Thursday, 15 September 2016

Mascagni / Leoncavallo - Cavalleria rusticana / Pagliacci (Royal Opera House, 2015)

Pietro Mascagni - Cavalleria rusticana
Ruggero Leoncavallo - Pagliacci

Royal Opera House, 2015

Antonio Pappano, Damiano Michieletto, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Elena Zilio, Dimitri Platanias, Martina Belli, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Dimitri Platanias, Carmen Giannattasio, Benjamin Hulett, Dionysios Sourbis

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

It's not normally the first thing you think of when you go to watch a double bill of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, but Damiano Michieletto's 2015 production for the Royal Opera House started me thinking about verismo, what it means and why so little of it has stood the test of time. Post-Wagner and Verdi, verismo seemed to be very much the next step, giving opera the opportunity to explore the lives of ordinary people rather than those of heroes, gods and legends. Aside from Puccini, who never really could be associated closely with verismo post-La Bohème, verismo never really took off and hasn't left a lasting influence. Viewing the two great popular stalwarts of verismo in this production, however, perhaps the style made more of a mark than we think.

The definition of those essential verismo characteristics and perhaps the influence they extend over modern-day opera is highlighted I think by Damiano Michieletto's weaving together of the two genre-defining operas. The popularity of the double bill and their complementary compatibility has long been beyond question, but Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci are still viewed as entirely separate musical and dramatic entities. And for good reason, since for all the commonality in subject matter, Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo adopt very different approaches to musical storytelling. Giving both works a common setting however does provide a very vivid indication of the ground that verismo covered in the short period between 1889 and 1892.

What is particularly enjoyable about the Royal Opera House production is that it fully explores the context of the works and their themes and blends them together successfully, but it's not merely a directorial exercise. While the stage production brings out qualities that might have gone unnoticed before, it does so in a way that also manages to give the works their fullest expression. Damiano Michelietto's production is all about pushing the verismo to its extremes, and that means pushing both works to their extremes by playing to their respective strengths and qualities.

Seen in that context, if there's any single reason why verismo never really established itself as a force and turned out to be (debatably) an operatic dead-end, it's immediately evident in this production's opening for Cavalleria rusticana; too much verismo realism can kill you. Cavalleria rusticana wears its heart on its sleeve. It's an extraordinary work, too often seen as a kind of warm-up opener for Pagliacci, but I don't accept that it's the lesser work for a second - it's just different. In Pagliacci the passions are more internalised and leaning towards modernism, whereas Mascagni's approach looks back to Verdi, to melody aligned to pure melodrama, and does so by making the passions of the people hyper-externalised.

Certainly as far as Antonio Pappano directs the music and as far as Michelietto sets the drama of the music on the stage, this is life lived without restraint and played at full tilt. Passion, religion, sin, guilt, love and jealousy - this slice of Sicilian life is one lived fully and passionately. As far as verismo goes, that's not only opera dealing with real life, but life lived like an opera. There's no clever conceptualisation required here then, Michelietto allowing the singers full expression for the drama as it plays out, Pappano underlining every sweep and crescendo with a flourish. In a work like this, the impact is astonishing, all the more so when Michelietto takes a step like making the statue of the virgin come to life during the Easter parade. Here, religion is living and the pregnant Santuzza's sin feels as real and vivid to her as the ground she walks on.

Pagliacci might be a little more recondite in its play-within-a-play distancing, its clever use of commedia dell'arte themes and Leoncavallo is a little more modern in the musical expression, but the approach adopted here shows that there's merit in how this kind of overemphasis of the real pushes Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana almost into the surreal or hyper-real. Mascagni's extraordinary gift for melody is all the more apparent for this, as well as his ability to weave religious processions, church bells and local folk colour into the whole fabric of the lives of the work's characters. But it's not life lived without restraint. Eva-Maria Westbroek has spoken about the danger of being swept into the passions of the work and having to control her singing in this work, and it is important. All of the passions are channelled towards an inevitably tragic conclusion, and it's arrived at here with remarkable force and impact.

If there was too much overemphasis anywhere, it is perhaps in making a big deal of the imminent arrival of a troupe of actors in the town to put on a performance of Pagliacci and live out their own version of the tragedy mirrored in Cavalleria rusticana. Michelietto's direction makes good use of the Mascagni's inter-scene music to introduce the characters and situations that would play out in Pagliacci without letting them intrude on the importance of Cavalleria rusticana. The screen direction however, the performance filmed for the live cinema broadcast, made rather more of it, the focus of the camera drawing extra attention to the Pagliacci posters and the significant appearances of characters and situations that might otherwise have passed as local background colour. Just another slice of life.

Cavalleria rusticana is all externalised passions, Paolo Fantin's impressive revolving set fully used to show interiors and exteriors and the relationship between them - particularly as they relate to Santuzza's position in the community. By way of contrast, Pagliacci attempts to put a lid on the emotions through its transference of life into 'art' or performance in its play-within-a-play dramatisation. Again, Micheletto's direction of the performers and the build-up established through the previous work serves to be both a commentary on the nature of the work - on opera, on verismo, its origins and its progress - as well as being a slice of life drama in its own right, never failing to address the music and its dramatic function.

Those origins are not just those of the commedia dell'arte but also indeed Cavalleria rusticana. At this stage in the traditional performance of the double bill, the earlier work has been pushed aside and practically forgotten as we become caught up in the latest new drama. Michelietto's production - even bringing back Santuzza for a cameo appearance - doesn't let you forget however that Cavalleria rusticana is important to the whole tone of Pagliacci, and even shows how the two works have developed a kind of co-dependence. Even the "audience" of Pagliacci here have forgotten the "real-life" drama that has just recently taken place in their own town, sitting down to watch a "made-up" drama, and are unable to recognise the truth that lies behind them.

By this stage too many inverted commas in this review suggest that everything is getting a little too post-modern and over-ambitious in Michieletto's production, but Pappano's conducting and the committed performances manage to dial-down any fanciful ideas and sustain the actual drama, which in verismo you would imagine is paramount. Playing characters in both works, Aleksandrs Antonenko (Turiddu and Canio) and Dimitri Platanias (Alfio and Tonio) keep everything grounded in pure dramatic expression without overacting. Eva-Maria Westbroek's Santuzza is pushed further than most, but likewise holds to the line and essential tone established here. Carmen Giannattasio's Nedda has just as complex and dynamic a position to maintain and does so with tremendous personality. These are performances that work with the production to simultaneously hold one dramatically while at the same time suggesting and sparking off numerous other associations and ideas. Seen in this light, and setting it in the late 20th century, might even provide a clue to the significance of the 'missing link' between the past and the direction opera would take post-verismo.

The Blu-ray disc comes as a 2-disc set, which doesn't really seem necessary, as both are single-layer discs. Even less so since with Micheletto's production the two works are even more intertwined as one here. Colour and detail are all strong in the video transfers, but as usual it's the High Definition uncompressed audio tracks that are most impressive, particularly for works as dynamic as these. In addition to the usual LPCM stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio tracks there is also a Dolby True HD Atmos mix which my amplifier picked up as being a 7-channel mix, although it will also work with a 5.1 set-up. I don't know if there's a significant difference between it and the DTS mix, but both distribute the sound exceptionally well. The extra features are slim but the Introductions more than adequately cover the works and the production, and there's a short piece where Antonio Pappano looks at the music for both pieces. There's also a synopsis and a wonderfully detailed essay on the creation of the two work by Helen Greenwald in the enclosed booklet. The Blu-ray discs are region-free. Subtitles are in Engligh, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Royal Opera House

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Stravinsky - Oedipus Rex (Aix-en-Provence, 2016)

Igor Stravinsky - Oedipus Rex/Symphony of Psalms

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2016

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Peter Sellars, Joseph Kaiser, Violeta Urmana, Willard White, Joshua Stewart, Pauline Cheviller, Laurel Jenkins

Culturebox - 17th July 2016

The performance of Stravinsky's Oedpius Rex and Symphony of Psalms at the Aix-en-Provence festival is a perfect example of just what is so important and great about opera as a living artform. You can ponder the implications of Sophocles' Greek drama, you can give attention to where Stravinsky places emphasis in his reading of the material, and you can formulate all kinds of connections between the real-world and how it is presented on the stage. Sometimes however timing and events can add yet another entirely unpredictable and unforeseen element to give a work of art a life entirely of its own.

The event in question at the time of this July 17th 2016 performance of Oedipus Rex at Aix-en-Provence, was the terrorist attack a few days earlier in nearby Nice during the Bastille Day celebrations that resulted in 84 deaths. In the light of such a horrific event it becomes impossible not to look at this production in a different way from how it might have been originally intended, or from how you might have looked at it even a week earlier. If the production however touches on the essence of the questions raised in the ancient Greek drama, it will inevitably make its own truthful associations with those recent events, and Peter Sellars' production does seem to touch at the heart of them.

So while such events were evidently far from the mind of the original Igor Stravinsky/Jean Cocteau presentation of the Sophocles drama, its combination with Peter Sellars' modern dress production opens the drama up enough to allow it to resonate with such events. Suddenly, without it being the intention of anyone involved, you can see the fear and incomprehension of the French nation in the people of Thebes as they are afflicted by a terrible plague. You can see too how they would turn to their leader in this time of mourning to seek reassurance and protection. You can also see the powerlessness felt by that ruler - a man in a suit - who is ignorant of the part he has played in bringing this plague upon his people. In denial, feeling assailed and powerless to do anything else, his natural reaction is to strike out.

Sellars' direction might still be encumbered somewhat by familiar mannerisms and affectations, but there is unquestionably something absolutely right about the method employed if it allows those connections to be made. It's debatable whether the tribal wood carvings and throne add anything other than relating the present to antiquity, suggesting that there is a deeper human truth here that lies outside the surface considerations of time, place and dress costume. The chorus making exaggerated semaphored hand-signals is another affectation that doesn't really seem to add anything, but if without really being aware of it it makes the audience pay more attention to the words being expressed and it helps the chorus think about the importance and urgence of what they are singing, then it undoubtedly serves its purpose here.

I'm sure that the direction and the sense of occasion would have made its way into the singing performances as well. You can certainly get a sense of that in the performance of Joseph Kaiser as Oedipus. The ruler of Thebes is a man of authority and respect for his past actions saving the city, and Kaiser carries all of that in his lyrical tone, but there's an edge there as well as the enormity of his origins starts to become clear. Willard White is also fired up in this performance as Creon, Tiresias and Messenger, delivering messages that no-one wants to hear. In a role that is equally emotional, Violeta Urmana struggles however to contain and control it, her singing sounding rather wayward in a wavering line, but it's an intense performance. The speaking role of the narrator/Antigone shouldn't be underestimated for its importance in relating events and relating to the audience, and Pauline Cheviller gets that across with deep feeling.

Although musically connected, coming from the same period in Stravinsky's neoclassical style, it does seem odd to pair the Greek drama of Oedipus Rex with the Christian sentiments of Symphony of Psalms. Dramatically for the sake of the staging however, Sellers draws very loosely in this short presentation from Sophocles' 'Oedipus at Colonus'. Pauline Cheviller's Antigone is again the narrator who links the two parts together, and Ismene is played by a dancer. In this follow-up, the wandering blind Oedipus in exile is led by his daughter away from Thebes to be welcomed in Colonus near Athens, where he will end his days "with peace divine". Setting the Greek play to Symphony of Psalms does seem tenuous on a rational level, but rationality and suitability are not so much the point here as taking the lessons learned from Oedipus to the next stage on a human level.

The stage accordingly is emptied of any props, reflecting an Oedipus stripped of his former life, his position, his sight. Sellers uses lighting effects to describe his emotional state, some of which is rather Robert Wilson-like in effect, with a small neon square of light to the side of the stage being where Oedipus eventually is led and left to lie down and rest. It looks gorgeous and is a perfect accompaniment and setting for Stravinsky's beautiful music, conducted here wonderfully by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The singers again punch out the choral singing with arms and hands, and some ballet movements all contribute to reflect what is being expressed and how it relates to what is going on in world not so very far away from where this performance took place in Provence.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Culturebox

Friday, 2 September 2016

Tchaikovsky - The Queen of Spades (DNO, 2016)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - The Queen of Spades

Dutch National Opera, 2016

Mariss Jansons, Stefan Herheim, Misha Didyk, Alexey Markov, Vladimir Stoyanov, Andrei Popov, Andrii Goniukov, Mikhail Makarov, Anatoli Sivko, Larissa Diadkova, Svetlana Aksenova, Anna Goryachova, Olga Savova, Maria Fiselier, Pelageya Kurennaya, Morschi Franz, Christiaan Kuyvenhoven

The Opera Platform - July 2016

Never one to take an opera libretto on face value, Stefan Herheim's production of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades for the Dutch National Opera is another of his composer portrait productions. Herheim is a director who likes to explore a composer's life and times and see how they inform the works they create, and consideration of Tchaikovsky's life, his passions and particularly his repressed homosexuality, make those great works all the more fascinating. Perhaps not so much for anyone less familiar with the composer or someone just wants to see a more straightforward account of Pushkin's tale.

Herheim's previous work at the DNO with Tchaikovsky led to the creation of a Eugene Onegin that presented a kaleidoscopic view of Russian culture and history. As much as Tchaikovsky's intimate love story might have seemed inappropriate for such a grand treatment, it did nonetheless successfully tap into deeper undercurrents of the Russian nature of the work and open up an entirely new perspective on it. The Queen of Spades, by way of contrast, draws back on the Russian nature of the work towards the more intimate and personal, making a direct link between Hermann's mad passions and those of the composer himself.

Herheim might have sidelined Wagner to each of the Act Preludes of his Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg in his previous (unimaginative) composer portrait, but it's clear that Tchaikovsky himself is going to be firmly at the centre of the DNO's The Queen of Spades. The opening scene before the overture shows a man who looks very like Tchaikovsky - but who later principally plays the part of a Yeletsky as an older man - paying a soldier who he has just given a blow-job, a soldier who turns out to be Hermann. It's an image that on the surface has nothing to do with the Queen of Spades and is clearly designed to shock, but it's not without justification for the examination of secret and illicit passions that drive much of the work.

Fired with invigoration and some measure of shame, Tchaikovsky is immediately inspired to pour his feelings into his music, making for the piano with pen and paper to hand to dash down the overture and the opening scene of the Queen of Spades. He then inserts himself into the opera as Yeletsky, who is engaged to marry Liza. A reference to Tchaikovsky's own failed attempt at marriage, Yeletsky's sincere and dignified approaches and his later protestations of love as a deep friendship are also significant. "Tchaikovsky" also flees from Liza's desire to believe in Hermann's sincerity in the bridge scene (which evidently doesn't take place on a bridge). All of this can be seen to mirror in some respects the inappropriateness and unviability of Tchaikovsky's own marriage, particularly as we know from the first scene that Tchaikovsky/Yeletsky's inclinations lean another way.

Thereafter it is impossible not to view Yeletsky as anything else but a surrogate for Tchaikovsky, but we are also invited by Herheim to see Tchaikovsky in Liza's friend Pauline and in other characters. It's as if Tchaikovsky has poured various aspects of his own personality into all the characters in the opera, which is a valid way of looking at art even if it doesn't really take the motivations of the original author Pushkin into consideration. It also tends to become complicated when you try to fit Hermann into the equation. As the person whose mad passions are central to the work, it would seem more obvious to associate Hermann with the composer, but Herheim doesn't always do the obvious.

That's because, to judge by the music and the composition of the opera, Tchaikovsky is evidently a lot more complex a personality than Hermann is in the Queen of Spades. There's a lot of indulgence on the part of Tchaikovsky in the musical arrangements of this work, but these are traits that can also be played upon to good effect, particularly in the second Act with its Pastorale and the grand fanfares to welcome the arrival of Catherine the Great. Herheim seems to poke fun at such extravagances, but at the same time he tries to make it relevant to who Tchaikovsky is, or might be, as the man behind the music. This culminates with Hermann flouncing in as 'the Queen' however, which is more camp than psychological - but then there's always a thin line there where Herheim is concerned. And perhaps Tchaikovsky too.

The mirroring of Tchaikovsky with every element of The Queen of Spades is problematic, but Herheim is not attempting a full deconstruction or psychoanalytical reading of the opera. If you want to you can consider Hermann's obsessive behaviour on a more generalised level as being symptomatic of a pathology that develops when secrets are kept hidden, you could take that from it. Rather than adding layers by including Tchaikovsky himself in the drama, it does seem more of a case of stripping the work back to its bones and exploring the emotions that underlie it.

Much like his production of Eugene Onegin, unless you are very familiar with Tchaikovsky and already know the story of the Queen of Spades, you're not going to get much out of this. Even if you do manage to pick up and piece together the elements that Herheim introduced, the value of those speculative fantasies into Tchaikovsky's motivations are scarcely any more valuable than the work (and Pushkin's work) itself. I suspect that most people would prefer to just see the story told well rather than have all these confusing and contradictory elements weighing it down. Fortunately, the production has much more to offer.

As it often is with Herheim, the production design is extravagantly beautiful. The action takes place mostly in a single drawing room that converts into a ballroom as required - although if you are less literal minded, you could see it as taking place entirely within Tchaikovsky's own mind, which obviously it does on one level. Whichever way you look at it, Philipp Fürhofer's set and costume design is just magnificent, the lighting immaculate in terms of mood as well as simply illuminating the set to look its best. Somehow, the DNO seem to have managed to persuade Mariss Jansons to work with Stefan Herheim again, despite his evident confusion (seen in the behind the scenes feature on the DVD release) over what the director was trying to achieve in their previous collaboration on Eugene Onegin. Jansons; conducting of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra through Tchaikovsky's rich score is just ravishing in its attention to the mood, to the little orchestral flourishes and to the dramatic intent of the work. This is really another wonderful collaboration.

Last but not least, the singing is outstanding. There's really no substitute for a Russian cast singing Russian opera, and the cast here are all marvellous. I've been critical of the anguished whine of Misha Didyk in the past, but he has "filled out" a little in appearance since I last saw him sing this role and that tight, high constricted tenor has also expanded into a fuller, more rounded timbre. It's by no means an easy role to sing at the best of times, but Didyk is impressive here and may even be the ideal Hermann. Because of the dual role and the acting requirements, Yeletsky/Tchaikovsky is more challenging here than the role usually is, but Vladimir Stoyanov is superb, his voice warm, lyrical and sensitive.

Larissa Diadkova is an experienced Countess, and proves her worth here again. Svetlana Aksenova's Liza is also impressive, but there's a feeling that Herheim has paid less attention to the women in the opera, or at least found Tchaikovsky's writing of them to be not as interesting as the male characters. Liza's finale however is well-staged. All the roles are most impressive, and there's much to enjoy simply in the beauty of the singing performances here. And in the choral arrangements. I'm beginning to think that the DNO build their season around works that will show their chorus off in the best possible light. The precision of the employment of the chorus is all important to the wider dynamic of this work and once again, the DNO chorus are nothing short of phenomenal.

Links: The Opera Platform, DNO

Friday, 26 August 2016

Wagner - Parsifal (Bayreuth, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Parsifal

Bayreuth, 2016

Hartmut Haenchen, Uwe Eric Laufenberg, Klaus Florian Vogt, Ryan McKinny, Karl-Heinz Lehner, Georg Zeppenfeld, Gerd Grochowski, Elena Pankratova, Tansel Akzeybek, Timo Riihonen, Alexandra Steiner, Mareike Morr, Charles Kim, Stefan Heibach

BR-Klassik - 25 July 2016

The scene where Amfortas sheds his blood in transubstantiation and reveals the mystery of the Grail is an extraordinary moment and usually the scene in the first Act of Parsifal. It largely determines the nature of the production as a whole, the moment where, famously in the words of Gurnemanz, time becomes space, where the act of pain and suffering of Christ on the cross is shown, his blood given in communion to his followers as a symbol of the mystery of faith. For the knights of the Grail, it's spiritual nourishment of their belief that Christ's death and suffering will lead to human redemption. It's where Parsifal's eyes are open to the truth of this message of the Redeemer, even if he (and we the audience) don't fully understand it, wrapped up as Wagner makes it in Buddhism, religious mysticism and the philosophical writings of Schopenhauer.

It's no small order to get that across on stage, but its important for any successful production of Parsifal and Bayreuth's new production does that with all the necessary stage-consecrating pomp and ceremony, with all its associated imagery of religious transfiguration, but most importantly, with a sense of the real pain of suffering that approaches true agony. Here in Uwe Eric Laufenberg's production, Amfortas, stripped down to a loin-cloth and a crown of thorns like Christ about to be nailed to the cross, reveals the scars of the blood-letting that has sustained his followers, the Knights of Monsalvat, as he is painfully reveals his open wound and bleeds for them once again. The blood simultaneously pours out from other cuts and openings and pools at his feet, rolling down onto the round altar to a tap where the knights partake of it, and Titurel is able to look again upon the Holy Grail.

Along with Wagner's extraordinary score, it's a powerful and unforgettable moment where the Good Friday meaning and implications of it are made explicit, one where you can feel the audience - in reverence at Bayreuth - collectively hold their breath and almost wince at how real the pain is made to feel. It's the high point of the Act, but it's also an indication of how the rest of the opera is to be played out, setting the tone for the more globally important moment (in perhaps the whole of opera) when we and Parsifal return to the same scene in Act III. Unusually for Bayreuth, the first Act is played out with close attention to the directions in the libretto, showing very little of the interpretation, modernising and deconstruction of the composer's work that has been the hallmark of the festival in recent years, and certainly a feature of the last Parsifal produced there directed by Stefan Herheim.

Here, Monsalvat is a semi-ruined temple in the Middle-East. We know this because, in practically the only other moment of visual and dramatic licence in the first Act, we zoom out at this significant moment through time into space in a projected scene that locates Monsalvat's place in the wider universe. Elsewhere, the acolytes are dressed in monk's cassocks, with knights dressed in army combats, none of them seeming to have any other purpose than to look on at the suffering of Amfortas, prepare his bath and move a huge crucifix around, taking off a plaster figure of a naked Christ down from it. Kundry's role is not only mocked by the young squires, but it's somewhat downplayed in Laufenberg's production, the mysterious figure remaining in the background for most of the first Act. In the only real suggestion of a contemporary agenda, there is a reference made to refugees of different faiths taking shelter there. If that feels like a little tacked on, it does however provide a rather more powerful message at the end of the opera.

Act II doesn't stray too far either from the familiar template, but again there are a few contemporary Middle Eastern references that feel shoehorned in. The most bewildering is Klingsor being a keen collector of crucifixes who likes to indulge in a bit of self-flagellation in front of them. Some of the crucifixes he puts to fairly profane uses in the absence of any "equipment" of his own. He also has a bound and gagged Amfortas held captive, his presence meaning that he doesn't so much taunt Kundry over her past as encourage her to act it out again, at least until she can turn her attentions to Parsifal. Elsewhere it's fairly straightforward. We're in the same temple structure, but one that is somewhere between an Arabian temple and a harem. The flower maidens share the same duality, dressed in hajibs when first appearing, before stripping down to colourful Arabian Nights costumes and veils.

None of these touches, much less the presence of Amfortas on the stage, make the action any more real, and again there is a failure to address the nature of Kundry (and women) in this work where they are either playthings or pawns in the power games of men. It's an inconsistent, literal and very old-fashioned reading of the role and of the place of women in Parsifal. Again, this is partly made up for by Act III in this production, but it's achieved more through Wagner's score and the musical performance than anything that the director is able to bring out of it. It doesn't help that Laufenberg's direction is also lacking as far as acting performances are concerned, not that the nature of this unusual music-drama makes this an easy obstacle to overcome. Everyone however seems to be enacting Parsifal or ritualising it with great reverence (Wagner himself even making a death mask appearance in the of the projections) rather than living the work or making its concerns real.

If there is one element however that makes up for the lack of dramatic stage direction in this new Bayreuth production, it's the quality of the singing and the musical direction. I've seen nothing but the highest praise for Hartmut Haenchen's conducting of the work, and undoubtedly you had to be there in the Festspielhaus to really get the impact, but it sounded a little sober and subdued to me in the broadcast version, at least in the first Act, not really carrying the huge emotional sweep of the work. There is some good dramatic underscoring of moments in Act II however and Act III is every bit as extraordinarily beautiful and transformative and it ought to be. While I personally have some questions about the conducting, the singing is beyond reproach. Klaus Florian Vogt gives us his light, lyrical and deeply sensitive Parsifal; Elena Pankratova is one of the most secure and powerful Kundrys I have heard recently, with great dramatic delivery; and Georg Zeppenfeld is consistently brilliant, his bright timbre and perfect enunciation making Gurnemanz's pronouncements nothing less than a sheer joy that compels you to listen.

It's Vogt however who ensures that Act III is nothing less than the magnificent conclusion it ought to be. The soft-voiced tenor makes it a time for quiet reflection, but with a steely sense of purpose and unwavering belief in his deliverance of purification, redemption and a return to the paradise/innocence. It's a stunningly good performance. Keeping the Monsalvat temple as a constant, it is now in ruins, with huge vines and reeds breaking through the cracks. Following Parsifal's lead, having actually broken the Holy Spear in Act II in what seems like a terrible act of religious vandalism in order to make it into a cross, the refugees also come together to abandon their little bits of religious iconography, throwing it into the sand-filled coffin of Titurel. The stage empties to be filled with the light of Redemption, and the magic that is Wagner's Parsifal resounds to fill the hall and the heart of the listener.

Links: Bayreuth Festival, BR-Klassik

Friday, 12 August 2016

Wagner - Götterdämmerung (Bayreuth, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Götterdämmerung

Bayreuth, 2016

Marek Janowski, Frank Castorf, Stefan Vinke, Markus Eiche, Albert Dohmen, Albert Pesendorfer, Catherine Foster, Allison Oakes, Marina Prudenskaya, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Stephanie Houtzeel, Christiane Kohl, Alexandra Steiner

Sky Arts - 31 July 2016

You couldn't by any stretch of the imagination ever call Götterdämmerung anti-climatic. As the final part of one of the most ambitious works of opera ever written Götterdämmerung is nothing but climatic on an epic scale, but it can still often feel like a bit of a chore to sit through after the long haul of Siegfried. As controversial and divisive as Frank Castorf's Bayreuth Ring production has been, the prospect of this Götterdämmerung however is an intriguing one. If the finale of Siegfried is anything to go by, you know it certainly won't be climatic in the conventional sense, but it's certain to have many more surprises and insights into the Ring as a whole.

And sure enough, straight from the first scene, the three Norn maidens are not terribly mystical agents of time and wisdom, but Macbeth-like witches dressed like bag-ladies. Back in what seems to be Castorf's East Germany, the Norn ladies cast spells and spin visions at the back lot of a tenement block, just around the corner from Hagen's Gibichung-managed kebab emporium. It's wonderfully sinister and atmospheric at the same time however, as it perhaps can't help but be with Wagner's writing at its most ingenuous and musically creative. Bringing the gods down to earth - established in Das Rheingold as much as in Die Walküre - is again to the fore in Götterdämmerung, as of course is the famous climax that we are heading towards.

It's in this down-to-earth place that we also find Brünnhilde and Siegfried. Traditionally legends perched on a rock surrounded by fire, they are depicted here sitting on a bench outside a mobile home like an ordinary couple. And as far as love, jealousy and betrayal are concerned, they are an ordinary couple, much like Wotan and Fricka in Die Walküre, with the same balance of power, authority and propensity towards infidelity. If they have extraordinary powers of Wagnerian proportions, it's the Tristan und Isolde-like power of love that makes this pair giants. There's no need for mythologising as far as the production is concerned. The audience need to be fully cognisant of the realities involved and danger that can be caused by ordinary people wielding extraordinary power - particularly the power of love - and the kind of devastating damage they are capable of inflicting upon others.

The characterisation of Siegfried established in the previous evening's opera is carried through to its natural conclusion in this regard in this Götterdämmerung. He's still new to these emotions, he's somewhat undeveloped because of his sheltered upbringing, and doesn't have real experience of the world or women. As he demonstrated in Siegfried though with the reforging of Notung however, he's a fast learner. How many politicians in the world today, people with power 'out of touch with the electorate' display the same characteristics? If there's any one message to take away from Castorf's specific reading of the Ring, it's this; beware of those on whom we confer power believing them to be better than ourselves and capable of wisely exercising such power on our behalf - they are mortal and as prone to human weakness and failings as you or I.

Brünnhilde's outlook is no more mature than Siegfried's in this new relationship. A scene as simple as the disgraced Valkyrie waving the Ring under the nose of her sister Waltraute to make her jealous is amusing, but it ties into the deeper forces that are in action and in conflict with one another. This "pledge of love", this little piece of bling, is her slice of power and to her it is worth "more than the heaven of Valhalla, more than the glory of the gods". All of us will pay the price for such delusions and displays of pride, and by setting this scene to Waltraute's warnings of the approaching crisis, Wagner highlights them all the more forcefully.

As does the director in his management of this and other such scenes and confrontations. True to form, the conclusion indeed fails to 'ignite' in a familiar fashion as Castorf prefers to keep things 'real-world', throwing out more references to oil (the black gold), to East Germany and to the New York Stock Exchange without making any attempt to join it all up in a bombastic or overly simplistic message. To be honest however, while Castorf fully explores Götterdämmerung as much as the other parts of the Ring and presents those ideas in a fashion that is much more fun and diverting than most other representations, a large part of the success of this work, for the still extraordinary force of the conclusion and for the success of the entire production as a whole, has much to do with the quality of the musical and the singing performances.

It was interesting to hear Marek Janowski speaking before the Sky Arts broadcast of the performance and admitting that he pays absolutely no attention to the stage direction. You would think that ideally a successful production of the Ring would need those two elements working hand in hand, but Janowski's own sense of dramaturgy in the music is just fabulous and speaks for itself. The fact that Casforf has a strong sense of dramaturgy too is a bonus, and even if the two views might not coincide, both in their own way connect with the essence of Wagner's intentions. This Götterdämmerung is consequently one heck of a ride.

The singing also holds up to the extreme challenges of the final installment of the Ring cycle. We don't have John Lundgren's superb Wotan as a firm foundation in this work, and Stefan Vinke's Siegfried is perhaps not as big a personality or a voice to replace him, but the tenor manages well nonetheless in a work that has slain many lesser Siegfrieds. Catherine Foster however remains a dramatic and strongly characterised Brünnhilde, one with real personality and tenderness, who remains sympathetic through the dark machinations of the Hagen-plotted Gibichung drama. Her delivery of the final scene, in conjunction with Janowski's conducting and Castorf's direction, is extraordinarily good and intensely moving. Marina Prudenskaya also puts in an intense and touching performance as Waltraude as does Marcus Eiche in a surprisingly sensitive Gunther, but there are no weaknesses in any of the roles here.

Regardless of what you feel about Frank Castorf's production of the Bayreuth Ring, it's one that likely won't be forgotten soon. I would go further and say that it's one that I'm sure will set a new benchmark standard that subsequent cycles will find hard to match. Aside from the sheer spectacle of the sets and the fine musical and singing performances, there is a deep exploration of the work here that applies many of its principal themes to relevant contemporary issues and concerns. A more minimal or 'straight' version that isn't able to offer as thorough an exploration/dissection/deconstruction of the work and doesn't continue to inventively apply its real-world message to the rapidly changing circumstances of our world today will undoubtedly find this a hard act to follow.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Wagner - Siegfried (Bayreuth, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Siegfried

Bayreuth, 2016

Marek Janowski, Frank Castorf, Stefan Vinke, Andreas Conrad, John Lundgren, Albert Dohmen, Karl-Heinz Lehner, Nadine Weissmann, Catherine Foster, Ana Durlovski

Sky Arts - 29 July 2016

If there was ever any question around the political content of Frank Castorf's Ring Cycle in the first two evening's works at Bayreuth, the nature of the beast is firmly established as soon as the curtain is drawn back on Aleksandar Denić's extraordinary set design for Siegfried. Mime - the dwarf exploited and disenfranchised by their actions of the gods - is working from his travelling van portable workshop forge that is currently located beneath a Mount Rushmore of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, a panorama of Socialist/Communist deities who also once had great ideals that proved to be somewhat more flawed in practice.

It's a big, impressive image that hits home as far as the production's overarching theme goes, but it's also an astute observation that updates and proves the validity of the subject that Wagner was really writing about when creating this mythology. (Wagner's head wouldn't be out of place up there either). Just so your focus doesn't stray and let the mythology get in the way of the message however, the young Siegfried's hobby seems not to be so much chasing and catching bears as rounding up socialist intellectuals who read books, fawn over their great leaders and try to keep them on the right path. As for Fafner, well, seen parading around the Alexanderplatz U-bahn flipside of the rotating set with glamorous ladies with shopping bags, obviously he's the great dragon of capitalism that needs to be slain.

Lest you think this is a bit of a stretch and an imposition on Wagner's creation mythology, the well-translated subtitles - much more idiomatic than usual translations of Wagner's archaic use of language - help make those real world concerns a little clearer. When the Wanderer is asked by Mime which race dwells below the Earth, the Niebelungen's relationship with "black Alberich" is described as one where the "magic ring's masterful might" has "subjugated the slaving mass to him". In every respect, in imagery large and detail small however, Castorf's production doesn't just recap on what has already been established in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre or even just follow through, but it seeks to find new ways to extend the themes that are important to the meaning of the work.

It might have been sufficient - in a rare moment of fidelity that is all too rare even in other modern Ring cycles - to depict Notung as an actual sword in the Azerbaijan setting for Die Walküre, but in the socialist revolution of Communist Mount Rushmore and the Berlin Alexanderplatz of East Germany, nothing but a Kalashnikov Notung will do (although Siegfried does alternate between the symbolic and the literal here) to slay the dragon of capitalism. That's powerful imagery, and a powerful political statement to associate with Wagner's Ring but it is wholly in keeping with Wagner's own political outlook and in keeping with the higher and thus necessarily mythological worldview of the Ring. Castorf's production allows the application of the mythology to be simply applied to contemporary and real-world matters.

Or perhaps it's not so simple. The Ring and Wagner's own personal ideologies are far more complex than that, particularly when you add on references from subsequent historical periods, and Castorf's production consequently has many other obscure references and bizarre details. The forest songbird, for example, has an important part to play here, but her role is difficult to define, as is the 'bear' that appears every now and again (and in different guises throughout the whole cycle). Nascent humanity perhaps, yet to evolve, learning from the (flawed) ways of the gods. The depiction of Erda as a prostitute is strange and certainly controversial, but the characterisation, observation and humour applied to this scene - a drunken Wanderer makes a sentimental late-night call to an old flame - makes it outrageously funny and humanising.

It might be a welcome injection of lightness into what is too often heavy-going for some, but for others it's clearly not what they expect from Siegfried. Castorf deflating of the glorious union of Siegfried and Brünnhilde by having crocodiles invade the stage and get involved in all kinds of antics is clearly not in the spirit of this opera's epic conclusion. There is however reason to be sceptical of it considering how that noble union subsequently falls into decline in Götterdämmerung, but Castorf is keen to emphasise in Siegfried that the flaws in the hero's character are already there. This Siegfried is a little dumb, wild and impetuous. He's not a person who you want to entrust with saving the world, but inevitably it's only a fearless person who would take on such a task, blissfully unaware of the enormity of the undertaking until it all goes badly wrong. America, take note.

That might be the reality, but it's not what many of the Bayreuth audience want to see and their apparent tolerance for Castorf's interpretations seem to have reached their limit in Siegfried, to judge by the audible loud booing that accompanies the ending. Castorf's interpretation however is vindicated or at least well supported by the performances and the singing. Catherine Foster and John Lundgren reprise their Brünnhilde and Wotan/Wanderer roles impressively, Lundgren in particular more reflective and repentant but still formidable in Wotan's earthbound incarnation. Stefan Vinke has a good balance of the lyrical and heroic tenor for Siegfried and is sure of voice here. Ana Durlovski impresses as the songbird, but every single role - from Andreas Conrad's Mime, Albert Dohmen's Alberich, Karl-Heinz Lehner's Fafner and Nadine Weissmann's Erda - are all an absolute delight to listen to and see performing. Unless, of course, you came to Bayreuth expecting something else in Siegfried

Links: Bayreuth Festival

Monday, 8 August 2016

Wagner - Die Walküre (Bayreuth, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Die Walküre

Bayreuth, 2016

Marek Janowski, Frank Castorf, Christopher Ventris, Georg Zeppenfeld, John Lundgren, Heidi Melton, Catherine Foster, Sarah Connolly, Caroline Wenborne, Dara Hobbs, Stephanie Houtzeel, Nadine Weissmann, Christiane Kohl, Mareike Morr, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Alexandra Petersamer

Sky Arts - 27 July 2016

I often find it the case that once you've seen a concept established in Das Rheingold you wonder whether you really need to sit through another 14 hours in the three Ring operas to have the point hammered home. If you already know how the drama plays out, you can to some extent extrapolate the rest from how Das Rheingold is presented, give or take one or two points and themes that do need to be explored more deeply. You do at least have the wonder of watching those traps laid in Das Rheingold tighten their grip as events take on momentum in Die Walküre. For all its familiarity, there still much in this to compensate in the composition of this work, but it soon becomes clear in the Bayreuth production that Frank Castorf clearly isn't going to rely on just following through. Within the vast scope of the Ring, those other ideas associated with what has been set in motion are also worth exploring outwards.

The theme that Castorf chooses to set Die Walküre is not an obvious one. It extends the Route 66 petrol station location in the USA here to a farmstead in Azerbaijan where Wotan and Brünnhilde are involved in a primitive early means of oil production. Before we are aware of what exactly is being refined here, the first Act where Siegmund stumbles into Hünding's lodge is also located on the same farmstead seemingly on a different plane. The use of the locations, consisting of a barn, stairs to upper levels and a watertower, is extended again through the use of screens of a black and white film showing mining operations, with close-ups on some of the interior action, such as Sieglinde preparing Hünding's night-time drink. Conceptually, it's certainly a bit of a leap, but dramatically the direction functions well.

Whatever you might make of Castorf's intentions for the sets and locations doesn't really matter on a rational level. The action that takes place within it at least works within the boundaries of the themes and the libretto and brings it to life. It's Marek Janowski's pacy conducting of the music that drives the first Act however, capturing that wonderful blend of danger and romance that arises between brother and sister much more successfully than the performances of Christopher Ventris and Heidi Melton, which are individually fine, paying attention to little glances and touches, but they doesn't really have a lot of evident chemistry, or at least not of the Wagnerian Romantic scale. Musically it also captures the dramatic perfection of this work that is full of undercurrents and foreboding. You can sense all of this, even if you don't 'get' the concept.

As with the earlier Das Rheingold however, you'll find that there's little time to really let your mind wander into considerations about what it all means, or be concerned about individual performance or technique. Perhaps it's because the subtitles translate Wagner's florid and archaic libretto a little more understandably, but I don't think I've been inclined to pay as much attention to the words and what we are being told through all the dramatic conflict and tensions. It works on a purely dramatic level, which is the strong point of Die Walküre, drawing you in and allowing you to consider how brilliantly the dangers and the complications that are to play out have entrapped each of the characters, allowing you to really feel and sympathise with each one of them. You don't have to take Wotan's side or Fricka's here, both have valid claims and the fact that they are irreconcilable really feels tragic.

The person who has the most to lose however by being caught up in the post-Rheingold machinations is Brünnhilde. Siegmund's fate is also incredibly sad and unfortunate, but it's Brünnhilde who ends up carrying the can for the decisions and actions that are taken around his fate, and it will lead to even more tragic consequences down the line. If there's usually any one element that will determine how good any Die Walküre will be as the lynchpin of the entire Ring cycle, it relies heavily on the qualities of its Brünnhilde, and in Catherine Foster we have one of the best daughters of Wotan I have seen. The choice of words is deliberate, as Foster really shows how much of the father is in the daughter, fully inhabiting the role and understanding it as being the will of Wotan. Her singing performance is nuanced and impressive in delivery.

That's not to say that any of the other roles in this opera are any less vital to the dramatic function of the work. Much of the dynamic revolves around the father and daughter relationship and John Lundgren gives us a powerful and authoritative Wotan, much more convincing than Iain Patterson in Das Rheingold. This is a very different Wotan however and there's a good case for having a different singer play the two parts. This is a Wotan who is starting to recognise how much he has given away in his desire for power, how his corrupt actions in cheating Alberich of the gold and the ring have set off a series of events that will ultimately destroy him, destroy them all. Lundgren gives a great performance that shows the formidable power of Wotan, one that bears more than a trace of bitterness, anger, regret and fear for what lies ahead.

With a Wotan and a Brünnhilde like that, both completely in tune with the drama and the intent, and with the conductor completely behind it, this Die Walküre is never going to be anything less than impressive. The other performances aren't quite up to the same level, but they are all very good indeed. I particularly liked the passion and the lyricism of Heidi Melton's Sieglinde, and her acting performance was also fully committed. Christopher Ventris was stretched to his limit, but held out and rallied through at the end of the second Act. Sarah Connolly didn't really succeed in placing a distinctive stamp on Fricka and also sounded a little pushed, but she was strong enough to present a credible opposition to Wotan's delusions. Georg Zeppenfeld sounded as accomplished and capable as ever, although his arched-eyebrow 'baddie' act is proving to be rather limited (he plays a similar thuggish King Marke in last year's Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth).

The combined forces of the singers, the musical performance and the adherence to the dramatic integrity and themes of the work (which is after all everything opera should be about) ensured that this was a compelling Die Walküre in its own right, but Die Walküre is not a stand-alone opera. Castorf's production introduces a number of other talking points, ambiguities, subtexts and uncertainties that feed into the wider mythology of the Ring and its associated themes, but dramatically and emotionally, everything comes together impressively in the third Act conclusion in a way that almost makes you long for some way to escape the terrible predicament of what must be inevitable by the time we get to Götterdämmerung.

Links: Bayreuth Festival