Saturday 30 May 2015

Cherubini - Medea (Geneva, 2015 - Webcast)

Luigi Cherubini - Medea

Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2015

Marko Letonja, Christof Loy, Daniel Okulitch, Grazia Doronzio, Andrea Carè, Alexandra Deshorties, Sara Mingardo, Alexander Milev, Johanna Rudström, Magdalena Risberg

ARTE Concert - 24 April 2015

I'm not proud of it, but I have to admit that my first thought on seeing the two sulky baseball-capped skate-boarding teenage sons of Medea and Jason racing across the stage in the 2015 Geneva production of Cherubini's version of Medea was - well, I won't be too shocked or distraught when their mother kills those two at the end of this production. A cruel thought maybe, but it's one that is perhaps intended by the director. Almost certainly, since the director here is Christof Loy, and there's little that isn't precisely calculated in a Christof Loy production.

The other thing you can expect from a Christof Loy production is that it will be set in a more modern era. None of this classical stuff, even for the sedate, elegant music of Luigi Cherubini, which is Mozartian with more Classical flourishes. Loy however does indeed take his cue from the music, recognising that there is an edge lying beneath the measured surface of the musical arrangements, if you can cut through the layers of varnish. It might be a myth, but presenting Medea in a modern perspective does just that, forcing you to really consider whether there's a universal, recognisable truth in the characterisation and the situation.

Not everyone like Loy's modernisations and abstractions - and you could question whether it is really necessary in Greek tragedy - but there's no question that his direction and acting instruction makes opera characters fully three-dimensional and human. As such, the creation and playing of Medea herself is a fascinating case study and challenge for any performer. She can be seen and depicted as a monster, but not here. The structure of Cherubini's opera, the music that underscores it, and Christof Loy's direction all go into ensuring that you can sympathise to some degree with Medea, even if you can't justify her actions.

The same attention however needs to be paid to the other characters in order to fully understand Medea and her actions. This is the real trick and it's one that Loy doesn't miss. Despite the impression given at the opening with the children, he doesn't make cheap or easy shortcuts either. You actually feel sorry for Jason as well here for foolishly crossing Medea and betraying her with a marriage alliance with Glauce. If Medea was a sorceress who had indeed bewitched Jason, it would be easy to consider him an injured party, but that's not the case here. Under Loy's direction, taking its cue from Cherubini, Medea is a formidable character, with force of personality and dangerously seductive. Jason's only mistake is in underestimating her as a woman.

Creon too. Loy uses Medea's scenes with Creon to emphasise her particular allure. He sets it up well by showing the King as something of a skirt-chaser, all touchy-feely with his courtiers (or, I don't know, business team or assistants or whatever they are in their smart modern suits). Creon is amenable to the right kind of persuasion then, and this Medea knows it, managing to strip him down in her encounter with him, before he quickly comes to his senses, or takes the opportunity of an interruption to make his escape. He doesn't get off so easy of course.

Even Medea's children aren't as crudely characterised as I make it appear. They are rather just unfortunate bystanders caught in the middle of terrible events that are not of their doing. It's clever directing, allowing you to see the surface impression (which is usually all you get in most productions of Medea), and then reveal a deeper, more human truth. If there's anything monstrous about Medea, it's the situations, it's society, it's the depths of despair that the human heart plummet and it's the extreme actions that one can be driven to in a such a situation that appears to offer no way out.

Cherubini's rich and dramatic score allows for this kind of interpretation in Médée. There's a measure of opera seria expression in the composition, each of the main characters give an opportunity to air their grievances in arias and long scenes, with some Romantic flourishes that elevate and deepen the human elements of the Greek tragedy. This is reflected in the set design, the wood-panelled state-rooms (reminiscent of Loy's Roberto Devereux), giving way (in sliding panels reminiscent of Loy's
Jenůfa) to more expansive vistas of the nature in outside world, to the colour and drama of the kingdom of Corinth.

The structure of the work offers opportunities for expression for all the principals, and the detail here is well presented and sung well also. Glauce's fitting for a wedding dress sets the scene well at the beginning of Act I, Grazia Doronzio expressing her misgivings about Medea and capturing the delicacy of the situation well. In Cherubini's
Médée, even Neris, Medea's maidservant, has her own expression, sympathising with the situation of her mistress, giving a balance to the work. Neris is sung rather well by Sara Mingardo. Daniel Okulitch is a solid if rather young looking Creonte, and Andrea Carè a fine Jason. Loy's production was conceived with Jennifer Larmore in mind, only for the American soprano to be forced to withdraw through illness. Alexandra Deshorties proves a fine late replacement, her Medea sung forcefully enough although her voice is a little thin on the recitative sections. She has plenty of allure and character.

With Deshorties performance and Loy's direction, this does prove to be an interesting Medea - one that is fully fired and clearly motivated by human impulses. Arguably however, Loy humanises this Medea a little too much, and we lose a little of the opera's high drama. I don't know whether it's to do with the use of the Italian version rather than the original French version (this production uses the 1909 Carlo Zangarini version in its 1953 Maria Callas incarnation) or whether it's conducted in line with this characterisation, but Marko Letonja's conducting tones down some of the more extravagant Romantic flourishes and crescendos in Cherubini's score, finding rather a measure of elegance in its swoops and swirls. A little less restraint in the appropriate places might however have made this Geneva production a little more exciting.

Links: ARTE Concert, Grand Théâtre de Genève

Verdi - Nabucco (Vienna, 2015 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - Nabucco

Wiener Staatsoper, 2015

Jesús López Cobos, Günter Krämer, Željko Lučić, Jinxu Xiahou, Carlos Osuna, Michele Pertusi, Maria Guleghina, Monika Bohinec, Il Hong, Simina Ivan

Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 14 May 2015

As it often does with early Verdi works, Nabucco is an opera where situation counts for more than either plot or characterisation. The situation here is one where a people are oppressed, struggling under a tyrannical regime, their beliefs and identity suppressed. That's something that the composer would have been able to identify with far more than Nabucco's Biblical setting and the personal investment consequently comes through here more clearly than in any of Verdi's early works. It's that element that a director has to find to present the work well, but rather more important is the choral nature of Nabucco. Both happily are well covered in the Vienna State Opera production.

It's Verdi's choral writing that contains all the emotions that are at the heart of the work, and Nabucco contains some of Verdi's most memorable melodies, full of noble sentiments of pride for one's homeland and one's people. This takes in questions of love, of family and duty, and Verdi's writing is masterful in how he binds up all these elements into the most stirring arrangements. It's a lot less convincing on individual motivations and characterisation and, for all the drama involved, Nabucco is not terribly strong on pacing and plot.

That's the main problem that a director has to face when presenting this Verdi opera on the stage. Initially, you don't have to worry about it too much, certainly not in the opening scenes of the work. For the first twenty minutes or so the audience isn't going to care a whole lot about the where and the why. You can feel everything you need to know in the beautiful choral arrangements and the oratorio-like expression of the Hebrew High Priest Zaccaria. Whether it's well-developed or not, the plot however is far from meaningless, and these are not generic sentiments.

There gravity of the situation is established through a forbidden love affair between Ismaele, the nephew of the King of Jerusalem, and Fenena, the daughter of Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar), the King of Babylon and the oppressor of the Israelites, who has sacrilegiously declared himself the one god and forbidden the worship of idols. Family matters come to the fore when Nabucco's other daughter Abigaille, who is also in love with Ismaele, discovers the truth of her origin as the daughter of a slave, and she challenges the authority of Nabucco when through Fenena's influence, he attempts to free the captive Israelite prisoners.

The sentiments between love, family and duty are scarcely comprehensible however and far from credibly developed. The problem is lack of compatibility, the conflation of all these situations of family, duty and romance pushing the whole thing over into melodrama, particularly when some of them (the Fenena-Ismaele-Abgaille love triangle for example) have been inadequately developed. Verdi is ambitiously striving for a 'King Lear' here, but is not equipped to tackle a work of Shakespearean complexity. If Lear continued to elude him, he would do a similar plot much better in Aida in his later years, but in Nabucco at least there is a youthful fire, as well as some degree of sensitivity and intelligence in the scoring.

Director Günter Krämer's handling of the material for the Vienna State Opera production isn't entirely confident either. There's a determination to remove the Biblical context, but not really anything offered in its place. There are no thunderbolts and no idols worshipped; miracles are not divine ones, but carried out by human hands and direct intervention. The struggle is clearly still that of the Jewish people being oppressed (there's no Risorgimento parallel attempted here for example), the production aiming instead for an indeterminate but more recognisable 20th century setting. That sits fairly well as a human drama, but without any real context, the plot doesn't gain any greater credibility.

There is room within for greater credibility to be found within the generous emotional richness of Verdi's score, but although the individual singers all perform rather well, there's no effort either to develop characters and relationships on a surer footing. Željko Lučić replaced an indisposed Plácido Domingo (he hasn't been having a good run of health recently) so we at least have a strong, lyrical, authentic baritone in the role of Nabucco. If the singing is wonderful, Lučić doesn't have the same presence or the critical regal bearing that Domingo might have brought to the role in the seeming absence of character direction and the indeterminate setting.

Maria Guleghina had to take on the role of Abigaille, one of those frankly terrifying roles that Verdi would compose for soprano in his early works (in Oberto, in Attila). If you have a Verdi soprano of real character and stature, such roles can be impressive, but there are few dramatic sopranos of that type around nowadays, and if there's any weakness, it really shows. Guleghina is a little unsteady in pitch and the high notes are not the kindest to the ear, but she's every bit as fiery and formidable as the role demands. It's not enough however to make this Nabucco fly, nor are the rather thankless characterisation and writing for Carlos Osuna's Ismaele, Michele Pertusi Zaccharia or Monika Bohinec's Fenena. Jesús López Cobos however led the orchestra through the score with surprising warmth and sensitivity, and the chorus were outstanding. If you've got that much at least, you've got a fine Nabucco. Expecting anything more from this particular Verdi work is perhaps asking for a little too much.

Nabucco was broadcast live from the Vienna State Opera as part of their Live at Home programme. The next broadcast is Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production of DAS RHEINGOLD on 30 May and DIE WALKURE on 31 May. Both are conducted by Simon Rattle. Details of how to view these productions live at home can be found in the links below.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video

Tuesday 26 May 2015

Donizetti - Don Pasquale (Vienna, 2015 - Webcast)

Gaetano Donizetti - Don Pasquale

Wiener Staatsoper, 2015

Jesús López-Cobos, Irina Brook, Michele Pertusi, Juan Diego Flórez, Alessio Arduini, Valentina Nafornita

Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 8 May 2015

There's really only one important factor to take into account when it comes to Don Pasquale - the comedy. I'm not saying that there aren't musical qualities to admire in Donizetti's score, but if it doesn't entertain an audience, make you smile and laugh on one or two occasions, there's not a lot of point to it. No amount of virtuoso playing and singing or clever concept is going to make up for that. The performance and the entertainment however evidently go hand in hand, the singing needs to be bright and effortless, carrying you along on the verve of Donizetti's delightful, pacy score.

The Vienna State Opera's new production might not appear to offer any new spin on the work, but it succeeds wonderfully because they get the essentials right. You can tell that straight off from a look at the cast sheet. Mostly. Michele Pertusi is Don Pasquale, Juan Diego Flórez is Ernesto and Valentina Nafornita - the only unknown element for me here - is Norina. Pertusi is a fine bass, but it's not a voice that is suitable for every Italian role. A week after this performance, he sang the role of Zaccharia in Nabucco competently, but with little of strength and dramatic character that is needed for a Verdi bass. Pertusi is much more at home in bel canto and, if this performance is anything to go by, in comic roles as well.

Michele Pertusi's Don Pasquale is subtle and not overacted. He doesn't look 70 perhaps, or look as seedy as you might expect a man of his age and position to be in his eagerness to marry a virginal, innocent, young convent girl, but in Donizetti's world, you need to have some measure of sympathy for the old fool otherwise it's just not funny. Pertusi gives this Pasquale some character, neither bumbling fool nor tyrant - just an old man with money and weaknesses, one of which is beautiful women. And who can blame him for that? There's a lightness of touch to the performance and good comic timing and Don Pasquale is an opera where timing and interaction are critical.

Juan Diego Flórez is still about as good as it gets in the bel canto romantic tenor role. He has claimed that his voice is darkening and that he might not always play roles like this in the future, but there's no sign of any weakness or change in his voice here. Acting is not a speciality of Flórez, but he always has energy and flair in his performance, never looks like he is just walking through a role, even if he makes challenging singing roles look effortless. There's room to make Ernesto a little more rounded in character, but Flórez is content to let him remain the naive romantic and derive humour from that alone. When you can sing like this like Donizetti intended, there's not really any need to change anything.

The two male leads are wonderfully cast, and so too is Alessio Arduini as Malatesta. Without underestimating his importance to the dynamic of the opera - or indeed the kind of virtuosity that is required to sing a rapid-fire duet with Pasquale - Malatesta is less of a star role and more of a motor that keeps it all going. It's all about the interaction and the timing, as it is in much of Don Pasquale, and indeed that duet is a fine example of him winding up the pace and tension that sets Don Pasquale off on his final spin. Arduini even brings a little more verve to the role than you often find, but without letting his character dominate or take away from the other important starring roles.

None of which perhaps is more important than Norina. It's one of those roles that can be a dream or a nightmare, a glamorous role that offers great dynamic range for a soprano to show her abilities as an actress but it can be hugely challenging to sing. She has to play the innocent girl just out of a convent and show that she is playing it, but be convincing at the same time. She also has to be a real tyrant, throwing her weight around, but at the same time feeling a little guilty about the deception they are pulling on a vulnerable old man. Aside from those broad comic contrasts, you'd also like it - particularly in more enlightened times - if Norina has some character and a mind of her own. Not asking for much then from a soprano.

I haven't come across Valentina Nafornita before, and that would have been my only question-mark when looking at the cast list for this new 2015 production of Don Pasquale at the Wiener Staatsoper. Nafornita surpasses all expectations one might have for this role. Like Malatesta, her sidekick, she's a motor, constantly winding up and driving the action onwards, providing plenty of conflict and humour. Norina can be a very physical role, demanding in terms of actions and movement, in that all-important interaction and timing, working with the other members of the cast, as well as in pushing a soprano to her limits in terms of singing. Nafornita looks and sounds the part, bright and vivacious, with an impressive vocal range that makes her performance and its contribution to the whole a sheer joy.

There's not a great deal to be gained from attempting to update or play around with the mechanics of Don Pasquale. Mariame Cl
ément's production for Glyndebourne 2013, for example, attempted to unravel the plot and push it in another direction and ended up falling flat on its face, although it wasn't helped by some weak performances that failed to connect with the comedy. Irina Brook's direction, in contrast, is clear and supportive of the comedy. It doesn't over-complicate the interaction and the relationships between the characters, but allows them the freedom to play off each other in the manner the Donizetti intended, making full use of the ample opportunities that this provides.

The set is not a traditional one, but is nonetheless captures the essence of the work itself. It's bright, colourful, smart and a little bit tacky. Tacky in a good way, of course. The action takes place not in Don Pasquale's home, but in what looks more like a hotel lobby with a bar in the corner. We can maybe assume that Don Pasquale is a successful hotel owner rather than a guest, with employees instead of servants, since the transformed Norina seems to be free to come in and turn everything upside down, with a taste for pink and glitter. It's a style as fake as Norina, an image calculated to that infuriate her 'husband' with cheap dazzle that nonetheless is an expensive extravagance. Even the fake palms in the lobby provide the perfect cover for Sofronia's fake meeting with her lover, Ernesto.

It all has a way then of coming together, playing to the mood, retaining the integrity of the comedy, without stretching the situation beyond the limit where it successfully works. Jesús López-Cobos ensures that all the musical element fall into place, the orchestra playing with verve and energy in the spirit of the work, rather than reverentially. The same sense of comic timing and interaction that is there between the cast is necessary also in the pit, and between the pit and the singers, and it also needs to be in the spirit of the stage production. That's the challenge of comic opera and it's not easy to achieve, as a failing on any one level can have a knock-on effect on the rest, but the Wiener Staatsoper production makes it look deceptively light and easy.

Don Pasquale was broadcast live from the Vienna State Opera as part of their Live at Home programme. The next broadcast is Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production of DAS RHEINGOLD on 30 May and DIE WALKURE on 31 May. Both are conducted by Simon Rattle. Details of how to view these productions live at home can be found in the links below.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen (Mannheim, 2013 - DVD)

Richard Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen

National Theater Mannheim, 2013

Dan Ettinger, Achim Freyer, Thomas Jesatko, Karsten Mewes, Edna Prochnik, Jürgen Müller, Endrik Wottrich, Heike Wessels, Judith Nėmeth, Uwe Eikötter, Andreas Hört, Sung Ha, Iris Kupke, Manfred Hemm, Thomas Berau, Christoph Stephinger

Arthaus Musik - DVD

As far as modern opera directing goes, there's Regietheater, there's the avant-garde, and there's Achim Freyer. Freyer's vision for opera is unique and distinctive - similar to Robert Wilson in its idiosyncratic traits, often using obscure symbolism, repetitive movements and abstract gestures. Freyer however is by no means a minimalist, applying these techniques to a La Fura dels Baus scale of spectacle. When you set Freyer to work on something like Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen then, the results are not unexpectedly extraordinary and spectacular, but can be difficult to follow. If it's not actually unfathomable, the Mannheim 2013 Ring cycle is at least unlike any other production of Wagner's masterwork you'll see.

The great thing about the Ring as far as Freyer is concerned, and particularly in relation to the opening prologue Das Rheingold, is that you're dealing with mythology, and mythology doesn't necessarily have to have anything to do with reality. Myths of course have meaning and significance, and Wagner would certainly have thought so, but that doesn't mean that the mythology has to be presented in purely human terms. Without ever getting completely abstract, Achim Freyer reinvents the Ring as a kind of circus - a Circus Ring with a polar bear and even some live animals - but without ever departing entirely from who the familiar characters are or from the hugely significant situations that are played out across the whole tetralogy.

It's clown imagery that makes the strongest impression in the cycle, but mostly it's just applied to the Nibelung dwarfs, with Siegfried also adopting some of the characteristics of his foster parent Mime. Elsewhere, Freyer conjures up some elaborate costumes and raven-like identities for Wotan and Freia, wolf masks for Sieglinde and Siegmund, few of them looking anything like familiar representations of these characters. All of them do at least relate to the group that they belong to, the Eternals distinct from the Giants, the Wälsung too having their own peculiar 'Wolfling' look and manner of gesture and behaviour, as strange as that might often seem. It's not as strange through as the large childish-drawn heads that the Gibichung wear, but that too suits their naive nature. This is mythology however, not the time of man, so the director should be free indeed to depict these figures in whatever outlandish manner he sees fit.

Outlandish, but not entirely without some kind of basis within the poetic account of Wagner's libretto. Freia, for example in Das Rheingold, might look strange with a tree growing out of her head and apples around her bosom, but Freia is the goddess of fertility and does indeed cultivate apples that grant eternal youth and beauty, so the characterisation has 'roots', if you like. Crafty Loge prowls around here (and is frequently seen popping into the scene to keep an eye on things in Die Walküre for some unknown reason) with smoke billowing out of the five cigars he holds in five hands. No, not entirely sure where that image comes from, but it creates a distinct impression. Quite why Fricka has what looks like a black baguette on her head is a mystery, or why each of the Valkyrie have their own object (trumpet, watering can, scissors, hand, coat hanger, shoe, sewing machine - Brünnhilde for more obvious reasons, a raven), but I'm sure there's an explanation for it somewhere.

What you notice however by the time you get to Die Walküre however is the consistency and the rhythm of the stage direction. The symbolism remains consistent, a large white strip of neon (Valhalla? Wotan's staff? Perhaps just symbolically signifying the will and power of the Gods?) hanging above the revolving stage, while mini figures and handpuppets start to feature to represent double imagery (deceit? control?) or sometimes to indicate hierarchy or leitmotif presence. Or who knows really except Achim Freyer? All the actions that take place in Die Walküre are there, but are dream-like, unreal. What you can sense however is the rhythm, the slow flow of events building towards a cataclysmic conclusion. It's not as if there isn't always plenty of activity going on, but it can be difficult to remain engaged when you aren't quite sure what you're expected to be making of it all.

You might expect that to become more difficult in the rather longer drawn-out dramas of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, but even though Freyer's vision just gets even more bizarre and detached from reality as the tetralogy progresses, it coalesces extraordinarily well. In contrast to the darkness of the Prologue and First Day Festival opera, Siegfried is initially a little brighter, but there's little that is familiar with the clinical white setting where a cartoon clown Siegfried, in a yellow wig with a horn of hair and one large red ear, lies strapped in a bed. His wears a funnel for a helmet, his Notung is a plastic 'light sabre' and he hangs out with a polar bear. Götterdämmerung is always a challenge, but it's here where the value of Freyer's vision comes through, the neon staff turning into a ring, the set all twilight lighting and mirrors, creating an eerie tense atmosphere that feeds right through to the singing performances as well. It's an impressive finale.

Aside from what you might make of the directorial idiosyncrasies, the Mannheim Ring fares very well indeed in terms of musical performance and singing. Dan Ettinger's conducting doesn't deliver a powerhouse Ring - or at least that's not how it comes across in the PCM Stereo mix for the DVD - nor one that is particularly lyrical either. It can feel a little cold and mechanical in places but the orchestra play well, impressively sustaining a consistent tone and rhythm right across all four festival days, building in force towards an intense conclusion in Götterdämmerung. Consistency counts for a lot in the Ring, and it's rare that the major opera houses can maintain the same cast right through the extended period that it takes to perform a Ring cycle. There are fewer Wagnerian A-list names among the Mannheim cast, but it helps considerably that the performers are uniformly good and they remain in the same roles throughout (not that you'd notice visually under all the costumes and make-up).

The strength of the Mannheim Ring rests mainly on a very fine Wotan from Thomas Jesatko. The heavy make-up and turban-like head with its single eye don't make things easy for him, and it's hard to establish any kind of recognisable characterisation under Freyer's stiff direction, but Jesatko holds reliably strong and consistent throughout. Edna Prochnik also deserves credit not only for a fine Fricka, but also for taking on the Valkyrie Schwertleite in Die Walküre and Erda in Siegfried, as well as Waltraude and First Norn in Götterdämmerung. Jürgen Müller isn't the most powerful Siegfried I've ever heard, but he is certainly one of the steadiest I've come across in recent years, more than capable for the huge demands of the role and at times even impressive. He also performs well as a bright and lively Loge in the first two parts. Judith Nėmeth's Brünnhilde is good and comes into her own in Götterdämmerung when her contribution is really needed.

You couldn't really find fault with the rest of the cast, all of them contributing to a uniformly well-sung Ring without any significant weak elements, which is not something you can say about many Ring cycles even in the major opera houses. Manfred Hemm's Hunding is authoritative in Die Walküre, and Heike Wessels is also impressive as Sieglinde here. Christoph Stephinger's treacherous Hagen is wonderfully enigmatic, lending much to the successful tone that is established in the concluding part of the Ring.

The Mannheim Der Ring des Nibelungen is released on DVD by Arthaus Musik, but with only German subtitles provided it is apparently only for the home market. The box set contains all four operas in individual cases. The set contains seven DVDs, one for Das Rheingold, two discs for each of the others. The video quality is not quite the High-Definition level you might be used to on Blu-ray, a little grainy and lacking in definition on the darkened stage, but it's clear and free from any troubling encoding issues. It's difficult nonetheless to really capture the scale and colour of Freyer's visual extravaganza on a small screen, but despite having the most complicated stage arrangement, I thought Götterdämmerung looked and sounded the best. The audio tracks are PCM stereo only, but well-mixed to balance the singing and orchestration.

The packaging on the DVD indicates that the encoding is in the European PAL format rather than the more universal NTSC, so the Mannheim Ring might not be suitable for viewing on older televisions in the USA. Should you be inclined however to experience this unique production, the DVDs are not region coded and the libretto of the Ring is freely available on the internet, so don't let the lack of English subtitles put you off.

Reimann - Lear (Hamburg, 2014 - Blu-ray)

Aribert Reimann - Lear

Staatsoper Hamburg, 2014

Simone Young, Karoline Gruber, Bo Skovhus, Katja Pieweck, Hellen Kwon, Siobhan Stagg, Erwin Leder, Lauri Vasar, Andrew Watts, Martin Homrich, Christian Miedl, Peter Gallard, Jürgen Sacher, Wilhelm Schwinghammer, Frieder Stricker

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Shakespeare has been adapted to opera many times, sometimes even successfully, but rarely with fidelity to the richness of the text and the wealth of themes. To do Shakespeare justice, you need a robust musical language that can not only support and fill in the gaps that are inevitable in the transfer of a work from one artistic medium to another, but bring something new out of it. The occasions when Shakespeare is done well in opera are rare, rarer still (to the point of nonexistence) are works that can be said to improve on Shakespeare, but there are moments, Verdi coming closest in the dark thunder of Macbeth, in the dramatic concision and focus of Otello, and in the lightness of the comic touch and sensitive characterisation of Falstaff. 'King Lear' was Verdi's cherished project that he occasionally sketched and started to work on, but which eventually ended up eluding him.

Aside from Macbeth, 'King Lear' is one Shakespeare work that doesn't really need any darkening of the themes or emphasis on the madness, but this is exactly what Aribert Reimann's 1978 opera Lear does. It doesn't so much strive to faithfully represent the dramatic progression of Shakespeare's original or attempt to build on its themes and apply them to another context (although it does do both to a certain extent), as much find a musical equivalent for the drama and condense it down into abstract musical structures and intense vocal expression. The result, when filtered through Aribert Reimann's own experience and musical language, is close to terrifying. Which is really just the impression you ought to get from 'King Lear'.

The impression is one thing - and there's little doubt that Reimann's atonal noise can make a huge nerve-shattering and ear-splitting cacophony - but Lear also must engage the audience with its characters, its language and its drama. Claus H. Hennenberg's adaptation of the German translation holds close to the original (if the English language approximations are anything to go by), to the essence of it at least, but certainly in terms of fitting the language and expression to the characters. Inevitably, it's much condensed, but without losing any of the import of the original. It's not so successful if you judge the pacing of scenes and the passage of time to be critical, as they might be more on the theatre stage. What it loses in that respect however, it unquestionably gains from concision, intensity and from the musical expression.

King Lear in any case is fairly intense in the original, wasting little time in scene-setting, getting straight to the nature and heart of nearly all its characters in its opening scene where "majesty falls to folly". Reimann's Lear is exactly the same. The first thing you notice that is going to be characteristic of Reimann's treatment - aside from the difficult discordant music - is the layering in the first scene, with several characters simultaneously expressing their misgivings about the king's actions. That technique is nothing new in opera, but applying it to the density of Shakespeare's characterisation is a challenge. Reimann daringly and successfully layers those contrasting personalities and emotions and allows their musical voices to interweave and clash. The effect is extraordinary.

As thrilling and as astonishing as it is to see such expression in an opera based on a noted work of incredible power (simply one of the greatest dramas ever written), it does however inevitably become more and more difficult to sustain as the drama develops. Reimann is at his strongest in the first half - or at least he's operating at a level that is semi-endurable to an audience who are really put through a dark and deeply disturbing situation. It climaxes at the end of part one with Lear descending into madness at the treatment and rejection he has received from his daughters Goneril and Regan. 'Blow winds, blow!", he proclaims after an hour of intense drama, and in a scene that according to the composer was inspired by his own experience in Berlin at the end of the war, Reimann's music descends into its most cacophonic, the sound of a world collapsing entirely in a storm to end all storms.

Thereafter - particularly in Karoline Gruber's 2014 staging for the Hamburg State Opera - events are less related to the real-world and have more of a post-apocalyptic feel, where the world has changed unrecognisably. It can become very difficult to engage with the characters as they descend into a monstrous state, the world rocked by the decline of the house of Lear and the house of Gloucester. These two overlapping storylines feed off and inform one another, but although every effort - musical and dramatic - is employed here to create a similar dissonant interaction, it's difficult to get a sense of how they come together. Reimann's musical language, or perhaps merely the challenge of listening to it at length, becomes accordingly more difficult.

Karoline Gruber's direction attempts to address this by giving prominence to the Sprechstimme role of the Fool, using him as a means of grounding the work with a measure of real-world truth, as bizarre and contradictory as that might seem. This is however the role of the Fool in Shakespeare's 'King Lear', to say the things that others fear to express before the king, finding humorous ways to put the truth to him. As he says in the opera version "Truth is a dog to be whipped. A lapdog though may lie before the fire and stink". (A fine condensation of "Truth's a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped out / When Lady the brach may stand by th' fire and stink" in the original). In the stage production here, he seems to be detached from the drama, a commentator, the action even stopping in places to allow him to speak. In the latter half, he is something of the conscience of Lear, a touchstone to draw him from madness back to a form of clarity, as terrible as the realisation of the truth now is to him.

The Fool in this way takes up a lot of the abstract expression of the themes that can't be fully expressed otherwise in the operatic dramatisation, and aligned with Reimann's music, it's a powerful device for the director to use. Gruber's production however is not short of other abstractions and ideas, finding different ways of expressing Lear's madness, from multiple doppelgängers to nightmarish visions, the old king's personal guard reduced symbolically to a pile of boots. A revolving set keeps the rapid succession of events flowing, imperceptibly changing, forming and reforming, using words to emphasise the conflict within the king and his kingdom. In line with Reimann's reworking of the title, there is however no traditional imagery of royal trappings, and no period detail in the production. It's vaguely 1940s/50s in dress and appearance, but generic. This is about larger themes than a king who foolishly abdicates too soon.

If the music wavers between unsettling and punishing, it's also a challenge for the singers to work within it and, at its most intense, rise above it. The casting here is superb for the variety of voices and for the sheer force of expression that they are capable of. Lear is not an older man in this production, and it's doubtful that an older man could have the force and stamina necessary to battle with the instrumental madness the way Bo Skovhus does. Yet he never bellows, always showing the underlying humanity in this Lear. It's no surprise that his three daughters all have formidable voices. There's volume and venom aplenty in Katja Pieweck's Goneril and an even more piercing pitch in Hellen Kwon's magnificently scary Regan. Cordelia might be initially reticent in Lear, but by the time she revisits the mad king, Siobhan Stagg shows the full strength of her underlying character. Simone Young's conducting of the Hamburg orchestra through this score is, to say the least, impressive.

The recording certainly benefits from the High Definition presentation on the Blu-ray release. The image is clear and detailed (although a few scenes take place behind a mesh curtain), and the audio tracks (PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1) are well balanced, handling the extreme sounds of the percussion and the high voices very well. The recording can be a little echoing in both mixes, but although the 5.1 mix gives a better separation of the orchestral playing, the focus is better when listened to on headphones. There is a 20 minute Making Of that consists mainly of interviews with Simone Young and Aribert Reimann discussing the history of the work, its composition, and the approach to producing it in Hamburg. The booklet contains a tracklist, a synopsis and an informative essay on the work. Subtitles are in German and English. These can only be selected and changed while the programme is playing, not from the menu. The Blu-ray is region-free.

Sunday 17 May 2015

Charpentier - Médée (Basel, 2015 - Webcast)

Marc-Antoine Charpentier - Médée

Theater Basel, 2015

Andrea Marcon, Nicolas Brieger, Magdalena Kožená, Anders J. Dahlin, Luca Tittoto, Meike Hartmann, Robin Adams, Silke Gäng, Yukie Sato, Jenny Högström, Regina Dahlen, Tiago Pinheiro de Olivieira, Daniel Issa, Ismael Arróniz Gónzales, Santiago Garzon

Culturebox - 21 January 2015


Compared to some other versions of the Medea story, Marc-Antoine Charpentier's musical arrangements and Thomas Corneille's libretto for Médée can seem somewhat dry and formal. Musically it's a little austere, the baroque instrumentation of plucked strings and theorbo not quite as expressive as you might find elsewhere in other versions of the work. Medea however relies on the shock of the climax, and if it takes a little time getting there, Charpentier's conclusion is up there with the best of them.

A lot of course depends on the staging, not that there have been many productions of this work since it was first performed in 1693, and just as much rests on the singer playing the part of Medea. Theater Basel's 2015 production may be updated to a more modern setting, but it retains the simplicity of line of Charpentier's score, and it relies heavily on the casting of Magdalena Kožená to supply all the fire that is needed to bring out the underlying darkness that the score itself barely hints at. And, largely, it succeeds.

The modern setting of Creon's Corinth here has something of the look of a Soviet dictatorship, albeit one that revels in the luxury of its own success and power. Assurance of that power is however, as we discover later, a fatal mistake where Medea is concerned. Creon however believes that an alliance between his daughter Creusa and Jason will consolidate his position, Jason having recently fled Thessaly looking for asylum. Jason is a warrior Creon can use, but it would not be in his interests to have a woman like his wife Medea in Corinth. She's the reason for their taking flight, the people of Thessaly troubled by her sorcery. Medea is therefore "asked to leave" by Creon, and, as we know, she takes terrible revenge for this, and for Jason's betrayal in leaving her and staying behind to marry Creusa.

The mechanics of laying out the history and the relationships between each of the figures isn't the most invigorating, Charpentier placing additional emphasis here on Medea forming an alliance with Oronte, who has been displaced from Creusa's affections by the arrival of Jason in the court of Corinth. There are certainly a few dramatic touches to add some colour, often coming at the end of each of the acts. Director Nicholas Brieger tries to integrate some of these more baroque elements in a different way. Act II, for example, ends with an kind of cabaret show where the Italian singer wears a red wig, seemingly parodying the red-haired Medea, but it doesn't really follow the idea through.

Act III of
Médée also ought to end with Medea enacting the familiar scene of her performing her sorcery over a cauldron, preparing the poison for the dress that she will present to Creusa. Charpentier and Corneille's version takes an even more colourful approach to this scene than usual, the stage directions specifying that the robe is "brought by flying demons", with Medea's state of mind given corporeal form in the shape of La Jealousie and La Vengeance, through them forging a direct link to Hell. The demons are there all right in the Basel staging, as are Jealousy and Vengeance, and the force of Medea's passions are all there in Kožená's singing, but it still doesn't quite reach the level of intensity found in Euripides or even Cherubini's opera version of this scene.

Sorcery plays its part most openly in Act IV, where Medea evades Creon's guards and drives him to madness when she turns them into beguiling women, but the implication that comes though most strongly in Corneille's libretto is that Medea's power is not her sorcery or her temperament. It's herself as a woman, and the underestimation of a woman's power by Creon. You're mistaken, she tells Creon in this scene, if you think your laws apply to me - "Souviens-toi, je suis Médée". Charpentier's woman scorned doesn't just condemn Creusa to a painful death in a poisoned robe, and doesn't just destroy Jason and her own children (as horrifying as this is alone), she destroys Creon, leaves his court in flames and pretty much leaves an obliterated Corinth in her wake. Now, that's one heck of a Medea.

If the baroque music isn't quite expressive or discordant enough to get this across in modern terms - though Andrea Marcon and the Basel orchestra certainly find plenty of colour and dynamic in the score - it's abundantly clear in the writing for the mezzo-soprano voice and in the delivery of it by Magdalena Kožená. I haven't heard a lot of Kožená over the last decade, but she demonstrates here that her voice is as powerful as it ever was. It's such a full and richly toned voice, strong and controlled right across the range, and utterly dramatic when it comes to those moments of Medea expressing the full extend of her fury. Anders J. Dahlin's haute-contre doesn't stand a chance against such a force, but his Jason is no wimp either, steely rather, capable of fine expression. There is a fine performance too from Meike Hartmann's Creusa (her death scene almost devastating) and a solid baritone Creon in Luca Tittoto.

Links: Culturebox

Friday 15 May 2015

Rameau - Dardanus (Bordeaux, 2015 - Webcast)

Jean-Philippe Rameau - Dardanus

L'Opéra de Bordeaux, 2015

Raphaël Pichon, Michel Fau, Karina Gauvin, Gaëlle Arquez, Reinoud van Mechelen, Florian Sempey, Nahuel di Pierro, Katherine Watson, Etienne Bazola, Virgile Ancely, Guillaume Gutiérrez

Culturebox - 22 April 2015

You could criticise Jean-Philippe Rameau's Dardanus - and indeed most of the composer's tragédie-lyriques - as being a little too stiff, formal and serious, the work straight-jacketed by precise rules and conventions that Rameau and his predecessor Lully before him helped establish. You could however admire Dardanus for the very same reasons, for its ability to fit such beautiful music, song and dance into a very rigid format, making it a wonderfully entertaining spectacle.

And there's the key to how you make Dardanus, composed in 1739 and scarcely heard of again until the present day, work today for a modern audience. It's by not playing it with stiff, rigid formality, but finding a natural warmth in the beauty of the composition, the structure and the melody. It's also about presenting the work with some respect for its intention to entertain, with plenty of colour and spectacle.

Bordeaux have a good recent history with Rameau. Their modernisation of Les Indes Galantes last year (for the 250th anniversary of the death of Rameau) was an absolute marvel, updating the work certainly way beyond its original settings but completely respecting the intentions and the spirit of the opéra-ballet with all its wonderful verve, energy and inventiveness. A classical drama in the tragédie-lyrique vein, Dardanus is a different prospect but, Michel Fau's direction for the Bordeaux stage, in a co-production with Versailles, never forgets the primary purpose and delivers a colourful drama that is matched by the warmth of Raphaël Pichon's conducting of his Pygmalion ensemble.

As it adheres very much to a classic narrative, the primary purpose of Dardanus is not, clearly, to present any kind of credible or coherent drama, but to present a drama in music. The plot involves a ruler, King Teucer, who has plans for his daughter Princess Iphise's marriage to King Anténor. Iphise doesn't want to marry Anténor, but is troubled that her affections seem to be swaying her towards tender feelings for Teucer's enemy Dardanus. Dardanus, Anténor and Iphise all venture into the magic kingdom of Isménor, where the true intentions of each are brought into the open and made known to each other, causing a lot of confusion and trouble for all.

Opening with the obligatory Prologue featuring Vénus and Amour ('Triomphe, tendre amour"), Dardanus then is five acts of fairly standard plotting with sentiments of forbidden love and conflict leading to a rather contrived conclusion. For some not entirely convincing reason, other than perhaps to provide the opera with a necessary bit of merveilleux stage spectacle at the necessary point, Neptune sends a sea monster to attack Teucer. Dardanus saves the King's champion Anténor from bring devoured by the sea monster, and thereby wins the right to marry Iphise. Rameau pads all this out with lots of dancing and a structure that seems to run on an aria-ballet-chorus-ballet-recitative-ballet-aria loop. Dardanus has the potential to be very dry indeed with all these interruptions to the dramatic flow.

Rameau's music however is much too good to let it be drowned in a dull academic presentation. There is a sense of establishing beauty and order on the world in the music itself - learning to love instead of hate - and Raphaël Pichon finds the beautiful warmth in Rameau's writing that underlines such sentiments, as much in the interplay of the instruments as in their individual qualities. There are moments of sheer wonder here, even in those little side events, such as in the little pastorale 'Paix favorable, paix adorable' which takes the form of a chorus, turning into a ballet and then into a duet which has all the joyous quality of a Handel oratorio.

Michel Fau's direction and Emmanuel Charles' set designs don't feel the need to update all this to a modern setting, but recognise that Dardanus can work on its own terms if it holds true to this original purpose and intent. That doesn't mean that they settle for trying to recreate baroque theatre effects, but find instead a new, modern and colourful way using projections as well as traditional costumes and stage effects to achieve the same impact. It never quite resorts to kitsch or parody - other than where the occasion really leaves no alternative - but finds its own dazzling vision for the work. A good example of this is in how they approach the battle of the sea monster, which is done in a hugely entertaining fashion without the need to create any cardboard sea monster special effects. All the ballets are included, sometimes inventively other times just bringing the dancers onto the stage where indicated and letting them do their piece.

There's no room for extravagant arias in French tragédie-lyrique, and reportedly there wasn't any particular need for clarity of diction, but the libretto is beautifully articulated here by some beautiful and appropriately pitched voices. Florian Sempey carried the honours as Anténor, his lyrical baritone carrying the kind of warmth that was complementary to the production. In his actions as well as his voice, there was a genuine sensitivity that made Anténor a little more sympathetic and not just a caricature villain,. He's clearly devastated that Iphise doesn't love him, valiantly entering into battle with the sea monster to prove his worth. Sempey's voice holds firm and lyrical throughout.

Gaëlle Arquez complements him well as Iphise, her voice bright, her emotional conflicts expressed purposefully, never faltering. The figure of Dardanus is relatively bland by comparison, and characterised as such by Reinoud van Mechelen's light but sweet tenor. Although limited to only a few scenes, Karina Gauvin is the kind of singer you want to impress when Vénus makes an appearance, and she fulfils that role well, but it's Katherine Watson taking up the bit-part roles of Amore, a Shepherdess, Bellone and a Dream, who gets to feature in some of Rameau's most beautiful little incidental arrangements, and she makes a fine impression here.

Links: Culturebox

Sunday 10 May 2015

Dusapin - Penthesilea (La Monnaie, 2015 - Webcast)

Pascal Dusapin - Penthesilea

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2015

Franck Ollu, Pierre Audi, Natascha Petrinsky, Marisol Montalvo, Georg Nigl, Werner Van Mechelen, Eve-Maud Hubeaux, Wiard Witholt, Yaroslava Kozina, Marta Beretta

La Monnaie Web Streaming - April 2015

The story of the Amazonian Queen Penthesilea, who launches her troops into the middle of the epic battle ensuing between Greece and Troy, is one of the stranger and lesser known of characters in Greek mythology. It was the German poet and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist who elaborated on the myth and the particular nature of her love of war and her love for Achilles in a High Romantic manner in 1808, and his version has been the inspiration for a number of operas in the modern age. Like the other composers who have approached the subject Pascal Dusapin's version, newly commissioned by La Monnaie in Brussels and premiered in March/April 2015, finds the dark contradictory sentiments fertile ground for musical exploration.

Long before Richard Wagner's Late Romantic exploration of the Liebestod theme in Tristan und Isolde, and three years before the author shot himself in a double suicide with Henriette Vogel, Heinrich von Kleist explored the same complex Romantic notions conflating love and death in 'Penthesilea'. Here the epic battle between two great warriors, Achilles and the Amazon Queen Penthesilea, is taken to such extremes and all the fears of defeat, capture and hatred become so overpowering that they transform into an almost erotic desire for submission that can only be satisfied in a carnal lust for death. It's the struggle between male and female desires on an epic scale of life and death.

The problem with this is that, quite apart from the warnings of their respective captains - Ulysses on the side of Achilles, Prothoe on the part of Penthsilea - and their duty as leaders over their troops, the desire to be torn apart by the arms of their beloved goes against not only the natural order of things, but it's also complicated by the laws governing their behaviour in war. As somewhat unwelcome forces in the bigger battle between Greece and Troy, not on either side (Kleist introducing a Rose Festival as the rationale for their involvement, where the Amazons capture great warriors to use in the procreation of their race) a love-struck Penthesilea has rescued the supreme figure of Achilles in battle but has then in turn been captured by the Greek warrior.

Since this would mean disgrace to Penthesilea, and since Achilles's feelings for the Amazon are no less overwhelming, the Greek warrior allows Penthesilea to think that she has actually captured him, so that they can be together. When Penthesilea finds out the truth however, she is appalled at the situation she finds herself in, and is helped escape by her warriors. Unable to give her up, Achilles has no option but to challenge her to a duel, to which he turns up unarmed and allows himself (in a reversal of the original myth) to be killed by the Amazon Queen. In a bloodlust of fury and hatred mixed with love, Penthesilea even launches herself at Achilles, tearing him apart with her teeth and devouring him along with her hounds.

Heinrich von Kleist's treatment of the Penthesilea myth is a powerful and disturbing one, and clearly tied up in his own complex Romantic notions of the purity of love in death. It's the kind of subject that calls out for a similar High Romantic treatment in an opera, but all the modern versions of the subject that I am familiar with tend to find a more modern musical language essential to the expression of the darkness of the mood and the nature of the subject. By the time Othmar Schoeck came to compose his 1927 one-act opera Penthesilea, he had already moved away from the lush post-Wagnerian symphonic scores towards the more suitably darker expression of Strauss' Elektra. René Koering's faithful setting of Kleist's text in his haunting 2008 opera Scènes de Chasse contrasts the contradictory sentiments with sung German dissonance in the conflict and a more lyrical flow to the spiritual evocations in Penthesilea's softly murmured French dialogue passages.

Dusapin's Penthesilea is very much in the same place as Schoeck and Koering, a dark and menacing place where emotions are laid bare and filled with violent intent. It even comes with an introductory preface note quoting Christa Wolf's warning that it's the beginning of the modern age, and it's not pretty ("Ce n’est pas un beau spectacle, l’ère moderne commence"). Dusapin is not particularly concerned with narrative drive and direction, nor - even though the libretto is in German - in working directly with Kleist's text, but rather it explores the extreme emotional states within the drama. The music is accordingly haunting, slow and steady, holding long sustained notes with occasional flurries and percussive blasts.  The singing is impassioned but rarely strained to wild abandon, supported and lifted rather by the music to a level that indicates the nature of the underlying sentiments, and how disturbing they are to mental stability of the singer. Which is usually Penthesilea, putting one in mind of Elektra.

It's difficult then to find any narrative progression through the work. In line with Kleist's lyric drama, the main action and the battles take place off stage, observed and commented on by the principals. The real battle however is very much a matching of wits between two forces greater than any army, a battle of personalities and two huge personalities at that. What ought to be a romantic interlude in the middle of the Trojan war should perhaps not distract such great warriors from their duty, but consume them it does. Dusapin's Penthesilea explores an intermediate state between two vast forces, striving to find a common denominator between innumerable indeterminate and contradictory impulses; between love and the desire to destroy, the will to dominate and conquer conflicting with the temptation to surrender and find peace. How does one separate the warrior impulse from the human desire to love, acknowledging the inevitability of death at the end of it all? Where does real triumph lie and true fulfilment?

Pierre Audi's stage direction seeks to find a place for these abstract concepts on the stage at La Monnaie. The stage is dark, the landscape one of dust, rocks, shields and armour - solid, bleak and elemental. Combined with Dusapin's score, the mood is heavy and oppressive, with occasional abstract projections offering another dimension above the physical representation. The love of Penthesilea and Achilles however finds no spiritual uplift here, or at most only a brief moment or two of abandonment to those passions. Most of the time their passions torment the two lovers and it comes out in the tortured singing as they attempt express the impossibility of their situation, control, direct and vent the terrible impulses that this gives rise to. It's hugely challenging for the singers not only to push to those limits, but identify with the dark place those sentiments come from, but Natascha Petrinsky is utterly convincing - and terrifying - as Penthesilea, with Georg Nigl a most steadfast and determined Achilles, and Marisol Montalvo the distraught Prothoe.

Pascal Dusapin's Penthesilea is currently available to view for free via La Monnaie's web-streaming service. The next opera to be streamed is Verdi's UN BALLO IN MASCHERA, directed by Àlex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus (reviewed here at Opera Australia), and conducted by Carlo Rizzi. It can be viewed for one month from from 29 May.

Links: La Monnaie streaming, RTBF Musiq 3

Thursday 7 May 2015

Gluck - Iphigénie en Tauride (Geneva, 2015 - Webcast)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Iphigénie en Tauride

Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2015

Hartmut Haenchen, Lukas Hemleb, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Bruno Taddia, Steve Davislim, Alexey Tikhomirov, Julienne Walker, Michel de Souza, Mi-Young Kim, Marianne Dellacasagrande, Cristiana Presutti, Wolfgang Barta

ARTE Concert - 4 February 2015

Gluck's musical reforms for opera are still recognised as important to the art form today, as to a certain extent is the primacy of the drama in his subjects. Composed in 1779, Iphigénie en Tauride is rightly regarded as the best example of the application of Gluck's approach to opera as drama. It's not so much that it's about putting plot and action at the centre of the work or applying a fluid through-compositional approach that integrated recitative and reduced the ornamentation of arias. The real innovation that can be seen in Iphigénie en Tauride, above and beyond these other significant reforms, is the psychological depth that the work contains.

So although Iphigénie en Tauride innovatively opens without an overture, plunging us straight into musical evocation of a storm, and even though it is Greek mythology, there's a human element underlying it that might not have been so evident in previous operatic explorations of these classical subjects. That's not a character that is lacking in the works of Handel or in other notable Baroque opera seria composers of course, but in moving away from the individual expressions of emotional turmoil in the ornamented da capo arias, Gluck does find a greater dramatic wholeness that is less academically tied to structure, less interchangeable in generic sentiments, and more willing to explore real personalities and interaction between people.

In Iphigénie en Tauride, the central relationships that draw out the themes of the drama are between Iphigenia and Orestes, and between Orestes and Pylades. The significance of this is most evident in the initial encounter between Iphigenia and Orestes, neither aware of who the other is, each believing the other dead. Without quite taking the musical language as far as Richard Strauss would take it some 150 years later in Elektra, this scene nevertheless explores just as incisively and vividly that same background, the sense of loss, horror and devastation that has visited the house of Agamemnon. Similarly, Orestes' scenes with Pylades explore the theme of friendship which might not be traditionally a strong emotional theme, but here Gluck makes it so and also - since one of them will die for it - makes it tense and dramatic at the same time.

And thereby, makes it human and not just some elaborate ancient tale of violence and revenge out of mythology involving long wars and the will of the gods. Some of the elements of Lukas Hemleb's production for the Grand Théâtre de Genève perhaps emphasise this division (mythology/human drama) and the links between them by using life-size puppet doubles for the characters. Claus Guth used a similar technique in his 2001 Zurich production of Iphigénie en Tauride as a device to psychoanalytically explore those divisions in the personalities of the characters, but Hemleb's intentions appear to be different, extending it to the nature of the drama within the opera itself. In as far as this is relevant to Gluck's treatment, it does undoubtedly emphasise the composer's particular way of exploring the conflict between actions and feelings beyond the traditional opera seria format.

Visually, the production has a strong presentation in Alexander Polzin's set designs that give a distinctive look and feel to each of the three acts without straying too far from its Greek theatre origins. A semi-circle stone amphitheatre in Act I, with most of the chorus all carrying dummies with identical masks, gives that impression of a Greek drama being played out as well as it being a temple, a place where the High Priestess Iphigenia and her followers sacrifice any foreign visitor who unwittingly arrives on the shores of Tauris. Act II closes in on the human drama of the friendship between Orestes and Pylades, by taking place mainly within a small confined space at the back of the temple/amphitheatre set. Act III is mostly empty stage and darkness, but a wider perspective shows the temple hanging above, with stalactites hanging dramatically over the drama that is impressively reaching its conclusion.

The puppets and doubles can be a little over-elaborate and not strictly necessary as an assist to Gluck's already highly evocative musical score. In Act II they can even almost work against the simplicity of the scene, when you not only have Orestes and Pylades in a cramped cell, but two life-sized puppets of them and two handlers as well. Essentially however, the purity of the Greek drama with its morally instructive dimension and the place of humanity within it are well served by the set designs. The singing, fortunately, also plays towards this purity and wholeness of drama and expression, without over-elaboration or unnecessary ornamentation. These are mythical characters and this is Greek drama on a grand scale, but the singing here really gives these larger than life figures a relatable human quality.

In this respect Anna Caterina Antonacci is outstanding as Iphigenia. Her voice holds firm, her characterisation is strong, the sense of trauma she has endured is credible, as is the dilemma she must face. That key scene meeting between Iphigenia and Orestes is played superbly and sung for all the import that is within it. Her brother Orestes here is sung by Bruno Taddia, and sung well, but it's more than a little overacted by comparison. On the other hand, how else are you expected to inhabit someone who is so consumed with guilt over the killing of his own mother Clytemnestra, and still in shock from her murder of her husband and his father Agamemnon? The singing is strong too in the other roles, with Steve Davislim's Pylades establishing a strong connection Orestes. Hartmut Haenchen's conducting of the musical performance was fine, but didn't bring out the vivid colours that are there in Gluck's score.

Links: ARTE ConcertGrand Théâtre de Genève

Monday 4 May 2015

Strauss - Elektra (Vienna, 2015 - Webcast)

Richard Strauss - Elektra

Wiener Staatsoper, 2015

Mikko Franck, Uwe Eric Laufenberg, Nina Stemme, Anna Larsson, Gun-Brit Barkmin, Monika Bohinec, Norbert Ernst, Falk Struckmann, Wolfgang Bankl, Simina Ivan, Aura Twarowski, Thomas Ebenstein, Marcus Pelz, Donna Ellen, Ilseyar Khayrullova, Ulrike Helzel, Caroline Wenborne, Ildikó Raimondi

Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 11 April 2015

The Vienna State Opera's new production of Richard Strauss's Elektra opens in silence at the rise of the curtain. A group of naked women cower in the corner of a filthy shower, are manhandled and hosed down by the maids of the royal house of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. It's a stark image, the women presumably slaves of the household, the maids dressed like prison camp attendants, merely following orders. They even brutally beat one of their own, the fifth maid who dares challenge their authority, authority they believe they have even above the Princess Elektra whose increasingly unstable behaviour they maliciously mock.

It's a powerful and effective scene that establishes the situation that Elektra finds herself in, and communicates it well to an audience. It's much more effective, for example, than a setting in Greek antiquity that would likely have less of the recognisable imagery of a brutal and hated regime. It's also a more objective look than we often find in productions of Elektra, the director Uwe Eric Laufenberg avoiding the more familiar subjective expressionistic depiction of the world from the view of Elektra's deranged mindset. It's set in a townhouse in Vienna, but the basement does indeed resemble "a dungeon" as Chrysothemis describes it, a dark place with a pile of coal in the background and wall-barrier slabs of concrete.

Visually, it's highly effective, particularly when a series of lifts are revealed coming up and down from the palace like a dumb-waiter. One of the lifts conveys Clytemnestra, worn down by her dreams and nightmares, fearful and paranoid. The stage for the one-act performance is well divided then, providing ambience and space for each of the characters to envelop themselves in the varying moods (increasingly tense and desperate) of the score and the expression of the singing. The space is well used, and the singing is superb, but dramatically it remains inert, and in this work, the main part of the dramatic intensity must be carried by Elektra.

It's true that the nature of the opera doesn't allow for great drama, at least not up until the final explosion of violence and its sense of cathartic release. A singer of great stamina and force is needed to carry a role like Elektra, and ther's no question that Nina Stemme is well qualified in that respect, her voice deep, resonant, and well-balanced across the range. The role however needs rather more drive and personality and Stemme can't quite fill out that aspect in her acting. She hits all the notes, but doesn't seem to be alert to the minute detail of Strauss's score, and it's hard to get the sense that she is driven, deranged, vengeful and truly despairing as the nature of her predicament and the conflicting news of the fate of Orestes swing her mind from one extreme to the next.

If Stemme isn't able to fully inhabit the character (and I don't blame anyone for not wanting to go to those very dark places that Strauss has scored in one of the most disturbing characters of any opera), the characterisation as far as the direction and the other members of the cast go is clearly well established and brilliantly performed. Gun-Brit Barkmin in particular is an outstanding Chrysothemis. This is a character who can be a little wishy-washy in comparison to the more powerful women all around her, but here Chyrsothemis seems even more driven than Elektra. Or if perhaps not driven, since she can't be spurred into action, at least much more conflicted and disturbed by the situation she and her sister find themselves in. Barkmin's singing is also wonderfully expressive, cutting clear and bright, bringing out the qualities of how her character is scored better than anyone else I've heard in the role and making it really count.

Anna Larsson likewise also brings detail and nuance to Clytemnestra. She's not imperious here or a monster, but a rather broken figure, destroyed by her own actions, hounded by nightmares, a true figure from a Greek tragedy. That's expressed as much in her appearance, in her gestures as in her singing. There's defiance here in her confrontation with Elektra that still holds the daughter at bay, but the fraying at the edges is starting to show. Elektra might sometimes appear to be a one-woman show, but the contributions of Larsson and Barkmin show how important it is to have strongly defined characters in those other key roles. Orestes and Aegisthus have lesser roles to play certainly - though they can also be developed further - and they are taken well here by Falk Struckmann and Norbert Ernst.

The manner in which the three women are developed however pays dividends at the conclusion of this Elektra. In contrast to the enhanced realism established in the earlier scenes, the set starts to reflect the horror of the madness and the violence that has been built-up and finally unleashed. The imagery has something of the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining', the implications similarly that of a household where all the accumulated abuse and horrors that have taken place within its walls starts to seep out. The dumb waiter starts to bring down a sequence of horrors from the upper levels of the palace, mostly unidentified, but among them certainly the executed Clytemnestra. Elektra leads an exultant dance in which she is joined by a team of dancers dressed like something out of a 50s' prom (like the ball in 'The Shining'), and is swallowed up in the celebration, leaving a shocked Chrysothemis to contemplate the horror of it all.

Elektra was broadcast from the Vienna State Opera as part of their Live at Home programme. The next broadcast is DON PASQUALE on 8 May with Juan Diego Flórez. Also in May, Plácido Domingo stars in NABUCCO on 14 May and Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production of DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN, conducted by Simon Rattle begins with DAS RHEINGOLD on 30 May and DIE WALKURE on 31 May. Details of how to view these productions live at home can be found in the links below.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video