Monday, 16 October 2017

O'Dwyer - Eithne (Dublin, 2017)

Robert O'Dwyer - Eithne

Opera Theatre Company, Dublin - 2017

Fergus Sheil, Orla Boylan, Gavan Ring, Robin Tritschler, Brendan Collins, Eamonn Mulhall, Imelda Drumm, John Molloy, Robert McAllister, Rachel Croash, Eoghan Desmond, Fearghal Curtis, Conor Breen 

National Concert Hall, Dublin - 14th October 2017

Economies of scale and a troubled political history have prevented the idea of a national opera from ever really being able to establish a foothold in Ireland. It's only recently that steps have been taken to form a national opera company to replace Opera Ireland, one of the arts victims of the economic crisis that struck Ireland almost a decade ago. Irish National Opera doesn't officially come into being until 2018, but in the meantime a few of the component groups that will form the new company have been working hard to keep opera alive in the country. There has been a resurgence in contemporary opera commissions in recent years and now, quite thrillingly, there's been the rediscovery of one of the most important works in the history of Irish opera, Robert O'Dwyer's Eithne.

Eithne has the distinction of being the first full-scale opera composed in the Irish language. It was composed in 1909 by Robert O'Dwyer, who was born in Bristol of Irish parents, and the opera was last performed at the Gaiety theatre in Dublin in 1910. As the fate of Ireland was caught up in the subsequent years with the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, O'Dwyer's Irish language opera was lost and only rediscovered when the orchestral score came up for auction in 2012. It was an occasion of some national pride then to have the opera - unheard for over 100 years - reconstructed, revived and performed once again in 2017 by the Opera Theatre Company. While Eithne is no lost masterpiece, it is nonetheless an important and even an impressive work, and it certainly impressed the audience who came to see in a one-off concert performance at the National Concert Hall in Dublin.

An unheard work by an unheard of composer, it was difficult to imagine beforehand what to expect from Eithne and just how it was going to sound.  The period of composition and the subject based on Celtic mythology however gave a few important clues and indeed the few on-line rehearsal clips posted in advance suggested a lush post-Wagnerian romanticism. In the event, there is little that is Wagnerian or even Straussian in Eithne's scale or ambition, and the music itself isn't particularly Celtic sounding, although there is a fairy-tale element to the harp music and a folk element in some of the solo violin playing. It's the rhythms and sounds of the Irish language however that provides a more recognisable character for the folk legend of Eithne, aligning it more closely to Dvořák and the fairy-tale romantic character of Rusalka.

There is a recognisable connection with Die Zauberflote and Siegfried and a romantic element too in the heroic endeavours of Ceart to become the High King of Ireland. Based on the legend of Éan an cheoil bhinn (The bird of sweet music), the Irish language libretto for Eithne was composed by the noted academic and playwright Tomás Ó Ceallaigh. In the first half of the opera, characterised by rousing choral music, Ceart is unanimously acclaimed by the people to be the successor to the High King, but his half-brothers Neart and Art conspire against him, claiming that he is responsible for the killing of the king's favourite hound. Nuala, who has brought Ceart up since the death of his mother, intervenes on his behalf and, evoking the songs of the birds when she speaks, she convinces the King of the truth and inspires him even to forgive Neart and Art.

The bird's song is heard again in the second half of the opera, and it leads the King away from the hunt. Surrounded by maidens, Eithne appears and tells of her fate, that she and her mother (Nuala) have been held captive in a spell by her father the King of Tír na nÓg (the legendary Land of Youth in Irish folklore). Ceart steps forward to challenge the Guardian Spirit of Tír na nÓg and beating him he acquires a magical ring, sword and cloak that will help him defeat the King. In order to break the spell however, Ceart has other challenges to face and, proving his worth as a warrior, as a worthy husband for Eithne and, as the death of his father is announced, as the High King of Ireland.

Evidently, there's enough magic and drama in Eithne for it to be a fine stage spectacle, and perhaps one day we might get the opportunity to see it that way, but this first and only presentation of Robert O'Dwyer's rediscovered work was presented to the Dublin audience in concert performance, where it was recorded for a future CD release. Even in concert performance, this was an impressive way to experience the opera, as it gave great opportunity not only to hear the individual singers but the work of the large chorus - so prominent through - and the terrific playing of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fergus Sheil, giving the lush melodic musical qualities of the work central stage.

Despite the title of the opera being granted to Eithne, who only makes an appearance late in the opera, it was Robin Tritschler's Ceart who was unquestionably the star performance of the night. The tenor has a beautifully light lyrical tone that is reminiscent of Klaus Florian Vogt in one or two places but with a little more 'body'. A virtuous, heroic tone is required for Ceart - if not quite of the Heldentenor variety - and Tritschler delivered that in abundance. The role of Eithne has challenges, but not perhaps of the Wagnerian level either, and I thought Orla Boylan (who I last saw singing the big role of Turandot) was a little too large a voice for the role in that respect, and there was some wavering as she tried to fit to the lyrical flow. Boylan however certainly carried the romantic heroism of the role with all the essential Irish qualities that are necessary there in her voice.

There were other impressive performances in Irish-singing cast. John Molloy's smooth baritone boomed imperiously as the rumbling Giant, the Guardian Spirit of Tír na nÓg. Nuala too has a substantial presence in the first act, and singing along to the flute birdsong accompaniment, Imelda Drumm was absolutely captivating. Gavan Ring, who was instrumental in bringing Eithne back to the stage, sang the role of the High King of Ireland wonderfully and in full possession of the elevated status of the role. The heightened Irish legend qualities were boosted considerably by the chorus of the Opera Theatre Company, bringing the audience to its feet at the opera's epic conclusion. It now seems that Irish national opera not only as a future, but it now has a glorious past history to look back on as well.

Links: Opera Theatre Company, Irish National Opera, RTE webcast

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito (Glyndebourne, 2017)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

Glyndebourne, 2017

Robin Ticciati, Claus Guth, Richard Croft, Alice Coote, Anna Stéphany, Michèle Losier, Clive Bayley, Joélle Harvey

Glyndebourne online - 3 August 2017

It's seems to be the case that the success of a production of one of Mozart's opera seria works depends very much on how well it balances of all its different crucial elements. Mozart's music speaks for itself and in La Clemenza di Tito it's of a rare beauty and perfection; almost too beautiful for the nature of the turmoil and sentiments of the work, until you realise at the conclusion that this sense of order and reconciliation is precisely the point of the opera. The spoken dialogue in Mozart's work however is rarely given a consideration commensurate with the kind of attention to detail that is applied to the music.

In the past it's often been a case of cutting or rushing through the long stretches of recitative or spoken dialogue in Mozart operas to get back to the music. Christof Loy however demonstrated in an uncut Die Entführung aus dem Serail was how a work could be transformed when a director gave equal consideration to the mood and meaning of the spoken drama passages and had capable performers with good acting skills to deliver them. When both music and drama were given this kind of attention, there can be a remarkable synthesis between words and music, staging and performance, showing that Mozart's operas are more than just a collection of pretty tunes.

Robin Ticciati's conducting of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the 2017 Glyndebourne production certainly demonstrates that there is more to the music than pretty tunes. He picks out the gorgeous detail of the composition and structure, highlighting the sonority of individual instruments and how they combine with the drama and sentiments of the work itself. Director Claus Guth characteristically looks beneath the surface and presents contrasting sides of the conflicted personalities involved in the opera's drama, but it's in how they give expression to the flaws in their nature - in the spoken sections as much as in the singing - that their humanity combines with Mozart's music to create a beautiful whole.

And when you see this opera done so well, its qualities as a complete opera are all the more evident. La Clemenza di Tito is more than a typical opera of expositionary dialogue followed by static arias of love and anguish. The opera has some measure of dramatic interaction and action, but more importantly it has real human sentiments rather than generic interchangeable ones that drive these actions and give the arias a real sense of heartfelt meaning. In Mozart's hands, La Clemenza di Tito is more than a musical exercise and more than just a plot to hang some pretty arias off.

Here Tito's actions do not feel arbitrary or cruel. They reflect the real difficulties of ruling and trying to please everyone. Ruling it seems is not just a case of having your cake and eating it. We recognise Tito's wisdom in this matter early on when Servilia tells the emperor that her heart belongs to Annio but she is willing to submit to his will, and Tito renounces his intention to marry her. Likewise, when the cake offered is potentially poisonous, metaphorically speaking, as when Publio offers him a list of known political agitators who have been outspoken about the regime, Tito refuses to take any action against them. He certainly doesn't send in the riot police.

But a ruler is only as informed as his advisors allow him to be and only if his subjects are willing to speak without fear of retribution. Willingness to learn and forgive is all a part of La Clemenza di Tito and that's a characteristic that perhaps seems a little more idealistic when applied to the reality we know. And yet how attractive a proposition Mozart makes this seem. La Clemenza di Tito might appear unrealistic and naive in its treatment of the realities of politics and human nature, but the primary purpose of the opera is not to show a mirror to reality, but rather to show the potential of human nature and the rewards that we can strive to attain.

Claus Guth's production for Glyndebourne 2017 uses a split-level set design by Christian Schmidt to show to separation of the reality and the ideal and the conflict that lies between them. Guth recognises that the divisions are not as obvious as you might think, particularly in Mozart's view, where feelings of love and revenge can lie on the same side and are contrasted rather with duty and social/regal expectations that can blind one from seeing the truth. Guth also suggests a division between the spoken articulated word on one level and deeper sentiments and forces that drive one underneath. I'm not sure why Guth chooses to show the lower level as some kind of swamp, but there is a sense of seeking the truth in a more simple way of life, away from the duties of office.

What is also interesting about La Clemenza di Tito is that it's a work where, depending on the production, different figures can emerge as the key player, each expressing this split in nature versus behaviour. In some productions Sesto takes prominence as the character most prone to action and reaction. In others a forceful Vitellia can be the manipulator who provokes the troubles and then comes to regret her actions. It all very much depends on the strength of the direction of the performers, and while Anna Stéphany and Alice Coote are both excellent as Sesto and Vitellia in this production, it's Richard Croft's lyrical and sensitively performed Tito who emerges as a figure of real personality and character, showing genuine human concern for the role of a ruler and the anguish over the difficulties it involves.

Attention to the recitative is important, being able to get across the human feelings behind the words is vital, and Guth's direction forges a strong connection with Mozart's music as it is conducted by Robin Ticciati. Guth also has recourse to projections that hark back to simpler times, showing Tito and Sesto as children, but whether this is necessary or not, it provides another layer that fits in with all the other elements and gets to the human heart of Mozart's great final opera.

Links: Glyndebourne

Friday, 6 October 2017

Purcell - Miranda (Paris, 2017)

Henry Purcell - Miranda

L'Opéra Comique, Paris - 2017

Raphaël Pichon, Katie Mitchell, Kate Lindsey, Henry Waddington, Katherine Watson, Allan Clayton, Marc Mauillon, Aksel Rykkvin

ARTE Concert - 29 September 2017

You can't argue with the pedigree of the sources involved in the creation of Miranda. It's a 'new' opera based on characters in Shakespeare's The Tempest, set to music written some 300 years ago by Henry Purcell. And yet adapted by Cordelia Lynn Miranda is also a contemporary opera, set in the present day, with a very different outlook brought to the characters, the drama and the music by director Katie Mitchell and Raphaël Pichon.

The idea of creating a new opera out of existing material or adapting pieces to work in a new context isn't a new innovation in opera. Rossini frequently revised and cannibalised his own works in the 19th century - why waste a good tune? - but the practice is older than that. The pasticcio, an opera made of cobbled together 'hits' from other operas, was popular in the 18th century, and the practice was revived a few years ago for the Metropolitan Opera's The Enchanted Island (interestingly, also based around Shakespeare's The Tempest).

Katie Mitchell and Raphaël Pichon have good form in such matters, collaborating to create the sublime Trauernacht for Aix-en-Provence in 2014, an opera assembled out of cantatas by J.S. Bach. Whether it added up to a convincing dramatic piece was debatable, but the choice of music, the coherence and beauty of the sentiments expressed in bringing them together, certainly added up to a work that was greater than the sum of its parts. Even if you saw it as nothing more than a rare opportunity to bring Bach to the opera stage and hear some beautiful performances of his cantatas, there was merit in that alone.

The same unfortunately can't be said for how Shakespeare and Purcell are treated in the semi-opera Miranda. Shakespeare's The Tempest is pretty much jettisoned right from the start, or rather its themes and intent are casually dismissed by Katie Mitchell and librettist Cordelia Lynn in favour of a more feminist reading that sets out to "correct" the patriarchal attitudes and male power play expressed in the original. Miranda, now a young woman with a child, Anthony, has come to the realisation that she's been a victim of child abuse, and she's going to confront her aggressors; her father Prospero and her husband Ferdinand.

I'm not quite sure how the creators of this 'sequel' to the Tempest have come to this particular reading from Shakespeare's play or why they've chosen to ignore the multiplicity of other themes that can be found in the work, but the implication is that we've only heard one side of the story and it's been an exclusively male one. Miranda has had enough of being misrepresented and she's not going to take any more. It's time, she tells us, to tell the true story. She's accuses her father of forcing her into exile, permitting her to be raped by Caliban on the island, marrying her as a child bride and giving birth to a child when she was only 17. "You're an ego maniac", she challenges her father, "You need to shut up. I'm telling the story now".

Well, as you can see, in addition to being a rather dubious rewriting and imposition of a modern feminist perspective on The Tempest, Lynn's libretto lacks the finesse and poetry of Shakespeare's valedictory work for the stage. Miranda is also rather deficient in dramatic coherence, credibility and, well... taste basically. Miranda decides to stage her confrontation with her male aggressors in the most absurd way imaginable: as a terrorist hostage situation at a funeral where her family are mourning her death. Believed drowned, her body never recovered, Miranda has a surprise for the mourners, turning up at the church with a small terrorist unit, wearing a black mask and a wedding dress and waving a pistol in the faces of the shocked and terrified congregation.

It's nothing apparently to what Miranda has had to endure, and she sets the record straight with a pantomime act that fulfils the masque aspect of the semi-opera. The drama however doesn't really elaborate any further on the contention that "I was exiled. I was raped. I was a child bride", which is all Miranda seems to want to get off her chest. Having stage-managed this little melodrama for attention and revealed to an appalled Anna the true nature of her husband Prospero by whom she is bringing another child into this brave new world, it's all hunky-dory once again when Ferdinand begs forgiveness ('Then pity me, who am your slave / And grant me a reprieve' from O! Fair Cedaria); the presumption being - in the absence of any dramatic credibility or winning way with words - that the beauty of the sentiments expressed in Purcell's music is enough to make everything all right.

And in a way, it almost is. It's clear that there has to be some sort of dramatic compromise made in order to fit the chosen Purcell pieces into a coherent drama, and the suspicion is that the funeral is there to provide a suitable setting for a selection of Purcell's sacred music, the highlight here being the Evening Hymn 'Now that the sun hath veiled his light'. 'Dido's Lament' from Dido and Aeneas, sung here by Anna, does feel rather shoe-horned into the situation, but even in a situation as ludicrous as this the sincerity of the sentiments can't be denied in Miranda's forgiving/recriminating arias to Ferdinand, 'Oh! Lead me to some peaceful gloom' from Bonduca with the lines "What glory can a woman have / To conquer, yet be still a slave" ('woman' substituting 'lover' in the original) and to Prospero 'They tell us that your mighty powers above' from The Indian Queen.

The singers do their best to put some dramatic feeling into this, but there's not much for them to do as Miranda and Anna look sad and angry and take out their frustrations on Prospero and Ferdinand, who look embarrassed and ashamed. And that really sums up the very limited ambitions of Miranda, emasculating or reducing Shakespeare's achievements in The Tempest down to a one-way protest of anger and recrimination by women against men. Despite being shoehorned into such a situation, the beauty of Purcell's composition and sentiments still comes through in a way that makes Miranda more successful as a musical piece than a dramatic one.

Kate Lindsey obviously has the biggest say and platform here as Miranda and is excellent, firm and clear of voice if somewhat driven to over-expression by the drama. Katherine Watson also makes a good impression, but again the context of Dido's Lament doesn't perhaps permit its best expression. Allan Clayton and Henry Waddington have thankless roles (the brutes!) which they nonetheless sing well and are at least better fitted to their roles than Marc Mauillon's strained priest. Aksel Rykkvin's Anthony is worthy of a mention for a lovely performance of An Evening Hymn: 'Now that the sun hath veiled his light'.  Despite my reservations about the libretto and direction, the qualities of Purcell's music and the performances here under the direction of Raphaël Pichon brought me back to watch this for a repeat viewing - much like Trauernacht - so there are certainly pleasures to be found here.

Links: L'Opéra Comique, ARTE Concert

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Dennehy - The Second Violinist (Dublin, 2017)

Donnacha Dennehy - The Second Violinist

Wide Open Opera, Dublin - 2017

Ryan McAdams, Enda Walsh, Aaron Monaghan, Máire Flavin, Sharon Carty, Benedict Nelson, Alyssa Hefferman

O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin - 2 October 2017

The core elements from The Last Hotel, the first opera composed by Donnacha Dennehy with playwright and director Enda Walsh, are still in place in their second collaboration, The Second Violinist. The Crash Ensemble are still there to navigate through Dennehy's Irish trad-influenced rhythms; there's a small cast of three singers (two female and one male) and a male actor; even the subject plays on a similar theme of death and desperation. In most other respects however, The Second Violinist expands the range and ambition of both writer and composer, finely adjusting the balance of the various operatic components to create a fuller and more accomplished piece of music theatre.

In one respect there appears to be a simplification or at least a greater refinement and precision in this work's dramatic focus. The Second Violinist really all centres around one man; Martin is a musician, a second violinist (obviously) who appears to be on the verge of a breakdown. He's almost ready for a visit to the Last Hotel, by the looks of it. Like the Woman in that piece, Martin is bombarded by messages on his phone; he gets calls from a local drama group looking for incidental music for a production of 'An Ideal Husband'; constant promotional texts from a pizza company; and angry recriminations from Martin's colleagues who aren't too impressed with his lack of preparation at the last rehearsal.

There's a reason for Martin's distraction, and the reason for it eventually becomes clear - or sort of clearish in a complicated, twisty, mobius loop kind of way. Exasperated and visibly at the end of his tether, Martin finds that the apartment where he lives alone has been taken over by phantoms who act out what at first appears to be a fairly ordinary domestic scene. Married couple Matthew and Amy are having an informal evening with Amy's friend Hannah, having a few glasses of wine and a pizza, but as the evening continues, things go a little awry, causing Matthew to consider how well he really knows the woman he has been married to for four (or is it five?) years.

Martin meanwhile tries to pull his life together, trying his best to ignore this phantom scene that is playing out simultaneously in his apartment, but not managing terribly successfully. The fact that he hasn't screamed or killed anyone yet (as far as we know), means however that he must be just about holding it together. What is keeping him from falling apart is an unexpected phone chat exchange with Scarlett, a viola playing musician who also shares his love for the Italian Renaissance composer, Carlo Gesualdo. The outcome of the fatal social evening however is closing in on Martin at the same time as he is starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Without getting too clever and self-referential - since the work's overlapping time-split narrative structure is complicated enough - The Second Violinist looks at life as an opera. Not in the familiar sense of musically-heightened dramatic melodrama, but in the sense of someone - a musician - who is looking for something that will bring a sense of structure, purpose and meaning to his life and put it into some kind of context. Carlo Gesualdo's life and music are an inspiration in this respect (as it has been for other modern composers, notably Salvatore Sciarrino's Luci mie traditrici and George Benjamin's Written on Skin); a tumultuous life with bloodshed and violence that nonetheless gave birth to music of indescribable beauty and poetry.

The Second Violinist consequently places greater demands on the role that the Crash Ensemble have to play under the direction of Ryan McAdams. There are still hints of Irish traditional music underpinning the score, but less of a single rhythmic pulse and a greater variety of tone in a work that has a more complex fractured dynamic with overlapping, contrasting sentiments to convey. It demands a different kind of virtuosity that doesn't rely on individual musicianship as much as a close collaboration of a custom ensemble working together to create that complex shifting sound world.

That's particularly important here because The Second Violinist is much more reliant on instrumental musical expression working with the dramatic narrative than the virtuosity of vocal expression that was rather more conventionally used in The Last Hotel. Sharon Carty, Benedict Nelson and Máire Flavin all handle their individual lyrical pieces well (less abstract than the pieces in The Last Hotel) and a chorus extend the chamber arrangements of the work considerably, but since we are viewing everything through the perspective of Martin, it would seem appropriate that it's Martin's view of life as an opera that is expressed mainly through the music, as well as in the silent intense performance of perpetual motion that actor Aaron Monaghan brings to the main role.

The superb set designs by Jamie Vartan and Enda Walsh's direction are just as vital to the expression and kinetic momentum that is established between the musical performance and the drama. As well as having two levels (woods/apartment) to represent different layers of Martin's psyche, the opera makes good widescreen CinemaScope use of the stage, where multiple events happen at the once or in quick succession but the focus of attention is always clear. The use of projections are also effective, with text messages and phone apps representing another important layer of everyday 'reality' that we can all recognise, not just Martin. Death, when it comes, does not bring the kind of dramatic resolution that we are accustomed to find in an opera; life and how we cope with it, as The Second Violinist shows in a fast and furious 75 minutes, is much more complicated than that.

Links: The Second Violinist, Wide Open Opera, Dublin Theatre Festival

Dennehy - The Last Hotel (Dublin, 2015)

Donnacha Dennehy - The Last Hotel

Wide Open Opera, Dublin - 2015

Alan Pierson, André de Ridder, Enda Walsh, Robin Adams, Claudia Boyle, Katherine Manley, Mikel Murfi

Sky Arts, 2016

The concept and playing out of the first opera by Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh is what you might call situational; which is why it's called The Last Hotel, I guess. It involves only three characters who come to a run-down and quite sinister hotel with some rather unsettling if somewhat vague intentions, plus one non-singing character, a demonic hotel porter.

Sinister and demonic are perhaps the key words here, as there's little that you'll find common or inviting as you try to figure out who these people are, what has brought them together and what they are doing at the hotel. There is very much a 'huis clos' kind of feel to a situation that is quite divorced from any kind of realism, and you do indeed even wonder if the Last Hotel is indeed some kind of waiting room for the after-life where these characters have met up in death.

As it happens, no-one has died yet, or at least none of the three principal characters; I can't say anything for sure about the existential state of the demonic porter who is seen rapidly cleaning up the blood from the last guests, but it's clear that death is not far away. As the Woman introduces herself and makes small-talk conversation about the journey over to the hotel with the Man and his Wife, we find out that death is very much on the agenda.

The exchanges and the interior monologues that each of the three of them express are however rather vague and poetically impressionistic. All of them however are rather nervous, a little bit panicky about what is to take place, and all of them are trying to put a brave face on what they are about to participate in. A rehearsal is proposed and it becomes apparent that the Man and his Wife have agreed to come to the hotel to help the Woman end her life. For reasons that are similarly unclear, but edgily urgent...

If there is an edgy urgency to the situation and a sinister and demonic aspect to what is to transpire, it's conveyed primarily by the driving propulsion of Donnacha Dennehy's distinctive music score. Performed by the terrific Crash Ensemble, Dennehy's music has the percussive energetic chug of Michael Nyman, but supplemented with flute, accordion and electric guitar it is underpinned by a structure and rhythm that has all the cadences, repetitive loops and shifts of Irish traditional music.

It's the music that gives the otherwise fairly obscure and poetic reverie of Enda Walsh's libretto its essential character. The three characters do interact, but it's mostly nervous small-talk that skirts around the purpose of their being at the hotel. They do break out or rather slip inward into more reflective consideration of their condition, but there are no specifics that reveal anything about the circumstances that have brought them together at this point. If it comes together at all, it's very much down to the music keeping up a tone and a momentum.

If the words don't carry much in the way of information or insight, there is at least some expression of character and situation in the writing for the voice. It's a surprisingly lyrical piece and not as recitative heavy as you might expect a contemporary English-language opera to be. Again, I think much of this has to do with the Irish music rhythms that align lyrically to the voice, and the urgent continuity of those rhythms and the tensions that are generated inevitably pushes the voices into the higher registers.

Premiered at the Edinburgh festival, Wide Open Opera's The Last Hotel also ran at the 2015 Dublin Theatre Festival (Dennehy's second opera with Enda Walsh The Second Violinist will feature there in the 2017 festival) and it was filmed there at the O'Reilly Theatre for Sky Arts. Originally conducted by André de Ridder, Alan Pierson takes over the direction of the 12-piece Crash Ensemble for the filmed performance.

The film version retains the minimal sets of the stage production for the live performance, but includes filmed cut-aways in and around a hotel when the focus turns on the individuals having their 'moments', giving the opera a little more room to expand outwards without losing any of its intensity. The intensity of the work and the kind of challenges of the singing are taken up well by the cast, with Claudia Boyle the Woman, Robin Adams the Man and Katherine Manley his Wife.

It took a week to get B*Witched's C'est la Vie out of my head.

Links: The Last Hotel, Wide Open Opera

Friday, 29 September 2017

Puccini - Tosca (Oslo, 2017)

Giacomo Puccini - Tosca

Den Norske Opera, Oslo - 2017

Karl-Heinz Steffens, Calixto Bieito, Svetlana Aksenova, Daniel Johansson, Claudio Sgura, Jens-Erik Aasbø, Pietro Simone, Ludvig Lindström, Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy, Aksel Johannes Skramstad Rykkvin

Opera Platform

One of the criticisms that can perhaps be legitimately be made against Tosca is that it is indeed little more than a cheap violent thriller, or a "shabby little shocker" as Joseph Kerman once characterised it, a term that it now wears as a badge of honour. Kerman's other criticisms against it for breaking the so-called rules of opera composition are rather more dubious subjective opinions based on a personal interpretation of what opera should be, but Tosca certainly is a dark, violent piece of verismo whose shock value threatens to submerge any human qualities that might be found in the opera, if indeed you think there are any. You could pretty much say the same about Calixto Bieito's production of Tosca for Den Norske Opera's production in Oslo.

Bieito's rather bleak outlook on the opera then might well be the only really valid way of approaching this work. To take it seriously as a historical piece or even as a strictly realist piece of drama, it's obviously absurd and quite overblown. Whether Tosca has any real commentary to make on historical events or whether it has any insightful point to make about ordinary people caught up in a political nightmare is doubtful. It's safer to think of Tosca as purely a political thriller and nothing more, and on that basis it is undoubtedly a thoroughly effective piece.

Similar criticisms could be made about Puccini's final unfinished opera Turandot, which is a work that seems perversely cruel and rather heavily scored out of all proportion to the opera's fairy-tale setting, and Calixto Bieito likewise focussed on the sinister authoritarian undercurrent that runs through that work in his production of it. Bieito's Tosca is more or less a companion piece to that Turandot, a study in the corruption and brutality of totalitarian rule that crushes individual freedom, going further to explore the repression of the arts within such a regime and the duty of the artist to speak out against it.

"Your silence will not protect you", states the placard wielded by political prisoner and fugitive Angelotti before the Oslo production of Tosca starts, and more so than in Bieito's Turandot where a similar warning was made about the silencing of dissent by artists who dared speak out against a cruel regime, Tosca does indeed deal with two artists - the opera singer Tosca and the artist Cavaradossi - who find themselves forced to take a stance against a cruel regime and address the real issues of its corrupt activities when those issues are brought to their door.

Director Calixto Bieito does his best to make that situation as shocking and as sinister as it is possible to make it on a stage and within this particular work. The audience are subjected to an onslaught of violence for the full three acts of the opera, with no interval to provide a breathing space. It's somewhat stylised and representational, but it still carries the requisite shock value. The Madonna painted by Cavaradossi is not a painting but a real woman, stripped naked, her robe held out as a 'fan' for Tosca to discover. Cavaradossi is brutally tortured on-stage, Bieito makes use of dwarfs in school uniforms for henchmen, and even introduces a son for Scarpia, another schoolboy who licks lasciviously on a lollypop. There's no innocence to be found anywhere here.

Least of all in Scarpia. And, as you might expect, Bieito makes him as vile a character as possible, pawing over Floria Tosca and another woman who we presume is his wife, and Claudio Sgura does his best to make him as repugnant as possible. That's to be expected, but Bieito also seems to want to explore how this corruption also extends to destroy the purity of the artist and how this might even be a necessary thing. This Floria Tosca goes rather further than most before killing Scarpia (bizarrely with his own spectacles rather than a knife) and is fired up by the experience. As Cavaradossi observes those "sweet hands pure and gentle" have "dealt out death".

For Bieito's emphasis to work - if it is even possible to truly depict the horror of a totalitarian state on a live theatre stage and in an opera like Tosca - it needs a Tosca who can respond to it on those terms, reacting to the violation of her integrity with horror and then come to terms with opposing it, even if that endeavour in Puccini's opera is ultimately futile. That, on top of the kind of the role's singing demands is a lot to ask of any soprano, and Svetlana Aksenova struggles somewhat. Aksenova doesn't have quite a big enough voice or personality to carry such a role, but sings well nonetheless. Her acting performance however lacks conviction to such an extent that when Scarpia says his is fired up by the new woman who has explosively adopted a new role he has never seen before, you do wonder what he's talking about.

Aksenova however does come more into the part in Act III when the trauma of the experience seems to tell on Tosca, and it's in this act that the effectiveness of Bieito's direction of the work becomes evident in its relationship with the music. You can't really put the true violence of Tosca on the stage; it's too brutal and it needs the medium of music to translate it. Karl-Heinz Steffens's conducting is a bit light in places when you need more forceful hand and a greater dynamic between the verismo violence and the more idealised human sentiments, such as those sung so beautifully by Daniel Johansson in Cavaradossi's 'E lucevan le stelle'. Half measures won't do and I don't think you can overstate in Tosca; the contrast needs to be there to show the force with which those gentle human sentiments will inevitably be crushed.

Puccini shows no mercy for any of his characters and neither does Bieito. The lighting is harsh permitting no soft colours, the stark bright spotlights picking out the characters in the darkness and throwing shadows. There is no place to run and no place to hide on Susanne Gschwender's sets. Nor is there a place to jump. You can hardly expect Bieito to be as crude as actually having Tosca leap from the Castel Sant' Angelo, but whether it's an acknowledgement that there's only so far you can push such 'realism' before it becomes sentimental or whether the director believes that both Tosca and Cavaradossi have to live at least long enough to acknowledge their actions, Bieto spares them the final famous denouement, but not their torment. Ultimately however, it's Puccini's extraordinary building and contrasting of the musical forces that determines their fate and Bieito follows it to its appropriately devastating conclusion.

Links: Den Norske Opera, Opera Platform

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Britten - Owen Wingrave (Dublin, 2017)

Benjamin Britten - Owen Wingrave

Opera Collective Ireland, 2017

Stephen Barlow, Tom Creed, Benjamin Russell, Christopher Cull, Peter O'Reilly, Roisín Walsh, Rachel Croash, Amy Ní Fherarraigh, Sarah Richmond, Andrew Boushell

O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin - 16th September 2017

Up until now Owen Wingrave has been the only Britten opera that I haven't had the opportunity to see or write about. And as good as this 2017 Opera Collective Ireland production was at the Dublin Fringe Festival - and there are certainly qualities to admire in the work - I think however I can see why it is so rarely performed. It's an opera with some very obvious flaws and certainly a lesser work by the composer.

I don't think however that anyone can question the sincerity of purpose of the opera, or Britten's fervent belief in and commitment to spreading the gospel of pacifism. Henry James's short story Owen Wingrave and the opportunity to present the work to a wider audience as a television opera might have seemed like a good vehicle to get that message across, but both seem to involve some measure of compromise with both the medium and the message.

Being written for TV presentation isn't necessarily the problem, since Britten had reservations about the new medium and strove to ensure that the opera was composed to also work as a stage drama, but there is still little of real dramatic interest in the piece. It might be a little reductive - which I think is also a fault with the opera - but essentially it seems to me to be about a young man from a family with a proud military history who says he's had enough of this war lark and doesn't want to train to be a soldier. The remainder of the opera is a series of condemnations and accusations of cowardice from his family and his fiancée's family who line up to take turns to castigate him for his decision.

There is also a ghost story element that is added to bring another dimension to the work and to show the difference between cowardice born out of fear and genuine conscientious objection to the horror of war. The supernatural element however is nowhere near as effective or of an essence to the piece as it is in Britten's other Henry James adaptation The Turn of the Screw, and it feels oddly out of place with the rather more serious intentions of the work.

Like the previous adaptation however, Britten does develop a distinctive, eerie and often challenging musical treatment for the work with greater emphasis here on percussion and use of the gamelan. Britten also makes an effort to introduce some arias and haunting 'Malo malo' moments, but the discoursive nature of the piece means that it is heavily reliant on preachy recitative. And posh preachy recitative at that, much too tied up in old family traditions and class concerns to really touch upon the essential matters at the heart of the subject.

The production design for the Opera Collective Ireland production directed by Tom Creed made some effort to update the work with references to Kandahar and the Falklands, as well as seeking to find some other ways to represent it visually, but none of them managed to enliven the work, make it any more engaging or even illustrate the at times difficult to make-out words of Myfanwy Piper's libretto. Instead of family portraits and a mansion we have a room filled with stuffed birds of prey and an isolating border wall. Projections also contribute to representational undercurrents of blind nationalism in an imposing Union Jack, and to the more sinister side of it in shadows of the hawks coming to life.

On the performance side, a good cast made the most of the roles and did their best to give them distinguishing characteristics and personality that is hard to find elsewhere in their almost unanimous condemnation of the reluctant soldier. Benjamin Russell's clear-voiced baritone was well suited to the role of Owen Wingrave and in how it blended in with Stephen Barlow's conducting of the Irish Chamber Orchestra, and Andrew Boushell's tenor soared as Sir Philip and the ballad singer. The stand-out performance however was Amy Ní Fherarraigh who cut through all the manners and mannerisms and gave us a steely, determined and frankly intimidating Mrs Julian. If only the horror of war and the supernatural elements had been depicted half as vividly as her Mrs Julian, the fate of Owen Wingrave would indeed have been something truly to fear.

Links: Opera Collective Ireland

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Mussorgsky - Khovanshchina (Vienna, 2017)

Modest Mussorgsky - Khovanshchina

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2017

Michael Güttler, Lev Dodin, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Christopher Ventris, Herbert Lippert, Andrzej Dobber, Ain Anger, Elena Maximova

Staatsoper Live - 11 September 2017

New productions of an opera often reveal different facets and new perspectives on any given work, but you often find that you can also continue to find something new when you revisit a revival of a good production. Lev Dodin's fairly static production of Khovanshchina however, first seen at the Vienna State Opera in 2014, doesn't strike you as one that would have a great deal more to offer. Even if it doesn't bring anything new to the table - when even the cast line-up is identical to that seen in 2014 - Khovanshchina is nonetheless a work that constantly provokes new observations and a deepening appreciation for Mussorgsky's unfinished epic.

It may be quite static, the performers all contained within rising platforms that give no room to move around the stage, but the set designs for Lev Dodin's production of Khovanshchina are visually impressive and do prove to be a good way of layering and revealing the Russian historical and national complexities of the work. The various factions that are competing for power and influence in late 17th century Russia are clearly marked out in a structure of beams and platforms that not only indicates their position in relation to their ambitions, but it also charts their rise and decline, often down into the depths of the pit through a trapdoor in the stage.

Designed this way, it's easy to differentiate between the three main factions competing with each other to determine the direction that Russia will follow at this turbulent point in history. The set for Act II arranges them in a clear hierarchical position. On the upper level is the governing class represented by Galitsin who is hoping that he can open up the country to progressive western influence. Below him are the military under the control of Prince Ivan Khovansky who are suspicious of foreign interests and hold firm to the old traditions, but the soldiers are becoming undisciplined and difficult to control. Below them is Dosifei who leads the religious faction of Old Believers opposed to reforms.

It's not necessarily that these forces, beliefs and traditions are distinct as much as they represent a layering of true Russian ideals that sit uneasily alongside one another. As such all the people of Russia also have a voice in Khovanshchina and Lev Dodin's vertical production at least provides the space for all these vital components of Russian society to fill the stage, showing the complexity and incompatibility of these ideals without the stage becoming cluttered and the plot incomprehensible. It does mean that there is a lot of static exposition, but that's inherent in the work itself and it's vital to understand this in order to get to the heart of Khovanshchina.

The heart of Khovanshchina is of course the heart of Russia, and the challenge to put that up on the stage is one that Mussorgsky struggled with in this unfinished work, as did several other notable Russian composers (the Vienna production uses the Shostakovitch version) who have attempted to polish and complete this great epic. More than just conveying the history of the competing forces vying for power in Russia during the 1680s, Khovanshchina also attempts to capture something of the mystical and spiritual side of Russia in Marfa, and combined it should paint a picture of Russia on a grand scale as something that also has relevance to today. What seems to be true then is true now, the opera showing the true scale of the horror that Russia must endure and suffer when power over it falls into the wrong hands.

Its ambitions mean that Khovanshchina consequently doesn't conform to standard operatic plot development, nor indeed to a conventional musical structure. Characters don't so much grow as reveal the personal human weaknesses behind their grand ambitions and ideals. Each are taken down in their prime before they can achieve their goal, or rather their weaknesses expose them and lead them inevitably to their fate. Andrei Khovansky is largely ineffective after Act I after his encounter with the foreign girl Emma. His father Prince Ivan Khovansky seems to be weary of the struggle and is killed in Act IV while indulging in the distraction of Syrian dancing girls. Act IV also brings about the death of Galitsin.

For Dosifei, it's the conflict between his spiritual religious beliefs and his feelings for Marfa that renders him out of the running as far as uniting the people behind his vision of Russia, and the act of self-immolation that takes Marfa, Andrei and Dosifei is a kind of cleansing that clears the way for Russia to arise again out of the ashes. Russia proves to be bigger than any individual in Khovanshchina, even greater than the young Tsars Peter and Ivan who are not seen in the opera. Russia prevails, but it's at a considerable cost.

There's not a great deal more to be said about the singing performances in the 2017 revival of Khovanshchina, which retains the same cast as the 2014 premiere performances. Ferruccio Furlanetto is still a force to be reckoned with as Khovansky, Elena Maximova fulfils the vital role of Marfa impressively in terms of her singing and as far as suggesting the other spiritual dimension of this character. Herbert Lippert seemed to make a greater impression this time too as Galitsin, and Christopher Ventris and Ain Anger reliably reprise their roles of Andrei and Dosifei. Michael Güttler took over the conducting of the Vienna orchestra for this revival and brought out the dynamic with an extra punch on the big dramatic and choral pieces, but elsewhere it didn't seem to have the same coherence as a piece that Semyon Bychkov's conducting achieved in the 2014 production.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live

Friday, 8 September 2017

Cavalli - Erismena (Aix, 2017)

Francesco Cavalli - Erismena

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2017

Leonardo García Alarcón, Jean Bellorini, Francesca Aspromonte, Carlo Vistoli, Susanna Hurrell, Jakub Józef Orliński, Alexander Miminoshvili, Lea Desandre, Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore, Stuart Jackson, Tai Oney, Jonathan Abernethy

ARTE Concert - 12th July 2017

There are times I'm convinced that there is a deliberate attempt to confuse the audience in some of these early baroque and opera seria works. It's not just that the plots are needlessly intricate and difficult to unravel, but the names often all sound the same. So in addition to Erismena in Cavalli's opera of that name we have Erimante and Erineo, with an Ercinia appearing out of the woodwork when we thought her name was Alcesta, all of those becoming mixed up with Orimeno and Aldimira. And who the heck are Arminda and Artamene?

If I didn't know better I'd think the librettist was trying to cover over any plot weaknesses or lack of credibility in the extraordinary events and coincidences that take place in such works, but you can hardly accuse Cavalli of fudging the issue here with his gorgeous melodies and precise delineation of mood and character. Even if you are a little confused in places as one identity dissolves into another, disguises are dropped and genders are switched, in the masterful hands of Cavalli the changes just reflect a rich set of individuals who come together to create complex connections and bonds.

Breaking down the plot to its essentials in an effort to simplify (I'll try anyway) and focus on its themes, the fates of all of the characters revolve essentially - and not unexpectedly - around a king. Erimante the King of Armenia is haunted by a vision of an unknown warrior who he dreams will take his throne from him. At the same time, a wounded warrior has been discovered by Orimeno. He leaves the warrior with his beloved Aldimira and her nurse Alcesta, who helps cure the man's injuries. When Orimeno brings him to the king however, Erimante recognises the feared warrior of his dreams and orders Erineo to kill him.

Erineo however fails to carry out this task, leaving the warrior to fall into the hands of Aldimira, who has fallen in love with him. The warrior reveals his mission is to seek vengeance against Idraspe, who abandoned the warrior's 'sister' Erismena, although obviously we know that the warrior is Erismena herself disguised in a soldier's armour. Romantic complications are added to the whole affair - most of them involving the flighty Aldimira it has to be said - but there are further surprises in store since - no big surprise this one - Erismena is not the only one living under an assumed name or identity. Alesta, who is really the nurse Ercinia, eventually reveals all, including the fact that Erismena is the daughter of Erimante and as such the rightful heir to the throne rather than a threat to the king. See what I mean about the names?

Anyhow, safe to say that there are a lot more complications, identities and characters involved in the affairs in Armenia (Arminda and Artamene incidentally are only mentioned in passing otherwise it really would be impossible to unravel this one). To similarly simplify the essential theme of Cavalli's opera - and the whole disguises and unknown origins question of such operas - it's all about the search for identity, for understanding one's true nature. This realisation of course only comes about through some hard-earned life lessons, but in the case of Cavalli's Erismena, the work is considerably enriched by the types of characters involved and by the musical treatment that the composer creates for them.

Leonardo García Alarcón's conducting from the harpsichord of the Cappella Mediterranea brings out all those characteristics and moods with a sparseness and directness of means that only a skilled period instrument ensemble can do. What the Aix-en-Provence production reveals however is that the purity of young voices also play just as vital a role in bringing the themes of the work to the surface. It's immediately apparent from the moment that Susanna Hurrell's Aldimira and Francesca Aspromonte's 'warrior' Erismena sing the duet 'Occhi belli', revealing not only the the beauty of the sentiments but the naivety behind them. It's an opera that is all about youth.

Aldimira is flirtatious, capricious, inconstant, and has many lovers - she herself exemplifies one facet of the changeable nature of love and the instability of trust and fidelity. Erismena represents another side of love, one that has solidity of reason and is constant in purpose. People come in all shapes and sizes, quite literally here, particularly in the case of the old nurse, showing that love and its torments are not the preserve of the young alone. Love is a complex business and changeable, and how better to illustrate that than the manner in which the twists and turns of Cavalli's opera and musical treatment covers it.

It's a much richer and more dynamic palette that is brought out here than the laments and single-emotion at a time expression of subsequent opera seria period. Arias and ariosos flit between one mood or emotion to another - as someone in love is wont to do - and the singers here are eminently capable of displaying the necessary range, where youth and purity of voice and sentiment is absolutely essential. It's through love that we recognise our true selves, the opera tells us, through the destiny and fate that bonds us to each other as family, and it's love in all its guises that gives life its depth, richness and quality. Cavalli recognises this and puts it all into his dynamically expressive music.

The stage production at Aix isn't quite as rich and expressive, but it rightly defers to the music and the singing. The set design has a makeshift quality, dimly lit, with a wire mesh platform employed and canopy of light-bulbs. The costumes too are in that mix-and-don't-match style that nevertheless reflects characters who have many contradictory facets and might not don't really know who they are yet. Francesca Aspromonte sings Erismane in a way accentuates her essential beauty, firmness and brightness. Susanna Hurrell captures a sense of lightness and innocence in Aldimira that makes her character's inconstancy charming rather than flirtatious and damaging. Carlo Vistoli's Idraspe/Erineo is beautifully sung, reflecting his dual nature and identity and his desire to control his nature, but all of the roles are sung with bright youthful pureness and great skill, weaving around the Cappella Mediterranea's beautiful interpretation of Cavalli's melodies, to striking effect.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Culturebox

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Stravinsky - The Rake's Progress (Aix, 2017)

Igor Stravinsky - The Rake's Progress

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2017

Eivind Gullberg Jensen, Simon McBurney, Julia Bullock, Paul Appleby, Kyle Ketelsen, Evan Hughes, David Pittsinger, Hilary Summers, Andrew Watts, Alan Oke

ARTE Concert - 11th July 2017

To borrow a phrase from Baba the Turk, the rationale behind Stravinsky's neoclassical account of The Rake's Progress is not only perplexing to many, but it can be vexing too. Without some imagination and purpose applied it can - to continue with Baba the Turk's own commentary - show too much devotion towards an ancient flame and end up being, in dramatic and musical terms, nothing more than a souless pastiche of Classical opera mannerisms. In that respect, the opera could even be a self-regarding commentary on it own nature.

When a work seems to be a superficial pastiche or a commentary on itself, it leaves limited scope for a director to do something new or interesting with it, but surely The Rake's Progress offers more potential than Simon McBurney brings to the new production of the opera at the Aix-en-Provence festival? Like his Magic Flute, which appeared at Aix a few years ago and at a few other European opera houses, the use of stage-craft is innovative - this time using an almost entirely computer generated boxed-in surrounding set - but it plays along with the superficiality of the work, illustrating it without finding or bringing any new depth in it.

It's true anyway of course that The Rake's Progress, based on a series of Hogarth 18th century prints, is essentially a cautionary tale warning of the dangers of being swept away by the superficial attractions of money and the dissolute lifestyle that comes with it, its superficial attractions blinding us from where true beauty lies and what life has to offer. On that level at least, as well as on a level that impressed with its open-box immersive visual extravagance, the production design matches the intent of the original. And, regardless of the fact that the Hogarth series is almost three hundred years old, its point about sinful indulgence lacking the true rewards of moral integrity still holds true, even if the times have changed.

Simon McBurney's production design is essentially then an updating of David Hockney's updating of the Hogarth prints in his designs for John Cox's celebrated Glyndebourne production, the world depicted in one of flat paintings come to life. McBurney's version of this world is a fake computer-generated equivalent, projected appropriately on a thin paper wall blank sheet. Nick Shadow is the first person to rip a whole in the wall and step into Tom Rakewell's perfect but dull world, and the fragile nature of this delusion is exposed with further rips and tears, the most damage being done with all the trivial luxury items purchased by Tom's new wife Baba poking through the walls and ceiling.

Aside from images of a stock-market crash and the towers of the City melting down, in essence there's nothing here that really puts any new spin on the dehumanising endgame of materialism, consumerism or capitalism. Rakewell's bread-making machine viewed as nothing more than a brown box hardly scales up the operation to a level where this would have any valid social commentary on the world today, and there's little in the opera anyway beyond platitutes of innocence and virtue in Trulove that suggest that there's any real-world alternative. By merely illustrating it, McBurney's production exposes the thinness of the opera's concept as much its basic morality tale, and the work needs more real engagement with its subject than this.

Musically, as sophisticated as Stravinsky's writing undoubtedly is in its own terms, never mind the cleverness of its appropriation and reworking of its neoclassical reference points, The Rake's Progress still risks coming across as little more than an early model for the West End or Broadway musical. Or worse, as an insincere West End or Broadway musical. I don't think the rather Handel oratorio-like archaic formality of expression of Auden and Kellman's dialogues helps, the libretto often giving the impression of just being clever for the sake of it without really expressing anything that has genuine feeling in it or a belief in the story it tells.

The blandness of the dialogues extends to the characters, who never come to life or show any real personality. Tom Rakewell, Anne Trulove, Nick Shadow; as their allegorical names indicate, they are all ciphers created to fit a predetermined role unenlivened by a sense of humour or irony instead of their natures arising out of their circumstances, behaviour or situations. The singing and dramatic presentation of these caricatures is well handled by Julia Bullock, Paul Appleby and Kyle Ketelsen, but inevitably superficial and mannered, lacking any human interest or purpose. Rather like the work itself, the Aix-en-Provence 2017 production of The Rake's Progress is something that it is easier to admire than truly enjoy.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert