Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Rimsky-Korsakov - The Tale of Tsar Saltan (Brussels, 2019)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - The Tale of Tsar Saltan

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2019

Alain Altinoglu, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Svetlana Aksenova, Bogdan Volkov, Olga Kulchynska, Ante Jerkunica, Stine Marie Fischer, Bernarda Bobro, Carole Wilson, Vasily Gorshkov, Alexander Vassiliev, Nicky Spence, Alexander Kravets

La Monnaie steaming - June 2019

The Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov has lately been viewing opera in the context of therapy, in productions like Carmen, Pelléas et Mélisande and Les Troyens, the intention always clearly to delve more deeply into the works and explore their underlying themes. The results have been to varying levels of success and suitability for their subjects, but with Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tale of Tsar Saltan, the director is on much more familiar ground, in Russian opera where some of his best work has been achieved.

The idea of exploring the underlying psychology of works actually has a two-fold purpose, perhaps even three in the case of The Tale of Tsar Saltan. One is to bring less familiar Russian classics to the attention of a modern western audience who may be less enamoured of fairy-tales and make them accessible. The second is indeed to delve into the subtext of the fairy tale, and - when considered as being a technique used widely by this director - the third is to show perhaps that opera is indeed a kind of therapy in its own right, reaching out and communicating on a non-verbal level through music and dramatic subtext.

In the La Monnaie production of The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Dmitri Tcherniakov adds a modern-day real-world framing device around the fairy tale that doesn't so much put the magical fantasy at a distance as bring us closer to it. (This is something that Romeo Castellucci has also been doing to powerful effect in the mythology of Orphée et Eurydice and the monumentally fantastical The Magic Flute). Here the fairy story is told to a young boy with autism. He has never seen his father and doesn't understand why his parents are estranged, so his mother tells him The Tale of Tsar Saltan, finding that the only way of reaching him is through the toy soldiers and magical tales that so enchant him, hoping to communicate the truth through the fable, casting herself as the tsarina.

The characteristics of Pushkin's fairy tale are familiar, his mother suffering a kind of Cinderella upbringing, abused by her mother and two wicked sisters. When they are presented to the tsar who is looking for a bride her sisters can only promise extravagant weddings while the youngest girl - a humble seamstress - promises she can deliver a worthy heir for the tsar. And becoming tsarina she does, but on the birth of the child her disgruntled sisters intercept the messenger and the tsar is informed that that the tsarina has given birth to a monster. To the astonishment of the villagers on this occasion for happiness and celebration, a message returns from the tsar saying that his wife and child should be thrown into the sea in a barrel.

Mythology and fairy tales traditionally have an important role to play in putting an important message across to a wide audience in a way that can endure for centuries, and opera can be seen to fulfil the same function. More than just musical drama for entertainment, and certainly more than being a singing contest to debate over who sings roles best, opera at its best and most meaningful - like Die Zauberflöte cited above - communicates something essential about our understanding of the world and of humanity's place within it, along with all the joys and troubles that come with it.

Tcherniakov's production of Tsar Saltan is a way of finding a route back to the underlying meaning of the work and to some extent necessarily reinterpreting it for a new age. The fairy tale and the opera are essentially about the loss of innocence of a child struggling to come to terms with the reality of the world. The realisation that it can be cruel, unfair and unjust needs to be reconciled with an awareness that life itself is a miracle, and that it can still be possible to find good within it. Using an autistic child allows the audience a way of seeing the 'magic' in the fairy tale of existence again.

In fact watching the opera in this way the concept is so good and the performances so impressive that it feels completely natural and authentic, as if this is the only way to see the opera and you couldn't imagine it being done any differently. And it's hard to imagine a more traditional representation being as profoundly moving as the progression and resolution that Tcherniakov devises for it, which - very much in line with truth and reality - doesn't mean that there is necessarily a happy ending to the fairy tale, much as one might wish for it.

There's much more that needs to be done to make this more than just a clever idea and Tcherniakov's production design is perfectly up to the task. It starts with a plain wood panelling background, mother and child playing together enveloped in a dull reality. As the story is related, the narrative magic exerts its influence and begins to take over, first populated by characters in cross-hatched puffy costumes (similar to David Hockney's designs for the famous Glyndebourne production of A Rake's Progress), with sketchy animation gradually drawing the boy/Gvidon into the swan's womb-like world of security. The blending and balance of ugly reality with animated magical fantasy is masterful.

There are of course other benefits to be gained from
Dmitri Tcherniakov introducing a work well-known only in Russia in such an effective manner to western Europe, and primarily that's permitting us to enjoy Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's beautiful orchestration and melodic flair - the Flight of the Bumblebee originating from this work - perfectly attuned to the dramatic and emotional core of the story, overflowing with glorious choruses. These are all very much essential Russian opera characteristics of course and brought out marvellously by Alain Altinoglu conducting the orchestra of La Monnaie.

Just as wondrous are the singing performances since Rimsky-Korsakov's vocal writing can be underestimated in favour of his considerable fame as an orchestrator. Svetlana Aksenova as the mother/tsarina and Bogdan Volkov as the boy/Gvidon are just incredible with the kind of Russian voices needed here; strong in delivery, but filled with warmth and passion and a little bit of an edge of bordering on despair. This is another outstanding, imaginative production from Tcherniakov, Altinoglu and La Monnaie, every element working perfectly in service of the opera, recognising the extraordinary ability of the medium to communicate on so many levels, and using them all brilliantly.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Filidei - L'Inondation (Paris, 2019)

Francesco Filidei - L'Inondation

L’Opéra Comique, Paris - 2019

Emilio Pomárico, Joël Pommerat, Chloé Briot, Boris Grappe, Norma Nahoun, Cypriane Gardin, Enguerrand de Hys, Yael Raanan-Vandor, Guilhem Terrail, Vincent Le Texier

ARTE Concert - September 2019

The musical sound world might be unconventional and difficult to decipher, but at its best contemporary opera like traditional opera forges a close bond between music, subject and character, bringing out something that music or drama on its own can't achieve, making it relevant and meaningful for a modern audience. Francesco Filidei managed that with his first opera in 2016, Giordano Bruno - for me one of the best new opera works of recent years - but French playwright Joël Pommerat has also found opera to be an effective way to draw something more from his dramas.

For his first original libretto for a new commission at L’Opéra Comique in Paris, Pommerat has therefore been matched with a composer very capable of exploring the writer's familiar but complex themes relating to family seen in his previous opera adaptations (Thanks to My Eyes, Au Monde, Pinocchio). L'Inondation (The Flood) is an original adaptation of a 1929 story by Yvegeny Zamayatin, a Russian author best known for 'We' a dystopian novel that directly influenced Orwell's writing of 1984.

L'Inondation is nonetheless a contemporary work that explores contemporary issues, or at least issues that have always been relevant and which seem no easier to deal with today. It's about the strain that has developed between a husband and wife who have been married almost 15 years but who have never had a child. They hear the sounds of children in neighbouring apartments and it causes a conflict of emotions, making their life together feel perfunctory and mechanical but with simmering emotions ready to boil over as each try to find ways to deal with the growing distance between them.

Or perhaps the metaphor is not so much that of something boiling over as much as a river filling up and overflowing its banks, which is the one that is evidently used to describe the situation in L'Inondation. When one of the neighbours in their apartment block dies, his young daughter is sent temporarily to stay with the man and the woman. The girl is 14, a significant age since their own child would have been that age if one had quickly followed their marriage. The arrival of a young girl certainly brings something new to their marriage, but as has already been indicated with an early scene showing a murder, it's not going to lead to a happy outcome.

While the nature of what happens is shocking, what leads up to it won't come as a surprise to anyone, but rather like the now well-used metaphors of stormy weather conditions and rising tides leading up to an emotional breaking point, the real challenge in a modern adaptation of the Zamayatin's work is getting underneath the human and social behaviours that lead up to it. Without having read Zamayatin, one suspects that his interest is similar to exploring the social conditions that trigger an extreme female response found also in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, as well as the corruption of the family/social unit that you see hinted at in Gorky's 'Vassa'.

The conditions that lead up to the overflow in L'Inondation are evidently less concerned with a historical examination of Russian society at the beginning of the 20th century than in how this would be seen nowadays in the context of mental illness, how it can develop and the devastating impact it can have. It also of course explores the more universally recognisable conditions of relations between men and women, how society views the roles each has to play, and examines the nature of the family unit.

To do that L'Inondation takes a wider view of life in the St. Petersburg tenement block than just that between the man and the woman and it's here that the opera is able to work on multiple levels, so to speak. Most evidently that's visible in Eric Soyer's three-level set design, with the man and woman on the ground floor, a young married couple with young children and a baby on the way on the second floor, and with the upper floor adding an almost narrative level and backgrounding, with a narrator/policeman making remarks about the case in an attic room with another room showing the young girl hanging out with friends from outside the tenement block.

What is clever about this is that it is not only able to switch from one scene to another fluidly, but it is able to show simultaneous events, leaving it up to the viewer to determine how much of what goes on elsewhere has an impact on what develops on the ground floor, which evidently takes the brunt of the overflow of the river. Certainly there is much hinted in the music and this is where the skills of a composer like Francesco Filidei are evident, the score providing a complex sound world that interlinks and connects sounds, emotions and inner lives between each of the characters, even as far as expressing the reliving of emotions and mental disturbance through the doubling of the young girl.

An additional element of self-identification would probably determine whether you actually gain any greater insight into the development of mental illness and the outcome of murder, with the associations of release, guilt, shame, and therapy that take place post-facto (or whether it's the post-facto is actually the real important aspect of the situation), but what is clear is that all the other elements are well catered for in Joël Pommerat's direction of the work for the Opéra Comique. Much like George Benjamin's work with Martin Crimp, you get a sense of true collaboration between the creators here. Other than the obvious metaphor of the storm nothing is over-explained, the opera is not wordy or expositional, it allows the music and silences to express just as much as the dramatic action.

As far as the music is concerned that appears to be in very safe hands with Emilio Pomárico teasing out all the little details, the conflicts and interconnectivity, the highs, lows and surges of Filidei's score. There is also room left for the performances to bring real human depth to the situations. Chloé Briot has challenges aplenty in balancing the woman's containment of her feelings with her overflow at the conclusion. The singing range is accordingly difficult, but she gives a great performance. There are intense performances also from Boris Grappe as the man and Yael Raanan-Vandor as the female neighbour, but even the acting performances from the children are superb and contribute to the dramatic and emotional situations.

Links: L’Opéra Comique, ARTE Concert

Monday, 6 January 2020

Puccini - Turandot (Madrid, 2018)

Giacomo Puccini - Turandot

Teatro Real Madrid, 2018

Robert Wilson, Nicola Luisotti, Iréne Theorin, Raúl Giménez, Andrea Mastroni, Yolanda Auyanet, Gregory Kunde, Joan Martín-Royo, Vicenç Esteve, Juan Antonio Sanabria, Gerardo Bullón

France TV Culturebox

Robert Wilson's very distinctive and largely homogenous approach to set design isn't suited to every opera. Looking right back to Einstein on the Beach in 1976, it's clear that his style tends to work better with abstraction and ritual movements rather than with drama and narrative, but even working with Puccini or Verdi the effect of his unique style can be simply stunning in its use of light and colour and in its sheer visual splendour.

Not relying on any real-world situation but on a fantasy fairy-tale Turandot would seem better suited to the Wilson style, the opening Act alone of Puccini's opera being itself almost an abstract expression of living in fear and terror. In Turandot, Puccini was pushing his craft as a composer, exploring a new progressive direction for Italian opera, an endeavour that was unfortunately cut short with the death of the composer, Turandot itself remaining unfinished, its promise tantaslisingly unfulfilled.

That character is described well in Wilson's direction of that remarkable Act I of Turandot, the familiar luminous gradations of cobalt blue tending to darker shades, towards purple and shadow. The light of the moon casts an eerie light over the executioner and his next victim and over the people of Peking who live in fear of the terrible reign of Princess Turandot. After that build-up, her appearance on the stage is as striking as only Wilson's visual language can achieve, gliding in high above the stage on a platform, imperious, static, a fiery or bloody red against the cool backgrounds.

Wilson's stagecraft then is at once familiar as it is expressive to meet the specific demands of this particular opera. As well as extending the palette of colours considerably, there is also an expansion of the visual language Wilson traditionally employs, using beams of light that mark out the horizontal earthly boundaries of the stage as well as vertical beams that descend from the heavens and have chaotic branch-like formations. Even Turandot arrives floating on a platform bordered with light.

Wilson continues to use a minimum of stage props - almost none - preferring to use moving block of panels to close down or open up the stage to the emotional undercurrents and dramatic actions. Movement too is reduced to minimal actions and ritualised gestures. Like his production of Madama Butterfly, there's no Orientalism other than in the costumes, which have more of a classical ceremonial aspect than anything traditional. Additional expression however is used for characters, an all-gray Calaf sings 'Nessun Dorma' to a network of tangled roots, Turandot characterised by blazing reds and a giant black moon.

Like Nicola Luisotti's musical interpretation, it places emphasis on the moody qualities and character of the work, its sinister oriental refrains adding an edge of discord to the proceedings. And in many ways, Wilson serves the score best by not competing with it or underlining it, reducing any distraction or interpretation and permitting the extraordinary qualities of that powerful music room to be revealed. There are less of the director's usual eccentricities - even Ping, Pang and Pong are rather restrained here - with the strangest twist being Liù's stylised standing death, walking off-stage to the praises of the people of Peking, making it tragic in its own way.

The singing in this Teatro Real production in Madrid is good considering how challenging a work this is for all the main performers, Turandot an opera that requires Italian lyricism with Wagnerian depth and stamina. Gregory Kunde comes out best, unfailing in his efforts and secure in his 'Nessun dorma'. Iréne Theorin's Turandot doesn't have the fullness of voice across the range, but is suitably commanding and impressive in her account. There are good performances also from Yolanda Auyanet's Liù, Andrea Mastroni's Timur and from the opera's Ping, Pang and Pong.

It may not be the greatest performances you've heard of these roles, but opera is not a singing contest and you have to take live dramatic performance into account, particularly when you're dealing with the very specific constraints of a Robert Wilson production. I don't see it as the most insightful interpretation of Turandot either (the completion of the work still never entirely satisfactory), but Wilson's unique vision certainly does justice to Puccini and Alfano's score, as does the full-blooded musical performance under the direction of Nicola Luisotti, creating a unique dialectic with Wilson extraordinary visual imagery.

Links: Teatro Real

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Abrahamsen - The Snow Queen (Munich, 2019)

Hans Abrahamsen - The Snow Queen (Munich, 2019)

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2019

Cornelius Meister, Andreas Kriegenburg, Barbara Hannigan, Rachael Wilson, Katarina Dalayman, Peter Rose, Caroline Wettergreen, Dean Power, Kevin Conners, Owen Willetts, Thomas Gräßle

Staatsoper.TV - 28 December 2019

There would appear to be two significant works in Hans Abrahamsen's recent output that have led to the creation of his first opera The Snow Queen, and they also give some advance indication of how the work would sound. One is the musical meditation on the qualities, properties, texture and character of snow, Schnee, the other is the popular success of Abrahamsen's Ophelia song-cycle Let Me Tell You, with Barbara Hannigan adding her light, agile soprano to the composer's delicate compositions and arrangements.

Those two major works are interconnected within the narrative of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Snow Queen. Like all fairy tales, there is a darker edge that lies beneath the surface which has been softened over time and narration and director Andreas Kriegenburg isn't wrong in detecting an undercurrent of what we would now recognise as mental illness in the story, one exacerbated by a sense of loss and loneliness. Unfortunately, the libretto for the work remains superficial and never delves into the depths that Abrahamsen and Kriegenburg attempt to explore in the music in the new
Bavarian State Opera production of this English language version of the opera following Snedronningen's premiere in Denmark in October 2019.

Essentially the narrative of The Snow Queen involves Gerda (Barbara Hannigan) trying to rescue her brother Kay from the clutches of the Snow Queen. Their grandmother has related a story of a magic mirror created by the devil that makes beautiful things appear ugly. The mirror has shattered into thousands of pieces and shards have pierced the eye and heart of Kay, who now longer recognises the beauty in the world and has fallen into a deep depression or despair.

While still seeking to retain some of the qualities of this inner snow world that combines beauty with coldness and bleakness of winter, Kriegenburg also expresses the fairy-tale world in terms of mental illness, Kay not literally abducted by the Snow Queen, but seemingly institutionalised. His sister Gerda is not far off a state of mental instability herself. She wants to help Kay find himself and does so through a kind of dream fantasy, encountering an old woman in a garden where the nurses have faces of flowers (and later reappear as angels), as well as a Castle Crow and a Forest Crow who lead her to the Ice Palace of the Snow Queen.

In theory, Kriegenberg's approach should be a good way of making the nature of mental illness relatable at the same time as fulfilling what appears to be a Bayerische Staatsoper tradition of finding/creating seasonal works beyond the ever popular Hansel and Gretel. In reality it never seems to weave a magical spell of enchantment, and in large part it's because the libretto really never lives up to the mood or emotional undercurrents of chilly despair that is certainly there in Abrahamsen's delicate complex flurries of music. The libretto is mostly based around Gerda's repetitive search for Kay - 'Where is Kay? I have to find Kay', even though he is physically present in the not terribly original setting of a mental institution with nurses and patients taking the roles of fairy tale characters.

The libretto moreover is very wordy without ever saying anything meaningful, the English parlando never particularly musical or scanning well to fit with the musical arrangements. It does develop into a flow, and there are some beautiful passages notably around the end of Act II before the interval, with a combined trio of Gerda, the King and Queen backed by a chorus. Unable to draw any deeper meaning out of the libretto, or express it through the production design. Barbara Hannigan is of course as impressive as ever and bass Peter Rose an interesting choice for the voice of the Snow Queen, but it all comes across as very pretty and not much else.

Harald B. Thor's sets combine and highlight the disparity between the fantasy with the real-world well enough, using simple plastic sheet backdrops that have an icy appearance, with shredded plastic giving an impression of light, fluffy snow, creating an artificial winter world that also captures a sense of the austere cold world of the mind in isolation. The use of costumes also makes the narrative easy to follow who are doubles and younger versions of Gerda and Kay, but neither Hannigan's expression, Cornelius Meister's conducting nor Kriegenburg's conception are able to bring any real sense of drama to this beautiful but rather lifeless production.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper TV Opera Live

Friday, 27 December 2019

Mozart - Idomeneo (Salzburg, 2019)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Idomeneo

Salzburg Festspiele, 2019

Teodor Currentzis, Peter Sellars, Russell Thomas, Paula Murrihy, Ying Fang, Nicole Chevalier, Levy Sekgapane, Issachah Savage, Jonathan Lemalu

Medici streaming - 12 August 2019

After their take on La Clemenza di Tito in the same venue in 2017, there would have been little doubt that the 2019 Salzburg Festival production of Idomeneo would be controversial; the only question being whether it would be Peter Sellars or Teodor Currentzis who would be most wayward in their in interpretation of one of Mozart's most interesting operas. Well, it's a close run thing.

Mozart's operas are so rich in music and multifaceted in their content and themes that they are eminently amenable to deeper exploration, reinterpretation and modern revision; nothing about them has dated. As an early opera seria however, with a baroque libretto written for André Campra, Idomeneo does certainly still have one foot in a bygone age, yet it is already progressive in terms of Mozart's reworking, reinvention and humanistic outlook. Filtered through the young Mozart's sensibility and remarkable talent, all those conventional laments, jealousies, cruel twists of fate and extreme human sentiments feel vivid, alive and real.

It's so powerful an advance on the mannerisms of the past that it demands an equally imaginative, modern and humanistic interpretation in stage performance. Perhaps not everyone wants it to go as far as Dieter Dorn’s at the Munich Bayerische Staatoper or Damiano Michieletto in Vienna, or indeed as Sellas and Currentzis not unexpectedly take it here, but it's hard to argue that they don't bring a sincere response to the musical and dramatic content of Idomeneo, striving to find a way to highlight the richness of its themes and development of its characters.

Initially however, you are definitely thrown a little off-balance by the oddness of the set developed for the very specific demands of the Salzburg Felsenreitschule. Not a single object on the stage is related to the actual Crete settings of the opera, nor are they naturalistic or in most cases even identifiable. The stage on the floor of the Riding School theatre has clear plastic tubes that rise up as columns with coloured lights, the stage littered elsewhere with misshapen plastic containers, tubes and inflatable blob like creatures - perhaps a different kind of monster that is disgorged by the sea in this age of environmental disaster. The costumes of the Greeks and their Trojan prisoners is militaristic, but the coloured camouflage outfits look more like pyjamas.

As unusual as the set looks, the unfamiliar sound, pacing and rhythms that
Teodor Currentzis brings out in the period instrument interpretation of the opera with the Freiburger Barockorchester can be even more unsettling as it sounds very different here from any recording you might be more familiar with. The intention is clearly to push the range of expression that Mozart employs for this opera, marking it out as very different from the baroque works that precede it, exploiting and emphasising the dynamic that Mozart employs for this unique and brilliant work.

At times you get the impression that the intention is also to do everything possible to break away from Mozart as comfortable and easy-listening, perhaps over-emphasising and deliberately pushing against the familiar. It's slow when you expect it to be faster, fast when you expect it to be slower, aggressive when you would expect merely forceful, but it never seems to work against the intent of the work. It hints rather that all might not be as it appears on the surface of the moral, political and romantic dilemmas of each of the characters whose lives have been thrown into turmoil under the curse of Neptune; absolutes and certainties - being saved from the dead, feeling secure in love, family loyalties - are all indeed turned on their head.

What Currentzis and Sellars do however is force you to reconsider the work in new terms, not rest on the certainty of familiarity, but be challenged afresh by every scene, every aria and recitative, every single note, trying to hear what is really being expressed in the melody, the tempo and the instrumentation - the fortepiano notably playing a larger role here than in any version of this work I've heard before.

If you can put up with Peter Sellars's more annoying mannerisms - the choreographic ritualised steps and semaphore arm signals (which are at least better than park and bark performances) - his direction of the internal nature and conflict of the characters is interesting. It's almost what you would expect to find in The Magic Flute: characters out of balance, seeking to find an emotional equilibrium as well as find an accord with the forces of nature and their place in the world, seeking wisdom, seeking answers, seeking peace and willing to endure suffering and trials for it. It does show that Idomeneo is practically a prototype for Die Zauberflöte (With Electra a furious Queen of the Night and Neptune a lesson-giving Sarastro), and in that respect the treatment is thoroughly Mozartian.

Not that some sections of the Salzburg would notice. When it comes down to who upsets them most, the director traditionally gets it in the neck and Currentzis's eccentricities and indulgences are overlooked. In truth, neither are entirely successful and it comes across as a little over-laboured, over-intellectualised, existing in some theatrical vacuum that doesn't entirely connect with Mozart's Idomeneo on a relatable and instinctive human level. It's a fascinating account nonetheless of a magnificent, deeply beautiful work, one that is emphasised by some fine committed singing performances, notably from a sweetly lyrical Ying Fang as Ilya and a fiery Nicole Chevalier as Elektra (almost stealing the show at the finale), but all of the performances impress, including Paula Murrihy as an intensely sincere Idamante and Russell Thomas as a warm and troubled Idomeneo.

Links: Salzburg Festspiele

Friday, 20 December 2019

Neuwirth - Orlando (Vienna, 2019)

Olga Neuwirth - Orlando

Wiener Staatsoper, 2019

Matthias Pintscher, Polly Graham, Kate Lindsey, Anna Clementi, Eric Jurenas, Constance Hauman, Agneta Eichenholz, Leigh Melrose, Justin Vivian Bond

Staatsoper Live - 18 December 2019

The subject and content of Olga Neuwirth's new opera Orlando is very much related to the fact that she is the first woman composer not only to write an opera for the Vienna State Opera, but is the first woman composer to ever even have an opera performed there. Neuwirth's choice of Virginia Woolf's influential and highly regarded 1928 novel 'Orlando', which follows the course of a young nobleman who lives through the political changes of the centuries, experiencing it from the viewpoint of a man and then changing sex to become a woman, is clearly a pointed commentary on this fact.

Following in the footsteps of Luigi Nono, a composer that she worked with as an assistant, Austrian born Neuwirth is likewise viewed as a 'political' composer, but rather than just seek to make a well-meaning gesture against the injustice of gender inequality in the world of opera, or even take the route of a superficial commentary on current affairs in the world today, in Orlando Neuwirth extends on Woolf's vision to seek to address a deeper problem that could be seen as having an underlying impact on how the nature of the world we live continually changes, but those changes have been shaped by gender inequality throughout the ages, women reduced to a footnote in history, if considered at all.

It's also notable, if purely coincidental, that the period covered in Orlando aligns very closely with the history of opera, which has also evolved and changed over the years. Even baroque opera however has until relatively recently also been a rarity at the Vienna State opera - a 50 year gap only broken in 2011 coincidentally (isn't it strange how much that word comes up, you'd almost think it telling) with a production of Handel's Alcina, a tale of another Orlando - so the history of change in opera is perhaps not something that many of the more conservative element of the audience in Vienna would recognise. I don't think Olga Neuwirth is going to convince them with her Orlando.

Being a well-educated man from a noble family in 1598, Orlando is well placed to be destined for greatness. He determines to be a poet and a great writer, but although he wins the favour of Queen Elizabeth, his ambitious work 'The Oak Tree' doesn't win favour with critics like Mr Greene. Disappointed in love, when he is betrayed by Sasha, a Russian princess, jaded by the politics of the land and war, Orlando falls into a deep coma and reawakens as a woman in a new age. Her experiences as a woman however bring her to recognise the fact that history is made by men and certainly written by them, meaning much the same thing.

Women don't get a whole lot of a look in and Orlando, now a woman, expected to do little more than make tea and marry, finds it unfair that someone can be rejected solely on the basis of the sex they were born into. Worse comes in the Victorian era, where Orlando encounters women and young girls who are victims of sexual abuse and destined for a life of abject misery. She decides to write and record their experiences from the perspective of woman, but finding a publisher continues to prove elusive, even in the age of eBook publishing.

What is interesting, and perhaps something I failed to appreciate in Woolf or in Sally Potter's filmed version of 'Orlando', is that living now in an era where gender reassignment and gender fluidity is relatively common (if not yet wholly accepted and viewed with suspicion in some quarters), it's now possible to see that Woolf was very much ahead of the game in terms of questions of sexual politics. This of course has a more contemporary application later in Neuwirth's updating of 'Orlando' beyond Woolf's time of 1928 up to the present day, Neuwirth thereby highlighting for a modern audiences how society and attitudes change over time. Significantly however, while that change is brought clearly to the forefront, it also makes evident just how far behind attitudes remain in relation to gender inequality.

It's inevitably a huge task to get all that across in a three hour opera and avoid sounding preachy, particularly when Neuwirth's musical approach to the subject is just as complex and all-encompassing, and modernist and dissonant in the most difficult way for an audience to engage with. Neuwirth doesn't entirely succeed in terms of making the case persuasive from the musical viewpoint, embracing early Tudor music, references to Purcell, religious choral pieces with live electronic layering and use of unconventional instruments in the total opera manner of Stockhausen with its spiritual leanings or Nono's direct political engagement, the conclusion featuring a cabaret band and a transgender singer - Orlando's child - does tend to push towards preachiness.

While it can be difficult to listen to - although I'm certain that it would come across with more detail and much more effectively in a live context rather than via the Wiener Staatsoper's streaming service - it's not hard to appreciate what Neuwirth is trying to do and admire how Matthias Pintscher conducts it, but over an extended period it does head towards sensory overload and cacophony. Certainly for the purposes of how it relates to and reflects the subject of embracing change and diversity however it's essential to employ the richness of musical options open to a composer. It's music that, like Orlando, recognises no distinction between past and present, is male and female all rolled into one, pushing beyond restrictive boundaries of convention.

The musical complexity and what it attempts to bring out only makes the challenges of mixing and blending all the historical scene changes even more difficult for director Polly Graham. Forced into a more linear narrative approach, with the passing years displayed in the background, the production design is perhaps a little more theatrically conventional in how it meets those challenges of keeping up, using moving screens and projections, but unless you employ La Fura dels Baus or Stefan Herheim, it would be near impossible to visually match the textural richness of the music, much less add another level of complexity to the work that in an ideal world the theatrical element should equally contribute.

Neuwirth and co-librettist Catherine Filloux succeed to a large extend in their aims of making Orlando relevant to the modern age, addressing the legacy of the male-dominated, war-hawking, money-making agenda that suppresses any possibility of true change in the world, raising again the spectre of fascism. As persuasive as the central performance of Kate Lindsey's Orlando is to standing up against the ways of the past, whether Neuwirth's Orlando aligned with and updating Virginia Woolf's vision makes an equal or greater historical impression seems unlikely, but it's certainly of the moment, another marker along the way to show that we've still a long way to go.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper, Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Attahir - Le Silence des ombres (Brussels, 2019)

Benjamin Attahir - Le Silence des ombres

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2019

Benjamin Attahir, Olivier Lexa, Julia Szproch, Raquel Camarinha, Clémence Poussin, Renaud Delaigue, Morgane Heyse, Gwendoline Blondeel, Sarah Théry, Pierre Derhet, Sébastien Dutrieux, Luc Van Grunderbeeck

La Monnaie MM Channel Streaming - 4th October 2019

If you ever were to compile a list of the greatest opera librettists, the Nobel Prize winning Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck would have to be up there and close to the top, even though in most cases his involvement with opera was more in his works being adapted rather than providing an original libretto. Maeterlinck's dramatic writing however is rare in that it seems to adapt readily and often without any necessary revision as a ready-made opera libretto. Not only that, but his dramas also appear to be perfectly suited in their abstraction, symbolism and ambiguity to sit alongside the music of a composer who can bring out other intangible qualities and moods of the interiorisation of texts that express "the drama of existence itself".

That being the case - and with Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande and Dukas' Ariadne et Barbe-bleu being the most famous adaptations of Maeterlinck - it would seem to be impressionist music that best captures the moods of Maeterlinck's indefinable dramas. French composer and conductor Benjamin Attahir doesn't just follow in the footsteps of Debussy and Dukas in his scoring of Maeterlinck's 'Trois petits drames pour marionnettes' (Three short puppet plays, 1894) as Le Silence des ombres. Comparison is unavoidable, but Attahir brings a modern sensibility that is informed by and attempts to build on the qualities of those other composers to bring out different aspects of Maeterlinck's work.

Not only is musical comparison inevitable, but the three short works that make up Le Silence des ombres do nonetheless all exhibit familiar variations on themes and treatment that you can find in Pelléas et Mélisande and Ariadne et Barbe Bleu. In La Mort de Tintagiles, Ygraine and her siblings have lived their entire lives in a dark castle located a deep in a valley of shadows, much like the eerie Allemonde of Pelléas et Mélisande, Ygraine seeing only passing birds, falling leaves and fleeting images of nature outside her window. She and her sisters live in fear of their grandmother the queen, a monstrous figure who lives alone in a tower and is never seen.

The queen has destroyed most of their family, fearful that someone will supplant her. Suspecting that the queen means to harm their young brother Tintagiles, Ygraine goes to visit her sister Bellangère and her husband Aglovale, seeking protection. The mood of fear and anxiety there is only further heightened by anticipation of the unknown power and desires of the Queen, by the sounds and voices hears whispering outside the door. And then in the night, they come for Tintagiles.

In Intérieur, the second of the three dramas, there is a similar play on building of another aspect of tension and fear. An old man and his companion approach a house where a family are living a life of simple contentment and warmth in each other's company, but they are the bearers of bad news that the family's young daughter has drowned. They hesitate to break the mood of the happy scene until Marthe arrives and presses them to do what needs to be done. There is terrible anticipation leading up to the moment of delivery of a message that will destroy the illusion of happiness.

In both cases is the thing to be feared is death, and the tension that Maeterlinck taps into is that awareness of what we know beneath the surface but refuse to acknowledge; that happiness is temporary and fleeting and depends on blocking out the fact that death will come and destroy everything. Death however takes a thousand forms in Maeterlinck: it can be the death of hope or, as is the case in Pelléas et Mélisande, the death of innocence. That work comes very much to mind in the third part of the trilogy, Alladine et Palomides. Alladine is another woman - she is literally a slave here - who is subject to the forces and the will of men.

Palomides loves her even though he is engaged to Astolaine, whose father Ablamore also has has feelings towards Alladine. Ablamore consequently is very much a Golaud figure, claiming he saw Alladine and Palomides kiss and believing that Palomides has betrayed Astolaine he takes a terrible vengeance against them that sees them trapped in a cavern and dying a fading death rather like Mélisande's fate. Other similarities lie in the moody symbolism of the work, Alladine fearful of the huge symbolic palace that overlooks the sea, where you can get lost in its corridors and rooms. There's a lamb instead of a ring here that falls into a whirlpool, but when Astolaine's sisters turn up and try to get the keys from Albamore, it also puts you in mind of Ariane et Barbe-bleu.

It's not only a challenge for a composer to adapt these pieces and create a distinction between those more famous opera adaptations of Maeterlinck, but also a remarkably high bar to measure up to them. It helps that the three pieces are all fairly concentrated and intense in how they stir deep emotions of fear and anxiety, and Attahir accordingly applies a heavier hand towards those emotions. He balances this however with a reduced orchestration and use of specific instruments, including some Eastern instruments and melodies, particularly in the third piece Alladine et Palomides.

In fact the composer even managed to tailor a distinct sound and approach to each of the three different dramas, the central piece Intérieur being largely intoned/narrated rather than sung, very much in the manner of Arkel's commentary in Pelléas et Mélisande. Attahir also manages to achieve a coherence for them to all work together to as a single opera, even though there is no attempt to link or connect the pieces. Maeterlinck's consistency of themes, symbolism and general abstraction of worldview however probably allow this to be achieved more easily.

The set design successfully contributes towards the same effect, finding a different visual response to the moods of the three pieces, while each also very much inhabit that interiorised Maeterlinck world of shadows of the unknown with undercurrents of tension. As well as using light and darkness, archways and staircases, the use of textures, stone, steel and concrete is also applied to create a timeless, non-specific location. This adds emphasis onto the subtle variations of character and mood of each of the three pieces and the distinct circumstances of the characters in each, with occasional projections adding a further dimension.

While the score (conducted here by the composer), Olivier Lexa's direction and the set designs all play an important part in providing coherence and consistency that brings out the distinct character of Maeterlinck's writing, the lyrical quality of the vocal arrangements that also expands further to the character of the component parts and the work as a whole This aspect is superbly brought out by some terrific singing of a mostly youthful cast that is sweet, haunted and melancholy in expression, occasionally stretching to desperation. All are wonderful, but certainly worthy of note are the leading performances from Raquel Camarinha as Ygraine, Marie and Astolaine, Julia Szproch as Tintagiles and Alladine and Pierre Derhet as Palomides.

Links: La Monnaie