Massenet’s Cendrillon is less often performed than Rossini’s take on the same basic story. I’m really not sure why. Rossini’s take is a bit weird (in a good way), especially in the Ponelle production, but Massenet’s is much more interesting musically. Oddly enough there’s only one version on DVD; a 2011 recording from the Royal Opera House. Fortunately it’s very good. The production is by Laurent Pelly and it has quite a bit in common with his La Fille du Regiment. Here the set is made up of pages from the original syory by Perrault rather than military maps but the effect is similar. Costumes are quite cartoonish (shades of the recent Alice in Wonderland ballet) except for Cendrillon herself, the prince and her father. There’s a strong emphasis on the humorous side of the piece and the “ballets” are thoroughly subverted.
Don Giovanni is one of the most fascinating operas in part because it can be reinterpreted in so many different ways. There’s also the tension between a story with elements of murder, rape, revenge and damnation and broad humour. It’s tricky to find a balance. There’s also a decision to be made between a concept based production and a more laissez faire approach. Francesca Zambello’s production for the Royal Opera House, recorded in 2008 doesn’t really have a concept and sort of goes with the flow mixing very broad humour with lots of Catholic kitsch and some flamboyant stage effects. As a production I find it distinctly underwhelming.
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.
Handel’s Acis and Galatea is a peculiar piece in some ways. It was written to be performed at Cannon’s, the Edgware residence of the then Earl of Caernavon, presumably for his guests. Apparently the performance style was to have the singers sing from music stands in front of a painted backdrop. So, a sort of oratorio with curtains. It’s not uncommon to stage Handel oratorios as opera these days. Theodora is done quite often and even Messiah has been staged so it’s no great surprise that Acis and Galatea should be given a similar treatment. In fact Wayne McGregor’s 2009 Covent Garden production stages it as an opera and a ballet simultaneously combining the resources of the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera.
I’ve owned a VHS tape of Harry Kupfer’s 1991 Royal Opera House production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice pretty much since it came out. I really can’t bear to watch VHS anymore so I haven’t watched it in ages and was intrigued when I managed to get my paws on a DVD copy and was able to see what I thought after all this time. Continue reading
Laurent Pelly’s 2007 production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment was a coproduction of the Royal Opera House, The Metropolitan Opera and the Wiener Staatsoper which one make expect to produce a stodgy snoozefest. It’s not. It’s a fast paced, energetic and funny production. There’s nothing especially cleverly conceptual about it but its well designed, well directed and well played. If one were to be hyper critical it would be that the humour in Act 2 is rather laid on with a trowel but it’s not too seriously overdone. The setting is updated from the wars of the first Napoleon to something vaguely WW1 like. In some ways this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but it does provide a visual “Frenchness” that’s probably easier for modern audiences and, anyway, the libretto as originally written is about as historically accurate as the average piece of bel canto fluff. Best not get into serious military history buff territory and get on and enjoy the show.
Francesca Zambello’s Carmen for the Royal Opera House has more going for it than is immediately apparent. On the face of it it’s a very traditional, conservative production; period costumes, literal sets, hordes of kids in Acts 1 and 4, live animals, but a close look reveals rather more. Zambello reveals her intentions during the overture where we see a manacled, distraught Don José dragged to execution by a masked executioner. This is going to be Don José’s story rather than one that focuses almost exclusively on the title character. What we see here is a stark contrast between what Don José really wants; respectability, an obedient wife, conformity with the Church, honour and what key choices, accidents and conflicts drive him to; criminality, liminality, execution and, we may suppose, damnation. The staging subtly highlights each of the key moments in Don José’s descent; his arrest and demotion in Act1, the fight with Zuniga in Act 2 and the realisation, in Act 3, that Carmen will never be the women he really wants reinforced by Micaëla’s aria that ironically offers him the choice he can no longer make and does so unmistakeably in terms of Catholic eschatology. There is so much more going on here than a sexy woman and some pretty tunes.
The cast is stellar. Anna Caterina Antonacci is a pretty spectacular Carmen. She’s a very accomplished singer but it’s her acting that shines here. She steers a very fine line just short of playing Carmen as a complete slut. Like many things in this production, it’s a detail that makes the difference. Jonas Kaufmann sings Don José. He starts off very prim and proper, almost coy, becoming wilder as the piece progresses. This is signified not just by his acting and vocal style but also by a progressively degenerate hair cut. It scarcely needs saying that he sings very well. He has beautiful high notes coupled with a rather baritonal lower register. It’s not a classic opéra comique voice but it’s lovely to listen to. The rest of the casting is in the luxury bracket too. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo is a sinewy, almost rough voiced Escamillo but he oozes testosterone and totally commands the stage. The chemistry between him and Antonacci in Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre is very strong. Norah Amsellem is perhaps a bit mature sounding for Micaëla but she sings and acts extremely well. Her big number in Act 3 is brought off very well indeed. Matthew Rose is a bluff straightforward Zuniga and in a final bit of luxury casting Jacques Imbrailo plays the rather small role of Moralès. The orchestra, conducted by Tony Pappano, plays rather suavely though not without vigour. The overture is so loud I initially thought I had my volume levels set wrong! So, musically excellent across the board though in my ideal world there would be more difference in tone colour between Carmen and Micaëla.
The video direction is by Jonathan Haswell. It’s OK but not great. He’s good in the big crowd scenes, letting us see what is going on but gets some nasty attacks of closeupitis later in the piece. The knife fight between Escamillo and Don José is particularly distracting. There’s no real excuse as the stage set isn’t huge and he’s got an excellent 1080i picture to work with. The sound options on Blu-ray are PCM stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. On the surround track the voices are balanced well forward but it’s quite vivid, if not quite as spectacular as recent PCM 5.0 releases. I think that uncompressed, unprocessed audio will likely become the norm on Blu-ray in the opera market. There are English, French, Spanish, german and Chinese subtitles and a booklet with a short essay, track listing and synopsis. There are no extras.
Here’s the final scene of Act 3 as a sampler:
This production, with a different cast, is also available as a 3-D Blu-ray disk (for all those opera fans with 3-D capability at home?!?). That version features Christine Rice and Brian Hymel. I haven’t seen the disk but I did review the cinema release about a year ago. The only advantage it offers is the contrast of a genuine mezzo as Carmen and a lighter soprano as Micaëla.
The Royal Opera House’s 2008 production of Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel makes no concessions to the idea that this is a sort of operatic Nutcracker to be staged for the kiddies at Christmas. Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s production is firmly in the grim, and Grimm, tradition of central European folk tales and it’s sung in German.
For Act 1, designer Christian Fernouillet has created a claustrophobic bedroom with surfaces at odd angles in which the children (Angelika Kirschlager and Diana Damrau) play out their hunger displacement games until their angry mother (Elizabeth Connell) sends them off to forest to gather berries. The father (Thomas Allen) returns with food and this relief from hunger is played out in a scene heavy with sexual innuendo between mother and father. It’s quite creepy. Finally they realise that the children are missing and set off in search.
Act 2 starts in a classic fairy tale forest which rapidly darkens into a place of real menace. The sandman (Pumeza Matshikiza) is a strange distorted creature who puts the children to sleep. In the dream sequence the fourteen guardian angels, with animal heads, carry in a bunch of furniture, including a fireplace, to create a fireside scene of bourgeois domesticity. Two of the animal angels reveal themselves as the mother and father and give the children gifts. Inside each elaborate package is a single sandwich which is devoured with rapt concentration.
Act 3 opens with the Dew Fairy, here a pink confection played by Anita Watson, waking the children. The witch (Anja Silja), a vicious looking old woman with comedy breasts and a Zimmer frame, leaves a miniature gingerbread house for the children to explore. This transforms to the full size version with dead children hanging in a glass fronted cupboard and industrial scale ovens for the witch’s child based confectionery experiments. There is no concession whatever to comedy. The witch is scary as all hell and the scene in which she is shoved in the oven involves some serious pyrotechnics. The conventional happy ending descends into an orgy of face stuffing as the revived children fall on the cake/corpse of the witch. The production is consistent in its essential seriousness and is supported by fine acting across the board. In line with the concept nobody camps up their part. It’s all in earnest.
Musically it’s a really strong performance. Both Kirschlager and Damrau are quite excellent and work really well together. Kirschlager has quite a rich tone which blends nicely with Damrau’s cleaner sound. Thomas Allen is also really good. He’s quite chilling in the Hexenritt for example. Anja Silja’s Witch is a tour de force. She is every inch the witch/hag of nightmares without descending into cheap vocal trickery. Matshikiza sings very sweetly. Connell and Watson are quite good too but didn’t really register strongly with me. Colin Davis gets a suitably Wagnerian sound out of the orchestra and seems to balance drama and beauty very nicely. He’s well supported by the ROH orchestra, especially the brass and woodwinds, and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Children’s Chorus. The sheer beauty of the piece really comes out in the finale with Erlöst, befreit, für alle Zeit which manages to be gorgeous while avoiding dipping into excessive sentimentality.
The video direction of Sue Judd is good. She isn’t fixated with close ups though, since this isn’t a terribly busy production, she brings the camera in when there’s not much else to watch. There aren’t any gimmicks and it’s a good approximation to how one would watch from a decent seat which is what video directors ought to give us. The sound and picture quality are very good. It was shot in 1080i and the DVD picture is generally crisp and clear. The DTS 5.1 soundtrack is absolutely first class; vivid and with spatial depth and everything clearly located. The PCM stereo isn’t quite as good. This may or may not be available on Blu-Ray as well. The Opus Arte website doesn’t mention it but Amazon in the US and Canada claim to have it. Audio choices there are LPCM 2.0 and 5.1. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. There’s a useful “Making of” documentary, an interview with Colin Davis plus cast and synopsis material on the disks. The package includes an unusually lavish tri-lingual leaflet.
I hesitate to compare this with the roughly contemporary Metropolitan Opera version. They are very different but both worthwhile in their own way.
Mitridate, rè di Ponto is a three act opera seria by a fourteen year old kid called Mozart with a libretto based on Racine. Like most operas with a libretto based on Racine, and there are many, it isn’t exactly a barrel load of laughs. While it’s fair to say that the music may well be the best ever composed by a fourteen year old and it is recognisably Mozart it’s still not really quite enough to carry three hours of recitative and da capo arias about the troubled love life and familial relations of a first century BC King of Pontus and his fractious sons. In short, it gets a bit tedious. For a modern audience it’s not improved by the fact that all the male voices are high. Originally the score called for three castrati and two tenors. In the 1993 Royal Opera House production two of the three castrato roles were taken by mezzos and the third, inevitably the baddy, by a countertenor. For the record, here’s the full cast:
The director – Graham Vick, designer – Paul Brown and choreographer – Ron Howell do a pretty good job of injecting some life into the production with fairly extreme use of colour in the costume design, sets and makeup. The choreography and blocking is also quite striking at times but it still ends up being rather a wash of coloratura. The singers too do a worthy job but after a while it all starts to sound the same. Good work too from conductor, Paul Daniel, and the ROH orchestra but ultimately a bit blah.
Video director Derek Bailey does a pretty good job for the period. It’s hard to object to closing in on the singer during a da capo aria and he does pull out when there is stage wide action. He’s not helped by pretty average picture quality that lacks the definition needed to make long shots fully effective. Technically it’s a typical Kultur release of the period. The less than brilliant picture is coupled with so-so Dolby 2.0 sound, hard coded English sub-titles and minimum documentation. It’s also a bit quirky in that the overture comes on, with lead in credits, as soon as the disc is inserted. There’s no “set-up” menu.
When the Royal Opera House mounted a new production of Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1975 with Canadian heldentenor Jon Vickers in the title role it was controversial. Whatever else one could say about it Vickers’ interpretation of Grimes was very different from that of Peter Pears for whom the part was written. Britten, it was said, hated it. I saw it that summer and was pretty impressed but then seventeen year olds impress easily. I certainly never expected that the young baritone singing Ned Keene would end up as a knight and Chancellor of the university where I began my degree a few weeks later. When the production was revived in 1981 there were some significant cast changes. Norman Bailey had replaced the retired Geraint Evans as Balstrode, Philip Gelling was in for Thomas Allen as Ned Keene and one John Tomlinson had taken over as Hobson the carter. The incomparable Heather Harper remained as Ellen Orford. It’s the revival cast that was recorded and broadcast by the BBC and which is available on DVD from Kultur in the Americas and Warner Video elsewhere.
For review purposes I watched this on the commercial VHS that was available in the early 1990s. The picture will obviously be better on the DVDs though I don’t suppose it will be a whole lot better than average TV, at least on the Kultur release. The stereo sound on the tape is pretty good and unless some fancy enhancing has happened (most unlikely with Kultur) one gets OK 1980s stereo but nothing fancy.
Elijah Moshinsky’s production is dark. Dark as in low light levels as opposed to extra pessimistic. If I hadn’t seen this in the theatre I’d think it was a function of it being an old VHS recording but I clearly remember how hard it was to see much on stage even from the Orchestra Stalls. The palette is greys, blacks and browns with only the nieces permitted a splash of muted colour. It’s also period and naturalistic which works pretty well. At least we are clearly in a fishing village by the sea. In my opinion the sea matters in Peter Grimes. The music tells us that but it’s more than that. Anyone who knows the east coast generally, and Suffolk in particular, knows how land and sea and light shape everything. Don’t believe me? Go look at a Turner. When the sea vanishes from the drama it loses a certain sense of menace (one of the main weaknesses of the recent Met production). Where Moshinsky maybe misses a trick is in not making more of the orchestral interludes. It’s only in the first and last that anything happens on stage (another problem with the Met production). Moshinsky also doesn’t pull any punches in his take on the nieces. No ambiguity here. They are prostitutes. All in all, for its era, the production holds up pretty well.
Musically there’s a lot to like too. For me, the highlight is Heather Harper’s Ellen Orford. She has a gorgeous voice and acts extremely well. “Embroidery in childhood was a luxury in idleness” is poignant almost beyond belief. Forbes Robinsom makes more of Swallow than most of his rivals and most of the other minor roles are fine. Colin Davis gets some really intense playing out of the orchestra. His tempi are quite extreme. In places he’s really quick but, especially when Grimes is singing, he slows right down. I timed the short third act at eight minutes slower than Runnicles. All in all though it’s a very good piece of conducting. I have reservations about Norman Bailey’s Balstrode. Maybe the voice is too dark for the music. I’m not sure but he doesn’t dominate the stage like some of his rivals. Frankly he’s best in the spoken dialogue in Act 3 Scene 2.
Then there’s Vickers. The conventional wisdom is that Vickers gives us “brutal Grimes” as against Pears’ more lyrical version. It’s not that simple. Vickers’ Grimes is far from one dimensional. Sure he can be brutal but he can quite gentle too. His “In dreams I’ve built myself some kindlier home” is quite heartbreaking, the more so as it comes just a couple of minutes before all his dreams are dashed for good. He also comes across as quite mad and broken but not brutal in “Grimes! Steady. There you are. Nearly home.” When he is brutal, he’s very brutal and the contrast is reinforced by the voice. Most of Grimes more sympathetic music is cruelly high for Vickers and part of the pathos lies in his struggle to sing it at all (which he barely does with “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades”) whereas Grimes at his most brutal allows Vickers to unleash a power and volume quite beyond the likes of Pears or Langridge. Vickers acting is a bit odd too. He shambles at times like a rather drunk grizzly bear and at other times he strikes almost baroque poses. That aspect of his interpretation doesn’t really convince me. Still, I doubt there’s a definitive take on Grimes. It’s too great and too complex for that. I think Vickers’ take is valid and well worth watching as well as being a landmark in the development of the role.
The video/broadcast was directed by John Vernon. Considering this is television in 1981 I’m not complaining too much. It’s mostly shot in closeup but he does give us setting shots, especially when it really matters like the start of Act 3 Scene 2. The VHS doesn’t have subtitles which is a bit of a drag (though this may have been fixed on the DVD releases).
This is an important landmark in the history of productions of Peter Grimes and this recording is a useful record of that.
Here’s the Youtube version of “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades”. Note the abrupt change of volume and mood as soon as the really high passage is over.