Thursday 27 March 2014

Puccini - Turandot

Giacomo Puccini - Turandot

Royal Opera House, London - 2013

Henrik Nánási, Andrei Serban, Lise Lindstrom, Marco Berti, Eri Nakamura, Raymond Aceto, Dionysios Sourbis, David Butt Philip, Doug Jones, Alasdair Elliott, Michel de Souza

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The popularity and longevity of Puccini's most famous works has had the unfortunate consequence of them almost becoming aural wallpaper or operatic elevator music. True, most of the composer's works have little to say about social or political issues, they don't provoke any great depth of philosophical thought, or even consider the human condition other than in the most generic life/death terms. Musically too, Puccini's works don't really have any ambitions to revolutionise the world of opera. While it may seem easy then to categorise and devalue Puccini's calculated contribution to the artform, one shouldn't dismiss the sheer ability of those works to entertain or the composer's great gift for melody and "tunes".

As such, works like La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly need no special pleading. They are unquestionably true masterpieces that are likely to endure and deservedly remain in the popular repertoire for a long time to come. Puccini's later works - La Fanciulla del West, Il Trittico and Turandot - while by no means underepresented on the stage, don't however leap so immediately to the mind or (with the exception of one or two famous arias) whistle off the lips. They are however works that have most interesting sides to them and a certain amount of intriguing musical development, with more through composition, the use of leitmotifs and some Debussy-like impressionism.

What shouldn't be dismissed in these later works, particularly in the case of Turandot, is that Puccini retains this facility to simply entertain. Entertainment - as evidenced by the fact that it is often prefaced with the word 'cheap' - tends to be regarded as something less desirable in opera than high concepts and virtuoso singing. Puccini's sense of entertainment, and yes, even a sense of humour, is also often overlooked or looked down upon in this way. Gianni Schicchi might be the composer's only out-and-out comedy, but there's a light scattering of humour through many of the composer's works. It's there in Act I and Act II of La Bohème evidently, but even Madama Butterfly has comedy in its culture clashes, and it's there too in Turandot with Ping, Pong and Pang.  In Turandot, Life, Death and Love remain the big main operatic subjects, but there's also associated dramatic moments providing poignancy, valour, selflessness and humour - albeit comedy with a darker edge.

Turandot has all the elements then for a grand entertainment, but even so, the fairytale plot is one that doesn't seem best placed to draw out those essential human characteristics. If it's not dealt with effectively, it can be just a mess of Orientalist clichés, with situations calculated specifically to run through the numbers, all built around the showcase aria of 'Nessun dorma'. A cold and cruel Princess, with a series of riddles for suitors who will be executed should they fail, whose heart is melted by a valiant Prince, this is Life, Death and Love writ large with very little in the way of genuine human sentiments. Or so it seems. Liù is of course the saving grace on that front, her sense of honour, duty and love igniting feelings of compassion in the Princess Turandot, and it similarly opens a way to the heart of the audience.

And this, while it seems sentimental and calculated to put it in those terms, is primarily the strength of Puccini. He always finds a way to touch the heart of the listener, and more than just being entertainment, that's the critical element that needs to be in place. If it doesn't obviously provide the necessary heart, Andrei Serban's production for the Royal Opera house (dating back to 1984) at least exploits the entertainment value of Turandot, with all its Oriental exoticism and regal glamour. The set is grand but unfussy, requiring no major set changes just the addition of props - pagodas, masks and banners - between scenes. The background is however surprisingly dark, and doesn't show off the full impact of the set. The costumes are typically bold Serban primary colours, and full use is made of the stage with good blocking of the characters with masked dancers to add life and movement.

While it certainly has all the glamour and high production values that are required to make Turandot an entertaining spectacle, there's nothing here in this production or in the performances however to make you sit up and be willing to explore the qualities that are there in the work and find the warm heart behind it. It all feels a little perfunctory, and it's not just the fairy tale element or the use of masks that make it somewhat inscrutable. Henrik Nánási's musical direction doesn't really manage to bring the score to life either, but it and the staging mainly provide the context for this production and they do that fairly well in the necessary places. 'Nessun dorma', for example, isn't overplayed as a showpiece but kept in its dramatic context. Liù's death is most affecting here, as it must be, and Turdanot's discovery of the name that that has eluded her - not Calaf as much as Love - brings the work to an unquestionably powerful conclusion. The lack of imagination elsewhere however means that it's the singers who have to make up for the dramatic failings, but unfortunately there's not sufficient attention paid there either.

The singing performances themselves are good, but a little more dramatic direction however might have made a real difference. Marco Berti has all the right Italian tenor characteristics that you expect to hear in this role, even if it is clearly a stretch for him in places. More of a failing is his acting ability, and you don't really get a sense of the importance of his task of Calaf being emotionally engaged with the enormity of the riddle challenge and potentially facing death the next morning - it all seems more like an act of bravado than true love. Lise Lindstrom is very capable in an unquestionably tough role, but a little on the strident side. There's plenty of ice but no fire of passion. A little more vulnerability would bring a little humanity to her Princess Turandot, but there's not much sign of it here. Eri Nakamura is a fine Liù, apparently light of voice but there's a robustness here and her top notes ring out beautifully. Raymond Aceto's Timur is solid, with clear enunciation in his deep bass.  

The quality of the Blu-ray is, as expected from Opus Arte, of a typically high standard with a clear image and strong audio tracks. The release also includes a 8-minute introduction and a 4-minute Behind the Masks feature on Ping, Pong and Pang. The performance can be played with these features included, or as separate Acts. There's a synopsis in the booklet, which also has a good essay by Linda Fairtile on the creation of Puccini's final opera which remained unfinished at his death. Like most, this version uses the final scene completed by Franco Alfano. The BD is Region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Korean.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Beethoven - Fidelio

Ludwig van Beethoven - Fidelio

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège - 2014

Paolo Arrivabeni, Mario Martone, Jennifer Wilson, Zoran Todorovich, Franz Hawlata, Cinzia Forte, Yuri Gorodetski, Thomas Gazheli, Laurent Kubla, Xavier Petithan, Alexei Gorbatchev Internet Streaming - 6th February 2014

Judging from the critical response to a few extravagant recent productions in the UK, the themes and sentiments of Beethoven's only opera has the ability to endure even the most ill-fitting concepts and settings. There's certainly nothing quite as radical attempted in the Opéra Royal de Wallonie's production of Fidelio in Liège. Under the stage direction of Mario Martone, it's a fairly traditional presentation in the main that plays to the strengths of the work. As a consequence, the uninspired and uninspiring Liège production never really engages in a way that brings anything new out of the work either, but Fidelio still endures.

Sergio Tramonti's set designs for the Liège production are fairly basic but at least functional and appropriate for the content and for the purposes of the stage direction. Act I shows a rather grimy prison courtyard with a little hut where the rather dishevelled and dusty warder Rocco and his daughter Marzelline reside. It's a grey and dark place, with a platform of iron scaffolding above and prison gates recessed to the back of the dimly-lit stage. Act II makes more appropriate use of this scaffolding as a means to descend to the deep prison cell where Florestan is being held in chains. Darkness pervades, but as such it's perfectly in keeping with both the literal depiction of the conditions of the 18th century prison near Seville and with the dominant tone of Beethoven's subject.

In Fidelio, and certainly in this production of it, it's definitely a case of painting the picture darker to show that the faint light of human aspirations for truth, justice and liberty can never be entirely extinguished, but rather shine even brighter in what even appear to be the most hopeless of situations. And Fidelio does get pretty bleak. Florestan, a political prisoner, is being held secretly in solitary confinement in the deepest darkest vaults of the prison, never seeing the light of day, being starved to death on the orders of the governor Don Pizarro. Afraid however of Florestan's illegal imprisonment being discovered by the Minister on a sudden inspection visit, Pizarro orders Rocco to murder the prisoner, dig a hole and bury him down there.

It's a very grim subject, but Beethoven's score - worked on laboriously for nine years over several versions and multiple revisions - bears the nobility of the finer qualities of both Florestan and his wife Leonore (in disguise as Rocco's assistant Fidelio, unable to determine even if her husband is still alive, so deep is his light buried), at the same time as it depicts the nature of the darkness that they face. The libretto is littered with references to darkness and light, but Beethoven's score manages to show both sides of the coin at the same time, and not just in the central situation, but also within the smaller-scale drama of the prison warder's daughter Marzelline's love for Fidelio putting paid to her admirer Jaquino's ambitions to marry her.

The Liège production captures the tone of the work reasonably well, but only in the broadest of terms in its distinction between darkness and light. The darkness is well-established in the First Act and the beginning of the Second Act, with only the prisoner's tentative and cautious glimpse of daylight in the chorus of 'O welche Lust' at the end of Act I offering any respite from the gloom. When that brightness cascades onto the set at the arrival of the Minister then, pouring in from the lifting of the walls at the back of the stage, it achieves perfectly the sense of liberation and hope that Leonore's unwavering faith inspires. Broadly, that's fine, but it means that a considerable amount then rests also on the singers to capture the nuance of characterisation that is played out here in the most Manichean of terms.

The singers perform reasonably well, but by no means exceptionally, only really succeeding in matching the level of the production. The nobility of Leonore calls for a strong Wagnerian soprano and Jennifer Wilson meets those requirements with a pure timbre that rings out with courage and dignity. She's not best matched with tenor Zoran Todorovich's Florestan, and doesn't always hold those Mozartian flourishes steady, but it's a good performance. Todorovich isn't quite the heldentenor voice that would be ideal for Florestan and he too has shaky moments, but he makes the right impression. Franz Hawlata's Rocco is solid and clear of diction and there are notable performances from Cinzia Forte as Marzelline and Yuri Gorodetski as Jaquino. Thomas Gazheli's Don Pizarro is sung well but a little over-played with sneers and mannerisms as a caricature baddie.

The Opéra Royal de Wallonie's production of Fidelio - a co-production with the Teatro Regio de Turin - was broadcast live from Liège on the 6th February 2014. At the time of writing it's still available for free viewing from the, in German with French subtitles only.

Saturday 22 March 2014

Wagner - Götterdämmerung

Richard Wagner - Götterdämmerung

Teatro alla Scalla, Milan - 2013

Daniel Barenboim, Guy Cassiers, Irène Theorin, Lance Ryan, Mikhail Petrenko, Gerd Grochowski, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Anna Samuil, Waltraud Meier, Margarita Nekrassova, Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya, Anna Lapkovskaja

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

While there are undoubtedly critical elements that it's important to get right in the earlier parts of the tetraology, it's Götterdämmerung that is ultimately the real test of any Ring cycle. After the years of hard work preparation that go into putting on a work of this scale, it has to come together meaningfullly at the end. It really wouldn't do if the epic end of the world finale of Götterdämmerung proved to be anticlimatic. The La Scala production is certainly unconventional in how it presents that all-important conclusion, but I don't think anyone could say that it is anything but bold and deeply impressive. That's not to say that the production here doesn't suffer from the same problems that face any company staging this demanding and exhausting work - principally in casting and singing - but it's a fitting conclusion nonetheless to a consistently impressive if not exactly revelatory new Ring cycle.

There is at least one important aspect to the La Scala Ring that has remained consistent and left no cause for concern about how the final segment would play out, and that's Daniel Barenboim's contribution. The sheer scale and ambition of Wagner's masterwork means that Götterdämmerung has to bring together all the earlier themes and leitmotifs the earlier works and bear the conceptual weight of the Ring as a whole. It's an enormous musical challenge, but Barenboim has been remarkably consistent and adaptable to Guy Cassiers' concept and he conducts the orchestra of La Scala through the varied tones of this particular work with a beautiful fluidity and a rising sense of urgency. It feels of a whole in a way that Götterdämmerung rarely does, consolidating those elements elaborated in the earlier parts into something much grander than their constituent parts. The whole point of Götterdämmerung is that all the little dramas and personal tragedies add up to something meaningful in the grander scheme of things, and in this production under Barenboim, that is exactly what is achieved.

There has also been a strong consistency to the look and feel of Guy Cassiers' production design, even if any deeper meaning or significance has been hard to determine. The source of certain imagery that has cropped up regularly throughout the cycle however is revealed here - in all its glory at the finale - to have been inspired by Jef Lambeaux's relief sculpture 'Les passions humaines'. This certainly gives substance to imagery and the ideas the director has been working with and leads to an immensely powerful conclusion, finding a strong visual concept that supports and illustrates Wagner's music and ideas, even if it doesn't add anything new to our understanding of the meaning of Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Even with its mythological setting and its play on the affairs of Gods, Giants, Dwarfs and Nymphs, the Ring is indeed about "human passions". It's about stripping away those God-like ideals and revealing the complexity of those human passions that are no less capable of destroying the world. There's nothing in the greed of Alberich and Mime, in the marital discord between Wotan and Fricke, in the pride of Wotan and the despair he feels at the defiance of his will by his wayward daughter Brünnhilde that isn't representative of real human passions. There's an inevitability too that the great romantic forbidden love of Siegmund and Sieglinde and the actions of the great hero Siegfried will inspire great passions and lead humanity to new heights, but that ultimately even those will eventually come to a tragic end.

That at least is one aspect of what the Ring is about. The mythological aspect is also a vital component in Wagner's exploration of human passions in his search for a national identity and his expression of it through a new art form for a new nation. That's not neglected either in Guy Cassiers' direction with its spectacular visuals and projections, while the question of where the wielding of that newfound power will lead is to be found throughout in the mutilated body parts that merge together in Lambeaux's sculpture. It's a superb illustration of those themes on a number of levels, but in itself it's also a stunning state-of-the-art visual spectacle that has the look and conceptual qualities of an art installation. With Barenboim conducting the groundbreaking, genre-defining brilliance of Wagner in the full-flower of his genius, this is every bit as "momumental" as Götterdämmerung ought to be. 

It also reveals and emphasises however the weaknesses or the difficulties that are nearly impossible to overcome in a work of this scale and ambition. With the emphasis on the grander scale, the actual playing out of the drama with any kind of conviction is unfortunately, and perhaps necessarily, often neglected. In the context of Guy Cassiers' production, in a the set never looks naturalistic but merely an arrangement of stage props and "installations", there is scarcely any dramatic playing within it. That's understandable considering the exceptional demands placed on the singers in Götterdämmerung, but even so, there's an awful lot of standing and declaiming out to the theatre and very little interaction or dramatic interplay between the characters. Anna Samuil for example, although she sings well, only has eyes for the conductor and barely glances at her on-stage companions.

For Götterdämmerung sadly we lose Nina Stemme, who made such an impression as Brünnhilde in Die Walkure and Siegfried, but Irène Theorin proves to be a more than worthy replacement. She's perhaps not as strong across at the lower end of the range, but her top notes hit home in a performance that is full of fire. Just about passable in Siegfried, Lance Ryan's weaknesses are however cruelly exposed in the more open and testing environment of Götterdämmerung. His delivery is sometimes good, particularly in shorter phrasing, but any long notes waver around wildly. I'm not sure that there are many heldentenors around nowadays though who are capable of holding down this role, and at least he appears engaged in the role. Mikhail Petrenko sings Hagen well, although his delivery is a little too Russian in declamation. The other roles are more than competently played by a strong cast that includes Gerd Grochowski, Johannes Martin Kränzle (as a disturbingly distorted version of his already sinister Alberich), Waltraud Meier and Anna Samuil.

A four hour forty-five minute performance is a lot to get onto a single disk, even a BD50 Blu-ray, but the image and sound quality hold up alongside the fine presentation of the other releases in this cycle. Like those, the BD is region-free, with subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean. These can only be selected from the player remote or from the 'Pop-up' menu during playback. There's no synopsis in the booklet, just a fanciful essay that unconvincingly attempts to link Götterdämmerung with Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' and with the Belgian Congo. It does however provide that useful information about Jef Lambeaux's 'Les passions humaines' sculpture, which might otherwise not be recognised. Its significance however can fully be felt in this powerful conclusion to an intriguing Ring cycle.

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Massenet - Werther

Jules Massenet - Werther

The Metropolitan Opera, New York - 2014

Alain Altinoglu, Richard Eyre, Jonas Kaufmann, Sophie Koch, David Bižić, Lisette Oropesa, Jonathan Summers, Philip Cokorinos, Tony Stevenson, Christopher Job, Maya Lahyani

The Met Live in HD - 15 March 2014

Much as I try - and I've listened to a lot of his work - Massenet is a composer I've never been able to connect with on a musical level. There are exceptions of course - and Werther is certainly one of them - particularly when the work in question is given a thoughtful stage presentation. Manon, for example, stands or falls based on whether the director is willing to draw the personalities out of the characters, and Don Quichotte can be a wonderful and tragic flight of adventure if it's directed by Laurent Pelly. Werther however, you can't really get it wrong. Surely. It's all there in the music and even the most basic illustration of Massenet's perfect setting can convey the full impact of Goethe's highly romantic work. Basic illustration is however something that you don't often get with Metropolitan Opera productions or Richard Eyre, and I'm not sure their over-elaboration of elements of this production really add anything to the work.

To be fair, Richard Eyre's production, while it does seem terribly old-fashioned and theatrical with fussy details, does have some modern touches that in some respect relates to Massenet's old-fashioned compositional style with its (I feel) uncomfortable relationship with Wagner-influenced modernism. This is particularly evident in the overture in which Eyre stages the death of Charlotte's mother as a prelude to the opera. This is undoubtedly a significant event and the music that accompanies it is similarly brooding with foreboding, with death and its impact on those left behind. In particular, it determines Charlotte's future security in a promised marriage to Albert, and that is what is going to be the great tragedy of Werther's love. This prelude then sets the tone well for what follows, but it's also an example of how literally everything will be laid out, filled in and made explicit on the stage.

While there are certainly broad sweeps in the music, Werther is, admittedly, not so easy to pin down to a consistent overall tone. Certainly there is a large fatalistic romanticism that hangs over everything, but Massenet's score also portrays various little colourful incidents - the children's Christmas carol singing at the height of summer, Charlotte's relationship with her brothers and sisters, the Bailiff's appearance and his visit to the inn with Johann and Schmidt, the ball and intimations of the beauty of nature - all of which have to fit into the overall tapestry. These are important since they represent the life that is gradually squeezed out of the picture by Werther's all-consuming dark despair. This, I would suggest, is however is something that the conductor needs to manage more than the stage director, and Alain Altinoglu responds well to the challenges presented by the varied tones of the work.

Unfortunately, Richard Eyre feels that it's his job not only to depict every colour of the musical score in the staging, but to fill in where he feels that Massenet and the libretto haven't supplied enough detail. In the opening prelude this is acceptable and it's impressively staged, with projections and scene changes that capture the passing of time, set mood and location, the machinery allowing the set to fan out into rolling hills that tilt the stage and skew the lives of the characters. Eyre's production however goes way beyond merely setting the tone. The action of Werther can be left semi-ambiguous and unstated, but Eyre has a very definite, literal view on Werther's stability and his descent into despair and takes care to emphasise them for the audience.

There are, for example, no doubts here that Albert knows all about Werther's letters to Charlotte and that he, and everyone else, knows exactly what Werther's intentions are when he asks to borrow Albert's pistols. In some respects, this can be justified as it adds to the fatalistic romanticism of Goethe's work, that there's only one way that this can end and that everyone has to submit to the natural sequence of events that tragically have been set in motion that will inevitably end in Werther's suicide. Charlotte undoubtedly knows it here too, and - in one choice that I thought worked well in this production - follows this fatalistic path to its inevitable conclusion where she also prepares to take her own life as the curtain falls. In the context of this production, this is a perfectly consistent and effective choice that plays out well.

It's not the choices that Richard Eyre makes necessarily however, as in how he makes everything overly explicit, leaving no room for ambiguity for the viewer to make their own mind up about Werther as a hopeless romantic or as a pathological case. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is in the overly graphic scene of Werther's suicide. In my experience, this is often (and best) left unseen as an off-stage event. Massenet's score and his fate leitmotifs are powerful enough for this to work more than effectively. Eyre not only shows the sequence of Werther's despair, but graphically depicts him shooting himself in one of the bloodiest scenes I've ever seen on the stage, shooting himself through the heart (of course), with blood splattering all over the walls behind the bed in his dingy room.

It certainly a highly charged scene and I would agree with Eyre (in an interview with Peter Gelb during the interval) that it (and the production as a whole) is in keeping with the contemporary references to Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov - both in terms of the subject and the period and in terms of darker undercurrents of the content - but there's a feeling that Act III tips over into more modern depictions of screen violence. Tellingly, Eyre compares Jonas Kaufmann's acting ability to Al Pacino, and I wouldn't disagree with him either (it's largely down to Kaufmann that this works as well as it does), but it would seem that like most dumbed-down cinema depictions, Eyre doesn't trust the viewer to be able to work out undercurrents and make connections for themselves, and needs to spell it all out for them.

With all this over-emphasis, there are times when you think that Jonas Kaufmann is also over-emoting, but in the case of a character like Werther there's probably no such thing. Although many certainly did in Goethe's time, Werther is not a figure that you can entirely relate to nor completely sympathise with from a modern sensibility. You can however recognise the depth of his feelings from Massenet's writing and from the soulful delivery that Kaufmann expresses so powerfully. It could be a little more restrained and guarded in expression, but in the context of this production, it's about right and Kaufmann's ability is as impressive as ever. And comparisons to Pacino are no hyperbole either - this is a committed, convincing dramatic performance.

If there are some concerns about the stage direction, there are however no doubts whatsoever about the quality of the singing or the suitability of the casting. I'm a great admirer of Sophie Koch, who is a versatile and committed performer of tremendous ability. She sometimes sings more from the heart than from the page, but I'll take that kind of emotional and dramatic involvement over note-perfect singing technique any day (I would put Anja Harteros in the same category). She knows the role and character of Charlotte well and her experience shows, working well with Kaufmann and often to spectacular effect. In the rather distinctive approach taken to characterisation here, Albert and Sophie also have significant roles and both David Bižić and Lisette Oropesa make a strong impression and sing well.

This is a typically solid Metropolitan Opera production, overly bold and literal perhaps when Werther would benefit from a more intimate and open approach, but Richard Eyre's production isn't without some distinctive touches.  In the end however, it's the singing that carries it through.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Wuorinen - Brokeback Mountain

Charles Wuorinen - Brokeback Mountain

Teatro Real, Madrid - 2014

Titus Engel, Ivo van Hove, Daniel Okulitch, Tom Randle, Heather Buck, Hannah Esther Minutillo, Ethan Herschenfeld, Celia Alcedo, Ryan MacPherson, Jane Henschel, Hilary Summers, Letitia Singleton, Gaizka Gurruchaga, Vasco Fracanzani

Medici, ARTE Concert - Internet Streaming, 7 February 2014

Although it goes right back to the source short story, and even has a libretto specifically written by the original author Annie Proulx, the initial idea to compose an opera based on Brokeback Mountain came to Charles Wuorinen after watching Ang Lee's 2005 film. It's likely that the popular and acclaimed film will also be the point of comparison for most people viewing Wourinen's opera version, the work receiving its world premiere in Madrid in 2014. As with any adaptation of material from another medium, the opera version of Brokeback Mountain in such a case must not only stand up on its own terms but it needs to bring something new, something specific to the nature of music theatre that literature and cinema can't. Wourinen's opera succeeds in this to a large extent and does full justice to the nature if the story, if not in any way bring anything spectacularly new to it.

In terms of the content, while Annie Proulx does go back to the source material and treats some aspects rather differently from the cinematic version, the nature, the character and the development of the relationship at the centre of the story remains essentially the same. It deals with the troubled love affair between two men in an American mid-western cowboy community who are unable to openly express their feelings for each other, partly due to concerns about how their relationship will be viewed by a society with rather harsh and unforgiving attitudes to anything that doesn't fit in with their accepted conventional moral views, but partly due to their own masculine inability to come to terms with their emotions.

Those feelings and the contrasting views on this subject in Annie Proulx's story are very much tied into the contrast between life on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming where ranch hands Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar first meet, and the rather less freedom that the men enjoy when they come down from summer on the isolated mountain and have to fit into "normal" society again, finding work, marrying and providing for their families. In the opera version, the concision and compression of the material in Proulx's libretto gives greater prominence and emphasis to this division between the laws of nature and society, but it's also given additional weight through Charles Wuorinen's very distinctive musical treatment.

The tone that is adopted by the work as a whole is established immediately right from the first bold, dramatic, troubling chords that are struck, and there's not an ounce of sentimentality, romanticism or even false optimism to be found elsewhere in the music score or the dialogue. Right from the outset, the relationship between Jack and Ennis is a troubled one, one that will never be fully accepted by either society or on equal terms by both men, and it colours and deeply affects even those few moments of bliss that the two of them are able to snatch together over the years on the rare occasions that they are able to "go fishing" on Brokeback Mountain. Proulx's concisely drawn libretto authentically reflects both the sparse exchanges and general inarticulacy of the men themselves, yet is also able to use literary techniques to draw out the underlying characteristics of their relationship.

As suggested by the location and the title, the primary expression of the men's relationship is that of Brokeback Mountain. The libretto consequently is scattered with references to the natural world, but reflecting the nature of that relationship it's rarely comforting, the mountains populated with coyotes, wolves and bears. For the brief moments that they are far away from the ordinary cares of the world, they are however eagles, at least in Jack Twist's mind. Ennis however, mindful of the responsibilities placed on him, knowing that he is going to marry Alma, finds it more difficult to enjoy the same freedom of thought, but allows himself to succumb to the image of the free-flying hawk. Another highly evocative image - although it's not over emphasised - is that of the sheep. In a way, the sheep could be seen to represent regular society, and since they are employed to look after them by Aguirre, a man who we know is a stickler for rules, the two men feel some obligation of responsibility towards the social construct that allows them to make a life for themselves.

On its own, this leaner this more stripped down version of the storyline expresses the intensity of the relationship and feelings well, but for it to find full expression in an opera it needs the music and the staging to support it. In this particular work, what remains unspoken is often just as important as what is, and that has to be elaborated on further than just a few poetic images and references to nature. The American composer Charles Wuorinen manages to find a strong way to express this in the music which is 12-tone and modernist but not atonal. Without impressionism or abstraction, it's actually quite lyrical and expressionistic, well-suited to the material, the musical language not unlike the Richard Strauss of Elektra and Salome. It's never folk or country inflected, but rather directly connected to the tenseness of the situation, to the uneasy nature of the men and their relationship, matching and underlining every word and sentiment.

As such, the music follows the vocal line rather than setting it, attempting to capture the rhythms of English-language speech patterns, as well as the halting delivery and uncertainty of the nature of the underlying sentiments they are expressing. Daniel Okulitch as Ennis and Tom Randle as Jack deal exceptionally well with this type of expression, totally convincing in terms of characterisation while managing to make the singing quite lyrical and melodic. These are strong performance indeed, and they need to be. As Alma, Heather Buck's role is no less important to the development of the drama and she also gives a terrific performance. Using projections to open up the Teatro Real stage for the outdoors scenes that allow for moody silhouettes, and closing it down with the clutter of furniture and household appliances, Jan Versweyveld's sets match Ivo van Hove's note perfect direction of the characters.

Likely to be seen now as Gérard Mortier's legacy as the controversial but hugely creative and experimental artistic director of the Teatro Real in Madrid, the World Premiere production of Charles Wuorinen's Brokeback Mountain was streamed live on the ARTE Concert and Medici websites. The opera is currently still available to view on both sites, in English with English subtitles.

Friday 7 March 2014

Borodin - Prince Igor

Alexander Borodin - Prince Igor

The Metropolitan Opera, New York - 2014

Gianandrea Noseda, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Ildar Abdrazakov, Oksana Dyka, Mikhail Petrenko, Sergey Semishkur, Vladimir Ognovenko, Andrey Popov, Anita Rachvelishvili, Štefan Kocán, Kiri Deonarine, Mikhail Vekua, Barbara Dever

The Met Live in HD - 1st March 2014

Thank goodness for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Not only are we only really starting to appreciate his own contribution to Russian opera in the west through wider productions of The Tsar's Bride, Sadko, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and of course, The Golden Cockerel, but it's in many ways due to the enormous contribution and efforts of Rimsky-Korsakov that we are able to appreciate the legacy of other great Russian composers who came before him whose epic works might otherwise have been forgotten, neglected and, in many cases it seems remained incomplete. Hence we have Rimsky-Korsakov's editions of Mussorgsky's unfinished Khovanshchina and his reworking of the full version of the magisterial Boris GodunovWhat is it with these Russian composers and their unfinished epic masterworks?

It's also in no small part due to Rimsky-Korsakov, along with Alexander Glazunov, that Borodin's only opera Prince Igor exists in any kind of a performing edition. Having worked on the opera for 18 years, the work was however left uncompleted at the time of Borodin's death in 1887. Much of the epic undertaking of the opera, based on an historical account of Prince Igor's 12th century military campaign against the nomadic Polovtsian tribe, had indeed been written by the composer as whole scenes, but there was little dramatically to link them or even place the scenes into any kind of order. But for Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov's work, Prince Igor would probably not have been heard at all in the last century, and if you've ever heard Prince Igor you would realise what a tremendous loss that would have been. Even then however, the work still remained a series of bold scenes, with very little dramatic structure or meaning.

Thank goodness then for Dmitri Tcherniakov. A controversial director, one who fearlessly takes chances with bold modernised reinterpretations of works, Tcherniakov is however an important and instrumental figure in bringing working stage productions of rare Russian repertoire to the west, introducing Prokofiev's The Gambler and Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride in the last decade for The Berlin Staatsoper, and most recently putting together a revelatory production of The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh for De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam. If ever there was a work that needed the sense of purpose and meaning that a dramatic interpretation can give it, it's Prince Igor. Using only Borodin's compositions, including music from the composer's other works, Tcherniakov has created a radical new dramatic context for the work, and the result, seen on the Met stage and broadcast to cinemas across the world in HD, is as close to an authentic representation of this remarkable work as we've seen.

What the opera gains under Tcherniakov's version of Prince Igor is that it manages to place Igor himself at the centre of the work, while retaining all of the exotic colour of the Polovtsian scenes and choruses, and contrast it with the dramatic developments and the tragedy of the Putivl sections. After the patriotic fervour of the Prologue, for example, the battle with Khan Konchak having been lost in the interim, the captive Igor becomes a secondary figure in Act I, reduced to the background for a sequence of episodes that seem to bear little relation to the dramatic development of the story, involving a romance between Konchakovna and Vladimir Igorevich (Igor's son who has been killed in battle) and of course the famous Polovtsian folk dances. Tcherniakov however, using Alexander Sokurov-like film interludes, makes all of these incidents part of Igor's fevered dreams, having been wounded in battle, making a personal discovery in them and finding a route to happiness and fulfilment, but also realising where his responsibility to his people lies.

Like Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, it's important to get past all the musical set-pieces, the heavy choral arrangements and the strident delivery and make Prince Igor a credible character, a real person whose actions in the 12th century can be understood by people today and not just appear as some iconic Russian historical figure. Tcherniakov's storytelling brings this out well, contrasting the idyllic scenes of Act I with the horror of the fate that is to befall Putivl in the powerfully staged Act II under the drunken exploits of Prince Galitsky and his men, and under the plotting of Skula and Yeroshka. Even in his absence, Igor's authority, his ability to rule and control the nation remains central, while the more human side of his personality is brought out at the start of Act III in Yaroslavna's deeply emotion longing for her husband who she believes has died in captivity.

In addition to the dramatic and musical reworking, the other essential element for a successful Prince Igor is the singing. Russian singers are absolutely essential here, not just to handle the difficulties of language, but for the very specific tone and the stamina required. Each of the main roles have long passages of Wagnerian-like demands that require enormous control and stamina. Ildar Abdrazakov is well-known at the Met for popular roles in Italian opera but has not had much experience of the Russian repertoire. He proves he's more than capable of it here and is simply extraordinary in the role of Igor, totally convincing as a character and as a singer in this important role, commanding in the Prologue, visionary in Act I and inspirational in Act III.

There are no weaknesses anywhere else in the cast. Mikhail Petrenko exudes charm and menace as Galistsky and effortlessly carries much of Act II. Oksana Dyka has considerable challenges but impresses as Yaroslavna, her mezzo-soprano not as rich and smooth as we are accustomed to, but it's so right in the Russian repertoire. There aren't many tenors to be found among all the deeper bass-baritone range of most of the male roles in Prince Igor, which only makes the qualities of Sergey Semishkur's Vladimir all the more apparent. Anita Rachvelishvili has been a little bit shrill and inconsistent in some other roles I've seen her in, but here singing in the Russian style as Konchakovna, she is marvellous. Štefan Kocán's incredible control in the deepest notes of the bass register have been noted before playing Sparafucile in the Met's Rigoletto last year, and that's demonstrated again here in the rich beauty of his timbre singing the role of Khan Konchak.

The chorus of course have an important part to play throughout Prince Igor, and the demands placed on the Metropolitan Opera chorus are therefore considerable. Aside from managing a chorus of 120 singers, and the difficulties of learning the parts for a work of this scale in the Russian language and bringing them all together, there are also very specific requirements that need to be met to make them work. Chorus Master, Donald Palumbo, describes those as the tenors needing to be brighter and more metallic, sopranos being "a little fruitier", and mezzos really singing contralto. The way these elements are brought together is important in order to achieve that necessary sound world that is so distinctive in Borodin's Prince Igor, and that impact is clearly felt. On every level, with important contributions from all involved, this proves to be a stunning production of a major work.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Britten - Death in Venice

Benjamin Britten - Death in Venice

English National Opera, 2013

Edward Gardner, Deborah Warner, John Graham-Hall, Andrew Shore, Tim Mead, Laura Caldow, Sam Zaldivar, Joyce Henderson, Marcio Teixeira, Peter van Hulle, Anna Dennis

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice' would have been a work that chimed with Benjamin Britten's sensibility on a number of levels.  It deals with several recurring subjects - children, innocence, death and corruption - that can be found in the composer's most famous works. If Britten's final opera has however never achieved the same recognition or popularity as his masterful treatment of those themes in Peter Grimes and The Turn of the Screw, it's probably less to do with the strength of the musical composition itself - which is among Britten's most adventurous and powerful - as much as the difficulty of presenting the awkward subject matter and the dark undercurrents found in Mann's short novella in an accessible way to a modern audience.

On a personal level, Death in Venice deals with some less comfortable private matters that Britten himself struggled with in regards to his homosexuality and his attraction to young boys. Perhaps more significantly, or at least deeply connected to these issues, the work also deals with the question of the nature of the artist in the later stages of his life. In the figure of writer Gustav von Aschenbach, Britten would surely have recognised the nature of the artist's struggles with his darker impulses, the line between maintaining order and finding freedom of expression, the need to keep some matters private and make other personal observations public, the recognition of what is an elevated thought and what is derived from a basic urge. All the while Britten, like Aschenbach, has to deal with ordinary human struggles with illness, age, and with the fear of being isolated or set apart from other people.

Thomas Mann's extraordinarily rich work then is fully comprehended by Britten and brought across into musical terms with remarkable facility and precision. The libretto, by Myfanwy Piper, captures the detail and essence of the work while Britten's music makes it come alive and feel real, allowing us to sympathise with the elderly writer's queasy fascination for a beautiful young boy observed on the Lido beach in Venice. The attraction is more than just lustful, but is inspired by the love of youth itself. As a writer, Aschenbach recognises however that there is something of a self-destructive urge in his abandoning himself to the passions stirred up by the Polish boy, Tadzio, whom he observes playing with his brothers and sister, but never actually approaches.

Already on his way to his hotel in Venice through an encounter with Apollo and Dionysus and in his crossing the Styx on a "coffin black" gondola, the elderly writer already has an awareness that his travelling entails a certain amount of self-exploration, a "sudden desire for the unknown" that involves breaking down his formerly rigid position on simplicity of beauty and form. Ordered, stylised and measured, he feels the need to give himself up to something freer, something closer to purity and perfection that can only be achieved through a recognition of the darker side of perfection. "To exist in it and of it", to live it and make it more than merely words on a page.

Such self-knowledge however only comes in old age from the experience of a life lived, and that there is a bitter cruelty or irony when this is confronted with the beauty and perfection of blithely ignorant youth. In youth there is everything that one aspires to enjoy, but the knowledge only comes when one has lost it and can never regain it. There's a fatal attraction then in what this old man feels for the young boy, a idealised desire to possess what one cannot have, a sincere wish to see this wonder of youth and beauty elevated and worshipped, but also a horror at the possibility of his own corruption, sickness and old age corrupting it.

Words can only take this description of Aschenbach's sentiments so far, and Piper's libretto achieves this extremely well, but Britten's extraordinary music takes our understanding for it much further and allows those other unspoken and undignified sentiments to be expressed. Most obviously there are Eastern references in the music and the instrumentation that speak of the Sirocco conflating it with Aschenbach's old age, sickness and corruption, but the musical language and small-scale, chamber-like structure finds other unconventional means of expression, including a counter-tenor to sing Apollo and using a dancer instead of a singer for Tadzio.

Small-scale and intimate it may be, but the sweep of the ideas expounded requires a much bigger canvas, and that presents certain challenges for the theatrical presentation of the work.  Deborah Warner's critically acclaimed production for the English National Opera with Tom Pye's inventive set designs achieve that quite brilliantly. There's an openness and simplicity to the designs that works with the text of the libretto without over-illustrating it, creating the mood and atmosphere of Venice through the use of colour, light and silhouettes with imagery suggesting water and skies. It looks ravishingly beautiful as well as suggesting an openness of scale. The space also allows room for the ballet dancers to express all that youthful freedom and ambiguity that is contained within the figure of Tadzio, or projected upon him by Aschenbach.

A lot then evidently rests on this first-person perspective of Aschenbach and it could hardly be better expressed than John Graham-Hall's performance here. Seen recently on DVD in a vivid and fearless performance of Britten's Peter Grimes, Graham-Hall's light tenor, beautiful in timbre and enunciation, is also perfectly suited to the character of Gustav von Aschenbach. In an interview made during the live television broadcast of this performance, the singer stated that despite the challenges of being the centre of the entire work and singing on-stage for a large part of the opera, the quality of Britten's writing makes the performance easy. He may be right, but there's more to it than he modestly suggests. It's a role that requires commitment and sensitivity to the variations of tone in Aschenbach's descent from order to chaos, and Graham-Hall's demeanour from sophisticated traveller to crumpled madman is perfectly judged and delicately phrased throughout.

English National Opera have really only recently embraced the idea of filming, broadcasting and releasing productions for the cinema and DVD, and if this production is anything to go by, we've a lot to look forward to in future projects. On Blu-ray this looks and sounds outstanding. The image quality is crisp and captures this magnificent, colourful production of Death in Venice beautifully. It might be a little to clinically perfect for some even. The audio tracks are also impressive, both LPCM 2.0 and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 crystal clear, revealing all the detail of Britten's unconventional instrumentation. You can hear every single instrument and note in the superbly balanced mix and the quality and clarity of the singing. There are no extra features on the disc other than a Cast Gallery, but the booklet contains an essay and an outline synopsis of the 17 scenes. Subtitles are English, French, German and Korean only.

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Offenbach - La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein

Jacques Offenbach - La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège - 2013

Cyril Englebert, Stefano Mazzonis Di Pralafera, Patricia Fernandez, Sébastien Droy, Lionel Lhote, Sophie Junker, Jean-Philippe Corre, Giovanni Iovino, Patrick Delcour, Roger Joakim

Culturebox Live Internet Streaming - 27 December 2013

With their witty entertaining comic plots and an abundance of catchy tunes, it's easy to underestimate the cleverness of Jacques Offenbach's popular operettas. It's also easy to overlook the historical relevance of the works and the daring of the satire contained in them. A raucous opéra bouffe written for the Paris Exhibition of 1867 just three years before the Franco-Prussian war, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein for example not only played to the crowned heads of Europe - Napoleon III, Alexander II, the Emperor Franz-Joseph of Austria and Otto von Bismark of Prussia among them - but Offenbach's comic operetta even made fun of them in this outrageous military satire.

Historical context aside, Offenbach's works are still capable today of striking home with contemporary relevance. There's no doubt much that could be made here of a war being manufactured by an influential Baron just so that a Duchess can amuse herself organising her own military regiment, causing havoc in the ranks in the process by promoting her favourite above those with merited rank. This however is not a route followed by the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège, the company's Artistic Director Stefano Mazzonis Di Pralafera preferring to show that La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein is above all else a fine example of the kind of comic entertainment that Offenbach excelled in producing. Moving far away not only from the historical context of the work but also significantly rewriting characters and situations, the war in this version of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein is a kind of Masterchef competition.

Here, in the Opéra Royal de Wallonie production then, Fritz is a humble dishwasher in the kitchen of a restaurant owned managed by Grand Duchess of Gérolstein. The Duchess does indeed organise her kitchen like a military operation and taking something of a fancy to the handsome dishwasher, promotes him to super-chef over the head of Chief Chef Boum. Boum is outraged and goes into competition working for a rival restaurant, but Prince Paul - recast here as the restaurant sommelier - is also extremely put out, since he's been trying to get the Duchess to marry him for ages. Fritz is a bit dumb however and doesn't realise the nature of the Duchess' intentions, so when he prepares to marry his beloved Wanda, the Duchess joins the aggrieved conspirators who are planning to launch a counter-attack against the new superchef who has cunningly won the 'Guerre des Chefs' competition through the use of strong alcohol.

There's evidently then quite a bit of rewriting here of Henry Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy's libretto for Offenbach's comedy, and it extends beyond the spoken dialogue sections through to the songs as well. It certainly stretches the intentions of the original material and dilutes the satire of the kind of situations and personal resentments that can lead to war and have much more serious consequences. Arguably however, particularly since there's not much to be gained nowadays from satirising the Franco-Prussian war, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein must work primarily as a comedy. Despite the cleverness of a concept that is ripe for satire - presumably TV cookery shows and competitions are as popular in Belgium as they are in the UK - and some witty modern touches that get a laugh (recasting Baron Grog as Monsieur Redbul, for example), it doesn't quite come across as all that funny however without the bite of the military satire.

As it stands however, the Opéra Royal de Wallonie production of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein is nonetheless deliciously light and entertaining. The production design is stylish in the way that is typical of how Stefano Mazzonis Di Pralafera treats such opéra comique material. Considerable attention is paid to developing distinct characters and personalities, good use is made of the space of the stage, with plenty of comic interplay, background gags and dancers providing constant movement and visual entertainment. With all the jaunty Offenbach melodies, boosted here with military-like marches, it's all entirely in keeping with the nature of the work and there's never a dull moment. There's even a 'Can-Can' thrown in for good measure at the end here.

There's also a special kind of singing required for opéra comique that requires deft performers capable of good comic interplay and timing, as well as a certain fleetness and brightness for the delivery of the often rapid-fire dialogue and fast rhythms. Sébastien Droy handles this all marvellously as the dumb but likeable Fritz, his exchanges with Boum, the Duchess and Wanda are all spot on. Patricia Fernandez is a little bit breathless and unsteady in the face of such challenges and struggles through the last act, but she has loads of personality as the Grande-Duchesse and carries the role well. The supporting roles are hard to fault with good turns from Giovanni Iovino as the speech-impaired Paul, Lionel Lhote as the self-important Boum and from Sophie Junker as a bright and vivacious Wanda.

The Opéra Royal de Wallonie production of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein was streamed live on 27th December 2013 and is still available for viewing on the Culturebox website for France Television. There are no region restrictions but the subtitles are in French only.  They do however they extend to the revised spoken dialogue as well as the "tunes".