Thursday 27 July 2017

Mozart - Lucio Silla (Buxton, 2017)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Lucio Silla

Buxton Festival, 2017

Laurence Cummings, Harry Silverstein, Rebecca Bottone, Fflur Wyn, Joshua Ellicott, Madeleine Pierard, Karolína Plicková, Ben Thapa

Buxton Opera House - 20th July 2017

There are only five principal roles singing arias in Lucio Silla, the early opera composed by a 16 year old Mozart, but there's a feeling that the opera is a lot more complicated than it needs to be, and a lot longer than it needs to be as well. That being the case, the last thing an opera like this needs then is to be static in its delivery and unfortunately, there wasn't much in the 2017 Buxton Festival production to make this intriguing work with all its potential a little more engaging.

Even by opera seria standards, with the familiar situation of a harsh ruler using his power to disrupt the love lives of others and thus endanger his position, there's not much reason for Lucio Silla to be quite as complicated as it is. Having seized power in Rome, the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla intends to make a point by marrying Giunia, the wife of Cecilio, the son of the deposed former ruler, who is believed to be dead. Giunia is understandably upset by this and makes those feelings known in no uncertain terms and at length throughout the opera. She occasionally spares a thought for Cecilio, who she has discovered isn't dead, and worries about her fate, but mostly it's all about her hatred for Silla.

Meanwhile Silla's sister Celia is in love with Cinna, but that really shouldn't complicate things as much as it does (although all the similar sounding names doesn't help matters), but Cinna backs Cecilio and wants to remove Silla from power, and Celia is torn between her love for Cinna and her love for her own brother the Dictator of Rome. That's basically it, but it takes a back-and-forth sequence of repetitive arias from each of the characters to eventually sort out how to deal with Silla after an hour or three, until Silla takes the noble and unexpected option of renouncing his claim as ruler. Could have saved a lot of despairing arias if he had come to this conclusion a little sooner...

Fortunately however, the arias are very good, even by Mozart's standards and at such a young age. If somewhat conventional in their form they are elegant, delightful and not without some sense of feeling for situation and character. You wouldn't know this however from the direction which makes no effort to support what little character detail there is but saddles the performers with standing statically in place, with only an angry stride or two and the occasional imperious flick of the head over the shoulder to add emphasis to their words.

That's about as expressive as it gets here in Harry Silverstein's production, but the performers are nonetheless often able to make a little more of it, mainly through the quality of the singing. Rebecca Bottone takes the honours as Giunia, handling Mozart's precipitous high to low leaps and demonstrating some lovely coloratura. Fflur Wyn's sweet-voiced delivery and presence were more than capable for the challenges of Cecilia. Although the lead figure in the opera, Silla never feels like the main player here and he is further hampered in this production by conforming to stock 'baddie' mannerisms, but Joshua Ellicott sings the role well.

Most of the roles and much of the colour of Lucio Silla however is determined by the fact that most of the arias are given over to sopranos. It doesn't really help differentiate characters or provide much in the way of musical variety, but in the 'masculine' roles, Madeleine Pierard's singing of the castrato role of Cecilio was assured and well-performed. Karolína Plicková too brought some character to the trouser role of Cinna, managing to raise a laugh at his character's indecisiveness when the chance comes to assassinate Silla and he is left standing there with a knife in his hand and shrugs at his inability to do anything with it. Aufidio doesn't have any arias to sing, but Ben Thapa likewise finds ways to bring character and humour to the role.

The production design had nothing much to offer the interpretation in the way of visual interest. The stage is mostly bare, with the only real decoration being projections and colour for the floor patterns of the stage. In modern dress with generic military uniforms, there are no Romanesque arches or buildings, and no differentiation to suggest the hanging gardens or dungeon locations, public spaces or private chambers specified in the libretto. The backdrop consists of an undecorated wooden framework structure that we unaccountably appear to be looking at from backstage. A throne-like chair, some modern signs (the M and RI of the defeated Marius eventually replaced by LUCIO SILLA) are the only real variations of prop decoration.

Fortunately the fine singing made up for the lack of imagination in the direction and set design, as did Laurence Cummings's conducting of The English Concert orchestra, his direction from the harpsichord keeping the pace and rhythm of the opera flowing.

Links: Buxton International Festival

Wednesday 26 July 2017

Britten - Albert Herring (Buxton, 2017)

Benjamin Britten - Albert Herring

Buxton Festival, 2017

Justin Doyle, Francis Matthews, Bradley Smith, Heather Shipp, Morgan Pearse, Kathryn Rudge, John Molloy, Yvonne Howard, Nicholas Merryweather, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Lucy Schaufer, Mary Hegarty, Bonnie Callaghan, Nicholas Challier, Sophie Gallagher, Simeon John-Wake

Buxton Opera House - 19th July 2017

Who would have thought that Benjamin Britten, an outsider to the social and musical establishment, would be the composer who best captures the essential qualities of Englishness in his works? And not just in a kind of idealised fashion in the recounting of historical period drama or even just documenting the contemporary England of his times, but in a manner that captures attitudes and behaviours that are essentially and timelessly English. The social study of Peter Grimes might very well be his masterpiece in that regard, but Albert Herring captures much of the same character with the additional qualities of charm and humour.

It's the nature of the comedy and what is revealed through the brilliance of its wit and the wider detail of the characterisation that may even give weight to the argument for Albert Herring truly being Britten's masterpiece. Never having seen this Britten opera performed before (and not being English myself), I would have been sceptical of such a claim placing this work above Peter Grimes, Billy Budd or even War Requiem, but if there is a case to be made for Albert Herring as Britten's masterpiece, it's seeing it performed in Buxton surrounded by the same kind of characters that it depicts so colourfully up there on the stage. Francis Matthews's production for the 2017 Buxton Festival makes a wholly convincing case for its greatness.

Quite rightly, the principal claim for its greatness lies in the dazzling variety of the opera's musical language that never gets too clever for its own good. Britten develops and reworks musical, choral and motifs that don't just parody or emulate traditional English forms of music but tap into its baroque, folk and pastoral roots much more successfully than in Gloriana. It matches these moreover to specific English situations and character and to a lighter side of life that is loving and affectionate. You could say the same for how Justin Doyle brings those qualities out of the orchestral playing and for how Francis Matthews stages it in the marvellous Buxton production.

The other factor that stands in the favour of Albert Herring is the delightful witty libretto by Eric Crozier, based on a Maupassant story. Like Britten's score it is light and colourful, managing to be evocative of everything English without ever getting nostalgic or self-glorifying about it. How else can a line like 'Swan Vestas' be quite so hilarious? It celebrates the little person, the underdog and it deflates pomposity, finding the essence of Englishness out in its little village craftsmen and tradesmen rather than in the pretentiousness of its authority figures, although even there the work establishes a wonderful and authentic dynamic between its social classes. Even the name Albert Herring, with its regal forename matched to a rather more humble surname somehow manages to sum up everything that the work miraculously manages to achieve.

Surely then I wasn't the only person in the audience who looked on the behaviour around the May Day celebration committee table and thought of the cabinet of the current government? Theresa May, the authoritarian Lady Billings, with her delusions of competence, speaking in meaningless clichés and catch-phrases; Phillip Hammond the mayor managing the purse strings, but that official can manage to subtract 3 from 25 however, so there's a slight difference there; Michael Gove is Mr Gedge the Vicar, with his faith in educating the youth through the Bible, Shakespeare and Foxes Book of Martyrs. It's probably not fair to compare Sid to Boris Johnson, but still, quite the 'May Day' parade indeed.

Who am I kidding? I doubt anyone else would have been thinking such thoughts while enjoying how Francis Matthews directed the proceedings and the satire with a much lighter touch. Which is not to say that the Buxton audience weren't able to recognise and laugh at the gentle poking of fun at characters they would surely meet on a daily basis or at attitudes and behaviours which still persist. And to go by the current Conservative government whose actions are beyond satire really, it just goes to show how some characteristics are true and universal. And human. Which is what is great about Albert Herring and why it will endure.

The singing at Buxton really couldn't be faulted. Bradley Smith's brightly sung Albert is an innocent figure from a not so bygone age who needs to throw off that English reserve and stand up to his 'betters'. Sid and Nancy (now there's a prophetic pairing of names in respect of rebellious youth) are also wonderfully sung and characterised by Morgan Pearse and Kathryn Rudge. Heather Shipp is a fine Mrs Herring. The 'character' roles are an important part of the work and taken colourfully by Yvonne Howard as Lady Billows, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Mr Upfold the Mayor, Nicholas Merryweather as Mr Gedge the Vicar and John Molloy as Superintendent Budd. With impeccable direction, light-hearted comic detail and visual jokes to go with the musical delights on offer, there was much to enjoy in this fabulously entertaining production of Britten's comic masterpiece.

Links: Buxton International Festival

Tuesday 25 July 2017

Verdi - Macbeth (Buxton, 2017)

Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth (Buxton, 2017)

Buxton International Festival, 2017

Stephen Barlow, Elijah Moshinsky, Stephen Gadd, Kate Ladner, Oleg Tsibulko, Jung Soo Yun, Luke Sinclair, Ben Thapa, Helen Bailey, Charlie Lambert, Richard Moore, Molly O’Neill, Stuart Orme, Phil Wilcox

Buxton Opera House - 18th July 2017

There have been some fine productions in recent years that have raised Macbeth out of the obscurity of early Verdi operas up to a new level of appreciation. If the composer's early Shakespeare adaptation is still flawed in some respects and certainly not an opera that can ever be considered to be up there with his best work, Macbeth now at least has a deserved place in the Verdi popular repertoire.

Much of course depends on which version of the work is used and how it is presented, but with their latest Verdi venture for the Buxton Festival, Elijah Moshinsky and conductor Stephen Barlow believe that there is a case for viewing the earliest 1847 version without any of the composer's later revisions a little more sympathetically for its own operatic qualities, if not for its adherence to the Shakespearean drama. The Buxton production doesn't set out to make the case for the 1847 version being the definitive Macbeth, but rather just that it works on its own terms. They do that successfully but it seems to me to be a rather minor point to make when the work has the potential to offer so much more.

Other productions, perhaps identifying the weaknesses in the work as it stands in its various versions, can seek to reintroduce more Shakespeare into the opera or play with a hybrid that draws on the best of all versions to try to compensate for what is lacking in the dramatic development of the original opera version. Elijah Moshinsky's production for Buxton however plays it more or less straight. It's an abstraction really of Macbeth with no interpretation applied. There's no Scottish context or imagery, there are no elaborations of character or personality and no attempt to apply a dramatic through-line; one scene follows the next, condensing Shakespeare's play down to its essence.

That is more or less what Verdi and Piave do with Shakespeare in Macbeth anyway, so Moshinsky is really just removing anything that might be considered an interpretation or interpolation and just putting the focus back on Verdi's score and its ability to tell the story musically in its own way. Certainly Stephen Barlow's conducting of the NCO Festival Orchestra carried all the dynamism of the dramatic power and the melody of Verdi's arrangements, which are wonderfully effective no matter that they may not be as accomplished or as sophisticated in their characterisation as later Verdi. On its own terms the music delivers. Point proved.

Other than that however the Buxton Macbeth had little to offer in terms of interpretation to highlight themes or expand on aspects of characterisation. On a minimally dressed set that made use of a few benches against a background of castle walls, it was left mostly to the lighting, colour and shadow to actually visualise the colour of the effects of Verdi's score, principally in red and black. Some projections were also sparingly used to add emphasis to the punchier scenes of witchcraft, magic and murder most foul.

The use of projections in the scene of the visitation of the three apparitions conjured by the witches is the one place where the otherwise literal production goes a little off-script. Rather than a long line of kings descended from Banquo crossing the stage, the projections show a more interiorised whirl of horrors, snakes, skulls and demons within Macbeth's mind. Another slight revision is he timing of the death of the Queen, the production giving Macbeth's aria 'Pietà, rispetto, amore' as a lament to the corpse of Lady Macbeth rather than the customary distracted indifference, with the women rushing on scene to announce her death as if just discovering it.

This kind of emotional investment, sung well in this instance by Stephen Gadd, showed how well the work responds to the application of some tweaks of interpretation. Elsewhere such moments were uneven, the 1847 version of 'Patria opressa' lacks the stirring impact of its revised arrangement, but it wasn't helped with a straight line-up of the chorus across the stage with no dramatic direction. By way of contrast, Macduff's lament 'Ah, la paterna mano' that follows it carries the nature of the personal cost to the people of the land under Macbeth's reign of terror much more effectively, particularly as it was sung with great feeling by Jung Soo Yun.

Indeed The production might not have made the case for the 1847 original so well were it not for the singing. Proving again that the real key to the success of any early Verdi opera is often in how well the principal roles are able to meet its singing challenges, Stephen Gadd and Kate Ladner both gave convincing performances as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, although inevitably they were pushed a little uncomfortably to their limits in places. Stephen Gadd's softer intoning carried the gravitas of the role well, fitting with the more sombre tone of the production. Having a strong Banquo in Oleg Tsibulko also helped maintain a good balance in the overall tone. All of which contributed to an authentic early Verdi experience, but really not much more than that. I can't say I'm optimistic that such an approach will do much to improve the reputation of Alzira planned for next year's Festival either.

Links: Buxton International Festival

Saturday 15 July 2017

Verdi - Aida (Brussels, 2017)


Giuseppe Verdi - Aida

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2017

Alain Altinoglu, Stathis Livathinos, Adina Aaron, Andrea Carè, Nora Gubisch, Dimitris Tiliakos, Giacomo Prestia, Enrico Iori, Tamara Banjesevic, Julian Hubbard

ARTE Concert - June 2017

What is the point of Aida? Well obviously it started out as an attempt to bring Verdi out of retirement with the commission of writing a new work for the grand occasion of the new opera house in Cairo, and while the work was never completed for the occasion, it is nonetheless full of nationalistic sentiments and regional colour with grand marches and ceremonial processions. You can't commemorate that occasion every time the opera is produced, so obviously Aida must have something else worth celebrating since it remains one of the best-known and most frequently performed of Verdi operas.

Unfortunately, most directors miss the point of Aida or at least allow it to be submerged in the crowd-pleasing ceremonial aspects of the Grand Opéra spectacle and the bombastic arrangements of its Arabic melodies. Some have tried to be a little more adventurous with the work, looking more deeply at the relevance of its themes and seeking to find another way to bring them to the surface, but few are entirely successful at meeting not unreasonable audience expectations. That however is not going to deter a progressive opera company like La Monnaie from attempting to do something fresh and original with Aida.

So what is the point of Aida at La Monnaie? Aside from the familiar Verdi themes of father/daughter relationships and the conflict between love and duty, the opera is primarily concerned with power and oppression. It's about the crushing of human feelings, human love and one's own better nature in favour of a cause (war in this case) that is determined by rulers and informed by the will of the gods. It's about those who believe that they have authority and wisdom on their side but who are in reality all too human in their failings and weaknesses, and as a consequence are all the more capable of grave misjudgements considering the power they wield.

So tell me if Aida has a point in this day and age...

Having accepted that there is very much a point to Aida, the question then is how best to put that across on stage with the right emphasis that doesn't actually glorify power, war and oppression, but at the same time still retain something of the spectacle and the pure operatic qualities of Aida. You can try to introduce contemporary elements like Olivier Py's Paris production, but that tends to come over as heavy-handed and also risks dominating over the human love story that is a necessary part of the work. The director of the National Theatre of Greece, Stathis Livathinos, directing his first opera production, goes a little towards abstraction, but not so abstract that it doesn't relate to the underlying reality and the themes or provide necessary spectacle.

There is something ancient but also timeless in set designs for this production of Aida, Alexander Polzin doing well to avoid the imagery of ancient monuments and temples in the desert by symbolically showing the land as a small outcrop of rock; an island in a sea of darkness, that is venerated by the rulers and priests, glittered and shining. There's no mistaking it for anything grand and noble, with soldiers goose-stepping across the stage, blood spattered on their costumes, and there's no exotic dance of Moorish slaves either, the prisoners made to polish the rock during the opera's ballet, ground down into the gleaming rock by their captors until they scream.

The colour coding of the costume design by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer and the perfect lighting by Alekos Anastasiou contribute exceptionally well to defining and differentiating between the various classes and groups of rulers, priests, warriors, common people and slaves. The slaves all wear plain dark blue shifts, the priests in wrapped pale blue robes with Anubis masks - with the High Priest adorned with porcupine-like spikes - the ruling classes in gold, the common people in grey, the warriors in purple. Wonderfully choreographed and directed, it all still captures what is uniquely grand about Aida without the tired grand opera mannerisms, managing to look spectacular as well as stylish and colourful, albeit within a more limited and muted palette.

A more muted palette is also applied to the reduced La Monnaie orchestration under Alain Altinoglu. It can seem a little underplayed and lack the impact of the more bombastic approach, but Aida is a late period Verdi opera where it is worth holding back a little to allow the actual notes of the music to express their own qualities. As a consequence, you can hear the beautiful phrasing of the individual instruments and sections which is all too often submerged under volume and speed. It's not the full-blooded Verdi that many would expect and no doubt prefer, but I thought this account was very refreshing and revealing of other qualities in Verdi's writing, as well as better attuned to the underlying sentiment and themes of the drama.

I don't think you can play an opera like Aida naturalistically, but it doesn't deserve irony either. Stathis Livathinos finds a good balance between stylisation that plays to the themes and the dramatic and musical conventions that call for a certain amount of standing and delivering. The singing is also excellent for what is a very demanding work, all of the singers avoiding any strident expression. Andrea Carè's Radamès and Dimitris Tiliakos as Amonasro fare best with secure and lyrical delivery of their parts. Aida and Amneris present rather more challenges for Adina Aaron and Nora Gubisch who are a more little wavering in pitch and delivery in places, but both bring dramatic character and romantic personality to the roles rather than fall back on operatic mannerisms.

All efforts in trying to bring something new and fresh to Aida however are to no avail if the conclusion fails to deliver emotionally and dramatically (as this season's Madama Butterfly failed to do at La Monnaie). A huge block of stone hanging ominously over the stage and slowly descending to enclose Aida and Radamès while they sang their love duet in delirium was however very affecting and in keeping with the production's question of the price to be paid for power and how it oppresses the human spirit. Such a fresh and ambitious approach to Aida is a difficult task to carry off, but Livathinos and Altinoglu do it with style at La Monnaie, the opera still remaining impressive, but in the right way.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt, ARTE Concert

Sunday 9 July 2017

Schreker - Die Gezeichneten (Munich, 2017)

Franz Schreker - Die Gezeichneten

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2017

Ingo Metzmacher, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Tomasz Konieczny, Christopher Maltman, Alastair Miles, Catherine Naglestad, John Daszak, Matthew Grills, Kevin Conners, Sean Michael Plumb, Andrea Borghini, Peter Lobert, Andreas Wolf, Paula Iancic, Heike Grötzinger, Dean Power

StaatsoperTV - 1 July 2017

Franz Schreker's opera Die Gezeichneten is an unusual work, characteristic of a very specific style and of the period of its composition. It's a fairy-tale for the turn of the 20th century, with a late Romantic approach to its ideas and musical development that is perhaps a little too decadent and rich for modern tastes. In this opera, as in much of his other lyrical-dramas, Schreker poses some interesting questions in relation to the function of art that the post-Wagner opera world was (and perhaps still is) struggling to resolve. After 100 years of near neglect, the growing popularity of this particular opera suggests however that it's a question that is not only still relevant but becoming a more urgent issue for our contemporary society.

As far as Schreker is concerned, the pressing question of what should be the function of art and the role of the artist as an outsider is similar to the one considered by Wagner in nearly all of his important opera works. Composed in 1919 however, the world that Schreker explores in Die Gezeichneten is a very different place, and the rules and guidance that might have served as an example no longer seem relevant or are unable to take hold in a rapidly changing world that has gained a new perspective on humanity through Freudean psychoanalysis and the horrors of the First World War. If Die Gezeichneten follows the path of a fairy-tale, it's a fairy-tale where the darker undercurrents are now laid bare on the surface to serve as a reflection of what they say about modern society.

The post-Wagner/post-Parsifal/late Romantic composer/artist/idealist would like to believe that art provides a means of human transcendence from these horrors, but the former ideas about what constitutes art and beauty are now no longer quite as clear or as pure as might once have been thought. Elysium, the Utopian island of marvels and beauty created by the deformed dwarf Alviano Salvago in Die Gezeichneten, has become corrupted as a playground for the rich and the powerful to cultivate 'exotic' tastes, abducting children and exploiting the misery of others for their own pleasure. As Count Tamare describes it, it's a corruption of the realisation of a dream of beauty. There's clearly something there that resonates with our own times and this is keenly explored by director Krzysztof Warlikowski in his new production of the work for the 2017 Munich Opera Festival.

With its creator a deformed and ugly figure of ridicule, the Elysium created by Alviano in Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatised) is in himself representative of the function of art to transform the ugly reality into something beautiful. Carlotta is another artist capable of recognising the beauty of Alviano's true nature and expresses it in the painting of his pure soul. It's the validation of their belief in a higher purpose for art that leads them to love, but also to believe that they have a true and purer understanding of art and beauty. Unfortunately their great ambitions prove to be not only incompatible with the reality of the world, but they prove to be corrupting of their own nature. The seductive power of beauty in the form of Graf Andrea Vitellozzo Tamare leads Carlotta astray, while for Alviano, love has given him god-like aspirations that reveal an ugly side to his nature.

"Give me Carlotta" pleads Alviano when he is in danger of losing her love to the debauched libertine Tamare, "then I'll be a prince, a king, a god". Love has conferred Apollo-like aspirations in Alviano that align with the Wagnerian ideal of the supremacy of the artist in society, but instead he shows himself to be vindictive and egotistical, a "troll" at heart. It seems that the moment the true nature of beauty is grasped by the artist, it confers a sense of power and influence that turns him into a monster who is incapable of responding to that supreme vision of beauty without corrupting and destroying it by his very nature.

That's certainly the image that Krzysztof Warlikowski emphasises in the 2017 Munich production with his usual cinematic references. The director relies on the imagery of David Lynch's depiction of 'The Elephant Man' as a beautiful soul trapped in a monstrous body, but there are also significant scenes projected for classic silent horror films. There is the scene from 'Der Golem' where the monster is confronted and destroyed by the beauty of a child with a flower; a similar confrontation in that famous scene at the lake in 'Frankenstein'; the unmasking of 'The Phantom of the Opera' reveals the ugly side of his nature; and in 'Nosferatu' beauty will expose the monster to an unbearable light that destroys him. Apart from a scene of Duke Adorno working out in a boxing ring and figures starting to appear as mice, Warlikowski sticks fairly closely and directly to this principal theme in the first half, with Elysium a modern art gallery, replete with a Tate Modern style turbine hall showing a brilliant disc, where the idea of art is something living rather than traditional.

In Act III however, after a spoken word reading of Schreker's account of himself as an artist that associates him with Alviano, Warlikowski and Malgorzata Szczesniak's sets and costumes take these themes in an entirely unexpected and unpredictable new direction. So rich is the enigmatic ideas and imagery of the latter scenes of Die Gezeichneten, and so untethered to any kind of musical resolution, that you would expect a similarly free-associative and imaginative response from the director and he certainly delivers. There is an acceptance of art as a "realm of magic" and for Warlikowski the realm where all these concepts can be considered and explored is indeed that of the opera stage. So figures with heads of mice, virtually naked dancers, a reclining figure in a glass cage, all form part of the Elysium of the opera stage, where art is beauty, but it is also challenging and - vitally - alive.

The performances of John Daszak and Catherine Naglestad in particular are perfect fits for Warlikowsi's ideas. Daszak is simply outstanding, his voice lyrical and flexible, full of expression and capable of revealing a darker edge. Catherine Naglestad has a rather more robust soprano voice than the usual piercing but brittle edge of Straussian sopranos like Manuela Uhl or Anne Schwanewilms with whom we usually associate Schreker roles, but her voice brings a rich corrupting glamour to Carlotta. Christopher Maltman is a strong presence as Tamare. I'm not a fan of Tomasz Konieczny's bass-baritone voice and don't find it pleasant here, but as Duke Adorno it doesn't have to be and it strikes an appropriate note of discordance that lies within the music also.

Conducting the work, Ingo Metzmacher wrings all the troubling beauty out of chromatic lines that suggest that a resolution to the themes raised in the opera is unattainable, but between Schreker, Metzmacher and Warlikowski you almost feel that this is as close as the work can come to a state of transcendental perfection. An ambitious selection of works have been instrumental in the success of the Bayerische Staatsoper's exceptional 2016-17 season, attaching creative directors to the projects, finding the right conductor and singers who can bring some new and original ideas to them, and Die Gezeichneten is no exception.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV

Thursday 6 July 2017

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande (Vienna, 2017)

Claude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2017

Alain Altinoglu, Marco Arturo Marelli, Adrian Eröd, Olga Bezsmertna, Simon Keenlyside, Franz-Josef Selig, Bernarda Fink, Maria Nazarova, Marcus Pelz

Wiener Staatsoper Live - 30 June 2017

Debussy's only completed opera Pelléas et Mélisande remains a one-of-a-kind opera that doesn't conform to the traditional format, and as such a production can't really be judged on the more familiar critical basis of interpretation and performance. Fidelity to the dramatic events is determined by the fact that Maurice Maeterlinck's play is incorporated wholly within the opera, but it's the mood determined by Claude Debussy's musical setting of it that is perhaps the most important consideration for a production to meet. Somehow, none of these unique requirements ever makes Pelléas et Mélisande any less intriguing a work, since even within the very specific requirements of the setting of the work, there is room for perhaps one or two little adjustments of emphasis and interpretation.

Within this work, a few minor adjustments can go a long way, and that's certainly the case with Marco Arturo Marelli's new production of Pelléas et Mélisande for the Vienna State Opera. Even more so than most productions of the work, the mood here is dominated almost entirely by the stage sets which emphasise the forbidding presence of the castle in Allemonde. We never seem to leave it, we never get a glimpse of anything natural outside the castle, not a hint of daylight, not even a garden with a fountain or an exterior Blind Man's Well. All of these, including Pelléas and Golaud's excursion to the caverns, all seem to take place within the walls of the castle in this production.

Bathed in monochrome shades of purple light, the emphasis on the location heightens the dark mood of the piece. The castle itself is a sinister Max Ernst-like rough-hewn tall grey block structure, decaying and slightly tilted, ready to tip into the stagnant waters that lie in its vaults. The atmosphere accordingly is dark and oppressive; the inhabitants all old, sick and dying or else subject to strange forces and accidents. We know this because Golaud and Arkel describe it as such, acknowledging how out of place Mélisande presence is there, but you really get an enhanced sense of it here.

In another adjustment of emphasis in this regard, the first scene of Marelli's production, just before he hears the sobs of a young woman, shows Golaud unable to go on not just because he is lost in the forest, but he about to shoot himself in the head with the gun placed under his jaw. Just to jump ahead of the chronology, since there is a kind of consistent rhythm (of music and language) and even a kind of circular symmetry to the opera, this is not just a throw-away image, but one which is returned to in the closing notes of the opera as Mélisande slips away and Golaud is left with his own demons once again and his gun.

Debussy certainly wasn't composing an opera for singers to demonstrate their prowess, but the casting of roles can evidently also adjust the emphasis and mood of Pelléas et Mélisande. If you put a singer, actor and performer like Simon Keenlyside into a role like Golaud, that character is going to feature strongly, and Golaud can often be the dominant figure in the work. Whether you take the castle as an outward expression of Golaud's moods, authority and dominance, or whether it's the castle that exerts its dark influence over his moods, the two are inextricably linked. Golaud wants to control and understand but is obdurate in his mindset, and it's his actions and the force of them that are the main cause of Mélisande's deep unhappiness which leads to the tragedy of what occurs between her and Pelléas.

Although they are more reserved in their expression, Pelléas and Mélisande are also subject to their own powerful forces and drives which are a reaction to their circumstances, and the Romantic desire to escape from them. Marelli extends that beyond the castle/Golaud darkness for both figures in a way that doesn't rely so much on the more traditional symbolism of the piece, although Pelléas's obsession with Mélisande's hair is still important here. We also see however the dying father of Pelléas in a silent role (who I've never really been aware of before), seemingly called Arzt. His role is never entirely clear or explored but it adds another element or layer of mystery on top of the drama. For Mélisande, her condition is associated with a boat.

You can't play around too much with the symbolism of Pelléas et Mélisande (and you don't really want to be explicitly interpreting it either), but the boat does manage to successfully become the dominant theme of the production. The upturned boat on a bench for repairs (decaying like everything else) is the tower from which Mélisande drapes her hair to Pelléas below. The boat is used as a ladder for Yniold to spy upon the couple, and it becomes the rock that Yniold cannot move. As such the boat comes to be a symbol of the essence of Mélisande, her desire, her freedom, an object that reflects her status as something that lies outside and apart from the rest of the citizens of the castle and Allemonde. It also becomes her 'bed' in Act V and eventually transports her into the sunset (still standing) at the conclusion.

The boat also of course ties Mélisande to another important symbol in the opera and that is the imagery of water. Here the freedom of boat and the water have a lot more resting on it, since Mélisande is already visibly pregnant at the start of Act IV. Water is present throughout on the stage and is given a darker context beyond the familiar symbolism of hidden depths holding unreachable objects. It's also a path of life, sometimes seen stagnating in the dark, at other times, offering the idea of movement and freedom - as in the beautiful sequence in Act 2 Scene 3, where Mélisande drifts into the scene guided by a semi-submerged Pelléas. Mélisande eventually leaves the castle in the boat, guided by the women servants, into a blazing red sunlight, leaving the dark creatures of Allemonde behind.

It's not all doom and gloom then, and you ought to be able to detect a hint of hope, if not quite optimism, in Debussy's concluding notes and perhaps even in Maeterlinck's words, as Arkel looks to Mélisande's child for the future in a place that - as it currently stands and has been repeatedly emphasised - is no place for children. Tapping into this moment of hope, or at least endurance, Marelli chooses to show Golaud's suicidal despair stayed by the hand of young Yniold, who also has a generally larger silent part to play elsewhere in this production and is characterised as such with expressive personality by Maria Nazarova.

The mood and tone are perfectly judged by Alain Altinoglu's conducting of the Vienna orchestra. The music is haunting and mesmerising as only this work can be, but Altinoglu's attention to the detail and flow demonstrate how Debussy's score really has a force of its own and is never mere accompaniment or mood music. Simon Keenlyside makes his presence fully felt as Golaud, Franz-Josef Selig is a luxury Arkel, his French enunciation beautifully clear and wonderfully phrased. Adrian Eröd plays Pelléas with enraptured romanticism and his voice is well pitched to sing it as such. If Mélisande remains somewhat distant and enigmatic, that's as it should be and Olga Bezsmertna's singing and performance conveys this perfectly.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live

Monday 3 July 2017

Rossini - Semiramide (Nancy, 2017)

Gioachino Rossini - Semiramide

L’Opéra national de Lorraine, Nancy - 2017

Domingo Hindoyan, Nicola Raab, Salome Jicia, Franco Fagioli, Matthew Grills, Nahuel Di Pierro, Fabrizio Beggi, Inna Jeskova, Ju In Yoon

Culturebox - 11 May 2017

What a difference a voice makes. If you've watched more than one production of any opera, you'll already know that's a self-evident truth, but it isn't often you get the opportunity to compare two different productions of Rossini's Semiramide in close succession to see how it applies. Even a single viewing however is enough to realise why the work isn't put on too often; if you haven't got a singer of the calibre of Joyce DiDonato to sing the role of the Babylonian Queen - as in the recent Bayerische Staatsoper production - there's always the danger of Rossini's opera seria falling completely flat. The Opéra National de Lorraine however have some other ideas of their own about how to stage this difficult work.

The production of Semiramide at Nancy does indeed show what a difference a voice makes, but surprisingly, it's not where you might think. The Opéra National de Lorraine production actually has a very capable mezzo-soprano in the shape of Salome Jicia, who proves to be quite impressive in the role even if she doesn't have the extra spark that is needed to truly bring this work to life. The stage design and the direction in this production don't really have a great deal to contribute either in that respect, and it's doubtful that the production would have the necessary impact but for its casting of another role. Where this production takes its chances in its staging of Semiramide is in the casting of a countertenor for the role of Arsace: and obviously not just any countertenor, but Franco Fagioli.

Countertenors and contraltos or mezzo-sopranos can be interchangeable of course in many other works, but those are usually older baroque works where a female takes on the role originally written for a castrato, which for obvious reasons are no longer available to an opera house. In the case of Semiramide, the role of Arsace is a trouser role written for a contralto, so it is certainly rare and unusual (in a work that itself is rarely performed) to transpose the role over to a countertenor. The rationale for this I can only guess - perhaps Franco Fagioli was looking to extend his range into later repertoire? - but the results are fascinating and do change the whole dynamic and adjust the emphasis on where the heart of the work lies.

Whether it was done to find a new challenge for Fagioli or whether it was done purely for reasons of meeting the vocal requirements (superstar contraltos are thinner on the ground these days than countertenors I suspect), Fagioli does indeed make quite an impression. The Bayerische Arsace wasn't lacking the necessary qualities with Daniela Barcellona in the role, but with Franco Fagioli you have star quality and a voice that proves to be far more flexible to meet the very distinctive tessitura of the role. Fagioli is better placed to meet the considerable demands on the lower end of the register as well as navigating those tricky fluttering Rossinian sprints. His delivery of Arsace's arias is utterly rivetting to behold, his voice blending beautifully with the arrangements and in the Act II duets with Salome Jicia's Semiramide. The true effectiveness of his performance however is in how Arsace's role comes to dominate the proceedings.

The challenges of performing Semiramide convincingly go beyond merely being a star turn for the best singers of the day - although on that level alone it has to be admitted that it is a joy to hear performed as well as it is here. With Semiramide, Rossini was moving away from a style of opera that still had its roots in the baroque opera seria, and was developing into the form of Grand Opéra, so there are specific dramatic and theatrical requirements or conventions that are expected to be met in one way or another. Spectacle and entertainment are another factor, and on this level the Nancy production doesn't deliver quite as inventively as David Alden's recent Munich production.

The production doesn't set the opera in ancient Babylon but seems to settle for a period closer to the time of composition of the opera with - as a French opera production - an eye perhaps on the intrigue and downfall of the French royal court. It also establishes something of the play-within-a-play setting or semi-staged dress rehearsal for no particular reason that can be easily determined. A smaller stage is positioned to one side of the stage, with a rope pulley system and its own curtain. lowering Egyptian pillars with hieroglyphs as the queen acts out her declamations and announcements. The intrigues of Assur, Oroe and Idreno are carried out in the wings and develop on the stage, with a large mirror used to highlight when the characters reflect on what they see in front of them in the mirror and how it measures up to the image they have of themselves.

The direction of the acting is at least a little more naturalistic, leading to convincing characterisation without the old-fashioned operatic mannerisms that a work like Semiramide might attract. The musical arrangements under Domingo Hindoyan, a graduate of the Venezuelan musical education programme El Sistema, are a little bloodless, but it's hard to fault the performance for accuracy and pacing. Aside from the two main leads, the production also benefits from an excellent Assur in Nahuel Di Pierro. His voice carries force and authority, the singing clear and commanding, making Assur feel like a proper villain and not a caricature of one. The other roles are also very well sung and played with Fabrizio Beggi's Oroe seeming to be the manipulator here in a dual role that takes up the part of the Ghost of Nino. Matthew Grills also makes a good impression as Idreno, and Azema is sung well by Inna Jeskova although her role in the drama seems reduced here.

Links: L’Opéra national de Lorraine, Culturebox