In many ways the DVD format seems tailor-made
for opera. The audio and video quality, combined with the range
of additional features that can be supported by the DVD format,
would suggest that there is a close proximity to the live experience
to be gained. This DVD of Monteverdi’s late opera Il Ritorno
d’Ulisse in Patria provides a fine musical performance, but
it does bring up issues relating to the presentation of such works
on DVD as compared to CD.
First, the musical aspects. The main recommendations
for this performance must be the presence of Dietrich Henschel
in the title role, and of Nikolaus Harnoncourt as musical director.
Henschel has been making quite an impact in recent years, and
the control of expression that he employs is amply demonstrated
in this performance. Musically he is never less than convincing,
although some of the physical aspects of the performance appear
rather mannered, and may be difficult to watch on a regular basis.
However, unlike many opera singers, he does not go in for grotesque
facial contortions, even in passionate moments, and this not only
makes him easier to watch, but adds to the consistency of vocal
control that makes his voice so admirable. The other main role,
Ulisse’s long-suffering wife Penelope, is almost a reverse situation.
Vesselina Kasarova’s physical command on stage is impressive and
her static gestures are conceived to enhance the music she is
singing. She has a marvellous voice quality, her low register
being almost masculine in its richness, but the control that is
such a feature of Henschel is less apparent with Kasarova. Some
of the agitated passages tend to move toward a bel canto
obfuscation of the actual pitches.
Of the other roles the two that stand out are
Telemaco (Ulisse’s son), sung by Jonas Kaufmann, and Minerva,
sung by Isabel Rey (who also takes the role of Amore in the Prologue).
Kaufmann has a youthful clarity of voice. His duet with Henschel
when Ulisse first returns to Ithaca and appears to Telemaco as
himself (being normally disguised as an old beggar), at the end
of Act One is ravishing. Isabel Rey’s Minerva shows versatility
in acting and singing. She ranges easily from a boyishly youthful
arioso to an impressive display of deitific grandeur. She has
an additional competent line in dancing. Such consistency is not,
however, uniform. The Gods Neptune and Jove (Pavel Daniluk and
Anton Scharinger) sing with impressive bass gravitas, if not much
in the way of variation, but the acting of both is basically stilted
and limited in expression. The same gestures appear over and over,
bringing to repeated viewings images of worthy opera-school levels
of acting. Similarly Iro (the glutton), sung by Rudolf Schasching
is fairly consistently two-dimensional. While activity on the
stage is a bit of a mixed bag, the Orchestra La Scintilla, playing
on a mixture of modern strings, with period wind and continuo
instruments, is consistently impressive. It is a large band; possibly
too large for the recitative-arioso style of the music, but arguably
required by the size of the theatre. Nikolaus Harnoncourt controls
the players with expected authority, although it is clear that
his gestural style has become a lot simpler over the years. Sometimes
he appears to do no more than wave a single hand vaguely in the
direction of the band for a final chord, but the sound that follows
shows that the players are attuned to every nuance of his gesture.
It is marvellous to watch such control of large forces appearing
to be so effortless and is a testament to the work that Harnoncourt
has done over the years teaching modern instrument bands to play
with the style and panache of the period instrument groups.
To come now to the second issue, there are, as
mentioned above, questions about the DVD format in comparison
to the CD format. This writer supposes that the main advantage
of the DVD format must be the addition of the visual aspect. If
this performance had been on CD, only the musical aspects would
have been assessable and the result would have been a generally
satisfying performance. On the DVD we can see what the audience
in the Zurich Opernhaus saw. Regrettably, as far as set design,
stage direction and costume go the results look very half-hearted.
The fashion of the day is for stripped down minimalism and that
fashion is abundantly apparent here. But, frankly, the set looks
like a school carpenter knocked it up in half a Friday afternoon.
Much of the action takes place in front of a whitewashed, roughcast
wall. This is supposed to hint at the landscape of a Greek island.
From a distance, that may work, but the camera brings us much
closer than the live audience, and then the wall looks like some
painted hessian on a wooden frame – which is what it is. When
the wall is not in situ we are left for much of the time
with a bare revolving stage and a surfeit of blue light. Occasionally
a statue is added, although why the shepherd Eumete should sing
about life in the fields and hills while sitting on a large, very
civic statue of a bare-breasted goddess apparently made of jade
is not immediately obvious.
There are other oddities. Ulisses is dressed
most of the time in what looks like a fisherman’s jumper straight
out of Peter Grimes while Penelope spends the whole opera
in the same black cocktail dress. A party of Guernsey-wearing
sailors in Ulisse’s boat sings to the accompaniment of a cittern
player wearing tailcoat and white bow tie. Clearly he has come
from the orchestra pit. Why should he be on stage for this one
scene? If on stage, could he not have a costume. He must feel
as out of place as he looks. It is very odd. Overall, the visual
aspects of the production are confused, inconsistent and just
look cheap. It is a great pity that, while the musical sides of
early opera have benefited hugely from the whole ‘historically
informed’ movement, the stage production aspects continue to be
unwilling to follow suit. Baroque stagecraft, even if it were
with an updated approach to technical aspects, has so much to
add to the overall effect of a production of Baroque music-theatre.
The form of militant minimalism used here is nowadays looking
very dated and seems to have nothing to add to the performance.
This is where the problem with putting it on DVD becomes most
obvious. If there is little to see, and what there is looks dull,
then where is the point in using a visual medium for the recording?
A CD would have been better. Good music on this, and well sung,
but unfortunately difficult to watch regularly.