Robert Carsen’s production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann does a very decent job of presenting this rather muddled and overly long piece. He sets it in and around a production of Don Giovanni in which Hoffmann’s current infatuation, Stella, is singing Donna Anna. There are several quite clever DG references scattered around. By and large it works and is one of the better “theatre in theatre” treatments that I’ve seen.
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
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.
One of the first opera DVDs I bought was John Eliot Gardiner’s Le Nozze di Figaro recorded at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris in 1993. This is a pretty early example of period performance of Mozart. Gardiner was in the middle of his run of recordings for DG Archiv and it was only two years after Opera Atelier’s breakthrough Magic Flute which I saw only because one of my clients was sponsoring it and couldn’t shift the free tickets. This Figaro is pretty traditional in design and features “original instruments” and period singing style without going the whole Opera Atelier style baroque route (there are no castanets). Sets are flats plus bits of furniture. Costumes are breeches, crinolines and wigs. Olivier Mille directed but I’m not sure anybody noticed. At one point the Count looks exactly like Prince George in Blackadder the Third. The buffo characters are over made up and over the top. Regie has no place here.
The cast is excellent. 28 year old Bryn Terfel plays Figaro and already sounds on the big side for a period performance of Mozart. Susanna is the sadly under-recorded Alison Hagley; an ideal Susanna both as singer and actor. Rodney Gilfry plays the Count with a perpetual sneer and other Gardiner regulars such as Hillevi Martinpelto, as the Contessa, are prominent. In the future star department we get Sarah Connolly as one of the contadine. Pacing is a bit breath taking. Terfel in particular takes his recitatives so fast it’s hard to tell if he is actually singing. Despite looking rather old fashioned and having a bit of a feel of period performance for the sake of it, the production does come off really well.
The production for DVD is a bit odd. The opera was filmed as 16:9 but it’s hard coded to disk as 4:3 so if you watch it on a widescreen TV it’s letterboxed both ways. The picture is adequate DVD quality. The only sound option is LPCM stereo and there are IT/EN/DE/FR/ES/CHI subtitle options. The documentation includes a long essay on how they decided to order some of the numbers differently from the autograph score. All in all, an interesting artefact as a very early DVD capturing a very decent performance.
This Youtube clip is of abysmal video quality but it does give a fair idea of the production.
Once in a while an opera performance really blows you away and it becomes quite hard to write about, especially when the work is as long and dense as Die Walküre because even with a great performance one is in overload by the end. Yesterday’s broadcast from the Met was one of those experiences. Here’s what I think I saw!
The show started forty minutes late, which is not good news for a show scheduled to run five and a half hours anyway. There was no explanation of the delay until the first interval prompting speculation about Maestro Levine dropping out again or a stagehand being crushed by The Machine. It turned out to be a relatively prosaic component fault on The Machine(1).
The first act was terrific. Jonas Kauffman was a completely convincing Siegmund who combined power with beauty of tone. Eva Maria Westbroek was a Sieglinde with a genuine touch of vulnerability and Hans-Peter Kõnig was perfectly solid as Hunding. The chemistry was there though I may have seen more ecstatic conclusions to the act. The Machine was mostly used to represent a forest with characters passing in and out of the trees in quite a convincing manner. It was a very strong act.
Act 2 was also pretty strong. The confrontation between Stephanie Blythe’s Fricka and Bryn Terfel’s Wotan was epic. The chemistry between Wotan and Deb Voigt’s Brünnhilde was amazing. At the bottom of this is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the production (The Machine aside), Deb’s interpretation of Wotan’s warrior daughter. Hers is a very young, tomboyish Valkyrie. It’s far from the majesty of, say, Birgitt Nilsson but it gives room for the character to develop through the next two operas to that most devastating of all operatic climaxes. Her singing matched the take on the character being somewhat lighter than perhaps the norm. Is that deliberate for now or a limitation in the voice? Ultimately we’ll see in Götterdämmerung. The final scene of the act with Siegmund and Sieglinde was excellent. Deb steeled up into the implacable warrior goddess before melting again in the face of Siegmund’s love. Really well done. In this act, The Machine functioned alternately as a rocky landscape for the first two scenes and a forest for the last. Spare but reasonably effective and nobody lost their footing.
Act 3 starts with the “Ride of the Valkyries” and now The Machine came into it’s own. Eaxh Valkyrie rode a “plank” as if a horse with the planks bucking wildly until each in turn dipped to the stage allowing the singer to slide down the plank and onto the stage. It worked. I have to be honest I was getting tired by this point and I think my critical faculties were waning but the singing and acting seemed to be sustained at a high level through Wotan’s confrontation with Brünnhilde. Again here, the youngness/immaturity of Deb’s Brünnhilde added to the drama. The final fire scene was another triumph for The Machine with Brünnhilde ending up suspended upside down, high above the stage with the flames flickering around her as a distraught Wotan watches from stage level and the curtain comes down.
The conducting and orchestral playing was quite wonderful. Watching Jimmy Levine hauling himself awkwardly and painfully into his chair in the pit one wondered what was going to happen. Then from first chord to last the orchestra produced a gorgeous and thrilling flood of sound and there is nothing on earth like Wagner played this well.
Small, local bonus; Leonardo Vordoni, who conducted La Cenerentola that we saw last night was in the cinema (again) and I was able to ask him about Levine and how he does it. He waved his hand about and said “it’s less about this, than (pointing to his heart) this”. Long may Maestro Levine’s heart keep going.
(1) The Machine is the 45 tonne multi-million dollar contraption around which Robert LePage’s vision of The Ring (literally) revolves. Some critics regard it as a soulless (and boring) infatuation with technology and a way of avoiding thinking about “meaning” in the work. Some think it’s a valid attempt to present the cycle as Wagner might have done if he had access to the technology. My own view is that I think Wagner would have loved it but that’s no excuse for ignoring the psychological aspects of the tetrology. After Das Rheingold I was worried that we were going to get technology and just technology. Now I’m more optimistic. And honestly, with singing and playing as good as yesterday I could shut my eyes and still get my money’s worth.
I am concerned though about the reliability of the thing. Two performances out of about twenty have now been affected by major issues with the machine. The odds of a major failure are about on a par with an Angela Gheorghiu no show and that’s not good enough.