Saturday 17 February 2018

Puccini - Turandot (Turin, 2018)

Giacomo Puccini - Turandot

Teatro Regio Torino, 2018

Gianandrea Noseda, Stefano Poda, Rebeka Lokar, Jorge de León, Erika Grimaldi, In-Sung Sim, Antonello Ceron, Marco Filippo Romano, Luca Casalin, Mikeldi Atxalandabaso, Roberto Abbondanza, Joshua Sanders

OperaVision - January 2018

Puccini's position in the pantheon of opera greats is pretty much unshakeable, with works like Tosca, Madama Butterfly and La Bohème likely to remain as much of a fixture in many opera houses as the stalls seats. Even in those great works, it's the musical qualities that elevate the manipulative twists of the drama and, in some cases, compensate for the thinness of the characterisation. Puccini's other works around his glorious Trinity are variable and equally flawed, but often more interesting. I remain agnostic on La Fanciulla del West, where as interesting as the musical development is it can't redeem the banalities of its stock Western gold rush clichés, and I think that the earlier Manon Lescaut has been elevated beyond its merit, but Il Trittico is a fine showcase that extends the range of Puccini's musical and dramatic palette. And then there's Turandot, whose unfinished state offers an intriguing contemplation of what might have been.

Puccini's struggle to finish the work before his death in 1924 perhaps gives some indication that the finished work might inevitably have been just as flawed and compromised as the endings that were written for it by Franco Alfano and Luciano Berio. It's as if Puccini had solved the first two of the Princess Turandot's riddles and hadn't yet figured out the answer to the third, but the two thirds of the work completely scored by the composer offer an intriguing glimpse of a new direction that Puccini might have further explored. The first act alone is monumental on the scale of the Triumphal March from Verdi's Aida, but it carries an undercurrent of menace and a through-compositional flow that is equal to Wagner at his most charged and lyrical. All too often (The Met, Royal Opera House), Turandot's true qualities risk being obscured and mired in kitsch Oriental fairy-tale fantasy when there is actually a much darker tale in there.

The question then is what to do with Turandot, which risks falling into so many operatic traps and mannerisms that can obscure its true nature and potential. Calixto Bieito's production was the first I've seen that attempted to delve into the dark terror of a cruel authoritarian regime that is vividly depicted in the fairy tale. Instilling fear in the people, blinding them with obscure ideological riddles, oppressing free expression of the individual through the arts, Bieito's vision is a controversial rewriting certainly, but it's a treatment nonetheless that is commensurate with the grand scale of the work's grand musical expression. Interestingly, Bieito's production doesn't attempt to resolve or fix an unfinished work and lets it end on the dark note of Liù's death, and that is also the sentiment that Gianandrea Noseda and Stefano Poda strive to match in their production for the Teatro Regio Torino.

While you could also see some measure of Bieito's vision of Turandot as a totalitarian nightmare in the Turin production, the approach of Stefano Poda is rather more abstract and focussed more on a kind of tyranny of the mind. "Turandot," we are told by Ping, Pang and Pong "does not exist" and Poda takes that as the basis for his production, concerned more with Turandot as an obsessive instinct on the part of Calaf to want to take part in some impossible and unrewarding ideal. According to Poda, Turandot is a dream, the conflict of Calaf struggling to escape his own mind and exist outside of himself. If the case of what to do with Turandot isn't entirely answered by these ideas in the Turin production, perhaps that's because it's an impossible task anyway.

Poda, who designs the costumes and the sets as well as directing, accordingly places Turandot not in some oriental location but in "a non-place made of light". There's something cold and scientific about the setting, all of the figures looking alike, as if cloned, devoid of personality or indeed imperfections. There is a vaguely sinister aspect to this, as it would be if it were the ideology of a nation or state, with Ping Pang and Pong carrying out experiments on dead bodies, but Poda sees it rather as the idealised worldview of someone with no real experience of the outside world. The lines bisecting the almost entirely naked bodies of the dancers in the production are not the result of some experiment operated on them as much as it represents a kind of metaphysical dualism.

Whether you buy into this conceptual idea or not, or whether you even find that it makes sense, the production does at least seek to address the issue of the mythological in Turandot rather than depicting it as a rather improbable and meaningless fairy-tale as it would be if it were taken literally. Little of the traditional stage directions are adhered to, the production representing the usual outward manifestations of torture, beheading and riddle-playing as more of a metaphorical struggle. Purely in terms of spectacle the production looks incredible and is wonderfully choreographed, but it also works in conjunction with Puccini's extraordinary score to create something otherworldly. Noseda's conducting of the work highlights the qualities and the unusual elements of the orchestration that makes a strong case for the opera as the pinnacle of Puccini's output.

The linked interviews here with Stefano Poda and Gianandrea Noseda reveal other interesting thoughts on the subject, Poda observing that Turandot is the last great opera of the Italian tradition. Italian opera could certainly be said to have reached its apogee in Turandot and it ends here appropriately with Puccini's death. It's significant then that the work is unfinished, as if it had nowhere else to go, and Poda is content for it to remain in that state. So too is Noseda who proposed this purist approach towards Puccini's score, noting that Turandot is a product of a post-war unease, looking back for answers in older forms of dramatic expression like Carlo Gozzi. It's no coincidence that many find the ending of Turandot dramatically unsatisfying since Puccini himself was unable to find the answers he was looking for in it.

Poda and Noseda then are both of the opinion that what Puccini has completed is enough and that in its curtailed unfinished state, the work can nonetheless provide a more satisfying or realistic resolution than anything Puccini or any one of the composers who have tried to complete it were able to achieve. Whether you agree with the approach of directors like Stefano Poda or Calixto Bieito before him, the results speak for themselves, revealing that there is far more to Turandot than is often thought and that it deserves to be taken seriously on its musical terms rather than as a piece of operatic kitsch. Those musical and singing challenges are not inconsiderable either and they are given a fine account under Noseda's musical direction. The singing in Turandot can also be very challenging and although Turandot, Calaf and Liù are treated very much as ciphers here, Rebeka Lokar, Jorge de León and Erika Grimaldi perform admirably. Between this and Bieito's production, there's plenty to suggest that Turandot merits this kind of considered approach and in as far as using the unfinished version, it makes a strong case that less is definitely more.

Links: Teatro Regio Torino, OperaVision

Monday 12 February 2018

Rossini - Le Comte Ory (Paris, 2017)

Gioachino Rossini - Le Comte Ory

L'Opéra Comique, Paris - 2017

Louis Langrée, Denis Podalydès, Philippe Talbot, Julie Fuchs, Gaëlle Arquez, Éve-Maud Hubeaux, Patrick Bolleire, Jean-Sébastien Bou, Jodie Devos, Laurent Podalydès, Léo Reynaud

Culturebox - 29th December 2017

There's a general consensus that Rossini's final opera Guillaume Tell is the pinnacle of the composer's relatively short but prolific period as an opera composer (around 40 operas in just 20 years), but there are other lighter and more playful pieces in Rossini's late French works that are equally as accomplished as William Tell. True there may arguably be greater masterpieces among the earlier Italian works like Mosè in Egitto and - who am I to dispute it? - the perennial charm of Il Barbiere di Siviglia - but leaving aside the re-works of Le siege de Corinthe and Moise et Pharaon, the operas composed for a French audience like Il viaggio a Reims and Le comte Ory are remarkable confections that combine a lightness of touch and crowd-pleasing numbers with extraordinarily beautiful and inventive melodic arrangements.

Le comte Ory might not have much of a plot to speak of, but the musical writing is equally as impressive and sophisticated in its expression and arrangements as the work that preceded it, Il viaggio a Reims, an opera that was written for the one-off occasion of the coronation of Charles X in 1825. Believing music too good to be lost (as it would actually be for 150 years or so), Rossini reused much of it for the composition of Le comte Ory. The earlier work had more of a variety show numbers feel to it (Rossini ahead of the game there, much as he was in his development of grand opéra and bel canto, or unforgivable depending on your viewpoint, although he can hardly be blamed for the excesses or banality of others in those fields), so Rossini had to be a little creative in how he reworked the musical material to fit a dramatic plot for Le comte Ory.

You can hardly call the plot sophisticated, as the first half of the opera involves a nobleman, the Count Ory, who disguises himself as a wise hermit so that he can seduce the credulous wives of all the men who have left them alone and unloved and gone off to fight in the Crusades. In the second half, the licentious young Comte Ory puts into play a suggestion that his page Isolier has concocted as a way that might get himself close to the Countess Adèle, sister of the lord of Formoutiers, who he is in love with. Using the page's idea for himself, Ory disguises himself and his men as nuns on a pilgrimage so that they can gain access to the otherwise inaccessible womanly delights that are locked away in the Countess's castle, fearful of the storm outside and looking for comfort.

As a way of providing a variety of colourful scenes for the composer to apply his melodic and effervescent music to however, Le comte Ory gets the job done. And with considerable style and aplomb. It's almost casually brilliant in making it all seem effortlessly light and entertaining. In fact, the work is filled with dramatic and comedic expression, allowing opportunities for individual virtuosity that impress as much as they amuse. The extravagant coloratura and high notes are more often used for comic emphasis and expression of the whirlwind of emotions that are stirred up rather than just being thrown in for the sake of showing-off. Boosted by a capella harmonised ensembles and invigorating choruses, the work transmits that sense of joyful abandon to the audience in the most direct and engaging way that any opera should.

The perceived silliness of the plot however often - in the relatively rare occasions when it is performed - leads modern directors to add a distancing effect (The Met, Pesaro) that actually has the effect of diluting the wholly intentional silliness and comedy of the situation. Why can't they just play the comedy 'straight', so to speak? Well that's what Denis Podalydès does in this wonderfully entertaining production at the Opera Comique (the Paris opera house that knows the real value of light French comic opera) with the result that the work just sparkles with the natural verve and brilliance of its composition. Not to mention that it has a superb cast capable of bringing out all those inherent qualities in the work.

Podalydès doesn't need any clever device or framing structure to make this confection any sweeter. The comedy is in the situation itself and the director just ensures that the performers play them up to the hilt and for all they are worth. Eric Ruf's set for Act I is no more than a country church and Ory is disguised more as an eccentric priest than a hermit, but I guess you might think that the distinction is negligible as far as giving people false hopes in mystical advice to a gullible congregation while serving one's own interests. It functions dramatically, other than the intentional thinness of the count's disguise of course. Act II's set places a group of anxious women huddling from the storm in a rather austere castle interior that protects their virtue from the likes of Count Ory, where rather than a bed, the Countess seems to sleep on a stone tomb.

While the setting heightens the contrasts between the repressed women and libidinous behaviour of Ory and his men, the humour in Act II is mostly derived from men, some of them with beards, all disguised as nuns forgetting to act demurely and in a holy way and instead hiking their skirts up and singing boisterous drinking songs. And if that's not funny, I don't know what is. Well, apart from some ménage-a-trois bedroom farce antics of course and Podalydès direction ensures that it is played entirely for as many laughs as it's possible to get out of the situation. In a nice little twist he also makes the Countess not quite as credulous and submissive as you might think, entering fully into the bed-hopping shenanigans which, with Isolier in a trouser role, already has some gender-ambiguous suggestiveness.

If there's a reason why Le comte Ory is actually considerably funnier in performance than it might sound on paper it's got a lot to do with Rossini's music, and it's given a vigorous outing here by Louis Langrée. Sophistication and precision aren't always a prerequisite for a Rossini musical performance, when sometimes what it needs more is fervour and passion, but Langrée's musical direction enjoys the best of both worlds. There's detail in the colouring of the instrumentation as well as precision, pace and passion in the rhythm and rich melodic flavours of the scenes and the arias. The singing, which is extraordinarily challenging for such a light comic piece, is handled with aplomb and character by Philippe Talbot's Comte Ory, who has a lovely lyrical timbre that carries even to the high notes. Julie Fuchs is a sparkling countess, putting her high notes to good use as exclamations and as a release of repressed emotions. The singing and performances are a joy from all the cast, with Gaëlle Arquez an impressive Isolier and Éve-Maud Hubeaux an irrepressible Dame Ragonde.

Links: L'Opéra Comique, Culturebox

Thursday 1 February 2018

Weill - The Threepenny Opera (Belfast, 2018)

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill - The Threepenny Opera

Northern Ireland Opera, Lyric Theatre -  2018

Sinead Hayes, Walter Sutcliffe, Kerri Quinn, Matthew Cavan, Orla Mullan, Tommy Wallace, Jolene O'Hara, Paul Garrett, Richard Croxford, Jayne Wisener, Brigid Shine, Maeve Smyth, Mark Dugdale, Steven Page, Gerard McCabe

Lyric Theatre, Belfast - 30 January 2018

An opera that isn't really an opera is an interesting choice for the directorial debut of Northern Ireland Opera's new Artistic Director, Walter Sutcliffe. His predecessor, Oliver Mears however opened his tenure in a similarly non-traditional and low-key fashion with Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium - also in a theatre rather than the opera house - the indication being possibly that opera has much more to offer than La Traviata and Madama Butterfly, and that it can and should be accessible to everyone. Indeed Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's street-theatre piece The Threepenny Opera has precisely the same ideal of breaking down traditional barriers, and if anything that's the real beauty of the work, and not a bad statement of intent either if you want to see it that way.

Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera is just one in a long tradition of works that have brought a taboo-breaking common touch to opera. The Threepenny Opera was modelled on John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), putting a glamorous criminal 'Mack the Knife' and the low-life of society at the heart of an opera, filling it with popular accessible music and bawdy scenes. If you want, you can go right back to Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea for similar daring shifts in the subject of opera to appeal to a wider audience, and you could take it right up to Thomas Adès's scandalous Powder her Face, a work which indeed has also recently made its mark in Belfast at the Lyric Theatre in an NI Opera production. In that respect, Walter Sutcliffe's production of The Threepenny Opera continues a tradition of exposing audiences to opera that challenges and entertains.

It's difficult then to judge a production of The Threepenny Opera by traditional standards. It has to be judged on its own terms, and perhaps its aims - to challenge and entertain - aren't so different from those presented to its original audience in Berlin in 1928. Leaving aside whether it really meets the criteria of opera - where boundaries are flexible and are still being pushed forward in works like Evan Gardner's Gunfighter Nation, where the musicians are also the dramatic and singing performers - the basic principle of putting on a show with musical numbers that tells a story is there in place in The Threepenny Opera, and it can be used as a means of expressing or exposing social attitudes or issues in the world today. Some things - money, greed, criminality, corruption - never change or go out of fashion, it seems.

Walter Sutcliffe makes perhaps only a token effort at any contemporary political or local social reference, but the nature and structure of the work itself with its Brechtian theatre innovations can be the best vehicle for making us think about what The Threepenny Opera tells us about the world today; ie. there's a lot of theatre involved. The focus then is rightly about making this an engaging piece of musical theatre with grotesque exaggerated characters, bold sets, colourful costumes, colourful language too and swinging musical numbers that, thanks to it becoming a swing standard over the years, even has an instantly recognisable bona-fide classic hit in its repertoire, the wonderful 'Mack the Knife'. If that doesn't draw you straight into The Threepenny Opera, nothing will.

There were perhaps just a little bit of self-consciousness and nerves early in the preview shows of the NI Opera production at the Lyric Theatre, but then director Walter Sutcliffe doesn't make it easy for the cast by making practically the entire stage a steep cabaret staircase with narrow steps for them to teeter down on heels while singing the famous opening number. Dorota Karolczak's sets and costumes however are entirely appropriate, telling us - as if it isn't already apparent from the garish costumes, heavy make-up and colourful wigs - that this is purely a theatrical confection; don't be expecting any hard-hitting social realism here. This is a show, and we're here to entertain you.

And although it might take a little while to warm to the exaggerated and unfamiliar form of 1920s German jazz-cabaret theatre, entertain it does. By the time we get to the conclusion, we've been caught up in the sordid little dealings and womanising polygamy of 'Mack the Knife' Macheath, the money-making exploitation of the poor beggars by Jonathan Peachum, the mistreatment of the Wapping prostitute Jenny Diver and her girls, the bribery and corruption of police superintendent Jackie 'Tiger' Brown and his officers, and even the compicity of the church is called out in Reverend Kimball's blessing of the union of Mack and Polly Peachum. There's plenty there played out in broad strokes to entertain, and if it no longer shocks in the same way, it's at least a shock that such goings-on are now nothing more than we've come to expect from celebrities, politicians and the establishment.

Other than the inclusion of the local vernacular, Sutcliffe is probably wise not to draw any obvious comparisons to current affairs and political events in the world today, in this particular work anyway. There's only one overt contemporary reference where the famous image of Syrian refugees marching into Europe is displayed. It's a reminder, in the spirit of the original, that even behind the fiction and glamour the dealings of this little group of individuals relies on the exploitation of the less fortunate masses whose fate is casually ignored. Mack being saved from the gallows at the final moment may be a moment of Brechtian theatre drawing attention to the artificiality of dramatic narrative, but in its own way it also points to the truth that those with power, money and influence write their own story and, unlike the people whose lives they destroy, they tend to come out of such scandals relatively unscathed.

Judging it by the casting alone, which is made up more of actors more familiarly seen on the Lyric stage than the Grand Opera House, The Threepenny Opera is more musical-theatre than opera in the traditional sense. That doesn't mean however that the standards that need to be met aren't just as high, nor that they weren't indeed met.  Even if there's a measure of musical-theatre belting it out, there were some very impressive singing performances. Jayne Wisener's Polly Peachum has a light voice, but it's sung in a way that was a perfect match for her character's delightfully ambiguous moral outlook, her calculated ruthlessness and casual indifference to all manner of criminal activity and moral depravity masked by a disarming sweetness. Brigid Shine's Lucy Brown showed an impressive range and control in her singing, again matching the feistiness of her character. Mark Dugdale has plenty of experience in music theatre and carried the role of Mack with a confident swagger and charm. Where caricature and exaggerated counted more than singing ability, Matthew 'Cherrie Ontop' Cavan's Mrs Peachum and Richard Croxford's scouse Jackie Brown all delivered wonderfully entertaining performances, and in baritone Steven Page's Jonathan Peachum you had the best of both disciplines.

Behind all the exaggeration and caricature, fleeting moments of human sentiment and character emerged, principally in the character of Jenny Diver, sensitively performed and well sung by Kerri Quinn. If The Threepenny Opera is to deliver that kind of range between crowd-pleasing belters and moments of quieter reflection it needs to be well managed from the point of view of the music. The musical rhythms are vital, charming and engaging, with unusual instrumentation and harmonies to throw us off and hint at an underlying unease and sleaze. Sinead Hayes brought that out with a somewhat more refined arrangement, the restraint allowing for greater emotional expression and sensitivity than you might expect from the smoky swagger of Kurt Weill's score. The placement of the orchestra to the wings of the staircase - all dressed in character - also provided a perfect balance and stereo separation between the music and the singing. Look out, old Macky is back.