Wednesday 26 December 2018

Puccini - La Bohème (London, 2018)

Giacomo Puccini - La Bohème

Royal Opera House, London - 2018

Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones, Michael Fabiano, Nicole Car, Mariusz Kwiecien, Simona Mihai, Florian Sempey, Luca Tittoto, Jeremy White, Wyn Pencarreg, Andrew Macnair, John Morrisey, Thomas Barnard

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

There's no other work of opera that hits you emotionally the way La Bohème does, and that's something you don't want to lose with an inappropriate stage production that sucks the life out of it. The challenge of finding a replacement for John Copley's long-running 40 year old production at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden then is not without considerable risk, as its production design and tone has become inextricably entwined with the opera and even seared into the consciousness of several generations of opera goers.

Of course it doesn't have to be that way. The genius of Puccini's musical composition and arrangements goes far beyond the mere tugging of heart strings. It's a model of precision that captures a variety of tones and moods, celebrating the spirit of youthful endurance through deprivation and set-backs, of young love and maturity of sentiments, of facing up to changes including the ever-present reality and inevitability of death. It is a serious work, a great work that speaks for itself.

A stage production doesn't really need to do too much to illustrate that any further, and it often seems like Copley's production captured the essence of the work and retained a freshness while Zeffirelli's similarly long-standing production, for example, now looks tired and overwrought. No matter how enduring or suitable the production, La Bohème can always do with a bit of a refresh, even if it's just to take the predictability out of it. And, essentially, that's really all Richard Jones's new production does. Whether it improves on the old production is debatable - although I can't imagine many would think so - but it does highlight new parts of the work that might be lost through over-familiarity.

The locations remain much the same and are instantly recognisable, if a little more minimally stylised in design, which is not surprising since it's a Richard Jones production. The garret in Act I is sparsely furnished, its furnishings presumably gone the same way in earlier occasions as Rodolfo's play - into the furnace to heat the place. Narrow wooden beams bear down on the limited roof-space, a small door leading into it and a skylight above. Its bohemian artist inhabitants do indeed look like scruffy artists in second-hand clothes that may once have been smart, with long hair and unkempt beards. No hipsters here, thank goodness.

Act II is also refreshing for its move away from the traditional French street cafe depiction of Cafe Momus for a rather more obviously upmarket posh restaurant. Once outside of the garret however it also becomes clear that Richard Jones's production has also done away with 1840's Paris Commune setting for a location that is a little more generalised, but certainly evokes the nearby Covent Garden market in some kind of idealised Quality Street box way. It's a little bland, but functional and it doesn't get in the way of the musical performance, which since it's Puccini under Antonio Pappano, means it's in very capable hands, and indeed, Acts I and II are everything they should be; urgently, sweepingly romantic, playful and lyrical.

That also makes up for the lack of imagination shown in the designs for Acts III and IV. Really, Act III is just a stripped-back version of the familiar cold night outside a warm lively tavern scene, with a stage bare but for falling snow and a cardboard-box looking tavern, albeit with Marcello's wall paintings displayed on the outside (which at least shows he can paint, something that the invisible canvas in Act I and his crude stick figure drawings in Act IV don't really get across). The tavern slowly sliding into the background by itself however as the Act progresses just looks weird.

If it still works reasonably well in Act III and on its return to the even more bare garret room (it must have gotten quite cold again) in Act IV it's got a lot to do with Pappano's musical direction but also the performances of the singers. And to be fair Richard Jones's direction of the performances is also good and undoubtedly an important contributing factor to the production still working effectively as a whole. It's not the most adventurous La Bohème, but even La Fura dels Baus didn't feel like they could do much with it and let's not even get into Claus Guth's bohemians in space misfire. Only Stefan Herheim has really been able to bring a completely new approach to in his Den Norske production, deconstructing the opera, exposing its workings and revealing it as the musically impressive and emotionally harrowing masterpiece that we already know it is.

Essentially however La Bohème reinvents itself every time you bring fresh new voices in to reinterpret the work and there's an impressive line-up here. Michael Fabiano's Rodolfo is a revelation. He's a great singer that brings something new and distinctive to a role every time I've seen him, even in the most familiar roles (Alfredo in La Traviata, Don José in Carmen). His Rodolfo is superb; relaxed and confident, charming in humour and persuasive in his romantic intentions towards Mimi; there's a sweetness also in his voice and impeccable delivery that is just irresistible. Nicole Car is perhaps a bit too energetic and full of life as Mimi after her cough and stumble on his doorstep, but just as the music and character develop, so too does the emotional charge between the two of them in the final two acts. The ending is of course devastating.

Links: Royal Opera House

Thursday 20 December 2018

Verdi - Macbeth (Venice, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

La Fenice, Venice - 2018

Myung-Whun Chung, Damiano Michieletto, Luca Salsi, Simon Lim, Vittoria Yeo, Elisabetta Martorana, Stefano Secco, Marcello Nardis

Culturebox - 27 November 2018

It goes without saying that director Damiano Michieletto tries his utmost to avoid anything like the familiar in his production of Verdi's Macbeth for the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, trying to put aside over-used imagery (from the drama and opera alike) in order to bring out some of the deeper in terms of psychological motivations, certainly a little more deeper than Verdi actually does. Going back to the original source in Shakespeare, Michieletto focusses on the bonds and dark undercurrents that lie in the relationship between Macbeth and his wife as the key that brings all the elements of horror and nightmare together.

Most of these things are unspoken and only hinted at, giving them an even deeper air of dark despair, and to some extent that tone can be found in Verdi's overture for Macbeth. Michieletto uses that music to draw out the idea of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth having lost a child, a bereavement that draws them together to some extent in shared grief, but also casts a dark pall over their lives or a void that can't be filled with their love for each other. Something darker has crept into their souls. An empty swing, a pit in the ground, a balloon that floats out of it fits the mournful overture and becomes a musical and visual theme that carries throughout the work.

The theme carries through to the early appearance of the three witches, each of the three part chorus represented by a child in a red dress (who come into play again later in the dream visitations), and a similar red dress is taken out of a child's toy locker by Lady Macbeth just before 'Vieni t'affretta!' All of this not only suggests a dark episode in their past, it also accounts for why Macbeth and his wife have further reason to fear Banquo and his progeny usurping not just the crown, but the line of their existence into the future. Their mortality is much more fearful to them, their brief existence famously viewed as nothing more than 'a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'.

Such imagery abounds and the psychological underpinning works better than any literal depiction, but it is perhaps over-emphasised somewhat in the absence of any other real ideas in Michieletto's production. As far as darkness and horror goes, it's fairly bloodless. Literally bloodless even. Predominately black and white, with red reserved only for imagery associated with their dead child, Macbeth comes back from killing Duncan his dark shirt stained white. Lady Macbeth of course goes back to finish the grim murder that doesn't leave dark immovable blood stains on her hands, but rather white chalky paint up to her elbows.

This, along with plastic sheets, becomes the symbol of death in the production. Whether it's Cawdor at the start, Duncan and Banquo later or Macduff's murdered family, they end up wrapped in plastic sheets, with white paint poured over them. Plastic sheets in fact feature heavily in the absence of any props or sets other than side column of white tubed lighting, and the stage designer Paolo Fantin finds a hundred and one ways to use them; as a veil between the living and the dead, as a thin membrane between sanity and madness, a billowing protective barrier that shows disturbance to reality and order.

Bloodless it might be, but unfortunately, bloodless is also how you might describe the performance of Vittoria Yeo, this production's Lady Macbeth. No-one under-estimates how challenging this role is, but you need the right kind of voice for a Verdi soprano. Yeo can attack the high notes with ferocity but her voice is too thin for the role and she struggles to hold the line. The other performances are good, but capable more than exceptional. Luca Salsi brings a sympathetic lyricism to a Macbeth who looks permanently bewildered and in over his head, never in control of his actions and later not even his mind. Simon Lim's Banquo is good and Stefano Secco makes a good impression as Macduff.

Whether there's enough here for Michieletto to achieve the desired psychological qualities and depth is debatable; the performances aren't enough to bring the extra dimension needed in the face of rather limited symbols and themes that are inevitably overused and tend to lose their impact. The critical scenes however do hit home where they should, from Banquo's ghost scene, where he carries a skeleton (drenched in white paint, wrapped in plastic) is effective during the dinner scene. Macbeth's ambitions being at the mercy of his sanity through his child's bereavement is effectively represented by the crown descending on a child's swing. 'Patria oppressa' is not the usual rag-tag bunch of refugees but a people gathered in mourning dress for the funeral of Macduff's murdered family, a scene that adds an extra poignancy to Secco's performance of 'Ah, la paterna mano'.

Musically it could do with a little more of a punch, but Myung-Whun Chung goes for a more fluid account of the opera's strong melodic core and dramatic underscoring that emphasises why this one particular Verdi opera has lately been reassessed, more frequently performed and often found deserving. Having immersed myself in all flavours of Verdi this month (Aida, Otello, Attila, Simon Boccanegra and Macbeth back to back) and seen an excellent Il Corsaro earlier this year, it's clear that Verdi has by no means fallen out of favour and that a wide variety of his works continue to be an important part of the repertoire of all the major opera houses, but it's also evident that contrary to popular belief even those earlier works and flawed later works can still reveal new qualities and unexpected depths.

Links: Teatro La Fenice, Culturebox

Sunday 16 December 2018

Verdi - Simon Boccanegra (Paris, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Simon Boccanegra

L'Opéra National de Paris, 2018

Fabio Luisi, Calixto Bieito, Ludovic Tézier, Mika Kares, Maria Agresta, Francesco Demuro, Nicola Alaimo, Mikhail Timoshenko, Cyrille Lovighi, Virginia Leva-Poncet

Paris Opera Cinema Live - 13 December 2018

Verdi's mature period operas have always been problematic, their dramatic plot lines never quite keeping up with the growing maturity and sophistication of the composer's musical writing or compromised by Verdi attempting to rework material to suit French grand opera needs. As far as Simon Boccanegra is concerned, it's another case of rewriting, but rather than revisiting an earlier work first performed in 1857 to suit a new audience 23 years later, Verdi seems to be working to his own musical imperative, drawing deeper on his own experiences of family struggles and his observations of human nature during the upheaval of the Italian Risorgimento.

As a consequence, Simon Boccanegra is quite unlike other Verdi works, seeped in a tone of deep sombre melancholy that only the darkest passages of I due Foscari and Don Carlos can come close to matching. Recognising the failings in Piave's original libretto, Verdi enlisted the services of Arrigo Boito, with whom he would craft his late masterpieces, and Boito does bring a greater poetic touch to the work and human feeling to the sentiments, but the themes remain essentially the same as those consistent throughout Verdi's operas - love versus duty and one's responsibility towards family versus the people and the nation as a whole.

The reworking of the material however leaves the problem of Simon Boccanegra consisting of a patchwork of scenes with leaps in time periods and gaps in the drama, and when staged it just never seems to flow or hold together despite the insistent tone and musical language employed by Verdi. And it really is music on another level, separated by a vast gulf from those early works. The youthful force and drive is still there, but the difference here is that it expresses internalised drama rather than underscoring melodramatic plot developments of war, vengeance, fate, padded out with popular laments, pleas to god, and drinking songs.

It's a little unfair to characterise Verdi in those terms, but it just illustrates how far Verdi's ambitions and ability have moved on from the standard template and from the necessity of writing to meet the expectations of an audience. Some of those problematic dramatic elements remain in Simon Boccanegra of course, and it seems unlikely that a director like Calixto Bieito would really want to or be able to make anything convincing out of them. Somehow however, without denying all the colour, drama, fury and sensitivity that makes up a Verdi opera somehow Bieito lays open Simon Boccanegra in his Paris Opera production in a way that somehow gets to the heart of it. It's an absolutely stunning experience.

Once you get rid of the period accoutrements and costumes of 14th century Genoa, and once you dispense with the distractions of the plot and the near impossibility of making it seem credible, there's room to look for the deeper sentiments at the heart of Simon Boccanegra. Susanne Gschwender's set designs, the stage stripped of everything but the huge skeleton of the hull of a ship that revolves to show us what would appear to be a representation of the mind of Simon Boccanegra, the Doge of Genoa. Seen lying prone on the floor, a position he also takes having been poisoned in Act II, it's tempting to see the fractured narrative and its strange outpourings of emotion and grief as that of a fevered mind of a former corsair viewing it in a heightened state.

And that works well for a narrative as fractured as Simon Boccanegra. Bieito is then able to introduce a vital element that is usually absent from the dramatic presentation of the work but which is ever-present in Verdi's music; Maria. The association of news of the death of Maria at the very moment that he is proclaimed Doge creates a fusion that haunts Boccanegra. It doesn't just cause problems with Maria's father that lead to political plotting and family feuds, but - along with the disappearance of Simon and Maria's daughter - it's also something that has a deep personal impact on him, a melancholic yearning associated with his office that remains with him all his life.

That sentiment is what you can hear when you hear the music that Verdi has composed for the opera, and it's there from the very first note, Fabio Luisi drawing the darkness out of the detail and the silences in the score. It's appropriate then that director Calixto Bieito introduces Maria as a ghostly presence throughout the work, even showing her normally off-stage reported death by having her father drag the dying woman onto the stage to confront the husband who let her down. The image is powerful, and Boccanegra cannot shake it. She haunts the ship of Simon's mind as he himself lies dying, caught up in his own melancholic reflection, sadness and regret.

The risk is that this internalised perspective aligned with Verdi's music could push this further over into high melodrama, but by allowing nothing extraneous to distract - much as Verdi's complete stripping away of any dramatic underscoring or ornamentation does - Bieito's production is able to focus on the sheer depth of feeling a father has for his daughter, for his family, for the regrets that have allowed political events beyond his control impinge on their natural development. It's something that Verdi would very much want to express from a personal viewpoint and Bieito's production permits this much better than any version of Simon Boccanegra I've ever seen before.

There's no effort to clarify the complexity of the plot or the gaps in credibility that come with Simon being reunited with his lost daughter, but there is every ounce of emotion put into expressing such longing and such feelings. If there's one place where the value of Bieito's work as a director shows, it's in his directing of the performers to make all those sentiments come to life. There's no opera theatrics here either in the mannerisms of the delivery of the singing; all of it comes from the heart, which might mean it's not quite naturalistic, but in the context of Verdi's music that is simply perfect, unadorned, unguarded, unredacted pure emotion.

As is ever the challenge with Verdi - even in those roles that aren't created purely to show off the abilities of the lead performers - is getting singers capable of handling the considerable vocal challenges that go along with the advances of characterisation in these later operas. If Maria Agresta couldn't always carry the fullness of sound that is needed, there aren't many who can meet the demands of the extraordinarily challenging range required for Amelia/Maria, but her performance was as intense and heartfelt as it needed to be. Ludovic Tézier continues to develop into one of the best Verdi baritones around and gave a commanding performance here, equally intense, equally heartfelt. When you add in the kind of delivery given by an outstanding Francesco Demuro as Gabriele Adorno and the contrast provided by Nicola Alaimo's Paolo, the results were truly shattering.

Links: Opéra National de Paris, Culturebox

Friday 14 December 2018

Verdi - Attila (Milan, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Attila

Teatro alla Scala, Milan - 2018

Riccardo Chailly, Davide Livermore, Ildar Abdrazakov, Saioa Hernández, Fabio Sartori, Simone Piazzola, Gianluca Buratto, Francesco Pittari

ARTE Concert - 7 December 2018

Attila is a dog of an opera. You can make excuses for it being an early Verdi work, full of youthful passion and fury, you can make claims for it being an expression in defence of national unity and liberty from foreign oppression, and you can even point to it anticipating Verdi's great mid period of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata, but at best Attila is workmanlike and at worst ridiculously old-fashioned. Other than the fact that it was first performed at La Scala in 1846, I can see no reason why the Milan house would choose Attila to showcase their traditional December season opening extravaganza.

Well, there's one valid way - maybe two - of making it work and possibly have something worthwhile to put in front of a modern audience. As was proved earlier this summer with Alzira at the Buxton Festival, even the crudest Verdi operas can be rehabilitated when they have truly great singers capable of singing the principal roles, particularly the extraordinarily challenging writing for the lead soprano role. In practice this is rare and there are few singers of that calibre willing to push their voices to such extremes for the sake of a hokey melodrama.

Which brings up the other challenge of making early Verdi palatable for a modern audience; finding a way of updating the production to make it relevant and not look like - as is the case with Attila - an am-dram Gothic melodrama in period costumes. Unfortunately, early Verdi rarely supports any effort to bring nuance or indeed substance to the works.

As far as the Teatro alla Scala di Milano is concerned however, they wouldn't dare present such a work without the necessary singing forces on such a prestigious opening night, even though the brave lead soprano Saioa Hernández taking on the role of Odabella is a complete unknown to me at least. On the directorial side there's a little more room to risk the disapproval of a thankfully decreasing but still vociferous minority of boorish traditionalists at the opera house, and Davide Livermore - who has produced some imaginative and thrilling work at the Rossini Opera Festival to showcase the underappreciated value of Verdi's predecessor - is a good choice that offers some hope for Attila not being a complete disaster.

The question remains whether Verdi's Attila can sustain any deeper human sentiments in this context. Based on Livermore's record it's not likely that he will attempt the impossible, but you can expect him to at least find a way of illuminating Verdi as an operatic spectacle. And indeed it soon becomes obvious that Livermore has dispensed with the heavy fleeces, fur-hats with horns and the swords and shields for a more recognisable and relatable vision of war. The director goes for spectacle that includes jeeps, motorbikes and helicopters (ok, not the last one, but he would if he could) but also finds a good balance of showing us familiar modern imagery of the nature of war atrocities without going too far down the Damiano Michieletto Guillaume Tell route of explicit realism.

Plumes of grey smoke spiral into dark murderous skies and ruined buildings set the scene as Attila's Huns overrun the Italian capital during the Prologue, gunning down ordinary men, women and children in summary executions. So when Odabella launches into a defiant condemnation of Attila's brutality against the Italian people, against Italian women ("Ma noi, donna italiche... sempra vedrai pugnar"), you need to see why she is sufficiently roused, why she might be capable of carrying out her threats, and why the Hun leader might be impressed enough to spare her a similar execution. You need to hear it too, and when Saioa Hernández launches into this opening scene you're left in little doubt of how formidable this woman can be, particularly when she is facing an Attila as deeply sonorous as Ildar Abdrazakov.

There's nothing clever or revisionist or high concept in that, it just matches and brings into realisation the full force of Verdi's intentions in dramatic and scenic terms, playing up the Gothic, which is the best you can do. Addressed to an Italian audience, with its nationalistic flag-waving in the face of foreign invasion ("la tua patria in cenere" - your country in ashes) it could be seen as risky in these times of far-right insurgence (particularly in Italy), but Livermore's vision (perhaps more than Verdi's vision of noble sacrifice) shows what war means to the ordinary people caught up in it in terms that we are rather more familiar with today.

There are plenty of little touches that keep the drama grounded in this way, with cinematic back projections showing the death of Odabella's father that chrysalises her implacable quest for vengeance against the Huns. There is also plenty of spectacle and fireworks elsewhere in the impressive set designs and some good ideas that strive to get into the nature of Attila and his worldview, notably in the visualisation of Attila's dream turning to reality in Act I, and in Act II's party scene that has some sinister and decadent 'The Nightporter'-like Nazi imagery. Most of this works as well as can be expected for an opera like Attila.

The singing however is just superb. You couldn't ask for better than Ildar Abdrazakov and Saioa Hernández for total assumption of the roles of Attila and Odabella. Hernández is spectacularly good, nailing an extremely difficult role. There's still some standing, gesturing and striking of operatic poses, but the figures they play do often seem possessed and they try at least to make the Verdi-istic feel a little more naturalistic, or at least in the spirit of the work. The other performances are also outstanding; Fabio Sartori is a clarion-voiced classic Verdi tenor perfect for Foresto, with Simone Piazzola's Ezio and Francesco Pittari's Uldino also impressing.

Musically it's another matter, or another challenge if you like. In an interval interview Riccardo Chailly makes the case for Attila richly showcasing three musical colours for military scenes, for sacred scenes and for the supernatural, which sounds like typical Verdi by numbers to me that is done much better elsewhere. If it's insipid one moment and heavy-handed the next, Chailly at least tries hard to brings a little more uniformity and lyricism to the musical arrangements. It doesn't change my opinion that Attila is weak and démodé, but if anyone can make a case for it, they'd be hard pushed to improve on just about any aspect of this impressive La Scala production. A surprising success.

Links: ARTE Concert, Teatro alla Scala

Friday 7 December 2018

Verdi - Otello (Munich, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Otello

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2018

Kirill Petrenko, Amélie Niermeyer, Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros, Gerald Finley, Rachael Wilson, Evan Leroy Johnson, Galeano Salas, Bálint Szabó, Milan Siljanov, Markus Suihkonen

Staatsoper.TV - 2 December 2018

While the dramatic qualities of Shakespeare's original play undoubtedly have a lot to do with the development of the nature and the emotional dynamic of the interaction between its characters, Verdi's Otello is the closest the composer would come to dramatic and musical perfection, the opera bringing its own charge and emphasis. There's little that a director can add to this and perhaps the best they can do is try to harness its power or bring a different emphasis without upsetting the balance. Some might seek to justify Jago/Iago's actions - and indeed Verdi's librettist Arrigo Boito invents a whole 'Credo' for him - but Amélie Niermeyer feels that a little more consideration of Desdemona's perspective can bring other elements out of the work. It's a balance that she meets well in her 2018 Munich production, but the real success of the production rests more on the performance of the three exceptional leads.

The opening scene of Otello, for example, is one of Verdi's greatest achievements, the conjuring up of a storm that sets the tone for what follows. Niermeyer of course retains the imagery of the storm as it applies to the narrative, an important introduction to the arrival of the Moor back in Venice, but the director also appropriates the storm as an emotional one by having Desdemona already in place in the scene, indicating that it's her perspective that is going to be considered. There's also a kind of doubling up however, a mirroring in Christian Schmidt's set designs, Desdemona in a white room in her innocence while the dark reality of the world to come without her lies outside.

That's the theory anyway, the 'concept', with the stage also turning a quarter turn each act to gradually reveal the totality. In practice it's not a major imposition and scarcely discernible but Desdemonda's presence is certainly felt more, and the injustice of Jago's plotting and Otello's jealous suspicions consequently come across more effectively. The actual mechanics of the plotting are not neglected either, the presence of the handkerchief as a device, how it changes hands and how it is used against Desdemona, is also emphasised. It even takes on a metaphorical aspect when highlighted this way; as an object of desire, as a symbol of love, of how the purity of that love is mistreated and turned against her, and as such it also has that dual function of innocence and destructiveness.

In its division of darkness versus light, dreams versus reality (as it applies to Desdemona) and reality versus nightmare (as it applies to Otello), the concept is uncomplicated and on a fairly high-level. It is used just to provide a context for the drama to take place within, or rather it describes the emotional context - as it applies to Desdemona mainly - rather than illustrating the dramatic action. Rather more effort is given to directing the singers as actors and knowing how to use talent like Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros and Gerald Finley.

When you've got a singer and actress as skilled as Anja Harteros you want to make the most of it, particularly when she is paired with Jonas Kaufmann, as she has been successfully on a number of occasions. Bringing her Desdemona onto the stage earlier than usual, even just as a silent witness, Harteros is a phenomenal presence. She remains the centre around which the work revolves (and apparently the set too, although I didn't really notice it). She brings an intense emotional realism that is on a par with the dramatic and musical drive of the opera.

Otello also needs to be up to that level or perhaps even beyond it and Jonas Kaufmann is equally as strong a performer in terms of characterisation, interpretation and technique. Yes, he still tends to deliver everything at the top of his voice, but in this case with the nature of the ultra-sensitive Otello and with Verdi's writing of it, it's justified. One possible weakness of the opera version of the work is that we don't perhaps see enough of the tenderness of Otello's love for Desdemona that becomes so twisted, but it is there and Kaufmann also expressed the softer sentiments well, sentiments that are necessarily strong enough to be turned to such horrific ends.

So all you need then is a Jago convincing, capable and callous enough to really stir it up between Harteros's pure Desdemona and Kaufmann's conflicted Otello; do that and you're on fire. The Bayerische Staatsoper have Gerald Finley as Jago, another strong presence more than capable of holding his own against Harteros and Kaufmann. There's no histrionics here, his is not a malevolent force as much as a determined belief in his superiority, boosted by a measure of self-satisfaction and self-regard. It's this kind of detail that makes all the difference, that makes the characterisation convincing, that makes it capable of pushing it to those places that Verdi takes it in his score.

I love watching Kirill Petrenko conduct. Honestly, if this was just a concert performance without the staging and the camera was fixed on Petrenko directing the orchestra, it would be just as dramatically effective. Petrenko enthusiastically throws himself into the opera with complete belief in it, becomes the drama, lives the music, and when he does that inevitably the music lives too. And it's incredible music. You can certainly get jaded with Verdi, with La Traviata and even Rigoletto, but not when you hear Verdi in his mature late period played as well as this. Technically daring in its arrangements, arias, duets, ensembles and choruses all put to the service of the emotional drama and colour of every single scene, Verdi's Otello is every bit as powerful as Shakespeare's Othello can and should be.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV

Monday 3 December 2018

Verdi - Aida (Dublin, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Aida

Irish National Opera, 2018

Fergus Sheil, Michael Barker-Caven, Monica Zanettin, Stefano La Colla, Imelda Drumm, Ivan Inverardi, Manfred Hemm, Graeme Danby, Rachel Goode, Conor Breen

Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin - 29 November 2018

Aida doesn't do subtle, but to be frank war doesn't do subtle either and that is essentially the theme and the challenge of presenting what is the peak of Verdi's late period operas. The trick is not to let the grand opera bombast and spectacle overwhelm the love story narrative, and to not let either distort the deeper meaning in the work. I'm not convinced that the Irish National Opera succeed entirely on either of those fronts, but they certainly are aware of the operas pitfalls and do their best to overcome them and in the process deliver an ambitious and powerful account of the work.

The biggest distraction to be contended with in Aida is often the representation of ancient Egypt with its pyramids and obelisks, robes and costumes giving it a remote aspect that removes it from any kind of reality. Michael Barker-Caven aims for a more abstract representation of what all that glamour and spectacle really means in terms of the wielding and exercise of power. Joe Vaněk's set and costume designs manage to retain quite a bit of the iconic imagery of ancient Gods and mysticism, giving it more of a masonic quality in this Irish National Opera production.

I'm not sure there's ever any acceptable rationale however for having mimes in an opera production, and we actually have three of them here adding to what is a complicated staging operating on a number of levels with lots of extra detail taking place on the sides and in projections. It does tend to take away from the traditional focus and narrative progression of the work, but I can live with that and so too apparently could the audience at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin who rose in rapturous response to the performance at the end.

The love story between Aida and Radamès might have been lost to some extent, but in a way that's the point. While these characters are trying to follow their hearts, war, race, duty and nationalism all create divisions and overwhelm any human considerations. Even Amneris is a victim, trapped by the social order that she lives in, part of a war machine that crushes any individual desires. Neither were the anti-war, anti-religious sentiments over-emphasised however, but rather just additional factors reminding you of how those with wealth and privilege are also trapped within the restrictive boundaries that they uphold.

Avoiding the bigger (heavier-handed) picture, the INO production instead focussed on little details that are more often overlooked. Far too many to take in or even comprehend as fitting into the overall narrative picture, but they contributed to the overall impact that it is necessary to achieve. It's about using war and nationalism as a weapon to control and win people over to the idea of blind obedience, making them nice little consumers, distracted by the lure of glamorous clothes, wealth and mindless entertainment. What is lost is also suggested in the more intimate details of Aida's longing for her homeland, for the destruction of nature (soft breezes, grassy hills, virgin forests) that unbridled capitalism and war bring.

So instead of the usual pomp and ceremony in Act III we had Chippendale-like dancers performing for the well-dressed women and pompom-waving cheerleaders for the brave troops returning after massacring the Ethiopian enemies. Everywhere TV cameras chose to show the images the media and the establishment want you to see, one that supports their own interests, ambitions and incursions, one that promotes it as being for the benefit of the people. This is an Aida that speaks of the world we know today without having to make the point in any blunt or heavy-handed manner.

Some of the multitude of ideas worked better than others, but it was most successful and had the most impact when it chimed with Verdi's music. When heard in this context, without it having to support kitsch spectacle and hackneyed costumes, when it supports rather the themes of bowing unquestioningly to the power and influence, Verdi's incredible music shows its true qualities. Fergus Sheil controlled its inherent power well, rising in force as the work progressed, working hand-in-hand with all the detail that was going on on the stage rather than aiming for the big sweep, allowing the score to assert its own undeniable force. Sinead Hayes ensured that the choral arrangements were just perfect (the song of the Priestesses, 'Possente Ftha' just mesmerising), and the overall result was impressive.

Even so, all these musical qualities would be to little avail if the strength of human love didn't arise out of it all as the important factor. In pure narrative terms it's all a bit melodramatic, but Barker-Caven ensured that the characterisation was strong enough to match the sentiments expressed in Verdi's musical writing for the voice. And, despite some worrying set-backs announced before the performance on the 29th November, that was very well catered for with Monica Zanettin and Stefano La Colla having to step in at very short notice for the two principals Orla Boylan and Gwyn Hughes Jones.

How they managed to fit a new Aida and Radamès into such a complicated stage production with elaborate choreography was simply incredible. Both Zanettin and La Colla took maybe five minutes to settle into the roles but after that it was a seamless transition, both rising to the vocal challenges and bringing the necessary warmth and character to the roles. Actually, it might have been more difficult to carry-off if the production didn't have Imelda Drumm in the role of Amneris. She was everything you want an Amneris to be, the driving force behind the human conflicts, but one whose predicament and loss also elicits a considerable degree of sympathy.

Links: Irish National Opera

Wednesday 28 November 2018

Gluck - Orphée et Eurydice (Paris, 2018)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Orphée et Eurydice

Opéra Comique, Paris - 2018

Raphaël Pichon, Aurélien Bory, Marianne Crebassa, Hélène Gilmette, Lea Desandre

ARTE Concert - October 2018

Gluck's original Italian version of Orfeo ed Euridice may already be considered as close to perfection as an opera can get, but you can't really argue that Hector Berlioz's version of the work doesn't respect and have equal value to the original. Well, you could argue the point that it doesn't entirely respect the reformist instrumental minimalism and that it includes a little ornamentation and extensions to suit the taste of a 19th century French audience, but by and large Orphée et Eurydice retains the essential quality of the music being entirely in service to the drama.

You know that because every scene and every note in Gluck's opera is necessary, heartfelt and powerful in conveying the meaning of the work, and the subjects it deals with are the deepest and most heartfelt of human emotions - love, loss, grief and redemption. Although in the latter case, even Gluck might have compromised the qualities of truth for the sake of narrative requirements and audience expectations, even if it remains a work of supreme beauty. Working with Berlioz's 1859 version, Raphaël Pichon attempts his own slight corrective to the 'happy' ending for the Opéra Comique's production, but the purity of Gluck's intentions remain even in their absence.

Directed by Aurélien Bory, the Paris production adheres to those basic principles in Gluck's musical composition and in how best to express the sentiments that lie behind the work in terms of the stage production that achieves maximum impact from minimal means. Berlioz's extended overture permits a way of showing Orpheus's loss of Eurydice, a simple large mirror over the stage giving an overview of the horror of her death. Eurydice falls to the ground, a hole opens up in the stage, a grave, and Eurydice is sucked down into it, the whole backdrop of Orpheus's world dragged down along with her.

The mirror also works effective for the appearance of Amore to inhabit the real world and also be representative of the metaphorical meaning of her presence. Borne aloft by dancing figures dressed in black, she appears in the mirror to float above the stage, achieving maximum impact with minimal means. Another effective use of stage craft is used to represent the Furies as dancers who are appeased by Orpheus, marking his descent into the underworld.

There's nothing old-fashioned in the costume designs, but nothing obtrusively modern about them either, the work inhabiting the same timeless place as the sentiments it is principally concerned with. With his smart suit and clicked back white hair, Orpheus looks less like a businessman and more like a music impresario, and it's in the voice, the musical qualities of that voice, that Orpheus embodies and expresses those qualities that represent humanity in its purest state, vulnerable and yet capable of striving to overcome adversity.

Musically at least, Raphaël Pichon brings out the beauty of this in Gluck's score, even if Berlioz's instrumentation doesn't quite pack the same edge and directness as it would on Gluck's period instruments. A contralto or mezzo-soprano however can bring great range to Orpheus in the Berlioz edition and Marianne Crebassa has tenderness and depth of expression in Orpheus's song of grief. There's a similar purity of expression that is appropriate for Eurydice and Amore in the singing of Hélène Gilmette and Lea Desandre, the overall impact that this gives to the work just breathtaking.

I'm less convinced that you can get away with correcting the limitations imposed on Gluck to provide a happy ending by simply cutting Amore's gift of returning Eurydice to life. I think that this is something that can be redeemed creatively to some extent in the stage directions, as Romeo Castellucci inventively managed in his production of Orphée et Eurydice for La Monnaie, but ending it prematurely by cutting the final scenes just leaves the opera feeling incomplete. Still, the acceptance of loss and bearing grief is perhaps closer to the truth for everyone, and Gluck certainly provides the necessary sombre reflection in that music that still makes for a thoughtful conclusion in this Opéra Comique production.

Links: Opéra Comique, ARTE Concert

Sunday 25 November 2018

Mozart - Die Zauberflöte (La Monnaie, 2018)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2018

Antonello Manacorda, Romeo Castellucci, Ed Lyon, Sabine Devieilhe, Sophie Karthäuser, Georg Nigl, Elina Galitskaya, Gábor Bretz, Dietrich Henschel, Tineke van Ingelgem, Angélique Noldus, Esther Kuiper

ARTE Concert - 27 September 2018

As if you couldn't already guess from the fact that it's Romeo Castellucci at La Monnaie, the opening pre-musical sequence alerts you pretty quickly to the fact that this is not going to be a 'traditional' Magic Flute by any means. A man walks onto the empty stage and throws a steel bar at a glowing glass neon tube until it breaks plunging the stage into darkness. Yeah, you think, it's The Magic Flute, we get it; light/darkness, enlightenment/obscurantism, a lot of ritual and symbolism. If you think Castellucci is going to be that obvious, you quickly realise that you're going to have to think again.

But yes, certainly Castellucci tends to find the big underlying contrasts or forces in conflict within an opera and brings them to the fore to the point where they are what the opera is all about. The actual stage directions and dramatic narrative are soon left behind as Castellucci usually starts to push those ideas even further into god knows where. (See his recent Moses und Aron or Tannhäuser). You might take for granted that Die Zauberflöte is all about masonic rituals with fairy tale characters and situations, but you're not going to see any of that in a Castellucci production. Doesn't that mean you lose something of the essential character of Mozart? Unquestionably yes, but can we trust Castellucci to give back something of equal worth?

Maybe not of equal worth, but there is something here in the La Monnaie production, no matter how obscure it gets, that approaches Mozart's work in a new way and provides a commentary on it as well as interacting and highlighting less familiar aspects of the work. There are perhaps no major new revelations and it might not all fit together in any way that is entirely comprehensible, but Castellucci does relate Mozart's Magic Flute to our experiences of the world today and that is bound to be more meaningful than any play on ancient masonic rituals, magic and obscure symbolism (not that Castellucci doesn't have even more obscure symbolism of his own).

So no, there's no serpent slain by Tamino and there's no traditional depiction of the three ladies. There's actually four here in the first Act and four boys too which totally screws up the numerology which is often considered to be important in the work. But is it really? By changing the numbers, Romeo Castellucci is able to steer the work in a new direction, one where symmetry and mirroring takes its place. There is certainly this contrasting of two sides of one human nature (an important aspect that Castellucci takes pains later to ensure is not neglected) in the divisions of the Königin/Sarastro, Tamino/Pamina, Papageno/Papagena, in male/female, in lightness/darkness, in rationalism/obscurantism, in good/evil.

It's also there in the division and structure of the opera itself and Castellucci contrasts the two Acts in a way that highlights aspects of the opera quite unlike anyone else has done before. Act I is all elegance, beauty, balance and symmetry in a uniform haze of brilliant white; by no means the obvious way to reflect this half of the opera, but if you like you can see it as a visual representation of Mozart's music itself. That's emphasised by the costumes which are period 18th century frock coats and powdered wigs. Papageno is indistinguishable from Tamino in identical elaborate costumes and there isn't a single scene, action or gesture that reflects the familiar course of the opera's dramatic action. You can be damned sure that there's going to be no actual magic flute or glockenspiel.

Instead figures move around in an elaborately choreographed display of symmetrical precision, with rotating patterns of white masked dancers, some topless with feather headdresses and fans like something out of the Crazy Horse in Paris. Architect Michael Hansmeyer's set designs however continue to accumulate detail, building up into an elaborate wedding cake or the stucco interior of some impossibly grand white cathedral. It is an extraordinary display, utterly beautiful, daring to ignore adherence to any traditional depiction of the drama in favour of just highlighting the elegance and beauty and symmetry in Mozart's music. It's something that is enhanced - or works both ways - with the nimble musical performance from the orchestra pit under Antonello Manacorda emphasising the melodic brilliance and effervescence with a wonderful lightness of touch.

As extraordinarily beautiful as it all looks, it's also a very cold and sterile way to approach Mozart and The Magic Flute, but of course that's only half the story. In direct contrast to elaborate representation of the music in Act I, Castellucci brings the work down to earth in Act II with a depiction of the human reality that can also be found in Die Zauberflöte which might otherwise be lost amidst all the comedy, symbolism and ritualism. Similar to his last production at La Monnaie, Orphée et Eurydice, Castellucci brings the experiences of real ordinary people in to highlight the underlying human reality of the questions of the trials endured by Tamino and Papageno. A group of six women talk about their personal experience of blindness and living in darkness, and a group of six men talk about surviving horrific burns in a 'trial of fire'.

In contrast to Act I the second half is depicted in mundane real-world terms in a warehouse environment, the glamorous fairy-tale white period costumes swapped for identical yellow-brown factory worker overalls and yellow-blond wigs. The performances are more dramatically realistic, you can at least sometimes tell characters apart from the labels on their back and there's even an actual flute! Inevitably there's a lot more than this in the production and as is often the case with Castellucci it goes off in all kinds of weird directions. Mirroring/contrasting the opening of the first Act, for example, the second part opens with lactating mothers pumping breast milk - for real - into it bottles that are subsequently emptied into another glass tube by the Queen of the Night, the action accompanied by some obscure text that presents a different perspective on the less than flattering idea of motherhood traditionally represented by Königin der Nacht in the opera.

In this way, Castellucci actually deconstructs Die Zauberflöte entirely, separating the work down into its component parts, none of which on their own are convincing or satisfactory but which when played through to the end do nonetheless still manage to capture the totality of what is in the opera. It's highly doubtful that the work needs to be deconstructed in this manner or even benefits from it in any way when it's all there already in the genius of Mozart's blending of all its elements, but it does highlight aspects that we (or other directors) might neglect though familiarity. The 'real-people's lives' human element while looking initially like a frustrating diversion, turns out to be very moving, so there is a case to be made for it.

Evidently as far as stage direction, concept and interpretation go this is not a Magic Flute for everyone and, despite its fidelity to the themes in the work and its underlying humanity, it can't be said that it respects Mozart's intentions. In terms of musical and singing performances however it's hard to fault. The orchestra highlight that compositional and melodic brilliance in the first half and seem to find the human warm in the opera in the second half. The casting is an outstanding collection of lyrical Mozartian voices with Ed Lyon as Tamino, Sabine Devieilhe a lighter than usual but eminently capable Königin der Nacht, Gábor Bretz a fine Sarastro, Sophie Karthäuser an impressive Pamina, Georg Nigl and Elena Galitskaya fulfilling the roles of Papageno and Papagena well, each of them at least brilliantly distinguishable from their voices if not always in appearance or role-playing.

Links: La Monnaie-DeMunt, ARTE Concert

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Stockhausen - Donnerstag aus Licht (Paris, 2018)

Karlheinz Stockhausen - Donnerstag aus Licht

Le Balcon - Paris, 2018

Maxime Pascal, Benjamin Lazar, Damien Bigourdan, Safir Behloul, Léa Trommenschlager, Elisa Chauvin, Damien Pass, Henri Deléger, Emmanuelle Grach, Iris Zerdoud, Suzanne Meyer, Mathieu Adam, Jamil Attar

Opéra Comique, Salle Favart - 15 November 2018

Stockhausen still remains a bit of a challenge (I can't imagine it ever being anything else) and his Licht cycle of operas must surely be among some of the most challenging of all. You need to have some belief in the composer's underlying philosophy to play it convincingly or really get anything out of it as a listener. The contemporary music ensemble Le Balcon are certainly believers, familiar with the language of the avant-garde, but usually on a smaller scale and the Licht operas are on another level entirely. Even just one part of it, Donnerstag aus Licht is a huge undertaking.

It's difficult because Stockhausen has very exacting, detailed and specific ideas about how the work should be performed and presented. The Stockhausen Institute also zealously safeguard the composer's legacy and aren't at all happy with anyone who doesn't adhere to its guidelines in word or spirit, as was evident from their rather sternly worded note offering certain misgivings on the last production of Donnerstag at Basel in 2016. Le Balcon's production, directed by Benjamin Lazar and conducted by Maxime Pascal for the Opéra Comique in Paris actually takes more liberties with personal interpretation, but make a much more convincing case that the true message of Donnerstag is not so much in the narrative as in the music.

You can have a synopsis sitting in front of you and even have a working familiarity with the work from the previous Basel production which played out at least to the letter of the work, but Act I of this Paris production is still extraordinarily challenging and difficult to follow. Michael's childhood, mirroring some of the composer's own family experiences, shouldn't be that difficult to follow, even though Stockhausen has three characters playing each of the three main roles; as a singer, a musical instrument and a dancer. Michael for example is represented by a tenor singer, a trumpet player and a dancer.

Having an instrument double or a dance double is now a common enough feature employed at least by some modern directors for other operas - although never both - but Stockhausen has other reasons for such divisions. There's the significant use of the trinity that represents different aspects of a complex personality as well as approaches the subject from different time periods. Lazar however doesn't try to make this any easier to follow (and even switches to a second tenor Michael in Act III), but with a back screen projection of a child writing in Act I there is some indication that Michael may be hugely talented but at this stage is still learning his craft, drawing from personal experience and translating it into words and music. At this stage however, the music is not powerful enough to defeat the forces of father/Luzifer's darkness, and it only develops with the extraterrestrial gift from Mondeva (Moon-Eve).

Act I is a struggle, but by Act II it all starts to make sense as Stockhausen takes his ideas of opera in a new direction and beyond its narrative limitations by having no conventional singing at all. Words are no longer needed, music finds its own expression and universal language as Michael travels around the globe to bring his message to the world. Again, the overarching narrative idea is kept simple - the image of a child spinning a globe instead of literal depictions of situations in Cologne, New York, Japan, Bali, India, Central Africa and Jerusalem - but the real meaning is contained in the music, *IS* the music. In Act II it's Michael's trumpet that defeats Luzifer's trombone much more convincingly in a stunningly staged battle scene.

The visual impact is important also, again more important than the narrative, making use of symbols and lights, symbols written in light - but it's in the music that the work gets it truest musical expression and that this production is most successful. The quality of the musical performance is extraordinary and to make sure that you get it and feel its full impact, it's spread all around the Salle Favart auditorium with electronic sounds, with those strange clicking noises that Stockhausen enumerates and in the huge choral arrangements that come at you from all directions. It's not so much putting the audience in the opera as opening up the music for you to experience it in all its beauty, literally filling your world with music to the extent that you forget that it's "difficult" and find yourself enveloped in a new language that is speaking directly to you.

This evidently is the gift that Stockhausen believes he/Michael has to offer the world and Le Balcon marshall all their forces in collaboration with other like-minded musicians and creatives to make this an orchestral, choral and theatrical tour-de-force. Act III's festival for Michael's homecoming was accordingly utterly astounding, truly making Stockhausen's music speak, sounding like nothing earthly. The impact of the visuals was just as impressive, not needing to be as descriptive as the Basel production was perhaps a little inclined to be, but ensuring instead that the audience's attention was riveted towards the music and towards the musicians, who appropriately are all prominently arranged across the stage for the almost overwhelming final Act.

A rarely performed opera, the Opéra Comique's 2018 production of Donnerstag aus Licht was created for just three performances, so this was always going to be a special event and indeed it proved to be an experience that would be impossible to replicate in any other way. Le Balcon made sure that their production in the just about perfect environment of the Opéra Comique's Salle Favart theatre not only lived up to expectations, but delivered what is likely to be considered as one of the major events of the current opera season. Stockhausen's gift to the world has reached Paris, the truth of its message delivered and it was enthusiastically received.

Links: Opéra Comique