Plácido Domingo - Live from the Vienna State Opera
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Carmen – Elena Obraztsova (mezzo)
Don José – Plácido Domingo (tenor)
Escamillo – Yuri Mazurok (baritone)
Micaela – Isobel Buchanan (soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Carlos Kleiber
Stage production and TV direction by Franco Zeffirelli
rec. live, Vienna State Opera, December 1978
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 4:3; LPCM Stereo [154:00]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Il Trovatore (1853)
Leonora – Raina Kabaivanska (soprano)
Manrico – Plácido Domingo (tenor)
Conte di Luna – Piero Cappuccilli (baritone)
Azucena – Fiorenza Cossotto (mezzo)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Herbert von Karajan
Stage direction by Herbert von Karajan
rec. live, Vienna State Opera, 1978
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 4:3; LPCM Stereo, DD5.1 [151:00]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin – Plácido Domingo (tenor)
Elsa – Cheryl Studer (soprano)
Ortrud – Dunja Vejzovic (soprano)
Telramund – Hartmut Welker (baritone)
King Henry – Robert Lloyd (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Claudio Abbado
Production by Wolfgang Weber
rec. live, Vienna State Opera, 1990
Region Code: 2,5; Aspect Ratio 4:3; PCM Stereo [219:00]
ARTHAUS MUSIK 107505, [4 DVDs: 524:00]
Arthaus have here gathered together a set of performances from their Wiener Staatsoper Live series using Plácido Domingo as their unifying link. These performances are fantastic in their own way but while the great tenor is a fundamental part in the success of each, the conductors are often more of a reason to acquire them.
This 1978 Carmen became legendary due to the involvement of Carlos Kleiber. This elusive conductor was notoriously reluctant to have his performances set down on record, let alone broadcast on television. His permission to release this one on DVD came only a few weeks before his death in 2004. We should all be grateful that he gave it, however, as he is the best thing about this performance. Over and over again he stamps his authority on the music, apparent from the very opening when the prelude explodes into life before the audience applause has fully stopped. His facial expressions reflect his intense involvement in the drama, as do his gestures. Note the forceful way he accentuates the bass pizzicati in the “fate” section of the prelude. Zeffirelli, who directed the TV cameras as well as the stage action, seems to appreciate Kleiber’s importance as, at various points, the camera is trained on the conductor rather than the stage. This might be distracting elsewhere but here works rather well, though it’s only tried a few times. The singers are good, though mostly not outstanding. Yuri Mazurok sounds embarrassingly over-parted as Escamillo and the quintet of gypsies in Act 2 seem to lack polish. Obraztsova has the perfect voice for Carmen, deep and chesty, sounding sultry and dangerous and, helpfully, with an entirely different vocal colour to anyone else on stage. However, she doesn’t act well and this detracts from the overall effect. Isobel Buchanan, on the other hand, is very moving as Micaela, singing with a purity of tone that mirrors the character’s innocence. Domingo himself is the standout among the singers. His golden tone is quite right for the Mediterranean setting, but he plays Don José not as a love-struck innocent but as a powerful lover whose passion for Carmen has unhinged him and made him dangerous. There is a look of menace in his eyes from Act 2 onwards, even in the Flower Song which sounds marvellous but also carries an undercurrent of danger. Zeffirelli’s typically traditional production is too often a distraction rather than a help and it is not as successful as his gargantuan but more disciplined staging for the Met on DG. Acts 2 and 4, in particular, suffer from over-population so that the eye is too often distracted by something going on at the edge of the screen. Furthermore, Zeffirelli doesn’t always know where to point his camera so that too often the viewer’s perception is muddied and confused. It says a lot that the most successful scene, for me, was the card trio where the camera stays focused only on Carmen herself for most of her monologue. This opera seems to have been one of the earliest ORF recordings to have been relayed live on television, or so the booklet note suggests. That’s rather apparent in some tell-tale signs, such as a (far too obvious) microphone above the stage and, more seriously, rather boxy, unflattering sound which favours the orchestra so much that there are times when the singers are barely audible. However, the sense of a great occasion is really palpable, not least when the applause comes and the incredibly appreciative audience simply refuses to stop clapping! There are many finer Carmens on DVD but Kleiber’s and Domingo’s contributions make this one irreplaceable.
This Trovatore is also the stuff of legend where, for once, Caruso’s quip about the four best singers in the world might almost have been true. Domingo stepped into this production only at the very last minute after the withdrawal of Franco Bonisolli. He only sang two performances in the run and, as the booklet essay outlines, a lot of rescheduling had to be done with ORF and Eurovision to ensure that it was one of his performances that was broadcast. This performance captures him at this absolute peak, full-blooded and exciting as well as ardently lyrical. His off-stage song and explosive entry in Act 1 make the pulse quicken with excitement and he gives one of the finest performances of Ah sì, ben mio that I have ever heard, even compared to his other CD recordings. Moving straight from the soaring lyrical curve of this aria into the full-throated excitement of Di quella pira is absolutely thrilling and shows the great tenor at his Italianate best. However, this never turns into the Domingo show: he is surrounded by great colleagues, all of whom are inspired to give of their best. Fiorenza Cossotto has done nothing finer on disc than this Azucena. Her identification with the character is thrilling, much deeper and more convincing than her 1970 RCA recording with Mehta. She uses the full breadth of her vocal range to exhilarating effect and her performance gains a hundredfold by seeing as well as hearing her: she sings Stride la vampa as if hypnotised with horror and her memories of burning her child are hair-raising. Some may criticise her for hysteria or over-acting, but no-one should come to Trovatore looking for gritty naturalism: Cossotto understands that this is a blood-and-thunder melodrama and she revels in this atmosphere. Her scenes with Domingo by themselves would justify this set’s place in the collection of any Verdian. Cappuccilli is at his lyrical best here. His Count is a complex creature, brooding and malevolent in Act 3 but transfigured with love in Act 2. Il balen sounds fantastic here, and is more disciplined than in Cappuccilli’s studio recording with Karajan on EMI. Even in the most driven sections of Act 4 he never loses the innate beauty of both the music and his voice, making this a performance to treasure. Kabaivanska is perhaps not quite as assured as the others, sometimes pitching below the note and lacking the final edge of security, but she still has all the equipment for the role and she anchors the Act 2 ensemble very successfully. Karajan made a rare return to Vienna to conduct his own very traditional production of the opera and does a spectacular job. His pacing and control always feel just right and you can forgive him the occasional cut in the score. The orchestra and chorus perform for him at their very best and the audience response is rapturous at every turn. In short, if there is a finer Trovatore on film then I have not seen it.
We often think that Domingo moved towards Wagner late in his career, but the booklet notes remind us that he first sang Lohengrin in Hamburg in 1968 when he was only 27. While he has sung most of Wagner’s heroes since – Siegmund, Walther and Parsifal on stage; Erik, Tannhäuser, Tristan and excerpts from Siegfried on disc – Lohengrin remains the role must suited to his voice. This 1990 production caught him at the summit of his Wagnerian powers. The role suits him so well because the lyrical curve of the writing suits the golden hue of his voice magnificently. When he first arrives in Act 1 the burnished gold of his voice is like a spotlight shining into the dark, bass-heavy world of the opera so far, something accentuated in the subdued, murky colours of this production. He glows like a light in the darkness in all the musical textures Wagner gives to his hero, leavening the great ensembles at the end of Acts 1 and 2. The whole interpretation builds to a momentous account of the grail narration in Act 3. He sings with extraordinary beauty throughout, and if he sounds a little pressed at times then he uses this to his advantage. Every top note underscores the character’s other-ness in this environment. He sounds more mature, more comfortable with the role here than he did with Solti on his VPO recording of 1986, though that recording remains very special. He is surrounded here by an excellent cast of singers. Cheryl Studer could sound under strain in Wagner, but not here. Like Domingo, she was in her prime when this was recorded, singing with radiant beauty. There is an utterly secure core to her voice, allowing her to sail upwards with steadfast confidence. She is vulnerable and touching in her Act 1 vision, and she shades things wonderfully in the Bridal Chamber scene, turning the screw with each phrase as she gets closer to the dénouement. However, her address to the breezes in Act 2 is where she is at her best, beautiful in its innocence and charmingly naïve in the light of what is about to come. Dunja Vejzovic’s star burned bright and brief, but she was past her best when she sang here. The voice, which always sounded a little fragile, then sounded pinched and under strain, meaning that the listener can never relax into the big moments like Entweihte Götter. She sounds much better on Karajan’s EMI recording, made a decade previously, and which I still love, despite the bad press it has received. Hartmut Welker is a commanding yet humane Telramund, and Robert Lloyd’s King sings with imposing authority throughout. However, the stars of the show are the conductor and his orchestra. Abbado, a dramatist to his fingertips, paces the unfolding drama brilliantly, something of paramount importance in this opera which, in the wrong hands, can feel trapped in meditational slowness. He unwinds it like a carefully coiled spring, nowhere more impressively than in the opening scene of Act 2 where the sense of growing evil and impending doom is electrifying. The VPO has an unrivalled pedigree in this work and, as with Kempe thirty years previously, it is the strings that so often steal the show, surrounding the spiritual moments with a shimmering aura but also capable of building the tension of palpable evil when required. Weber’s production is ultra-traditional, which is in its own way quite refreshing when considered alongside much of what is on offer elsewhere. The stage is uncluttered - unlike Levine’s equally traditional but scenically overburdened staging from the Met on DG - adding to the air of grandeur. The swan is dealt with subtly yet convincingly. In fact, if you want a traditional Lohengrin on DVD then this would probably be your first choice. The only drawback is the quality of the sound: tinny and restricted in a way that jars at times. It’s also a pity that it’s only in 2-channel stereo rather than 5.1 or DTS - a real shame considering the quality of surround sound available on other opera DVDs of the period. Still, this remains an essential document to set alongside the likes of Levine on DG and Richard Jones’ more radical contemporary realisation on Decca which boasts the magnificent Jonas Kaufmann as the Swan Knight.
So while Domingo may be the unifying force for these three performances, he is in every case only one aspect of a highly successful performance. Arthaus has done us a favour by releasing these three DVDs together as they provide a very affordable way of obtaining three highly collectable performances. There are plenty of great things here and, when the whole set retails at around £30, you can easily afford to treat yourself.
A very affordable way of obtaining three highly collectable performances.