Besides the production of La Clemenza di Tito still in repertory at the Met, Jean-Pierre Ponelle also made a film of the piece. It was shot among the ruins of ancient Rome in 1980 and is one of those lip synched opera films popular in that era. The forces involved are eclectic. James Levine conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker and the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor with mainly American soloists. Continue reading
Claus Guth’s 2008 Salzburg production of Don Giovanni divided the critics along entirely predictable lines. It’s a very unusual treatment of Don Giovanni but the concept is stuck to with real consistency and it works to create a compelling piece of music theatre. The treatment on video too is not straightforward and, in a sense, the DVD/Blu-ray version is as much the work of Brian Large as it is of Claus Guth.
When I first encountered Richard Strauss’ Elektra as a teenager I found the music almost unbearably harsh. The more I listen to it the more erroneous that judgement seems. It has its “tough” moments to be sure. How could an opera about Elektra not? But it is also full of lush romanticism and there are some really quite lovely passages. In the 2010 Salzburg Festival recording Daniele Gatti explores both sides of the music in a rather thrilling reading of the score aided and abetted by the Wiener Philharmoniker and a pretty much ideal cast.
Robert Carsen’s 2004 production of Der Rosenkavalier at the Salzburg Festival was apparently enormously controversial at the time. In many ways that says more about the iconic status of the piece in Salzburg tradition than about Carsen’s production. There are a few controversial elements. He has updated the period to 1914 and the third act is set in a brothel with a fair amount of nudity. Beyond that, the production is pretty faithful to the libretto and has, I think characteristic Carsen touches like long lines of tables and chairs and a certain geometric elegance. He seems to be using the sides of the stage to comment on the action which tends to be fixed centre stage. I say seems because the video direction (by Brian Large) is utterly perverse and makes it extraordinarily difficult to see what Carsen is doing, let alone decode it. We see the whole stage, maybe, for three seconds in the whole piece. Otherwise 99% of what we get is either close up and even closer up or apparently shot from the restricted view seats high up and close to the side of the stage. The other 1% is just plain nuts and includes a section of the Sophie/Octavian duet in Act 2 where, on stage, Octavian is maybe twenty feet to Sophie’s right but on camera he’s standing right up close on her left hand side. I could go on but I won’t. Suffice it to say the video direction comes close to wrecking an otherwise excellent DVD.
Rossini’s La Cenerentola takes almost three hours to tell a very straightforward version of the Cinderella story. Generally directors, despairing of the this, either camp it up (for example the Els Comediants production seen, inter alia, in Houston and Toronto in recent years) or they try to find a few more layers of meaning as in Ponnelle’s film version. Michael Hampe does neither in his 1988 Salzburg production, preferring to tell the story as a straightforward morality tale. I guess if one really loves the music and it’s really well sung this could work but, ultimately, I found it rather dull. Continue reading
Today’s Ponelle production is the 1976 Le Nozze di Figaro. It has the starriest cast of any of the Ponelle films I’ve seen to date; Herrman Prey in the title role, Mirella Freni as Susanna, Kiri Te Kanawa as the countess and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the count. It even, rather bizarrely, has Maria Ewing as Cherubino. To round things out Karl Böhm conducts with the Wiener Philharmoniker and Staatsopernchor. As we shall see, musically it lives up to the casting. Continue reading
Continuing the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle marathon we come to his 1974 film of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly with Mirella Freni in the title role and a young Placido Domingo as Pinkerton. Musically this is the most satisfying of the Ponelle productions I’ve yet come across. Freni is superb. Radiant is not too strong a term, Domingo sings pretty much as well (we’ll come to points of dramatic interpretation later) and the supporting cast is flawless. There’s some serious luxury casting here with Christa Ludwig as a superb Suzuki. Robert Kerns is an excellent Sharpless and Michel Sénéchal equally good as Goro. Herbert von Karajan conducts. He tends to go for sheer beauty of sound rather than maximum drama but what beauty of sound! The soloists are wonderfully backed up by the Wirner Philharmoniker and the Staatsopernchor. Continue reading
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
Götz Friedrich’s 1974 film of Strauss’ Salome is a bit of an oddity. It’s a studio film rather than a video recording of a live performance. This allows the casting of singers who might not be able to manage the role in the opera house. In this case, crucially, the light lyric soprano Teresa Stratas sings the title role which she most certainly never did on stage.
She looks the part, has a very young sounding voice and is note perfect; all of which are big plusses. The other singers all seem to be good fits. Bernd Weikl is a strongly characterised Jokanaan and Wladislaw Ochmai is a beefy and convincing Narraboth. Herod and Herodias are given a pretty manic treatment by Hans Beier and an obviously aging Astrid Varnay. Her voice is a mess but her stage presence is really pretty powerful. Karl Böhm conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker who are naturals in this music. They are balanced quite far back though relative to the voices giving a bit of a “movie soundtrack” effect.
The production has its moments but mostly it’s pretty awful. There’s a sort of seventies science fiction/fantasy soft-porn vibe. Think Roger Corman or Roger Vadim. There’s lots of leather and bare thigh and Narraboth’s chick (played I think by Hanna Scwarz) looks like she’s escaped from Logan’s Run. The squabbling Jews are straight out of Monty Python as are Jokanaan’s facial expressions. Think The Knights Who Say “Ni”.
The Dance of the Seven Veils is spectacularly unerotic with “choreography” straight out of Burial of the Rats minus the rat skin bikinis. I was actually laughing out loud during this which I don’t think is what Friedrich intended. Things improve a bit for the final scene with Salome and The Head which is filmed in super close up throughout but by then I think most viewers will have lost it.
Technically it’s a reasonable effort. The picture is fairly soft focus as one might expect with film stock of this era. The disk claims to have both LPCM stereo and DTS 5.1 but neither my Blu-ray player nor my computer could find the DTS track. The stereo track is decent DVD quality but not special. There are a typical range of subtitles but the only extras are trsilers for some other Unitel releases including a rather bizarre plug for the M22 Mozart series where most of the time the music and the visuals don’t match rather like something from ISIHAC which just about manages to close things out in appropriate seventies style.
I’ve been wondering about whether to bother with the Decker production of La Traviata when it gets its MetHD broadcast in April since I own the Blu-ray of the original Salzburg 2005 production. So, it seemed like a good time to take another look at the disc.
I like this production more every time I see it. The overall concept of a Violetta who knows she is dying and is pretty consciously counting off the days works really well. The set is basically a curved wall with a clock and some sofas. There’s a lot of empty space and that’s entirely deliberate and serves effectively to reinforce Violetta’s alienation. The use of the chorus is interesting too. This is no jolly band of party goers. Rather, the chorus comes across as quite feral; a pack of wild dogs in evening dress. The character of the doctor does double duty too. He haunts the set almost throughout and from the very beginning. It’s hard not to think of him as Death though I don’t think Decker ever came clean on whether it’s supposed to be that explicit. When Violetta sings of “sterile pleasure” it’s quite clear what she means.
In Act 2, the country idyll is symbolised by flowery drapes over the sofas and, crucially, the clock. It’s the only time the clock is hidden. Violetta and Alfredo romp in flowery dressing gowns and underwear. The Germont senior arrives and as Violetta’s hopes dissolve she rips the flowery drapes away revealing both the clock and herself. The countdown has begun again. Back in Paris, the chorus is more cruel than ever playing out a vicious pantomime of Violetta before becoming a crowd of leering onlookers as Alfredo stuffs money into Violetta’s dress and mouth. The entry of Germont senior parallels actions of the doctor/Death earlier in the piece. There’s no break at the end of Act 2. The doctor very slowly forces the chorus off stage taking the clock and the pantomime Violetta with them to leave the stage completely bare. The rest of the action plays out with the characters widely spaced across this vast empty space.
It’s all very well thought through and consistent. There are many, many deft directorial touches (probably far more than we see on disc – see below) and the overall effect is very powerful.
It’s pretty much a dream cast. Netrebko in 2005 was just about perfect in every way for Violetta and she throws herself into the role with abandon. She’s not at all afraid to take physical risks and she sings really well. Her voice has power and brightness and her coloratura is spot on. She can also be lyrical and affecting when needed. Her interpretation is absolutely at one with Decker’s. Her “sempre libera” is quite chilling and there is real intensity in “Addio del passata”. Rolando Villazon’s Alfredo is a very good match. Salzburg caught him, too, at his very best and he doesn’t put a foot wrong. I’d go on at more length but this really is the Netrebko show! Thomas Hampson as Germont senior is a bit more of a conumdrum. Is he sincere or is his whole persona an elaborate bourgeois facade? Hampson doesn’t really tell us though he sings with his customary refinement and intelligence. Luigi Roni as the doctor deserves a special mention too. He only has a few lines to sing but his overall presence is huge. Carlo Rizzi conducts a polished performance from the Wiener Philharmoniker.
So where’s the fly in the ointment? Surprise! It’s the video direction of Brian Large. Emptiness and space are central to this production and Large can’t bear to give us space. We do get just enough framing shots to allow us, with a bit of imagination, to figure out what the director is doing but mostly it’s relentless close ups. He produces a particularly pointless example of switching back and forth between close ups in “Che e cio?” when he seems to think he’s filming Wimbledon. It doesn’t help that the framing shots we do get are, unaccountably, taken from high stage left. So grrr (and not the word I have written on my notepad because my mother may read this).
Technically the disc is very good. The picture is 1080i HD (maybe just a hint of ghosting on low light level shots) and the sound is very vivid DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 (LPCM stereo optional). Subtitles are IT, FR, EN, ES, DE, IT and CH. The documentation is a bit more generous than usual with a track listing and a synopsis in EN, FR and DE. There’s a useful and entertaining “making of” documentary which suggests that directing Villazon and Netrebko is easier and a lot more fun than directing Hampson! (Some people are perhaps just too smart).
So after all that how do I feel about seeing the Met production? If I could see it live I’d be there in a moment. Can I bear to see it butchered by another inept video director? I don’t know. It should be a good vehicle for Natalie Dessay though.
Pretty much all of this production is available on YouTube if that’s your thing. Here’s an excerpt.