Friday 22 August 2014

Bach - Trauernacht (Aix-en-Provence, 2014 - Webcast)

Johann Sebastian Bach - Trauernacht

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2014 

Raphaël Pichon, Katie Mitchell, Frode Olsen, Aoife Miskelly, Eve-Maud Hubeaux, Rupert Charlesworth, Andri Björn Robertsson

Medici, Culturebox - Live Streaming, July 2014

J.S Bach didn't actually write any operas, so it's rare indeed to find his work in the schedule of an opera festival. Bach's Passions have a dramatic line that has seen them adapted to the stage on occasion, but the work Trauernacht, presented at the 2014 Aix-en-Provence festival, is unlikely to mean anything to opera-goers. Trauernacht (subtitled 'The Angel's Hand', but literally meaning 'Night of Mourning') is actually a collection of a number of similarly themed religious Bach cantatas gathered together and developed into a kind of narrative line by conductor Raphaël Pichon and director Katie Mitchell.

Bach wrote over 200 cantatas while he was in the position of  Cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig, sacred pieces of varying length for solo performers and small choirs quoting lines from the Bible or religious meditations on scripture. If it's a case that, like Handel's religious oratorios, these exquisite little pieces can be given a new life through a stage performance, then there's merit in the exercise for that reason alone. Unlike Handel's oratorios however, it rather more difficult (and potentially controversial) to select and adapt these works to fit a dramatic narrative. There is however a very specific sentiment explored musically in the pieces chosen for Trauernacht, and there is even an inherent drama in how the music expresses the sentiments of the few lines of text and scripture in them.

As the title of the work tells us, that sentiment is associated with questions of death and mourning. Although death is a common enough occurrence in opera works, nowhere is it meditated on at such length (even though the work runs to less than 80 minutes) and with such sensitivity as it is here in Trauernacht. The exquisite beauty of the music and an abstract mediation on such matters would then more than justify the creation of such a work, but Mitchell also attempts to find a narrative path of sorts that takes a meaningful line from sorrow and incomprehension among a family over bereavement suffered by the death of a father, through to acceptance that this is the fate of us all.

In terms of staging, this doesn't require anything too elaborate. Vicki Mortimer's designs for the Katie Mitchell's Aix production (the two of them previously collaborated in the creation of George Benjamin's Written on Skin for Aix in 2012, Mitchell also involved with The House Taken Over by Vasco Mendonça en 2013) provide a table with four chairs, a dinner table where the family place the remaining belongings - a folded suit and a pair of shoes - of their recently buried or cremated father. A fifth figure sits recessed in the darkness in the background who evidently represents the father (Frode Olsen in the main providing a haunting low whistle between cantatas), but by the same token he can be seen as merely the presence of the father or even an angel. His main role is as a focus for the thoughts and meditations of the other four members of the family to work through their anger, grief and sorrow as they move around, sometimes in slow motion, and sit down later for a meal together.

To set the funereal mood for the piece, the opening prologue is not by actually by J.S. Bach, but a motet written by his cousin Johann Christoph Bach, "Mit Weinen hebt’s sich an". All the other compositions however come from J.S. Bach cantatas, often consisting of short recitative or a single repeated line as each of the family members - in solo air, in duet and sometimes in small choral arrangements - express their thoughts and process their grief. The tenor rages at the terrible fate that awaits them all in cantata BWV 90, "Es reißet euch ein schrecklich Ende", the four singers come together at the centre of the piece to sing of their submission to the Lord's will in an extract from cantata BWV 71 "Du wollest dem Feinde nicht geben" taken from Psalm 74 ("You would not give the soul of Your turtledove to the enemy"). The father himself comes forward to sing BWV 159 "Es ist vollbracht" ("It is finished"), bringing the family to acceptance in the bass air BWV 82 "Ich habe genug" ("I am content"), and in the choral BWV 668, "Vor deinen Thron" ("Before thy throne, O Lord, I present myself").

In terms of staging, the narrative developed by Katie Michell and Raphaël Pichon for Trauernacht is very simple, but it's entirely appropriate, respectful and meaningful. The directors successfully retain the religious origins and significance of these profound meditations on death, while at the same time giving them context and expression in everyday actions and places. That's as much in the singing and the performances, the words and the sentiments behind them not merely chanted or recited, but given full dramatic expression. There's a spiritual purity in these musical compositions, in the lilting tone of the recorder, oboe and viola da gamba that mournfully accompanies the singing, weaving through the voices, granting them an uplifting grace that carries them through to a beautiful resolution.

Links: Medici, CultureboxFestival d’Aix-en-Provence 

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Rossini - Il Turco in Italia (Aix-en-Provence, 2014 - Webcast)

Gioachino Rossini - Il Turco in Italia 

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2014 

Marc Minkowski, Christopher Alden, Adrian Sâmpetrean, Olga Peretyatko, Alessandro Corbelli, Lawrence Brownlee, Pietro Spagnoli, Cecelia Hall, Juan Sancho

ARTE Concert - Live Streaming, July 2014

For it to be one of the composer's early comedies, composed the year after L'Italiana in Algeri, there is nonetheless something of an air of sophistication and modernism in Rossini's Il Turco in Italia. There may not be any greater subtlety or examination of cultural differences in the clash of Western and Eastern traditions than the previous work, but there is a little more interest in examining problematic areas in the relationship between men and women. Those questions might not be examined quite to the same level of sophistication and invention as Mozart, but if L'Italiana in Algeri is Rossini's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Il Turco in Italia is his Così Fan Tutte.

What sets Il Turco apart from L'Italiana is the unusual almost post-modern, proto-Pirandellian meta-fiction device of the work being devised, orchestrated and more or less written as it goes along by a Poet seeking to create a drama. In reality, his role is not much more than that of the manipulations of Don Alfonso in Così Fan Tutte, but it's a gift for an opera director who wants to play with the work on various levels. It's maybe not so complex for the conductor. Although there are moments of brilliance, musically it's pretty much Rossini by numbers, but there's a considerable amount of fun to be had in generating and measuring the famous Rossini drive through to the end of the work. In both respects then, Il Turco in Italia is more clever than inspired, and the same could be said for the Aix-en-Provence production.

In Christopher Alden's production, the Poet is indeed central to the purpose as well as the development of the drama. He's seen labouring over his writing desk during the overture, only finding inspiration when six characters in search of an author arrive in the little Italian port town where he has taken up residence. One is the flirty Fiorilla who is cheating on her husband Don Geronio with her lover Don Narciso, making both men's lives miserable. Now she has her eye set on the exotic figure of a Turkish prince, Selim, who has just arrived in town. The attraction is mutual, but Selim has other attachments - whether he wants them or not - with Zaida, who has fled from his displeasure with her faithful Albazar, the two of them also in town now with a group of bohemian travellers.

Recognising the potential of this situation as material for a drama, the poet Prosdocimo starts to manipulate the six characters towards his own ends. He doesn't, it has to be said, do an awful lot that is original with them, falling back into the standard plot devices like stirring jealousy with letters and getting them to adopt disguises in a way that causes confusion and havoc at masked balls. Then again, they are fairly stock characters - flirty young wife, jealous older husband, timid lover and exotic foreigner, with a couple to be added as sacrificial secondary characters (think Masetto and Zerlina from Don Giovanni) to stir up the jealousy, infidelity and the drama even further. It's not surprising that this serves to give Rossini fairly run-of-the-mill material for by-the-numbers writing, although being Rossini, it's often dazzling and entertaining, particularly when there is a good cast available, and there's a good cast available here.

Alden evidently emphasises the manipulation of the drama for the Poet/Composer/Director's own ends. Six characters, two women and four men is not the ideal arrangement for a happy ending, but it's enough for the poet to work though several troubled combinations. Alden's poet accordingly works furiously at his typewriter and hands out scripts for the characters to perform. The men seem happy or resigned to play the roles that life has allotted them, the stronger female roles less so. Fiorilla at one stage takes the typewriter into her own hands here and writes the part for herself, refusing to accept conventions, but - somewhat predictably and unexcitingly as far as the potential of the opera goes (and sadly for the weaker examples of the species, Don Narciso and Albazar are written out), the status quo is more or less resumed by the end.

The set design doesn't do an awful lot with the potential of the work either, set in what looks like a large tiled Turkish bath-house (without baths), with the large figure head of a ship being wheeled on at certain points for no discernible reason. Curtains are used not so much in a manner to highlight the dramatic satire as provide opportunities for minor prop changes. It functions well enough however, leaving the real work to be done with the characterisation - such as it is - and the direction of the performances. The potential is indeed at its best when it allows Fiorilla to make her own mark on the Poet's script in Act II when she makes her feelings known to Selim about his indecision with regard to choosing between her and Zaida.

It's also at its best in this scene because it has the strengths of the singers Adrian Sâmpetrean and Olga Peretyatko there to make it work. Both are marvellous, Sâmpetrean's smooth bass complementing the Peretyatko's bright soprano. Peretyatko also has the necessary star-quality and vocal range to carry off a strong female Rossini lead like this, her delivery of Fiorilla's final aria 'Squallida veste, e buona' every bit as impressive as it ought to be. As has been characteristic of this year's Aix festival, the casting has been strong right across the board and there are no weaknesses elsewhere in Turco. Alessandro Corbelli provides good singing and comic acting as Geronio; Lawrence Brownlee's slumped-over Narciso delivers some gorgeous self-pitying arias; Pietro Spagnoli is solid as the master-of-ceremonies poet holding it all together; Cecelia Hall is a sparkling Zaida; and Juan Sancho makes a fine song and dance of Albazar's only aria.

Monday 18 August 2014

Handel - Ariodante (Aix-en-Provence, 2014 - Webcast)

George Friedrich Handel - Ariodante

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2014 

Andrea Marcon, Richard Jones, Sarah Connolly, Patricia Petibon, Sandrine Piau, Sonia Prina, David Portillo, Luca Tittoto, Christopher Diffey

Culturebox - Live Streaming, July 2014

In an interview in the programme for the Aix-en-Provence production of Ariodante, conductor Andrea Marcon notes the unique character of this work as an Italian opera with French influences and adornments written by a German composer for an English audience. One would think that it would be difficult to reconcile all those different elements, but Handel of course makes it all seem perfectly fluid and natural. It only makes the challenge harder for the conductor and the stage director to make a production of Ariodante run as smoothly for a modern theatre audience.

Andrea Marcon clearly has the measure of the work, and a great love for it, making a strong case for it being the 'perfect' Handel opera in its structure, in the strength of its melodies and arias, and in the consistency of its melancholic tone. His work is made considerably easier, I would say, by the quality of the orchestra and singers he is working with here at the Aix Festival. The Freiburger Barockorchester keep that essential rhythm and tone that is in the piece, while the real musical colour is there in the range and the variety of singing voices. The musical performance is accordingly of the highest order.

For his part, stage director Richard Jones seeks to find a down-to-earth consistency of tone in a work that would appear have so many international influences, and he finds that in the Scottish setting of Ariodante. There's nothing to be gained from going right back to the 8th century period of Antonio Salvi's libretto, based on Ariosto's 'Orlando Furioso', but the Scottish character of the work is important. Jones' references would seem to come from Michael Powell's Scottish islands feature film 'The Edge of the World' (1937), with something of the flavour of 'I Know Where I'm Going' (1945). Jones also cites Lars von Trier's 'Breaking the Waves', which is in indeed much more in line with the dark, melancholic and sometimes cruel tone of Ariodante.

The production design by Ultz gives us a more familiar and essentially timeless character that is modern without being quirkily modernised, far as it is from a royal tale of knights in the age of chivalry. Jones, for better or worse, sees Ariodante as more of a community drama, and as such it has something of the appearance of his Peter Grimes for La Scala. The outdoor Théâtre de l’Archevêché in Aix-en-Provence might also have had some bearing on the choice to have a single multi-purpose set, a cross section of a humble manor with four rooms separated by invisible walls and nominal doors, the dress sense that of island fisherman, fairisle sweaters, tanktops and weatherproofs.

It doesn't quite have the magical, the historical or the regal quality that you might like for this work, but Jones is able to differentiate between the social status and class differences of the characters. The king is more of a laird, but still the most important figure in the community, commanding respect. Polinesso is a firebrand preacher, which doesn't really seem to fit with his position as the Duke of Albany, but it does give him a role where he is capable of manipulating and influencing the local island people, stirring them up and using them for his own purposes. For the most part, it works reasonably well, with there being little that detracts from the drama or its musical flavour.

The best touch is the use of puppet storytelling. Imaginatively and impressively staged, they succeed in lifting the production at precisely those right moments at the finale of each act. It's challenging enough to make the choral arrangements and French ballets fit in with the drama, but they are well choreographed here as a traditional dance-hall céilidh. The end-of act puppet shows however give us a bit more of an extension beyond the life on the stage, Act I imagining married life for Ariodante and Ginerva, Act II creating a nightmarish vision of Ginerva's downfall, Act III reinstating the hoped for return to the vision of Act I. In Jones' production however, there's a recognition that there's no going back after what has happened, that Ginerva's life lies out beyond the island and that Act II nightmare descent into pole-dancing and prostitution might still be a possibility.

Despite its short run on its London opening in 1735, which is not necessarily a reflection on the quality of the work, there is merit to the claim of Ariodante being a perfect Handel opera. There are other contenders that can claim to be Handel's best work - Giulio Cesare for example having a greater variety of moods, melodies and action. Coming just around the time that Handel was starting to switch over to oratorio writing but not quite jaded by the opera format (as can possibly be seen in Deidamia), Ariodante can certainly be said to demonstrate all of the composer's brilliance in the art of opera writing. For its perfection to be evident however it really needs the right kind of singers to do it justice, and you can't argue with the quality of the cast that have been brought together for this Aix production.

As Ariodante, you don't get much better than Sarah Connolly in this type of role. I wasn't actually sure the role best suited her voice in places during Act I, but I was totally convinced by her simply magnificent performance of 'Scherza infida' in Act II. In terms of performance and dramatic commitment, Connolly is at her best right now and hard to beat. Patricia Petibon takes on the challenging range and da capo ornamentation of the role of Ginerva, a testing role that she gets through it with verve, personality and strong technique. Her wild red hair is another advantage here in a Scottish opera, but she's also strong in terms of characterisation, her Ginerva not just a put-upon victim. There's no shortage of personality in the role of Polinesso, despite the strange firebrand preacher characterisation in this production. It needs a true contralto and Sonia Prina has everything that is required here, particularly impressive on the lower end of the tessitura and utterly convincing in the masculine role.

The other three leads were no less impressive than the main roles. Sandrine Piau in particular was just outstanding. Dalinda is an interesting character to work with - in the thrall of her passions for Polinesso, she becomes a betrayer to others and is ultimately manipulated and betrayed herself. Piau makes the most of this in her Act II aria 'Se tanto piace al cor', and in her Act III realisation of what she has done. Richard Jones is right to follow this right through to having permanent consequences, particularly when it's as powerfully drawn as it is here by Piau. Despite the opportunities afforded by Handel's writing, there's no vocal grandstanding anywhere here, just pure dramatic expression. Luca Tittoto gave a heartfelt performance as the King of Scotland, his 'Invida sorte avara' aria in particular just superb, and David Portillo's lyrical tenor voice gave Lurcanio a measure of sensitivity rather than simply hotheadedness.

Links: CultureboxFestival d’Aix-en-Provence

Sunday 17 August 2014

Mozart - Die Zauberflöte (Aix-en-Provence 2014 - Webcast)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2014

Pablo Heras-Casado, Simon McBurney, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Mari Eriksmoen, Kathryn Lewek, Josef Wagner, Regula Mühlemann, Christof Fischesser, Andreas Conrad, Ana-Maria Labin, Silvia de La Muela, Claudia Huckle, Maarten Koningsberger, Krzysztof Baczyk, Elmar Gilbertsson

ARTE Concert - Live Streaming, July 2014

Simon McBurney's idea of using a live video feed that shows hand-drawn backgrounds and the employment of live foley effects is, I presume, a way of making Mozart's Die Zauberflöte a little more spontaneous and interactive. It's a way of connecting to the same live impulse as the performance of the music itself, and since music is all-important in the conception and execution of this particular work, that's not a bad idea. In theory anyway. In practice, it doesn't really contribute a great deal during this performance of the production filmed at the 2014 Aix-en-Provence festival.

There's more to the direction of the production than this - and not all of which works terribly successfully either - but essentially, the visual impression of the stage design sets the primary tone of the work and it seems to run contrary to the intent. There's considerable effort put into making the work light, playful and noble, but the stage remains dark and in shadows throughout. The stage makes extensive and good use of a platform which is raised and tilted throughout the journey and the trials, the underside meaningfully and practically revealing a lighting rig. Clothes are everyday casual, Papageno looking like a mountain-hiker with no bird-like characteristics at all. The three ladies wear combat patterned canvas clothing. None of it however looks terribly 'magic kingdom'.

In fact, the overriding impression given is that there's an awful lot of effort put into achieving very little effective results at all. An artist draws background lines and scribbles with chalk on a blackboard (which eventually coalesce into words and phrases by the end of the journey into enlightenment), some shadow puppets are used, and numerous extras are required to wave around folded pages to represent birds. Some of the projections are "traditional", showing a swirling serpent, using a row of books to indicate the way into Sarastro's kingdom, but mostly it feels a very laboured way to achieve immediacy, simplicity and spontaneity. At its worst - in a scene like Papageno's playing around with bottles that fail to synchronise with the live sound-effects created in an on-stage booth - it actually works against the idea of spontaneity and simplicity and just kills the lightness and humour of the situation.

At least the intention is clear here, whereas the purpose of some of McBurney's other directorial choices are less evident. The Queen of the Night's account of Pamina's abduction works well and achieves an immediacy when you see it enacted in the shadows of the stage, but why is the Queen of the Night depicted as an old lady who hobbles onto the stage with a walking stick and is carted off in a wheelchair at the end of her energetic coloratura aria? Why are the three boys likewise skeletal old men? All of the characters undergo a transformation over the course of the work, but neither of these points really fit with the characterisation or the essential purpose of the work.

McBurney, in interviews and in the Aix Festival Programme, seems nonetheless to have a reasonable concept here that does come through at stages. The multimedia approach matches the multifaceted range of Mozart's work, and in regards to Die Zauberflöte it also manages to touch on the magic of simplicity, of understanding the world and achieving wisdom by seeing it through a child's eyes. The veneration of music, as a magical means of reaching that level of purity and as a resolution to all conflicts, is covered well in the ceremonial aspects of the staging and in the reverential handling of the flute. Music is at the centre of this Magic Flute and is instrumental in bringing about this new and better society, "through friendship and love".

If the staging is a bit laboured and ultimately indifferent in as far as the impact it has upon the work, the actual performance of Mozart's score by the Freiburger Barockorchester is just wonderful. Pablo Heras-Casado marshals the rhythms and pace of the work brilliantly and with delicacy, achieving that necessary playful lightness, spontaneity and the magical simplicity that the stage production aims for but never quite achieves. The singing too is just beautiful right across the range - on note, with a sense of really enjoying and feeling the work. Christof Fischesser is one of the best Sarastros around, and he's matched against a strong Königin der Nacht in Kathryn Lewek. Stanislas de Barbeyrac and Mari Eriksmoen sing purely as Tamino and Pamina as well as giving the roles some personality. There's no lack of that either from Josef Wagner's Papageno or Regula Mühlemann's Papagena.

In the end, Simon McBurney's production of the Magic Flute for Aix-en-Provence gets there and finds the beauty at the heart of the work, but if it succeeds and proves enjoyable, it's more to do with the expression of Mozart's incredible musical talent. Under Pablo Heras-Casado's musical direction, with the wondrous performance of the work by the Freiburger Barockorchester and with some very fine singing, this is one of the best accounts of this opera I've heard in a long time. And even if Simon McBurney's stage direction doesn't bring all that much to it, this is still a very impressive Die Zauberflöte.

Links: ARTE ConcertFestival d’Aix-en-Provence

Friday 15 August 2014

Gluck - Gluck 300 Years (Blu-ray)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Gluck 300 Years

Alceste - Stuttgart, 2006
Constantinos Carydis, Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito, Catherine Naglestad, Donald Kaasch, Bernard Schneider, Catriona Smith, Johan Rydh, Michael Ebbecke

Iphigénie en Tauride - Zurich, 2001
William Christie, Claus Guth, Juliette Galstian, Rodney Gilfry, Deon van der Walt

Orfeo ed Euridice - Royal Opera House, 1991
Hartmut Haenchen, Harry Kupfer, Jochen Kowalski, Gillian Webster, Jeremy Budd

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

In terms of content, this release is a fine way to celebrate Gluck's 300th anniversary, collecting what are quite simply three of the greatest works of opera ever written. All three operas are key works of Gluck's reform period, the purest examples of the composer's intentions to reduce extravagant ornamentation and bring opera back to its fundamental purpose as a means of dramatic expression. As such they are all derived from classical Greek dramas, mythological in scope but human in sentiments, profound in their meaning and exquisite in their musical arrangements.

Each of the productions differs in terms of musical performance and stage interpretation, but all are faithful to Gluck's vision of the pure music-drama. Orfeo ed Euridice is performed in its original Italian version, Iphigénie en Tauride in its original French version, Alceste in the 1776 French revision. While the quality of the performances is indisputable, the fact that all three operas are contained on one single BD50 Blu-ray disc might give a clue that quality of the video transfers for this release is far from expected High Definition standards.

Alceste - Stuttgart, 2006
There are a few odd touches in the 2006 recording of Stuttgart's full French edition of Alceste (complete with the concluding six-movement orchestral suite by Gossec), but other than the 20th century setting - some kind of combination of funeral parlour, recording studio and meeting house - there's nothing too unusual attempted in Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito's production. There's something oratorio-like about Alceste's grand choruses and funeral marches, with individual dramatic expressions of grief, despair and prayers as Alceste sacrifices herself, Apollo having promised that the dying King Admeto will be spared if someone worthy takes his place. That all comes across exceptionally well here.

Despite the lack of typical dramatic action, all the human drama of Alceste is taken to the limits and wrapped up in the music and the singing. The work is given a magnificent account here in the Stuttgart production conducted by Constantinos Carydis, and the singing gives full expression to the trials of human life held to the cruel and unfathomable whim of the Gods. Catherine Naglestad gives a strong, unmannered performance of dramatic intensity as Alceste, Donald Kaasch is a dignified lyrical Admeto. The chorus work is sublime.  

Iphigénie en Tauride - Zurich, 2001
Musically pared back to its pure emotional core, it's debatable whether Iphigénie en Tauride requires any further stage elaboration, but Claus Guth highlights the psychological depth that underlies the trauma of the characters by picking up on the (pre-)Freudian undercurrents, expressing them in dreams where papier-mâché doubles continually re-enact their nightmares and drive their actions. It's evidently not going to be to everyone's taste, but it is an interesting and valid interpretation of the opera's content, and it does indeed bring out - or perhaps overstate - elements that otherwise might pass by unnoticed.

Under William Christie, the orchestration presents the work in a clear, bright, stripped-back arrangement. It's less full bodied than other recordings I have heard, sounding like a chamber orchestra here presumably using period instruments. Both Juliette Galstian as Iphigenia - restrained, clear and with beautiful diction - and Rodney Gilfry as Orestes, take advantage of the spacious arrangements and sing purely, emotively, without needing to dramatically overstate.

Orfeo ed Euridice - Royal Opera House, 1991
The Royal Opera House's 1991 production of Orfeo ed Euridice from 1991 still stands up pretty well musically and it manages to reveal the aching beauty of the opera, but there are some curious staging elements in Harry Kupfer's direction that never quite add up to a consistent concept. Although fully staged with attention to mood and situation, the chorus are lined-up in rows in an extended orchestra pit in formal dress, and the singers too on occasion lapse into concert performance mode with the music score open before them as if they are in some kind of mentally abstracted state. Doubles are used and Amor speaks to Orfeo through their young child. The dress is contemporary 1990s casual, Orpheus looking like a pub folk singer, but the journey through Hell after the death if Eurydice is no less real and dramatically intense in this version.

The best thing about the performance is the countertenor Orpheus of Jochen Kowalski. There's a beautiful clarity and strength to his voice that reaches those extremes of Orpheus' mental state with tremendous force of expression. Eurydice is passionately delivered by Gillian Webster and Amor is enchantingly sung by Jeremy Budd. Hartmut Haenchen conducts a well-balanced version of the original 1762 Italian version of Orfeo ed Eurydice.

There are some terrific performances here of these great Gluck masterpieces and I was looking forward to seeing them upgraded to HD, but the transfers on this Blu-ray are very disappointing. Basically, it appears that the old DVD masters have just been transferred across to HD format, with all three operas contained on a single BD50 disc. The image and sound are reasonably good, and certainly acceptable for Standard Definition presentation, but on a large screen or projected, none of these will meet High Definition requirements. The image is soft, the transfer exhibits and perhaps even enhances the familiar flaws found in old video transfers. Alceste and Iphigénie en Tauride are 16:9 widescreen, while Orfeo ed Eurydice is 4:3.  Each performance comes with English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles.

You're actually at a slight disadvantage with the BD release. The DVD version of this collection is a box set that collects each of the operas as individually cased DVDs. For convenience or uniformity, the BD release has PCM stereo on all performances, dropping the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix of Iphigénie en Tauride. There is no chapter selection on the Blu-ray, just the option to choose which opera to view, and there is no pop-up menu functionality. You can however find chapter-listings for each of the productions in the enclosed booklet. In addition to the three operas on the Blu-ray there is a "bonus" in the form of an hour-long film "Winds of Change, Winds of Love" by Inger Aby, a dramatised meeting between Gluck and his student Salieri, where the elder master advises on how success in Paris is as capricious and unpredictable as the wind.

It's undoubtedly convenient to have all three operas gathered together on a single BD disc, and the performances of these three great works are all well worth having, but very disappointing that this is not a true High Definition release.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri (Pesaro 2013 - Blu-ray)

Gioachino Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro - 2013

José Ramón Encinar, Davide Livermore, Anna Goryachova, Yijie Shi, Alex Esposito, Mariangela Sicillia, Raffaella Lupinacci, Davide Luciano, Mario Cassi

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Their productions might not be to everyone's taste, but every year the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro consistently show that they have the composer's best interests at heart and, better than anyone else, they really understand how to get great neglected works by Rossini across to a modern audience. Director Davide Livermore has come up with several innovative productions for the festival over the years, including a Hollywood silent movie epic for Ciro in Babilonia and a backstage haunting of the ghosts of Demetrio e Polibio. As the groovy 60s Austin Powers styled the cover of the DVD for his 2013 L'Italiana in Algeri indicates, the approach taken here is again playful and imaginative but also completely faithful to the intentions and the spirit of the work.

Livermore's argument for this approach is that a work like L'Italiana in Algeri was never meant to be treated with po-faced classical opera seriousness, but was meant to raise huge laughs from its audience. There's no attempt in this opera to make any serious points about social and cultural differences, or even culinary tastes (Pappataci!) - it's just a broad farce, albeit one with a gifted composer at the helm. Livermore's point of reference for translating the work to a modern context - exactly 200 years after the work was first performed - is found in the films of Blake Edwards. (The Austin Powers movies are also clearly an influence, but they themselves are heavily indebted to Blake Edwards' Pink Panther movies). In theory this is a brilliant concept, in practice, it's not as much fun as it really ought to be.

Livermore's concept is definitely appropriate in its tone and workable in the context of the opera. It sees Lindoro as a secret-agent super-spy on a special mission, who is inadvertently caught by the henchmen of the nasty foreign evil-villain Mustafà and, perhaps unaware of his secret identity, is put into the Bey's service as one of his underlings. Just before he is captured however, Lindoro Powers manages to send off an SOS to his super-sexy sixties-styled sidekick Isabella, who comes to Algeria to his rescue. Arriving there (in a more modern fashion than on a shipwrecked ship, although a downed flight is a little bit of a sensitive issue at the moment), she finds herself embroiled in Mustafà's power games as he attempts to offload his wife Elvira in favour of this groovy chick who has just arrived from Italy. She's going to need to play clever to get out of this one without causing a major international incident.

The idea is a great one, and there's a lot to enjoy in the fun production, but the execution unfortunately doesn't entirely live up to the promise. Davide Livermore is a good opera director, but it seems he's not such a good comedy director. He's no Blake Edwards and he doesn't have a Peter Sellers or even a Mike Myers to work with here and everyone just seems to be trying just too hard to have fun. The opening sequence during the overture is much too busy, using intentionally cheap-looking cut-outs for opening-credits with 60s Batman TV-series sound-effects (Crash! Pow! Aaaaggh!).

Having set the scene, it would be enough to let the comic situation of L'Italiana in Algeri play out mostly for itself with all the terrific 60s and 70s styles and haircuts and all the psychedelic effects and colouration, but Livermore insists on trying to make it even funnier. Mustafà/Dr Evil's inability to make an entrance without accidentally firing a gun and killing a hapless henchman becomes a little tiring after a while. A pointless gag with Lindoro being dangled over a swimming-pool of sharks is a good Bond spoof, but it's more typical of how much visual effort and elaboration is put into making a gag look cheap, but in a way that is disproportionate to how funny it actually is. The stage is often cluttered, with too much going on and too many people mugging in an effort to be funny.

It's still a colourful and an entertaining production, just never quite as funny as it thinks it is (although you could probably say the same about L'Italiana in Algeri). The performance itself is likewise good, but not outstanding. The singing is fine and musically the performance is in safe hands with José Ramón Encinar conducting, but the work is missing a spark somewhere. The singing is all good, with Yijie Shi a capable Lindoro, Anna Goryachova a sassy Isabella wearing jaw-dropping outfits and Alex Esposito a spirited Mustafà with a tendency to overact, but no-one here has a personality big enough to really bring the roles to life.

The quality of the Blu-ray is good, showing off the bold colours of the production well enough, but it doesn't look quite as pinpoint sharp this time. The audio too I found a little bit low in volume, but the sound is well-recorded and all the detail is there, particularly if listened to on headphones. There's a ten-minute extra feature on the making of the production, and a cast gallery. The disc is all-region, BD50, with subtitles in English, French, German and Korean.

Monday 4 August 2014

Rossini - Otello (Buxton Festival 2014 - Buxton)

Gioachino Rossini - Otello

Buxton Festival, 2014

Stephen Barlow, Sara Fulgoni, Alessandro Luciano, Kate Ladner, Nicky Spence, Henry Waddington, Carolyn Dobbin, Leonel Pinheiro, Mikael Onelius, Andrew Brown

Buxton Opera House - 26 July 2014

I don't usually review concert performances of opera - the dramatic direction is as much a part of opera as the music and the singing - but a performance of Rossini's Otello is rare enough that that it's worth mentioning whenever it's presented. One of the principal reasons it's rarely performed is that it's hard to find singers good enough in this register, Otello notoriously requiring no less than five tenors in fairly challenging roles. Buxton get around this problem by using an alternative version of the opera that casts a mezzo-soprano instead of a tenor in the role of Otello. It's not so much getting around the problem as readjusting where the challenges lie, and you're still going to need four good tenors. All of which just increases the rarity value and interest in this performance.

A dramatic presentation of a work adapted from a Shakespeare play would, you think, be pretty much indispensable, but Rossini's Otello varies from Shakespeare's in a number of significant ways, not all of which will be satisfactory to the purist. The changes however are not arbitrary or ill-conceived, but are necessary to reduce the complexity and scale of the original play into a manageable music-drama format. To do that without losing the essence of the work is important, and while Rossini doesn't entirely succeed in some areas and can hardly be said to improve in any areas, in others the composer finds a successful medium, or at least one that has dramatic consistency.

The most controversial change in Rossini's version is of course the switching of Desdemona's handkerchief for a love letter. Written by Desdemona to Otello but never received by the latter, Iago convinces the Moor the letter that has come into his possession was intended for Rodrigo. This is much more tangible proof than a handkerchief, which means it doesn't take quite so much persuasion from Iago to convince Otello of her infidelity. It simplifies motivations certainly, but it's not just a shortcut, actually reducing the amount of chance and contrivance much that the drama relies on. Along with the suggestion that Iago's advances were once rebuffed by Desdemona, this also makes his motivations more credible than just evil ambition.

It's true however that the impulse to change certain aspects of the play derives more from Rossini need to adapt situation and characterisation to fit the structure of the number opera. With more long laments than action, Otello can also be seen to adhere more to the opera seria format, but Rossini respects the dramatic drive and innovates with accompanied recitative and interaction in duets between Otello and Rodrigo, Desdemona and Rodrigo, and - completing the triangle - between Desdemona and Otello. The placement of quintets, ensembles and choral pieces throughout the work all serve to create an even greater sense of the drama and situation.

A concert performance of the work just emphasises how dramatically effective Rossini's musical handling of the material is on it own terms. Or at least this one at Buxton did. It started off with the cast wearing formal evening dress and standing before music podiums, although Nicky Spence's Iago rakishly had his tie removed and shirt collar unbuttoned. By the end of the evening however, you'd have forgotten that this was a concert performance, all the singers seeming to have been caught up in the characterisation, the audience fully drawn into the drama by the escalating momentum of Rossini's arrangements.

It did however take a while to become accustomed to a mezzo-soprano in the role of Otello rather than Desdemona. It wasn't so much from a vocal standpoint however as a visual one and in male costume during a full production, it probably wouldn't have been an issue at all. Sara Fulgoni's powerful performance however made it easy to feel the extent of Otello's rage and the force of personality that would lead him to such drastic actions, and there was actually a discernible difference between the two female leads in the more feminine gowns worn by Kate Ladner. Ladner's performance was exceptionally good, devastating in her account of Desdemona's predicament, her Willow Song in particular deeply touching.

Buxton however managed to overcome the other singing challenges of this work such apparent ease that you'd almost wonder why all the fuss about putting on Rossini's Otello. Alessandro Luciano was certainly tested as Rodrigo, but came through it well, with clear bright enunciation and a strong dramatic tenor voice. Nicky Spence really impressed me with his Iago. This is a more dramatic role that requires a deeper and darker timbre than I've heard him sing in before, but he was thoroughly convincing and dramatically effective, singing the role with apparent ease. Under the fine direction of Stephen Barlow, the Northern Chamber Orchestra and the Buxton Festival Chorus were again simply outstanding, handling the intricacies of the work with an eye on the whole overarching structure and journey that Rossini's wonderful score thrillingly takes.

Gruber - Gloria, A Pigtale (Buxton Festival 2014 - Buxton)

H.K. Gruber - Gloria, A Pigtale

Buxton Festival, 2014

Geoffrey Patterson, Frederic Wake-Walker, Gillian Keith, Jessica Walker, Andrew Dickinson, Charles Rice, Sion Goronwy

Buxton Opera House - 26 July 2014

At the Buxton Festival, you don't just get the uncommon, you occasionally get the very unusual. HK Gruber's Gloria, A Pigtale is however not just an indication of the kind of adventurous programming you find at Buxton, it's also an example of how expansive an artform opera can be in the range of musical, theatrical and narrative ideas it can encompass.

Defining Gloria, A Pigtale then, much less evaluating its qualities, is difficult. Very difficult. Abandoning any attempt to figure out what it was all about, whether the bizarre story was supposed to be allegorical on some level and just what part the music played in the character of the piece, I found it was better to just let my preconceptions go, enjoy its idiosyncrasies and just consider it a bit of fun. The loving attention that had gone into the staging and the performances of the cast and the musicians showed that they were clearly enjoying the opportunities the work presented and were going along with the flow, so perhaps that's also the best way for the audience to approach it.

The plot, if you want to call it that, concerns Gloria, a pig with golden curls who is more than a little bit deluded. Her fanciful ideas about her station make her the laughing stock of the other farmyard animals, but she's determined that she will find and marry her Prince Charming. Somewhere along the way she dreams of Hollywood hotdogs, and seems to get involved with a frog (I think), but when this doesn't work out Gloria looks elsewhere. Her strange fancies lead her to mistakenly believe that the butcher's interest in her is romantic, when all he sees is prime pork sausages. Eventually Rodney, a wild boar looking like a Wookie, falls in love with her and saves her from the butcher's knife. They marry, have piglets and don't live happily ever after, the boar realising too late his mistake in marrying such a mad creature.

Like the plot, the music is something of a mix of styles, but it nonetheless has a consistent style and tone of its own. It inevitably has something of a Kurt Weill feel to it, a bit of German jazz cabaret, some Bavarian oompah brass and a lot of beautiful melodic harp playing. There's a wide range of singing and narrative voices with little actual songs but there's good interaction between chanted verse, narration and arioso soprano singing. It's a style that suits the somewhat off-the-wall fairytale subject approach here, and it's one that works equally as well for Gruber's latest opera (albeit on a grander scale), Tales from the Vienna Woods, which just premiered this summer at the Bregenz Festival (where this Mahogany Opera Group production of Gloria subsequently travels on tour).

Mamoru Iriguchi's cabaret stage set designs for Frederic Wake-Walker's production plays well on the delightful absurdity of the situation. The band play from a raised platform to the back of a stage that has a curtain backdrop of rows of sausages. It's as sausages that each of the performers is ejected onto the stage, colourfully dressed in a pink theme. Wearing a wig of golden curls a body suit and a pink tutu, batting her eyelashes and striking poses, Gillian Keith's Gloria is not dressed to look like a pig in any conventional way, the colour pink being perhaps the only concession. The bizarre situations are likewise colourfully and inventively depicted, the stage kept busy with inflatable pigs, costume changes and role-switching.

A satire, a burlesque revue, an opera, Gloria, a Pigtale is probably also an allegory of some sorts, but precisely what isn't entirely clear. For life I suppose, at a basic level, the sausage as a metaphor for the fact that "we're all meat wrapped in skin". Really, it's just an excuse to push around some ideas, wrap then in a skin of music and singing and see what comes out of the sausage-opera machine at the end. Like life also, there's not much point in over-analysing it - it will never make sense or come to a happy end. Might as well just enjoy the experience.

Friday 1 August 2014

Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice (Buxton Festival 2014 - Buxton)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice

Buxton Festival, 2014

Stuart Stratford, Stephen Medcalf, Michael Chance, Barbara Bargnesi, Daisy Brown

Buxton Opera House - 25 July 2014

Start with a simple idea. That's always the best way to approach Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. It doesn't preclude attempting something more elaborate in the style of La Fura dels Baus when the setting demands it, but in a modest theatre the size of the Buxton Opera House it helps if the idea is simple, relevant and respectful of the reformist nature of the work. The subject of Orfeo ed Euridice is however universal and timeless, so it can withstand a little tweaking and Stephen Medcalf's production for the Buxton Festival manages to achieve all that very well, without being over-ambitious.

The idea is indeed a simple enough one. Orpheus is a singer, right? He's famed for his lyrical musicianship, so there's nothing out of the ordinary in him being depicted as a rock-star with adoring fans clamouring around him as he steps off the stage at the start of Buxton's Festival 2014 production of Gluck's opera. The sentiments are the same, the human sense of suffering and bereavement are no different, the pain expressed at the loss of his beloved wife Eurydice no more nor less deeply felt than by anyone else in the same position.

Despite the trappings of the rock-star and his chorus of adoring fans, there's an admirable simplicity, directness and pureness of purpose in the set design that suits the content here. The stage is mainly bare, the only real prop being five block letters of Orpheus' stage backdrop that spell out the name ORFEO. These are lowered onto the stage and used to form the gates to the Underworld that he must pass in order to recover Eurydice, they are moved around to act as obstacles and they are used as needed for platforms and seats for chorus and principals alike.

There doesn't appear to be any deeper subtext here, unless you consider Orpheus's grief and his efforts to defeat death self-absorbed and self-important, which clearly isn't the intention of the work. The use of the letters of his name could be seen as an inner struggle to come to terms with the death of Eurydice, but I wouldn't read that much into it. A little reshuffling is done to form the word AMORE at the end (obviously with some additional letters), which shows that the production knows where the true sentiments lie, but elsewhere there's no attempt to be clever with wordplay or anagrams.

The production remains faithful also to the intent if not the exact literal classical depictions of the creatures of the Underworld. The Furies, blocking Orpheus' way by rolling the bold neon-lit letters into a barrier, wear shabby clothes and are the kind of characters you wouldn't want to run into in a dark alley. They do actually mug Orpheus here, stealing his wallet and belongings, before letting him pass. The inhabitants of Elysium, by way of contrast, are chilled-out beach-bums wearing shorts and bikinis. I wasn't sure smoking would be a fitting activity in such a place, but maybe they were smoking something a little more "recreational". It might explain why they found their game of blind-man's bluff with the grief-stricken Orpheus so hilarious.

The setting and the directorial choices are unconventional then, but work fine and match the tone and the intention of the work. Musically and in terms of the singing however, the production didn't always come together as well as it should. It's always good to have a counter-tenor in the role of Orpheus. In terms of singing voices, I personally prefer the role to be taken by a mezzo-soprano, but there's always a better dynamic when Orpheus is visibly a man and Eurydice a woman. Audibly, it's a different matter, and it seems to be harder to match the right counter-tenor voice with the soprano. Michael Chance sounded a little alarming when he dropped to the lower end of the register in the more dramatic pronouncements, but his high end was strong and ringing. Barbara Bargnesi was a credibly intense Eurydice and sang well, but the two voices just didn't blend all that well.

That said, some of the most affecting moments in the production were the ones shared by Chance and Bargnesi as Orpheus and Eurydice. Their encounter in the Underworld had real impact for its significance, as did the scene where Eurydice fades away again in his arms. Elsewhere however, I just wasn't feeling it. The slow tempo of the musical arrangements might not have helped. Working with the original version of the work, Stuart Stratford played it brooding and moody and not just in the overture. The Dance of the Furies was deliberated and menacing, the Dance of the Divine Spirits somewhat blissed-out. When there wasn't much happening on the set in terms of stage directions, this seemed to create something of a disconnect between the music, the action and the singing.

Aside from personal preferences regarding the pacing and how it related to the action on the stage, the Northern Chamber Orchestra gave a fine performance of Gluck's beautiful score for the 1762 Italian original version of Orfeo ed Euridice. All the dances were included and were lovely to hear. They aren't always deemed necessary for inclusion and can contribute to a slowing down of the drama, particularly when - as here - there's no actual dancing as such. It was left to the Festival Chorus to mill around during such moments shifting letters and they did so reasonably well. They were certainly in fine voice here, as elsewhere throughout the 2014 Buxton Festival programme. Daisy Brown also impressed as a bright omnipresent Amore.

Dvořák - The Jacobin (Buxton Festival 2014 - Buxton)

Antonin Dvořák - The Jacobin

Buxton Festival, 2014

Stephen Barlow, Stephen Unwin, Andrew Greenan, Nicholas Lester, James McOran-Campbell, Anne Sophie Duprels, Nicholas Folwell, Matthew Newlin, Bonaventura Bottone, Anna Patalong, Martha McLorinan

Buxton Opera House - 24 July 2014

There are a lot of lost or forgotten operas and they usually aren't performed for a good reason, whether it's changing fashions and taste, or the fact that they often they just aren't very good. The wonderful thing about the Buxton Festival's revivals of neglected operas is that you not only get a chance to determine whether a rarely performed work has any merit, but you can be almost certain that if an obscure opera has been chosen to be produced at the festival, it's usually because it's worth it. Dvořák's The Jacobin is, on this showing, clearly an opera worth reviving.

Musically, at least. Anyone who has had the opportunity to hear The Jacobin before (it was performed in concert version at the Barbican a year or so ago), will certainly have noted the beauty and the richness of melody in Dvořák's writing. There's more to an opera than just music however, it has to work dramatically on the stage. While the merits and pacing of the plot here are rather more open to question than the qualities of the music, the success of such a work can often depend on the interpretation and direction. In both respects, The Jacobin is traditionally in good hands at the Buxton Festival.

Stephen Barlow and the Northern Chamber Orchestra clearly relished the opportunity to explore and give full expression to Dvořák's warm melodic writing for The Jacobin. It's not the most sophisticated music, but it's full of wonderfully simple but catchy tunes that are appropriate for the content and the context. In addition to some beautiful arias and some fine multi-layered ensemble singing, Dvořák uses folk music as a basis for the arrangements, particularly the choral pieces that give it a strong national character. The influence of Wagner is not so evident here as much as Bellini, if you can imagine Bellini writing national anthems, or perhaps think of a more melodic Wagnerian flow in a Massenet style.

As a Czech national opera however, and as a comedy moreover, The Jacobin must also look to Smetana's The Bartered Bride. While it relies on many of the characteristics of the comic opera - arranged marriages to horrible old men that threatens the pure love of a young couple, dark family secrets that come to light when a long-lost family member returns - there's a feeling that The Jacobin almost tries to be too clever and risks trivialising or at least marginalising the simple mechanics of the plot for the sake of enriching it musically.

The actual plot is not the most sophisticated, operating on two main situations - one dramatic and one comic. The dramatic plotline involves the return of Bohuš with his new wife Julie back to his Bohemian hometown, where rumours have been spread of him becoming a Jacobin revolutionary during his stay in Paris. This rumour suits his brother Adolf, who stands to gain the inheritance of his father, Count Harasova, in the absence of his disinherited brother. Fully aware of the danger, Adolf ensures that his steward Filip has the stranger with false papers arrested. The comic plotline involves Terinka, the daughter of the music teacher Benda, being forced into a marriage with steward, when she is in love with Jiří. As the leading voices in Benda's choir, they use the occasion of singing rehearsals for a celebration for the Count to find a way of being together and thwarting Filip.

The choral practice takes up rather more of the opera than you might think relevant to the plot, and it seems a little indulgent on the part of the composer - Dvořák that is, as much as on the part of Benda who has pretensions to be the new Mozart. While this does give Dvořák the opportunity of writing serenades and anthemic choral pieces and blending those into the simple folk melodies and dramatic situations, it's not entirely gratuitous. Music does indeed play an important role in The Jacobin. The major resolutions are brought about not so much by revelations about identity as character. Julie's recollection (in a beautiful rendition by Anne Sophie Duprels) of nostalgic folk songs she has learned from her husband, ensure his release on the principle that they can't be bad people if they love the music of our country this much. In many ways, the music also saves Jiří and Terinka, who are indispensable to the music master.

As such, the quality of the singing is by no means a small matter in this opera, and this is a not a consideration neglected in Buxton productions either. There's a recognition that it's in the supposedly secondary characters where the real charm of The Jacobin lies and in this respect, the casting of Benda, Filip, Jiří and Terinka is perfect. Between them there's plenty of enthusiasm, bluster and good-humoured conflict. The singing is just delightful, as much in individual voices as in the blending of them (the English translation moreover working superbly in bringing together all those interweaving voices expressing conflicting sentiments. The staging, updated to a 1930s setting, was deceptively simple but worked remarkably well, Stephen Unwin focussing on the direction and interaction of the diverse characters, making them work well with one another. The Northern Chamber Orchestra were on outstanding form, showing a real feel for the drive and melody of the work, bringing it all together and showing just how wonderfully entertaining The Jacobin can be.