Monday, 12 November 2018

Muhly - Marnie (New York, 2018)

Nico Muhly - Marnie

The Metropolitan Opera, New York - 2018

Robert Spano, Michael Mayer, Isabel Leonard, Christopher Maltman, Iestyn Davies, Denyse Graves, Janis Kelly, Marie Te Hapuku, Anthony Dean Griffey, Deanna Breiwick, Dísella Lárusdóttir, Rebecca Ringle Kamarei, Peabody Southwell, Gabriel Gurevich, Jane Bunnell, Stacey Tappan, Ian Koziara, Ashley Emerson, Will Liverman, James Courtney

The Met Live in HD - 10 November 2018

Hitchcock's 1964 film Marnie hasn't aged well, nor frankly has Hitchcock's once unassailable reputation over the last decade. A lot has changed with regards to how we view a woman's response to inappropriate advances from aggressive male bosses - particularly in the film world - but it has to be said that regardless of how he was behaving behind the screens, Hitchcock was at least one of the few filmmakers willing and daring enough to explore aberrant psychology (including his own) in mainstream popular cinema. Nico Muhly's opera version, world premiered at the English National Opera earlier this year, could be seen as a timely work in that respect, but it's debatable that the source material allows is it probe any deeper or any more successfully than Hitchcock managed in 1964.

Ironically the difference between how the two works approach the subject of how Marnie's childhood trauma manifests itself in later life is where the weakness lies in both, so perhaps it's the source material of Winston Graham's novel is at fault here. Hitchcock, perhaps for his own prurient motives, dared at least to extend the psychological impact into Marnie's sexual relations with men, or rather her lack of them, rather reductively depicting it in terms of 'frigidity'. Muhly's opera perhaps wisely skates around the pseudo-science and psychoanalytical aspects and perhaps lets Marnie's actions speak for themselves without the overblown melodrama. He attempts rather to express the hidden side of Marnie's character and her inner struggles in the music, but it's not entirely successful there either.

In terms of laying out the drama, plotting and pacing, the opera version of Marnie is faultless. It develops and progresses wonderfully, in part due to Nicholas Wright's lean concise adaptation and Muhly's rhythmic musical flow, but director Michael Mayer - last seen at the Met in their visually stunning Las Vegas Rigoletto and the initiator who suggested the idea of Marnie to Muhly - also makes every scene and action count within Julian Crouch's wonderfully stylised production designs. Every effort is made not only to keep the drama moving along and engage the spectator through the visual and musical representation of the drama, but there is also an effort to extend that to the characterisation, finding ways to hint at deeper and darker impulses.

The main manifestations of Marnie's 'issues', which also works well for dramatic tension, are in her criminal behavious and her changes of identity. Set in England in 1959 - Muhly and director Mayer retaining the period character of the source novel - Marnie (as office secretary Mary Holland) isn't long in making off with the contents of her employer Mr Strutt's office safe, soon after rejecting an awkward advance he makes towards her. She changes her appearance and name and applies for a post far away from Birmingham with a firm in Barnet in London, but is horrified to find that it is run by one of Strutt's clients, Mark Rutland.

Rutland however doesn't appear to remember or recognise her, but when she finds herself fighting off the advances of Rutland's brother and deputy Terry, Marnie decides it's time to help herself to the company safe and disappear again. She is caught however by Mark who has recognised her and known about the theft at Strutt's, but is in love with her and blackmails her into marrying him. The honeymoon consequently doesn't work out terribly well, there's an attempted rape (toned down here) and the situation leads Marnie to attempt suicide, an action that brings to the surface the truth about the family trauma that lies behind her criminal actions, her changes of identity and her inability to get close to anyone.

Michael Mayer's period stylisations appear initially to draw not so much on Hitchcock as the lushly colourful Technicolor romantic melodramas of Douglas Sirk (where arguably the film's subject matter might have fitted better) with some Saul Bass image projections to show Marnie in her various identities. There is some considerably effort however made to get beneath the surface glamour of the period and show the underside of Marnie's working class background, but also to show the various aspects of Marnie's identity beyond the changes of name and appearance. Four women accompany her on stage - singing roles - to reflect those different sides to Marnie, and a team of shady dancers in hats and long coats haunt and swirl around her.

The staging goes some way towards providing a more rounded and psychological portrait of Marnie and Nico Muhly also puts considerable effort into making that characterisation just as rich in musical terms. Muhly places individual solo instruments behind each of the voices to give them individual character and perhaps also hint at underlying psychology, but how successful this is can be difficult to determine or even audibly detect. (The sound mixing, I have to say though, didn't really give a good account of Robert Spano's conducting at the live cinema screening). Musically, Muhly's score is reminiscent of John Adams, but despite all the efforts in the solo and ensemble instrumentation, it never develops a character of its own for the purpose of the drama, accompanying rather that revealing other depths.

If the work is nonetheless successful in bringing Marnie to life, it certainly has something to do with the composer's writing for the voice. On the surface at least the voice types are carefully chosen; Marnie's mezzo-soprano, Mark's baritone, Terry's countertenor and Marnie mother's contralto all giving a particularly character that works with the music to alternately suggest surface strength and personality weakness. More than anything however it appeared that the real success lay in Isabel Leonard's superb performance. She looks stunning in Arianne Phillips's costume designs, maintaining an edge of cold detachment but one that you can clearly detect from her mannerisms and voice (not just her shadow-Marnies or the musical undercurrents) is hiding powerful emotional forces.

The singing in the other roles is also good, but determined to a large extent by how well the characters were written. It's difficult to sympathise with Mark Rutland's crude way of treating Marnie, but he's also a man of his time and he probably does love her in his own way, and despite the stiffness of character Christopher Maltman holds that balance well. Quite where this fits in with any #MeToo narrative is a connection probably best avoided, particularly considering the Met's own problems with sexual abuse scandals, but there were a few tentative attempts in the commentary to invoke it as relevant. Iestyn Davies was terrifically spiky as Terry Rutland, providing more menace than his brother despite having a lesser role, and Denyse Graves and Janis Kelly make a great impression as the domineering mothers despite the thinness of the characterisation.

Links: Metropolitan Opera

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Gounod - Philémon et Baucis (Tours, 2018)

Charles Gounod - Philémon et Baucis

L'Opéra de Tours, 2018

Benjamin Pionnier, Julien Ostini, Norma Nahoun, Sébastien Droy, Alexandre Duhamel, Eric Martin-Bonnet, Marion Grange

Culturebox - February 2018

Composer centenaries are always a good opportunity to revisit some rare and neglected works, and while Charles Gounod is well-represented by Faust if not much else, the 200th anniversary of his birth has at least unearthed (and seen broadcast) two practically unheard works in La nonne sanglante and Philémon et Baucis. If neither of the works proved to be lost masterpieces or give any indication that Gounod might be an underrated composer, they are certainly merit another look and prove to be charming and entertaining stage works.

First performed in 1860 (a year after Faust), Philémon et Baucis was revised in 1876 from its three-act form into a two-act opera. While neither version has been given much attention in the intervening years, the three-act Philémon et Baucis - in its production here in Tours - certainly hasn't been performed since 1860. An adaptation of Jean de la Fontaine's adaptation of the mythological take told in the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses, with a libretto by Jules Barbier et Michel Carré, Philémon et Baucis was intended to capitalise on the success of Offenbach's racy carry-on through classical mythology in his 1858 opéra-comique Orphée aux enfers ("Orpheus in the Underworld"). Gounod's take on the subject however has little in common with Offenbach.

Where Offenbach's approach was satirical and irreverent, Gounod adopts a more gentle tone that relies for humour more in the situational settings of mythological figures intervening in the lives of humans and employing common language, and instead exploits the setting and the characters for different moods and colours in concise little numbers. The opening scene in the original 1860 version, for example, opens with a pastoral scene, showing the poor couple, Philémon and Baucis in their humble little hut, singing of their love for each other, content in their old age. To relive their youth would be lovely, but looking at the wild and drunken antics of the youth of today, Philémon prays to Jupiter to deliver them from such behaviour.

The arrival of Jupiter with the god Vulcan in tow during a storm brings other colours out of the work, not least of which is the humour to be found in the lascivious behaviour of Jupiter already made great fun of in Orphée aux enfers. Gounod takes this awareness for granted then and doesn't try to compete in the sauciness stakes with Offenbach's work - although there is plenty of opportunity - but takes a more measured and dynamic approach that is rather (pre-)biblical in nature. Jupiter and Vulcan, who also has a little (pre-)Rheingold-like fiery forging while bemoaning of the cruelty of Venus towards him, are surprised at the kindness the old people show the two strangers and the fact that they are still very much in love, as this is not their experience of love.

Having gifted them with a self-replenishing jar of wine and the promise of a return to youth, Jupiter then takes vengeance on the other disrespectful Bacchantes who mock the gods and carry on their outrageous orgies, bringing a flood to the land and wiping them all out, and Gounod takes advantage of this opportunity to have a ballet Intermezzo (that is also taken full advantage of in the excellent Tours production). He doesn't wipe out everyone of course, keeping a few choice souls for his amorous purposes, but when he sees Baucis returned to her youthful beauty, he inevitably makes a play for her that doesn't make Philémon a bit happy.

There's plenty of material there for Gounod to play with and he's not so much interested in the comic potential. The arias and numbers are all rather pleasantly melodic and charming, and conducted as such by Benjamin Pionnier, but the work lacks any real edge, even in the spoken dialogue passages. A stage director could be tempted to play it up a little more in the style of Offenbach, but that would seem to be going against the true intentions of the work, and Julien Ostini focuses instead on matching the variety of tones provided by Gounod with an appropriate setting for each situation. That means keeping everything relative simple and uncluttered, but with some visual flair in Bruno de Lavenère's sets and some sympathetic lighting by Simon Trottet.

The necessary charm is there also in the singing performances of Norma Nahoun's sweet lyrical Baucis working wonderfully alongside Sébastien Droy's earnest Philémon. Alexandre Duhamel's self-confident but ultimately repentant skirt-chasing deity Jupiter is likewise well balanced with Eric Martin-Bonnet's bitter and lovelorn Vulcan, and Marion Grange whips up the Bacchantes into a frenzy, or perhaps more of a mild tizzy. Such is the nature of Gounod's Philémon et Baucis and such is the light charm of the account given it in the Tours production that this is a sympathetic and appropriate way to rediscover the true value of another neglected work by Charles Gounod, even if it's not such a masterpiece.

Links: L'Opéra de Tours, Culturebox

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Meyerbeer - Les Huguenots (Paris, 2018)

Giacomo Meyerbeer - Les Huguenots

L'Opéra de Paris, 2018

Michele Mariotti, Andreas Kriegenburg, Lisette Oropesa, Yosep Kang, Ermonela Jaho, Karine Deshayes, Nicolas Testé, Paul Gay, Florian Sempey, Julie Robard-Gendre, François Rougier, Cyrille Dubois, Michal Partyka, Patrick Bolleire

Culturebox - 4 October 2018

There's a strong case for keeping Meyerbeer in his own period and, so far, less of a case has been made for updating productions of his works to appeal to the tastes of a modern audience. Giacomo Meyerbeer's grand operas seem to be doomed to be consigned to history (along with so many other forgotten opera composers) as extravagant novelties to impress critics and elaborate entertainments for the rich. At a time when opera is going through a phase of reinvention as it attempts to be more expansive and inclusive, there doesn't seem to be a place for Meyerbeer any longer.

Which, along with the expense of putting on a Meyerbeer opera production, the sheer length of a five-act grand opera and the specialised singing required to sustain it, means that one of the most influential opera composers in its history hasn't been performed much in the 20th century. In the 21st century, there have been a few more adventurous attempts to rehabilitate Meyerbeer, to seek to restore and recognise his importance, or at least explore whether his works are worth reviving. The results have been mixed but tending towards 'problematic' and that's exactly where I think you could categorise Andreas Kriegenburg's new production of Les Huguenots for the Paris Opera.

Les Huguenots is an opera that can't be ignored, but it is in itself problematic. It's Meyerbeer's most famous work, it best displays many of his undoubted skills as a composer and it has a dramatic historical event as its subject - the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572 in which thousands of French Protestants (Huguenots) gathered in Paris for the royal wedding of Marguerite de Valois to Henry of Navarre were slaughtered by Catholics opposed to the Reformation during a period of heightened tensions, but it has to be said that its grand opera mannerisms don't make the subject friendly to modern interpretation. On the other hand, we are going through an age when religious conflict and intolerance to differences is a hot subject again, and what is Les Huguenots if not that?

Andreas Kriegenburg doesn't appear to be particularly concerned with the historical context of Les Huguenots, but choosing to set the work in the future it's questionable whether he thinks the work has anything to say about today either. If not that, then what? Well, it's far from clear, as other than a random piece of text setting the scene in 2063 there is actually nothing 'futuristic' about the production, and - other than costumes and the period - it actually adheres fairly closely to the composer's original intentions for the work, which is (unfortunately) as a romantic melodrama above all else.

Harald B Thor's set designs are very much in the Paris Opera house style; a brightly lit white stage, tasteful bold pastel colouration of costumes and semi-abstract sets that fill the vertical and horizontal space of the Bastille stage. There's a box-like grid construction for the Château of Count Nevers in Act I, there are platforms and tall thin bare bark trees to give an impression of the gardens and river of Marguerite de Valois' Château de Chenonceaux in La Touraine, with pale blue lighting. It's all very tasteful, with tasteful mild nudity, clean and uncluttered and it looks wonderful, but despite the supposedly futuristic sets, it does little for Meyerbeer's rather old-fashioned operatic style.

What it does do at least is highlight the brilliance and complexity of Meyerbeer's arrangements as well perhaps as its unnecessary over-elaboration. The famous Pré aux clercs scene in Act III in particular is impressive, the stage choreography and colouration highlighting the different colouration of the musical arrangements; a sequence that the singing of the Huguenot troops, the celebrations of Catholic students at the tavern, a procession of Sunday worshippers and the dance of a gypsy contingent. Then Meyerbeer brings them all together and the de-cluttered stage arrangements allow you to appreciate the skill involved in this.

The production is just as smooth elsewhere, Act IV sliding one set across to make way for another full stage set, with no over-elaboration or unnecessary detail, just simple elegant minimalism. Unfortunately, it's also just rather bland and non-committal, having nothing to offer in its futuristic setting, giving no reason why Catholics would be murdering Protestant Huguenots in the year 2063. As far as Meyerbeer and Scribe's drama goes, it accurately represents the original intentions with its romantic melodrama at the centre between Raoul and Valentine, but does nothing more than place it in a rather more tastefully decorated and designed setting.

It's a reasonably entertaining production then, which is important, made all the more enjoyable for the strong musical performance and exceptional singing. Marguerite has most of the technical challenges and Lisette Oropesa meets them extraordinarily well. Yosep Kang's Raoul de Nangis however is also very capably handled, the diction clear and lyrical. Ermonela Jaho is pushed into an uncomfortable range as Valentine, but she delivers the high notes impressively and with great expression, and actually comes across as one of the more 'human' characters here when everyone else seems to be playing grand opera. Paris Opera regulars Nicolas Testé, Paul Gay and Karine Deshayes all perform exceptionally well here, and the chorus also delivers.

Musically ...well, it's Meyerbeer so it has its longeurs, but it sounded great under Michele Mariotti. All the big bang conclusions at the end of each act really hit home and were well stage managed for additional effect, but there was also a lightness of touch and delicacy for the variety of sentiments that one finds in Les Huguenots, 'operatic' though they might be (drinking songs, lyrical love duets and romantic confrontations, religious pleas and calls to war with dramatic interventions). I don't usually hold to the view that some operas are better without the visuals, but in this case l found the work stronger and more interesting when just listening to the performance. I don't think that's as much to do with Kriegenburg's direction as the fact that Meyerbeer and Scribe's often ludicrously over-the-top sentiments don't really hold up to being taken seriously. Which is why Meyerbeer remains problematic, but Kriegenburg's direction does nothing to address it.

Links: L'Opéra de Paris, Culturebox

Monday, 29 October 2018

Leoni/Giordano - L’Oracolo/Mala vita (Wexford, 2018)

Franco Leoni - L’Oracolo
Umberto Giordano - Mala vita

Wexford Festival Opera, 2018

Francesco Cilluffo, Rodula Gaitanou, Joo Won Kang, Sergio Escobar, Leon Kim, Benjamin Cho, Elisabetta Farris, Louise Innes, Francesca Tiburzi, Dorothea Spilger, Anna Jeffers

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 25 October 2018

You can always count on some Italian verismo to give Wexford Festival Opera a bit of an edge. Alfano's Risurrezione at last year's festival packed quite a punch, and if anything the impact is even more intense in this year's double-bill of two concise little gems that Wexford with Francesco Cilluffo at the helm once again have rescued from semi-obscurity for the 2018 festival programme. Franco Leoni's L'Oracolo and Umberto Giordano's Mala vita proved to be a fine complementary pairing that doubled-up the verismo impact.

To all appearances the two works don't have that much in common. Leoni's L'Oracolo (The Oracle) is set in San Francisco's Chinatown, a sordid tale of opium dens, kidnapping, betrayal and murder all squeezed into a one-act one-hour package. Giordano's Mala vita is more Italian in its Neapolitan setting of passionate outpourings in the realm of love and betrayal. There are however a few interesting commonalities brought out by the pairing together of the two works.

Essentially, both works are about ordinary human lives where the poverty of their environment has a lot to do with their actions. With nothing left to live for, characters are forced to resort to other means to lift them out of the misery of their situation, with drugs and criminality one indication of this in the backstreets of Chinatown in L'Oracolo. In L'Oracolo however, some turn to superstition in fortune-telling, and in Mala vita others turn to religion - or superstition again, if you like. In both cases however human nature proves to be stronger and it's not the good side of it.

In terms of verismo, L'Oracolo, written in 1905 could probably be most closely associated with Puccini's Il Tabarro (from Il Trittico), not least in its shock conclusion of the fate of the victim of a murder being disguised. Musically however, Leoni is in advance of Puccini in his use of street sounds and noises feeding into the score as atmospherics. Dramatically, it's pure Grand Guignol, involving opium den owner Cim-Fen kidnapping her young brother so that he can impress Ah-Joe when he 'recovers' the child. His efforts are hampered however by a rival for Ah-Joe's affections when San-Lui discovers his plot, forcing Cim-Fen to brutally kill him.

As if this isn't colourful enough L'Oracolo also has a number of busy street scenes set around the beginning of the Chinese New Year, with partying, dancing, a dragon procession, a lantern festival and the fortune-telling scene by the oracle that gives the opera its title, predicting two deaths to come. It also embarks on a revenge killing when San-Lui's father, the owner of a Chinese medicine shop, goes off to exact bloody retribution on the murderer of his son. As if that's not enough, director Rodula Gaitanou piles on the gore in place of the attempt to hide the death from the unfortunate policeman who works on this beat.

If Leoni's score is more impressionistic and dynamic in its balance of light and shade, Giordano's goes for an all-out Italian passions in Mala vita in a manner that takes it closer to Cavalleria Rusticana. Like L'Oracolo however its tale of poverty and the law of honour killings in the countryside, but is set in the poor district of the city of Naples. Religion and community however still play an important part, and in Giordano's three-act short work, Vito who is suffering from tuberculosis is inspired to seek out and help an unfortunate woman on the streets as a way of atonement and a plea to God for a cure for his illness.

Vito pledges to take prostitute Cristina out of the den she works in and promises to marry her, much to the fury of Amalia his mistress who is married to Annetiello, a sleazy character who already 'knows' Chrstina. The fallen woman gratefully accepts Vito's promise of redemption (shades of Alfano's Risurrezione there too) but is ultimately let down by Vito, who finds that his feelings for the spiteful Amalia are greater than his sacred vows to God and to a lowly prostitute. Left destitute once again, Cristina in this production - again rather emphasising the tone of lives in desperation - kills herself.

Musically, Giordano's score is every bit as overpowering as Cavalleria Rusticana, filled with religious processions, singing and dancing and huge choruses that are almost declamatory in delivery. You would almost think it might be taking things a little bit over-the-top, but then you remember Mala vita is set in Naples, so it might even be considered understated in that light. Francesco Cilluffo brings the fire out of both works, with a more appropriate lighter touch for L'Oracolo, while the orchestra is boosted by a larger string section to draw out the darker tones for Mala vita.

The singing performances also exhibit a similar range and appropriateness of tone. Mala vita provides the best opportunities for the lead soloists to shine, particularly for the competitive female leads of Cristina and Amalia, which are sung superbly by Francesca Tiburzi and Dorothea Spilger. Sergio Escobar, also singing San-Lui in L'Oracolo, was really given a chance to let his ringing tenor shine as Vito in Mala vita, fearlessly and impressively hitting all the expressive high notes.

The set designs and costume design (vaguely 1930s backstreet poverty) by Cordelia Chisholm were impressive; a rotating block of tenement flats with lower-floor shops and buildings that moved fluidly form one scene to the next. How the cast managed to keep up with this from one moment to the next and get themselves into position in the crowded stage is another wonder of stage management. All that was required for the change was to turn the shop signs from Chinatown shops to Italian ones, even if it still retained more of a San Francisco feel than an authentic Neapolitan scene. More important however was that it permitted a direct comparison and transference of theme across the two works, and - with those superb musical and singing performances - both accordingly came over with tremendous power.


Links: Wexford Festival Opera

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Mercadante - Il Bravo (Wexford, 2018)

Saverio Mercadante - Il Bravo

Wexford Festival Opera, 2018

Jonathan Brandani, André Barbe, Renaud Doucet, Rubens Pelizzari, Alessandro Luciano, Gustavo Castillo, Simon Mechlinski, Ekaterina Bakanova, Yasko Sato, José de Eça, Toni Nežić, Richard Shaffrey, Ioana Constatin-Pipelea

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 24 October 2018

Wexford, if no-where else, continues to make a case for Saverio Mercadante. Falling somewhere between Rossini on one side and Verdi on the other, Mercadante has been overshadowed by two titans of Italian opera and that's a situation that is surely unjust. The world can unfortunately be unjust and essentially that is what Mercadante's Il Bravo is all about. The opera itself, pretty much obscure and forgotten, makes a good case for this sad reality.

The evidence so far in terms of the few opportunities we have had to see Mercadante staged, are that his 'hit rate' as the composer of around 60 operas surely couldn't have been lesser than that of Rossini or Verdi. Il Bravo in fact is musically much more adventurous than much of Rossini and certainly superior to early Verdi, Il Bravo coming in 1839 the same year as Verdi's debut opera Oberto. Or perhaps just a little more adventurous maybe, but certainly far enough away from the strict rules and expectations of the public to worry the critics and his audience of the time.

Where Il Bravo is perhaps a little over-ambitious however is in the nature of the drama and the plotting itself, although perhaps no more so than an audience would be accustomed to from Rossini and Verdi. The plot is perhaps too convoluted to detail, but as it is necessary to understand the impact that Mercadante is striving for, I'll make use of the Wexford Festival Opera's admirably concise early outline summary rather than attempt a full synopsis:

Set in 16th-century Venice, the Bravo of the title is a tormented character who long ago killed his wife in a fit of jealousy; unjustly accused of plotting against the state, he has been forced by the Council of Ten to become their secret hired assassin, while his father is held hostage to compel his obedience. The story also involves Pisani, a young man under sentence of banishment, in love with a girl whom he believes to be immured in Venice; Violetta, the girl in question, who has been under the protection of the Bravo since the murder of her guardian by a would-be abductor; and Teodora, a wealthy foreigner living in Venice, who turns out to be not only Violetta’s mother but also the Bravo’s wife, whom he had not killed after all.

All of the characters in Il Bravo are fighting against injustice done to them, usually by a higher human power or corrupt agency rather than fate or outrageous fortune. They consequently try to put their belief in truth and natural justice and are prepared to stand up for it, but are unjustly rewarded for their efforts. Some of the twists that lead to those conclusions however don't quite adhere to the same sense of reality or human response to situations. The disappearance of Il Bravo/Carlo's wife Violetta and her reappearance as Teodora with a daughter called Violetta is not only confusing, it's not really fully explained either, nor are the motivations clear why she is so glad to be reunited with him.

Dramatic contrivances go with the territory however and there's no denying that they have a tremendous impact. The final twist of Carlo discovering that his father has died, freeing him of his obligations as an assassin comes hot on the heels of Teodora's sacrificial suicide to free Il Bravo from his final unthinkable commission, and it's a real kicker, particularly in its musical delivery. Il Bravo is restrained in its use of big number arias, Mercadante permitting no unnecessary vocal fireworks but remaining rather dramatically attuned to the action musically and in terms of singing, allowing the drama to direct impact, with a few thunderous choruses thrown in for good measure. Rubens Pelizzari certainly lives up to the challenges of the title role of the assassin.

There are no bel canto extravaganzas or melodic flourishes either in the singing, but that doesn't make it any less demanding. Mercadante doesn't waste a scene in the opera and doesn't waste any characters. In another opera of its time Act II could be filler crowd-pleasing material but Mercadante keeps up the tension, scoring each scene for full dramatic impact. Nearly all the performers, with the exception possibly of Ekaterina Bakanova's Violetta, took time to find their feet, either too hesitant or too forced, lacking fluidity and barking our words. Under Jonathan Brandani's musical direction however, they soon warm up and the momentum of the work itself seems to carry them thrillingly along. Sometimes a little over-zealously, as is the nature of the drama where there is a lot going on and a lot of characters competing for attention but Brandini does well to reign them in and manage the powerful dynamic that is impassioned but controlled and alive to the drama.

It's also vital that the stage production goes along with this dynamic and controlled passion to deliver the necessary impacts, and despite a few unnecessary touches, André Barbe's designs and Renaud Doucet's direction for Wexford is sympathetic and in touch with the heart of the work, and it's really quite impressive looking too. It's grand and spectacular in its creative abstraction of classical Venice, with all its pomp ceremonies and splendour. The setting is largely period, the dramatic action is 'operatic' in delivery, frequently in stand and deliver mode, but this may be the best way to present Mercadante, and it would be a mistake to try to make Il Bravo contemporary and 'relevant'.

There is a half-hearted effort made in this direction but it feels contrived and doesn't really add to the themes at all, consisting mainly of tourists walking along the same Venice locations, oblivious to the true history of the place and the nature of the kind of drama that once took place there, taking selfies with the Doge and buying souvenirs. Evidently Barbe and Doucet want to at least make a token effort to bring the drama closer to home in the present day, or at least a reminder of the idea of injustice persisting, which is certainly the case for the neglect of the operas of Saverio Mercadante. The performance on the 27th October was broadcast live and is well worth a view on YouTube or ARTE Concert.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera, RTE/YouTube

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Balcom - Dinner at Eight (Wexford, 2018)

William Balcom - Dinner at Eight

Wexford Festival Opera, 2018

Leslie Dala, Tomer Zvulun, Mary Dunleavy, Stephen Powell, Gemma Summerfield, Brenda Harris, Craig Irvin, Susannah Biller, Sharon Carty, Brett Polegato, Richard Cox, Ashley Mercer, Sheldon Baxter, Maria Hughes, Laura Margaret Smith, Gabrielle Dundon, Ranald McCusker, Henry Grant Kerswell

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 23 October 2018

While it's true that few contemporary European composers have yet to make any kind of popular or lasting impact in the world of opera, American contemporary composers have fared a little better. In America, that is; over here in Europe they haven't had the same level of success. Now however, they are getting harder to ignore. There have been quite a few recent efforts to bring more accessible American opera over, and a few more in the centenary of Leonard Bernstein, but still few have made any real impact on this side of the Atlantic.

While the emphasis is on a commitment to reviving rare 19th century opera, with an emphasis on little known bel canto and verismo, Wexford Festival Opera have in recent years also played their part in bringing contemporary American opera to the stage in Europe. Not that there is any comparison or obvious musical connection between them other than the fact the fact that they are rarely performed. It says a lot even that the name William Bolcom means nothing to me, but this year Wexford have picked up Bolcom's Dinner at Eight, a new work by the veteran composer first premiered in Minnesota in 2017 and given its European premiere here.

Which begs the question; just where does William Balcom fit in the world of contemporary opera? Considering the subject of Dinner at Eight, it's American Depression-era setting and its success as a George Cukor movie, it seems obvious that there is going to be some jazz and some Broadway influences in the music, at least in the manner of Gershwin or Bernstein. Balcom however proves to be a little more complicated than that, an admirer of Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez, studying with Olivier Messaien, working closely with Darius Milhaud and even composing in serialism for his early works.

As far as Dinner at Eight is concerned however, while the domestic situation and cinematic flavour of the drama might suggest a kinship with Strauss's Intermezzo, the musical idiom is closer to Bernstein (Trouble in Tahiti), Barber (A Hand of Bridge) - Barber even a mentor of sorts to Balcom - and Menotti (The Telephone), albeit a little bit darker in nature and with some of those European influences there in the background. Essentially however what is important and what American composers can evidently do best (I'll make an exception in the case of Philip Glass's The Perfect American) is deal with particularly American preoccupations.

How successful Dinner at Eight is on this score is debatable. At the heart of the story is evidently a dinner party, but the guests who have been invited and the circumstances in which they have been invited are quite revealing about a number of aspects of American society, past and present. For socialite Millicent Jordan it's a chance to increase her social standing as Lord and Lady Ferncliffe are arriving in New York on the Aquitania have accepted her dinner invitation. For her husband Oliver, the dinner party is a way to entertain a new business client, Dan Packard and his wife Kitty, even though his wife thinks them both vulgar.

Also invited to the dinner party are Dr Talbot and his wife Lucy, former star actress Carlotta Vance, once promising actor Larry Renault and the Jordan's daughter Paula. Dr Talbot we find however has been having an affair with Kitty Packard, and both their partners know about it or at least have suspicions. Paula is engaged, but has been having an affair with Larry, whose youthful looks are fading and his career along with it as he descends into alcoholism. Carlotta meanwhile has sold her stocks in Jordan Shipping Lines and Dan is poised to liquidate Oliver's company. To top it all off, the Ferncliffe's cancel and the lobster in aspic has turned into a disaster. It's going to be quite a dinner party.

The opera however only needs to take us up to the moments before the party, Millicent and Oliver Jordan putting a brave face on things in the face of the impending disaster, but the situations leading up to it leave the viewer in no doubt about how serious things have been. One of the guests even commits suicide before dinner at eight, and there could well be others considering the decline in fortunes of most of the guests here. Dinner at Eight does deal then with some serious issues that still apply to contemporary American society, but whether that comes through coherently, or in any way that the ordinary person can relate to is far from sure. The focus on the arrangements for the dinner party and Millicent's disappointment about things going badly makes it all feel very trivial, despite those dark aspects.

Musically, Dinner at Eight follows a rather conventional format; everyone gets their little showpiece aria, there are Broadway music hall introduction choruses at the beginning of each act and the libretto by Mark Campbell lays out the progression of the plot and the undercurrents in a linear and expositional manner. There is however certainly some complexity and trickiness in those arias and some skillfully arranged ensembles, with discordant musical hints at those darker areas. Despite the variety of musical styles employed nothing feels pastiche or referenced, but well suited to the dramatic content. Under the baton of Leslie Dala (festival director David Agler conducting all the other performances), the twists and turns of the score were an endless source of surprise and fascination.

Alexander Dodge's production designs for Wexford are nothing short of stunning, but it is mostly functional in an Art Deco period style. There are - like the music and the drama - hints of social and financial pressures in the Inception-like fold-over of Manhattan buildings pressing down on everyone, in the huge bed that appears to be Kitty's entire world, but otherwise everything in Tomer Zvulun's direction of the drama is fairly literal, much like the musical drama itself. The quality of the singing is exemplary, Mary Dunleavy's Millicent having the choice moments and displaying an exceptional range. Stephen Powell gave a solid performance as Oliver, Susannah Biller an entertaining Kitty Packard and an under-the-weather Richard Cox coped admirably as the unfortunate Larry Renault.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera

Bernstein - Trouble in Tahiti (Leeds, 2017)

Leonard Bernstein - Trouble in Tahiti

Opera North, Leeds - 2017

Tobias Ringborg, Matthew Eberhardt, Quirijn de Lang, Wallis Giunta, Fflur Wyn, Joseph Shovelton, Nicolas Butterfield, Charlie Southby

OperaVision - August 2018

The Americans are coming, we've been told. While Europe has tended to go in one direction as far as 20th century contemporary music goes, breaking away from conventional diatonic scale, America has largely worked within the more familiar tonal hierarchies, telling us that traditional classical music is not dead yet. There have been a few tentative attempts to bring Europe back into the fold so to speak or at least recognise that there are still areas to explore and rediscover. Barber's Vanessa at this year's Glyndebourne, Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking at the Barbican and Kevin Puts' Silent Night at Wexford and forthcoming at Opera North, have all made minor inroads but few have been as successful as Philip Glass or, in the music theatre world (where I think most edge closer towards), Stephen Sondheim.

Where Leonard Bernstein fits into the landscape of modern American music and opera is rather more complicated and varied, scoring Hollywood and Broadway musicals, a conductor, writer who composed in a number of styles, working in popular song, jazz and classical idioms. I'm not familiar with his opera work at all - it's taken until his centenary this year for any real opportunity to experience any productions this side of the Atlantic - but they keep telling us that the Americans are coming, so the opportunity to see Bernstein's first short opera Trouble in Tahiti is one that perhaps shouldn't be missed.

Whether Trouble in Tahiti is typical of Bernstein I couldn't say, but it certainly conforms to my impression of lying closer to the Broadway musical composer than opera. On the other hand, there's clearly a certain amount of knowingness and satire in the short opera's all-American subject and treatment and certainly a more complex side to the music behind its breezy swinging jazz-influenced score and melodic song arrangements. The problem with satirising American domestic life and attitudes however is that it ends up portraying banality and there's a danger that the music could also be equally banal.

Opera North's heightened all-American production however ensures that the audience is in awe of the superficial attraction while being aware of the observation and commentary on the attitudes promoted by consumerist society that lie beneath it, forcing distinctions between winners and losers, between male and female roles. The opera opens with an all-American couple sitting at the dining table over breakfast. Involved in a petty argument over going to see Junior in a school play, it's obvious that after ten years of marriage the spark has gone from Sam and Dinah's relationship and it might not be so easy to rekindle.

Neither seem particularly interested in making the effort and, to be honest, the consumerist lifestyle and social model doesn't encourage any deeper engagement with each other. Sam sees himself as a little god in the office, making deals and being praised for his sporting prowess, while a three-piece close harmony radio-jazz chorus pay glowing tribute to his own sense of greatness. Dinah meanwhile goes to see a 'South Pacific' style musical called 'Trouble in Tahiti', "a terrible, awful movie" but despite herself, she enjoys the escapism of its songs that take her out of herself for a while, until she has to go back and make Sam's dinner for him coming home.

It's no Von Heute auf Morgen (although it could certainly form a contrasting view of domestic life if the two short works are ever paired), but the swinging, upbeat jazzy arrangements are deceptive, and there is some measure of dissonance between the music and the situation, as well as within the music itself that doesn't offer any optimistic outcome. At the end, Sam and Dinah don't so much make-up or even just put their differences aside as brush them under the carpet, going to see 'Trouble in Tahiti', where they can live the American dream on the screen at least.

Directed by Matthew Eberhardt, Opera North's production is itself a Hollywood musical come to life, a stylised all-American dream whose artificial glamour is cardboard thin, the ideal of the less than ideal sustained by the seductive croon emanating from the voices on the radio, from the poster on the wall, from the image on the screen. The singing is just outstanding, from those jazz harmonies of the trio chorus (Fflur Wyn, Joseph Shovelton and Nicolas Butterfield), to the conflicted self-assurance needed by Sam and Dinah that is brought out in the fine lead performances of Quirijn de Lang and Wallis Giunta. Tobias Ringborg brings a wonderful flow to those smooth arrangements with a hint of trouble (in Tahiti) beneath the surface.

Links: Opera North, OperaVision