Wednesday 17 July 2013

Mozart - Così Fan Tutte

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Così Fan Tutte

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2013

Sylvain Cambrelling, Michael Haneke, Anett Fritsch, Paola Gardina, Juan Francisco Gatell, Andreas Wolf, Kerstin Avemo, William Shimell

ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming - June 2013

After attending a performance of Michael Haneke's only previous opera production, a terrific account of Mozart's Don Giovanni for the Paris Opera for composer's 250th anniversary in 2006, I observed that it would be hard to imagine the director finding any other Mozart work with a subject suitable for his particular worldview.  It was a matter of interest then to see what Haneke had in mind for what is perhaps the least substantial of Mozart's mature operas, or at least the lesser of the composer's collaborations with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte.  A light amusement at the School for Lovers?  Surely not with Michael Haneke?

It doesn't take too long however to recognise a familiar Haneke spin on events in his direction of Così Fan Tutte (viewed via ARTE Live Web Streaming from its Madrid production, but also available for viewing for a limited period via the La Monnaie streaming service) in how the director recognises or places a distinctive twist on the discord between the two couples in the work. Two couples?  There would appear to be three couples in Haneke's version, the other one being made up of Don Alfonso and Despina. This unconventional couple don't so much dispense a lesson in love here as exhibit a cruel streak that pits the comfortable middle-class attitudes of complacency towards gender politics in both of the couples against one another.  Some 'Funny Games' here perhaps?

Or perhaps 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses'?  Haneke sets the production in what looks at first glance like a soirée at a French chateau, where some of the guests wear modern-day formal dinner-party dresses while others wear 18th century costumes.  Is it a fancy dress party where costumes are optional, or is the director attempting to make a distinction between modern and rather older-fashioned attitudes towards love and affairs?  Whatever the reason for the disparity, the dress, the corrupting behaviour and the attitudes expressed by this Don Alfonso in his assessment that women are not capable of being faithful is far from playful.  There's a suggestion rather that he has more sinister motives for setting the couples of Dorabella and Ferrando and Flordiligi and Gugliemo against each other.  His partner in crime Despina likewise seems to have a point to prove through her complicity in the events that ensue.

The allusions to a work that is close to contemporary with Mozart might be coincidental (or just in my own mind), but they are certainly in the spirit of the method that Haneke employs here.  We might believe that our attitudes are more modern, sophisticated and enlightened than those expressed in the period of Mozart, Da Ponte and Choderlos de Laclos, but are we really all that different?  Haneke seems to be suggesting that beneath the surface we are really no different and we just hide better those deeper, darker, less acceptable sentiments and desires that we'd rather not openly acknowledge ('Hidden').  It's significant that Haneke makes no real effort to put Ferrando and Gugliemo into convincing disguises that would fool their partners.  Their real feelings and baser impulses in the nature of their seduction of each other's partner is undisguised, and perhaps even the women know it and are complicit on some level too.  It's a rather mean-spirited view of the characters in Così Fan Tutte and of humanity in general, but what else would you expect from Michael Haneke?

If there's a characteristic cruelty in Haneke's reading of the work, there is however no violence expressed at all in the musical performance.  Sylvain Cambrelling's conducting of the Madrid orchestra is soft, delicate and as beautiful as the score is capable of being.  Rather than work against Haneke's intentions, the director uses the gentility of the performance here to complement or enhance the cool cynicism of his Don Alfonso.  The delicate musical arrangement and lightheartedness of the libretto create an unsettling and somewhat sinister contrast then with the Master's actual expressions, his gestures and the viciousness of his behaviour.  There's a similar dichotomy present in all of the characters and it's in the expression of this - as opposed to a concept that is somewhat questionable - that Haneke makes his own particular outlook on Così Fan Tutte work to some extent.  

William Shimell, a baritone who has worked as an actor for Haneke (in the Oscar winning 'Amour') and for Abbas Kiarostami in 'Certified Copy' (and as it happens also played Don Alfonso in a Così for Aix-en-Provence directed by Kiarostami) is really the key player here.  He sings well and his acting is strong enough to make this kind of twist in his persona credible.  All of the cast however have clearly been well-directed and give strong performances. Haneke however is careful that any 'modifications' should not be at the expense of Mozart's writing and is very respectful of the vocal line.  The singers are allowed to sing the roles then with full expression and let the direction carry the concept.  The performances are all exceptionally good, with Anett Fritsch in particular standing out in the role of Flordiligi.

In a very interesting interview on the La Monnaie site, Haneke says that he is unlikely to extend his Mozart stagings to the third Mozart/Da Ponte collaboration, The Marriage of Figaro, since he finds its perfection intimidating and couldn't think of a way to adapt it to his worldview without destroying the delicate fabric of its construction.  After viewing his imperfect Così Fan Tutte for the Teatro Real in Madrid and La Monnaie in Brussels, I would agree with that and think that my initial assessment on his ability to work with any other Mozart opera was also correct.  Le Nozze di Figaro however could very well sustain a bit of a reworking and I'd actually be very interested to see what Haneke could make of it, should he ever put his mind to it.  On the other hand, in the same interview he also expresses great admiration for Monteverdi's delightfully salacious L' Incoronazione di Poppea, and that now would be something worth seeing!

Sunday 14 July 2013

Mozart - La Finta Giardiniera

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - La Finta Giardiniera

Buxton Festival, 2013

Nicholas Kraemer, Harry Fehr, Christopher Lemmings, Ellie Laughame, Stephanie Corley, Andrew Kennedy, Catherine Carby, Anna Patalong, Matthew Hargreaves

Buxton Opera House - 6 July 2013

Now this is how you do Mozart!  La Finta Giardiniera may be a relatively minor work in the Mozart canon, the youthful product of an 18 year-old composer, but even this early opera contains seeds of the greatness that would follow. If you set the right tone between all the old-style 'woe is me' arias and Mozart's playful interpretation of them, La Finta Giardiniera can be a surprisingly entertaining and revealing piece.  Buxton clearly recognise the potential within the work and they get it marvellously right in this delightful production at the 2013 Buxton Festival.

La Finta Giardiniera can potentially be a little dull and static in places due to its structure and the necessity of the singers to deliver plot exposition through recitative and arias, but even that is dealt with in a clever way here in Harry Fehr's production that keeps everything visually interesting and mobile.  The tricky backplot of Count Belfiore's attempted murder of the Marquesa Violante is covered during the overture ("Previously on La Finta Giardiniera...") with a couple of flash-frame scenes and newspaper headlines that set the tone perfectly for what follows, injecting a little humour but also working to make the plot comprehensible and meaningful.

The main setting for the production is classically contemporary, retaining the setting of Don Anchise's mansion and garden, but updating it to a marquee that has been set up on the estate for the forthcoming wedding of the Count Belfiore to Arminda.  In disguise as Sandrina, Violante with her minder Roberto - going under the name of Nardo - are not so much servants in the employ of the Podestà as employees of the catering firm contracted for the wedding.  Not so much a gardener either, Sandrina is more of a florist preparing the bouquets and garlands for the tables.  Every other updating is along similar lines and works wonderfully, not just in keeping with the tone of the work but truly invigorating it.

It helps that there is good choreography of the action and that's there is careful and realistic attention paid to the characters and the interaction between them.  In the early scenes then, not only does everyone have to sing complicated arias that express their situation, but they have to do so while setting and arranging tables.  It could be distracting but it's not and there's actually a sense of things being constructed and pieced together, of preparations being made for a wedding that's not on a terribly stable foundation, each of the characters finding themselves sat at a table on their own by the time we get to Mozart's delightful ensemble at the end of the first Act.

All of this helps to give substance to what can be a rather confusing and open plot.  Mozart's later works are indeed much more complex than this, but they have more nuanced characterisation and music that makes them easier to follow.  La Finta Giardiniera needs a little more help and it had that at every stage here.  The handling of Sandrina's abduction by Arminda, where she is locked in a dark cellar and searched for in the dark by all the characters, isn't quite as brilliant as a similar situation in Le Nozze di Figaro for example, but the way the farcical misunderstandings are staged here is just hilarious.  Even the bizarre mad scene of Sandrina and Belfiore works well here, but it helps that the personalities of the characters have been so well and consistently established in the earlier scenes.

That's as much to do with the first-rate cast assembled here as it is to do with Harry Fehr's brilliant stage direction and Yannis Thavoris' clever set designs.  The singers were able to just throw themselves fully into their characters and the situations and, without exception, sang marvellously. Matthew Hargreaves was an engaging Nardo and Anna Patalong as a deliciously spiteful Serpetta.  Stephanie Corley however provided the most entertainment as a particularly feisty Arminda and was a clear audience favourite.  Even if things didn't quite go her way, she clearly relish every moment of the whole affair, and still somehow managed to seem to come out on top.  The slightly more sensible characters (it's all relative) - Christopher Lemmings' Don Anchise, Catherine Carby's Ramiro, Andrew Kennedy's Belfiore and Ellie Laughame's Violante/Sandrina provided excellent counterbalance to all this frivolity with great singing, but were also allowed to let themselves go as the occasion demanded.

Nicholas Kraemer conducted the Buxton Festival orchestra with attention to this kind of detail, finding that there is more than adequate verve and brilliance in this early Mozart score to allow such expression.  La Finta Giardiniera will never be regarded as one of Mozart's great works, but Buxton's production demonstrated that there is considerable merit in the work nonetheless.  In the process - alongside their charming Double Bill of Saint Saëns' La Princesse Jaune and Gounod's La Colombe - it wholly justifies why their approach to the revival of such lesser known opera works is invariably successful.

Saint-Saëns - La Princesse Jaune & Gounod - La Colombe

Camille Saint-Saëns - La Princesse Jaune
Charles Gounod - La Colombe

Buxton Festival, 2013

Stephen Barlow, Francis Matthews, Anne Sophie Duprels, Ryan MacPherson, Gillian Keith, Emma Carrington, Ryan MacPherson, Jonathan Best

Buxton Opera House - 5 July 2013

The choice of works for this year's Festival Double Bill feature at Buxton were perhaps not the most challenging or adventurous works (there is however another pairing of Sciarrino's Luci mie Traditici and Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King if you're looking for something rather bolder), but as well as reviving two undeservedly obscure works that one would rarely ever have the opportunity to see elsewhere, the pairing here of two opéra-comique works by Camille Sant-Saëns and Charles Gounod proved to be perfectly complementary, highly entertaining and maybe even a little thought provoking.

Considered on their own merits it has to be said that neither of the two short works are ever likely to enter standard repertory or ever be considered alongside such grand and great works by the composers of Samson et Dalila and Faust, but the intentions and the audiences for both Saint-Saëns' La Princesse Jaune and Gounod's La Colombe are very different.  Composed for the Opéra-Comique in Paris, both works are musically and dramatically typical examples of the comic operetta, with no greater ambitions than to provide a bit of light entertainment.  If the musical approach differs between the two composers - one interesting element that is highlighted by their being performed together like this - one thing that they have in common is that they are very much of their time.

Buxton however very cleverly linked the two works together by playing to their somewhat La Bohème character, both works taking place in neighbouring apartments of a dilapidated building in a rather shabby quarter of Paris.  La Princesse Jaune (The Yellow Princess), although originally set in Holland, here takes place in the bohemian garret of two artists.  One of them, Kornélis is obsessed with the image of a Japanese woman (dressed in a yellow kimono here to make the racial implications of the title less problematic) that he is compelled to endlessly paint.  He is so obsessed with the painted lady that he doesn't notice that his cousin Léna - who rather scandalously seems to share the apartment with him - is in love with him.  Under the influence of who knows what drug or concoction, Kornélis however starts to believe that Léna is his Princess come to life and only eventually comes to the realisation of his love for "the real thing".

La Princesse Jaune a little bit repetitive in its elaboration of this simple and absurd situation through a series of duets and solo pieces for two singers, but it's beautifully composed and structured nonetheless.  It's partly a satire on the obsession with all things Oriental during the period when it was written (1872) and Sant-Saëns even introduces pastiche pentatonic scale Japanese themes into the music, but he also defines the romantic flights of fancy of Kornélis with his poetic musings on love and beauty with the rather more down-to-earth immediate concerns of Léna.  One can't live on poetry even though it burns very nicely as we've seen in La Bohème, and like Rodolfo and Mimi the man and the woman have very different ideals on the subject of love.  In a way however, as light and entertaining as it is, La Princess Jaune nonetheless explores questions of illusion and reality in the transformative power of art and love to enrich our rather more mundane lives.

Different ideals on the question of love and the necessity nonetheless of putting food on the table are also to the fore in Gounod's La Colombe (The Dove).  This is a very different side of Gounod from the familiar grand scale compositions - even if Faust was itself also originally written for the Opéra-Comique with sections of spoken dialogue.  La Colombe on the other hand is very much an operetta in its subject matter as well as in its light musical numbers.  Performed in English here at Buxton, it's similarity to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan or with an Oscar Wilde comic farce are even more evident.

The question of a romantic ideal here can be symbolised within the figure of the dove (which fortuitously rhymes with love in English).  Horace keeps it as a memory of his love for the Countess, and even names it Sylvia after her. He's still faithful to the memory of the love they once shared even though she mistreated him, spent all his money and then abandoned him, leaving him penniless.  Horace and his servant Mazet now eke out a miserable existence in an unsavoury district of Paris, housed just below a couple of disreputable artists on the floor above, one of whom has an obsession with all things Japanese (Anne Sophie Duprels' Léna making a cameo appearance during the overture here).

Musically, La Colombe doesn't appear to offer the same riches that can be found in the Sant-Saëns work that preceded it, but here in its two-act 1866 version, it's similarly well-constructed and has a rather more entertaining variety in the series of mishaps of its plot when Sylvia turns up looking to purchase the dove.  She has no romantic notions associated with the dove, but rather just wants it as another social fashion to compete with the parrot owned by her rival, the Countess Amalia.  Keen to show the depths of his devotion to his former lover but unable to provide her with a suitable meal, Horace, unaware of the nature of her visit, orders Mazet and Maître Jean (Sylvia's manservant) to serve up the only fresh and edible food in the house - the dove.

On their own merit then neither work is of any great depth, but as usual they way that they are brought together is intriguing and, in many ways, they each enhance the other and bring out common elements that might not otherwise be noticed.  In order to do that however, the performances have to be strong and consistent and that's one of Buxton's strong points.  Every element is in perfect accord with the other, the whole thing thoughtfully considered and presented in an ingenious stage design by Lez Brotherston that allows this cross-pollination to occur.  The musical interpretation under Stephen Barlow was absolutely marvellous, both works delivered with verve and character and sung magnificently by a very strong cast.

Undoubtedly however, the key to the success of bring these rather old-fashioned works to life lies with the direction of Francis Matthews.  Every movement and gesture, every line of dialogue and tone of delivery in the singing was used to bring out the full richness of the comic potential of the works and even finding unexpected depths by linking common themes between them.  Great works they are perhaps not, but this year's Festival Double Bill was a richly entertaining concoction and a showcase for the kind of talent that is a hallmark of the Buxton Festival.

Saturday 13 July 2013

Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss- Der Rosenkavalier

Opernhaus Zürich, 2013

Fabio Luisi, Sven Eric-Bechtolf, Nina Stemme, Vesselina Kasarova, Alfred Muff, Martin Gantner, Rachel Harnisch, Liuba Chuchrova, Irène Friedli, Caroline Fuss, Francisca Montiel, Olivera Dukic, Verena Hasselmann, Michael Laurenz, Lukas Jakobski, Andreas Winkler, Dmitry Ivanchey, Erik Anstine, Martin Zysset, Stefan Pop, Thomas Pütz

Zürich - 4 July 2013

I'm not sure that Sven Eric-Bechtolf's direction or Marianne and Rolf Glittenberg's set design for Zurich's Der Rosenkavalier really play to the strengths of the work.  It's not so much that it's taken out of period - the period is important to a certain extent, but only to highlight the work's main theme of time of life ever changing and renewing - or that its design is a little bit strange, as much as the fact that it doesn't seem to offer any new ideas or bring out other dimensions in a work that offers a great deal of richness. Fabio Luisi's conducting too seemed a little heavy handed in places for my liking, not really chiming with the nature of the work's shimmering beauty and playful pastiche, but as the work itself gained momentum, wading though the over-stretched farce to its remarkable conclusion, everything eventually settled into place.

Act I however scarcely looks like the Vienna of the time of the Empress Maria Theresa, with trees growing through the floor of the Marschallin's bedchamber and servants in Turkish or Eastern dress.  There is at least a brightness and openness of space with early morning light coming through the high windows that gives an indication of the abandonment to the moment that Marschallin and Octavian have shared in bed together.  It's only a temporary moment of bliss, a fleeting escape from the business and responsibilities that comes with the new day.  Those appointments duly arrive and play out strangely here - the Italian tenor for example appearing to be a Chinese automaton in a box - but rather more of a problem is that fails to capture the sense of Mozart opera parody that should be there when the lecherous Ochs arrives and chases the Cherubino-like Octavian who is dressed in a maid's costume as Mariandel.  The lightness is missing and the sense of playfulness that is critical to establish that the old ways are about to give way to the new.

If if fails to capture the wonder of the old, the strength of this production is in its expression of the new, and that comes through rather wonderfully in Act II. Act I is long and often tedious, but it's necessary to establish the nature of Marschallin's world and her realisation that she's getting old, that the world is changing, that her lover will leave her today or tomorrow for someone younger.   When that realisation comes there is nonetheless a reluctance to submit to the inevitable that Strauss captures so brilliantly, so precisely and so movingly in the music of the act finale.  Act II on the other hand is about the crystalising of time, capturing the present and living in the moment.  It's about a new rising class, the nouveau riche (the Faninals) and its incompatibility with the old (Ochs), it's about falling in love (Octavian and Sophie), forgetting the past (Marschallin) as precious as it once was, and not even thinking about the future (that's Act III).  It's all about the now.

The Zurich production sets the second Act in the kitchen of the Faninal residence - pale blue with a wall of plates - which again adds nothing, but everything that is needed here is in the meeting of Sophie and Octavian and it's given proper direction and prominence here.  Amidst the boorishness of Baron Ochs and the social pretensions of Faninal, this one moment is made real. Everything around them, all the bustle of the kitchen preparations, literally stops at the moment of their encounter.  While the singing can't exactly be said to be lacking in the casting of Nina Stemme in the role of Marshallin and the experienced Alfred Muff playing Ochs, it's appropriate here that the casting of Octavian and Sophie are the brightest points of this production.  Vesselina Kasarova's usual mannerisms are relatively restrained and any extravagance in her delivery can be put down to the youthful exuberance and vigour of Octavian's nature.  Irène Friedli's Sophie too is simply marvellous, her soprano one of soaring beauty and vivid expression, one moreover that complements Octavian and the other singers.

Act III of Der Rosenkavalier can always be problematic in this work, but - again despite unhelpfully returning to what looks like the inn improvised in a marquee in the Marschallin's boudoir - it's here that the Zurich team work best.  Instead of going for the obvious farce that is very much what Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannstahl were aiming for, Bechtolf introduces a darker element into the proceedings and downplays Ochs' oafishness.  Death is implied in the figures dressed in skeleton costumes that obstruct Ochs auf Lerchenau's intentions and deflate his pomposity.  He's another relic that is not going to go easy in this new world, but his time has come.  Marschallin and Ochs gather up what dignity and respect remains for their age and position and accept that it's time for them to step aside and let the young have their time free from the rules of the past.  All that is captured wonderfully in Nina Stemme's deportment and the lush velvet timbre of her voice and in Alfred Muff's more gentle and sensitive interpretation of the nature of Ochs.

What's also vitally important is that the idea that something beautiful is dying is not only recognised but brilliantly and fully expressed in the music, and here Luisi's conducting is just perfect.  The waltz music feels old-hat, but at the same time nostalgic of another wonderful time, the neo-romanticism and chromatic language speaks of the beauty of the now, while the discordant chords of the Rosenkavalier theme speak of the music of the future, Strauss miraculously fusing them together indivisibly into a thing of incredible beauty and unbearable sadness.  And, for all the flaws and variations of tone in this production, that unquestionably was the sentiment you were left with at the end of the performance in Zurich.

Friday 12 July 2013

Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer

Opernhaus Zürich, 2013

Alain Altinoglu, Andreas Homoki, Anja Kampe, Liliana Nikiteanu, Bryn Terfel, Matti Salminen, Marco Jentzsch, Fabio Trümpy

Zürich - 3 July 2013

There's not a lot of traditional sea imagery in Andreas Homoki's 2013 production of Der fliegende Holländer for the Zurich Opera house, and more surprisingly there is little adherence even to the themes of Wagner's opera. The big themes are unavoidable in Wagner of course, which even in this earlier work explore mythology, suffering and endurance, and love and redemption meeting in death.  If the work is strong enough to assert its own force in this production principally through a convincing musical performance, it does so then in spite of Homoki's setting, which not only fails to support the strengths of the work, it isn't even clear what exactly its intentions are in the first place.

Rather then than open out at sea, close to port, Act 1 of Homoki's production is set on dry land in the office of a 19th century shipping company.  A map on the wall indicates that the company is expanding its operations into Africa under the strict control of its owner Daland, and there are other indications later on that colonialism comes into the equation here, but how exactly and what it's got to do with The Flying Dutchman never becomes entirely clear. Even though they are confined to an office then and all hailing and interaction is done through a telephone, there is some swaying around, which at least pays notional attention to the waves of the score if it doesn't make much sense in any other way.

The only real indication that there is any sea involved in the production comes in the second act.  Senta's picture of the sea is retained for her account of the legend of the Flying Dutchman, but here it is a large picture on the wall of an office where the ladies are all secretaries working on typewriters rather than operating spinning wheels.  The waves in the picture come to life, surging and swelling with the tides, and even show the black ship with red sails crossing it at one point, so the production is not entirely devoid of traditional imagery. When the Dutchman appears in each scene, it is effectively ghost-like, arriving on the stage as if out of thin air, emerging from a panel in the wall of the office, wearing a shaggy fur coat and a top hat with a feather in it.

There are some similarities then with Martin Kušej's Der fliegende Holländer for De Nederlandse which might provide some clues as to the intention of this setting, Kušej using the cruise terminal setting and Daland's materialistic concerns to draw class distinctions between itinerant asylum seekers or economic migrants and a consumerist western society.  Homoki's colonial commentary comes into play mainly in the third act, and if it doesn't fit entirely convincingly, it is nonetheless thrillingly played out and performed. The role of the chorus consequently is important here, vocally as well as dramatically, and it all explodes in Act III as the women and men of the port invite the crew of the dead ashore. One of the black servants is transformed into a Zulu warrior, the enlarged map of Africa bursts into flames and the clerks are mowed down by arrows from the flaming fires behind the stage. Musically, vocally and dramatically it's a highly charged scene and spectacularly staged.

It's the attention to the musical detail then that assists the production considerably, Alain Altinoglu harnessing the orchestral forces of the Zurich opera house fluidly and powerfully through the revised version of the work without any breaks.  It felt ever more a consistent piece here, without the usual lurches in style that can be found in Wagner's still not fully refined through-compositional approach.  Mainly however the success of the production rested on the singing and in particular on Bryn Terfel's interpretation of the Dutchman.  This was a much more nuanced and restrained Wagnerian interpretation than his Wotan for the Met opera, less deliberate in his enunciation and more nuanced in his acting performance, yet fully incarnating the role with dramatic purpose and clarity of diction even in the smallest of gestures and expressions.

The other roles were well cast and sung, if none quite at the level of Terfel's performance.  Anja Kampe was pushed to the limit as Senta, but held up well, never faltering as she reached her moment of sacrifice by shooting herself with Erik's hunting rifle.  If questions are often raised about how long Matti Salminen can continue to sing Wagner at this level, I certainly saw no weakness in his performance here, or at least there are still few who can match his ability to sing Daland or even Gurnemanz with such character and skill.  Less stellar, but still delivering fine performances were Liliana Nikiteanu as Mary, Marco Jentzsch as Erik and Fabio Trümpy as the Steersman.  Even though the staging was questionable, dramatically and musically this Der fliegende Holländer functioned according to true Wagnerian lines and often quite impressively.

Thursday 11 July 2013

Bellini - La Straniera

Vincenzo Bellini - La Straniera

Opernhaus Zürich, 2013

Fabio Luisi, Christof Loy, Edita Gruberova, Veronica Simeoni, Dario Schmunck,  Franco Vassallo, Benjamin Bernheim, Pavel Daniluk, Reinhard Mayr

Opernhaus Zürich - 2 July 2013

There's really only one reason for the existence of a work like La Straniera. Like most bel canto operas, it's a highly charged drama of limited plot credibility but it gives the lead soprano ample opportunity to demonstrate her singing abilities. There are occasionally other qualities to be found, and with Bellini the music is usually filled with glorious melodies that are a little more attuned to the dramatic content, which is fortunate since the plot of La Straniera needs all the assistance it can get. Fortunately, the production for the 2013 summer festival at the Zurich Opera House had one of the best teams imaginable to get the best out of the work with Fabio Luisi conducting, Christof Loy directing and Edita Gruberova singing the lead role of the mysterious stranger.

In terms of plot, well if you're a member of the chorus playing the townspeople, you're thinking would go along something like this. Who is that mysterious stranger seen moping around town, dressed in black? We've always known she's up to no good and now we have something on her. She's been seen as a threat to the forthcoming marriage of Arturo to Isoletta, and now she's only gone and actually killed Baron Valdeburgo. Let's put her to death! Oh, hold on - here's Arturo and he's claiming it was he who killed the baron. And now here's the baron and he says he's not dead after all. Well, she must still be guilty of something since she's keeping her identity secret. Can we still not just put her to death? Oh wait, she's the Queen! What!?

It takes a lot to make that kind of plot work. It goes without saying that you need a soprano of extraordinary ability to sing the role of Alaide, but you also need a strong singer who can also act and have sufficient personality of her own to lend to the role, and you need a director who can actually give them something to work with. You have all the necessary qualities in Edita Gruberova and Christof Loy. Having worked together in recent years on Donizetti's Roberto Devereux and Lucrezia Borgia to spectacular results, the prospect of them working together on Bellini's opera was to say the least mouthwatering, but not without a certain amount of trepidation as to whether they could pull it off again. Thankfully, after a few initial doubts, they did.

Loy's concept wasn't the clearest, but at least it wasn't one of the minimalist chairs and dinner jackets productions that he's been fond of recently. He could do that and make it work I suspect, but instead he aims for a fairly traditional period setting, with real costumes and backdrops and everything. There are a few quirks inevitably, most of them involving ropes. Is it because there's such a mournful pall of death hanging over the start of the opera? Isoletta concerned about the likelihood of her marriage tomorrow turning into a fiasco because of Arturo's love for 'la straniera'. Is Arturo's impossible situation likely to lead to him hanging himself? Or are the ropes representative of the townspeople, who are just puppets of the suspicious Osburgo? Or does it reflect their mood and their desire to string up the dark evil woman in their midst?

Whatever the purpose of the ropes, Loy nonetheless sets the mood well, contrasting the black mourning clothes and mysterious veil of the stranger with the wedding dress that Isoletta wears in preparation for her wedding. La Straniera's dramatic content turns on the question of whether we going to have a wedding or a wake, and that's well covered. Or a coronation. Bellini nearly gives the game away early on, Auturo having a vision of the mysterious woman wearing a crown and Loy has a little bit of fun by having Gruberova as Alaide walk on stage in the second act wearing her crown before realising that everyone is actually waiting for the bride and slipping off-stage again.

Setting the appropriate mood is one thing, but dramatic conviction is all important and Loy makes that work too. There's no standing around here. Every ounce of emotional charge to be found in the situation, in the score and in the singing is made to count. It's the singing which is paramount however and as in those previous cases of Loy working with Gruberova in the bel canto repertoire, every note and gesture is put in service of making what is a ludicrous plot actually feel like a matter of vast life-or-death importance.

There were a few early concerns over how long Edita Gruberova can continue to carry roles like this, but they too were soon completely banished. There were a few slight wobbles early on and her pitch wasn't quite there in her duet with Dario Schmunck, but when it came to delivering the coloratura in those frequent scenes of great emotional anguish, Gruberova was beyond reproach. I've heard the great Slovak soprano many times but never before live in the theatre, and her voice is simply remarkable. Without microphones and mixing involved, her voice just dominates everything with that distinct timbre that is clear and resonant. She not only carried the singing honours however, but - particularly in the hands of Christof Loy - her acting ability was just as impressive. From the moment she walks on the stage, she is carrying the weight of her character's background and status - regal and mournful - and expressing it in gesture and in every nuance of her vocal coloratura.  

La Straniera may to all intents and purposes be a one woman show, but the supporting elements built around the lead all need to be in place as well and the supporting cast were all very fine. Isoletta only appears at the beginning and the end of the work, but mezzo-soprano Veronica Simeoni ensured that her character's predicament contributed to the setting and made a strong impression. Dario Schmunck was a rather dishevelled-looking Arturo, but supplied all the fire that is necessary to charge the drama. Franco Vassallo's Valdeburgo was well received and rock solid, even if his diction wasn't always the clearest. Even with such reliable support, with Loy's strong dramatic focus and Fabio Luisi working it from the orchestra pit, it's still a challenge for anyone to make the ending of La Straniera work. An air of disbelief at the plot twists inevitably remains here, but just as much admiration for the attempt to carry it off. If Edita Gruberova can't quite do it then no-one can.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Verdi - I Masnadieri

Giuseppe Verdi - I Masnadieri

Teatro San Carlo, Naples, 2012

Nicola Luisotti, Gabriele Lavia, Giacomo Prestia, Aquiles Machado, Artur Rucinski, Lucrecia Garcia, Walter Omaggio, Davio Russo, Massimiliano Chiarolla

C-Major, Tutto Verdi - Blu-ray

Based on a work by Friedrich Schiller and composed just after his first attempt at adapting Shakespeare to the opera stage in Macbeth, I Masnadieri was another attempt by Verdi to put some literary weight behind his work.  The work failed however to live up to its source and was not a success when it was first performed in London in 1847 with Verdi himself conducting.  More conventionally structured than Macbeth, I Masnadieri is not the greatest Verdi by a long stretch and hasn't enjoyed the same popularity as its predecessor, but it's still Verdi all the same, and - as has been proven by some of the other obscure early works revived for this Tutto Verdi collection - with the right kind of production, even those lesser works can be highly charged and thoroughly entertaining.  That's certainly the case with this 2012 production of from the Teatro San Carlo in Naples.

It's true however that the work is initially constrained by its conventional structure.  Each of the principal characters are introduced in the First Act with cavatinas that express their nature and their ambitions - ambitions that are however to a large degree incompatible with one another.  Carlo, the wayward son of Count Moor, expresses his desire to be welcomed back into the family and win back the love of his fiancee Amalia.  Those hopes of reconciliation are however shattered by a letter from his father, so he throws his lot in with a gang of bandits and becomes their leader.  The unfortunate letter has however been engineered by his younger brother Francesco.  It's in his interest to have Carlo out of the picture - permanently if possible - even if it's only to make the old man believe he is dead.

Amalia then steps up to express her position and love for Carlo and is followed by Massimiliano, the Count, who bemoans the errant nature of his eldest son.  The stagy conventionality of this introduction is matched by the apportioning of the roles according to type - the hero inevitably is a tenor, the love interest is a soprano, the villain is a baritone and the father is a bass.  No surprises there.  Having introduced the characters however, Verdi launches into the highly charged drama of the situation with his usual fiery treatment.  Francesco's plan to have Carlo reported as dead is launched and it has a devastating effect.  It might seem a bit over-the-top to have Amalia contemplate Carlo's sword with a message written in blood by Carlo even as he was dying, telling her to marry Francesco instead, but the plot has the desired impact, and more, as his father Massimiliano collapses and is believed dead.

The secret to making such material work of course - as is the case with all Verdi's early melodramas - is in the commitment and delivery of the performances.  A production of I Masnadieri stands or falls based on the performers, more so than the staging, but thankfully, the Naples production is strong in both areas.  The orchestra playing needs to be both sensitive and dramatic, and you only need to listen to the solo cello playing in the overture to see Verdi's intentions as well as gain some measure of how well that is achieved here.  The singing performances if not quite perfect are impressive in the context of the live performance, which is where this comes to life, and are in accord with these intentions.  Much rests on the situation of Carlo and Amalia in this respect and both roles are well catered for by Aquiles Machado and Lucrecia Garcia, but there are no real weaknesses here either in Giacomo Prestia's Massimiliano and Artur Rucinski's Francesco.

The staging is also supportive of the tone adopted for the work.  Some might not like the idea of the non-period specific setting, but none of it changes the essential character of the work.  Carlo and his bandits may be dressed like "dandy highwaymen" in long black leather coats and scarves, more likely to be riding bikes than horses in set designer Alessandro Camera's wasteland setting with the motto 'Libertà o Morte' (Freedom or Death) emblazoned with a skull as graffiti on the backing wall suits the tone well.  Francesco's entourage too look like party goths, and threats are made with drawn pistols rather than swords, but everything fits perfectly with the mood and the dark intent of the piece and its insistence on drama above all else.  Performance comes together well then with the score and the setting to make this an excellent account of I Masnadieri.

This 2012 production of I Masnadieri from the Teatro San Carlo in Naples is released on DVD and Blu-ray by C-Major as part of their Tutto Verdi collection. On Blu-ray the production comes across well, although there appears to be some minor image flicker in places.  Audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1.  The extra features contain the usual 10 minute Introduction, which places the work in the context of Verdi's career and gives an illustrated synopsis of the plot and characters.  The disc is region-free, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

Monday 1 July 2013

Rossini - Ciro in Babilonia

Rossini - Ciro in Babilonia

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2012

Will Crutchfield, Davide Livermore, Ewa Podleś, Jessica Pratt, Michael Spyres, Robert McPherson, Carmen Romen, Mirco Palazzi, Raffaeli Constantini

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Dressing Rossini's Ciro in Babilonia up as a silent movie sounds like a bit of an arbitrary or frivolous choice, but there's no denying that Davide Livermore's production does at least inject some life into Rossini's otherwise stodgy Biblical drama.  I was going to say "inject some colour" into the work, but since the colour scheme here is primarily black-and-white, that doesn't seem appropriate, particularly when all the colour the work needs is already there in the detail of Rossini's writing for the singers, and that hasn't been neglected here either.  Singing and staging combined in this way, the impact achieved for this particular Rossini work - one that would unlikely ever be considered as one of the composer's greats - is simply tremendous.  This is another coup for the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro.

More than just being a random concept however, there's some method and perhaps even some playful commentary behind David Livermore's silent cinema concept.  The director previously styled Rossini's earliest work Demetrio e Polibio as a backstage recreation of the ghosts of the opera's first performance - which, considering that it had remained in obscurity for centuries since its first performances, was a clever and meaningful touch.  By setting Rossini's first religious drama for the Lenten festival in Ferrara in 1812 as a silent Cecil B. De Mille Biblical epic, Livermore is also in a way looking back to a past and making a commentary about the nature of art and performance, and silent cinema perhaps has more in common with opera than you might think.

Ciro in Babilonia is, it has to be said, a terribly old-fashioned work and not one that is likely to stand up well to modernisation.  It's not Mosè in Egitto (or indeed Moïse et Pharaon), and it's unlikely to be able to sustain a radical exploration of its concepts by a director like Graham Vick.  There's an acknowledgement however here that the work - like silent cinema - has nonetheless a certain charm and a quality in its unique means of expression.  The dialogue is far from naturalistic, the treatment of the Biblical story is hardly historically accurate but, like the old-fashioned gestures and expressions of silent-movie actors, the declarations and old-style operatic mannerisms are similarly a now dated means of expression used to reach out and communicate deeper sentiments to an audience.  Without resorting to irony then, Davide Livermore's silent movie concept - complete with projections, tramline scratches and even with fortepiano continuo - works on that level.

Delivered on commission, presumably rattled out at speed in the composer's customary manner, Ciro in Babilonia might not seem like a work that is likely to reveal any new depths or facets, but the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro once again prove that even the most minor Rossini works have considerable qualities and individual merits.  Ciro in Babilonia doesn't have the gravity of later Rossini in attention to musical expression and characterisation, the all-purpose melodies used here apparently with little consideration for tone of mood and situation and somewhat at odds with the inflated pronouncements of the Biblical declamations, but there is nonetheless a degree of thoughtfulness and sophistication in the writing and in the construction of the work itself.  Directing from the fortepiano, Will Crutchfield leads an fine account of the work that shows that the opera indeed has qualities worth examining.

The production then plays fully to the strengths of the subject as well as the nature of Rossini's vibrant and melodic score.  The silent movie concept is very clever in the way that it allows the old-fashioned nature of the opera to actually "work".  I can't imagine any other way that this could be done that would be half as effective.  It's entertaining, it's involving, it's highly entertaining and simply just marvellous to watch.  If this were indeed a movie, there'd have to be an Oscar award just for the Costume Design and Make-up alone.  The stage concept can however only take this so far, and unless there are real merits in the work itself, it's not going to be enough to hold you for the full three hours.  The Pesaro team (and Caramoor from where this production originated) recognise however that the true worth of Ciro in Babilonia lies in the singing performances, and accordingly they bring together a remarkable cast here that individually and collectively deliver one of the most astonishing performances seen at the festival in recent years.

Evidently Rossini tailored his writing to suit specific singers, but more than just to show off their range, the composer clearly took advantage of their abilities to place it in the service of the drama.  We can never know how such works sounded in their original performances, but on the very rare occasion when you have singers of sufficient ability, stature and character who understand the nature of bel canto, you get a glimpse of the true quality of a Rossini opera.  The cast in this production are, quite frankly, just phenomenal.  The role of Ciro, for example, requires the full richness of sound and the range of tessitura that only a true contralto can achieve, and you only realise that when you hear Ewa Podleś sing the role.  Her first scene in Act I, 'Ahi! Come il mio dolore, come calmar potrò?' is astonishing in its delivery, performance and technique, but it's the combination of that contralto voice with the other singers that gives the work real depth and range - and Rossini even provides an unaccompanied trio at the end of the prison scene in Act II to show this off.

Ciro is however by no means the only challenging role in the opera, and this production benefits from - and actually needs - exceptionally strong performers in the other roles.  Jessica Pratt impressed in the Pesaro production of Adelaide di Borgogna (even if the work itself and the production were a little bit lacking), and she's even more impressive here as Amira.  It's a spellbinding performance of extraordinary technical virtuosity, but more than that it's also fully in service of the drama and the nature of the production.  Michael Spyres also plays up the silent movie villain role of Baldassare, but has a gorgeous lyrical deep rich tenor that navigates the demands of the role consistently and with wonderful expression.  Robert McPherson's Arbace is more in the style of the light Italian lyrical tenor and just glides along here beautifully in a way that perfectly complements the other voices.  Mirco Palazzi's solid, deep and resonant bass has been noted before and his Zambri here is just another element that contributes wonderfully to the quality of the production as a whole.

Released on Blu-ray by Opus Arte, the presentation is impeccable.  This is what High Definition was made for.  The image is clear, detailed and perfectly toned, and the whole performance is well filmed, with quite a lot of tight close-ups.  The quality of the PCM and 5.0 Surround audio tracks also contributes to an appreciation of the performance and indeed the music itself.  Other than a Cast Gallery there are no extra features on the disc.  The enclosed booklet however gives information on the work and the production and also has a full synopsis of the opera.  The BD is all-region, full-HD, BD50, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.