Wednesday 20 January 2016

Boesmans - Wintermärchen (La Monnaie, 1999 - Webcast)

Philippe Boesmans - Wintermärchen

La Monnaie-De Munt, 1999

Antonio Pappano, Luc Bondy, Dale Duesing, Susan Chilcott, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Franz-Josef Selig, Cornelia Kallisch, Juha Kotilainen, Kris Dane, Johanne Saunier, Heinz Zednik

ARTE Concert

As one of Shakespeare's late romances and believed to have been only partly written by him, The Winter's Tale - like Cymbeline, The Tempest and Pericles - seems to be designed to draw together a number of familiar dramatic situations and incidents purely for the sake of dramatic entertainment. To broadly and somewhat crudely lump them together, each of them offer variations on banishment, wild storms at sea, lost siblings cast adrift on the tides of fortune, where they meet adventure in foreign lands, only recognising their true inheritance at the end as they are belatedly reconciled into the noble families whose fortunes have since taken dramatic turns.

A Winter's Tale in particular, although it's by no means alone in this, additionally makes use of several heightened otherworldly set-pieces (or miracles, if you like) that would seem to make it a natural for the lyric stage. With a central theme of a jealous father whose foolhardy actions lead to him become estranged from his daughter, it would seem moreover a natural work for Verdi to tackle as an opera (reminiscent as it is of Rigoletto and particularly Simon Boccanegra), but although a great admirer of the playwright and one of the greatest opera composers of Shakespeare (Otello, Macbeth and Falstaff all being truly great works), I'm not aware of Verdi ever expressing an interest in The Winter's Tale or even being familiar with this particular work.

It's a work nonetheless that would certainly have presented some challenges, even to the great composer that late Verdi was, if we are to judge from the imperfections of Simon Boccanegra. Dutch composer Philippe Boesmans, working with director Luc Bondy, finds a way to draw together some of the more incongruous dramatic elements of The Winter's Tale in their 1999 collaboration on its operatic adaptation, Wintermärchen. Despite the high melodrama, or more likely in some ways due to it, The Winter's Tale carries a strong emotional and psychological undercurrent to it, one that is so expertly and movingly handled at the conclusion that it invites one to overlook the dramatic contrivance elsewhere.

Like almost all adaptations of Shakespeare to the opera, cuts are inevitable and much of the poetry is lost from the original work, but Luc Bondy and Marie-Louise Bischofberger's libretto condenses the drama fairly well for Boesman's four-act opera. If the moral question explored in the work on the subject of jealousy is pushed somewhat to extremes - both in the original drama and the opera - the impact of such behaviour on others is just as important, and similarly pushed to extremes. Luc Bondy's staging of the work for La Monnaie consequently attempts to play the drama as naturalistically as is possible (barring the obvious otherworldly interventions), allowing the staging to take on some of the more melodramatic aspects.

Although the first two acts of the drama take place in Sicily then, the kingdom of King Leontes is depicted as a dark and snowy landscape for the winter's tale that is to take place. A huge wall of ice symbolises the sudden insane jealousy that drives Leontes to attempt to have his friend Polixenes poisoned in the belief that he has had an affair with the Queen and is somehow responsible for her pregnancy. As Leontes watches them from behind the wall, the block of ice becomes an enormous barrier that chills his heart, and separates him from the truth that everyone else around him can see. The close of this first half of the drama even successfully stages the trial of Hermione and brings in the judgement from Delphi as a direct message from Apollo, Boesman's post-Wagnerian orchestration capturing all the impact of the consequences that follow.

By way of contrast, both Bondy and Boesmans take a very different spin on the second half of the work that mainly takes place sixteen years later in Bohemia. Leontes' abandoned daughter has been raised by a shepherd and grown up with the name Perdita unaware of her heritage. Engaged to Prince of Bohemia, against the wishes of his father Polixenes, the mute Perdita and Florizel's romance takes place in what looks like a fenced-in basketball court in a New York backstreet alley, populated by 'bohemian" musicians, pickpockets and street dancers. Boesmans score changes considerably, with most of Act III performed in an avant-jazz style by the group Aka Moon. Florizel is not an opera singer either, but sings more like a pop musician. The language changes too, with English spoken in 'Bohemia' in contrast to the 'court language' German of the first two Acts in Sicily.

The drama and the overall tone however still adheres closely to Shakespeare's play, and in any case it's not really any less naturalistic or realistic than Shakespeare's controversial depiction of the exiles being washed up by a storm on the landlocked shores of Bohemia. The inconsistencies and the otherworldly interventions that overturn the tragic developments of The Winter's Tale for the warmer, happy ending of Leontes being reunited not only with Perdita but also with the dead Queen Hermione are likewise less important than the overall necessity of providing a satisfying conclusion that will warm the hearts of the audience. Boesmans and Bondy carry that off well, particularly in the handling of Hermione's statue coming to life. Holding to the consistency of Wintermärchen's characterisation, the Queen, frozen in time in the wall of ice, breaks through it, restored to life at the return of her daughter. 

If there's room to bring a measure of realism to the experiences of the characters in The Winter's Tale through the performances of a good cast, the scoring for the voices for Wintermärchen and the quality of the singing performances can likewise bring out the very real sentiments that lies behind all the drama. This recording of the 1999 performance of the work at La Monnaie, conducted by Antonio Pappano - revived on-line by ARTE in tribute to the recent death of Luc Bondy - benefits from exceptional singing and dramatic performances, particularly from Dale Duesing as Leontes and Susan Chilcott as Hermione. Hermoine's despair at the charges brought against her in Act II are particularly heartfelt in how the scene is scored and in how well it is performed, but Leontes likewise is a challenging role with a wide emotional range to get across. A young Franz-Josef Selig also makes a strong impression here as Camillo, with a particulrly lovely lament for his home at the opening of Act III.

Links: ARTE Concert, La Monnaie

Monday 11 January 2016

Reimann - Die Gespenstersonate (Deutsche Oper, 1984 - DVD)

Aribert Reimann - Die Gespenstersonate

Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1984

Friedemann Layer, Heinz Lukas-Kindermann, Hans Günter Nöcker, Martha Mödl, Horst Hiestermann, David Knitson, Gudrun Sieber, Donald Grobe, William Dooley, Barbara Scherler, Kaja Borris

Arthaus Musik - DVD

Aribert Reimann's chamber opera Die Gespenstersonate (The Ghost Sonata) is an adaptation of the play by the same name by August Strindberg and it's a fairly faithful one too, in tone as much as in its translation of Strindberg's text. It's a typically bleak outlook from the Swedish dramatist on human relations, cynical of family structures, marriage and the social values that extend through them out into society.  It's a familiar subject also for Reimann, who has explored similar themes in adaptations of various other classical and literary works, in Lear and most recently in Medea. Those are both large scale works that make use of huge orchestral forces and jarring cacophonous music for effect, but Die Gespenstersonate achieves much the same impact through Reimann's powerful use of a chamber orchestra, the arrangement putting one in mind of the sinister undercurrents created in Britten's The Turn of the Screw.

As the title indicates ghosts also play a part in Die Gespenstersonate, but they are likewise scarcely any more unsettling or disturbed than the 'living' characters in the play. At the centre of the work is the Director Jakob Hummel, a tyrannical force who has bought up the debts of the Colonel and aims to assert his authority over his estate in the same way he does with his own household. He introduces the student, the son of the Colonel to the various figures in the house, berating them for old crimes they have committed, intent on "pulling up the weeds to reveal the crime", although we find that the Director is far from guiltless himself.

The bizarre household includes a living Mummy and even some ghosts that only the student is able to see, all of them silently going through the motions of living together in mutual hatred and suspicion, but unable to escape from the crimes that bind them together. "We've parted ways countless times", the Mummy confesses, "but then we're always drawn back together again". The Director wants to destroy it all, but the Mummy believes that there is a way of erasing the past, through repentance for the sins that have been committed.

Reimann's version of the work would appear to put this idea into a German post-war context, where the sins of the past still hang over the people, binding them together in silent guilt, casting an influence over the present day that prevents them moving forward. Despite being separated from that time and free of guilt, even the student is affected by those actions in the past, repaying what he is led to believe are his father's, principally in the ghost that arises in the shape of a lost woman who falls into a pit whenever he tries to reach for her. The split level stage of the Deutsche Oper's 1984 production, emphasises the division between past and present, the upper level inhabited by the grotesque characters of the household seen through the transparent floor.

Reimann's score is moody and unsettling with deep low tones, creating and edginess between the characters in the way that the instruments weave between one another and clash in dissonance. The scoring for the voices creates a similar effect, some of the roles very wide in tessitura in a way that is typical for Reimann, with sharp rises followed by deep plunges. Much of the text of the play is largely spoken-singing, but when Reimann uses the full range of expression for the content, breaking into sung phrases when required for extra emphasis. The young student, who perhaps is led through a greater emotional journey than the rest of the fossilised inhabitants, seems to have the biggest emotional journey in this regard.

Recorded at its world premiere in Berlin in 1984, the performances are everything they ought to be, with a striking cast taking on the challenging roles well. Released on DVD as part of Arthaus Musik's series of archive Deutsche Oper releases, the image quality is inevitably Standard Definition only, but the 4:3 image is bright and clear, capturing well the whole tone and mood of the piece as it was performed at the Hebbel Theatre in Berlin. The PCM Stereo audio track is excellent. There are no extra features other than the information and synopsis provided in the enclosed booklet. The DVD-9 disc is all-region compatible, with subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish and Italian.

Thursday 7 January 2016

Verdi - Giovanna d'Arco (La Scala, 2015 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - Giovanna d'Arco

Teatro alla Scala, 2015

Riccardo Chailly, Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier, Anna Netrebko, Francesco Meli, Devid Cecconi, Dmitry Beloselskiy

ARTE Concert - 7 December 2015

I suppose it can't be easy for La Scala to aspire to be a modern progressive European opera house and at the same time keep the more vociferous elements of its audience happy. The opening performance of the new season on the day celebrating the city's patron saint is always a useful barometer for measuring where the Milan opera house is going to sit in the coming year and how successful those efforts are going to be. Based on the new production of Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco, with Riccardo Chailly taking over from Daniel Barenboim as principal conductor, there seems to be some measure of compromise involved and a return to the Scala's core Italian repertoire. While there might be a few reservations, it's hard however not to see the big opening night performance as being largely a successful one.

It's probably safest to give the Italian public at La Scala a Verdi opera, but based on last year's Tcherniakov La Traviata, that's not necessarily a guarantee of unanimous acclaim. Rather than beg comparisons with another Rigoletto or La Traviata, La Scala have instead chosen to open the 2015/16 season with of one of the composer's lesser-known but worthy early operas, Giovanna d'Arco, one moreover that was first performed at La Scala in Milan in 1845. If it's done right you're onto a winner and La Scala take no chances here engaging Anna Netrebko, a singer willing and capable of adding another striking Verdi soprano role to her repertoire. It's a role she has sung before only in concert in Salzburg in 2013, but here she performs it on the dramatic stage for the first time. Netrebko doesn't disappoint.

Joan of Arc is one of those challenging Verdi soprano roles that sound amazing when they are done right, but there are few who are capable of doing it with the kind of passion, control and personality that Netrebko brings to the role here. Her deep voice does occasionally sound like it's getting 'woolier', but it's a big and expressive voice that can take on the technical challenges of Giovanna. Netrebko can also throw herself into a performance without putting a step wrong or a note out of place. Her performance here is utterly professional, almost too good you might even think and too smooth in delivery, but no - it's simply superb singing and a fine dramatic performance, no bones about it.

It's by no means a one-woman show however, and there are other significant roles in this opera that are well cast here, with Francesco Meli a wonderfully lyrical Carlo VII, and good supporting performances from Devid Cecconi replacing Carlos Alvarez as Giacomo and Dmitry Beloselskiy as Talbot. It helps that these performances are all complementary, working well with one another and with Netrebko - Meli in particular forming an incredible duo with Netrebko. I wasn't totally sold on the musical performance under Chailly. Musically, it feels a little restrained and this early Verdi could do with a bit more 'letting loose'. I haven't seen any criticism of Chailly elsewhere however, so it's perhaps best not to judge that from the less than perfect medium of a streamed internet broadcast.

Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier production seems to find a good compromise between period and conceptual, but it doesn't work entirely satisfactorily. It's perhaps not the most original way of achieving that, Giovanna here seeming to be a 19th century woman suffering a mental breakdown, identifying in her dreams with Joan of Arc. The idea has merit and basis in the underlying psychology of Joan of Arc, particularly with how it's explored in Solera's libretto based on Friedrich Schiller's drama. The woman/Joan appears to have suffered a trauma, perhaps sexual, and seeks to find empowerment in her dreams of being the religious saviour of her people. Her love for her king is somewhat ambiguous however, and it raises troubling notions of how she can retain her purity and chastity, particularly in relation to her father and society look upon her presumption.

The action then all takes place in Giovanna's bedroom, the floor and walls slightly tilted, the king appearing in her visions all in gold, like a statue come to life. By the end of the prelude however, the dream has exploded into full-blown delusion, the armies and citizens pouring through the walls in spectacular fashion. The whole things brings to mind Netrebko's performance in Iolanta for the Met, and the father here is similarly a protective, powerful authority figure who attempts to hold her back from her true self or who she wants to be. She needs to be grander to overcome his objection and concerns and be seen as pure in his eyes. The whole father-daughter set-up very much Verdi however, and thematically very close to Rigoletto. Chailly highlights those musical references in the shimmering lightning effects of one scene and particularly in the final death scene.

Leiser and Caurier take this theme of religious purity and redemption a little bit further, having Jesus walk onto the stage and pass on a cross for her to carry - but it fits in with the heightened drama here and the frequent references to Giovanna's chastity. It also strengthens the charge of blasphemy laid against Giovanna for her to be burnt at the stake. It has an internal consistency then, even if it is far removed from Verdi, Solera and Schiller's original idea, never mind the historical reality. You could see this Giovanna's battlefield death as merely being a delusion of a woman on the stake, only the stake is also a delusion in this version, which doesn't leave you with a whole lot of reality to grasp onto. You get a fairly modern production then, but it's one which still allows all the armour and stirring calls to battle. Most of all however you have Verdi and Anna Netrebko, and I think most would happily settle for that.

Links: ARTE Concert, Teatro alla Scala