Friday 24 November 2017

Fagerlund - Autumn Sonata (Helsinki, 2017)

Sebastian Fagerlund - Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata)

Finnish National Opera and Ballet, Helsinki - 2017

John Storgårds, Stéphane Braunschweig, Anne Sofie von Otter, Erika Sunnegårdh, Tommi Hakala, Helena Juntunen, Nicholas Söderlund

Opera Platform - 23 September 2017

Ingmar Bergman's films manage to strike such a fine balance between realism and heightened drama that it's hard to imagine that they would gain anything from being adapted into an opera. Bergman however was always a director keen to experiment in film expression and indeed even a creative opera director himself, his filmed version of The Magic Flute in particular showing that perfect balance between dealing with the practicalities of the dramatic stage and sparking the imagination.

Adapting Bergman to the stage is particularly challenging in the case of working with one of Bergman's intense late works of family drama and personal crisis from the late seventies onwards. Autumn Sonata, like Scenes from a Marriage, Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander and Saraband, are all characterised not only by fraught situations of lives in pain with brutal exchanges that cut to the bone, but there is also often a less tangible element in them dealing with death and ghosts, or ghosts of the past.

Both elements weigh heavily on Autumn Sonata, and Sebastian Fagerlund addresses them immediately from the start of his new opera Höstsonaten, setting the dramatic and musical tone for what is to follow. There's an anguished exchange between Eva and her husband Viktor while they are expecting the arrival of Eva's mother who is visiting them. She hasn't seen her mother in seven years, Charlotte having largely neglected her family for the demands of her career as a famous international concert pianist.

There are issues on both sides that suggest that tensions are likely to arise. In the seven years of her absence, Charlotte has not only missed the birth of Eva and Viktor's son Erik, but she didn't even return when the boy died, drowned a day before his 4th birthday. Charlotte herself has recently lost her husband Leonardo, also a musician, who has died a slow, agonising death. To add to the tensions Eva has been looking after her mentally disabled sister Helena, and Charlotte is still reluctant about dealing first-hand with her child, and would have preferred to have her out of the way in a nursing home where she had been committed.

Those however are only the most recent and present issues that are likely to be the source of tension between mother and daughter; the latent animosity between them goes back further and deeper than that. Eva has a lifetime of hurt, pain, disappointment, lack of affection and validation left unspoken that she holds against her mother. It's been building up in her and it's time she had her say. She doesn't hold back, airing all her grievances, reproaches and recriminations in wild outbursts like "I love you" and "You hate me".

Some might expect a little more from an opera than self-absorbed people involved in a full-blown domestic dispute, and there's no doubt it's all more than a little overstated, but that's the point. Bergman's attempt to lay bare the stark reality of mother/daughter relationships is incisive and beautifully crafted, and essentially, the parent/daughter melodrama is no lesser a theme and treatment of the subject than many of Verdi's operas (Simon Boccanegra or Rigoletto). Still, the challenge remains for Sebastian Fagerlund to justify Autumn Sonata's translation from cinema screen to opera stage, and he does that well.

As the title indicates, there is an implicit musical dimension to Autumn Sonata that connects creativity to artistic inspiration. "Where do you draw it from? The brilliance, the pain" the chorus ask, Charlotte's public always with her and in the back of her mind. The question is not just where the artist draws their inspiration from but the hard price they often have to pay for it in the failure of their personal lives is also realistically considered here. Charlotte's career has left her in severe physical pain, and her taking of sleeping pills and painkillers compound her failure to be a good and understanding mother. Above all however, her public comes first.

Fagerlund interweaves all these elements well, pitching the music towards the emotional tenor of the work without letting it add to the high melodrama that is being expressed on all sides. The scoring for the voices is particularly good in this respect, permitting arias of reflection, duet duels and competitive trios of overlapping sentiments spilling over one another as they vie for attention. Fagerlund even permits the rarely lucid Helena her moment of vocal expression. With a chorus always ready to well up also in the background, temperatures are raised in intensity as Charlotte's visit descends into increasingly violent verbal blows.

The other critical factors contributing to Autumn Sonata working as an opera are of course the singing performances and the staging. All the roles are well sung and all the different voices here play a significant part in the work as a whole, but the principal roles are very much tied into the mother/daughter relationship of Eva and Charlotte. Erika Sunnegårdh is compelling and credible in her expression of Eva, and Anne Sofie von Otter shows none of the weakening that has been detected in other traditional roles, but is actually in superb voice in her creation of the role of Charlotte. The only fragility she shows here is her character's inability to continue to deny the damage she has done to her family.

With expression of personality and interaction of characters of primary importance, it's all very well directed by Stéphane Braunschweig, who also designs a set that helps express the multiplicity of views and sentiments. The stage is broken down into rooms and compartments, with backgrounds that open and close in response to the various levels that the libretto and characterisation operate on, showing parallel scenes, flashbacks, ghosts and even expressions of inner-life in the case of Helena. Without question, Bergman proves to be well suited to opera, and Fagerlund serves Autumn Sonata well.

Links: Opera Platform

Monday 20 November 2017

Mozart - Così Fan Tutte (Belfast, 2017)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Così Fan Tutte

NI Opera, Belfast - 2017

Nicholas Chalmers, Adele Thomas, Kiandra Howarth, Heather Lowe, Samuel Dale Johnson, Sam Furness, Aoife Miskelly, John Molloy

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 17 November 2017

Opera in Ireland is going through a period of change at the moment with a new national opera company being formed in the south of the country and a new director taking over the running of opera in the north. Considering how successful Northern Ireland Opera has been over the last few years, there would undoubtedly be some interest to see how Walter Sutcliffe would follow, taking over from Oliver Mears. I don't think there would have been any concerns about a high standard being maintained, but it remained to be seen whether there would be any change in repertoire and style. I'd say that things have got off to a very good start with Così Fan Tutte.

It's been a while since I've seen anyone approach Così Fan Tutte as a pure comedy. With Mozart's third collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte is often regarded as being a lesser work than The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, perhaps because it is a little more overtly frivolous. In order to give it the true stature that many think it undoubtedly deserves and address the genuine social commentary that is hidden behind the gender comedy, directors like Michael Haneke and Christophe Honoré have tended to work extra hard to try and give the opera a little more of contemporary edginess that is worth exploring, but perhaps doesn't really match the true spirit of the work.

It was refreshing then to see that this first new production with Walter Sutcliffe in charge of NI Opera didn't set out to make a statement, or if there is a statement to this Così Fan Tutte it's that the intention is to be true to the spirit of the works rather than impose any kind of inappropriate modern revisionism upon them. That doesn't mean either that there can't be a refreshing and original approach taken to the work, and one interesting development is that this Così Fan Tutte opera is directed by Adele Thomas, who - judging from her biography in the programme - is a theatre director with no previous experience of opera.

Whatever her background, there's no question that Thomas's setting of Così Fan Tutte in the era of the Hollywood silent movies of the 1920s is completely in the spirit of the work. Or it is for the first half of the opera anyway; the second half perhaps needed a little more. For the first half of this production however there was a permanent grin on my face all the way through to the interval. Conducted by Nicholas Chalmers with attention to mood and played with spirit and a lightness of touch by the Ulster Orchestra, this was joyous, glorious Mozart at his most playful, buoyant and brilliant.

Trying to give some credibility to the rather innocent couples of Così Fan Tutte can be difficult, unless one does indeed set it in a more innocent age. The 1920s is not such an innocent age as an idealised one, where the excess and indulgence of an America that hadn't fully experienced the horrors of the Great War in Europe and had yet to suffer the impact of the Wall Street Crash at the end of the decade. For many, particularly in Hollywood, this life was an endless party and not to be taken too seriously. And it's delightfully depicted that way in this production, with a few bottles of champagne always ready to hand and a conga line of revellers with balloons and streamers weaving through the proceedings at regular intervals.

For the first half of the opera at least, this captures the spirit that Mozart weaves through Così Fan Tutte perfectly, and you could even say that it anticipates the darker side of the opera in the second half when the party inevitably comes to an end and the characters have to pick up the pieces. Heedless of the consequences, they belatedly discover that there is a price to be paid when the fun comes to an end, and that life can also involve deception, betrayal and disappointment. In Hollywood, the reality would also hit home with scandals, affairs and alcoholism destroying the promising careers of many of the silent film actors - the lifestyle ending more careers than the advent of talkies.

Adele Thomas tries to bring out this aspect in the direction of the characters and Nicholas Chalmers certainly finds the rich sophistication of how Mozart depicts those contradictory sentiments, but the necessary tone isn't quite as well established in the second half of the production. I think the limitations of Hannah Clark's set designs don't extend as well into the second half. Wonderfully colourful and vibrant, with curtains revealing stages within stages to match the play acting of the comic drama, a little more could have been done perhaps with flickering projections or silent-movie imagery to differentiate or vary the tone in the latter part of the show.

Thomas however clearly worked hard with the singers to bring real personality to each of the characters, and it's a measure of the individual performances that each one of them made a good impression. The most confident performances were from the most experienced members of the cast; John Molloy and Aoife Miskelly. Molloy was an outstanding Don Alfonso, neither calculating nor manipulative, but one rather who wanted to enlighten the younger innocents with his experience of life. The role was comfortably within Molloy's range and he sang it unimposingly but with characteristic aplomb and with deference to character and situation. His double-act with Aoife Miskelly's similarly unshowy, comically nuanced and delicately expressive Despina was a joy to watch.

As you would expect, there was a playful innocence to Flordiligi, Dorabella, Guglielmo and Ferrando that was well brought out in the production, and the casting of young lyrical singers is key to making that convincing. There was nothing sinister suggested in the male roles, which are played with the same kind of youthful fervour as the female roles. If there was perhaps a tendency to overact by Samuel Dale Johnson and (more so) by Sam Furness in the male roles, that could however be seen in keeping with the silent movie acting style. The girls were really deserving of the production's focus however, Kiandra Howarth impressing as Fiordiligi and Heather Lowe bringing that extra little characterisation to Dorabella with little interpolations, gasps and sighs fitted into the singing expression.

And it was in Italian! That might not be the most significant change of direction in the new NI Opera, and I'm sure other works (such as the forthcoming Threepenny Opera) will suit the previous English language singing only policy, but it's a good to have a more flexible approach and Mozart's well-known operas always work better in the original language. It also meant that the occasional 20s-era touches to the surtitles, which might have been inaudible in singing performance, took some of the sting out of Da Ponte's libretto and got plenty of laughs. The lyrical Italian singing and rapid-fire recitative (to a suitably silent-movie like fortepiano) certainly posed no problems for the cast. Or the chorus, who were in wonderful voice and an energetic presence. Hugely entertaining, this was a very promising start to a new NI Opera season.

Links: NI Opera

Thursday 16 November 2017

Berg - Wozzeck (Salzburg, 2017)

Alban Berg - Wozzeck

Salzburg Festival, 2017

Vladimir Jurowski, William Kentridge, Matthias Goerne, John Daszak, Mauro Peter, Gerhard Siegel, Jens Larsen, Tobias Schabel, Huw Montague Rendall, Heinz Göhrig, Asmik Grigorian, Frances Pappas - 27 August 2017

Like Alban Berg's only other stage work Lulu, Wozzeck is an opera where the music and the drama are intricately connected. Quite how Berg manages to achieve this synthesis in both pieces is complex and would take years to analyse, but there's not really any need for it to be interpreted; the power of these two remarkable works and how they are expressed speaks for itself. It's not really for a director to interpret Lulu or Wozzeck, as you think an artist like William Kentridge might do, as much as provide mood and context. Kentridge, as with his production of Lulu, does this well in this Salzburg Festival production, staging a Wozzeck that firmly has his own individual stamp (what Kentridge staging doesn't?) while not letting that vision get in the way of the work itself.

Georg Büchner's Woyzeck is a study of a man's - or man's - physical and mental limitations. In the 24 quite harsh and gruelling fragments of the unfinished drama, a body and a mind are tested as far as they can be pushed before their owner goes over the edge. Is there just one thing that proves to be too much for Franz Woyzeck, or is it an accumulation of miseries and torments of a wretched existence? Woyzeck is perhaps not so much a bleak account of how miserable life can be as how much strength is required to deal with the daily vicissitudes of life and how delicate and fragile a balance the human psyche rests on.

There is no strict order to the fragments of Büchner's Woyzeck, which is a factor that tends to work in its favour, preventing it from being a simple matter of cause and effect leading to madness and murder. Whatever way you look at it though, in the case of both Büchner and Berg it's apparent from that Franz Wozzeck is cracking. A common soldier, he is brutalised by the captain in his unit, he is experimented on by the doctor, he takes on odd jobs and consequently has little time or thought for his unmarried partner Marie and their child. The dissatisfied Marie's lewd affair with a handsome drum major is just one other factor that beats him down physically as well as mentally.

But Wozzeck also has another element that is less easily identified or rationalised; Franz is affected by hallucinations. Is this just a reaction of his body reacting to the pressures it is undergoing, an indication that his mind is breaking, or a sign of his ability or desire to see something greater beyond the material world? Franz certainly longs for meaning in order, for life to adhere to a structure that makes sense, but instead he finds nature cruel and capricious. Everyone is either looking for power, fame, recognition or satisfaction of their own private desires. To the doctor for example hoping that his experiments on Franz will make him famous, Wozzeck is "a mere human being" not worth losing sleep over, "The death of a salamander would be far more serious".

The world that Wozzeck inhabits is one where horizons are being closed down, where hopes are being dashed, where darkness is gathering. William Kentridge's production at Salzburg is one then that compartmentalises each of the scenes down into little vignettes, brief little areas of illumination in the dark apocalyptic world of the mind. The doctor's cabinet is like a small toilet space, other scenes open up and close, connected by rickety platforms, where only a watery death at the bottom awaits. The set of Wozzeck's mind is filled of course with projections of Kentridge's animated thick-line black ink sketches, depicting life, war, with grotesque figures wearing distorted face masks. War imagery features prominently, suggesting that Wozzeck's disintegrating mind might be caused by PTSD or, in a wider context, that it is the world that has been distorted beyond recognition by the horrors of war.

Kentridge's concepts and drawings are brought to life by the set designs of Sabine Theunissen and co-directed by Luc De Wit, and they do manage to connect everything and bring a continuity here that's not there in Büchner's scenes. But it feels illustrative and doesn't come anywhere close to expressing the madness or despair that is at the heart of Wozzeck, nor the sense of an order of madness that Berg's music constructions suggest. The tavern scene, for example, should be a scene where in Wozzeck's perspective the whole world "writhes and rolls in fornication", but there's little sense of this, nor in the direction of Wozzeck himself do we really get a sense of him buckling under the pressures of his tormentors and his own delusions.

Kentridge might not get to the heart of Wozzeck then - and maybe that's a place we don't really want to delve into too deeply - but as a performance and a spectacle illustrative of a work of infinite richness, there's still a great deal to admire and provoke thoughts in the 2017 Salzburg Wozzeck. There's much to find of interest in the musical performance of the Vienna Philharmonic directed by Vladimir Jurowski (much too much to take in on a single listening), and the singing performances are all good, although I found little in them that was really satisfying in terms of characterisation and continuity. It's more important for Franz and Marie that the other cast of grotesques, and in that respect Matthias Goerne could certainly have done with a little more direction, and Asmik Grigorian just didn't the lusty verve or the earthy complexity of Marie's emotional openness.

In a work as complex and delicately balanced as Wozzeck, it's important to establish a connection between the music and the drama, and Kentridge sets the mood, illustrates it well and allows Berg's musical score to fill in the areas where it is best placed to probe the deeper questions raised in the work. But Berg's opera still needs more than that. There's a human element that is admittedly submerged in some very dark and abstract ideas, but - like Lulu as well - it is essential that the singers don't just perform it, but are able to bring something human and personal that allows the audience to relate to and find a context for the difficult experiences that Franz and Marie undergo. The Salzburg production has much to admire, but it doesn't have the essential human involvement.

Links: Salzburger Festspiele,

Saturday 11 November 2017

Alfano - Risurrezione (Wexford, 2017)

Franco Alfano - Risurrezione

Wexford Festival Opera, 2017

Francesco Cilluffo, Rosetta Cucchi, Gerard Schneider, Anne Sophie Duprels, Charles Rice, Romina Tomasoni, Louise Innes

National Opera House, Wexford - 2 November 2017

Late in his life, Leo Tolstoy embraced a radical form of Christianity and would look back with disgust at the indulgence and sin of his former aristocratic upbringing. Adopting a more ascetic lifestyle he would also come to repudiate his greatest works, including War and Peace and Anna Karenina, believing that art and literature had no purpose unless it was instructive. Some of his descriptions of his former life of dissolution can be found in the early semi-autobiographical work Childhood, Boyhood and Youth, and a more reflective and penitent side of his rebirth can be found in later works like The Kingdom of God is Within You, The Forged Coupon and Resurrection.

The idea of penitence and rebirth is evidently very much to the fore in Resurrection. It might seem primarily like an exercise in guilt, but Resurrection is not so much about wallowing in self-pity and self-abasement as much as reflecting on how one's actions affect others, and whether any real good can be brought about by repentance and a change of heart. Tolstoy reportedly wasn't impressed by the indulgence of Resurrection being adapted into an opera that caters to a well-off audience, but you can also see why Franco Alfano's Risurrezione didn't set the world alight and even now remains a neglected piece. It is a gloomy affair for the most part and Alfano's treatment of the work is as serious as it gets, but it is also beautiful and ultimately uplifting.

The opera is structured neatly into four parts that, since the story is instructive and not bogged down with distracting sidelines, are easily summarised. Prince Dmitri reflects Count Tolstoy's early life of indulgence of the aristocratic lifestyle, without a thought or care for the needs and feelings of others. In Act I he seduces the maid Katiusha on a fleeting visit to the family mansion and then disappears again, forgetting about her.  In Act II we discover that Katiusha is pregnant from this encounter and as a consequence she has been thrown out of the house and her life has fallen into ruin. She abandons an attempt to tell Dmitri about the situation when she discovers him with a prostitute.

Dmitri belatedly discovers Katiusha's fate, which has ended up with her becoming a prostitute and falsely imprisoned, and he tries to make up for what has happened in Act III, visiting the fallen woman in prison. He pleads that he knew nothing of what had happened, that he is still in love with her and that he can help get her released from the harsh prison environment so that they can marry, but Katiusha remains impervious to his entreaties and doesn't believe that he can really change his ways.

Alfano sets Risurrezione very much in the Italian verismo style of the day, which proves to be quite appropriate, at least for these first three acts. It's actually not unlike La Bohème, the meeting of Dmitri and Katiusha in Act I similar to that of Rodolfo and Mimi; on shaky ground from the start, the brief spark between them soon extinguished by the cruel reality of their circumstances. In Risurrezione, Act II and III also relate closely to the situation in Act III of La Bohème, where attempts to rekindle the spark seem even more unlikely; the couple despairing of the impossibility of their union. Surely death is also on the horizon in Risurrezione?

Well yes and no, and that's the point of Tolstoy's work. Hard lessons have to be learned, there needs to be an acceptance of one's true self and true repentance and reparation. Dmitri tries to show this, but it is worthless without Katiusha's acceptance and forgiveness, which can also only come with an acceptance of her own true self. This is visually represented in Rosetta Cucchi's impressive Wexford production by a young girl seen briefly throughout, but to be fair it's hinted at in Alfano's score, which is not as relentlessly downbeat as it sounds, but alive to dynamic and emotional tone.

The focus is very much on Dmitri and Katiusha for most of Act I, much of Act II, the latter part of Act III and all of Act IV.  Considering the challenging nature of their characters' predicaments, that places a lot of pressure on Gerard Schneider and Anne Sophie Duprels, but both take their parts exceptionally well, remaining strong and consistently lyrical throughout. Alfano does however break the story down into memorable scenes with a greater variety of dramatic situation than might be expected, even if variation of the overall despairing tenor of the work up to the final scene is negligible.

That makes Risurrezione quite a challenging work also for a conductor trying to harness Alfano's verismo score towards the true character of Tolstoy's original work. Francesco Cilluffo however drew a magnificent performance out of the Wexford Festival orchestra that was entirely sympathetic to the sensibility of the work and the composer's treatment, holding to a consistent through-line while finding the right adjustments of volume and tempo to allow the score to hit all of its dramatic points. The Italianate orchestration might seem at odds with the spiritual Russian side of the work, but Cilluffo uses the verismo aspects of the score as another way of trying to find "truth", albeit in a very different way from Tolstoy.

The conclusion then in Act IV is worth waiting for, even though the treatment up to that point never drags or begs indulgence but is rather just earnest and purposeful. For the climactic moment of enlightenment Alfano has to abandon his verismo principles for a heavenly choir as an inner revelation dawns (literally) on both Dmitri and Katiusha and takes them to a spiritual awakening. It really does strike the perfect note of transcendental attainment that the work should be aiming to reach. The traditional operatic death that might be expected at the conclusion then is replaced by a metaphorical death, a letting go of the past and to ways that have held both Dmitri and Katiusha back from being open to their better nature, allowing them to be reborn, resurrected.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera

Friday 10 November 2017

Foroni - Margherita (Wexford, 2017)

Jacopo Foroni - Margherita

Wexford Festival Opera, 2017

Timothy Myers, Michael Sturm, Yuriy Yurchuk, Matteo d'Apolito, Alessandra Volpe, Andrew Stenson, Giuliana Gianfaldoni, Filippo Fontana, Ji Hyun Kim

National Opera House, Wexford - 1 November 2017

The opera semiseria is a deeply unfashionable form of opera, but if anyone can give an unknown and unfashionable opera like Jacopo Foroni's Margherita an airing and bit of polish it's the patron saint of lost operas, the Wexford Festival Opera. The rediscovery of the rare and wonderful has more or less been their mission over the 66 years the festival has been running in Ireland, to such an extent that they are even experts on Jacopo Foroni, having staged the similarly obscure Cristina, Regina di Svezia back in 2013.

And Margherita similarly seems to be well worth the effort. It's a beautifully constructed piece and wonderfully entertaining - but it definitely needs all the skills of a sympathetic conductor and orchestra, a fine chorus and singers who are capable of making something more of this type of opera and bring it to life. Wexford's lavish production gifts Foroni's opera with all that, but Margherita also gets the additional sparkle that it really needs from a suitable direction that knows exactly what to do with it.

I can't say I've been convinced by other examples of opera semiseria that I've seen by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti or Halévy. The comedy tends to sit rather uneasily with the melodrama for a modern audience who have a different concept of opera, and the plots - usually involving a young maiden in a Swiss village whose virtue is unjustly impugned - are often banal and ludicrous. Bellini barely gets away with it in La Sonnambula, and Donizetti's Linda di Chaumonix has its merits, but a firm directorial hand can help in these cases and Michael Sturm's direction of Margherita for Wexford gets the tone exactly right.

The life-or-death romantic plot of Margherita, unsurprisingly, doesn't really add up if you look too closely at it. Margherita's dream of marrying Ernesto is put into jeopardy soon after he returns from the war, when he is accused of having killed a man. The supposed victim was seen by Giustina arguing with two men in the woods, but his identity is unknown and there's no body. Despite this the Mayor, Ser Matteo with the backing of the community see fit to have Ernesto locked up and face a death sentence on the basis that his hat was found in the vicinity of the scuffle.

It suits the Mayor of course, partly because he is too lazy to look into the matter, but also because his nephew Roberto has intentions to marry Margherita himself and inherit a fortune that will pay off his debts. Margherita agrees to sign an agreement to marry Roberto, who promises that he will use his influence to have Ernesto released from prison. What a dilemma for the young woman. One can only hope that the 'victim', Count Rodolfo, turns up on time to explain what has happened and prevent this terrible injustice for occurring.  Which, evidently, is exactly what happens...

If the plot doesn't give you much to engage with, the quality of the singing is excellent. Foroni and librettist Giorgio Giachetti ensure that everyone is generously given their moment in the spotlight and they all take it well, with Alessandra Volpe as Margherita and Giuliana Gianfaldoni as Giustina particularly entering very much into the spirit of the piece. Andrew Stenson's Ernesto lives up to his name and is a little more earnest - but that seems to be his nature and the male roles are rather less well-defined than the female roles here. The other male roles tend to rely on comic timing and interplay, and that is handled well by Matteo d'Apolito and Filippo Fontana as Matteo and Roberto.

As thin and ludicrous as the plot is in Margherita, you somehow feel inclined to go along with it. That's principally down to Foroni I think, who sweeps you along persuasively with the most gorgeous, melodic, effervescent music, keeping the dramatic developments progressing well (even if not convincingly), without too many of the tedious side developments (weddings, dances) that usually litter the opera semiseria. Even the new mayor's opening ode to laziness is relevant to his character and nature. It's also a clever strategy on the part of the director Michael Sturm that he doesn't feel the need to present this in any kind of naturalistic fashion.

That doesn't necessarily mean that you have to go cartoonish (as was the case with the Zurich production of Jacques Fromental Halévy's Clari), but rather the director Michael Sturm and set and costume designer Stefan Rieckhoff play to the nature of the work itself. Or even play up to its absurdities, so that Ernesto, for example, isn't just thrown into prison but rather more dramatically led up a hangman's scaffold to ramp up the drama to the scale of the sentiments. At the same time it's essential to keep up a flow and momentum going so that the audience don't have to think too hard about what is going on and start questioning the dubious aspects of the plot.

It's not so much to cover-up deficiencies, and direction shouldn't be about trying to make Margherita more credible; what is important is capturing the spirit of the work, and that's done here very cleverly here. The background remains a war-torn village street scene where the idea of a community is established in lively choral scenes. The other scenes are superimposed and layered on top of that, whether it's the interior of Margherita's bedroom, a prison or a scaffold, with sparing use of projections and a tree or a moon lowered into place when required. It gives the work cohesion and flows beautifully in this way, carrying the audience along on its buoyant rhythms and melodies.

Thursday 9 November 2017

Synnott - Dubliners (Wexford, 2017)

Andrew Synnott - Dubliners

Opera Theatre Company, Wexford Opera Festival, 2017

Andrew Synnott, Annabelle Comyn, Emma Nash, Anna Jeffers, Andrew Gavin, David Howes, Peter O' Donohue, Cormac Lawlor

Clayton White's Hotel, Wexford - 1 November 2017

The two short stories that Andrew Synnott chooses from James Joyce's Dubliners don't strike you as being the sort of thing that operas are made of, but then again I'm sure that it would have been hard to imagine The Dead from the same short story collection being adapted into a feature film. Composer Andrew Synnott and librettist Arthur Riordan however succeed with Counterparts and The Boarding House in exactly the same way that John Huston did with The Dead; they give due attention to the fact that the forces that exist in and around the characters are far more important than the narrative itself.

These are more than just stories to be told, and they are more than just depictions of Dublin life at a certain, albeit significant time in Ireland's history at the beginning of the 20th century. There are all kinds of social and political undercurrents running around in 1914, with the Great War just around the corner and with the Republican Easter Rising not far away, but the idea of identity and change, of the times mirroring a significant moment in individuals' lives can also be found in Dubliners.

In Counterparts and The Boarding House (and indeed The Dead), events come to a point where there is no return to the past. The characters find themselves obliged to reassess their lives and try to assert some kind of authority over their own destiny, only to find that there are external forces that are beyond their ability to control or influence. The stories that make up Synnott's two short Dubliners operas are not connected and the tone and the revelations reached in each is markedly different, but Synnott's brilliantly brings out the respective commonalities, differences and qualities that lie at the heart of both works.

There's an almost impressionistic flow to both pieces, but in Counterparts it's one that is determined by the alcoholic haze and rush of emotions that course through the day of a Dublin office clerk. Farrington has already nipped out for a few quick ones during his breaks and all he can think about is getting back out to the warm happy glow of being in a pub with his friends. There are however all kinds of competing forces at work that prevent Farrington from mastering his situation, and not just in the workplace where his boss is putting pressure on him to urgently to copy documents for a contract.

Alcohol is a force, desire is a force, conceit is a force, masculinity is a force and all of them give Farrington a misplaced sense of self-worth. His bragging to his friends of his witty put-down of his boss when he asks him if he takes him for a fool ("I don't think that's a fair question to put to me") only carries so much weight, and as his money runs out, the alcohol buzz wears off and Farrington receives a few injuries to his pride, so too does his sense of humour. None of his efforts have brought him any satisfaction, and when he returns home he exerts his dwindling sense of control and authority by beating one of his children.

It's hardly the stuff of opera, but Synnott on piano with a string quartet, gives this narrative a wonderful coherence and a feeling for mood, but it only really holds together when it is played alongside and contrasted with The Boarding House. It's a story that seems even less likely to work on the stage, but Synnott's response to that is to just be even more creative with rhythms, with the overlaying of vocal lines and with a construction that wonderfully leap-frogs from one character focus to the next.

It even starts with a narrator, Jack Mooney, who lets it be known that the moment of truth is dawning for one of the guests at his mother's boarding house. Bob Doran has been carrying on with Polly who works there, and it appears that her mother Mrs Mooney has permitted the liberty to be taken or at least turned a blind eye to it; but in reality she has just been biding her time. Doran's fate is sealed before the opera even starts, but he just hasn't realised it yet. He thinks he still has a say in the outcome, but when the summons comes from Mrs Mooney, his bachelor days are effectively numbered.

The forces he has to contend with are brute force (Jack Mooney), the bonds of family, the ideas of right and wrong that are ingrained in this society by religion, and with it the irrefutable certainty that one has to pay for one's sins. The personal wishes of the individual are rendered insignificant in the face of such huge social and cultural forces, and the inevitability with which they pile up on Bob Doran, as well as the inherent humour that lies in the situation, are brilliantly brought out in this wonderfully constructed opera version of the story.

The flow of words and impressions, the flow from one character's perspective to another is brilliantly brought out in the flow of the musical score that Andrew Synnott leads from piano, but this is more than just musical accompaniment and more than an exercise in craft. Between the music, the words and the staging, the operas bring out the deeper essence and universality of these timeless stories. The gorgeous set designs by Paul O'Mahony who also worked on the OTC's gorgeous Acis and Galatea (there's a man who knows his pubs!) and Joan O'Clery's costumes retain something of the period, but Annabelle Comyn's direction ensures that the situations, experiences and the nature of the characters remains recognisable and relevant, and not just to early twentieth century "Dubliners".

The complementary nature of Counterparts and The Boarding House can also be found in the lyrical treatment and Synnott and Riordan have created wonderfully lyrical and poetic vocal lines with rhyming couplets for both pieces. Using the same cast members for the two short operas allows further connections to be drawn; not so much in characters as in their predicaments and expression of them. Cormac Lawlor however only has a singing role in Counterparts as Farrington, but it's one that evidently carries the whole tone of the piece and his timing and delivery of each of the varied moods the alcoholic clerk goes through is superb. The Boarding House has a larger number of leads from Emma Nash's Polly, Anna Jeffers's Mrs Mooney, Andrew Gavin's Bob Doran and David Howes's Jack, who all impress on an individual level, as well as giving wonderfully complementary performances.

Premiered at the 2017 Wexford Festival Opera, Opera Theatre Company's production of Andrew Synnott's Dubliners has a further three performances at the Samuel Beckett Theatre in Dublin from the 9 - 11th November 2017, but I would hope and expect that this lyrical, thoughtful and entertaining work will have a longer life beyond its initial run.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera, Opera Theatre Company

Wednesday 8 November 2017

Cherubini - Medea (Wexford, 2017)

Luigi Cherubini - Medea

Wexford Festival Opera, 2017

Stephen Barlow, Fiona Shaw, Lise Davidsen, Ruth Iniesta, Raffaella Lupinacci, Sergey Romanovsky, Adam Lau

National Opera House, Wexford - 31 October 2017

There's one essential element that you need for a performance of Cherubini's Medea and it's a fairly obvious one. No, it's not Maria Callas, but you're on the right track; it needs a character with the fire and personality that Maria Callas was capable of bringing to one of the most challenging roles in opera - or theatre, for that matter. There aren't too many Maria Callases around obviously, which might be one of the reasons why Cherubini's opera isn't performed more often these days, but there's no question that the Wexford Festival have found a great Medea in Lise Davidsen.

Finding a singer capable of harnessing the forces and challenges of this particular role is not however the only element that is essential to putting on a successful Medea, and there are other reasons why the opera is not performed very often. There are questions over which version to go with (French or Italian? The opéra-comique version with passages of spoken dialogue or the musical interpolations for the recitative provided by Franz Lachner for a German version of the work?). There's also the nature of the Classical opera and its fashionability, and Cherubini has never really been fashionable, not even in his own time.

All of those issues are well-addressed by Stephen Barlow, who conducts a magnificent account of the Italian version with Lachner recitatives at Wexford, and it truly reveals the merits of the work. There's no overblown Romanticism, but rather the restrained and measured elegance of the Classical tradition is adhered to; a sense of order in the music however that feels constantly threatened by the actions of its principal character. The music carries within it a hint of that menace, tying it to the dominant nature of the role that Medea exerts on the piece, her efforts to maintain control over her actions and her life always seeming to be in danger of giving in to her darker nature and spilling over into horrible violence.

Finding a way to meaningfully draw out that aspect of the work also seems to inform Fiona Shaw's approach to the direction. She takes into consideration that Cherubini composed the opera in 1797, with the horrors and dark violence of the French revolution would undoubtedly found its way into the composition. Certainly there are parallels to be drawn towards violence being inflicted on an unsuspecting royal family, but as an actress who has played this role on the stage, Shaw looks beyond that and tries to examine where exactly such murderous thoughts and intent might have derived from. She finds that in the references in Medea's murder of her own brother to help Jason steal the Golden Fleece and that idea is woven into the production. Violence begets violence, as the Greek classics often warn us, and it's hard to argue with how this element in presented here.

The overture hints at the sins of the mother being visited upon the children of the next generation. The Wexford production opens with the children of Medea playing as they make the sea crossing to Corinth, but the storms left behind on Colchis are still present with them in the figure of Medea's brother who has a silent physical presence here. It's this more than any classical references that are important, and the nature of this corruption of the soul should still have relevance today. It doesn't necessarily have to be spelled out in terms of contemporary political topicality, but there is certainly room for that if the audience want to apply it to the world around them.

Shaw's production at least makes a more open interpretation possible by placing the action of the drama in a more contemporary setting. Act I sees Glaucis and her ladies working out at the gym, getting into shape for her forthcoming wedding to Jason. The arrival of Medea then is in marked contrast to this scene, bringing an unwelcome dose of reality into the picture. "Hey, Jason - what about those promises you made to me? What about the kids? What about the brother I killed just so that you could give the Golden Fleece as a wedding present to your new bride?"

Heavily paraphrased by me, that is nonetheless the import of Medea's words, and the contemporary setting just hits home the human sense of betrayal that Medea feels. But it's not just a matter of reducing classical mythology down to the level of a domestic dispute, and Shaw's production delves deeper into those archetypal themes with the symbolism of the sea, the waves, an island - all of it suggesting isolation, raging emotions, deep pain and urges towards violence that result in Medea's descent into madness.

The singing is fully up to the demands of the work and the intent of the production, showing just what Cherubini's opera has to offer. Lise Davidsen, in casual jeans and jumper, doesn't look at all like a demented enchantress, but that's the point. You don't know what will trigger Medea's reactions, but if those buttons are continually pushed, you will know all about it. You'll also know it from Davidsen's delivery, which is just phenomenal. It's not just that Davidsen meets the technical demands of the role, but she really does make it seem like Medea is on a hair-trigger, treading a line between outrage and entreaty, so that when she does finally explode and kill her children, it almost seems proportionate. And when it comes to it, the size of that voice does as much damage as Medea does to the gym equipment.

Ruth Iniesta also has a strong voice as Glauce, but it felt a bit overpowering, not quite as refined and controlled as Davidsen and almost too big for the O'Reilly Theatre. Raffaella Lupinacci made a terrific impression as Neris with some lovely lyrical singing. Sergey Romanovsky couldn't be faulted as Jason and his characterisation was also good, fitting in well with the production. While you can never have any real sympathy for Jason, his fault here is not so much betrayal and serial infidelity (as it can be in other opera versions of this story), but rather he is undone by his own weakness and misjudgement of Medea. There needs to be some kind of understanding of his position in order for the loss he suffers as a consequence to be utterly devastating, and in combination with Fiona Shaw's direction and Stephen Barlow's conducting - not to mention some impressive work from the orchestra and the chorus - the full force of Cherubini's Medea is felt by the time we get to that conclusion.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera

Tuesday 7 November 2017

Mozart - Le Nozze di Figaro (Munich, 2017)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Le Nozze di Figaro

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2017

Constantinos Carydis, Christof Loy, Christian Gerhaher, Federica Lombardi, Solenn' Lavanant-Linke, Alex Esposito, Olga Kulchynska, Paolo Bordogna, Anne Sofie von Otter, Manuel Günther, Dean Power, Milan Siljanov, Anna El-Khashem, Paula Iancic, Niamh O’Sullivan

Staatsoper Live - 28th October 2017

Christof Loy really does have opera directing down to a fine art. Not everything he does is perfect, and there have been some rather abstract and minimalist productions where the set has been reduced down to nothing but a few chairs, but I've always found his approach to thought-provoking and fully engaged with the work in question, responsive to its themes and moods. Le Nozze di Figaro is a work of such perfection that it doesn't need a great deal of elaboration, and Loy manages to strike a good balance between hands-off in relation to the concept and hands-on with the characterisation in this new Bavarian State Opera production.

From the opening of the first act and most of the way through it, it certainly looks like Loy is rather short on ideas and reluctant to impose any radical intervention on the work. The chair is already in place with a drape over it for Cherubino to hide under, the doors are well placed for all the entrances and exits. You can pretty much see how the whole of the first half of the work is blocked out on the stage right from the opening of the curtains. Except it's not quite that simple, because the curtain-up is prefaced with a little puppet show on a miniature of the stage of the Munich opera house at Max-Joseph-Platz.

It's more than just suggesting that Figaro and Susanna are just puppets of Count Almaviva. The real Figaro emerges and starts measuring up the new room that he will soon share with his bride-to-be. The world that the servants occupy in this world is about to get a little bit bigger by the time we get to the conclusion of Mozart's opera and the influence and importance of the nobility will not go unchallenged. Beaumarchais's revolutionary play might have played its own small part in changing social attitudes of course, as events in France would subsequently show, but as you can imagine, Christof Loy is more interested in what Le Nozze di Figaro says now than what part it might or might not have played in its foreshadowing of the French revolution.

So while the first half of Munich's Figaro plays out very much along conventional lines, it's with a few more modern touches, or at least within a non-time specific context. The room with its stage/window backdrop is a view on the world where social attitudes are changing. The barriers go beyond class, although the aristocracy (Count and Countess Almaviva), the middle-classes (Bartolo and Marcellina), and the working classes (Figaro and Susanna) are all represented; there's also a greater emphasis on the freedom of expression of women, of the individual, and perhaps even in the freedom to choose one's sexual identity in Cherubino.

Loy in an interview states that he has other ideas for Cherubino, seeing him as representing something from a more innocent age. And it's true that Cherubino is the only figure who wears a period costume from Mozart's era. The spirit of Cherubino can be an essential element in Le Nozze di Figaro, a spirit that is part of the whole rich fabric of life and society as Mozart and Da Ponte saw it. Loy is certainly right to give Cherubino a meaningful role in this respect, and he is wonderfully played as such by Solenn' Lavanant-Linke, who also sings the role well and with some character.

Loy's interventions then are therefore subtle and minimal, finding a way to bring out the humanist sentiments of the work without disrupting the humour, character and essential fabric of the original too much. It doesn't always hit the mark - the familiar comic set-pieces occasionally feel a little laboured, with pauses losing the momentum that is very much a part of the magic of the composition - but Loy demonstrates a great awareness of the construction of the work as a whole, how its humour and social commentary play off one another, how it grips an audience and engages them in the important message it has to share about individual freedoms.

A considerable part of the genius of that construction is of course within Mozart's incredible music itself, and in the wonderful singing roles that he gifts each of the singers with as an expression of personality. Constantinos Carydis surprises by the fast tempo that he adopts for the work at the start, and much of the work fairly sprints along, buoyed by both harpsichord and forte-piano accompaniment that provide some beautiful textures to the music. It is however varied according to mood even if, it has to be said, it feels a bit inconsistent and drags in other places. The Countess's 'Porgi Amor' feels overly drawn-out, but it does seem to be very much an attempt to better relate to how the work itself is constructed, having fun exposing hypocrisy in the first half, but with a more serious reflection on events in the second half of the work. Has there ever been a more generous opera?

It's certainly generous for its melodies and arias, and they are all given due attention in the production, which has a very capable cast of singers. When I say due attention, it's consideration of the importance of the arias within the whole dramatic flow and fabric of the work and not as standalone pieces to show off the abilities of the singers, as some people like to view opera. Alex Esposito has been specialising in Mozart and Rossini baritone roles, but does have a tendency to over-play. Not so much here. His Figaro is lively, engaging and well-sung, if not quite fully rounded. Rising star Olga Kulchynska makes for a fine Susanna with a quality performance.

The other roles are all similarly well sung with a degree of character, although there's no real stand-out performances here. In the egalitarian context of The Marriage of Figaro, I think that's an advantage and, as such, Christian Gerhaher is an ideal Count Almaviva. All too often Almaviva can be a caricature, a comedy villain or a bit of an oaf, when there really needs to be a more sensitive side displayed as well. We get that here with Gerhaher, and consequently it interacts well with the other singing performances; with Federica Lombardi's capable Countess and with Solenn' Lavanant-Linke's Cherubino. It's perhaps not the most memorable, insightful or humorous Le Nozze di Figaro then, but Christof Loy's Munich production is balanced, coherent and entertaining, and Mozart's score is treated well by Constantinos Carydis.

The next streamed production from the Bayerische Staastoper will be Puccini's Il Trittico on the 23 December 2017; Conductor: Kirill Petrenko , Production: Lotte de Beer. With Wolfgang Koch, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Yonghoon Lee, Pavol Breslik, Ermonela Jaho, Michaela Schuster, Ambrogio Maestri, Rosa Feola.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV