Monday 30 November 2015

Haas - Morgen und Abend (Royal Opera House, 2015 - London)

Georg Friedrich Haas - Morgen und Abend

Royal Opera House, 2015

Michael Boder, Graham Vick, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Christoph Pohl, Sarah Wegener, Will Hartmann, Helena Rasker

Royal Opera House - 28 November 2015 

There must have been some kind of communication breakdown between the stage and the audience on the first night of Georg Friedrich Haas's new opera Morgen und Abend when it opened at the Royal Opera House on 13th November. When I caught the work at the last of its five world premiere performances at Covent Garden, I saw little that corresponded with some of the indifferent to outright dismissive reviews of the work in the press. On the contrary, this was a spellbinding piece that held the audience rapt over its 90 minute running time, was warmly received and even enthusiastically applauded at the curtain call.

Undoubtedly however, the subject and the musical approach of the work are very different from what one is accustomed to hearing on the main stage at Covent Garden. The meaning or progress of the work would be difficult to grasp simply because it is about something that isn't capable of being easily defined and for which there are is no familiar musical accompaniment. By which I mean that the subject is Death, and it's not accompanied here by either by the dramatic build-up and crescendos that usually accompany an on-stage expiration, nor by mournful laments that follow. Rather in his adaptation of Jon Fosse's drama 'Morgon og Kveld', G. F. Haas's Morgen und Abend (Morning and Evening) explores the moment of transition between those two more familiar states - the moment of death itself.

That, admittedly, leaves the listener not quite sure where they are or how they should be responding to the lack of dramatic narrative. In the long prologue, an old fisherman called Olai (Klaus Maria Brandauer) sits in a grey sterile landscape, unsure himself where he is or what he is supposed to be doing. In Graham Vick's production design, there's a door, but it stands alone, there are chairs and a bed, but also an abandoned fishing boat. Everything slowly revolves, time operating in a circular fashion, where the ending is also the beginning. Gradually, the old man comes to realise that he is dead, but paradoxically, he is reliving the moment when his son Johannes was born. Johannes is no sooner born than Olai makes his exit through the door, and Johannes is no sooner born than he too makes his way onto the grey stage of his death.

What has happened in between is ...well, life - and Morgen und Abend isn't particularly concerned with that. A few articles have suggested that the lack of familiarity in the English speaking world with Jon Fosse's work, in contrast to his high literary standing in Europe, could have further alienated the UK audience, but the question of passing over is common in literature, and even in mainstream cinema (in 'Ghost' or 'The Sixth Sense'). While deaths frequently occur in many operas, it's true however that exploration of death itself is not at all common. The dead may have a voice in opera, going right back 400 years to the earliest works by Peri and Monteverdi's on the Orpheus myth 400 years ago, but even though the state of death is considered in Orpheus' journey to the underworld, and it is particularly the main focus in Gluck's version of the myth - opera's treatment of death (even in the martyrdom of Donizetti's Poliuto or Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites) is almost always qualified by desire to live.

Life is not entirely absent from Fosse and Haas's Morgen und Abend, but it's a shadow world that is far beyond reach. That fishing boat has already sailed. Johannes, still unable to comprehend where he is and what has happened, is confused by the appearance of his dead wife and his living daughter, but also by the need he feels to visit his old friend Peter, help him cut his hair and go out fishing with him once again. As the appearance of Olai on the stage just before Johannes appears, this (Death) is a place where time no longer follows familiar rules. Everyone exists here simultaneously, but they are also alone. It's not a place either for contemplation of one's life or weighing up the balance of one's achievements - it just is.

If there is any justification for there being a communication breakdown between the opera and the audience then, it's hardly due to the content of the libretto, as "difficult" and uncommon as the subject it deals with might be. The synopsis is summarised in a single line in the Royal Opera House programme - "Morgen und Abend (Morning and Evening) is the struggle of Johannes into and out of life". There's not much you have to 'get' here. A more valid concern appears to be the inability on the first night to hear Klaus Maria Brandauer's Olai's spoken monologue over the orchestra and percussion. This criticism seems to have been taken on board at Covent Garden, and when performed at the final performance on the 28th November, Brandauer had evidently been hitched up to a radio microphone and could be clearly heard in the mix.

I would also find it difficult to accept that anyone would find the music of Georg Friedrich Haas difficult to grasp either. It's true that the Austrian composer has a much higher profile elsewhere in Europe, and his work is not as well known in the UK. It's also true that Haas works experimentally in improvisation and microtonalites, as well as with works that have directions to be performed in pitch darkness, but his music is not inaccessible or only of interest to music scientists. Nor is it cold and theoretical, but as Morgen und Abend and the composer's other works in the lyric medium testify, Haas is very much interested in transitional human states, as uncommon and indefinable as some of those might appear to be.

In Morgen und Abend, the music is beautiful, haunting and fully connected to the interim nature of the state of non-existence, of being neither here nor there. Notes hypnotically slip and slide, the pitch is bent, stretched and altered, wavering between one state and another with percussive jolts thundering and echoing moments of confusion, recognition and realisation. There's a hypnotic flow here that finds a musical equivalent for Jon Fosse's unpunctuated flow of words, but Haas also writes beautifully for the voice, with variety of expression (in spoken dialogue and singing) and in the blending together of voices and the music, sections of which are underpinned with the ahhhh-ah hum of a rather more musically conventional heavenly chorus. A strong cast provided all the necessary colour.

Morgen und Abend is a modern opera in the truest sense. It's musically progressive and experimental, seeking to find the truest musical expression for its subject in an inventive way, not falling back on familiar operatic models or musical conventions but not destroying them either. There are no grand ambitions here to satisfy public or critical tastes by making grand musical or dramatic gestures, but rather Georg Friedrich Haas follows the artistic imperative of exploring the subject through his own musical language, and Morgen und Abend quietly impresses.

BBC Radio 3 will broadcast a recording of Morgen und Abend at the Royal Opera House on Saturday 5th December.  It will be available for listening on the BBC iPlayer for four weeks after this date.

Links: Royal Opera House, BBC Radio 3

Wednesday 25 November 2015

Monteverdi - Orpheus/Odysseus/Poppea (Komische Berlin, 2014 - Blu-ray)

Claudio Monteverdi - Orpheus/Odysseus/Poppea

Komische Oper, Berlin - 2014

André de Ridder, Barrie Kosky, Dominik Köninger, Julia Novikova, Peter Renz, Günter Papendell, Ezgi Kutlu, Tansel Akzeybek, Brigitte Geller, Roger Smeets, Helene Schneiderman

Arthaus Musk - Blu-ray

Barrie Kosky's work is becoming more widely known in the UK from colourful, fresh and not entirely controversy-free productions of mainly Baroque opera at the ENO (Rameau's Castor and Pollux), Glyndebourne (Handel's Saul) and Edinburgh (Mozart's The Magic Flute), but the Australian director is also the artistic director at the Komische Oper in Berlin, the city's German language opera company. You can expect then that his Monteverdi Trilogy (L'Orfeo, Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria and L'Incoronazione di Poppea the composer's only existing complete operas) is going to be very different from any other versions of some of opera's earliest and greatest compositions. You don't know the half of it...

It's the Komische, so even Monteverdi is subjected to the German language treatment. That might sound strange to the ears were the works performed in an historically-informed way on period instruments, but remarkably the musical interpretation is just as "translated" here. While the melodic line and continuo is followed in as far as Monteverdi variously scored it for these works with theorbo and bass viol, Elena Kats-Chemin has introduced new instrumentation for all three works, including an accordion, a banjo and an electric guitar as well as a range of exotic instruments like the djoza from Iran, a West African kora (bridge-harp) and a Syrian oud (lute).

The familiar melodies and rhythmic structure is there, but less rigidly adhered to, blending into a much richer texture of plucked and hammered sounds that actually give a real kick to the arrangements. It's not just the colour of the instruments that is used either, but the melody can stray into a tango, into German jazz, Slavic folk, klezmer or ragtime swing. It might sound outrageous, but it gets across the wide dynamic of the tones within and across these works and is always appropriate to the context. What is also fascinating is hearing those instruments play baroque music and discovering the connections the various styles have with one another. It's as if they can all be ultimately traced back to Monteverdi, and I suppose in a way they can.

Needless to say, Barrie Kosky revels in the opportunities to match the colour and playful nature of the music with vividly bright, colourful productions that are inventive in situation on a busy stage that is usually a riot of dance and movement. Musically and in terms of staging, reflecting the director's concept of the loss and ultimate destruction of the Arcadian ideal across the three works, the trilogy is at its most elaborate in Orpheus (L'Orfeo). This would be appropriate for a work that spans such a wide range of human experiences and emotions, from joyful celebration to mournful despair and the determination of Orpheus not to be defeated by the cruel war constantly waged between the Gods subjecting mankind to the whims of Time, Love, Fate and Chance.

Kosky's production then strongly marks the contrast between Paradise and Hell, illustrating the endeavours of Orpheus and the power of human art and ingenuity to celebrate love and beauty in the face of outrageous fortune. The stage is filled with movement, with dancers and life-size puppets, but it works in a complementary way with the nature of the subject and with the unconventional musical interpretation conducted here by André de Ridder. As the most adventurous of the three stagings, it works marvellously, allowing the German language performance to fit in well with the celebration of life in all its richness and colour. The singing performances by Dominik Köninger as Orpheus, Julia Novikova as Eurydice and Peter Renz as Amor, no doubt help make that work as well with the sheer lyrical beauty of the voices.

The rather more austere staging for Odysseus (Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria) doesn't significantly alter the impact that is achieved by the richness of the work itself. Accordingly, the music has the same kind of musical reinterpretation but with a different colour from that of Orpheus. Turkish melodies and rhythms infuse Poppea's lament and other imaginative musical flourishes on a grand piano are inserted in those Monteverdean short bursts of melody in the middle of recitative. The scene of the three suitors characterises their claims with a tango rhythm or a burst of a Habanera. Again without destroying the composer's structure, this is very much in the spirit of improvisation and interpretation that are a vital element to the make-up of Monteverdi's operas, the singing voices taking up the main expression of emotions. Ezgi Kutlu in particular impresses here as Poppea, but Günter Papendell's Odysseus and Tansel Akzeybek's Telemachus are also very strong.

In terms of the advancing the concept of the staging, one of the main factors that establishes the tone of the work is of course the Prelude. In Odysseus, Time, Fortune and Love make fools of the activities of men and the purpose of Odysseus. The expedition to Troy and the war that ensued has led to Odysseus blown off course for 20 years. Arcadia has been lost, Odysseus is wandering, longing for a return to peace in his homeland, with his family and loved ones, and it is also causing Penelope great torment. The 'patria' here then is nothing more then than the green, green grass of home, a mostly bare platform with the orchestra behind the performers. The period is kind of late-60s/early-70s, the suitors looking particularly sleazy as if they've just spilled out of a bar hoping to pick up a wealthy widow, but the tone at the same time colourfully evokes nostalgia for old-fashioned ways.

The set is also minimally dressed for Poppea (L'Incoronazione di Poppea), but this is more than compensated for by the colour, movement and stage directions that extend out beyond the orchestra pit on a wide platform. Disappointingly however, having got quite used to it in the other two works, the musical reinterpretation is less evident here, despite L'incoronazione di Poppea being a work that has a wide range of emotional colour and variety of situation. A little bit of electric guitar makes fitful appearances, and banjos are used to bring a little more of an edge to the basso continuo. Somehow however, despite the fact that great care has been take to establish a distinct sound world to each of the works, it isn't until quite late in the piece that the instrumentation finds the kind of rhythmic pulse that should drive the work.

Barrie Kosky however is not short of ways to use the singers, dancers and supernumerary sprites to push the expressions of all the violent and lustful passions in Poppea into the movement and exhibition of the body. There is a considerable amount of full-frontal nudity here, mostly male, none of which is the least bit erotic. Amor - a vital character to all three works (sung in each by Peter Renz) - is a constant presence here, but again taking its lead from the prelude, Love might be dominant, but Virtue has been defeated and Arcadia destroyed. Poppea takes place consequently on the side of a volcano, grey, with large boulders littering the landscape. The contrast between Nero and Poppea's violent love and the monstrousness of their actions towards others is depicted in all its horror, and matched by the intense singing. All of the performers are simply outstanding here, but I particularly liked Helene Schneiderman's unrepentantly vengeful Octavia.

The quality of the visual aspect of each of the Blu-ray discs is fine, but there is a little bit of haziness to the image with some minor blurring in movement that is not as clinically sharp as most HD releases. On Orpheus and Odysseus, there is a kind of yellowish tint with gives a warmer tone. These characteristics are less evident on Poppea, which also seems sharper. The singing sounds a little amplified which might be down to the use of radio mics, although they are not obviously worn by the performers, and the mixing is not quite as bright as you might find on recordings of baroque music. It's warmly toned if you like, and comes over well on the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and PCM stereo mixes, but best of all on headphones. Subtitles are in German, English, French and Turkish. There are no extra feaures on the discs, but there are synopses and a great deal of information on the production in the large booklet that comes with the box set.

Friday 20 November 2015

Boito - Mefistofele (Munich, 2015 - Webcast)

Arrigo Boito - Mefistofele

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2015

Omer Meir Wellber, Roland Schwab, René Pape, Joseph Calleja, Kristine Opolais, Heike Grötzinger, Andrea Borghini, Karine Babajanyan, Rachael Wilson, Joshua Owen Mills

Staatsoper.TV - 15 November 2015

There's a problem with Mefistofele, and it's surprising since it is the only complete opera written by Arrigo Boito, the librettist for some of Giuseppe Verdi's greatest works. Boito's librettos for Otello and Falstaff are so filled with poetic insight, depth of characterisation and tense drama that they spurred Verdi on to the late creative peak of his career. While Boito is evidently no match for Verdi as a composer, what is surprising is that it's not the music that is the weak point in Mefistofele, it's the drama. Admirably tackling for the first time a work that nonetheless deserves greater recognition, the Bavarian State Opera in Munich only manage to emphasise those weaknesses in a spectacular but dramatically inert production.

During his introduction, Nickolaus Bachler, the director of the Bayerische Staatsoper, calls Mefistofele "an opera for experts". This means that Boito, choosing to illustrate a number of scenes from 'Faust' in the manner of Berlioz rather than attempt to create a dramatic narrative in the style of Gounod, expects his audience to be familiar with those operatic antecedents, or with Goethe's work itself. Accepting it on those terms, Mefistofele is a powerful work that does have a character of its own, as well as a distinct perspective - the title indicating that the interest lies with Mephistopheles here rather than Faust - that suits Boito's lyrical strengths. That doesn't mean however that it can't be given a greater dramatic presence on the stage.

The problem with Roland Schwab's production for Munich is not that it is short of ideas or spectacle, as much as it lacks any distinctive real-world vision that would give the work a greater coherence and a stronger dramatic line. It's clear that the director makes an effort to flesh out the characterisation, particularly in the central role of Mephistopheles. He also introduces both Faust and Margherita onto the stage a little earlier than they need to be there, and keeps them there even when there's not a great deal for them to do. Sustaining this kind of characterisation however ultimately becomes difficult within the rather abstract conceptual framework that the director has come up with, and the character are often left standing around or singing out to the audience.

There are many ways you can interpret the setting here, but essentially, it seems to me that the purpose is to emphasise the hold that Mefistofele wields over the world. Starting with Mefistofele putting a record onto an old gramophone, it's the devil who is calling the tunes here, settling back in his armchair to watch a plane hurtling towards a city tower, with a somewhat random image of John Lennon also projected over this scene. Freezing the moment, the remainder of the opera seems to take place in what looks like the framework fuselage of this plane that is about to crash into the city, held there only as long as it takes Mefistofele to win his bet against the heaven as to the extent of his power and influence over mankind.

Boito's scoring and writing would certainly indicate that this influence is considerable, and that ultimately all the horror and havoc caused by human agency is scarcely negated by a last-minute death-bed redemption. He may not have ultimate control of Faust's eternal soul, but by heck, he causes a great deal of death and horror in the world while he is alive. Isn't that bad enough? Boito's vision is certainly a dark one that explores this nihilistic element, and his musical interpretation of it can often be overblown, how else are you meant to deal with a war on this scale between heaven and hell?

It would be very easy to apply this despairing nihilism to the situation in the world today, but the Munich production squanders the opportunity. Mefistofele still surely reigns in the world today. The fact that this performance took place just two days after the Paris attacks just emphasised how abstract and vacant the production was, totally incapable of making any meaningful connection to the very subject that Boito is writing about. Boito's imagery is strong - "Let us dance! For the world is now lost. On the countless dead shards of the fatal globe, our steps blaze and mingle in a wild dance of Hell" - but all Schwab has to offer are empty theatrical cliché's, S&M costumes, zombie demons, stock dance gestures, operatic overacting and empty spectacle. We even get the obligatory asylum scene at the conclusion.

Detached as it might be from the real world, conceptually, Schwab's production holds together well. Mefistofele's influence - particularly as it is so well-played and sung by René Pape - is shown to hold sway. The bet here is not so much that Mefistofele can corrupt Faust, as reduce him to despair at the realisation of his own nature and the extent of his corruption. Strapped to one of the chairs on the plane, Faust is raised up to see the consequences of his actions and the true nature of man - "Who pushed her into the abyss?" Mefistofele asks Faust of Margherita, "You or I?". The realisation of what he has done inevitably drives Faust mad. The final scene, albeit that it takes place in an asylum, is also simultaneously in the crashed plane, where a forensic team picks through the wreckage for clues.

Boito's Mefistofele has its flaws then, but its philosophy is not one of them. With a strong production willing to delve into the depths it explores and a musical accompaniment that supports it, Mefistofele is capable of being turned into something more meaningful and become more of a fixture in the repertoire. Munich's production feels strangely detached and absent, failing to ignite even the coup de théâtre of the opening scene by having the huge choirs of heaven sound like they were singing from an adjacent building. Perhaps the sound mixing just wasn't the best for the internet streamed production, but there was a similar disengagement throughout between the stage and the pit. The Bayerische Staatsoper's failure to do justice to this work is very disappointing.

So too is the singing. René Pape at least gives an impressive performance that is full of character. Mephisopheles is a role that he is is familiar with in Gounod's Faust, but he is able to take advantage of the more detailed characterisation and prominence that Bioto gives to the role in Mefistofele, and is wonderfully menacing in his singing and delivery. Joseph Calleja is a terrific singer with a great voice that just oozes classic Italianate lyricism, but even though you couldn't fault his singing or his performance here, he just feels wrong casting him as Faust. This is surely more of a role for Jonas Kaufmann, were he not already overworked in Munich and on the world stage. Kristine Opolais is another Munich regular who is miscast in roles that are out of her depth. She's good when called upon to project high emotion, but thin and nearly inaudible in middle range and insecure in pitch at the lower register. Good singers all, but Pape aside, not the kind of performers who are capable of rescuing this dramatically inert production in Munich.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV

Monday 9 November 2015

Szymanowski - Król Roger (Royal Opera House, 2015 - Blu-ray)

Karol Szymanowski - Król Roger

Royal Opera House, London - 2015

Antonio Pappano, Kasper Holten, Mariusz Kwiecien, Saimir Pirgu, Georgia Jarman, Kim Begley, Alan Ewing, Agnes Zwierko

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Szymanowski's Król Roger is a rare enough work, but not so rare that you wouldn't have come across it before and even had an opportunity to see it performed thanks to a fine Blu-ray release of the 2009 production at Bregenz. That particular production, while it looked marvellous and highlighted that this was a work that merited more attention, was a fairly arid stage production that made little effort to explore the subtext and context of the work. Kasper Holten takes a bit more of a chance in the work's first production at the Royal Opera House, opening up the themes of a little known work and making it explicit through this release to a worldwide audience. The real risk however is perhaps revealing that there's not much more great depth to the work than is apparent just beneath the surface.

Based on 'The Bacchae' by Euripides, and set in the Byzantine era of the 12th century ruler of Palermo, Szymanowski's Król Roger is a fairly basic morality tale. It explores the consequences of a Christian king whose moral certainties and security of his authority is challenged by the arrival of a new prophet. This takes in a familiar opera subject, beloved of Baroque opera seria, of the need of a ruler to show caution in balancing the exercise of power against the satisfaction of their own personal needs. Like many European artists, writers and filmmakers who have been drawn over the years by the allure of an exotic paradise and a closer connection to nature that permits a more open sexual liberation, Szymanowski had a passion for the hedonism and cultural diversity of the Mediterranean, and issues relating to the composer's homosexuality are also very much a part of what the opera is about.

Listening to the reports of the Shepherd-Prophet's activities, King Roger initially regards his seductive promise that true happiness can only be found in indulging the senses as pagan blasphemy. Troubled and jealous of the influence the Shepherd has over Queen Roxana, he orders the dangerous madman be put to death, but relents when the Queen appeals for clemency and instead banishes him. Roger is however perturbed by the words of the Shepherd. When did he ever last feel passion such as that described by the prophet? He might be a king, but in contrast to the limitless pleasures promised by the prophet, he has to admit to himself that his reach doesn't extend beyond his own arm, or more pointedly, beyond a sword at the end of his arm. There's a persuasive argument here that troubles the King, so he invites the Prophet to another private meeting.

The conflict between the head and the heart can't be missed in the most distinguishing characteristic of Kasper Holten's direction and Steffen Aarfing's set design, with its huge head dominating as the eye-catching centre-piece. It's a feature that was also evident in Holten's Don Giovanni for the Royal Opera House, the psychology of the noble made visible and compartmentally spread in 3D projections across the various levels and rooms of a mansion construction. Unlike Don Giovanni, the simplicity and abstraction of his idea works more effectively in Król Roger. The huge choral opening of the work calls out for a big gesture, and the monumental imagery here could hardly be more effective in achieving the necessary impact.

Like Don Giovanni's house of the mind, Król Roger's head revolves 360˚ in the second act to show the conflict that is going on within it, on a literal as well as an internal level. The head is split into several levels, showing the living quarters of the King and the Queen. At a lower level a mass of semi-naked bodies can be seen twisting and writhing while the king grapples with the doubts that the words of the Shepherd have awakened in him. It's debatable whether Holten's production, set moreover in the 1920s, does anything more than make the subtext of the composer's homosexuality a little more obvious, but on the evidence of the beautiful performance of the work at the Royal Opera house, there is clearly a musical richness to the work and wider themes explored that suggest that Szymanowski's Król Roger is worthy of more attention.

The large choral pieces are the most striking and original element of Król Roger, which is perhaps why the influence of Strauss's Salomeone of the most important works from this period - seems to go largely unnoticed. It seems to me to be the obvious comparison, with its prophet, its awakening of forbidden lusts that challenge traditional Christian morality, and the fear of the consequences that might ensue. It's evident right down to the sensual language of the libretto, and mirrored in the music as well. Salome is very evident in the soaring orchestration, the heady, seductive Oriental melodies and rhythms that are even presented in the form of a dance in Act II, but also in the dramatic punctuation of the music, its notes of dissonance and its roaring crescendos.

All of this is indeed seductive to the listener, as much as it is to the king. What is interesting about Król Roger, and what suggests that there is potentially more to say about the work than Kasper Holten suggests, is the rather more ambiguous ending. There is a danger in letting oneself submit to wild abandon of earthly delights, Roger risking losing his power and influence, becoming reduced to a pilgrim or a beggar. Salome pays the price to pay for stepping outside those boundaries, but after his own experience at transgressing social and sexual mores, Oscar Wilde would later revise this view in 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' to the opinion that each man might indeed kill the thing he loves "yet each man does not die". Szymanowski's Król Roger - and to be fair Holten's production supports this - seems to go along with this, Roger appearing to be reborn through acknowledgement and acceptance of those desires, if not quite in submission to them.

If there's a seductiveness to this view proposed by the Shepherd that Roger is unable to resist, a lot of it is to do with Szymanowski's score, the vivid reading of it by Antonio Pappano, and the outstanding singing performances. The complementary contrasts between Mariusz Kwiecien's Roger and Saimir Pirgu's Shepherd in particular really contribute to the essential dynamic. Singing in his native Polish Kwiecien is impressive - commanding and authoritative turning to tortured and liberated, his voice reflecting all the passion that is contained within that journey. Saimir Pirgu seductive lyric tenor is simply perfect casting for the Prophet, and Georgia Jarman's Roxana is wonderfully persuasive in her effusive declarations.

The complementary material on the BD release gives some good background information on this rare work. The director, conductor and case contribute to a five-minute introduction that explores the work, its musical language and its characters in sufficient depth, and there is also a more detailed look at the sets and the music.  In addition to this, there's a full-length commentary from Kasper Holten and an essay in the enclosed booklet by John Lloyd Davies that explores the Nietzschean undercurrents in the subject, as well its parallels with Hamlet, von Aschenbach and Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. The quality of the recording is good, the opera benefiting particularly from the wide dynamic of the High Definition sound. The BD is region-free with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Links: The Royal Opera House

Monday 2 November 2015

Puccini - Turandot (NI Opera, 2015 - Belfast)

Giacomo Puccini - Turandot

NI Opera, 2015

David Brophy, Calixto Bieito, Orla Boylan, Marc Heller, Anna Patalong, Stephen Richardson, Christopher Gillett, Paul Carey Jones, Andrew Rees, Eamonn Mulhall, Padraic Rowan, Gemma Prince, Heather Fogarty, David Lynn

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 31 October 2015

I have to admit that although I am by no means fond of Pasolini's 1975 brutal and near-unwatchable final film 'Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom', it has to be said that it remains an important and influential work that still has the power to shock and horrify. Like it or not, references to the work in an opera production are still guaranteed to cause controversy and raise an outcry, but you'd have to ask serious questions why such an extreme outlook needs to be brought onto the opera stage in the first place, as for example in Andrea Breth's production of Verdi's La Traviata at La Monnaie. The director made a strong case for it there, but references to 'Salò' accompanied by equally disturbing imagery in Calixto Bieito's production of Turandot for the NI Opera is surely taking things too far?

It is hard to imagine quite how such an extreme treatment could be applied with any validity to Puccini's colourful fairy tale opera, nor is it immediately obvious as you are watching the production, since the scenes enacted here scarcely bear out what is detailed in the libretto. But then of course nothing about Calixto Bieito's productions are ever obvious. It is interesting and fortuitous (but maybe not all that surprising) that elements of this production just happen to echo current events relating to the increased prominence of China on the world's political and economic stage. There was the state visit of the President of The People's Republic, Xi Jinping, signalling closer economic union between Britain and China last week, and the newprint ink was still damp on reporting of the relaxation of China's one-child rule when this production opened at the Grand Opera House in Belfast. Still, what's that got to do with Turandot and why bring 'Salò' into it?

Puccini never intended Turandot to make any kind of political statement, but there certainly is room to find a darker subtext in the bold new musical direction that the composer had embarked upon in his final few works. Turandot is, despite its fairy tale trappings, unquestionably a dark, sombre and even violent work, even more so than the traditional underlying subtext of most fairy tales. It's about a cruel princess who executes anyone who fails to answer her riddles. Many have come to her kingdom hoping to melt her frozen heart, but all of them end up beheaded, her regime also carrying out torture and executions. It's all there in the plot of Turandot and it's all there in the music too. The Chinese musical quotations are not there for exoticism this time with Puccini, but rather they are intentionally dissonant and jarring, accompanied by huge, heavy orchestration and powerful choral arrangements. Turandot herself is one of the most challenging soprano roles for any singer, demanding Wagnerian stamina with firm high coloratura.

Bieito evidently brings this dark undercurrent to the foreground by setting it in Communist China, although there is little to differentiate between China of the recent past and the more capitalist-friendly China of today. The workers, all in blue uniformed dungarees, work in a sweatshop that seems to trade in medical body parts ('Medorgan'), most of which seem to come from excess babies. Or dolls maybe, but they tend to bleed when bashed head-first onto the floor. It's a totalitarian regime with Ping, Pong and Pang less comedy figures and rather more authoritarian mandarins. Dressed in Communist military uniforms, they are shown brutally beating, stripping and raping the workers, mercilessly clamping down on them when they fall behind Calaf and his attempts to win the hand of the ice princess. They do a lot worse in their torture of Calaf, Liù and Timur in their attempts to uncover Calaf's identity. It's the use and abuse of the bodies of the people as the ultimate commodity in a consumerist society, and seen in that context, Pasolini's stark and bleak vision of 'Salò' is not only appropriate, but even more prophetic and relevant today.

Viewed realistically, Turandot is not a distant fairy tale unrelated to the real world either, but one which can be seen to say a lot about China, or indeed about pretty much any modern so-called democracy in our globalised times. You have authorities who keep their actions and activities hidden and unaccountable (presented as riddles) contrasting that with their desire to control the population through fear, seeking to gain access to the private information that they can use to undermine any individual or body (Calaf/Ai Weiwei/the Arts in general) who opposes, challenges or is a threat to their objectives. It's not just China either, but you can apply much of this kind of activity to what is going on all over the world today. The signs of 'Traitor' hung around the necks of artists and intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution are the character assassinations of the right-wing press of today. Chilcot, Guantanamo, Wikileaks, Snowdon, the government seeking powers to monitor the control the freedom of the internet, an unaccountable wealthy 1% elite exploiting and scapegoating the poor; all these apply. If Calixto Bieito had managed to get a pig's head somewhere up there on the stage, it could hardly have been more topical...

Beito's production was of course developed long before last week's news, previously showing in Nuremburg and Toulouse and obviously it makes no such direct reference to any of these issues. Like 'Salò' however, it taps into the undercurrents and it's a measure of how the the subject is presented that it is relevant and can be applied meaningfully to what is going on in the world today. Seen in that light, Puccini's Turandot is a good vehicle for the ideas that Bieito draws out of it, the composer's through composition and the underlying dissonance suggesting something far more sinister lying behind the fairy tale imagery. It's using art to touch on a deeper reality, something that totalitarian states also fear and suppress. It's interesting (and not entirely coincidental I'm sure) that in a time that sees even greater government cuts to the arts (something that affects NI Opera), Calaf sings "Nessun Dorma", the most lyrical moment of the opera while turning around the 'Traitor' sign hung around his neck and writing 'Poetry' on it. And he is roundly kicked and beaten by the authorities, Pang, Pong and Ping for his troubles.

Turandot becomes darker still if it is only taken as far as Puccini composed it before his death, ending at the point where Liù takes her own life. Franco Alfano's completion of the work is abandoned here, ending on this bleak note, the full two-hour performance played without intermission and with no respite from the horror on the stage. There's no redemption for her sacrifice, no winning over of the cruelty of the heartless ruler. If there was anything that weakened the tone established here in NI Opera's production, it wasn't in the singing or the impressive performance of the Ulster Orchestra who were really on fire here, hitting home resoundingly under the baton of David Brophy. Orla Boylan was a formidable Princess Turandot, her mastery of the role impressive; Marc Heller was a lyrical Calaf; Anna Patalong an impassioned Liù; Stephen Richardson a grave, agonised Timur, and Paul Carey Jones' resonant baritone give us an implacably evil Pang. No, if there was any weakness - aside from the continued absurd policy of singing in English (even "Nessun Dorma"!) in a work pitched so high and to a thunderous score that renders the words utterly unintelligible without surtitles - it was that paradoxically the live stage may not really be the best place to highlight such horrors of the world today.

It is an extreme vision and no doubt some reviewers and audience members will be up in arms about the treatment of Turandot here, but despite the best efforts of the director, it can't help but feel 'staged' and tame in comparison to the reality. But it's all we've got, and it's an impressive effort that must be attempted. NI Opera have never shied away from challenges, not least the very threat to their continued existence that the NI Assembly present with their appallingly short-sighted and vicious cuts in funding for the arts. For that and for even daring to put this kind of production on the stage in Belfast, the overwhelmingly positive response from the audience was fully merited. "Not extreme enough" and "met with unanimous acclaim" are not phrases you often see applied to a Calixto Bieito production, but it says a lot for the confidence that NI Opera have in Belfast audiences (evidently a more sophisticated audience than the booing contingent that blights La Scala, Covent Garden and the Paris Opera) to support and recognise the importance of artistic freedom. This is what art can do and this is why we need the arts.

Links: NI Opera