28 Dec 2006
MOZART: The Glyndebourne Collection
What kind of opera lovers will appreciate this big DVD box the most?
What kind of opera lovers will appreciate this big DVD box the most?
The answer is a simple one: those who like traditional productions that highly respect the intentions and instructions of the composer and librettists. Therefore, don’t expect a severed head of Muhammad ibn Abdullah, founder of Islam, to make its appearance in Idomeneo under review here.
It is ironic to read some of the original reviews in Opera Magazine. Editor Harold Rosenthal discusses the première of Die Entführung in the following words:
Mozart was really betrayed on this occasion. I cannot remember having seen so willful a production of this opera before, or one in which a producer seemed to break even the elementary rules of operatic production.Then one is completely mystified at the breathtaking traditional production 27 years later and wonders if Rosenthal had gone out of his wits (after all, he was of the opinion, too, that Franco Corelli in one of the greatest live performances ever – La Scala’s Poliuto – was only so and so).
Of course, Rosenthal’s opinions betray how far we’ve come nowadays. He takes offence at a few extras performing some tasks during an aria, though there are no extraordinary antics taking place and everything is firmly placed in the time and the surroundings demanded by Mozart. Rosenthal has one valid point when he writes that “ a wretched cage of doves belting and cooing audibly in direct competition to the soprano was unforgivable”. However “routine, the great saviour of operatic production” as Marcel Prawy, the dean of Viennese critics used to say, had already killed this birdish competition the moment the performance was recorded for TV in which Valerie Masterson sings ‘Martern aller Arten’ without dovish accompaniment.
Seen from our point of view, it strikes me that director Peter Wood used this production (in pre-politically correct times) to show the cruelty of Islamic courts towards women and European prisoners. It is this seriousness that is the common theme of all the performances under review and this can be no co-incidence. John Cox and Peter hall (each 2 productions) and Adrian Slack (1 production) all underline that there is more to Mozart operas than light-hearted comedy. Hall in Le Nozze (still the best Nozze around in my opinion) proves convincingly that there is something dangerous going on between Cherubino and the countess. This something is more than the arousal of youthful hormones of an adolescent. Why would they otherwise lock the door ? One chillingly realizes that Cherubino probably wouldn’t have survived his infatuation if he hadn’t escaped through the window. There wouldn’t have been a complaint if the count had run him through or shot him in a duel. This Nozze anticipates the revolution that will soon tear France apart.
Similarly, Don Giovanni is not only a libertine but a vicious cruel man with a sadistic streak as well. Even Cosi fan tutte in Slack’s production is more than a comedy of manners but reminds us that it is the story of cheap betrayal. Cox in Die Zauberflöte doesn’t give us the somewhat simple bird catcher but introduces a Papageno who has killed all the birds he has caught and is now selling the cadavers at the highest price possible. Not that these productions are without humour. On the contrary, Stafford Dean is a magnificent Leporello, a master of sly wit, and James Hoback as Pedrillo in ‘Die Entführung’ has some very amusing and clever ideas to trick Osmin. Yet humour is not performed for its own sake but always to illustrate the seriousness and dangers around the corner.
It takes a viewing of all these DVD’s before one realizes this seriousness because at first one is distracted by the surprising sets and costumes. Nowadays we are so used to distortions, ugly dresses, stylized general all-purpose sets and costumes that it will take some time to register that Zauberflöte is indeed set, as originally intended, in old Egypt, that Cosi has Naples in the 18th century as a background, that Don Giovanni really plays in Spain. After this “great new discovery,” one realizes how much more this unity of music and libretto helps us to understand the drama without, for example, the irritatingly jarring anachronisms in Sellar’s Don Giovanni production. At the time of its première, New York’s crime rate had risen, with more than 2,000 murders a year. New Yorkers ridiculed the soft beating of Leporello in his Bronx surroundings; knowing all too well that even a blink of an eye could lead to a murderous spray of bullets.
Striking, too, in all these Glyndebourne productions is the eye for correct details. I’ve seen too many Cosi’s where Guglielmo and Ferrando take up their rifles or muskets to leave urgently for war. Here they pick up their sabres, as no officer would ever carry a musket.
Consistency is also to be found in the casting. According to Glyndebourne’s tradition, experienced singers and potentially gifted youngsters are judiciously mixed. There is even consistency in the weak point of almost all performances — the tenor’s lack of talent. Leo Goeke is especially a fly in the ointment. While he can still produce some decent sounds as Idamante in the 1974 Idomeneo, three years later the voice has lost all charm in Don Giovanni where the top is too open. A public generous with applause elsewhere doesn’t move a finger after his arias. In Zauberflöte one year later he is just stylish, which is all that can be positively said. Still, he isn’t the small disaster that Anson Austin is as Ferrando in Cosi — a voice with some metal, though no beauty, that always hovers on the brink of disaster. Richard Lewis as Idomeneo reminds me too much of the white sounding English oratorio tenor. One grudgingly admits that Pavarotti with his true Italian sound has spoilt us in a role that calls for a real tenor. Only Ryland Davis in Entführung makes a true hero with a bigger sound than we expect in the role. Perhaps James Hoback didn’t have a big career; but here he sings a splendid Pedrillo far from the usual castrato sound some lesser singers give us.
With the lower voices, however, we are often blessed. Benjamin Luxon stars in three roles: Don Giovanni (mean but very convincing with a high baritone that contrasts well with the lower voices of Masetto and Leporello), Count Almaviva (threatening but with much beauty of tone) and Papageno. Tom Allen is the rich voiced Guglielmo. Knut Skram a most convincing Figaro. Whillard White is not a deep bass, but what a rolling voice he employs as Osman and Stafford Dean gives everybody an object lesson in how to sing and to act Leporello. I was surprised to learn that Frantz Petri, a Frenchman notwithstanding his German name, had “a light and unsubstantial” voice as Alfonso according to the critics of the time. That is not the impression one gains from this DVD: the miracle of the mike?
Most of the ladies are particularly fine as well. No more words need to be said regarding Te Kanawa’s countess or von Stade’s Cherubino. These are definitive portraits by two singers in the bloom of their youth. The box is almost worth purchasing for these two singers alone. Add to them Cotrubas’ Susanna and one sighs “they don’t make them like that anymore”. In Cosi one enjoys two Swedish ladies, both shamefully neglected by the recording industry. Not all their coloratura is perfect but the voices are so impressively coloured and blend so well that one has look at their dresses to know who is Sylvia Lindenstrand and who is Helena Doese. Both beauties are so alike one would almost believe they are twins, which effect makes the simplistic story all at once very believable.
Don Giovanni has the surprise of the French soprano, Rachel Yakar. Now a respected teacher, she is one of the best Elvira’s around with that beautiful and supple Italian sound. She, too, is rarely to be found on record. Horiana Branisteanu’s lyric Anna is not on Yakar’s level but as the voices contrast so well, one finally has no trouble distinguishing between Elvira and Anna. Dame Felicity Lott and Valerie Masterson were still at the outset of their careers, both sounding fresh and lovely. These DVD’s remind us too that not all promising singers (wonderful Lilian Watson as Blondchen, spirited Elizabeth Gale as Zerlina and Danièle Perriers as Despina) make it into the big league, though judging from these performances they surely had the talent.
Another of the joys of these DVD’s is the consistency of the orchestral playing, no doubt also due to the fact that four of these performances are conducted by the somewhat underrated John Pritchard: urgent and sincere in Nozze, forceful in Idomeneo and unhurried but decisive in Cosi. Don Giovanni has the strong personality of Bernard Haitink at the helm, redeeming himself according to the critics from a less successful run of the same opera at Covent Garden. In this performance there is nothing to be found of the slackness he was accused of during the London performances. The appoggiatura cult, however, was still in its early days when it was still possible for a conductor to ban them as Haitink does here (at the reprise in 1978 he allowed them to make their appearance). In Nozze, Pritchard rather haphazardly introduces them as well.
Gustav Kuhn is a less well-known name but he proves he has Mozart in his fingers. As befits festival productions — this was still rare 30 years ago — we are always given the full scores. For example, the two tenor arias in Cosi and, even more remarkably, Arbace’s aria in Idomeneo are rarely performed today. One wonders if this wasn’t too much for the house. Figaro, which runs for more than three hours, includes the Marcellina and Basilio arias. On DVD full scores are a plus point however. TV director Dave Heather recorded the performances without using video tricks that later became annoying with the overuse of split screen, mixing of two heads etc. A small drawback may be that picture quality is not always pristine. Don Giovanni and Entführung are a little bit (and the accent is on little) murky but if you are in for fine traditional productions with often very well sung performances, this needn’t deter you. A splendid set.