LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, By Donizetti, Netrebko, Beczala, Kwiecien, DG 0734545 (Blu-ray); KHOVANSHCHINA, By Mussorgsky, Nesterenko, Arkhipova, Vedernikov, Kultur D1163; SIEGFRIED, By Wagner, Hopf, Nilsson, Weiner, Myto Historical 00325 [3 CDs]
The Blu-ray disc of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor starring Anna Netrebko supplements the DVD issue of 2009. Opinions have differed about its merits, but I enjoyed it enormously. In particular, Netrebko contributes a vocal freshness and purity of tone that wonderfully complements the visually resplendent production of Mary Zimmerman.
This latter moves the action, totally credibly, to the late 19th century, with umbrellas, champagne flutes and a magnesium-flare wedding photo on the last note of the great sextet (after which Lucia collapses). Earlier, and again at the end, a physical ghost is seen wandering the moonlit stage.
All in all, this is an opera DVD to treasure, both visually and musically. The orchestra under Mario Armiliato plays with such clarity, illuminating Donizetti’s under-estimated score, that I was convinced for the first time in my life of its genuine greatness. I’d previously been over-influenced by what seemed, and still seems, the essential frivolity of the endless soprano-plus-solo-flute-accompaniment of the mad scene.
The men are immensely strong. Piotr Beczala, substituting for Rolando Villazon as Edgardo, won many hearts, while Manusz Kwiecien is flawless as the villain, Enrico.
Captions are in English, Chinese, Italian, German, French and Spanish. Earlier this year the whole production was uploaded onto YouTube.
What are the differences between Italian opera and the Russian variety? Speaking of the 19th century, the Russian style lacks the vitality and electric dynamism of the typical Italian version. In their place it offers a preponderance of bass voices and baleful mezzo-sopranos. Whereas Italian operas tend to focus on conflicts within individuals, the Russian form evokes national conflicts featuring the church, the tsars and the rebellious boyars, blocks of soulful feeling that collide as unsubtly as tectonic plates.
This, at any rate, is the ambiance of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina (1886), created in a decade that saw the premieres of Verdi’s Otello and Wagner’s Parsifal. It isn’t a work that’s received a great many videoed performances, but one has recently come to hand that was taped live at the Bolshoi Opera in 1979. Sets are monumental (and seem to resemble the originals from a hundred years earlier), costumes are traditional, stage gestures wooden and the atmosphere Russian in the extreme.
The great Russian bass Evgeny Nesterenko sings Dosifei, a leader of the church sect known as the Old Believers, while another bass, Alexander Vedernikov, plays Khovansky, captain of the feared Streltsy Guards. Marfa, a fortune-teller and follower of Dosifel, is sung by Irina Arkhipova.
The plot is convoluted, and the situation is made more confusing by the prohibition at the time of the portrayal of members of the Romanov dynasty onstage. The dance of the Persian slaves is distinctly underwhelming (two or three Korean pop groups should have been given the job), and the self-immolation of the Old Believers at the end entirely lacks the necessary horror. The greatness of Russian art, you’re left feeling, lies in its literature, not in its operas.