Monday, 7 October 2019

Verdi - Le Trouvère (Parma, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Le Trouvère

Teatro Regio di Parma, 2018

Roberto Abbado, Robert Wilson, Giuseppe Gipaldi, Roberta Mantegna, Franco Vassallo, Nino Surguladze, Marco Spotti, Luca Casalin, Tonia Langella, Nicolò Donini

Dynamic, Blu-ray

Verdi's French operas have remained rare and infrequently performed. Even those originally written for a French audience, Don Carlos and Les Vêpres Siciliennes are better known in their Italian counterparts, Don Carlo and I Vespri Siciliani. Lately however not only have we been able to better assess the relative merits of those works in actual performance, but we've even been able to compare I Lombardi alla prima crociata against Jérusalem, both works rare in either language, but Verdi's French version of Il Trovatore has remained largely overlooked, and perhaps with good reason.

Notwithstanding its popularity and a number of famous choruses, Il Trovatore has pacing and plot credibility issues in its Italian version, and it's hard to imagine that it could be improved with a change of language and the insertion of a long ballet at the beginning of Act III. Any yet, watching the 2018 Verdi Opera Festival production from Parma, it's clear that Verdi's Le Trouvère is Il Trovatore like you've never heard it before. Or, perhaps more pertinently, like you've never seen it before, since Robert Wilson's characteristic direction has a way of placing a very different complexion on any familiar opera.

This is not the best place to consider the merits of Wilson's approach to theatrical presentation (Wilson makes his own arguments for it in the booklet of this BD/DVD release), but arguably they do seem better suited to works that have a more spiritual dimension rather than the full-blooded melodrama of a Verdi opera. I've rarely seen a production so beautiful but unsuited to the music and drama as Wilson's production of Verdi's Aida, and yet Wilson does unquestionably impose a huge presence and influence that colours how you perceive any opera he is involved with.

'Colour' being the operative word here. You know what to expect - a sparse light-box stage lit in shades of teal or aquamarine blue, geometric shapes floating above the stage, figures in stylised costumes contrasted against the light, striking strange static poses, with occasional objects and figures mysteriously floating past or wandering onto the stage. All this is very much present in Wilson's production of Le Trouvère which, in acknowledgement to the history of the venue and its composer, this time has the addition of some period photographs of Parma projected and animated, and one old man, looking very much like an elder Verdi, observing it all with amusement.

Even if you are familiar with Robert Wilson's designs and techniques, it still looks extraordinary, completely unlike anything else. Whether it is appropriate or not for the work - well, it certainly doesn't look like any familiar view of this opera, but it does succeed in establishing a haunting and vaguely sinister quality that suits Il Trovatore, or Le Trouvère, very well. Whether that feeds into the musical performance or whether the French version has its own particular character is harder to determine, but why speculate and attempt to deconstruct? It is what it is, and in its totality it is utterly compelling and beguiling whether as French Verdi or as Wilson doing French Verdi.

In some ways, Wilson's cool approach - while it might not have done much for Aida - suits the overheated melodrama and wild flights of Il Trovatore and works well to tone it down and bring it into focus. It doesn't so much cool it however as show it for its true stylisation - in its own way - as a dramatic piece. The credibility of characterisation or ability to follow the machinations of Azucena the gypsy and the switched identity of Manrico (Manrique here) and his romantic attentions towards Léonore is largely irrelevant. Le Trouvère creates its own universe where anything can happen and Wilson's production makes it possible for the viewer to enter into that world.

But there are a number of clear differences and revisions that do make Le Trouvère a different prospect from Il Trovatore, and it does indeed even have a very different character sung in French instead of Italian, sounding more lyrical and less declamatory. The majority of the actual changes are small tweaks, the excision of a cabaletta here, the addition of an aria there - but there are a couple of significant changes, notably the Act III ballet and the handling of the conclusion. Whether any of these changes are noticeably for the better is doubtful but they are fascinating to hear and see performed. Unfortunately, Wilson, like nearly every other director I've seen faced with a Verdi ballet, doesn't know what to do with it, and 20 minutes or so of extras boxing - not matter how stylised - really tests even the most tolerant Wilson fan.

Despite such additions Le Trouvère thankfully doesn't aspire to grand opéra extravagance, and Wilson's show-paced choreography and direction would never permit it anyway. Conductor Roberto Abbado recognises the more sweeping lyrical flow of the score and takes a varying approach to the pacing, never letting it head off at full-tilt but rather working with Wilson's direction to establish a piece that works on mood rather than dramatic action. Perhaps the French singing also makes a difference on the character of the work, but what matters most here - as it does with any Verdi opera in any language - is that it is superbly sung by the cast. The voices are clear and resonant Roberta Mantegna's Léonore representing that romantic lyrical quality, while Giuseppe Gipaldi's Manrique and Nino Surguladze's Azucena soar above the drama. All remain focussed on vocal character and delivery, never getting submerged by the music or indeed by the extraordinary visual aspect of the production.

It's difficult to transfer that character effectively to the screen, but the Dynamic Blu-ray release looks great. The usual transfer issues of blurring in movement are hardly noticeable in a slow Robert Wilson production, but vitally, the image gets across the subtle graduations of colour tones and lighting, with deep, rich blacks in the shadows that are essential for the contrast and the mood. It looks simply amazing in High Definition. And the audio tracks packs a punch as well. Voices are clear and resonant, there's good presence to the orchestra, although not always full detail. An impressive presentation nonetheless.

The only extra on the Blu-ray disc is a guide to the Teatro Farnese venue in Parma, but the enclosed booklet is wonderfully informative with a look at the history of the French edition of the work, including notes from Robert Wilson on his approach and a synopsis. The disc is BD50 for an almost 3 hour opera, all-region compatible, with subtitles in Italian, English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Teatro Regio di Parma

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Weill - Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aix, 2019)

Kurt Weill - Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2019

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Ivo van Hove, Karita Mattila, Alan Oke, Sir Willard White, Annette Dasch, Nikolai Schukoff, Sean Panikkar, Thomas Oliemans, Peixin Chen

ARTE Concert - 11 July 2019

As a satire of capitalism Brecht and Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has surely never felt so relevant and present with the times as it does now with the rise of populism and consumerism escalating towards end days. Never has it been more the case of giving the people what they want as long as you can get into a position of power and make some money out of it. And even if they don't yet know what they need, it's up to the enterprising businessman and leader to manufacture a dreams that they can sell them.

Directing Weill's anti-opera for Aix in 2019, Belgian stage director Ivo van Hove would seem to be in a good position to make this subject contemporary and relevant, but instead he goes for what is almost an anti-production approach. Using his familiar modern stage techniques of a stripped-back stage, using projections and on-stage cameras, it certainly emphasises the idea of capitalism being based on a sense of falsehood, illusion and fake glamour that is very much in the spirit of Bertolt Brecht, but it also turns out to be surprisingly dull and not as effective as it might be.

It's not surprising then that the stage is bare at the start of the opera. Widow Begbick, Fatty and Trinity Moses are literally in the middle of nowhere, three crooks chased out of town so they can't go back, their truck broken down so they can't go forward. Begbick tells them that they are going to build the city of Mahagonny there out of nothing. With the promise of entertainment, a deregulated paradise free from red-tape and restrictions on personal freedoms an unpopular laws and taxes, they're sure that it won't be long before the city and the stage is populated, attracting those with something to sell (like Jenny Smith and her girls, first at the door waiting for the punters to arrive) and those who believe that they can buy anything; everything is for sale, everything is permitted and money talks.

Up to a certain point anyway and it's in the fall of the city of Mahagonny that there ought to be some lessons learned - but only if you see the opera as a cautionary tale and there's nothing to say that it's anything more than a merciless satire on society and a bleak outlook on the darker base impulses of humanity. Certainly Jimmy Mahoney begins to recognise at one point that money can't buy you everything, but all he feels is missing is the urge to hit someone, and - wouldn't you know it - that's a need that can be exploited to make more money. Ultimately it's a self-destructive urge, and essentially the whole system is predicated on just such an outcome, or at least on putting it off for as long as possible while achieving the maximum consumption and profit.

It's all something that we can still recognise in the world today on an even bigger scale, with the urge towards violence and making money fuelling many a war. Even the hurricane and close call with death that Mahagonny narrowly avoids can be seen as a phenomenon brought on by man-made activity, in the accelerated abuse of natural resources and global warming. So perhaps it doesn't need to be overly emphasised or made explicit. We are all very much aware of what is wrong with the world today and the global consequences of what is happening. The real question is why do we still do it?

You would think however that the system should at least be superficially attractive and appealing. You don't need to go down the missing-the-point route of the Royal Opera House's 2015 production to achieve that, but Ivo van Hove doesn't even want to permit any such illusion, and indeed insists on showing us its ugliness and how we are willing to look past it for the sake of it suiting our immediate needs. Updating it for the modern age, van Hove's production incorporates how we have come to accept even digital manipulation as something of worth when it has no material value whatsoever. Everything is acted out for cameras, a selfie generation wanting to be immortalised on reality TV. Even the indulgences of the 'Everything is permitted' section of the opera takes place in a faked green-screen environment. It's a hollow experience and yet we've come to accept this as being enough.

So if Ivo van Hove's production feels very hollow and lacking in any substance, perhaps that the point, but you do get a sense that there is a wasted opportunity here to make something more of the opera and take it to another level. There's more to Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny than that however and its other qualities at least go some way to providing balance and reflection on the work. Musically the performance at Aix is of the highest order under conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. It's a fine interpretation that shows the richness of the work, its dynamism and unexpected sophistication, its ability to use whatever type of musical genre, jazz, classical, cabaret - and match it to drama and character as well as to the subtext it wants to use to undercut them.

In terms of singing, the work does have 'proper' operatic qualities and challenges. Nikolai Schukoff provides the most satisfying performance as Jimmy Mahoney, resolute and dissolute, capturing all the contradictions of the character and singing the role tremendously well. Karita Mattila and Annette Dasch also give good committed performances full of character and fire, if a little unsteady in places. What they also do particularly well is work with the on-stage camera close-ups that van Hove often uses this to bring an edge of intimacy and urgency to the work. That's not so much the case here, where despite the excellent work of the orchestra and some outstanding choral work from Pygmalion - the opera (and Jimmy) gradually fizzles out without it ever feeling like it makes the necessary impact. But maybe that tells us something as well.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Verdi - La Traviata (Paris, 2019)

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Opéra National de Paris

Michele Mariotti, Simon Stone, Pretty Yende, Benjamin Bernheim, Jean-François Lapointe, Catherine Trottmann, Marion Lebègue, Julien Dran, Christian Helmer, Marc Labonnette, Thomas Dear, Luca Sannai, Enzo Coro, Olivier Ayault

Paris Cinema Live - 21 September 2019

La Traviata is a great opera and I've heard it and seen it enough times not to need reminded of that nor ever feel the need to rush out and see it again. Yet here I am again watching another production of La Traviata. Really though it's only when a director has no fresh ideas and isn't able to do much with the work, pitching it in a stuffy Belle Époque setting, that it can be a bit of a chore - and even then Verdi's music is always the saving grace. If you get a director who can show the modern relevance of the work, its humanistic outlook, its fire and sense of outrage at social conventions and conservative attitudes, well then La Traviata can still have the power to impress and bring you back to see it again.

So with it being the Paris Opera, with theatre, film and opera director Simon Stone at the helm and the chance to see a much talked about new soprano Pretty Yende singing the role of Violetta Valéry, for the first time in a long while I was actually quite looking forward to my one millionth (approximately) La Traviata. Undeterred by a strike at the Paris Opera cancelling the live performance, the Paris Opera falling back on a pre-recording made a few days ago and fortunate to have turned up early enough to not miss too much when the cinema got its European time zones wrong, it was certainly a La Traviata worth making the effort to see.

Timing evidently is everything, and the issues I had getting to see the cinema broadcast turned out to be appropriate since although it's by no means a major theme in the work, there is a pressing sense of time running down in La Traviata (something made explicit in the Willy Decker production). It's there as a consideration that becomes important to Violetta Valery as she realises that there's more to life than parties and admirers and that she should grasp the opportunity for true love and happiness for the brief moment that it is open to her when she meets Alfredo. Time however is not on her side as we of course - very quickly - find out.

Not only that but Verdi makes the pressing of time very much present in his music and in the pacing of the drama. Really we are only introduced to Violetta and Alfredo and they to each other to enjoy a brief blossoming of love in Act 1, only for it to rapidly vanish and become a victim of social and monetary pressures in Act 2. There are certainly other complex motivations - guilt, a sense of unworthiness perhaps, a consciousness of age difference - that drive Violetta to finish with Alfredo, but principally its pressure from the social gossip and reputation, and there's a simmering anger against those conventions and the underlying hipocrisy of it all the fuels La Traviata.

Director Simon Stone is very good at getting that fluid sense of time in his rotating stage for the Paris production at the Garnier. He's also good at bringing a modem sensibility - a conflicted and contrasted one - to the romantic ideal of Paris and high society in this production. Violetta Valéry is a model here, her image emblasoned on posters and video advertising hoardings for expensive perfume 'Villain'. Her image dominates the stage while the reality is of course not quite as perfect. All the trappings of the lifestyle are there of course and they are indeed trappings that it proves impossible to escape from.

So we see two sides to the glamour. The fancy night club against the more down-to-earth reality of Alfredo declaring his love for Violetta out in the back alley by the bins. A Paris sequare has a grand statue, while a drunk at the foot of the dais, and instead of the florid declarations of love, Alfredo and Violetta communicate via banal instant messages and emoticons as Violetta has an after-party kebab from a Turkish fast food stall, 'Paristanbul'. Then of course, there's the scandal that comes along with the glamour. Again updating events, Violetta is accused of dragging down the name of a Saudi royal family (presumably instead of an old-fashioned baron), the tickertape newspaper headlines updated for a digital world and spreading like wildfire. In that respect it shows that the pressures on famous women who don't behave according to expectations are arguably even greater now than in Verdi's time.

That of course is the important theme of the work and it's one that Stone is able to emphasise and show is still relevant at the same time as he is able to show the personal cost by dispensing with the fake Belle Époque glamour and mannerisms of a traditional production. Visually, it's just spectacular, images blown up on a huge digital screen backdrop, the stage rotating fluidly and impressively to keep sets changing, adding and accumulating a picture of Violetta's lifestyle, how she interacts with those around her and where the conflicts and problems arise within it. It perhaps tries a little too hard, when everything that is really essential is there in the music and can also be found in the performances, but it's an impressive spectacle nonetheless and an intelligent response to the work.

And as magnificent as the production looked, it was the musical and singing performances that contributed to the overall success of the production. The Paris Orchestra sounded terrific under Michele Mariotti's conducting, striking that beautiful balance that the work has between Verdi's lyrical flights and the underlying fury, capturing an Italianate view of Parisian glamour. The young South African soprano Pretty Yende secures her growing reputation here with a very memorable Violetta Valéry. Her singing and interpretation were superb, placing an individual stamp on the work, and her acting performance - so critical here amid the melodrama - was impressive.

Youth belying experience was also of benefit to Benjamin Bernheim's Alfredo, generating a passion with Yende's Violetta that felt real and sincere. Giorgio Germont can be a rather stuffy role just by its nature, and there wasn't much Jean-François Lapointe could do about that, but the role was well sung. Simon Stone's production might have drained a little of the heated melodrama out of La Traviata by undercutting the glamour at key points, but it was an approach that ultimately worked in favour of the work and did indeed leave the heavy lifting principally to Yende and Mariotti who, if the impact of the conclusion is anything to go by, were more than up to the task.

Links: Opéra National de Paris

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Strauss - Die Fledermaus (Belfast, 2019)

Johann Strauss - Die Fledermaus

Northern Ireland Opera, 2019 

Walter Sutcliffe, Gareth Hancock, Stephan Loges, Ben McAteer, Maria McGrann, May McFettridge, Denis Lakey, John Porter, Alexandra Lubchansky, Dawn Burns, Conor Breen, Mark Pancek,

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 17th September 2019

It was a bit concerning for any opera fan that the last Northern Ireland Opera production was a Stephen Sondheim musical, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and with advance notice that Belfast's local pantomime dame May McFettridge has been signed up for a role in the Johann Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus, it looked like we'd skipped the opera season and Christmas had come early to the Belfast Grand Opera House this year. Still, the best way to take this this is perhaps not to look at this from a serious operatic viewpoint or as a pantomime either but just as an enjoyable piece of light entertainment, and Walter Sutcliffe's production managed to achieve that. Eventually.

It's easy to be dismissive of musicals and light operetta, but such works bring their own challenges in finding a successful blend of acting and singing, in establishing a comic situation and getting the timing and delivery right. In the hands of specialised practitioners of the opéra-comique, comedy and farce can be hugely entertaining when it is done right on the opera stage. In terms of visual presentation, NI Opera's Die Fledermaus looked the part with Andrea Kaempf's spectacular set designs and superb colourful costumes, but there was a bit of a disconnect between the visuals and the performances that - in the first half at least - failed to engage the audience.

Surprisingly even Strauss's famous overture - jam-packed with the composer's brilliant waltz melodies - failed to raise any applause from the audience, as they looked on baffled wondering what a man in a Batman suit was doing running through a kaleidoscopic visual of art deco city skyscrapers. The man is of course Falke, who has been made the butt of a practical joke, left wandering through the city in a fancy-dress costume, something he isn't ever going to live down until he gets revenge on his friend Eisenstein, but unless you had a programme to read the synopsis, the visuals alone weren't sufficient to let you know the backstory.

The use of a 60s era Adam West Batman costume was a good updating of the Bat costume that gives the opera its title, but it still the overture didn't have the necessary 'Ka-pow!' factor. The English translation maybe could have been looser and wittier, the delivery could have been sharper and it could have had more of a local connection. One reference to the maid Adele's aunt, supposedly at death's door, being seen cycling up the Cave Hill fell a little flat, as it seemed entirely at odds with the high society life of the Eisensteins with their servants and their lavish art deco mansion. I mean, I know the Antrim Road is posh but it's not exactly 19th century Viennese high society.

You can get away with a lot however if you play the comedy to the hilt, particularly when you've got Johann Strauss's melodies behind you and musically Die Fledermaus is a feast that was at least relished by the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Gareth Hancock in the pit. Unfortunately, the Belfast production seemed to lack the confidence and edge to push the boat out and really let it swing, some of the voices weren't always strong enough or had too strong an accent to lift it over the orchestra, and Act I's intermission came around quickly with an indifferent smattering of applause. Still, if we wanted to see things liven up a little more, there was always the promise of May McFettridge in the second half.

As it turned out, May McFettridge's role as the jailer Frosch wasn't really exploited either, but Walter Sutcliffe had a few other surprises that enlivened the second half considerably. We got a drag-queen Prince and his very gender-fluid entourage and servants, the racy exploits of Eisenstein trying to seduce the Hungarian Countess who was actually his wife Rosalinde carried over well, but essentially it was the party scenes - the colour, the costumes, the lighting and the choreography - that established a more unified connection with Strauss's music and its sensibility. It was suddenly much more fun.

And if an entertaining evening was all you were expecting from Die Fledermaus, NI Opera got there in the end. I heard many comments of approval from the audience as I left the theatre, so along with their music-theatre productions at the Lyric, the company are reaching an audience. The failure to produce a single genuine opera this year however is more of a concern for opera goers, and NI Opera could lose out big time to Opera Ireland's much more ambitious progamme south of the border and to the Wexford Festival Opera. Unfortunately, the temporary closure of the Grand Opera House for refurbishment doesn't bode well for next year's programme, but I'm still hoping they might surprise us yet.*

* (Edit: No, looks like I was wrong about that - Kiss Me Kate)

Links: Northern Ireland Opera

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Puccini - Tosca (Aix, 2019)

Giacomo Puccini - Tosca

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2019

Daniele Rustioni, Christophe Honoré, Angel Blue, Catherine Malfitano, Joseph Calleja, Alexey Markov, Simon Shibambu, Leonardo Galeazzi, Jean-Gabriel Saint Martin, Michael Smallwood, Virgile Ancely, Jean-Frédéric Lemoues, Frank Daumas

ARTE Concert - 9 July 2019

You can always rely on the Aix Festival to bring something fresh and original to established opera classics, and it looks like that principle is going to continue under the directorship of Pierre Audi. If anything with Audi, you could expect it to be ever more challenging and idiosyncratic. Christophe Honoré has been here in Aix before, with a stunning and wholly original colonial take on Mozart's Così Fan Tutte in 2016, and this year the French filmmaker takes an even more cinematic departure from the standard opera approach to Puccini's Tosca.

There are a number of surprises throughout the Aix production of Tosca, but perhaps the greatest is the presence of the great American soprano Catherine Malfitano in the opera, a famous Tosca in her day, not least for the on-location 1992 film version alongside Plácido Domingo. She seems to have retired from dramatic performance for a while now, working mainly now as an opera director, so it's delightful that Honoré has found a way to bring her back to the stage, but also manage to do so using her aura and personality meaningfully in service of the opera. I imagine that the movie version must have made as much of an impression on
Honoré as it did on me back then.

It's a lovely idea as a homage then to have Malfitano take on the role of La Prima Donna who is passing on her experience to an up-and-coming new singer in the role of Tosca (and I'm sure there's some blurring of the lines between reality and drama in
Angel Blue being the soprano here), but there's always the risk that while it might sound like a fun idea, it could only detract from the power of the original work. You do get that impression of distancing at the start of Act I, with an additional camera crew on the stage supposedly making a documentary about a great opera diva, who is not in great form for the guests who have been booked in to see her that day.

As it's an opera company putting on a production of Tosca who are hoping to gain a few pointers from one of the greatest singers in the role of Floria Tosca, there's evidently a danger of the opera within an opera distancing the viewer from the true emotion and purpose of the original work -
Malfitano even at one stage calling the conductor to halt proceedings while she coaches Angel Blue - but you do start to see some overlap in the emotions of the company, as Angel Blue or 'Angel Blue', starts to get a little jealous of the attentions and adoration that her Cavaradossi (Joseph Calleja) is displaying over the eyes of the madonna/prima donna, or perhaps it's the opera that is freeing those heightened emotions.

With the documentary camera crew capturing all these little undercurrents and correspondences from multiple angles, which are broadcast live over the big screens at the back of Alban Ho Van's impressive cinematic set designs on the stage of the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, this does come across more like a movie than a 'proper' opera. It's interesting that Ivo Van Hove recently used a similar behind-the-scenes on-stage crew technique for his theatre adaptation of 'All About Eve' and it's clear that there is another film reference here,
Honoré setting Malfitano's prima donna like the silent movie star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's 'Sunset Boulevard', past her prime and in the midst of a personal crisis over her absence from the limelight.

That becomes more evident in Act II, but despite initial misgivings I was already sold on the idea by the end of Act I, since it was clear that there's a recognition here that - to state the obvious - Tosca is an 'operatic' opera, larger than life. Fitting the traditional Napoleonic drama of Act II into this stage version is inevitably going to be a challenge however, but Honoré rises to that challenge brilliantly by looking at Act II as essentially Tosca's dilemma. Here, dressed like Norma Desmond, Malfitano's diva suffers a crisis after having been introduced to these young rising stars, as the after rehearsal party turns into something nightmarish.

The horror of the abuse, torture and murder in Act II of Tosca here becomes blurred in the fevered mind of the diva with the reality of her real life past and present and her opera characters. Brilliantly, Honoré identifies her struggles with the characters of Madama Butterfly, Lucia di Lammermoor and Salome - all notable Malfitano roles. In this context Scarpia here becomes an almost Harvey Weinstein figure (appropriate as the Weinsteins of the opera world are also coming to light now), and Honoré even manages to make the diva something of a dark figure in her seduction (or paying for) the attentions of young men. It's as highly charged and sexualised (and scandalous) as Act II of Tosca ought to be. The 'Vissi d'arte' is also a showstopper, delivered by Angel Blue, but back projections of other famous Toscas over the years show that the struggle goes back a long time.

Where can you take that in Act II, well to be honest you'd go anywhere with the director after that, but Honoré follows through on the premise and still holds a few surprises in reserve. For Act III he puts the orchestra and conductor up on the stage for the concert performance that was being rehearsed in Act I, and this acts as a backdrop for the 'real-life' tragic demise of Malfitano's diva, identifying with Tosca, her illusions shattered. It's a breathtaking conclusion that, by putting the orchestra centre stage, essentially returns the power back over to Puccini's music. Daniele Rustioni, who we've been fortunate to gain as the chief conductor of the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast and have already experienced his passion for Italian composers and opera this summer, shows us that in Act III Puccini's music is everything.

Well, not entirely everything. Considering the difficulties of playing dual-roles in close up to cameras, the performances are also outstanding. Angel Blue is glorious, Joseph Calleja is tragic, Catherine Malfitano incredible just for her presence and acting performance. What is impressive however is that there are no egos involved here, each of them prepared to put in whatever it takes to make this production one of the most moving Toscas I've ever seen. Impressive on any number of levels, it's not about voices, divas and drama, it's not inflated egos and pretentious concepts; Christophe Honoré's production works because it blurs boundaries between life and art, reducing and elevating Puccini's masterpiece to the level of pure emotion, pure opera, pure Tosca

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence

Monday, 16 September 2019

Mozart - Requiem (Aix, 2019)


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Requiem

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2019

Raphaël Pichon, Romeo Castellucci, Siobhan Stagg, Sara Mingardo, Martin Mitterrutzner, Luca Tittoto, Ensemble Pygmalion

ARTE Concert - 10 July 2019

Romeo Castellucci's directorial projects are becoming less interested in the traditional narrative aspect of opera direction and more concerned with exploring and representing the spiritual side of humanity within the works. Of course, the works in question have to be capable of possessing this quality, and that's certainly the case for the likes of his La Monnaie Parsifal, his Paris Moses und Aron and his Hamburg Matthew's Passion. More recently he has set about exploring this in other less obviously spiritual works, in Salome for Salzburg and Tannhäuser for Munich, but perhaps the most interesting exploration of the spiritual existing with the physical nature of humanity has been in his stunning La Monnaie production of Die Zauberflöte. Mozart is of course fully open to be explored in this area and nowhere more so than in the Requiem.

Mozart's Requiem however isn't an opera, and the idea of setting it to a manufactured narrative would evidently be presumptuous, if not actually impossible. For the purposes of this Aix-en-Provence production - an ambitious one in Pierre Audi's first season as artistic director of the festival - Castellucci associates the work with a growing awareness of the temporality of human existence as individuals and as a species, as well as the fleeting impermanence of what our relatively brief presence on the planet leaves behind. The best way of looking at this approach to Requiem is that the director is seeking a way to extend the work far beyond its own confines, showing or at least suggesting connections it makes - musical, spiritual and existential - to the condition of being human and being mortal.

To extend the scope of Requiem further for this purpose, Castellucci makes use of several other Mozart sacred pieces and Masonic hymns in including the Kyrie from the Mass in C Minor, O Gottes Lamm, and opens the theatrical presentation of this work with a Gregorian chant. Essentially, this production of Requiem becomes a ritual of song and dance, celebrating life in the face of the certainty of extinction. It's this theme that dominates as, in typical Castellucci fashion, words are projected to the back of the stage, an 'Atlas of Extinction', that enumerates the extinction of creatures that no longer exist, to extinct plants, disappeared lakes, extinct tribes and races, extinct cities, lost languages, religions, buildings and works of art.

It's a fascinating device that really has an impact in conjunction with the performance and the music, showing that as well as being something sad there's also something beautiful in the contemplation of the awareness that all things come to an end. The catalogue however doesn't restrict itself to known extinctions but gnomically reminds us in its list of "present-day extinctions", of the extinction of I, of the extinction even the of the word I, of wind, water, grass, thought, fish in the sea, time, even the extinction of this music. And ultimately of course, an extinction of this day, the 10th July 2019. Indeed, if there is anything that can testify to the glory of human existence over its relatively short presence on Earth, it's Mozart's Requiem. Eternal rest grant unto them.

On the stage meanwhile, Romeo Castellucci makes use of the Pygmalion Vocal Ensemble to enact ritual dances for Mozart's music, placing quite a different character on the work that you would typically get from a solemn concert performance. Moving ever closer towards performance art or art installations, Castellucci has extras representing all the ages of woman (from old age to birth) splatters the stage and bodies with Holi-like coloured power and honey, with soil, spray painting the backdrops, as the chorus move into formations to put on folk dances, a maypole dance and ritualistic representations of life and death, all the while that Mozart's music plays and the backscreen runs through its seemingly endless catalogue of extinction.

Seen in this context it's extraordinarily beautiful, invigorating, thought-provoking and often very moving; but even so, the question remains about whether it is worthy of Mozart's music. I return to that statement at the start of the presumption or impossibility of staging Mozart's Requiem, or believe that it can be elevated to anything greater than it already is. Given that, yes, Romeo Castellucci creates a presentation that is indeed worthy of the piece as a sincere artistic response to this great work. Like Katie Mitchell's and Raphaël Pichon's attempt to do the same for J.S. Bach at the 2014 Aix Festival (Trauernacht), or indeed like Robert Wilson's reworking of Arvo Pärt's sacred music for Adam's Passion, it is of course the music that must be the heart and soul of the production.

That relies of course principally on the musical direction of Raphaël Pichon, the Ensemble Pygmalion Orchestra and Chorus. Even in the open-air conditions of the theatre of the Théâtre de l’Archevêché in Aix in a theatrical presentation, the performances and the singing of the principals Siobhan Stagg (soprano), Sara Mingardo (alto), Martin Mitterrutzner (tenor) and Luca Tittoto (bass) - not to forget the beautiful acapella Kyrie by boy alto Chadi Lazreq - captures all the glory and solemnity of the work. It's not enhanced by the visual representation, but the busy and sometimes strange imagery of the production design doesn't detract from it either. What it does is prompt you to think about not just death but extinction, and as a mass for the death of everything, Mozart's Requiem couldn't be more fitting.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Strauss - Salome (Munich, 2019)

Richard Strauss - Salome

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2019

Kirill Petrenko, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Michaela Schuster, Marlis Petersen, Wolfgang Koch, Pavol Breslik, Rachael Wilson, Scott MacAllister, Roman Payer, Kristofer Lundin, Kevin Conners, Peter Lobert, Callum Thorpe, Ulrich Reß

Staatsoper.TV - 6 July 2019

When you come up against a Krzysztof Warlikowski production that appears to be at great variance from what you expect, as in his Munich production of Salome, it can be useful to remind yourself what the work is supposed to be about. A straightforward biblical story it is not, but rather one of Oscar Wilde's most daring works, far more incisive of Victorian morals than any of his society comedies, a confessional work of taboo in Symbolist drama form, exposing the hypocrisy of a decadent order of repressed lusts hiding behind a veneer of respectability. Along with Freud's studies in Vienna at the turn of the century, it was certainly a work that appealed to Strauss as a way of breaking through the mannerisms of old music and expressing an unspeakable truth, ushering in a new millennium in a violent fashion.

That's over one hundred years ago however, so can Salome still have relevance today? Musically it's still an extraordinary piece of music, perfectly and meticulously connected to a subject that still has the power to shock on the stage, and it doesn't have to be tied to a Biblical story either to have a transgressive taboo feel. Warlikowski taps into that power in his Bavarian State Opera production, but appears to turn the focus away from exposing corrupt individual lusts and delves rather into the self-destructive nature of exposing those individual lusts - something Wilde could certainly attest to - and how they feed into a broken society that is collectively heading for self-destruction.

Is that something we can recognise today? Perhaps it's still not that evident, but Warlikowski chooses not to hit the audience who might be blind to the dangers in our own world today over the head with any heavy-handed contemporary associations. Evidently it's not set 2,000 years ago either, but looks closer to the first half of the 20th century, perhaps 1930s, a time when again, that dark desires and will of human nature would push individuals into a collective self-destructive death wish. There's no obvious war references that point to this either it must be said, but the force of Strauss's music and the fact that this production takes place in Munich make it hard not to make those obvious associations.

I've rarely seen the illicit desires of Salome expressed as powerfully as they are here in Krzysztof Warlikowski's production, and I don't just mean the desires of Salome herself, although
Marlis Petersen of course gives a reliably intense performance, nor indeed the rather perverted degeneracy of Herod - likewise an impressive performance from Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke - but it's taken much further than usual also in Pavol Breslik's Narraboth, who clings, gropes and paws desperately at the Princess even as she appeals lasciviously to Jochanaan, and then commits suicide by taking a vial of poison, much to the horror of Rachel Wilson's Page who is clearly in love with Narraboth herself.

All this creates an explosive situation that plunges all of these figures into dangerous ground. That is reflected within Malgorzata Szczesniak's set, the library where Herod has been (strangely) entertaining his guests splits open to reveal a chasm, a gangway downwards to where the prophet Jochanaan, no less wrapped up in his own obsessions, lies in the cistern - but again the chasm isn't one into which Salome alone peers with dark self-destructive desire, but all of Herod's retinue eventually succumb. The contrast between the old world library and the modern gangway to destruction also works with the powerful violence of contrast Strauss's plunge into the development of modernism in his music.

That descent into madness is of course best exemplified in Salome's dance, which is consequently often problematic, particularly in finding a new way to present it. Warlikowski at least keeps it consistent with the central theme here, having Petersen literally engaged in an erotic dance with Death, or a courtier with his face painted in a Death mask, with an animated projection in the background of some kind of heraldic congress (don't ask, I'm not even sure I know what I mean by that). But since Wilde's drama is very much Symbolist in its stylisations this all works well with the text, particularly with the constant references to death heard in the beating of wings.

There's a lot going on, as there often is in Warlikowski productions, and as is also often the case, perhaps even too much. For a work as powerfully focussed as this there's a risk of distraction or spreading it out too thinly. If the dramatic charge consequently isn't always there as it might be, the musical and singing performances achieve everything that is required of them. It's simply a joy to have a conductor like Kirill Petrenko at the helm for a work as dynamic and charged as Salome. I don't think Warlikowski's direction works perfectly in alignment with Petrenko's reading and conducting of the score, but musically in its own right it's as powerful and measured a performance of this music as you can get.

Marlis Petersen as ever gives a committed intense performance. I don't think her voice has the fullness that it once had, but her voice has a perfect lyrical character that is essential for those switches between seductive and dangerous pleas and close-to-shriek utterances of exasperation. But my goodness, this was an exceptionally strong cast across the board, with Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke in particular bringing an other dimension to Herod, Michaela Schuster also avoiding lazy cliche with an almost sympathetic Heriodias, and committed performances from Pavol Breslik as Narraboth and Rachael Wilson as Heriodias's Page.

Wolfgang Koch made less of an impression as Jochanaan, not so much for his singing, which was impeccable, as it seemed that Warlikowski was less interested in the Prophet than in the other depraved characters. This was evident even in the usually gore-filled finale where Jochanaan's head is not presented on a silver platter but in what looks like a safe-deposit box, which doesn't even seem to contain a head since Koch's Jochanaan can be seen sitting to the side of the stage casually smoking a cigarette.

This seems to tie into something of a Liebestod moment here in the Munich production, since not only is Jochanaan alive or resuscitated, but Naraboth is also resurrected so that Warlikowski can provide an alternative twist on the ending of the opera. "The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death", sings Salome as the whole ensemble, with a kind of bunker-like death cult mentality, hand out vials of poison and commit mass suicide. Make of that what you will - and it's good if there remains some element of shock and controversy about Salome - but aligned with Strauss's thunderous juddering final chords, it makes for a hugely effective conclusion that should leave you much to think on.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsopertv