Alagna and Gheorghiu in L’elisir d’amore

Shortly after their marriage in 1996 Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna appeared together in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore at Opéra de Lyon.  At the time she was 31 and he was 33 so pretty much ideal for the roles.  The production was directed by Frank Dunlop.  It’s straightforward, set in the 1920s and essentially traditional though there are a few nice touches.  It’s what the recent COC production might have been if the asinine attempts to be “relevant” had been ditched.

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Overstuffed Carmen

It’s nearly five years since I saw the MetHD broadcast of Carmen with Alagna and Garanča.  I remember being quite impressed at the time.  Watching it again on Blu-ray I came away with a less favourable impression.  It’s not that it’s bad.  It’s not.  It just feels a bit lacklustre in a very crowded field.  Let’s start with the positives.  Elina Garanča is a very good Carmen.  She sings superbly and grows into the role dramatically as the work progresses.  She’s also a very good dancer and the production exploits that.  In fact dance is used very well throughout with specialist dancers used to stage a sort of prologue to each act as well as the obvious places being reinforced with “real” dancers.  As always, the Met doesn’t stint on this element and the dancers used are first rate.

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Putting the cars in Carmen

Calixto Bieito has a reputation as one of opera’s “bad boys” but there is nothing particularly shocking about his production of Carmen filmed at Barcelona’s Liceu in 2011.  The action is updated to maybe the 1970s (there’s a phone box and a camera that uses film) and there are lots of cars on stage.  For Bieito, this is a story of people living on the margins where sex is a commodity that women use as a trade currency and where violence, especially toward women, is endemic. It’s enough to disturb, as this piece did its original audience, without being gratuitous.

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Old fashioned fun

Puccini’s La Rondine has a plot that’s lightweight even by opera standards but it also has some really good tunes and plenty of opportunities for a star tenor and soprano to show off. In 2009 the Metropolitan Opera presented it as a vehicle for on again, off again couple Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu. Judging by the body language on and off stage this was definitely an “on again” phase. The production (Nicolas Joël), staging (Stephen Barlow) and design (Ezio Frigerio) don’t have a single thing in them that would cause concern to the most conservative of opera goers. The whole thing oozes old fashioned opulence. It’s the first time I’ve heard an audience applaud the sets! (Baldrick, you’ld laugh at a Shakespeare comedy). So no Regie here!

What we get is a beautifully sung and played performance. Gheorghiu sings gorgeously throughout and Alagna is not far behind. Their acting hows off some real sexual chemistry and if Gheorghiu tends to play the dive, well it’s that sort of role and that sort of production. They get well supported by Marius Brenciu, as the poet Prunier, and Lisette Oropesa, as the maid Lisette. These two basically provide the comic relief to the slightly cloying romantic main plot. Monica Yunus, Alyson Cambridge, Liz DeShong and Samuel Ramey take the other important roles and all are perfectly competent and true to character. The only aspect of the staging that doesn’t quite come off is the bar scene in Act 2. It’s all a bit too busy and there is some not very well thought through “drunk” choreography. Otherwise it’s basically a drawing room drama so not too, too hard to pull off. The orchestral playing is unsurprisingly good with the kind of music the Met orchestra excels in and Marco Armiliato conducting.

The video direction by Brian Large is OK. Given how much of the piece is two people talking, snogging or groping close ups seem a perfectly reasonable choice much of the time. The approach doesn’t work so well in Act 2 where a little more distance would have helped. Technically the DVD is an absolutely standard EMI treatment of a MetHD broadcast. The picture is very good 16:9 and the DTS 5.1 soundtrack is clear and spacious (LPCM stereo available too). English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles and rather basic documentation in English with French and German PDF versions on the disk. Renée Fleming does the interval interviews which are about as revealing as usual (not at all).

All in all, it’s a lightweight piece but enjoyable and it would be hard to imagine a much better performance.

Don Carlos

There aren’t too many examples of the French version of Verdi’s Don Carlos on DVD. The one reviewed here is a 1996 Luc Bondy production from the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. It’s billed as the original 1867 five act version but I think some of the 1883 cuts are made. There’s no useful documenation so I can’t be sure. It features a very strong cast. Robert Alagna sings the title role, Thomas Hampson is Posa, Karita Mattila (looking very young!) is Elisabeth de Valois, José van Dam is Philip, Eric Halfvarson sings the Grand Inquisitor and, rather unexpectedly, Waltraud Meier is Eboli. Anthony Pappano conducts the Orchestre de Paris.

The set designs (Gilles Aillaud) are slightly stylized but essentially literal, simple and easy on the eye. Costumes (Moidele Bickel) are a sort of historical eclectic. There are nods to the 16th century but the women’s gowns could be any period or none, the Flemish deputies wear the sort of collar the vet puts on your pet after surgery and Alagna looks like he’s stepped out of Pirates of the Caribbean. That sounds negative but it’s actually just undistracting. There’s no high concept here so the whole thing turns on the Personenregie and, of course, the music. Bondy gets pretty impressive performances out of his players, creates some interesting stage pictures in the crowd scenes and doesn’t over egg the auto da fe. It’s not fancy but it works.

Musically this is a really good performance. All of the singers (except Halfvarson) tend to the light but beautiful end of the spectrum for their voice type and it all makes for an experience that seems especially apt for the french text. The revelation for me was Mattila. I’ve seen her only in heavier roles and I really had no idea she could sing so beautifully too. She is especially ravishing in the final scene where “Toi qui sus le néant” brought the house down. The chemistry between Hampson and Alagna is excellent and their voices blend well. Halfvarson is a stentorian and truly creepy Inquisitor. Meier seems a bit mannered at times but she pulls off the big moments fairly spectacularly. Pappano gets lovely playing from the orchestra but the voices are balanced quite a long way forward so we don’t get the full effect. All in all, it’s pretty compelling to watch.

Yves André Hubert is the video director. He does a good job. There isn’t a lot going on on stage other than the interaction between the principals most of the time so close ups there are fine and he does pull back when there’s something to pull back for. Picture quality (16:9) anamorphic is OK but not HD by any means. There are two sound options. I started with the Dolby 5.1 which I found lacks clarity and depth. The Dolby 2.0 alternative, while not of the highest quality, is much better. The whole 210 minutes with two soundtracks is crammed into 7.4 GB on a single DVD9 so top quality is hardly to be expected. There are English, French, Spanish and Japanese subtitles and documentation is minimal. Extras are limited to a cast list and synopsis.

All in all this is well worth seeing.