Toronto Masque Theatre’s latest effort is a Purcell show called Fairest Isle. It’s semi-staged performance of excerpts from Purcell works, mainly the four stage works; Dido and Aeneas, The Fairy Queen, The Indian Queen and King Arthur (Wot! No Diocletian you cry) interspersed with readings from the plays and a narrative about Purcell’s life performed by actors Derek Boyes and Arlene Mazerolle. The staging involves frequent short dance pieces, in a recognisably period style (heels, long skirts, arms never above the shoulder) by Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière. The six singers, costumed throughout in dark suits or dresses, mostly sang from music stands though some pieces were blocked. There was an eight piece ensemble; two violins (Larry Beckwith/Kathleen Kajioka), viola (Karen Moffat), two oboes (John Abberger/Gillian Howard), cello (Margaret Gay), lute/guitar (Lucas Harris) and keyboards (Christopher Bagan) directed by Beckwith. Continue reading
As November 11th comes around for the 94th time since the guns were, very temporarily, silenced I thought it might be interesting to look at how war has been seen by librettists and composers over the years. Very early on we get a very gritty take on the subject in Monteverdi’s extremely compact Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda but not so long after the path for the next three centuries is set with Purcell’s broadly comic King Arthur. As far as I can see from Purcell to 1945, with very minor exceptions, the message is largely “war is fun”. War is an excuse for a big parade (Aida; unless Tim Albery is directing!), an excuse for a drinking song (Faust), just plain comedic (La Fille du Regiment), a plot device (Cosí fan tutte) or a background event (Tosca, various versions of the Armida story). The only opera, pre 1945, that I can think of that deals with the horror of war is Les Troyens, and that of course takes place in a distant, mythical, past.
A series of blog posts discussing time, perceptions of time and historically informed performance (HIP) plus seeing Opera Atelier’s Der Freischütz got me thinking along some curiously convergent lines and arriving at the conclusion that HIP isn’t and can’t be what it is often purported to be; a fairly faithful attempt to reproduce a work as it would have been seen by its first viewers or “as the composer intended” or something like that. Not, of course, that even if it was, we would see and hear it as the original audience did but that perhaps is a topic for another day.
I’ve reviewed two DVDs of Purcell’s semi-opera King Arthur on this blog. One was excellent and one was terrible and between them they went a long way to showing how difficult these semi-operas are to stage well but how rewarding when they succeed.
In 2009 Jonathan Kent and William Christie combined to produce a version of The Fairy Queen for Glyndebourne. It’s quite different in style from the successful Salzburg King Arthur but it works splendidly on its own terms. The Fairy Queen combines a libretto based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream with songs, masques and dances of a largely allegorical nature. Like the play itself they range from high flown allegory with classical elements to bawdy humour. It is very English. It almost epitomises what separates the English baroque from the French. Kent and Christie tackle this with a robust English sensibility, There are some changes to the dialogue and to the order of the numbers but it all makes sense (so far as this piece can). The allegorical elements are gorgeously and wittily staged making good use of a large circular lift at centre stage that allows fully formed tableaux to rise into our sight. The bawdy elements are tackled head on with a robustly TV Mopsa (Robert Burt) in the “Dialogue of Corydon and Mopsa” and the, by now, notorious bonking bunnies in the “Dance for the Haymakers”. The audience is totally engaged and one hears plenty of that commodity, rather rare in the opera house, uninhibited laughter. The team of designer Paul Brown and lighting designer Mark Henderson make all of this look quite spectacular. The dramatic action is played out in fairly long segments and the parts are taken by actors rather than singers. The fairies are appropriately sinister with wings that look inspired by contemporary prints of fallen angels. The Rude Mechanicals are rude and not too mechanical. The “humans” are credibly 17th century in manner though dress gets less formal as the action proceeds. The disparate elements are integrated very well. There’s plenty of dance and it’s choreographed by Kim Brandstrup in a style that is robustly muscular but solidly in the classical ballet tradition.
The cast of actors, singers and dancers is huge and consistently excellent.
I was particularly impressed with Sally Dexter’s Titania and Desmond Barrit’s Welsh accented Bottom among the actors. Barrit even got to do some singing with a not too over the top version of the “Song of the Drunken Poet”. The singing stars were the wonderful, sweet toned Lucy Crowe; her “if love’s a sweet passion” was a delight, and the robust bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams who, among other sings, sang a truly chilling Winter. Singling out individual performances isn’t the point though. This is very much an ensemble performance. Christie directs the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment from the harpsichord and is as idiomatic as one could possibly hope for.
So, how well does the stage production transfer to disc? Extremely well! The video director is François Roussillon. Unlike most of his peers he appears to have realised that opera lovers are not, for the most part, watching on tiny screens anymore. He makes sure we can see what the designer and director intended. Sure, there are close ups but never at the expense of the bigger picture. The technical quality is of a very high order. There are two formats available; a two DVD set and Blu-Ray. I watched the latter but I doubt most people would see a huge difference. It was filmed in 1080i HD and the picture is clearly better than my first generation HD TV can fully do justice to. The sound is incredibly good. On Blu-Ray it’s DTS-HD Master Audio (DTS 5.1 on DVD). The quality is apparent even as Christie is walking to the pit. The applause simply sounds as if one is in the house rather than the usual muffled fluttering noise. The balance, clarity and spatial depth are exemplary throughout. Both formats also have LPCM stereo. There are English, French, German and Spanish subtitles. There are useful extras. The disc includes interviews with Kent and Christie which are well worth watching and the booklet includes an informative essay by Kent as well as a track listing and synopsis.
All in all this is an excellent production given an exemplary transfer to disc. Here’s the official trailer, unfortunately in less than exemplary Youtube quality:
I guess another way of dealing with the dance elements in baroque opera is to dance the whole thing. That’s what Mark Morris Dance Group do with this 1995 version of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The work is performed as a modern dance piece with the singers off stage. As it’s a film rather than a record of a live performance, the singers can be, and are, occasionally pulled into the visuals.
The piece is played out on an elegant blue and grey stage and backdrop with a (very) few white props as required and all the dancers are dressed very simply in black so the look is very spare but very elegant. The choreography (by Mark Morris) is of a school of modern dance that I don’t really understand. It’s almost like a parody of one’s idea of modern dance. At times overly literal, at others very jerky and inelegant. It certainly doesn’t have much in common with ballet, even of the more abstract modern variety. In this case it’s not helped by Morris himself dancing both Dido and the Sorceress. Some might find this bold and exciting. I think he just looks like a very unconvincing transvestite and I’ve see more than a few of those! So, no, this approach doesn’t work for me.
Musically it’s not bad. Jennifer Lane sings Dido and the Sorceress. She’s fine as Dido though not in the same class as Connolly or Ewing. She, along with the two witches, witch it up more than I care for in the witchy bits. Russell Braun is Aeneas and he’s more lyrical and less gruff than is often the case. The Belinda is Ann Monoyios and, to be honest, she doesn’t sound entirely secure in the role. Mercury is sung by a soprano (uncredited) which is a bit odd and jarring. Tafelmusik supply the orchestra and chorus and are as good as you might expect. I think Jeanne Lamon is conducting but it’s not entirely clear from the disc or the package.
The filming is very good with the singers and chorus being effectively, if infrequently, inserted into the picture. The video quality is standard DVD with hard coded English subtitles. Dolby 2.0 is the only sound option. Documentation is minimal.
I think this one is strictly for the Mark Morris fans.
Long before I got my hands on the Royal Opera House/Royal Ballet Dido and Aeneas, the film version from 1995, directed by Peter Manuira and with Maria Ewing in the title role, was my go to version. How does it stack up today?
Some things that strike me. It’s very naturalistic. It seems to be set in and around a Tudor mansion and the costumes are vaguely that way too. The interludes that are normally danced are filled in with “busy” scenes that try to inject some feeling but aren’t nearly as effective as Wayne McGregor’s dancers. The hunt scene has dogs and spears and a real boar’s head (which Aeneas touchingly present to Dido in her bath). There is a lot of fire including a full blown pyre at the end. For all that it doesn’t seem any more “true” than Wayne McGregor’s much sparer vision. It’s also very emotionally restrained. It’s not really until the final confrontation between Aeneas and Dido that any real emotion intrudes and even then it’s quite restrained This is actually very effective and Maria Ewing is truly affecting in the final couple of scenes. Ewing is good throughout both in the singing and acting department and her looks help (OK I know not everyone goes for Ewing but I think she’s gorgeous!). Karl Daymond is fine as Aeneas. We get a sort of composite Belinda/Second Woman set up with some of Belinda’s music given to the Second Woman and them doubling up on other bits. While Rebecca Evans and Patricia Rosario are fine there really isn’t enough musical or emotional contrast between them and Ewing. Richard Hickox conducts the Collegium Musicum and it’s all a bit low key in common with much else. It’s worth watching for Ewing’s performance in the final act but is otherwise a bit of a snooze.
Technically it’s very 1995. The 16:9 picture is hard letterboxed in a 4:3 frame and it’s pretty soft grained. Sound is adequate LPCM stereo. There are English, French and German subtitles.
One of the trickiest things about opera productions; baroque opera anyway, is what to do about the dance elements. Time was when opera and ballet were joined at the hip but not so much nowadays beyond sharing premises. In 2009 the Royal Opera House made the bold decision to have choreographer Wayne McGregor direct the combined forces of the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet in a production of Henry Purcell’s pocket masterpiece Dido and Aeneas. The result was broadcast by the BBC and subsequently released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Opus Arte. It’s a fascinating and rewarding production.
Sets and costumes are very spare. Aeneas and the chorus are in greatcoats and wide trousers. The ladies are in unfussy gowns. The dancers are in singlets and booty shorts (both sexes). Carefully detailed direction of the singers and their gestures, bold choreography and imaginative lighting carry the visual side of the production. The use of top quality dancers and a top notch choreographer allows the dance elements to realise their full potential (and not a castanet in sight!). The result is visually stunning.
Now add a superb singing cast. Lucy Crowe almost steals the show as Belinda. She’s fresh and vivacious and her clean sound is just right for Purcell. But it is “almost” because we have Sarah Connolly’s monumental Dido to set against it.(1) She is one of the great Didos. I have heard Kirkby, Te Kanawa, Ewing and Baker in the role and even Flagstad but none exceed the combination of searing intensity and pathos that Connolly brings to the role. She is superb. Other elements of the singing are also admirable. Lucas Meachem is a hunky Aeneas and manages the tricky low notes better than most. The sorceress and witches; Sara Fulgoni with Eri Nakamura and Pumeza Matshikiza playing Siamese twins, don’t do the camped up distorted thing that is so often inflicted on the role. Fulgoni sings with quite a lot of vibrato which is sufficient to create some musical distance between her and the non infernal characters. The minor roles are all pretty good too. The regular Covent Garden orchestra is replaced by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Christopher Hogwood. This is a move that other large houses might think about for earlier repertoire.
All this goodness builds to a searing climax in which Dido slits her wrists with the “tushes far exceeding those that Venus’ huntsman slew” and dies while a haunting projection of a horse plays back of stage. All in all it’s an hour of magic.
Video direction is much better than average. Close ups are minimised and we get to see the choreography in its broadest sense. The picture is superb 16:9 anamorphic (1080i on the Blu-Ray) and sound options are PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 (PCM 2.0 and PCM 5.1 on Blu-Ray). There are English, French, Spanish, German and Italian subtitle options.
(1) I do think the balance of voice types between Belinda and Dido is important. It’s like Carmen and Micaëla. If the voices are too similar much texture is lost. Crowe and Connolly are an ideal combination.
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.
Purcell’s semi-operas are notoriously difficult to recreate for the stage though it can be done, and brilliantly, as the recent The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne showed. M. Hervé Niquet and his collaborators (co-perpetrators might be a better term) in Montpellier take the Purcell/Dryden piece King Arthur and provide an object lesson in how not to do it. Starting with a campy explanation of how he couldn’t inflict five hours of John Dryden on us, M. Niquet inflicts upon us a travesty each five minutes of which seem to last longer than five hours of Dryden, or even Racine. The objective, we are told, was to create a narrative to link the Purcell numbers and create something coherent. Except the “plot” (more or less non-existent) which M. Niquet has cooked up with the help of a hitherto unknown to me french comedy duo, Shirley and Dino, doesn’t actually do that. It’s not helped by the fact that no differentiation is made between British and Saxon characters but that’s really minor compared with the overall lameness of it. Most of the linking action is camped up. It’s supposed to be Pythonesque apparently but this lot of Frenchmen are about as convincing as Pythons as the Pythons are as Frenchmen. All the action, except Purcell’s songs, is in French which also seems odd. The Purcell is sung in English, though with the exception of the solid and idiomatic bass, Joao Fernandez, it’s not always obvious. The other singers really aren’t adequate in any department; shrill, forced and unidiomatic to a man/woman, though being forced to camp it up all the time doesn’t help. I couldn’t watch it all. I got half way through Act 2 then fast forwarded to Act 5. I wish I hadn’t. The suffering that is inflicted on that gorgeous song “Fairest Isle, all isles excelling” is just the final straw.
Searching desperately for positives besides Joao Fernandez I would say that the band, Le Concert Spirituel, is very good indeed. Everything else is almost enough to make one forget how good the music Purcell wrote for King Arthur actually is.
Watch if you dare…