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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 3 November 2005

Donizetti: Pia de’ Tolomei
Patrizia Ciofi (Pia); Laura Polverelli (Rodrigo); Clara Polito (Bice); Dario Schmunck (Ghino); Andrew Schroeder (Nello); Caniel Borowski (Piero); Francesco Meli (Ubaldo); Carlo Cigni (Lamberto); Luca Favaron (Jailer)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro la Fenice di Venezia
Paolo Arrivabeni,conductor
Christian Gagneron, stage director
Tiziano Mancini, film director
Dynamic 33488 (2 High Definition DVDs; also available audio only, 2 CDs, Dynamic CDs 488/1-2)

Pia de’ Tolomei has until recently not been taken seriously by Donizetti scholars, but a forthcoming recording from Opera Rara will include all the variants and various versions (at least three). The DVD of a production from Venice uses material from the new critical edition and at last allows us to hear what various early audiences encountered. Donizetti was not happy that a musico had to be accommodated with two big arias that are extraneous to the plot, thereby attenuating the concision at which the composer was aiming at this point in his career (1837). This Venice performance has much to offer, from an affecting Patrizia Ciofi in the title role who easily encompasses the demands placed on the creator of the part, Fanny Tacchinardi-Persiani, who was also the first Lucia. Laura Polverelli’s mezzo is always balm to the ear. Dario Schmunck, a name new to me, is yet another South American tenor whose forthright tones ring true, his death scene quite moving. Andrew Schroeder’s solid baritone goes from hectoring bully to remorseful husband with no strain. Paolo Arrivabeni and the Venice forces are another positive element, but the rudimentary staging of Christian Gagneron in Thierry Leproust’s rather basic sets are offset by the luxurious costumes for the women by Claude Masson.


 Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier
Nina Stemme (Marschallin); Malin Hartelius (Sophie); Vesselina Kasarova (Oktavian), Alfred Muff (Ochs); Rolf Haunstein (Faninal); Boiko Zvetanov (Italian Singer); Liuba Chuchrova (Marianne); Brigitte Pinter (Annina); Rudolf Schasching (Valzacchi); Volker Vogel (Innkeeper); Günther Groissböck (Police Commissioner)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Zürich Opera
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Sven-Erik Bechtolf, stage director
Chloë Perlemuter, film director
DVD EMI 7243 5 44258 9 9 (2 DVDs)

Zürich’s anti-Rosenkavalier is in fact an indication of how so many operas go wrong today. A designer who thinks that institutional grey with oriental touches offers a suitable background to appropriate period costuming for the principals, with a director who appears to be completely ignorant of customs indicating social status, are among the elements contributing to our total discomfiture. Would the Marschallin really sleep on the floor, even in her pseudo-Japanese bedroom? Would Octavian’s first encounter with Sophie take place in the Faninal kitchen? Should Oktavian’s entrance for the presentation of the silver rose be so upstaged? Not to mention that the very end of the opera with the reappearance of Mahomet is tacky beyond words. But Sven-Erik Bechtolf has piled on the stagey, melodramatic, glitzy touches throughout the closing scenes of the opera. I certainly would have thought that the Zürich Opera had sufficient funds at its disposal that Ralph Glittenburg might have designed a separate set for Act 3 rather than reusing the Marschallin’s bedroom. And then there are the subtitles that need to be changed as the words are ignored by designer and director. And more’s the pity as musically the performance is excellent, with Nina Stemme totally at home as the Marschallin – let us only hope that she restricts her Isoldes so that she can keep on singing the jugendlich repertoire. Vesselina Kasarova’s Oktavian may be a bit feminine in appearance but her darkish mezzo offers a strong contrast to the charming Sophie of Malin Hartelius. Alfred Muff is a typically boorish Ochs but this production encourages that behavior. Franz Welser-Möst’s loving yet respectful way with the score should have served as an example for those chosen to present the visual elements.


Stravinsky: Le Rossignol
Natalie Dessay (Nightingale); Hugo Simcic (Child); Marie McLaughlin (Cook), Violeta Urmana (Death); Vsevolod Grivnov (Fisherman); Albert Schagidullin (Emperor); Laurent Naouri (Chamaberlain); Maxime Mikhailov (Bonze)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris
James Conlon, conductor
Christian Chaudet, director
DVD Virgin 7243 5 44242 9 8


Take a film-maker, Christian Chaudet, enamored of a 1999 recording of Stravinsky’s Nightingale, who a few years later assembles the cast to participate in a film in which they share the screen with all sorts of animated figures, and give the extremely photogenic Natalie Dessay a leading role, and you have a total success on your hands. The work is presented as a child’s dream, and the mélange of people and animation works extremely well, from the instruments without players to the plates and fans that come alive. The original recording was well received upon its release and retains its interest today. Chaudet’s use of all the new technology available is explained in one of several bonuses.


Verdi: Il Corsaro
Adriana Damato (Gulnara); Michela Sburlati (Medora); Zvetan Michailov (Corrado); Renato Bruson (Seid); Arturo Gauli (Giovanni); Gianluca Floris (Selimo); Marcello Puente (Eunuco/Slave)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio di Parma
Renato Palumbo, conductor
Lamberto Puggelli, stage director
Marco Scalfi, film director
Dynamic DVD 33468

Il Corsaro has never been highly rated in the Verdian canon,  nor will viewers be convinced otherwise by this wonderfully old-fashioned production that nonetheless will allow us to find out for ourselves that the composer’s melodic gift was intact but that the libretto did not really inspire him to the heights of some of the works that were written before and after, e.g. Macbeth or La Battaglia de Legnano. A cast of mostly young singers tackles the work fearlessly but one can only wonder what the 70-year-old Renato Bruson is doing in the midst of all this youth, his voice full of wobbles and not sounding particularly fresh, however impressive he remains as a villain. Zvetan Michailov’s pirate is suitably energetic, while Michela Sburlati’s Medora is especially touching in her death scene. Adriana Damato’s strongly voiced Gulnara contrasts well with her colleague in the final trio, the top notes ringing, the chest notes not overdone, but the costume designer might have been more considerate as her harem outfit exposes a slightly too ample tummy (a positive point perhaps in harem circles). Renato Palumbo goes from strength to strength in this performance from Parma’s 2004 Verdi Festival, and we can only welcome Dynamic’s efforts to record and release (audio in the early years and now also DVD) so many neglected works.


Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Petra-Maria Schnitzer (Eva); Brigitte Pinter (Magdalena); Peter Seiffert (Walter); Christoph Strehl (David); José van Dam (Hans Sachs); Matti Salminen (Pogner); Michael Volle (Beckmesser); Rolf Haunstein (Kothner); and Martin Zysset, Cheyne Davidson, Volker Vogel; Andreas Winkler, Bogus³aw Bidziñski, Giuseppe Scorsin, Guido Götzen, Reinhard Mayr, Günther Groissböck
Orchestra and Chorus of the Zürich Opera
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Nikolaus Lehnhoff, stage director
Andy Sommer, film director
DVD EMI 7243 5 99736 9 2 (2 DVDs)

It is amazing how many production tactics rapidly become clichés: Nikolaus Lehnhoff and his designers (Ronald Aeschlimann for sets and Moidele Bickele for costumes) propose a 16th century Act 1, 19th century Act 2 and early 20th century last act, thereby imposing visual confusion on Lehnhoff’s clearly presented view of the action. Moreover, 20th century facial hair on the men allowed for contemporary individuality but certainly did not assist the designers’ conceit. One might also question allowing the alto apprentices (of which there were none in the 16th century) to appear in female outfits, when part of the Wagnerian charm is using the higher voice to characterize young adolescent boys. Franz Welser-Möst’s amatory reaction to the music is echoed by the fashion in which he is filmed during the preludes. One wonders why we had to sit through a dinner with the principals while the Act 1 prelude was heard, but it must be admitted that the performance as a whole is excellent if not always compelling. José van Dam’s Sachs is most sympathetic and he still has sufficient power for the climactic moments. Matti Salminen’s Pogner is stolid in bearing but solid vocally, just as he should be. Michael Volle’s Beckmesser and Rolf Haunstein’s Kothner never go over the top. Peter Seiffert’s insistence on retaining his moustache – not to mention his graying hair – detract from the youthful image he should be conveying as Walther (vocally he is outstanding), while Christoph Strehl’s David seemed interchangeable with Albert Herring. Petra-Maria Schnitzer’s Eva lacks the warmth and charm we associate with the role. More traditional versions may also be found on other DVDs, but this remains noteworthy for the strength of its male casting and its conductor. 

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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