Tuesday 29 April 2014

Purcell - King Arthur (Sestina - Belfast 2014)

Henry Purcell - King Arthur

Sestina, Belfast, 2014

Mark Chambers, Thomas Guthrie, Sinead O'Kelly, Aaron O'Hare, Michael Bell, Emer Acton, Caroline Jones, Brian McAlea, Fiona Flynn, Matthew Keighley, Laura Lamph, David Lee, Laura McFall, Joseph Zubier, David Walsh, Michael Hong

Ulster Museum, Belfast - 25 April 2014

Putting on a performance of an opera that is over 300 years old presents a number of challenges for any company, so the achievement of Sestina's quite stunning one-off Belfast performance of Purcell's King Arthur is all the more impressive. Created by Paul McCreesh and led by Mark Chambers, Sestina's aim is to train and give experience to young singers on historically informed productions of Baroque music. There's surely no better way to test and display the qualities of young voices working in harmony than to set them to a piece by Monteverdi or Purcell.

No better way, but a challenging one nonetheless. To set and exposing a voice like a jewel in a crown as these works do, there needs to be considerable thought given over to the nature of the work itself and finding the best means of presenting it to a modern audience. Purcell's music provides the most glorious opportunities for the voice, but a work like King Arthur, a 'dramatick opera' or semi-opera written by the composer in 1791, comes with a great deal of historical baggage and period conventions that could be confusing to a present-day audience. A way must be found to modernise the work without destroying the integrity of the work and its arrangements.

In the case of King Arthur, John Dryden's drama (as a semi-opera, the work is essentially a drama with music and songs) was written as a patriotic call-to-arms and a celebration of the commercial productivity of the British Isles. As such it is tied up very much with the sentiments of the day, originally intended to celebrate the royal court, but eventually reworked to inspire, rouse and entertain a paying public. This has the benefit then, as far as Sestina and the general public of today are concerned, of being filled with all the variety and richness of Purcell's writing and experience, making it still very much a thrilling and engaging piece of music, if not quite so accessible as a drama.

How then do you retain that vibrancy and retain a meaningful context for King Arthur without it being buried in the obscure language and historical references of Dryden's drama? Thomas Guthrie's production finds an almost ideal solution, and one that is of particular topical interest on the occasion of its centenary year, in the trenches of the Great War. It's hard to visualise how the battles between the Britons and Saxons might have played out, or indeed really take-in Dryden and Purcell's allegories for their time, but the war in the trenches brings with it a more relatable sense of the savagery and horrors of traditional warfare. It also provides a wider perspective on human nature with considerable resonance for how it affected the ordinary people who fought in it and the profound impact it had back home on British society.

Guthrie's setting doesn't follow any straightforward narrative that mirrors Dryden's dramatic line, but it manages to fit in very well with the sentiments expressed in the songs that are the true heart of Purcell's King Arthur. Using reference works ('In Parenthesis' by David Jones) and original letters from soldiers on the front-line, Sestina's production presents an informed view of the war from the perspective of three couples in a way that covers the full richness and variety of Purcell's writing. One of the couples is a Major and his wife, the other is a Private and his young bride, while the third offers a necessarily more abstract and all-encompassing view of the situation on the front by using dancers to portray a soldier and a nurse.

This works wonderfully, capturing the very real sentiments expressed in the music and in the words of the libretto, from the necessity of building up one's courage to face unknown dangers and horrors, to the physical agony endured in extreme conditions during war. It opens this up to deal with the pain felt by ordinary people - on the front and at home - separated from and in many cases losing the ones they love. Even in the best of times, in moments of shared friendship, companionship, love and small victories, those feelings have a fragile hold and are tempered by the greater reality, and this is expressed simply, beautifully and touchingly in the gorgeous arrangements and in the singing.

At times, the match to the original work is very well achieved. The troops here are not laid astray on the battlefield by Sirens of mythology, but by the shock of bombardment and the terror of very real night-time horrors, yet even here, they are able to relate this to WWI supernatural legends like the Angel of Mons. Scenes too such as the famous Frost Scene also take on a suitably harrowing aspect as snow falls on the battlefields, but considerable attention is clearly paid elsewhere to how the instruments work specifically with the voices to create nuance of mood. There's some wonderful work from Sestina here, using period instruments, particularly with Paula Chateauneuf on Archlute, David Adams on harpsichord and Jonny Byers on cello, holding down the all-important basso continuo.

Every note rang out true within the acoustic of the open high ceiling of the atrium of the Ulster Museum. The fact that there was considerable reverb was evident when a solo voice was singing, enhancing the choral work and the ensemble playing, but also revealing the incredible beauty of each instrument as well as the beautiful timbre and harmonising of the voices. Thomas Guthrie performed as narrator and sung with a fine tenor voice as Private Bell, but the purity of tone of the young singers was astonishing and perfectly suited to the nature of the work. Aaron O'Hare's delicate soft baritone brought added poignancy to a fallen soldier in the first half of the performance while Sinéad O'Kelly's soaring soprano mustered up the strength of soldiers and chorus through the rousing drinking-songs in the post-interval section. The harmonised singing of Emer Acton and Caroline Jones was also breathtakingly good, but typical of the superb management and coaching of voices across the board here.

The voices and how they interact and harmonise with the musical instruments is of vital importance then, and that's managed extremely well by musical director Mark Chambers. In such a work, where improvisation and interpretation plays no small part, he has to be constantly alert to mood and situation and ensure that it comes together as it should, and that includes reacting to the unusual acoustics of the venue. The unconventional location also presented some difficulties for seating placement and enabling stage entrances and exits, but it proved to be a beautifully intimate setting that not only allowed the audience the opportunity to experience the beauty of a small Baroque orchestra, but to feel genuinely engaged in the experience.

Saturday 26 April 2014

Puccini - Madama Butterfly (Hamburg 2012 - Blu-ray)

Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Staatsoper Hamburg, 2012

Alexander Joel, Vincent Boussard, Alexia Voulgaridou, Christina Damian, Ida Aldrian, Teodor Ilincal, Lauri Vascar, Jürgen Scaher, Viktor Rud, Jongmin Park, Thomas Florio

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

One thing I've noticed about the  few opera productions I've seen by Vincent Boussard (La Finta Giardiniera, La Favorite), other than the fact that he likes reflective stages, is that he manages to do a lot with very little, with minimalist stagings that are eye-catching and give the impression of being more elaborate. There are some places where this approach works better than others, and it's usually when the music and the libretto of the operas in question are strong enough to stand on their own. Madama Butterfly is certainly a work that fits into that category, but it nevertheless usually comes with a lot of additional stage baggage and stereotypical imagery that borders on kitsch.  Can Madama Butterfly survive without cherry blossoms, silk kimonos and bamboo houses with paper screens?

Boussard finds a way to retain the essence of this imagery, but presents it in a relatively minimalist fashion in this Hamburg production of Madama Butterfly, and he does so without losing anything of the exotic spectacle. That much is essential in as far as it presents the idealised beauty and perfection of an arranged marriage that underneath isn't quite as ideal as it appears on the surface. That is something that Boussard takes as the basis for the overall concept here and by and large it works without distorting the intent of the work, but there are also one or two interpretative twists here that everyone might not agree work as well or even consider necessary.

The costumes, by Christian Lacroix, look stylised traditional, with obis and big hats, although reflecting Cio-Cio-San's adoption of American ways she wears jeans and a sweatshirt for Act II. In terms of the set design itself however, this Madama Butterfly looks every bit as minimalistically oriental and yet subtly elegant as it ought to do. Largely, the set for the entire three acts is based around a spiral staircase at the centre of the stage, with only large panels behind. These however slide back to open up to the seasons and the passage of the day outside, as well as being used for off-stage locations for Madama Butterfly and Suzuki to retire to at significant points. It's very much an 'interior' design then and functional for the purposes of the work, but a subtle play of light and colour suggests other moods and situations.

If it's all about establishing the essential mood for each scene, you could say that Boussard's production is a little over-elaborate in its use of colour. More than just reflecting the time of day or the seasons, the lighting here changes from moment to moment with purple and yellow washes adjusted by bold reds and greens, saturating the stage like a scene from a Wong Kar-wai movie. Whether Puccini's rich scoring and balance of moods needs that kind emphasis is debatable and a matter of taste, but there's no doubt that the set and lighting follows and relates closely to those rapid switches between one extreme emotion and another.

It's this idea of extremes, of being bathed in an image of perfection and an ideal, that lies at the heart of Madama Butterfly. The exotic of the Oriental appeals to US Navy Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. His marriage to a young 15 year-old Japanese girl something of a dream in which he succumbs to the illusion of a perfect marriage to a submissive and attentive wife for a brief period before having to deal with the reality back home. For Cio-Cio-San, the fantasy is more deep-rooted and necessary to escape from an otherwise terrible fate as a geisha, a prostitute or bound to a loveless marriage in the Japanese style.

This is why Cio-Cio-San buys into her husband's American lifestyle with the Western ideal of it being a marriage based on love. She can't afford to consider the event, even after three years absence, the Pinkerton will not return. Her illusions are all crystallised in her centrepiece aria 'Un bel di vedremo', where every detail and every gesture of their joyful reunion is perfectly rehearsed in her mind. Those hopes are confounded if not entirely shattered in the very next scene with the Consul bringing a letter with news from Pinkerton, since Cio-Cio-San is unwilling to admit the intent of the words and Sharpless can't quite bring himself to deliver them.

This creates a kind of dramatic tension between two different kinds of reality that Puccini, with his basis in verismo, vividly depicts. The romantic illusions that sustain both Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton are just as "real" to them as reality, and they consequently pack a full emotional punch as they are elaborated and just as quickly punctured in the next scene. More than just holding a suspension between illusions and reality however, Madama Butterfly likewise swings between the difference between male and female sensibilities, as well as between the clash of cultures and it sustains a similar weighted tension between them all.

Boussard's production, mood and lighting, follows these developments very closely but it leads the director to make a few decisions that don't perhaps hold up as well. One can understand how Cio-Cio-San can make a little shrine to her delusions - a letter, a whisky glass and a bottle of liquor - but whether those should be seen as extending to their child is another matter. It's clear from the libretto that the child is real, but Boussard muddies the issue by not having a real child on the stage, but making use of a large doll instead. He also takes the final death scene off-stage, which is a brave decision, but there's no denying that it does rob the conclusion of some of its intended emotional impact.

If the intention is to let the strength of the music and the singing speak for itself, at least the Hamburg production has some fine singers who are capable of giving the work a full and nuanced expression. It's absolutely essential that you believe in these characters that are so well written by Puccini (in spite of some stereotypes), and if sung well they work. They work here. Freed from the usual mannerisms, Alexia Voulgaridou is able to emotionally delve into the work anew and sings wonderfully and with tremendous force. It's a riveting performance. Teodor Ilincal is a lyrical tenor in the classic traditional mould, his B.F. Pinkerton naive and romantic rather than exploitative and insensitive. Christina Damian's Suzuki is also very fine and adds considerably to the overall quality of this production. As too does the excellent account of the work by the Hamburg Philharmonic conducted by Alexander Joel.

On Blu-ray, the video transfer is very good. It looks a little softer than most, mainly on account of the colour saturation, but the colour reproduction and the beauty of the set is impressive. There's only one audio track on this release, a PCM stereo track, but it's strong and gives a good account of the singing and the orchestration. Other than trailers, there are no extra features on the BD, but the booklet comes with an interview with Vincent Boussard that discusses his approach to the work. Region-free, subtitles on the release are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean.

Thursday 24 April 2014

Strauss - Salome (Bologna 2010 - Blu-ray)

Richard Strauss - Salome

Teatro Comunale di Bologna, 2010

Nicola Luisotti, Gabriele Lavia, Erika Sunnegårdh, Mark S. Doss, Robert Brubaker, Dalia Schaechter, Mark Milhofer, Nora Sourouzian, Gabriele Mangione, Paolo Cauteruccio, Dario Di Vietri

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

It may be a little unfair on the composer of Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Frau ohne Schatten, but Richard Strauss's critical reputation and musical influence on the modern opera probably rests more on his earlier stark, expressionist one-act tone-poem operas Salome and Elektra. In the year when the composer's 150th anniversary is being celebrated, there's no doubt that those other works will receive renewed critical attention and re-evaluation, but for sheer visceral impact, none of them can match these two early masterpieces.

Although Strauss would abandon his harsh experiments with the form after these two extraordinary works, there's no denying the profound influence these boundary-pushing works would have on atonality and serialism in music and the direction of opera in the 20th century. I don't think Strauss entirely abandoned the use of dissonance either when it could be used for effect in his neo-Romantic works, and by the same token, it's also possible to recognise the sweep of high Romanticism in the crushing crescendos of those highly charged mental landscapes of Elektra and Salome.

Salome in particular, as the composer's first foray into this new and unexplored territory, still has that impact of shock and awe in the sheer force of its musical expression. Undoubtedly, the method developed by Richard Strauss was a direct response to Oscar Wilde's deliciously decadent play that was the source for Hedwig Lachmann's libretto for the opera. Strauss aligns the music to the text with unerring precision for its mood, drama and psychological content, creating a work of extraordinary contrasts in its extreme love/hate relationships.

On the one side you have the lush orchestration for the flowery language and rapturous declarations of Salome's appeals to Jochanaan, and on the other you have the harsh dissonance that clashes with the vicious barbs she throws at him when those advances are rejected. Similarly, there is the lush exotic Eastern-influenced orchestration of Salome's dance that nonetheless carries a faintly disturbing undertone for how it is being enjoyed by her step-father, Herod. Even John the Baptist's auguries and admonitions have a fanatical flavour behind them that is reflected brilliantly in Strauss' music and contrasted strongly with the bickering of the Jews and the behaviour of Herod and Herodias.

In that respect, Salome is much more a product of the time of its creation than it is a biblical story, with there being a strong influence of late 19th to turn-of-the-20th-century Viennese philosophical and psychoanalytical thought, and even a measure of fin-de-siècle decadence. And it's perhaps with that in mind that Gabriele Lavia updates the period of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna production to Strauss' time, with soldiers wearing period military uniforms with helmets and lances, and Salome looking like she stepped out of the ballroom from a production of Arabella.

Salome doesn't appear to gain anything though this updating, but it looks good and matches the dark mood of the piece well. The stage for the most part remains stark and bare, the floor of Herod's palace a jagged stepping of shattered red marble. Jochanaan is hauled up out of a crack in the floor enchained and in a cage. It's simple and effective, the darkness of the night time scenes gradually brightening as events unfold. Other than the addition of a sofa for Herod, the only other real prop is a large magnifying glass that amplifies the emotional and erotic tension that develops. The bringing of the head of Jochanaan is handled differently, with a large stone monumental head arising out of the stage, but alongside the hanging decapitated body (and Strauss's score) it is still a suitably and floridly gruesome conclusion.

Musically, it's initially hard to distinguish the detail in the somewhat echoing sound mixes, but Nichola Luisotti seems bring out that important balance between the lush orchestration and the cutting edge of the rising dissonance. It's played and sung with wonderfully compelling fluidity, gripping you and holding you right through to the conclusion that should always leave you semi-stunned and breathless. That's certainly achieved here.

The singing is clear, powerful and resonant across the board here. Everyone sings with perfect clarity, strong declamation, but with fine control of expression and diction. Evidently, much relies on the cast in the roles of Salome and Jochanaan, and those are very well covered here. Erika Sunnegårdh has strong presence as Salome, handling the singing challenges of the role and fitting well within the nature of the production. Mark S. Doss is a suitably grave, deeply-intoned Jochanaan, but with superb clarity and force of expression. The fact that we also have a strong Herod in Robert Brubaker and an impressive Heriodias as well with Dalia Schaechter is a bonus.

The Blu-ray from Arthaus looks terrific on a BD25, region-free disc. The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 surround track tends to give more space to the ambience with the result that it sounds a bit indistinct and echoing in places. The LPCM 2.0 track is 'bright' but more focussed and sounds better through headphones. There are no extra features other than trailers for other releases. Subtitles are in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

Rameau - Les Indes Galantes (Bordeaux, 2014 - Webcast)

Jean-Philippe Rameau - Les Indes Galantes

L'Opéra National de Bordeaux, 2014

Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques, Laura Scozzi, Amel Brahim Djelloul, Benoît Arnould, Eugénie Warnier, Olivera Topalovic, Judith van Wanroij, Vittorio Prato, Anders Dahlin, Nathan Berg, Thomas Dolié

Medici.tv, Culturebox Live Internet Streaming - 27 February 2014

A year after the bicentenaries of Wagner and Verdi and the centenary of Britten, it's not difficult to notice that 2014 marks a few other significant anniversaries in Richard Strauss 150 and Gluck 300. There is however another major composer whose anniversary will probably not receive as much attention and that is Jean-Philippe Rameau, who died 250 years ago in 1764. In France however, you can expect a little more fuss will be made of the successor to Lully at the Royal Court in Versailles, a composer who wrote several important treatises on harmony, and one of the greatest composers of the great French tradition of the tragédie-lyrique.

L'Opéra National de Bordeaux have gone for something on the lighter side of Rameau, but the opéra-ballet Les Indes Galantes is nevertheless a hugely challenging work to stage. Done right - and it's not performed very often - it can be just as dazzling and entertaining as Rameau's more famous pieces. That much was demonstrated by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants who put on a spectacular presentation of the work directed by Andrei Serban for the Paris Opera in 1999 (recorded for DVD in 2003). The Bordeaux production, directed and choreographed by Laura Scozzi, takes a very different approach from the Paris production, but it's no less dazzling an exhibition of the supreme beauty and majesty of Jean-Philippe Rameau's music.

Les Indes Galantes might be relatively light entertainment, but made up of five separate short pieces (a prologue and four entrées), it presents certain challenges for a director who wants to make something more of them. Laura Scozzi not only wants to make the little divertissements entertaining and interconnected (which is a challenge in itself), but in the year of the anniversary of Rameau, she clearly wants to prove that the composer still has a place in the modern world. Andrei Serban's production for Paris shows that this Rameau opera can be handled respectfully and still be highly entertaining for a modern audience, but for the purpose of Scozzi's intentions, Les Indes Galantes not only has to be entertaining, it has to also needs to be relevant.

Updating Baroque opera can often be controversial, and there's no question that the Bordeaux production is really going to challenge some traditional opera-goers. That's immediately evident from the Prologue, which is set in a Garden of Eden and features ten completely naked dancers prancing joyfully around for almost 30 minutes. Once you get past the shock of it, it proves however to be a perfect way to introduce the work, representing a more innocent age. Towards the end of the prologue however, the outside modern world starts to intrude, the naked Adams are dressed in suits and work overalls, the Eves are left behind to deal with domestic matters. Innocence has been defiled, and the three cupids set out exploring the impact this has had on love in the modern world. Love still exists in these far-flung places, but Cupid's arrow is less sure in its aim now, and the three love tourists, passing through airport security with holiday souvenirs, jetting through time and space, find a very different kind of world from the one celebrated 300 years ago by Rameau.

On the other hand, a closer examination of the situations in Rameau's four entrées show that perhaps things aren't all that different. The 1st Entrée, Le Turc généreux, is the familiar operatic situation of a Turkish pasha abducting a white woman, updated here to a more modern context of piracy on the high seas and the arrival of refugees on hostile shores. The 2nd Entrée, Les Incas de Pérou, updates the forbidden love of an Inca Princess for Spanish conquistador to the love of a village girl for a wealthy tourist, with the twist that the girl is the daughter of a South American drug baron and the tourist an undercover agent for the drug enforcement agency. I don't think Rameau had helicopter raids and grenade battles in mind for this section, but it works perfectly with the theme and the music.

The rationale for Scozzi's updatings becomes clearer in the 3rd and 4th Entrées. Set in Persia, Fatime is in love with Tacmes in Les Fleurs but, jealous of how he responds to Atalide, she disguises herself as a man. In the context of modern-day Persia/Iran - all bikinis and burqas - it becomes a particularly hard-hitting indictment of the degradation, abuse and mistreatment of women in society. It's a theme that Scozzi recognises is not just an anachronism from Rameau's time, but that it stems right back to the Garden of Eden in the Prologue and continues right through to the present day.

That's also how the 4th Entrée, Les Sauvages, plays out in its modern-day America setting where Zima is torn between two suitors. The director cleverly shows that choice in the context of the place of women in capitalist society as being a choice between being a goddess in the kitchen and a slut in the bedroom. Zima however dumps them both and goes for an environmental warrior saving the forests (respect for nature versus the exploiting of the world's resources yet another connecting theme in this multi-layered production).

None of this in any way negates or distorts the intention or indeed a word of the original libretto. It's actually a highly imaginative and intelligent response to the work that does indeed have the desired impact. Les Indes Galantes is not just some period piece and Rameau is not just a historical composer, but rather Scozzi's production shows that the opera-ballet can not only be entertaining, but also relatable and meaningful to an audience in the present day. That's quite an achievement.

Not only is the concept viable and perfectly structured, ending with the hope of a return to Eden and paradise regained, but the staging throughout is inventive and highly entertaining. It's a massive undertaking to provide a different set for each entrée and keep the whole work flowing, but Natascha Leguen de Kerneizon's sets are almost impossibly elaborate and beautiful. And although there's a serious message here, the intention to entertain is not forgotten, the director also choreographing the ballet sections, using dance and humorous pantomimes (usually involving the three cupids, wonderfully played by actors), connecting it all with projections. Attention to the music and matching the situations perfectly to it proves that Les Indes Galantes can be capable of expressing truth and real human sentiments even within these humorous little escapades. 

Another vital ingredient in the production, and one that is in very safe and experienced hands, is the musical direction of Christophe Rousset and the playing of his Talens Lyriques orchestra. This is a buoyant, vivid, exciting performance, attuned to the rhythms of the work with an ability to express a much wider range of situations and sentiments than you would think. The Bordeaux production doesn't have the luxury of the Paris production's A-list casting, making use of a smaller troupe of singers who play multiple roles across the five stories. They are light but sweet of voice, and carry the musical expression of the works perfectly, clearly well-coached by Rousset.

Considerable thought and ingenuity has gone into this - to say nothing of expense - on the part of all involved, but it's to the benefit of the production and the concept as a whole. I really can't over-emphasise how impressed I was with the cleverness of the concept, the creativity and the imagination of Scozzi's Bordeaux production, and the fact that it's all done to serve Rameau and take his magnificent work deservedly into the 21st century.

The Bordeaux production of Les Indes Galantes can be viewed in its entirety for free via on-line streaming on the Medici.tv and Culturebox (until 26/08/14) websites.

Thursday 17 April 2014

Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Opéra Bastille - Paris 2014)

Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Opéra National de Paris, 2014

Philippe Jordan, Peter Sellars, Bill Viola, Robert Dean Smith, Franz Josef Selig, Violeta Urmana, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Janina Baechle, Raimund Nolte, Pavol Breslik, Piotr Kumon

Opéra Bastille, Paris - 8 April 2014

First produced in 2005, Peter Sellars and Bill Viola's controversial production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde is characteristic of the approach that Gérard Mortier was keen to introduce during his tenure as director of the Opéra National de Paris. With the death of Mortier earlier this year, this scheduled première of the 2014 revival of Tristan und Isolde - marked with a minute's silence before the performance - turned out to be a powerful reminder of why Mortier was such an important a figure in the world of opera. His sense of adventure in his efforts to bring opera up to date and make it relevant to a new modern audience will be greatly missed.

Initially thought impossible to perform, Tristan und Isolde remains one of the most challenging works in the entire opera repertoire. Consequently, it demands a challenging response from any director and it should also still challenge an audience. Lacking much in the way of conventional drama, with long passages of obscure monologues and imagery influenced by the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Eastern mysticism, Tristan und Isolde is less of a traditional opera than a vast symphonic poem that stretches the limits of an orchestra and singers, as well as the endurance of the audience. Mortier recognised that when he looked beyond the opera world for talent in the art world capable of thinking beyond the confines of traditional opera staging, employing experimental theatre companies (La Fura dels Baus), arthouse film directors (Michael Haneke), and modern artists like video installation artist Bill Viola.

Pairing Viola with Peter Sellars - a more experienced opera director with a very definite tendency to produce experimental visions of familiar works - is one of the most inspired collaborations instigated by Mortier. Engaging a visual artist, a modern artist working in a very new medium, to respond to the extraordinary music and philosophy of Richard Wagner is likely to lead to a very creative and unique vision for the work. Whether they manage to delve into and illuminate those mysteries inherent in the work, or whether the video projections merely illustrate them and give them a visual form, Bill Viola's vision of Tristan und Isolde is nonetheless a distinctive and individualistic response to a monumental piece of music-drama.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, considering where his own areas of interest and those of Wagner coincide, Viola's imagery focuses very much on the contrasts and opposing imagery that is evoked by the two lovers throughout. Light and dark, fire and water, day and night, life and death - these divisions characterise the nature of the love of Tristan und Isolde (divisions that can only be resolved in the fusion of love and death), and they form the basis of Viola's slow-motion long-take video projections. It's a work of extremes, and those extremes are visualised in scenes featuring water in a number of forms (from seas and pools down to basins and jugs of water) and in scenes of fire (from blazing infernos down to rows of little flames on an array of candles).

The imagery is however is a little more complex than the use of extreme states would suggest. There are figures in nearly every scene, and the imagery must be seen to be relating to them. It makes sense that water would feature heavily in the sea passage of Act I where Isolde is being conveyed by Tristan to be the wife of King Marke of Cornwall, and it's duly represented in footage of raging seas and crashing waves. It's also a liquid, a magic potion that transforms or reveals the true nature of the feelings between the Irish Princess her captor. Viola's videos depict a surrogate Tristan and Isolde undergoing a kind of purification, stripped of their garments and inhibitions, plunged into basins, emerging out of pools, showered by attendants with jugs of water.

Act II, the secret encounter of Tristan und Isolde and their discovery by King Marke and Merlot, is by contrast land-based and Viola's approach is a little more abstract. The same two figures still feature prominently and interact with the imagery, but here they are exposed to the fire of passion. That might sound a little clichéd, but there's little that is obvious in the video installations which shows torches in woods, a slow dawning sunrise, the figure of the man approaching and wading through a blazing fire, the woman lighting small tea candles one by one. This is love as an exploration beyond the boundaries of the self, but still at this stage self-contained. Act III's resolution of course pushes those extremes even further and attempts to reconcile them through death or transcendence, and Viola's hypnotic imagery likewise supports the musical epiphany of Wagner's extraordinary music.

Arguably there's still something of a disconnect between the video and the stage, or at least an unfavourable imbalance. One would think that the singers on the stage should be the principal focus for the personification of the characters, but that's not physically possible of course. Expecting seasoned opera singers to be involved in such physical challenges as pacing through blazing fires, plunging in slow motion into and out of water is clearly out of the question, particularly when the singers have more than enough to deal with simply singing the roles. With the playing out of whatever drama there is taking place on screens, this does actually benefit the singers in that it leaves them free to focus on the expression required by these demanding roles.

That's not to say that the singers are necessarily detached from the dramatic playing. It's certainly very much simplified, the stage black, with nothing but a square low platform to lie upon occasionally. Neither Robert Dean Smith nor Violeta Urmana are great actors, but they don't need to be here; the music and the imagery should convey much of what they are singing. It doesn't stop them from trying though. They are opera singers after all and have experience singing these roles, so it's inevitable that they are going to bring some of their own experience to how the passions are expressed. Viola's imagery however at least takes some of the pressure off trying to push to those near-impossible extremes at the edges of human passion.

There's little evidence then of the input of Peter Sellars and perhaps less need for it in this production, but telling little details count. Marke and Merlot, for example, show up early on one or two occasions in Act II, witnessing the lovers in flagrante, but such is the swirl of passions, visualised on the screens and equally hypnotising the viewer, that Tristan and Isolde are entirely oblivious to the presence of anyone else. Just so we are aware that there is an outside world out there, Sellars also extends the drama occasionally out into the theatre, with choruses exploding from left, right and to the back of the amphitheatre, with the Young Seaman echoing off-stage or from one of the Bastille's theatre boxes. It's a surround-sound experience, enhanced all the more by an extraordinarily beautiful account of the work by the orchestra under Philippe Jordan. It has a sweepingly romantic force, pushing those extremes, yet mindful of the little details and of the need to bring them together.

I've seen Robert Dean Smith sing Tristan a few times now, and he just keeps getting better. He's not the most charismatic Tristan and he doesn't have much to offer in the way of acting, falling back on his own routine, but my admiration goes out to anyone who can sing Act III Tristan as well as Smith does here. Violeta Urmana is not always the most consistent singing Verdi and her high end can be a little strained, but it does seem Wagner might be more the forte for her formerly mezzo-soprano voice. There are still a few high notes that don't come out terribly pleasantly, but she sailed through the Liebestod and demonstrated some beautiful phrasing elsewhere. Overall we had good strong singers as Tristan and Isolde here.

We also had a superb King Marke in Franz-Josef Selig. His singing and phrasing were extraordinarily good, truly anguished in his betrayal by Tristan but dignified in his grief. Janina Baechle likewise was a solid and reliable Brangäne, attentive to the moods and the drama with a clear enunciation and expression. Jochen Schmeckenbecher buckled a little in one or two places but was nonetheless a strong and at times impressive Kurwenal. It was a surprise to see Pavol Breslik stand in as a last-minute replacement for the smaller parts of the Shepherd and Young Seaman, but he took this small step into the Wagnerian repertoire well, albeit mostly off-stage, with a forceful and lyrical delivery.

When you have as strong a cast as this, with a production based around Bill Viola's visuals, Peter Sellars' direction and Jordan's handling of the orchestra, it's a powerful reminder of how challenging and ground-breaking a work Tristan und Isolde still is. It's surprising however that, judging by the booing of Viola at the curtain call by a small minority of people, some supposedly intelligent Paris opera goers can't recognise a corresponding challenging, ground-breaking or at least sincere effort to respond to Wagner's intentions. Clearly, we're going to miss Gérard Mortier more than we thought.

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri (Palais Garnier - Paris 2014)

Gioachino Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri

Opéra National de Paris, 2014

Riccardo Frizza, Andrei Serban, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, Antonino Siragusa, Varduhi Abrahamyan, Tassis Christoyannis, Jaël Azzaretti, Anna Pennisi, Nahuel Di Pierro

Palais Garnier, Paris - 7 April 2014

Taking nothing away from Rossini as a composer or the undoubted qualities that are to be found in many of his works, but expectations are never likely to be very high for yet another production of L'Italiana in Algeri. It's not the most sophisticated of works, it doesn't have a particularly great libretto or originality in its situation, and there's only so much mileage in the humour. Dashed off with customary speed to a tight deadline moreover, Rossini simply reused music from other works - which in itself isn't uncommon for this composer, but in this case the music was often written for works in a completely different context that would appear to make it unsuited for use in an opera buffa. On the other hand, a production of L'Italiana in Algeri can make for a very entertaining night at the opera, if it's done right.

The very least you can say about Andrei Serban's production of L'Italiana in Algeri for the Paris Opera however is that it's entertaining. It might not make a lot of sense, it's inconsistent and somewhat nonsensical in its concept and design, but in that respect it suits the nature of the work itself. It helps however if you have a strong cast that is capable of injecting some life and additional humour into the work, and it's hard to find any serious fault with the performances in this 2014 revival of the Paris production at the Palais Garnier. In some respects it might feel a bit routine and calculated, but again, that's something that's largely inherent within the opera itself. It's not exactly a work that is going to open itself up to radical reinterpretation.

That doesn't mean however that the work can't benefit from a distinctive touch, and in Serban's case, grotesque exaggeration and a sense of randomness is the name of the game. Right from the start we are treated to a grand chorus of eunuchs in fat suits, who go as far as to exhibit their credentials (or lack of them in this case) as they bend over at the start of Act II. Bathing beauties in bikinis splash around in glass tubs (without water) and are sort of anointed for no apparent reason by flamingos borne on the top of the heads of female servants. There's a huge rose that appears to be a representation of the sun, or possibly love or the heat of desire. The ship that brings Isabella to Turkey and lies shipwrecked at the bottom of the sea looks rather like the Titanic, while Isabella is promptly captured and put in a cage by a man in a gorilla suit. There appears to be no rhyme or reason for any of these choices.

Period realism then evidently isn't a consideration, and nor should it be, it seems, as long as it looks good and at least gives the right impression. It's probably fair to say that the impression of comic exaggeration that Serban settles for is one which he considers as being in the nature of the work itself, and I wouldn't necessarily disagree with that judgement. L'Italiana in Algeri is a silly comedy, but also an entertaining one, and the director pitches this production firmly in that style. So if you want to give the impression of the Bey Mustafa as being a bit of a tyrant who is full of himself and used to getting his own way, that impression is clearly evident in his dress and demeanour. All gold and guns, looking like a north African or middle-Eastern despot; he's the king of bling in a shiny suit.

As similar sense of exaggeration - or obviousness - is applied elsewhere as the Italianisms set in, with Mustafa's men all dressed like Mafia dons in pin-striped suits with wide shoulders, waving pistols and gesticulating into mobile phones. A bit random, a bit obvious, but it gets the right impression across. The 'pappataci' scene is no place for subtlety evidently, and Serban's production consequently goes all out for cliché, with a dancing bottle of wine, a floppy pizza and a couch representing the attributes of the Italian male that Mustafa wishes to bear as a badge of honour. As over-emphasised as this is, it's fine. The stage is filled with colour and it illustrates the absurdity of the situation and the libretto. It's not to be taken seriously.

The stage direction is also mostly fine, if often quite outlandish with the gorilla wandering around, but it suits the content. In particular, Isabella's playing of the three males on a Dali lip-couch is neatly choreographed and amusingly played, the Pappataci scene works well and certainly raises a smile, while the ensemble finale of Act I achieves exactly the right kind of impact. In fact, Serban is at his best when he has to orchestrate chorus and ensemble singing, always making the scenes interesting. Solo scenes and arias tend to be a little more hit and miss, and that's usually where the random elements are slipped in. There's not a lot else you can do with personality or motivation in the direction of these characters.

It more down to the cast to bring some personality to their roles and Rossini at least gives each of them plenty of opportunity to make an impression. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo has plenty of swagger and arrogance as Mustafa and sang reasonably well, but it did seem a little routine. Antonino Siragusa stepped in to replace the advertised Kenneth Tarver as Lindoro and while it's not necessary to have an actual Italian singer in the role (evidently since Juan Diego Flórez is still currently the best Rossinian tenor in this kind of comic role), it certainly benefited from Siragusa having precisely the right kind of voice and delivery for the role. By no means perfect - there are few who can master the demands of roles like this - it was nonetheless played and sung with considerable aplomb. I also enjoyed the comic side of Tassis Christoyannis' performance, and his singing of the role was faultless.

Varduhi Abrahamyan however rightly dominated proceedings as Isabella. She looked the part and sang it well, lacking perhaps only a little bit of feistiness that might have given the performance an extra edge. The same could be said about the orchestra under the direction of Riccardo Frizza. It was a little too 'nice' and could have used a little more of an injection of energy, but the playing was superb and it was a fine interpretation. Despite the rushed nature of its composition, there is - as always with Rossini - much elegance in the musical writing and arrangements of L'Italiana in Algeri and that was certainly evident here. Not the most exciting production of L'Italiana in Algeri then in Paris, a little too 'respectful' and routine, but certainly entertaining.

Monday 14 April 2014

Mozart - Die Zauberflöte (Opéra Bastille - Paris 2014)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Opéra National de Paris, 2014

Philippe Jordan, Robert Carsen, Pavol Breslik, Julia Kleiter, Daniel Schmutzhard, Franz-Josef Selig, Sabine Devieilhe, Eleonore Marguerre, Louise Callinan, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Regula Mühlemann, François Piolino, Terje Stensvold, Eric Huchet, Wenwei Zhang

Opéra Bastille, Paris - 6 April 2014

The last production of Die Zauberflöte at the Paris Opéra was in 2005 and the themes of the opera were given a radical reworking by La Fura dels Baus. It wasn't a great success to my mind, taking far too many liberties with the meaning of the work in their concept, setting it as a war between opposing hemispheres of the brain. Consequently we had a giant inflatable brain divided in two on the stage, with singers bouncing around on it when they weren't suspended from cables. More controversially, the Catalan theatre company also removed all the recitative and spoken dialogue, replacing it with poems read by a male and a female actor seated on podiums at opposing sides of the auditorium. It got a mixed response and I don't recall it being revived at all after Gérard Mortier left the Paris Opéra.

Robert Carsen's new production - presented first at the Baden-Baden Easter Festival last year - is in many ways just as radical in how it portrays those opposing forces of light and dark, of male and female.  It might not entirely make any more sense of a work that already has its own inconsistencies and mysteries, but where Carsen's interpretation differs from that of La Fura dels Baus is that it at least settles on an aspect of the work that is entirely in line with the composer's worldview. Carsen's Die Zauberflöte is about the supremacy of love, of the inevitable triumph of light over dark, of the victory of enlightenment over obscurantism.

Focussing on this aspect, Carsen's production consequently avoids the ceremonial structure that more traditionally form the basis of presentations of the work - the masonic rituals, the mythic qualities of the battle between darkness and light. He also almost entirely glosses over the questions of misogyny in the work, contrasting what is actually said with a more enlightened view where male and female and the opposing forces of darkness and light actually work in harmony, in common accord, as two halves of a whole (with less of the bludgeoning imagery of La Fura dels Baus). Sarastro and the Queen of the Night actually walk hand-in-hand in this production, which is not something you would see anywhere else, or indeed think that it could really work.

Does such an approach indeed not go against the intentions of the work? Well, Die Zauberflöte is drawn from a number of sources, myths and legends, all of which undergo further upheaval at the hands of the librettist Emmanuel Schikenader in such a way that makes little rational sense or demonstrates any consistency. Mozart's hand and influence in the music is however on surer ground, more of a whole in its adherence to the composer's sense of order and benevolent, enlightened worldview. (The beauty of the music has a similar relationship with Da Ponte's libretto in Così Fan Tutte). The music of Die Zauberflöte is sweet and beautiful and Carsen's production responds very much to that.

That's not to say that Carsen ignores the darkness in the work. Far from it. The sense of death is greatly emphasised here in the imagery of open pits that suggest graves (even the orchestra pit is surrounded by a grass verge as if the orchestra too are in a mass grave), coffins are scattered around, and even Papagena first makes an appearance not as an old lady, but as a dead one, wearing the form of a skeleton and emerging out of a coffin. Carsen's way of integrating such imagery into the work, in the context of Mozart's music, is to see it as part of the cycle of life. This is borne out in the projections of woods that form the backdrop for the majority of the work, Johnny Maritneau's photographs depicting the same woodland scene in different seasons of the year.

The stage design is described in more detail in my review of the web streamed broadcast of the Baden-Baden production, but the full impact of the brilliance of the design, the levels that are revealed in the depths of the stage, are only really apparent when viewed live and as a whole. Carsen's production is far from how Die Zauberflöte usually looks, and it may lack the usual special effects and magic by settling for a more prosaic naturalistic approach, but it's no less impressive in its simplicity and beauty than, at the opposite extreme, the extravagant floating stage production at Bregenz in 2013. In fact, the full beauty and sweetness of Mozart's music (and nature) is only all the more apparent and Philippe Jordan delicately draws that beauty out of the Paris orchestra. This is music that could charm the birds out of the trees and in this production, it did.  

The singing was just as sweet. The only cast member here that was also in the Baden-Baden production was Pavol Breslik as Tamino. Hearing him sing live in the theatre, his lovely light tenor actually didn't appear to be strong enough for the role, not always rising above what is a relatively small orchestra. On the other hand, he stood in to sing the Shepherd and Young Seaman roles in Tristan und Isolde two nights later with tremendous force and precision, and I would never have considered him a Wagnerian singer. His voice is beautiful though and it has the perfect sweetness of timbre for this production. Daniel Schmutzhard was a solid Papageno, who never once struck a false note in either voice or performance. Franz-Josef Selig was a deeply impressive Sarastro, every word clear and resonant, with even those extremely low passages controlled and commanding.

It was the female roles who impressed the most however. Sabine Devieilhe's debut at the Opéra de Paris (having wowed Paris audiences with her Lakmé at the Opéra Comique) lived up to high expectations with a phenomenal Königen der Nacht. When Tamino ponders "Was that real or have I taken leave of my senses?" after her Act I aria, you really can sense how he might indeed be overawed. It was Julia Kleiter however who stole the show as Pamina, and it was most pleasing to see the audience respond so enthusiastically to her at the curtain call. Her voice was lush and fully rounded, perfectly controlled yet filled with emotion and feeling for Pamina's situation. This was a world class performance that perfectly complemented the sentiments drawn out by Jordan and Carsen's direction.

The Paris Opéra's new Die Zauberflöte doesn't perhaps explore the full richness of Mozart's masterpiece. It doesn't really play to the comic element, it doesn't have much time for its esoteric side, nor for the serious aspects of the work's majestic ritualistic side. This was a warm, uplifting Magic Flute that swept you along and it clearly held the audience enraptured with the beauty of its sentiments.

Friday 4 April 2014

Strauss - Die Frau ohne Schatten (Munich 2013 - Webcast)

Richard Strauss - Die Frau ohne Schatten

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2013

Kirill Petrenko, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Johan Botha, Adrianne Pieczonka, Deborah Polaski, Elena Pankratova, Wolfgang Koch, Sebastian Holecek, Eri Nakamura, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Dean Power, Okka von der Damerau, Tim Kuypers, Christian Rieger, Matthew Peña, Laura Tatulescu, Tara Erraught, Heike Grötzinger, Andrea Borghini, RafaI Pawnuk, Leonard Bernad, Iulia Maria Dan

Staatsoper.TV Live Internet Streaming - 1st December 2013

Die Frau ohne Schatten is notoriously one of the most difficult works to stage, the fairytale setting having some directions that are near-impossible to depict conventionally, including frying fish that lament with the Voices of Unborn Children, earthquakes and magically appearing fountains. Even the most basic idea behind the opera - a woman who doesn't cast a shadow - is not an easy thing to achieve credibly on a lighted stage. Inevitably then, directors are required to be somewhat creative in their approach, without losing the necessary otherworldly quality of the work.

Directing Richard Strauss's epic work for the Bavarian State Opera, Krzysztof Warlikowski is not a director short of ideas, one who can always be relied upon for creative and unconventional approaches to opera staging, particularly for a work as rich in imagery and ideas as Die Frau ohne Schatten. Considering that much of the work's fairytale symbolism is based on Strauss and Hofmannsthal's interest in the Freudian theories and psychoanalysis it's not uncommon for productions to use a similar method to explore the underlying meanings and subtexts to be found in the opera, so it's not surprising that a director like Warlikowski finds the work to be fertile ground for a number of ideas.

The Munich production of Die Frau ohne Schatten then, unsurprisingly, doesn't take place in a fairytale world, but rather in a more modern setting that relates to the mindset of the Empress, daughter of Keikobad, the Woman without a Shadow. When they descend from the Spirit Realm down to Earth then in search of a shadow, the Nurse and the Empress seem to take an elevator from the upper level of a luxury apartment building into the basement where Barak the dyer and his wife do the laundry. It's not a literal descent however - it's certainly not enough to make the fairytale storyline "real" - but rather there's a suggestion that the Nurse is using her powers (hypnosis? psychoanalysis?) to force the Empress (who is often seen lying on a couch) to confront her deepest fears and get in touch with her inner self.

This is certainly a valid interpretation of Die Frau ohne Schatten, if somewhat unimaginative for a director like Krzysztof Warlikowski. We already know the Empress has an inner life - she's a gazelle in the form of a woman - while her lack of a shadow moreover is clearly a description of her inability to bear children. Here, as elsewhere, Warlikowski's production emphasises greatly the deep female desires and anxieties related to sexuality, childbearing and motherhood that can be read from the work. The Dyer's wife in particular, granted fulfilment of a life of luxury by the Nurse in exchange for her shadow (and thus liberated from the ability to conceive), can be seen indulging her wildest fantasies with semi-naked handsome young men, some of them wearing falcon heads.

The men in Die Frau ohne Schatten are depicted as being well-meaning but essentially one-note - the childless Emperor caught up in his obsession with his red falcon and with hunting (which you could interpret as a desire for 'death'), Barak with rather more basic urges, frustrated by the inattention of his wife and his banishment from the marital bed once the Wife has agreed to the Nurse's terms in trade for her shadow. The male perspective is an under-explored avenue of the work, but it's not one that interests Warlikowski. The director certainly finds imaginative imagery that rivals Hofmannsthal's to depict the situation of men who are unable to find fulfilment in their female partners, but the men are still mostly sidelined here.

Perhaps more surprisingly for this director is the fall-back onto one of the old familiar tricks that are commonly used when a dramatic situation appears too exaggerated to depict literally. You can either create the necessary distance by making it a play-within-a-play, or you can set it as the deranged imaginings of a character in an asylum for the insane. As becomes clear in the later part of the production - and in keeping with the psychologist's couch origin - Warlikowski goes for the asylum option, with the Nurse eventually being the one put into a straight-jacket. It's a disappointing reading of the work, particularly when we have recently had such a radical interpretation of this opera from Christoph Loy at Salzburg, seeing the 1919 work as a lament for Unborn Children of the Dead during the Great War, with those feelings reawakened through its setting during the post-WWII Karl Bohm recording sessions of the opera.

If Warlikowski's interpretation doesn't engage the mind and the imagination quite as much, the Munich production nonetheless is at least a feast for the eyes and the ears, and it's not without some bizarrely surreal imagery and a few characteristically clever touches. The sets are extravagant in terms of their being so much going on. There's a gazelle on the stage which 'gives birth' to a young child in red, all of which opens out other impressions of the nature of the Empress. Lights, colour and projections also define the divisions between reality and fantasy, with plenty of objects that serve literal and symbolic purposes - a bed, an elevator, a fish tank - and supernumeraries wearing animal and falcon heads. The director's response to the challenges of the stage directions is occasionally inspired, such as when an asylum nurse places a glass of water in front of the Empress rather than a Fountain of Life appearing.

Much of imagery can be nearly unfathomable other than for setting mood and tone (a five minute prelude of scenes from Alain Resnais' 'Last Year at Marienbad' precedes the opening and the ending has projections of Batman, Marilyn Monroe and Gandhi), but the use of the stage is nonetheless magnificent. Die Frau ohne Schatten is an extravagant work - over-indulgent perhaps, confused and confusing even - but it demands this kind of imaginative and impressive response. There is consequently never a dull moment here, always something of interest going on somewhere on the stage, in the lighting, in the projections, in the colour, in the props, in the movements. As the debut for the new house music director, Kirill Petrenko, this was also a case of rising to the occasion. There's little shimmering delicacy for Strauss's lush arrangements here, rather an emphasis on the dark undercurrents that are powerfully drawn out from the immense orchestration.

Most importantly however, the characters are well-defined in terms of personalities and the performers are well-coached by the director to respond to the situations and to each other. Warlikowski gives them context to bring these elusive characters to life, but the singers still have a considerable amount to bring to the production as well. Die Frau ohne Schatten has a (deserved) reputation for being difficult to cast five strong singers in the exceptionally demanding main roles, and the cast assembled here are terrific. As a complete performance and in how she is such a vital component of this particular production as the arch-manipulator, Deborah Polaski's Nurse injects real personality here and sings marvellously as well. Adrianne Pieczonka's Empress is luxuriously voiced and Elena Pankratova is impressive as the Dyer's Wife. Wolfgang Koch doesn't have a big voice, but again is very capable in this role. Johan Botha is also in fine voice as the Emperor. It's perhaps not as rich in timbre as it once was and he doesn't make as much of an impact here when strong acting is required, but Botha can still sing this role with ease.

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Rimsky-Korsakov - The Tsar's Bride (Berlin 2013 - Webcast)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - The Tsar's Bride

Staatsoper im Schiller Theater - Berlin, 2013

Daniel Barenboim, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Anatoli Kotscherga, Olga Peretyatko, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Tobias Schabel, Pavel Cernoch, Anita Rachvelishvili, Stephan Rügamer, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Anna Lapkovskaja, Carola Höhn

ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming - October 2013

It was fairly evident from the Metropolitan Opera's recent revelatory production of Borodin's Prince Igor that director Dmitri Tcherniakov not only wants to introduce rarely performed Russian opera works to western audiences, but he also wants to make them fresh, modern and relevant in the transition. That view is confirmed by the Berlin Staatsoper's production of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride (from October 2013), where it doesn't take too long for the facade showing a winter street scene from the period of Ivan the Terrible to fall and reveal a very different behind the scenes contemporary setting in a TV studio.

References to a Tsar are never going to fit comfortably into any modern production of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride, least of all a Dmitri Tcherniakov one. The director's idea here then is to cast Tsar Ivan's oprichniks as television executives, exercising their control over the public and obedience to the government through the broadcast of propaganda messages. The so-called 'tsar' that they serve however is only a virtual creation mocked up on computer software, his on-screen appearances in the broadcasts put together with an actor and motion capture technology. This whole background scene-setting sequence - far from the original work - is played out as a series of projections and e-mail chats exchanged between Grigory Gryaznoy and his staff, searching for a suitable bride for their tsar.

It's a typical Tcherniakov setting then, one where the public face and the reality beneath the surface and behind the scenes is contrasted and compartmentalised. This is reflected in the stage designs of Act I which have the director's familiar divisions into separate rooms, one showing a green-screen backed television studio filled with cameras where the recordings are made under bright studio lights. This backs onto a production office where the broadcasts are monitored, and a third section presents a conference room for the oprichnik executives to make their policy decisions and carouse in revelry of their power. On a revolving stage, the ingenious design is allowed to flow freely from one scene to the next, retaining in the process the wonderful flow of Rimsky-Korsakov's score.

The more 'public' scenes of Act II, and the opening of Act III take place in the living room of the Sobakin's house which is depicted in the boxed-in style of Tcherniakov's Paris Opera Macbeth. Marfa and her family can be seen through large windows in a big room with a flatscreen TV. As well as bringing the broadcasts of the "tsar" to the public, it also proves to be a strong way to depict the jealousy of Lyubasha as she looks in on the happy household and her love rival. So while we don't have the any mysterious monks appearing wearing a black oprichnik cassock, the television broadcasts of the computer generated virtual Tsar have perhaps a more sinister and insidious aspect. As always with this director then, it doesn't always work on a strictly literal level, but the intentions and meaning come through well.

Whatever you make of the concept, there's no denying that the rich dramatic vitality of The Tsar's Bride is all there in the performances. Whether that's because of Tcherniakov's direction or despite his intervention is a matter of judgement, but certainly the musical strengths of Rimsky-Korsakov's score are in evidence in the rousing account of the work conducted under the baton of Daniel Barenboim. Reflecting the richness of the work, with romantic rivalry, fantasy elements and love potions, the raging passions are all played out in a typical bold Russian character with big declaimed arias and roaring choruses, and Barenboim directs it all brilliantly, in a production that is bursting with life and vigour.

It's a work then that demands equally passionate Russian singing, and there are few disappointments on that score. The real stand-out performance came surprisingly from Anita Rachvelishvili, who is really showing that she is by far and away strongest as a singer in the Russian repertoire. As Lyubasha, she has a showcase a capella song in Act I which she handles admirably, but there's depth of character and passion here as well. Her expression of jealousy of Marfa and anger at Gryaznoy's betrayal really holds the emotional heart of the work together and allows the viewer to sympathise with Lyubasha as she is driven to the extreme of plotting Marfa's downfall. That culminates in an outstanding and chilling expression of anger at her rival at the close of Act II.

Olga Peretyatko has a voice of marvellous depth and character, capable of tackling the most demanding of Rossinian coloratura heroines with no thinning of the voice across the range. In Russian opera, and in a role like Marfa, there is however an extra force and stamina required and Peretyatko's voice isn't quite right for it. Her timbre is so bright and beautiful however that it's still delightful to hear her sing such a role. Where it really comes into its own is in Marfa's final 'mad scene' of poison delirium, which has to be credible enough to move even Gryaznoy to repent, and it is. Even if he is not Russian, the German baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle sings like one, boldly declarative and passionate, bringing a measure of the kind of characterisation that is also required to make the role of Gryaznoy real.

The Berlin Staatsoper's production of The Tsar's Bride was recorded for broadcast in October 2013 and played for a limited time only on the German version of the ARTE Live Web/ARTE Concert web site. It's no longer available for on-line viewing.