Monday 26 May 2014

Boesmans - Au Monde (La Monnaie, 2014 - Webcast)

Philippe Boesmans - Au Monde

La Monnaie - De Munt, Brussels 2014

Joël Pommerat, Patrick Davin, Frode Olsen, Werner Van Mechelen, Stéphane Degout, Charlotte Hellekant, Patricia Petibon, Fflur Wyn, Yann Beuron, Ruth Olaizola

La Monnaie, ARTE Concert - Internet Streaming, April 2014

La Monnaie's bringing together of composer Philippe Boesmans and playwright Joël Pommerat for a newly commissioned opera is an intriguing one and in many ways, for better or worse, Au Monde lives up to whatever expectations one might have of both of the Belgian creators. That's not to say that the result is entirely predictable. There's no doubt that there is a true collaboration here that manages to draw something new and unexpected out of both contributors.

Musically, Au Monde is quite different from the serialism of Reigen, my only previous encounter with Boesmans, but the Belgian composer has clearly worked in a variety of styles in opera with adaptations of Shakespeare (Wintermärchen) and Strindberg (Julie), as well as reinterpreting Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea (La Passion de Gilles). For his part Joël Pommerat previously collaborated with Oscar Bianchi on an adaptation of his play 'Grace a mes yeux' (Thanks to My Eyes), a work that shared characteristics with Maeterlinck and Debussy. There's a lot of room here then for both creators to find and share common ground in Au Monde.

It's clear that Au Monde comes from the same source as Thanks to my Eyes, the work not so much a straightforward drama or character piece as an exploration of archetypal family figures in conflict with themselves and in a state of suspended tension with one another. If Boesmans' music is more melodic and lyrical here, it's more closely related to the particular colours, sonorities of the characters and the rhythms of the dialogues and relationships between them in a way that - particularly in the intonations of the French language - can't help but remind one of Pelléas et Mélisande.

Much as it should, the music and singing voices undoubtedly contribute to filling out the characters and the relationships between them. Or, if the figures and their personalities remain rather difficult to determine, the music at least adds another dimension in place of any recognisable narrative. It's certainly easy to see however that there are tensions between them and where those tensions are coming from. Much of it centres on Ori, the son, and the only one with an actual name in Au Monde.

Ori has just quit a successful career in the military and none of the family know why. He says he needs a period of reflection and has even written a book, but no-one seems particularly interested in reading it. His father is stepping down as the head of the family's successful steel industry business and, with the agreement of the elder son, has Ori in mind to take over the running of affairs. Ori is hesitant about the matter, but there is perhaps something else on his mind... murder? That's where it all gets a little stranger in Au Monde and difficult to define. Three women have recently been murdered in the town. There haven't been any such murders in a while now, but the new murders coincide with Ori's return. It might not be that simple though. Each of the three sisters of the family also have issues. The elder sister is seems to have a never-ending pregnancy and her husband has brought in a foreign woman to care for her needs; the second sister is an actress who can't bear to watch herself on the TV; the youngest sister, who is celebrating her birthday, is actually a lookalike replacement for a daughter who disappeared (called Phèdre), and she inevitably has some identity problems.

Pommerat cites Chekhov's 'Three Sisters' as a reference and notes that the name Ori comes from Orestes, but clearly the family references are a little more complex than that with Racine's 'Phaedra' mentioned and there's perhaps something of 'King Lear' in there as well. Comparisons to Debussy's and Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande are unavoidable, and a few other more modern surrealist references suggest David Lynch territory. Much of the strangeness, in this respect, seems to derive from the actress second sister, such as the foreign woman singing 'My Way' in a man's voice at certain points (these are noted in the libretto as being "perhaps a dream of the second daughter"). Whether Ori is involved in the murder is very much left open, like much else in this strange mix of genre and artiness.

The transition from theatre to opera undoubtedly involved some cutting back of Pommerat's original work, but this open air of vagueness and mystery is very much a part of the work. It's certainly heightened by Boesmans' score and by the breaking up of the work into 20 short elliptical scenes that seem to hold the characters in a permanent state of suspension or tension with one another. None of this ever seems to amount to anything meaningful than the characters walking around making ominous statements about their position, despite the attempt to insert some murder-mystery into the proceedings and despite the undoubted beauty of Boesmans' musical score.

The writing for the voice too is wonderful and there's an exceptionally strong cast here at La Monnaie to interpret it. Working from an existing play, there is a certain amount of recitative in the dialogue, but Boesmans has managed to fit the voice types well, and not just according to the traditional types for family roles. If the elder sister is an aloof and distant contralto (Charlotte Hellekant - very fine), the drama queen middle sister (Patricia Petibon) is a diva coloratura and the younger sister a high-end soprano (Fflur Wyn). The Second Sister and her character directs most of the drama and mystery, and Petibon is superb in her tecnhique, control and interpretation. Ori is also an mportant figure, albeit with less to sing, but it still needs a French baritone of personality and ability and Stéphane Degout has that.

It's probably not much of a surprise that Pommerat's stage direction tends to be rather straightforwardly theatrical. There's not a great deal of consideration given to the sets, but the long beam of light in the darkness of the rooms and the huis clos atmosphere does suggest an open door to an outside world (au monde) that the characters are fearful or unwilling to move towards. The cold, detached elegance of the characters is perfectly captured however in the lighting and the costumes. Much like Thanks to my Eyes, this all casts an appropriate atmosphere, and it's one into which Patrick Davin weaves the haunting Wagnerian emotional sweep and the intricate Debussian touches of Boesmans' score most effectively.

Links: La Monnaie, ARTE Concert

Friday 23 May 2014

Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice (Český Krumlov 2013 - Blu-ray)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice

Český Krumlov Castle, 2013

Václav Luks, Ondřej Havelka, Bejun Mehta, Eva Liebau, Regula Mühlemann

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

They don't often put on opera in Český Krumlov Castle, which has one of the oldest working Baroque theatres in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The restoration of the theatre was celebrated in 2011 with a performance and subsequent DVD/BD release of Domenico Scarlatti's Dove è Amore è Gelosia. Hardly an important or great work, it was an entertaining opera buffa, more notable for its historical and rarity interest as the first work written to be performed in the original theatre, but it gained considerably from the authentic Baroque presentation in its original setting.

I don't know if Gluck has any historical connection with Český Krumlov castle, but in the 300th year of the composer's birth, it's a fine place to re-examine one of the most important works in the entire opera repertoire in hopefully a more authentic light. With Václav Luks conducting the period Collegium 1704 orchestra, a traditionally-informed stage production lit only by wax candles and countertenor Bejun Mehta as Orpheus, an alto-castrato role more often performed by a mezzo-soprano, this Orfeo ed Euridice is undoubtedly closer to the original than most other productions. There are however a few caveats that can be given about the nature of the film itself.

Primarily, this production of Orfeo ed Euridice is shot as a film rather than a concert, which does take away somewhat from the charm of seeing it performed in a Baroque theatre. It's not filmed in the traditional manner of a live theatre performance, but it is nonetheless clearly a live performance, shot in seven days over a number of takes, with perhaps a small amount of overdubs. That's fine, and it's a good account of the work that matches the stripped-back reformist nature of the work with a reduced period orchestra. The casting is also good with Bejun Mehta's sweet countertenor giving this Orpheus a suitably lyrical quality, Eva Liebau a strong Eurydice and Regula Mühlemann a bright Amore.

This works wonderfully when its performed in Act I on the stage of the Baroque theatre where Orpheus mourns the death of Eurydice who is laid out on a marble catafalque. It's old-style theatre, with painted forests to the wings and a sea at the back with old-fashioned pulley-operated rolling sea effects. Amore too descends in an authentically shaky manner on a mechanical cloud to give Orpheus a chance to bring his beloved back to the land of the living. Unfortunately, once Orpheus descends through the trapdoor to the Underworld, much of the remainder of the performance takes place in the wider setting of the backstage of the theatre and the castle caverns and - other than the Elysium scene - not on the stage at all.

The locations backstage and in the wings are at least well used in this respect, retaining the candlelight illuminations, giving the underworld a suitably eerie and otherworldly appearance. Even here, with wooden beams and stone staircases there are no anachronisms, although you would suspect that the Furies here might be familiar with the "zombie shuffle" choreography of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' video. There are some clever touches like the play of shadows embracing and holding hands as Orpheus leads Eurydice out of the underworld that don't need to rely on special effects. The idea is nice, playing on the magic of the theatre experience and how it extends beyond the stage and takes on a life of its own, but I did find that the 'film' concept and editing distracted from the power of the work itself.

Musically however, it sounds wonderful, the theatre creating a natural acoustic reverb rather than an amplified sound. It's not the clean, precise HD audio you might be used to, but there's no big orchestra here and neither should there be. There is rather a harder edged gut string pluck and rhythm that isn't quite so smooth, and heard this way it does present the opera in a new light. The original 1762 Vienna edition of the work has however been cut back slightly with most of the ballets shortened or excised entirely. The Act III, Scene 3 dances, for example, are all missing here. I suspect that the decision was made for artistic reasons (Bejun Mehta is credited also as Artistic Advisor here), since they get in the way of the clear narrative flow that is needed more for the film than a stage production, but such cuts aren't unusual.

On Blu-ray, this looks very fine indeed. There's a slightly softer edge to the image on account of it being filmed by candlelight, but it's clear and detailed with lovely tones and textures. The audio mixes are PCM stereo and DTS HD-master Audio 5.0. The mix is bright but there's a pleasant naturalness to the sound. The balance between the voices and the orchestra is different in the two mixes, the surround track seeming to make more use of reverb and give prominence to the voices, while the stereo track is more direct and evenly balanced. There are no extras on the BD25 region-free disc, but the booklet gives some background on how the film was made and the history of the Baroque theatre. There's no synopsis provided, but the plot of Orfeo ed Euridice is simplicity itself. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Vinci - Artaserse (Opéra National de Lorraine 2012 - DVD)

Leonardo Vinci - Artaserse

Opéra National de Lorraine, Nancy 2012

Diego Fasolis, Silviu Purcărete, Philippe Jaroussky, Franco Fagioli, Max Emanuel Cencic, Valer Barna-Sabadus, Yuriy Mynenko, Juan Sancho

Erato - DVD

There are good reasons why you probably don't often come across productions of Leonardo Vinci's Artaserse. Written in 1730, there are the usual musical questions to resolve in how to approach old music played on period instruments as well as the challenges in how to present and stage a rare piece in a way that gets the full impact of the work across. Vinci's Artaserse however is even more rarely performed since it requires no less than five countertenors to sing the extravagantly arranged castrato roles of the work. And not just any five countertenors (although it's not as if there are that many to pick and choose from), but you really need five of the best in the world to be able to do any kind of justice to this particular work.

Which is exactly what makes the Opéra National de Lorraine's 2012 production of Vinci's Artaserse such a unique and thrilling experience.  Musically, it's in the hands of Diego Fasolis and the Concerto Köln, while the casting brings together the extraordinary cast of countertenors Philippe Jaroussky, Franco Fagioli, Max Emanuel Cencic, Valer Barna-Sabadus and Yuriy Mynenko, with the addition of tenor Juan Sancho in the work's only other singing role. It's such a rare gathering that this team toured the opera around France and Europe in concert performances, even making dates in the UK, but this performance recorded here at Nancy offers the opportunity to see the work in a full theatrical staging, and it really is something else.

The direction by Silviu Purcărete plays on what is undoubtedly the unique selling point of this version of Artaserse as being possibly the greatest showcase for the divas of early opera, the castrato. With its extravagant costumes and five lighted theatre make-up mirrors placed to the sides of the stage, there's a lot of preening and posing on the part of all the leads, but there's more to this than just showmanship. It's always a challenge to make a Baroque opera lively and visually engaging, and this one does it by representing its extravagance and its heightened theatrical qualities. Naturalism is not an important factor here.

And nor should it be in a work based on a Metastasio libretto. Artaserse is a typical work of the poet, based around a ruler who has to do the right thing and put aside or reconcile his own feelings in relation to various dilemmas over love and duty. It's a work that has been adapted many times, but depending on whose version you listen to and who is adapting it, it can still be fairly dry material by today's standards. The music in Vinci's Artaserse is exquisite - and it's marvellously played here Diego Fasolis conducting the Concerto Köln from harpsichord - but perhaps not so much that it stands out from other settings of the work or indeed other opera seria works like it. What makes Vinci's version extraordinary is indeed its setting for five countertenors. That is what is so impressive about it, and when it has singers of sufficient calibre, it raises the work to another level entirely.

Despite the best efforts of the production team and singers here - and truly it's hard to imagine a better line-up - it can still be a struggle to engage the audience in the drama of Artaserse. It's certainly not a fault of the production, which achieves a good balance between simple theatricality and visual extravagance in the costumes. A simple revolving platform even saves the performers having to move around much, leaving them free to express the drama and emotional turmoil principally through the singing. There's recognition then that it's the singers and the singing that you're here to see, and that seems to be more than sufficient in this case.

The arias and ariosos are not long-winded or overly ornamented, but they are demanding nonetheless and really require virtuoso control. Each role moreover clearly has been composed for a specific type of countertenor voice. Whether the singers here have been cast in the right voice in musicological terms I couldn't say, but they seem perfectly fitted here for the roles they are in. Admittedly, it can be difficult to distinguish who is who with all the outlandish costume changes, wigs and face-paint - to say nothing of the difficulty of determining role gender - but every single countertenor voice here has their own unique sound and character, and each are outstanding within the role they play.

Some evidently have more demanding parts than others because of the emotional turmoil they undergo. Arbace has arguably the most traumatic dilemma, consumed with guilt over the fact that his father Artebano has killed the king, Serse. Accused of the murder himself, he's prepared to suffer the consequences in silence, without condemning the real culprit, and Franco Fagioli is outstanding in how he plays out this inner turmoil. It's Philippe Jaroussky as Artaserse however who has to balance the sense of friendship and fairness in dealing out justice with the shock of his father's violent death, knowing that much lies in the balance. The romantic complications of Semira and her conflicted sentiments would seem less important, but Valer Barna-Sabadus' astonishing delivery will convince you otherwise.

This is where the real quality of Metastasio's libretto shows, giving each characters the opportunity to express their sentiments in such a way that the listener is swayed between them and sympathetic to their plight. If you've the right singer in those parts, the effect is even more pronounced, and that's the case here with Max Emanuel Cencic's Mandane, with Yuriy Mynenko's Megabise and even with Juan Sancho's Artebano. Every role is superbly cast and exquisitely sung.

The theatricality of the staging is emphasised by the manner in which this performance is recorded. Aside from the dressing-room mirrors at the side of the stage, the camera occasionally follows character exits backstage, or shows them preparing for their entrance, adjusting costumes behind screens that are being wheeled across the stage by stage-hands. Some might find this distracting, but as I said, naturalism isn't really what Artaserse is about, and there's no attempt by the stage director to make it period or authentic either, so this just extends this concept further. Visually and conceptually however, it holds attention, and that's what is important in presenting Baroque opera.

In the absence of a Blu-ray release, the Erato DVD presents the work relatively well if all you are interested in are the basics of the performance. In terms of technical specifications however it's well below the standard of what is more commonly offered for opera on Blu-ray releases. The image quality is clear and stable, perfectly fine for Standard Definition with the performance spread across 2xDVD-9 discs. The audio mixes are LPCM Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 in 48kHz/16-bit, the sound clear and bright with natural stage echo preferred over pristine clarity. The DVD is region-free, the subtitles English, French, German and Italian. And that's about the best you can say about this release. There are no extra features, there's no booklet, there's no synopsis - nothing. For such a rare work as this, staged so well and unlikely to be revisited anytime soon, that's very disappointing.

Friday 16 May 2014

Adams - Nixon in China (Wide Open Opera - Dublin 2014)

John Adams - Nixon in China

Wide Open Opera, Dublin 2014

Fergus Sheil, Michael Cavanagh, Barry Ryan, Claudia Boyle, James Cleverton, Hubert Francis, John Molloy, Audrey Luna, Sharon Carty, Imelda Drumm, Doreen Curran

Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin - 11 May 2014

For a modern opera that is based on a relatively recent historical event, John Adams' Nixon in China is proving to be an enduring work that continues to gain new productions worldwide. What is even more surprising, and which perhaps accounts for the place it is gaining in the repertoire, is how each production manages to find a new way of approaching the work's themes. It's clear that Nixon in China is about more than one specific event of historical significance only to the 1970s, but is a work of multifaceted complexity that makes it open to continuous reinterpretation and re-evaluation.

Undoubtedly, that's got a lot to do with Alice Goodman's libretto. It doesn't entirely hold together and it can be difficult to comprehend at times, getting bogged down in the competing ideological, political and philosophical views of each of the participants in US President Nixon's visit to Communist China in 1972. Certain passages of the opera feel the weight of some very obscure esoterica, but the libretto also has the ability and the insight to look beneath the jargon, the showmanship and the politicking to make some very pertinent points about the nature of the figures in question as human beings.

In order for the work to endure however, it needs to extend this out beyond the specific to the universal, and while the political landscape has changed much in the intervening years, with the respective powers and influence of both China and the USA starting to reverse, the human aspirations behind them hasn't changed that much. Even if Nixon in China were only to remind us of this fact, highlighting the present by showing us how it once was, or how indeed it all started to change from a globalised technological perspective, it would still be an interesting work, but as this latest Dublin production from Wide Open Opera makes clear, there's evidently much more to the opera than that.

Wide Open Opera's Dublin production of Nixon in China for example threw up a new aspect to the work that I had never considered before. Is Nixon in China a feminist opera? It seems unlikely for a work set in the 1970s based on the meeting between two male heads of state alternately back-slapping each other and competing to prove the supremacy of their vision of the world. In fact, with Henry Kissinger's reputation and attitude towards women satirised in the dances of Act II ("Whip her to death!"), with Pat Nixon being the model First Lady and housewife, deferential to her husband's important career, and China's treatment of women hardly being anything to be proud of, despite Chiang Ch'ing's contribution to the Cultural Revolution, it's not surprising that the possibility of the work having a feminist agenda is rarely considered.

The fact that these issues are shown at all, even in a seemingly unfavourable light, is significant, but the women in Nixon in China are actually very strong personalities, and can even be said to be the true heart of the work. Part of this might be to do with the librettist being female, but in reality it's much more to do with there being considerable thought and attention paid equally to all of the main characters. In attempting to make them real, in attempting to look beneath the surface and see a real person, those issues and how Pat Nixon and Chiang Ch'ing might feel about them are taken into consideration. If there is a feminist view in Nixon in China, what is wonderful is that it's not presented in any dogmatic fashion, but arises out of treating each of the characters as equals in human terms. It's when this conflicts with the public personas, and with the male and the political agendas, that the whole question becomes much more complex.

Part of the reason why there are so many ways of interpreting and looking at Nixon in China is just down to the nature of its creation, and the nature of opera itself. It's not just Alice Goodman's libretto that is important or the only aspect of the opera that plays with ideas, but rather it's the multidisciplinary nature of how it interacts and conflicts with real-life, with the focus, structure and dramatic concept of Peter Sellars' original idea, and with John Adams' music. That reflects and complements the competing personalities on the stage and it creates a dialectic that really opens the work up. And when you hand that over to a new stage director, a new music director and new singers, you have something that can be even more fluid and mutable.

Wide Open Opera's production of Nixon in China originates from Michael Kavanagh's 2010 production for Vancouver Opera. It's a very fine production that retains the historical basis of Nixon's visit to China and adheres relatively closely to Peter Sellars' structuring of the work. At the same time however it finds its own way to capture the spectacle and the grandeur of the event and get underneath to the rather more difficult to define aspects of the personalities that are brought out by the libretto and the music. Broadly speaking however, the tone of the work and the stage direction is defined by its three-act structure.

Act I is all show, making use of impressive projections that show Air Force One landing in Peking Airport, using bold colours and national flags to indicate the jostling for power, position and philosophical superiority between the leaders of the two great nations. There is at the same time a mutual respect and appreciation for each other, for the power that they wield and how they exercise it, and both are fully aware that this is a unique and unprecedented opportunity to extend their influence and reputation across the world via new satellite technology. The staging fully supports the joyous fervour that this generates, each of them dancing around, drunk on power, lost in their own wonderfulness.

Dancing in fact plays a large part in this production, and it highlights just how important it actually is as another means of expression in the work itself. Aside from the obvious Revolutionary ballet The Red Detachment of Women in Act II (a dance of death, liberation), there are references to dancing at the ball put in honour of the Nixons in Act I (a dance of celebration, assertion, joy) and there's a melancholy waltz in Act III (a slow dance of sadness and introspection), each of which conforms perfectly to the tone of the three acts. The deeper interiority of Act III is more difficult to stage and make work than the more obvious tone and the action of the first two acts, and it doesn't quite come together in the opera itself, but Michael Cavanagh's direction, the use of mists (for time, memory, distance) and the use of connections made though the dancing, finds a through-line that holds it all together surprisingly well.

It's important that all this works with the music and singing performances. The musical challenges alone are considerable for a work that makes use of unconventional orchestration with saxophones and electronic keyboards, but Fergus Sheil and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra provided an invigorating and thrilling performance that balanced the rhythms with the nature of the drama expressed in the libretto and on the stage, as well as with the expression of the singers. The program notes that microphones are required to amplify the singers above the orchestra (although a reduced orchestration allowed the Châtelet in Paris to perform it acoustically), but the singing, diction and expression was so strong here that you scarcely believed it was necessary.

As if to confirm the importance of the women figures, the singing was particularly impressive from Claudia Boyle and Audrey Luna. Claudia Boyle's Pat Nixon was confident and accomplished, but touching too, with a real sense of sympathy for her character and the importance of her as the heart of the opera. Audrey Luna's Chiang Ch'ing saw more of the stratospheric notes the coloratura soprano hit in her Met performance of Ariel in Adès' The Tempest. Where the use of microphones might have been useful here was in allowing the male singers to sing rather than project. Barry Ryan's Nixon was accordingly wonderfully musical, showing the lyrical qualities that are in the writing of this character which we rarely hear in English language opera. Like Ryan, we also had sensitive performances from James Cleverton as Chou En-lai, Hubert Francis as Mao Tse-tung, with John Molloy fully entering into the spirit of the playful but sinisterly depicted Henry Kissinger.

Presenting a modern opera to a Dublin audience was always going to be a challenge, but it's one that, following their marvellous The Importance of Being Earnest, has again paid off impressively for Wide Open Opera. This is a far cry from La Traviata or Madama Butterfly, and a new and sometimes challenging experience for many, but judging from the enthusiastic response of the audience at the opening night at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre for Nixon in China, many were clearly struck at the possibilities this form of music theatre can offer. That's clearly a mark of Wide Open Opera's approach to ensuring quality at every level, and genuinely having something new to bring to the arts and theatre-going public in Ireland.

Thursday 15 May 2014

Rossini - La Donna del Lago (Royal Opera House, 2013)

Giacomo Rossini - La Donna del Lago 

Royal Opera House, London 2013

Michele Mariotti, John Fulljames, Joyce DiDonato, Juan Diego Flórez, Daniela Barcellona, Simón Orfila, Colin Lee, Justina Gringyte, Robin Leggate, Christopher Lackner, Paolo Bemsch

Sky Arts 2

An awful lot of critics got terribly hung up about the framing structure that director John Fulljames imposed on top of the already bewildering plot of Rossini's La Donna del Lago, but really it's neither here nor there. I'm not sure that anything could clarify the intricacies of the opera's plot or render it meaningful. What really matters in La Donna del Lago is the presentation of Rossini's marvellous score and whether the staging allows the singers to deliver the full lyrical content of the work. The Royal Opera House's production unfailingly and emphatically does just that.

It's clear that much of the historical context of Walter Scott's original verse drama set in the Scottish Highlands has already been reduced to functioning merely as a colourful backdrop for a romantic love triangle - as it often is in bel canto operas - so any efforts to reinsert political or cultural context is not going to add much to the work and is probably going to be lost on the viewer. Opening in what looks like a museum, with Elena frozen in a glass display case, it's certainly not obvious to a viewer who doesn't have an explanatory programme in front of them why two of the character Serano and Albina have been recast as museum attendants. It's by no means obvious either that they are meant to represent the original author Walter Scott and Rossini, but whether you know this or not doesn't seem to matter much.

Even if the whole operatic fashion for adapting the works of Walter Scott and the Highlands (see Donizetti's Lucia de Lammermoor for another example) might seem unfathomable to tastes today, there is a recognition in this setting that the dramatisation of history can still speak to us across the ages, and that opera has a special way of breathing life into the characters and personalities in the past. At the most basic level, if you want to view the intent of Royal Opera House as merely a suggestion that La Donna del Lago itself is a museum piece, taken out of its case, dusted down and presented to a modern audience to admire its beauty, that's an adequate way to approach the work. La Donna del Lago is an object of considerable beauty, one that certainly still has something to give to an audience.

Although you could say the same for at least a dozen of his operas, La Donna del Lago is one of Rossini's most underrated, or at least underperformed works. What's different about this one is that there is a genuine effort by the composer to break away from the format of opera as a series of linked numbers and set-pieces in order to find a more through-composed response to the lyric qualities of Scott's verse. Much of the rhythm of La Donna del Lago adheres to the familiar Rossini fast-slow-fast-faster-slow arrangements, but this is one work where the music is more dramatically attuned to the high-flown romantic and patriotic sentiments of the work.

Often working at a breakneck pace to tight deadlines, Rossini wasn't beyond reusing melodies from other operas and even applying them to settings that they weren't originally composed to suit, but all the music in La Donna del Lago is original, tailored specifically for this work and - as far as I know - never reused elsewhere. More than that, the music, even by Rossini's standards, contains some of the composer's most beautiful melodies that weave in and out through the whole work in various guises and speeds. It's clearly of a whole, ebbing and flow, swirling to the demands of the drama and the emotional content.

Admittedly however, the quality of the drama itself in La Donna del Lago is questionable. Even after watching the work and then reading the synopsis, I still can't figure out what kind of political allegiances and enmities underpin its Highland drama and setting. It's not hard however to recognise that the usual bel canto conventions for a romantic love-triangle, with hidden or lost identities, sometimes revealing mystery figures to be members of royalty in disguise. Is there any more depth to the work than this? Perhaps a director like Graham Vick could reinterpret it for a modern audience, but John Fulljames relies just on the post-modern framing device and then lets the music and the singing speak for itself. It works because on that level alone, this is an impressive piece of unquestionable quality.

Criticisms of the stage production aside and recognising that the drama is rather confusing, the critics didn't however fail to notice where those qualities lie. And it would be hard not to when the Royal Opera House production has two of the finest singers in the world in this repertoire on the stage - Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez. DiDonato is simply stunning here as Elena. I don't think she has any serious competitors within this repertoire at the moment. Her technique is impressive, her phrasing beautiful, the sentiments expressed with force, delicacy and nuance. It's an utterly flawless and compelling performance that sends shivers down the spine.

Flórez also knows no equal in the bel canto tenor repertoire, at least within the lighter and comic end of the range. Dramatic Rossini is more of a challenge, but he's just as impressive here. It's been noted that his voice is changing and perhaps darkening, but he can still hit all the high notes without any apparent effort. Daniela Barcellona is clearly carving a niche for herself in the specialised contralto Rossini trouser roles, and is simply fabulous here as Malcolm. These are all roles that are highly challenging to sing and dramatise, but critical to the success of the work in terms of making the opera really come alive and you couldn't ask for a better cast more capable of making that work. Other than perhaps asking for the other roles to be filled with strong singers, and that's what we get here, with Colin Lee in particular deserving a mention as Rodrigo.

The musical direction is also vital for La Donna del Lago and Michele Mariotti takes charge of the orchestra of the Royal Opera House to deliver much of the beauty of the work. I've heard a recording of the 2012 La Scala production, which features much of the same cast and was originally scheduled to transfer directly over to the Royal Opera House. It's conducted there by Roberto Abbado in a rather more pacy, enthusiastic and more idiomatic Rossinian manner, while here it is a little more restrained. Even so, the full force of the work and its stunning conclusion come over tremendously well. Whether La Donna del Lago would be half as good or even work at all without a singer of calibre Joyce DiDonato is debatable, but with the right singers, this shows just how good Rossini can be.

Tuesday 6 May 2014

Mariotte - Salomé (Munich, 2014)

Antoine Mariotte - Salomé

Bayerischen Theaterakademie, Prinzregententheater - Munich 2014

Ulf Schirmer, Balázs Kovalik, Anna Maria Thoma, Eric Ander, Idunnu Münch, Heeyun Choi, Ingyu Hwang

BR-KLASSIK Web Streaming - 28 February 2014

One of the most pleasant and unexpected rediscoveries made during the 150th anniversary celebrations of Richard Strauss is actually likely to be not one of the composer's own works, but that of a little-known French contemporary of Strauss, Antoine Mariotte. Mariotte's claim to fame, and in most cases the only reason his name is remembered at all nowadays, is that he had the idea to write an opera based on Oscar Wilde's 'Salomé' at the same time as Strauss but unfortunately failed to secure the rights to the work.

The opportunity to see a very rare performance of the work, performed at the Prinzregententheater in Munich and broadcast by the Bavarian radio station BR-KLASSIK, suggests that the subsequent fall into obscurity of Mariotte's French version of Salomé has less to do with the quality of the work than the fact that it became tied up in legal problems that prevented it becoming more widely known. It was permitted one presentation in Lyon in 1908, after which all copies of the work were to be destroyed. Fortunately, more favourable terms were eventually agreed upon, but the work would never have been allowed the same exposure as the approved version by Richard Strauss.

While this new production of the work in Munich proves that Mariotte's Salomé is by no means an inferior work and undoubtedly unjustly neglected, it's also evident that Strauss's opera is by far the bolder and more experimental of the two works. Strauss's  one-act assault on the senses is not only more closely attuned to the dark psychology of the characters in Wilde's provocative drama, but it similarly set out to challenge conventional morality as well as the conventions of the artform. Written in 1891, Wilde wrote 'Salomé' without any real intention of it ever being performed, since the depiction of Biblical characters on the stage was prohibited in England by the censor. The work however unexpected enjoyed great success in both France and Germany, where it was seen by Richard Strauss. It in turn would inspire Strauss to make a musical leap that would prove to be immensely influential on the course of music in the 20th century.

By way of contrast, Mariotte's Salomé resides within the post-Wagnerian Romantic world, its lush arrangements and chromaticism reminiscent of Franz Schreker's decadent Entartete works (Die Gezeichneten), but with a intimacy and tone in its setting of French drama to music that inevitably brings Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande to mind. (Maurice Maeterlinck moreover being one of Wilde's dramatic influences here). As such, Mariotte seems to be more evidently in tune with the decadent and florid language of Wilde's play, which was actually written in French and lifted straight off the page by Mariotte. It seems like a perfect fit, and in many ways it is. It just isn't Strauss. It doesn't have the same dangerous edge of insanity and the desire to break conventions that make Strauss's Salome a true masterpiece.

Mariotte's score for Salomé is however not without its own sense of decadence and dissonance. The first encounter between Salomé and Iokanaan, for example, is quietly seductive as Salomé sings "Iokanaan. Je suis amoureuse de ton corp", but at the same time there are low discordant notes underlying this phrase that suggest that there's a darker and more perverse intent behind them. The use of the original French dialogue helps, although Wilde's often non-idiomatic French is heavily cut, mostly to remove repetition. Repetition is a device that Wilde uses consciously, but it's perhaps not as necessary when those sentiments are echoed in the music. Directed by Ulf Schirmer, a Strauss specialist and renowned for conducting German opera of this period, that's given a terrific account here.

Mariotte's interpretation most obviously differs from Strauss's version in the delivery of the sentiments expressed in the libretto. It's wonderfully scored for the voice in a way that makes the vital central encounter between Salomé and Iokanaan a highly charged one. The actual singing range is not as challenging and punishing as the contortions of Strauss's Salome, but it is certainly equally intimate, intense and dramatic, Mariotte choosing to close their encounter not with Salomé in a rage, but almost lamenting the outcome. Mariotte's version also tightens the focus, removing the scenes with the Jews and reducing the roles of Naraboth and the Page, yet somehow Strauss manages to use these scenes to heighten the sense of discord, corruption and menace.

Directed by Balázs Kovalik at the Prinzregententheater in Munich, the stage setting for this version of Salomé is clearly not Biblical period. Rather than be set within Herod's palace, it seems to all take place on the fire-escape outside it, the set a framework of interweaving steel staircases. It's a little more explicit where the actual text is vague, allusive and allegorical, although there are a few symbolic gestures. I'm not sure what is meant by the pink horse with an orange mane at the top of the staircase, but it's not unreasonable to show Salomé's split nature by using a young ballet dancer in one or two scenes, both of them dressed in black with a pink tutu.

There's little doubt about the corrupt and perverse sexual nature of the characters in this production (not that Wilde's suggestive phrases and Aubrey Beardsley's original illustrations were in any way ambiguous), since it is fully acted-out here. Naraboth's lustful voyeurism is indulged by Salomé here with the use of a direct video feed from underneath her skirt, and the curiously staged dance scene is also quite direct. While her young double enacts a dance of death with Iokanaan, the singing Salomé does a brief hand-jive while Herod lifts the layers of her tutu and removes her panties. Just so there's no question of what Herod's intent is, it's also fully enacted here in a bed alongside the dead body of Naraboth. There are plenty of sexual gestures then, but no actual nudity.

Interestingly, in Mariotte's version, Herod doesn't call out for Salomé's death at the end (the final line "Tuez cette femme!" is cut here), but it is carried out nonetheless in this production with Herod himself pulling the trigger. Regardless of the production and direction choices, its adherence to the words and the intent of the work is fairly accurate and dramatically effective. It's also very well sung with strong performances from Anna Maria Thoma as Salomé, Heeyun Choi as Iokanaan, Eric Ander as Hérode, Idunnu Münch as Hérodias and Ingyu Hwang as Naraboth. A sordid little bunch of despicable characters, you feel at the end of this eye-opening production of Mariotte's Salomé, which suggests that all the performers did their job very well.

BR-Klassik link - Mariotte - Salomé

Sunday 4 May 2014

Haydn - Il Mondo della Luna (Monte Carlo 2014 - Webcast)

Franz Joseph Haydn - Il Mondo della Luna

L'Opéra de Monte-Carlo, 2014

Jérémie Rhorer, Emilio Sagi, Philippe Do, Giuseppina Bridelli, Roberto De Candia, Hélène Le Corre, Alessandra Marianelli, Annalisa Stroppa, Mathias Vidal

Culturebox - 25 March 2014

Haydn's Il Mondo della Luna is, like many of the composer's elegant comic opera works, deceptively light and simple. Based on a libretto written by Carlo Goldoni in 1750 for Baldassare Galuppi (one of the earliest innovators of the comic opera), there is however a certain amount of satire in the work on the credulity of men, who are particularly gullible when they are being told something they want to hear.

When you listen to Il Mondo della Luna, you similarly hear what you want to hear and the first thing you are likely to notice is that it is the most elegant music, beautifully arranged and delicately played. Considering the nature of the subject however should there not also be a little more of an edge to the music? When it comes to the subject of the complicated relations between men and women, Il Mondo della Luna is no Marriage of Figaro or Così Fan Tutte, and - as the composer himself was literally the first to admit - Haydn is no Mozart. II Mondo della Luna is no Die Zauberflöte either, but there is surely a deeper message here behind the comedy.

Written by Haydn for the Austro-Hungarian Eszterhàzy royal court in his capacity as court composer, the purpose of Il Mondo della Luna undoubtedly is primarily to entertain and not cause its audience too much confusion over the tone or intent. That doesn't mean that a modern production of the work has to be gentle and reverential. Nikolaus Harnoncourt demonstrated a perfect balance and understanding of the differences between Mozart and Haydn in the Theater an der Wien's delightful 2009 production, but there's a slight sense that the work is played rather too nicely without capturing the distinctive qualities of Haydn in this 2014 Opéra de Monte-Carlo production.

At the very least however, the stage production directed by Emilio Sagi is stylish, colourful and eye-catching and not buried in antiquated period mannerisms. There's a good rationale for this since the work is almost science-fictional in nature, involving a trip to the moon, or at least, what is supposed to look like a trip to the moon, but that depends on how gullible you are and how much opium you've taken. Such a poor fool is Buonafede, who has been duped by Ecclitico, a confidence trickster who has fed him manufactured images and ideas that appeal to his prejudices and, well, his sexual inclinations.

Buonafede would like to believe that life on the moon is the opposite of how it is lived on Earth. On the moon, it's actually women who are dominant, since they have a closer relationship with Earth's satellite and, as such, can they even be described literally as lunatics. This appeals to Buonafede, who is unaware that it confirms his impressions of the reality on Earth. It is indeed women who call the shots in Il Mondo della Luna, and three of them - Buonafede's two daughters Clarice and Flaminia and his maid Lisetta who has ideas above her station - are rather strong personalities indeed. You can see how Buonafede would be somewhat browbeaten and long to escape to a place where he is treated better. Ecclitico's scheme is to turn this to his advantage, since he and his associates have designs on marrying the women that Buonafede keeps safely locked away.

Haydn's handling of the dramma giocoso is fairly conventional, but delightful all the same, the situations providing each of the characters and singers with the opportunity to express their feelings in pleasant little arias. There's nothing too testing here, but it requires a certain lightness of touch, clarity of diction and fluidity of expression with some facility for coloratura. There's nothing as challenging or as ambitious as Mozart in this register, but Haydn is a good testing ground for young singers. Based on the subsequent careers of those in the Harnonourt production (Bernard Richter, Vivica Genaux), and perhaps reflecting where Haydn's musical affinities really lie, those careers more often seem to be in the Baroque field rather than in Mozart operas.

This is perfect ground for Jérémie Rhorer, who directs the music at Monte Carlo here with a precision and lightness of touch that matches the early operas of the young Mozart. It's a little too nice and unadventurous though, and it doesn't quite have the same edge that Harnoncourt brought to the work (although admittedly that recollection might not be a reliable one, since I haven't heard the 2009 version in quite a while). The singing likewise meets all the requirements, but there's little here that really stands out. Roberto De Candia sings well and is a solid Buonafede, Alessandra Marianelli impresses as Flaminia and Hélène Le Corre sings well as Clarice, but there's little that stands out as exceptional. Mathias Vidal does actually bring a little more over-the-top dynamic to the performances, but it's a little out of step with the overall tone.

The stage direction, while bold and colourful, doesn't really provide the opportunity to develop or explore the work with a little more adventurousness. Life on the moon, for some unknown reason, seems to be a cabaret, with multi-coloured poles flanking a long staircase, with exotic dancers in glittery costumes and bowler hats, and a glitterball finale. I'm not sure about life being a cabaret, but in a work that does propose variety being the spice of life, there needs to be a little more dynamic in showing the contrasts between what men want and what women want, and this production at Monte Carlo is just a little too smooth and pleasant to really give us that.

Friday 2 May 2014

Donizetti - Don Pasquale (Glyndebourne 2013 - Blu-ray)

Gaetano Donizetti - Don Pasquale

Glyndebourne, 2013

Enrique Mazzola, Mariame Clément, Alessandro Corbelli, Danielle de Niese, Nikolay Borchev, Alek Shrader, James Platt, Anna-Marie Sullivan

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

It's quite clear from the extra features of the BD release that the cast and creative team behind the 2013 Glyndebourne production of Don Pasquale are of one mind about what is the essential purpose of the work. The audience should come away from a performance of Donizetti's charming and delightful comedy feeling that they have been amused and entertained. And they are absolutely right. Don Pasquale is a very funny work, it has some amusing comedy characters and situations, some lively melodies and songs. So why then does the Glyndebourne production feel so lifeless and just plain unfunny?

Well, for a start everything feels forced. The work demands a lightness of touch from both the orchestra and from the cast. Not necessarily subtlety - you can ham-up Don Pasquale as much as you like and it can still be riotously funny - but with at least some measure of fluidity and consistency. Enrique Mazzola at least understands and projects the right tone for the work and the London Philharmonic fairly romp through the work, but the staging, the direction and a few of the the performances leave something to be desired.

Originally created as a touring production, there's at least a simplicity and practicality to the revolving stage that suits the flowing nature of the work and makes an effort to play out the proceedings on a light-hearted basis. Unfortunately, many of those elements introduced in the form of props are bewildering and just plain unfunny. Ernesto owning a rocking horse and teddy bears? Paintings that change and have trapdoors behind them? A pigeon on a string delivering a letter to Norina? Malatesta shoving the maid into the wardrobe for no apparent reason? It gets a brief chuckle or two from the audience, but none of it is clever, witty or seems to make any sense. It just seems desperate.

It's also somewhat inconsistent. The characters can be witty and entertaining in their own right, particularly when well directed and rehearsed, but this production never feels comfortable and relaxed enough to laugh at itself, modelling it to an extent on 'Dangerous Liaisons' which actually even seems to work against the humour within the characterisation. The problem mainly lies with the unnecessary change in the personality of Malatesta. He's shown during the overture tiptoeing at night through the revolving rooms of each of the sleeping characters, popping into wardrobes and out of baths. It cleverly indicates that he's going to be the arch manipulator of them all here, but it's not really that clever since this kind of characterisation ends up working against the ensemble nature of the deceits and self-delusions.

On the other hand, by making Malatesta's relationship with his 'sister' a little more in the vein of Sparafucile's in Rigoletto, it does actually place Norina more centrally as the one playing each of the foolish men. Again, this doesn't really hold up under any kind of scrutiny and instead just confuses the viewer as to what the real intentions of the story are (which should be about contriving a means to get Ernesto married to the poor Norina against his uncle's wishes), and consequently the comedy of the lengths that they go to in order to bring this about suffers.

Some good singing and comic timing can hide a multitude of sins and implausibilities in the plot, but even though they try very hard - a little too hard perhaps - none of them really seem to be able to make these characters work, at least not with the confused directorial approach employed here. You would think that the bubbly and irrepressible Danielle de Niese would at least make a sparkling and bright Norina, but she looks and sounds uncomfortable in the role, her singing a little strained and the effort showing in her exaggerated actions. It might look fine in the Glyndebourne hall, but in close-up in High Definition it seems overplayed.

By way of contrast Nikolay Borchev doesn't quite have enough personality or a voice big enough for the role, but he copes well with the singing and with the characterisation that he's been asked to play. Alek Shrader shows no signs of the illness that forced him to miss the opening night of this production at Glyndebourne, and makes things worthwhile with his lovely pure tenor voice. Any impression that he might have made however suffers from lack of direction and his role is also trivialised somewhat by the nature of Dr Malatesta's bewildering relationship with Norina. Alessandro Corbelli too is left to make what he can out of his Don Pasquale, but does so marvellously with a luxurious tone, precise enunciation and deft weighting of delivery.

These are small compensations though for the lack of real wit and humour in Mariame Clément's characterisation and direction. Comic opera in works like The Barber of Seville or Gianni Schicchi is difficult to carry off, but when it's done right it can be dazzlingly brilliant. Unfortunately once you've seen one of those works done really well it does colour your view and sets a standard that is hard for others to live up to. In this case of Don Pasquale, the Met's production with Anna Netrebko as Norina is a masterclass in comic opera performance. The attention to character, situation and comic timing in that production makes it all look so effortlessly easy, and emphasises just how forced and awkward the Glyndebourne one is by comparison.

The Blu-ray has the usual fine presentation from Opus Arte, with an impeccable HD image and strong audio tracks. Extras include a couple of featurettes totalling around 20 minutes that look behind the scenes and interview the director and all the main performers. The booklet makes much of the commedia dell' arte origins of the work and the nature of the three-four waltz time of the work, but doesn't really serve to greatly illuminate either the work or the production. The BD is region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German and Korean only.