Cher Public

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!