New DVDs Offer Beloved Operas in Stylized Productions

Email a Friend

Are you stuck at home, envious of friends and acquaintances who are off at the great music festivals? These recent DVDs allow you to revel in glorious sights and sounds from around the world without doing battle with crowds or high prices.


Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos (Decca). Staged by Philippe Arlaud. Christian Thielemann, Staatskapelle Dresden.

Renée Fleming had declared that this 2012 Baden-Baden Ariadne auf Naxos would be her sole outing in the title role, but then backtracked, adding that she might consider reprising it if asked. Intendants, please, ask her already!

She sings the dual role of the Prima Donna and Ariadne splendidly, her tone ripe and lustrous throughout its range, and while her portrayal has no serious flaws, it surely would gain in breadth and nuance with further perfromances. Her dazed, drunk-with-rapture phrases after Bacchus’s embrace tear at the heart with their seemingly effortless radiance. Robert Dean Smith’s timid cries of "Circe! Circe!” disappoint but he grows in confidence, singing his final declaration of love for Ariadne with grace and ardor. Sophie Koch is an endearingly unhinged, vocally fearless Composer and Jane Archibald a fine Zerbinetta, lacking only the ultimate degree of verbal and musical point. Two much-loved troupers, René Kollo and Eike Wilm Schulte, portray the major-domo and the music master.

Fleming needs to revisit Ariadne most of all because she deserves a better staging than this one. The harsh whites, blacks and gelid blue lighting of Philippe Arlaud’s art-deco-style production flatter no one in the cast, and the moment at the love duet’s climax when the Ikea side chairs go soaring off into the empyrean is especially woeful. On the other hand, it is hard to believe that prima donna or composer could be better served than they are by Christian Thielemann and the Staaskapelle, whose playing is breathtaking throughout.


Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande (naïve). Directed by Robert Wilson. Philippe Jordan, Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris.

A tall black pillar dominates the first scene of Robert Wilson’s staging of Pelléas et Mélisande. Yet when Goulaud offers to stay leaning against a tree to calm the terrified Mélisande, his hand reaches out not to the column but into empty space. Typical of Wilson’s anti-naturalistic aesthetic, the gesture also goes to the heart of Debussy’s enigmatic opera, where echoes and silences speak louder than words and nothing is what it seems.

This, too, is a highly stylized staging, cast in the ténèbres bleues (“blue shadows”) that surround the lovers in the grotto where they go, perhaps, in search of Mélisande’s ring. Wilson's work divides opera lovers: to this day his Met Lohengrin remains the most moving and bewitching staging that I have ever witnessed, but I was in a tiny minority at its 1998 premiere, when most of the audience howled for the director's blood.

Buyer beware, then. If your idea of fun is Zeffirelli's bric-a-brac or the Aldens' twitches and convulsions, you need to look elsewhere. In this Pelléas, magic happens in numinous, Rothko-like spaces with the billowing of fabric, the slow clasp of hands, or the still, piercing aloneness of characters lost in their sorrow.

The international cast acquits itself well in French. Stéphane Degout and Elena Tsallagova are graceful and poignant lovers (Degout in particular is a princely artist); Anne Sofie von Otter is a superb Geneviève; Franz Josef Selig a haunting Arkel; Vincent Le Texier a dark and tortured Goulaud; and Jérôme Varnier striking in the small roles of the shepherd and the doctor. Philippe Jordan leads an unusually full-bodied and luxuriant account of the score.


Verdi: Falstaff (C Major). Directed by Sven-Eric Bechtolf. Daniele Gatti, Chorus and Orchestra of the Zurich Opera House.

Verdi’s Falstaff will receive a new staging starring Ambrogio Maestri at the Metropolitan Opera in December; and Daniele Gatti, whose brooding way with Wagner’s Parsifal made an indelible impression on many opera lovers last season, will conduct Berg’s Wozzeck at Carnegie Hall next February. A 2011 Zurich Falstaff bringing together these two acclaimed artists is both timely and welcome.

Falstaff begins with a beat of silence, giving its opening scene a jolt and a feeling of perpetual motion; and then, in what may be opera’s most heartbreaking music, Verdi (who was 79 when Falstaff had its world premiere) seems to want to stop time in Act III, which is filled with recapitulations and formal numbers and chimes at midnight. Not surprisingly in light of his spacious Parsifal, Gatti is at his best in Falstaff’s more ruminative moments: the bloom of warmth that radiates through the orchestra as the soggy knight consoles himself with wine, or the dark undertow that ripples beneath the glistening fairy music.

Maestri delivers his every word with relish and lush tone, though he never quite manages to become Sir John in the uncanny manner of Giuseppe Taddei, perhaps because Sven-Erich Bechtolf’s staging lacks focus. It's watered-down postmodernism: a little commedia dell’arte, a dash of the Old Globe and a sprinkle of the 1950s. That last conceit is quickly becoming a cliché: the recent Glyndebourne Falstaff and the Carsen staging due at the Met are both set in post-war Britain; Damiano Michieletto at Salzburg chose the more intriguing milieu of the rest-home Verdi established for aged musicians, making that is a DVD to look forward to. But Gatti's cast (including Barbara Frittoli and Javier Camarena) is strong and Verdi’s commedia lirica inexhaustible in beauty and wonder.