Saturday, 28 March 2020

Stockhausen - Samstag aus Licht (Paris, 2019)


Karlheinz Stockhausen - Samstag aus Licht

Le Balcon - Paris, 2019

Maxime Pascal, Damien Bigourdan, Damien Pass, Alphonse Cemin, Henri Deléger, François-Xavier Plancqueel, Mathieu Adam, Ayumi Taga

Philharmonie de Paris, 28 & 29 June 2019


Opera has evolved considerably as an artform over the last 400 years, partly due to its very nature of incorporating a wide range of disciplines, from poetry and writing to dancing and singing, dramatic theatre and spectacle, and evidently music. As each of those disciples have developed over the centuries so too has opera incorporated this growth, and some of the greatest opera composers have been those that have embraced change and actually extended those disciplines further into new areas. At heart however what has remained important is the ability of those works to express something about humanity that relates to their own personal experience and vision and find a complete operatic expression for it.

Quite where Karlheinz Stockhausen fits into people's conception of great composers is undoubtedly a matter of taste and changing perceptions, but there can be little doubt that he pushed music into previously unimaginable zones like no-one else. In opera too he created one of the most extraordinary and original, not to mention challenging and controversial, opera works ever written in the 29 hour long, 7-day opera cycle Licht, 'Light'. Evidently few have had the opportunity to see that work performed and staged in its entirety, but Maxime Pascal and Le Balcon took on that ambitious task on 2018, starting with a production of Donnerstag aus Licht, 'Thursday from Light'.




As you might expect from a radically experimental composer like Stockhausen no two works in the cycle are going to be alike and certainly Samstag takes a very different approach from the mysticism of Donnerstag with its comprehensive globs-spanning worldview of the battle between Good and Evil and, from the semi-autobiographical elements with in, presumably a similar battle within Stockhausen himself. Written in 1984, the second work in the Licht cycle, Samstag serves the function of a day of transition, a liberation from one state of being to the next, the liberation of the soul from mortal restraints, which for Lucifer means the death of humanity. In one respect however Samstag aus Licht still very much adheres to the underlying philosophy that music can illuminate and save the world through its Light (Licht), specifically if you like through Stockhausen's music and his vision as the Saviour of the Earth.

It's the predominance and importance of music and ritual as a liberating force that immediately strikes the listener and indicates the overall tone of Samstag aus Licht. Its opening fanfare of Luzifers-Gruss (Lucifer's Greeting), is followed by a long solo piano opening Luzifers-Traum (Lucifer's Dream) section. Having been resisted by Michael through the power of his music in Donnerstag, Lucifer - sung by bass Damien Pass - is of course not completely eradicated from Earth and his dreams take on form in music that soothes his wounds and fills him with strength again. Music likewise is very much a character in Samstag aus Licht as it was in Donnerstag aus Licht, and Stockhausen blurs the lines as to where one discipline ends and another begins in the expression of a character or even a theme.




The second scene in Samstag for example involves a black cat Kathinka who plays 24 pieces on the flute as a requiem for Lucifer (Kathinkas-Gesang als Luzifers-Requiem). The music is accompanied by singing into the flute in places, while six percussionists representing the six mortal senses ('thought' being the sixth sense) play 'magical' instruments. Damien Bigourdan and Maxime Pascal capture the fluid musical qualities and expression superbly for the Le Balcon production, visually representing the music and the ritualistic side of the unconventional requiem to Satan, the percussionists dispersed around the auditorium of the Philharmonie in Paris. Once the senses are liberated however, despite the requiem performed in his name, Lucifer proves to still be very much alive.

Part Three, Luzifers-Tanz (Lucifer's Dance), illustrates quite literally how different and strikingly original Stockhausen's approach to opera is in its utter disregard for convention, choosing rather to exploit its endless possibilities far beyond its normal range. Stockhausen refuses to accept any limits to expression (see the Helicopter String Quartet from Mittwoch aus Licht as another extreme example) in order to represent something that takes place on a higher cosmic level. The different sections of the orchestra are all directed to form the face of Lucifer piece by piece, building it up on sections musically with instructions from Lucifer himself.


That takes some imagination to not only stage but stage and play effectively in a way that summons up the necessary character and ritualistic aspect of this scene. It's superbly visualised by Nieto here with live projections overlaying the ranged players on the various levels of La Philharmonie moving to the twitches of eyebrows and rolling of eyes. Michael as a trumpet player challenges Lucifer but proves unable to set himself against the renewed force of evil. This is opera but very much not how anyone else does it.



So to follow that, the dance descends into a cacophony, the musicians protest and walk off the stage and the final part of Samstag, Luzifers-Abschied (Lucifer's Farewell) takes place in the nearest church. Here it's the Ëglise Saint-Jacques Saint Christophe de la Villette, where 13+13 bass and 13 tenor Franciscan monks sing St Francis of Assisi's 13 part Hymn to the Virtues with increasing intensity as they run around the church. After the ritual to banish the blasts of a row of diabolic trombonists, a caged wild bird is released and the monks smash 39 coconuts (no, really) on the steps outside the church in a solemn vow of purification. Bells, clacking of clogs, hammering of wood instruments, some organ, clapping and Gregorian-like chants, again full use is made of spacial surround to envelop the audience in the sound experience, bringing this extraordinary rarely performed work that is completely unlike anything else to a solemn but fervent and slightly manic conclusion.

Aside from the traditional opera characteristics of narrative, theatre and music, there is clearly much much more to a performance of any of the works of the Licht cycle than that, which is of course why Stockhausen's innovation in his musical direction is so important. Maxime Pascal refers to Licht being Stockhausen's attempt to make the sound an invisible force and why the use of spacial dispersion of sound is important. The impact of that is quite noticeable when this is heard live with music and sounds bombarding you invisibly from all sides. It's something that takes more than just rationalisation or interpretation, it very much needs to be immersively experienced to be truly felt. Even watching it as a streamed recording it's clear that Samstag is an extraordinary work in a unique and absorbing cycle of operas.

Stockhausen doesn't appear to leave much room for reinterpretation of his work as there are precise instructions and an element of ritual throughout Licht, but the subjects themselves demand a personal response on the part of the creatives as much as the audience. Maxime Pascal and the Le Balcon are fortunately among the finest ensembles promoting new music and the championing of the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. With full-scale productions of Donnerstag and Samstag from the Licht cycle completed now, their dedication and fidelity to Stockhausen's monumental vision has so far proved to be impressive and revelatory. This is proving to be one of the most important opera projects of our time.


Links: Philharmonie de Paris Live, Le Balcon, Licht Paris

Monday, 23 March 2020

Dusapin - Macbeth Underworld (Brussels, 2019)


Pascal Dusapin - Macbeth Underworld

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2019

Alain Altinoglu, Thomas Jolly, Magdalena Kožená, Georg Nigl, Ekaterina Lekhina, Lilly Jørstad, Christel Loetzsch, Kristinn Sigmundsson, Graham Clark, Christian Rivet, Elyne Maillard, Naomi Tapiola

La Monnaie MM Channel - October 2019


Shakespeare continues to be a source of inspiration for opera but it still remains a challenge for any composer not just to approach the greater plays but tread in the footsteps of previous opera adaptations as well. To take on King Lear (which Verdi never managed to complete) you not only have to live up to Shakespeare but also Aribert Reimann's thunderous epic opera version, Lear. Brett Dean however was successful in the unenviable task of adapting Hamlet for opera, drawing more intensely from the original than other adaptations. It's hard to imagine how Verdi's Otello or Falstaff could be bettered but arguably Macbeth could be improved with greater fidelity to the source than Verdi, even though his opera is superb in its own right. That's not the approach that Pascal Dusapin takes however in his reworking of Shakespeare for Macbeth Underworld.


What Dusapin attempts is respecting fidelity to the work while also attempting to bring it to life through his own interpretation; a Macbeth Underworld related the events of Shakespeare's Macbeth through a glass darkly, so to speak. In the opera, the ghosts of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Duncan/Banquo and the Weird Sisters are brought back during the prologue by Hecate to relive their crimes and perhaps reflect on them. In order for this not to appear as Shakespeare at a remove, Dusapin employs a similar technique to Reimann in terms of amplification and concentration of the drama. It's a technique that applies to opera in general of course, heightened through music and singing, but there are other means available and Dusapin uses those as well.

There's good justification for this technique of examining Macbeth at a remove and from the grave; the Weird Sisters in a way already have the ability to see what will happen, so to them Macbeth is already a ghost, dead to them, the future laid out and unchangeable. The notion of Time is very much a thing in Macbeth (see the recent RSC theatrical production) and here it's Hecate who controls time, using the witches as a chorus to taunt
and torment Macbeth, as their constant chorus of "fair is foul and foul is fair" emphasises. They appear in various guises throughout, a host of holy horrors, the witches the multiple guests at the dinner where Banquo appears, Hecate also playing the Gatekeeper and in a way the Fool, quoting Corinthians 'Death where is thy victory, o death where is thy sting' even though strictly of course there isn't a Fool in this play.


It's proposed in Macbeth Underworld (and of course indicated in Shakespeare's Macbeth) that it's a ghost who also haunts Lady Macbeth and drives her ambition to murder in the play; the ghost of a dead child. Dusapin makes this child one of the agents of the underworld who make them re-enact their crime, and in the same way, Duncan and Banquo are blended together as a ghostly representation of murder and guilt, one that can also stand for all the other deaths that occur under Macbeth's bloody reign, there to present him with a constant reminder of his crimes while he suffers torment in the underworld.

Elsewhere the drama doesn't entirely work, the libretto relying on recital of the most famous lines of the play in a cut-and-paste way without succeeding in tying them together into a fluid through-narrative, even though it largely follows the linear path of the original drama. Arguably it's not the narrative that is important in this version however since it's intended to be a shadow version of the play, the events blending into a dreamlike succession of horror. The emphasis is placed strongly on the iconic scenes which it manages to compress and amplify effectively; the apparition of the Weird Sisters, Lady Macbeth's 'unsex me' monologue, the chilling 'Is this a dagger I see before me?' build-up to the killing of Duncan, the appearance of Banquo's ghost, Lady Macbeth's 'Out damned spot' and 'Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him', and crucially as far as this Underworld version goes, 'What's done cannot be undone'.

Getting all that in is one thing, but as an opera it needs a little more to engage with in order to have its own voice. That is partly supplied by the music which is moody and effective, much as it was in Dusapin's 2015 adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist's Penthesilea. Reimann certainly comes to mind in moments of loud dark dissonance here but Dusapin also, like Verdi, uses a chorus of Weird Sisters to multiply the horror (albeit pitched at Reimann levels, strikingly so during the Requiem sung at the burial of Duncan/coronation of Macbeth) and in a finale that matches the thunder of Reimann's storm scene in Lear. The combination of means is highly effective. Magdalena Kožená is magnetic in terms of delivery and performance, and as Lady Macbeth she gets all the best Shakespeare lines in this version. Georg Nigl gets the 'Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow' soliloquy of course but his role appears to have rather more spoken delivery of Shakespearean lines in English, so it's not quite as lyrical.



The other element that certainly contributes to the success of the opera as a whole is the direction of Thomas Jolly. Jolly is known in France for directing Shakespeare in the theatre and, whether you consider it appropriate or not, his characteristic slightly camp dark Gothic feel certainly has style in a colour scheme of predominately black, white and red. A large part of Bruno de Lavenère's impressive set design is a moving tangle of roots, branches and twisted tree-trunks that house the Weird Sisters in wispy costumes. The ghost of Duncan/Banquo walks around with a dagger in his back, the blood jewelled in crystals that down his back and across his head. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are ghostly white, wearing white robes, their hair and faces whitened. Lighting is used effectively, a flash of red in dark from Duncan's room during the killing of the King, an eerie blue light as Birnam Wood closes in. It looks great, visually stunning in fact, and it matches the mood that Dusapin's ominous score evokes, as well as the nightmarish ways that scenes and characters blend together.

In collaboration with Jolly's direction, Dusapin's Macbeth Underworld does look and have the mood of a true Macbeth, even if it doesn't hit the same points as Shakespeare. As a Macbeth Underworld however the intention is clearly to be more of a Macbeth experience, and from a musical, theatrical and operatic viewpoint, with Alain Altinoglu marshalling the forces of the music through the orchestra of La Monnaie, it's a very striking work in its own right.


Links: La Monnaie, La Monnaie Streaming

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Respighi - La bella dormente nel bosco (Cagliari, 2017)

Ottorino Respighi - La bella dormente nel bosco

Teatro Lirico di Cagliari 2017

Donato Renzetti, Leo Muscato, Veta Pilpenko, Angela Nisi, Antonio Gandía, Vincenzo Taormina, Shoushik Barsoumian, Lara Rotili, Claudia Urru, Enrico Zara, Nicola Ebau

Naxos Blu-ray


Ottorino Respighi's La bella dormente nel bosco (The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods) is unusual and largely unheard of because it wasn't strictly composed as a traditional opera, but as a puppet theatre opera. Whether that has any bearing on the quality of the opera doesn't show, and certainly not in this Cagliari production directed by Leo Muscato. First performed in 1922 and revised in 1934, it comes across rather as colourful and as engaging as any other fairy-tale based opera.

Considering the potential it offers in it's surprising that Sleeping Beauty hasn't been a more popular choice of fairy-tale to set to an opera. It has a strong layout and variety of scenes that are sure to provide drama and entertainment, and that's certainly been borne out at least in ballet. Respighi clearly recognises that potential and introduces ballet as one of the elements that he incorporates quite successfully into this rich blend of music, drama, magical fairy-tale, panto, singing and dancing. Perrault's fairy tale is such that there should be no limits to expression and the composer uses everything at his disposal. As indeed does the director Leo Muscato here.




The opening is a good example of how the story can be enriched, the opera opening indeed in the woods, where the animals of the forest are the first to learn about the birth of the princess from the king's page. The animal noises and gossiping of the creatures puts one in mind of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen and if you're looking for a model to engage children and tap into deeper sentiments, that's not a bad example to follow. Muscato's production design captures the tone well here, allowing the colour to flow from this into colourful arrival of the fairies in a semi-ballet sequence, using full-stage projections of magical dust sparkle as the fairies bestow their gifts on the princess. It's utterly enchanting.

The arrival of the Green Fairy casting her curse brings an edge of pantomime to the proceedings, which isn't out of place either in a piece devised originally as puppet theatre. The wonderful opportunities for colour and  invention are not neglected in the subsequent scenes which put the emphasis on spindles and weaving, using young children as human spindles that are paraded through the court on their banishment by decree of the king. This is elaborated on further in the next scene, where huge balls of yarn and a weave decorate the set that will entrap the princess, and in the giant mice that bear the sleeping beauty funeral-like into the court when all medical efforts to revive her have been exhausted.




The story of La bella dormente nel bosco is as magical on its own account and it can certainly be enhanced by a creative production like this, but that shouldn't preclude some musical enchantment. For his part, Leo Muscato judges the balance perfectly in the scene setting, in the colours, in the traditional costumes, but there's a suspicion that it may all be dazzle and sparkle to enliven what can seem like a lovely but unadventurous composition that rather mechanically runs through all the expected situations in a compact 90 minute opera.

Perhaps one shouldn't expect much of a score written originally for a puppet theatre, but puppet theatre is a valid artform in some places in Europe and Respighi takes the commission seriously and duly delivers. The orchestration is evidently reduced with some piano led arrangements, but this allows occasional solo instruments to leap out beautifully and, when required, to still provide surprisingly big sweeping arrangements. Respighi even takes into account the 300 years that pass while Beauty is Sleeping and introduces some modern Gershwin jazz-like touches into Act III.




Far from academic, it's easy to get lost in the beautiful music and it's lovingly conducted by Donato Renzetti.  If it never really dazzles thrills or excites, it certainly has the capacity to enchant and that's exactly what you want from a fairy-tale opera. The singing too has its challenges even none of the roles are large enough to attract starry performances, with much doubling-up and playing of multiple roles. Shoushik Barsoumian stands out however as the good Blue Fairy and Angela Nisi as the Principessa. La bella dormente nel bosco may not be the most obvious choice of revival for the under-represented Respighi, but it's a good popular choice by Cagliari, and one must hope that it leads to others being revived.

The Naxos Blu-ray release is region-free, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, Japanese and Korean. It's not a long opera, running to under 90 minutes, so it fits comfortably onto a BD25 disc. The HD image quality is fine, just lacking that fine clarity when there is movement. The usual PCM stereo and DTS MA 5.1 surround options are there and sound great here for the lighter touches, the solo instruments and broader sweeps. There are no extra features, but the booklet provides information on  the history of the work and there is a synopsis.

Links: Teatro Lirico di Cagliari

Friday, 6 March 2020

Weber - Euryanthe (Vienna, 2018)

Carl Maria von Weber - Euryanthe

Theater an der Wien, 2018

Constantin Trinks, Christof Loy, Jacquelyn Wagner, Norman Reinhardt, Theresa Kronthaler, Andrew Foster-Williams, Stefan Cerny, Eva-Maria Neubauer

Naxos - Blu-ray


There are often good reasons why some works remain neglected and rarely performed, but it's at least nice to be able to have the opportunity to hear them and judge for yourself, even if in most cases you have to admit that few are really lost masterpieces. Carl Maria Von Weber's 1823 opera Euryanthe however may genuinely be considered a neglected masterpiece.

Euryanthe is one of those works whose reputation is better known than the work itself, that reputation being that it has some lovely music but is let down by a poor libretto. Considering Weber's importance in the world of German music and his huge influence on Richard Wagner, it's surely a shame that other than Der Freischütz, the composer's operas haven't been given due attention in performance. Christof Loy's production of Euryanthe for the Theater an der Wien however suggests that this is a great work worthy of re-evaluation.


In terms of plot Euryanthe does indeed just appear to adopt another variation on a classic Romantic theme based around challenges against the virtue of innocent women. It's there in Schumann's only opera Genoveva, but the subject can also be seen in Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucretia and Cymbeline. Mozart also took an apparently more light-hearted comic angle on the subject in Così fan tutte, but as several recent productions have demonstrated (Teatro Real 2013, Aix 2016), Mozart and Da Ponte's approach is far more subtle, balanced, darker and nuanced than it might seem. Despite the reputation of its libretto and plot, and the relentless darkness of the treatment, Christof Loy successfully shows that there is similar nuance and sophistication worth exploring in Euryanthe.


Like The Rape of Lucretia there's an underlying context of war having a dehumanising impact on men and influencing how they behave towards women in Euryanthe. At the beginning of the opera Count Adolar is returning from war, disillusioned but revived at the thought of returning to his wife Euryanthe. Having only seen the worst of what man is capable, the one thing that can restore his faith in humanity is the assurance of his wife's purity and fidelity. Count Lysiart however is rather more cynical and bets Adolar that he could seduce Euryanthe. Adolar is outraged and ready to duel Lysiart for this insult to his wife's honour, but has such faith in Euryanthe that, with King Ludwig's intervention, he is prepared to accept the bet to prove the point beyond dispute.

So far there's nothing unusual in a subject like that, it's a stirring situation that gives rise to conflicts of passions and moral dilemmas. There is however a complicating factor here in Eglantine, the daughter of a disgraced noble that Adolar has taken into their home, and her being in love with Adolar adds more than just another level of dramatic conflict. The introduction of a kind of ghost story around the untimely death of Adolar's sister Emma, who killed herself after her betrothed Udo died in battle, is another factor that comes into play, a shameful secret that Eglantine plans to use against Euryanthe in collaboration with Lysiart, but it also relates to Emma and Udo both being victims of war as a destructive force.


All this can seem like the plot has a few too many high-flown Romantic sentiments - the opera is subtitled 'A Great Heroic Romantic Opera' - but Christof Loy's approach to this melodrama is as usual to find the real human feeling in the work. Not unexpectedly that can be found with considerable depth in the music of Carl Maria Von Weber. It might fall back now and again on conventional elements of dramatic villainy, ghostly apparitions and wistful musing of innocents, but only in the same way that Mozart also made use of a similar wide range of means to plunge ever deeper into the darkness of Don Giovanni's soul. Weber's music, conducted her by Constantin Trinks, is beautifully aligned to the mood and the drama of Euryanthe and it's not difficult to see how Wagner would develop on this to an epic scale, particularly evident in a similar confrontation between innocence impugned and villainy given credence in Lohengrin.

Loy seizes on the power of such situations and music applies it to characterisation that can be seen to be much more three-dimensional than its reputation would have you believe. The director never lets the characters emote alone or soliloquise to the audience in an indulgent manner, but rather shows them tapping into the deepest human feelings of love, jealousy, lust and betrayal. And if that means having the object of one's affections present when their spirit - and other parts - are being bared, then so be it. Rather like the spirit of Emma, it makes these emotions present and tangible, generating a highly charged atmosphere.


The stage design is appropriate for the context and, rather than relying on typical Der Freischütz-like Romantic locations of woods, glens and dramatic landscapes, Loy keeps the drama confined to an elegant mansion. The cool minimalism of the rooms only serves to heighten and contrast the surface manners of high society with the barely contained lusts and prejudices simmering beneath. It's not so far away from Loy's more recent take on Schreker's similarly heated drama Die ferne Klang, or indeed his stripping of those emotional charges literally stark naked as with his production of Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane. Andrew Foster Williams is the unfortunate who has to bear all this time, his "wild impulses of glowing desire" out there for the viewer to see, but spared anything too close up. It certainly makes the idea of intended rape more viscerally real and the subsequent teaming up of Lysiart with Eglantine after this is deliriously demented and utterly convincing.


It's the singing too of course that makes this convincing and the principal cast, as well as the chorus, are simply superb. Jacquelyn Wagner has a perfect clean soaring timbre that is perfect for the part of Euryanthe. She's more than just an innocent victim, but the vocal line tells us more than the words alone about her firmness of purpose and her pureness of heart, and Wagner brings out the real human feeling that is scored into the role. Norman Reinhardt shows how Adolar is a prototype Heldentenor, an idealist conflicted between the purity of vision and his response to the baseness of the world.

Theresa Kronthaler and Andrew Foster-Williams bring a chilling edge of menace in roles that are even more villainous and - in this production at least - even more deranged and cruel than Ortrud and Telramund. Looking at the opera this way pointing towards towards Lohengrin, King Ludwig IV is very much a Heinrich der Vogler type of role and it's one that bass Stefan Cerny is not only capable of performing to a Wagnerian level but he also brings some character and personality to make it count within the dramatic development of the plot. Rather than being a forgotten minor work by a respected but neglected composer, Euryanthe turns out to be essential listening for any Wagnerian, a wondrous rediscovery, and Loy's treatment of the work at Theater an der Wien will not disappoint.

The production looks good on the High Definition Blu-ray release from Naxos, although there are some minor niggles. The strong contrasts make whites look a little blown-out, and the image is a little bit shimmery and blurring in movement. Whether that's an authoring issue with the transfer bit-rate I don't know, but it's not too distracting. It doesn't appear that radio mics are used so there's a wider open acoustic theatrical sound here, which means that it also picks up a bit of ambient noise, including creaking floorboards, but the LPCM 2.0 and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes still capture the power and the detail of the performance. The BD is all-region compatible, with German, English, French, Japanese and Korean subtitles. The booklet contains a synopsis and an interview with Christof Loy.


Links: Theater an der Wien

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Offenbach - Les Contes d'Hoffmann (Brussels, 2019)

 

Jacques Offenbach - Les Contes d'Hoffmann

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2019

Alain Altinoglu, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Eric Cutler, Patricia Petibon, Michèle Losier, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Gábor Bretz, François Piolino, Willard White, Loïc Félix, Yoann Dubruque, Alejandro Fonte, Byoung-Jin Lee

ARTE Concert streaming - December 2019

It's not hard to recognise that there's a darker side to the stories and the fate of the character Hoffman in The Tales of Hoffmann, but it's by no means certain in my experience that Jacques Offenbach actually manages to draw them out in his opera. The composer's only true opera aside from his delightful comic operetta entertainments, The Tales of Hoffmann is often treated the same way as his opéra-comique works and it's rare that a director will address the underlying issues of alcoholism and mental illness in any serious way. You might expect Krzysztof Warlikowski to try to do a little more with this at La Monnaie, and he does even if it feels he's trying a little too hard.

Always keen to give a classic work a contemporary treatment that addresses the issues in a way that we are more familiar with, often using references to whatever is currently hot in the movie world, Warlikowsi goes the whole hog this time and updates the drunken fantasist of ETA Hoffman's tales into a Hollywood screenwriter-director going through a personal crisis. Obsessed with his leading actress Stella, who whatever way you look at this opera is very much the muse for his creativity, he strives to find a way to overcome his own demons through the roles he develops for her.




When it comes to movie references it's well known that Warlikowsi often relies on the films of David Lynch for inspiration, and since Lynch has tackled similar subjects of Hollywood chewing up its stars in his films Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, it makes sense (some kind of sense) to employ the same sinister qualities and techniques that Lynch evokes in those movies. Warlikowski doesn't stop there however, borrowing the three pink showgirls from the casino from Twin Peaks: The Return, sets the Olympia segment in Twin Peaks's The Black Lodge, has a microphone stand from similar sequences in Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive and even has Nicklausse and Giulietta swap identities wearing black and blonde wigs in a nod to Lynch's surreal noir Lost Highway. I'm sure Wild at Heart must be in there somewhere too.

The other current hot movie reference is where the villain(s) of the piece, Lindorf/Coppélius/Doctor Miracle/Dapertutto and his crew all adopt the make-up and look of the Joker. As far as getting underneath the surface these references are definitely in the right zone for using farce and fantasy to suggest a sinister undercurrent where drawing on personal resources and responses for the sake of entertainment can take its toll on creative artists. It's most evident in the Olympia story where the automaton becomes a kind of manufactured starlette groomed for stardom, Hoffmann's "beer goggles" blinding him to the superficiality and fakeness that his assistant Nicklausse is able to see. Olympia indeed becomes a Mulholland Drive-like victim of the Hollywood system.




As far as that goes Warlikowski gets the point across effectively in Act I, but even though the concept permits Hoffmann as director to pour his auteur obsessions out on the screen in the other sections of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, it does - as I often find with this work - tend to drag and get somewhat unwieldy. Warlikowski's references, interventions, interpolations, twisting of the narrative and adding layers doesn't really add much more to this, but tends rather to make it all even harder to follow than usual. In the Antonia section for example, Patricia Petibon breaks out of character (see Laura Dern in Inland Empire) and into another character as an actress who uses her own trauma of the death of her son to feed into her performance of Antonia, and show how it takes a lot out of her emotionally.

Essentially Krzysztof Warlikowski just wants to bring an edge of realism/surrealism to the work, showing that behind Hoffmann's fantasies are real people with real personal lives and drama that Hollywood exploits for the sake of entertainment. If you want to you can extend that another level in that this also makes you aware that the performers of the opera also have their own lives and baggage that it can be difficult to reconcile with an artistic lifestyle. Certainly the fake Oscar ceremony that Warlikowski inserts before the conclusion hits those points about home in a hugely effective and even slightly discomforting way.




Unfortunately it's just all too much, Warlikowski as he is wont to do throwing everything at the opera, much more than I feel Offenbach's writing can sustain, and as a result it feels like a bit of a mess. Which, to be frank, and accepting that Offenbach left the work unfinished at the time of his death, would be how I regard The Tales of Hoffmann as an opera anyway. Less is often more with this work in my experience, and it's telling that the only wholly successful stage productions I have seen are those that scale the whole thing down. The 2015 ETO production (which also used Hoffmann as a movie director much more effectively than Warlikowski) and the Irish National Opera's 2018 version demonstrate that despite my misgivings the work can indeed aspire to something greater.

Whatever its structural or narrative weaknesses, the one redeeming quality of The Tales of Hoffmann as far as I'm concerned is in its melodies and songs that run through the work, in the repetitive catchiness of the "Chanson de Kleinzach" and in the charm of "Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour" and it's there that the real strength of the La Monnaie production conducted by Alain Altinoglu can be found. The latter sung by
Patricia Petibon and Michèle Losier is certainly worth waiting for - well, almost worth waiting for as I found my patience running out as usual with this work. Losier is superb, genuinely making something greater out of the Nicklausse role, Petibon not always able to meet the challenges of the demanding soprano roles in the opera. Eric Cutler's Hoffman is sympathetically engaging and Gábor Bretz cuts a suitably sinister figure as The Joker basically, in a production of Hoffmann that is certainly no laughing matter.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt, ARTE Concert

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Humperdinck - Hansel and Gretel (Wexford, 2019)


Engelbert Humperdinck - Hansel and Gretel (Wexford, 2019)

Irish National Opera, 2019

Richard Peirson, Muireann Ahern, Louis Lovett, Raphaela Mangan, Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Miriam Murphy, Ben McAteer, Carolyn Dobbin, Emma Nash, Raymond Keane, Amelie Metcalfe, Ronan Millar

National Opera House, Wexford - 22 February 2020


In the last couple of years the Irish National Opera have managed to strike a good balance between creative direction and audience accessibility, fearlessly bringing something new and imaginative even to popular standards like Madama Butterfly, Aida and The Magic Flute. It perhaps takes a bit more nerve however to mess with the traditional storytelling of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel which even for someone who has never been to the opera, has specific expectations as a fairy-tale. The INO's 2020 production turns out to be as adventurous as usual, but it doesn't quite hit the mark here as far as doing justice to Humperdinck, losing much of his work's own inherent value for something less compelling.

Compromises inevitably have to be made when it's a touring production and this production of Hansel and Gretel is admirably heading out to far-flung corners of Ireland that never see anything with this level of production values and quality, even with a reduced orchestration of seven players. On its own terms, this production looks and sounds terrific, setting its own entertaining mood, style and character, and it is indeed refreshing to hear the pureness of the composer's melodies and how successfully they combine to tell the story, neither the music nor the storytelling however are wholly successful in getting across the real character of Humperdinck's opera. Or at least not as successful as some other productions, and for me Opera North set a very high bar there for anyone else to reach.




It's a fairy-tale so there's no requirement for realism in the Irish National Opera production created in collaboration with directors Muireann Ahern and Louis Lovett. Although it's possible to hint at contemporary concerns in Hansel and Gretel, there's no emphasis placed here on the idea of the two children living in poverty, victims of austerity cuts or even neglectful parenting. The family do appear to have lost their home here however, being forced to move around but somehow able to afford to stay at the Forest Edge Hotel, whose sinister appearance is enhanced by the notice that children are welcome.

It's the sinister that the INO production does well, much of it established in Jamie Vartan's superb set design, creating a space that is adaptable for touring but still maximises impact. It doesn't settle for the obvious fairy-tale or Gothic settings, but finds rather a seedy character in the neon signs, the old-fashioned font of the projected signs and notices with their subtle undercurrents of menace. That character is also established early with the use of an extra actor (Raymond Keane) in a silent role playing the part of the Night Watchman, a character who is part illusionist amusing the children with tricks, part Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang tempting them with sweets and treats, and part Sweeney Todd figure serving them up for the witch to bake into pies.




There's nothing too sinister here mind, nothing to scare the children in the audience. I'm sure they could take a little more of the thrill of horror in a fairy tale setting, but that's largely avoided which feels like it is to the detriment of the character of the original work. In its place the directors bring some knowing humour and a play up the rivalry, bossiness and naughtiness in the interaction between Hansel and Gretel, which works well and is entertainingly played by Raphaela Mangan and Amy Ní Fhearraigh, a little broadly pantomime in places but with some lovely details and reactions when called for.

It's also very much a stylised production in that way that sees the starving Hansel and Gretel clean and smartly dressed in grey outfits, the overall look more storybook than social realism. Even the orchestra and Richard Peirson, leading the seven-piece Irish National Orchestra ensemble from the piano, get in on the act wearing incongruous party-hats and taking up position to the stage rather than being confined to a pit, although their movements suggest that they may well have risen from a pit of a different kind. All of this is great, all very much in character of the production as a whole, but none of it seems to add up to a consistent worldview much less one that has anything to say about child poverty, child abuse or warnings of child abduction.

There's no reason why it ought to but it should at least relate to or be on a par with the power of children's imagination and storytelling that lies at the heart of the work. If you're going to jettison the traditional fairy-tale elements in depictions of the gingerbread house, the sandman, the dew fairy and the fourteen guardian angels, and offer stylised characters and projections in their place, it would be nice if it was in service of an alternative take on the story. The fairy-tale can sustain it and indeed its whole purpose is to carry subtext, so Hansel and Gretel surely merits a deeper exploration of its themes. So too does Humperdinck's music.




What we did get from the reduced orchestration was a clearer sense of the folk song melodies and the storytelling character of Humperdinck's compositions, but with the mainly piano-led accompaniment it was all very evenly paced, lacking in colour and variety and not really successful in conveying the different tones and textures that you get in the orchestral arrangements. The dramatic performances were fun, playing for humour more than horror, and the singing was marvellous from all the main performers, particularly the bright Raphaela Mangan and Amy Ní Fhearraigh as Hansel and Gretel.

The other roles were also well sung with plenty of character on the parts of Carolyn Dobbin as the witch, Emma Nash as the Dew Fairy and Sandman and Miriam Murphy as the mother. Only Ben McAteer's proven abilities felt under-exploited here as a rather nondescript father. As entertaining as it was, under-exploited was also the general impression of the production as a whole, looking and sounding marvellous, but lacking in the depth that is there to be found in this rich work.


Links: Irish National Opera

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Paer - Agnese (Turin, 2019)

Ferdinando Paer - Agnese

Teatro Regio Torino, 2019

Diego Fasolis, Leo Muscato, María Rey-Joly, Markus Werba, Edgardo Rocha, Filippo Morace, Andrea Giovannini, Lucia Cirillo,Giulia Della Peruta, Federico Benetti

Dynamic Blu-ray


While there have been some wonderful and worthwhile revivals of forgotten works by Donizetti, Bellini and of course Rossini, there's been less attention paid to other little-known works and neglected composers from this period who helped pave the way from the baroque and opera seria of the 18th century to the dominant form of Italian opera that the masters Verdi and Puccini would perfect. The occasional work revives interest in this period now and again with regular efforts to rehabilitate Giacomo Meyerbeer, a Saverio Mercadante here, a very rare Giovanni Simone Mayr there, Giovanni Paccini almost never, all of them nonetheless providing clues to the link and development of opera into its familiar popular mid-to-late 19th century form. Somewhere in there Ferdinando Paer has also been largely forgotten.

And if the Torino production of Agnese is anything to go by, probably unjustly neglected. A tremendous success in its day his 1809 opera Agnese hasn't been performed anywhere in earnest for a couple of hundred years. Following a critical edition of the work made in 2007, the 2019 Turin production does much to make this fascinating work accessible and entertaining. Conducted by early music specialist Diego Fasolis with sympathetic direction by Leo Muscato and a colourful stylised set design that neither makes fun of the work's strange opera semi-seria conventions nor attempts to modernise it into something unsuitable, it's a production that does much to reveal Agnese's undoubted qualities.




Perhaps even more than Meyerbeer's 5-act grand opéras, the opera semi-seria is a tricky proposition to put before a modern audience (Muscato I'm minded to note directing one of the best Meyerbeer productions I've seen, L'Africaine). Characterisation is exaggerated, situations are scarcely credible and plot developments feel contrived. These are often based around a poor innocent country maiden whose reputation has been unjustly impugned in an uneasy blend of comedy and tragedy, the sentimental mixed with buffo elements. Paer's ability to make something more of such material however is laid out impressively in the dramatic storm and chorus opening of Agnese which reminded me of the ominous opening of Bellini's La Straniera (1829). Believed lost in the woods, Agnese is not a maiden but has indeed been unjustly treated and betrayed by her husband Ernesto and has run away taking their young daughter with her.

There is of course a tragic backstory. Having run off to marry Ernesto in the first place, a man who has turned out to be unfaithful, Agnese's father Uberto has been driven out of his mind for the last seven years. Locked away in an asylum he has preferred to believe his daughter dead. On her way to beg forgiveness for her father she runs into him in the woods, the man clearly out of his wits, unable to recognise her but easily upset at talk of fathers and daughters. At the asylum the warden Don Pasquale holds Agnese responsible for the state of her father but isn't unsympathetic to her plight and reluctantly agrees to help her. Uberto however seems beyond reach, the madman obsessively drawing coffins and graves on the wall of his cell.




In terms of the hangover from late opera seria period, Paer's 1809 opera still has a number of generic arias of emotional turmoil expressing tearful laments, outbursts of anger, regret and repentance, the arias and cavatinas separated by accompanied recitative. As is common with the later bel canto style, the plot is fairly straightforward and there's not a great deal of dramatic action but nonetheless it's somewhat needlessly drawn out to close to three hours by incidental numbers that tend to be rather repetitive in their expression, are not particularly revealing and don't always hold attention. They are there more to inject some colour and diversion, but in the vocal expression at least they can go some way to develop characterisation.

The way to make it work on the stage is of course to enter wholly into the spirit of the work and respect its original intentions as much as possible without being slavish to tradition. Offenbach's opéra-comique comedies are a good measure of how to play this, Rossini's entertainments even more so, and the renewed interest in both composers is undoubtedly down to them being treated well in this respect. Leo Muscato's stylised approach works in favour of the character of the opera, using old-fashioned scuffed and rusting medicine tins, that look like classic biscuit, sweet tins or cigar boxes, each opening up storybook-like into whole rooms.

There's no particular significance in this other than other than to package the work up nicely and stylishly, with no unnecessary modernisms to distract from the old-fashioned treatment of a drama that takes place in an asylum populated by raving madmen and women. Having said that the physician in charge of the asylum Don Girolamo might appear to be a bit eccentric but he employs some innovative and humane therapy and treatments here for curing mental illness. There at least, Agnese is somewhat ahead of its time. For the sake of sanity for all involved, Don Pasquale also does his bit to reconcile Ernesto and Agnese.




That makes it sound easy as if that's all there is to it, but as Rossini's sophisticated marriage of music and drama demonstrates, there's a particular lightness of touch that is required to makes it simple and accessible on the surface but with there being a little more depth and melodic sophistication to support the drama. Paer's Agnese might sound conventional now but it's works like this that, for better or worse, set the standard for the century to follow, and that's no small matter. And no small measure of skill is required to sing and play this opera either. Ernesto's range is very much that of pure Rossini tenor and Edgardo Rocha (an experienced Rossinian) meets the challenges well. María Rey-Joly is hugely impressive, ringing out musical top notes and carrying the explosive character of Agnese from despair to hope to joy. Giulia Della Peruta brightens up the drama as the maid Vespina, a role that also has vocal challenges that she handles well.

The Dynamic Blu-ray release of Agnese is an absolute delight. The production itself is beautifully lit and coloured and all the detail is superbly rendered in the High Definition video recording, the image clear and detailed with perfect contrast balance and deep blacks. It looks magnificent. The audio tracks are similarly detailed with lossless PCM 2.0 and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 High Resolution mixes. It's just amazing that we are able to enjoy such a rare work in a format - and a production - that presents it in the best possible light. The Blu-ray is all-region, subtitles are in Italian, English, French, German, Japanese and Korean. An English and Italian language booklet provides essential insights into the place of the work in the history of opera, with a full detailed track-listing and a synopsis.


Links: Teatro Regio Torino