Wednesday 29 July 2015

Wagner - Tannhäuser (Bayreuth, 2014 - Blu-ray)

Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser

Bayreuther Festspiele, 2014

Axel Kober, Sebastian Baumgarten, Torsten Kerl, Camilla Nylund, Michelle Breedt, Markus Eiche, Kwangchul Youn, Lothar Odinius, Thomas Jesatko, Stefan Heibach, Rainer Zaun, Katja Stuber

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Always controversial in their revisionist approach to Wagner's legacy, the 2014 Tannhäuser is fairly typical of recent Bayreuth productions. The stage set is constructed out of a number of independently created art installations that were never created with Wagner's opera in mind. If it isn't a perfect tailor-made fit then for the ideas and themes in the opera, much less the stated settings, it does however form an interesting dialectic that encourages the viewer to see the work in a new light, and is somewhat successful in how it informs and puts across the all-important musical aspect of the work.

Director Sebastian Baumgarten's idea is to bring together several art installation pieces by the artist and sculptor Joep van Lieshout. These pieces, with names like Alcoholator, Disciplinator and Technocrat, are processes that produce a 'biogas', the whole system forming a kind of working model for the cyclical human and bodily processes that generate life and, by extension, art. Which, if you look at it broadly and in the abstract, is more or less what Tannhäuser is about. It's not enough to simply follow the old stage directions, and reverential literalism is by no means the philosophy of the current Bayreuth administration. They are aware that Wagner's works must be constantly scrutinised in order to remain relevant, but the balance between real significance and pretension is always hard to maintain.

If you want to look at the theme of Tannhäuser on a more simplistic level, it's about the co-dependency of physical and the spiritual. Even then it has to be acknowledged that the work is a little more complicated than that. There is also an outlook on society as a whole, on the role of the artist, and of course it's all tied up in Wagner's own complex and contradictory impulses, political vision and developing philosophical outlook. Baumgarten's Tannhäuser follows a similar path to Hans Neuenfels' laboratory experiment 'rat' Lohengrin for Bayreuth, viewing the work as a model of society, taking in Wagner's perspective and extending it to a more modern outlook. It's not so much trying to update it or make it fit as use it as a means to revisit the work and explore whether it really has something new to inform our view of the world we live in today.

Baumgarten of course doesn't simply just use the installations as a backdrop. There has to be consideration given to how the drama and the music interact with the set design. It's an impressive construction, if initially bewildering, the stage filled with stage hands who operate the machinery, regulating and monitoring the meters that convert the liquids and solids into biogas, cleaning-up the mess it creates. These processes extend way beyond the musical performance, starting while the audience take their seats and continuing through the intervals. There even seems to be a mass for the operators taking place on the stage in-between acts. The audience too are given a place in the interaction of the installation and the performance, with a number of them seated to the sides of the stage.

I'm not sure that the director really manages to draw anything new out of Tannhäuser, but it does encourage anyone who thinks they are familiar with the work to reconsider more deeply what it is about, and question whether those contradictions and inconsistencies within it aren't actually essential to its purpose. It does at least, I find, explore the characters in greater detail, and not just Tannhäuser, but also Venus and Elisabeth and the relationships between them. Wolfram von Eschenbach also comes out of this production with a role that suddenly seems more significant, but it seems to me that as much of the strength of the characterisation here is also down to how it is performed.

Whatever you make of the Bayreuth stage production, musically it's a glorious affair that does open up the work and reveal new qualities. It's not a forceful, driving traditional Wagnerian interpretation of Tannhäuser, but one that finds the true delicacy and poignancy within what is surely the most Romantic of Wagner's works on the misunderstood, suffering, exiled artist as national or social hero. Alex Kober's conducting of the orchestra is outstanding and the chorus are superb, as they really have to be in this particular work. There's not a trace of heavy-handedness, yet all the force and dynamic of the work is there, measured and applied in such a way that it works hand-in-hand with the production.

The singing likewise is never forced. I thought at first that Camilla Nylund was underpowered here as Elisabeth. Knowing what she is capable of, it sounded like she was conserving her voice, but the more gentle delivery and the colour that Nylund is able to apply actually pays dividends with Elisabeth and her nature here. This is also borne out in the performances of Michelle Breedt's Venus, but particularly in Markus Eiche's excellent and impressive Wolfram. The complex character of Tannhäuser is another matter however, and requires a different approach. Torsten Kerl achieves a good balance between the more lyrical side of his character and the Romantic heldentenor, his performance also covering all the playfulness, bawdiness, irreverence and the more serious, spiritual as well as the vainglorious sides of the character.

The Opus Arte Blu-ray release presents all the colour and brightness of the busy Bayreuth stage very well. Spread over two BD50 discs, there is the option to view the musical performance alone or, if you've an hour or so to spare and are interested in the set as an art installation piece, you can view it interspersed with all the extra performance art set-pieces in-between. Audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1, both giving an impressive full uncompressed true HD sound. The interviews on the disc and in the booklet provide much more useful information about the concept. Subtitles on the disc are English, French, German and Korean only.

Friday 24 July 2015

Verdi - La Traviata (Baden-Baden, 2015 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata 

Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, 2015

Pablo Heras-Casado, Rolando Villazón, Olga Peretyatko, Atalla Ayan, Christina Daletska, Emiliano Gonzalez, Tom Fox, Konstantin Wolff, Simone Piazzola, Deniz Uzun, Walter Fink

ARTE Concert - June 2015

La Traviata has nothing to prove. It remains Verdi's most popular masterpiece. Aside from the quality of the work itself, which is reason enough never to tire of it, there is always the opportunity to see its universal themes approached differently and to see how some of the best sopranos in the world take to it. At the Baden-Baden 2015 festival, we have the opportunity, for the first time as far as I know, to see Olga Peretyatko pit herself against one of the greatest works in the repertoire. Directing this production is none other than the troubled tenor Rolando Villazón.

As impressive a singer as she is, the casting of Olga Peretyatko is by no means an assured success. One of the finest bel canto singers of our time, Peretyatko has been impressive in her Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, as Blonde in Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and has shown some fine dramatic soprano capabilities as well in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride. Singing Violetta however is another matter. It's a challenging role to sing, with a dramatic and dynamic range that would put any soprano through their paces. Most importantly, it demands that a soprano bring something of her own personality to imprint upon the character.

Even in the modern age, La Traviata remains a soprano's opera more than it does a director's one, although a radical interpretation can get to the burning anger that lies in Verdi's fierce condemnation of social hypocrisy. That's evidently not what Rolando Villazón's circus-like production for Baden-Baden sets out to achieve.  It's hard though to work out what angle the director is coming from though other than just making it a colourful, abstract and entertaining spectacle.

The circus stage is actually more of a music-box scene, with a few large colourful discs like gambling chips that provide good platforms for the scenes of all four acts. The idea seems to be that the music box is contemplated by the dying Violetta before the opera starts, prompting her to reflect on the significant scenes of her life in flashback. I guess a music box is as good a description for this opera as any, but I can't see how it benefits the drama in any way. As good as Olga Peretyatko is, there's just not much life in this production.

Few of Villazón's ideas really amount to anything. Violetta seems to identify with a blonde acrobat, who acts in some of the scenes as her double. Her appearances are fitful and arbitrary and it's not as if a double was needed to do some gymnastics. Rather it tends to make the connection and relationships between the characters rather awkward in some key scenes. In what is usually one of the most powerful scenes of the work for example, Alfredo's denunciation of Violetta at the party in Act III, rather than the usual flurry of notes cast in Violetta's face, Villazón finds another way of showing the violence of this action. Alfredo rolls the money up into a knife, but the impact is lessened somewhat when he thrusts it into the ground while Violetta looks on a little way off.

There's only so much Peretyatko can do this this kind of direction, which never really captures the dynamic of Violetta's journey. Vocally, she's impressive, with a distinct quality of her own, a gorgeous rich full tone and a flowing legato that is able to do full justice to the role. Played rather slower than usual, the pace allows her voice and her technique to be heard clearly and it never falters. Whether it's paced as such on her account or on the reading of the conductor, I don't know, but it does unfortunately suck the life out of the work, particularly the energetic Act I. She doesn't look the sickest Violetta you've ever seen in Act IV, although it's still almost impossible for you still not to feel the impact of her final moments, so well has it been managed and scored by Verdi.  

The dynamic was also missing from the conducting of Pablo Heras-Casado. I was looking forward to seeing what the Spanish conductor did with this, having heard him conduct one of the best Die Zauberflotes I've ever heard at Aix-en-Provence last year. I was disappointed here. There should be energy, passion and anger here and it just doesn't come across that way. Very much worthwhile for showing how capably and largely successfully Olga Peretyatko can extend her range into Verdi's dramatic opera, this is however not the best production or musical treatment you'll see of La Traviata.

Links: ARTE Concert

Wednesday 22 July 2015

Strauss - Arabella (Bayerische Staatsoper, 2015 - Webcast)

Richard Strauss - Arabella

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2015

Philippe Jordan, Andreas Dresen, Kurt Rydl, Doris Soffel, Anja Harteros, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Thomas J. Mayer, Joseph Kaiser, Dean Power, Steven Humes, Eir Inderhaug, Heike Grötzinger - 11 July 2015

Despite its evident attractions, Richard Strauss's Arabella has never quite managed to outshine the opera it was meant to replace, Der Rosenkavalier. Or, if not replace, improve upon. As a second bite of the cherry of Viennese and Mozartian nostalgia, Arabella is much too self-conscious about all those references and allusions and a little too calculated, never succeeding in capturing anything like the indefinable magic of the original. Not that Der Rosenkavalier wasn't very calculated in its creation, but somehow it manages to transcend all of its cleverness to become something wonderful and beautiful in its own right.

As is Arabella in its own way, and as such, as the lesser Strauss work that is performed more often, it's always open to new ideas, reinterpretation and re-evaluation. Andreas Dresen's production for the Bayerische Staatsoper sets the work nominally closer to the time it was written, hoping perhaps to gain a little more depth, resonance and relevance from the world that Strauss and Hofmannsthal would have lived in. The 1920s also have an advantage of holding the same kind of fading glamour for a modern audience as the lovely evocation of period Vienna would have had for the composers.

I say nominally 1920s however, as it's a fairly abstract set design with not much that is recognisably realistic. And yet, it does find a way to capture the beautiful sense of melancholy of the period, the sense of uncertainty, the searching for hope and faith in what lies ahead for us all that pervades Arabella and gives it its distinctive and characteristic beauty. Possibly the death of Strauss's great friend and the librettist of the work, Hugo von Hofmannsthal feeds through to Arabella's mood of concern about a world were old certainties can no longer be counted upon. There's room in this respect for Arabella to be more in touch with real sentiments than the farce of Der Rosenkavalier, and some productions of Arabella do indeed manage to elevate the work if still never rival the indefinable and constantly shifting qualities of Der Rosenkavalier.

Mathias Fischer-Dieskau's set designs for Andreas Dresen's production enhance that sense of upheaval and change in the world through Expressionistic influences (also from the '20s), and they are also able to draw on allusions to the Great Depression, which has undoubtedly led to the financial insecurities of Graf Waldner and his family. Quite consciously, Dresen emphasises the 'in-between' places that most of the drama of Arabella takes place in by placing staircases at the centre of the set. I'm sure it's not by coincidence either that Hofmannsthal purposefully chose to set the work almost exclusively in places of transition, and staircases obviously have a very clear symbolism for fortunes that can go both up and down.

It succeeds in creating an environment in which you can feel Arabella's sense of not quite being in one place or another. She's a young woman, still the star of the ball, who could once have expected great things for her life, but now, due to the ruin of her family's fortune, she is forced to having to choose between three Counts, none of whom she is in love with. Then there's Zdenka in the 'in-between' state of a girl who has been forced to dress as a boy since her family cannot afford to marry off two daughters. Even when Mandryka fails to live up to the promise she holds for him, it's just another case of not being quite here nor there. Arabella is a fascinating role in this respect and those qualities are supported well, without overemphasis, by the stage direction, even if the sparse set doesn't really convey the full richness of the character.

It's left to Anja Harteros to convey all the uncertainty, longing and melancholy of Arabella in the singing, as well as the warmth and beauty of her personality as Strauss scored it. In terms of vocal delivery, Harteros can hardly be faulted. She has the full richness of tone and the range to do Strauss well, and it's an expressive voice too. Harteros is not a bad actor either, but I don't think she quite manages to embody the qualities of elegance and warmth of this beautiful, mistreated, forgiving soul as she graciously comes to accept the unfair reality of the world we live in, taking it as it is.

Thomas Johannes Mayer sings Mandryka wonderfully, looks the part and puts personality behind it. Kurt Rydl and Doris Soffel are old hands at the parts of Waldner and Adelaide and both in good voice here. Joseph Kaiser's is also on familiar ground and an assured Matteo, as is Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as Zdenka. Eir Inderhaug is a firecracker of a 20s' cabaret singer Die Fiakermilli. As I witnessed a few years ago in Paris, Philippe Jordan has a real feel for all the moods and complexities of this work, and the Bayerische Staatsorchester delivered a wonderful warm spirited account of the score.


Thursday 16 July 2015

Bellini - I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Zurich, 2015 - Zurich)

Vincenzo Bellini - I Capuleti e i Montecchi

Opernhaus Zürich, 2015

Fabio Luisi, Christof Loy, Alexei Botnarciuc, Olga Kulchynska, Joyce DiDonato, Benjamin Bernheim, Roberto Lorenzi, Gieorgij Puchalski 

Zurich - 5 July 2015

Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi bears little enough relation to Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' as it is, so it's a bit of a challenge to add another level of distance from the original and still meet expectations. But then the director here for Zurich's new production is Christof Loy, so some deviation and modernisation from the original stage directions is expected, and if anyone can make that work it's Loy. Loy is fortunate - but it can't be a coincidence - to be able to work with great performers in such productions. In the case of I Capuleti e i Montecchi, the team is an exceptional one, and the new production consequently an overwhelming success.

Essentially what is left of Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' in I Capuleti e i Montecchi (the libretto actually taken from another source) is two rival Italian families teetering on the brink of all-out gang war, and a young couple from the two families who want to get married and live a life without fear of the constant feuds and assassinations. It's 'The Godfather' really, Romeo the Michael Corleone of the family, a young man with progressive ideas refusing to inherit the role as the boss of a murderous mob family, but he is drawn in against his will, unable to escape the blood ties that determine how he must act.

Put like that, it seems obvious to stage I Capuleti e i Montecchi in such a way, but it's not at all obvious that it would work or that Bellini's bel canto music is up to the relocation of a more modern setting. Between Fabio Luisi's musical direction and Loy's dramatic direction of it on the stage, it turns out however that it is more than capable of sustaining just such an interpretation. The mood is well established during the overture, the revolving set showing a series of rooms littered with bodies of gentlemen in suits. Bodies piled up in offices, in anterooms, in bathrooms, in bedrooms. We also see a young child being prepared for a wedding, and later see her as a young woman. As the stage revolves and the scenes flow, we see however that she is clearly traumatised by the carnage. Death is all she has ever known.

The mood is sustained by the dimly lit, sepia toned lighting through the Venetian blinds spilling shadowy lines across the wood-panelled sparsely decorated rooms. The rooms are invariably inhabited by powerful men in dark suits and tuxedos, standing around looking threatening. The tension is such that you feel a fight could break out at any moment and inevitably it does, though mostly off-stage, the set revolving like the sweep of a camera pan to the adjoining room where more bodies litter the floor. Loy also brings in an additional non-singing character to shadow the performers. He/she is an adjutant for Romeo, a go-between that permits the otherwise unlikely frequent incursions that the Montecchi Romeo seems to be able to freely make into Capuletti turf to visit Giulietta's room. This silent sinister figure however also incorporates the musical motif of premonitory death that lies between them.

There's a lot more to making the staging of I Capuleti e i Montecchi work than simply dressing the sets and the characters like it were 'The Godfather' although Alexei Botnarciuc gives a great Brando impersonation as Capellio, the head of the Cappelli family. It's Loy's direction of the singers as actors that makes it work convincingly, his use of the stage as ever impeccable, every single scene and movement contributing to the drama, looking cool and stylish. It's not enough however to turn a Romeo and Juliet story into a Mob film, and Loy doesn't neglect this either. You never at any stage (including the violent opening overture) forget that there are other scarcely any less violent passions involved here between Romeo and Giulietta.

Fabio Luisi recognises this too and his conducting of Philharmonia Zürich was remarkable, fully exploring the moods underlying the melodies. With a view of the orchestra, there were occasions when my attention was drawn away from the stage, just to see how Luisi was vigorously and precisely managing the orchestra to marshal Bellini's musical forces in service of the drama. Any distraction however is short-lived due to the increasing tensions that occur on the stage and by the singing performances that interpret them.

If there was rigour in terms of matching the intensity of the music with the dramatic direction, it was only enhanced by a uniformly impressive cast. Joyce DiDonato is not unexpectedly something of a phenomenon as Romeo, convincing in the trouser role, if not quite comfortable wearing the boots it seems. A few high notes were less than secure, but as a whole, the dramatic nature of the role suited her and she sang and played with real intensity. Olga Kulchynska was more than a capable match as Giulietta, her voice soaring with the high drama. Benjamin Bernheim also made a very strong impression as Tebaldo, his performance warmly received by the audience at the curtain call.

This production is now available to view for free streaming on-line on ARTE Concert.

Links: Festspiele Zürich, ARTE Concert

Donizetti - L'Elisir d'amore (Zurich, 2015 - Zurich)

Gaetano Donizetti - L'Elisir d'amore

Opernhaus Zürich, 2015

Giacomo Sagripanti, Grischa Asagaroff, Eleonora Buratto, Pavol Breslik, Massimo Cavalletti, Lucio Gallo, Hamida Kristoffersen, Jan Pezzali

Zurich - 5 July 2015

You don't go to see Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore expecting it to throw up many new ideas or reveal any new musical qualities. Even as a comedy it has a fairly limited premise that is unlikely to inspire any real gales of laughter. No, you go to see L'Elisir d'amore with the hope of seeing some wonderful singing in a gentle feelgood comedy, and that's exactly what you get with the Zurich production directed by Grischa Asagaroff.

There was certainly nothing as optimistic or as threatening attempted as the recent Bavarian State Opera production. Asagaroff's production doesn't intend to upset or confuse anyone with some abstract futuristic set like Munich. This one is set firmly in storybook land; a colourful pop-up fairy tale storybook at that. The set is eye-catching and bright, catching the mood of the opera itself. It opens with a colourful forest scene (it's been that long since I've seen a L'Elisir d'Amore that wasn't updated, that I'd forgotten where it originally starts!), with little cardboard boars scuttling across the stage, and it subtly draws the audience further into its world scene by scene.

The light-hearted feelgood factor is firmly established by the bright set and it's mirrored in the musical performance under the direction of Giacomo Sagripanti. This is light buoyant Donizetti that achieves a good balance between smooth sophistication and a more livelier verve that spins the work along from one scene to the next. The humour starts to wane a little late in the second act, losing its momentum and starting to slump a little, but Donizetti always has a new little trick to speed it up again, a new challenge for each of the singers to rise to, an ensemble piece to pick your way through, all with an unerring ability to spark it up with another memorable melody.

Between Giacomo Sagripanti and Grischa Asagaroff's complementary working of the Donizetti's sparkling score with a bright and light-hearted stage presentation, everything in L'Elisir d'amore is guaranteed to move along well, if a little predictably and, ultimately as is the case here, rather forgettably. The work really needs a little more personality and interpretation to rise beyond that and although we had a very strong cast here - it's hard to imagine one better when you're looking at Pavol Breslik playing Nemorino and Diana Damrau playing Adina - it's still not quite enough to lift the work or give it any additional verve or excitement.

Unfortunately it didn't quite pan out entirely as planned, Diana Damrau being forced to withdraw from the final afternoon performance of the opera's summer Festspiele Zürich run due to illness. Making the disappointing announcement, the attendant assured us however that we had a very good replacement in Eleonora Buratto who had stepped in at the last moment (although she is scheduled to take over the role in future productions). She wasn't wrong. From the very first notes, it was obvious that Buratto was more than capable for the exceptional singing challenges of the role, if a little unsteady in getting up to one or two of the more difficult high notes, and she gave a fine crowd-pleasing performance.

It was Pavol Breslik however who really brought that much needed life and personality to the production. His singing was delightful and flawless, as it always is and as you would expect it to be, with that familiar sweet lyrical tone. He really made the extra effort to bring a little more of a comic touch to the work - giving an air of light spontaneity that suits the nature of Nemorino, uncertain of himself, willing to try anything that will win the heart of Adina. It's undoubtedly well-rehearsed, but there's a skill in making it look this effortless and spontaneous. Lucio Gallo's Dulcamara was surprisingly low-key, Gallo not always sounding entirely steady in his singing. Massimo Cavalletti give us a rather more sympathetic Belcore than usual, playing it more for laughs, and getting them.

Links: Festspiele Zürich

Saturday 11 July 2015

Wagner - Lohengrin (Zurich, 2015 - Zurich)

Richard Wagner - Lohengrin

Opernhaus Zürich, 2015

Simone Young, Andreas Homoki, Christof Fischesser, Klaus Florian Vogt, Elza van den Heever, Martin Gantner, Petra Lang, Michael Kraus, Bastian Thomas Kohl, Iain Milne, Andri Robertsson, Spencer Lang 

Zurich - 4 July 2015

There were many peculiarities with Hans Neuenfels' most recent production of Lohengrin at Bayreuth, setting it in a laboratory where the citizens of Brabant are all rats, but the concept it explored in its society as a laboratory experiment is a relevant one. The Wagnerian ideal of society and the evils within it that must be fought might or might not be entirely out-dated, but they still need to be seen in the context of the times and with a higher view of the human traits they reveal. That is handled in a rather more approachable manner in Andreas Homoki's Zurich production.

The main theme of Lohengrin is of course 'Trust', or 'Belief' or 'Faith'. At the beginning it's principally embodied in Elsa von Brabant, in her belief that her knight in shining armour will rescue her from those accusing her of the murder of her brother, and from the evil ambition of Friedrich von Telramund and Ortrud, who have their own interests at heart more than that of the people of Brabant. Homoki's production includes a screen with two hearts emblazoned with the slogan "Es gibt ein Glück" ("There is a happiness"), the words taken from Elsa's plea to a seemingly repentant Ortrud in Act II, "Lass zu dem Glauben dich bekehren: Es gibt ein Glück, das ohne Reu!" ("Turn then to the belief that there is a happiness without regret!").

Elsa's own faith however is later tested by her protector's demand that she never ask him his name or where he comes from. It's a seemingly odd and arbitrary demand, one that her failure to keep results in dire consequences far beyond what you would expect for such a minor infraction of his rules. The question of Trust however that this represents is about more than trusting the word of your husband. Much as trust is the foundation of a relationship, it is also the foundation of a nation. For Wagner myth is fundamental in cementing the ideals of a nation through a common belief, and that essentially that is really what Lohengrin is about.

What happens when people stop believing in 'the gods', when a nation stops believing in the right and the power of those to govern and rally their people around a common cause? Lohengrin is the first of Wagner's operas to really explore this idea and find a unifying mythology for the German people from the 12th century writings of Wolfram von Eschenbach. The power of myth, trust and belief is there in Der Fliegende Höllander, but in Lohengrin the seeds are sown for that larger tapestry of Wagnerian mythology with references to Parsifal, to Wotan and Freia that would be expanded in the Ring and just about all of the composer's mature works.

The underlying premise of Lohengrin is made clear very early on. The king, Heinrich der Vogler, wants to gather an army to fight the Hungarian rising in the East and is counting on the Duchy of Brabant to join the common cause. What the people of Brabant really need however is someone to rally behind, someone who clearly has God's blessing and can provide the necessary social cohesion. The trial of Elsa von Brabant provides an opportunity to reveal just such an inspirational leader. Lohengrin, although he doesn't reveal his identity, proves to be that man, defeating and exposing the conspiratorial and self-serving ambitions of Friedrich von Telramund.

It's important then, whether it makes sense or not on a modern day level, to establish a sense of a community looking for a Holy cause to rally behind. Like his Der Fliegende Höllander, Andreas Homoki uses a picture ("Es gibt ein Glück") as the embodiment of myth as art (or art as myth). The costume design (Wolfgang Gussmann) is all Bavarian lederhosen and Tyrolean feathered hats, making that decidedly Germanic in nature. Wagner supports it with rousing choruses of nationalistic fervour, but the simple wood panelled stage set that is used throughout the three acts also helps establish a very closed-in community in an almost claustrophobic environment, ready to be manipulated. The use of the stage, the reconfiguration of the tables and chairs to suit the context, and the blocking of the performers and crowds on the stage is superb, moving masses of people around as necessary. Which is, I suppose, essentially what being part of a nation is all about.

If the stage direction provides a strong sense of purpose, the success of the production rested on some outstanding singing performances and, above all, on a most powerful and dynamic musical performance from the Zurich Philharmonic orchestra under Simone Young. Every stirring chorus made its impact, but on the smaller details too Young hit home, emphasising every point that Homoki attempts to bring out in the production, being particularly devastating in the conclusion. In the relatively close confines of the Zurich Opera House, this was all the more effective, the expanded orchestra spilling over into the lower boxes, the detail perhaps not always coming through, but all of its impact definitely there.

Klaus Florian Vogt still has just about the ideal angelic voice for Lohengrin. He was wearing a harness for an injured leg on the night of this performance, but it didn't seem to hinder him in any way. At times, his singing feels a little like he's going through the motions and not entirely involved in the proceedings, but his projection is strong and clear and came over very well. There was fabulous projection also from Christof Fischesser, who stamped his authority on King Heinrich, Elza van den Heever was a fine Elsa and Martin Gantner showed a lot of character as Telramund.

Petra Lang's Ortrud however almost stole the show. The direction here gives her more of an anarchic character that is not entirely unsympathetic. This Ortrud is less of a hissing villain than one who is ideologically inclined towards pulling down the artifices of national brotherhood and the belief that happiness can be found in it for all. It's perhaps not what Wagner intended, but it really opens up the dynamic of the work and Petra Lang ran with it in a performance brimming with passion, vigour and thrilling technique.

Links: Opernhaus Zürich

Friday 10 July 2015

Strauss - Elektra (Zurich, 2015 - Zurich)

Richard Strauss - Elektra

Opernhaus Zürich, 2015

Lothar Koenigs, Martin Kušej, Hanna Schwarz, Evelyn Herlitzius, Emily Magee, Michael Laurenz, Christof Fischesser, Reinhard Mayr, Hamida Kristoffersen, Alexandra Tarniceru, Iain Milne, Marion Ammann, Judit Kutasi, Julia Riley, Irène Friedli, Sen Guo, Ivana Rusko

Zurich - 3 July 2015

I had already seen Martin Kušej's production of Elektra for the Zurich Opera House on BD, and I've heard Evelyn Herlitzius sing the leading role impressively in Patrice Chereau's production for Aix-en-Provence in 2013, so I thought I had a good indication of what to expect viewing from this performance at the 2015 Festspiele Zurich. The introduction of Herlitzius into the production, some minor adjustments to the direction, and Lothar Koenigs' conducting of the Zurich orchestra however changed everything.

Well, perhaps not everything, but there was a considerable adjustment of emphasis that changed the whole tone and mood of the production. What I recall principally from the BD recording of the Zurich Elektra in 2005 is Eva Johansson's characterisation of Electra as a moody teenager. She might be slight in stature, but that kind of characterisation was never going to work with the rather more intense kind of performance that Evelyn Herlitzius brings to this role. The moody teenager in the yellow hoodie is replaced by a more sinister edge of dark violence in the 2015 revival of the production.

I've seen Elektra performed many times and have often been struck by the sheer force of the score, particularly in a live environment, but until now I don't think I realised just how dark a work it can really be. In Elektra, Richard Strauss has surely composed some of the most violent music ever written. Other than Reimann's Lear, I can't think of anything else that compares. That wasn't what I expected from this particular production, but under Lothar Koenigs' direction, you could feel it reverberate right through to the bone. What is there in the music and in its performance however has to be matched on the stage in order for that kind of impact to be fully felt.

I've seen Herlitzius sing Elektra before and I've heard Herlitzius sing live before, but I've never heard her sing Electra before in live performance. I've never noticed her vibrato so pronounced as it appeared when she sings her first lines in the opera. It's not so noticeable when it's more fully enveloped in Strauss's score, and when it is the combination of her voice with the score creates an extraordinarily powerful, chilling and almost terrifying expression of potential violence.

Expressionistic it might be, but Elektra is far from abstract in its violent intent, and that needs to be reflected in the direction. In this revival, Martin Kušej's direction becomes one that sheds a light on the pervading madness. That's there in the set design to some extent, in the undulating ground, in the masses of semi-naked figures twitching like inmates of an asylum, and in the padded doors that open to let the light flood into those dark corners. Padded on the outside however, this is not just a representation of the inner mind of Electra. What comes out more clearly in this revival is that the madness extends to her murderous, tormented family.

Such is the intensity of Electra's desire for revenge on the murder of Agamemnon that you almost think that the arrival of her brother Orestes is a necessary delusion, one that comes as she topples over the edge into her dance of madness. You soon realise however that there's just as much dysfunction between Chrysothemis and Electra, between Clytemnestra and Aegisthus and between Electra and Orestes. They way they behave with each other is all wrong, there's something dark and twisted in each of them that is emphasised and brought out strongly in the score. You look at this production and it really brings it home. What a family!

Evelyn Herlitzius is utterly convincing. The way she pushes the pitch and climbs to those high notes isn't the prettiest, but the torment of Electra's condition isn't the prettiest either. A measure of that, and of the emphasis that it is given to the family relationships in the production, is with the intensity of how she cries out the names of Agamemnon and Orestes. You can almost feel her cries pinning the audience back in their seats. She sustains that performance consistently in line with the intent of the production throughout, and it's just gripping.

Hanna Schwarz shows that there is some vulnerability in the domineering Clytemnestra, and Emily Magee sings Chrysothemis in a way that indicates that she is no voice of reason. With equally intense, disturbing interpretations by Christof Fischesser as Orestes and Michael Laurenz as Aegisthus, this was a very strong cast that played to Lothar Koenigs' conduction with maximum impact, with not even the Brazilian dance troupe lessening the crushing inevitability of all of them heading to their destruction.

Links: Opernhaus Zürich

Thursday 9 July 2015

Verdi - La Traviata (Glyndebourne, 2014 - Blu-ray)

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Glyndebourne, 2014

Mark Elder, Tom Cairns, Venera Gimadieva, Michael Fabiano, Tassis Christoyannis, Olivier Dunn, Eddie Wade, Hanna Hipp, Emanuele d’Aguanno, Graeme Broadbent

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

While there has been no lessening whatsoever of the high production values at Glyndebourne in its 80th year, I'm detecting a little more of a back to basics approach in the new productions for 2014. Der Rosenkavalier was anything but traditional in its impressive and beautiful set designs, but Richard Jones didn't take any real liberties with the actual concept or characterisation, or provide any new insights either. Despite the controversy in the casting, it was actually a fairly safe production. You could say the same about the new Glyndebourne production of La Traviata.

Even just putting on Verdi's La Traviata can be seen as a safe choice, but that's only the case if it's smothered in conventional stuffy Parisian Belle Epoque décor. Hildegard Bechtler's set designs do well to avoid such trappings without losing any of the glamour and sophistication that we associate with the work's location and settings. The set and costume designs are smart, elegant and eye-catching, the stage immaculately lit and coloured. It has the virtue of being ever so tastefully modern and stylish without being tied to any specific period. It's updated, but not in any way that is going to frighten anyone with a more traditional taste in opera productions. As a production designed moreover to be toured after its Glyndebourne début, all these considerations are important.

Safe is also how you would describe Tom Cairns' direction. There's nothing in the least bit radical attempted here. There's none of Andrea Breth's Salò references, none of Willy Decker's elegant modernisms, none of the stripped back to the bone minimalism of Peter Konwitschny, and none of the nudity that is fashionable to apply even to this work nowadays. The fading glamour of the courtesan is maintained in Glyndebourne's production, without highlighting or emphasising any of the harsh realities of prostitution, the social attitudes towards sexually liberated women, and without dwelling on the grim reality of Violetta Valéry's decline, illness and death. There are a few swoons and falls, but all within the romanticism of operatic heroines dying from consumption. None of the characterisation deviates from the well-established depiction we have of these characters.

And why should it? Arguably, Verdi's remarkable music - the composer in the full-flower of his genius here - carries everything that is necessary, expresses everything that he couldn't explicitly place on the stage. Mark Elder, conducting the London Philharmonic, matches the elegance of the production and it's delicately and sensitively performed with true dramatic drive, but there's just not enough of the Verdian passion in this supreme example of the composer's craft. This is a hugely dynamic work that is all about passion and death, from the first stirrings of love to full-blown ecstasy, running through fear, betrayal and jealousy in Violetta's rapid decline into delirium and death. It's a beautiful production, consistent of purpose and design, and it's wonderfully played, but there's very little sense of the full sweep of Verdi on the stage or from the pit.

If there's one aspect where Glyndebourne play less safe and take something of a chance, it's in the casting. Like their Der Rosenkavalier, the names are not the obvious ones or even familiar ones, but the performance of the principals was nonetheless exceptionally good. First and foremost is Venera Gimadieva's Violetta. A star at the Bolshoi, this is an impressive introduction for the young soprano at Glyndebourne. She doesn't have a big soprano voice and it's not a showy star performance, but Gimadieva sings the role beautifully and looks wonderful. It's not a nuanced performance by any means, her presence is a little cold and she lacks the kind of complete absorption in the role that a more experienced soprano can bring to it, but that could be down to the fact that the solidly traditional characterisation gives her nothing new to bring out of the role either.

The same can be said for Michael Fabiano. His Alfredo is beautifully sung in a distinctive and modern tenor voice, and competently performed in a way that makes his character's behaviour totally credible. But it is also totally familiar, with no real insight or exploration of the character at all. Tassis Christoyannis similarly gives a good performance as an otherwise bland Giorgio Germont - a character who can be used much more creatively and explosively than he is here. The other roles all contribute well to the ensemble, although Hanna Hipp doesn't seem quite right for the role of Flora. As an ensemble piece however, this production, safe and consistent as it is, serves as a solid, reliable and enjoyable reminder that, no matter how often you hear it, La Traviata is one of opera's greatest works. In comparison to some rather more adventurous recent productions that have explored its passions with rather more vigour, the Glyndebourne is however just a little bit dull.

Glyndebourne's colourful productions always look fantastic in High Definition and La Traviata is no exception.  The detail is all there in the richly detailed and dark bold colouration of the filmed performance, and the musical tracks are well defined. There are a few informative extra features including an interview with Mark Elder and the cast that considers the attraction of La Traviata and what makes it great.  Another feature looks at the costume, set designs and choreography for this production.  The BD is region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Maskats - Valentina (Riga, 2015 - Webcast)

Arturs Maskats - Valentina

Latvian National Opera, Riga - 2015

Modestas Pitrenas, Viesturs Kairišs, Inga Kalna, Juris Adamsons, Rihards Macanovskis, Mihails Culpajevs, Armands Silinš, Liubov Sokolova, Andžella Goba, Ieva Parša, Krišjanis Norvelis, Samsons Izjumovs, Nauris Puntulis, Laura Grecka, Ieva Kepe

The Opera Platform - 30 May 2015

Premiered in 2014, at the close of the celebrations of Riga's year as European City of Culture, Arturs Maskats' Valentina is undoubtedly an important new opera work; important to Riga and Latvia, and important to a world that is still trying to come to terms with events that happened in recent history during the Second World War. Memory is in fact one of the main themes of the opera, evoked in the libretto, in the structure that this gives the work, and in the music itself. It makes its point very well, even if it can't possibly live up to the ambition of standing as a statement for all the people of Riga during and after the war.

Maskats and his librettist Liāne Langa ambitiously attempt to filter the whole of the experience of the war and its legacy through the figure Valentina Freimane, a famous theatre and film historian who survived the Holocaust. It's ambitious but necessary as the best way to understand the context of the war as a whole is through the experience of one person. Belonging to a Jewish family, in hiding for the duration of the war, Valentina's experience speaks of the horror of the whole, the initial incomprehension, the realisation of war, spreading out to take in the impact it has on close friends, relatives and other citizens in Riga who they come into contact with.

That's challenge enough, and it inevitably feels a little oversimplified trying to compress this naturalistically into the dialogue of the libretto. The opera's creators however aren't aiming for an entirely naturalistic approach. To do so would be to resign the war to an event in the past and neglect the wider impact and its significance through to those living in the present day. Maskats' opera, and particularly the staging by Viesturs Kairišs, attempts to break away from the linear narrative format, dividing the opera up into two parts, the first Act leading up to the beginning of the war, the second part dealing with the aftermath, but also introducing little digressions in time to connect it to a wider historical and personal perspective.

The first half of Valentina, Act I, is constructed then of a number of shorter scenes, episodic snapshots in time that stand mostly as moments of memory and beauty of more innocent times. It starts out in a reflective manner with Valentina seen as an older woman, a screen showing a sepia photo of a street scene, Valentina recalling children singing and playing on the street, family life and being in love. The libretto is littered with references to the summer, the music also evoking warmth and melodies of the 1930s. It's an innocent age, and that innocence is reflected in Valentina choosing to follow her love for Dima rather than the Jewish boy Alexey that her family would like for her, Valentina oblivious to the situation elsewhere in Latvia and to the consequences that this will have in the years ahead.

Those elements gradually make their presence felt as the first Act progresses, the music taking on a more militaristic edge and a marching rhythm as the events in the wider world are discussed. How it relates to Latvia is spoken about in real practical terms, but the libretto also uses an undertaker to give a sense of general unease and uncertainty for all in his fearful dreams. Valentina's role however can also be seen to reflect Latvia's position, caught between two great powers, Russia and Germany, in the middle of something they have no control over and a great deal over. As Alexey also says later, he is now a grown man, but still feel like a child, "still unaware what game he will have to play".

Musically, Maskats' compositions in the first half have something in common with Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen. There's no direct reference other than the use of national folk music, but the accumulation of moments add up to a celebration of life and experience, of time and the changes that time brings. Later, there's more of a Tchaikovsky to the dramatic underscoring and flowing melody that works effectively. Most notably however, there is a very specific Latvian character to Valentina, on how events during the war have had an impact that has shaped national character and outlook. There's an attempt to consolidate the pre-war character through a stirring ode to Riga close to the end of Act I, which might have sounded like nationalistic and celebratory were the reverie not shattered by a soldier appearing gun first from a manhole in the middle of it and a red flag appearing.

Reflecting the loss of national identity, or even the personal identity of being part of a family, Valentina and Latvia are further divided and categorised by the yellow stars that appear at the start of Act II. In contrast to the episodic reverie of Act I, Act II has more of the flow of a nightmare. In attempting to capture the horror of war, and a wider perspective on matters such as collaboration, Act II loses Valentina as a focus for the opera while she is in hiding. The opera too consequently fails to hold its focus musically and dramatically, the incidents certainly horrific on their own, but still not really being capable of hitting the mark at the full gravity of the situation. It's an impossible task in any case and probably a mistake to even attempt it. While it certainly doesn't trivialise the experience for all those concerned, it's beyond the realm of this opera and Muskats' tonal melodic music to truly express and encompass dramatically the horror and the greater evil by merely putting singing 'champagne Nazis' on the stage.

Viesturs Kairišs' direction makes the very best of the staging of Valentina in a more or less traditional manner, without any clever effects. The episodic structure of the first half has a consistency of tone, makes bold gestures where they ought to be, and is subtle when a lighter hand is needed. Adopting the perspective of the older Valentina, it effectively manages exactly the way a person would tread delicately through those memories, with fondness for those times of family and community warmth, and with the horror of the symbols (red flags, yellow stars) that intrude on those memories and usher in less pleasant events. In line with the dramatic shift in Act II, it feels less effective at trying to place a concrete reality on the war crimes, but certainly by the end, with the reappearance of Valentina - a strong performance from Inga Kalna - it all comes together to make a strong impression indeed.