La Scena Musicale

Friday, July 10, 2009

Jiří Kylián : Svadebka, Symphonie des Psaumes, Torso

Musiques d’Igor Stravinski et Toru Takemitsu
Nederlands Dans Theater; Jiří Kylián, choreographer
Arthaus Musik 102 115 (68 min)
***** $$$$

Ce DVD présente la captation de trois œuvres du chorégraphe tchèque Jiří Kylián – figure marquante du ballet moderne – réalisées entre 1975 et 1982 alors qu’il prenait la tête du Nederlands Dans Theater à titre de directeur artistique. Sur des bases classiques, Kylián développe un langage chorégraphique à la fois traditionnel dans les gestes et contemporain dans le propos. Dans Svadebka, basé sur Les Noces de Stravinski, Kylián démontre une vision énergique et joyeuse de la partition. Le chorégraphe utilise dans Torso, un duo créé à partir de Textures du japonais Toru Takemitsu, une gestuelle plus abstraite pour traiter des conflits vécus au sein d’un couple. Enfin, dans la Symphonie des Psaumes, musique de Stravinski, les gestes et les corps tendent à un absolu d’exaltation et de recueillement. Ce ballet d’une grande puissance poétique est certainement la création la plus marquante de Kylián. Ces captations vidéo réalisées en 1983 et 1984 par les télévisions publiques néerlandaises et suédoises ont une qualité visuelle qui date un peu (les couleurs sont légèrement défraîchies), mais leur qualité sonore est globalement très bonne. Le plaisir de découvrir ces magnifiques créations l’emporte sur les réalités technologiques des années 1980!

- Éric Champagne

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Wagner: Das Rheingold

Hoff, Caves, Hansmann, Mowes, Aurich, Meszar, Tsumaya, Weissmann
Staatskapelle Weimar/Carl St. Clair
Stage Director: Michael Schulz
Arthaus Musik DVD 101 353 (166 min)
** $$$

There has been a proliferation of Ring Cycles on video in recent years. The latest entry is the Weimar Ring, this Das Rheingold being its first installment, with Die Walkure on the way. Premiered in July 2006 and taped in 2008, it features singers drawn mostly from the Weimar ensemble, none of whom is of international rank. German theatres have long abandoned traditional interpretations of the Ring in favour of concept productions. This one by director Michael Schulz underscores the strengths and weaknesses of this aesthetic. Before a single bar of music has sounded, three young girls – called Norns in the booklet – come onstage with hand puppets, reciting a few lines from Wagner’s original text on the Ring. This sets the tone, shall we say! In the first scene, the three Rhinemaidens are joined by their topless girl friends, for reasons unknown. Alberich wears fake boots and walks on his knees. The gods are a real motley crew. Visually there are some striking moments, even an occasional inspired stroke – I like the unveiling of Valhalla as a gigantic oil painting into which the gods enter at the end. But perhaps because of budget constraints, some of the sets look like they come from Wal-Mart. The singing is variable, from very good (Erda) to serviceable (Loge and the Giants) to the downright awful. There are too many unsteady voices – Fricka, Mime, and worst of all, the Alberich of Tomas Möwes, who cannot sustain a note without collapsing into a huge wobble. Problematic is the Wotan of Mario Hoff, whose high baritone, while pleasant enough, lacks the requisite authority and gravitas. One bright spot is the playing of the Staatskapelle Weimar under the knowing baton of Carl St. Clair. I’d hate to introduce anyone new to the Ring with this show. The high definition picture is exemplary – too bad the content doesn’t quite measure up.

-Joseph K. So

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

GF Handel: Tamerlano

Plácido Domingo (Bajazet), Monica Bacelli (Tamerlano), Ingela Bohlin (Asteria), Sara Mingardo (Andronico), Jennifer Holloway (Iren), Luigi De Donato (Leone)
Orchestra of the Teatro Real (Madrid Symphony Orchestra)/Paul McCreesh
Stage Director: Graham Vick
Video Director: Ferenc van Damme
Opus Arte OA 1006 D (3 DVD – 241 min)
***** $$$$

Here is Plácido Domingo at the age of 70 giving the performance of a lifetime. The voice may no longer be the immaculate instrument of the past but Domingo has lost nothing of his ability to project a character on stage. This appearance, in Handel’s most dramatic tenor role, amply confirms his standing as the commanding singer-actor of the era. Tamerlano is a work of annihilating gloom. Bajazet is the Ottoman sultan taken captive by the Oriental tyrant Tamerlano. In the first scene, he is anguished and seeking death (which will take him most of three acts to find). The plot is thickened by a diabolical love quadrangle, the mutually destructive devotion of a father and daughter and attempted regicide. Domingo’s performance is remarkable, yet it is Monica Bacelli, in the title role, who really steals the show. She delivers inspired singing (with an impressive lower register so important in a ‘trousers’ role) in a strikingly kinetic manner. This lady can move to awesome effect. The remainder of the cast is excellent. The sets and costumes designed by Richard Hudson are gorgeous. Paul McCreesh directs a fine account of the orchestral score (on modern instruments), which supplements the momentum created by Graham Vick. An informative interview with McCreesh is included as a special feature on disc 1.

The general entertainment value of baroque opera in general and Handel in particular on DVD has escalated sharply in the past few years. Tamerlano as produced by Jonathan Miller and conducted by Trevor Pinnock in 2001 (Arthaus DVD) looks static and seems a lot longer than four hours when compared to this exciting Madrid production. The trend for the small screen was set in 2005 with David McVicar’s Glyndebourne production of Giulio Cesare (Opus Arte) and continued with a sophisticated Zurich staging of Handel’s Orlando (Arthaus) last year. William Christie conducted both and returned to Zurich with Cecilia Bartoli for Semele, which is being released by Decca. The key point to remember is that Handel illustrated everlasting characters and timeless relationships with his music. The new wave of baroque opera films has taken the works out of dusty archives for presentation in your home theatre.

- Stephen Habington

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Monday, July 6, 2009

Puccini: La rondine

Svetla Vassileva, (Magda); Maya Dashuk, (Lisette); Fabio Sartori, (Ruggero); Emanuele Giannino, (Prunier); Marzio Giossi, (Rambaldo)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Puccini Festival/Alberto Veronesi
Director: Lorenzo Amato
Naxos 2.110266 (110 min 54 s)
**** $$$
It’s good to have this performance, previously available as an expensive import on the Dynamic label, now on Naxos in Canada at more affordable prices. Dynamic specializes in live performances from Italian regional houses. While often not on the level of La Scala, these productions often have their special charm. This La Rondine comes from the 2007 Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago. Bulgarian soprano Svetla Vassilieva – the best-known singer here – is a good but not scintillating Magda, rather lean of voice and occasionally shrill at the top (incidentally, she was replaced in the recent La Scala I due Foscari by Quebec soprano Manon Feubel). Russian soprano Maya Dashuk is an unusually glamorous Lisette; tenor Emanuele Giannino sings a stylish Prunier. Even though he does not cut a romantic figure, the most outstanding is the ingratiating tenor of Fabio Sartori as Ruggero. Puccini wrote three versions of this opera, but producer Alberto Dellepiane could not resist tinkering with it. He combines parts of the first two versions with a 1994 orchestration by Lorenzo Ferrero in the finale of the third version, left unfinished by Puccini. The co-production with Opera de Nice has nice costumes and decent sets, except for the huge monochrome projections as backdrops. The endless ballet sequences with Broadway-style choreography and heightened eroticism in the background prove jarring in a period production, also hopelessly upstaging the singers. These quibbles aside, anyone who has seen the recent Met in HD production will find this Italian performance an interesting contrast.

- Joseph K. So

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Life beyond the Fringe: Jonathan, Dudley, Alan and Peter

By Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

Beyond the Fringe, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, Peter Cook

Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Peter Cook: are the names familiar? They should be. These four remarkable young men were the creators in the 1960s of the wildly popular comedy show, Beyond the Fringe.

While still students at Oxford and Cambridge, Dudley, Alan, Jonathan, and Peter put together a comedy revue that first saw the light of day as an adjunct to the Edinburgh Festival. The festival had a “fringe” beyond the big-name events, but this little production went “beyond” that – hence, its title.

I remember hearing Beyond the Fringe for the first time on an LP in the early 1960s. Hysterically funny – especially to those of us who, like the characters in the show, were undergraduates at the time.

Recently, upon reading that Jonathan Miller is currently directing a new production of La Bohème at the English National Opera, I was inspired to investigate what, if anything, had survived of the early work of these four multi-talented performers who eventually went their separate ways to make their marks in Hollywood, television, literature and opera.

Beyond the Fringe was so successful, that it quickly moved from Edinburgh to London and then to New York. The last performance, recorded live by Thames Television, is now available on DVD.

I found the comedy still engaging, but it has lost its edge, dulled by the even more pointed satire that followed it. The DVD does serve as a valuable record, however, of how these quintessential comedians began their careers.

Many of the classic bits are there: Alan Bennett doing his Anglican minister send-up – “My brother Esau is an hairy man and I am a smooth man”; Miller and Cook doing their philosophy professor reductio ad absurdum; and most memorable of all, the brilliant musical takeoffs by Dudley Moore.

In one of these, Moore improvises a Beethoven-like sonata that can’t seem to find an ending. In another he adopts a falsetto to mimic Peter Pears performing some sort of ludicrous Britten folk-song arrangement. In still another, he gives us the little-known German lied Die Flabbergast which comes across as Fischer-Dieskau on LSD singing Schubert’s Erlkönig.

Beyond the Fringe managed to be sophisticated, intellectual, and slap-stick - all at once.

Jonathan Miller had trained as a medical doctor. He went on to produce and host numerous documentaries on medicine and to direct opera. His remarkably innovative production of Rigoletto remains a classic of its kind. In moving the setting of the opera from Mantua in the 1500s to 'Little Italy' in 20th century New York, Miller made the work fresh and powerful all over again. In replacing a cast of courtiers with Mafia figures, he created an operatic counterpart to The Godfather. Fortunately, Miller’s production has been preserved on a film from 1983, now available on DVD.

Alan Bennett became a successful playwright, most recently with The History Boys, which was seen on both stage and screen.

Peter Cook was generally acknowledged to be a comic genius and starred in numerous British television series. Cook and Dudley Moore made several LPs as Derek and Clive that contained skits of such foul-mouthed absurdity they can only be described as being “beyond the pale.” X-rated Harold Pinter, perhaps. It is a wonder that their careers survived these performances.

The biggest commercial success was achieved by Dudley Moore. Very early on, he made a name for himself as a jazz pianist and for being able to parody all manner of classical performers and styles.

Peter Cook was renowned and feared for his put-downs, and once said of his friend ‘Dud’: “He’s a club-footed dwarf whose only talent is being able to play 'Chopsticks' in the style of Debussy.” Dudley moved on to flourish in a BBC television series with Cook – Not Only…But Also - but his big break came in 1978, when he starred in the film Foul Play with Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase, and the following year with Bo Derek in 10. He was now a Hollywood star and soon rose even higher with the film Arthur, playing alongside Liza Minnelli and John Gielgud. For the next ten years he went from one film success to another.

The piano, however, remained Moore’s first love; he ultimately returned to it, playing jazz, and performing concertos with symphony orchestras. One of his most important projects was Orchestra!, a collaboration with Sir Georg Solti. This was a 1991 television series designed to introduce general audiences to the symphony orchestra.

In Orchestra!, Solti conducted the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra and Moore appeared as piano soloist and harpsichordist. The two even played some four-hand music together.

The glue that held the show together was the repartee between Solti and Moore. As a big Hollywood star, Dudley Moore captured the audience and kept it entertained while enabling the celebrated maestro Solti to bring the great symphonic classics into focus.

Moore returned to this format in 1993 – this time with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas – in a highly-regarded series called Concerto!

Dudley Moore’s career began to fade in the early 1990s, and it only became apparent later that he had begun to be incapacitated by the disease that ultimately killed him. He was suffering from the terminal degenerative brain disorder, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. In its early stages the disease made it difficult for him to remember lines or music, and later, he could neither play the piano nor speak with his accustomed fluency.

People who didn’t know Moore attributed his problems to alcohol abuse, but the fact is he didn’t drink at all, except in the movies. His last years were rendered more tolerable through his association with pianist and music critic, Rena Fruchter. Fruchter was married, but she invited the ailing Moore to move in with her family in New Jersey. When that arrangement became too difficult, she set him up in a house next door. He died at the age of 66 (March 27, 2002), holding Fruchter’s hand.

Fruchter’s book, Dudley Moore (Ebury Press, 2004) remains the definitive biography on this gifted pianist/comedian.


Beyond the Fringe
Peter Cook/Jonathan Miller/Alan Bennett/Dudley Moore
Acorn Media (2005)

The Best Of…What’s Left Of…Not Only…But Also…
Peter Cook & Dudley Moore
BBC Video (2008)

Dudley Moore/Liza Minnelli/John Gielgud
Dir: Steve Gordon
Warner Home Video (1997)

Jonathan Miller’s Rigoletto
English National Opera production
John Rawnsley/Marie McLaughlin
Kultur Video (2007)

The History Boys
Based on the play by Alan Bennett
Dir: Nicholas Hytner
Twentieth Century Fox (2007)

Sir Georg Solti/Dudley Moore
Dir: Declan Lowney
Decca (2007)

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at

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