Monday 27 February 2017

Rossini - Semiramide (Munich, 2017)

Gioachino Rossini - Semiramide

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2017

Michele Mariotti, David Alden, Joyce DiDonato, Alex Esposito, Daniela Barcellona, Lawrence Brownlee, Elsa Benoit, Galeano Salas, Igor Tsarkov, Simone Alberghini

Staatsoper TV Live - 26 February 2017

It seems to me that the Bavarian State Opera have been much more successful in striking a balance between fidelity to the original intentions of an opera and a more modernised approach to presentation, where in the past they might have been a bit more radical and hit-and-miss. The production of Rossini's lengthy opera seria Semiramide with its setting in antiquity was however always going to be a good testing ground to see if the high standard set so far this season could be maintained. Happily, David Alden's production is perfectly pitched, and with an outstanding cast of Rossinian singers, this was an impressive account of a challenging work.

Challenging certainly as far as singing is concerned (with Joyce DiDonato playing the Assyrian Queen, you would feel that this critical element at least is well catered for), but challenging also in as far as striking a balance between the political machinations of Ancient Assyria and the traditional overheated romantic complications that are tied up in it. The director can't just indiscriminately impose a nice balanced viewpoint either - as directors might have done at this Munich opera house in the past - but needs to take into consideration the nature of Rossini's musical treatment, which does tend to exert a strong force and intent of its own.

So what does Rossini set out to achieve in Semiramide? Well, it's an opera seria written in 1823, the composer's last work in Italy before he moved to Paris, taking his work to a new level that would effectively influence the structure and tone of Italian opera for rest of the century. Semiramide can then be seen as the last of an older style of opera not that far removed from those of the 18th century, a style of opera fast growing out of fashion even then. It's as if Gluck's opera reforms had never happened, and as far as Italian opera is concerned the new rules never really applied, as the Rossini style would provide a direction for the opera seria form to morph into the even more extravagant style of bel canto.

What can already be seen in Semiramide however is Rossini's own method of expanding the set subjects of the older form into something involving far more dramatic expression. Instead of arias we have more confrontational duets, and the chorus is not there to comment on the situation but becomes the voice of the people involved and implicated in the dramatic events. Rossini's musical underscoring only intensifies the emotional charge and conductor Michele Mariotti brings all those familiar techniques out wonderfully with the Bayerisches Staatsorchester. The racing rhythms are already in place, the melodies, the pizzicato plucked strings building into marching rhythms that speeding up into winding wild spins and crashing crescendos. It's not as sophisticated as Rossini's later work for Paris, but it's still highly effective.

The drama in Semiramide however remains a challenge, even with such music to probe the underlying dramatic tensions and conflict. Like most opera seria, the subject is not so much a political power struggle as a romantic melodrama with family complications. To sum the long opera up in a few lines, the Queen Semiramide is expected to hand power over to her consort Assur, the general who helped her murder her husband, the ruler King Nino. Semiramide however stuns everyone by announcing that she will marry the war hero Arsace, not realising that Arsace is actually her missing son, Ninia, nor - in true opera seria tradition - caring about the romantic complications this might cause for others. The turn of events force King Nino's ghost to rise from the grave to demand vengeance from Arsace who, when he discovers his true identity, knows who is the villain he must kill.

With a ghost scene, a mad scene (Assur furious to the point of derangement at Semiramide's rejection), religious intoning and dramatic revelations accompanied by peals of thunder, Rossini certainly ups the stakes of the opera seria, pointing the way towards not only bel canto but grand opera. David Alden's production captures perfectly this sense of something old given a new twist. Paul Steinberg's sets of elegant rooms with adjustable walls and large family portraits, convey a sense of shifting arrangements within a rich, corrupt family. That's the dominant tone, but there is room for the grand gestures that come out in Rossini's music, with a large statue of King Nino towering over several scenes in a display of power, and pictures moving and coming to life during the more melodramatic revelation scenes.

With the emphasis on home and family, what comes across more effectively in Semiramide is the underlying sense of love being a more important factor than power. Those who aspire to power without knowing true love end up the worse for their ambitions, eaten up with frustrations, their families torn apart by their desire for revenge. It's family as society as well then, and the chorus likewise have a large part to play in the drama as the citizens witnessing the upheaval that is taking place within the royal family. As far as Semiramide is concerned, it does soften how she is portrayed since there is love there for Arsace, which even though it is misplaced is transformed in an almost redemptive fashion when she becomes aware of his true identity.

Like any good director then, Alden's job is to be true to the story and the personalities as Rossini might have intended, respecting the work for the time it was written, but still making it appealing to a modern audience. Alden acknowledges the history and the location with a few nods in the costumes, but sets it more within what he describes as a combination of North Korea and modern Middle East. There's no need for historical reconstruction here; it's an opera. What matters more is that everything is geared towards drawing out the themes by whatever means necessary and giving the appropriate space for the music and the singers to elaborate upon those distinctive elements that Rossini specifically brings to the opera medium.

Which brings us to Joyce DiDonato. Now there's a singer who is more than capable of doing justice to Rossini's terrific writing for the voice for the role of Semiramide, Queen of Assyria. And it's not just her singing ability and the quality of the voice, which should already be very well-known. What is just as important is that there is 'presence' there too, the essential star quality that is necessary to carry a role like this and do justice to the vocal challenges and to the complexity that it reveals within the character. She assumes the role of the Queen brilliantly, looking every inch the diva, carrying the extravagances of the drama with complete authority and conviction. Without this kind of interpretation the opera would be a much lesser work in performance. Fortunately, it really doesn't get much better than this.

It's an excellent cast all round however, many of them experienced Rossinians. Alex Esposito sings comfortably within the bass role of Assur, but he still has a tendency to overplay the eye-rolling villain. It feels more like he is performing than really inhabiting the role. Assur admittedly isn't as nuanced a character as Semiramide and does go full-blown crazy, but Rossini's music makes this plain enough without additional emphasis being required. Daniela Barcellona is superb as Arsace, another challenging role that really needs a contralto voice and it's the kind of trouser role that Barcellona specialises in. Rossini generously gives lovely pieces to all the leads, which gives Lawrence Brownlee the opportunity to shine as Idreno. Elsa Benoit also makes a good impression staggering around as a confused Azema, but even Galeano Salas's Mitrane and Simone Alberghini's Oroe have their moments and take them well. The chorus work too is just tremendous, and the Bayerische Staatsoper just continue to go from strength to strength.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV

Sunday 26 February 2017

Rimsky-Korsakov - The Golden Cockerel (La Monnaie, 2016)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - The Golden Cockerel

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2016

Alain Altinoglu, Laurent Pelly, Pavlo Hunka, Alexey Dolgov, Alexander Vassiliev, Agnes Zwierko, Alexander Kravets, Venera Gimadieva, Konstantin Shushakov, Sheva Tehoval, Sarah Demarthe, John Manning, Marcel Schmitz, Marc Coulon

The Opera Platform - December 2016

These are undoubtedly strange times we are living through at the moment, so it's probably not a surprise that our views on artistic expression can be coloured and filtered by what is currently going on in the world. Who would have thought however that Rimsky-Korsakov's comic fairytale opera The Golden Cockerel could ever again be anything more than a satire on an obscure conflict long ago in a far off part of the world? Oh, how we used to laugh at the ridiculous ruler Dodon (now there's a name that is looking a little too close to reality for comfort) trying to keep foreign enemies out of his country and petulantly exclaiming "Laws? Don't know the meaning of the word. My whims and orders are the law".

But of course, Rimsky-Korsakov's satire was indeed based on reality of Russian imperialism, militarism during the Russo-Japanese war. That could perhaps account for its uncanny accuracy and relevance, revealing in the process how history has an unfortunate way of repeating itself. But let's not get either too carried away or demoralised at what seems to be a scarily realistic look at the Trump administration, or at least not just yet. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera is a delightful, colourful confection of amusing scenes and sparkling music, and representing that more so than any attempts at satire or contemporary relevance seems to be the main purpose of Laurent Pelly's production for La Monnaie in Brussels.

The set designs for Pelly's production of The Golden Cockerel are typically gorgeous, with bold cartoony figures that bring a comic energy to the work. And yet -not unlike his recent DNO production of Chabrier's L'Etoile - behind all the comic capers of stupid, incompetent and paranoid rulers, you can detect a darker and more sinister undercurrent. Tsar Dodon barks out his orders from a silver bed on a small mound of slate-coloured rocks of an almost post-apocalyptic world, his adoring people who never doubt his word all dressed in dark rags. Much of the atmosphere is achieved through Joël Adam's impeccable lighting and colouration, but the cartoon-like figures in outlandish costumes and wigs, and the strutting golden cockerel who calls out whenever the enemy's troops are approaching the border, all stand-out impressively from this background.

There are clearly no overt references to the current US administration in a production that I'm sure was prepared well in advance of its December 2016 performances at La Monnaie, but there is no bouffant combover needed to see the similarities in the dunderheaded policy decisions and arrogance of an incompetent ruler. Dodon's sons look a little like Jedward, and to be honest, I wouldn't rule them out as future candidates for the US President's team of advisors should he have any more firings and resignations. Nothing would surprise me about the Trump administration or indeed how applicable the author and librettist Vladimir Belsky's observations on such an administration seem to be. The Russian references and the 'sleeping with the enemy' aspect of the work however could be much too close for comfort.

Comparing the Tsarita Shemakha to Theresa May on the other hand might be taking contemporary analogies a little too far, but again - and maybe it's just because of the exceptional and deeply uncertain times we are living in at the moment - it's tempting to see something of the deluded British PM's unfathomable mishandling of the Brexit issue in the situations. Shemakha's kingdom is "a small island between sea and sky", where "everything obeys my whim and will (...) but it's all an illusion" and "I'm alone on my dream island". It's a tenuous comparison I admit, but you have to amuse yourself somehow, for as beautiful as Rimsky-Korsakov's music is with its little oriental touches and as pretty as Laurent Pelly's production looks, it's the satire that counts and there's not that much of it brought out here.

If The Golden Cockerel has any fault, it's that there's not much of dramatic interest in the opera. It's the kind of work where you get the message fairly quickly and can then just settle down to enjoy it for the music and hopefully some inspired fairytale visuals to match. By and large, that's what you get here, but not much else. Any 'interpretation' is entirely down to whatever you can apply to it from your own (over-)imagination. The performance at La Monnaie is fine but Alain Altinoglu, in his first opera as the new Music Director of La Monnaie, doesn't really succeed in making the music and the drama come to life. It's good/essential to have Russian leads in this work and Pavlo Hunka and Venera Gimadieva give enjoyable performances as Dodon and Shemakha, but neither are enough to elevate the opera in this production to anything more than just a colourful fairy tale.

Links: La Monnaie, The Opera Platform

Tuesday 21 February 2017

Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer (Helsinki, 2017)

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer

Finnish National Opera, Helsinki - 2017

John Fiore, Kasper Holten, Johan Reuter, Camilla Nylund, Gregory Frank, Mika Pohjonen, Sari Nordqvist, Tuomas Katajala

The Opera Platform - January 2017

Just for a second I had to think twice about which Wagner opera I was actually watching until the familiar overture - furiously played here in a way that made it unmistakable - reassured me. It isn't that Kasper Holten's concept for the Finnish National Opera production is anything outlandish, it's just that it opens on a scene that is almost exactly like Robert Carsen's Tannhäuser for the Paris Opera. Both show an artist furiously working on a painting while a model/lover reclines semi-naked on a mattress on the floor beside him. It's not the kind of familiar image you normally associate with the very distinctive setting of Der fliegende Holländer.

The role of the artist in society may be better suited to Tannhäuser, but those themes can also be applied with some validity to pretty much any Wagner opera, even if it sometimes seems a bit of a stretch. Kasper Holten's Helsinki production however is boldly resolute in presenting the opera in those terms and he doesn't have to ditch all the familiar sea legend imagery either, but subtly reworks it to support the central theme of the artist suffering for his art. It forces the viewer to reconsider the work in relation to the composer's use of mythology and indeed how it can be applied to Wagner's own mythologising of himself. The brilliant production values help make the point convincingly enough, but the musical values at Helsinki make this nothing less than a resounding success.

As the overture progresses, we already gain a vital grasp of the nature of The Dutchman as a suffering artist. It's not just one woman who is in his studio, but a never-ending succession of one beautiful model after another. The artist's curse, like the Dutchman's curse to endlessly wander the seas, is to never know rest in his duty to his art and to remain an outsider with no place to call home. Such is his dedication to his muse that he also risks never knowing true love. It's a lonely life, and even surrounded by admirers at Daland's art gallery, the Dutchman remains a solitary sorry figure. There's not a black mast, a red sail or storms in sight here, the only concession to the sea imagery being the agonised Abstract Expressionist blue-splash paintings that the Dutchman compulsively creates. It's all the "treasure" he has to offer the gallery owner in exchange for marrying his daughter.

You might be less inclined to buy into this concept were the musical delivery and performances not as good as they are here. Right from the outset, John Fiore leads the Finnish National Opera orchestra through a devastatingly powerful, dynamic and emotionally charged musical performance. In another context, the vocal delivery might appear to be a little over-emphatic, but it's a perfect fit here, with Gregory Frank's Daland, Johan Reuter's Dutchman and Tuomas Katajala's Steersman all intense, lyrical and forceful in delivery. What couldn't you do with a cast and performances like this, and it permits Holten the opportunity to explore more deeply the themes in this intriguing early work from Wagner when the composer was still trying to find his own voice.

Act II (after the interval in this three act version of the opera) extends the themes of art taken to obsession rather well, and is likewise boosted by an outstanding performance from Camilla Nylund. Senta and the sailor's wives are not spinning yarn here, but spinning pottery wheels and the phallic clay construction on Senta's plate shows where her distracted mind lies. To make it clear to the rest of her colleagues, she recounts her obsession with the great artist known as the Dutchman and her belief that she could be his redemption by creating her own painting and throwing herself down onto the splattered paint in a mixture of Abstract Expressionism and performance art. As sung by Nylund, it's quite a performance, the familiar attractive timbre of voice covering the range from entrancement to exultation and enrapture with every expression perfectly pitched.

It provides all the more reason why Senta and the Dutchman are immediately attracted to each other. As the Dutchman states, his first impression is that her "image" speaks to him and he can see a kindred soul in the painting she has made. Holten captures that sense of souls coming together well with a nice piece of stage trickery, using a handheld camera that Senta and the Dutchman share to record their direct perspective on the other person. Projecting it 'live' in the background, it's a brilliant device. Philipp Fürhofer's sets also do much to contribute to the natural fluidity of the piece, the large glass-panelled walls creating a cross-section of rooms on a rotating platform, with wilder projections of stormy sea abstractions enveloping the stage.

Act III still requires an imaginative response to present the crew of the ghost ship in Act III in terms of the concept of the artist. Holten comes up with... a nightmare. It might sound like a cop-out, but it fits perfectly with the nature of the Dutchman, seeing him assailed by doubts in the faceless figures of an uncomprehending society. If it works, again it's got much to do with the drive of the performances, but the choreography and dance movements all flow into that same swirl of emotions and artistic passions that were evident during the overture. Johan Reuter's charged performance as the Dutchman is key to holding this together so well, his deeply sensitive character subject to overwhelming emotions that surge like the tides of the sea and threaten to drown him.

Speaking of which, there have been many ways of depicting that final scene in Der fliegende Holländer and many ways of reading its message, but Kasper Holten's version is one of the best I've come across, having both meaning and impact. And impact perhaps just an important a factor that should not be underestimated as a means to deliver the 'message'. In a masterstroke bordering on exploitation, Senta turns the recordings that she and the Dutchman have made - images that capture his own death - into a piece of video art. If that is not striking enough, introducing further ambiguity on the nature of the artist to exploit their lives and loves for material, Camilla Nylund's delivery of the final ecstatic lines and her realisation of the personal price to be paid for great art is utterly devastating.

Broadcast on the Opera Platform in an all too brief viewing window, this is a truly great Der fliegende Holländer and essential viewing. If this is the standard they are accustomed to, it's a fine introduction to the quality of the work at the Finnish National Opera. It's also a reminder of how creative and insightful Kasper Holten can be in his grasp of what makes particular works great as well as in his ability to convey it clearly and inventively to an audience. I will be interested to see how Oliver Mears succeeds him at the Royal Opera House, but watching this and a number of his recent production, I can't help thinking that Holten's early departure has been an unfortunate loss to Covent Garden.

Links: Opera Platform, Finnish National Opera

Sunday 19 February 2017

Strauss - Die Liebe der Danae (Salzburg, 2016)

Richard Strauss - Die Liebe der Danae

Salzburger Festspiele - 2016

Franz Welser-Möst, Alvis Hermanis, Krassimira Stoyanova, Tomasz Konieczny, Norbert Ernst, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Regine Hangler, Gerhard Siegel, Pavel Kolgatin, Andi Früh, Ryan Speedo Green, Jongmin Park, Maria Celeng, Olga Bezsmertna, Michaela Selinger, Jennifer Johnston

ORF2 - August 2016

"All that glisters is not gold", Shakespeare tells us in 'The Merchant of Venice', and the distinction is a relevant one in the case of Strauss's treatment of the King Midas myth in his late opera Die Liebe der Danae. Even though the opera was developed from an idea by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and is scored to some of Richard Strauss's most gorgeous and extravagant musical arrangements, the resulting work lacks the depth of their earlier collaborations, lacks an edge and does feel a little out of touch with the realities of the changing times in which it was composed. And yet, like the similarly compromised Arabella, it is not without merit, particularly if a director is able to bring something to it.

There is plenty of glitz and glister in Alvis Hermanis's production of the work for Salzburg, but not much that really taps into a seam of gold. It's all decorative, aiming for a generic fairytale look and feel with little care about whether it makes sense, and certainly not caring to look any deeper into the work for social commentary or contemporary relevance. Whether there is much to be gleaned on those levels from Josef Gregor's libretto is doubtful, but at least the Deutsche Oper production from 2011 attempted to relate the curse of Midas's gift to that of the "golden touch" of the composer, and also see the aging Strauss in terms of Jupiter's failing powers and influence in the new world. This however just feels like empty spectacle.

That in itself could be seen as a valid reaction to the piece as Der Liebe der Danae is certainly all glittery show, its lush post-Wagnerian Romantic melodic sweep as easy on the ear as the set designs are on the eye in this Salzburg production. Hermanis arranges the first two Acts as a decorative display of constant motion and changing colour, which at least reflects the musical flow of the work. That's the same principle that the director applied to the metronomic rhythms of Janáček's Jenůfa at La Monnaie, and here another parade of dancers in gold skin-tight suits are frequently present, dancing and writhing at the back of the stage.

It's not totally gratuitous then as it does relate to the dream-like quality of the music, which is itself an expression of the hopes of the bankrupt King Pollux to find a wealthy suitor to marry his daughter Danae and save him from his debtors. Her portrait has gone out to King Midas, so he has high hopes for the best possible match. Danae is also in the thrall of a dream, seeing her lover bring her gifts of gold, but it seems that those dreams might be frustrated when it is not Midas who arrives bearing gifts, but his messenger Chrysopher. Or so it seems. In reality, Jupiter is up to his old tricks, posing as Midas in order to seduce yet another mortal woman, and his messenger is indeed the real Midas.

The Salzburg production certainly gives a bold, colourful setting for this dream fairytale, its golden-red glows and exotic costumes all contributing to this effect, but it's all very random and free-associative. It's like, what's the first thing you think of when you hear this opera? Fairy tales and the Arabian Nights? Well, that's good enough, no-one is going to think too deeply about Der Liebe der Danae. This could account for the undue emphasis placed on Midas's past as a donkey driver in Syria dominating the tone and locations for Act III, the setting clearly evoking some kind of contemporary allusions for the director.

Hermanis is controversially on record for voicing his objections to Germany's refugee policy, quitting a theatre where he was contracted to work in Hamburg. Although those objections were supposedly based on fears of importing terrorism, there was a unpleasant racist tone to them that could be seen to be reflected in the caricatures of middle-eastern men in over-sized turbans and women with exaggerated breasts grasping for riches. The bottom line however is that the production is not terribly imaginative, it doesn't appear to have any consistency or purpose, and is merely static and decorative. It's certainly lovely to look at, but it doesn't really do justice to the characterisation or the treatment of mythology in the opera, nor does it manage to apply it meaningfully to any contemporary reality.

As with much Strauss, particularly those that are more Wagnerian in scope (and there are many correspondences here with the Ring), the voices and the ability to meet the singing challenges count for a lot here. The individual members of the principal cast in the Salzburg production are all exceptionally good, but there is some terrific ensemble work from the other character roles of the four kings and Jupiter's old flames Semele, Europa, Alkmene and Leda. Krassimira Stoyanova yet again demonstrates for me that she is one of most impressive singers of Strauss around today. Her interpretation and acting aren't particularly exciting - not that she is given much character to work with here - but her range, technique and the timbre of her voice are all just wonderful.

Much the same could be said about Tomasz Konieczny. I was unimpressed by his Wotan for the Vienna Ring Cycle two years ago where he had the vocal ability but a rather grating tone. Here however in the Wotan-like role of Jupiter, he combines power with superb vocal colouring. The all-important closing scenes of Die Liebe der Danae between Danae and Jupiter consequently are vividly expressed. Gerhard Siegel is certainly more lyrical in the human role of Midas, if not really a convincing rival in the romantic stakes. Norbert Ernst's cuts an appropriately bright and sparkling figure as the Loge-like Merkur, and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is excellent in the role of King Pollux. With a cast like this and Franz Welser-Möst conducting an unrestrained (a little too unrestrained?) account of Strauss's extravagant arrangements and melodies, it's disappointing that Alvis Hermanis is unable to rise to the heights that Strauss was aspiring to, but of course never quite reaching himself.

Links: Salzburger Festspiele, ORF2

Monday 13 February 2017

Vinci - Catone in Utica (Versailles, 2015)

Leonardo Vinci - Catone in Utica

L’Opéra Royal de Versailles - 2015

Riccardo Minasi, Jakob Peters-Messer, Franco Fagioli, Juan Sancho, Max Emanuel Cencic, Ray Chenez, Martin Mitterrutzner, Vince Yi

Culturebox - 19 June 2015

On one level it's understandable that up to now, the operas of Leonardo Vinci have been largely overlooked when it comes to revivals of baroque opera from this period. While there is undoubtedly merit in the works, they are perhaps not as worthy of attention or interest as the works by Handel, Gluck, Vivaldi and Pergolesi, and there are surely other luminaries from the period like J.A. Hasse and J.C. Bach whose operas probably still haven't been given adequate attention.

On the other hand, as more of Vinci's work is being performed, it's becoming clear that it may not be the case that his operas - often alternatives of the same Pietro Metastasio librettos used by the above named composers - are in any way lesser works, but works that rather have more practical considerations for them remaining unknown and unperformed. To perform a Leonardo Vinci opera - and more importantly to do it well - you need a very high standard of countertenor to sing some of the roles.

As the extraordinary spectacle of the hugely successful 2012 Opéra National de Lorraine production of Vinci's final opera Artaserse demonstrated, that might not just mean one star countertenor, but up to five. Catone in Utica (1728) is another countertenor extravaganza, and if it isn't quite as demanding, it still needs four countertenors of great ability. Considering the rarity of singers of that quality, it's not surprising that the 2015 Versailles production of Catone in Utica shares some of the same star names as the Nancy Artaserse, (Valer Sabadus was also due to perform in this production but was unable to partipate)but it also introduces a few newer names worthy of attention in the future. With that kind of talent, Vinci's Catone in Utica is another joyful revelation.

Cato, the Roman senator of Utica in Africa, has pressing problems with the power struggles in the Capitol and Caesar's expansionist policies. The Numidian leader Arbace believes that there is an opportunity to stop Caesar in his tracks, but he has also come to see Cato on another pressing matter; he wants to marry the Senator's daughter, Marzia. Cato sees sense in the arrangement, gaining in Arbace a warrior who will be a valuable asset, so he proposes that the wedding take place immediately, that same day. Ah, if only things were that simple, but then it wouldn't be a Metastasio libretto if they were.

Marzia asks Arbace to put the wedding off for another day, putting him to the test to see if he is worthy of her. Arbace, as you might expect in an opera seria, agonises about this at length, but he has plenty of cause for such concern later when Caesar arrives.  The dictator turns up in Utica claiming that he is seeking reconciliation for the sake of Rome. Cato evidently doesn't believe him, not does Emilia, Pompey's widow. Despite Cato's advice to her to remain calm, she calls for vengeance for the death of her husband.

Inevitably, it's the romantic complications that heighten the tensions even further. To Cato's horror, Caesar has the hots for Marzia (the extravagance and urgency of his arias surely permit it to be described in this way), but he is even more shocked to find that Marzia is willing to marry the Emperor, provided that Caesar draws back on his political and military ambitions. Arbace, needless to say, has a few more arias to lament over this turn of events, and just to complicate the matters even further (like I say, it's Metastasio), Caesar's captain Fulvio fancies Emilia. That doesn't go down well either.

Vinci's opera seria treatment of the familiar political and romantic material of Catone in Utica doesn't appear to be anything exceptional. The first act is at least elegant and pleasantly scored if somewhat functional and a little routine in its pacing, with long da capo arias and a fair amount of recitative. Vinci however fires up the drama and the tempo considerably in Act II, and it's the characterisation of Caesar that has much to do with injecting a bit of life and danger into the routine drama. There's a fair bit of virtuoso writing for his arias, but it's the delivery that is important, and the urgency of it seems to have a ripple effect or, indeed, more of a tidal surge in how it impacts on Cato and Marzia in particular.

The delivery is everything here really, and again with Leonardo Vinci, it's the impact of the castrato writing and how it is sung by the countertenor voice that is the defining characteristic and saving grace of this work. In its own right, Vinci's version of Catone in Utica might just be yet another routine setting of the material (Vinci's was the first setting of a libretto that has also been used by Vivaldi and J.C. Bach), but it's the nature of the countertenor voices and the exceptional quality of the singers in those roles, that elevate the opera to a higher level of interest and beauty. Franco Fagioli obviously dominates here as the devious Caesar, as you would expect from one of the world's top flight countertenors. Max Emanuel Cencic fits that description too, and he's still wonderfully lyrical in the role of Arbace if sounding rather lighter than his countertenor counterparts here.

I was particularly impressed however with the two young countertenors in the female roles, both of whom are new to me, both of them sounding incredibly natural and unforced. Fagoli is unassailable with the kind of role that has been written for Caesar, but Ray Chenez almost steals the show as the rather more complex character of Marzia, with a strong singing and dramatic performance that undoubtedly contributes to the work as a whole. Vince Yi also impresses, with a lighter but beautifully lyrical countertenor voice as the fiery Emilia. The countertenors might steal the limelight, but there are equally fine performances from Juan Sancho as Cato and Martin Mitterrutzner as Fulvio.

Jakob Peters-Messer's production design and direction for Versailles is attractive and works well with the drama. It's elegant and classical, with a predominately monochrome colour scheme, but has some futuristic stylisations with designer rather than period costumes and extravagant hairdos. The staging suits the tone of the music, suggesting the antiquity of the setting with a few projections and flat cardboard miniatures, without having to build elaborate monuments and ruins. There is also a level of abstraction in the lighting, projections and in mysterious masked figures, with skulls and rats hinting at the underlying tones of power, death and horror that it finds in the work.

Those are brought out to some extent also by the Il Pomo d’Oro orchestra led from the violin by Riccardo Minasi. If much of the music sounds fairly conventional and the accompaniment of the recitative isn't particularly imaginative, there are welcome flourishes and drive in certain passages that work wonderfully with the singing of the countertenor. The combination allows the proceedings to spin off into thrilling flights of musical drama that belies the rather dry nature of the classical subject matter.

Links: L’Opéra Royal de Versailles, Culturebox

Monday 6 February 2017

Wagner - Das Liebesverbot (Madrid, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Das Liebesverbot (Madrid)

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2016

Ivor Bolton, Kasper Holten, Christopher Maltman, Peter Lodahl, Ilker Arcayürek, David Alegret, David Jerusalem, Manuela Uhl, María Miró, Ante Jerkunica, Isaac Galan, María Hinojosa, Francisco Vas

Opus Arte - Blu-Ray

Bold, brash, colourful and comic are not adjectives that you'll find applied to a Wagner opera very often, but Das Liebesverbot is most definitely not a typical Wagner opera. Written before the composer had found his own musical voice for the expression of his philosophy of the importance of art and mythology as a foundation for German culture, Wagner's earlier non-canonical work would have been more in the thrall of the Italian bel canto and French grand opéra. Meyerbeer's 5-Act epics would be the model for Wagner's subsequent opera Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen, but it's the much lighter touch of Bellini and Donizetti that can be detected in Das Liebesverbot.

Das Liebesverbot is notable also for being based on Shakespeare's comedy 'Measure for Measure'. It's not one of the playwright's more famous dramatic works and it seems to be one less likely to be suited for an operatic treatment. It deals with the Duke of Vienna, who has introduced harsh measures to deal with the growing problem of drunkenness, vice, licentious behaviour and the increasing number of establishments of ill-repute in the city. Going in disguise as a friar, the Duke leaves his deputy Lord Angelo to carry out his orders, wishing to see for himself how the law is implemented. He not only sees the unintended consequences of his laws, but he also sees how they can be misused by corrupt individuals for their own ends.

Like most adaptations of Shakespeare to opera, Das Liebesverbot isn't terribly faithful to the original. Wagner relocates the setting from Vienna to the hedonistic Palermo in Sicily, where the corrupt regime in charge of implementing the strict laws are the Governor Friedrich and his Chief of Police, Brighella. The opera version at least retains the characters central to the drama, if not its main players, as it's the relationship between Claudio and Juliet that is to bring the unintended consequences of the laws. As they are not yet married, Claudio has been arrested and condemned to death, the law effectively a ban on love - Das Liebesverbot. His friend Lucio brings the news to Claudio's sister Isabella, who is a nun in a convent. She goes to plead with the governor for the release of her brother, but Friedrich intends to take advantage of the vulnerable young woman's position and tries to seduce her.

If the drama isn't exactly the type of material you would normally associate with Wagner, there is perhaps some indication of his interest in the subject in how it relates to his anti-authoritarian and libertarian views. Even in this early work, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music as he would for all his operas, but otherwise there is very little that is recognisably Wagnerian about the subject or the musical treatment. If you can get past the idea that it has something of an academic workshop quality to it, or that it even comes across as a pastiche, Das Liebesverbot is a hugely enjoyable work, masterfully constructed to create a fine musical drama out of a difficult Shakespearean drama. Wagner works with the contrasting and inconstant tones of the drama, filling it with great melodies and racing rhythms, if not any particularly memorable arias.

Rather than try to integrate the work somehow into the Wagner universe, which seems an impossible task, Ivor Bolton and Kasper Holten instead do their best to capture the pace and dynamic of all its colourful scenes and the musical variety purely on its own terms. Visually, Holten's bold, stylised, cartoon-like approach suits the opéra-comique nature of the plot, with rolling platforms keeping things moving across the stage. The director struggles nonetheless to find ways to hold interest through some of Wagner's excesses. The duet of the meeting between Isabella and Claudio at the start of Act II, for example, is unnecessarily long drawn-out without any compensating musical qualities. Even with good direction, using mobile phones and text messages to try and catch the absurdities of the scene, it still drags.

It doesn't help that this scene is followed with another scene - a trio between Isabella, Lucio and Dorella - that likewise feels rather academic in its composition and utterly lifeless in the staging. This scene highlights another problem with the opera - although it's evident from quite early on - and that's finding the right kind of voices to sing it. Regardless of the model it is based on, Das Liebesverbot is not bel canto, and the lighter, lyrical and agile voices that are cast here might sound lovely, but they are frequently overwhelmed by the orchestration and challenged by the length of the scenes. The cast would be more at home in the post-Wagnerian works of Strauss or Schreker, but that doesn't quite work here, suggesting that Das Liebesverbot demands the range of Strauss along with traditional Wagnerian stamina. Within those limitations however Manuela Uhl is certainly pushed but copes well as Isabella, but it's only Christopher Maltman's Friedrich who holds up consistently, albeit to lesser challenges.

The colourful production however comes into its own at the absurd comedy of the finale. A little more convincingly than Shakespeare (but not much), Wagner conceives a fancy dress party as a means of tricking Friedrich into sleeping with his own wife instead of Isabella. There are still problems with this idea of the governor who banned pleasure being invited to a carnival (with the Chief of Police Brighella also being lured into making a fool of himself for good measure), not to mention the strange circumstance of his wife being a nun (María Miró an excellent Mariana), but it's a good excuse to set the revelations and resolutions to vibrant carnival music that bring the whole affair to a lively conclusion. In that respect, Kasper Holten does justice to Das Liebesverbot in a production that should satisfy Wagner completists but, much like finally getting the chance to experience Strauss's Feuersnot or Guntram, you'll probably not be in any great hurry to see it again.

The Teatro Real production of Das Liebesverbot is nicely presented on the Blu-ray release. The image is clear and colourful and the sound mixes present the musical performance well in uncompressed high definition mixes. As often seems to be the case, the mixing tends to favour the orchestral performance, particularly in the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 surround track, with the already weak voices further submerged in the centre channel. They come across a little better in the LPCM Stereo, but are still a little low. The only extra feature on the disc is a Cast Gallery, but the circumstances of the composition of the opera and discussion of its content (where more of its inconsistencies and problems are identified) can be found in an essay by Chris Walton in the booklet. A synopsis is also provided. The BD is region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Teatro Real Madrid