Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Landi - La Morte d'Orfeo (Amsterdam, 2018)

Stefano Landi - La Morte d'Orfeo

Dutch National Opera, 2018

Christophe Rousset, Pierre Audi, Cecilia Molinari, Renato Dolcini, Alexander Miminoshvili, Gaia Petrone, Rosina Fabius, Magdalena Pluta, Juan Francisco Gatell, Kacper Szelążek, Emiliano Gonzales Toro, Salvo Vitali

Naxos - Blu-ray

The myth of Orpheus has not only been the inspiration to some of the greatest works of opera ever written, it could even be said to have inspired the creation of opera itself. Certainly some of operas most important key works, namely Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (1607) and Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (1774), are works that still carry every bit of their original power, beauty and meaning from several hundred years ago through to the present day. Every new production of these works seems to find endless inspiration in them and it's not difficult to see why since the story of Orpheus is about transforming life into art that lasts through the ages. The moral that there's a high price to be paid for the artist who pours his life into immortal works is however conveniently glossed over somewhat in these early opera versions of the myth. Not so in Stefano Landi's La Morte d'Orfeo.

Orpheus's journey to the Underworld to bring back his dead wife Eurydice is not the whole story, and there is certainly no happy ending of the kind that was imposed by dramatic convention on Gluck's opera, but rather there is more to be learned in the myth that makes its meaning even more tragic and illuminating. The fate of Orpheus is taken up from where Monteverdi left off in La Morte d'Orfeo composed in 1619 by Stefano Landi who, as a Papal composer, was nonetheless likewise adapting the story for his own audience. Orpheus does indeed pay a high price for his infractions against the order of the gods, and not just though his insistence on reviving the dead Eurydice, but for the sins of pride and artistic excess. For the sinning against the purity of women and the sacred bond of marriage, he is ripped apart by the women of the maenads.

Orpheus might have the power to charm the God and the spirits of the Underworld with his music, but there are other stronger forces at work on the artist and Orpheus is torn between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Landi personifies that struggle in the first scene of La Morte d'Orfeo, and Pierre Audi directing this Dutch National Opera production (his last production after 30 years as artistic director there) depicts that simply and directly. Fate has decreed that Orpheus die on his birthday and Orpheus is shown as helpless against the coming of the dawn, Aurora, and the breezes that sidle up against him, waking him to the fate that Fate has in store for him. All of these forces have physical form and are personified, as also is Fury.

Orpheus however is oblivious to his fate, a demigod who perhaps even believes himself exempt from the fate of ordinary mortals. Follow the path of virtue, advises his father, beware of women and their wiles. "He who does not honour love is better off dead". When Orpheus slights Bacchus however, his followers, the maenads call for vengeance. There is something typically anti-women in Laudi's depiction of this situation for his Roman Catholic commissioners, but there are two ways of looking at this and Audi turns it around for the #MeToo age where it becomes a cautionary tale not for the benefit of men to beware of women leading them into sin, but that a reckoning will come for those who mistreat and abuse women.

Up to that point much of the opera is fairly dry, delivered mostly through early opera style recititative and choruses, with little in the way of arias. There's little that Pierre Audi can do to enliven the lack of conventional dramatic action. He keeps the direction simple and doesn't clutter the smaller scale stage of the Muziekgebouw theatre in Amsterdam, restricting expression to costumes of pale colours and blood red lighting for the drama. The design has a few of the familiar Audi aesthetics but nothing that distracts from the purpose of the work, an upside down flowering tree with blood red blooms the only real symbolism on the stage.

If there's a lack of expression in the dramatic action and expression, all the colour is there however in the characters and personification of the forces of nature, and that is very much brought out by Landi's musical composition and the beautiful textures and colours of the baroque instruments. It's assisted considerably in that respect by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques interpreting the score. There's less of the usual rhythmic drive that Rousset brings to this kind of period music, but this is not music for dance as it would be in a French tragédie lyrique. As anyone who has heard William Christie's revelatory Caen production of Landi's Il Sant'Alessio will expect, this is much more in the realm of spiritual or religious music that Landi more frequently worked in.

The greatness of the work then only really becomes evident with the death of Orpheus. Incredibly the dramatic scene of him being ripped apart by the maenads takes place off-stage and is instead recounted vividly in the music and singing of Fileno, who tells Calliope, the mother of Orpheus, how he witnessed her son destroyed even as he tried to appease the furies with his music and singing. It's by far the longest scene in the opera, the centrepiece, the emotional heart of the work and it's particularly impressive here for the lyrical singing and heartfelt delivery of Renato Dolcini. That tone is maintained for the remainder of the work, with organ music piping in behind Orpheus's funeral lament. It truly elevates the work to a thing of great beauty.

The structure and arrangement of the drama is not conventional then, and it doesn't put Orpheus at the centre of the opera - he actually has a lesser role in a small cast that play multiple roles - but rather as the title of the opera makes evident, it puts the death of Orpheus at the centre. Even the idea of Orpheus having some consolation that he might be reunited in death with his lost love Eurydice is taken from him. Charon and Mercury have bad news for him on that score, as Eurydice has taken the waters of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. If the artist is to live on it is through his legacy and Orpheus urged to drink the same waters, leave behind his earthly desires and become a star in the heavenly firmament.

The 2018 DNO production of Stefano Landi's La Morte d'Orfeo is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Naxos. It's a fine production and a good recording that really serves this beautiful rare work well, particularly on the High Definition Blu-ray release with its lossless High Resolution stereo and surround soundtracks. The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 surround in particular gives space to that beautiful open percussive sound of the period instruments. The booklet included contains a full tracklist, a brief synopsis and an informative and insightful commentary on the work by Pierre Audi, who clearly understands the intentions of the work and brings those across wonderfully in this production. The disc includes subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Dutch National Opera

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Schreker - Der Schmied von Gent (Antwerp, 2020)

Franz Schreker - Der Schmied von Gent

Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Antwerp - 2020

Alejo Pérez, Ersan Mondtag, Leigh Melrose, Kai Rüütel, Vuvu Mpofu, Daniel Arnaldos, Michael J. Scott, Leon Košavić, Nabil Suliman, Ivan Thirion, Chia-Fen Wu, Justin Hopkins, Thierry Vallier, Simon Schmidt, Onno Pels, Erik Dello

OperaVision - February 2020

From just about every aspect, the Opera Vlaanderen production of Franz Schreker's Der Schmied Von Gent must be one of the highlights of an unfortunately curtailed opera season, but that's something we've come to expect from the adventurous Flanders company, a selection of whose work we've been fortunate enough to see streamed on OperaVision. Aside from the curiosity value of a neglected work by a composer currently enjoying something of a revival and re-appreciation, the fact that there is a local connection with the Flemish city of Ghent makes this an attractive proposition, and it's one that the company treat with great affection and attention to detail.

Schreker's final opera from Der Schmied von Gent is quite unlike the more typical sumptuous orchestrations of the composer's previous works. The irreverent and almost comic tone of the work is very different from the lush extravagant fantasies of Die Gezeichneten, Der Schatzgräber, Irrelohe and a long way from Schreker's first staged opera Der ferne Klang. As a Jewish composer working in a musical medium that would be classed as Degenerate, the opera was however not greatly appreciated when it was first presented in Berlin in 1932 and was all but lost in the ensuing troubled years, Schreker himself dying in 1934. In this Opera Vlaanderen performance it turns out to be not only a worthwhile revival of a Schreker curiosity but simply a wonderful opera.

Der Schmied von Gent may not be as lofty and philosophically searching in its aspirations as Schreker's other works and it does get a little bogged down in the historical period detail of the sixteenth century Eighty Years War between Spain and the Netherlands, but there is certainly more of a down-to-earth human quality in this opera that perhaps arises out of the Faustian pact in its plot. Ghent blacksmith Smee is taken advantage of by a beautiful she-devil Astarte who catches the smith at a low ebb, ready to throw himself in the river after losing business due to the actions of a rival blacksmith Slimbroek. He's promised seven years of prosperity but after that, he belongs body and soul to Astarte. That doesn't seem like a bad deal to Smee, but when the time comes, he tries to find a way to escape from the Hellish pact.

There's not much here that is particularly profound or philosophical, it's not something that touches insightfully on human nature and it's not as if the opera's themes can be endlessly explored and updated for new meaning or contemporary relevance, but like any fairy-tale like story it does have important truths and observations to make. Plunging into history and war, evoking horrors and tyrants, religion, devils, Schreker's opera even brings Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus to the stage. What it certainly has then is the essence of opera, of drama writ large, heightened human emotions and behaviours, expressed with feeling and passion. Schreker's compositional ability and dramatic writing is perfect in terms of pacing and tone, making the whole drama thoroughly engaging.

The Flanders production, visualised and directed with considerable flair by Ersan Mondtag, recognises those characteristics perfectly and confidently expands on it, capturing all the life, colour and magic of the situation in a way that only opera can. The set and costume design is impressive; highly stylised, colourful, cartoonish and playful, completely fitting with the tone of the work. In Act I and II the revolving background set rotates between a simple Ghent street scene with an archway running through it that when turned around reveals a demonic figure devouring a baby towering over the town, the tunnel a gateway to Hell that allows all the devils to arrive. The whole set is used, battlements and towers, tunnels and streets, background and foreground, populated by strange caricature figures. Constantly revolving, it's more than just magically fantastical, but emphasises the two aspects and two sides of the same nature.

It's open for interpretation whether that's two side of human nature, the nature of life in the city of Ghent or the nature of war. On their own however the first two acts provide plentiful colour and entertainment, but there's more to give in Schreker's opera and in the Vlaanderen production. Having deceived the agents of Hell with trickery, they are reluctant to admit Smee when his human time on Earth comes to an end and it appears he's not welcome in heaven either. It's a little superfluous perhaps but Schreker is able to fill this act with majestic heavenly choirs, more colour and humuour. Mondtag uses this act also to consider Der Schmied von Gent as a work that is not just about historical injustice of a long forgotten past but as Smee is revived in the future to witness the liberation of the Congo from Belgian rule and bondage, it's a reminder that the struggle against evil is a constant battle and very real.

The Vlaanderen production and the performances are world class but it's the work itself that most impresses. Kurt Weill and the German music hall are often cited as influences on Schreker's late change of musical direction, but it shows a much wider range of contemporary influences and references, from Hindemith and Zemlinsky to the playful extravagance of the early Strauss of Feuersnot in its satirical tone and irreverent comedy. It consequently has a wonderful down to earth human quality that is missing from Schreker's other works, and although even those are rare enough, only rediscovered properly in recent years, it seems incredible that other than one notable recording on CPO, few have looked seriously at Der Schmied von Gent or given recognition to its qualities.

Alejo Pérez clearly has a ball with the wonderful range and variety of the score, confidently holding all the variations of pace and tone together. Musically, it's an absolute joy. The singing performances can't be faulted either with Leigh Melrose wholly immersed in the glorious character that Smee presents commanding attention throughout with some fine singing and playful acting. Kai Rüütel is also excellent as his wife and Vuvu Mpofu is superb as Astarte, fully convincing as a seductively-voiced she-devil. Unquestionably, Opera Vlaanderen do full justice to the merits of Schreker's final opera, and it's revealed to be something of a marvel.

Links: OperaVision, Opera Ballet Vlaanderen

Friday, 26 June 2020

Korngold - Violanta (Turin, 2020)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold - Violanta (Turin, 2020)

Teatro Regio Torino, 2020

Pinchas Steinberg, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Annemarie Kremer, Michael Kupfer-Radecky, Norman Reinhardt, Peter Sonn, Soula Parassidis, Anna Maria Chiuri, Joan Folqué, Cristiano Olivieri, Gabriel Alexander Wernick, Eugenia Braynova, Claudia De Pian

Dynamic - Blu-ray

As well as the overwhelming and inescapable influence of the legacy left on the world of opera by Richard Wagner, German and particularly Austrian composers like Korngold were certainly under the influence of the intoxicating new ideas and expression that was in the air in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. It's only recently however that we are getting the opportunity to hear and see stage performances of the lush fantasies of composers like Franz Schreker and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose careers were impacted or cut short during the rise of Nazis in the 1930s. The image of a glamourous decadent society in the operatic works of these so-called 'degenerate' composers is inevitably tempered by an awareness of the darkness in the heart of humanity or at least within human society.

Korngold was certainly something of a prodigy, showing remarkable talent in composition and orchestration from a very young age. The evidence of Die Tote Stadt alone, written at the age of 23, clearly shows just how incredibly accomplished his early opera works were before he left Germany under advisement and established himself as a composer in the United States. The recent revival at the Deutsche Oper of Das Wunder von Heliane (1927) was another eye-opening glimpse into those incredible accomplishments, another dreamy and slightly unsettling exploration of Freudian themes as well as revealing something of a debt to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. The even earlier one act opera Violanta, premiered in 1916 and written when Korngold was just 17, is very much within the same decadent fantasy realm of repressed desires, lusts and fantasies, and the musical influence accordingly owes a great deal of debt to Richard Strauss's Salome.

The comparison with Salome strikes you almost immediately from the opening melancholic overture to Violanta in the rather decadent setting of a Renaissance carnival in Venice. Elegant, masked guests arrive at the House of Captain Trovai, indulging in pleasure and milling around while two uniformed guards discuss how the Lady Violanta is in a dark melancholic mood, one young guard teased for being in love with her. "He dreams of her white body, in which the moon plays the lute" certainly adheres to the imagery in Wilde's play that Strauss set so vividly to wild, decadent and powerful music in 1905. Korngold's music is not quite as harsh and dissonant, displaying more of a Puccinian love of melody and romanticism, but by the same token it doesn't have quite the same conviction or philosophical underpinning to push against conventional thought or morality.

The threat to their pleasure comes with the troubling news that the notorious womaniser Alfonso has returned to Venice. Despite the painter Giovanni Bracca's admonition that "Women frequent the shores of adventure" Simone Trovai is sure that his wife Violanta hates Alfonso for his baseness and his offense. Alfonso is certainly no Jochanaan; he seduced Violanta's sister Nerina while she was a novice at a convent and the young woman subsequently killed herself. Since then Lady Violanta has been sad, melancholic and avoided society.

Simone however can't help but be troubled to discover that Violanta has gone to sing and dance for this man with the intention of seducing him as a way to avenge her sister. Inviting him to their home, Violanta demands that Simone must kill Alfonso. Her husband is horrified that such he is being asked to kill a man who commands power and respect, but he is prepared to do it. All he has to do is wait for Violanta to sing a song that will be the cue to act, but when Violanta comes face to face with Alfonso, there is a danger that she too will be seduced by his nature.

There are variances in the situations but the musical cues of foreboding, hidden lusts and lush decadence are very similar to those of Salome, with ecstatic raptures woven around matters of debauchery and death. Which is not to say that Korngold doesn't have a way of making his own mark upon them. Like Strauss, the singing challenges are also considerable, not just for the principal role of Violanta but all of the roles are heavily demanding in the Wagnerian sense. In the 2020 Teatro Regio Torino production Annemarie Kremer is excellent as Violanta, giving a commanding central performance that has to be convincing and maintain force and seductiveness over the course of most of the hour and a half of the opera. Alfonso has to measure up to her, challenge her dominance in the same way as Jochanaan, but here with an almost lyrical Heldentenor Lohengrin-like purity of voice to go with his seductive and secretly vulnerable character and Norman Reinhardt captures that well with a fine performance.

Updating it from the Renaissance period to the 1920s the intention ought to be to highlight or draw on some of the undercurrents in the world of that time feeding into Korngold's composition, but there's no explicit references or obvious parallels made. Director Pier Luigi Pizzi however successfully contours that mood of seductive decadence and death effectively, with a hint of Klimt in the designs and costumes, Violanta wearing a voluptuous figure-hugging sparkling gold sequined dress. The whole of the one-act drama takes place in a room with long red and gold curtain drapes hanging over red velvet couches and there is a wide open circular window at the back like a dark moon showing gondolas gliding by. It creates an appropriately Styx-like quality to the location, spanning the gap between life and death.

Making the whole drama work convincingly, making the characters and the denouement credible and meaningful is a trickier prospect and it needs a little more of the edge of conviction that a director like Christof Loy can bring to this kind of work (Das Wunder von Heliane, Der ferne Klang). With fine singing performances, a strong central performance from Annemarie Kremer, and with Pinchas Steinberg bringing out the youthful musical splendour of Korngold, highlighting the characteristics that would become more familiar in
the Korngold of Die Tote Stadt, the Teatro Regio Torino production give a fine account of this wonderful rarity.

Pizzi's set is dark and shadowy with bold burning reds, so it's a bit tricky to transfer to video accurately and consequently there are some variances in tone depending on the camera angle used, but the Dynamic Blu-ray HD presentation is generally very good at capturing the mood of the piece and the production. The LPCM stereo and surround DTS HD-Master Audio tracks are warmly toned, fully capturing the mood and colour of Korngold, although the recording is perhaps not quite as detailed as you might find on other High Resolution recordings. There are no extra features, but as usual Dynamic provide good information on the work and the production, including an interview with Pier Luigi Pizzi in the enclosed booklet.

Links: Teatro Regio Torino

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Verdi - Simon Boccanegra (Salzburg, 2019)

Giuseppe Verdi - Simon Boccanegra

Salzburg Festival, 2019

Valery Gergiev, Andreas Kriegenburg, Luca Salsi, Marina Rebeka, René Pape, Charles Castronovo, André Heyboer, Antonio Di Matteo, Long Long

Unitel Edition - Blu-ray

Whatever the plotting and structural weaknesses of early and mid-period Verdi operas, you have to admire the composer's ability to put every ounce of musical conviction behind them, and none more so than the likes of Don Carlos and Simon Boccanegra. If you can find a conductor willing to push it but not sacrifice character detail for bombast, if you can get a director willing to approach the work on the basis of its deeper underlying themes, and you can get singers of equal conviction and technical ability to deliver it with passion and meaning, then those works can approach true greatness. Getting all those elements lined up however is no small task.

The most obvious area of Simon Boccanegra that needs particular attention - and where it is lacking in this Salzburg production - is the plot. To put it mildly, it's difficult to follow and has issues with credibility, contrivance and coincidence. It doesn't have a particular large cast of principals, but the connections between them have conflicts of duty, position and romantic complications, all of which in a lesser production can tend to obscure or distract from the chief underlying theme of the opera, which was clearly the subject that was most significant for Verdi; the bonds between a father and his daughter.

Falling somewhere between Rigoletto and Don Carlo - and not just chronologically - Simon Boccanegra has a central father/daughter relationship that is threatened by personal vanity and ambition in the former work and the heavyweight political concerns intruding on personal freedom and happiness in the latter, not to mention a tone that is consistently gloomy and pessimistic. It never manages to reconcile these two sides despite Arrigo Boito and Verdi's 1881 revisions to the original 1857 version, but with a creative director who can recognise the qualities of the music and bring strong dramaturgy to a production it is possible to make Simon Boccanegra work.

Calixto Bieito's revelatory Paris production is a rare case where the true genius of the work is brought out, the director recognising that what is missing - on the surface at least, it's not missing in Verdi's music - is the presence of the spirit of Maria. Amelia's mother is very much the connecting tissue, the emotional charge that drives Boccanegra's gloomy despair and Fiesco's desire for revenge, the common factor that links the otherwise disconnected scenes separated by time or off-stage developments.

Unfortunately Andreas Kriegenburg, whose productions have consistently failed to really connect with the works in question as far as my experience goes with this director (Not so keen on his Les Hugenots, Die Walküre or The Snow Queen, although I liked his Wozzeck rather more), doesn't have anything similar to offer that might make the plotting and characterisation credible, much less illuminate the deeper undercurrents that Bieito so successfully explored. Aside from functionality the best thing you can say about the pretty vacant set design (again by Harald B. Thor) is that it fills the huge stage of the Festspielehaus impressively. At a stretch it raises the human struggles to an epic scale, or conversely, it shows that all the family feuding is ultimately pointless in the grander scheme of things.

I'm not sure however that this mixed message is particularly meaningful in the context of Simon Boccanegra. At the very least the director should be attempting to make the plot easier to follow and alert the spectator to the nature of the family tragedy that is about to unfold. Andreas Kriegenburg has nothing to bring to the work other than a stylish modern setting with figures carrying tablets and texting messages on mobile phones, and there's a little bit of theatrical mannerism in recognition of the fact that the operatic drama is itself stylised rather than naturalistic. It neither draws however from the melancholic soul of the work nor succeed in making it feel contemporary and relevant.

It's unfortunate because in other respects the Salzburg production is impressive. Valery Gergiev is often criticised for lack of rehearsal but there's no faulting the measured control of the Wiener Philharmoniker here, harnessing all the power of the work, pinpointing the key scenes, particularly the Council Chamber scene at the close of Act I and the highly charged Act II trio confrontation between Adorno, Boccanegra and Amelia. That probably has as much to do with an almost flawless cast that includes an incandescent Marina Rebeka as Amelia, a heartfelt Charles Castronovo as Adorno and an always reliable René Pape as Fiesco. Luca Salsi's Boccanegra is warmly and capably sung, but perhaps due to a failing of the direction, it doesn't carry the necessary dramatic or melancholic weight here.

The musical performance and singing performances are so strong and well-presented in HD on the Unitel Edition Blu-ray that this is certainly worth a look. If Kriegenburg doesn't really help the plot work, Verdi's remarkable score almost convinces in its own right with performances like this and a strong audio/visual presentation. There are no extra features related to the production on the disc, but the booklet contains a brief overview of the problems Verdi had with the work and some commentary on the Salzburg production.

Links: Salzburger Festspiele

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Mozart - Die Zauberflöte (Glyndebourne, 2019)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Glyndebourne, 2019

Ryan Wigglesworth, André Barbe, Renaud Doucet, David Portillo, Sofia Fomino, Brindley Sherratt, Björn Bürger, Caroline Wettergreen, Michael Kraus, Esther Dierkes, Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Katharina Magiera, Jörg Schneider, Alison Rose, Freddie Jemison, Aman De Silva, Stephan Dyakonov, Thomas Atkins, Martin Snell

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Maybe it's the fact that it's Glyndebourne or maybe the popularity of Downton Abbey has made the idea of the English country estate more romantic and idealised, but there does seem to be a tendency to incorporate such old English period ideas into operas produced there. Some are perfectly appropriate and fit perfectly, such as Verdi's Falstaff, some such as Ariadne auf Naxos are a bit of a stretch but nonetheless wholly successful, and Barber's Vanessa seem perfectly at home there. Mozart's Die Zauberflöte is a work very much open to imaginative reinterpretation that can reveal new facets to the work - none more so than Romeo Castellucci's production for La Monnaie in Brussels - but even so Barbe and Doucet are undoubtedly going to have to take a few liberties to set The Magic Flute in an Edwardian hotel.

But ideas and imagination are exactly what you want for Mozart's delightful, sometimes enigmatic but most purely enjoyable opera. In Barbe and Doucet's hotel, the three ladies are all maids and Papageno seems to be an eccentric guest with a thing for feather pillows and duvets. Coming down into the lobby in his pyjamas, perhaps in the middle of a nightmare, Tamino is attacked by a monster serpent assembled out of new but still primitive technology. The Queen of the Night is the hotel owner who makes her grand appearance to lay down the law in a clanking lift. The three boys are suitably attired in bellhop uniforms. Sarastro is the head chef, his brotherhood the hotel's cooks. Monostatos down in the basement, below even the servants and maids, shovels coal (which accounts for his black skin) to keep the hotel heated, and it's there that he has dragged Pamina.

The theme of this production of is clear enough and the characters all have vaguely appropriate and recognisable roles in the hierarchy of the hotel, even if it doesn't quite match the stratification of Mozart's society. From the Age of Enlightenment to the Age of Progress however, it does at least correlate with a period of progress, the early twentieth century being on the cusp of the modern age, challenging outdated notions of tradition, which of course includes women's suffrage. That's perhaps not necessarily a development that the Age of Enlightenment libretto is quite ready for ("Women do little but chatter a lot", "Without the guidance of men, women tend to rise above their station"), nor perhaps the Masonic traditions and ceremonies celebrated in Mozart's opera. There is something here however that captures the wind of change and an awareness of class and social inequality that is at least partly consistent with the intentions of the opera.

Something else you expect with The Magic Flute is a magical colourful fairy tale or storybook character and you certainly get that in André Barbe's highly stylised Edwardian designs. The sets are all of the cardboard cut-out variety, using Barbe's hand-drawn sketches and blowing them up to give the impression of a set model expanded to life-size. The detail is impressive, creating a storybook-like background that the colourful characters all stand out against. It really looks stunning. Puppeteers provide the magical elements which fit as suitably old-fashioned theatrical effects. The puppetry is sometimes over-used and a little superfluous, but when used for effect - such as with the armoured men - it makes a great impression. The costumes are marvellous, Edwardian elegance with colourful stylistic cartoon flourishes. Unquestionably, the production design is a thing of beauty and style, the period chosen a useful one to explore some of the themes of the work.

Some, but not all. It doesn't really get to grips with the divisions of physical and spiritual needs of mankind, the struggle between enlightenment versus mysticism, on overcoming darkness and despair, the power of music as a transformative force that is open and accessible to everyone as demonstrated in Die Zauberflöte's wonderful blend of high art and comic pantomime. The elegance of the setting in a grand hotel also precludes any deeper commentary on the class struggle and the belief that all men are equal and can aspire to the betterment of individuals and society. Tamino and Pamina's success in the trial by fire and water for example is to become masters of kitchen skills, which is amusingly staged but doesn't really get to the heart of the work.

There's little to complain about in the singing, which is mostly good even if there's nothing to lift this to another level. Among the more notable performances, Björn Bürger's Papageno is strong and entertaining and Brindley Sherratt is superb, giving one of the most assured and controlled performances I've seen as Sarastro. Jörg Schneider's Monostatos is also well sung and played. There's always a risk that Tamino and Pamina can appear a little bland if insufficiently characterised and they can come across as rather bland. Tamino and Pamina are perhaps somewhat over-privileged because of their upbringing and need to experience the realities of the world in order to find the wisdom to mend the inequalities (perhaps not by great cookery though). Although we have two earnest performances from David Portillo and Sofia Fomino that suit the content and treatment here, neither of them are developed enough to compensate for these weaknesses in characterisation.

Conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, there's a fullness of sound in the orchestration and no sign of any period or historically informed instrumentation. The delivery is a little cool in places, working better in the more buoyant and humorous scenes than in the more solemn and emotional scenes, but that could also be an impression informed by the staging, which can inevitably feel a little stuffy and mannered in places. You don't always get a sense of the varied parts of the work coming together in the way that should give Die Zauberflöte a greater sense of completeness and accomplishment, nor is it entirely successful consequently in getting across the deeper character of the work or the application of its many levels of meaning as they relate to all aspects of human nature.

It's a thoroughly entertaining an impressively designed Die Zauberflöte however and it comes across well on the High Definition presentation on the Opus Arte Blu-ray. The disc contains a short Making Of extra feature that focusses on Barbe and Doucet's creation for Glyndebourne, revealing that their Queen of the Night was inspired by a turn of the century lady owner of a Viennese hotel. The feature also covers the challenge of turning the André Barbe's wonderfully detailed sketches into sets. There's also a Cast Gallery and a very informative booklet essay by Nicholas Till on the creation of Die Zauberflöte and the influences that shaped it.

Links: Glyndebourne

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Bartók - Judith/Duke Bluebeard's Castle (Munich, 2020)

Béla Bartók - Judith/Duke Bluebeard's Castle

Concerto for Orchestra (1944), Duke Bluebeard's Castle (1918)

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2020

Oksana Lyniv, Katie Mitchell, Grant Gee, John Lundgren, Nina Stemme

Staatsoper.TV - March 2020

Bartók's one-act opera is often paired with another short work which, whether it's as an accompaniment or integrated to expand on the themes of the work, inevitably colours and has a bearing on the content. And in Duke Bluebeard's Castle themes and undercurrents abound. Rarely however is Bartók paired with one of the composer's own works, mainly because he only composed this one brilliant short opera. La Monnaie in Brussels however managed a fairly successful pairing of Duke Bluebeard's Castle with the composer's 1924 pantomime ballet The Magnificent Mandarin, adding a little commentary on the main short opera, even if there was little obvious connection between the two works.

Katie Mitchell takes a different approach in the Bavarian State Opera's pairing of the Bartók's 1918 Duke Bluebeard's Castle with the much later Concerto for Orchestra, written in the United States in 1944, the two works combining to create a single work, Judith. In Judith the Concerto serves as a musical prelude to the opera, the production using a film by British director Grant Gee that sets the scene for a modern reinterpretation of the opera. Being directed by Katie Mitchell however, you can assume there will be a feminist take on the subject and some might see that as a necessary reading that certainly wouldn't be out of place for this work.

Unfortunately, as far as coming up with a new modern spin on the subject the idea and the execution is again (after Mitchell’s attempt to correct Shakespeare’s chauvinism in The Tempest through Miranda) somewhat lacking. The Concerto for Orchestra is used as the score for a crime-thriller movie, setting the scene of Bluebeard  as a sinister city executive in London, scouring an escort agency site that specialises in more mature women, selecting victims that are picked up and brought to him by his chauffeur. Police detective Anna Barlow (Nina Stemme) finds a clue in photographs uploaded by one of the women and goes undercover posing as 'Judith'.

It’s not a terribly original or complex idea but it takes 40 minutes of the Concerto to lay this out. Grant Gee's film is attractively shot in the Southwark district, an area south of the Thames currently being extensively redeveloped, but there is no sign of any real artistry here. There's nothing that provides any motivation or explores the psychology of a predator of women. The Concerto is lovely to listen to, but it doesn’t particularly match with the drama in the film either. It’s much too long as a prelude which does nothing except provide a reason why a woman would willingly following a path that has led to the disappearance of other women. It could have been covered equally as well with a five minute prologue or with a few title screens.

Once we get to Bluebeard's Castle however it has to be said that the sense of menace, danger and the sinister edge of the environment is well achieved. Judith does have a mission to "warm this icy stone" with its weeping walls, breach its ramparts and expose the nature of Bluebeard. The seven doors are visible on security monitors and, as a police detective, Anna has good reason to want the keys to open those rooms. It's fitting that she finds a torture chamber in the first room and a weapons room in the second. Well, what else would you expect to find in the home of a serial killer? The third room also has a sinister aspect, a strong room with a safe, filled with jewellery, trophies stained with blood that undoubtedly belongs to his victims.

As dark as its origins and underlying psychology might be, doesn't turning Duke Bluebeard's Castle into a banal crime-thriller take away somewhat from the original fairy-tale? Well evidently that's exactly what Katie Mitchell wants to do, to demolish any suggestion that the fairy story is about a weak woman's curiosity about the sexual experience of her husband and her helplessness in the face of the power of his masculinity. There's nothing natural about 'Bluebeard's Castle', it's an artificial construct, the lands of his dominion here nothing more than a VR projection, a trick to impress and instill respect. His power is the abuse, mistreatment and enslavement of women. Like Miranda and Lessons in Love and Violence however I'm not sure putting a gun into the hands of a woman to regain power is quite the image to overturn and correct any imbalance.

Bartók's opera is a powerful work in its own right, impressive in its musical flow and expression, working on abstract and allegorical levels, hinting at dark sinister acts, appalling secrets and twisted desires. It's created for two powerful voices to explore and the Bayerische Staatsoper has two such superb performers here in Nina Stemme and John Lundgren. Not only is the singing top class, but the performances are well-acted with a cat-and-mouse interplay, each hiding something, truths gradually being revealed or realised about each other. Whether you view that on a cop/criminal or male/female level, it does capture a sense of the imbalance of power, or where the balance of power is perceived to be.

Former assistant to Kirill Petrenko, the musical direction by Oksana Lyniv is excellent, maintaining an intensity that matches what is happening on the stage. Alex Eales' set design is also very impressive for a work that relies on establishing the right mood. Coming in from the underground garage the bridges the film with the opera, the set remains below ground one room leading to the next, sliding into place. It creates a sense of an enclosed claustrophobic environment, threatening and entrapping with no windows and no natural light, the castle as a projection of Bluebeard himself. Reservations about viewing it as a crime-thriller movie aside, the performances of Stemme and Lundgren in this environment make this every bit the titanic encounter it ought to be.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Larcher - Das Jagdgewehr (Bregenz, 2018)

Thomas Larcher - Das Jagdgewehr (Bregenz, 2018)

Bregenzer Festspiele, 2018

Michael Boder, Karl Markovics, Sarah Aristidou, Giulia Peri, Olivia Vermeulen, Robin Tritschler, André Schuen

C-Major - Blu-ray

Ideally the best works of opera should be the ones that achieve a perfect balance between musical expression, dramatic content and delivery of the singing performances, all coordinated by a good director. It's of course by no means obligatory, least of all in a contemporary opera where there isn't the same pressure or even expectation that a work should conform to any preconceived ideas or rules. The balance however can be compensated for however and the right impact achieved through good direction that harmonises with the intent of the piece (assuming it has a specific intent) and in that respect contemporary opera has the advantage of giving the director the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with the composer to make those intentions clear. Thomas Larcher's Das Jagdgewehr (The Hunting Gun), premiered at the 2018 Bregenz Festival, is a fine example of what contemporary opera can achieve when all those elements fall perfectly into place.

All the effort of composition, playing and direction is to little avail of course unless the opera has something meaningful to say and the subject is one that is worth setting to music, a subject that has wider relevance and depth that can reveal different aspects through interpretation and performance. And, rather like the music as well, it helps if it's not just a formal experiment. There is however at least an intriguing formal device in Larcher's opera that is based on a similar device used in the original book by Yasushi Inoue, in that Das Jagdgewehr is based around three letters. The story and the truth within the situation they describe lies within those three different perspectives. Even with four people involved, the three writers of the letter and the person they are addressed to, with a fifth person reading them, there's room for a great deal of interpretation as to where the truth lies.

There's nothing new about this Rashomon-like idea, where even one of the people relating the story in The Hunting Gun is also a dead person whose words live on in a letter, but it does present opportunities and challenges for a composer. Not only is it essential to keep those strands clear and relatable, but the music can also find connections and perhaps even some measure of truth that can be picked up on by the audience, perhaps with the assistance of skillful stage direction to tease those elements out. The structure of the work then is more than just a framing device, as it might have been in the original book, and more than just experimental, but a way of looking beyond the words to discover the true nature of the people involved and perhaps finding something there in the music and the direction.

The person notionally at the centre of the work is the hunter, Josuke Misugi. Although by no means a devotee of literature, the hunter has nonetheless been moved by a verse that he has read in which a poet living nearby seems to have seen him and described him perfectly in a way he could never express. He gives the poet three letters that he has received, asking him to read them and make of them what he will. One of the letters is from his lover Saiko, now dead, the second an accusatory letter from her niece Shoko, and the third from Josuke's wife Midori, who is appears has been aware of her betrayal but has remained silent about it.

On its own terms this story of an illicit affair that has ended badly seems fairly commonplace, and even with the prospect of having to read between the lines of the words of the people involved to determine who is responsible for the tragedy, it doesn't hold out much promise of any great insights or revelations. The difference however is of course that Das Jagdgewehr is an opera and offers considerable extra scope for expression and interpretation on the part of the composer, the director, the singers and for the audience to bring their own impressions and interpretation to it.

Some of the issues and questions that the work considers are expressed in the words and the situation. Who can tell what motivates people to act as they do, particularly in a love affair? In her letter - noting from the outset that she will be dead by the time this letter is read -
the mistress Saiko considers egoism, jealousy, destiny and karma all playing a part in what is to follow, some parts perhaps more than others. Midori, the wife, finds the human need to love and to be loved makes humans pathetic, keeping secrets from one another like an impregnable fortress. Despite the apparent simplicity of the situation there are numerous questioning conflicting emotions involved, but Larcher's music holds attention throughout, inviting the audience to actually feel these emotions and engage with the characters and the drama.

Conducted by Michael Boder, Larcher's music comes across as intricate and detailed, lyrical and expressive, measuring out the nuances of meaning and expression contained within the words and the drama, probing the various layers with extraordinary precision. Considering the nature of the subject and the imagery of a hunting gun in the background, there is always with a hint of menace not far beneath the surface of the tensions, but the emotions and situations are more complex than that, with no need to follow Chekhov's dictum to its conclusion. The imagery is poetic and it's presented as such, almost dream-like in the stage direction, exploring another level that lies somewhere in the questioning and overlapping content of the letters, the director Karl Markovics finding the simplest way to open up and give each of these elements room for expression and interpretation.

There's even the additional element of a vocal ensemble - beautiful harmonies from the Schola Heidelberg - that brings emphasis to certain scenes, boosting expression and almost a kind of harmonisation between the divergent conflicting personal viewpoints. All the roles are scored and sung to perfection, Robin Tritschler's Poet a clear and lyrical voice that tries to bring order and rationality to the story, while Sarah Aristidou on the other hand is pure emotion as the niece Shijo, exploring the wild range and stratospheric highs of those emotions incredibly well. Josuke remains an enigma at the centre, hoping that the Poet can explore the depths of his soul, even without knowing him. But there are no answers; just letters, words and human behaviour which refuses to be pinned down, each carrying their own truth like a snake within.

It doesn't surprise me that this opera successfully transferred to Aldeburgh, very much within the idiom of Britten's intense chamber operas, the narrative and emotional complexity and the ominous undercurrents of Death in Venice and The Rape of Lucretia very much coming to mind. If it comes across as a powerful experience, it's undoubtedly assisted by the quality of this recording made at the 2018 Bregenz Festival and the remarkable detail that can be heard in the High Resolution audio tracks.
This is a work that pushes the dynamic range in the music and in the voices crystal clear yet fully rounded and resonant. I got the most impact from the LPCM stereo mix on headphones, but you could lose yourself in the equally detailed DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix. This is an impressive new opera in a first-class presentation.

Links: Bregenzer Festspiele