OFFENBACH: The Tales of Hoffmann
SALLINEN: The Red Line
Offenbach's fantastic opera here receives an outstanding performance in a production by acclaimed Canadian Robert Carsen first produced at the Paris Opera in 2000. It returned in 2002 when this performance was taped in October before a highly enthusiastic audience. Sets and costumes are colorful and imaginative, singing throughout is of a high level. American tenor Neil Shicoff made his operatic debut in 1975 in Cincinnati in Ernani and the next year sang several leading roles at the Met. Stage fright was a problem and Shicoff was known for cancellations, but now all that apparently is over and he has returned to performing with major companies, In 1986 he recorded Hoffmann in Brussels for EMI, and has sung the role with great success in many opera houses. Shicoff's voice is still in excellent condition, and dramatically he is perfect as the tormented Hoffmann. All of the singers are commendable, particularly Susanne Mentzer, and Bryn Terfel who sings the four roles sometimes assigned to separate performers. Désirée Rancatore deals professionally with the director's concept of a mechanical doll (do we really want to see her humping Hoffmann during the Doll Song?). Overall, this is a great show marred only by video director Françoise Roussillon's penchant for super close ups that seldom flatter. Audio is adequate, but not exceptional.
Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935) is considered to be the successor to Sibelius as Finland's great composer. His opera The Red Line, commissioned by the Finnish National Opera, had its premiere in Helsinki November 30, 1978. Gloom and despair prevail in this opera, a social drama based on Ilmari Kianto's 1911 novel set in 1907. This was the first year in which elections were held which eventually led to Finnish independence a decade later. The Red Line tells the story of the crofter Topi and his family who live in poverty in a bleak, wintry area. They have been told that if they draw a red line on the ballot they will be freed of oppression. There is a bear in the area that has killed some of Topi's flock which caused the death of his three children from starvation. Topi swears he will kill the bear, but in the final scene Topi is killed by the bear, his throat slit by a red line. Sallinen's powerful music perfectly conveys this tragic story. Baritone Jorma Hynninen sang Topi in the premiere and also sings it in this live performance in May 2008. Surely this is a definitive performance of this important work. Video and audio are excellent. The bonus interviews with the composer, stage director Pekka Milonoff, conductor Mikko Franck and baritone Jorma Hynninen add to the importance of this release. Also check out another opera by Sallinen, The Palace, mentioned on this site (REVIEW).
Wagner's early opera Rienzi has several important recordings featuring leading Wagnerians of the past, but this is the only DVD—and this is really not Rienzi. Philipp Stölzi is responsible for this staging that eliminates much of the opera (it is now 2 acts instead of 5) and updates the story to the era of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, using newsreels and projections. During playing of the overture, we see Rienzi seated in front of a screen. He soon begins to "conduct" and rather resembles a lumpy version of Charlie Chaplin in that famous scene from The Great Dictator. Singers are excellent throughout, with particularly fine work from the chorus. Video and audio are up to today's highest standards, but Wagner deserves better than this. A questionable "bonus" is a 26-minute justifying this production.
R.E.B. (December 2010)