Thursday, 29 June 2017

Verdi - Otello (London, 2017)

Giuseppe Verdi - Otello

Royal Opera House, London - 2017

Antonio Pappano, Keith Warner, Jonas Kaufmann, Maria Agresta, Marco Vratogna, Frédéric Antoun, Thomas Atkins, Kai Rüütel, Simon Shibambu, In Sung Sim, Thomas Barnard

Royal Opera House Cinema Season Live - 28 June 2017

Keith Warner nails his colours firmly to the mast at the start of the Royal Opera House's new production of Otello when Iago steps to the front of the stage before the storm explodes, holding a black mask of evil and a white mask of goodness, contemptuously discarding the white mask with an evil laugh; it's clear that this is going to be a 'black' Otello. That's as broad as the characterisation gets in Warner's abstract, incoherent and somewhat brutish production which rather stifles but doesn't entirely submerge the potential that lies elsewhere in the casting and performances.

Dividing along the lines of black and white is also as close as the production gets to making any kind of comment on the question of the Moor's ethnicity which ought to play at least a small part in how the drama unfolds. Despite persistent complaints and controversy about blacking-up in relation to this opera, race is rarely highlighted in Othello or Otello as the primary motivation behind Iago's ambition to utterly break the Moor, so although Jonas Kaufmann plays Othello with nothing more than a good tan, his fitness for the role is best judged by his vocal ability, and there can be little dispute about the quality of that.

His ability to sing the role - an immensely challenging role that I've rarely heard sung entirely successfully - is demonstrated brilliantly here, Kaufmann launching himself at those hugely expressive declarations like his life depends on it, with extraordinary control, volume and a rich timbre that prevents it from sounding like unseemly bellowing (although how long he can keep it at that level must surely be a concern). Unfortunately, as far as this production is concerned, Keith Warner doesn't appear to have given Kaufmann any real nuance or motivation in his direction and the expressionistic set designs don't offer much in the way of context either other than reflecting Othello's madness, and after a while you just feel bombarded by the lack of colouration on every front.

The set is minimal-abstract, resembling the physical location of the castle in Cyprus as well as the tower of Othello's personality that fractures and comes crashing down at the end. As the assistant director revealed in a pre-screening interview, that's illustrated mainly by shifting the walls around, opening up and closing down, with some random colouration that bears little relation to any kind of conventional colour coding or appropriateness to the drama. Act I is mainly black and masculine, with the sailors and troops in period-like costumes of leather bodices. Act II uses a plain white background that might suffice for Othello and Desdemona's love duet, but the brush strokes are too broad and it scarcely offers any nuance of Iago's underlying plotting and manipulation elsewhere.

There is a noticeable shift away from the clash of harsh realism with clear black and white moral lines in the second half of the production, but it's not any more 'illuminating', only further adding confusion as to how we ought to feel about the characters. Desdemona and a Herald arise out of gaps in the stage like apparitions in Act III as Othello's mind struggles to retain a grasp on reality, and there's a red wash of rage when the Venice delegation arrives symbolically dragging a huge statue of 'The Lion of Venice' which is seen overturned and broken in two at the end of the Act. Act IV, by way of contrast, gives prominence to the purity of Desdemona's enclosed white bedroom, but even Othello's harsh, rugged edges have softened here in a way that scarcely matches the psychological implications of what is played out there.

You certainly can't accuse Antonio Pappano of hedging his bets or any lack of coherence in his approach to Verdi's score. It's a thunderous account that sides entirely with Jonas Kaufmann's unrestrained full-force expression. I think I would prefer a little more light and shade in Otello, but there's no question that the more muscular approach is merited by the main thrust of the intense drama. It's all blood and thunder on the surface, but beneath that lies the seething web of Iago's manipulations of Cassio and Roderigo and his dedication towards anarchy and nihilism. In the context of this rather more heavy-handed approach, Marco Vratogna has no option but to settle for evil villain characterisation, which to be fair he does reasonably well.

If there is one aspect of the production worthy of unqualified praise (apart from a degree of respect for the laundry-person who has to get the stage-blood that spurts effusively from Othello's chest out of the white bed linen here) it's how it renews admiration for Verdi's score and astonishment at how successfully the composer directs everything towards the extraordinary last act of Otello in such a way the one anticipates it almost with a sense of terror. Maria Agresta ensures however that Desdemona's humanity shines brightly in contrast to the blackness laid on thickly elsewhere, her singing of the Willow Song and Ave Maria exemplary where it most needs to be. If the production lacked coherence and direction elsewhere that would draw the audience into the tragedy of the drama, the breathtaking conclusion to Act IV redeems it, if not quite justifies everything that comes before it.

Links: Royal Opera House, ROH Cinema Season

Monday, 26 June 2017

Reimann - Medea (Berlin, 2017)

Aribert Reimann - Medea

Komische Oper, Berlin - 2017

Steven Sloane, Benedict Andrews, Nicole Chevalier, Anna Bernacka, Nadine Weissmann, Ivan Turšić, Günter Papendell, Eric Jurenas

Opera Platform - 21 May 2017

Revived for this new production at the Komische Oper in Berlin, Aribert Reimann's Medea still sounds as wildly demented as it did when it received its world premiere in Vienna in 2010. Its harsh dissonance hasn't become any easier to listen to over the last seven years, but the purpose of the composer's choice of this particular classical Greek myth has certainly become clearer in how it reflects certain vital aspects of our modern society and how people behave when pushed to their limits.

For good reason then, Reimann's work is one that pushes well beyond the boundaries of tonality. It opens quietly, but it doesn't stay that way for long, building into a tumultuous cacophony that reflects Medea's utter desperation and anger by the end of Act I. The second half of Medea sounds like something has been broken, the music limping along with occasional blasts of brass and squealing strings, the voice of Medea straining to hold herself together, struggling between anger and supplication, between love and the desire for revenge.

It's not easy listening, but then it's not easy watching someone's life collapse in front of you. Medea's life might just fall apart within the framework of a Greek myth or an opera, but the challenge is to make this feel real, relevant and important in the world today. Somehow though, even though the musical force of the work made a striking impression on its own terms, it was hard to see how it could be applied to real life when it received its premiere in 2010. The composer, if I recall, made some remarks about Jason's social climbing ambitions and about the work being about wanting to make a better life for yourself, but it hardly seemed like a matter of pressing social relevance.

In 2017 however that has changed completely and, regardless of what Reimann's intentions might have been and whether or not there was an element of Delphic prophesy in his vision, the refugee crisis and its handling by our governments in the years in-between throws a different light on the work. The fear and mistrust of foreign ways that has been generated and the growing danger of terrorism surely couldn't be more obvious and relevant to the German public at the Komische Opera in Berlin, or indeed to any European or American audience. Whether prophetic or not, it's the undoubted acuity of Reimann's adaptation of Franz Grillparzer's version of the Euripides' tragedy and the intense musical accompaniment that underlines the human nature of Medea's dilemma and treatment with a terrible degree of truth and conviction.

Medea and Jason are indeed refugees, fleeing their homeland of Colchis, bringing fear and suspicion along with them to Corinth. Creon is already wary, having heard of Medea's reputation as a practitioner of the dark arts. When a messenger from the Amphictyonic League appears and adds further fuel to the fire by describing how Medea used spells and potions to murder King Pelias, he is painting her as a terrorist and warning that it would be unwise to let these refugees into the country. With a difficult choice to make, since Jason and Medea have children, Creon agrees to give Jason shelter, but banishes Medea and offers his daughter Creusa as a new mother for them.

Well, we've also seen the fate of the children of refugees caught up in the political disputes and war-mongering of governments, and with that in mind it's hard not to feel on an intensely visceral level Medea's desperation and how this leads to the death of her children. Reimann's Medea is not a political statement or overtly anti-war treatment of the Greek tragedy, but as someone who lived through the allied destruction of Germany during the Second World War (and who has summoned up the forces of Armageddon in his scoring for his opera Lear), the composer unquestionably characterises the nature of an individual human being - and specifically a mother - caught up in such a terrible event.

It's a deeply troubled interiorised world that Reimann scores, one that evidently bears some comparison with how Strauss psychologically probed Elektra in that Greek tragedy, but evidently Reimann takes the atonal dissonance even further. There is scarcely a note in Medea that isn't mangled or pitched at a level that assaults the ears of the audience; there's no flow or melody, just a fractured structure that makes Medea seem like she is in the middle of a nightmare, an edgy sense of her trying to hold it together and lashing out in explosive outbursts, the music clashing with singing that rises towards a scream.

Benedict Andrews's direction and the production design for the Komische Medea adopt a similar reflection of devastation of mood and mindset that could be seen in the rocky cratered landscapes of Marco Arturo Marelli's Vienna premiere production. If anything - and it may be very much to do with sudden realisation of real-world context - this production seems to strike an even darker tone. There is at least greater emphasis placed upon measuring the weight of the words of the libretto and their meaning. In the black ash of the landscape, Medea literally tries to bury her past, her potions, her memories, even the Golden Fleece. When the future seems to hold nothing for her, she eventually buries that as well, with devastating consequences.

There is no question that Reimann's score delivers every ounce of impact that is implicit in Medea's actions, and Steven Sloane's conducting of the Komische orchestra brings that out forcefully. It also has to be brought out in the intensely demanding vocal score that Reimann has composed for the role of Medea, and that is fully undertaken by Nicole Chevalier, who gives a fearsome performance that matches the singing challenges, and at the same time achieves some measure of sympathy for her predicament. There are excellent performances elsewhere that manage to rise beyond the individual and the mythological to a more universal application of the themes. Ivan Turšić's Creon embodies the difficult position of applying the rule of law, while Günter Papendell's Jason and Anna Bernacka's Creusa try to adopt a caring but practical approach to the problem that they face. None of it however will be enough to appease the rage of the abused and mistreated Medea or prevent the disaster that is about to be unleashed.

Links: Komische Oper, Opera Platform

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Cavalli - La Calisto (Strasbourg, 2017)

Francesco Cavalli - La Calisto

L'Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg - 2017

Christophe Rousset, Mariame Clément, Elena Tsallagova, Vivica Genaux, Giovanni Battista Parodi, Nikolay Borchev, Filippo Mineccia, Raffaella Milanesi, Guy de Mey, Vasily Khoroshev, Jaroslaw Kitala, Lawrence Olsworth-Peter 

Culturebox - 2 May 2017

There is a distinct tone of melancholic longing pervading La Calisto (1651) that sets it apart from most other Cavalli operas that we have since been able to rediscover in more recent years. That familiar tone is certainly there is the romps of Elena and Il Giasone, but those works encompass a much greater emotional range in their adventurous blend of farce and raw humanity, while La Calisto's melancholy tread through classical myth seems rather academic by comparison. La Calisto is however by no means any lesser a work, since what seems to be a narrower focus is actually a deeper and more expansive exploration of different aspects of one of the most agonising of human sentiments; the longing to love and be loved in return.

This single unifying theme that runs throughout the opera manifests itself however in a surprising number of ways. It may have a mythological treatment in Ovid's story that plays out between immortal gods, wood nymphs and satyrs in a setting of antiquity, but the sentiments that afflicts these poor creatures in Cavalli's treatment is recognisably human. The balance of humans aspiring to the godlike immortality that love conveys on them is also rather well brought out in this 2017 production directed by Mariame Clément for L'Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg.

There's no-one left unaffected by this sense of longing in La Calisto, but some of them know better than others what to do about it. It's the chaste nature of the goddess Diana who inadvertently sows much of the confusion. She can't help that Endymion composes rapturous verses to her, but his love might not be as hopeless as you would expect, and the goddess is strangely moved by his devotion. Young and old, no-one is immune from the torments of love. Even Diana's elderly nymph assistant Lymphea isn't too old to want a bit of love in her life (much like Helen's maid, Astianassa in Elena or Delfa in Il Giasone), but she's not that desperate that she will submit to the advances of the young satyr Satirino, although she'll happily play him along for a while.

Jupiter too is no novice at this game, and it's the poor nymph Calisto who is cruelly deceived this time by his tricks. Led on by Mercury, he disguises himself as Diana in order to seduce the young maiden. And, just like the inconsiderate rulers who are determined to have their own way against the run of nature in the subsequent opera seria treatment of such subjects, Jupiter's actions cause even greater consternation and misery for the lovelorn characters of La Calisto. Believing it to be Diana acting in this manner, the satyr Pan feels emboldened to pursue his own less than noble intentions for the haughty goddess, and he's prepared to use violent means to get what he wants.

There are a lot of unhappy lovers in La Calisto then, each involved in situations that are far from ideal. Let's not forget Juno either, who is married to such as louse, and once again having to deal with the fall-out of her husband's philandering. Cavalli has beautiful laments for each of them, and since it's not opera seria, there is nothing generic about any of them. And also since it's not opera seria, there are no sudden revelations of long lost princes believed dead or sudden gaining of a conscience by a ruler to sort everything out, so there remains a more realistic bittersweet character to the music and the sentiments expressed in La Calisto, where the realisation is reached that "The dying of one kiss gives birth to another", and that as a consequence "Joy is infinite".

The character of those heart-rending laments and beautiful melodies is brought out beautifully by Christophe Rousset even though this opera doesn't adhere to the strong rhythmic pulse that characterises his interpretations of much of the other baroque work of Lully and Rameau. Here, with the period instruments of his Les Talens Lyriques ensemble, there is a rich, delicate and sympathetic treatment of the music and the sentiments behind it.

Mariame Clément's direction and Julia Hansen's set and costume designs are also wonderfully sympathetic towards the work, maintaining much of its classical antiquity in terms of dress and a traditional depiction of mythological creatures, but framing it quite nicely within the more down-to-earth setting of a bear-pit in a zoo. That might not seem the obvious setting for La Calisto, but it is one that permits a bear to be used (Calisto is transformed into a bear by Juno before being redeemed into the Great Bear constellation by Jupiter). It's the ingenious stage-craft however that allows it to work so well, the production flowing seamlessly between a variety of scenes that they are able to set within the high walls of the pit, in the bear house and around it.

Clément's direction is also responsible for establishing the right kind of tone of the work, with a lightness of touch that doesn't undermine it with too much comedy. Most of the comedy is visual, whether it's Jupiter swaggering around with a cigar trying to emulate a female walk as Diana, or the dangly bits jiggled about by the satyrs. Nor is there too much reliance on the modern-day framing device. The antiquity seems to be a parallel telling of a modern-day office romance situation, where Endymion and Pan are rivals for the affections of their ice-maiden boss Diana. None of this is forced however, the production flitting between the situations as required, the costumes not strictly one period or another, with Jupiter and Juno dressed in formal evening wear from the 1940s, Mercury wearing 90s' street gear or transforming into a circus ringmaster according to the whims of the setting and music.

Elena Tsallagova is the bright star of the show (in more ways than one obviously). She gives a bright, youthful and sparkling performance as Calisto, her singing clear and controlled, handling the requirements of the role with great facility and expression. Vivica Genaux likewise provides an enjoyable turn as Diana (and Jupiter as Diana), fully in the spirit of the piece, bright and luminous, with just the right edge of goddess coolness that reflects the uncertainty of feelings that don't become her position. Without overplaying their hand, Giovanni Battista Parodi's Jupiter, Nikolay Borchev's Mercury and Filippo Mineccia's Pan and Raffaella Milanesi's Juno all contribute to the seemingly effortless lightness that Clément and Rousset weave around Cavalli's beautiful score.

Links: L'Opéra National du Rhin, Culturebox

Friday, 16 June 2017

Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer (Caen, 2015)

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer

Théâtre de Caen, 2015

François-Xavier Roth, Alexander Schulin, Alfred Walker, Ingela Brimberg, Marcel Reijans, Maximilian Schmitt, Liang Li, Kismara Pëssati 

Culturebox - May 2017

It's not popular with a lot of people, but there can be good reasons for not staging an opera in realistic sets that are representative of the original setting. It doesn't have to be a deconstructive or post-modern analysis of the work either, sometimes it can be enough to merely place the work in a more abstract space where mood can be just as instructive to the piece as narrative. There's already narrative aplenty in Der fliegende Holländer, most of it related in long monologues by the principal characters, but there's a great deal of other characteristics in Wagner's opera that you can work with to great effect. The 2015 production at the Théâtre de Caen offers one such way of looking at it afresh.

Alexander Schulin's direction and Bettina Meyer's sets for the Théâtre de Caen's Der fliegende Holländer liberates what is after all a fairytale legend from its earth-bound, sea-rolling imagery in order to get closer to the Romantic heart of the tale. It might not follow the letter of the libretto in every respect, but alongside François-Xavier Roth's conducting of the Orchestre Les Siècles, there is an attempt here to capture something more important about the essence of dreams and desires, or dream-fuelled desires. Not deconstructive or psychoanalytical, this production unashamedly aims straight for the Romantic impulse at the heart of the work.

And it doesn't have to be suicidal about it either at the conclusion, because the implication seems to be that Senta is already dead at the start. We seem to be in the mind of the dead woman as Act I takes place in an abstract boxed-in space with geometric blocks topped with bands for light and projection. During the stormy overture, we do indeed see images of the drowned woman in the midst of the more familiar images of a raging sea and sky. A reanimated Senta calls the sailors to her command to be buffeted, spinning and whirling by the winds and rain of the coming storm. She also cradles a rather creepy gargoyle-like arm puppet of the Dutchman, whose lips can be made to move.

When the apparition of the Dutchman himself takes the stage, wonderfully atmospheric, dragging what looks like an oil slick behind him, it takes on another quality altogether with Senta is there on the stage with him, her romantic desires made real. Here, the Dutchman, intoning the nature of his entrapment, can be seen to have more of a Jokanaan-like quality to Senta's Salome-like obsessive and taboo desire. Senta is also there to direct negotiations between Donald (as Daland is known in the 1842 Paris version performed here) and the Dutchman, and immediately - in a way that might otherwise be lost - we gain a deeper insight into Senta's desires, and indeed the nature of desires, than we normally would from her first singing appearance in Act II alone.

The performance of the three-act Paris version of Der fliegende Holländer in a single flowing sequence plays well with this abstract dream quality, and permits some free-association of images that don't tie the work down in harsh reality. The sailors wives then might look like they are spinning the wheels of their sewing machines, but looking closer it looks more like they each are working with a screw-down vice. Darned (ho-halla-ho!) if I know what that means, but nothing feels distracting, the work flowing along according to its own dream-death logic. Senta's (dead) presence here, with her strange obsessions, her grotesque doll and ghost story feels just as out of time and place as it did in the first Act.

The abstract dream quality and the underlying desire that fuels it is supported wholeheartedly by the music and singing performances. Every one of the main roles impresses. Right from the outset the ringing clarity of Maximilian Schmitt's Helmsman and the soft resonance of Liang Li's wonderfully mercenary Donald have the presence to draw us into the haunting beauty of the compelling set-up for this production. Alfred Walker's Dutchman carries every ounce of the kind of dangerous charisma that has captivated Senta, his bass-baritone rich and dark, booming menace and anger that switches to a handsome romantic lyricism in Act II. The sincerity in Marcel Reijans' singing and characterisation of Georg (otherwise known as Erik) however makes him a worthy and sympathetic rival for Senta's hand.

This Senta however is completely in the thrall of the legend of the Dutchman, and the extent of that High Romantic obsession is very well brought out by the fact of her having already sacrificed herself to it before this production even begins. It's also fully characterised in this deeply romantic death-wish aspect by the performance of Ingela Brimberg. If that means that Senta doesn't meet the end that is usually reserved for her in the final moments of the opera, her final high notes nonetheless achieve exactly the same impact and bring to a climax the feverish mood that has been established in the previous three acts.

As good as the singing is, the nature of the mood is best captured by the musical performance of the Orchestre Les Siècles conducted by François-Xavier Roth. With perhaps not as big an orchestra that you usually find for Der fliegende Holländer, the character and detail of the playing was beautifully evident with a feeling for the mood that matched the production. There is more of a Classical feel to the performance that makes the work's influences and the spirit of Beethoven in it more apparent. There is also a wonderful consistency to the tone, with Donald and the Dutchman's duet in Act I not sticking out like a sore thumb as it often can, but feeling more of a piece with the work as a whole, permitting the production to also flow beautifully for all the inconsistencies introduced by its death-dream-logic setting.

Links: Culturebox, Théâtre de Caen

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Rossini - Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Glyndebourne, 2016)

Gioachino Rossini - Il Barbiere di Siviglia 

Glyndebourne, 2016

Enrique Mazzola, Annabel Arden, Danielle de Niese, Alessandro Corbelli, Björn Bürger, Taylor Stayton, Christophoros Stamboglis, Janis Kelly

Opus Arte BD

The work of the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, along with some ambitious projects in other European opera houses, have shown us that there is considerably more to Rossini than Il Barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola, and much else that is worthy of attention, revival and even deeper exploration. That doesn't mean that there aren't qualities still worth exploring in those two famous staples in the composer's catalogue, and in case you've forgotten what the unique characteristics are that keep bringing audiences back to see the Barber of Seville, Annabel Arden's 2016 Glyndebourne's production makes it perfectly clear; this is a work of unique charm.

Il Barbiere di Siviglia is a veritable 'best of' collection of many of Rossini's techniques and tricks of the trade. It's light, dazzling, invigorating and humorous. It has Beaumarchais's playful characters and situations, including many of the same characters that Mozart found so inspiring in The Marriage of Figaro, and Rossini likewise is capable of doing much with them. It's a virtuoso piece that gives opportunities for the musicians to shine as much as the singers, and it's not just all for show. There's a sense of Rossini touching quite brilliantly on the romantic and adventurous spirit of each of his characters.

The Barber of Seville is romantic, adventurous and essentially also youthful in its impetuous and irreverent nature. The great thing about Glyndebourne's 2016 production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia is that is provides a young cast who embody this spirit of youthful effervescence, who at the same time are quite capable of meeting its particular singing demands. Youth - as the recent UK election has shown us - can be a decisive factor in overturning the old, corrupt conservatism and self-interest of the likes of Dr Bartolo and Don Basilio. The world is theirs for the taking, but as we've also seen, having youth on your side isn't always enough to win an election... or indeed to carry off Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

Nor is merely being capable, and there's a sense that the Glyndebourne production seems to have settled for capability and put their trust in the charm of the work to be enough. And for the most part it is enough, but - as singers like Joyce Di Donato and Juan Diego Flórez have demonstrated - it often needs considerable personality as well as exceptional voices to truly do justice to Rossini, to really make it come alive and sparkle. And indeed, it's in the more experienced contingent of this production that Glyndebourne's production more often hits the mark.

Danielle de Niese's Rosina, Björn Bürger's Figaro and Taylor Stayton's Almaviva all have their charms, look wonderful and sing well, but they also come across as a little bland. Rosina is a tricky proposition for a lyric soprano, and only really has fire I think when it's sung by a mezzo-soprano or a contralto, but to her credit de Niese comes over well here. Mainly, it's because she puts a great deal of effort into coming across as bright and sparkling in her performance, and that makes up for any weaknesses in her voice. By way of contrast however, the old-hands of Alessandro Corbelli's Dr Bartolo and Janis Kelly's Berta seem almost effortlessly amusing and more interesting in comparison.

The production design and the direction don't really help, again relying too much on the charm of the work itself to be sufficient. It looks wonderful, the set designs are bold and colourful, the backgrounds semi-abstract with patterns that evoke an idea of Moorish Spain, but there isn't enough done with the characters. To bring Le Nozze di Figaro back into it, you really want the underdogs to overcome the odds stacked against them by the ruling establishment and Mozart makes that an attractive and desirable proposition. Rossini does it too - and there are productions of Il Barbiere di Siviglia that really play up to this - but here the situations just amble along and fall into place without there being much at stake or much doubt about the favourable outcome.

How successful that can be will be partly down to how the characters are played, and it can also be down to whether the production and direction can throw up enough amusing situations, but above all it has to be there in the music. I have no doubt that Enrique Mazzola understands Il Barbiere di Siviglia well and knows how it works - he sums up its qualities eloquently enough in the extra features on this DVD release - but it doesn't come across with sufficient fire from the London Philharmonic in the pit at Glyndebourne. It's lovely and classical sounding, but it's also smooth and unexciting, lacking an edge of fire and personality. Understatement is the order of the day here in Glyndebourne's Il Barbiere di Siviglia, but fortunately the inherent charm of the work is just about enough to carry it off.

The colourful nature of most Glyndebourne productions always comes across well in Opus Arte's High Definition Blu-ray releases, and Il Barbiere di Siviglia is no exception. In terms of image it's near perfection, beautifully lit and coloured, but neither the HD surround mix nor the uncompressed LPCM stereo track are sufficiently dynamic, which is disappointing. The extra features are good, including not only a short 7-minute making of feature, with some good thoughts on the work by Mazzola and Arden, but a full-length commentary track featuring Mazzola and Danielle de Neise. The enclosed booklet also has a short Q&A with Annabel Arden and a synopsis. The BD is all-region compatible, and there are subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Glyndebourne

Monday, 12 June 2017

Puccini - Tosca (Baden-Baden, 2017)

Giacomo Puccini - Tosca

OsterFestspiele, Baden-Baden - 2017

Simon Rattle, Philipp Himmelmann, Kristine Opolais, Marcelo Álvarez, Marco Vratogna, Peter Rose, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Peter Tantsits, Douglas Williams, Walter Fink

ARTE Concert - 17th April 2017

It's too easy to write Tosca off as either a tawdry thriller or as a pure romantic melodrama. Those aspects are central to Puccini's verismo adaptation of Sardou's drama, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the characters have to be one-dimensional. There can be a little more nuance to how each of the three principal protagonists meet their fate in three of the most dramatic deaths in all opera, and a lot more to Puccini's dramatic music than heavy-handed underscoring. The Baden-Baden 2017 Easter Festival production of Tosca attempts to draw this out in Philipp Himmelmann's updating, while Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic make a strong case for the musical qualities of the work.

The conventional view of Tosca is a fairly black and white one of good guys and bad guys. On one side we have Scarpia as evil personified, twisted by the power that gives him freedom to indulge his lusts and baser instincts. On the other side we have the painter Cavaradossi as a brave rebel who stands up to arrest and torture by refusing to betray Angelotti, a colleague who has escaped from prison and hidden in the chapel where the painter is finishing a portrait of the Madonna (a very saintly enterprise). It's Tosca who takes Scarpia on directly, turning his lusts against him to buy time and escape.

All the main characters are however eventually doomed in their enterprises and it's not just cruel twists of fate; they can be seen in no small part to be the agents of their own destruction. For Tosca, it is jealousy that leads Scarpia's men to Cavaradossi's house. For Cavaradossi, it's a foolhardy embarking on revolutionary activism from what seems to be a matter of honour than for any real political conviction. Scarpia; well, his flaws are clear enough but his actions are twisted into some kind of delusional invulnerability conferred upon him by his religious devotion. In some ways, all of then can be seen to regard their fame and celebrity rendering them immune from any real harm.

As an opera, Tosca certainly merits more however than just playing to the stereotypes of sneering villainy and noble self-sacrifice. Those elements are an enjoyable element that are a necessary part of the character of the work, but there are other considerations that can provide a rather more thoughtful drama. The Baden-Baden production chooses to dispense with the Napoleonic flavour of the work for a more modern perspective, but it doesn't want to boil the baby in the reheated bathwater, to somewhat mangle a metaphor and likewise risk missing its intent.

Act I of the Baden-Baden Tosca takes place in a bright and airy cathedral, not at all like the dark ornate enclosures we are accustomed to seeing. There's space here for Cavaradossi to set up his computer and project the image he is working on onto a larger canvas. Tosca is dressed in a much more stylish bright red trouser suit and Scarpia, wearing a suit with his blond hair tied back in a ponytail, arrives with the finger-snapping efficiency of a business executive or politician with his underlings. Act II also presents a refreshingly modern outlook that gets rid of all the heavy drapes and candlesticks of a Napoleonic chamber.

There's no point in modernising Tosca however unless you can find a way to capture the same sense of menace and oppression that is in the original setting and Philipp Himmelmann finds a modern equivalence in the surveillance society of an authoritarian power. Scarpia's office is a wall of screens that are used to monitor and control the behaviour of its citizens. There is even a camera used to record his interrogations and, in an extra-creepy way, his seductions of women like Tosca that he can use to exert further influence and control over them. It's an effective enough modern context for how power is used and abused that doesn't in any way lessen the impact of the original.

Whether the singing meets similar expectations that an audience demand is another question, but again comparisons have little relevance. Everyone has their own favourite performances of past Toscas, and the cast here are unlikely to challenge any historic greats, but then opera is not a singing competition. That said, the performances are all good, and certainly effective in bringing a degree of characterisation and personality to the roles, as well as making sure that it serves to bring about the necessary impact.

Marcelo Álvarez gives the most assured performance as Cavaradossi. There's never been much doubt about his ability to sing this role before, even if he is inclined towards standing and delivering old-fashioned operatic arm-spreading gestures out to the audience. Here he is better directed and proves to be a much more competent actor: and it makes all the difference. It's a performance of intense feeling that has all the drama heroics you might like, while also singing the role exceptionally well.

Kristine Opolais may not have the commanding presence of some of the more notable Toscas in the history of opera, but by the same token she doesn't rely on the mannerisms of old. If she initially shows a few areas of weakness, they are scarcely worth drawing attention to and she gives a fine performance that grows in confidence as the drama progresses and her own character grows in response to the situations. There is no question that she hits every one of those key moments effectively and nails her 'Vissi d'arte'. Opolais also establishes an intense struggle of wills against Marco Vratogna's Scarpia in the second Act, where again the direction helps bring out Scarpia's calculating menace.

As is often the case now, Act III plays out with Cavaradossi being under no illusions about his fate, taking a more realistic view in spite of Tosca's protestations that she has their rescue all figured out. The use of lethal injections to the head instead of a firing squad deprives the audience of the traditional dramatic conclusion and from Tosca's famous leap from Castel Sant' Angelo, which is always a risky thing to do. Tosca's final cries however never fail to hit their mark, and with Simon Rattle harnessing the full power of the Berlin Philharmonic, the vital impact isn't lessened in the slightest. It all goes to show that you may get tired very easily of all the familiar imagery and costume drama, but Puccini's Tosca is bigger than that and the efficacy of its drama endures.

Links: Baden-Baden, ARTE Concert

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Wagner - Lohengrin (Dresden, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Lohengrin

Semperoper, Dresden - 2016

Christian Thielemann, Christine Mielitz, Georg Zeppenfeld, Piotr Beczala, Anna Netrebko, Tomasz Konieczny, Evelyn Herlitzius, Derek Welton, Tom Martinsen, Simeon Esper, Matthias Henneberg, Tilmann Rönnebeck 

ARTE Concert 

Although there are many more interesting ways of exploring the themes within them, you can probably get away with presenting Der fliegende Holländer or Tannhäuser in straightforward traditional productions and trust that Wagner's compositions will speak for themselves. The composer's more mature works on the other hand have philosophical content and personal with complex and competing layers and levels that merit the deeper exploration and elaboration of a strong directorial vision. And then you have the problem of Lohengrin.

Lohengrin remains a tricky and a controversial work to approach on account of its nationalistic sentiments and the later appropriation of them by Hitler and the Nazis, who twisted those ideals to appeal to their own ideology of national and racial purity. Wagner's own view is rather more nuanced - although perhaps not quite so much in this work where the composer was just beginning to formulate a view of art, culture, tradition and mythology (to which he was making a not entirely modest contribution) as the founding common values that define a nation, a banner under which to put one's faith and trust as much as in any ruler or religion.

Those values espoused in Lohengrin are perhaps not the same values that persist today, so either the work has to be considered in the context of the time it was written or it must be re-evaluated for its relevance to the present day. Wagner, as a composer, is far too important for his works to remain stagnant relics of a past time. To play the opera straight and ignore the historical legacy of the work however is surely negligent and potentially troubling, but if there is a place where those somewhat conservative values can still have meaning and resonance, it's Dresden.

Christine Mielitz's production of Lohengrin for the Dresden Semperoper in May 2016 is resolutely period and traditional, the treatment serious and respectful, with not a trace of irony or a whiff of modernism. The sets and costumes are lavish, the inhabitants of Brabant all dressed as wealthy burghers and nobles, with even the common people who stray into the dispute over the Duchy that King Heinrich has been called to resolve - and who will no doubt be called upon to fight in his God-ordained war with Hungary - also seemingly dressed in neatly cleaned and pressed rags.

The direction holds to a straight representation of the original stage directions and a broad view of the characterisation. There's no exploration for any deeper or more nuanced characterisation: good and evil hold to their strict Manichean divisions. There's no experimentation or commentary on the work's themes, no rats in a Hans Neuenfels' Bayreuth laboratory, just complete adherence and blind faith in the ability of Wagner's music to speak for itself, just as the work appears to advocate putting one's faith and trust in God and King Heinrich to point the way towards keeping a nation pure. And with a music director like Christian Thielemann at the helm at the Semper that faith isn't entirely misplaced.

Having established (at some length) that there's not a lot to grasp onto here in terms of concept or direction, the Dresden production has more to offer in terms of actual performance. Thielemann captures the full extent of the warm lush Romantic strains of the score, and the choruses are just glorious. Wagner's music for Lohengrin practically glows here. It's in the division of the singing roles however that the interest is likely to be focussed, with seasoned traditional Wagnerians on one side of the divide and a somewhat less conventional line-up on the other side. All perform very well indeed, if not quite in the way you would expect, but the contrasting styles do bring an interesting dimension to the work that isn't otherwise there in the stage production and the direction.

On the Wagnerian 'dark side' (if I may also include Heinrich in there), I have to get Georg Zeppenfeld out of the way first, since his performance as Heinrich is every bit as reliably brilliant as you might expect, particularly if you've seen him sing this role faultlessly and with considerable character several times already. Although he can sing with more colour and expression in Strauss, I find that Tomasz Konieczny's baritone singing for Wagner sounds rather harsh and steely. It's perhaps a little better suited to the villainous Telramund here than Wotan however. Evelyn Herlitzius can also be variable in her Wagner roles, and her high pitch and delivery sounded a little too close to toppling right over the edge, but again that can work within the context of the characterisation for Ortrud, and Herlitzius, as she often does, certainly makes an impression.

The Wagner virgins (if I may be permitted to describe them as such) are nonetheless two of the finest singers in the world today, better known for their performances in the very different Italian and principally Verdi repertoire. Who wouldn't be fascinated to hear Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala sing the roles of Elsa von Brabant and Lohengrin? Netrebko had at least road-tested the role of Elsa just prior to her performances in Dresden with a run at the Mariinsky in Moscow, and she's typically assiduous in her preparation and technique, demonstrating here that she is well up to the demands of the role. Her German diction leaves something to be desired however, her enunciation rather woolly and almost completely indecipherable.

That aside - and it will be a bigger deal for some to dismiss so easily - her dramatic performance is good and it really is fascinating just to hear that type of voice and the sheer quality of Netrebko's voice in this role. The same goes almost exactly for Piotr Beczala, particularly when Klaus Florian-Vogt's distinctive light lyrical tone has more or less monopolised the role of Lohengrin in recent years. It's not exactly a Heldentenor voice, but there is a heroic delivery and brightness here, Beczala taking on the role with the kind of confidence and charisma that it requires. If Mielitz's direction doesn't have anything new to bring to Lohengrin, Netrebko luxurious tones and Beczala's warm brightness blend gorgeously with the golden glow of Thielemann's conducting in a way that suggests a whole new way of hearing the work.

Links: Dresden Semperoper, ARTE Concert

Monday, 5 June 2017

Hosokawa - Matsukaze (Brussels, 2017)

Toshio Hosokawa - Matsukaze

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2017

Bassem Akiki, Sasha Waltz, Barbara Hannigan, Charlotte Hellekant, Frode Olsen, Kai-Uwe Fahnert

ARTE Concert - March 2017

Using music as a means of bringing out or fusing the drama with another more spiritual dimension is I imagine is something that most opera composers attempt to do, but based on the few works that I've heard from him, it seems to me that Toshio Hosokawa manages to do this rather better than most contemporary composers. It's perhaps because Hosokawa shares an affinity with traditional Japanese Nôh drama, an aspect that was alluded to in Hosokawa's most recent opera, Stilles Meer, but which is even more apparent in direct adaptation in his earlier 2011 opera Matsukaze.

Still, it's not easy to translate expression of the stylised movements and gestures from Nôh to the western form of lyric drama, and it usually requires other techniques and instruments to bring out a sense of the other. Adapting two Nôh dramas in her 2016 opera Only The Sound Remains, for example, Kaija Saariaho made effective use of the otherworldly sounds of the Finnish kantele harp. Hosokawa often uses recordings of sounds of wind, rain and waves as well as other instruments to evoke nature, but he also makes effective use of other Nôh elements not commonly used in opera to such an extent: movement and dance.

And to that end, Hosokawa has dance choreographer Sasha Waltz as an effective collaborator and in La Monnaie an opera company willing to explore such new collaborations and extend the range modern opera by commissioning such experimental works. Musically, theatrically, dramatically, in terms of performance and yes perhaps even spiritually, Matsukaze is one of the most successful new productions of contemporary opera and its 2011 production revived here for La Monnaie's 2016-17 season demonstrates this beyond any question.

As with Stilles Meer, Hosokawa takes time to establish a sense of mood and place that is outside of the common experience and the common opera tradition. To the sound of wind through trees and the distant sound of the sea, grey and white clad figures spin, swirl, roll and interweave like crashing waves, crosswinds or perhaps invisible spirits. Into this space walks a priest (Frode Olsen), again singing in a manner not typical of the western tradition, but more like a ritual chant or prayer. Hosokawa paints the scene of this introduction with a flurry of percussion, shimmering strings and whispering flutes that gasp and blow.

In an adaptation of the original 14th century Nôh drama, Matsukaze relates the story of two women, Matsukaze (Wind in the Pines) and her sister Marasame (Autumn Rain), whose names the priest sees carved in a memorial on a pine tree. In a dream, the ghosts of the sisters tell their tale, how they became the lovers of Yukihara, a courtier exiled to Suma for three years. Soon after his departure, the women learned of his death and died from grief. Unable to let go of their earthly longing however, they are condemned to remain tied to the world of mortals.

Although the question of abandoning earthly attachments in order to pass over to another state of is an important aspect of the Buddhist doctrine, there doesn't appear to be any deeper message or moral to be drawn from Matsukaze than this. As in the original Nôh drama however, the true meaning or value of the work is in the ritual and the expression of the drama in performance, and it's here that Hosokawa's music conducted by Bassem Akiki, its use of sounds and silence, the dance moves of Sasha Waltz and the set designs of Pia Maier Schriever and Chiharu Shiota all create an effective environment for Barbara Hannigan and Charlotte Hellekant to struggle to cast off those powerful human emotions.

The darkened stage following the priest's discovery of the memorial to the women related to him by a fisherman, opens up (to the rippling of a stream) to reveal a webbed background of black threads, representing the seaweed that the women gathered, as well as a barrier that separates the spirit world from the world of mortals (not unlike the curtains and barriers in Peter Sellars' production of Saariaho's Only the Sound Remains). Scurrying high up in the tangle of the netting are Matsukaze and Marasame, who descend - their white robes turning to black robes - to re-enact the story of their own entanglement with Yukihara in the mortal domain that they have not yet escaped.

The production, like the original Nôh drama, uses a variety of means to relate the story and find other ways to delve beneath the surface and represent the less tangible emotions that are in conflict. Much of that in the opera is taken up by the dancers, some of whose movements and roles are somewhat abstract and difficult to define. One figure with his upper face and eyes masked could be 'blind desire'. The use of props are limited, but a hat left behind by Yukihara is used as a representation of Matsukaze's emotional attachment to the material world, which is also represented in the latter part of the production as a large boxed frame. Within and without this the dancers also shift and gather to form the pine tree that is a representation of Matsukaze's love. Her sister Marasame is able to resist being wound up into the tree and consequently succeeds in eventually passing over to the other side.

The role of the singers then is somewhat unusual as in addition to the considerable singing challenges and differences that define the two sisters, Barbara Hannigan and Charlotte Hellekant also have to move, interact and dance with these abstractions, fluidly moving from one state to another. Hosokawa's score, conducted by Bassem Akiki, also works fluidly with Sasha Waltz's choreography to give the simple tale of Matsukaze's fate a sense of momentum and urgency. Matsukaze's ghost would appear to be doomed to remain unable to depart entirely from the physical plane, but Hosokawa and Waltz suggest a more peaceful if unclear resolution as an older woman, dressed in white, moves slowly across the stage as all the other elements fall away into a silence broken only by the rippling of water.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt