Thursday, 7 June 2018

Benjamin - Lessons in Love and Violence (London, 2018)

George Benjamin - Lessons in Love and Violence 

Royal Opera House - London, 2018

George Benjamin, Katie Mitchell, Stéphane Degout, Barbara Hannigan, Gyula Orendt, Peter Hoare, Samuel Boden, Jennifer France, Krisztina Szabó, Andri Björn Róbertsson

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden - 26 May 2018 

I think it's fair to say that George Benjamin and Martin Crimp have paid more attention to the structure than the plot of their latest opera, and judging by the interviews with both of them in the Royal Opera House programme for its world premiere they'd probably be the first to admit it. That's not to say that there is anything wrong with that in an opera where the abstraction of music and its construction have an important part to play in addition to the dramatic narrative. As it happens however, Lessons in Love and Violence is not only brilliantly structured, it also seem to achieve exactly what it sets out to achieve, and perhaps more than you might expect from the title.

Maybe that kind of tight focus without any unnecessary over-elaboration is all we need in a situation, and certainly Benjamin's previous collaboration with playwright Martin Crimp, Written on Skin, is just as tightly and effectively delineated. But there might also be something more that we can derive from the artistry of the composer's musical interpretation of the text, from Katie Mitchell's direction and from the singing performances themselves. Certainly every element of the work has had the utmost attention, thought, precision and talent applied to its component parts, and in the combination of them raise the work to much more than the sum of them.

The lesson in love and violence that Benjamin and Crimp (and Mitchell and Degout and Hannigan et al) give us - or rather the lesson that they show us being passed on from one generation to the next - is thematically similar to Written on Skin and likewise based on a historical event and an old text, but reflected to some extent through a modern-day perspective. Drawn from, or perhaps more inspired by Marlowe's play 'Edward II', Lessons in Love and Violence is based on the situation (and violence) that ensues when the king's military advisor Mortimer takes offense at the favour and influence that Edward II's lover Gaveston has over the king, over the position it leaves the queen Isabel in, for the scandal it is causing and the harm that is doing to a nation slipping into instability and civil war.

Divided into seven scenes, running to only 90 minutes without an interval, the drama and phrasing of the dialogue is certainly mannered and not particularly naturalistic, but the focus is more on mood than exposition, on the accumulation of slights and conflicts, on personality and behaviour, all of it leading from love to acts of cruelty and barbarism. Watching its delivery and trajectory, it's easy to think that the work is rather laboured in terms of being meticulously thought out and almost, some might say, too academic an exercise in putting a situational drama to music. That might be the case but for the fact that in performance it really doesn't show.

All you see is a drama of remarkable concision in its concentration of musical and dramatic forces towards those essential themes, the work breathing sensual fire and menace. Crimp's phrasing is intense, direct and unadorned, repeating phrases, overlapping dialogues. Benjamin's score matches the fluctuations of mood and dynamic, dreamily sensual one moment, slow and sinister the next, harsh and dissonant the next. Combined they provide not so much a history lesson as a lesson in how love is viewed as weakness and how violence permits one to achieve personal and political ends. The lesson is well learned by the young king who observes the machinations of Mortimer and Isabel, and the result is that the violence is turned back on them. At the same time however, the underlying story, character and personalities revealed by the music, the direction and the singing ensure that this is never purely considered in an abstract or academic manner but closely related to human emotions and behaviours which can then be applied in a wider context.

Which is what Katie Mitchell's contribution brings to the work in collaboration with set and costume designer Vicki Mortimer, using some of their familiar traits. The setting is relatively modern-day, removing the subject from being tied to a historical period drama. The characters sometimes move in slow motion to enhance action or freeze the surrounding drama to bring focus to the singer, but the mood and rhythms are always fully attuned to the score and the text. There is also not unexpectedly a strong feminist vision the Mitchell brings to the work that is not necessarily explicit in the drama. Although it's the king's young son who brings to an end (or perpetuates) the cycle of violence at the conclusion of the opera with the execution of Mortimer, it's his young sister (a non-singing role) who wields the gun here - a turn of events that puts you in mind of Mitchell's work on the Purcell derived opera Miranda.

Hand-picked for the roles, the cast is simply superb and it's really hard to imagine any better singers fulfilling the roles, complementing each other and striking exciting contrasts. Singing impeccably in English, the French baritone Stéphane Degout sounds better than ever as the King (he's never mentioned by title as Edward II), striking out away from being the go-to Pelléas, but still bringing a wonderful soaring lyricism to another role that flirts with the danger in his relationship with Gyula Orendt's Gaveston. Barbara Hannigan has also recently sang in Pelléas et Mélisande, but there's a rather more steely edge to her character as the queen Isabel, delivering barbed inflections to the text that rise of course to shrill heights of imperiousness and ruthlessness. Peter Hoare is terrific as Mortimer, and Samuel Boden impressively assertive as he takes command later in the opera.

I mention Pelléas et Mélisande because it did come to mind now and again watching Lessons in Love and Violence. Not that it sounds at all like Debussy's masterpiece, but it is similarly structured into distinct intense dream-like scenes with quite beautiful instrumental passages between them. There's a darker outlook here however that is also reminiscent of Berg's Wozzeck, another precisely controlled and intense work. Benjamin however very much has his own voice, and it's one that clearly works tremendously well in collaboration with Martin Crimp. Their previous work Written in Skin was deservedly hailed as a modern masterpiece soon after its initial run and Lessons in Love and Violence is every bit its equal, on an initial viewing perhaps an even more brilliant a work in its concept and execution.

Links: Royal Opera House

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Wagner - Lohengrin (Brussels, 2018)

Richard Wagner - Lohengrin

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2018

Alain Altinoglu, Olivier Py, Gabor Bretz, Eric Cutler, Ingela Brimberg, Andrew Foster-Williams, Elena Pankratova, Werner van Mechelen

ARTE Concert - April 2018

When it comes to Lohengrin, a more cautious director would seek to downplay rather than actually highlight any associations that might be made between Richard Wagner and the Nazis. It's an issue however that is hard to avoid, since the question of German nationalism lies very much at the core of the opera and, regardless of it certainly formed a view of it that Hitler and his adherents took in another direction. Olivier Py, directing for La Monnaie in Brussels, however tackles the issue head-on a roundabout sort of way.

In fact, Py even takes to the stage before the start of the opera to explain why he sets his production in 1945 at the end of the war when Berlin and much of Germany was lying in ruins. Mainly it's because he believes that Wagner's Lohengrin is not just a nationalist display, but a warning of where such sentiments can lead. Wagner can't be entirely exonerated for his antisemitism, for a sense of jingoism in his works or for their and his family's later association with the Nazis, but there is certainly a case that Lohengrin is a work of artistic and cultural expression that does consider the disastrous future impact of nationalistic sentiments that can take art and culture and twist it toward personal and political interests.

Certainly Olivier Py and his regular stage designer Pierre-André Weitz's touch is all over the La Monnaie Lohengrin. It works in contrasts of black and white with little of shading in between. On one side we have Elsa and Lohengrin in pale blue, Lohengrin even associated with angels, while Ortrud and Friedrich von Telramund are all in black. King Heinrich incidentally (and somewhat negligibly) is dressed in grey. Py's Catholic or Christian faith may well play a part in reducing Lohengrin to such stark divisions, but it's perhaps more a case of emphasis as they are already there in Wagner's work. Ortrud certainly appeals to the pagan gods Wotan and Freia in a way that "allows evil to enter this house" as Telramund describes it. Is it a lack of 'faith' that leads to the ideal of the German nation being destroyed from within? And is this inevitable corruption of a pure ideal not indeed what Wagner's opera is all about?

Well, it's perhaps a little more complicated than that and it's certainly not as 'black and white' as it looks in the La Monnaie production. Firstly, there's the setting of Lohengrin, which as Py indicated, appears to take place in the ruins of the Third Reich, in a burnt-out theatre that has a platform at the front and the rotating ruin of the building behind. It's hard to imagine a 'straight' playing out of the legend then, and indeed the early indications point to a little bit of reinterpretation with the suggestion being that it is Ortrud who has choked the child Gottfried, the future ruler that would have taken Brabant to glory. Py, as he often does, introduces other obscure quotes, symbols and messages; "Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland" (Death is a master from Germany) on a wall, Ortrud painting a thick black cross, Elsa a white cross in chalk. Lohengrin's duel with Telramund in on a chessboard (black and white) rather than with swords, although a battle between factions takes place in the background.

It's hard to see any real connect between Py's 1945 setting of the work and Wagner's setting of the medieval legend, but that could well be intentional, showing a disconnect between a glorifying vision of Germanic culture (contrast this with the rather ideologically vacuous 2016 Dresden production) and the reality of the inglorious conclusion that awaits when it appropriated towards what Py describes as "the aesthetisation of politics". That kind of reading is certainly heavily supported by the rather meta-theatrical set of Act 3, Scene 1. The pastoral idyll behind the massed chorus of the people of Brabant in this burnt-out theatre is nothing but a rolled-out backdrop that the stagehands lift, the set rotating to reveal a sentiment that is built on a framework of German romanticism and idealism, represented by dusty statues, busts and monuments to Schiller, Holderin, Casper David Friedrich, Goethe, Novalis, Schlegel, Grimm, Heine, Carl Maria von Weber and Beethoven, with even what might be a Nothung buried in the stump of a dead tree.

There are a lot of ideas and ideals here that never quite seem to gel together into something entirely coherent in a way that works hand-in-hand with the opera itself, but the essential points are valid and well made. The lack of faith in the ideal even by as pure a spirit as Elsa (who Py aligns with a view of Wagner that Elsa represents the 'volk') who has fallen under the corrupting influence of the likes of Ortrud and Telramund, means that Lohengrin refuses to be the figurehead that leads the forces of King Henry the Fowler into battle against Hungary. Ortrud certainly hammers home the point of ideals being corrupted in her final words: "Erfahrt, wie sich die Götter rächen, von deren Huld ihr euch gewandt!" (Learn how the gods take vengeance on you who no longer worship them!). In case that message isn't delivered forcefully enough by Elena Pankratova, the fact that it is uttered amidst the ruins of 1945 makes it hard to ignore the implication that you could also see Lohengrin as a substitute for Wagner foreseeing and denying responsibility for the misuse of his art that the Nazis would put it towards.

Pankratova, as it happens, gets that across with absolute conviction in one of the strongest performances among the cast here, but even if not everyone is up to her level, there are no weak performances or anyone who lets the side down. Andrew Foster-Williams might not have the same strength of personality or voice, but that suits a dominated, wheedling portrayal of Telramund and it's an effective performance. Ingela Brimberg mostly meets the challenges of the role of Elsa and her voice likewise complements that of Eric Cutler as Lohengrin. Cutler is almost Italianate in his phrasing and lyricism, if not quite to the extent of Piotr Beczala (at Dresden). With Klaus Florian Vogt's monopolisation of the role in recent years however, we know that a lighter higher voice can work well, but it's a romantic-heroic role that allows a wide range of interpretation, and it's always interesting to see what a new voice can bring to it.

It felt like it was more Alain Altinoglu's conducting of the La Monnaie orchestra that was a little stiff, not really succeeding in capturing the romantic lyricism of the opera or finding a way to connect it with the perhaps harder edged tone of the production - but as ever it's hard to give a fair assessment of that from the compressed audio reproduction of a live streamed broadcast. There are moments however that capture the more militaristic and Germanic side of the work well, and some fine contrasting moments of warmth and sentiment, as in the lovely warm low brass of Lohengrin's regret in having to reveal his identity. It's an interesting production, one that does try to engage with the issues surrounding Lohengrin and its subsequent history, and indeed even look at it as an opera that looks towards the future, but inevitably in those circumstances - much like Hans Neuenfel's recent Bayreuth production - it doesn't feel like it gives a true sense of the opera as Wagner may have intended it.

Links: La Monnaie, ARTE Concert

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Różycki - Eros and Psyche (Warsaw, 2017)

Ludomir Różycki - Eros and Psyche 

Polish National Opera, 2017 

Grzegorz Nowak, Barbara Wysocka, Joanna Freszel, Wanda Franek, Anna Bernacka, Aleksandra Orłowska-Jabłońska, Mikołaj Zalasiński, Tadeusz Szlenkier, Wojtek Gierlach, Adam Kruszewski, Grzegorz Szostak, Mateusz Zajdel 

OperaVision - April 2018 

The Polish composer Ludomir Różycki is not a well-known name, but certainly comes from a musical background and early twentieth century associations that I personally find interesting. Różycki studied under Humperdinck in Berlin and was schooled in the style of Wagner and Strauss and went on to form the Young Poland association of composers with connections to the Russian Group of Five movement formed by Russian composers including Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, with the aim of establishing a new national music identity for Poland. Inevitably, to judge by Eros and Psyche - which we are fortunate to be able to see performed thanks to OperaVision - those late-romantic influences show in the classic mythological subject of Jerzy Żuławski's libretto and the epic musical treatment applied to it. 

Żuławski's adaptation of the Cupid & Psyche myth certainly presents all the opportunities for an expanded and rich musical treatment. The ancient basis of the story is an epic tale of forbidden love that transcends time and overcomes great obstacles. It's a price Psyche has to pay for falling in love and looking on the face of an immortal god, Cupid or Eros, who has been secretly visiting her. Cupid's orders were to use his dart to make Psyche fall in love with a monstrous creature for presuming her beauty to be an equal of Venus, but these darts have been known to go astray and both she and Eros fall under a spell of this forbidden love and are punished for it, condemned to wander the earth (and the underworld) eternally. 

In Żuławski's version of the story, that wandering takes Psyche to a number of famous historical ages, from the Golden Age of Arcadia, to imperial Rome, to early Christianity in a monastery in Spain, through the French revolution and into the present day. It's a treatment and a structure that provides a number of serious obstacles to Psyche, who is visited by Eros in different guises in each of these situations, and it provides Różycki with a variety of colours to work with, as well as the opportunity to push the romantic tone of the music into epic levels. The tone is inevitably Straussian, with mythological correspondences with Daphne, Die Liebe der Danae and of course, Ariadne auf Naxos

And it would appear to be from Ariadne auf Naxos that director Barbara Wysocka takes her inspiration for the staging of this 2017 production of Eros and Psyche at the Teatr Wielki, 100 years after its premiere in Wroclaw. Różycki and Żuławski's version of the story is a relatively straightforward telling of myth that has none of the framing and self-referential dramatic and operatic narrative complexities of Strauss and Hofmannsthal's treatment of Ariadne auf Naxos. Wysocka however chooses to frames this opera's story of Psyche's wanderings through time as that of an actress working on a number of period film productions. It's a reasonable way to make the mythological story modern and contemporary, but it has to be said that it doesn't appear to bring anything unexpected out of the work and may indeed even confuse matters somewhat. 

What it does highlight is that the music is indeed beautifully composed and scored for each dramatic situation like a movie soundtrack. The first appearance of Eros on the set, emerging out of the darkness to meet Psyche waiting in anticipation, is lushly and scored with a romantic surge. Each of the mini movies are given titles (Rome, Under the Cross, With Blood etc.) the titles and Falconetti Joan of Arc-like close-ups of Psyche accompanied by sweeping musical introductions. Conducted by Grzegorz Nowak, the music is a treat for anyone who likes their late and post-romantic indulgent Strauss or Rimsky-Korsakov orchestrations, and it's wonderful to hear another Polish composer other than Szymanowski working in this register. 

Lived through the movies, this undoubtedly helps maintain the larger-than-life character of the mythological romance between Eros and Psyche that is otherwise abandoned in the production, and it retains all the colour of the periods and locations. It's perhaps a bit too busy with extras and camera crews cluttering the stage as well, adding a layer of remove that the opera doesn't really need, and it may even detract from the character of the work as well. Psyche's journey and her encounter with Eros in various guises in different eras (with Blaks the farmhand who has been condemned alongside her for disturbing the meeting between the illicit lovers also present) raises questions of decadent living (Rome), sin (The Cross) and compassion (Paris) are also considered perhaps as necessary stages in her journey to redemption. 

On the other hand if 'Psyche' gains awareness of such matters through the movies she plays the lead role in, then that element isn't entirely lost in the 2017 production. Nor is it lost in how it is covered in the direction or the musical and singing performances. Joanna Freszel is very much centre stage as Psyche and the role is not without its challenges (if not quite at the Richard Strauss level of demands), and she gives an engaging and note-perfect performance throughout, her voice having a lovely character and timbre. The high tenor role of Eros is almost Mozartian by comparison and tests the tenor's ability to hold it steady but Tadeusz Szlenkier certainly brings a lyrical sweetness to the role. There are good supporting performances from the remainder of the cast, particularly from Anna Bernacka as Hagne (et al) and from Mikołaj Zalasiński as Blaks. 

Links: Polish National Opera, OperaVision

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Verdi - Aida (Stockholm, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Aida

Royal Swedish Opera - Stockholm, 2018 

Pier Giorgio Morandi, Michael Cavanagh, Christina Nilsson, Ivan Defabiani, Katarina Dalayman, Lennart Forsén, Alessio Cacciamani, Johan Edholm, Jihan Shin, Jessica Forsell

OperaVision - April 2018

If there's one Verdi opera that needs to be continually reassessed and reconsidered in terms of whether it still has any real relevance or anything to say to a modern audience it's probably La Traviata, but Aida isn't far behind. Both works might have been fuelled by real anger against social institutions, but if they ever did have anything important to say it's easy for it to get lost in the star power and glamour that the operas' settings and subjects inevitably attract. La Traviata however can be immensely powerful and hard-hitting about society's treatment of women when it's allowed to be, and condemnation of the horrors of war in Aida need not necessarily be submerged under the bombast of Verdi's score and the pomp and ceremony of grand opera spectacle.

You do have to question the effectiveness of Verdi's treatment in Aida however, in how it seems to get carried away with its exotic setting and location, in the attention that Verdi pays towards Eastern-influenced melodies, grand religious ceremonies and ceremonial triumphal marches before royalty. With the melodramatic turns of love, family and duty all becoming intertwined, it threatens to overshadow the anti-war, anti-religious sentiments that are there, but there have been some notable attempts (and failures) to move away from the glamour and address the real issues at the heart of the work - if you consider that they were ever really there.

The short overture to Aida certainly reflects a more sombre note, and in Michael Cavanagh's production for the Royal Swedish Opera, that's immediately established as being associatedwith the more intimate story of the individuals whose lives have suffered because of the demands placed on them by the 'state'. We already see Aida and Radamès buried alive in the tomb that descends to show a figure we can presume in Amneris, lying face down in a pool of blood with a knife by her side. The note of melancholy that can also be found in Radamès ode to an impossible love for a slave girl of his nation's enemy ('Celeste Aida') is soon overwhelmed by cries of 'war and death' as the news of Amonasro's advance is brought by the High Priest, Ramfis.

It's in such contrasts however that Aida does effectively present the conflict between the individual's hope and dreams and the necessity of putting them aside for something as monstrous as war. Radamès's personal conflict is mirrored in the situation of Aida later in the opera when she is torn between her love for Radamès and her love for her father, Amanasro, the King of Ethiopia whose armies have been routed and taken captive by the Egyptian commander and his forces. There's also very much a case put of there being no real victors when it comes to war. "Today we are the victims of fate, tomorrow fate may strike you", Amonasro warns Radamès, and history has shown the truth of such turns of fate in the downfalls of the great. 

This aspect is borne out and elaborated upon quite successfully in the Stockholm production even if the focus is very much on the small personal drama. It's hard to criticise the production on those grounds, as this is indeed very much how it is played by Verdi. So yes, Aida has musical and dramatic flaws, or even if you don't consider them flaws - and it's perfectly valid to enjoy the opera for the music and singing for what it is - you still adjust the emphasis at your peril. Olivier Py's scattershot Paris production demonstrated the risks inherent in that whereas the chamber approach as seen more recently in the La Monnaie production, touched much more effectively on the true nature of the work in a way that prevented it from it appearing dated and out of touch with the times.

Magdalena Åberg's set and costume designs for the Royal Swedish Opera production are unimposing, but there is a balance struck between modern military uniforms with AK47 rifles and some nods to the Egyptian heritage of the work with its robes and ceremonies. The production does well to avoid the familiar imagery and processional choreography, presenting a more minimal stage with a gold wall in the background and blue lighting that nonetheless retains an air of a royal palace with notions of strict protocol and order. So there's a fresh modern outlook on the work at the same time as the necessary contrasts between the institutions of the state and the ordinary citizen are marked out well; contrasts that focus on the intimate love story at the heart of the work, one crushed by the weight of those powers that Verdi depicts so dramatically. 

The main issue that has to be dealt in a production of Aida is in how to present it's Triumphal March; whether to make it a glorious spectacle or undercut it with realism. Cavanagh's approach wisely takes a dim view of celebrating slaughter, so while the chorus and trumpets are proclaiming victory and the greatness of their King, we are shown scenes of the reality of the war that Radamès has waged against the Ethiopian tribes. And it is very much that of a large military force, bulked out in combat gear with every precision targeting technology at their disposal, bringing horror to the lives of ordinary citizens. It's very well staged - with curtains blocking off live vignette scenes rather than using projections - and it hammers home the horror of the contrast between the ideal of duty and the reality for Radamès. 

Musically, Pier Giorgio Morandi conducts an excellent performance that plays well to the contrasts of Verdi's melodies and the variety of sentiments within it without letting it get too sentimental. The singing performances, despite some initial reservations with timing and technique, are also quite good, and backed up with a superb chorus. You have to pity any young tenor who has to launch straight into an aria like 'Celeste Aida' with barely time to warm up, but Ivan Defabiani's Radamès really comes through spectacularly later with a performance that builds in character and confidence. Christina Nilsson as Aida also takes a short while to find her feet after 'Ritorna vincitor', but likewise gives a fine performance, the two of them making a convincing young couple whose love is challenged by the scorned Amneris. Katarina Dalayman shows the right kind of imperiousness tinged with regret, although her voice is lacking some of the necessary force. It's in this small scale drama that the bigger picture is reflected, bearing out the words spoken earlier that "Today we are the victims of fate, tomorrow fate may strike you".

Links: Royal Swedish Opera, OperaVision

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Verdi - Il Corsaro (Valencia, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Il Corsaro

Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, 2018

Fabio Biondi, Nicola Raab, Michael Fabiano, Kristina Mkhitaryan, Oksana Dyka, Vito Priante, Evgeny Stavinsky

OperaVision - 8th April 2018

The quality of early Verdi operas is variable, even by the composers own admission, but some are certainly worth of occasional revival, even if it's just for curiosity value. A few - very few, maybe only one (Macbeth) - are worthy of being included more often as part of the familiar Verdi canon, others are crude and forgettable (Alzira, Attila), some are flawed but redeemable through a good production and an interesting interpretation (I Due Foscari, Stiffelio, Giovanna d'Arco, Luisa Miller). Il Corsaro probably belongs in the latter category, but its qualities can be enhanced with a good staging and exceptional singing and the 2018 Valencia production goes some way towards demonstrating and achieving that.

It's rare however that you can do anything redeemable with the staging of any early Verdi opera; which in the main consist of romantic melodramas in oppressive wartime situations that don't have much in the way of subtext, nuance or depth. The singing, particularly that of the lead soprano role, can also be extremely challenging far beyond the merits of the piece without really adding to the drama. That's all part of the Verdi DNA however that comes into fruition mid-career, and it can be fascinating to explore the hints already there of the greatness to come if you have a production good enough to tease them out.

The first good sign in the Valencia production is that there's a bit of imagination and style applied to the production design rather than literal slavishness to the libretto's locations. Instead of ship anchored at a Greek island where the chief corsair Corrado is languishing in exile and reduced to piracy, we find ourselves in Act I within the mind of a broken man, sitting at writing desk remembering better times or dreaming of taking part in further exploits. His wife Medora looks on in despair at his downfall and, alarmed at the flask of what may be laudanum he is imbibing, she slips it into her pocket.

Corrado however has other vices and is clearly not adverse to a pipe of opium. In his mind the Ottoman Empire still a threat, so in Act II the bold Byronic adventurer once more visits the exotic East of delights and dangers. There he visits a harem and attracts the attention of Gulnara, the favourite of the Pasha Seid. Seid and his warriors launch into a battle with the corsairs, putting the city and the harem to flame. Corrado rescues Gulnara from the conflagration and is captured while doing so, and earns the mercy of Seid. Until Seid becomes suspicious of Gulnara's feelings for this brave corsair...

There's no need to get to clever with the concept, but there's no need for literal realism either, as combined with Verdi's bombast, the Byronic hero's romantic adventures in the exotic East could seem a little bit over the top. Il Corsaro is tremendous fun, but not particularly memorable and hard for a modern audience to take seriously. Director Nicola Raab doesn't try to get too clever by imposing an unworkable concept on top of what is a fairly straightforward romantic adventure, and without betraying the original spirit of the work she finds a good way of making it a little more 'realistic' or relatable by playing it out as an opium-induced flight of imagination, which as it was originally written by Lord Byron it may well have been.

The production doesn't need a literal depiction that takes it all seriously and literally then. There's more than enough dynamic in the music and the contrasts and colours that lie between East and West, between Christian and Muslim, between men and women. Verdi of course depicts all that in grand brush strokes, all sword and flame, blood and thunder, gods and demons. There's nothing wishy-washy about early Verdi (or middle or late Verdi either, I suppose), and Fabio Biondi's conducting of the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana emphasises the sheer brio with which Verdi attacks the material, where there is also at least some measure of sophistication in the melodies and romantic sentiments.

There's a similar contrast between imagination and reality in George Souglides's production design that shows this flitting between dreams of adventure and the sudden down-to-earth shifts of reality that seep in. Projections of battles and flames are thrown onto a screen that is torn down like a sheet of paper, emphasising that it's all the projection of a troubled mind, allowing it to be taken seriously but not literally. It's a good middle-way to approach early Verdi, giving us spectacle and entertainment and permitting all the spirit of the work to come through without having to look at it ironically or indulgently. That's probably about the best you can hope for in Il Corsaro

Well, that and some great singing, as that can make all the difference. The Valencia production gets off to a terrific start, the clever production design and the invigorating score matched by a committed Michael Fabiano in the role of Corrado and Kristina Mkhitaryan as his wife Medora. As he showed in Dmitri Tcherniakov's radical reworking of Carmen for Aix-en-Provence 2017, Fabiano isn't thrown by contradictions between characters who are seen to be role-playing and allows a touch of bewilderment creep into the heroic sincerity of the performance. Mkhitaryan is mightily impressive as Medora, showing a fullness of voice and a deep emotional expression. Medora however is not the principal soprano role, and it's Oksana Dyka who has to struggle with that challenge as Gulnara. Inevitably she is pushed and her pitch wavers occasionally, but it's a valiant effort. Vito Priante sings well but throwing pantomime villain poses he is unable to make much of the role of Seid.

The singing performances and the full-on musical performance under Fabio Biondi carry the work though the dramatic weaknesses of Act III. There's a long scene of Corrado refusing to accept Gulnara's help of escape ("Fly from your prison to freedom, my soul") by manfully accepting his fate only to eventually agree, but as Corrado puffs on his opium pipe, the production does well to try to associate his behaviour as being captive of his addiction or the affliction of his desires and fears. Medora is also saddled with more despairing sentiments that lead up to her suicide and Corrado following, but there's no denying that Verdi provides all the thrills and spills that lead up to this heroic-romantic conclusion, and Biondi hammers it home.

Links: Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, OperaVision

Friday, 20 April 2018

Martinů - Julietta (Prague, 2017)

Bohuslav Martinů - Julietta

National Theatre Prague, 2017

Jaroslav Kyzlink, Zuzana Gilhuus, Alžběta Poláčková, Peter Berger, Ondřej Koplík, Petr Levíček, Yevhen Shokalo, Michaela Zajmi, Stanislava Jirků, Jiří Hájek 

OperaVision - April 2018

It seems only a natural reaction to want to interpret, psychoanalyse or just try to make sense of a work that operates on the level of abstraction, surrealism, symbolism or dream logic. And, to be fair, when it comes to works from the former Czechoslovakia or any nation behind the former Iron Curtain, such an approach has some validity, since it has often been a means for artists to depict a reality that is difficult to describe in any other way, not least because of the fear of censorship, arrest and imprisonment. Bohuslav Martinů's Julietta (The Key to Dreams) however predates the worst horrors of WWII and the post-war Communist years, and it certainly seems to operate on a much simpler level, but that doesn't mean that it is entirely detached from describing another reality.

That reality, rather than having a political undercurrent - although I'm sure such an interpretation could be applied - would seem to be more in the realm of exploring the rather abstract human emotions and behaviours associated with memory, desire and perhaps other less easily defined sensations. Martinů based his opera on a play by French writer Georges Neveux and there are good antecedents for putting such abstractions to a musical treatment, not least in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde but more obviously in the approach taken by Debussy in his musical setting of Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande. Closer to home, Janáček ponders some basic human questions related to time, existence and memory in the science-fictional unreality of The Makropulos Case. Martinů's Julietta finds it own language to describe its world, and - unlike Maeterlinck - Neveux, who attended the 1938 premiere, reportedly found Martinů's adaptation better than the original.

You could certainly apply some kind of commentary on a nation and authority to the little seaside town where Parisian bookseller Michel Lepic turns up, a town where the citizens have no memory of the past, are unable to recall anything more than 10 minutes ago and seem to even have no awareness of basic things. In such a place there are people willing to tell fortunes and sell memories of invented histories that serve to pacify and keep the people happy. Since Michel seems better equipped with knowledge and memory - he can even remember a toy duck from as far back as his childhood - the town's Commissar confers on him the office of town captain, giving him a hat (authority), a parrot (law) and a gun (enforcement).

The problem with trying to apply any kind of basis in reality to Julietta is that the dream logic basis of the story means that there's a constant shift of meaning and emphasis. Michel's role as captain is short-lived since even the Commissar isn't able to remember appointing him a short time later when he reappears as a postman. The gun too is somewhat illusory; fired by Michel in the woods even though he doesn't remember firing it, a watchman in the woods later says that it was he who fired at a duck. The principal thread that runs through the opera however is of course Michel's search for the mysterious woman he heard singing from a window on his last visit to the town three years ago, Julietta, an object of desire that has continued to haunt him. 

On that basis the subject of the opera is much more playful in its exploration of the nature of human desire and memory, on idealisation and reality. Michel has created a figure in his head based on what to him has been a magical encounter, but for Julietta it was just an everyday event that has made no impact on her, and even what she does remember of it seems to her ridiculous. She has her own memories created for her by a seller of memories and prefers them to the reality. Act III brings a twist to proceedings when it is revealed that Michel's dream is indeed just a dream. At the Bureau of Dreams he discovers that there's a 'Julietta' in dreams of many others - a beggar, a messenger, a convict, an engineer - and it's a necessary escape from the boundaries of their earthly misery. The Parisian bookseller decides he wants to remain there. 

Again, there are ways of viewing that as some kind of political allegory, but if you want to apply an allegory to the work you'd need to do that yourself as Zuzana Gilhuus's direction for National Theatre Prague's production, celebrating 80 years since the opera was first performed there, treats Julietta merely as a dream fantasy. There's nothing wrong with that as there is more than enough in those abstract themes to make this a fascinating and entertaining work, particularly with the rich and playful score that Martinů has written. It's immensely varied in tones and styles, from full orchestration to express the dramatic situations to more intimate piano accompaniment and even unaccompanied spoken sections. 

The production takes advantage of the opportunities the opera presents to create a simple but effective dream world set. The townspeople are dressed all in white, in rather old-fashioned clothes of people living in the past (without a past), wiped clean of memories, in a certain respect free and pure but unable to see beyond their limited horizons (I'm still trying to apply an allegorical meaning!). The town in Act I is viewed only in the abstract as a maze or forest of low white trees bare of any leaves placed on a white illuminated platform. This is moved around and turned on its side for Act II in the forest and in the Bureau of Dreams. It's a fairly open abstract production that serves the music well and Jaroslav Kyzlink's conducting brings them together well for the varied tones of the work. 

Links: National Theatre Prague, OperaVision

Monday, 16 April 2018

Mozart - The Marriage of Figaro (Wexford, 2018)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Le Nozze di Figaro

Irish National Opera, 2018

Peter Whelan, Patrick Mason, Jonathan Lemalu, Tara Erraught, Ben McAteer, Máire Flavin, Aoife Miskelly, Adrian Thompson, Graeme Danby, Suzanne Murphy, Andrew Gavin, John Molloy, Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Catherine Donnelly, Dominica Williams

Irish Chamber Orchestra

National Opera House, Wexford - 13th April 2018

"Ah, when we are not fighting each other for personal interest, every woman will march to the defense ofher fellow woman against ungrateful men who seek wrongly to oppress them".

There's always something truthful, relevant and contemporary to be found in Mozart's operas, particularly his works with Lorenzo Da Ponte, and Marcellina's pronouncement in Act IV of The Marriage of Figaro neatly taps into a certain current social phenomenon that is unlikely to be missed by anyone in the audience, even if it needs reduced to something a little shorter and catchier with a hashtag. The fact that the above line was first uttered in 1786 however also highlights just how long the same struggle has been going on. The Irish National Opera's new production of Le Nozze di Figaro could of course have made a lot more of this in a modernised setting, but for the first night of the first production in Wexford of their inaugural season they instead wisely focus on the other essential elements that demonstrate why this is a masterpiece and why opera is important. And they do it rather well.

The latter question of why opera is important is one that I personally felt it was important to address and I had wondered before the opening night what kind of message the first INO production might set for future direction, standards and overall purpose. Every opera of course has its own needs and requirements, and a stuffy period Marriage of Figaro sung in English with nothing new to add to it might have been deemed a safer bet, but it would surely have sent out entirely the wrong message about the importance and relevance of opera to the lives we lead today. A modern high concept production wouldn't be a good move at this stage either, but director Patrick Mason pitches it right here with a bright fresh update that doesn't set about making a statement of its own. Mozart and Da Ponte's adaptation of Beaumarchais can do that perfectly well on its own in performance, and it was in the fine music and singing here that the production made the necessary impression.

That sense of brightness and freshness is to some extent established by the set design and the lighting, which presents an open space that at any moment can work as an interior, an exterior, or both within the same space. With a small model of the Almaviva estate mansion always present on the stage, and a large portrait of Mozart in the background throughout, it also manages to keep the wider context of the work in the back of the mind without having to be too clever or knowing. Not that you would be unaware of Mozart's hand in the work for one moment when the music is played as well as it is here by the Irish Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Peter Whelan; the composer's character stamped across every single, crisp, elegant and emotionally buoyant note.

The period updating of the production isn't over-emphasised, or at least not in any way that might compromise the nature and intentions of the work, but there is a hint of late sixties/early seventies. Glyndebourne did this too with their 2013 production of Figaro and it's a workable solution to the out-dated (if still very much alive in a new form) droit-de-seigneur tradition that Count Almaviva has every intention of re-establishing for the purposes of his designs on Susanna, his wife's maid who is about to be married to his manservant Figaro. In light of recent controversies of misconduct by men in positions of power, the setting here presents a different picture, even from the superficially similar Glyndebourne production. If the 60s/early 70s play to notions of a 'permissive society', it's one where the playing field is not level and indeed playing the field is not seen on equal terms, rather it's one that just gives men the power to take further advantage of the liberties offered.

There's no need for the production to emphasise that with any placards of banners or hashtag references. The implications that it holds for all women, and not just Susanna, are made clear in the several lovely chorus arrangements of the original work in the songs that Figaro has cleverly organised for the other female servants to sing, illustrating precisely what Marcellina recognises in that quotation from Act IV. There's a need for women to combine their strengths and resources, to recognise who the enemy is and to challenge and resist; and it's not just a protest against all men, but "ungrateful men who seek to wrongfully oppress them". Mozart and Da Ponte's enlightened views, as well as the consequences of such oppression, are insightfully woven into every note and word that make up the fabric of this near-miraculous work.

The production however highlighted what is really essential to get right in Le Nozze di Figaro. You can play and sing every note to perfection, but unless the comedy engages and strikes a chord with the audience, it's all to little avail. This is a work that has to implicate and draw you in, and it's done through the personalities of the wonderfully drawn characters who nonetheless essentially need real people to bring them to life. It's here where Patrick Mason has done the necessary work to make the opera - at full length with all the 'supporting' characters arias included - fairly zip along. There are some broad comic gestures but also subtle ones, all the set-pieces run like clockwork to provide the expected laughs and plot developments, the busy but uncluttered and adaptable sets permitting a wonderful flow and openness that allows us, for example, not only to see Cherubino jump from the Countess's bedroom window, but also make a run for it across the garden below.

And it's not just all about the comedy. It's necessary to strike the right tone for each of the emotionally rich and insightful situations that Mozart assembles. It's here that the benefits of including Marcellina's and Basilio's Act IV arias prove their worth, not just balancing and contrasting the emotional tenor of each adjacent scene, or even just rounding out the characterisation, but showing that there is a human side to each of the characters. The actions (or intentions) of the Count don't just have a consequence for the women that he has set his libidinous sights on, but it has an impact on everyone, on how men and women behave towards one another, on how society views such behaviour and the wider impact that it can have on it. It's even more of a joy to have these usually cut scenes included when you have such good performers in the roles of Basilio (Adrian Thompson), Bartolo (Graeme Danby), the gardener (John Molloy) and Marcellina (Suzanne Murphy). Barberina is another role in the opera that can be undervalued and fail to make an impact, but not when you have a young soprano as talented as Amy Ní Fhearraigh to make something of it and show just how musically and emotionally rich a work Mozart has created down to the finest detail. Ní Fhearraigh has already made a stunning impression in the recent Opera Collective Ireland Owen Wingrave and this performance will only enhance that reputation further.

The performing challenges that the principals in this production have to measure up to however is of another degree altogether, balancing and mixing comedy with pathos in arias, duets and complex ensemble arrangements. It's the Count who has the trickiest role to maintain, keeping on the right side of caricature that can either go the way of pathetic bumbling fool to unsympathetic cheating lecher, neither of which tend towards a convincing redemption. Ben McAteer's Almaviva carried a measure of those characteristics, but - in line with the well-considered period setting - was more of a last-gasp opportunist finding that the times (and women's rights) were fast catching up with his sort. His singing was perfectly measured for technique and character, a perfect foil for whoever he was on stage with at any given moment. The Countess is also a challenging role with some of the key arias in the whole opera, and it in places seemed a little too big a role for Máire Flavin. With some terrific support from the Irish Chamber Orchestra however, those arias sang of all the depth of feeling of all Rosina's emotional turmoil and sadness.

It's great to see Tara Erraught back on home shores, having built up an international career in Munich - where most of her performances broadcast on the internet show the breadth of her experience - as well as (controversially) at Glyndebourne and the Met in New York. This was a wonderfully engaging Susanna that Erraught sung brilliantly but just as importantly brought to life with verve, charm and character. Figaro actually ran the risk of being left as a bystander to all the plots and machinations going on around him, but Jonathan Lemalu exuded a quiet confidence in his performance and characterisation of the former Barber of Seville that made it seem a lot more effortless than it really is. Personally, I find a mezzo-soprano a better fit for Cherubino and was surprised at Aoife Miskelly's high and light lyrical soprano being cast for the role, but her 'Voi che sapete' was wonderful and Miskelly's ability for character role playing was a joy to behold. Irish National Opera's impressive inaugural production sets out with high standards, not least of which is to demonstrate the importance of opera today.

Links: Irish National Opera