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Ilya Oblomov
Fanfare, November 2009

The number of things that must go off perfectly on “opening night at the opera” is so large the mind boggles. The orchestra, soloists, and chorus are the most obvious. Plus, in Carmen, the children’s chorus, lighting effects, dancers, sets, costumes, the choreography of a few large stage-fights, and the horses (remember what Sir Thomas Beecham said about the horse in Aida?). All these must come together with aircraft-carrier precision. To this list add TV needs (unobstructed lines of sight? enough light?), and audio needs (each microphone placed and working perfectly? hum-free feeds to the mix-down board?), and you get a complexity to rival an airplane take-off. The forces came together in near perfection at the Wiener Staatsoper on December 9, 1978, with Carlos Kleiber conducting the Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna Staatsoper, Franco Zeffirelli, director for stage and TV, and Elena Obraztsova as Carmen and Plácido Domingo as Don José. This cult favorite is one to own!

Everyone knows the music and story of Carmen the gypsy seductress, a free-spirit cigarette-factory gal, practicing what she preaches; a kind of predatory “free love” that drives weak men to self-destruction and the strong to mere insanity. (I last saw Carmen 10 years ago in a great performance at Munich.) The score, which might have been dark and rife with minor chords to set a monochromatic tone for such a tale, is, rather, among the most varied and delightfully tuneful in the operatic repertoire. As such, Carmen has been produced with its political undercurrents (a civil war) adapted for different countries as time and place would allow, and has become one of the most popular of operas world-wide since its Paris premiere in 1875. As Bizet claimed, Carmen “is all clarity and vivacity, full of color and melody.” The DVD of the Vienna performance ably substantiates Bizet’s claim. It is all that, and more. Bizet could not have foreseen TV, or the likes of Carlos Kleiber or Franco Zeffirelli, or the impact they would have on Carmen played through a home theater.

For example, Zeffirelli (as director) keeps two cameras on Kleiber: one tightly focused on only his hands, the other so we can see how Kleiber uses his body, bobbing his head to convey an aura—not of a strict martinet—but of a witty Harlequin marionette. Zeffirelli superimposes the conductor standing over his score upon his hands leading the musicians, until Kleiber becomes a cast member of sorts, enhancing the whole performance. This effect begins with the Overture and continues to the final curtain. It is an extra that gives us more than we could be aware of were we in attendance. It’s like seeing a key play in a baseball game in super-slow-mo. Go to a live performance? Or stay home and buy the surround sound DVD? Operatic trade-offs. These are similar to obvious daily trade-offs. Buy a studio recording, with its opportunity for doing arias over until they are just right? Or opt for a “live” performance recorded in situ with minor slip-ups, as in this performance, when Carmen gets her heel caught in her shawl and has to extract herself without missing a beat (which La Obraztsova navigates—trippingly)?

The beauty of such a performance is that you get a sense of the hall, the size of the stage, the formal dress of a “first night,” the hustle-bustle, held together by an assemblage of world-class orchestra and singers under the baton of a world-class conductor, all under the direction of a man world-famous for filming spectacles, such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Rest assured you will be seeing in your home the state-of-the-art in video production technique in its day (color, camera angles, close-ups, wide-shots, etc.). In addition, the audio is about as good as some very recent digital opera recordings. While you might not be fooled into thinking this was recorded last week, you would have to hear it on a damn good system to notice it is nearly 31 years old. In particular, the 5.1 surround sound is great, broadening and deepening the sound stage noticeably.

The performances are illuminating. Plácido Domingo sings Don José with power when appropriate, but when singing tenderly, pleadingly, he demonstrates why he was so beloved a favorite. Elena Obraztsova plays her Carmen as a laid-back and secure seductress who lets a crowd of girls fawn over Escamillo, the bullfighter, before she sidles over to him and dazzles him with charm enough to pickpocket his heart. Isobel Buchanan, as Micaëla, sings the part of the rejected but loyal fiancée most movingly, and Yuri Mazurok sings Escamillo with the convincing machismo of a bullfighter. The choruses do equally well, and the orchestra plays with the verve you would expect from at least some members of the Vienna Philharmonic. Carlos Kleiber conducts in his usual charming manner, demonstrating why he was so welcome when touring.

My one caveat might be with the video; it doesn’t do well in low-level light, as in act III. That is not to say it is bad; it is not a deal breaker. But on my new LCD Sony Bravia monitor, it managed to depixelate around the dark edges; while through my Toshiba cathode ray tube monitor, it did not. Such a negative detail might doom this performance for some, but, I’d estimate above 80 percent of the play is in brighter light than act III. Trade-offs! Always trade-offs. Think of it as adding a visual aura of doom to the mountain retreat.

And then there are the horses. Sir Thomas Beecham, when asked about an unhygienic solecism spectacularly dropped by a large horse during an Aida he’d recently conducted at Covent Garden, commented to the effect that “The animal wasn’t much of a singer, but gad, what a critic!” It is a thankfully brief old story, but unlikely to have been published, before now, in these august pages.

Herbert von Karajan favored Il trovatore above the other Verdi operas because, as the album notes (so respectfully written by Gottfried Kraus) state: “He [Karajan] speaks of Il trovatore’s archetypal human passions, of its compression of highly dramatic situations into the smallest conceivable space, and, of course, of Verdi’s genius for translating those situations into music, a gift displayed more incisively here, perhaps, than in any other [Verdi?] opera.” And, as the Viennese critic Karl Löbl has written: “Karajan realizes the adamantine sound quality that Verdi repeatedly called for in his letters, and still leaves space for lyricism. He sees to it that the music pulsates even in the seemingly (but only seemingly) simple act of accompaniment.” So it was with high expectations that I watched and listened.

In Russia, Maestro Yuri Temirkanov is argued to be the Russian Karajan and/or the Russian Leonard Bernstein, to give us an idea of the respect garnered by each of these great conductors, and on which side of the emotional/analytical aisle they seem to sit. For this (glory be!) May 1, 1978, performance, Karajan was not only conductor of the Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, he was also director of staging, which gave him complete control. As such, he ordered new, TV-friendly stage sets, and brought in Karajan-friendly TV technicians. The production was done under the auspices of ORF, with recordings originally handled by TDK Marketing Europe GmbH. Technically, it is fine.

The staging and lighting seem steeped in black tea leaves—dark. Much of the action occurs at night. It begins with an exposition of local politics (another civil war), told in a long Bildungsroman aria, with Ferrando (Man of Iron?), aide to the Count, singing to the troops in a “wine hall” by firelight. Few, if any, of the scenes occur in broad daylight, except for one garden scene. The Count, a stubborn, unyielding, steely hard personality might have been nicknamed “The Adamant.” He sings that he will proceed with his task of killing Manrico, the troubadour (Il trovatore), “Even if I must go against God.” Gloomy stage lighting and doomsday prophesying attend The Count, and adamantine music (hard as nails, clear as diamonds) accompanies him when he sings his hateful arias, which verse by verse embrace many of the Seven Deadly Sins. He is the seething embodiment of unwarranted vengeance, it will turn out, darkness nearly radiant. I expect him to sprout gills and hiss.

The plot, filled with serpentine twists and feline turns, is too long to reduce to a few paragraphs. Basically, it’s a love story: a nobleman’s daughter, Leonora, is sought by both the evil Count and the somewhat more virtuous troubadour, Manrico. Murkiness surrounds each of their births, but before that can be resolved, the civil war must suffer some reversals of its own. The whole plot must be placed in a pot, put on the fire, and allowed to stew in its own juices, for Il trovatore is, after all is said and sung, a “pot-boiler.” Suspending disbelief, it is a good yarn.

What may be good atmospherics in a theater doesn’t play as well on DVD. My conviction that my CRT (cathode ray tube) monitor was superior broke down when the CRT’s image depixelated under low light levels, as my LCD monitor had in Carmen’s act III. But, even so, it is something that goes with the territory of Il trovatore. I don’t find it a prohibitive factor, as it seems to make things a tad more surreal, which is fine for a good vs. evil allegory. The video is good enough.

Some originally analog LPs, remastered to CD, oddly sound better now than new. I remember some LPs that were warped right from the store, others that sounded harsh and wiry or had ticks and pops, with limited dynamic range and not much clean bass. When remastered at the factory, they sounded great on CD players, especially if that player was an up-loading type. For whatever reasons, played back through a “universal” CD player, those CDs chopped the analog audio signal into bytes that lent themselves to near-optimum digital playback; and this DVD’s soundtrack also benefits hugely from remastering. The 31-year-old performance sounds, if not new, nearly new. The audio is just shy of excellent.

Karajan just might be the perfect conductor for Il trovatore, getting the most from the orchestra, treating the string of arias as a “string of pearls” symphony, while Plácido Domingo is a tenor who can take an audience through martial posturing to the young lover’s plea to his beloved, and be equally moving. Raina Kabaivanska, as Leonora, shows Russian-trained operatic singers as a highly desirable export. She’s a model of raw power under strict discipline. Piero Cappuccilli, as the Conte di Luna, or The Count of The Moon, sings his way through his satanic part quite chillingly, if he is a bit too immobile. In many ways, Trovatore is a showpiece for Fiorenza Cossotto as Azucena, the witch-like mother of the troubadour-who-turns-out-to-be-a-prince. She uses her contralto voice as exquisitely as she uses her plastic face, as when—in a trice—she hits us with one arched eyebrow expressing pure hate, and a split-second later, with both eyes flashing she seeks bloody revenge. La Cossotto knows the value of mugging, and has a technique that ranks with the finest. In sum, another typically great Vienna cast.

Some caveats are: (1) While the singing is first-rate, the visual effect of a singer standing still and singing with no other motion is as dull as watching the grass grow, and is bad video. This is a long-standing flaw critics have groused about for decades concerning Karajan’s operas. (2) The darkness of the production’s evil got to me. I was of Oblomovian, mixed minds on this, finding it both an obvious attempt to manipulate me, and (grudgingly) a successful one at that. With the highest art, if one doesn’t see the mechanics at work, the effect is that much greater. The depixelating CRT was not a deal-breaker. (3) Still, I don’t like Il trovatore as much as La traviata, Verdi’s next opera. (Trovatore’s plot would seem a William Schwenk Gilbert confection but for being a tragedy. Manrico dies at the hands of The Count, his brother.)

…Like the literary Oblomov, who saw both sides of every issue, I just can’t make up my mind what to say about Fedora, which debuted in 1898. I’m sort of indifferent to it. Musically, Umberto Giordano looks backward toward Verdi and Wagner, rather than forward toward Stravinsky and Bartók. You’d be right to ask, “Who knew?” Still, it is well produced, with good staging solutions to problems of shifting locale, as we would expect from La Scala technicians. This performance was also on a glorious May Day, in 1993 (as compared with Carmen and Il trovatore, which date from 1978), and that 15 years most likely accounts for technical improvements in sight and sound. The video never depixelates in low-level light: rather, it is nearly on a par with last night’s (June 23, 2009) National Public Television’s broadcast of the Met’s production of Madame Butterfly, a performance that will likely go down in Met history for its first use of very effective Noh theater techniques.

The Met’s most recent Butterfly was drop-dead gorgeous to look at, and tear jerking to experience. In my house, Fedora found Butterfly a tough act to follow, even though Fedora’s audio was likely done digitally, lending itself to remastering to surround sound, and offering the music and singing in a manner that was just stunning, stunning! The performances are very solid; so solid we can ignore Mirella Freni’s playing La principessa Fedora Romazov—a woman half her age. Plácido Domingo (as Conte Loris Ipanov) is fine, as usual, and we likewise admire his playing a man in his twenties when he was then around 50. Freni’s and Domingo’s performances are so affecting we turn a blind eye to their actual ages, since we can’t move back further in the theater. The minor roles are played by La Scala regulars, so there is no marked fall off in singing quality. And the conductor, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, does an even-handed and relaxed job.

I first became aware of Mirella Freni through her (1974) recording, with Luciano Pavarotti, of Madama Butterfly. I was amazed, then, at her power and her ability to stand toe-to-toe with Pavarotti in the love duet. In Fedora, La Freni is on stage nearly all the time. No voice in this cast upstages hers. Not even Domingo’s. Freni is also flexible enough to remain credible no matter what is going on in the dramatics. While she doesn’t mug for the cheap seats, she does express the range of emotion needed for the plot in her facial and body language.

Ah, yes. The plot. Well it starts out like an operatic murder mystery with La Freni as the Miss Marple-type detective, whose fiancé, it appears, has been murdered by “Nihilists” (in yet another civil conflict). Then it transmutes to something like a Jacobean revenge tragedy, when the Princess Fedora (Freni) vows to find out who killed her love so she can avenge his death. It turns out that Ipanov (Domingo) killed her “intended” in a kind of duel, so she sets out to destroy him. But Fedora and Ipanov (Freni and Domingo), wouldn’t you know, fall in love and cause the revenge apparatus to break down—well, for a while. The opera then transforms into a love story wherein neither lover is willing to grant the other absolution for all past sins, and the revenge goes off as scheduled. Fedora’s vengeance has it that Ipanov loses the girl, herself, due to many mistakes in his judgment. In addition, while in prison, his brother dies in a freak flood. And his mother’s heart stops upon hearing her younger son has drowned. Fedora confesses to her informer’s role in Ipanov’s losses and begs forgiveness. When Ipanov refuses, she commits suicide. With Ipanov’s life a wreck and Fedora dead, the curtain comes down on the weeping Conte. Most briefly, the opera might be seen as a cautionary tale against dueling and revenge; for “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.”

Summing up: Fedora is an opera that musically looks backward, but is still serviceable within the context of a story with historical overtones. The leading players are excellent. In Gavazzeni’s hands, the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala is as good as any. The staging and costumes are more than good. The electronics (audio and video) are a notch or two better than Carmen’s or Il trovatore’s. And if synergistically the interactive sum is greater than the mere total of its parts, this is a worthwhile performance (even if it dates from a fallow period in operatic history, and the plot is irredeemably clumsy), worthy largely due to the efforts of Freni and Domingo, who are world-class in their roles. This said, I wouldn’t go out of my way to see this live. It seems too much like painting “by the numbers.” Though not for me; it’s fine as a bonus.

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