Monday 17 August 2015

Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Bayreuth, 2015 - Webcast)

Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Bayreuther Festspiele, 2015

Christian Thielemann, Katharina Wagner, Stephen Gould, Georg Zeppenfeld, Evelyn Herlitzius, Iain Paterson, Raimund Nolte, Christa Mayer

BR-Klassik Internet Streaming

Leaving aside for a moment the extraordinary musical and singing challenges that are required to perform Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, the staging of the work is just as vital to the overall impact of the work, and can be just as difficult to conceptualise. What matters more in the setting of this work is not naturalistic locations and dramatic representation but rather establishing mood and an environment that can get across the innumerable and interweaving layers of hatred and love, light and dark, love and death, male and female desire, physical and spiritual fulfilment, all the while respecting the philosophical and psychological context of the work. No easy matter.

Katharina Wagner's production for the 2015 Bayreuth Festival is surprisingly then one of the more accessible reworkings of the composer's work there in recent years, and it's also (coincidentally or not) one of the most successful. It's perhaps because this is one Wagner work where real-world naturalism is least essential to its purpose. This is opera or music-drama on a whole other level, one the doesn't need superfluous commentary or revisions. That's not to say that the composer's great-granddaughter plays it entirely 'straight'; there are a few twists and touches applied, but in almost every respect they serve to enhance the otherworldly power and greatness of the work.

The first thing you notice is that this is an unusually dark staging. Bayreuth of recent years has tended to go for clean, bright, boldly coloured productions. Tristan und Isolde is of course a work where darkness in opposition to the light plays a major part, but even the last Bayreuth Tristan und Isolde, eccentrically directed by Christoph Marthaler, was bright and boldly coloured and not unsuccessful in its presentation of the work either. Instead of a ship in Act I then the set consists of a maze of staircases, platforms and risers; Act II take place not on a tower but in a pitch black dungeon; and Act III's island of Kareol is really just a void, where the dying Tristan lies surround by members of his crew while he experiences nightmares and hallucinations.

That is fine as far as mood goes, but more important is how Katharina Wagner uses it to draw something more out of the characterisation and psychology of the characters in relation to one another. It's clear from earlier on than usual that there's a history between Isolde and Tristan and that it goes deeper than the story that Isolde relates to Brangäne about Morold's death and her nursing the wounded Tristan back to health. There's certainly a sense of betrayal there in her being abducted to be brought from Ireland to Cornwall to be the wife of King Marke, but here it's clear that Isolde is more angry at his betrayal of the deep feelings she knows that he has for her, feelings that she also shares.

That doesn't really need to be emphasised, as it does become very evident by the end of Act I, but the director's little nudges are useful and meaningful and do lead towards a slight spin on events in the critical moment of the imbibing of the love potion. The little hints are there in the distance between them on the platforms that they strive to bridge, lingering desperate embraces, and unrestrained greedy kisses in those grasped moments let us know that the passion is already there between them and doesn't need a magic potion to unleash it. Kurwenal and Brangäne can barely hold them apart. Accepting their condition, they don't even drink the potion at the key moment, the director accordingly using the music of revelation more of a means of hesitance to accept the enormity of the truth, and it seems Wagner's music can really be used effectively in this way. The truth acknowledged, they pour the potion over their joined hands and then attempt to throttle each other as the ship arrives in Cornwall.

It's a bit of a variation on the traditional interpretation, but it by no means invalidates the essential truth of Tristan and Isolde uniting their love and accepting that it can only be consummated in death. If on paper that sounds an unnecessary distortion, the proof of its effectiveness in simply there in the performance and the impact it has at the fall of the curtain. That of course is not entirely down to choices made in the direction, but in collaboration with the musical forces that Christian Thielemann handles with his customary attention to detail, with intelligence in the reading of the score, and in the management of its intent and its dynamic. It's also evidently much to do with how convincingly the singers can get across the complex relationship that Wagner has weaved into the score and the philosophy of the work. Quite simply, everything comes together to incredible effect.

I wasn't entirely convinced by Evelyn Herlitzius as Isolde when I heard this Bayreuth production in the earlier radio broadcast of the première performance. Herlitzius can be phenomenal in some Wagner roles, but I didn't think her voice was suitable for Brünnhilde in the Vienna State Opera 2015 Der Ring des Nibelungen, and I had doubts when I heard her Isolde. She's strong and capable of such roles, there's a fullness in her voice and the volume is there, but the vibrato takes her high notes into a not entirely pleasant area. I remained sceptical that her slight build suited the role either at the beginning of the streamed broadcast, but it soon became apparent - as I've witnessed elsewhere (most recently her Elektra in Zurich) - that Herlitzius's greatest strength is her ability as a stage performer. She commands and holds attention, and it's her whole performance and commitment that ultimately convinces. She's pretty much phenomenal here.

Any doubts about whether Stephen Gould is capable of singing Tristan well were already put to rest by his excellent performance as Siegfried in this year's Vienna Ring. He is really finding his Wagner voice, and if there are a few areas in Act I where he doesn't quite sustain the notes, his Act II performance is more authoritative and his Act III outstanding. Again it's a question of completeness, not viewing his performance in isolation. Katharina Wagner's slight reworking of the Liebestrank scene allows more tenderness to creep into the scene than an outburst or release of tension, and Gould and Herlitzius's delivery of this tender moment is simply beautiful. It ties in also with Thielemann's conducting, measuring the pace and drive of the work to culminate in this moment of beauty, finding the Romantic flourishes the staging needs and unwaveringly holding it.

That comes through just as effectively in Gould's wonderful delivery of 'So starben wir, um ungetrennt' in Act II, but it's as much a matter of pace, measured delivery and presentation as just great singing. Katharina Wagner's exploration of Tristan and Isolde's Love/Death pact with the Night is explored hanging little lighted stars in the intimacy of an improvised tent in their dungeon. The realisation that there is no room for their love on this plane of existence is bound in a cylindrical cage and expanded outward by projections of the figures walking (reminiscent of Bill Viola's video installations for the Paris Opera Tristan) and transforming into children. Floating though this is a gorgeous 'O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe', with Christa Mayer's Brangäne voice of warning to the sleeping dreamers utterly haunting. Thielemann suspends the moment of blissful revelation and acceptance in the most extraordinarily beautiful way.

The production however never lets the work get carried away in blissful reverie, as the presence of King Marke soon brings us back to earth. Marke is characterised sympathetically for the pain of betrayal he bears - and it's beautifully sung as such by Georg Zeppenfeld - but there is an edge of threat and danger there too. Wearing a long overcoat and a fedora, wielding a flick-knife and kneeing Tristan in the stomach, there is a gangland thuggish quality to a Marke who has been denied his trophy wife. The characterisation works, and doesn't jar with what has come before other that where it is indeed meant to be jarring. It conveys without over-emphasis that sense of gangland honour and bonds of blood, arguably in a more meaningful way than were it between a king and his knight.

It's all about balance and application of emphasis in the right places, and as far I am concerned, Katharina Wagner doesn't put a foot wrong, at least up until the end of the Liebestod. The performance ends with Isolde led away by Marke rather than expiring on the spot, but even that gives rise to interesting questions and implications around the Romantic nature of their love. Act III finds other means of sustaining attention during the often interminable wait for Isolde and at the same time finds good visual ways to explore the depths of Tristan's pathology (if you want to view it as such). Here Tristan is tormented by nightmarish visions of Isolde trapped in a pyramid of Light suffering terrible torments, unable to join him in Darkness, in Death. All attention remains focussed on the aching longing in Tristan's words, and the climax consequently can't help but be immensely moving. It's one of the best third Acts of Tristan und Isolde I've seen for a long time in an overall very impressive production.

Links: BR-Klassik, Bayreuther Festspiele

Sunday 16 August 2015

Rossini - Guillaume Tell (Rossini Opera Festival, 2013 - Blu-ray)

Gioachino Rossini - Guillaume Tell

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro - 2013

Michele Mariotti, Graham Vick, Nicola Alaimo, Juan Diego Flórez, Marina Rebeka, Simon Orfilia, Amanda Forsythe, Luca Tittoto, Simone Alberghini, Allesandro Luciano, Celso Albelo, Wojtek Gierlach, Veronica Simeoni

Decca - Blu-ray

Rossini's final opera Guillaume Tell is a work of tremendous scale and ambition that even today still requires huge musical, singing and stage resources to do real justice to it. The blending of the Italian opera form that the composer had done so much to define is taken here to a new level with introduction of French opera traditions that practically invent the style of Grand Opera. For its production at Pesaro in 2013 the Rossini Opera Festival invited Graham Vick to take on the challenge of directing the work in a way that would retain its immense power and status, but at the same time present it in a new light. Inevitably with Vick, it becomes almost an entirely new opera.

It take a while to get your bearings here in the specially constructed stage at the Arena Adriatica in Pesaro for the 2013 Guillaume Tell, if you ever even get your bearings at all. You're not exactly in 14th century Switzerland, that's for sure. The opening scene in fact looks like it takes place on a sleek cruise liner, one where the divisions between the rich and the poor voyagers are nonetheless dressed like their counterparts on the Titanic. It at least marks a clear contrast between the Austrian aggressors of the original story and the oppressed people of Guillaume Tell's canton in Switzerland. Soldiers dressed in Austrian uniforms keep an eye on the natives, who look like they are cleaning the decks, while the nobles in their finery brush them aside. It's hard to relate to any of the specifics of the original setting.

The lack of specific location or period is somewhat unsettling. It could just as easily be a large temple, or a posh hotel with exquisite views of the surrounding Alps. Vick doesn't believe however that you can put nature up on the stage, so makes no attempt with the crudely painted backdrops to suggest anything naturalistic. As the clear distinctions between the rich and the poor and the clenched fist on the drop curtain indicate, the director clearly wants to use the stage as a "blank canvas" to make a bold statement on power and oppression, freedom and revolution, one that is bigger than a mythological story of uncertain origin. It's also an approach that corresponds with Rossini's impressive, almost Wagnerian musical efforts to tie mythology to larger questions of nationalism and identity.

Vick's modern Bayreuth-like stylisations might seem out of place in Rossini, but conductor Michele Mariotti also seems to recognise the pre-Wagnerian force and dynamic that is there in the score as well. Act I plays out almost like Der fliegende Holländer, and heard this way, you can really get a sense of how far mature Rossini has come from the bel canto and opera seria constructions/constrictions of his earlier works. There's still a danger in this work of overplaying and being drawn into heavy-handed and obscure symbolism that is out of place with the real intent of the piece. Vick's approach here looks similar to his War and Peace for the Mariinsky, but as Act II of Guillaume Tell here becomes a "workers of the world unite" against slavery and oppression, you have doubts that it's enough to just reductively and abstractly treat the issues here are nothing more than a class struggle.

By Act III however, Vick's sinister imagery starts to really sink into your bones and show how it supports those bigger questions. Arnold and Mathilde's love for each other and the sacrifices they have to make must be more than just a romantic interlude added for variety and convention. Vick's production shows that it relates to wider social issues, to family, to national pride, and even to grander questions of what life means. Act III of course also brings up such matters in a way that - as seen by the recent controversial Covent Garden production - are difficult to handle effectively without overstating or diminishing the intent. There's no rape scene, but the rich Gessler's humiliation of the 'poor' in Vick's production still has an edge of sexual abuse and humiliation that seems to strike the balance somewhat better.

It's an important point to make because it's the key moment where the occupying forces overstep the mark. Tell's defiance and his feat of skill as a bowman further undermines Gessler's credibility and the people start to believe in themselves. Vick's production, as strange and abstract as it often is, never descends into absurdity but remains connected to those very real and significant human emotions, and that makes all the difference. Of equal importance to keeping the potentially overblown drama meaningful is Michele Mariotti's fantastic conducting and the outstanding performance of the orchestra that captures all the detail and sophistication of Rossini's score, driving it forward with tremendous energy.

No less challenging in Guillaume Tell is finding the right singers for a range of challenging roles. Arguably the role of Arnold Melchtal is the most difficult role to cast, and it's a challenge even for as consummate a Rossini tenor as Juan Diego Flórez. Flórez is traditionally better suited to light comedy Rossini, but there is a darkening in his voice occurring now that gives him the opportunity to approach the darker, more dramatic tenor roles. It's still a bit of a stretch, but Flórez does remarkably well. Next to that is Mathilde, and Marina Rebeka is nothing short of phenomenal here, her voice equally strong and projected out across the whole range, the high notes in particular ringing clear and firm. Rebeka pretty much carries the otherwise fairly static Act II, making it much more interesting that it might otherwise be.

There is however not a single weak link in the singing, which in this work is really something. Nicola Alaimo has good presence as Tell, not as strong in projection, but capable of navigating the switch between intimate sensitivity and pride spilling over into furious anger with real conviction. Amanda Forsythe shows how much a strong account of Jemmy can contribute to the work as a whole and Luca Tittoto gives us a fearsome Gessler who nonetheless has more personality than just being an evil villain. Personality is what this production really has going for it, Paul Brown's sets, Vick's direction, a uniformly strong cast and particularly Mariotti's conducting, really exploring the true worth of Guillaume Tell.

The 2013 Rossini Opera Festival production of Guillaume Tell is released on DVD and BD by Decca. The four-hour long work transfers well to the screen. It would seem that considerable work has been done to make the problematic acoustics of the basketball stadium of the Arena Adriatica more suitable for opera performance. The audio tracks here, in uncompressed PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 are astonishingly good, and the bright stage production is filmed well. There is a short extra feature on the disc exploring Graham Vick's production and the challenges of putting it on stage. The Blu-ray is region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German and Korean.

Sunday 9 August 2015

Rossini - Il Signor Bruschino (Rossini Opera Festival, 2013 - Blu-ray)

Gioachino Rossini - Il Signor Bruschino

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro - 2013

Daniele Rustoni, Teatro Sotterraneo, Carlo Lepore, Maria Aleida, Roberto de Candia, Francisco Brito, David Alegret, Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore, Chiara Amarù

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Irony can be used to good effect in opera in certain circumstances. It's always a good fallback when an opera is a little too immersed in period attitudes and behaviours, or when the musical style is no longer in fashion. You'll see irony used a lot with modern productions of Meyerbeer, for example, as in Laurent Pelly's Royal Opera House production of Robert le Diable. Not everyone will agree that it's the best way of viewing all such works, but it helps if the opera in question is a comedy and an entertainment and not expected to be taken seriously.

The good people at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro aren't afraid of applying a little ironical distance to their productions when the occasion demands it. It's not just a case of being clever and modern, as much as the only way of reaching back and finding a way to revitalise works that in the present day would seem a little stagy and conventional. Certainly many of Rossini's early works are far from masterpieces, but there are wonderful innovations, humour and techniques in them that a little judicious irony can bring out and highlight without getting too carried away.

Such an example would be the composer's very first opera, Demetrio e Polibio which the Rossini Opera Festival, with the clever hand of Davide Livermore directing, characterised as a backstage ghost version of a long "dead" opera. With such techniques, creating their own little world where Rossini's works can be appreciated for what they are worth (and sharing them with the world in the form of wonderful Blu-ray releases), the Rossini Opera Festival can be said to have created their own kind of Rossiniland. In Rossiniland, the spirit of Rossini is celebrated and might even have something relevant to offer the modern world, even if that's just mildly diverting entertainment.

The one-act 'farsa giocosa' Il Signor Bruschino is such a minor work that would probably otherwise forever be consigned to obscurity if it were considered in terms of its modest surface merits. It's pleasant, inoffensive, contrived, conventional in the extreme, and running to just over an hour in length, there's no real reason to put on above other great works by the composer other than for the sake of completeness. The Rossini Opera Festival's remit goes far beyond dusting down creaky obscure works for an airing now and again, but really researching new Critical Editions and giving the works the best possible presentation to a modern day audience. There's not a lot of point in trying to recreate their appeal to an early 19th century audience after all, is there?

With this kind of adventurous spirit, the festival are willing to look more widely at how opera can be presented and engage a young collective theatre group with no previous experience of opera directing called Teatro Sotterraneo (Underground Theatre Group) to try to bring something fresh to Il Signor Bruschino. It's a work that could really do with not only a bit of a dusting down, but a bit of restoration work and a good polish as well. It's Teatro Sotterraneo who come up with the ironical Rossiniland concept here, seeing the work in the context of it being performed by guys in suits in a theme park dedicated to the works of Gioachino Rossini.

In the Rossiniland theme park, visitors, tourists and school groups can wander around and see little scenes from in the maestro's works performed by actors in outrageous wigs and colourful 'period' costumes. They munch some popcorn, take a few selfies and then move on to the gift shop or to the next attraction. Inevitably, when there are signs advertising Il Barbiere di Sevilla, La Gazza Ladra and Guglielmo Tell, there's not a lot of reason to hang around the Il Signor Bruschino too long, but a few adventurous souls or couples who have wandered off the beaten path and ended up there seem to enjoy the modest charms of this unusual work.

Within this kind of setting and with such a work, Il Signor Bruschino can seem like a bit of a pastiche or a parody. In terms of music and plot development it's by the numbers romantic farce with confusion over assumed identities and marriage intentions that runs as smoothly and entertainingly as a Haydn comic opera, with some notable Mozart influences in there. Gaudenzio, the father of the bride to be, has some very Sarastro-like moment of intoning gravely, while his daughter Sofia bemoans the cruelty of her situation with a Donna Elvira-like character and occasional Queen of the Night flourishes.

It's never going to be thought a great opera, and even a little ironical distance isn't going to bring out any surprise revelations here. The comedy still falls flat more often than not, raising little more than a chuckle now and again. There is some genuine engagement that comes through however between the 'actor's performance' of the opera and the visitors who stop by. A young couple, for instance, soon lose interest in the plot and are more interested in each other, but it ties in well to Gaudenzio's infuriation with young people being oblivious to those who are trying to act in their interests, or at least think they are. It's nothing profound, it's not particularly clever, but it connects the world of Rossini with the modern world in a nice way.

Musically too there are of course some wonderful Rossini-isms. The overture is a delight (as they always are with Rossini), and has little hammering interludes with the back of the bow on the violins - Rossini far ahead of avant-garde modern composers in that respect. And even though it is only one act long, follows a familiar sequence of numbers and is occasionally weighed down with recitative, Rossini still fills the work with vivacious music, catchy melodies, the occasional bravura aria and a particularly wonderful trio involving Gaudenzio, Bruschino and Florville.

There's a danger that ironical distance can introduce a measure of singing by numbers, not really giving the performers anything substantial to engage with in characterisation that is already insubstantial to begin with. You feel this is the case initially with the bland romantic leads of David Alegret's Florville and Maria Aleida's Sofia, but the singing is wonderful and beautifully suited to the roles, Aleida in particular making rather more of the role with some virtuoso singing. Carlo Lepore and Roberto de Candia however bring great comic vitality to the father roles and Chiara Amarù is a bright Marianna.

On Blu-ray, the opera is given the usual high standard of presentation. The image is perfect and the sound in particular gives a fine indication of the quality of the score and how well Daniele Rustoni conducts the performance. It could be a little less 'classical' and a little more free and energetic though you feel. The extra features on the BD include a Cast Gallery and a short Making Of that explores Teatro Sotterraneo's thoughtful and irreverent approach to directing the production. The BD is region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Thursday 6 August 2015

Puccini - Manon Lescaut (Munich, 2015 - Webcast)

Giacomo Puccini - Manon Lescaut

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2015

Alain Altinoglu, Hans Neuenfels, Kristine Opolais, Markus Eiche, Jonas Kaufmann, Roland Bracht, Dean Power, Christian Rieger, Ulrich Reß, Christoph Stephinger, Petr Nekoranec, Evgenij Kachurovsky, Okka von der Damerau


While it's always interesting to see what the Bayerische Staatsoper come up with in their efforts to reinvent and revitalise familiar opera works, sometimes I think they try too hard and end up missing the point. In the case of Hans Neuenfels' productions, the approach is undoubtedly well-considered, purposeful and usually has something meaningful to say about the works themselves, but it rarely does the work any favours. In the case of Manon Lescaut, the attempt to explore and comment on the work itself seems to miss the main point that opera is to provide dramatic as well as musical coherence. And entertain. Much of those vital aspects were missing from the new Munich production.

Then again, although it is rapidly finding its way in recent years into the Puccini canon and has undoubted merits, Manon Lescaut is far from perfect and has evident musical, dramatic and structural flaws. It's infuriatingly lacking in any kind of through narrative and, set as a number of almost standalone acts that make it more Scenes from Manon Lescaut, there are huge gaps in the narrative that lead to inconsistent characterisation. It's structured much like La Bohème then, but Puccini would make up for it there with the most extraordinary arias, melody and melodrama. In Manon Lescaut, you rely on either knowledge of the Abbé Prévost original or - more likely - you can fill in some gaps from familiarity with Massenet's more satisfying version of the work, Manon.

Most obviously and fatally, there's a whole act missing between Act I and Act II of Puccini's version. Des Grieux and Manon run away to Paris after their meeting at the end of Act I. Act II then starts with Manon established as the mistress of Geronte. There's no scene to show the brief period of happy poverty of her time in Paris with Des Grieux that becomes so important a bond that it brings them back together and persuades Manon to (almost) give up her life of luxury in Geronte's apartment. It's alluded to but never shown, making what follows - not least the bizarre out of nowhere Act IV scene of them dying in the Utah desert - much harder to relate to or piece together.

Considering that there is nonetheless some terrific music and situations even within this mangled adaptation of the story, most productions and directors tend try to make the most of it and strive to give it a greater coherence. Not Neuenfels. His production seems to follow my own personal dissatisfaction of the work by following it to the letter and letting it stand in its own imperfect state. The bare minimalist stage for Act I, for example - lit only by a box-like neon frame - shows the characters and the setting as something unsubstantial and vacant. Act II gains nothing much more than trinkets in a room with no walls and a floating ceiling, with chorus figures and secondary characters dressed and behaving absurdly. By the time we get to Act IV in the desert, the stage is again completely bare.

According to Hans Neuenfels, his production is an attempt to reach an "emotional truth", but it seems more of a commentary on the weaknesses of the work itself than an attempt to mitigate against its failings. It also seems to either ignore the deeper "emotional truth" in Puccini's musical compositions, or else - and it's a valid response - doesn't find them to hold any real emotional content. I don't think the latter is the case, personally, and I don't really think that's what Neuenefels believes either. It's true that the orchestration and the Romantic sweep can be hugely overwrought, never really making the connection with the characters that you will find (arguably) in later Puccini works, but Neuenfels isn't consistent in his approach where the set design seems to be at odds with the musical and singing performances.

Alain Altinoglu recognises and gets across all the rich colour of Puccini's score, hammering out all its overblown dynamic and force, but it lacks subtlety. That's obviously as much as a failing with Puccini on this particular work, and you could argue that Neuenfels' minimal staging is an attempt to under-compensate, but it does leads to an uncomfortable disjoint between the music and the characterisation. The singing unfortunately isn't able to do a great deal to strike a balance between them. Kristine Opolais is a fine singer, but she doesn't have the size of voice that is required to fill out Manon's character across the range. She can't compete with Jonas Kaufmann in terms of volume evidently, but it's more than that. Unsupported on a bare stage, without Antonio Pappano's more sympathetic conducting to give her more room, those weaknesses are more evident here than in the recent Royal Opera House production opposite Kaufmann.

Jonas Kaufmann is of course still incredible, his performance just about flawless, and he's still clearly just about the most gifted tenor in the world today. He has the power to sing Des Grieux like every note of Puccini comes from a deep, meaningful place, even when it doesn't, which is the case in this insubstantial production. There's a sense that Neuenfels recognises that a credible Des Grieux might be the key to making Manon Lescaut work. Passages from his point of view are quoted at length between scenes and acts, but it's not really enough to make up for the lack of coherence in the approach elsewhere. This is exemplified beyond any question by the lack of emotional connection that results in the intense melodrama of Act IV's death scene in the desert. If that doesn't hit you hard, something has gone badly wrong somewhere, and once again Manon Lescaut fails to convince.


Wednesday 5 August 2015

Rachmaninoff - Troika (La Monnaie, 2015 - Webcast)

Sergei Rachmaninoff - Troika

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2015

Mikhail Tatarnikov, Kirsten Dehlholm, Kostas Smoriginas, Sergey Semishkur, Alexander Vassiliev, Anna Nechaeva, Yaroslava Kozina, Sergei Leiferkus, Dmitry Golovnin, Ilya Silchukov, Alexander Kravets, Dimitris Tiliakos

La Monnaie Web Streaming

Based on works by Pushkin and Dante, it's not as if there aren't dramatic possibilities in the three one-act operas composed by Rachmaninoff. L'Opéra National de Lorraine at Nancy not only successfully staged a pairing of Aleko and Francesca da Rimini recently, but director Silviu Purcărete also managed to link the similar themes of the two works together into a single workable concept. Kirsten Dehlholm's approach to La Monnaie's presentation of all three Rachmaninoff's short opera works is, typically for the adventurous Belgian company, very different.

While there is an overall thematic connection between the works that is reflected in the set design, each of the three works very much has their own look and feel. None of the operas however are what you would call fully staged. Partly that may be dictated by La Monnaie's transfer to the Théâtre National while renovations are being carried out to La Monnaie's regular home, right through the next season. On the other hand, La Monnaie do tend to think 'outside the box', so to speak in their productions, and that's very much in evidence in their staging of the Rachmaninoff Troika. 

Russian opera suits big colourful spectacle and pageantry and certain productions of Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko and The Golden Cockerel come to mind in Kirsten Dehlholm's bold setting of Aleko. A traditional staging of Rachnaminov's first opera, written as a graduation competition piece when the composer was nineteen (1892), and based on Pushkin's short story, 'The Gypsies', will usually draw unavoidable comparison with Carmen and Pagliacci. That certainly was the impression given in the recent Nancy production. Dehlholm's setting takes it far away from that.

Staged almost oratorio-like on a tiered platform of steps, Aleko doesn't really play to the storytelling drama aspect of the story. Nothing about the stylised rainbow-coloured costumes either suggests a naturalistic time period or gypsy culture. The story of Aleko's jealousy over his wife's affair with her lover that leads to their murder isn't wholly acted out either, with characters only moving into place alongside one another without acting out any drama. There are one or two props - some cut-out trees and tarot cards that indicate fate at play - but the force of the dramatic impact relies more on lighting and colouration exploding in psychedelic bursts of kaleidoscopic patterns that are nonetheless wholly informed by the music.

Rachmaninoff's music instrumentally takes up a considerable part of drama from the sparsely scripted libretti of Aleko and Francesca da Rimini, and it's no coincidence that the orchestra are more visible during these two operas. The orchestra might be on stage primarily due to the absence of a natural pit at the Théâtre National, but the instrumental elements of the operas are also very much a part of the dramatic fabric of the works. Just how important that is becomes more evident with the rich, melodic, dynamic Romantic sweep that Mikhail Tatarnikov draws from the orchestra here. Impressive singing too really gets the dramatic content across.

The Miserly Knight, again drawn from Pushkin, is more dialogue driven, taking the author's text almost directly from the page. It consequently pushes the focus back onto the characters at the front of the stage, the orchestra remaining behind the curtain that shows projections of a ruined building and a few filmed sequences. The situation is a relatively simple one that doesn't rely on a lot of dramatic action, but its still richly scored by Rachmaninoff, who sets the story, the characterisation and the relationships between the characters beautifully in the music.

The story of The Miserly Knight concerns Albert, a knight who has fallen on hard times, who can't even raise enough money to enter a tournament. It's particularly galling to Albert since his father, the Baron, is a very rich man who avariciously hoards all his wealth, horrified that his worthless son might one day inherit it all without having had to sweat for it. A Jewish money-lender suggests to Albert that he might want to hasten the day he inherits the money with a few drops of a potion that he can obtain for him, but nature takes its own course when the Earl himself suggests that the Baron might want to help Albert by placing him into his court.

Written in 1904, some nine years after his first one-act opera, Rachnaminoff's own distinctive voice is much more in evidence in The Miserly Knight. Despite the limited action it's lushly scored, giving strong character to the all the roles, not just the principals. The stage setting of the work tries to find a way to reflect this in the images of a ruined abandoned building, which means that occasional graffiti is thrown up unusual associations - Jimi Hendrix appearing on the screen at one point - but combined again here with very strong singing performances from Dmitry Golovnin and Sergei Leiferkus, it comes across impressively.

Although never composed to play as a trilogy, the order of composition sequence works well for the purposes of the La Monnaie Rachmaninoff Troika in progression and development. By the time we get to Francesca da Rimini (1905), the full force and brilliance of the orchestral composition, arrangements and dramatic intent is striking. The haunting choruses of the damned in the opening section where Dante and the Ghost of Virgil descend into the Second Circle of Hell and the musical colour and sweep that Rachmaninoff has composed for this theatrical extravaganza is given full expression too in Mikhail Tatarnikov's marvellous conducting of the rich orchestration.

Other than some projections of swirling mists and the descent of Dante and Virgil on cables, there's not really any effort made to give any traditional depiction of Hell in the staging. Perhaps recognising that the visual element needs no additional 'colour', the costumes and lighting go for a contrasting monochrome palette. As with Aleko, the effects are mostly limited to lighting and simple pattern effects that give the impression of the steps being fluid and wavy. It's visually spectacular, but not one that draws the dramatic element out as well as Purcărete's Nancy production. With a strong, consistent visual element and terrific performances across each of the three operas, the La Monnaie Troika creates a fascinating Rachmaninoff narrative of its own.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt