Monday 22 May 2017

Vivaldi - Arsilda (Bratislava, 2017)

Antonio Vivaldi - Arsilda, Regina di Ponto

Slovak National Theatre, Bratislava - 2017

Václav Luks, David Radok, Lucile Richardot, Olivia Vermeulen, Kangmin Justin Kim, Fernando Guimarães, Lisandro Abadie, Lenka Máčiková

Culturebox - 9th March 2017

Composed for Venice in 1716, Vivaldi's fourth opera, Arsilda, Regina di Ponto is a typical example of the established opera seria form, a royal intrigue filled with disguises and mistaken identities that cause much confusion and turmoil in the political and romantic concerns of the kingdom. What can't be disguised however is Vivaldi's lively and vigorous approach to the music, which is vividly brought out in this performance of the opera by the Czech baroque ensemble Collegium 1704 conducted by Václav Luks in the first staged performance of the work in 300 years. It's the stripping away of disguises to the heart of the true sentiments underneath that also forms the basis for the Bratislava production directed by David Radok.

Like most early baroque operas, there is a little bit of a backstory to the considerable complications that have arisen which need to be resolved over the course of the opera. Following the death of the King of Cilicia, the Queen has managed affairs until her son Tamese is of the age to rule. A marriage has also been arranged between Tamese and Arsilda, the daughter of the King of Pontus to consolidate the throne and secure the kingdom from threats from their enemies. Unfortunately Tamese is believed drowned at sea in a shipwreck, so the Queen, needing a successor to the throne, has disguised Lisea, Tamese's twin sister, to take his place.

As the opera starts, Arsilda isn't happy that her fiancé hasn't shown much in the way of amorous intentions towards her. Since she is also being pursued by Barzane - formerly the fiancé of Lisea - this causes her some confusion and doubts about the marriage. Lisea, disguised as Tamese and feeling betrayed at Barzane's behaviour, is no less confused about how she is going to make this arrangement work. Without any plan, she puts her faith in the passing of time and unexpected events to sort things out. This is a wise policy which it has to be said is not often taken by meddling rulers in opera seria, because - you will not be surprised to find out - Lisea's twin brother Tamese is not actually dead, but alive and unaccountably employed in the court as a gardener. Not that this makes the ensuing complications any less troubling for all those involved.

Nor indeed does it make the complications any easier for the audience to figure out. Aside from the confusions over identity - which is indeed very hard to keep up with and which I'm not even going to attempt to unravel - the plot itself, the sentiments behind them and the path to resolution aren't that difficult to grasp. Basically, everyone thinks they are in love with the wrong person not knowing that they are actually the right person, but in disguise. At the same time, just to add to their woes, they don't really believe they love the person they are with, even if they can't quite figure out that the person they think they are with is not the person they think.

It sounds complicated, but all it is really illustrating is how love is never as straightforward and as simple as we might like to think it ought to be. In Arsilda, Regina di Ponto, the heart that knows its own mind and can't be denied without it resulting in much unhappiness and regret. And long arias of woe of course, although on that front Vivaldi is rather more concise and punchy in delivery, without all the endless da capo reiterations. And when you get down to the root cause of all their concerns about whether she/he (or indeed in the travesti/castrato make up of baroque opera is he/she actually a she/he?) is in love with them, it very much sets the same sense of confusion and fear about whether we will find our true love.

If you're Lisea (disguised as Tamese), you could put your faith in time and events sorting things out for themselves, but the matter is more easily resolved than that in Vivaldi's opera: everyone eventually simply removes their disguises and goes back to being who they truly are. If that's not the cleverest plot development I've ever come across in the complicated love entanglements of an opera seria, it's certainly one of the neatest, with the added benefit that everyone seems to come out of the arrangement happy. It also has a more down-to-earth quality than the clemency or wisdom of a great ruler handing down a solution, and it has the more basic universal truth of 'be yourself' within it.

If David Radok's direction and the ravishing costume designs of Zuzana Ježková don't contribute a great deal to making it clear who exactly is who they say they are and who they really are, they certainly set about illustrating that essential underlying theme. For the first two thirds or so of the opera, everyone is dressed in elaborate and somewhat stylised 18th century court costumes, with heavy wigs and considerable make-up. Gradually, each of the characters strips out of those costumes, down to rather more simple modern suits and slips as they strip themselves of their false identities and reveal their true self. Stripped of all their royal finery and away from the court intrigue they are ordinary people with everyday human feelings. It's a simple gesture, but one that neatly encapsulates everything that the opera seems to be about.

There's not a great deal of insight or elaboration that you can make out of the plot of Arsilda without unnecessarily over-complicating it further, but Vivaldi's music has its own charm that ensures that there is never a dull moment and that you don't really have to care if you haven't grasped who each of the characters are. All the more so with a riveting performance of the period instrument Collegium 1704 ensemble under Václav Luks that makes the work sound so fresh and alive. All the singing performances are also an absolute delight; Olivia Vermeulen's Arsilda is impressive, as is Fernando Guimarães's Tamese, but it's Lucile Richardot's Lisea and Kangmin Justin Kim who manage to touch more deeply on the underlying simplicity that Luks and Collegium 1704 find at the heart of Vivaldi's score, the opera ending on a reflective note of peaceful simplicity and harmony.

Thursday 18 May 2017

Janáček - Kátja Kabanová (Vienna, 2017)

Leoš Janáček - Kátja Kabanová

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2017

Tomáš Netopil, André Engel, Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Misha Didyk, Jane Henschel, Angela Denoke, Leonardo Navarro, Thomas Ebenstein, Margaret Plummer, Marcus Pelz, Ilseyar Khayrullova, Caroline Wenbourne

Staatsoper Live - 27th April 2017

In some ways the tale of Kátja Kabanová fits the opera template perfectly, not least in its story of a tragic heroine who is destroyed by the hypocrisy of the society around her. Janáček's treatment of Ostrovsky's drama 'The Storm' however is a rather more unconventional opera in terms of its dramatic structure and musical arrangements. Perhaps no more so than any of the composer's other operas, it nonetheless has a unique blend of elements that is distinctly Janáček; the music incorporating folk elements, its rhythms and vocal lines matching those of the spoken voice, creating a unique fusion between the characters and the society around them as well as giving expression to the composer's own personal life experiences.

More than simply play along a conventional line of dramatic points, Kátja Kabanová attempts to let the essence of the experience arise naturally out of a number of little episodes. It's an evocation of time and place, specifically a small provincial village on the Volga in Russia around 1860, but as the issue isn't forced, it's possible to recognise the more universal qualities that can relate to other similar situations, particularly in the context of a young woman feeling hemmed in by a loveless marriage and the pressures of social expectation that restrict free expression of her own personality.

It could easily be relocated then to other times and places. The first time I saw the opera staged was in Paris in 2004, where Christoph Marthaler's production (originating from the 1998 Salzburg Festival) depicted the drama and the social oppression as one existing in an old Soviet tenement block, the Volga a fountain in the courtyard. Robert Carsen, by way of extreme contrast made the Volga the centre of the drama, filling the whole stage with water, the romantic free flowing river reflecting Kátja inner nature while also serving as a grim and constant reminder of the stagnation of her own waterlogged life.

André Engel's production of Kátja Kabanová for the Vienna State Opera sets the drama in what looks like a poor East European immigrant community in New York sometime in the first half of the 20th century. The Volga that Vána Kudrjás admires at the start of the opera, in what is one of only a few stranger twists applied to permit the relocation to work, is actually a bottle of imported Russian vodka. Corresponding locations to the Russian village of the original are not hard to find in this city setting, with a grim tenement block the home of the small immigrant community, a rooftop location the place for her secret assignation with Boris, a yard to shelter from a thunderstorm and a back alley leading to the river all filling in adequately for the original locations.

It's not a spectacular set - it's certainly nothing like Carsen's drowned world - but it does speak of the impoverished life lived by these people. Not necessarily in monetary terms - although there is very much a distinction and class snobbery that divides the business men and the ordinary people - but in spiritual terms also. In another of similar contrasts or paradox, religion also determines behaviour in this community, but there is very little that is spiritual about it, religious morality being used hypocritically on the part of Dikój and Kabanicha to satisfy their own particular desires or ambitions and put down those who they accuse of not measuring up to expectations.

The production at least highlights these social divisions as the cause of Kátja's unrest by putting a little more emphasis in certain places. Dikój and Kabanicha's little affair is shown to be a little more sordid, Kátja's prayers are made before a priest, and the guilt and accusations that she applies to herself in Act III are emphasised by her oppressors appearing nightmare-like dressed in mourning black to haunt her. Kátja's tragedy is that she places too much faith and trust in practices employed by these hypocrites that are used to repress her true and better nature. It's not Kátja who throws herself into the Volga but her accusers who urge her on, as they would have done in with adulterers in the past. Kabanicha's disrespect for the drowned young woman in this production adds another level of shock to an already dark ending.

Tomáš Netopil also finds the darker edge that lies in the music but also recognises that Janáček's music is not so plainly descriptive of the drama or even one single underlying mood, but carries within it a number of contrasting emotions. The choral refrains of folk songs in the final scene are haunting but also beautiful, reflecting the contradictions within Kátja's mind, longing to be free as a bird, but caught in the pull of the flow of the Volga. The musical performance matches the impassive realism of the work, which is restrained and interiorised, binding those contradictory sentiments to the world and the society that gives rise to them.

Although it is effective in its own way, the slight over-emphasis of the production doesn't bind itself to the drama quite as well as the music. Neither does the singing. Interestingly for me, this production has the same Kátja and Kabanicha's as the Paris production I saw 13 years ago; too long ago to assess how Angela Denoke and Jane Henschel compare in those roles now. Certainly Henschel still cuts a formidable figure as Kátja's tormentor, but Angela Denoke on this performance alone is less than ideal. Although reaction tends to be mixed to some of her recent performances, she is still be a force to be reckoned with when dredging up deep emotional turmoil in characters like Kundry and Alceste. She characterises Kátja well, but her pitch is too wild and erratic to sustain the flow of Janáček's vocal writing and its relationship to the music. Misha Didyk's voice can also be something of an acquired taste and it doesn't always work for every role, but he is a good Boris, singing the role with all that pitiful romantic passion that is helpless against the social order and ineffectual when it comes to Kátja's dilemma.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live

Tuesday 16 May 2017

Handel - Radamisto (Belfast, 2017)

George Frideric Handel - Radamisto (Belfast)

NI Opera, Irish Chamber Orchestra, Belfast - 2017

David Brophy, Wayne Jordan, Doreen Curran, Aoife Miskelly, Kate Allen, Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, Richard Burkhard, Adrian Powter, Michael Patrick

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 14th May 2017

Although Northern Ireland Opera and Irish Youth Opera collaborated on an Irish tour with Agrippina in 2015, I can't recall that there has ever been a fully-staged Handel opera performed in Belfast. As a possible first then, the opera seria Radamisto is by no means the obvious choice to introduce Handel's operas to a Belfast audience. It's not filled with memorable arias, the music doesn't have the melody and harmony of the composer's best works, and the plot isn't the most dramatic. Without some invention and unless you have some very good singers capable of bringing the roles to life, Radamisto can be a very dry affair indeed. Fortunately the NI Opera production was outstanding not only in its playful direction and superb singing, but David Brophy and the musicians of the Irish Chamber Orchestra also found the beating heart of the work beneath its pounding rhythms.

It's the simplicity of Radamisto's relatively straightforward plot and its refinement down to six principal characters that actually works to its advantage. Although all the figures are all drawn from real-life, there is little of historical accuracy in the Nicola Haym's libretto for the opera. Based on a text, L'amor tyrannico, originally written for the composer Francscso Gasparini by Domenico Lalli, Radamisto is happy to play fast and loose with history in order to put across a direct moral message about resistance to tyranny. That's a message that may have spoken to the audiences of 1720 and perhaps it can still have a message to an audience who has been carefully following the development of world events in the news 300 years later.

In 53 AD however, the tyrant is Tiridate, the ruler of Armenia, who has invaded Thrace and enslaved its king Farasmane, despite being married to the king's daughter Polissena. The reason for this act of aggression however soon becomes clear; Tiridate is in love with Zenobia, the wife of Radamisto, the son of Farasmane and brother of Polissena. Despite the pleas of Tigrane, the Prince of Pontus who is an ally of Tiridate and in love with her, Polissena refuses to renounce her husband. Tigrane nevertheless assists in saving her brother Radamisto from the siege that Tiridate is waging on the city, disguising him and introducing him into the court of the tyrant in the hope of assisting his wife Zenobia, who believes he is dead, and rescue her from the clutches of Tiridate.

The emotional content of most opera seria can be rather generic, with arias often treated as interchangeable by composers (Handel included) who would rework and reuse them in other operas. Radamisto however doesn't seem to manufacture situations to suit the guidelines of emotional trajectory and aria distribution or to meet the demands of the original singers. The familiar complications and conventions of the opera seria are certainly there, with sons seeming to betray their fathers, young love being thwarted by the demands of a cruel and selfish ruler, and a prince believed dead returning in disguise, but they don't seem to be there to provide a series of anguished arias on the cruel twists of fate, love and power. Rather, everything in the opera essentially revolves around the insanity of Tiridate's obsession with Zenobia and Handel uses this one very strong central situation to explore the more uplifting sentiments and human values that it provokes.

I could be mistaken, but I get the impression that this what is alluded to in Wayne Jordan's introduction of a silent actor into the proceedings. Whether it's the intention or not, Michael Patrick's presence, intervention and cavorting fitted in perfectly and served to enliven what might otherwise be a quite static delivery of one recitative and aria after another. Dressed in a modern formal dress suit, quite at odds with the gothic-oriental meets east European puppet-show look of Annemarie Woods' attractive and suitably otherworldly costume designs, it was tempting to see the actor as the director of the proceedings (or indeed the composer himself), intervening and manipulating, placing characters into suitable positions that matched the definable little variations in the detail of Handel's music.

Despite all his efforts to bend the characters to his will, the actor like Tiridate finds that human emotions are not so easily defined or manipulated and seems surprised at how, when placed under such controlling and tyrannical restrictions, they nonetheless manage to resist. And not only resist, but quite inexplicably, despite all that they have been through, they become stronger and still manage to show mercy, understanding and forgiveness. It's a credit to Handel and his ability to overcome the normal restrictions of the opera seria format that the belief in these sentiments doesn't feel forced to suit a moral, but seems to come naturally from the inherent humanity within the characters.

It's there in the music and superbly brought out by the Irish Chamber Orchestra under David Brophy. Using bassoon, oboes, flutes and horns, Handel makes use of a variety of instruments to bring colour to each of the situations that brings a deeper and more nuanced character far beyond the words on the page. Sung in English here, it wasn't always easy to hear the words being sung, but every detail of the situation could be heard if you paid attention to the music. More than just the use of obbligato, it's astonishing how much warmth and emotion can be found in the writing for the instruments that carry the rhythm and recitative. It's rare that individual musicians get a mention in opera reviews, but the contributions of Christian Elliott on principal cello and Julian Perkins on harpsichord were outstanding, playing with genuine feeling that brought out the underlying humanity in the score, not to mention the evident genius of Handel's writing.

The singing carries much the same effect, with a beautiful balance that puts the strengths and predicaments of each of the characters onto an equal footing of conflict. Whether she's singing Bach or Barry, Schoenberg or Mozart, Glanert or Rimsky-Korsakov, Aoife Miskelly never fails to impress, so it was no surprise that her expressive coloratura as Polissena was just dazzling. Originally composed for a soprano, then rewritten for the castrato Senesino, mezzo-soprano Doreen Curran consequently had a very difficult role to fill as Radamisto but managed to bring the full dramatic potential out of the character, working particularly well alongside Sinéad Campbell-Wallace's Zenobia. It's Zenobia who faces the greatest challenges in the drama and it's important that the strength of her resolve remains consistent with her inner humanity in order for the conclusion to be credible, and that was all there in Campbell-Wallace's singing.

The same ability to give an indication of the inner workings of the character and how it is reflected or distorted by their actions is important for all the characters. While the Irish Chamber Orchestra and Michael Patrick helped make this a little more evident, it was also there in Kate Allen's bright Tigrane, in Richard Burkhard's wonderfully sonorous Tiridate and even in Adrian Powter's Farasmane. It's hard to say that the production spoke directly to us about tyranny in the world today, but there was no question that the strengths of this performance proved that Handel's Radamisto still has something meaningful to communicate that resonates 300 years later.

Links: Northern Ireland Opera

Saturday 13 May 2017

Mussorgsky - Sorochintsy Fair (Berlin, 2017)

Modest Mussorgsky - Sorochintsy Fair

Komische Oper, Berlin - 2017

Henrik Nánási, Barrie Kosky, Jens Larsen, Agnes Zwierko, Mirka Wagner, Alexander Lewis, Ivan Turšić, Tom Erik Lie, Hans Gröning, Carsten Sabrowski

Opera Platform - March 2017

Who knew that Mussorgsky composed and left unfinished another opera in between the unfinished masterpieces of Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina? I didn't anyway, so all credit to Barrie Kosky and the Komische Oper in Berlin for uncovering this little known and almost never performed work by one of Russia's greatest composers. The question however is whether there might be a reason for Sorochintsy Fair being relatively unknown. Is it any good?

Happily, the answer is a resounding yes, and what a pleasant treat this surprise opera turns out to be. Then again it's hard to imagine any Mussorgsky lyrical piece not being worthy of performance other than for sake of its incompleteness, and that indeed is yet again the case with Sorochintsy Fair, the opera being completed after the composers death by Vissarion Shebalin. Sorochintsy Fair is not a grand epic masterpiece like Boris Godunov or Khovanshchina, but it has one essential quality that all Mussorgsky's work has: it's essentially Russian.

It could hardly be anything but essentially Russian, but based on a story by Nikolai Gogol (the same source as Tchaikovsky's similarly themed Cherevichki), Sorochintsy Fair has a more down-to-earth, common people quality elevated to a mythical or surreal folk-legend status that demonstrates colourful and lyrical qualities that we don't often see in Mussorgsky. And another side and feature of the Russian character that we would not expect from a composer more associated with historical epics; a devilish sense of humour.

Sorochintsy Fair demonstrates brilliantly where Gogol's macabre folk tales of grotesque characters and surreal situations often find their origin: in drink. All good intentions for selling his wheat and the mare go out of the window when merchant Cherevik has a few drinks at the market in Sorochintsy with his friend Chumak. Clearly he has been laid astray by the devil while celebrating his acceptance of a proposal by a young peasant lad, Gritsko, to marry his daughter Parasya.

Cherevik's wife Khivyra however, quickly hiding her lover away inside a large pig she is cooking, is less than pleased by the developments. She has ideas of a better match for her daughter than the son of a peasant and gives her foolish husband, who comes back home roaring drunk, no small amount of abuse for failing to sell their produce. With the wheat unsold, how are they supposed to pay for a wedding?

You can see how the ghost stories of supernatural events arise from explaining all those bumps in the night. The husband staggering in drunk, the wife hiding the lover in a wardrobe (or pig) have to be explained somehow, and clearly it's all the work of the devil. Parasya and Gritsko however realise that they can make this work to their advantage also, Gritsko making a deal to sell oxen to the gypsy at an advantageous rate if he plays up the legend of the Red Overcoat at the Sorochintsy fair.

Mussorgsky illustrates all these colourful situations of bedroom farce, marital discord, slapstick falling around drunkenness and innocent romance with the most glorious musical compositions. He also captures the colour of the fair in the opening sequence with the most wonderful choral songs. Demonstrating that the Russian idiom can be effectively played by non-Russians, the musical performance under Henrik Nánási is richly colourful, and who better to illustrate these kind of colourful situations than director Barrie Kosky.

I'm sure that the Intendant and chief artistic director at the Komische Oper has already overspent their budget with a host of extravagant productions this year. This one is a little more pared down but it still moves brightly along, keeping the limited dramatic situations engaging and fun.  And that suits the nature of the work, where the pleasures are simple ones and where there is time for both reflection and irreverence. Sorochintsy Fair is a work that in many ways carries its own spectacle, with Gritsko's dream of the 'Sagana' devil's feast. It's a choral extravaganza that couldn't be anything but a show-stopper, and indeed it works terrifically here with demonic figures in red coats and pig heads tormenting the young lovers.

The Komische's ambition is also well served by a wonderful cast who demonstrate that roles of such deeply Russian character can also be sung well by a wide mix of international talent. The singing and acting performances are just outstanding, fully in the spirit of Gogol, Mussorgsky and Kosky. Jens Larsen's Cherevik's has a thoroughly Russian deep bass clarity and resonance; Agnes Zwierko entertains with a well-sung comic performance as Khivyra; Mirka Wagner and Alexander Lewis as the young couple Gritsko and Parasya offer a lighter lyrical delivery that adds complementary vocal textures to the more strident choruses and comic declamation.

Links: Komische Oper, Opera Platform

Friday 12 May 2017

Wagner - Die Walküre (Salzburg, 2017)

Richard Wagner - Die Walküre

Salzburg Easter Festival - 2017

Christian Thielemann, Vera Nemirova, Peter Seiffert, Georg Zeppenfeld, Vitalij Kowaljow, Anja Harteros, Anja Kampe, Christa Mayer, Johanna Winkel, Brit-Tone Müllertz, Christina Bock, Katharina Magiera, Alexandra Petersamer, Stepanka Pucalkova, Katrin Wundsam, Simone Schröder

3Sat Live - 15th April 2017

It seemed like an interesting idea to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Salzburg Easter Festival by reconstructing the original sets created for the first production there of Die Walküre, overseen by the festival's founder Herbert von Karajan. In reality - or at least at the remove of a television broadcast - while the sets did indeed provide an impressive backdrop, they served as nothing more than a platform for a rather stagnant production devoid of any fresh ideas or real direction. Some committed performances however and the momentum of the work itself ensured that the production wasn't a total loss.

The reconstruction of Günther Schneider-Siemssen's set designs are about as far as the production goes in terms of recreating the original 1967 production. They are however stylised enough to still work to tremendous effect with a central design that works with a circular platform not unlike Pierre Audi's production for the DNO. The set designs prove to be relatively flexible for reconfiguration and spiralling and are updated with some projection technology that allows the static backdrops a little more movement without moving too far away from the original conception. The sets look suitably grand, ancient and mythological, but at the same time remain functional as a platform for the action to be played out without over-encumbering the performers.

In Act I, for example, Hunding's lodge and tree are as one; a huge twisting mass of an ancient sequoia erupting through the wooden floor of the house (and seemingly through the stage itself), providing a large hollow for a room, the hero's sword Nothung sunk deep into its bark. After the darkness of the opening of Die Walküre, the dark mists give way via lighting and subtle back projections to the brightening of Spring colour. Similar effects are used to bring darkness and shade to the tilted circular stage of the second Act, where Wotan seems to have the fate of the world marked out on the floor and handily written in erasable chalk, because Fricka has a few ideas of her own as to how things are going to play out.

It's darkly dramatic, but nothing more. Concept, themes or even direction in this Die Walküre however are almost non-existent. It's not even as if the Salzburg Easter Festival believed that they could lift the designs of an old production and expect it to work by itself. Vera Nemirova is brought in as the director to bring some kind of control over how the drama is played out, but she doesn't seem to bring a great deal to it. There are a few modern touches made to the costumes and props to prevent it looking too embarrassing, but the costumes still look frightfully outdated, Brünnhilde replete with armour, spear and winged helmet.

If there is one element that you can be fairly sure won't be old-fashioned about the production, it's Wagner's score with Christian Thielemann conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden orchestra. And, taking a look over the cast list, there's also a solid line-up with a good mixture of experience and freshness (Seiffert, Zeppenfeld, Kowaljow, Harteros, Kampe, Mayer) that on paper at least looks like it might be capable of making something more of the work on the performance side under Thielemann's direction. It does indeed win through on this front, but only in the long run and not without some initial concerns and bumps along the way.

The majority of the performances were routine and capable, but with a few exceptions not really managing to bring any great sense of life or urgency to the rather dull, traditional staging. Georg Zeppenfeld of course will always be one of those exceptions and his Hunding was flawless as usual. Peter Seiffert has the ideal tone for Siegmund, but he seems tired by the end of Act II. Siegmund would have been running from Hunding all this time so tiredness can be excusable. What matters is that, as tired as he might be, he's not yet ready to let Brünnhilde take him to Valhalla without Sieglinde, and there all the touching poignancy of the moment comes across. Vitalij Kowaljow's Wotan and Christa Mayer's Fricka were fine, but never really rose above the deadness of the direction given to them.

Personally, I was most interested in seeing how Anja Harteros coped in her scenic role debut as Sieglinde, and it wasn't without some trepidation. I admire the ambition, ability and range of Harteros to take in everything from baroque, grand opera and verismo (where she seems to me to be best suited) and extend that now into Wagner, even if not every style suits her voice. I had my doubts about her Act I performance, her Sprechgesang sounding rather thin and stretched, but her voice blooms into emotional expression terrifically. Her commitment can't be faulted and I was won over by her performance by the end of Act II. If nothing else, she brought some life to a production that for the most part felt rather static and routine.

Anja Kampe is another singer who can be relied upon to bring a certain fire to roles, but even though I've seen her sing Kundry more than capably, Brünnhilde is a role that can be beyond the reach of most mortals. I doubted Kampe's ability in her role debut when she seemed to struggle a little in her Act II opening exchanges with Wotan (her costume didn't really lend her any kind of conviction either), but like Harteros she grew in conviction as the opera progressed. Unlike the Act II scenes, there was palpable tension and fear in her Act III encounter with Wotan, a tension that carried over marvellously from the Valkyrie scene, where you can almost feel the dark cloud of the Warfather approaching.

While the lack of imagination in the direction didn't help the earlier scenes, much of this change from static delivery of long lines of text to a rather greater sense of mounting tension and danger is down to the wonder of the extraordinary inherent momentum that Wagner builds up in Die Walküre. The work itself more or less takes over, asserts its own power and comes through to a devastating conclusion/conflagration. It doesn't do it on its own of course, but those forces have to be controlled and managed perfectly. I didn't think Christian Thielemann was doing enough in the pit in the first two Acts to lift the production out of its routine delivery, but the efficacy of his tight rein is evident by the way that the dynamic shifts in the final scenes, from thunderous to deeply moving in its poignancy over questions of fate and how much influence we can have over it. That momentum in the music and singing performances carries this Die Walküre through, but other than that, there is little that is memorable about the revival of this classic production in Salzburg.

Links: Salzburg Festival

Monday 8 May 2017

Verdi - Don Carlo (Strasbourg, 2016)

Giuseppe Verdi - Don Carlo

L’Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg - 2016

Daniele Callegari, Robert Carsen, Stephen Milling, Andrea Carè, Tassis Christoyannis, Ante Jerkunica, Elza van den Heever, Elena Zhidkova, Patrick Bolleire, Rocío Perez, Camille Tresmontant

Culturebox - November 2016

There are some dark operas in the Verdi catalogue - Macbeth and I due Forscari are certainly there and Simon Boccanegra is no bundle of laughs - but none of them are as bleak and pitiless as Don Carlo. What makes it so is that each of the characters is offered the opportunity of love and friendship, but either happiness is snatched from them or they consciously spurn it and make other choices that they feel are for a greater good. None of those choices work out well, but the fact that it could have been so different is what gives the opera a darker edge that Verdi fills with music of overwhelming melancholy and regret.

OK, we get that Don Carlo is dark, so perhaps we don't need Robert Carsen to emphasise it so heavily in his production of the 4-Act Italian version at L’Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg. Carsen's idea is to establish the uneasy alliance between the oppressive political regime of Philip II and the merciless persecution of heretics by the Inquisition of the Catholic Church as a kind of death cult alliance. Everyone is dressed in black, wearing dark suits or soutanes, and the set is a black box. Rather more than just visually darkening the work down however, Carsen has a few other ideas and changes that take this a little further.

It's risky to tamper with individual motivations, inner conflicts and the complex inter-relationships in Don Carlo. They already sit on a delicate balance, so you really don't want to be adding additional levels onto them. Verdi's Don Carlo is based on a work by Friedrich Schiller, but Robert Carsen in his Strasbourg production finds a parallel in the work with another of Verdi's favourite writers: Shakespeare, and specifically in Hamlet. In the version without the Fontainebleau scene, Don Carlo opens with the funeral of a king - Carlo's grandfather Charles V - and we see a brooding young man dressed in black with only a skull for company on the stage, reflecting on mortality, as a ghostly voice seemingly from the dead king, calls out a warning to him.

Using Hamlet as a reference, Carsen in this way establishes the tone and the nature of the work as directly and quickly as possible. Without having recourse to the Fontainebleau scene, Carsen's evocation of Hamlet establishes that the primary reason for Carlo's despair is not the death of Charles V, but a more personal conflict and quasi-incestuous sentiments about his father marrying his new 'mother' Elisabeth, the same woman who had previously been promised to him as a bride in the excised Fontainebleau scene. It's an act of a ruler exercising power in the interest of consolidating that power rather than for the sake of the people, and Carlo's response is the only sane one in such a situation; madness. It leads to Philip having to banish Hamlet-Carlo to a foreign land after he takes up arms against him, and even consider whether he might not be justified in killing his own son.

So, all in all, whether you think all the blackness on the stage is necessary, you have to respect that it is justified by the tone of the work itself. And if Hamlet is used as a reference, it is not a framework that can be imposed on top of Don Carlo. The very idea is absurd and surely unsustainable. Rather, Carsen uses Shakespeare's imagery to draw attention to similar themes in Verdi's Don Carlo, taking it away from the historical and even the personal - the Italian version without the Fontainebleau scene facilitates this - and putting the focus instead on the social and political, on questions of state oppression, on religious fanaticism, and the not insignificant application that this has for today.

Verdi, it's true, wasn't a big fan of religious authoritarianism, so the emphasis in the Opéra National du Rhin production of the state being a theocracy that facilitates the will and the violent means of the church is a relevant one, and it's one that Verdi's dark drama is able to sustain. "Death in my hands can reap a harvest", the Grand Inquisitor tells soutane-robed Philip, and together they represent a formidable force of oppression. The crime of the Flemish delegates when they are brought to the court is not insurrection but heresy for not holding to the faith of their Holy Ruler. The auto-da-fe scene, often so difficult to stage convincingly, is effectively handled by Carson. It's the books of the heretics that are burnt in a conflagration, while the black-robed priests execute the hooded kneeling heretics with pistols.

Carsen consequently brings a strong and meaningful focus to the work. It's not only about state oppression but it's also about crushing personal sentiments for the sake of belief in something greater. It's not just Carlo and Philip who have to struggle with the dilemma of killing someone in their own close family. Elisabeth and Carlo's happiness counts for nothing in the greater scheme of things: even Elisabeth believes that her marriage to Philip as the king is more important. Eboli too belatedly recognises the mistakes she makes. There is perhaps only one beacon of light in Don Carlo where integrity remains unsullied by adversity and ambition, and that's Carlo's friendship with Rodrigo. You think so? Think again.

It's one thing to use Shakespeare's Hamlet as a working template to bring out other elements from Don Carlo, but Robert Carsen's biggest intervention is in his manipulation of the ending and its subversion of the friendship between Carlo and Posa. Posa controversially doesn't die here at the end of Act III while visiting Carlo in prison, but his assassination is faked as part of a plot of the church to overthrow Philip and assume total power with Posa as its figurehead. We're not dealing with history here in Carsen's production, and there's precious little historical accuracy in Schiller or Verdi's version anyway, so that matters little. What matters more is finding a way to making the huge flaw of the ending of Verdi's opera work in a more convincing manner, without undermining the essence of the work and the themes it considers.

At the very least Carsen delivers a shock that is greater than the disembodied voice of Charles V bringing about a deus ex machina. Here Carlo looks on aghast as the uprising falters not at the voice of a ghostly monk, but the voice of the Grand Inquisitor - the people bowing before the far more earthly might of the military arm of the church. But what of the inviolable friendship between Carlo and Posa? Well, it wouldn't be the first time that the sincerity of that friendship has been questioned, and indeed the rousing theme of the two men can sound rather hollow and false in the midst of all the through-composed darkness, so all Carsen is doing is taking this further and pushing the tone of the work towards its natural (as opposed to supernatural) conclusion. At the very least, it can't be faulted for shock impact.

Nor can it be really faulted for musical performance. Daniele Callegari strikes a suitable sombre tone that matches the tinta of the score and the minimal bleakness/blackness of the production, but it never pushes it into heavy overstatement. There's a great deal of light and shade in Verdi's score that belies the melodrama of the situations, and Callegari finds that balance well with the orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg. As is often the case with such a challenging work, the principal roles pose a few problems to Stephen Milling's Filippo II, for Andrea Carè's Don Carlo and for Elza van den Heever's Elisabetta di Valois, but they still without question get across the essence of the predicament in those confrontational moments that Verdi brilliantly creates. Tassis Christoyannis is an impressive duplicitous Posa, and Ante Jerkunica an imposing Grand Inquisitor. I was most impressed by Elena Zhidkova's Princess Eboli, who delivers a stunning "O don fatale" and manages to gather more sympathy for her predicament and actions than is more often the case.

Links: L’Opéra National du Rhin, Culturebox

Wednesday 3 May 2017

Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen (Brussels, 2017)

Leoš Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2017

Antonello Manacorda, Christophe Coppens, Andrew Schroeder, Lenneke Ruiten, Sara Fulgoni, John Graham-Hall, Alexander Vassiliev, Vincent Le Texier, Yves Saelens, Mireille Capelle, Eleonore Maguerre, Maria Portela Larisch, Logan Lopez Gonzalez, Marion Bauwens, Kris Belligh

ARTE Concert - March 2017

In theory I like the way that La Monnaie actually take the animals out of their 2017 production of Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen, since the anthropomorphised creatures of the opera are really meant to teach us about human life. Yes, I'm aware that this seems to go against the whole purpose of the work being an allegory in the first place, but the danger with The Cunning Little Vixen is that the baby animals either make the work too cutesy trying to talk down to a younger audience or risk missing the point entirely. The Cunning Little Vixen can be a good opera for young children, but making the opera suitable for that particular audience can involve some amount of compromise.

In practice however, director Christophe Coppens' modernisation and de-animalisation of the work does also involve some measure of compromise with the original intentions of the work, to the extent that it almost - but not quite - distorts the meaning of the work; if you can even figure out what it is trying to achieve. In recognition perhaps that this version doesn't present the work entirely the way that Janáček intended, and does involve some reworking of the libretto (in the translation at least, but not in the actual sung text), the La Monnaie production of The Cunning Little Vixen is prefaced by the title Foxie!

It's not long before you recognise how much the original storyline is distorted in 'Foxie!'. The Forester in this version is something of a security guard for a school, with monitors in his office to keep an eye on the children going wild outside on a summer evening. The groups of children have their own little groups and cliques that match the creatures of the animal kingdom. Foxie is a young red-head girl phoning home for her 'Mami', but unable to get through, so the Security guy takes her across the way to a cafe. When he sees that Foxie still hasn't been picked up and is somewhat in distress, he brings her back to the control room and leads her to a backroom. Then it all goes a bit David Lynch.

The immediate problem that tends to go against the grain of the original to a worrying degree is that it changes the Forester capturing a fox into what looks like a case of child abduction and molestation. Foxie is introduced not into a yard with hens and a cockerel lording it over them, but some kind of surreal brothel from which she eventually escapes. This is definitely not a 'kiddie' version of The Cunning Little Vixen. Arguably, you could wonder whether that is not the underlying context of Janáček's version, which does indeed have a sexual undercurrent that is often played upon in other productions, but it still doesn't feel comfortable in this presentation. But I don't think it's meant to be comfortable, and Janáček's opera certainly doesn't offer any illusions about the harshness and cruelty of nature, and the nature of men.

While some of the imagery is indeed Lynchian, looking like it is a nightmare taken from 'Inland Empire', it's used to suggest a conflict in generational outlooks rather than attempt to probe split personalities or a mind in conflict with itself. There is also something of a Stefan Herheim feel to the production that is similar to his treatment of Rusalka at La Monnaie, where the water nymph was also a prostitute in an similarly elaborate street-scene production. The key difference however is that Herheim uses such techniques to delve beneath the surface of the fantasy to attempt to probe the underlying source or psychology of the story, either from what it tells us about the origins of the fairy-tale or what it tells us about the author and composer. In The Cunning Little Vixen the allegory is already there to allow us to explore and consider the underlying meaning, so any attempt by Christophe Coppens to change that risks altering its message.

But perhaps that's for a good reason. If there is a way of making sense of this production it's perhaps viewing the older Foxie as someone who is being persecuted by society for living an alternative lifestyle. That certainly is one notable change that is made in the subtitles, when Foxie accuses the poacher Harašta of wanting to kill her simply because she is different. That works with Foxie's back-to-nature fondness for the woods, living outside of conventional society. There also seems to be an emphasis on how her unconventional relationship with Goldie scandalises the neighbours, since there is little attempt here to make Goldie a male fox. You have to wonder whether the composer didn't intentionally score the role for a female to provoke just such a scandalous pairing, so there is validity in the production taking this path. The rather heavy petting that goes on between the two women does push this further than you might expect, so definitely not for the kids this one.

The question of how they produce cubs - such an essential element of the cycle of life that is the central theme of the work - is neatly covered by Foxie going on to become a gym teacher for a sports team of young girls. And it is all about allowing the younger generation to live free from the shackles of the tradition and morality of the previous generation, something that doesn't always come across in a more literal adaptation. Whether you find this all as an awkward attempt to fit an unwieldy, contradictory and often inexplicable concept on top of a work that has no real need to have any additional levels added to it, or whether you view the concept as having something meaningful to say about social change and tolerance being a necessary part of the cycle of life from one generation to the next, it does come up with a number of clever ways to make it work together, even if it takes it all a little further than Janáček might have intended.

The unconventional production certainly doesn't interfere in any way with the quality of the singing and musical performance. If anything, it gives the performances a youthful freshness and an extra edge. The role of Vixen/Foxie is sung exceptionally well by Lenneke Ruiten - one of the best performances I've heard of this role in recent times. The Forester is a rather more ambiguous figure in this production, but even there Andrew Schroeder makes it work and even come across as quite touching. There are no weak points anywhere else, all of the roles sung tremendously well. Antonello Manacorda's conducts the orchestra of La Monnaie and it's a vibrant, detailed and sensitive reading of the score that retains the rhythmic pulse and also recognises the folk elements of Janáček's brilliant, hypnotic score.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt, ARTE Concert