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