Monday 26 December 2016

Puccini - La Bohème (Turin, 2016)

Giacomo Puccini - La Bohème

Teatro Regio Torino, 2016

Gianandrea Noseda, Àlex Ollé, Irina Lungu, Kelebogile Besong, Giorgio Berrugi, Massimo Cavalletti, Benjamin Cho, Gabriele Sagona, Matteo Peirone, Cullen Gandy, Mauro Barra, Davide Motta Fré

Opera Platform - October 2016

La Bohème is one of those works whose former strengths no longer carry as much weight for me as they once might have done. The beautiful arias, the Romantic sweep of Puccini's heart-tugging arrangements and melodies are still beautiful, still emotionally and dramatically effective, but they no longer seem to be where the true heart of the work resides. The gaps in the plot and character that I would have once regarded as its weaknesses on the other hand now seem to be more important to the enduring universality of the work as a whole. Gianandrea Noseda and Àlex Ollé seem to be attempting to address both points and striving for a better balance in the Teatro Regio Torino's 120th anniversary production of the first performance of La Bohème there, but it could also be seen as trying to fix something that doesn't really need to be fixed.

The piecemeal adaptation of Henry Murger's story collection once might have been regarded as a weakness in the structure of the opera. There is little flow between the four distinct acts, each of them having to sum up a 'where they are now' situation, with all the troubles incidents and twists and turns that their lives have taken in-between left to the side. That wouldn't be so bad if the scenes that remain weren't padded out with what often feels like unnecessary colour, weak characterisation and a lot of joking around that isn't all that funny.

Those might seem like weaknesses, but Puccini turns them into virtues, mostly. There's nothing weak about Puccini's musical colouring for the scenes, and if the use and repetition of themes might not always meet the strictest codes of musical and dramatic integrity, they do create a continuity that is necessary to link the four Acts. If a theme is repeated in a different context from its original use, it often serves as a contrast and a 'reminder' of where it originally came from. The horsing around of the budding artists can still be irritating and feel pointless, but it is important to reflect a wider view of the situation that has a major impact on Rodolfo and Mimi. It's not the love story that is important in La Bohème, as much as the work being about how love tragically comes second place to paying the bills.

That's not a very romantic way to look at one of the greatest love stories in opera, but it is a mistake to idealise La Bohème and prettify the abject poverty of the "bohemian life", where the protagonists are fighting on a daily basis to heat their tiny rooms, trying not to starve and striving not to die of some terrible disease. While it's important to reflect this, it is also important to show how life goes on, how friendship and companionship endure and - regardless of the weight you think Puccini applies to this aspect - it's all there in the opera. There may also be huge gaps in Rodolfo and Mimi's relationship, but those gaps just widen the huge gulf between the ideal and the reality and leave space for the listener who has experienced the travails of love to reflect on the truths in their relationship.

It might not be perfect but, as is often the case with Puccini, the imperfections just leave space for consideration, interpretation and playing with the colours. La Bohème however is not a work that demands any reconstructive or deconstructive modernisation. Indeed, were it not for Stefan Herheim's charged Oslo production, you would think that this is one opera that is surely immune to too much directorial intervention. Critically however, Herheim managed to play to the traditional strengths of the opera, deepening its sentiments without resorting to sentimentality and in La Bohème, there's a thin line there that it is easy to cross. The challenge for Àlex Ollé is the same one of reigning in and opening up.

A member of La Fura dels Baus, the Catalan theatre team who are not exactly known for restraint in their productions of elaborate concepts and spectacular technical innovation, Ollé has however been capable of scaling down where there is no need for additional overemphasis. La Bohème very much has its own distinct world, but whether it is set in Belle Époque Paris or a more contemporary updating isn't as relevant as much as showing the relationship between the real world and the lives of the characters. Alfons Flores's set designs for the Teatro Regio Torino production depict a more contemporary world, but it is still recognisably a poor district inhabited by ordinary people.

What Àlex Ollé's direction seems to set out to emphasise - or maybe reflect more than emphasise - is the ordinary and the universal application of this world. It's not a tragic story of love and poverty in olden times, but a familiar one today, where love is unable to overcome the other practicalities of living. The garret room set of Act I and IV then is not a little enclosed space here; it's one room of many, where undoubtedly similar stories are played out. You occasionally see another couple - one set out on a romance at the same time as Rodolfo and Mimi's is ending - but these are incidental details that are not over-complicated or over-emphasised to the detriment of the main story.

With Café Momus sliding in on Act II - and looking like a properly swanky restaurant for a change rather than some dive - there is some effort to keep a sense of flow and continuity, as well as the all-important contrast that Puccini plays upon for effect. Like the rest of the Acts, Act III has a familiar configuration, just slightly updated, retaining what is necessary for the dramatic storytelling, while also trying to keep it relevant, or 'grounded' if you like, in a way it wouldn't be if it were kept period. It's not a realistic depiction of poverty and misery by any means, but it's not smothered in schmaltz either.

If La Bohème doesn't flow dramatically, in the music at least Puccini hits straight at the heart, and in the case of this work he is surely entitled to play to the emotions. Gianandrea Noseda however shows that you can adhere to the melodic, the romantic and the dramatic qualities of the music without ladling on the syrup. If this means that the tear-jerking qualities of the work are underplayed, well that's not necessarily a bad thing unless that's what you want, in which case this could be a little disappointing. I would say a fair proportion of a La Bohème audience would expect a little more emoting in the music and the singing than they get here.

Irina Lungu is a more delicate soprano than the full-cream Mimi we are accustomed to, and while she doesn't always hit the big moments she can bring some wonderful poignancy to something like "Addio, senza rancor". Her duet in this scene with Giorgio Berrugi is one of the high points here, Berrugi very much with a classic bright lyrical Italian tenor that is perfect for Rodolfo. With the combination of Lungu and Berrugi and Puccini's emotional expression at its finest, the conclusion of La Bohème still can't be anything but heart-wrenching, despite the efforts of the creative directors to downplay it slightly. It spared me being left a wreck at the conclusion, but I'm not sure that many would thank them for it, as that surely is the primary effect Puccini sets out to achieve.

Links: Teatro Regio Torino, Opera Platform

Saturday 17 December 2016

Wagner - Parsifal (DNO, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Parsifal

Dutch National Opera, 2016

Marc Albrecht, Pierre Audi, Anish Kapoor, Ryan McKinny, Bjarni Thor Kristinsson, Günther Groissböck, Christopher Ventris, Bastiaan Everink, Alexandra Petersamer, Elena Pankratova, Marcel Reijans, Roger Smeets, Lisette Bolle, Rosanne van Sandwijk, Erik Slik, Jeroen de Vaal, Maartje Rammeloo, Lisette Bolle, Inez Hafkamp, Tomoko Makuuchi, Caroline Cartens, Rosanne van Sandwijk, Eva Kroon

Amsterdam - 9th December 2016

Parsifal is such a unique piece of music drama that it permits many ways of presenting it; there's no right way and there's no wrong way. It has little of the dramatic action that you would more commonly find in opera and is limited in the stage directions it needs to put its message across, so it's surprising how versatile and open to exploration Parsifal remains. The conceptual, symbolic or abstract approach however seems more like its natural medium, rather than say a production that explores character or one that attempts to provide an interpretation of the meaning of the work. Other approaches are valid however, which of course is a measure of its greatness as a supreme work of art, which seems to me to be something that is indisputable.

That was my impression anyway coming out of the Pierre Audi's production of the work at the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam, which suggests that they must have got something right. Just quite how they did it is, as is often the case with this opera, somewhat more difficult to define, but surely it is at least by remaining true to the spirit of Wagner's intentions for his final masterpiece. That doesn't mean that you have to be slavishly literal however, and Pierre Audi's direction and Anish Kapoor's sets are firmly in the conceptual mode. By which I mean that they attempt to create a visual representation of the deeper meaning of the work rather than holding to its surface representation. And by which I mean there is scarcely any overt religious iconography, but plenty to allude to the work's spiritual and transcendent content.

That very much depends on how much you want to read into it, but obviously when it comes to such an approach, the onus must be placed on the individual member of the audience. For me, the representation of Montsalvat as a solid mass of jagged rocks bathed in blood-red light gave it the appearance of a raw open wound. That is evidently a key image in relation to this opera, and in fact it's also the image of a bleeding wound that is projected onto the screen during the overture. The pain and suffering endured by Amfortas, an eternal wound from the spear that that pierced Christ on the cross, is so great that it can't simply be confined to a single body; it engulfs the whole of Montsalvat. Everyone there feels the pain, and if you can't hear that in the music, you aren't listening closely enough.

Arguably that is what the staging should be striving to represent by whatever means necessary. It's more important to sense that than it is to see medieval knights and the Holy Grail on the stage. The second scene of Act I, the transubstantiation scene, literally builds on the first scene. The configuration is slightly altered and wooden scaffolding around it bears the faithful. There's a sense here of the need to build the world anew, build upon the pain, putting it to use. The wooden beams picked up by the reinvigorated knights are not crosses then, but crossbeams that symbolise or serve as building blocks.

Anish Kapoor's designs for Klingsor's castle and gardens in Act II are even more abstract, consisting only of a large circular mirror of uneven distorted clarity hanging above the stage, the background of the set merely a curved black wall. Again, it's a representation of the tone of this Act, the world seen through a glass darkly (a Biblical reference without the religious iconography). Reflected in this mirror the flower maidens are indeed a dazzling kaleidoscopic display that holds Parsifal back from what it is he must do. Kundry attempts to bring some light to Parsifal's quest for enlightenment, but it still represents a distortion of the truth. It is only when Parsifal recalls the suffering of Amfortas that his eyes are opened and he is able to recognise the truth for himself.

Act III is the exact opposite of how this Act is usually represented. Instead of a post-apocalyptic Montsalvat, with Titurel dead, Amfortas surely unable to endure further pain, and the faith of Gurnemanz and the knights in tatters, Kapoor depicts a clean, open, ordered scene. It's all pale blue, with geometric shapes on a bare minimal stage, the figures all wearing futuristic robes like a scene from a Robert Wilson opera production (incidentally, I haven't seen his Parsifal, but Robert Wilson doing any Wagner and preferably a Ring Cycle would be my ultimate dream production - could someone ask him, please?). The third act however is about redemption, and that is followed through with the associated Christian rituals of feet-washing and baptism, as well as consideration of death and the afterlife.

If it was difficult to pin the production down to a definitive statement, concept or interpretation, there was no mistaking what the music was telling you, and it's there that the 'truth' of Parsifal is there to be revealed. Marc Albrecht conducted with a measured pace, never allowing the work to float or drift, keeping instead a consistent drive - although I might have liked a slower more contemplative Good Friday scene. It was the 'shaping' of the orchestra that counted for more here, lifting the sweeps of strings, emphasising the plaintive tone of the cellos and the spiritual uplift of the brass, with the percussion hammering home the truth. It was an utterly exhilarating performance that demonstrated the beauty and the brilliance of Wagner's orchestration for Parsifal, as well as its ability to reach deeper places.

The performance of the 9th December was slightly delayed while the DNO flew in a replacement for an indisposed Petra Lang. The disappointment of not seeing Lang sing and perform the role of Kundry was however alleviated by the promise of the replacement being Elena Pankratova, who most recently sang the role (impressively) at Bayreuth this year. Delays however prevented Pankratove from getting to the house in time so the first Act was sung very capably by Alexandra Petersamer from the side of the stage while the role was mimed out by the assistant director Astrid van den Akker. The circumstances were not ideal, but in practice it didn't have an adverse impact on the quality of the performance, with Pankratova at the side of the stage for Act II and III demonstrating every ounce of the power that marked her performance at Bayreuth. If anything, a mimed Kundry just gave her and the work an additional sense of otherworldliness.

Also seen at Bayreuth 2016, Ryan McKinny likewise gave another intense, agonised performance as Amfortas. There might not have been as much blood-letting as at Bayreuth, the 'Grail' here being a flow of blood onto a strip of cloth held in front of him for the followers, but the sacrificial nature of gesture counted. I was initially uncertain that Günther Groissböck would have the necessary gravitas for Gurnemanz, but he was more than capable for the role, his voice carrying even over the full force of the orchestra, and he had good stage presence.

Christopher Ventris didn't make the same kind of impression, but it's undoubtedly a challenge for singer and director to give Parsifal any real depth of character. He is a cipher, a symbol, a saviour who will lead the way through pain to redemption in compassion. There was no faulting his singing performance, which was nothing less than lyrical and beautifully articulated. Bastiaan Everink's Klingsor was similarly a cipher, but again well sung. The brilliance of the DNO chorus was truly astounding and deeply moving - reducing the lady beside me to tears at the end of Act I - and the flower maidens here were also exceptionally lyrical and beguiling.

Links: De Nationale Opera

Monday 12 December 2016

Shostakovich - Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Munich 2016)

Dmitri Shostakovich - Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016

Kirill Petrenko, Harry Kupfer, Anatoli Kotscherga, Sergey Skorokhodov, Anja Kampe, Misha Didyk, Heike Grötzinger, Kevin Conners, Christian Rieger, Sean Michael Plumb, Milan Siljanov, Goran Jurić, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Kristof Klorek, Dean Power, Peter Lobert, Igor Tsarkov, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Selene Zanetti

Staatsoper.TV - 4th December 2016

There was a time when Harry Kupfer's productions could be quite radical and not be too concerned with holding slavishly to the directions stipulated in the libretto, but while he is still capable of some striking stage pieces, there's more of a 'classical' look and feel to his productions now. That at least was the case with his elegant but unexceptional Der Rosenkavalier for Salzburg in 2014, and there's a similar aesthetic applied to this production of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The bigger surprise however is that this is a very 'straight' production for the Bavarian State Opera, a house that in the recent past has been inclined towards rather more challenging interpretations.

Kupfer's production however doesn't stick entirely to the book. Rather than being set in the middle of the 19th century of the time of it was written by Nikolai Leskov, the Munich production is set at the beginning of the 20th century, closer to the time of Shostakovich's composition in 1934. Perhaps more significantly this setting is just before the time of the Russian Revolution, highlighting perhaps distasteful aspects of Russian society in a way that Shostakovich might not have been able to do so openly in the Soviet Union. On the other hand, it's not as if Shostakovich was anything less than scathing about the social order and the behaviour of the authorities, the merchant class and working class - the work meeting with Stalin's disapproval and eventually being banned - so it's not clear that there is anything gained from this updating.

If it's set in the 20th century, it's perhaps just to make the work feel a little more contemporary and less about any specific political regime. Kupfer's production doesn't particularly dwell on the political or social aspects of the work, or even its essential Russian character. If there is any aspect of the work that is given more emphasis, it's perhaps the more universal treatment of the relationships between men and women. On this front, Shostakovich's musical treatment of the story was and still is a fearsome piece of work; a no-nonsense and quite daring depiction of the most base impulses that drive women and men, and what happens when they meet in two particularly driven people.

It's Kirill Petrenko's musical direction from the pit that makes the strongest case for the murderous havoc that this encounter generates, so if Kupfer's stage direction doesn't particularly inspire, the production as a whole at least pulls no dramatic punches. Musically, I don't think I've ever heard this work sound so vibrant and punchy, the unbridled musical underscoring matching every excess of the unbridled passions described in the drama; rape, adultery, murder, drunkenness, beatings, police corruption and brutality are all vividly described. Sensitivity, tenderness, love, some kind of sympathy for the position of Katarina Ismailov, the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk? Not so much.

...or at least not in this production anyway. Despite the bombastic approach of Shostakovich to undesirable human behaviours and actions, there is room for nuance and sensitivity, but there's little of it in evidence here. It's interesting to contrast the musical treatment here with Petrenko's direction of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in October. The conductor and orchestra unquestionably bring out all the dramatic qualities of the music and the passions expressed, but there's less light and shade to work with in Shostakovich's score. Nonetheless, there is an ebb and flow to the rhythm of the dramatic action, and when you follow that the impact is explosive. You certainly get a sense of that here.

If there is room to work with the balance and weight of a more sensitive reading, it's perhaps in the hands of the singers, but the approach here tends to match the same explosive delivery of the score. On that level alone, the performances are impressive. Anja Kampe is on wonderful form here and it's thrilling to behold. Her Katarina is very much a woman driven by huge passions that aren't satisfied being the wife of the inadequate son of a wealthy grain merchant, and she's prepared to go to whatever lengths necessary to resist her fate, even if that is far beyond what a woman in her position can expect to be permitted. It's unfortunate that it's only through someone as self-serving as Sergey that she is able to find a way out.

Misha Didyk, from my experience, tends to border on hysterical in his delivery, but with the strong direction of someone like Stefan Herheim (in the recent DNO Queen of Spades), his anguished tone can be put to good use. Here, as Sergey he leans towards the shrill and histrionic, but there is at least a good place for it in Sergey's arrogant, wheedling, self-serving character, and it adds an edge to that unquestionably passionate relationship that develops between Sergey and Katarina. Anatoli Kotscherga sings a powerful Boris and successfully avoids letting the character slip into caricature. There are no weak points in any of the other roles, with Sergey Skorokhodov's Zinovy, Goran Jurić's chief of police and whoever plays the Shabby Drunk all in particular standing out.

Unfortunately, the rather indifferent production design and direction doesn't give the work the boost or the necessary edge it might have had. All the locations are rather sanitised and prettified, with Kupfer using again similar dramatic black-and-white cloud and landscape projections to those in his production of Der Rosenkavalier. If there is a trend towards a softening of the wilder Regie excesses on the part of Kupfer and the Bayerische Staatsoper that feels less adventurous, on the musical front at least the Munich house are going from strength to strength under their new music director Kirill Petrenko, and I'll happily settle for that.

The Bayerische Staatsoper's line-up for the rest of the live broadcast season next year is staggeringly good. On 26 Feb it's Rossini's SEMIRAMIDE, conducted by Michele Mariotti and directed by David Alden with an impressive cast that includes Joyce DiDonato, Alex Esposito, Daniela Barcellona and Lawrence Brownlee. We then have to wait until 1 July for Franz Schreker's DIE GEZNEICHNETEN, conducted by Ingo Metzmacher and directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski. Kirill Petrenko returns to conduct Wagner's TANNHÄUSER on 9th July in a new production directed by Romeo Castellucci.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV

Sunday 11 December 2016

Filidei - Giordano Bruno (Paris, 2016)

Francesco Filidei - Giordano Bruno

Théâtre de Gennevilliers, Paris - 2016

Léo Warynski, Antoine Gindt, Lionel Peintre, Jeff Martin, Ivan Ludlow, Guilhem Terrail, Laura Holm, Eléonore Lemaire, Johanne Cassar, Lorraine Tisserant, Charlotte Schumann, Aurélie Bouglé, Benjamin Aguirre Zubiri, David Tricou, René Ramos Premier, Julien Clément, Antoine Kessel, Florent Baffi

ARTE Concert - 19th April 2016

There's clearly a very considered and structured approach taken by composer Francesco Filidei in relation to both the philosophical and musical content of his opera about Giordano Bruno. Interrogated by the Inquisition in Venice and condemned to death by the Catholic Church in Rome for blasphemy and heresy for putting his belief in scientific truths before religious dogma and mysticism, the Dominican friar was burned at the stake on 17th February 1600. Filidei's work attempts to give voice to his philosophical thoughts as well as dramatising his trial and execution and it results in a tremendous piece of musical theatre.

Filidei's opera divides the work into twelve scenes that interweave across the two halves of the work, the first taking place in Venice, the other in Rome. The twelve scenes themselves are divided between giving a voice to Bruno's philosophical ideas, with alternative scenes showing how he suffers for them at the hands of the religious authorities who will not have their faith challenged. That's a strong enough construct that allows for drama and contemplation and it's a blend that the composer and his librettist Stefano Busellato treat extraordinarily well, the ideas and situations providing the composer with the opportunity to create a rich sound world.

As a further measure, to add to the richness of the work and give further robustness to the construction, Filidei chooses to base each of the twelve scenes around each of the notes of the chromatic scale. The opera's first scene 'Preamble' - set in the smoking ruins in the aftermath of the auto-da-fé - starts on F-sharp, with subsequent scenes based on the trial following a descending path on the scale, while the scenes relating to Giordano Bruno's philosophy each start on an ascending note on the scale. The burning at the stake in Scene 11 runs through the chromatic scale again in reverse until scene 12 arrives at F-sharp again.

More than just being a technical trick, Filidei's sound world in Giordano Bruno is one that relates very closely to the situation, and particularly to the vocal expression. Some scenes are spare and atmospheric with repetitive phrasing of voices in the style of Salvatore Sciarrino, others multi-layered with choral sounds that draw influence from the Renaissance era of the work, of Palestrina by way of Claude Vivier (whose Kopernikus comes very much to mind here). Filidei's writing however is strong enough to encompass the vast range of the work's philosophical content, its consideration of life and death, of the exuberance of life in a carnival scene, in an escapist fantasy while in a prison cell, or in the full horror of a barbaric ritual execution.

At every stage however, there is great attention paid to the use of voices and the range of voices. Giordano Bruno is sung by a baritone (Lionel Peintre here running through a whole range of emotional and physical challenges), the Inquisitors are a tenor and a bass, with Pope Clement VIII sung by a countertenor. Also of great importance to the whole fabric of the work are the twelve individual voices of the chorus who contribute to provide an almost celestial or spiritual side to the work, as well as a very physical human presence as the voice of the people. They are a wave of flesh and ideas that Bruno has to alternately reach out to and then resist, an embodiment of the conflict he undergoes over the course of the twelve scenes.

Filmed at the Théâtre de Gennevilliers in Paris in 2016 not long after its creation and premiere at the Casa de Musica in Porto, it's hard to imagine the work being any better presented. The direction of the Ensemble Intercontemporain is taken up by Léo Warynski, and - set to the back of the stage - their presence emphasises how important the sound world is for this opera, how it creates a specific mood, and it draws attention to just how complex and varied the music is in relation to each of its scenes.

The stage sets and props are minimal, but likewise effective for the content and the tone of the work. A huge moon-like hemisphere hangs over the stage and the use of lighting all contribute to capturing the reality, the philosophy and an understanding of the nature of the world being explored and challenged here, which is nothing less than infinity and the place of man within it. The dramatic sequences are just as well depicted, again using simple effects and minimal props to give a sense of the forces massed against Giordano Bruno and the fate that is in store for him, and those final scenes at the stake indeed have a terrific impact.

The attention given over to the musical performance and the scene setting are all there however to serve as a platform for the all-important human presence on the stage. The place of man is at the centre of all these ideas, rituals, philosophy and beliefs and the conflicts between them are all focussed through the figure of Giordano Bruno. Lionel Peintre carries the weight of this conflict with a terrific singing performance, but Filidei makes such marvellous use of the voice that the strength of those ideas and the conflicts between seem to assail him from every side. The physicality of the performances, with the chorus and dancers also having an important part to play, gives the words real weight, showing the power of ideas and ideals to change the world.

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Saint-Saëns - Samson et Dalila (Paris, 2016)

Camille Saint-Saëns - Samson et Dalila

L'Opéra de Paris, 2016

Philippe Jordan, Damiano Michieletto, Anita Rachvelishvili, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Egils Silins, Nicolas Testé, Nicolas Cavallier, John Bernard, Luca Sannai, Jian-Hong Zhao 

ARTE Concert - 13 October 2016

Originally conceived as an oratorio Samson et Dalila was, soon after a visit to see Das Rheingold at Bayreuth, developed by Camille Saint-Saëns into something more operatic. If there's little suggestion of Wagnerian influence, the unconventional method of opera composition led to Samson et Dalila having a unique and blend of music and drama elements that were perfect for the composer's strengths. It has Biblical drama, lyrical Romantic passions, lush Eastern musical arrangements and choral fervour that manage to express the contrasting sentiments at the heart of the work. If you like that sort of thing - and it's only slightly less extravagant in its exoticism than Aida - Samson et Dalila can be something fabulous, particularly when the Paris Opera get behind it the way they do in this 2016 production.

Like many other French composers around the end of the nineteenth century, Camille Saint-Saëns shared a fascination for all things oriental, travelling extensively in these exotic places and soaking up more than just a flavour of these new sounds. Mélodies persanes (1870), La Princess Jaune (1872) and Samson et Dalila (1877) are not just influenced by oriental rhythms and melodies, but positively seeped in them. There might be a tendency to regard such borrowings as kitsch or, in the parlance of our times, "cultural appropriation", but they really are what make these works distinctively beautiful.

While there might be a tendency to downplay such elements and attempt to find a middle-ground that is a little acceptable to modern tastes and sensibilities, that's not the strategy adopted by Philippe Jordan for Samson et Dalila. Quite rightly, Jordan conducts the orchestra of the Paris Opera in a manner that emphasises the true merits of the work. It's not only there that you find the sheer beauty of the composer's extravagant orchestration for the piece, but the heart of its drama. With two great singers in the principal roles and attention paid to the choral aspects of the work musically, I found this to be one of the finest and most persuasive performances of Samson et Dalila that I've come across.

Damiano Michieletto's direction of the work at the Bastille doesn't perhaps contribute quite as much as the musical performance to the success of the production, but it functions well enough to give a strong visual and dramatic context for the work. It is a typical Paris production in that, unlike the musical performance, it does tend to settle for a middle-ground. The period lies somewhere between modern and Biblical, with guns and togas (albeit used in an 'ironic' kind of way) and nothing much that adds up to any real conceptual or thematic coherence. Good vertical use is made of the stage, the Hebrew slaves confined to the darker lower levels, the misery of their captivity contrasted with the golden glow of the luxurious decadence of Delilah's bedroom above it.

It's in such contrasts however that Samson et Dalila thrives as a work of music drama, and those contrasts are well reflected also in the complementary casting of Aleksandrs Antonenko and Anita Rachvelishvili. Both artists are regulars at the Paris Opera, and their development there is paying dividends for French opera. While she is capable of great dramatic delivery and an impressive range, Rachvelishvili shows here just how versatile her voice is and how capable she is of expressing the kind of delicacy and tenderness that are vital to Delilah's allure. Evidently it's Delilah's beautiful 'Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix' aria that demonstrates what she is capable of, and her delivery of the line 'Réponds à ma tendresse!' is enough to send shivers down the spine.

It's a love/betrayal aria that turns into a duet of course, shared with Samson, and Antonenko blends perfectly. Antonenko is a tenor who is strong right across the range, but only really shines in certain roles. Verdi roles can be testing, and his voice can have a certain steeliness that doesn't open up and bloom as you might like, but here he complements Rachvelishvili well, providing the contrast that is necessary, giving the aria the edge of hesitancy and danger it needs before the recognition of betrayal that comes with the cry of 'Trahison!'. With Jordan and the Paris orchestra right behind this, the swooning loveliness exploding into rage, you have everything that is musically and dramatically great about this work all summed up the closing duet of Act II.

If much of Act III can feel rather kitsch with its soft choruses and oriental dance music, there similarly should be an underlying suggestion of anguish and menace for the coming fate of Samson and Delilah. The costumes don't quite manage this, the Philistines dressing up in praise of Dagon as if for a Roman orgy, all in glittering dresses and togas, with gold laurel crowns, throwing money down from Delilah's balcony onto the revellers, the downtrodden Hebrew slaves and the tormented Samson. If it studiously goes out of its way to deny the audience the expected toppling of the marble pillars conclusion - one of the few scenes of dramatic action that there is in the opera - the self-immolation scene carried out with a repentant Delilah's compliance nonetheless delivers the kind of bang the opera needs to end on.

Not providing the expected famous pay-off is a bit of a risk and it's not as if it is for the sake of any additional edge or to make some concession to a contemporary reality, but in its own way probably Damiano Michieletto's middle-ground production does more or less find an equivalent level of where Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila lies. More importantly however the work is given its due where it really counts; in the music and singing performances. And with this kind of account of one of the highlights of French opera of the Belle Époque, the Paris opera make the case that those merits are not inconsiderable.

Links: L'Opéra de Paris, ARTE Concert

Thursday 1 December 2016

Cavalli - Eliogabalo (Paris, 2016)

Francesco Cavalli - Eliogabalo

L'Opéra de Paris, 2016

Leonardo García Alarcón, Thomas Jolly, Franco Fagioli, Paul Groves, Nadine Sierra, Valer Barna-Sabadus, Elin Rombo, Mariana Flores, Matthew Newlin, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Scott Conner

Culturebox - October 2016

You wouldn't think it to look at it today in Thomas Jolly's production for the Paris Opera, but Cavalli's opera Eliogabalo was considered "old-fashioned" back in 1667 and consequently never performed until it was rediscovered in 1999. It's true that Monteverdi had pretty much set the standard for a Roman ruler involved in a twisted love affair that threatens the stability of the empire back in 1643 with The Coronation of Poppea, but ironically, stories of cruel kings who thwart lovers' unions for his own twisted desires would continue to be a staple of 18th century opera seria. Even Mozart's Don Giovanni owes much to the convention, and if there's any opera that comes close to Mozart's reinvention of the genre, it's this bold "old-fashioned" work by Cavalli.

The Emperor Eliogabalo (based on the Syrian-born Elagabalus, emperor of Rome from 218 at the age of fourteen until his death in 222 AD) is a special kind of monster. Eliogabalo here has an all-female Senate in the Capitol so that he could control them and use the Senate like a harem (although in real-life the emperor's tastes were supposedly inclined more towards men). Thomas Jolly's production directs this particular scene in the opera with real flair, the gender-bending Eliogabalo even presenting himself as an extravagantly made-up woman when he goes to the Capitol. But Jolly doesn't go overboard in the manner of the camp countertenor fest of Silviu Purcărete 2012 Opéra National de Lorraine production of Vinci's Artaserse. He keeps it stylised, but still manages to capture the dangerous allure of Eliogabalo's power and his abuse of it.

That's just one aspect of Eliogabalo's character, one that shows that he is sexually perverse and won't let anyone stand in his way when he sets his sights on a woman he wants. The main part of the conflict that drives the opera then is the emperor's determination to marry Gemmira. Gemmira is already promised to Alessandro (Severus Alexander, who would succeed Elagabalus), who has just returned to Rome after restoring order to a revolt within the Pretorian guard. Despite being warmly welcomed, Gemmira warns Alessandro that Eliogabalo is suspicious of the respect that the Senate and people have for him.

Gemmira is also the sister of Giuliano, who is upset that the Emperor has seduced his beloved Eritea. Having heard Etirea demand marriage from the emperor as a way to restore her honour, Giuliano blames Eritea for the betrayal, not realising that Eliogabalo has no intention of marrying her. Like his relationship with the law - when he breaks a law it is to honour it - a marriage vow means nothing to the emperor. Eliogabalo's advisors warn him that he is playing with fire, since Giuliano is the commander of the army and it would be dangerous to make an adversary of him.

Do you think Eliogabalo cares? Determined to seduce and (if necessary) marry Gemmira, he plans to introduce her into his all-female Senate. He pushes another woman, Atila, Alessandro's way, hoping to create a division and dispute between the lovers. As for Giuliano, well, the good old-fashioned poison drink should sort out that problem for him. Eliogabalo is wonderfully constructed in this way. Twisted but utterly believable for the dark schemes and plotting that are enacted, and all the more gripping for it. What really makes Cavalli's work exceptional however is his musical colour and characterisation for this intriguing conflict of personalities, emotions and motivations.

There are other colourful characters like Nerbalone - who could well be almost a prototype Leporello for Don Giovanni - who accepts the love of Lenia, a grotesque old rich woman (played by a man of course) who advises Eliogabalo. The origins of much of the conventions of opera seria can also be seen to develop from this work, but even if that originally goes back to Monteverdi and L'incoronazione di Poppea, Cavalli develops harmony and musical colour, with arias and ariosos that are not lengthy or extravagant, but do show what the human voice is capable of doing in a dramatic context. Particularly the castrati.

If there were any justice in the opera world, countertenors like Franco Fagioli would be feted and revered as superstars in the same way as castrati like Senesino and Farinelli once were. Fashions have changed and nasty operations are no longer required, but thankfully we have singers who can really make something of these roles. Cavalli gives the perfect musical setting for the quality of the voice to shine, but he has created a gourmet character in Eliogabalo and a tasty dramatic construction for the countertenor to get his teeth into, and Fagioli's performance has real bite. The rest of the roles are no leftovers with only Paul Groves's Alessandro coming across as a little stale, but Alessandro does have a lot of dry recitative to work with. (Not sure there's any justification for these culinary metaphors, but hey...) Nadine Sierra's Etirea is impassioned and agonised, Valer Barna-Sabadus strong in the other countertenor role of Guliano and there's a wonderful turn from Emiliano Gonzalez Toro as the lusty Lenia.

At 34, Thomas Jolly is already making a name for himself as a director with adventurous Shakespeare productions in France. Directing his first opera in Paris at the Palais Garnier, he's clearly in touch with the spirit and intent of Cavalli, bringing all the qualities of the work to life. The touches of humour are all there amidst the dark scheming and imperious declamation, and the extravagant camp is present but reined in on the side of grandeur with occasional deranged flourishes. Underneath it all however is always the underlying sentiment of love and heartbreak that is the result of Eliogabalo's actions on the individual. Taking its lead from Leonardo García Alarcón's lively and dynamic arrangements of the score, the colours, moods and tone are perfectly balanced in the stage presentation, with bold costumes, minimal sets and effective use of crossing light beams to suggest grander structures and themes.

Links: Paris Opera, Culturebox

Monday 21 November 2016

Mozart - Don Giovanni (NI Opera, 2016)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

NI Opera, 2016

Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Henk Neven, John Molloy, Clive Bayley, Hye-Youn Lee, Rachel Kelly, Sam Furness, Aoife Miskelly, Christopher Cull

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 19th November 2016

So, it would appear that we are coming to the end of Oliver Mears' term as Artistic Director of NI Opera. It seemed obvious that Mears would go on to bigger and better things sooner or later and I suppose you could consider an appointment replacing Kasper Holten as Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden as a step in the right direction. Both Mears and conductor Nicholas Chalmers have achieved much in their time at NI Opera, raising the profile of the work done in the province in a way that has evidently made a favourable impression in the UK opera world. We've been lucky to see some great work from them over the last six of years. In the meantime, as for Don Giovanni at the Grand Opera House in Belfast - well, it's business as usual.

Business as usual however doesn't mean that there is anything at all predictable about the NI Opera production, but without having to involve any fancy concept or new interpretation, they manage to find a way to keep it fresh and modern and still get to the heart of the work. But Mears can also surprise in his choice of location settings. I've seen many productions of Don Giovanni in any number of inventive productions, but I would never have imagined it being suitable to stage on a mid-twentieth century cruise ship. On the other hand, it seems like a perfectly natural place for a romantic adventure and misadventure, to show class differences where there are servants below the decks, and where there is also a recognisable air of period decadence about it all, and isn't class and decadence what Don Giovanni is all about?

Well no, evidently it's about a lot more than that, but too often that is the aspect that is given the greatest emphasis. And it's given that emphasis because Don Giovanni is set in a world where such class distinctions are obvious and because Don Giovanni himself is such a fascinating character to explore. We know he's an inveterate womaniser, we know there's a cruel streak to his use and abuse of women (and his manservant), and we know he does indeed use his position to charm and seduce them. Any deeper exploration of his motivations however usually tends towards a darker, more callous nature, as a murderer and a rapist, and there is a good case for examining Don Giovanni by today's standards in those terms (and the opera is so great that it can bear such an approach), but you have to question whether that was really the tone that Mozart and Da Ponte were aiming for in an opera buffa.

Even though he is amusingly bunked up in cabin 666 of the cruise ship Sevilla, there's nothing really sinister or radical about Oliver Mears' interpretation of Don Giovanni for NI Opera, and it does consequently lack a bit of an edge that you might find in other interpretations. What is significant about the weight and emphasis in this production however was that it is not wholly focussed on an interpretation or exploration of the psychological mindset of Don Giovanni as much as there is a recognition that the work is essentially an ensemble piece with many other areas of interest to explore. And yes, it is essentially a comedy too, but - much like Così Fan Tutte and Le Nozze di Figaro - comedy in the hands of Mozart and Da Ponte can still have a lot of a bite to it. And, when you get right down to it, and no matter from what angle you approach the work, the message here is not one that needs to be overly laboured or complicated: in the end Don Giovanni pays for his sins and goes to hell.

It's tempting to look at some of the references in the production and consider why Don Giovanni has a blonde bouffant hair-do, but this production was developed long before there was any suggestion that Donald Trump would be a figure of such importance. Although, considering the US President-Elect's views of women and his treatment of them, if you want to apply that image to Don Giovanni, you might find it adds another level to a work that is more than capable of sustaining such ideas. It's tempting also to read something into the colonial references of Don Giovanni's fancy-dress party, where he comes dressed as a white hunter taming the savages - but again, there is no overt reference here nor expansion of the theme. It is very amusing though, and creates a colourful scene in one of Annemarie Woods' beautifully designed and eye-catching sets for the production.

What matters perhaps just as much as any psychological exploration of Don Giovanni, or attempt to apply his behaviour to a deeper evil that we recognise in our own times, is how his behaviour affects others. In that respect, the murder of Donna Anna's father the Commendatore and Don Giovanni's attempted rape or seduction of Donna Anna is clearly an important factor in bringing the Don to justice. Don Ottavio's role in the work can tend to be overlooked, but he too suffers from the consequences of what has happened between Don Giovanni and Donna Anna. Some productions have daringly suggested that Donna Anna is complicit or at least a willing and participant in Don Giovanni's seductions, before it perhaps goes too far.

Oliver Mears doesn't seem to be too concerned with such nuances or interpretations. To do so would be to again place too much attention into one area when you could as easily make the case that Donna Elvira's betrayal and her self-delusions are just as important to shining a light on the activities and nature of Don Giovanni (it is to Donna Elvira of course that Leporello reveals the list of his masters conquests across Europe). As indeed is the manner in which the servants Zerlina and Masetto, and perhaps by extension the sanctity of the institution of marriage, are treated with callous disregard by Don Giovanni. All have equal weight in Mozart and Da Ponte's great work and Oliver Mears and Nicholas Chalmers allow the music Mozart writes for each of the characters to speak for them.

They also bear in mind that the comedy is important and that Leporello is a perfect conduit between the comedy and the tragedy of Don Giovanni, that Don Giovanni gets his comeuppance in the end (an unusually wet one here rather than the usual fiery one, but no less effective or spectacular for it), and that it's by a joining of forces of his victims that this result is brought about. As such, if you are going to place the emphasis on the ensemble nature of Don Giovanni as an opera, there's only one thing that is important, and that's the singing. Which means there are eight things to get right, and - as is evident from looking at the cast list alone - it's clear that NI Opera have assembled the strongest possible team with a good mix of local, UK and international talent.

There's room to identify with the predicament of any of the characters, but for me it was Hye-Youn Lee who made the strongest case for Donna Anna's suffering. It's a technically demanding role, but Lee (who I've also seen sing Scottish Opera's Madama Butterfly) has the capability and the lyricism required for expression of these deep emotions. It helped also that there was a Don Ottavio of equal lyricism in Sam Furness, who made an often overlooked role come to life in a warm and sympathetic way. It's not quite clear how the vengeful Commendatore makes his comeback here, as his statue is packed on-board even before he is killed, but Clive Bayley's voice was enough to put the fear of god into anyone. Rachel Kelly's Donna Elvira really was also a woman on a mission (her fancy-dress costume even had something of Joan of Arc appearance to it), the singing full of character, her appearances hitting that difficult spot between the comedy of her interventions and the tragic nature of her circumstances.

The last time I saw John Molloy I thought he struggled with the demands of the Verdi bass role as Banquo in Macbeth, but he's perfectly at home in the lighter comedy bass roles. Leporello is still a challenge well above something like Doctor Dulcamara, but Molloy was superb, making it look easy, giving the role energy and fire. If the lyricism wasn't always there in the catalogue aria ('Madamina, il catalogo è questo'), it was probably more to do with it being sung in English. That was something that also hindered the more nuanced expressions of Henk Neven's Don Giovanni, but his performance nonetheless captured that tricky combination of charisma, sleaze, arrogance and authority that is needed. Last and far from least Aoife Miskelly played a light, playful and skittish Zerlina alongside Christopher Cull's insecure but devoted Masetto, both raising the level of the two servants and their humble love to a level of equal importance that is vital to the purpose of the work and this production as a whole.

If some of the singing was on the light side, Nicholas Chalmers did his best to balance the weight and measure of the orchestral playing to keep the translation audible. Lightness of touch is often better with Mozart, as much for the treatment of the drama as for the openness it gives to instrumental colour and for the lyrical character it's necessary to have in the voices. Without losing any of that character, the drama and the coming together of the piece as an ensemble takes on a momentum of its own towards that darker conclusion. Even there, the lightness of touch is consistent and telling, Don Giovanni appropriately meeting his end via an object - a hairdryer dropped by the Commendatore in his private pool - that highlights another fatal flaw in his character; his vanity.  Shocking stuff!

Links: NI Opera

Saturday 19 November 2016

Busoni - Doktor Faust (Zurich, 2006)

Ferruccio Busoni - Doktor Faust

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006

Philippe Jordan, Klaus Michael Gruber, Thomas Hampson, Günther Groissböck, Gregory Kunde, Reinaldo Macias, Sandra Trattnigg, Martin Zysset, Andreas Winkler, Thilo Dahlmann, Matthew Leigh

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

The fact that it isn't performed very often might lead one to believe that Busoni's Doktor Faust is not quite as dramatically suited to the stage as other adaptations of Goethe's famous work. In truth, few of those other versions ever amount to either a complete or a coherent account of the Faust legend, more often picking and choosing scenes to musically illustrate it, reducing it down to a series of episodic numbers. That's true for Berlioz's La damnation de Faust, as much as it is for Bioto's Mefistofele and even Gounod's Faust, which may nonetheless be the most successful account of the work for the opera stage.  

Grappling with the dramatic construction of the work is probably the greatest challenge and Busoni's opera appears to be much more complete and better structured as an opera than any of the other above named examples. And this is despite the fact the Prologue where Faust enters into his deal with Mephistopheles takes up a full third of the work. At this stage Faust is already considered a heretic and a libertine in his quest to understand men's behaviour and extend the boundaries of human knowledge. Three mystical figures appear however, three students from Cracow who drift unseen past his assistant Wagner, offering him a book and a key that will open the door to the knowledge he seeks, allowing him to call on the assistance of Lucifer and his servants.

This opening scene is an important one to establish the context for what follows and Busoni gives it due attention for its potential for stage spectacle, for the richness of the music that can be applied to it, and for the part it plays in determining how the audience regard Faust's considering a pact with the devil. He doesn't enter into the arrangement lightly (it's nothing something to dabble in, after all), dismissing all the demons who he believes will not be able to help him fulfil his ambitions. He may only be left with Mephistopheles in the end, but he recognises that this servant of Hell who can read the thoughts of men and knows the secret desires in their hearts, offers the best opportunity for the learning the forbidden knowledge he seeks.

Rather than dominating and dictating the whole tone of the work and potentially distorting the message of the legend of Faust, the doctor's misdeeds and misuse of his powers take up only the middle section of the work, but it is so well used. Like the first section, Busoni's orchestration is rich and dynamic, with recitative and declamation mixed with Romantic sensibilities, symphonic interludes and occasional forays to the edges of tonality. Even within these more episodic scenes, Busoni finds a full range of expression that covers the important aspects of Faust's actions.

His seduction of the maiden Gretchen is not as important - debatably - as him being held to account for it by her brother the soldier. His response, leaving the act of disposing of this man to Mephistopheles, in a church and blasphemously disguised as a monk, all add to the accounts in Satan's books, for which Faust will have to settle up later. Likewise, Faust's display of power for the Duke and Duchess of Parma is not just an opportunity to display arcane powers, but a way to probe relevant questions on the nature of beauty, and how to use them to bend the Duchess to his bidding. The consequences of this are even debated by students of Catholic and Protestant doctrine in a scene that further explores the pull of emotions, love and human mortality.

The final third of the work is devoted to Faust's downfall, the knight, the Duchess and a dead baby she has delivered come back to haunt him, but they also present him with a chance at some kind of redemption. Dividing the work almost equally up into Thought-Action-Reflection, the overall impression of Busoni's Faust then is of a work that focuses on the human drives and the price to be paid for them rather than the Romantic centre of Marguerite in Gounod's Faust or the huge battle between the forces of Heaven and Hell that is scaled up in Boito's Mefistofele.

So why then is Busoni's Doktor Faust not better known and given greater credit? Well, like many worthy works from the same period, history hasn't been kind to Busoni's great work. The opera remained incomplete when the composer died in 1924, the work finished by a pupil, Philipp Jarnach, for a first performance in 1925, but it was only in 1982 that the opera was completed from original sketches that the composer left for the remainder of the work. Like many 'lost' or neglected works from the 1920s however, musical fashions changed greatly around this time, and those that fell in-between the two world wars particularly have suffered the most, seeming to become irrelevant and never finding an audience as music went in another direction entirely. Even though Busoni paved the way for this kind of new music and even though Doktor Faust still sounds quite modern, it has never had the opportunity to find the place it deserves in the opera repertoire.

The Zurich production from 2006 goes a long way towards highlighting the musical qualities of the work if it doesn't quite manage to make Doktor Faust come fully to life on the stage. The staging is stylised, semi-modern and part abstract (the 'book' Faust gains forbidden knowledge from not actually a book but a small statue here, for example), but dealing with concepts, ideas and the supernatural, there's no reason why it should be 'realistic'. If anything, there isn't a sufficient sense of the human confrontation with huge concepts like eternity and the damnation of the soul, but this weakness could lie with Busoni as much as with Klaus Michael Gruber's stage production.

The singing at least is strong and impressive in its efforts to bring out and convey this deeper element within the work. Thomas Hampson gives a terrific performance of a conflicted character, the nobility of his aims undermined by ego and human failings. Alternately authoritative of purpose and thoughtful of his actions, Hampson shows Doctor Faust capable of mastery of everything but himself. Gregory Kunde gives us a Mephistopheles that is full of character and mischievousness. It's a wonderfully sung and well characterised performance. Philippe Jordan and the Zurich orchestra manage to bring all the majesty and wonder out of Busoni's score.

Links: Opernhaus Zürich