Notes and Editorial Reviews
The World's Greatest Operas is a 6 DVD Deluxe set, containing 4 of the most famous and most performed operas - Aida, Carmen, Die Zauberflöte and Tosca. These 4 operas are all recent DVD recordings, recorded in high-quality, and featuring many of today's leading opera starts and conductors, including Jonas Kaufmann, Roberto Alagna and Antonio Pappano.
AIDA - Urmana/Alagna/Komlosi/Giuseppini/Guelfi/Spotti
Orchestra e coro del Teatro alla Scala
Riccardo Chailly - Directed by Franco Zeffirelli - 2 DVD
CARMEN - Antonacci/Kaufmann/D'Arcangelo/Amsellem
Orchestra & Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Antonio Pappano - Directed by Francesca Zambello - 1
DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE - Gerhaher/Kühmeier/Groves/Damrau/Pape
Riccardo Muti - Staged by Pierre Audi - 2 DVD
TOSCA - Malfitano/Margison/Terfel
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly - Directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff - 1 DVD
Reviews of some of the original recordings that make up this set:
This performance, from the Netherlands Opera, was taped in 1998 but just released. It was worth waiting for. Tosca is set specifically in June, 1800, in Rome; references are made to particular historical occurences in the course of the opera. For that reason producers and designers rarely fiddle with it--mainly it has escaped the mauling of regietheater (director's or producer's theater) unlike, say, its cousin Madama Butterfly, one recent production of which took place in dirt, with "real" insects. And all Toscas tend to look the same--explicitly, the acts take place in the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, an apartment in the Palazzo Farnese and the top of the Castel Sant'Angelo, but less specific interiors of churches, large drawing rooms in palaces, and the roof of a grand building will suffice.
Here we have a different view, from a director who likes to shake things up, at times successfully (his Parsifal and Lohengrin, for example). Nikolaus Lehnhoff sees in the opera that "existence has become the human death-trap" and Scarpia is the Antichrist. Raimund Bauer's sets back up the concept: The first act takes place in a "sacred space", with mammoth, pillar-like candles and a huge painting of "The Last Judgment" looking over the action that Scarpia dominates; the second act is a futuristic dungeon with secret doors, a turbine engine, and a staircase that withdraws so that Tosca's escape is almost foiled; the last act portrays the Castel Sant'Angelo as a huge bunker over the city with no light or vista, a hideous jail with the turbine engine turning inexorably overhead. Falk Bauer's costumes are wonderful--Tosca is a very sexy woman indeed--and Scarpia's henchmen, in silver-gray with silver-gray hair, are futuristic-scary. This Tosca is all about cruelty and darkness, a claustrophobic view of the opera that is as effective as it is creepy.
Those familiar with Catherine Malfitano's 1993 on-location-in-Rome video of the role of Tosca know her passion for and commitment to the part. She is just as fine here; perhaps her vibrato has loosened a bit (and she does not look like a particularly young diva), but few of today's sopranos can inhabit the part the way she does. Her jealousy, love for Cavaradossi, loathing for Scarpia, and overall terror in the second act are vivid and real.
Richard Margison is the Cavaradossi. His rock-solid voice and technique do well by him, but his is a generic portrayal, with little imagination in the soft passages and a general lack of familiarity with the language's subtleties. Both of his arias are well sung. He never detracts from the show, but you can imagine what a truly involved, Italianate tenor might have added.
The cast's centerpiece is Bryn Terfel's Scarpia. Snide, sure of himself whether petting a kitten or attempting to pet Tosca, sadistic, he strides like a concentration camp commandant through the first act and slithers through the second. Whether in full-length leather coat or bizarre silver trousers and vest, he presents a huge, terrifying figure, both physically and vocally. His voice can caress cunningly, and it can frighten while it is caressing. Cynical and perverse, his is an unforgettable Scarpia. Mario Luperi is an urgent Angelotti, and Scarpia's little helpers are a nasty bunch.
Kudos to Riccardo Chailly, not afraid to take the Te Deum at a dangerously slow pace so that Scarpia's blasphemy seems all the more malignant, with the Te Deum itself like a death march or satanic ritual. Throughout the opera he knows when to linger over tender moments so that when the emotional pressure returns it is felt even more strongly. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra sounds glorious. Just when you thought you'd never need another Tosca on video, along comes this one and pushes the competition out of the way.
There is a documentary with interviews with Lehnhoff and Malfitano. Picture and sound (LPCM stereo and 5.1 Surround) are superb and the direction for the small screen is wise and effectual. Subtitles are in all major European languages plus Dutch and Chinese.
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
This terrifically-cast and conducted Carmen goes to the top of the list, which is saying a great deal given the quality of the competition: Julia Migenes and Placido Domingo in the filmed version is still crucial; Carreras and Baltsa are fiery at the Met; Karajan has plenty to say with Bumbry and Vickers. The look here, by Tanya McCallin, is essentially realistic and uncomplicated, with no attempts at grandeur; the basic orange walls that can be raised, lowered, and moved are a bit low-rent, but are never less than effective. And the feel is decidedly Spanish.
Francesca Zambello gets the opera's flavor right, although so many animals, acrobats, and extras can make you fear that she's going in a Zeffirellian direction. Her treatment of the two main characters is not busy: Carmen is alluring but never over-the-top; José is a kid gone wrong, as surprised by his own passions as we are. She mostly keeps out of the drama's way, adding nothing rash or new, which is just fine.
The singing and conducting are knockouts. The doomed couple is great-looking, intense, young, and believable, and they create a great deal of heat just by gazing at one another. Anna Caterina Antonacci, a soprano Carmen (she's a staggering Ermione in Rossini's opera), has no trouble at all with the role's low tessitura or dark hue--she adapts her voice to the character ideally. She's no teenager but she's a woman in full bloom, so assured of her sensuality and sexuality that she rarely needs to "turn it on". Her Card Scene, without resorting to much chest voice, is dangerously dark and tragic.
Partnering her with great enthusiasm is the heartthrob tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Tall and handsome, he is comfortable on stage and utterly musical: he phrases naturally, obeys dynamic markings, and has all of the notes easily within his grasp. His "Flower Song" is all of a piece, beautifully formed and filled with feeling, and his final confrontation with Carmen is the picture of building rage. He is nicely tender with the mush-mouthed Micaela of Norah Ansellem--she sings prettily and, miraculously, creates a real character. But what poor diction--especially considering that she's the cast's only native French speaker! Ildebrando d'Arcangelo is well suited in every way for Escamillo: both ends of his voice are strong enough and he knows how to swagger. Carmen's fellow smugglers are a good bunch and their performances in the second-act quintet are spotless.
Antonio Pappano gives us another wonderful reading--is there anything he conducts poorly? His rhythmic sense is without equal, his pacing allows the action to unfold in seemingly real time and without eccentricities. The brash introduction sets the scene, and so do the tragic darker moments; the languid opening choruses tell us where we are and what the temperature is. Bizet's expert scoring is underlined but never artificially highlighted. The drama goes just as it should, and even the overly familiar moments are a joy to hear. Sound, picture, and presentation (subtitles in all major European languages--except Italian and Chinese) are first-rate, and Jonathan Haswell's direction for the small screen highlights the right moments. This is the first choice for Carmen on DVD.
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
This is the DVD that almost didn’t happen, thanks to Roberto Alagna’s now infamous walkout on the second night of this production. Trouble appeared to have been brewing with Alagna even before the prima, but opening night went well enough for him. Then, during the second performance, on December 10, Alagna received a negative reaction from certain members of the audience for his performance of “Celeste Aida.” He walked off stage and could not be persuaded to return, leaving Antonello Palombi (still in street clothes) to take over the performance for him. The Italian press and opera blogs had a field day with this incident. What it meant for Decca is that they would now be unable to use several performances—several of Alagna’s performances, anyway—to create an “ideal” performance for DVD release. For all I know, what we are seeing and hearing here is, in fact, a composite performance, but we can be pretty sure that when Alagna is on stage, we are watching the performance from December 7, warts and all.
It is both a pleasure and a surprise, then, to report that this Aida is the very best I’ve seen on DVD. For me, it is an even greater surprise, because two of the most positive contributors to this production are conductor Riccardo Chailly and director Franco Zeffirelli. Regular readers know I generally dislike Zeffirelli’s overly busy productions, and I’ve never understood what others heard in Chailly’s conducting. Aida is just about the right vessel in which to pour Zeffirelli’s talents, however, and my 10-year hiatus from Chailly has led to a change either in my hearing or in his conducting, for I’ve never been so gripped by Aida as a musical totality as I have been here.
True to form, Zeffirelli crams every inch of the La Scala stage with eye candy, but what candy! This is a traditional staging, but one in which every conceivable Egyptian accessory, authentic or not, contributes to the spectacular whole. Even the dancing, which is such an embarrassment in so many productions, is welcome here, so kudos as well to choreographer Vladimir Vassiliev, and to the members, old and young, of the La Scala ballet. The little kids dancing in Amneris’s bedroom are adorable, and Roberto Bolle’s memorable solo turn in the Triumphal Scene well justifies his appearance during final curtain calls.
Chailly’s conducting, full of nuance and drama, is the very opposite of routine. There are times when I wish he would have lingered a little more (the end of Judgment Scene, for example), but his tempos never feel rushed, and he leaves enough time to bring out telling orchestral colors, such as the groaning double basses as Radamès is led away to trial.
The singing is never unworthy of Chailly’s and Zeffirelli’s work, although it is the women, Urmana and Komlosi, who are this production’s stars. They have large voices, but they both use them with sensitivity, although I suppose one could cite Komlosi for over-reliance on chest tones. (Still, it’s pretty darn exciting!) Urmana’s bright voice maintains its steadiness up to a gleaming top, and if there’s one thing that’s missing from her singing—and from Komlosi’s too, to a lesser extent—it’s variety of color. In other words, don’t look for keenly insightful singing, but if you’re looking for a healthy sound and temperament, Urmana and Komlosi will satisfy. There’s a lot of standard operatic gesturing in their acting, but they try, and that counts for something.
As Radamès, Alagna certainly is not a disaster, although he feels a size too small for the role. “Celeste Aida” starts off too loudly and only gets louder, and there is no diminuendo on the final B?. He’s at his best when he isn’t trying to puff himself up; the Tomb Scene is touching, despite Alagna’s lachrymose inflections. There’s not much acting here either, but at least Alagna is manly in his stoicism. Guelfi’s old-fashioned Amonasro is rough, with a tendency to shout and to wobble. The Ramfis, Giorgio Giuseppini, sings well but is forgettable. Marco Spotti’s King, on the other hand, stands out; here’s a ruler who can make his subjects listen! The chorus and orchestra are on top form throughout.
What’s a little disappointing about this DVD has nothing to do with the musicianship or the dramaturgy, but with the direction for television and video. Someone has decided that brief, slightly off-focus clips of swirling costumes enhance home viewing, so these have been inserted every minute or two, sometimes superimposed on (or instead of) a singer. I think it’s supposed to be arty, but it absolutely does not work. Also, act III and (especially) act IV are very dark. I don’t imagine this was a problem in the auditorium, but I found it hard to tell exactly what was going on during much of the Tomb Scene. Aïda and Radamès were desperately in need of a Coleman lantern!
Apart from the aforementioned problems, this production has transferred very well to video. The sound is excellent too. In fact, I was moved to increase the volume to “live” levels—always a good sign—and I am sure the ringing in my ears will be gone by morning.
The controversy surrounding this production might scare potential buyers away from this DVD, but have no fear: this is a great Aida, even though it might prove to be a bittersweet souvenir for many who were associated with, or present at, the actual performances.
FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle
Works on This Recording
Tosca by Giacomo Puccini
Bryn Terfel (Bass Baritone),
Catherine Malfitano (Soprano),
Richard Margison (Tenor)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra,
Netherlands Opera Chorus
Written: 1900; Italy
Die Zauberflöte, K 620 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Peter Loehle (Bass),
Simon O'Neill (Tenor),
Franz Grundheber (Baritone),
Burkhard Ulrich (Tenor),
Irena Bespalovaite (Soprano),
Christian Gerhaher (Baritone),
Ekaterina Gubanova (Mezzo Soprano),
Inga Kalna (Soprano),
Genia Kühmeier (Soprano),
Paul Groves (Tenor),
Diana Damrau (Soprano),
Karine Deshayes (Soprano),
René Pape (Bass)
Vienna State Opera Chorus,
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1791; Vienna, Austria
Carmen by Georges Bizet
Viktoria Vizin (Mezzo Soprano),
Matthew Rose (Bass),
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (Bass),
Jonas Kaufmann (Tenor),
Norah Amsellem (Soprano),
Elena Xanthoudakis (Soprano),
Anna Caterina Antonacci (Soprano)
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra,
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus
Written: 1873-1874; France
Aida by Giuseppe Verdi
Marco Spotti (Bass),
Violeta Urmana (Soprano),
Ildiko Komlósi (Mezzo Soprano),
Roberto Alagna (Tenor),
Giorgio Giuseppini (Bass),
Carlo Guelfi (Baritone)
Milan Teatro alla Scala Orchestra,
Milan Teatro alla Scala Chorus
Written: 1871; Italy
Date of Recording: 2006
Venue: Teatro All Scala, Milan
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