Monday 28 October 2013

Verdi - Simon Boccanegra

Giuseppe Verdi - Simon Boccanegra

Szeged National Theatre, Hungary - 2013

Tamás Pál, Zsuzsa Molnár, Vasile Chisiu, Stefano Olcese, Adrienn Miksch, Attila Réti, András Kiss, Bálint Börcsök, Szilvia Dobrotka, József Varga

Armel Opera Festival, Szeged - ARTE Live Web - 10th October 2013

Simon Boccanegra is by no means a typical work by Verdi. The composer had by this stage moved beyond the bluster of the works of his "galley years" - beautifully melodic, dramatically driven and often musically inspired though many of them are - towards a maturity of style in his middle-period that didn't rely quite so much on the standard number format of the classic Italian opera tradition. The melodrama is still there in mid-period Verdi, and the composer had yet to have the full involvement of a librettist like Arrigo Boito who would provide him with material truly worthy of his talents (though Boito did later add the Act II Council Chamber scene for the revised version of Simon Boccanegra), but there is nonetheless a greater subtlety and attention to characterisation in the fascinating works from this period.

Not that you would notice this from the 2013 Szeged National Theatre production of Simon Boccanegra presented at the Armel Opera Festival. It's not a bad production by any means, and it's always intriguing to see a work based on the original staging as described in documents from the time, but it's inevitably going to look rather old-fashioned with singers mostly standing facing the audience rather than interacting with one another and belting out the numbers in the classic 'park-and-bark' or 'stand-and-deliver' manner. For a lot of Verdi, if you've got good singers - and the Szeged are strong-voiced and more than capable of meeting the demands - you can get away with this. For early Verdi anyway. For a work like Simon Boccanegra, which relies on moments of tender expression and charged emotions more than dramatic developments to get its full impact across, you need a little more sensitivity than you get here.

Although the production doesn't really help them then, the two competition singers Vasile Chisiu and Stefano Olcese cope well nonetheless with the challenges that are to be found in the roles of Jacopo and Boccanegra. Much like Verdi's La Forza del Destino, there's a Prologue that sits widely apart from the main events of the opera, and it's important that there is a noticeable change in the personalities of the two characters who find themselves in opposition to one another, partly through maturity but also through them having to carry the weight of the tragic and tumultuous events that have divided them. I think that is clearly drawn in the production, at least in as far as it is important for the two main characters, and both performers do well in their attempts to show the necessary gravitas and rich characterisation that would have defined them in the in-between years.

Neither however are entirely strong enough singers with the kind of experience necessary to really bring roles like this to life. A Boccanegra really needs a mature Verdian baritone of experience, a Leo Nucci, a Thomas Hampson or - at a stretch - Placido Domingo, who has proved that he can inhabit the baritone role fairly successfully. It's a considerable challenge however for Vasile Chisiu, and if he doesn't have the ideal power, range or experience to step convincingly into a role like this with the kind of personality it requires, it's a good performance nonetheless and sung well. The unimaginative stage directions probably don't help, and certainly don't do Stefano Olcese any favours as Jacopo Firese, but he often seems disengaged from the drama, singing out to the audience rather than in response to what is happening on stage. Again, there's a nice bass-baritone voice there but it lacks the depth of characterisation required to make the melodrama in the story work convincingly.

Conductor and director Tamás Pál and the Szeged Symphony Orchestra gives a good account of the work, but the subtleties and melancholic undercurrents of the score seem to founder on the failure of the staging to match the necessary tension and drama to the work. The original set designs are well realised by the production team and it's certainly of interest to see the work close to how it might originally have been staged, but for a Verdi work like Simon Boccanegra to fully come alive to a modern audience it would require better direction and singers of considerably greater stature and ability than we have here.

The Armel Opera Festival performance of Simon Boccanegra can be viewed for free for six months after the performance on the ARTE Live Web streaming service. Subtitles are French only.

Thursday 24 October 2013

Juranić - The Last Flower of Summer

Zoran Juranić - The Last Flower of Summer

Serbian National Theatre, Novi Sad, Serbia - 2013

Zoran Juranić, Christophe Poncet, Jelena Končar, Miodrag Petrović, Miljenko Đuran, Violeta Srećković, Goran Krneta, Vasa Stajkić, Igor Ksionžik, Ivan Dajić, Darija Olajoš Čizmič

Armel Opera Festival - Szeged - ARTE Live Web - 7th October 2013

The question of musical precedents and references must undoubtedly come up in any modern opera that draws from the historical operatic tradition. The principal influences on the musical language of any modern work that operates in a form that is largely tonal and is not of the minimalist school can often be found in the impressionistic touches of Debussy, with something of the freer form and dissonance of Alban Berg. You might find some musical influence of those composers in Croatian composer Zoran Juranić's The Last Flower of Summer, but the influence and their significance perhaps extends beyond the musical to the actual drama itself.

Pelléas et Mélisande inevitably comes to mind for example at the start of The Last Flower of the Summer when a man, Mr Bert, on his way home one night discovers a mystery woman lying on the street, with no name and uncertain where she has come from. It seems clear however that she has been abducted and has escaped from the clutches of two shadowy figures seen in the background. It's not the only thing shadowy about the story, the characters or the world they live in. From the watchful policeman, to the inquisitive lady walking the street and the interfering landlady of his apartment block, Mr Bert has some difficulty in bring the mystery woman back to his room in order to offer her some help.

Or is there a deeper attraction and motive at work here, perhaps without Mr Bert even realising it? Certainly he doesn't resist when Miss No-Name strips down and seduces him using her obvious charms, but Bert is also undoubtedly attracted by the romantic allure of the exotic and mysterious background she relates to him, particularly the line of poetry that she claims to have improvised at the moment - "If I fall at your feet, pick me up like the last flower of Summer".  It soon transpires however that the poem was not improvised and that there are further lines, just as there are many other mysterious figures and men in the troubled journey that has taken her to Mr Bert.

With a crazed and distraught armed Russian soldier called Vladimir on the streets looking for a missing woman, and a story that has taken NN from Monte Carlo to Venice and beyond, first with a wealthy industrialist Carlo and then with Lorenzo, a knife thrower, it seems that we could be dealing with a Lulu here rather than a Mélisande. There are even discussions between Mr Bert and the woman about opera and the elaborate love stories that they construct, suggesting further that there is some self-referentiality about all this. When it is revealed that NN's story is itself largely fictional and that even the poem is derived from a woman's magazine, this does suggest that the opera works on a meta-level that acknowledges outside influences. On the other hand, the opera can be seen as dealing with the nature of love itself, of meeting a stranger, getting to know them and falling in love, then finding out that you can never know the whole person or the whole story as it falls apart and one's certainties start to unravel.

The Last Flower of Summer was premiered in March 2013 at the Serbian National Theatre of Novi Sad, and the production - directed and conducted by the composer Zoran Juranić himself - is presented here at the 2013 Armel Opera Festival. The staging is necessarily basic, needing to be all-purpose and simplified to not require any major scene changes for the purposes of the opera festival. The entire work is presented in the form of a related story that takes place behind a mesh screen, narrated by an older Mr Bert (in a non-singing role) sitting reflecting on the events in the past at a table with a typewriter. Other than a bed and some portable open-doors, there's not much in the way of set decoration, but Juranić's set employs a see-saw platform at the back of the stage that fulfils most additional dramatic requirements.

The main purpose of the staging here at the Armel Opera Festival is to provide an opportunity to judge the performances of two of the competition singers. Having previously performed in Latin in Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, the French tenor Christophe Poncet demonstrates his versatility here by singing in Croatian, and he seems to manage it exceptionally well. Serbian soprano Jelena Končar's role as NN is however rather more challenging vocally, dramatically and for the fact that she's singing constantly for a large part of the 90 minutes of the opera. If there was a prize for most daring performance Končar would walk away with it, stripping down and singing before a passionate love scene, baking a lasagne, and even working as an assistant for a knife-thrower (it looked like it was done for real), but her singing ability is impressive on its own and she really took command of the role. Her performance deservedly won her the Best Female Performer at the Festival.

The Armel Opera Festival performance of The Last Flower of Summer can be viewed for free for six months after the performance on the ARTE Live Web streaming service. Subtitles are French only.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Stravinsky - Oedipus Rex

Igor Stravinsky - Oedipus Rex

Poznan Opera House, Poland - 2013

Jacek Przybylowicz, Grzegorz Weirus, Christophe Poncet, Joëlle Charlier, Jerzy Mechlinski, Andrzej Ogorkiewicz, Piotr Friebe, Jaromir Trafankowski, Aleksander Machlaica

Armel Opera Festival, Szeged - ARTE Live Web - 5th October 2013

Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, "an opera-oratorio after Sophocles", is one of the most fascinating works of the composer's neoclassical period. One of the more interesting elements of the Stravinsky's approach here, for example, is the use of older traditional styles that isn't so much a homage as an exploration of different musical archetypes, aligning them appropriately (or inappropriately for effect according to some commentators) to specific characters. Stravinsky's measure of the subject, the dramatic content and its mythological subject is moreover just about perfect. In its formal construction and declarative nature - with a libretto written by Jean Cocteau - it's hard to imagine the work being anything but an oratorio, but there are inevitably grand and tragic elements that are drawn out, and this Poznan Opera House production captures them well.

In as far as the opera-oratorio's relating of the events of Sophocles' Greek tragedy go, the work is divided into two parts. The sequence of events is related by a narrator (in the original language of the audience, which for the purposes of this production is Polish), while the drama is conducted in Latin. Act I concerns the fate of Thebes, which the narrator tells us has already been rescued from the terror of the Sphinx and now faces devastation from the Plague. The chorus beg Oedipus to once again come to their rescue, but the oracle at Delphi has told Creon that the curse can only be lifted when it is discovered who is the murderer of King Laius. Act II presents the unravelling of Oedipus as he comes to the realisation that he is the son of Laius and Jocasta, and that the old man he once killed at a crossroads was therefore his own father and the woman he is married to is his mother.

Staged for the 2013 Armel Opera Festival, the oratorio nature of the work does pose some challenges with staging, but director and choreographer Jacek Przybylowicz finds a way of retaining and supporting the relative simplicity of the related events by having dancers perform the expanded role of the chorus. There's nothing too experimental attempted, the dancers meaningfully integrating with the content of the work while keeping the stage active and the giving the audience something to focus on. The stage itself is otherwise rather minimally decorated, with a gallery at the back for the chorus and the use of blocky thrones to indicate the regal positions of Oedipus and Jocasta. There is some opening out of the story, with a child used during the relating of how Oedipus is discovered by a shepherd, while the dramatic conclusion of Jocasta's death and Oedipus's blinding is effectively staged with the wrapping of Oedipus in a scarf.

Presented for the Armel Opera Festival, this rare production of Oedipus Rex is staged as an opportunity to judge the performances of two competition singers in the main roles. Tenor Christophe Poncet, possessing a lively high timbre that would suit a bel canto or a Verdi role, sang Oedpius with exactly the right kind of Italian character that Stravinsky created for the role. He is a little shaky in places, but gets a good balance between the declarative projecting of the role and making it dramatically meaningful, which is by no means easy to achieve. Joëlle Charlier's Jocasta commands attention and sings the role well, but doesn't have the strong lower end that the dramatic side of the mezzo-soprano role requires. The supporting roles are well sung and the production also benefits from a powerful musical account of the work with Grzegorz Weirus conducting the Szeged Symphony Orchestra.

The Armel Opera Festival performance of Oedipus Rex can be viewed for free for six months after the performance on the ARTE Live Web streaming service. Subtitles are French only.

Sunday 20 October 2013

Rossini - Il Viaggio a Reims

Gioachino Rossini - Il Viaggio a Reims

Théâtre Musical de Paris, Châtelet, Paris - 2006

Valery Gergiev, Alain Maratrat, Larissa Youdina, Danil Shtoda, Anastasia Belyaeva, Irma Guigolachvili, Edouard Tsango, Anna Kiknadze, Dmitri Voropaev, Alexei Safiouline, Vladislav Ouspenski, Nikolai Kamenski, Andrei Iliouchnikov, Elena Sommer, Olga Kitchenko, Pavel Chmoulevitch, Alexei Tannovistski

SkyArts 2 HD

Composing for some of the best singers of his time, Rossini never really did opera houses of the future any favours when it comes to casting for some of the most demanding roles in the repertoire. He certainly wasn't thinking that far ahead when it came to writing Il Viaggio a Reims, his final Italian opera before his move to Paris. Composed for the Coronation of Charles X in 1825, the work was indeed written specifically for the occasion, Rossini afterwards reusing much of the music for Le Comte Ory. Il Viaggio a Reims is therefore a considerable challenge for any opera company since it not only requires no less than 14 soloists of exceptional quality, but its throwaway subject also makes it difficult to stage dramatically. Both those considerable challenges are undertaken with some measure of success by the Théâtre Musical de Paris at the Châtelet in Paris in conjunction with the Academy of Young Singers of the Mariinsky Theatre of St Petersburg.

The Golden Lily spa hotel at Plombière-les-Bains is a fairly swanky one in the Châtelet's 2006 production. Not only is it tastefully lit and brightly decorated, not only are the employees smartly attired, but they have their very own orchestra playing in the background, conducted by Valery Gergiev no less, who cuts quite a dashing figure himself as he skips lightly around on the podium in his homburg hat. With the orchestra and the conductor up on the stage there's no orchestra pit then, leaving room for platforms to extend out into the Théâtre du Châtelet and for the singers to interact directly with the audience. Bright, colourful, stylish and engaging, that's the main attraction of this production, and it matches perfectly the orchestration that does indeed skip nimbly through some of Rossini's most inventive and delightful arrangements.

Staging Il Viaggio a Reims is undoubtedly a bit of a challenge, as indeed is staging any Rossini comedy where the plots can more often than not be a little ridiculous. Il Viaggio a Reims in particular is rather thin on dramatic developments. It revolves around the various wardrobe mishaps, romantic misadventures and cultural misunderstandings that take place between the assembled international array of guests staying at the spa hotel for the Coronation of Charles X. Writing for 14 soloists however, Rossini is less concerned with plot than in the richness of musical opportunity that the structure presents. The composer seems to relish the opportunity to break from the traditional structure and playfully puts his considerable skills to great use in duets, ensembles, a cappella arrangements, and delightful solo flute and harp sections.

Arias are in abundance also and the international character of the work is played upon in several pieces. Don Profundo considers the luggage requirements and packing habits of various nationalities in one aria, but each of the characters are given their own solo or (in the case of couples) duet opportunities to represent their countries for the entertainment and enlightenment of the other guests. With Rossini's sense of melody at its best there's nothing too taxing on the audience here, but it presents considerable challenges for the singers. Individually, the voices of the Mariinsky's Academy of Young Singers are outstanding, bringing the necessary freshness and verve that is required, but they also deal with the technical demands of the arias and bring considerable colour to a masterful sextet that is as close as Rossini comes to the brilliance of his inspiration in Mozart. The closing ensemble for fourteen voices and chorus is also suitably invigorating and dazzling, emphasising that this is a true ensemble work.

That's fully recognised in the production as it is directed by Alain Maratrat and conducted by Valery Gergiev. It's not The Marriage of Figaro perhaps, but it wasn't meant to be either. The plot is pointless and throwaway, but Rossini's music is gorgeous, and the staging allows its qualities to thrive without ever having to resort to caricature, which would be all too easy in this work. With little of real dramatic substance to work with, the cast wander around on the platforms off the stage and take the work right out into the theatre with no greater purpose than to entertain the French audience with the work's patriotic sentiments of national diversity and cries of Viva la Francia!  The reactions of the audience - well documented on camera - attest to just how well that is achieved.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Berlioz - Béatrice et Bénédict

Hector Berlioz - Béatrice et Bénédict

L'Opéra Comique, Paris, 2010

Emmanuel Krivine, Dan Jemmett, Christine Rice, Allan Clayton, Ailish Tynan, Élodie Méchain, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Jérôme Varnier, Michel Trempont, Giovanni Calò, David Lefort, Bob Goody

France TV, Culturebox - Internet streaming

The Opéra Comique's 2010 production of Béatrice et Bénédict takes a somewhat distanced theatrical approach to Berlioz's version of Shakespeare's comedy 'Much Ado About Nothing', setting it as a puppet show come to life. The distancing technique is a method that Shakespeare would himself use on occasions through an Induction opening that indicates that the work in question is a play-within-a-play (in 'The Taming of the Shrew' for example), using it as a means perhaps to have a little more freedom that takes it away from naturalistic drama. There isn't such a device used in 'Much Ado About Nothing', even though some of the narrative twists and comic drama do require some suspension of disbelief, so the puppet show does at least provide a certain justification for this.

Since Berlioz's opera jettisons much of the rather more wild twists of Shakespeare's play in favour of the romantic comedy between Beatrice and Benedick (and it must be said, much of the comedy goes too), the device has other uses and benefits here. On a simple formal level, the production looks good with a strong visual hook and two huge puppet heads looming over the stage. Since puppet productions have a fairly specific period character, this allows the work to be put on in a more traditional setting. You could also consider that the two principal characters of the opera are indeed treated somewhat like puppets by the manoeuvring of their friends in their efforts to get this unlikely couple to somewhat improbably put their hatred for each other aside and recognise that they are actually in love with each other.

The best thing about the Opéra Comique's production however is the introduction of a "puppet master" who recites lines from the original play in English and thereby brings a little bit of the magical poetry of Shakespeare back into a drama that loses much of its character in French translation and more in its adaptation to opera. This also serves to bring some human feeling back into the actual production, since unfortunately, as you might expect, having the characters walk around and make jerky movements as if they are on strings, does tend to restrict the dramatic action and leave it rather static and... well, wooden. Dan Jemmet also however finds some good ways to use the added character of choir master Somarone to bring back some of the Shakespearean humour that is lacking in Berlioz's adaptation, and takes the humour out to the audience in a way that is typical of the Opéra Comique, as well as fully in the spirit of the work.

The spirit of the work is however undoubtedly more that of Berlioz than Shakespeare. The composer makes great use of the chorus, he even manages to get a ballet in there at the start to celebrate Don Pedro's victory, the drama fairly zipping along with some fine melodies and, in the case of Beatrice and Ursula's duet 'Nuit paisable et sereine', at least one truly great piece. As an opera, Béatrice et Bénédict lacks the tragicomic elements of Hero's betrayal and her 'death' of heartbreak at the accusations of her fiancé Claudio, and the all-out comic hilarity of Dogberry and his constables' investigation is missed, but Berlioz has a good feel for the sensibilities of the romantic-comedy storyline and rightly focuses on that alone. Those characteristics are brought out marvellously here in a fine account of the work as conducted by Emmanuel Krivine.

The singing is also excellent throughout. It's surprising in a work that has quite a few passages of spoken French dialogue that three of the four principal roles are assigned to native English-speaking performers. Perhaps the intention was to give more value to the English character of the Shakespeare work (even though it is actually set in Messina) than to the French, but generally the diction in the spoken sections was reasonably good. In terms of singing, it could hardly be faulted. Both Christine Rice and Allan Clayton as Béatrice and Bénédict are simply perfect in this register, Rice in particular richly toned and lyrical, but both brought the necessary character to the work. Ailish Tynan's Héro and Élodie Méchain's Ursule were also fine, although they both seemed to find the puppet concept somewhat restricting.

Sunday 13 October 2013

Berlioz - Les Troyens

Hector Berlioz - Les Troyens

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 2012

David McVicar, Antonio Pappano, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Fabio Capitanucci, Bryan Hymel, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Brindley Sherratt, Hanna Hipp, Barbara Senator, Robert Lloyd, Pamela Helen Stephen, Jihoon Kim, Ashley Holland, Ji Hyun Kim, Lukas Jakobski, Daniel Grice, Ji Min Park, Adrian Clarke, Jeremy White, Ed Lyon

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

It’s ironic that Berlioz’s epic creation based on Virgil’s 'Aeneid' was never performed in full during the composer’s lifetime, yet we’ve had enough opportunities now to view the work to realise that Les Troyens is unquestionably a masterpiece. Having had the opportunity to see several productions however, it’s also possible to see why the opera would have been such a tricky proposition to stage in the first place. It’s a vast, all-encompassing work, one that not only demonstrates the complete range of the composer, but one that also takes in the considerable musical studies, theories and passions that were as much a part of the lifework of Hector Berlioz. Written over two years (1856-58) for the Paris Opéra (the only house with the resources to possibly stage it), Les Troyens was a deeply personal undertaking that drew from the composer’s childhood imagination-inspiring readings of the ‘Aeneid‘ and his love for the Shakespearean epic drama. It proved however to be too ambitious an undertaking for the city’s major opera house and eventually only a cut-down version of the second part of the five-act opera was performed at the Théâtre Lyrique.

Now we have Blu-ray releases of no less than three complete productions of Les Troyens to be able to judge the quality of the work.  Previously we had the revelatory 2003 Châtelet production in Paris (in an impressive account conducted by John Eliot Gardiner) and the rather less successful attempt to modernise the opera by La Fura dels Baus in the 2009 Valencia production. A comparison between the two suggests that if it’s not a case of less is more (that’s something that you couldn’t say about Berlioz’s writing here), it is nonetheless a work where it’s necessary - and difficult enough - to strike a balance between the extravagance and dynamic of the distinct styles of the two parts of the work, while at the same time also living up to the epic grandeur that it represents. Trying to impose an alternative reading or concept on top of Les Troyens (much less one as misguided as La Fura del Baus’ Trojan Horse computer virus concept) is risky and likely to conflict with the intentions and tone of the work. David McVicar therefore had quite a challenge in this new major production of the work for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and while it didn’t exactly meet with universal critical acclaim at the time, the weaknesses in the production seem rather less pronounced when viewed at home.

The fact that David McVicar and set designer Es Devlin go for their familiar industrial Steampunk style in the first act with weapons and military uniforms that are clearly not related to the ancient Greek setting proves to be neither here nor there. As ever with McVicar, the detail is less important than the overall impact, and both the Troy and Carthage scenes aim for a mood and grandeur of scale that is commensurate with the work itself. The tone of the first half is inevitably dark, the celebrations of the Trojans at the departure of the Greek army after ten years of siege short-lived, giving way to ceremonial mourning for the loss of so many great warriors, dire premonitions of doom from an increasingly hysterical Cassandra, and the mass suicide of the Trojan women as the warriors flee for Italy, the city having been breached by the Greek soldiers through the ruse of the horse. It’s the huge mechanical construction of the Trojan Horse that is the imposing image of the first half and it’s suitably impressive. If the direction is otherwise fairly static in this section, it at least allows attention to be drawn to the magnificent musical construction of the first two acts, and it gives plenty of room for Anna Caterina Antonacci to dominate as Cassandra.

As directed for the screen, the frequent use of close-ups here goes some way towards focussing on those strong points in the tone that was effectively established and in highlighting the qualities of Antonacci’s mesmerising performance, even if the actual staging and the power of the singing aren’t quite up to the demands of the music itself. Fortunately, most of The Fall of Troy section relies on choral arrangements of celebrations and lamentations and these also come across wonderfully. The strengths and weaknesses within Les Troyens and the difficulty of coping with them in a staged production are emphasised here by the treatment of the rather different second half. The warmth of tone and presentation of the Trojans in Carthage section is in marked contrast to the darkness of the first half, but Berlioz’s arrangements are no less epic in his depiction of the utopian society of Carthage under the rule of their beloved Queen Dido. Even Bryan Hymel, who doesn’t quite manage to rise above the dramatic power of the Troy section as Aeneas, seems to find the North African climate more to his liking. The challenges of the second half of Les Troyens however lie in the presentation of those sentiments, and that isn’t quite so well achieved as the first half.

Again, there is no faulting McVicar and Es Devlin’s approach to the stage design. Carthage is laid out in all the epic grandeur and warmth that is suggested in the score. While there’s much that’s beautiful about Berlioz’s scoring for these scenes, all the ballets and the celebratory love-fests can be a little bit too much - the rush into battle with Iarbas and the Numidians the only confrontational element in the first part and even that is given only a cursory treatment. The dances and celebrations can also be particularly difficult to stage in a way that retains the interest of an audience who has by that stage already had very nearly a full evening’s worth of Grand Opéra. As Dido, Eva-Maria Westbroek sings beautifully and is excellent at conveying the dilemma of the Carthaginian Queen over her feelings for Aeneas and her promise to remain faithful to the memory of her dead husband. Westbroek has a fullness of tone and sufficient power in her soprano, but not quite the necessary colour that you would normally get from a mezzo-soprano in the role. This is particularly noticeable for the lack of sufficient and complementary contrast that ought to be there in her 'Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie' duet with Hymel - a key moment in their relationship which never really comes across here as it should.

Allowing for the longeurs in Act III and the inability of the director to make them sufficiently interesting, there is however still a lot to enjoy musically and in the singing during the final three acts and it's all superbly put across by the Royal Opera House Orchestra under Antonio Pappano’s direction. In addition to the strong performances of Hymel and Westbroek, there are some beautiful sounds coming from Brindley Sherratt’s concerned Narbal and Hanna Hipp’s devoted Anna, both providing the necessary counterweight to Dido’s mental disintegration in the closing acts. Masterfully orchestrated in musical and dramatic terms by Berlioz, Hylas’s song of longing for home at the beginning of Act Five is sweetly sung by Ed Lyon, the lure of the seas and the call of Italy urged by dark forces of the ghosts of the dead Trojans, combining well with the frisson of betrayal between Dido and Aeneas that is more strongly characterised than their romance. That ensures that the conclusion at least is sufficiently tragic.

The Royal Opera House's Les Troyens is handsomely packaged for its 2-disc Blu-ray release. The two discs are contained in a digipak that is slipcased with a large booklet with several programme-length articles and a full detailed synopsis by David McVicar. The four and a half hour opera is evenly divided across the two discs, not according to the two distinct parts. Disc One has the first three Acts, which takes in Fall of Troy (Act I and II) the first act of The Trojans in Carthage (Act III). Disc Two has the final two Acts (IV and V). Antonio Pappano provides introductions at the start of the opera and during the 'interval' sections (Before Act III and before Act V). The opera can be played with these introductions included or without. There is also a featurette that looks at Es Devlin's set designs, an excerpt from Pappano's 'Insights' look at the opera and a Cast Gallery. The BD is all-region, subtitles are in English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese and Korean.

Friday 11 October 2013

Berg - Wozzeck

Alban Berg - Wozzeck

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2013

Lothar Koenigs, Andreas Kriegenburg, Simon Keenlyside, Angela Denoke, Roman Sadnik, Kevin Conners, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Wolfgang Bankl, Scott Wilde, Matthew Grills, Dean Power, Heike Grötzinger

Staatsoper.TV Internet steaming - 6th October 2013

It's hard to know how you should feel or quite by what criteria you judge the performance of any Alban Berg opera. Wozzeck, Berg's only completed opera (Lulu's third act remained unfinished at the time of his death), should I suppose be a painful experience and should gradually beat you down much in the same way that life does for its protagonist. The music too is by no means comforting or easy to listen to, but neither is it inaccessible or "difficult" in the way that Lulu's 12-tone serialism can often be. As a reflection of the drama, it's dark and unrelenting, and so too is the Bayerische's 2013 production directed by Andreas Kriegenburg and conducted by Lothar Koenigs.

Part of the problem with knowing quite what to make of Wozzeck and its protagonist undoubtedly stems from the fragmentary nature of the episodes in Georg Büchner's original unfinished manuscript. Wozzeck, we are told in the introduction to the Bayerische's production, is a good man who is ground down by the system, by the brutality, ignorance and hypocrisy of other people, by poverty, misery and illness, by life in general. But is he a good man, is he an innocent or is he simply a disturbed individual? It's difficult to tell, since he reacts angrily to Marie's infidelity but remains outwardly impassive to what goes on in relation to the abuse and exploitation of his nature and character by the Captain, the Doctor and the Drum Major. Until obviously, it all becomes too much and he finally cracks...

If there's any indication then just what the inner nature of Wozzeck is, it must be found in Berg's music. Here you have his personality, his confusion and his building anger, all in a way that makes rather more sense of the eventual violent release of his frustrations. And, yes, it tells you that Wozzeck is at heart a good man. Berg's music is a rich combination of sounds, melodies and voices, a genuinely free experimental attempt to redefine the structures of operatic language outside of the constrictions of the traditional or indeed the atonal language. There are no restrictions, old is mixed with new, the three acts of five scenes are each described as 'Character Pieces' (Act I), a 'Symphony in Five Movements' (Act II) and 'Six Inventions' (Act III) that employ a variety of musical forms and styles to cover the whole range of the subject. It truly is music in service of drama and character, not in service of music itself.

If a production engages with it in the way that it ought to, it should achieve the full impact of Wozzeck's terrible sequence of dramatic events. The three acts played straight through without intermission Andreas Kriegenburg's production and Harald B. Thor's sets unquestionably achieve that. Under predominately monochrome lighting the locations are almost invariably within damp, dank and misty and silver-blue moonlit settings capture the utter darkness and misery of the situation. They also give some indication of Wozzeck's mindset and even give premonitory hints of his eventual fate - Wozzeck spending most of the time with his feet soaking as he plods across the waterlogged stage.  There's practically no colour, the production team resisting the urge even to splash some red around.  There's a brief flame at one stage, but no sunsets and no blood.

You would however expect the stage and lighting to depict a rather dark and grim picture, so what is notable about the Bayerische's production is its division between interiors and exteriors that don't so much coincide with Wozzeck's actual location as to whether his mind is locked-in or outwardly expressive (and even then, his outward expressions are still somewhat dissociative). There is also a slightly greater role given over to Wozzeck and Marie's son, who remains mostly within the boxed room detached from the watery floor space that the others occupy. He is mostly silent but paints words on the wall on occasion ("Papa, Geld!, Hure" - Father, Money! and Slut) that heighten the sordidness of the situations and indicate that the child is not untouched by them.

All of this works with the nature of the work itself and doesn't over-complicate the character of the music or the singing performances which are just as vital an aspect. Again you can hardly judge the singing performances for their beauty of expression, but there are nonetheless great demands placed on all the performers and they cope well. Simon Keenlyside has considerable experience in the role of Wozzeck and is performing the role in several other productions this season. His performance here is, not unexpectedly, deeply intense, conveying as much through his posture and bearing as he does through his expressive singing. Angela Denoke is just as impressive as Marie, a thankless role of a character that is scarcely any less put-upon than Wozzeck, but this is a strong production all round, with the Bayerische's regular company singers all putting in solid performances as the work's gallery of grotesques.

Thursday 10 October 2013

Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2013

Valery Gergiev, Deborah Warner, Fiona Shaw, Anna Netrebko, Mariusz Kwiecień, Oksana Volkova, Piotr Beczala, Elena Zaremba, Larissa Diadkova, John Graham-Hall, Alexei Tanovitski, David Crawford, Richard Bernstein

The Met: Live in HD - 5th October 2013

No matter how many times the story is told, no matter how simple that story seems to be on the surface, there always seems to be something new you can draw out of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, a fact that testifies to its reputation as being a supreme work of art. The artistry of the opera was in evidence in some aspects of the Met's new 2013 production season opener - broadcast live in HD to cinemas across the world - but in others it didn't quite live up to the high expectations we've come to expect from Tchaikovsky's masterpiece or the strengths in it that have been recognised in other recent productions.

Musically, everything was in place with Valery Gergiev drawing a muscular performance out of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, sensitive to the distinctly Russian rhythms and tones of the work. Grandly romantic and at the same time intimate, any sense of sentimentality or wishy-washiness would be fatal to the work (particularly in this production), but there wasn't a trace of it here. As if to emphasise this robust performance, the Met's chorus were also in fine voice, bringing their presence to bear on each of the scenes where they appear, alerting the viewer to the fact that they are there for more than just mere decoration, but are an integral part of the Russian character of the work and the society.

What was also apparent when conducted in this way is how much the characters develop throughout Eugene Onegin and how the story - which on the surface is simple enough - develops in accordance with the growth of each of the characters. Circumstances force each of the main characters - Tatiana, Onegin and Lenski - to reflect on their situation at various points, principally in their monologues, which they come out from as different people. For Tatiana, it's the crushing humiliation of Onegin's response to her love letter in Act I, for Lenski it's the reflection on the golden days of his youth as he faces death in a duel in Act II, and for Onegin it all comes much too late in Act III. In a very Russian way however, all of the characters feel compelled to play out their fates, Tatiana as much as Onegin, already aware as soon as she places pen to paper that she's writing her future one way or the other.

Like the characters, the opera also grows and accumulates greater force, meaning and significance as it reaches each of those points and builds towards its devastating conclusion. Unfortunately, the Met's production by Deborah Warner, directed here by Fiona Shaw, seemed determined to undercut each of those important three act moments with ill-advised physical contact between the characters, when they should really be alone in their own world. Act I bewilderingly ended with Onegin kissing Tatiana after rejecting her, Act II featured an unlikely brotherly embrace between the two combatants of a duel of honour, and Act III climaxed with a passionately reciprocated kiss from Tatiana after she deals the defeated Onegin his fatal blow. No, no and no. None of it made any sense in terms of the drama or in terms of what the music is expressing.

Aside from these appalling missteps, there wasn't much to recommend in the production as a whole either. Tom Pye's sets were functional and representational of the Larin estate and Gremin ballroom in St Petersberg. The Polonaise and the Ecossaise that have been put to good use in other productions as connecting interludes for the passage of years between the duel scene and Onegin's return many years later to St Petersberg, were wasted here as mere background dance music to the ball in Act III. Compared to recent productions of the opera from Kasper Holten's dancers at the Royal Opera House, Stefan Herheim's huge tapestry of Russian life in the Amsterdam production, Krzysztof Warlikowski's queer reading of the work for Munich or indeed the Met's previous version employing Robert Carsen's seasonal light-box, this was a very drab and uninspired production that had neither the epic qualities nor the intimacy that the work should achieve.

With some minor or perhaps not so minor reservations, the singing however almost made it all worthwhile. It would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that the Met's opening production was almost entirely constructed to be a showpiece (yet again) for Anna Netrebko, and if the production didn't entirely live up to expectations, the same can't be said about Netrebko. The Russian soprano has been taking some good advice, or perhaps just letting her own voice tell her when it was ready to leave behind the bel canto roles and start to tackle some of the darker dramatic repertoire. The combination of a youthful innocent appearance with maturity of voice and expression for Tatiana is a difficult balance to achieve in one singer but Anna Netrebko has it all in looks, in voice and in acting ability, her burnished dark timbre soaring through those intensely dramatic moments with the sincerity of feeling that the role needs.

Despite the billing, this was no diva star-turn either, and Netrebko gave as much in her performance to all those sharing the stage with her. Some of them however weren't quite up to her stature, and unfortunately for the success of the production as a whole, that includes Mariusz Kwiecień's Onegin. There was little wrong with his singing, Kwiecień clearly a strong performer who is more than capable for the role, but he just didn't have the personality or character to be an Onegin opposite Anna Netrebko. I don't think the confused direction did him any favours either.  Elsewhere however, the singing performances were just superb.  Piotr Beczala is becoming a house favourite at the Met, and deservedly so. Whether he has great personality of his own or not, he's a fine singer in the classic tenor mould and capable of great beauty in his expression, bringing the necessary quality to those key emotional moments and famous arias. For Lenski, that's 'Kuda, kuda vï udalilis', and Beczala's delivery of it was heartfelt and beautiful.

Oksana Volkova was an impressive Olga and there were even solid, shining contributions from Elena Zaremba's Madame Larina and from Larissa Diadkova as Filippyevna. John Graham-Hall's Monsieur Triquet was however just bewildering, his role overworked in the context of the opera to little real effect. Sadly, it was this kind of misplaced emphasis that contributed to the imbalance between the work, the music and the dramatic presentation of its real human qualities. Combined with the lack of any real insight or ideas this Eugene Onegin was far from being totally satisfactory, but all the same there was nothing here to take the shine off Anna Netrebko's impressive venture into the new territory and future greatness.

Saturday 5 October 2013

Korngold - Die Tote Stadt

Erich Wolfgang Korngold - Die Tote Stadt

Finnish National Opera, 2010

Mikko Franck, Kasper Holten, Klaus Florian Vogt, Camilla Nylund, Kirsti Valve, Markus Eiche, Sari Nordqvist, Kaisa Ranta, Melis Jaatinen, Per-Hakan Precht, Juka Riihimaki, Antti Nieminen

Opus Arte - DVD

Written when he was just 23 years of age and first performed in 1920, the high Romantic notions conflating love and death are particularly evident in Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die Tote Stadt - The Dead City. The Liebestod-like sentiments are expressed in Wagnerian fashion with an underlying Straussian Salome-like discordance, but what is notable about Die Tote Stadt is how it takes these ideas to even greater levels in its consideration of the underlying psychology or even pathology of his main character through dreams fantasies and impressions. The formal challenges of representing this in a production of the work then are considerable, but so too is the technical virtuosity of the orchestra and the singers to express this often difficult work. Both elements however are handled exceptionally well in this 2010 production from the Finnish National Opera.

Much like Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo', which follows a similar dysfunctional character who attempts to recreate his dead love in another person and relies very much on the varying tones and labyrinthine character of San Francisco and its outlying locations, Die Tote Stadt is a psychological study that is connected very closely with the nature of a city, in this case Bruges. You could say that this aspect is somewhat over-emphasised in the libretto, Paul noting that "the dead woman, the dead city... there's a mysterious bond between them" and Brigitta quoting Paul as saying "Bruges and I, we are one, we worship the most beautiful, the Past", but this is just one element in a deeper conflict that Paul has to reconcile between the past and the present, between the living and the dead, between an ideal and the reality.

Just as Paul's home then is a shrine to his dead wife Marie, so too he sees Bruges as a city of the dead, a monument to those who have lived before, the memory of the past being desecrated by the living. Whether this needs additional emphasis or not, Es Devlin's designs for Kasper Holten's production emphatically puts both Paul's room and the city, as a reflection of his inner mindset, right up there on the stage. It looks terrific, the room expressionistically designed with oppressive angles, littered in an obsessively organised fashion with pictures, portraits, mementos and shrine-boxes dedicated to Marie. At the back, tilted, but almost at right-angle to the stage, a vertiginous section of the city is revealed, bearing down on Paul.

Two other elements of the production and the stage design are relevant to this expression of Paul's mindset. One is the large bed in the centre of it all, which indicates on the one hand that much of what goes on is a dream in Paul's head and on the other hand it reflects much of Paul's repressed and misplaced urges. Much like Stefan Herheim's psycho-sexual study of Wagner in his Bayreuth Parsifal, where figures similarly emerge from beneath the sheets, there's a sense of guilt and corruption that Paul here associates with the sexual act, unable to reconcile the pure memory of the dead Marie with his feelings for the sensuous dancer Marietta. The other element helps make this problem more concrete by using an actor to play the ghost of Marie, having her present on the stage with her lookalike Marietta. It may not be called for, but it does make Paul's dilemma all the more real.

If there are any questions about Kasper Holten employing such techniques, they are at least borne out in how they fit with Korngold's musical arrangements for Die Tote Stadt. Musically, the opera doesn't follow any straightforward formal structure or narrative but follows its own chromatic muse, blending styles and working with a fragmentary montage of songs and waltzes, switching from lush orchestration to discordance according to the ecstatic reverie or the the tormented state of its protagonist. Wagner and Strauss may be the antecedents of this style, but there's a commonality here with Puccini, particularly the impressionistic style of Il Trittico and his latter works, and an awareness of cinematic structures which Korngold would develop later through his years in Hollywood.

The opera is consequently highly demanding of its performers, particularly the role of Marietta, which is pitched at the level of a Straussian soprano. Camilla Nylund has everything that is required here, the range, the stamina, and a necessary beauty in the colour of timbre and expression. She is simply phenomenal. This is a great performance. Klaus Florian Vogt's high sweet tenor might not seem like the ideal voice for the equally challenging role of Paul and he does struggle sometimes at the lower end of the tessitura.  He brings a glorious soaring quality however to those ecstatic moments and a sense of vulnerability to his character that is not there, for example, in Torsten Kerl's strident singing of the role on the 2001 Opéra National du Rhin recording.

The Opus Arte release of the Finnish National Opera's 2010 production is released on DVD only, spread across a 2-disc set. The source is certainly not HD, but even in Standard Definition the image quality is somewhat disappointing, lacking real clarity and even appearing to be a little juddery in its NTSC transfer. It does however represent the light, colour and detail of the darkened stage production reasonably well. The LPCM stereo and DTS Surround 5.1 audio tracks don't have the depth of a high resolution recording either, the music not really lifting out or revealing the detail and colour of the orchestration, but that could also be down to the performance which doesn't seem to express the full quality of Korngold's lush score.  The only extra feature on the disc is a Cast Gallery.  Subtitles are in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Friday 4 October 2013

Pfitzner - Palestrina

Hans Pfitzner - Palestrina

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2009

Simone Young, Christian Stückl, Christopher Ventris, Peter Rose, Michael Volle, John Daszak, Roland Bracht, Falk Struckmann, Christiane Karg, Stephen Humes, Kenneth Robertson, Christian Rieger, Wolfgang Köch, Ulrich Reß, Kevin Conners, Alfred Kuhn, Claudia Mahnke

EuroArts - Blu-ray

Although its setting is in the sixteenth century, Hans Pfitzner's Palestrina is a work that is very much defined by the time of its own creation. It's consequently something of a curiosity in that it celebrates the spirit of creativity and progression of music as an artform through one of its earliest innovators, yet in many ways its a very conservative work that attempts to preserve the turn-of the 20th century post-Wagernian Romantic style in the face of the threat of what Pfitzner saw as the decadent experiments of Schoenberg, Strauss (in Salome and Elektra), Berg and Hindemith. Time and history haven't been kind then to Pfitzner with his legacy being associated with Nazi sympathising and anti-semitism, but the scale and force of the work itself - a grand epic that seems to attempt to steamroller over and crush all dissenting voices - is impressive nonetheless.

Impressive perhaps, beautifully orchestrated and quite unlike anything else out there (with the exception perhaps of some thematic connections with Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), but Palestrina could also be considered rather long-winded, dramatically limited and somewhat esoteric in its subject matter. It's set in 1563, around the time that the Council of Trent is being brought to a conclusion in Rome, where archbishops and cardinals from all around the world have been gathered together to hammer out the finer details of reform of the Catholic Church. One of the many important questions to be considered is the nature of the music to be used in Masses and whether it should adhere to the Gregorian model or embrace polyphony.

It may not seem like an important matter, but the patronage of the Church was undoubtedly important in the commissioning of new music in these early years, and it would exert great influence over its form and construction. In Pfitzner's opera, the charge of this matter has been given over to Cardinal Borromeo, who is convinced that the composer Pierluigi Palestrina, currently the Choirmaster at the Santa Maria Maggiore, is capable of providing the kind of polyphonic Mass music that Pope Pius IV hopes will win over the Council and "give meaning to the age". Palestrina however has long been out of favour since he married and thereby lost the papal patronage, but he's also a broken man who hasn't been able to write a note of music since the death of his wife. Inspired by past masters and angels, Palestrina composes his Mass in a single feverish night.

Much of what Pfitzner has to say about the nature of music, creativity, inspiration and composition (he also wrote the libretto for the opera himself) is all there in Palestrina's remarkable first Act. Through contrasting Palestrina with Silla, a pupil of the old composer who wants to go to Florence to write "experimental" music, Pfitzner considers the nature of the composer as an artist who stands above the people and follows his own muse, or as one who writes music for the public, for the people, for it to contribute to and be part of "the universal whole". Aside from academic matters, the weight of history and divine inspiration, Pfitzner is also content to fictionalise elements of Palestrina's life (his wife had not died at the time of the composition of his Mass for the Council of Trent in 1563), in order to consider the question of the human input and the heavy burdens of the composer.

All the marvel of the work, its intent and brilliance of expression, is there in this first Act which culminates with the marvellous ensemble of the Past Masters and choirs of angels that drive and herald the composition of a masterpiece, and it's brought spectacularly to life in this rare 2009 production of the work at the Nationaltheater in Munich by the Bavarian State Opera. Pfitzner was a Munich composer and it's apparent that no-one knows better how to deal with the complexity, contradictions, controversy and conservatism of Pfitzner than the Bayerische Staatsoper. With roots in the theatre and in the Passion plays at Oberammergau rather than in opera, Christian Stückl is a bit of a gamble as a director, but he finds some marvellous ways to illustrate and illuminates the work without straying too far into either literalism or symbolism.

The stage looks highly stylised though the bold use of bright, striking, almost luminous colours - black and white, cardinal pink and angel green - but in reality it's a relatively simple reflection and representation of the subject on an earthly level as well as on a spiritual level. With such bold simple statements, it makes the dramatic monotony of Act II's nit-picking disputes and rivalries between the cardinals and archbishops still look staggeringly impressive simply through the sheer population of the stage by the singers in these fine, bright costumes, and, of course, through the force of the singing and the writing for a cast of almost entirely male Wagnerian singers. The third Act, where Palestrina's music is accepted and praised, ensuring his release from prison, would be almost anti-climatic after all this were the use of colours and lighting not likewise complementary to the work.

In terms of performance, Simone Young's conducting of the orchestra might not have the grand Romantic sweep that the music of Palestrina calls for, but there's a recognition of the human character in the music here with its sorrowful undercurrents, and it's brought out well with good attention to individual instruments and expression. The large cast assembled here contain some of the best German Wagner and Strauss singers around at the moment - Christopher Ventris and Michael Volle in particular standing out in the demanding roles of Palestrina and Morone - all of them combining that necessary heft with lyrical beauty with all the necessary stamina required. Falk Struckmann is also notable for his Borromeo and Christiane Karg is impressive in range and lyrical expression as Palestrina's son Ighino.

Palestrina may not be the be-all-and-end-all that Pfitzner aspired it to be - other than perhaps inadvertently turning out to be one of the final words on a dying operatic legacy left by Wagner - but it's a fascinating and extraordinary work nonetheless, particularly in this fine production. It's looks every bit as impressive as it should in the Blu-ray's HD transfer and it sounds marvellous also in the high-resolution PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0 audio tracks. The Blu-ray also includes a 10-minute 'Making of', which consists of interviews and behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

Donizetti - L'Elisir d'Amore

Gaetano Donizetti - L'Elisir d'Amore

NI Opera, 2013

David Brophy, Oliver Mears, Anna Patalong, John Molloy, Anthony Flaum, James McOran-Campbell, Sarah Reddin

Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey - 27 September 2013

If there were some concerns that NI Opera's 2013-14 season looked a little thin and reliant on co-productions that would be less specific to the province (we've been spoilt, I know), there was at least a sense that there was something in the programme for everyone. The forthcoming production of Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest notwithstanding, it could however also be said to lack the ambition of the first two inaugural seasons of the newly formed opera company. Certainly Donizetti's comedy L'Elisir d'Amore, sung in English, would hardly appear to be the most challenging choice for a season opener, but it did prove to be a popular and accessible one and perhaps that's just as important a factor in this era of continued budget cuts to the arts.

Popularity however need not necessarily mean any compromise in the high standards that we have come to expect from NI Opera. L'Elisir d'Amore might not break any new ground for the company, but with a cast as adept in comedy acting as they were agile in their singing, this was as delightful an entertainment as it ought to be. It isn't really necessary to have a concept with an opera like Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, but it helps if the approach is consistent, relatable and, most importantly, it's at least funny. Oliver Mears' clever and considered production not only met those requirements, it may even have offered something a little extra to think about in these times when money concerns are indeed foremost in most people's minds.

Oliver Mears' setting the opera in an 1970's college classroom might be nothing more than an indulgence of nostalgia, so it might be reading a bit too much into it to connect Donizetti's lighthearted play on the Tristan and Isolde legend with the earlier production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman set in the same era. There is a consistency in the approach however and it does at least manage to bring the subject back down to something that everyone in the audience can relate to. Reading anything more than that into the settings of these productions is perhaps fanciful, but if so inclined, you could make a connection between The Flying Dutchman and the decline in traditional industries like shipbuilding during the Thatcher era, but can make L'Elisir d'Amore as a critique on Thatcherism in the same way?

Thankfully, Oliver Mears doesn't over-stretch the material and its comedy to fit any such dubious concept, but that doesn't mean that I can't. Just for fun. There's no doubt that the working class Nemorino becomes much more empowered when he partakes of the elixir, which in a way is investing in the enterprise of Doctor Dulcamara. He certainly receives a handsome return on his investment with regards to his middle-class aspiration to marry above his class, but it's still something of a high risk investment. The elixir on the other hand may in this case be nothing more than a splash of Brut or Old Spice for all the lasting impact it has on Adina's feelings for him, but the attraction of money in this Thatcherist era shouldn't be underestimated, particularly when Nemorino inherits great wealth from his recently deceased uncle.

With the dodgy Dulcamara slipping into a very broad Irish brogue on occasion, you could look further and see an early indication of the Celtic Tiger in this, which does suggest that the elixir business is built on some very shaky foundations indeed. It sounds plausible enough then, or at least the excellent comic acting of John Molloy in the role makes the proposition seem most persuasive. Or if not made plausible, at least made very funny and relatable to the audience. Throw in a few comments in the adapted translation that have Adina calling Nemorino an "eejit", and you're very much speaking about to the audience in their own language about a universal subject.

Putting such fanciful interpretations aside, the key to the work lies in giving due attention to that universal question of love. Those romantic sentiments also work very much more for a modern audience here by portraying the impossibility of a relationship between a peasant and a wealthy land-owner as the classroom crush of a college pupil for a sexy teacher well out of his league. With her hair in bun and wearing glasses only to be "revealed" in a much more glamorous light, Anna Patalong fits the bill rather well (and, having previously seen Ms Patalong in a maid outfit as Serpetta in this summer's Buxton production of Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera, I think I might be developing a bit of a crush there myself).

The clever set design then works well on a practical level, creating a classroom out of the chorus, setting figures and characters out in their marvellously recreated seventies fashions (by costume designer Ilona Karas). On an operational level too there were plenty of little comic touches such as the CND poster on the wall being ripped down by Sgt. Belcore when the soldiers arrive, in Dr. Dulcamara's mobile science laboratory, and generally in the comic interplay between the characters. The gym setting for Act II with the chorus as netball players is also brilliantly put together and hugely entertaining.

That all makes NI Opera's L'Elisir d'Amore sound like a nice light piece of fluff, but there are of course considerable musical and singing challenges in the work. The musical side of things was well catered for by the Ulster Orchestra led by conductor David Brophy. There wasn't always a great feel for Donizetti's sometimes rather conventional arrangements and the reduced orchestra couldn't consequently carry them off with sweeping flourishes, but between them they found the appropriate the lightness of touch required for the work, the size of the venue and worked well with the singing and timing of the performers.

The real challenges and character of the work however are to be found in the singing and here the casting and performances were outstanding. Anna Patalong's darkly rich soprano (and appearance) put one in mind of Anna Netrebko on occasion, but she tackled the role of Adina and all its high notes with great ability, relish and considerable character. The ever-reliable John Molloy, as noted earlier also made his role very much his own, while Anthony Flaum's Nemorino brought a new meaning to the term "vocal gymnastics" by singing some pieces while skipping and doing push-ups in Act II. Top of the class!