Wednesday 31 January 2018

Gardner - Gunfighter Nation (Berlin, 2016)

Evan Gardner - Gunfighter Nation

Opera Lab Berlin, 2016

Musashi Baba, Antoine Daurat, Manuel Nawri, Michael Höppner, Yuka Yanagihara, Gina May Walter, Lena Haselmann, Georg Bochow, Martin Gerke, Enrico Wenzel, Shin Joo Morgantini, Jone Bolibar Nuñez, Matthew Conley, Jack Adler-McKean, Matthias Koole, Evoxia Filippou, Alexandros Giovanos, Mia Bodet, David Eggert

Wergo - DVD

From the pieces of music that you can find of the Berlin-based American composer Evan Gardner on SoundCloud, you might expect his opera work to be somewhere in the same style as Salvatore Sciarrino. Gardner's chamber pieces are often similarly sparse of instrumentation but complex in composition and sonic reverberation, creating a world of whispering voices, scratching strings and flurries of flute set against a background of ominous silence, with the occasional more lushly orchestrated composition. While evidence of that style can be heard in Gunfighter Nation, Gardner's second opera, the composer applies and indeed extends extended techniques to a new idea of opera performance, using a bolder musical expression to meet the demands of the rather brash nature of the all-American theme of the work.

Gunfighter Nation was created for Opera Lab Berlin. a company founded in 2014 by Gardner with theatre director Michael Höppner with the intention of breaking down the usual strict demarcations between the roles of singer and musician, and indeed composer or conductor. Evidently in this "instrumental theatre" world the audience aren't treated entirely as passive recipients either, separated from the performance by an orchestra pit, but are rather seated in and around the musicians/actors/singers/performers, and - in the case of Gunfighter Nation - invited to wear Indian feathers and headbands to better fit in with the whole theatrical experience.

The use of such conventional - some might say hackneyed - stereotypical imagery is however very much a part of Gunfighter Nation, which evidently relies to a large extent on satire, ideas and symbols, as well as using existing cut-up texts and materials to present the concept rather than create a narrative-based libretto. As an America composer living in Berlin, Gardner is aware of the power of American iconography in Europe and across the world, so stereotypical imagery it might be, but these are nonetheless strong universally recognised visual reference that are American writ large. As if there is any other kind. The characters consequently are dressed in costumes that are American to the core; cowboys and Indians, Superman, an American football player, rednecks, an evangelical preacher, Dolly Parton, Marilyn Monroe, Al Jolson and Michael Jackson, a soldier, a McDonalds employee, a cheerleader and a hooker.

Created as a sequence of scenes with no defined order, if there is one unifying theme that comes out of all these random American symbols and if you can derive one narrative arch or theme that reaches from one end to the other, it's money and expansion. The native American Indians who are pushed off their land in the opening section are seen adopting all-American ways and drinking Coca-Cola by the end of Gunfighter Nation, or indeed to put it much more satirically and cynically, the pregnant Indian squaw actually gives birth to and nurses a bottle of Coca-Cola, the ultimate symbol of America taking over the world.

That perhaps makes it sound crass or even similar to Philip Glass's rather weak satire of the kind of American values espoused by Walt Disney in his opera The Perfect American, but there is nothing conventional about the way that these ideas are conveyed to the audience. The texts are a blend of cut-up material and satirical improvisations of songs, spoken texts, etiquette manuals, speeches and treatises. The cowboy song 'Home on the Range' ('Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam...") is blended in with texts and references that include 'America the Beautiful', John L. O'Sullivan's 'The Great Nation of Futurity' (1839), and even Ingmar Bergman's very non-American film 'Scenes From a Marriage', which is referenced in a domestic dispute.

Aside from the audience being scattered around in the same theatre space as the performers, the most significant difference between instrumental theatre and conventional opera that soon becomes evident is that the musicians are all singers/actors/performers. Inevitably this demands an extensive and specialised range of skills to be able to sing, perform and play in individual scenes, as well as part of an ensemble. In one scene a preacher walks around swinging his cello using it to emphasise the fervour of his pronouncements; an American footballer with a Dobro guitar duels with an American soldier on tuba in a macho display, raising the stakes with casino chips; a trio of 'good-time girls' blow seductively and suggestively on wind instruments; and a redneck couple conduct a domestic dispute on percussion instruments.

This obviously allows a closer connection between the music and the 'drama' (albeit non-narrative drama) than you would find in a conventional opera or indeed even the most avant-garde contemporary opera works. While it might appear somewhat exaggerated and caricatural, the multidisciplinary ability and talent of the performers is impressive, and surprisingly effective as a manner of theatrical expression. Some scenes work better than others, some points are too obvious, others obscure, others just irritating, but personally I found it hugely engaging and involving. I daresay such theatre demands physical presence in the theatre to be truly effective, but it's a tribute to how well that the performance is filmed for this DVD release that it holds the attention thoroughly. Occupying the same space as the performers that could have been no mean feat, but the recording captures all the energy, creative interaction and indeed, the impressive efforts that have gone into the staging of Gunfighter Nation as a compelling piece of opera theatre.

Gunfighter Nation is released on DVD in a CD-sized jewel case. Aside from the full performance of Gunfighter Nation recorded at Ballhaus Ost in Berlin in November 2016, the DVD also includes three audio-only tracks by Evan Gardner - Sonic Voyager II, Scandinavian Knitting, and No Thanks: Five Poems by e.e. cummings. The DVD is in PAL format, Region free, with English and German subtitles.

Links: Evan Gardner, Opera Lab Berlin

Monday 29 January 2018

Wagner - Die Walküre (Munich, 2017)

Richard Wagner - Die Walküre

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2018

Kirill Petrenko, Andreas Kriegenburg, Simon O'Neill, Ain Anger, John Lundgren, Anja Kampe, Nina Stemme, Ekaterina Gubanova, Daniela Köhler, Karen Foster, Anna Gabler, Michaela Selinger, Helena Zubanovich, Jennifer Johnston, Okka von der Damerau, Rachael Wilson

Staatsoper.TV - 22 January 2018

Based on the live streaming broadcast of Die Walküre, there doesn't appear to be any grand concept applied to Andreas Kriegenburg's Munich Ring cycle, but after a few recent Ring cycles that have been heavily weighed down by all manner of symbolism and interpretation (Bayreuth, Mannheim), it's refreshing at least to step back once in a while and just let the music speak for itself in Wagner's epic work, as it's surely strong enough in that respect. It's perhaps easier to get away with that though when you have Kirill Petrenko conducting and an exceptional cast of the level assembled here, but Kriegenburg's direction isn't without some ideas and character, even if it's difficult to determine just what it is from this part of the cycle alone.

There certainly doesn't seem to be any grand vision here as Kriegenburg's Die Walküre plays the familiar story out in a fairly straightforward fashion on relatively minimalist sets. It's an approach that is rather more in keeping with the recent move away from the more extreme kinds of interpretation we have been accustomed to seeing at the Bayerische Staatsoper. The production is unobtrusive, it doesn't call attention to itself, but by the same token it's not particularly attention-grabbing. The intentions of the director however would appear to be working not so much with drama as with the 'space' around it, using supernumeraries and dancers who "represent the reality that surrounds the singers" rather than interfering with the work itself.

Act I, for example, is dominated by a huge tree in Hunding's lodge, which is decorated it seems by desiccated corpses. Siegmund is initially kept at a fairly large distance away from Sieglinde on the large open set that has only a few indications of a home environment, the space filled rather by 'invisible' servants who pass the drinks and set up a long dinner table between them, as well as (curiously) tend to dead bodies in the background. Wearing torch lights strapped to their palms, they also reflect light and appear to be directing or highlighting the invisible tensions between the twins and Hunding. Other than establishing that undercurrent of menace and confusion, there isn't a lot else you can do with characterisation here to bring any real drama out of the scene, but the musical and singing performances take care of it well enough. The richness of the score and how Petrenko manages it is clearly evident even at this stage, the Act flowing from cold menace to warm wonder, with Ain Anger's menacing Hunding fully conveying one end of that scale and Simon O'Neill and Anja Kampe bringing us gloriously through to the other.

Act II is of course an even greater challenge with its long scene between Wotan and Fricka. Kriegenburg plays around with the various tones of this Act, opening with an epic Valhalla intro in swirling mists, but then settling for a tone set by the extra figures around the singers that establishes itself as business-like. In a bare wood-paneled wide office space, with a large prestigious painting hanging on the wall. Wotan is more of a businessman or lord of a vast estate, playfully engaging with his daughter Brünnhilde, but he has documents to sign, matters to arrange. Up to now, like the servants who even form a throne for him to sit on, everything bends to his will and it's been a relatively simple matter of sending Brünnhilde and the Valkyrie warriors to carry out his orders. That way of working, as we all know, is about to change.

Dancers are used to set up the war-like environment that prefigures Act III's Ride of the Valkyrie, with warriors (in business suits), impaled on top of spears. It's a strong image, but the actual appearance of the Valkyrie is disappointing. With no mounts of any kind, their reins are attached to the poles and it's a bit undramatic. The singing again makes up for any shortcomings here, as does Petrenko's conducting which works hand-in-hand with the action and the demands of the singers. Act III is critical and regardless of the strengths and qualities of a production, the musical performance, no Die Walküre is going to have the necessary impact unless it has a convincing Wotan and Brünnhilde, and no-one could surely be disappointed with John Lundgren and Nina Stemme in those roles.

If Andreas Kriegenburg's production is successful (provisionally as far as Die Walküre is concerned, without having seen the other parts of this Ring cycle), it in how he (and the performers) manage to bring out the father/daughter relationship as the true heart of the work. It's much more than just a regular parent/child relationship that you would find, for example, in a Verdi opera. With his daughter as an outward expression of Wotan's will, it's also about the wielding of power and how the exercise of it can corrupt and have other unforeseen consequences. As Stemme alludes to in her interval interview, it's also about becoming human, emancipating oneself from older ways, and Brünnhilde makes mistakes but makes them honestly with the best of intentions. Critically, through Siegmund and Sieglinde she learns about true love and doesn't so much lose her divinity as become more human.

Stemme, seeing this character though all three Ring operas in which she has a role in this Munich Ring cycle, sings terrifically as you would expect, but also displays a wonderful warm, sympathetic relationship with Lundgren's superbly sung Wotan. Lundgren has already demonstrated his capability in this role at Bayreuth, and here he just seems to have assumed the personality of Wotan completely. The Wotan/Brünnhilde relationship is a vital element in Die Walküre, and whether you put it down to the quality of the singing or the direction, or both, it's really nailed here. Although important as the lynch-pin that the drama of Die Walkure turn on and a formidable character in her own right, Fricka's role has less room for interpretation and motivation. She acts out of wounded pride at the evidence of Wotan's betrayals making a mockery out of her office of marriage, compounded by the brother and sister relationship of Siegmund and Sieglinde, and can consequently come across as strident and harsh in her judgements, but Ekaterina Gubanova sings the role well and succeeds in showing Fricka as someone with a sense of what is right and how false actions can have consequences.

Occasional cutaways to the orchestra pit during the broadcast showed just how much Kirill Petrenko was not only managing the detail and dynamic of the score, but clearly enjoying himself immensely with the wonders on offer. The musical director of the Munich house seems to have a strong affinity with Wagner, and indeed with the Bayerisches Staatsorchester if the broadcast performances this season and last are anything to go by. Everything you want from Die Walküre is there in terms of drama and romantic sweep, but Petrenko never lets the work get carried away into bombast, finding the deeper sensitivities in the anguish and tragedy of the final act, giving them voice and allowing room for the singers to fill these epic characters of legend with real human feelings. And the singers assembled are more than capable of doing that.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Rimsky-Korsakov - The Snow Maiden (Paris, 2017)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - The Snow Maiden

L’Opéra National de Paris, 2017

Mikhail Tatarnikov, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Aida Garifullina, Yuriy Mynenko, Martina Serafin, Maxim Paster, Thomas Johannes Mayer, Elena Manistina, Vladimir Ognovenko, Franz Hawlata, Vasily Gorshkov, Carole Wilson, Vasily Efimov, Vincent Morell, Pierpaolo Palloni, Olga Oussova 

ARTE Concert - 25 April 2017

Rimsky-Korsakov's telling of the fairy tale of The Snow Maiden is by no means a straightforward narrative. The story itself is simple enough and easy to follow, but it's elaborated on by the composer with all the colours and adornments of an epic Russian legend, with songs, dances, musical interludes, ceremonial folk dances and choruses. This however is not Sadko or The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, and as beautiful as the scoring is, it risks losing sight of the simple message at the heart of the story about love and time, about the seasons bringing change and renewal. You have to wonder then whether Dmitri Tcherniakov doesn't risk adding another level of distance in his production for the Paris Opera that takes it further away from the fairy tale moral.  

The Snow Maiden isn't performed as often as other works by Rimsky-Korsakov and it's only recently that we've really had a chance to get to experience a wider selection of the composer's work. It has to be said that for all the controversy that he brings with him, Dmitri Tcherniakov has been at the forefront of introducing rarely heard Russian masterpieces to the West and presenting them in a new meaningful light, and Rimsky-Korsakov works have been very much a part of that. The Snow Maiden however is clearly something of a challenging work to stage effectively. John Fulljames directed a beautiful and wonderfully illuminating production of The Snow Maiden for Opera North last year, but even that failed to thaw the icy heart of the work.  

The nature of Ostrovsky's work as a piece of folklore with a very Russian character and a magical fairy tale element shouldn't necessarily present a difficulty to a director like Tcherniakov who wants to modernise it to some extent, but his production of The Snow Maiden seems to fall somewhere in between. Not unexpectedly, the dispute of Mother Spring and Father Frost is seen in a rather more contemporary domestic light, with the unfortunate off-spring of their ill-matched union - the Snow Maiden - being given up for adoption to a old Berendeyan couple. The Berendey village in the woods however, while apparently some kind of little commune, still can't help but retain an old Russian folk character in its dress and customs.

Big and colourful, recreating a small village arrayed in a small semi-circle with a wood of tall trees behind, it's another one of Tcherniakov's extravagant sets that presents a busy stage for all of Rimsky-Korsakov's rich arrangements and choruses. It certainly captures the sense of a close community, and Tcherniakov's direction also creates an impression sense of real meaningful drama between the characters in as far as he is able. He can't resist having Tsar Berendey nod off for a few seconds as Kupova starts on an elaborate answer to the simple question of who has offended her honour, but it's playful and not mocking, recognising that there's a lot of filler and conventionalism in the telling of the story.

The connection between the tides and seasons of nature of those that bring about changes in the nature of man however isn't drawn quite as cleverly as John Fulljames' production for Opera North. Everything that needs to be said however is said fairly directly in the libretto; "The hearts of people are getting colder. I see less warmth in their love", Tsar Berendey observes. If Dmitri Tcherniakov doesn't really draw out or highlight the folk elements and rhythms of nature in his direction, nor find anything new or insightful to bring to it, his direction doesn't quite go as far as obscuring the intentions and the moral of the story. But when it does come to life, it seems to be more to do with the lovely performance of the Paris orchestra and the fine singing performances.

The fact that Rimsky-Korsakov's score is sumptuously beautiful is clearly apparent, but under the direction of conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov, the skill with which the composer has matched the score to the dramatic and narrative side of the work is even more evident here. It also works beautifully hand-in-hand with the singing. Aida Garifullina has everything you want of a snow maiden, glowing youth and freshness and a voice that soars not with confidence, but with an otherworldly beauty. It was quite extraordinary to hear Lel sung not by a female contralto, but by a male countertenor. Yuriy Mynenko brought out another dynamic out of the work, a persuasive beauty that Lel's songs should really possess.

Musically and in terms of the singing performances, the Paris production is indeed beyond reproach, with other fine performances to enjoy in Martina Serafin's Kupova, in Maxim Paster's Tsar and Thomas Johannes Mayer's Mizguir. Aside from the opening introduction sequence, which appears somewhat at odds with fairy tale nature of the remainder of the production, Dmitri Tcherniakov's direction actually tells the story clearly and without over-complicating matters and it looks marvellous. With its naturalistic approach to the simple folk lifestyle of living life out in the woods, it does promote more of a back-to-nature sentiment as a way of opening one's heart to the radiant flame of life, but despite the exquisite beauty of the work, it still feels a rather cold and lifeless affair that never really connects to human emotions in the way that you would like. Cold and beautiful however might just be the actual nature of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden.

Links: L’Opéra National de Paris, ARTE Concert

Friday 5 January 2018

Puccini - La Bohème (Paris, 2017)

Giacomo Puccini - La Bohème

L’Opéra National de Paris, 2017

Gustavo Dudamel, Claus Guth, Nicole Car, Aida Garifullina, Atalla Ayan, Artur Rucinski, Alessio Arduini, Roberto Tagliavini, Marc Labonnette, Antonel Boldan, Bernard Arrieta, Jain-Hong Zhao, Fernando Velasquez

Culturebox - 12 December 2017

No, no matter how much you try to rationalise it, there could surely be no justification for director Claus Guth reinventing La Bohème as a science-fiction space adventure. As strange as Guth's productions can often be, this one for the Paris Opera was always going to be a bit of a stretch. But you've got to admire Guth's nerve for even attempting something like this at La Bastille, where a large conservative element in the audience don't usually take kindly to such directorial indulgences. I couldn't wait to see what Guth did with this, even if failure and the disapprobation of the Paris audience was likely to be the outcome of such a conceit.

As outrageous as the idea might seem and as outlandish as it indeed looks seeing La Bohème take place on a space station crash-landing on a distant moon, Guth's approach to making it fit actually isn't all that surprising. It's one step removed from 'it was all a dream' brought on by bereavement and deprivation leading to mental breakdown (as Stefan Herheim also basically proposed in his reverse deconstructed Oslo production), and in a futuristic space context that kind of idea tends to play out like Solaris (which has already been adopted to opera in recent years by Detlev Glanert and Dai Fujikura), a work which leaves room for some in-depth consideration of the nature of human relationships.

La Bohème then actually has some suitability for this kind of feverish nightmare outlook. The forced comedy of impoverished artists facing starvation projecting their creative imaginations towards surreal displays can be seen as a distraction from the reality of their circumstances. The 'pretend' feast and acquiring of riches in Act I then results in the surrealism of fantasies of dining at Café Momus and in a parade of life that surrounds the toy seller Parpignol. The charade becomes harder to maintain as the realities hit home on Act III, and in Act IV the playing becomes a grim dance of death.

In such a creative mindset, Marcello's painting of the Red Sea in Act I could just as easily be a vision of the Red Planet, couldn't it? Well, in Guth's production it literally is the view outside the window that faces a small team of astronauts whose ship has broken down, but that's about the only easy transition in the production between a garret in fin de siècle Paris and the cabin of a rocket ship. Elsewhere, like Rodolfo, you're going to have to be a bit imaginative in finding any convincing connection or rationale for the production's extraterrestrial setting, but Guth tries to give us one based on Henry Murger's original stories being viewed by the protagonists as older people reflecting on youth and mortality ...only in an outer space setting evidently.

The captain's log, rolled out on a screen, tells us that the four-man team's mission has gone off course 136 days into their space voyage; their reactors are down, resources are almost exhausted and time is running out for the crew. In an effort to keep their spirits up they let their imaginations run free on an idealised version of a long gone past. Seen largely from the perspective of Rodolfo's disintegrating grasp on reality, it's no surprise that suspended in a state between sleep and waking delirium his mind returns to happier times and he is haunted Solaris Hari-like by visions of his lost love Mimi.

It's absolute nonsense - quite literally, of course, since we are perceiving events through a mind on the edge of complete breakdown. But at the same time that doesn't add or bring anything new to the state of mind of La Bohème's characters living on the margins of society, or to the nature of the relationships of love, friendship and camaraderie that develop between them in their straitened circumstances. Worse, Guth's transposition of it onto another planet in some science-fiction future runs the risk of actually distracting from the sentiments of the work; which is just wrong, even if you think that La Bohème is a sentimental work (which I don't).

The attempt to sustain the idea of course just becomes more and more ludicrous the longer it goes on. By Act III, the pilots have been driven to make a forced landing on a barren planet or moon, and the inevitability of their fate lost in the void of space - and a lack of oxygen to the brain - just pushes their delusions further into absurdity. Yes, you can probably make a connection between Rodolfo in a space suit cut off emotionally from a Mimi who contorts and cavorts in a red dress on an airless dusty moonscape - although you're more likely to think it's a wonder she's only coughing - but you would get that anyway from a traditional production without the added distraction.

Act IV is increasingly desperate, and I don't just mean for Rodolfo. With Schaunard and Colline already dead, their suits running out of air, Rodolfo starts to imagine himself and Marcello as part of some kind of cabaret act on the moon, complete with glittering strip curtain backdrop. Parpignol is still cavorting around as a mime artist (please!), not for the first time being presented as a kind of death-like master-of-ceremonies figure (cf. Herheim again). Full marks to Claus Guth for this effort at provocation - I sometimes feel the Paris audience deserve such baiting - but I don't think La Bohème deserves it.

I also felt curiously unmoved by Gustavo Dudamel's conducting of the score, which highlighted the delicacy of the composition but lacked any real feeling for the work. It floated along pleasantly enough, but never made any emotional connection with the drama, although it's hard to tell how much of that is down to the failings of the stage direction. The singing too felt merely adequate for the most part, Atalla Ayan's Rodolfo a little harsh-sounding and imprecise, but Nicole Car's Mimi certainly stood out, and Aida Garifullina was a sparkling Musetta - not bad for figments of Rodolfo's imagination and memory. I doubt that Guth's space-age production of La Bohème will be considered as imaginative or memorable, but it's unlikely to be forgotten in a hurry.

Links: L’Opéra National de Paris, Culturebox