Sunday 30 October 2016

Hindemith - Sancta Susanna (Lyon, 2012)

Paul Hindemith - Sancta Susanna (Lyon)

Opéra de Lyon, 2012

Bernhard Kontarsky, John Fulljames, Agnes Selma Weiland, Magdalena Anna Hofmann, Joanna Curelaru Kata, Zoé Micha, Hervé Dez Martinez

Opera Platform

Less than half an hour long, it seems that Paul Hindemith's early one-act opera Sancta Susanna is designed to pack as much shock impact into its short running time as possible, and it's true that Hindemith intended to shake up the musical establishment in the early 1920s. It certainly had the desired effect when it was refused at Stuttgart for its blasphemous content, receiving its premiere in 1922 in Frankfurt. As short as it is and as long ago now as it was composed, the work still has the potential to court controversy when it is performed.

It was chosen by the Opéra de Lyon in 2012 as one of the companion pieces for their Puccini + season, offering a contrasting or complementary work to be played alongside each of the three one-act dramas of Puccini's Il Trittico. Sancta Susanna was evidently chosen to be performed with Suor Angelica, another story of a nun who faces a great internal conflict between her spiritual duties and her own human needs and female desires. Although they are very nearly contemporary, there is very little that is common in the treatment of these themes or in terms of musical approach, but it's a contrast that works well and in favour of both works.

Based on a German expressionist short story by August Albert Berhard Stramm, Sancta Susanna is however rather more abstract in its approach to the drama. Hindemith's equally expressionist score is suggestive of mood and of powerful barely repressed forces on the verge of spilling over into shocking revelations. The setting of Hindemith's work consequently takes place in an enclosed space of closed-up people, in a convent with nuns in protective clothing that separates them from the people of world outside. What is kept inside however is bursting to escape and it doesn't take much for those passions to overflow.

For Sister Susanna, praying before the status of Christ, the conflict reaches unbearable proportions when on a Spring evening the sound of lovers outside reaches her ears, Hindemith's music pushing the pitch of an organ note to almost unbearable intensity. Susanna's self-possession disappears when she is told by Sister Klementia of another nun forty years ago who abandoned herself to her passions, stripping naked and wrapping herself around a statue of Christ. Walled up in a cell for her actions, Susanna is convinced she can hear sounds the nun's tomb.

The call of the flesh and its conflict with the spirit lead Susanna to also strip off her garments, an action that infects Klementia also, the situation building into a musical frenzy before the other nuns attempt to intervene and attempt to call a halt to this satanic display. Their anger is directed towards Klementia, but Susanna offers herself up to their displeasure. More than just abandoning herself to illicit desires, Susanna blasphemously proposes a union of the soul and the flesh.

Director John Fulljames makes the most of the opportunity or indeed the necessity for this scene to be as outrageous and shocking as possible in the 2012 Lyon production, the soprano Agnes Selma Weiland left completely naked but for satanic writing tattooed across her body. The darkness of the convent and Susanna are illuminated in blinding light as the naked woman offers herself to the descending figure of Christ on the cross. It's highly effective and still startling to see it staged in this way.

From a singing and musical perspective it's also highly effective. Bernhard Kontarsky conducts here, as with the Puccini + production of Schoenberg's Von Heute auf Morgen, to bring out all the power of the work alongside its more suggestive tones and moods. Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Anna Hofmann also shows the range of her abilities here, which even in such a short piece is just if not even more demanding than either of her other Lyon appearances in Von Heuten auf Morgen and Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten. Agnes Selma Weiland surpasses the greatest challenges of the work, physically and musically stripping soul and body bare in a way that a work like this demands if it is to have any impact or meaning at all.

Links: Opéra de Lyon, Opera Platform

Friday 28 October 2016

Schoenberg - Von Heute auf Morgen (Lyon, 2012)

Arnold Schoenberg - Von Heute auf Morgen

Opéra de Lyon, 2012

Bernhard Kontarsky, John Fulljames, Magdalena Anna Hofmann, Ivi Karnezi, Rui Dos Santos, Wolfgang Newerla, Marin Bisson, Pierre Lucat

Opera Platform

Schoenberg's one act opera Von Heute auf Morgen might have been chosen by Opera Lyon as one of the works to accompany each of the three parts of Puccini's Il Trittico in their Puccini + production of 2012 but it's by no means a 'filler' work. It was partnered with Il Tabarro (Hindemith's Sancta Susanna was performed alongside Suor Angelica and Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy alongside Gianni Schicchi) presumably for its depiction of marriage problems and questions of infidelity, but there are hints - suggested in this production directed by John Fulljames - that Von Heute auf Morgen is more than a middle-class relationship drama.

It does however initially appear very much like one of Richard Strauss's marital dramas such as Intermezzo. A husband and wife return after an evening dinner party, musing on the events and the people they have met. The husband is open in his admiration for a seductive lady he met there, an old friend of his wife's who appears to be much more modern in her ways. The wife agrees that she has transformed into something beautiful, unrecognisable from the person she was before. The wife has likewise taken a fancy to the Singer, finding something in his voice that speaks to her, makes her feel alive, fresh in a way that she doesn't feel any longer with her husband.

Having a young child, who is woken up by their loud discussions and disagreements, both the husband and the wife are clearly looking for something that has gone missing from their marriage. The husband is attracted to a free spirit who seems to be a woman of the world, while he claims his wife has become a Hausfrau. The wife has lost the edge of excitement that lies in flirtation, becoming mired in habit, feeling detached and alone by her husband's seeming indifference to her now. The short opera develops then into a fantasy imagination of the other people they could have been or could be with other people.

So yes, on the surface certainly Von Heute auf Morgen appears to be a fairly straightforward and commonplace domestic dispute that has been played out countless times. On the other hand, one of the most significant points about the work is the time it was written and the fact that it is written entirely in the 12-tone method developed by Schoenberg. This puts a different spin on matters. In many ways, the opera is about imagining how music - mired in habit and custom - can regain its edge of freshness, newness and excitement. Von Heute auf Morgen can be seen as Schoenberg's attempt to consider how modern music could shake up old stuffy traditions.

But - as you often find with Strauss - Schoenberg's Von Heute auf Morgen acknowledges that it's by no means easy to shake off the attractions of music's past. Traces of Romanticism, of the composer's former thrall to the influence of Wagner, can be heard in the arrangements that seek to express the conflict between the old and the new. It's even explicitly stated in the Singer's use of Romantic identification with Siegfried and quotes from Das Rheingold that seduce the Wife, but how can one resist the attraction? How can one be truly modern? How can one be true to oneself?

Schoenberg seems to take comfort or inspiration from the words of the couple in the libretto as justification for his new approach. "We live with ideas. They live with past hopes". Schoenberg's couple would appear to decide to put their differences aside and settle for the comfort of the familiar when they reject the attractions of the other free and easy couple and settle for family domestic conformity, but there are different ways you can view this. John Fulljames's direction helps emphasise the point that it's not about following fashion as much as following one's own inner calling, but at the same time not he finds a welcome measure of lightness and humour in the one-act opera that serves it well.

The set designs for the production presents a number of apparently attractive alternatives to the 1920s period bourgeois idea of modernity that the couple inhabit (Von Heute auf Morgen was first performed in 1930). The period and the paintings on the wall change from hard-edge modernism to lush soft-lighted decadence, through to the Pop-Art of the 60s and the psychedelic 70s, as the couple flirt with the idea of embracing change and novelty as an alternative to conformity and habit. Eventually they reject each of these possibilities - and the lure of the attractive other couple - and instead recognise the value of what they have. Fashions change, but love remains; living it from day to day is what matters and is what it means to be truly modern.

Schoenberg's 12-tone serialism also points to another way of being modern; of music not merely being just for dramatic accompaniment or illustration, but a means rather to explore interior lives that lie outside the conventional measurements of space and time. Conducted here at Lyon by Bernhard Kontarsky, the intricacies of the arrangements are managed beautifully, giving a sense of all those possibilities that Schoenberg suggested. The production flows with impressive performances from Magdalena Anna Hofmann and Wolfgang Newerla as the Husband and Wife couple, but Ivi Karnezi and Rui Dos Santos are also fine, offering persuasive alternatives as the Friend and the Singer.

Links: Opéra de Lyon, Opera Platform

Monday 24 October 2016

Stockhausen - Donnerstag aus Licht (Basel, 2016)

Karlheinz Stockhausen - Donnerstag aus Licht

Theater Basel, 2016

Titus Engel, Lydia Steier, Peter Tantsits, Anu Komsi, Michael Leibundgut, Rolf Romei, Paul Hübner, Emmanuelle Grach, Merve Kazokoğlu, Evelyn Angela Gugolz, Stephen Menotti, Eric Lamb, Ansi Verwey, David Dias da Silva, Markus Forrer, Romain Chaumont, Emilie Chabrol

Sonostream - 1 October 2016

In the world of contemporary music, there are still few compositions that are more formidable, challenging and controversial as those of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Whether it's his 'Helicopter String Quartet' to be played by four musicians on separate helicopters, 'Gruppen', his work for three orchestras or his various experiments and innovations with tape recordings and electronics, there are few modern composers who have stretched musical boundaries quite so far.

It's not surprising then that Stockhausen's major opera work Licht, written between 1977 and 2003, is also one that pushes the art form to its limits. A series of seven operas, one for each day of the week, adding up to about 29 hours of music, it's not surprising that Licht (Light) isn't performed more often, even in its individual day components. It's a major event then when a segment of Licht is performed and Theater Basel's production of Donnerstag aus Licht (Thursday from Light), first performed at La Scala in Milan in 1981, is the only full performance there has been of this work in the last 30 years.

It's no easy matter then to summarise what Licht, or even Donnerstag aus Licht is all about. It's certainly possible to describe what takes place in Donnerstag on a narrative level, but the musical element (which is far from conventional), the autobiographical elements (which appear strange and eccentric to say the least), and the spiritual element (which is a level that is intended to run through everything else, musical, narrative and autobiographical), are all wrapped up in religious symbolism and a great deal of narrative and musical symbolism that Stockhausen has developed for himself.

To try and describe it as simply as possible however, Donnerstag aus Licht describes the early childhood of Michael, a spiritual being or angel who has been born in the body of a man with the intention of growing up to be the saviour of mankind. That salvation will be through the gift of music. As the final lines of Donnerstag describe it, Michael says his purpose is "to bring celestial music to humans and human music to the celestial beings, so that humanity may listen to GOD and GOD may hear his children." Michael's ascension to this messianic role is however not an easy one and he is tormented in his progress by Lucifer, who despises mankind and is full of disgust that Michael has taken on the form of one of these low creatures.

Michael's troubled childhood in Act I is not that far removed from Stockhausen's own, his mother - who takes on a symbolic form as Moon-Eve, while his father is to some extent aligned with Lucifer - is incarcerated in an institution for mental illness after her husband accuses her of having an affair. Confined to an asylum himself, Michael however receives a vision that tells him he is a celestial being who is to be the saviour of mankind, providing spiritual nourishment through his music (a belief that would come to be another part of Stockhausen's increasingly eccentric personality in later life).

In the entirely musical Act II of Donnerstag aus Licht, Michael assumes his role of saviour in a three-form incarnation, one as a tenor singer (Peter Tantsits), one as a trumpeter (who does all the 'singing' for this Act), one as a dancer (there are three-part Evas and three-part Lucifers as well). He undertakes visitations to major centres around the Earth; to Cologne, to New York, Japan, Bali, India, Central Africa and Jerusalem. His appearances heralding his Mission are followed with his trials of Mockery, Crucifixion and ultimately Ascension. Act III sees Michael's homecoming, a return to his celestial residence. Worshipped by choirs and greeted by Eve, Michael performs a ritual of Light with plants. It's here that Lucifer makes his strongest play to turn Michael away from his mission in a fight and a bitter exchange, but Michael resists.

Quite how seriously you are supposed to take this is not really open to question; you're supposed to take it very seriously indeed. Theater Basel were even obliged to publish a statement from the Stockhausen Institute that largely approved of the performance of this major work by the composer, but expressed grave reservations that the tone was darker than the composer would have liked, that it was too earth-bound with not enough emphasis on the 'light' that embodies the spiritual side of the work. It's a very stiff and humourless statement and unnecessarily restrictive and intolerant of any idea of interpretation.

Lydia Steier's direction for Theater Basel does however stick closely to the detailed descriptions and copious notes that Stockhausen lays out for the presentation of Donnerstag aus Licht, as well as for the musical delivery, complete with its precise indications and enumeration of noises, clicks, syllables, symbols and gestures that are as significant a part of the score and the singing as any conventional instrumentation. The production even opens with a Thursday Greeting in the lobby of the Theater Basel before the start of the main performance, humorously performed here with Titus Engel and a small band dressed in 70s' outfits and wigs puffing away on cigarettes between, and it closes outside the theatre with a Trumpet Farewell after the performance.

Steier takes much of the actual opera at face value, although she does attempt to tie it to a more conventional reality than the high-flown ideals of the Stockhausen Institute might have liked. Michael's journey around the globe in Act II seems to take place here from within his own mind while in the asylum, his mission an attempt to re-establish contact with his catatonic mother. There's a bit of humour as the trumpeter Michael destroys Godzilla at the second station in Japan, but apparently there's little room for either interpretation or humour in Stockhausen's self-important vision of himself as a cosmic musical saviour. All the grandeur of the piece is there however, particularly in Act III's choirs and battle with Lucifer.

What the Basel production does manage to achieve then is the sense of Licht as a real operatic event. Evidently the streamed version is a very different experience to being present at the actual event, but the sense of this being an opportunity to experience a rare work of genuine interest and significance, and share it with the world is commendable. Barbara Ehnes's set design is impressive in its efforts to make the complex musical lines, vocal lines, and multiple levels of Donnerstag aus Licht easy to follow. A rotating stage allows the work to flow beautifully around a tower that is used for back projections and as a window into Michael's mind and scenes from his childhood. Whatever the merits of Stockhausen's epic work, at the very least you have the opportunity to see that vision staged and it's hard not to be impressed either with the ambition of the work or its execution here.

Links: Theater Basel, Sonostream

Thursday 20 October 2016

Mozart - Così fan tutte (Royal Opera House, 2016)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Così fan tutte

Royal Opera House, 2016

Semyon Bychkov, Jan Philipp Gloger, Corinne Winters, Angela Brower, Daniel Behle, Alessio Arduini, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Sabina Puértolas

Cinema Season Live - 17 October 2016

Così fan tutte has never quite been treated with the same love and affection that is given to Mozart's other two collaborations with Lorenzo da Ponte, Le Nozze di Figaro or Don Giovanni. Perhaps it's because Così fan tutte is more overtly a comedy, but there are comic elements in all three operas. Perhaps the same weight of insight into human feelings and behaviour just isn't there or just gets lost amidst the farce, but that depends very much on the choices made in direction. In recent years for example, Michael Haneke and Christophe Honoré - both filmmakers - have explored the very dark side of human behaviour in Così fan tutte to a largely successful degree.

Perhaps all Haneke and Honoré really did with Così fan tutte was find a way to connect the audience to an emotional reality within the opera that the comic side doesn't achieve quite so well, but that raises the question about whether or not this betrays the true intent of the work. Like Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni all sides of human behaviour are explored, and there are also dark and disturbing aspects that are there to be drawn upon in Così fan tutte. The answer would seen to lie in achieving a human balance between the comedy and the darkness and, if nothing else, this search to reveal the true worth of Mozart in Così fan tutte means that the work is always a fascinating challenge.

Jan Philipp Gloger's production for the Royal Opera House takes the challenge head-on by recognising that, perhaps even more than the other two Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations, art and artifice are at the heart of Così fan tutte and part of its very nature. Even if it's entirely in the spirit of the work, placing the emphasis on the artifice in the opera with an openly theatrical presentation is however a risky gamble as it tends to place even more distance between the situation and the truth behind it. The real test of whether the work can reveal its deeper human predicament lies more with the performers here, but despite truly great performances from an impressive young cast, the production does seem to work against them.

By using and emphasising theatrical devices as the basis for the production, Jan Philipp Gloger adheres to the comic principles that are at the heart of the work, and the means by which Mozart and Da Ponte make their case. The subtitle of Così fan tutte - A School for Lovers - tells you of this intent. The plot of the opera, like the opera itself, relies on the artifice of art to get its message across. Art is a means of arriving at a truth about inner sentiments that outside 'realism' might not be capable of reaching. Just as Mozart's music is a means of expressing those feelings in relation to love and fidelity in Così fan tutte, so too the use of theatre has the power to invent situations that put those feelings to the test.

The lesson that Don Alfonso has to impart to his students Ferrando and Guglielmo is not just that all women are by nature inconstant and unfaithful in their love, but rather that love is not some romantic ideal that we can choose to bend to our will. The heart has no master. The meaning and intent of this lesson is a serious one, but presenting it as a comedy does pose some problems that often tend to overshadow the truth of the work. Rather than play it straight with the two men donning stupid disguises as moustachioed Albanians that would fool no-one, there has to be some sort of complicity in going along with the game on the part of both men and their partners, Fiordiligi and Dorabella. It has to be seen as a role-play on some level that delivers the truth.

Gloger's idea of having Don Alfonso as a theatre director then has considerable merit, not least for the conceit of the two men dressing up and behaving out of character as they try and woo their respective fiancées into being unfaithful. As the theatrical sets and situations are levered into place, it is however clearly a high-level concept and not one could bear any realistic scrutiny. Suspension of disbelief is necessary, but at some level surely we must all realise when we go to the theatre or the opera that we are never watching realism on the stage, but just people acting. But acting for a good reason, which is to get to a deeper truth, and, let's not forget, to entertain. This production entertains and impresses and it even gets the all-important human message across through its art, but it does still feel a little too artificial.

It's through no fault of the singing or the musical performance. On every level this is an outstanding performance. While the characters are by no means interchangeable (other than for the necessities of the plot evidently), I often find that it's harder work to distinguish or perhaps care enough to consider what are the defining characteristics of the four main characters. They might not be as multifaceted and complex individuals as those in The Marriage of Figaro, but they can still have depth and personality. Genuine attention to the music and the arias show that this is the case and if it doesn't come across it not as much an issue with Mozart and Da Ponte's depiction but more likely with the direction or the singer's ability to bring something to their role. There is no issue at all with the singers here in the Royal Opera House production, but perhaps the direction doesn't do enough to highlight the contrasts and differences.

As far as singing and characterisation go the performances however are outstanding. Corinne Winters, Angela Brower, Daniel Behle and Alessio Arduini are just delightful as the confused lovers, each of them bearing equal weight, each of them meeting the challenges of the work, all of them bringing considerable youthful personality and sympathy to the roles in their individual arias, in their duets and ensembles. It's marvellous to see such a team interacting, working with each other in a way that illustrates all the points of the music and the drama. Sabina Puértolas too is one of the best Despinas I have seen, her singing performance impressive, bringing a lively fun personality and a sense of pleasure at mixing things up on the stage. The wonderfully versatile Johannes Martin Kränzle is comparatively rather restrained as Don Alfonso, but dressed in period costume as the 'director' (as Lorenzo da Ponte?), it was hard to really grasp his real nature here.

Musically too, there's a good performance here from the orchestra under Semyon Bychkov that keeps the tone deceptively light, but it's this tone that dominates without either connecting meaningfully or contrasting with what is going on up on the stage. While Gloger's sets carry the sense of game play and role play, each of the 'actors' playing their allotted roles, it all feels a little detached and doesn't find a way to carry through to the ambiguous feelings that linger with the revelations made at a very confused resolution. There's an effort made to end on a wistful note, but you never get the sense that there is anything serious at stake here and no one really gets hurt, which, for all the criticisms you could make about it, is not something you could say about Christophe Honoré's devastating conclusion in his production for Aix-en-Provence and Edinburgh.

Links: Royal Opera House

Saturday 15 October 2016

Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Munich, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016

Kirill Petrenko, David Bösch, Wolfgang Koch, Martin Gantner, Robert Künzli, Benjamin Bruns, Emma Bell, Claudia Mahnke, Georg Zeppenfeld, Eike Wilm Schulte, Dietmar Kerschbaum, Christian Rieger, Ulrich Reß, Stefan Heibach, Thorsten Scharnke, Friedemann Röhlig, Peter Lobert, Dennis Wilgenhof, Goran Jurić 

Staatsoper.TV - 8 October 2016

I wouldn't say that Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is an underrated work, but it's easier to come up with explanations why Tristan und Isolde or Parsifal might be considered above it as the supreme examples of Richard Wagner's craft and arguably even the apex of opera as an art form. Sometimes you just have to trust the evidence of what you are hearing however, particularly when this wondrous piece is played with as great sensitivity and attention to detail as it is here in the Bavarian State Opera's 2016 production in Munich under the direction of Kirill Petrenko.

What is great about the other two works lies primarily in their ambiguity and mystique, elusive qualities which of course are wholly within the intent and craft of the composer. Tristan and Parsifal are works that encompass human potential beyond the common experience, and as such they are works that are endlessly capable of being explored, adapted, reinterpreted and reimagined for new meaning as we continue to attempt to define and understand the conflicts between the physical, the divine and the spiritual aspects of what it means to be human and to aspire to something greater.

Set alongside those mythical works, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg's historical setting and concerns seem rather mundane, its message abundantly clear in a late opera from Wagner that actually has a story and dramatic interaction rather than long philosophical monologues. On the surface, it's a simple enough story of a young man's who attempts to win over the influential elders of a town so that he can marry the daughter of one of Nuremberg most influential citizens, Veit Pogner. He does this of course by winning a singing contest and becoming a Mastersinger with the help of the town shoemaker, Hans Sachs. It seems a simple enough story of respecting German Art and tradition, of impetuous youth learning from the crafts of their elders before embarking boldly on their own course in life.

There are however many different facets to the work, much more than the relatively singular themes of Tristan und Isolde or Parsifal. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is richer in melody and ideas, it has moments of warmth and humour, melancholy and joy, it has a generosity of spirit and reveals a side to the composer that you won't find in any of his other great works. It has something profound to say about love, music, society, art, tradition and people as a nation in the past and going into the future, and how all these things come together to define who we are. Most importantly, for a work about art and the human spirit, it exhibits all these qualities itself; the music, the drama, the sophisticated human observations and characteristics displayed in the opera themselves testament of the highest achievements of art and humanity.

Although its qualities and the subject it deals with are as relevant now as in the 16th century setting of the work, Meistersinger is not a work one would feel needs any distinctive interpretation by a director, but it's a complex work of interweaving personalities and themes with specific tones in its musical arrangements, and it certainly needs strong controlled direction. It's hard therefore to see much of the hand of David Bösch in the Bayerische Staatsoper production, but it's to the credit of the director that all those elements of the work come across in a way that doesn't feel the need to create shock effects or strive to impress an unwelcome character on a work that largely - I'll come to the tricky bit later - doesn't court controversy or seek to impress. The director nonetheless still manages to find a setting that embodies the essential quality of the work and touches on its deeper meaning in a basic and modern context.

Bösch's production does start out however looking a little like Katharina Wagner's controversial Bayreuth production, with the leather jacket and t-shirt wearing Walther von Stolzing looking like the punk upstart who is going to shake up the deeply reactionary Nuremberg establishment. He even smashes up a bust of the eminent 'master' himself after his first failed effort at mastersinging. While Katharina Wagner perhaps over-emphasised the point that a certain amount of irreverence and healthy disrespect can play, total anarchy is not the answer and not within the better nature of art as an expression of the human spirit. David Bösch's production strikes a much better balance in tone, particularly in how von Stolzing's character is measured against this production's Sixtus Beckmesser and Hans Sachs, whose position is equally as important to the tone of the work as a whole.

All the wealth of characterisation and mood that is inherent within Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (just listen to the music - hear the evidence of your own ears) is all there in this production. Any uncertainty about the direction it might have taken in Act I is banished by the almost overwhelming riches that are revealed in Act II. The set might be more modern - Hans Sachs working out of a mobile workshop in a dark rundown backstreet of a modern German city - but the arrangement is the familiar one and all the playful, romantic episodes and complications play out wonderfully. The graffiti on Sachs' van and street thugs wielding baseball bats only emphasise that this is a town that has stagnated and seen better days, one that is in need of spiritual renewal as much as urban renewal. Beckmesser's mugging is not a racial or antisemetic attack as much as him being a victim of the society that he and his like have fostered, ignoring the people, refusing to hear what they really need, holding on to outdated ideas.

Beckmesser is nicely characterised in this way. He's not overbearing and he's not weak either; he's not a caricature, but just a boring old man who is a bit full of himself and refuses to budge. He's the Marker who is keen to record the faults of others but not recognise them in himself, although his lack of self-confidence is evident and it betrays his true nature in the end. All this is vitally important in the light of how a director approaches the rather more problematic conclusion of this opera, and what one makes of Hans Sachs' 'Honour your German masters' closing speech. One of Wagner's most controversial moments, its tone can strike a wrong note after all that has come before it and remind one a little too much of the sentiments expressed in Wagner's work that would appeal to Hitler and the Nazis. It has to be handled right, and it has to be in the spirit it was intended, seen in the light of the time it was written, but still be acceptable and work - as it essentially must - in a modern context.

If there's truth in the characterisation and adherence to the nature of all that has come before it, it can be made to work. David Bösch's direction of the final act shows the inner meaning of Hans Sachs' speech and its dedication to art. All the solemnity and respect for art is there, there's humour and tolerance and recognition of all the love of beauty and expression of man's finer nature that is in Walther's Prize song. It is about glorifying art, of the supremacy of art as the highest expression of what it means to be human; a creative endeavour that works for the betterment of community. Wagner's great work generously expresses all these qualities and the work itself expresses everything that is wondrous about art and humanity. But it's also important to make the point that it's not for the old to sing the words of the new, as Beckmesser attempts. The old must make way for the new, and that is recognised with a violent conclusion that makes all the necessary impact. 

It's a joyous production then, one which fully embraces the richness and the true intent of this great work. The evidence of your own ears should also tell you this and dispel any prejudices you might have held against the work or misjudgements that it might not be as sophisticated and beautiful as some of Wagner's other mature operas, because Kirill Petrenko's conducting of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester is just phenomenal. The music sparkles with little flourishes and nuances, all of the detail brought out of the characterisation, mood and situation. There's no overemphasis on the Romantic, the melancholic or the dramatic - it merely gives voice to the complexity of those sentiments in relation to one another, with surges of emotion, the little hesitations, self-denials, holding back and letting go to revel in moments of joy and beauty which are often contained within all in those situations that generate contradictory feelings. This opera more than any other Wagner work anticipates Richard Strauss at his finest.

The singing is mostly wonderful, but even where it is lacking the full ability to tackle the demanding roles, the characterisation is strong enough to compensate. It's the opposite though for Wolfgang Koch as Hans Sachs. There's not a great deal of character detail in Koch's interaction with the others, but the role is sung well with a natural warmth in his voice. Martin Gantner likewise gives an unexpected warmth and lightness to Beckmesser without any sense of caricature or over-playing. His fate in the very last scene of this production does give you pause to think about his role in this society. Robert Künzli is a wonderfully lyrical Walther, but rather rushes the Prize song and fails to give it due feeling. Benjamin Bruns gives us a fine lyrical David and consequently brings rather more out of the role than is usually the case. Emma Bell struggled as Eva, I thought, in characterisation and in voice, but there were some good moments there. Claudia Mahnke's Lena and Georg Zeppenfeld's Pogner were noteworthy, as was Eike Wilm Schulte's Fritz Kothner.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV

Tuesday 4 October 2016

Glass - Einstein on the Beach (Châtelet, Paris - 2014)

Philip Glass / Robert Wilson - Einstein on the Beach

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris - 2014

Michael Riesman, Robert Wilson, Helga Davis, Kate Moran, Antoine Silverman, Jasper Newell, Charles Williams

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Although both Philip Glass and Robert Wilson remain major figures in the world of opera, the 2012-13 revival of their groundbreaking collaboration Einstein on the Beach, first performed in 1976, represents an opportunity to see the more radical roots of both the composer and the stage director. Einstein on the Beach seems to have sprung more or less organically from their days as part of a community of experimental artists in downtown New York, a circle also frequented by choreographer Lucinda Childs. The work was never created with the notion of it being an opera. It was just an opportunity for a group of like-minded experimental artists to collaborate together.

The fact that it required a stage big enough to encompass this unusual project led to Einstein on the Beach being performed in opera houses, but in retrospect, the work is clearly a combination of all the key musical and theatrical elements that go into the artform. Einstein on the Beach is a true Gesamtkunstwerk in that respect. There are words, there are stage sets, there's music, there's dancing. There is perhaps however one notable element missing from what we would normally associate with opera. One major element - there's a complete lack of any traditional dramatic narrative in Einstein on the Beach. One would even be hard pressed even to find an overarching theme or a concept in the work, but it very much has a purpose nonetheless.

Einstein on the Beach would later be considered alongside the subsequent Satyagraha (Gandhi) and Akhnaten as the first of Philip Glass's three portraits operas, but there's even less of anything like a conventional portrait of Albert Einstein in the composer's first work. In place of a libretto, the words are seemingly random, repeated, cut-up and recited texts by Christopher Knowles, Samuel M. Johnson and Lucinda Childs, with solfege and numbers reeled out at dizzying speeds according to the changing rhythms of 'Music in Twelve Parts'-era Philip Glass. Rather than employ an orchestra or use traditional string instruments, the music is played by the Philip Glass Ensemble on electronic keyboards, with flutes, clarinets and saxophones. Albert Einstein also appears as a character who plays the violin during the 'Knee-Play' connecting segments of the opera.

To accompany each musical sequence with chanted and recited texts, Robert Wilson transforms the stage with shades of luminous blue lighting, uses geometric shapes for props and has figures strike angular poses as they move around within these scenes. Lucinda Childs' dancers work with the settings, holding poses and shapes, or whirl across and off the stage in response to the wild repetitive rhythms of Glass's music. None of this however adds up to anything like a progressive dramatic arc or character development. In fact, the audience are not even expected to sit through the complete five hours or so of a work without intervals, but are actually encouraged to wander in and out of the theatre whenever they feel like it. It's unlikely anyone taking a short a comfort break will really miss anything here.

Whether Einstein on the Beach is performance art that reflects or perhaps tells us something about order in the modern world, about the place that mathematics and technology play in our lives (in the precise arrangements of the music score even more than in any of the texts) is up to the individual viewer to determine. It is what it is. Music with changing parts, immersive theatre and dance in its purest form - music as music, theatre as theatre, dance as dance. It's left to the viewer to take it in, absorb it, feel it, experience it and make something more of it if they can. It can be hypnotic ('Train'), exhilarating ('Field Dance I') irritatingly dull ('Trial'), haunting ('Bed') and often humorous, but the combination of those experiments and complementary art forms, always progressing and changing, mean that it's an incredibly immersive and involving experience. It's not a "message" opera, it's not a story opera, it's something else, something alive and bursting with energy.

As a means of experiencing Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach is also just about as pure and essential an example of both artists' work as you'll find in the music theatre world. It's a work that only really functions as it ought to in full performance. Critics and audiences reacted favourably when the show played at the Barbican in London, and it's tremendous to have the entire four and a half hour production recorded in High Definition at the 2014 shows at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

It comes across exceptionally well on the small screen, a spellbinding production of propulsive, hypnotic rhythms, voice and movement, with an exceptional cast who have to deal with some highly complex and physically exhausting arrangements. Some of the texts have been revised and replaced from the 1976 original, and the staging is perhaps a little more high-tech, but essentially this is very much in line with the original design and concept and it's a fine reminder of the experimental vitality of early Philip Glass. Robert Wilson's technique on the other hand hasn't changed that much.

The all-region compatible Blu-ray release has the benefit not only of a glorious High Definition presentation of Robert Wilson's exquisite lighting and colouration (the fine gradients of light and colour undoubtedly incredibly difficult to master for a video transfer), but the experience is enhanced through the uncompressed audio mixes. The surround-sound audio track of the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix in particular separates the vocal layering well. The BD comes as a 2-disc set in a hardcover book format case with a cardboard outer slipcase. There are no extra features on the discs, but the booklet contains interview excerpts from Glass, Wilson and Childs that explain how the work came to be created and how it has developed. There's also an essay on just what is unique and extraordinary about the work. There are no subtitles - as most of the texts are meaningless anyway - and there is evidently no synopsis. The chapter names and selection can be found from the pop-up menus while the disc is playing. 

Verdi - Macbeth (La Monnaie, 2016)

Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels 2016

Paolo Carignani, Olivier Fredj, Scott Hendricks, Carlo Colombara, Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Lies Vandewege, Andrew Richards, Julian Hubbard, Justin Hopkins, Gerard Lavalle, Jacques Does, Maria Portela Larisch, Boyan Delattre, Jules Besnard

ARTE Concert - September 2016

One thing you can say about productions at La Monnaie is that their stage designs are always impressively stylish. They never go for the straightforward or obvious locations, striving to find other ways to represent works in a bold, modern setting with unexpected concepts. It's also true however that they don't always fit perfectly and sometimes don't make a whole lot of sense, and that seems to be the case with their season opening production of Verdi's Macbeth. There may be some vague references made here to the upcoming US elections, but those are as vague and uncertain as the nature of what the future holds in store there.

Directed by Olivier Fredj, La Monnaie's Macbeth contains little overt reference to Scotland, and is instead set in a luxury hotel. I don't much fancy what they cook in the cauldrons down in the kitchen, but there are all kinds of schemes being cooked up in the hotel lobby as well. Lady Macbeth looks on at a couple nursing their baby there while she turns to her own dark ambitions on receiving Macbeth's letter of promotion. They will have no children of their own to leave with the fruits of their success, so why not make the most of the opportunities that are open to them and take what is ordained to be their due right now.

Macbeth's moment of decision is prompted by an omen. "Is this a dagger I see before me?" No, it's a piece of cutlery that has fallen off the room service trolley, but it's a good enough sign for Macbeth, and the ringing of a distant bell (on the reception desk) is all the invitation he needs to steel himself to kill the king, Duncan. Well, that and a bit of encouragement from his wife. The hotel locations are used in this way throughout and it's a natural place to have servants and maids in the present day, as well as a large banquet. It's also as good a place as any to show ambition, wealth and privilege, but problems with the purpose of the production go deeper than this.

The production at least retains a token suggestion of its original Scottish roots in the men's costumes. They don't quite go as far as wearing tartan kilts, but instead have a rather fashionable (in some circles I'm sure) powersuit with a long Alexander McQueen kind of overskirt. For her part, Lady Macbeth's style - particularly her hairstyle - becomes more noticeably more First Lady-like, with Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Regan references, settling in the end (somewhat randomly) for a deranged Queen Elizabeth I double-cornet red wig, which is of course dramatically removed during her downfall in Act IV. Macbeth's bouffant quiff and displays of wealth might be considered a reference to Donald Trump. If you want to however, the quotes of a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (which make it through from Shakespeare in a less poetic translation), are perhaps more eloquent on this point.

If the stage production is merely adequate for the purposes of the drama, with neither the direction nor Jean Lecointre's 'digital collage' projections really revealing any new insights or suggesting any real purpose, the singing and musical performance are unfortunately not quite up to the task of matching Verdi's thunderous sound and fury either. Scott Hendricks is surprisingly restrained and subdued in the performance of such a mighty role, not like himself at all. His singing is mostly fine and capable, but he doesn't always produce the most pleasant of sounds in the lower register. It was hard moreover to see any kind of character being established here - although part of the problem might be with Verdi - Macbeth here appearing to be confused and out of his depth the whole time.

There wasn't much to compensate in Béatrice Uria-Monzon taking on the role of Lady Macbeth. Uria-Monzon can be an explosive singer, but Lady Macbeth is not a role for a mezzo-soprano. Her 'La luce langue' just doesn't have the fireworks you would expect for the scene, and there's no sense of urgent over-reaching ambition or cool calculation in the performance. The direction never really permits much in the way of creating mood or atmosphere. 'Patria oppressa' works by taking the chorus out into the audience, but elsewhere they fall back on the now familiar theatrical device of being an audience seated at the back of the stage watching the action.

Paolo Carignani conducted Verdi's original 1847 version with a few revisions, which meant that we got the witches ballet in Act III and Macbeth's 'Mal per me' aria, as well as Lady Macbeth's 'La luce langue' from the '65 version. The compromise didn't lead to a particularly clear conclusion, with Macbeth vanishing after his aria and Malcolm reluctantly or warily approaching to take up his empty robe. Whether it was the performance or the recording, I don't know, but there was a lack of urgency to the musical arrangements. The melody was good, but it lacked rhythm, drive and dramatic engagement. This was a bit of a disappointing start to Carignani's tenure at La Monnaie.

Links: La Monnaie, ARTE Concert