Saturday 25 March 2017

Cleary - Vampirella (Dublin, 2017)

Siobhán Cleary - Vampirella

Royal Irish Academy of Music, Lir Academy of Dramatic Art, 2017

Andrew Synnott, Tom Creed, Sarah Brady, Philip Keegan, Tim Shaffrey, Eimear McCarthy Luddy

Smock Alley Theatre 1662 - 23rd March 2017

Aside from Marschner's Der Vampyr and one or two other obscure early 19th century works based on John Polidori's creation, the vampire story is one aspect of mythology that hasn't really been explored in opera. Bram Stoker's Dracula however has tended to present the myth in a relatively more modern context with Gothic overtones that tap into deeper psychological drives and impulses arisng out of a specific period in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century when psychoanalysis was starting to probe the dark horrors of the repressed Victorian-era mindset. Rational thought was starting to replace barbarism and superstition, but in spite of this the modern twentieth century would unleash two greater monsters in the form of two world wars.

If opera hasn't yet seen fit to explore these areas and open up the themes of vampire mythology, film and literature has; particularly in the writings of Angela Carter. It's somewhat appropriate then that it's a female composer who writes a contemporary opera based on an Angela Carter story and radio play and that Siobhán Cleary's second opera should also have its world premiere in Dublin, the home town of Bram Stoker. Vampirella manages to draw from that sense of shared history and the collective fear that Stoker tapped into, but applies it to the modern imagery of the Goth and Carter's modern feminist interpretation - some might say subversion - of myth and fairy-tale. There's something of an overturning of the roles here from the traditional fairy-tale, with the Prince of modernity not so much coming to wake the Sleeping Beauty of the past as unwittingly kill her and all that she stands for.

There is a similar blend of historical and modern revisionism in the Dublin world premiere of Vampirella. The set designs adhere closely to the familiar imagery of the dark and Gothic almost to the point of caricature, with dry-ice aplenty and dark figures in black cloaks bearing candles populating the stage. The venue of the Smock Alley Theatre, originally built in 1662, added an historic quality that if it didn't exactly give it a sense of authenticity at least provided the same kind of contrast between the historic and a modern outlook on mythology that seeks to reinterpret it for a new age. If nothing else, it provided acres of atmosphere.

Even though the story remains set in the year 1914, the plot itself is very much concerned with bringing the vampire myth into the modern age. Count Dracula is dead, killed by a virgin on a virgin horse, but his spirit and practices live on in his daughter, the Countess. It's another innocent who will be the death of the last of this line, a young English soldier called Hero travelling on bicycle through the Carpathian mountains while on furlough. The storyline follows along much the same path as the original Dracula story; Hero encountering strange locals from a village near the castle, becoming somewhat bewitched by the presence of the Countess despite her unusually pointed teeth, accidentally cutting himself and witnessing the troubling response that she has towards the spilling of his blood.

Despite the Gothic trappings and imagery of the traditional vampire story, the more modern outlook upon it is brought out in librettist Katy Hayes' adaptation of Angela Carter's story. Hero is versed in the psychoanalytical investigations that have recently been documented in Vienna, particularly in relation to female behaviour, and he can't help but apply them to what he knows of the Countess. At the same time he is aware of natural drives and impulses and cannot deny an erotic attraction in the deadly situation that can't be entirely rationalised. For a young reserved and somewhat innocent Englishman, this presents quite a complicated set of feelings.

Nature is evoked in a number of ways, again much in the same allegorical 'children of the night' way that Stoker may have applied it in his story. It's a cat who scratches the young Englishman, unable to resist its nature and the implication of course is that the Countess and her line - as a representation of the barbaric ways of the past - are no more capable of resisting those same natural urges and inclinations. In 1914 however, we are now on the cusp of the modern age, capable of analysing and understanding behaviour, but despite the apparent victory of rationalism over barbarism, Hero will end up dying in a war that takes blood-letting to an even greater and more impersonally mechanised scale.

There's a collision of ancient and modern in the storyline and the challenge for composer Siobhán Cleary is to find a match for that in the music. What kind of influence can you draw upon to create a contemporary Gothic score? Some of the influences might be evident and others surprising, but Cleary comes up with an unusual blend drawn from a number of sources that successfully finds its own voice specific to the drama. There's frequent use of a chanted chorus with tight harmonies, some traditional European folk influences, some string quartet arrangements that suggest the romanticism of Schubert (Death and the Maiden?) or something more like Brahms in order to evoke a sensibility closer to the turn of the twentieth century setting.

The hints of older forms of music are blended with a more modern use of sounds, electronics and atmospherics that have more to do with the Spectralism of Grisey and Murail, but greater use of the harp gives a softer and more romantic edge that is more akin to the music of Kaija Saariaho. Individual instruments are also assigned to individuals, but even the singing of each of the characters has its own style. Sarah Brady produces a beautiful and assured lyrical soprano for the Countess; Tim Shaffrey's narrative baritone is electronically enhanced and supplemented for the observing spirit of Count Dracula; Philip Keegan's no-nonsense Hero is given more spoken dialogue than singing; as is Eimear McCarthy Luddy as Mrs Beane, although with her character's sing-song Scottish accent, she is more prone to breaking out into lyrical phrasing in a lovely singing voice that isn't used enough.

The latter character also introduces an element of humour into the otherwise moody proceedings, a tone that is undoubtedly in the spirit of the original to prevent it from being taken too seriously or gothically, but it doesn't always seem to sit well. The varied patterns, textures and styles of the music however do manage to acquire an unexpected coherence through Andrew Synnott's conducting of the RIAM chamber orchestra. Lyrically and dramatically Vampirella might not make any great statement, but it shows Siobhán Cleary as a composer willing to try to find an appropriate lyrical style for the needs of a dramatic situation that incorporates many of the characteristics of the Gothic-Romantic; not so much viewing the horrors of the past through the eyes of today, but reflecting on today with a foot in the past.

Links: RIAM, Smock Alley Theatre, CMC Ireland

Giordano - Andrea Chénier (Munich, 2017)

Umberto Giordano - Andrea Chénier

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2017

Omer Meir Wellber, Philipp Stölzl, Jonas Kaufmann, Luca Salsi, Anja Harteros, J'Nai Bridges, Doris Soffel, Elena Zilio, Andrea Borghini, Krešimir Stražanac, Christian Rieger, Tim Kuypers, Ulrich Reß, Kevin Conners, Anatoli Sivko, Anatoli Sivko, Kristof Klorek

Staatsoper.TV Live - 18th March 2017

What can a director possibly bring to an opera like Andrea Chénier? Not an awful lot you would think (and David McVicar's recent Royal Opera House production would seem to bear this out) other than making sure that there is fidelity paid to the historical and the personal drama that lies at the heart of it. There's not much room for personal interpretation or modern revisionism in a work that has very specific application to the French Revolution and it shouldn't need any great elaboration or in-depth examination. The situation of three people caught up in its events and trying to follow the path of their hearts provides all the drama and spectacle it needs, with music and arias to match the heightened sentiments. Andrea Chénier is at least always a spectacle and that is a good starting point for Philipp Stölzl's production, but we get much more than that at the Bavarian State Opera.

Regarding himself primarily a filmmaker, even though he has done more notable work in the opera house at Salzburg and the Deutsche Oper, Stölzl's detailed storytelling risks over-complicating a work that is already quite densely and carefully designed. It overlaps and layers contrasting situations of love, revolution and poetry on the same page and at the same level of intensity. A more cautious director might strive for a different balance or a more restrained approach on at least one of those levels, but then it probably wouldn't be entirely Giordano's Andrea Chénier. The work itself, its enduring popularity and continued success stands on its own merits in that respect.

Even then the subject of the opera never seems terribly appealing. The first Act in particular is intense, deeply serious and not a little bleak at the prospect of the social 'reforms' taking place under the law of the Third Estate. It hardly seems like the best place to set a love story, but this is verismo opera and as such it's hard-hitting and unsparing in its approach to the flame of love briefly flaring up in a cold and inhospitable environment. Philipp Stölzl seems intent on making all those layers and complications visible right up there on the stage at all times and almost simultaneously; the servants and common people down below, the aristos above in a huge cross-section of the Château de Coigny.

I recall a similar multi-level approach in Stölzl's Rienzi, but the layering of different lives and underlying realities is also evident in his Parsifal, where the overture played out to a detailed scene of the crucifixion of Christ and the laughter that seals Kundry's fate. It's not a detail that normally needs to be elaborated on in that opera, nor is the backstory described by Gurnemanz usually shown as if there are Stations of the Cross. The director takes such literalism and over-elaboration to new lengths here, but it works. The extraordinary set rolls the building along to reveal new wings, more buildings and more rooms filled with little detailed miniatures that look like scenes from period revolutionary paintings.

The handling of each little scene however is superb, adding to the bigger picture of the opera without diminishing the impact of the main drama. Act II culminates with a superbly choreographed chase through the Paris sewer system where Chénier and Maddalena are pursued by revolutionary soldiers, the intensity of the dramatic staging matched by the delivery of the singing. It does much to enliven the difficult scene-setting first act considerably and set things up for the latter half of the work which provides much more scope to explore the contrasts and contradictions of the revolution, the characters, their beliefs and their personalities.

It's a world of contradictions and Stölzl does well to highlight them. Having Gérard sing of transforming the world and embracing all men with love while we can see Chénier being tortured in a cellar below him is not just a matter of heavy-handed irony, but it actually brings nuance to the contrast between ideals and actions, something that Gérard at this stage probably already recognises. It can certainly come across as heavy-handed when you add a romantic triangle into this, but again, this is another case of ideals not matching actions. The heart is a contradictory thing and love can quickly turn to hate.

For this reason it's also possible to see Gérard as just as important a figure in the opera as Andrea Chénier or Maddalena, or perhaps that is indeed a matter of emphasis and context that can be applied to the opera. Or perhaps it is a side of the opera that can become more meaningful depending on the times we are living in, which proves that Andrea Chénier can be about far more than a tale of the French Revolution, and it doesn't need any modernisation for its more universal meaning to extend beyond the historical events of the past.

The casting in Andrea Chénier can have much to do with where that balance lies and you can hardly say that the Bayerische Staatsoper cut any corners here. Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros are the big attractions and they don't disappoint in either singing or acting performances. It's difficult to pin just how good they are down to one scene, as every moment is entirely in character with few of the traditional operatic mannerisms. It might be better if Kaufmann could hold back a little occasionally, and it might save his voice from further problems, but in the same way as Andrea Chénier wouldn't be Andrea Chénier if it was half-hearted, Kaufmann wouldn't be Kaufmann if he wasn't giving it everything. This is a character that he really believes in however, and you can't fault his commitment, performance or ability.

I haven't always felt that Anja Harteros was right for every role I've seen her in - and Verdi can definitely be a strain on her voice - but there's no question she has the voice for verismo and the acting ability to go with it. Again, it hardly serves to look at any one scene in isolation as this is a performance that grows and develops along with the drama, but you can't ignore her 'La mamma morta' scene. Her reaction to Gérard's advances are superb, the hatred, disgust and disdain mixed with passionate determination is palpable. Stölzl certainly sets up the scene well, not unexpectedly showing the actual dead mother vividly in a movie-like cutaway, but Harteros is more than capable of giving this aria all the poignancy it needs. She even seems to look directly into the camera during the live broadcast and it really feels like one of those 'moments'. She nearly brings the house down.

What most impressed me about the Bayerische Staatsoper's production - and really you have your choice of impressive qualities here - is that not content with having Kaufmann and Harteros, they matched Chénier and Maddalena with an equally impressive Gérard in Luca Salsi. It's by no means a lesser role, and may even be a more complex character than the other two, but giving equal weight to Gérard (in the same way that Stölzl gives equal weight to the smallest detail in each of the scenes) really brings out the true value of the opera. With a Gérard like this you have an impregnable, solid triangle that can support all the tensions of the drama, the politics, the romance and the tragedy.

The Bayerische Staatsoper really are operating at the highest levels of artistry at the moment. Their current live broadcast season at least shows them as one of the best houses in Europe at the moment, and this Andrea Chénier is no exception. It's not a favourite work of mine, but there is no denying its power when it is done well. My only complaint would be that Stölzl's staging is more of a 'big screen' production that would have more impact live than it would on a reduced streamed internet broadcast. I'm sure in the theatre that the orchestral performance would have matched the scale of the production, because it came across clearly even in the live stream. Omer Meir Wellber conducted another powerhouse performance from the Bavarian orchestra that was dynamic, intense and sensitive, faultless in its musical and dramatic pacing, everything flowing towards that devastating conclusion. I'd be reluctant to describe any production as 'definitive' but this is an Andrea Chénier that is as good as it gets.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV

Tuesday 21 March 2017

Rimsky-Korsakov - The Snow Maiden (Belfast, 2017)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - The Snow Maiden

Opera North, 2017

Martin Pickard, John Fulljames, Aoife Miskelly, Bonaventura Bottone, Dean Robinson, Yvonne Howard, James Creswell, Joseph Shovelton, Claire Pascoe, Heather Lowe, Elin Pritchard, Phillip Rhodes

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 17th March 2017

The Snow Maiden has all the classic fairy-tale elements; folklore, dreams, love, magic and poignant tragedy. All those elements are elevated to suitably epic proportions in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera version of Aleksandr Ostrovsky's play, tying the magical qualities of the story Cunning Little Vixen-like into the every-day magic of nature and the changing of the seasons; the magical changes that are all part of the rhythm of life. John Fulljames's production for Opera North ambitiously and inventively adds another level onto the proceedings that joins up and connects those different levels. It's impressive, it's beautiful, but unfortunately it's also just a little dull.

But just a little, and disappointingly that seems to be down to the nature of the story and Rimsky-Korsakov's rather academic scoring of the work, which never seems to have either the verve or grandeur of his work in The Tsar's Bride, Sadko or The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. What The Snow Maiden has in common with each of those works - and with the fairy-tale satire of The Golden Cockerel - is an essential Russian character, and that at least is authentically retained in Opera North's production which not only presents its themes well but meaningfully elaborates upon them.

John Fulljames with production designer Giles Cadle (who does great work also on Hansel and Gretel and La Cenerentola) attempts to anchor Rimsky-Korsakov's rather serious minded treatment of the fairy tale by finding another great way to create magic out of reality. Again, it seems to arise out of the need of someone living in less than favourable circumstances to find a way to escape from their humdrum reality and live a dream of life that has a more meaningful and hopefully romantic purpose. The 'Snow Maiden' here is a seamstress in a clothing factory.

The changing of the seasons is evoked in this setting by the winter clothes line being put aside for the new spring fashions. One girl on the production line looks like she is lost in a dream, caught up in the changing times, wondering if this year is going to be the year that someone comes and melts her heart like the story of the Snow Maiden whose heart is too frozen to love. It's a simple framing device - one that Fulljames often seems to favour - that ties legend, folklore and the power of storytelling to reality in a way that makes it come alive; and in the context of the Opera North season of fairy-tales, it's a consistent theme that gives the magical element a relatable basis.

Thereafter the production manages to place the fairy-tale as another level on top of the reality that is always present beneath. At times, the storybook imagery of The Snow Maiden takes over, at others the dreaming seamstress seems to be drawn back to the real world, where competition and jealousy takes root between the girls over the handsome supervisor Lel, and over the upcoming marriage of one of the working girls Kupova to her fiancé Mizgir. Again in this Opera North season, it's the effective use of projections that permit such rapid and subtle transitions to be made not only between different scenes, but between different levels of reality, dream and the fluid and indefinable characteristic of what constitutes magic.

In The Snow Maiden it is fairly clear that the magic lies in the miracle of the changing seasons, in the transformations nature brings not only to the land, but to the influence and change it exerts over the temperament, mood and nature people of the land as the years go by. There are powerful changes occurring within the young girl who identifies with the Snow Maiden, her thoughts turning to love, to finding the right partner, unsure whether she is ready to give her heart away and whether it will be accepted. The language of nature and the seasons used in the libretto makes the implications plain, with there being much talk of plucking flowers and scattering seeds.

Using shifting abstract patterns, the projections not only add a level of magic-world beauty to the production - and it really looks spectacular - Fulljames and Cadle's designs also emphasis the connections between magic, nature and the real world. The setting of the drama within a clothing factory certainly makes the sentiments of love, jealousy and betrayal apparent and relevant, but the fairy-tale layer subjectively heightens the feelings as they are experienced by a young and sensitive girl. It's the projections that blend them together so well, making connections between lace patterns and snowflakes, the patterns spreading like growing shoots, the sap rising as the seasons pass and the personal dilemma of the Snow Maiden reaches a critical level

Clearly it's a well thought out production, where everything blends and works together wonderfully, keeping it moving and flowing when it could otherwise be quite static; it looks spectacular and magical at the same time. The singing is also of the highest order; Aoife Miskelly's deeply heartfelt Snow Maiden contrasted to good effect with Heather Lowe's warmth and sincerity as Lel. There is greater diversity in character and voice that further enriched the production, notably in Elin Pritchard's down-to-earth, heart-on-her-sleeve Kupava, whose laughter crackled through the drama, and on the part of Phillip Rhodes as the passionate Mizgir.

Fulljames's book-ending framing also manages to help take the cold edge off the inevitable tragic conclusion that comes to a Snow Maiden in the summer. There ought to be a positive side to this outcome of the passing seasons and the production supports this, making it a little more glorious and cheerful without taking anything away from the wistful tone of sadness. Despite every effort however, the production still can't quite overcome the inherent serious-minded gravity of the proceedings. Martin Pickard's conducting of the score captured all the elegance of the arrangements and the beauty of Rimsky-Korsakov's composition, but it still never managed to provide that spark that would melt the core of ice that lies at the heart of The Snow Maiden.

Links: Opera North

Monday 20 March 2017

Rossini - La Cenerentola (Belfast, 2017)

Giacomo Rossini - La Cenerentola

Opera North, 2017

Wyn Davies, Aletta Collins, Wallis Giunta, Sunnyboy Dladla, Quirijn de Lang, Henry Waddington, Sky Ingram, Amy J Payne, John Savournin

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 16th March 2017

It can't be easy to put on a programme of fairy-tale operas outside of the Christmas holiday season, as Opera North are doing in their current tour, but it at least provides an opportunity to rethink what the stories tell us and whether they are really all that linked to the seasons. The Snow Maiden aside - and even that proves to extend beyond its winter setting - Hansel and Gretel and Cinderella are both operas that you associate with the Christmas period without there being any real justification other than that they also make great pantomime material.

Opera North's production of Rossini's La Cenerentola attempts to take the pantomime elements out of the more traditional performance of the work and tries to find another way to present the vital ingredient of magic in a more contemporary and relatable context. There is nothing that is actually seasonal specific in Rossini's version of Cinderella anyway, the opera further dispensing with such traditional trappings of the golden slipper lost at the stroke of midnight and much of the fairy transformations. Aletta Collins's production for Opera North prefers to rely on other worthwhile elements in an opera that is too good to be left to compete with the pantomime market.

Collins's production takes place in a dance school, where everyone has been bitten by the 'Strictly' bug and dreams of cutting a glamorous figure on the dance floor. Anxious mothers pursuing the dream through their daughters, bring them to Don Magnifico's Scuola di Danza, where Don Magnifico's haughty and arrogant daughters Clorinda and Tisbe also hope to display their talents. Angelina, the Cinderella figure of the story, would also love to be able to dance, particularly as the prince has invited every lady in the land to a ball so that he can choose a wife, but Cenerentola's stepfather and step-sisters have more menial cleaning duties for her to perform. You know how it goes...

Traditionally Cinderella relies on glamour and set-pieces, with lots of sparkle and snow, but perhaps it puts too much trust in the need for spectacle. Aletta Collins trusts more in the inherent comedy of the piece, in the bright, dazzling music and in the actual romantic drama as being all that is really needed. As I mentioned in the case of Opera North's Hansel and Gretel, magic should be another essential ingredient in the fairy tale opera, but magic can come in many forms. Sometimes that magic can be a little more down to earth, a case of rising above one's impoverished circumstances and following a dream.

If it's often presented in a mild and inoffensive way, Cinderella also has a background in an unhappy home situation that she wants to escape. The damage caused by being the neglected child in a remarriage that leaves a young girl with an uncaring father and two bullying half-sisters can nonetheless be a traumatic experience. It might be dressed up in comedy, but you can feel the hurt and rejection and sympathise with Angelina's dream of revealing her true worth, of her beauty and talent being discovered. Rather than achieving that dream through marrying a Prince, it's perhaps easier to recognise that living the dream sentiment through being discovered in a reality-TV talent show.

Aletta Collins's production with sets designed by Giles Cadle, doesn't quite transfer it wholly across to this TV dance show format, but manages to retain a kind of in-between state between the dream and the reality. Evidently Opera North resources are limited and touring necessities don't allow for elaborate sets for three operas, but this works well with the effort to keep the production modern and real. Projections allow for some magic mirror tricks however, and there's is a delightful comic absurdity in many of the situations and details. One area that you can't skimp on however is in how you match it with Rossini's bubbly musical confection and Opera North know exactly how to present that in the best possible light.

Primarily, of course, it's in the playing of the music itself.  The effervescent rhythms, the clever arrangements, the 'magic' of the score are all brought in Wyn Davies' conducting of the orchestra. Instead of the usual strident galloping, Davies has a lightness of touch here that brings out the comic brightness of the underlying Mozart in the music, but it’s well measured for all its essential moods and tempi. You pay attention to Rossini's score like this and you'll also bring out the dazzling, energising writing for the vocal line and the cheeky ensemble pieces.

That's not easy to achieve without some exceptionally good singers and the singing here is first class. Rossini is always incredibly demanding in this respect and La Cenerentola is no exception, placing great virtuoso demands on the Angelina and Don Ramiro roles. When they are sung well however it's certainly noticeable and Wallis Giunta and Sunnyboy Dladla are both capable and impressive, flawless in technique but also in delivery, keeping everything bright and exuding charm as that other form of 'magic'.

What Rossini also clearly learned from Mozart is the importance of establishing strong personalities for all the individual characters, right down to the smallest role. In the case of La Cenerentola there are few minor roles, so the opportunity is there to really make something of the characters and that's exactly what the Opera North production does. Characters like Clorinda and Tisbe are too good to waste evidently and Sky Ingram and Amy J Payne live up to the larger than life harridans, and display some great singing too. The other roles are likewise wonderfully sung and played. Quirijn de Lang had the understated comedy of Dandini down perfectly and made a great impression alongside Henry Waddington's preening Don Magnifico and John Savournin's Alidoro. All of them contributed greatly to the colour and dynamic of a production that valued the magic of character and performance over empty gloss and spectacle.

Links: Opera North

Sunday 19 March 2017

Humperdinck - Hansel and Gretel (Belfast, 2017)

Engelbert Humperdinck - Hansel and Gretel

Opera North, 2017

Christoph Altstaedt, Edward Dick, Katie Bray, Fflur Wyn, Susan Bullock, Stephen Gadd, Rachel J Mosley, Amy Freston

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 15th March 2017

One of the advantages of a fairy-tale is that it can operate on multiple levels, ideally with some measure of realism or a moral lying behind the magic fantasy of its telling. Opera is an artform that is particularly good at operating on multiple levels and Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel is one of the greatest examples of a fairy tale opera that strikes a near perfect balance in how it touches on all those important levels in its musical, storytelling and - most importantly - its magical qualities. It wasn't dubbed 'Wagner for Children' for nothing, but it would be a shame to over-emphasise either the Wagnerian or the children's magic fairy-tale elements of the work. Opera North's terrific production uses stage-craft to place the right kind of emphasis on the material, and the musical performance is quite impressive too.

It's perhaps more important to get that balance of tone right in Hansel and Gretel than in most other fairy tale operas, as there are some quite dark elements in it that relate to child abuse and child abduction. It's not the kind of fairy-tale however that you would think could bear a brutal reworking of those dark origins in the style of Martin Kušej's interpretation of Dvořák's Ruslaka, but Stefan Herheim's colourful deconstruction of the same work shows that it is possible to make the escapist fantasy work hand in hand with the less than pleasant reality in a way that enhances its meaning and message. Director Edward Dick and set designer Giles Cadle might not have the same kind of budget that Herheim might have at La Monnaie, but what they achieve with this Opera North production of Hansel and Gretel is no less imaginative and just as probing of the story's depths.

There's just a glimmer of suspicion however that two poor children living in a hovel with neglectful alcoholic parents probably wouldn't have a high-definition video camera to capture their play and games, but Hansel and Gretel running around with a hand-held camera is more of a device that allows the audience to see the world through a child's eyes. And my goodness do they ever go for it, the playful footage projected in real time to the back of the stage, a masterstroke that draws you into Hansel and Gretel's games and their imagination. The starving children are not going to be aware of the poverty of their situation or understand that their treatment amounts to abuse and neglect, their minds being more likely to transform it into something more relatable like a game. The brilliance of the stage craft allows us to share this, and that's real magic.

The two worlds, the imaginary play world of the children and the stark reality of the world of the adults, are brilliantly delineated in Humperdinck's score and in the libretto, with the music and the language notably harsher when their parents are speaking. The distinction is brought out to perfection in the translation, choosing the right words to make you wince a little without it being too offensive or brutal. Folk music performs the same function as the fairy tale - and it's no coincidence that Humperdinck's score like many fairy-tale operas (Rusalka, The Cunning Little Vixen) relies on folk music to similarly transform a harsher reality into something more endurable without denying the reality of the circumstances they arise from.

The transformative nature of the fairy tale is brought out superbly in many clever little touches, placing the magic firmly within the minds of the ones most capable of it - the children. Instead of running out into a dark fairy tale wood then, Hansel and Gretel create their own enchanted forest out their home using hairbrushes and twigs enlarged to extraordinary effect by the handheld camera and its harsh lighting. The horror of what lies in store for them isn't necessarily outside, it's there within the walls of their house and it can be confronted only with the power of their own instinct for survival and quick-wittedness.

Perfectly matching the tone of the approach, the most wonderful display of this magic occurs just before the interval in the guise of the dream of the Fourteen Angels. Rather than the traditional fairy tale imagery as the children fall under the spell of the Sandman, the director Edward Dick comes up with a wonderful little movie interlude that is a rather more down-to-earth childhood dream of a perfect day at the seaside. In this little dream-movie the children experience all the joy, protection and happiness that is missing from their lives; candyfloss and ice-cream, sun and sand, love and laughter, a kind grandmother to give them everything that they don't experience with their own parents. It's a joyous little moment that connects the reality with the magic of imagination and the ability of the children to endure and rise above their circumstances.

There is no less careful attention to detail in the second and usually more overtly fairy-tale half of the opera. The edible gingerbread house is again just a clever camera shot - a view of the inside of the fridge packed with cakes and sweets blown up in projection to cover the walls and ceiling. But not everything relies on the cleverness of the production design to make the content of the second half work as well as it does. It's the delightful performances and playful interaction of Katie Bray and Fflur Wyn's Hansel and Gretel with Susan Bullock's swaggering witch that manage to strike that fine balance between the reality of the horror of the abusive captivity and neglect and the means of surviving it. Opera North's production doesn't frighten the children, except maybe in a good way.

It's probably the final scene that takes the most liberty with the libretto and yet at the same time it most perfectly represents the intent or moral of the tale. The fairy-tale has become a story that the older Hansel and Gretel tell to their own children, and it's their own children - the children who come alive when the witch dies - who exist now because Hansel and Gretel have endured, grown and strengthened to overcome the adversity of their experiences. The fairy-tale story is not entirely escapism then, but it is also a means that they can communicate these important values to their own children. It's a terrific way to acknowledge that Wagnerian side of the importance of myth and storytelling as vital to the development of cultural ideals. Even Hansel and Gretel's parents are reformed characters here.

The brilliance of the production - clever and charming, an absolute delight in every way - is matched by the equally warm and sensitive musical account and outstanding singing performances. I was already aware of the beautiful brightness and lyricism of Fflur Wyn's singing and couldn't have been more delighted to see her cast as Gretel. She didn't disappoint giving a heartfelt, engaging and playful performance, as did Katie Bray's boisterous Hansel. Bray's response to the witches's command to 'show me your finger' got perhaps the loudest laugh of the night, but this was also a beautifully sung performance that was perfectly complementary in a way that truly demonstrated the Wagnerian sophistication of Humperdinck's musical composition.

Simply due to the apportioning of the roles and the way the two principal roles were sung, it's fair to say that a large measure of the success of the production rode on the performances of Katie Bray and Fflur Wyn, but there was much to enjoy in Susan Bullock's scene stealing Witch. Her Gertrud sounded a little over-stretched at first, but she really warmed to the Witch role in the second half, and utterly mesmerized/horrified the young children in the row in front of me. You really need a personality like that to carry this off, and Bullock was terrific. To have Stephen Gadd there as well as the Father is another bonus. As good as all these production and singing elements were, it was the musical performance under Christoph Altstaedt's direction that was really outstanding, capturing all the folk swing of the songs, the bright playfulness and the sinister darkness, but more importantly with a contemplative sensitivity that is essential to carry off the ending attempted in this production. Opera North have really outdone themselves here.

Links: Opera North

Wednesday 15 March 2017

Puccini - Madama Butterfly (La Monnaie, 2017)

Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2017

Roberto Rizzi-Brignoli, Kirsten Dehlholm, Alexia Voulgaridou, Ning Liang, Marta Beretta, Marcelo Puente, Riccardo Botta, Aris Argiris, Aldo Heo, Mikhail Kolelishvili, Wiard Witholt, René Laryea, Rosa Brandao, Birgitte Bønding, Adrienne Visser

Opera Platform - February 2017

If Kirsten Dehlholm of the Danish art collective Hotel Pro Forma succeeds in one area where productions of Madama Butterfly often fail, it's in the manner of how to make a considerably older soprano convincingly pass for a 15 year old geisha. The La Monnaie production uses a life-sized puppet stand-in with two handlers for the main role, while it is sung at the side of the stage by Alexia Voulgaridou. Voulgaridou has of course sang the role convincingly enough before in many conventionally staged performances, but Dehlholm has other intentions for her role and the production as a whole. Some of those ideas have merit, but whether they actually work in the context of performance to do justice to Puccini's masterpiece is another matter.

The use of a puppet doll for Madama Butterfly has an authenticity and justification in that it is derived from the Japanese theatre tradition of Bunraku. It does helps envision Cio-Cio-San as a mere child, with an advantage that the skilled handlers are able to give a more authentic emphasis on mannerisms and gestures that might not otherwise be there with the same lightness and delicacy with an older woman playing the role. The use of a puppet also gives rise to other impressions that might seem appropriate in the context, viewing Butterfly as little more than a plaything of others with no real volition of her own.

The downside to this however is that, whether intentional or not, the impression it gives is fairly limited in terms of characterisation and lacks nuance. Butterfly is far from a passive puppet; she is determined and knows her own mind, even if she is often mistaken or misled in her belief that her marriage to American sailor Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton is anything other than a sham or a marriage for his convenience. To perhaps try and find other ways of giving expression to the real content and meaning of the work, the director has some other ideas, but most of them are fairly abstract and difficult to decode.

Aside from the Bunraku marionettes, the production tries to make a claim for a Nôh theatre influence, but it's far from authentic and mixed in with an indeterminate approach that makes it neither one thing nor another. The setting is not period specific. Pinkerton wears a generic military-style uniform, while the Japanese characters wear kimonos and obis. The set is mostly bare, there are no walls and only really a Japanese temple style roof hanging over the stage. Screens and projections present a mixture of abstract images and - bizarrely - a modern cruise ship for Pinkerton's return. Dancers in eccentrically designed origami folded costumes appear now and again and for some unfathomable reason, it looks like stage hands appear at the side of the stage for 'Un bel di vedremo'.

It's all a bit cool and detached from the real emotion that lies at the heart of the work. That can be a viable approach to Madama Butterfly to counteract the overheated drama (Robert Wilson's production is no less effective for it), but alongside the puppet/singer division, it creates too much distance between the story and the telling, even though Alexia Voulgaridou is far from dispassionate in her performance and not entirely disengaged from the drama. Wearing a white wig and an identical costume to the marionette, you might think she is an elderly version of Madama Butterfly reflecting on past mistakes, were it not for the fact that Cio-Cio-San doesn't live past the age of 18 (sorry for the spoiler). In reality, it's just another (misguided and mishandled) attempt to bring Japanese folklore into the production in the form of the traditional ghost story.

Not unlike the director's striking work for La Monnaie on Rachmaninoff's Troika, the production seems to arbitrarily place emphasis on light, colour and patterns as if it is enough to get across the deeper themes of the opera that have been left out of the traditional stage production. It can be refreshing to see something different attempted like this and there's no question it's a colourful and attractive production, but in the effort to be original you get the impression that the production team is more often missing the point, or worse - such as in the appearance of an oversized toy representing the child and the flock of birds that fall to the stage when the cannon fires to announce the arrival of Pinkerton's ship in Nagasaki - don't seem to be taking it terribly seriously at all.

Whether they are taking it seriously or not, it seems fairly certain that at least in how it presents Puccini's score, the production utterly fails to hit its musical and emotional high points. The singing is merely adequate, Voulgaridou trying to put a little more feeling into the proceedings but sounding sometimes a little over-stretched. Marcelo Puente's singing is fine but he fails to make an impression one way or the other in respect of how we feel about Pinkerton and his treatment of his Japanese child bride. Ning Liang is not a strong Suzuki, Riccardo Botta's Goro and Aris Argiris' Sharpless are rote and largely ineffectual. The orchestra under Roberto Rizzi-Brignoli sounds a little reduced and don't quite convey the Romantic sweep of the work, but other colours are brought out and there is impact where you would expect to find it.

Unfortunately none of this impact makes even the smallest dent on the dispassionately impervious production. It's perhaps not always necessary to fully embrace Puccini's melodrama, but if you are going to undermine the emotional delivery and tragic consequences of the final scenes, it would help if you had an alternative message or some surprise revelation to pull out in its place. The only surprise here is that you really couldn't care less at the conclusion, which is admittedly an incredible achievement for any Madama Butterfly. On the other hand, judging from the enthusiastic response of the audience perhaps this worked better in the theatre than it did on the screen, but as far as the live streaming is concerned this Madama Butterfly died in more ways than one.

Friday 10 March 2017

Nowak - Space Opera (Poznań, 2015)

Aleksander Nowak - Space Opera

Poznań Opera House, 2015

Marek Moś, Ewelina Pietrowiak, Magdalena Wachowska, Bartłomiej Misiuda, Martyna Cymerman, Tomasz Raczkiewicz, Andrzej Ogórkiewicz

The Opera Platform

Science-fiction doesn't get taken seriously at the best of times and it's rare enough in opera, but like opera the heightened nature of the genre can be used to address fairly major issues relating to humanity beyond naturalistic realism. Aleksander Nowak's Space Opera, created for the Poznań Opera House in 2015, aims to go back and tackle those fundamental issues about the nature of humanity and its place in the world at a very basic - some might say obvious - level. After all, how seriously are you supposed to take an opera that sends a couple called Adam and Eve up into space?

Or indeed an opera which begins with a meditation on and a tribute to the role that the common fly has had to play in mankind's exploration of the great frontier of outer space? And yet, we are told, it was a humble fruit fly that was the first indigenous living creature on this planet to leave the Earth's atmosphere on a V2 rocket back in 1946. A significant achievement you would think, and yet it's one that is probably not given sufficient recognition. Here however, as an introduction to Space Opera, Aleksander Nowak composes a soaring choral requiem of epic grandeur in tribute to the fruit fly, that bold first pioneer of space travel.

So, no, clearly we are not meant to take Space Opera all that seriously. Having acknowledged that not only flies, but monkeys and even dogs all merit recognition for their contribution, Nowak's Space Opera then deals with a new bold experiment to see how a married couple can cope living together on a 500 day trip to Mars. Let's not get too ambitious about generational travel beyond our own solar system until we can be sure that a man and a woman can get on together for a much shorter period in an enclosed environment isolated from the rest of the world.

The astronaut's wife Eve, is already starting to have doubts on the day before take-off, and she's not wrong to be concerned. Unknown to her, plans have been made to turn the experiment into a 24/7 reality TV show broadcast to the world. Not only that, but there's an uninvited guest also on board the space ship; a fly. And much like those first space-faring adventurers, we are to discover that the nature of the humble housefly has long been underestimated.

As you can probably already guess by the names of our astronauts, the Bulgarian writer of the libretto for Space Opera, Georgi Gospodinov, doesn't delve too deeply into male and female characteristics and relationships. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus, we are told, Eve having simpler earth-bound ambitions and emotional needs while Adam dreams of being up there with the gods in the cosmos. "Never take your wife into space", the chorus intone as the differences and disagreements rise to the surface, much to the delight of the TV audiences on Earth.

Aleksander Nowak doesn't break any new ground musically either. The English language libretto is played out mostly in recitative, while the score alternates between an intimate chamber arrangement and epic choruses and space ambiance with percussive interludes. Without sounding at all like Strauss it does nonetheless recognisably relate to a similar space sound environment that has been indelibly shaped and defined by 2001: A Space Odyssey's use of Also sprach Zarathustra.

Gospodinov and Nowak do however manage to probe a little more deeply when Eve shuts down the live feed to the reality TV show in the second half of the opera, and the man and the woman have to sort out their differences and come to terms with what it means to really be alone in space. That's not surprising, but it does seem to bring out the true intent of the work (and the true nature of science-fiction) that the challenge of being placed in a new environment will reveal more about what it means to be human and to want to strive to extend the reach and knowledge of where we fit in the cosmos as individuals and as a society.

"Loneliness is a volatile substance that strives to fill all the space around it", the astronauts discover, and the audience back on Earth suddenly no longer having someone else's life to watch on their TV screens, are also confronted with the emptiness in their own lives. The question that we should be concerned about is not whether there is life out there beyond the stars, but whether there is indeed life on Earth. And indeed, if we are able to see beyond our own limited perspectives, whether there isn't indeed already alien life on Earth as well. Maybe we need to look a little more closely at those flies.

Space Opera doesn't have any major revelations then and does tend to state the obvious, but it does so with a bit of humour. There's nothing wrong with looking at the obvious now and again however from a new perspective. Science-fiction is a good means of doing that, so too is humour, and so too is music. Aleksander Nowak's Space Opera is given a terrific presentation in that respect at the Poznań Opera House with Ewelina Pietrowiak's impressive direction and set designs. The projections, graphics, costumes, colour and lightning are all of a very high standard, telling the story well, integrating marvellously with the musical direction under Marek Moś.

Links: Opera Poznań, Opera Platform

Sunday 5 March 2017

Wagner - Tannhäuser (Venice, 2017)

Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser

Teatro la Fenice, Venice - 2017

Omer Meir Wellber, Calixto Bieito, Paul McNamara, Liene Kinča, Ausrine Stundyte, Christoph Pohl, Pavlo Balakin, Cameron Becker, Alessio Cacciamani, Paolo Antognetti, Mattia Denti, Chiara Cattelan

Culturebox - January 2017

There are a number of thoughts that come to mind as you try to figure out what the director Calixto Bieito is getting at in his 2017 production of Tannhäuser for La Fenice in Venice; few of them the kind of thing that usually comes to mind when watching this opera or even a Calixto Bieito production. As a director who usually takes a rather extreme reinterpretation of works, the minimalist expression of this Tannhäuser suggests either that he is seeking to strip back the work to its fundamental essence to see whether there's a deeper emotional truth to be found in it or else he is just lazy and running out of ideas.

And, as far as Tannhäuser is concerned, you wouldn't blame a director for thinking that everything that is to be said about the work has probably already been said. It's an early Wagner opera, one that was originally written in 1845 for Dresden, and continually revised by the composer through to its notorious performances at the Paris Opera in 1861. Wagner was never fully satisfied with the work and indeed some of the themes that run through it are revisited with considerably more insight, nuance, experience and ability in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Perhaps trying to find a coherent vision to work with, the Venice production takes Act I from the 1861 Paris version and Act II and III from the original revised Dresden version.

In comparison to Meistersinger, Tannhäuser is indeed somewhat heavy-handed in its treatment of the role of the artist in society, in the struggle between sacred and profane love, in the idea of the suffering artist achieving redemption for himself and furthering the progress of society. It certainly helps if you can find a way to express these ideas on the stage without all the high-flown poetic veneer that comes with the literal approach of Götz Friedrich. Robert Carsen, for example, would put the emphasis on the role of the conflicted artist by showing him as a painter rather than a singer in a Paris production. Claus Guth explored the idea of Wagner as Tannhäuser in Vienna, contrasting idealism with the reality. More recently, Sebastian Baumgarten's art-installation Bayreuth production explored art and the artist as the vital lifeblood of a fully functioning society.

The imperfection within the composition which lies partly within Wagner's blending of several different historical and mythological sources and a developing philosophy of his own, should nonetheless provide plenty of material for a director to work with. If nothing else, the viewpoints that Wagner expresses on the role of the artist within society can surely be tested for validity when exposed and contrasted with the present day. Calixto Bieito of course ditches the historical veneration of Wartburg, stripping it of any period costumes and elaborate realistic set designs and brings it into a more modern world setting. This time however he doesn't seem to impose any specific modern reading or context, but rather reduces it to its essence to see if it stands up and holds any truth or validity on its ideas alone.

Bieito's production of Tannhäuser then has more in common with his production of Halevy's La Juive for the Bayerische Staatsoper. There is something of a Grand Opéra aspect in common in the two works; a tendency towards overblown melodrama and musical overstatement that needs to be counteracted or viewed in a more modern light. There is also a religious sentiment in common in both works that Bieito seems to wish to avoid, at least in terms of conventional iconography, but still wishes to explore in terms of what it reveals about national character, fundamentalism and intolerance. As with La Juive however, it's debatable whether such an approach works or whether in fact it isn't actually missing the whole point of the works where the form is as much a part of the meaning as the content.

Still, it isn't too difficult to establish the contrasts between the three acts in fairly broad terms. Act I is hedonistic indulgence of the pleasures of the flesh; Act II is seeking to find an equivalent spiritual experience that serves a higher purpose; Act III is where the artist is able to reconcile the physical and spiritual sides of human nature and through them redeem society. Bieito's Venusberg in Act I, in contrast to the traditional idea of sinfulness and hedonistic indulgence, is seen rather more in terms of nature, with Venus wrapping herself sensuously in the hanging greenery that is just about the total extent of the scenery. The Wartburg of Act II and the singing contest is seen in a rather more rigid, structured form of frames. Act III's set is a combination of the previous two, but it's not a natural blend and rather seems to have destroyed society rather than united it. Perhaps the destruction of that society is necessary in order to rebuild.

Having established an understanding of the concept in broad terms, Bieito doesn't seem particularly concerned with imposing any other reading or emphasis on the work. Tannhäuser is no gentle work however and there is already emphasis aplenty within the conflicts of opposing natures and ideologies. It's here that Bieito lets the emphasis rest, rather than in some manufactured situation or in some elaborate scenery. Venus's sensual passions are seductively exaggerated by Ausrine Stundyte, Elizabeth's goodness and suffering is expressed fervently by Liene Kinča, leading to Wolfram inexplicably almost choking her in the third act, but primarily all of the conflict and passions and suffering have to be collectively absorbed and then transformed by Paul McNamara's intense Heinrich.

Tannhäuser takes his pleasures and his duties seriously throughout the opera. He indulges in physical love in Venusberg in Act I to such an extent that his willingness to submit to the demands placed on him by his minstrels of Wartburg is equally and wholeheartedly enthusiastic. There are no half-measures in Heinrich's world. In Bieito's direction, there is very much a sense that Heinrich believes that his self-mortification is a necessary stage that the artist must endure. He must suffer for his art just as he reveled in pleasure if he wants to fully explore the limits of being human and use the knowledge gained to question society and challenge its rules. These extreme views are not tolerated willingly by society when Tannhäuser expresses what he has learned in the singing contest of Act II. Nor are they tolerated by religion, as he finds when he submits to another 'trial' and undertakes his pilgrimage to Rome.

Act III then, following all the ferocious clashes of firmly held beliefs and ideologies, has wrought destruction on the once solid foundations of society, and Elizabeth's innocence is the price that has to be paid for it. With Wolfram and Elizabeth making wild empty gestures like they are in death throes, there's a post-apocalyptic feel then to this Act III of Tannhäuser that is less celebratory of the religious mysticism that is more commonly found there. Played this way, with the musical direction under Omer Meir Wellber slowing things down to an almost funereal pace, the tone felt closer to the final Act of Parsifal, emphasising similarities in the redemptive conclusions between the two works that I had never noticed before.

If that's the only revelation produced by Calixto Bieito's production then I suppose there is some method to the direction, even as it seems to work against the nature of Wagner's intent, if not so much the word. I think it might have been more successful an endeavour if it had singers of greater force of delivery than those cast for the La Fenice performances. It's not the kind of full-power singing you normally associate with the work, but the expression is nonetheless all there. Paul McNamara is mostly up to the challenge of the main role, performing with intensity and clarity. Liene Kinča's is equally as intense and gives an impassioned performance as Elizabeth. Ausrine Stundyte isn't quite up to the demands of Venus and struggles noticeably in her Act III scene. I thought I detected some murmuring of discontent from the audience at the proceedings of the first two acts (which wouldn't be unusual for this director), the production and performers are well received at the conclusion, so there's a sense that the power of Bieito's direction hit its mark.

Links: La Fenice, Culturebox