The three operas contained here, live performances at the Paris Opera and starring Renée Fleming, are Manon, Rusalka, and Capriccio. I reviewed all three of them at Amazon US when they came out as singles and will append those reviews here:
This DVD comes from a June 2001 performance at the Opéra National National de Paris/Opéra Bastille and stars Renée Fleming as Manon and Marcelo Álvarez as des Grieux.
Fleming says that Manon is one of her favorite roles, and I can believe it. She invests the character with a good deal of feeling, and although she seems a little old and not quite giddy enough to be playing the simple school-girl in Act I, she gets better and better as the action proceeds. Her singing, of course, is nonpareil. Indeed, for me the action doesn't really catch fire until the final scene of Act II (although 'Nous vivrons à Paris,' in Act I, is exciting and beautifully sung by the young lovers) when Manon contemplates giving up des Grieux and letting him return to his family, in 'Adieu, notre petite table,' followed by des Grieux's 'En fermant les yeux,' sung gorgeously by Álvarez.
The staging triumphs in the two 'public' scenes--the Cours la Reine scene (Act III, 1) and the gambling scene at the Hotel Transylvanie (Act IV). Each of these scenes is so full of visual stimulation that it might even be easy to miss the main action except for the expert television direction of François Roussilon. The baroque-style ballet (choreography by Ana Yepes, and occurring in the Cours la Reine scene) is an engaging use of the music--a larger group of formal dancers alternating with a trio of solo dancers, each movement fitting Massenet's expert pastiche of 18th-century music perfectly.
The scene (III,1) between the hero's father, Comte des Grieux (sung sympathetically by Alain Vernhes) and Manon is touching and sets up the reconciliation (III, 2) at St. Sulpice between the new Abbé des Grieux (whose 'Ah, fuyez douce image' brings tears to one's eyes) and Manon. If only they could have known that being in love and managing one's money often don't go together! The final act when des Grieux is gotten off by his father from charges of cheating but Manon is found guilty and about to be deported is heartbreaking, and again Fleming and Álvarez outdo themselves.
Lescaut is sung and acted effectively by Jean-Luc Chaignaud, de Brétigny by Franck Ferrari. It was wonderful to see the venerable Michel Sénéchal as the old roué, Guillot de Morfontaine; the old rascal can still act up a storm.
The spectacularly talented Jésus Lopez-Cobos led the musical forces brilliantly. I imagine symphony patrons in Cincinnati still mourn his departure from their city. Sets and costumes, brilliantly effective and richly sumptuous, are by William Orlandi. The inventive staging is by Gilbert Deflo.
I will not forget any of the wonderful recorded Manons I've treasured over the years. My first was Janine Micheau in an otherwise dreadful recording from the 50s. I've more recently come to value the 1929 Opéra-Comique recording with Germaine Féraldy (Manon) and Joseph Rogatchewsky (des Grieux), conducted by Elie Cohen. And the still wonderful recording with Beverly Sills and Nicolai Gedda. I missed the one with Alfredo Kraus and Ileana Cotrubas, but more recently liked, although a little less, the Italianate 'Manon' with Gheorghiu and Alagna.
Do not hesitate. This will be the 'Manon' to have for, I expect, years to come. It captures one of Renée Fleming's signature roles and shows off one of our rising tenors, Marcelo Álvarez, in a marvelous performance.
2 DVD discs, TT=164 mins
Dvorák's 'Rusalka' is by far his most effective opera and the only one that has made its way in the non-Slavic world. Based on de la Motte Fouqué's fairytale, 'Ondine,' but with additions from Hans Christian Andersen and the Czech ballads of K. J. Erben, and with a symbolist libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil, Dvorák's music captures the story's ecstasy and anguish perfectly. Briefly, it is the story of a water nymph who falls in love with a Prince who visits the lake where she, her three sisters and her father, the Water Spirit, live. She wishes to become mortal so she can be with him and implores the witch, Jezibaba, to grant her that wish. Jezibaba does so but with two provisos: she will become human but lose the power of speech, and if her lover rejects her she will be forever cursed. Well, the Prince initially loves her but, dismayed by her muteness, is soon won over by the blandishments of the evil Foreign Princess, so Rusalka, with her father's help, flees back to the water world. Jezibaba tells her that her only way of extracting revenge is to kill human males by kissing them and when the Prince, who has seen the error of his ways, comes to reclaim her, she warns him (having gotten back her voice) that she cannot come with him because her kiss would be fatal. He says that to 'die upon a kiss' would be the only way he could ever attain peace. They sing a rapturous duet, she kisses him and he dies. Curtain.
Rusalka is a signature role for Renée Fleming; her audio recording of the opera six years ago was a huge hit. This production, from the Paris Opéra, conducted by James Conlon, followed in 2002. The direction of Robert Carsen and set and costume design by Michael Levine emphasize the duality and symmetry of the mortal and fairy worlds. In Act I, which takes place at the bottom of the enchanted lake, the stage set is designed with a vertical symmetry, rather like the reflections seen at the water's surface when one is submerged. In Act II, which occurs in a stylized palace, there is left-right symmetry with the singers on the left side and mute actors mirroring them on the right side. Quite effective, if sometimes unintentionally reminiscent of the famous mirror act done by Groucho and Harpo Marx. Still, it conveys visually the mirroring of the real and fairytale worlds whose inability to merge leads to the final tragedy.
The musical presentation is spectacularly good. Fleming, of course, is superb. Her two main arias, the famous 'Hymn to the Moon' and the Act III 'Vyrvana zivotu" ("I am torn from life") are stunningly beautiful. Her ecstatic final duet with the Prince, sung by Sergei Larin, is equally marvelous. Larin is in very good voice and has the requisite heft to manage the almost Wagnerian tenor role as the Prince. There is not a single weak member of the rest of the cast. Huge-voiced basso Franz Hawlata is touching as Rusalka's father, the Water Spirit. Larissa Diadkova is properly impish as the comic witch, Jezibaba. Eva Urbanova, strangely the only Czech in the cast of this quintessential Czech opera, is scary as the evil Foreign Princess. The three Wood Nymphs, as Wagnerian a trio as one can find outside the 'Ring,' are well done by Michelle Canniccioni, Svetlana Lifar and Nona Javakhidze. The Kitchen Boy, a pants role, is well-done by Karine DeHayes. It is particularly gratifying to see and hear the venerable French tenor, Michel Sénéchal, as the Gamekeeper. The Act II ballet, neatly carrying forward the mirror-image theme of the production, was crisply choreographed by Philippe Giraudeau and danced by the corps of the Opéra Ballet. The video direction was by François Roussillon; it is unobtrusive and natural.
I was both charmed and intrigued by this production. 'Rusalka' is slowly becoming better known throughout the world and I suspect this DVD of the Paris production will help further its spread.
This 2004 Paris National Opéra production of Strauss's last opera 'Capriccio' is extraordinarily successful. The casting is luxurious: Renée Fleming as the Countess; Dietrich Henschel as her brother, the Count; the fast-rising baritone Gerald Finley as the musician, Olivier; tenor Rainer Tröst as the poet, Flamand; Anne-Sofie von Otter as the glamorous Parisian actress, Clairon; the Wagnerian bass Franz Hawlata as the impresario, La Roche; Annamarie Dell'Oste as the Italian soprano; Barry Banks as the Italian tenor; the big-voiced (and hunky) bass Petri Lindroos as the stentorian Major-Domo; and, still singing extremely well, the venerable tenor, Robert Tear, as the poor sleepy prompter, Monsieur Taupe. Add to that the inventive staging by Robert Carsen, the sumptuous stage sets by Michael Levine and costumes by Anthony Powell (the Countess's gown in her magnificant final scene is gorgeous), amusing choreography by Jean-Guillaume Bart, as well as the rich orchestral accompaniment by the orchestra of the Paris National Opéra under Ulf Schirmer, and you have a real winner. I have not seen the competing version of 'Capriccio' from the San Francisco Opera starring Kiri te Kanawa, so I can't compare the two productions. But I am completely satisfied by this one.
The opera, whose libretto clearly indicates that the action takes place in the 1770s, is set by Carsen in the Nazi years, in German-occupied France. Aside from some jarring anachronisms (references to Gluck and Piccinni as contemporaries, the Count and Clairon going to Paris using 'four horses' [to which Clairon archly suggests she is surprised the Count isn't using 'six horses'] and so on), the setting is reasonably apt. The Nazi presence is not obtrusive or freighted with 'meaning' at all. The costumes and sets are consonant with the early 1940s -- indeed, Renée Fleming never looked lovelier with her 40s hair-do and gown. The other conceit in this production is that it supposedly actually takes place on, rather than being acted out upon, a stage (rather than the libretto's indication that it takes place in the Countess's palais), with some singers occasionally placed in the otherwise empty auditorium of the Palais Garnier. This is more or less appropriate since the subject of the opera is Opera itself and a debate about whether the words or the music are more important. (Olivier: 'Prima la musica, poi le parole.' 'No, no,' answers Flamand, 'Prima le parole, e poi la musica.') And, of course, the Musician and the Poet personify their two arts and vie for the hand of the Countess. It is Strauss's and the librettist's, Clemens Krauss's, masterstroke that her choice, at the opera's end, is left unclear. Renée Fleming, in the long final (and musically stupendous) solo scena, is ravishing, both musically and visually. The Major-Domo's final comment - 'Dinner is served' - serves the same purpose as the appearance of Mahomet in the final moments of 'Der Rosenkavalier', to bring us down to earth and remind us that this is only a play after all. Brilliant dramaturgy.
One cannot say enough about the ensemble aspects of this opera and how they are handled here. Strauss denoted the opera as a Conversation Piece; there are, for instance, three octets in the opera -- one laughing, one quarrelling and, most delicious, the comments of the eight servants after the principals have gone. The opening string sextet (the Overture) and the 'Moonlight Music' (the intermezzo leading to the final scene) are so gorgeous that one wants to hear them again (and I did, using the magic of the remote control -- aren't DVDs wonderful?). The transformation of Flamand's sonnet, 'Kein andres, das mir so im Herzen loht', first declaimed hammily by the Count, then read poetically by Flamand himself, and then set to music by Olivier and sung gloriously in the final scene by the Countess is a marvel. There is just so much to love in this opera, it's no surprise that it has become, after 'Rosenkavalier,' 'Elektra,' 'Salome' and 'Ariadne auf Naxos,' his most produced opera.
If you love Strauss and don't know this opera, you owe it to yourself to get either this 2DVD set or the San Francisco DVD of it. Or, better, get yourself to the next production that is staged anywhere near you. This is front-rank Strauss, and a miracle of his old age.