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Thread: Modern and Contemporary Opera on DVD, blu-ray, and CD

          
   
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  1. #136
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    New opera by Mark Abel, contemporary California composer



    This Delos release is scheduled for a few days from now, on 3/16/16. We got an early copy for review. It is the world premiere recording of a contemporary opera by Californian composer Mark Abel. The CD also contains the excellent song cycle The Palm Trees Are Restless, reviewed separately [here].

    Home is a Harbor, opera in three acts, sung in English
    Music by Mark Abel
    Libretto by Mark Abel

    Studio recording
    La Brea Sinfonietta conducted by Benjamin Makino

    Cast

    Jamie Chamberlin, soprano - Lisa
    Ariel Pisturino, soprano - Laurie
    Babatunde Akinboboye, baritone - Lance
    E. Scott Levin, baritone - Leo, Liam
    Janelle DeStefano, mezzo - Linda, Lenore
    Jon Lee Keenan, tenor - Larry
    Carver Cossey, bass - Lou

    Mark Abel has a number of interesting pieces to his name. He has released previous CDs: "The Dream Gallery," and "Terrain of the Heart." The song cycle included in the current CD is his fourth. Home is a Harbor is his first opera.

    He was a rock musician and lyricist as a young man, and later explored modern jazz. However he had always appreciated classical music since his childhood, and after turning to a journalistic career, he decided to become a composer of "serious music."

    His style naturally blends influences from all three genres - rock, jazz, and classical. For example, in this opera, he quotes Shostakovich's 15th Symphony, and a phrase from Charlie Haden's bass solo on Denny Zeitlin's jazz trio "Mirage."

    The themes covered by the libretto are set to the years between 2005 and 2011. Twin sisters born in a coastal California community, Morro Bay, are the leading characters for this piece that shows their coming-of-age stories, in a slice-of-life pattern. One, Lisa, goes to NYU to become a visual artist, drops out of school, enjoys some success in the Soho and Brooklyn art scenes selling her paintings, but becomes disillusioned with the frivolity of the milieu (and with her superficial boyfriend Larry) and returns to Morro Bay. The other one, Laurie, goes to a local community college then transfers to Cal Poly, and subsequently works in real state for a shady businessman, Liam. She becomes equally turned off by her boss' unethical practices and also returns to Morro Bay. Her boyfriend Lance enlists in the Army and comes back from Afghanistan maimed and disfigured, becoming a pain-killer addict, and a homeless Vet. The sisters, shocked with these developments, decide to form an organization to aid homeless Vets. Other comprimario characters include Lou, an elderly black poet; the twins' parents Leo and Linda; Lenore, an art dealer, The Yowler, an untalented ukulele player and singer; a nurse at the VA hospital; and a bum.

    The runtime is approximately 100 minutes. The package comes with an insert that contains several color pictures of California landscapes and the cast members/conductor/composer, with their brief artistic biographies. The full libretto is provided, as well as the text for the five poems set to music in the accompanying song cycle. There is a two-page introductory text, and a two-page composer's note, as well as a synopsis. The opera was recorded in July 2015. To date, I'm not aware of a staging or a concert performance.

    The opera is scored for a chamber orchestra - flute, alto flute, piccolo, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, flugelhorn, piano, sampled celesta, cimbalom, cello, bass, vibraphone, percussion, and... an organ, which provides the big sounds for the more dramatic scenes, and it sometimes plays with the double bass. Synthetic sounds also appear, including iPhone ringing tones.

    Spoken dialogues happen from time to time but mostly the vocal writing is in parlando / arioso structure. There are numerous jazzy and "rocky" moments.

    First operas are never an easy task. This one does have merits. It is lively and varied. It is utterly modern in sounds and themes. It is sufficiently compact, with no longueurs. The piece also suffers from some shortcomings. Vocal writing is not as inspired as the composer is surely capable of doing, which is well proven by his much more compelling song cycle that follows the opera. The first act appears a bit musically directionless (granted, the characters' lives are depicted as such in the first act so the music does match the idea). Second act picks up a bit, with an interesting act 2 scene 3 in a night club, and especially act 2 scene 4 in the VA hospital, which contains the best musical ideas. Act 3 has a somewhat over-busy simultaneous/alternating scene with the two sisters in different locations and interacting with different characters, but it does have some clever overlaps. Act 3 scene 2, while being the longest (and final) scene, paradoxically seems rushed with a character arc that is a bit under-developed.

    The singers do well across the board in terms of beautiful voice timbre, good technique with nice pitch control, and range. I particularly liked Ms. Jamie Chamberlain. They do suffer when compared with the spectacular job done by the excellent Hila Plitmann in the song cycle. What the latter has more than the singers for the opera, is musicality and passion in the phrasing of the lines. Conceivably, if two singers of her stature had performed the two leading roles in the opera, the impact would have been bigger.

    In summary, this is a valid effort that should encourage the composer to keep writing operas, but it could use some enhancements. I'll give it 3 stars out of 5. I'd imagine that with subsequent workshops, rehearsals, and adaptations for a staging, this opera could get to a 4-star rating. Often a first opera when released is still a work-in-progress and can be improved.

    While the opera has ups and downs, the purchase of this CD is recommended anyway, especially due to the sublime song cycle that in itself justifies the buy.

    Besides, we've just learned that the composer will donate part of the sales revenue to organizations that help Veterans, and this is highly commendable, and greatly endears the composer to me.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); March 7th, 2016 at 12:26 AM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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  3. #137
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Claude, opera in one prologue, sixteen scenes, two inter-scenes, and one epilogue, sung in French
    Music by Thierry Escaich
    Libretto by Robert Badinter, after Victor Hugo's short story Claude Gueux (1834) which is in its turn based on true events that happened in 1826 in the French town of Troyes
    Premiered on March 27, 2013 at Opéra de Lyon, France



    Commissioned by the Opéra de Lyon

    DVD filmed at Opéra de Lyon in April 2013, a BelAir Classiques release in 2015

    Orchestre de L'Opéra de Lyon conducted by Jérémie Rhorer
    Choeur de L'Opéra de Lyon, chorus master Alan Woodbridge

    Stage Direction by Olivier Py
    Sets and Costumes by Pierre André-Weitz
    Lighting by Bertrand Killy
    Choreography by Daniel Izzo
    Video Production by Antoine Perset and Denis Morlière
    Video Direction by Vincent Massip

    Cast

    Claude - Jean-Sébasten Bou
    The Director - Jean-Philippe Lafont
    Albin - Rodrigo Ferreira
    The Entrepreneur / The Head Warden - Laurent Alvaro
    First Character / First Warden - Rémy Mathieu
    Second Character / Second Warden - Philip Sheffield

    Runtime 97 minutes (opera) + 26 minutes (bonus interview with Thierry Escaich and Robert Badinter by Anne Sinclair)
    Region code zero (all)
    Subtitles in French and English
    Video: 1 DVD9 NTSC 16:9
    Audio: PCM 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1

    Booklet: 11 color production pictures + 1 picture with the composer, the librettist, the stage director, and the director L'Opéra de Lyon. Credits, list of musical numbers and duration of each number, scene-by-scene synopsis in three pages, and one page describing the psychological arc of each of the four main characters and the two commentators. This is all repeated in French and English.

    -------------

    This is not for the faint of heart, since it depicts very realistically life in a male prison, which includes rape, homosexuality, and violent brutality. It is based upon a short story by Victor Hugo on themes of societal injustice, which he would much more extensively address 30 years later in Les Misérables. The short story is about a petty thief who steals to feed his family. He is caught and sent for five years to a prison where he is abused and ends up killing the prison's director, resulting in his execution.

    In the opera Claude is sentenced to seven years of hard labor, and the injustice of the situation is further underlined by the fact that he is not a thief, but rather a worker downsized by the machine-driven industrial revolution. He engages in strikes/protests and is arrested when he fires shots at the police in a barricade. All of these events precede the opera's timeline, and are narrated by the two commentators in the prologue.

    The countertenor role of Albin is that of a fellow prisoner who is being brutally gang raped, which Claude interrupts by fighting with the rapists. Albin is tiny and daily gives half of his bread to Claude, a bigger man who needs more food. This results in Claude protecting Albin from the other prisoners. Ambiguous homo-erotic feelings develop between the three man, which is exploited by the sadistic Director, who makes a point of trying to break Claude's leadership among the prisoners. He separates Claude and Albin, which finally makes Claude snap and kill him. Another difference between the opera and the literary source is that there is no ambiguity whatsoever in the homosexual relationship between Claude and Albin in the opera, since they are seen having sex with each other.

    The contemporary music in this work is interesting. The orchestration often relies on ominous and suspenseful strings that are quite beautiful, with abrupt bursts of metals and percussion that appropriately reproduce the noises of the machines used for forced labor (which are metaphorically shown as just some wooden wheels as props) and the various noises in the hectic and violent everyday prison life.

    The chorus is used to striking effect, adding a ghostly and dreamy aural landscape. Vocal writing as it is often the case in contemporary opera is restrained to parlando lines, giving more of an impression of spoken stage theater with musical background. However, given the more melodious chorus lines and the pulsating, resonant strings and percussion, I'd say that the score is quite successful.

    The Orchestre de L'Opéra de Lyon does a good job, and the chorus is excellent. However countertenor Rodrigo Ferreira is definitely not a good one. After being spoiled by the high singing quality of artists such as Philippe Jaroussky, Andreas Scholl, and Bejun Mehta among others, I came to expect a lot from countertenors and unfortunately Mr. Ferreira doesn't make the grade, which is a major obstacle for the enjoyment of this recording, at least for someone like me who is a big fan of countertenor singing.

    Baritone Jean-Sébastien Bou who sings the title role is better than his colleague, but is not outstanding. He is able to produce the notes and to manage the forceful low-register singing (although with limited projection), but I just don't find his timbre of voice to be that compelling. Acting-wise he generally does well but needs to better control his eyes. He often looks at the camera or otherwise away from where he should be looking, which is distracting.

    Jean-Philippe Lafont is a better actor, portraying a convincingly sadistic and harsh prison director. His voice wobbles a little which is not too bad given that his character is supposed to be an older man.

    Sets and costumes are stark and in tones of gray and brown. They are very effective in terms of what is expected from a bleak prison. Lighting, congruent with that, is very dark. Image definition is good on this DVD. Film direction is quite accomplished, managing well close-ups versus panning and zooming out.

    Olivier Py's production is competent and with some clever solutions. Rotating sets bring in a stack of prison cells that are very realistic, and other environments within the prison that are believable. The use of the two narrators (the First Character and the Second Character) enhances the literary quality of the work (an effect similar to what Martin Crimp accomplished in his text for George Benjamin's Written on Skin - although WoS is a much better opera than this one).

    In terms of theatrical possibilities, the main issue with this opera is that it extends for 97 minutes a short story, likely for longer than what is warranted by the rather static situation. We get to see despair, pain, typical prison violence and sadism... then we get to see despair, pain, typical prison violence and sadism. Finally, as the opera progresses we then get to see despair, pain, typical prison violence and sadism.

    You get my point. Most likely this work would have been more impressive if it had adopted a length more akin to that of a chamber opera or a one-act piece, rather than... one prologue, sixteen scenes, two inter-scenes, and an epilogue!

    The second half of the show improves upon the first half, starting with the director's murder, followed by a beautiful moment in which a female ballerina is seen dancing while sparkling pieces of paper fall from the top. The work becomes good at this point, theatrically and visually. It's the long build-up to it in the previous prison scenes that is excessive.

    The interview conducted by the great French journalist Mme. Anne Sinclair is interesting.

    In summary, as far as contemporary opera goes, I've seen better. It's a good score with interesting orchestration and choruses, and it is a good production by Olivier Py, but theatrically it could use some tightening and shortening, and this particular performance is marred by less-than-ideal singing.

    This could be very good in another staging, with some cuts (such as bringing the scenes to 10 instead of 16+4) and better singers. Musically the opera deserves an "A" rating and is better than most contemporary operas, but the librettist should have shrunk it a bit. During the interview the librettist when confronted by the journalist who also noted the repetition and the longueur said that he was faithful to Hugo's work. But no, Mr. Badinter! The best librettos for operas are synthetic. The written work can afford longer descriptions, but the key in terms of writing an effective libretto is to make it more economical, and to rely on the music for some of the expressed ideas. By the way that's exactly what the composer said in the interview, and he did say that he asked for some cuts. He should have asked for more cuts!

    As it is, I still give it a "B+" rating: recommended, but only to lovers of contemporary opera.

    A postcript: it is interesting to notice that according to the composer and the librettist in the interview, this opera was surely based on Claude Gueux, but was also inspired by Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamné, another work by Victor Hugo. Well, there is an opera based on the latter text, composed by Roberto Alagna's brother, David Alagna. I find that Alagna's opera is far superior to this one.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); April 9th, 2016 at 06:58 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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  5. #138
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Der zerbrochene Krug, opera in one act, sung in German (1941/42), on blu-ray disc
    Music by Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944)
    Libretto by the composer, based on a play of the same name by Heinrich von Kleist

    -------------

    Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by James Conlon, chorus master Grant Gershon
    Concertmaster Stuart Canin
    A production of Los Angeles Opera, recorded live on March 1 and 8, 2008

    Stage director Darko Tresnjak
    Set Designer Ralph Funicello
    Costume Designer Linda Cho
    Lighting Designer David Weiner

    Cast

    Adam - James Johnson
    Licht - Bonaventura Bottone
    Walter - Steven Humes
    Frau Marthe Hull - Elizabeth Bishop
    Eve - Melody Moore
    Veit Trümpel - Jason Stearns
    Ruprecht - Richard Cox
    Frau Brigitte - Natasha Flores
    First Maid - Rena Harms
    Second Maid - Lauren McNeese
    A Servant - Ryan McKinny

    ----------

    LA Opera produced this opera by Jewish composer Viktor Ullmann who was killed in a concentration camp, as part of their series of these lost works banned by the Nazis. The initiative is commendable but the work is rather minor and musically unappealing. The main character Judge Adam in this unfunny comedy is well sung and acted, but other artists aren't as good. The sets are realistic and costumes are good. The orchestra soldiers on playing this fragmented score that sounds a bit like film sound track music. It's a very short work, 35 minutes. Frankly I find it forgettable.

    Documentation is faulty. There are no mention of characters in the list of musical numbers. No synopsis. There is a short essay that isn't exactly very informative.

    This ArtHaus Musik release on blu-ray comes in double bill with Der Zwerg by Zemlinsky a longer and better known work. PCM Stereo, DTS Master Audio 5.1, subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish, and Italian. Region Worldwide. Overall, B minus, not recommended.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); May 12th, 2016 at 01:37 AM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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  7. #139
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Der Zwerg, opera in one act, sung in German, on blu-ray disc
    Music by Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942)
    Libretto by Georg G. Klaren, after Oscar Wilde's play The Birthday of the Infanta (1891)
    Premiered in 1922 at Cologne Opera

    Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by James Conlon, chorus master Grant Gershon
    Concertmaster Stuart Canin
    A production of Los Angeles Opera, recorded live on March 1 and 8, 2008

    Stage director Darko Tresnjak
    Set Designer Ralph Funicello
    Costume Designer Linda Cho
    Lighting Designer David Weiner

    Cast

    The Dwarf - Rodrick Dixon
    Donna Clara (Infanta of Spain) - Mary Dunleavy
    Ghita - Susan B. Anthony
    Don Esteban - James Johnson
    First Maid - Melody Moore
    Second Maid - Lauren McNeese
    Third Maid - Elizabeth Bishop
    First Playmate - Karen Vuong
    Second Playmate - Rena Harms

    Documentation is faulty. There are no mention of characters in the list of musical numbers. No synopsis. There is a short essay (by Conlon) that is better about Der Zwerg than the part about the previous opera (more informative and better written).

    This ArtHaus Musik release on blu-ray comes in double bill with Der zerbrochene Krug by Ullmann, reviewed above. PCM Stereo, DTS Master Audio 5.1, subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish, and Italian. Region Worldwide.



    -----------

    This is way superior to the companion work on this blu-ray disc. This opera is musically much more interesting, theatrically more satisfying, psychologically richer, and the staging is better, with better use of the space (in terms of depth and perspective). The period costumes are gorgeous. Choreography and blocking work well. James Johnson sings beautifully. Mary Dunleavy is cute (her voice is good too) although not very convincing as the young Infanta (age-wise).

    I'm less impressed with the singer in the title role, Rodrick Dixon, who overacts a bit and seems to strain his voice in the more forceful passages, and his phrasing is sort of harsh and halting. Well, reading it like this one will assume he is a disaster. He isn't. The end result is still not bad. Susan Anthony has a difficult role in terms of vocal range. She does not always pass it with flying colors and is the weakest link in this performance.

    It is a very beautiful opera that deserves more productions (it is part of this season at Teatro São Pedro in Brazil, the house we covered extensively a month ago). It is in part autobiographic since the composer was a short man who lost the love of his life because she found him too ugly.

    I'd say it's a gem of a show, with an overall A+ grade that amply compensates for the bland double bill offering. While I found the first one not recommended, this one is very much recommended and justifies the purchase of this product even though it is not particularly cheap ($35 on Amazon).
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); May 17th, 2016 at 12:07 AM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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  9. #140
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Aribert Reimann's Medea on blu-ray disc



    Medea, opera in four pictures, sung in German (2010)
    Music and libretto by Aribert Reimann, based on the play by Franz Grillparzer, in itself based on Euripides

    World Premiere, recorded live at Vienna State Opera, 2010
    Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper conducted by Michael Boder
    Stage Direction, Sets, and Lighting Design by Marco Arturo Marelli
    Costumes by Dagmar Niefind

    Cast

    Medea - Marlis Petersen
    Kreusa - Michaela Selinger
    Gora - Elisabeth Culman
    Kreon - Michael Roider
    Jason - Adrian Eröd
    Herold - Max Emanuel Cencic

    ------------

    I've demonstrated here my love for contemporary opera time and again, so when I don't like one of them I can't be suspected of just not getting it or not having my ears prepared for it. I'm generally willing to accept the declamatory nature of vocal writing in most contemporary operas, and I'm usually not bothered by the current style that privileges fragmented drama over melodies and harmonic musical approach.

    Sorry, Mr. Reimann, but this one I can't really endorse.

    Vocal writing is probably the most fundamental part of contemporary opera in terms of "make it or break it." Because, see, the orchestral part shouldn't differ very much from instrumental-only pieces of contemporary music, which I love. The trick is to add the vocal writing in a way that is compelling and blends well with everything else. That's exactly why opera is difficult to compose, because not always this marriage is successfully achieved.

    It seems like certain contemporary composers when trying their hand at opera will just do the following: get the prospective singers' ranges, and write lines that go from the lowest to the highest note and back, and mark it all fortissimo, resulting in constant screaming, shouting, and yelling.

    Sorry, but it doesn't work. It gets old soon. Sure, it matches the usual dramatic intensity of the contemporary style, but if you just want your singers to scream *all the time* over and over and over, what's exactly the point?

    This is precisely what the good ones like Written on Skin do NOT do. Sure, they have their screaming moments, but they also have delicacy, pianissimi, and melodic beauty in other parts. There is contrast. There is nuance. There is progression. The fragmented, shouting moments make sense, and occur when the drama is most intense and asks for them.

    Do it all the time, and you lose all coherence, all sense.

    Albert Reimann's Medea is a screaming feast. I doubt that human beings over two hours of even a very dramatic situation like Medea's and Jason's would be constantly screaming. Surely they might speak normally to each other from time to time?

    The orchestration is fine. It is rather compelling with intense rolling thundering sounds and percussion, but the vocal writing is atrocious.

    The Vienna State Opera got a visually impressive production: a lunar landscape with the bleak and gray rocky surroundings matching well Medea's despair, with a modern-looking upper part of the stage rendering the idealized Corinth to where Medea would like to be admitted.

    Singers try their best. I wonder how much fatigue this vocal writing must generate. Marlis Petersen is a force of nature and she just keeps going, and is a gifted actress. No one else in this cast approaches her proficiency, but nobody sinks the ship either.

    I'm writing this review mid-way, some 55 minutes into this opera that has a running time of 1h 53'. Maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe it will improve.

    But as of now, I give to this piece a B- rating, not recommended.

    PS - The last ten minutes, the screaming stopped, and then it did get beautiful. See, Mr. Reimann? You can do it. Due to the last ten minutes, I'm upgrading my rating to B.

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    A 2010 ArtHaus Music release on 25GB single layer blu-ray disc, 1080i full HD, PCM Stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, running time 113 minutes, no extras other than trailers, subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish, and Italian. The booklet contains credits, list of musical numbers with characters and duration, a 1-page synopsis, an informative 4-page essay by Andreas Láng repeated in English, French, and German, one color picture and 4 black-and-white pictures. Sound and image are great.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); May 27th, 2016 at 10:34 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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  11. #141
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Luci Mie Traditrici on DVD

    I'll attend in person the Infektion! Festival of New Music presentation of this opera by the Berlin Staatsoper, on July 10, 2016, officially representing Opera Lively. I am scheduled to interview the two principal singers and the conductor, and maybe, pending confirmation, also the stage director (Jürgen Flimm). So stay tuned for my review of the live show, and the interviews with mezzo-soprano Katharina Kammerloher, bass-baritone Otto Katzameier, and conductor David Robert Coleman.

    Meanwhile, let's review the opera on DVD. This is the third recorded version of this very successful contemporary opera; the other two are on CD, the preferred one being the version released by the label Kairos with the same Otto Katzameier singing the male lead; the Klangforum Wien orchestra is conducted by Beat Furrer, with the female lead being Annette Stricker. Here is a link to that CD on Amazon that sells for $28: [clicky]
    And here is the link to this DVD, selling for $20: [clicky]

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    Luci Mie Traditrici, Opera in due atti, premiered in 1998, sung in Italian (short prologue sung in French)
    Also know as The Killing Flower (the composer's proposed alternative English title, which does not translate the Italian title, which means My Betraying Eyes)
    Music by Salvatore Sciarrino (1947- )
    Libretto by Salvatore Sciarrino, after Il Tradimento per L'Onore by Giacinto Andrea Cicognini, 1664, and an eulogy by Claude Le Jeune, 1608

    -------------

    Ensemble Algoritmo conducted by Marco Angius
    Christian Pade, stage director
    Giancarlo Matcovich, producer
    Agnes Eggers, dramaturgy
    Alexander Lintl, scenery and costumes
    Mauro Milani, stage design
    Gianni Trabalzini, lighting design
    Dobora Vrizzi, camera
    Aline Hervé, editing

    Cast

    Nina Tarandek (La Malaspina)
    Christian Miedl (Il Malaspina)
    Roland Schneider (L’Ospite)
    Simon Bode (Un Servo)

    A co-production of Oper Frankfurt and the Cantiere Internazionale d'Arte di Montepulciano, recorded live in Montepulciano, Italy, on July 29-31 and August 1, 2010

    A 2012 DVD release by EuroArts, region code zero (worldwide), NTSC color 16:9, sound PCM stereo, subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, and Chinese. Running Time 69 minutes (opera) + 33 minutes (bonus).

    The bonus feature contains an extensive "Making Of" documentary including Sciarrino himself explaining his opera, and interviews with the singers and the production team.

    The insert contains two color and five black-and-white production pictures, credits, list of musical numbers with characters and duration, a two-and-a-half page essay on the opera and the composer by David Patmore which includes a brief synopsis and is repeated in English, German, and French. It is to be noted that the version on CD I've mentioned above contains the full libretto.

    --------------

    Salvatore Sciarrino is a contemporary composer of avant-garde opera and other musical genres, who lives in his native Italy in the Citta di Castella in Perugia, and teaches composition at the Florence conservatory. He is a prestigious composer who has held several faculty appointments in Palermo and Milan, and has received several prizes, with a catalog of more than 130 pieces (one of the most extensive body of works among contemporary composers). According to him, in addition to having been a disciple of Franco Evangelisti's, Stockhausen was a major influence on his music.

    This is one of many of his avant-garde operas, played here by an ensemble of soloists specialized in contemporary music. Luci Mie Traditrici has been staged several times throughout Europe since its premiere. It used to be seen complete on YouTube in a very powerful staging at the Opéra de Lyon with Maria Riccarda Wesseling and the same Otto Katzameier I'll be seeing live, which unfortunately is no longer there. I very much liked that production (better than this one I'm reviewing here). A scene of that production can still be seen here:



    Sciarrino's music is very unique, especially his vocal writing, often using long extensions of the vowels and short bursts of the other syllables, completely altering the dynamics of the words, with added complex melismas. These techniques are not only intriguing, but also convey a very Italianate melodic sense. The orchestration and instrumental parts are vanishing and phantasmagorical, and evoke blowing winds, breathing, neighing horses, sounds of nature (birds, insects), and percussion. Silence occurs often, which then goes from this state of zero sounds to a multitude of microscopic sounds and whispers and soft noises that seem to reproduce the sonorous real-life universe that surrounds the characters.

    The result in my opinion is *extremely* powerful. It starts with the exquisite, sensitive, and poetic libretto, which makes use of very short phrases, at times one-word sentences that parade in rapid succession, but still manage to perfectly convey the strong feelings that the characters of this opera are going through. Then, the music impacts on the work a very realistic sense of dread and doom, of emotional intensity and impending tragedy - affects like love, fear, jealousy, lust, horror are very well tone-painted.

    The piece can be read and heard like a growing nightmare. It makes me think of Verdi's Otello, in its claustrophobic and inexorable progression to the shocking last scene. Of course, the musical structure of these two works couldn't be more different, but the atmosphere is quite similar. The musical style on the other hand reminds me of another piece I like a lot, Itinerário do Sal by Portuguese contemporary composer Miguel Azguimes. While Azguime's opera is even more adventurous and makes abundant use of electronic music, these two pieces do share this ability to work with the sounds of a word and manipulate it to achieve expressive power.

    Cicognini's text on which the composer based his libretto is about a real episode in the life of Renaissance composer Don Carlo Gesualdo, son of the Prince of Naples and heir to his father's court, who brutally murdered his wife Maria d'Avalos in 16th century Naples when he discovered that she had taken a lover, the Duke of Andria, Don Fabrizio Carafa. Don Carlo married his young and pretty cousin Maria in an arranged political marriage, and after fathering a son with her to secure to himself an heir, he turned to hunting and music and completely neglected his wife. Bored, she let herself be seduced by the Duke who was a guest in her home. Don Carlo learned about it from his uncle (not before the uncle also tried to seduce Maria and was rejected), staged a fake hunting trip, came back with three or four thugs, broke into his wife's quarters and surprised the two lovers in bed. The thugs brutally murdered the Duke under Maria's eyes using multiple weapons, and after he was reduced to a bloody pulp Don Carlo stabbed her to death. Given his noble birth and the fact that it was a "honor killing" Don Carlo didn't suffer any legal consequence of his action, but remained to his death haunted by what he had done and still in love with his dead wife.

    Yes, the stuff for opera all right!

    It is interesting to also observe how close this story is to the one that inspired George Benjamin in my very favorite contemporary opera, Written on Skin.

    In Luci Mie Traditrici, the characters are called Il Malaspina and La Malaspina (Don Carlo and Maria in real life), but they simply refer to each other as the Duke and the Duchess; instead of the uncle we get a servant who also loves the duchess and out of jealousy denounces her to the cuckolded husband, and the lover is simply called The Guest (L'Ospite). The murder scene is toned down as opposed to what really happened - The Duke brings his wife to the bedroom after the lover has already been murdered and is laying on the bed under the bed covers; he pulls off the bed covers and shows her the dead body of her lover, then stabs her. There are no thugs and no scene with the brutal multi-weapon killing.

    The libretto does not entirely convey the action. The verbal exchanges are more like snippets of raw emotions than real storytelling. One rather follows what goes on inside the minds of the characters. They talk to each other but it is the depiction of love and fear, etc., that comes through. Things are implied more than said.

    The opening scene - the prologue in French based on the eulogy mentioned above in the source material - is very poetic and sets the tone perfectly for what will happen, and is given an orchestral treatment that recurs later in modified form.

    So, with the opera having been situated above, let's talk about this staging and this performance.

    -------------

    The very short and beautiful French prologue is shown on screen with the musical notes. The sets are simple, made of tall wooden fences and cages that turn and rotate. The characters are dressed in contemporary clothes and hold fans. Lighting is very dark (at times it is hard to see the stage, so dark it gets) and video direction privileges close-ups. The three lead singers are good-looking and act well. While their vocal performances are less accomplished than the ones in the reference CD mentioned above, they are good enough - this material is after all very difficult to sing. Of the three (it's hard to comment on the comprimario role of the servant since he barely utters a few recits), I'd put the vocal quality in this order: Ms. Tarandek first, Mr. Miedl second, and Mr. Schneider third. The two males are kind of bland. The female however has a very beautiful and full voice (and oh boy, she can act!).

    The sound track is very clear and crisp, with good balance.

    The use of the two fans as props is interesting. It introduces the Spain reference, and it is used to good effect for example when the female is aroused by the presence of her lover - she starts to rapidly flicker the fan, while he shows tremors in his hands to convey the same excitement. In the scene where the husband and wife are confrontational, they close the fans and use them as dueling knives. Large roses are also used as props (there is a scene where the countess pricks her hand with a rose and the husband faints - thus the alternative title in English).

    The scene that gives the opera its name is very well done in this version. The two lovers, immensely attracted to each other, repeatedly lament the fact that their eyes can't help but look at each other's face. They repeat "luci mie traditrice" over and over, trying to cover their eyes with their hands.

    The Lyon sets were more beautiful and ethereal, but this show does have the advantage of keeping the focus on the human drama, with the very intense acting by the singers. The video director highlighted it by often focusing on their faces with close-ups. They are also often very close to each other in terms of personal space (it's a very small stage anyway).

    Yes, this is a very "dark" opera and I understand why the lighting designer chose to convey it by the absence of much illumination. On DVD, though, it gets to be a bit annoying, in the scenes where we can barely see what is going on.

    The orchestra is hard to judge given that this score escapes the usual structure that would allow us to comment on transitions, balance, dynamics, etc. It's rather a collection of raspy, abrupt sounds, bird-sounding tweets, nature-sounding noises, heart beats, and so on. Certainly the Ensemble Algoritmo did reproduce the sounds competently, and we get to see it more clearly in the bonus feature. So yes, the instrumentalists did very well.

    Very tense and beautifully acted final scene. The moment when the lover's cadaver is revealed is shocking and powerful, with a clever bit of special effect. Well done.

    The composer attends the curtain calls, which is neat (another advantage of contemporary opera).

    While I liked better the Lyon production (I'm not crazy about these wooden fences or cages and would have appreciated sleeker, more visually striking sets), watching one of my favorite operas on DVD did remind me of how fascinating Luci Mie Traditrici is, and greatly wet my appetite for seeing it live in Berlin in three weeks.

    About the bonus feature:

    The documentary opens with a view of the beautiful village of Montepulciano (which I've visited; great wine - Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, one of Italy's best). We see the orchestra rehearsing and producing Sciarrino's weird sounds; we see the stage hands building the sets, and the singers rehearsing.

    The conductor explains the score very nicely. We get to see the composer talking to the conductor about the bells and how they should sound; the percussionist tries three different ways of striking them until the composer approves it.

    Next Sciarrino explains scene by scene the effects he is getting at - very instructive. I'd call it precious, actually - it's not every day that we get to see a living composer explaining his music step by step. He also adds more depth to the understanding of the characters' psychological arc.

    We briefly hear the stage director, then we see the singers being coached by the dramaturg and the conductor. More views of the streets and roofs of Montepulciano follow. We get to listen to Ms. Tarandek addressing the vocal challenges and see her reading the vocal score.

    We see the artists applying make-up, then we listen to Mr. Miedl who is very insightful about his role.

    Mr. Sciarrino talks about his interaction with the stage director. The beautiful poster for the Festival is shown as the last image and the documentary ends. Brilliant!

    ---------

    So overall we have on this DVD a phenomenal contemporary opera that is well played by the orchestra and well sung by Ms. Tarandek, both earning A++. Her male counterparts are significantly less shiny, around B+ territory. Acting is stupendous, earning an A++. The staging is successful in depicting the human drama and the claustrophobia (A+), but the sets are very primitive and could have been a lot better (B-). The sound track is very crisp (A++) but the image is too dark (B+) in parts. Then we get a superb documentary that in itself justifies the purchase of this product; A++. All things considered, I'd say A+, recommended. While the downsides could have pulled down the final score a bit lower, the documentary itself pushes it up again.

    Lovers of contemporary opera for sure need this product. Those who aren't should see the documentary first, then the opera, and maybe they will actually start loving contemporary opera, because this bonus feature is very convincing.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); July 12th, 2016 at 09:12 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Julie on DVD



    Julie, chamber opera in one act / 12 scenes, (premiered on March 8, 2005 at La Monnaie, Brussels), sung in German (with a few lines in French)
    Music by Philippe Boesnais (living Belgian composer born in 1936)
    Libretto by Luc Bondy and Marie-Louise Bischofberger, after the 1888 play Fröken Julie by August Strindberg

    A production of the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence 2005, in co-production with La Monnaie and the Wiener Festwochen
    Filmed live at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume in Aix-en-Provence in July 2005

    Chamber Orchestra of La Monnaie conducted by Kazushi Ono

    Stage direction - Luc Bondy
    Sets - Richard Peduzzi
    Costumes - Rudy Sabounghi
    Lighting - Dominique Bruguière
    Directed for video by Vincent Bataillon

    Julie, the Count's daughter - Malena Ernman, a Swedish lyric mezzo-soprano
    Jean, the valet - Garry Magee, an English baritone
    Kristin, the cook - Kerstin Avemo, a Swedish coloratura soprano

    A Bel Air Classique / Festival d'Aix-en-Provence 2007 release on DVD 9 NTSC, 16:9, region free; runtime 74 minutes; sound PCM stereo, DD 5.0, and DTS 5.1.; subtitles in German, French, English, and Spanish; insert with credits, a list of scenes (no other details provided, just listed by number), 13 color production pictures, a 2-page synopsis and a 3-page interview with the composer (very, very informative and interesting, detailing his composition technique and approach to the music) repeated in English, French, and German.

    No bonus feature related to this opera, but there are five trailers of other Aix-en-Provence productions: a Poppea (no opinion on it; I haven't seen it - looks minimalistic and well-sung), Handel's Hercules (a superb show filmed in Paris but co-produced with Aix, with Joyce DiDonato arguably in her best work ever; it doesn't get any better than that!), a Don Giovanni (not the most recent one, but an older production with Mattei and Delunsch), a 2003 Traviata (quite decent, with Delunsch in the title role), and a 2001 Turn of the Screw with Delunsch as well which I haven't seen - looks great in this trailer!).

    This product is available on Amazon for the bargain price of $11. Click [here]

    -----------

    Continuing my Aix-en-Provence binge after attending their 2016 festival in person last month, I'm reviewing this compelling opera commissioned by Aix and La Monnaie for their 2005 season. It is a chamber opera with about 70 minutes of continuous one-act music and three characters. There is no overture; the orchestra just hums along while the character Kristin, the cook, vocalizes in the opening scene. From the beginning it is clear that the music is accessible for non-lovers of contemporary sounds, given its restrained, rather tonal and cinematic commentary of relatively melodious vocal lines in recitative style; this seems to at least work as a play with music for those who aren't fanatic about this sub-gender like I am.

    The psychological drama is interesting and a lot is made of these three characters; the cook is the valet's fiancée, but the sexy mademoiselle of the house (the Count's daughter, title role; her father is mentioned but never appears) is successful in seducing him as well, as she feels bored with her noble status and would rather drop in rank to enjoy more freedom, proposing that the two elope together. Their difference in social status does doom the relationship given that the young lady despises more and more the servile (but exploitative) personality traits of her new lover, leading her to commit suicide at the end (something the valet, ultimately preferring the status quo, strongly encourages her to do). It all develops under the bitter gaze of the scorned cook.

    The sets are simple and unattractive in purpose, showing a bleak kitchen with mix-and-match ugly-looking furniture (certainly aiming at depicting the rather depressing nature of the plot). Costumes are set at some point in the 20th century. Lighting is very good and uses to great effect the shadows of the artists projected big on the back wall. Some scenes are fittingly dark for a very somber atmosphere. The storm that happens at about 30 minutes is well rendered.

    All three artists look their parts, are accomplished actors, and sing their roles with very good technique and nice voices. Facial expressions are particularly convincing by the pretty Kerstin Avemo who portrays very well the emotional storm she goes through. The other two are not far behind - I'd say that Ernman is just as good, while Magee is a bit less so. This is a show that is very notable for strong acting, and the video direction displays very well their faces in close-ups, alternating successfully with full stage views.

    The artists get very sweaty. I can understand it; I've been to the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume; it is small and it gets very hot there, in the peak of Southern France's summer. There is no AC. I remember the need to frantically use the playbill as a fan...

    Sound capture is excellent with perfect balance between singers and orchestra (which performs to perfection, under Ono's great conducting).

    Theatricality and pace of this piece are handled beautifully by the composer and librettists. Character development is fabulous, particularly in the title role that begins frivolous but grows dramatic overtones when she realizes the conundrum she got herself into. The psychological duel between Julie and Jean is quite deep.

    The great interview with the composer in the insert does add to the understanding of the piece, but I'd like to have a "making of" documentary as a bonus feature, the lack of it being the only downside of this product. Other than that, I can't spot any negative points. Everything works extremely well here: good score, good libretto, accomplished stage direction, phenomenal acting, nice orchestral playing and singing with good-looking artists; in summary it is a rather perfect show that easily earns my maximum score of A++, highly recommended.

    I'm granting a lot of these lately... Is it grade inflation? I think not. It's just that I've been particularly lucky with the great operas and productions I've had the privilege of seeing live and on video medium, this summer. I wouldn't have criticized so much the awful Aida I saw in person at Opéra-Bastille if I were in just a grade-inflation mood. Great quality like the one exhibited by the entire production and artistic crew in this show just needs to be properly acknowledged.

    I suspect that even non-lovers of contemporary opera will enjoy this show, and with the bargain price of $11, there is no risk. Buy it!
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); August 14th, 2016 at 05:30 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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