Friday, 14 June 2019

Mercadante - Didone Abbandonata (Innsbruck, 2018)

Saverio Mercadante - Didone Abbandonata

Innsbruck Festival of Early Music, 2018

Alessandro De Marchi, Jürgen Flimm, Viktorija Miškūnaitė, Katrin Wundsam, Emilie Renard, Carlo Vincenzo Allemano, Diego Godoy, Pietro Di Bianco

Naxos - Blu-ray

The idea of a 19th century composer working with a very old text by Pietro Metastasio, set by many baroque composers is an intriguing one. Verdi was keen put some distance between the indulgences of a bel canto era which was still indebted to its 18th century past, beyond even Rossini, the most progressive composer of that era. Somewhere in there however, largely overlooked and unjustly neglected, is Saverio Mercadante, and yet it is in Mercadante, and particularly in a work like Didone Abbandonata, that you can definitely see the building of the bridge that Verdi was later able to cross to take Italian opera forward.

That connection might be more evident in a later work like Il Bravo, seen recently at Wexford Festival Opera (one of the few champions of Mercadante in the opera world), but Didone Abbandonata from 1823 opens up a whole new way of viewing Mercadante's place in Italian opera. Taken up by the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music, with a care towards historically-informed period instruments and performance - which means tuning down from the 20th century standard - this production aims to give the work an authenticity of sound that has done much in the past to present Handel and other baroque works in a new light.

So to return to that initial thought - how would early 19th century opera working with a Metastasio libretto sound? Well in fairness it sounds a lot like Donizetti; constrained to a certain extent by a structure dictated by Metastasio's libretto towards a standard cavatina, aria and recitative arrangement. Mercadante never lets that get in the way of creativity however, the libretto reworked by Andrea Leone Tottola, finding lovely settings for cavatinas, duets, trios and choruses that place his own stamp on the work. That character is more evident here since the period instruments unquestionably give much more prominence and space for the voice to be more expressive.

In Didone Abbandonata, the focus in the cavatinas and duets is on expression rather than ornamentation and there's rather unusually only one brief aria in the whole first half of the opera and it's Araspe, a secondary character, who sings it. In Act II likewise the few brief arias are little more than minor adornments. It's perhaps a bit much however to expect Mercadante to provide a profound examination of human feelings and situations when tied to 18th century operatic mannerisms, improbable twists and lack of naturalism in situations, but Mercadante dispenses with the longeurs of the da capo and drives everything towards showpiece rondos and the finales at the end of each of the two acts.

Fundamentally, Didone Abbandonata relies - as it did with Purcell in Dido and Aeneas, and as it would also with Berlioz in Les Troyens à Carthage - on the human tragedy of a woman's deep love, hopes and fidelity all dashed by a lover's desertion. It's not so much that Dido feels betrayed by Aeneas choosing the duty of over love - she's not the first woman and won't be the last one in opera to suffer that fate - as much as it does touch on a deeper psychological experience (one that Dmitri Tcherniakov alluded to a little heavy-handedly in his recent Paris production of Berlioz's Les Troyens) where human sentiments are crushed by a rush towards fate, the will of the gods or whatever you want to call the hand of history.

Mercadante does his bit to create that essential tragedy, but there remains the challenge of finding a suitable stage representation that suits the subject and the musical treatment. Director Jürgen Flimm attempts a kind of half-way house between early 18th century in the military costumes and modern in some of the props - a cement mixer, a fridge, guns, bullet-proof vests - on a rotating stage with a concrete bunker at one corner. There's little that points to the ancient legend, Aeneas even appearing to be preparing for his departure in a canoe with some travelling cases, but yet there is a classical feel to the situation, not striving for naturalism or realism as much as attuning the drama to the varied tones of the work that Mercadante applies.

Some of this is consequently of doubtful character - Flimm for example has Iarbas carry out his sacking of Carthage like he's playing a jazz-hands music-hall song and dance routine - but yet, the desired impact is very definitely achieved. Iarbas - very well sung by Carlo Vincenzo Allemano, even if the dancing around leaves him a little breathless - does have a greater role to play in this version of Virgil's Aeneid. Flimm's depiction of the wholesale slaughter enacted by Iarbas rampaging through the smoking ruins of Carthage at the conclusion and even involved in the death of Dido, does capture a sense of the complete loss and devastation of the Queen of Carthage's world, abandoned not just by Aeneas, but by everyone. There's nothing left but death.

Whether Mercadante's music has the necessary strength to carry that alone it's hard to say, but Alessandro De Marchi's conducting of the Academia Montis Regalis is authoritative and attuned to the situations and overall pace and rhythm. His interview in the enclosed booklet is highly informative on how a complete edition of the score was assembled and how the authentic early 19th century sound contributes to the character of the work. The singing is also impressive throughout, with a superb performance in particular from mezzo-soprano Katrin Wundsam in the trouser role of Aeneas, demonstrating impeccable control over the complete range with dramatic swoops from high to low. Her Act II rondò is just stunning.

Recorded live at the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music in 2018, Didone Abbandonata comes across well on the Naxos BD50 Blu-ray disc. The HD image is initially quite dark with high contrast due to the lighting, but the clarity is more evident in Act II. The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 soundtracks provide two very different listening experiences. The surround giving more space to the instruments, the stereo giving much more presence to the singing. There are no extras on the disc, but good contextual information and a synopsis in the enclosed booklet. The BD is all-region compatible and there are subtitles in German, English, French, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Innsbruck Festival of Early Music

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Korngold - Das Wunder der Heliane (Berlin, 2018)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold - Das Wunder der Heliane

Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2018

Marc Albrecht, Christof Loy, Brian Jagde, Sara Jakubiak, Josef Wagner, Okka von der Damerau, Derek Wetton, Burkhard Ulrich

Naxos - Blu-ray

Like many other German and Austrian works that were categorised as 'degenerate' Entartete music by the Nazis in the 1930s, Korngold's early operas have as a consequence been consigned largely to obscurity. That is undoubtedly unfair, as the banning of such works had little to do with any kind of musical discrimination or value judgement and everything to do with whether a composer was of Jewish origin or had Jewish family connections. The neglect and loss of such works and any legacy they might have had could however also have as much to do with them being out of touch with changing musical tastes and the reality of people's lives on the ground.

The near-eradication of such works from music history may not be so much to do with the labelling of such music as degenerate as much as the operas and their themes being rather too 'decadent' in subject matter at a particular juncture in history when the world was about to plunge once again into war. Korngold's operas would certainly fit in with the decadent fantasies that seemed to flourish around this period. With fairy-tale worlds peopled by ambiguous figures and wrapped in lush chromatic orchestration, Richard Strauss, Franz Schreker and Erich Wolfgang Korngold relished delving freely into a dark core of madness and forbidden lusts that had been unleashed post-war in the new century.

If they don't reveal any great psychological insights, works like Die Frau ohne Schatten, Die Gezeichneten and of course Korngold's Die tote Stadt are nonetheless fascinating and exquisitely beautiful works that are very much the product of their (short-lived) time. So too it transpires is Das Wunder der Heliane (Heliane's Miracle), another Korngold masterpiece that has been largely neglected or deemed irrelevant to the development and progress of 20th century opera. Composed in 1927 with a trial at its centre, there's a sense even that Das Wunder der Heliane challenges itself in response to such conflicts, if only within the world of opera. Are you willing, it seems to ask, to sacrifice the beauty of Romance for a harsh, unyielding, joyless life without magic and love in it?

That seems to be the choice open to the Stranger, imprisoned for bringing a message of joy and light to a land where love and laughter are forbidden. The King, a stern and embittered figure who has never even known the love of the Queen, visits the Stranger in his cell to tell him that he will stand trial and face execution for his frivolity. The Queen, Heliane however proves to be more yielding to the Stranger's outlook, offering him her hair, her feet, her mouth and then her nakedness, but not her body. The King, going back to plead with the man to ask him how to win the love of the Queen, is outraged when he discovers her naked with the Stranger.

That's the first highly charged Act of Das Wunder der Heliane, the subsequent two Acts setting these forces against one another, leading to the death of the Stranger in Act II and his 'resurrection' at the miraculous intervention of Heliane, whose goodness and purity allows them to consummate their love in death in the finale of Act III. There doesn't appear to be much Wagner or Schopenhauer influenced philosophical underpinning to this pseudo-mystical Liebestod, just throwing out the idea of beauty, purity, love and light as the true enduring force in the world, even stronger than death.

If there's any way of making a credible case for this idea, it's in how Korngold smothers any philosophical shortcomings with persuasive swathes of strings, harps, 'seraphic voices' and all manner of celestial instrumentation. Who could resist or deny that there is indeed something miraculous and otherworldly in the music at least? If anyone can convince you of the argument of Das Wunder der Heliane, it's Korngold's orchestration at his most extravagant. It's rather like Strauss in this register - full-on, rich and complex, underscoring high emotion with soaring crescendos.

Like Strauss it also places exceptional demands on the singers, who not only have to be capable of the stamina to handle its technical complexities, keeping up with the continuous augmentation of musical emotions, but also rising above it and making it feel like it comes heroically from the heart. I haven't come across American tenor Brian Jagde before, but he is supremely capable of bringing all that to the role of the Stranger, in thrall to love and beauty. The rush of 'pure' lusts inspire him to soar to incredible heights in his Act I scene with Sara Jakubiak's Heliane that culminates in her revealing herself fully to him. The singing with the orchestration and the charge of the chaste eroticism reaches everything that Korngold could wish to achieve in a scene like this.

Christof Loy's direction doesn't try to compete with the charge that is already there, but his directions certainly help bring it about. It's almost impossible to sustain that kind of charge and tie it into further miraculous associations between love and death (although Tristan und Isolde - clearly the major influence on this work - of course proves otherwise), so Loy aims for a more sober set design, setting the drama in a courtroom inspired by Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution, with dark classical wooden panelled walls and no unnecessary adornment or effects. As is often the case with Loy, he seems to give a problematic work the best possible presentation that highlights its strengths and mitigates against any weaknesses, and he does it with some style too.

Korngold's score also demands a certain flair and Marc Albrecht is an experienced conductor in this field. To judge purely on impact, the whole character of Korngold is there, distinct from Wagner, Strauss or Schreker, using unconventional instruments in an idiosyncratic way to achieve similar effects. The demands are not just on the principals then but the whole cast and there are consequently impressive performances from Josef Wagner as the distraught and furious King, Okka von der Damerau as the king's Messenger, Burkhard Ulrich as the Blind Judge and Derek Wetton suitably otherworldly as the Gatekeeper. This is a hugely impressive and revelatory production in every respect of a neglected Korngold rarity.

Recorded live at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in 2018, Das Wunder der Heliane is given a superb presentation on Blu-ray disc by Naxos. The HD image is good, but evidently the real benefit of the format is in how it gets across the power, complexity and detail of Korngold's majestic score in the high resolution DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 soundtracks. The spread of the surround track gives a more immersive experience, while the 2.0 track is more direct and powerful, particularly on headphones. Korngold specialist Brendan G. Carroll provides an introductory essay in the booklet, and also some items from his own archive on the disc, including an 8-minute recording from 1928 of the Act III Zwischenspiel and a picture gallery of rare photographs, posters and images. The BD is all-region compatible and there are subtitles in German, English, French, Japanese and Korean.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Montemezzi - L'incantesimo (Riga, 2019)

Italo Montemezzi - L'incantesimo

Latvian National Opera, 2019

Jānis Liepins, Aik Karapetian, Vladislav Sulimsky, Dana Bramane, Irakli Kakhidze, Romāns Polisadovs, Rihards Millers

ARTE Concert

L'incantesimo (The Enchantment) by Italo Montemezzi is a bit of a rarity for an Italian composer who is now only really known - if known at all - for his opera L'amore dei tre re. Completed in 1943, after the composer fled Mussolini's Italy for America, the short one-act opera has been revived in Riga by the Latvian National Opera and proves to be a good accompaniment for the verismo themes of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci.

As an early twentieth century composer, Montemezzi might be associated with verismo but as the title suggests, L'incantesimo's medieval fairy-tale setting is about as far as you can get on the opposing side of verismo. Musically, Montemezzi is clearly influenced by Wagner and there might be some similarities with the symbolism in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, but there is a verismo character to the music, coloured by the fantastical lush orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov's legends.

As a shorter work, the approach to music and myth in L'incantesimo is closer to Strauss's Daphne or Rachmaninoff's Aleko, another short work that pairs very well with Pagliacci if a company is adventurous enough. Not that L'incantesimo is much less hot-bloodedly romantic than Cavalleria Rusticana, but the magical fantasy setting perhaps allows a little more leeway for soaring verismo sentiments, rivalry and spilling of blood.

The blood spilled in L'incantesimo however is that of a deer, but not just any ordinary deer. Folco, a medieval lord, has been disturbed by a strange vision while hunting in the woods on a snowy winter evening. He tells his wife Griselda how while chasing down a wolf, a white hind appeared and, as he struck the deer with his knife, it looked up at him with Griselda's suffering eyes.

Frightened and a little shocked, Folco summons his friend Rinaldo asking him to bring a fortune-teller to interpret the vision for him. Rinaldo, a man who once loved and is still in love with Griselda, brings the necromancer Salomone, who tells Folco that the deer tells the true nature of his love for Griselda, that he is only moved by pity for her and in love with death. Folco goes back to try to save his 'deer', but finds that his love has died, leaving Rinaldo the opportunity to again express his feelings for Griselda.

L'incantesimo is an intense little work with not a great deal of dramatic action. Everything is described and enacted with great emotional feeling in the singing, particularly the romantic tenor role of Rinaldo, who essentially is the one who casts the spell here in his expression of his love for Griselda. The lyricism carries its own drama, and with a good tenor - Irakli Kakhidze here singing it wonderfully - it can become a vivid charged piece, soaring up there as much as any verismo work.

Under the direction of Aik Karapetian, the Latvian National Opera's production gives this rarity the full works, the set having a dark fantasy feel, the romantic surges that Jānis Liepins gets the orchestra behind visualised in a huge and slightly sinister moon that hangs over Folco's grand castle under gently falling snow. With its long lines of through composition it certainly emphasises similarities the work might have with Pelléas et Mélisande. There's much to admire also in the dramatic writing for the voice and the singing performances in Riga.

Links: Latvian National Opera, ARTE Concert

Monday, 20 May 2019

Mozart - The Magic Flute (Wexford, 2019)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Irish National Opera, 2019

Peter Whelan, Caroline Staunton, Anna Devin, Nick Pritchard, Gavan Ring, Kim Sheenan, Lukas Jakobski, Rachel Croash, Sarah Richmond, Raphaela Mangan, Andrew Gavin, Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Padraic Rowan, Nicholas O'Neill, Seán Hughes, Oran Murphy, Fearghal Curtis, Robert McAllister, Matthew Mannion, Peter O' Reilly

National Opera House, Wexford - 17th May 2019

You're taking a big risk if you attempt to remove the magic fairy-tale elements from The Magic Flute and downplay its Masonic underpinnings, but then Irish National Opera have been bold in their interpretation of other popular works this season (Aida, Madama Butterfly), often with impressive results. I'm not sure that their Die Zauberflöte works entirely without all the usual crowd-pleasing set pieces, and I'm not sure you can set out to make the opera work with any basis in the real world, but on the whole it's a worthwhile effort, certainly from the standpoint of the musical and singing performances.

It's certainly worth giving it a go though since, as director Caroline Staunton observes in her programme notes, Mozart's work is almost miraculous in how its compositional ideas and execution far surpasses its origins as "a dramaturgically chaotic narrative intended for a bawdy beer-hall in late 18th century Vienna". The Magic Flute has a lot more to offer than just a romp through its comedy routines and an often pompous approach to its ceremonial elements.

Inevitably, trying to tie that "dramaturgically chaotic narrative" into something real-world, meaningful and coherent is problematic, but even if it doesn't always hold together in the case of INO production, it does throw up a few good ideas and insights. Bringing an Irish element into the work in a late 19th century context means that
Caroline Staunton (who has worked with Dmitri Tcherniakov and Claus Guth at the Berlin State Opera) can replace some of the fairy-tale elements with Irish folklore, but it's not simply a matter of introducing another type of fantasy, and is a little more ambitious than that.

The division is not so much the traditional one of obscurantism versus enlightenment, as much as the ordinary Irish people in opposition to the colonisation of their land by English landlords. In that context, the Queen of the Night can certainly be very much seen in terms of a banshee, her Three Ladies spreading tales of her power and danger. What is obvious to the viewer however is that these are not mythological creatures, but common people in disguise, forging stories and legend to strike fear into ordinary labourers like Papageno as to what will happen to them should they step out of line.

But it's not just to control the likes of Papageno, or indeed create a fantasy in order to get Tamino to serve their purposes. It's also to create a force of resistance against Sarastro, who likewise is not entirely what he seems to be, and certainly not the great font of wisdom that he pretends. Surrounding himself with followers and books, setting up a system that works for his own purposes, in reality all he is doing is imposing another form of outside order on the people of the land, his abduction of Pamina akin to the seizing of their inheritance.

So where do Tamino and Pamina fit into this arrangement? Well, Sarastro sees the trials as a way of conditioning both Tamino and Pamina to his way of thinking. His desire for their marriage is a way of imposing a patriarchal authority through a formal arrangement, through marriage, the wife respecting and honouring the man's position at the head of it. Pamina, in this production, isn't having any of that.

If you're used to seeing the Magic Flute in its traditional way of playing out, this revision obviously confuses how you might think you ought to feel about the work. Mozart and Schikaneder's late 18th century viewpoint was of its time and perhaps some of its views and attitudes can feel a little dated today. Perhaps Die Zauberflöte isn't meant to be taken that seriously and trying to impose a modern-day perspective on it risks distorting the true meaning of the work, but there is indeed a message of enlightenment in the work and it deserves to be given serious attention.

Rather than distort the work's thoughts on enlightened thinking overcoming myths and superstition, on male and female finding accommodation and acceptance of the roles each has to play, it's worth taking a more critical look at the values as they have been perpetuated down through the years. If this was true of the late 18th century, or the late 19th century in this production, we ought to be much further down the path to peace, love and enlightenment than we are as a society, and it's worth considering why we haven't progressed much further to achieve that balance that Mozart clearly believed in and wanted to see established.

What makes such an idea work in the INO production, despite the contradictions that it might sometimes run into, is the central performances and again the perspective on that is not the traditional one. Tamino and Pamina can appear to be rather bland figures in other productions, lacking the colour and wonder of Königin der Nacht and Sarastro (and indeed even Papageno and Papagena), but not here. It's Tamino and Pamina who have the strength to call the shots, to change direction, to find a path that doesn't peddle myths. They are rightly the true heart of the work in this production.

And if that works it's on account of two terrific performances in the Wexford opening night of this production from Nick Pritchard and Anna Devin as Tamino and Pamina. Lyrical and authoritative, they breathe personality into these characters, showing them as they ought to truly be; beacons for a new way, rejecting the ways of the past, steadfast in love above everything else. No guru, no method, no teacher, as another famous Irishman once put it, which fits with the Irish theme of the production and the references that Staunton draws with J.M. Synge and Brian Friel.

So what traditional delights do we miss by going down this route? Well, there's no giant serpent at the start, there are no birds caught by Papageno, Königin's entrance is underwhelming, there's no aged-crone version of Papagena. That means that we miss out on a lot of the glamour and comedy which is unfortunate, but how much does that really add to the work anyway? We lose the Queen of the Night's aura of mystery and majesty, we lose Sarastro's grave presence and the solemnity of the rituals of initiation, but again, it removes distraction and obscurity and allows for a more useful and meaningful employment of Mozart's music and ideas.

What we aren't short of is an impressive set design that matches the tone of the music to a more down-to-earth depiction of beauty and wisdom. There's also a warm and rich account of the marvellous score by the Irish Chamber Orchestra under Peter Whelan, and it's there more than anywhere that the brilliance and wonder of The Magic Flute really comes alive. We also have a great cast of singers - INO always impressive in their casting choices - with Gavan Ring particularly good as Papageno and Kim Sheehan impressing with her "Der Hölle Rache" as Königin der Nacht. Sung and spoken in German, with an ambitious twist to reinterpret the meaning of the work, you really can't ask for much better treatment and respect for Mozart and a great opera like this.

Links: Irish National Opera

Friday, 10 May 2019

Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen (Leipzig, 2019)

Richard Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen

Oper Leipzig, 2019

Ulf Schirmer, Rosamund Gilmore, Iréne Theorin, Thomas Mohr, Simon O'Neill, Simone Schneider, Christiane Libor, Kathrin Göring, Vladimir Baykov, Martin Winkler, Dan Karlström, Henriette Gödde

Oper Leipzig - 1, 2, 4, 5 May 2019

It's important that any Ring Cycle establishes its own identity, and since it is the composer's birthplace and historically it was the first opera house outside of Bayreuth to ever perform Wagner's epic tetralogy in 1878, there is an expectation on Oper Leipzig to respect and do justice to its legacy. The last Ring production at Leipzig was 40 years ago, but that was also an important production and it would be impossible not to be mindful also of its impact. The creative team behind the 2013-2020 Leipzig Ring seem to be keen to respect the original intentions of the mythology, the history of the work as it applies to Germany and hopefully find a few new things to say about it.

As far as creative decisions go, the Leipzig Ring is informed very much by the historic legacy of the works' performances in the Leipzig house. Long before Frank Castorf's bold association of Der Ring des Nibelungen with the flawed 1871 creation of a German nation and the building blocks of a capitalist system that would eventually lead to the destruction of Wagner's socialist dream. Even before Patrice Chereau's famous production for Bayreuth, Joachim Herz made a similar association with the work's socialist underpinnings in Leipzig's groundbreaking 1973-76 100-year anniversary 'Jahrhundert-Ring'.

There's no question that Wagner wanted the Ring mythos to be part of the German identity, but the human element in the story, the social structures and character traits and flaws put in place during its creation (indications of future trouble that Wagner had previously identified much earlier in Lohengrin) shouldn't be neglected either. Revived for a series of full Ring Cycle performances in 2019 (with plans to do it all again in the 2020 season) Christian Geltinger's dramaturgy and Rosamund Gilmore's direction of the current Leipzig Ring are very much in line with this deeper exploration of the creation and downfall vision of the work as it applies to Wagner and his views on the newly formed German state.

The ideas of a beginning, and a flawed beginning that heralds the end, is immediately apparent in the choice of location and period of the first day prelude, Das Rheingold, a work that is nonetheless important for establishing what is to follow. In the Leipzig production the world is given form and structure from the outset; not the murky depths of the Rhine, but a courtyard in a castle with curved staircases running up and down. At first life consists of twisting formless shapes but soon the Rhinemaidens appear and Alberich the Niebelung Dwarf. There's a moment when there is the possibility of complete harmony arising out of the E-flat Major beginning and leitmotif evolution, but Alberich's choice of rejecting love and goodness for gold and power leads to later unresolved chromaticism.

The production has the appearance of a German period costume drama from Wagner's time, the castle location even resembling one of King Ludwig's elaborate fantasy creations, and in that respect it also has a resemblance to Luchino Visconti's Ludwig. That highlights very much the themes that reflect Wagner's concerns at the time of writing the work, the corruption of the ruling class (failing to treat fairly the labours of the Giants) that makes them the agents of their own downfall, but Wagner is also aware that his idealised socialist vision is already compromised by the human lust for power and wealth.

Those aspects of society are established from the outset in the Leipzig Das Rheingold, the social stratification marked by the colour schemes of white, green and fiery red, brought together in the rainbow arch at the conclusion in the creation of Valhalla that suggests that the world has been given shape, order, form, purpose and meaning. It's a false hope that however since Valhalla has been built in bad faith that will lead to its ultimate destruction. With the emphasis on the symbolism of the greater picture, it's Erda and Loge who have the dominant roles to play in this Das Rheingold. Erda sees the end in the beginning and it's Loge who is the dangerous force of chaos that is thrown into the creation. In terms of singing that was effectively performed by Thomas Mohr's vibrant Loge and Henriette Gödde's deeply troubled Erda, but the singing was clear and resonant throughout in the stunning acoustics of the Leipzig Opera House.

The strength of the Leipzig Ring's Die Walküre lies in its conflicting forces, and it's here that director Rosamund Gilmore's background as a dance choreographer comes into play more meaningfully. Dancing figures throw shapes and symbolise shadow aspects of characters. Wotan is accompanied by two dancers that between them form a raven, which is then able to represent Wotan even when he is not on stage but relevant to the drama or evoked in the music. Fricka, likewise, represented by a two part ram, is present in spirit throughout the drama between Siegmund and Sieglinde.

There is also a presence alongside Brünnhilde which is nominally her steed Graune. Arguably since Brünnhilde is already nothing more than the personification of Wotan's will, it's not so much a shadow version of her, but the point at which she asserts her own will is a significant point and Graune's separation perhaps reflects this to some extent. The Wotan and Fricke scene is also fizzling with tension, not so much for its domestic situation as for Wotan's resignation that the war has been lost. Seen in this light alongside Siegmund's heartfelt rejection of his fate if Sieglinde cannot follow, all of this makes for an intense and tragic Act II. Simon O'Neill's Siegmund was warmly applauded, but the really impressive performances were from Simone Schneider's Sieglinde and Christiane Libor as an impressive Brünnhilde. With Kathrin Göring's Fricka and Vladimir Baykov Wotan this Second Act really set the groundwork for a charged and tragic Act III, and essentially for the rest of the tetralogy.

Siegfried, rather like the overstretched opera itself with its frequent references to the backstory, doesn't make any great advances in the overall production but it does certainly emphasise the work's parallel to the curse of capitalism. Mime is the middle management worker or foreman, exploiting the graft of the working man Siegfried, who is kept in the dark as to the true workings of the world and the secret of the power he is unaware he possesses. Alberich when he appears is not a deformed dwarf but a businessman in a suit, an upper management executive, still ambitious for the greater power that the Ring will grant him.

Fafner likewise is not a literal dragon, but a monstrous distortion of the former giant corrupted by greed, sitting lazily on his hoard of gold, reluctant to give it up. Kept in the dark, with no knowledge of history in his own background, Siegfried has the power of his labour to correct the injustice of his position when he is made aware of it. Love could fill that void and save the world but it cannot fill the void inside him, an emotional void that will be exploited by others for their gain. The whole system is corrupt, the Norns have woven it into the fabric of the world, it cannot be fixed from within without succumbing to its power, without succumbing to the lure of power itself and the exercise of it.

There's not much that in the staging or the singing that stand out to make this Siegfried exceptional but it reinforces the central theme and the singing and musical performances support it well. The few points that are genuinely impressive come with Rosamund Gilmore's dance and movement choreography. Siegfried's superhuman mending of the broken Nothung is represented by a score of shadow Siegfrieds hammering in the forge, there are likewise multiple extensions of Fafner that make his slaying rather more dramatic and the dancer movements of the Waldvogel are enchanting. All of this ensures that the production sustains interest and is visually impressive.

By the time we get to Götterdämmerung we're not expecting any new elements to be added to the concept that has already been established, although new ideas are always welcome, since otherwise it can be a long five-and-a-half hour slog. Few productions of the Ring are as varied and innovative as Frank Castorf's Bayreuth production and the Leipzig Ring indeed doesn't break any new ground, but like Siegfried it has a couple of welcome touches that make the very long prelude and Act I much more engaging, and for a few reasons you might even go as far as saying that this Götterdämmerung was among the highlights of this Ring Cycle production as a whole.

First of all there's the singing. With a variety of singers taking on the roles from one day to the next, Leipzig saved the best Siegfried and Brünnhilde for the last. Thomas Mohr, who impressed earlier as Loge in Das Rheingold, was a stunning Siegfried in terms of singing and characterisation, cruelly exploited to be cruel himself. Likewise Iréne Theorin's tragic fortitude and consistently good singing performance as Brünnhilde made all the difference to how we view the relationship between the couple and the coming cataclysm. It builds on the chaos of Loge, the unravelling of tangled threads of fate viewed by the Norn and the despair of resignation felt by Wotan to make the climax for these foolish gods and would-be heroes of the world genuinely and humanly affecting.

Secondly, the production design is again consistently impressive, adaptable through superb lighting to the changes of scene and, just as importantly, to the variances of mood. Not a minute of this drags and that's saying something for Götterdämmerung. Thirdly, and perhaps most important of all, Ulf Schirmer's conducting keeps the mood and momentum going well with the Gewandhaus Orchestra. By the time you get to the third day you feel like you are familiar with all the motifs, but Schirmer keeps them fresh, showing how Wagner puts them not just to people, objects and symbols, but varies them according to mood and situation. It's a masterful account that brings the Leipzig Ring full circle.

Das Rheingold
1 May 2019

Conductor - Ulf Schirmer, Director - Rosamund Gilmore, Sets - Carl Friedrich Oberle, Costumes - Nicola Reichert, Lights - Michael Röger, Dramaturgy - Christian Geltinger, Orchestra - Gewandhausorchester

Fricka - Kathrin Göring
Freia - Gabriela Scherer
Erda - Henriette Gödde
Woglinde - Magdalena Hinterdobler
Wellgunde - Sandra Maxheimer
Floßhilde - Sandra Fechner
Wotan - Tuomas Pursio
Donner - Anooshah Golesorkhi
Froh - Sven Hjörleifsson
Loge - Thomas Mohr
Fasolt - Sebastian Pilgrim
Fafner - James Moellenhoff
Alberich - Martin Winkler
Mime Dan Karlström

Die Walküre 

2 May 2019

Conductor - Ulf Schirmer, Director - Rosamund Gilmore, Sets - Carl Friedrich Oberle, Costumes - Nicola Reichert, Lights - Michael Röger, Dramaturgy - Christian Geltinger, Orchestra - Gewandhausorchester

Sieglinde - Simone Schneider
Brünnhilde - Christiane Libor
Fricka - Kathrin Göring
Wotan - Vladimir Baykov
Gerhilde - Gabriela Scherer
Ortlinde - Magdalena Hinterdobler
Waltraute - Monica Mascus
Schwertleite - Sandra Fechner
Helmwige - Daniela Köhler
Siegrune - Sandra Maxheimer
Grimgerde - Karin Lovelius
Rossweiße - Sarah Alexandra Hudarew
Siegmund - Simon O´Neill
Hunding - Randall Jakobsh
Wotan - Vladimir Baykov
Grane - Ziv Frenkel

4 May 2019

Conductor - Ulf Schirmer, Director - Rosamund Gilmore, Sets - Carl Friedrich Oberle, Costumes - Nicola Reichert, Lights - Michael Röger, Dramaturgy - Christian Geltinger, Orchestra - Gewandhausorchester

Erda - Henriette Gödde
Brünnhilde - Katherine Broderick
Stimme des Waldvogels - Bianca Tognocchi
Siegfried - Michael Weinius
Mime - Dan Karlström
Der Wanderer - Simon Neal
Alberich - Tuomas Pursio
Fafner - Randall Jakobsh


5 May 2019

Conductor - Ulf Schirmer, Director - Rosamund Gilmore, Sets - Carl Friedrich Oberle, Costumes - Nicola Reichert, Lights - Michael Röger, Chorus Master - Thomas Eitler-de Lint, Dramaturgy - Christian Geltinger, Orchestra - Gewandhausorchester

Brünnhilde - Iréne Theorin
Gutrune - Gabriela Scherer
Waltraute - Karin Lovelius
1. Norn - Karin Lovelius
2. Norn - Kathrin Göring
3. Norn - Olena Tokar
Woglinde - Magdalena Hinterdobler
Wellgunde - Sandra Maxheimer
Floßhilde - Sandra Fechner
Siegfried - Thomas Mohr
Gunther - Tuomas Pursio
Alberich - Martin Winkler
Hagen - Sebastian Pilgri

Links: Oper Leipzig

Monday, 6 May 2019

Glanert - Oceane (Berlin, 2019)

Detlev Glanert - Oceane

Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2019

Donald Runnicles, Robert Carsen, Maria Bengtsson, Nikolai Schukoff, Nicole Haslett, Christoph Pohl, Albert Pesendorfer, Stephen Brook, Doris Soffel

Deutsche Oper Berlin - 3rd May 2019

Composed for the bicentenary of the birth of celebrated German poet Theodor Fontane, the intention of composer Detlev Glanert for Oceane would seem to be principally to do justice to the original author's work. That in itself is a challenge however because the opera is based on only a fragment of a novella left by Fontane, Oceane von Parceval written in the 1880s, that was left unfinished. With a sympathetic production by Robert Carsen it has to be said that Glanert largely succeeds in meeting those intentions, but whether the opera seeks to find any wider application or breaks any new ground as far as contemporary opera is concerned, that's not immediately evident.

Whether the fragment is unfinished or only a sketch, the basic underlying plot of Oceane van Parceval is a familiar and not greatly substantial. It's another telling of the Melusine legend that can be seen in various incarnations in Rusalka, Undine and even the movies Splash and The Little Mermaid. For Fontane the consideration of a child of nature out of step with the ways of the modern world, or indeed the modern world's detachment from its true essential nature, could have been related to political events in the imperfect foundations of the German Empire at the time of its writing (something Wagner might also have had in mind during the writing of the Der Ring des Nibelungen, a feature of the Leipzig Ring Cycle seen around this performance), but the subject is still something that we can surely still relate to today.

With only a fragment to work with, Glanert has little else to go on. As far the story goes, it's set in a seaside town hotel that has seen better days. Madame Louise welcomes her guests for the new summer season with some optimism that a wealthy benefactor might help restore the hotel's fortunes. She's counting on the landowner Martin von Dircksen, but she also has set some hopes on Oceane von Parceval, who is something of an unknown factor.

Oceane's mysterious manner and behaviour also intrigue Martin von Dircksen, the young man so bewitched by this magical creature that he is blind to the scandal she is causing among the guests. It's not just that she dances lasciviously and with no inhibitions, to the horror of the pastor staying at the hotel, but her outbursts and silences are also enigmatic. Most strangely of all, she doesn't seem to react to the discovery of a dead fisherman found on the beach. Martin however is oblivious to her failings to fit in with the expectations of the rest of the world.

It's all very straightforward and there's nothing complicated or surprising about the developments in Oceane when Martin determines that he will marry this strange creature, only to find that they are not at all compatible. Glanert makes this incompatibility apparent through conventional musical means, using only high and low notes to express the wild character dynamic of Oceane, while Martin is all middle-register, safe and comfortable, unimaginative and unexciting, with no depth of character. Glanert also looks back at his previous opera Solaris for the otherworldly choruses that open the opera, communicating in a language that is beyond human understanding.

Glanert complicates matters for the listener however by mixing these character details with traditional musical forms, the little band at the hotel playing a series of dances, a polka, a waltz, a galop, which the characters sing over. Mostly however this is confined to Martin's friend, Dr Albert Felgentrau a tutor in science, and Oceane's chaperone Kristina as the two of them also pair up as a couple on the holiday. With a priest, a landowner, a businesswoman and a scientist, all of them contrary to the nature of Oceane, there's a lot of character detail and conflict to take in in the first three scenes.

In the second half of the work however, the opera takes shape and establishes its own character. The flow of the sea and the stirring up of waves in a storm becomes an important musical as well as visual reference for the power of nature and the danger of any attempts to master it, control it, or deny it. Martin's declaration to Oceane on the beach is beautiful, making it all the more tragic that he doesn't understand what he is dealing with and is completely blind to the reality of who Oceane is.

Glanert succeeds very much in fleshing out the characters with this kind of musical detail, and Robert Carsen's simple but elegant black-and-white designs with projections of the sea catch the mood of the piece well, but the period costumes and moral outlook remain confined very much to a specific time and place. If the conclusion builds up forcefully to a dramatic conclusion where society cruelly denounces Oceane, who would seem to have done little to offend anyone by today's standards, it is nonetheless a reflection of a deeper truth, and - even if it's not made explicit - we can recognise how much greater a distance we are from respecting nature today.

The world premiere performances of Oceane at the Deutsche Oper Berlin were conducted by Donald Runnicles, capturing the mood and dynamic arc of the work from conflicting tones of the first half, though the flowing romanticism of the second half to the thundering conclusion. Soprano Maria Bengtsson impressively handled the difficult challenge of expressing the inhuman or uncivilised side of Oceane, but all the roles were exceptionally well taken. Nikolai Schukoff's was so good he was surely too sympathetic to be Martin, but there is actually nothing wrong with the landowner other than his shallowness and incompatibility for Oceane.

There were notable performances also from Nicole Haslett as the bubbly Kristina and Christoph Pohl as the serious Albert. Again there was perhaps more character detail than was strictly necessary for the other representatives of society that react against Oceane, but they were well sung by Albert Pesendorfer as the Pastor and Stephen Brook as George, the maitre d'. I'm not sure that Doris Soffel is still up to the demands of Wagner and Strauss, but is still a force to be reckoned with in a role like Madame Louise, and was warmly received by the Berlin audience at the curtain call.

Links: Deutsche Oper Berlin

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Verdi - Rigoletto (Berlin, 2019)

Giuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2019

Michele Gamba, Jan Bosse, Yijie Shi, Stefano Meo, Siobhan Stagg, Samuel Dale Johnson, Byung Gil Kim, Cornelia Kim, Bryan Murray, James Kryshak, Gianluca Buratto, Maiju Vaahtoluoto, Paull-Anthony Keightley, Amber Fasquelle

Deutsche Oper Berlin - 30th April 2019

First performed at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in 2013, theatre director Jan Bosse's first venture into opera has a similar look, feel and approach to Verdi's Rigoletto as other productions of this period. There's the all the variety of life as a circus theme of Robert Carsen's 2013 Aix-en-Provence production, there's something of the 60s' Las Vegas glamour of the Met's 2013 production, but perhaps more evidently with the seating of the Deutsche Oper house looking back at you from the stage, it at first looks close to the Bayerische Staastoper's 2012 meta-theatrical production of the opera as staged drama.

One thing that all these diverse productions have in common is the way they use each of these situations to look a little more deeply behind what at times appears to be an improbable melodrama and find the underlying themes of the work. Of course, as is often the case with Verdi, if you get the musical performance and the singing right the hard work is done for you, and happily that was the case at the Deutsche Oper's final performance of Rigoletto in its 2018/19 season. That doesn't mean that the stage production and direction only have to provide an attractive show for the narrative, but it should work with the music to bring out those more universal themes and morals.

The main moral of Rigoletto isn't hard to identify and it doesn't need an elaborate analysis; actions have consequences, sometimes unintended and unexpected consequences when they are the result of an act of bad faith, whether that is mocking someone less fortunate than you, plotting revenge, or simply hiding the truth. To the unfortunate Rigoletto, the hunchbacked court jester who thinks he has regal protection to do as he likes and wants to strike back at a world because of his affliction, the resulting comeback from his acts of bad faith feels like a curse; la maledizione.

Jan Bosse's production design initially seems appropriate then but limiting, the wooden panelled walls and banks of yellow seating that fill the stage reflecting the amphitheatre and balcony of the Deutsche Oper house back at the audience. The good-time partying of the court of the Duke of Mantua is like a stage, where whatever actions that take place are merely play-acting, viewed as if they have no consequences in the real world. All manner of license is permitted, and if someone doesn't like it, they are ejected from the theatre.

The set however proves to be surprisingly adaptive to the progression of where those actions ultimately lead. A raised platform and some veils create rooms and staircases to represent Gilda hidden away in her father's home, while at the same time maintaining the idea - for the moment anyway from Rigoletto's viewpoint - that they remain spectators to what goes on in the Duke's world, in the audience applauding his performance, immune to any real-world consequences.

One of the other main themes of Rigoletto that Bosse's production successfully highlights is that the idea of there being two worlds is not so much an illusion as naivety for not realising that there are different laws in the world for the rich and the poor, for those in power and those who follow them. Actions have consequences, but they have a different impact depending on where you stand in the social order. All men are not treated as equals in the eyes of the world. It's the realisation of this that Rigoletto recognises as the real curse at the conclusion of the opera.

Bosse's production then becomes a gradual process of stripping Rigoletto of his illusion that the world will work in his favour and not in favour of the Duke. And, quite literally, that is achieved in Stéphane Laimé's impressive set designs by a breaking down and stripping away of the stage props and backdrops. The on-stage seating turns around as the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Duke and the court are revealed to Rigoletto and Gilda, the stage finally stripped bare revealing the backstage area by the final heart-rending scene.

Viewed as pure melodrama the actions of Gilda leading up to the final scene have their own romantic logic, but here in Bosse's production they could be seen as having a different meaning without lessening the dramatic impact of the scene. Rigoletto is left with nothing but anger for the revelation of the injustice of the world - raging against la maladizione - but Gilda's sacrifice in this context is that of someone who still believes in truth and love, and cannot live in a world where that no longer exists; a human rather than a heroic response.

That still comes across effectively in the Deutsche Oper's production, but it has to work with the musical performances and requires strong consistent singing across the challenging principal roles. It's hard to fault the performances here. The musical direction under Michele Gamba seemed initially a little too smooth, but in reality it was simply matching the glamour of the Rigoletto's illusion, becoming rather more sinister around the storm as the mood changes and thundering home with the hard-hitting conclusion. Rigoletto's particular structural arrangements are all about mood and pacing and this was just perfect.

The singing was also exceptionally good. Yijie Shi is making the transition from lighter Rossini bel canto to the heavier Verdi repertoire quite successfully in such roles as the Duke of Mantua, carrying the dramatic weight and romantic lyricism superbly. Siobhan Stagg can carry heavier repertoire like Reimann's Lear, but is apparently also capable of singing the sweetly romantic side of Gilda. She is of course dramatically capable then of making this character a little more than just an innocent fool. Her 'Caro nome' was impressive, and she fared well in Gilda's duets/duels with her father. Stefano Meo was a strong Rigoletto, the ideal kind of Verdi baritone for this role, taking us through those variety of moods of bluster and incomprehension to devastation. There were notable performances also from Gianluca Buratto as Sparafucile and Maiju Vaahtoluoto as Maddalena and Giovanna.

Links: Deutsche Oper Berlin