Friday 25 July 2014

Prokofiev - War and Peace (Mariinsky II, 2014 - Cinema Live)

Sergei Prokofiev - War and Peace

Mariinsky II, St. Petersburg - 2014

Valery Gergiev, Graham Vick, Andrei Bondarenko, Aida Garifullina, Yulia Matochkina, Larisa Diadkova, Sergei Aleksashkin, Yevgeny Akimov, Maria Maksakova, Ilya Selivanov, Edward Tsanga, Yekaterina Sergeyeva, Gennady Bezzubenkov, Vasily Gerello 

More2Screen Cinema Live in HD - 16 July 2014

It seems obvious to divide War and Peace into two distinct parts. That's the way that Tolstoy divides the novel and that's the structure that Prokofiev follows in his opera version. But when did Graham Vick ever do the obvious? The British director is not one to shy away from controversy either, but while his staging and Paul Brown's set designs take considerable modernising liberties with the Mariinsky's 2014 production of Prokofiev's 1942 epic War and Peace, he uncharacteristically tends to steer away from any overt contemporary political commentary in relation to war and peace as far as it relates to Russian current and foreign affairs.

What Vick does manage to bring out of this work however is the recognition of the fact that war and peace are, if you want to put it in such terms, two sides of the same coin. They aren't as distinct as the title of Tolstoy's masterwork might make them seem (although such considerations are infinitely more subtly drawn in the epic and intimate scope of the actual novel). How Vick approaches this is clever, even if it seems counter-intuitive and almost deliberately contrary. He reverses the traditional division of the two-part work, depicting Act I's Peace section as War, and Act II's War section as Peace. He's not too subtle about it either.

The intent is made clear right from the opening scene, as Prince Andrei Bolonsky looks out over the garden in dark contemplation over the turn his life has taken, leaving him a widower. In Vick's interpretation, he's at war with himself, contemplating suicide with a gun held to his head, only to be saved at the last moment by the freshness of Natasha Rostova's appreciation of the beauty of the spring night with her sister Sonya. It's a strong opening scene that sets the tone for the work and encapsulates much of Tolstoy's views of the individual human experience in relation to history and historical events, and Vick's staging of this scene alone brings that out very well. In reality however it does much more than that.

Already Paul Brown's busy set designs hint at a wider view of history and war that goes beyond the traditional military one. A class war might be an obvious one to allude to in the Russian context, but as I've said, Vick doesn't do obvious. The second scene, at the ball, more or less suggests that a rather more self-destructive aristocracy. Actually, never mind 'less', it's clearly 'more'. Footmen wear gas masks set out chairs for the ball, and they are worn also by the dancing guests. And just in case the poster images of designer goods, commercialism, wealth, industry and gold don't make it clear enough, a tank also rolls across the stage. All this is in the traditional 'Peace' section of the opera.

Arguably, although the score for this section is quite lyrical with a hint of Tchaikovsky in the ballroom dances, Prokofiev's rather more modern score brings out this sense of unease and corruption within a decadent aristocracy. That edge is certainly given full expression in Vick's staging, Hélène Bezukhova's meeting with Natasha, for example, taking place in a gilt-marbled bathroom with gold fittings where the Countess has been snorting cocaine, both women dressed and looking like fashion-models (and as such both very HD-friendly for this live broadcast). Similar scenes are played out by Hélène's brother Anatole's attempted elopement with Natasha in a limousine where a gun is brandished by his driver, and cocaine use is again in evidence.

There's clearly a war of some sorts here, but Vick isn't able to pin it down to any one thing, and as a consequence risks dissipating any impact that might be gained through a more specific contemporary commentary. Act II then throws in footage of WWII (which would indeed have been relevant to Prokofiev writing in 1942) and mixes troops in modern combat gear with officers in Napoleonic uniforms (mostly on the high command, if that's a purposeful distinction). The context is however very specifically Russian, but there's no getting around that fact with the nature of the work, and the addition of all the huge nationalistic choral pieces, added by the composer at the behest of the Russian censor.

There's no more rousing piece in this respect than Field-Marshal Kutuzov's rousing proclamation in Act II over the fate of the Russian people and the decision to temporarily sacrifice Moscow to Napoleon's army. Vick stages it marvellously - and it's sung marvellously too by Gennady Bezzubenkov - the Commander striding out afterwards into the Orchestra Stalls of the Mariinsky II to receive approval, handshakes and high-fives from members of his people. Most significantly here, as throughout the whole of Act II, is the slogan of 'Peace' (мир) featuring prominently in the background. As he depicted 'War' in Act I (война), Act II in Vick's production is all about 'Peace' and, arguably, the sacrifice of Moscow and all the efforts of the heroic Kutuzov are designed to bring about peace, not wage war.

Dividing such an epic work up into a number of scenes makes it difficult for Prokofiev to really do justice to Tolstoy's masterpiece. This is my first time hearing the work, so it might reveal other aspects in time, but the score does indeed seem to be patchwork in nature, not really grasping the scope or bringing it together in as consistent a manner as Tolstoy. On the other hand, certain important aspects work very well on both the grand scale and the intimate. Pierre's declaration scene to Natasha in Act I is very lyrical and affecting. Pierre is the heart of the work, the one whose eyes are open to the corruption of the elite in Act I, the only hope of decency in this vile society of wealth and privilege, and his resolve in Act II brings about a sense of healing and continuity. As such he's also central to Vick's concept and in terms of staging and singing (a heartfelt performance by Yevgeny Akimov) this works remarkably well.

Also important to the work and well-arranged by Prokofiev - although the immense scope of the work means that they only have relatively minor roles in Act II - are Natasha and Andrei. Again, hope, reconciliation and mutual understanding on the small scale is important if it is to be understood in terms of the grander picture of history, and that's all there in the opera. Vick's attempt to put all that on the stage isn't always successful and Paul Brown's busy set designs can be a little messy and not too pretty to look at, not always complementing Valery Gergiev's conducting of the work at the Mariinsky II, but the singing contributes immeasurably towards making this work. More than just being HD-friendly in appearance, the young cast are also incredibly talented singers. There's not a weak element here, but Aida Garifullina is simply outstanding as Natasha and is a fine match for Andrei Bondarenko's sensitive account of Andrei.

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Gluck - Orphée et Eurydice (La Monnaie-De Munt, 2014 - Webcast)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Orphée et Eurydice

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2014

Hervé Niquet, Romeo Castellucci, Stéphanie d'Oustrac, Sabine Devieilhe, Fanny Dupont

La Monnaie, Internet Streaming - June 2014

Orphée et Eurydice has the distinction not only of being one of the purest and most pared-back expressions of Gluck's reformist agenda, reducing extravagant ornamentation and bringing opera back to its strength as a dramatic artform, but it's exquisitely beautiful in its simplicity.  The intent of the work is carried principally through the expression of one singer and the music itself. And, even though it has an ancient mythological subject, Orphée et Eurydice is not some lofty expression of sentiments detached from everyday life, but it has something real and meaningful to communicate to its audience. To its credit, I've never seen a performance of the work - in any of its many forms - that was anything but deeply heartfelt and humanistic in its outlook, but Romeo Castellucci's extraordinary 2014 production for La Monnaie touches deeply on the themes in the work in a way that takes it to an entirely new level.

Dealing with gods, demigods and supernatural events, it's easy to forget that there is a real human element to grand mythological subjects. They are only myths because they speak for all of our suffering, our struggles to exist, live, find love and happiness. Using the story of Orpheus, who in his overwhelming grief for the death of his wife Eurydice travels to the Underworld to retrieve her, Gluck recognises that the Orpheus myth is all about love, loss and bereavement. Despite the beauty of the sentiment and the sincerity of his intentions, it of course proves impossible for Orpheus to bring his loved one back to life (notwithstanding the reworked happy ending in the opera version). Those sentiments can work perfectly well in the concise and expressive beauty of Gluck's score alone, but the dramatic expression on the stage is also a vital part of opera, and Castellucci finds an innovative way to reconnect the myth with the reality.

Like mythology, opera too must not be lofty and detached, but should be relatable on a human level. Having carried out extensive research into 'locked-in syndrome' Castellucci literally takes the opera beyond the stage of La Monnaie and out into the world, the production being broadcast live directly to a medical ward 14km outside Brussels where a young Belgian woman called Els lies in bed, completely paralysed. She's effectively dead to the world, beyond the reach of her husband and loved-ones, unable to move or communicate other than through the blinking of her eyes that allow her to painstakingly form words and sentences one letter at a time. At the same time as the music of Orpheus reaches out to her in her condition, Gluck's music reaches out to express Els/Eurydice's condition to the audience and give us some indication of how her family must feel about their loss.

How this is achieved in the production is, like Gluck's music, outwardly simple, but in reality very precise and sophisticated technical measures are used to present art as an expression of deeper truths. For almost the entirety of the performance, Stéphanie d'Oustrac sings the role of Orpheus on a dark bare stage with only a pseudo-microphone in front of her. To the right of the stage is what looks like a life-support system, although it has lights showing music volume-control levels, so it could represent a transmitter of sorts. While Orpheus sings of his loss, the captions on the screen behind the singer show English captions that have nothing to do with the libretto, but rather tell the story of Els, a 28 year-old woman who has been in a pseudocoma for the last 18 months, suffering complete paralysis but retaining full cognitive abilities after brainstem damage caused by a thrombosis. The audience are advised that the opera is being broadcast live to her at this moment.

There's evidently no direct correlation between the story of Els and the Orpheus myth, but the broad sense of losing a person, of them being present but beyond reach and unable to interact with the world outside is identical to how Orpheus, despite every effort to reach Eurydice, is unable to bring her back to life. The descent to the Underworld is in some respect mirrored in the blurred black-and-white footage on the screen that shows a journey towards the medical centre where this real-life Eurydice lies, arriving there as Orpheus finds Eurydice among the spirits of Elysium ("Cet asile aimable et tranquille"). As the on-stage Eurydice (Sabine Devieilhe) appears behind the mesh screen, we meet Els, lying in her bed, blinking but unmoving, a pair of headphones relaying the song of Orpheus direct from the opera house of La Monnaie.

Castellucci's direction is simple but daring and completely in touch with what the work is all about - human grief, battling against outrageous fortune - and relating it back to ordinary people who suffer terribly from everyday trials. Although there's nothing abstract about Gluck's music, it takes the drama away from mere theatricality to show how it fully explores and expresses these vital aspects of the human condition. Castellucci even takes into consideration the happy ending that Gluck was obliged to provide for the stage, showing an Eurydice revived and alive, but - reflecting Els' condition - remaining behind a veil, unable to fully return to the world. This works for the audience and for the intent of Gluck's music drama, making the story vividly real and deeply moving, but Castellucci's production goes beyond even this, telling us something about the power of music and opera to touch on aspects of our lives that other arts cannot reach.

One person who recognised the power of the work and who was instrumental in keeping this Baroque work alive through the 19th century and beyond, was Hector Berlioz. The French version is understandably more popular in French-speaking countries than Gluck's original Italian version, and if Berlioz's 1859 version is not the most "authentic" edition (Gluck wrote a "definitive" French version himself as well as the original Italian and even a German-language version), it at least brings together the best elements of Gluck's variations while retaining the purity of its expression. I have a particular fondness for the Berlioz version myself and this is a superb performance of the work conducted at La Monnaie by Hervé Niquet. It's played slightly faster than usual, the overture in particular a little rushed when it should be a more brooding, but the tone and expression of the work is all there.

It's also there in the singing, which is just as vital in a work with only three individual roles. The singing here is just outstanding, Stéphanie d'Oustrac one of the best mezzo-soprano singers I've heard singing Orpheus, and you could hardly expect to find a brighter or more colourful voice for Eurydice than Sabine Devieilhe, who continues to impress. Also worth mentioning are Fanny Dupont's sensitive and delicate Amour and the powerful work of the Chorus that also serves to establish that otherworldly character of Orphée et Eurydice. It's no coincidence that the Orpheus myth was frequently chosen as the subject for the very first works of opera almost 400 years ago, exploring as it does the power of music to take us to those kind of unreachable places. That myth found its purest expression in Gluck's opera, and Romeo Castellucci's remarkable production of it is one of the finest expressions of opera as both art and life.

Links: La Monnaie - De Munt, RTBF Musiq3

Sunday 20 July 2014

Rameau - Hippolyte et Aricie (Glyndebourne 2013 - Blu-ray)

Jean-Philippe Rameau - Hippolyte et Aricie

Glyndebourne 2013

William Christie, Jonathan Kent, Ed Lyon, Christiane Karg, Sarah Connolly, Stéphane Degout, Katherine Watson, François Lis, Julie Pasturaud, Samuel Boden, Aimery Lefèvre, Loic Felix, Ana Quintans, Emmanuelle de Negri, Mathias Vidal, Callum Thorpe, Charlotte Beament, Timothy Dickinson

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

On previous experience of this early work of French Baroque opera at a production in Paris a few years ago, Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie can often feel like a rather dry classical text adapted to the lyric stage by an experienced composer already well-renowned for his academic approach to the musical form. With William Christie leading the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment however in this rather more lively production for Glyndebourne, it's evident that the elegant rhythms and melodies of the work can actually be sensitive, expressive, witty, thoughtful and movingly tragic. The scenes in Hippolyte et Aricie moreover also offer opportunities for great spectacle, another vital component of Baroque opera and Glyndebourne is traditionally good at that. The 2013 production does indeed offer considerable spectacle, and if its relevance is not always clear it is at least in tune with the tone and the spirit of the work and the musical interpretation.

Questions about the relevance of Jonathan Kent's staging are sure to arise however in the Prologue. In Hippolyte et Aricie, it's a typically Baroque one that has opposing deities in dispute with one another in a way that is to have a profound affect on ordinary mortals (and some semi-deities) over the course of the subsequent drama. Quite why this takes place inside a giant fridge is hard to fathom and likely to come as a bit of a shock to the bewildered viewer, but there's no question that it fully lives up to the requirement to provide wonderful spectacle. It looks marvellous and is certainly inventive as cauliflower clouds hover over the stage, a lemon slice becomes the sun, and broccoli stalks descend to turn into trees. It's at least appropriate to characterise the icy detachment of the goddess Diana by confining her to the ice-box, while a fiery Cupid, whose influence is to cause such havoc to Diana's followers and worshippers, hatches out of an egg - but what on earth are the gods doing in a fridge in the first place?

Well, in addition to being a classical text, Hippolyte et Aricie is - as this production emphasises in its own very stylised way - very much a domestic drama, a point emphasised when the Three Fates warn Theseus at the end of Act II that he will escape from the Underworld only to find Hell at home. Hell as it happens is depicted cleverly and imaginatively here in Paul Brown's amazing designs as existing at the back of the very same fridge where the gods reside, and if you've ever ventured behind your own kitchen, you'll know how accurate an analogy that is. The Fates' prediction of "domestic Hell" proves to be true for the son of Neptune, who returns to find that his wife Phaedre, believing Theseus dead (usually a requirement for access to the Underworld), has fallen in love with his son Hippolytus. Mythological it might be and inspired by the actions and whims of the immortals, but Cupid has indeed brought disharmony into the formerly very secure, cool and detached "innocent" world of Diana's followers and their blood sacrifices. The fall-out is very real and domestic, Phaedre bemoaning that she is "unable to kill this detestable love" for her stepson.

What's missing of course is harmony between the Gods and, thereby, between ordinary mortals. Neptune appeals to Pluto for the release of Theseus from the Underworld in Act II saying that "the well-being of the universe depends on your common harmony", but the balance has been disturbed by Cupid's intervention, inspiring Hippolytus to love Aricia, in the process incurring Phaedre's jealousy and suppressed feelings for Hippolytus. As an opera, in its structure and in its musical arrangements as well as in its subject, Hippolyte et Aricie also operates very much on this notion of harmony and the balancing of elements, and Rameau - as academic a composer as he might be - makes the case not only structurally and harmonically, but with a sensibility for the beauty of such imperfect human sentiments in the sphere of what makes them aspire to be gods.

William Christie fully explores all the melodic and harmonic richness of what Rameau expresses so brilliantly in the musical arrangements, but also balances this with the requirements of the singing. Spectacle ("le merveilleux") and entertainment ("divertissement") are other factors that count towards this balance and harmony of all the elements, and that's all there too in the gorgeous but dramatically pointless ballet interludes and in the big and smaller details of the production design. The fridge in the Prologue is followed by a more traditional scene in the forests for the followers of Diana that nonetheless reflects the horrors (hanging deer, corpses dragged across the stage, copious blood) of the sacrifices. The Hell behind the fridge meanwhile has dancing flies, infernal devices in the shape of power units, with all sorts of horrible gunk and creatures caught up in the extractor grille.

As well as being visually inventive and thematically attuned to the work, the sets also demonstrate good storytelling technique that is accessible and allows the audience to better engage with a work that what could otherwise appear rather dry and fusty. Some elements however work better than others, so while it's meaningful to have the home of Theseus and Phaedre look like a tastefully-decorated suburban semi-detached (shown in cutaway cross-section in a manner reminiscent of Katie Mitchell's designs for Written on Skin), you miss out on the traditonal spectacle of Neptune's grand entrance by reflecting it through a living-room fish tank. The later acts might not always find imagery as strong the fire and ice of the earlier acts - Act V taking place in a mortuary - but there is some attempt to retain a dramatic narrative in the ballet sequences, and the singing performances too are strong enough to take up the lack of drive in the latter half of the work. 

Several of the best performers seen in the Paris production reprise their roles here to even more dazzling effect, while those that have been changed are often just as fine if not better in the roles. That means we not only have the excellent Stéphane Degout as Theseus, but we also have the simply stunning Sarah Connolly again in the role of Phaedre. In addition to being merely a formidable presence, as she was in Paris, Christie's arrangements and Connolly's performance also manages to elicit some sympathy for her character's predicament. As Hippolytus, Ed Lyons is perfect for the intentions of this production, his voice delicate but also strong enough to be capable of matching and standing up to Connolly/Phaedra. If he was weaker, this wouldn't work half as well. Christiane Karg however just didn't work for me as Aricia. It can be somewhat of a bland role, but Karg didn't really have anything to enliven it here. Ana Quintans was a bright Cupid however, François Lis majestic as Pluto, Neptune and Jupiter, and Katherine Watson an icily aloof Diana.

On Blu-ray, this Hippolyte et Aricie looks and sounds every bit as spectacular as the production itself, with a bold colourful video transfer of the performance and crystal clear sound mixes in LPCM 2.0 and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. Aside from the Cast Gallery, there's only one extra feature on the disc, a fifteen-minute making of that covers all aspects of the production, interviewing Christie and Kent, but takes a particular interest into Paul Brown's unusual costume and set designs. The disc is BD50, region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German and Korean.

Thursday 17 July 2014

Rossini - La Gazzetta (L'Opéra Royal de Wallonie, 2014 - Webcast)

Gioachino Rossini - La Gazzetta

L'Opéra Royal de Wallonie, 2014

Jan Schultsz, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Cinzia Forte, Enrico Marabelli, Laurent Kubla, Edgardo Rocha, Julie Bailly, Monica Minarelli, Jacques Catalayud, Roger Joakim

Culturebox, Medici - Live streaming - 26 June 2014

It's not surprising, now that we are able to explore and rediscover much more of Rossini's work, to find that there are many familiar melodies in La Gazzetta that we would have heard elsewhere. The composer would often rework or reuse material written for other works, but all of the music in La Gazzetta, a comic opera based on a play by Carlo Goldoni, would all have been new to a Naples audience in 1816 when Rossini arrived there to commence what would prove to be a most productive period. Almost 200 years later, the Opéra Royal de Wallonie at Liège also manage to bring something new to the work, with the rediscovery in 2012 of the missing Act I quintet restored to the work for the first time.

The Liège company are at their best and have a good track record with productions of this kind of light comic opera, whether it's in the French and Belgian repertoire (Offenbach and Grétry) or even some of the more obscure end of the Italian comic opera repertoire in works like Galuppi's L'inimico delle donne or rarely heard early Rossini (L'equivoco stravagante). The approach is much the same with their 2014 production of La Gazzetta, and the results are equally successful and entertaining. Colourful, slightly stylised and modernised, but true to the intentions of the work without unnecessary revision.

Directed by Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera - the Artistic Director at Liège - La Gazzetta then takes into account rather more modern means of technological communications when ex-businessman Don Pomponino arrives at L'Aquila hotel in Paris and places an advert on the newspaper website that there will be a competition held at the hotel to find a suitable partner for his daughter Lisetta. Also staying at the hotel is Alberto, a wealthy young man who has unsuccessfully been searching the world to find a woman who matches his conception of beauty and perfection. Lisetta however has her own ideas about choosing the man she wants to marry.

Evidently, the arrangement and the path to finding one's perfect partner isn't as simple as that might make it might seem, and there is inevitably a lot of comic confusion over identities and a fair bit of donning of disguises. Alfredo mistakes various women for Lisetta and ends up finding the perfect match in Doralice. Lisetta meanwhile is actually in love with Filippo, an employee at the hotel, who tries to disrupt the competition by disguising himself as unlikely foreign suitors. With both fathers unhappy that their girls seem to be choosing suitors for themselves, the two couples dress up as Turks in order to escape and get married in a manner a little bit reminiscent of Così fan tutte.

With such creaky comic plot situations there's not really any call for modernising the work. There is possibly meant to be some kind of satire on the media involved in La Gazzetta, but not so much that you'd notice it or that it would distract from the fact that this is just a silly comedy at heart. So taking notes down on iPads, posting notices on the internet, and having a TV screen on up in the corner of the hotel reception doesn't really add anything, but it doesn't take anything away either. The Liège production at least looks sharp and stylish. Stylish, but maybe not fashionable as far as the ridiculous costumes go, but even this suits the farcical tone of La Gazzetta.

The set-designs by Jean-Guy Lecat also contribute perfectly to the breezy lightness of Rossini's comic touch. There's an exterior that shows the front of the hotel which rises to reveal the busy interior, with reception, lounge and even a corridor of rooms upstairs. It looks marvellous and it also gives plenty of scope for the drama to play out and flow smoothly from one scene to the next. As if this isn't enough, just for variety there are even some street-scenes that take place via projections of old Parisian streets and sights when Lisetta goes for a walk. Other than a few set-pieces that warrant it - a duel taking place using cannons - the comic exaggeration is never over-played in the direction or in the acting.

Liège also bring together a few regular performers who are well suited to this kind of opera. Cinzia Forte (last earlier this season on the Liège stage as Marzelline in Fidelio) stands out as Lisetta. Her voice is not a big one by any means, but she can scale up to those high notes with all the agility required of a Rossinian soprano. Just as importantly, she has a bright and sparkling personality that lights up the stage when she's on. Edgardo Rocha fulfils the same brightness on the tenor side as Alberto, and there are solid performances from Enrico Marabelli as Don Pomponino and Laurent Kubla as Filippo. The newly discovered quintet might not be considered a lost gem, but it's a critical part of the work and it's great to have it reinstated and hear it sung so well. Jan Schultsz's direction of this rare Rossini work is delightful in what is another fine and entertaining production from Liège.

Links: Culturebox,

Monday 14 July 2014

Lang - Re:igen (Schwetzinger Festspiele, 2014 - Webcast)

Bernhard Lang - Re:igen

SWR Festspiele Schwetzingen, 2014

Rolf Gupta, Georges Delnon, Almerija Delic, Cornel Frey, Clara Meloni, Alin Deleanu, Amélie Saadia, Kai-Uwe Fahnert, Lasse Penttinen

ARTE Concent, Live streaming - 25 April 2014

Written in 1900, Arthur Schnitzler's play 'La Ronde' or 'Reigen' caused something of a scandal when it was first published. Using its circular structure, the play connects men and women of various social classes through ten sexual encounters that work their way like a relay back to the same prostitute who is seen in the first encounter. The play has a lot to say about the nature of class and society in turn-of-the-century Vienna, but it's also revealing about the attitudes and the relationships between men and women.

It's the fact that the encounters between them are sexual in nature that is significant here. Each of the scenes are brief, fleeting, lustful and exploitative on the part of at least one of the parties (usually the men), but each of the participants is looking for something, whether it's an escape from their regular partner or illicitly seeking love, attention and reassurance in the arms of another. The encounters are also each divided into a before and an after the act (which is not described), where instead of finding what they are looking for, there's a measure of dissatisfaction, shame and disappointment.

La Ronde doesn't seem to have the kind of structure that makes it suitable for adaptation to a traditional narrative format, but it has been successfully made into film (most notably by Max Ophuls in 1950), and has been the subject of at least one other opera that I'm aware of, Philippe Boesman's Reigen. Bernhard Lang's Re:igen, composed for the Schwetzingen Festival in 2012 and revived here in 2014, uses instrumentation and a "transformative iteration" technique of repetition that is very different from Boesman's more serial method. It's a technique that seems better suited to the cyclical and repeated structure of 'La Ronde', allowing it to have a consistency and a flow, with subtle variations of expression.

Lang's Re:igen retains the all-important structure of the original work and the social class/profession of its characters, the opera divided in to ten short sections (1. the prostitute and the policeman, 2. the policeman and the parlour maid, 3. the parlour maid and the young gentleman, 4. the young gentleman and the married woman, 5. the married woman and the husband, 6. the husband and the schoolgirl, 7. the schoolgirl and the author, 8. the author and the actress, 9. the actress and the rich man, 10. the rich man and the prostitute). It's worth noting that it's a married couple, the only legitimate encounter, that lies at the very centre of this circle of deception and disappointment.

What is evidently significant about the encounters is that they are somewhat ill-matched, the connections briefly made only to be just as quickly broken. Lang's score works to the rhythms of Michael Sturminger's libretto - the singing adhering also to regular speech patterns that rise to lyrical expression in moments of high emotion - but it has an instrumentation and language that allows it to describe situation and character. It's not an easy work to sing and act, and it's to the credit of the cast that they define these roles so well. The clash of types and personalities is evidently what is important and Lang finds a tone and a style for each character in each encounter (Eastern Turkish sounds for example suggest that the schoolgirl is of ethnic origin), all of them contained within an overarching and very distinctive sound world.

That sound world is far from conventional opera instrumentation and distinct even from what is more commonly heard in avant-garde or contemporary classical opera. The 23 musicians for the opera consist of members of the SWR Radio Symphonic Orchestra as well as SWR Big Band players. There's consequently a rhythmic pulse to score that is anchored with an electronic bass and a drum-beat, the rhythm having a definite jazz swing, or even a slightly sordid lounge quality of Kurt Weill-like decadence that suits the subject very well. There seems to be an effort to integrate the hopeful/lustful musical expression of each of the partnerships in the lead-up to sex into a common rhythm that inevitably breaks down into a resigned dissatisfaction in the 'after' section.

The staging also plays a significant part in retaining the sense of flow that is so much a part of the structure and purpose of the work. The dramatic action all takes place in what looks like the rear stalls of a rococo Baroque theatre, with chairs scattered around, TV screens and monitors, and even a descending chandelier. Despite the clutter on the stage Georges Delnon's direction allows situations to develop, change, flow and move on. Rolf Gupta conducts the orchestra from behind the stage, the musicians spread out around the boxes of the theatre's circle. A mattress is an important prop here and could be used to connect and make other implications of sharing and passing on, but there's a more realistic variety of positions adopted. Like the play however, the sexual act is elided.

Implications however are important in determining whether La Ronde has something more to tell us than just providing us with a snapshot of fin-de-siècle Vienna society. This production doesn't seem to have much to tell us about the divisions, deceptions and exploitation between class and position in our own society, nor does it seem to raise issues such as the transmission of STDs or AIDS. There are a few small tweaks in Lang and Sturminger's Re:igen - some doubling of roles that might suggest the interchangeability of partners, the "actress" moreover being a man in drag - but whether there is any intentional commentary made here is hard to determine. Whatever you read into it - and at the very least, it has much to say about what men and women expect from relationships - La Ronde remains a fascinating piece and Re:igen explores the depths and mysteries with wonderful fluidity.

Links: ARTE Concert

Friday 11 July 2014

Verdi - Luisa Miller (Malmö 2012 - Blu-ray)

Giuseppe Verdi - Luisa Miller

Malmö Opera, 2012

Michael Güttler, Stefano Vizioli, Olesya Golovneva, Vladislav Sulimsky, Taras Shtonda, Luc Robert, Ivonne Fuchs, Lars Arvidson, Emma Lyren

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

It's not often that you see something new or conceptual attempted with an early Verdi opera. Partly that's because they aren't performed often enough and, on the rare occasions they are produced, it's usually safer to keep unfamiliar works in their original setting rather than confusing the audience with a high-concept production. Partly however, it's got a lot to do with the relatively straightforward subjects of the works themselves not really lending themselves to reinterpretation. The themes in Luisa Miller are based however on universal sentiments, so there's no reason why - despite some creaky plot points - that something a little more adventurous can't be attempted with the staging.

The Malmö Opera's 2012 production of Luisa Miller finds an excellent way to make Verdi's opera a little more visually interesting than this particular work might otherwise be, without having to obscure the original dramatic points in some ill-fitting modernised concept. The costumes remain period and traditional, all the drama is carried out according to the stage directions (there's no anachronistic use modern technology or appliances), but there's a little bit of stylishness applied to the set designs - and perhaps a little symbolism - that works well to give a little bit of extra emphasis to the dramatic situation.

Based on 'Kabale und Liebe' by Friedrich von Schiller, the plot of Luisa Miller is a familiar one, or at least familiar in Verdi adaptations of such material. In broad terms it's about fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, it's about family and duty, it's about love and betrayal, freedom and suppression. Luisa is planning to marry Carlo, who is in reality Rodolfo, son of a wealthy landowner. Rodolfo's father Count Walter however has other plans for a more favourable alliance that can be achieved by his son marrying the Duchess Federica. In between, there's the manipulative figure of Wurm, the Count's steward, who is in love with Luisa himself and does his best to blackmail her into renouncing her love for Rodolfo.  

The plot doesn't really need any extra spelling out, and Verdi's score speaks plainly and eloquently enough for itself, but a little bit of theatrical reinvention can make some of the more melodramatic points sit a little better with a modern-day audience. Rather than merely providing backdrops, the staging at Malmö illustrates this situation well with some big gestures. Two giant hands split the platform of a grassy verge when Wurm makes his divisive entrance in Act I, boxed-in rooms close down Luisa's options in later scenes, and a huge hand puts the squeeze on the lovers in Act III. It's slightly abstract, but in keeping with the tone of the work, the colours and lighting playing just an important a role in matching the heightened reality of the drama.

Verdi traditionally scores rousingly for such material, and he does so here in Luisa Miller as well. The score doesn't perhaps quite have the mastery of characterisation that can be found in his subsequent works - not just the mature works, but the sophistication that can be found in the not-far-off La Traviata and Rigoletto - but it's perfectly attuned nonetheless to the dramatic narrative. As conducted here for Malmö Opera by Michael Güttler, the orchestra give Verdi's score a romantic sweep that is in keeping for this work, although I daresay it would be attacked more idiomatically and with a little less delicacy by an Italian orchestra. As it is, it sounds wonderful here, showing the beauty of Verdi's arrangements.

Verdi's other great achievement in Luisa Miller is in his writing for the voice. Arias are well-placed at key moments and have the necessary impact ('Quando le sere al placido' in Act II being one of the work's few famous highlights), but Verdi also drives the narrative through duets, punctuates it with some beautiful choral work and even throws in an acapella quartet to show off the beauty of the combined voices. It's wonderful if you have the right singers in the roles and the cast and chorus at Malmö show how impressive that writing is. In the main roles, that's Luc Robert as the conflicted Rodolfo and Olesya Golovneva as Luisa, but there's good support from Vladislav Sulimsky as Miller and Lars Arvidson as Wurm. 

Golovneva in particular has the right temperament and timbre for this character. It should not an overpowering soprano voice but that of a delicate woman, initially bright, happy and in love who is gradually broken down by manipulative figures through fear of reprisals. The journey to her death is tricky to navigate, but Golovneva manages to sing the role without the melodramatic mannerisms that you might expect, yet still make her Luisa heartfelt and expressive. It's a style of performance that is perfectly in keeping with the intentions of the production and the staging here at Malmö, showing how effectively early-to-mid Verdi can be treated without revising or reinterpreting the work.

Malmö Opera's Luisa Miller is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Arthaus Musik. On Blu-ray, the disc is BD25, all region with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French and Korean. The filming is excellent, using lots of close-ups that show the intensity of the performances, the recording capturing the strong colour schemes that also play a part in setting the tone of the work.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen (Vienna 2014 - Webcast)

Leos Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2014

Franz Welser-Möst, Otto Schenk, Chen Reiss, Hyuna Ko, Gerald Finley, Donna Ellen, Andreas Hörl, James Kryshak, Donna Ellen, Wolfgang Bankl, Ilseyar Khayrullova, Lydia Rathkolb, Heinz Zednik, Wolfram Igor Dentl, Sabine Kogler 

Vienna State Opera Live Web streaming - 30 June 2014

Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen is proving to be one of the most popular works of 20th century opera, and it's not hard to see why. The music is beautiful, some of the most ravishing melodies ever composed that are instantly memorable as well as being sophisticated and idiomatic. Like the music, the subject is immediate and accessible, looking at the question of existence in a way that makes it meaningful to adults and children alike. It can be heartbreakingly sad, as well as uproariously funny.  It's above all a life-affirming work.

Dealing with as much as it does - all life, nature, the seasons, the passing of time, the idea of being a solitary entity making little connections with others, the loneliness of existence and the realisation that it will end, the necessity of confronting the fact that the world just moves on - The Cunning Little Vixen is also a difficult work to strike an effective balance between the large scale and the small, between the profound and the intimate. Otto Schenk's production for the Vienna State Opera is one of the best balanced versions I've seen.

Balance however isn't everything. It certainly makes the work appealing to the largest, most conservative part of the audience who don't want their preconceptions of the opera challenged. For every choice the director makes however - and here it must be said the choices are mostly safe ones - he necessarily must abandon other ways of presenting the work that can be a little more exciting and enlightening. The primary choice any director has to make with The Cunning Little Vixen is whether to play the animal world as cute and cuddly in a way that won't frighten the children and upset the delicate sensibilities of the audience, or show nature as a more violent and uncontrollable force.

Amra Buchbinder's stage and costume design is lovingly and elaborately detailed. Set almost entirely in a wood that dissolves into a starry night, it means that the beauty of nature is ever-present, even in the scenes at the Forester's lodge and the tavern. All the animals are recognisable and realistic in their costumes, movements and actions without being cute or over-stylised. As important as the beauty of nature is in the work however, the fact that animals behave as animals and not like humans should not be overlooked. Vixen however is fairly harmless here. She doesn't massacre the hens in a frenzied animal bloodlust, for example, even if she sorts the rooster out all right.

While there is a case for making Vixen a little more feral, such an approach can over-dominate as much as making her too cute and cuddly. The human connection to vixen's nature is also vital, and in order to establish that it's not so much a case of making the animals seem more human as much as giving the humans in the work due consideration. The Forester, his reflections on his life, his sense of his relationship with other people and the world around him are a vital part of The Cunning Little Vixen, and surely the aspect that Janáček would most have identified with. There's a sense of disconnect and dissatisfaction in the Forester. He observes and loves nature and his place in the world, but there's something about it that remains beyond his grasp.

He sees what is missing in the vixen, or at least he eventually comes to a better understanding of life through his connection with Vixen. Initially, he just grabs her and tries to own this wild animal, as if he can tame her nature to a condition where it can fit into his vision of order in the world. That of course proves impossible, but in Vixen's escape - although it infuriates him - in her death and her "rebirth", the Forester gains a sense of hope or comes to peace with the idea of progress and renewal, that the world will move on, that nature will look after its own, regardless of our efforts to impose a presence and a will upon it.

Director Otto Schenk brings the kinship of these two incompatible creatures of nature in a very simple way. He brings the Forester and Vixen closer together and even has them embrace at one point. There's consequently a warmth or at least a respect that exists between one for the other, or at least a connection is established showing that they can at least co-exist, even if it's never on common ground. It's not a particularly clever idea but the director at least recognises how important and true it is to the intent of the opera and how critical it is in getting the principal message of the work across in a balanced and meaningful way.

Or at least it's one part of what is needed. What proves to be just as critical to the success of this production - as it often does in this opera - is not so much the casting and performance of Vixen, as the attention given over to the characterisation of the Forester. Gerald Finley's beautiful smooth baritone isn't a perfect fit for every role - he's a little lacking in sufficient character for as complex a personality as Don Giovanni, for example - but the warmth of his timbre and his presence fills the Forester with life and a zest for life. The fact that he can handle the rhythms and expression of the Czech libretto is also impressive. No less impressive is Chen Reiss' bright vixen, and her scenes with Hyuna Ko's adoring and adorable Fox are just delightful. Franz Welser-Möst's delicate reading of Janáček's rhythmic pulse is also sensitive to the varying tones in the work as well as the balance that is achieved on the stage.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper live streaming

Sunday 6 July 2014

Catalani - La Wally (Geneva 2014 - Webcast)

Alfredo Catalani - La Wally

Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2014

Evelino Pidò, Cesare Lievi, Ainhoa Arteta, Bálint Szabó, Vitaliy Bilyy, Yonghoon Lee, Ivanna Lesyk-Sadivska, Ahlima Mhamdi, Bruno Balmelli

ARTE Concert - June 2014

Like most of Puccini's Italian contemporaries (Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Zandonai, Alfano), Alfredo Catalani's compositions are now rarely performed and all but forgotten. Some of those composers have at least one well-known work that is occasionally revived and performed, but in Catalani's case, although La Wally has some measure of recognition, it's mainly on account of one famous aria in the opera, "Ebben! Ne andrò lontana". Actual staged performances of the work however are rare indeed.

Maria Callas brought some recognition to the work, or at least its famous aria, but more recently its fame has chiefly been through the use of the aria in Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1981 French cult classic film 'Diva'. Involving the trade of a secret bootleg recording of the aria sung by a temperamental soprano who refuses to allow any recordings of her performances, the film played no small part in giving the aria from La Wally an air of mystique, glamour and prestige (and vice-versa the aria the film). 

The revival of Catalani's La Wally at the Grand Théâtre de Genève for the first time since 1962 doesn't attempt anything as ambitious as linking it with Diva - although the theatre promoted their new production with free screenings of the more recognisable Beineix movie - but settles for a traditional staging that simply gives the audience the rare opportunity of seeing the aria in its original context and evaluating whether the opera has any attraction to a modern audience. It proves to be a fine performance of Catalani's opera, even if it doesn't make a convincing case for the work having any lasting qualities.

While it's a pleasant enough work, skillfully composed and dramatised, the problem with La Wally is that it doesn't have any real distinguishing characteristics. With an Alpine setting, family rivalries and romantic entanglements involving a virginal daughter being forced into an marriage of convenience, the subject of La Wally has much in common with opera semi-seria and bel canto works like Bellini's La Sonnambula, Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix and Halévy's Clari. Catalani may not be a Bellini or a Donizetti, but La Wally does have at least one thing going for it. It has one great aria and unfortunately that is likely to remain the opera's chief claim to fame.

The problem is not so much the plot as what you do with it, and musically, La Wally is not particularly adventurous. The subject of the drama could be adapted more closely towards an Alpine version of passions and family feuds in the verismo style of Catalani's contemporaries, particularly Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. (There is even a village religious procession written into the work that is tied to La Wally's declarations of purity). There are in any case plenty of conflicting passions to evoke and bring to the surface and, on the face of it, we also have a heroine who is not entirely an innocent but rather a proud and temperamental figure who gives full vent to her passions. There's plenty here for a soprano to get her teeth into, and you can see why a performer like Maria Callas would be attracted to the role.

The cause of all Wally's problems is her secret love for Giuseppe Hagenbach, the son of her father's long-time enemy. Made aware of this by Gellner - observant to Wally's behaviour since he himself in in love with her - her father Stromminger declares that she will marry Gellner forthwith or leave the south Tyrolean village of Hochstoff forever. Wally chooses to leave ("Ebben! Ne andrò lontana"). Her father dies soon after however and Wally inherits the Eagle Tavern. Jealous over the attentions that Giuseppe shows to the barmaid Afra, Wally responds furiously and throws a drink in the girl's face. In revenge Giuseppe bets that he can steal a kiss from Wally and bring her pride down to size.

This is not a big deal, you might think, not anything that you are going to write an opera about, but Wally has just declared how even a kiss would be a defilement of virginal purity. As she is in love with Giuseppe, she's going to find that a hard position to maintain, and the young woman is indeed made a fool of before the whole of the village. The dramatic resolution to the dilemma that has arisen in La Wally at least gives the work another distinctive feature which makes great use of its south Tyrol setting at the same time as it makes it extremely difficult to actually stage effectively. Having rescued Giuseppe from a ravine that he is thrown into by a vengeful Gellner and achieved forgiveness and reconciliation with the man she loves, Wally dies caught up in an avalanche on the mountain.

That's quite a coup de théâtre if you can carry it off. Director Cesare Lievi at least keeps the drama moving well to take us credibly to this point, and Evelino Pidò conducts the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande with loving attention for Catalani's score. Ezio Toffolutti's production design for the Grand Théâtre de Genève's La Wally is however very much a traditional period costume production with painted backdrops, basic props to represent the village and the tavern in Acts I and II, so recreating an avalanche on the stage was always going to be a bit of a challenge. Act III and IV, where the landscape plays a large part in the drama, is a little more abstract, with walls like shards of ice and a projection of a moon-like skull behind the slope that drops into a ravine. The slope is however merely a long white sheet that drags Wally into the hole at the climax, with flowing dry ice spilling over the backdrop behind her.

It's a basic representation of the scene, but it works reasonably well. Principally that's because Catalani scores practically the whole of Act IV as a lament for all Wally's troubles without stretching to bel canto ornamentation, but mainly it's because Spanish soprano Ainhoa Arteta makes this position (a precarious one) feel achingly real. She's not Maria Callas by any means, but it's a challenging role that the success of the opera rests upon, and Arteta carries it through impressively. Act IV also gives Giuseppe the chance to match himself to the soprano in a glorious duet, and it's here that Yonghoon Lee also demonstrates his worth. The other roles are less critical, but are also well performed here with Ivanna Lesyk-Sadivska's pure, clear timbre marking her out in the trouser-role of Wally's only true friend Walter.

Links: ARTE Concert, Grand Théâtre de Genève

Friday 4 July 2014

Rossini - Guillaume Tell (Bayerische Staatsoper 2014 - Webcast)

Gioachino Rossini - Guillaume Tell

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2014

Dan Ettinger, Antú Romero Nunes, Michael Volle, Bryan Hymel, Marina Rebeka, Evgeniya Sotnikova, Günther Groissböck, Jennifer Johnston, Goran Jurić, Christoph Stephinger, Kevin Conners, Enea Scala, Christian Rieger Live Web streaming - 28 June 2014

The qualities of Rossini's musical composition and the measure of how advanced his dramatic writing is in comparison to his earlier works, is clearly evident in his prematurely final work for the Paris Opera, Guillaume Tell. In part, that's much to do with the quality of the orchestra that Rossini had at his disposal, but there's clearly ambition on the part of the composer to move away from the standard number opera towards a more dramatic musical expression. In many ways, even though it is largely through-composed, Guillaume Tell points the way towards the grand opéra tradition, even as it looks back and retains a sense of the opera seria.

In both respects, whether it adheres towards one style or other, Rossini's final opera is a virtuoso work that requires performers of an extremely high calibre. It's a long work, almost four hours without cuts, with challenging vocal lines that push one tenor role to deliver fifteen high-Cs, many of them late in the second Act. The challenges extend to the staging of the dramatic action. Other than providing a sense of location for the Swiss Lake Lucerne setting, there aren't any conventionally difficult scenes to stage (other than an archer shooting an apple off a boy's head evidently!), but the real challenge lies rather in finding a way to make the staging visually and dramatically interesting. Without proper direction there can be a lot of opera seria-like standing around singing out one's emotional conflict to the audience.

Consequently, Guillaume Tell is not a work that is performed very often, but if the considerable musical and dramatic challenges can be overcome, there are great rewards to be found in this remarkable opera. Set during the Swiss revolt against the Austrian Hapsburg occupation in the thirteenth century and even managing to tie a doomed love affair into the storyline, there is at least a strong dramatic situation in Guillaume Tell. It's the kind of scenario that Verdi would come to specialise in, and Rossini's writing here sets a high bar for his successor to aspire to and eventually surpass. An oppressed nation under a hated foreign rule, stirrings of revolution and expressions of patriotic fervour, there's even a romantic situation of lovers torn in a conflict of love and duty to one's country.

The sense of the kind of passions that underlie Guillaume Tell are exemplified by the action that opens the opera. Leuthold, angry at an assault committed by Austria troops in his village, brutally attacks and kills the soldier responsible for the abduction of his daughter. This scene is shown silently before the opera starts, but rather than choose to follow this with the traditional overture, Act I of this production launches straight into the action with the village wedding celebrations that are soon to be interrupted by news of the Austrian governor Gessler's reprisals. The dropping the overture (or moving it, as it transpires, since cutting it would be unforgivable), and even the tone of the wedding celebrations indicate that this is going to be a production that emphasises the darker side of Guillaume Tell. And, being Munich, it's an abstract and modernised staging as well, looking like it is set sometime in the 1970s.

Instead of anything like traditional backdrops or even a sense of the setting even being anywhere in Switzerland, the production relies mainly on a layered series of columns on a darkened stage, the long tubular shapes rising and falling, symbolising or at least effectively evoking a sense of crushing oppression. In other scenes, the pillars float, revolve and strike angular positions, always matching the tone of the scene, whether it's a love scene or one of conflict. Or both, as is the case with Arnold Melcthal and his love for Mathilde, a Hapsburg princess whose life he once saved from an avalanche. On hearing that his father has been executed by Gessler, Arnold however has no choice but to join the call to arms that the intrepid archer William Tell is advocating against the oppressors.

Advocating, that is, with a gun rather than a traditional bow and arrow. Following the absence of the overture, this could lead the audience to wonder whether the director hasn't gone too far in taking Guillaume Tell away from the crowd-pleasing elements that contribute to its musical and dramatic greatness. That proves not to actually be the case. The shooting of the apple from Jemmy's head it staged with a crossbow and has full dramatic impact at the end of Act I, while the overture is reinstated after the interval before the start of the second act, a place where - arguably of course - it fits in well. It's not so much delayed gratification as using the melancholy tone of the solo viola to reflect Jemmy's sense of impending death - one that is populated it seems by fantasy figures from 'Where The Wild Things Are' - exploding into the famous march as the success of Tell's shot is seen to be sure and his turning on Gessler provokes the people to rise up in rebellion.

The Bayerische Staatsoper are of course well-known for taking on challenging works as well as for the experimental stylisations they take in their approach to opera stagings. For a work that is rarely staged which and has as many challenges as Guillaume Tell, the obvious approach would be stick with a familiar traditional period production, but playing it safe is never an option for the Munich opera company. Not that they get any thanks for it. The mindless booing that greeted Antú Romero Nunes and his team at the curtain call was inevitable then, but Munich should continue to pursue this kind of approach undaunted. It might infuriate a small section of the audience, but Nunes' approach succeeded in projecting a suitable tone for Rossini's opera, the measure of its success being plainly that the force of the work and the sentiments it expresses were fully achieved. I'm not sure why anyone would think the wearing of lederhosen and a few painted backdrops of the Alps would have improved it greatly.

There could however be little anyone would find lacking in the musical performance or the singing. Dan Ettinger finds a lush romanticism in the score, quite different from the familiar Rossinian romp, that drives the sweep of the drama wonderfully. The structure of the work is likewise tied more to dramatic requirements than to providing tailor-made roles to either showcase the performers' talents or spare their energies. It's a good hour and a half for example before the arch-villain Gessler even makes an appearance. Günther Groissböck doesn't quite have the depth of bass for a commanding governor, but donning a bull's head mask he presents a fearsome enough figure for Tell to defy. It was Marina Rebeka however who won most of the applause at the end of Act I for her Mathilde, and deservedly so.

Michael Volle and Bryan Hymel's Act I contributions were also acknowledged, but they really came into their own in Act II. Volle was as solid and reliable as ever as Tell, but it was Hymel who really impressed here. You have to give credit to any tenor who can hit all Arnold's high-Cs, but Hymel took them all effortlessly through a smooth vocal line and timbre that now seems more natural for Rossini than the heavy dramatic requirements of Verdi and Grand Opera. Evgeniya Sotnikova made the role of Jemmy count with a clear and expressive delivery, as did Jennifer Johnston as Hedwige.

Links: Bayerische