Sunday, 28 May 2023

Mozart - Così fan tutte (Dublin, 2023)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Così fan tutte

Irish National Opera, 2023

Peter Whelan, Polly Graham, Anna Devin, Sharon Carty, Benjamin Russell, Dean Power, Majella Cullagh, John Molloy 

The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin - 27th May 2023

For a long time sceptical about whether Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto of farce and misogyny had withstood the test of time and changing attitudes, I've certainly been won around to the true qualities of the work in modern productions that have actually revealed Così fan tutte to be far more layered and meaningful than you would think. I still don't envy any director having to choose how best to bring those qualities out, whether to play it as a straight comedy or whether to mine the deeper attitudes expressed for contemporary relevance. The Irish National Opera production, a touring production directed by Polly Graham, tries to pitch it somewhere in between and doesn't really succeed in doing full justice to either side of the work.

Where it does bring a distinctive touch is in the Irish historical setting. Opera should be tailored to and relatable to its audience, not presented as some stuffy period costume drama museum piece, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it has to be updated and made contemporary. Opera can still speak of contemporary issues if it can be related to a significant period, and such a period in Ireland (and elsewhere in the world) can be found in the early twentieth century. The nature and status of women is a theme worth exploring in Così fan tutte and Ireland has been slow to deal with women's rights which were the subject of interest with the rise of the suffragettes around this time, and that is certainly highlighted here.

War and revolution too since it's revealed that the year is 1914, but that's a little more problematic to add into the farce of this opera, with Guglielmo and Ferrando pretending to head off to fight in the trenches as part of an Irish battalion. It fits well enough though for the purposes of the production, and when the two return disguised as filmmakers with berets and moustaches, making a silent movie about Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna, it's a little more meaningful and acceptable than making fun of oriental costumes, customs and appearances. That's fine as far as it goes, but in terms of direction it feels a little forced, flat, haphazard and inconsistent in its approach, gaining neither sufficient laughs nor significance in exploring the nature of women and men or indeed providing a lesson in the vagaries of love.

The resultant production design then was also something of a mixed bag. Sure, it has necessarily has to be basic in terms of set designs and effects, designer Jamie Vartan using projections to open it out a little and establish the period with newspaper articles and a sketched big house on the hill. I never quit grasped what the stately manor was about, other than perhaps how chorus of Irish women were treated as servants and second class citizens by the landed gentry. It wasn't a particularly impressive or eye-catching set, a huge hard plastic looking green blob representing a hill with a tiny 'big house' on top that was picked up and carried around by the cast for no discernable reason. Nor could I figure out the nature of Don Alfonso in this setting, walking around in a long house coat in a somewhat professorial manner with Ferrando and Guglielmo his students. None of it quite hit the mark.

To be fair, as ambitious as the Irish National Opera can be, even with reinterpretations of the standards of the opera repertoire, playing to the darker side of Così fan tutte is perhaps not really what they want to do with an opera buffa, particularly for a touring production. Leave that to the likes of Michael Haneke (Madrid, 2013) and Christophe Honoré (Aix-en-Provence, 2016). What they really want to get across is the wonder and beauty of Mozart, and there is no denying what we have here is a light and enjoyable production that certainly entertained the audience at the Gaiety in Dublin. Even though the Votes for Women scenes felt a bit forced in places, like a well meaning corrective for any misinterpretation of misogyny in the comedy. I have to admit, I enjoyed it more after the interval when I accepted the simple pleasure of seeing an amazing Mozart opera performed well, and was able to put aside any expectations of it having something significant to say.

There was certainly plenty to enjoy in the delivery of the singing performances. Anna Devin and Sharon Carty were everything you could hope for as Fiordiligi and Dorabella, their delivery bright and sparkling, filled with emotional sentiments, even if their predicament wasn't fully brought out in the direction of the acting. The same can be said for Dean Power's Ferrando and Benjamin Russell's Guglielmo. Neither were convincing in their disguises, but the emotional impact of the revelations they have about their girlfriends were wholly felt in their singing, which was powerful and true. The ever reliable John Molloy similarly made a great impression, even if his role as a manipulator was undervalued in the direction. On the other hand, Majella Cullagh delivered a fine comic performance in Despina's various guises and was the prime motivator in bringing the two sisters into the new sisterhood, but was slightly underpowered in her singing. It just shows how difficult all the singing roles are in Mozart - there are no secondary or minor roles here.

All credit to the principal roles then (and great idea of the INO to display the cast names in the surtitles as they took their bows at the curtain call), but you can't have any weaknesses at all in a meticulously constructed opera like this. The chorus played their part and the orchestra delivered the musical delights under the direction of Peter Whelan. The niggling inconsistencies in the setting and purpose were easily put aside then, as was any attempt to seek something deeper in Polly Graham's direction of the INO's Così fan tutte. The 'they're all the same' message here was simply that we all deserve to be loved and treated equally, and that was as truthful a reflection of the opera's intent as any.

Links: Irish National Opera

Saturday, 4 March 2023

Wagner - Das Rheingold (London, 2023)

Richard Wagner - The Rhinegold

English National Opera, London - 2023

Martyn Brabbins, Richard Jones, John Relyea, Leigh Melrose, Frederick Ballentine, Madeleine Shaw, John Findon, Christine Rice, Katie Lowe, Julian Hubbard, Blake Denson, Simon Bailey, James Creswell, Eleanor Dennis, Idunnu Münch, Katie Stevenson

The Coliseum, London - 26th February 2023

I wouldn't expect every production of Das Ring des Niebelungen to be as elaborately layered and provocative as a Frank Castorf Ring cycle, as irreverently humanising as a Dmitri Tcherniakov production or as distinctive and gloriously impenetrable as the Achim Freyer Mannheim Ring, but you would like a new production of Das Rheingold to open with at least some new ideas and twists that you could look forward to being developed further down the line. Such expectations however have already been suitably adjusted in view of the fact that Richard Jones's Die Walküre, or The Valkyrie, has already made its appearance at the ENO before the first part of the tetralogy and it didn't seem to offer anything new or promising. The same goes even more so for The Rhinegold which, aside from modern costumes, plays it fairly straight and safe, having nothing much new to add to Wagner Ring mythology, but as with the first/second installment, nonetheless putting it across in an entertaining and enjoyable manner.

What is perhaps more notable about the performance I attended at the Coliseum was the audience that turned out to fill the hall; an audience on average younger than you would often see at opera and it turned out to be also an appreciative one for what Wagner's Das Rheingold has to offer, or at least for Richard Jones's version of what The Rhinegold has to offer. That's all the more interesting since this is the first opera I've seen there since the Arts Council England's shortsighted, misguided and philistine threat to cut and remove funding for the ENO. While the future of this Ring cycle and the company still lies in the balance, it was nonetheless heartening to see this kind of turnout and support for the artform. The ENO's programme brings me, like many others, into London to see productions like this every year and has done for many years in the past, paying for flights, accommodation and meals that contribute to the UK economy, and I hope to continue to be able to do so in the future...

...As I did for The Valkyrie in 2021, and what largely was written then - by me as well as others - holds true to The Rhinegold. As engaging as it was, engaging also to a significant extent with the narrative of Wagner's original stage directions, it didn't have anything new or insightful to say about the work. By the same token, other than perhaps for a few moments, neither did it betray the tone and character of the work. There were certainly a few quirks and some ideas that didn't quite strike the right note in the right place - the sombre contemplative notes of the opera's origin myth flowing into the shimmer of the Rhine were somewhat sacrificed to a semi-comic routine of a naked man dragging a large branch from the world ash tree across the stage that is eventually crafted into Wotan's staff/spear. There is a meaningful point to be made here, the ecological exploitation of the planet setting us on a path to destruction, but the message is somewhat lost in this routine. Elsewhere however the key scenes were at least delivered with appropriate impact, musically, narratively and in the fine singing.

You would think that if you are going to make such an issue of the forging of Wotan's staff - or spear in its eventual form - that it might become a prominent feature or motif throughout, and while it certainly featured and was wielded to such effect, it wasn't to any evident purpose, and certainly not to any purpose that I can recall becoming any clearer in Die Walküre. In fact, the downside of performing the two operas out of order tends to emphasise the disconnect between them, in the overall look and appearance, in the inconsistency of the costume design (Wotan in a purple-blue neat suit here for some reason takes to sporting a bright red puffa jacket in Die Walküre) and set design (the steel shuttered Valhalla becoming more of a log cabin in Die Walküre). Should the ENO's Ring cycle make it to its conclusion (one can only hope, as it is still very much worth it), the idea of each of the constituent parts being distinct from each other is a unique feature (Castorf's aside, even though they were all connected by a very strong and consistent anti-capitalism theme) that should at least keep things interesting.

Other than that, Jones didn't give you too much to think about, or at least - like the Rhinemaidens wearing gym gear - nothing worth thinking to hard about to try to see any kind of rhyme or reason behind it (too fit for Alberich to catch? - as I said, you could find reasons if you like, but nothing worth the effort). In terms of look and appearance, the scene of Alberich being bewitched and teased by the Rhinemaidens was, as you would expect, colourful, attractive and slightly camp in a simple basic way, the Rhine represented by a surrounding curtain of glitter, Alberich arising from a hole in an otherwise fairly bare stage (making it all less effective if you are viewing it from a high vantage point in the Gallery). As with The Valkyrie, black clothed 'invisible' figures helped move things around, here permitting Alberich and the Rhinemaidens some swimming and floating movements, which worked well enough.

Aside from the obligatory avoidance of anything in terms of traditional costumes, it was pretty much according to the libretto, or at least to the same intent and purpose. The gold of the Rhine was initially shaped as an child-size baby puppet (manipulated by the black figures), but soon took a more traditional form, again through a series of transitions, from a crumpled sheet to flattened ingots and eventually, believe it or not, to an actual ring of a size that you can fit on your finger. An actual ring, I tell you! I'm not used to such literal fidelity in a modern production of Das Ring des Nibelungen. Nibelheim on the other hand resembled not so much a heavy industry factory as a production line in a bakery, with the dwarfs wearing chef caps. As I said, don't think too much about it...

The majority of Das Rheingold of course takes place in Valhalla and Jones didn't reveal too much of that, the giants presumably withholding the keys to the newly constructed abode of the Gods until they had received the agreed remuneration for their labours (nope, no hint of any commentary approaching Castorf's emphasis on that aspect), so it might well have been the log cabin we see in Die Walkure. The shimmering curtain remains in the surround, and we have conglomerations of white globes on stilts that could be abstract clouds. Again, I wasn't inclined to think to much about it other than it was all pleasant and decorative enough. What matters more is what take place within it.

What takes place within it sticks fairly closely to the original storyline. Aside from Freia being transported on the back of the Giants' work van, the exchange rate for her is indeed measured against the accumulation of trays of Rhine gold ingots to her height - and don't forget to throw that tiny Ring in. That's fine as far as it goes, but essentially what Richard Jones and conductor Martyn Brabbins working together successfully achieve is getting the necessary impact for each of those key moments and scenes. The brutal killing of Fafner by Fasolt (a dummy brought on in an off-stage switch) battered about the head with a gold ingot was particularly forceful. The arrival of Erda (with the Norn as three schoolgirls? Your guess is as good as mine), sung impressively by Christine Rice, also created the necessary gravity and impact, together heralding the tragedy of the curse of the Ring that will (we hope) play out in future installments. The shimmering fall of rainbow glitter for the bridge to Valhalla, and the lockdown against the Rhinemaidens at the conclusion seemed an appropriate way, in Richard Jones terms if nothing else, for everything that came before.

Some moments of levity in the Tarnhelm episode were balanced in this way by the gravity of what the Ring's preliminary evening prologue lays down, and the balance was supported by the characterisation and singing. As noted above, Christine Rice in particular made that small but significant and truly Wagnerian impression as Erda, but there were notable performances also from John Relyea as Wotan, Leigh Melrose as Alberich, and a suitably shifty portrayal of Loge by Frederick Ballentine. Madeleine Shaw's Fricka and Katie Lowe's Freia contributed to the family dynamic alongside the entertaining comic action hero shapes thrown by Julian Hubbard's Froh and Blake Denson's Donner. The giants might not have had much physical stature in this production but I enjoyed Simon Bailey and James Creswell's Fasolt and Fafner.

I can't say that Martyn Brabbins' conducting of the orchestra made a huge impact - maybe I was focussing too much on giving the production and sets design more thought than it merited after all - but neither did I notice anything that felt out of place in pacing, delivery, the surge of leitmotifs or in the whole continuous flow of this marvellous work. Some of the music press appear to have been more generous about this production - whether it's a show of solidarity with the proposed fate of the ENO, I couldn't say, but such sentiments can be excused, as the loss of the ENO in London would be a serious blow for opera lovers, for London, for arts, culture and for tourism. I don't expect Bayreuth at the Coliseum, but who in any other part of the country - certainly not here in Belfast - is going to have the resources to present not only an entertaining and accessible Ring cycle to a diverse audience, but a solid programme of great opera every year? If not in the Coliseum, at least keep the ENO funded and in London. Its loss would be very much regretted and missed by this opera-goer at least.

Links: English National Opera

Sunday, 19 February 2023

Mazzoli - The Listeners (Oslo, 2022)

Missy Mazzoli - The Listeners

Den Norske Opera & Ballett, Oslo - 2022

Ilan Volkov, Lileana Blain-Cruz, Nicole Heaston, Simon Neal, Tone Kummervold, Eirik Grøtvedt, Johannes Weisser, Frøy Hovland Holtbakk, Håvard Stensvold, Martin Hatlo, Line Tørmoen, Ingunn Kilen, Ørjan Bruskeland Hinna, Megan Gryga, Margaret Newcomb, Jeanette Goldstein, Mathea Kvalvåg-Andersen, Nora Windfeldt, Cecilie C. Ødegården, Mihai Florin Simboteanu, Anne-Marie Andersen

OperaVision - 9th October 2022

When you get right down to it and view it in broad terms, all operas are about life, love and human existence in the face of adversity. That's remained true for all the differences in style and period over the centuries. It applies to L'Orfeo as much as it does to Einstein on the Beach, much as the latter is ostensibly and to all intents about nothing at all. The nature of the adversity faced over the ages changes with society, so it shouldn't really be a surprise when a modern opera deals with modern concerns in a modern way, using situations and the kind of people we see today.

That of course can vary greatly, as much as the problems generated by living in the modern world varies greatly, whether it's climate disaster or the end of the world as we know it from European perspective in Fafchamps' Is This The End?, in Sivan Eldar's Like Flesh, Tom Coult's Violet, or the African-American experience of Terence Blanchard's Fire Shut Up in my Bones. American composer Missy Mazzoli's musical language seems more akin to modern European music of the likes of Louis Andriessen, while the setting of The Listeners is very much in the language and experience of the American lifestyle, where perhaps the human issues it deals with is more pronounced. Essentially however, it deals with matters that are becoming more and more prevalent in modern society and as such a suitable subject for an opera to deal with.

What is at the root of the problems is not entirely pinned down, the opera presenting something of a J.G. Ballard science-fiction social dystopia situation (albeit one based on a real phenomenon), but in itself that difficulty in defining it is part of the issue, as everyone has their own experience. Here it manifests as a low hum that is affecting their mood and sleep of a section of the population of a small American town. It's presumably more serious than tinnitus, which in itself is no minor ailment, of course. The implication of the title perhaps suggests that there are a group of people who might be more alert to something that runs deeper, a malaise that is seeping into our consciousness because of the type of lives we lead, the pressures we face around us, or indeed the constant hum of never ending and seemingly increasingly troubling news horror stories.

That aligns The Listeners very much with a predominant theme in contemporary opera and in literature, a similar "hum" presaging the end days in the diminishing of time in Coult's Violet, a metaphor for the rapidity with which we appear to be heading towards social and climatic breakdown. Another approach is in a new book I read recently by Hanna Jameson, Are You Happy Now?, which takes a particularly Millennial generation view of how society has left young people, or people of an in-between generation with the growing realisation that they have no control over their lives and are ill equipped emotionally, mentally for the society that has been determined for them to live in. This leads to an outbreak of what can be described as an epidemic of catatonic depression.

There's a similar deeply troubling personal response to the persistent low hum that is experienced by Claire Devon, a schoolteacher in the community of Ranchland. It's causing problems for her family who don't hear the noise and think she is going crazy. She confides her problem with one of her students, Kyle, whose studies are suffering because of the low hum and he directs them towards a group of people he has found on the Internet who also hear the hum. Lead by an enigmatic guru, Howard Bard, inevitably their meetings and sharing of experiences lead to the group behaving like a cult. And inevitably that tends to get taken advantage. Does Bard really have answers or is he a liar and a fraud?

It's certainly possible to see a contemporary political dimension in this, in a group of people troubled by society seeking answers and solutions from a populist leader, but the subject could be viewed in any number of ways, from personal to social crisis, mental health to conspiracy theories. I said at the start that all operas touch on the same underlying human questions, and there are wider applications that apply here, but it can often seem like modern operas lack the sophistication or glamour of the classics. That's not necessarily so, particularly as most modern productions also try and bring the high-flown otherworldly elements of gods, kings, wars and mythological classics a little more down to earth and relatable in human terms, but there is no reason either why that idea can't also be somewhat reversed and elevated when it comes to modern opera.

The situations and dialogue in The Listeners however are mainly everyday and domestic with ordinary spoken language, sex scenes and strong language. Some might not like it, but that's how people live and it's more often in those domestic situations, at home, at work, in the talk and gossip of others, that we feel those pressures most acutely. Turning a constant background hum of everyday life into an epidemic does permit the opera to take on a more abstract and dramatic form, and although the goings-on of the cult might be seen to slightly dominate over any message, it's very well put together in terms of characterisation, situation and narrative. The musical construction of the opera is fascinating too, but more of that later.

That is not to say that there are what might be perceived as weaknesses. Who exactly are the Listeners? Is it a conspiracy theory of government surveillance and control? Is it the people who not so much take notice that something is wrong in the world but people who actively listen out for it and can't ignore what they hear. That could also be taken as conspiracy theorists, so there is some ambiguity about how you feel about Claire sharing her experiences with other like-minded people who believe they can see things others don't. I'm not sure where the composer and librettist stand on this, even though obviously the cult is depicted as manipulative, but the message and outcome remains ambiguous. Then again ambiguity isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it allows for the opera to be interpreted and not remained fixed to a single preachy viewpoint.

I not against modern opera using direct modern day language rather than any high-flown poetry. A certain abstraction might serve to draw more out of the complex but specific political content in John Adams's operas like Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic and The Death of Klingfhoffer. Royce Vavrek's libretto may be rather more plain-speaking, but there are surely better ways of expressing deep personal conflict and confusion than in banalities like Claire sharing her feelings with a coyote in the a refrain of "Me and you. We're not so different". Strong language I don't have a problem and I don't expect deep philosophical pondering, but little of whatever you think is confronted here initially appears to be backed up with any strong message in the content or the music.

It's a good idea however to gather the views/confessions of other 'ordinary' people, listeners like Angela and Thom who express and give a wider perspective on the attitudes and experiences that inform their view of the world and their belief in the group. Inevitably it's a sense of feeling isolated, unable to connect and relate to others, their potential suppressed by social order and expectations. It's perhaps there that the idea and warning of The Listeners comes through. People are "notes in the bigger chord" and need validation not dismissal, not letting their fears take over and destroy them, not let the 'dark web' so to speak, take them. Or more relevantly, since there is room for interpretation here, allowing political leaders to feed and exploit their fears. Self empowerment, if you like, but it remains ambiguous how much this should be indulged.

It helps that the opera is well-staged, well-lit and well-directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, avoiding clichés that could be suggested by the smalltown American setting and subject. There is a good use of projections, web chat, TV news broadcasts and live projections of people's confessions to Howard Bard's camera. It captures a sense of the complexities of the world we live in, gaining multiple perspectives and within them the cracks where people can fall. The singing and dramatic performances are good right across the board, making use of these seemingly secondary characters to widen and deepen the perspective. Eirik Grøtvedt stands out in particular as Kyle, and Tone Kummervold brings character and colour as Angela. Howard Bard might be more of a stock cult leader personality, but there is also a good singing here from Simon Neal. All of the 'secondary characters' bring something to the performance.

The highest praise however has to go to Nicole Heaston as Claire. It's a terrific performance that engages all the way through. Her character deals with considerable pressure and consequently has challenging vocal expression. And, true enough, Heaston can make a 'Shut the fuck up!' sound lyrical and cutting at the same time. Some might not like that in an opera, but it's not that far removed from Maria Stuarda's 'Vil bastarda!' written nearly 200 years ago, delivered here to much the same intent and effect.

Musically, I haven't come across the music of Missy Mazzoli before or yet had the chance to see Breaking the Waves, but it strikes me as similar to John Adams with a more European sensibility of Louis Andriessen. There is no harsh dissonance, some Leoš Janáček-like rhythmic pulses, motifs and a richness in instrumentation with sparing use of electronic effects that provide colour and texture. In more than capable hands of conductor Ilan Volkov, there is a lot of interest to find in the score. Considering the subject you might expect some low level electronic drone music, but - tellingly perhaps - none is heard. You can hear the hum of the listeners, a counteractive force to the noise rises to the fore in the chorus at the end of Act. "We harness the hum, we build the harmony", but whether all is as harmonious as that suggests is left tantalisingly open to interpretation.

Links: Den Norske Opera & Ballett, OperaVision

Monday, 13 February 2023

Tchaikovsky - The Queen of Spades (Brussels, 2022)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Pikovaya Dama

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2022

Nathalie Stutzmann, David Marton, Dmitry Golovnin, Laurent Naouri, Jacques Imbrailo, Anne Sofie von Otter, Anna Nechaeva, Charlotte Hellekant, Alexander Kravets, Mischa Schelomianski, Maxime Melnik, Justin Hopkins, Mireille Capelle, Emma Posman

OperaVision - 23 September 2022

Although visually it clearly takes place in late Soviet-era USSR, everyone wearing 1970s' costumes in the courtyard exterior and assumed interiors of a Soviet tenement block, it is of course tempting to see something of the current conflict in Ukraine in David Marton's 2022 production of Tchaikovsky's Pikovaya Dama/The Queen of Spades for La Monnaie, the production playing out much at the same time in September 2022 as the Russian invasion was at its height. While the period sets it apart and prevents it from making any ill-fitting and facile commentary on a serious and complex contemporary situation, Tchaikovsky's opera and indeed Pushkin's original ghost story do have something to say about the dangers of myths fuelling nationalistic delusions and war.

That's touched on in the children's chorus of the opening scene which otherwise has apparently little to do with the opera, a scene that would be difficult to imagine playing straight in the current circumstances and an example of how quickly 'innocent' intent can suddenly appear more sinister as times change. With this chorus of schoolboys lining up in a play-acted military march against Russia's enemies, Tchaikovsky could easily be outlawed (and has indeed been in some places) in the current climate where Russian artists and musicians are now viewed with suspicion. Marton however turns this into a more abstract scene, a Russian pianist centre stage, a radio playing the marching song, while a group of mothers listen to the broadcast of their sons with horror for what lies ahead.

It neatly sidesteps any controversy, not that La Monnaie ever work on the basis of playing safe in their productions, but it also sets the tone for what follows. The period and setting emphasise the divide between the rich and the poor, Liza the prize of the Prince that Hermann, hanging out with his chums in the tenement block, gambling, spending his money on black market goods, cannot hope to win. He knows he is a loser, not just in cards but in the game of life, and he feels that despair deeply, in the way that only the tragic figures of Russian literature can. And in a way that only a composer like Tchaikovsky, it his own troubled personal life, can put into music - as demonstrated in Stefan Herheim's 2016 production of this opera.

A creative director can of course delve into many different layers of this work, as Hans Neuenfels also did at Salzburg, using the children's march as a means of emphasising the strict rules of society that Hermann feels he has the right to place himself outside. What gives him the confidence to follow his own path in Marton's production is, like the empowerment of nationalistic exceptionalism expressed in the march, the lie of the myth of the Countess and the three cards that he chooses to believe in. He buys into it, but also buys a gun from a black market dealer to give him a little more power and influence. 

Marton of course doesn't keep it as simple as that and recognises the complexity of Tchaikovsky's music and the fact that art, opera and music have their part to play in exposing or examining the workings of the human mind, and indeed inspiring to go to war. Throughout the opera we see a man writing in a book, a libretto perhaps, and a pianist at the centre of the scene, Marton resisting however the temptation to go down Herheim's use of a Tchaikovsky doppelganger (or many of them, reflecting various sides of the composer). The two come together at the conclusion of the opera to reflect what they have experienced in the preceding episodes.

But art has other means and uses, particularly for ordinary people in the impoverished circumstances depicted in this era and this is also reflected in the setting. While the men are gambling, black market dealing or finding other ways of escape through alcohol, the women are seen looking to escape their surroundings, reading books, gazing into a glass of spirits, trying to catch a radio signal from the outside world. A young girl gazes at a globe, and Polina sings a melancholic song that observes: "What did I find in those enchanting dreams? A grave." Such scenes, as well as Tchaikovsky's pastorale and the arrival of Catherine the Great would feel out of place in this context, a divertissement in the middle of the near-contemporary realism depicted here, but it actually serves as another illusion to keep the peasants dreaming.

With a wealth of such material already provided by Tchaikovsky for a good director to use purposefully, there is no need then to bring any current conflict - which would certainly have been imminent during rehearsals - into the production. It's enough to perhaps just reference it to avoid any controversy of performing a Russian composer and let the opera deliver its own commentary on it, which it does most powerfully by taking things to their inevitable conclusion. Hermann is afflicted by madness to his 'cause', believing the words of an old woman on a payphone as if they are speaking a secret message to him. It means ruin and death and that is all that is left for Liza too. Dragged to her death by the same delusions of escape that had given her comfort.

Christian Friedländer set designs pitch the production into this ambiguous and divided world, somewhere between brutalism and romantic fantasy. The tenement block is stark enough to capture the romanticised view of the opera's ghost story running up against the harsh reality of ordinary people's lives, the contrasts of riches (or dreams of riches), with the impoverishment of their lives. Using the period, contrasting costumes of the real and the imagined, turning reality into art through the dreams of the secondary characters and chorus, in its own way it creates a visual representation of what opera does when art meets reality.

Conducted by Nathalie Stutzmann it's a strong musical performance, the orchestra delivering the high drama, matching the subtleties of Tchaikovsky's score to the underlying romantic sentiments and mad delusions. The singing performances are also a good fit for the roles, for the attack of the music and the intent of the stage direction. The Russian principals are excellent in this capacity, Dmitry Golovnin as Hermann and Anna Nechaeva as Liza both impassioned in their own ways. Jacques Imbrailo is fine as the Prince as is Anne Sofie von Otter, now at that stage in her career where she has the personality and character to take on the role of the Countess. There is good work also from the supporting roles and the chorus. It's not a classic production but one that is necessarily connected to a view of the times we are living under, a time of madness and a reminder that the only thing we can be sure of is death.

Links: La Monnaie streaming, OperaVision

Thursday, 19 January 2023

Wagner - Götterdämmerung (Berlin, 2022)

Richard Wagner - Götterdämmerung

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin - 2022

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

ARTE Concert - October 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 8 January 2023

Wagner - Siegfried (Berlin, 2022)

Richard Wagner - Siegfried

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin - 2022

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

ARTE Concert - October 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Staatsoper unter den LindenARTE Concert

Friday, 30 December 2022

Wagner - Die Walküre (Berlin, 2022)

Richard Wagner - Die Walküre

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin - 2022

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

ARTE Concert - October 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Staatsoper unter den LindenARTE Concert