La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Royal Opera Covent Garden Don Carlos

With all the hoopla surrounding the Metropolitan Opera in HD, it is easy to overlook that there are other games in town. Since last season, DigiScreen has been presenting operas and ballets from the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in selected Canadian theatres. I have seen Luisa Fernanda with Placido Domingo, and a stunning Carmen starring Ana Caterina Antonacci and Jonas Kaufmann. To be sure, these shows are not "live" like the Met - they were taped for DVD release, so it doesn't have quite the sense of occasion. There are no intermission features or interviews, for example. Still, there is something to be said about seeing it in a large screen with state-of-the-art equipment. The products from Opus Arte - a company owned by Royal Opera - are always of a very high level. Presumably, these operas will be commercially available on DVD sometime in the future.

This past weekend, I attended a screening of Verdi's Don Carlo, taped at Covent Garden last June. The main interest for me was the return of Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon, who withdrew from the stage for the latter part of 2007, for reasons not entirely made clear. He came back in January-February 2008 for a few performances of Werther at the Vienna State Opera, to mixed reviews. This June Don Carlo represented his first large-scale production. At the time, critical opinion was mixed - some felt he had return to form, while others felt his performance left something to be desired.

It is impossible to tell at what point during the run this performance came from. Indeed it is likely that it's a composite from two or more performances. Judging from what I saw and heard, Signor Villazon is back and in great form. Granted a filmed performance isn't quite the same as experiencing it live in the opera house. For one thing, it is difficult to judge the size of the voice. Having heard him live on several occasions, I have noticed that his instrument isn't all that large, and sometimes, in big houses like the Met, it sounds like he is pushing. For what it's worth, based on this taped performance, one can't ask for a more passionate and involved Don Carlo, and vocally he was completely secure, with none of the little cracks and glitches that plagued his performances throughout most of 2006-7. His Don Carlo for Amsterdam - available on DVD - is a little neurotic, quirky, and vulnerable, in keeping with the directorial concept. His characterization here is more straight-forward and less idiosyncratic, but equally touching. He has excellent chemistry with other cast members, especially Rodrigo and Elisabetta. There is less interaction with Eboli in this production. His duets with Rodrigo and Elisabetta were real highlights of the evening.

This is a new production by Nicholas Hytner which replaced the ancient Visconti production dating back to around 1958! It is darkly handsome, with an understated grandeur that is entirely appropriate in this grand piece. The direction is more mainstream and less eccentric than the Nederland Opera production. Past productions of this opera favoured an ending where Carlo is dragged into the cloister by Charles V. But this rather problematic ending has become less and less popular - most modern productions have Carlo stabbed or shot to death, like the Vienna and Barcelona productions. In the COC production, Carlo is blinded and tortured before dying, a real gruesome end. This ROH production, despite being the 5 Act version, is really the Italian Don Carlo with the Fontainbleau Scene tagged on in the beginning. It has none of the music that is found in the true French version, and there is thankfully no ballet. Still, the opera was almost four and a half hours long. With the wonderful music and superlative singing, the time went by in a flash. One unusual feature of this production is spoken dialogue between the priest and the heretics during the Auto d'afe Scene, something I had not seen previously.

The ROH cast was uniformly strong. Other than Villazon, top vocal honours went to Ferruccio Furlanetto as a most impressive Philip. Simon Keenlyside was wonderful too as Rodrigo, while not erasing memories of the great Dmitri Hvorostovsky in this role. Sonia Ganassi (Eboli) took some time to warm up, and her Veil Song did not show her to advantage. But her O don fatale brought the house down as expected. American basss Eric Halfvarson made the most of his brief appearance as the Grand Inquisitor. Robert Lloyd is equally excellent as the Friar/Charles V, although the voice is starting to show its age. Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya is a fine Elisabetta vocally, but I have to say she does not move me. There was a coolness about her, and her face remained immobile in the dramatic moments. Antonio Pappano brought out the full lyricism of the score, eliciting wonderful sounds from the Covent Garden orchestra.

The success of Villazon here really makes me curious about this recent Hoffmann at Covent Garden. I spoke to a friend who attended it in November, and the report was extremely positive. Noted critic Rupert Christiansen also gave it 5 star in his review. Let's hope ROH will preserve it for posterity on DVD.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Royal Opera House in HD: Frederick Ashton's Sylvia

Given the wildly successful Metropolitan Opera at the Movies venture instituted by the visionary Peter Gelb in December 2006, other opera companies are jumping on the bandwagon. La Scala and San Francisco Opera have started their own series at selected movie houses in Europe and the U.S., and Opera Australia is rumoured to get in on the action soon. Sadly none of these shows are available in Canada.

But not to worry – the venerable Royal Opera House (Covent Garden) is bringing its products to Canadian movie theatres. In a joint venture among Royal Opera, Opus Arte, and Digiscreen, the best of opera and ballet from ROH are making their way to the Empire Theatre chain across Canada. It begins this coming Sunday (March 30), with a showing of the late Sir Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia, starring the recently retired Royal Ballet prima ballerina Darcey Bussell. It will be followed by the terrific production of Carmen (April 19) starring the fabulous Anna Caterina Antonacci in the title role, and new tenor sensation Jonas Kaufmann as Don Jose. Other productions in the initial offering include three more ballets – Romeo et Juliette (May 24), Tales of Beatrix Potter (June 7) and The Sleeping Beauty (July 21). It appears that ROH is bringing its most popular and accessible shows, with the best singers and dancers, to its line-up. I have seen the Carmen and it really is a great performance - Antonacci and Kaufmann burned up the stage! It is not to be missed.

Yesterday I attended the press screening of Sylvia at the Empress Walk Theatre in North York. Like the Met shows, this ROH performance is in HD, although unlike the Met, everything in this line-up is pre-recorded. In fact this performance of Sylvia is several years old. Choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton first conceived this work for the Royal Ballet in 1951 as a one-act ballet for Margot Fonteyn. It was last performed in 1965. Shortly before his death, Ashton expressed the wish to revive this ballet. Royal Ballet's Christopher Newton recreated the ballet based on photographs and sketches in honour of Ashton. Now the role of Sylvia was taken by Royal Ballet's most famous ballerina, Darcey Bussell.

Set to a score by Leo Delibes, Sylvia is your typical Romantic ballet. Shepherd Aminta is in love with Sylvia, who accidentally kills him with an arrow meant for the God Eros, who in turn shoots an arrow into Sylvia. The upshot of this is her falling in love with the dying Shepherd. Meanwhile, the lecherous Orion kidnapped Sylvia for his harem, but she escapes. Eros brings Aminta back to life and the two lovers are re-united. The 1951 version by Ashton was only one act, but later he expanded it to three short acts. The screening yesterday was short and sweet, lasting only two hours, even with a 20 minute intermission. For the opera fans among us, this intermission is for wimps since we are used to sitting through long operas, like the marathon six hours of Tristan und Isolde the previous week, but never mind....

Taped some years ago, Bussell was at the height of her powers here as Sylvia. Her dancing has clarity, precision, and a luminosity that is of the highest order. Partnering her is the Aminta of Roberto Bolle, a fine dancer though somewhat below the level of Bussell. Thiago Soares is a macho Orion, while Martin Harvey is a rather precious Eros. Graham Bond's conducting is good if a bit anonymous, perhaps to be expected in this genre of ballet. The sets and costumes are expectedly sumptuous. Unlike the live Met telecasts which are by satellite and thus subjected to the vagaries of weather and other factors, these ROH shows are pre-packaged in hard discs sent to individual theatres. As a result, the picture and sound are flawless.

If there is one criticism, it is the dim quality of the picture. I am told that this is due to the limitation of the projection equipment. Still, I wish someone can explain to me - if a regular movie can be so bright that it is blinding, why are these telecasts , whether it is the Met or the Royal Opera, so dim? I was told by a theatre manager last year that the technology will catch up and everything will be different in a couple of years. For me, it can't happen soon enough. For now, we should be grateful that we can see these performances without having to travel acrosss the Atlantic. Yes, the lack of "real time" and intermission features mean it is less exciting than the Met telecasts. In fact, the performances offered by ROH are all available on DVD, but there is something to be said about seeing it in a huge screen that most of us cannot duplicate at home! So for now, I will be happily attending these shows.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Royal Opera House Performances on HD Screenings at Empire Theatres Across Canada

For Release on March 10th, 2008

Royal Opera House in HD Spring Performance Series will launch March 30th at
Empire Theatres Across Canada.

Royal Opera House (ROH) owned Opus Arte announced today that they have signed an exclusive agreement with Montreal based DigiScreen Corporation and The Pillar Group, Ltd. for distribution of ballets and operas from ROH and other international Opera Houses and Dance Companies represented by Opus Arte in cinemas worldwide.

DigiScreen Corporation is pleased to announce that the Royal Opera House in HD Spring Performance Series will be launched on March 30th, 2008 in cinemas across Canada and the U.S. This impressive series will consist of four of The Royal Ballet’s most beloved and admired works and The Royal Opera’s passionately popular CARMEN– all digitally captured for the first time. The performances were all recorded live at London’s historic Royal Opera House in Covent Garden on cinema grade High Definition in front of full houses and accompanied by the highly acclaimed Royal Opera House Orchestra.

DigiScreen Corporation has been a pioneer in the acquisition and distributing of high quality digital content for theatrical presentations in cinemas and believes that seeing ballet and opera performances projected on large-formant cinema screens to capture up-close all the extravagant costumes, stunning sets and dazzling performances is a marvelous occasion for patrons of these arts and a terrific opportunity to introduce new audiences to ballet and opera.

This spectacular performance series will be screened as special events at over 20 Empire Theatres and independent cinemas across Canada - including all major cities.

Tony Hall, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House and Executive Chairman of Opus Arte, comments:
“I am excited by this pioneering new direction for the Royal Opera House at the start of the 21st-century. Being in the vanguard of the burgeoning digital platform will allow us to bring brilliant ballets and operas from the world renowned Royal Ballet and Royal Opera to cinema screens all over the globe. The work of the Royal Opera House needs to be seen by the widest global audience and these worldwide cinema screenings will raise our international profile considerably. Combined with the ever expanding number of productions being filmed by Opus Arte at the ROH, and at other great opera and dance companies, then we really have an unbeatable line-up of cinema entertainment. Having experienced the performances first hand, I cannot emphasize enough what an exhilarating experience these screenings live or recorded are, the High Def digital technology coupled with Surround Sound is remarkable.”

Hans Petri, Managing Director of Opus Arte adds:
“In order to recreate the excellence of the stage performances in a cinematic environment, we have been highly selective about our choice of partners. The Pillar Group, Ltd. is one of the market leaders in providing top quality alternative content to cinema chains. In turn they are partnered with digital exhibition innovator DigiScreen which guarantees the highest quality digital sound and vision. We have already begun digital screenings of operas, we a delighted to be able to offer now a greater variety of product as we move forward, particularly exciting is the new opportunity for ballet audiences. We are confident we can provide audiences with the very best digital film experience. There is so much more to look forward to.”

Mark Hooper, CEO of DigiScreen Corporation says: “This is our first foray into presenting opera and ballet; early signs are that there is a huge appetite for this kind of digital film experience. Our introduction to Opus Arte through the Royal Opera House has been an exciting development and we look forward to a long and fruitful collaboration.”

Dean Leland, Vice-President Marketing & Media for Empire Theatres said:
“Empire Theatres has been at the forefront of upgrading our in-theatre technology in order to be able to present Alternative Content, including performing arts events, to audiences across Canada. Opera and ballet fans have already demonstrated that they love to experience these presentations at our locations and we know this spring season is going to be well received.”

The inaugural screening will take place across Canada on Sunday, March 30th, 2008 and is the first cinematic performance for London’s Royal Ballet. On March 30th Canadians will be enchanted by their stunning, lavish production of one of the brightest jewels in the Royal Ballet’s crown, SYLVIA.
England’s most famous and adored ballerina, Darcey Bussell stars in the title role and London’s Royal Ballet founder Sir Frederick Ashton has choreographed an extravagant production to composer Leo Delibes’ legendary, dazzling score - making SYLVIA a perfect choice to launch the Royal Opera House in HD Spring Performance Series.

Following on Saturday, April 19th 2008 is The Royal Opera’s 2006 production of CARMEN directed by Francesca Zambello. At the heart of the story of one woman’s tangled relationship with two men is Carmen herself, played by the fabulous singer-actor Anna Caterina Antonacci. The great Italian soprano is matched by two devilishly handsome men as her love interest; steamingly sexy German tenor, Jonas Kaufmann and the smoldering Italian baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo.

On Saturday, May 24th 2008 is The Royal Ballet’s ROMEO & JULIET. Kenneth MacMillan’s great interpretation of Shakespeare’s enduring tragedy is one of the most popular works in The Royal Ballet repertory. ROMEO & JULIET partners extraordinary prima ballerina Tamara Rojo with Cuban ballet phenomenon Carlos Acosta. .Next in the spring series on Saturday, June 7th 2008 is The Royal Ballet’s THE TALES OF BEATRIX POTTER, bringing the characters from the famous stories alive. The production’s ingenious use of scale when designing the sets and their spectacular costumes and masks quickly draws audiences in to the wondrous world of Peter Rabbit, Jeremy Fisher and Jemima Puddleduck.

Lastly, on Saturday, June 21st 2008 The Royal Ballet’s THE SLEEPING BEAUTY combines, in a single work, all the charms and virtuosity that ballet has to offer led by two of The Royal Ballet’s finest dancers; the beautiful Alina Cojocaru stars as Princess Aurora and the dark and handsome Federico Bonelli stars as Prince Florimund. Tchaikovsky’s glorious score for this beautiful ballet is played by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in London.

Tickets will be available at $19.95 + tax per adult, $16.95 + tax per senior and $9.95 + tax per child. For cinema locations and to purchase advance tickets visit or For information on The Royal Ballet and The Royal Opera

DigiScreen Corporation, a next-generation distributor of high quality digital content, was founded in 2001. Based in Montreal, DigiScreen Corp. delivers alternative content directly to digital projectors from a server containing multiple compressed high-definition presentations. DigiScreen servers are currently installed across Canada and are in the process of being deployed in the USA, United Kingdom, Austria, Switzerland and Germany. The company provides clients with full-service HD distribution. Its extensive activities include content acquisition, HD encoding, viral marketing support and digital delivery systems for theatrical presentations in cinemas.
Empire Theatres Limited is a 100% owned subsidiary of Empire Company Limited with its corporate headquarters in Stellarton, NS and regional offices in Halifax, NS, Toronto, ON and Calgary, AB. Empire Theatres owns and operates 51 theatres from Newfoundland to British Columbia.Empire Theatres is Canada's second largest and fastest growing film exhibition company providing an exciting out-of-home entertainment experience including traditional film exhibition as well as other content using its digital and satellite capabilities.With approximately 3,000 employees, Empire Theatres provides excellent employment opportunities for the youth of Canada in an exciting and energetic industry.

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