Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Verdi - Aida (Paris, 2021)

Giuseppe Verdi - Aida

Opéra national de Paris, 2021

Michele Mariotti, Lotte de Beer, Ksenia Dudnikova, Sondra Radvanovsky, Jonas Kaufmann, Roberta Mantegna, Ludovic Tézier, Soloman Howard, Dmitry Belosselskiy, Alessandro Liberatore

ARTE Concert - 18 February 2021

It would be a shame to ever get tired of Aida, as it is undoubtedly a supreme work of opera from a great composer reaching the pinnacle of his craft, but I could do without ever seeing another idealised ancient Egyptian setting and ceremonial procession. There's nothing inherently wrong with that it's just I like to see something that makes you think a little deeper about what the opera is about. And from the last few productions I've seen, the opera is surprisingly adaptable to draw out the work's themes, which are far as Verdi is concerned, is a large scale attack on war and religion and the impact of them on individual human lives.

There's a hint in the period and the museum setting of this Paris production that the director Lotte de Beer wants to draw out the issue of colonialism. The opera is updated here - thank goodness - to the Italian Risorgimento, a more meaningful period at least as far as Verdi was concerned. And there's no question that the underlying force of the work lies in such a context. Much as La Traviata gains its true strength from the sense of burning injustice towards women in society, Aida shows that there's a human reality and cost to war. It diminishes the power of the work if it is merely presented as a glamorous grand opera spectacle.

The Paris production opens with Radamès looking at a mummy-like Aida in a display case at a museum as he reflects on conflicted feelings of love for country and fighting for it in a war. The mummy Aida comes to life then as a guiding spirit - or something like that - in his life. Amneris then acts as the other side of this, his conflicted feelings of betrayal of his obligations to his own country. The other underlying themes and sentiments relating to war, religion and colonialism are similarly brought out in other exhibits from other cultures in glass cases. One of the cases contains a skull, the connotations of which are fairly obvious, even as Radamès as newly elected commander in arms anoints it with blood.

Whether you buy into this idea or not, the change of perspective - to say nothing of the beautiful set and costume design - at least serves to make this an attractive and fresh take on an opera whose themes are too often buried in convention and played purely for grand opera spectacle. The centrepiece victory march - often the most problematic for any director wishing to undercut the triumphalism of war - is presented not without some irony as a series of exhibition tableaux of classic paintings put on at the "museum". It references and recreates scenes of Napoleon, the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, Delacroix's Liberty and other triumphal poses through the ages that could be said to glorify or idealise war.

It's a mark of how good the production is that it hits home effectively not just in the traditional big numbers and famous arias, but in the more human moments that are just as crucial such as the plight of the Ethiopian prisoners and Aida's recognition of her father. What also becomes evident - and Ksenia Dudnikova has much to contribute to this - is the other triumphant victory of Amneris over Aida in gaining the promise of marriage to Radamès. Verdi's ensemble writing for this is astonishing, gathering up all the conflicting desires and combining them with the inhuman treatment of prisoners of war to make this scene as forceful as any other in this work, the work of a complete master.

But why the puppets? This would have been a great production but for the dumb choice of using puppets for Aida and Amonasro. Life size puppets are not uncommon in opera productions, but they are rarely put to any meaningful use. In a Madama Butterfly, you could see some sense of purpose in Cio-Cio San being manipulated and treated like a doll, a plaything. Puppets have been used in Weber's Oberon as an impressive spectacle for a fairy-tale opera, but they can be superfluous to The Magic Flute. Other than to prevent singers 'blacking up' I can't for the life of me understand why Lotte de Beer went with the crude fossilised puppets for Aida. With three operators and Sandra Radvanovsky all on the stage for Aida, it's a terrible distraction. Add another two for Amomasro's half puppet and it over-complicates important direct scenes. Radvanovsky and Tézier don't seem to know whether they should be singing to each other or the puppets, and the camera isn't quite sure who to follow either. Perhaps worse, Jonas Kaufmann even has to endure the embarrassing situation of getting intimate with a puppet, and looks like he is being attacked by a gang.

As a human Aida, Sandra Radvanovsky is good. The high register occasionally pushes her out of comfort zone, thinning out to near inaudibility in some passages, but she brings character and depth of feeling to the work. It's a shame that she has to compete with a puppet and puppet handlers. The Uzbekistan mezzo-soprano Ksenia Dudnikova is just superb as Amneris. She handles the singing requirements more than capably, but just as importantly she captures the weak human side of Amneris as well as her regal imperiousness. Aida is an opera that is there for the taking by an Amneris of sufficient quality - her emotional and musical journey is a fascinating one - and I read somewhere that Verdi even considered calling the opera Amneris at one point. She may not yet be the ideal Amneris but Dudnikova makes her character human and as far as I'm concerned steals the show.

In another time that might have been the case for Jonas Kaufmann, but I have to say he is making less of an impression now with each new performance. Where once he was commanding, he now feels disengaged from the character and looks like he is going through the motions. The voice isn't quite as controlled and stable as it once was either, his diction lacks clarity and despite the loud delivery there's no real strength or volume there. I may be nit-picking and expecting too much because in the moments when he needs to be convincing, he is still very good. Amanasro is not a major role in this opera, but it counts and it's always a joy to hear a great Verdi baritone like Ludovic Tézier, who carries on regardless of the puppet distraction.

Some operas work better with the lack of an audience than others, but it may be something we have to get used to for a while yet. Broadcast live streaming from Paris, conducted by Michele Mariotti, this was as good a performance of Aida as any I've heard. The Paris Opera orchestra sound superb here, and despite the puppets and some weaknesses in the singing - the whole thing is redeemed to a large extent by the musical performance and Ksenia Dudnikova's Amneris - Lotte de Beer's production does succeed in allowing the quality of the opera and the purpose behind it to be brought out, allowing Aida to impress on it's own musical terms rather than as a mere spectacle.

Links: Opéra national de Paris, ARTE Concert

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Weber - Der Freischütz (Munich, 2021)

Carl Maria von Weber - Der Freischütz

Bayerische Staaatsoper, Munich 2021

Antonello Manacorda, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Golda Schultz, Anna Prohaska, Kyle Ketelsen, Pavel Černoch, Boris Prýgl, Bálint Szabó, Tareq Nazm, Milan Siljanov, Eliza Boom, Sarah Gilford, Daria Proszek, Yajie Zhang

StaatsoperTV Live - 13 February 2021

One sure thing you can count on with an opera production by Dmitri Tcherniakov is that it's never going to be short of talking points and in some cases (Dialogues des Carmélites) downright controversy. Tcherniakov is still the only opera director I know to have had one of his works actually banned by the courts on the objection of the estate of the work's original author for subverting the true intentions of the work. You will definitely question whether he is true to the spirit of Romanticism in his setting of Weber's Der Freischütz in the executive room of the owner of a large corporation.

Furthermore, rather than opening the opera with a traditional shooting contest Tcherniakov has the competitors being urged to train a gun on and take down an unsuspecting member of the public from a window vantage point high on the office block of businessman Lord Kuno. Sure, you expect a modern director to find a new way to express the intentions of an old fashioned opera (albeit one of the most important in the history of German opera) but does this really conform to the original intentions and meaning of the original? Is Tcherniakov not again just seeking to be controversial by overturning and subverting a reactionary agenda?

For Tcherniakov, evidently the idea of a work that extols any kind of nationalist sentiment, superstition, romanticism or dealings with magic can't possibly be played straight to a contemporary audience and have the same impact as it might have had for its original audience. On the other hand there are deeper human qualities brought out in Weber's opera, and likewise Tcherniakov's intention is not to subvert the work, but use a similar exaggeration and shock factor to highlight an underlying idea. How far would someone go to impress the boss and marry into an influential family?

Well one thing you don't want to do is strike up a deal with the devil, or in the case of this production, get too friendly with and take the advice of the office weirdo, Kaspar. What he really does is encourages Max to pull the trigger that will open up his future destiny. He seems powerful and in control, but has strange ideas and hears voices and seems to be possessed, conversing with a split personality that he calls Samiel. He's also a bit of a gun freak. Too late, Max worries what he has got himself into and he has good reason to be concerned when he agrees to follow Kaspar to Wolf's Glen.

It does take a little twisting of the narrative to make this work, and where some might have more of an objection is in the director constructing his own narrative to put it into a quite different context from the original. In the gaps between scenes and in instrumental passages, Tcherniakov inserts subtitles that enter into the mind of the people involved and even creates a new narrative that you would think adds little, such as Agathe having previously been in a same-sex relationship with Ännchen, who dresses in a masculine if somewhat dandyish fashion. His take on the shock conclusion of the Hermit's forgiveness being a mere delusion and Agathe indeed being a victim of the magic bullet, is like Carmélites revisionism again, but it's enormously effective and appropriate here.

The more Romantic outlook on Der Freischütz would be the question of how far you would go for love when the path of virtue is the only road to salvation from the dark forces in the world, but Dmitri Tcherniakov's take on it as ambition and social climbing corrupting the soul can sit alongside that. You can debate whether that really gets under the skin of what the opera is all about, but there's no doubt - as is always the case I find - that he fully brings dramatic power and conviction to whatever he works on. If you didn't already know what a masterpiece Der Freischütz is, you would definitely feel it from the treatment here.

It also helps that the opera is played beautifully with Antonello Manacorda conducting the Bayerisches Staastorchester and there are some excellent singing performances. Golda Schultz in particular is impressive as Agathe and Pavel Černoch perfect as the rather unfortunate Max who falls under the spell as a wonderfully deranged Kyle Ketelsen as Kaspar/Samiel. It's also a very handsome production as most of Elena Zaytseva designs are for Dmitri Tcherniakov. In his latest mode of using elegant, tasteful wooden panel lined rooms to satirise middle- and upper-class luxury homes and offices (La Traviata, Tristan und Isolde, Pelléas et Mélisande), they could be showcase exhibits for interior design. In every respect, Tcherniakov's aim is perfect and his shot unerringly finds its true target.

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Wagner - Sonnenflammen (Bayreuth, 2020)

Siegfried Wagner - Sonnenflammen (Bayreuth, 2020)

PPP Music Theatre Ensemble, Munich

Reichshof Kulturbühne Bayreuth - August 2020 

Ulrich Laykam, Peter P. Pachl, Uli Bützer, Rebecca Broberg, Giorgio Valenta, Steven Scheschareg, Dirk Mestmacher, William Wallace, Julia Reznik, Maarja Purga, Robert Fendl, Xenia Galanova, Reuben Scott

Marco Polo - DVD

The recording and release of any of the neglected operas by Siegfried Wagner, the son of Richard Wagner, is certain to be of great interest, and the mere fact that someone has gone to the effort to actually stage one of the works is admirable and makes this worthy of attention. It has to be said however that this Marco Polo DVD release of Sonnenflammen at Bayreuth leaves something, or more than a few things, to be desired. For all that is lacking in this production, it does nonetheless prove to be a worthwhile experience.

That perhaps still sounds a little harsh, but it is necessary to adjust expectations, as this PPP Music Theatre Ensemble production lacks the high production values that we more typically see on the main stage at Bayreuth for one of Siegfried's father's works. And indeed it lacks the production values that we would see on a typical DVD or Blu-ray release. Perhaps what most would see as the most significant shortcoming of this production however is the total absence of a live orchestra.

Needs must in Covid times, and opera houses all over Europe are adjusting to the new reality of live performance in restricted conditions, but I must admit I've never come across a digital orchestra used in a live environment before. The music here is performed by the Bayreuth Digital Orchestra, which is a computer derived reproduction of an orchestra using the Sibelius digital notation software. It doesn't seems to be an ideal way to be introduced to the music of Siegfried Wagner, but it's not entirely without human input and whatever your principled objection might be to the lack of human insight and interpretation brought to performance of the score, in practice it appears to give a reasonably accurate account of the music.

It's not as if the score is fed into a computer and the resulting music fed out, as the programming is managed by conductor and music director Ulrich Laykam, who sets the tempo and adjusts the instruments and sections much I imagine as he would a live orchestra. It creates a reasonable approximation of a full orchestral performance, but personally, with it being very much in the same neo-Romantic style, it produces a sound that for me is similar to that achieved by the symphonic prog rock band The Enid.

It's a comparison that probably does no favours to either The Enid or Siegfried Wagner, the latter's music inevitably closer to the idiom of his father in scope and complexity, or perhaps closer to the post-Wagner school of Austrian and German composers like Walter Braunfels, Franz Schreker and of course, Richard Strauss. Like some of the work of those composers, the drama of Sonnenflammen, Siegfried Wagner's eighth opera, composed around 1912 and first performed just days before the official end of WWI, can be seen to reflect the troubling nature of events in Germany around that time.

Sonnenflammen is set in 13th century Byzantium during the time of the Fourth Crusade, it depicts the fall of the Empire of Alexios as Constantinople is destroyed, set aflame in 1204. The three principal figures in the work are the Emperor Alexios, the knight Fridolin, and Iris the daughter of the court jester Gomella. Like traditional historical operas there is a romantic love triangle situation here that heightens the passions of the drama. Alexios is pursuing Iris, much to the disapproval of Gomella, and the Empress Irene, who eventually commits suicide because of it. Iris is also adored by Frodolin, but since he has renounced the violence of the Crusades, she doesn't see him as sufficiently heroic, until it is too late.

Siegfried Wagner's perspective on the romantic hero warrior is quite different from that of his father, and the differences are interesting. I suppose Siegfried (in Richard Wagner's The Ring) was also an imperfect hero in many ways, but Fridolin - certainly as he is depicted in this production - is definitely not the typical image you would have of a heroic knight. He's a dreamer (signified by wearing a VR headset here) who wants peace and love, refusing to join the crusades or take part in the cruel excesses of the court of Alexios. He even chooses the degradation and shame of being made a jester and being disavowed by his father rather than be arrested and executed for carelessly showing a little too much enthusiasm for an assassination attempt on the Emperor.

Despite the low budget nature of the production design giving the impression of being modern or abstract, director Peter P. Pachl actually relates the original story completely faithfully. Or almost completely. While the drama of the court of Emperor Alexios is played out according to the libretto with costumes and togas that approximate the period (with a few quirks like the VR headset) there is a simultaneous projection that pulls the work back to the time of its composition, 1918 early 1920s. The projections make little direct allusion to either contemporaneous or modern events however, merely illustrating or enhancing the idea of the fall of an Empire, including nuclear destruction.

The Marco Polo Standard Definition DVD of Sonnenflammen is adequate for getting the production across, but clearly not at the level of the more typical High Definition opera releases on Blu-ray. The LPCM stereo is effectively mono, capturing the sound in the theatre with no real mixing separation or post-production. It sounds quite echoing but despite the evident limitations, there's a good account of the work here and the DVD certainly gives more than just a flavour the quality of the performances. And indeed the work itself. It's easy to get caught up in its flow and impressive enough to hope that some ambitious opera houses could forego another new production of Lohengrin or Tannhäuser and opt instead for a more adventurous treatment of a lesser known Siegfried.

Links: Amazon.uk

Monday, 15 February 2021

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande (Geneva, 2021)

Claude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2021

Jonathan Nott, Damien Jalet, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Marina Abramović, Jacques Imbrailo, Mari Eriksmoen, Leigh Melrose, Matthew Best, Yvonne Naef, Marie Lys, Justin Hopkins

GTG Digital - 18 January 2021

We have already seen how it is going to be necessary to adapt our lives post-Covid, if such a time is yet imaginable, and it looks like things might never be quite the same again. Opera however has always been adaptable and open to incorporating a variety of art forms, since music and theatre offer many means of expression, combining the abstract and the concrete. One opera that stands almost unique in its approach is Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, in the way that it sets drama to music, and not just any drama but a Symbolist drama by Maurice Maeterlinck. As such it offers many ways of interpretation of meaning and vision and you imagine that few works are as well suited to expressing social isolation and a sense of lockdown.

The Grand Théâtre de Genève have certainly put together an interesting and unconventional team for their social isolated lockdown version of the work and attempted to use it as a way of exploring another side of Debussy's enigmatic opera. The concept and performance artist Marina Abramović provides the concept for this production, and it's co-directed for the stage and choreographed with dance elements by Damien Jalet and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. With Jonathan Nott conducting the Suisse Romande orchestra in a spread-out fashion around him, you would expect the moody atmospherics to thrive in such an unconventional space, but somehow - too many cooks perhaps? - it doesn't quite live up to expectations. 

It at least approaches the idea of preserving the mystery and enigma of the opera rather than try to pin it down. I once observed in Robert Wilson's production of Pelléas et Mélisande at the Paris Opera that there was a kind of circularity to the work, Mélisande leaving one world and entering into another in much the same state of despair that she entered into it. Wilson's stylisations  - introducing social distancing on the opera stage long before it became necessary - had that haunted quality, of a never-ending story, of ghosts repeating and re-enacting a tragic tale for eternity. As an image of the abstract and enigmatic nature of Debussy's only opera, the circle is a symbol of infinity with no beginning and no end, works well, and it's used as such to similarly haunting effect in Marina Abramović's idea of expanding the work out into the infinite universe.

Space and circular imagery (planets, eyes) are evident throughout the Geneva production, and the circle can even be seen in the shape of the pool, one of infinite depths where Mélisande loses her ring (another circle). The circular image of the moon, reflected in the pool, also represents a cold enigma. In a Symbolist work like Maeterlinck's such ideas evidently work very well, particularly with the added mood that Debussy's music brings to this unique opera. Although it has a Gothic or Medieval character to it, the piece needs no concrete idea of time or place. It's as abstract and internalised a world as Tristan und Isolde, a work of forbidden love and obsession, something both works have in common if approached obviously in entirely different ways.

Approaching the work in an entirely different way is exactly what you expect from a production based on an idea by Abramović (who also recently devised an extraordinary new opera 7 Deaths of Maria Callas for the Bavarian State Opera last year), and choreographed by Jalet and Cherouaki. Rather than rely too much on the usual symbols or place too much emphasis on physical locations or internal dark places, Abramović visualises the work in a much more open environment, but one equally as isolating to the individual; in space. Obelisk monolithic crystals form rocks and grottoes as well as suggest a space ship, as the universe revolves and expands around Pelléas, Mélisande and Golaud. The director(s) also use the symbol of the eye to gaze on them from the emptiness of the infinite abyss of a black hole.

The dance moves are superbly choreographed and performed, the dancers moving fluidly around to 'enhance' the drama. Using some simple Improbable-style effects with reflective tape, they can become the tangled branches of the forest where Golaud is lost at the start, or weave Pelléas into the trap of Mélisande's hair. It sounds simple, but it's incredible how well this needs to be choreographed to be this effective. They can be purely abstract shapes and movement that tap into the undercurrents of the music and the nature of the characters, representing the oppressive qualities of Allemonde in wrestling semi-naked twisting bodies. Golaud's role in particular is magnified and multiplied with a team of dancers who forcefully surround and impress upon Mélisande. Sometimes however they can be a bit of a distraction and often feel unnecessary, intruding on the minimalist beauty of the piece, as well as making additional noise that isn't needed either.

As gorgeous as the Geneva production is, it doesn't manage to penetrate or even bring anything new out of the opera's mysteries. Pelléas et Mélisande can be a cold and detached opera, but it can even thrive on that, and there are few who can do icy detached coolness as well as Robert Wilson. A little bit of humanness doesn't go amiss however and that's largely absent here. Jacques Imbrailo tries to bring some of that in as Pelléas, and it's hard to fault the performances of Mari Eriksmoen's Mélisande or Leigh Melrose's impressive Golaud, but despite everything none of them seem to make any real connection to the people, the place, the space or the music. I don't think it's the fact that the production had to be performed in an empty theatre or the arrangement of the orchestra spread are out into the parterre, but despite all the fine individual talents in place, there's a feeling that there is a connection missing to click it all into place.

Links: Grand Théâtre de Genève

Friday, 5 February 2021

Prokofiev - The Fiery Angel (Rome, 2019)

Sergei Prokofiev - The Fiery Angel

Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, 2019

Alejo Pérez, Emma Dante, Leigh Melrose, Ewa Vestin, Anna Victorova, Mairam Sokolova, Sergey Radchenko, Andrii Ganchuk, Maxim Paster, Goran Jurić, Domingo Pellicola, Petr Sokolov

Naxos - Blu-ray

Composed in 1927 but considered far too extreme to stage, Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel
was never fully performed or staged during the composer's lifetime. It is however an extraordinary opera and is indeed a work of extremes, one that pushes at musical, dramatic and psychological boundaries. There are consequently many different ways of approaching it, but in almost every case you have to wholeheartedly embrace its extremes and its madness. Emma Dante's 2019 production for the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma succeeds in just about every level, perhaps even getting close to illuminating what this strange and almost forgotten masterpiece is all about.

What it is, is what it is about. It's indeed about extremes, about the human experience pushing and being pushed to extremes, to the extent that it borders and almost spills over into madness; and what is madness but humanity pushed to extremes? The troubled Renata is not just schizophrenic who searches to recapture a hallucinatory vision of an angel that visited her as a child, but she is chasing what the angel represents; a growing to sexual awareness as well as the longing for fullness of being. She was able to indulge this burning desire in her marriage to Count Heinrich, but since he has abandoned her, her thirst for and taste of forbidden pleasures has not been sated.

The same can be said about Ruprecht, the travelling knight who hears her torments while staying next door to her in an inn. He doesn't see her the way others do as a wanton madwoman, but having seen much of the world and having visited the new world of America, he finds her state of mind compelling in its willingness to embrace something bigger than itself, her uniqueness and her determination to achieve it, and is consequently filled with lust for her. For this, he is even willing to indulge her journey to Cologne, visiting mages, scientists and philosophers in her quest to rediscover Heinrich - or what he represents for her in her mind - and he too wholeheartedly follows her down some strange paths.

The scientists, religious guides, occultists and the esoteric forbidden texts that they seek out and pore over are just another representation of the human desire to extend and expand knowledge of the capacity of mankind, to experience life fully on all fronts; love and tenderness, hatred and death, body and soul. It's evidently an endless quest, torn between angels on one side and demons on the other. That essentially is what Prokofiev pours into his incredible score for The Fiery Angel and it's what director Emma Dante strives to do justice to in visual and dramatic terms. If you achieve that, you have something remarkable; total opera. That is certainly the impression you get from this production.

It's a busy enough drama, but there is so much going on in the musical expression of the drama and its undercurrents, that it's simply not enough to just tell the story. The director finds some quite brilliant ways to highlight the ideas, the less tangible and the unknowable side of Renata and Ruprecht's restless quest, looking for answers, trying to solve the mysteries that lie on the boundaries of human experience and sexual desire. Setting it mainly in a crypt and in a book filled library to highlight the themes, Dante also employs extras and dancers who whirl and spin around the singers, dancing and moving to the music, a legion of fleeting thoughts and impressions that go through Renata's disturbed mindset. Even her related story of Heinrich and her encounter with Madiel finds visual representation on the stage, as they are very much present in the music.

If you can illustrate what the music is expressing the way Dante does - and it really is vivid, colourful, endlessly creative music - and you have great singers to draw the human side out of it, you have got an opera here that itself pushes the limits of human and artistic expression. The musical performance under the direction of Alejo Pérez is a marvel, perhaps all the more impressive for it being illustrated so well on the stage, but the sound recording on this video release is also just breathtaking, capturing the wild dynamic of the ever changing and evolving sound world, giving a wide soundstage to the instruments in the Blu-ray's High Resolution audio mixes. It sounds as incredible as it looks.

There's only one way to sing The Fiery Angel and that's with total commitment and controlled outpouring of passion. The only other work that I think comes close to this - or that this comes close to perhaps - is Wozzeck. Both take on an ambitious musical exploration of depths of human soul, the challenges of life, subject to misfortune outside of one's control to influence. It's up there with Elektra too in that respect. Like those works - early twentieth century masterpieces all - Prokofiev's piece is incredibly demanding but when done well impressive on a scale that few other operas can match.

The cast here are all excellent, all of which contributes to the overall impact of the opera and the production. Renata can't be anything but remarkable but that shouldn't be taken for granted, and Ewa Vestin has terrific presence, giving an excellent dramatic and singing performance that is controlled in its outpouring of emotions. She is matched by a fine Ruprecht in Leigh Melrose, but there are also excellent performances from Maxim Paster as Mephistopheles and Goran Jurić as the Inquisitor, the two anchoring opposing forces of the opera's extremes. Absolutely faultless in performance, impressive in direction, this is nothing but glorious opera.

The Naxos Blu-ray give this the kind of presentation you could hope for. The A/V quality is superb, the image clear, colourful and detailed, but it's the Hi-Res audio mixes that lift this to another level. The force and detail of the orchestral performance has tremendous presence around the singing voices, spread across the spectrum in both stereo and surround mixes. The enclosed booklet contains an essential detailed synopsis and an interesting interview with Emma Dante. The Blu-ray is all-region (A/B/C), BD50, with subtitles in English, German, Italian, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Teatro dell'Opera di Roma

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Donizetti - Pietro il Grande (Bergamo, 2019)

Gaetano Donizetti - Pietro il Grande

Fondazione Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo, 2019

Rinaldo Alessandrini, Marco Paciotti, Lorenzo Pasquali, Roberto de Candia, Loriana Castellano, Paola Gardina, Nina Solodovnikova, Francisco Brito, Marco Filippo Romano, Tommaso Barea, Marcello Nardis, Stefano Gentili

Dynamic - Blu-ray

There are definitely surprises and even some great underrated and largely unknown works by Donizetti being rediscovered and revived - the best being mainly perhaps his later French operas - but it's hard to imagine that anyone would consider the young composer's second opera Pietro il Grande (Peter the Great) to be a great opera. And yet even lesser Donizetti has much to recommend and enjoy, whether you are interested in exploring the influences on the composer's early work, whether you are interested in seeing how the work can be adapted and brought to modern audience, or whether you just want to be entertained by a pleasant light musical drama. There's definitely a bit of something for everyone in Pietro il Grande.

Although it might sound like a historical epic, Donizetti's opera is no Boris Godunov, more of a light comedy, an opera buffa. In Pietro il Grande, Peter the Great, the Czar of Russia comes to Livonia, thinly disguised as a government official called Menzikoff, arriving at the inn of Madam Fritz. He's looking for someone called Carlo who he believes might be Scavronsky, the lost brother of the Czarina. It's not all good news for Carlo, a humble carpenter, as he is in love with Annetta, who also has a mysterious secret background. Her father is Mazepa, the Ekman of the Cossacks, a traitor to his country and enemy of the Czar. How can this intolerable situation be resolved?

Well, that's the stuff and magic of opera, and somehow Donizetti and his librettist the Marquis Gherardo Bevilacqua Aldobrindini, manage to stretch out this thin plot more with colourful characters and musical situations than with any real dramatic action. They are the kind of character types you expect to find in a Donizetti or Rossini comedy, and often it's the secondary characters who deliver the most entertainment by stirring things up. In this case that's Madam Fritz and the pompous local magistrate Cuccupis, and this production is fortunate to have two excellent singers and performers in those roles; Paola Gardina and Marco Filippo Romano.

As far as musical setting goes, it's fairly conventional early Donizetti, but delivered of course with a variety of situations and melodic flair. There are the inevitable romantic situations and complications involving a great ruler and a lot of recitative which harks back to not so distant opera seria times, but also drinking songs, hunting songs and plenty of choral interludes pointing to what lies ahead. With secret identities and comic revelations Pietro il Grande is all very opéra-comique, and could easily pass for one of Offenbach's playful historical satires. Pompous characters are put in their place and ordinary people are shown to have far more respectable characteristics and more noble ideas of justice.

Like those works, it's not to be taken seriously but it is essential to enter into the spirit of the work, particularly on the part of the singers. Paola Gardina's Madam Fritz and Marco Filippo Romano's Cuccupis are, as I've mentioned, very much the comic driving force behind the work, particularly when playing off one another, with the magistrate even getting some of those Rossini rapid-fire tongue-twisters. The other roles are rather less interesting - even Roberto de Candia's Pietro - but Donizetti nonetheless provides plenty of opportunities to play up the comedy if a director is willing to work with it.

You at least get plenty of colour and spectacle to match the tone in the 2019 Festival Donizetti Opera production at the Teatro Sociale in Bergamo. No stuffy historical period costumes here, the set looks like it was designed by Paul Klee with Wassily Kandinsky helping out with the costume designs. That's a lot of colour! As if that's not enough there are occasional projections of geometric patterns to add to the backgrounds. It's just a little bit over the top, but it does suit the colourful situations of the cartoonish comedy-drama and add a little bit of spectacle to those scenes that tend to drag out what is after all a fairly thin plot.

With Ondadurto Teatro's Marco Paciotti and Lorenzo Pasquali directing, dull moments however are few and far between. At 2 hours and 45 minutes there's plenty of entertainment and some pleasant music to enjoy, with Rinaldo Alessandrini's conducting thoroughly in the spirit of Donizetti. Just as you think the orchestra sound like they might be flagging or losing interest in the routine parts of the score, there's a chorus or an increase in tempo or a Rossini-run to rev things up again.

The 2019 Donizetti Festival production is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Dynamic, who have really upped their game in terms of releasing interesting opera rarities and in the quality of their HD releases. The Blu-ray image here is fantastic, the screen exploding with colour. The soundtracks are in the usual Hi-Res PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 surround, both excellent quality with good clarity. There might not be a lot of nuance and detail in the actual score, but this gets the performance across well. The extras are all in the booklet and are useful and informative, looking at the history of the work and providing a tracklist and synopsis. The BD is all-region, with subtitles in Italian, English, French, German, Korean and Japanese.

Links: Donizetti Opera Festival

Monday, 18 January 2021

Korngold - Die Tote Stadt (Brussels, 2020)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold - Die Tote Stadt

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2020

Lothar Koenigs, Mariusz Treliński, Roberto Saccà, Marlis Petersen, Dietrich Henschel, Bernadetta Grabias, Martina Russomanno, Lilly Jørstad, Florian Hoffmann, Nikolay Borchev, Mateusz Zajdel

La Monnaie Streaming - November 2020

As far as the arts are concerned, the Covid pandemic has changed everything over the last year. Those productions that have managed to be performed in the brief gaps between lockdown measures have had to be rethought and reworked for safety, both for the audience and the performers. In the case of Die Tote Stadt at La Monnaie, it's been particularly challenging for a director like Mariusz Treliński, the Polish film director who likes to take a flamboyant hi-tech approach to his opera productions, using movie references and cinematic techniques. Here it's like his toys have been taken away from him, but as I've noted before, this is such a powerful work in its own right that it needs little in the way of theatrical enhancement.

The production, intended to celebrate the centenary of the work, did start out rather differently when it was first produced in Warsaw, and it did indeed originally have all of the director's familiar enhanced theatrical and cinematic visuals. By the time it came to La Monnaie in Brussels - Belgium hit particularly bad by the spread of the virus - it was necessary to have a rethink to involve less technicians and put as much social distancing between the performers, the orchestra and the audience as possible.

I have to admit, as someone who has enjoyed this director's work in the past Manon Lescault, The Fiery Angel, Iolanta, Duke Bluebeard's Castle) I would have loved to see the full-blown production aligned to Korngold's extravagant orchestrations and melodies, but there is no doubt that the Brussels version of this particular work, re-orchestrated for 57 musicians with the runtime reduced to under two hours, benefits from letting the macabre elements of the Symbolist drama and the concentration of Korngold's musical composition speak for itself.

To say nothing of how it speaks a little more directly than ever before of the nature of the times we are living in, where the idea of a dead city is very much a real thing, and where many can undoubtedly identify with the loss of loved ones. Unsurprisingly, since it relates to a living double replacing a dead woman, Treliński relies on Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' as a reference, and the correlation it has with that work is again in these times much more evident and real, the focus turned very much more inward on the mindset of someone who has been disturbed by the death of a loved one.

The revised production design makes use of three boxes that provide some social distancing, but also serve as a way of showing mental distancing from reality and, although neon-lit, may even remind you of coffins. Ghosts reach out and cling to Paul, naked bodies lie under shrouds that he tries to reanimate. Sung with fervour by Roberto Saccà and with Lothar Koenigs ramping up Korngold musical forces with the reduced orchestration scarcely noticeable, you almost think he could do it. Some enhancements in the way of projections are sparingly and effectively used as backgrounds to allude to the location of the dead city being a projection of a disturbed mind rather than specifically Bruges or any real concrete place.

It's appropriate then that much as Paul is unable to see the beauty of the living Marietta as he longs for an impossible ideal of the perfection of the past that is Maria, opera too now has to deal with a much less perfect reality. That comes through in the performances which have been adapted to the new reality, allowing flesh and blood singers to convey everything that is great about Die Tote Stadt and everything that Korngold makes of it. Marlis Petersen embodies that in her singing and in her superb acting performance. Her 'Marietta's Lied' is just phenomenal in this context, and Paul/Roberto Saccà can be seen to be visibly moved by the beauty of life being breathed into music.

The orchestra of La Monnaie also take centre stage here. Almost literally. They are on the stage behind the performers, probably masked. The orchestra pit is used to extend the boundaries of Paul's mind, the singers donning protective face masks when they venture close to the socially distanced audience at the front of the theatre. Rather than be distracting this actually adds a frisson of real world concern and meaning to the subject. There's no happy ending to Paul's grief and delusion in
Mariusz Treliński's take on the story; the nightmare is the reality. Paul remains locked in, in lockdown; there's no escape from the city of death or the madness that descends.

Like in many other areas of our lives, there's clearly a need for opera to adjust to the new reality. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I have to say that La Monnaie have always been creative in their approach to opera, whether it was while holding productions in other locations during the restoration of the theatre a few years ago or in pioneering free live
streamed broadcasts. Working with a director like Treliński on Korngold they prove that it might not be necessarily be a bad thing to rethink approaches to opera and music and get back to basics. The new reality imposed by the pandemic is something that we might have to live with for a much longer time, but when opera and theatre does comes back, as it surely will, there's hope that it can be stronger than before.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt