Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Strauss - Salome (Amsterdam, 2017)

Richard Strauss - Salome

Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam - 2017

Daniele Gatti, Ivo Van Hove, Malin Byström, Evgeny Nikitin, Lance Ryan, Doris Soffel, Peter Sonn, Hanna Hipp, James Creswell, Roger Smeets

Culturebox - June 2017

It's isn't often obvious to judge what play or opera you are looking at just from a view of the sets alone in an Ivo van Hove production, but the set for the one-act drama of Salome for the Dutch National Opera is unmistakable. It might not be in the obvious Biblical setting, but the tones, contrasts and the basic functional requirements for Strauss's opera, or indeed Wilde's play, are all there. A large frigid moon hangs over the scene where an elegant room bathed in red light set to the back of the stage, and at the front is terrace like a circus arena with a hole at the centre.

Whether it's modern or Biblical, the hole is always more than just an entrance to the cistern where Jokanaan, John the Baptist is imprisoned in Herod's palace. It's a place where Herod and Heriodas want to hide the witness who speaks out about their decadence. It's also a gaping maw of desire, a dark abyss that exerts an irresistible attraction to their daughter Salome, a young woman who has grown up in this house of corruption. Those undercurrents of forbidden lusts are there in Wilde's original 1891 work, a play that still has the capacity to shock. Salome is a play dealing with a taboo subject whose importance still hasn't been fully acknowledged I feel, darker and more daring than the image of corruption and decadence in 'The Portrait of Dorian Gray', both of which now take a back seat to the image of Oscar Wilde as wit represented more often on stage by his Victorian comedies and social satires.

Richard Strauss however clearly recognised the power of the work and its underlying attack on social conformity when he first saw the controversial play in German translation in its first European performances, the original (in French and in English) having been banned in England. It's an outright attack on the hypocrisy of outward respectability covering over darker impulses, and it chimes with a climate of Viennese turn of the century Freudian analysis and exploration of repressed self-destructive impulses and bloodlust festering under a layer of surface respectability; an impulse that would soon be unleashed in the horrors of the Great War.

It was also a time when music was looking for a new expression or outlet for these new modernist views. Strauss retains the post-Wagnerian lush lyrical romanticism and exoticism that reflects the elegant surface of social respectability, but found an extraordinary new musical language to probe beneath the surface, a darker and more violent edge that lies within its unsettling dissonance, sudden shifts of tone and juddering declines and suspensions. As one of the most daring pieces of music written to that point, changing the face of music for a century, or at least pointing the way towards it, it's not only in Strauss's opera that Wilde's Salome is more frequently presented, but it's in it that it really lives.

A staging of the work then should also be radical and have the capacity to shock, or at least find a way that represents the spirit of the original. On the surface, Ivo van Hove's production isn't the most radical, but in the direction of the performers at least, he does find a way of getting to the heart of what remains compelling and shocking about the work. It need hardly be said that the central tension in the drama is between Salome and Jokanaan. How Herod, Herodias and Narraboth interact with Salome is very much contributory to the direction the work does in and its overall impact, but the focus here is very much on the pivotal confrontation between Salome's worldview and the one that Jokanaan both represents and decries.

Salome is the offspring of this corrupt society that hides its true face. In her generation's twisted view of the world, she wants to bend it to satisfy her own desires and at the same time turn her power towards exposing the true nature of this hypocritical society and completely destroy it. Speaking out against that hypocrisy and indulging those desires. This small incidental drama of a Biblical nature sets out to do achieve nothing less than complete annihilation. As Wilde prophetically recognises the fate that would befall him later, such actions and indulgence comes at a cost and ultimately prove to be self-destructive. Somehow Strauss's music carried the same seed of self-destruction in it, a darker abyss that Strauss would soon turn away from himself.

It's asking a lot of a young singer like Malin Byström, but under Ivo van Hove's direction she largely succeeds. There's a youthful innocence there at first, with a dark dirty desire from an abused corrupted childhood that is straining to get out. Jokanaan provides that foil to set herself against and test where the limits lie. She's not sure at first what she wants, but becomes dangerously capable of pushing taboo boundaries. Rejected by Evgeny Nikitin's solemn restrained Jokanaan, Byström handles Salome's transition over from pleading princess to violent murderous intent brilliantly, but it's also underscored well and delivered with jarring intensity from Daniele Gatti in the DNO orchestra pit. She's a dangerous spark waiting to ignite and Herod and her mother supply all the fuel she needs to set the world on fire.

The mechanics of the stage directions are mostly adhered to in Van Hove's production, but with a few varying points of emphasis. The moon gets larger, Narraboth kills himself in full public view looking down at the abyss, not away in some dark corner. Projections play a role, as they often do in the Belgian director's productions. They come into play mainly during the Dance of the Seven Veils, which is danced by Byström, but enhanced to show her dancing not for Herod but Jokanaan. The prophet's head is not delivered on a silver platter, but Jokanaan himself, covered head to foot in gore in a shallow basin that Salome wallows in. He's not entirely dead either, or perhaps moves only in Salome's head, crawling to an illicit and bloody union. If there's any contemporary commentary in Ivo van Hove's production it eludes me, but as an image of how Wilde and Strauss incautiously explored the direction society was going in, the DNO production is immensely powerful.

Links: DNO, Culturebox

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Wagner - Parsifal (Munich, 2018)

Richard Wagner - Parsifal

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2018

Kirill Petrenko, Pierre Audi, Georg Baselitz, Christian Gerhaher, Bálint Szabó, René Pape, Jonas Kaufmann, Wolfgang Koch, Nina Stemme, Kevin Conners, Callum Thorpe, Rachael Wilson, Paula Iancic, Tara Erraught, Manuel Günther, Matthew Grills, Golda Schultz, Selene Zanetti, Noluvuyiso Mpofu

Staatsoper.TV - 08 July 2018

I'm convinced that if I never watched any other opera but Parsifal, I'd still continue to find it an inexhaustible source of wonder, continually offering new insights about life, its purpose and meaning. There aren't many operas that offer as much, particularly from what appears to be so little. Whether it's Wagner's music itself, the director involved in a new production, the conductor, the singers, the staging, it seems that there are infinite way of exploring this enigmatic work. It seems impossible not to engage with its deeply spiritual content, and each and every new performance and contributor seeming to have something new to bring to it. That's certainly the case with this exceptional 2018 production of Parsifal from the Bayerische Staatsoper.

On a basic narrative level Parsifal seems to be a religious parable or fantasy that bears little connection with real life matters. In Monsalvat, a place outside of space and time, the knights dedicated to a cult of the Holy Grail are falling into despair, their hero Amfortas having been struck by the Holy Spear of Destiny no longer able to endure the pain of performing the ceremony of the unveiling of the the grail that gives strength to its acolytes. They are crying out for someone to resolve the conflict and division in the world since Klingsor the spear has fallen into the hands of Klingsor. Along comes an innocent fool who doesn't even know his own name. He is moved by what Gurnemanz shows him and determines to do something about it, to learn and understand. That's Act I. In Act II, resisting temptations of the flesh he encounters Kundry, a restless spirit who awakes him to a new awareness not just of the self, but of others. He wrests the spear from Klingsor and, after many years of wandering lost, finds his way to return the lost spear to Monsalvat in Act III.

On another level Parsifal is a story of redemption, the Grail and the Spear symbols of the gifts that God has given which can be used for good or evil. Mankind has taken a wrong step and it needs someone - someone pure who doesn't know the ways of the sinful world - who can heal the divisions and put us back on the right path; a return to innocence through death, rebirth and renewal. Parsifal's journey is not an easy one, the acquiring of learning and knowledge is difficult and painful, but it is through pain and loss that he acquires compassion and, through compassion, purpose. The opera however is not just about Parsifal, but Gurnemanz, Amfortas, Kundry and even Titurel reaching his end, all have their own paths to take towards redemption, resolution, transfiguration and transcendence, but Parsifal is the light that shows them the way.

There are many paths to follow then in Parsifal, and evidently even the above description and reading is greatly simplified. What lifts Parsifal to another level entirely and which can't be put into simple narrative terms is of course Wagner's miraculous music. Noble, dignified, passionate and compassionate, it embodies all the qualities of being human and striving to understand, but there's an abstraction in the flow and blend of melodies and leitmotifs, in the use of instruments and sounds, in the choral and ceremonial aspects of the work that also touches on something deep and spiritual and makes this little fable something more meaningful and endlessly capable of revealing new depths.

So what are we to make of Pierre Audi's new production of Parsifal for the Bavarian State Opera's 2018 summer festival? Well, initially, not a great deal. There's no particular emphasis or vision in display in the first Act, other than the distinctive and unusual set designs by the German artist and sculptor Georg Baselitz. Audi has successfully worked with visual artists before - not so long ago with Anish Kapoor on another production of Parsifal for the Dutch National Opera - and it does succeed in bringing another personal vision of a world that lies between abstraction and reality, a world turned upside down and deflating. Monsalvat appears to be deep in the woods, the knights congregating around a rough hewn structure of stone pillars that come together like a pyramid bundle of sticks sculpture. Kundry is to be found under the skeleton of whatever beast she rode in on. The outdoor-living monks wear heavy robes and tribal paints on their face, stripping down to reveal padded naked suits when Amfortas carries out an act of self-bloodletting within the sacrificial altar of the stone sculpture.

Aside from the eccentricities of the designs - which are nothing more than bringing the style of Georg Baselitz's paintings and designs to life - there's not much in the way of a concept revealed here. It seems to be relying on Kirill Petrenko's conducting of the score to bring out the real depth and mysteries of the work, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Under Petrenko, this is a performance of extraordinary quality by the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, perfectly paced and balanced to allow the emotional depth at the heart of the work infuse the limited dramatic action, and indeed even the otherwise unspectacular 'time becomes space' and unveiling of the grail 'transubstantiation' scenes.

It's only in Act II of this production that the path, intent and purpose of the work becomes evident. The more I see Parsifal, the more it becomes clear that the key figure in the work, the role that is most rewarding in terms of following the progression from lost to found, from self-interest to care for others, is not Parsifal but Kundry. How successful this is may well be down to the singers involved, and Nina Stemme is just astonishingly good here - one of the greatest performances of this role I've ever heard or witnessed. But the characterisation and understanding of who Kundry is important, and Audi and Stemme seem to have paid particular care and attention to this aspect of the work.

It's significant that Kundry is seen awakening out of a long "sleep of death" at the beginning of all three acts. It's her long-suffering moans we hear clearly in each of these scenes as she is called back into the pain of existence. Wild, untamed and confused, seeking redemption for a kind of 'original sin', she struggles with her own nature, unsure of the path to take, helping to ease the pain of Amfortas in one incarnation, forced to act as an agent of Klingsor in another. Tired of being torn, she wants to believe that there is a chance of rest, that someone will bring her struggle to an end. Like all the others, it can't be done by will alone, but in Act II - according to the very direct imagery of Georg Baselitz - a wall is breached.

Pierre Audi also pays particular attention to Parsifal in this Act and Jonas Kaufmann is very much able to make something of this characterisation and his interaction with Stemme's extraordinary Kundry. In a quite different reading of Wagner's exotic music for the Flowermaidens scene, Parsifal is not seduced, but rather the music seems to exude compassion - not love or lust - that he feels for these poor twisted naked bloody creatures of Klingsor (as Baselitz depicts them in lumpy padding). It's not just compassion though, but fear of compassion, unprepared for what it will take out of him. It's a reaction that for the first time made me think of the Flowermaidens scene not as some false Garden of Eden but rather as something closer to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, a religious scene that Wagner would undoubtedly have considered and referenced in relation to compassion, pain and sacrifice.

It's a simply stunning Act II, superlative on every level of execution in concept and performance. Its position as the true pivotal scene in the opera is fully realised here, the single greatest enactment of this Act that I have ever seen. It's not just Stemme, Kaufmann and Koch, it's Audi's direction, Baselitz's simple but meaningful set designs and, essentially, Kirill Petrenko's management of the ebb and flow of Wagner's near miraculous score reaching out and bringing all of this together. When you see it the way it is supposed to be done, it's no wonder that Klingsor is so quickly and easily dispatched at the end of the Act. Parsifal has become an unstoppable force that has still to learn to control and come to terms with the knowledge and power he has gained through the medium of Kundry, but at this point he's just burning fire.

By the time we return to an upturned Monsalvat in Act III, it really does feel like a long time has passed, that Parsifal's righteous fire has lost none of its force but Kaufmann's demeanour wields it like a smouldering sun exuding only light and warmth. The tone and intent of this Act remained deeply moving and sincere in its account of redemption, rebirth and a return to innocence but it felt to me that there were understandable signs of tiring in the orchestra and in the performances. It also brought out the one real weak-point in this production, which was Christian Gerhaher's Amfortas. Gerhaher sings one of the most beautiful lyrical Wolframs you will ever hear in Tannhäuser, but he seemed to me ill-suited and lost as Amfortas. Then again, with the focus wholly on how Kundry and Parsifal become the catalyst to change, there is inevitably less attention paid to the other aspects of the work. If Amfortas's pain was at the same level, it would not only present a different balance, it would almost be too much for a viewer to bear in this production.

René Pape's Gurnemanz is also underdeveloped. Pape is left to stand inhabiting his own world, almost invariably poised beatifically with hands clasped in front of himself, focussed on the delivery but visibly wilting under the heat in the theatre as much as under the weight of the role. It has to be said that the delivery is still very good. I have mixed feelings about Jonas Kaufmann's Parsifal. On the one hand, he does bring depth and compassion to Parsifal, his singing heartfelt and emotional. On the other hand his range lacks effectiveness as he tires, going from soft and barely audible to full-volume belting at the cost of real emotional feeling. He tries to compensate in his acting and often overcompensates. Without question however he delivers some spine-tingling moments here, particularly in his interaction with Nina Stemme's Kundry. There I'm afraid words are completely inadequate to express the depth of detail, the warmth of tone and expression in Stemme's ability to bring one of the greatest characters in all opera to life. It's just extraordinary and it makes this Parsifal extraordinary as well.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Verdi - Macbeth (Berlin, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Staatsoper under den Linden, Berlin - 2018

Harry Kupfer, Daniel Barenboim, Anna Netrebko, Plácido Domingo, Kwangchul Youn, Evelin Novak, Fabio Sartori

ARTE Concert - 21 June 2018

There's definitely an air of a prestige event about the Berlin Staatsoper's star-studded summer spectacular Macbeth, but also in its live open air broadcast, a sense of it being an occasion that can be accessible to a wider audience. Macbeth's recent elevation to becoming one of his most popular operas is deserved, and certainly among the best of the composer's earlier works. As such it has all the requirements of a crowd-pleaser, a showcase for imaginative stage direction, impassioned musical direction and for superstar singing. Verdi, Macbeth, Shakespeare, Kupfer, Barenboim, Netrebko and Domingo; evidently you're in for a treat. While the Berlin production can't fail to impress, there's still a lingering sense that it's more of an event than great opera.

The early indications in the setting of Act I Scene 1 are that Kupfer's production isn't going to shy away from the darkness and the horror that lies at the heart of Macbeth. There are however different ways of presenting the nature of that horror and Shakespeare and Verdi have differences of emphasis on the nature of power and ambition in Macbeth. For Verdi, the centrepiece of the opera is 'Patria opressa', the consequences that the lust for power has on the ordinary people caught up in war. Should a director stick closer to Shakespeare's themes or Verdi's? Well, there's no reason why you can't do both.

Phyllida Lloyd's production of Macbeth for the Royal Opera House found several ways to make the consequences and the reality of the underlying struggles present on a stage littered with the bodies of the dead, and Harry Kupfer's production for Berlin, while it may be a little more elegantly staged, also immediately places us is a world of almost apocalyptic devastation. Thick plumes of smoke rise from explosions of flame and lightning rains down on the scene as Macbeth and Banquo appear in the aftermath of the battle that will determine the future kings of Scotland. The witches dressed in rags scurry around the bodies in the muddy battlefield rags, scavenging over the spoils of war; a scene that tells you all you need to know about what is ahead without any mystic prophesy.

The veteran stage director's sets the scene well and what follows is equally spectacular. Kupfer's current visual aesthetic is for blacks, greys and steely silver, with off-kilter angular background projections of elegant, slightly surreal landscapes, and it works well for the contrasts and tones of Macbeth. The cold luxury of the Macbeth household is in stark contrast to the devastation outside in the real world, but it also captures a sense of the nature of Lord and Lady Macbeth's pretensions and sense of their own importance and ambition to rise. Verdi's music for these scenes, and Lady Macbeth's aria 'Vieni t'affretta' tell you as much, and Kupfer reflects this well.

There's really not much else to say about Kupfer's directorial choices. The remainder of the opera takes place in a series of equally suitable settings that provide variety and yet maintain a consistent tone. Every scene makes an impact - whether it's the ambush of Banquo by the maw of a digger on a building site or Macbeth's apparitions taking place within the crater of an active volcano - even if it doesn't say anything deeper than that. It's not the most insightful reading of Macbeth, but then Verdi's abilities at this stage in his career are far from the level he would attain with his later Shakespeare adaptations of Otello and Falstaff. The sets and direction however present impressive visual effects that match the character of the entertaining and expertly played performances.

Entertaining and expertly played that is, but likewise not with any great insight or depth. Anna Netrebko stamps her authority on the role of Lady Macbeth right from 'Vieni t'affretta' in the second scene of Act I, and her mastery of her character and ability to express her nature has already been capably demonstrated. As you would expect, she demonstrates great technical ability and considerable personality but, whether it's just the influence of the direction and the occasion, the personality is more Netrebko than Lady Macbeth; her 'La luce langue' is a little mannered, with no real sense of evil, menace or engagement with the world around her.

Unfortunately, that lack of engagement might also be down to the casting of Plácido Domingo. It's possible that Macbeth might well have a trophy wife, but it doesn't help that during his mental breakdown - where there is no actual ghost on the stage in this production - he looks more like her doddery old father. There's no chemistry here at all between Netrebko and Domingo. There's also the fact that while Domingo can sing the role well enough he just isn't a baritone. In other roles and even in other Verdi roles it might not matter so much, but the necessary contrast, weight and lyricism that is needed for Macbeth just isn't there. The addition of 'Mal per me' (making the best of both versions) consequently lacks the impact of the more direct ending and in fact it falls rather flat.

The Berlin Staatsoper's Macbeth then is very much a mixed bag. Daniel Barenboim conducts a good account of the score that holds back on bombast and allows the pace, rhythm and melodies to find their own sense of menace and horror. If it feels a little too smooth for early Verdi, that's as much to do with the elegant production that looks lovely, but fails to really follow through on the gritty and bloody drama that the opening scene appeared to promise. It's perhaps churlish to find minor faults with Netrebko and Domingo, who both delivered professional and crowd-pleasing performances, but these was more of a sense of them being opera gala performances than related to true lyric drama.

Links: Berlin Staatsoper, ARTE Concert, YouTube

Friday, 6 July 2018

Mozart - Così fan tutte (London, 2016)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Così fan tutte

Royal Opera House, 2016

Semyon Bychkov, Jan Philipp Gloger, Corinne Winters, Angela Brower, Daniel Behle, Alessio Arduini, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Sabina Puértolas

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Purely in terms of the musical and singing performances, the Royal Opera House's 2016 production of Così fan tutte is reasonably good, if not quite exciting or revelatory. Semyon Bychkov conducts an elegant account of the work, but it doesn't particularly fizz with those energised moments of Mozartian brilliance. The singing performances are fresh, bright and vibrant, but don't seem to be able to carry the weightier considerations that are in the opera either. Jan Philipp Gloger's direction has an interesting concept that actually sets out to bridge that gap rather well, providing plenty of visual interest in the sets and situations, but somehow it still never quite coheres the way you might like it.

Making Don Alfonso a theatre director does take the work into a meta-theatrical direction, the opera even opening with the director and the cast of his latest work taking their bows at the start of this performance during the overture. The idea is not just to be clever, but to consider the meaning of Mozart and Da Ponte's opera in the context of art and artifice. It's not real-life, it's an opera. That doesn't mean that it doesn't have a serious point to make, but it can do it through music, theatre and, although it might seem like a contradiction, and is less commonly seen these days in this opera, it can be serious through comedy. As a theatre director then, Don Alfonso uses a number of theatrical situations to put love to the test and illustrate his point about fidelity and constancy to the two unrealistically idealistic young couples.

The Royal Opera House production tries to address the issues of love and fidelity in the opera in a lighter and more playful fashion without having to resort to that darker view of male and female relationships and middle-class ideals that you will find in some other productions (Michael Haneke and Christophe Honoré). It's true that some of the ideas expressed in the opera might be considered rather out of step with modern attitudes towards gender politics and political correctness, but Mozart and Da Ponte's comedy is actually just as challenging of prevailing attitudes. One need only look at their other two collaborations to realise that the same principles are applied to Così fan tutte. The theatricality and forced romanticism of the situations in Gloger's production highlight the fact that Mozart and Da Ponte are satirising such attitudes, regarding the notion of constancy and fidelity as nothing more than an artificial bourgeois construct that prevents us from following the true dictates of the human heart.

And it's true. Don Alfonso and his rather more practical minded co-conspirator from the serving classes Despina are actually correct. Not so much in the idea that it's women who are inconstant (it's taken for granted that men are fickle), but rather what Così fan tutte shows us is that anyone can fall in love, the human heart can be easily swayed and circumstances (or fate if you like) all have a part to play. It's not about fidelity, it's about human nature, and when it comes to exploring the wonder and the mysterious ways of the human heart, there's no-one like Mozart for showing its infinite variety and capacity for love. It might not always work out how we might like it, but in contrast to the cynicism that you can find in some modern productions, Mozart's music actually shows us that rather than leading to disillusionment, he considers this to be something wonderful and something to be celebrated.

Gloger's production then captures both the artifice of romantic ideals where we don disguises and play roles, but in each of the theatrical settings it also shows the wonderful variety of circumstances in which love can work its magic and catch us unawares, breaking down any preconceived ideals. It's a production that is perfectly in tune with the playfulness of the idea and the execution of the original, matching its cleverness, its richness of mood and character. Mozart and Da Ponte tell us to keep an open mind, and the same thing can be applied to this production. Every time you come to a Mozart opera, you can experience and discover something new about this wonderful work, and this one actually extends on some of its themes rather brilliantly, if you have an open mind and no preconceptions.

In execution however, it somehow doesn't quite come together the way it should. It's perhaps the difficulty of maintaining all those levels and trying to provide something for everyone; trying to retain some amount of the familiar with a few new ideas to challenge them. It's also down to the nature of the work itself, which demands young, fresh singers, but expects them to have the experience to maintain those various levels of superficiality and sophistication. Corinne Winters, Angela Brower, Daniel Behle and Alessio Arduini however give engaging individual performances of equal weight that permits them to interact well as a team. Sabina Puértolas is a lively irreverent Despina, and Johannes Martin Kränzle perfect as a generous rather than a cynical Don Alfonso.

The disconnect however appears to be more in the musical performance. Semyon Bychkov keeps the tone deceptively light, and it's this tone that dominates without either connecting meaningfully or contrasting with what is going on up on the stage. While Gloger's sets carry the sense of game play and role play, each of the 'actors' playing their allotted roles, it all feels a little detached and doesn't find a way to carry through to the ambiguous feelings that linger with the revelations made at a very confused resolution. There's an effort made to end on a wistful note, but you never get the sense that there is anything serious at stake here and no one really gets hurt. The ambiguity about Così however is what keeps it fresh and keeps you thinking, and this production does give you plenty to think about.

The Blu-ray presentation of the production also gives it a new lease of life, particularly in the High Resolution audio mixes of the musical performance. The extras on the BD are scant, but the introduction covers the all you need to know about the director's intentions for the concept, the characters and the nature of the work itself.

Links: Royal Opera House YouTube 

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Henze - Das Floß der Medusa (Amsterdam, 2018)

Hans Werner Henze - Das Floß der Medusa

Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam 2018

Ingo Metzmacher, Romeo Castellucci, Dale Duesing, Bo Skovhus, Lenneke Ruiten

ARTE Concert - 26 March 2018

Romeo Castellucci's productions seem to be well-suited to the drawing out the allegorical aspects out of works that have a level of musical and thematic abstraction that can be adapted to address current affairs and contemporary subjects of interest, albeit often somewhat obliquely. Hence we've seen Castellucci bring his unique individual touch to Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, Bach's St Matthew's Passion, to Wagner's Tannhäuser and Parsifal, but also managed to approach and make real mythological themes in Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice. In all those works there is also a very marked struggle between two different and almost diametrically opposed forces, between life and death, the physical and the spiritual, the word and the deed.

There's another world very much concerned with strong divisions, in the space between life and death, but also with a political undercurrent suggested but never made explicit in Hans Werner Henze's Das Floß der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa). Again, the work is not a conventional work; an oratorio rather than an opera, and again Castellucci strives not only to find ways to illustrate the nature of the opposing forces at play and the relationship between them, but find a modern allegorical way to illustrate and give them a relatable contemporary relevance, and also in some way that is difficult to define, turn the focus back on the either self-reflexively on the theatrical nature of opera or even back onto the audience.

The opposing forces in Henze's work appear to be easily identifiable but in reality also hold complex layers which are related to the time it was created in 1968. On a surface level, Das Floß der Medusa is very obviously inspired by and named after Théodore Géricault famous painting "Le Radeau de la Méduse", painted not long after the notorious naval incident it depicts. In 1816, the French naval frigate the Medusa was shipwrecked not far from its destination, but still 108 miles off the coast of Senegal. The governor, the captain and the ships officers took to the available lifeboats, leaving 154 crew to put together a makeshift raft that was initially towed, but then cut off and left to the mercy of the currents. When the raft was picked up 13 days later, only 15 people survived on the raft.

There's a clear commentary on the class divisions between those privileged to be saved and those left to fend for themselves in what turned out to be a horrendous journey, subjected to deprivation, starvation, dehydration and cannibalism that caused an enormous scandal. Théodore Géricault's painting, created in 1819, depicting the moment that the survivors first spy and attempt to attract the attention of the dot of a ship on the horizon, is painted like a glorious memorial to those who suffered, defiantly provocative and unflinching of the reality of what was endured by those on the raft of the Medusa, and of a corrupt regime that allows such inequalities to persist.

Similar political and social implications can be found in Henze's oratorio, written in 1968 in another period of social and political activism to which Henze was very much connected. Das Floß der Medusa however doesn't make any overt reference to then contemporary issues, depicting the journey and fate of those aboard the raft of the Medusa strictly in historical terms. The nature of the struggle between two vast forces is very much evident in the make-up of the roles of the oratorio. Only one person is identified, Jean-Charles, the mulatto at the head of the raft who is seen waving a red shirt at the approaching rescue ship, the other two solo roles being Death and Charon who acts as narrator and as a guide to lead the chorus on board the raft from the side of the living to the dead.

Fairly stark divisions then that draw the lines between the living and the dead, between the privileged and the poor, but also the struggle that each individual on the raft has to make, the "perspective of an end that is separated only by courage or cowardice", which is how I think it is described. Romeo Castellucci's innovative approach, using projection screens, text and symbols, contributes a few other levels that bring out the underlying political subtext of the work and place it in a modern day context where the message is not overt, but hard to miss all the same. Like his Orphée et Eurydice - and indeed his production of Moses und Aron - there's a large screen that places a barrier that highlights the division between the message and the work, between the audience and the performers.

Playing out in parallel to the story of the Raft of the Medusa, Castellucci projects a film made in present-day Senegal, where a Muslim man, Mamadon Ndaye, is brought out to the exact point where the Medusa was shipwrecked and left in the sea for four days. Without having to make it explicit, there is evidently a commentary to be made about the inequality between the prosperous nations of the west and the poorer nations suffering disease, poverty, war and torture, having to take to attempt to migrate and seek asylum on flimsy boats on dangerous seas. It doesn't even have to be explicit, the footage of a man alone out in the middle of an immense sea is powerful enough, particularly when it is projected on top of the story of what happened to the crew of the Medusa some 200 years previously.

But of course, nothing is that simple with Castellucci. You might wonder why Death wears a yellow waterproof jacket and why she operates a movie camera that is trains on the audience (projecting back an empty theatre towards the conclusion). Self referential elements, breaking down the barrier between reality and theatre, also appear in the form of the actual names of the chorus - seen bobbing in the background behind the sea, sometimes as dummies - being projected on the screen, with their date of birth and the date of their 'death' being the 23 March 2018 (the date of the recording of this performance at the Dutch National Opera). Géricault's painting is also referenced in reverse as a geometric framing, while other unusual technological objects, neon poles and circles (see Moses und Aron again) descend from above.

Whatever it all means, it does nonetheless convey in a very abstract fashion the experience of people and reality being pushed to its limits, to minds becoming unhinged, of a world literally turning upside down. Visually striking, very much unconventional and avant-garde in its theatrical presentation with everything appearing immersed in the sea, when combined with Henze's relentless flow, its the rises and falls into violent outbursts meticulously controlled by Ingo Metzmacher, the hypnotic siren-call of the chorus proves irresistible, drawing crew and audience alike into its thrall. Lenneke Ruiten's extraordinary performance singing Death makes the certain end feel just as inescapable, which indeed, despite his rescue is also the fate of Bo Skovhus's determined Jean-Charles. It looks like Mamadon Ndiaye at least makes it out of the water, but you are left in no uncertain terms with as much an indication as it is possible to put on a stage of what must be endured every day for the thousands who take to the seas to endure similar horrors to the crew of the raft of the Medusa.

Links: DNO, ARTE Concert, YouTube

Friday, 29 June 2018

Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin (Belfast, 2018)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Scottish Opera, 2018

Stuart Stratford, Oliver Mears, Samuel Dale Johnson, Natalya Romaniw, Peter Auty, Sioned Gwen Davies, Alison Kettlewell, Anne-Marie Owens, Graeme Broadbent, Christopher Gillett, Alexey Gusev, James Platt, Matthew Kimble

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 28 June 2018

Pushkin's Eugene Onegin has been praised as "an encyclopaedia of Russian life" but it's one of those works that manages to encapsulate the characteristics and behaviours of a nation within a story of the intimate sadness and tragic fate that life holds in store for many of us. Pushkin wrote his own tragic Russian story, killed in a duel over a romantic dispute like Lensky in his great masterpiece, and Tchaikovsky poured his own personal, marital and emotional struggles into his work here, and the personal input of both creators can be deeply felt in Eugene Onegin.

It's not much to ask to have that reflected and expect to feel deeply moved by a performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, and while it rarely fails to hit the mark, there are many ways of approaching the subject. At one extreme you can have Stefan Herheim turning the work indeed into "an encyclopaedia of Russian life" complete with cosmonauts, Red Army troops and a dancing bear taking it right up to the present day, making the point that the Russian character - as well as the essential human character - remains largely unchanged. At the other minimalist extreme, Robert Carsen ties the emotional impact of the work and the course of a life to the colours of the seasons. Others, such as Kyzysztof Warlikowski, have focussed on how much of Tchaikovsky's life and troubled sexual identity can be clearly mapped onto the characters in the story.

Oliver Mears, the current artistic director of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and former director of NI Opera, makes a return visit with his Scottish Opera production of Eugene Onegin and doesn't attempt anything quite as radical as the above examples, but in another way it taps into the idea of simple lives caught up in something greater. What it does manage to do is grasp that sense of the scope of life and love, of the personal and intimate placed within the greater context of life, memory and the passing of time; the madness and insensitivity of youth that can have an impact that resonates through a whole life and that we can only grasp the enormity of it when it's far too late to change anything.

Mears employs a simple enough device to get this across, having the silent figure of an elderly Tatyana recall and rewatch a significant event in her youth that would forever determine its future direction, all of it taking place in a single room of fading memory. I was immediately resistant to the idea, since the ending in Tchaikovsky's opera - and the melancholic tone of the work throughout - already places the work into the context of memory and the passing of time. Tatyana's rejection of the repentant Onegin at the end of the opera, even though she is clearly in love with him, is an immensely powerful conclusion that could hardly be delivered in a more effective manner with the addition of another rejection of Tatyana finally tearing up the letter and forever setting the matter to rest.

On the other hand it's quite plausible that the matter between Tatyana and Onegin might certainly be over, but both will still carry the regret for the rest of their lives. If it doesn't make the conclusion any more devastating, it succeeds in driving the point home, particularly as Stuart Stratford and the Scottish Opera Orchestra deliver the final blows mercilessly after succeeding in holding the audience in a state of romantic melancholy for the larger part of the performance, conserving those energies for the other real moments of emotional impact; in Onegin's rejection of Tatyana's love letter and in the tragic and foolhardy death of Lensky in the duel.

There are other ways of showing how we can end up paying for the folly of youth later in life, but most obviously it's Onegin who carries this burden. One of the best ways I've seen this done is in the 2013 Royal Opera House production, where Onegin is led during the Polonaise on a dance through a constant progression of women that gradually wears him down with the passing of the years. It leaves him in the perfect state to have his eyes opened to the opportunities of real love and stability in his life that have been lost. Interestingly, with an elderly Tatyana coming back to a dusty, decaying Larin mansion, once filled with life, Mears's direction makes you consider everything else that has been lost over time. For the first time really the Lensky's tragedy carried through for me, and I wondered what had become of Olga and the direction her life subsequently must have taken. Would Lensky's death have stayed with her or would the memory have faded with time and the other needs of life?

It's essential that, like Pushkin and Tchaikovsky, the reader or listener identify with the characters in the story and see their lives in that kind of context; Onegin as tragedy plus time. By casting the net of time further - Herheim's production certainly does this, and so too does Kasper Holten's doubling of the older Tatyana and Onegin looking back on their younger counterparts - Oliver Mears captures that sense of the work not so much as an encyclopaedia of Russian life, but just an encyclopaedia of life. There are many perspectives you can place on Eugene Onegin, but the most important one is what the individual listener and spectator brings to it; and the passing of time, the changes it brings and the regrets that still sting are something that everyone can relate to.

That's not to say that the viewer has to do all the work. Far from it. While the perspective Oliver Mears introduces sets the work in a wider context, Stuart Stratford and the Scottish Opera Orchestra permit the listener to feel the heat of life and the complexity of sentiments associated with it in every note of Tchaikovsky's beautiful melodies and dances. The singing and characterisation are critical however, particularly for Tatyana and Onegin, and the casting was nigh on perfect here. Natalya Romaniw was simply stunning. If she was a little blank and cool in her acting, frozen mortification works well for Tatyana, and all the yearning was there in a superbly sung performance. She had a perfect counterfoil in Samuel Dale Johnson's Onegin, initially aloof (making an entrance on a live horse!) and little by little falling prey to his own personality flaws. There were certainly no flaws in his singing. The quality of singing and characterisation of Olga and Lensky by Sioned Gwen Davies and Peter Auty was evident in how much you cared about their fates.

Eugene Onegin can sometimes risk being a little aloof and cool in its mannerisms of detachment if the music and singing aren't all perfectly aligned to bring out the true sentiments. That necessarily goes beyond the principals, the larger picture of life and the impact of time extending to the supporting characters, from Madame Larina and the nurse Filippyevna's views and life experiences, to Prince Gremin's reflections on married life and love later in life. The chorus, the dancers, also all contribute to the sense of life viewed comprehensively in all its richness, but with an underlying melancholy for the impact of that time exerts on it. Everything that is great about Eugene Onegin comes together perfectly in this Scottish Opera production.

Links: Scottish Opera

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Gounod - La Nonne sanglante (Paris, 2018)

Charles Gounod - La Nonne sanglante

L'Opéra Comique, Paris - 2018

Laurence Equilbey, David Bobée, Michael Spyres, Vannina Santoni, Marion Lebègue, Jérôme Boutillier, Jodie Devos, Jean Teitgen, Luc Bertin-Hugault, Enguerrand De Hys, Olivia Doray, Pierre-Antoine Chaumien, Julien Neyer, Vincent Eveno

Culturebox - 12th June 2018

In some respects, La Nonne sanglante (The Bloody Nun) is very much opera by numbers, featuring all the expected family situations and romantic complications, all mixed up in war, religion and high drama with a few colourful attractions - ghosts, drinking songs, marriage celebrations - that are familiar from the grand opera tradition. It's early Verdi's bread and butter and Charles Gounod could make much of it as well with that particular French romantic touch of melody and dynamic. La Nonne sanglante however is a fairly obscure work by the composer, and it has taken the 200th anniversary of Gounod's birth in 1818 to raise the bloody nun from the dead, so to speak.

The fate of the opera was sealed during its initial run, the subject regarded as being distasteful by the new director of the Paris Opéra, who immediately cancelled it and it's been buried ever since. As you might expect from the title, it's a bit of a gothic melodrama, and as you might also expect, it's highly entertaining. To a certain point at least. The first act certainly is just marvellous, a reminder of how formulaic opera might have been then, but it was a formula that worked and entertained. The first Act alone is a mini-opera in itself, Gounod bringing conflict and hatred towards an early provisional resolution with religious intervention, but it's clear that undercurrents of resentment and unfinished business remain.

The setting of the scene for the high drama that follows is established well in the Opéra Comique's production directed by David Bobée. A single murder - which is to have further significance later - is followed by a pitched battle that indeed has the ferocity of one long-fought. A feud has been running in Bohemia between the Moldaw and Luddorf armies for many years, and played out in slow motion during the overture; there's a repetition, a constant rising and falling that makes it seem never-ending. A priest however brings the feud to an end by suggesting that Agnès, the daughter of the Baron of Moldaw marry Théobald, one of the Baron of Luddorf's sons.

Luddorf's other son Rodolphe isn't best pleased when he hears the news. He's been in love with Agnès, intending to marry her himself. He suggests to Agnès that they meet at midnight and run away together. It won't do much for the peace settlement, but the notion holds more terror for Agnès than that. It's at midnight that the ghost of the Bloody Nun makes her rounds of Moldow castle. Dismissive of the ghost story, Rodolphe turns up at the appointed hour and swears eternal allegiance to Agnès who he believes has come disguised as the ghost in order to escape but in reality Rodolphe has sealed his union with the Bloody Nun herself. In her power, he must avenge her death, and her killer is revealed to be Rodolphe's own father.

Up to that point, La Nonne sanglante is tremendously entertaining, but inevitably it runs out of steam as the composer is required to fill in all the usual expected numbers and situations. There's a now unfashionable ballet which is included here, but neither Gounod nor the director really know what to do with it, so there's a lot of standing and shuffling around instead of dancing. We get a requisite love aria as Rodolphe believes his love for Agnès can be rekindled that is a little bit dull, so dull that Rodolphe's boy, Arthur falls asleep during it. Add a raucous wedding and a drinking song and it pads out the next two acts fairly conventionally.

The stage direction runs out of ideas too by this point, although it makes the most of the first half of the work. There's not much required or presented in terms of sets, the stage dark and monochromatic, giving a fine gothic character and more than adequate mood for the appearance of the ghost of the nun in her blood-stained white robes. It's Michael Spyres who has to carry much of the drive of the work and his sweet tenor is well suited to the role of Rodolphe, but there are solid performances also from Vannina Santoni as Agnès and Jérôme Boutillier as Luddorf. Jodie Devos is a bright Arthur and Marion Lebègue presents a suitably scary presence as the nun, even though you think a bigger voice could have done more with this role.

If there's any reason for reviving La Nonne sanglante aside from mere curiosity value, it has to be for Gounod's score and how he skillfully and entertainingly brings all those elements together, particularly in the first two acts. Laurence Equilbey and the Insula Orchestra make the most of the drama and the melodic flow of the score. Amends are made for the injustice of the nun's fate after 150 years of neglect, but as entertaining as its return from the dead might be, the fate of La Nonne sanglante after the Gounod centenary celebrations could well be burial once again.

Links: L'Opéra Comique, Culturebox, YouTube