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Composer: George Frideric Handel

Libretto: Paolo Antonio Rolli

First Produced: London, 1741

Present Company: De Nederlandse Opera, 2012

Stage Direction: David Alden

Sets: Paul Steinberg

Costumes: Constance Hoffman

Lighting: Adam Silverman

Choreography: Jonathan Lunn

Video Director: Joost Honselaar

Sound: Jan Stellingwerff & Hans Slotboom

Concerto Köln

Conductor: Ivor Bolton



Deidamia – Sally Matthews

Achille – Olga Pasichnyk

Ulisse – Silvia Tro Santafé

Nerea – Vernonica Cangeme

Fenice – Andrew Foster-Williams

Licomede – Umberto Chiummo



Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50

Opera: 39.57 GB

Bit Rate: High (31~36 Mbps)

Italian DTS-HD MA 5.1

Italian LPCM 2.0 stereo

Opera Subtitles: English, German, French & Dutch

Region: All

Opera runtime: 184 minutes

Opus Arte, January 2013



Conception & Staging: A

Costumes: A

Lighting: C

Casting: A-

Singing: A-

Orchestra: A+

Music Direction: A

Video Direction: A-

Image: A-

Audio: A+

Extras Features: A

Recommendation: A-


The Story:

The story of Deidamia (the accent is on the third of four syllabes) and Achilles (here called Achille) goes back to the time between the abduction of Helen by Paris and Achilles’ decision to join forces with Menelaus and Agememnon to sail for Troy and set things right. We are told that Achille’s father, Peleus, hears that his son’s destiny is to be the hero of a war with Troy and that he is to die in battle. To save his son from that fate, he implores Licomede to hide him in his kingdom. Achille meets Deidamia, they fall in love, Achille hides out dressed as a woman, but enjoys hunting and such pleasures far too much. Our story begins from that point when the Greeks Ulisse and Fenice arrive to try to convince Licomede to allow Achille to fight with the Greeks since they will not sail without him. (The 2004 movie version with Brad Pitt isn’t so far off on this point, is it?)


The opera is really about that triangle: Deidamia (like Dido in respect to Aeneas, and Grace Kelly in respect to Gary Cooper in High Noon) loves and wants to protect Achille from his destiny, from what a man has to do. Achille is torn between his love for Deidamia and his Fate. And the Greeks create the wedge to create the drama and wake the hero from his slumber (much as the return of the Miller gang did for Will Kane.)



Critical Press:

New York Times

It is not unusual for operatic heroes to show emotional vulnerability, but Handel’s “Deidamia” is surely an extreme case. . . “Deidamia” is the last of Handel’s 39 Italian operas and, like its immediate predecessors, it adopts something of a lighthearted tone, possibly to counter competition from works like John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera.” Still, the work is no farce, and the title character Deidamia, Licomede’s daughter who has fallen in love with Achille (and he with her), ensures that it does not drift too far from its opera-seria moorings. . . Her task, futile in any case, is complicated when two Greeks, Ulisse and Fenice, appear on the island in search of Achille, whom they recognize as essential to the war effort. “Deidamia” has never stood particularly high in the Handel canon, in part because only Deidemia emerges as a truly vital character, yet it shows Handel had a Mozart-like skill in deftly combining comic and tragic elements. And it has a number of first-rate arias. . . Humor in an opera like this needs to be handled with care lest it overwhelm the serious content. David Alden’s production goes for laughs more vigorously than I would have liked but at least sets limits. – George Loomis



Mr. Loomis makes an important point often tasked in recent decades as revisionist staging has become all the rage in European opera theaters. Commonly known as RegieTheater (or Eurotrash by its detractors), directors have enjoyed extraordinary license to re-set opera in different locales and time, changing the tone and original intention. Despite the trend since the 1960s toward “correct” original instrumental practice, this same period has seen a curiously reactionary reply on stage. (We recall that the stage direction, setting and costumes of the 1976 Bayreuth production of the RING by Patrice Chèreau raised more than a few eyebrows.) But even while such things are now commonplace, audiences and critics are not always convinced by what appears to be arbitrary or idiosyncratic decisions on the part of the director. Loomis felt that way about this production. I did not.



Opera-seria, as its name suggests, is drama or melodrama rather than comedy, with stories often based in antiquity rather than current time, told in a sequence of arias for the most part by characters representing archetypes rather than common folk. In the hands of a good composer, such as Handel or Cavalli, and with the help of a good libretto, such types still speak to audiences centuries removed from their origins. There is no question that Handel’s Daedamia has the trappings of opera-seria, not buffa, and that it was marketed accordingly – to its detriment, it seems, as it closed after only three performances, very likely due to waning public interest in the form.



Mr. Loomis’ point is, in part, that the there needs be some rational correspondence between staging and text if not the music. He notes that the arrival of Ulisse and Fenice in a mock submarine at the start of the opera, while “cute,” doesn’t mean that you have to give up on what Handel wants when he is more serious. If Hitchcock can get away with making us laugh and feel terror in the same scene, Loomis might say, why can’t Handel ask that we go along with alternating moods of comedy and anguish over the course of a three hour opera? Mozart and Da Ponte were rather good at it. But how does one bring this off on stage, exactly?



Perhaps the question is more a matter of balance or of what impresses us as funny on the one hand and how that relates or juxtaposes with the aching bits on the other. Does a slight opera such as Deidamia have sufficient depth to accommodate an aria expressing depth of feeling on a stage dressed as a carnival or, in this case, a piece of tropical island on a neon blue surf? My feeling is that if the first thing we see on stage radically alters the time and space frame of the original to the point of its being unrecognizable, then we have to take it where it is or reject it whole. If we try to make our preconceptions fit in such cases (granted, preconceptions in keeping with the composer’s intentions or with the practice of his time) we are likely to be doomed to an evening of frustration and disappointment.



If we are open to novelty and if what we see on stage is sufficiently off-kilter, especially in relation to the music and text, we just might want to see how things will fall out or, just as likely, fall apart. It is entirely possibly that Director David Allen might have wanted simply to give the opera an entirely new coat of paint just to keep us from drifting off and to allow modern audiences to connect with this opera from their perspective. OK, his perspective - but with the hope that his audience will follow his connections most of the time.


If you are not particularly used to this form of opera, a kind of sameness can creep in despite that some of the arias are vigorous, some playful and others lamenting.  Director Allen keeps his almost two-dimensional stage lively by infusing the arias with curiously metaphorical bits of choreography, courtesy Jonathan Lunn, by actors who move about the stage but otherwise say nothing. One of these is a woman playing a fake cello who spends a considerable part of the time, bowing in time with the rhythms of the melody. Others physically interact with the singers; still others lurk about the stage, obviously hunting for the missing Achille, their slowed motion an indication of time standing still, just as Paul Steinberg’s sets on which the actors stand or lie about seem to be suspended in space.



Despite what on the surface initially seems like foolish caprice on the part of the stage director and set designer I found a unexpected consistency in the dramatic changes in scene from act to act: the first, azure bright, open and optimistic, like our heroine. The second act, darkening slowly into a cobalt blue forest, is where Achille rejects his lover in favor of hunting and playing with swords. The final act, in deep red, emblematic of the State, of Fate, War and Death. Costume Designer Constance Hoffman carries us forward through Deidamia’s early scenes as an ardent, if frivolous, youth to her eventual transformation as a woman and through Achille’s various attempts to disguise himself, eventually giving himself away for the true hero he is and must be. Always there is Handel’s music – at times soulful, at others juvenile; over here, raging, over there, distressed. Not his best work certainly, but always radiant.




Save Umberto Chiummo’s lookwarm, unauthoritative Licomede and Vernonica Cangeme’s uncertain Nerea, the singing here is very good-to-excellent. Sally Matthews’ creamy soprano is surprising at a number of levels. First because I knew her speaking voice before I encountered her singing and the difference was something of a shock. (You can hear what she sounds like in real life, so to speak, on the bonus feature.) More important, because however clean high-definition audio is, it usually does its part to corrupt the voice in small, but perceptible ways, mostly by adding a fine gloss of grain to what should be simply resonance. Miss Matthews not only survives the digital transformation but beats the process at its own game with a liquidity that is rare indeed. Not that the smoothness of her voice overshadows the nuance of her gentle vibrato or trill, though there is a seductive blend, nor is she without the necessary agility required to take all those opera-seria leaps and bounds. While you’re there, note how her voice deepens subtly with her journey to maturity.



And speaking of agility, kudos also go to Olga Pasichnyk’s Achille. Miss Pasichnyk is a singer with some impressive credentials and experience. A native of Ukraine, she seems to have been everywhere and sung everything – everything difficult. Achille is no exception. She is no tepid actress either (it’s only the men in the production that are drips, but I suspect that kind of comes with the territory). Come to think of it, both Deidamia and Achille are asked to indulge in some wild calisthenics throughout the opera. Achille’s is, as you would expect, that much more vigorous, not least because he is trying so hard to convince himself he is not who really is, something that Deidamia laments from the outset when she notes that he is unable to remain completely in character when disguised as a woman.



In his review of the performance he attended, Mr. Loomis singled out Spanish mezzo Silvia Tro Santafé’s performance as Ulisse. The role may not be as interesting as the two leads, so especially for that reason the singer who brings him to life needs to be that much more incisive. The role was originally written for a castrato who would have possessed that weird tremolo from singing in full voice in a soprano range that would have cut right through glass. A mezzo would sing it now (he said, thankfully, bringing his knees closer together) and Silvia Tro Santafé nails Ulisse, speaking for all Greeks who must avenge the betrayal of Menelaus against Paris and his fellow Trojans.



The fourth soprano in this cast of six singers is the Argentinean Vernonica Cangeme as Nerea, who is to Deidamia something like Anna is to Dido in Les Troyens and La Didone, a kind of soulmate that the heroine can speak her heart to, but soon gives herself over to the Greeks. The weakest of the four, Miss Cangeme suffers more by comparison: she looks and acts the part, but is unremarkable in dramatic articulation and gets into some trouble in her upper register. Andrew Foster-Williams as Fenice, called “Phoenix” throughout most of the opera, has a more robust sound than the king, Licomede, which I found a bit distressing on aesthetic grounds, but he is a pleasure to hear for all that.




Adam Silverman‘s lighting for this production, more than any other I have seen on Blu-ray, worries the medium to the point of distraction. We have seen this difficulty before - in Glyndebourne’s Die Meistersinger and in Teatro Real Madrid’s Nozze di Figaro – where the video sensor is overwhelmed by strong white light from the wings. In the Wagner and Mozart operas, however, the incursion is relatively fleeting, and the actors can move out of the light as needs be. In this Daedamia, the problem  is cruel and chronic, and if the actor is in the path of the over-lit areas the image blows out all to hell. What’s more, that light emanates not only from the wings but from selected points above the stage, while areas close by are in the shadow. Any actor standing above sea level really gets a face full of it. As long as the actor stays perfectly still the result appears deliberate, but as soon as he or she moves just a hair this way or that, it strikes us haphazard. As in other operas with strong concentrations of light in a clear effort to “paint” the scene, I doubt that the audience suffers from any negative impression. But on video, the effect is not often a happy one.



I wonder if there is ever a discussion between the video director and the lighting designer to resolve, if temporarily, the question of contrast ratio. Seems not in this case, and if you look for it you can see that Video Director Joost Honselaar changes his exposure from wide to close shots often so that the close image is more presentable, something I’ve never been so keenly aware of on other Blu-rays, yet I doubt most viewers will notice without its being pointed out. I believe the audience would not be the wiser, nor would the design be so compromised if the strong light be cut just enough to help, especially for the actors wearing lighter colors positioned on risers. Aside from this nagging problem, as shown in the screen capture below, Opus Arte has done their usual reliable job of managing color, movement and line without transfer artifacts: shadows are detailed and noiseless; color is rich and brilliant as required.




Whatever difficulties there are with the lighting and thus the video presentation, there are none with the audio, which is one of the best on Blu-ray and, I think, largely due to the efforts of Jan Stellingwerff & Hans Slotboom on the set rather than Opus Arte, who merely had to stay out of their way on transfer. From the overture onwards, the playing of an enlarged Concerto Köln is always crisp and full of energy, dynamic and full toned. It’s one of the better renderings of a pit orchestra on high-definition video. Both uncompressed stereo and surround mixes are equally good and proper. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 keeps the orchestra and stage action largely in front where it belongs, allowing the resonance of the hall to add additional space; the occasional audience applause, limited to occasional moments between scenes, remains out there as well. Voices are beautifully rendered without a hint of distress, with only a couple of fleeting instances where one singer was a shade below level. Balance between voices and orchestra in both mixes is perfect, while every nuance of stage sound is clearly and proportionally discerned – like the nudge Deidamia gives to the entire set to her right that set it in motion.  Subtitling is flawless, yet I still ask: Where are those bloody microphones!




An excellent 23-minute behind-the-scenes documentary is included on the disc. Hans Haffmans, host of “Live at the Concertgebouw,” takes us on a tour backstage to meet the female singing leads: Sally Matthews, Vernonica Cangeme, Olga Pasichnyk and Silvia Tro Santafé, who talk informally about their characters. Sally and Olga reflect on their costuming and how their costumes affected their performance and their characters’ development. Haffmans spends ample time with both director David Allen and Conductor Ivor Bolton in one of the liveliest and most candid discussions about collaboration between similar types. We watch Bolton in rehearsal, another eye- and ear-opening experience. And, in an unusual move for this kind of documentary, Haffmans visits a local artist, a woman named Gertie Bierenbroodspot, who has nothing whatever to do with the present production but who has a passion for both antiquity and opera. Her insights about the story are fascinating and revelatory. The documentary alone is worth the price of the video.




Another tough call: not for a recommendation, which I give easily, but for “High Marks.” The singing is first rate amongst three of the four principals. The weaknesses of two of the remaining three are not disturbing, they’re just not in the same class as their colleagues. The acting, by the way, is also very good throughout, astonishingly so for the two protagonists who are always busy with bits of business. Frankly I don’t know how they keep up with all that singing, acting, dancing, all the while staying in touch with Mr. Bolton. The orchestra and music direction, first rate again. I rather liked the off-beat staging, which kept my attention through what is, frankly, not Handel’s most inspired score, though always very listenable. The audio is excellent and quite good enough to be enjoyed without benefit of the video if you like. The bonus feature is a delight and offers a few useful insights about this kind of enterprise. Yet there is the nagging business of the lighting. My guess is that most viewers will not be nearly as disturbed by it as I am. So, there it is.


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

March 25, 2013

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