Sunday 31 July 2016

Bellini - I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Buxton Festival, 2016)

Vincenzo Bellini - I Capuleti e i Montecchi

Buxton Festival 2016

Justin Doyle, Harry Fehr, Luis Gomes, Stephanie Marshall, Sarah-Jane Brandon, Jonathan Best, Julian Tovey

Buxton Festival - 20 July 2016

Opera, if you want to try to pin it down to a popular definition, is an artificial narrative construct given a heightened reality through music and singing. The archetypes that would best fit this definition in the consciousness of the general public are those that go for the heightened emotional jugular - La Traviata, La Bohème - but it's practically the entire raison d'être for the bel canto style of opera. Bellini's work evidently fits the bill, and while Norma and I Puritani might be better known works, it's I Capuleti e i Montecchi that probably best meets the definition of the popular archetype.

Shakespeare would have a lot to do with turning the historical struggle between the political factions of the Guelph and Ghibelline into the two rival households of the Capuleti and Montecchi into what has become the archetype or by-word for the romantic tragedy in Romeo and Juliet, even though Bellini doesn't use Shakespeare as his primary source for I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Just like Shakespeare however, the story gives Bellini everything he needs to make this an operatic drama of the highest order.

Harry Fehr's production of I Capuleti e i Montecchi for the 2016 Buxton Festival would seem to be reaching for all those grand archetypal moments and images that everyone can relate to in Shakespeare's version and in Bellini's operatic interpretation. You have to really, as expecting realism or naturalism in a bel canto opera isn't going to get you anywhere. You do however need to find a balance that creates real insurmountable obstacles that only lifts the love story of Romeo (from the Montecchi family) and Giulietta (from the rival Capuleti family) to a higher romantic reality.

Several recent productions have reached for strong imagery to match those heightened sentiments. Arnaud Bernard brought a grand tableaux to life in a museum in his La Fenice production, and Christof Loy drew on imagery from the Godfather for a successful production in Zurich. Buxton also go for a mix of iconic imagery that strives to match the heightened passions of Bellini's writing, depicting the Capuleti as a military unit in army uniforms and the Montecchi in the dark dress of undercover operatives or even terrorists. It's not so much to make any contemporary allusion as much as find imagery that strikes a note of deep conflict and danger.

Yannis Thavoris's set design don't present a lot of variety to the scenes, and there's precious little traditional Verona here, but the set does capture a sense of the external and the internal reality in a clever way. The Capuleti compound is surrounded by a secure fence topped with barbed-wire that at the same serves as the walls of the bed chamber where Giulietta is kept, the two blending into one. It works on a functional level too, the world outside the wire cage masked by black curtains into which figures emerge and dissolve. It could be a barrier that is meant to protect from threats from the hated Montecchi, but it could just as easily be there to keep Giulietta locked inside.

As seemingly insurmountable as this high fence and the armed protection ought to appear, it's still not enough to keep out Romeo, whose love for Giulietta is such that no barrier will stand in his way. Despite having unintentionally killed Giulietta's brother in a dispute, Romeo is able to come and go much as he pleases in this opera, entering the compound in disguise, as a 'goodwill ambassador' and simply just as the necessity of the plot demands. Such contrivances are fine if there is at least an element of danger present in his incursions, and all the military regalia and security measures give that appearance.

The set, costume design and direction all go some way to establishing the necessary tone for the artificiality of the narrative, but it's the music and singing that really carry the full extent of the heightened emotional reality in I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Justin Doyle's musical direction led the Northern Chamber Orchestra through the rattling dramatic twists and turns, while the dramatic and singing performances of the cast were all terrific. It would serve no useful purpose to compare anyone to Joyce DiDonato in the role of Romeo - that's a whole different order of performance - but Stephanie Marshall carried the mezzo-soprano trouser-role well on her own terms. She hit all the necessary points, matching the raised tensions in the drama, and in a production where there were many stand-offs with pointed guns, that was very dramatic indeed.

Sarah-Jane Brandon was also great as Giulietta, probably the stand-out performance of the evening really. The beautiful but drama-stalling love duets in this opera would have been much duller without her intensity. There were no weak points anywhere in this cast however, with Luis Gomes a bright and fervent Tebaldo and Jonathan Best an imposing and even dangerous presence as Capellio, Giulietta's protective father. Unlike Shakespeare's drama, where the families united in grief for the harm that their feud has wrought, I Capuleti e i Montecchi ends on a note of anger. As the culprit blamed for it all, Capellio got his just desserts in this production a bloody manner that matched the crashing finale that was fully in the spirit of this strong production.

Links: Buxton Festival

Friday 29 July 2016

Beethoven - Leonore (Buxton Festival, 2016)

Ludwig van Beethoven - Leonore

Buxton Festival 2016

Stephen Barlow, Stephen Medcalf, Kirstin Sharpin, David Danholt, Scott Wilde, Kristy Swift, Stuart Laing, Hrólfur Saemundsson, Jonathan Best

Buxton Festival - 19 July 2016

You can see the attraction in reviving the original abandoned version of Beethoven's only opera, even if the 1805 "first draft" has never received the popular acclaim accorded to the 1814 "finished article", Fidelio. There's the question of whether Leonore might not in actuality be closer to Beethoven's intentions before the censor and historical events caused him to rework it a number of times and introduce modifications that never fully satisfied the composer.

There's no question that Leonore works as a perfectly viable alternative version of Fidelio and there may indeed be a case for calling it purer, but I'm not sure anyone would go as far as Stephen Medcalf, the director of this production for the 2016 Buxton Festival, and claim that it has a better dramatic consistency. If anything, there is more of a feeling in Leonore of it being a case of Beethoven showing what he can do in the lyric medium. And given a good account - as Leonore is here in this production - what he can do is nothing short of phenomenal.

If the domestic and romantic frivolity of opéra comique concessions of the opening Act of Fidelio has always seemed at odds with the darker tone of the later acts, the stunning sequence of duets, trios, quartets all singing across one another in the opening sections is just dazzling. With the balance and range of the voices, particularly when they are sung as well as they are here, the act culminating of course with the famous "O welche Lust" chorus of the prisoners, all of it making the arrangement of this act as it stands in Leonore even more impressive.

Impressive but also meaningful. Somehow, whether it's the music, its playing or the stage direction, the purpose of Jaquino, Marzelline, Rocco and Fidelio's little domestic dramas becomes clear and its iterated in  "O welche Lust"; "Nur hier, nur hier ist Leben! Der Kerker eine Gruft" (Life is up here on the outside! The prison is a tomb). Beethoven presents a simple slice of life in Act I and as ordinary and commonplace as it might seem, the value of it and the beauty of how it is depicted in the musical arrangements shows us the nature of the very thing that is denied to those unjustly locked away and what it means to them.

So perhaps there is a stronger sense of dramatic consistency in Leonore than there is in Fidelio. It helps at least if the director has faith in this belief and is capable of putting it across in the stage direction and Stephen Medcalf does that. Getting across the idea of Leonore being a "purer" version of Beethoven's intent that comes from the heart is there with the composer himself present during the overture. It didn't seem strictly necessary or relevant to show Beethoven sitting writing the overture as it was playing, but by the latter half of the opera it becomes clearer. Florestan in the cage is Beethoven, the walls of the prison the walls of his room, himself a prisoner of his growing deafness, his passions for the Countess Josephine Deym, only finding expression and escape into the light of his music.

The personal passion and involvement of the composer with the content is important, but it's more than this else Leonore/Fidelio would not be the masterpiece it is considered today. It is of course, as the subtitle indicates, about "The Triumph of Marital Love", but it's also about more than just one couple overcoming adversity. The best idea in this production, even though it appears to be a comic touch, is for many of the other soldiers disrobe and be revealed as "Leonores", each of them fighting their own personal battle for freedom and justice. It strikes the right note at the extraordinary finale of this opera and is wholly appropriate for a heroic escape opera par excellence.

The conviction in the stage production was matched by the performances. Attempting to establish a connection between the composer and the subject, the overture somewhat lacked pace and dramatic drive, although its purpose would later become clearer. Elsewhere however, Beethoven's immaculately precise composition and the complexity of this 'virtuoso' version of his only opera was brought out beautifully and majestically in the Stephen Barlow's conducting of the Northern Chamber Orchestra. It hit all the musical high points as well as the dramatic points.

The singing was overall excellent. Scott Wilde's assured Rocco, Kristy Swift's bright Marzelline and David Danholt's anguished Florestan particularly stood out, demonstrating perfectly the kind of Mozartian lyricism that is the ideal voice for these roles. Leonore however is another matter, a much more challenging role that requires Wagnerian stamina, range and precision and it's even more complex in this version. It was then sometimes a little beyond the valiant efforts of Kirstin Sharpin who often struggled to stay on note, and in this unforgiving opera any minor imprecision was made very apparent. It also shows however just how brilliantly constructed Leonore is, and Buxton also make a strong case for the dramatic integrity of the work if not necessarily its superiority over Fidelio.

Links: Buxton Festival

Thursday 21 July 2016

Adwan - Kalîla wa Dimna (Aix-en-Provence, 2016)

Moneim Adwan - Kalîla wa Dimna

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2016

Zied Zouari, Olivier Letellier, Ranine Chaar, Moneim Adwan, Mohamed Jebali, Reem Talhami, Jean Chahid

ARTE Concert - 10th July 2016

It's great that the Aix-en-Provence festival seeks every year to extend the reach of opera not only through challenging new looks at familiar works, but in their efforts to ensure that the performances are broadcast on radio and TV throughout the world. What is just as important is that they also commission the writing of new opera and works for younger audiences, and not always in a style that you would recognise as belonging to the musical language of contemporary music and opera, but also works that derive from folk and the traditional music of other cultures.

That involves a certain amount of risk taking and the results might not always meet expectations. Although last year Ana Sokolović's Svadba was worthy and generally well-received, personally I found the subject of the preparations for a young girl's wedding and its treatment using no instruments but just women's voices to be lacking in depth and not best suited to the operatic medium. Moneim Adwan's Kalîla wa Dimna likewise has an unconventional approach to its musical style and instrumentation - at least in terms of what we are used to accepting as opera - but it is much more successful in its presentation and impact.

Partly that's because the original story of Kalîla wa Dimna has a strong pedigree; an almost two thousand year history as one of the most famous of Arabian fables. It's the simplicity and the purity of the storytelling that it is important to get across, the nature of the telling itself as important as the message it has for us, and the operatic medium has all the necessary tools to do this better than most. Palestinian composer Moneim Adwan's Kalîla wa Dimna manages to achieve this perfectly through a small arrangement of instruments that are capable of tremendous depth of expression in their interaction, and through the extraordinary and not typically operatic use of the singing voice.

Dimna is an ordinary man, one of many courtiers, but he has dreams of making an impression and becoming a confidante of the king - a butterfly who wants to be an eagle, as the narrator, his sister Kalîla describes him. And the king does have worries. Cut off from the outside world by a protective mother, the king confides to Dimna his fears of the people rebelling, pointing to what he sees as threats in the words of the writing of the charismatic poet Chatraba. When Dimna introduces him to the poet, the king's eyes are opened to the troubles of the world and his people. Unhappy with being replaced in the king's confidence however, Dimna convinces the king that Chatraba is weaving magic in his words to suggest that it is their ruler is to blame for their troubles.

The moral of the story is made clear using animals (the jackal is one of the main predators evoked here) that are traditional to the story's telling, but the narrator also brings in poetic metaphors to warn of the dangers of the outcome of what transpires - "If you burn a vine, a thousand flowers will bloom in its place" or "If you kill a poet, he will be reborn in a thousand songs". The poet Chatraba also evokes the power of words and song, and through them the idea of freedom of expression - "Let's raise our voice so that it can carry our ideas far", he says, but the king fears that "Cries of anger always begin from a song".

It's the kind of idea and language that works well in opera if it can be matched to a correspondingly powerful use of music and the music composed by Moneim Adwan is very persuasive. Using a small group of five musicians playing in the Arabic form rather than the traditional western style, this is nonetheless wholly operatic in treatment and in expression. The string instruments include an Arabian qanun which gives an exotic edge to what mainly feels like continuo, but the interaction with violin, cello and percussion give it a more expressive dimension. A clarinet provides a more lyrical layer on top of the rhythms, but the other instruments are highlighted and provide solo accompaniment for additional emotional expression.

When it comes to emotional expression, the strength of Kalîla wa Dimna lies in its appropriate and remarkable use of the singing voice. Kalîla's short narrated interludes are in French, but elsewhere nearly all of the singing is in the traditional Arabic folk style of delivery. It's a style of singing that is every bit effective in its colour and range as the more traditional operatic style. It has a inherent lyricism and storytelling character of its own, but it is also capable of heightening individual sentiments in declamation, as well as finding dramatic drive and harmony in exchanges between characters that complement and weave together.

Directed by Olivier Letellier, the staging at Aix-en-Provence is a marvel of directness and simplicity, one that is totally in line with the nature and expression of the work itself. All the singing performances are impressive, particularly from the composer Moneim Adwan who sings the role of Dimna himself, the singing style allowing for individual expression and dramatic nuance. The same can be said of the musicianship from the small ensemble under the direction of violinist Zied Zouari, which carries the intent of the story and at the same time its sense of wonder. Kalîla wa Dimna might not be opera in the familiar sense, but it is opera in the purest sense.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert

Monday 18 July 2016

Mozart - Così fan tutte (Aix-en-Provence, 2016)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Così fan tutte

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2016

Louis Langrée, Christophe Honoré, Lenneke Ruiten, Kate Lindsey, Sandrine Piau, Joel Prieto, Nahuel di Pierro, Rod Gilfry

ARTE Concert - 8th July 2016

Categorised as an opera buffa and based on a rather frivolous concept, there is unquestionably a darker side to the morals and attitudes expressed Mozart's Così fan tutte and you don't necessarily need to view from an 'enlightened' modern perspective to see it that way. It's true that most recent productions have tended to put the emphasis on the twisted nature of the game play and the sexual politics of Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto, but few go as far as Christophe Honoré in this new production for the 2016 Aix-en-Provence festival.

Surprisingly a very popular work with film directors at Aix (Patrice Chereau and Abbas Kiarostami have both done productions of this opera for the festival in the past), the dark ambiguities of Così fan tutte and its 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' machinations have also been explored by Michael Haneke for the Teatro Real in Madrid. French filmmaker Christophe Honoré's take on the subject is a distinctive one, where the setting of Ethiopia in 1930 under the control of Mussolini and the actions of the Gugliemo and Ferrando as Fascist soldiers immediately suggests a turn not only towards a dark treatment but a particularly unpleasant one.

Even as the overture is played out, we see Gugliemo and Ferrando sexually harass and abuse the native Ethiopian women. It's a matter of power and conquest and Honoré clearly intends to draw a parallel between the actions and attitudes of racist soldiers with men's attitudes towards women as they are viewed in Così fan tutte. The men's friend Don Alfonso - who might be an official from the administrative or diplomatic corps in the country - tells them not to be fooled by airs of sophistication and pretence of purity in the white women from their own race. He's convinced that at heart, their own girlfriends, the sisters Flordiligi and Dorabella, are no better than the black native women that they casually frequent and assault.

Well, to all appearances they are not regarded or treated much differently, although both men of course would deny it. They certainly don't accept Don Alfonso's proposition that the women would ever let themselves be seduced by inferior black men and are prepared to bet on it. Pretending to be called off to the front with the army, Gugliemo and Ferrando return disguised as black foreigners to put Flordiligi and Dorabella to the test. Their maid Despina, who is in on the game and has a thing for the native men herself, tells the women that they are well off without their lovers, who are probably unfaithful to them with the native women (and how!), so they should take advantage of the two striking dark-skinned gentlemen who have just appeared declaring undying love for them.

As much of a false equivalence as it might seem to compare the conquest and rape of the native population of an African colony with the power that men exercise over women, and do it moreover in the context of a comic opera by Mozart, this is indeed the crux of the director's argument in relation to the work. Does it stand up to scrutiny? Well, it sounds like a tough sell, but it's no harder to swallow than Mozart and Da Ponte's play on male and female relationships, and in practice it proves to be much more convincing than the awkward contrivances of the comic plot. If you've ever felt any uneasiness at the attitudes expressed in Così fan tutte, well, this production only amplifies that feeling. Surprisingly however, not only is Mozart and Da Ponte's work able to sustain this extreme interpretation, but it actually thrives with a bit of added realism.

Christophe Honoré ensures that every element of the production is geared towards making it real and keeping it in touch with the underlying premise of the opera. Alban Ho Van's sets depicting the exterior and interior of an army garrison in an Ethiopian town are strikingly realistic, enhanced by the fine use of lighting. Directed for the screen it even looks cinematic with the camera angles used and a widescreen CinemaScope presentation. The setting is only as good and as credible as the action that takes place within it and Honoré's direction is outstanding. The singing isn't perhaps as virtuosic as you might expect, sounding slightly underpowered in pretty much every role, but the characterisation and acting performances are thoroughly convincing, and even a little troubling.

Honoré is a great film director, and his experience in working with actors shows and really pays off as far as the ambitions of this production are concerned. With an earthy feel to the period instruments of the Freiburger Barockorchester under the direction of Louis Langrée and committed singing performances, this is a Così full of heat, passion and wild eroticism and certainly the most convincing production I have ever seen for this particular Mozart opera. As horrendous and abusive as the treatment often is, the director nevertheless brings much more to Così fan tutte than just a subversive little twist that sets out to shock. Rather it supports and emphasises the importance of Mozart and Da Ponte's themes by pushing them to their limits and seeing how well they stand up.

Surprisingly, for all Così fan tutte's reputation as a comedy, it copes well with the added weight of Christophe Honoré's direction and it even succeeds in revealing other dimensions. It shows the depth of passion and a revelling in the pleasures of the flesh that Mozart and Da Ponte could only suggest, but it also shows the abuse that be inflicted when these forces are misused or misplaced, and that a happy ending is not guaranteed. The important message it has for us however is that we are all free to love whoever we choose and that we are all equally empowered by love. Men and women, black or white, we're all the same - Così fan tutti.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert

Saturday 16 July 2016

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande (Aix-en-Provence, 2016)

Claude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2016

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Katie Mitchell, Stéphane Degout, Barbara Hannigan, Laurent Naouri, Franz Josef Selig, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Chloé Briot, Thomas Dear

Opera Platform - 7th July 2016

It should come as no surprise that Katie Mitchell and Martin Crimp's vision for Pelléas et Mélisande is far removed from any setting in antiquity, but it is also substantially different from the rather more common abstract dream-world setting of most contemporary productions. The cross-over between dreams and reality nevertheless plays an important part in this production for the 2016 Aix-en-Provence festival.

There are no towers then, no fountain, no sea, no caverns or large rocks, few of the symbolist features that might appear to be critical to Maurice Maeterlinck's original drama. Adherence to these ethereal and symbolic elements does however tend to leave interpretation open-ended, and that is something that director Katie Mitchell and dramatist Martin Crimp seem to want to avoid. They have a very specific reading of Pelléas et Mélisande and, knowing Katie Mitchell's work, that is unsurprisingly a feminist reading, but it's also a convincing one that accounts for the nature and the quality of the piece: Mélisande is a woman in an unhappy marriage.

The opening scene seems to be critical to the establishment of this reading and the world it is going to take place in. Mélisande wanders into an empty bedroom in her wedding dress looking confused. In a scene that seems to encapsulate the past, the present and the future, Mélisande is lost and is "rescued" by Golaud (even though he is lost himself). Her first fearful words to him, when he appears, are pertinent - "Ne me touchez pas, ne me touchez pas!". Thereafter she becomes a victim of forces beyond her ability to control, her sense of identity lost in an unhappy marriage where she becomes nothing more than a pawn, a plaything with no choice or volition of her own.

This description of Mélisande's nature can be heard in the floating impressionistic music that Debussy fits so remarkably to Maeterlinck's play and it's emphasised here in the dreamlike quality of the first scene. The bedroom also doubles as a forest, the undergrowth creeping up the walls as past, present and future all come together, creating a mental prison where Mélisande is psychologically abused and broken down. The impression of being treated like a doll is emphasised during the musical interludes, where Mélisande is attended on by maids in an adjoining room who drop and lift her stiff lifeless body, dressing and undressing her for the next scene.

Lizzie Clachan's sets for Katie Mitchell's usual multi-level, multi-room stage designs are exquisite and well-suited to a work that floats imperceptibly and often without logic between scenes and locations. The mechanics of the scene changes are impressively realised, the box rooms magically slipping into place in an ever changing configuration that matches the mood of the setting even if it never conforms to the work's regular established locations of caverns and towers. The "Blind Man's Well", for example, where Mélisande drops her ring into the pool, is a disused room with a drained swimming pool where branches of trees have broken through its windows.

Such scenes - Mélisande blindly following Pélleas into the room - capture everything about the closed-off, decaying world of Allemonde as an expression of Mélisande's marriage and mental state. Symbolism is everything in Maeterlinck, and the symbolism adopted by Mitchell does everything it ought to do, and that is mainly to unsettle, or at least show an unsettled view of the world from Mélisande's perspective. This goes as far as Mélisande looking on at a double of herself with a distorted or psycho-realistic view of how Golaud treats her. "Je suis malade ici" doesn't just mean that she is wistfully melancholic, here her true state of mind is made apparent.

Which also means that the familiar connecting narrative thread of Pelléas et Mélisande becomes increasingly difficult to follow as the opera progresses. Like many of Mitchell's productions with multi-level parallel scenes (Written on Skin, AlcinaLucia di Lammermoor), there is often more going on and made explicit than needs to be. This results in a lot of comings and goings, scene changes, action taking place in multiple windows at the same time and often with doubles in different timelines.

Martin Crimp's dramatic argument also becomes harder to fathom the longer it goes on, taking increasingly strange dreamlike twists further away from the familiar narrative. Not content with Mélisande being a helpless figure torn between the projected desires and fears of Pelléas and Golaud, Arkel too gets in on the action here in one disturbing scene, and even Yniold is ambiguously sexualised and abused. The stone that is too heavy for him/her to lift has a very definite meaning here beyond the more abstract symbolism it usually carries. It's all a bit Pinteresque.

Despite it all - and notwithstanding the suggestion of a cop-out implication that "it was all a dream" - Mélisande still remains enigmatic, her true desires unknown or ambiguous, which is really how it should be. It makes characterisation difficult, but Barbara Hannigan's fine singing and expression (or lack of expression where appropriate) makes that very interesting to consider. The singing elsewhere in this luxuriously cast production also accounts for it being haunting and full of hidden menace. Stéphane Degout is an experienced Pelléas (reportedly his last time singing the role) and Laurent Naouri a fine Golaud, but viewed from Mélisande's perspective it's hard to really grasp their true nature here. Esa-Pekka Salonen gives us a gorgeous reading of Debussy's wondrous score.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Opera Platform

Friday 15 July 2016

Handel - Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (Aix-en Provence, 2016)

George Frideric Handel - Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno

Festival d' Aix-en-Provence, 2016

Emmanuelle Haïm, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Sabine Devieilhe, Franco Fagioli, Sara Mingardo, Michael Spyres

ARTE Concert - 6th July 2016

Written by the young 22 year old composer in 1707, Handel's first oratorio, Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno ('The Triumph of Time and Disillusionment') is quite evidently an allegorical work. As such there can surely be no objection for a director like Krzysztof Warlikowski applying his usual (unusual) distinctive treatment in this production at Aix-en-Provence. Warlikowski's production succeeds on both those levels, and under the musical direction of Emmanuelle Haim, it's something of a musical delight as well.

The main purpose of a staging of such a work is surely to find the universal characteristics within the oratorio's contemplation of the struggle between the Beauty, Pleasure, Time and Disenchantment and present it in such a way that makes it meaningful to a modern audience. If you can dramatise a work that was never intended to be performed theatrically in a full staging, so much the better. Warlikowski makes his pitch perfectly clear, as he often does, through an opening short film.

Beauty has been indulging in rather too much Pleasure, popping pills in a nightclub, ending up looking rather the worse for wear on a trolley being wheeled through the corridors of a hospital's emergency unit. When she comes around, Beauty finds herself in a room that is a cross between a cinema and an operating theatre, a place of the mind evidently where - sprawled out, still looking somewhat wasted, mascara running and throwing up occasionally - she can contemplate the ravages of Time and the Disillusionment for the truth of what follows on from her devotion to Pleasure.

And really you need someone like Warlikowski directing a somewhat 'academic' work like this. There's nothing academic about Handel's music of course - Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno has many pieces that would later feature in some of the composer's greatest works, and the oratorio itself would be revised a number of times - but its sober reflections on mortality in the dry oratorio format don't necessarily lend themselves to great stage drama. There's is however never a dull moment here. Warlikowski brings it to life, and it is full of life, finding the human sentiments that lie behind the allegory and relating it to the tragedy of it all.

Helping fill up the stage Warlikowski inevitably employs a larger cast than the four singers and the chorus who contribute to the oratorio, but the extras are not just there to make up the numbers. Most prominently there is a young man, dancing to the rhythms on his headphones - which nonetheless fits the youthful rhythm of Handel's music perfectly - who perhaps represents Youth. His function is to illustrate how beauty, caught up in its own pleasure, is oblivious to time. Youth passes however - quite literally here, the young man ending up on an operating trolley, mourned with heart rending sadness by Beauty. But there are also many other young women who look on at the spectacle of Beauty's fall, all of it reminding you that there is nothing 'academic' about the subject.

This is by no means Warlikowski's only idea or contribution. The director includes a short film before the interval to bring the ghost of Jacques Derrida into the equation, and the division of the stage itself perhaps even resembles the two hemispheres of the brain separated by a corridor or cortex. One side is lit up while the other is in darkness but occasionally both sides spark with life, the left largely being the domain of Beauty and Pleasure, the right Time and Disillusionment. At significant points all four figures come together gathering around the table like a family; always in dispute, but dependent on each other to maintain a happy equilibrium.

There's much to admire in the staging and in how it manages to engage the spectator, but the beauty of Handel's music and the singing of the cast assembled here would be impressive enough on its own. Emmanuelle Haïm and her period instrument Concert d'Astrée ensemble give the work a wonderful edge, energy and rhythmic precision. Sabine Devieilhe is unquestionably the star that carries the show here, always impressive in technique, range and timbre, but investing the role of Beauty here with some degree of sensitivity. Her sparring and harmonising with Franco Fagioli's countertenor Pleasure is magnificent, the two making an attractive team. Michael Spyres is a wonderfully lyrical singer but his tenor voice is perhaps too 'sweet' for Time. Together with Sara Mingardo's Disillusionment however, this was a strong cast capable of finding the human depth and meaning in Benedetto Pamphili's libretto and Warlikowski's concept that is already there in Handel's music.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Culturebox

Puccini - Gianni Schicchi (LA Opera, 2015)

Giacomo Puccini - Gianni Schicchi

LA Opera, 2015

Grant Gershon, Woody Allen, Kathleen Smith Belcher, Plácido Domingo, Adriana Chuchman, Meredith Arwady, Arturo Chacón-Cruz, Greg Fedderly, Stacey Tappan, Craig Colclough, Philip Cokorinos, Liam Bo

Sony - Blu-ray

Given their location on the doorstep of Hollywood, it's not surprising that the cinema might have some influence over LA Opera productions, but filmmakers have long played a part in opera directing in Europe as well. Opera shares an affinity with opera in how music can be a vital element that gives depth and commentary on the drama and sometimes takes it to a new dimension, so it's not surprising that some of the best filmmakers in the world (Tarkovsky, Bergman, Losey, Kiarostami, Herzog, Haneke) have all dipped their toes into the opera world.

Music evidently plays a large part in the films of Woody Allen, even though his films are more associated with ragtime jazz and classics from the 1930s and 1940s. Although he has made a musical ('Everyone Says I Love You'), it's the use of George Geshwin music for Manhattan that has seen his most successful melding of music and drama. Allen has even done a bit of on-screen opera directing, albeit in spoof mode in 'To Rome With Love' (2012), where he played a 'Regietheater' director who devises an elaborate production to accommodate a great tenor (played by Fabio Armiliato) who can only sing well when he is in the shower.

It's comedy that is obviously Woody Allen's forte, so if you're going to engage the filmmaker to direct a work at the LA Opera it seems only natural to let him loose on a comic masterpiece like Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. In practice - like much of his cinema work - Allen's involvement doesn't appear to extend into character direction of the performers. Judging by the behind the scenes footage, it's left to revival director Kathleen Smith Belcher to coach the cast in this 2015 recording of Allen's 2008 production, but even then it would appear much is left to the actual performers to find their own interpretation of the work.

Whether he brings much out of the characterisation or not, Allen's touch is evident in other ways. Much of his contribution to the look and feel of the LA Opera's Gianni Schicchi is the setting of the opera in the neo-realist Italy of Vittorio de Sica's 'Bicycle Thieves'. Allen is assisted in the creation of this post-war world of poverty and desperation by the involvement of his regular film production designer Santo Loquasto. The production design certainly has a 1940s black and white Italian neo-realist movie character - Allen even providing joke opening credit titles - but otherwise it doesn't look much different to any other production of Gianni Schicchi. You could probably even set La Bohème there.

Perhaps Allen's most significant touch is to have Gianni Schicchi played as a Neapolitan mafia character in a pin-stripe suit. It doesn't fit entirely with the Florentine character of the work, but perhaps the Camorra is extending its operations out to exploit vulnerable and gullible Italians further north. Schicchi's daughter, the usually sweet Lauretta who is becoming one of the family through her engagement to Rinuccio, even wields a mean knife here when family tensions are roused in the dispute over the recently deceased Buoso Donati's fortune.

All this works fairly well without making too many demands on the essential comic elements of the plot of Gianni Schicchi, but it doesn't really contribute much that is new to the work either. Or even much that is really funny other than the humour that is inherently already there in the situation. There are a lot more laughs that can be had with hiding a dead body and with the threats of Florentine hand-chopping justice that holds the family back from thwarting Schicchi's scheme to defraud them. Allen's idea of justice for Schicchi also isn't content with leaving him to the fate described in Canto XXX of Dante's Inferno, but has Zita stab him just before he pleads his case to the audience.

Caveats, as ever, must be made for Plácido Domingo in a baritone role, even more so as he is getting older. He doesn't quite have the depth of voice required here, but he has character and personality and clearly relishes the opportunity to play Schicchi, particularly in a mafia persona. The other significant roles are all well sung, but there's not much sparkle in Grant Gershon's conducting of Puccini's wonderfully playful, lyrical and inventive score.

Friday 8 July 2016

Halévy - La Juive (Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016)

Fromental Halévy - La Juive

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016

Bertrand de Billy, Calixto Bieito, Aleksandra Kurzak, Roberto Alagna, John Osborn, Vera-Lotte Böcker, Ain Anger, Johannes Kammler, Tareq Nazmi, Christian Rieger, Peter Lobert - 27 June 2016

Calixto Bieito's production of Halévy's La Juive for the Bavarian State Opera was roundly and rudely booed at the end of the performance broadcast live from the Munich Summer Opera Festival. I'm sure the Catalan director is well used to that kind of reception, but it's worth examining why of all places it would be so badly received at the Bayerische Staatsoper. The Munich audience are used to all kinds of operatic modernisations and reinterpretations in a theatre where Hans Neuenfels, Krzysztof Warlikowsi and Martin Kušej are very much the 'norm'. Bieito's understated production surely wasn't that inflammatory or disrespectful? Is it possible that just wasn't challenging enough?

Or if not challenging enough, Bieito's production certainly failed in one crucial aspect that will permit most indulgences on the opera stage - it lacked adequate fidelity to the source. Not in terms of adhering to the specifics of the plot; Bieito's production does its best to make the basic elements of the story work in a relatable context, and even gives a fairly outdated work some kind of rationale that might work on the stage. To do so however he has to offload a lot of the grand opéra baggage of the work, which unfortunately proves to be rather more important and integral to the piece as a whole.

Of all the traditions, periods and styles that opera has embraced over the last few hundred years, grand opéra still seems to be the most problematic when it comes to modernisation, contemporary relevance and musical tastes. Bel canto, opera seria and Baroque have all been adapted or made to work on the modern stage on their own terms, but while there have been some notable efforts to revive the works of Meyerbeer, none have really succeeded in developing any further taste for grand opéra. There is no obvious reason why a musical form so rich in melody, diversity, drama and pure entertainment should not appeal to an audience who are still predominately in thrall to the epic visions of Verdi and Wagner, but either we are no longer capable of successfully presenting and singing such works, or else they just don't resonate with a modern audience.

That the romantic part of the plot of La Juive is overblown melodrama with scarcely an ounce of credibility you can take pretty much for granted. Rachel, a young Jewish girl (la juive), loves Samuel, also a son of Israel (Eugene Scribe's compendium of clichés and banalities that passes for a libretto includes every conceivable synonym for Jew). Cruel deception; in reality Samuel is actually called Léopold and is a Christian, and as such he can never be married to a Jewess. Recanting her religion would be an option that might help overcome these divisions and even help calm the religious tensions, but wait... this is grand opera and there are more dire revelations to come since 'Samuel' has neglected to mention that not only is he a Christian, but he is the Prince Léopold and already married to Princess Eudoxie. And without her knowing it, Rachel is a Christian all along, a fact that only comes to light much too late in an unfortunate Il Trovatore-like twist. 

And that's just the romantic drama. Religious intolerance stirs up quite a bit more drama that leads to an inevitably tragic conclusion of huge proportions, and all these elements, revelations and reactions are drawn together into one grand musical set piece after another. The opera even opens with a huge religious festival called by the Council of Constance to celebrate a victory over the Hussites that has prevented a schism in Rome. I have no idea what the religious or historical significance of this is, but to judge by Fromental Halévy's music - a huge choral section over a church organ accompaniment - it's a very big deal indeed and one that a Jewish businessman/blacksmith like Éléazar would have been well advised to avoid.

Halévy's score is not overly emphatic (Verdi is much more bombastic), but every violent thought and action, every shocking revelation is played in a conventional way, so Calixto Bieito's strenuous efforts to underplay the excesses and conventions of grand opéra are understandable. In some respects Bieito's production is not unlike Christof Loy's DNO production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes - a minimalist and modernised staging that lost none of the work's power, and by the same token neither should La Juive. La Juive however is not Les Vêpres Siciliennes and Halévy is not Verdi, but neither is there any of the revisionist spin that Loy needed to apply to the ballet sequence of Les Vêpres Siciliennes in order to make its plot developments a little more palatable to a modern audience.

Up to the interval at least however, the audience seem to go with it, and there is indeed much to enjoy in the revival of this rarely performed work. Not least are the opportunities to hear some great singing which is well catered for here in a strong cast lead by an intense Aleksandra Kurzak as Rachel, with Robert Alagna giving it his all as Éléazar and a gloriously lyrical turn from John Osborn as Léopold. The roles push Kurzak and Alagna to their limits but these are strong performances of great dramatic conviction and they are capably supported by Vera-Lotte Böcker as Eudoxie, Ain Anger as Cardinal Brogni and Johannes Kammler as Ruggiero, the fanatical arm of his forces.

Essentially then, Bieito does manage to convey the drama of La Juive with utmost fidelity. He sidesteps any unnecessary playing on specific religious symbols in favour of a view of the opera as "a requiem for a young woman" set against a backdrop of more generalised fanaticism and intolerance. The reaction of the Munich audience then to the creative team at the curtain call is difficult to ascertain. Perhaps they felt that Bieito failed to successfully provide stage directions commensurate with the overheated drama and music (which having most recently seen what the director does with Turandot would be a first), or perhaps some of the German audience felt that the message of fanaticism and intolerance was too close to home. If so, then the irony of the audience reaction will not be lost on anyone following recent political developments in Europe.

The next Bayerische Staatsoper broadcasts from the 2016 summer festival will be Rameau's Les Indes Galantes on 24th July, conducted by Ivor Bolton with direction and choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on 31st July, conducted by Kirill Petrenko in a new production directed by David Bösch

Monday 4 July 2016

Massenet - Werther (Royal Opera House, 2016)

Jules Massenet - Werther

Royal Opera House, 2016

Antonio Pappano, Benoît Jacquot, Vittorio Grigòlo, Joyce DiDonato, David Bizic, Heather Engebretson, Jonathan Summers, Yuriy Yurchuk, François Piolino, Rick Zwart, Emily Edmonds, Vasko Vassilev

Cinema Season Live - 27 June 2016

Inviting and distancing, open but claustrophobic, mannered but intense, intimate and dramatic; Jules Massenet's Werther is all these things, expressing two sides of a compelling attraction in an impossible relationship. It presents two simultaneous points of view, that of Werther and that of Charlotte, the two creating between them an irresistible force that rises up in the huge swells of Massenet's dark Romantic score. It's a fabulously intense and focussed drama that delves deeply into the emotions, and as the Royal Opera's House production shows, it can be a terrific piece of music-theatre.

Benoît Jacquot's production of Werther, first seen at the Royal Opera House in 2004, but well-known also in France and elsewhere from its filmed performance, currently still stands as one of the most successful efforts to get across everything that is great about the work. There is nothing new or revelatory about Jacquot's interpretation and direction of the characters, but in conjunction with Charles Edwards' expressionist sets and lighting that illuminates and amplifies every gesture and sentiment of the players, it does probe the emotional depths of these highly Romantic characters for truth.

In the introduction to the Royal Opera House Cinema Live broadcast, Simon Callow continually referred to Jacquot's production as being cinematic but it's more painterly, striving not for cinematic realism but rather aiming to create an emotional environment that matches the moods and the undercurrents that tug at the protagonists in Massenet's score. Fortunately, it works equally well in both respects, its tableaux capturing the essence of each act for the theatre, while the cinema screening draws in on the intimacy of the epic small-scale drama that takes place in this environment.

Act I of Werther then is blazing summer with Christmas songs, a combination that deliberately throws one off balance a little. Edwards' sets likewise capture the simplicity of the little children's choir rehearsal and the domesticity of Charlotte's family arrangements. The hugely over-sized door and wall on the other hand all indicate a world outside of greater expanse, a world that is inhabited by and opened up by the arrival of Werther. It's an inviting prospect, yet one that is closed off by Charlotte being promised to the much more solid and dependable Albert.

Acknowledgement of the emotions opened up by Werther and the impossibility of submitting to them is reflected in the set for Act II. It's a vertiginous promontory with a vanishing point into infinity, showing nothing in the background but open blue skies that fill half the stage. The sky however has an oppressive quality with a faintly tempestuous autumnal instability brewing within it. There's nothing naturalistic about this landscape, which when combined with the punishing lighting creates an atmosphere of unbearable tension for the impossible situation. The heat is building and something is going to break.

Act III and Act IV's set designs might look traditional by comparison, but the dark interiors are just as evocative of the underlying mood and where the direction of the personal drama is taking us. Its sober period designs and lighting also serves as a contrast to what might otherwise come across as something overwrought. Overwrought only however if everything else has been played with a heavy hand leading up to it, and fortunately in this well-measured and dynamic production that never happens.

The attention to the detail and the character of Massenet's music helps determine the right approach and Antonio Pappano manages to find the correct nuance not just for each scene but for each individual moment. Despite the source being Goethe's famous drama, Massenet's Werther is thoroughly French in its character, but with a clear Wagnerian German influence in its sweeping Romanticism and in its through composition with leitmotifs. There's also something Italianate in the dark operatic tragedy and full-blown melodrama in the expression of the main character's sentiments.

Joyce DiDonato who cites those Italian passions in a brief interview segment shown during the live cinema broadcast, and between the American mezzo-soprano and Vittorio Grigòlo the Royal Opera House have a couple of very strong and passionate singers capable of reaching all those emotional peaks. Viewed close-up on the cinema screen both are occasionally little stagey in their mannerisms, but this is an intense opera with big gestures and it's not surprising that in a somewhat intentionally stylised production that it doesn't always achieve the kind of naturalistic realism we might like.

In terms of singing performances Grigòlo and DiDonato are both phenomenal as they chart the difficult course of the relationship between Werther and Charlotte. Grigòlo's Werther is almost bursting with passion by the time we get to the final two Acts, while DiDonato's Charlotte is clearly aghast at the recognition of where her actions and passions have led them. The characterisation is all there in the singing voices and they are both utterly compelling and impressive. There's a strong supporting cast here too, with engaging performances and similar attention being paid to character right down the line. It all contributes to a near complete mastery of everything that is in Massenet's music and everything that is great about it.

Links: Royal Opera House