Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Wagner - Tannhäuser (Bayreuth, 2019)

Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser (Bayreuth, 2019)

Bayreuther Festspiele, 2019

Valery Gergiev, Tobias Kratzer, Stephen Gould, Lise Davidsen, Elena Zhidkova, Stephen Milling, Markus Eiche, Daniel Behle, Kay Stiefermann, Jorge Rodríguez-Norton, Katharina Konradi

BR-Klassik streaming - 25 July 2019

Not for the first time I'm watching the opening of a new Wagner production at Bayreuth and wondering what the hell has this got to do with the opera. Usually you can at least relate the idea or concept even tenuously to some of the familiar themes of the work, but over the overture Tobias Kratzer's production of Tannhäuser opens with a film of a motley group of wayward circus entertainers doing a runner at a petrol station, running down a police officer in the process. It's this incident, rather than any deep conflict about the nature of his art, that inspires this production's Heinrich to return to that great institution of the musical arts. No, not Wartburg, but Bayreuth.

And therein lies the clue that the production is not so much concerned with the fate and condition of the exiled artist who chooses to set himself up in opposition to conservative notions of musical, social, moral and religious order and instead chooses to explore a personal and profane voyage of the discovery of physical pleasures, but rather it's more of an self-mocking reference to Wagner creating a cult for himself and setting up Bayreuth as a kind of shrine for pilgrims to come in worship every year. There's even a joking reference in the opening film to the closing down of the Biogas plant that was the setting for the last (equally mystifying) Bayreuth production of Tannhäuser that this one is replacing.

It's certainly very much within the Bayreuth ethos - certainly since Katharina Wagner took over the running of the festival - not to treat Wagner's works with sacred reverence, but to continually challenge and question the master's works to see whether they still have contemporary relevance and can withstand a modern outlook. It's rather impressive to see that while some of the ideas, philosophy and nationalistic sentiments can seem outdated, the works always seem to touch on other fundamental matters, not least this central ethos of the role of the artist as a vehicle for challenging and questioning the prevailing social order.

Kratzer's hugely irreverent production doesn't initially seem to have much to offer on that front, and it probably doesn't help that Valery Gergiev's conduction of the overture sounds - in the broadcast performance of the premiere - very erratic in its pacing, rushing through it and smothering melodies. If anything, the crazy bunch careening in a camper van on their way to Bayreuth (their motto from RW - "Frei im Wollen, frei im Thun, frei im Geniessen" - ""Free in your desiring, free in you action, free in enjoying") seems like an open provocation on the nature of the Regietheatre, the team consisting of a dwarf Oskar, a black drag artist Le Gateau Chocolat, with Venus in a sparkly jumpsuit and Tannhäuser dressed as a circus clown. How the pilgrims, seen here in evening dress fanning themselves with programmes on the green hill, are going to react when this mob intrude is at least going to be interesting.

And interesting, rather than anything profound or revelatory, is indeed how it plays out. Act II opens with projected backstage footage of nervous performers preparing for a more traditional, conservative period production in as austere meeting room of Wartburg. The nerves around Heinrich's return seem to be over concern about his abandonment of the sacred tradition for the heresy of the anarchic madness of Regietheater. While the singing contest is going on and going south, Venus and her motley crew - Le Gateau Chocolat in an outrageous yellow puffball outfit - are seen climbing in a window of the Bayreuth theatre to add a further unwelcome intrusion upon the solemn festival proceedings (making fun of portraits of James Levine and Christian Thielemann on the way). Katharina Wagner is forced to call in the police.

It's certainly possible to explore Tannhäuser for more meaningful connections to contemporary situations, so Tobias Kratzer's production feels somewhat self-indulgent, but it's certainly amusing. And, if you consider the true spirit and range of Wagner lies in in something like Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg (essentially a superior reworking of Tannhäuser), where it leavens its solemnity with humour and true human feeling as well as with a spirit of anarchy, then this production does find a way of removing some of the more troublesome outdated principles and sanctimony for 'die holde Kunst' that can often get in the way of the true power and spirit of this work. Act III in particular is beautiful here, the transformation not some religious miracle or glorious sacrifice, but also there in Wolfram learning from Heinrich's inspiration and briefly winning the love and respect of Elisabeth, the conclusion downplaying the transcendence for what is real and human.

The production appears to hit its mark quite successfully. There's huge applause after Act I and Act II, with only audible boos at the conclusion, and most of them appear to be for Valery Gergiev. That's perhaps predictable, Gergiev not the most popular figure internationally for his support of Putin, but it's probably more politically motivated than any commentary on the musical performance. Despite the rather wayward overture - perhaps struggling to keep up with the on-screen visuals - Gergiev's account of the work is well-judged, harnessing the power of the work and not afraid to let its occasional bombast work in favour of the revised perspective. At the same time he captures the contrasting moods of the singing contest well, finding good expression for the deeper conflicts within Heinrich and Tannhäuser, the opera.

Whether you look at it as an in-joke or something celebratory, it's not a particularly thought-provoking Tannhäuser, but it is at least well-performed and entertaining. Elena Zhidkova, apparently standing in at short notice as Venus, gives a spirited performance that is a sheer joy, as is Lise Davidsen's soaring and beautifully controlled Elisabeth. Stephen Gould's Heinrich is generally solid, a little stretched in places, showing some nice interpretation and acting in his performance. Stephen Milling's and Markus Eiche are both reliably good in familiar roles as Landgraf Hermann and Wolfram von Eschenbach.

Bayreuther Festspiele, BR-Klassik

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Gounod - La Nonne sanglante (Paris, 2018)

Charles Gounod - La Nonne sanglante

L'Opéra Comique, Paris - 2018

Laurence Equilbey, David Bobée, Michael Spyres, Vannina Santoni, Marion Lebègue, Jérôme Boutillier, Jodie Devos, Jean Teitgen, Luc Bertin-Hugault, Enguerrand De Hys, Olivia Doray, Pierre-Antoine Chaumien, Julien Neyer, Vincent Eveno

Naxos - Blu-ray

Composed in 1854, Gounod's second opera La Nonne sanglante ('The Bloody Nun') is very much a numbers opera, a five-act Gothic horror in the manner of Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable featuring the expected family affairs and romantic complications, all mixed up in war, religion and high drama. Although Gounod takes full advantage of the situations and brings a particular French romantic touch of melody and dynamic to it, for various reasons La Nonne sanglante failed to make an impression or gain a foothold in the repertoire, and it has taken the centenary celebrations of Gounod's birth in 1818 to raise the bloody nun from the dead, so to speak.

The fate of the opera was sealed during its initial run, the profane subject matter of the vengeful ghost of a murdered nun regarded as being distasteful by the new director of the Paris Opéra, the style out of fashion with changing tastes in the theatre. La Nonne sanglante was immediately cancelled and it's been buried ever since. On its own terms however, La Nonne sanglante was far from a failure, Gounod taking advantage of having a much broader canvas to work with, composing marches and choruses, love arias and religious prayers, weddings and drinking songs that he would unquestionably turn into something greater in Faust a few years later.

The setting of the scene for the high drama that follows is established well in the Opéra Comique's production directed by David Bobée. A single murder - which is to have further significance later - is followed by a pitched battle that indeed has the ferocity of one long fought. A feud has been running in Bohemia between the Moldaw and Luddorf armies for many years, and played out in slow motion during the overture, there's a repetition, a constant rising and falling that makes it seem never-ending. A priest however brings the feud to a provisional halt by suggesting that Agnès, the daughter of the Baron of Moldaw marry Théobald, one of the Baron of Luddorf's sons.

Luddorf's other son, Rodolphe isn't best pleased when he hears the news. He's been in love with Agnès, intending to marry her himself. He suggests to Agnès that they meet at midnight and run away together. It won't do much for the peace settlement, but the notion holds more terror for Agnès than that, for it's at midnight that the ghost of the Bloody Nun makes her rounds of Moldow castle. Dismissive of the ghost story, Rodolphe turns up at the appointed hour and swears eternal allegiance to Agnès who he believes has come disguised as the ghost in order to escape but in reality Rodolphe has sealed his union with the Bloody Nun. To be released from her power he must avenge her death, and her killer is revealed to be Rodolphe's own father.

Up to that point, La Nonne Sanglante is tremendously entertaining, but inevitably it runs out of steam as the composer is required to fill in all the usual expected numbers and situations. There's a now unfashionable ballet which is included here, but neither Gounod nor the director really know what to do with it, so there's a lot of standing and shuffling around instead of dancing. We get a requisite love aria as Rodolphe believes his love for Agnès can be rekindled that is beautifully sung but a little bit dull, so dull that Rodolphe's page Arthur falls asleep during it. Add a raucous wedding and a drinking song, and it pads out the next two acts fairly conventionally.

The stage direction begins to run out of ideas too, although it makes the most of the first half of the work. There's not much required or presented in terms of sets, the stage dark and monochromatic, giving a fine Gothic character and more than adequate mood for the appearance of the ghost of the nun in her blood-stained white robes. It's Michael Spyres who has to carry much of the drive and conviction of the work, and his sweet tenor is well suited to the role of Rodolphe, but there are solid performances also from Vannina Santoni as Agnès and Jérôme Boutillier as Luddorf. Jodie Devos is a bright Arthur and Marion Lebègue presents a suitably scary presence as the nun, even though you think a bigger voice could have done more with this role.

If there's any reason for reviving La Nonne sanglante aside from mere curiosity value, it has to be for Gounod's score and how he skillfully and entertainingly brings all those elements together, particularly in the first two acts. Laurence Equilbey and the Insula Orchestra make the most of the drama and the melodic flow of the score, which is not as overblown or overheated as Meyerbeer. Amends are made for the injustice of the nun's fate after 150 years of neglect, but as entertaining as its return from the dead might be, the fate of La Nonne sanglante after the Gounod centenary celebrations could well be burial once again.

At the very least however, it has been given an extended life in a stunning HD presentation on Blu-ray from Naxos. This is a great time to be enjoying opera. Not only are we able to share in the brief revivals of such fascinating rare works on DVD, but the High Resolution audio presentation of works like this is just incredible. The Blu-ray of La Nonne sanglante is all-region compatible, with subtitles in English, German, Japanese and Korean. The clarity of the image and the recording of the live performance is excellent, the performance thankfully not obscured by dry ice. All the atmosphere is there in Gounod's score.

Usually there's little to choose between the stereo and surround mixes other than preference (and individual home system setups); here both are marvellous but the atmospheric surround mix has the edge. The LPCM stereo mix sounds great on headphones, with marvellous clarity to the score and a good balance between the music and the singing. In DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 however the opera really comes alive, the music beautifully distributed to the surrounds, exhibiting all the clarity and detail of the score and the performances, creating a wonderful theatrical ambience. Voices ring out - particularly Spyres lyrical tenor voice - and the big dramatic moments hit home.

Links: L'Opéra Comique

Monday, 12 August 2019

Puccini - Madama Butterfly (Glyndebourne, 2018)

Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Glyndebourne, 2018

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

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

I didn't find the 2018 Glyndebourne production of Madama Butterfly to be too adventurous when I first saw it in its streaming broadcast, but in truth few Madama Butterflies can depart with any success from the very specific cultural and historical context that Puccini's opera covers. A bit of emphasis here, a bit of highlighting character traits in one version, playing up or playing down the national stereotypes elsewhere. There's not really a lot of room for manoeuvre. There are however ways that work and ways that don't and
Annilese Miskimmon's production, working well with Omer Meir Wellber's conducting of the score, clearly gets across everything that is great about Puccini's masterpiece.

Miskimmon's production at least makes one or two concessions towards modernisation and a break from familiarity and cliché, placing it in a different period and context that seeks to highlight certain harsh realities and truths of its subject. She tries to strike a balance that attempts to bring it a little more up to date rather than appearing to be a situation so far removed from familiar modern attitudes as to appear as almost fantasy. Set in the 1950s, where there was also a post-war trade in Japanese brides to American servicemen, Miskimmon sets Act I not in the familiar surrounds of the idyllic Japanese house perched on the hills over Nagasaki, but in Goro's Marriage Bureau with a tattoo parlour and a cheap hotel in the alley outside.

Projections are used showing genuine documentary newsreel footage of US troops purchasing Japanese brides after the war: "Yanks Marry Japanese Maids", the titles proclaim, with footage showing new brides given instruction on "Learning to be an American Wife". It's perhaps not exactly the same situation as Cio-Cio-San, but even if it's presented in contrast it does highlight the reality. Or if not so much a reality, selling the American dream as a reality. There's no real commentary or emphasis placed on the ethics of it all however, on Pinkerton marrying a 15 year old, collecting her like a butterfly or even commentary on the American imperialism side of things here. It's a simple business transaction, a trade, but one where the two partners are expecting different things.

Keeping Madama Butterfly relatable, Miskimmon also uses old movie footage and in Act II, develops Butterfly's home decor to look like or be Butterfly's attempt to emulate American life learned only from the Technicolor movies of Douglas Sirk. It marks a strong contrast between the reality of the first act and the attempt by Butterfly to live up to her side of the deal by becoming an American wife. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, Puccini's music is a perfect match for a Sirk melodrama, the fluctuations of tone and the layers of irony matched also in the shifts of light, the falling leaves, the blaze of autumnal colours and the darkness that is drawing in. Miskimmon also makes good use of the discomfort of Suzuki ("Povera Butterfly"!) and Sharpless to measure out the distance between the dream and the reality.

One of the great benefits of being able to revisit this production on Blu-ray s the opportunity it gives to hear the detail of the musical performance in a High Resolution recording, in surround sound or in lossless LPCM stereo. There are a few obvious pieces of 'retouching' the plaintive sound of what sounds like a distant harmonica accompanying the Humming Chorus, but it's much easier in now to also observe how Omer Meir Wellber catches the ebb and flow of the score that create Puccini's magic. Act III really demonstrates those qualities, in the conducting as much as in Puccini's writing, never laying it on thick, but gently pulling back now and again only to strike forward to hit harder next time, and as such it feels much more in tune with real human feelings.

It only really carries that urgency if the director can make the characters real and for there to be anguish and sympathy on all sides. Pinkerton is often made out to be a villain, and that can spur indignation at his treatment of Cio-Cio-San, but indignation isn't what Madama Butterfly is about.
Annilese Miskimmon see it more as a human failing, the Pinkerton of three years later not so much regretting his fake marriage as realising that it was never realistic, as his friend Sharpless repeatedly warned him at the time. It doesn't mean that he is blameless, but it helps to see all sides, and that's what this production seems to be able to balance well, finding the true emotional toll the situation takes on each of them.

Seen that way it's easier to admire the heartfelt performance of Joshua Guerrero's Pinkerton here. It's a little 'operatic' but in the context of a Sirkian response to Puccini it's acceptable and effective. Olga Busuioc's heartfelt Cio-Cio-San also feels deeply human, completely immersed in the role, if rather holding to the conventional mannerisms and gestures. There are the usual reliable performances from Carlo Bosi's Goro and Elizabeth DeShong's Suzuki, regular performers in these roles, but I was more impressed in this viewing by Michael Sumuel's Sharpless. He conveys well the discomfort of this difficult situation, a key sentiment as it is the same one shared by the audience. His singing is is also full of wonderful expression.

Unsurprisingly, the 2018 Glyndebourne Madama Butterfly looks absolutely stunning in the High Definition Blu-ray presentation. The image is clear and sharp, the warm autumnal tones and blue Nagasaki skies glowing off the screen. The DTS HD-Master Audio 5,1 surround gives more ambience to the performance, the LPCM a much more direct punch, but both show off the detail and beauty of the London Philharmonic Orchestra's playing. Extras are limited to a Cast Gallery and an interview with Olga Busuioc on the role and character of Cio-Cio-San, but Annilese Miskimmon also provides some director notes in the enclosed booklet.

Links: Glyndebourne

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Goldschmidt - Beatrice Cenci (Bregenz, 2018)

Berthold Goldschmidt - Beatrice Cenci

Bregenz Festival, 2018

Johannes Debus, Johannes Erath, Christoph Poll, Dshamilja Kaiser, Gal James, Christina Bock, Per Bach Nissen, Michael Laurenz, Wolfgang Stefan Schwaiger, Sebastian Soules, Peter Marsh

C-Major - Blu-ray

One of the complaints that is often made about German and Austrian composers in the immediate post-Wagner era of the first half of the 20th century, is that the music and subject matter had lost any kind of bearing or connection with the reality on the ground. The bizarre decadent fantasies of Franz Schreker's Irrelohe and Die Gezeichneten, Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten or Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane all take place in fantasy worlds with seductive extravagant orchestra arrangements that seemed to bear little relation to what was happening in the world outside, but perhaps in some way they do have relevance, even if it was just an escapist reaction against the growing influence of the National Socialists.

Berthold Goldschmidt, like many other German Jewish composers of this period had to do more than retreat into fantasy worlds but were forced into exile, their works soon banned by the Nazis as Entartete "degenerate music". Like those other composers, one wonders what music was subsequently lost and how it might have developed, Goldschmidt having composed only one opera Der gewaltige Hahnrei (1932) when he fled Germany in 1935 to come to England where he worked as a music director for the BBC. Beatrice Cenci, belatedly coming in 1950 while in exile gives some indication of the kind of opera work Goldschmidt might have developed, and what might otherwise have been lost.

Beatrice Cenci however might well have also been lost, the prize-winning work rejected by Covent Garden in 1950, the music of the such composers (Goldschmidt having studied under Franz Schreker) no longer fashionable at that time. The opera only received its first concert performance in 1988 and its first fully staged performance in 1994. With a renewed interest in rediscovering work from the Entartete school of composition and DVD releases giving them a wider audience (like the recent Naxos release of Korngold's extraordinary Das Wunder der Heliane), it's clear that there still are many fascinating and worthwhile discoveries to be made.

The striking Bregenz Festival production of Beatrice Cenci is certainly something of a revelation in terms of presentation and performance of this rare work. The opera itself takes something of its character from Schreker's Die Gezeichneten in terms of how it presents the decadent court of Count Francesco Cenci like the island of depravity of Alviano Salvago. Cenci likewise enjoys the favour of the Pope, with notable members of the clergy taking part in his outrageous orgies, protecting him from any censure. When Cenci's own daughter Beatrice becomes the innocent victim of his depravity, she asks Orsino, a young novice priest that she is in love with, to intercede on her behalf. Orsino arranges for the murder of Francesco Cenci.

Based on a notorious real-life historical event, Beatrice and her stepmother Lucrezia were condemned to death in 1599 for the murder of Count Cenci - Beatrice's execution by beheading in Rome incidentally witnessed by Caravaggio who may well have relied on the imagery for his gruesome painting Judith Beheading Holofernes. The legend of Beatrice Cenci however has influenced many writers and composers, notably Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose 1819 verse drama The Cenci was adapted by Goldschmidt for the opera.

Johannes Erath's 2018 production for the Bregenz Festival respects the musical approach the Goldschmidt employs, crafting a colourful and stylised drama to match the extravagant Mahler-like orchestration and the bel canto like flourishes that Goldschmidt was striving to achieve. It consequently does come across as a strange blend between Schreker's Die Gezeichneten and Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, which only highlights the delirious dreamlike quality of the chromatically untethered music, a swirling madness gradually enveloping proceedings, whether describing the decadence of Francesco Cenci, or the disturbed mindset of his abused daughter.

In contrast however to other elegant fantasies of the so-called Entartete degenerate composers, Goldschmidt's Beatrice Cenci has a foot in the real-world at the same time as it pays tribute to the beatification of the legend of Beatrice. It's about innocents having to stand up to evil and become victims in order to achieve some kind of redemption later for their sacrifice, and Erath's production also emphasises the tragedy this represents for the powers and institutions, with only a glimmer of fragile light at the end that might prevail. If we can see that in Beatrice Cenci perhaps then we can begin to see similar qualities in other such works from this school of rejected/lost opera that has been too easily dismissed and forgotten.

The performance at Bregenz is fantastic, particularly Gal James who does indeed adopt an otherworldly-like character through her lyrical and dramatic singing and performance as Beatrice, combining bel canto agility with a robust delivery. There are good performances here too from Christoph Poll as Francesco Cenci and Dshamilja Kaiser as Lucrezia. Johannes Debus conducts the Wiener Symphoniker with a measured delivery that suggests a nightmarish dreamlike quality that is gradually spiralling into madness. Similar visual references can be found in Katrin Connan's impressive set designs.

The colourful production comes across with crisp clarity on the HD Blu-ray release from C-Major. The High Resolution soundtracks in LPCM 2.0 and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 present a powerful and detailed recording of the music and singing performances. Although initially composed with an English libretto, the Bregenz production uses the German version that the composer prepared. There are no extras other than booklet notes and a synopsis. The Blu-ray disc is all-region and has subtitles in English, German, Korean and Japanese.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Caldara - Lucio Papirio Dittatore (Buxton, 2019)

Antonio Caldara - Lucio Papirio Dittatore

La Serenissima, 2019

Adrian Chandler, Giulia Nuti, Mark Burns, Robert Murray, William Towers, Owen Willetts, Rowan Pierce, Elizabeth Karani, Eleanor Dennis, Gareth Brynmor John

Buxton Opera House - 13th July 2019

As the director Mark Burns observes in the programme notes, there is a challenge about approaching an old forgotten work as a complete blank slate, particularly a work as rare as Antonio Caldara's Lucio Papirio Dittatore, composed in 1719 and almost unheard of since. Composed for the royal court of the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, for which Caldera was Vice-Kapellmeister, it's a work that nonetheless that proves to be deserving of revival and sympathetic treatment. Its qualities are certainly borne out by an outstanding performance from period music specialists La Serenissima and some magnificent fine singing, but the direction proves to be unable to do much to enliven the rather dry long drawn out conventions of the opera seria.

It really needs a little more because in many respects Lucio Papirio Dittatore is to the untrained ear indistinguishable in content and approach from the opera seria of Vivaldi, Scarlatti and even Handel in his dryer works. Others too that I may have forgotten or have failed to register in the memory because aside from the bigger names who have been mined in recent decades, baroque opera has slipped slightly out of the picture as far as I can see. All the more reason to be delighted when a company like La Serenissima are prepared to dig a little deeper into what still remains largely buried treasure. Any one of Caldera's 40 or so surviving operas would be a true rarity and surely deserving of the kind of sympathetic treatment of a period music performance.

A largely static period production of a baroque opera seria won't do it any favours or win over any casual opera goers at the Buxton Festival. It's true that there's not a whole lot you can do with a work that is about the traditional struggle between power, authority and love and make it feel fresh, modern and exciting without shoehorning in a lot of contemporary references. We've had all that already in Buxton with Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and David Cameron all referenced in Orpheus in the Underworld, and in Georgiana too to a less obvious nod-and-a-wink extent. Even in a work where a plebiscite or referendum takes place and is eventually overruled, there's no such highlighting of any obvious parallel, preferring to let the content and treatment of Lucio Papirio Dittatore speak for itself.

To his credit, the director Mark Burns does attempt to modernise the themes with a reference to the building wrapping art installations of the Bulgarian artists Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Marie Denat, the Roman arches and monuments here draped in a fine muslin-like cloth. A casual viewer who hasn't read the programme notes is unlikely to notice this or catch the reference to the artists' background under Soviet Communist rules and its implications of tyranny of the weak. As it stands, with the cloth hangings the same colour as the stone and marble it just makes the arches look a little rough and bumpy, but perhaps on some level it informs the production.

As far as the performances go there appears to be little to the direction other than blocking, moving forward and backward, making entrances and exits. On the other hand it has to be said that the drama, what little of it there is considerably drawn-out, plays out with admirable clarity and holds attention. That is no mean feat in a work of this type, particularly when it appears to be played in full without any cuts, even going as far as to include the coda in praise of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. If you are going to the trouble of reviving a rare work like this you want to do it without compromise, but inevitably that's going to come at the cost of accessibility. I can't fault La Serenissima for their choice and the director has had to work within those constraints, and to be fair, since many like me come to Buxton for the opportunity to experience rare works performed nowhere else, I wouldn't have it any other way.

What provided visual interest on the stage however was the decision to put the orchestra up there with the drama. It's a large ensemble too, occupying a full third of the stage. This was a complete joy to see and it provided the accessibility that that drama didn't, permitting the audience, particularly those with a higher view than the stalls, the opportunity to see how Caldara uses different sections of instruments to vary mood and situation, which part used harpsichord, theorbo and cello continuo, which called on the brass fanfares, which brought in the whole ensemble with percussion and woodwind. Without a conductor, there are two musical directors then for the diverse parts of the work and recitative, Adrian Chandler leading on violin, Giulia Nuti on harpsichord. All the drama is in there and you would miss much of that if it was consigned to the orchestra pit.

Without getting into the technicalities of the plot, like most opera seria works derived from Zeno or Metastasio, Lucio Papirio Dittatore is actually quite simple in outline but needlessly complicated in detail. During the Second Samnite war in 324BC, the Roman army general Quinto Fabio has disobeyed the orders of the dictator Lucio Papirio and launched into battle with the Samnites. No matter that he was victorious and won the day, ending the war almost single-handed; his failure to follow orders amounts to treason and he must be punished. There's only one sentence according to the law and that is death, no matter that Quinto is married to Papirio's daughter, Papiria. Quinto is assured of his actions despite being warned that "Innocence cannot save you from power and envy". In true opera seria fashion, the situation inevitably introduces a lot of lamenting and pleading on the part of Papiria.

That's drawn out to about an hour and a half in the first two Acts, which is tough going. You can see parallels with power and envy clear enough without it having to be spelled out but mainly you see a lot of conventional opera seria. In the second half Papirio shows that he is not actually motivated by envy and is willing to spare Quinto if the people of Rome vote in his favour. Unfortunately the people of Rome, for some reason, decide they want their hero executed. Lucio proves magnanimous and commutes the sentence, forgiving Quinto. The soldier is so overwhelmed with this gesture that he decides he would happily die. And then somehow it's all wrapped up with a happy ending. Don't ask me to make sense out of any of that. There's a fuller synopsis available in the Festival programme, but I'm not sure it's worth the effort, at least not as far making sense of the plot.

What matters is that Caldera's music makes it work, and it is absolutely beautiful music with wonderful sounding period instruments - including a harpsichord, theorbo and chalumeau - delivering vivid exciting rhythms and sounds that are unlike anything else. And it works too because of the singers. Owen Willetts's Quinto Fabio is superb, a countertenor with strength and impressive control, he is able to handle the flights of emotive expression. Rowan Pierce's Papiria too is impressive. Initially saddled with laments for the most part, she nonetheless makes the role sympathetic with an edge of defiance against her father. Eleanor Dennis's Cominio is also excellent in the subplot romance that I've intentionally neglected to include in the plot description for fear of making it any more complicated, but again, the performances make it fit, hold attention and overcome any issues there might have been with the otherwise static stage direction.

Links: Buxton International Festival

Friday, 19 July 2019

Linley, Mozart, Paisello, Martín y Soler, Storace, Cavendish - Georgiana (Buxton, 2019)

Thomas Linley, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giovanni Paisiello, Martín y Soler, Stephen Storace, Georgiana Cavendish - Georgiana

Buxton International Festival, 2019

Mark Tatlow, Matthew Richardson, Samantha Clarke, Ben Hulett, Susanna Fairbairn, Olivia Ray, Geoffrey Dolton, Katherine Aitken, Aled Hall, Rhys Thomas

Buxton Opera House - 12th July 2019

"So modern so delightful, so daring so wicked. They'll all go to hell", the playwright Richard Sheridan and politician Charles James Fox observe as the scandal of the Georgiana Cavendish, the 5th Duchess of Devonshire captures the imagination of the gossiping public in 1782, and judging by the reception of Buxton Festival's new opera Georgiana, it still has the capacity of wickedness and daring to delight a modern audience. Particularly as it's a subject that is close to home in Buxton considering the importance of the Cavendish family to the Peak District spa town, making it an ideal subject for a new opera in the 40th year of the Buxton Festival.

Well, sort of new. Unless you want to go down the direction of Thomas Adès and his treatment of the scandal of the Duchess of Argyll in his daring opera Powder her Face, you'd like to keep the music as close to the period as possible. The idea of imitating or creating a pastiche of 18th century music isn't really a credible option, but who needs to when it's all already been written and there is already the convention of the pasticcio opera, making use of existing arias and pieces, cutting and pasting them from a variety of sources, making a patchwork of the best of the best.

The idea of a pasticcio or patchwork opera however gives the impression of something thrown together and nothing could be further from the truth about Georgiana. Instead of simply taking arias expressing generic sentiments and stitching them together with recitative to make a new variation of a typical baroque opera plot, Buxton's new Artistic Director Michael Williams has created a new libretto from a text by playwright Janet Plater and set it to a selection of period and dramatically appropriate music compiled by musical director Mark Tatlow. Rather than go for the obvious and familiar, Tatlow selects lesser known pieces by Thomas Linley (the "English Mozart" who died at the age of 22), Mozart, Giovanni Paisello, Martín y Soler, Stephen Storace and even a piece attributed to Georgiana Cavendish herself.

There's nothing here consequently that feels like it's been patched together. The music has a wonderful musical and dramatic consistency that flows marvellously and feels entirely 'new', perfectly suited to the period and the situations developed in the opera. The libretto too is a delight (modern, daring and wicked indeed enough to satisfy Fox and Sheridan), never feeling for forced or mannered, but clever and witty, capturing the nature of the characters and moving the drama along. There are a few nods and winks to the modern audience, such making fun of the absurd idea of Georgiana's lover Earl Charles Grey having a tea named after him, but there is never any sense of parody or making fun of the pasticcio.

Even the idea of establishing an appropriate tone has been carefully considered, aiming - ambitiously, but why not? - towards a two-act dramma giacoso in the style of Don Giovanni. Goodness knows there's enough scandalous affairs and outrageous behaviour in the life of Georgiana Cavendish, the opera in the first act covering her growing gambling debts kept secret from her husband, the ménage-á-trois relationship that scandalises the Ton High Society when Lady Bess Foster moves in with Georgiana and the Duke, and Georgiana's involvement in the political advancement of Charles Fox and her affair with Earl Grey. The first Act culminates in a typically Mozart farcical ensemble where Georgiana confesses that she is pregnant by Grey while Bess turns out to be pregnant at the same time by the Georgiana's husband the Duke of Devonshire.

The first half of the opera is an absolute delight, perfectly judged in terms of music and drama and superbly played by the musicians of the Northern Chamber Orchestra under Mark Tatlow, acted and sung with verve and flair by an exceptional cast. The handling of the material ensures that there's a perfect balance in the tone between the dramatic content and the characterisation of it, causing scandal on one side, delighting the likes of Fox and Sheridan with enough gossip to keep them in demand in society and in inspiration for plays, but also in the devil-may-care attitude of Georgiana and Bess, and the Duke too when he finds the arrangements rather to his liking.

The second half is no less fun, but the dramatic charge doesn't carry through quite as entertainingly and isn't quite as well-constructed. The idea of the Devonshires and the secrets of the parentage of their children provide more scandal and gossip, but it gets a little repetitive. Georgiana's debts continue to mount and she becomes ill and dies quite suddenly without there being much leading up to it. The variety of musical situations and the singing performances ensure however that interest never flags throughout.

Jon Morrell's set design and Matthew Richardson's direction also contributes to making sure that this is never anything less than marvellous entertainment. Set in the shape that suggests the famous Devonshire Dome, one of the great architectural creations in the town, or perhaps in the shape of the Crescent (currently being painstakingly restored, provoking an in-joke about when it will ever be finished), or made of stone from the town's famous quarries, it definitely resonated with a Buxton audience. It also had a simple beautiful elegance that perfectly matched the musical arrangements, with silhouette cut-outs and suitable props as required.

There was not a single compromise in the conception or execution of Georgiana, this was simply a superb new opera creation. The singing too was wise to the dramma giocoso nature of the work, finding a good balance between good-natured wicked comic caricature of Aled Hall's Fox and Geoffrey Dolton's Sheridan, and the rather more serious nature of Samantha Clarke's Georgiana with her enlightened liberal attitudes and lust for living that would inevitably lead to near-ruin and a tragic end. Ben Hulett's Duke of Devonshire was also notable for some fine singing. Everything about Georgiana just oozes classy, quality opera, and it surely deserves to reach a wider audience after this critically acclaimed opening at the Buxton Festival.

Links: Buxton International Festival

Offenbach - Orpheus in the Underworld (Buxton, 2019)

Jacques Offenbach - Orpheus in the Underworld

Opera della Luna, 2019

Toby Purser, Jeff Clarke, Tristan Stocks, Daire Halpin, Katharine Taylor-Jones, Anthony Flaum, Matthew Siveter, Louise Crane, Paul Featherstone, Lynsey Docherty, Kristy Swift

Buxton Opera House - 11th July 2019

I don't think anyone goes to an Offenbach operetta with high expectations of seeing some great piece of lyric theatre or indeed any cutting edge commentary on society, but you could be surprised and usually are by Orpheus in the Underworld. As far back as 1858, Orphée aux Enfers managed to satirise not only opera conventions in an uproarious way but also managed to throw in some incendiary little comments about contemporary society under the Second Empire of Napoleon III. What may also be surprising is the realisation that things that Offenbach was satirising aren't all that different from the behaviour of politicians and personalities what we see in the news today.

Primarily of course the main intention of Orpheus in the Underworld is to provide some light entertainment and make the audience laugh, and it's packed with good tunes as well, this opera being the origin of the instantly recognisable music of the Cancan. Perfect material then for a matinee show on a warm summer day in July at the Buxton International Festival and Opera della Luna, a company who specialise in light comic opera ensured that their production put a smile on the face of the audience and sent them back out humming the tunes.

If anything however, it was just a little on the light side. With the right translation, Orpheus in the Underworld can still have a bit of bite and be a saucy little piece, making fun of Jupiter's dalliances with mortal women and applying that to present-day leaders' indiscretions and infidelities (funny how that situation never dates). There is some full frontal body padding nudity here which gets some amused laughter, but really not enough advantage taken to apply it to contemporary public figures. Public Opinion can have more of a role to play in this and although her Arts Council persona interruptions were very amusing (Orpheus at the finale getting a grant to complete his concerto when he satisfied all the minority tickboxes got the biggest laugh of the evening) but the production didn't take enough advantage of this character.

Application to today however doesn't need to be overly spelled out. In fact, the references to President Trump and #MeToo seemed a little shoehorned in but obviously were very relevant, recognising that Offenbach was satirising how those in power only put on a show of being lofty while in reality they are even more inclined to indulge their proclivities and abuse their power. The satire worked best however when it was integrated into the singing rather than the dialogue. The characterisation of Pluto's factotum Dave ("Call me Dave") was very clever, confessing to the crime of calling a divisive referendum and then running away when the results came in. His elevated position in the Underworld as personal secretary to Pluto would prove to bear out Donald Tusk's warning that there would be a special place in hell for such people. That got a huge roar of laughter and approval from the audience.

Elsewhere however the comedy was mild and rather tame, relying on the dazzle and glamour and visual humour of Elroy Ashmore's spectacular, colourful set designs. These were perfectly appropriate for the content. The signposted road to 'Theebs' where the incompatible Orpheus and Eurydice have their assignations with their respective lovers in pastures where sheep grazed changed smoothly into the cloud domain of the heavenly but deadly dull Olympus, where the gods temporarily put aside their family quarrels to mount classical plinths naked in order to awe mere mortals. Pluto's living quarters of course looked like a classy 18th century French brothel, a place where you could quite reasonably expect them to dance the Cancan at a wild infernal party.  I love the detail of the skeleton chandeliers.

Wishing to do justice to all Offenbach's dance numbers, Jeff Clarke's production also successfully employed a quartet of acrobatic dancers playing everything from frolicking sheep to demons dancing the Cancan, as well as also providing the love interest for the mismatched feuding couple of Orpheus and Eurydice. And of course that reversal of the traditional situation between the two mythical figures provides plenty amusement of its own. Neither of them are the grand figures of mythology, Offenbach delighting in bringing their relationship down to earth. And a bit below it evidently.

Both Orpheus and Eurydice were well characterised in that respect. Tristan Stocks was rather weak of voice as Orpheus, but this is light comic opera and not Wagner or Verdi. Daire Halpin sings Eurydice with a lovely brightness of timbre and plays the part full of character. Again it's not a big voice and it didn't always carry over the small Opera della Luna ensemble who knocked out Offenbach's rhythms and melodies superbly under Toby Purser's musical direction, showing them to be finer musical compositions than they are usually given credit for being. You don't come to an Offenbach operetta expecting operatic bel canto or sober Gluck (although they do make fun of both here) but to be amused at the relevance of the daring satire of Offenbach and tap your opera programme along to the melodies, and clap along when given the opportunity. Opera della Luna's Orpheus in the Underworld was in that respect the perfect undemanding accompaniment to a lovely afternoon at the Buxton Festival.

Links: Buxton International Festival, Opera della Luna

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin (Buxton, 2019)

Pyotr Illiych Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin (Buxton, 2019)

Buxton International Festival, 2019

Adrian Kelly, Jamie Manton, Shelley Jackson, Angharad Lyddon, David Webb, George Humphreys, Gaynor Keeble, Ceri Williams, Joshua Bloom, Joe Doody, Christopher Cull, Phil Wilcox

Buxton Opera House - 10th July 2019

The Buxton Festival usually concentrates on presenting rarely heard works, and for their 40th anniversary two or three works that you are unlikely to see performed anywhere else, and a good bit of imagination and variety in the programming too. A work like Eugene Onegin wouldn't normally fit on the bill, but if you are going to put on a more familiar opera to appeal to a wider audience then Tchaikovsky's undisputed masterpiece is a good choice. Buxton put on a fabulous production too, one that didn't strive to impose any extravagant reinterpretation, but rather focussed on the mood and undercurrents that give the work its extraordinary character.

There are any number of ways of portraying that underlying character of doomed romance (not least Tchaikovsky's own horrendous experience of it) or the underlying Russian traits in Pushkin's hugely important work of Russian literature. Buxton's production however isn't interested in going for any deep Stefan Herheim or Krzysztof Warlikowski explorations and deconstructions of the work, but on first glance Justin Nardella's set designs did at least seem to reference Robert Carsen's NY Met production. With a stage strewn with autumnal leaves and back screen glowing with colours, the focus seems to be on the light and the seasons, factors that unquestionably exert an enormous influence on the work.

The luminous back panel might change colour to reflect the seasons and moods, turning green when Lensky quarrels with Onegin in jealousy over his perceived flirtation with Olga, wintry white while they turn up for their duel, and blood red when Lensky is killed, but Buxton's production has more to it than just colour coding and it recognises that there is more to Tchaikovsky's score than fluctuations of mood. There's another dominant character that suffuses the whole work and that's its dark melancholic reflection on romance and the twists of fate and time that swirl people in and out of each other's lives, exerting a huge tug that can disrupt the larger patterns of life and emotional stability.

Or, to put that force into more recognisable terms, it's the power of love, but it's wrong to just see Eugene Onegin as a tragic romantic melodrama or indeed to put the emphasis just on the romance. It is surely one of the most heartrending tragi-romantic works you can imagine, and only Massenet's Werther comes close. Actually Massenet's opera is perhaps the closest comparable work for how it is also tied to the seasons, to love out of time with the seasons. Tatyana and Onegin's love has the potential to be boundless, a love like no other, but perhaps all love has that potential were we not human and subject to other forces, to time, to our own weaknesses, to our own lack of self-awareness and inability to foresee what is ahead, or perhaps allow that potential to be stifled by looking too far ahead in anticipation. Life too has its own rhythms that we only see in retrospect.

Quite how you put that into music - along with all the momentous character of Pushkin's work - is something only the genius and personal experience of Tchaikovsky could have done without unnecessary explanation or elaboration, but those characteristics certainly arose out of the elegant and well-performed Buxton production. Somehow Jamie Marton's direction managed to capture all these moods tied into seasons, the sense of melancholic reflection, the fatality of a doomed romance and the tides of time all within its design and performances. In contrast to the Robert Carsen light-box production, the tone of Justin Nardella's set design is actually very dark, the Larin house all black walls and floor, with mirrors when indoors that only reflected the darkness inward.

With period costumes, it managed to look both elegant and austere, elegant in terms of the outward manners, the means by which characters want to present themselves, while the world around them is much less controllable. Those outside factors are depicted in other ways, Tatyana feeling the presence of dark silent figures watching, pressing in on her, closing her down, Onegin faced with a mirror of self-reflection that he can't see past. With extras and chorus play their part, including sweepers who pushed the leaves and the snow past in choreographed rhythms, all of this feeding into an expression of vast forces at work and clashing in the opera.

Of course nowhere is that more effective than in the music itself. I don't think the Northern Symphony Orchestra's playing was the most sweepingly lush and romantic version of Eugene Onegin I've heard, but while it is nice to hear the glorious elegance of Tchaikovsky's beautiful melancholic melodies and themes, conductor Adrian Kelly made the case that there should be a little tug or barb of rawness behind them. The test of the effectiveness of this is in how the music works hand-in-hand with the production to stir up the deepest feelings in the work that cannot be expressed in words alone. Truly Tchaikovsky finds the heart of Pushkin's narrative and character that connects on a more direct emotional level with the audience.

If there are any caveats to be applied to the production, it's in the understandable necessity to sing the work in English. If you can't get Russian singers or singers experienced in singing Russian, it can be difficult to get the necessary expression in Eugene Onegin. English is not a perfect match, no matter how good the translation and its fitting to the cadences of the music, but on the other hand, it was good to be able to listen and see the detail that the cast brought to performances without the distraction of surtitles. Perhaps surtitles were more necessary for the quartets, ensembles and choruses, but even there the overlapping expressions are conveyed more by the delivery and harmony than what is said in the words.

Even with the libretto translated a little stiffly in English, the singing was excellent. The main roles were handled exceptionally well by Shelley Jackson and George Humphreys above and beyond the vocal delivery. You must feel sympathy for both Tatyana and Onegin. It's not just naive young girl meeting aloof arrogant self-obsessed man, but there is great depth to both, the tragedy being that they both come to recognise this at times when it's too late to do anything about it. The performances however were excellent right across the board, Angharad Lyddon's Olga and David Webb's Lensky bringing another essential character and tone to the work, Gaynor Keeble's Larina and Ceri Williams's Filipyevena bringing another vital perspective on how love is ignited and dies as time and life exert other forces and pressures on it. This was consequently a beautifully moody Eugene Onegin that stirred deeply.

Links: Buxton International Festival

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Glass - Tao of Glass (Manchester, 2019)

Phelim McDermott & Philip Glass - Tao of Glass

Manchester International Festival, 2019

Philip Glass, Phelim McDermott, Kirsty Housley, Chris Vatalaro, David Emmings, Janet Etuk, Jack McNeill, Rakhi Singh, Katherine Tinker, Sarah Wright

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester - 13 June 2019

Struggling to get my head around what exactly Tao of Glass was all about, the only word that came to mind during the interval was 'magical'. That's perhaps a rather unoriginal, overused and not particularly helpful choice of description, but thinking about it further, magical perhaps describes the uniqueness of the work. There's the fact that it's a site-specific piece and that it only has a limited lifespan of a run at the Royal Exchange Theatre during the Manchester International Festival, so it's ephemeral and of the moment as theatre should be (although I suspect that the Glass music may resurface in another guise later). There's also the way that it employs unconventional dramatic and musical elements to create something that is truly unique and deeply personal, related to its creators Philip Glass and Phelim McDermott.

There is also something that you can only describe as magical about the nature of the piece in the idea that the work is in fact the creation of the work. Phelim McDermott himself takes centre-stage - quite literally in the round of the Royal Exchange Theatre - and describes in the first half of the show his long running relationship with Philip Glass's music, first as a fan and later as a collaborator. Tao of Glass came about through the failure of a project they had been planning to work on, to bring to the stage In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak. Sendak died before the project was able to get off the ground, so McDermott and Glass tried to find other ways of continuing their work together, and it's this that becomes Tao of Glass.

When I first heard about Tao of Glass, the outline description was that it seemed to consist of 10 musical pieces that would be staged by McDermott's company Improbable. The work has evidently evolved considerably in its development, still on-going at the time of its performances, the end result never set in stone but arrived at. One of the central images in the piece is that of the Japanese art of Kintsugi; of a perfect jar that is broken to pieces and then put together again with gold bonding. Essentially that becomes the image for the work itself, the dreamed perfection of a longed for project with Sendak dashed and then pieced together into something new and different.

Whether it's Glass's music that bonds the broken fragments of McDermott's script or the other way around isn't the question. What matters it that it creates a perfect new creation that neither could achieve quite the same way on their own. And it really does. It at least gives Philip Glass the opportunity to work outside traditional boundaries again. That's often where his best work is achieved, whether that's in opera, which he redefined by refusing to follow any conventional expectations with Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten, or how he worked in collaboration to redefine the role soundtracks play in films like Koyanisqaatsi and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Lately Glass has been more conventional, even in his Bowie Symphonies, but it's clear that working with McDermott (on Satyagraha, Akhnaten and The Perfect American) has revived a new imaginative, instinctive and improvisational influenced approach to working again.

While there are some new dimensions added to Glass's (some might say limited) musical repertoire, Tao of Glass is very much McDermott's baby. He is the motivational force behind the concept and it's his personal experience that fuels the journey of the piece. Actually it is a collaborative effort even in this since a lot of it has to do with the director's relationship with Philip Glass and his music. Right from the start he talks about the discovery of Glassworks, about recognising Philip Glass walking through London during the opening of Akhnaten at the ENO in 1985 and following him through the streets of Covent Garden.

McDermott's picks up and joins other Kintsugi fragments into the narration, going right back to childhood reminiscence to consider where the fascination for the magic of the theatre came from. Strangely, it's the 'failures', the broken pots, that provide the strongest feelings; imagining the children's theatrical entertainment Billy's Wonderful Kettle that he never got to see, his imagination undoubtedly more wonderful than the actual show. There's even a puppet show 'trailer' outline for how the Sendak project might have looked. There's also the story of McDermott's broken glass coffee table that allegedly provides the title of the work. The piece is filled with seemingly random stories and anecdotes that nonetheless all seem to connect in unusual ways.

The stories may be simple, anecdotal, but they touch on deeper themes, themes that are relevant to many creators and artists. Where does music come from? Where does inspiration come from? McDermott talks about using meditation, flotation tanks, Taoism and the I-Ching to get in touch with and reach other levels of the subconscious, how to reach those other planes that evidently exist that we visit in dreams and perhaps its the same place people go to in a coma. McDermott describes experimenting with Glass, simulating a coma (insert obvious joke about Glass's music and comas here), that does manage to draw out an entirely new improvised sound and voice from the composer in his effort to reach and connect with the person in a coma state. It's reminiscent a little of Max Richter's Sleep, which evidently is a piece that strives to work on a similar plane direct to the subconscious.

That piece is replicated on a Steinway piano that has recorded the actual keystrokes of Philip Glass playing, and there's an eerie quality to the invisible presence of the composer playing over the keys, but the piece is far from disembodied and there's genuine feeling and reaching out in it. Elsewhere the ensemble plays music that is for the most part in the familiar Glass idiom of repetition and small changes, working hand-in-hand with the meditation and reflections of the narrative. Phelim McDermott, sitting in the audience like a regular theatre-goer at the start of the show before taking to the stage, delivers his story in a hugely engaging and entertaining manner by reaching to out the audience and connecting with them.

It's staged in true Improbable style, semi-improvised, using puppets, sheets of paper with musical notation and sellotape. There's nothing elaborate about the effects, but in conjunction with the music and the storytelling it does indeed exploit the capacity of theatre to create worlds. And not just create worlds, but somehow forge a connection from them through to the audience, creating an extra bond in an extension of the Kintsugi manner. If that's not 'magical' I don't know what is.

The real kicker however is the unexpected and unbilled late appearance of Philip Glass himself in person, stepping onto the stage at the conclusion to play the Opening from Glassworks on the piano accompanied by the ensemble. It's a fulfilment of McDermott's dream from many years ago; not just directing a Glass work, but truly collaborating and sharing a stage with him. And that's what Tao of Glass is all about, or one of the many things that it is about; defining our dreams, breaking them and then rebuilding them into something greater.

Links: Manchester International Festival