In a recent interview on Deutsche Welle TV, Kent Nagano, the Japanese American conductor who’s music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, was asked what his reaction was to the current resurgence of interest in opera.
I must say that any such resurgence was news to me. Nevertheless, I started wondering what kind of new audiences, judging by recent opera issues on DVD, might be drawn to the medium. Going by the proliferation of chic parties and generous libations of champagne in recent productions, I concluded that some of the newly affluent — young financiers and investment analysts, perhaps, anxious for something to mark them out from the still-struggling masses — might be involved.
So, as it’s early in January, and still feels like a time for surveys and round-ups, I’ll today look at one new DVD, and then go on to ask what opera DVDs all these newcomers to the genre, assuming they exist, should regard as must-sees.
The music that tends to receive the party-going treatment isn’t the usual Verdi-Wagner-Puccini repertoire, but earlier, 18th century music — in other words, operas in the Baroque style. Certainly a new DVD of Handel’s rarely performed Partenope, first seen in 1730, opens in just that style.
Partenope is meant to be a princess and the mythical founder of Naples, and we first hear her receiving supplications and hearing breathless messengers. But what we see is her in a modern setting, flouncing about on a table, watched by her fellow partygoers, glasses in hand.
The production originated at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, and was later seen in a concert version at the Proms in London. The DVD dates from September last year, and thus contributed to events marking the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death in 1759.
Andreas Scholl, singing in a high woman’s register, is Arsace. Another character, Rosmira, is a woman disguised as a man (sung by Tuva Semmingsen). Such anomalies were par for the course in early 18th century operas in which emasculated “castrati” played an important part. Today their roles are often taken by counter-tenors, and Scholl was dubbed the finest counter-tenor of his generation by Opera News. Tenor or baritone voices are relatively rare in this production — one of the best is Emilio, leader of the warlike Cumae (Bo Kristian Jensen). Partenope herself, a female character unambiguously played by a woman, is very strongly sung by Inger Dam Jensen.
In a bonus track the director, Francisco Negrin, and set and costume designer Louis Desire, discuss the production with none other than Andreas Scholl, here playing the part of interviewer. The view is expressed that perhaps Handel was trying out a new style, something lighter and more ironic than audiences had experienced in his heavily treated, myth-based “serious” operas. He may consequently have played with the operatic conventions of the day, and the director and costume designer take this as a go-ahead to play with the work even more. Thus a stage battle at one point becomes a game of musical chairs.
The supposed date of the production is timeless, says Desire, though it’s clearly modern in essence. And Negrin describes how he’s brought characters on stage who weren’t there originally to help the soloists establish comic aspects to their roles. Quality comedy is harder to achieve than tragic drama, he points out, but the plus is that 18th century comedy has a lot in common with the present era — not taking sexual passion too seriously, and often ironic and playful, unlike the 19th century when comedy largely took a rest.
Musically attractive though it is, Partenope, or any Handel opera, is not where anyone newly curious about the art form should start. The Baroque 18th century is an acquired taste, whereas some of the more established classics are so powerful it’s almost impossible not to fall for them on first acquaintance.
What opera DVDs, then, should be considered an essential beginner’s library? I offer the following six as unreservedly recommended. None are new, and all have been previously reviewed in this column. Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro, a film directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle with Hermann Prey and Mirella Freni (DGM 073-4034-9); Kenneth Branagh’s World War I film version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Lien Yin DVD-9 in Taiwan); Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg with Ben Heppner, James Morris and Karita Mattila, on balance the finest opera DVD of all time (DGM 073-0949-0); Verdi’s Otello with Renee Fleming and Placido Domingo — as with the Wagner, from New York’s Metropolitan Opera (DGM 073-0929-2); Puccini’s Madame Butterfly with Ying Huang and Richard Troxell — Puccini’s finest score, recommended less for the singing than for its effectiveness as a film: the treatment of the Humming Chorus is quite sensational (Columbia Tristar 05670); and Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, two incomparable short films by Franco Zeffirelli, each starring the young Placido Domingo, on one disc (DGM 073-4033-2). This is the top recommendation for a first-time-ever opera experience.
Asked who his favorite composer was, Nagano named Johann Sebastian Bach. Unfortunately Bach didn’t write any operas.
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