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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger


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George Frederick HANDEL (1685-1759)
Rinaldo (1711) [163’] Opera Seria in Three Acts
Handel the Entertainer [54’]
Goffredo - David Walker
Almirena - Deborah York
Rinaldo - David Daniels
Eustazio - Alex Köhler
Argante - Eglis Silins
Armida - Noëmi Nadelmann
Bavarian State Orchestra/Harry Bicket
Stage Direction by David Alden
From the Prinzregententheater, Munich, unspecified date, 2001
ARTHAUS MUSIK 2 DVDs 100 388 [217.00]


Why put opera on DVD? The most obvious reason is that opera is a visual as well as an aural art form, and seeing the action on the stage produces a more total experience than merely listening to the soundtrack. This is logical enough, but really answers the question "Why watch opera?" rather than the more specific "Why record opera?" that is implied in the opening question. On a purely theoretical level, the arguments for recording opera on film must revolve around what film can give that the live experience cannot. The most obvious advantage here is the ability to view in the comfort of one's own home, as frequently as one wishes. It is this issue of frequency that this writer feels is the core of the problem with a number of opera DVD releases currently available, including this Rinaldo. In the live situation the theatrical element, that aspect of being actually in the theatre and therefore having an immediate acceptance of the conventions (both traditional and modern) of theatrical practice, is paramount. In the situation of viewing a recording of the live theatrical situation the parameters are changed and the acceptance of some of the more contemporary theatrical conventions is harder to deal with.

In the context of this particular release of a performance from the Prinzregententheater in Munich from the 2001 season it is the difficulty of transferring the conventions of the live theatre into the situation of the repeatedly available recording that let this DVD down. The problems are on both the musical level and the theatrical level. To deal with the latter first; it is currently the convention in the staging of baroque opera to seek historical accuracy in the musical aspects but to juxtapose this with modernity of staging, setting and costume. The live situation allows a degree of acceptance of this, because the synopsis in the programme will usually outline the director’s reasons for changes made to place and time of the action. In this DVD the booklet (which announces itself as being of "36 pages" but of which only 6 are actually notes in any one language) makes numerous references to the spectacular effects of the original performance in 1711, all of which sound great fun. Clearly it was an extravagant and lavish production. The booklet further explains that, in the current production, the director, David Alden, has made "the characters move in an ironic blend of Twenties look, trendy club scene and ‘sacro’ kitsch." What neither the booklet nor the production seem to be able to explain is "Why?" Almirena (Goffredo’s daughter and Rinaldo’s fiancé) sings the famous aria Lascia ch’io pianga "suspended like a paralysed mermaid in a neon-blue water tank." Why? The twenties look seems to involve all the male cast wearing long overcoats and wide-brimmed homburg hats – very much more a forties look really – with the exception of Argante, the King of Jerusalem, who wears a voluminous Turkish dressing-gown, big floppy Sultan pants a headband like an Egyptian Pharaoh. Why? The sets seem to be largely imitations of an ugly hotel foyer circa 1970, with the addition of many different-coloured hands, each containing an eye, painted on the walls. It is a peculiar mish-mash of images, without apparent purpose.

To return to the earlier distinction between live and recorded situations, there are things that the live audience, caught up in the overall ambience of the production, will accept at face value. However, the viewer of the recording gets an impression of unanswered questions piling up each time the disc is viewed. The more it is viewed the more confusing it seems to become. Goffredo is a general. So why does he look like a teenaged insurance salesman with a pigtail? Rinaldo is a great military hero. So why does he look like an accountant? Furthermore, there are clearly aspects that the audience in the auditorium will accept, which the television viewer with close-up photography, mostly from the stage itself, cannot. No matter how beautifully Deborah York sings her Almirena (and it is beautiful) she is clearly 20 years older than David Walker’s Goffredo, her father. From the auditorium she may look like she is in a tank of blue water, but from three feet away she very clearly is not. And while Argante moves around her tank we see little of Argante and a lot of the florescent light-tube providing the lighting for the tank. It does not take much nouse to notice that the sets were designed to be seen from afar, not from the stage. So why are the cameras on the stage?

On to the musical aspects. The big draw-card on this disc must be David Daniels. Handel could have written his arias for Daniels, so perfect is his voice. Shut your eyes and let it wash over you. He is as superb as his reputation suggests. The only trouble is that the listener does not really want to see how much the poor fellow sweats spending a more-than-two-hour opera under the stage lights wearing a shirt, tie, suit, heavy woollen overcoat and hat. Deborah York, as mentioned above is in fine voice, though not well cast as the youthful daughter of Goffredo. It may not have been possible to make York look much younger, but then, would it not have been obvious to make David Walker’s Goffredo look older? It can’t be that hard. And on David Walker, we come to the real musical problem. He just cannot sing in tune. The whole performance he remains microtonally flat on every important note. It is not a new habit. He was a disastrous Nero in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea at English National Opera a few years ago, for the same reason. In close proximity to David Daniels the shortcomings of David Walker’s countertenor are thrown into sharp relief and it is not pleasant. On the other hand, what Harry Bicket has achieved with the Bavarian State Orchestra is very fine. They are a great orchestra, but not the first group that would spring to mind for ideal orchestral Handel. However, there is nothing old-fashioned about their playing. The strings in particular have a crispness of attack and a clarity of articulation that passes easily for period instruments. The harmonic parts of the continuo team of course are on period instruments and Bicket himself plays some of the harpsichord recits. Also the trio of recorders in the famous bird aria Augeletti che cantate are excellent.

All in all, it is a distinctly mixed bag. Musically there is much that is satisfying. But then David Walker just does not bear repeated listening. Visually there are too many eccentricities many of which would not have been visible to the theatre audience. When this writer thinks of filmed opera the yardstick is always the superb Joseph Losey film of Mozart’s Don Giovanni made in the 1970s and filmed out-of-doors using Palladio’s Villa Rotunda near Vicenza as the main set. In that example, film was used to enhance the nature of opera - a landscape where song is the natural form of communication. It all made sense. The DVD revolution is making many operas available for home consumption, and the cost differential in the production of something like the Losey Don Giovanni compared to a couple of cameras in the theatre must be taken into account, but it seems that the full potential of the medium has not yet been realised.

Peter Wells

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