Tuesday 29 September 2015

Chausson - Le Roi Arthus (Paris, 2015 - Webcast)

Ernest Chausson - Le Roi Arthus

L'Opéra National de Paris, 2015

Philippe Jordan, Graham Vick, Sophie Koch, Thomas Hampson, Roberto Alagna, Alexandre Duhamel, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, François Lis, Peter Sidhom, Cyrille Dubois, Tiago Matos, Ugo Rabec

Culturebox - 28 May 2015

There's nothing too complicated about Graham Vick and Paul Brown's concept and sets for this production of Chausson's Le Roi Arthus (King Arthur) at the Paris Opera. Evidently with Vick, it's not going to be period King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table wearing suits of armour, but then Chausson's opera has very little to do with the myth or even adherence to traditional characterisation. Except in one respect. It's really nothing more than a variation on the common opera theme of the illicit love affair that betrays a king, and really if it wasn't set as King Arthur, the characters here could be replaced by others without any significant changes. Like King Marke, Tristan and Isolde for example.

That hardly seems like a fair comparison, but it's a valid one, since Chausson's opera - his only opera and one that is rarely performed - does wear its Wagnerian influences heavily. Lancelot's love affair with the Queen Guinevere takes place in secret in the second scene of Act I, the couple intensely wrapped up in their love for one another as Lyonnel (Kurwenal) looks on worriedly, aware of the consequences of them being discovered by the king. Their declarations of love approaches a peak where they sing of their profound divine ecstasy and how the rest of the world seems like a confused dream, just as Mordred (Melot) rushes in, catches them in the act and is struck down by Tristan... er, I mean Lancelot.

Despite the evident aspirations to match these sentiments with Wagnerian through composition and sweeping crescendos of large orchestral forces; despite a few Ho-he-Ho-ho's and a labourer (Steersman) lament at the start of Act I, Chausson's score never even comes close to the soaring transcendence and ecstasy of Wagner. The comparison that is begged is unfortunate, for were it not for a libretto that is rather dull and domestic, having none of the profundity of Wagner's philosophical weight and poetic expression, Le Roi Arthus does actually have a musical force of its own or of a particular French post-Wagnerian tradition (Franck, Massenet) where it sits rather better.

The disparity between the musical qualities of Le Roi Arthus and the narrative of the libretto are unfortunately all too apparent in the production at the Opéra National de Paris. Graham Vick can't find any real conceptual element to grasp onto other than the rather domestic nature of the drama. Arthur's Britons are more like Glastonbury hippies who, after defeating the Saxons, rope their swords into a circle and build a flat-pack house for their King. Scattered books speak of the disarray that follows, and a red plastic sofa speaks of the lust that upsets the cosy atmosphere of the happy family. Is there any deeper level to be drawn out here that Vick is missing by not setting it in Arthurian times? I don't think so.

It's well worth applying more attention however to Philippe Jordan's conducting of the orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris. Divided into three acts with two scenes each, all separated by symphonic interludes, Jordan reveals more than the superficial Wagner similarities that the narrative leads one to hear. Aside from the symphonic interludes, the scoring and performance of Arthur in Act II, Scene II suggests a closer affinity with Golaud from Pelléas et Mélisande, or even King Phillip II from Verdi's Don Carlo. That kind of wealth of influence and reference is there in Chausson's scoring, and Jordan brings out the whole dynamic and range of the possibilities that are there in the music.

If only it was all put in the service of something worthwhile, as the characterisation in Le Roi Arthus seems to have no real-life foundation or insight of its own. Arthur has none of the complexity of Phillip II and is indeed little more than the kind ruler (in chunky wool cardigan) suffering the anguish of suspicions and cruelly betrayed by his closest friend and his wife. Lancelot is all conflicted between love and duty, struggling over questions of honour and nobility, but prone to being swayed by the machinations of a woman. And, yes, that's about the level that Guinevere operates on, having no qualms about her actions, able to brazenly carry on with Lancelot and lie to Arthur, manipulating both men away from their finer nature.

Within the restrictions of those poorly defined personality traits, the cast nonetheless perform admirably, all of them well suited to this repertoire. Written as it is, you can even indulge Le Roi Arthus as being the only way you'll ever hear Sophie Koch and Roberto Alagna singing Tristan und Isolde. Koch fares better in the Wagnerian stakes as she has such experience and ability in the mezzo-soprano roles. She brings a thrilling intensity here to a wonderfully scored but ultimately rather thankless role. While it's clear that Alagna could never sustain the demands of a Tristan and is stretched at the more intense parts of Le Roi Arthus, he's in his element as the romantic hero and consequently terrific in the main as Lancelot. Thomas Hampson's voice isn't as robust as it once was, but he is still commanding here as Arthur and particularly impressive in his 'Ella gaimmai m'amo' scene.

It's in Arthur that there is some room to expand on the themes of Le Roi Arthus as being a little more than run of the mill domestic drama. The aforementioned scene does see Arthur's world implode, his abandonment by Guinevere and his betrayal by Lancelot cutting deeply, hitting a strong king at his weak point. In it he sees the collapse of everything he has strived to achieve, leaving the way open only to death. He calls out to Merlin, seeking power beyond what is human, but Chausson's score - as rich as it is and as all Parsifal-like as it gets to in the Third Act finale, is inadequate to take the piece to that other level where that work, Tristan und Isolde, Don Carlos and Pelléas et Mélisande all reside.

Links: Culturebox

Sunday 27 September 2015

Britten - A Midsummer Night's Dream (Aix-en-Provence, 2015 - Webcast)

Benjamin Britten - A Midsummer Night's Dream

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2015

Kazushi Ono, Robert Carsen, Sandrine Piau, Lawrence Zazzo, Miltos Yerolemou, Scott Conner, Allyson McHardy, Rupert Charlesworth, John Chest, Elizabeth DeShong, Layla Claire, Brindley Sherratt, Henry Waddington, Michael Slattery, Christopher Gillett, Simon Butterriss, Brian Bannatyne-Scott

Culturebox - July 2015

It's not the greatest idea that Robert Carsen ever had, but his huge bed setting for the 1991 production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, revived here for the 2015 Aix-en-Provence Festival, is stylish and has remained popular over the years. Although it doesn't seem entirely obvious, its bold conceptual approach isn't entirely without justification either, matching as it does Britten's very distinct and carefully structured take on the original Shakespeare play, while introducing even a little bit of Shakespearean vulgarity that Britten may have glossed over somewhat in the respectful translation to opera.

There is certainly a change of emphasis in Britten's version of the play, which places the dispute between the Fairy King and Queen Oberon and Titania at the centre of the opera. There are also two other love affairs that become entangled in this dispute in Act I, but quite whether this justifies having a huge bed taking up the whole of the stage in Act I is debatable. Most of Britten's adaptation actually takes place in the enchanted woods just outside Athens - Lysander and Hermia seeming to wander in there by chance, not so much fleeing the harsh Athenian law - but the idea is successfully developed and adapted to events in the subsequent acts.

Michael Levine's sets seem to take nature into the equation however in the blue/green colouration, the midsummer night mood and the spell it casts connecting the earthly and the spiritual, the human and the fairy. It's an expansive view of the world that is a key element to the original Shakespeare play and it's replicated in Britten's playful and meticulous musical mirroring of each of the various elements where each has their own particular style, sound and instrumentation. Most notably, considering their central position in the work, are the ethereal delicate sounds of the fairy world, with voices that include a countertenor for Oberon (a rarity in 1960 when the work was written) and a boy chorus for the elves.

There is however perhaps too much emphasis on the 'dreamier' side of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Britten's opera to the detriment of the more earthy and comic elements, but Carsen's production manages to redress the balance slightly. Mozart was undoubtedly an important influence on Britten, but although there are musical nods to older styles of music, including Baroque opera references in the third Act Pyramus and Thisbe drama, there are no obvious direct references to Mozart in the score. It's hard however not to imagine that The Magic Flute was very much in the composer's mind when it comes to bringing together diverse characters and musical styles and creating order out of the chaos in a celebration of love and harmonious accord.

It's interesting that Carsen's later take on Die Zauberflöte in a graveyard would indeed emphasise the harmony of all things more than the traditional divisions in Mozart's work, and to some extent that balance and Mozartian influence is evident in Carsen's much earlier production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In her blue attire, Titania is a Queen of the Night figure, while the green Oberon is a more earthly Sarastro figure (albeit at the other extreme end of the male voice). Their personal dispute, like the dispute between the opposing forces of Die Zauberflöte, is what causes discord in love among the various couples, and it's only by acceptance of the opposing sides of human rationality and spirituality in Carsen's interpretation of the Magic Flute (rather than one side defeating the other) that reconciliation to the wholeness of human brotherhood is possible.

This would coincide very well with Shakespeare's view in A Midsummer Night's Dream, which sees that inclusive union primarily brought together through Lysander and Hermia, the Tamino and Pamina of the work. You could also see parallels between the three boys of Die Zauberflote and the boy elf chorus of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Bottom could be seen as a kind of Monostatos, and his getting into bed with the Queen of the Night is a catalyst, a monstrous alliance that does finally bring the opposing forces into a confrontation that requires a resolution. It's by no means a perfect fit, but there is much to be gained from comparing how Mozart deals with such questions and how Britten uses similar techniques to bring out similar sentiments in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

What Britten's opera lacks that Shakespeare's play relies on heavily (and Mozart's Die Zauberflöte), is the comedy to emphasise the earthy human spirit. Puck - the Papageno figure of the opera - is there to be used as a necessary force of chaos. Carsen and some good comic acting from Miltos Yerolemou, occasionally breaking the fourth wall, help bring that out a little more. Bottom is another vital part of this side of the work and it's scored beautifully for the lyrical bass-baritone voice by Britten. Played here by Brindley Sherratt, and sung wonderfully too, it still needs some good direction to bring out the comedic side of his bluster, and that's all there in the Aix production. A great donkey mask helps too and you couldn't ask for more than the well-designed one here that doesn't get in the way of the performer singing.

While comedy is an important part of A Midsummer Night's Dream, what is really important is that all of its diverse tones and moods come together to create a kind of wholeness that has a magic enchantment of its own. As numerous references in the play allude to, and they are there in Britten's version too, the whole play itself can be seen as something of a dream. Carsen's production in the courtyard of the Théâtre de l’Archevêché in Aix-en-Provence has all the scale and the style to make it work. The green/blue/white colour scheme, how it ties in with the music and instrumentation, the beds from one to six to the levitating three in the final act, all serve to create build up a sense of an enchanted world where love reigns as the mysterious force that binds us all together.

Links: Culturebox, Festival d'Aix-en-Provence

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Donizetti - L'assedio di Calais (Armel Opera Festival, 2015 - Webcast)

Gaetano Donizetti - L'assedio di Calais

English Touring Opera, 2015

Jeremy Silver, James Conway, Craig Smith, Paula Sides, Catherine Carby, Matthew Stiff, Andrew Glover, Ronan Busfield, Matt RJ Ward, Jan Capinski, Peter Braithwaite, Nicholas Merrywether

Armel Opera Festival, ARTE Concert - 29 June 2015

One of the rarer works in the Donizetti catalogue but certainly not a lesser one, L'assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais) was written to appeal to the Paris Opera and has certain Grand Opera characteristics that set it apart from most of the composer's other works. The opera didn't reach Paris, although Donizetti would have success there later with Les Martyrs and La Favorite, L'assedio di Calais opening instead at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1836. Despite its undoubted qualities, the work still had some problems that Donizetti himself was displeased with, but even though it was later revised down from three acts to two, L'assedio di Calais soon vanished and wasn't performed after 1840.

Reviving this rare work, the English Touring Opera then wisely opted for the two-act version of L'assedio di Calais which has some of the dropped third act elements worked in. James Conway's production was well received when it toured the UK in 2013 and it was revived in 2015 and selected as one of the productions for this year's 2015 Armel Opera Festival competition. The work was acclaimed for its music in the first two acts, and based on this performance, rightly so. Donizetti's music is characteristically melodic, but additionally concise and dramatic here, the usual jauntiness of the composer's rhythms taking on a more sober, sombre tone in accordance with its subject.

The action takes place in 1346, at the beginning of the Hundred Years War. At the beginning of the revised opera, the English soldiers led by King Edward III (Edoardo), are becoming frustrated with their siege of the city of Calais. The city however is close to breaking point. The mayor Eustachio is deeply concerned for the citizens of Calais as well as for the fate of his own son Aurelio who is believed lost in an incursion against the English. Aurelio's wife Eleonora, joins him in a lament (beautifully sung by Craig Smith and Paula Sides) that turns to joy when news comes that Aurelio is alive.

Their joy is short-lived. "Let us not get caught up in sentimentality", Aurelio tells his loved ones after a brief moment of reunion, and Donizetti doesn't indulge on that front either. Neither really has time for it, as the citizens of Calais, fearful and starving, confront the mayor, blaming him for a situation that they have been led to believe could have been peacefully resolved. Eustachio however points out that the ringleader of the protests is none other than an Englishman in disguise trying to undermine their resolve, and the town react violently against the imposter.

The opening of The Siege of Calais is incredibly intense, with fervent singing that has all the necessary drive and expression to match the dire situation of the besieged city. There is inevitably a lot of patriotic fervour, and according to the ETO one of the main themes of the work is where the duty of a citizen lies, but beneath it all is a strong humanitarian sentiment that shines through. Not only is it clearly there in the music, but as is often the case with Donizetti, the writing for the singers allows the depth of feeling to be fully expressed. Even the structure and development of the drama reflects this, the expressions of fear, anxiety and despair invariably turning into hope, strength and determination.

The humanitarian crisis is also the focus of James Conway's dark, gritty, oppressive production. The setting is not period, but non-specific modern dress of an embattled nation of people, all of them dressed in dull rags and overcoats, sporting wounds and looking beaten-down. Conway's notes that the look is referenced from imagery from the bombardment of Stalingrad in WWII, but it captures something that is recognisable to anyone who watches the news. The questions facing a suffering people, the choices they have to make are what L'assedio di Calais is all about, and the ETO's production design reaches right out to those ideas much more meaningfully than a distant middle-ages conflict.

The tone darkens even further in Act II, beginning with Aurelio dreaming of his son and family slaughtered, and it doesn't get any better from there. The English have agreed to withdraw their siege of the town, but there's a price to be paid; six hostages must be handed over for execution. In line with the sentiments, the musical scoring goes to the kind of dark places that remind one of what Verdi would do later, but it's impressive to hear it in Donizetti. There's a little bit of jingoism in the sentiments as the men step forward to save their city - "By a cruel twist of fate we are victims, but we are still French!", they may proclaim, but the fire that lights their anger comes from a deeper place.

Links: ARTE Concert, English Touring Opera

Monday 21 September 2015

Jommelli - Il Vologeso (Stuttgart, 2015 - Webcast)

Niccolò Jommelli - Il Vologeso (Berenice, Queen of Armenia)

Oper Stuttgart, 2015

Gabriele Ferro, Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito, Sebastian Kohlhepp, Sophie Marilley, Ana Durlovski, Helene Schneiderman, Catriona Smith, Igor Durlovski

ARTE Concert - July 2015

You'd be forgiven for thinking you've seen this one before, but according to the Stuttgart Opera web site, the last performance of Jommelli's Il Vologeso was in Lisbon in 1769. Given that, you might think that it looks like it has been written from a Pietro Metastasio libretto and maybe you've heard a setting of the work by another composer, but the libretto was written by Guido Eustachio Luccarelli and other settings of the work are even more obscure than Jommelli's version. There's no question however that Il Vologeso follows a familiar opera seria structure and themes, but as seen in Stuttgart's delightful production, it is still something of a marvel and has undoubted qualities of its own.

The plot, the characters and the way they behave is however very familiar, so it almost seems superfluous to describe the plot, but it's worth it since a synopsis is hard to find elsewhere and it is instructive to note where the differences in Jommelli's treatment lie. There's always a backstory before such an opera starts and in the case of Il Vologeso, we're in Parthia just after it has been conquered by Lucius Verus, so that puts it at 166 AD, and the Parthian king Vologases (Il Vologeso) is believed to have been killed in combat. Berenice the Queen of Armenia and fiancée of Vologases is being held prisoner by Lucius Verus, who is in love with her.

As the opera opens, Berenice, believing that the King of Partha is dead, is readying herself to submit to the rule and the advances of the conqueror, Lucius. Vologases however is not dead and disguised as a servant he attempts to poison the Roman emperor. When Berenice attempts to drink the poison, Vologases has to admit to the plot and for his efforts is condemned to be thrown to the lions in the celebratory games. His true identity however is not uncovered, but Berenice sees something in his manner that gives her hope that Vologases might still be alive and gives her cause to hesitate (and sing long arias about her predicament) over whether to submit to the attentions of Lucius.

Lucius is forced to reconsider his plans as well when his financée, Lucilla arrives unexpectedly in Parthia. Lucilla is the sister of Marcus Aurelius, the joint-emperor of Rome, and Rome is suspicious of what Lucius Verus is up to in Parthia. Just to complicate matters further in the familiar love triangle scenario, Aniceto, Lucius's aide, is actually in love with Lucilla as well. As the various characters mull over their difficult positions in true opera seria fashion, the games commence and the game commences. When Berenice finds herself in danger of being mauled by one of the lions, Lucius lends his sword to the unidentified condemned man and in the process reveals his feelings for Berenice not only to Vologases, but to an aghast Lucilla as well.

If a lot of this sounds like standard Baroque opera material (there's even a 'throw him to the lions' scene in Pergolesi's La Salustia), the work is only as good as how the rough gem stone is cut and polished. In the case of Il Vologeso Jommelli proves to be a craftsman whose work here is given a sympathetic setting by the production team of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, and polished to near perfection by Gabriele Ferro and a fine cast. The production, despite the initially dark post-war setting, is bright, matching the light rhythms and clarity of the music. There's nothing heavy here; all the emotions are in full display - as you would expect from an opera seria - but the difference here is that all of them are motivated by love.

You could argue that this is the case with most opera seria - think of what motivates all the extreme sentiments even in the power struggles of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito (now there's a composer who knows the infinite workings and expression of the human heart). In the case of Jommelli's bright and vivid score for Il Vologeso, it's much easier to feel sympathy for the predicament of all the characters, since the music makes it clear that they are ruled by their hearts. That's not to say that Jommelli's writing lacks variety of mood or expression. It's elegant, gentle, passionate, aching, furious, pained - every expression associated with their love for another, not just some effort to assert power or gain favour.

At least, it's given that expression in the performance of the ensemble of Staatsorchester Stuttgart musicians, who play with wonderful rhythm and precision, making the beauty of the music and its complex expression in relation to the drama clearly evident. It helps that there is an orchestral flow maintained that is not broken up by long sections of recitativo secco, but credit should also be given to the directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito (and unfortunately their contribution is usually overlooked or dismissed) who manage to keep a work like this visually and dramatically engaging.

Anna Viebrock's stage and costume designs present a semi-classical tableau (some cardboard figures from paintings are even brought on in the second half of the work) of pillars and ruins, but the background is slightly more modern, looking like a modern war-torn city in Balkans or the Ukraine. There is a slight effort in this to connect the modern world to the ancient story, the characters initially in modern casual tracksuits, dressing up to become the figures of Lucius, Vologases and Berenice, but for the main part of the drama - right up to the final moments when the shell-shocked refugees return to reality - it's played mainly period without clever references or anachronisms.

The performers all sing and play out the intense drama with single-minded involvement for the nature and predicaments of their characters, ensuring that there is not one weak element. Dramatically little new happens in the second half of the work - there's a lot more to-and-fro wavering, appeals and rejections - to such an extent that there seems no way out of it. Their problems seem insurmountable, but their love drives them on, and love does eventually conquer all. Ana Durlovski's wonderfully rounded and intense Berenice has the most extreme anguish and rage as her beloved Vologases dies, returns, is executed, is reprieved. Unable to face yet another horror, she seems to submit to taking poison but her fate - returning to the real world - seems to be left open in this production.

Links: ARTE Concert, Oper Stuttgart

Wednesday 16 September 2015

Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer (Vienna, 2015 - Webcast)

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer

Wiener Staatsoper, 2015

Peter Schneider, Christine Mielitz, Hans Peter König, Ricarda Merbeth, Herbert Lippert, Michael Volle, Thomas Ebenstein, Carole Wilson

Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 11 September 2015

Christine Mielitz's production of Der fliegende Holländer is not as conceptually abstract and modernised as her Parsifal for the Vienna State Opera, but then the questions of mythology and how they are applied are quite different in the two works that span the opposite ends of Wagner's 'mature' period. That's not to say that Der fliegende Holländer can't be radically re-interpreted - as in the recent Bayreuth production - but the 'meaning' or universal application that can be gleaned from such productions seems to be limited to central question of commerce versus the enduring place of myth and art.

Even in its recent half-way house production of the work at the Royal Opera House, Tim Albery's production was able to offer nothing new to those themes, but with Andris Nelsons conducting, it did at least recognise that there is potentially something more to be gained from a careful and close reading of the score. The true worth of Der fliegende Holländer as an opera is there to be found in its compositional structure and developing musical effects. Like all the best ghost-stories it's all about the way you tell it, and getting as close as possible to Wagner's voice is the surest way to successfully put across the work's use of myth and legend.

Which is good in the case of the 2015 performance of this production at the Wiener Staatsoper, because it has Peter Schneider at the helm of the Flying Dutchman. I've never heard Schneider attempt anything radical with Wagner - he doesn't for example have the personal flair that Christian Thielemann or Daniel Barenboim bring to the works - but in terms of how he understands the dynamic of Wagner's work and manages to bring out the full force of the traditional weight and colour of the score, I find Schneider most impressive. He always commands a terrific performance from the State Opera orchestra, and that's the case with this broadcast performance of Der fliegende Holländer.

Christine Mielitz's production seems to hold a similar view that there's nothing to be gained from working outside the traditional idiom with this particular Wagner opera. It appears to be determinedly old-fashioned and out-dated, and perhaps the work itself is somewhat old-fashioned. Wagner's first great breakthrough towards finding his own through compositional voice is a far cry from the Grand Opera stylings of Rienzi written in the same year, but with its use of mythology, its ghost story setting and its theme of Romantic yearning, it's rather more successful on an allegorical level than as a realistic drama. Arguably, the music can do allegorical here better than a stage production can.

If it looks a bit creaky then, that's how the imperfect work itself could be regarded, but the staging and direction are more than just functional. The all-purpose set for the through-composed version of the opera takes place entirely on the ship, its boards curling up at the edges of the stage. The Flying Dutchman is all-consuming as far as the opera goes, as much as its myth drives everyone 'on board'. The direction is not without its dramatic touches and, critically - for all the effect of a ghost-story - it gets them right in all in the key moments. The Dutchman's appearance with his ghost crew is appropriately spooky, and his other appearances are usually accompanied with eerie lighting streaming up from under the deck. Senta's presence, as during the duet with the Dutchman, brings other transformations, and her descent into the blazing fire in the hold at the conclusion is dramatically effective.

What you also have here in this 2015 production, and often reliably find at Vienna, is a good, solid singing cast, even if none of them bring any new dimension to the work or the characterisation. Michael Volle is a superb Dutchman; tormented and driven, he not only sings wonderfully, he also sustains the mood and drama convincingly right through to the conclusion. Hans Peter König is a deep, resonant and secure Daland; Ricarda Merbeth demonstrates great control, delivery and projection; Herbert Lippert impresses in the role of Eric and Carole Wilson is a fine Mary. As part of the Wiener Staatsoper's Live at Home programme, Der fliegende Holländer consequently comes across reasonably well on the screen, but I would imagine with this kind of production it would be much more effective experienced live in the theatre.

Der fliegende Holländer was broadcast live from the Vienna State Opera as part of their Live at Home programme. The next live broadcast is Lev Dodin's production of Mussorgsky's KHOVANSHCHINA on 27th September (reviewed here in 2014)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

Saturday 12 September 2015

Rossini - Aureliano in Palmira (Pesaro, 2013 - Blu-ray)

Gioachino Rossini - Aureliano in Palmira

Rossini Opera Festival, 2013

Will Crutchfield, Mario Martone, Michael Spyres, Jessica Pratt, Lena Belkina, Raffaella Lupinacci, Dempsey Rivera, Sergio Vitale, Dimitri Pkhaladze, Raffaele Costantini

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Perhaps the most notable thing about Aureliano in Palmira (apart from the ancient Syrian town of Palmyra making headlines in the news at the moment) is that it was the first serious opera performed at the newly opened La Scala in Milan in 1813. What is also of musical interest is that the work catches Rossini in an intermediate period, paying homage or drawing inspiration from the 18th century opera seria, but really making strides to set the standard for a style of Italian opera that would predominate for most of the 19th century and achieve completeness in the works of Giuseppe Verdi. The opera itself, one of the last rarities to be revived at the Rossini Opera Festival, is however unfortunately rather less inspiring nowadays.

Dramatically, Aureliano in Palmira is a very dry affair. The libretto, replete with da capo arias, is unfashionably Metastasian in form, and it's not all that different in plot or treatment from Rossini's 1817 Adelaide di Borgogna. It's the familiar story of a romantic entanglement in a time of war, Aureliano the conquering power of Rome, demanding that Zenobia the strong female leader of Palmyra yield also to his romantic advances otherwise he will kill her imprisoned lover, Arbace. Rather than be dispirited by the shame and humiliation inflicted upon their ruler by the Roman aggressor, the people of Syria rally behind Zenobia and Arbace in their quest for freedom.

With its theme of a people oppressed, the opera even opening with a chorus lament, there are clear comparisons that can be drawn with Verdi's Nabucco. And even though the arias are often opera seria in style and delivery, they are dramatically attuned to the plot, developing into duets and inevitably into choruses. All of these look towards the cavatina and cabaletto structures of the bel canto and High Romantic Italian numbers opera style, and it's unquestionably fascinating to see their development here in this Rossini rarity. It's an area that has been under-explored at the Rossini Opera Festival, where the emphasis has been more on rediscovering the early comedies and doing justice to the grand operas of Mosè in Egitto and Guillaume Tell.

Aureliano in Palmira evidently doesn't hold the same kind of allure, but what this production has going for it is the team that made the revival of another 'special interest' Rossini opera such a marvel. Will Crutchfield, Jessica Pratt and Michael Spyres all contributed to making Ciro in Babilonia (1812) something much greater than it might otherwise have been, and they are also what makes this production of Aureliano in Palmira worthwhile. You could say the same about any Rossini opera, but it's a work that really needs a strong, understanding and sympathetic treatment, to say nothing of the highest musical standards.

Unfortunately, what Ciro in Babilonia also benefited from and which Aureliano in Palmira lacks is an engaging visual hook. Davide Livermore's 'silent movie' production might have seemed arbitrary, but it perfected suited the old-fashioned nature of Ciro and found a good context that would bring out the qualities of the work. Film director Mario Martone's production doesn't make any such wild leaps or modernisations in its setting (certainly nothing on the scale of Graham Vick's Bin Laden in Mosè in Egitto). It respects the Syrian/Roman period in the costumes and in the delivery, only occasionally using shifting and sliding screens to suggest distance/discord between the characters.

The most unusual element of the staging is the placement of a fortepiano on the stage itself which, along with a cello player, provide the recitativo accompaniment. That's partly down to space restrictions in the pit, but there's some effort made - not entirely successfully - to integrate it and the otherwise dry recitative into the staging itself. There are a few walk-ons in and around the audience to try and make the staging a bit more active and engaging, and the director tries to rewrite the forced happy ending with an account of the real historical facts, but none of these devices really serve to make Aureliano in Palmira any more dramatic or help drag it out of its rather predictable conventionality that borders on tedium.

Will Crutchfield had the unenviable task of creating a new critical edition of a work that had to be largely reconstructed on a best guess basis from various sources. To his credit he doesn't attempt to 'soup up' this Rossini with an expanded orchestra or a slick modern reading of the score. It's played with a period-sized orchestra and an authentic feel and drive for the opera seria roots of the work, as well as for its dramatic content. The overture it shares with Il Barbiere di Sevilla given a slightly different tone and meaning in the process. It also means we get more of the generic Rossini here in the playing and conventional rhythms, where it's left to the voices to carry much of the melody and the more sophisticated colouring.

As noted earlier then, the real delight of this production is in the casting of Michael Spyres and Jessica Pratt as Aureliano and Zenobia. As well as commanding great presence, Jessica Pratt's high note coloratura is impressive in range and expression. Her voice is less robust in the more dramatic register, but she doesn't have a lot to work other than the generic in those passages anyway. Michael Spyres is tremendous. The clarity of diction, the resonance in his voice and the lyrical force of that distinct beautiful timbre is well suited to the role and really makes it come to life. Lena Belkina has to contend with playing the castrato role of Arsace as a mezzo-soprano. She does as well as can be expected but is clearly challenged and, focussed on delivery, her performance lacks a dramatic edge.

The production is well presented on Blu-ray disc. Image and sound are both outstanding, the image perhaps slightly softer than usual on account of the low stage lighting. There's a 'making of' feature on the disc that discusses the history of the work and the efforts made to bring it back to the stage at Pesaro. The DVD is a BD50, all-region compatible, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Korean and Japanese.

Thursday 10 September 2015

Wagner - The Bayreuth Edition (Blu-ray)

Richard Wagner - The Bayreuth Edition

Bayreuther Festspiele, 2008-2014

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tristan und Isolde, Die Walküre, Lohengrin, Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Productions of Richard Wagner's operas at Bayreuth (and elsewhere) will undoubtedly continue to find new areas to explore, remain inventive, generate discussion and stir up controversy for centuries to come. It will be interesting however to see how future audiences will come to look on the rather distinct period that is documented in this Bayreuth Edition of works during the controversial era of the directorship of the composer's great grand-daughters, Eva Wagner-Pasquier and her half-sister Katharina Wagner.

Germany undoubtedly led the way in the dominance in Europe of what would become known as "Regietheater", where director's own personal and modern interpretations, revisions and re-imaginings of familiar traditional stagings would be considered by many to impose their vision and intentions above those of the original composer. One might have expected a more reverential approach at Bayreuth, particularly since directorship of the annual festival in the theatre custom designed and built by Richard Wagner himself remains in family hands. If anything however Bayreuth's treatment of Wagner's legacy has been taken to even greater extremes.

Wagner's exhortation "Kinder, schafft Neues" ('Children, create something new') has perhaps been over-used and abused to some extent to permit some wild indulgences, but interpretation has always been essential to musical performance and musical drama. It's why opera has continually evolved and not remained confined to theatres with its performers constrained by dusty costumes, armoured breastplates and helmets. The Bayreuth ideology holds to this principle in keeping Wagner, his music, his philosophy, and yes even his flaws and problems, continually revised, updated and explored for the deeper universal meaning within them. It's one way of ensuring that those works remain relevant today and not age as much as bad costumes, cheap painted backdrops and barked delivery.

As some of the greatest works of opera ever written, some of which will surely never be surpassed, Wagner's music dramas are capable of revealing contradictory and complex ideas that work on a multitude of levels. It would be a disservice to treat them as anything less than living, breathing art, and more than just generate controversy, the stewardship of Bayreuth during the period 2008 - 2014 has undoubtedly provoked much discussion and re-evaluation of these great works. Some have been more innovative and successful than others, but unquestionably the works have done much to revitalise an institution that Tom Service described in 2006 as "a byword for conservatism and fossilised values". Most importantly, what they've done is drawn attention back to what Wagner's operas mean and how they are still relevant to the 21st century.

It wouldn't be unfair however to say that the new regime at Bayreuth got off to a shaky start. Taking over directorship of the festival from her father Wolfgang Wagner, Katharina Wagner's first production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (2008) caused something of a stir. As a key Wagner work, since it is about the balance of respecting tradition and 'making anew', the production also proved to be something of a bold statement of intent. As Klaus Florian Vogt's Walther von Stolzing scrawls and spills white paint over every object and person on the stage, the balance would appear to be heavily skewed towards the irreverence for the old ways, almost to the point of anarchically destroying the past in order to make anew. Franz Hawlata's Hans Sachs is good, Michael Volle is a blistering Beckmesser and Michaela Kaune a soaring Eva, but although the musical performance is robust and has moments of beauty and warms up in the final act, overall the production fails to find the richness, warmth, humour and humanity at the heart of the work.

Tankred Dorst's 2006 Ring cycle pre-dated the changeover, but it remained in place through the larger part of the period that the festival was under the directorship of Wagner's great-granddaughters. The only part of the cycle to see a video release was a 2010 performance of Die Walküre. It's not terribly impressive, looking largely traditional in the main but for some odd directing choices and, since the rest of the cycle is not available to make sense of them, some obscure concepts bolted on. Musically, it's forcefully conducted by Christian Thielemann and there are some good singing performances from a gorgeously lyrical Johan Botha as Siegmund, Edith Haller as Sieglinde and Kwangchul Youn as Hunding. Albert Dohmen and Linda Watson however make unconvincing father/daughter relationship as Wotan and Brünnhilde.

Since Tristan und Isolde is a fairly conceptual work in the first place, the main thrust of the work taking place on a philosophical and spiritual plane, there's licence to deviate from the earthly locations in the libretto. Even so, Christoph Marthaler's production recorded at the 2009 festival is extravagantly eccentric in mannerisms and staging. Randomly set on what looks to be a 1930s cruise liner, the three acts are layered one on top of the other on rising tiered sets. It's hard not to be entranced however by the production or moved by the sheer power of the work, which is given a fine account under the baton of Peter Schneider, and there are compelling central performances from Iréne Theorin and Robert Dean Smith.

For pushing the conceptual to extremes in its exploration of the works themes and where they stand today, it's hard to imagine any idea more bizarre than setting Lohengrin as a laboratory experiment using rats. As strange as it might seem there are nonetheless rather more bewildering productions of Wagner out there (and in Bayreuth) and Hans Neuenfel's production, recorded here at the 2011 festival, meaningfully explores some problematic areas of Wagner's historical view of society. Some of the divisions are rather simplistically drawn however, the conclusions are unconvincing and it often looks very silly indeed, but there are good performances from Georg Zeppenfeld, Klaus Florian Vogt and Petra Lang (one of the truly great Ortruds I've seen). There's a fine musical performance conducted by Andris Nelsons, even if it doesn't really complement the stage production.

With a cyborg Dutchman on a data information sea, it's initially difficult to understand the purpose of Jan Philipp Gloger's concept for the 2012 production of Der fliegende Holländer. It soon becomes clear in this 2013 recording of the production that there's clear adherence to the dramatic and mythological strengths of the work and a superb performance of the "joined-up" version of the three-act opera conducted by Christian Thielemann. Broadly speaking it views the work in the context of the incompatibility and conflict between love and business, a subject that plagued Wagner most of his life. Without belittling the importance of Wagner's view of mythology it manages to bring it back to human terms without losing any of the grandeur of the work. Ricarda Merbeth is outstanding as Senta, Franz-Josef Selig a solid Daland and Benjamin Bruns a bright, golden-voiced Steersman. The choral work too - so important to this work - is impressive.

The abstract conceptual clearly dominates in the Bayreuth 2014 Tannhäuser with a stage set constructed out of a number of art installations that were never created with Wagner's opera in mind, but the pieces by Joep van Lieshout do form an interesting if imperfect dialectic with Wagner's work. Director Sebastian Baumgarten follows a similar path to Hans Neuenfels' Lohengrin for Bayreuth, viewing the work as a model of society, taking in Wagner's perspective and extending it to a more modern outlook. Whatever you make of the stage production, musically it's a glorious affair, conductor Alex Kober drawing out the true delicacy and poignancy within the work. There's not a trace of heavy-handedness, yet all the force and dynamic of the work is all there. Camilla Nylund's Elisabeth matches the Romantic delicacy of the work perfectly while Torsten Kerl balances well the more dynamic character of Tannhäuser.

All previously released on Blu-ray, the presentation of each of the six productions in the 8-disc Bayreuth Edition (12 discs on DVD) is simply superb. The quality of the image and the high-definition uncompressed surround mixes of the performances are just incredible. Each of the discs contains a making of feature and interviews that explore the productions, the concepts and all the back-stage preparations. More detail on individual discs can be found by following the above links.