Tuesday 31 December 2013

Verdi - La Traviata

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Teatro alla Scala, Milan - 2013

Daniele Gatti, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Diana Damrau, Piotr Beczala, Željko Lučić, Giuseppina Piconti, Mara Zampieri, Antonio Corianò, Roberto Accurso, Andrea Porta, Antrea Mastroni

ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming - 7th December 2013

Unsurprisingly, the opening night of the new season at La Scala was marked by controversy and the making of political statements. Not much changes then at the home of Italian opera, and even if much of the furore is unwarranted and probably manufactured, it's good to see an opera house being the place to air such passions. One would think that there was at least surely nothing to complain about in the choice of Verdi or in the superlative performance of La Traviata for the 7th December season opening night, but it seems that some people at La Scala would boo an empty stage.

The first political statement was of course made even before the evening began, and even before Daniele Gatti's call for a show of respect for the death of Nelson Mandela was met by a spontaneous round of applause rather than the expected minute's silence. It was the political choice of a Verdi opera to open the season, following the controversy of the year beginning with the other two-hundred year old birthday boy Richard Wagner, and the nationalistic approval of the choice was greeted with cries of 'Viva Verdi!' as the lights went down.

If the choice of Verdi seemed designed to appease the more vocal of the boorish loggionisti, the choice of director Dmitri Tcherniakov to mess with the maestro was almost certainly a move calculated to create controversy and generate headlines. Inevitably, despite this production of La Traviata being one of the director's most restrained, respectful and considered efforts, the headlines were indeed captured by a small group of idiots who were clearly intent on booing whatever the outcome. This resulted in Piotr Beczala vowing never to return to La Scala after the appalling behaviour of the audience, and Diana Damrau's Facebook page doing their best to distance the soprano from any controversy by noting that she was engaged to perform long before any production team was in place.

Was there any need for this? No, of course not. Any reasonable opera-goer would be floored by a La Traviata as good as this and be hard pressed to find any serious cause for complaint in either the cast, the performances or the staging. Indeed, you'd be hard pressed to find a better account of Verdi's masterpiece played anywhere in the world today. You're certainly not going to hear a Violetta Valery as good as Diana Damrau, and she was in superb form here, her singing not just flawless in terms of technique, but passionate, sensitive and dynamic in response to the drama. Damrau is one of the best sopranos in the world, but even she can't carry an opera on her own, and the supporting work and the direction all came together to make her performance shine all the brighter.

In terms of the production design, Tcherniakov is clearly aware that an opera like La Traviata doesn't need any 'concept' attached, and it doesn't have any weaknesses that need covered-over or updated. On the contrary, Tcherniakov's apparent hands-off approach actually went the opposite way as if to point out that the work is so strong that it doesn't need anything but the most basic of settings. It doesn't need the traditional elaborate costumes and plush interiors to depict the drama and the tragedy of human love, it just needs singers of great ability and attention paid to the dramatic tone. If you think a performance as good as this happens all by itself in a way that works seamlessly with all the other dramatic and performing elements, then you're seriously underestimating the role and the ability of the director.

I'll leave assessment of the interior design and the costumes to the fashion critics, and if you want to look for some of the director's more eccentric touches there may be something of a theme with dolls and angels, but however he did it, Tcherniakov's attention was clearly on matching the drama to the wealth of emotions and passions that are there in Verdi's extraordinary score. The most evident departures from the stage directions for example are in the gypsy entertainments at the start of Act II, Scene 2, where the director brings Alfredo in early and has the party songs directed at him as if they mean something. They don't quite match, and Alfredo looks rightly disconcerted here, as if everyone knows something about him and isn't letting him in on the joke - which in a way is true - but Willy Decker's production (seen most recently at the Met) plays on the same idea and does it much better.

The second part of Act II of La Traviata is indeed where all sorts of undercurrents and passions are expressed, words are spoken out of place and actions are misinterpreted and Tcherniakov managed to capture the unsettling quality of this key act in the above scene (one too often thrown-away or even, in more extreme cases, even cut), but he maintains the tension elsewhere in this scene in a variety of ways. The lights go out in an unsettling way a couple of times when Violetta arrives and when she steps forward to ponder the situation with Alfredo. It's difficult to find any more violent way of depicting Alfredo's public pay-back repudiation of Violetta than is already there in Verdi's music, but Tcherniakov convincingly shows an understanding Violetta attempting a conciliatory gesture, and the harsh dismissive gesture of Alfredo to an act of kindness makes this scene even more striking here.

Tcherniakov knows he can make this work because he has such a great cast who can not only sing well, but can act well enough to express the complicated mix of conflicting emotions that are at the heart of the work. Damrau commands the mixed emotions of every aria and cabaletta of every scene, from her impressive 'È strano ...sempre libera' that expresses childish excitement developing into rapturous joy tinged by fear and anxiety, through her fearful defiance and heroic capitulation to Giorgio Germont in Act II, to a simply stunning summation of the joy of living the moment of death in 'Addio del passato'. Surely one of the most challenging roles in the soprano repertoire, there are many who can do Violetta well, but few who can make this kind of impression and at the same time make the role entirely their own.

Alfredo can often be a thankless role, particularly if not given the same kind of attention by a director, but Tcherniakov would seem to have some sympathy for the character and his flaws and Piotr Beczala bravely (and thanklessly) puts all those characteristic out there on display. Alfredo is a bit wishy-washy at the start, and even with the Brindisi, Beczala seems only adequate to the role. Act II, Scene 1 is there for Alfredo's taking and the Polish tenor really develops into character here in such a way that his instability later in the Act becomes fascinating for how he deals with it. The potency of the characterisation and the manner in which in works with Damrau's Violetta makes the reappearance of Alfredo in Act III a moment of almost heart-stopping intensity. That's how it should be, it should set up the tragic conclusion to arrive with no sentimentality and no regrets, and this one is devastatingly good.

Friday 20 December 2013

Meyerbeer - L'Africaine

Giacomo Meyerbeer - L'Africaine

Teatro La Fenice, Venice - 2013

Emmanuel Villaume, Leo Muscato, Jessica Pratt, Veronica Simeoni, Gregory Kunde, Emanuele Giannino, Angelo Veccia, Luca dall’Amico, Davide Ruberti, Mattia Denti, Ruben Amoretti, Anna Bordignon

Medici Live Internet Streaming - November 2013

Just when it looked like no-one had the resources, the singers or the sheer nerve to take on another grand Meyerbeer opera and succeed in putting it across with any measure of success, along come La Fenice with L'Africaine. First performed posthumously in 1865, a year after Meyerbeer's death, La Fenice selected L'Africaine to mark that 150th anniversary, and it proves to be a good choice. Meyerbeer's final opera is a fascinating work that is not quite as richly elaborate in melodies and set-pieces as some of his more famous grand operas (Les Huguenots, Robert le Diable), but it retains the glamour in a number of key scenes even as it shows some influence of a more modern style elsewhere. By and large, with only some minor reservations, La Fenice mirror that approach in their new production and in the process prove that a Meyerbeer opera can still work on the modern stage on its own terms.

Although it has a title that makes little sense to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of geography - the African woman of the title actually comes from India or from an Indian island - the chief attraction of L'Africaine for audiences of the day was the foreign exoticism of its setting. For modern audiences, if the work is known at all, it's for how Meyerbeer expresses that exoticism in the opera's most famous aria, 'O Paradis', sung by Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama on his arrival at the New World of his dreams. That revelation in Act IV doesn't come as easily as it seems and there are various trials and tribulations in the first three acts that make it all worthwhile, if not unexpectedly somewhat conventionally drawn out.

Inevitably this is mainly to incorporate romantic complications. Although she has been engaged to marry Don Pédro, Inès is in love with Vasco de Gama. Awaiting his return from sea, the news arrives that her beloved has died in a shipwreck, but this proves untrue. Vasco de Gama is actually the sole survivor of the crew, and has brought news of a new world out there somewhere. If given a ship, he promises the council an empire, "new climates, rich treasures, prosperity". As proof that this new land exists, he shows the council two examples of an unknown race of copper-skinned people, Sélika and Nélusko, who have been bought as slaves in Africa. As there is nothing written of such a land and the slaves refuse to divulge where their land lies, the council reject Vasco's claims and he is rather harshly anathemised and thrown into prison.

Languishing in his cell, poor Vasco de Gama also has woman trouble to contend with. Unknown to him, Sélika, who is actually the Queen of her island kingdom, is in love with the Portuguese sailor and furious when he mentions the name Inès in his sleep. For her part, Inès is jealous of the beautiful woman that de Gama has brought back with him, even though he denies that there could possibly be anything between them and even offers her Sélika and Nélusko as slaves. That obviously doesn't go down well with Sélika either. Of more pressing concern however is rescuing her beloved from prison, and the only way Inès can do that is by agreeing to marry Don Pédro.

Strange as it might seem since they rejected Vasco de Gama's claims, the ruling council have decided to let Don Pédro lead an expedition instead. Even stranger, the released Vasco de Gama has managed to get a ship, follows them and boards Don Pédro's ship only for it to be attacked by Indian pirates, the ship burnt and all the crew killed. The only survivors are Inès, her maid and Vasco de Gama, who has been found in chains in the depths of the captured ship. A prisoner still, Vasco de Gama is nonetheless enraptured with the discovery of the land of his dreams. His delight is short-lived however, as the Brahman priest commands that a foreigner cannot be allowed to live. Now crowned Queen again, Sélika, much to Nélusko's anger, saves him by claiming that she and the explorer are married. Discovering for the first time that she loves him de Gama rejoices in their union, but only until he discovers that his beloved Inès is not dead. Rejected again, Sélika inhales the poison of the Manchineel tree and is joined in death by her ever faithful Nélusko.

Already ahead of the fashionable French love for exoticism that would be expressed later in Delibes' similarly themed Lakmé, (although it can even be seen as far back as Rameau's Les Indes Galantes), Meyerbeer's L'Africaine revels in the colour, the richness of melody and the drama suggested by the romance and the danger of the Asian setting. Surprisingly however, although it is a 5-Act grand opera, there is little of the extravagance of melody, airs and ballets in set-piece numbers that usually characterise the genre of which Meyerbeer was the master. All those elements are in place of course but to a lesser degree here, with only one Grand Air, a short ballet in Act IV and a couple of set-piece spectacles - one of the boarding of the ship and the other of splendour of the New World paradise. Showing perhaps some Wagnerian or Germanic influence, there is more through composition in this Meyerbeer work, less stop-starting for arias, and some cutting back on repetition.

Emmanuel Villaume presents a thoughtful account of the score here with the orchestra of La Fenice. Running to three-and-a-quarter hours there are evidently trims applied, but as they are mostly towards the end of the work they seem to be made out of consideration for the performers rather than really moving the drama forward. There's nothing substantial missing from the first three acts. The first ensemble of Act II is cut, but the all-important closing ensemble is there. Act III opens with the sailor's prayer, but that seems more logical than opening the act at sea with a female chorus. There are a greater number of the small trims in Act IV and there's a major cut in the removal of the confrontation between Inès and Sélika at the start of Act V, but in both cases it tightens the focus of the drama on the highlights of these acts.

Leo Muscato's stage direction and basic period setting strips the presentation for La Fenice back even further in a way that emphasises the dramatic element of the work without necessarily losing any of its musical colour. Those key scenes could certainly be a little more colourfully decorated - the New World Paradise shown for example as merely warm diffused light and some lightly floating blossom leaves, but reducing the excess works well enough in this case when you have the aria 'Pays merveilleux... O Paradis' to say all that needs to be said, particularly when it's given a fine rendition, as it is here by Gregory Kunde singing Vasco de Gama.

It's in this kind of casting then that La Fenice truly proves that it is possible to successfully stage a Meyerbeer opera. Clearly, despite weaknesses seen in this area in other productions, there actually are good Meyerbeer singers out there, and their lineage would seem to come from the more heavy dramatic Rossini operas. Gregory Kunde is certainly one of them. He handles the principal tenor role marvellously, with a strong, confident delivery and he has the stamina to maintain it right through to his Act IV Grand Aria. He makes his exit at this stage, but Sélika has to carry right through all five Acts while keeping enough in reserve to almost single-handedly deliver the whole of Act V, and Veronica Simeoni keeps the dramatic intensity there throughout. She seems to flag slightly with some pitch inconsistency at the start of Act IV, but only briefly, rallying through to a beautiful duet with Kunde and managing to bring about that essential conclusion with all the necessary feeling and impact.

The challenges of having the right type of voice to sing Meyerbeer are evident in the casting of Jessica Pratt for Inès. Pratt is a coloratura singer of immense range and ability, well-suited and even greatly impressive in those intense Rossini bel canto roles, but the dramatic force of Inès is a different challenge altogether. It's a relatively small role, cut back even further here, but the strain shows on the Australian soprano. She plays the part with considerable personality however and comes into the role well after a slightly shaky opening. The baritone roles of Nélusko and Don Pédro are handed well by Angelo Veccia and Luca dall’Amico.

La Fenice's 2013 production of Meyerbeer's L'Africaine can be viewed free for a limited period via internet streaming on the Medici web site. The work is performed in the original French without subtitles.

Monday 16 December 2013

Verdi - Attila

Giuseppe Verdi - Attila

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2013

Renato Palumbo, Ruggero Raimondi, Michele Pertusi, Makvala Aspanidze, Giovanni Meoni, Giuseppe Gipali, Papuna Tchuradze, Pierre Gathier

France TV Culturebox, Internet Steaming, 24 September 2013

In the bicentennial year that saw new productions of many rarely performed early Verdi operas, the unlikely popular success of Attila is perhaps the most surprising, if not downright baffling. There are many other neglected Verdi operas - I Due Foscari, I Masnadieri, Joan of Arc and Stiffelio, for example - that are surely more deserving of exploration and re-examination than Attila. Popularity is no sure indicator of quality but it can't be ignored either, and there's no question that Attila is a quintessential and entertaining Verdi work. It is filled with nationalistic sentiments, tragic romantic situations and family complications which have that recognisable melodic and dramatic Verdian touch, even if none of the melodies can compare to Verdi's best and the drama here is fairly static.

Musically, Attila is also fairly conventional, Verdi matching the situation with appropriate music that isn't terribly imaginative, but more often resorts to basic see-sawing, plucking and shimmering strings to accompany situations of stormy tension. The break-down into static numbers doesn't allow for a great deal of fluidity either, containing the requisite religious scene (Bishop Leone), that is preceded by a ghost scene (maidens in white appearing in a dream to Attila), and patriotic hymns ('Cara patria' - 'Dear homeland'). The problem with Attila however is not so much that it's a number opera, since Verdi can do wonders with such material (Macbeth, Joan of Arc), as much as the fact that Temistocle Solera's libretto provides little room for the composer to explore any deeper subtext to the situation or any personality in the characters.

The problem is highlighted in Act 1 after the lengthy prologue. Odabella sings a lament for her missing father and Foresto who she believes is dead ('Oh! Nel fuggente nuvolo'), but as lovely as it is, it's rendered immediately pointless when Foresto turns up at the end of the number not dead after all, and the sentiments evaporate as the chugging strings work up the tension yet again for their charged encounter. Like everything else in the opera, that's all pitched at a level of near hysterical declamation. Here Odabella furiously challenges his faithfulness, while Foresto just as furiously denies it. "Strike me with your sword, but not your words", Odabella declaims, and Verdi's music is that sword, wielded as defiantly as the fervent expressions of determined ambition to destroy and defeat Attila and his forces elsewhere. It's all rather tiresome, I find.

The lack of any real dynamic or more subtle exploration of character and situation means that there's not a great deal a director can do with it either. Conducting the orchestra of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Renato Palumbo doesn't find any unexpected depths or lyricism in Attila, but there's no doubt it's a very good performance of a mediocre opera. The production too, directed by Ruggero Raimondi - a man familiar with the role of Attila as a singer - is as well-staged as any of the fine productions at the very underrated Liège company, but there's similarly not much a director can do with this material. Raimondi's production designs are traditional, well-designed (the arrival of Leone descending from above is most impressive) and beautifully lit, with backdrops of thunder clouds and imposing columns closing down space, but you could just as easily use the same set for Ernani or Oberto.  

The main roles in Attila are challenging then not only from a singing viewpoint, but they require some personality and creative acting ability if the opera is not to be just static declamation. All of the performers here do as well as could be expected, the tenor and soprano roles of Foresto and Odabella in particular being well filled by Giuseppe Gipali and Makvala Aspanidze. Aspanidze is a high soprano, which can make Odabella's fervour a little bit shrill at length and the Georgian's Italian enunciation is also heavily accented, but she tackles the demands of the role valiantly and has no problem reaching its high notes. Much of what is enjoyable and memorable about Verdi's writing for this work comes from the dramatic bass/baritone stand-offs between Attila and the Roman commander Ezio, and those are also capably met by Michele Pertusi and Giovanni Meoni.

The Opéra Royal de Wallonie's 2013 production of Verdi's Attila can be viewed via internet streaming from France Television's Culturebox website.  Subtitles are in French only.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen

Leoš Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen

Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, 2009

Seiji Ozawa, Laurent Pelly, Isabel Bayarakdarian, Quinn Kelsey, Judith Christin, Dennis Petersen, Kevin Langan, Gustáv Belácek, Federico Lepre, marcella Polidori, Lauren Curnow, Eleonora Bravi

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Leoš Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen really is one of the great opera works of the 20th century. The music is modern but at the same time it is enchanting and accessible and, most importantly, it's completely in tune with its characters and its subject. That's by no means a simple matter either since the opera deals unsentimentally with a subject as big as the wonder and magic of life, the joys and the sadness it brings and the very nature of how those things are all tied up in the passing of time. All of that is contained in Janáček's score and how it matches the situations. In terms of the singing and the musical performance, this 2009 production at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino gets everything right, finding the right tone and revealing the true beauty of the work. There's a tricky balance to maintain however in terms of how to pitch the production so that it's not viewed as a children's opera, and that's not managed quite as well in Laurent Pelly's production.

There is a tendency to play up the cuddly animal aspects of The Cunning Little Vixen to make it appeal to a younger audience, when in reality there is nothing at all cute or sentimental about the work. On the other hand, a production that tries to emphasise the human element of the work often loses the necessary balance and the point that the work is a celebration of all life, of human and animal life in balance and essentially the same. The human characters in the opera are very much a part of the cyclical nature of life, just as capable of cunning in matters of self-preservation, just as desirous of winning a worthy partner, but they are also vulnerable to the hardships and cruelty that life, time and change - reflected in the seasons - throws at them. Occasionally when they observe the actions of the animals, they become reflective of their own situations, but it's through Janáček's arrangements that the audience is able to better see the bigger picture.

The Cunning Little Vixen is an opera that speaks our language. It may be sung in Czech and the rhythms might be those that the composer very specifically developed to match the cadences of the Czech tongue, but in a way the music speaks a universal language. Rolling, flowing and swirling, it captures the rhythm of life for animal and humans alike, expressing the deeper connections between them, as well as the measure and the passage of time that puts everything into a context of something greater. Musically, this is a beautiful account of this extraordinary work that uses the full orchestra but lets you see the importance of each individual instrument to the whole (much like the subject of the work itself). The arrangements allow the lyricism and beauty of the actual composition to speak for itself with a delicate touch, but it doesn't manipulate the emotions either. The Cunning Little Vixen should in some respects be matter-of-fact about life. Not wallowing in sentimentality, but acknowledging that even the most significant of events is subject to and diminished by the passing of time.

The pacing is all-important then, and I love the tempo that is measured out here by Seiji Ozawa, allowing the score to breathe and weave its magic, giving the voices of the singers room to place their characters within the fabric of its world, who are subject to its rhythms but view them in their own subjective context. Like the music, the use of voices is an integral part of the work then and it's sung wonderfully here. From the chorus to the individual performers, the singing really can't be faulted, Isabel Bayarakdarian, in particular bringing all the necessary character to Vixen Sharp Ears, much of which comes essentially with the precision and expression inherent within Janáček's writing for the voice. This is as fine an expression of that as you will find. Quinn Kelsey may look a little too young for the gamekeeper, but he sings the role well, and maybe even better than most.

Laurent Pelly's designs for the production are visually impressive and colourful, providing all the necessary situations with a certain amount of style, but it's all a little too safe and sanitised and definitely falls on the side of it being a cute animal opera for children. The badger's set shown in cutaway cross-section is particularly impressive and the transformation of the set from that into Pácek's Inn is brilliantly achieved. The harsh and sometimes unpleasant realities of nature don't really feature, the opera lacking, for example, any blood or mayhem or indeed any frolicing in the hen house. There's only one brief moment where Pelly really tries to draw the connection between the animals and the humans, showing vixen in a dream having the shadow of a young woman, but other than that Pelly lets the work speak for itself.

The production design might not capture the full earthy beauty of the work or its intent, but it still has many good features. The recreation of animals and their movements is very realistic. It's not entirely cartoony either. The foxes in particular look authentically like a mix of human and fox, while the other creatures are similarly easily identifiable. If it is a little too sanitised, this Cunning Little Vixen at least never falls into the trap of sentimentality. As good as they are here, the performances and the music would never allow that to happen, and all the essential points, the purpose and the sheer beauty of this remarkable work come across wonderfully.

The Blu-ray recording of this production captures both the visual qualities and the wonderful performances well in glorious High Definition. The mixing of the orchestra in particular is just outstanding in both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks. There are no extras on the disc other than Trailers for other releases, but the booklet comes with an essay and a synopsis. The Blu-ray is a BD25, full-HD 1080/i, and region-free with subtitles in Italian, English, French, Spanish and Korean.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

The Wagner Interviews

Monster or Genius? - The Wagner Interviews

It seems appropriate that the year of Wagner's bicentenary ends at the Royal Opera House in London with a worldwide cinema broadcast of a performance of the composer's remarkable final work Parsifal. Summing up the essence of Wagner's writing, Parsifal would take opera not just to a new peak, but even to another dimension that ultimately proved impossible for others to follow. Following the presentation of the work at the Beijing Music Festival in China in October, a series of interviews around the legacy of Wagner and Parsifal were conducted by the KT Wong Foundation (www.ktwong.org), an organisation dedicated to the promotion of opera in China. These interviews, drawn from a wide variety of notable Wagnerian singers, authors, directors, conductors and composers, were designed to obtain insights on the composer, his legacy, his works and the challenges of performing Wagner's music.

Taking as a theme Richard Wagner: Monster or Genius?, there is in reality very little critical examination of the negative aspects of the composer's world-view and his notorious anti-Semitic treatises, but the question of whether you can separate the music from the ideology is at least raised in the interviews. For some of those interviewed, particularly performers like John Tomlinson, it's almost essential to divorce the man's views from his music, and indeed conclude that the sentiments expressed in the operas have none of the more distasteful aspects of Wagner's views in them, a point agreed by Simon Callow and Daniele Gatti, who says that it is the music that is important, not the man. Music critic David Nice however finds references to "purity of the blood" in Parsifal hard to ignore, but others, like biographer Stephen Johnson, look at Parsifal and see in it not only the whole sum of the man's thoughts and philosophy - heavily influenced by Schopenhauer - but that Wagner was even aware of his own contradictions, and that is indeed this that makes his work great. Chinese composer Zhou Long, who has worked on similar mythological subjects (Madame White Snake), goes further and points out the legends are important to ideology and cannot be separated from the music.

Some of the most insightful comments from the interviews inevitably come from the people who have sung, directed and conducted Wagner's music. The questions posed by Jasper Rees and Rudolph Tang are relatively straightforward, asking about first experiences of Wagner, how the interviewees came to find that they were suited to performing Wagner and what their Desert Island Wagner would be. Some specific and personal aspects are however brought out from soprano Waltraud Meier on the otherworldly nature of Kundry in Parsifal, from tenor Stuart Skelton on being a Heldentenor and undertaking a Wagner opera like a journey, and from John Tomlinson on the intoxicating nature of the vocal-line which takes you over, and which some people don't like for that very reason. Dame Anne Evans provides some interesting analysis of the colour of Wagner's harmonies being influenced by Italian music, and considers the unique experience of performing at Bayreuth.

In regard to Parsifal it's probably true however, as Stephen Johnson says, that it's the very contradictions within Wagner's world-view and his personality make this final enigmatic work indefinable and great. Nearly all the interviews refer to the famous line in the work about time becoming space and how somehow Wagner has created this realm in the music for Parsifal. For director Robert Carsen, it's a work that refuses to be pinned down, like an iceberg, only the tip is visible the rest presumably existing in another dimension that remains permanently beyond reach of the rational mind. Peter Hanser-Strecker also compares Wagner's music to a mountain that imposes itself without any need of a director's vision. Much like the work itself, where nearly all the dramatic action has already taken place before the beginning of the opera leaving only reflection and surrender to the music, Mark Wigglesworth finds that all the hard work conducting Parsifal is done beforehand in the preparation. Actually conducting it is effortless and it almost takes on a life of its own. This is confirmed by Daniele Gatti, who often conducts the work without the score in front of him, and in his interview tries to describe the feeling of completing the work and coming down from its sound world.

Other interviews touch on a few other specific aspects in their field. Peter Hanser-Strecker, the great-grandson of Wagner's publisher talks about his family's connections to the composer, how Wagner introduced the concept of an advance payment for Parsifal. He also makes some interesting observations about the future of opera lying outside the opera house. Composer Guo Wenjing considers the musical problem of the Chinese language, but is also posed the difficult question of whether a composer, facing the end of his life, could really be capable of putting the sum total of his life, work and genius into his final work as Wagner seems to have done in Parsifal. Alexandern Polzin, the designer of the production of Parsifal shown in Beijing, talks about the concepts and stage designs. Richard Peduzzi, the scenographer of the Bayreuth Ring with Patrice Chéreau reflects on how their landmark 1976 Bayreuth centenary production transformed the way opera is presented on the stage.

The 16-episode video series can be viewed on YouTube or from the links on the KT Wong Foundation website. The excerpts of the Beijing production of Parsifal used in the interviews all come from its performance at the Salzburg Festival (available on DVD and Blu-ray) which was conducted by Christian Thielemann and directed by Michael Schulz, with Johan Botha as Parsifal, Michaela Schuster as Kundry, Wolfgang Koch as Amfortas/Kilingsor and Stephen Milling as Gurnemanz.

Saturday 7 December 2013

Rivas - Aliados

Sébastian Rivas - Aliados

Festival Musica, Théâtre de Hautepierre de Strasbourg, 2013

Léo Warynski, Antoine Gindt, Nora Petročenko, Lionel Peintre, Mélanie Boisvert, Thill Mantero, Richard Dubelski

ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming, 4th October 2013

Presented at the 2013 Festival Musica in Strasbourg (and streamed live via ARTE Live Web on 4th October), Aliados is a somewhat experimental opera work from Sébastian Rivas that mixes avant-garde Ircam electronics with acoustic instruments and voices. There's also a modern approach taken to the staging of the work with the use of live cameras projecting, highlighting and enhancing the dramatic action. Perhaps most interesting aspect of Aliados however is the subject matter of the work which sets out in real-time a 75-minute meeting on 26th March 1999 between the Chilean President in exile Augusto Pinochet and the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had only recently been forced to step down from her position.

More than just a two-person dialogue, there are actually more people involved, and the work does successfully extend outside the room to the outside world where the actions of these two people once had a much wider impact. This aspect is indeed so vital that it the opera even opens with an Argentinian soldier, shell-shocked and tormented by the Falklands war, writhing on the stage, who reappears at a later stage to emphasise in barked delivery that he was "conscripted into the theatre of operations ...for nothing", by "generals, assassins and pirates".

There's definitely a sense of confusion as to what it was all for, but a determined sense of self-justification as the work progresses on the part of Pinochet and Thatcher. Pinochet is clearly ill, slumped in a wheelchair, his memory failing, making confused and fragmentary comments about a "beautiful ship", "The Phoenix", "Pearl Harbour" and the Second World War. An aide, who is preparing his medication and keeping a register of the Senator's "achievements" (lists of deaths, arrests and the disappeared) tells him that he's thinking of the Belgrano, sunk by British forces during the Falklands War. Pinochet, longing for the "blood-covered streets of Santiago", has no regrets for the deaths caused by his regime, raving that it necessary for "national unity" and that it was Allende and the Communists who are really to blame for the problems in Chile.

Baroness Thatcher arrives with her personal secretary and the two former world leaders exchange gifts of their own biographies, in mutual admiration for themselves and each other. Grateful for his aid during the Falklands conflict, Thatcher offers Pinochet political asylum and talks about needing to "keep her head" for a statue that is being cast to stand in Westminster, but her speech is marked by gaps and it seems clear that her mind is also failing. Eventually, both slump into their chairs in defeat, only to be revived by troubling memories resurfacing, Pinochet preoccupied over descriptions of himself as a dictator, the Iron Lady recalling the miners and the Belgrano, slipping into refrain of "it was a danger to our ships... that is fact" on an electronic loop that forms a mournful chorus of self-justification.

Both the music and the staging are vital in establishing this very particular mood and make some effort to get beneath the surface of these larger-than-life characters towards some semblance of personality if not exactly humanity. Stage director Antoine Gindt manages to give a sense of the encounter taking place in real-time by using multiple cameras that project details and close-ups. He also captures something of the closed room mentality of the protagonists within the limits that mark out the square room, but also gives a wider sense of who they are and how their actions have had a wider impact beyond the walls of the room by having the floor made up of a collage of photographs and newspaper articles related to the Falklands War, with additional images and footage projected on the screen behind.

Rivas' score works in a similar fashion, the music - played out mainly on solo violin with trombone, piano and saxophone - has percussive elements that are insistent in a militaristic way when referring to the wars and deaths. Through some computer manipulation and electronic effects - applied to the voices as much as the instruments - the score also manages to reflect the wavering, distorted mentalities of Pinochet and Thatcher, the sound haunting and twisted, backed by drones and random noises.

In some respects the subject matter of Aliados is similar to John Adams' Nixon in China in as much as it touches on the god-like delusions of the powerful and the reality of the frailty of the human mind and personality. Aliados however is much more chamber-like and intimate in its observations, the libretto free from the poetical observations and abstractions of Nixon in China, avoiding making any specific political or social observations that the meeting between Thatcher and Pinochet might signify. It's much more a sonic exploration of two personalities of common accord in their common discord.  

It seems appropriate that the two even dance a tango of a somewhat disturbing if tender nature, a dance over the dead by two former "Defenders of the the Atlantic", two allies ("aliados") confined now to the smallness of a room and the terrors of their own disintegrating minds. A sad account of the endgame of leaders who abuse power and wage war - particularly on their own people - Aliados is unquestionably a work of extraordinary intensity that has relevance to many other contemporary world situations.

Aliados is currently still available for viewing on-line via the ARTE Live Web site. The opera is sung in English and Spanish, with only French subtitles provided.

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Britten - The Rape of Lucretia

Benjamin Britten - The Rape of Lucretia

English National Opera, Aldeburgh Festival 2001

Paul Daniels, David McVicar, John Mark Ainsley, Orla Boylan, Clive Bayley, Leigh Melrose, Christopher Maltman, Sarah Connolly, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Mary Nelson

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Although it's come late in the year that also celebrated the work of Verdi and Wagner, the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten has done much to consolidate and even raise the reputation of Britain's greatest composer, and in the process highlight some unjustly neglected works. If Richard Jones was unable to salvage the reputation of Gloriana however, it must be hoped that this belated release of David McVicar's 2001 production of The Rape of Lucretia for the English National Opera, recorded by the BBC at the Aldeburgh Festival, will bring this more deserving work to the attention of a wider audience. The Rape of Lucretia is a work of extraordinary intensity and depth that sees Britten at his most distinctive and inspired.

Following the full orchestration of Britten's first opera Peter Grimes, The Rape of Lucretia marks something of a rethinking of approach to opera that would have a significant impact on the style of much of the composer's later dramatic works. There appears to be a more overt religious Christian element here that one sees echoes of in the Canticles and in the Church Parables, but Britten's interest in the subjects of these works would appear to go beyond Christian parable towards less clearly defined and somewhat more ambiguous moral issues. What is most interesting in The Rape of Lucretia however is Britten's approach to the scoring of the work, not only reducing the orchestration to allow the instruments greater individual voices, but also striving to find a unique expression in them that doesn't always adhere to expected conventional dramatic writing.

The subject of The Rape of Lucretia then is a powerful one which, when combined with Britten's musical scoring of it, is almost harrowing in its intensity. All the more so when it's given a strong interpretation and that is certainly the case in this production. On the surface, the plot and the sequence of events that lead up to the event seem to be as direct and straightforward as the title of the work itself. A group of Roman generals have made a drunken bet over the fidelity of their wives and unadvisedly tested it as far as to confirm their own unenlightened views. Junius in particular is bitter about the outcome, remarking to Tarquinius that "Women are all whores by nature" that "Virtue in women is a lack of opportunity" and that they are only chaste when they aren't tempted. He's not beyond recognising the hypocrisy of his position either, noting that "men defend a woman's honour when they would lay siege to it themselves".

There is however one exception to the rule it seems - Lucretia, the virtuous wife of Collatinus. Tarquinius, the "Prince of Rome" however refuses to accept that she is any different from the rest and goes out of his way to prove it. He invites himself into her home, visits her bedroom at night and forces himself upon her. As harrowing an ordeal as this is for Lucretia, what proves to be more despairing and leads to her taking her own life is the reaction of her husband when he learns of what has occurred and the shame of what other people will say about her. On the surface then, the story seems a familiar operatic one - the defilement of the chastity of an innocent woman that one finds throughout bel canto and opera semiseria works (Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix or Rossini's Sigismondo) with the added piety of Schumann's only opera work, the magnificent Genoveva.

Having already written Peter Grimes however, it's not difficult to see in The Rape of Lucretia themes that preoccupy Britten throughout his musical career and even in his personal life relating to the corruption of innocence. Lucretia, for Britten however is about much more than just the defilement of a woman's saintly virtue, but touches on the nature of society and the values that it assigns to men and women. And at the heart of it, there's the question of violence, how it can be seen as acceptable in certain circumstances - the Roman-Etruscan war forms more than a backdrop for the work - or at least excused in the case of it being part of the nature of man. War is a subject of great importance to Britten and The Rape of Lucretia would seem to question whether this is necessarily the case, or whether pacifism isn't truer to the better nature of mankind.

It's commented on specifically by the 'Male Chorus', a single singer who represents one of the more interesting means of expression that Britten makes use of in this opera. The Male Chorus and the Female Chorus are omniscient overseers who are witness to the events, but who exist outside of time and the period in a way that allows them to consider the events from a later 'Christian' perspective. The Male Chorus observes that "For violence is the fear within us all / And tragedy the measurement of man / And hope his brief view of God". It's an important device that allows the composer a wider perspective and a contemporary relevance, and not insignificantly, it's a device that has been used recently in a very similar way by Martin Crimp and George Benjamin in their very contemporary view of the medieval storyline of Written on Skin.

It's Britten's musical arrangements however that are just as innovative, distinctive, modern and relevant. The reduced orchestration highlights the expression of individual instruments and heightens the dramatic tone and tension of the subject. Rarely does the music rely on any conventional signposting that tells you how to react to the drama, but instead it fulfils the primary function of music in opera by exploring below the surface and revealing other depths. It's beautiful and haunting, underpinning the drama in Britten's own developing idiomatic language, but it also expresses convictions that are important to the composer in relation to his own life, views that were out of place with the accepted conventions of prevailing social attitudes of the time.

How much David McVicar's direction contributes to the sheer power and intensity that comes across in this production is hard to judge. The set itself is relatively straightforward, unadorned and more or less period. One directorial choice that goes against the original specifications is in how McVicar involves the Male and Female Chorus more in the action. Not quite interacting with it, but certainly having more of a presence, and this works well, as it is an important feature of the opera. If it's difficult to point to any specific directorial choice that evidently has an impact on the performance, what is clear nonetheless is the McVicar gets the mood exactly right and his direction of the singers and the acting is what ultimately makes this a truly great production.

Which of course means that you need fine singers who can also act in order to do it justice. The cast here is great, although not all of them are in their prime. Sarah Connolly is still terrifically good, it's just that she's an even better singer now. Christopher Maltman too has also matured into a better singer, but he has always been a good actor is performance here is, if anything, just a little too creepy and disturbing. In this work however, that isn't a bad thing at all. John Mark Ainsley is at his best here as the Male Chorus and with Orla Boylan good as his counterpart, the Female Chorus. All the roles really are just terrific and the measure of the success of the production is that it's about as intense, well-sung, painfully well-acted performance of The Rape of Lucretia as you could wish for, a perfect match for Britten's remarkable score, which is revealed in all its brilliance here by Paul Daniels.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

La Monnaie - De Munt, Brussels, 2013

Ludovic Morlot, Ivo van Hove, Kurt Streit, Véronique Gens, Simona Šaturová, Anna Bonitatibus, Anna Grevelius, Alex Esposito

La Monnaie Internet Streaming, November 2013

Mozart's final opera, written only months before his death, represents what seems like a backward step for the composer back to the old opera seria form, but the mature Mozart's approach is considerably different from earlier works written in this style. Ludovic Morlot's Baroque approach to the orchestration in this production of La Clemenza di Tito for La Monnaie in Brussels would also seem to lack the warmth and character that should perhaps be found in the work, while Ivo van Hove's modern staging would seem to be working against both the subject and the musical interpretation. Ultimately however, by giving due emphasis to the motivations and expression of the actual characters, all the necessary elements work remarkably well together to highlight the qualities that are rarely recognised in La Clemenza di Tito or presented as well as they are here.

Based on an old libretto by Metastasio which had previously been set to works by Caldara, Gluck, and Myslivicek - principally on account of Mozart accepting the commission to mark the coronation of Leopold II at short notice - the opera seria structure of the opera can be rather restrictive. Like all Metastasio's libretti however, the situations are rich enough to provide opportunity for the skilled composer to expand upon. The opening encounters between Vitellia and Sesto in Act I for example could be played as tedious scene-setting exposition for the melodramatic incidents that follow, so it is vital that they appear fully formed characters with strong, credible motivations. In the hands of Mozart - particularly at this stage in his career - that's exactly what you get, and it's really what sets La Clemenza di Tito apart from other settings and indeed, from many other examples of opera seria.

La Monnaie's production is superbly directed by Ivo van Hove in this respect, but it's also impressively realised by Véronique Gens as Vitellia and Anna Bonitatibus as Sesto. It's been noted that a successfully interpreted Sesto is half the battle with La Clemenza di Tito, but if that is so then Véronique Gens makes a good case that a credible and well-sung Vitellia for Sesto to work off is just as vital a component. The setting would appear to be given the same consideration since the whole work takes place here in what looks like a Presidential suite with a bed, a lamp and a desk, but it does nonetheless create a strong environment for the bedroom intrigue and the naked ambitions that are laid bare in the opening scenes. You can feel the simmering resentment on both sides, Vitellia over Tito's apparent choice of Berenice as his consort, Sesto over Vitellia's ambitions and how she is using him, but yet he still loves her.

This is the vital root of the conflict that drives the work, and it needs to be made real. It also needs to be built upon when Tito abandons Berenice and decides to marry Servilia instead. Mozart makes you feel Annio's despair at this decision, but any Baroque composer worth his salt can spin off an aria of torment and betrayal at the unjust whims of fate, the Gods and rulers insensitive to the feelings of their subjects. More than that, Mozart allows you through his music to understand why Annio accepts this unjust situation and bows to the will of his Emperor and it's vital to understanding the other vital component that contributes to a successful interpretation of this opera and what it is all about - the clemency of Tito.

The reason why Annio accepts Tito's choice of bride without complaint is covered in the libretto. He is unused to an Emperor who is open and just wants to hear plain speaking and the truth. Again, the conflict between duty and one's personal feelings is standard fare for the baroque composer, but in the hands of Mozart it's much more than this. With Mozart it's an expression of characters who are more fully rounded people with different aspects to their personality, where their true feelings aren't always visible. In line with Mozart's egalitarian views and humanistic beliefs, and reflecting the changing times, there's a real trust and belief in La Clemenza di Tito that people are essentially good. They make mistakes, they sometimes misunderstand intentions and inevitably conflict with the sensibilities of other people, but essentially, they want to do the right thing.

So while people do terrible things, Sesto setting fire to the Capitol and attempting to kill the Emperor, you should nonetheless be able to understand both where those motivations come from.  You should, in the above case, also get a real sense of the horror and the self-disgust that such actions engender in Sesto ('Oh Dei, che smania è questa') and the others ('Oh nero tradimento') at the injury that that been unjustly inflicted upon the person of such a good ruler. That's what La Clemenza di Tito is all about and Mozart's generosity of spirit and his belief in the nobility and the better nature of man warmly suffuses even the rather sterile nature of the opera seria.

I'm not convinced that Ludovic Morlot's conducting and arrangement of the score for the La Monnaie orchestra really gets across the sensitivity of Mozart's writing. It does seem fairly mechanical and reflective more of the Baroque opera seria than Mozart's rather warmer interpretation of it. On the other hand, the quality of the writing itself still comes through here. The contrast of the modern setting however probably works well to counteract any impression of a creaky old-fashioned plot played out on period instruments. The bedroom setting of Act I, with all its implications of bedroom power games, gives way to a crime scene, with forensic investigators in white protective suits trying to get solve the puzzle. Video cameras feature heavily throughout, projecting close-ups on a screen behind to capture the idea that these are important figures, but also revealing the telling details that make them human in this drama.

The magnificent singing and acting performances contribute to this and bear up well to the closer scrutiny. It's here that one gets much more effectively get to the heart of who the characters are and what the work is about. Kurt Streit has precisely the right kind of sweet tenor voice that convinces you that this is a ruler that it is easy to love and hard to refuse. His 'Ah, se fosse intorno al trono' is at least warmly accompanied by the orchestra to fully get his nature across. Véronique Gens is of course one of the finest singers in this repertoire with a beautiful voice that has real power, but it's how she controls it that makes all the difference to her artistry. Anna Bonitatibus is as credible in her acting performance as she is expressive in her singing the vital role of Sesto, giving real heart to the work and its expressions. Annio's role is also critical to the work as a whole and Anna Grevelius makes a real impression. La Monnaie don't stint on any aspect of this production however and there are also good contributions from Simona Šaturová as Servilia and Alex Esposito as Publio.

La Monnaie/De Munt's production of La Clemenza di Tito was broadcast on the internet via their web streaming service.  Subtitles are in French and Dutch only.  The next broadcast of the 2013-14 season, Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet will be available to view for free from 31 December 2013.

Friday 22 November 2013

Britten - Gloriana

Benjamin Britten - Gloriana

Royal Opera House, London, 2013

Paul Daniel, Richard Jones, Susan Bullock, Toby Spence, Patricia Bardon, Mark Stone, Kate Royal, Jeremy Carpenter, Clive Bayley, Brindley Sherratt

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Of all the revivals of Benjamin Britten's work in this centenary year of his birth, Gloriana was always going to be one of the more challenging to stage. Composed for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the work's original reception in 1953 was notoriously unfavourable, but although flawed in some respects and rarely performed since, it's clear that Gloriana features some of Britten's most inventive and brilliant writing and that it deserves much more attention. What better time then than the combination of the centenary of Britain's greatest composer, the 60th anniversary of Gloriana and indeed the jubilee of the monarch that it was written for to take a retrospective look at the work?

The Royal Opera House's new production, directed by Richard Jones, tries hard to take into consideration all these aspects of the work and its creation, but it's not entirely successful. The problem is not so much that the director tries to include references to the history of the work itself on top of the 16th century historical action of the work that covers the final years of Queen Elizabeth I. That's actually cleverly implemented, inventively staged and highly relevant in this year when one is more interested in re-evaluating the work of the composer than we are in expecting it to shed any new light on the events that led to the execution of Robert Devereux nearly 500 years ago. The question is whether this is the right work to be examining those issues in this particular way.

The challenge with staging Gloriana was always going to be finding a way that would be respectful to the work and at the same time do justice to its qualities without resorting to restaging the original production and ending up looking like a parody. By setting it in what appears to be a recreation of the Jubilee Hall at the Aldeburgh, with Queen Elizabeth II making an appearance to open the festival, Richard Jones touches on an important part of Britten's support of small amateur productions and performances, on the importance of music to the community and, through its Royal patronage, reaching out to the nation. The post-war period has proven to be a perfect place for examining essentially English qualities (and Jones has used it often before, most notably in the Glyndebourne Falstaff), and relating matters of class, small town attitudes and a village hall community sensibility with courtly historical intrigue and in the presence of the reigning monarch brings out an interesting dynamic that lies at the heart of the work.

It's unfortunate then that, as good an idea as this seems to be on paper, it doesn't actually do anything for the work itself, to judge at least from this recording of the 2013 Royal Opera House production. Part of the problem may indeed be that while the community setting is inappropriate. It might have worked fine for a work like Peter Grimes, which Jones successfully directed for La Scala in Milan, or for some of Britten's more intimate chamber works, but it tends to diminish the grander treatment of Gloriana and Britten's more complex orchestration and musical arrangements for it. Another part of the problem may be that the work itself, fascinating and unique though it might be in Britten's catalogue, never really amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

The production at least attempts to take some of the formal stuffiness out of the subject and address one of the most problematic aspects of the work - a wearisome libretto of archaic dialogue that, to say the least, lacks pithiness (Sample exchange between the Queen and the Earl of Essex - "O heretofore, though ringed with foes" / "What solace more would I disclose"/ "I only bled with arrows of the spring"/ "Better than tears the faithfulness I bring"). If you can get past the baffling libretto, there are some fascinating themes in Gloriana on the nature of being an ageing monarch but also being a woman, of the conflict between duties relating to the greater good of the nation and having one's personal feelings.

There's a wider scope to the work as well, the Queen visiting her subjects by attending an amateur performance of a masque at the Guildhall in Norwich, celebrating the "country largess", the industry of the common people and their faith in the idea of a nation. Britten's choice of music and courtly dances also reference Tudor pieces to celebrate the English heritage with great inventiveness, finding beauty in the simplicity of the musical themes but also using it as a basis to advance and progress on expression and meaning for the present. It's hard to establish however - from this production at least - exactly what Britten was aiming for in Gloriana as an opera. Is it a tragedy or a satire? Is the tone dark or celebratory? Is it a pagent or a "national opera"?

What's clear however is that it's very different from other Britten operas and you can't rely on the familiar themes that you can expect to find in his works. There's a "traitor" here and a forbidden love of sorts, but it hardly relates to Britten's status as an "outsider" or reflect his own difficult relationship as a public figure and as an Englishman. At any rate, it's probably a mistake to try and make Gloriana fit into a "community" opera production as Richard Jones does here. It seems like a great idea and does bring many of the themes of the work down to a relatable level, but it doesn't really connect with the spirit of the work or the music. It's the latter that is the greatest problem, since there is much of great interest in Britten's musical scoring for this work, yet it feels utterly lifeless here.

Sadly, the singing in the main roles isn't able to inject any life or personality into the work either. Gloriana would certainly need a much stronger voice than Susan Bullock in the role of Elizabeth I, even though her character is supposed to reveal a certain weakness and vulnerability. Bullock can hit the high emotional notes well enough, but she's scarcely audible in the half-sung exchanges that have insufficient colour and none of the necessary force. Toby Spence ought to be perfect casting for the high, bright tenor role of Essex, with a sense of youthful vigour that is in contrast to Elizabeth, but even he can't make up for the weaknesses in the presentation and delivery. Kate Royal, Patricia Bardon and Mark Stone are all wonderful and bring rather more character to their roles, but they aren't the kind of roles that can substantially determine or alter the overall quality of the production.

The technical specifications of the Blu-ray release are good, the production looking and sounding great in the High Definition format even if it does feel essentially lifeless. There are two short featurettes on the disc providing an introduction to Gloriana and to Britten's establishment of the Aldeburgh festival. The Blu-ray is region free and subtitles are in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.