Sunday 24 March 2013

Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri

Gioachino Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2013

Bruno Campanella, Emilio Sagi, Enkelejda Shkosa, Carlo Lepore, Daniele Zanfardino, Mario Cassi, Liesbeth Devos, Julie Bailly, Laurent Kubla

Grand Théâtre de Liège, 9 February 2013 - ARTE Live Web

The Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège have a good track record with Rossini and bel canto work, particularly on works that have a more comic edge.  One of Rossini's big melodramas or opera seria works would present a greater challenge and require some big guns to do it justice, but as they demonstrated most recently with the little known early Rossini opera L'Equivoco Stravagante, with a little bit of resource and imagination, there can be considerable colour and entertainment to be drawn out of the lighter Rossini dramma giocoso works.  The requirements for L'Italiana in Algeri lie somewhere in-between.  It's a popular comedy, but like Il Barbiere di Sevilla it also requires a good balance between strong singers, comic timing and a sense of style or panache to really make it work.  Liège do pretty well on all fronts in their latest production.

Director Emilio Sagi puts the emphasis of the production on style, and there's good reason for that.  Much of the comedy of L'Italiana in Algeri (An Italian Girl in Algiers) relies upon the premise of the exoticism and glamour of its Eastern setting, in the palace of Mustafà, the Bey of Algiers, with his seraglio of wives, slaves and eunuchs.  The Bey however is tired of his wife Elvira and wants Haly, the captain of his corsairs, to procure an Italian wife for him, so the opera also has to present the idea of Italian style and women as being just as exotically attractive as a North African harem.  You can of course make even that idea alone funny - and there's lots of spaghetti eating here to play with that in the Pappataci scene - but the idea of Italian exoticism works best if you set it, as Emilio Sagi does here, in the glamorous age of the Dolce Vita of the 1960s.

The production achieves this impressively with the simplest of means.  Enrique Bordolini's sets provide a few pointed Byzantine arches to give a flavour of an Eastern palace, working with the colouration of Eduardo Bravo's lighting and Renata Schussheim's costume designs to make this a most attractive production that works perfectly with the playful tone of Rossini's writing for L'Italiana in Algeri.  There's solid work from Bruno Campanella in the pit that is similarly well-attuned to the content.  This is consequently a sophisticated Rossini production that emphasises how well the composer could bring his musical resources, his sense of structure and timing to bear to play out a series of entertaining and sometimes silly comic situations.  It is not as raucously funny as it might be - some of the recitative is cut, reducing the effectiveness of the situation between Lindoro and Elvira - but the direction and the tone established in Sagi's production is consistent and entertaining.

With only a few minor reservations, the casting is also excellent and certainly as good as it ought to be for this opera.  Liège get the right balance of freshness from their regular Italian opera regulars for the secondary roles (solid performances from Julie Bailly, Liesbeth Devos and Laurent Kubla as Zulma, Elvira and Haly) and combine it with experienced singers in the more challenging main roles.  Not so much Daniele Zanfardino - last seen in Liège's production of Rossini's L'Equivoco Stravagante - as Lindoro, but he has the right timbre of voice for a Rossini tenor, if not quite the strength or range.  That's not so much of an issue here, and he copes well with the demands of the role.

Much more critical to establishing the tone of the dramma giocoso is the range and the interplay between Isabella and the Bey, and the Royal Opéra de Wallonie had two excellent singers in these roles.  Carlo Lepore's singing is beautifully grave and musical, his bass working well alongside the other singers, round out in the duets and ensembles.  In acting terms, his handling of Mustafa's comic potential was also perfect, suitably commanding, faintly ridiculous and comically lecherous.  He needs however a feisty Isabella to be a bit more spirited than the comparatively weak Elvira that he wants to get rid of, but she also has to be demanding enough to knock him into place, and that's exactly what you got with Albanian mezzo-soprano Enkelejda Shkosa.

That's about all you want from L'Italiana in Algeri - a sense of style, a little bit of exoticism, a bit of unstrained comedy and some good singing that doesn't stand out or draw attention just for the sake of ornamentation.  The latest Liège production to be broadcast via Internet Streaming, L'Italiana in Algeri can be enjoyed for free for the next few months on the ARTE Live Web site.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Zimmermann - The White Rose

Udo Zimmermann - The White Rose

Angers Nantes Opéra, 2013

Nicholas Farine, Stephan Grögler, Elizabeth Bailey, Armando Noguera

Angers Grand Théâtre, 29 January 2013 - ARTE Live Web

There are some minimalist stage directors who like to reduce a set to a bare wall and chairs, but there are some operas where the setting is entirely appropriate and where there is no better way to highlight the impact of the work and what it is about.  Udo Zimmermann's The White Rose (Die Weiße Rose, 1967, revised 1986) is one such work.  Set in a prison cell in Munich on the 22nd February 1943, brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl, aged 24 and 21, are only hours away from being executed by their Nazis captors.  Members of the White Rose group, responsible for publishing and distributing leaflets and painting slogans on walls denouncing Hitler and the Nazi's crimes, Hans and Sophie have spent three days in a cell, imprisoned but undefeated.  There's only one way to depict their circumstances - stark grey concrete walls, two chairs, a mound of dirt on the floor.

Some composers - most modern composers - also like to work with discordant sounds, crashing percussion and minimalist screeching of string instruments, but some subjects also can't be expressed in any other way.  The White Rose, a Chamber Opera in 16 scenes, is one of those works.  It's the hammering of the score that beats the two young students more brutally than any image of an officer in a Nazi uniform.  It's the plaintive squeal of a violin too that reflects the attempts to silence their defiance and their efforts to keep up their morale.  Aware of the fate that is in store for them, Hans and Sophie Scholl's words rise above the cacophony, the two of them striving to picture a world beyond the confines of their prison, trying to convince themselves that the world still exists outside, that it will endure and that nature will purify the horror that has been inflicted on it.

Only one hour long, The White Rose is an intense, harsh and powerful opera, but there are also some beautiful moments of reflective lyricism in the pure young voices ringing out in the dark, finding hope in their despair.  They have confidence and optimism that their cries have been heard, that the word will spread, that their defiance and dedication to the truth will be an inspiration.  Udo Zimmermann's music might not be the most melodic then, but it is highly expressive, with rhythmic pulses, waltz music and lone flutes and violins picking out the moods and the extreme conditions of the piece.  The musical director Nicholas Farine is a specialist in Baroque music, which might not seem the most suitable qualification for a modern opera work, but the requirements for expression of the chamber arrangements, the need for musical precision and the importance of timing probably aren't all that different.

If the music can be said to largely represent the violence enacted against the two imprisoned students - although as indicated there are a wider range of musical styles and some lyricism applied - the spiritual quality of the work is expressed primarily in the libretto and the singing.  As with Zimmermann's revision of the score, the original 1967 libretto by Ingo Zimmermann was revised in 1986 with a new libretto by Wolfgang Willaschek and it's the revised version of the opera that is played here.  The libretto is philosophical and poetic in its imagery, drawing from the same inspirational sources that informed the leaflets and slogans of the students' White Rose group - from the Bible, Novalis, Aristotle, Goethe, Lao tzu and the teachings of their university philosophy professor, Klaus Huber.  Those sentiments are expressed powerfully in the performances of the two singers who play Sophie and Hans, the young English soprano Elizabeth Bailey and Argentinean tenor, Armando Noguera.

This Angers Nantes Opéra production of The White Rose was performed at the Grand Théâtre Angers and broadcast live on the 29th January 2013 via internet streaming on the French/Geman television, ARTE.  Stephan Grögler's set and direction of the work, as indicated earlier, is relatively straightforward in its depiction of the harsh conditions of the prison setting.  The direction and the use of lighting however doesn't just reflect the harsh discordance of the music, but works with the libretto and the singing to fully express everything that is contained in this compact and powerful work.

Udo Zimmermann's The White Rose can be viewed for free via internet streaming from the ARTE Live Web site.  The opera is performed in German with French subtitles only.

Pergolesi - L'Olimpiade

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi - L'Olimpiade

Teatro Valeria Moriconi, Jesi, 2011

Alessandro de Marchi, Italo Nunziata, Raúl Giménez, Lyubov Petrova, Yetzabel Arias Fernández, Jennifer Rivera, Sofia Soloviy, Antonio Lozano, Milena Storti

Arthaus Musik

Despite it having one of the most convoluted plots of any opera, Pietro Metastasio's L'Olimpiade was also one of the most popular texts for Baroque composers. Originally set to music by Antonio Caldara in 1733, it was followed by Vivaldi's version in 1734 and Pergolesi's in 1735, but the libretto has also been set around 60 times by composers such as Hasse, Galuppi, Jommelli, Cimarosa and Piccinni. Thanks to the Fondazione Pergolesi-Spontini's initiative to revive and release recorded performances of all the composer's operas in new critical editions, we finally have the opportunity to see Pergolesi's version of this immense work and it is something of a revelation. Not only is it one of Pergolesi's most beautiful works with perhaps the finest musical and singing performances we've seen yet from Jesi, but it also turns out to be one of the best settings of L'Olimpiade that exists.

The plot of L'Olimpiade has a fairly substantial backstory even before the opera starts. Inevitably, it involves lovers who have been parted through the whims of a King, and in this case much of the romantic complications come about through King Clisthenes promising his daughter Aristea to the winner of the Olympic Games that are being staged in Elis. It's a prize that Lycidas, the son of the King of Crete is keen to win, and to ensure he does he has employed the services of his best friend Megacles to enter in his name. Megacles is happy to help the friend who once saved his life, but he is unaware that the prize he is going to win for Lycidas is the woman he was once in love with until he was banished from Cleisthenes' kingdom.

That's the simple outline, but there are considerably more obstacles in L'Olimpiade that challenge the protagonists, there are secret identities that are revealed by the end and old prophesies that come to pass before everything is resolved. As complicated as the melodrama might be, it's the richness of these situations that would inspire some of the greatest Baroque composers of the age, and when you listen to what Pergolesi does with those diverse expressions of deeply felt and highly charged emotions, you can see why Metastasio's libretto was such an important opera book.

All of Pergolesi's works released on Blu-ray so far have been given very strong productions with superb performances on period instruments by the very finest experts in this genre, but L'Olimpiade surpasses them all. To a large extent that's down to Pergolesi's distinctive and sparklingly expressive account of the work, where even the most tragic of circumstances and bitterness of sentiments have an achingly beautiful melancholic quality, but it's brought out exceptionally well by conductor Allesandro de Marchi and the musicians of the Academia Montis Regalis. The crystalline clarity and warmth of expression, with even the continuo sounding beautifully melodic, comes across particularly well in the HD sound recording here.

More than anything else however it's the singing that really conveys the true sentiments and strengths of this particular work. Jesi's preference for choosing female sopranos instead of male countertenors is certainly justified by the quality of the performances here of Sofia Soloviy as Megacles and Jennifer Rivera as Lycida. I don't know if one or both were castrato roles or whether they are trouser roles, but the tone, range and delivery of the singing could hardly be faulted by the excellent casting here. Soloviy in particular is just astonishing as Megacles, a role that not only has challenging tessitura and ornamentation but it is also particularly demanding and crucial for the expression and characterisation of the human sentiments that lie at the heart of the work. Sofia Soloviy gives a truly revelatory performance here in her singing of some of Pergolesi's most ravishingly beautiful and sophisticated music.

Jesi's strength in all the previous DVD/Blu-ray releases however has been in the consistently high quality of young singers in all the roles, and L'Olimpiade is no exception. All up-and-coming talents, young, fresh and free of mannerisms, every member of the cast demonstrate total commitment to the roles, singing with a wonderful clarity of tone and diction. Aristea and Argene are just as vital to the whole balance of the drama in L'Olimpiade and they are sung marvellously by Lyubov Petrova as Aristea and, in particular, by Yetzabel Arias Fernández as Argene. It's a largely female cast again then, but the variety of tone and timbre of the voices is well considered and balanced.

The staging of the work at the Teatro Valeria Moriconi in Jesi is unusual in that it's performed in the round, on a very small centre stage that has platforms leading to it in the shape of a cross. There's evidently little room then for decorative props or backdrops, so it's to the credit of Italo Nunziata's direction and the intensity that is drawn from the performances that you never feel less than totally involved in the drama. Masked figures and dancers manoeuvre characters around this small space, holding up mirrors and barred walls, providing all that is needed to keep the dramatic expression meaningful and without ever getting into heavy symbolism. What little opening up there is, using balconies for scenes and even for extending out the orchestra, is also most effective and scenically impressive.

The quality of the Blu-ray release is also simply amazing. The High Resolution image and the sound mixing are breathtaking good, the audio tracks in particular revealing all the qualities of Pergolesi's musical score and the precision playing of the orchestra. It's also very well filmed by Tiziano Mancini. This is a challenging production to film, on an unconventional stage in a small theatre with the audience visible all around. The audience can be a bit distracting, waving fans and reading programmes throughout the whole performance, but the actual performance is well captured and comes across with real dramatic intensity. We are fortunate to have this magnificent performance recorded and made more widely available, as this brilliant and rare work from one of the greatest composers of the Baroque age really deserves to reach a much larger audience.

The Blu-ray disc from Arthaus Musik is region-free, the audio tracks are the usual PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean. The only extra features on the disc are trailers for the other Arthaus Pergolesi titles. The booklet contains an essay on the work which only has a brief outline of the synopsis. A full synopsis for this famous Metastasio libretto should be available on-line, but Pergolesi's setting and the performance here is so good that it shouldn't be too difficult to follow.

Monday 18 March 2013

Janáček - Věc Makropulos

Leoš Janáček - Věc Makropulos

La Fenice di Venezia, 2013

Gabriele Ferro, Robert Carsen, Ángeles Blancas Gulín, Ladislav Elgr, Andreas Jäggi, Enric Martínez-Castignani, Martin Bárta, Enrico Casari, Guy De Mey, Leonardo Cortellazzi, Judita Nagyová, Leona Pelešková

Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 15 March 2013

Although it would be surpassed by the musical progression in From the House of the Dead, Leoš Janáček at the time considered Věc Makropulos (The Makropolus Case, 1926) as his greatest work to date.  In many ways, Věc Makropulos is the one where many of the themes in Janáček's previous works come together.  The contemplation on the passing of time, the renewal of life, death as a necessary and intrinsic part of existence are perhaps at their most beautiful in The Cunning Little Vixen, while other aspects of living in difficult circumstances, making choices and dealing with adversity in a wider social context can be found in Jenůfa and in Katya Kabanova.  There is something beautifully expressive in the freshness of those earlier works, but the sophisticated arrangements of Věc Makropulos are much more ambitious without losing any of the concision of expression that is so characteristic of the composer.

That concision reduces some of the social context found in the original 1922 play of the same name by the celebrated Czech science-fiction author Karol Capek (the man credited with inventing the term "robot"), but Janáček's focus - as indicated by letters he wrote at the time - was very much on the question of the question of eternal youth as a personal burden on its main character Emilia Marty or Elina Makropulos as she was originally known.  Very little of socialist leanings of Vitek remain in the opera, the lawyer's clerk in the original work believing it would earn man the right to elevate himself and the condition of humanity, while his employer Kolenatý can only see the destruction of social institutions that are based on life being short.  Who for example would want to be married to the same person for 300 years? Janáček's own libretto however reworks the story slightly to consider the question of life only having meaning when it has an end.

Canadian director Robert Carsen's designs for the La Fenice production of Věc Makropulos in Venice then is fairly straightforward and traditional in its 1920s period setting, but he does find something interesting to play with in the theatrical nature of Emilia Marty being an opera singer.  A parallel on the question of identity is drawn immediately in the repetitions of the theme in the Overture (the only overture written for any Janáček opera), where a series of rapid backstage costume changes reflect the fact of Emilia Marty has played many opera roles and at the same time taken on many identities in her 327 years of existence.  Following in such quick succession, you also get the sense of her weariness of living such a life for such a long time.

Opera also plays a major part in the backstage setting of Act II, Carson choosing Puccini's near contemporary Turandot as the opera backdrop, a choice that works well with the unfeeling ice-queen personality that Emilia has developed over the years, showing little concern for the lives or deaths of other lesser beings.  Elsewhere however, Carsen's staging is fairly traditional and the sets by Radu Boruzescu are not as stylised or high-concept as you would more often find with Carsen's productions.  It many not be as visually impressive either, but judging by how strong his presentation of the characters is and the overall success of the production, it is however clearly a thoughtful and appropriate reading of the work.

What is rather more crucial in determining the success of a production of Věc Makropulos - or indeed any Janáček opera - is in how it captures the rhythm of the music, the flow of the singing and the whole essence of life that lies within it.  Conducted by Gabriele Ferro, that was achieved marvellously by the orchestra of La Fenice, the score performed with verve and drive, vividly describing the wonderful details in the use of instruments that make the work so unique and expressive.  No less important to the rhythmic flow are the inflections of the Czech voice and the singing was strong across all the main roles here.  Spanish soprano Ángeles Blancas Gulín  sang Emilia Marty wonderfully with the necessary command, particularly for the way that the diva role was played in this production, her death on the stage, alone under the spotlight, making the work all the more poignant.

Monday 11 March 2013

Verdi - Otello

Giuseppe Verdi - Otello

Opera North, 2013

Richard Farnes, Tim Albery, Ronald Samm, Elena Kelessidi, David Kempster, Michael Wade Lee, Ann Taylor, Christopher Turner, Henry Waddington, Dean Robinson, Paul Gibson

Grand Opera House, Belfast, 9 March 2013

There are some operas that are so emotionally raw and overwhelming that they are almost too much to bear.  Sometimes you wish the singers and the orchestra would just tone it down a little, purely for the sake of those poor souls of a more delicate sensibility.  Verdi's Otello is one of those operas.  You go into it knowing what is in store and hope you can get through it relatively unscathed.  From the opening moments of Opera North's new 2013 production, seen at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, with the chorus, orchestra and thunder sound effects resounding around the theatre right from the outset, it was clear that this was not going to be one of those occasions.

Otello is of course one of Verdi's darkest operas, but I wasn't aware quite how dark it was until I heard Opera North's production.  It's a late, mature Verdi work, Verdi doing Shakespeare moreover with a sophisticated libretto provided by Arrigo Boito that is composed to the highest levels of subtlety in the characterisation and in the musical arrangements.  It's a piece of the utmost dramatic integrity, with no overture, no show-stopping arias or interludes for ballets.  It's direct, to the point and, in as far it describes characters capable of the extremities of human feelings, Otello takes no prisoners.  That much I already knew and had experienced before.

With the sheer force of the huge choral arrangements, the volume of the orchestration and the thunder and lightning effects accompanying the opening storm, it seemed like Opera North were going to play this mature Verdi like one of his early pot-boilers, full of blood and thunder.  There's nothing wrong with those early works of Verdi, but should Otello not be handled with a little more delicacy than Oberto or even the composer's earlier Shakespeare adaptation Macbeth?  Richard Farnes, Tim Albery and the orchestra of the Opera North show that there is a case for the score of Otello to be thunderously played, for the extreme emotional content to be sung resoundingly, for the dramatic interpretation to be played to the hilt, and every ounce of human emotion to be wrung out of the work.  You would expect no less from Shakespeare's play, so why not Verdi too?

There's a reason why the delicate sensibility of the listener shouldn't be spared the ravages of Shakespeare's 'Othello' or Verdi's Otello, and that's because they are works that explore the extremes of love, hatred, jealousy, beauty, compassion and delicacy.  Act I alone is a masterful expression of a whole range of human characteristics, from the fear over the fate of Otello's fleet in the storm, jubilation at the Moor's success in battle with the Turks which turns into celebration at the garrison in Cyprus where the boisterous play turns into a brawl.  That's followed by a tender love-scene between Otello and Desdemona.  And then Act II has Iago's famous Credo and the bitter poison of jealousy spreads into every aspect of all those joyous moments of the first act.

That's wonderfully presented in Tim Albery's meticiously pitched production for Opera North which has been updated to what looks like a WWII-era marine barracks.  Act I is bustling with life with Michael Wade Lee's Cassio energetically leaping over tables to take part in a violent brawl, David Kempster's Iago delivers Act II's Credo forcefully and without histrionics, while the confrontation between Ronald Samm's imposing Otello and Elena Kelessidi's delicate Desdemona is violent and shocking.  And it should be when you know what dark passions have been stirred and where they are going to lead.  That's warning enough for you to steel yourself for where Act IV takes us, but the conclusion nonetheless still manages to take you unawares.

That's down to Verdi's brilliant scoring of the work, and in this case, a perfect reading of those intentions by Albery, Farnes and the Opera North team, where the perspective and the tone of Act IV is determined by Desdemona.  Her beautiful nature, her kindness and generosity towards Cassio, her love for Otello is an antidote to the sentiments and nature that has been twisted in the testosterone-fuelled duelling that has taken place in the previous acts.  Rather than lessen the impact of the charged atmosphere that has been created of course, this only makes it more tragic.  The finale, like the rest of the performance here, was superbly balanced in this respect, maximising impact, perfectly in accord with the delicate Wagnerian leitmotifs that Verdi employs so effectively at those key moments.

The challenges of playing Otello were compounded by the effort made to perform it at this ultra-charged level of high emotion.  The performance of the Opera North Orchestra was a loud and muscular one, yet it was one that was at the same time very carefully attuned to the fluid changes and subtleties of the range of musical expression.  That could nonetheless potentially present problems for singers who not only have to match the powerful nature of the sentiments expressed here, but also rise above the sheer volume of sound that was coming from the orchestra pit.  Otello is evidently the most challenging role, as much for singing as for making his jealous nature comprehensible if not exactly sympathetic, and Ronald Samm coped extremely well with the singing challenges, but just as importantly succeeded in creating a rounded human portrayal of the devastation a man can wreak upon himself.

A full picture of Otello however cannot be achieved without a sympathetic Desdemona to bring out those human qualities - the noble ones as well as the less admirable ones - and Elena Kelessdi was just such a Desdemona.  Any minor concerns at times that she might not be able to hold her own against the forceful delivery of Samm or David Kempster's Iago were soon put to rest by her spirited performance and an Act IV that really hit the mark in its expression of her character's nature.  Michael Wade Lee's Cassio was also spot-on in his wearing of his heart on his sleeve, giving an open, unguarded and enthusiastic performance.  Special mention should be made of the Opera North's Chorus and the Children's Chorus which really punctuated the work with the necessary impact at the critical moments in the drama.  I'm sure I'll see a few more Verdi operas before this bicentenary year is over, but I'll be surprised if anything forces a reevaluation of one of the composer's works as much as this muscular and sensitive performance of Otello by Opera North.

Poulenc - La Voix Humaine/ Purcell - Dido and Aeneas

Francis Poulenc - La Voix Humaine
Henry Purcell - Dido and Aeneas

Opera North, 2013

Wyn Davies, Aletta Collins, Lesley Garrett, Pamela Helen Stephen, Phillip Rhodes, Amy Freston, Gillene Herbert, Heather Shipp, Louise Mott, Jake Arditti, Nicholas Watts, Rebecca Moon

Grand Opera House, Belfast, 8 March 2013

Opera North's Winter 2103 touring programme wonderfully covers four centuries of music, with Mozart's Clemenza di Tito from the 18th century, Verdi's Otello from the 19th, Francis Poulenc's La Voix Humaine from the 20th century and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas from the 17th century.  It's the combination of the latter two operas on the same bill however that represent the widest dynamic in such a way that they hardly seem complementary at all.  In reality however - particularly with the source of Dido and Aeneas stretching back 1,000 years to its source in Virgil's 'Aeneid' - what they demonstrate is the universality and commonality of human emotions that still have resonance in the 21st century.

The common theme that relates the two works is of course one that opera has specialised in over the years - that of the woman seduced, betrayed and abandoned.  The two works given here however represent lesser-known examples of that theme and certainly approach it musically and dramatically in very different ways.  As different as they are however, they each present a unique take on the subject and stand as important, powerful pieces that demonstrate the power of expression of the operatic art form.

Composed by Francis Poulenc in 1959 to a libretto by Jean Cocteau based on his own 1930 dramatic monologue, the one-act opera La Voix Humaine is unusual opera work in that it is written to be performed and sung by a single person, and sung moreover as a one-sided conversation that takes place on the telephone.  The unnamed woman ('Elle') is alone in her room, waiting anxiously for a phone-call from her ex-lover.  The conversation, occasionally interrupted by the unreliable service and a party-line, reveals that the man who had been her lover for five years is now about to be married to another woman and 'Elle' has been contemplating suicide.

There's an interesting ambiguity and modernity in the fact that the woman's desire for the warmth of love in the comforting sound of the human voice (la voix humaine) is brought to her electronically through a telephone line, but Poulenc and Cocteau's little drama abounds in such contradictions and ambiguities.  Is it a monologue or really a one-sided dialogue?  A dialogue would imply that the conversation is two-way, but it's clear that there is only one person who hopes to gain or express anything through the conversation.  In many respects, the woman is speaking to herself, grasping at the meagre lifeline that is being held out, but only for as long as the call lasts, trying to fool herself that all is not lost.  When that is gone all she is left with is that terrifying figure she sees reflected in the mirror before her.

Opera North's production, directed by Aletta Collins, played further on the ambiguities within the work with some clever visual references to that hateful mirror.  It not only reflects the truth about her lie that she is glamorously dressed after an evening dinner date, revealing instead a tired, graying woman on the edge of breakdown contemplating a bottle of pills on the dresser, but she can also see reflected in it all the horrors of her imagination, seeing her ex-lover enjoying parties and affairs with other women.  It's as vivid a visual representation of the harsh reality of the woman's situation and her mindset as it is possible to imagine.

With Lesley Garrett singing the role of 'Elle', it's also about as effective and expressive a performance of the woman's situation as you can imagine.  Poulenc's composition of the music and the singing part reflects the cadences of the spoken voice in a similar way to how Janáček would write, with rhythms and pauses, the rising and falling of tones and inflections, but evidently that's particularly relevant to a work that is called La Voix Humaine.  As a singer whose spoken voice alone is most musical, Lesley Garrett is the ideal kind of singer for this kind of piece, even if it is far from the more popular style of singing that she is famous for.  Her every gesture and inflection - singing the work in English - was perfectly judged in a way that made her character's circumstances compelling to watch and her inevitable fate as touching as it was chilling.

Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (c. 1689) is one of the earliest versions of a subject that Francesco Cavalli first covered in his opera La Didone (1641), but which became something of a standard in the Baroque opera repertoire with at least 50 works adapted to Pietro Metastasio's libretto (Didone Abbandonata) in the 18th century (including Hasse, Galuppi, Porpora, Vinci and Piccinni).  It might not have been the model that Poulenc's La Voix Humaine draws from, but the essential characteristic of a woman left to face her demons alone is just as vividly depicted in the fate of Dido when her lover Aeneas, who has "stopped over" in Carthage with the fleeing Trojans and then abandoned her to fulfil the destiny that the gods have in store for him in Italy.

Although it is fully scored - innovatively without recitative at this stage in the development of opera - and has a larger cast than Poulenc's mono-opera, the strength of this version of the Dido and Aeneas story (unlike Berlioz's Les Troyens, to take the most extreme example) is that it similarly focusses all its musical and dramatic elements on the predicament of the lone figure of a woman abandoned.  Dido's confidante Belinda tries to warn her and turn her away from her dark thoughts and Aeneas even appears and attempts to put his case to her, but the opera remains firmly viewed from the perspective of a woman who has suddenly become aware that her youth and happiness are slipping away.  

Like the reflections in the mirror of La Voix Humaine, Dido's thoughts, fears and nightmares are vividly real, given human form in witches and visions of herself - as a younger woman? - that follow her, mimic her, torment her and drive her to her doom.  This element is beautifully expressed in Aletta Collins' direction and Giles Cadle's set design of the darkened bedroom of long shadows, with spectres in the form of dancers that slip out from under and behind the bed, hovering in the background and persistently at the edge of Dido's vision until they overwhelm her.

Just as effective is the rhythmic drive of Purcell's score as performed by the Orchestra of the Opera North under conductor Wyn Davies, switching over to Baroque period instruments after the interval.  Although Dido threatened to become swamped by the figures and doppelgangers of her nightmares, there was no danger of Pamela Helen Stephen losing her grip on her character.  Purcell's Dido is as strongly defined as any of the many different depictions of this character in other works.  It may be short, around an hour long, but the focus on Dido and her reaction to her predicament is deep and intense.  Stephen gave that full expression in her singing, never more so than in those final moments of Dido's rejection of Aeneas' weak justifications.

Like the other two productions in this Opera North Winter 2013 touring programme, there was a wonderful completeness and attention to detail in the concept and the execution for both these short works.  From the casting of the roles, the direction of the performances, the staging, the costumes and the musical delivery, great care has evidently been put into making sure that everything comes together as a whole to express these works in the best possible light, and that was all the more evident in the complementary approach taken towards works as diverse as La Voix Humaine and Dido and Aeneas, separated by almost 300 years, but shown here still to be vital and relevant in the 21st century.

Sunday 10 March 2013

Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

Opera North, 2013

Douglas Boyd, John Fulljames, Paul Nilon, Annemarie Kremer, Fflur Wyn, Helen Lepalaan, Kathryn Rudge, Henry Waddington

Grand Opera House, Belfast, 7 March 2013

Mozart's final opera La Clemenza di Tito was composed in 1791 as a commission for the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia.  It had a short-life span which barely lasted much beyond the death of Mozart just three months after its first unsuccessful performance.  The opera's failure and subsequent disappearance into near-obscurity for centuries can be put down to the haste in which it was written (once account claims it was written in just 18 days), its old-fashioned opera seria structure that was based on an old libretto by Metastasio that had already been set more than 40 times by other composers, and the fact that its story of a benevolent and forgiving king was somewhat dated and out of touch even then with the revolutionary upheaval going on in Europe at the time.

Mozart was of course in ill-health and in financial difficulties by the time he came to write La Clemenza di Tito, requiring the assistance of his student Süssmayer and Catherino Mazzolà to adapt Metastasio's libretto into a workable form, but Mozart also completed some of his greatest works during the same late period, not least of which were The Magic Flute and the Requiem, so it's not surprising that the composer's final work has resurfaced and been subjected to a number of successful productions that have highlighted the aspects of the qualities that are to be found within it.  Despite the rigidity of the opera seria form and the seemingly outdated libretto, it's also a work that can sustain modern and stylised reinterpretations.  And, contrary to its unrealistically optimistic outlook on the wisdom and goodness of the monarchy, certain elements of Mozart's own enlightened views can be found in the work if a director is willing to delve deeper beneath the surface.

Opera North's fresh, unfussy, clean and modernistically classical account of La Clemenza di Tito (seen on tour in Belfast) is just such a production.  Recognising that the strength of the work lies within Mozart's writing, there's nothing too radical attempted here in terms of interpretation.  Douglas Boyd's conducting of the Orchestra of Opera North places emphasis on the structure and rhythm of the piece, not seeking to overstate the relative simplicity of the arrangements, yet it pays attention to how certain lyrical touches give warmth and personality to what would otherwise be stock opera seria characters.  This is where the danger lies in any performance of La Clemenza di Tito.  It can seem like a dry, conventional and academic work, remote and aloof, uninspired in many sections, simply going through the motions and without some real emotional investment on the part of the singers, it can come across as just the rote recital of lines.

A work like La Clemenza di Tito however needs some careful consideration if it is to bring these characters to life and make their predicament seem relevant.  On the surface, it doesn't look like director John Fulljames has done much tweaking of the piece.  The subject remains grave and serious, each of the characters involved seem to have their own personal predicaments and it seems that anything that the Roman Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus (71 to 81 AD) does will only lead to unhappiness for others.  As far as traditional opera seria goes, Metastasio's libretto then meets all the necessary conditions that allow a composer to express these deep feelings of anger, resentment, jealousy, betrayal and vengeance in the musical arrangements, while the work as a whole fulfils its function as a suitable piece to put on to celebrate a coronation, showing how a monarch rules for the good of his people, with wisdom, compassion, forgiveness and clemency.

Making the work feel relevant while remaining faithful to its intentions is however still something of a challenge.  Setting it in the past, in its historical setting (whether from an Ancient Roman or with regard towards its 18th century relevance), will not do a great deal for this dusty opera seria, other than making it look like an ancient operatic curiosity, but it's difficult to see how it can be applied to any modern context.  Fulljames doesn't attempt to impose any specific present-day parallel (an interesting essay in the programme attempts to relate it to Boris Johnson and David Cameron's present UK coalition government, but it's far from convincing), but rather sets it in a more generically timeless modern office boardroom setting of clean lines and geometric structures.  While this might not seem to do much to give La Clemenza di Tito contemporary relevance, it does however provide a perfectly appropriate environment for the meticulous elegant structures of Mozart's score, and it also reflects the progression of the drama as those lines and structures break up and fragment, only to become whole again at the end.

What brings considerably more humanity out of this work however is the careful attention paid to the emotions and the predicament of the characters, and the degree of emphasis placed on their respective positions.  The key to the relevance of La Clemenza di Tito in Opera North's production, and the principal reason for its success here, lies in the consideration it gives to the relatively secondary characters of Annio and Servilia.  There's good reason to assume that this is not just an arbitrary tweak that distorts the balance of the work, but that it does fit in closer to Mozart's own personal views and his distinctive approach to the work.  While all the others are running around striving to further their own personal and political agendas (Vitellia to become Empress, Sesto to win the love of Vitellia, the recently appointed Tito to give his people firm, stable leadership), Annio and Servilia strike a balance between these opposing positions that seemingly cannot co-exist.

Tito's clemency at the end of the opera evidently lies at the heart of the work, mending the divisions that have been stirred up to have such terrible consequences.  That healing comes about however through the intervention and selfless appeals of Annio and Servilia.  Although they are indeed motivated by their love for each other, they are prepared to put their own happiness aside if it is ultimately for the greater good.  Tito responds to the openness and honesty in Servilia pleas.  She is the only one who speaks the plain truth that other yes-men in his inner-circle, too concerned about their own position, will not.  It's Annio's honest, heartfelt appeals too that touch Tito much more than Sesto's belated regrets for his betrayal, as sincere as his sentiments may be.  None of this takes anything away from the opposing contrasts that are so important in the work, or the reconciliation that takes place between them, but rather it makes their resolution just that little bit more meaningful and credible, to say nothing of truly humanistic.

It's to the credit then of Fulljames and Boyd that not only does the warmth of Mozart's writing for these parts and their importance come through, but it's not to the detriment of the other figures who are traditionally given a bigger billing.  That was reflected in the way that the casting was not only strong for the main roles of Tito (Paul Nilon), Vitellia (Annemarie Kremer) and Sesto (Helen Lepalaan), but that attention was paid to singers of warmth of expression in the roles of Annio (Kathryn Rudge) and Servilia (Fflur Wyn), as well as the rather serious Publio (Henry Waddington).  Not one of the performances felt like routine deliveries, but rather like their characters and personalities had been carefully thought through and given expression, without mannerism, in the smallest of details and gestures.

La Clemenza di Tito can still have challenges making a staging visually interesting and meaningful, but Conor Murphy's innovative designs and geometric lines suggested classical structures in a modern context.  Back-projections and a rotating dividing screen that projected images and transformed from transparency to opacity, opened up and closed down spaces with perfect precision, working wonderfully in accord with the musical content, playing to the strengths of the work and the singers.

Saturday 9 March 2013

Wagner - Parsifal

Richard Wagner - Parsifal

The Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2013

Daniele Gatti, François Girard, Jonas Kaufmann, Katarina Dalayman, René Pape, Peter Mattei, Evgeny Nikitin, Rúni Brattaberg, Kiera Duffy, Lei Xu, Irene Roberts, Haeran Hong, Katherine Whyte, Heather Johnson, Ryan Speedo Green, Lauren McNeese, Jennifer Forni, Mark Schowalter, Andrew Stenson, Mario Chang, Maria Zifchak

The Met: Live in HD, 2nd March 2013

If it did nothing else The Met's new production of Wagner's Parsifal at least emphatically confirmed a few points.  Firstly, Parsifal is one of the most unique, beautiful and truly spiritual works ever written for the stage.  No great revelation there, but it's good to come out of a performance of this remarkable work feeling that it has been proven.  Secondly, Jonas Kaufmann, singing the title role, is one of the best tenors in the world today - if not actually the very best.  Again, although he has only sung this particular role once before, this won't come as a surprise to anyone.  A third point that many people also already know, is that Parsifal is an incredibly difficult work to stage.  Unfortunately, François Girard's production for the Met's production confirmed that point, and just as emphatically as the other two points were made.

Part of the reason why Parsifal is such a difficult work to stage of course is because it is not an opera in the strictest sense, and not even a Wagnerian music-drama.  Wagner coined a new category for the work for its presentation at Bayreuth, calling it a Bühnenweihfestspiel ("A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage"), which seems like a minor distinction (or a rather pompously Wagnerian one, take your pick), but in reality, with its religious subject matter, Parsifal is indeed closer to an oratorio than an opera.  In terms of dramatic action, there's not much that happens over the course of the three acts that take up over four and a half hours running time.  While there may be little in the way of incident, much of the dramatic action conveyed through narration in long recitatives expressing noble sentiments and grand choruses of heavenly praise, Parsifal is nonetheless a remarkably dense work, filled with Christian imagery, Buddhist philosophy and ancient mythology.  The meaning, the mystery and the ambiguity of the work, as well as its sheer beauty, is given its fullest expression however in Wagner's music, the majestic summit of his career, some forty years in the making, completed in 1882 just six months before his death.

In the Met's production however, Daniele Gatti's conducting of the score tended towards a languorous levelling of pace and dynamic towards an enveloping somnolence.  The only dimension that the viewer was likely to enter in this transcendentally spiritual work was that of unconsciousness.  It wasn't dull, it wasn't boring, it was performed and sung magnificently and often with great sensitivity by a wonderful cast - but Parsifal is a work with countless levels of meaning and interpretation and there was no particular vision in either Gatti's solemn even-handed conducting of the work or in Girard's stage production.  Set in a dark vaguely futuristic/timeless post-apocalyptic landscape, the knights dressed in modern black trousers and white shirts instead of armour, there was certainly a concerted effort to remove or at least downplay the traditional imagery and specific Christian elements in the work (in complete contrast to the recent Philipp Stölzl production that I saw at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin) in favour of a more universal spirituality.

This certainly worked for the First Act, reflecting the onerous task of the knights in their defence of the Grail, creating a sense of dark despair that weighs on Gurnemanz over the loss of the Spear, and emphasising the near overwhelming sense of pain that is felt by Amfortas in his eternal suffering from a grave wound that never heals.  The black, cracked and scorched earth is further divided by a stream that has women on one side and knights on the other.  Even Kundry cannot cross this river, which runs red with blood and widens at the end of the act, creating a powerful impression that feels in tune with the tone of the work and the wound of Amfortas, but the symbolism doesn't particular add anything to what is expressed in Wagner's score and libretto, nor does it encourage the viewer to consider the themes of the work anew.  Returning to the same set in Act III - as dark, barren and desolate as it was in Act I - doesn't give any sense of the redemptive force of Parsifal's purity of purpose and sense of healing compassion.

Act II however is at least highly striking and original in its dark imagery of Klingsor and his vampy, ghostly Flower Maidens with spears wading in blood.  Avoiding traditional interpretations of this scene, it at least contrasts with the seductiveness of Wagner's score or could be said to draw out its sinister undercurrents, but it's hard to imagine Parsifal being seduced by either the maidens or Kundry here.  As the most ambiguous figure within the work, there is certainly a case for emphasising Kundry's different roles as a woman in the work - and the symbolism certainly suggested as much - but it's difficult to establish a sense of the character being anything more than all things to all men.  She's a mother with deep reserves of love and compassion, a lover, a whore and a temptress a distraction from the man with purity of purpose.  She doesn't need to be quite so open, but like all the other concepts in this production, it seemed unable to settle for any one interpretation or even unifying concept, leaving all possibilities there to be read as desired.

If there was a lack of vision in the production's visual and conceptual interpretation of the work, it often looked marvellous and at least provided a suitable platform for the singers to bring a much needed sense of humanity and meaning to the words.  The Met's casting was the principal attraction here.  Jonas Kaufmann was a memorable Parsifal, his performance here likely to be the standard that any modern production of Parsifal in the world today is likely to be judged against.  His voice, his delivery and his interpretation made this an almost soulful performance.  We had to really wait until the third act to get the full impact - his Act II duets alongside Katarina Dalayman's Kundry were less effective than those in Act III with René Pape's Gurnemanz - but this was glorious, dreamy singing and deeply persuasive of the real character and meaning of the work that was lacking elsewhere in the production itself.

It helped that Pape was able to reach deeply into his character also with a beautiful soft Wagnerian line free of bluster.  He was strong in his long first Act narration, but unassisted by anything to work with in the production design and concept, it wasn't until the transcendental third Act that he was able to lift this to another level, presumably buoyed by Kaufmann's sensitive performance.  Katarina Dalayman's Kundry was wonderfully sung, but I failed to gain any sense of who or what her character was supposed to be from this production or from her interaction with Kaufmann's Parsifal.  Philipp Stölzl's recent Deutsche Oper production of Parsifal had its flaws certainly, but it at least put Kundry at the centre of the work and Evelyn Herlitzius explored the vocal and emotional range of the character more effectively.  Dalayman's performance was by no means weak however, and there were no weaknesses to be found elsewhere in Peter Mattei's painfully agonised and deeply moving Amfortas, while Evgeny Nikitin brought a sense of real danger and purpose to his Klingsor that avoided all the evil-villain clichés - notwithstanding his being bathed in and wading in blood throughout the second Act.

You could go down as far as Rúni Brattaberg's Titurel the individual Flower Maidens here and you'd still not find a single weak link in the singing performances.  Gatti's conducting, which I found more persuasive divorced from the images when I listened back to the performance on the radio broadcast, the beautiful playing of the work by the Met orchestra and the strong consistent singing of a fine cast, all did at least work hand-in-hand with Girard's direction and Michael Levine's set designs.  Even if it lacked a visionary edge to match Wagner's majestic final testament, this was a mesmeric Parsifal that did justice to one of the greatest works in all of opera.