LEHAR: The Merry Widow
PUCCINI: Madama Butterfly
MOZART: The Magic Flute
Franz Lehar's immortal Merry Widow is presented here in a San Francisco Opera production recorded during a performance Dec. 8, 2001 at the War Memorial Opera House. New dialogue from Pulitzer Prize-winning playright Wendy Wasserstein adds to the production as does an original ballet during the 'Chez Maxim' scene. The entire cast is superb, with soprano Yvonne Kenny singing the title role for the first time and doing so brilliantly. Angelika Kirschschlager, who already has to her credit a superb SACD of Bach arias (REVIEW), is wonderful as Valencienne. In addition to fine singing throughout, all of the singers are attractive, the many stretches of dialogue spoken with style. Everything about this production is first-rate, the beautiful sets and costumes are perfect, camera work exemplary, and the Dolby digital surround sound totally natural.
Herbert von Karajan's video is a Jean-Pierre Ponnelle color film production dating from about 1974, a lush, ponderous, big-scale treatment of Puccini's masterpiece. About the same time the conductor made a studio recording, also with the Vienna Philharmonic and Mirella Freni, this time partnered by Luciano Pavarotti as Pinkerton; Placido Domingo is featured on the video. He was in his prime at the time—and looked quite handsome as the unfaithful officer. Freni was a fine Butterfly, and one could not find a more effective Suzuki than Christa Ludwig. The remainder of the cast is equally strong. Decca's 5 channel "surround sound" is artificially created, but natural, although the singers often are quite distant. Karajan's tempi are lethargic and it is to the singers' credit that they can sustain their vocal lines at his slow tempi. The performance obviously was recorded first, then filmed, with occasional lip-sync problems. Ponnelle's direction is a bit artsy at times with many hazy outdoor episodes.On occasion the singers don't move their mouths while "singing," and Ponnelle has Pinkerton leap through the paper wall of Butterfly's house at the opera's conclusion—a dubious decision. Subtitles are provided in English, French, German, Spanish and Chinese.
Sir Colin Davis leads the Royal Opera House Orchestra in a sprightly performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute filmed in 2003. The cast throughout is excellent and all benefit from Sir Colin's expertise as a Mozart conductor. Director David McVicar keeps things moving impressively with Diana Damrau a remarkably accurate Queen of the Night, Franz-Josef Selig coping well with the demanding bass role of Sarastro, Will Hartmann and Dorothea Roschmann perfect as Tamino and Pamina. Simon Keenlyside is a delightful Papageno, Ailish Tynan a charming Papagena. The Magic Flute is beautifully presented in every way and, as always, the surtitles (in English and Spanish) will help the novice understand the intricacies of the Schikaneder/Metzler libretto.
Opus Arte's Carmen is not of the same level, primarily because
of the David McVicar's direction. Perhaps the most performed opera in
the world, Carmen seems to be indestructable in spite of being
subjected to a variety of ill-advised intervening directors who impose
on Bizet's masterpiece—usually to negative effect. This recording,
from a 2003 performance, stretches the concept of indestructability.
It's hard to understand how
von Otter could be convinced to give the tasteless, slutty performance
that she does here. She paints a Carmen devoid of any emotion but wantonness.
Her characterization follows one idée fixe: Carmen exists
to demean men and will connive and scheme to that end and to no other.
is a tiresome creature. I doubt that Marcus Haddock's wooden and vapid
Don José would impress regardless of the director, but it’s
particularly regretful that in this performance, where a large percentage
of the original dialogue is used and the Guiraud non-original recitatives
gratefully eliminated, none of the humanity uncovered in the dialog and
intrinsic to this poor simpleton becomes apparent. He remains a buffoon,
showing little change from the dumb-but-honest-I-didn’t-mean-to-kill-anyone-and-land-in-the-army-and-gosh-I’m-really-sorry
corporal of Act I to the crazed, abandoned, desperate jilted lover of
Act IV. Laurent Naouri's Escamillo is a disappointingly choreographed,
unmasculine and wimpy "hero." Bizet actually wrote into the
score that Escamillo is to end each stanza avec fatuité [silly
conceit]. I would have expected this Escamillo to serve crumpets and
Milnes is a matronly-appearing Micaëla, more like a maiden auntie
than the 16 year old rustic ingénue. Nothing appeals in Act I,
where the set is cramped, the singers required to do gestures
often totally unlinked to what they’re singing. Even at the very
end, where Carmen’s hands are supposed to be disguisedly tied so
that DJ can lead her off to detention and make her “escape” look
spontaneous, von Otter blatantly takes the rope from her wrists, goes
over to Zuniga, who’s reading a newspaper, dangles it in his face,
then just runs off. Zuniga may not be the brightest bulb in the fixture,
but he just sits dazed while DJ makes a feeble attempt to take a few
steps in Carmen’s direction, then just stops, shakes his head,
and looks like the kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Where’s
the lust/love for which he’s just set her free? Where’s the
satisfaction that his new would-be lover isn’t going to jail. What
we end up seeing throughout this production has little to do with Bizet’s
intentions. It is not an improvement.