Thursday 29 October 2015

Pärt - Adam's Passion (Tallinn, 2015 - Webcast)

Arvo Pärt - Adam's Passion

Noblessner Foundry, Tallinn, 2015

Tõnu Kaljuste, Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs, Michael Theophanous, Andrea Lauren Brown, David James, Maria Valdmaa, Marianne Pärna, Endrik Üksvärav, Tiit Kogerman, Tõnis Kaumann, Raul Mikson, Henry Tiisma, Andreas Väljamäe

ARTE Concert streaming - October 2015

Recent years have seen a few significant anniversaries celebrated for Mozart, Strauss, Verdi, Wagner, Gluck, Rameau and Britten, but it's just as important to acknowledge and celebrate modern composers' work in their own lifetime. Such was the case last year with events for Harrison Birtwistle's and Peter Maxwell Davies' 80th birthdays, but these were relatively low-key compared to the scale of international concerts, releases and celebrations for the 80th birthday of Arvo Pärt. It's particularly surprising considering that, Gorecki and Taverner aside, Arvo Pärt's tonal compositions and their religious content seems to be at odds with modern music in an increasingly secular world, but his work undoubtedly captures a spiritual human dimension that it is hard to find elsewhere.

One of the most extraordinary musical events involving Arvo Pärt this year has been his collaboration with Robert Wilson for the creation of Adam's Passion at the Noblessner Foundry in Tallinn in May of this year. Composed almost entirely out of existing works written many years apart with no obvious connection between them, it's hard to imagine them adapted to a coherent dramatic stage work. Even with Adam's Lament (2010) at the core of the work, followed by Tabula Rasa (1977) and then Miserere (1989/92), with a new prologue Sequentia (2014) as overture, the works are more contemplative in nature and not written with any dramatic presentation in mind.

Fortunately, that suits Robert Wilson rather well. Even in regular opera productions, Wilson has a unique way of working with shapes, symbols, colour and light that has little to do with regular narrative representation. He is undoubtedly at his best however when unconstrained by the need to serve narrative at all, such as in his groundbreaking Einstein on the Beach with Philip Glass and Lucinda Childs. His approach to the spiritual side of Arvo Pärt's music in the contemplation of Adam's Passion reduced to pure symbolism is as perfect a fit to the world/opera view of Robert Wilson as you can imagine. When you are dealing with the question of Adam, a subject that is Biblical, allegorical, symbolic and essentially spiritual, there is really no other option. A subject this vast in scale, with all its philosophical, theological and spiritual associations is never going to fit adequately into a narrative format.

Arvo Pärt's music is certainly capable of relating deeply to such matters, his own search to find the purest musical expression of his explorations into these areas coming down to his resonant 'tintinnabuli' style. It's the music of a composer at peace with himself but not in denial about the nature of humanity, their weaknesses and their detachment from their spiritual side. Pain is a constant theme, but it's the "healthy pain" of Wagner's Parsifal, accepting and embracing it as a part of what it means to be human. That doesn't mean that it's complacent either. Pärt's music is an expression of a continual search for answers, and of the beauty that is to be found in such contemplation.

It's this thematic core and treatment that in a way that makes the separate pieces chosen for Adam's Passion perfectly complementary, if not obviously adding up to something that is of a whole. Wilson and the composer do however fit the works together in a way that forms a meaningful arc with greater coherence. Sequentia and Adam's Lament deal with the question of original sin and the banishment from Eden, Tabula Rasa becomes a kind of search to regain Paradise/Innocence, trying to reconnect with the spiritual dimension that has been lost to a material view of the world, while Miserere weighs up mankind's efforts in the Dies Irae of Judgement Day.

From Genesis to the Apocalypse is still a considerable subject to depict on-stage, the simplicity of the words of the choral works and what they describe having to take in a lot of other complex ideas and associations. Wilson plays with the apparent simplicity of the words and the musical arrangements in his familiar manner, using very little in the way of props, but working with angular shapes, a limited palette of colour, movement and light, as well as considerable amounts of dry ice this time. But primarily light. There's justification alone in the subject for this - Adam's Passion is essentially "a search for light" according to the composer - even if light were not the main medium through which Wilson usually expresses ideas. It's hard to imagine a more perfect and complementary matching of visual ideas to musical themes.

And really, Wilson's designs looks incredible in the setting of the Noblessner Foundry in Tallinn. The first half an hour of the hour and a half long piece takes us through Adam's Lament with little more than an entirely naked man (what else for Adam?), holding a rock and walking slowly (what else for Wilson?) towards a branch at the end of a long platform extending right out into the hall, placing the branch on his head and making his way slowly back. He's not even Adam in this conception, just known as 'the Man' (Michael Theophanous). Several other figures float across the stage; a woman (Lucinda Childs), a young boy, a young girl and an old man cross the stage during Tabula Rasa and Miserere, with the addition of one or two more objects. Whatever you take from their movements, everything is carefully placed, choreographed and measured to create an indelible impression.

It doesn't sound like a great deal but in such a setting every small movement, every subtle change of colour and light is noticed and, when combined with the words of the choral singing, adds significance to the power of the music itself. It's not about illustrating the music as illuminating it, filling the stage with a visual representation of the inner light of Pärt's music. It's a striking achievement, one that better than most testifies to the unique and special place that Arvo Pärt still holds in the world of contemporary classical music.

Links: Adam's Passion, Accentus

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Schoenberg - Moses und Aron (Paris, 2015 - Paris)

Arnold Schoenberg - Moses und Aron

L'Opéra National de Paris, 2015

Philippe Jordan, Romeo Castellucci, Thomas Johannes Mayer, John Graham-Hall, Julie Davies, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Nicky Spence, Michael Pflumm, Chae Wook Lim, Christopher Purves, Ralf Lucas

L'Opéra National de Paris, Bastille - 20 October 2015

You really shouldn't expect anything different from Romeo Castellucci directing Schoenberg's only opera, written in the difficult form of twelve-tone serialism, but apparently there were some people in the audience at this production's premiere in the Bastille in Paris who weren't too pleased with the staging and booed the director at the end. There very few admittedly and they were drowned out by the overwhelming applause, but really, what were they expecting here? Something traditional? Something biblical?

Schoenberg's Moses und Aron is by no means a straightforward telling of the biblical story of the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, and it never has been. It's immediately apparent that Schoenberg is trying to deal with some very personal and artistic questions in the work, identifying to a large extent with Moses. He's not setting himself up as a God, but certainly as something of a prophet for a new gospel of dodecaphony, inventing twelve-tone serial music and giving it its greatest and most convincing expression in this opera. It's a gospel that had some notable disciples, and to a certain degree it still does have influence on the world of contemporary classical music.

As important as it would be on that experimental musical level alone, Moses und Aron would not be the great opera it is if it did not also connect in a meaningful way to the deeper human questions it raises and yes, some of those difficult issues that he is grappling with are to do with religion. For Schoenberg, the Jewish question was a very real issue that could be seen as instigating this musical epiphany. A convert to Protestantism, Schoenberg was unable to deny his Jewish roots and nature when he was still confronted with antisemitism in 1921 and attacked also when Hitler and the Nazis came to power. This had a profound impact on the composer and a great deal of soul-searching that he found himself impotent to articulate in words.

Words are the problem Moses has in the opera and he leaves it to his brother Aron to find a way of bringing God's word to the people without resorting to idolatry while he contemplates the "invisible, incommensurable, infinite, eternal, omnipresent, all-powerful" God who has revealed himself in the form of a burning bush. Language and expression to convey the infinite and indefinable without words or the use of image is a difficult concept. Even musical language has baggage associated with it, so Schoenberg invents a new way of composing music for Moses und Aron which involves serially playing every note in 12-note tone row, as well as pitching the work closer to oratorio than traditional opera, with the chorus taking prominence both as God and as the people.

Musically, Moses und Aron is extraordinarily difficult to interpret and perform (which accounts to a large extent for its rarity on the stage), but the effect is not at all difficult to appreciate. In live performance - judging by its Paris Opera production - it is also evidently a work of enormous power, certainly one of the most important works of the 20th century. And, like many of those important works, Berg's Lulu would be another, it's a work that was never finished by the composer. Following its first performance in 1954, three years after Schoenberg's death, Moses und Aron has been rarely performed and almost always in the form of the two acts written by Schoenberg with the unscored Act III omitted.

How then to interpret all of this in a stage production? Simply replaying a version of the biblical theme would undermine the importance of what is being said and how it is being said. At the same time, particularly in the unfinished version, there are irreconcilable contradictions in the work itself between form and representation that a director would be wise not to ignore. Romeo Castellucci is evidently a director who will provide a unique perspective on such matters, but that still doesn't entirely account for the spectacle that was presented on the stage of the Bastille in Paris in its première performance there.

Representation of the word and mistrust of the image is always going to be at the heart of Castellucci's production, and that's clear from the moment that Moses encounters God here not in a burning bush but in a tape recorder unreeling black tape. Moses's staff meanwhile doesn't transform into a snake exactly, but becomes a long spaceship like construction (worship of technology?). The first half of the production furthermore takes place behind a white screen that creates a haze of undefined shapes as Moses grapples with the infinite and his own personal conflict over being charged with delivering a message that he knows his people will find difficult to accept. He leaves those matters for his brother Aron to deliver, and this takes on a more concrete form in Act II, but the message is one that is inevitably corrupted in the telling.

In his 40 day absence while Moses taking to a Mount Sinai that looks like it is in the Alps, Castellucci finds increasingly strange ways to represent the rituals that Aron and the Jews enact in the licence of Act II's frenzy of sacrifice, murder, idolatry, drinking, dancing and orgy. A huge live yellow bull is led out onto the stage during the worship of the Golden Calf and tar-like black ink is poured over it. A river likewise opens up in a ditch on the stage into which the followers are bathed in black ink. The ink is also the blood of sacrifice of the four naked virgins, spread and smeared across the stage. There's little that could be said to be a literal enactment of the stage directions, but it very much adheres to the themes and to the intent of the libretto.

Adhering to the intent of the word rather than its literal depiction in untrustworthy images is evidently the key concept here, but the irony it seems is lost on a small proportion of the audience who didn't like what they saw. In such a work - unfinished and nearly impossible to stage - it hardly seems worth questioning whether Castellucci's concept bears any greater examination or analysis. What matters is whether it gets across the force and import of what is being expressed here in the music according to the intent of Schoenberg, and that it undoubtedly does.

I've seen Jordan explore the wonders of Lulu marvellously back in 2011 and he also gets a fine performance from the Paris Orchestra here. It flows beautifully as a whole but is also richly attentive to detail, even if at times Jordan seems a little less animated and confidently in control of the serial form here. Thomas Johannes Mayer's 'Sprechgesang' (sing-speak) Moses is perfect here alongside John Graham-Hall's impressive high lyrical tenor Aron, but it's in the remarkable chorus work that the true force and magnificence of the work is revealed.

Monday 26 October 2015

Massenet - Werther (ETO, 2015 - Buxton)

Jules Massenet - Werther

English Touring Opera, 2015

Iain Farrington, Oliver Platt, Ed Ballard, Carolyn Dobbin, Lauren Zolezzi, Michael Druiett, Jeffrey Stewart, Simon Wallfisch

English Touring Opera, Buxton - 18 October 2015

Unlike many of Massenet's operas, Werther, the composer's ode to German Romanticism doesn't necessarily have to appear terribly old-fashioned. Which means of course that it doesn't have to be set in Goethe's period (the original story written in 1774) or around the time of Massenet's writing of the opera in 1887. There's a powerful universality to its theme of extreme passions that dominate the French operas in the English Touring Opera's Autumn 2015 programme, and accordingly, performing the work in English, director Oliver Platt sets this version in small-town America in the 1950s. Far from updating the work however, it still feels horribly dated and old-fashioned.

In fact, the production takes away considerably from the Romantic allure of the work, losing the period distance with which we can regard the over-heated emotions and declarations. The ETO's production has nothing to offer in its place, the small-town setting rather making it all look rather dull and domestic. Charlotte's father may get away with wearing baggy corduroys, a cardigan and smoke a pipe, but it doesn't really help that the others all dress in a similar 'square' manner. The ladies wear bright summer frocks, Arthur returns home in a GI uniform and transforms into Stanley Kowalski after his marriage to Charlotte. The weedy Werther meanwhile wears a suit and glasses looking like the local nerd. It's not a good look for a romantic-hero opera archetype, however overwrought, oversensitive and neurotic he might in reality be.

A little bit more of Tennessee Williams wouldn't have gone amiss in this setting actually. It's functional for the suppression of violent passions, but it lacks the kind of moodiness and threat of underlying violence that is needed to ramp up the melodrama for Werther. Actually, a better model for this Werther would be the garish Technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk, but that wouldn't have fitted with the pared down arrangement of the work for piano, violin, cello and clarinet. With the musicians up on the stage in the background, Iain Farrington conducting from the piano, the understated delicacy of the playing at least matched the tone of the setting and the characterisation here in Oliver Platt's direction, but really, Werther doesn't benefit from understatement.

It doesn't need overstatement either - as Richard Eyre's overblown production for the Met demonstrated - but it needs the grand Romantic sweeps of Werther's love theme that surge up in those moments when he is with Charlotte, and take on an additional poignancy in his memory of them that becomes almost unbearable. Understatement is fine elsewhere, as it contrasts with the idealisation and the morbid inclinations of Werther that take on a gloomy and despairing weight and meaning of their own when detached from the reality.

Unfortunately Ed Ballard didn't give us a moody Romantic hero too sensitive to live in this cruel world without Charlotte. With the use of an English translation moreover - awkward scansion and not really any attempt to Americanise it - there was more of an air of petulance about this Werther. "Dash it all, this is very inconvenient!", was more the attitude that came across, Werther annoyed and mildly put-out that his plans to spend the rest of his life with Charlotte have run into the obstacle of Arthur's return. I don't think that Werther suited a baritone either. Jonas Kaufmann can certainly give the role the body and fullness of tone that approaches a baritone, but transposed this way it lacked the richness of colour and expression needed here.

There was strong singing from Lauren Zolezzi as a bright Sophie and Simon Wallfisch as Albert. Carolyn Dobbin as Charlotte and Ed Ballard were also fine, but the casting and the direction didn't do them any favours. They weren't able to bring any real conviction to their characters whose motivations and conflicts are much more important to the work as a whole. Werther is a work that requires a greater dynamic than this, and Massenet provides a strong musical equivalent to the Romantic heroism of the unlikely phenomenon created by Goethe. The English Touring Opera's production wasn't able to deliver that in its chamber arrangement or in the stage direction, and the actions consequently felt very old-fashioned, staged and remote from modern sensibilities. 

Saturday 24 October 2015

Offenbach - Tales of Hoffmann (ETO, 2015 - Buxton)

Jacques Offenbach - Tales of Hoffmann

English Touring Opera, 2015

Philip Sunderland, James Bonas, Sam Furness, Ilona Domnich, Warwick Fyfe, Louise Mott, Tim Dawkins, Adam Tunnicliffe, Matt R J Ward, Ashley Mercer

English Touring Opera, Buxton - 17 October 2015

The reason for the popularity of The Tales of Hoffmann is no mystery. It's a work that has some dazzling opportunities for singing, it has some of the most memorable melodies in all of opera, and not just one, but three adventures to enjoy. Personally however, despite the best efforts of Offenbach to construct a coherent narrative out of the various stories of ETA Hoffmann and impose a structure that interlinks them, I find that it's a bit of a mess of an opera that more often than not leaves me cold. Perhaps though I just haven't seen the right production.

No matter what I think, Tales of Hoffmann remains popular with opera companies and directors who relish the challenge and the fun of staging the imaginative and colourful adventures, and it remains popular with audiences. It was undoubtedly the best attended show of the current English Touring Opera programme - more popular Pelléas et Mélisande and Werther - when I caught the tour in Buxton. And indeed the ETO do make a more convincing case for the work, enlivening its humour without taking away from its darkness, highlighting the qualities of the work and mitigating against its weaknesses. I'm still not totally convinced that Les Contes de Hoffmann is a great opera, but it can at least be an entertaining one.

A large part of the problem with the opera I find is that neither Hoffmann as a character nor his stories make a whole lot of sense. They are very much of their time; an incomprehensible blend of maudlin High Romantic sentiments and bizarre situations with obscure psychological and psychosexual underpinnings. In Olympia, Hoffmann is gripped by a blind lust for automaton; in Antonia, a girl is singing herself to death; and in Giulietta, a siren lures men to their destruction, stealing their souls through a mirror. Offenbach ties all the works together well, finding commonality behind the heroines, the villains and the Hoffmann figure in them, but it still takes some effort to pull this together into a coherent and convincing whole.

Director James Bonas finds a good way to make this old-fashioned demi-monde tale of high melodrama relatable; through the movies. He imagines Hoffmann not as a writer, but as a film screenwriter of silent movies in an age where the talkies threaten to bring an edge of unwelcome reality to his imaginative fantasies. His heavy drinking and unrequited love for his leading lady, Stella, leads him to blur the lines between his reality and that of his imagination; Olympia becoming a Frankenstein-like creation; Antonia the victim of a vampire in a Dracula movie; Giulietta seen in terms of a Man in the Mirror distortion of reality. Seen in this light, in a nostalgic silent movie context, the stories don't seem quite so ridiculous as the ravings of a disturbed mind.

The silent movie/early talkie/Universal horror mise-en-scène also relates perfectly as an equivalent for the nature of Offenbach's opera itself. Considered as Offenbach's only real opera - his other vast body of work being classified more as opéra-comique operetta - places an expectation on The Tales of Hoffmann that I don't think the work lives up to. True, the work remained unfinished at the time of the composer's death, ìt has some darker undercurrents and it is a more sophisticated work from Offenbach, but it remains essentially an opéra-comique. It should not be taken too seriously, and too often it is. Not so here with the English Touring Opera's production.

Oliver Townsend's sets are wonderful, transforming cleanly from one piece to the next while retaining a consistent style, the imaginative use of lighting and occasional projections giving them all the individual distinction and mood they need. Sung in English, in a superbly witty translation, the humour is played upon much more than the Romantic melodrama, bringing the right kind of emphasis to the material. The dark moments are there too and it can be quite violent, but again it fits with the horror-movie theme and doesn't feel quite as jarring and, frankly, as unreasonably disturbing as it often does in other productions.

Sung in English moreover with a reduced orchestral arrangement reveals that, despite Offenbach's aspirations to grand opéra, Tales of Hoffmann is more closely related to Gilbert and Sullivan, the production reminding me on more than one occasion particularly of Opera North's production of Ruddigore a few years ago. No wonder that the Buxton audience - where the G&S Festival was a fixture for some time - enjoyed it so much. And rightly so. This Tales of Hoffmann was as lively, bright and entertaining as Offenbach without the pretensions ought to be. Perhaps that's the key to getting to grips with this work.

Good singers help too of course and this one was has an engaging cast who gave strong performances, helped no doubt by the excellent characterisation in James Bonas's direction. In line with the adjustment of emphasis the reason the production worked so successfully was undoubtedly largely down to the terrific performances of Australian baritone Warwick Fyfe in the roles of Lindorf/Coppélius/Dr Miracle/Dappertutto. He completely inhabited the roles with silent movie swirling capes and gothic melodrama that retained an edge of danger, his fine resonant singing however giving the roles much more dimension.

Everyone however equally threw themselves wholeheartedly into the roles. Keith Lemon lookalike Sam Furness was a driven Hoffmann, lyrical and fully involved in the proceedings. Ilona Domnich too had great presence in the various incarnations of the woman of intrigue, Stella. The power wasn't always there, but she took on some of the most challenging singing in any opera very well indeed with a lovely voice, interacting particularly well with the others on stage. This was another strong part of the production, involving all of the supporting roles in a true ensemble fashion, keeping the action on the stage fresh, exciting and inventive, with something to enjoy at every moment.

Links: English Touring Opera

Friday 23 October 2015

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande (ETO, 2015 - Buxton)

Claude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

English Touring Opera, 2015

Jonathan Berman, Annelies van Parys, James Conway, Jonathan McGovern, Susanna Hurrell, Stephan Loges, Michael Druiett, Helen Johnson, Lauren Zolezzi

English Touring Opera, Buxton - 16 October 2015

Trying to pin down the symbolism and floating musical ambiguity of Pelléas et Mélisande to any one meaning or interpretation would seem to be a pointless exercise, yet it's a choice that any director who stages the work has to make. Even if one particular interpretation is settled on or a single theme is drawn upon, the work tends to remain elusive and take on an unintended meaning and mysterious direction of its own. If Pelléas et Mélisande can be pinned down to just one broad theme however, it's the one that James Conway develops here in the English Touring Opera's 2015 production in its most abstract form. It's all about love.

That's a strong theme, particularly when it's explored in terms of love inspired by unspeakable passions that drives one to unimaginable actions, and it links in well with the two other very different French operas in the ETO's Autumn 2015 touring programme, Tales of Hoffmann and Werther. The nature of that overpowering love is extreme in all of those works, but in the symbolic nature of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande it can be seen as all-encompassing. The sea, a fountain, water, a ship a cavern, a rock, a tower, a ring, a crown - all of these things can be used to express different facets and aspects of that single theme of love in all its manifestations and the feelings associated with it.

James Conway takes a holistic approach to the work, its themes, its symbols, its characters, its music and its language in a way that supports this theme as well as brings out the other more ambiguous and indefinable qualities of the work that can't quite be expressed in words. The words are suggestive but the intentions are hidden or kept suppressed, particularly in regard to the feelings that Pelléas and Mélisande have for each other, but directorial choices can be imposed on the reading of them. Conway doesn't attempt anything too radical, adopting a position certainly, but crucially allowing some of the ambiguity to remain.

Mélisande is, or appears to be, a total innocent here, but also a figure who has a hidden past that may prevent her from being totally open to her own feelings. Pelléas however knows that the games they play have more of an illicit edge, hesitatingly drawn by her mysterious allure but ultimately unable to resist. Whether he really believes them to be playing what he angrily and dismissively calls a 'jeux d'enfants', Golaud undoubtedly reads too much into it, his suspicions and jealousy fuelled by his own imagination. The key to establishing this or any interpretation successfully is in how it is projected onto the outside world.

The ETO's staging is uncomplicated and open to the symbolism of the drama, contrasting the interiors and exteriors of the castle with the internal emotional world of the characters and their external manifestations. A recessed room behind a gauze screen separates the formal superficial exchanges in the castle of Allemonde from the rather more abstract uncertainties of the mysterious light and colour of the world outside. The only real licence that Conway's production takes with the symbolism is what looks like an overturned filing cabinet that holds all those mysteries buried within it. What spills out of it in terms of where love takes us, is Golaud's inner world, his disturbed mentality coming to dominate and extend out into the world to colour everything else.

With regard to what is unexpressed and inexpressible, much of the mystery and ambiguity in Pelléas et Mélisande and everything that binds it together can be found in Debussy's musical score. Flitting between the worlds of the characters is difficult enough, but it can be hugely rewarding when it integrates and binds itself to the music. The musical interpretation can open up other levels, tones and suggestion far beyond what the words say and even what the actions show, and that is wholly the case here. Arranged by Annelies van Parys for a small chamber-sized orchestra, Debussy's score is still a thing of wonder, depth and mystery, and it's brought out wonderfully under the baton of Jonathan Berman.

The arrangement is familiar but the lightness of the touch dispels the more Wagnerian influences and highlights the power of the notes and the melodies themselves to mark the changes of mood. The tone slips between wonder, anger, sadness, melancholy, and allows them to co-exist. There are one or two minor adjustments, including the use of dialogue cut from the performing edition of the work, reinstated here unaccompanied to excellent effect. The use and flow of the French language is essential here too, and it was delivered with great clarity of diction and appropriate interpretation by all the performers.

Stephan Loges made the greatest impression as Golaud in a production that assumed his outlook as the dominant one, but Jonathan McGovern and Susanna Hurrell's softer, lyrical voices were also ideally suited to the personalities of Pelléas and Mélisande. Helen Johnson's fine singing made sure that the contribution of Geneviève also has relevance to the work as a whole, and Michael Druiett was suitably grave as the preoccupied Arkel, if not quite sonorous enough in the bass register. Yniold was sung wonderfully by Lauren Zolezzi, who also made a real contribution as Sophie in the ETO's Werther on this tour.

Links: English Touring Opera

Thursday 22 October 2015

Verdi - Macbeth (Vienna, 2015 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth (Vienna)

Wiener Staatsoper, 2015

Alain Altinoglu, Christian Räth, George Petean, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Tatiana Serjan, Jorge de Leon, Donna Ellen, Jinxu Xiahou, Jongmin Park

Live at Home - 13 October 2015

A new production of Verdi's Macbeth is always something to look forward to, the work now firmly established in the canon of the composer's most popular works. The opera doesn't have all of the poetry and character of the Shakespeare, but it has much of the drama with the addition of Verdi lending his developing dramatic music skills to a subject of great force, gravity and poignancy - even if it's still not quite Shakespeare. Unfortunately, the new 2015 Vienna production directed by Christian Räth isn't quite Shakespeare either.

There is of course room to place Macbeth in a modern setting, in the theatre as much as in the opera house. The themes of the work are larger than any period historical setting, but the problem is that Christian Räth doesn't really latch on to any of those themes as a means of bringing Shakespeare back into the music-drama. The Vienna Macbeth is unfortunately one of those productions that only makes a token gesture towards modernity, mixing and matching, without committing to any one look or having any new angle to place on the themes.

That means that adhering strictly to instead of a Scottish theme, Macbeth's rule is shown in terms of being a military junta, with generalissimo uniforms that you would find in the South American dictatorships of Galtieri or Pinochet. Lady Macbeth however wears a tartan outfit during the banquet scene, so you get the best of both worlds with some recognition of the nature of Macbeth's regime. That is also reflected in the set designs, the soft lighting of a modern luxury bedroom set in the greater confines of what looks like a huge concrete bunker.

There's a good contrast there that does hint at the nature of Macbeth's fear of the constant threat of being deposed, and the stage design remains consistent with this kind of imagery in the secret police that hunt down Banquo in a political purge. It's all dark and threatening and it looks great - the nightmare vision of the reality effectively spilling over in Macbeth's bedroom visitation of swarms of witches and lines of Macduff's descendants. It illustrates the drama exceptionally well, but it perhaps over-literal (even down to depicting the ghost of Banquo as a shadow), never exploring it for any insights. It's faithful to Verdi at least, if not to Shakespeare.

It's perhaps a bit much to expect the director to bring anything more to the work than Verdi did himself. It's a wonderful score, filled with all the force and darkness of the drama, but it doesn't have the depth of characterisation that Verdi would be able to apply to his later Shakespeare adaptations of Otello and Falstaff. Alain Altinoglu, at least, isn't able to find any wider dynamic or subtlety within the musical arrangements. He certainly directs a punchy performance from the Vienna Orchestra that crashes impressively in the big dramatic moments, but it flows a little too smoothly elsewhere without finding the aching Romanticism that might be a valid approach to Verdi's interpretation of the material.

What makes the production more than just serviceable is - as it often is at the Vienna State Opera - the high standard of the singing. I'm going to go right in there first with the tremendous performance by Tatiana Serjan as Lady Macbeth. Really, the opera just won't work as it should without a singer of huge ability and personality in this role, and Serjan provides plenty of that. It's a fearless performance that attacks the challenges with gusto and plenty of fireworks. George Petean's Macbeth is also good, sung well but without any real distinction in the performance or delivery. Ghostly scene-stealing aside, Banquo is not one of Verdi's major bass roles, but typically Ferruccio Furlanetto sonorous tones bring real personality to the character and sympathy for his fate. With Jorge de Leon proving to be a classic Verdi dramatic tenor as Macduff and great choral work, the Vienna State Opera again remind us where the greatness of Verdi lies, and why Macbeth is one of those operas worth maintaining in the repertoire.

Macbeth was broadcast live from the Vienna State Opera as part of their Live at Home programme. The next broadcasts are ANNA BOLENA on 23 October and DON GIOVANNI on 1 NovemberDetails of how to view these productions live at home can be found in the links below.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Donizetti - L'Elisir d'amore (La Monnaie, 2015 - Webcast)

Gaetano Donizetti - L'Elisir d'amore

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2015

Thomas Rösner, Damiano Michieletto, Olga Peretyatko, Dmitry Korchak, Aris Argiris, Simón Orfila, Maria Savastano

La Monnaie Streaming - September 2015

La Monnaie's 'Extra Muros' 2015-2016 season, using a number of temporary venues across Brussels while the Théâtre Royal is undergoing renovation, seems like an ideal opportunity to rethink and experiment with approaches to staging works. Well, it would be if it were any other opera company, but La Monnaie's productions are always bold and innovative even when they are at home. So it's business as usual then for their new production of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore.

For Damiano Michieletto's production, the set designer Paolo Fantin has constructed a wonderful beach set. And why not? According to the director, all the justification/inspiration needed for this change of location is there in the first lines of the libretto sung by the chorus - ’How good it is to rest a while under a tree when the sun is hot and sultry.’ The beach is as good a place as any, and perhaps actually more appropriate than harvesting in a field, not only as a place to look for and admire potential partners in our body-beautiful conscious times, but as a superficial way of establishing those limits and expectations of whether someone is in your league or not.

I like also that in terms of the singing that Dmitry Korchak's Nemorino is quite evidently marked out as not being in the same league as soprano Olga Peretyatko, who is capable of even more challenging bel canto roles than Adina. Korchak is good, he has an ideal boyish charm for the role, a lovely voice that is well-versed in the bel canto style, and he takes the high-Cs (high seas?) of the role well, but he clearly doesn't have the full body (puns galore in this review) of the more suitable (and superficial) Belcore. And speaking of bodies, credit to Michielotto for having Peretyatko sing an opera in a swimsuit, although I'm afraid that the lovely Russian soprano is unfortunately out of my league too.

The set design (the production shared between Brussels, Valencia and Madrid) for the production is fantastic, bright and colourful, ideal for the superficial tone and content of the work. It doesn't miss a trick as far as beach accessories, activities and attitudes go, and often in very clever and fun ways. Nemorino, for example, admires Adina's intelligence and learning as she reads nothing more than a gossip magazine while lying on a beach towel. The only Tristan and Isolde that she's likely to come across there are the exotically named offspring of celebrities whose lifestyles she is reading about.

Aris Argiris' broad-chested Belcore, for his part, wanders on like he is ready to kick sand in the face of the weedy Nemorino. He's not a soldier here evidently, but more like the captain or crew member of a cruise liner. Dulcamara's magical elixir meanwhile, when he rolls up to join the beach party, is of course a new energy drink. His promotions van comes with oversized cans and female assistants wearing fitness gear who hand out samples to the gullible Nemorino and the easily impressed beach bums. Only the orchestra at the back of the stage - unavoidably I presume on account of the venue not having an orchestra pit - don't really fit the setting, but they at least make an effort to dress casual and remain in the background.

The beach ideas, everything from inflatable sharks to beach massages, are all entertaining if occasionally stretching to the absurd such as the inflatable wedding cake for Adina and Belcore that leads to a foam-bath love-in for the newly rich Nemorino by the end. It's fun if not spectacularly funny, but then L'Elisir leans more to the romantic of the romantic-comedy opera buffa anyway. A big, bold, colourful set with a sense of humour about it and some good singing is usually enough. With Simón Orfila rounding out a good cast, Thomas Rösner conducting a lively musical account of the work and Martino Faggiani working his usual magic with the chorus, that proves to be the case here.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt, RTBF

Saturday 10 October 2015

Mozart - Le nozze di Figaro (Royal Opera House, 2015)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Le nozze di Figaro 

Royal Opera House, 2015

David McVicar, Leah Hausman, Ivor Bolton, Erwin Schrott, Sophie Bevan, Stéphane Degout, Ellie Dehn, Kate Lindsey, Carlo Lepore, Krystian Adam, Louise Winter, Alasdair Elliott, Jeremy White, Robyn Allegra Parton

Royal Opera House Cinema Live - 5 October 2015

David McVicar's production of Le Nozze di Figaro has been in residence at the Royal Opera House since 2006 and, based on its successful 2015 revival broadcast live to cinemas, it's going to be a hard one to evict. Mozart's great masterpiece is by no means immune to reinvention and reinterpretation, but as the efforts to reinvigorate the last couple of productions of Don Giovanni in Covent Garden show (Zambello and Holten), you can't improve on perfection. Mozart's perfection, that is, just to be clear, but McVicar's production for the Royal Opera House isn't too shabby either.

The secret to the success of the production is that it doesn't try to compete with Mozart and Da Ponte. That's a battle you are never going to win. McVicar's production looks like it is merely functional, traditional and period but there's a lot more to it than that. It's true that there's nothing particularly jarring in the set or costume design, (which is actually updated to around 1830, not that you'd notice), and nothing out of place that might distract your attention away from what it important in Le Nozze di Figaro. In no particular order since they are equally important in that they have to work together; the music, the comedy/drama and attention to the detail of the characterisation.

That all sounds pretty obvious, but it's even more important in a work like Le Nozze di Figaro, which relies on fully rounded characterisation of each one of its many individual characters. You can't really have one weaker that the rest as it will have a knock-on effect on how they interact with one another. True, some are more important to get right than others, and it's more noticeable when they have a greater impact on the key moments and scenes and in the main arias. The last thing you want to do however, particularly when you have good singers in these roles, is mess around with the characterisation. The strength of McVicar's production and the main reason it has longevity is in how he establishes those vital aspects of characterisation in such a way that a new cast can slot into it (and a revival director like Leah Housman) with minimal disruption.

So much for characterisation, if one can really just separate it out from all the other elements. The comedy/drama aspect of The Marriage of Figaro however has to integrate and support the personalities and their interaction. Mozart and Da Ponte's collaboration towards this aspect is nothing short of miraculous. It's never any simple, single emotion either in Le Nozze di Figaro, but rather there's always a deeper, sometimes contrasting and sometimes hidden emotion underlying the surface one. Most evidently the contrast is made explicit in the conflict between the characters - one person's joy brings another one disappointment - and that what brings an edge to the comedy and inspires Mozart's dazzling and incredibly intricate ensembles. The conflicting emotions are there however even within an individual at any given moment, and it's there that you find the poignancy in those famous arias.

This is something you just don't mess around with. Mozart's ability here is such that it not only takes opera into a realm far beyond what the constraints of the previous Baroque tradition, but it's a measure of his genius that there are few composers since who can even come close to him in this regard. McVicar's production seems to be fully aware of this and helps bring out the depth of underlying humanity that lies behind every individual character and in every complex scene where they interact. Given that all of them are equally important to the overall balance and effect, you might still think that particular attention needs to be given nonetheless to Figaro and perhaps Susanna, but in practice, from experience, it would appear to be more important to get the characterisation of Count Almaviva right and establish the nature of his relationship with the Countess as the key link upon which all of the others revolve.

Don Giovanni is more open to interpretation - he can be a victim of his desires and uncontrollable impulses, he can be a sleazy seducer, or he can be a vile aggressor (and an infinite degree of nuance in-between) - but, perhaps because of the more overt class issues and because it is more of a comedy, Count Almaviva is less amenable to interpretation. In some ways he has to exhibit all the characteristics of Don Giovanni's personality simultaneously, not leaning too much towards one aspect or the other. He's not a bumbling fool, nor is he as clever and scheming as he would like to think he is either. As the Countess observes at one point, the Count is jealous only out of pride, which gives one clue to rather more complex motivations, but there is also his position to consider. He acts the way he does because he is a noble and, for better or worse, he has to live up to expectations of how a Count should behave. But he also has human feelings too, and feelings for his wife, even if he has forgotten what they once were.

I would certainly give McVicar credit for his direction here in how he makes all these varied aspects apparent in Count Almaviva's interaction with the other characters, but it's also brilliantly interpreted by Stéphane Degout for all the comic potential that lies within these conflicting, frustrating impulses, weighing and judging every gesture, expression and delivery perfectly. Degout's lyrical baritone is also ideal for this role, and, as ever, he is not just note perfect but dynamically expressive for all those diverse traits. The Countess is just as precisely balanced and even more expressive of her vulnerability in this work and in its interpretation here. Ellie Dehn however isn't quite up to the vocal demands that are required to bring it out, at least not in the first half of this performance. Despite possessing a gorgeous timbre and fullness of tone, her 'Porgi Amor' was weak and imprecise. it could have been nerves, as she fared much better after the interval in her 'Dove sono' and her 'Sull'aria' duet with Sophie Bevan. Bevan herself stepped in as Susanna at the last moment for an indisposed Anita Hartig, her bright performance fitting seamlessly into the production.

Erwin Schrott is, as usual, a law unto himself.  He can appear far too casual and relaxed in a role, not really fitting in with the general tone, but his apparently off-hand manner suits Figaro here. By the same token the very relaxed delivery in his singing can appear rather mannered, but it's hard to fault his performance here. Cherubino is a great character, very much the youthful heart of the work, and he should always be a joy.  Maybe not steal the show though, and if the role was written any longer it could well do that with someone like Kate Lindsey performing. As it is, Mozart and Da Ponte know just how much of a good thing to give us, so too does Kate Lindsay who is a complete joy every moment she is on the stage.

With this kind of singing and direction, characterisation as a key to the development, pace and tone of the comedy are all perfectly in place. Even in places where the singing isn't particularly strong, the tight knit production can mitigate against any negative impact that this might otherwise have on the work as a whole. Musical support and integration is no less vital and Ivor Bolton's conducting of the Royal Opera House orchestra has a lightness of touch that doesn't exaggerate or overstate the case. This is as close to perfection as any Le Nozze di Figaro gets, and by extension it's as good as opera gets.

Links: Royal Opera House

Handel - Alcina (Aix-en-Provence, 2015 - Webcast)

George Frideric Handel - Alcina

Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2015

Andrea Marcon, Katie Mitchell, Patricia Petibon, Philippe Jaroussky, Anna Prohaska, Katarina Bradić, Anthony Gregory, Krzysztof Baczyk, Elias Mädler

Opera Platform - July 2015

Katie Mitchell's production of Alcina for the 2015 Aix-en-Provence Festival has more in common with the lavish Vienna State Opera production than the recent disappointing minimalist faux-period production directed by Pierre Audi at La Monnaie. Like the Vienna Alcina, it recognises that the seductive power of illusion is at the heart of the work, but Mitchell's staging is a little more adventurous and modern in how it gets that across, not allowing the same illusion to overwhelm the harsher edge of the underlying reality.

Certainly the opening Act isn't at all reticent about showing the dark nature of a sorceress who seduces men and then turns them into wild animals, trees and rocks. In the Vienna production this was a decadent parlour game play on those themes that allowed it to retain a certain distance. In Katie Mitchell's production it's still the decadence of a wealthy elite, the principal action taking place in a luxury bedroom rather than on an enchanted island, but there 's rather more of an effort to get 'behind the scenes' here.

Most evidently, there is the nature of the bedroom activities that Alcina and her sister Morgana are shown to perform on the poor addled men who fall under their spell. Alcina's writhing around on top of Ruggiero is saucy enough, but Morgana's inclinations are rather more kinky, involving her being strapped to the bed, blindfolded and whipped by 'Ricciardo' (Bradamante in disguise) in a manner that has become more prevalent on the opera stage of late. It won't be the first time '50 Shades of Gray' has been referenced here, but in a strange way there is some kind of justification for it in the stylisations of Baroque opera, or at least in this one anyway.

Chloe Lamford's set design also helps brings out something more of gap between dark desires and surface expression. The set is very similar in design to the one Katie Mitchell used for Written on Skin's world première production at Aix in 2012. To the side of the boudoir lie a couple of adjoining rooms or caverns, where Alcina and Morgana's 'glamour' drops and they take the form of older women, cleverly transforming as they sweep out of one room and into the next. It's a simple trick, but an effective one that hints at those different levels of reality that the opera works on. It's not without a humorous touch either, the upper level holding a 'transforming machine' that turns discarded conquest into stuffed animals to be housed in glass cages.

There's ample justification for this multi-scene approach in the music, which alternates delicate melodies and strident rhythms, but each of the characters - typically in a Baroque opera - operates within their own reality, and it's usually one that doesn't fit and conflicts with the reality of others. Mitchell's staging and some good direction establishes the relationships between the characters well, with the addition of silent assistants for Morgana and Alcina to carry out their magic. It works effectively not only to depict the differing realities, but by showing them simultaneously in their rooms it even helps to bring them together and co-exist in a way that Baroque opera rarely does on its own.

Which, as far as I'm concerned, is great, because notwithstanding that Alcina has some of Handel's most poignant and beautiful arias, I've never felt convinced by the overall tone of the work and how it tells its story. Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyrique's  beautiful precise rhythms captured something of the harder edge of the magic undercurrents if not the wider romantic sweep of the work at La Monnaie. Andrea Marcon's rather loose and free conducting of the Freiburger Barockorchester by contrast, elegant and refined as it remains, doesn't really capture what is a fairly horrific and unpleasant situation for all, and not just in the magic aspect of changing humans into savage beasts, but the relationships too are all fairly abusive and marked by betrayal, jealousy and vengeance.

The singing is perhaps more important in conveying those emotions than the music alone, and happily, the casting for Alcina at Aix is interesting and successful. Impressive even in the case of Patricia Petibon. The measure of an Alcina is found in its main arias and the best of them are in Act II (although ordering and positioning can vary). They are best placed in Act II however, where their conflicting emotions work so well off one another. Alcina's 'Ah! Mio cor' is the key aria of course, determining whether we sympathise with Alcina's predicament or not, and although Mitchell has already done lots of work stripping her bare in her transformations, Petibon is pretty much devastating here on her own account.

It's fantastic to have a countertenor in the role of Ruggiero, particularly one as good as Philippe Jaroussky. His 'Mi lusinga il dolce affetto' not only excuses his inadvertent betrayal of Bradamante, but succeeds in competing for one's sympathies against those that Petibon evokes so powerfully for Alcina. Mitchell even complicates the situation by deepening Bradamante's mixed feelings with a suggestion that Alcina is left pregnant by Ruggiero. A genuinely youthful and sympathetic Oberto adds another emotional dimension in his heartbreaking search for his father and it's sung wonderfully here by Elias Mädler. Big arias also proved the worth of Anna Prohaska's Morgana in her 'Tornami a vagheggiar', while the 50 Shades whipping she receives from Oronte's Gray during her 'Credete al mio dolore' is a fitting 'punishment'. It certainly seems to help her get to those high notes.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Opera Platform

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Dove - Monster in the Maze (Aix-en-Provence, 2015 - Webcast)

Jonathan Dove - Monster in the Maze

Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2015

Simon Rattle, Marie-Ève Signeyrole, Damien Bigourdan, Lucie Roche, Damien Pass, Miloud Khétib

ARTE Concert - 9 July 2015

There's always a chance that international initiatives to promote opera could end up as rather bland and well-meaning. Actually, there's not really any foundation for that statement, since the evidence as far as I've seen it is that such ventures are usually quite successful and innovative. Such is the case with Jonathan Dove's retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur myth The Monster in the Maze, and the reasons for its success are clearly apparent in this French production of the new work at the 2015 Aix-en-Provence Festival.

Certainly the principal reason for its success would seem to be down to the figures behind in the commissioning and composition of the work, as well as their commitment to get behind the idea, mentor it and promote it. Co-commissioned by Sir Simon Rattle and Simon Halsey, the idea was to have the composer Jonathan Dove write a work scored for professional musicians, young musicians and amateur singers. That's a good cross-section of talent capable of bringing together a creative cauldron of experience, new ideas and ideas from outside the traditional opera mindset.

Rather than set out exactly how the work would be performed, it was then workshopped for different interpretations for productions with The London Symphony Orchestra, the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. Judging by the French première of the work at Aix, it would seem that the success of the work rests then on how it allows the creative talents of each of its venues to come up with their own response to the work, gaining particularly from engagement with the young people who serve as the chorus. Obviously however, the work itself has to inspire the young singers, and surprisingly, Greek myth would seem to provide exactly what is needed.

It's more than just the fact that Greek drama traditionally relies on a Chorus to provide commentary and active involvement in the narrative. In the legend of the Minotaur it's possible for the young performers to relate to the deeper themes when it concerns the fate of young children who are innocent victims of a cruel regime, victims of old ways that have nothing to do with them. In The Monster in the Maze, it's Minos, the ruler of Athens, who has decreed that young victims be sent to the island of Crete as sacrifices to the half-bull/half-human creature, the Minotaur. This is a surprisingly potent image that young and old can creatively engage with.

At the time of the performance of the work in the summer of 2015, I'm sure many could draw comparisons between the themes of the work and the Greek economic crisis, as well as the refugee crisis in Syria affecting Greece and Turkey. It certainly isn't an aspect that is highlighted in the French production but that just testifies to the universal relevance of the drama and the power of its themes. For the French production at Aix however, there is clearly a basic emotional engagement with the needless deaths of young children, standing up for what is right and having the conviction to believe that one among them can lead the way out of the cruel dictates of rulers using corrupt means of exercising power according to old laws.

The participation in the workshopping of the work, in finding the best way of representing these ideas on the stage, is also undoubtedly empowering for the young participants. Which is great for opera, as it shows that the medium is not inaccessible or beyond their capabilities. Not only that, but the judging by the response to the work in these performances, where it was warmly received by an appreciative audience for the genuine qualities of the music, there is real validation for the performances and the production as a whole.

For its French language version at Aix, Alasdair Middleton's libretto is adapted superbly by Alain Perroux. I haven't heard the English language 'original', but in French, Le Monstre du Labyrinthe sounds wonderful, the words and singing flowing with true musicality that engages dramatically with the story, particularly Damien Bigourdan's excellent Theseus. Dove's score is not Harrison Birtwistle by any means, but it provides a fresh modern take on classical themes that helps make the subject feel relevant and real. Intended to be a small orchestra of soloists, with the chorus providing much more of the musical force, Rattle nonetheless manages to get a glorious huge sound out of the LSO, accompanied by members of the Mediterranean Youth Orchestra.

The staging at Aix also provides a fresh modern take on the classical Greek drama. Marie-Ève Signeyrole directs well, managing to keep things moving without any clutter despite the huge numbers of child singers on the stage. Everything is used to tell the story and take it from one place to the next, over the sea and into an underground labyrinth, using back projections, animated sequences and mirrors. The depiction of the Minotaur as an origami construction might make its defeat seem as easy as making a paper boat during the interlude, but The Monster in the Maze is all about making what seems impossible actually achievable.

Links: Monster in the Maze, Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert