Tuesday 27 March 2018

Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Berlin, 2018)

Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Berlin)

Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin - 2018

Daniel Barenboim, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Andreas Schager, Stephen Milling, Anja Kampe, Boaz Daniel, Stephan Rügamer, Ekaterina Gubanova, Adam Kutny, Linard Vrielink

Culturebox - February 2018


Even if the setting is very different from what you might expect, and there are one or two interpolations or diversions from the script, Dmitri Tcherniakov's production of Tristan und Isolde adheres fairly closely to the original specifications in the libretto, much like his last production of a Wagner opera at the Berlin Staastoper Under den Linden, Parsifal. There's always a case to be made for a more abstract setting for both works, which operate more on a spiritual level than a geographical one, and that was certainly the case with Harry Kupfer's production which this new one replaces. Tcherniakov however seems to reject this high-flown abstraction and throw out the Schopenhauerian philosophical elements that one would think an essential element of the opera, attempting rather to bring the work firmly down to earth and see it in purely human terms.  Surely this is a mistake with a work like Tristan und Isolde?

Well, you would think so, but Tcherniakov nonetheless managed to introduce other ideas and ways of looking at Parsifal into that production, and if not quite reach the heady heights that the work can aspire to (although Daniel Barenboim, with Anja Kampe and Andreas Schager certainly helped the reach the mystical dimension of the work in the music), he did at least find an alternative and perhaps more relatably human way to address some of the questions that this work poses. The same team of Barenboim, Tcherniakov, Kampe and Schager apply a similar approach with this new Tristan und Isolde.

Act I takes place here in a wood-panelled lounge of a luxury liner, where a group of businessmen in suits sit around enjoying a few post-meeting drinks. They seem to be happy to have conducted a successful deal in Ireland, bringing back a Queen for King Marke of Cornwall. A screen shows voyage updates and video cam footage around the ship, Isolde becoming increasingly irritated as they approach the English shores. Other than the obvious modernisation of the set however, there is little that deviates (and there's little room to deviate one would think) from the original stage directions.

The one area where there is opportunity to establish a character on the work in Act I is obviously the drinking of the love potion and here Brangäne, visibly distressed at Isolde's desire to use a death potion, obviously doesn't add it to the drink, but neither does she switch it for a love potion. Sharing a hefty glass of vodka, you are left with the impression that it's just the alcohol that breaks down Tristan and Isolde inhibitions and reveals their true feelings for each other. It's hardly the most romantic depiction of the love potion scene, but there are other musical and dramatic elements at play here and Tcherniakov superimposes a brief green-tinted projection of Isolde nursing the wounded Tristan from their encounter in Ireland over the proceedings. It's not much but it does achieve the necessary background for the deep shift of overwhelming and uncontrollable desire that defies normal human boundaries.

Those boundaries however in Tcherniakov's vision remain the rather more mundane ones of middle class morality and social convention. In Act II we're in an elegant drawing room, the walls again decorated with wood panelling and images of trees and a lamp to update the original stage directions. It's the same kind of society that we see in Tcherniakov's productions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, but here Isolde is an outsider in a world of her own, enraptured by the Goddess of Love. I don't know about Tcherniakov, but Barenboim and Kampe raise the game considerably in Act II, peaking to a fury and a force as Tristan not so much slips in to meet Isolde as practically dances in. Tcherniakov shows two people unbridled and enraptured by something greater, dancing with joy, oblivious to the world outside, giving no thought to social niceties that would restrict and bear down heavily on their illicit union.

It may take some of the spirituality and philosophical musing out of the opera, but as a reflection of how it relates to Wagner's inspiration and desires and his attempts to elevate them into something more meaningful, Tcherniakov's approach has validity and, whether you find it appropriate or not, it strips away the work's metaphysical pretensions. Tristan and Isolde's love is not some transcendence of human desire, but a defiant challenge to any kind of social convention or middle-class morality that might seek to disapprove of it or refuse to recognise the purity of feeling within it. And yet, as the green projections reappear and the "O sink hernieder" Night of Love duet establishes an otherworldly setting,you still get a sense of being in the midst of something that surpasses the mundanity of everyday existence, of something that we would all strive to be able to reach. An impossible height? Of course, but if anyone can persuade you that such a state can exist, it's in how Wagner makes the impossible possible in his music.

At the stage in Act II however the tragic crash between the ideal and reality is not yet on the radar of Tristan and Isolde or Wagner, so it's still possible to believe in the impossible and there's no need for faux-solemnity and gravity that is customary in this opera, but rather the evocation of a state of supreme sublime bliss. That element of danger crashes in by the end of Act II however, and when it does it ought to be felt viscerally. No matter what else you make of the Berlin production as a whole, it's in the musical expression and performance of those states under the direction of Daniel Barenboim that the work just soars. Barenboim's pacing and drive is superb, the score measured in mournfulness, ecstatically driven where necessary without ever being aggressive, shifting from lyrical to dramatic, from a roar to a whimper. With emphasis (at least in the mix of the streamed recording) on brass and woodwind rather than the darker strings, there is more colour given to those moods, shifting emphasis in ways I've never heard before.

Barenboim also takes care in the conducting to allow space for and support of the singing voices. Accordingly, Act III of this Tristan und Isolde is one of the most complete and impressive I've ever seen. Andreas Schager almost makes Act III look effortless, drawing on inexhaustible reserves. You might think that he is perhaps too lively for a mortally wounded man - although there is no obvious wound struck in Act II - but it's clear that if he's going to expire it's won't be from a sword wound but rather exploding with ecstasy, which indeed is more true to Tristan's fate. It's here that the director interpolates somewhat, showing Tristan lost in memories of his mother and father, or reveries even since his mother is pregnant with him in the acted-out domestic scenes that share the stage with him (and a cor anglais player) in his room on Kareol. Tcherniakov at least attempts to make something more of the words and it's certainly more thoughtful than playing the scene with him just writhing in delirium.

Whether you can rationalise it as being something to do with death and rebirth, somehow the simple image of an alarm clock and the drawing of a curtain over the little back room where the prostrate lifeless form of Tristan has been carried creates an extraordinarily effective and moving finale. I don't know if it's really within Wagner's intentions, whether it just finds another way to approach what Wagner intended, but aligned to that remarkable music, with Barenboim's conducting and Anja Kampe reaching those incredible heights, Dmitri Tcherniakov's production does seem to find its own way to capture the indescribable beauty of the sentiments of the final scene. Whatever else you might think about the production, if it gets you there and makes that kind of impact, it's done something right.

Links: Berlin Staatsoper, Culturebox

Friday 23 March 2018

Puccini - La Rondine (Genoa, 2018)

Giacomo Puccini - La Rondine

Teatro Carlo Felice, Genova - 2018

Giuseppe Acquaviva, Giorgio Gallione, Elena Rossi, Giuliana Gianfaldoni, Arturo Chacón-Cruz, Marius Brenciu, Stefano Antonucci, Giuseppe De Luca, Didier Pieri, Davide Mura, Francesca Benitez, Marta Leung, Marina Ogii

TCF Streaming - 21 March 2018

It has some supporters - the Royal Opera House and Angela Gheorghiu among them - but for a work that comes in the midst of Puccini's mature period, La Rondine is surprisingly a mostly forgotten and neglected work. I entirely forgot about it myself when I assessed the strengths and weakness of Puccini's work post-Butterfly in my recent review of Turandot, but it's at least 15 years since the only time I saw the work performed - in Dublin - and despite it having Puccini's familiar melodic strengths, it's clearly not the most memorable work, and it's hard to see how it can be rehabilitated for a modern audience.

It's not that La Rondine is a bad opera as much as it feels like a misstep by Puccini, who uncharacteristically appears to look towards other operas for inspiration and direction rather than follow his own instincts. La Rondine comes across as an attempt to look back at Verdi's La Traviata and attempt to do for Paris what Strauss did for the glory days of Vienna in Der Rosenkavalier; taking a light operetta setting and likewise filling the score with dance melodies that are ironic and nostalgic at the same time. As lovely as it can look and sound, La Rondine nonetheless comes across as slight and superficial, with none of the same sense of engagement that Strauss and Hoffmansthal had with Der Rosenkavalier, and hence none of its sense of fun and sophistication.

Everywhere in La Rondine you get a sense of compromise - compromise that resulted in no less than three versions of the opera, as Puccini struggled to give it some shape and depth. Even the plot seems to only really superficially resemble the setting and action of La Traviata without really connecting to any true emotions or the social commentary that fired Verdi's response to the subject. La Rondine opens with the party of a courtesan, Magda. Amidst the scene-setting introductions to the characters, which present Puccini with a number of songs and dance melodies that he sets beautifully, Magda reflects on her position, and on a lost love in the past that a new visitor Ruggero has brought to mind. When the guests leave, she wonders whether she might still have a chance at love and, disguised as Paulette, she follows him to a night spot that had been recommended by some of the other guests.

Puccini can't but follow his own style however, and the scene at Bulliers in Act II of La Rondine owes more to La Bohème's Cafe Momus; the scene filled with life, glamour, colour and the promise of romance, no matter who you are or what your past is. Elsewhere, La Bohème likewise remains like a model imposed unsuccessfully over La Traviata as a way of treating the subject. In Act III, when 'Paulette' and Ruggero go to Nice to be free to love outside the constraints and gossip of Paris society, Puccini introduces a tension similar to Act III of La Bohème. Although like Violetta and Alfredo there are financial problems with this arrangement and a crisis of conscience for Magda who doesn't want to destroy the young man's reputation, her self-sacrifice here comes like Mimi's in the form of a decision to return to her wealthy benefactor Rambaldo in Paris, who loves her for who she is and can provide for her.

And Puccini, in the second version anyway, leaves things there, with none of the fire and fury of La Traviata, and none of the melodramatic and heart-rending deaths from tuberculosis scenes of either La Traviata or La Bohème. It might be refreshing to have the heroine live at the end, but it doesn't provide a strong narrative arc in the sense of love being taken through to death that makes Tosca, La Bohème and Madama Butterfly such perfect dramatic opera creations. Like Manon Lescaut, La Rondine feels like it's short of an Act that might better round out the drama, characterisation and bring some further emotional engagement with the characters and their situation. Without it, Puccini's music in La Rondine feels empty and perfunctory, just as Manon Lescaut feels over-elaborate for its slightness.

There is one respect in which Puccini is characteristically successful and that is his association of mid-19th century Paris with the idea of glamour, romance, music and colour. All of the characters constantly vaunt its charm in their conversations; its night-life, its writers, its music, its dancers, its women - a place where anything can happen and dreams can come true, but it's also a place that can turn the head of the unwary. It's also a place where for some who are supposedly living the dream, like Magda, it can bring social pressures and expectations that are hard to continue to live up to in opposition to one's deeper needs and nature, and the swallow (la rondine) needs to fly south. It's a rounded portrait of the attractions and pitfalls of the City of Lights, if not a socially realistic one, or even a La Bohème verismo one which the harsh deaths in La Bohème and La Traviata at least bring emphatically to the forefront.

Giorgio Gallione's production for Genoa captures the essence of both Paris and Nice well, as well as mark the contrasts between them, without having to rely on hackneyed Belle Epoque imagery. The period is updated to another stylish era that has echoes of the 1920s, albeit a little more hyperstylised and glamourised. There are plenty of party-goers and lots of dancers doing choreographed moves at Magda's party in Act I and at Bulliers in the colourful night club scenes of Act II, but it also manages to convey a sense that it is all forced, as the disguises and the contrasting behaviour between the couples of Magda and Ruggero and Prunier and Lisette suggest. Act III in Nice is also highly stylised, more open and easy going by Paris, but with a single fallen tree and sun terrace figures in the background, it also hints that pressures remain and all is not ideal for Magda and Ruggero.

I don't find Puccini's music for La Rondine particularly inspired, memorable or well-attuned to the dramatic action. It feels perfunctory in its distribution of arias, in its weaving of songs and dance melodies and rarely displays any of the composer's true character. It's performed well though by the Carlo Felice Genova orchestra under conductor Giuseppe Acquaviva, who keeps it light and buoyant. The singing certainly has its challenges, but they seem to be more in the bel canto register that you rarely find anywhere else in Puccini, although there are certainly dramatic and lyrical challenges in the role of Magda, which Elena Rossi sings very well. The lead tenor role doesn't particularly have great character to it in this opera, but Arturo Chacón-Cruz brings a romantic charm to Ruggero. and there's lively support from Giuliana Gianfaldoni's Lisette and Marius Brenciu as Prunier.

Links: Teatro Carlo Felice, TCF Streaming

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Dallapiccola - Il Prigioniero / Rihm - Das Gehege (Brussels, 2018)

Luigi Dallapiccola - Il Prigioniero
Wolfgang Rihm - Das Gehege

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2018

Franck Ollu, Andrea Breth, Ángeles Blancas Gulín, Georg Nigl, John Graham-Hall, Julian Hubbard, Guillaume Antoine

La Monnaie MM Streaming -  January 2018


The challenges of writing an opera in the serial music form could perhaps be measured by how few actually make it to completion and by the shortness of length of those that are actually finished. Even Schoenberg, the inventor of the twelve-tone dodecaphonic system only completed one short opera in this form, Von Heute auf Morgen, and left his one longer masterpiece Moses und Aron unfinished. Berg likewise left his the troubled Lulu unfinished at the time of his death, while Wozzeck only has twelve-tone elements. There are however other notable extended operas that are largely written in the serial form including Bernd Alois Zimmerman's Die Soldaten and Ernst Krenek's Karl V. As Wozzeck, Lulu and Moses und Aron testify however, while the composition of such complex works presents considerable and sometimes insurmountable challenges, they also bring specialised demands for staging, performance and use of musical resources.

As formidable as they often appear to be however there is nothing limiting about the works in terms of musical expression, and Luigi Dallapiccola's Il Prigioniero finds a terrific range of expression even within the limitations of a 50 minute work set almost entirely within the confines of a prison cell. Just as Schoenberg was able to extend the situation of a biblical story to explore more personal ideas and obsessions, the richness and uniqueness of the musical language available permits Dallapiccola to delve more deeply into the themes that arise for a political prisoner in relation to freedom, political expression, hope and disillusionment, and apply it to greater concerns in the troubled times of the 1940s.

Il Prigioniero opens then with a dramatic soprano voice, the mother of the prisoner, speaking out at the horror of the regime that has led to her son being held and tortured in prison. Dallapiccola follows this cry of despair with a lament from a large chorus, "Lord have mercy on us. Our hope lies in you". It's in this state that we find the prisoner about to give up all hope until a single word changes his outlook and insinuates itself into the mood of the whole piece; "fratello" - brother. The jailer who offers this lifeline to grasp follows it with another word, "spera" - have faith. Finding the door left open, one perhaps more metaphorical than real considering the developments, the prisoner follows the path of hope down the corridor outside his cell.

The chorus fill in again, their lament turned to praise for the light, which brings an "Alleluia" out of the prisoner for freedom, but it's premature and illusory, as the path is one that leads to his execution. The fullness of expression, the use of words, the chorus, as well as the post-romantic sweep of the score in the dynamic between the dark and the light is one that recalls a similar use of these elements in Moses und Aron. It's brought out fully in Dallapiccola's score, given wonderful expression in Franck Ollu's direction at La Monnaie in Brussels, and in the writing for the contrasting voices of Ángeles Blancas Gulín as the mother, Georg Nigl as the prisoner and John Graham-Hall offering hope in the form of the jailer only to take it away as the Grand Inquisitor.

Andrea Breth's direction also tries to give as much expression as can be found in the work, in the darkness, in the cage of a cell, opening it up with light, bringing sudden cuts to black, stripping the stage bare at the conclusion when all hope is gone and opening the back of the stage to a blinding heavenly light that shines out on the emptiness within. It was Andrea Breth who worked with Franck Ollu (and Nigl and Graham-Hall) to similarly striking effect on Wolfgang Rihm's Jakob Lenz at La Monnaie in 2015 and the collaboration reunites to present another Rihm short opera that is paired brilliantly with Dallapiccola's Il Prigioniero.

Although deriving from the other half of the twentieth century, Rihm's Das Gehege (The Enclosure) also has roots in the post-Romantic, in Richard Strauss rather than Schoenberg, although not so much the lush orchestrations of latter-day Strauss as the jagged rupturing of post-Romanticism in the expressionism of Salome and Elektra. In the expression of a woman who has captured an eagle and sets it free only to kill it when she realises that it no longer has the vitality and strength to survive, Das Gehege bears a similar tone of intense dark eroticism, with even a hint of the fantasy world symbolism of Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Breth's direction draws out the Salome-like underlying erotic fascination in a woman who is filled with dark desires and ends up killing the thing she professes to love by having the woman in the cage, the enclosure, joined by a series of men with bird heads and wing attachments in a dance of death. Outbursts of anguished singing are broken up with brief instrumental expressions of lust and fury that are accompanied in the darkness by disorientating strobe lighting that leaves behind a trail of bodies. More than just in the use of the same cage that held the prisoner - the woman likewise a prisoner of fatal unquenchable urges - there are other visual cross-references and correspondences made with Il Prigioniero, notably Georg Nigl playing one of her avian victims and a staircase that offers a descent as much as a way out.

As explosive as the musical expression is, its fractured structure carrying an underlying tug of lyrical romanticism, a considerable amount of responsibility for carrying the force of the whole of Das Gehege lies with the soprano singing the Frau, the only singing role in the opera. Ángeles Blancas Gulín, already showing stamina and ability to meet the highly pitched demands of the mother in Il Prigioniero, gives another impressive performance here that is electrifying and terrifying, striking that balance between being derangedly in thrall to her passions, but tempering any over-intensity with a seductive lyrical tone. She has to do that while climbing the cage, hanging upside down over the shoulder of one of her paramours or sprawled in one shape or another and somehow never falters a note.

Links: La Monnaie,