Wednesday 30 March 2016

Verdi - Un ballo in maschera (Munich, 2016 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - Un ballo in maschera

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016

Zubin Mehta, Johannes Erath, Piotr Beczala, George Petean, Anja Harteros, Okka von der Damerau, Sofia Fomina, Andrea Borghini, Anatoly Sivko, Scott Conner, Ulrich Reß, Joshua Owen Mills

ARTE Concert - March 2016

Un ballo in maschera sits in that difficult period of Verdi works just after the composer's 'galley years' where the musical writing is more mature in characterisation and experimental in form but still not quite as fully developed as it would be in his late works. The operas of this late-middle period still lean towards bel canto convention in arias, melody and number structure and are often burdened with ludicrous melodramatic plots that sit uncomfortably with the new found sophistication and melodic invention of the musical writing. The relationship or indeed the disparity between the music and the drama can be particularly hard to establish in a production of Un ballo in maschera.

A production that takes the drama at face value and plays it straight with all the period conventions (such as the 2008 Madrid production) does the work no favours at all. Proving that the themes and composition of the work are strong enough however, La Fura dels Baus successfully adapted the opera to a futuristic science-fiction setting where arguably the melodrama sits better. Also recently, the Met in New York have made the case that an elegant middle way between these two extremes that can also be effective, particularly when you have good Verdi singers. The question of appropriate singers in fact might ultimately be the key to making the work dramatically convincing.

The Bayerische Staatsoper's production, directed by Johannes Erath, works the middle path. It finds the same sense of elegance that you can see in the David Alden production; the sophistication of the music is there in Zubin Mehta's conducting of the orchestra; and the singing - with a few worrying exceptions - largely captures the inner emotional tone of the work. The set design and look and feel also suggests a black-and-white Hollywood melodrama - also evident in Alden's production - but there is more of an emphasis here on the air of fatalism that lies at the heart of the work, a sensibility that Verdi's music captures much better than the torrid romantic complications and the overheated political plotting of the assassination.

The emphasis in the Munich production then is largely restricted to the bedroom. A bed remains at the centre of the stage for most of the performance, and there's even another one mirrored on the ceiling high above the stage. Rather than just being merely a suggestion that it is the romantic complications that dominate (the bed tends to be an overused stage prop in this respect), it also strives to evoke that air of fatalism within the work. This is hinted at very early on during the overture which shows a dream-like encounter between Riccardo (in the Boston governor version of the opera) and the fortune-teller Ulrica, that ends with Riccardo sprawled lifeless on the bed. This vision persists when the Earl visits the fortune-teller, having been informed of her impending banishment for witchcraft, but the scene is also present in the final act pinned high above on the ceiling.

Following the internal voice of the opera rather than the plot and locations does manage to rein in the overheated nature of the more familiar plot points, but it risks making not much sense either. There's no gypsy camp or gathering at Ulrica's hut but rather figures - all elegantly attired in formal evening dress - tend to wander into the bedroom and deliver their parts. Strangest of all, Amelia doesn't go outdoors to gather herbs for her potion, but it takes place in her bedroom where her husband Renato doesn't at first recognise her and is then surprised when her identity is revealed (by strange men wandering into the room), yet he's not surprised to find Riccardo there in his bedroom. It's all very strange and dreamlike. You can take for granted too that there are no masks at this "masked ball".

As much of a cliché as it might be, you could see this production as a dream sequence of a revenge fantasy brought out by Renato's suspicions and his playing out of the role assigned to him by the fortune-teller's predictions. Emotionally at least that is pretty much the level the opera operates on anyway, so it's not too much trouble to go with the flow. Visually, the idea of dream logic is also reflected in the impressive reverse mirror-like design of the stage set with its staircase elegantly winding from the room below to the upside-down one above. A Hitchcockian use of doubles comes into play on one or two occasions with Amelia and Riccardo, and even Oscar's true female identity(!) is revealed here, all of it suggesting the perspective of Renato struggling to reconcile questions of identity and personality.

The performances all fit well with this dark vision, but the singing doesn't always meet the requirements. Piotr Beczala at least, looking uncannily and fittingly like Anton Walbrook, gives a good and only occasionally faltering performance as Riccardo. He's proving to be one of the best Verdi tenors out there at the moment, with a distinctive timbre and style of his own. George Petean does well to hold the emotional drama of Renato's key role in this production. Anja Harteros seemed somewhat distracted or absent as Amelia, her singing line wavering and unconvincing, strong on the high notes but weak and unsteady in the lower register. Her performances can be variable, but either this was a particularly bad off-night or the role just isn't entirely right for her.

Zubin Metha's conducting of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester is smooth and elegant without igniting the underlying passions that are there to be exploited. In that respect at least it's in keeping with the overall tone of the production. And, in a way then, the imperfect production is also in keeping with Verdi's flawed opera which doesn't quite have fully-rounded characters who can live up to the overheated plot of suspicion, jealousy and murder that fails to make a whole lot of sense. We're not quite at Otello yet. 

Links: ARTE Concert, Bayerische Staatsoper

Thursday 24 March 2016

Mussorgsky - Khovanshchina (DNO, 2016 - Amsterdam)

Modest Mussorgsky - Khovanshchina

Dutch National Opera, 2016

Ingo Metzmacher, Christof Loy, Dmitry Ivaschenko, Maxim Aksenov, Kurt Streit, Gábor Bretz, Orlin Anastassov, Anita Rachvelishvili, Olga Savova, Andrei Popov, Svetlana Ignatovitch, Roger Smeets, Vasily Efimov, Morschi Franz, Vitali Rozynko, Sulkhan Jaiani, Richard Prada

Nationale Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam - 16 March 2016

With its complex view of Russian history and society, Khovanshchina must be one of the most overreachingly ambitious works of opera ever undertaken, the piece worked on by Mussorgsky for nine years before being left still in an unfinished state after the composer's death. Pulling the work together into something more coherent has been a challenge for other composers including Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovitch, but Khovanshchina is still an enormous challenge to stage. The Dutch National Opera's new production directed by Christof Loy bravely takes on the challenge, but almost inevitably it's not entirely successful.

There's a lot to get up on the stage in Khovanshchina, both physically and conceptually. Mussorgsky's great unfinished work is layered not only with the various political factions competing for power or even simply survival under the reign of the new ruler Peter the Great, but it also takes in the wider strata of society that is comprised of nobles, soldiers, religious factions and the common worker. All those various entities are further boiled down into the form of individual people with personal lives that are greatly affected by the uncertainty and the brutality of the times. It's a huge slice of Russian history up there on the stage in a fragmentary drama. No wonder Mussorgsky tried and failed to finish such a work.

It's no wonder too that Khovanshschina often fails on the stage. The recent Vienna production was heavily criticised for its static nature - this is a work that surely should be anything but static - but its vertical staging there did at least succeed in establishing the hierarchical nature of the Russian society and the attempts by each to climb its heights and end up falling low. Christof Loy's new production of the opera for the DNO similarly attempts to establish a construct that puts the work into context by connecting it to the present day, but in a work that already gives you a lot to take in, it's perhaps an unnecessary complication that doesn't really yield any greater insights into the Russia of the past or the present.

It wouldn't be the first time I haven't followed exactly what Loy is attempting to get across in his productions and yet have still been impressed at how he still gets the essence and full impact of the work across. The initial idea and inspiration behind the DNO's Khovanshchina is at least transparent, the curtain rising to reveal a tableau vivant of Vasily Surikov's 1881 painting 'Morning of the Streltsy's Execution', the epic scene of the painting reproduced in large scale behind the figures on the stage. One notable difference between the painting and the stage is the overturned cart and the dead white horse, both of which adorn the stage throughout most of the five acts. It's symbolism writ large, to which you can apply whatever meaning that comes to mind as you listen to the equally epic music that accompanies the unfolding horror of the events that lead up to the scene depicted in the painting.

Once the first act gets underway however we get the more familiar Christof Loy touches. The characters, or some of them at least, strip out of their period costumes and into modern-day suits. There remains a mix of period and modern dress that is evidently intended to draw a connection to how the past has influenced the present, but it's hard to see any direct link, particularly as there is enough to take in and remain focussed on just working out who the various historical factions are and where their allegiances lie. That actually is established fairly well, but whatever commentary is being made about the present regime, or whether there even is a direct commentary here, is less easy to discern.

More than just stripping off period historical baggage that might mean little to a modern audience, Loy's minimalism also serves to de-clutter the stage for those key scenes where Mussorgsky's epic drama has perhaps its greatest impact. Many of those scenes involve filling the stage for the huge choral pieces and crowd scenes that make such an impression and are such a vital part of a work that is about the Russian people, but Loy's quirky approach also achieves impact and results in other scenes of high drama such as the murder of Ivan Khovansky that precipitates the fall of the Streltsy. The dance of the Persian slaves for the Prince is performed by very young girls in shiny dresses (to the background of a glitter curtain) and it's superbly choreographed and performed, creating a suitably sinister environment even before Khovansky is stabbed by a little girl standing innocently alongside him.

Loy employs many such touches, large and small, including a marching brass band on the stage and, by no means least since he has a tremendous resource at his disposal, making good use of the chorus. This is my first live experience of the famous DNO chorus, although I have seen and heard them many times on DVD and on Dutch radio NTR4, and you couldn't ask for another work that would display their talents more fully than Khovanshchina. Their input was simply phenomenal. If it's hard to say that Loy succeeded in putting all of Russia on the stage, the chorus nonetheless contributed greatly towards it, and it helped also that there was also a cast of fine Russian principal singers in this production.

Among a consistently strong line-up, Anita Rachvelishvili was most impressive as Marfa and Dmitry Ivaschenko an authoritative Khovansky, but Kurt Streit also held his own among all those Russian voices with a fine performance as Prince Golitsin. Ingo Metzmacher conducted the orchestra through the Shostakovitch edition of the work, which might not have the same epic quality and refinement of the Rimsky-Korsakov's version, but in line with the production, the singing and the acting performances, the emphasis was on the importance of the individual human stories caught up in the vast scope of the historical period drama. On that level at least, this was certainly a successful account of the work.

Links: Nationale Opera & Ballet, NTR4 Radio Broadcast

Monday 21 March 2016

Saariaho - Only the Sound Remains (DNO, 2016 - Amsterdam)

Kaija Saariaho - Only the Sound Remains 

Dutch National Opera, 2016

André de Ridder, Peter Sellars, Philippe Jaroussky, Davone Tines, Nora Kimball-Mentos, Heleen Koele, Marian Dijkhuizen, Albert van Ommen, Gilad Nezer

Nationale Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam - 15 March 2016

The few indications of what you could expect from the new opera by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho suggested that it was going to be quite 'arty' in conception. The fact that the piece was to be based on two Japanese Nôh dramas adapted and directed by Peter Sellars certainly prompted this impression and expectations of slowness and paucity of drama were indeed met at the 2016 World Premiere of Only the Sound Remains in Amsterdam. Where the work exceeded all expectations however was in the richness of the musical language that Saariaho employed with a minimum of instruments, and in how successfully it expressed the inner meaning of the work.

When you are dealing with Nôh drama, that is obviously the most important aspect to get across. Japanese Nôh theatre, the Dutch National Opera's promotional material told us "was born from the Buddhist idea that light is concealed largely in darkness, so as not to blind mere mortals." The conceptual approach to the subject then is a sound one, in more than one sense of the word. Reduced down to their simplest form, symbolism largely taking the place of any representational view of the dramatic staging, it's indeed only the sound that remains as a way of delving into the darkness that separates mortals from the true light on the other side of the veil.

That's very high concept and somewhat airy-fairy, so let's deal with the more objective reality of what is represented on the stage in the two short operas. Both of the Nôh dramas deal with a contact that is established between a mortal and a being from "the other side". In 'Always Strong', a Buddhist priest evokes the spirit of the legendary warrior Tsunemasa during a ceremony in his honour. Tsunemasa's ghost is drawn back by the offering of a lute that was a gift from the Emperor, the warrior appearing in the form of a shadow that eventually disappears leaving only the sound of his voice remaining behind. In the second story 'Feather Mantle', a fisherman finds the feather robe of an angel, and only agrees to return it if the angel will agree to perform a celestial dance in exchange.

There is not really any greater complexity to the dramas than is outlined above, and not really any great sense of meaning that you can take from the descriptions or indeed the libretti for the works alone. What is important, as much in opera as in Nôh drama, is the essence of the performance itself, and the clue to the nature of art as a medium of communication with "the other" is in the works themselves. It's a musical instrument, a lute, that permits the Priest to hear the voice from the spirit world, and it's through the dance of an angel that a humble fisherman is able to see beyond it to experience a vision of the waxing and waning of the moon. Sellars' direction keeps the works as simple as that, with little use of props and only two or three figures on the largely bare stage, with only a thin veil and lighting/shadows used to show the separation between the physical and spiritual worlds.

Watching Only the Sound Remains, I was reminded of another recent new opera, Georg Friedrich Haas' Morgen und Abend which premiered at the Royal Opera House last year, but only in as far as how Sellars similarly reduces the dramatic content in his libretto to deal with a subject that lies outside normal human experience. Like Morgen und Abend - although the musical approach is very different (the range of modern music far wider than most suspect) - Only the Sound Remains also attempts to extend the range of music drama, using new sounds and techniques to describe something that mere language and a dramatic construct alone cannot hope to reach; an attempt to grasp a sense of the other.

Kaija Saariaho's music is the vital element that establishes the connection to the spiritual side in both works, and it is really is something quite astonishing. The music is performed by a small seven-piece ensemble that consists of a string quartet, percussion, flute and Finnish kantele harp. The string quartet, and perhaps the percussion as well, creates a kind of an ambient atmospheric drone background mood music that could be said to be representative of the physical world. The more expressive exploration of the light on the other side is achieved mainly through the soft flow of the flute and the extraordinary otherworldly plucked string sounds of the kantele. More than the choice of instruments, it's the incredible way that they interact that establishes the connection between the physical world and the spiritual. The overall impact and richness of this sound world is mesmerising, Saariaho enlarging the palette of sound she can achieve using these acoustic instruments alone, with little need this time for the use of electronics.

Electronics were used only noticeably in one or two places in the second piece, and mainly then on the voice. The use of the singing voice is evidently another hugely important element of the overall soundscape here and again Saariaho's writing for it in Only the Sound Remains is just extraordinary. Both pieces are written for only two singers on the stage; a baritone for the priest and the fisherman; a countertenor for the ghost and for the angel (with a dancer doubling the role). Here alone the desired sound is fully realised with Davone Tines integrating with the earthier sounds of the physical world and Philippe Jaroussky's countertenor soaring to reach that otherworldly level. A quartet of singers in the raised orchestra pit however also forms part of that vital function of connecting the two planes in a kind of narrator role, even taking a performance role mirroring gestures on the stage.

Although the two works like the two worlds they explore remain separate, there is of course much that connects them and Sellars' libretto, along with his on-stage visual clues and Saariaho's dynamic musical expression of the light and dark, help bring out the underlying commonalities in the works and the message that lies within them. The interaction that occurs in both plays suggests an answer to the question of why there isn't a stronger bond between the two worlds on either side of the veil. The ghost of Tsunemasa reliving the horror of the wars and the angels held earthbound by human doubts, show that those on the other side tend to come off badly when they come into contact with the physical world. If they leave any trace behind in the world, only the sound that remains and, when expressed like this in music, in poetry and dance, it's the closest thing we have to heaven on earth.

Links: DNO

Monday 14 March 2016

Britten - The Turn of the Screw (NI Opera, 2016 - Belfast)

Benjamin Britten - The Turn of the Screw

NI Opera, 2016

Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Katie Bird, Garbhan McEnoy, Sam Furness, Giselle Allen, Yvonne Howard, Lucia Vernon-Long

Lyric Theatre, Belfast - 11 March 2016

There are many ways to explore and interpret the themes and the suggestion laid down by Benjamin Britten in his adaptation of Henry James' sinister little tale. Even in a revival of its 2012 production, NI Opera's The Turn of the Screw can reveal other facets of this endlessly fascinating little piece with a few changes of casting and a little tweak of directorial emphasis here and there. Essentially, the tone and the ambiguity of the production remain largely the same, but the whole idea of fear dominating the direction of the drama seemed to be more pronounced in a way that opened up other possibilities.

Fear, of course, is an integral part of what The Turn of the Screw is all about; it is a ghost story after all. It's perhaps not necessary though for the audience to feel fear in the way that a traditional ghost story sets out to do. That would actually be harder to achieve, since everyone has different things that scare them and evidently not everyone believes in ghosts. One of the other problems of this approach is that ghost stories aren't quite as scary when you know what is coming, and I have to admit that I didn't find this production quite as chilling as I remember it being four years ago. Despite this, the sense of fear in the 2016 revival of the production was palpable and effective in other ways.

The Turn of the Screw is more a study of fear than it is a traditional tale to scare the reader or the listener. Fear is contagious in the way that it spreads through Bly household here, and it isn't too much of stretch to consider it a model for how fear spreads in a wider community. Henry James didn't need to overstate the psychological implications of repressed impulses of the Governess in relation to the Victorian society of his time, and the wider implications don't need to be be spelled out for a modern audience either if the telling of the tale is true. When you have ghosts in a story this could present a problem, but the key to the story lies in how convincing we find the perspective and the actions of the Governess.

In as far as it was sung and played by Katie Bird, the importance of the role of the Governess as the propagator of fear in The Turn of the Screw is wonderfully effective. Fear, or at least anxiety that will later develop into fear, is evident from her first appearance on the stage just after the narrator's prologue. Will she like her new post? Will the children be nice? Will her employer be pleased with her? These concerns develop into a kind of over-protectiveness that infects Mrs Grose and leads, arguably, to a kind of mass hallucination that manifests the fear in the form of ghosts. Or it could be that the constant watching over Flora and Miles and pushing adult concerns down on them doesn't allow the children to be children.

What could be considered to be normal healthy behaviour for children, even if they are just a little bit naughty, is viewed with suspicion by the anxious Governess. It could be that the Governess, prompted by Mrs Grose's distaste for former employees, dredges up issues related to Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, conflates them with her own complexes and twists them in the minds of the children and the Governess into something more sinister. A lot of this is just speculation, and it's very much dependent upon what one wants to read into the work, but the greatness of The Turn of the Screw is that the ambiguity it creates around such situations allows events to be interpreted in a variety of ways.

It's harder to retain that sense of ambiguity on the stage, where concrete decisions and interpretations of one sort or another have to be made, but I think Oliver Mears' production manages to do this very well. I've already covered how the direct and simple stage designs work effectively to open up and close down the drama in my review of the original 2012 production at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey, and it still works here. What was great about the revival of the production, seen this time at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, was experiencing how well the singing and the musical performances were also attuned to project this sense of 'fear' consuming everyone who comes into contact with the Governess.

Principally, a lot of that was to do with Katie Bird's interpretation of the role. This was an outstanding singing performance that projected the fears of the Governess outward. There's a balance to be found between appearing to be neurotic or all out crazy and just letting anxiety break down the Governess's grip on reality, and Katie Bird covered that gradual disintegration almost imperceptibly. The Governess isn't aware of the fear she is sowing, believing her behaviour to be reasonable, proportionate, and indeed proper, but there's an edge of hysteria that becomes more and more apparent as events spiral and ghosts appear, and that was well integrated into the performance.

What is marvellous is not only could you detect this in how Bird sang and played the role, but the acoustics of the Lyric and Nicholas Chalmers' conducting allowed you hear how well Britten also scores and ramps up the tension, tightening the screw with little musical runs on the piano and the double bass. It's far from just eerie atmospherics and is suggestive of something much more complex in its psychology. Having just won an award for his ETO Hoffmann, Sam Furness was a good fit for this production's Peter Quint, while Giselle Allen reprised her chilling Miss Jessel. It's telling however that this production and the careful direction didn't allow either of the ghostly apparitions to overshadow Bird's Governess. Garbhan McEnoy brought a brittle vulnerability to Miles, working wonderfully alongside Lucia Vernon-Long's innocently teasing Flora to keep that delicious sense of ambiguity that is exploited so well on every level by NI Opera's still effective production of this ever intriguing work.

Links: NI Opera

Saturday 12 March 2016

Fauré - Pénélope (Strasbourg, 2015 - Webcast)

Gabriel Fauré - Pénélope

Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg - 2015

Patrick Davin, Olivier Py, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Marc Laho, Élodie Méchain, Sarah Laulan, Kristina Bitenc, Rocío Pérez, Francesca Sorteni, Lamia Beuque, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Martial Defontaine, Mark Van Arsdale, Arnaud Richard, Camille Tresmontant

ARTE Concert - October 2015

Rarely performed, Fauré's 1913 opera Pénélope has the reputation of being one of those old-fashioned works that no longer has a place on the modern stage. The start of the twentieth century has proved something of a wilderness for lost operas, with many of those works of post-Romanticism and verismo attempting to prolong the opera tradition never really taking hold. The horrors of the Great War would soon make much of the opera compositions of this period irrelevant when set against a changing and increasingly dissonant musical landscape. A few works are only now beginning to regain a foothold, and although Fauré's Pénélope is perhaps not yet one of them, it is certainly an opera that has been unjustly neglected if this fine new production at the Opéra National du Rhin is anything to go by.

One of the main criticisms levelled against Pénélope to account for its obscurity is that the libretto is rather wordy and not terribly dramatic. The story of the return of Ulysses 'in patria' may be Classical in origin, but as Monteverdi shows and as is evident in the rarity of Gluck's Telemaco, the story is by no means inherently lacking in dramatic conflict or emotional resonance that can be heightened for an opera. It is true that René Fauchois' libretto for Fauré does have a lot of recitative and not a great deal of dramatic action for at least the first third of the work. Much of this first Act consists of little more than Penelope's suitors pressing their case for her hand in the absence of her husband Ulysses who hasn't returned from the Trojan war. Without really involving the principals, the suitors presenting their case at length to Penelope's handmaidens, it's a slow start that doesn't really engage the audience.

There's not a great deal that director Olivier Py can do with this, but he makes an effort to make it work on the stage by at least introducing Ulysses into the drama during the overture. Py recognises that Ulysses is the key to unlocking the emotional heart of the work (which is Penelope), and shows the returned warrior early enough for you to recognise what is at stake and what his imminent return will mean for both of them. Py actually does a lot more than this, but he does so without introducing any extraneous elements or imposing any obvious conceptual twist on the work. It's actually a surprisingly faithful adaptation.

What's is impressive about Py's direction here is the faith he has in the work itself. He clearly doesn't feel that it needs to be reworked and reinterpreted. He doesn't attempt to bring any great drama out of the opera for the sake of stage presentation either, but trusts in the quality of the music itself to makes its presence felt. And he's right to do so. Musically Pénélope is not a forcefully driven piece, but rather more like a Debussy mood piece; wistful and floating, the music constantly shifts as if taking the part of the confused Penelope herself, building itself up like the lace tapestry she is sewing before undoing all the work and starting again.

Yet it can also be forceful and insistent, which corresponds with the attitude and behaviour of the suitors, and there's an edge of desperation too in Penelope's holding on to the belief that Ulysses will return. There's also undoubtedly an erotic charge behind these emotions on the sides of both parties, along with all those suggestions of delayed gratification in the completion of the tapestry, but it's hard to really say you get a sense of that from Fauré's music itself. The music does have a sensuous quality, but it also has a slightly sinister and unsettling edge that is brought out and highlighted here by Py showing the suitors pawing over Penelope's handmaidens and scarcely able to keep their hands off the Queen either.

Mood is definitely the strong point of Py's production with its typically darkened stage and black wooden constructions by Py's regular set designer, Pierre-André Weitz. The rotating construction gives the impression of constant movement that reduces the otherwise static 'talkie' nature of the work, and according to Py there's an attempt to relate Pénélope to the time it was written and to the political inclinations of the composer, but this is by no means evident without reading the production notes. The set is more abstract than naturalistic (a bed in an open room on a tower instead of a view from a hill and a curved steel bar taking the place of Ulysses' bow, for example), but there are a few little cut-out tableaux sets at the start of Act II done in the style of the director's Dialogues des Carmélites that open the stage up a little. Ulysses' voyage to Crete is recreated in this way and the reminiscence of his romance with Penelope is acted out by youthful doubles.

For all the criticisms of the libretto then, Pénélope is by no means unworkable as a staged opera production. Other than the slowness of the first act and rather too much time given over to filling out the roles of the suitors and other secondary characters, the libretto is actually quietly suggestive and poetic in how it explores the situation and builds tensions and mood around it. Although very different musically, it's hard not also to think of Hofmannsthal's libretto for Strauss' Elektra, in how it sustains a similar dark foreboding, in how it plays out the arrival and recognition scenes, and in how it all serves to move towards the huge release of the climax of the work. Again Pénélope is quite different in how that conclusion plays out musically, but Py's staging of the arrival of Zeus on the stage captures just how impressive that ending is, and how magnificently it has been structured and arranged to get to that point.

The influence of Wagner is probably more in this approach to the monologue delivery and the dramatic structure rather than in any overt musical referencing. In the singing at least, Pénélope requires singers of Wagnernian stamina, if not necessarily Wagnerian singers. The title role was actually written for Lucienne Bréval, a soprano noted for the roles of Brünnhilde and Kundry, but Anna Caterina Antonacci assumes the role superbly and with great presence. It's another triumph for Antonacci. Belgian tenor Marc Laho has a Heldentenor-like quality as well as the lyricism required here for Ulysses; his delivery clear, resonant and expressive. Conducted by Patrick Davin, the wonderful musicality and lyricism of the work are made apparent, as well as its hitherto unsuspected dramatic qualities, contributing to make this new production of Fauré's rare work something of a revelation.

Links: ARTE ConcertL'Opéra National du Rhin

Monday 7 March 2016

Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin (Komische Berlin, 2016 - Webcast)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Komische Oper Berlin, 2016

Henrik Nánási, Barrie Kosky, Günter Papendell, Asmik Grigorian, Karolina Gumos, Aleš Briscein, Christiane Oertel, Alexey Antonov, Margarita Nekrasova, Yakov Strizhak, Christoph Späth

Opera Platform - 31 January 2016

Looked at it dispassionately the plot of Eugene Onegin is a slight one, but Tchaikovsky's beautiful opera is by no means a work to view dispassionately. Musically and lyrically its themes are much deeper and resonant and it's much more than a story of unrequited love, which is a commonplace episode that typically plays a small part in many of the great works of Russian literature (as does the obligatory duel scene). Even if Eugene Onegin holds this as the emotional core of the work, with the clever structural twist of the role of the unrequited lover being reversed later in the work and the whole thing even revolving around a duel centrepiece, the themes of the opera can be seen in a broader view to be just as much about time and perspective.

That also sounds like a rather 'dispassionate' way to view one of the most beautiful and lyrical works in Russian music and literature, and of course, its brilliance lies in Tchaikovsky's own very personal and sensitive response to the themes Pushkin explores in the work. Eugene Onegin is not as straightforward then as being a work about the innocence of youth that becomes older and wiser through experience, it's more about how time itself can transform feelings. Those feelings and the shared experience of Tatyana and Onegin during the time of their meeting on the Larin country estate and the tragic transform over time in unexpected ways, but at the heart there is a strong ring of truth to them.

The transformation that takes place in the intervening years is by no means a straightforward progression, and it would be a mistake to tie Eugene Onegin down to direct cause and effect. Tchaikovsky weaves many other elements and colourful scenes that are seemingly there to enliven the otherwise melancholic tone of torment and regret that dominates, as well as help fill out the thin plot of the opera, but all of them contribute to the greater themes of the work. Various aspects and thematic connections can be drawn out just as much from Lensky and Olga, as well as nurse Filippyevna's account of her arranged marriage at the age of thirteen that deepened into something warm and loving over time.

The place of men and women in society, the pressures to conform to social expectations as well as romantic ideals; all of these issues contribute to a minor incident that is nonetheless of vast significance to Tatyana and later Onegin - even if the relative importance of what it means tragically never coincides within both of them at the same time. "Happiness was once so near, so near!". There is something inherently and vitally Russian about that, something that is at the same time both passionate in the exploration and expression of one's deeper nature, yet also dispassionate in its abandonment to fate and the course it will set them upon. This idea of huge forces being set into motion by an outwardly minor matter is something that must be captured in any successful stage presentation of the work.

In line with the nature of the work itself, there are many ways to balance and blend those themes. It can be as simple and austere as Robert Carson's production, letting the light and the music express everything that isn't brought out on the surface, or you can throw everything up there on the stage in an all-encompassing Stefan Herheim manner and let the music hold the true course of the sentiments. With Barrie Kosky at the Komische Oper in Berlin it could go either way, but you can at least be sure that it is probably going to be colourful and elaborate. That certainly is the impression you get at the start of Act I, where a whole hyper-realistic chunk of the Russian countryside appears to be deposited right up there on the stage.

This is not however the kind of kitsch forest scene that you will find for example in Otto Schenk's The Cunning Little Vixen. It's not that Kosky is adverse to a bit of kitsch and camp when it's appropriate, but in the case of Eugene Onegin the set serves that deeper purpose of the work. The single forest scene, the lump of Russian countryside that remains in place throughout most of the opera, reflects the importance of the location and of nature in the work. Without getting too bogged down in period detail, which isn't as important as the broader themes, it does however also suggest memories of the past - on how the golden days of youth are reflected upon in moments of crisis. Even when we are in a ballroom in the final scene of the opera, the rough grass that serves as a carpet remains there as a reminder that the past never leaves us.

Kosky of course pays just as much attention to the human drama as the broader Russian themes of the work and its considerations in regards to time and memory. The human emotions are not so much conflated with or inflated by their proximity to the Russian landscape, as much as given the vast space they need to be fully expressed. Tchaikovsky's High Romanticism isn't the same as Debussy's Expressionism, but a stage production is capable of highlighting these human sentiments in terms of light, mood and nature. Kosky's production uses shadow and light, uses the trees, sunlight and moonlight not so much to heighten drama, as much as connect human feelings with nature; relating those features to the surge of excitement, anxiety, melancholy that Tchaikovsky pours into the melodies of the score.

Playing to the human sentiments, the actions and behaviour of each and every one of the characters touches on the essence of their nature in a way that, for example, Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw did not in their Met production when the inner truth of the work was betrayed for the sake of stage drama. The casting helps here, the Komische's production benefitting from a relatively young cast who prove to be quite capable of the dramatic and the singing challenges that the work presents. All of them are tested in passages, but the lyrical beauty of the singing and what it reveals about the characters is handled wonderfully. The Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian in particular is rivetting as Tatjana, her singing and the emotional force behind it impressive; Günter Papendell is a less brusque and a softer Onegin than you usually find, but it works well with the reading here.

There are no major deviations in this production away from the familiar trajectory of the plot and characterisation, but Kosky introduces little revealing touches that present an alternative or more ambiguous way of looking at the situation. Here, for example, you can feel some sympathy for Onegin, not disdain for his arrogance and aloofness. More so than Tatyana, he's the one who comes across as naive in believing he knows it all when he rejects her written declaration of love. Even Tatyana, in their final scene together, recognises that Onegin behaved honourably towards her and didn't take advantage of a young vulnerable country girl. The handling of the duel is also important and Kosky's choice to keep it off-stage works well. Onegin's horror for what has occurred is directed straight afterwards towards Tatyana who has turns up on the scene, making the kind of impact that is necessary for what follows.

What follows of course isn't just a matter of role-reversal. The past still has a hold over Tatyana, who is not indifferent to Onegin, but time has separated them in a way that is impossible to recover. Kosky's production and the direction of the performances captures this with all the ambiguity of feeling that the desperate struggle of the final scene requires. Most productions at the Komische are in German language, I believe, but the decision to keep Yevgeniy Onegin in Russian (even Monsieur Triquet's song is in Russian, which I think is the first time I've heard it sung in anything but French) is an essential element in keeping the whole production as authentic as possible. The fine performance of the orchestra under the Henrik Nánási is another vital component that the Komische seem to get perfectly right, with the chorus also meeting every expectation.

Links: Opera Platform, Komische Oper