Friday 29 September 2017

Puccini - Tosca (Oslo, 2017)

Giacomo Puccini - Tosca

Den Norske Opera, Oslo - 2017

Karl-Heinz Steffens, Calixto Bieito, Svetlana Aksenova, Daniel Johansson, Claudio Sgura, Jens-Erik Aasbø, Pietro Simone, Ludvig Lindström, Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy, Aksel Johannes Skramstad Rykkvin

Opera Platform

One of the criticisms that can perhaps be legitimately be made against Tosca is that it is indeed little more than a cheap violent thriller, or a "shabby little shocker" as Joseph Kerman once characterised it, a term that it now wears as a badge of honour. Kerman's other criticisms against it for breaking the so-called rules of opera composition are rather more dubious subjective opinions based on a personal interpretation of what opera should be, but Tosca certainly is a dark, violent piece of verismo whose shock value threatens to submerge any human qualities that might be found in the opera, if indeed you think there are any. You could pretty much say the same about Calixto Bieito's production of Tosca for Den Norske Opera's production in Oslo.

Bieito's rather bleak outlook on the opera then might well be the only really valid way of approaching this work. To take it seriously as a historical piece or even as a strictly realist piece of drama, it's obviously absurd and quite overblown. Whether Tosca has any real commentary to make on historical events or whether it has any insightful point to make about ordinary people caught up in a political nightmare is doubtful. It's safer to think of Tosca as purely a political thriller and nothing more, and on that basis it is undoubtedly a thoroughly effective piece.

Similar criticisms could be made about Puccini's final unfinished opera Turandot, which is a work that seems perversely cruel and rather heavily scored out of all proportion to the opera's fairy-tale setting, and Calixto Bieito likewise focussed on the sinister authoritarian undercurrent that runs through that work in his production of it. Bieito's Tosca is more or less a companion piece to that Turandot, a study in the corruption and brutality of totalitarian rule that crushes individual freedom, going further to explore the repression of the arts within such a regime and the duty of the artist to speak out against it.

"Your silence will not protect you", states the placard wielded by political prisoner and fugitive Angelotti before the Oslo production of Tosca starts, and more so than in Bieito's Turandot where a similar warning was made about the silencing of dissent by artists who dared speak out against a cruel regime, Tosca does indeed deal with two artists - the opera singer Tosca and the artist Cavaradossi - who find themselves forced to take a stance against a cruel regime and address the real issues of its corrupt activities when those issues are brought to their door.

Director Calixto Bieito does his best to make that situation as shocking and as sinister as it is possible to make it on a stage and within this particular work. The audience are subjected to an onslaught of violence for the full three acts of the opera, with no interval to provide a breathing space. It's somewhat stylised and representational, but it still carries the requisite shock value. The Madonna painted by Cavaradossi is not a painting but a real woman, stripped naked, her robe held out as a 'fan' for Tosca to discover. Cavaradossi is brutally tortured on-stage, Bieito makes use of dwarfs in school uniforms for henchmen, and even introduces a son for Scarpia, another schoolboy who licks lasciviously on a lollypop. There's no innocence to be found anywhere here.

Least of all in Scarpia. And, as you might expect, Bieito makes him as vile a character as possible, pawing over Floria Tosca and another woman who we presume is his wife, and Claudio Sgura does his best to make him as repugnant as possible. That's to be expected, but Bieito also seems to want to explore how this corruption also extends to destroy the purity of the artist and how this might even be a necessary thing. This Floria Tosca goes rather further than most before killing Scarpia (bizarrely with his own spectacles rather than a knife) and is fired up by the experience. As Cavaradossi observes those "sweet hands pure and gentle" have "dealt out death".

For Bieito's emphasis to work - if it is even possible to truly depict the horror of a totalitarian state on a live theatre stage and in an opera like Tosca - it needs a Tosca who can respond to it on those terms, reacting to the violation of her integrity with horror and then come to terms with opposing it, even if that endeavour in Puccini's opera is ultimately futile. That, on top of the kind of the role's singing demands is a lot to ask of any soprano, and Svetlana Aksenova struggles somewhat. Aksenova doesn't have quite a big enough voice or personality to carry such a role, but sings well nonetheless. Her acting performance however lacks conviction to such an extent that when Scarpia says his is fired up by the new woman who has explosively adopted a new role he has never seen before, you do wonder what he's talking about.

Aksenova however does come more into the part in Act III when the trauma of the experience seems to tell on Tosca, and it's in this act that the effectiveness of Bieito's direction of the work becomes evident in its relationship with the music. You can't really put the true violence of Tosca on the stage; it's too brutal and it needs the medium of music to translate it. Karl-Heinz Steffens's conducting is a bit light in places when you need more forceful hand and a greater dynamic between the verismo violence and the more idealised human sentiments, such as those sung so beautifully by Daniel Johansson in Cavaradossi's 'E lucevan le stelle'. Half measures won't do and I don't think you can overstate in Tosca; the contrast needs to be there to show the force with which those gentle human sentiments will inevitably be crushed.

Puccini shows no mercy for any of his characters and neither does Bieito. The lighting is harsh permitting no soft colours, the stark bright spotlights picking out the characters in the darkness and throwing shadows. There is no place to run and no place to hide on Susanne Gschwender's sets. Nor is there a place to jump. You can hardly expect Bieito to be as crude as actually having Tosca leap from the Castel Sant' Angelo, but whether it's an acknowledgement that there's only so far you can push such 'realism' before it becomes sentimental or whether the director believes that both Tosca and Cavaradossi have to live at least long enough to acknowledge their actions, Bieto spares them the final famous denouement, but not their torment. Ultimately however, it's Puccini's extraordinary building and contrasting of the musical forces that determines their fate and Bieito follows it to its appropriately devastating conclusion.

Links: Den Norske Opera, Opera Platform

Thursday 21 September 2017

Britten - Owen Wingrave (Dublin, 2017)

Benjamin Britten - Owen Wingrave

Opera Collective Ireland, 2017

Stephen Barlow, Tom Creed, Benjamin Russell, Christopher Cull, Peter O'Reilly, Roisín Walsh, Rachel Croash, Amy Ní Fherarraigh, Sarah Richmond, Andrew Boushell

O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin - 16th September 2017

Up until now Owen Wingrave has been the only Britten opera that I haven't had the opportunity to see or write about. And as good as this 2017 Opera Collective Ireland production was at the Dublin Fringe Festival - and there are certainly qualities to admire in the work - I think however I can see why it is so rarely performed. It's an opera with some very obvious flaws and certainly a lesser work by the composer.

I don't think however that anyone can question the sincerity of purpose of the opera, or Britten's fervent belief in and commitment to spreading the gospel of pacifism. Henry James's short story Owen Wingrave and the opportunity to present the work to a wider audience as a television opera might have seemed like a good vehicle to get that message across, but both seem to involve some measure of compromise with both the medium and the message.

Being written for TV presentation isn't necessarily the problem, since Britten had reservations about the new medium and strove to ensure that the opera was composed to also work as a stage drama, but there is still little of real dramatic interest in the piece. It might be a little reductive - which I think is also a fault with the opera - but essentially it seems to me to be about a young man from a family with a proud military history who says he's had enough of this war lark and doesn't want to train to be a soldier. The remainder of the opera is a series of condemnations and accusations of cowardice from his family and his fiancée's family who line up to take turns to castigate him for his decision.

There is also a ghost story element that is added to bring another dimension to the work and to show the difference between cowardice born out of fear and genuine conscientious objection to the horror of war. The supernatural element however is nowhere near as effective or of an essence to the piece as it is in Britten's other Henry James adaptation The Turn of the Screw, and it feels oddly out of place with the rather more serious intentions of the work.

Like the previous adaptation however, Britten does develop a distinctive, eerie and often challenging musical treatment for the work with greater emphasis here on percussion and use of the gamelan. Britten also makes an effort to introduce some arias and haunting 'Malo malo' moments, but the discoursive nature of the piece means that it is heavily reliant on preachy recitative. And posh preachy recitative at that, much too tied up in old family traditions and class concerns to really touch upon the essential matters at the heart of the subject.

The production design for the Opera Collective Ireland production directed by Tom Creed made some effort to update the work with references to Kandahar and the Falklands, as well as seeking to find some other ways to represent it visually, but none of them managed to enliven the work, make it any more engaging or even illustrate the at times difficult to make-out words of Myfanwy Piper's libretto. Instead of family portraits and a mansion we have a room filled with stuffed birds of prey and an isolating border wall. Projections also contribute to representational undercurrents of blind nationalism in an imposing Union Jack, and to the more sinister side of it in shadows of the hawks coming to life.

On the performance side, a good cast made the most of the roles and did their best to give them distinguishing characteristics and personality that is hard to find elsewhere in their almost unanimous condemnation of the reluctant soldier. Benjamin Russell's clear-voiced baritone was well suited to the role of Owen Wingrave and in how it blended in with Stephen Barlow's conducting of the Irish Chamber Orchestra, and Andrew Boushell's tenor soared as Sir Philip and the ballad singer. The stand-out performance however was Amy Ní Fherarraigh who cut through all the manners and mannerisms and gave us a steely, determined and frankly intimidating Mrs Julian. If only the horror of war and the supernatural elements had been depicted half as vividly as her Mrs Julian, the fate of Owen Wingrave would indeed have been something truly to fear.

Links: Opera Collective Ireland

Tuesday 19 September 2017

Mussorgsky - Khovanshchina (Vienna, 2017)

Modest Mussorgsky - Khovanshchina

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2017

Michael Güttler, Lev Dodin, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Christopher Ventris, Herbert Lippert, Andrzej Dobber, Ain Anger, Elena Maximova

Staatsoper Live - 11 September 2017

New productions of an opera often reveal different facets and new perspectives on any given work, but you often find that you can also continue to find something new when you revisit a revival of a good production. Lev Dodin's fairly static production of Khovanshchina however, first seen at the Vienna State Opera in 2014, doesn't strike you as one that would have a great deal more to offer. Even if it doesn't bring anything new to the table - when even the cast line-up is identical to that seen in 2014 - Khovanshchina is nonetheless a work that constantly provokes new observations and a deepening appreciation for Mussorgsky's unfinished epic.

It may be quite static, the performers all contained within rising platforms that give no room to move around the stage, but the set designs for Lev Dodin's production of Khovanshchina are visually impressive and do prove to be a good way of layering and revealing the Russian historical and national complexities of the work. The various factions that are competing for power and influence in late 17th century Russia are clearly marked out in a structure of beams and platforms that not only indicates their position in relation to their ambitions, but it also charts their rise and decline, often down into the depths of the pit through a trapdoor in the stage.

Designed this way, it's easy to differentiate between the three main factions competing with each other to determine the direction that Russia will follow at this turbulent point in history. The set for Act II arranges them in a clear hierarchical position. On the upper level is the governing class represented by Galitsin who is hoping that he can open up the country to progressive western influence. Below him are the military under the control of Prince Ivan Khovansky who are suspicious of foreign interests and hold firm to the old traditions, but the soldiers are becoming undisciplined and difficult to control. Below them is Dosifei who leads the religious faction of Old Believers opposed to reforms.

It's not necessarily that these forces, beliefs and traditions are distinct as much as they represent a layering of true Russian ideals that sit uneasily alongside one another. As such all the people of Russia also have a voice in Khovanshchina and Lev Dodin's vertical production at least provides the space for all these vital components of Russian society to fill the stage, showing the complexity and incompatibility of these ideals without the stage becoming cluttered and the plot incomprehensible. It does mean that there is a lot of static exposition, but that's inherent in the work itself and it's vital to understand this in order to get to the heart of Khovanshchina.

The heart of Khovanshchina is of course the heart of Russia, and the challenge to put that up on the stage is one that Mussorgsky struggled with in this unfinished work, as did several other notable Russian composers (the Vienna production uses the Shostakovitch version) who have attempted to polish and complete this great epic. More than just conveying the history of the competing forces vying for power in Russia during the 1680s, Khovanshchina also attempts to capture something of the mystical and spiritual side of Russia in Marfa, and combined it should paint a picture of Russia on a grand scale as something that also has relevance to today. What seems to be true then is true now, the opera showing the true scale of the horror that Russia must endure and suffer when power over it falls into the wrong hands.

Its ambitions mean that Khovanshchina consequently doesn't conform to standard operatic plot development, nor indeed to a conventional musical structure. Characters don't so much grow as reveal the personal human weaknesses behind their grand ambitions and ideals. Each are taken down in their prime before they can achieve their goal, or rather their weaknesses expose them and lead them inevitably to their fate. Andrei Khovansky is largely ineffective after Act I after his encounter with the foreign girl Emma. His father Prince Ivan Khovansky seems to be weary of the struggle and is killed in Act IV while indulging in the distraction of Syrian dancing girls. Act IV also brings about the death of Galitsin.

For Dosifei, it's the conflict between his spiritual religious beliefs and his feelings for Marfa that renders him out of the running as far as uniting the people behind his vision of Russia, and the act of self-immolation that takes Marfa, Andrei and Dosifei is a kind of cleansing that clears the way for Russia to arise again out of the ashes. Russia proves to be bigger than any individual in Khovanshchina, even greater than the young Tsars Peter and Ivan who are not seen in the opera. Russia prevails, but it's at a considerable cost.

There's not a great deal more to be said about the singing performances in the 2017 revival of Khovanshchina, which retains the same cast as the 2014 premiere performances. Ferruccio Furlanetto is still a force to be reckoned with as Khovansky, Elena Maximova fulfils the vital role of Marfa impressively in terms of her singing and as far as suggesting the other spiritual dimension of this character. Herbert Lippert seemed to make a greater impression this time too as Galitsin, and Christopher Ventris and Ain Anger reliably reprise their roles of Andrei and Dosifei. Michael Güttler took over the conducting of the Vienna orchestra for this revival and brought out the dynamic with an extra punch on the big dramatic and choral pieces, but elsewhere it didn't seem to have the same coherence as a piece that Semyon Bychkov's conducting achieved in the 2014 production.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live

Friday 8 September 2017

Cavalli - Erismena (Aix, 2017)

Francesco Cavalli - Erismena

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2017

Leonardo García Alarcón, Jean Bellorini, Francesca Aspromonte, Carlo Vistoli, Susanna Hurrell, Jakub Józef Orliński, Alexander Miminoshvili, Lea Desandre, Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore, Stuart Jackson, Tai Oney, Jonathan Abernethy

ARTE Concert - 12th July 2017

There are times I'm convinced that there is a deliberate attempt to confuse the audience in some of these early baroque and opera seria works. It's not just that the plots are needlessly intricate and difficult to unravel, but the names often all sound the same. So in addition to Erismena in Cavalli's opera of that name we have Erimante and Erineo, with an Ercinia appearing out of the woodwork when we thought her name was Alcesta, all of those becoming mixed up with Orimeno and Aldimira. And who the heck are Arminda and Artamene?

If I didn't know better I'd think the librettist was trying to cover over any plot weaknesses or lack of credibility in the extraordinary events and coincidences that take place in such works, but you can hardly accuse Cavalli of fudging the issue here with his gorgeous melodies and precise delineation of mood and character. Even if you are a little confused in places as one identity dissolves into another, disguises are dropped and genders are switched, in the masterful hands of Cavalli the changes just reflect a rich set of individuals who come together to create complex connections and bonds.

Breaking down the plot to its essentials in an effort to simplify (I'll try anyway) and focus on its themes, the fates of all of the characters revolve essentially - and not unexpectedly - around a king. Erimante the King of Armenia is haunted by a vision of an unknown warrior who he dreams will take his throne from him. At the same time, a wounded warrior has been discovered by Orimeno. He leaves the warrior with his beloved Aldimira and her nurse Alcesta, who helps cure the man's injuries. When Orimeno brings him to the king however, Erimante recognises the feared warrior of his dreams and orders Erineo to kill him.

Erineo however fails to carry out this task, leaving the warrior to fall into the hands of Aldimira, who has fallen in love with him. The warrior reveals his mission is to seek vengeance against Idraspe, who abandoned the warrior's 'sister' Erismena, although obviously we know that the warrior is Erismena herself disguised in a soldier's armour. Romantic complications are added to the whole affair - most of them involving the flighty Aldimira it has to be said - but there are further surprises in store since - no big surprise this one - Erismena is not the only one living under an assumed name or identity. Alesta, who is really the nurse Ercinia, eventually reveals all, including the fact that Erismena is the daughter of Erimante and as such the rightful heir to the throne rather than a threat to the king. See what I mean about the names?

Anyhow, safe to say that there are a lot more complications, identities and characters involved in the affairs in Armenia (Arminda and Artamene incidentally are only mentioned in passing otherwise it really would be impossible to unravel this one). To similarly simplify the essential theme of Cavalli's opera - and the whole disguises and unknown origins question of such operas - it's all about the search for identity, for understanding one's true nature. This realisation of course only comes about through some hard-earned life lessons, but in the case of Cavalli's Erismena, the work is considerably enriched by the types of characters involved and by the musical treatment that the composer creates for them.

Leonardo García Alarcón's conducting from the harpsichord of the Cappella Mediterranea brings out all those characteristics and moods with a sparseness and directness of means that only a skilled period instrument ensemble can do. What the Aix-en-Provence production reveals however is that the purity of young voices also play just as vital a role in bringing the themes of the work to the surface. It's immediately apparent from the moment that Susanna Hurrell's Aldimira and Francesca Aspromonte's 'warrior' Erismena sing the duet 'Occhi belli', revealing not only the the beauty of the sentiments but the naivety behind them. It's an opera that is all about youth.

Aldimira is flirtatious, capricious, inconstant, and has many lovers - she herself exemplifies one facet of the changeable nature of love and the instability of trust and fidelity. Erismena represents another side of love, one that has solidity of reason and is constant in purpose. People come in all shapes and sizes, quite literally here, particularly in the case of the old nurse, showing that love and its torments are not the preserve of the young alone. Love is a complex business and changeable, and how better to illustrate that than the manner in which the twists and turns of Cavalli's opera and musical treatment covers it.

It's a much richer and more dynamic palette that is brought out here than the laments and single-emotion at a time expression of subsequent opera seria period. Arias and ariosos flit between one mood or emotion to another - as someone in love is wont to do - and the singers here are eminently capable of displaying the necessary range, where youth and purity of voice and sentiment is absolutely essential. It's through love that we recognise our true selves, the opera tells us, through the destiny and fate that bonds us to each other as family, and it's love in all its guises that gives life its depth, richness and quality. Cavalli recognises this and puts it all into his dynamically expressive music.

The stage production at Aix isn't quite as rich and expressive, but it rightly defers to the music and the singing. The set design has a makeshift quality, dimly lit, with a wire mesh platform employed and canopy of light-bulbs. The costumes too are in that mix-and-don't-match style that nevertheless reflects characters who have many contradictory facets and might not don't really know who they are yet. Francesca Aspromonte sings Erismane in a way accentuates her essential beauty, firmness and brightness. Susanna Hurrell captures a sense of lightness and innocence in Aldimira that makes her character's inconstancy charming rather than flirtatious and damaging. Carlo Vistoli's Idraspe/Erineo is beautifully sung, reflecting his dual nature and identity and his desire to control his nature, but all of the roles are sung with bright youthful pureness and great skill, weaving around the Cappella Mediterranea's beautiful interpretation of Cavalli's melodies, to striking effect.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Culturebox

Thursday 7 September 2017

Stravinsky - The Rake's Progress (Aix, 2017)

Igor Stravinsky - The Rake's Progress

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2017

Eivind Gullberg Jensen, Simon McBurney, Julia Bullock, Paul Appleby, Kyle Ketelsen, Evan Hughes, David Pittsinger, Hilary Summers, Andrew Watts, Alan Oke

ARTE Concert - 11th July 2017

To borrow a phrase from Baba the Turk, the rationale behind Stravinsky's neoclassical account of The Rake's Progress is not only perplexing to many, but it can be vexing too. Without some imagination and purpose applied it can - to continue with Baba the Turk's own commentary - show too much devotion towards an ancient flame and end up being, in dramatic and musical terms, nothing more than a souless pastiche of Classical opera mannerisms. In that respect, the opera could even be a self-regarding commentary on it own nature.

When a work seems to be a superficial pastiche or a commentary on itself, it leaves limited scope for a director to do something new or interesting with it, but surely The Rake's Progress offers more potential than Simon McBurney brings to the new production of the opera at the Aix-en-Provence festival? Like his Magic Flute, which appeared at Aix a few years ago and at a few other European opera houses, the use of stage-craft is innovative - this time using an almost entirely computer generated boxed-in surrounding set - but it plays along with the superficiality of the work, illustrating it without finding or bringing any new depth in it.

It's true anyway of course that The Rake's Progress, based on a series of Hogarth 18th century prints, is essentially a cautionary tale warning of the dangers of being swept away by the superficial attractions of money and the dissolute lifestyle that comes with it, its superficial attractions blinding us from where true beauty lies and what life has to offer. On that level at least, as well as on a level that impressed with its open-box immersive visual extravagance, the production design matches the intent of the original. And, regardless of the fact that the Hogarth series is almost three hundred years old, its point about sinful indulgence lacking the true rewards of moral integrity still holds true, even if the times have changed.

Simon McBurney's production design is essentially then an updating of David Hockney's updating of the Hogarth prints in his designs for John Cox's celebrated Glyndebourne production, the world depicted in one of flat paintings come to life. McBurney's version of this world is a fake computer-generated equivalent, projected appropriately on a thin paper wall blank sheet. Nick Shadow is the first person to rip a whole in the wall and step into Tom Rakewell's perfect but dull world, and the fragile nature of this delusion is exposed with further rips and tears, the most damage being done with all the trivial luxury items purchased by Tom's new wife Baba poking through the walls and ceiling.

Aside from images of a stock-market crash and the towers of the City melting down, in essence there's nothing here that really puts any new spin on the dehumanising endgame of materialism, consumerism or capitalism. Rakewell's bread-making machine viewed as nothing more than a brown box hardly scales up the operation to a level where this would have any valid social commentary on the world today, and there's little in the opera anyway beyond platitutes of innocence and virtue in Trulove that suggest that there's any real-world alternative. By merely illustrating it, McBurney's production exposes the thinness of the opera's concept as much its basic morality tale, and the work needs more real engagement with its subject than this.

Musically, as sophisticated as Stravinsky's writing undoubtedly is in its own terms, never mind the cleverness of its appropriation and reworking of its neoclassical reference points, The Rake's Progress still risks coming across as little more than an early model for the West End or Broadway musical. Or worse, as an insincere West End or Broadway musical. I don't think the rather Handel oratorio-like archaic formality of expression of Auden and Kellman's dialogues helps, the libretto often giving the impression of just being clever for the sake of it without really expressing anything that has genuine feeling in it or a belief in the story it tells.

The blandness of the dialogues extends to the characters, who never come to life or show any real personality. Tom Rakewell, Anne Trulove, Nick Shadow; as their allegorical names indicate, they are all ciphers created to fit a predetermined role unenlivened by a sense of humour or irony instead of their natures arising out of their circumstances, behaviour or situations. The singing and dramatic presentation of these caricatures is well handled by Julia Bullock, Paul Appleby and Kyle Ketelsen, but inevitably superficial and mannered, lacking any human interest or purpose. Rather like the work itself, the Aix-en-Provence 2017 production of The Rake's Progress is something that it is easier to admire than truly enjoy.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert

Wednesday 6 September 2017

Mozart - Don Giovanni (Aix, 2017)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2017

Jérémie Rhorer, Jean-François Sivadier, Philippe Sly, Nahuel di Pierro, Eleonora Buratto, Pavol Breslik, Isabel Leonard, Julie Fuchs, Krzysztof Baczyk, David Leigh

Culturebox - 10th July 2017

Mozart of course is not immune from the trend to re-imagine, re-work and update the themes of classic operas, but it seems to me that he does generally tend to be spared the more extreme interpretations. There may be a good reason for that, and it's undoubtedly something to do with the fact that Mozart's enlightened timeless egalitarian ideals largely (barring a few old-fashioned expressions) still stand up pretty well and don't need to be reinterpreted for a modern audience.

The Aix-en-Provence festival - where Mozart has been a staple over the years - seem to hold to this principle in their productions, but are flexible enough to adopt an approach that meets the specific demands of the variations between the ideas in each of the works. The Marriage of Figaro in 2012, for example, updated the practice of droit de seigneur to sexual harassment in the office place, whereas La Finta Giardiniera the same year was capable of working in its simplest form, using only the natural outdoor environment of the gardens of the Théâtre du Grand Saint-Jean.

Così Fan Tutte is another example of a work where the attitudes expressed can seem a little outdated if it's not played as either a satire or an out-and-out comedy, but Christophe Honoré's 2016 production at Aix successfully demonstrated that the work is capable of dealing with the deeper and more serious issues that the subject raises. Die Zauberflöte, on the other hand, was given a stripped-down demystification of its magical properties in Simon McBurney's 2014 production, but it was the score itself, conducted by Pablo Heras Casado that revealed the benefits of reducing Mozart down to the bare elements of its purest expression.

The one Mozart opera that has been subjected to the most analysis and scrutiny over the years however is probably Don Giovanni. Even though its themes relating to men and women, class and society, love and betrayal are universal and timeless, the actions of Don Giovanni himself are fertile ground for modern psychoanalytical and philosophical exploration. Jean-François Sivadier's production for 2017 Aix-en-Provence festival however seems like an attempt to cut through the accumulation of so many reinterpretations of this complex personality and get right back to basics, and he's supported in that by Jérémie Rhorer's stripped back orchestration with Le Cercle de l'Harmonie.

At first, it looks like there is no real weight or emphasis given on the nature of Don Giovanni or judgement on the nature of his crimes. There are no excuses made for his attempted seduction of Donna Anna or the killing of the Commendatore, he's just an incorrigible womaniser who doesn't take his exploits - or women - seriously. There's only so far you can take a hands-off approach to Don Giovanni however, since there is rather more depth to the other characters - notably Donna Elvira - that needs to respond to Don Giovanni's essential nature. And then there is the more practical matter of presenting the coming to life of a statue, the descent into Hell and the moralistic conclusion of the finale. Sooner or later a director is going to have to take a position, and Sivadier does.

And, true to the intent of the stripped back approach, he takes his lead from Mozart and his music rather than apply any modern reconstructivist or revisionist interpretation. Or rather he takes his lead from Don Giovanni himself. While it might seem that Giovanni doesn't take his affairs with thousands of women seriously, he does actually really believe that he is a great egalitarian - indiscriminate in his seductions of women, young and old, slim or fat, rich or poor - and that his sharing of his love equally among them, without selecting any one of them as special, is the only fair thing to do.

That statement is rarely taken seriously - and Leporello is certainly sceptical of it - and it's seen merely an excuse for his libidinous behaviour; but what if he really believes it? The director Jean-François Sivadier seems to take him at his word, viewing Don Giovanni not objectively, but in his own eyes as a kind of saviour bringing a message of love and liberty to the masses. The word Libertà is indeed painted on the wall at the back of the stage - a wall significantly that is in the process of being broken down - a cross forming the basis to the letter T. Donna Anna even cradles Don Giovanni in a Pietà pose during the "provo ancor per lui pietà' line of her 'Mi tradi quell'alma ingrata' aria.

The bearded and long hair appearance of Philippe Sly also has something Christ-like about it, the reference becoming more apparent - since it's hardly an image one would readily associate with Don Giovanni - only when he strips down to his underpants and adopts a crucifixion pose. Likewise, when it comes to the critical matter of the conclusion of the opera, this Don Giovanni doesn't descend to Hell, but quite the opposite, he remains on the stage during the final ensemble bathed in light. Again, none of this Don Giovanni as a sacrificial saviour would make any sense other than as a projection of his own belief in his superiority, a belief in absolute freedom that enables him even to murder with impunity.

The very minimal sets designs by Alexandre de Dardel strip away anything of a traditional nature or conventional imagery in this opera that might distracts from this unique perspective. The stage is mostly bare with only a shiny curtain to allow for on- and off-stage appearances, with sheets held up now and again for the purposes of hiding. Other than coloured lights dropped down for Zerlina and Masetto's wedding celebrations and Don Giovanni's party and a large cloaked statue of the Commendatore, there is little else used in the way of props.

There's little ornamentation either in Jérémie Rhorer's conducting of the Le Cercle de l'Harmonie, and the lack of distraction allows you to focus on the qualities of Mozart's score. It's quite beautiful of course and does reveal subtle variations of mood, sentiment in the pace and the playing, expressing the inner life of the other characters without it having to be overstated on the stage or in the singing.

The singing, from a mostly young cast that nonetheless has some notable names with some measure of experience. Philippe Sly is not overbearing or sleazy or anything that might be seen as a caricature of Don Giovanni (aside from his Messiah complex!) and he's supported well by Nahuel di Pierro's fine Leporello. Eleonora Buratto continues to impress in a role as challenging as Donna Anna, and you can't fault a Mozart cast that includes such sweet voices as Pavol Breslik as Don Ottavio, Isabel Leonard as Donna Elvira and Julie Fuchs as Zerlina. With Krzysztof Baczyk and David Leigh very capable in the roles of Masetto and Il Commendatore, the singing blends perfectly with the gentle and more subtle arrangements coming from the pit.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Culturebox

Tuesday 5 September 2017

Boesmans - Pinocchio (Aix, 2017)

Philippe Boesmans - Pinocchio

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2017

Emilio Pomarico, Joël Pommerat, Stéphane Degout, Vincent Le Texier, Chloé Briot, Yann Beuron, Julie Boulianne, Marie-Eve Munger

ARTE Concert - 9th July 2017

I don't think that there's too much question that Pinocchio is a children's fairy tale and it's one that has a very effective and unforgettable way of impressing valuable life lessons on the consequences of lying. It's an unusual subject however for composer Philippe Boesmans and dramatist Joël Pommerat (who together previously created Au Monde for La Monnaie in 2014) to base an opera upon, so perhaps there are other aspects and contemporary relevance that can be brought out of the darker side of the story.

The Pinocchio tale is one familiar to many from the Walt Disney film, without the Disney addition of Jiminy Cricket. All the memorable scenes are there; from Pinocchio's conception as a puppet from a piece of magic wood, his impoverished childhood, he desire to go to school and be like other children, his being swindled by a couple of crooks, turning into a donkey, his ending up in the belly of a whale and his eventual transformation into a real boy. The cautionary tale moral of the story, about lying, about pride denying one's origins and the question of growing or changing into a better person are very much all brought across.

Even if it is just a fairy tale for children there's potential for a piece like Pinocchio with all those memorable scenes to have another life on the opera stage. Joël Pommerat, directing the production himself for its premiere at the Aix-en-Provence festival, characteristically takes a darker direct approach to the story's themes, and perhaps even incorporates a few more contemporary questions into the matter of becoming a real human by embracing cultural diversity in a wider and more multicultural society, but the work still adheres largely to its traditional themes and its childhood focus.

If it doesn't quite establish a character of its own that merits its translation to the opera stage, Boesmans' Pinocchio is certainly richly composed and fully attuned to the drama. There are inevitably reminders of the delicate emotional surrealism of Maeterlinck and Debussy in fairy tale mood and in spoken language rhythms, but they tend to take on more of a Ravel character in the context of the story. The scene where the fairy chides the naughty Pinocchio, making his nose grow for telling lies and promising to make him a real boy, is very like similar scenes in L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, with even the vocal writing heading into high-end coloratura.

Marie-Eve Munger impresses with her ability in this role of the fairy, and Chloé Briot is an engaging presence throughout as the puppet, but the singing elsewhere in this world premiere production also matches the fine writing for the voice here. Aside from Pinocchio and the fairy, who have very specific demands, the other roles are small parts for singers in multiple roles, but they are written in such a way as to make an impression. Stéphane Degout, for example, is the circus director, one of the crooks and a murderer, but his main role is that of the narrator. As mainly a spoken role, it seems a waste of such a singing voice, but Degout's narration is critical to the flow and he still manages to make it musical in the delivery.

Boesmans' music also has its own dramatic flow and colourful expression, drawing on Arabic influences for the prison scene and when the outsider Pinocchio is trying to fit in with the other cool boys, using on-stage musicians improvising in a scene that is similar to Boesmans' use of a bohemian backstreet band in Wintermärchen, his version of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Boesmans however is happy to draw on whatever sounds best fit the dramatic requirements, using accordions elsewhere to provide other 'local' colour and siren like sounds to accompany the growth of Pinocchio's nose. With Klangforum Wien in the pit conducted by Emilio Pomarico, the reduced orchestration creates a wonderful, magical sound of exquisite detail.

The benefits of working with a small orchestra also apply to Pommerat's idea of keeping the cast reduced to a small theatrical troupe playing the multiple roles. And it's very much a core troupe of performers from La Monnaie, including Stéphane Degout, Vincent Le Texier, Chloé Briot and Yann Beuron, some of whom Boesmans and Pommerat have worked with in the past. It does very much give the impression of a little troupe all working together to create a close-knit unit. Pommerat's usual distancing direction would seem to work against that, the set a familiar dark, monochrome minimalist affair, but as with the flashes of brilliance in the music and the singing, the use of special effects and projections have a striking impact when used.

Whether Boesmans' opera version of Pinocchio will have a life as a fairy-tale favourite beyond its performances at Aix-en-Provence remains to be seen. It's a fairly faithful presentation of the main themes and scenes of the children's story, and it doesn't particularly have anything new to add to it in the way of contemporary relevance, although I daresay that a different director than Joël Pommerat could bring much more out of the potential shown here. As it stands however, Pinocchio the opera is an entertaining piece with much to admire in the scoring and the skillfully played performances.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert

Monday 4 September 2017

Bizet - Carmen (Aix, 2017)

Georges Bizet - Carmen

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2017

Pablo Heras-Casado, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Stéphanie d'Oustrac, Michael Fabiano, Elsa Dreisig, Michael Todd Simpson, Gabrielle Philiponet, Christian Helmer, Pierre Doyen, Guillaume Andrieux, Mathias Vidal, Pierre Grammont

ARTE Concert - 6th July 2017

Obviously there's going to be a significant proportion of an opera audience that are going to want their Carmen with all its idealised exoticism, wild gypsies and romantic passions; those are surely the essential ingredients listed on the package. That percentage might be significantly lower and expectations rather different at a production of Carmen at the Aix-en-Provence festival, particularly one directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov. The challenge surely is to repackage the work, but not change the ingredients too much, but is that even possible for a dish like Carmen...?

There's some truth to the idea that Tchernaikov's method is a cool Russian response to wild Latin passions, but there is a sense that the director is genuinely trying to find another way to connect with the underlying essence of the work. Tcherniakov's Carmen has one of his distancing constructs built around it, which he tends to do when an opera's plot is too ludicrous to take seriously in this day and age. Similar to his Il Trovatore for La Monnaie - another over-heated drama - it encloses the work within a kind of dramatic version of inverted commas, where the story is played out by a group of actors in a role-playing exercise.  

The introduction shows a husband and wife whose marriage has lost its sparkle, who have gone to an unusual form of counselling that involves role-playing. The administrator has examined the questionnaire and profiles and has determined that the opera Carmen is the best fit for therapy. The husband will be Don José, his wife later participating as Micaëla in an effort to eventually draw her husband and his Carmen experiences back into the real world. Tchernaikov then ditches the conventional spoken dialogue pieces of Carmen and replaces them with various interventions from the administrative staff and actors who read out the stage directions in preparation for the next scene.

The Carmen role-play all takes place within an office-like environment with everyone donning name badges of the characters they will play. There's certainly nothing of the more familiar Sevillian imagery of seductive gypsy women and macho bullfighters, the Carmen of this production an actress who acts self-assured but who in reality is a little self-conscious, struggling awkwardly with the rose in her hair and a little embarrassed at the kind of role she has to play. Her aim however is not to seduce Don José in the traditional manner as much as encourage him to participate, to inject a little imagination and find a way to let some passion back into his life.

Such a construct proves to be a little infuriating in places, with a lot of silly fooling around that risks over-complicating and distorting the intent of the original work. Arguably, the romanticism of Carmen is already implicit in the idealised exoticism of its imagery and rhythms and in the artificial construct of the opera drama. Surely no-one thinks that Carmen is a work of social realism and everyone is aware of opera as heightened drama and passions? On the other hand, stepping back a little further does provide a way of looking at the themes and the passions of the work in a more (post-)modern context.

Whether it needs this kind of reconstruction and updating is debatable then, but there is a case to be made that Dmitri Tcherniakov is just turning the focus of the opera back onto the dramatic content of Bizet's musical arrangements to see if it still stands up and achieves its aims when removed from all the lazy mannerisms that have become attached to the work. It could be argued that by cutting most of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy's dialogues and plotting, liberating it from the opera-comiqué conventions that would have been similarly restrictive to the composer, Tcherniakov is even reducing the work down to its purest essence.

Even if you have to indulge Tcherniakov's twisting of the plot, it does turn the focus back to the power of the music to tell its own story and to touch on the underlying reality. Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado works with Tcherniakov on this with arrangements that might not always be "authentic" to the intentions of the original, but which through their ringing rhythms and popular melodies nonetheless touch on the passions at the heart of the work. Like this production's "Don José", the music similarly has to find its own inner truth and connect with it afresh to put some real excitement back in there, rather than just relying on lazy mannerisms and faked emotions.

It's important to find your way into Carmen, but you can't run into it blindly, Tcherniakov's production seems to say, and it's important to find your way out again refreshed by the experience and not ready to murder someone. I think. With this director, you never know quite where that will lead, whether to take it entirely seriously or even if it all will make sense. This is after all a director who completely reversed the ending to Dialogues des Carmélites (a controversial move that led to a legal challenge and the DVD of the Paris production being removed from sale), so there is always the potential for it to be as if you were seeing a work for the first time. And if you can do that with Carmen, that's really something.

If Carmen felt fresh and held one's attention once again at the 2017 Aix-en-Provence festival, a lot of it was also to do with the casting. The singing might have been slightly compromised by the need to act in and out of character, but only slightly. Interpretation counted for more in this production and Stéphanie d'Oustrac's Carmen and Michael Fabiano as Don José were never anything less than committed and passionate in their performances, delving deep into the complex personalities that Tcherniakov has created for them here. Elsa Dreisig's Micaëla was also excellent and made a great impression.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert