Puritans in Madrid

I keep trying with Bellini’s I Puritani.  People I respect admire it a lot but I just cannot find a way to like it despite there being, undoubtedly, some very fine music in Acts 2 and 3.  I think there are, essentially, two problems and I could maybe cope with either in isolation but taken together my brain just starts to turn off.  The first is plot and there are two huge problems with this piece.  It’s complete garbage historically.  It makes Donizetti’s Tudor operas look like Geoffrey Elton.  But worse, it makes no sense in it’s own terms.  It’s just a string of improbable coincidences.  The second problem is emotional dissonance.  Too often the emotional tenor of the music is just way inappropriate to the stage action.  This is common to all bel canto of course and on its own I can deal.  I just can’t take the two things together.

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Dark but straightforward Zauberflöte

The 2003 Royal Opera House recording of Die Zauberflöte has a terrific cast and it has Sir Colin Davis conducting.  The production is by David McVicar and it’s one of those that make one wonder how he ever got a “bad boy” reputation.  It’s perfectly straightforward though rather dark (emotionally and physically) and has a vaguely 18th century vibe.  In places it seems a bit minimalist, as if the director couldn’t really be bothered with things like the Trials.  The interview material rather suggests that McVicar was a bit overawed by doing Mozart with the great Sir Colin and tried very hard to match his rather old fashioned theatrical sensibilities.

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Sher ham

Bartlett Sher’s concept for his production of Rossini’s Le Comte Ory is a theatre within a theatre setting with scruffy bewigged footmen types operating old fashioned stage machinery.  Throw in costume design that seems to cross the slutty middle ages with My Little Pony and one gets a production that would probably appeal to the average seven year old girl.  Fortunately the singing and acting is really rather fine with splendid vocal contributions from Juan Diego Flórez, Joyce DiDonato and Diana Damrau well backed up by the likes of Stéphane Degout and Susanne Resmark and it’s Maurizio Benini and the Met orchestra so no problems there either.  To be honest they are hamming it up for all its worth but that doesn’t seem unreasonable in this very silly piece.  The second act trio which features some mind boggling gender bending with the three principals swapping partners faster than Liz Taylor swapped husbands is hilarious.

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Wonky androids

I’m a pretty Regie friendly guy but I confess to being quite bemused by the 2006 Salzburg production of Mozart’s Ascanio in Alba.  Some of the production concept I totally get.  Removing the unaccompanied recits and replacing them with two actors speaking a summary (in German) makes all kinds of sense.  It reduces a sprawling pastorale with minimal plot to something half the length while keeping all the good music.  The wonky android chorus, the hero apparently with severe motor neuron disease and Aceste shunting Silvia about in a wheelbarrow I had more problems with.  The Gumbie chorus seemed particularly odd and the costumes, well see for yourself.

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Hunger and starvation is increasing everyday

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. This is also available on Blu-ray.  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.

Le Comte Ory

Rossini’s Le Comte Ory is a very silly opera about the wicked count and his equally randy page scheming to get into the pants of the virtuous, more or less, Countess Adele while all the local men, including the countess’ brother are off at the crusades. To this end in Act 1 the count appears disguised as a hermit and in Act 2 as a nun. Add to the silliness a fiendishly difficult set of vocal parts and you have a sort of bel canto comedy extreme. To up the ante, today’s Comte, Juan-Diego Florez had been up all night waiting for his wife to pop a pup which she did 35 minutes before curtain.

It was fun. It is silly and funny and musically engaging and all the principal singers were quite excellent in both singing and acting departments. The detailed direction of the acting was very effective too. First place among the cast perhaps goes to Diana Damrau as the countess. She sang as well as I’ve heard anyone in quite a while with fabulous control and great comic timing but that’s not to take anything away from the other principals. The highlight was probably the trio where the countess, the count and the page Isolier (Joyce diDonato) are in bed together and thoroughly enjoying the multiple gender bending opportunities.

The production concept and design wasn’t so convincing. The idea was that it was being staged in Rossini’s time using the resources that a modest company of the day might have used. This turned out to be a lot of old fashioned stage machinery operated by derelicts in grubby pink footman outfits, including at one point crawling around waving cat toys. Costumes were intended to be what an early 19th century opera company could rustle up to suggest France in 1200. This mostly meant generic fairy tale with a dose of 15th century armour, at least in Act 1. The unifying concept seemed to be heaving bosoms. Act 2 got slightly weirder with the “ladies” of the castle in a mix of fairy tale, BBC Jane Austen and Yonge Street adult novelty store wear. All in all, not especially inspired.

I’m not really sure about the orchestral playing as for the most part the voices were balanced so far forward it was hard to hear much of the band. Technically, the sound was so-so with muddy ensembles and a few drop outs. Direction was, as ever, over fond of super close ups and silly angles. This got especially silly in the nuns’ drinking chorus where the solidity of the bottles’ contents was very apparent. (FWIW glass bottles in France in 1200 – also windows… OK it’s Rossini).

In the last analysis though the singing and acting more than made up for the silly concept and sloppy design and overall it was very enjoyable.

On a personal note I got to chat with Lawrence Brownlee (at some length) and Leonardo Vordoni (briefly) in the interval. They are in town rehearsing the COC’s La Cenerentola which I’ll see on May 13.