Thursday, 19 January 2023

Wagner - Götterdämmerung (Berlin, 2022)

Richard Wagner - Götterdämmerung

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin - 2022

Christian Thielemann, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Andreas Schager, Anja Kampe, Lauri Vasar, Mandy Fredrich, Mika Kares, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Violeta Urmana, Noa Beinart, Kristina Stanek, Anna Samuil, Evelin Novak, Natalia Skrycka, Anna Lapkovskaja

ARTE Concert - October 2022

To save you time - and not everyone has the endurance to last through the fourth segment of a Ring cycle - what goes for Siegfried also holds true for Götterdämmerung. There are no sudden revelations in the last part that build on what little we have been able to make of what came before in Dmitri Tcherniakov's 2022 Ring cycle for the Berlin Staatsoper. There is little that is different in style, theme, singing and musical performances. You could say that Tcherniakov has run out of ideas, but some would dispute (and it would be hard to disagree with) that he didn't really have any new ideas in the first place. The bringing down to earth of high-flown spiritual, philosophical and mythological elements in Wagner's music dramas through psychological exploration has been a feature of his Wagner productions, and indeed many of his other recent opera productions.

Götterdämmerung's opening showing a happy home and everyday domesticity before the rot sets in, has been done numerous times, not least in the just passed 2022 Bayreuth Götterdämmerung. The three Norns are wobbly bent-over old ladies, previously seen as being present in the background in the rotating passing between rooms. Perhaps the point is that they are ancient and wise, or perhaps not so wise as they can't prevent what has happened and the course that future events will take. All in all though it's a very dull prologue, lacking on any kind of drive, purpose or meaning in the context of this production, but at least consistent within it.

Also not unlike the recent Bayreuth production, Gunther (Lauri Vasar) and Gutrune (Mandy Fredrich) in Act I are styishly dressed and think themselves sophisticated, giggling and making fun of the rather square Siegfried when he turns up in his yellow pullover with elbow patches and grey blue slacks and jacket. He presents a suitably naive figure it must be said, Tcherniakov making sure you don't mistake him for anything heroic. And let's not forget that this is supposed to be taking place within a virtual reality experiment of some kind, isn't it? Is everyone else but Siegfried in on the scheme? It would appear so, Gunther playing along with the idea that this fool's cuddly toy is his horse Grane to see where the experiment will end up. Although his delusions could be dangerous. Just look at what happened to Alberich in Das Rheingold! (Johannes Martin Kränzle's shambling semi-naked figure in the prelude to Act II reminds us of that).

There is little to enliven the scene between Brünnhilde and Waltraute (long time since I've seen Violeta Urmana), who wanders into their home in a blue trenchcoat. As with Siegfried, there is a lot of pacing up and down, but Kampe and Urmana at least get across the import of Waltraute's impassioned warning to her sister about the fate of Valhalla (are we talking about the E.S.C.H.E institute?) should she fail to renounce the ring. Christian Thielemann's equally impassioned musical direction certainly helps get this across; the swirling fire leitmotif at the end of the scene heralding the arrival and menace of Siegfried and Gunther's deceit is powerfully employed. Andreas Schager is suitably threatening also in his thuggish assault as Gunther on Brünnhilde, still Siegfried in appearance, which perhaps adds to the menace.

As elsewhere, not just in the previous scenes but throughout the whole Tchernaikov version of Das Ring des Nibelungen, the subsequent prelude to Act II between Hagen and Alberich is a mixed affair. The director fails to find any interesting way to stage the dramatic scenes of confrontation in any interesting way, or indeed connect it in any meaningful way to his testing centre experiment idea, but the performances of Mika Kares and Johannes Martin Kränzle nonetheless set up very well what is at stake and the tragedy that is to ensue in the subsequent scenes.

That at least is fully realised - or at least goes someway to redeeming Tcherniakov's staging elsewhere and deliver on Götterdämmerung as an effective conclusion - in the remaining scenes in this production. Avoiding making any real connection to the stress laboratory experiments - which let's face it, have contributed very little so far - the drama of Brünnhilde revealing Siegfried's betrayal carry the full weight of Wagner's intent. Anja Kampe is excellent here, as is Kares's Hagen and Lauri Vasar's Gunter. Andreas Schager fits the bill perfectly as Siegfried, showing that attention to the characters and their reactions to this scene are critical to the charge of the scene.

This takes place in the "assembly room" of the testing centre, which stands in here for the Gibichung Hall, and for the first time, it struck me as similar to Lohengrin's playing out of tragedy and betrayal by those who would see themselves as leaders or upholders of laws as a wider act that affects/involves the public/the nation. Whether that was intended or not, it does enhance the effectiveness of the scene. I also actually liked the baseball team locker room as a stand-in for the "hunting" scene that leads to the death of Siegfried. The gossip and toxic attitudes expressed suited the context of the scene and the death scene was genuinely touching and dramatic. Likewise the mourning gathering appearance of the old lady Norns, Erda and the Wanderer sufficed as a moving substitute for the usual theatrical conclusion of conflagration and immolation.

Overall then, this was a good Das Ring des Nibelungen at the Staatsoper unter den Linden, particularly as far as the musical performance and the majority of the singing were concerned. As far as Tcherniakov's science laboratory experiment is concerned, the only worthwhile experiment here, whose results are indisputable, is the force of Wagner's music to carry mythology, narrative and opera in service of something so powerful it resists time and fashions, something capable of renewal and reexamination of its meaning which remains a remarkable piece of art and culture, something that indeed has created its own mythology around it. It's been "stress tested" again, this time by Dmitri Tcherniakov, and The Ring still endures.

Sunday, 8 January 2023

Wagner - Siegfried (Berlin, 2022)

Richard Wagner - Siegfried

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin - 2022

Christian Thielemann, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Andreas Schager, Stephan Rügamer, Michael Volle, Anja Kampe, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Peter Rose, Anna Kissjudit, Victoria Randem

ARTE Concert - October 2022

Up to this point, with Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, Dmitri Tcherniakov hasn't really revealed any compelling new insights or themes in his Berlin Staatsoper production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, which makes the prospect of what is to come in the remaining two parts feel something of a chore. Aside from the music, which can always reveal new facets and colour - and I have to say is well worth listening to under the musical direction of Christian Thielemann - it takes something creative to draw me into Siegfried. Heck, even Wagner decided he needed a break in the middle and embark on a couple of new projects before he could face going back to it. There are a few compensations in this production to make it worthwhile then, but as far as seeking to find a purpose to the cycle as a whole, there's not a great deal to grasp onto here.

Tcherniakov appears to struggle to find any way to make the exposition in the first act of Siegfried a little less tedious. If anything he makes it even more pedestrian. We remain in the same open framework of a room that is seen in the first two operas, where events/experiments are being observed by the watchful eye of Wotan, the Wanderer. Tcherniakov seems to just over-emphasise the rather heavy-handed exposition, already composed in this state by Wagner before he went back and wrote the operas for the backstory, by making Siegfried even more of a child, wearing a tracksuit in a room that is a playpen of colourful building blocks. By way of contrast, Mime and Wanderer look even more doddery old men in old man clothing, with whispy strands of remaining white hair. All of them have little to do but pace up and down.

Michael Volle of course puts heart and soul into it, but it's not enough. Andreas Schager sounds fine as Siegfried, but you get the impression that he is either pacing himself for the long haul or is not really engaged with the depiction of Siegfried he has been saddled with here. There is no forge, nothing to spark and enliven the scene, Siegfried taking a teddy bear and setting fire to the contents of a table top, before taking a sledgehammer to it and anything else within reach. It's almost like Tcherniakov is mocking the heroic fantasy of the work, but doesn't have anything useful to offer as a meaningful commentary on the content of this opera or its deeper purpose. Unless it's a willful expression of destruction of the old with the intent of building something new, including destroying old Wagnerian tropes and mannerisms in order to forge it anew, not unlike Katharina Wagner's controversial 2008 Bayreuth Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg.

That would also seem to be the intention, what little you can make of it, of his approach to the second act of Siegfried, where - reminding us that this is not reality taking place in a laboratory of some sort - we are advised that the next experiment is soon to commence. Siegfried is the subject of the experiment this time, the defeat of the 'dragon' Fafner (a demented inmate of the institution) which permits him to gain an insight into the secret hidden intentions and corruption of the older generation. (The Wanderer looks even more decrepit in this act, but still more stable than Alberich with his walking frame). He is given the opportunity to deal with them in a "realisation of unconscious desire", and clearly, he rejects their greed. Presumably though, from what we know of how events play out, he doesn't have the substance to make a better world.

Whatever you want to make of this, the second act is at least considerably more entertaining and engaging than the first act. It has a solid performance from Schager, and lovely singing from Victoria Randem as the Waldvogel, able to actually grace the stage thanks to this production's overturning of Wagner's stage directions, presumably as one of the lab assistants leading him through the path of the experiment. There is also excellent sparring between Michael Volle and Johannes Martin Kränzle as the doddery old Wanderer and Alberich. I also enjoyed what Stephan Rügamer brought to the second act as Mime, the combined singing performances along with Thielemann's musical direction ensuring that it was a livelier act than the previous one.

The third Act also gets off to a good start with a powerful scene between the aged Wanderer and Anna Kissjudit's Erda, which in the context here might be another behind-the-scenes image of Wotan discussing the project with the Erda as Project Manager. Who knows? Any desire to make an effort to make sense of this disappears when the Wanderer leads a laughing and joking Brünnhilde into a Sleep Laboratory as if to carry on the experiment between her and Siegfried. Bringing her cuddly toy Grane with her she draws flames on the glass walls with a marker. Siegfried soon gets in on the joke and he and Brünnhilde then break into laughter at the pomposity of it all, try to compose themselves and then act out the heroic romantic declamation with a twinkle in the eye and a wink.

That's all very well. We know that Tcherniakov can't possibly take the Wagnerian heroic fantasy elements seriously, as we've seen in his previous Wagner operas (Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde, Der fliegende Holländer), but this time it feels like he is mocking it without being able to offer any deeper insight into the underlying meaning in the work or find some human element worth drawing out. Admittedly Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde have far more intriguing philosophical and spiritual levels that present more opportunities for ideas to be explored, but it's as if the director is not really making any effort to make sense or provide consistency here. The silliness of the direction doesn't do Anja Kampe or Andreas Schager any favours as they struggle to make the high-flown sentiments sound meaningful, but it's still a vocal challenge that Kampe can't quite measure up to. Schager does well enough, but he is certainly tested.

Yet as absurd as it gets there are moments of sublimity to be found there, not least in the work's regretful, fearful moments, mainly between Wotan and Brünnhilde, and in the ever-intriguing score that Thielemann conducts, finding that deep seam of human feeling and impending tragedy that lies within. Dmitri Tcherniakov could surely be expected to do more with Siegfried and the Ring as a whole than merely subvert it, but perhaps in some way he is also finding or attempting to find a way to express the heart of the work without all the heroic and mythological embellishments. While there are good moments here, I'm not sure he really succeeds in whatever it is he is trying to achieve.

Links: Staatsoper unter den LindenARTE Concert

Friday, 30 December 2022

Wagner - Die Walküre (Berlin, 2022)

Richard Wagner - Die Walküre

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin - 2022

Christian Thielemann, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Robert Watson, Vida Miknevičiūtė, Mika Kares, Michael Volle, Anja Kampe, Claudia Mahnke, Christiane Kohl, Clara Nadeshdin, Anna Samuil, Michal Doron, Natalia Skrycka, Karis Tucker, Anna Lapkovskaja, Alexandra Ionis

ARTE Concert - October 2022

Das Rheingold didn't offer up too many clues as to the direction it was going to take in the remaining parts of the tetralogy, other than being very much within the familiar operatic worldview and aesthetic of director Dmitri Tcherniakov. Die Walküre is a place where worlds come together, where there is a deeper delving into the past and a relationship established between the present and the future and it's more of a test of whether a director has any ideas that he wants to take forward in the remaining parts of the work. Unfortunately, it appears that if Tcherniakov has anything more to offer, he is still keeping his cards close to his chest at this stage. 

Act I doesn't offer up much in the way of interest, either visually, in concept or in singing performances. Notionally, we are still within the human behavioural experiment laid out in Das Rheingold, the director here applying more relatable imagery to the pursuit of Siegmund as an escaped prisoner. Unfortunately Siegmund has inadvertently and unfortunately sought to seek shelter in the home of Hunding, who is a prison warder. If Das Rheingold went for the familiar Tcherniakov imagery of behavioural science and therapy in an enclosed world of high wooden walls (Carmen, Pelléas et Mélisande, Les Troyens), here the spaces are more open and exposed, like his Lulu, Hunding's home a framework of doorways in a modern house, with no sign of a sword in an ash tree. That's not a security camera though, Notung is buried up to the hilt in the ceiling.

It's not so much the modern setting that is out of place, as much as it's not entirely clear what Tcherniakov is trying to show us. It doesn't seem to relate in any meaningful way with what has come before, nor does it even seem to have any consistency within itself or in relation to the composer's original intentions. The clash with Wagner's sensibilities becomes more pronounced as the act progresses, as Siegmund and Sieglinde become enraptured in their joint destiny. It's not just that it diverges from Wagner's intentions, but it doesn't even fit in with the convict/prison officer concept. Unfortunately, the singing of Robert Watson and Vida Miknevičiūtė doesn't really make this any more convincing or give it the lift it needs.

One theme that is perhaps hinted at however is the wider idea of a surveillance society, of powers reaching into and controlling our everyday lives. This becomes more apparent when we get to Act II, but it's already suggested at the start of the opera where Wotan was seen observing what is going on from his window of office in Valhalla. It also has the benefit of blending the acts together as a way of creating a closer unity between the events in the distinct acts of this opera. Siegmund and Sieglinde run off at the start of Act II, leaving Wotan and Brünnhilde to walk through Hunding's home, unseen by the prison warder, the set rotating through to a Valhalla office room for the scene between Wotan and Fricka. Rotating shows that the actions of gods are not detached or unrelated from what is to play out, but exert control and direction towards consequences that might be unintended.

The folly of Wotan's actions are summed up in his admonishment towards Fricka in this vital Second Act that "You only grasp all that has been, whereas my mind longs to encompass what has not yet come to pass". If anything makes this feel as real, vital and foolhardy as it should be, it's Michael Volle's outstanding singing performance, but he is well matched with Claudia Mahnke's Fricka. Just as convincing is Christian Thielemann's musical direction, capturing the fluctuating moods, the depth of feeling, the import and foreboding at the heart of this act. For me the key to Die Walküre is what you can do with this scene, and there is at least a sense of purpose and urgency that comes across, even in the director's contextual setting of a business deal being hammered out between two high level executives with competing briefs.

Act III unfortunately doesn't find any real way of taking this forward. Returning to the forum of chairs where the Valkyrie are seated like junior executives talking up their gains of gathering dead heroes rather than actually doing anything. But no matter, there are still compensatory touches elsewhere. Vida Miknevičiūtė raises her game, gets in touch with Sieglinde's fate and her condition here and gives a fine performance. Anja Kampe is not quite up to the demands of Brünnhilde, a little light and airy of voice in places but plays the role sympathetically. Michael Volle more than makes up for any shortcomings in the dramaturgy for his Act III finale, conveying the depth of his displeasure with and banishment of his wayward daughter. Thielemann's direction of the Staatskapelle Berlin also lets this Act simmer and soar.

Unfortunately, the direction still feels inadequate, never really nailing down any ideas or extending the experiment concept for this Ring proposed in Das Rheingold. And even for a Die Walküre, viewed as a standalone opera, this just doesn't have the necessary impact. You might miss all the traditional scenes and spectacle of the mythology, not least the mockery of Loge's conflagration at the finale (Tcherniakov has a way of turning the intention of some works upside down - especially Wagner - and I expect more of this to come), but Michael Volle's masterclass Wotan is reason enough to be impressed with this production and still retain some expectations - if not exactly high hopes - for the remaining parts.

Links: Staatsoper unter den LindenARTE Concert

Wednesday, 28 December 2022

Wagner - Das Rheingold (Berlin, 2022)

Richard Wagner - Das Rheingold

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin - 2022

Christian Thielemann, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Michael Volle, Claudia Mahnke, Vida Miknevičiūtė, Rolando Villazón, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Lauri Vasar, Siyabonga Maqungo, Stephan Rügamer, Mika Kares, Peter Rose, Anna Kissjudit, Evelin Novak, Natalia Skrycka, Anna Lapkovskaja

ARTE Concert - October 2022

Richard Wagner's use of mythology as a means of exploring the German psyche or defining a national identity has been exploited before, notably in Hans Neuenfels' notorious Bayreuth Lohengrin, but Dmitri Tcherniakov has also used many of his productions as a way of psychoanalysing the works in question and the mindsets behind them in productions like Carmen and Les Troyens). Not everyone likes this kind of approach, but for the most part, if not always fully (see his controversial Dialogues des Carmélites), he does so while at least still respecting the deeper intent of the works. His approach to Wagner varies, often overturning expectations, and judging from the opening prologue opera of Wagner's Das Ring des Nibelungen, it looks like following a very familiar pattern and aesthetic. Whether he continues to adhere to the underlying ideas and philosophy behind the work or not remains to be seen, but I suspect that Tcherniakov will find his own meaning in the tetraology as a whole.

Not unexpectedly then, but still finding a way to surprise, the Staatsoper unter den Linden production of Das Rheingold opens in a scientific research centre, a "Stress Laboratory", where Alberich is the subject of an experiment. The dwarf appears to be undergoing something similar to a virtual reality experience, although the period is 1960s or 70s and the method and equipment is cruder, sending signals directly into the brain. Three lab assistants taking notes play the Rhinemaidens to Alberich, which does reflect in its own way how Alberich is being toyed with. Inevitably it all goes horribly wrong.

If the scientific laboratory of the first scene is unusual, the visual appearance of Valhalla at least conforms to the current Tcherniakov aesthetic of plain boardroom oak wall panelling, the stage rotating or sliding between a sequence of boardrooms, offices and a forum-like arrangement of seating that sets this Wotan up in the manner of a businessman. Or, if not a businessman, someone with a great deal of power and influence, although his power is not infinite and he has to rely on a couple of dubious characters who are less giants than 'heavies' (although they are big as well) to help him maintain an suitable home for a man of his ambition. Wotan conducts them into the marble walled boardroom to conclude, or rather renege on their business agreement.

Loge recounts the tale of the folly of Alberich, who forsook a woman's love for the sake of gold, suggesting that there might be a solution to their current predicament to be found there, not realising that the error is about to be compounded. With that as a set-up it does appear that the anti-capitalist sentiments at the heart of Wagner's major work being the key motivating and destructive force behind the fall of the gods. It's definitely not an original viewpoint, and indeed it would be hard to see how this could be developed any further than it already has been with Frank Castorf's expansive take on the subject in the Bayreuth Ring still fresh in the memory (to the horror of some).

While that does seem to be an angle that can't be ignored, it does only seem to feature as a side element, or underlying theme that is already taken as read while Tcherniakov considers on a deeper level the impact, harm and damage that this has on people (in a scientific experimental way). Perhaps. It's too early at this stage to see where it might go, but it is at least wonderful to see the little subtle powerplays and personal conflicts against others' interests play out between all of the characters in this Das Rheingold. It feels much more meaningfully presented than it might if played straight as nothing more than a dispute between immortal beings. The only thing immortal here is the fact that the behaviours seems to be consistent in human nature throughout history.

The scientific exploration or "investigation of human behavioural models in a test group" continues with the deranged Alberich in Niebelheim exerting his power in a petty manner that leads Wotan and Loge to laugh and make fun at him. They have higher ambitions but at the same time he has something that they want, and they are prepared to exploit and cheat him - again an idea that fits in with Castorf's emphasis on the exploitation of the working classes. Whether you think this all comes together into something coherent  as an allegory (even Castorf's ideas were somewhat scattershot), we perhaps don't need to take it literally. If it's just about the curse of the lust for money and power corrupts those who long for it, it makes a point, if somewhat reductively. It's too early to expect it to express much more than that in the prologue to this huge work.

What seems less in doubt in this Berlin Staatsoper Ring is the quality of the musical and singing interpretation. This Das Rhinegold at least has a mighty performance from Michael Volle as Wotan. Johannes Martin Kränzle - who has already made a great impression as Alberich in the previous Berlin Staatsoper Guy Cassiers Ring cycle (also seen in Milan) - definitely has an interesting spin to take on the character in this production. I was also very impressed with Rolando Villazón moving into the Wagner repertoire, bringing a suitably sprightly mischievousness to the role of Loge.

All the roles here seem capably filled and the music direction undertaken by Christian Thielemann following the departure of the indisposed Daniel Barenboim is fine. There is nothing leaps out in either the concept or the performances here however, it's not entirely clear where it's going, but there are some nice touches in the direction, the musical approach and in the characterisation to suggest that it will be interesting to see where this one goes.

Links: Staatsoper unter den Linden, ARTE Concert

Wednesday, 9 November 2022

David - Lalla-Roukh (Wexford, 2022)

Félicien David - Lalla-Roukh

Wexford Festival Opera, 2022

Steven White, Orpha Phelan, Gabrielle Philiponet, Pablo Bemsch, Ben McAteer, Emyr Wyn Jones, Thomas D Hopkinson, Niamh O’Sullivan, Lorcan Cranitch

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 4th November 2022

There was colour and variety in the various approaches that the different directors took to the very different kind of operas offered by Wexford Festival Opera on the mainstage this year, but Orpha Phelan's take on Félicien David's Lalla-Roukh was more colourful and more adventurous than all the others combined. Where it was perhaps more successful was in how the production rose to the meet challenges posed not just in making a rare and largely forgotten opera attractive to a modern audience, but in how it addressed the specific challenges of David's opera without apparently losing any of the essential character of the original. 

On the one hand, it needed a more sensitive approach to cultural diversity in relation to the Middle East that were somewhat lacking in the rather literal approach taken to the production of Armida - in as far as you can take any opera involving magic and dragons literally. On the other hand, the plot of Lalla-Roukh itself, an opéra-comique with long passages of dialogue and exposition between songs, is not the most involved, with not too many twists and a 'surprise' conclusion that will surprise no-one. But it would be a shame all the same to go too far and lose the essential colour and character of the Arabian Nights-like tale.

Director Orpha Phelan went for a local approach, a fantasy approach, a fairy tale approach, basically anything that would work, neglecting no opportunity to add amusing visual jokes and nice little details that might be easily overlooked. It's a risky approach as there is a danger of overloading a light opera entertainment with more that it can withstand, but with good musical direction, the usual high standard of singing and choral support, and Orpha Phelan's unerring sense of taste and balance, Félicien David's opera proved to be an absolute joy.

It was a little disconcerting though for a Middle Eastern fantasy to open in an old-fashioned Bewley's-style café called Leila O'Rourke's Tea Emporium. Outside a homeless person searches through the contents of a modern wheelie bin while inside the shop explodes with the entrance of colourful characters in fancy dress costumes where they appear to have grabbed anything to hand in a mix-and-match without worrying too much about the matching aspect. The homeless man, who finds a few leftovers from the bin, has also retrieved Thomas Moore's book from the dumper and proceeds to relate the story of Lalla Rookh, explaining the unusual nature of the colourful costumed characters as mythical creatures that accompany Lalla-Roukh on her journey to be married to the King.

Although some of the large number of foreign visitors who regularly come to Wexford understandably struggled a little with the man's broad Irish accent loaded with a plenty of colloquialisms, it proved to be an excellent way of avoiding all the talking passages that risk disrupting the flow and character of the drama. It was also very witty, with knowing winks and - still very much in character - a little more direct in the insinuations and suggestions that would seem more obvious to a modern audience. There is even one scene where the illusion being spun breaks down, as the man confronts his own past while relating the story, the look in Lalla's eyes recalling a moment that perhaps sent him on his downward trajectory. It a lovely touch, suggesting that there is a human reality behind the magical fantasy, but there's just not quite enough there to totally carry this off.

That's because for all Phelan's dressing it up, the plot is quite simple. In Act 1, Lalla-Roukh, the daughter of the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb, has been promised in marriage to the King of Bukhara. It's Lord Baskir's job to get Lalla there intacta, which means keeping her away from the troublesome minstrel that has been following the entourage and beguiling the promised wife of the king. The Act is filled with entertaining songs, none of which are necessary to drive any drama forward. That would have been done in the dialogue/recitative in the original and is taken up by the homeless book-finder narrator here.

In Act 2 Phelan reduces the back-and-forth over Lalla's constant struggle with Baskir to get out of her obligation to marry the king, leaving more room for the music and some marvellously choreographed scenes to entertain in their own right, entertainment surely being the entire point of the opera. It slips neatly then to resolution when the king is revealed to be the singer, who followed the travelling retinue in disguise to be sure that Lalla loved him as a person. It might have been a surprise only to anyone who hadn't seen a similar ruse employed a few hours earlier in the same theatre in Alma Deutscher's Cinderella.

The star of the evening in what was definitely the star opera of the Festival, Gabrielle Philiponet sang the role of Lalla-Roukh wonderfully. Having a native French singer helped, but there is a particular kind of enunciation and expression required for this kind of opéra-comique and Philiponet was perfect for this, helping retain much of the original character of Félicien David's opera. The noted Irish actor Lorcan Cranitch also fulfilled the other essential element of the opera in his turn as the narrator in an excellent performance that helped establish a certain wistful storyteller tone on the work that made it feel like something important and meaningful, while preventing it from sounding like an old-fashioned period opera. It was a superb cast all round, Pablo Bemsch excellent as the singer (rather than old-fashioned 'minstrel') Nourreddin, Ben McAteer playing up the role of the hapless Baskir wonderfully, and Niamh O’Sullivan providing fine support as Lalla's lady-in-waiting, Mirza.

Conducted by Steven White, the orchestral performance in the pit was, as ever, a delight, the music filling the lovely acoustics of the O'Reilly Theatre. The chorus did Andrew Synott proud in the ensemble and supporting roles, as well as in performance for the director, who certainly didn't make it easy for them, finding something entertaining for them all to do throughout rather than just standing around. All this was vital to the whole tone of the work, keeping everything entertaining and engaging, never for a moment giving you pause other than to laugh out loud. For me, it was a perfect end to the festival, the kind of ending that will guarantee anticipation for three more fascinating and rarely performed works already announced for the 72nd Wexford Festival 'Women & War' programme.

Tuesday, 8 November 2022

Deutscher - Cinderella (Wexford, 2022)

Alma Deutscher - Cinderella (Wexford, 2022)

Wexford Festival Opera, 2022

Andrew Synnott, Davide Gasparro, Megan O’Neill, Corina Ignat, Leah Redmond, Sarah Luttrell, Michael Bell, Peter Lidbetter, Deirdre Arratoon, Peter McCamley, Eoin Foran, William Kyle

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 4th November 2022

It probably shouldn't have come as a surprise considering the quality of the Pocket Opera elements of the Festival (Cellier's The Spectre Knight and Caruso's The Master), but I was impressed with another work that was not 'mainstage' - although it was performed in the main O'Reilly Theatre to a large audience - but part of the Wexford Factory development programme for new talent. Fairy tale operas aren't often the vehicle for greatness, although in the case of Cinderella Rossini and Massenet produced some of their best work with La Cenerentola and Cendrillon, not to mention Mozart's own fairy tale opera The Magic Flute to attest to what can be done in the field by a composer of extraordinary talent, and Alma Deutscher leans towards the latter in this youth work.

Composed at the age of 11, the was no concern about the quality of Deutscher's first opera; it's not as if her Cinderella would be performed in Vienna, Salzburg and indeed Wexford if it wasn't of a high standard, but I was very pleasantly surprised nonetheless by just how accomplished this opera was in musical character and in terms of doing something original with the concept. It's probably indeed her youth, Deutscher drawing from her own nature and character, from her experience and dreams (and talent), that allow her to put a fresh and meaningful spin on the Cinderella story. A fairy tale or a fairy tale opera is nothing without a message, and being young, it's a hopeful, optimistic and uplifting one.

Using what she knows then, Deutscher's version very cleverly couches the story within the world of musical creativity. Her Cinderella is a young composer, given drudgery tasks like copying scores by her stepmother for her two aspiring diva stepsisters to sing. Nonetheless her head is filled with melodies that take shape when she is given a book of poetry by an old lady she helps in the woods. The poetry has been written by the Prince, who handed it over to the woman looking for fuel to heat herself, assuming that he had no further need for them himself. Unusually, the Prince even has motivation in this version, being forced by his father to find a wife and carry on the family line, leaving him no more time for such frivolity.

Aside from the clever idea of matching the words of music to poetry - a much more convincing twist on a shoe fitting just one person as a way of finding the love match, although it doesn't totally reject this convention either - it's a tremendous way to celebrate the magic of opera, of art, creativity and imagination combining to generate something magical, something that has the potential to lift you out of everyday life. The music and English libretto fully live up to this ambition with witty situations and spins on the original, all beautifully arranged and melodic in chamber orchestra form. There's a lot of waltz-time music, light, happy music and romantic music; it's just a joy.

The singing was exceptionally good across every role, particularly from the two leads. The romantic leads can sometimes appear a little bland in fairy take works - even in The Magic Flute - but Cinderella and the Prince have a little more personality and character here and that was brought out with with lovely singing from Megan O’Neill and Michael Bell. Leah Redmond and Sarah Luttrell have plenty of fun with the stepsisters Griselda and Zibaldona - of course - but were almost outdone in the comic stakes by Peter Lidbetter as the King and Peter McCamley in a non-singing role as the Royal Minister. Corina Ignat as the stepmother and Deirdre Arratoon as the old lady/fairy took the remaining roles in this well-cast performance perfectly.

Cinderella is simply a charming opera and it was charmingly directed and performed. Davide Gasparro took a chance on placing it all within the context of a dream rather than a straight fairy tale, but that helped overcome the number of slightly sickly and overlong happy-ever-after scenes, the only real weakness in the opera. A little touch of realism was needed here. Or, depending on what you want from an opera, maybe not. Either way, there was a wonderful lightness of touch to the humour and the comic situations elsewhere and it fitted well with Eleonora Rossi's creative use of an all-purpose bed/stage. In every aspect, from creation to performance, this Wexford Factory production fully merited a place on the main opera stage of the National Opera House.

That lightness of touch was employed also in the musical direction of Andrew Synnott with the chamber orchestra arrangements. Synnott - who has had his own opera work performed at Wexford in recent years (Dubliners, La Cucina) - again making a strong contribution here and elsewhere in the vital choral management of the mainstage operas during the Festival. Everything was kept simple, every note and gesture aiming to engage and entertain. There was some lovely comic interplay, the witty dialogue was delivered well, every character made an impression. If the intention was to demonstrate the power and the beauty of opera through the marriage of music and words, Cinderella made a convincing case for itself.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera

Monday, 7 November 2022

Halévy - La Tempesta (Wexford, 2022)

Fromental Halévy - La Tempesta

Wexford Festival Opera, 2022

Francesco Cilluffo, Roberto Catalano, Nikolay Zemlianskikh, Hila Baggio, Giorgi Manoshvili, Giulio Pelligra, Jade Phoenix, Rory Musgrave, Richard Shaffrey, Gianluca Moro, Emma Jüngling, Dan D'Souza

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 3rd November 2022

You never know if you might discover an unknown gem at Wexford and with Fromental Halévy it could go either way. On the one hand he can provide an interesting work like La Juive, on the other hand something like Clari isn't likely to improve with age. His grand opéra version of Shakespeare's The Tempest it has to be said, turns out to be, at best, serviceable. That's not exactly high praise, but then few operatic adaptations of Shakespeare's plays come anywhere near to the level required and an unknown work from Halévy - despite being a fine composer for his time - isn't likely to come up with any musical equivalent for the noises, sounds and sweet airs of Shakespeare's late work on the poetic contemplation on his craft. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be attempted (Wikipedia notes that at least forty-six operas or semi-operas based on The Tempest exist) and often such works can still surprise when revived here at Wexford. La Tempesta is at least given a vigorous shake and a worthy hearing that drops out a few points of interest.

Like most adaptations of Shakespeare to opera, the play itself is shaken up so much that it loses a lot of its original character, purpose and poetry. You basically have to forget Shakespeare or just see his play as a starting point for a fresh interpretation of the story. All the more so since Halévy is working in the field of grand opéra here and restricted to some degree by the conventions of the form. Strangely however, or perhaps mercifully, it is not a five-act grand opera, there are no ballet scenes and the libretto is in Italian - the libretto commissioned as such for London theatre - rather than French as you would have expected. With the drunken Stephano included, there is at least a good excuse for the obligatory drinking song.

There are no new characters added as some opera adaptations have done - it's not wise to mess too much with the Bard on his home soil - but one notable 'addition' is Sycorax or Sicorace, the witch who formerly presided over the island, mother of Caliban. She is not present in Shakespeare's play by the time Prospero has been long exiled there, wresting control and imprisoning the witch in a rock, but she is included in La Tempesta, at least in voice. There is an inventive scene where Sicorace advises her son Caliban to help both of them break free from the power of Prospero and Ariel, directing him to a flower whose petals can grant the owner three wishes. Caliban of course is such a villain that he refuses to help his own mother and rescue her from her captivity, and instead uses the powers for his own pleasure.

Here, as they often do in theatre productions of The Tempest, Caliban and Ariel tend to overshadow the rather dull naive romantic situation between Miranda and Ferdinand, as well as the power games played by Prospero and the older shipwrecked nobles of Naples. Or perhaps not so much overshadow as extend the range, a double act that take high and low contrasting positions on either side of - or perhaps beyond - the familiar scale of human nature. Ariel is a spiritual creature, lyrical and magical, aspiring to higher sense of order and associated musically and singing voice with high notes. Caliban is low and dark, unthinking and uncaring about anything other than his own base instincts.

Other than the voice range however, Halévy doesn't bring quite the same kind of musical creativity to La Tempesta that Shakespeare brings to his poetic imagining and representation of a world where such capabilities exist in all their fearsome richness. Roberto Catalano's presentation of the work as director for this Wexford Festival Opera production attempts to fill that out a little, representing the unseen magic and spirits on the enchanted island as figures in dark clothing that accompany, observe and occasionally intervene in the drama, compensating to some degree for the dearth of musical creativity that should lift the story into other realms.

Having said that, you couldn't ask for a better musical interpretation that draws the full potential out of Halévy's score than you get here from musical director and conductor, Francesco Cilluffo. The score is fairly attacked by the orchestra to play up all the range and impact of the grand opéra, this one all the better for its lack of indulgences. There is also some fine singing to enjoy, Giorgi Manoshvili's Caliban taking honours as far as I was concerned, alongside Jade Phoenix as an excellent Ariel. Nikolay Zemlianskikh is a fine Prospero, although the character is rather bland in Halévy's version. Hila Baggio's singing was a little on the light side, but she shone with some fine coloratura. Giulio Pelligra bravely (hopefully not unwisely) took to the stage as Ferdinand despite being noticeably unwell.

No-one can say that Wexford didn't give La Tempesta a fair hearing and showing. Emanuele Sinisi's sets worked alongside Catalano's direction to enhance the score and libretto as far as possible, finding their own way of getting the magic of the enchanted island setting across. The opening scene of the storm that brings down the King of Naples' ship was dramatic and yet not exactly as you might expect it to be staged, with magical figures of the chorus in black visiting the beds of the King and his crew and wrapping them in black binbags. With bricks and a broken wall with 'Nostalgia' engraved on it, a huge head statue that seemed to just be randomly left there (almost like something parodied in Viva la Diva at Buxton this summer), the production nonetheless captured the grandeur of the score and found its own ways of placing it in a magical setting.

Much as you shouldn't and much as you might try, it's hard not to set Shakespeare's and Halévy's versions of The Tempest side-by-side and La Tempesta inevitably suffers from the comparison. On its own terms, taking into account the changes that have to be employed in adapting any work and operate within the musical conventions of the time, it is possible to enjoy the work and appreciate its message of putting aside our instinctive impulses and embracing nature, reconciliation and balance. There is balance and measure in Halévy's score at least and plenty to enjoy in the singing and musical interpretation, as well as the fine staging of this rare work at Wexford.