Sunday 31 March 2013

Natalie Dessay and Laurent Pelly disappoints in Pelleas and Melisande

Pélleas and Mélisande. DVD, 2009. Theater an der Wien. Production: Laurent Pelly. Conductor: Bertrand de Billy.Cast: Natalie Dessay (Melisande), Stephane Degout (Pelleas), Laurent Naouri (Golaud), Philip Ens (Arkel), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Genevieve).

How does one evoke the otherworldly ambiance of Pélleas and Mélisande? Not easily and I have yet to see a staging which does full justice to the work, though a few do come close.

The french director Laurent Pelly is well-known for straightforward and fast-paced productions such as  Donizetti´s Filledu Regiment and Hänsel und Gretel, both released on DVD. Not an obvious choice to stage an understated, introspective work such as Pélleas and Melisande. Thus, it is not unsurprising that Laurent Pelly seems a bit at loss with this opera that thrives on understating rather than the opposite. By Pelly´s usual high-paced standards, however, the production really is very tranquil. Departing from realism, he has created a rotating stage containing a mix of columns, rocks and the occasional chamber, in effort to create an alluring, ambiguous environment. However, for me, the allure remains absent throughout not the least due to Nathalie Dessay´s Mélisande.

No wonder Laurent Pelly is Nathalie Dessay´s favourite opera director, as they share a lot of qualities: She is a straight-forward, face-paced singing-actress and the role of Mélisande lies relatively well for her with much beautiful singing in the middle section,of her voice. But she cannot hide that her upper register is in ruins and whatever her qualities, understatement and allure are not her strong points. Just in recent years I have heard much superior Mélisandes in both Copenhagen (Elisabeth Jansson), Berlin (Magdalena Kozena) and Paris (Elena Tsallagova). And then there are the ones on CD such as Frederica von Stade, just to mention one.

Stéphane Degout with his rich voice and wonderful introspective way is the ideal Pélleas, but he is not helped by Laurent Pelly´s production.

Best is Laurent Naouri Native French-speakers in major parts. Best are Laurent Naouri (real life husband of Natalie Dessay) in excellent voice with an sufficient underlying menacing air of both menace but also desperation to him that one feels with him and the unfortunate choices that he makes.

Bertrand de Billy captures the moods well but again I have both heard and seen far better in recent years (Simon Rattle, Philippe Jordan and Pierre Boulez on DVD).

I don´t believe the market for Pélleas DVDs has been exhausted with this release. In fact, one of the best stagings I have seen was that of Robert Wilson in Paris a couple of years ago – a static, beautiful staging capturing the moods almost to perfection and with the wonderful Elena Tsallagova as an otherworldly Mélisande matched by Stéphane Degout as Pélleas. Hopefully this will be released on DVD at some point.

Nous sommes venus ici il y a bien longtemps:

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Natalie Dessay: 3
Stephane Degout: 4
Laurent Naouri: 4-5
Marie-Nicole Lemieux: 4
Philip Ens: 4

Laurent Pelly´s production: 3

Betrand de Billy: 3-4

Overall impression: 3

Friday 29 March 2013

malena ernman and christopher maltman shine in superb dido and aeneas

Dido and Aeneas, DVD, Opéra Comique 2008. Production: Deborah Warner. Conductor: William Christie with Les Arts Florissants. Cast: Malena Ernman (Dido), Christopher Maltman (Aeneas), Judith van Wanroij (Belinda), Hilary Sumnners (Sorceress).

The first known performance of Dido and Aeneas took place at a girls´school in London around 1688. In a superb production combining 17th century with present day, Deborah Warner takes advantage of this fact in an innovative way without loosing scope of the story. A production first seen in Vienna in 2005, later in Amsterdam before being filmed in Paris in 2008.

Not much is left from Virgil´s poem Aeneid  in Purcells version (based on Marlowe´s The Tragedie of Dido), apart from the frame of Dido and Aeneas love story including Dido´s death. Is the idea that Aeneas is tricked to leave Dido by some witches (instead of by the command of Jupiter), perhaps an attempt by Marlowe and Purcell to make his character less noble?

In this case, Christopher Maltman is perfect, as his portrayal is sufficiently ambiguous with more than a hint of uncertainty to give real depth to Aeneas.

However, the real highlight in this production, where school-children enter and exit the stage in various capacities and where past and present is mixed, is the interaction between Malena Ernman and Christopher Maltman. It simply has to seen to be believed and they make one of the most moving couples I have yet seen on DVD. Furthermore, Malena Ernman´s portrayal of Dido is unforgettable and the images rest with you long times after the DVD is back on the shelf.

Veteran conductor William Christie never fails with Les Art Florissants in a production of Dido and Aeneas, which will be hard to surpass.

Dido´s Lament:

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Malena Ernman: 5
Christopher Maltman: 5
The rest: 5

Deborah Warner´s staging: 5
William Christie: 5

Overall impression: 5

Wednesday 27 March 2013

poppea: surrealistic, bizarre, magnificent

L´Incoronazione di Poppea. DVD. 2009. Barcelona Liceu. Production: David Alden. Conductor: Harry Bicket with Baroque Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu. Cast: Miah Persson (Poppea), Sarah Connolly (Nerone), Jordi Domènech (Ottone), Maite Beaumont (Ottavia), Ruth Rusique (Drusilla), Franz-Josef Selig (Seneca).

Finally available on DVD: David Alden´s deservedly acclaimed staging of L´Incoronazione di Poppea previously seen in Munich, Paris, Welsh National Opera, New Israeli Opera and now filmed in Barcelona.

I have often heard this staging referred to as the “chess-board” production. However, I find this hard to justify as only during the last 20 minutes do we see quadrants of black and white, which in any care to me were more reminiscent of a kitchen floor than a chess-board. That Poppea and Nero are somehow pieces in a game of chess, is something I do not read into this production at all, in fact.

The superb libretto is relatively straight-forward: Poppea, previously married to Ottone, schemes to become Nero´s Empress. First, however, she has to get rid of his present wife (Ottavia), whom Nero expels from Rome after a failed attempt on Poppea´s life ordered by Ottavia and executed by Ottone. Thus a happy end where Nero marries Poppea. And in real-life a less than happy end, as Nero allegedly kicked the pregnant Poppea to death a couple of years later.

I find this staging more intuitive than intellectual, set in no specific time, presenting a mix between the authentically modern and the surrealistic, the serious and the comic/grotesque, the elegant and the tasteless. Often these ambiguities may be seen in the same scene. In one of the best scenes, we see Seneca (Nero´s adviser, whom he has ordered to commit suicide), just before his death, surrounded is surrounded by grotesquely clad pupils, who in the end play yo-yo. The empress Ottavia´s nurse is a parody of a Red Cross nurse, while Poppea´s nurse is in tasteless drag. Decors are simple, often red or purple with a single chair or sofa. Not to mention the Goddesses of Fortune and Virtue in tasteless party dress with plateau heels.

It is a truly remarkable staging in which David Alden succeeds in striking the exact right chord between the grotesque and the serious. I do believe he has a valid: There is much grotesqueness an excessiveness to be found in the plot amid all the seriousness. I found the personenregie is exciting as well. Here Nero is clearly a disturbed, narcissistic character with virtually no physical interaction between him and Poppea, who on the other hand is less a manipulator than seen with  Carsen in his Glyndebourne production.

I have been told that Nero´s part lies vastly better for a mezzo-soprano than for the counter-tenor, which, for dramatical reasons I normally prefer in these parts. In any case, Sarah Connelly is just as convincing as a Roman Emperor here as she was as Giulio Cesare. Miah Persson is a wonderful Poppea with excellent vocal characterization and then she is very beautiful as well, which obviously does not detract from he performance. Of the others I especially found Franz-Josef Selig´s Seneca imposing, with the appropriate sonorous ring to his low notes.

Of the alternatives on DVD I would recommend Robert Carsen´s production from Glyndebourne as well, more elegant perhaps, though this is the most challenging production of the two.

Death of Seneca, one of the best scenes where Alden strikes the right balance between the grotesque and the deadly (no pun intended) serious:

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Miah Persson: 5
Sarah Connelly: 5
Maite Beaumont: 3-4
Franz-Josef Selig: 5
Jordi Deménech: 3
Ruth Rusique: 3-4

David Alden´s production: 5

Harry Bicket: 4
Overall impression: 5

Monday 25 March 2013

DVD: Glyndebourne Hänsel und Gretel

Hänsel und Gretel. DVD, Glyndebourne 2009. Production: Laurent Pelly. Conductor: Kazushi Ono with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Cast: Jennifer Holloway (Hänsel), Adriana Kucerova (Gretel), Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (witch), Klaus Kuttler (father), Irmgard Vilsmaier (mother).

As you press “play” on the DVD, a cardboard box is brought to the Glyndebourne Festival House during the Vorspiel and eventually passes through the hands of all the singers, thus presenting them for the viewer. For the audience present in the auditorium all they see is the front cover of the cardboard box. So what is inside the box? Well, the house of Hänsel and Gretel in fact. As Act 1 opens we are introduced to their poor home inside a humid, degrading card-board box. As a matter of fact there is a lot of trash in this production, quite literally speaking. Laurent Pelly, most well-known for fast-paced productions like Fille du Regiment, has created another fast-paced production, this time emphasizing consumerism and excess.

Everything is connected to the witch gingerbread house, the central image of the production, here a supermarket, full of candy. In the dying, naked wood into which Hänsel and Gretel are sent by their desperate mother, we see plenty of trash (from the supermarket). Even Hänsel and Gretel´s cardboard box home could easily be left-overs from the supermarket.

The siblings are the most authentic I believe I have seen, constant at play, jumping around the set. The transformation of Jennifer Holloway, a quite feminine singer into Hänsel is impressive. Equally impressive that Adriana Kucerova manages to look a 10-year old.

Tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke in ghastly pink drag is a fantastic storekeeper cum witch, with a somewhat vague ending to this existence though: He is simply pushed down in the depths of the supermarket.. according to Laurent Pelly this represents a cooking factory, again representing the root of consumerism but apart from some smoking chimneys in the background it did not seem that obvious.

Laurent Pelly explicitly wished to expel all signs of religion from the production and in the end when God is praised, instead the parents take plenty of goods from the supermarket. An ironic ending, a submission toconsumerism, Pelly  says, but somehow I miss the point: If they are a poor family, constantly hungry, why is it ironic that they take food from the supermarket when they can? Never mind, the production is both funny and lively and I was excellently entertained throughout.

There is plenty of Wagner in the score, I was reminded of both Rhinemaidens, Giants and Parsifal, and Kazushi Ono brings all this out in a convincing reading.

Not to be missed: Watch the impressive Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the witch:

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Adriana Kucerova: 5
Jennifer Holloway: 5

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke: 5

Laurent Pelly´s production: 5
Kazushi Oni: 5

Overall impression: 5

Sunday 24 March 2013

Robert Carsen


Born 1954 in Toronto, Canada. Education: Old Vic Theatre School (Bristol). Biographical details here: Very detailed (in French), less detailed (in English).

Directorial approach: Simplistic, aesthetic stagings, relatively true to the overall written libretto, though often with a twist.

Major achievements in opera: After his breakthrough in 1986 with La Finta Giardinera in Camden, Carsen has appeared in all major opera houses, especially in Paris (more than 10 productions with highlights including Rusalka and Capriccio) and Glyndebourne (L´incoronazione di Poppea), Metropolitan (Eugene Onegin) and La Scala (Dialogues des Carmelites, Don Giovanni).


Candide, Paris Chatelet 2007, the controversial production in which Bush, Putin, Blair, Berlusconi and Chirac dance semi-naked on stage, a must-see as it is really funny:

Falstaff, La Scala 2013:

Don Giovanni, the 2011 Scala season opening:

My Fair Lady at the Mariinsky Theatre 2012:

Rheingold, Liceu Barcelona 2013:


Mefistofele, San Francisco 1988
Manon Lescaut, Flemish Opera 1991
Les contes d´Hoffmann, Paris Bastille 2002
Rusalka, Paris Bastille 2002
Les Boreades, Paris 2003
Capriccio, Paris Palais Garnier 2004
Dialogues des Carmelites, La Scala 2004
La Traviata, Venice La Fenice, 2004
Rosenkavalier, Salzburg 2004
Il trovatore, Bregenz 2005
Eugene Onegin, Metropolitan Opera 2007
L´Incoronazione di Poppea, Glyndebourne 2008
Tannhäuser, Barcelona 2008
Armide, Paris Chatelet 2008
Katia Kabanova, Madrid Teatro Real 2008
Tosca, Zürich Opera 2008
Semele, Zürich Opera 2009
Rinaldo, Glyndebourne 2011

Don Giovanni, La Scala 2010 (not yet on DVD, but perhaps?)



Thursday 21 March 2013

julia lezhneva with decca solo cd - next superstar or forgotten next year?

Julia Lezhneva. Alleluia. CD. 2013. Motets by Vivaldi, Händel, Porpora and Mozart. Giovanni Antonini conduct Il Giardino Armonico.

Born in Russia in 1989, from 2008 a student at the Cardiff International Academy of Voice, winner of several competitions and a protegé of Kiri Te Kanawa. Hyped as few other young singers and now releasing her first solo CD under her new contract with Decca after her 2011 disc of Rossini arias released on Naïve.

On stage, she appears mostly in concert versions of the likes of La Cenerentola, a well-paced, reasonable programme for a 23-year old, who needs time to grow. When I heard her a couple of years ago in Salzburg in Il Rossignol as the cook, I thought she was superb.

Soprano or mezzo-soprano? Decca markets her as a soprano. Wikipedia says "soprano and coloratura mezzo-soprano". Probably in-between, with a small preponderance towards mezzo, I´d say, however at her age anything may happen. This present disc contains motets by Vivaldi, Händel, Porpora and Mozart.

The positive aspects first: She is 23. How many singers that age can perform like she does? Not many.Her coloratura technique is impressive and especially her middle register is beautiful.

The remaining slightly negative aspects: Whether she is 23 or 86 really is of no importance. This is a CD, and thus she compares with the likes of Sandrine Piau, Arleen Auger, Kiri Te Kanawa and Barbara Bonney, who all have recorded at least parts of the same repertoire, especially the Exultate Jubilate (Mozart K165). And while Julia Lezhneva´s voice is more than pleasant, I find no individuality whatsoever in neither characterization or delivery.

Julia Lezhneva is barely 23 and "one of the youngest artists to be celebrated like this", I read somewhere. Obviously that was meant as a compliment, but what now? She needs (like everyone her age) to grow into an adult, mature artist and that, inevitably takes time. And with initial high-exposure like this, it may not be too easy for her to manage. Really, she does look like a sweet young child on that cover.As always, however, we shall have to wait and see.

However, Cecilia Bartoli was 23 when she released her debut solo CD with Rossini arias in 1989 - also on Decca. The difference between these two at the same age is staggering. Bartoli was clearly an individual performer at 23, while Lezhneva is not.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average): 3

Monday 18 March 2013

la scala: superb peter mattei, disappointing netrebko in elegant barenboim don giovanni

Don Giovanni, La Scala, December 2011. Production: Robert Carsen. Conductor: Daniel Barenboim. Cast: Peter Mattei (Don G), Bryn Terfel (Leporello), Anna Netrebko (Donna Anna), Barbara Frittoli (Donna Elvira), Kwangchoul Yun (Commendatore), Giuseppe Filianoti (Don Ottavio), Anna Prohaska (Zerlina), Stefan Kocan (Masetto).

The opening is entirely stunning: As the initial two chords of the ouverture fill the auditorium, Peter Mattei runs up the middle aisle and onto the stage where he pulls town the red velvety curtain to reveal a gigantic mirror, reflecting the entire audience: We are (again I am tempted to say), spectators to our own lives.

Robert Carsen clearly loves this sort of theatre-within-theatre concept, which he has previously used in several productions such as ToscaContes d´Hoffmann and L´incoronazione di Poppea, just to mention a few. A concept often more exciting on paper than in reality, it does not seem too imposing here where the production, nevertheless, is very elegant, kept mostly in black, gold and dark velvety red colours.

Don Giovanni is a free spirit. Neither malign nor cunning. Just a man, who lives every moment to the fullest. Perhaps this is why he is the last one standing on stage, while the others characters descend into hell in the end. Live life to its fullest! This Don Giovanni certainly has Robert Carsen´s sympathy. And ours as well, not least due to Peter Mattei, who is, in my opinion, quite simply the best Don Giovanni on stage today, with his smooth, direct approach, his beautiful,  beautiful voice as well as his lofty, charming and ultimately very captivating stage manners.

In general, all the singers are from the A-list and probably the best Don Giovanni cast name-per-name one could dream of assembling. Not all live up to expectations, though. However, the two mail protagonists certainly do and Bryn Terfel equals Peter Mattei in what is in one of his best roles. Terfel has always been a much better Leporello than Don Giovanni, Leporello being his own favourite as well. A rather rough, clumsy character, never failing to catch the eye and his bass-barytone contrasts well with Peter Mattei´s barytone.
This time, the ungrateful part of Don Ottavio is left with
Giuseppe Filianoti, who does well without exactly distinguishing himself, though Mozart did not help him much by giving him two entirely placid arias to sing as well as some uninteresting recitatives.

Donna Anna is one of the roles that launches the international career of Anna Netrebko. In this production, she clearly loves Don Giovanni but feels obliged to hide her relation with him after the murder of her father. However, she disappoints, mostly vocally, being frequently off tune and sounding murky. I very much doubt we will see much more Mozart from here in the future.

Barbara Frittoli, replacing  Elina Garanca, was a fluttery, nervous Donna Elvira and though she wasn´t exactly a weak link, and definitely better than recently heard at the Metropolitan Opera, the role does not seem to lie well for her.
Up-and-coming Anna Prohaska and Stefan Kocan were sufficiently engaging as Zerlina/Masetto while I would have preferred a much blacker sound for the Commendatore than what Kwangchoul Yun possesses.

Daniel Barenboim´s relationship with Don Giovanni began in 1953 when he assisted the cembalist in a run of Furtwängler-conducted performances. Thus it should comes as no surprise that Barenboim conducts in the style of Furtwängler and Klemperer, lightyears from the period-specific approaches some may prefer today. Not me, though.  About 5 years ago in Berlin, Daniel Barenboim conducted the best Don Giovanni I have ever heard live and again here at La Scala his broad, slow tempi and his unfailing sense of the contrapunctual elements of the score was thrilling. 

Final scene (beginning):

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Peter Mattei: 5
Bryn Terfel: 5
Anna Netrebko: 3
Barbara Frittoli: 4
Giuseppe Filianoti: 4
Anna Prohaska: 4
Stefan Kocan: 4

Daniel Barenboim: 5
Robert Carsen´s production: 5
Overall impression: 4-5

Friday 15 March 2013

classic production of rakes progress

Rake´s Progress. DVD. Glyndebourne Festival 2010. Director: John Cox, designs: David Hockney. Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski with London Philharmonic Orchestra. Cast: Miah Persson (Anne Trulove), Topi Lehtipuu (Tom Rakewell, Matthew Rose (Nick Shadow), Elena Manistina (Baba The Turk), Clive Bayley (Anne´s father).

This production has in many ways become a benchmark for The Rake´s Progress. First seen at Glyndebourne in 1975, it has undergone numerous revivals and has even been released on DVD in 1997 featuring Samuel Ramey and Felicity Lott. While the present version looks a bit fresher, I don´t see any compelling reason to acquire this present DVD if you already own the previous one.

No doubt the reason for the popularity and longevity of this production is the extraordinary accordance between the production and Stravinsky´s original work. 
Stravinsky was originally inspired by 1) Mozart and 2) William Hogarth´s 1735 series of eight paintings (later engravings) depicting the life of Tom Rakewell. As most will know, the composition style is neoclassical - Mozart, but not quite Mozart. As for the story line - Don Giovanni but not quite Don Giovanni.

The director is John Cox, but the trademark of the production are the designs by David Hockney. Hockney is a British multi-artist, born in 1937 and famous for his pop art installations in the 1960´s.
He was equally inspired by William Hogarth in creating the sets, which are quite often print-like black and white, with multiple stripes and crosshatching. Complete with period costumes, it is a set evocative of Mozart – but then, just like the music, not quite Mozart. And always with a certain irony and distance, to be found in Stravinsky´s score and the libretto as well.

The “new” singers are all excellent: From Miah Persson´s Anne Trulove, which is both beautifully sung and acted, to Topi Lehtipuu´s convincing portrait of the lazy Tom always seeking the easy way and Matthew Rose as a somewhat ironic Nick Shadow and finally Elena Manistina´s tour de force as Baba The Turk.

Vladimir Jurowski is effective conducting a score, that I find it easy to admire but hard to love.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Miah Persson: 5
Topi Lehtipuu: 5
Matthew Rose: 4
Elena Manistina: 4-5

John Cox´ production: 5
Vladimir Jurowski: 5

Overall impression: 5

Thursday 14 March 2013

Krassimira Stoyanova: Reluctant diva excels in Slavic Arias

Krassimira Stoyanova: Slavic Opera Arias, 2011.

Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova had a rather late start to her career; born in 1962, she is as violinist as well, and played in 3 different orchestras before embarking on her singing career in 1995. Perhaps this is why she, 48 at the time of recording of the present CD is as fresh-voiced as ever. A long-time favourite of the Vienna State Opera where she is Kammersängerin, she has appeared extensively in all major houses and there can be no doubt, that despite flying somehow below the media radar giving very few English-language interviews, she is one of the greatest lyric-dramatic soprano in present time. Her limited discography does not reflect adequately upon her talent. She has released a few solo CDs, all recommendable, but this, the present one "Slavic Opera Arias" is the best. On DVD she may be seen as Desdemona and Tatjana as well as Rachel in La Juive.

Her voice has a rather square voice, and while some may find it lacks bloom when compared to someone like Anja Harteros, it is firmly centered in the middle register, as well as being equal throughout the range. Furthermore her intonation is spot-on, at least on this CD. Ideal for this repertoire of Slavic Arias, of which some may have seen her live as Tatyana - on DVD in Stefan Herheim´s Amsterdam production and live/screened in Kasper Holten´s recent (2013) production for the London Royal Opera.

She is scheduled to sing the Marschallin in the new Rosenkavalier in Salzburg in 2014, an offer she received after her critically acclaimed debut as Ariadne in Vienna a couple of months ago. More Strauss or Wagner in her future? I hope so, but a look at her website reveals Trovatore-Leonora, Marguerite and Amelia (Boccanegra) as well as Aida and Manon Lescaut.

Her next album will be recorded this summer featuring verismo arias.

Track list:

Tchaikovsky: Letter Scene (Eugene Onegin)
Hadjev: Act 4 Scene (Maria Desislava)
Borodin: Ne malo vremeni (Prince Igor)
Tchaikovsky: Otchevó éto prézhde (Iolanta)
Tchaikovsky: Spi, mladénets moy prekrasny (Mazeppa)
Dvorak: Song to the moon (Rusalka)
Dvorak: Mne zdálo se, ze smrt bledá (Dimitrij)
Dvorak: Necitelná vodní moci (Rusalka)
Tchaikovsky: Uzh polnoch blizitsya (Pique Dame)
Rimsky-Korsakoff: S podrúzhkami po (Snow Maiden)
Stoyanov: Zvezdíte tázi noshch (Hitar Petar)
Smetana: Och, jaký zal! (The Bartered Bride)
Rimsky-Korsakoff: Iván Sergéyevich, khóchesh (The Tsar´s Bride)

The letter scene from Stefan Herheim´s Eugene Onegin:
The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average): 5

Monday 11 March 2013

the darkest hoffmann

Les Contes d´Hoffmann. DVD. Grand Théâtre de Genève. 2008. Production: Olivier Py. Conductor: Patrick Davin. Cast: Marc Laho (Hoffmann), Stella Doufexis (Muse/Nicklausse), Patricia Petibon (Olympia), Rachel Harnisch (Antonia), Maria Riccarda Wesseling (Giulietta), Nicolas Cavallier (The Villains), Eric Huchet (The servants).
L´amour, le desir, le mort. Olivier Py has created a macabre, expressionistic, morbide and nightmarish dark vision of Les Contes d´Hoffmann. The eternal darkness at Pigalle.

The set consists of interchanging frames, blinking neon lights, plenty of grotesque naked figures, black masked men, skeletons, naked body suits (Olympia), coffins with dead bodies (Antonia and her mother), a luxury whore in a dark brothel (Giulietta), murderers (watch Hoffmann in the last act). In short: Plenty of death. Much, much darker than his Lulu but as sheer dark imagination goes not unlike his version of Tristan and Isolde, in which both commit suicide. Darkness aside, Oliver Py is a rather straightforward storyteller with no obvious “concept” applied.

No version of Hoffmann is alike, and each director has his explanation for omissions etc. Here we don´t have the Scintille diamant, which Offenbach admittedly did not put in there from the beginning. Nevertheless for me a Hoffmann withouth Scintille Diamant is a bit like Die Walküre without Leb Wohl. In any case, choices have to be made. So why not shorten down the first act, as it often tends to drag on quite a bit and the finest music is to be found further on? In any case the macabre atmosphere suits Hoffmann, and I remember well the rave reviews this production received in 2008.
Best were Stella Doufexis as an elegant Muse/Nicklausse and Nicolas Cavallier as the darkly grotesque villains. However, the other ladies were fine as well from Patricia Petibon´s full-toned Olympia, Rachel Harnisch´s repressed Antonia and Maria Riccarda Wesseling as a voluptuous luxury whore in a Venetian-sort brothel. Hoffmann himself, Marc Laho, however was not entirely up to his surroundings and often, but not always however, sounded dry with problems in the top.

Hoffmann as le grand macabre. It suits it amazingly well and this would be my choice of a Hoffmann to own on DVD. If you are put off by all this death, however, then I suggest to take a look at Robert Carsen´s elegant production from Paris.

Production trailer:

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Marc Laho: 3

Stella Doufexis: 4-5
Nicolas Cavallier: 5
Patricia Petibon: 4
Rachel Harnisch: 4
Maria Riccarda Wesseling: 4

Patrick Davin: 4

Olivier Py´s production: 5

Overall impression: 5

Tuesday 5 March 2013

the top 10 opera singers of today

renée fleming
anna netrebko
angela gheorghiu
anja harteros
joyce didonato
elina garanca
juan diego florez
jonas kaufmann
dmitri hvorostovsky
rené pape

1. 2nd revision of list on March 7th 2012, where plácido domingo is replaced by anja harteros. next to go are a) dmitri hvorostovsky if he does not improve upon his singing or b) angela gheorghiu if she does not expand her repertoire.
2. 1st revision June 17th 2012 after thorough deliberations, where waltraud meier and karita mattila from the initial list have been replaced by joyce didonato and juan diego florez.

Although there is most certainly always a subjective element to any top 10 list, the size of the singers career and popularity are important parameters alongside vocal quality.
My entirely subjective top 10 list below (random order):

eva-maria westbroek
anne schwanewilms (mainly in lieder)
waltraud meier
anna caterina antonacci
magdalena kozena (lieder and concert mainly)
karita matila
jonas kaufmann
peter mattei
gerald finley
rene pape

spectacular fura dels baus turandot

Turandot. December 2012. Bavarian State Opera, Munich. Production: Fura dels Baus (Carlus Padrissa). Conductor: Marco Armiliato. Cast: Irene Théorin (Turandot), Yonghoon Lee (Calaf), Serena Farnocchia (Liu), Alastair Miles (Timur).

This may be the most spectacular opera production you will ever see. Taking the references to Turandot as an Ice Princess very literally, the
Fura dels Baus has created something which may well be re-used as an an opening show for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

According to Carlus Padrissa, the inspiration to this staging came from a journey to China. Set in 2048, China has bought Europes debt and Turandot is now ruler in Europe. The people are happily working to pay off the debts of their forefathers. This is what Carlus Padrissa says. This is not what you see on stage, however: On stage you see a splendid/excessive/superfluous futuristic Chinese stage show in a winter world. I was looking for some repressed Europeans or ethnic diversity to support Carlus Padrissa´s Europe vs. China claims, but everyone looked Chinese. 
Other than that, Padrissa also speaks about Liu and Turandot being like Ying and Yang as well as the opera having a positive ending as Turandot is “melted” by Lius death. This is not immediately apparent from the staging either, however Liu does die quashed by green bamboos, a sign of the appearance of a positive force, life emerging when the ice is thawed. 

This production ends where Puccini´s original score ends – ie. with Liu´s death, thus Padrissa rejected any of the later composed endings arguing that masterworks may be more complete without artificial completions. A reasonable point of view with which I neither agree nor disagree.
To be seen on stage: A massive ice skating rink, ice hockey games, splendid video projections, the all-seeing Turandot within a massive eye, strange costumes, a blood-red sunrise, a moving mountain of skulls, neon-signs and glitter everywhere. As well as several 3D elements, preceded by warning signs on the subtitles and administration of 3D glasses to the live audience. Personally I have never seen anything as spectacular as this on the opera stage. Far, far more spectacular than any of their other stagings, such as the Nibelungen Ring or Les Troyens. I cannot imagine that this will not be released on DVD at some point as well.  

Some hated it, calling it superficial. Had it been Parsifal, I would (perhaps?/probably?) have agreed. However, Turandot is very much as an exotic fairy tale, something to be entertained by, which Fura dels Baus certainly achieves with this staging. Personenregie is not really what Fura dels Baus is about and some (who obviously did not like the show) called this a sort of Zeffirelli production of our time. Perhaps in 30 years of time, when it has been played as long as some of Zeffirelli´s productions, entirely overstaying their welcome, I may agree. But for now it remains truly spectacular, though those seeking depth and research into the motivation of the characters may be well advised to look elsewhere.

Amid all this splendour you may almost forget the singers, none of whom were exceptional, unfortunately. Irene Théorin seemed to have an off day not sounding really pleasant. While Yonghoon Lee with his Asian looks seem a perfect fit for Calaf, the role seems a number to heavy for him. Serena Farnocchia sang nicely but did not leave the impression Marina Poplavskaya did a couple of years ago and Marco Armiliato was neither exceptional nor bad.

But no-one really watches this production to watch the singers. It is the 2014 Olympic Games Opening show that people want to watch.

Video excerpts:

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Irene Theorin: 3-4
Yonghoon Lee: 3
Serena Farnocchia: 3
Alastair Miles: 4

Fura dels Baus production: 5
Marco Armiliato: 3
Overall impression: 5

Sunday 3 March 2013

The new 2013 Met Parsifal

A co-production between The Met, Opera Lyon and Canadian Opera Company, this Parsifal, directed by Francois Girard opened in Lyon in 2012 where the originally scheduled premiere was postponed due to technical concerns regarding the management of the large amounts of "blood", which floods the entire stage in Act 2.
At the Metropolitan Opera the production of Parsifal (which has replaced Otto Schenk´s 1991 staging), starring Jonas Kaufmann, René Pape, Katarina Dalayman, Peter Mattei) opened on February 15th 2013, transmitted in HD on March 2nd.
Discussion of the production in the New York Times. It seems to be something of an event. In any case, I don´t remember ever having seen so rave reviews of any production at the Metropolitan Opera.

New York Times
New York Post
Associated Press
The Classical Review
Huffington Post
Musical America - a very thorough explanation/discussion of Girard´s production

A note regarding the live HD transmission on March 2nd:

  • I attended the live HD transmission, but I´ll refrain from a description of the staging as this has already been done in details by others.
  • Suffice to say that I have seen about 25 productions of Parsifal and this (together with Kupfer´s in Berlin) is probably the finest as Girard manages to strike the exact balance between presenting his clear and interesting ideas as well as providing a back-drop on which the music may shine. It is, however, relatively static and it may not work with a lesser dramatically involved cast.
  • Daniele Gatti has received heaps of praise. I am less convinced. Clearly he has myriads of ideas, however he largely ignores the contrapunctual elements of the score and it does feel unstructured. Furthermore his coordination with the singers is not razor-sharp. Furthermore, at times he is simplly too slow and thereby looses momentum. Those who admire Barenboim and Thielemann will probably not be overwhelmed.
  • As for the singers, René Pape and Peter Mattei truly shine. Katarina Dalayman is a rather womanly, passive Kundry, perhaps not inappropriate for this production, with a beautiful tone.
  • Yes, Jonas Kaufmann is overall fine and best in Act 3. Parsifal, however is not an optimal role for him and Wagner, as of now, is not what he does best. He seems to have adopted a Lauritz Melchior attack style on his high notes which I am not sure really suits him.
  • Eric Owen (Alberich in the LePage Ring and the highlight of the Cycle) was the live in HD host, with a booming bass voice. I watched the transmission in Sweden, where people were disappointed that neither Mattei nor Dalayman said anything in Swedish to the cinema audiences following the examples of both Jonas Kaufmann and René Pape.

René Pape in Gurnemanz´ narration (Act 1) from the Met:

Jonas Kaufmann: Amfortas Die Wunde! (Act 2) from the Met:


Photos: Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera

jonas kaufmann shines in film noir version of tosca

Tosca. DVD. Zurich Opera House 2009. Production: Robert Carsen. Conductor: Paolo Carignani. Cast: Emily Magee (Tosca), Jonas Kaufmann (Cavaradossi), Thomas Hampson (Scarpia).

Looking back at what I wrote when I saw this production in Zurich in 2008 during the same run which was filmed for this DVD, I see that my impressions of the DVD remain largely the same as my impressions of the live performance:

Another production-within-a-production, which Robert Carsen likes so much, as evidenced by his previous stagings of works such as L´incoronazione di Poppea, Don Giovanni and Contes d´Hoffmann. While this type of staging may not seem entirely inappropriate for a diva-esque play like Tosca, it nevertheless defuses some of the tension inherent in both music and libretto.

We begin in the empty audience in front of an empty stage: That is, we look at an empty auditorium in front of an empty stage, the real audience being, obviously, seated in the audience...
Cavaradossi paints on the wall of the theatre (Act 1), is tortured in a chamber adjacent to the stage (Act 2) and finally dies on the centre stage (Act 3). 
Carsen succeeds in creating a film noir atmosphere, which admittedly is a little bit too artificial for my tastes: Just take the freezing cuts in the middle of the otherwise very intense Tosca-Scarpia scene, placing Tosca directly under the spotlight, while completely defusing the tension between her and Scarpia. Clearly a matter of style outranking matt

Some may want to buy this DVD on the strengths of Jonas Kaufmann alone, completely understandable as he is the best Cavaradossi I have seen, on stage or on DVD. However, unless you want to own two DVDs with Kaufmann as Cavaradossi, the one from London with Angela Gheorghiu and Bryn Terfel is the better choice.

However, the cast is as fine here in Zürich as anywhere, and while Emily Magee is a bit mature as Tosca she has the appropriate diva-like manners and the role lies well for her.

I like Thomas Hampson´s elegant Scarpia, though he occasionally seems to lack a bit of bite. But rather refreshing seeing a production which avoids turning Scarpia into a monster.  

Carignani is on top of things in the pit and there is plenty to admire in this stylish production, though, at least for me, it is not the first choice.

Production trailer:
The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Jonas Kaufmann: 5
Emily Magee: 4
Thomas Hampson: 4

Robert Carsen´s staging: 4
Paolo Carignani: 4

Overall impression: 4
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