Monday 30 January 2017

Adès - Powder Her Face (NI Opera, 2017)

Thomas Adès - Powder Her Face

Northern Ireland Opera, Wide Open Opera, Belfast - 2017

Nicholas Chalmers, Antony McDonald, Mary Plazas, Adrian Dwyer, Stephen Richardson, Daire Halpin

Lyric Theatre, Belfast - 27th January 2017

Musical boundaries have certainly been pushed over the last seven years that Oliver Mears has presided as artistic director of the newly formed Northern Ireland Opera, and they don't come much more daring and frighteningly modern than Thomas Adès's 1995 opera Powder Her Face. Like all works involved in scandal however there's an indistinct boundary between whether the scandal lies in the source material - here, the notorious 1950s' divorce trial of the Duchess of Argyll and the detail revealed about her promiscuous lifestyle - or with the opera itself, infamously well-known for its rather graphic musical depiction of one of the sexual scenes in the opera. As is often the case with such material, the notoriety rarely lives up to the reality, but NI Opera's collaboration with Wide Open Opera on Adès's Powder Her Face makes a convincing case for its music-theatre qualities.

The nature of the material and how it is approached in Powder Her Face presents such challenges and if it's not pitched right it's more likely to provoke giggles than shock, but in reality neither response is particularly helpful in getting to the point of the opera. The point of Powder Her Face however, it must be said, has always been difficult to judge. Director Antony McDonald recognises that there's no way to avoid the elements of shock and giggles, but the trick really is to effectively control where the shocks and giggles should be, and to try to put them in service of the human story that is too often overlooked in the case of the Duchess of Argyll.

It's the human story that seems to be lacking in Philip Hensher's libretto. The opera is divided into eight scenes that cover the years from 1934 through to 1990. The scenes and the limited number of characters involved don't seem to be particularly well chosen and scarcely seem adequate to shed any real psychological light on the Duchess or even the extent of her scandalous extra-marital activities. The main content of the opera is framed by the two scenes in 1990, which seems to provide a distancing social context for the work, viewing the past through modern eyes. There seems to be as much emphasis placed on the peripheral characters of the servants and the hotel staff as there does on the Duchess, and their response to her, to her position and to her notoriety is emphasised in the libretto.

In the 1990 scenes, the hotel staff are deeply disrespectful, putting on her coats and jewellery and acting out the contrast between her airs and graces and the reality of her disgraced reputation. Their behaviour is in marked contrast to the how the servants and the 'lower classes' behave in the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1970s. Subservience and simmering resentment at their treatment, not to mention being used for sexual gratification, seems to deteriorate in equal measure with the decline of the reputation of the Duchess of Argyll. If the libretto suggests that Powder Her Face is a play about changing attitudes towards class and social orders, it doesn't seem to reveal anything profound or revelatory. It's the music of Thomas Adès however that gives the work another dimension.

And it's the music that suggests the tone to adopt that best suits the presentation of the opera. Antony McDonald previously directed the NI Opera/Wide Open Opera production of Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest, an equally challenging work where tone and presentation is of vital importance, and helped turn it into one of the most astonishing and entertaining productions I've ever seen. (Can we see it again please?). He seems to get the tone absolutely right yet again in this elegant and stylish Powder Her Face, not relying solely on the literal content of the libretto, but finding rather ways of presenting it that respond to the playful period musical touches with an underlying discord that contrasts with the rather more tragic personal fate of the Duchess. The Belfast audience dutifully gasped when provoked, giggled at all the right moments and responded with enthusiasm at the conclusion.

That kind of response is never solely related to just one successful aspect of a production; it all has to work together. Sensitivity to the content of the libretto and the tone of the music is one thing, but the underlying humanity of the characterisation is best served by the singing and the acting performances. That's particularly the case with the depiction of the Duchess of Argyll. Judging by the 1990 framing scenes, the audience are being asked to sympathise with this woman without there seeming to be any real humanising content provided in either the scenes or the music, but Mary Plazas - who clearly has great experience with this role - showed how much dignity there was in a woman subject to pressures of her libido and her position. It's a terrific performance that completely humanises the role.

It's this aspect that is vital not only in the understanding of Powder Her Face, it's what also ensures that the opera has a greater universality and life-span beyond the social context or the period class issues it raises. It's the degree of truth in the human story that lies underneath such issues that will determine whether the opera can sit alongside the depictions of women at odds with their times and society in La Traviata, Madama Butterfly or Lulu. As it stands, it's impossible to judge whether Powder Her Face will have a place alongside such works, but the Northern Ireland Opera/Wide Open Opera production and Mary Plazas's performance certainly got beneath the surface of a woman who is struggling to control and balance her own desires against the expectations and judgements of society, even as that society gradually changes.

The whole vitality of work, its relevance across the different periods that present differing responses of an unforgiving society, are very much contained within the performances of the other three singing roles in the opera. It's amazing in fact just how much can be conveyed by the brief scenes of no great expositional nature when you have a small cast that are capable of imbuing them with verve, personality and an essential degree of unselfconsciousness. Adrian Dwyer, Stephen Richardson and Daire Halpin throw themselves into the roles, always judging the tone perfectly. Richardson is permitted some of the more slapstick moments (and slapping with a stick moments) as Hotel Manager, Husband and Judge, which he delivers with gusto. Daire Halpin makes deceptively light work of the challenging range and variety of Maid characters, forming a terrific double act with Adrian Dwyer who is equally as impressive as the Waiter in a number of guises.

Without subtitles, the English text doesn't always carry over when it has other voices singing over one another and a complex musical arrangement to follow, but Nicholas Chalmers measured the chamber orchestration exceptionally well, with a sense of fluidity that gave greater continuity to those separate scenes with their variations in musical and dramatic tone. Credit where credit is due, Nicholas Chalmers' contribution is often overlooked alongside the more visual artistic direction of the Oliver Mears' stage productions, but he has also been an important factor in the Northern Ireland Opera success story. Certainly, the response to the opening night of this new production of Powder Her Face would seem to vindicate the approach that has been adopted by Mears and Chalmers with their NI Opera venture, and I'm sure that it will be maintained with the promising appointment of Walter Sutcliffe as the new incoming artistic director.

Links: Northern Ireland Opera

Tuesday 24 January 2017

Puccini - Madama Butterfly (La Scala, 2016)

Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Teatro alla Scala, Milan - 2016

Riccardo Chailly, Alvis Hermanis, Maria José Siri, Annalisa Stroppa, Carlos Álvarez, Bryan Hymel, Carlo Bosi

ARTE Concert - December 2016

With all its kitsch Orientalism, do we really expect to find realism in Madama Butterfly? Maybe not in the conventional sense, but there is a kind of realism in how Puccini and David Belasco's original play (based on a true story) recognise western attitudes towards the lure of the exotic East (which includes racist and stereotypical views) and how the incompatibility of those views with the reality can have tragic consequences for both sides. Musically too there have always remained question marks about Puccini's emotional manipulation, so it was going to be interesting to see what would be revealed in the La Scala production of the original two-act version of Madama Butterfly that Puccini quickly abandoned and revised after its failed premiere in 1904. The results are impressive and, for me at least, a complete revelation and revindication of the work.

Latvian director Alvis Hermanis seems to find the perfect place between realism and the ideal in his production for La Scala. It looks traditional in one respect having all the associated imagery and colour we expect to find in Madama Butterfly, with its sliding screens and cherry blossoms, traditional geisha make-up and obis. In the same way that his Jenůfa for La Monnaie in Brussels made use of the imagery of Alphonse Mucha, the director here taps into another authentic source for representation of the place and the period, using photographs from the start of the 20th century as a basis for the costumes and the design. It draws from the very imagery that inspires these idealised and stereotypical views that come out in US naval officer Francis Blummy Pinkerton.

F.B. Pinkerton, in this original version of Madama Butterfly (and often too in the more familiar revised version) is a just as much a vulgar stereotype of the brash American as Cio-Cio San is an idealised western image that persists of the Japanese woman as a fragile, silent, submissive doll. If that's the ideal that Pinkerton wants he can buy it, and dollars are flashed and handed out liberally to everyone who helps him acquire that dream. It's a contractual arrangement to legitimise the more uncomfortable reality that he is buying a 15 year-old girl to sleep with. Regardless of the dressing - and Madama Butterfly is exquisitely dressed here in the gorgeous costume designs - I don't think there's any attempt to hide the true nature of this sordid little set up.

And there's no attempt either in this opera to pretend that such a situation will end in anything but disaster and tears. And tears are always guaranteed by the time we get to the always shocking finale, but Puccini is surely justified in provoking them. At heart Madama Butterfly is not a study of idealism versus reality in a social context nor an exploration of the incompatibility of diverse cultural worldviews, it's a conflict on a more personal level, on a romantic level, between what a man expects out of this unconventional arrangement and how the woman views it. Pinkerton believes that anything of value can be bought, that even nature will bow down to the dollar. Madama Butterfly - despite the superficial adherence to rituals and traditions - shows that the human heart cannot be bought. Putting aside the oriental touches in the music, it's on this level that Puccini's music operates and it hits there at the deepest point.

All of these elements and the deeper implications are brought out exceptionally well in the La Scala production. It's ravishingly beautiful, it satisfies an audience who prefer a more traditional approach, but by playing to those expectations it also highlights the very prejudices that the opera is criticising and fully realises the musical world that Puccini has created for the opera. It's totally involving and enveloping, all the more so for Riccardo Chially's superb musical direction and the quality of the singing, which is of a very high standard right across all the principal roles. Bryan Hymel is still Byran Hymel; wonderfully lyrical, entering fully into the role and taking the high notes gloriously but sounding pushed and constricted when there is more body needed in the lower range. Annalisa Stroppa and Carlos Álvarez are both terrific as Suzuki and Sharpless, showing the value of these roles.

There can be no praise too high to describe Maria José Siri's performance as Cio-Cio San. More than just beautifully sung to meet the exacting standards of the La Scala audience, it was an extraordinarily complete performance that practically lived out the role on the stage. The singing alone is a challenge for any dramatic soprano, but imagine living through the extreme range of emotions that Puccini scores for in such a concentrated, heightened fashion. No soprano experienced enough to sing this role is ever going to pass in appearance for a 15 year old girl, but Maria José Siri evokes the innocence and inexperience of the girl in every expression and in every note, completely assuming the role.

There's the rapturous innocence of Act I, the firmness of her convictions bordering on delusion in Act II, the combination of which leads inevitably to the tragic conclusion in Act III. If you get the first two Acts right, then Act III is going to follow through and hit hard the way it should. Well, it can hardly fail in any case, but it makes all the difference if there is that strength of character and conviction placed behind it. I think you could tell how well Maria José Siri was going to assume that role well before 'Un bel dì vedremo', so there was also plenty of time to prepare yourself for the emotional impact of the conclusion, which indeed is pretty much near devastating.

Of course I'm talking here as if this were the three-Act version of Madama Butterfly, when in reality this production goes right back to the original poorly received 1904 two-Act version. Despite reports of it being extensively revised by Puccini, the original doesn't appear to be significantly different from the more familiar version of the opera as we all know it. The Humming Chorus is still there - not as long I think - as a link between Act II and the concluding scene. I was interested and glad to hear however that its melody isn't there when Sharpless attempts to read Pinkerton's letter to Butterfly. I have never liked it there, feeling it was out of place, particularly as it is so well-known now as a kind of expectant night music or lullaby.

The more significant revisions however are reported to be in the tone of the racism expressed by the Americans and the callousness of Pinkerton. That to me however is more of an issue of interpretation, as I've seen more sympathetic Pinkerton's certainly, but depending on how it is directed Pinkerton can still come across as a heartless cad in the familiar three-Act version. Greater emphasis can also be placed on his willingness to 'buy' a 15 year old girl as a 'bride'. Mrs Pinkerton has a little more of a role in this version, but I'm sure I've seen her role developed before and always thought it was cut according to the production. I could be wrong.

Essentially however, the familiar Madama Butterfly is entirely there in all its ravishing beauty and dark romanticism. Alvis Hermanis's production looks stunning, keeping it traditional and period, with an authenticity in detail and manner and with no small degree of flair. Most importantly, it is utterly perfect in how it presents the mood, the drama, the romance and the tragedy, with attention to the surface impressions and the underlying tensions. If there were every any doubts about the merits of Madama Butterfly as an opera beyond its crowd-pleasing popularity, this production reminds you that it is indeed nothing short of a masterpiece.

Links: Teatro alla Scala, ARTE Concert

Tuesday 17 January 2017

Ligeti - Le Grand Macabre (LSO, 2017)

György Ligeti - Le Grand Macabre

London Symphony Orchestra, 2017

Sir Simon Rattle, Peter Sellars, Peter Hoare, Ronnita Miller, Elizabeth Watts, Pavlo Hunka, Frode Olsen, Heidi Melton, Audrey Luna, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Peter Tantsits, Joshua Bloom, Christian Valle, Fabian Langguth, Benson Wilson

Barbican Hall, London - 14th January 2017

Maybe it's just a reflection of the strange times we are living in, but György Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre actually seemed to make a lot of sense in this timely semi-staged version of the composer's difficult and absurd anti-anti-opera. If anything the world has become even more absurd than Ligeti could ever have imagined in these post-truth, hard Brexit leaning times, a week away from Donald Trump becoming the President of the USA. Honestly, the goings-on on the stage at the Barbican made more sense and were more credible than last night's news. Truly, it seems that we are now living in Breughelland.

That's a tribute really to Peter Sellars, a director who has worked with Ligeti and who was instrumental in convincing the composer to work on the revised 1997 version of Le Grand Macabre, but it's also to the credit of Simon Rattle and the LSO, who unexpectedly turned a concert performance of this work into a revelatory experience. A semi-staged performance barely seems adequate for this work, nor does a serious treatment of it seem appropriate, but remarkably the comic absurdity and difficult music produced what turned out to be a meaningful, invigorating and thought-provoking experience at the first of its brief run of two performances at the Barbican.

The challenges of performing Le Grand Macabre, not to mention the relatively small specialised audience that it would appeal to, mean that we don't often get a chance to see this opera staged. If you were to rely solely on the most recent UK production of the work directed by La Fura dels Baus at the Coliseum, you would likely then only have a view of one side of the work where the emphasis is on the irreverence, the surreal, the vulgarity and the spectacle and it's unlikely that you would really have connected with any of the deeper content or message in the work. Sellars and Rattle show however that there is another side to Le Grand Macabre, many sides even, and in the process they show why consideration of a variety of interpretations of any work of art is important.

If there was one essential element or key theme in Le Grand Macabre that the La Fura dels Baus production and Peter Sellars share, it's the idea of the opera taking place in an apocalyptic end-of-times moment. Hence its absurdity. It's no surprise either that for Peter Sellars - who has collaborated with John Adams as the librettist for Doctor Atomic - the expression of that apocalyptic theme takes the form of us being on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. As Ligeti and his family experienced some of the worst horrors of the Holocaust and the Cold War, this is certainly a theme that is present as a dark undercurrent to the work.

There's not a lot of stage dressing needed to make this theme apparent in a semi-staged version. There are a couple of barrels of glowing toxic nuclear waste to both sides of the stage, but most of the context is relayed through screen projections at the back of the stage. Nick Hillel's video footage and projections are not just the familiar imagery you might expect, although mushroom clouds are certainly shown and there is footage of the meltdown of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, but there is also a certain amount of humour at the irony and the horror of the nuclear arms race, a tone that is entirely appropriate within the context of Ligeti's work.

The realisation that it's all madness and that death is just around the corner seems to come to nuclear corporate executive Piet the Pot while doing a presentation for 'Clean Futures' at a Nuclear Energy Summit (London - Berlin 2017). He's taken a few drinks to steady himself for presenting something he presumably no longer believes in, so the combination of stage nerves and the alcohol seems to play havoc with the reality that he sees around him. The words of his colleagues in white lab coats, Armando and Armanda, seems suddenly suggestive and erotically inclined towards death, while his boss seems to materialise before his eyes in the form of Nekrotzar, Le Grand Macabre.

There are limits to how far you can take that kind of absurdity with all Ligeti's accompanying unconventional and often atonal music, and it's particularly difficult to sustain such a relatively thin premise across four scenes. The message, you would think, has been made abundantly clear very quickly indeed and the second scene between the astrologer Astradamors and his wife Mescalina seems to have little to add to the absurd situation. Nekrotzar's assumption of Astradamors' marital duties - carried out via the emotional distancing of an on-line chatroom here - is hammered home at the end of Act II with a map of the world being blasted with an infographics display of all the nuclear bombs that have been detonated since 1945. It's horrifying to imagine the damage that must have been inflicted not only on the the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in those first bombs, but also the scale of the cumulative environmental impact of such tests.

It's the quality of the work itself and its deeper meaning that reasserts itself in the second half, or rather it is assertively deployed by Sellars, Rattle, the LSO and an exceptional cast of singers. Geoffrey Skelton's English translation also makes a stronger impression when it has been placed in this context, the libretto's nonsense verse, wordplay, alliteration and invention revealed to be very clever and witty, revelling in the absurdity of all the madness and death of Nekrotzar's war machine. Witty and inclined to make you laugh, but not in itself laughable. This is a deadly serious business and seen in the light of where we stand now - god help us - Ligeti's stance seems to be the only irrational response towards it.

The key factor in carrying the work through to its dark meditations is unquestionably the performance of Audrey Luna in Scene III as Gepopo the Chief of the Secret Police. In semi-staged concert performance, there wasn't perhaps the ability to present Gepopo in his three disguises as bird of prey, a spider and an octopus, but all the colour and drama in this character were brilliantly expressed and conveyed by Luna, strapped down into a bed on the stage, singing directly into a camera that projected her performance at the back of the stage. In combination with Anthony Roth Costanzo's beautiful countertenor Prince Go-Go it created an extraordinary impression, Luna's stratospheric babblings more intelligible and coherent than the average Donald Trump speech.

The same level of commitment was evident throughout a work that is filled with singing and dramatic challenges. The LSO assembled an impressive cast here for these performances at the Barbican, with Heidi Melton deserving mention for the particularly difficult Mescalina, Frode Olsen fearlessly pushing the depths of the bass role as Astradamors and Pavlo Hunka an imposing presence as Nekrotzar. There were some gorgeous lyrical moments from the combined singing of Ronnita Miller and Elizabeth Watts as Armando and Amando, contrasting terrifically with Peter Hoare's gradual derangement and disintegration as Piet the Pot. Sellars also made great use of the whole Barbican Hall for the chorus, with individual musicians and singers popping up on all of the levels, ensuring a surround sound experience that included the audience as citizens of Brueghelland.

What the semi-staged concert performance permitted above all else however was that it literally places Ligeti's music centre stage, and that was nothing less than revelatory. It's very easy for the true nature of Ligeti's music for Le Grand Macabre to get lost in all the absurdity so that it sound like nothing but wildly diverse and fractured accompanying noise, with atonal parodies of Beethoven and other forms of music, but Simon Rattle and the LSO showed how consistent and of-a-piece the music is. Its little miniatures are expressive of the moment, alternately skittish and playful, darkly reflective or shrilly terrifying, but they all contribute to the greater impact and rich tone of the work in its totality.

It's hard to say that it's Ligeti's greatest work, but Le Grand Macabre is certainly his most sustained and demanding piece; richly dynamic, a compendium of all the extravagance, experimentation, absurdity and inventiveness that are characteristic of the composer. In the form of this opera and in the light of where we are today, the dark undercurrents from Ligeti's personal experiences that inspire the themes of Le Grand Macabre now suddenly seem all too apparent and relevant.

Links: LSO, Peter Sellars talks Le Grand Macabre

Friday 13 January 2017

Schoenberg - Gurre-Lieder (Amsterdam, 2014)

Arnold Schoenberg - Gurre-Lieder

Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam - 2014

Marc Albrecht, Pierre Audi, Burkhard Fritz, Emily Magee, Anna Larsson, Marcus Marquardt, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Arnold Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder is an unusual piece that is difficult to classify, but it's also a work that it is difficult to associate with one of the most radical composers of all time. Gurre-Lieder uses a Romantic musical language that is not typical of the Schoenberg who would shake up the old traditions with serialism, yet it comes at a time when the composer was already moving away from the traditional musical forms. Orchestrated like an opera, Gurre-Lieder certainly doesn't fit easily into the song-cycle, cantata or oratorio format, but neither would it appear to have the dramatic qualities for an opera. For a work that nonetheless remains one of Schoenberg's best known and most performed works, it's surprising that no one has attempted to adapt it to the stage until this 2014 production at the Dutch National Opera.

The fact that there is no clear narrative form to Gurre-Lieder might however work in its favour when it comes to presenting in on the stage. There are no predetermined stage directions to be adhered to and there are no preconceptions about how the work ought to look and be presented. There might be a few clues in its origins, references and the period it derives from, but a director is free to make whatever they want of the songs, the sentiments and the arrangements. Whatever images Gurre-Lieder with its grand, lush orchestration might have conjured in the mind previously however, it's unlikely to be anything like the setting that Pierre Audi devises for the Amsterdam stage.

As abstract as it might appear there is clearly an effort made by the director and the music director to get inside the work's complicated life, its history and period, at the same time as it tries to illustrate what there is of Gurre-Lieder's sparse storyline. Based on a German translation of a series of poems written in 1900 by Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen, the Gurre-Lieder recount the affair and the consequences of the love of King Waldemar for a young local girl called Tove. Amidst premonitions, laments and mourning, Tove dies at the hands of Queen Helwig and Waldermar loses his mind, imagining summoning an army of the dead to avenge her death before he too expires in a blaze of remorse.

...Or something like that. To be honest, I've never really paid much attention to the lyrical content of Gurre-Lieder's Romantic meditations and expressions, which is probably why it's such a good idea to try and put the work across visually in dramatic terms. Pierre Audi's concept works in at least giving the listener something to think about in this dimension of the work, even if it still proves difficult to hold one's attention and derive any deeper meaning out of the verse. It's not great storytelling, but it can be evocative, dramatic and poetic, particularly when it is combined with Schoenberg's gorgeous post-Wagnerian musical compositions.

And post-Wagnerian, neo-Romanticism is very much the tone here in terms of subject and execution, so it's not surprising that Audi's production reflects that to some extent. The staging and subject (more so than the music) evokes gothic imagery that you might expect to find in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, there's a fatalistic love affiar that is reminiscent vaguely of Tristan und Isolde (in this case the music leads more towards the comparison), while the lush orchestration and fairytale elements can put one in mind also of Strauss's near contemporary Die Frau ohne Schatten, a work that also draws heavily from the period, from the thinking and art movements that were developing and cross-pollinating in Vienna at this time.

If there's one overall consistent theme as such that the DNO production applies as a concept for representing the work on the stage, it's perhaps this idea of great change. That's applicable to the age the work was composed in as much as to the great change in musical forms that Gurre-Lieder heralds. There's a nightmarish quality to the production that comes with this fear of death, the end of one era and the beginning of another. The anxiety particularly affects Waldemar, but the premonitions of the Wood Dove and the raising of a dead army all carry a fearful edge. Schoenberg's glorious choral finale of the rising sun on a new day certainly holds out promise for the future, but with Waldemar dying, there is a certain ambiguity there. The sun will still rise regardless and change will come, for better or worse.

There might not be anything particularly revelatory here, but the stage production does represent the essence of the work and, at the very least, it invites the listener to consider anew what the work is about much more so than a more conventional concert performance would. Marc Albrecht's conducting of the piece also benefits from these visual cues and highlights the very particular variety of musical language that Schoenberg uses in the work. The singing is perhaps not quite strong enough to carry over those huge orchestral forces, but Burkhard Fritz is wonderfully lyrical as Waldemar, Emily Magee impresses as Tove and Anna Larsson stands out as the Wood Dove. The other roles have the same Romantic lyricism and are well handled by Marcus Marquardt and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. The DNO chorus are, needless to say, mindblowingly good, which is a distinct advantage for the impact of this work's finale.

The chorus are indeed the main focus of the extra feature on the Blu-ray disc. DNO productions on Opus Arte releases always include an excellent interview/making of feature on the background to the production and rehearsals, and this one is well worth viewing. There's also a Cast Gallery and an informative essay on the work by Gavin Plumley, along with a brief synopsis in the enclosed booklet. The HD image and sound options are superb, really putting across the qualities of the production and the performance. The singing is mixed a little low in the DTS HD Master-Audio 5.1 mix, but there's a better balance and perhaps more impact in the LPCM stereo mix.

Links: DNO

Tuesday 10 January 2017

Strauss - Capriccio (La Monnaie, 2016)

Richard Strauss - Capriccio

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2016

Lothar Koenigs, David Marton, Sally Matthews, Dietrich Henschel, Edgaras Montvidas, Lauri Vasar, Kristinn Sigmundsson, Charlotte Hellekant, François Piolino, Elena Galitskaya, Dmirty Ivanchey, Christian Oldenburg

ARTE Concert - November 2016


"Primo le parole, dopo la musica" or is it vice-versa? There's obviously no definitive answer to the question of whether the words or the music are more important in opera. Even precedence is very much down to the practicalities and working methods of the creators and dependant upon the individual preferences of the listener. So on paper at least an opera about a composer and a poet, Flamand and Olivier, debating the subject with a Countess at a private concert soirée doesn't hold out much promise as a rivetting subject for an opera. And yet, Capriccio itself is a work of art that proves that opera can transcend such debates and distinctions.

There's a lot of truth then in what the boorish theatre director La Roche says; on paper both words and score are lifeless. It's a stage production that puts flesh and blood into an opera, that allows it to live and breathe, to reach out and touch the heart of an audience. Of course, even that distinction is academic if the work itself isn't of sufficient quality, insight and humanity, but Strauss's abilities and his work within opera are among the highest the artform has ever seen. Capriccio, his final work, might sound trivial and self-regarding, but it's a fitting testament that still has something important to say on the nature of people and the important role music and art plays in their lives.

Capriccio is indeed a masterpiece from a great composer but, in the spirit of the work itself, even Richard Strauss wouldn't be the opera genius he is without the collaboration of some great writers. His finest works are unquestionably those written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, but Stefan Zweig and Joseph Gregor clearly also contributed the ideas and texts that would inspire Strauss to greatness in Capriccio. The writers are important, but so too presumably is the audience those works were written for and the artists who would perform them. And life itself. The genius of Capriccio is that it is there in this exquisite little work which might seem frivilous, but in reality touches on some fundamental questions about art and its relation to life.

So it is always a risk, but it would be a bit of a crime if a production of Capriccio only managed to come over as trivial and self-important. The words and the music are not enough - although they are a great place to start and Lothar Koenigs certainly brings out the luminous beauty of the orchestral colours - but Capriccio does need attention paid to its characters and their personalities, and that rests on the ability of the director and the performers to bring it to life. Fortunately that's handled very well indeed in David Marton's direction of the work for La Monnaie, and it's also very evident in the singing, with Sally Matthews in particular finding all the beauty and anguish of life in the words and music written for the Countess.

Marton's production does well to strike a balance between the intimacy of the work (that has a basis in the small chamber orchestra performance that opens the opera) and its expansiveness that takes in all the sentiments that the work touches on in passing. There's no avoiding the self-referential nature of the work (which is an opera about a group of people discussing opera and making an opera about themselves discussing opera), so it's not surprising that the set consists of a stage on the stage in a side view of a theatre. A small private theatre obviously that explores the inner workings of the human heart and human interaction as much as it does the craft that goes into writing, directing and performing a piece of music theatre.

It's not just a tussle for artistic recognition and it's not even a tussle between two men trying to seek the affections the Countess; there are other parties involved that have a role to play, however small it might seem. It's not always easy to work out who each of them are at first, or where they are coming from, but Strauss gives them all consideration and blends them into the little world of Capriccio's complications. The prompter, for example, might not seem to be all that vital a role, but without him, the whole enterprise might indeed fail. The Major-domo, the Haushofmeister, also looks on here, clearly in love with the Countess. He might be vital to the smooth running of the household, but he knows he can never be a solution to the conflicts in her heart.

This master/servant role as a metaphor for the impossibility of the mastery of the heart is a device that has been used for a similar effect between the Marschallin and her servant in some productions of Der Rosenkavalier. It's possible to see Madeline, the Countess of Capriccio, as an extension of the thoughts and sentiments that plagued Marschallin, a recap if you like to summarise such themes in this comprehensive work. Marten also uses the young dancer here, showing her in three ages from child to young woman to old lady, to touch on those considerations of the passing of time as it applies to the hard choices that the Countess has to make. Ostensibly that's about how she wants the opera to end, but also evidently it's about where she wants her life to go, knowing that the decisions she makes now will determine the rest of her life.

The successful direction of Capriccio is all about bringing out such undercurrents. What takes place on the surface of Capriccio, in all the discussions of art and opera, is just a metaphor for life. It's what goes on beneath that is just as important; the personalities and the interpretation of them. It would be a shame to miss out on the applying some personality to the richness of the sumptuous music that Strauss has composed for even the most seemingly minor of characters, but it doesn't mean that there have to be any big revelations or deep psychological underpinning. The big things are already there and Marten and the performers concentrate on the little moments and the finer detail.

There is always the danger of the Countess appearing detached, too caught up in the technicalities of the musical debate and her personal love dilemma. Sally Matthews isn't the most expressive actress but her singing is beautiful here, carrying the essential warmth of the Countess and a wider sense of her conflict as being one that applies to life in general. It helps that the other roles are also well defined and sung, with Edgaras Montvidas in particular wonderfully lyrical and charming as Flamand, and Lauri Vasar posing a credible threat as his rival Olivier. Kristinn Sigmundsson is a fine La Roche. I still find it hard to really grasp what the role of the Count brings to the opera, but Dietrich Henschel sings it well alongside Charlotte Hellekant's Clarion. All the performances really count here however in contributing to the rich fabric of the work.

Links: La Monnaie, ARTE Concert

Friday 6 January 2017

Perocco - Aquagranda (Venice, 2016)

Filippo Perocco - Aquagranda

La Fenice, Venice - 2016

Marco Angius, Damiano Michieletto, Andrea Mastroni, Mirko Guadagnini, Giulia Bolcato, Silvia Regazzo, Vincenzo Nizzardo, William Corrò, Marcello Nardis

Culturebox - 10 November 2016

Aquagranda was commissioned by La Fenice to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a significant event; the flooding of Venice on the 4th November 1966, when storms and high tide lifted the water two metres above sea level, inundating St Mark's Square and threatening the city's important historical buildings, but it also affected the lives of many ordinary Venetians. Despite its very modern musical language and the fact that it has a libretto co-written by the author of the source novel it is based on, Filippo Perocco's Aquagranda however never seems to find a character of its own beyond the remit of its commission.

Aquagranda looks at the events of November 1966 through the eyes of Fortunato and his son Ernesto. 25 year old Ernesto is unwilling to become Venetian fisherman like his father, and is preparing to leave the little island of Pellestrina for a life in Germany when the flooding occurs. Finding himself deeply affected by the event, Ernesto recognises the feelings he has for La Serenissima and stays to help rebuild the city. There are other figures who appear, and you could say that the waters of Venice play a major role in the work, but essentially that's about as far as any real storyline goes in the opera.

Rather than a conventional drama then, Aquagranda, through Perocco's score and through Damiano Michieletto's stage production for its performance in Venice, is more of an impressionistic commemoration of the 1966 flood. The first third of the work doesn't really have much more to it than Fortunato and another fisherman debating in repeated fragmentary back-and forth phrases just how bad things are going to be. They look at the menacing skies, the full moon, the high tide and watch its irregular rise and fall. Eventually, they are faced with the irrefutable evidence of the mounting level of water and forced to consider its impact.

If there is little of any narrative drive in either the music or the exchanges between the characters, there is at least a vivid impression of the nature of the coming storm in the music and the staging. A chorus placed to either side of the stage chants words and provides rhythm for the atmospheric drone-like score with live electronic elements, the orchestra ensemble conducted by Marco Angius. Avoiding any typical depiction of Venice - no domes or gondolas - production designer Paolo Fantin sets a glass wall of water behind the main figures. The water rises and swirls within its frame, while dancers move behind it, all soon to spill over onto the front of the stage.

The middle part of the opera is then drenched with the water that has built up as the walls which have protected the city for centuries are destroyed in a single day. Father and son, their family and friends are suddenly faced with the impact on their little isola of Pellestrina and consider how much greater a disaster such a deluge must be for the palaces, churches, domes, marble, gondolas and the celebrations in the great city of Venice. The mood is darker, the stage is drenched in water, the singers and dancers move through it all in a state of mourning, lamenting the disaster.

If the first part of Aquagranda relates the coming of the waters and the second part deals with the event itself, it's the third part that lets the overall narrative or structure of the work down. Instead of ending on a note of warning or reminder of the ever present danger that climate change presents to the lagoon city, the opera chooses to end on a celebratory note that doesn't ring true immediately after the disaster. The walls have been reconstructed and life goes on, seemingly with little reflection on what has occurred. Instead of being a work that might continue to have meaning and significance for the future of Venice, it's a conclusion that just presents the event as a wrapped up 50 year old piece of history. Musically, Aquagranda captures a sense of that event reasonably well within the remit of the commission, but Perocco never reveals any ambition to invest the work with any greater sense of purpose.

Links: La Fenice, Culturebox

Monday 2 January 2017

Shostakovich - The Nose (Royal Opera House, 2016)

Dmitri Shostakovich - The Nose

Royal Opera House, London - 2016

Barrie Kosky, Ingo Metzmacher, Martin Winkler, John Tomlinson, Rosie Aldridge, Alexander Kravets, Alexander Lewis, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Peter Bronder,Helene Schneiderman, Susan Bickley, Ailish Tynan, Jeremy White

Opera Platform - 9th November 2016

Outrageous. I think that's the key word to aim for in a production of Shostakovich's The Nose. Gogol's wonderfully absurd and satirical comedy is given a musically extravagant treatment by Dmitri Shostakovich and it calls out for an outrageously surreal comic response on the stage. I'm surprised that Terry Gilliam hasn't been ear-marked for this one at some stage, but The Met's recent production at least found an appropriate illustrator's flourish in William Kentridge. If it's outrageous you're looking for however, Barrie Kosky is your man. 

In Gogol's story and Shostakovich's opera, the nose of interest is that of the Collegiate Assessor Platon Kuzmitch Kovalev. Somehow it disappears from his face, is found in the bread mix of the barber's wife and then goes off to have an independent life of its own, much to the consternation of Kovalev. Even worse, it seems to be having a better life than him, being seen in all the important places around the city and even making the rank of State Councillor. Kovalev meanwhile finds that the absence of a nose don't confer much credibility on him with anyone, not with the police or the newspapers when he tries to report it missing, and it pretty much kills any prospects of marriage he might have had.

Kosky delivers an energetic staging that matches Shostakovich's musically eclectic score for The Nose, even adding a tap dancing routine to a score folk and jazzy rhythms, oomph-pah trombones and tuba and even a balalaika ballad, the music alternating between moments of dark reflection, comic verve and symphonic interludes. It's a technical challenge to find the right mood for each scene, particularly as the work is played straight through without an interval and with minimal time for scene changes, but Kosky and his design team come up with some inventive solutions that don't compromise on the director's individual sense of style and his tableau arrangements.

Barrie Kosky doesn't do obvious, but he has some familiar tics and tricks that are starting to become quite predictable. There is some of the director's trademark campness thrown into the Royal Opera House's all-singing all-dancing production, with gratuitous male dancers in corsets and suspenders, but primarily what you get in a Barrie Kosky production of the Nose is an appropriate sense of irreverence. And noses evidently. Lots of noses. It's not just Kovalov's nose that is prominent here, there are noses everywhere you look - which is kind of obvious. As obvious as... well, you know what.

Well, maybe not so obvious, since there is a rather large dose of comic absurdity and satire in The Nose, and any attempt to look for deep meaning in it is doomed to appear rather silly. Kosky gets the comic absurdity, but doesn't really do the satire. But then, Gogol's satire was very much to do with certain peculiarities of Russian society, with its system of rank and position, with power and authority, with corruption and bribery. There is a pre-Kafkaesque edge to it, but that's not what Shostakovich goes for, and neither does Barrie Kosky.

So what does Kosky find in this Royal Opera House production of The Nose? You might not be surprised to find that Kosky picks up on the undercurrents of a castration complex that Kovalev undergoes in his emasculation. Without his nose, Kovalov no longer feels like a man, he is unable to pursue women, and marriage to the daughter of Pelageya Podtotschina Grigorievna is out of the question (although he was always ambivalent about this match in the first place). Evidently you would expect Kosky to make a big deal of this, and literally at one stage he does indeed make a 'big thing' out of the nose.

So it's typically Kosky, a little bit camp, a little bit vulgar (David Poutney's funny English translation keeping it nice and sweary as well), but it's also clever, entertaining and fun. There's some inventive use of tables and desks driven on wheels to keep things moving along. The production is funny in some places and kind of laboured dead air in others, but it's that kind of a hit and miss opera. Summing up the whole enterprise however, an observer comes on to the stage and gets the audience laughing at the idea that anyone would make an opera out of this "sorry little tale"; "It's of no use to any of us". So there's no point in, ahem, looking down your nose at it.

Singing The Nose in English is perhaps a necessity unless you have a large cast of Russian singers ready to take on the 78 singing and speaking parts (outside of Russia, I would think that only the Bayerische Staatsoper have that kind of resource to draw on). English works just fine, particularly in Poutney's good translation, and we get good singing and speak-singing performances from Martin Winkler as Kovalev and John Tomlinson in a variety of colourful roles that he assumes brilliantly. Alexander Kravets's District Inspector is terrific, and Susan Bickley and Ailish Tynan enter into the spirit of the whole thing wonderfully. I'm not at all familiar with the music, but Ingo Metzmacher's conducting of the orchestra certainly holds together all the varied rhythms, moods and peculiarities of the piece.

Links: Royal Opera House, Opera Platform