Two French Kisses from the world of Operetta

On vacation this summer I and my dear younger daughter Annaliese were reminiscing about our ‘seize the moment’ adventure at the New York City Opera’s new production of Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’Étoile in October of 2002. We had listened incessantly to random selections from the EMI CD recording in the car to and from her ballet classes; I promised, as only a good father can promise, to take her to L’Étoile if ever there were a production somewhere nearby. And then there was one! We loved it. She was nine at the time.

Chabrier’s  L’Etoile  at NYCO in 2002. Wonderful!

Chabrier’s L’Etoile at NYCO in 2002. Wonderful!

Below is a stream of critical and embracing consciousness about L’Étoile, clearly one of our favorites, but also about Offenbach’s Les Brigands, another favorite operetta of ours, linked by a renowned-but-not-so-well-known-over-here French singer.

First, though: Naxos has recently released a stunning Blu ray video of L’Étoile, performed at the Dutch National Opera and filmed by François Roussillon, a fellow with a long play list of opera-on-film accomplishments. The production was conceived and directed by Laurent Pelly, whose signature style is already familiar to Metropolitan Opera audiences (Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, Massenet’s Manon and Cendrillon, to name three). He is already well known by fans of French opera and operetta on stage and on DVDs. His art fits L’Étoile to a T.

Dutch National Opera’s  L’Étoile , directed by Laurent Pelly, filmed in 2014, newly released

Dutch National Opera’s L’Étoile, directed by Laurent Pelly, filmed in 2014, newly released

A little history: Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894), born in the Auvergne area of France, was a child prodigy at the piano. Though trained as a lawyer (after all, one needs a practical profession!), he, by now in Paris, frequently escaped the shackles of the career to dabble in composition and solo performances. Chabrier wrote a few scores destined to be light little operas, most of them unfinished, but he completed two comedies: one, L’Étoile (The Star), the comically darker one, which premiered at the famous Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, Paris, 1877) and the other Une éducation manqué (A Deficient Education) (Paris, 1879), a smaller, more intimate piece, each to a libretto by the team of Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo).

L’Étoile delights and entertains at every turn, especially musically and vocally. As operettas go, Chabrier’s orchestrations are relatively complex, but light, always light; delightful, never heavy. They make me smile, as do the intelligent light operas of André Messager.*

His phrasing of the vocal lines sometimes mirrors the likes of Hector Berlioz, as in Benvenuto Cellini, but it’s never quite so muscular, certainly not as loud. Even so, apparently the musicians in the pit of the Bouffes-Parisiens found the score of L’Étoile daunting, a far cry from their usual fare. Lazuli’s entrance solo is a rapid-fire tongue twister, the sort William S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, would have been proud of! Maybe he was…He writes for the female voices in a manner that is both sensual and embracing, often sublime, though teasingly brief, even if, at the time, he was drifting toward the cliff of Wagner.**

More than that, the tale is ripe with the topsy-turvy stuff of operetta: Le Roi Oof Premier, like Gilbert’s Mikado, enjoys a festive execution. The curtain for Act I opens on the King’s birthday, and, no surprise, Oof’s looking for a candidate to play, in a manner of speaking, a very ‘central’ role in the celebration. As it plays out, Lazuli, a simple peddler, is immediately sentenced to a torturous death after slapping the King (who, to be fair, was in disguise and really asking for royal insult). He’s to be impaled, actually, in public. This is bad.

But Siroco, the King’s astrologer, quickly intercedes and brings the grim affair to a halt: Lazuli’s star, he reports, is linked to King Oof’s star: if Lazuli dies, then Oof will die exactly 24 hours later and, on more of a personal matter, Siroco would then be executed promptly 15 minutes after the Oof’s passing, by a whimsical decree made recently by his Royal Highness.

Hold everything!! Lazuli is instantly put under protective custody in the palace.

Before we meet Lazuli we’ve met Princess Laoula, the beautiful daughter of King Mataquin, who rules the neighboring kingdom. She has been promised to wed King Oof, but, prior to the formal announcement of her arrival and subsequent wedding, she wants to get a preview of what she’s getting herself into. Like, for starters, who is this King with a name like Oof?

So she and Hérisson de Porc-Épic,*** King Mataquin’s ambassador, and his wife Aloès and Tapioca, his secretary, enter Oof’s kingdom disguised as the staff of a department store. Well, why not? To make matters more complicated, Laoula asks Aloès to pretend to be her (the Princess) so that she (Laoula) can observe better le Roi (himself) in action.

The tie-together? The aforementioned Lazuli happened to be on the roadside as they (the faux department store staff) passed in a minivan. He fell instantly head over heels in love with Laoula and follows the minivan into Oof’s kingdom. Laoula reciprocates his affections, in spite if the fact that she’s a promised Princess. Then Lazuli slaps the King, Oops! No, Oof!

Suffice it to say that all works out in the end, despite a few highs and lows along the way. Lazuli almost drowns, for one…

Well, just as Nanki-Poo ends up with Yum-Yum in The Mikado, Lazuli is allowed to marry Laoula, and King Oof marries Katisha.

Oops, wait Oof, that’s not right!

Stéphanie d’Oustrac is Lazuli

Stéphanie d’Oustrac is Lazuli

Pelly’s vision of L’Étoile is intricate, zany, and at times bizarre, though not surprising given his previous work. He seems to know the boundaries between sane and insane of any given plot. Familiar: the motions of the cast are often choreographed, a Pelly signature. The chorus at times moves in synchronized patterns like a flock of birds. Always carefully planned chaos, but carefully planned is not chaos. It places the “chaos” in us. Hmmm.

The set designer is Pelly’s steady sidekick Chantal Thomas. Yes, the production is updated, but not to any time obvious; nor obvious are the locations of Oof’s kingdom in time and space. Well, the minivan is of relatively recent vintage, I’ll guess. The sets are tall, a lot of steps, and mostly on wheels to make swift the scene changes on a wide stage.

Pelly, as is his wont, also does the costumes, here in collaboration with Jean-Jacques Delmotte. At times they’re strikingly odd: some of Oof’s minions are members of the chorus dressed as large beagles in suits, tails (but not coattails) and all. Les Demoiselles d’Honneur, there are six of ‘em, are clothed in large pink puff balls. If you enjoyed Pelly’s costumes in his production of Massenet’s Cendrillon at the Met in spring, 2018, you’ll love this one. I think they are wonderful.

Mezzo Stéphanie d’Oustrac is a tough, spunky Lazuli, quick to counter anyone who gets in his way. But, the starsick lover, he also shows a tender side. Hélène Guilmette is a lovely Laoula. Her traveling buddy, Aloès, also lovely (and hot), is sung by Julie Boulianne. The women’s three voices blend together delightfully, lovingly, frequently, sometimes only briefly.

Aloès’s rather stiff-necked husband, Hérisson is sung by Elliot Madore; Tapioca, his sensitive secretary, is sung by tenor François Piolino. The very odd King Oof is effectively portrayed by Christophe Mortagne, a light tenor; Siroco, the astrologer, is sung by Jérôme Varnier; he is also odd, evident by his hairdo, costume and mannerisms, sort of channeling Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future. The large cast includes ten other characters including the six pink Demoiselles. Patrick Fournillier conducts the Residentie Orkest The Hague with precision, exuberance and joy.

In sum, it’s a happy score for sure and a fine performance. L’Étoile is, of course, sung in French with French, English, German, Japanese and Korean subtitles. Running time is 115 minutes, it’s in 5.0 audio surround sound, and it’s a beautiful thing.

L’Etoile  from  Opéra National de Lyon  with Colette Alliot-Lugaz, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner

L’Etoile from Opéra National de Lyon with Colette Alliot-Lugaz, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner

Yo, but if I and dear Anna were listening to L’Étoile on CD way back in 2002, there must be another, right? Indeed, our introduction to this wonderful opera was the two CD set released in 1984 by EMI with a first rate cast assembled by Opéra National de Lyon, starring the elusive light mezzo Colette Alliot-Lugaz as Lazuli. I was fortunate enough to purchase it before Tower Records began to tank locally (in NYC) in the late 90/early 00s. A little snooping on the then virgin internet, on pages way below the ‘more like this,’ revealed a video of the Lyon production with almost the same cast (!!!!), released by Image Entertainment (on VHS in 1986, later on DVD). Both were conducted with aplomb by the esteemed John Eliot Gardiner, a past master of the French opera and operetta repertory.

In contrast to the new release of the Pelly/Thomas L’Étoile (reviewed above), the Lyon production is softer, more silky, set believably in a world of red fez caps and harem girls in white flowing gowns (here the six beautiful Demoiselles). Morocco? Algiers? Not important.

Alliot-Lugaz’s Lazuli is engaging throughout, if less rough and tumble than Stéphanie d’Oustrac on Naxos. She has a voice of silk, plain and simple. The cast is composed of ‘resident’ artists of the Opéra National de Lyon: Ghyslaine Raphanel is Princess Laoula, Magali Damonte is Aloés, both lovely, tenor François Le Roux is Hérrison, and Antoine David is Tapioca. Georges Gautier is Roi Oof, Gabriel Bacquier, perhaps more well-known than these artists in the international circuit, sings Siroco.

The beauty of the Lyons filmed version, once you know the audio, is that you can put a face with a familiar voice. The subtitles don’t hurt either too. Closer attention to the production values suggests that the video recording of the Lyon production was an afterthought or a project in a subsequent season. Most of the original audio cast is re-assembled, probably a new complete soundtrack was recorded. The singers on stage are lip-synching to the play-back. Clues for this are differences in the overall stage depth of the singing voices versus the spoken dialogue, also the absence of differences in the sound from stage front compared to that from farther back, and, lastly, there are some cuts to another shot of characters who wouldn’t have had time to move that other part of the stage. The audio track of stage noises was probably recorded during the filming, as these are not in the CD recording. But, even so, it’s better than one’s imagination if you’re eager to see the Lyon cast in action. I don’t really care: it’s better than my imagination.

Fanely Revoil

Fanely Revoil

For those who like to look way back: a famous revival of L’Etoile at Opéra Comique occurred in occupied Paris in April, 1941. Recordings of highlights were made between February and June, 1943, conducted by the renowned French conductor Roger Desormière. Fanély Revoil is Lazuli, Laoula is Lucie Thelin, Aloès is Jeanne Mattio. Revoil also recorded Nicklausse in the Cluytens recording of Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, Opéra Comique, 1948, and the lusty Boulotte in the Cariven recording of Offenbach’s Barbe-Bleue, 1958, with a young Michel Sénéchal.

Back to my dear Colette, I first fell in love with her voice and her spunk in the 1989 CD recording of Offenbach’s Les Brigands (The Bandits) again conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, again with the forces of Opéra National de Lyon. Once again she sings a trouser role, this time that of  Fragoletto, a farmer whose property was raided by the bandits. In this production Fragoletto is a chocolatier from whom the brigands have very recently stolen all of his chocolate. Sans merchandise, Fragoletto is, therefore, a person who is looking for an alternate source of income. He joins the band of bandits, complete with a grand formal induction comprising the finale of Act I.

Opéra National de Lyon ’s production of  Les Brigands  with Colette Alliot-Lugaz as Fragoletto

Opéra National de Lyon’s production of Les Brigands with Colette Alliot-Lugaz as Fragoletto

But band of bandits has a dilemma: like Gilbert’s band of pirates (in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance), they don’t seem to make their profession work for them. Their last job was this raid on Fragoletto’s chocolate factory, large quantities of chocolate not being their idea of a grand heist. Worse, Fragoletto has fallen in love with Falsacappa’s feisty daughter Fiorella, sung here by Ghislaine Raphanel. To prove himself a worthy of professional respect, Fragoletto intercepts a wagon train and confiscates a bag containing the portrait of the Princess of Granada, which was to be used as her introduction to the Prince of Mantua prior to their wedding. The wedding apparently will involve the settlement of a debt of three million, whatever the currency is…The clever Falsacappa hatches the plan to substitute Fiorella’s portrait for the Princess’s, which will allow the bandits, undercover, into enter into the Prince’s court. And so on and so forth. Falsacappa is the chef des brigands, sung by Michel Trempont.

Lyon’s Les Brigands also appeared as a video recording released by Image Entertainment on VHS in the same year (later on DVD). Great fun, this one! Check it out.

Interesting that the relationship between Offenbach’s Les Brigands and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance runs deeper than just ineffective outlaws and incompetent officers of the law. As in Pirates, the brigands have their little quirks and the police are ineffective, always arriving late and literally overlooking the bandits hiding right under their noses. Apparently Gilbert was taken with the plot of Les Brigands enough to translate Meilhac and Halévy’s libretto from French to English…which leaves us with the tantalizing prospect of a comic opera by Gilbert and Offenbach. Les Brigands is a fun operetta.

The program for French Night

The program for French Night

Looping back to the beginning of this piece: in November, 2001, my dear Anna, eight and a half at the time, and I thought it would be a lot of fun to create a French Night for the entertainment of the whole family: her older sister, her mother, and her grandmother, grandfather, and her uncle, all of whom were fans of opera and operetta, the “grands” particularly partial to the French repertory. Anna designed the program, my wife was in charge of the dinner, I poured the wine, maybe made baguettes, I forget…it was a great night. Less than a year later Anna and I went to L’Étoile at NYCO. What goes around comes around.

Enjoy French operetta. Keeps you young and smiling. Also introduce your children early. Then you’ll all be young together and smiling.

Happy 2019-2020 season! OM.

* Andre Messager (1853-1929) wrote several masterpieces, each both intelligent and charming, including La Basoche (1890, Véronique (1898), and Fortunio (1907), each of which has at least one complete recording.

** Already under the influence of his friend Henri Duparc, Chabrier became a French Wagnerian, an identity cemented especially after experiencing a live performance of Tristan und Isolde in Munich on March 14, 1880. Composer Vincent D’Indy, also a French Wagnerian and who also was at the performance, remembers hearing a ‘soft sobbing close to us, all the more spasmodic for wanting to be suppressed,’ even before the prelude. It was Chabrier.

Musically speaking, one consequence of the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870) was a move away from the decadent debauchery of Offenbach’s operettas to operas dealing with more serious and heroic themes. “Wagnerian” of course meant a larger orchestra and meaningful motifs, but also tales from the middle ages with heroes and love against all odds. Steven Huebner’s French Opera at the Fin de Siècle: Wagnerism, Nationalism, and Style. Oxford University Press, 1999, is an excellent source.

After the Munich experience, Chabrier devoted himself to composition, completing his foray into a faux Wagnerian opera Gwendoline, premiere April 10, 1886 at the Théâtre de la Monnie, Brussels and Le Roi malgré lui, premiere at the Opéra Comique, Paris, May 18, 1887. Le Roi malgré lui was performed at Bard College’s SummerScape in August, 2012. Act I of the incomplete Briséïs (a project from 1888) was recorded live from the Edinburgh Festival in 1994 and has been released on the Hyperion label.

Prior to these, Chabrier’s family trip to Spain in 1882 spawned the orchestral rhapsody España. This would become his most popular composition, though the festive Fête polonaise from Le Roi malgré lui is also aired frequently on classical radio. D’Indy wrote the heroic opera Fervaal, which premiered at the Théâtre de la Monnie, Brussels, in 1897. The quote is taken from p. 255 of Huebner’s book.

*** I told Anna that his name was ‘Porky Pig,’ just for the laugh. Actually the name translates as Prince Hedgehog of Porcupine.

**** An abridged discography of Colette Alliot-Lugaz:

Zénobie/La Comtesse de Castiglione in Hahn’s Ciboulette, EMI 1983. Lazuli, the peddler, in Chabrier’s L’Étoile, on EMI CDs, 1984. Oreste, son of Agamemnon in Offenbach’s La belle Hélène with Jessye Norman in title role, on EMI CDs, 1985. Lazuli in Chabrier’s L’Étoile, Opéra National de Lyon production, Image Entertainment, 1986, now on DVD. Mélisande in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Opéra National de Lyon production, Image Entertainment 1987 (well sung, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, but on the whole a brainless, disappointing stage production directed by Pierre Strosser), now on DVD. Jacqueline in Messager’s Fortunio, Erato CDs, 1988 (an excellent operetta). Fragoletto, a young chocolate chef, in Offenbach’s Les Brigands, EMI CDs, 1989. Fragoletto in Offenbach’s Les Brigands, Opéra National de Lyon production, Image Entertainment 1989, now on DVD. Mélisande in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Decca CDs, 1990 (Colette, again, is very mellow).

Alliot-Lugaz is also famous for recordings of Monteverdi, Rameau, Haydn, and Mozart operas, also Berlioz songs.

Four recent DVDs from the Met

For the holiday season 2014 OperaMetro recommended two boxed sets of CDs of remastered analog audio recordings of historic Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, one box devoted to the operas of Giuseppe Verdi, the other to Wagner’s. Those were the days, my friends! This post is now a blog on the page Historical Recordings.

In the following holiday season, 2015, OperaMetro recommended four DVDs of performances recently telecast in HD live from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. This is now recreated here as a blog on this page.

The four DVDs are indeed recent for now but likely to become historic for younger members of today’s audience who, looking back as we do, will say ‘those were the days, my friends.’ Who today ever imagines that someday it will be 50 years of ‘last seasons’ later?

Fleming in  Rusalka  in winter of 2014

Fleming in Rusalka in winter of 2014

Renée Fleming owned the role of Rusalka at the Met. I say this using the past tense because backstage after a review performance in late January of 2014 she confided that she was retiring the role from her active repertory. Fleming’s Rusalka is finely tuned mix of the cool, passionless water sprite with the passionate woman betrayed by the man she loves. Rusalka has transformed herself through magic to get legs for the land and perhaps a soul, all at the price of her voice.

As in many fairy tales, the problem is her man, here just called the Prince, passionately sung in this performance by Piotr Beczała. Not much of a conversationalist, Rusalka quickly becomes less interesting to him than an intrusive loud hot foreign Princess, forcefully sung by Emily Magee. Men are so weak. In the end, though, the Prince seeks his true love out in the lake in the forest, begs her forgiveness, and willingly reunites with her through his death. John Relyea is the Water Sprite, so called in the list of characters, but actually he is Rusalka’s father; Dolora Zajick is Ježibaba, the witch who renders the magical transformation. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is expertly conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

This Otto Schenk production is that of the Metropolitan Opera's premiere, new in November of 1993, mounted for the great Slovakian soprano Gabriela Beňačková, whose Rusalka on Supraphon CDs is well worth the listen; Renée Fleming assumed the title role in May of 1997; the sets by Günther Schneider-Siemssen capture the mystery of the magical forests and lakes, in contrast to the elegance of the Prince’s country estate in the middle act. It is stunningly beautiful on Blu ray.

Rusalka is Dvořák’s take on the legend of the mermaid who, in most of the operatic versions, pines for a love life with a mortal, call her Undine of Lortzing, Loreley of Catalani, and let’s not forget Natasha, the Miller’s daughter in the Даргомыжский version. Or they’re just sirens bent on troublemaking: Die Rheinnixen of Offenbach or Woglinde, et al. from you know where. You’ve seen perhaps The Little Mermaid from Disney or Splash? The operas rarely end so happily.

Janáček’operas have mostly reflective soliloquies, not really ‘arias’ per se. Hence one can say without hesitation that Rusalka’s Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém (the Song to the Moon in Act I) is the most popular aria from the entire Czech repertory, though Mařenka’s introspective Ten lásky sen, jak krásný byl from Act III of Smetana’s Prodaná Nevěsta (The Bartered Bride) I find very touching indeed, especially as rendered by the late dear Lucia Popp, another great Slovakian soprano, in the DG DVD of Die verkaufte Braut from the Wiener Staatsoper in 1982 (sung in German). It’s another recommendation for the holidays, believe me.

Decca’s new DVD of the Met’s Rusalka comes in both the standard DVD format or on Blu ray. For the record, no pun intended, know that la Fleming recorded Rusalka with an excellent cast including Ben Heppner in the studio for Decca under Sir Charles Mackerras, released on CD in 1998.

But if dreamy takes on fairy tales bore you, try Fleming’s previous video essay of the role under Robert Carsen’s direction at the Opéra National de Paris in 2002, released on 2 TDK DVDs. James Conlon conducts. In this, Rusalka is a watery tart who dwells, one surmises, in the lower level pool of a major hotel and she clearly can walk already. For the record, Mr. Carsen likes water and/or chairs in his productions. Rusalka is invited up to the room of a wealthy man, etc. etc. It’s actually quite clever and Fleming is touching in her own inimitable way. Dvořák is still Dvořák, so the soundtrack is quite nice. But the timeless archetypal magic is missing.

Ambrogio Maestri as Verdi's Falstaff

Ambrogio Maestri as Verdi's Falstaff

Speaking of which, Robert Carsen’s new production of Verdi’s Falstaff preceded Rusalka in early December of 2013. As I took my seat at the Met on review night, I remember thinking that any Carsen production could go either way, as alluded to just above. But I kept an open mind as I always do. I was completely entranced by Carsen’s Falstaff throughout, particularly by the final scene in which Falstaff ‘resurrects’ himself after his evening-long abasement at the hands of Windsor’s gentry. He struts back triumphantly into the spotlight at the finale, striding toward us on top of a long grand elegant dining table (with chairs of course). It is wonderfully entertaining.

The sets by Paul Steinberg and costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel capture post WWII English fashions, a time when the sun was even further setting on the landed British aristocracy. Ambrogio Maestri’s Falstaff is a masterful creation: bold, literally enormous and knightly. His foils are slimy lowlifes; Ford in this is a Texan type with oil money dripping from him, the sort who probably drives his Cadillacs only a few times before burying them nose first into the sand. (You must remember that photo, si?)

All the merry women are settled in the décor of the 50s. Angela Meade and Stephanie Blythe in particular are finely etched characters. The young love of Nannetta and Fenton, charmingly sung by Lisa Oropesa and Paolo Fanale respectively, is charmingly highlighted by stop action and magical changes of lighting. James Levine once again lets Verdi’s infectious score sparkle and shine. Available on a Decca DVD, this Falstaff is a winner all around. High on my list of favorite operas always, probably already before my ears had formed in my mother’s womb.

Perhaps I overstate here.

The nostalgic side of me will miss the iconic Franco Zeffirelli production, new at the Met back in 1964, but, as they say, it’s ‘in the can,’ preserved on a DG DVD: a 1993 performance with Mirella Freni and Marylin Horne. Paul Plishka sings the title role. James Levine conducts.

Spreading the net wider: I very much like Herbert von Karajan’s Falstaff from Salzburg in 1982 on Sony Classical DVD with Raina Kabaivanska, Christa Ludwig, and Giuseppe Taddei in the title role. I’d recommend Bryn Terfel’s Falstaff from Covent Garden (BBC/Opus Arte) were it not for Graham Vick’s intolerably stupid production. Terfel is Terfel and good vocals are all around. You can always turn the picture off.

In the historic Verdi broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera (see the page Historical Recordings), Leonard Warren is Falstaff in 1949, along with Regina Resnik, Giuseppe Valdengo, a young Giuseppe di Stefano as Fenton and Licia Albanese as Nanetta, all under the baton of Fritz Reiner; But the great Tito Gobbi is my cherished favorite in a fine recording from 1956 on EMI CDs paired with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Fedora Barbieri, Rolando Panerai, Anna Moffo, et al., conducted by von Karajan. There are many others. As operas go, Verdi’s Falstaff has been finely served up by the recording industry.

Anna Netrebko, Lady Macbeth as hot, not cold

Anna Netrebko, Lady Macbeth as hot, not cold

As long as we’re on Verdi and Shakespeare, Macbeth sizzles with Anna Netrebko as the notorious Lady Macbeth on a DG DVD of the HD telecast in October of 2014. Macbeth that season was literally one of the hottest tickets at the Met in a long time. Netrebko’s voice has darkened considerably over the past few seasons without much loss to the shine of her upper register. She’s certainly got the strength and volume: the Lady’s soaring vocal lines over all soloists, a loud orchestra and chorus at the end of Act I are not a problem for her at all. Most often a riveting stage performer, Netrebko here is at her best, allowed to let her inner tiger out. With the blond wig she’s Marilyn Monroe’s evil twin on a bad night. Netrebko is joined by an exquisite cast including Željko Lučić as Macbeth, Joseph Calleja as Macduff, and Rene Papé as Banquo. Fabio Luisi conducts with his usual clarity and precision. This is a very hot performance!

The production, new in 2007, is by Adrian Noble, with sets and costumes by Mark Thompson. It’s updated to circa 1940s in Scotland (or could be anywhere in the dark, really).

Other fine recordings of Macbeth include the RM ARTS DVD from the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in 1997. Renato Bruson (a favorite baritone of mine) stars in the title role and the exciting Mara Zampieri is Lady Macbeth. Giuseppi Sinopli conducts. On audio I’m a big fan of Shirley Verrett, a greatly underappreciated artist, whose Lady Macbeth is captured to perfection in a DG CD recording from 1976. She’s joined by Piero Cappuccilli, Plácido Domingo, and Nicolai Ghiaurov. Claudio Abbado conducts. Real audiophiles will want the RCA/BMG CD recording of (most of) the cast of the Met’s 1959 premiere season of Macbeth, including the great Leonard Warren and my dear Leonie Rysanek, but also with Carlo Bergonzi and Jerome Hines. Erich Leinsdorf conducts. Those wanting the frisson (and flaws) of a live performance please refer to the Met broadcast performance from that season with most of the same cast, available in the boxed set of Verdi operas cited on the page Historical Recordings.

Fleming and Gunn star in the Met's  The Merry Widow

Fleming and Gunn star in the Met's The Merry Widow

The last of the Met’s four is Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, a new production at the Met in the 2014-2015 season. On a Decca DVD, it stars Renée Fleming as Hanna, the so-called Widow, Nathan Gunn as Count Danilo, Kelli O’Hara, in her Met debut, as the charming and vivacious Valencienne, the wife of the older Baron Mirko Zeta, taken by Sir Thomas Allen. Director and choreographer here, Susan Stroman is a major part of the sparkle.

Hannah Glawari is a diva role for sure. Renée Fleming soars through her two showcase airs (Vilja, of course, and the Waltzerlied (Princess Anna Elisa’s Liebe, du Himmel auf Erde from Act II of Lehár’s Paganini), which is inserted to give the final scene a little more weight and tenderness of its own. She plays the society lady, she married rich, remember, but when things get a little scrappy she finds her inner farm girl (Hannah’s that is, not Ms. Fleming’s) to give her character more depth. Danilo is expertly and handsomely handled by baritone Nathan Gunn. Vocally, the part lies well within his comfort zone, both singing and speaking. His character’s complexities shine through too.

Soprano Kelli O’Hara, in her Met debut, is, as I said above, charming and vivacious as Valencienne; Camille de Rosillon, her French suitor, is sung by Alek Shrader. Noteworthy for his comic timing and character is Carson Elrod in the speaking role of Njegus, listed as Danilo’s Assistant. He’s consistently very funny. Bravo! Sir Andrew Davis conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Another pleasant Merry Widow, on DVD released by Opus Arte, is also in English, starring British diva Yvonne Kenny as Hannah, Bo Skovhus as Danilo, Angelika Kirschschlager as Valencienne, and Gregory Turay as Camille. This Lotfi Mansouri production for the San Francisco Opera is conducted by Erich Kunzel in 2002.

But if you go for vintage recordings, best advice is the EMI 1953 Die lustige Witwe in German with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Erich Kunz, Nicolai Gedda, and Emmy Loose, conducted by Otto Ackermann. One a single CD, it’s a good deal. The dialogue is omitted.

Or to sample really historic Lehár, one of EMI’s Composers in Person discs features the man himself conducting many of his favorite singers (Tauber, Réthy, Novotná, among others) in arias and duets from his operettas. Now that’s about as close to home as one can get.

Wishing you a very happy holiday season. Good music. Will it really be near 70 degrees on Christmas Eve 2015?

But how long ago does that seem now?

Ciao, J.


Anna Netrebko stars in Iolanta

Tchaikovsky’s Иоланта on CD: it’s a good thing to come prepared to an unfamiliar opera!

OperaMetro strongly recommends Anna Netrebko’s newly released recording of Иоланта on Deutsche Grammophon CD, but also Valery Gergiev’s version on Philips, recorded in 1994, released in 1996...Okay, we’ll call it a draw: you can’t go wrong with either (or both).

Anna Netrebko stars in Tchaikovsky's  Iolanta  under Emmanuel Villaume

Anna Netrebko stars in Tchaikovsky's Iolanta under Emmanuel Villaume

 Иоланта (Iolanta), op.69, Tchaikovsky’s final opera, premiered as a double bill with the ballet Щелкунчик (Nutcracker), op. 71, both of which followed hard on the heels of the opera Пиковая Дама (Queen of Spades), op. 68, and the grand fairy tale ballet Спящая Красавица (Sleeping Beauty), op. 66, and all these just before his last symphony, the deeply moving Nr. 6 (aka Pathetique), op. 74. Though Tchaikovsky is still on the top of his game with Iolanta, sadly it is neglected. Understandable, perhaps: though there is love in Iolanta, even passion, it’s mostly gentle. You’ll hear echoes of his previous operas in the orchestration and vocal lines, but you won’t find the emotional torment that grips either Tatiana in Eugene Onegin or Lisa in Queen of Spades. Probably the main reason is that Iolanta has a happy ending in addition to being short (one act, about 90 minutes running time). But it’s not the kind of bold plot to fill an evening as can, say, an opera like Salome or Elektra, which, true, is also short but either one of these monsters leaves your poor nervous system so overwrought by the end of the evening that you can’t take another minute more.

In Iolanta each character has a solo number worthy of attention. Robert, the Duke of Burgundy, Iolanta’s husband-to-be by an arrangement at birth, extols the glories of his passion for one Mathilde, with whom he’s fallen in love as an adult. It’s a very fine aria for a baritone, certainly the equal of anything you’ll hear in Onegin or Spades (and especially in the hands of the great Dimitri Hvorostovsky on the Philips). Count Vaudémont, a Burgundian knight accompanying Robert, has a briefer solo, but his longer love duet with Iolanta is also pleasing. It and the ‘cure’ by the physician/philosopher Ibn-Hakia set the conditions for Iolanta’s escape from her blindness. The finale is a hymn of praise to God and light.

The new DG release under Emmanuel Villaume, leading the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra, is more vital, more urgent, more nuanced than the Philips. It dances, it teases sometimes, the recorded sound overall is more upfront and forward, compared to the Philips. Recordings have come a long way in two decades.

Villaume’s essay of the score is quite lyrical: he lets the voices of the orchestra sing to each other by urging and relaxing when necessary to shape the melodies. His singers are expressive, particularly the King René of Vitalij Kowaljow, the Duke Robert of Alexey Markov, and the Ibn-Hakia of Lucas Meachem. Meachem’s voice conveys a gentle, eternal wisdom far beyond his years. Elegantly soothing, actually.

As they should be, all ears will be on Anna Netrebko, whose recent performances at the Met and around the world signal for her a change of fach. No more Adina or Gilda: bring on Lady Macbeth, Leonora, or Giovanna d’Arco! No more Lyudmila or Louisa (Betrothal in a Monastery) or Natalya Rostova (War and Peace): bring on Tatiana, and now Iolanta! Netrebko’s career has reached that point where her voice has more bottom, more strength, and therefore more volume, but without too much of a loss of the top, if losing some flexibility. The role of Iolanta fits her new sound quite well. Netrebko communicates Iolanta’s big moments in love and in her final discovery of vision and the world of light as well as in her more child-like moments at the opera’s beginning and her tentative meeting with Vaudémont. She often speaks to me like her character, not like an opera singer playing a character. There are some signs of strain, too much of a push at some of the big moments, but on the whole Netrebko is successful, much more so here than on her recent DG release of Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco earlier this past fall. Iolanta's new beau here is Sergey Skorokhodov as Count Vaudémont, whose bright, expressive voice is a worthy match for her in the big duet. The more I listen to this recording, the more I like it.   

The Gergiev Iolanta has a stellar cast drawn from the pool of artists at the Mariinski Theater in St. Petersburg, but they also sing often at the Met. Galina Gorchakova sings the title role, Sergei Alexashkin is King René, Dimitri Hvorostovsky is Robert, Gegam Grigorian is Vaudémont, Nikolai Putilin is Ibn-Hakia, and Larissa Diadkova is Martha. These singers freely populate the many excellent recordings of the Russian repertory released by Philips during the 90s and later.

If there are drawbacks to this Philips recording it’s the more recessed sound field and the mannered beauty of it all. Gergiev, who conducts the premiere production of Iolanta at the Met this winter (2015), leads a well-paced, detailed reading of Tchaikovsky’s score that, compared to the new DG release, is more measured. Gorchakova’s creamy soprano sails over the orchestra without appreciable strain. Hers is a relatively big voice (she also recorded Verdi’s Leonora in the original St. Petersburg La Forza del Destino for Philips and, as Tatiana, premiered the previous production of Eugene Onegin at the Met). Grigorian’s voice, though on the nasal side, is winningly sweet; Hvorostovsky is a pleasure to listen to throughout. The more I listen to this recording, the more I like it.

I know I'm not really being much help here. Call it a draw. How many recordings of Iolanta can one have?

I know the old Melodiya Iolanta starring Tamara Sorokina, Vladimir Atlantov, Yuri Mazurok, and Yevgeny Nesterenko, conducted by Mark Ermler is available on CD. This too is a compelling performance, but my LPs are just fine. In the spring of 1982 Rostropovich conducted his wife Galina Vishnevskaya in Iolanta in concert @ Carnegie Hall with Nicolai Gedda and Benjamin Luxon. It was my first exposure to the opera. Their recording was originally released on Erato as I recall. A few other recordings of Iolanta are floating around. How much room on your shelf is there?

As discovering a new opera goes, Iolanta is a diamond in the rough, especially for Tchaikovsky fans. Enjoy!


San Francisco Show Boat on DVD

Jerome Kern’s Show Boat by the San Francisco Opera

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Show Boat.

Well addressing that soft spot is the San Francisco Opera’s 2014 gala production of this classic piece of Americana. OperaMetro strongly votes for the DVD release on, somewhat paradoxically, two EuroArts DVDs. Photos from this to follow below.

It’s a soft spot because Show Boat, along with My Fair LadySouth PacificOklahoma and the like, was my introduction to classical American musical theater. All on LP back then, though sometimes on film. I was too young for Broadway. These were followed soon after on our trusty old turntable by classical British musical theater, in the form of Pirates of Penzance and Mikado, our first Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and, only a little later, by classical Viennese operettas such as Fledermaus and The Merry Widow (my Mother’s doing) and Götterdämmerung (on your own now kid!) which, specifically the last mentioned, though not exactly of the same genre as Show Boat or even Fledermaus, was nonetheless part of my musical growth. Phenomenal points of entry, remember?

It would be a long time before I realized just how far down the river of time Show Boat was in our musical history. As I had just logged but one and a half myself, it’s not surprising that I was as yet still inattentive to the changing musical styles over the decades of recorded music. I didn’t have the chronology of it all. At what point does a kid really grasp time and history?

After all, the sound of the Show Boat record we had and the singers on it (Robert Merrill and Patrice Munsel, as I recall, maybe even Risë Stevens) were from ‘today’ as far as I was concerned, not from the past. Nor was I aware of the deeper, uglier, more sorrowful social issues touched on in Show Boat. That old LP had all the greatest hits but only a sketchy synopsis.

Sure the 1936 black and white film of Show Boat with Irene Dunne, Allen Jones, Helen Morgan, and Paul Robeson looked and sounded dated, especially on our old TV. The splashy MGM color remake from 1951 with Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, and Ava Gardiner looked better, especially in a real movie theater, but, again, these didn’t suggest the age of the actual show nor really dig into the issues.

John McGlinn’s tour-de-force EMI/Angel three CD album of everything you ever wanted to know about Show Boat (but were afraid to ask… three and a half hours of music, the actually complete complete show (not a typo) plus ample addenda of discards and add-ons) opened my eyes to the breadth and complexity of this musical landmark (and more). It literally took my breath away. So did our first Show Boat live on a stage: the Hal Prince/Susan Stroman production on Broadway in October, 1994. My review for a newspaper (here unnamed) was hugely positive.

Heidi Stober as Magnolia Hawks and Michael Todd Simpson as Ravenal

Heidi Stober as Magnolia Hawks and Michael Todd Simpson as Ravenal

So now, twenty years later, we have a Francesca Zambello/Michele Lynch production of Show Boat for San Francisco, with sets designed by Peter J. Davison and with the SFO orchestra and chorus conducted by John DeMain.

How does it stack up to my remembrance of things past?

The structural flaws of Show Boat are evident when the whole thing is laid out on the stage in front of you, as was for me in ’94 or here today on the DVD. Marvelous and enticing as albums of the hit tunes can be, for the music and lyrics are wonderful, they miss the rather obvious dilemma Jerome and Oscar faced: the first quite long half of the story is about ‘true’ love and Magnolia’s artistic awakening; the second shorter half is a patchwork of songs and numbers strung together to extend the act and mark passing time, followed, in the show, by a Broadway feel-good reconciliation between Gay and Magnolia and daughter Kim. In fact, this ending is not in Edna Ferber’s famous 1926 novel by the same title, the source of the show in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about good music and the reconciliation between loved ones, so this is not a complaint. I weep at these things…the first half of Show Boat, nearly as long as all of Puccini’s happily ending Turandot, is well constructed, but the second half is just patched together and, a little performance history here, would be continually added to and subtracted from on stage and in films over the ensuing years. For better or worse, the 1936 film has a bunch of new songs that are not in the original score.

The San Francisco Opera production deals with the content admirably and creatively, as did the ’94 Broadway production. For one thing, Magnolia’s daughter Kim shines here, though not as much as Kern would write for her character in later versions of the show. In the ’36 film Kim has a lot of starlet performing; here at the SFO’s dock she is merely grown up and back on the show boat with Nola. Her name, incidentally, is not short for ‘Kimberly,’ but rather she was acronymically named for the spot on the river where she was born: the Ohio River meets the Mississippi River, bordered by the states Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. As Kim says in the book, “Imagine Mississippi Ravenal!...I mean, an actress named Sippy? It sounds half-witted, for some reason. Kim’s bad enough, God knows.”

Heidi Stober shines as Magnolia Hawks, growing from a happy, girlish, relatively pampered and maternally protected daughter on her father’s show boat, the Cotton Blossom, into, by necessity, a confident, successful performer who is also a single parent with a broken heart. For all of Gaylord Ravenal’s sweet love talking, he never seemed to translate his marriage vows into a steady income. A ‘wastrel’ is what his not-so-doting mother-in-law calls him. For all that, Michael Todd Simpson makes a smooth and dashing Ravenal. Both he and she sing together well: their duet “You are love" is heavenly, just as suave as the very best duets from the Viennese operetta repertory.

The comic couple (most operettas have a comic couple to offset the ‘noble’ lovers) is Ellie Mae Chipley, sung by Kirsten Wyatt, and Frank Schultz, sung by John Bolton. They play it for genuine laughs, but know when to play it seriously when Nola needs them in Act II.

Julie La Verne, sung here by Metropolitan Opera soprano Patricia Racette, gets two of the show’s hit songs, “Can’t help lovin’ dat man” and “Bill,” and also provides emotional depth to the story. Racette is soulful and sad, but always supportive of her ‘kid sister’ Nola.

Morris Robinson is a resonate Joe. His “Ol’ man river” brings down the house; the song serves, as does the metaphoric river, to mark the passage of time. Whereas Act I takes place in 1887 on the river, Act II sprints into the 1920’s. The river don’t change, nor does Joe. Angela Renée Simpson is an exuberant Queenie, doing her thing in Act I, as well as getting an added solo in Act II.

Bill Irwin provides slick laughs as Cap’n Andy Hawks and Harriet Harris is a fearsome Parthy Hawks. They play off each other as if they were really married that long.

John DeMain’s conception of Kern’s marvelous score is more measured, compared to the more upbeat reading by conductor Jeffrey Huard for the Hal Prince production in ’94. DeMain moves it along at the pleasing, gentle, steady pace one imagines life was like back then, giving life and exuberance to the dance numbers as needed.

(No, my memory of the ’94 show is not that good…I’ve come to think of my Broadway cast CD recording as an external memory aid here.)

Set Designer Peter J. Davison solves the problem of frequent scene changes with a large segmented postered wall that comes and goes across the stage. The two story show boat itself functions as both an exterior and interior for the action.

Francesca Zambello doesn’t back away from the social issues, any more than Oscar Hammerstein II did, but neither does she (nor he, for that matter) let the issues change the overall mood of the musical. It’s ‘one big happy family,’ as Cap’n Andy is fond of saying, when in real life it wasn’t so happy for a lot of American citizens. The river don’t change much.

So sample the San Francisco Opera’s Show Boat on EuroArts DVD (a second DVD consists of bonus interviews with the cast members, etc.). It is a solid recreation of America’s greatest Broadway musical.

SFO Show Boat photo: Cory Weaver

If the SFO Show Boat sparks your further research into the show, seek first of all John McGlinn’s reconstruction of the original production on 3 EMI/Angel CDs with Frederica von Stade, Jerry Hadley, Teresa Stratas and Bruce Hubbard; for in-depth documentation about the Ferber novel, the original Broadway production, the major revivals, and the films (which are available on DVD), seek Miles Krueger’s Show Boat: The Story of a Classical American Musical, published by Da Capo Press, New York, 1977. Or read the original Edna Ferber novel Show Boat; my edition is a recreation of the original publication by Doubleday Page & Co. in 1926.

Show Boat it is, Götterdämmerung it ain’t. Thank goodness! One can’t dance about in the kitchen to or hum the tunes, such as they are, from Götterdämmerung. Each genre in its proper place, right? Come to think of it, there's a river in...

Drift along with your fancy. Enjoy. J

Wagner's Parsifal on DVD

Wagner’s ultimate masterpiece: Parsifal on DVD

Three more or less recent DVD releases of Wagner’s Parsifal honor the 200th anniversary of the Master’s birth.

I know that moment has passed. So therefore take this review of Parsifal to honor of his 202nd anniversary. And even that day has passed…but today is my dear William Butler’s merry unbirthday: he’s 3½.

OperaMetro strongly recommends the Sony Classical Blu ray DVD of Parsifal, which is the Metropolitan Opera’s 2013 matinee HD telecast, recorded live from the stage that spring when it was new. I reviewed it at the Met and we also saw it in HD. Though not without its flaws, this production, conceived by François Girard with sets by Michael Levine, is deeply affecting, as a great Parsifal performance should be.

But hold your horse, Pancho: the Deutsche Grammophon DVD of the Met’s Otto Schenk, Günther Schneider-Siemssen, Rolf Langenfass production of Parsifal, taped and telecast in 1992, is an equally strong contender. It is musically superb and deeply affecting, but even more so because this crew follows Wagner’s scenic and dramatic requirements fairly closely. In fact I’d go so far as to say unequivocally that this 1992 Met Parsifal is probably the best bet as a first plunge into Wagner’s unique music drama. For that matter, one’s first dip into the magic of Wagner’s Ring should be the Met’s production by the same team, also on DG DVDs. It too sports a first rate cast, under the baton of James Levine. The Ring was recorded at the Met over two seasons, Die Walküre in spring of 1989 and the other three in the spring of 1990. Both of these sets really should be remastered, enhanced and released on Blu ray by now. But I digress.

Jonas Kaufmann in the Met's 2013  Parsifal

Jonas Kaufmann in the Met's 2013 Parsifal

The strength of the Met’s 2013 Parsifal lies in the performances on stage and in the pit. The musical aspects are simply overwhelming: Daniele Gatti’s reading of Wagner’s magnificent score, the intensity of his concentration, the playing of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the soloists, and the contributions of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, all are superb. The sheer sound of the orchestral transformation from Scene I to Scene II of Act III made one shudder deeply and lingered as a sonic aura with me for weeks after the HD telecast.

My read on François Girard’s conception is that an androgynous urwelt, in which men and women freely co-mingle and are equal, is, for some reason one can only guess, artificially split into factions. This happens during the Prelude. True to the sexual restrictions pervasive in conservative religious sects, the women remain cast off in the dark to the left while the men, the faithful, shed their dark jackets to reveal white shirts, thus showing their obedience to conformity, their rationality (light over dark), perhaps also their ‘purity.’ The women will remain segregated by a jagged fissure across the stage which becomes more blood red and widens gradually as the Act progresses. The men, now ‘safe,’ hunker down in a tight worship circle, rather like covered wagons under attack; empty rituals render them oblivious to the threatening clouds. Gurnemanz, sans the hermit robes, emerges from this circle to recount the immediate history of the troubles; Kundry blows in as more dark clouds scud across the back drop; an anguished Amfortas lurches forward in real pain. And then Parsifal, a pure but shy fool enters. The first half of Act I is both moving and troubling.

But while the performance keeps rolling along musically and dramatically, Michael Levine’s sets, to my eye, ignore much of the magic explicit in the score and Wagner’s stage directions: the transformation from the forest (What forest? Looks like a mudflat.) to the Temple of the Holy Grail (What temple? Still looks like a mudflat.) is a scenic non-event, save a change from the interesting clouds to a relatively uninteresting backdrop. Wagner’s carefully crafted orchestral and scenic moment is missed. Weak, Michael, very weak.

Worse, there is no Good Friday Zauber on stage and no scenic transformation to a final scene of Act III. The Met’s 2013 production begins the Act with open graves in the mudflat; in Parsifal’s absence the order is dying; there is death in the air: you can almost smell it. Effective enough, this certainly fits the mood of the beginning of the scene. Parsifal begins the redemption of the order by bringing Kundry across the fissure that separated the women from the men. It is an important dramatic touch.

But the Good Friday Spell should confirm musically, dramatically, AND scenically that Parsifal, who has recovered the sacred spear, will indeed follow through, as prophesized, to save all from extinction. He is ‘crowned’ by Gurnemanz; his feet are cleansed by Kundry; the air of life now is everywhere around them: the spring sunlight, grass, the flowers in bloom, causing Parsifal to comment, Wie dünkt mich doch die Aue heut so schön. Which means it’s glowingly beautiful, as is the music.

Wagner didn’t write page upon page about the idea of a Gesamtkunstwerk* just to practice his penmanship (and from the number of pages he wrote out by hand, I’ll bet he got quite good at it). Either way, apparently Michael Levine did not read them. One doesn’t have to be synesthetic to sense that even the basic color scheme of the scene in Act III of the Met’s 2013 Parsifal is all wrong for the music. More like Wie dünkt mich doch der Schlamm heut so schön. Which means it’s a mudflat.

The Good Friday scene was my phenomenal point of entry** for Parsifal, the point at which the music first entered my psyche in a deep way, so to drop this ball is a major fumble, certainly for me. Want to see it done right? Go directly to the Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen production of Parsifal at the Met, telecast in 1992. More on this below.

Like many operas, Parsifal is one of those “problem stated in Act I, struggle in Act II, resolution in Act III” kind of stories. Let’s cut to the struggle: Act II of the 2013 Met Parsifal is just bloody. Bright red everywhere. The Flower Maidens splash around on a floor inches deep in ‘blood,’ so their white gowns get trimmed with red stain. The set for this Act shows dark rock walls forming a V which, without too much of an interpretive stretch, mirrors a mother’s legs in stirrups with a view from within the vaginal canal looking out through a wall of blood into a delivery room, as if Parsifal’s exit from the Act is his rebirth into the world about to be reshaped by his recently gained wisdom, he having just rejected the advances of that miserable slut Kundry and retrieved the Holy Spear, not to say ‘caught,’ as in Wagner’s stage directions, because the flower girls just more or less pass it to him in this production, replying to his request that they do so by saying "Yes. And take it with you."

Perhaps I’m reading too much into Act II.

Happily there are considerable musical and dramatic coups in the Met’s 2013 production to make it competitive: Daniele Gatti is mesmerizing in the pit; the cast sports the excellent Jonas Kaufmann is an introspective, very soulful Parsifal; the excellent René Pape is a younger, more virile Gurnemanz; Peter Mattei is a superbly tortured Amfortas; Katarina Dalayman is a straight forwardly anguished Kundry. These are exceptional performances, all told.

Placido Domingo and Jessye Norman in the Met's Otto Schenk  Parsifal

Placido Domingo and Jessye Norman in the Met's Otto Schenk Parsifal

I need not go into too much detail about the Met’s previous Parsifal. This production premiered in 1991 with Placido Domingo and Jessye Norman and continued to run for over two decades. Most likely my local Wagner fans have seen it in the house or on PBS. The cast from the 1992 telecast, now on DG DVD, stars the intelligent and solid Siegfried Jerusalem in the title role. In retrospect, he pretty much makes the best out of everything he does. Waltraud Meier is a justly celebrated Kundry (and Isolde, Fricka, Venus, Waltraute…the list goes on). Kurt Moll and Bernd Weikl are also excellent in the lower voices. Franz Mazura is maligned Klingsor. It is movingly, elegantly and traditionally staged; Parsifal actually ‘catches’ the spear; the Good Friday scene is magical; James Levine and the Met Orchestra clearly connect with this opera.

The two other DVD releases of Parsifal discussed below are certainly competitive, musically speaking, but each, more often than not, is on the side of “odd” scenically, even absurd, and confusing or just aimless dramatically.

The Romeo Castellucci production at La Monnaie De Munt, filmed in 2011 and available on 2 BelAir DVDs, is, well, interesting. It’s quite good musically under the sure hand of Hartmut Haenchen, as was his complete Ring from the same theater in previous years. He has a knack for articulating inner voices in the orchestra and giving it drive. The singers are engaging: this performance will serve as a very listenable soundtrack.

Romeo Castellucci's  Parsifal

Romeo Castellucci's Parsifal

But as a film to be watched, Castellucci’s images and ideas may give one pause: for starters, there’s a large yellow snake writhing around on a hook during the prelude to Act I. Could be the Serpent from the Garden of Eden…or maybe just a slimy old yellow snake, who knows? Warning for ophidiophobics: the snake shows up again, though still not as a singing part.

The first act takes place in a very very deep forest, so deep in fact that ‘very dark’ is the phrase you’re looking for. Very dark, as in ‘black screen’ very dark. You’ll think your screen died. Could be the ‘darkness of ignorance?’ Or like before Adam and Eve attained the knowledge of Good and Evil? I don’t know. Regardless, often it’s not much to look at. Occasionally daylight breaks through in the background. The trees move (mimes in forest garb, at immense cost both in costume and personnel) and even Gurnemanz (Jan-Hendrick Rootering) is covered in leaves. Kundry (Anna Larsson) is not particularly sensual, though agreeable in voice; Parsifal (Andrew Richards) is a reasonably well trimmed preppy who just wanders in. The swan he supposedly killed has been dead for years it seems.

The brush clears for the big transformation scene in Act I. In odd places there are titles about poisonous substances and political graffiti on the powdery backdrop in Act II. Klingsor stands on a podium and ‘conducts’ the orchestra. Bizarre yes, but why not? He’s a strange fellow after all.

However, things get pretty quickly R-rated in Castellucci’s Parsifal when the flower babes appear in Act II. As an aside to the plot: Parsifal, pure fool that he is, can keep his virginity is safe as long as he stays in the Forest around the Temple of the Holy Grail. His mother warned him about the dangers of battle, but seems to have gone mute on the dangers of designing women. Alas, in the second Act, he wanders into the Tiefland of corruption, temptation, the evil castrato Klingsor (in body, obviously not in voice…we know this from the text) and (gasp!) NAKED WOMEN.

The Flower Maiden scene in any Parsifal begs for seductresses. It was already seductive musically at its premiere at Bayreuth in 1882; in fact, Kundry is arguably the most seductive of Wagner’s women. We’d be shocked by a Tannhäuser in which Elisabeth or Elsa in Lohengrin does things Kundry has ample room to do in her stage directions. Like run around the garden stark naked. Room for it in theory; however, fear not, no Kundry does this in any production here discussed.

In the Met’s 1992 Flower Maiden scene the girls move around and writhe a bit, the pretty ballerinas up front, older chorus regulars more in the background, all relatively clothed; in the Met’s 2013 Flower Maiden scene the Maidens wear long ballet skirts, like from a production of Act II of Giselle, but they too stayed fully clothed.

Not so @ la Monnaie 2011: nothing like a few powdered semi naked women to change the temperature of this act! Four quick points here: 1. Kundry, who, as scripted, is the chief seductress of the lot after all, will remain fully clothed and stoic while the powdered semi naked flower maidens, dancers all, pose and contort themselves about the stage. They don't get too naughty with our hero, however; 2. there is a projected sequence which shows Parsifal acting out a wild physical fantasy with Kundry. This fantasy apparently lurks in his unconscious beneath that suave, relatively stoic stance of his. It’s a nice effect, quite interesting conceptually, actually welcome, since most Parsifal/Kundry seduction duets are never raw; 3. Parsifal here doesn’t catch the spear. Actually there is no spear. But rather he breaks Klingor’s magic by releasing a powdered semi naked woman who, for most of the Act, has been tightly bound in rope and suspended about five feet above the stage in a contorted position that practically stopped my circulation, let alone hers. Bet she was glad this was the shorter second Act, not the much longer first Act and that Parsifal had paid attention during his scout training about knots.

And then 4. whereas the Met’s 2013 Act II alludes scenically to a vagina, and at that it's just my interpretative slant, the Monnaie production has a real one right there center stage (complete, of course, with its powdered naked owner lying supine on a white pedestal). Right there. Which means this Parsifal should be rated X and your youngsters should not see it unless accompanied by a parent.

The Good Friday Spell here is also disappointing scenically. In sum, there are many disjointed images to sort through in this Romeo Castellucci production. If the conceptual formula for their sum isn’t obvious at first acquaintance at least the images are thought provoking and it may come together later.

Conductor Christian Thielemann is the chief draw for the last Parsifal production here discussed, but his cast also contributes much toward the total sound picture. Performed at the 2013 Salzburg Easter Festival and released by DG on Blu ray, Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden give a glowing rendition of Wagner’s magnificent score, even more so in its enhanced sonic format. Reigning Wagnerian heldentenor Johan Botha is clean and shining in tone, the role of Parsifal fitting him vocally like a glove. Michaela Schuster is a solid Kundry; Stephen Milling is Gurnemanz; Wolfgang Koch does a sort of Jekyll/Hyde thing of being Amfortas yet singing the music of Klingsor, as if Amfortas were under Klingsor’s spell.

The production was conceived by Michael Schule, with sets and costumes by Alexander Polzin. Act I is a clean shiny space with clear plastic tubes as trees. The characters wear dirty white garb, save Parsifal whose dinner jacket has a sort of peacock green camouflage look to it, which, when you think of it, is really counterproductive when the trees have clear plastic tubes for trunks and no leaves to speak of. Plus, he’s a big guy. For reasons unknown he has a gaggle of young men following him. Occasionally, wandering through the same forest, we see a bare chested Christ figure wearing a crown of thorns, perhaps to remind us that Christ is everywhere and also to put an image on stage to the allusion in Act II that Kundry in one of her incarnations was present at his Crucifixion. Also the Easter Festival at Salzburg.

Act II shows a platform with statues and the heads of statues. Klingsor, one gathers, is actually the height-challenged individual, mimed by Rüdiger Frank, silently dishing out magical commands to Amfortas(?) and Kundry. Or is this Amfortas character Klingsor’s nameless field commander? Does it matter that the same singer sang Amfortas in Act I…can’t figure it out.

In general the Flower Maidens here are comely, particularly the front row who are attractive, fully clothed, if looking a bit like sorority co-eds or baton twirlers in a parade. They’re captivating enough to interrupt the young men (with Parsifal) as they, the men, inspect the statues. Klingsor watches it all from above, like the ‘brain’ of a large sculpted head. There is a spear, but Parsifal just takes it out of Kundry’s hand. I won’t waste space discussing the Good Friday Spell: it’s bright, it’s white, it’s plastic…bottom line, there’s no magic to this production. Nice sound track.

Stick with those recommended. You won’t be disappointed with either video from the Met. Truth is, the musical and dramatic aspects of the Met's Parsifal from 2013 on Sony Classical Blu ray are so huge you'll ignore the scenic issues by the third viewing.

Gesamtkunstwerk is a big concept, not just a big German word. Literally translated as 'complete work of art,' Wagner uses it to describe the music drama, which is the end product of the creative process. In his mind, a music drama has to be more than just an opera in which singers on stage pour out the vocal lines over the music written by the composer to a text supplied by the librettist. Beneath all of these surface manifestations must lie the drama, which originates from the deeper regions of the creative mind; all aural and visible aspects merely serve to communicate that drama from its creator to a receptive audience. Easy for him to say because he wrote his own texts, but he also followed through by writing his own music and (so the story goes) seeing to every aspect of the staged production, including sets and their color scheme, lighting, the costumes, the positioning on stage of the singers, their gestures, expressions, and all other forms of body language, and so on. It has to be complete. The Festspielhaus at Bayreuth, built according to his wishes, was structured so as to enhance one's focus on the drama and remove all distractions; the timing of a performance at Bayreuth was such that audiences had ample opportunity to rest and relax in between the long acts, so as not to tire. It's a big concept.

** More on the concept of phenomenal points of entry can be found at the top of the page Addenda. And below that will be more on the concept. Not yet though.

Enjoy Parsifal. It is possibly one of the greater musical experiences in the repertory.