Bechtolf Round Two – Don Giovanni

Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s second Mozart/daPonte for Salzburg was Don Giovanni which premiered in 2014.  There are some similarities with his Così fan tutte.  He uses a symmetrical unit set again and shows a fondness for creating symmetrical tableaux vivants but there the similarities pretty much end.  I could find a consistent, believable set of humans in Così but not so much in Don Giovanni.  The problem is really the man himself.  Bechtolf, in his notes, seems to be arguing that Don Giovanni can make no sense in an age of pervasive accessibility and exposure to all things sexual.  Da Ponte’s Don requires a climate of sexual repression for his essence; to Bechtolf a kind of Dionysian force (he cites Kierkegaard), to make any sense as a human.  I think I get that but then, I think, the challenge becomes to create a Don Giovanni who does make sense to a 21st century audience as, in their different ways, do Guth and Tcherniakov.  Bechtolf seems to treat the character not so much as a human rather than as a kind of energy focus who exists by igniting aspects of the other characters; whether that’s lust or jealousy or hatred.  He caps off this idea at the end by having Don Giovanni reappear during the final ensemble as a kind of mischievous presence still chasing anything in a skirt, even if it’s, perhaps, from another world.  It’s an idea that I could not really buy into.

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Babes in bodices

After a less than satisfactory introduction to Donizetti’s Anna Bolena in a MetHD broadcast last year it was with some trepidation that I approached the DVD version recorded at the Wiener Staatsoper and also starring Anna Netrebko.  I need not have worried because it’s very good indeed.  It has a stronger cast, Eric Genovese’s relatively simple production trumps David McVicar’s overstuffed effort and Evelino Pido doesn’t try and make the orchestra sound like it’s playing Wagner.  The sound on the DVD is also way better than it was on that broadcast.

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Tancredi in Schwetzingen

Rossini’s Tancredi isn’t performed particularly often but it was Stendhal’s favourite opera and it’s not hard to see why both these things are true.  It’s got some really lovely music but the plot is pretty thin and it’s hard to cast.  It needs a very versatile low mezzo/contralto for the title role and a crackerjack soprano and tenor too.  I watched it in a well cast 1992 production from the Schwetzingen festival and enjoyed it despite some frustrations with the staging and the implausibly drawn out plot of the second act.  Continue reading

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.

Happy ever after?

I’ve watched the Blu-ray version of the 2006 Salzburg production of Le Nozze di Figaro a few times now but sitting through it with notepad at the ready made me realise how much I hadn’t seen on the previous viewings.  My notes are copious.  I usually take a couple of pages or so.  This time I covered four pages and it could easily have been more.  You have been warned.

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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!