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.
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida - Opera in four acts (1871)
Il Re, King of Egypt – Janusz Monarcha (bass); Amneris, his
daughter - Cornelia Helfricht (mezzo); Radames, captain of the
guards - Kostadin Andreev (tenor); Amonasro, King of Ethiopia
– Igor Morosow (baritone); Aida, his daughter - Eszter Sümegi
(soprano); Ramfis, High priest – Pier Dalas (bass);
Directed for Stage by Robert Herzl, Corps de Ballet and Orchestra
of the National Theatre Brno/Ernst Märzendorfer
rec. live, July-August 2004
Picture format DVD: NTSC 16:9 anamorphic. Sound formats: Dolby
Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Subtitles: English, German, Italian
(Item No: 2054058). [150:00]
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
Georges BIZET (1838-1870)
Carmen - Opera in 4 Acts (1865)
Carmen - Nadia Krasteva (soprano); Don José - Aleksandrs Antonenko
(tenor); Michaela - Asa Elmgren (soprano); Escamillo - Sebastian
Holecek (baritone); Frasquita - Violetta Kowal (soprano); Mercedes
- Stephanie Atanasow (mezzo); Morales - Dimitrij Solowiow (baritone);
Zuniga, Janusz Monarcha (bass); Dancaire - Russi Nikov (baritone);
Remendado - Martin Fournier (baritone)
Chorus and Orchestra of the National Theatre Brno/Ernst Märzendorfer
Directed for Stage by Gianfranco De Bosio
rec. live, 16 July 2005
Picture format DVD: NTSC 16:9 anamorphic. Sound formats Dolby
Digital 5.1. DTS 5.1
Subtitles: English, German, French
(Item No: 2054528). [165:00]
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
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).
Postscript. A week after writing the above
I bought the Christmas Edition of the Radio Times.
(For the non-British reader this is the weekly journal that
lists EVERY radio and TV broadcast in the UK). I discovered
that on Thursday 23 December 2010, a performance of Carmen,
recorded at the Vienna State Opera, is due for transmission.
The first division cast of singers includes Massimo Giordano
as José, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Escamillo, Anna Netrebko
as Micaela and the Carmen of this performance, Nadia Krasteva
in the title role. You can buy the DVD either as a separate
item or part of this bargain priced collection.
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Nabucco - Opera in four parts. (1842)
Nabucco, King of Babylon - Igor Morosow (baritone); Zaccaria, High Priest of the Hebrews - Simon Yang (bass); Abigaille, slave, believed to be the eldest daughter of Nabucco - Gabriella Morigi (soprano); Fenena, daughter of Nabucco - Elisabeth Kulman (soprano); Ismaele, Hebrew in love with Fenena - Bruno Ribeiro (tenor)
Arad State Philharmonic Chorus. Europasymphony Orchestra/Ernst Märzendorfer
Directed by Robert Herzl. Designs by Manfred Waba
rec. live, 14 July 2007
Picture format NTSC 16:9. Sound Formats PCM Stereo. DD 5.1. DTS 5.1
Subtitles in Italian, English, German, French
(Item No: 2056228). [122:00]
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.
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata - Opera in three acts (1853)
Violetta Valery, a courtesan - Kristiane Kaiser (soprano); Flora, her friend - Magdalena Anna Hofmann (mezzo); Annina, her maid - Stefanie Kopinits (soprano); Alfredo Germont, an ardent admirer - Jean-François Borras (tenor); Giorgio Germont, his father - Georg Tichy (baritone); Gastone, Visconte de Letoirieres - Michael Kurz (tenor); Doctor Grenvil - Alessandro Teliga (bass); Baron Douphol, an admirer of Violetta - Daniel Ohlenschläger (baritone)
Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus/Ernst Märzendorfer
Directed by Robert Herzl. Designs by Manfred Waba
rec. live, 11 July 2008
Picture format DVD: NTSC 16:9. Sound formats Dolby Digital 2.0. 5.1. DTS 5.1
Subtitles: English, German, Italian, French
(Item No.: 2057218). [134:00]
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.
Robert J Farr