Madama Butterfly at La Scala

Looking at a (perhaps inadequate) sample of video recordings from La Scala I begin to come to the conclusion that there is a pretty strong pattern in what they do well, and not so well.  1800-1920 Italian classics with strong casts in visually attractive but not overly deep productions seems to be the sweet spot.  Stray far from this and the wheels tend to come off.  Fortunately this week I’ve seen two of the good ones recorded 30 years apart.  A couple of days ago I posted a review of the recent I due Foscari and now I’ve jumped in the Tardis to watch a 1986 recording of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.  The similarities are striking.

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Seamen from a distant Eastern shore

Berlioz’ Les Troyens is one of those pieces that really deserves the descriptor “sprawling epic” and, if anyone can make an epic sprawl it’s David McVicar.  This production, recorded at the Royal Opera House in 2012, is typical of McVicar’s more recent work.  It’s visually rather splendid and the action is well orchestrated but it’s short on ideas and long on McVicar visual cliches; acrobats, gore and urchins (but mercifully no animals).  I don’t want to be too hard on McVicar.  This piece is based on the sort of “Ancient History” one used to learn at prep school (British usage) and McVicar pretty much runs with that making no attempt to find deeper meaning, despite superficially translating at least the first two acts to the time of first performance; the era of European colonialism.

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Zambello’s Carmen

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.

Puzzling but well sung Don Giovanni

I looked at the cast list for the 1999 Wiener Staatsoper Don Giovanni and almost drooled. Carlos Alvarez, Franz-Josef Selig, Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, Adrianne Pieczonka, Anna Catarina Antonacci, Michael Schade, Angelika Kirchschlager and Lorenzo Regazzo. Add to that Riccardo Muti in the pit and musically it’s going to be hard to miss. So, unsurprisingly it turns out musically excellent across the board. I particularly enjoyed Michael Schade’s Don Ottavio. His supremely stylish singing and excellent acting added up to perhaps the best interpretation I’ve seen of perhaps opera’s dullest character. One might have reservations about Pieczonka’s Donna Anna but I think it’s a matter of taste. She can sing very prettily as she shows in her final duet with Schade but when she ups the volume she has great power but significantly less beauty of tone. It really boils down to one’s personal feelings about casting a genuine dramatic soprano in the role. I guess casting a mezzo as Zerlina is a bit unusual too but Kirchschlager is very good indeed. All in all it’s as well sung a Don Giovanni as I have heard.

So, what about Roberto de Simon’s production and, supporting it, the acting? First, this production was performed at the Theater an der Wien so space on stage is tight and there’s a tendency for the singers to migrate to front centre stage for their big numbers giving a bit of a “park and bark” feeling. This is reinforced on the DVD by excessive use of close ups. If there is anything else going on we mostly don’t see it. This is a problem because there are some potentially interesting ideas in the production that don’t seem to be fully developed and that may be because the DVD viewer doesn’t see them develop. The first “big idea” is that as the piece progresses the costumes get more modern. Characters update roughly a hundred years on each appearance starting in the 16th century and going up to around 1900. The progression though is uneven and even my resident costume historian had trouble decoding some of the statements. It has to be said too that the early costumes in particular are sometimes bizarrely stylized. Don Giovanni gets visibly younger as the action progresses too. Add to that that there are two statues of the Commendatore; a 16th century one and a 19th century one. The former accepts Don Giovanni’s dinner invitation but the latter shows up. What are we to read into these elements and are they connected? To say that the characters are “timeless archetypes” seems to be a total “so what?” but I don’t have a deeper explanation. The second element is a flirtation with commedia. It’s never full on but we see glimpses of Harlequin in Leporello. In the opening scene he’s wearing what looks like a Harlequin costume that’s been desaturated in Photoshop as well as clown face. Don Giovanni’s acting too has some commedia elements. In particular there’s heavy use of the right-hand-shielding-left-side-of-the-face gesture in the opening scene with Donna Anna and it recurs in the final scene with the statue of the Commendatore. It gives Don Giovanni a sort of cheeky chappy quality at two of the most serious moments of the opera. Why? I don’t know. There are other, more or less isolated, visual references to the commedia sprinkled through the piece.

The final element of commedia is that Masetto is played as a complete clod. He’s the stock dim peasant rather than someone who recognizes Don Giovanni for what he is, the class enemy, from the get go. This is then set against an even more knowing than usual Zerlina.  Certainly in “Batti, batti” she appears to be offering far more than poor old Masetto can begin to grasp. Whatever it’s all supposed to mean, the cast give it their all and are clearly acting their hearts out and at least it’s never dull.

The biggest problem with the disc though is the video direction. Once again it’s Brian “close up” Large. With such a small stage it ought to be quite easy to show us what is happening but instead we get super close up on super close up. I particularly hate it when several people are singing and the director is just showing us a headshot of one of them. It interferes with my ability to hear the rest apart from anything else. Besides I don’t have a tonsil fetish. This comes to a final utterly annoying climax in the confrontation between the Commendatore and Don Giovanni. Large keeps cutting back and forth between full screen head shots of the pair of them. Ugh!

Technically it’s OK for a 1999 DVD recording. The picture is decent 16:9 and the LPCM stereo soundtrack is OK but not stunning. There are English, French, German, Italian and Spanish subtitles. There are no extras which is no surprise as it’s all squashed onto one DVD9 disc.

All in all, definitely worth a look but if you figure out what the director is driving at please let me know!

A fistful of tenors

I put Rossini’s comedies in the category of “guilty pleasures”. They are silly, trivial, lack real human emotion and are musically pretty trite but they are frothy and fun and sometimes even funny. Rossini’s tragedies on the other hand are just that, tragedies. Ermione is no exception. The plot is emotionally beyond credibility, despite being (or perhaps because of) being based on Racine without managing to descend into the unintended humour of, say, Armida. The music is more suited to a comedy and so all that’s left is visual spectacle, vocal virtuosity and a lot of opportunities for the leading lady to chew the scenery. That, ultimately, is probably what it’s about. It was written for Isabella Gilbran. Presumably she coerced Rossini into providing a vehicle for her to display her talents as a tragedienne. Otherwise the whole thing is inexplicable.

The production given at Glyndebourne in 1995 has a lot going for it. Anna Catarina Antonacci sings the title role, the majestic Diana Montague sings Andromache and Andrew Davis is in the pit. There are also four tenors, which is plenty though not quite in the Armida class. They all seem to be less than about five foot six tall which given that the bass role is sung by the lofty Gwynne Howells looks decidedly odd. Director Graham Vick sets the work in an opera house in the mid 19th century but for reasons obscure everything is tilted at odd angles. It looks like a wedding cake gone badly wrong. Blocking is all very basic, partly at least because Antonacci’s gowns have enough train to seriously inhibit movement. It’s basically park and bark with the odd swoon.

As a musical performance I can’t fault it. Antonacci, Montague, Howells, Jorge Lopez-Yanez (who plays King Pyrrhus) are all near perfect. Antonacci in particular runs through the whole arsenal of Rossinian fireworks with consummate ease. The other roles are never less than competent. Andrew Davis does his level best to breathe some life into the score but there’s really not much he can do about the jolly little tunes that keep popping out of the woodwinds at the least opportune moments.

Humphrey Burton video directs. It was originally filmed for Channel 4 and opens with the obligatory Glyndebourne sheep shots. It is very much a 1995 production for the small screen so lots and lots of close close ups. So many of these are of Antonacci’s cleavage that one wonders whether a dedicated boob cam was employed. Given the original motivation for the opera this may be a case of Historically Informed Videography. The disc package is typically basic Kultur label; 4:3 barely DVD standard picture, Dolby 2.0 sound, no extras. There are subtitles in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and (oddly) Portuguese. The only documentation is a chapter listing.

One for the Rossini completist only.

Arma virumque canunt

Berlioz’ Les Troyens is widely considered to be his masterpiece and it does have a lot going for it both dramatically and musically, especially when given the full on star studded treatment that it got at the Chatelet in 2003. That said, it’s dramatically rather odd, it’s very long (well over four hours) and it requires huge forces; twenty soloists, massive chorus, dancers, supers, acrobats, jugglers etc. It also has preludes, ballets and masques on a scale that seem more appropriate to the 17th than the mid 19th century. Act 4 is particularly marked in this respect. It’s perhaps no wonder that it was never played complete in Berlioz’ lifetime. The story is taken from Books two and four of Virgil’s Aeneid; the first dealing with the wooden horse and the fall of Troy (Acts 1 and 2) and the second with the Trojans at Carthage (Acts 3-5). The problem is that there isn’t much connecting them. In the first part the drama centres around Cassandre. By the end of Act 2 she’s dead and we move on to Carthage where Didon makes her first appearance. The Trojan hero Énée links both halves but he’s a pretty minor presence in the first bit.

In Acts 1 and 2 Troy is a sparse stage with a reflector above it projecting much of the action onto a backdrop of an Italianate cityscape of Troy. It’s a good idea as for most of the act there are a lot of people on stage and it’s not easy to take it all in. Occasionally the cityscape dissolves into some kind of symbolic back projection as with the the horse itself which is just a rather grim projection of a horse’s head. It works pretty well. A similar approach is used to introduce the scene where Hector’s ghost tells Énée he’s got to rebuild Troy in Italy. The camera work for the DVD switches between stage and backdrop with the usual close ups and just occasionally pulls back to let us see what the theatre audience is seeing. All in all I think Peter Maniura is giving us as good a look at Yannis Kokkos’ staging as could reasonably be done on DVD.

Vocally, the first part is all about Cassandre, here played by Anna Caterina Antonacci. She’s stunning. She gives a totally committed performance as the prophetess who everyone thinks is mad until it’s all too late. She stands out visually in a simple white dress against the rest of the Trojans who wear greatcoats of mixed military provenance and otherwise look generally scruffy giving an effect somewhere between Colditz and Les Miz. Her singing and acting are both quite mesmerizing. She is well backed up Gregory Kunde’s Énée although he doesn’t have too much to do. He manages to sound like a bel canto singer while upping the heft to cope with some pretty dense orchestration.

Here’s a clip of Antonacci which gives a pretty good idea of the overall idea.

Act 3 involves a total shift of dramatic and aesthetic gear. Now we are in Carthage where Didon (Susan Graham) is presenting the results of the first Five year Plan to what looks like a cross between a Druidic gorsedd and a meeting of the Carthage Soviet of Workers and Peasants. The plan has met its targets but their idyllic existence is threatened by the king of Numidia who wants to marry Didon and is marching on Carthage. Énée appears and offers to save the peace loving Carthaginians (nb these are not the baby burning, general crucifying Carthaginians I remember from history) by doing the fighting for them. This is followed by a longish section where Didon’s sister Anna (the very fetching Renata Pokupić) tries to persuade her that hooking up with Énée would be a smart move. This continues into Act 4 which rather drags. There’s a long, almost Wagnerian, prelude after which Didon enters, obviously head over heels in love. We can tell this from her little interpretative dance and her spending the next half hour looking like a contented hamster watching several ballets complete with jugglers and acrobats.. The entertainmet concludes with singing, dancing Nubians who could have come straight out of National Geographic c. 1950. Finally we get going again and Didon decides that maybe the Énée thing isn’t such a bad idea after all. She and Énée sing the gorgeous duet “Nuit d’ivresse”. Kunde and Graham are very fine indeed in this as you can see below. Both these acts are played out on a brightly lit stage with lots of bright whites and colours.

The act concludes on an ominous note as Mercure reminds Énée of his Italian destiny.

In Act 5 we are back dramatically and aesthetically more or less where we started. It’s dark, Trojans in greatcoats, the reflector. The ghosts of the dead Trojans remind Aeneas of his quest. He decides to obey. Most of the rest of the act is Susan Graham going through a full gamut of emotions; anger, grief, vengeance, resignation. It gets a bit over the top but she is elemental and always musical. Graham steals the show in the final three acts but she is very well supported by Pokupić’s Anna and Laurent Naouri’s Narbal as well as Kunde. Cassandra (or her ghost) get the last word but nobody is going to believe her.

John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. He pushes things along well without sacrificing grandeur at the needed points. The period instruments give some pleasing variation of tone colour. The chorus is the ever excellent Monteverdi Choir. No problems in those departments.

Peter Maniura’s screen direction maintains its high standard through the second half. So what of the disk package? It’s an Opus-Arte production and it was filmed in high definition. The 16:9 anamorphic picture is superb even on DVD (which is what I watched) but it is also available on Blu-Ray which should be even better, especially as the Blu-Ray is cheaper and two discs versus three DVDs. Sound is LPCM stereo or DTS 5.1 (DTS HD on the Blu-Ray). The DTS track is really good with real depth. There is even adequate documentation and an hour long “Making of” documentary. All in all, it’s what an opera DVD/Blu-Ray release ought to be.

Handel for the Handelians

I think maybe Handel’s Rodelinda is one for the hard-core Handelians. It’s got some lovely music but it’s long (200 minutes), not very dramatic (it’s based on Corneille) and, structurally, is a succession of recitative and da capo arias. There is no chorus and I only recall two numbers that weren’t solos; the concluding quintet and a rather lovely duo between Rodelinda and Bertarido at the end of Act 2. Jean-Marie Villégier’s 1998 production for Glyndebourne rather tends to emphasise the leaning to elegance rather than drama. The basic look and feel is “silent movie era”. Sets and costumes are near monochrome and tend to be emphasised by the lighting. At least when there is a any. Much of this production is very dark, as was fashionable at the time. The direction of the singers is consistent with the silent movie theme. There is much moustache twirling from Umberto Chiummo’s Garibaldo and one feels that Louise Winter could have used one to twirl as Eduige. All in all the concept works well and allows some neat details that you can have the pleasure of finding for yourself. There are also some busy supers in Germanic army uniforms who do a lot of threatening with guns. They may be doing other stuff too but the lighting and video direction don’t make it easy to see what.

Musical direction is by William Christie who has the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the pit. Christie is a master of this sort of repertoire and he gets really idiomatic playing and singing out of his forces with the balance again being towards elegance rather than drama or passion or grandeur. This is reinforced both by pretty relaxed tempi and by the casting choices. The castrato parts of Bertarido and Unulfo are both taken by counter tenors of the type favoured at the start of the early music revival; all head voice. Bertarido is sung by Andreas Scholl who is as good a singer of that type as you can get and he sings with great taste and beauty and acts well too but part of me yearns for the fuller tone of a David Daniels or a Michael Maniaci. Artur Stefanowicz is a slightly camp Unulfo. The title role is played by Anna Caterina Antonacci and she’s terrific. She manages to convey a real range of emotion while remaining entirely, canonically, stylish with beauty of voice all through her range and produces some gorgeous pianissimos. She looks really good too and has some very sparkly costumes. The duet between Scholl and Antonacci at the end of Act 2 is absolutely gorgeous and they sing well together. It’s a shame there isn’t more opportunity for them to do so. Initially I thought Louise Winter was a bit fruity but she improved on me. It seems to be a role that is given to a dramatic type mezzo as Stephanie Blythe has been singing it so maybe that’s the intent. I do think she’s maybe the weak link in the cast but not enough to spoil anything. Kurt Streit sings Grimoaldo and he’s as polished as you would expect a Mozartian tenor of his reputation to be. He seemed to make more dramatic impact in the early scenes than later on but that might just be a question of getting put in the shade a bit by Scholl. Umberto Chiummo’s Garibaldo is very good. There’s more than a bit of Dick Dastardly about the acting and the singing has a touch of basso buffo about it but that’s fine. It’s very consistent with the piece. He also manages to sing with a cigarette in his mouth which I think is rather impressive.

The DVD itself is a very basic production of its time. The production was broadcast on Channel 4 and Humphrey Burton has clearly directed for the “small screen”. At times there is a lot more going on than we see in this picture. The TV show has then been dumped pretty much straight to DVD though at least without the usual “I’m at Glyndebourne and you’re not” interval features. The picture is decent quality 4:3 and the Dolby 2.0 sound is nicely balanced. There are lots of subtitle options but no extras and no documentation beyond a chapter listing.

Here’s Scholl and Antonacci’s duet: