G P Padillo | Portland, ME United States | 03/25/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is scheduled for release on April 15, and I have rarely so anxiously awaited the arrival of any opera on DVD. Through the wonders of technology I watched this performance performance from the Théâtre de Caen live from my home in Portland, Maine.
Beginning with an absolutely gorgeous Sinfonia and flowing through three powerful, entertaining thought provoking and often moving acts, I can't imagine this opera not capturing both the attention and heart of baroque music lovers and opera fans, at least some opera fans!).
I have been a fan of Philippe Jaroussky since his bursting onto the baroque scene a few years ago, yet somehow this was my first opportunity to experience him in a complete role. Sold. We're seeing a differentiation between male treble singers these days: For instance in comparing the sound of David Daniels to Jaroussky, I would think Daniels to be something akin to a "heldencountertenor" - while Jaroussky's is naturally higher lying, with a more feminine and sweeter presence to it. In this very authentic looking stylized era (and Noh) inspired production, young Mr. Jaroussky's movements, facial expressions, and voice all coalesce into a powerful, genuinely moving portrayal of Alessio. I was particularly touched by the big Act I scene "under the stairs" of his father's home. Watching Jaroussky's arm movements one can't help draw the conclusion he'd watched a lot of Kathleen Battle and Maria Callas videos for he has the business down quite effectively. Some may find it artificial but "art" is part of "artificial, and I, for one, loved it.
Musically, one needs hear only a little bit of his music to realize Landi - was a contemporary of Monteverdi. I have to wonder, therefore, was the older composer (Monteverdi) familiar with Landi's "Alessio" as the scene between Ulisse and his son Telemaco bears a strong musical and dramatic parallel to Landi's scene between Alessio and his father, Euphemianus, composed at least ten years before Ulisse.
In the aforementioned scene Alain Buet's as Euphemianus is vocally a tad on the dry side, yet through phrasing and mastery of the style brings a formidable, strong reading and characterization.
The brilliance of Landi's creation (aside from the mouthwateringly beautiful score) is his pacing of dramatic scenes. The aforementioned scene of Alessio's "revelation" - a moving, deep contemplation/epiphany of being earthbound while desirous of heavenly flight, is immediately followed by two vain dandy-ish characters of the commedia del' arte type. They deliver a bawdy, delightful ditty about the joys of sloth-like behaviour moving on to torment the poor, dour Alessio. At one point they even sing nonsense syllables in such a happy refrain that I nearly joined in.
It was fascinating to experience an all male opera that isn't Billy Budd - especially one that has the then traditional gender-bending spectacle of males singing the parts of women. While I've seen this "experiment" in Shakespearean theatre, I've never seen "serious" operatic roles done in this manner, usually falling more into the Arnalta ("Poppea") type of slapstick "I'm a big man playin' a lady" played with a rather broad (pardon the pun) humor. There is an ensemble with the ladies in Alessio's life: wife, mother and nurse that is one of the most beautiful "stand out" moments of the entire opera. I rewound and played that number, again, shaking my head at the sheer beauty, the depth of emotion with which Landi infused this moment. Additionally, their voices fuse gloriously - with an odd matching up of virbratos which has a power all its own. .
Landi gives the chorus glorious music and Christy's "minstrels" launch into it with a sense of elation and joy. The choral music is unique here in this style of music and at one point reminded me of Peter Grimes, Turandot or Porgy and Bess, so important and integral are they to the goings on. I loved the madrigal-like aspect of some of the writing for them, the raucous circus/carnival act ending dance (beautifully sans voices) as the stage is flooded in a riotous eruption of joyous emotion.
William Christie and his band give a predictably brilliant and buoyant reading of the score, elegant when necessary and "down and dirty" in its bawdier moments. Banjamin Lazar's actual-era inspired physical production matched the musical qualities of the opera note-for-note, right down to having the set lit by candles - a very warming and welcoming touch.
How wonderful to be living in these often depressing times, and witness the rediscovery of brilliant works of art! I am ever grateful for the work Bill Christie is doing to unearth, promote and help revitalize our musical culture.
Bravo to everyone involved in this very special project and I hope it inspires more audiences, more musicians, and more good will - this DVD should prove as good a starting point as any! Bravissimo! "
A most beautiful production, respectful of the work's charac
Blake&Mortimer | Canada | 06/12/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This DVD is already available in Canada and I have watched it with ravishment. I already knew Christie's CD version from some years ago, with a mostly female cast, but this all-male version towers above it, if only vocally and musically.
The scenic production is fascinating, with lighting accomplished only with candles, giving a beautiful and slightly unstable visual texture to costumes and sets. The latter consist of an ingenious folding structure that can easily be reconfigured to stand as various parts of the family house, a public place or a country place. One of the most magical moments is when the double row of candles is lit up sequentially, bringing life to the first tableau of allegorical and symbolic figures.
The director seems to have instructed his performers to act in a slightly stylized manner, especially with the sustained poses of their hands, reminding me of paintings or sculptures where hands are frozen in gestures of acceptance, offering or devotion. One shortcoming the director had to work with though is the Maîtrise de Caen choir, whose members sing the ensembles and minor roles, and also try their best to act as extras. From the look of it, they do no seem to be used to performing in a dramatic staging; several of them seem detached, to be merely standing there and to be barely mouthing their part. Notable exceptions are mostly to be found amongst the child performers; for example, some of them give a very strong impression simply by the intensity of the attentive looks they give to the figure of Roma in the opening sequence.
As for the main performers, let us first marvel that we live in a time when so many talented countertenors could be found to fill the 9 roles necessary. Christie could even afford the relatively luxury casting of having such a well-established singer as Pascal Bertin for the rather short (but dramatically strong) role of Nuntio. The superstar of the show is of course Jaroussky; I do not know how long his voice will retain its crystal purity, especially in the high notes, but I am glad this performance was recorded for posterity. He manages to bring some musical variety to a role that is very much cast in a unidimensional plaintive mode. The whole opera is indeed is more in the mode or recitatives ("parlar cantando" is I believe the correct musicological term) than arias. It is a striking contrast to Landi's La Morte d'Orfeo (which we are lucky to have in two good CD versions, the Lasserre version on Zig Zag and the pioneering Stubbs one on Accent), more dramatic and full of characterized arias.
The one character that gets most of what we could qualify as arias is probably the comical valet Curtio, solidly sung by Damien Guillon with all the necessary cockiness until his final repentance. Also notable are Xavier Sabata as the Mother, a performer that was unknown to me, and the touching Nurse sung by Jean-Paul Bonnevalle (who sang in the chorus in Christie's first recording). But the most remarkable turn comes from Max Emmanuel Cencic as the abandoned Spouse, a performance that bears no trace of campy drag or caricature and which Cencic seems to inhabit with an unusual conviction, along with a truly wonderful mezzo tone. Alessio's character has beautiful music, but is never touching; the Spouse's predicament is given the full weight of emotion by Cencic's vocal and dramatic power.
The rest of the cast generally sings well, even if the Devil's role would have required a true basso profundo to do justice to the impossibly grave coloratura Landi has alloted this character.
As in many recording of operas or theatre, the director focuses too often on unnecessary side characters or action, a practice that at times detracts from the overall impact of the visual spectacle.
All in all an essential recording, as long as one is ready to accept some of the conventions that may seem dated to our modern eyes. As Dominique Fernandez aptly says in the liner notes, it is strange that a character who deserts his family and wife (probably just after the wedding, the libretto being a bit ambiguous on that point), and then lies to them for 17 years by living unrecognized under their roof, would be presented as an admirable role model. And was canonized to boot! (Although he was later removed from the official registry of saints.) And I have yet to watch the few extras, which include an interview with Christie.
A Squalid Saint, and the Birth of the Baroque
Giordano Bruno | Wherever I am, I am. | 09/13/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Saint Alexis (Alessio) was a Roman patrician of the 4th C AD, the only son of a Christian family served by 500 slaves. On the evening of his properly arranged marriage, he informed his new bride that "consummation" wasn't in the plan, that in fact he was departing on a pilgrimage and had no return date in mind. Then he set off, with a retinue of slaves and a bag of money, for Ephesus and other points east. He soon gave away his wealth and settled into the life of a holy beggar for seventeen years, during which time he never communicated with his Roman home. His father sent a party of servants to search for him; they saw the beggar, and he recognized them, but no contact was made. After seventeen years, Alexis was carried to Rome by a storm at sea. In the street, he encountered his own father, who didn't recognize him, and pleaded for alms. The father let the "beggar" occupy a tiny space under the stairs in the family home. Alexis lived in sanctified austerity in that crawl space for another seventeen years, daily watching his parents and his wife mourn his mysterious absence. The servants of the household mocked and abused the squalid beggar behind the householders' backs. Finally, an angel announced to Alexis that his penitence was adequate and that he would be allowed to die. Alexis wrote a letter describing his 34-year "adventure" and was found clutching the letter in his dead hand. The Pope and the Co-Emperors of Rome all came to observe the corpse and to acclaim the profound sanctity of Alexis's abnegation of sinful ordinary life. Miracles began to occur.
That's basically the story, from the Legenda Aurea, and the plot of Stefano Landi's dramatized oratorio. The plot would have been completely familiar to everyone who heard the oratorio, since Alexis was a widely venerated saint. For people of this awkward 21st Century, the sanctity of Alexis's behavior isn't so easily credited. In the booklet accompanying this DVD, Dominique Fernandez writes: "...it seems incredible that someone who comes across as the most self-centered, misogynistic and sadistic of holy men should have been canonize... Did he not deceive his wife by offering her a happiness that he had already decided to deny her? ... Why wasn't SHE canonized for her self-abnegation and sacrifice? And what about Alexis's mother? She too was sacrificed for the sake of someone who doomed an entire family to despair in order to seek salvation through humility and chastity." These questions are not evaded in the libretto of Landi's drama. Much of the music is devoted to the lamentations of the abandoned family members, and all three victims of Alexis's penitence chide his corpse for such cruelty, yet the message of the oratorio is clearly that Alexis's actions were acceptable to God. In the end, Alexis is seen in the company of angels, ascending to heaven.
The libretto was no ordinary hack work. It was written with theological and political acuity by Giulio Rospigliosi, later to be Pope Clement. It's loaded with messages, not only about the nature of sanctity but also about the unique holiness of the City of Rome. Both the libretto and the musical score were published and disseminated widely; numerous copies have survived, making the authentic production of this "opera" relatively achievable. The score even includes precise instrumentation, and the libretto includes stage directions. First-hand descriptions of the performances, by people of the audience, have survived as well.
Although the instruments are specified in the score, precise parts for them are not. Only the chords of the continuo are written out in detail; all the instrumentalists would have been expected to improvise according to well-known rules and patterns. That is, astonishingly, what Les Arts Florissants does so artfully in this recording; every ornamental flourish you hear has been improvised by the individual musician.
Mr. Fernandez in the notes, and William Christie in the video interview that comes as an interesting bonus on DVD disk 2, propose a startling hypothesis: the Baroque in art, architecture, and music was a deliberate response to Lutheranism and Calvinism, orchestrated by the Jesuit Order and particularly by Maffeo Barberini (Pope Urban VIII) and his artistic henchman Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The modus operandi was to seek the opposite pole from the puritanical austerity and individualism of Protestantism by saturating the public sphere of life with opulence and drama, to seduce the consciences of catholics through their senses. Anyone who has toured the Bernini buildings and fountains of Rome might find this "conspiracy' rather credible. I'm predisposed to think the "stage-managed Birth of the Baroque" is not the whole story, but it's an awfully good story. And how ironic, how very odd, it is that one of the outstanding works of this Counter-Reformation extravagance should have been an opera about Saint Alexis, the epitome of the denial of pomp and pleasure!
Landi's Il Sant'Alessio was commissioned by Urban VIII and performed in 1632, with maximum opulence, in the Barberini palace in Rome, a building designed by Bernini. Secular opera was prohibited in the Papal States, though thriving elsewhere in Italy, and no women were allowed to sing or act on stage in Rome, neither in palaces nor especially in churches. Thus was born the special Roman genre of operatic oratorios (orare is Latin for 'pray') using religious texts and performed 'at the altar.' Since women were excluded, the roles of women were sung by boys and especially by "castrati"... and how peculiar is it that castrati were of such special utility to the Catholic Church well until the end of the 19th Century! In Landi's opera, only the roles of the father and the devil are written for bass voices. Alexis, his wife, mother, nurse, neighbor, and the two comic servants are all role originally sung by castrati.
William Christie has conscientiously attempted to recreate Il San'Alessio with maximum historical authenticity. Above all, there are no women in this production. Look closely at the dancers! They are all men. Modern opera companies have a severe shortage of castrati (and I suspect some impresarios regret it), so Christie has assembled a cast of six extremely skillful "falsettists" - countertenors - and he is certain, he says, that their artistry has to be as fine as that of the castrati, something that has only been possible in the last twenty years of the Early Music revival. The role of Alessio is sung by Philippe Jaroussky, whose soprano voice is as rich and flexible as that of any diva singing today. Musically, this is a sublime performance. It's hard to imagine a better. The choir of boys - La Maitrise de Caen - sound as boyishly angelic as they look. One boy in particular must have been reincarnated from a painting by Raffaelo, with his adorable curls and cherubic beauty.
Get ready for that, my friends! There is an affect of androgeny and gender-ambiguity about this production that may make some modern viewers edgy. Is it the inevitable quality of the original or is it something that appeals to these wonderful performers personally? Once again, there's an irony perhaps in this subtle portrayal of a saint who lived in a closet for seventeen years.
Stage director Benjamin Lazar must have spent hours studying Caravaggio and other mannerist painters in order to copy the "chiaroscuro" lighting and costume-coloring of this production, all candle-warm and woody. Likewise, the dramatic postures and gestures of the singers are lifted straight from Baroque paintings and statues. Jaroussky might easily have posed for a painting of Saint Alexis by El Greco. A modern viewer will possibly feel uneasy with such affectations for the first scene or two, but as the opera soars musically, the whole atmosphere becomes entrancing.
What sort of music did Landi write for us? The idiom is that of the operatic madrigal -- recitativo blending into aria and ritornello, with all resources devoted to making the text emotionally expressive. The obvious comparison is to the secular operas of Claudio Monteverdi, Landi's contemporary. Stefano Landi was not as great a composer as Monteverdi - not even close - but his music is powerful and subtle, and the singing and playing of Les Arts Florissants could make the Caen telephone directory sound sublime. Taken as a whole, this DVD is a complex and satisfying experience of music, stagecraft, and history all at once."
At last an Authentic Baroque Opera
Dr. John W. Rippon | Florida | 01/12/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I am overjoyed by this DVD and it's production. I'm in total agreement with the three reviwers who praised this performance. I'd only like to add two comments. One is about the use of gestures in this performance. I believe from reading into current scholarship on the performance of "Baroque" opera of the mid- seventeeth century that the exagerated gestures used in this production are akin to that used at the time of the first presentations. We cannot know exactly, but I've heard several noted scholars voice this opinion. I think it added greatly to the performance. Secondly I am so very happy that Wm. Christie and director B. Lazar used setting, costumes and production that were relevant to the music. So very often in previous Christie products we have beautifully played music and great singing in a production completely irrelevant to the piece, author or period in which written. All together now: no more Eurotrash productions; cheers for Authentic Baroque Opera."
Awesome lenten entertainment!
R. Dekreek | chicago | 04/04/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"this is a fantastic preformance of ancienne musique! It is worth the buy i am glad to have found it and for the price! it wasnt too bad for those that want better quality for thier money and not a EURO TRASH PREFORMANCE it is true to par with the standards of the time i found it to be exhilarating and elegant and full of deep spiritual meaning and the cast was of the highest quality and caliber they did this as well and the willian christie recording that i have on cd get it you wont be sorry in the least it is worth the money for those of us with equisite' taste for only the most elegant and richest of entertainment written for royaltie'"