There will always be diehard canary fanciers who insist that opera is only about The Voice, and nothing else. But the gentlemen of the Florentine Camerata, who created the art form just over 400 years ago, envisioned something more like a supercharged theatrical event, where music and word would fuse together, and the singing would heighten the emotional punch of the drama.
A batch of newly released opera DVDs -- all pretty much unimpeachable in their musical standards but notable for their attention to dramatic values -- are compelling evidence that those Florentines had the formula right.
On paper, the clear winner of the bunch shouldn't work as well as it does. German director Willy Decker's spare, riveting update of Verdi's "La Traviata" from the Salzburg Festival, starring opera's current golden couple, Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon (Deutsche Grammophon B0006922-09), traffics in so many obvious visual metaphors -- the lipstick-red loveseat, the gargantuan clock, the prison-camp wall -- that the whole enterprise should collapse into insufferable cliche. But so sure is Decker's command of stagecraft, so thorough is his limning of character, that this "Traviata" emerges stripped to its essences and reimagined as a gloves-off fight-to-the-death between the tubercular courtesan Violetta and a leering, groping pack of testosterone-drunk club kids who call themselves Parisian society.
The DVD, which has just been given its first wide release, gains immeasurably from having Netrebko at its center. Her Violetta is a creation of such vocal and physical allure, teasing eroticism and little-girl-lost vulnerability, it's sure to remain this decade's iconic performance of the role.
After Decker's "Traviata," it's instructive to watch a pair of fine singing actors like Netrebko and Villazon generate onstage chemistry in the Vienna State Opera staging of Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore" (Virgin Classics 0094636335292). Their performance would make any viewer forget the wrinkled backdrops and tired, paint-by-numbers blocking of a past traditional Vienna State Opera staging. Here, it's Villazon's expert physical clowning and beautifully turned singing -- the audience demands, and gets, an encore of "Una furtiva lagrima" -- that proves the focal point of the show, turning the bumpkin-suitor Nemorino into a lovable, touchingly insecure and (most important) three-dimensional character.
Director Decker also gets another chance to shine, in a dazzling staging of Mussorgsky's stark and brooding early version of "Boris Godunov" for Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu (TDK DVWW-OPBORIS). "Boris" operates on a much grander scale than "Traviata," but Decker's skill at visual storytelling -- not least in the sweeping movements of his large chorus -- is, if anything, even more impressive here. And he's not without his big props. Instead of a kinky loveseat and an eight-foot-wide clock, Decker's visual motifs of choice become photo enlargements of the child Czar Dimitri -- which pop up relentlessly to haunt Dmitri's murderer, the current czar, Boris -- and a two-story-tall, gilded wooden chair that's carried aloft like a national treasure by a sea of workers, and hoisted up or brought low depending upon Boris's political standing.
With a Cold War Soviet design that renders the drama all the more immediate, this production also has a strong presence at its center. Finnish bass Matti Salminen -- so arresting with that inimitable, bear-like yowl of a voice -- has never been the most emotionally communicative of actors onstage. But here, his weathered, implacable face is exploited beautifully to suggest the opacity of a middle-management drudge out of his depth in handling ill-gotten power, and lurching bleary-eyed from one decisive historical moment to the next. His performance accrues weight and tragic dimension quietly through the opera, rather than seizing attention with the kind of scenery-chewing acting that's become lingua franca among basses in this role.
If Spanish director Calixto Bieito's take on Mozart's "Don Giovanni," also from the Liceu (Opus Arte OA 0921 D), rings a little hollow after a double dose of Decker, it's not for lack of insightful ideas. Indeed, the narcotized contemporary world of after-hours clubbing, mechanical sex and recreational violence Bieito conjures is not incompatible with Mozart's pitch-black comedy. The director has even given librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte's finale a delicious makeover, having an unsuccessfully murdered Commendatore staggering out of a car trunk, wronged lovers taking turns knifing Giovanni to death, and the story's survivors listlessly recoupling to live indifferently ever after.
But Bieito seems at pains to underline the nastiness and narcissism in every character, to the point that both the story and the production itself become pretty heartless affairs. It's no wonder that his frequent attempts at over-the-top comic business tend to fall flat -- especially when that business is sloppily executed or amateurishly oversold by many of the performers. What we're left with is a compelling concept for "Don Giovanni" that never quite leaves the conceptual stage to take on a life of its own.
Bieito's production owes much to American director Peter Sellars's street-smart update of "Don Giovanni" from nearly 20 years ago (one of the landmark opera productions of the last quarter-century, recently reissued on Decca DVDs). But Sellars's dark-night-of-the-soul vision sought an existential dimension to the story, and found the beating heart under the music's smirking surface -- as does Sellars's 1990 rethink of Handel's "Giulio Cesare," finally getting a DVD issue (Decca B0007253-09). Granted, his handling of the opera's subtle vein of comedy can turn cartoonish -- political-cartoonish in this case, as Caesar's visit to Cleopatra is envisioned (rather presciently!) as an eleventh-hour Middle East summit between a U.S. president and the leaders of a tinderbox Muslim country about to ignite. But the comic business is wryly conceived, and Sellars (together with a cast of uncommonly dedicated performers) ensures that it's all tightly executed.
When the mood of the score turns sober and begins to look inward, though, the director drops his inspired lunacy and empathizes every step of the way with the characters. As a result, this is simultaneously the campiest and most intimately moving production of a Handel opera in recent memory. And once again, commanding musico-dramatic performances bring the director's vision to life. Powerhouse countertenor Jeffrey Gall (playing Caesar as a glad-handing, used-car salesman of an American president) and the late, very much lamented mezzo Lorraine Hunt (a Sesto every inch the heartbreakingly callow teenage boy turned avenging fury) are two fearless singers who know how to ground their performances in the wealth of pop-cultural detail Sellars throws at them. What they share with their cast mates -- and with their counterparts in the best of the other DVDs -- is an equal dedication to music and drama, and an ability to fuse the two. I know a certain group of Florentines who would be very pleased with them.