Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Krenek - Karl V (Munich, 2019)

Ernst Krenek - Karl V

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2019

Erik Nielsen, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Bo Skovhus,,Okka von der Damerau, Gun-Brit Barkmin, Dean Power, Anne Schwanewilms, Janus Torp, Scott MacAllister, Kevin Conners, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Michael Kraus, Peter Lobert, Mirjam Mesak, Anaïs Mejías, Natalia Kutateladze, Noa Beinart, Mechthild Großmann

Staatsoper.TV - 23 February 2018

Ernst Krenek is one of a small number of composers to compose and actually complete a full opera using the twelve-tone system, a technique that you would think might reduce the musical forces and resources commonly at the disposal of a composer dealing with such a complex historical subject as the life and death of the 16th century Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. One need only look Verdi's Don Carlo, which opens (in some versions) with the death of Charles V and the ascension to the throne of Carlo's father Philip II to see a very different musical and dramatic enactment of the death of the same king.

Like Schoenberg's take on questions of faith and dogma in his only (uncompleted) twelve-tone opera Moses und Aron, the technique however does have a unique ability to explore those issues from an intimate and personal perspective while also considering them in the light of something more vast and infinite. Krenek's Karl V sets about doing just that, the opera taking place on the death bed of the Holy Roman Emperor as he looks back retrospectively on the personal family matters and the childhood experiences that may have had an influence on the actions taken in his more public role.

Karl V is an ambitious work, a difficult work in its subject and musical presentation. Like any work with a historical figure as its subject it inevitably must reduce a life down to a few incidents, but like the best works of this kind - Boris Godunov comes to mind - Karl V somehow captures their importance and power for that period of their lives, but at the same time it reflect them as flawed human beings who ultimately become an irrelevance with death. There's very much a sense in Karl V that Charles is all too aware of that outcome as he lies sick and dying in the monastery of San Jeronimo de Yuste.

The proximity of death focusses the mind to some extent, but the king's illness and his need to justify his actions to his maker also skews his perspective on events. It's far from an impartial, objective or impassive view on the past, but one that, since Karl has believed that he is enacting God's will to unite the world to the faith, is very much the perspective of a self-important, self-pitying, egocentric (or deus-centric if I may coin a word) man faced with his own human weaknesses and mortality. Was this all preordained? What were the signs that set him on this path?

Karl's reflections take in a number of significant events, or events that once appeared significant but now seem to have less or no less importance than his family relationships; and even those have troubling concerns. On his deathbed, he remembers his mother Joanna the Mad, finding an apple in a worm as a child and seeing in it now corruption eating through the heart of the world. That leads him to the Diet of Worms and the rise of Martin Luther, to the defeat of Francis I at the Battle of Pavia, his sister Eleonore's marriage to Francis, as a way of suing for peace, and his enrichment through Pizzaro's plundering of the riches of Central and South America.

"Are these not anecdotes conditioned by the contingent nature of transitory individuals?" his sister accuses. Is that all history amounts to? Krenek's Karl V takes in the complex nature of the individual and their place in history, in the elements of chance, fate and the volition of the individual to effect not change, to make a mark on the world, but without ever being able - up until the last minute of their lives - to know whether they actions were right or how they will be judged by history. That's a tall order, but Krenek bundles those temporal shifts into the musical structure, running line forward and then reverse. Such details might not be obvious to every listener, but - like Schoenberg's Moses und Aron - the form is meaningfully tied to the content.

Like Castellucci's 2015 production of Moses und Aron in Paris, Carlus Padrissa of La Fura dels Baus tries to find an equivalent language to express the intimate and the infinite. Visually it's stunning, as La Fura dels Baus productions usually are, the scale of it incorporating heaven, hell and everything in-between. It captures the ambition of the work and the subject abstractly without being over-elaborate, over-literal or overloading information, and without having to rely too heavily on conventional symbolism other than where it is called for. The worm in the apple that is a globe of the world and Karl's mother Juana with his dead father shown in Pietà pose both attesting to Karl's elevate view of his own importance.

But it's an importance that, notwithstanding its approaching decline into irrelevance through death, is significant and worth reflecting on. Reflections feature heavily with mirrors in the background and even the floor covered in a shallow layer of water. Projections are used, acrobats hang down from the heavens on wires in elaborate formations, every state-of-the-art theatrical effect is employed, but purposefully for a work and a subject that has layers of complexity and ambitions of scope. It's a huge collaborative effort that impresses greatly, from lighting and choreography to the musical direction of Erik Nielsen and the commanding central performance of Bo Skovhus as Karl V. The Munich regular repertory players and the chorus area also impressive, making this challenging and ambitious piece not look effortless as much as appreciative of the effort put into making this an impressive production.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Glass - Akhnaten (London, 2019)

Philip Glass - Akhnaten

English National Opera, London - 2019

Karen Kamensek, Phelim McDermott, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Rebecca Bottone, James Cleverton, Colin Judson, Zachary James, Katie Stevenson, Keel Watson, Charlotte Shaw, Hazel McBain, Rosie Lomas, Elizabeth Lynch, Martha Jones, Angharad Lyddon

The Coliseum, London - 2 March 2019

36 years after it was first performed, it's still difficult to place Philip Glass's Akhnaten alongside either traditional or contemporary opera. Where it fits in Glass's repertoire is easier to identify. Akhnaten (1983) is the third part of the composer's Portrait Trilogy of operas, following Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Satyagraha (1980), three works still very much informed by Glass's experiments with minimalism or repetitive music with gradually changing parts. By Akhnaten we also see the composer move gradually away (with changing parts) from the rigid minimalism of his earlier works to incorporate more traditional forms and instrumentation, even if it still remains largely distinct from the classical idiom.

If it's still hard then to pin-down that 'in-between' cross-over period of Glass in the early eighties musically (for me personally his most interesting, creative and indeed even highly influential period, taking in his soundtracks to Mishima and Koyaanisqatsi), the visual presentation and performance aspect of any opera is vital to better assess the quality and nature of a work, and there Akhnaten aligns a little easier with a more traditional medium, albeit still (just about) within that cross-over experimental period that makes it more interesting. Essentially Akhnaten is Grand Opera, or the minimalist equivalent of Grand Opera.

Traces of the philosophy behind the artistic experimentalism of the New York scene of the 70s still remain in Akhnaten, not least Glass's early work with theatre director Robert Wilson and dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs. It's the overall concept or underlying philosophy behind the works in the Portrait Trilogy that are important and the influence that their central figures have over modern views on science (Einstein), politics (Gandhi) and religion (Akhnaten) are too expansive and intangible to be reductively made to fit a narrative.

Einstein on the Beach is the most abstract of the trilogy, Glass, Wilson and Childs collaboratively creating an environment for the music, theatre and dance to interact to create an alternative form of musical/theatrical narrative. Satyagraha is structured very differently, built around distinct real-life incidents in Gandhi's life, tying them to his influence on Tolstoy and Martin Luther-King and setting the whole thing to a libretto sung in Sanskrit and taken from the Bhagavad Gita. By the time we get to Akhnaten, there is still no clear or traditional narrative line to follow, but there is a linear progression of Akhnaten's coronation following the death of his father Amenhotep, his marriage to Nefertiti and his foundation of a new monotheistic religion.

The setting and ceremonial aspect of the situations (funeral, wedding, religion) perhaps makes it unavoidable, but in terms of presentation and performance, Akhnaten has less to do with the experimentation that informed Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha and resembles nothing so much as Aida. There's less of an effort to fit anti-war sentiments into a romantic melodrama narrative, and yet Akhnaten does have those qualities in its own peculiar way, and it certainly achieves an impact that is commensurate with Aida. Anyone who thinks that Glass's repetitive rhythms and arpeggios are mechanical and devoid of emotional content need only listen to the love duet of Act II to see that there is an expression as deeply romantic as any of the love duets and arias of Aida and Radamès.

After his spectacular new production of Satyagraha, it was inevitable that Phelim McDermott would be the director capable of putting a strong visual and thematic stamp upon Akhnaten. It proves to be one that not only matches the setting and period of the work in an otherworldly manner, but it works along with Glass's abstract presentation of the scenes that rely on ancient Egyptian texts and inscriptions, which are used not so much for 'authenticity' as for attaining an almost spiritual or transcendental dimension. In this Akhnaten's repetitive rhythms, marching beats and building crescendos are texturally much richer than the operas that precede it.

Another important quality to the presentation is simply engaging the audience's attention in the absence of any traditional musical or dramatic narrative; the audience still needs something to keep them amused during the long repetitive instrumental or chanted choral scenes that evidently are not subtitled (and wouldn't be all that more meaningful if they were). The idea of having a framing backdrop with posed figures like moving hieroglyphics is an obvious idea, and it does look spectacular. It doesn't strive for 'naturalism' otherwise it would (and indeed has in the past) just look like Aida. McDermott's stylisations, rather like the original English premiere of the work, go for an almost science-fiction world to emphasise the mysterious alien quality of ancient Egypt.

Other tableaux scenes are equally impressive in their lighting, colouration and movement, although for the latter McDermott relies too heavily here on jugglers; it's hypnotic for a few minutes, but nearly three hours of juggling routines is stretching it a bit. Those long building instrumental passages cry out for the kind of dance choreography Lucinda Childs would have provided or the abstract mood that Robert Wilson lighting and spacial geometrics might have produced. A troupe of jugglers throwing balls in the air only goes so far and certainly doesn't engage with the spiritual dimension that the opera aspires towards.

In terms of musical and singing performances however the ENO production is right on the mark. Akhnaten's arrangements have their own challenges and it can't be easy to balance those swirling keyboard runs with brass fanfares, flute and string arrangements, and get the choral and individual singers to weave through it all. Conductor Karen Kamensek however delivered a superbly hypnotic performance that hit the dramatic ceremonial high points and brought out the human emotional undercurrents superbly. Anthony Roth Costanzo really soars, his voice pure and otherworldly in this register to this type of score and Kate Stevenson is no less incredible alongside him. Rebecca Bottone also impresses as Queen Tye, the chorus are superb. With this kind of revival Akhnaten, like the other recently revived works in the Glass Portrait Trilogy, are proving to be special works that still hold a unique place in the world of opera.

Links: English National Opera

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice (Dún Laoghaire, 2019)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice

Irish National Opera, 2019

Peter Whelan, Emma Martin, Sharon Carty, Sarah Power, Emma Nash, Dominica Williams, Fearghal Curtis, Matthew Mannion, Robyn Byrne, Stefaniw Dufresne, Javier Ferrer, Sophia Preidel

The Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire - 28 February 2019

The absolute wonder of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, the reason for its reputation as one of the greatest works of opera ever composed and the ability of the work to deeply move audiences some 350 years after it was composed, lies undoubtedly in its simplicity. Or rather its apparent simplicity since it relates to deep human feelings that connect us to myth, Gluck's work fully employing all the artistic musical, theatrical and dance elements that are the essence of opera. Refinement rather than simplicity of all those elements and how they work together was at the heart of Gluck's reformist agenda for opera, and it's in adherence to those principals that the Irish National Opera succeed in their beautifully simple but refined production.

Such indeed is the refinement and unadorned beauty of Orfeo ed Euridice and the deeper sentiments that underlie its purpose, that it can sustain all manner of interpretations. It is mythology after all. At the heart of the work is perhaps the rawest and most relatable of human emotions, those connected to love and loss, Orpheus's desire to bring his beloved wife Eurydice back from the dead practically serving as a model for Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Gluck's ability to make those sentiments behind Orpheus's dramatic/symbolic journey vividly real in musical terms lie at the heart of the work.

Unquestionably then, even though La Fura dels Baus have successfully been let loose on the work with their enhanced stage techniques, they recognised nonetheless that it was essential to forge a connection between the music/musicians and the drama. In rather more stripped back conditions, while still presenting a theatrical presentation of extraordinary beauty, director and choreographer Emma Martin likewise, but through entirely different means, succeeds in making the essence of Gluck's timeless musical moods and melodies visible on the stage in the Irish National Opera's production.

First performed last year for the Galway Festival, but taken this year on a wider provincial tour of Ireland, the venues chosen remain (for the most part) small scale, permitting an intimate closeness with the drama and the production. Indeed, my front row seat at the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire placed me practically in the 'orchestra pit', sharing a ground level space almost between the orchestra ensemble and 'stage'. Immersive theatre is nothing new, nor indeed is immersive opera, but it's quite another thing to be immersed in the same space that Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice occupies, particularly one that in every other way strives to make the work's every sentiment tangible.

Stripping back the orchestra to its essential components, Peter Whelan's arrangement and conducting of the Irish Baroque Orchestra permits the beauty of each of the instruments and the part they play in each of the scenes to stand out all the more vividly. Emma Martin's production likewise reduces the vocal ensemble down to the main roles of Orpheus, Eurydice and Amore, with Amore also part of the four-way harmonised voices of the chorus for the Mourners, Furies and Blessed Spirits. Nothing was lost with this reduction, but rather the refinement of Gluck's musical scoring only even more apparent.

Orfeo ed Euridice was of course originally intended to make use of another element of opera that in the subsequent century after its writing tended to not have such a prominent role, and that's dance. Orfeo ed Euridice is written for movement, it's not the static stand-and-sing solitary aria expressions of the requisite numbers and sentiments of baroque opera, nor is it the stop-start division of singing and ballet of the French tragedie-lyrique, but an essential integration of dance into the whole flow and pace of the work. Orfeo ed Euridice indeed has been staged purely as a dance work, but more often opera productions tend to cut the instrumental/dance passages to suit modern tastes.

As a choreographer Emma Martin however knows the value of dance in Orfeo ed Eurydice adding another dimension to the opera and bring those sentiments to life. The INO production accordingly has a four-person troupe of dancers that symmetrically balance and in a way supplement the four-part chorus, flowing and weaving thought the work like the notes of Gluck's score brought to life. They vividly express all those stages of Orpheus's grief, as much as the impassioned singing of
Sharon Carty's Orpheus himself/herself; the anger and the struggle with the Furies (even transforming into a horrifying multi-limbed creature that stalks Orpheus across the stage, wrapping him in his submission to the Blessed Spirits, standing as a barrier between this world and the unreachable other.

The superb flow and choreography extends its mood and reaches outward to take in the stage itself. It doesn't need much in the way of set dressing but everything is purposefully employed, the lighting effective for the mood, the drapes at the back of the stage and the veils wrapped around the figures drawing everything together. It's not just the choreography or even the impressive technical blocking of the singers with the dancers and the sets, it's the direction of every scene to match and express those deeper human sentiments at the heart of the work.

The qualities of the human voice are essential to that purpose and Sharon Carty (Orpheus), Sarah Power (Eurydice) and Emma Nash (Amore) made them soar with love, anger, fear and regret. The essential moral of the mythological take, which was unfortunately lost under the stage requirement of the period to present a happier ending, must also be taken into consideration. Romeo Castellucci managed to address that brilliantly in his living-death element to his production for La Monnaie, and Emma Martin also takes the reality of the nature of bereavement into account here, consigning the happy ending to a kind of postlude that reminds us that after loss, life still goes on.

Links: Irish National Opera

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Berlioz - Les Troyens (Paris, 2019)

Hector Berlioz - Les Troyens

L'Opéra national de Paris, 2019

Dmitri Tcherniakov, Philippe Jordan, Ekaterina Semenchuk, Stéphanie d'Oustrac, Brandon Jovanovich, Véronique Gens, Stéphane Degout, Cyrille Dubois, Paata Burchuladze, Sophie Claisse, Michèle Losier, Christian Helmer, Christian van Horn, Aude Extrémo

ARTE Concert - 31 January 2019

Dmitri Tcherniakov may not to everyone's taste as an opera director, but he is still highly regarded in Paris, by the director of the opera house Stéphane Lissner at least if not by the vocal traditionalists in the audience. He's certainly highly enough regarded to be given a prestigious event like the full version of Berlioz's Les Troyens on the 150th anniversary of Berlioz's death, the 350th anniversary of the Opéra de Paris and the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Bastille theatre. Whatever you think about Tcherniakov, he certainly rises to the big challenge and occasion and doesn't compromise on his own vision (playing a little safe only perhaps at La Scala with La Traviata in 2013).

The director's strength is often in harnessing and clarifying the undercurrents that drive an opera and present them in a modern way, but his direction of singers to be capable actors and persuade them to come on board with his ideas is also superb. That doesn't mean overriding the intentions of the composer, and in fact Tcherniakov's approach to Les Troyens is a measure of trust in Berlioz's work itself. It can be updated, it's not just a historical work - either in mythological or musicological terms - but a work that confronts human fears about war and terrorism on the one hand and love, healing and security on the other.

Is there anything more to Les Troyens than that? Well, of course there is. As it stands, Berlioz's masterwork doesn't need to be 'filled out', 'clarified' or 'updated', but that doesn't mean that you can't read between the lines and interpret human actions and motivations. Not everyone will like the interpretation that Tcherniakov has proposed and the professional boo-ers at the Bastille certainly don't (which makes you wonder why else they continue to go, since creative modernisation has been the case at least since Gérard Mortier's period in charge of the Paris Opera), but it's valid to interpret and see the work as more than just a grand spectacle.

Part 1 of the work, La prise de Troie, does indeed present a very different spin on Virgil's epic account of the siege of Troy, Tcherniakov placing it in a Russian or Soviet setting that is much more familiar and easier to elaborate on the underlying tensions and reality of war. He marks a strong distinction straight off between King Priam and the royal family in their wood-panelled mansion and the ordinary people fighting on the streets, taking the time with large titles to ensure that the audience know who each member of the legendary Trojan family are and what the relationship is that lies between them, while a running commentary on the developments of the coming to an end of the ten-year long siege are rolled out on breaking news TV ticker-tape reports.

Cassandra addresses her premonitions then to a crew of shocked news reporters who are expecting a more positive outlook from the royal family, which is a nice touch but it's not exactly new (Krzysztof Warlikowski did something similar with his Princess Di lookalike Alceste for Madrid in 2014). Where Tcherniakov dares to go further than most however is in projecting the imagined thoughts of the royal cortege and the elements of distrust that lie between them during the solemn ceremony for the Trojan dead. Contributing to that - much more controversially - is the suggestion that Cassandra has been abused as a child by her father Priam (perhaps accounting for her being something of an outsider), and Aeneas is seen collaborating with the Greeks (which accounts perhaps for feelings of guilt and trauma later).

In terms of spectacle and the sheer horror of the war that you expect to find overwhelming in this part of Les Troyens, the Paris production is effective on every level. Philippe Jordan finds the dark undercurrents in Berlioz's music and there's a fine cast of singers to play out these deeper undercurrents that lend it additional weight. More often associated with opéra-comique and Baroque opera, you wouldn't expect Stéphanie d'Oustrac to carry that necessary dramatic weight as Cassandra, and she does sound a little light in places, but it's a strong performance of great conviction and it's supported by the likes of Stéphane Degout as Chorèbe, Brandon Jovanovich as Énée and Véronique Gens as Hécube. It makes the fate of Troy more present. Or maybe not 'more' since Berlioz's composition has been proven to work effectively as long as it has scale, grandeur and conviction, and it certainly has all those elements, Tcherniakov's direction in no way diminishing the impact.

Which, of course is only half the story, since Les Troyens à Carthage has even more of a spin placed on it. Rather than arrive in Dido's Carthage, the displaced survivors Aeneas and his crew spend the second half of Berlioz's epic end up in a PTSD centre for victims of the war. Énée is almost catatonic from the trauma and guilt for his part in the downfall of Troy, hearing voices in his head calling 'Italie!', with only occasional moments of lucidity and spurring into action coming through group therapy role play battles and relaxation yoga sessions that bring about that "nuit d'ivresse et d'extase infinie' with Dido, who has also been dealing with loss and bereavement and is also looking to find peace.

It all perhaps takes away from the romanticism of the work in favour of psychological realism, and perhaps romanticism is actually more in keeping here for Berlioz. For a modern audience too perhaps an escape from the brutal reality of the world outside wouldn't be such a bad thing. So we really need to see the contemporary world reflected and imposed upon Les Troyens? Well that would depend on what you want to get out of the work, whether you see it (and Latin epic poetry) as having contemporary relevance, or whether it's just escapist grand opera musical entertainment and spectacle.

Tcherniakov nonetheless is successful in tapping into the undercurrents (even if he has to invent some if it to fit) and in how they are relevant to today. The spectacle is there too in La prise de Troie, even if it the glamour is undercut by Les Troyens à Carthage, but I'd argue that all the romanticism and escapism is there still in the music. Philippe Jordan is mindful of Berlioz's musical sensibilities and influences and he plays to the works melodic colours and dramatic strengths. Brandon Jovanovich and Ekaterina Semenchuk also bring a new colour to the royal couple with soft lyrical sweetness that taps into their sensitivities and their past suffering, very much humanising the characters in line with Tcherniakov's direction and purpose. After an effective La prise de Troie however, Les Troyens à Carthage becomes repetitive, lacking in ideas and consistency, its purpose increasingly distant from the grander vision of Berlioz.

Links: L'Opéra national de Paris, ARTE Concert

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Rameau - Hippolyte et Aricie (Berlin, 2018)

Jean-Philippe Rameau - Hippolyte et Aricie

Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 2018

Simon Rattle, Aletta Collins, Anna Prohaska, Magdalena Kožená, Gyula Orendt, Reinoud Van Mechelen, Peter Rose, Adriane Queiroz, Elsa Dreisig, Sarah Aristidou, Slávka Zámečníková, Serena Sáenz Molinero, Roman Trekel, Michael Smallwood, Linard Vrielink, Arttu Kataja, Jan Martiník

ARTE Concert

The tragédie lyrique operas of Lully and Rameau, since they were written for the French royal court in the 18th century, must be seen above all as grand spectacles. There are moral lessons to be imparted in their treatments of ancient Greek mythology that can still carry through, but what essentially strikes a modern audience when these works are performed is their extravagant blend of music, dance and colourful dramatic presentations that they seem to inspire. That spectacle can take many forms, from the ultra-traditional (Hippolyte et Aricie, 2012 Atys 2011) to the stylishly modern (Les Boréades, 2003),  or radically reworked (Les Indes Galantes, Bordeaux 2014) but whatever the case, the visuals must match up with the elaborate musical arrangements.

The 2018 Berlin Staatsoper production of Hippolyte et Aricie clearly doesn't go for the traditional approach of Paris 2012, and to be frank, it doesn't even go for anything recognisably contemporary like Jonathan Kent's 2013 Glyndebourne production or anything remotely naturalistic. On the other hand, there's nothing particularly naturalistic about the mythological subject and, looking back on Rameau's musical presentation of Racine's Phèdre today, there is something now otherworldly about the arrangements and the sound of the instruments themselves that, apart from Handel making them a little more familiar, is not commonly heard in the main repertoire.

Since the story revolves around Theseus's descent into Hades (following the traditional prelude of a dispute between the gods) you might at least expect there to be an otherworldly quality to the presentation, but this production very much has its own visual interpretation of those places. When you delve into such places and act outside the laws of nature - Phèdre falling in love with her husband's son Hippolyte and upsetting the order of her own marriage and Hippolyte's marriage to Aricie - well, then those consequences have far-reaching impact. That's something you can hear in the music and that's interpreted with some originality in the Berlin staging.

It certainly has extravagance and spectacle. The opening prelude is a dazzling display of mirrors and laser beams that are reflected and spread out across the auditorium of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Jupiter takes the form of a glitterball and even Phèdre is dressed in a gown of small fractured mirrors. The subsequent scene in the Underworld sees Theseus, Pluton and Tsiphone under individual coloured lights, each with their upper body bound up in a frame of interlocking circles, while dark furies shuffle around them on the stage, and the Parques (Fates) fire out superhero-like laser beams from their fists. Designer Ólafur Elíasson puts on quite a show.

So the production certainly has a distinct character of its own and is appropriately and literally dazzling as a spectacle, but it is still very much in keeping with the otherworldly character of the operatic places of mythology evoked by Rameau's elaborate rhythms and harmonies. Those aspects of the world of the immortals spills over into the 'real' world of Hippolyte and Aricie, and the production design takes this into account, allowing the dramatic impact of all this on the human characters to play out and speak for itself when Theseus returns to find his wife in a compromising situation with his son. You don't need special effects to see how he feels. Is this any way to greet someone who has just come back from the dead?

In the second half of the production Oletta Collins continues to explore whatever elements of stagecraft and choreography can best represent the underlying sentiments of Hippolyte et Aricie, never settling for anything conventional, but simplifying it to let the human emotions reassert their prominence. Sometimes that is nothing more than a Bill Viola-like projection of rippling water, but when Rameau's music steps up a gear, you get the full visual accompaniment and dancing.

It's a worthy attempt to revisit and re-envisualise Rameau, but it doesn't really make the work come alive, engage and having meaning the way that the impressive 2013 Glyndebourne production did. It's always great to hear what other performers can bring to these roles however and I think Gyula Orendt comes out as the strongest character here with his Theseus. Magdalena Kožená is not ideally suited to Phaedre or is perhaps not best suited to the more elaborate rhythms of French Baroque (even though her Gluck Orphée et Eurydice in the Paris Robert Wilson production is still a favourite of mine). Anna Prohaska and Reinoud Van Mechelen are fine as Hippolyte and Aricie, but they always feel like bland roles to me. Peter Rose is an excellent Pluto. Simon Rattle's conducting of the Freiburger Barockorchester didn't really grab me, but like most period baroque, it probably needs to be best experienced live. That perhaps goes for the production as a whole as well.

Links: Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden, ARTE Concert

Monday, 11 February 2019

Erkel - Bánk bán (Budapest 2017)

Ferenc Erkel - Bánk bán

Hungarian State Opera, Budapest - 2017

Balázs Kocsár, Attila Vidnyánszky, Marcell Bakonyi, Ildikó Komlósi, Levente Molnár, Zita Szemere, Péter Balczó, Kolos Kováts, Zsolt Haja, Lajos Geiger, Gergely Irlanda

OperaVision - 2018

There's certainly a lot of early Verdi in Bánk bán situations of romantic intrigue and betrayal set in a time of political upheaval, those operas of course reflecting the classic literary sources of the period that they are drawn from. In most cases the romantic melodrama takes precedence and overshadows what you might think are the rather more weighty matters of state and history, but as something of a national opera in Hungary, you sense that there's more justification and relevance to the personal situations that lead to rebellion against the state in Bánk bán.

If there's more historical and national relevance in Ferenc Erkel's account of this historical episode, well, we can presume that he didn't face the same pressures of censorship that Verdi was subjected to, and if the musical writing is a little more rich and varied in its musical expression than early Verdi, it should be noted that in 1861 when Bánk bán was composed, Verdi was at his peak writing Otello. Ferenc's opera still holds closely to the older formal conventions, with arias and interspersed with rousing drinking songs and rousing choruses expressing nationalistic sentiments.

As for romantic situations, well you wouldn't say that it's overblown, since that's pretty much a given, but there is a darker and more serious that develops in the court of King Endre II of Hungary around the year 1212. While Bánk is out fighting the country's wars, his wife Melinda is having to fight off the attentions of Ottó, the brother of Queen Gertrud. For his own evil ends, the courtier Biberach tells Melinda that Ottó's infatuation is only a ploy to test the fidelity of the Hungarian women. With the aid of a few potions however, he permits Otto to have his wicked way with her.

Verdi might have been writing Otello at the time, but Bánk bán's reaction when his informed of what he believes is his wife's betrayal is no less charged with thoughts of anger and revenge than the Moor, nor is Melinda's despair at what has occurred any deeper than Desdemona. But there is very much a political and national undercurrent to this situation that gives a deeper dimension to the drama. Even though it was a ploy, the test of Melinda's fidelity stands as a test of the nature of the fidelity and integrity of the Hungarian people, and it has been bitterly betrayed by, well, not to put to fine a point on it, by corrupt foreigners.

Gertrud and her brother Otto are Meranians (Germans), who have married into the Royal family, and they have been abusing their power, granting favours to friends and family while the ordinary people of Hungary have been suffering and starving. Bánk bán - a bán was a provincial governor answerable to the king - has been out fighting for his land while his family at home has been humiliated, and that cuts deeper than mere jealousy or betrayal. It's not a romantic rival that Bánk sets himself against, but a rival that threatens the rule of his country. As Bánk puts it, his only wish is that his "sacred homeland and good name remain unstained", but both are suffering while he hesitates over what action to take. "A pall hangs over my country and my honour is gone".

His big aria where he steels his resolve ends with the emotional declaration "It's beautiful to live and die for you, my sacred home, Hungary!" It doesn't get any more direct than that in terms of recognising where his true priorities lie, or rather the wonder and greatness of Bánk bán is that does actually does get even more direct than that. Having been driven to such lengths - the music and dramatic progress fully justifying his rage - Bánk confronts the queen in one of the most charged episodes I've experienced in any opera. Just for the gravity of the situation, for the impertinence of Bánk ban threatening to usurp the throne for the sake of the suffering people of his land, for the defiant stance of Gertrud before he actually kills her, aware of the consequences, it's a stunning scene.

The opera doesn't leave it there of course, but it also has the terrible fate of Melinda to consider, it has the king's rage to contend with, there are stirrings of rebellion that have been given voice by Bánk's actions, the people fed up with the abuses of the Meranians, and all of these scenes are given great musical and dramatic drive. They are performed as such also by the cast with the principal cast all demonstrating the kind of commitment and passion that is usually reserved for only the most sacred devotions, and well, what is a national opera but a kind of sacred art, and who else but the composer of Hungary's national anthem to bring it to those heights?

Attila Vidnyánszky's production of Bánk bán for the Hungarian State Opera in Budapest is excellent, if a little rough around the edges. The set designs by Oleksandr Bilozub strike a good balance between semi-period recreation of the costumes and more modern presentation in terms of using platforms and screens. A platform extends the stage out around the orchestra to give additional space for movement, but also to relate the drama more closely with the music and bring it all closer to the audience. Some of the blocking and choreography is a little random and awkward in places, as if performers have been left to fend for themselves, particularly with the entrances and exits. It's wonderfully atmospheric however, capturing all the passion, charge and drama that conductor Balázs Kocsár brings out of the orchestra.

Links: Hungarian State Opera, OperaVision

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Puccini - Madama Butterfly (London, 2017)

Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Royal Opera House, London - 2017

Antonio Pappano, Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier, Ermolela Jaho, Marcelo Puente, Scott Hendricks, Elizabeth Deshong, Carlo Bosi, Jeremy White, Yuriy Yurchuk, Emily Edmonds

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Straight off I'm sure you can think of two good reasons why you would want to watch yet another version of Madama Butterfly, this one recorded at the Royal Opera House in 2017. The first reason is that it's conducted by Antonio Pappano, who has delivered some sublime performances of Puccini at Covent Garden. The second is Ermonela Jaho and again it's primarily for her Puccini, first really coming to attention of the London audience in Suor Angelica. There's a third reason obviously, which is the opera itself which is sure to have a compelling charge with this combination of artists.

As it happens you won't be disappointed or let down by any of those expectations. What is rarer, and which you might not see at the Royal Opera House production nor expect to see, is a production that successfully explores the work in any new way or adapts its themes. No matter what else a director brings to Madama Butterfly it simply has to deliver on colour, spectacle and exoticism above all else. Much like Richard Jones' recent refresh of the Royal Opera House's La Bohème, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier keep this production relatively traditional but hopefully not too familiar, allowing it to be adaptable to the tone and themes of the work rather than simply providing pretty picture postcard imagery.

The house that Pinkerton purchases for his new Japanese bride then retains the familiar paper panelled walls of a traditional Japanese house, but they are oversized screens that when raised offer different views and backgrounds. Initially we have a period photo view of Nagasaki when Pinkerton arrives, a cherry blossom and rolling hills in a Japanese painting for Cio-Cio-San's arrival that has the same stylised feel as the Royal Opera House's Turandot, making it look like the ROH are aiming for a middle-of-the-road consistent style in their Puccini operas (and perhaps elsewhere).

The production retains the familiarity of the location, keeps the costumes traditional and sticks to the themes of culture clash and romantic ideals. The background representation and lighting however become a little more abstractly tied to the emotional undercurrents as the opera progresses. The background goes black for the stormy arrival of the Bonze and Kate Pinkerton first appears as an ominous shadow silhouetted against the screens outside. The end of Butterfly's dreams is accompanied by the falling blooms of a magnolia, again against a death black background.

As expected then Ermonela Jaho's performance is worth seeing. She doesn't always have the fullness of voice that you need for the role, but there's some lovely singing here, true passion and a strong dramatic performance, all of which combined succeed in hitting you where it hurts. Pappano is equally adept turning it on and holding back at all the right places, showing us the cracks beneath the gloss as Butterfly's ideal surrenders to the reality. And regardless of whether the story may be manipulative, there is a heightened emotional realism of the passions in Madama Butterfly that Puccini succeeds in delivering and which the production at least attempts to emulate.

Since we are enumerating good reasons why this particular production is worth watching, the next on the list would be Elizabeth Deshong. No slight on Marcelo Puente who sings Pinkerton well even though he's characterisation here is a little non-committal, but it's Elizabeth Deshong's Suzuki who really impresses, expressing everything that Cio-Cio-San is unable or unwilling to recognise and making it just as heartfelt as those revelations that eventually reach her mistress. Scott Hendricks - ouch! - is sadly well out of his comfort zone as Sharpless and it does unfortunately present a rather jarring effect in the scenes in which he appears. Carlo Bosi on the other hand is an experienced Goro, but - perhaps like the production as a whole - it's all too familiar to really allow any nuance or newness to creep in.

On Blu-ray, Madama Butterfly is a treat for the quality of the visual presentation, not least for how the lossless high resolution audio tracks allow the listener to appreciate the detail of the composition and the quality and dynamism of the musical performance. Extras include an Introduction to the opera, Pappano and Jaho in rehearsal and a Cast Gallery. Helen Greenwald recounts the history of the work's composition, its dramatic inspiration and its oriental musical influences, as well as the now familiar account of the catastrophic reception of the work at its premiere at La Scala in Milan.

Links: Royal Opera House

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Sondheim - Sweeney Todd (Belfast, 2019)

Stephen Sondheim - Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Northern Ireland Opera & Lyric Theatre, 2019

Walter Sutcliffe, Sinead Hayes, Steven Page, Julie Mullins, John Porter, Anthony Hope, Jessica Hackett, Jack Wolfe, Mark O'Regan, Richard Croxford, Elaine Hearty, Matthew Cavan, Dawn Burns, Christopher Cull, Enda Kilroy, Jolene O'Hara, Tommy Wallace

The Lyric Theatre, Belfast - 3rd February 2019

I'm facing a bit of a dilemma here, since Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd doesn't really belong in an opera blog, or at least not in my personal definition of an opera blog (which is a blogger's prerogative of course), but this is a co-production of Northern Ireland Opera with the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and I've been closely following pretty much every NI Opera production since its inauguration in 2011. Which makes the dilemma two-fold; it's not just a question of what should be covered in this blog, but also how to give credit where credit is due. If I were to review this for another outlet this would undoubtedly be a more positive review of a very competent, well-performed and entertaining music theatre production. As an NI Opera production however, this is fairly vapid material that falls far below what we have come to expect.

I've no doubt that there are practical and financial considerations that have to be taken into account, and I'm sure I couldn't underestimate to the kind of compromises have to be made and the practical decisions that have to be faced by any arts funded company. I can imagine however that serious consideration needs to be made between the viability of putting on what might appear to be an elitist obscure opera for a couple of nights to a half-filled Grand Opera House and running a three-week sold out popular show at the Lyric Theatre that will reach out to a younger if not necessarily any more socially diverse audience. I realise that these decisions have to be made, but it doesn't mean I have to like them.

Compromises have to be made in Belfast as much as with the English National Opera at the Coliseum in London; that's the economic reality in a time of reduced funding for the arts. Walter Sutcliffe's first season as director of NI Opera balanced that well however with a reduced season of works that can have popular appeal to bring in new audiences but still have artistic merit. On the one hand we had a fine production of Così Fan Tutte (not seen as often in Belfast as other Mozart operas) and a Rigoletto of impressive singing, but also a successful co-production between NI Opera and the Lyric Theatre of Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera. It's rather dispiriting however this has been downgraded this year to a line-up that consists only of a popular Sondheim musical, three performances with high ticket prices for an operetta (Die Fledermaus) and a formal dress gala concert for local big-wigs. Shockingly, Northern Ireland Opera are not producing a single opera this year.

Perhaps there are additional financial and boardroom pressures on Northern Ireland Opera, but it's a bit of a come-down from Oliver Mears' more open, diverse and adventurous tenure where we had the first ever fully staged Wagner in Belfast (The Flying Dutchman), where Richard Strauss (Salome) was programmed rather than Johann Strauss, where there were newly commissioned work from local composers (NI Opera Shorts), where you could see a work as boldly innovative and uproariously entertaining as Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest and where the cross-over works with local theatre were by Benjamin Britten (The Turn of the Screw) and Thomas Adès (Powder her Face). Bolder choices are also being made south of the border by the newly formed Irish National Opera, most recently with Duke Bluebeard's Castle and an ambitious Aida. Thank heavens too for Opera North's visits to Belfast.

A review of Sweeney Todd therefore has no meaningful place here; the work itself has little of substance or subtext, certainly not in the context of the above. Full credit however to the team for making an effort to sell this as something more interesting that it really is in the theatre programme. In the programme a Queen's University lecturer considers the rights and wrongs of a fictional character who takes revenge on society by homicidal barbering and cannibalistic culinary, while an interview with conductor Sinead Hayes points to certain operatic qualities, complexities of leitmotif and dissonance in the musical composition. The musical performance was certainly of the usual high standard from the assembled musicians, and it was superbly paced and conducted to bring all the colour and vigour out of the songs with wonderful clarity and precision.

As a theatrical performance it also more than delivered. Regardless of musical tastes and definitions of what constitutes 'quality' or 'worthy' music, Sondheim comes alive on the stage in live performance and it can even have a bit of an edge (as with the recent Assassins at the Gate Theatre in Dublin - again, more adventurous programming than Sweeney Todd). The combination of music, lighting, colour, costume and (amplified) voices creates its own magic just as effectively as any live opera production, and even at this early preview stage in the run, the production was clearly well-rehearsed and ran relatively smoothly, even with all the little compartments and doors to be managed. Particular credit should be given to Dorota Karolczak of the make-up and costume department for making this look absolutely terrific.

The singing was of the highest quality; Steven Page as Sweeney Todd, Julie Mullins as Mrs Lovett and John Porter as Anthony Hope all superb singers who are equally as good at characterisation. They were well-balanced alongside Jack Wolfe and Jessica Hackett who give the kind of fresh-voiced delivery you want from Tobias Ragg and Joanna, but there was little that about the direction to bring anything original or exciting to give this a bit more of an edge. Ultimately Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street remains a Victorian Penny Dreadful horror tale that has nothing realistic or relevant to say about life, justice or morality; it's just a colourful treatment of a bland entertainment.

Only Matthew Cavan managed to really bring some spirited individuality and unpredictability to the production (as he did also in The Threepenny Opera) as the outrageous Signor Pirelli. If Belfast's great pantomime dame May McFettridge ever calls it a day (heaven forbid!), we have a potential replacement here. I mean that as the highest compliment to the Belfast stage, but unfortunately it's not much of a compliment for Northern Ireland Opera.

Links: Northern Ireland Opera, Lyric Theatre Belfast

Monday, 28 January 2019

Benjamin - Lessons in Love and Violence (London, 2018)

George Benjamin - Lessons in Love and Violence

Royal Opera House, 2018

George Benjamin, Katie Mitchell, Stéphane Degout, Barbara Hannigan, Gyula Orendt, Peter Hoare, Samuel Boden, Jennifer France, Krisztina Szabó, Andri Björn Róbertsson

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

It's rare for a contemporary opera to quickly become a critical and popular success, although undoubtedly the legacy of Written on Skin will be determined over a longer period, but even as the earlier opera still runs and is given new productions worldwide, the pressure on George Benjamin and Martin Crimp to follow it up must have been considerable. I think it's fair to say that the response towards Lessons in Love and Violence has been cautiously positive, but I suspect its qualities will be more fully recognised in the longer term and it may even stand the test of time as another deeply thoughtful work from what is looking to be a formidable creative team.

Deeply thoughtful and considered however can work both ways, and there remains a slight coldness and calculation about the work in its Royal Opera House world premiere. Whether that's down to overworking the finer details of the structure and composition of the work on the part of Benjamin and Crimp, or whether Katie Mitchell's production doesn't do enough to breathe life into the work is a matter of interpretation, but what comes across with repeated viewing (as it did with Written on Skin) is that what initially might have felt like clinical academic coldness is actually a careful refinement of all the elements that are necessary to strip the work down to its bare essentials.

There's life to be put on old bones (which was also essentially the underlying theme of Written on Skin, opera capable of breathing life into an old historical tale like an illuminated manuscript), and in the case of Lessons in Love and Violence, it's Marlowe's Edward II that serves as the source for Martin Crimp. Lessons in Love and Violence is based on the situation (and violence) that ensues when the king's military advisor Mortimer takes offense at the favour and influence that Edward II's lover Gaveston has over the king, causing a scandal that leaves the queen Isabel in an awkward position and the nation's affairs being neglected as it slips into instability and war.

With numerous interviews in the official programme (reproduced in the DVD booklet) and YouTube videos explaining and detailing the process, there may have been too much talk done around the work, too much attention given to the back and forth labouring over structure and presentation and not enough opportunity to let the work itself breathe. Ultimately however, it's in performance that the quality of the work comes alive, although even there the intense 80 minutes without an interval really didn't give you time to breathe or take in much beyond the opera's considerable impact. The opportunity to view Lessons in Love and Violence again on its Blu-ray and DVD release shows however that its qualities are still very much in evidence and the work can certainly speak for itself on its own musical and dramatic terms.

Whether you are aware of the working methods behind the scenes or not, the resultant compactness and concision of Marlowe's drama (even though the opera uses almost nothing of the actual text of Edward II) is plainly evident in the fact that it demands the utmost attention from beginning to end for how the music and the drama operate, intersect and interact. If it reminds you at times of Pelléas et Mélisande, Wozzeck or The Turn of the Screw, it's because Lessons in Love and Violence has the same close connection between its charged drama and the psychological complexity underpinning it that is heightened by the musical and dramatic presentation.

George Benjamin's musical language might be initially difficult - there's no easy melodic line to follow, but rather fragmentary jabs, feints and punches - but the undeniable power and dramatic rightness of the music should be plainly evident. It's not just descriptive underscoring, but music that seeks to get inside the characters and the drama, filling it out, going beyond mere representation to a fuller expression of all the sentiments of love, conflict and violence on display. Whether you are able to keep up with it or not, by the time you arrive at the final sudden fall of the curtain, you will certainly feel emotionally drained from the charged and exhilarating situations that have just taken place. It needs to be followed through in that way, an intense run through of emotions in juxtaposition with one another, without an interval or pause for breath.

Lessons in Love and Violence is cinematic in that respect, achieving its impact more through the language of montage and editing than the typical stop-start operatic structures of arias, duets and choral arrangements (and accordingly, it's given a cinematic widescreen presentation here on its video recording). The work follows its own narrative drive and Katie Mitchell's production reflects that, ensuring that every single scene is pushed to its limits of expression, but even employing slow-motion effects (as with Written on Skin) when deemed necessary. Everything takes place in a single bedroom - modern opulence rather than medieval royal - that is presented from various angles, as is the drama in its reflection of perspective from each of its characters.

The performances of the cast are exceptional. French baritone Stéphane Degout sounds better than ever as the King (he's never mentioned by title as Edward II), bringing a wonderful soaring lyricism to the complexity of his relationships with Queen, lover, court and country. Barbara Hannigan brings a steely edge to Isabel, delivering barbed inflections to the text that rise to shrill heights of imperiousness and ruthlessness. Peter Hoare is terrific as Mortimer and Samuel Boden impressively assertive as he takes command later in the opera. Mitchell's production also takes account of the fact that there are other undercurrents implied and perpetuated by the 'Lessons' in the title with the presence of the king's young son and daughter visible throughout, even in the short filmed instrumental interludes between scenes.

All of this comes together in a way that is rare in opera outside of Pelléas et Mélisande, Wozzeck and The Turn of the Screw, and Lessons in Love and Violence stands up to being measured alongside those masterpieces. It's impossible not to feel the emotional depth and intensity of the work, how it deals with those traditionally operatic big themes, but in a new and vital way. While the sheer impact is undeniable, the richness of the work's construction and musical features are also likely to become more evident with repeated views and listening. As an extension and development upon their collaboration on Written on Skin, Lessons in Love and Violence will surely endure as another important work of modern opera from this creative team.

Released on Blu-ray, Lessons in Love and Violence comes across just as powerfully on screen as it did in live performance. The High Resolution LPCM and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks permit the detail and rich textures of the music, conducted by George Benjamin himself, to be fully experienced. The video transfer and editing is superb, presenting the 'film' in 'Cinemascope' widescreen, harnessing all the power of the direction and the effectiveness of Vicki Mortimer's production design, the camerawork also revealing the quality of the dramatic performances of the impressive exceptional cast. There's a short 5-minute 'Introduction' to the opera and a Cast Gallery in the extras, and Oliver Mears interviews Benjamin and Crimp in the enclosed booklet.

Links: Royal Opera House