Thursday 29 January 2015

Monteverdi - Orfeo (Royal Opera House, 2015 - Webcast)

Claudio Monteverdi - Orfeo

Royal Opera House at The Roundhouse, 2015

Christopher Moulds, Michael Boyd, Gyula Orendt, Mary Bevan, Susanna Hurrell, Rachel Kelly, Callum Thorpe, James Platt, Susan Bickley, Anthony Gregory, Alexander Sprague, Christopher Lowrey

Royal Opera House Youtube - 21 January 2015

Monteverdi and the early Baroque composers believed that there were ancient precedents for setting drama to music, and their subjects were accordingly almost invariably those of Greek drama. If those views proved to be unfounded, the earliest proponents of this new art form at least discovered a highly expressive means of presenting the dramatic action, the personalities and the underlying themes. They invented opera.

Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (1609) is one of the first works that developed the music-drama into the form that is closest to what we are familiar with in the opera tradition of today, a fact that accounts for it still being performed regularly over 400 years later. Even long sections of accompanied recitative in L'Orfeo are melodic and wholly musical, flowing, expressive of the dramatic situations, sentiments and emotions of the characters involved. As a subject too, the musicianship of L'Orfeo is one worthy to act as a standard bearer for the artform, for the ingenuity and creativity of humans, for their ability to not only endure outrageous fortune, but emerge stronger from it and to create art from it.

Monteverdi was just the composer to exploit all the possibilities of the Orpheus myth. When Gluck set to work on a reformist agenda for opera some 150 years later, he too chose to work with the same myth, but stripped the work back to an exploration of human sentiments around grief, bereavement and coming through it in its forced happy ending. Monteverdi's version, benefitting from a beautifully poetic and incisive libretto, has a much wider range of human sentiments to work with. Where Gluck opens with a funeral, Monteverdi opens with a celebration of love, of nature, of marriage and community. It's more too than just working with mythology, or just a cautionary tale about the powers of the gods and the limitations of man. Monteverdi makes much of Orpheus as a musician, celebrating the power of music to elevate humanity and through it express their aspiration to approach divinity.

That's part of what Monteverdi's L'Orfeo is about, and it's part of what opera itself is all about. Monteverdi's work also recognises and takes advantage of the dramatic nature of this new artform and the possibilities this offers. L'Orfeo has a number of highly dramatic scenes that push human sentiments and endurance to its limits, and the staging needs to match and support the lengths to which these themes are developed. What greater way, and what more visually splendid way, than showing a man descend to the depths of Hades, negotiate with the god of the Underworld himself, and then later transcend to Heaven itself? That still needs to be exploited on the stage as much as in the music in any modern production and that's the challenge that Michael Boyd would have had to address for this Royal Opera House production at the Roundhouse.

The Roundhouse is an interesting venue for a Baroque opera, much more appropriate one feels than a large opera house. Or at least that's the impression given even when viewed via a web broadcast. Simplicity and intimacy is however also clearly the intent of the production design, in the smart modern-classical costumes and in the performances themselves. Avoiding the danger of being stiff and static in playing and delivery, it never feels like a stuffy Baroque work, but one that is in the here and now, dealing with real emotions and sentiments. It's achieved with a minimum of stage effects, Michael Boyd's direction allowing dancers to give a further sense of flow and momentum, as well as being representative of scenes in the Underworld. Some 'circus' acrobatic effects are used well however in those critical scenes that needs an extra bit of a 'lift'.

Performed in the round, the musicians also are not hidden in a pit, but are there in the background. If not a actual part of the production, it nonetheless contributes to the connection between the musicians and the drama, where some degree of improvisation and elaboration are a vital component. There is a more evident interaction between the voices and the individual in Baroque opera, with distinct instruments often being used to define and colour character. The arrangement here allows the tone and the quality of the period instruments to be fully expressed and heard, plucking harsh notes or beautiful string accompaniments that comes across well at least in the streamed broadcast, and I'm sure even more effectively live in the theatre.

As ever much in this work depends on the quality of the voices used, particularly for how Orpheus uses his voice to sway even the dark heart of Pluto with his music and singing. Casting of Orpheus can vary from the deeper Georg Nigl tenor to the light and lyrical John Mark Ainsley, but here we have baritone 
Gyula Orendt with a wonderful clarity and power in his expression that is undoubtedly enhanced by the venue and the arrangements. The key scene where Orfeo tries to persuade Pluto is one of the greatest moments in all opera - is practically the definition of opera, the power of human expression enveloped in music and the singing voice - and it's sung and staged spectacularly well here. Orfeo is well-matched with the clear enunciation and flowing ornamentation of Mary Bevan's Eurydice.

It's incredible that Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, four-hundred years old, and one of the earliest if not the very first opera, still stands as one of the greatest works and showcases for the artform. The Roundhouse production, testifying to the power of the work on just about every level of musicianship and stage craft, reminds you exactly why that is.

Links: YouTube, Roundhouse

Sunday 25 January 2015

Mozart - Don Giovanni (La Monnaie, 2014 - Webcast)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

La Monnaie - De Munt, 2014

Ludovic Morlot, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Jean-Sébastien Bou, Sir Willard White, Barbara Hannigan, Topi Lehtipuu, Rinat Shaham, Andreas Wolf, Jean-Luc Ballestra, Julie Mathevet

La Monnaie Internet Streaming - December 2014


What is both delightful and disappointing about Krzysztof Warlikowski's productions is that they can sometimes take away from a work as much as they give to it. In the case of La Monnaie's Don Giovanni for example, Warlikowski makes it feel fresh, modern and relevant to today rather than being merely a cautionary historical adventure story about a licentious noble. On the other hand, Mozart and Da Ponte's work is already perfect in itself, always giving, always revealing new dimensions and ever open to re-evaluation and reinterpretation. How far should you go in modernising a masterpiece if it risks corrupting what is inherently great about it?

Well, the answer is obvious for many people - leave Don Giovanni well alone and out of the hands of these Regietheater directors - but Warlikowsi is definitely onto something here. Don Giovanni's behaviour should shock a modern audience in the manner that it would have shocked an early 19th century audience, or if shock isn't that easy to come by on stage in the 21st century, it could at least aspire to be as edgy, challenging and contemporary as Steve McQueen's 2011 film 'Shame'. Other directors however have managed to find a way of getting this across the relevance of Mozart's Don Giovanni without having to stretch the credibility of the plot the way Warlkowski's does in attempting to fit it to another work in a different artform with different aims.

Warlikowski however isn't particularly concerned with dramatic naturalism, and since he's working in opera, there's no reason why he should be. He's not concerned that his mise-en-scène doesn't entirely match up with the letter of the libretto or that credibility is damaged when characters act out-of-character. It's not really staged with first-time opera goers in mind, the director, rather like Like Stefan Herheim's productions, assuming that the audience is familiar enough with this work to notice any discrepancies and think about why they are there. It's not entirely high-brow post-modernism either for the audience to be self-aware of the dramatic construct or for the characters to be aware of themselves playing roles. The central question at the heart of Don Giovanni is indeed one of innocence, manipulation and playing of roles, and those themes should still be evident to anyone.

Are the personalities of Don Giovanni really as naive as they seem or are they complicit to a greater or lesser degree in Don Giovanni's deception and self-deception? This isn't entirely a new idea, and it's often established in how Donna Anna behaves during the opening scene - is she raped or has she invited the seducer in? Is she aware of his identity or not? - but Warlikowski's production is indeed shocking in the way he presents it. As usual in a Warlikowski production, the tone is established by a movie prelude that sets out his premise. In this case, with a filmed prelude that almost shot-for-shot replicates the opening scene on the subway in Steve McQueen's 'Shame', the director clearly wants us to relate to Don Giovanni not as a heartless libertine, but in the modern context of an ordinary damaged individual whose only escape from himself is through his self-destructive and all-consuming sex-addiction.

We see another movie when the opera starts, and again, taking a scene from 'Shame], it's a soft-porn movie involving Don Giovanni in an orgy with two women. The film is watched off-stage from a box in the La Monnaie theatre by Don Giovanni and Donna Anna (alongside a glum Leporello), with the Commendatore and a female companion in the box opposite. Don Ottavio's early appearance at one point suggests that even he is not entirely an innocent party, but how much each of those involved know about the identity of Don Giovanni and how much they go along with his activities (which are proudly displayed on the screen for all to see, so they at least can't be unaware of his reputation) isn't entirely clear at this stage. Whether he tries to rape Donna Anna in the theatre box or whether she is willingly taking part in a sex game, the Commendatore thinks he's gone too far and suffers the consequences with a bullet through the head.

Well, if you didn't already know Warlikowski's work by reputation, you very quickly find out from this opening that he's not a director to pull any punches. The same uncompromising position is taken throughout, the settings and locations scarcely resembling those in the original, the lurid colourful lighting, strobing and glitterball lighting effects on shining modern surfaces not even the least bit naturalistic. Strange and sometimes semi-naked figures wander around, some of them part of Don Giovanni's retinue and some of them party-goers, others symbols or apparitions, the killing of the Commendatore evidently biting at his conscience and pushing him over the edge, but there is also a young girl with a skipping rope that it would appear to represent innocence. If La Monnaie's production doesn't quite hit all the necessary points, it seems to me however that it's less to do with Warlikowski's unconventional reading (although I'm sure many would dispute that assessment), and more to do with the musical interpretation.

Using a reduced orchestra but not period instruments, this doesn't sound like a familiar Don Giovanni either. The arrangements and instrumentation as conducted by Ludovic Morlot don't carry the dark tone that is required, but the rhythm that is such a part of Mozart isn't there either. Familiar arias can sound quite different here because of this, but that could also be as much to do with the type of singers cast here. It's not necessarily a bad thing to drop many of the mannerisms and conventions, particularly for a production that wants to cast a fresh eye over the work, but I'm not sure that it even supports Warlikowski's vision for the work. Acting is given prominence and that works to the advantage of the director's intentions, but it means we lose the power of the singing interpretation and delivery to get it across.

Some of the performers can make up for this. Barbara Hannigan, for example, is a little light and high in voice for Donna Anna, but she gives the performance everything (she never does anything less) in a wonderfully unhinged version of her character. Although Don Giovanni obviously remains the central figure of the work, it's Donna Anna who is the key to how he is treated in her pursuit of vengeance. Here, that's less for the murder of her father the Commendatore than from a twisted sex game on her behalf, in which she is just as manipulative and dangerous in her actions and relations with those who come into contact with her. Despite his fate here, Don Ottavio is no fool in this production. He knows that the truth is not so simple "How can I believe that a nobleman could be guilty of so black a crime!" and, as sung by Topi Lehtipuu, his "Dalla sua pace" consequently has an undercurrent of suspicion for Donna Anna's state of mind. He knows what he is dealing with and pays the price, much as Don Giovanni does.

There's a similar commitment to the interpretation from Jean-Sébastien Bou's Don Giovanni, and little of the usual swagger. Although the film 'Shame' is used to suggest a modern response to Don Giovanni's 'condition', it's not over-emphasised elsewhere, but left to Bou to give you pause for thought over culpability and the guilt that drives him to madness, and he does it well. Some of the other performances don't get the balance of acting and singing quite as successfully. Rinat Shaham's Donna Elvira makes a stronger impression than most, and although clearly stretched, she sings the role well, but her character is a little more difficult to fathom. Overall, it's definitely a case of taking with one hand and giving with another in La Monnaie's production, and while you don't take from Mozart lightly, there's still much to admire in Warlikowski's approach that makes you think about the sheer wilful perversity of a work that should indeed inspire such a strong reaction.

La Monnaie's Don Giovanni can be viewed streaming until 27 January from the links below.  The next streaming productions from La Monnaie are Handel's ALCINA and TAMERLANO from 18 Feb to 10 March. 

Links: La Monnaie, RTBF Musiq3

Tuesday 20 January 2015

Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Wiener Staatsoper, 2015 - Webcast)

Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Wiener Staatsoper, 2015

Peter Schneider, David McVicar, Iréne Theorin, Peter Seiffert, Albert Dohmen, Tomasz Konieczny, Petra Lang, Gabriel Bermúdez, Carlos Osuna, Il Hong, Jason Bridges

Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 18 January 2015

If due attention is paid to the music itself, Tristan und Isolde is a work that can withstand just about any kind of stage production. Even in the case of a particularly outlandish concept - Marthaler's Bayreuth production being one of the strangest I've seen, but Bill Viola's is also unique - the nature of Wagner's music and its thematic core cannot be steered off its course. There's not a whole lot of room for re-interpretation here, but it still needs performers of considerable ability to get across the full impact of a work that was once deemed impossible to play. Musically and in terms of stage direction, the Vienna State Opera's revival of David McVicar's production, plays it closely by the book, giving full consideration to the actual beauty of the composition as an expression of its themes.

Primarily, I find with David McVicar that mood is the most important consideration. He always strives to establish that right from the outset, even if that means straying a little from the period or tradition. That's of vital importance in a work like Tristan und Isolde. Without adding unnecessary layers or jarring anachronisms, McVicar's production of Tristan und Isolde is fairly simple, stripped back and notionally representational, but it recognises the use and the strength of symbolism in the work and finds a way to convey that according to the libretto, the stage directions and the music itself.

Act I is fairly straightforward, the journey clearly on a ship and at sea, even if the ship is skeletal and of a reduced size for a crossing of the Irish Sea. There would appear to be some contradiction between the silver moonlit scene and the blood red moon, but that's not inappropriate in a work that lies well outside the laws of nature and where symbolism is prevalent. The moon with its gravitational forces as a symbol of passion of the flame of love that burns brightly between Tristan and Isolde, is clearly indicated by the ebb and flow of their encounters and their transcendence interruptus, the fire almost extinguishing at Tristan's lowest moment during the false sighting of Isolde's ship on Kareol. It inevitably burns brightest, glowing red, expanding to almost fill the sky, during the Liebestod.

Elsewhere, the predominant mood established by the production is that of darkness, Night being the other expression of the inverted nature of Tristan and Isolde's forbidden love, forbidden in that its fire is too all-consuming. Their love calls out for darkness, for the extinguishing of the day, for the extinguishing of life even. All three acts take place in near-darkness, lit only by the moon and by fires. It's Act II, where Tristan and Isolde attempt to express the nature of their condition and find that the meaning of words is unable to encompass the contradictory nature of that love, that McVicar turns a little more to abstraction, with a pointed tower on a stage of broken steps, crowned by a weaved circle of thorned wire. Whether you read religious significance into this, spirituality or transcendence, it at least represents the beauty and the terrible nature of their forbidden journey.

The simple abstractions and colours of the stage production reflect the majestic beauty and mystery of the score itself. Peter Schneider's handling of the score and direction of the orchestra could hardly be faulted. It was a rousing performance, measured and stirring, finding and presenting the extraordinary romantic surges in the score, holding back and letting the music assert its own power. Occasionally it's a little too cautious, the beginning of the Liebestod for example slowed down to let Irène Theorin take a gradual build-up that doesn't explode into soaring rapture as much as rest on soft and sweetly acceptance. It matches McVicar's directions for this scene, which has the moon swell and fall below the horizon, the rest of the world vanishing as Isolde calmly exits the stage without succumbing/transcending herself in the traditional manner. While he makes a mark there, and in Tristan pulling himself onto Melot's sword, elsewhere the stage directions are very closely followed.

The ideals that Isolde and Tristan represent are almost impossible to embody in flesh-and-blood singers. One of the greatest Isoldes of recent times is the incomparable Waltraud Meier, but since her retirement from that role Irène Theorin is one of only a few serious contenders, and she made a good case for Isolde here in Vienna. It's a stronger or perhaps more controlled performance than the previous Bayreuth one I've seen. Naturalism is not a consideration here, Isolde swinging between being alternately enraged and quickly composed, and Theorin glides between the ebb and flow of these two states with ease, vocally as well as dramatically. It's perhaps not as enraptured and soaring an Isolde as one might like, but that's fitted to the tone of the production here, and having seen her Elektra, she could well be capable of taking the passions in this role to other places.

Peter Seiffert is, alongside Robert Dean Smith, in demand as a Tristan when singers with the capability to sing such a role are thin on the ground in any generation. Neither of those heldentenors is perfect, but the ideal is close to impossible in any case. There are a few slight wobbles from Seiffert, much as when I saw him sing the role in Berlin a few months ago, but not many. It's a fine, committed performance here overall, working well with Theorin in the duets of Act II, strong, firm and expressive in the demanding and exhausting third act. Albert Dohmen's King Marke was smooth with a sorrowful gravity; Tomasz Konieczny's Kurwenal not always perfect but he was enthusiastically warmly received at the curtain call by the Vienna audience; Petra Lang a little stretched as Brangäne, but the ensemble overall was good for this production, fully getting across the necessary impact of this Wagner masterpiece on the screen, and all the more so I imagine in the house itself.

The Wiener Staatsoper's Live at Home in HD season continues in January with productions of SALOME on 23 Jan and THE QUEEN OF SPADES on 28 Jan. February broadcasts include SIMON BOCCANEGRA, TOSCA, ANDREA CHÉNIER and an EDITA GRUBEROVA gala concert. There are details of how to view these productions in the links below.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video

Wednesday 14 January 2015

Verdi - Rigoletto (Wiener Staatsoper, 2014 - ORF2 TV)

Giuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Wiener Staatsoper, 2014

Myung-Whun Chung, Pierre Audi, Piotr Beczala, Simon Keenlyside, Paolo Rumetz, Erin Morley, Ryan Speedo Green, Elena Maximova, Donna Ellen, Sorin Coliban, Mihail Dogotari, James Kryshak, Marcus Pelz, Lydia Rathkolb, Hila Fahima

ORF2 TV - 20 December 2014

Rigoletto is a cruel little opera. It's hard to tell whether it's genuinely cynical about love and family or whether, as the title of Victor Hugo's original work 'Le roi s'amuse' suggests, it's critical of how the nobility run roughshod over the ordinary citizen in their pursuit of self-interest. What can probably be said with a little more certainty is that the author at least intentionally exploits the sentiment and poignancy of his characters by putting them through moments of intense cruelty just to heighten the melodrama to make readers and audiences gasp. Whatever the original intentions might have been, Verdi's in his first great masterpiece where he firmly makes his own personal mark of genius upon the rigid format of the traditional opera template, recognises the full value of each moment, each situation and each character, and plays one off against the other with incredible skill.

Verdi of course does this, and in doing so advances upon the number opera format, by composing Rigoletto as a series of duets that use the same opposition of lofty ideals with cruel reality. The Duke sees it all as fun while Monterone suffers the abuse of his authority; Rigoletto believes himself a wit who strikes with the word, but he's prepared to consider the more satisfying immediacy of Sparafucile's sword; Rigoletto tries to spare his daughter Gilda from the harsh reality of the world, and in so doing leaves her naivety to be exploited so cruelly by the 'vil razza dannata' whose bidding he serves. Even the Duke's idea of the deal that has been struck between himself and Sparafucile's 'sister' differs from the reality of their transaction, although even this is twisted away in turn from what Rigoletto believes to be the case. The outcome, fate, or the curse that afflicts them would seem to be particularly cruel in this respect towards those with the most to lose.

In itself however, Verdi's music has no moral outlook on the different views and expresses no cynicism towards the characters, or at least he treats each of them with equanimity. He gives Gilda a sensitive and heartfelt aria in 'Caro nome' - even as we know the true nature of her beloved - and views the Duke's nature in 'Questa o quella' and 'La donna è mobile' not from an objective outside view, but as the Duke sees himself, as a cheeky and loveable rogue. At the same time, Verdi recognises the dark side of the nature of man and that simmers in the background throughout the heightened conflict of ideals, building in each act of the opera, finding full expression at the conclusions of each of those acts, and each of those acts in turn further increasing the stakes upon the previous one. It's masterful composition.

As the opera's tone darkens however towards the pitch black Act III, it becomes harder to reconcile those opposing views that lean towards melodrama, but Verdi still does it. Gilda's sacrifice in Act III would make no sense where it not for Verdi's music having indicated and convinced the listener to her innocence, nobility and purity throughout. It's not so much that this naivety is exploited, as far as Verdi is concerned, for the sake of torrid melodrama, as much as it is necessary to believe in some kind of redemption in such a dark world. This makes all the difference, and it's what also makes Rigoletto greater as an opera in comparison to the unmitigated darkness of earlier works like I Due Foscari, where the humanity is buried too deeply in the bleakness of the situations and the fates of the characters.

A production of Rigoletto ideally has to find a similar balance if it is to match Verdi's intentions, although there's no reason why a director can't put emphasis elsewhere, should it suit the purposes of the production. Verdi's art is not so restrictive that it doesn't allow other interpretations to work and be fully expressed. Pierre Audi's production - not terribly well received at its December 2014 première in Vienna - doesn't make a big deal of the period or the location, but is rather very much about setting mood. A revolving stage depicts the Duke's palace in golden hues of faded and peeling glitter and Rigoletto's residence as grey and shabby place, which probably reflects the reality that underlies the character of the owners of these respective places. The space that lies between them is a barren area of broken trees, but the skull-like ramshackle construction of the inn also goes some way towards expressing the increasing intensity of Verdi's score in the third Act. 'I see hell itself' says Gilda at the inn, and this at least looks like it.

All of this gives an impression of a fairly sordid world, one where innocence couldn't possibly exist, and as such one in which Gilda's sacrifice is all the more starkly contrasted. An additional directorial touch shows Monterone being executed in the barren wasteland, making his curse - la maledizone - that is such an important theme in the work, all the more vivid and terrible to Rigoletto. Myung-Whun Chung's measured conducting of the work however doesn't gel all that well with the production design and the directing. He tends to work on a slower-paced build-up in the duets that takes much of the pace and ferocity out of them, but the marks are hit at all the critical junctures, most notably in Gilda's entrance to the inn during the storm. There is no lack of impact from either the staging or the pit at the conclusion, which suggests that everything up to getting there has been successfully put in place as well.

Principally in Rigoletto however, it's the voices that matter most in establishing individual character, and getting that right can make all the difference, particularly in how those roles play off one another in the duets. As essential as the Duke and Gilda are - and they are well performed here by Piotr Beczala's Pirates of the Caribbean-styled Duke and a determined knowing-her-own-mind Gilda in Erin Morley - Rigoletto is evidently central to nearly all those duets, his arrogance over the importance of his position as the Duke's fool, his fear of the curse and his over-protectiveness of Gilda preventing him from being able to stand up and make the necessary clear-headed decisions that are needed to survive in the ruthless court of the Duke. The Vienna production's Rigoletto was superbly cast in Simon Keenlyside to bring such characteristics out, but the première performance nonetheless ran into some unexpected problems.

Visibly unwell in the first act of the première Keenlyside's voice failed him and, according to reports, he was forced to withdraw following Act II's Cortigiani on the first night and was replaced by Paolo Rumetz for the remainder of the performance. Although this would have been broadcast live to TV and cinemas on the 20th Dec, the version I viewed on ORF's catch-up service on the 24th Dec showed Rumetz singing the whole of Act II and III. Keenlyside's Act I performance was retained however, without the footage of him breaking down in Act II, so presumably the complete Act II was inserted from the subsequent performance on the 23rd. Even though ill, there's enough here to see how different a performance this Rigoletto would have been with Keenlyside in the title role.

Act I shows a much more robust, distinctive performance, with Keenlyside's usual attention to character detail, expressing genuine feeling with an absence of the more 'operatic' mannerisms that can be found in Rumetz's version. On full form, Keenlyside's interaction with the cast in the remaining acts would undoubted have lifted this production significantly in how he plays off Beczala and Morley (reports have said as much about a blistering Act II duet with Gilda before his voice broke down). As it is, Rumetz is more than capable in the role, and considering the circumstances, even outstanding in taking over the role mid-performance. Only Elena Maximova seemed completely miscast and lost as Maddalena - strong enough as part of the quartet, but when singing solo her weakness in delivery and diction were very apparent. Keenlyside returned at the curtain call and was applauded, but despite the predictable booing in some sections for Audi's production team, this was a valiant effort that just unfortunately ran into some unavoidable problems.

Sunday 11 January 2015

Verdi - Don Carlo (Turin, 2013 - Blu-ray)

Giuseppe Verdi - Don Carlo

Teatro Regio di Torino, 2013

Gianandrea Noseda, Hugo de Ana, Ramón Vargas, Svetlana Kasyan, Ildar Abdrazakov, Ludovic Tézier, Daniela Barcellona, Marco Spotti, Sonia Ciani, Luca Casalin

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The familiar Verdi themes of love versus duty, loyalty and betrayal, the abuse of power versus individual liberty, fathers against sons, all spiced up with a good bit of melodrama are all there in Don Carlo, and taken to even greater heights than in any of composer's previous works or even his subsequent later masterpieces. It was undoubtedly the challenge of taking on all those themes from Friedrich Schiller's drama that attracted Verdi out of semi-retirement, and at this stage late in his career the composer's ability to present a more mature, nuanced account of entwined personal and political ambitions is astonishing. It's as if all the previous works have been pulled together into one great work that bears all the might and brilliance of Verdi at his best.

First presented in Paris in French as a five-act grand opera, the challenging length and nature of the work meant that it would undergo several further revisions, but in whichever version it's presented, Don Carlos or Don Carlo remains one of Verdi's greatest works and one of the most impressive spectacles in all of opera. Each version however also brings with it considerable challenges as far as staging and casting. The 2013 Teatro Regio di Torino production of the 1884 four-act version of the Italian Don Carlo is impressive enough on spectacle and in the manner in which it presents the themes of the work, but the music and singing are not quite up to task here.

The choice of the 1884 version obviously has an impact on the direction the production takes. Gone is the whole of the original Act I, where Carlo first meets and immediately falls in love with his promised bride Elisabeth of Valois in the gardens of Fontainebleau. It's not uncommon for significant prior events to be omitted in an opera (even if the jarring introduction successfully remains in Verdi's previous opera La Forza del Destino), but in this case, the whole tone of Don Carlo is coloured by the exigencies of state that no sooner introduce the happy young couple than tear them apart in order for Carlo's father Philip II to marry Elisabeth himself. Opening with Carlo and Rodrigo shifts the emphasis from love story to brotherhood, family and duty, but with Verdi's ability to tie it into Schiller's mix of politics and religion, this is still highly charged drama.

This tone comes through most successfully in the Turin production, particularly in this version, which opens with a funeral and an apparition rather than the romantic encounter of the five-act version of the work. The monumental size of the sets, the stone pillars, the religious backdrops, the formality and richness of the costume designs, all contribute to a sense of deeply serious intrigue and dark drama, which is how Don Carlo ought to appear. Everything about the production design here gives that impression of grandeur and intensity of purpose that matches Verdi's vision. The stage direction and choreography are good - a little theatrical, but not stagey, it plays to the dramatic nature of the work itself. As a spectacle it's marvellous, looking every inch the ultimate expression of complete opera, which in many ways Don Carlo is.

While the epic scope is all there on the stage, the level of nuance and psychological probing that needs to be expressed through the playing and the singing just doesn't live up to the exceptional demands of Verdi's score here in the Turin production. Don Carlo is a heavy work, it's dark and oppressive, but even so Gianandrea Noseda's management of the pace and tone of the work is quite leaden, never finding the light and shade that is there also. Even within the dark palette of the work, there are deeper undercurrents and themes, complex characterisation and different facets to each of the personalities in their public and private faces, that interplays with one another and impacts upon the outcome of the drama.

To cite just one example at a key point in the opera, the revelation of the nature of his marriage to Elisabeth followed by Philip II's meeting with the Grand Inquisitor contains a wealth of suggestion and implication. Verdi's score switches between the personal and royal, between political and religious in a way that deepens the sentiments and raises the stakes, but it also brings in and makes you aware of the off-stage characters, of the implications this scene will have in determining the fate of both Carlo and Rodrigo and for how it will impact on Elisabeth, not to mention the wider state of the world. There's a lot demanded of all the singers then, but despite the fact that the cast here is an exceptionally good one, it's hard to feel that any of them are right for the roles, or at least the roles as they are defined in this production.

Ildar Abdrazakov comes out best, his singing capable, controlled and authoritative as Philip II. Ramón Vargas' voice however has lost some of the former force and that's needed for Carlo. He's at his best alongside Ludovic Tézier's Rodgrigo, forming the close brotherhood that is at the heart of this version of the opera, but neither performer is able to bring any range or subtlety to the characterisation that is required elsewhere. Elisabeth is much too big a role for Svetlana Kasyan, and - other than her heart-wrenching cry that closes the work so dramatically - her wavering pitch rarely matches the force of the sentiments that are expressed. Even the wonderful Daniela Barcellona is pushed by the excessive demands of this work, but her Pincess Eboli at least hits all the points of the lovestruck woman's rejection turning to jealous fury and then regret, agony and self-loathing. Even if they are unable to get across the full measure of Verdi's brilliance, the Turin production is still impressive, and you are never in doubt that this is one of the greatest creations in all opera.

The production looks stunning in High Definition on the Blu-ray release, the image crystal clear, the sets looking impressive with bold colouration and strong contrasts. The singers are not wearing radio mics so it can be a little echoing, but there's a rich dark tone to the orchestration that is warm and enveloping, with good presence in the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix. There's a deep low-frequency boom on the surround mix which has most impact during the Grand Inquisitor scene. The only extra feature on the disc is a Cast Gallery, but there's an essay on the creation of the work and a synopsis in the booklet. Subtitles are in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Thursday 8 January 2015

Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito (Paris, 2014 - Webcast)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito 

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, 2014

Jérémie Rhorer, Denis Podalydès, Kurt Steit, Karina Gauvin, Julie Fuchs, Kate Lindsey, Julie Boulianne, Robert Gleadow

ARTE Concert - 18 December 2014

There are a few unusual features introduced by actor and director Denis Podalydès into this production of La Clemenza di Tito at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris. One is that you actually get to see and hear Berenice, the Queen rejected by Titus at the start of the opera. The second feature used by Podalydès is the setting of the work in France in the late 1930s-1940s during the time of the Occupation. It would seem doubtful that either of these elements have anything to add to Mozart's final opera or even whether Mozart's opera can help illuminate a significant period in modern French history, but there is unquestionably a vibrancy and an edge to this production that we rarely see in Mozart's late opera seria.

The inclusion of Berenice, the opening scene featuring an actress performing a scene from Racine's drama, is a bit of an actorly theatrical indulgence, but it's not entirely without merit. Berenice has an important part to play in what unfolds during the reign of Titus during this period as it is detailed in Metastasio's libretto, so it does serve some purpose to put a face to the name. The setting during the Occupation is never made explicit, but the period costumes and setting in the presidential suites of a large hotel do suggest that the rule of Titus is being compared to the running of the Vichy government during the war, otherwise why set it there at all?

I'm not sure that's a valid or helpful analogy to establish the nature of Titus' predicaments in La Clemenza di Tito - though it does provide some amusing ideas imagining Sextus as a Resistance fighter operating from within the regime. What it undoubtedly brings to the work however is a very distinct character, style and setting that has some concrete reality, and not the generic antiquity designs or the abstract symbols of power that usually characterise productions of this work. It looks stunning, but more than that, it enlivens and gives character to a difficult opera seria work where most of the action takes place off-stage, with the protagonists usually agonising over developments in long da capo arias.

In this Théâtre des Champs Elysées production, Podalydès rarely lets a character stand alone on the stage and sing these arias out to the audience. He fills the rooms of this elegant, wood-panelled apartment suite with government officials and administrators. All of them are smartly dressed in 1940s' suits designed by Christian Lacroix (the female characters perhaps not quite so elegantly fitted). There's always the bustle of people coming and going, giving a sense of real political activity going on, of events spiralling out of control behind the scenes. More than the inclusion of Berenice or the Occupation setting, what Podalydès really brings to La Clemenza di Tito is a sense of drama.

For a usually static opera seria, that's a useful attribute to have, and in the end it's the conviction of the acting and singing performances that really carry the inner drive of the work. The opening monologue prepares you for a completely theatrical experience (or, as it is filmed for the live broadcast - in widescreen - a near-cinematic experience) that simmers with tension and aching passions. La Clemenza di Tito rarely feels as dramatic as this, but it's through no fault of the work itself. It's all there in the music if the director is willing and imaginative enough to interpret it, and Podalydès does it very well indeed in collaboration with Jérémie Rhorer.

That suits Kurt Streit, who in a radio interview for the France Musique radio broadcast of this production, refers to himself as an actor first and a singer after that. In a production like this he is in his element, but he also has the right kind of voice for Titus. He's not as strong this time, but that light lyrical timbre is gorgeous. The right voices are also there in Julie Fuchs' sweet, delicate Servilia, Julie Boulianne's firm of purpose Annius and Robert Gleadow's grave Publius. Mostly however, it's Karina Gauvin who takes the acting credits as Vitellia, and she's powerful in the singing stakes as well. There's no caricature or stock opera seria characterisation here, Gauvin's Vitellia coming across genuinely like a woman scorned and vengeful, completely dominating the stage whenever she's on it.

Equally impressive is Kate Lindsey's Sextus, making this one formidable power couple! It's a committed and a nuanced performance, carrying real emotion and feeling. Combining impeccable technique and a flowing legato with real character insight, Lindsey transforms 'Deh per questo istante solo' into something truly remarkable, running through all the conflict of Sesto's position, and an almost ecstatic acceptance or controlled abandonment to the unenviable hand that fate has dealt him, a traitor at the mercy of a powerful ruler.

This ruler, Titus however is not like other rulers, he has 'un altro cor'. This production also has another heart, and it's that of Mozart, the qualities of each of the characters embodied in the music he has written for them. The musical performance of the work is not as showy as it can be, Jérémie Rhorer's conducting of the reduced period instrumentation of Le Cercle de l’Harmonie ensemble, restrained, simple and elegant, but it suits the nature of the opera seria, it supports the dramatic situation and it allows the singers the freedom to express the nature of the characters themselves. Whether the curiosities of the staging helped this or not, Denis Podalydès' production for the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris got to the the heart of La Clemenza di Tito.

Links: ARTE ConcertThéâtre des Champs Elysées

Wednesday 7 January 2015

Mozart - Die Zauberflote (Wiener Staatsoper, 2014 - Webcast)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Weiner Staatsoper, 2014

Adam Fischer, Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier, Benjamin Bruns, Markus Werba, Thomas Ebenstein, Franz-Josef Selig, Iride Martinez, Olga Bezsmertna, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Benedikt Kobel, Regine Hangler, Ulrike Helzel, Carole Wilson, Annika Gerhards, Marian Talaba, Janusz Monarcha

Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 4 January 2015

There are many ways to play Die Zauberflöte and different types of emphasis you can place on each of the different aspects and rich themes of the work. It can be playful or esoteric, dark or light, grand, ritualistic and ceremonial, or an all-out comedy that delights in the absurd situations and characters. Ideally, of course, a production should incorporate all of the above, but it helps if it settles for a consistent tone or purpose. Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's production for the Vienna State Opera does fit in a bit of everything, even if it is a little messy about it, but it's overall purpose is more difficult to determine.

In my experience, you can almost always get an idea of the tone of a production of Die Zauberflöte by looking at how the Three Ladies are dressed. (It's true, you can try this at home by looking at the production photos of any Die Zauberflöte). In this case it's a bit mix and match, an assortment of formal dress, ballroom glitter, gypsy chic and pantomime dame, with no uniformity even between the ladies themselves. The same applies to non-period specific dress the rest of the cast wear, with Tamino in Turkish pants and a hooded sweatshirt, Pamina in a prom dress, and Papageno at least looking traditionally bird-creature like. It's not that I'm trying (or likely) to get a job as a fashion writer, but by the end there does seem to be some significance to the use of costumes to the overall purpose that Leiser and Caurier have adopted here for the work.

The directors' view of Die Zauberflöte seems to be based on the notion of its childlike view of the world. There are mysterious forces at work that as a child we aren't entirely able to make sense of. The behaviours and deeper motivations at work between mother and father (Königen der Nacht and Sarastro) aren't easy to determine, there are dangers all around, rites of passage that have to be navigated and arduous tasks and seem to serve no useful purpose. At the end of the trials in this production however, Tamino and Pamina haven gained wisdom and knowledge and emerge dressed in smart business suits ready for the adult world outside. Papageno, of course, by refusing to accept the demands of  adulthood, doesn't change and retains his childhood innocence and ignorance.

That doesn't sound like it's entirely in the spirit of Mozart and Schikaneder's original intentions for this magical adventure. If Mozart was certainly aiming to show that knowledge and enlightenment is better than ignorance and superstition, it wasn't with the intention of moulding people into conformity as corporate drones in suits. I don't know for certain, but that might not entirely be the end of the story in this production. Leiser and Caurier, in their all encompassing view of the work, do seem to give due consideration and acknowledgement to one of the most important elements of the work, one reflected in the title itself. Die Zauberflöte celebrates music in all its forms, from popular melodies to grand ceremonial and sacred pieces, and through music we can perhaps still get back in touch with the mystic, with the magical, with childhood.

Or perhaps I'm being over-generous. There is a lack of consistency to the production and an absence of the sense of otherworldly wonder that you would associate with much of Die Zauberflöte. On the other hand, the familiar set-pieces are at least often given a different spin, do relate to the content and the themes and even raise a wry smile now and again. The serpent first appears as a shadow before its decapitated remains fall onto the stage; the Queen of the Night makes a suitably impressive entrance, as well as a good exit in Act II with chairs flying in her wake; Monostatos and his "Polizei" sprout tutus when they encounter Papageno and his magic bells; and there's even a fun collection of wild animals dancing to Tamino's magic flute. You'll even find glowing pyramids in profusion in Sarastro's kingdom, so the production isn't devoid of traditional symbols and imagery.

The real quality of Die Zauberflöte, and where the work really comes to life, is in the colour that Mozart injects into the music, and in the colour of the characters themselves. This is where the absurd story gains true meaning and magic - which, as I say, I think the director's acknowledge - but it's not entirely borne out by the rather rote and colourless musical and singing performances here in Vienna. Conducted by Adam Fischer, the music is beautifully played, but it's a full orchestration and not period instruments. It comes across then as rather homogeneous, lacking character and conviction for the variety of tones in this opera, never exciting, never stirring, driven or even as playful as it might be. The pace is also rather leaden, draining the energy out of pieces like Pamina and Pagageno's duet and almost dragging 'In diesen heiligen Hallen' to a grinding halt.

The performers try hard to find a way to work between the music and the stage direction, but - with the exception of Thomas Ebenstein's energetic Monostatos - they don't manage to bring any additional edge or colour to the production. The singing can hardly be faulted, Benjamin Bruns a capable Tamino, Olga Bezsmertna a lyrical Pamina and Markus Werba a bright Papageno, but the performances come across as somewhat rote, over-familiar and unengaging, with little real personality injected into the them. On the musical theme of the work, Tamino says that every note he plays on his magical flute "stems from the heart". Music from the heart is what you get from Mozart too, and that's where the magic in Die Zauberflöte lies, but there was little sense of it here.

This performance of Die Zauberflöte was streamed for live broadcast via the Wiener Staatsoper's Live at Home streaming service. The next broadcast is David McVicar's production of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE on 18th Jan, while Richard Strauss's SALOME can be seen on 23rd Jan.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video