Robert J Farr
, January 2011
Think Opera at Open Air Festivals and most thoughts go to names such as Verona, Caracala or Marina Franca in Italy, likewise Orange or Aix-en-Provence in France, all Roman theatres or arenas. During something of an interregnum at Caracala a new name appeared on the block, in Austria of all places. Not in a former Roman arena or theatre, but a quarry. Still Roman in origin, and dating from the first century AD, the quarry was seen as an ideal setting for live performances of opera and the first St Margarethen Festival was establishes in Eastern Austria in 1995. It is claimed to be Europe’s biggest natural stage at over seven thousand square metres. The Festival quickly established a reputation for grandiose open-air operatic presentations. Audience growth has been exponential and figures of over one hundred and fifty thousand and more are quoted for visitors each year, with the local economy harvesting massive benefit. The operas presented are often triple cast and the list of works is impressive. Along with the inevitable featuring of Verdi’s Aida his Otello featured in 2002 with Puccini making his debut with Turandot the following year. Along the way there have been recitals by the likes of Jessye Norman in 2005, and a Passion Play in 2001. More recently a regular fixture has become the Children’s Opera Season held in one part of the quarry for five hundred little ones.
If the names of the singers are not internationally renowned, and do not feature on the rosters at Covent Garden or the Metropolitan Opera, it does not imply mediocrity. Given the location of the Festival, on the borders of Eastern Europe and with easy access to Germany, availability of good quality singers appears to present no problem. But as in all productions, some singers are better than others, just as some are better actors and able to convey character despite minor vocal limitations.
The sound is enhanced. This has the benefit of avoiding dropouts as singers move about the vast stage. The downside is the tiny microphones that are attached to the singer’s foreheads and that are visible in the frequent close ups. The four operas featured are available as separate items, whilst as a collection they are available at an even more competitive price.
DVD 1 Giuseppe VERDI Aida - Opera in four acts (1871)
First things first, in this staging all the splendour of ancient Egypt is on display in a manner that goes even beyond what might be seen at more famous venues such as Verona where spectacle is the order of the day. In the booklet essay, Director Robert Herzl states that it was a particular objective of the production to achieve a balance between the spectacular elements of the opera and the more intimate moments of the personal relationships that are as important a part of Aida as the spectacle. But first and foremost the objective was to offer the spectator the illusion of ancient Egypt. With the presence of Sphinx-like heads, pillars and simulated script and symbols this is achieved and that is before the elephants, chariots and horse-riders. As to the more intimate moments, the camera-work does a lot for the DVD viewer by focusing on the personal interactions as they happen with facial expression and body gestures clear. There is a moment, however, when the camera is unkind in showing the leg veins of the not so young singer of Amneris who, after a sleight of camera and cape then sheds a few years or more to mount a horse and ride off to meet the returning, triumphant Radames. Like the set the costumes are resplendent and can only be faulted in respect of the dancers in the triumphal scene (CH.19) and which are in contrast with the more decorous ones for the earlier dances during Amneris’s levee (CH.14).
The enhanced sound is vivid and well balanced with conductor Ernst Märzendorfer giving full orchestral weight to the Triumphal scene (CHs. 17-23) whilst portraying the intimate and reflective moments with care. This is particularly evident when Aida reflects on her support for Radames in Rittorna vincitor! (CH.9). As Aida, the tall Eszter Sümegi is a little tentative in her acting whilst her singing is lyrical and expressive with secure high notes in O patria mia (CH. 25). As her rival for the love of Radames, Cornelia Helfricht cannot disguise her age - no matter as she brings the required weight of tone to the part in a manner we rarely hear nowadays, as is the case also with her committed acting. Her vocal and acting skills are particularly evident during the trial scene as she pleads with Radames and berates the priests (CHs.30-31). As the object of their respective desires Kostadin Andreev as Radames leaves much to be desired as actor and singer. He not merely looks young in face, but gives nothing in terms of acted effort whilst his voice is rather monochrome and lacking in tonal variety. His rendition of Celeste Aida (CH.4) is a little strained; he would have been better with Verdi’s softer ending.
Of the lower voices that of Pier Dalas as Ramphis is the most notable with rock-solid sonorous delivery as the priest invokes the God Pytha (CH.3) at the trial of Radames when, after arriving for the trial, he thrice calls on the disgraced soldier to refute the allegations against him (CHs.32). The Amonasro of Igor Morosow is well acted as well as being sung with dramatic conviction, expressiveness, tonal inflection and bite. Regrettably, these vocal facets are accompanied by some strain and a vibrato that teeters on a wobble at times (CHs.22, 26 and 28). As the King, Janusz Monarcha is better than many I have heard, but he is a little dry in tone and lacking in facial expression.
The set was superbly lit for the various scenes and which helped to convey the moods and events as they unfolded. Whilst not perfect vocally, the sets, setting and lighting contribute to making this performance an all-round success and an enjoyable watch.
DVD 2 Georges BIZET Carmen - Opera in 4 Acts (1865)
The St Margarethen Festival is all about spectacle and utilising the grandiosity that comes with the sheer scale of the venue. However, unlike in Aida, a restriction is in the changing of the scene for act three. Using the central part of the venue is fine for three of the four acts of Carmen. Moving to portray realistically act three in the mountains, where Micaela ventures to tell Don José about his mother’s imminent demise, poses an altogether different problem. Abseiling smugglers are a spectacular start during the entr’acte (CH.26), but having Micaela standing on a high platform to sing her act three aria Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante (CH.31) is a complete dramatic failure. A pity, as otherwise much of the spectacle presented, with horsemen and a carriage drawn by four horses to bring Escamillo to his work in act four, are great additions to the spectacle. They add colour and occasion in a manner it would be near impossible to replicate on a normal indoor stage.
In this performance the opera is set a little later than the era of its composition, perhaps the turn of the nineteenth century. The soldiers of Don José’s platoon are colourful whilst the citizens of the town parade in elegant attire. The girls of the cigarette factory are rather too well dressed whilst Carmen herself stands out via the colour of her dress, depth of cleavage and the sheer sensuality she conveys in her appearance, looks and movements. This Carmen, Nadia Krasteva, can sing the part, act the part and dance the part. She is as good a Carmen as more famous names that can be found on DVD recordings from some of the best operatic addresses. Her lush dramatic mezzo-soprano tones, variety of vocal nuance and range of expression and colour are all one can hope for. These vocal and acted skills are in evidence from the Habanera in act one (CH. 8), through Carmen’s anger at Don José as he ignores her dance as the call to muster is heard, to Miss Krasteva’s vocally dramatic sung and acted portrayal of Carmen’s recognition of her likely fate as she confronts Don José outside the bullring and is killed by him (CHs.35-38).
Of the others in the cast Asa Elmgren as Micaela looks the part and sings her two arias with vocal ease and expression as well as acting with conviction. Likewise, the contribution of Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercedes, sung by Violetta Kowal and Stephanie Atanasow who, by their singing and acting contribute to the atmosphere in the final three acts. Most notably there’s the chanson along with Carmen at the start of act two (CH.17). Aleksandrs Antonenko is a tall and handsome Don José. Regrettably, his singing is rather matte and somewhat of the can belto tradition. It can be viscerally exciting, but it also becomes somewhat wearing to sensitive ears. His Flower Song (CH.23) lacks ardour and is tight on the top note. Sebastian Holecek as Escamillo sings votre toast with brio, encompassing the extremes of high and low notes with some ease to give audience and participants a thrill (CH.18). Zuniga, Morales, and the smugglers Dancaire and Remendado all act well and contribute to all-round realism in spoken dialogue and passage-work.
The opera is presented as composed by Bizet, that is in the opera-comique tradition with spoken dialogue rather than sung recitative of the kind added by Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud after the composer’s early death. The spoken and sung French is generally adequate with only the occasional harsh East European tang intruding. Do not skip the credits. Whilst the performance starts off in daylight, by the end of act one darkness prevails with full use of this being made during the final credits with a spectacular firework display (CH.39).
DVD 3 Giuseppe VERDI Nabucco - Opera in four parts. (1842)
Verdi’s third opera, and first great success, should make an excellent choice in this vast open-air arena. In contrast to the Aida, it regrettably misses the mark. There is early confusion as to who is who. This owes something to the costumes in the overture mime and part one, scene one (CHs.1-2). The sets are large and magnificent representing fortifications with crenellated battlements as well as a front stage for the main action. A spectacular large moving tower is used as Nabucco’s prison after his detention by Abigaille and after her seizing of the throne and condemning his natural daughter to death. As darkness falls on the arena, there are plenty of torchlights as well as laser effects to attract attention and help the story along.
So far so promising, particularly with the vibrant choral singing of the opening Gli arresdi festivi (CH.2) and later the famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves (CH.26). Following the opening chorus, and recurring regularly throughout, comes the strong, steady and sonorous singing of the bass Simon Yang as the Hebrew leader Zaccaria (CHs. 3, 14, 15, 27). Also good are the tenor Bruno Ribeiro and the soprano Elisabeth Kulman in the regrettably small roles of Ishmaele and Fenena, the young Jew and Nabucco’s natural daughter who converts to Judaism to return his love (CHs 4-7 and 31-33). Then the bad news comes with the arrival of Gabriella Morigi as Abigaille, Nabucco’s adopted daughter (CHs.5, 11-12 and 23-25) and the king himself (CHs. 9, etc) sung by Igor Morosow. The problem is vibrato, big time in his case.
I did point out Igor Morosow’s unsteadiness in the role of Amonasro in the Aida performance included in this collection. However, as well as the role’s restricted involvement in that opera, being mainly confined to act three, there were also sufficient strengths elsewhere in the other major roles to offset his limitation. In this opera the eponymous king has a lot to sing and much of it is painful to my ears with his pitching, dry tone, vocal spread under pressure and lack of legato compounding what is at times a serious wobble. These are weaknesses not obviated by his good acting. The role of Abigaille is a known vocal killer; even the likes of Renato Scotto does not manage it without vocal stress on Muti’s EMI recording of the opera. It requires a dramatic soprano of wide range and considerable vocal heft. Such large voices are often difficult for the owner to manage, as is the case here with Gabriella Morigi. She has good stage presence and acts the role well. However, she does not hold a legato line with ease whilst in the dramatic outbursts vocal unsteadiness intrudes - not as much as in Igor Morosow’s case, but sufficient to distract.
Verdi-sized voices are in short supply even at the best operatic venues, but the spectacle of this open air recording is not sufficient to offset the serious vocal deficiencies I outline. At bargain price as part of this collection it is a drawback; as a separate item it is a non-starter.
DVD 4 Giuseppe VERDI La Traviata - Opera in three acts (1853)
Until seeing this production I believed that the open-air nature of this ‘auditorium’ was the determining factor in choice of repertoire. Aida, Carmen and Nabucco are all operas predominantly set in exterior situations, or where the location can be represented via subtle staging. The latter is the case in the first scene of act two of Aida and the prison scene in Nabucco. But when I saw La Traviata on the St Margarethen Festival schedule I raised a metaphorical eyebrow in some disbelief. After all, there are no scenes in La Traviata that could reasonably be set in an exterior location; I did not do justice to the Festival’s creative management. The opera opens with a magnificent façade centre-stage bearing the title Academie Nationale de Musique, in other words the Paris Opera. This façade slides away to reveal a wide traditional opera-house stage complete with side boxes. From thereon in we are presented with a fairly traditional staging and performance, one or two producer quirks apart.
Whilst on a visit to Paris Verdi had seen and been impressed by Alexandre Dumas’s semi-autobiographical play La Dame aux camélias based on the novel of the same name. The subject appealed to him but he recognised that it might encounter problems with the censors. La Traviata was his 19th opera and the most contemporary subject he ever set, embattled as he constantly was by the restrictions of the censors. He was right to worry and even with Piave, a resident of Venice, working behind the scenes the subject caused problems. Whilst the composer wanted the setting to be contemporary he was thwarted in that respect. The resplendent costumes and set of this performance would have delighted him and is typical of the demi-monde life of Paris in the mid-eighteen hundreds and the Second Empire.
It is widely recognised that each act of La Traviata makes its own particular vocal demands on the soprano singing Violetta. Act one demands vocal lightness and coloratura flexibility, particularly for the demanding near twelve-minute finale of E strano…Ah, fors’e è lui (Ch.9) and Follie…follie! (Ch.10). In this performance Kristiane Kaiser, a tall and elegant woman, perhaps not in the full flush of her twenties, sings commendably whilst bringing the character of Violetta to life. Her voice in act two has sufficient colour and power to characterise the dilemmas posed by Germont’s demands on Violetta. Regrettably, producer quirks deprive her of the opportunity to fulfil all the dramatic and histrionic demands Verdi’s creation calls for in act three. This is via both the setting for the final act and also the imposition of spoken words, by a man, for the start of the poignant Teneste la promessa as Violetta reads the letter from Alfredo telling her of his imminent return and as she realises it will be too late (CH.34). There is no bed on which the consumptive and dying Violetta can portray her condition. Miss Kaiser is fully dressed and there are only two chairs as props; flickering candles around the edge of the stage perhaps represent Violetta’s ebbing life. This makes Violetta’s final collapse (CH.40) seem wholly unexpected rather than the culmination of her deterioration as earlier foretold by Dr Grenvile (Ch.33). This staging is crass and deprives Miss Kaiser of an opportunity to give the outstanding vocal and acted portrayal of which she was obviously capable.
As Violetta’s lover, the young French tenor Jean-François Borras sings with pleasing timbre but with rather closed tone in the act one Brindisi (CH.4). He lets his voice open out more in act two and by the party scene his singing was giving much pleasure (CHs. 28-31). In the final act Borras is convincing tonally as well as histrionically with Parigi o cara (CH.37) pleasingly phrased and sung by both him and Kristiane Kaiser; this duet was a notable vocal highlight. For his promising future as an ardent lover in romantic opera I hope he cuts his excessive curly locks, which he constantly had to brush from his face. As Germont pére, Georg Tichy was more bass than baritone and nearly missed the last note of his aria (CH.22); otherwise his singing was strong rather than characterful. Alessandro Teliga as Dr Grenvile and Magdalena Anna Hofmann as Flora made notable vocal contributions. The dancers in the matador scene were pleasing and effective (CH.26). Also worthy of note is the staging of the party scene when Alfredo insults Violetta by giving her the money he has won at the gaming tables and his father disowns him (CH.29-31).
La Traviata is now recognised not merely as one of Verdi’s finest operas, but one of the lyric theatre’s greatest music-dramas. Its vocal demands on the eponymous heroine are considerable and diverse between the three acts. It rarely gets a soprano who is as expressive, emotionally involved and vocally accomplished across the whole as Kristiane Kaiser in this performance.