Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Offenbach - Tales of Hoffmann (Dublin, 2018)

Jacques Offenbach - Tales of Hoffmann

Irish National Opera, 2018

Andrew Synnott, Tom Creed, Julian Hubbard, Claudia Boyle, Gemma Ní Bhriain, John Molloy, Andrew Gavin, Brendan Collins, Carolyn Holt, Fearghal Curtis, Kevin Neville, Peter O’Reilly, Cormac Lawlor, Robert McAllister

O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin - 14 September 2018

At this rate I could get to like Tales of Hoffmann. Up until fairly recently it's been an opera whose attraction and qualities have mostly eluded me. Part of the problem could be down to the work having been left unfinished, Offenbach dying before his only full opera (as opposed to his numerous operettas) was completed. Subjected to cuts, revisions and additions from sketches left behind by the composer to try to approximate what Offenbach might have had in mind, there's never been any clarity over the intended final shape of the work. But then, I've never been taken with the idea of purpose of the work or find that it has any great insights or truths to reveal.

It's a romance above all, a single troubled one taking shape across four different incarnations, but drawn from stories by the German writer ETA Hoffmann, Offenbach includes Hoffmann as the main character in the work, making a connection between the creator and his creations, the inspiration for them and the suffering an artist has to endure to bring them to life. That's all well and good, but the stories themselves are strange, fantastical and almost hallucinogenic in their obsessions, fuelled by alcohol and tainted with madness, the music likewise somewhat overblown.

There's a lot to work with here and certainly richness in the situations, but a good production should be able to draw it all together, bring some kind of coherence and try to make sense of it all. My experience of Tales of Hoffmann however - until fairly recently - has been that directors similarly tend to go overboard and add another level of complication and distraction. A stripped-down reduced-orchestration production by the English Touring Opera however demonstrated for me that there is much to enjoy in the work, and following a similar policy in their new production, the Irish National Opera have confirmed that impression.

Of course what is true of the approach taken towards Tales of Hoffmann is true of any opera; it can be seen at its best when music, direction and singing all come together in a cohesive production with a strong central theme. The central theme of the varied three related love stories that attest to Hoffmann's unfortunate choice in women is of course his singular love for Stella in all her varied moods and character (and an opera singer to boot!). Offenbach of course makes the connections by having not just Stella in the roles of Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta, but he keeps a thread of adversity in the combined villains of Lindorf's Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, and Dappertutto.

Created as a INO touring production and having to work within the limitations of the O'Reilly Theatre in Dublin, which is not equipped for major scene changes or special effects, director Tom Creed is somewhat limited as far as stage designs go, but in a way this helps consistency and fluency not just between the stories, but with the framing device of Hoffmann the storyteller and the connections the stories have to Stella. The lack of atmosphere in the venue also threatened to work against the efforts of the production which with only a reduced ensemble of seven players felt initially cool and detached, not really engaging with the audience. By the time Claudia Boyle's Olympia took to the stage however, that all changed.

The detached from reality aspect of the stories can still be a problem, but Tom Creed finds suitable modern updates that take some of the old-fashioned eccentricity out of the work. Rather than an automaton or living doll, Creed re-envisions Olympia for this production as a robot AI, Hoffmann dazzled by its brilliance of science but disillusioned by its lack of humanity, immune to the charm of his poetry. In the second story Hoffmann's trust in love is dashed by the inadequacy of medicine to cure Antonia if she sings. Hoffmann is charmed in the third story not by a seductive courtesan who is charged with stealing his reflection, but by a performance artist in the Venice Biennale who attempts to destroy his soul through drug addiction.

Katie Davenport's set designs cleverly provide suitable locations for Creed's updated settings that bring more of a sense of reality to the metaphor, but it still looks magical and just as importantly retains a sense of humour. The consistency and continuity is brilliantly maintained in the three major singing roles, with Claudia Boyle in particular simply outstanding. The ability to sing all the four highly challenging soprano roles is never in doubt, but there's personality and presence there as well, which makes a difference in this opera. Julian Hubbard also sang well but wasn't quite as successful in finding any deeper humanity in his character. The multiple Lindorf villain role posed no difficulties for John Molloy, an expert in this register, but he was perhaps a little too declamatory for the reduced instrumentation. Gemma Ní Bhriain's Nicklausse was exceptional and Andrew Gavin provided good support for Molloy's different incarnations. With fine performances in secondary roles and a fine chorus, the INO clearly have a strong ensemble of singers.

It was in that reduced seven-piece instrumentation, alive to the subtleties of the melodies that I feel that the Irish National Opera's production was truly successful in revealing the qualities of Offenbach's writing for Tales of Hoffmann. Andrew Synnott directing from piano is always strong with this kind of arrangement (his own composition for Dubliners at the 2017 Wexford Festival benefitted from the same treatment). As well as simply being able to appreciate the detail of the instrumentation and quality of the playing, too often lost in larger arrangements, it more than anything else helped bring consistency and cohesion to the work, while still finding plenty of room for colour and expression.

Links: Irish National Opera

Monday, 17 September 2018

Barber - Vanessa (Glyndebourne, 2018)

Samuel Barber - Vanessa

Glyndebourne, 2018

Jakub Hrůša, Keith Warner, Emma Bell, Virginie Verrez, Edgaras Montvidas, Rosalind Plowright, Donnie Ray Albert, William Thomas, Romanas Kudriašovas

Medici.tv - 14 August 2018

On the surface, Samuel Barber's Vanessa is a simple domestic drama, but inevitably there's much more going on beneath the surface. Written in 1958, Alfred Hitchcock was going something similar with repressed passions around that same time in Vertigo, and Keith Warner has chosen to stage the Glyndebourne production of Vanessa as a Hitchcock-like drama of hidden passions leading to disintegrating minds, and it's not a bad idea, even if it does have the consequence of making an unashamedly old-fashioned work feel rather dated.

But is it really a dated work or, like Hitchcock, does it not actually address something that was more than a little daring for its time in its subject matter and perhaps even taboo? Certainly a more personal reading of the matter of hidden passions and dark unspoken secrets can be detected in the libretto of composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who wrote the original libretto for his lover Samuel Barber, and it can be felt in the dark melancholic tone of the music. Keith Warner's direction doesn't address that directly at all in the Glyndebourne production, but he does delve a little deeper in a way that brings the human element out of the somewhat mannered and stuffy setting.

The sets, the moral attitudes and the class issues in Vanessa are all very much of their time. Vanessa lives with her mother and niece in an isolated mansion in the north of the country. Abandoned 20 years ago by Anatol, Vanessa has remained in Miss Haversham-like seclusion, with all the mirrors of the house covered. She is however expecting Anatol's imminent return, but is shocked to find that it is not Anatol who arrives, but his son, also called Anatol. Unknown to Vanessa, Anatol and her niece Erika spend the night together, but Erika refuses to marry Anatol and he turns his attentions instead to Vanessa.

The drama and the romantic triangle situation becomes rather more heated when it is revealed that Erika is pregnant. Hearing the news of Vanessa's engagement to Anatol, she attempts to throw herself in the lake late on a dark and snowy New Year's Eve. While Barber's lushly romantic score underpins the drama, it doesn't however allow it to tip over into melodrama, since while the revelations are shocking to the audience, they remain mostly hidden, repressed and covered up by the characters in denial; Erika about her feelings for Anatol, Vanessa about her suspicions about Anatol's true nature.

With much going on beneath the surface as above it, Keith Warner's direction finds expression for the multiple levels by highlighting the use of mirrors. Mirrors are referred to explicitly in the libretto, Vanessa has covered them up for 20 years since Anatol's absence, and they are covered up again at the end of the opera, and the significance of covering up and hiding from oneself is obvious. Warner's use of large mirrors that dominate the stage in Act I take on another dimension however when they are uncovered, playing on what is real and what is a reflection.

This is extended in Act II, when more mirrors are added and doubles are used, sometimes showing guests behind the scenes, other times showing younger idealised versions of the protagonists. This is most effective in the scene where the doctor, who has drunk a lot at the party, sees a ghostly younger, more gallant and much more confident idealised version of himself asking a lady to dance, that contrasts with the reality of the older, drunken man. But these levels and contradictions between what is spoken and the reality are all there in the music.

Aside from the Hitchcock references (the period looks much older than Vertigo, going back to Notorious or Suspicion), there are other film influences and effects evident in Warner's production, from the use of mirrors distorting reality and stretching to infinity like Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai, to the use of projections and a twisting set that almost replicates Hitchcock's reverse-zoom effect at the dramatic moment of Erika hearing of Anatol and Vanessa's engagement from the top of the stairs. All of the effects are merited and echoes in the score.

The music for Vanessa is beautiful, the melodies and arias are lovely, and even if there is a little too much talky recitative - which Menotti and Barber tried to avoid not entirely successfully - it is always musically expressive. The dark and moody 'goodbyes' conclusion is just wonderful and all of it is marvellously sung by a good cast. Emma Bell's conflicted and troubled Vanessa could easily have been upstaged by her rather more impetuous dramatic niece Erika, but sung tremendously well by Virginie Verrez, but Bell's interiority suggests more. Edgaras Montvidas is excellent as Anatol, singing the role persuasively, never playing a blatant cad, but rather more subtle than that.

With an elegant and expressive set, excellent singing and dramatic performances, good direction that attempts to dig a little deeper, this is an excellent performance of an entertaining and superbly constructed opera. Unfortunately, despite Glyndebourne's insistence that the time has come for accessible 20th century American opera, Vanessa still feels unadventurous and stuffy. It's a trend that is also becoming increasingly evident at Glyndebourne, but alongside ambitious productions like Barrie Kosky's production of Saul, Claus Guth on La Clemenza di Tito and Brett Dean's Hamlet, at the moment there's still a good balance in the festival and room for testing out lesser known American works like Vanessa.

Links: Glyndebourne, Medici.tv

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Puccini - Madama Butterfly (Glyndebourne, 2018)

Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Glyndebourne, 2018

Omer Meir Wellber, Annilese Miskimmon, Olga Busuioc, Joshua Guerrero, Carlo Bosi, Elizabeth DeShong, Michael Sumuel, Jennifer Witton, Eirlys Myfanwy Davies, Adam Marsden, Oleg Budaratskiy, Simon Mechlinski, Ida Ränzlöv, Shuna Scott Sendall, Michael Mofidian, Jake Muffett

Culturebox - 21 June 2018

Opera houses don't tend to get adventurous when it comes to Madama Butterfly, but there have been some interesting new looks at one of Puccini's most popular works. La Scala in Milan went right back to the original 'failed' 1904 version of the opera that Puccini was forced to rewrite, which was fascinating even if in the end it still played mostly to the conventional locations and imagery. A more abstract Madama Butterfly at La Monnaie in 2017 on the other hand certainly stripped it back of its kitsch Japanese elements and expectations only to prove that most of those elements and the melodrama may be integral to the opera, and it won't work without it. Madama Butterfly almost demands 'safe' by definition, as any attempt to tinker around too much with expectations is unlikely to play well with its target audience.

Madama Butterfly and even the selection of it is surely more a consideration of providing a safe choice for Glyndebourne audiences (and as a touring production) than for any desire to artistically explore the work for new meaning. Annilese Miskimmon's production however makes one or two concessions towards modernisation, placing it in a different period and context that seeks to highlight certain harsh realities and truths of its subject. She tries to strike a balance that attempts to bring it a little more up to date rather than appearing to be a situation so far removed from familiar modern attitudes as to appear as almost fantasy, but there's also clearly a necessity not to throw Butterfly out with the bathwater.

Act I doesn't differ greatly from any traditional representation of the marriage scenes. It's a 50s' setting, where Goro's Marriage Bureau handles matches for US troops with Japanese brides after the war, a situation that is a little more relatable, even if it still carries implications of inequality. Projections are used showing genuine documentary newsreel footage: "Yanks Marry Japanese Maids", with the new brides given instruction on "Learning to be an American Wife". It's perhaps not exactly the same situation as Cio-Cio-San, but even if it's presented in contrast it does highlight the reality. Or if not so much a reality, selling the American dream as a reality. There's no real commentary or emphasis placed on the ethics of it all however, on Pinkerton marrying a 15 year old, collecting her like a butterfly or even commentary on the American imperialism side of things here. It leaves the match it open as if it's something that both parties go into in good faith. The real test of the marriage and the production will come later and there's plenty of opportunity there to feel outrage.

In line with the tone of Puccini's music, Act II does indeed mark a strong contrast to Act I. Butterfly has adopted American lifestyle big time, not just in little details of her manner of western dress, but in her confidence and attitudes as well. Or rather it's more like rather a Japanese view of American life that is influenced by the Technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk, and I can't imagine any film director who is closer to the sentiments of Madama Butterfly than Douglas Sirk (although you could try Mikio Naruse or Kenji Mizoguchi if you were going for a more authentic view of the perspective of a Japanese woman rather than an American director - or even Yasujiro Ozu's later colour films which show the creeping influence of America on Japanese life in the 1950s). So from that point of view, the 1950s' Sirkian setting works perfectly, working with the light, the colour and the seasons, as leaves fall and darkness draws in.

Thereafter it's wiser to just let Puccini do his work, and this production does just that. Conducted by Omer Meir Wellber, it felt like a relative straightforward interpretation of the score, but there were a few nice touch that worked with the mood and the production. I'm not sure what instrument usually plays the melody in the Humming Chorus, but here it has the distant melancholic sound of a harmonica playing that feels appropriate. It may not be inspiring or inspired, but it's certainly successful in getting across the intended impact and message of the opera. You can't work against Puccini without defeating the purpose of the work and to do that would not only be failing the opera and failing the audience, but in many ways you're failing Cio-Cio-San and many like her in real life over the years.

You'd need to be made of stone to get through Act III unmoved here, the trio of Sharpless, Suzuki and Pinkerton, the choking sobs that are the only answer's to Butterfly's question "Quella donna, che vuol da me?", and the recognition that "Tutto è finito". Watch it through a wet blur, which is as it should be. Which is as much to the credit of the singers here as Puccini. It only really carries that urgency if the director can make the characters real and for there to be anguish and sympathy on all sides. Often Pinkerton is made out to be a villain, and that can spur indignation at his treatment of Cio-Cio-San. Some, including Miskimmon, see it more as a human failing, the Pinkerton of three years later not so much regretting his fake marriage as realising that it was never realistic. It doesn't mean that he is blameless, but it helps to see all sides, and that's what this production seems to be able to balance well, finding the true emotional weight of each.

As such, it's easier to admire the heartfelt performance of Joshua Guerrero's Pinkerton here. It's a little 'operatic' but in the context of a Sirkian response to Puccini it's acceptable and effective. Olga Busuioc handles Cio-Cio-San just as well, if rather holding to the conventional mannerisms and gestures. The experienced Carlo Bosi as Goro, Michael Sumuel's Sharpless and Elizabeth DeShong's Suzuki all support the leads well, although the latter may be a little too emotionally overwrought. Again however, it's to be expected, the cast fulfill what we expect of them, the director and conductor giving us the full Puccini, and the resulting impact is not unexpected either.

Links: Glyndebourne, Culturebox

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice (Budapest, 2018)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice

NorrlandsOperan, Armel Opera Festival 2018

Olof Boman, Åsa Kalmér, Susanna Levonen, Henriikka Gröndahl, Jeanne Gérard

ARTE Concert - 1 July 2018

You can always find ways of bringing a conceptual or modern-day reworking to the Orpheus myth, but what is more important in any performance of Orfeo ed Euridice is that it responds to the beauty, purity and simplicity of Gluck's reformist agenda for opera. The fact that it can easily sustain both modern conceptual (Romeo Castellucci) and more elaborate theatricality (La Fura dels Baus) and that it even has the flexibility to cast Orfeo as a mezzo-soprano, countertenor or even a bass! (Lyon 2015) is testament not only to the robustness of the framework that supports the opera, but that the principles behind it are also enduring.

It's one of the key works of all opera, one that any composer can look back on and learn from, and many of them did. The same goes for any jaded opera-goer (does such a thing exist?) or even anyone who has over-indulged in Strauss, Puccini and Wagner and wants to return right back to the basics. Whether it's the original Italian version Orfeo ed Euridice, Gluck's even more austere stripped back French version Orphée et Eurydice or even Berlioz's edition of the best of both worlds, it's an opera of exquisite beauty that demonstrates what opera is capable of in its blending of music and drama, in its use of myth and in the Orpheus-like magic of breathing new life into it that performance can bring.

The most important aspect then, and it's one that the Swedish NorrlandsOperan company do very well in their production, is that most basic of opera requirements - bringing the drama and the music together perfectly to highlight its essential purpose. Orfeo ed Eurydice is a work that celebrates love and music in its mythological subject, but it also considers death, grief and new beginnings as a necessary part of human existence.

I don't know if you can find any conceptual reading within the NorrlandsOperan production, performed here at the 2018 Armel Opera Festival, but the tilted mirror looking down on the stage somehow opens up the space while at the same time closing it down. The idea of division is important in Orfeo ed Euridice, most evidently in the demarcation between the living and the dead, and this is as effective a way as any of making that idea visual and ever-present. The main difference or unique point of this particular production is that Orpheus is a woman as well as Eurydice.

It's common enough for a woman to sing the role of Orpheus, the role often better suited to the more robust mezzo-soprano voice than the lyrical countertenor (although both have their own distinct qualities), but in the NorrlandsOperan production there is no attempt to make Orpheus look like a man. There's no need to either and it's not just to a concession to modern notions of diversity in relationships. The perfect simplicity of Orfeo ed Euridice and the myth itself is that the idea of love doesn't need to be defined in male/female terms. It's a human experience common to everyone and a woman is quite capable as a man of feeling the same love, grief and feelings for a loved one that takes Orpheus to such depths and yet rise above them.

Sung by Susanna Levonen and brilliantly directed by Åsa Kalmér, the depth of those feelings are beautifully expressed and never more apparent than in the glorious scene where Orpheus finally discovers Eurydice in Elysium with the Blessed Spirits ('Torna, o bella'). For this scene, as elsewhere, the set is simply dressed, kept down to essentials. A snowy veil lifts away from the floor as the lovers are reunited, the ancient pillars that were standing in Thrace now fallen in the Underworld. It's as simple and effective as that, and as simple and effective as Gluck's wondrous scoring of the opera.

It's given a fine musical reading as well, Olof Boman conducting the Armel orchestra through a full account of the work that includes all the dance pieces. I can't say that the dancing is great, but it's good to have these pieces included, particularly in the epilogue scenes. The chorus - a vital character in this work - is outstanding. Henriikka Gröndahl's Eurydice gives her character an equal footing with Orpheus, which is something you don't always get. It's an impressive performance with purity and sincerity of expression that takes into consideration the extreme suffering and exquisite joy that humans are capable of experiencing. Sung by Jeanne Gérard, Amore also has an extended role to play as a punkish - or perhaps Puck-ish - figure in red who observes the journey of Orpheus and permits a breaking of the usual rules.

Links: Armel Opera Festival, ARTE Concert

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Bartók - Duke Bluebeard's Castle / The Magnificent Mandarin (Brussels, 2018)

Béla Bartók - Duke Bluebeard's Castle / The Magnificent Mandarin

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2018

Alain Altinoglu, Christophe Coppens, Ante Jerkunica, Nora Gubisch, Gábor Vass, Vincent Clavaguera-Pratx, Merche Romero, Brigitta Skarpalezos, Dan Mussett, Norbert De Loecker, Amerigo Delli Bove, James Vu Anh Pham

La Monnaie Streaming - June 2018

When you read about the atrocities committed by the real-life inspiration for Bluebeard, it seems a little tasteless to make his story the subject of a fairy tale or an opera. Rather than focus on the horrors of what really took place in the castle of Gilles de Rais, the dark fairy tale story has become more of a cautionary tale on how a woman attempts to break down defensive barriers of masculine power and control in order to engage love and self-awareness but falls victim in the end to her own feminine weaknesses of curiosity and jealousy. That's one interpretation anyway, but there is a certain amount of ambiguity played with there as well as a sense of horror at what can lie in the darker recesses of the human psyche. Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle does actually explore that quite successfully.

It's a beautifully structured and concise piece, gifted with a score from Bartók that is precisely attuned to its moods and darkness, yet, it's not so precise that it can't also convey the ambiguity that allows it to work on a number of levels. That character is very much emphasised by the diabolically-intoned spoken-word introduction which leaves it open whether what take place on the inside or the outside. Are we looking at Duke Bluebeard's Castle as a place of horror or do the seven locked rooms of the castle rather a symbolical representation of the inner life of Duke Bluebeard?

The latter, the symbolical and the allegorical, is very much to the fore in La Monnaie's production directed by Christophe Coppens, the former artist and fashion designer who has returned to his theatrical roots and who was first involved with opera in La Monnaie's version of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen, (which they retitled 'Foxie!'). The castle is a grid of nine rooms, with Bluebeard at its centre unable to move, unreachable, wrapped in the castle constrictor-like grip. Judit's appearance and fearless willingness to explore breaks down this barrier on the opening of the first chamber, but Bluebeard still remains confined to a wheelchair until he is finally freed. Freeing Bluebeard however might not be such a great idea.

The set design highlights that this freedom is one of breaking down barriers to self-awareness or self-reflection by making this a castle of mirrors. Every surface is mirrored, but angled and distorting. It's dark, cold blue, turning to red as Judit recognises that everything in each of the rooms is covered in blood. The chambers themselves are of course symbolic of what lies in the deeper recesses of the male psyche, bathed in violence, avarice and secrecy, closing down human feelings, hiding a lake of tears and sentiments of love in the seventh chamber. It's the idea that Bluebeard might harbour those feelings for other women that proves to be an open door that the woman can never close once she has become aware of it. Some things are better not knowing.

As a staging and representation Coppens' direction and designs are effective enough, if not really spectacular, daring or revealing of any new ideas or insights. It remains a fairly static production, with only Judit moving slowly between one room and the next. The lighting brings emphasis to the music, saving its big moment to chime with Bartók's grand theme for the opening of the fifth chamber. It's in the musical performance really that the work lives, and Alain Altinoglu finds that epic quality in the work, the dark fairy-tale and the dark allegory. It's a work for great singers too, and Ante Jerkunica and Nora Gubisch bring out its chilling stridency.

What is good about the production however is that it doesn't just view the partnering piece as an entirely separate work, but uses Bartók's The Magnificent Mandarin - composed in 1924 - to also to highlight and add further commentary on Bartók's short 1918 opera - his only one - Duke Bluebeard's Castle. It's a welcome change for seeing Duke Bluebeard's Castle paired with another short one-act opera like Iolanta or La Voix Humaine, and even as a ballet-pantomime, The Magnificent Mandarin is a much more complementary piece than you would first imagine, and perhaps even allows both works to gain something in the pairing.

If Duke Bluebeard's Castle is all symbolism of suppressed and internalised emotions, repressed sexual desire and violence, those characteristics are made explicit to some extent in The Magnificent Mandarin, where an unscrupulous brothel manager assaults and robs clients and pays for his crimes when he murders a Chinese Mandarin. Coppens accordingly revisits the dark chambers of the castle as the colourful and brightly lit rooms of a brothel, where we can voyeuristically see those behaviours carried out in the Technicolor style of Hitchcock's Rear Window. This might perhaps account for Bluebeard appearing again at the conclusion in his wheelchair, as otherwise there's no direct overlapping or reference between the two parts of this production.

I say explicit, but it's actually highly stylised, very much in the cartoon come to life quality that Coppens used in Foxie! The Cunning Little Vixen. That doesn't mean however that it can't get across the intent of the piece, the sensuality and the violence that rises to the surface, and it's often quite clever and imaginative in the designs, such as one of the prostitutes wearing a skirt of legs that dissolve into a blur of body parts in her tryst with the Mandarin. Again it's Bartók's music that is highly expressive and it's matched much more precisely to the dancer's movements and actions, delivered with like precision and expression by Alain Altinoglu's conducting of the La Monnaie orchestra.

Links: La Monnaie

Friday, 31 August 2018

Adwan, Moody, Van der Harst - Orfeo and Majnun (Aix, 2018)

Moneim Adwan, Howard Moody, Dick van der Harst - Orfeo and Majnun

Festival d'Aix en Provence, 2018

Bassem Akiki, Airan Berg, Martina Winkel, Loay Srouji, Nai Tamish Barghouti, Yoann Dubruque, Judith Fa, Sachli Gholamalizad

OperaVision - 8 July 2018

The Aix-en-Provence Festival is known for its adventurous approach to new opera works and one of the finest and most surprising revelations was bringing Arabic opera to the stage in 2016, with Palestinian composer Moneim Adwan's Kalîla wa Dimna. There's always the danger that such ventures will be seen as cross-cultural tokenism and fail to make a wider impact, but if that's the case it's through no failing of the quality of the pieces. Nor is it any failing of the Aix festival, who I was delighted to see commission a new piece with Adwan, a composer of real talent and musical storytelling ability who brings a colourful and invigorating freshness to the world of contemporary opera.

While the Arabian folk fable character of Adwan's Kalîla wa Dimna is very much present in this new work, Orfeo and Majnun however is a collaborative opera between Moneim Adwan and two other western composers Howard Moody and Dick van der Harst. Whether the collaboration is a genuine attempt to further experiment with form and composition, or whether it's an attempt to make the unconventional Arabian instrumentation more accessible to an opera audience is debatable, but there is at least a sense that the cross-cultural collaboration is compromised towards tokenism in its presentation.

The story itself for example is not just one story but two blended together to show a common theme across cultures. From the Greek tradition there is Orpheus and Eurydice, a popular subject for western opera from its very beginnings, since it puts music and poetry together as an expression of human endeavour and ability to strive to overcome seeming insurmountable challenges, where love sets itself against death with the journey of Orpheus to Hades. There's a similar treatment of those themes in the ancient Arabic story of Layla and Qays. When Layla is forbidden to marry her true love Qays, the young man becomes 'Majnun' (a crazy man), writing poetry that charms the animals, but their love endures and Layla remains faithful to her love until death.

The connection between the two stories lies on a deeper level of two lovers who find a distance between them that cannot be bridged. The commonality is made clear in a number of overlapping scenes, Layla walking a distance behind Qays in one scene while Eurydice follows Orpheus out of the Underworld, but the distance of those few steps is nonetheless a huge gulf. Orpheus's song charms Cerberus, the three-headed guard-dog of Hades, and Qays likewise writes poetry that enchants and draws animals to him. Love, represented in the abstract by music and singing (opera) is the unifying force in both cases that enables man to exceed his human boundaries and be capable of something greater, something written in the stars.

Despite their commonalities, bringing them together creates something of an Ariadne auf Naxos situation, another imperfect matching of life, myth and art that was also part of this year's Aix programme. While the stories should come together naturally, there is however a clear division between the eastern and western traditions in Orfeo and Majnun that is immediately marked by the instrumentation and melody, each composer seeming to work on their own alternating section of the work. If you listen closely however there is some crossover of harmonies in the sections where Layla and Eurydice meet and where the stories overlap, but it rarely does the piece really feel like it has a single voice of its own.

Obviously this is inevitable to some extent, as musical composition is rarely a collaborative process in the opera or classical tradition, but the narrative doesn't help matters. Martina Winkel's libretto does unfortunately tells too much rather than let the story and the music fill in the detail. It goes as far as including a narrator who explains the moral and the message throughout on the common power of myth just in case you don't get it, as well as providing a bridge between the two stories that as a consequence remain largely separate.

Where it might have come together better also is in the stage production. Directed by Airan Berg and Martina Winkel, you can't say that they don't make every effort to provide a strong visual presentation that attempts to integrate the stories. There are abstract projections, giant life-size puppets of the animals, figures with animal masks, puppet shows and shadow plays. The only thing lacking is the character direction and singing, which mainly consists of standing singing with heartfelt expressions and some dance movements/yoga poses that don't really express the underlying sentiments terribly well.

The need to ensure that everyone understands the cross-cultural importance of the work also extends to the make-up of the chorus and the orchestra, which combines traditions as well as amateur and professional singers and musicians. While the chorus is mixed age, the predominance of children's voices does make it sound like a children's story, particularly when aligned with the moralising narrative. The international composition of the Mediterranean Youth Orchestra however are superb, creating a wonderful range of sounds and melodies under the direction of Bassem Akiki, navigating the changing moods and styles well.

I think it's important that the Aix-en-Provence festival (and La Monnaie in Brussels who are one of the co-producers here) continue to support innovation in contemporary opera and seek outreach to a wider international audience of all ages, but the creators of Orfeo and Majnun, Airan Berg and Martina Winkel, seem to feel it is within their remit to make the cross-cultural message what the opera is about and it feels a little patronising. Again however, even if it highlights the contrast in approach more than commonalities, there is much to admire in what Moneim Adwan's Arabic melodies and storytelling have to bring to help diversify the language of contemporary opera.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en Provence, OperaVision

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Prokofiev - The Fiery Angel (Aix, 2018)

Sergei Prokofiev - The Fiery Angel

Festival d'Aix en Provence, 2018

Kazushi Ono, Mariusz Treliński, Aušrinė Stundytė, Scott Hendricks, Agnieszka Rehlis, Andreï Popov, Krzysztof Bączyk, Pavlo Tolstoy, Łukasz Goliński, Bernadetta Grabias, Bożena Bujnicka, Maria Stasiak

Culturebox - 15 July 2018

It's hard to say exactly what the true nature of Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel is, whether it's a satire, an exploration of mental illness, decadent, absurdist, symbolist, but I'm pretty sure it's not a comedy. Any yet it's a work that does push the boundaries of human experience or at least the expression of them, so the absurdity of madness can indeed appear to be strangely comic, a side of the work that Barrie Kosky emphasised in his typically colourful and somewhat camp 2015 Munich production of the work. Director Mariusz Treliński takes it a little more seriously and is more open to alternative interpretations, but The Fiery Angel remains an enigmatic experience.

Written by Valery Bryusov, whose work is associated with Russian Symbolism and the Decadent Movement, The Fiery Angel is intentionally allusive and unconnected to any superficial narrative viewpoint, more concerned with exploring hard to define and even taboo human states and emotions. If there's an edge of absurdity in The Fiery Angel it's because it heads towards those outer reaches, exploring the fragility of the human psyche and human desires, where love turns to obsession and where madness is just one step removed from reality, and it's an easy line to cross.

In The Fiery Angel, Ruprecht a German knight, finds a distressed woman in his lodgings. Renata tells him that she has lost the love of her life, Heinrich, a man she believes to be the human incarnation of the Madiel, the fiery angel. First encountering Madiel as an eight year old child, Renata has followed a chaste and ascetic path towards sainthood, walking barefoot and inflicting wounds on herself. Wishing a more physical communion however angered Madiel and he disappeared in a pillar of fire. Heinrich, although denying he was Madiel, has now left her, and Renata reaches out to Ruprecht, seeing advice and guidance from alchemists, spiritualists and occult practices, in hallucinatory drugs and all manner of strange rituals.

That suggests that there is a dividing line between reality and a world where visions, unconventional thought and even madness takes over, but it's not that clear-cut. Ruprecht's reactions towards Renata's story and her experience, not to mention the physical presence of this vulnerable woman, brings out a side to the knight that is split between chivalry and lust that - when he cannot resist the woman and in this production tries to rape her - is followed by subsequent feelings of guilt. Possibly. There's nothing about those areas of human behaviour that the work explores that can be determined to fit a logical, consistent thought process that makes rational sense. And that's before the work becomes even more complicated.

Although it is set in medieval Germany, there is an autobiographical element to The Fiery Angel in Bryusov's involvement with the poet Nina Petrovskaya who had just ended a relationship with fellow Symbolist writer Andrei Bely - all Russian artists personally known to Prokofiev. Petrovskaya committed suicide in 1927, the same year that Prokofiev finished The Fiery Angel, although the opera was never performed in his lifetime. There is however no correlative map to help you understand what is real, imagined and hallucinated, or what is merely a Symbolist writer's attempt to find a colourful and darkly poetic expression of deep emotional states.

For the Polish director Mariusz Treliński, directing The Fiery Angel for the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2018, Prokofiev's music is very much an expressionistic response to the meteoric decline in rational behaviour that occurs when love turns to obsession and madness, Ruprecht, Renata and Heinrich all coming crashing down to earth. Treliński's working methods often draw on cinema references and techniques; David Lynch's Blue Velvet is always going to be a reference for something like The Fiery Angel, but Treliński also seems to draw on the heightened expressionism in the neon and colour saturated imagery of Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives and Neon Demon.

It's a fluid dream-world then, the sets and locations blending and dissolving into one another. It looks amazing, nightmarishly surreal and hallucinogenic, finding creative ways to represent the intentions of the work, the feelings of the characters and the expression of it all in Prokofiev's music. In his duel with Heinrich, Ruprecht is transformed into a small child with an absurdly large Ruprecht head representing his feelings of inadequacy; the spiritualist Agrippa von Nettesheim appears in multiple forms that may part of his occult persona or just be one of many other visions that assail the Ruprecht in his impressionable drug-induced state.

The Fiery Angel however is not entirely just the subjective impressions of a disturbed mind or minds, but it does place them in the context of other social factors. Renata's behaviour and self-harm also suggests childhood sexual abuse and conflicting feelings for her abuser, but certainly in Prokofiev's version there is confrontation with a patriarchal society, with its institutions and with the repressive influence of religion. It suggests that evil can come in the form of what is perceived to be good, and how it can be difficult to tell the difference. There's a lot to take in here and much that won't make sense, but Treliński illustrates and delves into those mindsets as vigorously, unflinchingly and richly as Prokofiev's highly expressive score, conducted here by Kazushi Ono.

It would be harder to carry off however if you don't have someone like Aušrinė Stundytė singing the role of Renata, and she is simply phenomenal here. It's not enough that she can take on the challenge of the singing, being on stage continuously for most of the two hours of the opera, but director Treliński also expects her to act out Renata's condition as if she were a film actress. Filmed for live broadcast with close-ups that show every gesture and expression, it's a thoroughly convincing performance. The mostly Ukrainian, Polish and Russian cast have the advantage here with the language, which must have made it all the more of a challenge for Scott Hendricks as Ruprecht, but while I can't account for his Russian, it was an excellent performance, perfect for the demands of the role and the production.

Links: Festival d'Aix en Provence, Culturebox