Love, Passion & Deceit - Rossini, Mozart, Strauss / Glyndebourne Festival
When a director and a production team have a concept for an opera production that alters the composer-librettist’s original vision, the results can vary from imaginative to hubristic expressions of a director trying to be unique—or just unusual. The concepts that work best are the ones that retain the integrity of the opera. Such is the case with this DVD of Die Fledermaus derived from performances at Glyndebourne. The action has been moved into the early 20th century, art deco simplicity has replaced 19th-century fussiness. The score remains intact, but the dialogue is new—yet it remains quite faithful to the story line. It was adapted by Stephen Lawless and Daniel Dooner, written in English, and then translated into German by Johanna Mayr. Purists are not likely to be offended by Glyndebourne’s updated Die Fledermaus, and most viewers will probably greatly enjoy this production.
The cast is a talented ensemble that excels not only as musicians but actors as well. Thomas Allen and Pamela Armstrong are wonderful as the Eisensteins. Their comic timing creates characterizations that are in equal measure sophisticated and droll. The act-II seduction with the watch is terrific. Lyubov Petrova makes the most out of Adele, the chambermaid with a mind of her own. Håkan Hagegård is an especially genial Dr. Falke, with intriguing glimpses of the anger prompting the Revenge of the Bat. Pär Lindskog makes a suitably lecherous Afredo. Special kudos to Malena Ernman in the trouser role of Prince Orlofsky. She does a convincing male impersonation complete with bushy mustache.
Udo Samel has the non-singing role of Frosch, the jailer. Frequently the role is assigned to the comedian of the day who pads the third act with a monologue of trademark shtick or topical humor. Mr. Samel introduces himself as Frosch — James Frosch. He admits his banter is intended to cover a scene change; however, this interplay with the audience has been edited from the operetta and appears as part of the Extras.
The biggest liability of Die Fledermaus is the third act. The first act lays the groundwork for the disguises and intrigues in act II. The third act serves as the dénouement, the unmasking after the splashy second-act party...Happily, this Glyndebourne production keeps affairs moving along nicely. The cast maintains the energy level from the first two acts. Quite a feat, since it appears the entire performance was done without intermissions.
Scene designer Benoit Dugardyn has created a clever set on a revolving stage...in this case the set is interesting and adapts quite well to the scenic demands of each act. A rather nifty scene change transforms the Eisenstein home into the Orlofsky ballroom. During the second act, the set frequently revolves, adding interesting dimensions and scenic interest.
Acts I and II and the Entr’acte to act III are on the first disc, act III is on the second disc, along with a number of interesting extra features and interviews. A compliment is due to television director Francesca Kemp and television producer Ross MacGibbon for the excellent transference of a stage production to home video. This video is respectful of the stage production without gimmicky distractions. There is very much a sense of being in the theater while watching....the new Glyndebourne production makes any evening New Years Eve.
David L. Kirk, FANFARE
This is a conventional production of La cenerentola in most respects. The stage sets are sparsely suggestive rather than literal and detailed, but sufficient. Costumes are excellent, and Peter Hall gets superior comic acting from his principals. Timing and definition of gesture are especially good, with Di Pasquale and Alberghini making the most of their respective parts, minus any distracting add-on gags that all too often disrupt both the work’s rhythm and audience’s attention.
I have one reservation concerning Hall’s production, however: his treatment of the concertato . This Italian operatic convention completely stops the action and allows all characters on stage to express their thoughts simultaneously; which in Rossini’s comic operas invariably means stupefaction and derision. Hall exchanges conventional lighting at these instances for blue scrims, and sets his performers moving and weaving about in odd, slow motion patterns. In theory, this is interesting; in practice, I admittedly found it hard not to laugh at something Hall intended to be taken earnestly. I could only recall Eugene O’Neill’s pretentious 1929 play, Strange Interlude , with its characters given to occasional zombie-like speeches out of time, revealing their thoughts; or to Groucho Marx’s satire on it in the 1930 movie, Animal Crackers : “I see figures . . . strange figures . . . weird figures . . . Steel 186, Anaconda 74, American Can 138 . . .”. Hall’s desire to gussy up each concertato (and there are several, if you count smaller sections of otherwise standard ensembles, as Hall does) with a psychological dimension definitely raised a specter, but I don’t think Rossini had bushy eyebrows, a moustache, and a cigar. It’s possible to work up an academic thesis about the depth and seriousness of anything meant humorously, and the liner notes accompanying this release strive earnestly to accomplish this. But sometimes the light is just that—all light, no shadows; and this composer wasn’t a post-modernist.
Like most other Rossini operas, for many years La cenerentola went unperformed because of changing public tastes that in turn led to an absence of singers who could handle the parts. This was a vicious circle—for a lack of appropriate voices meant a lack of productions, and the absence of productions meant no need to train the voices. What are Rossini voices? They require the same qualities that can be found in other bel canto music: great agility, firm breath support, good enunciation, proper score-reading habits, and schooling in style. All of these qualities can be found in varying degrees in the seven performers who take a major stage part in this La cenerentola . Please note this; because if you ever doubted we’re entering a renewed age of bel canto , then a Rossini production that can boast of three basses, a tenor, two sopranos, and a mezzo, all reasonably fluent in coloratura, is surely as good an indication as any. However, I will single out only Ruxandra Donose for praise. Hers is a dusky mezzo, even in coloration, volume, and support across the registers. The voice is able to handle exacting coloratura without any aspiration or evidence of strain. Her forthright, focused attack in her final aria (“Non più mesta”) brought memories of Marilyn Horne in the 1970s; and like Horne, Donose builds her part from the text, not by working around it. A young singer with little as yet on CD or DVD, she clearly bears watching.
Jurowski is incisive, and alert to his singers’ needs. Sound is available in LPCM stereo and surround sound, while the video is offered in 16:9 anamorphic. Finally, there are subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian, as well as one of those bits-and-pieces interviews (entitled “Insights,” just in case you missed what it offered) that tries to sell a darker view of the opera. It doesn’t work, but it also doesn’t matter. This production of La cenerentola was a good one for Rossini, and the audience agreed. I think you will, too.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Cosi Fan Tutte
Simply put, this widely praised Glyndebourne production is the Così we’ve been waiting for. Yes, there are plenty of alternatives. But little of the video competition has fared well on these pages. Sometimes the problems stem from the musical performance: the Pritchard-led Glyndebourne predecessor was dismissed as “largely routine” by David Kirk (29:5); the Östman was ruled out of court by Barry Brenesal, who said that the “conducting belonged to the then-new movement that found only three tempos in Mozart operas: fast, faster, fast forward” (30:4). Others were panned because of inadequate production values: Chereau’s “takes itself far too seriously,” according to Brian Robins (30:3); Bob Rose was less charitable still with Hermanns’ “simply rotten” production that, he said, “reveals the producers’ lack of understanding Mozart’s genius” (30:6). Only Muti’s Vienna production (Brenesal 32:3) and Harnoncourt’s from Zurich (Christopher Williams, 30:1) received passing grades.
So what makes this performance stand out? First, the singing of the young cast is uniformly excellent. Or perhaps not quite uniformly: as is the case with her new Susanna in Pappano’s Figaro , Miah Persson is even better than excellent, combining a gorgeous, flexible, and stunningly controlled voice (even in the most challenging coloratura passages) with her by-now familiar depth of dramatic insight. Just listen to (and watch) the solid scorn on “Come scoglio”—or, even better, the subtle variations in mood in her wrenching account of “Per pietà”—and you’ll understand why she’s my favorite Mozart soprano these days.
But the rest of the cast is nearly as good. Anke Vondung holds her own as Dorabella (certainly, a less rich part), and their voices blend extremely well. Topi Lehtipuu and Luca Pisaroni capture the emotional wobbles of the two self-deluded lovers—their ardor, their ungrounded confidence, their fury—with unerring security and luxurious tone. More than most performances, too, this one reveals a key social dynamic: the deception works in part because they’re so much sexier when their costumes allow them to abandon the constraining propriety imposed by the social conventions that normally govern their behavior. Ainhoa Garmendia is a pert, disdainful Despina who doesn’t over-camp the impersonations; and running the show tactfully is Nicholas Rivenq. An unusually attractive Don Alfonso, he’s younger and far more fit than most in this role (he looks as if he just came off the racquet-ball court), and he seems an intellectual without a trace of pedantry; you can really believe that he wants to educate these two naive friends. Iván Fischer conducts with more romantic flexibility than you often get with period-instrument orchestras—and balance (both among the singers and between stage and pit) is finely calibrated. Purely as an audio version, this would stand up to any I’ve heard.
Fortunately, Nicholas Hytner’s production is equally impressive—hardly a false step from beginning to end. In general, this staging takes the opera—arguably, Mozart’s most intellectually challenging—seriously. But the seriousness does not bring solemnity. Hytner may avoid extreme farce, but there’s plenty of wit, energy, and color throughout. More important, he doesn’t condescend to the characters: you can understand both why they’re so foolish and why they’re so torn, and the final shots (where the resolution is clearly only partial) create tremendous poignance. The sets and costumes—simple but far from austere—suggest the late 18th or early 19th century, without creating a very specific moment; and while the production doesn’t ostentatiously update the action, it stresses those aspects of character and situation that still ring true today. One point highlighted here is the bond between the sisters—indeed, one could argue that it’s really Dorabella who seduces Fiordiligi; and while there is nothing louche or tasteless in the presentation of their relationship, it’s obvious that they have a strong erotic link. Not that there’s any lack of heterosexual electricity—as a result, the final scene, where nearly every possible pairing seems highly charged, is as smoldering as any you’ll see. Yet aside from one or two moments, the sex is handled with tact: the performance is hardly prudish, but it’s never aggressive either.
The Blu-ray video quality is stunning: you can see each leaf on the salads that our heroines are eating in act I. The 5.0 channel PCM is excellent as well. And while the extras are nothing special, both the conductor and the director offer intelligent insights into the opera. Two numbers are omitted, No. 7 (the duet “Al fato dan legge”) and No. 24 (Ferrando’s “Ah, io veggio”), but that’s a minor issue. All in all, if this doesn’t make it to my next Want List, we’ve got quite a year in store for us.
FANFARE: Peter J. Rabinowitz
Catalog Number: OA 1074BD
Label: Opus Arte
Composer: Gioachino Rossini, Johann Strauss Jr., Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conductor: Iván Fischer, Vladimir Jurowski
Orchestra/Ensemble: Glyndebourne Chorus, Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Performer: Ainhoa Garmendia, Anke Vondung, Håkan Hagegård, Luca Pisaroni, Lucia Cirillo, Luciano Di Pasquale, Malena Ernman, Miah Persson, Nathan Berg, Nicolas Rivenq, Pamela Armstrong, Raquela Sheeran, Ruxandra Donose, Thomas Allen, Topi Lehtipuu