Sunday 29 June 2014

Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer (Bayreuth 2013 - Blu-ray)

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer

Bayreuther Festspiele, 2013

Christian Thielemann, Jan Philipp Gloger, Franz-Josef Selig, Ricarda Merbeth, Tomislav Mužek, Christa Mayer, Benjamin Bruns, Samuel Youn

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

You never know quite what to expect from a new Bayreuth production other than the certainty that it won't be a "traditional" staging of a Wagner opera. Jan Philipp Gloger's concept for the 2012 production of Der Fliegende Holländer for example, is initially difficult to figure out, but there are a few things that stand in its favour that suggest that it at least holds true to the spirit and intention of the work. One is its adherence to the dramatic and mythological strengths of the work, the other is the quality of the performance itself, conducted by Christian Thielemann and sung well by a strong cast.

Taking it in terms of each of the three acts - although this performance uses the "joined-up" version of Der Fliegende Holländer without breaks or intermission - it's not immediately obvious what the setting or the intention is from the first act, and there's not much that appears consistent in the tone or the concept in the acts that follow either. Act I seems to suggest a futuristic setting, a data or information sea rather than a traditional water one. Dark walls are lined with connections, components and cables like a motherboard, lighting-up with the flashes of the storm, one that seems to derive directly from the ominous and unnoticed approach of the cyborg Dutchman's phantom ship.  

It may be dark and menacing, but the tone is inconsistent, the Steersman and Daland like a comedy double-act or at least showing some degree of levity in their actions and gestures. Conceptually, it doesn't seem to hold together, but arguably Wagner's technique doesn't hold together either in this earliest through-composed work which breaks into Donizetti melodies and Lortzing-influenced operetta duets. Act II seems similarly schizophrenic, the female chorus not a group of wives-a-weaving but workers in a factory packing fans into boxes. Among this group of sweetly singing industrious ladies, Senta comes across as a bit of an odd-ball - dark, gloomy and not a little deranged, crafting an abstract sculpture of the mythical Dutchman out of spare bits of wood, black tar and packing.

If you're a bit lost as to what is going on here you can at least enjoy the outstanding musical and singing performances, but things do start to fall into place in Act III (although it might help if you refer to the director's notes on the production in the accompanying booklet). Broadly speaking it's not that far removed from Martin Kušej's interpretation for the De Nederlandse in terms of how  the subject of Der Fliegende Holländer is viewed as a question of love versus commerce. The incompatibility and conflict between love and business is indeed a subject that plagued Wagner most of his life, so there's merit in this view, but whether it can be brought out meaningfully depends very much whether it also adheres to other important aspects of the composer's life and philosophy, particularly around this time.

According to Jan Philipp Gloger, the Dutchman's curse is to be ever in search of new markets and increasing his profits. Weary of the pace of modern life and cold practicality of business, he needs to find some peace and get back in touch with real human feelings. This is a credible reading of the work, but it needs to also take into consideration Wagner's belief in the romantic and ennobling power of myth, its importance enriching and expanding the horizons of the individual and its collective purpose as something that defines a nation and its people. Golger's production actually does this, converting Senta into a makeshift angel, her actions inspiring her co-workers to recognise her human sacrifice in a commemorative object d'art.

That sounds belittling of Wagner's mythology, but it actually brings it back to human terms without losing any of the grandeur of the work. That's all there in the music - to which careful and respectful attention is paid here - and in the singing performances. Christian Thielemann's conducting of the Bayreuth orchestra might perhaps be a little unadventurous, but it's perfectly attuned to the dramatic performance and the singing. Unshowy, it's sensitive to the intricacies of the score, muscular where required, light and lyrical in other places with a true romantic sweep and dramatic drive. It's wonderful to hear, but even more impressive in how it connects with all the points of the dramatic staging.

The efforts of director and conductor could still all fall apart if the production didn't also have sympathetic singing performances and, fortunately, the singing here is very strong in all the roles. Ricarda Merbeth in particular is outstanding as Senta. It's is a difficult role, not just for the singing requirements, but in how one chooses to define and balance Senta's dreamy, deranged and romantic nature. Merbeth not only meets all the technical requirements, she delivers it with ringing lyricism that captures the magical as well as the all too human nature of her character. She's at her best in the critical Act II scene with the Dutchman which has to make this unlikely couple seem credible and she and Samuel Youn do indeed 'click' and work together wonderfully.

You can't fault the casting in the other roles here either, with Franz-Josef Selig a solid Daland and Benjamin Bruns a bright, golden-voiced Steersman. The choral work - a vital element of Der Fliegende Holländer - is also outstanding, the male choruses purposeful and driven, the female chorus delicate and lyrical. The production design for this 2013 recording incidentally seems to have been reworked slightly from it 2012 presentation from what I can see from production photographs. Senta is dressed in black throughout here rather than red, the blood red imagery replaced elsewhere with black tar-like drips. The model sailing ship is gone in Senta's ballad, replaced with her obsessing over the abstract sculpture she has created.

On Blu-ray, the 2013 Bayreuther Festspiele production of Der Fliegende Holländer looks tremendous, even with all the dark backgrounds and high contrast lighting. The audio tracks are both strong, the DTS Master HD-Audio 5.1 giving a good surround ambience while the PCM track is more focussed and direct. Extras consist of short interviews with Benjamin Bruns, chorus master Eberhard Friedrich, director Jan Philipp Gloger and a slightly longer entertaining interview with Christian Thielemann being amiably(?) spiky and contrary, clearly knowing his own mind with respects to Wagner and this work. The disc is region-free, subtitles are in English, French, German and Korean.

Saturday 28 June 2014

Puccini - Manon Lescaut (Royal Opera House 2014 - Cinema Live)

Giacomo Puccini - Manon Lescaut

Royal Opera House, London - 2014

Antonio Pappano, Jonathan Kent, Kristīne Opolais, Christopher Maltman, Jonas Kaufmann, Maurizio Muraro, Benjamin Hulett, Robert Burt, Nadezhda Karyazina, Luis Gomes, Jeremy White, Jihoon Kim, Nigel Cliffe

Royal Opera House Cinema Live - 24 June 2014

While there isn't much hope for Le Villi and Edgar, there has at least been a concerted effort in recent years to bring another of Puccini's earliest works into the mainstream opera repertoire with numerous productions worldwide of Manon Lescaut. Puccini's first major success, the reasons for Manon Lescaut's neglect are a bit of a mystery. Antonio Pappano makes a strong case for the dramatic quality of the opera, the power of its dramatic score and the beauty of its melodies. The director of the Royal Opera House Kasper Holten suggests that it could be because it needs at least two world-class singers in the main roles, but that's also the case for La Bohème and Tosca. With Pappano conducting then and two major stars - Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais - in place and on fire for the Royal Opera House's season-closing live cinema broadcast, you would think that this new production would be a revelatory affirmation of the worth of Manon Lescaut, yet by the end of the evening, doubts about the work remain.

It seems obvious then to point the finger of blame - as many critics have been quick to do - at director Jonathan Kent, but while it is indeed difficult to follow where exactly the director is taking the story in the sets for Acts III and IV, the tone and line of the production is firmly on the side of the drama and the emotional journey of the two lovers. It's too easy to blame the production just for being modern - if the opera can't stand up to being placed in a modern context then it might well indeed be an old-fashioned work that has little to offer a modern audience and its relative obscurity is probably merited. Mariuz Treliński had a fair go at it in La Monnaie's 2013 production, so that doesn't seem to be the whole story with Manon Lescaut.

There are certain elements of L'Abbé Prévost’s original novel 'L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut' that are perhaps a little out of place. You'd have a bit of trouble trying to force your sister into a convent nowadays, as Lescaut intends to do here with Manon. Accepting instead an offer to selling her off to a old rich man and then into prostitution is a bit of a change of heart for Lescaut and perhaps not that a common experience that many will identify with either. The way that that this separates the young woman from the ability to make her own choices however and love the young man she chooses - the Chevalier des Grieux - has timeless resonance and, most importantly, real conflicts between the heart and material desires. Certainly none of these issues have prevented the subject from reaching modern audiences in Massenet's popular and enduring Manon.

None of it has been any obstacle either for Puccini doing much the same thing in making Mimi's dilemma - again, one that remains tied very much to the times and morals of the period - the successful and heartbreaking heroine of the romantic tragedy of La Bohème. It's clear then that this is not the issue with Manon Lescaut, or at least not the main issue. There are however certain leaps and gaps in Puccini's version of Manon Lescaut that flow less well dramatically than Massenet's version, leaving out a lot of important details. Most critically, Massenet's choice to end the work with the death of Manon at the boarding of her ship as she is being deported to America spares us what amounts to an extended death scene that lasts the entirety of Act IV in Puccini's version where Manon and Des Grieux find themselves for some unexplained reason dying of thirst and starvation in the Utah desert.

There's not an awful lot that a stage director can do to make that fit with the rest of the work. The earlier scenes may take a rather sleazy modern approach to Manon's downfall - the young woman becoming a porn-star performing for a live audience rather than a dancer - but this gives exactly the right impression of how sordid the enterprise is. Glamour is of course part of Manon's ambitions, part of the unresolved conflict that keeps the young woman from simply following her heart, but you ought to make you feel uncomfortable at how she is being exploited and that is done well. The stylised deportation of Manon and the prostitutes along a gaming table and through a poster inscribed 'Naïveté' in Act III, coming out on a crumbling road that twists towards the upper heights of the stage in Act IV (the other side of the poster forming a desert backdrop) is however as baffling as the dramatic development itself, but it at least looks great. It doesn't however in any way undermine or reduce the emotional impact of how the scene is written or how Puccini scores it.

But yet it's hard to imagine that any of this provoking a single wet eye in the house. With Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann both in superb form throughout belting out the agony of their character's dilemma, Manon coming to regret the path that has left her "sola, perduta, abbandonata"; with Antonio Pappano sensitively wringing every ounce of drama and emotion out Puccini's exquisitely beautiful and heart wrenching score; with the on-screen film direction taking us into cinematic extreme close-up in a way that both Opolais and Kaufmann can sustain dramatically as well as aesthetically; you really ought to be a quivering wreck at the end of Manon Lescaut. If that much effort is put into it however and it fails to make the necessary impact, something is very wrong. Perhaps it's all just too much.

It's not too much on the part of the singers, the director or the conductor - they are just performing what Puccini has written the way he intends it to be played - it's just that it's musically overwrought without there being enough genuine character and dramatic development put into making the audience really care for the characters. It's not necessarily that Manon is a bit of a gold-digger - Mimi is fairly mercenary in her attachments in La Bohème and we care infinitely more about her sad and lonely death - but Puccini and his numerous librettists haven't put the necessary work into establishing the romance between Manon and Des Grieux as something credible. It's significant to note that Puccini has no equivalent for the second act in Massenet's Manon showing their humble but happy home in Paris with its little table, albeit a short-lived happiness where the relationship is already in trouble. We don't really get much of an opportunity to see Manon and Des Grieux together in Manon Lescaut, and when we do in Act IV, it's too much too late.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Puccini - Madama Butterfly (Scottish Opera 2014 - Belfast)

Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Scottish Opera, Belfast 2014

Marco Guidarini, David McVicar, Elaine Kidd, Hye-Youn Lee, Louise Collett, José Ferrero, Marcin Bronikowski, Adrian Thompson, Jonathan May, Catrin Aur, Andrew McTaggart

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 21 June 2014

Revived in 2014, David McVicar's 2000 production of Madama Butterfly for the Scottish Opera proves to be a sensitive working of Puccini's opera. It's perhaps not quite as daring or radical as some of McVicar's later opera interpretations, retaining many of the familiar elements that an audience would expect to see in Madama Butterfly, but there are enough little touches to show that there's been serious attention given to the work and indeed to how it works.

The first thing you notice about the set for Scottish Opera's production is that while you have the familiar low-lying platform and screens for a Japanese house, the set is slightly askew in perspective. What this suggests is obvious, but it's emphasised by the sepia toned quality of the colouring, the deep colouration and the cut of the costumes set against them. This is not a kitsch stylised Madama Butterfly, or one that suggests nostalgia for a period and goes through the motions of playing out the melodrama, but one rather that is striving for a sense of realism for the sensibility of the period, as well viewing it from the perspective of those involved.

Careful attention to Puccini's score does indeed suggest that this approach is validated by the music itself and that it's not as syrupy, sentimental and manipulative as it is reputed. Madama Butterfly is certainly romantic but it's not romanticised; it still has those verismo characteristics in how it follows through realistically on the harsh consequences of such heightened melodrama. McVicar's direction doesn't need any little tricks to manipulate the power of the score itself, choosing rather to introduce a few little "delayed impact" touches that draw back from any heavy-handedness. The director for example tips the hand early in Act II to let the audience know before the traditional revelation that Cio-Cio San has had a child in Pinkerton's absence. The finale too is more sensitive than usual - yes it can be done with sensitivity - with the falling of the knife in her death scene not striking on the note but just before it, letting the actual impact of her death rather than the act itself have the final say.

A similar sense of sensitivity is there throughout. I've seen ballet dancers introduced into Madama Butterfly before (Sferisterio 2009), for example, but I've never realised how ballet-like Puccini's score is in its storytelling. There's no actual dancing in this production, but there are telling little touches that show that the director (or revival director) is actually listening to the score and taking dramatic, emotional and movement cues from the music. Discovering that Butterfly is fifteen, Sharpless observes, "The age for playing" ('L'età dei giuochi'), while Pinkerton boldly claims (in this translation), "Old enough for a wedding dress" ('E dei confetti'). Here the moment is marked with a little skip and twirl of Butterfly in Pinkerton's arms that gives a sense of both the youth of the girl and the romance of the sentiment.

This could have been played as sleazy, but that's judging it by today's standards and not with a sense for the period place or the time. It doesn't make it right of course, but the director knows that this will be borne out by later events and it doesn't need any directorial input to tell the audience how they ought to feel. The twirl is indeed picked up later, an echo of that moment of romance, but with subtle darkening of tone. Joseph Kerman ('Music as Drama') might disagree, but Puccini is a master of using music and melody to tell stories - he just might not do it according to "rules". I admit that it bothers me that the composer uses the same music or hints at the Humming Chorus in an earlier scene where Sharpless delivers Pinkerton's letter when there's really nothing that justifies connecting these two moments. (Don't even ask who is supposed to be singing the Humming Chorus!). It's hardly the correct employment of Wagnerian leitmotif, but Puccini has a wonderful ability to use the same music with subtle variations to tell us different things and make it work.

The strength of the direction here is that it trusts Puccini's music to be strong enough to tell the story in its own way and determine the precise tone. Marco Guidarini's sensitive conducting of the Scottish Opera orchestra does much to achieve that also, and the singing isn't bad either. From the first moment she walks onto the stage it's clear that Hye-Youn Lee is going to be an outstanding Cio-Cio San. Her voice rings high, her control is marvellous, and her characterisation as a young innocent girl is utterly credible in her acting performance as well as in the careful tone, delivery and timbre of her voice. Butterfly needs to be dazzling without seeming to be too commanding or experienced beyond her years, and Hye-Youn Lee gets that absolutely right.

José Ferrero is a little bit harsh on first appearance as Pinkerton, particularly in his scenes with Marcin Bronikowski's fine performance as the US Consul Sharpless, but he settles into the role very well when playing against Lee's Butterfly. With revival director Elaine Kidd behind McVicar's solid and perfectly attuned production and strong performances from the orchestra and singers, Scottish Opera's Madama Butterfly is a perfect demonstration of why this particular work remains one of the greatest and most popular works of lyric stage. When it's performed right, Madama Butterfly is simply as good as dramatic opera gets.

Sunday 22 June 2014

Hurel - Les Pigeons d'Argile (Toulouse 2014 - Webcast)

Philippe Hurel - Les Pigeons d'Argile

Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, 2014

Tito Ceccherini, Mariame Clément, Gaëlle Arquez, Aimery Lefèvre, Vincent Le Texier, Vannina Santoni, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Gilles Ragon

Culturebox - 20 April 2014

Tanguy Viel, a French crime writer known for cinematic references in his books - Hitchcock notably being a key figure of influence - employs very clear cinematic techniques as the librettist for Philippe Harel's first opera work, Les Pigeons d'Argile (Clay Pigeons). Making its 2014 premiere at the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, the subject of the opera - a reworking of the Patty Hearst case - and the genre almost demands a cinematic treatment, which inevitably gives rise to the question of whether Les Pigeons d'Argile wouldn't have been better suited to the screen than the stage.

The relationship between opera and cinema, of music and drama working closely together, was recognised right from the earliest days of the new medium. Prokofiev, Strauss and Korngold were among the earliest adopters of the new artform, not just composing film soundtracks, but also incorporating cinematic effects and montage techniques into their works (Strauss's Intermezzo for example being made up of cuts of short scenes rather than traditional longer acts). By and large however, cinema and opera have tended to follow their own separate paths over the course of the 20th century, with only the occasional experimental collaboration made in the use of film and video in stagings and even more rarely seeing any adventurous compositional influence on the musical language employed.

It's only relatively recently that we've seem modern opera look at cinema as something to be embraced wholeheartedly into opera. Beyond the composition of traditional soundtracks and the translation of films into opera (most notably Brokeback Mountain), Philip Glass has for example also collaborated in the creative process of filmmaking through the fusion of music and image in films like Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi. Glass has however also taken cinema into the opera world in bold works like La Belle et La Bête, scoring an opera to the rhythm and montage of Cocteau's classic film with opera singing placed on top of the existing dialogue. More recently Michel van der Aa and David Mitchell's Sunken Garden incorporated live singing performances that interacted with actors in filmed sections.

The importance of cinema on Les Pigeons d'Argile is evident right from the prologue. Opening with a shoot-out in a hangar, pre-recorded filmed footage is projected to show a more realistic cinematic version of what is being acted live out on stage.  What is significant about the opening scene however is not that it's just a way to make a shoot-out and car-chase action sequence more realistic than could ever be achieved on a theatre stage, but that it's a set up for that very cinematic narrative device of the flashback. Act I and II then go back to look at the sequence of events that lead up to this scene, with Act III considering the aftermath.

This is not particularly revolutionary in terms of how it affects the composition of an opera piece, since the tone of the music and even overtures have long - since Wagner at least - been used to foreshadow dramatic developments. In terms of strict plot development, there's not much here either that wouldn't be better suited to a film screen. Based on the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, it's a story of love and revolution, a textbook case of Stockholm Syndrome. In Les Pigeons d'Argile, Patricia 'Patty' Baer is the daughter of a millionaire industrialist kidnapped by left-wing revolutionaries who comes to sympathise with their aims and joins them in extremist activities like robbing banks.

The laying out of the plot is fairly conventional, as it the manner in which the characters are drawn. There's not a great deal of depth or subtlety in how the two sides of the "class struggle" are viewed here. The use of guns has already been established by the prologue, and it's while viewing a media arranged shooting of clay pigeons on Bernard Baer's estate that the two young Marxist revolutionaries Toni and Charlie hatch their plan to kidnap the daughter of the millionaire and aspiring politician.

The prologue, where Toni's father is shot by the police while helping his son escape, also highlights the fact that the opera is concerned not so much with the political ramifications of the class struggle as with the psychological questions surrounding Patty's Stockholm Syndrome behaviour and Toni's rebellion. That's seen as having a lot to do with fathers. Toni's father Pietro is an "old socialist", a small time village activist who has never really had any thought of changing the world. Fond of his wine, the old man is an embarrassment to his son, but wants to find a way to redeem himself. In the past he and Bernard Baer were friends, but each went separate ways. Baer too however - although less strongly characterised - also wants to win the approval of his daughter, and believes it can be done though his wealth and success.

On the side of the younger generation, there's not a lot of insight or originality of observation here either. The children want to break away from the ideals of their parents and a corrupt system that defines their roles, hoping to set up a "new constitution". Their desire to keep personal feelings separate from their ideals is however shown to be unrealistic. Charlie is unable to keep "love and revolution" separate (we are told frequently in a repeated motif), and jealousy creeps in when the childhood friendship between Toni and Patty is rekindled, leading her to sell-out the revolutionaries to the chief of police. I'm not sure why Charlie's position between love and revolution dominates over the family, class and generational differences, but that seems to be the intention of the creators, perhaps as a way of reflecting the unpredictable element of human feelings.

This however comes at the cost of failing to adequately explore the other characters, with Bernard Baer in particular being neglected. As an opera, Les Pigeons d'Argile ought to be able to bring a greater depth to the characterisation than is evident from the superficial cinematic nature of the expositional dialogue and compressed shortcuts of the storyline. Viel's dialogue for the libretto is sung mainly as parlando recitative, and the singing voices at least bringing full intensity to the emotions and the situations. Harel's score accompanies and underlines the sentiments, emphasising declarations with short phrases and exclamatory flurries, but it doesn't succeed in establishing an overall distinct musical tone for the piece or give the subject any wider dimension.

As a theatrical performance however and purely as a drama, there's much to enjoy in Toulouse's world premiere presentation of the work directed by Mariame Clément. The singing from all the principal singers is exceptionally good, Gaëlle Arquez in particular standing out as Charlie, who tends to take the centre stage in the work. Aside from the magic-camera on-stage projected footage (projections of hand-held cameras show the characters in real-world setting rather than on the stage) and even simulated freeze-frames of action, the filming and editing of the performance also adopts a cinematic approach, using split-screen techniques to capture simultaneous action. Little of this however is as innovative as the combination of film and opera could and ought to be.

Links: Culturebox, Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse

Saturday 21 June 2014

Berlioz - Benvenuto Cellini (ENO 2014 - Cinema Live)

Hector Berlioz - Benvenuto Cellini

English National Opera, 2014

Edward Gardner, Terry Gilliam, Michael Spyres, Pavlo Hunka, Corinne Winters, Nicholas Pallesen, Willard White, Paula Murrihy, Nicky Spence, David Soar, Morgan Pearse, Anton Rich

ENO Screen - 17 June 2014

The 'opera semi-seria' is a curious beast. Are you supposed to take it seriously or not? Half-seriously maybe? I find it a particularly problematic term when it's applied to Benvenuto Cellini. The plot of Berlioz's opera is inspired by a real historical figure (1500 - 1571) and from events described in his autobiography, but there's a considerable amount of both farce and pomposity in Berlioz's treatment of the subject. It's hard to really know what to make of it.

Benvenuto Cellini is not in any case a work that is performed very often. A production for the 2007 Salzburg Festival by Philipp Stölzl didn't make the work any easier to get on with, his staging exaggerating the farce with colourful cartoon robots, while the orchestra romped through the overblown score. I expected much the same from ex-Monty Python director Terry Gilliam, but surprisingly, the English National Opera's 2014 production of this neglected and misunderstood work actually finds a balance that is better suited to drawing out the musical and dramatic qualities of the work.

The association of Terry Gilliam with the English National Opera has clearly been creatively revitalising for both parties. As a filmmaker, Gilliam's irreverence and his single-minded determination to put his surreal and uncommercial vision up on the screen (regardless of budget) has frequently put him at odds with the Hollywood movie industry. Creatively however, Gilliam has slipped into a bit of a rut and any efforts to so something groundbreakingly different (such as the extraordinary Tideland) have proved to be box-office flops. The box-office is of prime consideration for the ENO in these ties of austerity and arts budget cuts, but there's also been a concerted effort by the house to reach out to a new audience, and Gilliam's invitation to direct opera has been very much part of that design. It's one that has drawn a lot of publicity and, most importantly, acclaim.

While Gilliam and the ENO have proved to be a good match, the combination of a maverick director like Terry Gilliam with a rather conventional and mainstream establishment composer like Hector Berlioz didn't seem to be the most natural pairing. Berlioz however, for all his considerable ability and creativity, was never fully embraced by the French musical establishment as an opera composer and struggled all his life to get his works off the ground. There are definitely parallels with Berlioz's efforts to stage his hugely ambitious grand opera Les Troyens, only to see it drastically cut and only half of the work performed in his lifetime and Gilliam's very public battle to screen his 1985 masterpiece Brazil after the film was taken out off his hands and cut into an entirely different movie by the studio.

The Damnation of Faust, Gilliam's first production with the ENO however proved beyond any doubt the viability of the director applying his talents to the opera stage as well as the suitability of his vision and temperament with that of Berlioz. It seems only natural then, looking at Berlioz's other works and discounting (for the moment) the challenges of taking on a beast like Les Troyens, to invite Gilliam back to tackle another Berlioz opera. Benvenuto Cellini is the perfect work with a central character very much in line with Gilliam's sensibility and imagination. It's a work full of colourful figures, with tragic and comic elements and grand creative and romantic gestures made in the story (in the pressures of Cellini's commission to create a vast statue for Pope Clement VII) and in the score itself.

Surprisingly, Gilliam's Benvenuto Cellini resists unnecessary clutter and caricature and plays the work fairly straight, or at least at straight as it's possible to play this work. He reserves the really big gestures for those moments (the Mardi Gras, the arrival of Pope in all his pomp and ceremony) where it's necessary to make a specific impact. All the rest is lavishly scored by Berlioz, and Gilliam wisely doesn't seek to compete with it or contribute to setting it up as parody. There are a few typically Gilliam touches in the drawing of grotesque characters and he can't resist allowing the dancers a few camp gestures, but they're just flourishes to decorate the effect and perfectly in keeping with the overall tone.

There's not much else required in the way of interpretation in Benvenuto Cellini, and there's nothing really to be gained from a modern updating either. It's a colourful historical episode that takes its amusement from the personalities involved, and Gilliam accordingly sets his staging as stylised period. Cellini, his reputation and his exploits are enough to work with on their own terms, the statue he is preparing for Pope Clement VII big enough in scale to tell you everything you need to know about the extravagance of the commission. Gilliam cheekily (ahem!) places a large model of a bottom among the work-in-progress casts littering the sculptor's workshop, but it's the perfect antidote to the grand declarations of the Pope and his dire threats to Cellini should he fail to deliver his commission.

For most of the production, Gilliam lets the work speak for itself, focussing mainly on keeping the characters personalities real and defining their relationships credibly without letting too much farce get in the way. With Edward Gardner conducting, this works very well. Berlioz's score emphasises and underlines, swirling with clever flourishes, harmonies and melodies, and Gardner just goes with the flow. Musically and dramatically,it's enough to keep things moving, and Gilliam clearly has a good team of movement directors and choreographers who know how to keep it all visually interesting. When those grand gestures are called for however, Gilliam pulls out all the stops, converting the Coliseum itself into a grand Mardi Gras celebration, with colourful tickertape parades of huge puppets, whirling acrobats and dancers.

The attention to detail in the characterisation is extended to the cast, who similarly play their roles without unnecessary exaggeration. Most of them are caricatures of one sort or another, either romantic love-interests or cartoon villains, but are played and sung with verve by the cast. The most flamboyant is Pope Clement VII - but this is clearly called for in all the ceremonial music that accompanies his entrances. Willard White however anchors it with a solid, serious performance, his Pope seemingly oblivious in his self-importance to how ridiculous he looks and acts. 

Where it not for the fact that the performances are universally good, you suspect that Michael Spyres could carry this production almost single-handedly. His is a gloriously sung and warmly characterised Cellini. Even singing in English - translated well, if not quite with the same lyrical flow of the original French (now competing on an international stage via live cinema relays, the ENO really need to review this English-only policy) - Spyers rich musical voice is a delight, ensuring that there's real character and personality behind all the visual and aural extravagance of Benvenuto Cellini.

Thursday 19 June 2014

Offenbach - Les Contes d'Hoffmann (Teatro Real, Madrid 2014 - Webcast)

Jacques Offenbach - Les Contes d'Hoffmann

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2014

Sylvain Cambreling, Christoph Marthaler, Vito Priante, Christoph Homberger, Anne Sofie von Otter, Eric Cutler, Ana Durlovski, Measha Brueggergosman, Altea Garrido, Lani Poulson, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Gerardo Lopez, Tomeu Bibiloni, Isaac Galán

ARTE Concert - 21 May 2014

Les Contes d'Hoffmann is an 'opéra fantastique', but there's not much that's fantastical about Christoph Marthaler's version of Offenbach's most ambitious work in this production at the Teatro Real in Madrid. He certainly lets his imagination run riot with the concept, filling the stage with all sorts of antics and goings-on, but nothing really comes together or even seems to relate at all to what the work is about.

I must confess however that I've never been convinced that The Tales of Hoffmann has anything much worth making a fuss about anyway. I love Offenbach's comic operas, the brilliance of the wit, the daring of the satire and the entertaining, dazzling melodies, but the composer's only fully-fledged opera leaves me cold. I can appreciate Offenbach's musical sophistication here and how it's put to the service of the drama, even if it doesn't make a great impression, but I find the plots of Hoffmann's tales convoluted and tedious with little that reveals or provides insight into any genuine human values.

Which is a bit of a problem when the plot that has been drawn from assorted stories of E. T. Hoffmann are all supposed to examine the three great loves of his protagonist's life and the tragedy of their circumstances. As such, I have no objection to a director looking elsewhere for new areas of interest in Les Contes d'Hoffmann, or indeed playing up the fantastical nature of the work. Christoph Marthaler's production - one of the last legacies of the adventurous final term of the late Gérard Mortier at the Teatro Real - unfortunately only takes the work further away from whatever human experience might be found in it, and rather than find magic in it only adds greater confusion to an already convoluted storyline.

Worse than that, Marthaler's direction actually makes a slight but entertaining work feel long and very dull indeed. If you take the time to think about the production, there is actually an underlying theme in the setting, the whole opera with its diverse stories all taking place in a modern centre for the arts. That seems like a good place to unify the theatrical, the dramatic, the artistic and the creative imagination, but instead the stage is rather cluttered with art students sketching a series of nude models who pose and recline, while other characters wander around, fall about and randomly take up positions on the stage, many of them manipulated for some unknown reason by a remote control.

There's an awful lot going on but none of it makes any sense or relates to any familiar view of the work, none of it is interesting or entertaining to watch, and - what must be the bottom line - little of it really serves to enhance the work. If the production fails there's no question where the fault lies then, since the performers really do make the best of what they've been given to work with here. Ann Sophie von Otter, for example, is asked to interpret Hoffmann's Muse and Nicklausse as one and the same - a kind of drunken sprite who dances merrily around as Hoffmann's guide and protector. Von Otter enters fully into the spirit of the role, but the strength of her voice has declined a little in recent years. The singing and interpretation are characteristically warm, delicate and beautiful, but there's no longer any force behind it and she does occasionally become lost in the blend of voices and music.

Eric Cutler also does well within the confines of a character without any real personality who isn't given much to work with by the director either. His singing is clear, flowing and lyrical, but with very little feeling behind it - a problem, as I say, I would associate partly with the nature of the work itself. Vito Priante has one of the richest roles in Les Contes d'Hoffmann, playing the combined roles of Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr Miracle and Dappertutto, but he also fails to make any real impact, playing them all as the same character (which they essentially are) with no costume changes, but he doesn't have the necessary presence or enough character in the voice for the part.

The best thing about Les Contes d'Hoffmann, and certainly the best thing about this production, is the sparkle that the Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta characters bring to the work. More commonly performed by one singer in all the roles - and consequently one of the most challenging soprano roles in all opera - the casting here proved that there's much to be gained from using different voices for the very different demands of each of the parts. Soprano Ana Durlovski impressively sings Olympia as a sad, timid figure rather than a showpiece diva and it's all the better for it, finding the tragic nature of the character in one who, ironically, isn't even human. Equipped with a deeper soprano voice, Measha Brueggergosman took on the roles of Antonia and Giulietta - two sides of the same coin? - and filled them with fire and personality. Her voice didn't always hold firm, but she was particularly impressive in Antonia's duet with Eric Cutler's Hoffmann.

That fire was particularly welcome when there was so much tedium elsewhere. Despite the busyness of Act I, this was mostly a static production with little in the way of effects, little in the way of creative imagination and certainly little that could be described as fantastical. There's a surprising amount of standing around singing and there's not a great deal of life in Sylvain Cambreling's conducting either. Cambreling has a long track record with this work, but in the context of this production the interpretation of the score just felt lifeless and uninspired. This was not a performance, or indeed a production to win over anyone unconvinced about the merits of Offenbach's great unfinished project.

Links: ARTE Concert

Monday 16 June 2014

Gluck - Alceste (Teatro Real, Madrid 2014 - Webcast)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Alceste

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2014

Ivor Bolton, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Angela Denoke, Paul Groves, Willard White, Magnus Staveland, Thomas Oliemans, Isaac Galán, Fernando Radó, María Miró, Rodrigo Álvarez

ARTE Concert - 7 March 2014

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. That's the principal behind Gluck's reformist operas, reducing the stories and the nature of operatic expression to their dramatic essence, without over-elaboration or ornamentation. It's also the case this time (mostly) with director Krzysztof Warlikowski in his production of Gluck's Alceste for the Teatro Real in Madrid, one of the final productions under the artistic direction of the late Gérard Mortier. Gluck's reform operas are not puritan or spartan, but they provide a strong musical and dramatic framework for creative artists to work with and that is what is largely achieved here.

For Warlikowski, the simple question that needs to be asked when approaching an ancient drama like Alceste is what is it essentially about. For the director it's "the most philosophical story ever written" that confronts the question "could you die for someone?". It's also a royal family drama. Taking that as a starting point and thinking of it in terms of how that story has modern-day universal relevance, it seems obvious to think of Princess Diana and the impact of her death, but can a modern-day tabloid story really be considered to be comparable with ancient mythology?

Surprisingly, by getting right back to the essence of what Alceste is all about, and bringing a strong artistic and creative impulse to bear upon the work, Warlikowski is able to make the parallel meaningful. Typically, the director sets the tone and lays out his ideas in a prologue before the opera starts. This time it involves a five-minute film that shows Angela Denoke's Alceste being interviewed Princess Diana-style, where she covers many of the same issues and problems revealed in TV interviews with Diana. In it, she frankly discusses the difficulties of being in the public eye, of being unable to cope, of her post-natal depression and her rumoured suicide attempts.

That might seem like it has little to do with Alceste offering her own life in sacrifice to Apollo in exchange for her husband King Admeto who has just died, but it does provide us with some kind of background character detail that is credible for someone in her position which may be relevant as far as understanding the decision she has taken. Controversially, Warlikowski also creates entirely new dialogues (in English) to fill out the kind of anguish, confusion and uncertainty Alceste feels and reveal how it tears at family bonds. The director even introduces Admeto's father as a speaking character, and if the dialogue doesn't really carry the same kind of poetic force as Gluck's score, the purpose is clear and no less effective.

It's perhaps not so clear from the set design, but the effectiveness of the treatment is evident from the powerful pay-off in the finale. The stage and set design are of course not exactly what you would expect for Alceste, Act I taking place at a hospital, while Act III is set in a morgue rather than in Hell. That, as you might also expect, is actually the least of Warlikowski's conceits, the director even introducing a gypsy dance for no discernible reason, but much of the strangeness can be related to the state of mind of an Alceste who wanders around in a daze, more suicidal in her grief than sacrificial. Hercules however is fairly bonkers as well here. The conclusion however, a wheelchair-bound locked-in Alceste with husband and children presenting a distorted view of "happy families" is however utterly devastating, its bleak realistic view contrasting with the (forced) happy end of Gluck's music.

Warlikowski isn't afraid to confront such questions and work with the score in this way, making full use of the dance music not for ballets but to play out the dramatic setting he has imposed on the opera. Unfortunately, the performances in this production aren't quite up to the vision of the director. Ivor Bolton conducts the 1776 Paris version of the work well enough, but I'm not convinced that the Madrid orchestra really have the precision and rhythm to hold down and bring out the dynamic of the score. The timing of the chorus also occasionally seems to be out of step with the music. Musically, Alceste is one of Gluck's finest pieces, and Bolton keeps the flow well in line with Warlikowski's dramatic focus on an Alceste who is caught up in a nightmare of grief and breakdown.

This Alceste therefore needs to be a strong actress, and Angela Denoke brings a great dramatic intensity to the role. The Baroque dramatic soprano range isn't always within her comfort zone, she's inconsistent and can sound shrill when striving to reach and hold the high notes, but there's no question she gives it everything. The same could be said about Willard White as the Grand Priest and Thanatos, not always secure on the lower register, but he's a strong presence nonetheless. Paul Groves however was a strong and lyrical Admeto, equally intense on a dramatic level alongside Denoke.

Links: ARTE Concert

Friday 13 June 2014

Hahn - Ciboulette (Opéra Comique 2013 - Webcast)

Reynaldo Hahn - Ciboulette

Opéra Comique, Paris, 2013

Laurence Equilbey, Michel Fau, Julie Fuchs, Jean-François Lapointe, Julien Behr, Eva Ganizate, Ronan Debois, Cécile Achille, Jean-Claude Sarragosse, Guillemette Laurens, Patrick Kabongo Mubenga, François Rougier, Bernadette Lafont, Michel Fau, Jérôme Deschamps

Culturebox - 20 February 2013

Laurence Equilbey and Michel Fau, the musical and theatrical directors of this production of Ciboulette for the Opéra Comique clearly understand and manage to get across essential purpose of Renaldo Hahn's 1923 opérette. Above all else, Ciboulette is a comedy that celebrates a specific period, or perhaps two periods - its own time and the period of the Belle Époque.

The settings and considerations of the time and the audience for which it was written are critical for the whole character of the work. Reynaldo Hahn was well-known for his French music-hall melodies, and in many respects Ciboulette was a home-grown response to the American musical comedy, particularly those that portrayed the Belle Époque period less authentically. Ciboulette, hardly any less idealistically, celebrates the innocent beauty of the age with its depictions of the Les Halles market in Paris, with the countryside (or at least the Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers which was the countryside back then), and the sets consequently look like period sepia-tinted monochrome photos with splashes of hand-colouration.

The music for Ciboulette, conducted with a delicate lightness by Laurence Equilbey, is also authentically music-hall in style for a plot that is as frothy as they come. It concerns the romantic complications of Ciboulette, a young market-seller at Les Halles. Her aunt and uncle in Aubervilliers are pushing the young woman to marry, but the decision is not an easy one for Ciboulette who is engaged to no less than eight suitors. Playing for time, Ciboulette announces her engagement to a young man she has discovered hiding in her market cart, Antonin de Mourmelon, a millionaire who has just been jilted by his mistress, the glamorous and flirty Zénobie.

The path to true love in a comic operetta is of course rather more complicated than that. The plot to Ciboulette involves a gypsy prediction of three signs (which are revealed in amusing ways) that will ensure that Antonin is the right man for Ciboulette, and it even goes ot the lengths of Ciboulette taking to the stage in the guise of a Spanish singer, Conchita Ciboulero. Unable to resist the strange allure of this beautiful woman to whom he confesses his love, Antonin nonetheless reveals his intention to remain true to the memory of Ciboulette. The signs fall into place - after many comic interludes and songs - and all ends well.

Ciboulette is in some ways a throwback to the golden age of the opéra-comique (with a few references to Favart, Offenbach, Meilhac and Halévy thrown into the libretto), but despite its knowing wit and cleverness, it's not really a pastiche, but clearly intended to be light, entertaining and filled with tunes for the enjoyment of the audience of its own time. There's a self-awareness then, but that was there even in Offenbach's time, and its a characteristic that gives the opera a sense of sophistication for all its lightness. Self-awareness, but not self-importance. It's not looking to art or posterity, but to present the very best kind of musical entertainment for its audience.

Ciboulette does that with a certain degree of charm, even if it's not quite as smart and funny as the best Offenbach. The music hall melodies and songs, despite Hahn's reputation, didn't strike me as being particularly memorable, while the comedy relies heavily on repetition. It seems to work to the principle that if you keep repeating phrases and words, they will eventually just become funny. On the other hand, much of the success of this type of work lies in the hands of the performers, and it must be played with the right amount of verve and comic exaggeration.

Alongside the beautiful set designs and lighting that give the work a delightful and appropriate sense of period charm and innocence, it is indeed in the performances that really bring Ciboulette to life. Julie Fuchs doesn't have a big operatic voice, but one that is pure, sweet and lyrical with just a touch of the French music hall tradition. Julien Behr is indeed a perfect match as Antonin de Mourmelon, but there is fine singing also here from Jean-François Lapointe as Duparquet. It's the secondary comic acting turns that are just as critical here as the singing roles, and those are very capably handled. Quintessentially French, Ciboulette is the kind of work that the Opéra Comique excels in producing as the home of French lyric theatre.

Links - CultureboxOpéra Comique

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Purcell - Dido and Aeneas (Rouen 2014 - Webcast)

Henry Purcell - Dido and Aeneas

Opéra de Rouen Haute-Normandie, 2014

Vincent Dumestre, Cécile Roussat, Julien Lubek, Vivica Genaux, Henk Neven, Ana Quintans, Marc Mauillon, Jenny Daviet, Caroline Meng, Lucile Richardot, Nicholas Tamagna

Culturebox - 13 May 2014

There's a certain amount of leeway built into Purcell's compositions which, like most early opera work, accounts for a variety of interpretation in response to the music and in how to make the work meaningful and accessible to a modern audience. Such is the degree of openness and richness in Purcell's operas, masques and semi-operas and the amount of improvisation required that it is even unlikely to sound exactly the same from one night to the next, never mind from one production to the another.

Musically that keeps things very fresh and immediate for the musicians and the singers - I'm sure there's never anything routine about performing such a work as Dido and Aeneas - but the same goes for the approach to staging. As I noted in a recent review of King Arthur, a considerable amount of thought needs to be given over to making those very old stories and their method of presentation accessible to a modern audience. The approach of Opéra de Rouen Haute-Normandie to Dido and Aeneas is very different from Sestina's for King Arthur, but the result is equally as effective.

While most Purcell operas require a certain amount of reduction and cutting back - as mainly masques or semi-operas they would originally have constituted a full evening's entertainment of songs, dance, music, drama and spectacle - Dido and Aeneas is a shorter work that was reportedly composed to be performed by a girl's school in Chelsea. The Rouen production however is one of the longest versions I've heard of the work, running to around 80 minutes rather than the usual hour or so. Whether extra music has been included or improvised and extended for the missing dance numbers, I'm not sure, but it at least gives the audience value for their money without having to pair it with another short work.

While there would be no question of this production providing a full evening's entertainment just from the spectacle of the stage production, Rouen's production shows that Dido and Aeneas is also a strong enough drama to sustain a longer performance. In fact, the epic nature of the mythological origins of the story almost calls out for a grander interpretation (if not quite of Berlioz Les Troyens dimensions) as long as it doesn't come at the expense of losing the necessary intimacy of the tragedy of the love of Dido and Aeneas. This is achieved in Rouen through a balance of the spectacle and the performance of the orchestra on period instruments.

The concept for the stage production seems to be based on the idea of the evocation of Dido's Carthage being a magic kingdom of ancient times, or one that has even more so become a place of wonder with the arrival of Aeneas, coming to these shores fleeing from the destroyed Troy, and falling in love with their Queen Dido. This is achieved without clever technical effects, using traditional methods of stagecraft with pulley operations, the colourful theatrical backdrops and lighting creating not a royal court but a blue bay flanked by rocky outcrops with nymphs dancing on billowing silk waves.

There are however stormy skies on the horizon which indicates that all this is about to change as the Sorceress appears and demands that Aeneas continue his journey to Italy. The set switches over to this change of mood cleverly, retaining a sense of 'merveilleux' as the rocky shoreline transforms into an undersea grotto where dark creatures scuttle acrobatically on the ocean floor, mermaids float and the Sorceress takes the form of a huge grotesque octopus. The tone is held marvellously by the design, and there are a few other clever touches in Act III, such as Dido's dress unravelling to become a sea that swallows her during her final lament.

If the stage setting provides the scale for the epic mythology, the music and the singing provide the necessary intimacy for the love story at the heart of the work. The musical arrangement for this interpretation follows the indications on the Chelsea score and is principally string based with some harpsichord continuo. Stings are plucked, lutes provide a solid rhythm along with a guitar, which is strummed at times to give an almost Spanish-guitar sound, but there's still a folk-music element there. Vivica Genaux sings well but doesn't have the richness, fullness or perhaps that certain English plumminess that the role of Dido requires. Henk Neven provides a good strong Aeneas, and Ana Quintans is a very fine Belinda.

Links: Culturebox

Monday 9 June 2014

Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Salzburger Festspiele, 2013 - Blu-ray)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Live from Hangar-7, Salzburger Festspiele, 2013

Hans Graf, Adrian Marthaler, Felix Breisach, Desirée Rancatore, Tobias Moretti, Javier Camarena, Rebecca Nelsen, Thomas Ebenstein, Kurt Rydl

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Personally, I think that opera is one of the most progressive, cutting-edge artforms out there, continually pushing stage-craft and the art of performances to new heights, but I'm aware that there are some opera-goers who would prefer that productions remain in the traditional form on the stage in an opera house. What is commonly known as Regietheater can certainly push familiar works into alienatingly obscure and ill-fitting concepts, but as live cinema and webcasts have shown, there is a case for taking opera away the notion of it belonging to dusty theatres that remain the preserve of a privileged elite and strive to make it fresh, modern and accessible to a wider, younger audience.

I'm not sure that this is something that the Salzburg Festival has traditionally been good at, as anyone would be able to see from the expensive corporate promotion and the kind of audience visibly present at what looks to be an exclusive air terminal in Salzburg in this 2013 festival production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail. On the other hand, the technical achievement of the performance and its live broadcast to Austrian television is a fine example of the innovation and creative forces that go into opera and its outreach and accessibility is ground-breaking and impressive. I'm not sure that this Blu-ray release of the event will convince any of the traditionalists out there, but I'm certain that it is capable of reaching a fresh new audience.

Basically, Die Entführung aus dem Serail Live at Hangar-7 in Salzburg is an open-air production shot in a vast aircraft hangar/terminal/museum that holds aircraft, helicopters and classic cars in a boldly coloured, modern, high-tech building with plush cafés and lounge bars. The performance takes place on 10 or 11 stages that have been set-up around the building, the singers moving from one to another seamlessly down ramps and on platforms, singing into clearly visible radio-mic headsets. The Camerata Salzburg orchestra play live from Hangar-8, while the audience (in expensive suits and dresses, carrying glasses of champagne) wander around freely, listening to the live play-back on in-ear headphones, while skipping back occasionally so as to dodge camera crews and avoid bumping into the performers.

The concept for the production takes the opera out of the Turkish seraglio and re-imagines Bassa Selim as a fashion designer with a private (sponsored) jet-plane, his seraglio a sweatshop of seamstresses who manufacture his clothes. On other stages Blonde does a bit of ironing and measuring, Pedrillo serves drinks at bar and Osmin assists photo-shoots of models wearing the Pasha's creations and Belmonte comes along seeking to be engaged as a parfumier. Barring Stockhausen, there aren't too many works that call out for the use of helicopters, high-speed jeeps and aeroplanes as part of the performance, so clearly this isn't exactly what Mozart had in mind. It is at least debatable that Mozart would be taking advantage of every opportunity to put the essence of the work across to a popular audience if he were around today and the idea here works perfectly well with the original, finding a suitably glamorous exotic setting to show how women are treated as commodities in so many walks of life.

This is an entirely new way of viewing an opera, with multiple cameras and audience members getting to places you would never come near to in a traditional staged performance or indeed a conventional filmed live performance. It can be a little distracting when you find yourself looking at those bemused figures in the audience, or find yourself thinking more about the technical challenges that the crew must be facing in the live TV broadcast, but at the very least you can't help but be impressed at the achievement. It's superbly designed, technically accomplished and executed to perfection, but I would also argue that it's entirely in the spirit of the work, with a witty production that dazzles and amuses.

You might be less inclined to go along with this were the quality of the performance compromised in any way, but it's not at all. Diana Damrau was originally cast as Konstanze for the production but had to cancel, leaving Desirée Rancatore with the unenviable task of filling such a challenging role in a highly unconventional production at very short notice. She's not quite up to holding the higher end and is a little shaky at first, but she does exceptionally well considering, warming up well by Act II where she gives a good account of the 'Welcher Wechsel, herrscht in meiner Seele" aria. Rebecca Nelsen is a rather more confident Blonde and Javier Camarena a reliable Belmonte. Kurt Rydl isn't the steadiest as Osmin, but gets by and with Thomas Ebenstein a fine Pedrillo, this is a cast who are more than capable of doing the work justice.

The use of radio-mics allows for softer and sweeter singing that doesn't have to soar above the orchestra and this works well for the singers here. Some might see that as an unacceptable compromise, but it gets the best balance between the singing and the orchestra and it's the end result that counts in this production. Hans Graf conducts the Camerata Salzburg through an elegant account of the work that shows just how sublimely beautiful Mozart's maturing writing is in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and it all adds up to an impressive and sometimes stunning production of the work. At the very least this is an ambitious and largely successful attempt to approach the work in a new, fresh and original manner.