J. STRAUSS: Simplicius
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J. STRAUSS: Simplicius

spacer Magnuson, Janková; Beczala, Zysset, Widmer, Volle, Haunstein; Chorus and Orchestra of Zurich Opera House, 
Welser-Möst. Production: Pountney. Arthaus Musik 100 365, 132 mins., 
subtitled

SimpliciusDVD

Met audiences are just getting to know German baritone Michael Volle, but he is already a major presence in Europe. He appears on at least three DVDs of Wagner’s Meistersinger (twice as Beckmesser, once as Sachs), and he is the most rewarding component of this Simplicius, filmed in Zurich in 1999. It’s a remarkable achievement, because his character, a hermit, appears only in the first and third acts of this operetta. Simplicius, in fact, is a real ensemble work, with the musical expression divided among eight principals. Volle’s preeminence comes partly from his voice, which is full and steady in both fast and slow music, with a free and open top, and partly from the fact that his character’s music is more serious than the rest. But mostly it is because David Pountney’s production is not attuned to the bulk of the work, which can hardly breathe under the weight of his heavy symbolism and the heavy, enormous sets (though they are sometimes handsome) by Johannes Engels. 

Pountney’s staging is most galling in Act III, in which the scenery is dominated by a gigantic tree festooned with two dozen hanging corpses. In the one moment in this production when music and theater are engaged with each other, Strauss’s “Donauweibchen” Waltz is interpolated into the score, and the tree starts to revolve, a carousel of death. It would be appropriate, perhaps, for something like Zimmerman’s Soldaten, but it’s a deliberately false note here in Strauss’s 1887 confection. Certainly, Pountney has heard the music, and certainly one way to get an audience to hear the music is to undermine it. But this is a shame, particularly because in the previous number, a lilting vocal quartet, Franz Welser-Möst and the orchestra had settled into a nice performance of the score. Moreover, a few minutes after Pountney has made his point, the image is simply repeated, whatever power it had now spent. 

Piotr Beczala, another singer now more prominent at the Met than he was in 1999, when he had yet to make his debut, lacks the last bit of ease and grace as Arnim, but perhaps this is because all the elements of the production around him are at odds. Louise Martini, in the spoken role of Schapslotte, a camp follower, has excellent timing. In the title role, Martin Zysset, as the simpleton who was raised in the woods away from “civilization,” works perhaps too hard vocally and dramatically, losing the character. Oliver Widmer, who seems to be in every one of the many DVDs coming out of Zurich, sings the astrologer Melchior with less color and body than he often offers. The camerawork, mercifully free of gliding, swooping shots, is quite fine, and the scenery, mostly coppery with accents of red in unexpected places like ropes and ladders, is nice enough on its own. It would be wonderful for a production of Macbeth or Les Huguenots or any number of works that are not this one. spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN

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