Thursday 29 September 2016

Bellini - Norma (Royal Opera House, 2016)

Vincenzo Bellini - Norma

Royal Opera House, 2016

Àlex Ollé, Antonio Pappano, Sonya Yoncheva, Joseph Calleja, Sonia Ganassi, Brindley Sherratt, David Junghoon Kim, Vlada Borovko

Cinema Season Live - 26 September 2016

What is a director to do with Norma? Like many bel canto operas, it would seem to be going a bit overboard to invest too much historical realism into a plot that is more concerned with the romantic complications and emotional states of its main characters, and the dramatic contrivances don't really lend themselves all that well to it being applied to a contemporary updating. Àlex Ollé, of the Catalan theatre group La Fura dels Baus, is not wrong however when he considers that there are deeper considerations at play here in Norma that pit individuals and human nature against social, religious and political forces.

Proving the point, the dramatic force of Bellini's setting of these issues is brought to life and fully felt in the musical and the stage direction of this highly charged Royal Opera House production, even if Ollé's Spanish Civil War-inspired setting doesn't really establish a convincing new context for the issues it raises. A production of Norma neither loses nor gains much from its ancient setting that pits the Gauls and their druids against the Roman occupying forces, but it is important and relevant in our own times to consider how religion can be used as a tool to motivate individuals towards actions that otherwise would be inconceivable.

What Norma should have is impact, and visually at least set designer Alfons Flores's forest of dramatically lit crucifixes matches the intensity of where the opera is pitched. Religious iconography is evident also in the priestly costumes, the children's choir, hooded processions and a huge swinging thurible solemnly wafting incense around during Norma's 'Casta Diva', and it's associated here with a fascist movement, Brindley Sherratt's Oroveso styled to look very like Generalissimo Franco. It's debatable that the analogy works - a suit-wearing Pollione hardly matches the image of the Romans as being Republican opposition - but the stage setting at least keeps the overarching theme very present throughout, suitably overblown to match the nature of the dramatic representation.

Such grand gestures are to be expected in Norma, and they serve their function well right through to the dreadful choices between following her heart or her duty that the priestess must weigh up in the second Act. The confused narrative of the production's analogy doesn't allow her sacrifice to appear as anything more than a grand gesture, but it certainly felt like it was a hard-reached decision of someone who has been pushed to the limits of what their conscience will endure. It takes a lot more than grand gestures to make that work: it takes some great singing.

Evidently much of that rests on your Norma. In the case of this production, the early withdrawal of Anna Netrebko proved to be a great opportunity for Sonya Yoncheva to show that she is ready to be catapulted to the same level of international stardom, and she rose to the occasion. This was an outstanding performance that felt like something very special indeed. Yoncheva might not be as studiously perfect in this role as Netrebko might have been had her voice not developed in other directions, but it contained every ounce of emotion required to grapple with the depths of the role, qualities that are very much there to be found in the music that Bellini wrote for this part.

Joseph Calleja was also outstanding alongside her as Pollione. Calleja has a classic romantic lyrical tenor voice, but he shows that he can also bring that vital edge of steely determination that is needed for this role. Pollione is not a straightforward character and not one that you can easily sympathise with, but he likewise has chosen to follow his own heart and risk betraying his own people, and he is prepared to suffer the consequences for it as long as innocent people do not suffer for his actions. Calleja's singing and acting performance grasped the nature of his character's grappling with this position and his voice rang out the truth of it.

Between Yoncheva and Calleja you have the makings of a great Norma here, and the production doesn't let them down on any other front. Adalgisa is a vital component who inadvertently sows the discord that leads to the tumultuous conclusion, but she is also the bridge that links up the dramatic and emotional undercurrents. Sonia Ganassi take this up well, but is particularly strong when she has to rise to Yoncheva's level in their Act I duet, 'Sola, furtiva al tempio', the two women's voices blending beautifully. Antonio Pappano's conducting emphasised the more dramatic side of the score while retaining its melodic qualities, the work as a consequence bristling with life and charged with emotion. The Royal Opera House production is everything that a good Norma should be.

Thursday 15 September 2016

Mascagni / Leoncavallo - Cavalleria rusticana / Pagliacci (Royal Opera House, 2015)

Pietro Mascagni - Cavalleria rusticana
Ruggero Leoncavallo - Pagliacci

Royal Opera House, 2015

Antonio Pappano, Damiano Michieletto, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Elena Zilio, Dimitri Platanias, Martina Belli, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Dimitri Platanias, Carmen Giannattasio, Benjamin Hulett, Dionysios Sourbis

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

It's not normally the first thing you think of when you go to watch a double bill of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, but Damiano Michieletto's 2015 production for the Royal Opera House started me thinking about verismo, what it means and why so little of it has stood the test of time. Post-Wagner and Verdi, verismo seemed to be very much the next step, giving opera the opportunity to explore the lives of ordinary people rather than those of heroes, gods and legends. Aside from Puccini, who never really could be associated closely with verismo post-La Bohème, verismo never really took off and hasn't left a lasting influence. Viewing the two great popular stalwarts of verismo in this production, however, perhaps the style made more of a mark than we think.

The definition of those essential verismo characteristics and perhaps the influence they extend over modern-day opera is highlighted I think by Damiano Michieletto's weaving together of the two genre-defining operas. The popularity of the double bill and their complementary compatibility has long been beyond question, but Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci are still viewed as entirely separate musical and dramatic entities. And for good reason, since for all the commonality in subject matter, Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo adopt very different approaches to musical storytelling. Giving both works a common setting however does provide a very vivid indication of the ground that verismo covered in the short period between 1889 and 1892.

What is particularly enjoyable about the Royal Opera House production is that it fully explores the context of the works and their themes and blends them together successfully, but it's not merely a directorial exercise. While the stage production brings out qualities that might have gone unnoticed before, it does so in a way that also manages to give the works their fullest expression. Damiano Michelietto's production is all about pushing the verismo to its extremes, and that means pushing both works to their extremes by playing to their respective strengths and qualities.

Seen in that context, if there's any single reason why verismo never really established itself as a force and turned out to be (debatably) an operatic dead-end, it's immediately evident in this production's opening for Cavalleria rusticana; too much verismo realism can kill you. Cavalleria rusticana wears its heart on its sleeve. It's an extraordinary work, too often seen as a kind of warm-up opener for Pagliacci, but I don't accept that it's the lesser work for a second - it's just different. In Pagliacci the passions are more internalised and leaning towards modernism, whereas Mascagni's approach looks back to Verdi, to melody aligned to pure melodrama, and does so by making the passions of the people hyper-externalised.

Certainly as far as Antonio Pappano directs the music and as far as Michelietto sets the drama of the music on the stage, this is life lived without restraint and played at full tilt. Passion, religion, sin, guilt, love and jealousy - this slice of Sicilian life is one lived fully and passionately. As far as verismo goes, that's not only opera dealing with real life, but life lived like an opera. There's no clever conceptualisation required here then, Michelietto allowing the singers full expression for the drama as it plays out, Pappano underlining every sweep and crescendo with a flourish. In a work like this, the impact is astonishing, all the more so when Michelietto takes a step like making the statue of the virgin come to life during the Easter parade. Here, religion is living and the pregnant Santuzza's sin feels as real and vivid to her as the ground she walks on.

Pagliacci might be a little more recondite in its play-within-a-play distancing, its clever use of commedia dell'arte themes and Leoncavallo is a little more modern in the musical expression, but the approach adopted here shows that there's merit in how this kind of overemphasis of the real pushes Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana almost into the surreal or hyper-real. Mascagni's extraordinary gift for melody is all the more apparent for this, as well as his ability to weave religious processions, church bells and local folk colour into the whole fabric of the lives of the work's characters. But it's not life lived without restraint. Eva-Maria Westbroek has spoken about the danger of being swept into the passions of the work and having to control her singing in this work, and it is important. All of the passions are channelled towards an inevitably tragic conclusion, and it's arrived at here with remarkable force and impact.

If there was too much overemphasis anywhere, it is perhaps in making a big deal of the imminent arrival of a troupe of actors in the town to put on a performance of Pagliacci and live out their own version of the tragedy mirrored in Cavalleria rusticana. Michelietto's direction makes good use of the Mascagni's inter-scene music to introduce the characters and situations that would play out in Pagliacci without letting them intrude on the importance of Cavalleria rusticana. The screen direction however, the performance filmed for the live cinema broadcast, made rather more of it, the focus of the camera drawing extra attention to the Pagliacci posters and the significant appearances of characters and situations that might otherwise have passed as local background colour. Just another slice of life.

Cavalleria rusticana is all externalised passions, Paolo Fantin's impressive revolving set fully used to show interiors and exteriors and the relationship between them - particularly as they relate to Santuzza's position in the community. By way of contrast, Pagliacci attempts to put a lid on the emotions through its transference of life into 'art' or performance in its play-within-a-play dramatisation. Again, Micheletto's direction of the performers and the build-up established through the previous work serves to be both a commentary on the nature of the work - on opera, on verismo, its origins and its progress - as well as being a slice of life drama in its own right, never failing to address the music and its dramatic function.

Those origins are not just those of the commedia dell'arte but also indeed Cavalleria rusticana. At this stage in the traditional performance of the double bill, the earlier work has been pushed aside and practically forgotten as we become caught up in the latest new drama. Michelietto's production - even bringing back Santuzza for a cameo appearance - doesn't let you forget however that Cavalleria rusticana is important to the whole tone of Pagliacci, and even shows how the two works have developed a kind of co-dependence. Even the "audience" of Pagliacci here have forgotten the "real-life" drama that has just recently taken place in their own town, sitting down to watch a "made-up" drama, and are unable to recognise the truth that lies behind them.

By this stage too many inverted commas in this review suggest that everything is getting a little too post-modern and over-ambitious in Michieletto's production, but Pappano's conducting and the committed performances manage to dial-down any fanciful ideas and sustain the actual drama, which in verismo you would imagine is paramount. Playing characters in both works, Aleksandrs Antonenko (Turiddu and Canio) and Dimitri Platanias (Alfio and Tonio) keep everything grounded in pure dramatic expression without overacting. Eva-Maria Westbroek's Santuzza is pushed further than most, but likewise holds to the line and essential tone established here. Carmen Giannattasio's Nedda has just as complex and dynamic a position to maintain and does so with tremendous personality. These are performances that work with the production to simultaneously hold one dramatically while at the same time suggesting and sparking off numerous other associations and ideas. Seen in this light, and setting it in the late 20th century, might even provide a clue to the significance of the 'missing link' between the past and the direction opera would take post-verismo.

The Blu-ray disc comes as a 2-disc set, which doesn't really seem necessary, as both are single-layer discs. Even less so since with Micheletto's production the two works are even more intertwined as one here. Colour and detail are all strong in the video transfers, but as usual it's the High Definition uncompressed audio tracks that are most impressive, particularly for works as dynamic as these. In addition to the usual LPCM stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio tracks there is also a Dolby True HD Atmos mix which my amplifier picked up as being a 7-channel mix, although it will also work with a 5.1 set-up. I don't know if there's a significant difference between it and the DTS mix, but both distribute the sound exceptionally well. The extra features are slim but the Introductions more than adequately cover the works and the production, and there's a short piece where Antonio Pappano looks at the music for both pieces. There's also a synopsis and a wonderfully detailed essay on the creation of the two work by Helen Greenwald in the enclosed booklet. The Blu-ray discs are region-free. Subtitles are in Engligh, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Royal Opera House

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Stravinsky - Oedipus Rex (Aix-en-Provence, 2016)

Igor Stravinsky - Oedipus Rex/Symphony of Psalms

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2016

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Peter Sellars, Joseph Kaiser, Violeta Urmana, Willard White, Joshua Stewart, Pauline Cheviller, Laurel Jenkins

Culturebox - 17th July 2016

The performance of Stravinsky's Oedpius Rex and Symphony of Psalms at the Aix-en-Provence festival is a perfect example of just what is so important and great about opera as a living artform. You can ponder the implications of Sophocles' Greek drama, you can give attention to where Stravinsky places emphasis in his reading of the material, and you can formulate all kinds of connections between the real-world and how it is presented on the stage. Sometimes however timing and events can add yet another entirely unpredictable and unforeseen element to give a work of art a life entirely of its own.

The event in question at the time of this July 17th 2016 performance of Oedipus Rex at Aix-en-Provence, was the terrorist attack a few days earlier in nearby Nice during the Bastille Day celebrations that resulted in 84 deaths. In the light of such a horrific event it becomes impossible not to look at this production in a different way from how it might have been originally intended, or from how you might have looked at it even a week earlier. If the production however touches on the essence of the questions raised in the ancient Greek drama, it will inevitably make its own truthful associations with those recent events, and Peter Sellars' production does seem to touch at the heart of them.

So while such events were evidently far from the mind of the original Igor Stravinsky/Jean Cocteau presentation of the Sophocles drama, its combination with Peter Sellars' modern dress production opens the drama up enough to allow it to resonate with such events. Suddenly, without it being the intention of anyone involved, you can see the fear and incomprehension of the French nation in the people of Thebes as they are afflicted by a terrible plague. You can see too how they would turn to their leader in this time of mourning to seek reassurance and protection. You can also see the powerlessness felt by that ruler - a man in a suit - who is ignorant of the part he has played in bringing this plague upon his people. In denial, feeling assailed and powerless to do anything else, his natural reaction is to strike out.

Sellars' direction might still be encumbered somewhat by familiar mannerisms and affectations, but there is unquestionably something absolutely right about the method employed if it allows those connections to be made. It's debatable whether the tribal wood carvings and throne add anything other than relating the present to antiquity, suggesting that there is a deeper human truth here that lies outside the surface considerations of time, place and dress costume. The chorus making exaggerated semaphored hand-signals is another affectation that doesn't really seem to add anything, but if without really being aware of it it makes the audience pay more attention to the words being expressed and it helps the chorus think about the importance and urgence of what they are singing, then it undoubtedly serves its purpose here.

I'm sure that the direction and the sense of occasion would have made its way into the singing performances as well. You can certainly get a sense of that in the performance of Joseph Kaiser as Oedipus. The ruler of Thebes is a man of authority and respect for his past actions saving the city, and Kaiser carries all of that in his lyrical tone, but there's an edge there as well as the enormity of his origins starts to become clear. Willard White is also fired up in this performance as Creon, Tiresias and Messenger, delivering messages that no-one wants to hear. In a role that is equally emotional, Violeta Urmana struggles however to contain and control it, her singing sounding rather wayward in a wavering line, but it's an intense performance. The speaking role of the narrator/Antigone shouldn't be underestimated for its importance in relating events and relating to the audience, and Pauline Cheviller gets that across with deep feeling.

Although musically connected, coming from the same period in Stravinsky's neoclassical style, it does seem odd to pair the Greek drama of Oedipus Rex with the Christian sentiments of Symphony of Psalms. Dramatically for the sake of the staging however, Sellers draws very loosely in this short presentation from Sophocles' 'Oedipus at Colonus'. Pauline Cheviller's Antigone is again the narrator who links the two parts together, and Ismene is played by a dancer. In this follow-up, the wandering blind Oedipus in exile is led by his daughter away from Thebes to be welcomed in Colonus near Athens, where he will end his days "with peace divine". Setting the Greek play to Symphony of Psalms does seem tenuous on a rational level, but rationality and suitability are not so much the point here as taking the lessons learned from Oedipus to the next stage on a human level.

The stage accordingly is emptied of any props, reflecting an Oedipus stripped of his former life, his position, his sight. Sellers uses lighting effects to describe his emotional state, some of which is rather Robert Wilson-like in effect, with a small neon square of light to the side of the stage being where Oedipus eventually is led and left to lie down and rest. It looks gorgeous and is a perfect accompaniment and setting for Stravinsky's beautiful music, conducted here wonderfully by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The singers again punch out the choral singing with arms and hands, and some ballet movements all contribute to reflect what is being expressed and how it relates to what is going on in world not so very far away from where this performance took place in Provence.

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

Friday 2 September 2016

Tchaikovsky - The Queen of Spades (DNO, 2016)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - The Queen of Spades

Dutch National Opera, 2016

Mariss Jansons, Stefan Herheim, Misha Didyk, Alexey Markov, Vladimir Stoyanov, Andrei Popov, Andrii Goniukov, Mikhail Makarov, Anatoli Sivko, Larissa Diadkova, Svetlana Aksenova, Anna Goryachova, Olga Savova, Maria Fiselier, Pelageya Kurennaya, Morschi Franz, Christiaan Kuyvenhoven

The Opera Platform - July 2016

Never one to take an opera libretto on face value, Stefan Herheim's production of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades for the Dutch National Opera is another of his composer portrait productions. Herheim is a director who likes to explore a composer's life and times and see how they inform the works they create, and consideration of Tchaikovsky's life, his passions and particularly his repressed homosexuality, make those great works all the more fascinating. Perhaps not so much for anyone less familiar with the composer or someone just wants to see a more straightforward account of Pushkin's tale.

Herheim's previous work at the DNO with Tchaikovsky led to the creation of a Eugene Onegin that presented a kaleidoscopic view of Russian culture and history. As much as Tchaikovsky's intimate love story might have seemed inappropriate for such a grand treatment, it did nonetheless successfully tap into deeper undercurrents of the Russian nature of the work and open up an entirely new perspective on it. The Queen of Spades, by way of contrast, draws back on the Russian nature of the work towards the more intimate and personal, making a direct link between Hermann's mad passions and those of the composer himself.

Herheim might have sidelined Wagner to each of the Act Preludes of his Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg in his previous (unimaginative) composer portrait, but it's clear that Tchaikovsky himself is going to be firmly at the centre of the DNO's The Queen of Spades. The opening scene before the overture shows a man who looks very like Tchaikovsky - but who later principally plays the part of a Yeletsky as an older man - paying a soldier who he has just given a blow-job, a soldier who turns out to be Hermann. It's an image that on the surface has nothing to do with the Queen of Spades and is clearly designed to shock, but it's not without justification for the examination of secret and illicit passions that drive much of the work.

Fired with invigoration and some measure of shame, Tchaikovsky is immediately inspired to pour his feelings into his music, making for the piano with pen and paper to hand to dash down the overture and the opening scene of the Queen of Spades. He then inserts himself into the opera as Yeletsky, who is engaged to marry Liza. A reference to Tchaikovsky's own failed attempt at marriage, Yeletsky's sincere and dignified approaches and his later protestations of love as a deep friendship are also significant. "Tchaikovsky" also flees from Liza's desire to believe in Hermann's sincerity in the bridge scene (which evidently doesn't take place on a bridge). All of this can be seen to mirror in some respects the inappropriateness and unviability of Tchaikovsky's own marriage, particularly as we know from the first scene that Tchaikovsky/Yeletsky's inclinations lean another way.

Thereafter it is impossible not to view Yeletsky as anything else but a surrogate for Tchaikovsky, but we are also invited by Herheim to see Tchaikovsky in Liza's friend Pauline and in other characters. It's as if Tchaikovsky has poured various aspects of his own personality into all the characters in the opera, which is a valid way of looking at art even if it doesn't really take the motivations of the original author Pushkin into consideration. It also tends to become complicated when you try to fit Hermann into the equation. As the person whose mad passions are central to the work, it would seem more obvious to associate Hermann with the composer, but Herheim doesn't always do the obvious.

That's because, to judge by the music and the composition of the opera, Tchaikovsky is evidently a lot more complex a personality than Hermann is in the Queen of Spades. There's a lot of indulgence on the part of Tchaikovsky in the musical arrangements of this work, but these are traits that can also be played upon to good effect, particularly in the second Act with its Pastorale and the grand fanfares to welcome the arrival of Catherine the Great. Herheim seems to poke fun at such extravagances, but at the same time he tries to make it relevant to who Tchaikovsky is, or might be, as the man behind the music. This culminates with Hermann flouncing in as 'the Queen' however, which is more camp than psychological - but then there's always a thin line there where Herheim is concerned. And perhaps Tchaikovsky too.

The mirroring of Tchaikovsky with every element of The Queen of Spades is problematic, but Herheim is not attempting a full deconstruction or psychoanalytical reading of the opera. If you want to you can consider Hermann's obsessive behaviour on a more generalised level as being symptomatic of a pathology that develops when secrets are kept hidden, you could take that from it. Rather than adding layers by including Tchaikovsky himself in the drama, it does seem more of a case of stripping the work back to its bones and exploring the emotions that underlie it.

Much like his production of Eugene Onegin, unless you are very familiar with Tchaikovsky and already know the story of the Queen of Spades, you're not going to get much out of this. Even if you do manage to pick up and piece together the elements that Herheim introduced, the value of those speculative fantasies into Tchaikovsky's motivations are scarcely any more valuable than the work (and Pushkin's work) itself. I suspect that most people would prefer to just see the story told well rather than have all these confusing and contradictory elements weighing it down. Fortunately, the production has much more to offer.

As it often is with Herheim, the production design is extravagantly beautiful. The action takes place mostly in a single drawing room that converts into a ballroom as required - although if you are less literal minded, you could see it as taking place entirely within Tchaikovsky's own mind, which obviously it does on one level. Whichever way you look at it, Philipp Fürhofer's set and costume design is just magnificent, the lighting immaculate in terms of mood as well as simply illuminating the set to look its best. Somehow, the DNO seem to have managed to persuade Mariss Jansons to work with Stefan Herheim again, despite his evident confusion (seen in the behind the scenes feature on the DVD release) over what the director was trying to achieve in their previous collaboration on Eugene Onegin. Jansons; conducting of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra through Tchaikovsky's rich score is just ravishing in its attention to the mood, to the little orchestral flourishes and to the dramatic intent of the work. This is really another wonderful collaboration.

Last but not least, the singing is outstanding. There's really no substitute for a Russian cast singing Russian opera, and the cast here are all marvellous. I've been critical of the anguished whine of Misha Didyk in the past, but he has "filled out" a little in appearance since I last saw him sing this role and that tight, high constricted tenor has also expanded into a fuller, more rounded timbre. It's by no means an easy role to sing at the best of times, but Didyk is impressive here and may even be the ideal Hermann. Because of the dual role and the acting requirements, Yeletsky/Tchaikovsky is more challenging here than the role usually is, but Vladimir Stoyanov is superb, his voice warm, lyrical and sensitive.

Larissa Diadkova is an experienced Countess, and proves her worth here again. Svetlana Aksenova's Liza is also impressive, but there's a feeling that Herheim has paid less attention to the women in the opera, or at least found Tchaikovsky's writing of them to be not as interesting as the male characters. Liza's finale however is well-staged. All the roles are most impressive, and there's much to enjoy simply in the beauty of the singing performances here. And in the choral arrangements. I'm beginning to think that the DNO build their season around works that will show their chorus off in the best possible light. The precision of the employment of the chorus is all important to the wider dynamic of this work and once again, the DNO chorus are nothing short of phenomenal.

Links: The Opera Platform, DNO