Saturday 13 April 2024

Verdi - Rivoluzione e Nostalgia (Brussels, 2024)

Giuseppe Verdi - Rivoluzione e Nostalgia

La Monnaie, 2024

Carlo Goldstein, Krystian Lada, Enea Scala, Vittorio Prato, Justin Hopkins, Nino Machaidze, Gabriela Legun, Hwanjoo Chung, Scott Hendricks, Giovanni Battista Parodi, Dennis Rudge, Helena Dix, Paride Cataldo, Saténik Khourdoian

OperaVision - 29/30 March 2024

'What will remain of our time?', a man called Giuseppe ponders at the start of Rivoluzione, a two-part opera compilation of selected arias from early Verdi operas created for La Monnaie in Brussels. Well, the music of Giuseppe Verdi remains a cornerstone of the opera repertoire 150 years after his major works, suggesting that his operas still have something that speaks to us today, but what of the lesser early works? Will the ideas expressed in those works from the 'galley years' spent honing his craft still have something to say in the future. That seems to be the question that lies at the heart of La Monnaie's early Verdi project, and if the answer is not clearly resolved in the way that the project might have hoped, it certainly suggests that Verdi's early operas have qualities that ensure that they will be around much longer than Rivoluzione e Nostalgia.

Still, there is merit or at least purpose in such a project, all of the excerpts from these two back-to-back operas being selected from Verdi's first sixteen operas operas, most of which in the main are rarely performed. The reasons for the lack of new productions of these works is open to debate. You could argue an opera house has to consider the commercial aspect; why put on Alzira when you have the name familiarity of a new La Traviata or Aida to bring in the punters? This suggests the other argument that indeed the early ‘galley years’ works are inferior, but inferior to what? To later Verdi unquestionably, but on their own merits the works can be thrilling pieces of crowd-pleasing operatic drama. The quality of the musical composition and hints of the greatness of the later Verdi can be found there - as this project ultimately proves - but the plots of those works are, not to put too fine a point on it, somewhat hokey pot-boiler melodramas. The challenge for Rivoluzione e Nostalgia is whether it can cannibalise those great moments from Giovanna d’Arco, Nabucco, Stiffelio etc. and put them into a new context with a coherent plot in order for us to see their continued value and relevance.

There's an argument then for taking the works out of their original dramatically and psychologically dubious context and applying them to a newly written drama that presents the musical qualities in a better light. It's not as if this is anything new in the world of opera, which has an ancient but now not so common tradition of the pasticcio opera. I can't think of any pasticcio that draws exclusively from the work of one composer, although some lost Vivaldi works have been reconstructed from his other compositions and Rossini is well-known for cannibalising his own works to make new ones. I recall that not too long ago a ballet was made entirely of Verdi's instrumental music and overtures, undoubtedly for similar reasons to this project, ie. the music is too good to let languish. If that's the case then the idea of an early Verdi pick 'n' mix is a good one, but - again not to put too fine a point on it - unfortunately the execution fails in this La Monnaie production of Rivoluzione e Nostalgia.

It's arguable whether it's a good idea to start the first part Rivoluzione with 'Patria oppressa' (from Macbeth). You can't make a bigger statement about the proposed subject than that, and at the same time demonstrate the quality of Verdi's composition, but the new plot context for this piece doesn't really stand up to such a moving chorus. The context for it is a video sequence showing random footage of life in the late 1960's that is to be set into turmoil by conflict and war around the world, ordinary people affected by events in Vietnam and Algeria, initiating student protests in many major cities around the world, but specifically here in Italy, presumably Rome. Starting off on such a note as 'Patria oppressa' however, it is going to find it hard to sustain the momentum and build on that, and indeed instead of a struggle between the rulers of nations and their people, Rivoluzione turns its focus on a romantic tug-of-war between Laura and Carlo and Lorenzo, with her brother Giuseppe adding to the sense of outrage. With Laura a  bourgeois girl, the daughter of the chief of police falling in love with Carlo a common shipyard worker, the struggle becomes one of crossing class boundaries and accusations of being a traitor to the ideals of the proletariat.

The shortcomings of the resetting of the plot aside, there are other weaknesses in the execution of Rivoluzione. Inevitably, considering the cut-and-paste method, there is no through-composition, the cabalettas, arias and choruses drawn from the likes of Ernani, La battaglia di Legnano, I masnadieri and Luisa Miller separated by filmed segments of ponderous portentous spoken dialogue. The names of the characters of Laura and Carlo are defined by the first two arias taken from Luisa Miller ('Lo vidi e'l primo palpito' and 'Sacra la scelta è d’un' consorte'), but elsewhere names and words are subtly changed to reflect the new context, referring to the bourgeoisie and barricades (I masnadieri for example retranslated from 'brigands' to 'agitators') removing references to the diverse nationalities of the different operas.

Dancers are used to bring another element to the stage production, enlivening the stage drama with energetic modern jerky movements. They don't do much to take the heat out of Verdi's blood and thunder melodrama, but instead emphasise every single note, pushing the emotional charge of the scene far beyond its limit, certainly further than a romantic love-triangle plot between revolutionary students can sustain under the excuse that 'Il personale è politico', the private is political. Say what you like about the plots of Verdi operas, but at least they aimed for grand historical drama that merited such musical forces. The plot of this one is too slight and insignificant to bear such weight. Bizarrely - something I've never felt about Verdi operas or even any previous production - but removed from their original context, the confected love-triangle struggle feels more like a macho power struggle than the typical Verdian questions of conflict between love, family and duty.

What is indisputable however is that musically, Rivoluzione is outstanding. Nino Machaidze as Laura is sensational and Gabriela Legun as Cristina no less impressive in the supporting soprano role. Enea Scala's Carlo is a robust Verdi tenor, dramatic and lyrical, Vittorio Prato's Giuseppe and Justin Hopkins' Lorenzo less so, but capable nonetheless. When you have singers of this quality, you can admire the individual pieces from these scarcely performed Verdi operas and the passion that underlies them, even if the dramatic context in their new setting remains flawed. Across two parts totalling 5 hours of this diptych, you can imagine that the cumulative impact might be a bit much. So after the three hours of Rivoluzione I hoped for a little respite in Nostalgia.

'What will remain of our time?' Well, the question that the 1968 setting of Rivoluzione failed to establish in any significant way is explored in Nostalgia, inevitably to diminishing returns. Laura has disappeared, we later discover now dead, but there are video documents of the student days of the 'revolutionaries' who ended up betraying their cause and the revolution, accepting pay-offs and now - reuniting in a plush art gallery to view Carlo's latest barricade installation piece (which is actually rather good) - feeling somewhat guilty about their acceptance into the bourgeois world of art and commerce. There is at least some respite from the onslaught of full-throttle Verdi in Rivoluzione, and great pleasure to be found in the musical choices that include the overture from Jérusalem, an aria from Il corsaro, a romanza from I due Foscari, scenes from Macbeth and - essentially - the chorus of the Hebrew slaves 'Va pensiero' from Nabucco as a finale.

Relying on Macbeth for a large portion of Nostalgia however reveals some weaknesses in the singing. Macbeth is a bigger role than Scott Hendricks can manage, Carlo unconvincingly transforming from tenor Enea Scala into a baritone seemingly for this purpose. Helena Dix is more capable, but not convincing in the Banquet scene or the sleepwalking scene (sung bel canto style with references remaining to Banquo's ghost). Compared to the other rare Verdi operas drawn on, Macbeth is also perhaps too familiar to view in a new context. Dramatically, on the basis of being not much more than haunted by past crimes of betrayal to 'the cause' - and even then it's the banal gossip of romantic betrayal that dominates - it's not strong enough to erase memory of the original when the filmed segments between the arias and choruses fail to merge into anything that resembles a plot. Hendricks, never a Verdian baritone, I'm sorry to say fairly murders 'O vecchio cor, que batti' from I due Foscari. Only Gabriela Legun really stands out again here as Virginia, but even her 'Egli non riede ancora' from Il corsaro lacks a convincing context and emotion that a genuine plot and true characterisation might bring.

Despite the dramatic weaknesses of the diptych, its overextended length, the inconsistency of the singing and its failure to amount to a coherent opera, there is nonetheless some merit in this production of Rivoluzione e Nostalgia. Aside from reminding us that there is a treasure trove of musical richness in the rarely performed first sixteen operas of Giuseppe Verdi, it also proves that opera is not primarily about the music or the singing, but that the drama is the critical element. Without a meaningful dramatic, philosophical and human context, the singing and music alone is meaningless, or at least diminished. There are if course exceptions to any rule, just as there are exceptional productions that prove the value of many opera, including many of the early Verdi operas, thought to be lacking in substance. Just reviving any one of them (yes, even Alzira is redeemable) would have been preferable to creating Rivoluzione e Nostalgia, but as an opportunity to highlight that there is much more to Verdi than La Traviata and Aida, or indeed Don Carlos and Otello, it makes at least a semi-convincing case. 

Thursday 28 March 2024

Adès - The Exterminating Angel (Paris, 2024)

Thomas Adès - The Exterminating Angel

Opéra National de Paris, 2024

Thomas Adès, Calixto Bieito, Jacquelyn Stucker, Gloria Tronel, Hilary Summers, Claudia Boyle, Christine Rice, Amina Edris, Nicky Spence, Frédéric Antoun, Jarrett Ott, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Filipe Manu, Philippe Sly, Paul Gay, Clive Bayley, Thomas Faulkner, Ilanah Lobel-Torres

Paris Opera Play - 5th March 2024

When it comes to the films of Luis Buñuel, the ideas and sentiment behind them isn't particularly deep or complicated, but it's the surrealist treatment that distinguishes the works. You could possibly break most of them down to the filmmaker rejecting and making fun of the establishment, the bourgeoisie, the church and their perversions, but he does so in a slightly surreal way that gives them an unexpected character, and a very daring one that challenged many sacred cows. Whether it's Catherine Deneuve as a young newlywed housewife who becomes a prostitute at a high-class brothel in order to enact the deepest sexual fantasies that her young husband is unable to fulfil in Belle de Jour, the story of a nun who resists the lecherous advances of her uncle, renounces her vows and gives his estate over to homeless beggars after his death in Viridiana (including a parody of the Last Supper), some of the images and situations in his films are indelible. None more so than The Exterminating Angel.

Again the idea is a simple one where things seem to go wrong at a dinner party organised by Edmundo de Nobile and his wife Lucia after an evening at the opera. They are surprised to find that the servants are not there to collect the coats of the guests, and this initial upset seems to be the catalyst for throwing the evening into turmoil. The scene is repeated as if to suggest that if the servants, the workers, aren't there to look after them, the upper classes don't know what to do or how to function. They drop their coats on the floor and thereafter everything rapidly falls apart. Enrique drops the hors d’oeuvre ragout, and then Pablo the chief wants to go an visit his sick sister. Even though everything has been prepared, Lucia is outraged. She is going to hold these useless servants to account.

The evening and the celebration for Leticia, the opera singer they call "the Valkyrie", never seems to take off and eventually they each decide to leave. This pleases Lucia, as she intends to conduct a little affair when they go, but somehow no-one seems to be able to leave the room. Perhaps the servants aren't there to open the doors for them. Trapped in uncomfortable proximity with each other in a room they are unable to leave, all the little insecurities they have kept hidden rise to the surface and they find themselves forced to enact them. The further the evening progresses and extends into days, the tensions and pretensions intensify and soon turn from petty arguments and affairs to violence and barbarism.

Buñuel's 1962 film is wildly absurd as it is, so imagine how much more the story must be when Thomas Adès and Calixto Bieito put their stamp on the opera version of the work. The essential theme that must carry over is surely to mercilessly rip into the pretensions of the upper classes and have fun in the process. Subtlety isn't essential, the more extreme the better. Adès certainly has fun introducing strange untypical sounds and instruments like the use of the ondes martenot into the buoyant orchestration. It's as richly and creatively scored as you can imagine, and Adès himself has tremendous fun conducting the Paris Orchestra through it. Yet it is not wild, but controlled, the implication being that the guests haven't lost their minds, they are simply being extreme, or perhaps just unrestrained versions of their true selves.

As a dramatic situation, that is inevitably limited. Taking place in one room where everyone seems to be losing their mind for two hours, the point seems to be made very quickly, and it's just a matter of seeing how far they can push this and what the eventual outcome or explanation for the strange event might be. Inevitably, there is no easy answer and there are many ways of looking at the resultant chaos and the ineffective ways they try to deal with it. The image of sheep - which Calixto Bieito manages to introduce in his own way - suggests conformity and inability to think for themselves to the extent that they are unable to leave a room unless everyone else does, or it could have religious connotations, which are certainly treated with scorn by Buñuel. That is also suggested here, even though the opera version does not include Buñuel's horror in the cathedral epilogue.

Given that, the question must be whether The Exterminating Angel gains anything by being an opera. Unquestionably Adès brings something fresh to the work. Making use of a wide variety of musical instruments and arrangements, it's as musically inventive as you would expect from this composer, finding varied expression for each of the characters, and layering them together with great skill. In terms of transferring those ideas to a stage production, this must be a rare case where the plot of the opera itself has an absurd side that even surpasses what Calixto Bieito usually brings to a production. But then we are talking about Luis Buñuel here, one of the original surrealists, and - while it might not seem like it - Bieito is actually more subtle and suggestive here than the original work. It could be just that the Catalan director has found a work that fits with his own sensibility and indeed I actually would be surprised if Buñuel wasn't a major influence.

If there is one slightly different stance or slant that the opera takes, it's maybe taking the opera evening aspect of the story and making a little more of the idea of musical resolution. This is there in the original, I seem to recall, but unsurprisingly perhaps it takes on another meaning when it is seen in the context of an opera itself, the guests seemingly unable to move until the unfinished playing of Paradisi by Blanca on the piano is brought to a conclusion. As if having to acknowledge that, Adès self-references his own music trapping the guests, and scores the opera singer at a higher pitch than the others, in the same range as Ariel in his version of The Tempest. The finale then, rather than follow Buñuel's cathedral ending, has all the surviving guests emerging dazed from the room, confronting their inner selves and suggesting (in my mind anyway) that the audience do likewise. You must wonder what the audience in the expensive seats at the Bastille make of it, and if that's the only intention in bringing The Exterminating Angel to the modern opera stage, it is surely justification enough.

While occasionally it seems like (controlled) chaos on the stage, there are actually many little touches in both the music, the direction and the singing performances to keep things moving along and give the viewer much to think about. Each of the characters have their own hang-ups and ways of dealing with being locked in that reveals another aspect of the society that the original creator wants to expose and mock. The singing alone is striking enough to grab your attention. There is an exceptional cast assembled here, and each have their own distinctive part to play. It's hard to just pick out one or two in a cast that includes great performances from Nicky Spence, Christine Rice, Philippe Sly, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Paul Gay and Clive Bayley, but Jacquelyn Stucker is exceptional as Lucia di Nobile, Claudia Boyle delivers an impressive lament/lullaby late in the opera for Silvia's son Yoli and Gloria Tronel hits those stratospheric heights as the opera singer Leticia.

Sunday 24 March 2024

Wagner - Die Walküre (Brussels, 2024)

Richard Wagner - Die Walküre

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2024

Alain Altinoglu, Romeo Castellucci, Peter Wedd, Nadja Stefanoff, Ante Jerkunica, Gábor Bretz, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Ingela Brimberg, Karen Vermeiren, Tineke Van Ingelgem, Polly Leech, Lotte Verstaen, Katie Lowe, Marie-Andrée Bouchard-Lesieur, Iris van Wijnen, Christel Loetzsch

RTBF Auvio Streaming - 8th February 2024

It's hard to describe a Romeo Castellucci production in any way that makes logical or narrative sense, especially when you're only half-way though it. That's as far as we have got with his production of Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle at La Monnaie, and at this stage with Das Rheingold presented earlier this season, the most we can say after Die Walküre is that the focus is very much on tone rather than narrative. It's an approach that is designed to avoid the conventional imagery for one that marries spectacle worthy of the status of the mythology with an intent to delve deeper into the emotional and ideological nature of the work as expressed in the music. If there's a work that can sustain many layers it's Wagner's Ring and Castellucci certainly is aiming to bring a unique response and new ideas to this tetralogy of operas.

What those ideas might be however is still hard to define at this stage, but in terms of mood and character and tone it already has made a considerable impact, particularly with the musical direction under the baton of Alain Altinoglu. That tone is set straight away in Die Walküre - as it ought to be - by the opening storm that shows a Siegmund being battered against a screen bearing a faint imprint of a ring/circle by a gushing torrent of water. His predicament is clear. Less clear maybe is the colourful apparel that Hunding's wife presents him with when welcoming him unwittingly into the trap of her home, but a pacing wolf-like black dog and a shifting array of oppressive rooms, cabinets, wardrobes and furniture enclosing the two of them in tight spaces fits perfectly with the threat that this stay presents to the Walsung.

Why Hunding reposes in what looks like a confessional however is anyone's guess, the set transforming from darkness to light, the set turning minimalist with only the confessional, a bed and a fridge shifting around the open space. The sword Nothung is not buried in an ash tree but borne by or perhaps actually buried in Sieglinde. Removed, it is stored in fridge while Siegmund and Sieglinde welcome the sudden arrival of spring by burying each other in flowers and rolling around in blood, enact a baptism or kind of rebirth as brother and sister in blood. The least you can say is that stagecraft is remarkable and holds attention even if it is hard to rationalise, the shifting props and minor adjustments of lighting, smoothly and imperceptibly changing from one scene and mood into another.

If you think Act I was peculiar, Act II despite being again rather minimalist in overall approach has many more eccentric touches, too many to go through every one of them all and you'd be none the wiser even if they were described. What matters is whether it gets across the gravity and import of this lynchpin scene of this opera and debatably the whole tetralogy. What it seems to focus on is the opposition of ideals and philosophies of the opposing forces within Valhalla, or at the very least find visual ways of establishing their character. Fricke enters Valhalla in an extravagant white wedding gown with a troupe of similarly attired followers, fairly shaking with rage at the mockery Siegmund and Sieglinde have made of the sacred sacrament of marriage. She crushes some white doves while Wotan washes the head of a statue of Buddha with milk. Whether you take any deeper meaning from this or not, there is no reason why these gods should behave as ordinary mortals.

For his part, Wotan recounts his folly and his failure to Brünnhilde wearing a red blindfold with dark semi-invisible figures of his entourage waving flags that spell IDIOT behind him. Brünnhilde's steed Grane is seen as nothing more than disembodied skeletal floating lower legs, again operated by invisible extras. Brünnhilde is crushed momentarily beneath its hoof at the weight of Wotan's will and command to the Valkyrie. Act II of course is all about revisiting the past and determining the future, and it can be a little dry, so these visual theatrics can help establish the nature of what transpires, but it's hard to see that these add anything, or really understand their intent. It seems to get even sillier still when Brunhilde gives Siegmund an orange while advising him of his fate on shifting sands, all of Act II delivered in the gravest intonations, before shapeless creatures smother him. Regardess of what you make of it, musically, vocally and in terms of the tone you expect, it delivers the depth of intensity of the Act.

Likewise, Act III fires into the Ride of the Valkyrie with the same full dark intent. These are Valkyrie to truly strike terror into the soul as, dressed in black robes with helmets and shields, they drag the hairless naked bodies of fallen heroes to their final resting place in Valhalla in the enveloping bleak darkness of the stage. The final scene between Wotan and Brünnhilde is completely stripped back to black as a large white screen is lowered and tilted over them, with only a few ominous shadows rippling across on the other side of the veil behind them. There is a brief burst of flame in a circle, the shape of the ring that has become the connecting or defining element between the beginning and end of each of the two operas so far. Nothing else is needed really when Alain Altinoglu conducts the orchestra to bring out every nuance of emotion and sensitivity from the scene.

The La Monnaie Die Walküre is given a very different treatment to the one in Das Rheingold. It's a dark shadow world for the larger part of this opera, the world unformed and unstable, from the shifting furniture of Hunding's abode in Act I, the pacing wolf, the swarming figures that swallow Siegmund, the dark mounts of the Valkyrie that pass by in the background. Individually, these things might not add up to anything meaningful, but collectively they establish a specific mood, finding the necessary balance of darkness and light (admittedly more darkness than light in this work). Like Frank Castorf's extraordinary Bayreuth Ring, Castellucci is clearly not going to be restricted to a single style across this cycle, adapting to the distinct character of each of the works and the opportunities they offer. So far however it lacks the thematic rigour of Castorf's Ring and an overall concept hasn't yet emerged other than this idea of a circle or ring being a key image, which is appropriate but hardly revolutionary.

Some might expect more from Romeo Castellucci on this epic tetralogy, but so far Das Rheingold and Die Walküre have been successful in their own context and who knows whether certain visual leitmotifs might not recur in the next two works (probably not). Certainly the musical direction of Alain Altinoglu provides the necessary heft that you would expect and perhaps the intent is to let the language of the music speak more strongly here, with the visual element supporting that in a more abstract fashion. There are some interesting choices made as far as the casting goes, and I'm all for bringing new voices into the world of Wagner, but not all of them are convincing this time around.

I wasn't too keen on the trills introduced by Nadja Stefanoff's Sieglinde in Act I, but she is excellent in the subsequent acts, looking truly anguished rather than dramatically acting it as seems to be the case with Peter Wedd's Siegmund, a joyless Wehwald. Too many of the performances are operatically earnest, the movements too choreographed to show any real feelings. It seems to afflict Gábor Bretz this time around, his delivery inexpressively intoned with little emotional engagement. There is little sign of resignation you expect from Wotan in Act II or fury in Act III. Marie-Nicole Lemieux is another fine singer who was introduced to to the Wagnerian repertoire in Das Rheingold and her Fricka here is capable, her performance good but perhaps not outstanding or as commanding as you might like. For me, Ingela Brimberg's was the most impressive here, connecting deeply with the different sides of Brünnhilde, but all of the Valkyrie were formidable on a scale commensurate with the mythology of the Ring. Whether we can say that about Castellucci's direction of this Ring cycle remains yet to be seen. 

Monday 18 March 2024

Raskatov - Animal Farm (Vienna, 2024)

Alexander Raskatov - Animal Farm

Wiener Staatsoper, 2024

Alexander Soddy, Damiano Michieletto, Gennady Bezzubenkov, Wolfgang Bankl, Michael Gniffke, Andrei Popov, Stefan Astakov, Karl Laquit, Artem Krutko, Margaret Plummer, Isabel Signoret, Elena Vassilieva, Holly Flack, Daniel Jenz, Aurora Marthens, Clemens Unterreiner

Wiener Staatsoper Streaming - 5th March 2024

There is no question that George Orwell's writing has provided to be a fundamental and premonitory outlook on power, politics and society that stands up today. 1984 continues to have relevance beyond its "sell by date" and may be even more relevant now, but can the same be said for Animal Farm? Has this short but well crafted work really stood the test of time or does it remain an allegory about events around the Russian revolution and the horrors of Stalinism? Some of the aphorisms and observations of course continue to have relevance and remain in daily use, not least the sinister implications of the truth that "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others". We can still see that there are underlying behaviours that remain true today, that reflect the animal side of human nature, or just human nature as we know it.

There is good reason then for a Russian-born composer to try to make something of Animal Farm, something that brings out the contemporary relevance of the work and its application to the world of today. While the idea of a totalitarianism Communist regime posing a threat to the stability of the world and oppression of its people through the kind of language and means employed is by no means far-fetched or indeed unknown even now, there is a danger that even in the "enlightened" western democracies we can be complacent about the messages that are keenly delivered in Animal Farm, or indeed fail to see that they also apply to many aspects of the society many blindly accept or find acceptable.

Alexander Raskatov certainly isn't someone to see this from a detached perspective or as an academic exercise. Born into a Jewish family in Moscow on the day of Stalin's funeral, Raskatov has direct experience of his family being targeted and suffering under Stalin's regime. Never having read Animal Farm before - understandably it was banned in Russia - there would need to be something that resonated with the composer today, something that would speak about abuses of power in our post-Stalin, post-truth world. Looking around the world today, never mind just Russia, there is no shortage of application and relevance in Animal Farm, without the stage director needing to make any specific reference.

Perhaps then because there is no need to specifically target any one regime or political ideology, the Italian director Damiano Michieletto - who was one of the instigators of the project - retains the abstract, allegorical quality of the animal farm setting, but shifts it onto another level entirely. As if to ensure that there is no danger of anthromorphised animals making it seem like a cute fairy-tale, the production emphasises the horror of the real world application of the allegory by setting it not in a farm, but in an abattoir. Likewise the situations, the rebellion of the animals, the setting of seven commandments of the new regime, the building of the windmill and the inevitable corruption of any ideals remain in line with the themes of the book, but are given a much darker complexion by the choice of setting.

And, of course, Raskatov's music also plays a large part in contributing to the darkness of the work's operatic treatment. The libretto by Raskatov and Ian Burton updates the language to be a little more direct and crude, but only in a way that is befitting of the grimness of the situation. That is matched by the aggressive musical attack. Raskatov's closest musical influences are Schnittke and Weinberg with the importance on drawing from Russian folk music, but Animal Farm also reminds me of Shostakovich, maybe because of the subject the horror of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (and possibly because the Krzysztof Warlikowski production of it was also set in a slaughterhouse), with the surreal satire of the animals and the pushed vocalisation of language that takes on some of the characteristics of the animal noises giving it something of the slightly disturbing apocalyptic outlook of Ligeti’s Le grand macabre.

Somehow however the purpose of the work and any real point it might want to make about the world around us today fails to hit home. Part of the problem seems to be that the opera treatment just adds another level of abstraction on top of an already abstract allegorical satire. The setting of the animal farm as a slaughterhouse certainly adds darkness with the suggestion that they are all likely to meet the same fate sooner or later, but the work doesn't really gain any great nuance or detail in translation to opera. Rastakov's score doesn't succeed either in grabbing and holding your attention in order to engage with it fully. It feels detached, an exercise, remaining a fairy-tale fable, despite the best efforts of the composer to invest it with personal and universal significance. As an opera, it also feels episodic, with little opportunity to gain narrative momentum or character development, the ending or moral not at all clear or in line with the original novella.

Although it's intentional of course and part of the whole point of the work, it's also difficult to distinguish the humans from the animals. Or perhaps that's not so much the issue as finding a reason to comprehend the actions of each of them. Despite having distinct vocal ranges written for them they are thinly characterised, which is part of the problem of them being allegorical figures given animal characteristics rather than fleshed out people. It's though no fault of the singing performances, which are exceptional in an opera with a lot of principal roles. All roles are equal of course but some are more equal than others and Isabel Signoret stands out as a character as well as in her delivery of the challenging range of Muriel. Michael Gniffke also makes a strong impression as Snowball. The orchestra of the Vienna State Opera conducted by Alexander Soddy deserve credit for their handling of what is clearly a challenging score.

Despite reservations about the continuing relevance of Orwell's Animal Farm and whether it successfully translates to the stage as an opera with another level of abstraction, I suspect that the opera might have more of an impact in a live environment (I viewed it on the Vienna State Opera streaming service) and more meaningful depending on your experience of living under an oppressive political regime. I daresay, considering the current political climate and the troubling direction of elections and wars in the world today that we might find that Animal Farm still has lessons for us all.

External links: Wiener Staatsoper, Staatsoper Live

Thursday 14 March 2024

Strauss - Salome (Dublin, 2023)

Richard Strauss - Salome

Irish National Opera, 2024

Fergus Sheil, Bruno Ravella, Sinéad Campbell Wallace, Vincent Wolfsteiner, Imelda Drumm, Tómas Tómasson, Alex McKissick, Doreen Curran, Julian Close, Lukas Jakobski, Christopher Bowen, Andrew Masterson, William Pearson, Aaron O'Hare, Eoghan Desmond, Wyn Pencarreg, Eoin Foran, Kevin Neville, Leanne Fitzgerald

Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin - 12th March 2024

Although the musical and performance standards remained very high, I was left with the feeling that of late the Irish National Opera productions and musical choices were playing a little on the safe side in recent years. As I noted at the end of my review of La bohème however, the promise of Salome - one of the most controversial and groundbreaking operas of the 20th century - suggested that they were ready to take up the challenge of their adventurous earlier years and challenge the audience at the same time. There isn't much more challenging than a blood soaked woman making love to a decapitated head to the discordant notes of Strauss's thunderous finale of Salome. You should be left semi stunned at that conclusion, and sure enough, soprano Sinéad Campbell Wallace and the INO's chief musical director Fergus Sheil made sure on that account.

Thankfully however, the INO at least avoided the advance promotional material's tenuous and opportunistic attempt to portray the opera as "a royal, Succession-like power struggle". There are certainly strong opposing individual positions in Oscar Wilde's Victorian-era drama, and much that can be left open to interpretation, but drenched in decadent poetic imagery of the Symbolists, the principle power struggle in Salome is between the spiritual side of humanity and the physical, sensual side. That's indeed how it is played out in this production, the focus and attention of that internal battle played out in the exchanged between Salome and Jochanaan/John the Baptist, but Herod's intervention and position is also essential to the dynamic and that is also given due attention in the drama, the music and Bruno Ravella's direction of this production.

The struggle as it is then does not need a biblical context, and indeed the entire description of the story amounts to little more than a couple of lines in the Bible. So other than the names of the principal figures there is no visual indication that this take place in biblical Judea. The terrace of Herod's palace designed by Leslie Travers is an impressive semi dome of concrete with a semi circular array of steps leading down to a tree at the front and centre of the stage, the tree in full glorious bloom surrounded by a small circular verdant garden. Herod's guards all wear contemporary grey camouflage military uniforms and carry guns. It's a beautifully abstract set, one designed to draw focus, using bold symbolist imagery in the style of the work without being slavish to the stage directions. The whole mood that it evokes is enhanced with superb lighting and use of shadows.

Some productions of this work tend nowadays to focus on the corruption of Herod's court as a way of understanding or justifying the corrupting influence it would exert on the young woman Salome. She is clearly indulged by her stepfather/uncle and lusted after incestuously by Herod, the drama making no bones about. There is little shown of the excesses of Herod's party, which remains firmly behind a locked door (unlike the recent French production for example). In this production you have to take Salome on her own terms. She is foremost a spoilt child, bored with what conventional privileges the family's riches have to offer. She longs for forbidden fruit - one of the images used in Wilde's wild extravagant and florid writing - and like Wilde himself - the writing almost premonitory of what would come - she is willing to pay the price for stepping outside the boundaries of what is acceptable in this religious and superstitious society detached from or denying certain human impulses.

That of course is in the erotic lust that transforms into a bloodlust for the prophet Jochanaan. The production highlights the battle that rages between them, the battle between his call for her spiritual salvation from the sinful family she is part of and her struggle with her dark sexual desires. Those are amply demonstrated in their exchanges, in Salome's petulant turns between pleading and rejection, but Bruno Ravello finds other visual ways to express this and enhance it. The blossoming tree that covers the pit raised above the stage to reveal a circular platform with shallow water. More water rains down from its roots on Salome and Jochanaan, which the prophet tries to use it as a baptism, but Salome is just drenched in lust.

The Dance of the Seven Veils can and should be used to further enhance expression of sexual desire and how it can be employed, but too often it tends to be underplayed. Not so here. What is even more unusual about how this production makes use of the dance is that it is a rare occasion where Salome actually dances provocatively for Herod. Sinéad Campbell Wallace's movements feel natural and sinuous, using the whole of the stage, drawing close to and away from Herod who attempts to remove her drenched clothing. The use of shadows are also effectively used to draw and hold attention to those moves. Salome reaches the climax of the dance again splashing in the shallow water, spraying it around with her hair. It's a well-choreographed dance that makes its point at this critical juncture in the opera.

There is perhaps no deep analysis of the themes or the character of Salome that others have explored, and the work is certainly open to interesting interpretations, but leaving the work to speak for largely for itself is another option and it can be just as effective. The focus here is on the essential and the essential is the exceptionally good singing performance of Sinéad Campbell Wallace and the musical direction of Fergus Sheil conducting the INO orchestra. Campbell Wallace is every bit as impressive as should be, commanding attention in every movement, gesture and note, embodying Salome's unapologetic lust, unflinching corruption and blindness to all else but her object of desire. It is indeed a love that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Tómas Tómasson is an excellent Jochanaan, but there is a strong case for Herod being the true opposition that Salome is rebelling and testing her power against, and that is very much down to a superb performance from Vincent Wolfsteiner. Alex McKissick also made a strong impression as the young Syrian captain, Narraboth.

For me personally, the greatest pleasure was in hearing Strauss's remarkable score performed by INO orchestra under Fergus Sheil at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin. This is how you want to hear what for me is the greatest opera work of the 20th century performed. There are other many other great works, but inspired by the extraordinary subject matter, Richard Strauss was the first to push music in a new direction that permitted further breaking of conventions and taboos in music. Sheil's attention to the detail is impressive, the music by turns seductive and brutal, dark and discordant, the conductor making full use of the thunderous dynamic that Strauss employs with an orchestra of this size. Combined with the singing performances and the stage production, this Salome had all the nuance and drama that this outrageous and shocking opera demands. The INO are back on full form.

External links: Irish National Opera

Wednesday 6 March 2024

Schreker - Der singende Teufel (Bonn, 2023)

Der singende Teufel - Franz Schreker

Theater Bonn, 2023

Dirk Kaftan, Julia Burbach, Mirko Roschkowski, Anne-Fleur Werner, Tobias Schabel, Dshamilja Kaiser, Pavel Kudinov, Carl Rumstadt, Tae Hwan Yun, Boris Beletskiy, Ava Gesell, Alicia Grünwald, Wooseok Shim, Hyoungjoo Yun

OperaVision - recorded 19th May 2023

The early twentieth century operas of Franz Schreker tend to be drenched in gothic horror and symbolism, heightened with lush beguiling orchestration that does tend to date them somewhat, aligning them with the likes of Marschner's Der Vampyr than with the more experimental direction music was to take under Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School around that time. Although there is a lot of silliness and dubious psychology in the self-penned libretti of Schreker's operas, there are nonetheless deeper issues that can be found underlying the melodrama, the folk tale treatment no less a valid means of touching on fundamental human questions than Wagner's explorations of legend and mythology.

That's not to say that Schreker comes close to what Wagner achieved in his works, but there is nothing inherently wrong with the method, and it can provide interesting insights when directed with attention to the subtext. Not that you get many opportunities to see Schreker's work performed. Two major works Die Gezeichneten and Der Schatzgräber are occasionally revived, others rarely, some almost never. Schreker's legacy has been affected of course to a large extent with him being a Jewish composer banned by the Nazis as well as the changing face of music at the turn of the 20th century, but some recent revivals of those rarer works have proved the value of his work sitting alongside other largely neglected German and Austrian operas from this period, where only Richard Strauss seems to have survived beyond the shadow of Wagner and the War.

Der singende Teufel, 'The Singing Devil', is a real rarity, one of those 'almost never' works, with not even a full recorded version of the opera out there. From the opening scene, portentous in his high drama and ominous in its symbolism, the familiar characteristics of a Schreker opera from Der ferne Klang up to Irrelohe which preceded it are all there to see. In some kind of fantasy Middle Ages setting, Amandus, an organ builder, is proud of the completion of work on his latest piece. The local priest Father Kaleidos however warns him that the magic organ that was father's legacy still needs to be addressed. Created to produce heavenly music, instead the monster organ emits only unearthly demonic sounds. His father went mad, but the organ remains and must be fixed to inspire others towards God.

Meanwhile in the cave of the Priestess Alardis, a pagan gathering chooses Lilian as their emissary to challenge the authority of the church. They want her to seduce Amandus, who they consider a fool and call "the monk". Somewhat deliriously, Amandus gets caught up in the pagan parade, seeing it all as some kind of mad dream brought on by proximity to the organ, but Alardis, Lilian and a drunken knight Sir Sinbrand pose a very real threat. In the ensuing struggle, Amandus is challenged by Sinbrand to a duel as he attempts to protect Lilian. The priest rescues Amandus and urges him to use the organ to repeal the pagan attack.

Schreker's previous opera Irrelohe seemed to mark a conclusion to the composer's neo-Romantic period, Der singende Teufel moving into the post-Romantic, but although there is less extravagant orchestration, musically as well as in terms of subject matter it remains very much in the individual idiom of the composer. The Theater Bonn production emphasises the personal themes in the work with a subtle change of Amadus from an organ maker to a musician who is striving to perfect his art. Decadence being a characteristic of Schreker's work, there seems - again like Der ferne Klang - to be special pleading in the tradition of Tannhäuser for the artist being unrestricted by traditional laws and morality. The symbolism of the organ is evident and even explained at the start of Act III. "The organ is like a person fulfilling tasks, controlled and guided by the soul. The bellows correspond to the lungs, the pipes the throat ...the soul the wind that sweeps through the bellows ..." It's about the battle for the soul of man, which competing religions think is their preserve, but it is the artist who reflects the better nature of man, or the fullness of nature, his art created under the spell of his own suffering.

Although it is somewhat overheated and dubious in its philosophy, it's not the subject or the music that present difficulties with Der singende Teufel as much as the often impenetrable and nonsensical utterances of the characters in the libretto. Aside from the theme outlined above, it doesn't really have a great deal else to say. It's easily reducible to 'good versus evil', not unlike his rather more entertaining final opera Der Schmied Von Gent. What this one amounts to, with the arrival of a pilgrim at the conclusion, is a round dismissal of all religions, where a belief in God is shown to be predicated upon the furthering of their own interests. Schreker, not unlike in Irrelohe, sees only one way out, which is destroying of such dangerous and inhibiting beliefs, an eradication of the old ways. The burning of the monster organ by Lilian brings a beauteous sound.

Evidently a great deal of the success of putting on a Franz Schreker opera and dealing with its more problematic questions and ideas rests with the production and the performances. The director Julia Burbach plays to the strengths of the work, such as they are, as a colourful entertainment with dramatic conflicts in the contrasting and opposing forces of good and evil. There is still plenty of symbolism there for you to pick apart or you can just enjoy the beauty of Schreker's score and choral arrangements. The transforming of Amandus as a musician helps bring Schreker's own personal experiences into the production, making it perhaps a little more meaningful, and Burbach introduces her own symbolism with 500 empty seats forming a cage and pages of music score scattered around to reflect Schreker’s preoccupations as the artist protagonist. Dancers also bring the conflict within the music to life.

The singing is good or at least adequate for the most part. The roles of Lilian and Amadus have their challenges in terms of the size of the roles and the dramatic expression of their individual torments, but both tough central roles are performed well. Mirko Roschkowski has that high light lyrical tenor role with a little bit of steely strength that is needed for this kind of role and convinces entirely as Amandus. Anne-Fleur Werner is a little light in places but brings commitment and intensity to the role of Lilian. Tobias Schabel sings the Priest well, Pavel Kudinov is good as Sir Sinbrand, Dshamilja Kaiser a little on the weak side as Alardis, but is often set against choral singing which can be hard to rise above. It looks like Theater Bonn used stage microphones rather than radio mics for this streamed recording on OperaVision, so it would be difficult to give an accurate account of the singing, but this is definitely a good overall production of a rare Schreker work.

External links: Theater Bonn, OperaVision

Monday 26 February 2024

Bellini - Beatrice di Tenda (Paris, 2024)

Vincenzo Bellini - Beatrice di Tenda

Opéra National de Paris, 2024

Mark Wigglesworth, Peter Sellars, Tamara Wilson, Quinn Kelsey, Theresa Kronthaler, Pene Pati, Amitai Pati, Taesung Lee

Paris Opera Play - 15th February 2024

It surprises me that Beatrice di Tenda isn't a better known opera. Most of Bellini's works are revived on a semi-regular basis and his significance is hardly underestimated as an important figure in the development of Italian opera, but his works don't seem to get the attention they deserve and this one in particular is largely neglected. Why? Perhaps it's a little old fashioned for modern tastes, or perhaps the challenge of this opera is that it needs skilled singers in all the key soprano, tenor and baritone roles. It's telling the title role is defined by recordings made by the likes of Joan Sutherland, Mirella Freni and Edita Gruberova. If it's a case of needing it to be modernised a little or waiting for the right singers to come along, well, then the Paris Opera get it right with this 2024 production directed by Peter Sellars.

That's not all they get right. There's a lot more to successfully producing an opera like this and it really needs commitment, belief and passion on every level, but it also needs to be carefully pitched. Passion is at the core of the opera, but it is also surrounded in coldness and that is identified and brilliantly reflected in how the production design here contrasts with the delicacy of the playing of the exquisite melodies. It's not that the plot has a lot to offer other than romantic drama, as Italian opera thrives on that, but it's how those passions conflict with power that drive the musical drama. Bellini is masterful in his treatment of such material, no less than Verdi, Donizetti or the opera seria of Rossini, but for me the characteristic that sets Bellini apart is not just the passion, not just the sophistication of the writing, but a sense of refinement. That's fully in evidence in this lovely opera, and I think that's what the director Peter Sellars attempts to retain and reflect it in a modern light.

On the face of it the drama has little to distinguish it from many other Italian operas. Based on a historical figure, Beatrice, the Duchess of Milan, is now married to her second husband Filippo Visconti, a union that has given him great power and influence, but they now have very different ideas about how to use their position. Beatrice wishes to support social programmes, while Filippo wields his authority ruthlessly over the people. Beatrice is horrified at the impact that their marriage has inflicted on the people of the nation and considers ending the marriage, which is not easy for a woman to do. Filippo too is being advised to end the marriage, but in order to cling to the power he finds an excuse to have her reputation destroyed by accusing her of conducting an affair with the minstrel Orombello, and tortures the man into a confession.

There are a lot of familiar elements here that can be found in the historical operas of Donizetti, in Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereaux, but Bellini's opera here has a distinct character and it's the duty of director to bring that out. There is an edge to Beatrice di Tenda in a libretto doesn't hold back on the details of the violence inflicted on the people on Orombello or the cruelty of Filippo's regime, and Sellars strives to make that as hard-hitting as possible. The music might sound beautiful but it doesn't soften the darkness at the heart of the work. There is a nobility in confronting such horrors head on, never bowing, and that's what Bellini's music counters. Even Filippo in the end recognises where real power lies. Well, almost. The second concluding act of the opera consequently is extraordinary and enormously powerful. Evidently however, it's how the subject is sung by the performers is perhaps the most vital element contributing to that impact.

Bel canto is all about the singing. It's in the name and it needs to be done well or not done at all. Italian bel canto opera is not a repertoire that I have been following lately however, so few of these performers are familiar to me, but even so I can't remember hearing bel canto sung so well as it's done here. Singers and performers like this are not just there to show off the beauty of their voices, but also bring out the qualities of the music and the form, and in that respect, this is singing of the highest calibre. It's interesting too that it is American singers who shine in the main roles. Tamara Wilson's Beatrice is just phenomenal, her range impressive, her delivery and performance perfectly judged. Hawaiian born baritone Quinn Kelsey is a strong counterweight that makes Filippo a formidable opponent. No less impressive here are Theresa Kronthaler as Agnese and Pene Pati as Orombello. 

Act I consequently is impressive and immersive despite the conventionality of the plotting, while Act II is just off-the-scale brilliant, the increased intensity and emotional drama between the principal characters and their conflicting worldviews reaching almost fever pitch as they hold firmly to their beliefs and inner nature - for good and for ill. As it's Bellini, the chorus also play a large part in the swaying between these opposing positions. Like La Sonnambula, like La Straniera, they provide commentary and reaction, reflecting confusion and the horror of the people observing the troubles of high society - "Nothing escapes our eyes" -  but they have a participatory role here as well, influencing as well as being affected by what occurs. All of this not only underlines the intensity of the operatic drama, but it gives the plot considerably more weight beyond it being merely a historical royal intrigue.

Director Peter Sellars introduces a clean grand set designed by George Tsypin for La Bastille. All of the action and intrigue takes place in the palace gardens, within a low maze of hedges made of mesh steel and tall conical trees. It has a cool elegance. Costumes are modern, smart, elegant befitting the high society. Evidently there is no need to distance the drama by setting it in the original time period of 1418, but I'm not convinced that introducing laptops and mobile phones is really necessary either. When Filippo confronts Beatrice with evidence of what he sees as plotting to Beatrice's outrage as the violation of her personal secrets, he presents her with a laptop computer as evidence. Agnese can be seen later scrolling on her mobile phone doubtlessly checking how many likes she is getting on social media for her actions. It feels a little heavy-handed and doesn't really make any commentary that is worth making a point about. Window cleaners and hedge trimmers are also a distraction that add nothing to the production design.

Sellers, who incredibly has never directed an Italian opera, not even Verdi, does much more than update the production with modern technological devices. He also has some interesting things to say about the opera in an interview shown during the interval of the Paris Opera Play live broadcast of the opera. He makes a strong case for the effectiveness of the work to really touch on the horror of living under a dictatorship, about the fragility of human beings within such a regime and the possibility of them being broken. It's clearly all laid out in the libretto and in how Bellini scores it, making Beatrice di Tenda really quite revolutionary in terms of Italian opera up to that point in 1833, and unquestionably still relevant as a subject today.

Bellini's penultimate opera, I find this a much more interesting work than his more famous final opera I Puritani, but evidently a lot depends on how well individual productions are directed and sung. Sellars direction makes a strong case for the relevance in the work, Mark Wigglesworth conducts the Paris Opera orchestra with fervour, but it's the quality of the singing performances in this Paris Opera production that truly raise Beatrice di Tenda to a level of greatness.

External links: Opéra National de Paris, Paris Opera Play

Photos : © Franck Ferville/OnP