Saturday, 28 April 2018
Giuseppe Verdi - Il Corsaro
Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, 2018
Fabio Biondi, Nicola Raab, Michael Fabiano, Kristina Mkhitaryan, Oksana Dyka, Vito Priante, Evgeny Stavinsky
OperaVision - 8th April 2018
The quality of early Verdi operas is variable, even by the composers own admission, but some are certainly worth of occasional revival, even if it's just for curiosity value. A few - very few, maybe only one (Macbeth) - are worthy of being included more often as part of the familiar Verdi canon, others are crude and forgettable (Alzira, Attila), some are flawed but redeemable through a good production and an interesting interpretation (I Due Foscari, Stiffelio, Giovanna d'Arco, Luisa Miller). Il Corsaro probably belongs in the latter category, but its qualities can be enhanced with a good staging and exceptional singing and the 2018 Valencia production goes some way towards demonstrating and achieving that.
It's rare however that you can do anything redeemable with the staging of any early Verdi opera; which in the main consist of romantic melodramas in oppressive wartime situations that don't have much in the way of subtext, nuance or depth. The singing, particularly that of the lead soprano role, can also be extremely challenging far beyond the merits of the piece without really adding to the drama. That's all part of the Verdi DNA however that comes into fruition mid-career, and it can be fascinating to explore the hints already there of the greatness to come if you have a production good enough to tease them out.
The first good sign in the Valencia production is that there's a bit of imagination and style applied to the production design rather than literal slavishness to the libretto's locations. Instead of ship anchored at a Greek island where the chief corsair Corrado is languishing in exile and reduced to piracy, we find ourselves in Act I within the mind of a broken man, sitting at writing desk remembering better times or dreaming of taking part in further exploits. His wife Medora looks on in despair at his downfall and, alarmed at the flask of what may be laudanum he is imbibing, she slips it into her pocket.
Corrado however has other vices and is clearly not adverse to a pipe of opium. In his mind the Ottoman Empire still a threat, so in Act II the bold Byronic adventurer once more visits the exotic East of delights and dangers. There he visits a harem and attracts the attention of Gulnara, the favourite of the Pasha Seid. Seid and his warriors launch into a battle with the corsairs, putting the city and the harem to flame. Corrado rescues Gulnara from the conflagration and is captured while doing so, and earns the mercy of Seid. Until Seid becomes suspicious of Gulnara's feelings for this brave corsair...
There's no need to get to clever with the concept, but there's no need for literal realism either, as combined with Verdi's bombast, the Byronic hero's romantic adventures in the exotic East could seem a little bit over the top. Il Corsaro is tremendous fun, but not particularly memorable and hard for a modern audience to take seriously. Director Nicola Raab doesn't try to get too clever by imposing an unworkable concept on top of what is a fairly straightforward romantic adventure, and without betraying the original spirit of the work she finds a good way of making it a little more 'realistic' or relatable by playing it out as an opium-induced flight of imagination, which as it was originally written by Lord Byron it may well have been.
The production doesn't need a literal depiction that takes it all seriously and literally then. There's more than enough dynamic in the music and the contrasts and colours that lie between East and West, between Christian and Muslim, between men and women. Verdi of course depicts all that in grand brush strokes, all sword and flame, blood and thunder, gods and demons. There's nothing wishy-washy about early Verdi (or middle or late Verdi either, I suppose), and Fabio Biondi's conducting of the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana emphasises the sheer brio with which Verdi attacks the material, where there is also at least some measure of sophistication in the melodies and romantic sentiments.
There's a similar contrast between imagination and reality in George Souglides's production design that shows this flitting between dreams of adventure and the sudden down-to-earth shifts of reality that seep in. Projections of battles and flames are thrown onto a screen that is torn down like a sheet of paper, emphasising that it's all the projection of a troubled mind, allowing it to be taken seriously but not literally. It's a good middle-way to approach early Verdi, giving us spectacle and entertainment and permitting all the spirit of the work to come through without having to look at it ironically or indulgently. That's probably about the best you can hope for in Il Corsaro.
Well, that and some great singing, as that can make all the difference. The Valencia production gets off to a terrific start, the clever production design and the invigorating score matched by a committed Michael Fabiano in the role of Corrado and Kristina Mkhitaryan as his wife Medora. As he showed in Dmitri Tcherniakov's radical reworking of Carmen for Aix-en-Provence 2017, Fabiano isn't thrown by contradictions between characters who are seen to be role-playing and allows a touch of bewilderment creep into the heroic sincerity of the performance. Mkhitaryan is mightily impressive as Medora, showing a fullness of voice and a deep emotional expression. Medora however is not the principal soprano role, and it's Oksana Dyka who has to struggle with that challenge as Gulnara. Inevitably she is pushed and her pitch wavers occasionally, but it's a valiant effort. Vito Priante sings well but throwing pantomime villain poses he is unable to make much of the role of Seid.
The singing performances and the full-on musical performance under Fabio Biondi carry the work though the dramatic weaknesses of Act III. There's a long scene of Corrado refusing to accept Gulnara's help of escape ("Fly from your prison to freedom, my soul") by manfully accepting his fate only to eventually agree, but as Corrado puffs on his opium pipe, the production does well to try to associate his behaviour as being captive of his addiction or the affliction of his desires and fears. Medora is also saddled with more despairing sentiments that lead up to her suicide and Corrado following, but there's no denying that Verdi provides all the thrills and spills that lead up to this heroic-romantic conclusion, and Biondi hammers it home.
Links: Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, OperaVision
Friday, 20 April 2018
Bohuslav Martinů - Julietta
National Theatre Prague, 2017
Jaroslav Kyzlink, Zuzana Gilhuus, Alžběta Poláčková, Peter Berger, Ondřej Koplík, Petr Levíček, Yevhen Shokalo, Michaela Zajmi, Stanislava Jirků, Jiří Hájek
OperaVision - April 2018
It seems only a natural reaction to want to interpret, psychoanalyse or just try to make sense of a work that operates on the level of abstraction, surrealism, symbolism or dream logic. And, to be fair, when it comes to works from the former Czechoslovakia or any nation behind the former Iron Curtain, such an approach has some validity, since it has often been a means for artists to depict a reality that is difficult to describe in any other way, not least because of the fear of censorship, arrest and imprisonment. Bohuslav Martinů's Julietta (The Key to Dreams) however predates the worst horrors of WWII and the post-war Communist years, and it certainly seems to operate on a much simpler level, but that doesn't mean that it is entirely detached from describing another reality.
That reality, rather than having a political undercurrent - although I'm sure such an interpretation could be applied - would seem to be more in the realm of exploring the rather abstract human emotions and behaviours associated with memory, desire and perhaps other less easily defined sensations. Martinů based his opera on a play by French writer Georges Neveux and there are good antecedents for putting such abstractions to a musical treatment, not least in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde but more obviously in the approach taken by Debussy in his musical setting of Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande. Closer to home, Janáček ponders some basic human questions related to time, existence and memory in the science-fictional unreality of The Makropulos Case. Martinů's Julietta finds it own language to describe its world, and - unlike Maeterlinck - Neveux, who attended the 1938 premiere, reportedly found Martinů's adaptation better than the original.
You could certainly apply some kind of commentary on a nation and authority to the little seaside town where Parisian bookseller Michel Lepic turns up, a town where the citizens have no memory of the past, are unable to recall anything more than 10 minutes ago and seem to even have no awareness of basic things. In such a place there are people willing to tell fortunes and sell memories of invented histories that serve to pacify and keep the people happy. Since Michel seems better equipped with knowledge and memory - he can even remember a toy duck from as far back as his childhood - the town's Commissar confers on him the office of town captain, giving him a hat (authority), a parrot (law) and a gun (enforcement).
The problem with trying to apply any kind of basis in reality to Julietta is that the dream logic basis of the story means that there's a constant shift of meaning and emphasis. Michel's role as captain is short-lived since even the Commissar isn't able to remember appointing him a short time later when he reappears as a postman. The gun too is somewhat illusory; fired by Michel in the woods even though he doesn't remember firing it, a watchman in the woods later says that it was he who fired at a duck. The principal thread that runs through the opera however is of course Michel's search for the mysterious woman he heard singing from a window on his last visit to the town three years ago, Julietta, an object of desire that has continued to haunt him.
On that basis the subject of the opera is much more playful in its exploration of the nature of human desire and memory, on idealisation and reality. Michel has created a figure in his head based on what to him has been a magical encounter, but for Julietta it was just an everyday event that has made no impact on her, and even what she does remember of it seems to her ridiculous. She has her own memories created for her by a seller of memories and prefers them to the reality. Act III brings a twist to proceedings when it is revealed that Michel's dream is indeed just a dream. At the Bureau of Dreams he discovers that there's a 'Julietta' in dreams of many others - a beggar, a messenger, a convict, an engineer - and it's a necessary escape from the boundaries of their earthly misery. The Parisian bookseller decides he wants to remain there.
Again, there are ways of viewing that as some kind of political allegory, but if you want to apply an allegory to the work you'd need to do that yourself as Zuzana Gilhuus's direction for National Theatre Prague's production, celebrating 80 years since the opera was first performed there, treats Julietta merely as a dream fantasy. There's nothing wrong with that as there is more than enough in those abstract themes to make this a fascinating and entertaining work, particularly with the rich and playful score that Martinů has written. It's immensely varied in tones and styles, from full orchestration to express the dramatic situations to more intimate piano accompaniment and even unaccompanied spoken sections.
The production takes advantage of the opportunities the opera presents to create a simple but effective dream world set. The townspeople are dressed all in white, in rather old-fashioned clothes of people living in the past (without a past), wiped clean of memories, in a certain respect free and pure but unable to see beyond their limited horizons (I'm still trying to apply an allegorical meaning!). The town in Act I is viewed only in the abstract as a maze or forest of low white trees bare of any leaves placed on a white illuminated platform. This is moved around and turned on its side for Act II in the forest and in the Bureau of Dreams. It's a fairly open abstract production that serves the music well and Jaroslav Kyzlink's conducting brings them together well for the varied tones of the work.
Links: National Theatre Prague, OperaVision
Monday, 16 April 2018
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Le Nozze di Figaro
Irish National Opera, 2018
Peter Whelan, Patrick Mason, Jonathan Lemalu, Tara Erraught, Ben McAteer, Máire Flavin, Aoife Miskelly, Adrian Thompson, Graeme Danby, Suzanne Murphy, Andrew Gavin, John Molloy, Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Catherine Donnelly, Dominica Williams
Irish Chamber Orchestra
National Opera House, Wexford - 13th April 2018
"Ah, when we are not fighting each other for personal interest, every woman will march to the defense ofher fellow woman against ungrateful men who seek wrongly to oppress them".
There's always something truthful, relevant and contemporary to be found in Mozart's operas, particularly his works with Lorenzo Da Ponte, and Marcellina's pronouncement in Act IV of The Marriage of Figaro neatly taps into a certain current social phenomenon that is unlikely to be missed by anyone in the audience, even if it needs reduced to something a little shorter and catchier with a hashtag. The fact that the above line was first uttered in 1786 however also highlights just how long the same struggle has been going on. The Irish National Opera's new production of Le Nozze di Figaro could of course have made a lot more of this in a modernised setting, but for the first night of the first production in Wexford of their inaugural season they instead wisely focus on the other essential elements that demonstrate why this is a masterpiece and why opera is important. And they do it rather well.
The latter question of why opera is important is one that I personally felt it was important to address and I had wondered before the opening night what kind of message the first INO production might set for future direction, standards and overall purpose. Every opera of course has its own needs and requirements, and a stuffy period Marriage of Figaro sung in English with nothing new to add to it might have been deemed a safer bet, but it would surely have sent out entirely the wrong message about the importance and relevance of opera to the lives we lead today. A modern high concept production wouldn't be a good move at this stage either, but director Patrick Mason pitches it right here with a bright fresh update that doesn't set about making a statement of its own. Mozart and Da Ponte's adaptation of Beaumarchais can do that perfectly well on its own in performance, and it was in the fine music and singing here that the production made the necessary impression.
That sense of brightness and freshness is to some extent established by the set design and the lighting, which presents an open space that at any moment can work as an interior, an exterior, or both within the same space. With a small model of the Almaviva estate mansion always present on the stage, and a large portrait of Mozart in the background throughout, it also manages to keep the wider context of the work in the back of the mind without having to be too clever or knowing. Not that you would be unaware of Mozart's hand in the work for one moment when the music is played as well as it is here by the Irish Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Peter Whelan; the composer's character stamped across every single, crisp, elegant and emotionally buoyant note.
The period updating of the production isn't over-emphasised, or at least not in any way that might compromise the nature and intentions of the work, but there is a hint of late sixties/early seventies. Glyndebourne did this too with their 2013 production of Figaro and it's a workable solution to the out-dated (if still very much alive in a new form) droit-de-seigneur tradition that Count Almaviva has every intention of re-establishing for the purposes of his designs on Susanna, his wife's maid who is about to be married to his manservant Figaro. In light of recent controversies of misconduct by men in positions of power, the setting here presents a different picture, even from the superficially similar Glyndebourne production. If the 60s/early 70s play to notions of a 'permissive society', it's one where the playing field is not level and indeed playing the field is not seen on equal terms, rather it's one that just gives men the power to take further advantage of the liberties offered.
There's no need for the production to emphasise that with any placards of banners or hashtag references. The implications that it holds for all women, and not just Susanna, are made clear in the several lovely chorus arrangements of the original work in the songs that Figaro has cleverly organised for the other female servants to sing, illustrating precisely what Marcellina recognises in that quotation from Act IV. There's a need for women to combine their strengths and resources, to recognise who the enemy is and to challenge and resist; and it's not just a protest against all men, but "ungrateful men who seek to wrongfully oppress them". Mozart and Da Ponte's enlightened views, as well as the consequences of such oppression, are insightfully woven into every note and word that make up the fabric of this near-miraculous work.
The production however highlighted what is really essential to get right in Le Nozze di Figaro. You can play and sing every note to perfection, but unless the comedy engages and strikes a chord with the audience, it's all to little avail. This is a work that has to implicate and draw you in, and it's done through the personalities of the wonderfully drawn characters who nonetheless essentially need real people to bring them to life. It's here where Patrick Mason has done the necessary work to make the opera - at full length with all the 'supporting' characters arias included - fairly zip along. There are some broad comic gestures but also subtle ones, all the set-pieces run like clockwork to provide the expected laughs and plot developments, the busy but uncluttered and adaptable sets permitting a wonderful flow and openness that allows us, for example, not only to see Cherubino jump from the Countess's bedroom window, but also make a run for it across the garden below.
And it's not just all about the comedy. It's necessary to strike the right tone for each of the emotionally rich and insightful situations that Mozart assembles. It's here that the benefits of including Marcellina's and Basilio's Act IV arias prove their worth, not just balancing and contrasting the emotional tenor of each adjacent scene, or even just rounding out the characterisation, but showing that there is a human side to each of the characters. The actions (or intentions) of the Count don't just have a consequence for the women that he has set his libidinous sights on, but it has an impact on everyone, on how men and women behave towards one another, on how society views such behaviour and the wider impact that it can have on it. It's even more of a joy to have these usually cut scenes included when you have such good performers in the roles of Basilio (Adrian Thompson), Bartolo (Graeme Danby), the gardener (John Molloy) and Marcellina (Suzanne Murphy). Barberina is another role in the opera that can be undervalued and fail to make an impact, but not when you have a young soprano as talented as Amy Ní Fhearraigh to make something of it and show just how musically and emotionally rich a work Mozart has created down to the finest detail. Ní Fhearraigh has already made a stunning impression in the recent Opera Collective Ireland Owen Wingrave and this performance will only enhance that reputation further.
The performing challenges that the principals in this production have to measure up to however is of another degree altogether, balancing and mixing comedy with pathos in arias, duets and complex ensemble arrangements. It's the Count who has the trickiest role to maintain, keeping on the right side of caricature that can either go the way of pathetic bumbling fool to unsympathetic cheating lecher, neither of which tend towards a convincing redemption. Ben McAteer's Almaviva carried a measure of those characteristics, but - in line with the well-considered period setting - was more of a last-gasp opportunist finding that the times (and women's rights) were fast catching up with his sort. His singing was perfectly measured for technique and character, a perfect foil for whoever he was on stage with at any given moment. The Countess is also a challenging role with some of the key arias in the whole opera, and it in places seemed a little too big a role for Máire Flavin. With some terrific support from the Irish Chamber Orchestra however, those arias sang of all the depth of feeling of all Rosina's emotional turmoil and sadness.
It's great to see Tara Erraught back on home shores, having built up an international career in Munich - where most of her performances broadcast on the internet show the breadth of her experience - as well as (controversially) at Glyndebourne and the Met in New York. This was a wonderfully engaging Susanna that Erraught sung brilliantly but just as importantly brought to life with verve, charm and character. Figaro actually ran the risk of being left as a bystander to all the plots and machinations going on around him, but Jonathan Lemalu exuded a quiet confidence in his performance and characterisation of the former Barber of Seville that made it seem a lot more effortless than it really is. Personally, I find a mezzo-soprano a better fit for Cherubino and was surprised at Aoife Miskelly's high and light lyrical soprano being cast for the role, but her 'Voi che sapete' was wonderful and Miskelly's ability for character role playing was a joy to behold. Irish National Opera's impressive inaugural production sets out with high standards, not least of which is to demonstrate the importance of opera today.
Links: Irish National Opera
Tuesday, 10 April 2018
Opera Vlaanderen, 2017
Cornelius Meister, Tatjana Gürbaca, Christoph Pohl, Markus Suihkonen, Stefan Kocan, Erin Caves, Kay Stiefermann, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
OperaVision - April 2018
At first sight, and probably for much of the long first Act, the stripped back, minimal production and reduced orchestration of Opera Vlaanderen's Parsifal doesn't look like it has what it takes to really do justice to the epic vision of Wagner's final masterpiece. It has almost nothing of the religious imagery of the work's Good Friday death and rebirth celebrations and it hardly seems to engage with the deeper, sacred mystery and transcendental themes of its wider philosophical influences and references (Buddhism, Schopenhauer). The treatment however remains connected to the work and more tightly focussed on the nature of Kundry, and it's through this focus that the Vlaanderen production does successfully elevate at least one of the themes and meanings of this complex work.
The opening of the opera on a bare stage with a curved wall to the background and a spot of light at the centre of the stage, does give the impression that director Tatjana Gürbaca is settling for representing Parsifal in the abstract, and indeed the opera certainly exists more in the theoretical plane than a physical or geographical one. The colours of the stage and the costumes when the Knights of the Grail take to the stage in modern dress, remain neutral, beige, grey and pale green. Standing out against them, but only slightly, Gurnemanz wears brown corduroy and sits in a wheelchair, while the young boys dressed only in white undergarments, tended by acolytes, turn out to be 'swans'.
Gürbaca's more direct engagement with the work and Kundry's place at the centre of it has however already been laid-out in the Vorspiel in a scene that shows Kundry in a passionate clinch with Amfortas, the incident that leads to his downfall and suffering. The question of suffering and the Christian implications of it are then taken up in thin lines of blood that trickle down the walls at the back, their progress watched more with fascination than reverence by the knights. Parsifal, when he arrives soon breaks this mood carrying a bucket of the blood that he has gathered from this stream and 'shoots' one of the 'swans' by throwing its contents at one of the boys being tended by the knights.
That still remains all very vague and abstract, far from the sombre, reverential tone that we expect from Parsifal, and there is none of the usual ceremonial aspect in the subsequent 'time becomes space' mystery, nor in the transubstantiation scene of the unveiling of the Grail. During this scene, Gurnemanz leads Parsifal around the circle of the stage, their positions frozen in time and echoed in mirrored arrangements by the knights, creating a visual echo of their progress. Other figures wander randomly within the circle of light and look upwards, hands clasped in prayer, as more trickles of blood rain down the back wall and a pregnant Kundry hands out blessings.
By removing the epic grandeur of the traditional imagery and mystique of this scene, what stands out as more significant here is Parsifal's reaction. He might be a holy fool, but rather than be overawed by it all he is instead shocked by the attitude and behaviour of the others. The suffering of Amfortas is largely ignored by everyone else and it's only Parsifal who shows compassion and sympathy. This simple idea is a good interpretation that goes to the heart of what the work is about - one interpretation of many valid possibilities that this work inspires. Looking upward, caught up in their own sense of being special and chosen, they are prepared to offer "thoughts and prayers" to the suffering of Amfortas, but are actually horrified by his punishment and don't really want to acknowledge it.
The interpretation of the work then becomes one where Parsifal's journey is to put us all back in touch with true feelings of compassion, of learning to achieve true enlightenment though the suffering we experience and witness in the world. In order to do that however, Parsifal has to reconnect the division that exists between men and women, between knowledge and compassion. The indications are there in how Kundry is treated by the knights, and the pregnant vision of Kundry in Act I implies that there is a necessity for a rebirth. It's in Parsifal's subsequent encounter with Kundry in Act II that he has to face up to the conflict between what he has been learned from Gurnemanz and what he feels with Kundry. It's a struggle that is much greater than the actual fight that takes place with Klingsor, which is by comparison rather rapidly dispatched at the conclusion of the second Act.
If you're going to put so much importance on the role of Kundry as the path to salvation, then Act II is going to be much more important than the transubstantiation scene of Act I, which is more traditionally the turning point of the opera. Act II however gives considerable room for interpretation and director Tatjana Gürbaca takes full advantage of its possibilities - again not so much for the traditional spectacle as much as for how it can add to her interpretation of Parsifal. Here the Flower Maidens are not as threatening as they might be in other productions, but bewitching creatures that Parsifal finds fascinating, discovering in them something new about beauty and otherness that women represent.
That is only one aspect however and it's not all that Parsifal needs. Complete knowledge - or the true beginning of a path towards completeness - can only be gained though his encounter with Kundry and the kiss of enlightenment. Gürbaca's direction of Tanja Ariane Baumgartner's Kundry doesn't neglect to set the scene for this, realising how important it is for Parsifal to reach this awareness through knowledge of love in the relationship between his father and mother. Parsifal's recollection of Amfortas then at the moment of the kiss is a recognition then of how he came by his wound in the arms of Kundry, not seduced as the Knights' tradition has led him to believe. The mission of healing the wound then becomes one of healing the wound between men and women. Parsifal still resists, but without Kundry, without love, he is warned that he cannot find a way back to Amfortas.
Act III follows through on these ideas, but beautifully manages to retain some of the mystery and ambiguity of the work. Living only with pain, suffering and death, the Knights have become even more detached from their true humanity, from compassion. Their view of the world has consequently become corrupted over time, a never healing wound that needs someone to lead the way towards renewal, rebirth and redemption. "Only the spear that caused the wound can heal it" and Kundry is the spear who necessarily must make the self-sacrifice, who rejects the baptism of Parsifal and cuts deeply into her forearms, smearing the wall with her blood. While the knights gather around in worship of Parsifal, who becomes the Grail for them, it's left to Gurnemanz to recognise the truth, and he lies down between the dead forms of Amfortas and Kundry, reuniting them in death. It's a supremely beautiful ending that works with the complex sentiments of the conclusion, ecstatic and yet melancholic. The way has been opened but not everyone will find or take the path.
It's in these moments that the performance of the orchestra under the direction of Cornelius Meister rises to the occasion. Elsewhere, in the moments of dramatic expression, the performance feels underpowered and inadequate, but then there is a deliberate effort on the stage to also underplay these moments, particularly in Act I. In the moments where the production needs the support of the music to support its interpretation - in the Flower Maidens scene and the Parsifal/Kundry scene of Act II, in the final shimmering, unsettling notes of the opera - it comes through with remarkable feeling for the sentiments and beauty of the work. The singing is also strong in those areas where it counts, particularly in Tanja Ariane Baumgartner's performance of Kundry throughout. Erin Caves delivers a lyrical and dramatically attuned Parsifal. Symbolically confined to a wheelchair for most of the work, Štefan Kocán has a challenge interpreting the role of Gurnemanz, but his singing is strong, resonant and heartfelt. Christoph Pohl isn't the strongest Amfortas and is occasionally overwhelmed by the music, but his role is vital and he brings it fully to life.
Links: Opera Vlaanderen, OperaVision
Sunday, 1 April 2018
Claudio Monteverdi - Il Ballo delle Ingrate
Judith Weir - Scipio’s Dream
Royal Irish Academy of Music, Dublin - 2018
David Adams, Caitriona McLaughlin, Leah Redmond, Katie O'Donoghue, Matthew Mannion, Ben Escorcio, Robert McAllister, Ana-Maria Acunune, Katie Richardson McCrea, Hannah Traynor
The Abbey Theatre on the Peacock Stage - 29 March 2018
The pairing of two operas written almost 400 years apart is an intriguing one and neither are by any means an obvious selection for students of the Royal Irish Academy of Music working on a stage production of the programme in collaboration with the Lir Academy of Dramatic Art. You might expect the intention of juxtaposing Monteverdi's Il Ballo delle Ingrate (1608) with Judith Weir's Scipio’s Dream (1991) would be to throw up interesting musical contrasts as well as highlighting how social attitudes have changed over the years, but in reality the subjects of both works display a common social conservatism. In the case of Monteverdi's work, the deeply serious treatment of a tragic subject could be seen to merely reflect the attitudes of the times in which it was written, while Judith Weir's more overt comedy is more obviously critical of similar ideals.
What the two works really have in common however is - somewhat obviously - is that they are being performed to a modern audience, and what they have to communicate to that audience must be the primary consideration of a director. Rather than seek to connect the works thematically, which might only strengthen the less liberal sentiments expressed in them and send out mixed messages, Catriona McLaughlin approaches each of the two short pieces on their own terms. Updating them to a more modern setting, the RIAM/Lir production seeks to remain to the original intentions of both works while at the same time finding a way to explore the relevance they have for a contemporary audience living in Ireland. From that point of view, with that as a starting point but with a little bit of a shift in perspective, the timeless quality of both works and the truths they reveal comes through well.
In the case of Scipio's Dream, the updating of ideas towards a modern perspective has already been made by Judith Weir, since her work is based on Mozart's Il sogno di Scipione, written in 1771 when the composer was 15 years of age. Weir's comic opera was adapted for TV in 1991 and updated into a contemporary office background, where a businessman has to make a decision whether to follow the allegorical paths represented by the goddesses of Fortune versus Constancy. Catriona McLaughlin's production actually returns the work closer to it original story based on Cicero's 'On the Republic' by re-envisioning Scipio as the leader of a Republic state; as Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, whose dilemma is the choice between following the fortune of the UK's Brexit decision or to remain constant to the security offered by remaining in the EU.
The choice is perhaps not realistically one that the Taoiseach has to consider, so it's not as if there's a political point to be made here, but placing him in this position at least makes the allegorical aspect of the work more relatable. And funny, which is a vital part of the charm of this particular work; at least in Weir's version as I'm not sure Pietro Metastasio had laughs in mind when he wrote the libretto. It might be a little heavy-handed and unnecessary for Fortune to hold up a mask of Theresa May, for Constancy to hold up a mask identifying her as Angela Merkel and for the other players to similarly identify their European leader counterparts, but it certainly gets the laughs and engages the audience with the conceit. And perhaps there are a few little political points to be made along the way, even if the Irish angle doesn't really mirror the reality of the personal or political challenges faced by Leo Varadkar.
What is surprising about the work, I found, is that while it is certainly modernised, Weir retains the musical language of Mozart's time for her contemporary adaptation of Scipio's Dream. The enchantments of the goddesses of Constancy and Fortune are therefore represented by seductive arias and vocal ornamentation, which are handled well by Leah Redmond and Katie O'Donoghue. The role of Scipio also has its own vocal challenges that baritone Matthew Mannion capably managed, at the same time displaying good presence and successfully delivering the comic touches that are very much part of the charm of the work. The ensemble singers also impressed as they brought a hard border solution that may not be Scipio's dream, but perhaps the only realistic consequence of putting one's faith in the goddess of Constancy.
Despite the underlying sentiments of Il Ballo delle Ingrate, the dance of the ungrateful women condemned to Hell for refusing to submit to the love of a man, there is also a message in Monteverdi's 400 year old work that is relevant to the times. Rather than place it in an equivalent contemporary setting that would undoubtedly distract from the beauty of the piece and probably be an inadequate response to the complexities of the reality faced by women in the world today, the director allows a little modernised tweaking of the translation of the words of the Madrigal make the relevance a little more 'present', but it's the tragic melancholy tone of the extraordinary music of the work itself that aligns it more closely to the fate of abused women, giving it a haunting quality that clearly resonates with a modern audience.
In common with Scipio's Dream the story relies on allegorical figures of gods and goddesses to raise the subject above the level of personal drama to a mythological and moral dilemma. Poor Venus and Eros (Venere and Amore) are distraught that Cupid's darts are no longer as effective as they once were when women used to accept their fate and obeyed the fortune bestowed upon them by the love and attentions of a man. They bring their complaint to Pluto (Plutone), God of the Underworld, who determines that the women are indeed ungrateful and, although it appears harsh to bring them to a place where there can be no return, they must pay the price for contravening the vital rules of nature.
Pluto, as sung by bass-baritone Robert McAllister is indeed a formidable figure, and in McLaughlin's production the torments that the ungrateful women are subjected to by his demons is indeed degrading and horrific. There's no need for elaborate visions of hell, the demons all wear jackets and ties, sitting around the same Prime Minister's office desk that was used in Scipio's Dream. The women are paraded, mocked, stripped of protective clothing and pawed by Pluto's 'Ombre d'Inferno' minions. Enduring their fate, their closing lamentation becomes less of a warning to other ungrateful women than an anthem for all the women who have suffered at the hands of monsters.
That could be a hard angle to sell in such a short piece were it not for the fact that the work is by Monteverdi and a masterpiece that is more than capable of expressing such sentiments. The RIAM Baroque Orchestra performance of Il Ballo delle Ingrate under the direction of David Adams was simply mesmerising, holding the flow and line of the work beautifully, but more importantly finding the dark melancholic poignancy at the heart of the work. The singing also lifted the work to this level, contrasting the exceptional singing of Robert McAllister's marvellously controlled and resonant Pluto with the almost heavenly chorus of the 'ingrate' at the conclusion, weeping not so much for their own miserable fate as much as in solidarity for the fate of all those other women throughout the ages who have lived in hell of one kind or another.
Links: RIAM, The Lir, Abbey Theatre