posted by James Reel
My days as a critic for Fanfare are probably numbered, because I don't have time to do that and perform my new duties as the magazine's music editor (glorified proofreader), a position I inherited when the previous music editor dropped dead over New Year's weekend. So I'll start catching you up on some reviews I've written during the past few months.
HANDEL Admeto • Howard Arman, cond; Matthias Rexroth (Admeto); Romelia Lichtenstein (Alceste); Raimund Nolte (Ercole); Melanie Hirsch (Olindo); Tim Mead (Trasimede); Mechthild Bach (Antigona); Gerd Vogel (Meraspe); Handel Fest O Halle (period instruments) • ARTHAUS 101 258 (Blu-ray: 196:00) Live: Handel Festival Halle 2006
HANDEL Giulio Cesare • William Christie, cond; Sarah Connolly (Giulio Cesare); Patricia Bardon (Cornelia); Angelika Kirchschlager (Sesto); Danielle de Niese (Cleopatra); Rachid Ben Abdeslam (Nireno); Christophe Dumaux (Tolomeo); Christopher Maltman (Achilla); O of the Age of Enlightenment • OPUS ARTE OA BD7024 D (2 blu-ray DVDs: 306:00) Live: Glyndebourne 2005
& Documentary on production; Danielle de Niese and the Glyndebourne Experience; photo galleries; illustrated synopsis
HANDEL Orlando • William Christie, cond; Marijana Mijanović (Orlando); Martina Janková (Angelica); Christina Clark (Dorinda); Katharina Peetz (Medoro); Konstantin Wolff (Zoroastro); Zurich Op “La Scintilla” O (period instruments) • ARTHAUS 101 310 (blu-ray: 155:00) Live: Zurich Opera House 2007
HANDEL Tamerlano • Paul McCreesh, cond; Plácido Domingo (Bajazet); Monica Bacelli (Tamerlano); Ingela Bohlin (Asteria); Jennifer Holloway (Irene); Sara Mingardo (Andronico); Luigi de Donato (Leone); Teatro Real O (Madrid SO) • OPUS ARTE OA BD7022 D (2 blu-ray DVDs: 242:00) Live: Madrid Teatro Real 2008
& Illustrated synopsis; cast gallery; interview with Paul McCreesh
Suddenly we’re awash in Handel operas in the new, high-definition blu-ray video format. Standard DVD issues of two of these items have been reviewed in recent issues of Fanfare, and the other two are new to our pages (and Web site). The production design for three of the projects moves the action closer to our time than to Handel’s, while the fourth receives an abstract, “timeless” setting. If you’re a purist who demands that Handel operas be staged in a way that Handel would have recognized, you’re right that updated versions sometimes miss their mark, but please read on. Updated stagings can also be very successful, and we have one splendid example of that here.
The Glyndebourne production of Giulio Cesare is a resounding success in every department: vocal, orchestral, stage direction (David McVicar), costume and set design (Brigitte Reifenstuel and Robert Jones, respectively), and video direction (Robin Lough). The story, in which Caesar (the excellent Sarah Connolly, convincingly masculine while vocally lithe) ends his own power struggle with Roman general Pompei only to get caught up in an Egyptian power struggle between Cleopatra and her brother, here called Tolomeo, has been moved to the late 19th century. Caesar now represents England’s imperialist ambitions in the Middle East, a period of meddling that has had variations and repercussions to our own day, as we are painfully aware. Barry Brenesal reviewed the initial DVD release in Fanfare 30:1, and declared, “Two things to keep in mind when considering this production: it is both the most sophisticated version of Giulio Cesare on DVD, and the most theatrical. By this I mean that an imaginative, well-considered appraisal of character, plot, language, and music by director David McVicar has been realized on stage in a manner that never disclaims its own achievements.” I heartily agree, and would echo his praise of the vocal performances as well. The long opera moves swiftly, and whenever Handel’s da capo aria patterns threaten to pull the action into stasis (despite the cast’s fine way with ornamentation on the repeats), video director Lough, stage director McVicar, and choreographer Andrew George always come to the rescue with movement, gesture, imagery, and video editing well attuned to the musical patterns. The proceedings are always active, without becoming hectic. And despite some Bollywood-inspired choreography and kittenish Danielle De Niese’s appearance in a flapper outfit in one scene, everyone knows when to rein in the fun for dramatic intensity. The Angelika Kirchschlager-Patricia Bardon duet concluding Act 1 is particularly beautiful, as is De Niese’s Act 2 finale.
What blu-ray adds to all this is increased visual clarity and great richness of color (and of shades of black and gray), plus disc space for a pretty good discussion of the production by the principals, and a superficial but mildly fun account of De Niese’s Glyndebourne experience. Like all the discs under review, this one also contains a narrated synopsis illustrated with visuals from the show (for this is very much a “show”). The aspect ratio is a letterboxed 16:9, with audio formats limited to PCM stereo and PCM 5.0.
Vocal and instrumental performances aside, the production serves Handel much better than, say, Peter Sellars’ interesting but self-conscious staging of the work as a vague parable about contemporary Middle East terrorism (on a Decca DVD). When the director’s concept seems willfully imposed on the work, the result can be more distracting than entertaining. Such is the case with Axel Köhler’s treatment of Admeto, in which the title character’s wife, Alcestis, gives her life to save that of her husband; Admeto sends Hercules off to Hades to bring her back, but meanwhile there are lustful complications involving a mail-order Trojan bride named Antigona and various male figures in Admeto’s court. The libretto contains many direct mythological references, so it’s incongruous to see the action play out anywhere but in the ancient world. Nevertheless, Köhler has moved the story to a contemporary hosptital and garden, with the performers frolicking in contemporary garb, even while they have been coached in Baroque gestures. The vocal performances are unexceptionable but rarely stellar, with Mechthild Bach’s near-coloratura Antigona and Tim Mead’s antagonist raising the average; Howard Arman leads the period-instrument orchestra with liveliness, style, and character. Regarding the staging, it’s nice that Köhler plays up the humorous elements, although he sometimes goes overboard, yet the concept seems superfluous and unilluminating. This is apparently the only video of Admeto currently available, and it will serve Handel fans perfectly well until a more pertinent conception (sung at least as well) comes along. The picture format is 16:9 in superb 1080i resolution; audio is PCM stereo and DTS 7.1. The printed booklet with full track listings and good background material is nice, but there are no video extras aside from a narrated synopsis.
A more effective example of Regietheater is Jens-Daniel Herzog’s treatment of Orlando. Now, in Fanfare 32:4 Ron Salemi dismissed this production as “Eurotrash,” but his reaction (in this one example) suggests that he’s a literalist with little appreciation for anachronisms that work metaphorically. The warrior Orlando is mad with love, and must shake off this “effiminacy” so he can resume his manly battle duties. To me, it makes perfect sense to place the action in a faded but once-luxurious Magic Mountain sort of asylum right after World War I; after all, the distant source of the libretto was Ariosto’s sometimes comic romance Orlando furioso—insanity is what the story is all about. For me, the concept works perfectly well. Compared to the Glyndebourne Giulio Ceasar, though, the acting and movement here are less sophisticated, and Herzog and the cast are less inclined to capitalize on opportunities for humor. I mostly concur with Salemi’s evaluation of the musical performances: “Marijana Mijanović throws herself into the title role with great intensity, but with variable vocal results. … [She produces] a sound very much like a countertenor. Although she is technically accomplished and has no problems with her elaborate music, she frequently aspirates the coloratura, a problem she shares with the Zoroastro, Konstantin Wolff. The best singing comes from the two sopranos, Martina Janková as Angelica and Christina Clark as Dorinda. Katharina Peetz’s Medoro is also very good, and their trio at the end of act I is magical—the highlight of the performance.” Indeed. Technical specifications are identical to those of Admeto, above; aside from a subtitled synopsis narrated in German, there are no extras.
Sometimes, a Regietheater staging that strives a bit too hard for individuality can actually serve a work better than a more mainstream treatment guided by an unimaginative director. Graham Vick presides over a not quite uncut production of Tamerlano; one actually begins to wish for less material, because Vick’s treatment is excruciatingly dull, reminiscent of those New Bayreuth stagings that for the past six decades have given the impression that Wagner is about fat people glowering at each other while the orchestra does all the work. Too often, Vick gives his singers absolutely nothing to do, and the stage falls into such stasis that video director Ángel Luis Ramírez desperately cuts to shots of conductor Paul McCreesh in the pit during the orchestral ritornelli. In Giulio Cesare and, to a lesser extent, the other two works above, the directors’ interventions illuminate the characters’ relationships and motivations. Nothing of the sort happens in this ineffective, stand-and-deliver production, which turns a stage drama into little more than an oratorio with costumes. When Vick does make something happen, it’s usually a bad idea, particularly the way Tamerlano prances around like a hermaphroditic Jack Sparrow without the brain damage. At least Richard Hudson’s set and costume designs are striking; the action plays out against a white semicircular background with a circular opening, over which hangs a huge white globe pressed down by a giant foot (initially, this is all grinding the conquered king Bajazet into the stage). But ultimately all this does is reinforce the production’s milky blandness.
Nevertheless, this production has one remarkable thing going for it: none other than Plácido Domingo as Bajazet. Domingo will never, ever be mistaken for a Baroque specialist, but he makes a noble effort to adapt to the style without forsaking his nature. He’s not entirely comfortable in his early material, and his voice sometimes goes gravelly in the recitatives (which actually suits the downtrodden but resistant Bajazet), but he remains a great and versatile tenor—and a compelling stage presence. Domingo’s face has tremendous character, and through subtle but penetrating vocal and facial expression he conveys more with a single line than the rest of the cast does during the course of the entire opera. His beautifully sung and touchingly dignified death scene absolutely must be included in some future video of Domingo’s career highlights.
The rest of the cast can’t match Domingo’s standard; most of the singers seem, in comparison, little more than adept, nothing special. The better among them are the expressive and vocally versatile Sara Mingardo, and the similarly nuanced Jennifer Holloway, whose only drawback is a vibrato just heavy enough to compromise her ability to color and ornament some of her lines. In the pit, McCreesh elicits a surprisingly idiomatic performance from the modern-instrument Madrid Symphony Orchestra. The disc includes an informative interview with McCreesh. The English subtitles are clunky and old-fashioned, but serviceable. Audio formats are unspectacular but clear and effective PCM stereo and PCM 5.0, with the high-definition video (16:9) going a long way to differentiating the degrees of light and dark on stage. James Reel
MORENO TORROBA Luisa Fernanda • Jesús López-Cobos, cond; Nancy Herrera (Luisa Fernanda); Mariola Cantarero (Duchess Carolina); José Bros (Javier Moreno); Plácido Domingo (Vidal Hernando); Raquel Pierotti (Mariana); Teatro Real O & Ch • BBC/OPUS ARTE 969 D (blu-ray: 132:00) Live: Madrid 2006
Alan Swanson covered the earlier DVD release of this production in Fanfare 31:2; hie thee to our online archive for details. This is a highly engaging work from 1932 about a love triangle during an anti-royalist uprising in 19th-century Spain; the musical style is Spanish Puccini with even catchier tunes (by which I mean the melodies are built from short, memorable phrases rather than long operatic lines). You need only see and hear Nancy Herrera for a few seconds to think, “What a perfect Carmen she’d be.” Indeed, she has sung that role many times; here, she’s not a dangerous gypsy vamp but an ordinary middle-class woman torn between two lovers: a brash, womanizing, ambitious royalist and military man (sung ringingly by José Bros) and an earnest and stable country gentleman who falls in with the rebels (the superb Plácido Domingo, venturing into high baritone territory). In every respect—composition, singing, orchestral management by Jesús López-Cobos, stage direction and set design by Emilio Sagi, everything) the production is a delight. Look up Alan Swanson’s original review for details. The high-definition video format is perfect for keeping the deep blacks and bright whites in balance, never allowing the light colors to flare or bloom or the dark patches to turn the overall picture murky. As usual with Opus Arte, the audio options are limited to stereo and 5.0 PCM. Extras include a narrated synopsis, and good interviews with Domingo and the stage director and conductor. This is an endearing work, lovingly presented. James Reel