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Shadows on the silver screen

Strange as it is to encounter two such disparate works presented with the identical production concept, it’s odder still that the opera you’d think would be the slam dunk is anything but. Two new Blu-ray discs, Puccini’s La fanciulla del West from the Royal Swedish Opera and the Rossini Festival’s production of Ciro in Babilonia both pay homage to the silent era of the silver screen.

Director Christoph Loy is at the helm in Stockholm and after his magnificent “recording session” Frau Ohne Schatten for Salzburg I was eager to see all the new ideas he would bring to Puccini’s horse opera. He didn’t bring nearly enough: in an opera that hardly lets a single measure pass by without some detailed stage direction Loy lets his singers stand around doing a lot of nothing most of the evening.

The production starts so very promisingly with a filmed credit sequence timed to Puccini’s introduction and we have our Minnie, Nina Stemme, riding the range with titles flashing à la John Ford’s Stagecoach Then she literally bursts through the screen and into the theater, guns blazing… but there the excitement ends. The Polka Saloon turns out to be nothing more than a vast wall of drab, Scandinavian planks. Oh sure, the bar top folds out and doors swing in but it’s just timber. A tiny room stage right shows Stemme making up at a mirror awaiting the carefully unrehearsed entrance Puccini has planned for her.

I anticipated the whole Singin’ in the Rain brouhaha: soundstage backdrops, clapperboards, klieg lights, wind machines, prop men and cardboard boxes full of laundry detergent passing for snowflakes. Alas, the whole presentation is a missed bet. What we do get is a black and white makeup plot for the cast with extra harsh, full frontal lighting which is especially unbecoming to our soprano.

Also, the camp minstrel Jake Wallace is done up as Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp replete with bowler. From time to time, and for no apparent reason, live video is projected onto the planked background in black and white, like a silent movie, but since our cast is so under directed none of the moments are dramatically telling. I say “Ugh,” in the words no one in this production, I suppose owing to political correctness..

John Lundgren is an uncommonly young and good looking Jack Rance, a nice change from the played-out AARP members we usually get in the part. What he could have learned from those aforementioned oldsters was a bit of technical savvy when it comes to parlando. Puccini’s writing is so conversational in general and in Fanciulla for Rance in particular, but Lundgren sings nearly everything absolutely straight to the notes on the page. On the other hand, it’s a gorgeous Verdian baritone and he looks great in a cowboy hat.

The role of Minnie is often referred to as “Puccini’s Brunnhilde,” so having a real daughter of Wotan in the part isn’t a stretch. Vocally the role doesn’t seem a good fit for Stemme and her unfortunately harsh makeup and brassy costumes give her a hard look—more Lotte Lenya than Jeanette MacDonald—that plays against the naiveté of her character. She takes some time to warm up and the high C in “Laggiu nel Soledad” sounds so snatched it’s almost like she brought it in her purse from home. She’s really only firm at lower volumes until the middle of the evening. Loy has her end Act I literally racked with sobs, going on and on until the curtain fall, completely ruining the bittersweet ending Puccini has. Perhaps he did this to juxtapose the Act II finale when he has her laughing maniacally like Ortrud.

On the other hand, Aleksandrs Antonenko as Dick Johnson exhibits some of the most gorgeous ringing tenor tone I’ve heard in quite some time. This role fits him like a glove and he even bridges the two climactic phrases in “Or son sei mesi”—something I’ve heard Domingo attempt only once. Yes, he appears casual, almost dull at times dramatically but his technique is so relaxed and secure I hardly noticed. A gorgeous “Ch’ella mi creda” caps this very accomplished performance.

The supporting cast is generally good but I wish they had a stronger leader than Pier Giorgio Morandi in the pit. Although he coaxes warm, beautiful, playing from the Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra his tempi at times are tentative with a slow Act I poker game, and he misses a lot of the shade and shadow in Puccini’s uncommonly rich orchestrations.

My Blu-ray picture was super sharp and crisp and the DTS HD Master 5.1 Audio made it feel like I was there in Stockholm. For the love of God, though don’t turn on the supertitles in English: the translation back into the American idioms from the Italian is sillier than Spamalot

I’m not going to spend too much time on the Rossini since I just want all of you to click on this link and buy it right now. This is without a doubt one of the greatest performances of any opera I’ve seen on video and I’ll tell you why.

The production design, and the whole milieu to that end, is supposed to be the showing of a silent movie in Italy based on Rossini’s telling of the tale of Belshazzar; Ciro in Babilonia. I’m saying right up front that this is the only time, ever, I’ve enjoyed the use of digital projections and computer graphic imaging in a theatrical production.

The work of set and lighting designer Nicolas Bovey in conjunction with the video designs from the group D-Wok are rapturous and writ with enormous detail: M.C. Escher meets D.W. Griffith‘s Intolerance. The opening of every scene, aria, and ensemble is an old fashioned silent movie title card. In Act II the dungeon Ciro’s been imprisoned in builds itself out of the desert, stone by stone, around our hero. The characters roll on and off like chess pieces on their own platforms that then to configure themselves as stairways and risers.

Gianluca Falaschi’s Oscar-worthy costumes are a glorious wallow of Art Deco tassels and pearled headdress’ with feathers and capes, bugle beads and Monkey fur with Biblical ringlet beards and wigs and Babylonian crowns. Erté would have wept. The detail is astonishingly rich, all of it in black, white and and silver, until he has Ciro walk on for the Act I finale sporting a dark copper lamé cloak and then you know you are, undoubtedly, in the presence of genius. The entirety of it all rendered in the most exquisite taste. You could call it over the top but it’s never gaudy.

The audience shouts itself hoarse every time the curtain comes down and even that’s not appreciation enough for what’s happening on stage. Michael Spyres’ performance as Baldassare is quite literally demented. I’ve never heard such vigorously gymnastic writing for tenor before and he’s on time and on purpose. His tone may be a touch overly bright here and there but he’s dedicated to both performance and style wholeheartedly. His final grand scena is a bravura stunner.

Jessica Pratt, in another one of the roles Rossini wrote for Elisabetta Manfredini-Guarmani like the recent Adelaide di Borgogna, again asserts her Ph.D in bel canto studies, with a cantilena line most sopranos would kill for and staccatos and high notes blazing like fireworks on July 4th. Her Act I duet with Spyres is like,”anything you can roulade, I can roulade faster.” (She wins.) A beautiful woman, with a bosom Jane Russell herself might have envied, she moves well onstagem and Lillian Gish has nothing on her when it comes to the school of advanced eye-rolling.

Ewa Podles was 60 years old when she performed Ciro, the longest role Rossini ever wrote for contralto, and I can’t imagine anyone else doing it half as much justice. The legato rolling out all night long sounds like thunder on the horizon and in her final scene she her register shifts to—almost—the point of absurdity. At the very bottom she almost sounds like a tenor. She gets the production concept as well and it suites her old school vocalism.

The supporting cast are generally wet behind the ears and certainly not up to the virtuoso standards of the three leads but it’s quibbling. Will Crutchfield leads a very lively reading with the forces of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna and since he’d already presented these singers at Caramoor there’s an enticing give and take from the pit to the stage that you don’t normally hear in a work of this type.

Director Davide Livermore has to be commended for bringing off this entire production with such dash and sparkle. This could have been a gaudy, train-wreck in the wrong hands and instead the staging goes from strength to charming strength all the way to the finale. (This is also how you do silent movie makeup without making your cast look like cadavers, thank you.) The Blu-ray picture is magnificent and the DTS sound separation is especially sharp with orchestra and voices front and only orchestra in the surround channels. The video is also available on DVD. Sweet!

19 comments

  • Baltsamic Vinaigrette says:

    Catching up with Parterre after a late lunch and I just want to say that I enjoyed this very much, thanks Patrick.

  • la vociaccia says:

    Ahhhh Patrick, I’ve said it too many times on these boards, but that same cast for Ciro in Babilonia at Caramoor was way, way too good to be true. Spyres had to come out for a curtain call after his Mad scene -- we in the audience simply would not shut up.

    The singer who I’ve really gotten to be interested in is Jessica Pratt.

  • semira mide says:

    Sound like the DVD of Ciro is a success. Having seen it 3 times in Pesaro last summer, I have to agree with your points,although I think the supporting singers were better than suggested in your review.

    Livermore found a perfect way of bringing this rarity to life. This is the opera that has the famous “one-note” aria( because Rossini was faced with a singer who had only one good note) Crutchfield allowed the more “complete” aria a later performance,which was a lovely touch.

    One of the devices in this “silent screen” production was to flash text on the screen indicating what was going to happen next ( like in the old movies) It was actually quite effective, because many people don’t necessarily want to follow the text line by line, but do appreciate a little “this is happening” now -- particularly with an unfamiliar opera. Very effective in the theater.

  • danpatter says:

    The preposterous opening to Fanciulla, where Stemme bursts through the curtain brandishing pistols nearly ruined the whole thing for me. I expected her to burst out with “Ya Cain’t Get a Man with a Gun.” I agree with Patrick about the production, it’s really hideous, and it’s not any kind of “regie” production, just unrelieved, ugly scenery and harsh lighting. It looked to me like a high school play circa 1964. The singing was fairly good, I thought. I bought Ciro in Babilonia, but haven’t watched it yet.

  • Porgy Amor says:

    Thanks as always, Patrick Mack.

    Great, another Fanciulla DVD with singers I like, to tempt me. Should I make it eight? (For what it’s worth, if I were going to thin the shelf by more than half, I’d keep Domingo/Neblett, Domingo/Daniels, and the open-air one with Dessí/Armiliato.)

    I wonder if Fanciulla is kryptonite to a certain breed of German Regie. I have not seen the Loy yet, but he and Lehnhoff have some similarities of philosophy and approach, and have had successes with other composers (the same ones), and I did not think Lehnhoff’s go at Puccini’s Western worked either. It kept clashing with the story more than I could stretch to accommodate (the patrons of a modern-day big-city gay bar are communicating with their loved ones back home via snail mail…delivered to the bar?), and it stumbled under the weight of so many pasted-on cosmetic allusions. From one act to the next, it never accumulated and felt organic, just being a smirky, scattershot pastiche of American pop culture as Lehnhoff understands it (which I was not persuaded he does very well, although he called his production a loving tribute to that culture or somesuch). What was interesting about it to me is that it came to life most in the parts where he was doing the least, and it could just be another Fanciulla. Westbroek was so intense in the poker game, for example. What that scene is going on, you don’t care whether she’s living a pink trailer with a fluorescent Virgin Mary. (I didn’t care anyway. The visuals were fresh, at least. There just wasn’t much that built within the environment they provided.)

    • La Cieca says:

      I should note that the Loy is not anywhere near as fussy as the Lehnhoff: almost brutally plain, with a simple clapboard box standing in for both the “Polka” and Minnie’s cabin, and the men often lined up along the wall as if waiting for something that never comes. The love scene in Act 2 is played very simply and tactfully, I thought, and both Stemme and Antonenko bring a lot of meaning to just standing around.

      • Batty Masetto says:

        Yes, though I haven’t been able to see the whole thing yet, I thought the Act 2 scene was very touching. And I adored the film opening. Seems to me to be of a piece with the slightly off-kilter romanticism that inspired the work in the first place.

        I also like that neither Minnie nor Dick is glamorized in any way in this production. Her dress is dowdy and her hair is crimped in a thoroughly period (but unflattering) early 20s style – again consistently with the opening “silent” film. And he’s a bit of a lump. Yet they both show the characters’ brave vulnerability. It’s fine when the singers happen to be handsome people handsomely fitted out, but I think it’s even more moving if neither one of them looks like any great prize, yet they find a real connection.

        • operalover9001 says:

          I saw this production of Fanciulla in Frankfurt with Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie, and I thought it was fantastic. Interestingly enough, the most moving parts for me were the ends of each of the acts -- not as much sobbing or cackling from EMW, I guess. Overall, I liked Loy (or the stage director -- I have no idea)’s use of stillness, which was a lot more moving than the ridiculous bar fight in the Met production, for example.

  • SF Guy says:

    I like the Loy Fanciulla a great deal; for me, it’s easily the best of the HD contenders. The Lehnhoff update doesn’t work, for reasons outlined above by Porgy Amor, and if you enjoy the Knott’s Berry Farm kitsch of the Met production, the earlier cast is superior. The Dessi version sounds better than it looks; the head mics are a distraction, the sets are full of anachronisms (especially Act Three, dominated by what appear to be dinosaur bones), and when the miners spare Dick Johnson’s life, Dessi’s high-glam Minnie takes him with the gracious condescension of a society matron accepting the blue ribbon for her prize gladiolas.

    With cardboard realism passe, Fanciulla is a tough nut to crack. The story is deeply rooted in the hardships of the California Gold Rush, particularly the isolation that’s made Minnie the surrogate wife and mother of this ad hoc community. Loy evokes the era, but as it would have been imagined around the time of the opera’s premiere. (Cecil B. DeMille directed a successful film version of the Belasco play in 1915, though Loy’s main visual inspiration seems to be Chaplin’s The Gold Rush.) The closeups on the walls probably played better in the theater, but they don’t get in the way; ditto Minnie’s business in her small office. The look is stylized but not romanticized; the silent-era makeup and lighting aren’t particularly flattering, but the characters are presented as mature adults who’ve been knocked around a bit, so this didn’t bother me. (Stemme’s Minnie may be inexperienced, but she’s not naive; the two don’t always go hand in hand.) The acting is simple, sincere and full of subtle detail, well timed to the nuances of the score.

    My desert island video Fanciulla remains the ROH Neblett/Domingo version (despite the unfortunate blackface for Jake Wallace), but this is my new second choice, apart from the opening credits. As danpatter has already commented, they are truly preposterous (sorry to disagree, Batty, but there it is), and had me fearing the worst. Film buff and Californian that I am, I can’t help wondering what Minnie is doing carousing in Monument Valley, several states east of Gold Country, or what the John Ford widescreen ’50′s look has to do with the silent film era. There was nowhere for things to go but up, and fortunately they did.

    • Porgy Amor says:

      My desert island video Fanciulla remains the ROH Neblett/Domingo version

      Mine too, although technical considerations keep me from recommending it to someone who does not know the opera well. This opera has a lively, busy libretto, especially in the first act, and the early-VHS-era subtitling that has been recycled for the DVD misses a lot of it.

      So the Met ’92, which I like a little less as a production and a performance, edges it out as the one I would press into the hands of someone coming new to the opera. Del Monaco’s Met production is quite pretty to look at, but I don’t care for some of his directorial choices, such as having Rance still around and trying to make his exit while Minnie is doing her demented laughter bit and roaring that Ramerrez is hers. It appears she’s doing this just to taunt Rance. I prefer him to take a brisk, dignified leave immediately after he says good night, as it is usually staged.

      I spent a lot of time with the existing DVDs of that opera last summer, and rather than getting sick of it, I kept wanting to see more; it added to my admiration of the work. I was particularly struck by how many valid ways there are of approaching Minnie — speaking both of the character as a whole and of key moments. Neblett is very warm and feminine; Daniels is a lovable, spirited tomboy, and my memory of the HD is that Voigt, in the same production, went for the same thing. With Zampieri and Westbroek, you get the sense that they’re acting tough, but the vulnerability is never far from the surface; they’re actually shy and sweet, and Westbroek in particular is affecting in her attempts to hide nervousness (Minnie’s, not hers). There is not a hint of that from Dessí, who is all cool authority, keeping the boys in line with no more than a crisp, offhand gesture. She gets Sonora to turn over his weapon just by holding out her hand after her first entrance; I don’t even think she looks at him. She is probably the most outwardly formidable. I cannot remember what I thought of Stella, who is surely the real thing vocally.

      • SF Guy says:

        I like Stella a lot; she gives a very rounded interpretation, by turns tough and tender, feminine but sure of herself and in control. (When she discovers Johnson’s true identity in Act 2, the subtitles translate her angry, sarcastic outburst as “Just my luck! A bandit!” which captures the spirit of her performance.) The only false note is her sudden insecurity at the end of Act 1, not helped by the nasal, unprepossessing tenor; this guy would be damn lucky to have Stella’s Minnie give him a second look, and she’d know it.

    • Batty Masetto says:

      I’m with you all the way SFGuy. (Except about the opening -- now c’mon, tell me you didn’t flash on Wm. S. Hart??? With California masquerading as Arizona then?? And now vice versa??)

      Finally finished watching Loy’s version all the way through, and in spite of missteps (inevitable in any production) I wound up in a puddle of tears. He gets the people right. The last panorama of the bereaved miners is heartrending.

      • Porgy Amor says:

        I had not watched the trailer embedded above before I wrote my first musing in this thread, and it does look like the sort of thing I would enjoy. I might even like that cinematic opening better with someone other than Stemme. She is a great singer, but the visual is not doing it for me.

        Question, historians: Was Barbara Daniels’s performance in the Met ’92 DVD brought about by the recently discussed Marton/Met estrangement after the Ring broadcasts were yanked away? I believe Volpe writes in his book that Fanciulla was among several planned projects from which Marton withdrew, and the timing would have been right. For the purposes of a video souvenir of the GdM production when it was new, I am glad, actually. Daniels’s acting is very charming and well worked out, and she looks right. I can imagine Marton bluntly grimacing her way through it the way she did most things. This more or less suffices for Turandot and the Dyer’s Wife, but I want someone more alive to the moment for Minnie.

        Oh, by the way, SF Guy, I meant to add in my previous post that I appreciated your videographical overview and your comments on the Loy. Good stuff.

        • Patrick Mack says:

          Dear Porgy, you are correct. The Del Monaco Fanciulla was intended for Frau Marton and only given to Daniels after her departure. If I remember correctly some of Ms. Daniels high notes were ‘corrected’ for the dvd release.

          Marton did record Fanciulla with Slatkin just before the Met production as a lead up and although it’s a trio past its prime with Dennis O’Neil and Alain Fondry it is the only recording that’s not complete and includes the extended, and very athletic, love duet for Minnie and Johnson outside her cabin. As soon as you hear it you know why they cut it, because it’s just too damn hard to sing, but it’s glorious.

          I cut my teeth on the Neblett/Domingo/Mehta recording and it will always be my favorite.

          I saw two great Fanciulla’s here in LA. La Dame Gwyneth with Domingo in the borrowed Hal Prince production from San Francisco who sang the most extraordinary high C in ‘Laggiu’ I ever heard. I almost came out of my seat.

          A decade later Domingo sang it here again with Catherine Malfitano and I was invited by a friend and dreaded going. Malfitano turned out to be a revelation and didn’t put a foot wrong all evening, vocally or dramatically. The production was the Del Monaco from the Met only borrowed from the Bonn Opera. They used snow candle ash in Act II and it was mesmerizing. It fell in slow motion like real snow.

          I’ll give the Loy another try but I don’t see the attraction for or in Stemme as Minnie.

          • Patrick Mack says:

            Sorry, that should have read the Slatkin is the only recording that’s ‘NOTE complete’. All the others are not.

      • SF Guy says:

        Batty--You do William S. Hart an injustice; he cared a great deal about historical accuracy in his productions, including geography.

        But better to end well than begin well; Loy may not understand U.S. geography, but he understands that Fanciulla has about the saddest happy ending in existence. Without their surrogate wife, big sister and mother, the miners’ home-away-from-home will be an empty shell; Minnie is leaving her work and community for a deeply uncertain future, cut off forever from everything that has given her life meaning and purpose. Time indeed for a good cry.

  • Feldmarschallin says:

    Thanks Patrick. Great reviews and I will get both now. I like Stemme and Antonenko sounds quite good. I have the Stella, Zampieri and Westbroek Fanciulla and it is my favorite Puccini opera. Zampieri I saw at La Scala and she was on fire. Rossini is not really my specialty but do enjoy it in doses especially the seria. I also like that your reviews don’t go on for days which I just give on when they do.

  • Hippolyte says:

    Based on the try-out of the “Ciro” production I saw at Caramoor, I would say that the primary influence is the great Italian silent epic “Cabiria” (no relation to Fellini) which actually preceeded “Intolerance.”

    I didn’t think the Caramoor show was all that effective but am happy to read that it came together better in Pesaro.