Filosofo di campagna

A-OP-Filosofo di campagnaLittle-known Comic Opera is a Lot of Fun

What  gift to get the opera lover who has all the popular operas? Easy. Get an obscure one that is a lot of fun. Such is Baldassare Galuppi’s 1754 comic opera “Il filosofo di campagna” (The Philosopher of the Country) which is now available on a Bongiovanni DVD in a 2012 performance from the Teatro Comunale, Belluno.

Until now, the name Galuppi was familiar only as the subject of a poem by Robert Browning but his music was unknown to me. With a libretto by the venerable Carlo Goldini (whose “Turandot” was used for the libretto of the Puccini opera), “Filosofo” tells the usual convoluted tale of a network of lovers.

Now hold your breath: Don Tritemio (Carlo Torriani) wants his daughter Eugenia (Ilaria Zanetti) to marry the rich peasant Nardo (Cuneyt Unsal), nicknamed the Philosopher, while she loves Rinaldo (Max Baldan), having her housemaid Lesbina (Giorgia Cinciripi) pose as Eugenia when Nardo shows up, and he falls in love with her, while promising his niece Lena (Camilla Antonini) that she will get a husband by the end of the day. (Get it?)

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Galuppi

As one would expect, the serious arias are designed to express a single emotion, while the comic ones show the stupidity or cleverness of a given character. For example, Don Tritemio sings to Rinaldo his “reasons” for rejecting him as a suitor for Eugenia by explaining he is rejecting him because he said “No”!

The cast is pleasant and are enjoying the silly romp. The tenor playing Rinaldo, which by the way was sung by a woman in the original production, is not complimented by close-ups, what with his double chin. But a stronger negative is the far too many close-ups of conductor Fabrizio da Ros, who seems at best disinterested in the proceedings and at times even bored! And the business of superimposing him over the actors is more than annoying. He makes even von Karajan look modest.

The program notes are quite interesting. However, an essay on the social importance of the plot pushes the thesis a little too far. Yes, the plot is a little like—not a lot like–that of “The Barber of Seville,” but while Figaro is at pains to help a nobleman, there is no such element in the Galuppi work. The latter is far too lighthearted to carry any heavy social satirical burden.

The running time is 110 minutes, the picture is in 4:3 ratio, and the subtitles are in English and Italian.

“Faust” from 1912

A-OP-Faust (Pathe)The Very First recording of “Faust” in French is Impressive

 Ardent collectors of opera on CD should visit the website of Marston Records. Ward Marston is considered the top person in the art of transferring very old recordings onto modern discs and his catalogue is filled with fascinating first—and often only—recorded versions of popular operas.

For example, the very first “Carmen” (1908) stars Emmy Destinn and is in German, as is the “Faust” (1908). “Carmen also appeared as the first recordings in French in 1911. And there is the only recording I know about of the French version of “Il Trovatore” (1912). The sound is ancient but thoroughly made as good as possible by Marston, the singing historic. And it is so good to hear French singers performing in French operas.

Then there are collections of famous singers such as Conchita Supervia, Feodor Chaliapin, Lotte Lehmann, and Rosa Ponselle. There are also discs such as “Three Tenors of the Opera Comique,” which offer even more variety.

There are plenty of non-operatic artists, but my specialty is opera and for me the Marston catalogue is a treasure trove of rare and even rarer recordings.

The rest of this report will concentrate on a French “Faust” recorded 1911-1912 and it will serve as a good example of what Marston has to offer.

It is 1912 and a French company named Pathé has issued a recording of Charles Gounod’s immensely popular opera “Faust.” It took up no less than 56 sides!  But now, this very “Faust” is available on 3 somewhat more convenient CD sides in a boxed set from Marston Records. And it is a stunner.

Ward Marston  describes in a well detailed booklet how Pathé made these recordings (in a most primitive way), a history of the opera “Faust,” and details about the singers heard on this recording. He did wonders with the sound, which is at times nearly as good as any early electric 78-rpm disc. The slightly noticeable surface noise only adds charm to what is essentially a time-trip to 17 years before electric recordings became possible.

Indeed, I was also amazed at how complete and well paced the performance is. Not only does it contain the Walpurgis Night scene  with all of the ballet music (omitted from many an early LP version) but actually includes Marguerite’s Act IV lament, which is even today seldom heard in the opera house. Valentine’s aria, which was added by Gounod at the request of an English baritone, is not included.

Not too surprisingly, while much of the singing is quite good, there is little dramatic tension, for example, in the duel between Faust and Valentine. The conductor is Francois Ruhlmann.

Andre Gresse makes a lively Mephistopheles, Leon Beyle a sympathetic Faust, and Jeanne Campredon a fragile Marguerite. More important is the fact that this recording is a valuable document of how French opera was sung early in the last century before rapid transit brought international casts to every opera house, thereby neatly killing anything of a national style. Lovers of Gounod’s masterpiece will want to hear this performance, as will operatic vocal coaches and their students.

As a wonderful filler for disc 3, Marston has included 13 other recordings of arias and ensembles, including Valentine’s solo, that give even more examples of French singing at that point in history.

Search www.marstonrecords.com for this and other operatic treasures from a bygone age.

Three Puccini Operas from Convent Garden

A-OP-Puccini CollectionThree Puccini Operas from Convent Garden

Three Puccini operas as they were performed at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, are now offered as a boxed set of three OpusArte DVDs, titled simply “Puccini.”

The La Boheme, conducted by Andris Nelsons, was performed in 2011 and I rate it as the best staging of the work I have seen. My favorite bits of business come in Act II when we get to see the cook at the Café Momus and see Musetta (Inna Dukach) shoot some pool before her waltz song. The leads, Teodor Ilincai (Rodolfo) and Hibla Gerzmava (Mimi) are attractive—although physically not quite starving or consumptive respectively; while the other Bohemians—Marcello (Gabriele Viviani), Colline (Kostas Smoriginas) and Schaunard (Jacques Imbrailo)—are completely inside their roles.

Vocally, they are all top notch. Some details of the orchestration, as conducted by Andris Nelsons, are lost in the big house acoustics. Perhaps I am overly conscious of this having spent years listening to studio recordings where these details are quite clear.

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Puccini

Tosca (2006), conducted by Antonio Pappano, has a good Mario in Jonas Kaufmann, while Angela Gheorghiu’s Tosca is more fiery than usual and prone to a bit of overacting. Bryn Terfel so hams it up as Scarpia that if he had a mustache he would twirl it. It was a bad choice to have separated him physically from the rest of the chorus during the mass that ends Act I, the point being that he should be among the worshippers and still “forget God.”

Having no blood on the knife or even on Tosca’s gown or hands is something of a mistake; and having blood all over her written safe conduct is another. (You do know the plot, don’t you?)

Antonio Pappano conducts the dramatic score with lots of energy.

The Turandot (2014) has two faults. Marco Berti is simply not attractive enough for the role of Calaf. (I hope I am not being politically incorrect, but I do believe that looks are important in the theater.) More important the work is staged as a play within a play. The chorus, which is an important character in this work, is all on balconies upstage, while the soloists and dancers move about the stage proper.

All of this not very original concept simply removes the characters two levels away from reality and it is difficult to care about them. This is a shame, because Lise Lindstrom is a very human Turandot and Eri Nakamura a very sympathetic Liu.

The colorful score is well served by conductor Henrik Nanasi.

 

 

Les Femmes vengees

 

A-OP-Femmes VengeesLES FEMMES VENGEES  

Now and then, I find an opera that is not great in itself but enjoyable and interesting for what it tells us about its times and for what it predicts. Such is “Les Femmes vengees” (The Avenged Women) by Francois-Andre Danican Philidor that made its premier in 1775 and was revived and recorded in 2014 by Opera Lafayette. It is now available on a Naxos CD and worth the hearing. Ryhan Brown conducts.

The scenario, said to be a sort of sequel to Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte,” involves a plot by three wives—Madame Riss (Claire Debono), Madame Lek (Blandine Staskiewicz), and Madame la President (Pascale Beaudin)—and M. Riss (Jeffrey Thompson). The idea is to trap and humiliate M. Lek (Alex Dobson) and M. le President (Antonio Figueroa) when they come to make merry with Madame Riss.

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Andre Philidor

So there is much hiding behind doors in the best tradition of French farce, much potential sex that never quite comes to fruition, and plenty of opportunity for semi-serious and outright satirical songs. The ensembles are especially good. In fact, if I didn’t know anything about the date of composition or the composer, I would have guessed at early Rossini or early Donizetti.

The booklet gives a detailed synopsis and a few interesting photos from the production. The libretto can be found on the Naxos website, while the recording (thankfully) has only the complete score. (The dialogue is long and would not be appreciated by non-French speakers.) All in all, a minor but pleasant little gem that deserves revival.

Damnation de Faust

A-OP-Damnation de Faust

Ozawa Takes on “Damnation de Faust” in Restored Recording

 

Hector Berlioz’ “La Damnation de Faust” (1846) was meant to be a cantata, but several houses have tried it as a fully produced opera, despite the elaborate stage effects demanded by the composer-lyricist. It is really a series of scenes drawn from or at least inspired by Goethe’s “Faust, Part 1,” and is in the full Romantic tradition of its time. It got a production at the Metropolitan Opera some years ago that made too much use of computer graphic images and other gimmickry.

Before the DVD format came along, there were several LP and later CD versions of this work. When “Opera on Record 2” appeared in 1983, there were 8 recordings, some less complete than others, and one of the critics wrote that “there is no satisfactory Damnation on disc.”

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Ozawa as he was in 1963

The 1954 LP version is said to have the best Faust in David Polari, whereas my favorite has been the 1980 set, conducted by Georg Solti with Kenneth Riegel as Faust and Jose Van Dam as Mephisto. Now Pentatone has released a 1974 recording on CD, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. It falls somewhere in the middle of the other sets. Stuart Burrows and Donald McIntyre are not superb as Faust and Mephisto, but my test for any thrilling recording of this work is to play the double chorus of soldiers and students that ends the second part and the ride and scene in hell towards the end. Here, Ozawa’s Boston Symphony Orchestra really does its stuff!

Possibly the conductor is not quite as devoted to the quieter moments. However, I find this a very enjoyable recording, but perhaps not a first choice.

The packaging includes good program notes and the two CDs are enclosed in a hard cover book format that has the libretto in French and English. Pretty good for a budget set.

One or two full productions of this work can be seen on You Tube. There is a terrible “concept” production on DVD and a very good concert version on another. The latter, conducted by Solti, is worth the watching.

By the way, my website at franklinbehrens.com has a series of 7 essays about operas and instrumental pieces based on the Faust legend. I hope that my readers who already are familiar with the Gounod “Faust” and perhaps even the Boito “Mefistofeles” will want to try the Berlioz work. I hope they will find it as thrilling as I did when I first heard it many decades ago.

 

 

A “Carmen” to Avoid

A-OP-Carmen (Vernona)A “CARMEN ” to Avoid

With all the video versions of Bizet’s “Carmen” available, there is no excuse for the Arena di Verona 2014 version on a BelAir DVD. It is the same Zeffirelli production that is still available on a TDK video, with all its excesses, constant crowd movement, groups of dancers forever going into their routines, and lots of horses.

The Don Jose (Carlo Ventre) and Carmen (Ekaterina Semenchuk) are not romantic looking, are not especially good actors, and have not particularly spectacular voices. Even the Escamillo (Carlos Alvarez) has little stage presence, but Irina Lungu is an attractive Micaela. The best voice in the cast is that of Seung Pil Choi as Zuniga. The children’s chorus is charmless.

And why couldn’t the children, as well as some of the soloists, be told that a final “e” in French is pronounced “eh” and not “ay” as in Italian? So “garde” is “gar-deh” and not “gar-day.” A small point, but annoying when more attention is paid to spectacle than the language of the text.

Other details are superfluous. This is a “Carmen” to avoid.

 

L’Arlesiana

 

Obsession is Basis of Rarely Done Opera 

 A-OP-Arlesiana A collection of short stories by Alphonse Daudet titled “Letters from My Mill” appeared in 1862. A decade later, Daudet used one of the short stories as a play titled “L’Arlesienne” (The Woman from Arles), with incidental music by Georges Bizet. The play flopped but Bizet’s score appeared in two suites and they are the most frequently played CDs in my collection.

The story of a man obsessed by a woman is an ancient one. When Francesco Cilea decided to base an opera on the play, it was decided that the titular female would never appear and the psychological tale would revolve around the obsessed Federico and his mother Rosa Mamai. Premiered in 1897, “L’Arlesiana” had a mild success, but not enough of one to keep Cilea from making many changes. Nevertheless, the opera is seldom performed in major opera houses.

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Cilea in his early 30s

So it is a Good Thing to see the first video production as it was performed in 2013 at the Teatro G.B. Pergolesi, Jesi on a Dynamic DVD. The conductor is Francesco Cilluffo. The program notes are quite informative and make a good case for this opera, which is still tonal and melodic but has no “big tunes” that linger in the memory. Indeed, the success of any production of this work lies in the acting abilities of the singers—and of course their voices. Here, the cast does not fail on either ground.

Tenor Dmitry Golovnin makes the crazed Federico believable, while Annunziata Vestri really makes Rosa the main character. Despairing over her younger mentally challenged son, she devotes herself to curing her older son of his obsession. The young Vivetta, in love with Federico, is not given a strong enough character in the script; but Mariangela Sicilia does her best to be at least sympathetic.

The most intense music, dramatically and musically, are “Federico’s Lament” and Rosa’s monologue “It is hell to be a mother.” As the program notes point out, the setting in the lovely Midi region of France is never exploited musically.

The Director could not resist bringing on a mute Arlesiana (so the unimaginative audience could see what Federico was thinking) and even a second Federico locked in a cage in the third act, which seems to be set in some sort of a mental hospital. It is never wise to take an unfamiliar opera and stage it with a “concept,” since it invariably confuses the audience. Even here, what one sees at the last minute contradicts the synopsis given in the program notes.

The running time is 105 minutes and there are subtitles, but no bonus material.

Bergonzi at the Met as Hero and Bumpkin

Bergonzi as Tragic Hero and as Village Bumpkin

Among the several CD transfers of vintage Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on the Sony label, two of the more recent releases star Carlo Bergonzi in the tenor lead–one a tragedy, one a comedy.

IMG_20150815_0002Verdi’s “Ernani” (recently seen by many as an HD telecast at local theaters) is based on a play by Victor Hugo. Francesco Maria Piave, who wrote many a libretto for the Master, did a good job boiling it down to a straight love-plot and omitting most of the political matter that made Hugo’s play so startling for its day.

Basically, Ernani (Carlo Bergonzi), who turned bandit after Don Carlo killed his father and seized his property, is in love with Elvira (Leontyne Price). But so is Charles V of Spain (Cornell MacNeil), and so is Elvira’s uncle Don Silva (Giorgio Tozzi). Though not as incomprehensible as “Il Trovatore,” the plot of “Ernani” seems a little silly to audiences today, hinging as it does on bravado oaths and how Honor must be served. (W.S. Gilbert spoofed this sort of thing in “The Pirates of Penzance”; but Verdi was a hot blooded Italian and to him a man’s word meant something.)

As much as I dislike Franco Corelli’s excesses, I think I would have preferred him to Bergonzi in the role. The latter simply does not have the clarion tones that such a heroic role demands. The audience at that December 1, 1962 performance, however, adored him. An energetic reading of the score by conductor Thomas Schippers helps a distinctly impressive cast.

IMG_20150815_0001On March 5, 1966, Bergonzi appeared in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” as the prize village bumpkin Nemorino, who loves the lovely Adina (Roberta Peters), who loves to read about Tristan and Isolde’s magic love potion and is herself loved by the army officer Belcore (Frank Guarrera). Known for opera buffa roles that require patter technique, Fernando Corena is the believable charlatan, Dr. Dulcamara.

The libretto by Felice Romani is little more than a sequence of duets; but the score is bubbly enough, especially under Schipper’s baton, to keep things from getting dramatically boring.

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Corena as the quack

Here I find Bergonzi’s voice to be just right for the innocent he is playing. I did, however, find some fault with his bel canto technique in the gem of the score, “Una furtiva lagrima,” halfway into Act II. Others may disagree.  Peters is at her usual chirpy soprano, Guarrera is an imposing Belcore, and Corena does what he does best. It is difficult to be funny on a CD, but he comes close.

Both operas have some cuts, “Ernani” more than “Elisir,” and both sets take up two CDs.

Hippolyte et Aricie

 

51Woc7KK-9L._AA160_HIPPOLYTE ET ARICIE”  Suffers from Silly Production Values

The story of Euripides’ “Hippolytus” concerns a young man, Hippolytus, who worships Artemis, goddess of the hunt and of chastity, and ignores Aphrodite. The latter punishes him by inflaming his stepmother, Phaedra, with passion for him, leading to a triple disaster.

When Racine took up the tale in “Phaedra,”  he catered to the tastes of his age by giving the young man a love interest, Aricie; and when Rameau needed a libretto for his 1773 opera, he used the Racine version, gave it a happy ending,  and called it “Hippolyte et Aricie.” This is the title of the Opus Arte DVD that holds a 2013 performance of the work, given at the Glyndebourne Opera House and conducted by William Christie.

I was going to ignore this “concept” production, but it gives me the perfect example for my talk on “How not to give an opera.” Director Jonathan Kent explains in the program notes that his intent was “to reinvent Baroque opera for the 21st century” and follows up with a lot of abstract nouns to justify his staging.

He explains that the north of France can get very cold while the south is warm. From this, he sees the goddess Diane’s chastity as cold and Cupid’s love as hot. So he sets the prologue of the work in a REFIGERATOR! (Was he actually paid for mocking the opera thus?)

 

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Hippolytus and the horses that would drag him to his death

As with so many recent productions of operas of all periods, the major characters are dressed in the most un-colorful modern garb—Theseus gets a white suit, Phaedre a plain black dress. The immortals are given full scale Baroque costumes that relieve the visual boredom. And putting the mortals in a two-story cutaway 1950s house (actually using the structure of the refrigerator minus the orange juice, sausages and eggs) simply takes away from whatever grandeur is left to them thanks to Kent’s “concept.”

In one scene, the chorus is decked out in bright red Baroque-style hunting outfits. In several others, they are dressed in the dullest possible dark outfits. And of course, just about everybody has to be barefoot.

Come on. If he thinks his audience will not accept Baroque opera done in the Baroque staging, why does he take on the job? There are scenes from other productions on You Tube done in the costumes of Rameau’s time. They are a pleasure to watch.

I cannot fault the singers, who have little say about the physical production: Ed Lyon (Hippolyte), Christine Karg (Aricie), Sarah Connolly ( Phaedra), Stephane Degout (Theseus), and the imposing Francois Lis (Pluton, Jupiter, and Neptune). The smaller roles are quite good. However, the too-contemporary choreography, so common in productions from this period, jars completely with the music.

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A traditionally staged version can be found on the Erato label

This, then, is one of these DVDs that are best heard and not seen, unless one appreciates these childish directorial games. Perhaps if a director who trusts the work he is assigned to direct would bring the 21st century back to Rameau’s time, then I would be willing to watch and review it for its artistic merits.

Oh yes, Opus Arte still cannot find it worthwhile to give the track listings in the program notes.

 

Elektra and Medea

Two Classical Greek Women Wreak Revenge

61EPWONfwrL._SY606_By a coincidence, new videos of two operas based on Greek tragedies have appeared in the same month. Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” (1909) is on the Opus Arte label and features a 2010 performance from the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden with Christian Thielemann conducting. The other, on an ArtHaus DVD, is Aribert Reimann’s “Medea” in a 2010 performance at the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Michael Boder.

[In this article, the German spellings of the Greek names will be used.]

61llE+-mmgL._SL1024_Both works center on a woman driven to the utmost limits of human endurance and bent on a horrible revenge. Elektra lives only for the day when her brother Orestes will return to murder their mother Klytamnestra, who had murdered their father Agamemnon. Medea has given up all for love of Jason, who had stolen the Golden Fleece from her father. Once back in Greece, Jason decides to marry a Corinthian princess, take the children, and send Medea into exile.

Stories like this demand powerful music. After experimenting with a new orchestral sound for his “Salome” (another female you would not like to meet), Strauss went a step further with “Elektra.” But the score is entirely dramatic and seems to fit the action and emotions. A leitmotif based on the word “Agamemnon” opens the work and is heard at crucial points. The effeminacy of Aegisth is clearly underlined by the bouncy little theme that accompanies his first entrance. (His stage time is very short!)

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Poster for Pasolini film version

The score for “Medea” is more like a movie soundtrack. As the program notes point out, Reimann abandons any sense of beat and lets the music flow around the action. This might be very well, but the effect is that it all sounds the same, regardless of what is happening on stage. The declamatory style of singing so beloved of recent composers (could they give us a beautiful melody if they wanted to?) will strike some as a group of actors shouting at each other at the top of their vocal range.

This works fine for Medea, who is almost always at the end of her patience—and sanity. But when every one else on stage is in the same flight path, it does become (well, let me say it) boring. Some relief comes when the young Princess sings; she does sound like a classic Grecian Sandra Dee. But it is also practically a “vocalise” in which arbitrary syllables are given multiple notes.

The set of “Elektra” consists of a huge black parallelogram with a blood red background peeking through. When the shape is rotated out of sight, the rest of the stage is all red, with a silly staircase leading nowhere. “Medea” takes place in a sort of bombed out-building site that suits the mood of the action.

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Electra and Orestes in proper garb

Both productions start with the women dressed in an approximation of Greek costume. And then—as is absolutely required in opera today—the male chorus of “Elektra” show up in modern garb, with one dressed in a clownish top hat and tails. “Medea” also has the women dressed in period costume. Then enter Jason in modern fatigues. And later Orestes in a dark suit. Why? Timelessness? Saving money on effective costumes? They are all doing it? The audience didn’t seem to mind and I read that this production was the hottest ticket in town.

Finally, a very touchy subject. Elektra (Linda Watson) is done no favors by her close-ups. And for a character who eats her meals from a dish along with the dogs, she has not lost any weight (to be tactful). Klytamnestra (Jane Henschel) is simply obese; but that fits the character of a totally decadent Queen. On the other hand, Medea (Marlis Petersen) is very sexy and believable in the role.

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Hugo von Hoffmannsthal

One last point. Hugo Hofmannsthal’s libretto for “Elektra” sticks pretty closely to the Sophocles play. Reimann based his libretto for “Medea” on the Euripides version with deletions and with additions taken from an earlier German treatment of the legend. Much is made of the Golden Fleece in the opera, although it is only alluded to in the play.

So there we are. Two works with so many similarities—Greek tragic sources, idiosyncratic scores, mixed costuming, surreal staging—and yet so different in effect because of casting and (in the case of the videos) camera work.