Tuesday 30 December 2014

Beethoven - Fidelio (Milan, 2014 - Webcast)

Ludwig van Beethoven - Fidelio

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 2014

Daniel Barenboim, Deborah Warner, Klaus Florian Vogt, Anja Kampe, Peter Mattei, Falk Struckmann, Mojca Erdmann, Kwangchul Youn, Florian Hoffmann

ARTE Concert - 7 December 2014

The choice of Beethoven's only opera Fidelio for the La Scala's 2014 showcase opening night production was, as it often is in Milan, as much a political statement as a musical one. While the anti-austerity protests took place outside and the ever-looming threat of cuts to arts funding continues to hang over the famous theatre, there were times when you got the impression that the trouble had spilled over into the theatre. Thankfully however, it wasn't the loutish bad behaviour of the logginisti this year - they were kept very happy indeed by a magnificent account of the work conducted by Daniel Barenboim in his valedictory performances for the house - but on the stage itself in Deborah Warner's production.

Beethoven's Fidelio itself doesn't make a political statement as such. It's more interested in basic human moral questions, but as generalised as the politics of the libretto are, the moral questions can't be entirely removed from the revolutionary age in which the work was written. If there's one area where Deborah Warner's production brings out the meaning and significance of Fidelio - and it is possibly the only worthwhile and discernible point about the stage concept - it's that it helps distinguish the class and social order that is an important aspect of the work, and one that too often gets lost in the lack of specificity and in the generic period setting of some productions. It's not that Fidelio is about class as much as it represents and exalts the capacity of human nature to show decency, love and respect for others - even in the face of tyranny - by relating it to the degree to which people place their faith in the most basic human values such as love, compassion and freedom.

If you didn't know that Fidelio was set in a state prison outside Seville, you would think that Deborah Warner's production takes place below an underpass at the back of a factory or a homeless shelter. There's a small office-booth and a table to take care of practicalities, but the dress of Rocco and his Marzelline is rather more casual than you would expect for a prison jailer and his daughter. The costumes appear to be significant, Rocco's assistant Fidelio looking like a binman, Don Pizarro, the Governor (or Guv'nor) wearing an ill-fitting suit that marks him out as a step above, albeit somewhat let down by the rather faded polo-shirt he wears underneath it. The Minister Don Fernando, when he arrives late in the day, is rather more smartly dressed in a shirt and a tie.

The prisoners themselves are all very much working class, Warner going as far as showing many of them wearing hard-hats, but there are lower orders still. In the deepest pit of the darkest dungeon is Florestan, a political prisoner of conscience, a 'desaparecido', cut off from the world because of his dangerous views on freedom, starved almost to death, his life about to be extinguished forever on the orders of Don Pizarro, who is holding him there illegally. Someone however hasn't given up hope. Florestan's wife Leonore, disguised as the prison jailor's assistant Fidelio believes her husband is still alive and hopes to rescue him by securing the confidence of Rocco, even going so far as to become 'engaged' to his daughter Marzelline.

And that's what is important about Fidelio. It's not class, it's not politics, it's hope. It's faith and belief (which is perhaps why Beethoven settled on the title Fidelio in the revised work rather than the original Leonore), of refusing to believe that the better nature of man can be completely extinguished. The same spirit can be found to differing degrees in Marzelline and Jaquino, in Rocco's act of kindness towards the political prisoners, allowing them to see the light of day in that stirring scene ('O welche Lust, in freier Luft'). It's significant that this concession is made on the occasion of the king's birthday, the degree to which freedom is granted or demanded dependent upon how much one defers one's freedoms to higher powers. Those who have to fight for their freedom with their lives inevitably have a greater sense of what true liberty means, but not exclusively. Clemency on the part of the 'nobility' (Don Fernando wears a tie but he also has a loose jacket) is also recognised for the greater good it can achieve.

If you didn't know all that was there in Fidelio - and even as it recognises these characteristics Warner's often confusing production isn't the most enlightening - you could tell it from the music alone, and in this production you can hear it in the singing as well. Recognising that Fidelio looks ahead even as it rests on the foundations of the old model of German opera, Barenboim conducts with an anticipatory eye on where Fidelio is to have influence later, giving Wagnerian force and character to the nobility and lyricism of Mozart. The casting for Fidelio is also typically Wagnerian, but this production finds that there are certain types of Wagnerian voices that suit Beethoven's opera better than others. Chiefly, this can be heard in the beautiful lyricism of  Klaus Florian Vogt's Florestan. His voice is first heard ringing out from the darkness of Act II and his 'In des Lebens Frühlingstagen' aria really does suggest a pure spirit undefeated, his faith keeping him alive. I don't think I've seen or heard Vogt perform better than he does here.

Just as impressive is Anja Kampe's soaring Leonore. In her we get not just Leonore's anguish and fear for the fate of her husband, but her strength, determination and the beauty of her spirit in the lyrical flights of her singing. Strength and lyricism is there elsewhere towards different ends in Kwangchul Youn's Rocco and in Peter Mattei's Don Pizarro. Mojca Erdmann's and Florian Hoffmann bring out the brighter, youthful nature of Marzelline and Jaquino, while Falk Struckmann's Don Fernando is firm of purpose, directing the work towards its uplifting conclusion. Perfect casting all around in other words, each role bringing out the beauty and character of Beethoven's writing for the value it adds to the dramatic purpose of the opera. Whether there was recognition for Deborah Warner's contribution to how those characters are defined is hard to say, but on every other level the impact of the work clearly carried across to the audience on the night as much as Daniel Barenboim's significant part in it all.

Links: ARTE Concert, Teatro alla Scala

Monday 29 December 2014

Strauss - Arabella (Wiener Staatsoper, 2014 - Webcast)

Richard Strauss - Arabella

Weiner Staatsoper, 2014

Ulf Schirmer, Sven-Eric Bechtolf, Anne Schwanewilms, Genia Kühmeier,
Tomasz Konieczny, Herbert Lippert, Wolfgang Bankl, Carole Wilson, Norbert Ernst, Gabriel Bermúdez, Ulrike Helzel, Clemens Unterreiner, Daniela Fally

Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming - 18 December 2014

Arabella is a bit of a 'Zdenko' of an opera. It's posing as something that it isn't, a female opera dressed in men's clothes, and it's a little bit self conscious about it. It's a second bite at the Der Rosenkavalier cherry by Strauss and Hofmannsthal that somehow misses the point. Attempting to get back to the original sentiments and intentions that inspired their most enduring collaboration, focussing on the romance of period Vienna with its waltzes and operettas, attempting to remove much of the clever self-referentiality and longeurs of Der Rosenkavalier, something however gets lost in the process. It's as if the self-consciousness of the latter has somehow cancelled out the cleverness of the original idea. What you are left in Arabella is simply a beautiful opera, but not much else.

As composed by Strauss, with his wonderful facility for lush orchestration and his incredible writing for the female soprano voice, it is however also too easy to get carried away with the view that the creators might indeed have 'improved' on Der Rosenkavalier in some key respects. Without doing disservice to the undoubted qualities of Arabella as a lovely opera, Ulf Schirmer and Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production for the Vienna State Opera does however refuse to let Zdenka's deceit as to her true nature extend to a view of the opera itself. As Arabella puts it, so perfectly and without any falsity in the final line of the opera, 'nimm mich wie ich bin', "take me as I am". The Vienna production takes Arabella as it truly is, without all the usual adornments.

Key to this interpretation is the casting of Anne Schwanewhilms as Arabella and Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka. Schwanewilms is an accomplished Straussian soprano, but she presents a very different side of the typical Strauss leading lady from the familiar lush silken romanticism and perfection you would find in Emily Magee, Rene Fleming or Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Her voice is not to everyone's taste, the tightness of her high notes and the less than smooth leap it sometimes takes to reach them nowadays is not ideal, but it's not idealised either. There's a more human quality to the emotional life of Arabella here than I'm familiar with. By the end of the performance, instead of being in awe at the beauty and brilliance of Strauss as a composer, in this production you really feel Arabella's pain and the meaning of those final words. Schwanewilms shows that there is a real heart behind Arabella as an opera, and all too often that's easy to miss.

Likewise, I tend to associate Mandryka with the warm, measured tones of a Michael Volle, and he is a marvellous interpreter of this role. Again however, his kind of interpretation can tend to add a little more sugar to the already honeyed tones of Strauss's orchestration. There's nothing wrong with that - I enjoy sinking blissfully into such performances - but it can be instructive to hear some other voices in the same role, and with Tomasz Konieczny giving a little more of a harder edge to the rough-mannered bear-wrestling wild man from the provinces, it does test how far Arabella can work as a dramatic opera in its own right. Perhaps it will reveal that the work is not quite perfect, but to me the little revelations and the laid-bare openness is better than smothering it with fake sentiment.

As Hugo von Hofmannsthal died during the preparations for the work, the libretto complete but - knowing Strauss and Hofmannsthal's working relationship - likely to be subject to further revisions, it's impossible to know how Arabella might have developed. As it stands, it's not as polished or as sophisticated a libretto as you might like, for all the surface beauty of the musical score. On the other hand, it could be that the operetta-like simplicity of the plot was precisely the intention and just the effect that the creators were striving towards. There's little intrigue to speak of until fairly late in the proceedings, what there is then is far from convincing in its developments and resolution, but it's not without some truth in its sentiments and it does touch on joy as well as the pain and heartbreak that comes in relationships. By the end, any kind of idealisation over the past, about love, is put aside in those final beautiful forgiving sentiments of the work.

Whether it perfectly captures everything that the creators intended is open to speculation, but in other respects Arabella is certainly moving in other direction that Strauss would explore, with more of the theatrical spoken-sung style that Strauss was heading towards in Intermezzo, as well as exploring more of the moments of beauty, wonder and joy that can be found in the nature of the domestic drama. Ulf Schirmer seems to be bearing this in mind with the conducting of Arabella and in this respect he's at one with the production and the singing. Director Sven-Eric Bechtolf and the Glittenberg's set and costume designs typically avoid the significant period of the work and update Arabella to around the time of composition, placing it in an Art Deco hotel and a jazz bar. It retains an air of sophistication then without the luxurious extravagance of the romanticised 1860s Vienna.

Aside from the qualities that Schwanewilms and Konieczny bring to the work, the singing elsewhere is similarly strong and complementary. Wolfgang Bankl and Carole Wilson make a good Count and Countess, Wilson rich lyrical voice in particular bringing new qualities out of Adelaide. Herbert Lippert's Matteo is bright and quite heldentenor-ish, while Daniela Fally makes quite an impression as Die Fiakermilli ought to, even doing the splits while singing. And what about Zdenko/Zdenka herself? As the motor behind the plot developments, twists and revelations, Zdenka is a vital character in the opera, and it couldn't be better cast than with Genia Kühmeier. For all the conflict between surface impressions and the harsh reality, there is a warm heart that beats in Arabella, and as the driving force that re-engages the characters with their better sentiments, Genia Kühmeier's Zdenka fulfils that role, as well as giving the production the warm heart it needs.

This performance of Arabella was streamed for live broadcast via the Wiener Staatsoper's Live at Home streaming service. There's an impressive line-up to be viewed over the next month, with DIE FLEDERMAUS on 31st Dec, DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE on 4th Jan, David McVicar's production of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE on 18th Jan and SALOME on 23rd Jan.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Verdi - Luisa Miller (Liège, 2014 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - Luisa Miller

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2014

Massimo Zanetti, Jean-Claude Fall, Patrizia Ciofi, Gregory Kunde, Nicola Alaimo, Bálint Szabó, Luciano Montanaro, Alexise Yerna, Cristina Melis

Culturebox, Medici.tv - 4 December 2014

The subject of Luisa Miller is a typical one for Verdi, almost prototypical in fact in the manner in which Friedrich Schiller's original story has been reduced in scope from a more political and social intrigue down into a domestic drama that best suits Verdi's requirements. Luisa Miller is almost opera semiseria in nature, with its Tyrolean setting and overprotective fathers concerned about the reputations of their daughters, but there's nothing backward looking in Verdi's musical treatment of the subject. It's not perfect, but Luisa Miller is a work that is leading the way towards some of the composer's greatest achievements.

At the heart of Verdi's opera is indeed that familiar configuration of fathers who want the best for their children, and there are two of them here. Miller wants his pure and beautiful daughter Luisa to marry a man worthy of her and hopes she has chosen well in Carlo, but he can't help but worry about the stranger's unknown origins, and wishes she'd marry a stable, ambitious man like the Count's steward Wurm instead. For his part, Count Walter wants his son Rodolfo (who is indeed the same Carlo who is engaged to Luisa) to marry well into wealth and prestige, and has even arranged a suitable match for him with the Duchess Federica.

There's a further dark secret yet to be uncovered of course, but essentially the drama of Luisa Miller centres around this unfortunate complication of romantic interests and family responsibilities. True, everyone is acting out of consideration for what they believe are the best interests for themselves and the ones they love, but it only needs a despicable figure like Wurm (Wurm by name, worm by nature), and of course the aforementioned dark secret, to stir this up into the kind of boiling melodrama that Verdi does so well. Discovering through Wurm that Carlo is really the Count's son, Miller is convinced that he is just a heartless seducer whose intentions can't possibly be honourable. He's obviously familiar with opera semiseria works set in Tyrolean locations (Linda di Chamounix, Clari), where that would usually be the case.

That's still not much of a subject for a composer like Verdi who at this stage was approaching his best mature works in Rigoletto and La Traviata. Luisa Miller in many ways resembles and could almost be seen as a dry run for Rigoletto, where the Duke is indeed a seducer in disguise.  The closing scene in particular where Miller regrets his over-protectiveness while holding his dying daughter in his arms has strong echoes with the conclusion of Rigoletto, and to be honest, his setting and scoring for this scene, as well as the dark moments leading up to it, are scarcely any less stirring than Verdi's arrangements for the more famous work.

Verdi's strengths as a composer are already in place on the family and domestic drama, but what works much better here than in some of Verdi's earlier works is how he integrates or makes use of the political side of the drama. The overt political references might have been dropped from Schiller's 'Kabale und Liebe', but with censorship always a problem that Verdi had to work around, the composer was able to cleverly find other ways to put real contemporary social and revolutionary sentiments into his work in a way that sets them apart from the ancient historical subjects of earlier works like Nabucco, Atilla and Joan of Arc. In Rodolfo and Luisa's situation there is a struggle against social class prejudices and the injustice of a controlling patriarchy that ends up only causing division and suffering for all. Without needing to make explicit references, Verdi is nonetheless able to convey the full strength of feeling that lies behind these sentiments.

Pouring all those sentiments into a small family drama does admittedly risk turning the work into an overblown melodrama.  There's not quite the same scale or sensitivity of handling here in Luisa Miller that you will find in Verdi's mature works and particularly in later ones like Don Carlos and Aida where the characterisation is more nuanced, where the subjects of love, injustice and the abuse of authority are more fully integrated into the whole. Played right however, with an eye towards how Verdi gives voice to those small dramas writ large in the eyes of the people concerned, and bearing in mind where the composer is heading towards, Luisa Miller can be played effectively on the stage. The Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège are traditionally very strong at giving lesser-known and under-appreciated Verdi and Rossini sympathetic productions that play to the strengths in such works, and their Luisa Miller is no exception.

The key to the success of this production is in the casting. There are some notable names in the main roles - Patrizia Ciofi, Gregory Kunde and Nicola Alaimo - but the secondary roles are also marvellously played and sung. While the principals evidently have important parts to play, there's a recognition that some sympathy towards the fathers Count Walter and Miller, and a little understanding of their position, gives the drama a little more conviction. Both fathers are well-meaning, convinced that nothing good will come of their offspring's scorn for their wisdom. This is the conflict that drives Luisa Miller, and it helps if you have singers who can bring that out. You can see that Luciano Montanaro's Count is motivated by love for his son, while Nicola Alaimo's light, lyrical delivery has all the necessary warmth and feeling for his daughter, particularly in the critical closing scene.

Wurm is basically a cartoon villain and doesn't need to have the same consideration applied, but Bálint Szabó's performance is nicely understated and supportive of the overall tone of the production, never letting it slip over into caricature. Again, smaller details count as well for the Duchess and Cristina Melis gives a well-measured performance that makes Federica's transition from seductiveness to the bitterness of a woman scorned seem perfectly natural. And what a great Verdi singer Gregory Kunde proves to be as Rodolfo. It's rare to get the right mix of sheer passion balanced with perfect control of the technical requirements for such a role, but Kunde has all that and the acting ability to bring them together to really make you care about what happens. Ciofi's performance as Luisa is also heartfelt, although as I've found before, her voice is a little too light to carry the lower end weight of such an intensely dramatic role.

Musically, Massimo Zanetti's conducting pitches the work perfectly in terms of its dramatic and its emotional content. Every scene carries the necessary impact. Jean-Claude Fall's stage direction and the sets emphasise the divisions well, the bright open blue skies and Tyrolean woodland exteriors contrasted with the dark rooms of the Count's mansion (a hydraulic system very smoothly and cleverly flipping over from one scene to the next). There's no big concept here, the period aiming for modern without stretching beyond the requirements of the libretto. Guns are used instead of swords, but this doesn't present much of an issue, and with pistols brandished in those dark interiors, it even gives a tense Godfather-like feel to the work which is not out of place. It also helps deliver a powerful conclusion which recognises the importance of Verdi ending on a note of high drama.

Links: Culturebox, Medici.tv, Opéra Royal de Wallonie

Monday 22 December 2014

Verdi - La Traviata (Weiner Staatsoper, 2014 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Weiner Staatsoper, 2014

Myung-Whun Chung, Jean-François Sivadier, Ermonela Jaho, Saimir Pirgu, Vitalij Bilyy, Ilseyar Khayrullova, Donna Ellen, Carlos Osuna, David Pershall, Hans Peter Kammerer, Dan Paul Dumitrescu

Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming - 16 December 2014

There are many considerations that determine the quality of a production of an opera, and the most successful are usually those where all the elements come together well and support each other. La Traviata is no different, but with a work of this stature and of such widespread popularity and familiarity, some elements are more important than others. Whether it's done period traditional or modern abstract doesn't matter as long as the production delivers the very specific requirements of the tragi-romantic nature of the work and Verdi's venomous critique of society. La Traviata however also needs a very strong singer with personality, charisma and the ability to deliver on all points of an intense, dramatic and challenging lead role.

In terms of the staging of the work and the casting of it, the Vienna State Opera production is strong and consistent, but it also recognises the importance of light and shade, the dynamic and the use of contrast that highlights the considerable qualities of La Traviata. That's evident in Myung-Whun Chung's conducting of the orchestra and management of the singers, but it's most notably brought out in the contrast between the two central figures in the work, Violetta and Alfredo. Ermonela Jaho and Saimir Pirgu complement each other well, and it's the character of their on-stage relationship in this revival of the production that determines the overall tone of the work much more so than any other factor.

For her part, Ermonela Jaho brings a surprising theatricality to Act I's Violetta, but it soon becomes clear that this is part of the concept and the characterisation that is part of the dynamic of the whole. If she swaggers around her party like Carmen in Act I, it's because it is an act on the part of Violetta. Moments before, during the overture, we've seen her sitting silently and resignedly with Annina, pulling herself together to get though the evening social functions and conventions (complete with Brindisi) that are expected of her as a host. Something however takes her by surprise this evening and knocks the carefully composed assurance out of her - Alfredo. Her guard drops and Jaho likewise takes us superbly through those swoops of fears and emotions, with light high notes and swooping plunges in her 'Ah fors' è lui'.

Saimir Pirgu's Alfredo is, as you would ideally like him to be at this stage of the work, not the thundering confident tenor that you are accustomed to in a less well-characterised production, but a bit of a soft, love-sick puppy. Pirgu sings his Brindisi like he was indeed performing to a handful of guests, not to a huge auditorium. He doesn't want to disturb others outside or wake anyone up, not that there's any danger of the audience falling asleep in this production. His Alfredo gains more confidence through the love of Violetta in Act II. There's clearly more of a man here - a man in love perhaps for the first time. That of course later turns to steely anger with a drunken swagger at the end of Act II, but throughout, Pirgu's voice still exhibits the underlying delicacy of the emotions Alfredo is experiencing.

The course of emotions that characterise this as one of Verdi's most brilliant and accomplished works is similarly held in perfect balance and contrast throughout, while the production supports those highs and lows. It's hard to determine exactly what the staging for Jean-François Sivadier's direction is meant to represent, but there's no question it fully matches Verdi's intentions and brings considerable colour to the characters. It's not period, more modern, but without introducing anything more jarring to the familiar viewing of the work than a pistol. For me, the staging had something of the feel of a theatrical rehearsal with chairs and a couple of banner-size screens scattered around. Instead of servants, Violetta and Flora have what look more like stage-hands, who help guide the 'actors' through their roles.

The playing of roles is something that is very much a part of La Traviata, and in that respect, Sivadier's direction retains the vital social context of the work. With Alfredo, Violetta sees a chance to break away from the empty life she has led as a courtesan in high society and live a more free life, but obviously society won't let her. Judging by Verdi's own life and his scoring for this work, that's where the force of the work lies, and that accordingly and absolutely correctly is where this production places its strength and its forces. The money shot, so to speak, is in Alfredo's public denunciation of Violetta at Flora's party in Act II, Scene II. It's always a telling moment in any production of La Traviata, and here, despite the anger and violence shown, Alfredo attempts to claw Violetta back, pawing over her prone figure more in pained desperation than anger.

Such moments reveal the consideration of the direction for characterisation and the strength of the individual performances. And in La Traviata, it all comes back to Violetta, and in this case to Ermonela Jaho. The production mirrors her experience, the theatricality dropping, the backgrounds stripped away, leaving a bare wall and a bare stage, with even the scrawled graffiti on the wall erased. Violetta is divested of her outer garments by her maid Annina as Act II slips over into Act III. Everything is gone, only the approach of death remains. Jaho's performance is exemplary throughout, but also personal and distinctive, working with the production, never to some ideal of Violetta. She does the joy and the heartbreak equally well, and as you would expect after all that, the death scene (all of Act III basically) is just gripping, the audience totally there with Violetta, which is a tough place to be.

Conductor Myung-Whun Chung plays to the respective strengths of Verdi's score, the production and the singers. The tempo is slightly slower than usual in Act I, allowing the beauty to be drawn out of every note, and it by the same token 'Ah dite alla giovine' becomes almost a funeral march as Violetta's hopes are crushed by Giorgio Germont (Vitalij Bilyy fine but not particularly distinctive, and unable to make much of an impression alongside Jaho's reactions to his demands). At times, you can see that the conductor is taking his cue from Jaho, allowing her to determine the pace she delivers her 'Ah fors' è lui'. Elsewhere, he holds back on the sweeping string arrangements and allows other individual instruments to carry the emotional weight very effectively with a delicacy of touch. Whether this was the same in the house and a question of mixing for the webcast, I couldn't say for sure though.

There were no big gestures then from the conductor, the orchestra, the singers or the production design aspects, and no attempt to impose any reinterpretation on the work. The Wiener Staatsoper's production was rather a concerted effort to capture the essence of what La Traviata is about, without all the mannerisms but with a few telling touches in all the right places that work with Verdi's music and its intentions. When all that is in place, you can see why La Traviata remains one of the best and most popular works of opera ever composed.

This performance was streamed for live broadcast only. There is however another chance to see the same production from the Wiener Staatsoper on 21 March 2015, but with a different cast. Dan Ettinger conducting, Marina Rebeka plays Violetta, with Stephen Costello as Alfredo and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Giorgio. Details of how to sign up for Vienna Live at Home broadcasts can be found in the links below. There's an impressive line-up to be viewed over the next month, with DIE FLEDERMAUS on 31st Dec, DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE on 4th Jan, David McVicar's production of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE on 18th Jan and SALOME on 23rd Jan.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video

Friday 19 December 2014

Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Met 2014 - HD-Live)

Richard Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Metropolitan Opera, 2014

James Levine, Otto Schenk, Annette Dasch, Karen Cargill, Johan Botha, Paul Appleby, Michael Volle, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Martin Gantner, Hans-Peter König, Matthew Rose

Met Live in HD - 13 December 2014

There's been quite a contrast between how New York's Metropolitan Opera present a mixture of modern and classic traditional Wagner productions. On the one hand you have the abstract otherworldly modernisations of Parsifal and the high-tech concepts of their Ring cycle, and on the other you have literal realism of the Otto Schenk's twenty year old production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. It demonstrates how opera tastes and approaches to production design and direction have changed over the years, but what hasn't changed (in my view anyway), and specifically in relation to Wagner's operas, is that they each in their own way seek to represent the essence of Wagner's music on the stage, as well as the literal narrative depiction of the drama.

Although the approach is quite different then, and the subjects evidently are as far apart as you can get on the Wagner scale, the Otto Schenk's production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and the Robert Lepage's Ring cycle for the Met both adopt the necessary approaches that they find best convey the qualities of the work. And, inevitably, both in their own way are doomed to fail to cover the totality of what is in each of those respective works, but that's the challenge you face when taking on works of such enormous richness and complexity. It's precisely because there is so much to be gained from those works that Wagner's music-dramas continue to inspire new ideas and radically different approaches and interpretations.

Despite the differences in the content and length, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is indeed a work that is just as rich and expansive in its outlook as the combined works of the Ring cycle. One specific common aspect of the Met's Ring and their Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg that serves as the backbone for each of the productions, is the necessary impression of solidity and firmness of purpose. That of course ought to be there, as it reflects the muscular complexity of the music score, which in turn serves to reflect the enduring universality of the subject - whether that be the nature of the gods in one or the nature of being human in the other. The Met's Machine gives a firm and consistent foundation to explore the Ring, while the detailed wood and stone structures for the set for Schenk's production give a little more of a human presence, one that is perhaps no less enduring, but also subject to change. The period setting for Meistersinger and the universality of the situations within it reminds us of that fact.

Aside from the strictly literal depiction of Nuremburg in the 16th century and the impressive visual impact of seeing whole streets, houses and workshops recreated in meticulously realistic detail and scale, the sets for Schenk's production fulfil another vital aspect of the work - the question of community. Whether you want to see the humanity within the work as Christian in nature - the opera even opening with a mass scene - other elements suggest that it's the community aspect that is what really matters. That's retained in the context of the period here, in the Christian worship and in the religious subjects that are the basis for the Meistersinger's songs. This of course is challenged by the youthful irreverence of Von Stolzing, but he is cautioned and coached by Hans Sachs not just in the rules of being a Meistersinger, but also how to respect the traditions and the values that underpin them. The community and the rules that govern it might seem restrictive, but - as the inclusion of the watchman suggests - it provides order and protection from, well... let's just for the purposes of this review politely call them "outside threats" to our way of life.

The Met's sets hold all this together, as well as being simply perfect for the functional demands of how the stage is used and filled by the huge choruses. Everything that occurs in Die Meistersinger is designed towards bringing about a showpiece conclusion that has real impact and meaning, and everything should lead towards this. The community and the values they hold are all there in the church setting of Act I, in the craft of the Meistersinger's trades, in the whole street scenes of Act II, in the setting of St John's Eve and the twilight evening, and in the honest labour of Hans Sachs' workshop where von Stolzing learns the value of the song. Act III's conclusion then is everything it ought to be, gathering together the youth and experience, the wisdom and folly, the generosity and the mean-spiritedness of the preceding acts into one glorious celebration of life.

If it's difficult to put all that humanity into the production design (even as it remains one of those challenges that will always attract ambitious directors like Stefan Herheim), the direction of the orchestra and the singing performances are there to bring in that very necessary dimension, and the Met's production consequently does that tremendously well. Principally, it's Levine's conducting of the work that brings all the human colour and nuance out of the score and it's representation of so many facets of the human condition that are there in Die Meistersinger. It is a glorious work, expressing a warmth, a humour and a human sensitivity that does not exist in quite the same way in any other Wagner opera. And although it exalts the qualities and capabilities that love brings to human existence, Wagner also recognises - intentionally I believe - the flaws, the meanness, pettiness and the vainglorious side of human nature that is there in Hans Sachs and Walther von Stolzing as much as in Sixtus Beckmesser. Maybe I'm being overly generous in that view.

Levine's conducting brings all those elements out, but not in isolation. He's clearly working with what is depicted on the stage and is sensitive also to the nature and characteristics of the individual singers. You would expect nothing less from James Levine, but in the context of this particular work, it's more important than ever, and the rewards it yields are even greater. The measure and the pacing through Acts I and II are delightful, revealing the beautiful flow of this work through to its epic conclusion, but with wonderful attention to detail in individual instruments - the individual or the artist's contribution in the harmony of the whole being part of what this work is about. Levine's conducting makes this aspect beautifully meaningful and relevant.

The singing is not quite as nuanced as Levine's contribution - I suspect a lack of direction in this revival - but all of the performances supported the work as a whole. There was perhaps not as much warmth and humanity in Michael Volle's Hans Sachs as you might like, and you didn't really get the sense of what he and Eva meant to each other, but he was drafted in at short notice and his singing was nonetheless marvellous. There's brightness and life in the timbre of his voice, his line was assured, and he has all the ability and charisma required to carry such a role. Johan Botha was perhaps not as strong in the role of Walther von Stolzing as he might have been in the past or in other Wagner roles, but if there is any decline in performance it's minor. Annette Dasch might have had one or two moments of unsteadiness but was a good Eva, although again failing to exude any warmth or character. This production's Beckmesser was more of an amiable blustering buffoon, posing no real threat to the "natural order", but whatever way it's played, Johannes Martin Kränzle experience of this role injects it with the good-natured humour and humanity that is lacking elsewhere.

Led by Levine, it was the underlying humanity that shone out of this production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and that's what marks it as one of the greatest operas ever written. It's remarkable that it takes six hours to perform this work, but there's nothing you would have taken out or reduced, nothing that seems too much or unnecessary. The impression you should be left with rather is that everything feels absolutely right. The genius of Wagner's Die Meistersinger is that it leaves you with a sense of wonder and satisfaction that there may indeed be purpose, order and meaning to life that is within our grasp. In Die Meistersinger, art is the force that elevates humanity, demonstrates man's capacity to express and endure their condition and achieve their potential. It's a philosophy that lies at the heart of all Wagner's work, and it's recognised and brought out marvellously in this New York Met production.

Friday 12 December 2014

Mozart - Mitridate, Re di Ponto (Armel Opera Festival, 2014)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Mitridate, Re di Ponto

Tbilisi State Opera and Ballet, 2014

Davit Kintsurashvili, David Sakvarelidze, Boram Lee, Sébastien Obrecht, Irina Taboridze, Tatia Jibladze, Salome Jicia, Irakli Murjikneli, Nino Chachua

Armel Opera Festival, ARTE Concert - 16 October 2014

Despite their relative conventionality and their adherence to the rigid structures and longeurs of the opera seria, there is still much to admire in Mozart's early operas. Midridate, Re di Ponto, composed in 1770 when Wolfgang was only 14 years old, shows much of the composer's ability to develop a strong and beautiful melodic line and a remarkable facility for a musical setting that accentuates and enhances the sentiments of the libretto.

The libretto for Midridate, Re di Ponto isn't so different from so many Baroque opera seria plots, a typically complex mixture of political intrigue and mismatched couples in unrequited love situations. As is also common, this state of affairs has been foolishly instigated by a king or a ruler with the best of intentions, but having misread the signals and advice given to him, it results in feelings of despair, betrayal and revenge. The raw materials don't matter as much however as the ability and skill of the composer in question to set it to music. Even at this early age, within the restrictions of the opera seria format and with such conventional material, the young Mozart's ability to make it come to life can't be faulted.

It's not exactly inspired, but there's a wonderful sense of order and construction to Mozart's music that just gives it an uncommon balance and coherence. The music itself is mostly straightforward, but blessed with Mozart's gift of melody that you'll also find in his elegant and graceful early symphonies. What's different about the compositions here of course is that Mozart is also writing for the voice. Even in the early Mozart operas we can already see prototypes of characters that he would explore later with considerably more depth and humanity. If the characters don't quite come to life in the same way in Midridate, Re di Ponto, they are nonetheless beautifully coloured by the testing range and coloratura that Mozart writes for them.

This makes Midridate, Re di Ponto a good opera for singers and a good testing ground for a competition entrant in the Armel Opera Festival. Being an opera seria, the emphasis is on the voice and individual expression more than in any kind of collaborative dramatic performance. The drama and interaction is all played out in recitative, with the arias and da capo giving expression to individual responses to the tumultuous events. That doesn't mean that there isn't a dramatic quality to the singing, or genuine collaboration between the singers, and you realise that when you hear a Mozart setting of just such a work. They each have a distinct personality, they each reflect various sides and responses to the drama, and bring it together into a satisfying whole.

The quality of Mozart's writing for the voice only comes out however when you have the right kind of voices in the roles. That's a challenge in itself when Midridate has roles written for two soprano castratos and an alto soprano. With female sopranos and a mezzo-soprano playing those as trouser roles, and light, sweet voices in the tenor and soprano roles, you can however match the qualities that Mozart puts into the music, and those qualities enhance the nature of the characters considerably. That's achieved here particularly well by the Tbilisi State Opera company with Sébastien Obrecht as Midridate and Irina Taboridze as Sifare, but it also provides the best possible environment for the lovely voice of Boram Lee to sing the challenging role of Aspasia. As the woman who comes between the king and his two sons, Sifare and Farnace, all of whom are in love with the same woman, it's a critical role to get right.

It's particularly critical that the right voices are behind these characters and able to express the turmoil it gives rise to because otherwise it would be hard to summon up much interest for the standard developments of the opera's plot. The singing here however supports and gives good expression to the qualities that are there within Mozart's wonderful music. It also helps that the score is conducted by Davit Kintsurashvili with attention to the rhythm of the action and played with a delightful brightness, verve and a completely authentic Mozartian buoyancy by the orchestra. Performed like this, the work can be enjoyed on a purely auditory level, or even on a dramatic-auditory level as it satisfyingly hits all the required points and sentiments.

With this kind of interpretation also, you can quite happily put up with the initial confusion and the latter couldn't-care-less-anyway manner of how the plot of Mitridate, Re di Ponto runs through its standard routines. In terms of the staging, there's not much you can do with the rigidity of the opera seria format either, but director David Sakvarelidze keeps the drama moving along with surprising fluidity. The set comes up with nothing more than the familiar generic ruins of antiquity, but good lighting and stage direction prevent the performance from ever feeling repetitive, static or overlong. Cutting the work down to around two hours might also have helped also in this respect. It might be no masterpiece, but this was an utterly delightful account of an underrated and under-performed (aren't they all?) early Mozart.

Links: ARTE ConcertArmel Opera Festival

Sunday 7 December 2014

Glass - Spuren der Verirrten - The Lost (Linz, 2013 - DVD)

Philip Glass - Spuren der Verirrten - The Lost

Landestheater Linz, 2013

Dennis Russell Davis, David Pountney, Bram de Beul, Sophy Ribrault, Jacques le Roux, Karen Robertson, Gotho Griesmeier, Martin Achrainer, Martha Hirshcmann, Matthaus Schmidlechner, Dominik Nekel, Elisabeth Bruer

Orange Mountain Music - DVD

The commission of a new opera by Philip Glass to open the new Landestheater at Linz in 2013 was a bold statement of intent. There would certainly have been a lot of expectation placed in the production and undoubtedly many different views about how to best achieve those aims (the Making of feature on this DVD recording of the World Premiere gives just a small indication of the challenges faced in the nerve-racking final days up to the premiere). It's doubtful however that the sprawling and largely incomprehensible Spuren der Verirrten would have been what anyone had in mind, but it has to be said that the work fulfils its remit perfectly and often impressively.

As you're dealing with a Peter Handke script as the origin for the libretto of Spuren der Verirrten (literally 'Footprints of the Lost'), I guess the question 'what is it about?' doesn't really apply. Or perhaps you don't need to look far beyond the title itself to grasp the essential theme of the work. It is indeed about the lost, and the opera takes a kaleidoscopic and somewhat abstract view of where we are as a society today, a lost society that has indeed just blindly followed in the footsteps of those lost before us. Act I broadly deals with a view of the here and now in an Austrian context (weather, borders and war are recurring motifs), with traditional dress worn and even a zither and Alpine horns played on-stage and included in the musical score. Act II draws in 'lost' figures from the Bible and mythology (Moses, Salome, Medea, Oedipus), while Act III attempts to resolve or at least come to an accommodation with the nature of being lost and just getting on with it.

On a more abstract or meta-conceptual level - and one that takes into account the creation of the opera itself as a commission to open a new theatre - you could also consider the theme of the Lost to be reflected in a group of abstract characters (they're only named A, B, C, D etc.) in search of a narrative. "We remain you and me, and me and you" says one lover to another in one of the sections and that is essentially it. That much we can say, but what else is true in the larger picture of where we fit into the world? Lost characters in search of a narrative does indeed reflect the question of art to find a broader sense of underlying meaning and context. "Who today is even worthy of a fate?" questions another character, "Time has become hollow and it has become impossible to play on the world stage" says another. By the end of the opera - one instigated by 'a member of the audience' taking to the stage - the chorus are in the orchestra pit and the orchestra are on the stage. Everyone is lost and we don't know what's going on, but look, isn't it still wonderful?, Spuren Der Verirrten seems to say.

Well yes actually, it is. While this kind of narrative can prove puzzling to an audience, it's perfect for the abstraction of music, and perfect for how Philip Glass traditionally approaches such material. Spuren der Verirrten is really no more abstract a piece than Einstein on the Beach, Glass unconstrained by narrative demands and writing music purely for the beauty of the theatrical experience alone. As such he's at his most lyrical, rhythmic and melodic here. It's almost like a 'Best of Philip Glass', with the flow of Einstein, the choral surges of Satyagraha, the swirling musical melodies of his Dance pieces and the pulsing narrative drive of Powaqqatsi (more so than Koyaanisqatsi). There's also something of The Voyage in the approach to a similar concept, and even some of the film soundtrack Glass of 'The Hours'. It's certainly a much more musically rich piece than the recent The Perfect American, but by the same token, it's not exactly anything new from this composer either.

The reason for the richness of melody and tempo is clearly a response to the variety of Spuren der Verirrten as a theatrical piece that incorporates a variety of short scenes, with occasional solo singing by characters who weave through the work, but more often as couples, and more often still in pure choral arrangements. It's dance however that is the dominant driving force of the work, both dramatically and musically. Connecting all these modes of expression and applying a narrative is partly down to the individual in the audience, but it's also a challenge for the director David Pountney to give a visual representation to abstract fragments of text, keep it flowing and make it all fit under one roof. The artistic, logistical and technical challenges are evident (and alluded to in the Making of feature on the DVD), but even though it inevitably looks a little cluttered in places, it does all come together remarkably well.

So, what's the point of it all?, you still might well ask. Well, getting back to the basics, the point is to put on a work at the Landestheater Linz that stands as a statement of intent, a commitment to the artform that puts everyone (not least the new theatre) through its paces and tests them to their limits. There is however a message of sorts at the conclusion of The Lost. "Being lost brings out the best in a person" and "leads to a fundamentally new beginning ...so they say". It's not an entirely convincing message, but in the context of the subject, it knows that there's no room for certainty. Philip Glass gives this expression the perfect accompaniment and provides Linz with a suitably grand, epic and ambitious work to open their new theatre.  It might not be great, but it's an impressive achievement nonetheless.

There is no High Definition Blu-ray release of Spuren Der Verirrten, but the dual-layer DVD is a perfectly good recording of the world premiere performance on 12th April 2013. The image quality is good, widescreen enhanced, and the audio track is Dolby Digital 5.0. The sound isn't studio quality perfect, and there is a fair amount of on-stage noise, but the recording, mixing and overall tone of the orchestral performance is fairly good.  The 'Making of' feature runs to 40 mins, with bilingual English and German subtitles. Subtitles are in English and German only.

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Lens - Shell Shock (La Monnaie, 2014 - Webcast)

Nicholas Lens - Shell Shock

La Monnaie - De Munt, 2014

Koen Kessels, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Claron McFadden, Sara Fulgoni, Gerald Thompson, Ed Lyon, Mark S. Doss, Gabriel Kuti, Eastman, Aimilios Arapoglou, Damien Jalet, Jason Kittelberger, Kazutomi Kozuki, Elias Lazaridis, Johnny Lloyd, Nemo Oeghoede, Shintaro Oue, Guro Nagelhus Schia, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Theo Lally, Gabriel Crozier

La Monnaie Web streaming - November 2014

La Monnaie in Brussels are in my view just about the most consistently impressive opera company in Europe at the moment and at the forefront of presenting opera as a cutting edge artform. Part of the reason for their success is their willingness to involve theatre directors and artists from outside the opera world, who often bring a new and refreshing perspective on the meaning and presentation of very familiar works, but the musical interpretation and the quality of the performers engaged is of a very high standard too. Their commitment to ensuring that opera remains a vital musical and dramatic force is also evident in their commissioning of exciting new creations every season. This year Shell Shock proved to be one of the most impressive new works I've seen for a very long time.

Characteristically, the strength of the work and the key to its success is in how La Monnaie have assembled a strong and imaginative creative team from a variety of disciplines.  As some of these collaborators have little or no previous experience of opera, they often have few preconceptions about what opera ought to be. For this work, commissioned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War, the Belgian composer Nicholas Lens (born in Ypres where the memory of the war remains fresh) was been paired with the Australian singer/songwriter and author Nick Cave, while the direction and staging of the work was placed in the hands of Belgian-Moroccan dance choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. The result is Shell Shock: A Requiem of War, A Dance Oratorio in Twelve Canti.

Evidently then, Shell Shock is not an opera in the traditional sense. It's part choral oratorio, it's part requiem mass, it's a ballet, it's a song cycle, but opera is a good enough description in how it encompasses and blends together these various musical and dramatic art disciplines. Made up of twelve separate cantos that describe the experience of the war from a variety of viewpoints (Canto of the Colonial Soldier, Canto of the Nurse, Canto of the Deserters, Canto of the Orphans etc.), there is however a strong thematic and even a narrative line that runs through the work, connecting the experiences. Even though there is little narrative dialogue within the canto format, the experiences being typically that of a single person or a group of people in a choral piece, there is nonetheless a vital dialogue established with the other elements. Not only is there a strong connection between the words and the music - as you would expect at the very least - but they form an meaningful dialogue and interact very much with the performers and dancers on the set, and with the various other theatrical stage devices, including the unconventional use of props, and projections.

This is an true operatic collaboration then in every sense of the word, where equal weight is given to each of the disciplines and they are informed, heightened and enhanced by their interaction with one another. Musically, Nicholas Lens draws on a variety of styles to match the content, some of it sounding like Vaughan-Williams in less pastoral more wartime music and, inevitably, closer to Britten's War Requiem. There is also a John Adams-like modern rhythmic quality in how the music is attuned to the sung English text, but without the minimalistic repetition. If it's difficult to pin down, the music nonetheless has a consistency and dramatic quality that works perfectly with the tone established by Nick Cave's texts. Unpretentiously called lyrics, they are indeed songs, Cave working to his strengths as a storyteller, expressing all the anger, exasperation, fear and horror of the conditions experienced by the soldiers, the nurses and the families of those caught up in nightmarish situations.

The connection between the words and the music is a strong combination that makes Shell Shock viable and deeply affecting as a concert piece in its own right, but Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's choreographed dances, movements and tableaux-like settings for the scenes really take the work to another level. The dances and movements manage to be strikingly beautiful without for a second glorifying the slaughter, without fitting the horror and confusion of the circumstances into any false sense of dramatic action, and without idealising the senselessness of the sacrifice. "War is reprehensible, not the man", is a line from the lengthy Canto of the Deserters section, but the theme is expanded on elsewhere, with lyrical and musical motifs referring to an Angel of Death and Kratos the God of War drawing together common experiences into a larger narrative.

Cherkaoui's dances, with Eastman leading the troupe, are also strikingly illustrative of these themes. It's a ballet of war where soldiers twitch with shell shock or contort as their bodies are disjointed, mutilated and torn apart by bullet fire and crawl over sandbags to form their own pile of corpse sandbags. The use of common objects found on the battlefield is employed imaginatively elsewhere, guns, bayonets and even stretchers flowing with the dancers into configurations that illustrate the stories and give expression beyond the literal. Bed sheets, for example, are used to capture charging soldiers, their faces and hands pressed against the canvas screen in a silent scream at the point of death. In combination with the music and the lyrics, it manages to be visually striking, expressive and horrific scene at the same time. Eugenio Szwarcer's projections and the stage lighting also come together with all the other elements to create further tableaux vivantes, or tableaux mortes if you can put it that way.

The singers are assigned various roles according to the Colonial Soldiers, Deserters, Survivors and Fallen of the Canti, some of them recurring throughout the opera as a whole. Essentially however, they are unnamed in the respect that each of them can fulfill multiple common designations within this war, and are identified only according to their singing role. The casting of a soprano (Claron McFadden), a mezzo-soprano (Sara Fulgoni), a countertenor (Gerald Thompson), a tenor (Ed Lyon) and a bass (Mark S. Doss) is clearly meant to be representative of the whole range of experiences covered here, but the choice of singers for those roles is also just about perfect. That's no coincidence either, several of these singers having worked with Lens before (Claron McFadden notably on Love Is The Only Master I'll Serve), but it's just another example of how La Monnaie strive for perfection on every level while stretching the capabilities of everyone to their limits. The results of this approach are evident to anyone viewing this remarkable work.

Links: La Monnaie, ARTE Concert