Thursday 29 August 2013

Wagner - Das Rheingold

Richard Wagner - Das Rheingold

Teatro alla Scala, 2010

Daniel Barenboim, Guy Cassiers, René Pape, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Doris Soffel, Kwang Chulyoun, Timo Riihouen, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Stephan Rügamer, Jan Buchwald, Marco Jentzch, Anna Samuil, Anna Larsson, Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya, Marina Prudenskaya

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

The true musical merit and the importance of Das Rheingold is often underestimated or at least overlooked on account of its designation as merely the Prologue to the three parts proper of Wagner's epic Ring saga. For the public certainly it at least sets the tone for the grandeur and the admittedly greater dramatic and musical richness that can be found in the Die Walküre that follows, but I suspect it's treated with no less musical and conceptual rigour by the conductor and the director who embark on any new Ring cycle. Perhaps even more so, since it's important to establish from the outset what distinctive approach is going to be taken, and whether it can settle on the precise balance required that will propel the audience compellingly into this unique musical journey.

The first part of the new Teatro alla Scala Ring, created in 2010, fulfils that remit well, with Daniel Barenboim managing proceedings with precision and drive from the orchestra pit and director Guy Cassiers fulfilling all the requirements to establish a suitable tone that fully supports the work. With the assistance of choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, there may even be something of a distinct vision that offers a sense of the shape the subsequent parts of the tetralogy might take. I don't know what Wagner would have made of ballet being incorporated into Das Rheingold, but the Prologue of the Ring - the ultimate expression of the Gesamtkunstwerk - can use a little bit of extra spectacle and stage innovation to draw out those deeper premonitory resonances within the work.

The combination of the music interacting with the staging is at least superb during the opening scene. In the beginning there is nothing, just darkness, then there's the sense of water and life as the Rhinemaidens drift in an out of the shadows in response to the attentions of the Alberich. The sun eventually rises to bath the stage in shimmering gold at the same time as it dawns on the Niebelung goblin that he has something greater within his grasp more covetable than the three bathing beauties. The resonances of the gold, the power that it confers on the person who wields the ring made from it (the "ring" incidentally a shimmering glove here) and the outcome that it eventually holds for the gods is all there in the music and the force of it comes through in Barenboim's meticulous account of the work and in the performance of Johannes Martin Kränzle as Alberich.

It's also there in the background projections and in the contribution of the dancers in this production. In addition to the fine performance of the work on the surface level of the stage direction and the singing, the greater significance of what is being played out here is projected in abstract shimmering colours, textures and shadows on the background and in the movements of the dancers. On a straightforward level that means that there are giant-sized shadow counterparts for the giants Fasolt and Fafner, while the dancers meld together to form the Tarnhelm and its transformations, but the use of lighting, colours and abstract shimmering projections of water, rocks and gold also manage to convey a brooding mythological quality to the locations with premonitions of the dark consequences to the epic events that are about to unfold.

In Das Rheingold the more active roles in determining the direction of the drama are in the likes of Alberich, Loge and Fasolt, and these are indeed the performances that shine here. I wasn't sure that Johannes Martin Kränzle benevolent slightly comical appearance could carry off Alberich, even with the disturbing disfigurement of a "permanent smile" scar at the edges of his mouth, but he not only sings the role well, he also manages to convey the right impression and tone for each scene, from his achieving enlightenment in his renouncing love for power, through his tyranny over Mime, his pride in his invulnerability, to the agony of his loss of the ring to Wotan and Loge. Stephan Rügamer is a sprightly Loge, clever but cautious, a spring in his step and in his voice. Even though small in stature Kwang Chul Youn is nonetheless impressively capable of sounding much larger as the giant Fasolt. The use of shadowplay helps visualise the size and actions of the giants, but it's all there already in Kwang's performance.

The capabilities of Wotan and Fricke aren't tested here to the same extent that they are in Die Walküre, so both René Pape and Doris Soffel were fine if not quite outstanding in these roles. Pape doesn't always appear to be as comfortable or authoritative in the role of Wotan as he probably ought to be, but how well he eventually manages to fulfils the role and whether that uncertainty is part of his character's make-up should become apparent in the subsequent parts of the Ring. The remaining roles were also adequately performed, Timo Riihouen's Fafner in particular working well with Kwang's Fasolt and Anna Larsson making a suitably dramatic entrance and impact as Erda.

A BD25 disc might seem a little tight to cover an opera that is close to three hours long, but I detected no issues at all with the image or the sound. The transfer is stable and clear, handling dark scenes and all the textures and colouration of the background projections without any shimmer or flickering. The audio tracks are LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. There's no great benefit to the surround mix, which might even be a little bit too echoing even if it is mainly front-speaker based, but the stereo mix is strong, particularly when listened to through headphones. There are no extras on the disc, just an essay in the booklet that seems to have some rather high-flown ideas about the production. Subtitles are in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Wagner - Parsifal

Richard Wagner - Parsifal

Salzburg Easter Festival, 2013

Christian Thielemann, Michael Schulz, Johan Botha, Michaela Schuster, Wolfgang Koch, Stephen Milling, Milcho Borovinov, Eva Liebau

Deutsche Grammaphon - Blu-ray

The Salzburg Easter Festival production of Wagner's most enigmatic work is not the most attractive you've ever seen, nor is Michael Schulz's strange take on the work particularly obvious in its intentions. Even with the use of actors playing doubles of the main characters, their personalities and motivations remain for the most part remote, flat, mysterious and largely lifeless. If the production is difficult to fathom, it does nonetheless hold close to the mood and meaning of Parsifal. The real insights, innovations and illuminations on the work here however are almost entirely on the musical side. This is very much Christian Thielemann's show, which means that it may not meet the expectations we have of Parsifal, but it is never less than a thoughtful, fascinating and revealing exploration of this remarkable work.

Since there's not much in the way of a narrative line to follow, there's consequently a lot of room in Parsifal for a director to find ways to explore and express its themes, its symbolism and its philosophy. There's no indication here then in Michael Schulz's production of Monsalvat existing in any earthly location, nor of the Holy Grail being protected by any traditional kind of medieval knights. This Parsifal takes place in abstraction, Monsalvat in Act I being a mostly bare stage with plastic tubes, almost glaringly lit with the knights wearing what looks like white radiation suits. Klingsor's kingdom in Act II is just as brightly lit and bare, with broken statues of dead ancient Gods scattered around, while Monsalvat on Parsifal's return in Act III is a barren frozen waste, with bodies lying on representations of shards of ice and a few snarling wolf-like creatures at the sides.

It's a fairly lifeless production, with no sense of meaning, and - critically for this particular work - little in the way of mood or atmosphere. Part of that could be down to the nature of the film recording, the lighting boosted to ensure pinpoint detail in the High Definition image, but in the process it almost completely sucks any theatrical ambience out of the performance. The DG recording of the Vienna Anna Bolena, also directed by Brian Large, similarly suffered from the same over-brightness of the image. I usually at least find Large a solid and reliable television director, but in this respect and in the camera work he fails to do justice to the stage presentation here. There's no rhythm or approach consistent with the work and the cameras often miss the action or look to the wrong characters when there are both singers and actors on the stage. It all feels very static, forced and artificial, more like an art installation or a piece of performance art.

While the appearance might be a little unsettling, unfamiliar and alienating, it's clear nonetheless that the production addresses many of the themes in Parsifal. There are five young boys and then five young men who shadow Parsifal; a bruised and battered Jesus who appears to be a physical representation of Kundry's curse; and a dwarf actor who represents the evil of Klingsor (who is sung moreover for extra significance here by the same singer who plays Amfortas). Two almost naked dancers meanwhile clinging to Amfortas are credited as Nike here may be representations of the pain that clings to him in his eternal torment. Whatever the meaning, there are clear references here to youth and innocence, age and experience, death and rebirth, suffering and redemption, and together with the musical expression, the meaning in this imagery does come through in those key moments with immense power.

Much more significant and much more interesting in the expression of the work however is Christian Thielemann's musical direction. Whether Parsifal can work as effectively outside of the very specific design of the Bayreuth stage that it was written for is debatable, but Thielemann's most unusual approach attempts to redress the balance of the instruments for the very different acoustics of the Grosses Festspielhaus in Salzburg, and it really is an extraordinary account of the work. You really have never heard a Parsifal like this. Between the strangeness of the production and the unfamiliarity of the sound, it's hard to know what is going on in Act I, but the two come together to powerful effect at the conclusion of the act that they have clearly been building towards.

Act II however reveals the true nature and the merits of the approach. This is a Parsifal delivered with delicacy and sensitivity, the reduced orchestration not only working for the requirements of the auditorium and the singers, but finding another way to deliver the extraordinary beauty of the compositional elements so that they reveal the true brilliance of the work. Act II might appear too delicate then for the dark content and drama of Parsifal's encounter with Klingsor and Kundry, floating aimlessly and almost evaporating, but Thielemann's conducting of the orchestra finds the warmth and Romanticism within the work and still commands tremendous force. Act III is still familiar but in an entirely new way. Nothing sounds like a routine account of the work, but every note is carefully delineated, measured, weighted and balanced. It's extraordinary, the delicacy actually revealing even greater force of expression in this most enigmatic and unique of musical works.

It's not just a matter of toning down the orchestration to prevent it overwhelming the singers either. All of these singers here are capable of singing with considerably more strength, but the choice seems to have deliberately made to allow them to sing the words softly, sweetly and soothingly, avoiding any sense of declamation. The sweet tones of Johan Botha are perfect for this Parsifal then, but he moves around awkwardly and the suit is most unflattering for his very large frame. Michaela Schuster is not a typical Kundry either and difficult to fathom, but her interaction with her own "personal Jesus" and with the other characters can be utterly shattering in its intensity. Wolfgang Koch has a very difficult task by taking Amfortas and Klingsor as a dual role and does tremendously well. Stephen Milling's soft cooing Gurnemanz lacks the traditional authority and wisdom, but his beautiful timbre and the staging really does bring another dimension out of the character.

It's not how you expect to hear Parsifal then, but it is surprisingly effective. The abstraction of the production design often makes it harder to relate to the characters, or at least difficult to see them in their traditional roles, but each act seems to be paced quite deliberately for effect, building in intensity, leading towards moments of almost transcendent release, and when it gets to those moments, the impact is fully achieved. That's largely down to Christian Thielemann, and his contribution and that of the Dresden Staatskapelle orchestra is fully recognised at the curtain call with the orchestra even invited onto the stage. For the musical interpretation alone this Parsifal a very worthwhile experience, but that doesn't mean that it should be separated from the stage presentation, which may be unusual but exercises a strange fascination of its own.

The High Definition presentation of the opera on Blu-ray from Decca is also exceptionally good. I don't think the production is well served by the lighting or the filming, but the image quality is flawless and the audio tracks - LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0 - are superb at capturing the warmth and detail of the orchestration and the singing. There are no extra features on the disc, but there's a synopsis and an essay in the enclosed booklet. Subtitles are in German, English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

Thursday 22 August 2013

Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Bregenz Festival 2013

Partick Summers, David Pountney, Ana Durlovski, Gisela Stille, Daniel Schmutzhard, Alfred Reiter, Rainer Trost, Dénise Beck

ARTE Live Web, Internet Steaming, 25 July 2013

If it were anywhere else and any other work, you might think that the production here was just a little bit over the top, but this is the floating lake stage in Bregenz and it's Mozart's The Magic Flute, so really, anything goes. Bregenz productions are always truly spectacular and one would think that the previous installation of a giant 'Death of Marat' in Lake Constance for Andrea Chénier would be a hard act to follow, but this year's The Magic Flute tops it. Mozart's playful and magical work clearly inspires the imagination of director David Pountney and his production team - as it should - and, even with considerable competition, this is by far the most impressive production I think I've ever seen of Die Zauberflöte.

Set right in the waters of Lake Constance at Bregenz, the opera is performed on the domed back of a giant turtle that is surrounded by three huge dragons, but the stage itself is evidently only half the spectacle. As a piece of stagecraft, Johan Engels' design is also a state of the art production, vividly imagined and impressively choreographed. The overture, for example, shows the capture of Pamina, the Queen of the Night looking on horrified as Sarastro, Monostatos and his slaves transport her away on a boat that takes a circuit of the stage. The stage then erupts into life in the battle that ensues, fireworks flying, a serpent winding down the stage to inflate to enormous proportions as the dragon that attacks Prince Tamino. The green, stepped stage revolves, one half sprouting giant inflatable blades of grass or spikes that create a forest and change colour depending on the scene, the other half used mainly to create a podium or dais for the grandstanding of The Queen of the Night and for Sarastro.

Another significant feature of the Bregenz production is Marie-Jeanne Lecca's larger-than-life puppets for the three ladies (each operated by three puppeteers, reflecting the significance of this number in the work) and for the three boys, while the actual roles are sung off-stage (and by female singers moreover). There are probably logistical reasons for this, although the stage is accommodating enough for all sorts of activity and numbers of extras and acrobats. If it allows the singers to concentrate on the singing however, well then that's also a benefit, but primarily it's clearly for the sake of magic, spectacle and sheer scale. The dancing animals, for example, charmed by Tamino's flute, are recreated here through giant glowing eyes in the forest and it works wonderfully. Everything comes together exceptionally well in this way, the principal singers interacting with all the marvellous creations, the whole thing meticulously timed and choreographed.

As has always been the case with any production I've seen at Bregenz, just because there is huge importance placed on spectacle and entertainment doesn't mean that the musical performance or the singing is in any way neglected or relegated to secondary importance. Conducted by Patrick Summers, the small ensemble of the Vienna Symphonic orchestra give a lovely, sensitive reading of Die Zauberflöte, capturing the translucent beauty of the score and the brightness of its melodies with a lively performance. The use of electronic sound effects on occasion is to be deplored of course, but if it's taken as part of the theatrical effects and it adds some atmosphere to the dry dialogue, well, it doesn't really matter that much, all things considered.

There are times also when you think that a high level of fitness, intrepidness, acrobatic agility and a head for heights are more important considerations than singing ability when it comes to casting for Bregenz. For this production, where several performers have reportedly ended up in the lake on one or two occasions, you might even add swimming as an important requirement this time, but while the cast may indeed possess these additional qualities, the singing is marvellous too. For this particular work - a Singspiel - vocal agility is perhaps not quite as important as the possession of a lightness of tone, clarity and good diction to carry the content.  There are, of course, one or two exceptions to this rule.

Lightness, clarity of tone and precision is certainly true of Gisela Stille's Pamina and Rainer Trost's Tamino - both warmly engaging as well as finely sung - and true also of Daniel Schmutzhard's Papageno and Dénise Beck's Papagena. The exceptions to the rule, or at least having requirements quite literally far above and deep below the normal range, are of course the roles of Königen der Nacht and Sarastro, and they are very capably handled by Ana Durlovski and Alfred Reiter. Also good is Martin Koch as Monostatos (wearing a very nearly obscene codpiece).

There were quite a few trims applied to the score in this production and not just to the spoken dialogues (no March of the Priests at the start of Act II, Sarastro's 'In diesen heil'gen Hallen' reduced to second verse only, Sarastro, Pamina and Tamino's trio skipped), seemingly with the intention of allowing the work to be played straight through without an interval.  This is perhaps for practical reasons, but still there was nothing here that seemed to compromise the integrity of the work. Much of the Masonic rituals and imagery were also played down in favour of the more exotic Egyptian references in the worship of Isis and Osiris. The production design however on the side of Sarastro and his followers seemed closer to Aztec or Inca pagan rites and sacrifices, with even a dark fantasy look and feel to their costumes, particularly in the Armoured Men scene.  

As productions of Die Zauberflöte go however, the Bregenz production then not only looked great and sounded great, it was played perfectly in the spirit of the work. It's rare that you get all those elements coming together in a way that captures the pure vitality, the meaning and the entertainment of the work as well as this, although unquestionably the emphasis here leans more on the entertainment side of the work than the esoteric. The ability to scale the work up for the Bregenz stage works in its favour in this regard, but that also undoubtedly brings other considerable challenges. It's quite an achievement by Summers and Pountney then that this comes across quite as brilliantly as it does.

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Rossini - Matilde di Shabran

Gioachino Rossini - Matilde di Shabran

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2012

Michele Mariotti, Mario Martone, Juan Diego Flórez, Olga Peretyatko, Paolo Bordogna, Chiara Chialli, Simon Orfilia, Anna Goryachova, Marco Filippo Romano, Nicola Alaimo, Giorgio Misseri, Ugo Rosati, Dario Sallusto

Decca - Blu-ray

Whatever you might think about the plausibility or the dramatic merits of the plot of Matilde di Shabran, musically it's an absolute delight, with an abundance of melody and a number of meaty singing roles. It might be Rossini on autopilot, composing at breakneck speed and getting full value out of a few simple rehashed tunes repeated at a variety of speeds, but the fact that he manages nonetheless to fashion an entertaining musical entertainment out of the most meagre and ludicrous of librettos with limited means is near miraculous. At least, it is when its potential is fully realised at the Rossini Opera Festival by some of the best Rossinian performers in the world today.

No-one however could possibly lay any kind of claim for there being anything like a credible plot or even credible characters in Matilde di Shabran, but if writing for entertainment alone is justification enough for an opera, then that's certainly what Rossini delivers here. Corradino ("Ironheart") might be a fearsome warrior ("a lion, an ogre, a devil") and a heartless hater of women who resides in a dark castle on a hill, who issues dire pronouncements to strike fear into the hearts of the local villagers, but he finds his power-base crumble when faced with a disarming creature of the opposite sex. There is however no Bluebeard-like dark cautionary fairy-tale here. It's not some psychological exploration of the fatal attraction of female passions and the dangerous allure of masculine power. (It might be interesting to see Claus Guth let loose on this, but even he would find this work a challenge).

The woman who is going to storm Corradino's castle (metaphorically speaking) is of course Matilde di Shabran. Matilde has been left as a ward to Corradino by her father on his deathbed. Quite why the old man did this isn't entirely clear, but clearly he must have been insane or in a delirium if he thought it was a great idea to entrust his only daughter to a notorious hater of women, a man devoted entirely to war, havoc, slaughter and inflicting as much misery and fear into the world as is humanly possible. Corradino is however clearly good at his job, receiving tributes of vegetables from cowering villagers, showing his merciless character by having an unwary poet called Isidoro locked up for straying on his property and just because he finds his name effeminate. He's a baddie all right, this Corradino, and he chases Isidoro around the stage just to scare him a bit more.

There's a good hour of all this (comic-)macho posturing before Matilde arrives on the scene, or even before we hear a female voice in the opera. Even then, it's a mezzo-soprano singing the trouser-role of Edoardo, the son of Corradino's arch-enemy Don Rodrigo, who is locked up in the dungeon. When Matilde does turn up on the scene, Corradino obviously wants to slaughter this hateful but curiously attractive example of the fairer sex, but - what is this? Something stays his hand. Could it be love? Could the Ironheart be melting? Well, much to the delight of the scheming Countess, it's only a temporary aberration, since his mistrust of all women is proven to be justified when it appears that Matilde has released his prisoner Edoardo from chains. Faithless woman! So why then does Corradino still feel such pangs at the betrayal and even a hint of regret that he has had her executed...?

If you find that you're fully entertained for over three and a half hours by the thin ludicrous plot that passes for drama (or indeed comedy), then it's almost entirely down to Rossini's galloping, spinning and spiralling score. He may have written Matilde di Shabran in haste - even more than usual - to fulfil a commission, but you'd almost think that the speed of writing has found its way into the score, which rattles along at that familiar Rossinian pace, rattling out variations of the theme in a manner that works nonetheless in perfect accompaniment with the over-the-top situations and the behaviour of the characters. That of course is also expressed in the singing, and accordingly you'll find some of the composer's most extravagant bel canto writing here.

All of which wouldn't amount to much however if we didn't have the right people in place at the Rossini Opera Festival to make this 2013 performance of the work compellingly and thrillingly entertaining. Really, you only need to see the names Juan Diego Flórez and Olga Peretyatko here to know it's going to be sung as well as it can be. Even then though, both singers more than surpass expectations. Dramatically they don't have a lot to work with, and there's unfortunately a lot of mugging going on, but Flórez's singing is still without peer in this tenor register and he never once falters in the extremely difficult passages, even making them look easy. The same goes for the gorgeous songbird flutterings of Olga Peretyatko's flawless coloratura, but her unparalleled brilliance of this type of Rossini role is evident in her entire performance. It would be apparent to anyone that you are witnessing two of the best Rossini performers in the world here at their best.

You would be hard pressed to find flaws in the other performances either with Paolo Bordogna providing a good comic turn as Isidoro, Anna Goryachova a fine Edoardo and Chiara Chialli a suitably mean Countess. Simon Orfilia also makes a good impression as Ginardo, but is rather wasted in such a small role. Michele Mariotti races the orchestra through the work with no great subtlety, which is exactly the manner in which it should be played. There's not a lot to say about Mario Martone's direction or the stage design other than it's functional and perfectly suitable. The setting is generically period, the depiction of Corradino's castle, towers and dungeon is created through an all-purpose large double spiral staircase that remains static in place throughout, although it spins for effect at one or two key moments.

Decca's Blu-ray release of Matilde di Shabran looks and sounds pretty good in High Definition. The Blu-ray is region free, full-HD, with subtitles in Italian, English, French and German. The enclosed booklet includes a full track-by-track synopsis (which is more than the plot merits), and there is an essay on the creation of the work, although I'm not sure about the claim that this work conforms to the opera semiseria style. There are no extra features on the actual disc, but you have an entertaining three and a half hour opera here, with extraordinary performances and a solid presentation.

Friday 9 August 2013

Wagner - Rienzi

Richard Wagner - Rienzi

Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse, 2012

Pinchas Steinberg, Jorge Lavelli, Torsten Kerl, Marika Schönberg, Richard Wiegold, Daniela Sindram, Stefan Heidemann, Robert Bork,  Marc Heller, Leonardo Neiva, Jennifer O'Loughlin

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Amidst the abundance of Ring cycles being wheeled out this year, the Wagner bicentenary has also provided a good opportunity to revisit and reconsider many of the composer's earliest works. This has resulted in a well-received production of Die Feen at Leipzig and a fine new recording in Frankfurt of Das Liebesverbot for CD, confirming that there is much merit in these works even if there is little of the familiar Wagner in them. The same could be said of the Meyerbeer-influenced five-act Grand Opéra style that Wagner employs in Rienzi, but composed around the same time as Der Fliegende Höllander, there are fascinating hints of the style that would develop in the composer's later music dramas.  This is something that is brought out very skillfully in this 2012 production from the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse.

In contrast to Philipp Stöltzl's production of Rienzi for the Deutsche Oper (the only other production released on DVD and Blu-ray) which went for bombast and grandeur to match the parallels drawn between the rule of Cola di Rienzi (1313-1354) and more recent historical dictatorships (most evidently Hitler and the Third Reich), the Toulouse production here sets out a more melancholic and mournful tone in Pinchas Steinberg's conducting of the work's famous Overture. There's also a sense of plaintiveness and maybe even defiant resistance, but that could be suggested more by the imagery that is projected here, showing images of the fall of the Berlin Wall as well as other popular uprisings in Paris, in China, in South Africa and right up to date with the Arab Spring.

There are however no other such modern references to be found in this production, which settles thereafter for a more generalised non-specific period, but one that has echoes to Wagner's own time. The Overture is all about setting the tone, and this one succeeds in bringing it back closer to the sentiments and intentions of the original work. As fascinating as Philipp Stöltzl's production was in relating the work to its historical legacy (most notoriously as Hitler's favourite opera), this production takes it back to Wagner's left-wing leanings and the revolutionary activities on the streets of Dresden that would see him forced into exile for a significant part of his life. This is a Rienzi that is still concerned about the nature and the exercise of power, but Wagner's position as a revolutionary on the side of the ordinary citizen - most evident in its huge choruses - is more clearly drawn here.

As the Deutsche Oper production demonstrated, any production of Rienzi is going to be defined by the decisions on what cuts are made to it, since the full five-act work would be almost impossible to perform (and I'm not even sure a definitive version of the work exists). The first thing to go is usually the superfluous Grand Opéra ballet sequences, but otherwise, the Toulouse production is a more intact or integral version than Stöltzl's. If the musical treatment and the theatrical intent are quite different, this production is nonetheless still very much stylised in its own way. Closer to the 19th century than medieval Rome (or indeed the Third Reich), the panstick-whitened faces remind one of a futuristic silent movie like Metropolis. In its striving for an ideal society that rules with benevolence and with balance for the needs of its people, this might not be far off the mark in striking the right tone for Rienzi.

There is however nothing as visually striking as Metropolis in this minimally decorated production. The Toulouse stage is not a large one and considerable space is needed for the massed choruses that take to the stage regularly throughout each of the five acts. That's not to say that the production doesn't hold attention however. The costumes are appropriate to help define the characters and succeeding in setting the people apart from the uniformly-dressed political factions (you can scarcely distinguish between the Orsini and the Colonna, which is perhaps the intention).  The lighting is superb, and the production works well enough to bring across what can be a fairly static opera largely comprised of pronouncements and declarations.

The singing too commands attention. The vocal writing is less bel canto in Rienzi than in Wagner's previous work, the Bellini-influenced Das Liebesverbot, but the roles are no less demanding on the singers, pointing towards the style of expression and continual flow that is found in later Wagner works. All of the singers deal with the demands exceptionally well, if not always with a great sense of personality, but then the characterisation is somewhat limited in this work. Torsten Kerl has made the role of Cola di Rienzi something of his own and he brings out a more human side to the character here. Marika Schönberg is a good Irene, but doesn't make as much of an impression in the role as Camilla Nyberg did in the Deutsche Oper production. In the trouser role of Adriano, mezzo-soprano Daniela Sindram however probably gives the stand-out performance, with a deep, soaring and expressive delivery that helps considerably in bringing some much needed life to the work.

It's this kind of performance that demonstrates that there are many facets in Rienzi that are still worth exploring. Rienzi is an opera that you want to be rediscovered as a misunderstood and neglected masterpiece, but it just never seems to live up to what we expect of a Wagner opera.  The promise of the wonderful overture asserts itself on occasion like a leitmotif throughout the work, but it never seems to deliver on its promise. Rienzi may yet be capable of being revitalised into something greater, but despite the best efforts of production here, this one still doesn't quite overcome the problems inherent within the work.

As you would expect, the High Definition presentation of Rienzi on Blu-ray from Opus Arte is most impressive. The image is clear and captures the production well. The audio PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks are fine, but there's some reverb in the stage ambience that dulls the sound a little. Without the LFE on the PCM track the singing is somewhat clearer, but the surround track has its benefits in a better distribution of the orchestra. The BD also has almost an hour's worth of interviews with the production team and the singers. Torsten Kerl deals quite frankly with the thorny issues of Wagner's controversial statements and the work's legacy in the Nazi era, but there are also interesting thoughts on the value of the work itself and the difficulties of performing it from the conductor and director.

The BD is full-HD, dual-layer BD50, region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German and Korean.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

Strauss - Elektra

Richard Strauss - Elektra

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2013

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Patrice Chéreau, Evelyn Herlitzius, Waltraud Meier, Adrianne Pieczonka, Mikhail Petrenko, Tom Randle, Franz Mazura, Florian Hoffmann, Sir Donald McIntyre, Renate Behle, Bonita Hyman, Andrea Hill, Silvia Hablowetz, Marie-Eve Munger, Roberta Alexander

ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming - 19 July 2013

In terms of theatrical expression, Strauss's Elektra has minimal but nonetheless very specific requirements. What everyone remembers about any production of this extraordinary work is how it handles the final scene of violent release from all of the tension, bitterness and threats of dire vengeance that has led up to it. The build-up to that finale meanwhile is best expressed through the performance of the singer in the role of Electra. In the case of the 2013 Aix-en-Provence production the appropriate tone is achieved by Patrice Chéreau in one of his all-too-infrequent returns to opera directing, and through a stunning performance of Evelyn Herlitzius.

The set design at Aix is fairly straightforward and classical in design, reminding one of Chéreau's staging of Janacek's From The House of the Dead at Aix in 2007. There's some correlation in these two very different works, since Mycenae is effectively a prison for Electra and for the servants who work alongside her at the palace of her mother Clytemnestra and her step-father Aegisthus. The impression given here is very much that of a women's prison and it's a particularly bleak one. It's grey, bare, dark and ominous with surrounding high walls at the back that create an oppressive ambience, the only outstanding feature a small ditch in the ground where Electra dwells and expresses her grief in tirades of hatred against the murderers of her father Agamemnon and her despair that her brother Orestes isn't there to exact revenge.

In a single act opera, with very little dramatic action or scene changes, the stage is often used to reflect the inner mind of Electra's soul in torment. If that's the case here - and Elektra is very much a psychological drama - then it's a typically bleak and unrelenting depiction of psychopathy. There are no soft edges here in Richard Peduzzi's sets, and other than the surround to the door leading to Clytemnestra's chambers, there are no curves either. It's all blocky with harsh angles - not even expressionist, but composed entirely of sharp right-angles that suggest not so much a fractured mindstate as one of solid determination of purpose. There is as little variation in this appearance as there is little variation in the overall tone of the work, the only set movement occurring when a platform is extended at the climax to reveal the murdered Clytemnestra to Aegisthus.

Chéreau's strengths as a director however extend much further than merely establishing a suitable mood or moving the performers across the stage. In the case of Elektra, where the work is so perfectly written and meticulously composed (is there any work that is so musically expressive of the slightest variations of mood, action, drama and internalised sentiments than this one?), it's more of a challenge not to interfere too much and Chéreau clearly recognises this. The director's duty in Elektra, more so than perhaps in any other work, is to serve the music and the libretto and find a way to transfer the incredibly strong emotions credibly and meaningfully into actions. Esa-Pekka Salonen's conducting is accordingly attentive to detail, weaving, sweeping and driving without ever being overly forceful. For his part, Chéreau recognises the archetypal female psychologies expressed in Electra, Clytemnestra and Chrysothemis, as well as parallels that exist between Electra and Hamlet and all these references feed into the character development even if they don't need to be made explicit in the production itself.

The greater part of the force of Elektra however is expressed through the singing of the highly challenging role of Electra herself, and Evelyn Herlitzius proves to be well up to the task.  Having seen Herlitzius recently as Kundry in Parsifal, the German soprano is increasingly proving to be a singer of real dramatic power and substance in the most challenging Wagnerian and Strauss roles. All the force that is required is here in a committed performance that is as unwavering and unyielding as Electra's personality and madness is concentrated into her singleminded desire for revenge. Evidently, there's a lot of writhing around in torment and a dance of death to deal with as well (which doesn't actually end in Electra's death here), but Herlitzius deals with the physical demands of the role tremendously well and is fully deserving of the huge acclaim that greets her at her curtain call.

Elektra is largely a one-person opera, but the singing and the characterisation elsewhere needs to be up to the mark and most of the other main performances are strong here. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka comes across most impressively with an outstanding performance as Chrysothemis that provides the necessary contrast and counterbalance to the darkness of Electra's position. Waltraud Meier on the other hand seems to be holding back a little here, but she comes alive powerfully in her scenes with Evelyn Herlitzius. Mikhail Petrenko is a fine Orestes, but even though it's a small role Tom Randle doesn't have the right kind of voice or the necessary force to sing Aegisthus.

Elektra at the Aix-en-Provence Festival is available for viewing on-line (with French subtitles) from the ARTE Live Web site. There appear however to be region restrictions preventing viewing outside of France and Germany.

Monday 5 August 2013

Verdi - Rigoletto

Giuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2013

Gianandrea Noseda, Robert Carsen, George Gagnidze, Irina Lungu, Arturo Chacón-Cruz, Gábor Bretz, Josè Maria Lo Monaco, Michèle Lagrange, Arutjun Kotchinian, Julien Dran, Jean-Luc Ballestra, Maurizio Lo Piccolo, Paggio Valeria Tornatore

ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming - 12 July 2013

If Verdi's Rigoletto has proved to be one of the composer's works most apt to being reworked into new and modern situations, it's a measure not only of its popularity or its musical accomplishments as in how the dramatic strengths of Victor Hugo's original work are brought vividly to life by Verdi. Its treatment on the subject of power and moral corruption and the human cost associated with it has made it suitable to a Mafia updating (in Jonathan Miller's production) and even as a Rat Pack version in 1960s Las Vegas seen recently at the Met. The richness of the work however allows other interesting themes to be drawn from it.

For a director like Robert Carsen, one of his themes of interest, taken to varying levels of success in his productions, is the post-modern theme of performance itself. All the world is indeed a stage, and at the heart of Rigoletto there remains a fascinating flawed figure who plays the role of the fool and ends up becoming one. He allows himself to be flattered to be part of Duke of Mantua's corrupt inner circle and become complicit in its crimes, hoping to keep his true nature as a loving father separate from the role he plays at court. Those two worlds collide through what he fears to be the curse of a nobleman, Monterone, but in reality he's largely responsible for his own downfall.

There's comedy and tragedy and even a certain amount of farce in the way that Rigoletto becomes the author of his own daughter's death, so it's not too much of a stretch to see him characterised as he is here in Carsen's production as a traditional clown. And, since there has to be some recognition that opera is also about performance and the playing to visual expectations, there's a knowing hint of Pagliacci thrown in here as well. And, yes, Carsen's version is set entirely within the big top of a circus - performance writ large. It's not the most original of interpretations, but for the most part, the production works without having to distort the intentions of the opera's themes too much.

The opening scene that starts with what is traditionally an orgy at the Duke's palace is transformed here into a big performance of acrobats and dancers in a circus arena. The Duke of Monterone's young daughter is not so much seduced and defiled here then as a willing participant, a dancer who strips down topless with other dancers who are not wearing much else either. She's as much a performer seeking the attention and favour of the Duke as Rigoletto. All the other participants seem likewise to be compelled to play their parts. Gilda cannot give up her devotion to the Duke, the assassin Sparafucile must honour his bargain in one fashion or another, and despite his fear of the curse of Monterone, Rigoletto must continue to play his part as a clown. The show must go on.

If the circus location isn't the most naturalistic setting and doesn't provide an entirely suitable platform for Rigoletto's scenes, it does nonetheless sustain some elements reasonably well. Act One sees Rigoletto and Gilda in a small caravan with collapsible sides, Gilda sings her paean of love to Gualtier Maldè ('Caro nome') from a raised acrobat's swing (a brave performance from Irina Lungu that nonetheless doesn't quite hit the same heights here), and Gilda is then abducted while Rigoletto is distracted holding a ladder for acrobats to ascend. It all adds up and works with the musical score, even if it doesn't quite conform to the letter of the libretto. Act II and III remain within the circus tent and there are fewer ideas, but Act II doesn't require much more than the iconographic image of Rigoletto in sad clown make-up face to draw the full extent and nature of his humiliation.  Act III's rope cage for an inn is a curious set-up, but the drop of the curtain is well-employed as it the impact of the falling acrobat that closes the performance here.

If you're prepared to go along with Carsen's take on the circus setting and find that it works to some extent, the reason is more than likely to be because you are caught up in the vividness of Verdi's most compact and dramatically expressive score, and because Gianandrea Noseda propels it along superbly. The conductor notes in the Aix Festival programme that ('Caro nome' aside) Rigoletto is like "a volcanic eruption. Once the music starts, it doesn't let up for a moment". He recognises that this, and Verdi's marriage of the most wonderful music to a dramatically compact series of confrontations mostly in duet form, is what makes Rigoletto a truly remarkable work. Carsen's production allows the dramatic expression to match the musical flow and the intent of the drama, if not quite in the conventional way, while having some personal commentary to make about it as well.

The other essential element that is needed to fully support the work is of course the singing, and it's strong exactly where it needs to be. I haven't heard George Gagnidze before, but he strikes me as a near perfect Rigoletto, and Verdi baritones of this quality are thin on the ground at the moment. His glorious timbre is warm and expressive, not just clearly enunciating the words, but fully bringing them to life. It's probably even more difficult to find good Verdi sopranos and tenors of quality at the moment, but Irina Lungu and Arturo Chacón-Cruz cope well. Lungu struggles to hold some of the challenging high notes early on, but comes through strongly later in the challenging musical drama.  Chacón-Cruz might not always have the forceful delivery required either, they brings the right kind of light charm, glamour and dramatic intensity to make an impact at those points where it is most needed.

Rigoletto at the Aix-en-Provence Festival is available for viewing on-line (with French subtitles) from the ARTE Live Web site.

Friday 2 August 2013

Cavalli - Elena

Francesco Cavalli - Elena

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2013

Leonardo García Alarcón, Jean-Yves Ruf, Emőke Baráth, Valer Barna-Sabadus, Fernando Guimarães, Solenn' Lavanant Linke, Rodrigo Ferreira, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Anna Reinhold, Scott Conner, Mariana Flores, Majdouline Zerari, Brendan Tuohy, Christopher Lowrey, Job Tomé

Medici Live Internet Streaming - 11 July 2013

Cavalli operas present considerable difficulties at the best of times, but Elena, one of composer's rarest works, is perhaps one of the most challenging. Quite what tone to set for the work is complicated by the nature of the writing itself, its libretto finished by Nicolò Minato after the death of Cavalli's regular collaborator Giovanni Faustini in 1651. First performed in 1659, the work moreover hasn't been produced in full for over 350 years, and attitudes towards how opera is performed have changed a lot in that time. Is Elena meant to be played as a relatively straight account of the abduction of Helen of Troy or is it more of what the Aix programme describes as a "vaudeville mythologique" or indeed in reference to Offenbach, a "Baroque Belle Hélène"?

The 2013 Aix-en-Provence production, conducted by Leonardo García Alarcón and directed by Jean-Yves Ruf seems to be a little uncertain quite how to play Elena in this regard. When in doubt however, it seems that the best model for playing Cavalli is to look back at his master and mentor, Claudio Monteverdi and in particular at his masterpiece L'Incoronazione di Poppea. Following its innovative approach to mixing of the vulgar and the sublime, the human and the heavenly, Elena seems to assert its own tone quite successfully.

The opera starts out light and humorous, with folk-like dance rhythms marked out on harpsichord, but it's given tremendous colour through Cavalli's writing for woodwind and trumpet, with the lute-like Theorbo used as well for more plaintive laments. The dominant tone however is established when the central relationship of Elena and Menelaus emerges from the complications that ensue when the colourful cast comes into contact with the face that launched a thousand ships, and probably just as many operas. Even the manner in which the situation arises here is a combination of the mythic and the comic, the Prologue being a familiar early Baroque one where the Gods are in dispute. It's an undignified affair to say the least, with Discordia (in disguise as Concordia), setting Juno, Venus and Pallas against one another in a dispute over who is most worthy of the Golden Apple. Discord sown (so to speak), it's determined that the fate of Helen to be joined with Menelaus is not going to be smooth sailing.

That meddling in the affairs of mortals leads, as it does in most Baroque operas, to great complications in the main part of Elena. It's Theseus who abducts Helen, having abandoned his intended Hippolyta (which will have repercussions later), but in doing so he also takes Elisa, an Amazonian slave who has been engaged by King Tyndareus of Sparta as a wrestling assistant for Helen. Elisa however is none other than Meneleas dressed in female clothing, but so good is his disguise that not only has Theseus's colleague Pirithous fallen in love with her, but so too has King Tyndareus. As much then to bring back Elisa as his abducted daughter, the King sends his jester Irus out to find them.

That's just a simplified version of what happens in Act I, but even without bringing in the other players - in disguise and cross-dressing - it's not too difficult to see how such a plot can seem a little bit ridiculous as it descends into bitterness, rivalry and misunderstandings. On the other hand, it also provides plenty of opportunity for a variety of situations and tones, all fuelled by overwhelming mad desires. If what ensues is almost farcical, the sentiments expressed are nonetheless heartfelt. Helen's maid, Astianassa for example, only wishes that someone cared enough to abduct her and sings a beautiful aria of sadness for her position. The same is the case for the spurned Hippolyta, for the Prince Menestheus, who falls in love with Helen on first sight, and for King Tyndareus. Their passions might seem silly to others, but they are real to them.

In its example of showing important historical figures like Nero, Seneca and Poppea to be humans with the same sentiments as everyone else, Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea may indeed be the model to follow in terms of setting the variations of tone to be found in Elena. In many other respects however, Cavalli's writing goes beyond Monteverdi in the richness of the instrumentation, in the supplementation of the basso continuo, but particularly in the writing for voices. In addition to the expected solo laments, much of the plot and interaction between the characters is developed though beautiful duets, and it's used as well to express their compatibility and common accord. Often both voices sing the same words, one a beat behind the other, but the harmony of the voices and the expressions of lyrical beauty are quite extraordinary.

Despite the intervention of many characters and the expression of their desires towards them, it's the duets then between Menelaus and Helen that affirm the rightness of their union. Theseus and Hippolyta also put their differences aside (Theseus apologises to Castor and Pollux, "Sorry for abducting Helen", "That's ok, forgive and forget" they reply!), which also allows Concordia to reign again (temporarily) and the opera to end with a short but beautiful quartet of voices in union. The singing is excellent particularly from these main players - Emőke Baráth as Helen, Fernando Guimarães as Theseus, and Solenn' Lavanant Linke as Hippolyta, but the stand-out performance is undoubtedly that of countertenor Valer Barna-Sabadus as Menelaus.

The stage direction by Jean-Yves Ruf and the set designs by Laure Pichat keep things relatively simple. The stage is small and resembles an arena or a bullring, with a semi-circle of wood fencing behind the players. The period is not classical but closer to 17th century, the production even employing old-style special effects for wind and storms, with billowing sails for those sea journeys. It doesn't always sustain visual interest in what is a long 3-hour opera with a great deal of characters and repetitive situations, but the simplicity and intimacy of the setting is undoubtedly the best way to play a work of this type, and it frames the strengths of Cavalli's writing and supports the fine singing.

Elena at the Aix-en-Provence Festival is available for viewing on-line (with French subtitles) from the Medici and ARTE Live Web sites.