BARGAIN OF THE MONTH
Plácido DOMINGO - My Greatest Roles - Volume 4 (Verismo Opera)
Format: NTSC DVD Video
WARNER CLASSICS 52498 4935-2-4 [4 DVDs: 112+112+78+35]
Verismo, or realism, is the term applied to Italian opera as it evolved at the end of the nineteenth century in what might be called the post-Verdi era. The movement followed that in literature with the usually contemporary subjects involving sordid or down-to-earth situations, often of an amorous nature, as found in earlier periods but with a more blunt plot reflected in the music. The genre was not restricted to Italian opera with works such as Massenet’s La Navarraise, Leo Janáček’s Jenůfa and Katya and even Britten’s Peter Grimes and Billy Budd being considered to fall within the definition. In Spanish-speaking areas where the Zarzuela dominated, the opera El Gato Montes, featured in this collection, is certainly within the verismo tradition.
Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Andrea Chénier - Dramatic opera in four acts (1896)
Andrea Chenier, a poet - Placido Domingo (tenor); Carlo Gérard, former servant in the Coigny household and also in love with Maddalena - Giorgio Zancanaro (baritone); Madddalena, in love with Chenier - Anna Tomowa-Sintow (soprano); La Contessa di Coigny - Patricia Johnson (soprano); Madelon, Cynthia Buchan (mezzo); Un Incredible - John Dobson (tenor); Fléville - Gordon Sandison (baritone)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House/Julius Rudel
Production by Michael Hampe.
Sets by William Orlandi.
Costumes by Franca Squargiapino
rec. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 1985
Video director: Humphrey Burton
Picture format: NTSC/Colour/4:3
Sound formats: PCM Stereo. DTS 5.0 surround. Dolby digital 5.0
Subtitles in Italian (original language) English, German, French, Japanese
Giordano's opera is set in Paris immediately before and during the French Revolution. In act 1, set in the opulent surroundings of Chateau de Coigny where a multitude of well-dressed retainers prepare for an entertainment by the ultra-rich family and its circle of friends. One of the lackeys is incensed by his aged father being physically unable to do the work and declares his abomination for the situation. The young girl of the house, Maddalena, has been introduced to the handsome young poet of the title who has arrived from Paris where he was appalled by the living conditions of the poor. In the succeeding acts, set in Paris, the Revolution is well under way with aristocrats routinely going to the guillotine in carts. Maddalena is trying to escape capture and is loved by both Chenier and Gérard by then an officer of the Revolution. In the end both she and Chenier are condemned to death despite Gérard’s efforts to save them.
The sets and costumes of this 1985 recording of Michael Hempe’s production are absolutely in period and reflect the story to perfection. So do the sets and costumes of a production recorded in Vienna in 1980 and which also features Placido Domingo in the title role (see review). Andrea Chénier is a singer’s opera, and this performance is outstanding in respect of the principals and also the minor parts sung by members of the Covent Garden roster. The Vienna performance is however spoilt as a recording by the behaviour of the audience who force singers out of role to acknowledge their excessive applause and thus disturbing the continuity of the drama. This recording also scores in the quality of Humphrey Burton’s video direction and that of the picture and sound that I find marginally better.
In the name part, Placido Domingo is in pristine voice, singing with virile tone, exemplary diction and acting with conviction. With four big arias and two duets he needs to be. With many performances of Verdi’s Otello safely under his belt, he lightens his tone without any loss of power or capacity for expression. Albeit looking a little matronly Anna Tomowa-Sintow sings with good expressive tone and characterises well. Although a little stiff in his acting Giorgio Zancanaro is an effective Gérard, tonally refulgent and secure throughout. It a pleasure to see Cynthia Buchan and Patricia Johnson in particular in a Covent Garden production. Both are in good voice and act with sincerity and conviction.
Andrea Chenier was one of Domingo’s favourite roles, despite its heavy demand, as he makes clear in the DVD 4 interview. In this setting the performance finds him vocally at the height of his powers and in a production that is among the best I have ever come across.
Manuel PENELLA (1880-1939)
El Gato Montes (The Wild Cat) - Opera in two acts (1916)
Rafael Ruiz, 'El Macareno’, the bullfighter - Placido Domingo (tenor); Solea, a gypsy girl, loved by Ruiz and Juanillo - Verónica Villarroel (soprano); Juanillo, El Gato Montes (The Wild Cat), an outlaw - Justino Díaz (baritone); Frasquita, Solea’s mother – Mabel Perelstein (soprano); Father Anton, the local priest – Carlos Chausson (baritone); Hormigon, Rafael’s friend – Michael Gallup (baritone); A gypsy fortune-teller – Susanna Guzman (mezzo)
Los Angeles Music Center Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Miguel Roa
Director: Emilio Sagi
Designer: Julio Galan
Directed for video by Gary Halvorson.
rec. Los Angeles Music Center, 1994
Picture format: NTSC 4:3
Audio format: L-PCM Stereo
Subtitles in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
Manuel Penella composed over eighty stage works of which El Gato Montes is by far the best known, even before Placido Domingo’s support of it. Composed in 1916 it reached New York in 1920 where the composer conducted a sold-out run of ten weeks at the Park Theatre. It is a popular opera in the Spanish verismo style. Its Pasodoble is still invariably played at the corrida.
In a brief introduction (Ch.1), and more extensively in his interview on DVD 4, Domingo relates appearing with his sister in this opera as children when his parents sang roles. As Administrator of Los Angeles Opera he imported this production which had been first seen in Seville in 1994. The story is a typical love triangle with Rafael a handsome bullfighter in love with the local young Solea. Unknown to him she also had an earlier attachment to El Gato Montes, now an outcast following a murder. A gypsy fortune-teller reads Rafael’s palm and foretells doom for him in the bull-fighting ring when he takes on six bulls. Sure enough this comes to pass and more deaths ensue for the Solea and the outlaw. A typical verismo story.
The set for the two acts and scenes is excellent with imaginative work by the video director. The costumes are in-period and suitably resplendent for the bullfight. Domingo is in forthright voice even if one cannot escape the thought that this is a Rolls Royce engine in a less worthy vehicle. Nonetheless his whole heart and considerable vocal skills are to the fore. Verónica Villarroel portrays the peasant girl, torn between her love for the dashing bandit and that for the heroic matador. Despite a somewhat buxom appearance she sings with clear commitment and acts well as does Justino Díaz as the eponymous bandit. That said, he could learn to vary the volume more than he does and add some more variation of tonal colour. On the rostrum Miguel Roa does dramatic justice to a score that is somewhat second rate compared to the great Italian verismo works; more like Mascagni and Leoncavallo’s other operas than the terrible twins of Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana. It is however, an excellent accompaniment to the other works in this collection and well worth listening to and watching. I do, however, strongly suggest you watch and hear Domingo’s description of the work on DVD 4 before playing it.
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1858-1919)
Pagliacci - Opera in Two Acts and a prologue. (Originally in one act) (1892)
Canio, leader of a troupe of players - Plácido Domingo (tenor); Nedda, Canio’s unfaithful wife - Verónica Villarroel (soprano); Tonio, a deformed member of the troupe and infatuated with Nedda - Gregory Yurisch (baritone); Silvio, Nedda’s lover - Manuel Kanza (baritone); Beppe, a member of the troupe, - David Cangelosi (tenor)
Washington National Orchestra and Chorus/Leonard Slatkin
Director and Scenery Designer: Franco Zeffirelli
Costume designer: Raimonda Gaetani
Directed for video by Brian Large
rec. John F Kennedy Performing Arts Opera House, November 1997
Picture format: NTSC 4:3
Audio format: Dolby 2.0 Stereo + 5.0 Surround sound
Subtitles (opera only) in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian (original language)
[78:00 + interview]
In his talk on DVD 4 Domingo notes that he sang over forty productions of Pagliacci, often in a double involving Cavalleria Rusticana, or, occasionally, Puccini’s Il Tabarro and even Gianni Schicci. He explains that the set of this production was too complex to permit changes for a double bill. That will give a clue to the Director, and also Set Designer, without looking at the name. It is a typical Franco Zeffirelli block-buster such as are rapidly being phased out at the likes of The Metropolitan Opera and La Scala and being replaced, to the chagrin of many, by updates determined by a director’s, sometimes incomprehensible, concept. The work is updated here to the post Second World War period in Italy with Vespa scooters and double-breasted jackets. There are fire-eaters, children, animals, jugglers and acrobats as part of the off stage entertainment. These precede the Comedia dell’arte stage performance of Canio’s troupe during which the play relates too much to the real life situation in which his wife and lover, Silvio, are engaged; he kills them both.
Domingo has the aria made famous by Caruso, Vesti la giubba (Ch.16) in which Canio expresses the anguish of the cuckolded husband who is a performing clown. He must make others laugh, even as his heart is breaking. Well into the third decade of his professional career he sings with strong lyric tone and good range of expression. It is also a pleasure to catch the singing and acting of Gregory Yurisch in the role of the physically handicapped Tonio. His advances are rejected by Nedda who deters him with a whip and whose vengeance is to show Canio canoodling with Silvio. Yurisch sings a strong distinctive and expressive Prologue (Ch.2) with clear diction and variation in volume and tonal colour. Verónica Villarroel acts and sings a convincing Nedda (Chs.8-9) and copes well with the high tessitura. Manuel Kanza is a handsome Silvio who sings and acts with conviction and passion, as well he might given the attractions on offer (Chs.11-12). On the rostrum Leonard Slatkin is more careful than passionate drawing a pleasing depth of sonority from the strings and allowing verismo virility from the excellent chorus.
My only reservation about claiming this production and performance as the best in the DVD business is the 4:3 aspect. Played on a wide screen, either in auto or at 16:9, makes the frequent camera moves to close-ups distracting with everybody looking distortedly fat. I ended up playing the work with two black bands down the side; many other opera performances do not accentuate this distortion to the same extent. The sound is excellent.
Bonus interview by Plácido Domingo (in English only)
Picture format: NTSC 16:9 Colour
Audio format, L-PCM 2.0 Stereo. No Subtitles
I have already referred to the virtues of this talk about the three works in this collection. Domingo is open and frank and gives many enlightening and illuminating comments. This will certainly enhance the pleasure to be gained from these works in which in each of which he takes the lead.
Robert J Farr
At the bargain price offered, the quality singing in this collection shows up more recent performances offered at full price. Grab a copy while you can.