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Nikolaus Harnoncourt Opera Collection
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Zurich Opera House / Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor)
rec. live 1999-2008, Zurich Opera House
Picture Format 16:9; PCM Stereo; Region Code 0
ARTHAUS MUSIK 108129 Blu-ray [439 mins]

This BD compilation was planned before Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s death, so it isn’t a conscious tribute. However, it adds extra poignancy to view it in the light of his passing. It brings together three previously released filmed stagings which celebrate his long-running relationship with the Zurich Opera, and they show him doing what he does best, whether you enjoy that or not.

Harnoncourt was most famous for his archaeological approach to historical performance, even if he wasn’t always loved for it, and you get that most obviously in the performance of Freischütz, which uses period brass and timps. The horns, such an important part of this opera’s world, sound particularly fine, both in the hunting calls of the stage action (they add a whole new layer of colour to the Huntsman’s Chorus) and, especially, during that magical section at the beginning of the overture where they play in four-part harmony. The natural instruments also add a whole new level of darkness to the music associated with Kaspar and Samiel, and the strings seem to thin out their texture in sympathy.

The cast of singers is excellent here, too. Peter Seiffert is at his most exciting and heroic as Max, never tiring and sounding human right to the end. Matti Salminen booms his way convincingly through Kaspar’s music, and László Polgár has brilliant presence as the deus-ex-machina Hermit of the final scene. Malin Hartelius is a lovely Ännchen, and it’s only a shame that the (perfectly capable) Agathe of Inga Nielsen wasn’t caught a little earlier. The chorus are rather sloppy, though, which is a serious black mark in this opera.

It’s pretty much impossible to stage Freischütz these days: the original looks kitsch, and you lose the layer of mythology when you update it. Ruth Berghaus’ production goes for the abstract, with big empty sets, monochrome costumes and stylised gestures that seem to distance the cast from one another. It’s not a great approach, but I can’t see any other approach working better, and I have to admit that, I found the Wolf’s Glen scene rather creepy, much to my surprise.

I reviewed this performance of Fidelio elsewhere, so I will only direct you to those words. I have nothing to add except to say that I haven’t changed my mind, and there is, unfortunately, no improvement in the picture quality in this compilation.

Harnoncourt has done more than any other recent conductor to rehabilitate Genoveva, Schumann’s only opera. He recorded it for Teldec in 1996 with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and in the booklet notes for this BD he describes it as “a work of art for which one should be prepared to go to the barricades.” I’m with him there. Once you get past the first scene – which is decidedly symphonic and really not at all theatrical – the work is a fantastically deep exploration of psychology. The notes argue, perhaps in a bit of a cop-out, that Schumann isn’t trying to be theatrical, but that instead he is presenting and tracing different states of mind. Whether you buy that or not, I find this opera enormously compelling, with its brilliant sorceress role (Margaretha) and its majestic lead soprano role for Genoveva herself. The two men are also brilliant for different reasons, and all four leads sound fantastic here. Juliane Banse invests the title role with heroic grandeur, and she sings as though her life depended on it. Martin Gantner is a majestic but also very humane Siegfried, and Shawn Mathey’s Golo captures the conflicted nastiness of the character very well. The show is all but stolen by the marvellously hysterical Margaretha of Cornelia Kallisch and, best among the minor roles, Ruben Drole declaims his way through the (brilliantly named) role of Hidulfus.

The production is totally crazy, though. With Martin Kušej, you know you’re going to get something self-consciously enfant-terrible-ish, and it’s now at the stage where it has become tiresome. He eschews the medieval and sets it as a psychodrama in a sealed room, which is more about Schumann’s relationship with Clara and her father than it is about the original characters. It’s interesting, I suppose, and I have to admit that the violent scenes are rather disturbing. Kušej gets trapped in his own layers of cleverness, however, and, more importantly, the production is downright ugly throughout; self-consciously so, in fact, with characters smearing grime and blood over the sterile white walls of the sealed room. Really!

All told this makes for an economical way of collecting these three productions, and you could have far worse unifying figures than Harnoncourt. His musical scalpel yields results everywhere, even if you don’t always agree with them, and the vocal performances are mostly very good. Squeezing all three operas onto one BD meant that something had to give, and in these cases it’s the surround sound. Were you to buy them separately you’d have a surround option, but here they’re only in 2.0 stereo. However, I commented when I reviewed Fidelio that the sound was actually rather limited and a bit disappointing, so I’m guessing it’s not much of a loss. On a technical level, the picture quality is actually fairly poor for Freischütz and Fidelio, but a lot better for Genoveva, which also appears to have slightly clearer sound. There are no extras, but the booklet notes (in English only) are fairly full, and they include a full track list with timings.

Simon Thompson

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Leonore – Camilla Nylund
Florestan – Jonas Kaufmann
Don Fernando – Gunther Groissböck
Don Pizarro – Alfred Muff
Rocco – László Polgár
Marzelline – Elizabeth Rae Magnusson
Jürgen Flimm (stage director)
Recorded 2004 [134 mins]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz
Agathe – Inge Nielsen
Max – Peter Seiffert
Ännchen – Malin Hartelius
Kaspar – Matti Salminen
Hermit – László Polgár
Ruth Berghaus (stage director)
Recorded 1999 [159 mins]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Genoveva – Juliane Banse
Siegfried – Martin Gantner
Golo – Shawn Mathey
Margaretha – Cornelia Kallisch
Hidulfus – Ruben Drole
Martin Kušej (stage director)
Recorded 2008 [146 mins]



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