex overall picture ( such as the above where the, nude, chorus, enters below a video projection of a loon taking off. OK I don’t get it but the image is striking). The picture quality is good 16:9 anamorphic. It’s maybe not quite up to some recent productions filmed in HD but it’s way better than the typical 1990s DVD. The DTS 5.1 soundtrack is exceptional. It’s aurally one of the best opera DVDs I have experienced. It’s crisp, clear and with terrific spatial depth. There’s also LPCM stereo. There are subtitles in English, French, German, Castilian, Italian and Catalan. Extras include interviews with Weigle and Bielto.
This is the only recent DVD of Wozzeck. Unless you watch on your laptop using the built in speakers this is probably the version to get.
Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is without doubt a work of genius but it’s also a huge downer from start to finish and that can make it pretty difficult to watch. Perhaps the true measure of the 1996 recording from Frankfurter Oper is that it manages to be so consistently visually engaging that the relentless cruelty and horror becomes much more bearable. The production is described as “recorded under studio conditions from the stage of the Frankfurter Oper”. I’m not entirely sure, beyond the absence of an audience, what that means. It looks pretty much like any other DVD filmed from a stage production but maybe some of the scene to scene transitions incorporate non-stage effects. Who knows?
Director and designer Peter Mussbach offers us a largely abstract expressionist staging. Each scene takes place in a cube at centre stage, framed in neon and populated for the most part by a few shapes in primary colours. Only at the beginning of Act 3, where Wozzeck watches Marie “betray” him with the Drum Major does it just for a moment bend towards a more naturalistic aesthetic. Costumes are similarly stark. The Hauptmann in particular wears something that looks like a red and pink chicken suit with epaulettes whereas Wozzeck is dressed in a simple white (almost) shirt and trousers. Only the drum major gets the almost realistic over the top military tailoring look. In the transitions between acts a cube filling, well, cube, apparently made of breeze block or cork or some similar textured substance, appears and spins around and does stuff before dropping back to give us a new cube set. Only right at the end are there characters or scenery outside the cube, albeit grotesquely masked children, as the camera pulls back to reveal the whole artifice of the stage machinery. It’s hard to describe but it does work rather well.
The singing and acting are very good indeed. Dale Duesing gives a horrifically convincing performance as the mentally tortured Wozzeck while remaining absolutely vocally secure and even lyrical on the odd occasion he has the chance. Kristine Ciesinski is equally affecting as Marie. Dieter Bundschuh’s Captain and Frode Olsen’s Doctor are well over the top but that’s clearly what the production calls for. The acting is as stylized as the sets. Ronald Hamilton’s Drum Major is a seething mass of testosterone (is there a more unpleasant character in all of opera?). Barry Banks, as Andres, comes close to bringing a touch of sanity to proceedings and is lovely to listen to. Sylvain Cambreling conducts and is quite satisfactory.
No video director is credited so I assume Mussbach took on that role. He uses a lot of close ups but given how stark the sets are and how little is going on apart from the main characters that seems perfectly reasonable. The only place it becomes problematic is in the last scene of act 2 where there is quite a lot going on including puppet doubles for Marie and the Drum Major and a cart load of musicians. I would like to see more of the overall picture here. Small caveats aside it all works pretty well as a film.
The DVD package is pretty basic. The picture is a decent quality 16:9 anamorphic. The only sound option is Dolby 2.0. The only subtitles are English and they are huge; at least twice the size they need to be, and quite intrusive. The only documentation is a chapter listing.
Berg’s Lulu is a fascinating piece. The plot is unremittingly bleak including (by implication) child abuse, murder, cholera and prostitution culminating in Lulu’s death at the hands of Jack the Ripper. The music is dense and fascinating. Most of it is written using twelve tone technique with a different tone row for each character. It’s not an easy listen. I watched it on a DVD of a 1996 Glyndebourne production directed by Graham Vick, with Andrew Davis conducting and Christine Schafer, then 30, in the title role.
The set for the entire production is a series of contrarotating circles of floor set around a hole in the stage by which characters can enter and exit. Behind this is a high curving wall with a staircase up it and various doors. This allows Vick to use space to explore the relationships between the characters in some interesting ways.
At the heart of this production is Schafer(*) she has the ideal looks and voice for the part. There are only a handful of singers in the world who can throw off the some of the fiendishly high coloratura work and wear the outfits she wears in this piece. The rest of the cast is stellar and the orchestral playing and conducting is about as lyrical as Berg ever could be. It all adds up to a musically and dramatically satisfying package.
Video direction (by Humphrey Burton) is unfussy and undistracting. The DVD is 4:3 and the only audio option is Dolby Digital 2.0.
Here’s the scene with Lulu and Jack the Ripper as a sampler.
*The more I see of Schafer the more impressed I am. She sings a lot of difficult modern music but she also brings real character to a wide range of traditional lyric soprano roles. I’ve seen her as Sophie in Rosenkavalier, as Gretel in Hansel and Gretel and as Cherubino in Il Nozze di Figaro. She really inhabits the characters she plays. As she does in Lulu.