Bellini’s I Puritani is one of those 19th century operas that dishes out a version of 16th or 17th century English history that’s all but unrecognisable to anyone with any actual knowledge of the subject. In this case we are in Cromwell’s Commonwealth and the nasty Puritans want to off anyone with a Stuart connection including the widowed queen Henrietta. Various implausibly named Puritan colonels (everyone in the New Model apparently holds that rank) feature as well as a Royalist earl who is, of course, in love with the Roundhead commander’s daughter. Immediately prior to marrying her though he decides to save Henrietta from execution and escapes with her thus triggering the obligatory mad scene, which is probably the main reason for watching this thing at all. Finally Arturo (the earl) returns, is captured and, inevitably, sentenced to death. As he is being led to the block Cromwell’s messenger arrives with the second most improbable reprieve in all of opera. The Stuarts have been defeated and everyone is pardoned. A happy ending with fortissimo soprano high notes ensues.
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.
I had very mixed feelings about today’s HD broadcast of Siegfried from the Metropolitan Opera. Early reviews and comments by friends had been largely negative about the staging and there was a widespread view that “the machine” was intrusively noisy. As it turned out I was pleasantly surprised. For once Gary Halvorson’s relentless close ups were a boon. From what little we could see of them, the first and second act sets were both uninteresting and gimmicky. The 3D leaf scattering, the crudely pixellated woodbird and the laughable Wurm were just among the sillier features. To be fair , the beginning of the third act made effective use of the set but that was the only place that it did work well. So focussing on the singers made a lot of sense.
Fortunately musical values were such that it was pretty much possible to ignore the staging. Singing across the board was excellent with both Bryn Terfel as Wanderer and Jay Hunter-Morris in the title being very effective. I didn’t detect any insecurity or lack of power in Deb Voigt’s Brünnhilde. Of course it’s quite possible that the sound team balanced the singers well forward in the broadcast to disguise a lack of power but that’s not something the audience needed to worry about. Actually I don’t think that’s what happened. I suspect the singing was more lyrical and less heavy than some Wagner productions but it was matched by some superbly transparent work from the orchestra so I imagine it sounded fine in the house too. In fact Fabio Luisi’s handling of the orchestral texture and the relationship between orchestra and singers was very good indeed. It was Wagner as I’m not accustomed to hearing it but I was instantly converted. The only place where it all seemed to get a bit congested again was in the final duet but that could as easily have been fatigue on my part as anything else. Certainly the sound in the cinema for me was much better reproduced than has often been the case for these broadcasts with very little THD even in very loud passages.
All in all, much better than Anna Bolena or Don Giovanni.
Here’s the clip from Siegfried that was shown during yesterday’s Don Giovanni broadcast.
Is it just me or does Mime look disturbingly like James Levine?
Perhaps the best bit of today’s Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast of Don Giovanni was Renée Fleming’s interval interview with Mariusz Kwiecien. As best I recall it went:
RF: What do you like best about this production?
MK: There’s nothing new in it so we get to do what we always do.
And that is very much the truth. British Wunderkind Michael Grandage gave us a production that I thought averagely dull for the Met until the interval and worse afterwards. The set consists basically of an “advent calendar” (I owe this brilliant terminology to Zerbinetta at Likely Impossibilities) of shuttered cells in “collapsed barn” brown and grey. For once I was grateful for a virtually continuous sequence of close ups which meant I didn’t need to look at the set. Costumes are traditional and blocking is pretty ordinary. The only point where there seems to be much of a directorial idea is in the final scene where Grandage goes McVicar on us. Don Giovanni is carousing with about ten cheap prostitutes though, it being the Met, they keep more of their clothes on than the average whore. It makes no sense. He’s an indiscriminate womaniser but there’s no suggestion that he has to buy his pleasures. We also get the advent calendar populated by statues of monks and some pretty ordinary pyrotechnics. It doesn’t work.
The production is a shame because the singing is consistently good and some of the acting is very decent. The star is Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello. He’s excellent all round. I also like Mojca Erdmann’s Zerlina which, I think is a bit less sappy than some I’ve seen. She definitely tops from the bottom in Batti, batti. Joshua Bloom’s Masetto is pretty good too helped by the fact that he isn’t twice as big as Kwiecien as so many Masettos seem to be.
No complaints about the conducting (Fabio Luisi) or orchestral playing though it’s a heavier sound than I prefer for Mozart but that’s what you get in a big house.
The Met HD 2011/12 season went on sale to Friends of the Met and, in Canada, for holders of Scene cards; the loyalty card for the chain that does the Met broadcasts up here. I just got my order in. The lemur and I go to the Scotiabank Theatre at Richmond and John for these things. They use two auditoria; the roughly 500 seat Theatre 1 and the roughly 300 seat Theatre 13, for the Met broadcasts. By 1pm today when I was choosing seats roughly 2/3 to 3/4 of the seats in Theatre 1 had already gone and a fair chunk of 13 was sold too.
For the record, we decided to see only six of the eleven shows this season. We’ll be seeing Anna Bolena, Don Giovanni, Siegfried, Faust, Enchanted Island and Gotterdammerung. If any of the others get rave reviews we might catch the encore performance.