Sunday 31 December 2017

Puccini - Il Trittico (Munich, 2017)

Giacomo Puccini - Il Trittico

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2017

Kirill Petrenko, Lotte de Beer, Wolfgang Koch, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Yonghoon Lee, Ermonela Jaho, Michaela Schuster, Claudia Mahnke, Ambrogio Maestri, Rosa Feola, Pavol Breslik, Kevin Conners

Staatsoper.TV Live - 23 December 2017 

For me personally, if you want a showcase for the composer's work, Puccini's trittico consists of La Bohème, Madama Butterfly and Tosca. That's not a terribly original selection I admit, but they are each pinnacles of popular Italian opera that have delighted audiences for over a hundred years, and they do reflect the range of prime Puccini. On the other hand, the idea of watching those three operas back to back is perhaps too much for any sensitive mortal to endure, so fortunately Puccini has a rather more accessible and less emotionally fraught option, although anyone watching the Suor Angelica section of the Bavarian State Opera's 2017 production of Il Trittico might have just cause to dispute that point.

There's a case to be made that the heightened human dramas of each of the three short opera that form Il Trittico are just concentrated essence of Puccini, and indeed there is some correspondence with the composer's great full-length operas. Il Tabarro covers much of the same range as La Bohème (and even directly references that opera); Suor Angelica is a variation of sorts on Madama Butterfly's mother forced to abandon her child; and Gianni Schicchi... well, Gianni Schicchi just stands in a category entirely of its own, not only among Puccini's compositions, but as pretty much the best and funniest work of comic opera ever written.

Il Trittico is not only a showcase of some of Puccini's best writing, but it can also be a showcase for a director who is unable to resist the temptation to try to link them at least thematically, since there is little common convergence of tone, period or character between the three short works. Lotte de Beer connects the three pieces in only the most abstract of ways for the new production in Munich. Each of the one-act operas remains in the period of its original setting, and plays out closely to the libretto, but each take place within the wide opening of what looks like a large tunnel. The concept behind this is something to do with time, connecting the past with the future, but it's not something that makes a great impression or present the works in any new or revelatory way.

It's a bit unimaginative but it's in keeping with the more half-way house that the Bayerische Staatsoper have been employing recently, moving back a little from the more extreme ends of Regietheater. It might not be as adventurous, but it does seem to be working much more consistently than the hit-and-miss approach of recent years. As far as Il Trittico goes, Bernhard Hammer's set designs do at least narrow the stage down to a tighter focus that emphasises the emotional density of the works, while Lotte de Beer's relatively straightforward direction lets the dramas showcase their own qualities.

Each of the dramas plays out then strictly in period costume and according to the original intentions of the libretto, and the lighting ensures that the mood of each piece is faithfully represented on the stage and that it never feels clinical, even if there are few of the usual props. The only extravagant effects are those which are called for in the music and the drama, with one of the sections of the tunnel rotating 360-degrees at the concluding dramatic revelations of Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica, lifting their moments of death and transcendence to another level. Gianni Schicchi, as I say, is a very different kind of work with a punchline all of its own, and that's taken into account here without the need for 'special effects'.

Aside from the concluding moments however, Il Tabarro feels mostly functional in the Munich production. It is nonetheless effective in its emotional expression and the impressionistic dark undercurrents are realised in the intense musical direction of Kirill Petrenko, and in the singing performances of Wolfgang Koch, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Yonghoon Lee. As the final piece Gianni Schicchi is often a winning conclusion to Il Trittico if a director can really tap into the work's rhythm and humour, and Lotte de Beer captures that well. There are neat little touches to the comic acting and great timing from Michaela Schuster as Zita and Ambrogio Maestri as Schicchi, with some sweet singing from Rosa Feola and Galeano Salas standing in for Pavol Breslik, who lost his voice and had to mime the role.

It's Suor Angelica however that is the standout piece here, the main course to Il Tabarro's starter and Gianni Schicchi's icing on the dessert cake (someone has been watching too much Masterchef on TV recently), and what makes this Suor Angelica so memorable is the extraordinary performance of Ermonela Jaho. The Albanian soprano has taken on the role of Sister Angelica before, most notably in the Royal Opera House production of Il Trittico available on DVD, and she is always impressive, but it seems like there are still depths in it for her to explore. Vocally, it's a stunning performance, marrying technique to an intense dramatic delivery that pushes at the limits, with precisely pitched high notes carrying a distinctive timbre that is Jaho's own sound and expression. It's probably the single greatest performance I've seen in an opera all year.

Since I'm making a big deal about this being a showcase work (in case you haven't noticed), one shouldn't neglect the part played by Kirill Petrenko's conducting of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester. By no means does he attempt to find a common sound for the work as a whole, but finds the appropriate tempo and tenor for each individual piece. More than just being a distillation of classic Puccini pieces, Il Trittico is Puccini+, where the composer explores new sound worlds. There are hints of Wagner's Flying Dutchman in the situation and dynamic of Il Tabarro, you can hear the influence of Impressionism and there is even some dissonance as Puccini responds to demands of each of the works in new creative ways. It's an evening of marvellous music that the Bayerische Staatsoper's Il Trittico showcases brilliantly.

The next live broadcast from the Bavarian State Opera is Wagner's Die Walküre on 22nd January 2018.  Conducted by Kirill Petrenko, Directed by Andreas Kriegenburg, the cast includes Simon O'Neill, Anja Kampe, Nina Stemme, Wolfgang Koch and Ekaterina Gubanovana.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV

Thursday 28 December 2017

Mozart - Lucio Silla (Brussels, 2017)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Lucio Silla

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2017

Antonello Manacorda, Tobias Kratzer, Jeremy Ovenden, Lenneke Ruiten, Anna Bonitatibus, Simona Šaturová, Llse Eerens, Carlo Allemano

ARTE Concert - 9 November 2017

I'm all in favour of a bit of imaginative reinterpretation when it comes to Mozart's early opera serias. There are musical pleasures and much to admire in juvenile works like Lucio Silla, but without some creative direction the plots can be more than a little hard to digest. There's not a great deal in the way of psychological insight into human behaviour in Lucio Silla other than generalisations about the exercise of power and the strength of true love. There's little dramatic action and the sentiments and situations are drawn out to tortuous length in repetitive da capo arias. As my most recent experience of Lucio Silla at the 2017 Buxton Festival confirmed, it can be tough going if there's not a bit of thought put into making it relevant, interesting and engaging.

If it's radical adventurous reinterpretation and modernisation you are looking for, La Monnaie in Brussels is the place that is likely to not only provide it but push it to its limits and often succeed in revitalising works in the most unlikely of ways. Tobias Kratzer's production - modern inevitably - attempts to put the work in a context that we might be more familiar with than the historical events in Rome in 82 BC, because evidently, Lucio Silla, composed by a 16 year old Mozart in 1772 is much more than a history lesson; it has wider and usually somewhat more generalised points to make about the nature of power, love and conscience. Tobias Kratzer's job is to make that feel a bit more real and immediate.

There's a short video sequence that plays out during the overture, a montage of jump cuts that blend images of Kennedy, Putin, Trump and Kim Jun-Il mixed in with nightmarish and seemingly random elements that are going to play a larger role in the La Monnaie production - oysters, knives, blood, security cameras and cross-dressing dolls. Essentially, the impression it gives is one of power, indulgence and violence, and that certainly characterises the lifestyle of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, or Lucio Silla, or whichever modern face you want to put on him. Silla's petulant warning that "Whoever refuses to love me should fear me" certainly has a sinister resonance with some of those figures mentioned above.

The set itself exerts a suitably imposing presence. In the opening scene, Cecilio, the exiled Roman Senator, approaches a set of security gates patrolled by a guard dog protecting the grounds of Lucio Silla's residence. The majority of the subsequent drama - mainly between Silla and Giunia who the dictator has been trying to woo by letting her believe that Cecilio is dead - takes place within the elegantly fitted rooms of this mansion. The stage rotates to present different views of rooms, with plenty of visual variety to make up for the lack of drama. The graveyard where Cecilio and Giunia meet is at the back of the house, presenting another sinister dimension to the mood of the proceedings.

I say 'lack of drama' and that at least is usually the case with Lucio Silla. Not much happens apart from confrontations and declarations that never really come to anything, either on the part of Giunia and Cecilio's threats, or between Cinna and Celia whose loyalty to Silla conflicts with their own interests/love. Celia indeed has a strange role in this production, playing with dolls and a doll house, and she seems to have a rather disturbing idea of happy families. It's not always clear what the purpose of some of the ideas are, but clearly Kratzer wants to make sure that realise that all these feelings come from a very real place. Using security camera footage depicting physical abuse and even rape, the production really gets to the true nature of Silla's attempts to what is usually described rather more circumspectly as 'win' Giunia. The reality is a lot uglier than this phrase suggests.

None of this matters if you can't put on a musical performance that is just as engaging and invigorating, that puts a real human experience behind the rather manufactured drama. La Monnaie's cast fortunately are exceptionally good at keeping up with the driving rhythmic intensity of Antonello Manacorda's musical direction. More than anything you can put into modernising the production or even in any depth that you can seek to bring out of Mozart's musical score, it's conviction in the dramatic and the singing performances that count here. In opera seria, the sentiments around love are almost life or death matters and you really feel that here.

There are no opera seria mannerisms in the singing here, each of the performers are fully involved in the roles, projecting the challenging arias (and challenge of dramatic conviction) with extraordinary intensity. This is a production that is centered on Giunia and so particularly reliant on Lenneke Ruiten's performance to give a sense of something really meaningful being at stake. It's an outstanding performance, Ruiten utterly committed and engaging, impressively navigating the fiendish coloratura in arias like 'Ah se il crudel periglio'. Her intensity is matched however in Jeremy Ovenden's Lucio Silla, in Anna Bonitatibus's Cecilio and in Simona Šaturová's Cinna.

As much as the director tries to make this relatable in a modern-day context there is one aspect of human behaviour from ancient Roman times that proves impossible to 'translate'. It may be true that Lucius Cornelius Sulla had a crisis of conscience, regretted his actions and stepped down from power for the greater good, but it's hard to imagine Trump or any other modern politician doing the decent thing in the present day. If La Monnaie production does no more than gives pause to consider the implications of what that says about us as a civilised society today, then it's still made a significant point.

Monday 25 December 2017

Giordano - Andrea Chénier (Milan, 2017)

Umberto Giordano - Andrea Chénier

Teatro alla Scala, Milan - 2017

Riccardo Chailly, Mario Martone, Yusif Eyvazov, Anna Netrebko, Luca Salsi, Annalisa Stroppa, Mariana Pentcheva, Judit Kutasi, Gabriele Sagona, Costantino Finucci, Carlo Bosi, Gianluca Breda, Francesco Verna, Manuel Pierattelli, Romano Dal Zovo 

ARTE Conccert - 7 December 2017

There aren't too many directors who carry their own guillotine around with them, but for the opening night of the new season at La Scala, Mario Martone came well-prepared. The authentic looking guillotine used for La Scala's new production of Andrea Chénier is the same one the director used for his 2010 film about the French Revolution, Noi credevamo (Frères d'Italie) and most recently it was used in a theatre production of Buchner's Danton's Death that Martone directed.

It's good to be prepared and know your ground when you're embarking on a new production of Andrea Chénier at the same venue where it was first performed in 1896, at a house where it hasn't been performed in 32 years, and for an audience as exigent and demanding as those at the first night of the new season at La Scala. There's nothing wrong then with playing relatively safe with a largely traditional production, as Andrea Chénier is after all rather historically specific. Compared to some recent opening night controversies, a strong cast and spectacular performances at least ensured that it was a memorable evening for the right reasons.

In tune with the work itself, this was very much an operatic evening rather than any attempt to make a political point or director's statement. If there was a large mirrored background on the stage for Act I, it wasn't to reflect the aristocracy in the audience at La Scala as much attempt to draw Giordano's opera in on itself. Gérard mocks the ridiculous figures in static poses and the elaborately ornamented mirrors offer a distorted reflection of the world of the French aristocracy, playing parlour games and unaware of the dark shadows of the lives of ordinary people and servants that lie behind them. Even as word arrives from Paris, they can't see beyond their own distorted view of themselves.

Elsewhere Mario Martone's production refrains from any grand statements or gestures and yet it still seems to be perfectly in keeping with the grand gestures and statements of the work itself. Even with all its elements of self-sacrifice and humanism in the face of terror that lie at the very emotional heart of the work, Martone views Andrea Chénier foremost as an opera and indeed structured as an opera narrative rather than some kind of documentary realism that offers any insight into the nature and behaviour of those caught up in the nightmare of the French Revolution.

Viewing it as an opera above all else and with Riccardo Chially who conducted the last production at La Scale in 1985 again at the helm, the production and the performances consequently bring out the real musical qualities of the piece. And in fact while I often find the first act to be a little too mannered in its exposition, here I felt that this production tied it together much better than many otherwise fine productions I've seen of Andrea Chénier. Act I here doesn't set out to either vilify the aristocracy or seek sympathy for them, nor does it just show their dislocation from reality, but it actually brings together the themes raised in the parlour games relating to poetry and love, and shows them reaching their fullness of expression at the height of The Terror.

If Martone ensured that the production flowed smoothly as an opera, drawing attention to the dramatic focus of every scene perfectly while keeping it grounded in the world around it (and providing good spectacle as well), it perfectly matched the performance that Chially was drawing out of the orchestra. The La Scala orchestra were truly on fire, matching the passions of the work with a dynamic I haven't heard in this work before, alive to its shifts of tone, to the human element as much as the epic historical scale of the opera. The pacing and the balance with the singing and the drama was just masterful, revealing just how well-constructed and composed the work is even beyond its famous arias.

The challenges of the singing however are far from the least important aspect of the opera, and realistically you can't carry this work off as well as this without singers of great experience, talent and charisma. Obviously that's not going to be neglected at such an important event at La Scala, but the casting was not without some prior reservations, particularly at the suitability and capability of Yusif Eyvazov to take on a role as challenging and monumental as the poet Andrea Chénier. If there were some suspicion that he only got the role as the other half of Anna Netrebko, Eyvazov soon dispelled those reservations and proved himself to be worthy of his place in the big league with an exceptional performance here.

So perfectly is Andrea Chénier composed as an opera, that all the moments are there for the taking in each act, and my goodness, Netrebko, Eyvazov and Salsi never missed a trick. The direction of Act II's 'Ora soave' duet might not have revealed any great insights or nuances into character or situation, but it was just great opera and the pairing of Netrebko and Eyvazov revealed its worth. Netrebko was reliably impressive, impeccable in her phrasing and timing of the recitative, and explosive in her arias. Not terribly well-directed, it remained an opera diva performance, but that doesn't mean it was in any way lacking in passion, charisma or dramatic delivery.

Eyvazov however was by no means overshadowed by his wife, giving a commanding performance that was passionate and fully alive to the sentiments of the moment. It was clearly a push in some places, but Eyvazov rose to all the challenges - not least the all-important Act III trial scene at the Revolutionary Tribunal - with wonderful Italianate phrasing. Despite the large contingent of Russians and East Europeans in the cast, it's the emphasis on the Italianate that is ultimately the key aspect that make this production of Andrea Chénier at La Scala nothing less than stunning. That's not only reflected in the performance of the principals, but in the performance of Luca Salsi's Carlo Gérard and right down to Judit Kutasi's viecchia Madelon. There wasn't anything to frighten the conservative elements of the Milan audience here certainly, but there was plenty to impress and the audience responded accordingly.

Thursday 21 December 2017

Auber - Fra Diavolo (Rome, 2017)

Daniel-François-Esprit Auber - Fra Diavolo

Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, 2017

Rory Macdonald, Giorgio Barberio Corsetti, John Osborn, Roberto de Candia, Sonia Ganassi, Giorgio Misseri, Alessio Verna, Anna Maria Sarra, Jean Luc Ballestra, Nicola Pamio

Culturebox - 17 October 2017

Aside from its historical interest, it's debatable that Auber's once celebrated Fra Diavolo has much to offer the world of opera today. It still has something to offer an audience however and those are the same values that it held right back when it was first performed; entertainment. The Rome Opera production certainly presents Auber's opéra-comique with that intention as its primary focus, finding a suitable presentation that captures the work's immodest sense of modesty, while also managing to have something contemporary and even forward-looking in theatrical staging.

If it doesn't have anything to offer the future of opera, Auber's Fra Diavolo has nonetheless already made its impact. First performed in 1830, Auber's simple melodies and uncomplicated drama would determine the direction of popular French opéra-comique and embody many of the characteristics that are associated with it. With the Rome production's colourful sets and costumes, everything is there for an entertaining evening of romantic comedy, singing and dancing.

Fra Diavolo sets out its intentions right from the outset, with a drinking song and a military march combined. The soldiers are drinking because that's part of the way of military life, but they are also drowning their sorrows as the inn-keeper's daughter Zerline is getting married the next day. The captain Lorenzo in particular isn't happy as he and Zerline had romantic aspirations, but they were doomed to come to nothing since Zerline's father has made plans to marry her to a rich man.

That's the romantic background taken care of in a not terribly original manner and it's inevitably going to have predictable twists and turn of fortune. The drama that will drive this relates of course to the actions of Fra Diavolo, a notorious bandit who operates in the region. Milord and Milady Rocburg, an English couple on holiday touring Italy have already encountered this notorious bandit on their travels and have had all their belongings stolen. They have however managed to keep their best jewels hidden, but they are unaware that Fra Diavolo has followed them to the inn.

There's room for a minor romantic entanglement there too. Just to spice things up a little further, the Marquis they encountered at their last stop has just arrived at the inn. Milord isn't happy that the Marquis has been unwelcome paying attention to his wife and he continues serenading her now at the inn. Of course, we all know that the Marquis is none other than Fra Diavolo in disguise, and that he is using his charms to seduce the noble lady into parting with the secret of where their expensive jewellery is hidden.

Meanwhile Captain Lorenzo and his troops have stumbled on the bandits den and recovered the stolen goods (but not the bandits), and the reward puts him into contention again for the hand of Zerline. Fra Diavolo however is so confident of his charms and his disguise that he is sure that he can steal back the loot and increase his haul that night. The drama - what little there is of it between romantic charms and villainous swagger - tends to lose its way in the second half of the opera. The Marquis's night-time wanderings are discovered and questioned, only for him to sow discord by pretending that his inclinations are more romantic than criminal, but it rallies at the end for the unmasking and capture of the notorious Fra Diavolo.

The comic villainy and romantic twists of Auber's Fra Diavolo set the tone and the standard for much of the opéra-comique that follows, his influence particularly evident in Jacques Offenbach and not just in Les Brigandes. The influence on Auber however is just as evidently the lighter comic work of Giacomo Rossini, and Auber's music carries the same light, simple rhythms that are melodic, buoyant and uplifting. Hardly sophisticated, they are nevertheless conducted here in the Rome production by Rory Macdonald with a confident swagger and an emphatic stridency where required. Entertainment is the entire raison d'être of Fra Diavolo, and the musical performance captures that well.

As does the set design in Giorgio Barberio Corsetti's production. Extensive use is made of cartoon imagery projected onto the versatile backdrops (created by Corsetti with designer Marco Troncanetti using 3-D printers) that permit the set to be transformed instantly from a moving car journey to a balloon ride, from a hotel with a cutaway showing individual rooms to a gondola ride in a Venice with shark-infested canals. It's a riot of colour with larger than life illustrations that perfectly match the tone and spirit of the work. That is also captured well in John Osborn's reliably impressive performance as Fra Diavolo. Not quite as agile with the French recitative and singing, Sonia Ganassi and Roberto de Candia are great fun nonetheless as Lord and Lady Rocburg. Anna Maria Sarra is a bright Zerline (replacing the billed Pretty Yende who dropped out) and Giorgio Misseri also notable as Alfredo.

Links: Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, Culturebox, YouTube

Sunday 17 December 2017

Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito (Salzburg, 2017)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

Salzburg Festspiele, 2017

Teodor Currentzis, Peter Sellars, Russell Thomas, Golda Schultz, Christina Gansch, Marianne Crebassa, Jeanine De Bique, Willard White - 4 August 2017

The stock of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito has certainly risen over the last few decades. Conductors and directors no longer shy away from its formal opera seria origins or its sympathetic treatment of wise noble rulers, realising that everything that is great about Mozart is as much there in his final opera as it is in his celebrated collaborations with Lorenzo da Ponte. When Mozart's musical language is allowed to exert its own narrative, the work seems to take on an aspect of supreme beauty in relation not so much to the wisdom of an ancient Roman ruler as to the troubles that the human soul has to grapple in recognition of and in overcoming its own flaws and weaknesses.

Directors and conductors have employed a huge variety of ways to bring out this aspect of Mozart's genius in his work, and I've never failed to be impressed with the flexibility with which La Clemenza di Tto is able to transform and adapt, fit around and find humanity in each of its characters, all of whom have their own focus of conflict. Trims have often been made to the recitative and a few arias have been dropped to make up for the six week rush within which Mozart completed the commission, but no-one has felt the need to radically reconfigure and alter the work the way that Teodor Currentzis and Peter Sellars do in their 2017 production for the Salzburg Festival.

Aside from some reconstructions of lost Vivaldi operas, I can't think of another opera production that worked as freely with a composer's material as the Salzburg La Clemenza di Tito, and this is a work that has never been considered incomplete by any means or in need of any reconstructive work. Yet, Sellars and Currentzis eviscerate Clemenza of much of its recitative and choruses in its place add pieces from Mozart's C-Minor Mass, from the Requiem and even the Masonic Funeral Music as an added finale when Titus dies in this production. You would have reason to be worried that the integrity of the piece would be compromised by such unwarranted meddling, but in truth, the intent and the beauty of La Clemenza di Tito remains intact.

The reason for that is obviously that because the heart of Mozart still lies behind all the pieces that have been added and reassembled here. It's still no easy matter to hold that together and retain the purpose and flow of the original work, and with the always controversial figures of both Teodor Currentzis and Peter Sellars involved, there's no guarantee that any such experimentation will work, but in this case it does. The ability of both to put the work in service of meaningful sentiments and situations that we recognise in the world today even allows them to go even further in the musical and stage direction to create something quite remarkable, profound and moving - as remarkable, profound and as moving as Mozart ought to be.

You can pinpoint little moments that work brilliantly; the Benedictus from the C-Minor Mass being the response of the people to Titus diverting the tributes earmarked for a temple in his honour towards the fund to rebuilt homes lost during the last eruption of Vesuvius; the visual placement on the stage of a basset horn accompaniment to Sesto's 'Parto Parto' aria; Annio's heart-rending solo during the Kyrie from Mozart's Requiem following the burning of the Capitol that almost kills Titus; but what matters is that all these moments only serve to bring out the underlying sentiment of love that is twisted by human turmoil and weakness, and how it is translated or redeemed by the human wisdom and forgiveness of Tito. Everything is in service to bringing this out, and it's best brought out in attentiveness to what Mozart's music tells us.

So a lot of responsibility lies with how Teodor Currentzis interprets and arranges Mozart's music, and since this conductor is well-known for his radical reinterpretation and revisions of Mozart's music, that is always going to be both interesting and controversial. The distinctive approach to the balance, arrangement and use of instruments is evident in Currentzis's MusicAeterna ensemble's use of period instruments, including a baroque guitar and an archlute, as well as fortepiano flourishes added during the recitative. It never sounds anything less than completely Mozart, a fresh, contemporary and adventurous response to the deep emotional content within the work, highlighting the strength of the melody and giving it a beautiful open transparency.

The concept and the stage direction are more important here than set designs, the Felsenreitschule auditorium contributing to the atmosphere here, with little else in the way of constructions in George Tsypin set design other than abstract light sculptures. The modern-day costumes and suggested ethnicity of the chorus also has contemporary resonance, as does Sesto's wearing of a suicide vest for his terrorist mission against the state. Flowers, candles and photos are arrayed across the stage at the start of the Second Act in a remembrance display for the victims of this terror attack, which might be a bit of a cliché now, but it does function to highlight the reality of such violence, and the need all the more to respond to it with tolerance, forgiveness and compassion.

The prospect of some heavy-handed messaging is always a risk with Peter Sellars, but here he genuinely taps into something present and real, not an abstract artificial construct of an idea based around terrorism and refugees - and more importantly, it taps into Mozart. Sellars employed a similar theme and technique when directing a merger of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex with Symphony of Psalms at Aix-en-Provence in 2016 - although keeping them separate, the latter as a 'sequel' to Oedipus Rex - but this is much more ambitious and much more successful in the results it yields.

The direction of the singers and their fully engaged performances also takes La Clemenza di Tito far away from any opera seria mannerisms or formality. As is often the case with this work, the emphasis can shift very much according to the strengths of the singers. Russell Thomas is not the most lyrical or Mozartian Titus, the role often going to softer voices, but you can see him as a figure who commands trust and respect, particularly in his delivery of his concluding arias. Golda Schultz by comparison was a softer, more sympathetic Vitellia, capable of being moved deeply by the horror she sets in motion. The stand-out performances here for me however came from Marianne Crebassa's deeply conflicted Sesto, and from Jeanine De Bique's soaring Annio.

Links: Salzburg Festspiele,

Monday 11 December 2017

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande (Berlin, 2017)

Claude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Komische Oper, 2017

Jordan de Souza, Barrie Kosky, Jens Larsen, Nadine Weissmann, Dominik Köninger, Günter Papendell, Nadja Mchantaf

OperaVision - 15 October 2017

Proving that he has more than one trick up his sleeve, Barrie Kosky's production of Pelléas et Mélisande for the Komische Oper in Berlin glides along in a minimalist design production on a reduced stage with practically no props at all. Recognising that Pelléas et Mélisande tends to respond better to minimal intervention, Kosky is able even to remove all the familiar symbolism from the work and anything to do with nature, other than perhaps the most important aspect of it as far as this opera is concerned - human nature. But it's not all take, and Kosky has other ways of giving something else to the work that does succeed in bringing out its essential characteristics.

Primarily however, as far as I'm concerned, there's nothing anyone can do that can bring anything more to Pelléas et Mélisande than Debussy's music, and the real success of this production lies in the ravishing performance that Jordan de Souza, the new Kapellmeister of the Komische Oper Berlin, brings out of the house orchestra. The shimmering beauty and flow of the work is all there, but that suggests hazy impressionism and actually there is beautiful clarity and detail brought out of individual instruments and groups of instruments here, as well as a fully expressed dynamic - particularly to the instrumental interludes - that occasionally made it feel like you were hearing passages for the first time.

Listening to the conductor talk about his approach to the work in the interval feature, it's clear that he has a profound understanding of the workings and merit of Debussy's score, but I think it also comes out that there is a strong collaboration with Barrie Kosky that ensures that there is a strong connection between the orchestra pit and what takes place on the stage. Kosky is able to reflect the dynamic in the musical performance on the stage, and the means by which he achieves that - within the context of a minimal set design - is very interesting indeed.

Kosky cites Edgar Allan Poe's blend of horror and eroticism as a reference for Pelléas et Mélisande and it's an unusual but valid comparison. Rather than head in the direction of gothic melodrama however, Kosky takes a much less obvious route to express those characteristics. The set throughout is nothing more than a recessed set of framing borders that reduce the stage down into a claustrophobic cave. The oppressiveness of the set becomes more apparent later in the work when there are more characters all crammed together at the back of the stage, where a revolving panel brings characters onto and off the stage.

Elsewhere, the characters enter and leave by gliding around on the revolving sections of the stage. They never seem to walk on or walk off, but once on the stage are able to move around a little more freely, except when they can't; which amounts to the kind of volition they have and control over their actions and lives at any given time. In terms of movement and position, everything is relational to the geometric patterns of the stage, and within that human nature in Pelléas et Mélisande is something of a chaotic element, even as it flows gracefully in time with Debussy's score.

It's in such subtle contrasts that Kosky seeks to bring out the gothic horror of Pelléas et Mélisande, but it's not entirely hands-off, and there are subtle shifts of emphasis that are applied. Some feel random and designed to do nothing more than jar with your impressions and preconceptions (such as Mélisande swallowing her ring rather than drop it into the Blind Man's Well); others however are perfectly acceptable interpretations of the suggestive and ambiguous undercurrents that lie within the work and which exert such fascination. Sometimes Kosky works with the moods and other times against them, just to see how the opera responds, and it does prove to be extraordinarily responsive to the slightest of touches and shading. Pelléas et Mélisande is that kind of work.

Despite conventional psychological exploration being largely replaced by suggestion and symbolism, there is actually a great deal of leeway in how these enigmatic characters can be interpreted and in how they interact. While it's often possible for Golaud to be the central figure of the work and even a sympathetic character, Kosky directs Günter Papendell towards a more aggressive Golaud in this production. He manhandles Mélisande quite brutally and kicks her when she is pregnant, soon after Arkel is seen creepily pawing over her. The suggestion is that Mélisande later miscarries in a bloody manner that is far from the quiet deathbed conclusion you usually find in this opera.

Golaud and Arkel's behaviour is contrasted with a Pelléas and Mélisande who play up to nature of their childlike games ('jeux d'enfants'), or at least initially. Whether that develops into something more erotically charged or whether that is a projection of Golaud's fevered mind is always an ambiguous matter, and it remains so here even as it is vividly depicted. The singing performances are outstanding, distinct and expressive, with a similar clarity and precision that can be found in the orchestration. When you hear the voices and music performed in this way, the miraculous unique quality of Debussy's approach to opera is all the more evident and impressive.

Links: Komische Oper, OperaVision

Tuesday 5 December 2017

Lully & Molière - Les Amants magnifiques (Rennes, 2017)

Jean-Baptiste Lully & Molière - Les Amants magnifiques

L’Opéra de Rennes, 2017

Vincent Tavernier, Hervé Niquet

Actors: Laurent Prévôt, Pierre-Guy Cluzeau, Maxime Costa, Mélanie Le Moine, Benoît Dallongeville, Quentin-Maya Boyé, Olivier Berhault, Claire Barrabès, Marie Loisel
Solistes: Lucie Roche, Eva Zaïcik, Margo Arane, Laurent Deleuil, Clément Debieuvre, Martial Pauliat, Victor Sicard, Virgile Ancely, Geoffroy Buffière 

Culturebox - 27 January 2017

The comédie-ballet Les Amants magnifiques (The Magnificent Lovers) can't really be described as an opera; it’s essentially a play by Molière with musical interludes or ‘intermèdes’ by Lully. The opportunity to see one of these rare collaborations performed however is not to be missed. Created in 1670 as a royal entertainment for Louis XIV and not staged anywhere since, Les Amants magnifiques is an unusual kind of lyric drama, a "comédie en cinq actes en prose, mêlée de musique et d’entrées de ballet" where the music, the drama and the ballet all have their distinct place and yet combine to create the most wonderful entertainment; an entertainment fit for kings indeed.

If there's any one form that dominates the proceedings, it's Molière's play, with Lully providing music for the opening, for a ballet-opera interlude and for the conclusion. In practice, the comédie-ballet is very much a combined effort, conceived of as a whole, with the music, the drama and ballet intended to combine with stage spectacle to create a more complete work of entertainment, but allowing a greater flexibility an opera or even an opéra-comique would permit. At this point in the history of French opera, these comédie-ballets were a stage towards music having a larger role in the tragédies en musique and tragedies-lyriques that Lully would later create, and as a consequence these earlier works for the lyric-dramatic-ballet stage have been largely neglected and forgotten.

It is probably also the case - as Richard Strauss discovered when it attempted a modern version of intermèdes in his first version of Ariadne auf Naxos, combining it with the drama of Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme - that no-one could blend the drama and music with such facility as Molière and Lully. Certainly on the evidence of Les Amants magnifiques, which is played with all the French humour and lightness of touch that you would expect from the specialist baroque theatre company Les Malins Plaisirs at the Opera de Rennes, with Hervé Niquet directing Lully's music from the pit.

There's plenty of time for Lully to set the scene, foregoing the usual tributes to the Sun King (which seem to be reserved for the grand conclusion instead), for a lengthy prologue in homage to Neptune and the gods of the sea, where a turbulent storm seems to reflect the one that lies within the heart of the Greek general Sostrate, who is wandering through the woods wearing a melancholic disposition. The court servant Clitidas doesn't need to consult the court astrologer to identify the problem; he can see in Sostrate's eyes that he is in love, and hopelessly in love, since he knows that the Princess Eriphile is far beyond the reach of a lowly soldier. The most Sostrate can hope for is to be able to die before his secret is found out.

Well, Clitidas doesn't think much of that plan and is determined to do something about it. It's going to take some clever work however - not so much on the part of Eriphile, since Clitidas knows that the Princess also has feelings for Sostrate that a lady in her position can't declare either - but because her mother Princess Aristione has other marriage plans for her. Two princes, Iphicrate and Timoclès, have come looking for her hand, and Eriphile is being pressed to make her choice. Tired of her daughter's prevarication, Princess Aristione calls on Sostrate to find out which of the two she is going to make her mind up to choose.

At this stage the drama is interrupted by a musical interlude which takes the form of a pastorale. The drama within a drama tells the story of a humble shepherd Tircis who falls in love with beautiful Calisto, but is unable to speak of his love for her and wishes to die. Sound familiar? The drama within a drama has however been hijacked by Clitidas, who gives the players the revised script in order to drop a big hint to all involved of the viability of a marriage between Sostrate and Eriphile, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. It's easy to get distracted admittedly, as Lully's mini-opera composition for this scene is just beautiful.

There's further work to be done then and happily it involves plenty more opportunities for music, ballet, spectacle, with the other players also trying to manipulate the situation with fake astrology and special effects in a grotto. It's hard to argue with flying dragons and the intervention of the goddess Venus who appears to tell them who to pick, and almost everyone is content to have the decision taken for them. The ruse however is undone when Sostrate proves his worthiness to marry the daughter by saving the life of the mother from an attacking wild boar - a true message from the gods if ever there was one. Or at least convincing enough to bring Les Amants magnifiques to a spectacular, dramatic and joyful conclusion with much dancing and music courtesy of Jean-Baptiste Lully.

The collaboration of Molière and Lully on this work really is a thing of joy. It's thoroughly French in nature, a work of complete entertainment, and its qualities are presented as such in this Rennes production directed by Vincent Tavernier. It's the blending and contrasting tones and colour that make it such a delight, the drama giving way to music and dance, the drama itself being a masterful blend of romance, mythology and comedy. There's almost a pantomime quality to Les Amants magnifiques, the romance and drama mostly played straight, with the comic intervention, pauses, asides of irreverent Clitidas mocking the timorous lovers and the foolish behaviour of the rest.

The comic timing and acting of Pierre-Guy Cluzeau is instrumental in establishing this character, preventing all of the extravagant musical and dramatic situations from taking themselves too seriously. All of the actors of the Les Malins Plaisirs theatre company however are clearly well versed in how to play and deliver this kind of material and it's a joy to see how they progress the drama. On top of that you have a cast of bright young singers to bring out the lyrical side of Lully's contribution, Hervé Niquet to manage the rhythms for the dancers, and a colourful set that uses traditional effects and props that manage to look both cheesy and spectacular. Les Amants magnifiques is a right royal entertainment.

Links: L’Opéra de Rennes, Culturebox