Thursday 30 June 2016

Donizetti - Poliuto (Glyndebourne, 2015)

Gaetano Donizetti - Poliuto

Glyndebourne, 2015

Enrique Mazzola, Mariame Clément, Michael Fabiano, Ana María Martínez, Igor Golovatenko, Matthew Rose, Timothy Robinson, Emanuele D’Aguanno

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Donizetti's rarely performed Poliuto takes place in ancient times, in Armenia in 259 AD, but Mariame Clément's production establishes the context and what is at stake immediately in the first scene, without having to explain the background. In a more modern setting a group of Christians who could be any oppressed group of people are skulking around trying to hide their activities from the watchful authorities. One, scarred on his chest, shows that they are prepared to suffer for their beliefs, even to martyrdom, which would be the case if they were caught.

The setting and the tone is established in a manner that is admirably concise and direct for a work that is lean and to the point also. A few subsequent scenes build on this. Nearco, the leader of the Christian 'cult' prohibited by the law on pain of death, wields a blade and seems to initiate a baptism of blood with a new convert, Poliuto. Adding to the tension at this early stage with some typically operatic romantic complications, Poliuto confesses to Nearco that his nervousness is not entirely due to taking part in a forbidden ritual, but that he's also concerned that his wife might be unfaithful.

Although the situations are familiar and conventional, Poliuto is not the familiar Donizetti of racing rhythms and flowing bel canto melodies. The tone from the outset is more sombre, or at least played as such here, the music more closely aligned and matched to the subject with all the variety of situations that this entails. There seems to be justification for this, the conductor Enrique Mazzola bringing out the delicacy of the arrangements in the beauty of the melodic line, but also finding the dramatic undercurrents within it that connect and bring about sharp changes of tone.

It's the kind of flow that should enable Paolina, Poliuto's wife, to move away from dark suspicions about her husband's involvement with this dangerous sect to accepting the message of love they preach in the aria 'Di quai soave lagrime'. The tone switches immediately again with the news that the Roman general Severo has not been killed in battle as she believed. Severo is indeed Paolina's lover, or was previously before she married Poliuto. Her emotions then are mixed and conflicted, relief and joy that the man she once loved has not died turning quickly to concern about facing up to those feelings.

Donizetti similarly runs through the emotional gamut as it affects Severo, returning in glory to a triumphal chorus (that anticipates the one in Verdi's Aida) and then stepping outside it to consider his own feelings at this moment. The handling of these mixed and conflicted sensations is masterful, but the opera of course is devised to incorporate such a wide range of dramatic colour, one that would be developed further in the grand opéra tradition when Poliuto, after being rejected by Naples for depicting religious martyrdom on the stage, was rewritten and expanded as Les Martyrs for Paris.

It's not a bad idea then to play down the excesses of the melodrama in the staging, and Mariame Clément keeps the Glyndebourne production uncluttered and uncomplicated. Tall, stone pillars move to hide and conceal, as well as giving a sense of cold, immovable determination that could be applied to each of the conflicting forces and beliefs within the work. A few necessary props are used and there are some projections; a forest, clouds crossing over and closing down moods, even opening out to show, for example a processional cavalcade of official cars marking Severo's return.

The settings and projections are mostly well-judged, complementing the music as well as the manner in which Donizetti - in his usual fashion - tightens the screws, darkening the mood and quickening the pace. If occasionally tensions seem to be slightly released, it's only to provide enough slack to ramp them up even further, ending each of the acts with rousing finales and culminating in a position where the eventual martyrdom becomes as agonising as it is inevitable. The direction keeps all of this under control without unnecessary overemphasis, or at least thankfully with nothing that matches or surpasses having the Romans dressed in pseudo-Nazi uniforms.

That feels like something of a misstep, and I'm not sure the analogy is a helpful one, but it isn't taken much further than that. It's not that the work can't support such interpretation. The use of religion as a tool to control the masses and satisfy their bloodlust in order to further political interests is touched upon here in the libretto, but it's not developed any further than this. Despite some attempt at modernisation and universal application, the martyrdom of its adherents at the conclusion ensures that the Christian sacrificial outlook dominates and scarcely leaves room for any other interpretation. Donizetti's writing here is powerful enough that you can even hear strains of Violetta's lament 'Ah! Gran Dio! morir si giovane' from La Traviata at the conclusion. Verdi evidently learned much from this work.

The strength of Poliuto's musical and dramatic content and the force that it asserts is backed up by a strong cast of singers. Michael Fabiano - seen at Glyndebourne last year as Alfredo in La Traviata - is particularly good as Poliuto, the American demonstrating a robust tenor voice that is also capable of finer expression. Ana María Martínez is a little bit stretched on occasion by the high note demands of Paolina, but handles a challenging role well. The baritone role of Severo could probably use a little more depth and gravity, but it's sung with a lyrical character by Igor Golovatenko that emphasises the romantic nature of the role a little more. Matthew Rose however puts plenty of weight and gravity behind Callistene the High Priest to balance the range and tone of voices in the work, as does Emanuele D’Aguanno's Nearco for the tenor voice.

The accompanying documentation on the Blu-ray disc and in the booklet give more detail on the work and its presentation at Glyndebourne. There's a short interview with Mariame Clément in the booklet and a longer filmed interview where she talks about the political and personal drama in Poliuto and the inspiration for the production design. It's clear that the decisions for presentation of this work were all based around making an unfamiliar work easy to follow as well as remaining faithful to its intent. Enrique Mazzola also gives his perspective on this in a behind the scenes feature leading up to the premiere. The booklet also contains a synopsis and a fascinating essay by Roger Parker on the genesis and composition of Poliuto as well as its part in Donizetti's flirtation with French opera.

The presentation on the Blu-ray disc itself is of the usual high standard, the transfer coping well with the dark on-stage lighting and colouration. High Definition uncompressed LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 surround tracks are included. The surround track sounding a little more echoing, while the stereo track is a little more direct and clear. There is a wonderful depth and roundness of tone that allows scenes such as the Act II finale to come across with tremendous impact. Subtitles are in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Glyndebourne

Tuesday 28 June 2016

Handel - Saul (Glyndebourne, 2015)

George Frideric Handel - Saul

Glyndebourne, 2015

Ivor Bolton, Barrie Kosky, Christopher Purves, Iestyn Davies, Paul Appleby, Lucy Crowe, Sophie Bevan, Benjamin Hulett, John Graham-Hall

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Very much old fashioned as they might be as a form of music, Handel's oratorios have proven to still have tremendous vitality in modern performances. More informed use of specialised period instruments in the hands of skilled musicians helps and some fine singers can bring the wonder of the music to life, but the works benefit just as much from efforts to make them visually appealing as stage works. The nature of the Biblical origins of those stories and the format Handel developed in the oratorio present some difficulties on that front, but Glyndebourne's acclaimed 2015 production of Saul is a perfect example of what can be done with an imaginative director on board.

As far as the musical performance of the work goes, there's little cause for concern. The composer's first English oratorio Saul has a tremendous character of its own, Handel by-passing the limitations that the opera format had placed on him by keeping arias short and free from repetition or da capo, using a larger scale orchestration than previously and introducing new instrumental colour, punctuating the work with short instrumental "Symphony" passages and high-impact choruses. Even if it wasn't written to be performed like an opera, there's a lot of dramatic colour in Saul and Ivor Bolton conducts the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment with all the necessary dynamic, capturing the sheer exuberance of the heightened passions while at the same time retaining the beauty and subtlety of more noble qualities expressed in the work.

Director Barrie Kosky's approach to the staging is a little less straightforward. The Australian director, who is also the Intendant at the Komische Oper in Berlin, operates in a style that is very much his own. A distinct, individual approach however works well in translating and putting across all the colour of Baroque opera for a modern audience who might otherwise find its structure and conventions dry, unappealing and unapproachable. Kosky's productions for Rameau and Monteverdi consequently can divide opinion, since they are unlikely to meet any preconceived ideas you might have for how those works should be staged. There's not much dramatic action in opera seria or in an oratorio like Saul, so an imaginative response is precisely what is required here.

Coming from the Biblical story of the Book of Samuel, the story of David and Saul is a familiar one, but not one that you would immediately consider lending itself to great music theatre, much less a high concept reinterpretation of it. Handel, with his librettist Charles Jennens however really give the story a colourful setting, with a particularly explosive opening and a magnificent finale. Barrie Kosky's approach seems to be simply to put those musical flourishes into visual terms, but not entirely in abstraction, retaining as much as possible of the essence of the emotional sentiments and the dramatic situation that provokes them in order for it all to remain meaningful.

You might think never think of the opening of Saul in the context of a huge feast on a banquet table before a colourfully dressed group of Israelites in 18th century costume, but there's no question that Kosky's vision for this setting entirely gets across the essence of Handel's music. It even invites you to listen to the music more closely to hear how the sentiments of joy are mixed with horror and fear at the sight of the decapitated head of Goliath lying gruesomely before them. Katrin Lea Tag's set designs don't elaborate on that a great deal over the three acts, remaining simple and expressive, but Kosky's finds other extravagant, surprising and grotesque ways of putting the dynamic across, using dance, movement, shouted interjections and shock imagery.

All of this is justified by the exuberance and extravagance that is found in Handel's composition itself - or if not justified, it at least abiding by the spirit of work. It might not appear to follow the stage directions of the libretto to the letter (although strictly there are no real stage directions to be followed in an oratorio), it still manages to adhere to the essential themes and intent of the work. Joyous celebration at the start of Saul is followed by anger, jealousy and love complications and ends in tragedy, mourning and reflection, but Handel no longer has to compartmentalise these sentiments according to old opera seria rules in the musical construction he develops for his oratorio.

That richness is reflected in the musical interpretation at Glyndebourne under Ivor Bolton, and it certainly finds an equivalent visual representation under Kosky's direction, but it's also matched on a performance level by the singing. Handel's music is a driving force in itself, but the dramatic emphasis that it requires often comes from the strength of individual performances. Unquestionably, it's Saul who is the centre of all the dramatic conflict in this oratorio, and it could hardly have a more driven Saul than the interpretation given here by Christopher Purves. Under Kosky's direction he's given full rein here to delve deep into his character's torment, and Purves expresses that fully in the beauty and nuance of the voice as well as in the very physical performance.

Saul then provides a solid core of anger, jealousy and hatred that inspires differing reactions and responses from all the other characters. Despite being charged with arranging for the death of David, Jonathan's inner compassion and his friendship with David overrides any hatred and jealousy that Saul tries to sow between them. David's response to Saul's actions are likewise more reflective and compassionate, and both men's character finds perfect expression in the performances of Iestyn Davies's lyrical countertenor David and Paul Appleby's noble Jonathan. The roles of Saul's daughters Michal and Merab are less well established, but the more sympathetic Michal comes across better in Sophie Bevan's performance, her undisguised glee at Saul's change of heart over her love for David adding another level of tone and amusement that fits in well with the intentions of the production. The gorgeous chorus writing that also plays such an important part in the overall tone of the work is superbly handed by The Glyndebourne Chorus.

Links: Glyndebourne

Sunday 19 June 2016

Strauss - Salome (Genoa, 2016)

Richard Strauss - Salome

Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa - 2016

Fabio Luisi, Rosetta Cucchi, Lise Lindstrom, Jane Henschel, Herwig Pecoraro, Mark Delavan, Patrick Vogel, Marina Ogii, Marcello Nardis, Alessandro Fantoni, Naoyuki Okada, Jason Kim, Alessandro Busi, Frano Lufi, Manuel Pierattelli, Roberto Maietta, Luca Gallo, Alessandro Busi, Beate Vollack

Teatro Carlo Felice Live Streaming - 25 May 2016

Genoa's Teatro Carlo Felice production of Salome doesn't appear to offer any specific interpretation or modernisation of the work. If it seems to take a more generic approach that never strays far from the expected lines, it nonetheless captures the destructive and almost self-defeating essence of what is vital about Strauss's first great operatic masterpiece.

The source and the context of the creation of Strauss's version of Salome are highly relevant in assessing its importance, its greatness, its legacy, as in some respects it's emblematic of a time of great change in music and in modernist thinking. Strauss had seen Wilde's play in a fairly faithful German-language translation by Hedwig Lachmann and the play's ideas and sensibility clearly resonate with what was happening in turn of the century Vienna. The impact that the work made on him provided Strauss with a challenge to replicate it within the world of music.

As a source, and for what the work says, Oscar Wilde's scandalous play is far more important than the original Biblical tale. All Wilde's plays - even the drawing room comedies like 'An Ideal Husband' and 'The Importance of Being Earnest' - are subversive in one way or another, gently mocking Victorian mores and attitudes. 'Salome' however is a little more daring. Written in French, Wilde knew that the play would never be performed in England due to blasphemy laws that prevented Biblical characters appearing on the stage, and it freed him creatively to expand on the florid poetry that would twist the exotic Biblical setting into a taboo-breaking tale of forbidden lust and death. 

In some respects then, at a level above the purely textual, 'Salome' is about destroying conventional views; quite literally delving into the cistern of corruption that lies beneath the comfortable facade of respectable society. It's easy now to see what attracted Strauss to the challenge of putting this transgressive text to a new and more rigorous form of music. This was the kind of subject that would take the Liebestod philosophy of Strauss's idol Wagner one stage further in musical terms, break with convention and upset a few people. There wasn't much point in doing anything else and, up to that point, there would be nothing that pushed musical boundaries further than Salome.

So perfectly interlocked is the music with the text, the entire piece one continuous flow of intense poetry, that Salome really is a work that speaks for itself. In practical terms the set needs to be generally all-purpose for the locations of the continuous one-act opera and, like Strauss's subsequent opera Elektra, it needs to be focussed on establishing mood. The Carlo Felice production in Genoa takes a fairly generic approach then that is vaguely Biblical in look and feel, but perhaps actually looks a little more Greek tragedy. In fact, I'm sure they could use the same set just as effectively for Elektra with minimal changes, but there is at least a commonality between the treatment of the subjects in these two one-act Strauss tone-poem operas.

Salome, like Elektra, is about a corrupt or degenerate family (a nation, a way of life) that is being eaten up by its own descent into self-destruction. The facade of respectability is being stripped away to reveal decadence and dark lusts, and much of this is already there in the music and the poetry of the libretto. Tiziano Santi's sets provide a fairly conventional response to this, with a dark pit in the centre of the stage from which Jochanaan's warnings of the coming of a new way emanate. Salome dangerously flirts around this pit, the product of a corrupt union, trying to bend the promise of Jochanaan's visions to her own twisted will. Aside from the requirements of the stage direction and lighting to meet the drama, the only significant change to the set is to show the downfall of a royal line in the fracturing of the surrounding marble framework of the palace.

Fabio Luisi keeps a tight rein on proceedings from the orchestra pit, but like Rosetta Cucchi's direction, it doesn't really seem to plumb the dark depths of the work, although admittedly in a work as intense as this, that's difficult to judge from a live internet stream rather than from inside the theatre. Lise Lindstrom has that precise Turandot voice that matches Salome's requirements of meeting Wagnerian force with Puccinian high lyricism. The dynamic between her fluctuating states of reverie and fury isn't perhaps quite as pronounced as it might be but she has the voice and all the dangerous allure for this role. Herwig Pecoraro and Jane Henschel show their suitability and experience in the roles of Herod and Herodias. Mark Delavan is a fabulous deeply intoned Jochanaan.

Links: Teatro Carlo Felice Streaming

Monday 6 June 2016

Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Glyndebourne, 2015)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Glyndebourne, 2015

Robin Ticciati, David McVicar, Sally Matthews, Edgaras Montvidas, Tobias Kehrer, Brenden Gunnell, Franck Saurel, Mari Eriksmoen, Jonas Cradock

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

In a radical new approach to directing opera, David McVicar has moved more towards the idea of respecting the original period and libretto in order to get as close as possible to the composer's intentions. It's radical only in that such fidelity to the source is not currently fashionable in opera productions, but McVicar's contention would be that putting the work above the director's ego is surely paramount. While McVicar may have been a little more flexible with period detail in other opera productions in the past, he has however always seemed to be less inclined to mess about with the original intentions of Mozart operas and you can't really argue with the reasoning behind that that decision.

The great Mozart operas need no updating to assist a modern audience in grasping the universality and humanism that lies within them. By the same token their qualities ensure that they can equally withstand a modern interpretation, but what matters is that the director remains faithful to the meaning and intent of the works, and in that respect 'traditional' works just as well as 'revised'. Whether the same qualities can be found in an old-fashioned Singspiel comedy like Die Entführung aus dem Serail however is more questionable, as is the decision to play it straight with period detail and literalism. It works, of course - it's still Mozart - but whether it presents the work in its best light for a modern audience is debatable.

Evidently it's not possible to stage a work such as this as it was originally intended. The world is a different place, people behave a little differently and they have different ideas of what humour can be derived from western women being held captive in a barbaric Turkish harem. Die Entführung aus dem Serail however is no inconsequential lightweight comedy and Mozart still manages to find the most noble human sentiments in even the most unlikely places and brings it out beautifully in his music. All McVicar's production seeks to do is make it all seem a little more realistic and credible without damaging the integrity of the work.

Or indeed the humour. Realistic and credible is not really essential for a comedy opera and it can in fact be a mistake to take it too seriously. Christof Loy has already established that when you include all or most of the spoken dialogue, you have a very different Die Entführung aus dem Serail from the general perception of the work. McVicar's direction, also retaining most of the spoken text, allows the humour to work alongside this, and undoubtedly that's an important aspect that contributes to the wider human element of the work.

I'm not sure though that there's much to be gained from asking Vicki Mortimer to go into such meticulous detail in researching and building the elaborate sets for this Glyndebourne production. McVicar tweaks the public and private locations from scene to scene to make it more realistic - even if there is still no sense whatsoever of it being in a seraglio - and Mortimer and the crew oblige with impressive stage-craft. For the amount of effort put into this however, it doesn't seem to bring a corresponding increase in value or depth. If however all you gain is a sense of order and elegance as well as a certain delicacy of touch, well then that suits Mozart, and McVicar, as he often does, judges the tone perfectly and matches it on the stage impressively.

Looking like something of a sister production for McVicar's 2013 Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg however, it's a sign of the safer and more traditional side adopted in recent years by Glyndebourne. There are still some daring reworkings in each year's programme, but not here and not with Mozart - at least not since the 2010 'La Dolce Vita' version of Don Giovanni. Die Entführung aus dem Serail has proven its worth in the Mozart operatic canon over the years and it deserves a serious treatment. It gets that here with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Robin Ticciati, the period orchestra arrangement enlivening the work with a real kick. There's much to enjoy in the treatment then, just not much that is imaginative or adventurous.

Unfortunately, while the cast is impressive and the singers are all very capable, it's not good enough overall to give the production a bit more of a lift or an edge. Sally Matthews has a powerful range and has impressed many times on the Glyndebourne stage, but her timbre is a little harsh for Mozart. McVicar clearly intends to depict Konstanze as a woman with a little more fire and grit, and you do get a realistic sense of the seriousness of her predicament, but the lyricism and the romantic sensibility isn't there. Her voice seems warmer in the second and third acts, but without a sufficient connection with Edgaras Montvidas' Belmonte, it never really comes together the way you might like.

Montvidas is fine and if he similarly doesn't have the beautiful soaring tone of a typical Mozart tenor or a prototype Tamino he nonetheless gives a good performance as Belmonte. It just doesn't particularly stand out. For Die Entführung to work well however, you really need the comic roles to be well cast, and there at least the singing matched the tone being strived for with Brenden Gunnell a lively and desperate Pedrillo - a role that has Papageno-like potential for stealing the show in this opera - and with Tobias Kehrer excelling as his adversary Osmin. Mari Eriksmoen's voice wasn't always the strongest, but her Blonde was played well.

What continues to be a remarkable discovery however, fully justifying the decision to include as much of the spoken dialogue as possible, is just how important and significant the non-singing role of Pasha Selim is to the whole tone and purpose of the opera. It's one that proves that drama is the beating heart of opera and one that Mozart wasn't afraid to entrust to an actor rather than a singer. Franck Saurel plays the role rather well here, showing the kind of dynamic and emotional investment that Selim brings to the work, deepening the serious questions raised as well as contrasting with and extending the comedy. Proving McVicar's point, given the right environment and fidelity to the intent of Mozart's music and drama, Die Entführung aus dem Serail speaks for itself.

The quality of the HD transfer on Blu-ray is exceptionally good, not least with the detail that can be heard in the DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 and the LPCM Stereo mixes. The BD includes a feature that looks into how the visual look of the production was developed. There's more on this in the booklet, where there is an interview with the set designer Vicki Mortimer. The booklet also contains an essay by Cori Ellison and a synopsis for the opera.

Links: Glyndebourne