Sunday, 13 February 2011

Recorded Classical Music Blog DVDs

The posts here will mainly consist of reviews of opera DVDs.

DG has issued Ariadne auf Naxos, conducted by Karl Bohm, Gundula Janowitz sings Ariadne, Rene Kolo is Bacchus, Edita Gruberova sings Zerbinetta and the Composer is Trudeliese Schmidt.

What a strange opera this is. I remember the first time I saw it and it baffled me. I simply could not understand what it was about. Although popular, I do wonder the extent to which the audience 'get' the subtexts.

It was a rather uncomfortable collaboration between Hofmannsthal and Strauss, their third after Elektra and Rosenkavalier. That last one contained elements that Hofmannsthal felt treated his libretto in a facile way. He accused Strauss of "a frightful propensity for trivia and kitch." So the birth of Ariadne was rather bumpy; with a back and forth tussle about the point of it, the shape and the length of it.

It contains some of Strauss's most beautiful music, up to the point when Bacchus enters, when to my ears the music becomes clunky. The final duet somehow misses either the rhapsodic or the memorable. But along the way there are delights galore.

This film is based on a famous production from Vienna in 1978. However, this is not a live performance and despite me failing, though trying hard, to catch faults in the lip synch; I am sure this is a mimed film.

Setting that aside, and usually it does put me off; it is beautiful to look at and to listen to. The VPO produce a glamourous and forward sound. Bohm allows time for lyricism without lingering and treats the Harlekin and co interpolations as lightly as Mozart. The Dryad trio in the final act is properly excited rather than romantically inert.

Everyone sings wonderfully, Janowitz especially. Gruberova throws off her 13 minute aria; this production made her name. She is reasonably slim and acts the part well. Both Janowitz and Kolo are changed from being vain attention seekers in the prologue into dignified characters from myth in the Opera.

The themes of contrasting a happy-go-lucky approach to love and life, represented by Zerbinetta and the faithfulness and constancy of Ariadne, half in love with easful death are clear enough. But the ideas that Hofmannsthal draws out about how we bring grief with us into joy within a future life and integrate it; seems too oblique to emerge in one transforming duet.

It is good to get hold of a well filmed performance of Janowitz in one of her classic roles. I do have her in Fidelio, but that is not her usual stamping ground, successful though it certainly is.

I am appreciating Bohm increasingly as I get older. When he was alive, I was looking for more flashy performances and gravitated towards other conductors. Now I am starting to hunger for his music making.

I have been watching the 2007 Robert Carsen MET production on DVD. Not often can the cameras catch a night where everything goes this well. A friend in New York saw four of this run of performances, including the one that was filmed. On each of the other three occasions there was a problem with one of the cast, or Gergiev was substituted by a less able conductor. But here we have it, captured on the best possible night and anyone interested in great opera performances should secure it.

Tchaikovsky wrote Onegin at a pivotal point in his life. During the conception of it, he contemplated marriage, disastrously embarked upon it and worked on the piece through the fallout of the failure. There is always suggestion that Tchaikovsky was investing himself in his work and exposing his psyche, especially in his later symphonies. But in this piece the claim seems to hold water. Not in the specifics of the story, rather in the direct way he communicates passion and loss and disappointment. Onegin as outsider, observer...ultimately as a failure in his emotional life.

Pushkin made Onegin more arrogant than he appears in the opera, where he is disdainful and spoilt, rather than cruel and cold. Tchaikovsky does not give him a great deal of music. I suspect his singing time in Act 3 exceeds his music in Acts 1 and 2 combined. He gets an arioso, but not, as do Tatiana, Lenski and Gremin, a full blown formal aria. In that respect it is a little how Mozart treats Don Giovanni. As there, everyone else revolves around the main character and we learn as much about him from the way they react to him, as we do from his own words and actions.

The music is glorious, not padded out but economical. At the very end, Onegin is rejected, Tatiana walks away and he is left devastated. He utters a very few words and the curtain falls, no extended aria of feeling or of farewell. The end comes like a guillotine and is all the more brutal for it. Verdi pulls the same masterstroke at the very end of Rigoletto where Guilda's body is discovered....grief, emotional collapse; what more is there to convey? The end.

The production is minimalist in its look. A few chairs, a couple of slim tall treetrunks in scene 1. The duel scene takes place on an entirely empty stage, the rim of the sun comes up silhouetting the duellists, then Lenski's dead body. There is nothing to distract from the crucible of the drama.

It takes talented singing actors to hold the attention on such a bare stage, no opportunity for stage business, the singers stand exposed to the drama and their ability to communicate it. Hvorostrovsky, Fleming and Vargas all riveted and inspired the audience, who roared their appreciation at the end.

This may be Hvorostrovsky's best role. It suits his slightly disengaged stage persona and he has the magnetism to pull your attention to him even when he is doing almost nothing. In this production, he shoots his friend dead. At once the polonaise starting Act 3 begins and Hvorostrovsky, numb, impassive allows himself to be undressed and dressed by servants in preparation for the ball. The body of Lensky is carried past him, the set itself is also dressed around him with a square of chairs and the mood of grief and loss is brought forward those three years into the new Act in a seamless and legitimate way.

Instead of watching dancers try to cope en-messe with that fast polonaise, its exuberance acts as a counterpoint to the self destructive emptiness evident within Onegin. This is such intelligent direction and it stokes up the emotions of the audience, rather than gives them the chance to dissipate and be distracted by what is usually second rate dancing.

As I have indicated, despite such bare sets, this was not at all a non-production. The prelude to act one finds Onegin sitting in a chair at the centre of a darkened stage. He is reading the letter Tatiana will send to him. He leafs through it in a perfunctory way, distracted, irritated. As he turns the pages, pressed autumn leaves fall out onto the ground. Then more leaves start to fall from the sky and he looks up as thousands and thousands descend around him. A potent and disturbing symbol, his future foretold. He looks perturbed.

There are many such touches and the counterpart in the final act is to see Tatiana's contrasting and grief-stricken reception to Onegin's belated letter with his own declaration of love. As in his scene, she sits on a chair in the centre of an otherwise bare stage.

When, earlier, love does finally hit Onegin, the staging and lighting conspire to provide it with the quality of a bolt of lightening.

The production is so strong because the relationships and the motivations are so well worked out and are displayed without at all being semaphored. The jealously of Lenski is set up masterfully. Olga is so flighty she cannot concentrate on his loving gift of the poems he has written for her. It is plain she wants a more tangible present. She is all too open to the flirting that Onegin indulges in, so as to torture Lenski. We see a classic relationship between the plain poet and the magnetically glamorous friend, the one who can attract women by merely being, whereas his own grip on the woman he loves is palpably tentative. Lensky's unease and slide into pathological jealousy is all too understandable.

They all sing up a storm. The big moments are a total success. Everyone's acting superb, as much in repose as in action. One instance, the song written for Tatiana's name day by Triquet is provided with genuine beauty and yearning by Gergiev and his singer, far from the comic ditty it is so often presented as. During it, Tatiana sits, and you can watch her restraining the conflicting emotions that pass through her. I do like to see an actor think, hardly moving a muscle yet so much is conveyed.

For a lot of this pinpointing we have Brian Large to thank, his TV direction is exemplary. He allows many full stage shots and homes in on the telling detail without being right down the throats of the singers.

Gergiev fires up the orchestra, it has sweep, but great tenderness is not left out. The playing is wonderful and Tchaikovsky's thumbprint woodwind lines come out clearly.
There is that endless debate: that DVDs might be better than being there....I don't think so. This set provides a different experience of the production, legitimate and powerful in its own right. But I would so like to have been with Bruce at the House and seen it and sensed the audience around me. But what we have is treasure. It will become a classic, well, it already is one.

This is a DVD version of a live broadcast from Covent Garden June 2004. I gather the delay in its issue was caused by the tenor demanding more money than the company was then prepared to pay. I wonder who blinked? With the current state of EMI finances, I somehow doubt that it was the company.

Alagna as Faust
Gheorghiu as Marguerite
Terfel as Mefisto
Keenlyside as Valentin
Sophie Kotch as Siebel
Covent Garden forces conducted by Pappano
Issued on EMI

The setting has been altered from 16th Century Germany to the mid 19th Century of Paris. This works tremendously well, I can't see any jarring here and it brings it close to the Paris in which it was written. Arguably the 19th Cent Parisian ought to be rather less superstitious than medieval Germans, but the intense sulphuric atmosphere works well in what looks like a mock-up of St Sulpice and the grimy, salacious 19th Cent atmosphere of the Parisian demimonde is played up.

The production is terrific and you can see where the money was spent. It is big boned with huge solid sets, dance routines and panash. All the principles sing terrifically and act well. For me I don't quite buy Gheorghiu as the ingenue; but her singing is excellent.

Terfel is a scene stealer, even when he is standing still. In the last act church scene there is a large group statue with its back to us, Marguerite prays on the steps of it. We know from the story that Mephistopheles and his demons will prevent her from finding peace; the statue slowly swivels round, Terfel looking more than lifesize comes down from the plinth to disturb and distress her. It is one of many coups.

This came up fresh as paint, not at all the old creaking crowd pleaser. The ballet was done superbly, a cruel pantomime shown to disturb the by now drug dependent Faust. Mind you, the exceptionally hirsute Terfel in an enormous low cut black bombazine dress and tiara was a sight any Faust would assume to be hallucination if not actually drug induced.

Fun and wit the dark side very much played up, it is I think as good a Faust as you will find.

One of the main themes of Otello/Othello is alienation. It is about someone who is an outsider; at home as a soldier, at sea in the choppier waters of a society that has only accepted him up to a point. A black man who marries a pale, blond aristocratic beauty. Now, it is a fairly standard combination that you see walking the streets, but in Shakespear's time, in Verdi's time, it provided a frisson and that background dug away at Otello like an open-cast mineworking.

Well, this production sidesteps this tension entirely. Can Salzburg be in the grip of political correctness? I have read over recent years references to sensitivities around having black singers white up. So we get the absurdity of a black Octavian, white powdered wig and all. Here we have an Otello who looks like a burly Russian builder having spent two weeks sunning himself on the Black Sea. They have fed his paranoia with a personable pretty-boy Cassio, one who would have been an excellent ticking bomb to an insecure black man with a beautiful white wife.

Not only was Otello sporting mid-brown hair, but it seemed to have blond highlights at the front. Bizarre, as in the documentary about the production, his hair looked almost black. For me a very important element, the background mainspring for what happens and why, is omitted.

So, what do we have.

We have Muti absolutely on peak form in charge of a Rolls Royce orchestra, the Wienner Philharmonika. The depth of sound is a wonder, the low strings have no trouble with that difficult opening to the final act. Muti finds drama, fire and tenderness. The great Act 3 ensemble is not the one we are used to. No, not the butchered version Karajan imposed last on Salzburg, rather the revision Verdi wrote for Paris. I prefer the original which is more direct and has an inevitability that this longer version misses.

The revelation of the night was the lyric-spinto soprano Marina Poplavskaya. She was new to the role of Desdemona, I cannot imagine it being more perfectly inhabited. She was not a mere passive doll, but a passionate, tender woman who shows the fundamental shock and confusion as her life suddenly tilts. Lambent eyes, she uses a lot of subtle facial expressions. She is utterly beautiful and her opening to the final act was the core of the performance, complete concentration from both sides of the stage lights. At the right time the audience showed her how appreciative they were. It is a warm voice with dark colours towards the bottom. She can float a soft phrase and project it, but not for show, but expressively. Judge for yourselves.

She is slated for this month's Pappano Don Carlos DVD and I will be ordering it. There is next to nothing of her available, I predict that that will shortly change.

The Jago was Carlos Alvarez. I liked him, he is a natural stage animal, but he was so clearly plotting and winnowing away, that as a friend to anyone, his manner did not strike true. He was unable to beguile the time by looking like it; from the back of the gods, he screamed 'villain'. One interesting production point was that for his Credo, he drew the stage curtain and confided his bile from the front of the stage directly to the audience.

Otello was sung by Aleksandrs Antnenko, of at least Russian heritage, he speaks excellent German in the accompanying documentary. He is also a good deal more mobile in his facial expression off-stage. On stage, he raised his eyebrows, but otherwise, his face might have been botoxed. It was his first stab at the role. He has heft, the bottom half of the voice is dark, the higher you go the harder the tone is. He looks uncomfortable and although he managed the vocal demands, he shows no inclination to savour the words. Remember Vickers's use of the word 'Gloria' when close to the end, so much expressed in one word, here it was just a hook for a note.

Well, this piece is already too long and I have given no idea of the production. It all takes place on one set with no furnature. This works well for the public scenes, but the final act, set in a bedroom, is handled in that vast bare space, the singers on a tilted pier-like perspex floor. As much of the final act was in close-up, that outdoor effect was largely eliminated.

There are moments of symbolism, the stage splits early on exposing a chasm and in death the two protagonists lie one either side of that chasm. There are other such things, but they are hackneyed and obvious. The costumes are superb, the lighting atmospheric. 

I will watch it again for the many pleasures. The quest for the perfect performance goes on, and probably will never finish.

One last carp; the English subtitles are sparse. When Otello greets Lodovico his asides cursing Desdemona are absent from the screen, you need to know the piece to get the best from the DVD

Verdi: Don Carlo: Live Covent Garden Pappano, Villazon, Poplavskaya, Keenlyside, Furlanetto, Ganassi. 2008.

I ordered this the instant I saw that Poplavskaya was in it. Beautiful and with a lovely voice and stage presence. She was superb in the Simone Boccegnera and in the Muti Otello. I hope she records Guilda.

I then went to the various crits of the live performances and concluded that I had made an error. Villazon was variously described as....clearly loving himself.....only acting with his eyebrows.....singing without subtlety.

Well, I just don't understand what the critics were seeing and hearing, but it must have been on nights other than the one recorded. Villazon provides a committed and beautifully sung performance, the emotional core of the evening. He does not tire and certainly acts boldly and with a deal of subtlty. When put against that superb stage animal Keenlyside, it was the latter who sometimes looked hesitant, a kind of occasional fumbling in his stagecraft, even though vocally he was as always a rock, (of the right kind.)

The production is uncluttered, with the sets stylised, costumed for the authentic time and wonderfully lit. The whole drama flowed and a highlight was the three way confrontation between the King, Posa and Carlo. White hot and highlighting the skills of Furlanetto, who although very much in the Autumn of his career, provided a totally satisfying and rounded portrait of the depressed king. He even displayed tenderness to the Grand Inquisitor, here clearly a mentor rather than an opponent.

So to the women; I found Poplavskaya to be slightly disappointing in the vocal department. This role was a size too large for her voice in its current state. She was unable to provide unbroken phrasing utilising the full voice from middle to upper register. So a number of phrases were disturbed by her need to 'place' the note on upward leaps and provide volume, rather than sweep up to the high lying phrases.

It was not exactly effortful, careful rather. She looked and acted as well as ever, no cardboard cutout; but this was not the role progression I had hoped for. But disappointment is only relative, there was still a lot to enjoy in her singing.

As to Ganassi, stock Italianate mezzo work, capable and with all the notes, her acting was all laid on from the outside. Simply not in the same class of singing actor as the rest of the principles. She moves stiffley and looks self conscious.

The conducting was superb, full of fire and bringing out colour and that wistfulness, even sadness that lies at the heart of this score. 'Love thwarted.' could be a subtitle, though Verdi provides a very lively look at politics, but it is the sheer emotional disappointments everyone experiences that provided the main theme. The one exception is that deep fraternal devotion between Posa and Carlo, the only unblighted relationship in entire complex work....which anyone not knowing the story will nevertheless be unsurprised to learn is doomed.

I love this opera as much as any, this is a very fine version indeed. I am glad I was not put off by first reading those negative newspaper crits. As can happen and does here, clearly the DVD filming largely eliminated the things that were not admired and amplified those that were.


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