Monday 15 February 2016

Shostakovich - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Lyon, 2016 - Webcast)

Dmitri Shostakovich - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Opéra de Lyon, 2016

Kazushi Ono, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Ausrine Stundyte, Vladimir Ognovenko, Peter Hoare, John Daszak, Gennady Bezzubenkov, Almas Svilpa, Jeff Martin, Michaela Selinger, Clare Presland, Jeff Martin, Kwang Soun Kim

Culturebox - 4 February 2016

He remains a controversial and divisive figure in the opera world, but Dmitri Tcherniakov is nonetheless always an interesting director. In particular his work is often inspired when he is working in the Russian repertoire; opening up a whole new way of looking on works that are rarely performed and insufficiently explored. His production of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, recently seen at the English National Opera but now transferred to Lyon and sung in its native language with Russian leads, is a typically strong reading of the work that has many of the director's familiar techniques. In fact, it would at first appear that there's not much the director has to offer a work that is surrounded in enough controversy of its own. The touches Tcherniakov introduces here however are subtle and achieve maximum impact.

For a while at least, it seems like business as usual. There are no unexpected twists that subvert the material, nothing too challenging or unexpected. It's updated evidently, but not in an extravagant way to make any obvious contemporary reference. Instead of being a wealthy flour merchant, Boris Timofeyevich Izmailov here runs a more modern warehouse, with workers in hi-vis jackets operating forklift trucks, with a row of secretaries in the office and employees all wearing security passes around their necks. Even from the point of view of merely indicating the banality of business interests and the uniformity of the modern workplace, and in how it pertains to the relative positions of men and women within it, Tcherniakov has it down to a tee.

The background setting is an important matter in the opera, but still, it's not anything that you wouldn't see in any other Tcherniakov production. This one doesn't look that much different from his productions of The Tsar's Bride or Verdi's Macbeth, and if that means that it's not quite as radical as the updating of those works were, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk already has all the sex and violence it needs. What becomes apparent then is not that Tcherniakov's approach is in any way 'tamer' here, or that he has run out of original ideas, as much as Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk may be the definitive Tcherniakov opera. It's as if the director has taken all the boldness, the shock and the impact of this opera and used it as a model that all other operas ought to aspire to match. Tcherniakov seems to want to bring the inner Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk out of every opera he works on.

In as far as dealing with the subjects that Shostakovich depicted in his version of Nikolai Leskov's work, there are certainly other levels that could be emphasised in the opera - and it seems amazing that the composer himself seemed to be unaware of how that might would play out to the Soviet censor - but Tcherniakov is not particularly concerned with those. The wider view of the Russian character, the implications of corruption within the system and the impact that has on a woman living within a male-dominated society are all still there as part of the wider canvas that Shostakovich paints so vividly in his score, but Tcherniakov recognises that there is also an attention in the music to the individual, and in this case that's evidently the 'Lady Macbeth' of the work, Katerina Lvovna Izmailova.

Having established the context only as far as it necessary, without any unnecessary emphasis or distortion, Tcherniakov's focus is almost wholly on Katia. The director often reduces the scene down to the small room where the wife of the boss's son is mostly confined. It's a warmly-lit room decorated with rugs covering the walls, Katia moreover dressed in a more 'traditional' way that emphasises the extent to which she is cut off and set apart from the rest of the world. She daren't venture too far out of that room, and when she does - in the only way that would be possible for a woman in her position - she's soon put back in her place. Her form of liberty eventually leads Katerina and her lover Sergei being arrested and sent to Siberia. As this just closes down her world further, Tcherniakov chooses to depict all the horror that follows within the confines of a small cell rather than on a forced march in the open outdoors.

Closing down the stage in this way, reducing it to a small block, allows Tcherniakov to work in closer detail, more like a film director than a stage director. There is even a fixed camera placed high within Katia's bedroom for the sake of the video recording of the performance in Lyon that allows the level of detail, nuance and intimacy created to be seen, but clearly the impact is felt even at the back of the theatre. Tcherniakov knows he doesn't have to make grand gestures because they are already there in the music and in the subject, and he focuses instead on the performers, on what their characters feel and endure. Even on that level, there's a huge range to cover in the vivid personalities of Katia, Boris, Sergei and Zynovny, to say nothing of the colourful secondary characters. Tcherniakov's direction of the performers is superb, making them and their actions feel utterly real, and it makes all the difference in this work.

The simmering passions and explosions of violence and aggressive sexual behaviour are all fully scored by Shostakovich and brought out in all their wonderful, lurid glory by Kazushi Ono and the orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon. It really is a wonderful account that makes no attempt to play down those verismo characteristics that are what gives the work such an impact. A few of the English cast remain here - John Daszak and Peter Hoare superbly reprising the roles of Sergei and Zynovny - but the Russian production of the opera undoubtedly benefits from having singers like Ausrine Stundyte and Vladimir Ognovenko play Katarina and Boris. Stundyte is exceptionally good in an understated but compelling performance that simmers with the underlying strength of Katia's passions and her capacity to love as violently as she kills.

Links: Culturebox, Opéra de Lyon

Tuesday 9 February 2016

Srnka - South Pole (Munich, 2016 - Webcast)

Miroslav Srnka - South Pole

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016

Kirill Petrenko, Hans Neuenfels, Rolando Villazón, Thomas Hampson, Mojca Erdmann, Tara Erraught, Dean Power, Kevin Conners, Matthew Grills, Joshua Owen Mills, Tim Kuypers, John Carpenter, Christian Rieger, Sean Michael Plumb

ARTE Concert - 5th February 2016

Commissioned to write a new opera for the Bayerische Staatsoper, the young Czech composer Miroslav Srnka and Tasmanian writer Tom Holloway have found a subject that is inherently dramatic and even operatic in South Pole. Working from the existing documentation of Captain Robert F. Scott and Roald Amundsen's race to be the first to reach the South Pole, all the rivalry between the two explorers is laid out; the personalities, the tensions and the drama and danger of the expeditions. The setting itself offers great possibilities for exploration in the musical treatment and for the stage production, and both certainly offer a great deal of inventiveness even if ultimately the subject and the inconsistencies within the treatment can't help but invite its own defeat.

Unless, of course, you consider inconsistency to be an essential part of the make-up of the work and its subject. It's very evident from early on that South Pole wants to tell the two stories of Scott and Amundsen simultaneously but separately, a 'double opera' that contrasts the experience of one with the other. The opera opens with the famous telegram message sent by Amundsen to Scott, where the British team learn that, contrary to reports that the Norwegian team were setting off for the North Pole, they are now in direct competition with the British explorers on their Antarctic expedition to the South Pole. The morse tapping, sung out by Amundsen, establishes a rhythmic connection between the two teams and it holds for a while as they each encounter similar challenges and problems in their preparations. By the second half those paths have gradually diverged, and the opera itself also seems to lose direction, even if that is to some extent intended.

The opera then is successful in as far as it adheres to the tone and content of its source material and subject, but it's also a victim to the challenge of maintaining the complexity that these divergent paths take. Using the source material available, South Pole does establish well the personality of the two explorers, but it also attempts to speculatively delve more deeply into aspects of their personality and love-lives. As far as outward appearances go, both are practical and single-minded men - and the John Adams-like musical arrangements of the beginning, hold them in this rhythm. There are minor differences in their preparation, Scott fatally choosing ponies for the expedition, Amundsen dogs, but first and foremost in their mind is the determination to beat their rival and the unthinkable consequences of failure.

The two expeditions take place then simultaneously on the stage, and the gaps between the men and their attitudes grow as they face the challenges of the merciless conditions in the Antarctic. Amundsen shows little concern for the deprivations of his colleagues, much less any sentimentality they show for loved ones back home, refusing to even let them keep journals or write letters but keeping one of his own to be published after the adventure. Scott is also very practical-minded and necessarily so, but any sympathy he has for the pain endured in the suffering of his team is tempered by the greater torment he feels that Amundsen will beat him to the South Pole and render his efforts meaningless.

That much might be interpreted by the historical facts and public face of the individuals concerned, but South Pole is not an all-male affair. Kathleen Scott appears as a figure to show a deeper side to Scott as more than just an explorer, but more than just the wife of the explorer, a projection or a vision conjured by letters, the creators of the opera attempt to depict her as a person in her own right. A similar approach to Amundsen proves more problematic but it serves to provide a strong contrast. Amundsen refuses to discuss his love-life with his colleagues, but is nonetheless 'visited' by the figure of the 'Landlady' - whether this is a fictional creation or not I don't know - who he once had an affair with. Whether all this works, or intentionally fractures the divisions between the men - their loneliness emphasised more than any purpose or sentiment that unites them - it all comes together in a marvellous, if somewhat unconventional quartet close to the end of the first half of the opera.

After that, it becomes harder to hold the work together and the music becomes more complex in its unconventional rhythms and tonal levels, with up to 100 individual parts being played at any one time by the orchestra. The two halves of the story take very different turns and the music accompanying them accordingly jars atonally in their individual experiences and in how they sit uneasily side-by-side. If there's anything that holds South Pole together as two sides of a related story that almost never overlaps, it's Hans Neuenfels' stunning stage direction for the piece. Brightly lit in a blinding white background - as you might expect - the set is nonetheless highly stylised and expressionistic, a black X marking the spot up at the back of the stage, reminding us constantly of the importance of the goal. A line divides the stage down the centre, with Scott's expedition on the left and Amundsen on the right, both playing out simultaneously.

Principally then, although the other roles are all well developed, the opera plays out as a two-hander between Scott and Amundsen, and consequently it needs two strong personalities in the creation of these roles. If both Rolando Villazón and Thomas Hampson could be said for one reason or another to have had better days, there's no sign of it in South Pole. Both men imprint a strong character into their singing and performance in what are evidently very intense roles. The unconventional rhythms of the drama and characterisation don't favour much in the way of lyricism, and the staccato English-language libretto doesn't always help, but the performances of both men are impressive. Tara Erraught and Mojca Erdmann likewise do much to bring Kathleen Scott and the Landlady to life and widen the dimension of the opera. It still never entirely feels like it's successfully of a whole and it becomes harder to maintain interest or find a central core that holds it together as the work progresses, but South Pole is an ambitious piece that has much of interest in its component parts.

Links: ARTE Concert, Bayerische Staatsoper

Monday 8 February 2016

Verdi - Stiffelio (La Fenice, 2015 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - Stiffelio

Teatro La Fenice, 2015

Daniele Rustioni, Johannes Weigand, Stefano Secco, Julianna Di Giacomo, Dimitri Platanias, Francesco Marsiglia, Simon Lim, Cristiano Olivieri, Sofia Koberidze

Culturebox - October 2015

I'm not sure how Stiffelio came to be regarded as one of Verdi's lesser and rarely performed operas. Sure, its plot is rather on the 'domestic' side compared to the grand melodrama of personal turmoil conflicting with political duty in Don Carlos, but other than Otello and Falstaff - all later works - you're not going to find the same level of sophisticated musical and dramatic characterisation in in any of Verdi's earlier writing. Admittedly Stiffelio is not even quite at the same level of Verdi greatness that was to see fruition soon after in Rigoletto and La Traviata, but it's clearly heading in that direction in how Verdi combines dramatic action with great melodic invention.

Like quite a few of Verdi's earlier works, a large part of the reason for it being underestimated might have more to do with its troubled history with the censor. Stiffelio (1850) ran into objections from Catholic authorities over the religious content of the work, a work moreover which features a Protestant minister, a married man of God which would have been judged to be too shocking for a sensitive Catholic audience to consider. Verdi wasn't happy with the changes that were demanded and the work consequently languished in obscurity for years until the composer came to rewrite the work in a new setting under the title of Aroldo (1857). Stiffelio received some recognition, and became a personal favourite, when it was revived by the Royal Opera House and broadcast on television in 1993, with José Carreras in the leading role.

La Fenice's 2015 production of Stiffelio plays to the strengths of the work as well as exposing its weaknesses. As is often the case with Verdi, particularly the earlier Verdi works, the measure of the weakness can often be only be determined by the quality of the singers. With the right kind of cast in roles that need very specific voices to meet the kind of challenges they pose, something appears to click into place for certain operas, allowing them to function much better than might be apparent on paper. Carreras and Malfitano, for example, demonstrated what could be made of Stiffelo and Lina in the 1993 production, but while Stefano Secco and Julianna Di Giacomo prove to be very capable in this Venice production, they aren't quite strong or starry enough to give the opera the extra boost that it needs.

Daniele Rustioni in the pit and Johannes Weigand directing for the stage do at least recognise the quality and the nature of the work. Stiffelio is not bombastic early Verdi, but requires a measure of lyricism in the playing and a dynamic that is closer to that of La Traviata. In terms of the setting, the austere approach is one that also matches the subject and setting of a Protestant preacher in a small German religious community. Like La Traviata, where questions of social hypocrisy are also to the fore, the drama in Stiffelio is very much a personal one where the internalised passions occasionally spill over into public life in a scandalous fashion.

Wiegand's very formalised period setting - dark and moody, with the characters all dressed in greatcoats - suits the buttoned-up and concealed illicit passions that lie in the work. It also finds an appropriate manner to capture the way that those passions overflow and are exposed with grander gestures. Hence, when Lina's affair is publicly uncovered in the cemetery scene that develops into a duel between her father Count Stankar and her lover Raffaele at the end of Act II, the stage explodes with the coloured light from the stained glass windows of the church. Even though religious sentiment isn't new, the choir in the church present an emotional and dramatic counterpoint that is rather different from the typical revenge scene.  Verdi would use similar religious contrasts later to highlight hypocrisy and conflict, but Stiffelio is refreshingly free from cynicism here.

That and the spirit of forgiveness that is shown in the final scene of Act III are what mark Stiffelio out as a very different work from the more typical Hugo and Schiller heroic dramas that were the main source of inspiration for Verdi's earlier works. It also shows Verdi taking a rather more restrained approach to dramatic realism, or perhaps he was just a little more idealistic and tolerant than when he later contrasted Violetta's dilemma with Parisian society in La Traviata. Again, Wiegand's setting for this grand moment is well-judged, capturing the emotional power of the scene, but keeping it on a human level. That's the overall balance that needs to be maintained in Stiffelio and that's well worked out here between the pit and the stage.

Considering that it's La Traviata that is the measure against which this work needs to be judged - not one that is going to be favourable for any opera - Stiffelio holds up rather well. It is too over-reliant on the cabaletta/cavatina/aria form for it to be able to truly break any formal constraints, but even within that Verdi demonstrates a wonderful lyricism in Stiffelio, with touches - such as the trumpet solo in the overture, a bass aria, some of the clarinet accompaniment of the characterisation - that you won't find quite the same anywhere else in his work. The singing performances however are merely competent in this production, when it needs a little more personality.

Stefano Secco sings reasonably well as Stiffelio, but you don't get a great sense of him being a man of God in conflict with the emotional demands of being a mere man and a betrayed husband. It's there in Verdi's score however and this at least comes across to some extent. Julianna Di Giacomo is a fine Lina, capturing at least the emotional turmoil in a role that is quite limited in development (she's a sinner, while the main male roles are those of betrayed honour). Dimitri Platanias doesn't have great clarity of diction or the full Verdi baritone force for Stankar, but gets the emotional plight of the prototypical Rigoletto role. Francesco Marsiglia's high constricted tenor isn't all that pleasant, but that suits the character of a role that isn't meant to be pleasant either. There's a lovely fullness of tone to bass Simon Lim's Jorg.

Links: Culturebox, Teatro La Fenice

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Berlioz - La Damnation de Faust (Paris, 2015 - Webcast)

Hector Berlioz - La Damnation de Faust

L’Opéra de Paris, 2015

Philippe Jordan, Alvis Hermanis, Jonas Kaufmann, Sophie Koch, Bryn Terfel, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Sophie Claisse

Culturebox - 17 December 2015

Alvis Hermanis' production of La Damnation de Faust wasn't well received when in opened in Paris in December, the director and his team reportedly booed loudly by the audience on the first night. Even by the conservative standards of some sections of the Paris audience they must be an overly sensitive lot, as it's hard to see what anyone could find offensive about the Latvian director's elaboration of the themes in Berlioz's opera. Admittedly the science-fiction setting of a mission to Mars is not the clearest or most obvious way to explore Faust's dilemma over the nature of humanity, but it's hardly provocative Regietheater either.

As difficult as it is to define as a musical entity, Berlioz's 'dramatic legend' opera/cantata is a richly orchestrated work, exhibiting all the well-documented enthusiasm that the composer had for Goethe's work. La Damnation de Faust doesn't have a lot of dramatic action to it and is more of a compilation of selected scenes, which to judge by Boito's Mefistofele and even Gounod's Faust is the only way to adapt it to opera. Berlioz's version however is ideal for a director to apply a response to the work that is equally as rich as the musical ideas, and it doesn't have to be anything extreme either. It's about exploring the human capacity for evil and for love, and the eternal struggle for the better side of that nature to rise above the lesser.

If it's not exactly ideal for the stage, that is also the reason why the work usually attracts the more imaginative approach of likes of Terry Gilliam and La Fura dels Baus. Alvis Hermanis' approach for the Paris Opera isn't quite as extravagant in scale. There's something of Hans Neuenfels' controversial Lohengrin for Bayreuth in how it examines the themes of the work as a scientific experiment rather than from a religious/moral perspective. Hermanis takes the questions raised in La Damnation de Faust and applies them to the Mars One mission to create a human settlement on the red planet in 2025. It's an idea that works both ways, using Faust to examine real questions raised about the failings and contradictions that it reveals within the human make-up, but it also gives what is essentially a 'religious fantasy' set in the 15th century a basis in the real world of today.

That's all well and good in theory. In practice and on the stage, it doesn't work quite as well as the director might have liked. It's rather heavily signalled at the start by the question: "Who is the Faust of our time?" and suggests that it's none other than Dr Stephen Hawking. Although sung and performed freely by Jonas Kaufmann, another actor/double plays Hawking sitting in his wheelchair and speaking through that famous voice generator. The imagery is specific to the future Mars mission, but it's also broad-stroke in terms of how it contrasts science and nature. Dancers are used extensively, with men in white coats conducting experiments on the 'white mice' volunteers in glass cages wearing only their underwear, while projections show nature, egg fertilisation and grand scenes large and small from nature.

It's all very tenuous and not particularly illuminating, but as a way of illustrating the themes of Faust, it's fine. The production looks good, the stage is always active without being overactive, and the essence of what is being sung about is conveyed with some originality that avoids all the usual cliches. It holds together consistently and stands up in a way that the work itself, being made up of selected scenes that drop many of the familiar dramatic points, would not do so well on its own. There's certainly nothing here that distorts the meaning or the essence of the work, or detracts from the very specific musical interpretation that Berlioz applies to it all. It's anything but the fiasco that the Paris audience and press would have you believe.

The fact that there is a great cast and good performances that make this a memorable musical performance, also makes the extreme reaction of the audience even more baffling. Jonas Kaufmann is not given a lot to work with dramatically either by the nature of the work as Faust or the direction as Stephen Hawking, but his singing is just wonderful. Sophie Koch starts off a little wobbly and imprecise as Marguerite, but settles into the role well and gives her usual committed performance. Bryn Terfel can sing the role well, but the vague characterisation of Mephistopheles in this reading of the work and the casual dress make it feel a little perfunctory. Philippe Jordan ensures however that the orchestra provides all the dynamic and excitement that might be lacking elsewhere. How anyone could come away from the Bastille disappointed by this production is something of a mystery. 

Links: Culturebox, L’Opéra National de Paris