Friday 28 February 2014

Janáček - Jenůfa

Leoš Janáček - Jenůfa

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2014

Ludovic Morlot, Alvis Hermanis, Sally Matthews, Charles Workman, Nicky Spence, Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, Carole Wilson, Ivan Ludlow, Alexander Vassiliev, Mireille Capelle, Hendrickje Van Kerckhove, Beata Morawska, Chloé Briot, Nathalie Van de Voorde, Marta Beretta

Culturebox,, La Monnaie Internet Streaming - January 2014

Jenůfa is a challenging opera to perform and stage. Musically, despite its seemingly simple rhythmic pulsations, this early 20th century opera by Janáček bridges Romanticism and Modernism, but it has the additional complication of being very much related to Moravian folk music and to the particular rhythms of spoken language that are an important aspect of Janáček's style. An indication of the challenges of performing the work is how varied interpretations of Janáček's musical scoring can be in attempting to find that precise rhythm in music and language. It doesn't help, I find, that Sir Charles Mackerras' near-definitive editions and recordings of many of Janáček's operas set an incredibly high standard for anyone else to match.

In terms of the storyline, Jenůfa also appears to be a simple folktale, a morality tale of village life, the melodrama of a local beauty who scandalously falls pregnant and is spurned by her lover, only to have her face disfigured by a jealous admirer. Not only that, but in an attempt to resolve the difficulties and the shame that lie upon the family and in an attempt to open a way to a marriage for Jenůfa, her frantic stepmother, Kostelnička, drowns the new-born baby in a frozen river. The storyline revolves around these few highly intense situations in a way that not only makes it difficult to dramatise, but to find a suitable tone that is not overwhelmingly bleak and despairing.

On the contrary, based on the lush beauty of the musical score, the director and conductor actually have to find a way to make the work beautiful and achieve a conclusion that is heart-warming and tender. Jenůfa is not a work then that benefits from a naturalistic interpretation or from any kind of harsh social realism, but at the same time it has to emphasise or make real the human qualities that arise out of their efforts to overcome the bleakness of the situation. That's no small challenge. Relatively new to opera, the Latvian theatre director Alvis Hermanis however takes an unusual approach to the stage presentation of this remarkable work for La Monnaie in Brussels. It's not quite perfect, but it's every bit as impressive and innovative as any staging of this unique and remarkable work should be.

Drawing heavily from the turn of the century Art Nouveau movement, with imagery taken directly from the works of the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, Hermanis' production for La Monnaie is therefore a highly stylised one that is far from naturalistic. At the same time however it is authentic in terms of the roots of the work in Moravian folktale and culture, while also being entirely sympathetic to the tone adopted towards the story by Janáček in his stunningly beautiful and evocative musical scoring. There are no conventional props or sets, yet the location, the background of the characters and their nature is represented brilliantly in the puffy-sleeved, embroidered and garlanded traditional costumes as well as in the elaborate decorative designs of the set.

That goes as far as using a line of dancers almost as a decorative border and background for the drama, positioned behind the singers throughout Act I and III. The upper level is used for projections of swirling and scrolling Art Nouveau patterns with Alphonse Mucha images that reflect the Czech Moravian setting and the characters, opening up at times to present the chorus who contribute to the background dramatic action and reaction. The singers act out the drama in stylised movements and dance-like gestures, never naturalistic but expressive nonetheless, retaining the folk quality of the story even though it adapts the body-language of formalised Oriental dance theatre.

Visually, it's a sumptuous display. Words alone can't do it justice. It's simply ravishingly and almost heart-breakingly beautiful, which is something you could say also about Janáček's score, so it's clearly wholly appropriate and in tune with the musical account of the work. That's evident in the way that Act II is treated entirely differently from the formalised tableaux of the opening and closing acts. Act II presents the reality of the situation in a much more socially realistic way, depicting a poor cottage or a run-down apartment in a housing block from a 1960s' Czech New Wave film, with peeling paint, a stove, a bed and religious pictures and icons on the walls. The music written by Janáček bears out this division of styles between ritualised folktale and the human reality, so close attention has clearly been paid to the score.

The production however doesn't perhaps always come to life the way it should or respond entirely to those deeply tragic moments and emotional undercurrents, but it's hard to imagine how any staging could. Most productions of Jenůfa (and they are rare enough) tend to follow the minimalist principle of the drama being enacted by just a few characters, but this one, while it might appear to be overly busy, at least fills the stage with context. The sense of community is of vital importance in Jenůfa, and that's evident in all the cultural and costume iconography, on a stage that has dancers in constant motion, and that is enacted often before the watchful, judgemental eyes of that small community looking down from those upper levels.

Ideally, you'd like to have native Czech singers who are capable of reproducing the speech rhythms that are so vital a component of the opera. It's rare however that anyone is able to cast in this way for the roles of Jenůfa and Kostelnička, but outside of Elisabeth Söderström and Eva Randová from the definitive Charles Mackerras recording in the 1980s, this Monnaie production is as good as I've heard with Sally Matthews and Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet in those roles. Charbonnet feels the strain of the high pitch towards the end of the opera, but she has good presence and dramatic force in her delivery. Sally Matthew's dramatic performance is a little bit blank in the context of the stylised delivery, but she's stronger in Act II's realism and her singing performance is solid and consistent throughout. Nicky Spence is a fine Števa, but it's Charles Workman who stands out here, his gorgeous tone and impassioned delivery in Act III making that difficult acceptance of Laca's dreadful actions and his redemption meaningful and truly heart-warming.

The 2014 La Monnaie production of Jenůfa is available to view for free via internet streaming from the Culturebox, and La Monnaie sites. Subtitles are in French only, although the La Monnaie site also has optional Dutch subtitles.

Thursday 27 February 2014

Verdi - Macbeth

Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

NI Opera, Belfast - 2014

Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Bruno Caproni, Rachel Nicholls, Paul Carey Jones, Miriam Murphy, Andrew Rees, John Molloy, Aaron Cawley, Doreen Curran, Nathan Morrison, Christopher Cull, Roy Heaybeard, Tom Deazley, Patrick Donnelly

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 21st/22nd February 2014

Although it's commonly known in theatrical circles as "the Scottish play", it's rare that there's much made of the actual setting of Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' in dramatic productions or in Verdi's opera version of the work. The themes of Macbeth go far beyond mere location or historical context to consider the nature of war (usually with troops in modern combat gear), of ambition and social aspirations, and - evidently - the darker side of human nature that is brought out by such matters. You very rarely see or need to consider the question of Scotland itself in either traditional or modern updatings of the work. NI Opera's production of Verdi's early masterwork (a co-production with the Welsh National Opera) however goes right back to core issues at the heart of the work in more ways than one.

Maybe it's because there's considerable attention drawn to all matters Scottish with the country's forthcoming vote on independence, but nationalistic matters and flag-waving were very much in evidence in NI Opera's production of Verdi's Macbeth. The displaying of flags is of course a controversial and unresolved issue in the current Northern Irish political climate and such displays would undoubtedly have a resonance with the local audience, but Oliver Mears, the Artistic Director of NI Opera, manages nonetheless to avoid any overt contemporary references or political commentary on whether Scotland and the UK (or indeed Northern Ireland) are "better together" or not.

That's not to say that NI Opera's director doesn't cleverly exploit the power of such imagery and recognise its significance when one is dealing with questions of power and ambition. When the arrival of Duncan is announced to much pomp, ceremony and nationalistic flag-waving here, you almost expect to see Alex Salmond appear on the stage. It would be tempting also to imagine a version of Nicola Sturgeon as ambitious first-lady in waiting, but Lady Macbeth here has more of an appearance of an Imelda Marcos, wasting little time on her ascension as wife of the newly crowned king to accumulate a couple of large wardrobes for fur coats and shoes.  There's nothing too obvious here, but enough references for an audience to recognise familiar trappings of power, ambition and success.

Beyond all the kilts, sporrans and saltires however, Mears also managed to dredge up other deeper aspects of the work that are perhaps not so commonly explored in either theatrical or opera presentations of Macbeth. In addition to those main themes, which were covered only as well as Verdi and his librettist Frencesco Maira Piave's imperfect interpretation of Shakespeare allow (ie. not terribly effectively), there are however other rich themes to be explored and for Mears, one of those relates to several references to innocence, children and death. Fearing the prediction of the witches, Macbeth's Herod-like fear of Banquo and his son becomes pathological in relation to the future generations that will eventually supplant him from a position that he has taken it into his own (bloody) hands to obtain for himself.

In what is becoming something of a running theme with Mears (the darker side of the children/adult relationship and Death are also evident in Britten's Turn of the Screw, and it's there also in the more disturbing fairytale undercurrents of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, not to mention that another notorious child-murderer, Herod, features in the forthcoming 2014-15 NI Opera production of Strauss' Salome), the director makes much of this theme and references to it in the work. Most evidently here, it's in the novel witches' dismemberment of babies as ingredients for their cauldron (where apparitions in the form of children again make fearful predictions to Macbeth), and it's there also in the procession of baby-faced apparitions of Banquo's line that haunt Macbeth's dreams.

This undoubtedly helped to bring about Macbeth's descent into a murderous and paranoid tyrant in the later acts much more successfully than Verdi and Piave manage, but there's little the production can do about the dramatic failings of the opera in making real the motivations of the greed and dangerous ambition of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The weakness of the libretto in this respect is compounded by it being performed in English here. Not only does it expose the poor translation of the Shakespearean text when translated back into English, but it also loses what little lyricism the Italian singing brings in its stead. The use of English translations supposedly for accessibility perhaps needs a rethink, since without surtitles it means that you can only actually hear about 50% of what is sung.

None of that however is through any fault of the singing here on the first of only three performances of the production at the Grand Opera House in Belfast. From the moment that she read Macbeth's letter with clear, resonant diction, there was little doubt that Rachel Nicholls had the measure of Lady Macbeth, and it didn't take long for the sheer force and control of her voice to become fully apparent, sailing over over the robust performance of Verdi's dramatic score conducted by Nicholas Chambers. The English language performance however did no-one any favours, 'Daylight is fading', for example, passing by without any of the show-stopping qualities that usually accompany 'La luce langue'.  

Bruno Caproni's Macbeth suffered from the same problem of the weakness of the libretto being exposed by the English back-translation, his 'Mal per me' finale never quite hitting the emotional heights that it achieves in Verdi's original scoring of the work. (The version used here a well-judged blend of the best of the 1847 and 1865 versions). Caproni wasn't able to make much of the dramatic content either, his acting being mostly confined to being in a perpetual state of stupefaction at the eerie apparitions leading to events spinning out of his control. In terms of singing however, he was everything that the role required, commanding and in perfect control. Alongside Rachel Nicholl's impressive Lady Macbeth, this was casting as good as you could hope for in these great Verdi roles. The alternate cast of Paul Carey Jones and Miriam Murphy also performed capably, but without managing to bring any greater edge of wild danger to the Macbeth/Lady Macbeth partnership.

The specific challenges of singing Verdi were revealed in the difficulty that John Molloy had with the delivery of Banquo. Molloy, so fleet and flitting as Dulcamara in L'Elisir d'Amore earlier this season, couldn't quite sustain the rather more difficult dramatic Verdi line. Andrew Rees, on the other hand, really entered into the spirit of the Verdian melodrama as Macduff. It was this kind of melodrama that you realised was missing from the Nicholas Chalmers' conducting of the Ulster Orchestra. The beauty of Verdi's wonderful melodies was all there, but it lacked the unrestrained drive and force that the work really needs to make its full impact.  Early Verdi doesn't require this much subtlety.

The chorus of NI Opera were on form throughout. As elsewhere, 'Patria Oppressa' might have lost something in translation, but it was superbly staged and sung. One of Mears' more clever touches was to cast the witches into three groups of composite forms, a trick that worked marvellously, the witches creating the kind of eeriness and menace when they were onstage that should also have been there but wasn't in the dagger apparition and the sleepwalking scenes. Even in woollen bobble hats and bomber jackets, the male chorus also exuded menace where required, particularly in the killing of Banquo scene. Whether it's true or not in terms of the Scottish question, "Better Together" can certainly at least be applied to the joint effort of this NI Opera and the Welsh National Opera production of Macbeth.

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Wagner - Siegfried

Richard Wagner - Siegfried

Teatro alla Scala, Milan - 2012

Daniel Barenboim, Guy Cassiers, Lance Ryan, Peter Bronder, Terje Stensvold, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Anna Larsson, Nina Stemme, Rinnat Moriah

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Siegfried, the Second Day opera in La Scala's new Ring Cycle doesn't reveal any new angle on what has come before or expand on any identifiable concept, but even with variations in casting it remains consistent in look and feel and has the appropriate sense of the epic scale that is required for this part of Wagner's masterwork. It benefits however from another robust performance from the orchestra under the direction of Daniel Barenboim, from some good singing performances and even one or two exceptional ones. When it comes to a work as challenging as Siegfried, you can't really ask for much more than that.

What is important about the work itself is the consolidation of the mythology outlined in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre and the musical language of those works coalescing into the heroic qualities of the character of Siegfried himself. The earlier parts of the production achieved this as well as can be expected, both in terms of the stage production and the musical direction. Equal attention was given to the darker nature of the events unwittingly set into motion by the greed and ambition of both Wotan and Alberich, as well as to the more noble and heroic sentiments of the Wälsung offspring and Brünnhilde. This was particularly evident in how Barenboim's dynamic direction of Die Walküre spanned the epic proportions of the story with a premonitory eye on what lies ahead.

The challenge of Siegfried is that the same dynamic needs to be contained solely within one single character and, almost impossibly, taken to an heroic new level. There aren't too many singers capable of fulfilling those demands across the intense four hours of the opera, and Lance Ryan isn't perfect, but he at least remains undaunted by the challenge and comes through the experience here relatively well. That doesn't mean that there are not challenges elsewhere or that the other roles are any less important to the work and to the Ring as a whole, and fortunately those are very well supported in the Scala's production, most notably in the vital casting of Nina Stemme, who reprises her Brünnhilde here towards a powerful conclusion.

Guy Cassiers' direction and stage design is however is also a crucial supporting element that brings a sense of wholeness and consistency to this Ring cycle. The production design remains fairly abstract, with little sense that there's any deeper meaning behind the concept, but it has a fine dark and otherworldly mythological quality that suits the presentation. It may not be naturalistic, but it creates the right impression. Mime's workshop here in Act I for example is a network of mesh boxes and platforms with a jagged wall of swords on both sides, with a wall of screens behind displaying complex swirls and patterns that evoke a world in turmoil, not yet fully formed.

The abstract simplicity of the staging is carried though to Act II and Act III, but less successfully. The trees in the forest in Act II are formed out of chains, which glisten impressively in the darkness and the moonlight. Fafner is a combination of projections - a seething mass of lava - and dancers. It's perhaps not the best way of staging this problematic scene, but it works relatively well, and at least returns the dying Fafner to his Giant form (well sung by Alexander Tsymbalyuk). Act III relies heavily on lights and projections, and does indeed create an impressive spectacle, but it's a fairly basic and static staging that gives Siegfried and Brünnhilde very little to work with. This is a failing throughout Cassiers' Ring cycle, with very little attention paid to the acting and stage direction and only Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's dancers providing any sense of flow and movement.

Lance Ryan's Siegfried, as suggested earlier, is a little bit imprecise and strained in pitch, but he has stamina and enough character to fill the role in the absence of any real acting direction. On occasion, such as his fine soliloquy outside Fafner's cave, he's often good or at least good enough, which in itself is no small matter. Peter Bronder is a superb Mime; singing well and full of character he pretty much carries Act I. The third Wotan/Wanderer in this Ring Cycle, Terje Stensvold is also good, but it's a static performance that shows little personality or emotional engagement. Johannes Martin Kränzle reprises his excellent Alberich from Das Rheingold, injecting the Dwarf with the necessary darker edge here. What really raises this Siegfried however and is worth waiting for is Nina Stemme's Brünnhilde. In Cassiers' vacant but spectacular production, Lance Ryan alone could never carry the weight of the third Act, but with Barenboim directing the musical force and Nina Stemme's beautiful rich tone giving it real emotional meaning, it gets there in some style.

The specifications of the Arthaus Blu-ray remain very fine for this series of Ring operas. Despite the darkness of the stage and the complex nature of the lighting and projections, the image is clear and stable. The audio tracks too present the singing and orchestral performance well in the PCM stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 surround. Other than trailers for other works, there are no extra features on the disc. Subtitles are in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean. The disc is region-free.

Saturday 22 February 2014

Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2014

Kirill Petrenko, Jan Bosse, Toby Spence, Kristine Opolais, Tara Erraught, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Angela Brower, Tareq Nazmi Live Internet Streaming, 16 February 2014

The intentions of Jan Bosse's production of La Clemeneza di Tito for the Bavarian State Opera can be - like most Munich productions - difficult to decipher. Fortunately - and thankfully mostly down to some pruning of Metastasio's libretto for Mozart's version - the purpose and moral of La Clemenza di Tito is not at all difficult to fathom. In terms of the complex nature of the relationships between the characters, yes, there are the usual Metastasian coincidences and cruel twists of fate, but essentially the underlying sentiment is as clear as the title of the opera itself. It's all about the virtue of mercy, clemency, understanding and love for one's fellow man.

If a production can get that essential point across, even if the manner of presenting it isn't the most expressive, then that's really what counts. And in this particular work, perhaps more so than elsewhere, that relies very much on how well attuned the production is to Mozart's music. That's because while Metastasio's libretto for La Clemenza di Tito is very much a classical text - the libretto having already been set to music by some of the most notable composer's of 18th century Baroque opera seria - it's very much transformed and enhanced in this particular instance by the hand of Mozart.

The circumstances of the writing of La Clemenza di Tito are well-documented. The composer's final opera was composed as a commission for the coronation of Leopold II in Prague in 1791. Written in haste and completed in only 18 days to a pre-existing libretto (adapted and reduced to two acts by the poet Caterino Mazzola), the composer assisted by his pupil Süssmayr (who actually only worked on recitatives, and even then those were corrected by Mozart), the composition of La Clemenza di Tito bears all the hallmarks of a rush-job done on autopilot. Even if that were true, Mozart on autopilot is no minor matter, but there is considerably more of the composer's beautiful soul and sensibility in the work that might be apparent within the restrictions of the opera seria form.

It's this quality that Mozart himself brings to the work that it is important to keep in mind when considering La Clemenza di Tito and perhaps that is the intention of the director here. Even though the stage set is a curved forum in the style of the Capitol in Rome at the time of Titus Vespasianus, the costumes are closer to the late 18th century period of Mozart's time. It's worth noting that some figures in period costume with powdered wigs, also take up place at the side of the stage to emphasise this and that the orchestra itself takes their place in the pit as if it's a lower level of the stage. There's not much made of this afterwards, but some elements are brought out further on one or two occasions to add to the effect and remind you that it is by Mozart, that it's an entertainment and that it was meant for a specific audience.

One example is during Sesto's Act I 'Parto, ma tu ben mio' aria. The most conflicted character in the opera, it's Sesto (urged on admittedly by the rather less conflicted Vitellia) who is unable to recognise the more open, kinder nature that sets Titus apart from how rulers are expected to behave. The importance of this character, and the need to show the complexity of his nature and how it is affected by the conflict in his position, is vital to the work. Just so that you don't miss how Mozart scores this aria with some beautiful obbligato clarinet, the musician is brought up onto the stage also. It tells us that we should have some sympathy for Sesto's predicament to the work Mozart. Attention is drawn to the music in this way on several other occasions, in Vitellia's important 'Non piu di fiori' aria not significantly here with a softer fortepiano accompaniment for the recitatives of Titus rather than the usual harpsichord continuo.

Other than that however, there's not much else that is notable about the stage direction or Stéphane Laimé's set design, or much variation between the two acts other than, evidently, the second part taking place in what are now the burnt ruins of the forum. There's one other nice touch at the start of Act II when the action starts without the orchestra being in the pit. Annio actually has to walk down into the pit and play the harpsichord himself to the recitativo secco. It seems to emphasise that the characters can't live, can't exist, and can't really be fully brought to life without Mozart's music there to draw it out.

The singing is evidently just as important when it comes to expression of the sentiments and the themes in the work. Kristine Opolais was the only performer that seemed less comfortable with the particular demands of the Mozartian soprano tessitura. She's a fine soprano and sings well, but is clearly uncomfortable with the high coloratura and the challenge of the sudden drops to the lower end that characterise Vitellia. Toby Spence however proves to have the ideal kind of voice for lovely soft, lyrical tenor that we expect for Titus, and he has all the necessary warmth as well. Sesto, of course is a key role and Tara Erraught performed well. Sesto's arias in particular were handled with great sensitivity for the conflicting sentiments and an awareness of his underlying nature. I was impressed by Angela Brower's Annio - and not just for playing her own accompaniment - but Hanna-Elisabeth Müller's Servilia and Tareq Nazmi's Publio were also of note.

For all the good points about the singing and for the attention given to emphasising the importance of Mozart's score, the production nonetheless never really managed to match the nobility of spirit or find the necessary warmth that characterises the best performances of this work. The fault would seem to lie with the actual stage direction, which was mostly static, with lots of standing around and little on-stage activity (other than a few close-up video projections and the huge conflagration at the end of Act I) to break it up. Kirill Petrenko's conducting and the delicate playing of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester captured the delicate transparency of Mozart's scoring, but it failed to connect with the narrative drive of the dramatic action in the way that it should.

Thursday 13 February 2014

Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail

L'Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège - 2013

Christophe Rousset, Alfredo Arias, Maria Grazia Schiavo, Wesley Rogers, Franz Hawlata, Elizabeth Bailey, Jeff Martin, Markus Merz

France TV Culturebox Internet Streaming, 31 October 2013

Establishing the correct tone can be a difficult thing to manage with any Mozart opera.  Even with works that appear on the surface to be outright comedies, there's always a darker side to the situations and the nature of the characters.  Conversely, even those with a darker and more controversial content (particularly in the treatment of women) are often redeemed by the most sensitive and beautiful music that suggests that the intentions of the composer are not so simple to pin down.  Like Così Fan Tutte, the work that it most closely associated with (although one can also see clear parallels and character types in Die Zauberflöte), there's undoubtedly a darker side to the comic situations in Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  Given the right treatment, there's definitely a case to be made for the worthiness of this work (or indeed even for some of Mozart's earliest operas), but the Liège production here isn't quite up to the mark. 

On the surface, Die Entführung aus dem Serail might indeed appear to be one of those familiar operatic situations of a gentle white European lady being at the held in captivity by ruthless heathen middle-eastern rulers (Rameau's Les Indes Galantes, Galuppi's L'inimico delle donne, and later Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri).  While the treatment of the subject in his earliest mature opera from the 25 year-old composer is conventional in most respects, Mozart does seem to delve more deeply into the subject.  More than just being a comedy, a rescue opera and foreign exploits in exotic lands, the core of the work rests on a rather more sensitive depiction of the unfortunate lot of women in relationships with men.  It's by no coincidence that the lead person of the opera, Konstanze shares the name of Mozart's wife.

There is indeed a lot of humour to be had at the expense of Turkish men, their harems, their heathen customs and hatred of European men in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, but essentially the real underlying question here is to do with women's servitude and of being bound to the will of men.  Most evidently, there's the lack of freedom in her being held captive by Bassa Selim, but even the nature of unwanted attentions and hopeless devotion is an additional pressure that weighs heavily on Konstanze.  Her forced separation from the man she loves, is also a burden, but so too are his suspicions of infidelity when she is reunited with Belmonte.  There seems to end to the pressures of being a woman - "Sadness is my destiny from this day onward, as Kostanze puts it in her aria "Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose".

That aspect of the opera is treated very seriously in the Opéra Royal de Wallonie production at Liège - perhaps a little too seriously and to the detriment of the wider dynamic of the work.  There can be tendency to overemphasise the serious side in Mozart and downplay the more difficult comedy that can be politically questionable in this day and age.  The tone is very much set by conductor Christophe Rousset in this respect.  Better known for his harpsichord playing and the life that he has breathed into Baroque opera with Les Talens Lyriques, the step up to early Mozart is a rare foray towards the more Classical repertoire for Rousset.  It's wonderful to hear Die Entführung aus dem Serail played authentically on period instruments, and Rousset conducts with characteristic rhythmic precision, but it's a little too rigid and dry for this work.

The direction too plays it relatively straight and consequently isn't able to quite lift the work out of its fairly conventional structure and arrangements, or even spark much life into it.  The set is somewhere between traditional representational and generic stylised modern, which isn't necessarily a bad thing for a work that itself sits between two opera traditions.  The main set is of a generic palace (or harem) with three pools that are mostly just decorative and have to be walked around by the cast.  The backdrop is a huge frame cloudscape of white clouds in a blue sky.  A gauze screen drop is used to allow scenes outside the seraglio to take place in the foreground, with entrances/exits to left and right.  Gold and blue dominate, which is a nice scheme, particularly when the set-off the white and off-white costumes of Belmonte and Konstanze.  It looks fine and requires a minimum of scene changing, but doesn't particularly enhance the dramatic action or the spoken dialogue.

As a performance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail though, this is typical of the standard we expect from the Opéra Royal de Wallonie - a good, functional, well-suited stage design, good singing and a highly entertaining production overall, often of lesser performed works, and Die Entführung aus dem Serail is not the first choice Mozart.  A strong Konstanze is of key importance and it's a challenging role that was very capably filled by Maria Grazia Schiavo.  Wesley Rogers has that lyrical-noble Tamino quality to his voice and was mostly fine, although he struggled in sections of his "Ich baue ganz auf deine Stärke" aria, particularly in the coloratura.  Jeff Martin's Pedrillo was excellent, and Elizabeth Bailey sparkled as Blondechen.  Combined they created a lovely quartet for "Wenn unsrer Ehre wegen".  Franz Hawlata was a very capable Osmin, while Markus Merz played Selim with a particular explosive intensity.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Rossini - Le Comte Ory

Giacomo Rossini - Le Comte Ory

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro 2009

Paolo Carignani, Lluís Pasqual, Yijie Shi, Laura Polverelli, Lorenzo Regazzo, Roberto De Candia, María José Moreno, Natalia Gavrilan, Rinnat Moriah 

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

There are two ways you can treat some of Rossini's more outrageous comedies. You can either play up the absurdity of the situations or you can attempt to make up for the silliness of the libretto by creating a distancing construct around it. I know which I would prefer, but in the case of this 2009 Rossini Opera Festival production, the director Lluís Pasqual unfortunately feels the need to impose a structure on the work that is neither meaningful nor sympathetic to the comedy. Fortunately, there is another way to get the most out of Le Comte Ory and that is to let some good singers loose on it. Despite the casting here not being as stellar as you might expect for such demanding roles, the Pesaro production at least works very well on that front.

It is very hard to take Le Comte Ory seriously, even though there is no reason why you should. Written in the composer's French period, much of the reasoning for the creation of the work was to find an alternative use for the music of Il Viaggio a Reims. Written for a specific event, the coronation of Charles X, it must have seemed a pity to let such good compositions (Rossini at his finest) go to waste, so the composer spun them together with some new music into the racy comedy of Le Comte Ory. The entertainment of the work relies primarily on that old staple of a licentious noble, in this case a Count who takes advantage of the susceptible and probably desperate women of the village while their husbands are away fighting in the crusades.

It's not a subject that is terribly elevated or even clever, nor are the means of the Count Ory's seductions all that credible - disguising himself as a hermit dispensing wise advice, or dressing up as a nun seeking shelter on a stormy night. It's hard to imagine anyone being fooled by such exploits unless they really want to play along with the game and be seduced, and it usually with such an idea that a diector will attempt to either find some credible underlying motivations or create a knowing distance between the drama and its presentation. Lluís Pasqual attempts to do all these things, but seems to forget that the work is actually supposed to be a comedy.

Evidently then, the 2009 Rossini Opera Festival production isn't set during the time of the Crusades but rather, for no apparent reason, takes place in the Grand Hotel Rossini during the Belle Epoque. Looking more like a set for La Traviata, the action of the opening scenes takes place amidst hanging velvet curtains and chandeliers, with the hermit dispensing his sage advice and sexual favours to the credulous women from atop an antique billiard table. The ultimate object of his licentious desires, the Countess Adèle, meanwhile mounts a nearby table across from him. It's hard to believe that the Count's own page, Isolier, wouldn't recognise his master in such a thin disguise (the trousers role moreover transformed here into a female character), but any semblance of disguises being convincing are dismissed when the Countess and her maid Ragone actually dress Ory up as a nun at the start of the second act.

According to the booklet that comes with the DVD/BD release, the director's concept is that it's an opera-within-an-opera (or a play-within-an-opera), the explanation for this is that the story of Le Comte Ory is being put on as a parlour game by a theatre group in order to explore their own erotic fantasies. You wouldn't know this otherwise, but even when you do know it, it still seems like a pointless conceit and scarcely any less ridiculous than the original comic story that it is attempting to make credible. What the Belle Epoque setting does however, perhaps inadvertently, is actually emphasise the elegance and sophistication of Rossini's brilliant compositional skills.

The score is sympathetically conducted in this respect by Paolo Carignani. Unsurprisingly, since it is mostly derived from Il Viaggio a Reims (a delightful work that was until relatively recently believed entirely lost), Le Comte Ory is a typically well-constructed piece, with entertaining numbers and a variety of characters who have arrangements to match and display their individual singing strengths. It all takes place moreover at a spirited pace with a musical style that is indeed sparkling with elegance, cleverness and wit. That much comes through, even if the stage direction isn't able to take advantage of it, or play to the strengths of work, which is in how it matches the singing performances to the comic situations.

Although they aren't given much support from the director, the singing nonetheless is very good. The Rossini Opera Festival doesn't seem to give the same care and attention in their casting for French Rossini as they do to the composer's Italian works, but the relatively inexperienced cast do perform rather well. Chinese tenor Yijie Shi - who can be seen in several other Pesaro productions - has the right kind of voice for high and lyrical Rossini roles like this and he meets all the challenges and demands that are required for Le Comte Ory. If you close your eyes, at times you could swear you're listening to Juan Diego Flórez, albeit not with the same force. Laura Polverelli is a fine Isolier and María José Moreno brings the necessary elegance and charm to her Comtesse Adèle, even when the stage concept seems contrived to work against her.

True, this cast are no match for the New York Metropolitan Opera's production with the stellar trio of Juan Diego Flórez, Joyce DiDonato and Diana Damrau, but who could possibly measure up to that level of presence, stature and vocal ability in a work like this? Ultimately however, since the actual performances are fine here, it's less a question of singing ability than whether the production as a whole gives the right kind of platform for those voices to shine. Bartlett Sher's production at the Met went for a similar play-within-a-play construction that didn't bring anything great out of the work, but it didn't detract either from the comic situations or the performances. The Pesaro Le Comte Ory also works well in spite of a production design that doesn't really help it, which is all the more to the credit of the singers and, undoubtedly, the strength of Rossini's writing.

The BD includes a 26-minute Making of made up of interviews and behind-the-scenes rehearsals. As usual the irrepressible Alberto Zedda, the artistic director of the Rossini Opera Festival, provides some insightful comments on the work and its place among Rossini's operas. Subtitles on the BD are in French, English, German, Spanish, Italian and Korean.