Saturday 28 February 2015

Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer (Royal Opera House, 2015 - Cinema Live)

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer
Royal Opera House, 2015

Andris Nelsons, Tim Albery, Bryn Terfel, Adrianne Pieczonka, Michael König, Peter Rose, Ed Lyon, Catherine Wyn-Rogers

Royal Opera House, Live Cinema Season - 24 February 2015

Wagner's operas are notoriously difficult to stage. Leaving aside the unique issues associated with putting on a Ring cycle, even the one-act version of Der fliegende Holländer presents its own challenges. And they are not just technical considerations. Although there might not appear to be much room for a director to manoeuvre a particular reading or concept into an account of ghost ships sailing on the seas, you'd be surprised at how the underlying themes can and have been developed. But do they really get to the heart of what Wagner intended to put across?

Tim Alberry's production for the Royal Opera House's production doesn't attempt anything too ambitious, unless you think that getting right back to the essentials of the work is ambitious, and I suppose when you're talking about Wagner, that might well be true. As tempting as it is to see Wagner himself at the centre of Der fliegende Holländer (his exile, his money problems, his belief in love and sacrifice) and as tempting as it is to apply these issues to modern-day concerns (globalisation, commerce, imperialism, asylum-seeking) - the most important thing about the work is the work itself. And I think even Wagner was aware of that in the first opera where he successfully found his own individual voice.

The Royal Opera House production, without getting too literal, period or traditional in terms of stage directions, makes a good case for Der fliegende Holländer working best when you simply let Wagner take over, when you let the orchestration and the singing carry the full weight and import of the score. The set and the staging don't work against this, nor do they attempt to enhance the impact or effects that can be achieved by the revolutionary score alone. The production design simply provides the necessary platform for all the mood, all the force, all the yearning, all the drama that is in the score itself to be expressed to its fullest extent. Even viewing the performance on screen in a live broadcast - I can only imagine what it must have felt like live - this was a spine-tingling production that just seemed to set Wagner's first true masterwork wide open.

And in the process, the ROH production reveals that spine-tingling is exactly what Der fliegende Holländer ought to be. That might not be revelatory, but the impact that Wagner is aiming for can sometimes get lost in the concept. There's no need to think too hard about it. It's a ghost story, a legend, a story of huge romantic passions. It's certainly informed by Wagner's own personal experiences, his own sensibility and beliefs, as well as by his extraordinary ability to translate those ideas into musical terms. The rush and the roar of those wild seas, the sweeping overwhelming passions, is all there in the music and expressed in Wagner's new approach to the flow of through composition in the music and in the singing. The impact is all the more effective in the one-act version, and the ROH production sustains that enveloping mood extraordinarily well in the staging, but even more so in the all-important musical performance.

The music is the largely left to work its own magic in the overture, and that's spine-tinglingly good on its own - but when it works hand-in-hand with the production, it's all the more effective. The main set - which only changes significantly for Act II's scene in the sewing factory - is a long bowed hull of a ship, with thick ropes and dripping water pooling at the front of the stage. It's chilling enough on its own and effective to support the haunting melodies that have been established in the overture and the Steersman's lament, but the musical motif announcing the arrival of the Dutchman's ship drops the temperature further. All it needs is a huge shadow to cross the set to match the enormity of the ship and the enormity of the intent and passions that lie within it. The set, along with Andris Nelson's wondrous management of the ROH orchestra, gives this impression of vast, mythological forces, and the trick of any production of Der fliegende Holländer as a music-drama is to harness those forces and get them across in human terms.

That's mainly a challenge for the singers, and I've rarely heard one that has been as consistently good across every single role - not forgetting the vital impact of the chorus either. Bryn Terfel certainly carried the world-weary demeanour of the Dutchman well, but the other facets of his personality were also well-characterised. A sense of hope struggling against near-desperation gives him a dangerous allure in his scenes with Daland, but his uncertainty and vulnerability in relation to love and the possibility of Senta failing him is all there too. It's there as much in the singing as the acting performance, and if there are one or two places where the full intensity isn't sustained (Tyrfel had withdrawn from an earlier performance, so might not have been on full form here), it's no less a strong, near-definitive performance.

Just how good the opera can be is shown when you have a Dutchman like this matched against a Senta like Adrianne Pieczonka. Not for a second does her performance waver from her character's dangerous obsession, but the depth of that obsession also extends to the depths of Senta's feelings for this lost man, making it warm and supremely human. It requires none of the shock impact of a grandstanding sacrificial death, the loss of the Dutchman's trust is enough to destroy her here. You really get a sense of that in her performance, which is outstanding on every level. If Michael König's Erik lacked a similar depth, it's only on account of his character's nature being dwarfed by those of Senta and the Dutchman. Peter Rose, announced as suffering a cold, nonetheless sang beautifully and lyrically with great sensitivity as Daland. Ed Lyon made a great impression as a luxuriously warm Steersman, and Catherine Wyn-Rogers was a fine Mary.

The singing was clearly in capable hands, but everything needs to work along with it and revival Daniel Dooner clearly had a good handle on Tim Albery's original stage directions, bringing it together to work as a whole. The importance of the chorus cannot be underestimated, particularly for the intensity they bring to the confrontation between the sailors, their wives and the Dutchman's crew and the Royal Opera Chorus brought this out with rising intensity. The man who really had to bring it all together was Andris Nelsons, and really with every side playing to the top of their game on a such a work as Der fliegende Holländer, that's a huge responsibility. It was more than just a question of marshalling the pace, rhythm and energy of Wagner's score however, and more than just working to the strengths of the singers. Nelsons also captured that spine-tingling edge to Wagner's mythological storytelling, and that indeed was revelatory of where the true greatness and character of the work lies.

Thursday 26 February 2015

Nicolai - The Merry Wives of Windsor (Liège, 2015 - Webcast)


Otto Nicolai - Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor

Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège, 2015

Christian Zacharias, David Hermann, Franz Hawlata, Anneke Luyten, Werner Van Mechelen, Sabina Willeit, Laurent Kubla, Davide Giusti, Sophie Junker, Stefan Cifolelli, Patrick Delcour, Sébastien Dutrieux, Patrick Mignon

Culturebox, - 5 February 2015

You wouldn't think that works on the lighter side of the opera/operetta spectrum would need much in the way of revision and updating for a modern audience, but it's a policy that has worked relatively well for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège over the last few seasons. Not so much perhaps for Offenbach's La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein last year which turned a military satire into a cookery game-show to no great effect, but it's the sense of fun, playfulness and ingenuity that often counts in such works and if a little tweaking here and there can help bring rare Rossini, Grétry and Offenbach to the stage, then it's well worth the attempt.

Such is the case with Otto Nicolai's Singspiel, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, a comic operetta based on Shakespeare's 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'. The Liège production takes place in suburbia in the present or sometime in the late-twentieth century, but there's not really much of an issue in terms of updating the period. The essence of Shakespeare's comedy is timeless, although it helps if, like Mozart's comedies - and this is quite reminiscent of one - it can remain in a little more of an 'innocent age' than the present day. What is more of an issue in presenting this particular work to a modern audience is, again like some of Mozart's comedies, the question of how to deal with all that spoken dialogue.

David Hermann's production deals with this very well this time. It abandons practically all of the original spoken passages that lead from one aria to the next and replaces it with a new concept entirely. After each scene, various members of the drama are interviewed (in French) on a couch by a psychiatrist, Dr. Cajus. More of a marriage counsellor than a psychiatrist perhaps, Frau Fluth (Alice Ford), for example, reveals to the doctor her plans to use John Falstaff's declaration to arouse the jealousy of her husband, as well as get one over on the arrogance of the man who has written the same letter to Frau Reich (Meg Page). Herr Fluth likewise confesses his anxieties on the couch, his paranoia about Falstaff being his wife's lover and his inability to catch him, taking his complex to nightmarish proportions.

This allows the opera to reduce the spoken exposition and find a new way of getting the underlying sentiments across to an audience while perhaps also poking a little fun at the tendency of Regietheater to open up the hood and examine the nuts and bolts that hold an opera together, as well as psychoanalytically delving into the motivations and psychologies of the characters. Is Sir John a figment of the character's imagination, invented to act out their own impulses, or is he real, as Cajus insists? There's always the risk of being a bit too clever for your own good in such a production, but the trick is not to stretch the work too far away from what makes it funny in the first place. A comic operetta might not seem like it can bear up to such examination, but this one is after all based on a Shakespeare drama.

You get a sense that the director knows exactly what makes The Merry Wives of Windsor tick, and it's Sir John Falstaff. He also recognises that in terms of the singing roles in Nicolai's drama, Falstaff doesn't really get top billing, but is more of a catalyst character than a principal one, one who by the conclusion here is indeed the "Lord of Misrule". The real drama however is going on in the marriage of Frau and Herr Fluth and in the young love of Anna Reich (Anne Page) and Fenton, with the other characters offering opportunities for additional comic routines and complications. Only Verdi, and only in the maturity of his final opera Falstaff, is really capable of tackling the magnificence of one of Shakespeare's greatest creations.

Otto Nicolai needs a little help in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the director helps him out by, counter-intuitively it seems, actually keeping Falstaff off the stage as much as possible to preserve the enigma. It's almost as if Falstaff is too big for the stage - which in more ways than one, he sort of is. In Act I, where Frau Fluth takes her flirtations a little further than you might expect, Sir John remains enigmatically behind the veil of the four-poster bed. He's not so big however that he needs to be hidden in a linen basket, but in this version - whether he really is an invention of the characters' imaginations or some other reason (health and safety maybe?) - he's carried off in a small vase. Likewise Act II's drinking songs here become a multitude of Falstaffs in the nightmare of Herr Fluth, but by Act III he gradually starts to take on a physical form and, at the same, becomes almost mythological.

Inevitably some ideas in the production work better than others. The production could do with a little more dialogue to pad out the drama, but that's hardly the main concern in Nicolai's Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor. The music is lovely, and that's what you really want to hear, not a lot of dialogue. The psychiatrist concept at least keeps the opera playful and concise and proves to be a reasonably good way of eliminating all those pages of German spoken text. Despite having a concept built around him not appearing often on the stage, Franz Hawlata does get across the larger-than-life nature of Falstaff across, particularly in the final Act, but it's Anneke Luyten's Frau Fluth that keeps the performance light, witty and vibrant. Christian Zacharias conducting and a terrific performance from the Wallonie-Liège orchestra ensures that the work positively sparkles.

Links:, Culturebox

Tuesday 24 February 2015

Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor (Genoa, 2015 - Webcast)

Gaetano Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor

Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova - 2015

Giampaolo Bisanti, Dario Argento, Desirée Rancatore, Gianluca Terranova, Stefano Antonucci, Giovanni Battista Parodi, Alessandro Fantoni, Marina Ogii, Enrico Cossutta, Fabiola Di Blasi

Teatro San Felice Web Streaming - 21 February 2015

Although I'm not really familiar with his film work, I wouldn't have put the director Dario Argento down as a traditionalist as far as opera direction goes. And yet, there no question that his Lucia di Lammermoor for the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa is very much period in design and conventional in its adherence to the original stage directions. With one or two exceptions, there's little here that you wouldn't have seen in a production of this opera thirty years ago, but it's in those exceptions that we get a little of the personal touch of Dario Argento, without evidently taking it too far into extremes.

Let's not forget that Dario Argento is famous for his giallo thrillers - big gothic melodramas with much nudity and blood (to point out only the superficial characteristics of his films), so in that respect at least the Italian filmmaker's style is perfect for a torrid bel canto melodrama like Lucia di Lammermoor that is always verging on the edge of madness and eventually topples over into full-blown murderous insanity. So it's not surprising that the set cries out Gothic right from the start, with a night-time exterior of huge crumbling tower of Lammermoor castle and dead trees all silhouetted by a crescent moon. All that is missing is the rolling Scottish mists.

It's completely the way you expect Lucia di Lammermoor to look, and it's certainly functional for the stage directions, but there's little sign of any distinct character or directorial input at this stage. Costumes are mid-19th century (Donizetti period?) rather than 16th century, the ladies in flowing robes, the lords and gentlemen in greatcoats and hats that are at least heavy enough for the Scottish winter weather. Familiarity with the opera - or even the nature of the mood established - means that we know however that there's going to be madness, murder and blood to come, and you can expect Argento to make a little more of that. And you can probably count on some nudity as well...

...and indeed, the first sign that this wouldn't be a staging from 30 or 40 years ago comes in Act I when a pale, naked corpse arises out of the fountain during Lucia's recounting of the ghost story. It might be characteristic of the director - and there is more to come - but it's still hardly a radical reworking of Sir Walter Scott's drama. It's not as adventurous, for example, as updating the work to Kennedy-era USA, as in the production of Lucia di Lammermoor currently running in parallel in Munich. On the other hand, it's undoubtedly the ghost-story horror elements of the original work that appeal to Argento, so why not just let them work on their own terms, with perhaps just a little directorial emphasis?

And indeed, the naked woman is just such an indication of the director's intentions. She's more than just an apparition, she's more or less the personification of the madness that is already manifesting itself in Lucia's mind. Being forced into a marriage with Arturo for family and political reasons when she is in love with Edgardo, a hated rival to her family, this pressure just adds to Lucia's already fragile state. Mourning her dead mother, weighed down by sorrow and a deathly fear that grips her, you could even say that death stalks Lucia. Argento's direction certainly highlights that and it's clear that it's only going to take one final push to topple her over the edge. Madness and murder are sure to follow.

The naked ghost significantly makes an appearance again at the start of Act II, standing in for Lucia's appearance and palor, but she doesn't appear in Act III. She's perhaps not needed in the final Act, as by that stage Lucia is in full-blown madness, and Argento and the work itself have other characteristic ways of expressing that state. The obvious familiar one is Lucia's 'mad scene', where it's left to the soprano to express her derangement in improvised coloratura while covered in blood. It wouldn't be like Dario Argento however to let a murder take place off-stage, and consequently Lucia's brutal stabbing of Arturo takes place in a lightning-flash backstage reveal of their room during the wedding celebrations.

There's no question that this has all the desired impact and that it assists a role that Desirée Rancatore is stretched to fill. For the larger part of the work, Rancatore sings well - she has dramatic drive in her voice and a fine lyrical timbre, but she is pushed somewhat by the high notes and is unimaginative in the coloratura. As one of the most famous and challenging scenes in all opera, there are however few sopranos who can really make something of this nowadays. Whether her acting is up to it either or whether she just isn't given the necessary direction here, I couldn't say, but Argento's direction doesn't give the performers much to do but walk-on, stand and sing. The Wolf's Crag scene, for example, between Edgardo and Enrico is static and utterly lifeless, although admittedly that's an extreme example, an add-on while the set is prepared for the wedding scene.

Elsewhere the singing is good. Gianluca Terranova is outstanding as Edgardo, a classic Italian tenor with a strong lyrical, clear tone. Stefano Antonucci is mostly solid, authoritative and authoritarian as Enrico, although the voice is not always as lyrical and occasionally you notice the lack of musical and dramatic expression. Giovanni Battista Parodi - due to sing the role in later dates, but standing in for an indisposed Orlin Anastassov - also gave a good performance as Raimondo. The orchestra was conducted with genuine Romantic fervour by Giampaolo Bisanti, stirring up all the dramatic tension, yet full-bloodedly lyrical. Full-blooded is what you expect from Lucia di Lammermoor, and Argento - despite a small smattering of boos from the audience at the curtain call - certainly brought enough of that to the Genoa stage.

Another live streaming of Dario Argento's production of Lucia di Lammermoor, with the alternate cast, can be viewed on 28th February on the Teatro Carlo Felice website.

Links: Teatro Carlo Felice Streaming

Thursday 19 February 2015

Bellini - I Capuleti e i Montecchi (La Fenice, 2015 - Webcast)

Vincenzo Bellini - I Capuleti e i Montecchi

Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 2015

Omer Meir Wellber, Arnaud Bernard, Jessica Pratt, Sonia Ganassi, Shalva Mukeria, Rubén Amoretti, Luca Dall’Amico

Culturebox Internet Streaming - 18 January 2015


The greatest love story ever written, Bellini's version of 'Romeo and Juliet' is perhaps not the greatest opera ever written, but it was the composer's first great success and is a work that can be seen as clearly leading the way towards La Sonnambula, Norma and I Puritani. As is often the case with the less well-regarded works of bel canto, I Capuleti e i Montecchi can however be transformed into something greater with the right production and the right leading lady. The new production in Venice, bringing the work back to where it was first performed in 1830, is perhaps nothing special, but it's good enough to support a terrific performance from one of the greatest bel canto singers in the world at the moment, the young Australian soprano Jessica Pratt.

There are considerable differences between 'Romeo and Juliet' and I Capuleti e i Montecchi, and most of them can be put down to librettist Felice Romani working not from Shakespeare's original drama but an 1818 Italian version of the drama written by Luigi Scevola, which he had already been adapted for Nicola Vaccai's 1825 opera Giulietta e Romeo. Much is inevitably cut for concision, losing many of the secondary characters and situations, and even a few of the big ones. Before the opera starts, Romeo has already inadvertently killed Juliet's brother in a conflict between the rival families of the Capuleti and the Montecchi, and even the families have been drawn back to their original political divisions of Ghibellines and Guelphs.

None of this is any kind of a hindrance to the essence of the central romantic drama between Romeo and Giulietta, although there are evidently differences in the development of their relationship and in how the tragic events unfold. The rivalry that makes their love impossible is still there between the opposing families or political factions, and that provides opportunities for plenty of tense, dramatic choral pieces. It would help the opera if Romeo and Giulietta can have a few good duets and arias to air their troubles, and those are well catered for in Bellini's fine settings of Romani's libretto. It all culminates in a dramatic scene where Giulietta 'dies' just as she is about to be married against her will to Tebaldo, but there are also opportunities for Romeo and Giulietta to see each other die in a way that can be reflected in emotional outbursts of singing to add even greater emphasis to the tragedy.

Arnaud Bernard's production for La Fenice responds well to the situations and gives the performers the right context to deliver on Bellini's settings, but it doesn't really have anything significant to add to the work. As a co-production with Athens and Verona, it undoubtedly has to work for each venue and can't be too adventurous (not that Verona can't be adventurous if there's still spectacle involved as in their La Fura dels Baus Aida), but really, this I Capuleti e i Montecchi is to all intents and purposes a period production. It uses the now familiar framework of paintings in a gallery coming to life, but unlike say Alvis Hermanis' Il Trovatore, which can be seen to be about storytelling and history, it doesn't seem to have any real conceptual purpose.

Visually however, it looks well and suits the basic dramatic purposes the work. At the start, on the rise of a curtain, the Capuleti come alive and surge out of a large painting that has been stored in the basement or workshop of a museum. If you see it as nothing more than La Fenice bringing an old master out of the archives and Bellini's music still being capable of invigorating it with life, then it makes its point, albeit not a particularly original one. In the main, other than one or two modern gallery art restorers and transportation staff moving things around, and a few freeze-frames of the action settling back into picture poses, the production gets away with just being a period costume drama.

What is perhaps more important as far as direction goes, is that it allows all the drama and romance to work within this concept and it gives the necessary space for Romeo and Juliet to do their stuff. If that's means that their final moments take place on a workshop table in a museum basement rather than on a bier in a period Veronese location then it's really of little consequence. It works just as well because Romeo and Juliet are singing like their very lives depend on it. And in essence, that's the strength of I Capuleti e i Montecchi. It was written to be brought to life by a great soprano and a great mezzo-soprano, which means that it was written, as far as we're concerned, for Jessica Pratt and Sonia Ganassi. And, forsooth, if they don't indeed make it their own...

Jessica Pratt is, quite simply, phenomenal. And that's not the first time I've said that about one of her performances. She excels as a lyric soprano in bel canto roles, and if she doesn't quite have the force for more dramatic roles, she can nonetheless translate the coloratura of a Rossini, Bellini or a Donizetti heroine into a thoroughly dramatic performance. And not just in the high-end coloratura, but with great technical ability and control, she demonstrates that just as much can be expressed with intensity in softer, more intimate scenes. Pratt is a convincing actress too, looking the part in her flowing locks and plunging gowns, even if the demands of this role hardly extend beyond traditional romantic opera heroine swoons and gestures.

Sonia Ganassi doesn't quite have the same glamour in the mezzo-soprano trouser role of Romeo, but she has a vital part to play and proves to be more than capable for the vocal and dramatic challenges of the role, and gives an impressive performance, working well with Jessica Pratt. Those are the roles that really matter here, but there were good performances also from Luca Dall’Amico as Lorenzo (Friar Laurence), Shalva Mukeria as Tebaldo and Rubén Amoretti as Giulietta's father Capellio. Omer Meir Wellber conducted the orchestra of La Fenice with a good balance between the lyrical content and the dramatic edge to Bellini's music.

Links: Culturebox, Teatro La Fenice

Tuesday 17 February 2015

Tchaikovsky - Iolanta / Bartók - Duke Bluebeard's Castle (Met, 2015 - Live in HD)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Iolanta
Béla Bartók - Duke Bluebeard's Castle


The Metropolitan Opera, 2015

Valery Gergiev, Mariusz Treliński, Anna Netrebko, Piotr Beczala, Aleksei Markov, Ilya Bannik, Elchin Azizov, Nadja Michael, Mikhail Petrenko

The Met Live in HD - 14 February 2015

Whether by accident or design, the Met's Live in HD Valentine's Day broadcast featured two one-act operas that explored two different sides of love, one where love is bathed in light, the other shrouded in darkness. I guess if the programming was by design it might not have been a little more predictable and you might have expected Gonoud's Romeo et Juliette or - at a stretch - Tristan und Isolde. The pairing of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta, never before performed at the Met, with Bartók's challenging Duke Bluebeard's Castle was much more ambitious, and with a fine musical and production team in place, it was an impressive indication of what the Met can achieve when they really make the best use of the resources and talent available to them.

There are some obvious superficial connections between the two works - both are fairy-tales and both involve a female protagonist who must overcome a domineering male figure in order to achieve fulfilment in her love life. In the interal interview during the live cinema broadcast, director Mariusz Treliński proposed a further connection that helped him link the two works, seeing Judith in Duke Bluebeard's Castle as a grown-up version of Iolanta from Tchaikovsky's opera. That doesn't really come across in any obvious attempt to suggest that they are the same person, but there's no doubt that by looking at it that way, it allows some themes in the first work to be explored in greater depth in the second.

The director uses all means at his disposal to try to tease out the underlying metaphors of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta. Or at least he seems to, but it becomes clear by the time we get to the Bartók work that he has left quite a bit in reserve for the deeper exploration of the more overt psychological-probing of Duke Bluebeard's Castle. For Iolanta, the world of the blind girl is beautifully realised, her bedroom a revolving open-box set within a dark wood, with occasional projections, sometimes symbolic (a faun skipping through the woods), sometimes abstract. Significantly, when Iolanta can't tell a red rose from a white rose, those projections are entirely black and white.

This is significant in a number of respects, since much of Iolanta is about perception. Iolanta's blindness is a metaphor for not seeing the outside world as it really is, being caught up in her own inner world and an idealisation of love. Her blindness, we also discover, cannot be cured unless she wants to see for herself. Of course, in Iolanta's case, that not necessarily the young girl's fault, as she has been isolated and protected from the outside world by her father King René to the extent that she isn't even aware that she is blind. The fairy-tale is not without its dark side - what proper fairy-tale isn't? - but the resolution is pretty much black and white, the light of her love for Vaudémont allowing her to see and accept the world and the people around her for who they really are.

There are no such black and white matters in Béla Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, and no pretense of the story being anything but a metaphorical exploration of female psychology and dark sexual desires. The menacing voice-over narration at the start tells us that it is the inner world that we are delving into here. And, in a way, it is true that Judith is a more grown-up version of Iolanta. The innocence is gone, and Judith goes to live with her new husband Duke Bluebeard despite his fearsome reputation for his treatment of young women, even more drawn to the darker aspects of his masculinity than the idealistic light of love. Judith is however simultaneously attracted and appalled by the dark recesses that she discovers in Duke Bluebeard's 'castle'.

Judith, more mature than Iolanta (Perrault's fairy-tale also more open about the dark impulses that underpin such stories) believes she can handle the truth now. She wants to leave no door unopened as far as her husband is concerned, but is horrified by the visions of what is revealed as she is given the key to unlock each of the rooms. Despite the warnings of never going near that darkest, locked seventh room - the secret of Bluebeard's sex life in his relationships with his previous wives - Judith can't help but curiously probe into things she would be better off not knowing about. She discovers more than she wants to know and the knowledge cannot be unlearnt. She too is trapped in Bluebeard's castle.

In line with the more psychological probing and the darker outcome of the second tale, Bartók's 20th century musical language for Bluebeard is also far away from Tchaikovsky's fairy-tale music, far more ambiguous and unsettling. As far as director Mariusz Treliński is concerned about the relative impressions that each work evokes, it's as different as black-and-white to colour. All the richness of Tchaikovsky's music is there in the setting for Iolanta but the tones and brightness are pure, but Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle requires a much more complex range of colours and effects. This is impressively achieved for a one-act opera, Boris Kudlička's set designs sliding into place, working with the lighting and projections to evoke a distinct quality for each of Bluebeard's rooms, as well as for the symbolic nature of what they represent.

This is extraordinarily ambitious, and - particularly in the handling of Duke Bluebeard's Castle - I've never seen anything quite like it at the Met. Conceptually, as a whole, it all works remarkably well, the pairing of the two works allowing one to feed off the other. Whether one gains more than another from the contrast and juxtaposition doesn't matter - it will be different for every individual viewer how they respond to each of the works - but it undoubtedly allows the viewer to see both works in a new light. That's undoubtedly a lot to do with the direction here which really probes the situations and the characters, but there is complete interaction between all aspects of the production, between the creative team and the performers which is just as vital to its success.

Aside from the challenges of the stage design, it's Valery Gergiev who has to take the orchestra from Tchaikovsky to Bartók and find commonality between the works or at least make them complementary. Like Treliński, he finds the fairy-tale aspect of the stories as a basis to work with, contrasting the shimmering otherworldliness of Tchaikovsky's score - with which the Russian conductor clearly feels an affinity - with the harder-edged factured realities of Bartók's music. Both works also benefit from contrasting but equally committed performances from Anna Netrebko as Iolanta and Nadja Michael as Judith. Michael can be wildly variable depending on the role she is playing, but here in her Met debut role, she was highly impressive. With Mikhail Petrenko an outstanding Bluebeard, Iolanta was almost put into the shade by the duo in the second work. Ilya Bannik however give a strong performance as King René in Iolanta, but I found the reliable Piotyr Beczala a little bland here this time.

Links: The Met Live in HD

Thursday 12 February 2015

Verdi - Simon Boccanegra (Wiener Staatsoper, 2015 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - Simon Boccanegra

Wiener Staatsoper, 2015

Philippe Auguin, Peter Stein, Leo Nucci, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Stefano Secco, Barbara Frittoli, Marco Caria, Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Marian Talaba, Arina Holecek

Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 1 February 2015

The Vienna State Opera production of Simon Boccanegra initially looks fairly low-key, minimal, using basic sets and period costumes, holding faithful to a mostly traditional representation of the work. I say that like it's a bad thing, but nowadays it often can be, unless there is a certain ironical distance involved. The right approach however can be make-or-break when it comes to plots in Verdi operas, and the narrative of Simon Boccanegra is, to be frank, a bit creaky and a strain on credibility. There is another way to make Simon Boccanegra 'work' however, one that hopefully won't go out of fashion like an Otto Schenk or a Franco Zeffirelli production. Having good singers.

Simon Boccanegra is not a Verdi opera that I've seen performed often, and never having seen one that was totally convincing, it's not one that I would ever thought ranks with his best. The Vienna State Opera's production proves otherwise. Simon Boccanegra, it would appear needs good singers more than it needs good direction or modernisation. And the Wiener Staatsoper's 2014 production, broadcast live over the internet via their bold Live in HD programme, fortunately has both. With Leo Nucci as Simon Boccanegra and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco you don't get much better in the big Verdi baritone and bass roles than that. With that kind of backbone, the opening prelude scene of Simon Boccanegra can be every bit as dramatic as Verdi scored it, and - as it sets the tone for what it to follow - it needs to be.

What you can also observe from the direction and production design of the opening scene is that it doesn't disorient the audience with any bold concept, the meeting between the two rivals taking place on a fairly basic representation of a dark square in Genoa. It's difficult enough to establish the family rivalry, the relationships between the two men and the whole political plotting around the election of Boccanegra as the next Doge of Genoa, but it is essential that you do, as this is the key to the events that take place in the main part of the opera 25 years later. Letting the prelude rest on the performances, the charisma and ability of these two singers works partly because these are powerful personalities and should appear to be, but also because both Nucci and Furlanetto bring real sensitivity and depth of expression to their singing of these roles.

Much of this is of course down to how Verdi has written the roles, the composer at this stage demonstrating in his mature works greater nuance for character detail and expression. The quality of the libretto isn't quite up to the same standard and the plot is reliant on many of the old melodramatic contrivances, but when you place great singers in these roles, you can see how it can be made to work, you can see what Verdi will be capable of when he does have libretti worthy of his ability in Don Carlo, in Falstaff and Otello, and it's impressive. Having let the skill of Verdi, Nucci and Furlanetto established the tone of the work from the outset, and given it more credibility that it perhaps merits, the director is able to introduce other elements to support and expand on the work in the subsequent acts, underling its meaning and significance.

How this is done is quite remarkable in its simplicity. The impression that is given in the prelude is that of a dark and shadowy past, and that's an impression that carries through and has influence 25 years later. The staging, we discover when we are introduced to Amelia in the present, isn't strictly traditional either. The costumes remain period, but Act I looks more Robert Wilson minimalist, with a bright pale blue background, and characters wearing rather more stylised white costumes. There's no strange movements or geometric symbolism here (I can't really imagine Simon Boccanegra done full-out Wilson-fashion), but there's an elegance here that speaks of youth, innocence, beauty and hopes that are about to be dashed by that dark past that hangs over the whole work. Act II then brings together all those conflicts and passions in a dark circular room with open lighted doors, a simple table, a goblet for poison and a dramatic red curtain.

In that respect the staging is perfect for how Verdi skilfully packages the themes of the work together. Every now and then we are reminded in the music of those dark undertones established at the opening, the composer bundling them all together in each heated situation that ramps up the emotions, but at the same time gives the plot increasing dignity, depth and credibility. It never feels like the old-style of number opera composition, particularly if it's handled sensitively by the conductor. Simon Boccanegra is not blood-and-thunder Verdi. It's much more subtle than that, requiring a balance between character and drama, and Philippe Auguin manages to balance that well, which is difficult in this work. When it's done right, and when it works hand-in-hand with the staging and the singers however, the impact it has on this opera is revelatory.

Leo Nucci might be getting older, but he still carries Boccanegra and many Verdi baritone roles better than anyone else in the world today. As a weakened Doge, destroyed as much from within as from his enemies, it's a role that suits Nucci well. You could say much the same about Feruccio Furlanetto being the pre-eminent Verdi bass singer in the world today. His technical control and timbre is just gorgeous, but his phrasing also reveals little details of character and a wonderful understanding of the importance of Fiesco's role to the work as a whole. As important as Nucci and Furlanetto are to Simon Boccanegra, there's balance and dynamism required in the roles of Amelia and Gabriel, and that is also superbly achieved. Stefano Secco in particular is impressive as Gabriel, giving one of the best performances on the night. Barbara Frittoli isn't perfect - the role of Amelia is a challenging one for the soprano - but the dramatic intensity of her performance counts almost as much here.

The revelation of Simon Boccanegra, in the hands of Verdi and brought out by a good production and singers, is that the themes are more important than the plot. It's about the past catching up with the present, about the actions taken in the past having resonance and very real consequences in the future. It's about wasted years, years dragged down by old enmities, misunderstandings and waiting for vengeance, of parents failing their children, of leaders failing their people. Much of that is carried by the rivalry between Boccanegra and Fiesco, and unless you really have exceptional performers in those roles, you don't get it fully across. To be honest, I've never really realised just how important that is until this production. The greatness of Verdi operas is Verdi, and that more than anything else is what is all there in Simon Boccanegra.  And this is a glorious production of that work.

The Wiener Staatsoper's Live at Home in HD season continues in February with broadcasts of ANDREA CHÉNIER, DON CARLO and an EDITA GRUBEROVA gala concert.  Details of how to view these productions in the links below.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video

Monday 9 February 2015

Strauss - Salome (NI Opera, 2015 - Belfast)

Richard Strauss - Salome

NI Opera, 2015

Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Giselle Allen, Michael Colvin, Robert Hayward, Heather Shipp, Adrian Dwyer, Carolyn Dobbin, Paul Curievici, Nick Sales, David Lynn, Conor Breen, Cormac Lawlor, Brendan Collins, Padraic Rowan, Rory Musgrave, Hayley Chilvers

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 6 & 8 February 2015

The Grand Opera House in Belfast has never seen anything like it. Oh, I'm sure it has seen its fair share of Oscar Wilde plays, theatrical violence and gore, and even a little bit of nudity on occasion, but almost certainly never together. It's in opera terms however that Salome is a new experience for audiences at the Grand Opera House. The Belfast opera-goer has - in my experience at least over the last 25 years - never been subjected to an opera as intense, shocking and set to a production challenging to both delicate and not-so-delicate sensibilities as last weekend's Salome. That's testament to the ability of Strauss's opera to still have such an impact over 100 years after it was written, but it's also an indication of how NI Opera has been steadily upping the dose of less common but vital works to wean the audience away from the relatively safe fare of Mozart and the Italian bel canto repertoire.

It's ironic in this respect that the two most challenging opera works to appear on the stage of the Grand Opera House under NI Opera's brief term of office, have been adaptations of Oscar Wilde plays - Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest and Strauss's Salome. Who would have thought that Oscar Wilde's gently amusing late-Victorian domestic dramas could still be the source of so much shock and subversion? What both operas have in common is the ability to translate the genuine transgressive and subversive challenges to conventional social, family and sexual mores of Wilde's period into a more modern context where they still have impact and relevance. The relative rarity of performances of Wilde's dramas perhaps indicates that the nature of opera, with its timeless musical language, seems to be better placed to present Wilde on the stage nowadays than traditional theatre.

Particularly when you see it done in a performance like this. The key towards representing Richard Strauss's Salome on the stage has always been that of preserving the essential mood. Strauss's score (a challenge in itself) represents the florid decadence and dark sensual undercurrents of Wilde's play to perfection - and takes it further - but there's a risk of losing some of the seething Oriental lusts and the subversive religious flavour of the work if it is taken out of its Biblical context. I personally haven't seen any production of Salome that has risked straying too far from its original setting, so it's surprising and very daring of Oliver Mears to do so for a Belfast audience by setting it in what looks like the protected and security monitored estate of a drug baron or corrupt wealthy businessman in the deep American south.

What is more surprising is not only does the work lose not a fraction of its dark intensity, but by divorcing the work from its Biblical setting it actually reveals much more of the intent and hidden meaning of Oscar Wilde's original play. Which, it seems, when performed as well as it is here, can only enhance what Strauss brings to the work musically. A lot of the reason for it being quite so powerful, it has to be said, has to do with the performance of the Ulster Orchestra, its numbers boosted here to take on Strauss's huge orchestral arrangements, as well as the impressive direction of Nicholas Chalmers to channel and deliver those forces at the appropriate points with subtle but devastating impact. Even though Belfast received its first ever staging of a Wagner opera last year (The Flying Dutchman), it has rarely witnessed musical forces wielded so powerfully in a fully staged opera as in these two NI Opera performances of Salome.

And when I say fully-staged, that is vital to the impact of any opera, particularly when the music, the staging and the performance work hand-in-hand. If the revealing of a dark underbelly of American society with suggestions of abuse and incestuous relationships within the family unit inevitably brings to mind the films of David Lynch, director Oliver Mears nonetheless carefully avoids the Krzysztof Warlikowski route of direct movie cross-over references. Likewise, Mears wisely sidesteps any local religious context, even if NI Opera are not afraid to risk the wrath of religious fundamentalists in the province with their last-minute announcement of a "content change" to introduce a dancer appearing nude for ten seconds into the production. While that didn't produce any serious controversy this time, it did result in predictable outrage from a few rent-a-quote extremists, clearly unfamiliar with the work, unable to recognise the irony of accusations of introducing 'sensuality' into a Biblical story that centres on the Dance of the Seven Veils. In any event it would turn out that there was nothing in any dance that could be as controversial as a fully-clothed blood-soaked Salome writhing on top of the decapitated head of John the Baptist at the finale.

There were nonetheless a few murmurs of surprise from the outset when the curtain rose on Friday night to reveal a near full-sized house with a roof, on the heavily guarded and high-fenced compound. In the house, a rather sleazy-looking bulging-waisted, balding Herod with his wife Herodias, dressed in a jump suit and heels like a character out of Dallas or Dynasty, preside over a rowdy dinner party. Guarding a yellow cistern, from which the booming voice of the prophet emanates, stand a nervous group of guards wearing cowboy hats, some stripped to the waist, carrying rifles. Seen through a large window, the seediness of the dining room setting, where a pawed-over and harassed Salome looks wistfully out at the moon, is characterised brilliantly by the boorish behaviour of Herod's Jewish guests. As they settle down to watch a projected porno movie after the meal, outside the house Salome pours her lustful thoughts out to the frightful masculinity and shocking pronouncements of the imprisoned prophet Jokanaan.

What this brings out is not so much any imposition of modern sensibilities onto old Biblical material - although that is a valid aim, and one that does update the relevance of the play - as much as bring you right back to the source material and consider what Wilde was saying about the hypocrisy of society and religion, repression of illicit sexual desires, and the corrupting influence of dysfunctional family life. By making you think about how that relates to Wilde's own secret life and how that comes out in his works ("Each man kills the thing he loves..."), it's not so much taking the work back to Victorian times, as much as doing exactly what Strauss does with his musical interpretation of the work. It's delving far beneath the surface drama - as torrid, violent and twisted as it is - to the darker places that those repressed human impulses arise from. Salome oversteps the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable (by anyone's standards - but all the more so here for effect), and as such, she must die, condemned by the hypocritical authorities.

It was amazingly premonitory and daring of Wilde to write like this - right before his conviction for 'unconventional' sexual practices and his death soon after. NI Opera's setting of the work, Mears direction, and particularly the performances, explore all the facets and the resonances of the source, and bring it out meaningfully and magnificently without having to make any direct references. Salome ought to be shocking, still ought to take your breath away in its approach to its subject matter, and musically it should pretty much hammer you into submission, and that is entirely the impact achieved in the NI Opera production. To do that, it also needs singers of ability and sheer nerve to not only take on the challenges represented by the characters, but even to surpass the content and rise over the vast orchestral surges and cacophonic flourishes that make these characters and their dark desires convincing and horribly compelling.

As Salome, Belfast soprano Giselle Allen demonstrated why she is also a big name on the international opera circuit, her voice powerful enough to carry over that huge orchestral sound arising from the pit. It was a performance however that was, as it needs to be, sensitive to the changing moods, dipping softly but still able to be heard, rising to anger and violent expression and sustaining that for a large part of the unbroken one hour and forty-five minutes of the one-act performance. As well as managing this with barely a waver of pitch, strong at every register (in a role that is testing at every register), Allen also brought a degree of subtlety and conviction to the characterisation in her revulsion towards Herod and in her wild desires for Jokanaan, with recognition that there is a connection between those two states. Everything about this performance was mesmerising - you couldn't take your eyes off her for a second. If you haven't got a Salome like that, you haven't got a Salome.

Fortunately, the NI Opera production also had a prophet of immense charisma in Robert Hayward's Jokanaan. A terrifying presence, booming even from within the cistern tank, his appearance on the stage, dripping grime, gravely intoning dire warnings of the the coming of the Son of God and apocalyptic damnation for all the sinners present created a tremendous impression, Hayward's huge voice carrying utter conviction as well as fanaticism. Heather Shipp's Herodias and Michael Colvin's Herod had a little more of a challenge at times rising above the orchestra - and the translated English text didn't always make their parts scan quite as well (or match Wilde's poetry) - but the performances were well-sung and delightfully characterised. Paul Curievici's First Jew and Adrian Dwyer's Narraboth stood out from an overall very strong supporting cast. If there were many things that the Grand Opera House has never seen the like of before in NI Opera's scandalous production of Salome, perhaps the most satisfying is that of largely home-grown talent like this being given the opportunity to really show what they can do.

Saturday 7 February 2015

Mozart - Die Zauberflöte (DNO, 2012 - Blu-ray)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Dutch National Opera, 2012

Marc Albrecht, Simon McBurney, Maximilian Schmitt, Christina Landshamer, Thomas Oliemans, Nina Lejderman, Brindley Sherratt, Iride Martinez, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Maarten Koningsberger

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

You can't really argue with Simon McBurney's approach to Die Zauberflöte in this production at the Dutch National Opera. The director recognises that a child-like simplicity is needed to present the fresh look on the enlightened world that Mozart and Schikaneder's work looks towards, but at the same time there's a need to avoid the danger of the message getting lost or seen as utopian if the production is played too much like a fairytale or pantomime. The difficulty is in how to achieve this simplicity without losing the magic that is also a necessary part of the work.

To his credit, Simon McBurney attempts to address this by relying on Marc Albrecht to supply most of the magic sparkle, since the real magic of The Magic Flute is, as its title suggests, in the music itself. He's not wrong, either in the concept or in its application. There is certainly a belief, convincingly made in Mozart's score, that art/music can lead to the betterment of man and perhaps even change the world, and Albrecht's conducting of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra is just gorgeous, revealing all the beauty and the blended sensibilities of the music and the detail in the instrumentation.

As good as the musical performance is, it's perhaps not enough to make up for the lack of variety of tone on the stage. As well as striking the right balance that makes the aspiration of knowledge and wisdom triumphing over base sentiments and superstition seem magical as well as attainable, it also has to appear noble and dignified, fun and desirable, as well as meaningful and relevant to today. Simon McBurney's production does touch on all of those aspects, if not quite to the extent that you are familiar with, and not quite in the right tone that you would expect. There is darkness in Die Zauberflöte, of course, but here that tone of the trials that Tamino, Papageno and Pamina undergo at times feels more like Kafka's 'The Trial', with an added low industrial clank and drone underlying the spoken dialogue sections.

The production's intention to go back to a childhood simplicity is aimed for here by giving the impression of a more freer 'live' and improvisational feel to the setting, without relying too much on traditional technology in the stagecraft. In reality, it's a little bit over-worked to really achieve that aim. The birds that Papageno hunts, for example, are not just represented by bird sounds, but with a dozen extras running around the stage flickering pages from the score. Conceptually, it's nice and ties into the musical theme of Die Zauberflöte well, but it feels like a lot of work for little benefit or impact. The same can be said of the use of a visible foley artist in a box at the side of the stage to create live sound effects.

Other aspects of Michael Levine's stage designs are similarly low-fi in technology terms, the main stage device being a platform that is raised and lowered as required. Costumes too have a grungy feel and seem to have little consistency. The 'naked' underclothes of the Three Ladies reflect their lustful desires, and Königin der Nacht's loss of power and influence can be understood as the reason for her being ancient and mostly wheelchair-bound, but (having seen this production before) I still haven't figured out why the Three Boys are also depicted as aged crones. What does work more effectively are the projections, the hand-drawn chalk titles effects and the magnified sets that use a bookcase for the temple of wisdom. These manage to give a sense of the work being created here and now, as well as giving the work the larger dimension it requires.

It's this kind of 'live' spontaneity that marks the production out and undoubtedly keeps it fresh. The measure of this can be seen in how the production has evolved from its first productions here at the DNO to its appearance at Aix-en-Provence in 2014, with London performances in between. The production is clearly more open than some others to adjustments or refinements depending on the site-specific needs and can be tailored to the strengths and abilities of different singers in these roles. Having seen the later Aix production, I'm not sure than any of the adjustments made have necessarily been improvements. The DNO stage production worked much better for me, but that could also be down to the nature of filming the performance, and this production is undoubtedly difficult to capture.

Pablo Heras-Casado's period instrument version of this production at Aix is one of the best versions of Die Zauberflöte I've ever heard, but Marc Albrecht's conducting of the larger-sized Netherlands Chamber Orchestra also has a wonderful lightness of touch that works perfectly with the singers and supports the production through those areas where it lacks the necessary mood and tone. The work is not smothered with sugary smoothness either, but achieves the same kind of spontaneity that the production aims for, but with additional sensitivity for those moods, with vividness, energy and delicacy according to the scene, although the pacing is not always what you would like. McBurney meaningfully exploits the interaction between the pit and the stage, having musicians from the orchestra step up to play the flute and the keyboard glockenspiel, as well as actors occasionally stepping down into the pit.

The singing is first-rate and perfect for the production. Maximilian Schmitt is outstanding as Tamino and perfectly matched with Christina Landshamer's Pamina, even if she doesn't quite sail through some of the more challenging parts of the opera. Both however have a lyrical sweetness, clarity of enunciation and good projection, giving lively performances. There's no high-powered singing here - with the exception possibly of Iride Martinez's strong Königin der Nacht - but everyone fits in with the delicate tone of the musical performance. If all the magic isn't there in the production design, the musical and singing performances nonetheless make this wholly as great as only Die Zauberflöte can be.

I would think this production would have been a difficult one to capture on video, and the HD transfer of the largely dark stage consequently isn't as impressive as you usually find. Technically however, there are no problems and all the detail is there. The audio tracks are marvellous, the singing clear, but the music in particular has a warmth and detail that reveals the beauty of individual playing. The usual DNO backstage feature on the production is entertaining and informative. The Blu-ray is region-free, subtitles are in English, French, German, Dutch, Japanese and Korean.

Thursday 5 February 2015

Tchaikovsky - Pique Dame (Wiener Staatsoper, 2015 - Webcast)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Pique Dame

Wiener Staatsoper, 2015

Marko Letonja, Vera Nemirova, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Tómas Tómasson, Markus Eiche, Barbara Haveman, Marjana Lipovsek, Elena Maximova, Thomas Ebenstein, Sorin Coliban, Benedikt Kobel, Janusz Monarcha, Clemens Unterreiner, Aura Twarowska, Caroline Wenborne

Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 28 January 2015

It's probably not a coincidence that Tchaikovsky's two most popular operas, Eugene Onegin and Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades), are both taken from works from Alexander Pushkin. Tchaikovsky would take creative inspiration from several other sources in his operas and ballets and find a certain Russian character in them, but there's a pure Russian Romanticism in Pushkin's work that clearly appealed to the composer and inspired his most successful musical dramas. It's Eugene Onegin that presents grand Romantic sentiments in their purest form and they are expressed with great yearning in Tchaikovsky's score, but Pique Dame finds other Russian characteristics tied to similar themes that Tchaikovsky also successfully translates into music.

Gambling is one such device that is used in Russian literature to express the extravagant Romanticism of the Russian soul in the abandonment of oneself into the hands of fate. It's there in Dostoevsky in 'The Gambler', and it's there in Niikolai and Doholov's card games in Tolstoy's 'War and Peace'. In most cases, it's more than just a device, gambling a very real Russian problem that almost destroyed Tolstoy in real life. In the case of Hermann in The Queen of Spades, there's a similar 'all or nothing' attitude to his gambling, that will either be his salvation or destroy him, and it's inextricably linked (or is just another manifestation of the deeper gambler/Russian psychology) in Hermann's feelings for Liza.

Hermann knows he has no hope of his love for Liza being acknowledged, much less reciprocated. She's engaged to marry a handsome officer, Yeletsky, but Hermann throws himself at her mercy nonetheless. "Decide my fate!", he pleads, or blackmails, since he's holding a gun to his own head as he confesses that he cannot live if she refuses him. For her part, Liza is not indifferent to Hermann's declarations. On the contrary, she herself is fatalistically attracted to this mysterious dark figure who she has seen watching her from the background. There's plenty of room then in this alone for an Anna Karenina-like mutual rush to self-destruction, but Pushkin's story has another element that raises the stakes.

Pique Dame attaches such already heightened sentiments to what is essentially a ghost story. Hermann in his despair believes that Liza could never marry him because he isn't rich like Yeletsky. In his all or nothing frenzy, Hermann is prepared to pay whatever price is necessary, and the only option is gambling for the highest stakes. Aware of the legend of the three cards that surrounds the Countess, an infallible sequence of winning cards that can only be revealed to "one impelled by burning passion" (that's Hermann all right). Once a great gambler herself, known as the Queen of Spades, revealing the secret would however mean her death. In the event, it's only after her death at the hand of Hermann, that her ghost reveals the three cards that will seal his fate.

There's tremendous drama for Tchaikovsky to get his teeth into here, but Pique Dame is - for the most part, I find - surprisingly tame in its scoring. Pushkin's original work is a short story and benefits from its concision, but Pique Dame - even though it is imaginatively expanded with considerable colour - tends to dilute the intensity of the original. Tchaikovsky undoubtedly extends the Russian character of the work with choruses, a drinking song, a gaming song and a pastoral Intermezzo 'The Tender-hearted Shepherdess', but the most successful passages of the opera are those that relate to the ghost story and the passions of Hermann and Liza.

It's those aspects that also work best in Vera Nemirova's direction for the Vienna State Opera. Nemirova's production has no time for the usual Russian clichés and sets the work, for some unknown reason, in what appears to be an orphanage. This avoids the period trapping of wealth, privilege and position, the children looked after in the opening not by nurses and nannies, but by care workers. The orphanage building is also used throughout for interiors and exteriors, but it has a suitably ghost-like monastery appearance that suits the mood. Likewise avoiding old social trappings, the Intermezzo at the fancy-dress ball looks more like a showgirl cabaret here.

It's all reasonably moody and effective, particularly the apparition scene. In terms of distinctive directorial touches, there's nothing too outlandish attempted. The old Countess, for example, is not killed with a gunshot, but in the killing embrace of Hermann as a lover driven to the extremes of passion. Hermann raping the old lady introduces a much more desperate element to the work, tells us more about the mindset of Hermann, and actually fits with the warnings surrounding the revelation of the secret of the Legend of the Three Cards to one "impelled by burning passion". Similarly, Nemirova's bringing Liza's body back on the stage at the conclusion is a strong touch that brings home the impact of Hermann's choices and actions.

Marko Letonja's conducting of the work in Vienna was fine, but he was unable to ring any genuine emotion out of the cool calculation of the majority of Tchaikovsky's score. There are of course moments of great dramatic tension however, and those were built up well. The singing was strong from a good cast. Aleksandrs Antonenko can likewise be a little cool and steely but he grew greatly in intensity along with the role, never letting it tip over into full-blown insanity. After Hermann, it's the Countess who is the most charismatic personality here, and Marjana Lipovsek was just perfect here. The Countess is aloof and graceful, dismissive of fussy retainers, but she has to show fear and vulnerability, as well as regret for the past. Lipsivsek's performance could hardly be bettered. Barbara Haveman's Liza was also excellent, utterly commanding in Act III, and Elena Maximova supported her well as Polina.

The Wiener Staatsoper's Live at Home in HD season continues in February with broadcasts of TOSCA, ANDREA CHÉNIER, DON CARLO and an EDITA GRUBEROVA gala concert.  Details of how to view these productions in the links below.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video

Monday 2 February 2015

Strauss - Salome (Wiener Staatsoper, 2015 - Webcast)

Richard Strauss - Salome

Wiener Staatsoper, 2015

Simone Young, Boleslaw Barlog, Herwig Pecoraro, Elisabeth Kulman, Catherine Naglestad, Tomasz Konieczny, Norbert Ernst, Ulrike Helzel, Jason Bridges, Michael Roider, James Kryshak, Benedikt Kobel, Ryan Speedo Green, Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Clemens Unterreiner, Alfred Šramek, Il Hong, Jens Musger, Daniel Lökös

Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 23 January 2015

It's strange to think that in a way it was Oscar Wilde who would be the inspiration that would change the face of music in the 20th century. Strange too to think that it would be a work like 'Salome', a play written in French in all of Wilde's purple poetry, although the play had already caused scandal and been banned for its decidedly unsavoury treatment of a Biblical subject. Richard Strauss' opera is a direct response to the lurid suggestion of the play and was subject to similar criticism and banning, but the most notable aspect of Salome is its revolutionary musical language.

Faithfully adapted, almost intact from a German translation of the work, it's the tone of the play itself that determines the nature and the gestures of the musical score for Richard Strauss' Salome. Salome doesn't go quite as far as the composer's subsequent opera Elektra in pushing the boundaries of tonality, but some of its discordance does lead the way towards modernism, serialism and atonality as a means of dramatic expression in opera, and in modern music in general. There would of course be other social upheavals after the war and composers like Schoenberg and Berg (both in the audience at Salome's 1906 Austrian premiere) who would take musical experiments much further after Strauss abandoned this direction.

To suggest that the music is merely a direct response to the subject is however to undervalue the insight and input of Richard Strauss. Another composer, Antoine Mariotte, composed an opera version of Salomé around the same time as Strauss (unfortunately neglecting to obtain the rights first), and the suggestive power of Wilde's play is evident in the extent that it influences Mariotte's version too, but comparison of the two works allows us to see just how vital the application of Strauss' personal sensibility and his ability as a composer was on the actual musical direction that his opera would take. There's little evidence of the composer's individuality coming through in the Wagnerian models followed in Guntram and Feuersnot, but in Salome Strauss finds a revolutionary new application for his tone poems.

The application of those vast forces of lush Wagnerian Romantic orchestration to the poetic language of Salome creates a striking and jarring effect. Trying to find a musical equivalent to the text's opposition of cruel sentiments wrapped up in florid, decadent imagery, Strauss comes up with an extraordinary sound that has little precedent, or at least not to this extent of expression. It is a genuine response to the text, not one that is purely illustrative or acting merely as a musical accompaniment, but music that seemingly plunges into the dark places that those sentiments arise from. Straight through, in one act, with nothing to break the intensity of the dramatic tension.

The nature of the subject doesn't just determine the approach of the music, but it also defines the dramatic presentation. When the libretto and the music is as expressionistic as this, it doesn't really need any more symbolism or stage effects. Strauss didn't feel the need to elaborate on the text of the play as much as explore and exploit its remarkable mood and setting, and it's useful if a production remains within those parameters too. There's not a whole lot to be gained from adding to the simplicity and sheer power of the work as it stands. Boleslaw Barlog's production for Vienna adheres closely enough to those requirements, allowing the work to express itself through the singing and musical interpretation.

The costumes and the period evoke the Biblical setting, by way perhaps of Gustav Klimt, which isn't entirely inappropriate to the fin-de-siècle philosophical and artistic origins of this work. With no harsh angles, the balcony leads down in curves to the pit that contains Jokanaan, John the Baptist. The colours are bold, lurid, with swirling patterns and costumes that trail off in circles. Having set the mood and given it an appropriate tone and colouration that suits the work, the stage directions scarcely deviate from the dramatic action. The direction itself focusses mainly on exploring and bringing out the characterisation of these monstrous figures as they are drawn in Wilde's play, and in Strauss' musical interpretation of them.

Principally that falls on Catherine Naglestad as Salome. Her voice has the right kind of Wagnerian firmness, but also much of the lyrical Straussian manner that is required as well. This allows her to switch between alluring persuasion and harsh imprecation, her cool hard timbre better suited to the latter admittedly, but she's strong right across the whole range. Tomasz Konieczny was a reliable Jokanaan, but not one that made a major impression in this production. Herod and Heriodias were however wonderfully sung and characterised. Herwig Pecoraro got across perfectly how Herod's weak-nature and nervous superstition is overcome only by the greater force of his lecherousness. The fearsome Herodias must also be placated however, and in that respect Elisabeth Kulman was formidable, never over-playing, terrorising with the tone and delivery of her pronouncements alone.

The Wiener Staatsoper's Live at Home in HD season continues in February with broadcasts of SIMON BOCCANEGRA, TOSCA, ANDREA CHÉNIER, DON CARLO and an EDITA GRUBEROVA gala concert.  Details of how to view these productions in the links below.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video