In 1988 Jean-Pierre Ponnelle made the last of his lip synched opera films; Mozart’s Così fan tutte. It carries Ponnelle’s trademark “artificiality” even further than in other of his films that I have seen. The sets, the costumes, the acting and the camera work never let us forget that this is a work of the, in the director’s words, “greatest artificiality”. It also becomes increasingly clear as the piece progresses that Ponnelle has a very clear idea of what “the opera is about”. Continue reading
Having had a lot of fun with the Lyon recording of Orphée aux Enfers I decided to try and track down some more Offenbach operetta and managed to find a Zurich recording of La Belle Helène conducted, perhaps surprisingly, by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
It’s not perhaps a wildly funny as the Orphée nor perhaps does it have as many memorable tunes but it’s good fun in an undemanding (at least for the audience) sort of way. The Zurich production, by Helmut Lohner, is painted in pretty broad brush strokes. The costumes a re very colourful, a bit silly and most have writing on them, much of it, oddly, in English. The thunder machine is positively Heath Robinsonish. There’s lots of stage action and fairly silly dancing around. It’s all very fast paced and doesn’t take itself too seriously despite the sleeve notes leading one to expect more in the way of social satire. Harnoncourt is obviously having a whale of a time and occasionally gets caught up in the stage action rather as he does in the Salzburg King Arthur. Continue reading
I’ve watched the Blu-ray version of the 2006 Salzburg production of Le Nozze di Figaro a few times now but sitting through it with notepad at the ready made me realise how much I hadn’t seen on the previous viewings. My notes are copious. I usually take a couple of pages or so. This time I covered four pages and it could easily have been more. You have been warned. Continue reading
Haydn’s operas aren’t performed much but he has a champion in Nikolaus Harnoncourt In 2009, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death and his own 80th birthday, he was asked by der Theater an der Wien to pick a Haydn opera for performance. He chose the 1777 work, Il Mondo della Luna. It’s a quirky comedy composed for the marriage of one of the Esterhazys. Given it’s unfamiliarity, here’s a plot summary. The fake astrologer, Ecclitico, and the young gentleman, Ernesto, are in love with the daughters (Clarice and Flaminia) of the extremely misogynistic but rich, Buonafede who refuses to agree to the matches. Buonafede has designs on his maidservant, Lisetta, who is in love with Ernesto’s servant, Cecco. Ecclitico claims to have built a telescope that can see into the world of the moon and uses it to show Buonafede the “delights” of that place( i.e. how women are properly subordinated to men). Buonafede is entranced and when Ecclitico tells him that he has been summoned to the moon to serve the emperor he is easily able to persuade Buonafede to come too as long as the girls can come along later. An elaborate charade is played out in Eccletico’s garden whereby Buonafede is convinced by the open and honest dealings pf the moon people under their benevolent emperor (Cecco) to allow the marriage of his daughters. Cecco takes Lisetta as his empress. When the fraud is revealed Buonafede, after much huffing and puffing, takes it in good grace and they all live happily ever after. It’s silly but no more so than most Mozart operas and given its fine music its very enjoyable.
The Vienna production is directed for stage by Tobias Moretti and it’s given a modern setting. The “telescope” involves lots of computer screens and a “total immersion” helmet and so on. The sets help make it clear what is going on without being fussy. In places effective use is made of video projection. The video is particularly crucial during the telescope scene which is played out on two levels. Upstairs Buonafede is wired up to watch and, I think, what he thinks he is seeing is projected behind him. Meanwhile downstairs what he is “seeing” is being acted out in front of a camera. There seems to be a significant disconnect between the two but it’s almost impossible to be sure from the DVD which rarely gives us the whole picture at once. The videos also make a crucial appearance in the “ballet” at the start of Act 2. Here’s the scene with the Nymphs.In the accompanying interview Moretti is very clear that his production concept is driven by the music and I think he does a really good job of realising a pretty tricky piece for a modern audience.
I don’t think I’d seen any of the cast before but they are all young, attractive and very good physical actors as well as very decent singers. The exception is Dietrich Henschel who plays Buonafede. He isn’t young but ypu wouldn’t know it as he throws himself into some of the toughest physical acting in the piece while singing in a very solid bass and being very funny. Bernhard Richter plays Eccletico and he, too, is excellent. He’s almost, but not quite manic, and he has a very pleasing lyric tenor voice. Cecco is played tenor Markus Schäfer. It’s a very broad, perhaps too broad, buffo interpretation with lots of eye rolling and the like. It might not look so extreme in the theatre as it does on DVD. The castrato part of Ernesto is taken by American mezzo Vivica Genaux. She’s technically very assured, especially in the coloratura passages, but the voice has a reedy quality I don’t much care for. Lisetta is sung by Maite Beaumont who manages to be very funny without being as eye rolling as Schäfer This is a Despina sort of role that relies more on acting skills than singing though she sings well enough. Flaminia (the good, dutiful daughter) is well sung by Anja Nina Bahrmann. She has one fiendish display aria, Ragion nell’alma siede which comes off pretty well but without perhaps the assurance that say, Schwarzkopf brought to Come scoglio (and it is that sort of aria!). Christina Landshamer gets to be the disobedient daughter, Clarice. She is very good especially in the first act where she is caught by her father escaping from the house (though we don’t get to find out why he is carrying a wooden coat hanger all through his confrontation with her). So all in all it’s a solid ensemble cast with really good acting and more than adequate singing.
Harnoncourt of course conducts and I imagine he’s also playing the harpsichord for the recitatives but it’s not credited. He gets just the right sound out of the Concentus Musicus Wien. The natural string tones and blaring horns are exactly right. This is not polite court music. This is mature Haydn experimenting at the boundaries as ever and Harnoncourt doesn’t duck bringing this out. I can see how conducted by someone like Karajan this could be a pretty dull score but not here!
The video direction by Felix Breisach is problematic. This cannot have been an easy production to film especially if the director were imagining it being watched on a fairly small screen. There’s a lot happening and yet a good deal of close in action going on too. As I indicated above there are crucial points where I don’t think the video allows us to follow the director’s intention which is unfortunate. For example, here’s one of Buonafede’s “fantasies” from Act 1.That said, it’s better filming than many opera DVDs. The picture itself is very good. It was filmed in HD and it shows. Sound options are PCM stereo and DTS 5.0. The latter is very good and sounds naturally balanced to me. The documentation is good and there’s a useful bonus interview with Morretti and Harnoncourt. It’s available as a 2xDVD9 package (which is what I watched) or Blu-Ray.
I’m converted. I want to see more Haydn operas.
A while ago I had the misfortune to watch a thoroughly misconceived version of Purcell’s King Arthur. I have now had a chance to watch a version from the 2004 Salzburg Festival and it’s a lot better! This production by Jürgen Flimm takes Purcell and Dryden’s work and treats it respectfully but not solemnly. As originally intended, it’s given as a series of scenes spoken by actors interspersed by songs which are sung by five singers who change role as needed. The dialogue is in German but the singing is in English which seems a bit odd at first to an English speaker but one soon gets used to it. Flimm uses Dryden’s text for the most part but interpolates some scenes, notably where Merlin, disguised as an investment banker’s wife, enters via the auditorium and delivers a diatribe about Regietheater and how Salzburg has gone all to Hell. It’s just like being at a typical COC Opera 101. It’s staged in the appropriately baroque Felsenreitschule and the set mirrored the arcades of the building with a brightly painted wooden arcade structure set behind the stage. The orchestra is in a sunken pit in the middle of the stage so the action takes place all around them. There is clearly some heavy duty projection equipment behind the set because the production uses a wide range of, often spectacular, lighting effects.
The plot is carried by the spoken bits with the music providing allegorical commentary and ornament. Arthur (Michael Maertens), king of the Christian Britons is in love with Emmeline (Sylvie Rohrer), the blind daughter of Conon (Peter Maertens), duke of Cornwall and vassal of Arthur. Arthur is at war with Oswald (Dietmar König), the pagan king of the Saxons, who is also in love with Emmeline. Arthur is assisted by the monk Aurelius (Christoph Kahl) and the wizard Merlin (Christoph Bantzer), as well as the slightly confused spirit Philidel (Alexandra Henkel) and Emmeline’s maid Matilda (Ulli Maier). In the Saxon corner are the magician/priest Osmond (Roland Renner) and the demon Grimbald (Werner Wölbern). The Brits are dressed in vaguely British military uniform, or, on occasion, civvies c. 1930 while the Saxons have a cross between c. WW1 Teutonic and the Schenk Ring. We start out with the preparations by each side for the battle between the two sides. The sacrifices to Thor, Freya and Wotan are scantily clad and obviously stoned “babes”. Merlin floats in from the Gods on a sail board. Oswald chews a lot of scenery. Emmeline and Arthur make out. Of course that’s all quite innocent because she “sees” with her hands! All sorts of stuff which doesn’t get captured well on the DVD goes on in the background. After the battle the “bad” spirits try to lead the Britons astray while the good ones, including a charming Philodel, try to keep them on track. In the ensuing confusion Oswald kidnaps Emmeline and Matilda. Emmeline gets her sight back via a magic potion from Merlin which cues a very funny scene with a video camera. The frost scene features penguins transforming to beach babes and there’s a boxing match, refereed by Michael Schade, where Arthur wins his final victory over Oswald. Cue celebrations and finale.
The actors are excellent, especially in the physical department. The stand outs are Henkel as Philidel who is totally charming and Rohrer as Emmeline who is brilliant throughout and really manages to look as if she is blind in the first two acts. The singing is very good too. It’s shared out between sopranos Barbara Bonney and Isabel Rey, tenor Michael Schade, contralto Birgit Remmert and baritone Oliver Widmer. Some of the English intonation is less than perfect though Bonney and Schade are fine. The Staatsopernchor is consistently excellent and Nikolaus Harnoncourt directs his own Concentus Musicus Wien to good effect. The vocal highlights include great performances by Widmer and Bonney in the frost scene and the final three numbers. Here we first get Schade doing a rock and roll version of “Your Hay it is Mowed” (while the ladies of the chorus throw their underwear at him) followed by a ravishing “Fairest Isle” from Barbara Bonney and concluding with a really good arrangement of “How Happy the Lover” for all five soloists and chorus.
The invention; visually, dramatically and musically never lets up and we get a succession of scenes which are spectacular, dramatic, funny or sometimes all three. It’s great fun and great theatre.
The video direction is by Hannes Rossacher and it is very much “for TV” which is a shame as I think a lot is being lost by seeing too little of the complex and imaginative “picture” the director and designer intended. Technical quality is fine. The picture is 16:9 and the sound options are PCM stereo, Dolby 5.1 and DTS 5.1. There are English, French and German subtitles. There are no extras but there’s a detailed track listing and a useful essay in the booklet.
All in all, this DVD is a lot of fun and can easily be recommended. Here’s the official Youtube promo.
Some time ago, shezan from LiveJournal pointed me towards the 2003 Salzburg Festival production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. This is not a work I know at all well and previous efforts to watch it without sub-titles failed miserably. Now I’ve had a chance to watch the DVD. I can do the musical part of the review very quickly. It’s virtually flawless. All six principals (Michael Schade – Tito, Dorothea Roschmann – Vitellia, Vesselina Kasarova – Sesto, Elina Garanca – Annio, Barbara Bonney – Servilia, Luca Pisaroni – Publio) sing exceedingly well and Nikolaus Harnoncourt in the pit coaxes a thoroughly satisfying performance out of the orchestra. What I’m less sure of is what to make of Martin Kusej’s production. He uses the arches of the Felsenreitschule to create a three level heavily compartmentalized area which frames centre stage. Sometimes the compartments are used effectively for the various plotting and overhearing bits of the drama; fair enough. At others they are used to frame tableau that no doubt mean something to Kusej but which escaped me. For example, during the overture, Tito rushes around the set making the odd phone call while very young boys in underpants stand to attention in the various archways. Similarly in the final scene the active stage area is surrounded by a repeated motif of a man and a woman in formal dress with a table with a young boy (again in underpants) draped across it as if for a human sacrifice. I had similar problems with some of the Personenregie. Is Tito supposed to be mad? Certainly many of his arm and facial gestures suggest so and they contrast oddly with his classically stylish singing. My guess is that much more of this kind of thing was going on but Brian Large’s (who else?) direction for video was almost all in close up, often super close up. Maybe he couldn’t figure out what was going on either so decided to ignore it. This was one DVD release that could have used an interview with the director or at least some documentation.
Technically, this TDK release is very good. It’s spread across two disks and has a very good 16:9 picture and choice of LPCM stereo, Dolby 5.1 or DTS sound. The sound balance has the voices fairly far forward but not annoyingly so. The second disk has (at least my copy has) trailers for other TDK Salzburg releases including a 1962 Ariadne and a really freaky Turandot. Definitely worth a quick look!
Overall, this is very well worth watching, if a bit perplexing. Here’s an excerpt from near the end that shows both the weird stuff going on around the centre stage and Schade’s rather exaggerated facial expressions.