Richard Eyre’s production of La Traviata at the Royal Opera House, filmed in 2009, is a pretty good example of how to do a traditional production. There’s nothing conceptual or thought provoking to it but the direction is careful and tells the story clearly and well. The designs are mid 19th century with crinolines and tail coats but with the odd imaginative touch and a welcome refusal to succumb to the “more stuff” syndrome that plagues so many Verdi and Puccini productions. Backed up by excellent music making it probably makes a near ideal introduction to the piece, even if it won’t entirely displace Willy Decker’s brilliant and disturbing Salzburg production in my affections.
The 2000 Metropolitan Opera recording of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is based on Zeffirelli’s 1990 production somewhat modified by director Stephen Lawless. It’s an entirely traditional “breeches and boobs” affair with baroque painted flats, tricorne hats etc. Blocking is mostly very basic with a lot of “park and bark” just livened up with a bit of prop twiddling. It works because it has a superb cast who sing and act (within the limits of the production) extremely well.
At the core is Bryn Terfel in the title role. You get what you expect; a big voice that can be scaled back to quite beautiful, menace, physical presence and a touch of humour when required. If you have see his more recent Scarpia or Mephistopheles you know what to expect. He’s backed up Ferruccio Furlanetto in a rather broadly comic take on Leporello which, though I find it unsubtle, isn’t inappropriate in this production. The Terfel/Furlanetto relationship is very much master/servant. No ambiguity about two sides of one character here! Continue reading
There are, I think, eighteen DVD versions of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro currently available so there needs to be something very special about a recording for it to stand out. Unfortunately Stephen Medcalf’s 1994 Glyndebourne production doesn’t really despite having a strong looking cast. It’s a pretty traditional looking production with breeches and crinolines and sets which look a bit like a giant doll’s house. The Personenregie is well thought out and the stage picture often artfully composed. The acting is almost uniformly excellent. It’s a good solid production but with nothing original in the least about it. Continue reading
One of the early Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcasts was a 2007 showing of Robert Carsen’s 1997 production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin with Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Renée Fleming. It was subsequently released on DVD and Blu-ray by Decca and remains one of the most successful disk releases spawned by the broadcasts.
The approach is minimalist. The enormous Met stage is blocked off by blank walls to form a gigantic open cube within which Carsen deploys a few bits and pieces of props. It’s the antithesis of the Schenk/Zeffirelli “stuff” aesthetic. Lighting (Jean Kalman) is used to create quite dramatic shifts of setting and mood. The opera opens on a stage blank but for a table and a lot of leaves (which in true Carsen style later get swept up by the chorus(1)). Later the passage of a night in Tatiana’s bedroom is suggested by changing lighting and a rustic ballroom is suggested by two rows of mismatched chairs, in contrast to the later “big city” ballroom where the chairs are opulent and all match. The space created by this minimalist approach exposes the characters and allows us to focus on their relationships and emotions. It’s very effective. Continue reading
So, continuing my Robert Carsen binge in an especially appropriate manner considering last night’s Iphigénie shindig, I bring you the DVD of Carsen’s 2004 Paris production of Richard Strauss’ Capriccio. This may be even more incoherent than usual as I am reeling a bit, in a good way, from this production.
I have my own theories about this work. It’s Strauss’ last opera and it premiered 22 days before the tanks of 5th Guards Tank Army ripped through the axis lines west of Stalingrad opening the battle that would hand Germany the defeat which marked the turning point of the war. I think I see it as a sort of elegy for a world that Strauss sees as passing away. Does Strauss sense Germany’s defeat? Will there even be opera in Germany post the Apocalypse. In such a world isn’t the core question of the opera “words or music?” an irrelevant luxury? Does Carsen share this interpretation? I don’t know for sure but he chooses to set this production in Munich at the time of the premiere rather in 1775 as the libretto clearly states. It makes some of the discussion about Gluck and Reform Opera a bit odd but I can live with that if it draws attention to bigger questions. In any event the period decision seems minor compared with the daringness of Carsen’s overall concept. Capriccio is an opera about opera in general and about itself in particular. Carsen takes this idea and builds on it. He uses the idea of “theatre within a theatre” but in a way that is far removed from the boring “plonk a toy theatre down centre stage” that New York seems to think is avant-garde. Carsen uses the depth of the Palais Garnier stage, multiple proscenium arches, mirrors, stage boxes and, occasionally, crudely visible scenery to create a series of ambiguous spaces. It’s less “theatre within a theatre” than “Klein bottle within a Klein bottle”. The ambiguity comes to a head in the final scene where Olivier, Flamand and La Roche are in an orchestra box stage right with the Graf and Gräfin in a box stage left watching the Gräfin sing the great final scene in which she fails to decide between “words” and “music”. Is the Gräfin in the box a double or was that bit put in for the DVD? I don’t know. Then right at the end Carsen pulls an extraordinary coup de theatre which it would be spoilerish to reveal. I totally understand the hooting and hollering from the audience. It’s stunning.
Performances are all very good to excellent. Renée Fleming is the Gräfin and if you have seen her sing Strauss you know what to expect. I thought that in the big final scene she was more obviously emotional and conflicted than in the two Met performances of this scene that I’ve seen. I think it’s a better approach. When directors get Renée to act rather than look decorative and goofy it’s a big plus. Anne Sofie von Otter (the secret ingredient?) is a wonderful Clairon. She’s dressed to kill in red and black and vamps it up like Marlene Dietrich. The excellent Franz Hawalta manages to be funny as La Roche without becoming buffoonish and he sings very musically and steadily. The chemistry between Gerald Finley as Olivier and Rainer Trost as Flamand is excellent and they are both lovely singers in top form here. There really aren’t any weak links. I don’t think the score is one of Strauss’ best but Ulf Schirmer in the pit makes it sound pretty good.
Direction for DVD is by François Roussillon. It’s harder than usual to judge the DVD direction. It’s really hard to tell what the audience in the theatre saw versus what we are getting on the DVD but it would have been really hard to convey the picture from the audience given the way Carsen was using space. I think Roussillon has deliberately chosen ambiguity here which is of a piece, philosophically if not literally, with the staging. I’d love to see what this production looked like in the theatre but I can accept the DVD as a fascinating document in its own right. Technically it’s excellent. The 16:9 Anamorphic picture is gorgeous which is helped by 148 minutes of video being spread across two disks. Sound options are LPCM stereo, Dolby 5.0 and DTS 5.0. The DTS track seemed crisper to me and was very satisfactory though maybe a touch light on the bass. English, German, French, Italian and Spanish subtitles. There are no extras which is annoying. These Carsen productions need/deserve a director interview. The documentation in my library copy was missing unfortunately so no insights from that either.
Here’s a pretty long (28 minutes) excerpt which looks as if it was taken from the TV broadcast rather than the DVD so the picture quality doesn’t do the thing justice at all. It gives a decent idea of the overall look and feel but doesn’t really show how Carsen is messing with our idea of space.
I’m a big fan of Robert Carsen. His Orfeo ed Euridice was one of the highlights of last year’s COC season and his Iphigénie en Tauride promises to be one of the events of the upcoming season. So, as you can imagine, I had high expectations for the DVD of his 2002 Paris production of Dvořák’s Rusalka with Renée Fleming in the title role. I wasn’t disappointed. The production is pure magic. It’s almost a mathematician’s production. In Act 1 he gives us symmetry in the horizontal plane. There’s a bedroom reflected horizontally floating above the water sprites’ abode which resolves itself into the bedroom that is the setting for Rusalka’s initial encounter with the prince. In Act 2 we get the same bedroom but in a left right symmetry and the movements of the characters are also mirrored with non singing actors mirroring the singers. The symmetry continues with Rusalka balanced against the foreign princess. It’s very cool. I’m guessing that Carsen is suggesting the distance between the world of the sprites and the human world diminishing then opening up again. In Act 3 we get geometrical chaos as Ježibaba’s hut is presented at crazy angles poised above the stage and all sorts of dissolution goes on before we again get the symmetrical bedroom in which the final tragedy plays out. The general concept is supported by a superb lighting plot (Carsen and Peter van Praet) that brilliantly brings out the moods of the different scenes. And there’s no clutter. Scene follows scene pretty much seamlessly. It’s terrific stagecraft.
Musically too this performance is absolutely top drawer. It’s an interesting score. It’s inventive and melodic but mostly it kind of flows; sort of like Tristan without the bombast (and arguably with much less drama). It suits Fleming extremely well. Where she has to push out vast amounts of beautiful tone including effortlessly floated high notes she does. One would expect no less from her. But she also finds some edge and drama when it’s needed which I don’t really think of as her strong suit. She’s very well supported. I particularly liked Larissa Diadkova’s Ježibaba. She’s got a beautiful dark, Slavic contralto and she acted really well. Her’s was a Ježibaba who knows what’s up and is somewhat above it; facilitating the action while clearly contemptuous of the follies of humans and Rusalka. She is particularly delicious in Act 3 with her advances/menaces to the kitchen boy. Franz Hawlata is the water gnome. It’s a role he’s played many times and I liked his solid Wagnerian baritone. The late Sergei Larin plays the prince. He’s got a solid spinto tenor and, unsurprisingly, sounds appropriately Slavic. Eva Urbanova sings the foreign princess and I liked her rather acid tone and spiteful attack; entirely appropriate as a foil for Fleming’s Rusalka. The sound from the Orchestra is very lovely. It’s the Orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris and James Conlon conducts.
Direction for DVD is by François Roussillon and he does OK. He stays back enough to allow us to see what Carsen is up to but does use mid range and close ups reasonably effectively. The stage seems very large (it’s the Paris Bastille theatre) and at times the singers seem almost lost on the huge set so I would probably have had the opera glasses out a good deal of the time anyway. It’s a 2 DVD set with a very good 16:9 picture but no extras (an interview with Carsen would have been very handy). Sound options are LPCM stereo, Dolby 5.0 and DTS 5.0. The DTS track sounded really good. It’s sung in Czech so you might want the English, French, German, Italian or Spanish subtitles! This is definitely a highly recommendable DVD set.
Here’s part of the “chaotic” bit from Act 3
Yesterday’s Met Live in HD transmission was Richard Strauss’ last opera Capriccio. It’s a curious work and I suspect how one thinks about it seriously affects how one reacts to it emotionally. On the surface it’s a sophisticated meta opera about opera with some side splittingly funny gags about unstageable production concepts accompanied by pastiche Wagner. Taken on that level it’s funny but perhaps, ultimately heartless. When one realises that the opera was written in 1941/2 it adds a new dimension. Why has Strauss set this opera in Enlightenment Paris? Where else could be more symbolic of everything the regime he is writing under is not? This work premiered a few weeks before the German defeat at Stalingrad. Does Strauss sense that german is losing the war? Is this less an affectionate farewell to the form from an elderly composer or an elegy for an artform that may not survive the destruction of European civilization which most would have thought the inevitable consequence of a Russo-American victory (who’s to say they weren’t right?). Any way these were the thoughts that were going through my head as I watched yesterday’s broadcast and no doubt helped give the work, for me, a greater emotional intensity.
The Met production is opulently simple. The period setting is the 1920s/30s for no apparent reason but it doesn’t really jar. Everything takes place in a drawing room and it’s played in one act avoiding annoyingly long scene changes. It all looks very pretty and expensive. The relatively compact set and lack of much action mean that the usual HD close ups are less annoying, perhaps even a positive.
The performances were uniformly strong. My preconception, based on Renee Fleming performing the last scene as a concert piece, was that this would be a one woman show. It wasn’t. The first two scenes are very much ensemble pieces and require excellent individual and ensemble skills. This we got. All the roles; major and minor, were sung and acted extremely well. I think Peter Rose, as the impresario La Roche, perhaps was the pick of the lot but Renee Fleming’s Madelaine, Joseph Kaiser’s Flamand, Russell Braun’s Olivier and Sarah Connolly’s Clairon were all excellent. Sir Andrew Davis conducted and I really look forward to his Ariadne in Toronto next month.
The usual cinema sound problems were only a problem during the deliberately somewhat cacophonic ensemble in the second scene. I’d really like to hear that music in a setting where I can tease out the threads without being assaulted by absurd levels of harmonic distortion. In quieter passages things were fine and the orchestra sounded really good.
Overall, I found this one of the most satisfying met broadcasts I have seen but, for the reasons outlined in the first paragraph, your mileage might vary.