Monday 21 November 2016

Mozart - Don Giovanni (NI Opera, 2016)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

NI Opera, 2016

Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Henk Neven, John Molloy, Clive Bayley, Hye-Youn Lee, Rachel Kelly, Sam Furness, Aoife Miskelly, Christopher Cull

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 19th November 2016

So, it would appear that we are coming to the end of Oliver Mears' term as Artistic Director of NI Opera. It seemed obvious that Mears would go on to bigger and better things sooner or later and I suppose you could consider an appointment replacing Kasper Holten as Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden as a step in the right direction. Both Mears and conductor Nicholas Chalmers have achieved much in their time at NI Opera, raising the profile of the work done in the province in a way that has evidently made a favourable impression in the UK opera world. We've been lucky to see some great work from them over the last six of years. In the meantime, as for Don Giovanni at the Grand Opera House in Belfast - well, it's business as usual.

Business as usual however doesn't mean that there is anything at all predictable about the NI Opera production, but without having to involve any fancy concept or new interpretation, they manage to find a way to keep it fresh and modern and still get to the heart of the work. But Mears can also surprise in his choice of location settings. I've seen many productions of Don Giovanni in any number of inventive productions, but I would never have imagined it being suitable to stage on a mid-twentieth century cruise ship. On the other hand, it seems like a perfectly natural place for a romantic adventure and misadventure, to show class differences where there are servants below the decks, and where there is also a recognisable air of period decadence about it all, and isn't class and decadence what Don Giovanni is all about?

Well no, evidently it's about a lot more than that, but too often that is the aspect that is given the greatest emphasis. And it's given that emphasis because Don Giovanni is set in a world where such class distinctions are obvious and because Don Giovanni himself is such a fascinating character to explore. We know he's an inveterate womaniser, we know there's a cruel streak to his use and abuse of women (and his manservant), and we know he does indeed use his position to charm and seduce them. Any deeper exploration of his motivations however usually tends towards a darker, more callous nature, as a murderer and a rapist, and there is a good case for examining Don Giovanni by today's standards in those terms (and the opera is so great that it can bear such an approach), but you have to question whether that was really the tone that Mozart and Da Ponte were aiming for in an opera buffa.

Even though he is amusingly bunked up in cabin 666 of the cruise ship Sevilla, there's nothing really sinister or radical about Oliver Mears' interpretation of Don Giovanni for NI Opera, and it does consequently lack a bit of an edge that you might find in other interpretations. What is significant about the weight and emphasis in this production however was that it is not wholly focussed on an interpretation or exploration of the psychological mindset of Don Giovanni as much as there is a recognition that the work is essentially an ensemble piece with many other areas of interest to explore. And yes, it is essentially a comedy too, but - much like Così Fan Tutte and Le Nozze di Figaro - comedy in the hands of Mozart and Da Ponte can still have a lot of a bite to it. And, when you get right down to it, and no matter from what angle you approach the work, the message here is not one that needs to be overly laboured or complicated: in the end Don Giovanni pays for his sins and goes to hell.

It's tempting to look at some of the references in the production and consider why Don Giovanni has a blonde bouffant hair-do, but this production was developed long before there was any suggestion that Donald Trump would be a figure of such importance. Although, considering the US President-Elect's views of women and his treatment of them, if you want to apply that image to Don Giovanni, you might find it adds another level to a work that is more than capable of sustaining such ideas. It's tempting also to read something into the colonial references of Don Giovanni's fancy-dress party, where he comes dressed as a white hunter taming the savages - but again, there is no overt reference here nor expansion of the theme. It is very amusing though, and creates a colourful scene in one of Annemarie Woods' beautifully designed and eye-catching sets for the production.

What matters perhaps just as much as any psychological exploration of Don Giovanni, or attempt to apply his behaviour to a deeper evil that we recognise in our own times, is how his behaviour affects others. In that respect, the murder of Donna Anna's father the Commendatore and Don Giovanni's attempted rape or seduction of Donna Anna is clearly an important factor in bringing the Don to justice. Don Ottavio's role in the work can tend to be overlooked, but he too suffers from the consequences of what has happened between Don Giovanni and Donna Anna. Some productions have daringly suggested that Donna Anna is complicit or at least a willing and participant in Don Giovanni's seductions, before it perhaps goes too far.

Oliver Mears doesn't seem to be too concerned with such nuances or interpretations. To do so would be to again place too much attention into one area when you could as easily make the case that Donna Elvira's betrayal and her self-delusions are just as important to shining a light on the activities and nature of Don Giovanni (it is to Donna Elvira of course that Leporello reveals the list of his masters conquests across Europe). As indeed is the manner in which the servants Zerlina and Masetto, and perhaps by extension the sanctity of the institution of marriage, are treated with callous disregard by Don Giovanni. All have equal weight in Mozart and Da Ponte's great work and Oliver Mears and Nicholas Chalmers allow the music Mozart writes for each of the characters to speak for them.

They also bear in mind that the comedy is important and that Leporello is a perfect conduit between the comedy and the tragedy of Don Giovanni, that Don Giovanni gets his comeuppance in the end (an unusually wet one here rather than the usual fiery one, but no less effective or spectacular for it), and that it's by a joining of forces of his victims that this result is brought about. As such, if you are going to place the emphasis on the ensemble nature of Don Giovanni as an opera, there's only one thing that is important, and that's the singing. Which means there are eight things to get right, and - as is evident from looking at the cast list alone - it's clear that NI Opera have assembled the strongest possible team with a good mix of local, UK and international talent.

There's room to identify with the predicament of any of the characters, but for me it was Hye-Youn Lee who made the strongest case for Donna Anna's suffering. It's a technically demanding role, but Lee (who I've also seen sing Scottish Opera's Madama Butterfly) has the capability and the lyricism required for expression of these deep emotions. It helped also that there was a Don Ottavio of equal lyricism in Sam Furness, who made an often overlooked role come to life in a warm and sympathetic way. It's not quite clear how the vengeful Commendatore makes his comeback here, as his statue is packed on-board even before he is killed, but Clive Bayley's voice was enough to put the fear of god into anyone. Rachel Kelly's Donna Elvira really was also a woman on a mission (her fancy-dress costume even had something of Joan of Arc appearance to it), the singing full of character, her appearances hitting that difficult spot between the comedy of her interventions and the tragic nature of her circumstances.

The last time I saw John Molloy I thought he struggled with the demands of the Verdi bass role as Banquo in Macbeth, but he's perfectly at home in the lighter comedy bass roles. Leporello is still a challenge well above something like Doctor Dulcamara, but Molloy was superb, making it look easy, giving the role energy and fire. If the lyricism wasn't always there in the catalogue aria ('Madamina, il catalogo è questo'), it was probably more to do with it being sung in English. That was something that also hindered the more nuanced expressions of Henk Neven's Don Giovanni, but his performance nonetheless captured that tricky combination of charisma, sleaze, arrogance and authority that is needed. Last and far from least Aoife Miskelly played a light, playful and skittish Zerlina alongside Christopher Cull's insecure but devoted Masetto, both raising the level of the two servants and their humble love to a level of equal importance that is vital to the purpose of the work and this production as a whole.

If some of the singing was on the light side, Nicholas Chalmers did his best to balance the weight and measure of the orchestral playing to keep the translation audible. Lightness of touch is often better with Mozart, as much for the treatment of the drama as for the openness it gives to instrumental colour and for the lyrical character it's necessary to have in the voices. Without losing any of that character, the drama and the coming together of the piece as an ensemble takes on a momentum of its own towards that darker conclusion. Even there, the lightness of touch is consistent and telling, Don Giovanni appropriately meeting his end via an object - a hairdryer dropped by the Commendatore in his private pool - that highlights another fatal flaw in his character; his vanity.  Shocking stuff!

Links: NI Opera

Saturday 19 November 2016

Busoni - Doktor Faust (Zurich, 2006)

Ferruccio Busoni - Doktor Faust

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006

Philippe Jordan, Klaus Michael Gruber, Thomas Hampson, Günther Groissböck, Gregory Kunde, Reinaldo Macias, Sandra Trattnigg, Martin Zysset, Andreas Winkler, Thilo Dahlmann, Matthew Leigh

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

The fact that it isn't performed very often might lead one to believe that Busoni's Doktor Faust is not quite as dramatically suited to the stage as other adaptations of Goethe's famous work. In truth, few of those other versions ever amount to either a complete or a coherent account of the Faust legend, more often picking and choosing scenes to musically illustrate it, reducing it down to a series of episodic numbers. That's true for Berlioz's La damnation de Faust, as much as it is for Bioto's Mefistofele and even Gounod's Faust, which may nonetheless be the most successful account of the work for the opera stage.  

Grappling with the dramatic construction of the work is probably the greatest challenge and Busoni's opera appears to be much more complete and better structured as an opera than any of the other above named examples. And this is despite the fact the Prologue where Faust enters into his deal with Mephistopheles takes up a full third of the work. At this stage Faust is already considered a heretic and a libertine in his quest to understand men's behaviour and extend the boundaries of human knowledge. Three mystical figures appear however, three students from Cracow who drift unseen past his assistant Wagner, offering him a book and a key that will open the door to the knowledge he seeks, allowing him to call on the assistance of Lucifer and his servants.

This opening scene is an important one to establish the context for what follows and Busoni gives it due attention for its potential for stage spectacle, for the richness of the music that can be applied to it, and for the part it plays in determining how the audience regard Faust's considering a pact with the devil. He doesn't enter into the arrangement lightly (it's nothing something to dabble in, after all), dismissing all the demons who he believes will not be able to help him fulfil his ambitions. He may only be left with Mephistopheles in the end, but he recognises that this servant of Hell who can read the thoughts of men and knows the secret desires in their hearts, offers the best opportunity for the learning the forbidden knowledge he seeks.

Rather than dominating and dictating the whole tone of the work and potentially distorting the message of the legend of Faust, the doctor's misdeeds and misuse of his powers take up only the middle section of the work, but it is so well used. Like the first section, Busoni's orchestration is rich and dynamic, with recitative and declamation mixed with Romantic sensibilities, symphonic interludes and occasional forays to the edges of tonality. Even within these more episodic scenes, Busoni finds a full range of expression that covers the important aspects of Faust's actions.

His seduction of the maiden Gretchen is not as important - debatably - as him being held to account for it by her brother the soldier. His response, leaving the act of disposing of this man to Mephistopheles, in a church and blasphemously disguised as a monk, all add to the accounts in Satan's books, for which Faust will have to settle up later. Likewise, Faust's display of power for the Duke and Duchess of Parma is not just an opportunity to display arcane powers, but a way to probe relevant questions on the nature of beauty, and how to use them to bend the Duchess to his bidding. The consequences of this are even debated by students of Catholic and Protestant doctrine in a scene that further explores the pull of emotions, love and human mortality.

The final third of the work is devoted to Faust's downfall, the knight, the Duchess and a dead baby she has delivered come back to haunt him, but they also present him with a chance at some kind of redemption. Dividing the work almost equally up into Thought-Action-Reflection, the overall impression of Busoni's Faust then is of a work that focuses on the human drives and the price to be paid for them rather than the Romantic centre of Marguerite in Gounod's Faust or the huge battle between the forces of Heaven and Hell that is scaled up in Boito's Mefistofele.

So why then is Busoni's Doktor Faust not better known and given greater credit? Well, like many worthy works from the same period, history hasn't been kind to Busoni's great work. The opera remained incomplete when the composer died in 1924, the work finished by a pupil, Philipp Jarnach, for a first performance in 1925, but it was only in 1982 that the opera was completed from original sketches that the composer left for the remainder of the work. Like many 'lost' or neglected works from the 1920s however, musical fashions changed greatly around this time, and those that fell in-between the two world wars particularly have suffered the most, seeming to become irrelevant and never finding an audience as music went in another direction entirely. Even though Busoni paved the way for this kind of new music and even though Doktor Faust still sounds quite modern, it has never had the opportunity to find the place it deserves in the opera repertoire.

The Zurich production from 2006 goes a long way towards highlighting the musical qualities of the work if it doesn't quite manage to make Doktor Faust come fully to life on the stage. The staging is stylised, semi-modern and part abstract (the 'book' Faust gains forbidden knowledge from not actually a book but a small statue here, for example), but dealing with concepts, ideas and the supernatural, there's no reason why it should be 'realistic'. If anything, there isn't a sufficient sense of the human confrontation with huge concepts like eternity and the damnation of the soul, but this weakness could lie with Busoni as much as with Klaus Michael Gruber's stage production.

The singing at least is strong and impressive in its efforts to bring out and convey this deeper element within the work. Thomas Hampson gives a terrific performance of a conflicted character, the nobility of his aims undermined by ego and human failings. Alternately authoritative of purpose and thoughtful of his actions, Hampson shows Doctor Faust capable of mastery of everything but himself. Gregory Kunde gives us a Mephistopheles that is full of character and mischievousness. It's a wonderfully sung and well characterised performance. Philippe Jordan and the Zurich orchestra manage to bring all the majesty and wonder out of Busoni's score.

Links: Opernhaus Zürich

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Berg - Lulu (English National Opera. 2016)

Alban Berg - Lulu

English National Opera, 2016

Mark Wigglesworth, William Kentridge, Luc De Wit, Brenda Rae, Sarah Connolly, Michael Colvin, James Morris, Nicky Spence, Willard White, David Soar, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Clare Presland, Graeme Danby, Sarah Labiner, Rebecca de Pont Davies, Sarah Champion, Geoffrey Dolton, Joanna Dudley, Andrea Fabi

The Coliseum, London - 12th November 2016

Every time I see it, I marvel at how dense a work Lulu is and how frustrating it is to get a grasp on. It's never a question of liking or loving it - it's a work of art that lies beyond such superficial considerations. Lulu is an opera that demands engagement but at the same time keeps you at a distance. Almost by definition it's a piece whose meaning and wider application must remain elusive, since its main character herself must remain an enigma.

I can only imagine how much more difficult then it must be for the performers and directors to take on its musical challenges and at the same time draw it into something coherent and comprehensible for an audience. It must be a challenge of Ring-like proportions. Lulu is a work that leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but at the same time it defies any attempt to pin it down. Or if not so much interpretation, it demands artistic engagement. Whether on the part of the singers - particularly in the leading role - or the director, there's room to make a mark, place a personal stamp on the raw material that Berg provides.

Although it almost adds another level of complexity that for the sake of attention and focus it could well do without, William Kentridge's production for the English National Opera is an almost perfect way to approach Lulu, being neither illustrative or interpretative. Using projections of bold Indian ink sketches and splatters on a canvas of text, William Kentridge's designs address the question of art within Lulu, and in doing so they provide a new insight into the work. Lulu is not just a figure immortalised in a painting by the Artist, she is a living work of art. This is what gives Berg's opera its endless fascination at the same time as it frustrates the viewer and the director who attempts to pin it down.

The inability to pin Lulu down - she even resists attempts to give her just one name - is exactly what Kentridge brings to the production through his constantly reworked drawings, sketches and inkblots. Painted on top of blocks of newspaper or dictionary text, the illustrations are neither decorative nor illustrative of the drama, but perhaps more attuned to the music and to the art of the music. The images layer on top of one another, cutting and jumping, flipping reverses and mirror images, reflecting the impossibility of defining Lulu - the person, the opera, the concept, the idea - into one single image. Notoriously, Lulu is all things to all men; an object, the personification of men's lusts and desires who cannot possibly live up to the ideal.

In contrast to my usual experience with Lulu then, fascination with a production's attempts to define her or at least define the ideal gradually leading to frustration as the work slips away from any efforts to exert control over it, Kentridge's production had the opposite effect. Act I was the most frustrating since it didn't offer any 'vision'. The projections seemed to be little more than a series of gestures, slapdash ideas without any strong conceptual core behind them, offering no way of making the narrative any easier to follow, even if it has a distinct and attractive visual presence.

By Act II however, this constant reworking of the enigma of Lulu became mesmerising. You really do see the turning point in the reinstated 'film sequence', the moment that Lulu's ascendancy starts to decline, the moment her currency devalues and how afterwards she starts to become weary of the attentions of men, recoiling from the constant gaze, only to find that she has never had an identity of her own. Act III then becomes captivating in a way that productions using Friedrich Cerha's impressive efforts to complete the third Act of the work - the incomplete opera creating an enigma and fascination of its own - rarely achieve. The production leaves you with a sense that it has continually added to the picture of Lulu rather than taken away from her in her decline to a horrible end.

In fact, Kentridge and co-director Luc De Wit do make the fractured narrative of Berg's efforts to condense Wedekind's two 'Lulu' plays much easier to follow. Each of the characters is colourfully dressed, contrasting with the start black-and-white imagery of the projected ink illustrations. And not just colourfully dressed, but colourfully interpreted, each showing a distinct personality in character and in voice. Without the distraction of trying to work out who was who and who is married to Lulu now, the complexity of the relationship between the narrative, the production design and the difficult shifting musical landscape is actually much easier to grasp. Two silent figures of a man and a woman - dressed in black-and-white, the man wearing a newspaper head mask, the woman more Lulu-like - also add an indefinable quality of living artworks to the unspoken matters of the work. Even if if the principal character remains elusive, she is not a void.

A considerable part of the success of achieving that must lie with the singer performing the role of Lulu and Brenda Rae fulfilled the role marvellously. Aside from the technical challenges of the role, she brought an ideal tone and temperament that suited the intent of the production here. This Lulu as portrayed by Rae is neither lascivious nor hysterical, but essentially and necessarily human, as flawed and capable of misjudgment as anyone. If she is irresistible to men, it's clearly more of a projection of what the men impress on her than anything she initiates. She's more victim than vamp. Sarah Connolly is luxury casting for Countess Geschwitz and Nicky Spence made a great impression as Alwa, but there was much to admire in all of the cast; in James Morris's Dr Schön, Michael Colvin's Artist and David Soar's Athlete. With so much going on I always find it hard to take in Berg's huge complex score, but Mark Wigglesworth's conducting proved to be the unifying force for all its tones and styles, as well as for its dramatic content.

Links: English National Opera

Friday 11 November 2016

Donizetti - La Favorite (Munich, 2016)

Gaetano Donizetti - La Favorite

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016

Karel Mark Chichon, Amélie Niermeyer, Elīna Garanča, Matthew Polenzani, Mariusz Kwiecień, Mika Kares, Joshua Owen Mills, Elsa Benoit

Staatsoper.TV Live - 6th November 2016

On the surface, La Favorite has a melodramatic plot of contrivance, misfortune and happenstance that results in the inevitable tragic ending for the leading lady. It's one that is typical of bel canto opera and Donizetti (Lucia di Lammermoor, Linda di Chamounix, Anna Bolena). La Favorite in fact seems even more over the top than usual, with religion, court intrigue and war heroism all crashing together in a spectacular fashion within the remit of a tragic love triangle. Behind it all however there is the touching and tragic personal story of a woman crushed by huge forces beyond her control, and the Bayerische Staatsoper's 2016 production focuses in on this human element of Donizetti's rich work to brilliant effect.

There is certainly a risk of that human element being lost within the vast scale of the plot and the immense stature of the personalities involved. The human element is principally within the figure of Léonor de Guzman, a woman who is secretly the mistress, the 'favourite', of King Alfonse XI of Castille. Their illicit union however doesn't escape the notice of the Pope, who issues a Papal decree denouncing the king's intention to divorce the Queen and risk placing the nation under threat. The king sees a way out of the problem, agreeing to a marriage between Léonor and Fernand, a captain in his army who has distinguished himself in the nation's wars, but the king has another agenda, having just discovered that Fernand is already Léonor's lover.

Even the history of Léonor's affair with Fernand is shrouded in  romantic intrigue and secrecy; Fernand leaving the monastery of St James where he is a novice monk to follow a mysterious woman he is in love with, Léonor necessarily keeping their meetings hidden from the King. Behind all the huge religious, political and royal intrigues however is a woman who is the victim of all these forces; the mistreated and abused mistress of the king, a fallen woman reviled by the Catholic Church, scorned by the royal court who laugh at her "sordid affair", and eventually abandoned by her lover over his deep sense of "honour". These grand forces might take a literal representation in the libretto, but Donizetti's score has a way of showing how they affect women in the abstract.

Donizetti's music is often underrated and indeed in some works it is rather rudimentary in its rhythms and dramatic effects. Composed for the Paris stage, and presented in that original French version here in Munich, the work is considerably more sophisticated than Donizetti is often given credit for. On the grand scale, the collision of such vast forces looks towards Verdi's Don Carlos, but on the intimate and more personal level, Fernand's rejection of the fallen woman Léonor at the altar is equal in force of sentiment and dramatic impact to Alfredo's repudiation of Violetta in La Traviata. Perhaps even more so, since the royal court also round on Léonor in a mass chorus that proclaims "His revenge is noble indeed", in response to Fernand's act.

The key to not letting such highly charged scenes and lofty personalities overwhelm the human tragedy of Léonor's fate is, evidently, restraint. Donizetti's score suggests bombast, but it invites intimacy and a more nuanced approach. The extravagant bel canto histrionics are not there in La Favorite, nor is there is any mad scene to show off the agility and range of the soprano. Léonor is scored for a mezzo soprano, and the timbre is darker, the role more dramatic, but still lyrical and still extremely challenging. Elīna Garanča is restrained in her gestures, almost holding back too much, but a deeper response to the turns of events is there to be brought out and it can be fully felt in her singing delivery. It's an impressively and yet unshowy performance.

Highlighting Léonor's fate as the core of the opera's greatness is the main element that points to another success for the Bayerische Staatsoper following on from their live broadcast of an impressive Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg last month. It seems like many of the previous directorial excesses of the opera house have been scaled back without losing any of the freshness, modernity and inventiveness of their productions. Amélie Niermeyer's direction pays attention to the tone of the opera, to the narrative drama and to the subtext. There's an attention to detail in the characterisation that avoids the broad brushstrokes that the overly-orchestrated plot would seem to invite.

The attention to detail and to the human side of the work is not just reflected in Léonor, but there is effort made to humanise the other characters too. Most notably - even if its "humanising" on a rather more base level - the director uses the interval music between Act I and II to show us another side to King Alfonse. Sitting beside Léonor while a light display suggests they are watching a lurid TV drama, many facets of Alfonse the man are shown, his arrogance and machismo, his boyish playfulness, his sleazy possessiveness of Léonor, pawing over her, but also his romantic fervour. It's a terrific use of Donizetti's music to develop character without distorting it. It has to be said that Mariusz Kwiecień is quite brilliant in running through this range in a fantastic dumbshow display, and his singing and performance in the more conventional kingly role is equally assured and impressive.

Matthew Polenzani is doing great work on the Munich stage, and he's well cast here as a dramatic lyrical Verdi tenor instead of a more romantic bel canto singer like Juan Diego Flórez or Yijie Shi (who sang the role in Toulouse). His voice is not a big one, but it's expressive and he can do much with a role like Fernand. That said, Fernand is not a figure who comes out of the work with a clear or nuanced position, swayed between love and God, working himself up from monk to warrior, with little opportunity for any real human character to be expressed, but Polenzani does what he can with the arias and is always engaging in voice and in performance.

La Favorite shows what opera at its best can do, elevating the human experience to an epic scale, and reducing epic scale down into relatable human experience. The Munich production sees a woman's life within the context of the unforgiving forces of religion and masculine power, judged by their standards and unable to exert any control over her own life and love. Donizetti's music is masterfully up to the task and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, directed with force, vigour and sensitivity by Karel Mark Chichon show just how sophisticated Donizetti's writing can be and just how much of an impact his operas can make. This is another outstanding production in what is so far an impressive broadcast season at the Bavarian State Opera House in Munich.

The next live broadcast from Munich is Shostakovich's LADY MACBETH OF MTSENSK on 4th December 2016 at 7pm (C.E.T.), conducted by Kirill Petrenko and directed by Harry Kupfer.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV

Thursday 10 November 2016

Henze - Elegy for Young Lovers (Armel, 2016)

Hans Werner Henze - Elegy for Young Lovers

Franz Liszt Academy Budapest, 2016

Gergely Vajda, András Almási-Tóth, Kim Boram, Ákos Ambrus, Botond Ódor, Karina Szigeti, Lusine Sahakyan, Diána Kiss, Alexandra Ruszó, Viktória Varga, Xénia Sárközi, Kristóf Widder

Armel Opera Festival/ARTE Concert - 2 July 2016

Hans Werner Henze's idea of opera is very much a theatrical one, where the music is in service to the drama and capable of expressing deeper psychological levels. Elegy for Young Lovers in particular is a dramatic ensemble piece that delves into the lives of a diverse group of characters and attempts to show different sides to their personality and to how they interact with one another. Using multiple singers for several of the roles, the Armel Opera Festival performance of the Franz Liszt Academy of Budapest's production could be said to be an attempt to give as much of an insight as possible into Henze's musical expression of the drama and the complexities of the characterisation of Elegy for Young Lovers, or it might just unnecessarily complicate it further.

Dealing with the subject of a temperamental poet who uses his close friends and acquaintances as little more than material for his masterpieces, Elegy for Young Lovers is an attempt at a deconstruction of the Romantic ideal of the artist. It's intended to be much in the same vein as the operas of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, but even as they recognised that there was no place for such ideals in the world they lived in, you can still detect a fond reverence and nostalgia for the loss of beauty in a more innocent age in Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Ariadne auf Naxos, Arabella and Der Rosenkavalier.

With a libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kalman, the callous poet supposedly based on W.B. Yeats, the treatment is a little less sentimental in Elegy for Young Lovers. Hofmannsthal is even openly referenced in the libretto, as Gregor Mittenhofer - working in his retreat at a hotel in the Alps - reads scornfully through the critical reviews of his latest work, contemptuous of the praise of lesser artists. He's no more interested either in the people that surround him other than for how he can use their own personal troubles and reactions to inform his own work. He's not beyond stirring them up either, manipulating and mistreating them just so he can get a reaction that he can use.

That's largely fine as far as Lina his secretary and Wilhelm his doctor are concerned; they are well used to Mittenhofer's temperamental behaviour and carry on regardless. Even if they receive no thanks for their efforts, they are happy enough to sing their own praises. Elizabeth however is a different matter. The young woman has flattered herself that she is Mittenhofer's muse, and as such is uncertain about whether she should marry Toni, the son of Dr Reischmann, who is in love with her. She decides to tell the poet about Toni but Mittenhofer is surprisingly magnanimous, even encouraging them to set off together, although conditions are somewhat dangerous out there on the Hammerhorn at the moment.

The reason Mittenhofer isn't particularly concerned is that he is currently writing a work called 'Elegy for Young Lovers', and is unhappy about the "emotional untidiness" that exists (in real life and in the work), and it needs to be cleared up. Setting Toni and Elizabeth up to face the world together in a potentially doomed Romantic relationship on the Alps, the young woman forsaking her higher calling for love, should provide the kind of drama that should inspire him to great poetic heights.

There are a number of other characters in the opera, including Hilda Mack, a lady whose husband disappeared 40 years ago, and whose body Josef reports has recently been brought down by the glacier. There is consequently very much an ensemble nature to the work, a puzzle of characters whose lives and reactions are used, manipulated and exploited by the poet, with no real concern for their feelings. Henze's complex theatrical sound world is very much attuned to those rhythms, fitting mood to situation and using the voice as a highly expressive instrument.

The Franz Liszt Academy production uses multiple singers in two of the roles in an attempt it seems to master the challenges of the score as much as to elucidate the behaviour of the characters. Elizabeth is played by no less than three young sopranos here, one who is in love with Toni and uncertain about her position with the poet, one who confesses her love to Mittenhofer and is confused over his reaction, and a third who is the one who leaves and becomes the idealised fictionalised version that the poet has created to resolve this messy dilemma. There are likewise two Hilda Macks in this production, one who is the Romantic ideal of the woman whose husband died on the Alps, the other the rather more prosaic reality.

Strauss and Hofmannsthal, for all their post-modern play on their subjects, might have had a little too much affection for the Romantic ideal to be properly critical of it, but that ambiguity works in their favour. It's difficult to find the same redeeming qualities in Henze's Elegy, or at least the necessary ambiguity of a genuine human response to the subject. It's a little too clinical, and at the same time, it's not really edgy enough, although that is something that is perhaps more to do with the performances. I'm sure Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the original Mittenhofer, might have presented a more nuanced reading of the poet than Kim Boram - singing in a competition role here - but the singing and the stage presentation are all good nonetheless in this Armel Festival production of an undoubtedly challenging work.

Links: ARTE ConcertArmel Opera Festival

Monday 7 November 2016

Piazzolla - Maria de Buenos Aires (Armel, 2016)

Astor Piazzolla - Maria de Buenos Aires

Theater Orchester Biel, 2016

Esteban Dominguez Gonzalvo, Olivier Tambosi, Christiane Boesiger, Richard Bousquet

Armel Opera Festival/ARTE Concert - 29 June 2016

You wouldn't expect a tango opera to have much in common with a 'conventional' opera, and the strength of Astor Piazzolla's 'tango operita' Maria de Buenos Aires is indeed that it strives to meet the demands of the tango music's own inner narrative and tradition more than it does to conform to theatrical conventions. Staged productions of the work are rare however, so it was a pleasure to see just how lively and invigorating this piece can be when played on its own terms as it was in the captivating Theater Orchester Biel production for the 2016 Armel Opera Festival.

For it to be an opera however, Maria de Buenos Aires needs to be more than just a string of generic tango songs with a common theme linked together by a spoken narrative. Or perhaps that's not the essential criteria, as you could judge operetta and baroque opera by those standards. Initially, that does seem like the path that Maria de Buenos Aires is going to follow, the opera opening with a lament that recounts Maria's birth in a nowhere district through to her arrival as a woman looking for work in Buenos Aires and finding it in the traditional occupation for a single woman new to the big city.

What is exceptional about this opening number however (and evident throughout) is the poetry in the music and the libretto. Maria, we are told, was born on "a day that God was drunk", hammering "three black nails" into her voice, giving her a love for and a gift for the tango. We have a protagonist who is the embodiment (and later the disembodiment) of tango itself. Piazzolla's music reflects everything that is familiar with the form of the tango but with a similar poetic and self-referential expression. The familiar melancholic narrative has a celebratory rhythm, the immigrant's tale of love and misfortune sustained by a determination to weather adversity.

Piazzolla's nuevo tango music however extends the range of the traditional form to incorporate a richer melodic language that can express a wider outlook. The detached elegance of the rigid dance rhythms of the guitar, bandoneón, double-bass and piano are enriched with a jazz-influenced touch, with greater melodic expression in the violins and flute to give mood and narrative flavour. With an expanded string arrangements and drums to boost the rhythmic drive, the music for this opera has something then of the storytelling qualities of Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens or Joan Manuel Serrat, with a little of Michel Legrand's jazz swing. But it also has a little more than that. It has the tango. It's a dance.

It's another dimension, incorporating several artforms into one and giving it a dramatic narrative, that makes Maria de Buenos Aires a proper Gesamtkunstwerk - an opera. And it's the quality of Astor Piazzolla's music and Horacio Ferrer's libretto that makes it a great opera, the story not merely concerned with surface narrative, but truly exploring human nature and its expression; its expression in the form of the tango music and the dance. It's the joy and anguish of living, and what is more expressive of those moods and sentiment than the tango, jazz and the blues? It's also about dying, and Maria de Buenos Aires spends much of its second half in that world as well with the Sombra de Maria and its duende narrator.

Just like any opera however it only really comes to life in performance and the Theater Orchester Biel Solothurn production of Maria de Buenos Aires presented at the Armel Opera Festival really is a thing of wonder. It's no small matter to try and present the elusive qualities of the sometimes abstract and surreal narrative and give it a theatrical form. The dim, colourful nightclub-like lighting of Karen Petermann's set and costume design evokes the necessary mood. The songs of the opera are very much of the ballad format, sung to the audience rather than in a dramatic context and that is retained in director Olivier Tambosi's direction, but there is good expression to the narrative content in the use of dancers, who don't rely on traditional tango dancing to express the meaning of the work.

It would be a mistake in any case to present Maria de Buenos Aires as a dramatic narrative. With the profane religious overtones of a title that correlates a Buenos Aires prostitute with the Virgin Mary, the work is clearly allegorical and keen to work with contrasts and contradictions. It's those contradictions that are symbolic of the nature of life and death in Buenos Aires, that speaks of the love and regret, that tries to delve into the areas of complex human sentiments, impressions and moods that there are no words to express. It's a work of tango that ultimately speaks of the nature of the tango itself.

The musical performance of the tango ensemble under the direction of Esteban Dominguez Gonzalvo is utterly authentic, transporting you into this world. You don't need to be an expert in tango or nuevo tango to recognise the brilliance of the musical performance and the expression it gives to the drama. If the work only comes to life in the performance, Maria de Buenos Aires needs someone who can make the symbolic drama of Maria real and personal, and Christiane Boesiger's performance is impressive, switching between moods of melancholic ballads and celebratory joys with all the verve of Maria's love of tango. She also takes on the role of the duende narrator in German, but her Argentinean-inflected Spanish for the songs is just perfect. Tenor Richard Bousquet sings the role of 'the Man' in a competition role here, and although the role calls for more of a balladeer than a tenor, he sings it with great lyricism.

Links: ARTE ConcertArmel Opera Festival

Saturday 5 November 2016

Armel Omnibus Opera (Armel, 2016)

Gian Carlo Menotti - The Telephone
Samuel Barber - A Hand of Bridge
Paul Hindemith - There and Back

Serbian National Theatre Novi Sad, 2016

Aleksandar Kojic, Ksenija Krnajski, Richard Rittelmann, Darija Olajos Cizmic, Zeljko R. Aandric, Jelena Koncar, Igor Ksionzik, Violeta Sreckovic, Sasa Stulic, Danijela Jovanovic

Armel Opera Festival/ARTE Concert - 1 July 2016

As well as being an advocate for the new media of radio and television as a means to promote opera and make it more accessible for a wide audience, Gian Carlo Menotti could also be critical of other forms of communication that he evidently felt didn't offer the same opportunities, such as the telephone. Somewhat ironically and quite inadvertently - it was just the most convenient option at the time - I watched this streamed recording of the Armel Opera Festival performance of Menotti's short one-act opera The Telephone on my smart phone. Perhaps since it is no lesser a medium for experiencing opera now than CD, TV or radio, Menotti might not be so quick to disparage the telephone today.

This kind of sums up both the vision of Menotti to look beyond the traditional role of opera, but also the limitations of his thinking - although he can hardly be criticised for not having foreseen the advent of the internet and smart phones 70 years ago when he composed The Telephone in 1947. Similarly, the themes in The Telephone are still universal and adaptable to the modern media - how much more of our lives are consumed with technological communication and less with physical contact with people? - but the nature of the work is also limited in its observations, which it has to be said are obvious and banal.

But essentially, that's the partly the purpose of The Telephone and also part of Menotti's observations on ordinary life as being worthy as subjects for opera. Menotti recognised in 1947 how much of a role the telephone would play in our lives, how impersonal it was as a means of communication and - depending on how we adapt to it - how it could be either a destructive force or a positive one. It might not seem all that original an observation but clearly it's still a problem that everyone continues to struggle to resolve in our ordinary daily lives.

As far as Ben is concerned in Menotti's short piece, the telephone is a great nuisance. He's going off on a trip and has decided to propose to his girlfriend Lucy before he goes. Unfortunately, he can't manage to pop the question as he is interrupted constantly by Lucy's friends calling her up on the phone, or by Lucy suddenly feeling the urge to exchange gossip or enquire about the health of her friend Margaret's cat and dog. Even a wrong number intrudes on this moment much to Ben's frustration. Eventually, showing that the phone can also serve a more useful function, Ben is finally able to propose to Lucy when he isn't even there by calling her up and proposing over the phone.

As a short 25 minute piece, The Telephone is by no means a terribly deep exploration of its subject, but it's still relevant and a universal concern that can be easily updated to a modern context. As it is evidently here in the Serbian National Theatre Novi Sad's production for the Armel opera festival, with Lucy using a mobile phone for her calls. The nature of the trivia discussed and even the comic nature of Ben trying to propose doesn't open it up to any greater purpose, and the only anachronism the production has to work around is that there is no cable that Ben threatens to cut. I'm not sure him producing a gun to shoot the thing - raising questions about Ben as a 'nice guy' - is entirely in keeping with the lighter nature of the work either.

It's a bright and colourful production however that motors along nicely, buoyed along by Menotti's jaunty chamber compositions with piano and flute, the rhythms playful in the manner of a lighter Puccini touch in something like Gianni Schicchi. The singing is mostly recitative-based - and sung in Serbian here - but that's tricky enough with the acting and movement required, not to mention bringing come character to the roles, which is done well here by Richard Rittelmann and Darija Olajos Cizmic. The work closes with a pleasant duet between one person on the stage and the other present only over the phone which perfectly illustrates the simple message of the opera that there is "you're never alone when you have a phone" but it's no substitute for real physical presence.

There are several connections that unite The Telephone with Samuel Barber's one-act opera A Hand of Bridge. The libretto was written by Gian Carlo Menotti, who was Barber's partner in life, and it also has the purpose of finding ordinary lives and everyday behaviour to be a suitable subject for accessible opera. Even playing a game of cards, there is evidently much more going on beneath the surface in the inner lives of the people gathered around the table. When you put two couples together, two men and two women each with their own personal concerns, you create a certain dynamic and a different kind of gameplay than just that of Bridge. But how much of that can you really express in a 10 minute opera?

In truth, not a lot, but - such is the nature of opera, staging and music composition - more than you might think. On face value, there's nothing surprising in the revelations of each of the couples as they each in turn set away from the table and tell us what is one their minds. Sally and Bill, David and Geraldine are concerned with trivial matters, Sally about buying a feather hat, David fantasising over wealth, power and sex; romantic notions, disillusionment and infidelity - there's nothing that is going to surprise anyone here, and despite some contemporary references in this updating to '50 Shades of Grey', there's less here that provides opportunities to make it feel more relevant.

Except, of course, that these trivialities, banal domestic matters and fantasies are still what preoccupy the minds of most people, and they can be dramatic, beautiful and funny in an opera, as Richard Strauss recognised and managed to orchestrate so well in Intermezzo (which as I recall, also has a game of Bridge in it). With only ten minutes to work with Samuel Barber obviously can't compete with that, but for all it is A Hand of Bridge can be brightly entertaining and imbued with character, and this production demonstrates that well.

As such a short piece it's also a work that obviously needs to be programmed with complementary works. Here, as part of the Armel Festival's 'Omnibus Opera' it comes between Menotti's The Telephone and Paul Hindemith's There and Back, the three combined barely adding up to 50 minutes in length. Hindemith's 10-minute piece is another little domestic incident, a scene between a husband and wife having a dispute over a letter he believes comes from her lover. Hindemith's twist however is a clever one, the scene ending with the husband shooting the wife, only for the entire scene to be straightaway played out again backwards on the intervention of a wise man with mystical powers.

Hindemith's palindrome structure for the short piece plays around with time to highlight the impact of cause and effect. If we knew an action might lead to an unhappy outcome, would we not modify our actions? Mainly however, the piece is just pure entertainment, a dramatic exercise that provides good opportunities for a small troupe of singers and musicians to run through their paces. The Novi Sad Theatre production doesn't attempt to do a lot with it, settling for a bold colourful cartoon version instead of the usual ordinary domestic setting. It takes its lead in this respect from the other two works, the letter of suspected infidelity in this case updated to a text message on a mobile phone, making it a familiar scene that will doubtless have been played out many times, although without the benefit of being able to take it all back. The musical performance is buoyant and playful, capturing the exuberance and richness of the piece.

Links: ARTE Concert, Armel Opera Festival

Thursday 3 November 2016

Eötvös - Senza Sangue/Bartók - Bluebeard’s Castle (Armel, 2016)

Péter Eötvös - Senza Sangue/Béla Bartók - Duke Bluebeard’s Castle 

Opéra Grand Avignon, 2016

Péter Eötvös, Róbert Alföldi, Nadine Duffaut, Romain Bockler, Albane Carrére, Adrienn Miksch, Károly Szemerédy

Armel Opera Festival/ARTE Concert

Based on a psychological revenge thriller by Alessandro Baricco, Péter Eötvös' short one-act opera Senza Sangue might not seem to have much in common with Bartók's Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, but the pairing of the works by the two Hungarian composers proves to be complementary. The connections and commonalities between the two works are further emphasised by the conducting of both by Péter Eötvös in this Opéra Grand Avignon production for the Armel Opera Festival.

Effectively, Eötvös has reduced Baricco's novel down to its final confrontation, bringing the intensity of what has gone before entirely into a conclusion that is short on drama but filled with tension and intriguing implications. Nina has tracked down a man she has been looking for, a 72 year old lottery ticket seller called Tito who formerly went under the name of Pedro Cantos. 52 years ago he was one of three men who killed her father and he is now the only one left alive. Nina invites the man for a coffee where she reveals that she was present when her father was killed, and she believes it was Pedro who fired the first shot.

From the conversation that takes place between the man and the woman - the dramatic action of the opera not really consisting of much more than that - we are led to believe that Nina has spent her whole life tracking down the three men, and may have been responsible for their deaths, but reduced down to the conclusion alone Senza Sangue becomes much more than a revenge story. It's about a young life that has been destroyed by war, condemned to live in hatred for the rest of one's life, shaped by this one terrible event. "Even if life has no meaning, we go through it with one desire", Nina tells the man, "To return to the hell that created us".

If there's not much in the way of drama, the accompanying music by Péter Eötvös delves much deeper into this troubled soul. The music is tonal, but dark, slow, twisting and stripped down of ornamentation. Not surprisingly, considering the subject, it reminds the listener of Strauss's Elektra, moods fluctuating and rising to the surface in surges, always with ominous undercurrents. The music doesn't just take in the woman's view however, but contrasts it with the man's perspective. There's hesitancy in its flitting, dancing, confusion but with a thread of acceptance underpinning the fear that this day would eventually come. But there's also a measure of challenge to the woman's viewpoint.

The story is evidently not as simple as it seems, and Eötvös's music and the setting probe this further. The man does not attempt to condone his killing of Nina's father, but he does make the point that it was done in a time of war. He was a soldier, he was fighting to build a better society. Vengeance runs both ways. Moreover, he was aware of the young child in the room, saw her hiding and let her live. The tone between the man and the woman gradually changes the more they discuss and come to understand each other. For all the lack of drama and the 'talky' nature of the treatment, Senza Sangue is a subject as operatic as they come, all the more intense for being played out between two people. Péter Eötvös has room to explore these characters in this situation for all the complexity and nuance of their positions and does so brilliantly in this fascinating work.

Senza Sangue is well paired here with Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle. Seen together, the commonalities are obvious, both short one-act operas, both detailing a situation between a man and a woman where there is much more going on beneath the surface than the obvious, the music of both works highly attuned to the psychological or the symbolic underpinnings. Perhaps most significantly - although Senza Sangue is in the Italian language of its source novel - both works are by Hungarian composers.

Conducting his own work as well as Bartók's, Eötvös emphasises the musical connections between the works, or perhaps it might be more a case that he adapts Bluebeard to make it a little more complementary to the tone and the intent that has been established in Senza Sangue. This is not the harsh, jagged, disturbing inner-world of Bartók's dark score, but rather a more sensitive reading that likewise strives to find a neutral position between Judith's troubling inquisitiveness and Bluebeard's admonition to "look but don't question". Like the lesson in Senza Sangue, you won't always find the answers that you want, or worse, you can risk creating the hell you are trying to escape.

Directed by Róbert Alföldi (Senza Sangue) and Nadine Duffaut (Duke Bluebeard's Castle) for the Armel festival, the stage production for both works is clean, simple and neutral, reflecting the neutral position of the musical treatment of the subjects. Other than a gun being shown in the hands of the woman at the start, there is little in the way of props in Senza Sangue, the real drama taking place on an inner psychological level. It's much the same with Duke Bluebeard's Castle, with only sinister figures in the background and semi-abstract projections for each of the rooms adding to the disquieting, sinister undercurrents that come with the peeling back of the psychological layers. The imagery remains, surprisingly but appropriately for the purpose of this production, rather bloodless - senza sangue.

The singing is excellent throughout, noninflected, expressive of character without over-emphasis, allowing those ambiguities and uncertainties within the personalities and the subject to remain. Romain Bockler as Pedro in Senza Sangue was the only competition singer and held all the dramatic tension well alongside Albane Carrére's Nina. Adrienn Miksch and Károly Szemerédy took those personalities a stage further in Duke Bluebeard's Castle, the careful dance between probing and wariness leading to a fraught situation that demands a resolution, although not necessarily lead to the desired outcome.

Links: ARTE ConcertArmel Opera Festival