ALBUM TITLE: Peter Grimes
PERFORMER: Christopher Ventris, Emily Magee, Alfred Muff; Zurich Opera House Chorus & Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst;
dir. David Pountney (Zurich, 2005)


CATALOGUE NO: 500 9719
Three recently filmed opera productions from Zurich, and not one of them can really compete with anything already in the catalogue. Don Giovanni joins a pretty crowded and lively field. Unless you have a weakness for leaden tempos (Franz Welser-Möst) and productions teeming with extras (Sven-Eric Bechtolf), there really isn’t a lot of point in considering this DVD. The only reason for acquiring it would be the individual performances, particularly the central tour de force of Simon Keenlyside, whose physique, super-charged physicality and sheer musicality make his a minutely responsive Don Giovanni. For once, Don Ottavio is almost his antithetical equal in Piotr Beczala’s admirably robust performance. And Eva Mei (Donna Anna), Malin Hartelius (Donna Elvira) and, particularly, Martina Jankova (Zerlina) feistily jostle their way through a stageful of doubles, bystanders, whores and African deities (the voodoo gets the Don in the end) – all framed by the long perspective of receding Art Deco proscenium arches.

Schubert fares better at the hands of Welser-Möst, though Claus Guth’s direction makes Alice-in-Wonderland theatre of his heroic-Romantic tale of medieval chivalry, not really trusting it to be taken seriously at all. The composer himself is present throughout in a remarkable impersonation by Wolfgang Beuschel. Dwarfed by a giant grand piano and chair, little Franzl directs, prompts, empathises with and is daunted by his pairs of lovers and their anguished dilemmas of love and duty. Juliane Banse strains slightly to meet the vocal demands of the princess Emma; Michael Volle rises spendidly to the challenges of Roland; and Christoph Strehl and Twyla Robinson do their valiant best as Eginhard and Florinda. Jonas Kaufmann actually appears to enjoy himself in the title role (Schubert seems half in love with him), while Lászlo Polgár is a fierce König Karl in a toy crown (Schubert seems rather scared of him). It all seems a bit of a missed opportunity: no one has quite enough faith in a work which Schubert’s last anniversary year proved to be well worth taking more seriously than this.

If this is supposed to be Schubert’s imagination working overtime, then both Welser-Möst and David Pountney could have done with a share of it in their production of Peter Grimes. There are no end of ideas – an omni-present crowd, sitting on chairs suspended at different levels within a single, scaffolding-like set; and a final cross-carrying Grimes, complete with Pietà. But there is not the faintest whiff of the briny, either in this fussily observed staging, or in the land-locked conducting of Welser-Möst who seems entirely oblivious of the ebb, flow and inflection of Britten’s score. A pity, because Christopher Ventris is outstanding in the title role, and Emily Magee is a sturdy and strong Ellen Orford.

All three DVDs offer no more than a short accompanying essay in a single-fold leaflet: no biographies, no track-listings, no navigation, no extras – and a boringly formulaic introductory camera sequence of opera house and pit.


Hilary Finch