Friday 28 April 2017

Verdi - Jérusalem (Liège, 2017)

Giuseppe Verdi - Jérusalem

L’Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège - 2017

Speranza Scappucci, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Marc Laho, Elaine Alvarez, Roberto Scandiuzzi, Ivan Thirion, Pietro Picone, Natacha Kowalski, Patrick Delcour, Victor Cousu, Benoît Delvaux, Alexei Gorbatchev, Xavier Petithan

Culturebox - 23 March 2017

Although they are not without their merits, it's becoming clearer to me at least why the revival of Verdi's early operas is usually reserved only for anniversary occasions. It's not so much that they lack the sophistication of the composer's great mature works, since they make up for that in thrilling high drama and are still head and shoulders above much of Verdi's contemporaries and a substantial proportion of the Italian bel canto repertoire that preceded it. The problem would seem to be more that, on the surface at least, there's not much to distinguish one from another. That's certainly true of one of the greater rarities in the Verdi catalogue, Jérusalem, but there are other factors that make its production here at l’Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège an intriguing proposition.

To put it crudely and probably not terribly meaningfully, not to mention showing my age with a comparison that is about 20 years out of date, but you could liken the early Verdi as the Oasis to Wagner's Blur. While Wagner experimented to create a new musical voice that contained a sense of national identity and poetry, Verdi was content to stick more closely to the classical model, with vigorous rhythms, crowd-pleasing catchy melodies and not terribly sophisticated lyrics in his libretti. There's not much to tell one piece apart from another, but done well Verdi's method is undoubtedly effective and incomparably thrilling.

So what are the dramatic elements that make up a typical Verdi opera? They often abound in such matters as war or political tensions, some corrupt religious authorities, an old vendetta over a family tragedy, an unjust decision by a ruler, plots and assassinations, an innocent romance that crosses political or social boundaries all related with great revelations, coincidences and cruel twists of fate. All this is musically enriched with love duets, laments, prayers, marches and patriotic choruses. The regular early Verdi opera will have quite a few of these elements. If you're talking about Verdi in French grand opéra mode, well just bung the lot of them in there, add in a few additional large choruses, a long ballet, a drinking song, maybe drop a thunderstorm in there for good measure and retain the option of a ghostly apparition.

If only it were that simple. Jérusalem makes good use of a number of these elements and Verdi scores them well, the composer already having the basis of his successful Italian opera I Lombardi alla prima crociata to rework for a French audience. In reality, Jérusalem would appear to be Verdi operating to ideas yet above his station, but that's not quite fair and the opera is a little more than that. You could even look at Jérusalem as being the first step towards true Verdi greatness. It does represent a development in the composer's style and ability, using more through-composition, showing a stronger alignment of music to character rather than just heightening emotion and dramatic expression, for pacing or simple accompaniment. Composing for the French opera would take Verdi out of his comfort zone and force him to adopt to the expectations of a new and different audience.

And it worked. In terms of French opera, Les vêpres Siciliennes is a little more of an adventurous move away from those more familiar dramatic points, if still not quite making the mark. Jérusalem's plot developments would however resurface in other guises to a much more satisfying result, the pilgrims, a war torn land and regrets over old family tragedies would come up again in La forza del destino and beyond that to Don Carlos, where there is a much more sophisticated blend of plot and characterisation. There's even a hint of Eastern exoticism in Jérusalem that would point the way towards Aida. By this stage, no one could accuse Verdi of being stretched beyond his abilities, so this opera is very much of interest for exploring where those developments arose from and how they compare.

Plot, characterisation and relative musical qualities aside, the true value of any Verdi opera - and part of the reason why even the least celebrated of the early Verdi operas can still be thrilling stage pieces - is in the performance. Often it's only when performed well and the singing challenges are met that the drama really comes to life. The stage design and concept are not so important, and indeed any attempt to derive any deeper meaning, relevance or psychology would not only be superfluous but probably quite ridiculous. The Opéra Royal de Wallonie's artistic director Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera recognises this, keeps the work grounded in the period and focuses his direction in getting the drama across as effectively as possible. He doesn't quite succeed, but whether that's a failure with the direction or the work itself is hard to say.

Despite all the elements being in place, Jérusalem just never seems to come alive or convey any real sense of urgency. It really does seem like a compendium of conventional operatic tricks and numbers with no real personality behind it at all. Jean-Guy Lecat's set designs are basic and functional, which means they provide a suitably lit and appropriate backing for the scenes in Toulouse and Palestine, but the contrast between them doesn't seem to have any real connection to the characters within these locations. The main part of the stage is necessarily left clear so that the large choruses can take their place, and there is room also for the long ballet sequence that takes up the majority of Act III. These are the kind of constraints that come with Jérusalem (it would be tempting to cut the ballet for example, but that kind of misses the point of performing the work in the first place) and the Liège company just do their best with what they are given.

They put their best efforts and resources however into the areas where it can really count, and that's in the singing and musical performances. If the characterisation is paper-thin in these earlier operas, Verdi nonetheless provides some meaty challenges that put his principal singers to the test. They all come out of that exceptionally well here, showing that there is nothing to fault in Verdi's scoring for the French voice. Marc Laho's Gaston is excellent, demonstrating a beautiful clarity in his enunciation with feeling for the underlying sentiments. He grows in strength too as the opera progresses. Verdi's lead soprano roles are killers and Hélène is no exception. Cuban-American Elaine Alvarez navigates those hair-raising bends in the vocal line well and often impressively. Roberto Scandiuzzi also makes a great impression as Roger, singing the bass role with resonant clarity.

Speranza Scappucci's contribution as conductor is also notable. She strikes what seems to me to be a perfect balance between the rough and ready nature of early Verdi and the growing sophistication of his later works. The musical performance here permits you to hear that growing elegance of melody, mood and through-composed orchestration. It can be heavy when the high drama demands, but there's a lightness of touch there also that recognises that there are individual sentiments involved, even if the characterisation doesn't really go that deep.

Jérusalem is by no means an exceptional work or even an underrated Verdi opera, or at least not different enough for a company to take on its grand opéra challenges when any other early Verdi opera would do. On the other hand, it's certainly not without musical and historical interest, and if the stage production is a fairly indifferent response to an unexceptional drama where it's hard to feel any real sense of personal involvement in its tragedy, the first-rate musical and singing performances here in Liège go some way towards making up for it.

Links: L’Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Culturebox

Tuesday 25 April 2017

Wagner - Tannhäuser (Monte-Carlo, 2017)

Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser

L'Opéra de Monte-Carlo - 2017

Nathalie Stutzmann, Jean-Louis Grinda, José Cura, Steven Humes, Annemarie Kremer, Aude Extrémo, Jean-François Lapointe, William Joyner, Roger Joakim, Gijs van der Linden, Chul-Jun Kim, Anaïs Constans

Culturebox - February 2017

The failure and the uproar caused by the first French performances of Wagner's Tannhäuser in Paris in 1861 is one of the most significant events in musical history. Wagner's new way of structuring and writing opera with through-composition was certainly viewed as a challenge to the unwritten rules of opera; rules that were strictly observed at the Paris Opera. Those rules may have had more to do with social conventions than musical ones - upsetting the dinner arrangements of the influential Jockey Club members - but Wagner's musical innovations were significant and the work at least made a strong impression despite and maybe even because of the notoriety of the perceived fiasco in Paris.

Wagner had in fact tailored his opera specifically for the French audiences at its Paris premiere, even going as far as including the obligatory ballet sequence - albeit not placed in the conventional running order. The ballet and some of the other revisions are occasionally still introduced into productions of the opera, but it's very rare that you have the opportunity to see the work performed in the French language translation that was given at in its brief three night run in Paris in 1861. It's of considerable interest then to see this rare French version of Tannhäuser revived for the Monte-Carlo Opera.

The difference the French language makes to Tannhäuser is immediately striking, if not really all that surprising. It's not really all that immediately obvious though, since in addition to the long Vorspiel, Wagner's controversially placed ballet also follows the choral Bacchanal, which means that it's a full 25 minutes before you get to hear the voice of Heinrich, or Henri as he is known in this version. And credit to José Cura, who brings his robust dramatic lyrical tenor to the role with a fluid line if not with perfect enunciation, but it's the fact that the role is sung in French that is so striking, making Tannhäuser sound almost entirely different from the more familiar German version.

As you might expect, the work has a softer, lyrical flow in French, and conductor Nathalie Stutzmann emphasises this lighter treatment with a more delicate touch. It really doesn't sound at all like the Wagner we are more familiar with, nor does it really sound like anything that we could find comparable in French opera. It's not at all like Massenet, Saint-Säens nor any of the early adopters or admirers of Wagner's methods, although only Chausson really ever attempted anything in French opera that showed overt influence. What the French version does highlight however is something closer to what Wagner himself would have been aiming for at the time of composition; something that draws from the extravagance and style of the French Grand Opéra but has a uniquely German expression. That makes it sound totally unique in that respect, and in this version you can really see why the work would have come as a shock to a conservative French audience.

Consequently, the French Tannhäuser requires a different type of singer, and that does seem to be the biggest challenge faced by the Monte-Carlo production. José Cura copes best, showing that the role of Henri requires a more lyrical Saint-Säens style tenor than it does a Heinrich Heldentenor. Even then, the French language doesn't always scan well over the long Wagnerian lines and this certainly presents problems for some of the other roles. The role of Vénus is more of a mezzo-soprano role in the French version, and it is sung well by Aude Extrémo. Élisabeth is more of a challenge, and it certainly pushes Annemarie Kremer to her limits. Steven Humes comes over well as Hermann, the Landgrave, and the Monte Carlo production also has a good Wolfram in Jean-François Lapointe, who gives a lovely rendition of 'Ô douce etoile, feu du soir' (O, du mein holder Abendstern), but Tannhäuser/Wagner is undoubtedly a challenge for the French voice. The chorus is outstanding.

Jean-Louis Grinda's production makes effective use of Laurent Castaingt's visually impressive set designs. There's an extravagance of colouration in Act I which matches the vaguely 1940s period costumes with a Powell and Pressburger like Technicolor staging. In a stage context it looks more like more the stylised designs of 'The Red Shoes' or 'Tales of Hoffmann', but it also manages to capture something of the feel of 'Colonel Blimp' or the ecstatic colour sections of 'A Matter of Life and Death'. Act I's Venusberg is extraordinary, a hallucinogenic blaze of colour and psychedelic projections that would be appropriate for Henri's indulgence in this den of sin here being more of the narcotic kind. That also suits the slighter lighter touch that takes an edge off Wagner's rather more heavy-handed social and religious moralising.

Henri's act of rebellion nonetheless still contrasts strongly with the elegant clean lines and formal dress of Act II's scenes in Wartburg. The singing contest takes place in a cathedral-like dome where a grail is ceremoniously placed centre stage. During Henri's act of rebellion, scandalising polite society with profane art that is in defiance of social niceties and musical conventions, four representations of Venus remain present, visible only to Tannhäuser. They are easily upset these fine upstanding citizens, but then so too were the original first audience at the Paris Opera, we have to remember. One can only imagine that, despite the apparent failure of the work in Paris, Wagner must have delighted that the provocation of his own act of rebellion would make him the talk of the town.

Quite what kind of acceptance that the apostate expects to find is always difficult to reconcile in Act III of Tannhäuser, and it's by no means clear what way director Jean-Louis Grinda intends to present it, other than that it is still visually arresting. In a kind of inverted world, trees hang down from the sky, while Henri appears to be walking on the clouds of heaven, while the sun rises above/below the clouds and an eye appears in the sky. Henri's salvation at the end appears to be a heavenly one only, the penitent chorus appearing over the curve rise of the stage proclaiming the miracle of the flowering staff, while Henri faces down the guns of his rivals as the last notes ring out. Heaven and eternal peace ("À lui le ciel et la paix eternelle") may be the due of the penitent sinner, but in this production there's apparently not much earthly forgiveness being offered.

Links: L'Opéra de Monte-Carlo, Culturebox

Saturday 22 April 2017

Wagner - Parsifal (Vienna, 2017)

Richard Wagner - Parsifal

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2017

Semyon Bychkov, Alvis Hermanis, Christopher Ventris, Nina Stemme, Kwangchul Youn, Gerald Finley, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Jongmin Park

Staatsoper Live - 13th April 2017

First impressions count for a lot in a production of Parsifal. A full two thirds of the long, slow-moving work is going to take place in the single location of Monsalvat, a place that according to the demands of the work must lie outside of space and time, so it's important to get it right. All the more so in the case of the 2017 Vienna production of Parsifal, which sets all three acts in the same location. The choice of a hospital by director Alvis Hermanis however manages not only to make a strong impression, but it also gives the viewer a new way of looking at a complex and ever-intriguing work.

It's inevitable that the ideas and the philosophy behind Wagner's works must continue to be challenged as they are subjected to the gaze of a more modern outlook and sensibility. Every new production of Parsifal must necessarily provoke the audience to consider its message anew each time. Despite its basis in Christian beliefs and religious rituals relating to original sin, suffering, Good Friday death and rebirth into an afterlife, and for all the difficulty of pinning it down to any one meaning (which you would think must necessarily remain elusive) Wagner's final work is nonetheless the one that has best endured changes in modern thinking and touches more deeply on fundamental aspects of the human condition.

If there is one overriding sentiment in Parsifal however it's suffering and, to undoubtedly over-simplify its message, it's through compassion for others that we can find the path to enlightenment and redemption. There are of course many other angles from which to approach the work, but this central Schopenhaurian aspect of the work is hard to ignore and everything else that is contained within the work - including its mysteries and contradictions - must be made to fit around and work within this central theme. Alvis Hermanis's production takes that challenge head-on, seeking to illuminate and enlighten, and sometimes that means that it appears to be in direct contradiction to what Wagner proposes.

Leaving aside the rather unnecessary and unappealing labelling of Monsalvat as a 'Wagner Spital', the residence of the Knights of the Holy Grail in this production is indeed a hospital. As I say, first impressions count, and in a stroke Hermanis sidesteps those other aspects of Parsifal that are questionable or at least more difficult to relate to a modern outlook on its central theme. Replacing a temple with a hospital, Hermanis excises any notion of religious observance, ritual or conflicting faith beliefs, and instead chooses to see the worship of the Holy Grail as a belief in the supremacy of science, learning and rational thought over superstition and blind faith.

That's not a new direction for a director who brought updated scientific views and even introduced a Dr Stephen Hawking figure into his Paris production of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust. The period chosen for the 'Wagner Spital' however is an interesting and distinctive one, the director choosing to set the Vienna production in Vienna, but significantly during the turn of the 20th century Vienna of Freud and the birth of psychoanalysis. The acolytes, squires, knights are dressed here as patients, doctors and bow-tied bewhiskered professors, and the Holy Grail they worship is... a glowing brain.

A hospital is certainly an acceptable place (at least it's not an asylum) to examine questions of human suffering and compassion, even if it's doubtful that a strictly physiological approach really accords with Wagner's philosophy. But just as it is unwise to attempt to pin down Parsifal to one reading, it's also dangerous to assume that Hermanis is taking such a literal view. Parsifal, in any case, wouldn't permit such an imposition, so perhaps it's safer to see Hermanis's Vienna production as one that 'tests' Parsifal, throws psychoanalysis and psychology at it and sees if it (and Wagner who is just as much being analysed here) can withstand the scrutiny of more 'modern' scientific thought. That's certainly a worthwhile endeavour, and unsurprisingly Parsifal endures.

Setting the work in turn of the 20th century Vienna at least pushes focus onto another interesting and sometimes controversial aspect of Parsifal, and that's the treatment of women in the work. There's much that can be made of a Freudian analysis of the role that Kundry and the Flowermaidens play in the opera. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the doctors and students of the 'Wagner Spital' are mistrustful of the primal and hysterical personality traits of Kundry, who has clearly suffered trauma and abuse, and they keep her locked in a caged bed-cot. The openly sexual advances of the Flowermaidens too with their sensual allure - all bloomers and corsets here on hospital trolley-beds -  are not to be trusted either, threatening to distract Parsifal away from his true purpose of self-realisation. Parsifal is even constrained by the memory of his dead mother, seeing in Kundry a means of returning to being a baby safe under her protection.

If that is how women are broadly viewed or simplistically categorised in Parsifal, Hermanis's production allows for a wider and more sympathetic reading without entirely undoing the Wagnerian viewpoint. Act I would appear to challenge Wagner's philosophy (or the overly strict philosophy of the Knights) by giving science a biological or physiological imperative over their faith, but Act II does seem to admit that the mind is subject to an immaterial or spiritual dimension. The brain-grail in Act I is matched by another larger brain that is pierced with the Holy Spear in Act II, which is another symbol open to interpretation. In denying the lure of the Flowermaidens and Kundry, Parsifal is however able to remove the spear, the negation of the will permitting the human mind the ability to overcome the limitations of the physical.

It's perhaps this knowledge of the dualism of the mind and the body (and the suffering that comes with it) that the scientists of the Grail need to accept, and it's the symbolism of the spear being removed from the brain by Parsifal that points to the need for acceptance of their duality. The defeating of Klingsor in Act II, a mad scientist who uses reanimating electro-shock treatment on Kundry, also points towards another way of looking at the resolution of the questions raised by Parsifal. Parsifal's act of kindness and compassion towards the tormented woman in Act III indicates that a little kindness goes a long way, and maybe that's all we need to learn from Wagner's masterpiece. Well, maybe not all, but if all the philosophical viewpoints and symbolism don't entirely hold together in Alvis Hermanis's production, it nonetheless engages with the same contradictions, contrasts and conundrums that are there in Wagner's opera.

In terms of finding a sympathetic performance to match a thoughtful production, you could hardly ask for more than the one conducted by Semyon Bychkov. There might not have been anything too ambitious attempted in interpretation - a compressed live internet streaming audio mix is hardly the place to judge that in any case - and a few notes going awry here and there scarcely mattered; this was a warm and sensitive account of the score. The singing too was simply outstanding, all A-list Wagnerian performers with experience in these roles. The bass and baritone roles impressed me most, Kwangchul Youn's Gurnemanz and Gerald Finley's Amfortas both impeccable in delivery with beautiful clear enunciation. Christopher Ventris remained a bright and lyrical Parsifal throughout despite the challenges of the role, and Nina Stemme gave an understated but touching account of Kundry.

The overall impression might be that Alvis Hermanis presents Vienna with a rather cool and analytical Parsifal that perhaps doesn't offer any new insights, but with a striking set design, a meaningful conceptual approach and first-rate performances, it's nonetheless an impressive production that engages with many of the complex themes of Wagner's final masterpiece.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live

Wednesday 19 April 2017

Massenet - Werther (Vienna, 2017)

Jules Massenet - Werther

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2017

Frédéric Chaslin, Andrei Serban, Ludovic Tézier, Adrian Eröd, Sophie Koch, Maria Nazarova, Alexandru Moisiuc, Peter Jelosits, Marcus Pelz

Staatsoper Live - 6th April 2017

Andrei Serban productions, or the ones I have seen anyway, are certainly distinctive but hard to associate with any kind of individual style that you might find with other opera-theatre directors. Even though they might seem a little abstract, with stylised modern elements that don't always match the requirements specified in the libretto, Serban's productions nonetheless look good and somehow still often match the tone of the corresponding work fairly well.  They aren't traditional and they aren't particularly challenging or experimental, but they get the work done. That's pretty much how you would sum up Serban's production of Werther for the Vienna State Opera.

Peter Pabst's set designs for the Vienna Werther are in fact perhaps less stylised and more naturalistic than most of Serban's other productions. Providing, that is, that you are happy to accept a huge sprawling tree in the middle of the stage not only in the outdoor scenes, but looming there also in the background of Charlotte's otherwise normal living room and in Werther's little bedsit. No one is likely to be put off by such large symbolism in such a Romantic opera where the emotions and entanglements loom large, and it does give the production a certain character that lifts it above the mundane into the realm of the soul. It's the expression of the soul that is what Werther is really about, and it certainly does that at least in Massenet's score.

That grand gesture seems to be enough for Serban, and it's hard to argue with the effectiveness and style with which the production functions and heightens the overheated situations of the drama. The large tree contrasts strongly with the rather suffocatingly stuffy, austere old-fashioned furnishings, costumes and manners. There's a sense that this ever-present looming tree, the enduring symbol of life, nature and solidity comes to present an intense strain on Charlotte when she tries to resist her own nature. With Werther ever present in her mind, the stuffy conformity of her marriage with Albert rightly feels almost unbearably oppressive to Charlotte by the time we come to Act III.

The Vienna production harnesses much of the force of the deeply suppressed erotic charge that Massenet managed to create in Werther. The idea of composing the opera came to the Massenet after attending a performance of Parsifal and soon after visiting the home of Goethe, where he was struck by a passage of 'The Sorrows of Young Werther'. Inspired by his visit to Bayreuth and the sentiments of Goethe's famous work, these two powerful experiences are forged into a deeply romantic and emotionally charged work that captures perfectly the subject and heightened sentiments of Werther.

It's not Parsifal however but Tristan und Isolde that seems to exert the strongest influence over the opera. If there's little that is directly Wagnerian about the score other than the use of leitmotif and musical themes that surge throughout the whole work, there is something of the doomed lovers situation in Werther and Massenet is no less skilled in swirling those charged situations of repressed and unconsummated Romantic desires around in a potent concoction that can only be resolved in death. If Tristan were the only one who drank the potion and Isolde resisted, he would be Werther; hopelessly melancholic at the impossibility of their union. Death can only follow, and there is even an emotional and musical echo of the Wagner's Liebestod in Charlotte's response to Werther's fatal wounding.

Werther is not so much Wagnerian however as a full-blooded expression of German Romanticism, and the true nature of the force of those sentiments is fully delivered by the orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper under the baton of Frédéric Chaslin. There's no holding back on the huge sweep of the score, but it neither overplays nor seeks to find some kind of subtle naturalism in the situations. The score should be given this kind of full unmediated expression, and so too should the singing.

I've never been totally sold on the baritone version of Werther, but Ludovic Tézier shows here that it's not so much tenor or baritone that matters as who is singing the role and what they can bring to it. Tézier may not have a tenor's romantic allure, but he has the melancholic aspect of Werther in his demeanour, in the haunted inflections of his voice, and his delivery is superb. Charlotte is a role that Sophie Koch sings often and she is one of the best interpreters of the role. There's a little more strain showing in her voice these days, but everything that is required is there. Her delivery of the tumultuous reflections of Act III, for example - so important to the work as a whole - is outstanding. There are good performances and solid casting right down the line, with Adrian Eröd as Albert and Maria Nazarova as Sophie.

The fate or at least the state that Charlotte is left in at the closing notes of the opera are also all-important, in many ways much the same as with Isolde when Tristan expires. Having Charlotte turn the pistol on herself as some other productions have done could certainly be justified as an expression of where her mind is, even if it could be said to be over-playing the drama. Serban's direction for this scene is a little more even-handed or at least proportionate, but having Albert a bystander to the final scene, stomping off in a huff over what he has witnessed rather than being stunned into shock - surely the more likely reaction - tends to take away from where your sympathies and the emphasis ought to lie. It doesn't quite take away however from what has come before, with Koch and Tézier together generating a passionate and intense climax of real Romantic stupor.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live

Monday 17 April 2017

Cavalli - Il Giasone (Geneva, 2017)

Francesco Cavalli - Il Giasone

Grand Théâtre de Genève, Geneva - 2017

Leonardo García Alarcón, Serena Sinigaglia, Valer Sabadus, Kristina Hammarström, Kristina Mkhitaryan, Alexander Milev, Günes Gürle, Raúl Giménez, Willard White, Migran Agadzhanyan, Dominique Visse, Mariana Flores, Mary Feminear

ARTE Concert - February 2017

The first opera composers, back in Venice in the 17th century, believed that the Greek tragedies were meant to be performed to musical accompaniment, and the invention of opera was a way of reinstating music as a key component of dramatic expression. The notion about Greek drama proved to be a mistaken one, but from it developed a whole new way of expressing classic tales and drawing out underlying subtexts, ideas and themes. Realising its potential, the first great opera composer Monteverdi soon extended the scope of opera beyond the gods and myths of the classics and into the more commonplace earthly sentiments of human love, loss and lust. His student Francesco Cavalli took these ideas even further.

It's only now as more of the composer's works are being examined and performed that we are beginning to realise the extent to which Cavalli developed the art of lyric drama. Central to the rediscovery of many rare Cavalli works is the Argentinean baroque specialist conductor Leonardo García Alarcón. The success of his Elena at Aix-en-Provence in 2013 is being followed with a premiere this year of Erismena, and he unearthed the wonderful Eliogabalo for the Paris Opera in 2016. Alarcón and Geneva's contribution to the development of the Cavalli catalogue is another rarity, Il Giasone, composed in 1649. It's also derived from those classical Greek epics, but it's given what we can now see as a characteristic humanly rich and down-to-earth treatment from Cavalli.

Cavalli's Il Giasone gives us a different perspective on the story of Jason that the less than flattering one that we would be more accustomed to hearing from the perspective of Euripides's Medea. So has Jason just had bad ancient Greek PR? Well, Cavalli's Il Giasone gives a more rounded account of the leader of the Argonauts and judging by the tender duets that he shares with Medea, there seems to be genuine love, affection and respect there for the Queen of Colchis. On the other hand, Jason's promiscuity is also made quite apparent in Cavalli's opera, a habit that will get him into trouble further down the line by the time he gets to Corinth. Here, having had what Wikipedia amusingly describes as having "extensive relations" with the women of Lemnos, Jason has already fathered twins to Hypsipyle (Isifile in the opera) and Medea's nurse Delfa claims that he has had another set of twins with her. He certainly puts it about a bit.

What is Jason's response to all these accusations? Well, Serena Sinigaglia's direction for Il Giasone seems to be perfectly in the spirit of Cavalli's usual treatment of such situations; deny everything. Or he at least has the wit to claim, while wearing a cheesy grin at the thought of all these women claiming paternity, that it could have been him, but who's to know and how he is supposed to keep count of his conquests and the resulting progeny? That really sets the tone for a work that is far fresher and more entertaining than a work almost 400 years old has any right to be. The delightful Geneva production and Leonardo García Alarcón's conducting of the Cappella Mediterranea contributes to this impression with a staging that is simple, captivating and musically invigorating.

The set and costume designs by Ezio Toffolutti are just perfect for every purpose, and Cavalli has plenty of purpose to put them towards. There are no extravagant gestures or clever concepts applied, just an effort placed into making the stage look stylish attractive and dramatically effective. The main prop is a dark circle of standing stones with surrounding flat-panel bushes that serve as hiding places and platforms for romantic assignations, as well as providing a suitable location for Medea to work invocations and cast spells. The costumes, mainly on the part of Isifile and her Lemnos entourage, are 1920s' period elegance, while there is also good use made out of body suits for the muscular Ercole, the hunchbacked Demo and the nursing attributes of Delfa. They also come hilariously complete with miniature appendages for the dancing cherub Amore.

The plot has something of a 'Carry on Jason' kind of comic farce to it with Demo (Migran Agadzhanyan) providing stuttering double-entendres and the nurse Delfa (who else can do this role better than Dominique Visse) leaping on any sailor who is game enough to take her on, but that's only part of Cavalli's rich entertainment. The situations can also convey something of the underlying menace of Medea's formidable reputation, but at the same time show an unexpected tenderness and even sensitivity for Jason, seeking protection for him in his quest for the Golden Fleece. It might seem like there are far too many little side-plots and situations, but even with a large cast of mythological heroes, villains, gods, dwarfs, queens and kings in complex arrangements, they all display recognisably human characteristics and contribute to the central subject of the relations between men and women. Cavalli scores the music for it all wonderfully, with invigorating dance rhythms, touching laments and reflective love duets.

Medea is a gift of a character in whatever dramatic or operatic incarnation she appears and Kristina Hammarström takes the role well here in the Geneva Il Giasone alongside countertenor Valer Sabadus as Jason. Cavalli rarely goes in for showy arias, preferring instead to give the performers strong characters that they can really get their teeth into, and that's certainly the case here. Even so, there are a number of duets between Jason and Medea that are just beautifully written and performed here. Kristina Mkhitaryan also has a substantial role as Hypsipyle/Isifile which she sings wonderfully, bringing a lovely clear brightness to the character. Musically, it's a real treat with Leonardo García Alarcón's conducting the Cappella Mediterranea, the period instruments bringing out a lovely percussive rhythmic edge to the score with a deep low continuo accompaniment.

Links: ARTE ConcertGrand Théâtre de Genève

Wednesday 12 April 2017

Verdi - Otello (Madrid, 2016)

Giuseppe Verdi - Otello

Teatro Real, Madrid - 2016

David Alden, Renato Palumbo, Ermonela Jaho, Gemma Coma-Alabert, Gregory Kunde, Alexey Dolgov, Vicenç Esteve, George Petean, Fernando Radó, Isaac Galán

Opera Platform - 27 September 2016

It doesn't matter how good a composer is and how skilled the adaptation, any opera version of a Shakespeare is necessarily going to lack the finesse and poetry of the original. Among some notable attempts however Verdi's Otello is rightly acknowledged to be among the very best, but even Verdi's musical sophistication and Boito's poetic reworking of the plot and its themes can't translate the full measure of Shakespeare's language. Not that it should have to; Verdi's Otello is a masterpiece in its own right.  Any performance however - whether this story is told as an opera or as a drama - will only as good as the creative artists and the performers involved.

David Alden's production of Otello in Madrid is one such account of the work that demonstrates the musical and dramatic qualities of Verdi's opera and the challenges that exist in delivering them. Alden even attempts to bring a little bit of poetic flair to the stage and there is enough poetry in Verdi's music for there to be room for expressive gestures. It can be quite difficult however to reconcile all the variations of character between Shakespeare and Verdi without a firm sense of purpose, and almost inevitably Alden's production is a little too uneven in its application and inconsistent in what it is trying to draw out of the characters and the situation.

In terms of paying attention to what Verdi is bringing out in the music however, Alden is almost faultless in setting the tone of each scene. It's all about choosing what to illustrate or emphasise. Act I of Otello is a masterful blend of mood, drama and emotion that very quickly - without even time for a traditional overture - establishes character and the range of human emotions and interests that are to come into violent conflict - love, jealousy, ambition and revenge. What is needed to set them into confrontation is an agent of havoc, willing to exploit the weak and the gullible.

The agent in question of course is Iago, and Alden no less than Verdi or Boito recognise that defining his particular mindset and motivations is vital. Boito of course famously goes further even than Shakespeare with the introduction of Iago's 'Credo' of philosophical nihilism. Whether this approach is valid or not, it does at least represent a setting out of a position and Verdi and Boito follow through on it. Alden is less successful, but then it's by no means easy to unpick or adjust emphasis away from this key tenet of the opera.

As far as Act I goes however, everything works wonderfully in the Madrid production. Renato Palumbo drives Verdi's score marvellously with attention to the emotional detail as well as the overall dramatic force of the work. Alden's introduction of a female dancer to stir up the excitable sailors and choreograph the fight scene with shadow boxing movement does seem a little overplayed, but in many ways it captures the sense of Iago's scheming, plotting and attempting to control violent and unpredictable forces. Or at least that's how I read it, but it's not something that is really followed through in the subsequent Acts and scenes.

The mood however is quite different in the subsequent Acts, and if Alden relies more on the conventional stage and lighting techniques, it at least matches the dramatic action well. Act II is dark and sombre, and Act III with the arrival of the Venetian delegation is unexpectedly funereal, picking up on the dark undertones of the underlying tensions that have been created. It looks fabulous, with the seemingly arbitrary early 20th century period of the costumes that appears to be a favourite of the director, at least looking stylish and elegant. Even though all this and the final Act take place within a single set that looks something like a troops barracks on Cyprus, Alden does enough with the opening and closing of the doors and using light and darkness (Desdemona always bathed in light) to ensure that it's versatile enough for every situation.

The second half of Otello perhaps needs a little more direction than this, certainly in terms of who the characters are and how they react to the escalating tensions. There's more reliance on the performers to get this across and, by and large, the cast give strong individual performances that also complement the musical accompaniment. Conducting the Madrid orchestra, Renato Palumbo directs a performance that is full of sound and fury (to mix Verdi-Shakespearean references), finding the subtle nuance within each character, but also allowing the dramatic force of those emotions to assert their dominance once they have been unleashed into conflict with one another.

Much like Don Carlo, Otello can be a tremendously challenging work for singers, but one which can be highly rewarding when it has capable singers who are able to engage with it. It can also be a work that interestingly demonstrates the respective strengths and weaknesses of a singer's voice, and that's the case with the cast assembled here in Madrid. Gregory Kunde is one of the great dramatic Rossinians, capable even in the more testing arena of grand opera. Verdi is another challenge altogether, but Kunde acquits himself well. His Otello is one who is a victim of his own tormented mind, a warrior at war with himself, and Kunde takes the role with his usual commitment and personality. If certainly tested, it's nonetheless a fine performance.

That is also the case with Ermonela Jaho's Desdemona. The Albanian soprano has shown herself capable of tackling challenging roles like Suor Angelica and even Violetta Valery, and even if this exposes a little weakness in the middle range, it's a fully committed performance that again captures the anguish of an unjustly mistreated woman. Whether there should be more to Desdemona than this however, it didn't entirely come across under Alden's direction. Much hinges on the part that the scheming Iago plays in the opera and George Petean's capable performance exuded more calculating confidence than mindless malice. Alden doesn't seem to permit any over-playing of the role, but if that means that the work loses some of its bite, the tragic outcome is no less effective for it.

Links: Opera Platform, Teatro Real

Tuesday 4 April 2017

Hosokawa - Stilles Meer (Hamburg, 2016)

Toshio Hosokawa - Stilles Meer

Staatsoper Hamburg, 2016

Kent Nagano, Oriza Hirata, Susanne Elmark, Mihoko Fujimura, Bejun Mehta, Viktor Rud, Marek Gasztecki

EuroArts - DVD

The impact of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami on Fukushima in Japan is unquantifiable in human terms and surely a challenge for any artistic endeavour, literature, film, or even documentary to fully depict. The nature of the event, the devastation it caused and the lives it took are difficult enough to deal with, but the longer term disaster set in motion by the damage caused to the nuclear reactor in Fukushima and the implications this has for future generations is a lot more to take on. That however is exactly what Toshio Hosokawa attempts to do in his opera Stilles Meer - Silent Sea, written for the Hamburg Opera in 2016.

Even before the opera starts, we get some indication of how the composer is going to approach such a task, introducing other sounds, influences and techniques in order to extend the range of what opera can achieve. Somewhat unconventionally, the first sounds that break the silence at the start of the opera are the sounds of the sea and the voice of a robot warning that the site at Fukushima is currently a safe zone free from radiation. Nature and technology sit uneasily side by side and the danger that they pose is underlined by the first heavy percussive sounds of an earthquake and aftershocks.

The stage set for the Hamburg world premiere of Stilles Meer also sets out to create a similar uncomfortable fusion of the natural and the synthetic. A platform leads down to a patch of blue sea that is covered with a circular glass framework that suggests the shape of a nuclear reactor. Rods hang down from the sky instead of clouds. The fishermen of Fukushima, celebrating the lantern festival of O-Higan, carry globes that look like they are glowing with radiation. The impression, matching the mood created by Hosokawa's music, is that everything has changed, all that is natural has been altered and distorted.

The human story that takes place in this environment is also one where the composer and librettist attempt a fusion of ideas and cultures in order to get across the deeper impact of the disaster on people's lives. Claudia's 12 year old son Max died when the tsunami struck the coast of Japan, lost when out on a fishing trip. His body and that of Claudia's partner Takashi have never been found among the debris that continues to be washed ashore. Stefan, Claudia's former partner and father of Max, has come to see her, but is shocked to find that Claudia still hasn't accepted what has happened.

Takashi's sister Haruko has a plan to help Claudia begin the grieving process. Claudia is a dancer who makes a living teaching the local children and Haruko believes that Claudia might be able to find a way to relate to what has happened through her love of the Nôh drama 'Sumidagawa'. It's the same Nôh drama that Benjamin Britten based Curlew River on, the story of a mother who has lost her son and is unable to accept his death. but here it retains its Buddhist origins. It is only through the chanting of a Buddhist prayer that the mother in 'Sumidagawa' is able to take her grief into another dimension and Haruko hopes that Claudia might be able to relate to her own grief on this same level.

Essentially, Stilles Meer is itself an attempt to collectively take the suffering of Fukushima to another dimension where it can be processed, and evidently that is through the transformative process of art in music and opera. That's a tall order and it's difficult to judge the merit of a work on those terms, but it's clear that the composer believes very strongly in the spiritual side of music and his opera is a sincere attempt to process a significant event of indescribable horror. The approach adopted by Hosokawa, director Oriza Higata and conductor Kent Nagano certainly makes every effort to create a suitable reflective environment for that to occur.

Hosokawa makes good use of silence and stillness to achieve that, using the rhythms of nature and obviously that relies primarily on the motions of the sea. The music rises and falls and maintains a low background presence even in the quieter moments. This allows room for reflection, which is also the role to a large extent of the other members of the Fukushima fishing community heard in the opera. There is indeed something of a tone of an oratorio or a requiem about the opera in these passages, a respect even for the power of the sea and a wariness of technology that would be instilled in the people who live there.

The rather more unpredictable side of the sea and the devastation that it can cause is there in the voices of the principal singers. Susanne Elmark gives a great performance, channeling the forces at work within her character that occasionally spill over into uncontrollable emotional outbursts. Mihoko Fujimura is like an unshakable vessel, battered and beaten by the tides but still afloat. There's deep emotion there too, her song to the "shoes on the beach" deeply affecting. Bejun Mehta sings "Claudia!" a lot, with an occasional exclamation of "Max!", but in many ways this is another refrain of appeal like the later Buddhist prayer, and Mehta's countertenor is still sweetly voiced.

Whether Stilles Meer achieves what it sets out to is difficult to say, but it's an important work that addresses a significant terrible real-world event and tries to make some kind of sense out it it. There might not be a sense of resolution or complete closure at the end of Stilles Meer, but unlike Philippo Perocco's similarly themed Aquagranda, which only seemed capable of providing resolution to the 1966 flooding of Venice in an historical context, there is an indication in Hosokawa's work that there's a deeper learning and healing process to follow and that the process necessarily must be an on-going one.

Links: Staatsoper Hamburg