Giordano’s Fedora is a sort of apotheosis of the 19th century Italian opera. It’s a melodramatic love story in an aristocratic Russian setting. There is murder and suicide and plots and a dead mother and brother. The music is dramatic, even bombastic, when the mood suits but finds time to give showpiece arias for the principals. There is not an idea in libretto or score that give anyone an uncomfortable thought. The Metropolitan Opera’s 1996 production by Beppe di Tomasi builds on this by playing it dead straight and setting it in a series of suitably opulent settings complete with extravagant frocks. The cherry on the already rather rich cake is casting Placido Domingo as Loris Ipanoff and Mirella Freni as Fedora Romazoff. I imagine it’s many people’s idea of the perfect night at the opera In it’s way it’s the polar opposite of, say, Bieito’s Wozzeck. Continue reading
Continuing the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle marathon we come to his 1974 film of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly with Mirella Freni in the title role and a young Placido Domingo as Pinkerton. Musically this is the most satisfying of the Ponelle productions I’ve yet come across. Freni is superb. Radiant is not too strong a term, Domingo sings pretty much as well (we’ll come to points of dramatic interpretation later) and the supporting cast is flawless. There’s some serious luxury casting here with Christa Ludwig as a superb Suzuki. Robert Kerns is an excellent Sharpless and Michel Sénéchal equally good as Goro. Herbert von Karajan conducts. He tends to go for sheer beauty of sound rather than maximum drama but what beauty of sound! The soloists are wonderfully backed up by the Wirner Philharmoniker and the Staatsopernchor. Continue reading
It’s hard to think of a play that would make a better basis for an opera libretto than Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Henri Cain’s adaptation is rather good; somewhat simplifying and tightening up the plot in a similar manner to that later taken by Britten and Pears with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s a shame Franco Alfano’s music doesn’t really rise to the same heights. It has its moments, especially later in the opera, but much of the time it’s dull and impressionistic; more like a film soundtrack than an opera score. I guess the lesson is that one just can’t do verismo while trying to avoid vulgarity and excessive melodrama. It also has to be said that much of the time the music seems to be fighting the natural rhythm of the words rather than supporting it. What the music does have is Alfano’s trademark torturing of his singers, especially the principal four roles of Cyrano, Roxane, Christian and De Guiche.
Last night I tried to watch Parsifal – The Search for the Grail. Ostensibly it’s a documentary about the origins of Wagner’s opera and to give it opera cred they roped in one Placido Domingo as narrator. Valery Gergiev is also involved. What a load of tosh! It’s basically a rather weak history of the Grail as portrayed in popular culture complete with Monty Python, Indiana Jones, real Nazis as well as fake ones, pitiful reconstructions of crusader battles and on and on. Mind numbing cliché follows mind numbing cliché. Nul points! What was Domingo thinking of associating himself with this dreck?
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 design and production team that created the production of Tan Dun’s The First Emperor at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006, broadcast in HD in January 2007 and subsequently released on DVD, deserve the highest praise. Set designer Fan Yue, costume designer Emi Wada, lighting designer Duane Schuler, choreographer Dou Dou Huang and director Zhang Yimou (of Raise the Red Lantern fame) create some absolutely stunning images making full use of the great breadth and depth of the Met stage. Unfortunately the libretto and the music aren’t nearly as good and despite extremely committed performances from soloists, chorus and orchestra the work never quite gels.
So what is The First Emperor? It’s a two act opera based on the life of the emperor Qin unifier of China, builder of the Great Wall and ultimately buried with the famous terra cotta soldiers. In Tam Dun’s version of the story he, besides conquering China, is looking for the ultimate anthem to celebrate his life which will be produced by his childhood companion Gao Jianli. There’s a love triangle involving Gianli, the princess Yueyang and the general Wang. In true operatic style they all end up dead and Gianli’s revenge is that Qin’s anthem turns out to be the lament of the slaves building the Great Wall. It includes the line “When will our suffering end?” which was about what I was thinking by that point.
The problems, as so often with modern opera, start with the libretto. There is no poetry, literal or figurative, in it. It’s banal in the same way that most of the libretto of Doctor Atomic is banal. Mostly the vocal line is set in a dull declamatory style though the princess gets some passages with some coloratura interest and the chorus gets some Peking Opera like writing. What goes on behind, and almost independently, of the vocal line is all over the map. Sometimes it’s derived from the Peking Opera and sometimes from Chinese folk music; the mix at times sounding like the soundtrack for a Chinese propaganda film. At times it recalls the dissonances of modern European art music and at others it sounds like watered down Andrew Lloyd Webber. Write at the beginning the emperor asks “Is this music?”. I’m not sure he gets an answer. It’s got some good things going for it. There is some really good writing for percussion and the opening sequence using a Peking Opera trained singer, Wu Hsing-Kuo, as the master of ceremonies is weirdly affecting (this is the bit that got played over and over as the test track for subsequent Met HD broadcasts). All in all it doesn’t really cohere.
The performance is pretty good though. The stand outs are Wu Hsing-Kuo and Elizabeth Futral as the princess. Placido Domingo is, of course, solid as the emperor but really he doesn’t have much to work with. Good solid work too from Paul Groves as Jianli and Michelle deYoung as the shaman. The Orchestra and Chorus do wonderfully well coping with some highly unusual demands. For example, there is a passage where the orchestra downs instruments and engages in a sort of pitched shouting. There’s a whole core of Chinese percussionists too. The composer conducts with great fire.
Direction for video by Brian Large isn’t bad. It’s heavy on the close ups but there are enough setting shots to give us context. The picture is very good by DVD standards as one might expect but one really wonders(1) why this didn’t get a Blu-ray release for if any of the Met HD productions would have benefited from the extra video quality it’s this one. Sound is solid DTS 5.1 with LPCM stereo as an alternative. There are English, French, Italian, German and Spanish sub-titles. The documentation (English only) includes an essay on Tan Dun’s musical style and a synopsis. There is further English, French and German documentation included in PDF format. There is also a 20 minute rehearsal bonus track and a short interview with Domingo.
fn1. One doesn’t really wonder. For whatever reason it’s an EMI release and they don’t do Blu-ray.
Simon Boccanegra was the work that persuaded me that maybe I did like Verdi after all. It’s a terrific score and if the plot isn’t without it’s artificialities it’s full of strong characters and strong emotions which Verdi brings to life with fabulous orchestral and vocal writing.
The most recent DVD version to appear is of the 2010 Royal Opera House production that was broadcast live on the BBC. It features Placido Domingo in his baritone incarnation in the title role. There’s a strong supporting cast with Ferrucio Furlanetto as his arch enemy, Fiesco; Jonathan Summers as the villain, Paolo; Joseph Calleja as the young rebel, Gabriele Adorno and Marina Polpavskaya as Boccanegra’s “lost” daughter, Amelia/Maria. The singing and acting are generally very strong. Placido is, of course, terrific. What more can one say? Furlanetto is a strong foil; excellent in both the prologue and the crucial final scenes. Summers is more than adequate though I might have hoped for more of a frisson when he curses himself. The real star for me is Calleja. He has a gorgeous voice and can float out a lovely pianissimo. His big aria early in the second act is particularly good but he is excellent all through the piece. The one weak link is Poplavskaya’s Amelia. It’s not bad. She acts well and looks the part but one really wishes for more beauty of tone. Pieczonka, in the Met HD broadcast, was much closer to the required vocal quality. Ensemble work throughout is excellent and there are some big set pieces! Antonio Pappano conducts brilliantly. He gets really good playing from the orchestra which is pretty crucial as there are some cruelly exposed woodwind and brass lines. He manages drama and urgency while still giving the singers room to do their thing when they need it. All in all, this is musically very satisfying.
The production, by Elijah Moshinsky, is pretty conventional. It’s a period setting with simple designs that suggest renaissance paintings. There are a few nice touches like the graffiti on the walls in the exterior scenes but mostly the look is just undistracting. There’s nothing beyond the text in the way the story is told either. Blocking is fairly basic and there’s a fair bit of “park and bark”. One senses that Moshinsky’s efforts have gone into character development rather than in trying to make any bold statement.
Sue Judd directed for TV and video and it’s a conventional TV view with too many close ups. She needs to watch some of François Roussillon’s recent work. We also get little chats from Pappano between scenes. These probably work OK first time through but I think would get pretty tedious on repeat viewing. There are short bonus features on
WorshippingWorking with Placido Domingo and Rehearsals with Elijah Moshinsky. The technical quality is very good. It was filmed in HD and the picture is clear and detailed. The DTS 5.1 sound is really excellent; detailed, very spacious and coping very well with the more congested passages. There is also LPCM stereo. This really deserves a Blu-ray release but it’s on EMI who so far seem not to have gone that route(1). There are English, French, Spanish, German and Italian subtitles. The documentation is missing from my library copy but apparently contains a track listing, synopsis and “notes”.
This is definitely worth a look and it will be very interesting to do a detailed “compare and contrast” if I can get my hands on the Sony DVD release of the 2010 Met HD broadcast with Domingo, Morris, Giodarno and Pieczonka.
fn1. EMI was recently sold to Universal; parent of Deutsche Grammophon, and Decca so I suppose anything is possible.
Iphigénie is one of my all time favourite operas and has some absolutely gutwrenchingly beautiful music. The Met production had Susan Graham, Placido Domingo and Paul Groves. This looked set to be amazing. It wasn’t quite though it was very good indeed and the problems were all with the production. Despite Peter Gelb announcing before the curtain that Ms. Graham and Mr. Domingo were both suffering from colds the singing was first rate across the board. I’m looking forward even more to Susan Graham singing this with Russell Braun and Joseph Kaiser next year in Toronto.
The production suffered from being a bit cluttered and a bit over obvious. It started out well with a mimed scene of Iphigénie’s sacrifice and rescue at Aulis that was intended as a bad dream of Iphigénie’s in exile in Tauris. It was quick and led nicely into the ravishingly beautiful opening bars. It probably set a record for how fast an opera has brought tears to my eyes. The rest of Act 1 featured rather more chorus and dancers than the stage could comfortably hold and there was a particularly intrusive loony Scythian who capered and leered in a very odd way. The shark got well and truly jumped in Act 2 though when Clytemnestra, in an acid green gown completely at odds with the fairly subdued prevailing colour scheme, appeared in a wall with her arms extending from it to caress Iphigénie and Oreste on their respective sides. This looked like one of those old fashioned music hall acts where the reciter’s arms keep extending to ludicrous lengths. Again this is supposed to be a dream, this time of Oreste’s, as he is tormented by the Furies. Clytemnestra emerges from the wall to slay Agamemnon and his bloodied corpse and she, also covered in blood, remain on stage until the interval. Apparently the Met audience has a collective IQ in single figures and has to be reminded of the back story (which evry skuleboy kno) at every opportunity. And, if Oreste is being tormented it’s surely by his killing of his mother, not her killing of Agamemnon.
Acts 3 and 4 were much better though too busy and with some odd capering and overdone business at the very end. This is a classical piece based on a classical Greek tragedy. Aesthetically one needs to think Aeschylus rather than Barnum and Bailey. The broadcast was fine bar two or three momentary audio drops and the inevitable surplus of close-ups.
So overall, performance 10/10, production 4/10.
Mercifully the COC will be using the much more minimalistic production that has been seen in Madrid and Chicago.