Saturday 29 November 2014

Mussorgsky - Khovanshchina (Wiener Staatsoper, 2014 - Webcast)

Modest Mussorgsky - Khovanshchina

Wiener Staatsoper, 2014

Semyon Bychkov, Lev Dodin, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Christopher Ventris, Herbert Lippert, Andrzej Dobber, Ain Anger, Elena Maximova, Norbert Ernst

Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming - 21 November 2014

It's not exactly an original observation, but there is some validity in the view that Russia is the main character in Mussorgsky's great unfinished opera Khovanshchina. Mussorgsky himself described the work as a "national music drama" and the scope is indeed wide in the nature of the individuals that take part in the drama and in the institutions they represent. The work moreover has as much to say about the character of Mussorgsky's time as it does about historical events in the late 17th century. Whether it has something to say about the character of Russia today is for others to propose, but as far as director Lev Dodin is concerned, the primary purpose of the Vienna State Opera's production seems to be focus on putting Mussorgsky's Russia up on the stage by highlighting the intricacies of the dramatic action, and that in itself is challenge enough.

Set around in the 1680s, the divisions within the ruling forces in Russian society detailed in Khovanshchina are characterised according to three major factions - the Military, the Church and the State - but even within these factions there are divisions and subtle differences. The military are represented by Prince Ivan Khovansky and the Strelsty militia that he commands. They uphold the Old Russia tradition, but their actions have become disreputable and their behaviour is more recognisably characterised by their drinking and brawling. Another side of the conservative Russian tradition is maintained by the Old Believers who are opposed to Orthodox Church reforms and have broken from the state. The young Tsars Peter and Ivan don't actually appear in Khovanshchina, but the authority of the State can be seen in the Petrovtsy guard, while the conflict within it - the Tsarina Sophia similarly unable to be represented on stage - is there in the figure of the progressive liberal views and the inclusive foreign influence supported by Golitsyn.

That alone represents a complex cross-section of the factions struggling to uphold their own image of Russia, but even within this there are two sides to each of the characters. Mussorgsky's work also gives the common people a voice, mostly in the chorus, a chorus moreover that also variously incorporates the Strelsty, the Petrovtsy and the Old Believers. In addition to broad sweeps and the various nuances within this all-encompassing view of Russia, there is one other significant character in the work that gives the work an even wider perspective and that's Marfa. An Old Believer closely connected with its charismatic leader Dosifei, Marfa's personal situation, her difficulties with the unfaithful lover Andrei Khovansky, her run-in with Golitsyn who orders her put to death, her ultimate fate to die by self-immolation with the Believers after the decree of the Tsar, place her at the heart of the drama and give it a mystical and spiritual dimension.

There's a lot to cover then in Khovanshchina then, and Mussorgsky himself never completely got to grips with it, affected no doubt by the conflicts within his own personality and his struggle with alcoholism, leaving the work unfinished and unorchestrated at the time of his death. The huge ambition of the work and the sketches made for it by Mussorgsky have drawn a number of significant Russian composers to attempt to finish it, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovitch and Stravinsky. The intentions for the exact colour of the work may be impossible to determine - particularly as the finale was left incomplete - but it's clear where the focus of the work lies, that the emphasis should be in the strength of its characterisation, and the success of the work lies in how well it manages to bring those varied elements together into a coherent piece. That's no small challenge for either the conductor or the director, but the Vienna State Opera's production achieves an impressive balance that does indeed have that necessary strong Russian character.

As there's a lot of Russia to get up there within the relatively small confines of the Wiener Staatsoper stage, Lev Dodin's production adopts a vertical approach. Backgrounds indicate some of the interiors and exteriors of Red Square, Quarters of Moscow and the living quarters of several of the characters, but the main body of the foreground of the set consists of a large high framework of steel beams and crosses. Within this structure lifts and platforms raise and drop characters according to their hierarchy (the chorus and people most frequently at the bottom of it all) and variably according to their prominence and importance at different stages of the work. It has a solid and impressive appearance without imposing too much of an abstract or conceptual tone on the work, but most importantly, it serves to help make sense of all the manoeuvring and positioning without drawing too much attention to the device.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. It allows all the room necessary for the huge choruses and for the interaction between them and the leading characters, but it also tends to enforce a rather static delivery. Everyone ends up standing on platforms, or within small ditches (depending on their position in relation to one another), declaiming in those flowing Mussorgsky spoken rhythms out towards the audience. It's true however that there isn't a great deal of dramatic action in Khovanshchina, and this is part of the difficult nature of the work and the staging of it, but there are some big set-piece scenes that ought to nearly overwhelm in their impact, and this staging does provide the opportunity to showcase such moments.

The success of any production of Khovanshchina lies in the detail and the interpretation, and Dodin's direction doesn't neglect these important factors. It's vital that we are aware of the visible and the invisible forces at work and that we are aware of the good and the bad side of each of the characters. There's nobility and genuine belief in each of them that their actions are not purely self-motivated, but are driven by a firm belief that their way is for the good of the people and for Russia. It's impossible to separate these intentions however from the personal actions and weaknesses of individual motivations and impulses. One of the key scenes, given due importance here, is Shaklovity's Scene 3 aria, 'Ah how unhappy thy lot, O my native land, Russia! Who then may deliver and lift thee out of thy distress? ... O, let not Russia fall into the hands of ruthless foes!"

This is the same motivation that lies behind each of the characters, but each of them - including Shaklovity in his denunciation of the Khovanshchina, the Khovansky affair - are not beyond conspiring in the downfall of others whose views on how to achieve this aim differ from their own. Others have a sense of pride that gets in the way of them seeing the truth, or personal desires - such as Andrei for Emma, and Marfa for Andrei - that conflict with the sincerity of their endeavours. Dodin's direction brings this out and even hints at other such relationships that are not explicitly stated (the Old Believers Marfa and Dosefei are seen in a state of undress together at one point), and it all ties in extremely well with the bigger picture.

Just as important is the unseen presence of the Tsars, who ultimately wield the strong hand necessary at this point of an historical crossroads, but while there is clemency and reconciliation to find a middle way - the Streltsy spared at the last moment - it results inevitably in some brutal treatment of the extreme fringes. The punishment seems also to merit the "offence" with Golitsyn's progressive liberalism towards foreign influence seeing him banished and the Old Believers' firm religious convictions leading the on the path towards martyrdom.

The visible and the invisible, the spoken and the unspoken find perfect balance and expression in the combination of Lev Dodin's direction and Semyon Bychkov's musical direction of a score (using the Shostakovitch edition) that has numerous possibilities for interpretation. On stage, the smaller sense of detail in the characterisation was taken up by a strong cast, particularly in those vital roles, even though most of them are not Russian. Ferruccio Furlanetto sounded a little hoarse in one or two places, but was the embodiment of the declining Ivan Khovansky. The two other vital roles are Dosefei and Marfa and they were given some amount of personality by Ain Anger and a particularly impressive Elena Maximova. Christopher Ventris showed how important a contribution Andrei Khovansky can make to the work as a whole, as indeed do the other true instigators and activists in the drama, Golitsyn, Shaklovity and the Scribe, all very well played.

December live streaming broadcasts at the Wiener Staatsoper include Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA, Johann Strauss' DIE FLEDERMAUS and Verdi's LA TRAVIATA, but the highlight of the month is likely to be Richard Strauss' sumptuous ARABELLA, which has Ulf Schirmer conducting Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production with Anne Schwanewilms in the title role.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video

Thursday 27 November 2014

Birtwistle - Punch and Judy (Armel Opera Festival, 2014 - Webcast)

Harrison Birtwistle - Punch and Judy

Neue Oper Wien, 2014

Walter Kobéra, Leonard Prinsloo, Richard Rittelmann, Manuela Leonhartsberger, Till von Orlowsky, Jennifer Yoon, Lorin Wey, Johannes Schwendinger, Evamaria Mayer

Armel Opera Festival, ARTE Concert - 14 October 2014

With its Commedia dell' Arte origins and the violence of its content, the Punch and Judy English seaside puppet show was always a curious subject for a children's entertainment, but it's evident that the sinister nature of the show has inevitably had a marked impression on a generation of children. Much like the adult response now towards clowns, what once seemed like fun in a more innocent age now appears somewhat sinister and unsettling. Harrison Birtwistle's opera Punch and Judy takes advantage of all these connotations related to the origins and the nature of the work as well as what the appeal of it says about the English character.

The work caused a bit of a stir when it was premiered in 1968, with Benjamin Britten reportedly walking out of a performance of the work at Aldeburgh. Since Britten himself had a somewhat conflicted and critical view of the nature of the English society in his opera works, it's hard to imagine that he found the subject of Punch and Judy entirely unappealing, although it does admittedly push violence much further and take what appears to be a more extreme cartoonish view of character than anything in Britten's work. I would think that Britten's difficulty with Birtwistle's opera (if it's even true), may however lie in the unsettling nature of the music.

Even now at the age of 80, with several major celebrations this year to mark the occasion, Harrison Birtwistle has never been an accepted part of the musical establishment. His work can be difficult to listen to and challenging of conventions. Punch and Judy, amongst all the other reasons why the subject might be distasteful and vaguely disturbing, uses musical ideas, structures and dissonance in a way that is similar to, or perhaps even intentionally evokes resonances with Berg's treatments of the dark, violent subjects of Lulu and Wozzeck. With a fine libretto by Stephen Pruslin that perfectly suits Birtwistle's intent and structural methods, the work uses cyclical repetition and subtle subversion of musical and text motifs for impact.

The story of Punch and Judy is a familiar one, although over the years it has evolved its own pantomime conventions and characters. Punch, derived form the Commedia dell' Arte character Pulcinella, is a mean and violent trickster. The story itself has become a by-word for marital strife of a particularly violent nature. In Punch and Judy, Punch, disappointed with family life and attracted to the unattainable beauty of Pretty Polly, casually throws his baby in the fire, and when his wife discovers what he has done he brutally stabs her to death. Punch's efforts to win over Pretty Polly drive him to further crimes and murders of a doctor, a lawyer and his friend Choregos.

A grotesque parody of Commedia dell' Arte archetypes combined with some theatre of the absurd mannerisms; a satire of the English character as exemplified by life in seaside towns; Punch and Judy is a study of misery and malevolence that recognises some very disturbing as well as familiar character traits. Birtwistle's music and Pruslin's libretto don't so much expand on the character of Punch as take it out further into the world and consider it in the greater scheme of things. This Punch is geographically, astrologically, mathematically, musically, seasonally and colourfully located on his journey of destruction and mindless violence, and he wreaks havoc over the whole spectrum of human endeavour.

The only way the work can be any more sinister and disturbing is when it is staged, and the Neue Oper Wien production, performed at the Armel Opera Festival in Budapest, is truly the stuff of nightmares. "The bitterness of this moment is undeniably sweet/ The sweetness of this moment is undeniably bitter" is one of the recurrent phrases and motifs in the work, and that's the tone a staging of the work has to aim for. Leonard Prinsloo's direction for the Neue Oper Wien and Monika Biegler's set and costume design resembles something from Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton's worst nightmares.

That comparison suggests stylisation, but Punch and Judy should be aiming for archetypal rather than realism, and it has that here with an extra bite of grit and shadowy mystery. If you could imagine Burton or Gilliam directing Wozzeck, it might look something like this, but there are other operatic references worth considering in this field including Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges and even Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. Pretty Polly, the unattainable object of Punch's desires, would appear to be very much modelled on Olympia, the mechanical doll of Hoffmann's somewhat disturbing and illicit fascination. Pretty Polly even has the same high-end soprano range - even more exaggerated here - and it's sung marvellously by Jennifer Yoon in the production performed here at the Armel Opera Festival.

All of the roles however call for very specific voice ranges, and the casting elsewhere is impressive. There was an extraordinary power and beauty to mezzo-soprano Manuela Leonhartsberger's Judy/Fortune Teller, and Till von Orlowsky also impressed as Choregos. The principal role however, and the competition role for the festival was Hungarian Richard Rittelmann who handled the high baritone range of Punch very well. There's nothing easy about Birtwistle's writing for the voice and the role is also a physical one in a one-act opera that is almost two hours long, but like the rest of the cast, Rittlemann just threw himself into the madness of it all. That's the way to do it.

Links: ARTE ConcertArmel Opera Festival

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Krček - Clothes the world has never seen (Armel Opera Festival, 2014 - Webcast)

Jaroslav Krček - Clothes the world has never seen (Šaty, jaké svět neviděl)

Josef Kajetán Tyl Theatre - Pilsen, Czech Republic, 2014

Vojtěch Spurný, Magdalena Švecová, Jan Ježek, Ivana Klimentová, Jiří Brückler, Jan Adamec, Dalibor Tolaš, Roman Dušek

Armel Opera Festival, ARTE Concert - 9 October 2014

A contemporary composer who bases an opera on the story of 'The Emperor's New Clothes' sets himself up for some potential ridicule, but veteran Czech composer Jaroslav Krček's one-act opera Clothes the world has never seen (Šaty, jaké svět neviděl) straddles the divide between the classical and the modern well by underpinning the medieval setting of the work with folk-like melodies. This comes across particularly well in this stylish production by the Josef Kajetán Tyl Theatre of Pilsen in the Czech Republic presented at the 2014 Armel Opera Festival in Budapest.

The libretto for Clothes the world has never seen was written by the composer himself, based on a play by Věra Provazníková that is drawn from Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale. This short opera works very much towards the same moral of the original fairy tale, but rather than it being a child that draws attention to the Emperor's pretension and pomposity, this version plays on the distinction between the king and his fool, and the reversal of what we expect from people in those positions.

The fool is of course no fool at all. He's the king's confidante, the person who can tell him things that others would be afraid to say to the king for fear of their position. It's all very much a matter of strategy and daring, and the opera and the J. K. Tyl Theatre of Pilsen production reflect this well right from the outset by setting the work on a stage that is designed as a chessboard. The chorus of courtiers that introduce the work and provide commentary throughout, are dressed in black-and-white as pieces on the chessboard where a game is being played out between the king and his jester.

Fed up with the responsibilities that come with being ruler and viewing a marriage to the Queen with some concern, the king asks his fool to think how clever he would be in the same position. When the Queen appears however, both men are captivated by her beauty, and the challenge between them takes on a new edge. Trying to demonstrate his superiority, the king however allows himself to be duped into ordering custom made clothes stitched with invisible thread that can only be seen by the wise and the noble. The question of who is wise and noble is of course overturned by the fool when the 'transparency' of this thinking is revealed.

Not unsurprisingly, being a Czech opera with folk music elements and clearly working the music to the speech rhythms of the libretto, there's an evident Janáček influence here. Rather than blending the elements of the old and the new together however, Jaroslav Krček's music draws a greater distinction between them in a way that reflects the opposition of old and new ideas that are the subject of the work. The medieval like folk-music arrangements of the chorus that punctuate the work give an appropriate fairy-tail narrative quality, while the discourse that is carried out between the king and the fool according to their own rhythms has a slightly more dissonant edge to it.

Although subtitles weren't available on the ARTE broadcast to examine the detail of the libretto, the production carried all the necessary nuance for this short work. The contrasting musical elements were vividly drawn out by the musical director and conductor Vojtěch Spurný and they found a complementary balance in Zuzana Přidalová's colourful and imaginative stage designs. Magdalena Švecová's direction further enhanced the contrast and complementary battle of wits between Jan Ježek's King and Jiří Brückler's Jester. Clothes the world has never seen was presented at the Armel Opera Festival in a double bill with another short one-act opera, Gábor Kerek's Parody. Entertainingly scored and played, its contrasting views of a Chemistry lesson in a classroom proved impossible to follow however in Czech without subtitles.

Links: ARTE ConcertArmel Opera Festival

Monday 24 November 2014

Tutino - The Embers (Armel Opera Festival, 2014 - Webcast)

Marco Tutino - The Embers

Szeged National Theatre, 2014

Sándor Gyüdi, Attila Toronykóy, Tamás Altorjay, Jean-Philippe Biojout, Szilveszter Szélpál, Tivadar Kiss, Krisztina Kónya, Boglárka Laczák

Armel Opera Festival, ARTE Concert - 9 October 2014

Based on a novel by Sándor Márai, Embers deals with the passing of time, with youthful ideals and old-age regrets, with friendship and love and how it too can change over time and under the cold gaze of reflection. The time span of the work also presents an allegorical level of the change that occurred in the world around the turn of the 20th century. Marco Tutino's one-act opera effectively treats the question of youthful friendship and idealism embittered by the passing of time within its musical composition, while the production of the work's world premiere at the 2014 Armel Opera Festival, highlights the supernatural element that expresses the allegorical side of the work.

The drama in the opera is divided between the present of 1940 and a significant moment in 1899. In the present, and old man Henrik lives a solitary and embittered existence in a room of faded paintings. He has advised his servant Nini that he is expecting a visit from an old friend Konrad, but the prospect of the visit is not one that brings him any happiness. It stirs up old memories of a time when Henrik was in love with Kristina. All his life Henrik has had suspicions stemming from events one day in July 1899, the day of the hunt. Kristina's presence in Konrad's room and a suspicion that Konrad actually took aim at him during the hunt, have led him to believe that they had an affair. Many years later, having walked out on both of them, Henrik still replays the events in his mind, unable to find any answers. He hopes that Konrad's visit after 40 years will put matters to rest.

Dealing with the passing of time, questions of regret for the past, of falling in love with the wrong person, of a love triangle situation resulting in jealousy and the shattering of illusions, Embers recalls both Eugene Onegin and Pélleas et Mélisande, and Marco Tutino's score even employs the same musical language. It's a modern score however and there are no direct or indirect quotes of Tchaikovsky or Debussy, but it uses contrasting styles to highlight the differences between the periods. On the one side there is the joy and youthful idealism of the three young people before the Great War and on the other is the bitter experience that has marked Henrik in the present just as another world war commences.

There's a personal element then to the sense of disillusionment with love and friendship, but it's tied then into a reflection on the differences between a more carefree time in the Austro-Hungarian empire of the late 19th century and the reality of the 20th century post-war world. It's as if the actions of Konrad, prepared to take a shot at his best friend, are a betrayal of the old rules of decency, duty and behaviour that has led to or in a way foreshadowed the barbarism unleashed in the Great War. In Henrik's mind, at least, and that's the world that the composer attempts to explore in Embers. Tutino is aware of how these historical events changed the musical landscape of the 20th century, and it's the reflection of that in the score that marks it out from Tchaikovsky and Debussy's musical treatments of such subject matter.

That contrast is also reflected in Attila Toronykóy's direction of the world premiere of the work for the Szeged National Theatre at the Armel Opera Festival. If there are any suggestions of Eugene Onegin and Pélleas et Mélisande, it perhaps as much to do with how the two distinct periods of the work are treated, the past played out in 19th century period with younger versions of the main characters, while the present is a much more shadowy and unsettling abstract world of dark undercurrents where morals have been subverted. This takes an abstraction of being practically photo-negative, the older Henrik wearing a white suit with dark grey shirt, his face blanched white, the glass of wine he holds coloured blue. Portraits on the wall are also negatives, as is the significant scene - one fixed in Henrik's mind - of one man pointing a gun at another on the day of the hunt.

The timelines are however not entirely distinct and the past does bleed into the present. Rather than the ghosts being those of the past, the production design places emphasis on it being the older Henrik and Konrad who are the ghosts. Shadows of themselves, you might say, broken by the past, but the final lines of the libretto give this a more literal (or perhaps ethereal) reading. Perhaps both Konrad and Henrik have died in the war and are restless spirits that are still looking for answers. Inevitably, definitive answers are hard to come by.

The Armel Opera Festival is also a singing competition, and both the competition singers for this performance - Tamás Altorjay singing the bass role of the older Henrik and Jean-Philippe Biojout singing the bass-baritone role of the older Konrad - richly expressed the dark melancholic undercurrents of the libretto. Despite the focus being on the older and younger versions of the men, the importance of the woman in the middle is not neglected, and Krisztina Kónya gave an outstanding performance as Kristina. The younger men were sung by Szilveszter Szélpál and Tivadar Kiss, with Boglárka Laczák giving a fine performance also in the role of Nini.

Links: ARTE Concert, Armel Opera Festival

Thursday 20 November 2014

Glanert - Solaris (Oper Köln, 2014 - Cologne)

Detlev Glanert - Solaris

Oper Köln, 2014

Lothar Zagrosek, Patrick Kinmonth, Nikolay Borchev, Aoife Miskelly, Martin Koch, Bjarni Thor Kristinsson, Qiulin Zhang, Dalia Schaechter, Hanna Herfurtner, Peter Bermes

Oper am Dom, Cologne - 14 November 2014

Science fiction is not a common genre for opera, but it's by no means unheard of. As far back as 1777, Haydn's Il Mondo della Luna used a fabricated trip to the moon as a way to explore more earth-bound desires and behaviours. The science-fiction concept simultaneously celebrates human ingenuity and the willingness of man to look beyond themselves in the quest for knowledge and betterment, but even in this early work it finds that mankind's ability to extend the knowledge frontier is somewhat limited by those very same human impulses and desires.

Stanislaw Lem's 1961 science-fiction novel 'Solaris' is a similar example of science-fiction using outer space to explore the human inner space. The strange phenomena experienced by the crew of a space station exploring the plasma ocean of the planet Solaris reveals much about what it means to be human and the limitations of what the human psyche can endure. For Lem however the question is primarily an intellectual one that doesn't use the subject as much to examine what it tells us about human desires, but rather it asks questions about the capacity of humanity to overcome those basic physical and psychological factors that would be necessary to make the leap to comprehend and meaningfully communicate with an alien intelligence.

It's a chaotic and confusing situation that Kris Kelvin discovers when he arrives on the Solaris space-station at the very start of the Detlev Glanert's opera. Expecting to find three remaining crew members, Kelvin gets less and more than he bargained for. One of the crew, Gibarian, has killed himself, leaving only the cyberneticist Snout and the astrobiologist Sartorius, but there are other strange figures on-board the station - a baboon, a dwarf and an old lady. It soon becomes clear that the three interlopers are closely related to the crew members, living beings created by the plasma ocean of the planet Solaris in an unintentionally terrible and tormenting attempt at communication. It isn't long before Kris encounters his own personal demon drawn from his memory by the planet Solaris - his wife Harey who killed herself 14 years ago.

There's a carefully delineated symmetry in the duality of the situation in Solaris, but it's difficult to entirely separate one strand from the other. Significantly, there are eight characters in the opera, four who are human and four who are not human. Gibarian is actually dead (although there's a strange attempt at reanimation made later here), but the apparition created by him - a baboon-like creature - still exists and haunts the station of its own accord. These are figures of self-torment for their human counterparts or perhaps, conjured up by the planet from their memories and associated psychology, they are just tormenting for the difficulty that the crew have in confronting these aspects of their personality. Snaut, for example, has to deal with a domineering mother who still treats him like a baby and changes his nappies. Sartorius' 'dwarf' meanwhile is rather more overly and disturbingly tied to psycho-sexual impulses.

For his part, psychologist Kris Kelvin considers that this replica of Harey as an abomination, and he tries to resist the attractive notion that she could offer him solace and forgiveness for some residual guilt that he may feel about the suicide of his wife. Kelvin's reaction - killing a succession of Hareys only for them to reappear the next day - might seem extreme, but in a way it reflects and expresses the difficulties that humans would face in any attempt to explore and extend knowledge beyond the limitations of their human experience. The pain of killing Harey and seeing her reborn again each day, and the pain experienced by 'Harey' in her confusion over his behaviour, gives some indication of how distressing and beyond normal human endurance this would stretch any individual. I'm not sure that Lem offers any solution to this dilemma in his novel, but in the opera it appears that one of Sartorius' experiments manages to break the connection for the sake of the sanity of the remaining crew, although there's an echo left in the mind of Kris Kelvin in the closing notes of the score.

Glanert's score for Solaris recognises the duality of the metaphysical dilemma and his writing manages to be both dramatic and lyrical, even if the balance (perhaps necessarily and thus proving Lem's point) tends to lean towards the exploration of human emotions. There is a recognition however that the lines are blurred somewhat by the extraordinary experiences that the characters have to endure, and this leads to some sharp contrasts. A striking example of this occurs when Kris Kelvin's dreaming of his dead wife leads to her coming to taking a physical form on the space station, the lyrical nature of the dream overlapping with the dramatic representation of her actual presence. It's the personification of Solaris itself however - the planet, the plasma sea - that is Glanert's most successful musical creation in the opera. A chorus takes up the voice of the planet, chanting and reversing syllables, creating an otherworldly, warm presence, but one that is also dangerously alluring.

The physical evocation of the world and the planet has an important role to play in setting the right tone. In contrast to the high-tech 2012 Bregenz world premiere production, Darko Petrovic's set suggests a greater sense of mental disintegration in the crumbling concrete structure of the space station. The semi-circular curve of the station rests on a body of water, a few inches deep, that also suggests a lack of solidity. It's also of course representative of the fluid nature of the planet itself, and has an effective eeriness when the chorus swish onto the stage. Just as effective are the use of panels of stars and control panels that that sweep through the station, depositing and vanishing figures from the scene. You never quite know what to expect when one of them slides across the stage. Patrick Kinmonth's direction extended to the choreography which also had a significant role to play in the creation of mood and playing out of the drama.

Lothar Zagrosek's conducting of the Oper Köln orchestra was sympathetic to the moods and rhythms of the score, as well as being considerate of the singing voices, which were mostly all on the high side of their voice type register. Nikolay Borchev's soft baritone suited Kelvin's character and nature (a little more emotionally animated than the impassive Donatas Banionis in Andrei Tarkovsky's 1971 film version of Solaris). Harey's high intense and expressive notes were delivered with crystal clarity by Aoife Miskelly, but with warmth and a sense of feeling for her character's pain. Martin Koch's bright tenor brought out the emotional instability of Snaut, while Sartorious's scientific rigour was characterised in the wonderfully projected bass of Bjarni Thor Kristinsson.

Links: Oper Köln

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Puccini - La Bohème (Wiener Staatsoper, 2014 - Webcast)

Giacomo Puccini - La Bohème

Wiener Staatsoper, 2014

Dan Ettinger, Franco Zeffirelli, Dmytro Popov, Krassimira Stoyanova, Marco Caria, Aida Garifullina, Adam Plachetka, Jongmin Park, Alfred Šramek

Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming - 7 November 2014

Time hasn't been kind to Franco Zeffirelli. Just recently, the 91 year-old director was unhappy that the La Scala in Milan were selling off his famous production of Aida to Kazakhstan. It's not entirely clear whether he was upset because he wasn't consulted on the sale or whether his pride was hurt that such a famous production was being consigned to the scrapheap after decades of performances at the home of Italian opera in favour of a new modern style of Regietheater. Respect for his work and the fear of no longer being relevant is undoubtedly a factor however, with Zeffirelli talking about being "airbrushed" out of Italian opera history.

I doubt that Zeffirelli's work as an opera director will vanish from the memory quite so easily, and many of his productions are still doing faithful service in major opera houses all over the world. Practically the foundation of many opera houses, the high production values of many of his productions would be considered by a generation as nearly definitive versions of some of the most famous works of opera. For better or worse, the Franco Zeffirelli production of La Bohème has endured and has practically set the standard for nearly every other production of the work for the last 30 years. Seen most recently at the Vienna State Opera, the traditional period setting of Bohemian life in Paris in the 1840s does however look to be starting to feel its age...

...and look it too. Act I's garret scene not only has an authentically squalid and dilapidated appearance of a Bohemian residence from the 1840s, but the set looks like it actually hasn't been cleaned in 170 years either. It's grotty and cold, every detail speaking of misery and poverty. Which is how it's supposed to look. It's relevant to the characters and the situation that Puccini is depicting, the outward condition of the building contrasting with the brief flame that sparks up not just for those brief moments that Rodolfo's play heats them as it burns in the stove, but for the love that is ignited when Mimi arrives in the garret, and explodes into life in Act II's Cafe Momus scene. So overwhelming is the impression created by the poverty of Act I and the winter snows of Act III that it's almost inevitable that the brief flaming of Mimi and Rodolfo's love will be just as quickly snuffed out.

It's an effective production design then, even if it is rather old-fashioned by today's standards. It might be somewhat sepia tinted, but Zeffirelli's vision is not exactly nostalgic for an idealised version of the past. It perhaps places too much emphasis on the actual physical location, but the emotional content should still be universally recognisable for anyone who has experienced the pangs of young love or who has lived as a student and struggle to find their own place in the world. Seen in that light, there's nothing modern or revisionist about the direction or the characterisation. La Bohème speaks out for itself through Puccini's music and through the performance. It's a true masterpiece that will undoubtedly endure for those very reasons that it expresses universally recognisable situations, characters and sentiments, and Zeffirelli's staging and the singing at this 2014 revival of the production prove that well enough.

The age and familiarity of the Zeffirelli production does however have another drawback for the cast. The cast here is a strong one, but seeing other singers wearing the same costumes and going through the same motions can't help but invite comparisons to other great singers who have sang these parts in this same production in the past. The cast here are all good, but not exceptionally so, and not in any way that raises the bar for an interpretation of this work. On their own terms however, it's sung very well. Krassimira Stoyanova is one of the most impressive sopranos around at the moment. She is practically without peer in major roles like the Marschallin and Tatiana, but her Mimi is not one of her best.

Her Act I 'Si. Mi Chiamano Mimi" feels a little rushed and the poignancy of the scene isn't there. Some of the reason for that might be down to her interaction with Dmytro Popov's Rodolfo.  Popov sings the role very well, but it's a little anonymous in terms of characterisation, and there's no real chemistry at work here, something I've noticed before with Stoyanova's performances. Act III (the critical lynchpin Act of the opera as far as I'm concerned), came over much better in terms of the delivery and the sentiments expressed, showing the evident qualities that are there in Stoyanova's technique and in the simply wonderful sound of her voice. It still doesn't measure up to the high standards that have been set for this work, but that just underlines the importance of context and direction to the work as a whole. The other roles were similarly well sung, with Aida Garifullina's Musetta and Jongmin Park's Colline bringing a little more character to the piece.

The Vienna Staatsoper's next performances being broadcast are Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina on November 21st and Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro on November 28th.  See the Live Programme on their website for details.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video

Sunday 16 November 2014

Chabrier - L'Etoile (De Nederlandse, 2014 - Webcast)

Emmanuel Chabrier - L'Etoile

De Nationale, Amsterdam, 2014

Patrick Fournillier, Laurent Pelly, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Christophe Mortagne, Hélène Guilmette, Jérôme Varnier, Elliot Madore, Julie Boulianne, François Piolino, François Soons, Harry Teeuwen, Jeroen van Glabbeek, Richard Prada

Culturebox - 16 October 2014

Aside from Offenbach, we don't often get the opportunity to see much French comic operetta outside of France. In Paris, the Opéra Comique do outstanding work in keeping this distinctive lyric tradition alive and presented in its best light. And, it might be a bit of an obvious remark to make but it's true - Chabrier's L'Etoile is one of the brightest stars of the repertoire that is rarely performed nowadays. It's surprising then to see it performed and done so well in this recent production at DNO in Amsterdam, but there's a well-appointed French production team in place here with Patrick Fournillier conducting and Laurent Pelly directing, that does justice to the musical and comic qualities of the opera.

What makes Chabrier's L'Etoile great are the same things that make any opéra-comique or opéra bouffe great. It's funny and it has great tunes. It does however need a good comic actors/singers and direction that plays to these advantages, and that's all perfectly in place here with Stéphanie d’Oustrac leading the cast and Laurent Pelly bringing his colourful and often absurd sense of style and fun to the proceedings. Optionally, a great comic opera can have a satirical leaning, or it can have one worked into it by the director, but I don't detect any particularly subtle social commentary in L'Etoile or much opportunity for including one. The plot, as silly as it is, is however a lot of fun and moves along well, providing plenty of opportunity for comic situations, romance and lovely music.

We're in the kingdom of King Ouf I. He's a ruler who likes to keep his people entertained. A few fireworks on special occasions and the odd impalement - what better way to keep the populace happy and maintain order? Traditionally, it's a troublesome rebel who is executed on these occasions, but such is the terror among the general public that even in his best disguise, setting traps and making provocations, Ouf can't find a single unruly citizen. But the king has another problem. According to the constitution, the ruler must announce his successor by his 40th birthday, and King Ouf is 39. Ouf depends on the court astrologer Siroco to help guide him though this dilemma through observation of the stars.

Princess Laoula has however just arrived incognito from a neighbouring kingdom to sound out the possibility of a marriage alliance, but on their way they meet Lazuli, a travelling salesman who falls in love with the Princess. Rebuffed by her minder, the ambassador Hérisson de Porc-Épic, Lazuli strikes out at the next person he meets, who just happens to be King Ouf. Ouf is livid and delighted that he now has a legitimate victim to execute. Siroco however warns the king that the stars indicate that his and Lazuli's destinies are connected, and that the king's death will follow within 24 hours of Lazuli's. Lazuli is therefore treated like a Prince at the palace, until the Mataquin royal delegation arrives and Lazuli's elopement with the Princess throws everything into turmoil.

As inconsequential as the plot might seem - despite the contrivances, it's not even particularly involved - Chabrier's music for L'Etoile is beautiful, melodic and sophisticated. In contrast to much comic operetta and even Offenbach's straightforward arrangements, Chabrier's music is much more operatic and fitted to the mood as well as the dramatic context. It's also wonderfully paced, the spoken dialogue sections kept to a minimum, moving rapidly from one situation with a beautiful aria to another. Much of the work revolves around solo singing in this respect, but there are also some duets - appropriately in those love scenes, of course - and some wonderful chorus work, all of which enlivens the work with great variety.

It's this colour and variety that is reflected in Laurent Pelly's direction and in the set designs by Chantal Thomas. The setting of the opera is abstract enough that it can work in any time period, but Pelly resists modernising what is an old-fashioned work too much and keeps it playful. The idea that we are in a police-state is indicated in Act I not with spy cameras but with loudspeakers on numerous poles, with fearful citizens scurrying around in trenchcoats. Later we see secret police with hound heads, and Ouf himself is depicted as a pantomime Teutonic dictator in oversize shorts. Stylised old-fashioned vehicles are used for Lazuli's mobile shop and for the Mataquin entourage, and the devices for impalement and astrological observation are clockwork cog, wheel and pulley operated. Even the pink puffball dresses of the maids of honour fit in perfectly with the cartoon look and feel of the work.

Pelly's direction of the cast also contributes greatly to the success of the production. The acting is comically exaggerated, but not overly so, letting the delivery of the libretto carry the humour. Stéphanie d’Oustrac is particularly good here in her inhabiting the trouser-role of Lazuli. I'm more used to seeing the mezzo-soprano in rather more glamorous roles and in Baroque opera, but her opéra bouffe work is just great. It's a tricky role to sing, and the physical acting required doesn't make it any easier, but that lovely rich voice is full of colour and character. Christophe Mortagne is an energetic Ouf, perfectly pitched in the comic acting with a lovely lyrical tenor voice. Hélène Guilmette's Laoula is also well sung. Patrick Fournillier and the Residentie Orkest fairly romp through Chabrier's delightful score, and the De Nederlandse chorus are as impressive as ever.

Links: Culturebox, Dutch National Opera

Sunday 9 November 2014

Wagner - Parsifal (Royal Opera House, 2014 - Blu-ray)

Richard Wagner - Parsifal

Royal Opera House, London - 2013

Antonio Pappano, Stephen Landridge, Simon O'Neill, Angela Denoke, Gerald Finley, René Pape, Willard White, Robert Lloyd, Dušica Bijelić, Rachel Kelly, Sipho Fubesi, Luis Gomes, Celine Byrne, Kiandra Howarth, Anna Patalong, Anna Devin, Ana James, Justina Gringyte, David Butt Philip, Charbel Mattar

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Richard Wagner's Parsifal is a work of supreme brilliance, the final work of a musical genius. It's the summation of a career that marked the highest achievement in the world of opera not only up to that point, but it's debatable whether it has ever been surpassed. More than just standing as one of the greatest works of opera ever composed however, it's also a work of art that is practically a philosophical summation of everything it means to be a human, suffering in an imperfect world while searching for meaning and a higher sense of purpose. Musically, the work even seems to go beyond itself and expand into another realm or dimension that lies outside conventional space and time, and it can even take the listener there with it. If you've experienced Parsifal, you'll understand that is not hyperbole.

No pressure then for any opera house who has to put it on and live up to such high expectations. While there are ideological problems and contradictions inherent within Parsifal, there is at the same time a degree of openness to interpretation in how to present a work that is far from conventional and difficult to stage as a traditional opera that makes it an intriguing prospect, but there are dangers in trying to pin it down to any one meaning. It's perhaps unreasonable then to expect anyone to have anything new to add to what is inherently great in itself, just that the work be allowed to weave its magic. As such, it's hard to find any fault with the Royal Opera House's 2013 production of Parsifal, but inevitably some parts fare better than others.

In terms of just the pure performance of the work and indeed the purity of the performance, the concept, the casting, the attention to meaning in the musical detail and the manner in which every element of the work contributes to the piece as a single interlocking whole, everything about this production is well-considered and judged to near-perfection. Every element brings out the quality of Wagner's writing to its fullest expression and is performed with passion, purpose and complete commitment. Other than René Pape singing Gurnemanz, the cast might not have been the Wagnerian's first-choice for these roles, but my goodness, they all perform like they ought to be.

Most extraordinary of all is Angela Denoke, who gives an utterly magnetic performance, seemingly possessed with the spirit of Kundry. Kundry is evidently no ordinary woman but something mythical and superhuman, so it's a bit much to expect anyone to really embody this character to the extent that Wagner developed her but... well, there you go, Denoke is something of a phenomenon here. It's such a strong and committed performance, from a vital central role, that it anchors all the others - not that they aren't spectacular in their own right. Gerald Finley feels the pain as Amfortas, director Stephen Landridge working with this aspect of the work as the driving force for the stage conceptualisation. Finley's singing is as smooth, precise and as measured as his Hans Sachs for Glyndebourne, but perhaps just a little too calculated. Combined with the pain of the grail itself (a new idea of which more anon) and the pain of Kundry's long, troubled existence that Denoke takes to a new dimension, it all serves to underpin the central concept in a variety of complementary ways.

Simon O'Neill might not quite have the character or the acting ability to lift Parsifal up to a similar level, but you can't really find any serious fault his singing or his unstinting commitment here. He gives it everything and perhaps over-expresses when sometimes a singer just needs to surrender to the role. His stamina however is impressive, and he doesn't just hold firm and steady throughout, but finds near-impossible reserves to keep up a consistent level of performance across the almost four hours that the role of Parsifal calls for. You know that you can rely on that level of professionalism and consistency from René Pape as Gurnemanz and we aren't disappointed. I'd say we get even a little more from Pape this time around, particularly in his third act performance as a shuffling near-broken knight who finds his long suffering and his faith have been rewarded. It's all there in those finely sung lines and Pape delivers them with self-contained dignity.

Knights of the Grail are there in name only in Stephen Landridge's abstract-modern production, all of them wearing immaculate grey suits rather than suits of armour. The staging is a little bit cold and clinical in this respect, Alison Chitty's symmetrical geometric stage design dominated by a large cube that serves principally as a hospital room for the bed where Amfortas was being looked after by concerned doctors. The use of lights and sometimes projections however also use the cube to reveal backstory elements in flash-frames and live-action slow motion. Nothing should overwhelm the senses more than the music or the expression in the singing in Parsifal, and every element here seemed well-judged to suggest and engage the audience rather than over-emphasise or impose a false reading. The bloody depiction of Klingsor's auto-castration, for example, is a strong image, but it ties into the sense of pain, of the image of sick world in need of healing that is there throughout the work and brought out in Landridge's production. And it must be said, brought out also in Willard White's performance and his presence throughout much of the second act.

Landridge's production continually engages with imagery that relates very closely to the original stage directions, but with a distinct twist that makes you re-examine what it all means. Most striking (and controversial) of all is the image of the Grail itself. There might be an inward rolling of the eyes when the cube opens up at the behest of the knights to reveal that the Grail is actually a child wearing nothing but a loin cloth, but the sense of a sacrificial act and the question of blood - both so vital to the underlying message of Parsifal - as well as the sheer pain of Amfortas's role as the keeper of the Grail, is unquestionably intensified when the ritual involves the actual cutting of the child and spilling his blood for the faithful.

Such touches don't perhaps reveal any new vision for the work, but they certainly find a thought-provoking way to touch on the philosophical mysteries and the religious significance of the work without having to rely on over-used Christian imagery that has become detached from its original significance and meaning. The meaning of Parsifal may remain elusive but as Simon Callow succinctly put it in his perceptive commentary during the intervals when I viewed this at the cinema screening, it's really just about the world being in a mess and being healed by a return to innocence. The Royal Opera House's production, led from the pit by Antonio Pappano with attention to detail and with genuine feeling for the work's Good Friday message, ensures that it touches upon and brings together every aspect of the transcendent beauty of Wagner's great masterpiece.

On Blu-ray, the clinical qualities of the production design are perhaps made even more evident. The image quality in the High Definition transfer is however impressive, and it benefits considerably from the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix that warmly expresses the detail and the beauty of the orchestral playing. The BD is a two-disc set, with Act I and II on disc one, and Act III on disc two. There are only a few short features on the discs - a 6-minute Introduction to Parsifal that takes into account the production and the characters, and a five-minute piano run through of a scene from Act II between Simon O'Neill and Antonio Pappano. The booklet explains the significance and the intent of Alison Chitty and Stephen Landridge's production design, and there's a fascinating essay by Lucy Beckett on the writing of Parsifal, with reference to Wolfram von Eschenbach's 13th century text that serves as a basis of the libretto. 

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Wagner - Tannhäuser (Wiener Staatsoper, 2014 - Webcast)

Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser

Wiener Staatsoper

Peter Schneider, Claus Guth, Kwangchul Youn, Robert Dean Smith, Christian Gerhaher, Camilla Nylund, Iréne Theorin, Norbert Ernst, Sorin Coliban, James Kryshak, Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Annika Gerhards

Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming - 2 November 2014

First performed in 1845, Tannhäuser was Wagner's first great success and notwithstanding the musical developments first advanced in Der fliegende Holländer, its scale and the coherence of its concept place it more recognisably in the familiar Wagner style. Fusing legends and mythology from a number of sources, Tannhäuser uses these stories as an examination of deep archetypal human desires and experiences and as an expression of Germanic character, but it's also a work that tells us a lot about the composer himself. Tannhäuser is inextricably linked with the philosophy and the struggle of Wagner as an artist, a revolutionary and a reformer.

The nature of the composer, the problematic and difficult and contradictory sides of his character and his thought, the expression of that in his music is perhaps more of interest to the modern-day opera-goer than what the 13th century writings of Wolfram von Eschenbach, the influence of Heinrich Heine and the arcane language of Wagner's own libretto. There are clear parallels between the figure of Heinrich Tannhäuser and Wagner himself as an artist struggling with and using his physical and sensual human nature as a means to reach a higher, spiritual truth. Setting himself against prevailing thoughts, customs and morals, he's a character that is fated to be misunderstood and forced into exile only to eventually return triumphant and vindicated.

Seen in that regard, Tannhäuser isn't the most modest portrait of the artist as a young man. There's an arrogant self-importance here but, arguably, all of Wagner's later works could be seen in that light as overblown ego-trips of a musical genius who was fully aware of his own talent and ability. It is worth examining then, just what makes them as great as they are, and Wagner's personal life can't be left out of the equation. It's clear from the greatcoats, top hats and neck-ties in Claus Guth's production of the music-drama for the Vienna State Opera, that the director is aiming closer to Wagner's own period, attempting to make the link between the composer and the work clearer and, hopefully, thereby making it a little more meaningful and accessible.

The settings are likewise 'closer to home' than the nymphs and satyrs in the grotto of Venusberg or the Wartburg castle of the middle ages in Eisenach. Act I is basically just a stage and a red curtain, Tannhäuser's time spent with Venus being rather more clearly signalled as the artist having an affair with his leading lady before coming to the realisation that he is neglecting his art and has to move on. Guth initially makes use of doubles on the part of Heinrich and Venus to emphasis the struggle between the sensual and the spiritual side of the artist, but this mirroring isn't taken much further on into the opera. The Wartburg scenes look like Wagner period Saxony or Thuringia concert halls, drawing rooms and bedrooms, but there's nothing that jars with the mythological setting of Wagner's imagination.

Other than transposing the period, Guth's production doesn't really appear to have anything more to add to the meaning of Tannhäuser, sticking fairly closely to the word and the intent of the libretto, but it has to be said that not much more actually happens over the three acts. That hasn't stopped other directors from imposing all manner of strange concepts on the work (I still haven't made much sense out of this year's Bayreuth production), and there's no major deconstruction of the author and the work in the manner of Herheim's Bayreuth Parsifal. It may not be an edgy or experimental production, but it's well designed, it looks lovely, and is appropriate and respectful of the work. Peter Schneider's conducting matches that tone, forging a close bond with the stage production. There are no surprises, it's played very much in a solid, classic Wagner style, and that seems appropriate for the purposes of this production.

There are however some notable differences with how Tannhäuser is traditionally viewed, and this creeps in more as the work progresses. Act II, Scene 4, for example is played like a scene from Die Zauberflöte, the nobles - masked and wearing cloaks - separating Tannhäuser and Elisabeth as if to prepare him a Masonic initiation. The Landgrave comes over as a kind of Sarastro, his purpose to win Tannhäuser away from sensuality and emotion to the side of order and rationality by fulfilling his destiny as an artist and Meistersinger. Act III however is the most powerful in how it expresses the reality against Wagner's poetic idealism. Tannhäuser doesn't make any literal pilgrimage to Rome, but is rather sick in bed having collapsed at the end of Act II. Elisabeth might be an angel who journeys over the hills to the Wartburg on a pathway to heaven in Wagner's eyes, but here, in her despair at his failure to "return", takes an overdose of pills and falls into an adjoining bed beside him.

The conclusion to Tannhäuser, if it's not exactly a happy one, should at least be spiritually uplifting. Guth's ending manages to be a little bleaker than most, but it does prove to be uplifting and incredibly moving. Wolfram's song (Act III, scene 2) becomes even more mournful as it follows the reality of Elisabeth's suicide sacrifice, particularly as it's sung impressively in this light by a wonderfully lyrical Christian Gerhaher. The only right ending then, since she has gone to meet Tannhäuser in heaven, is for Tannhäuser also to collapse and die beside her as the curtain falls and Wagner's Tannhäuser theme reaches its almost overwhelmingly beautiful conclusion. Whether it fits with the overall concept, whether it relates to the Wagner-period production design or not, it is nonetheless extraordinarily effective and, for me at least, it gives the work a more relatable human side.

The singers can contribute to bringing out that side of the work too, and that was well done in the Vienna production. As mentioned above, it was most evident in the performance of Christian Gerhaher, who received the loudest roar of approval from the audience at the curtain call. Robert Dean Smith gave his usual solid, untiring and finely sung performance. He faltered slightly when coming back after the long break before his appearance in Act II, but was right there on form again in the third act. Camilla Nylund's Elisabeth was beautifully and sweetly sung. The soprano role of Venus in the original 1845 version of the work performed here (as opposed to its scoring for mezzo-soprano in the 1861 Paris version) was however still just a little too low for Iréne Theorin to really sing with the necessary force. The chorus are also a vital force in Tannhäuser, and the Vienna chorus took up that role wonderfully.

The Vienna Staatsoper have an ambitious and impressive programme of pay-per-view live performances being streamed this season. The next performances being broadcast are La Bohème on November 7th, and Khovanshchina on November 21st.  See the Live Programme on their website for details.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video

Monday 3 November 2014

Janáček - The Makropulos Case (Bayerische Staatsoper, 2014 - Webcast)

Leoš Janáček - The Makropulos Case

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2014

Tomáš Hanus, Árpád Schilling, Nadja Michael, Pavel Cernoch, Kevin Conners, Tara Erraught, John Lundgren, Dean Power, Gustav Belácek, Peter Lobert, Heike Grötzinger, Reiner Goldberg, Rachael Wilson

Staatsoper.TV - 1 November 2014

The challenges that come with putting on a production of Janáček's The Makropulos Case are probably no more difficult or easier than dealing with the specific requirements of any of the composer's operas. In all of his works, it's not only vital to settle on a consistent tone and temperament that brings the music and the staging together, but the key singing roles have to be perfect - and singing in the Czech language is no easy matter for a non-native. It's only however when you get to see one of those works come together on every level, that you realise just what its most important ingredients are. The Bayerische Staatsoper's 2014 production of The Makropulos Case is revelatory in that respect.

While all the other elements are still important, it's clear from the Munich production that The Makropulos Case only really works as it should when you have a soprano of great charisma and ability singing the role of Emilia Marty. I'll come to that later, but the other elements are important to consider in how they relate to each other. Musically, everything was perfectly in place here. Tomáš Hanus has prepared a new critical edition of the work, and if it can be judged simply on how well Janáček's music delivers the intent of the libretto, it's a superb interpretation, but it's also clearly responsive to the composer's familiar rhythms and the advancements in the musical language that are evident at this late stage in the composer's career.

The value of Árpád Schilling's direction is less easy to determine. Visually, Márton Ágh's costume and production design doesn't appear to have a great deal to contribute to the drama, the message or the purpose of the work, but conceptually it's on solid ground and it provides a setting that suits the tone that has been carefully established. Act I in Dr. Kolenatý's office is somewhat Kafkaesque, the minimal set consisting of a marbled wall with chairs studded vertically into the narrow side of the revolving set. There are a few steps from this leading down to a snow-covered front-stage. It feels imposing, intimidating, confusing and otherworldly, which isn't a bad impression to give as the details of the Prus versus Gregor case are outlined, and the way that the enigmatic Emilia Marty becomes involved in it.

The stage of the opera-house, or the back-stage of an opera house in Act II, is bright, modern and clinical. Asylum-like almost, with stylised padded walls. Quite what the tone is meant to indicate isn't entirely clear, but if you want to see it that way, it's perhaps a view of Emilia Marty's inner world. Having lived in various guises for the last 300 years, it could be seen as a reflection of her needing to renew and refresh, clinically detach herself from the sentiments and emotions that would inevitably become a heavy burden over such an extended lifetime. There's nothing playful about the science-fiction concept for this opera. It's a serious attempt to examine what gives life meaning, and of course, what gives life meaning above all else is the fact that it will one day come to an end.

Schilling's directing takes this very seriously, as does the musical interpretation of the score by the conductor Tomáš Hanus. Picking up on several other incidents that occur in the work and some of the comments made, Schilling takes this a little further. As a few late additions to the set indicate - including a kind of sacrificial flagellation - what is considered here is not just what would it mean for a person to cope with the eternity of existence, but what it would mean to be a woman, to be a beautiful woman, and to be the object of constant attention, to be pursued, hounded and living permanently as an object of desire to men (and women, if we also consider Krista's fascination with Emilia Marty, which should not be discounted as something incidental). Imagine that and imagine being forever young, beautiful and talented.

Well, that's the challenge that the soprano singing Emilia Marty/Elina Makropulos has to be able to work with. Aside from the language and musical challenges, aside from having to carry the weight of 337 years of being a woman in this position, she also has to be ageless, alluring, enigmatic and charismatic. No small order. Enter Nadja Michael. Michael hasn't been the most consistent singer in the past - when I last saw her Lady Macbeth in Munich she was all over the place really - but there's no questioning her presence and commitment in a performance. Emilia Marty proves to be a perfect fit for Nadja Michael.

I don't know about her Czech - she occasionally sounds a little less than perfectly clear in enunciation - but there's no faulting her singing performance or her ability to enter into her character. Marty is of course an opera diva, and I think Michael can relate to that. She looks simply terrific here, having that necessary presence and allure, wearing short blonde curls here and a teasing dress in Act II that reveals rather a lot. Her performance however is utterly magnetic and otherworldly credible. It would be a bit of a problem if the great opera singer Emilia Marty couldn't sing her own role, but there's no danger of that here, and Michael's performance is enthusiastically and deservedly acclaimed at the curtain call of the live streamed broadcast.

This is the kind of performance that can carry a show, but the other roles are supportive in how exceptionally well they are sung. Pavel Cernoch gives a clearly sung and impassioned Albert Gregor ('Bertie') and John Lundgren's Prus is well-measured and wonderfully sung, his role and relationship to Emilia Marty considered within the context of what it adds to the concept. The other roles are all more then capably sung by the Munich troupe regulars, with Reiner Goldberg in particular giving a touching performance as the former lover of the Carmen-like Andalusian gypsy Eugenia Montez. (There's a whole other question in The Makropulos Case of opera as an eternal artform of passions, and that's not neglected here either). Lyrical, dramatic and passionate, this was everything that Janáček should be, and it will do much to continue to raise his profile as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.