Thursday, 14 October 2021

Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov (New York, 2021)

Modest Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov

The Metropolitan Opera, New York - 2021

Sebastian Weigle, Stephen Wadsworth, René Pape, Ain Anger, Maxim Paster, David Butt Philip, Aleksey Bogdanov, Ryan Speedo Green, Miles Mykkanen, Richard Bernstein, Bradley Garvin, Tichina Vaughn, Brenton Ryan, Kevin Burdette, Erika Baikoff, Megan Marino, Eve Gigliotti, Mark Schowalter

The Met: Live in HD - 9th October 2021

The opportunity to see a staged performance of the original 1869 version of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov - even in a streamed live performance from the Met in New York - is something that should not be missed. Up until recently, you would have been more likely to see the 1872 revised version or a hybrid of both versions, but rarely nowadays (I haven't seen or heard one in my time watching opera) the Rimsky-Korsakov version. Watching Mussorgsky's original version of the work in a staging at the Paris opera in 2018, was something of a revelation and a sign that it could very easily become the canonical version of the work. The Met's production consolidates that reputation somewhat, but there are still a few reservations about how to best present this problematic opera.

There are certainly valid reasons why the later revisions of the opera where more favoured. Obviously no one wants to lose the additional music and scenes that Mussorgsky composed for the 1872 version, but principally there's the fact that the original wasn't considered to hold together dramatically. There's validity in that and it is something that is confirmed by the Stephen Wadsworth's production, but what is also confirmed from the Met's performance of the work - as it was in Ivo van Hove's rather more successful staging of the work in Paris - is that even in its 'embryonic' form Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov is still indisputably a masterpiece.

The Met production consequently struggles to find a way to reconcile this contradiction between the quality of the music and the challenges of representing the dramatic material. Where Ivo van Hove was perhaps more successful than Wadsworth is in the efforts he makes to make the stakes of the drama feel more real - and indeed dramatic - by presenting it in a more recognisable context than the Russian history of the years 1598 to 1605. There are obvious connections to the modern world that can be made in a ruler's handling and manipulation of the people, and how that reliance on populism can turn just as quickly against him, but Wadsworth's production - like most 'safe' Met productions - makes no effort to even hint that there is still relevance in this situation today.

The closest we get to a representation of the context of the rule of Boris Godunov within the tides of history is one that fortunately, Mussorgsky (or perhaps more accurately, Pushkin, the author of the original work the opera is based on) included with the character of Pimen, the monk who is compiling a book of Russian history. This is presented as a huge oversize volume and maps spread out on the stage, testifying to the importance of this period of Russian history, its significance and the lessons we can learn from it. Some indication of where that might go might have made more of this, but it's effective on its own terms.

As generally is the stage production as a whole, setting the mood well and generally matching the dark tone of the work, filling the huge Met stage with the chorus, putting the all-important Russian folk onto the stage. Inevitably, despite the high production values, it does feels a little am-dram period, static and 'stagy' in its depictions of the drama. It doesn't really bare any teeth to really get across just how turbulent and violent this post Ivan the Terrible period of history is. Where is it perhaps most lacking however is in its failure to make the opera work on a dramatic level. That might be as much to do with the nature of the original 1869 version as it is with any deficiencies in the direction, but it still feels dramatically disjointed and incomplete.

Part of the problem for that could be down to the fact that Wadsworth's production was originally created at the Met for performances of the longer 1872 version, so in parallel with the removal of Mussorgsky's added scenes, the production also suffers the same cuts. I don't know whether Wadsworth was involved in the reworking of the cut-back production, there would certainly be some necessary changes made. There is perhaps an extended role for the Holy Fool, present spinning and whirling, mocking Boris even in his coronation scene, a representation of his own folly and madness, an attempt to give the drama additional weight by tying it into the dark Shakespearean horrors of Macbeth and King Lear.

Whether the stage production satisfies or not, the success of the production is nonetheless assured under the musical direction of conductor Sebastian Weigle. Musically, its an absolute treat, if somewhat heavy going in its unwavering dark lugubrious tone that plays out for nearly two and a half hours without intermission. If the dramatic representation doesn't beat Boris Godunov down into submission to his fate, the music certainly does, and so to - all importantly - does the chorus. The work of the chorus is simply outstanding, ensuring that the solemn heft of the work carried the necessary weight and depth that was clearly audible in its impact, even in its livestream broadcast.

(On a side note, the quality of these broadcast livestreams - from the Met, Covent Garden and the Paris Opera as well - has improved considerably over the years with stunning HD quality images and powerful sound recording, with no more stream interruptions and breakdowns of communication. Alongside some good camera work - the Met's production directed well for the screen as usual by Gary Halvorson - that captures angles and closeups, it's becoming a great way to experience live opera in a time of restricted travel).

The quality of the musical performance and chorus certainly played an important part, but good principal casting and singing can make all the difference to any failings in the dramatic presentation. That was certainly the case here with René Pape singing the role of Boris. It's the performance of an experienced bass with great technique who also has the maturity to bring real human emotion to characters like Boris just as he has done with Philippe II in Verdi's Don Carlos. He puts real dramatic weight and character behind Boris, savouring the beauty and conflict of the role and Mussorgsky's extraordinary writing for it.

Pape's tormented magisterial performance is supported by similarly fine performances from Ain Anger as Pimen and Maxim Paster as Shuisky, both bringing long previous experience of heavyweight Russian opera and indeed prior experience of these Mussorgsky roles to similar effect. Supporting roles were also well handled, from Miles Mykkanen's Holy Fool to an enjoyable performance from Ryan Speedo Green as Varlaam, his reading of the ukaz, the wanted edict for the Pretender Grigoriy, enlivened a scene that can otherwise seem random and at odds with the tone of the rest of the work. All of this went a considerable way to bringing across the sheer brilliance of this great opera despite some minor reservations about the stage production and direction.

Links: Metropolitan Opera, The Met: Live in HD 2021-22 season

Thursday, 30 September 2021

Gluck - Iphigénie en Tauride (Paris, 2021)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Iphigénie en Tauride

Opéra National de Paris, 2021

Thomas Hengelbrock, Kyzysztof Warlikowski, Tara Erraught, Jarrett Ott, Julien Behr, Jean-François Lapointe, Marianne Croux, Jeanne Ireland, Christophe Gay, Agata Buzek

Palais Garnier, Paris - 26 September 2021 

The essence of what is continually great and everlasting in the later works of Christoph Willibald Gluck is that despite the formality of the 18th century musical conventions and the poetic licence of contemporary adaptation, he manages to make the stories and predicaments of the great mythological figures of Greek drama feel completely human. Despite appearing to have a very limited idea for presenting the drama, Polish director Kyzysztof Warlikowski's production of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride nonetheless similarly strives to find the underlying humanity in his production for the Paris Opera, and perhaps even delve deeper into the mindsets and troubled history of the Atreides family. The success of the production is mainly down to Gluck of course, but Warlikowski knows when to defer to genius.

Essentially, the Orestia deals with the downfall of a great family, a royal family, and assuming that they aren't really lizard people - something I'm prepared to keep an open mind about - even royal families are human too. Hmm. Anyway. Warlikowski has been here before - or rather later - with his Princess Diana influenced production of Alceste, and this production of Iphigénie en Tauride which was first produced in Paris in 2006, opens somewhat obscurely with a title 'Dedicated to Queen Marie Antoinette'. Other than it being about a royal family and it being produced for Paris, I'm not sure what the intention of that is, but it doesn't prove to have any real bearing on the rest of the production.

Warlikowski's setting for Iphigénie en Tauride is, well, it looks very much like most Warlikowski sets designed by Malgorzata Szczesniak, with glass panels, mirrored rooms, a wall of showers on one side and a wall of sinks on the other. Here Tauride is an old people's home where Iphigenia as an old woman in a gold lamé dress looks back at the defining incident in her experience of a troubled family life. Or not so much looks back on it of course as much as relives it, her mind failing, flitting between her current infirmity and mental state in old age and the incident on Tauride that may have helped reduce her to her condition.

This Tauride or old people's home is of course less a physical place than a state of mind, and it's the impact that her experience has on her mind that Warlikowski wants to explore. Within that however, the actual drama plays out much as you would expect, with Orestes and Pylades brought by the priestesses as strangers to be sacrificed at the paranoid King Thoades, who while trying his best not to fall victim to the fate an oracle has decreed for him, inevitably ends up bringing it about.

Warlikowski illustrates a few scenes behind the reflective shield of her mind, showing the now and the past, but it's fragmented and nightmarish in its visualisation and not a narrative illustration. Doubles are used, as they often are in productions of this work  which seems open to such divisions and analysis, (Lukas Hemleb, Geneva 2015), (Claus Guth, Zurich, 2001) More than just use an actor to double Iphigénie past and present, internal and external, the director also doubles or contrasts the past as a mirror of the present. What plays out simultaneously is a kind of shadow nightmare scenario of her experience in Aulide, where it's now Iphigenia the priestess who is to carry out the human sacrifice, with Thoas becoming her surrogate father.

The psychoanalytical approach is quite appropriate, the dysfunctional family issues compounded with Iphigenia's encounter with the stranger who is her brother Orestes, and in Orestes seeing in Iphigenia the image of the mother he has just murdered. It's inevitable then that the familiar influence of the films of David Lynch also plays a part in this Warlikowski production, with scenes and imagery reminiscent of Wild at Heart (another horrific family saga of murder and brutality) and Mulholland Drive (a glamorous life on the surface with hidden horrors surfacing in the moment of death). Mix in a bit of royal scandal and there's plenty to make this visually impressive and troubling while still largely leaving the drama to tell its own tale.

Here, as is often the case, the best a director can do is find a suitable setting for mood and let Gluck's music and the drama speak for itself. Warlikowski does a little more than this, finding a way to bring the audience into the human drama that is playing out in the mind of Iphigenia. There are a few other touches, having the chorus and other players in the Tauride drama placed in the boxes, isolated and pushed off to the sidelines away from the wholly personal interiorised nature of Iphigenia's relationship with the drama. Diana's appearance at the end of Act 4 is appropriately sung from the back of the Palais Garnier up in the gods, all contributing to present as immersive a presence as possible of the drama replaying out in her mind.

Evidently it's Gluck's beautiful music, his attunement to the drama and the understated emotional states that drive the drama forward and it was successfully led from the orchestra under Thomas Hengelbrock. Vocally it was impressive also in the three leading roles. As Iphigenia Tara Erraught was superb, deservedly stepping into major opera house roles like this after a successful career as a repertory singer in Munich. Her musical range is consequently wide and varied, but she can do a leading Mozart role well (The Marriage of Figaro) and is certainly impressive in her French delivery of Gluck. Jarrett Ott was an excellent Orestes and Julien Behr offered strong lyrical support as Pylades.

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Irvine - Least Like the Other (Dublin, 2021)

Brian Irvine & Netia Jones - Least Like the Other

Irish National Opera, 2021

Fergus Sheil, Netia Jones, Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Stephanie Dufresne, Ronan Leahy, Aoife Spillane-Hinks

O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin - 17 September 2021

One thing you could be sure of in an opera by Brian Irvine was that was never going to be anything conventional about it. I've seen the Belfast composer's work performed in a number of ways, in orchestral commissions for the BBC and Ulster Orchestra, in jazz improvisations with his own ensemble and his uncategorisable thrash classical improvisation work 13 Vices with Jennifer Walshe. A short opera piece that he did as part of a NI Opera Shorts commission in 2012 might have suggested the direction of his first full length opera, but the title Least Like the Other seems to apply to just as much to Brian Irvine as the subject of his new opera.

If however there is anyone in contemporary music that Irvine can be compared to, it's maybe Gerald Barry. There same sense of adventure, of a drama delivered at a furious pace, a determination not to accept limitations or conventions, but whereas Barry can appear frivolous - when in fact his operas are highly complex, considered and perfectly attuned to the content - there is at least no sense that there is any room for frivolity in this opera's subject of Rosemary Kennedy. Rosemary is one of the lesser known siblings in the Kennedy family, but there is a good reason for that, and it's the choice of subject that undoubtedly brings out a wide variety of music and theatrical techniques from a composer delving into the dark unknown.

Perhaps the only way Least Like the Other: Searching for Rosemary Kennedy can be compared to classic opera is in the subject being that of a woman at odds with the world around her, at odds through no choice of her own with conventional social expectations in a largely - totally - patriarchal system. And, like the great Italian operas, the end is inevitably a tragic one. Born in 1918, Rosemary Kennedy, the third of the Kennedy siblings and sister of John F. Kennedy, could have been expected to have had a better start in life and more opportunities in the early to mid-twentieth century, but even aside from her being born with a disability, her path through life would still be curtailed and even destroyed by outside factors and social pressures.

Rosemary's troubles and certainly the most damaging factor on her life began at birth and even that can be attributed to the prevailing social and patriarchal order. The doctor was late to arrive at her birth, so her mother Rose was told to hold child in until he arrived otherwise he would not be paid for delivery. Due to a lack of oxygen in birth canal, Rosemary was born intellectually disabled. At the age of 23 she was subjected to a lobotomy, a new technique developed by neurologist Walter Freeman, as an attempted cure for her increasingly difficult behaviour. As a result she was left with capacity of a 2 year old, unable to walk or speak. She would spend the next 57 years of her life in a convent, removed from the Kennedy family.

As that also meant that she was removed from society, there is very little documentary record of Rosemary's life. Irvine's approach to this subject then is defined to some extent by the lack of source material, but it is certainly not limited by it. Working with theatre and opera director Netia Jones, the collaboration manages to bring the full horror of the story to life, as well as casting a critical eye on the kind of society that allows such things to take place. Least Like the Other turns out to be one of those works where music and theatre come together to create a narrative that goes beyond mere dramatic representation.

Essentially, it would be difficult in any case to have a glamorous soprano or mezzo-soprano represent Rosemary Kennedy. There is only one singing voice in the opera but the singer doesn't play Rosemary as much as provides a focal point for the pressures placed on her by the system, her family, religion, social expectations, and as a woman being generally submissive to the needs of men. She is almost a Not-Rosemary, the negation of the personality by those around her, by the social and family pressures around her, which are vividly played out in a number of scenes.

The opera might only have one singer, along with two actors and a voice-over narrator, but it also has music and theatre. The medical texts detailing lobotomy aims and procedures as a cure for the feeble minded and as a tool to control the criminality in the lower classes, the aggrandising speeches by Freeman and the autobiographical extracts from Rosemary's mother all convey the shock and horror for the primitive views on child rearing and treatment of mental illness, but Irvine's music and his writing for the voice - by turns insistent, elegiac and furious - allows you to feel it as it would be experienced by someone going through it; It's not the singer who is Rosemary Kennedy, it's the audience.

Although she lived a long life after the botched and crude surgery she was subjected to, it's at the point where Rosemary is completely deprived of having any control over her faculties or volition that Irvine and Jones close the story. Rummaging through the drawers of her life, everything is strewn across the stage as the music reaches a level of feverish activity, with strobe lighting, and the pre-recorded music by the INO orchestra spread across the theatre in 16-track surround. After that there we are left with an empty stage, with projections showing a body moving gently in a swimming pool to a slow piano accompaniment. Quiet, calm, empty, Rosemary - who loved to swim - is gone, at peace, a mind lost.

First presented at the Galway Festival in 2019 to great critical acclaim, further performances of Least Like the Other planned for 2020 were inevitably cancelled due to the pandemic and lockdown, so it was exciting to have the opportunity to see it in Dublin at the start of the new 2021/22 Irish National Opera season, even in the socially distanced seating of the O'Reilly Theatre. It didn't disappoint. The necessity of a pre-recorded score conducted by Fergus Sheil was used to the advantage of theatrical presentation, and was it played with such intensity, including improvising musicians, that it was virtually impossible to tell that it wasn't being played live.

Soprano Amy Ní Fhearraigh, singing on alternate nights to mezzo-soprano Naomi Louise O'Connell, was certainly singing live and had the technical and emotional range to take on the incredibly challenging role of not just Rosemary, but essentially singing the whole 75 minute opera. That's to take nothing away from the importance of the actors, the delivery of the texts and the whole theatrical presentation in a striking and impressive set design created by director Netia Jones. With Irvine's score, this was a completely immersive and almost gut-wrenching experience, music, singing and dramatic presentation locking together as it should in opera, but even more importantly here with no defined characters and no straightforward dramatic narrative to create a complete, thoughtful and moving operatic experience.

Links: Irish National Opera

Sunday, 5 September 2021

Verdi - Aroldo (Rimini, 2021)

Giuseppe Verdi - Aroldo

Teatro Galli di Rimini, 2021

Manilo Benzi, Emilio Sala, Edoardo Sanchi, Antonio Corianò, Lidia Fridman, Michele Govi, Adriano Gramigni, Cristiano Olivieri, Lorenzo Sivelli

Opera Streaming - 27th August 2021

A lot of time has passed since Verdi wrote Aroldo, and a lot of time has passed with Aroldo hardly being performed. A lot of time has passed also since its premiere in 1857 for the inauguration of the Teatro Nuovo in Rimini, so it's fitting that the opera should be performed there again for its reopening. The intervening years since Aroldo was first performed there have also seen a great deal of change and turmoil, including the destruction of the theatre during the war in 1943. Rebuilt after 75 years and now named the Teatro Galli, director Emilio Sala in some ways sees the fate of both theatre and opera intertwined or at least wants to use this production to bring together the shared history of the theatre and the legacy of this rare and by no means minor Verdi opera.

Aroldo may not be an entirely original work by Verdi, being a rework and rewrite of Stiffelio, but the history of the two works nonetheless span a pivotal period in the career of the composer. Stiffelio was written in 1850, just as Verdi was about to embark on his famous trilogy of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata, and the work presaging themes and musical developments in these works, not least the protective father/daughter relationship of Rigoletto, and with elements even of Germont's appeals to a fallen woman in La Traviata. Aroldo was then developed for Rimini in 1857 after these three masterpieces, with significant changes and a whole extra fourth act.

It's surprising then that Aroldo is not more widely recognised and is even less performed than Stiffelio. Even that work was only rediscovered relatively recently and successfully revived, a 1993 TV broadcast of a Royal Opera House production starring Jose Carreras and Catherine Malfitano a memorable discovery for me personally, remaining a personal favourite Verdi, but despite occasional revivals - usually for complete Verdi festivals - neither version has received due recognition as a strong work in their own right.

Part of the reason at least for Stiffelio's initial failure to gain a foothold in the repertoire is that it's quite different in several respects from the other early to mid-period Verdi works. It opens with wonderful solo trumpet led Sinfonia overture and it's overwrought drama is more of a domestic variety than that of any noble high society or great warrior leader. As a theme, guilt has more of a presence than the typical Verdi subject of revenge, although there's plenty of that too, albeit of a kind that fizzles out rather than end in bloodshed and tragedy. Unfortunately, the drama being based on a German Protestant minister, was also too different for Italian audiences and the censor not best pleased with a religious minister's wife being involved in adultery.

Verdi consequently reworked the opera in 1857, resetting it to England, the librettist Francesco Maria Piave extending and revising the opera with a fourth act, but Aroldo still retains much of the marvellous music and melodic invention of the original. Like most of Verdi's efforts to revise other works with concessions for ballet scenes in the French versions, chorus additions and cabaletta cuts made for the benefit of changing musical fashions, it's not a total success. As far as Aroldo is concerned, the reworking loses much that was fascinatingly different and already perfect in the original, but that doesn't make it the opportunity to compare a rare stage performance of Aroldo any less intriguing or exciting.

In the opening scene of Stiffelio, it is reported to the minister that a man has been seen jumping from the window of his wife Lina, leaving behind evidence that could identify him. The revelation, and the decision of Stiffelio to destroy the evidence without looking at it raises tensions from the outset, while here it's a little more subdued. Drawing from Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Harold: the Last of the Saxon Kings, Aroldo (Harold) returns from the Crusades and notices his wife Mina is not wearing her wedding ring, looking jumpy and guilty. Verdi raises the drama however more gradually and by the time of the slipping of a letter to her lover into a book, the drama has become more highly charged. 'Fatal, fatal mistero quel libro svelerà', buoyed by a chorus of scandalised onlookers is just as overwrought here as the original in Stiffelio. The extension however of the Act I conclusion 'Nol volete' after Mina's father's refusal to hand over the letter rather dissipates the tension that has been raised.

There is a similar picture throughout Aroldo. While the middle part of the work plays out much the same as in Stiffelio, with a duel and other situations for potential bloodshed averted, there is perhaps more of a similar sense of events heating up without ever quite boiling over. The intervening years between the two works that saw the creation of the mature Verdi's great masterpieces does indeed lead to evidence of a greater sophistication in the musical reworking, but Aroldo can also be seen consequently as being a little more conventional in the dramatic action than Stiffelio, with the rough edges that make the earlier work so interesting rather smoothed out even further in Piave's Act IV extension.

Under the direction of Emilio Sala and Edoardo Sanchi the 2021 production in Rimini does its best to reintroduce an edge by bringing the work together with the history of the theatre where it was first performed. It relocates the medieval English setting to the Italian war and colonisation of East Africa, changing references in the libretto from Palestina to Abyssinia and Eritrea. Instead of a storm in the new Act 4, projections and highlighted words align this with the bombardment of Rimini that destroys the town and the Teatro Nuovo on the night of 28th December 1943. The reconstruction of the theatre mirrors the rebirth of love between Aroldo and Mina, and the triumph of the divine. To further break down walls between the drama and real-life, the performers take this occasion to remove their costumes and wear their everyday clothes.

Reopened in 2018 after reconstruction, I imagine that the removal of the stalls seating to accommodate the orchestra was done more for the sake of social distancing. The opera is performed on the stage, the audience in the upper seating balconies. Aroldo is a typically demanding Verdi opera in the leading soprano and tenor roles. Lidia Fridman is quite impressive in the role of Mina, more than technically capable, she passionately throws herself into the role. Antonio Corianò struggles a little in the higher end of the dramatic tenor range, but is a good Aroldo. The performances are full of grand operatic gestures, but it's the nature of this opera and Verdi in general, and the Rimini production certainly matches the requirements at getting the quality of this work across very well indeed.

Links: OperaStreaming, Teatro Galli di Rimini

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

Mozart - Don Giovanni (Salzburg, 2021)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Salzburger Festspiele, 2021

Teodor Currentzis, Romeo Castellucci, Davide Luciano, Mika Kares, Nadezhda Pavlova, Michael Spyres, Federica Lombardi, Vito Priante, David Steffens, Anna Lucia Richter

ARTE Concert - 8th August 2021

There are many facets to Mozart and Da Ponte's trilogy of operas, many facets of human behaviour that can be explored in them, universal traits that provide no easy answers to questions that on the surface can appear - and be played - as comedies but which underneath touch on some very disturbing subtexts. Don Giovanni can be depicted as villain or a victim of his own lusts - someone who loves too much, as someone who just isn't used to taking no for an answer, or in today's view, as a sexual predator and abuser of women. Don Giovanni is always worth a fresh perspective, but - perhaps more controversially (and it isn't often you can say that there is something more controversial in a production than the stage direction of Romeo Castellucci) - Mozart's score is also worth looking at in new ways. 

Teodor Currentzis has been upsetting those who like their Mozart played in the familiar Classical style for quite a while, but he's certainly not the only conductor finding more interesting facets to Mozart using historically informed direction on period instruments and using reduced ensemble orchestration. With Mozart's opera seria works that might be more palatable - and Salzburg have presented interesting Currentzis directed productions of La Clemenza di Tito in 2017 and Idomeneo in 2019 - but Don Giovanni is a different matter altogether. Rather than simply playing it to a way that has become rote and unadventurous over the years, Currentzis again seeks new ways to explore and express the wealth of character that is within Mozart's music. Forcing the listener to really listen to it. Making it feel fresh, shiny and new again. Like a virgin.

There's a theme that a director like Castellucci would certainly seize upon in a work like Don Giovanni, but there are less obvious ways to approach that. And there's maybe an allusion to stripping away the image of the sanctity of Mozart being forced into accepted conventional interpretations in the opening scene of Salzburg's Don Giovanni. In a white temple like setting, workmen strip away the Christian iconography of a church, leaving the elegant bare white edifice to show its basic underlying structure, ready to be built upon anew. A flame burns away any remaining holiness and indeed, the first person seen on the stage is a naked woman (well, it is Castellucci), one presumably no longer a virgin, since she has evidently been seduced/raped by Don Giovanni.

Rather than keep it simple and minimal, Castellucci then bombards the stage with all manner of effects, symbols and supernumeraries. A car crashes down on to the stage, a wheelchair, basketballs, a broken piano. Don Giovanni, Leporello and the Commendatore are dressed in white, while the avenging Donna Anna comes storming on in black with a retinue of Furies that surround and strive to bring Don Giovanni to justice for his crimes against women. It looks like Don Giovanni has juggled too many basketballs this time. The recitative as Don Giovanni and Leporello make their escape is played out with cartoon eyes on a black screen, Donna Anna mourns the crutch of Commendatore, Don Ottavio pours red powder on his arms and punctures a line of basketballs in his promise of securing revenge.

This is evidently not the Don Giovanni you might be familiar with but neither is it inappropriate to the tone of the work and its treatment by Mozart and da Ponte. It might do something different with the visuals and the pace, the use of instruments and emphasis of the music, but it still engages with the themes and the tone of the work. It's not so much Don Giovanni's debauchery and libidinous lifestyle that are condemned here as much as his failure to accept responsibility for and deal with the consequences of his actions. He leaves death and the destruction of lives behind him (something seized upon with a more political slant in Michael Haneke's version), including a suggestion that he has abandoned a pregnant Donna Elvira (Federica Lombardi doubled with a naked pregnant woman), while a child also pursues Don Giovanni on the stage.

The lightness of the treatment and the heaviness of the underlying implications is borne out in the music. Leporello's 'Madamina, il catalogo è questo' has a lovely lightness, the piano weaving in and out of the musicAeterna arrangement, the beauty of the aria contrasted with the sinister note behind the revelations of conquests. Castellucci provides plenty of contrasting imagery, mixing the absurdity with the comedy, with pointed symbolism and contemporary references that include a photocopier. Likewise he brings Michael Spyres's Don Ottavio on wearing a Danish mountaineer outfit (a familiar inscrutable symbol also used in his Moses und Aron) accompanied by a poodle. It looks ridiculous (several characters have a live animal avatar - Masetto a mouse, Don Giovanni a goat) but takes nothing away from the chilling account of Donna Anna on the recognition of her father's murderer, the scene re-enacted as a Greek tragedy.

Which is something that the legend of Don Giovanni could certainly be said to aspire to, it not being entirely out of place with the opera seria reworkings of mythology that preceded Mozart in the earlier part of the 18th century. Just as Mozart brought a contemporary edge to that genre in his progressive music and Da Ponte in the humanisation of the drama while still retaining the otherworldly elements that elevate it to grand drama - so Castellucci brings a corresponding touch of re-interpretation of an epic myth for a modern age while reflecting and respecting the underlying complexity of the work's blend of surrealism, comedy, tragedy, symbolism and instruction on the consequences of moral dissolution. In an expansive gesture that brings 150 women as extras to the stage, Don Giovanni here is held to account for his crime not by a stone statue, but by the women he has wronged. 

Teodor Currentzis seems to be doing his best to submerge as much as possible any of Mozart's familiar melodic embellishments. Whether this is for the sake of upsetting those who like their Mozart played in a conventionally acceptable way, whether it's out of sheer bloody-mindedness to stake out is reputation for being a fearless re-interpreter of Mozart, or whether he finds it appropriate to reevaluate and strip away the varnish of mannerisms that the work has accrued over the years and present a more historically informed account of the score is something the musicologists can argue over. Aligned with the drama an Castellucci's sensibility, the music however doesn't lose a fraction of its distinctive Mozartian qualities of beauty, sensitivity or dramatic flair.

Think what you might also of Romeo Castellucci's contribution, whether it adds any value or provides any new insights but - much like his stunning Die Zauberflöte for La Monnaie - it's certainly original, often spectacular and rarely dull, always surprising with some new idea that puts emphasis on different aspects of the work. It's also not without the occasional bit of flash/bang showmanship, which Mozart wasn't beyond employing himself. Castellucci has become a stylist in white haze, his productions as distinctive now as Robert Wilson's geometric minimalism in blue, and just as visually arresting in their conception, design and execution. This looks simply stunning and impressively choreographed.

It has to be said however, that it's more of an "interesting" production than a great one. Despite the efforts to bring "real people" onto the stage (see Castellucci's rather more successful Die Zauberföte again) and the impressive efforts to pull it all together into a coherent whole, it doesn't always succeed in finding the human warm within the work where it traditionally should. The idea of making Don Giovanni and Leporello look almost identical is another fine idea that makes the identity confusion more realistic, but it also loses something when the two baritones are practically indistinguishable.

Perhaps just as much at fault as the production, the singing didn't quite measure up or compensate for the lack of human warmth in the production. The singing is generally fine, and of a very high standard, as you would expect, but despite good performances from Davide Luciano as Don Giovanni (stripped fully naked at the finale) and Vito Priante as Leporello, and with perhaps the sole exception of a mighty performance from Nadezhda Pavlova as Donna Anna, the production never allowed you to engage with any of the characters of at least sympathise with their dilemma. Overall, this feels like an admirable production with good ideas and visuals, that despite its controversial trappings, plays out nonetheless in a rather run of the mill fashion.

Links: Salzburg Festival, ARTE Concert

Sunday, 15 August 2021

Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Aix-en-Provence, 2021)

Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2021

Simon Rattle, Simon Stone, Stuart Skelton, Nina Stemme, Jamie Barton, Josef Wagner, Franz-Josef Selig, Dominic Sedgwick, Linard Vrielink, Ivan Thirion

ARTE Concert - 8th July 2021

Director Simon Stone typically approaches Tristan und Isolde in his 2021 Aix-en-Provence Festival production with the intention of updating the opera to a more meaningful contemporary age. As wrong-headed as that might seem, since the drama - such as it is - and principal motivating force in Wagner's opera and music score takes place in a realm almost entirely outside of any physical time or place, Stone nonetheless has good form with his modern updates both in the world of opera and in the theatre. There's a complete reworking of the drama and the motivating forces behind it in this production, but Wagner's sublime music proves - as always - to be supremely capable of withstanding and supporting any number of extravagant directorial ideas and concepts. 

If you want to relocate Tristan und Isolde in the present day, minus magic love potions and the forced relocation of the Queen of Ireland by sea to a forced marriage with the King of Cornwall, you do nonetheless need to replace it with something suitable and meaningful. There's a natural division in the opera between the physical reality and an idealised dream-like exploration of powerful forces that extend beyond and transcend material human boundaries. Krzysztof Warlikowski also recently exploited that division in his 2021 Munich production and for the festival at Aix, Stone proposes viewing the heightened reality as a kind of love/vengeance fantasy on the part of the disturbed mind of a wife whose husband has been unfaithful to her.

Much of this is laid out in the Vorspiel and inevitably Wagner's music has a lot of weight to carry in order to establish this as any kind of viable idea to impose upon Tristan und Isolde. Witnessing her husband (Tristan) canoodling with a work colleague or friend at a dinner party in their fancy apartment, Isolde goes to bed in Act I dreaming of stormy sea with ideas of burning revenge and probably divorce raging in her dreams. Rather than drink from some arcane flask of magic potion, here at the conclusion of Act I it's a collection of prescription drugs and a cachet of cocaine in a cardboard shoe box that acts as a drug to heighten the personal turmoil of emotions going on between them.

As ever in this particular work, you need to carry this though to its conclusion to determine whether this domestic arrangement can be sustained, but it has to be said that Stone at least does establish it in spectacular fashion in Act I. You might be less inclined to go along with this idea as it is initially laid out where it not for the power of Wagner's music to scour the depths of human emotional response. It sustains the dramatic and conflicting tensions of love, hatred and desire that exists between Tristan and Isolde through to the release from any inhibiting factors to its expression at the end of the first act. There's still quite a bit to go though, and it's not easy to piece it all together into something coherent in Stone's production.

Act II abruptly takes us to an office where Isolde appears to be the manager, where the staff - in line with present circumstances - observe social distancing and mask wearing in the workplace. The day after the night before, the consequences still reverberating in Wagner's score, Tristan is shown the door with his suitcase. His reappearance in the office however leads - slightly confusingly - to a seamless flashback of the consuming love the two of them once had. To add to the complex layering of the situation and the resonances in Wagner's music, younger Tristans and Isoldes re-enact the beginning of their affair in parallel scenes during 'O sink hernieder'. It's revealed that the affair indeed started as an office romance when Isolde was already married and had a young child, the discovery of the affair breaking up her marriage.

It's not the traditional telling of the story of Tristan und Isolde by any means and it risks undermining the context and intended meaning of the drama, but it certainly touches on the underlying sentiments, if somewhat obliquely. More than that it in fact, with a vision of an elderly Isolde and Tristan in a wheelchair, it attempts to telescope the entirety of sentiments that contribute to a fully rounded and lived relationship, and encapsulate within it the depth of feeling that two people can have for one another. It's not just two people each with the own feelings but something greater that has grown between them, a love that is called Tristan AND Isolde, something that exceeds the boundaries of flesh and blood existence and can only reach its fulfilment in death. And damned if you don't feel that when it is laid out like this.

Laying it out, as simply as possible in all its complexity, is indeed the purpose of a director and Stone achieves that to a remarkable degree. It's no mean feat to match and fuse the sentiments expressed in the music and in the abstract dramatic expression of what love means, and translate that into into something relatable. For the most part, Stone makes every moment feel meaningful and prevents anything from dragging - King Marke's monologue excepted, which eludes even Stone's ability, particularly as it's difficult to figure out what this Marke's relationship is with Isolde in the layered timeline. Obviously she's his wife at this point, but after Act I it's not that clear how it has come about. On the other hand, Isolde seeing Tristan wounded by Melot at the end of Act II and attempting to take her own life seems like a thoughtful pertinent touch.

Things perhaps become clearer in Act III, showing how the latter scene was in the main a flashback interlude at a point where Isolde had left Marke for Tristan. There is a murmur in the audience as Act III opens - defying even the wildest expectations of where this might be going - on a moving train running through the Paris underground Metro line. It sure as heck wasn't going to be the usual static scene on Kareol anyway. Closer to the immediate aftermath of the Christmas party, here Tristan and Isolde are on their way to a function - or perhaps an opera  - in formal dress. Or more likely since they are heading out of the city - stopping at each of the stations on the Porte des Lilas line - just back from one. At the conclusion - major spoiler alert - Isolde catches Tristan texting his mistress and Melot defends her honour by stabbing Tristan as the passengers get off at their station.

I don't really care what justification Stone has for this, and I'm not even sure it goes against my previous belief that Tristan und Isolde is stronger when it plays out in the abstract, letting the spirit of the work and the music flow without being tied to any realistic physical realm. A subway train is both as abstract and as real as any a place for Tristan to agonise through his last moments of life, in isolation amidst the oblivious and sometimes concerned glances of the other passengers. It has a suitable air of surrealism about it, being vaguely unsettling or disorientating, as the tube of the train, authentic from the upholstery of the seats down to the graffiti tags on the wall, shuttles alone relentlessly from station to station.

Everything that Act III needs to be however is there most critically in the performances of Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme. While he cuts a less than heroic romantic figure than you would usually expect of a Tristan in Act I, and looks somewhat shamefaced like a naughty schoolboy at being caught out by Marke and Melot in Act II, the true depth of his feeling, his love psychosis, is felt in Skelton's powerful, deeply felt performance throughout. Freshly wounded again on the Paris Metro in Act III, what is essentially put across is a sense of deep loss and the pain of it.

Here Stone takes the liberty of reworking the Liebestod - a daring venture if nothing else for it being one of the most sublime moments ever written in all of opera, and one that really shouldn't be messed with. Replaying the devastating scene of Tristan being caught texting a lover, but this time without the stabbing, the consummation of their love in death might not be exactly the kind Wagner was aiming for, but it's immensely powerful nonetheless. Tristan has lost his Isolde and it feels like the end of the world. Utterly devastating, it manages to evoke the higher spiritual level of the work while simultaneously bringing it down to earth. You can't argue with the sincerity of intent nor the effectiveness with which that is achieved. Stemme and Skelton do their part to bring that about, but there are also tremendous performances from Jamie Barton as Brangäne, Josef Wagner as Kurwenal and Franz-Joseph Selig as Marke. Simon Rattle's conducting and the performance of the orchestra is also hard to fault.

Links: Festival Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert

Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Munich, 2021)

Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2021

Kirill Petrenko, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Jonas Kaufmann, Mika Kares, Anja Harteros, Wolfgang Koch, Sean Michael Plumb, Okka von der Damerau, Dean Power, Christian Rieger, Manuel Günther

Staatsoper TV Live Stream - 31 July 2021

The final production of Nikolaus Bachler’s exceptional tenure as General Manager of the Bavarian State Opera may not be a perfect send-off, but it's certainly one that typifies his time there. It's a style that is adventurous, takes chances and divides audiences, and putting Krzysztof Warlikowski on Tristan und Isolde is something of a gamble. It's not uncommon to be left confused about what is going on and what the point of a production is, but more often than not, Munich productions manage to find a way to connect with a work in new and interesting ways. Warlikowski production of Tristan und Isolde actually doesn't appear that adventurous or controversial, or at least no more absurd and bizarre than a work with magic love potions, over-fervent raptures and philosophical ideas wrapped up in flowery language.

This time it looks - as with his Don Carlos - as if Warlikowski has again run out of ideas when confronted with the big beasts of opera. On one level, Tristan und Isolde takes place mainly within the ordinary surroundings of a wood-panelled 1920s' hotel room, while on another level, projections show an alternate - perhaps heightened emotional or fantasy - playing out of events. On one level it's Christoph Loy and another it's Bill Viola, whose extraordinary art installation screens for the Paris Tristan und Isolde separated the physical or material with projections of the ecstatic spiritual heights that would otherwise be difficult to translate into purely human actions on the stage. And when music and visuals come together, this opera can certainly achieve that level of transcendence.

Warlikowski's lack of any new ideas to separate those states (and connect them) is most evident in Act II. There's a build-up here that is expressed as the secret lovers meet that demands a corresponding gradual increasing intensity of feeling before they almost dissolve in rapture, but where little happens on a dramatic level other than the inevitable release of tension - a false release - with their discovery by Marke. On the stage in this production, there's not a lot going on and little visual sign of such deep feeling as it is expressed in the music. Warlikowski takes it to the other level in the projections that show the lovers physically separate but tantalisingly close, as water rushes out beneath the bed they lie on and submerges them.

The director emphasises this separation of the world we see and the one we feel right from the start, using people dressed as dummies with no distinguishing features to stand in for Tristan and Isolde during the Vorspiel. Its not so much an idealised form as a negation of one, where the physical characteristics don't matter as much as the interior lives. Without wishing to 'body shame' any performers, there's nothing new about that idea, and opera viewers have had to use their imagination to see less than perfect human forms and shapes aspire to an image of sublime godlike perfection ever since opera was invented.

You can take this idea too far - and Warlikowski inevitably does - bringing the dummies back as a doubles for Tristan and Isolde in Act III, populating Kareol with baby Tristans who, for some obscure reason, sit around a table in the wood-panelled room setting that the director also seems to have settled upon for no discernible reason. It takes more than a few odd references and mannerisms however to hold Tristan und Isolde back from reaching its goal, and it does seem to be the case that there's no need to be hasty in judgements; you need to wait and see where this takes us, and if any work repays delayed gratification, it's surely this one.

Warlikowski, for all his mannerisms and lack of any imaginative response to Tristan und Isolde (compared for example to Simon Stone's recent production at the Aix-en Provence festival that I viewed just a week before this), does however bring out one element of the work that hadn't really struck me before. I'm not quite sure how he does it, since there is little that visually alludes to it, but between him and Jonas Kaufmann, it's possible to see the commonalities of themes in Tristan that are developed further in Parsifal. The pain of the wound, the enlightenment through pain to consider one's origins, birth and mother's suffering on the way to achieving an enlightened state. Kaufmann - and very much Harteros too - at least made it feel that there is something deeper behind the pathology of both characters in their conflation of love and death, and it has nothing to do with a magic love potion. Their love-death union is derived from an awareness of human existence and love as a path to attain spiritual bliss that can only be completely fulfilled in the union of death.

Anja Harteros in fact embodies this much better than Kaufmann. She is a fine singer and a superb actress; you can practically see the music and every emotion it provokes flow through her. Her embodiment and communication of a role I find is always unerringly accurate - or makes you believe it so - but her voice isn't always able to match the same heights, particularly in the Wagnerian range. She's good, a true artist, but just not fully up to the demands of Isolde here right across the board. Kaufmann is also very weak, struggling to gain volume over the surge of the orchestra, but he is also simply unconvincing in a role that demands total and utter commitment. Kaufmann and Harteros have been much more convincing as a duo in Verdi, in Otello, in La Forza del destino and in Giordano's Andea Chenier, but most assuredly not in their role debuts as Tristan and Isolde.

There's no question however that both give it their all and Kaufmann is actually quite impressive in the critical Act III. I thought he might hold back from the exceptional demands placed on Tristan in this Act, and holding back is not something you can do in this opera. As committed as his Act III is, and as well as it is delivered, it still seems to lack the underlying conviction, of someone dying and longing to die, but unwilling to do so while his soulmate is still alive and separated from him - on several planes of existence. It's a lack of connection to his character here that I've felt in some of Kaufmann's performances; in some it might not matter so much in some works, but in Don Carlos and in Tristan und Isolde - two of the pinnacles of opera - half-measures and almost-theres are not good enough. 

With neither Kaufmann, Harteros nor Warlikowski being entirely up to the admittedly huge task of Tristan und Isolde, Kirill Petrenko - another person who has a huge impact in making Munich one of the centres of exciting opera in Europe - has his work cut out for him. In the absence of any kind of real stirring of passion on the stage, he has to make the music do most of the work. He doesn't quite manage it and in fact, judging by the sound purely on the live stream performance, it feels like he is trying too hard. He pushes the orchestra to those extremes, trying to conjure up day and night, light and dark, but there is little on the stage to match the intent, and the work often sounds aggressive. He is of course aware of the dynamic and pace and is able to rein it in and slow it down for 'O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe' in Act II, before building up the rush of emotions (the preparation of lethal injections, the lovers awash in a hotel room) that is shattered by the arrival of Melot and Marke. If it's fury you want to show, this is the way to play it, but it should be disappointment and resignation, shock and disillusionment. And credit where its due, you can see it in Harteros, if nowhere else.

Think what you will of the singing and the production - and there's good support from Wolfgang Koch and Okka von der Damerau as Kurwenal and Brangäne - but there is nothing else in all opera like the Liebestod and the finale of Tristan und Isolde. It's one of the most sublime expressions of human feeling put into music or indeed any form of art, unparalleled in its capacity to reach deep inside and express something wonderfully mysterious and sublime. Despite the imperfections elsewhere, Kaufmann's final utterance of "...Isolde" and Harteros's soaring Liebestod touch on the work's extraordinary and unmatched core of emotions, the essence of life and death, of striving for a love that surpasses human boundaries and attains something spiritual and sublime. Despite the failings of the production as a whole, this moment as ever is worth waiting for. And if it still achieves its purpose, what has come before and the contributions of the performers must have succeeded on some level.