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Verdi: Falstaff

WORKS: Falstaff
PERFORMER: Royal Opera/Bernard Haitink; dir.GrahamVick/Humphrey Burton
CATALOGUE NO: DVD 1025……………..#D04
DVD companies are having fun with feature films — good compilations and reissues, imaginative tracking entry points, generous use of extra features. With opera they are still being over-cautious, allowing musical rather than visual considerations to dominate choice of both repertoire and productions. Opera on DVD should be a library of great stagings, not a collection of great musical performances with pictures added on.


In this cross-section of recent releases only three of the opera productions are truly unmissable enough to merit preservation and repeated visiting. Peter Konwitschny’s 1998 Munich Festival TRISTAN fires up his first division cast (Waltraud Meier, Jon Frederic West, Kurt Moll) with prime quality stagecraft — inventive but wholly Werktreu, often radical yet Romantic. Each act in Johannes Leiackers designs has a stage-within-a-stage feeling (very suitable for this intellectually discursive drama), but the severity is allayed by his lustrous reds, whites and blues.

Act 1 shows a luxury yacht with a continually moving seascape. Costumes are art-deco medieval, props modern. Act II has a painted backdrop (symbolist/primitivist) forest, a designer-chic yellow sofa brought on by Tristan for the love duet and a black forestage on to which the lovers fall out of the world. Like Wieland Wagner and Ponnelle in Bayreuth, King Marke’s monologue is fully integrated into the climactic action. Act III is a bald triangular room, dominated (in Tristan’s monologues) by slide projections of Tristan’s childhood. I hen, in an a coup reminiscent of Stockhausen’s use of instruments onstage in his Licht cycle, the cor anglais and tarrogato players actually appear during their major solos to interact with Tristan.

Even if you are normally scared of, or cynical about, non-narrative productions, I urge you to see this. Then move to the recording of ARIODANTE, Handel surely comme il faut, fluently directed in the questing physical style that David Alden first brought to London Verdi in the mid-Eighties. A cast of serious British actor/singers (Ann Murray, Joan Rodgers, Christopher Robson, Gwynne Howell) ensure, under Alden’s eye, that the work emerges with the pain and reconciliations of some lost Shakespeare last play. It could hardly be better served.

On an equal level, although of a style different from the above, is Deborah Warner’s DON GIOVANNI. For all the wrong reasons it put Glyndeboutne on the front pages six years ago – Giovanni’s Act I ball as a disco, the Don spending the last part of Act II clutching a Madonna with whom he copulates on his supper table, etc. But it is precisely in these telling details that the talent of Warner, by nature a minimalist (albeit a modcrn-French-theatre-influenced minimalist), resides.

We’re in modern dress on a stark, stripped-down set (Hildegard Bechtler), penetratingly lit (Jean Kalman), with Giovanni (Gilles Cachemaille) a compulsive and dangerous rapist. See how deftly Watner stages the first trio when Anna and Giovanni have to stay in the same space without her seeing who he is; then follow on to the setting up of Anna’s ‘Don Ottavio, son morta’ when Cachemaille’s Giovanni gives the game away by using his rapist’s hood mask to wipe the sweat off his face. If you judge a Giuvanni by how the Don goes down to hell, you won’t be disappointed either.

BBC Worldwide inaugurates a new DVD series in collaboration with the Royal Opera House with a record ol its 1999 reopening production of FALSTAFF. Verdi’s great final throw of the dice feels very much like a ‘Master Wives of Windsor’ under Haitink’s solidly musical but Germanic baton and in Graham Vick’s English camp production. This revisits many ideas from this director’s recent London outings – loudly coloured set and costumes, flying chorus, plentiful acrobatics. Terfel sings Falstaff stylishly, without ever getting over the issue of a young man in an old costume; Barbara Frittoli’s Alice and Desiree Rancatore’s Nannetta lead the women. The sound is OK, the filming uncharacteristically nervous and over-demonstrative for Humphrey Burton.

The Berlioz FAUST created at Salzburg in 1999 by the Spanish theatre company La Fura dels Bans has been widely praised. Alexandre Tarta’s recording of it works as film, and doubtless involves some courageous decisions of omission and concentration. Visually and organisationally, this production is an achievement. But its setting of the story as a science-fiction parable around a large furnace, with images of man remade and reborn, seems quaintly retro-Seventies and stylishly boring.

In Michael Hampe’s inevitably professional Cologne DON GIOVANNI (1991) the master/ servant relationship of Thomas Allen and Ferruccio Furlanetto yields many subtleties and tricks of the trade. Allen’s sexual energy in this role is remarkable. Carol Vaness’s Elvira and Andrea Rost’s Zerlma are considerable assumptions. But the functional-only design, the lacunae between scenes that no TV-editing can wholly conceal, limit the event to one of re-reporting the existence of Mozart and da Pome’s drama.

Neither of Arthaus’s two Puccini shows needed to survive its original TV transmission. TURANDOT is a star vehicle for David Hockney’s sets (they even get first production credit in the booklet) — but they have none of the wit of his first Glyndebourne essays. There isn’t a ‘production’ to see. Nor is there in BOHEME, where the cast is so old (aside from Marcello and Schaunard) that it might have occurred to the director to play this as an On Golden Pond version of the piece with the singers actually acting their age. Freni and Pavarotti?

Bravissimi- bella voce, especially at this age. But on CD, please. AIDA is actually even worse — a frock and over-decorated prop show. FIDELIO has dull sets – video director Derek Bailey wisely stays in close – and a well-meant but doomed attempt by the stage director to rework the dialogue as the script for a modern political thriller. Of course all the cast and conductor are worth hearing. But…


Let us end on some better notes. The Royal Opera’s last BOHEME, faithfully researched and enjoyably staged, is hardly a radical re-examination of the codes of verismo. But, compared to San Francisco’s effort, it is a blazing masterpiece. The cast of 30-somethings (they include the fine art of Ileana Cotrubas, Marilyn Zschau, Neil Shicoff and Thomas Allen) enjoy the wit and pathos of the text, sing well, move well within the confines of what they’re asked to do — and make us cry. The colour of this transfer to DVD from a 1982 telecast shows its age. Finally to history. THE ART OF SINGING is a self-recommending transfer to the newer medium – it’s a music-first, picture-supported release — although I was hoping for more material and supporting ‘features’ on this digital reissue. Magda Olivero’s no-nonsense comments dominate the uneven linking commentary. The collector in you should not he able to resist seeing Conchita Supervia’s Musetta or Bob Hope introducing Flagstad’s Walkiire war cry, but it’s never been as telling a documentary as the same imprint’s conductor films.