August 28, 2008


Lehár: Die Lustige Witwe. Gunther Emmerlich (Baron Mirko Zeta), Lydia Teuscher (Valencienne), Bo Skovhus (Graf Danilo Danilowitsch), Petra-Maria Schnitzer (Hanna Glawari), Oliver Ringelhahn (Camille de Rosillon), Christoph Pohl (Vicomte Cascada), Gerald Hupach (Raoul de St. Brioche), Ahmad Mesgarha (Njegus). Staatsopernchor Dresden and Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Manfred Honeck. Medici Arts DVD. $29.99.

Martha Argerich: Evening Talks. A film by Georges Gachot. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

      The newly issued live recording of the Semperoper Dresden performance of Die Lustige Witwe has a lot going for it: fine pacing, excellent orchestral playing, a delightful set, and staging that keeps everything and everyone moving pretty much constantly. It also, unfortunately, has some things going against it, from some peculiar stage-management decisions to, alas, considerable vocal weakness in some of the principal parts. This is a production that puts acting above beautiful singing – a state of affairs that does not quite work for The Merry Widow, Franz Lehár’s most famous work. Jérôme Savary, who directed the work for the stage, mounts the operetta in modern dress and with plenty of flash, including a helicopter that delivers and removes singers at climactic moments and a number of pinpoint lights that illuminate everything from the Eiffel Tower backdrop to the eyes in the portrait of the Pontevedrian leader that appears in several scenes. The dialogue has been largely rewritten to accommodate the updating – and the inclusion of such items as an “Andy Warhol” couch shaped like a giant hand, and a promise by Danilo never to tell Hanna he loves her in German, so he eventually says the words in English. Unfortunately, the spoken words often end up at odds with the sung ones: we have a 21st-century Hanna being told she is finally being granted the right to vote, which she graciously accepts in the “Ladies’ Choice” scene. Odd; very odd. But not as odd as having the first verse of the erotic Vilja Song sung by Hanna to a child, or having Danilo’s deeply emotional (if barely concealed) proclamation of love through the fairy tale of the prince and princess staged with marionettes. Miscues such as these might be forgiven in a production packed with top-notch singing, but unfortunately this one does not have it. Bo Skovhus makes a fine Danilo, whose pain at losing Hanna is barely concealed from the beginning, and who delights in his interactions with some very sexy grisettes. But there are no sparks between him and Petra-Maria Schnitzer as Hanna, and Schnitzer, although she handles the basic singing creditably enough, seems to have trouble pronouncing German and says her spoken lines with a pronounced accent (if this is deliberate, it does not work). The almost-love-scene between the principals in Act Two – in which the orchestra sneaks in the strains of the famous waltz, which Lehár wrote to appear in Act Three only – falls flat. Among the other singers, Oliver Ringelhahn is all right as Camille, but appears more put-upon than passionate – this is a deeply felt role when done well, but here everything is on the surface. A surface-level interpretation makes sense for Valencienne (although there are better ways to handle the character), and Lydia Teuscher is all glitz, although her mercurial mood changes do not always come across effectively. As her husband, Baron Mirko Zeta, Gunther Emmerlich is the weakest principal singer of all: the conclusion of his opening aria is transposed down to fit his limited vocal range, and he talks his way through his later singing rather than even trying to get the notes right. On the other hand, Ahmad Mesgarha overacts effectively in the spoken role of Njegus (and is actually given a brief chance to sing here). This production is all sparkle: the final act even transports the characters to Maxim’s instead of having Hanna remake her own home in its image, thus undercutting the emotional content of the operetta but making possible the display of some wonderfully inventive scenery, dancing and acting. But Die Lustige Witwe is deeply heartfelt beneath its glossy surface, and it is Lehár’s effective tapping into that emotional vein that is largely missing here.

      Emotion is on tap in George Gachot’s 63-minute film about pianist Martha Argerich, which is paired on a new DVD with 38 minutes of Argerich rehearsing and in concert. Argerich, born in Argentina in 1941, is a famously private pianist, although not to the extent of Sviatoslav Richter. In Evening Talks, she opens up a bit about her life, her background and her love of music; as she speaks, Gachot sometimes shows her talking and sometimes shows her rehearsing at home or in a concert hall; at other times, she is seen in concert. A feast for fans of Argerich, the film is likely to be disappointing to others, since the focus is entirely on the performer and not on the music – anyone hoping to hear a variety of complete Argerich performances will have to go elsewhere. Argerich does have an interesting background, and she communicates her passion for music and music-making effectively – but she is more effective still when communicating from the piano to an audience. That is not what Gachot has her do here; it is not what he intended her to do. Nevertheless, Evening Talks finally comes up a little short by letting viewers hear Argerich’s voice discussing who she is and what she tries to put across to the audience, while offering comparatively few opportunities to hear how she does it through the voices of the pianos on which she plays so well.

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