Aching Beauty

Three years ago I wrote under the spell of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin, whose American premiere I had attended at the Santa Fe Opera. The recording that was promised at the time has now materialized, a Deutsche Grammophon DVD, identical to the Santa Fe production (which had come originally from Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet) except that the conductor is now Esa-Pekka Salonen, a longtime friend of and fellow student with Saariaho in their native Finland. We heard some music from the opera a year ago, when Salonen preceded one of the acts of the so-called “Tristan Project” with a suite of excerpts, a wise move since both operas in their way breathe similar sorrows and undergo similar pain. L’Amour de Loin is a work of extraordinary power and beauty. Hear it, if you will, remembering the Metropolitan Opera’s recent broadcast of the workaday exemplar of what passes for innovative, contemporary opera in some circles these days — Tobias Picker’s drab note-spinning around Dreiser’s An American Tragedy— and it may restore your hope that, somewhere on the planet, opera does, indeed, survive. It is a work that, furthermore, restores the lyric stage to the level of myth and mystery, of appeal to an audience to lose itself in timeless imagery — not just the reworking of some popular movie scenario. It is, in other words, a genuine opera.

The text, by the Paris-based Arab writer Amin Maalouf, is drawn from the medieval account of the troubadour Jaufré Rudel, the Countess Clémence whom he worships from afar for her purity of heart and body, and the Pilgrim who crosses the Mediterranean to carry messages to the separated lovers. At the end they are united in transfiguring death. Peter Sellars’ evocative production fills the stage with water, not only to signify the gulf separating the lovers, but to cast a rippling shimmer that gorgeously reflects Saariaho’s deep, dark, achingly beautiful music — its orchestra wondrously enhanced by subtly interspersed electronics. Dawn Upshaw’s final ironic outburst, as the dead Jaufré (Gerald Finley, San Francisco’s recent Oppenheimer) lies in her arms, is, simply put, the stuff of sublime operatic drama.

Try This on Your iPod

I’ve had to add new shelves for my operatic DVDs. While classical recordings dwindle, or self-feed on repackaged reissues, the flood of video operas continues unabated and, for the most part, rewarding. I can remember when experiencing just the sounds of Wagner’s Ring at home meant piecing together several albums of excerpts with varied casts and agonizing omissions. Now my shelves bend under the weight of five complete videos of the cycle. One of these, from the Metropolitan, follows Wagner’s stage rubrics more or less literally: the sword in the tree, Brünnhilde the same soprano awakened on her rocks as when she was put to sleep there 20 years before, the dragon Fafner an honest-to-Wotan fire-breather and not just some hydroelectric monstrosity on the banks of the Rhine. The others, however, take all kinds of staging liberties, while offering plenty of proof that the world these days is well populated with good-to-excellent Wagnerian singers. Instead of being starved for the sound of a single proper Wagnerian performance on your home Victrola, in other words, you had damn well better be prepared to wrestle with the luxury of owning all five.

An opera date at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion can run you $410 these nights, tickets alone. Far be it from me to shoo you off the box-office line, but consider what else $410 can land you, including — since we’re still in the season of list-making — 10 marvelous operatic DVDs, Wagner aside, that can get you a lot closer to excellent performances than connections at the Chandler box office ever could. That’ll leave you something over for dinner — not at Patina maybe, but too much of that stuff isn’t good for you.

Let’s proceed chronologically. The fascinating Pierre Audi production of Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses that played here back in the Peter Hemmings days is available now, with some of the cuts restored, on a two-disc Opus Arte set, again conducted by Glen Wilson. Move on then to my favorite among half a dozen Don Giovannis: Riccardo Muti conducting on Opus Arte, with Thomas Allen as Mozart’s incurable rake and Ann Murray as the tragic, put-upon Elvira. Also on Opus Arte: a spectacular containment of Berlioz’s Les Troyens from Paris’ Châtelet, with Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting his properly named Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and our own Susan Graham as Dido.

Achim Freyer is remembered here better for his marvelous staging of the Berlioz Faust than for his fussed-with Bach Mass; one of his stage masterworks was his production of Weber’s Der Freischütz as a real Germanic folktale, and a Kultur DVD has nicely captured a Stuttgart performance conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. For Carmen there is an interesting choice: two performances with Plácido Domingo’s prime Don José. On TDK there’s a Franco Zeffirelli staging, quite old (1978) but conducted by the legendary Carlos Kleiber; the other, on TriStar, is the Francesco Rosi movie, with Julia Migenes-Johnson. You really need both; hell, they’re only one disc each. For The Barber of Seville only one choice is possible: Cecilia Bartoli, on ArtHaus, in a shameless flirtation with her cast, with Rossini’s music and with us all.

For any composer named Strauss, again only one choice is possible. Something about Kleiber’s presence in the pit becomes an irradiating force that can reach out to his orchestra, to his singers and to the audience. I was able to feel it during my one in-person experience, and much of that presence lingers as captured on video; I don’t want to try to explain it further than that. Anyhow, there are Deutsche Grammophon DVDs of Die Fledermaus and two performances of Der Rosenkavalier that somehow under Kleiber’s leadership become transformed into the excelsis of wise, all-knowing, human comedy. If people really knew how to immerse themselves in any or all of these miraculous events, the makers of Prozac would suddenly recognize their product as superfluous.

For Verdi, I can let myself be bowled over by the sheer force of Jon Vickers’ Otello (on DG, with Herbert von Karajan conducting) and try not to notice the lousy lip-synching. Bryn Terfel’s larger-than-life Falstaff (from the recent Covent Garden production) on BBC is the one performance I’ve seen on video that might persuade me to look into one of those oversize HDTV jobs. On the other hand, I hear that the 2-inch pictures on those new TV iPods are pretty good, too.

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