Completing the Bechtolf trifecta – Le nozze di Figaro

Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s stagings of the Mozart/da Ponte operas in Salzburg concluded in 2015 with Le nozze di Figaro.  I think it’s the most successful of the three.  Bechtolf’s strengths lie in detailed direction of the action rather than bold conceptual statements and Nozze is probably the least in need of, and the least amenable to, the big Konzept.  There aren’t any real dramaturgical problems to solve.  It just works as written.  I don’t think that’s so true for Don Giovanni or Così.

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Don Tom

There are over 40 video recordings of Don Giovanni in the catalogue, dating back to 1954, and Thomas Allen sings the title role in quite a few of them.  This one was recorded at La Scala in 1987 and features a very strong cast in a careful, traditional staging.  It’s also pretty decent technical quality for the era.  The director was Giorgio Strehler in a comparatively rare opera outing.  His sets and costumes are of some vague aristocratic past with liveried footmen, big hats and twirling capes.  It’s quite handsome but not in any way revelatory.  Nor is any aspect of the production really.  We are clearly in an aristocratic milieu.  Tom Allen’s Don Giovanni is arrogant and proud with plenty of swagger.  There’s no hint of ambiguity about  Edita Gruberova’s Donna Anna or Ann Murray’s Donna Elvira and Francisco Araiza is a properly dutiful chump of a Don Ottavio.  It’s all quite serious with comic relief only in the most obvious places.  Having said that, there are some very effective scenes; especially the ending which has a an interesting lighting plot and manages not to be anti-climactic.

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More Toronto news

lhommeFB1-300x111On April 11th FAWN Opera is workshopping L’Homme et le Ciel; music by Adam Scime and libretto by Ian Koiter.  It’s PWYC and it’s at the Ernest Balmer Studio at 8pm.  Partrick Murray conducts, Amanda Smith directs and the singers will be Giovanni Spanu, Larissa Koniuk and Adanya Dunn.  I wish I could go but I can’t.

On the 26th at 8pm the Aradia Ensemble, conductor Kevin Mallon, will be joined by Claire de Sévigné and Maria Soulis for a programme of Vivaldi’s sacred music.  It’s at St. Anne’s Anglican church on Gladstone Avenue which sounds worth a visit in itself.  Apparently there is a Byzantine dome and decoration by members of the Group of 7.  Tickets are $35 ($20 seniors).

Die tote Stadt

My acquaintance with Korngold’s Die tote Stadt has been pretty much limited to recital and competition performances of Glück, das mir verlieb, better known as Marietta’s Lied and, apparently, the last opera aria to become a hit single and Fritz’ act 2 piece Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen.  So, I was quite glad to get my hands on a complete recording of this lushly lyrical and rather weird piece.  The “dead city” of the title is Brugge and the story concerns a wealthy man, Paul, who has turned his house, and his life, into a shrine to his dead wife Marie.  He encounters a dancer, Marietta, who very closely resembles his late wife.  What follows is wild and chaotic and is, ultimately, revealed to be a dream.  Paul realises that only in the next world can he be reunited with Marie.

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A rather straightforward Cenerentola

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

Mozart’s Mitridate – ROH 1993

Mitridate, rè di Ponto is a three act opera seria by a fourteen year old kid called Mozart with a libretto based on Racine. Like most operas with a libretto based on Racine, and there are many, it isn’t exactly a barrel load of laughs. While it’s fair to say that the music may well be the best ever composed by a fourteen year old and it is recognisably Mozart it’s still not really quite enough to carry three hours of recitative and da capo arias about the troubled love life and familial relations of a first century BC King of Pontus and his fractious sons. In short, it gets a bit tedious. For a modern audience it’s not improved by the fact that all the male voices are high. Originally the score called for three castrati and two tenors. In the 1993 Royal Opera House production two of the three castrato roles were taken by mezzos and the third, inevitably the baddy, by a countertenor. For the record, here’s the full cast:

The director – Graham Vick, designer – Paul Brown and choreographer – Ron Howell do a pretty good job of injecting some life into the production with fairly extreme use of colour in the costume design, sets and makeup. The choreography and blocking is also quite striking at times but it still ends up being rather a wash of coloratura. The singers too do a worthy job but after a while it all starts to sound the same. Good work too from conductor, Paul Daniel, and the ROH orchestra but ultimately a bit blah.

Video director Derek Bailey does a pretty good job for the period. It’s hard to object to closing in on the singer during a da capo aria and he does pull out when there is stage wide action. He’s not helped by pretty average picture quality that lacks the definition needed to make long shots fully effective. Technically it’s a typical Kultur release of the period. The less than brilliant picture is coupled with so-so Dolby 2.0 sound, hard coded English sub-titles and minimum documentation. It’s also a bit quirky in that the overture comes on, with lead in credits, as soon as the disc is inserted. There’s no “set-up” menu.

One for the Mozart completist.

David Alden’s Ariodante

Handel’s Ariodante has, broadly, the same plot as Much Ado About Nothing. The King of Scotland’s daughter is framed as “unfaithful” by the bad guy’s disguised accomplice. Her fiancé goes off the deep end. The bad guy betrays his accomplice. She rats on him. He gets killed. All is revealed. Everybody but the bad guy lives happily ever after. In this 1996 production for English National Opera, David Alden seems to be turning it into a very dark plot with madness, intense and perverse sexual desire, hints of anal rape and a nude drowned in a tank. All in all, a pretty run of the mill Regie approach. Flippancy aside, it actually works quite well. It’s a bit of a slow starter. Act 1 is mostly scene setting and it’s not easy to see what Alden is driving at. Ariodante (Ann Murray) in particular seems to be prey to emotions that have, as yet, no obvious origin. To be honest I was quite puzzled at the end of Act 1 though there appeared to be much that was visually striking going on. At least, that’s what I’m guessing because video director Kriss Rusmanis does his level best to hide most of the stage most of the time.

It picks up in Act 2 where we get more extreme emotion but it’s clearer why. In Act 1 Polinesso (Christopher Robson) is obviously the bad guy but his real nastiness emerges in his treatment of his accomplice/lover, Dalinda (Lesley Garrett). Among other indignities, anal rape appears to be suggested before he drags her off to have his henchmen finish her off. To be fair, Dalinda’s attitude to her treatment is quite equivocal so we can add this to a long list of opera productions with sado-masochistic sub texts. Act 3, in which all is revealed is also dramatically strong besides having some of the best music.  All three acts have fairly lengthy ballets. These are strikingly choreographed by Michael Keenan-Dolan. At least the bits we can see on the DVD are. There’s a particularly effective “nightmare” sequence in Act 2 where the princess Ginevra (Joan Rodgers) is trying to make sense of what has happened to her. The sets are quite painterly with effective use of an upstage window which is used to frame subtextual elements while the main action goes on in front. So, all in all, it works pretty well though it would hardly be David Alden if nothing seemed gratuitous!

Like the drama, this got better musically as time went on. In Act 1 I was really questioning the decision to cast a mezzo in the alto castrato role and a traditional countertenor in what was originally a breeches mezzo role. It does work out. Ann Murray sings brilliantly and muscularly throughout and makes, in the end, a completely convincing Ariodante. Christopher Robson’s Polinesso doesn’t totally convince me. That voice type just doesn’t make for a particularly convincing villain but it does make more sense as his sheer nastiness comes out in his excellent acting. Joan Rodger’s Ginevra definitely gets better as things progress. I think she sounds strained in her upper register in the first act. The notes are there but it isn’t a very beautiful sound. In Acts 2 and 3 she sounds much more at ease despite having to sing while being put through not far short of torture(1).

Lesley Garrett’s Dalinda was a pleasure from first to last. The King of Scotland is Gwynn Howell. It’s the sort of bluff, thankless role that Howell seems to play rather often. He sings perfectly well and is bluff. Paul Nilon sings Lurcanio, Ariodante’s brother. he doesn’t have a lot to do but he does have one glorious duet with Dalinda in Act 3. This is closely followed by another lovely duet between Ginevra and Ariodante. I wish there were more duets and ensembles in Handel operas. They happen rarely but when they do they are usually wonderful. Ivor Bolton conducts the ENO orchestra and they sound OK for a modern band (not my first choice for Handel!). Tempi seem on the slow side. The rival DVD version of this opera comes in 20 minutes shorter. Whether that’s due to cuts or tempi though I can’t say. The ENO chorus doesn’t sound great but this may be the recording, see below.

Musically and dramatically I think this is a recommendable performance. Unfortunately, as a DVD, it’s very hard to find good things to say about it. It was recorded for broadcast on the BBC and is given a treatment I’ve not seen before. I assume it’s taken from a live performance but there is no applause and no curtain calls. What we do get are silent film like “story boards” at key points like the beginning of each act.

For example “Polinesso takes advantage of Dalinda’s blind devotion to further his ambition”. Weirdly, the subtitles repeat the message. I don’t particularly like this approach but it’s not fatal. What is is the failure to show us enough of the stage to figure out the director’s intentions. I ranted about this yesterday so I won’t labour the point but it pretty much wrecks this disc. Technically it’s not so hot either. The picture is OK 16:9, no more. There are two sound tracks; Dolby 5.1 and Dolby 2.0. The surround sound version is about the worst sound I’ve ever encountered on an opera DVD. It’s mixed so that the subwoofer booms out the bass line in a most unmusical fashion. It’s horrible. The stereo track is OK though it gets a bit odd in parts of Act 3, especially the final chorus. Either that or the ENO Chorus really is having a bad night. The only sub-titles are English and there is no documentation beyond a chapter list. (This is the North American release on Image. It wouldn’t be unprecedented for the European version to have more acceptable sound).

It’s a bit of a shame. I would really like to have a proper look at this production.