Saturday 19 May 2018

Wagner - Lohengrin (Brussels, 2018)

Richard Wagner - Lohengrin

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2018

Alain Altinoglu, Olivier Py, Gabor Bretz, Eric Cutler, Ingela Brimberg, Andrew Foster-Williams, Elena Pankratova, Werner van Mechelen

ARTE Concert - April 2018

When it comes to Lohengrin, a more cautious director would seek to downplay rather than actually highlight any associations that might be made between Richard Wagner and the Nazis. It's an issue however that is hard to avoid, since the question of German nationalism lies very much at the core of the opera and, regardless of its intentions it certainly formed a view of nationalism that Hitler and his adherents took in another direction. Olivier Py, directing for La Monnaie in Brussels, however tackles the issue head-on a roundabout sort of way.

In fact, Py even takes to the stage before the start of the opera to explain why he sets his production in 1945 at the end of the war when Berlin and much of Germany was lying in ruins. Mainly it's because he believes that Wagner's Lohengrin is not just a nationalist display, but a warning of where such sentiments can lead. Wagner can't be entirely exonerated for his antisemitism, for a sense of jingoism in his works or for their and his family's later association with the Nazis, but there is certainly a case that Lohengrin is a work of artistic and cultural expression that does consider the disastrous future impact of nationalistic sentiments that can take art and culture and twist it toward personal and political interests.

Certainly Olivier Py and his regular stage designer Pierre-André Weitz's touch is all over the La Monnaie Lohengrin. It works in contrasts of black and white with little of shading in between. On one side we have Elsa and Lohengrin in pale blue, Lohengrin even associated with angels, while Ortrud and Friedrich von Telramund are all in black. King Heinrich incidentally (and somewhat negligibly) is dressed in grey. Py's Catholic or Christian faith may well play a part in reducing Lohengrin to such stark divisions, but it's perhaps more a case of emphasis as they are already there in Wagner's work. Ortrud certainly appeals to the pagan gods Wotan and Freia in a way that "allows evil to enter this house" as Telramund describes it. Is it a lack of 'faith' that leads to the ideal of the German nation being destroyed from within? And is this inevitable corruption of a pure ideal not indeed what Wagner's opera is all about?

Well, it's perhaps a little more complicated than that and it's certainly not as 'black and white' as it looks in the La Monnaie production. Firstly, there's the setting of Lohengrin, which as Py indicated, appears to take place in the ruins of the Third Reich, in a burnt-out theatre that has a platform at the front and the rotating ruin of the building behind. It's hard to imagine a 'straight' playing out of the legend then, and indeed the early indications point to a little bit of reinterpretation with the suggestion being that it is Ortrud who has choked the child Gottfried, the future ruler that would have taken Brabant to glory. Py, as he often does, introduces other obscure quotes, symbols and messages; "Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland" (Death is a master from Germany) on a wall, Ortrud painting a thick black cross, Elsa a white cross in chalk. Lohengrin's duel with Telramund in on a chessboard (black and white) rather than with swords, although a battle between factions takes place in the background.

It's hard to see any real connect between Py's 1945 setting of the work and Wagner's setting of the medieval legend, but that could well be intentional, showing a disconnect between a glorifying vision of Germanic culture (contrast this with the rather ideologically vacuous 2016 Dresden production) and the reality of the inglorious conclusion that awaits when it appropriated towards what Py describes as "the aesthetisation of politics". That kind of reading is certainly heavily supported by the rather meta-theatrical set of Act 3, Scene 1. The pastoral idyll behind the massed chorus of the people of Brabant in this burnt-out theatre is nothing but a rolled-out backdrop that the stagehands lift, the set rotating to reveal a sentiment that is built on a framework of German romanticism and idealism, represented by dusty statues, busts and monuments to Schiller, Holderin, Casper David Friedrich, Goethe, Novalis, Schlegel, Grimm, Heine, Carl Maria von Weber and Beethoven, with even what might be a Nothung buried in the stump of a dead tree.

There are a lot of ideas and ideals here that never quite seem to gel together into something entirely coherent in a way that works hand-in-hand with the opera itself, but the essential points are valid and well made. The lack of faith in the ideal even by as pure a spirit as Elsa (who Py aligns with a view of Wagner that Elsa represents the 'volk') who has fallen under the corrupting influence of the likes of Ortrud and Telramund, means that Lohengrin refuses to be the figurehead that leads the forces of King Henry the Fowler into battle against Hungary. Ortrud certainly hammers home the point of ideals being corrupted in her final words: "Erfahrt, wie sich die Götter rächen, von deren Huld ihr euch gewandt!" (Learn how the gods take vengeance on you who no longer worship them!). In case that message isn't delivered forcefully enough by Elena Pankratova, the fact that it is uttered amidst the ruins of 1945 makes it hard to ignore the implication that you could also see Lohengrin as a substitute for Wagner foreseeing and denying responsibility for the misuse of his art that the Nazis would put it towards.

Pankratova, as it happens, gets that across with absolute conviction in one of the strongest performances among the cast here, but even if not everyone is up to her level, there are no weak performances or anyone who lets the side down. Andrew Foster-Williams might not have the same strength of personality or voice, but that suits a dominated, wheedling portrayal of Telramund and it's an effective performance. Ingela Brimberg mostly meets the challenges of the role of Elsa and her voice likewise complements that of Eric Cutler as Lohengrin. Cutler is almost Italianate in his phrasing and lyricism, if not quite to the extent of Piotr Beczala (at Dresden). With Klaus Florian Vogt's monopolisation of the role in recent years however, we know that a lighter higher voice can work well, but it's a romantic-heroic role that allows a wide range of interpretation, and it's always interesting to see what a new voice can bring to it.

It felt like it was more Alain Altinoglu's conducting of the La Monnaie orchestra that was a little stiff, not really succeeding in capturing the romantic lyricism of the opera or finding a way to connect it with the perhaps harder edged tone of the production - but as ever it's hard to give a fair assessment of that from the compressed audio reproduction of a live streamed broadcast. There are moments however that capture the more militaristic and Germanic side of the work well, and some fine contrasting moments of warmth and sentiment, as in the lovely warm low brass of Lohengrin's regret in having to reveal his identity. It's an interesting production, one that does try to engage with the issues surrounding Lohengrin and its subsequent history, and indeed even look at it as an opera that looks towards the future, but inevitably in those circumstances - much like Hans Neuenfel's recent Bayreuth production - it doesn't feel like it gives a true sense of the opera as Wagner may have intended it.

Links: La Monnaie, ARTE Concert

Tuesday 15 May 2018

Różycki - Eros and Psyche (Warsaw, 2017)

Ludomir Różycki - Eros and Psyche

Polish National Opera, 2017 

Grzegorz Nowak, Barbara Wysocka, Joanna Freszel, Wanda Franek, Anna Bernacka, Aleksandra Orłowska-Jabłońska, Mikołaj Zalasiński, Tadeusz Szlenkier, Wojtek Gierlach, Adam Kruszewski, Grzegorz Szostak, Mateusz Zajdel 

OperaVision - April 2018 

The Polish composer Ludomir Różycki is not a well-known name, but certainly comes from a musical background and early twentieth century associations that I personally find interesting. Różycki studied under Humperdinck in Berlin and was schooled in the style of Wagner and Strauss and went on to form the Young Poland association of composers with connections to the Russian Group of Five movement formed by Russian composers including Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, with the aim of establishing a new national music identity for Poland. Inevitably, to judge by Eros and Psyche - which we are fortunate to be able to see performed thanks to OperaVision - those late-romantic influences show in the classic mythological subject of Jerzy Żuławski's libretto and the epic musical treatment applied to it. 

Żuławski's adaptation of the Cupid & Psyche myth certainly presents all the opportunities for an expanded and rich musical treatment. The ancient basis of the story is an epic tale of forbidden love that transcends time and overcomes great obstacles. It's a price Psyche has to pay for falling in love and looking on the face of an immortal god, Cupid or Eros, who has been secretly visiting her. Cupid's orders were to use his dart to make Psyche fall in love with a monstrous creature for presuming her beauty to be an equal of Venus, but these darts have been known to go astray and both she and Eros fall under a spell of this forbidden love and are punished for it, condemned to wander the earth (and the underworld) eternally. 

In Żuławski's version of the story, that wandering takes Psyche to a number of famous historical ages, from the Golden Age of Arcadia, to imperial Rome, to early Christianity in a monastery in Spain, through the French revolution and into the present day. It's a treatment and a structure that provides a number of serious obstacles to Psyche, who is visited by Eros in different guises in each of these situations, and it provides Różycki with a variety of colours to work with, as well as the opportunity to push the romantic tone of the music into epic levels. The tone is inevitably Straussian, with mythological correspondences with Daphne, Die Liebe der Danae and of course, Ariadne auf Naxos

And it would appear to be from Ariadne auf Naxos that director Barbara Wysocka takes her inspiration for the staging of this 2017 production of Eros and Psyche at the Teatr Wielki, 100 years after its premiere in Wroclaw. Różycki and Żuławski's version of the story is a relatively straightforward telling of myth that has none of the framing and self-referential dramatic and operatic narrative complexities of Strauss and Hofmannsthal's treatment of Ariadne auf Naxos. Wysocka however chooses to frames this opera's story of Psyche's wanderings through time as that of an actress working on a number of period film productions. It's a reasonable way to make the mythological story modern and contemporary, but it has to be said that it doesn't appear to bring anything unexpected out of the work and may indeed even confuse matters somewhat. 

What it does highlight is that the music is indeed beautifully composed and scored for each dramatic situation like a movie soundtrack. The first appearance of Eros on the set, emerging out of the darkness to meet Psyche waiting in anticipation, is lushly and scored with a romantic surge. Each of the mini movies are given titles (Rome, Under the Cross, With Blood etc.) the titles and Falconetti Joan of Arc-like close-ups of Psyche accompanied by sweeping musical introductions. Conducted by Grzegorz Nowak, the music is a treat for anyone who likes their late and post-romantic indulgent Strauss or Rimsky-Korsakov orchestrations, and it's wonderful to hear another Polish composer other than Szymanowski working in this register. 

Lived through the movies, this undoubtedly helps maintain the larger-than-life character of the mythological romance between Eros and Psyche that is otherwise abandoned in the production, and it retains all the colour of the periods and locations. It's perhaps a bit too busy with extras and camera crews cluttering the stage as well, adding a layer of remove that the opera doesn't really need, and it may even detract from the character of the work as well. Psyche's journey and her encounter with Eros in various guises in different eras (with Blaks the farmhand who has been condemned alongside her for disturbing the meeting between the illicit lovers also present) raises questions of decadent living (Rome), sin (The Cross) and compassion (Paris) are also considered perhaps as necessary stages in her journey to redemption. 

On the other hand if 'Psyche' gains awareness of such matters through the movies she plays the lead role in, then that element isn't entirely lost in the 2017 production. Nor is it lost in how it is covered in the direction or the musical and singing performances. Joanna Freszel is very much centre stage as Psyche and the role is not without its challenges (if not quite at the Richard Strauss level of demands), and she gives an engaging and note-perfect performance throughout, her voice having a lovely character and timbre. The high tenor role of Eros is almost Mozartian by comparison and tests the tenor's ability to hold it steady but Tadeusz Szlenkier certainly brings a lyrical sweetness to the role. There are good supporting performances from the remainder of the cast, particularly from Anna Bernacka as Hagne (et al) and from Mikołaj Zalasiński as Blaks. 

Links: Polish National Opera, OperaVision

Wednesday 9 May 2018

Verdi - Aida (Stockholm, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Aida

Royal Swedish Opera - Stockholm, 2018 

Pier Giorgio Morandi, Michael Cavanagh, Christina Nilsson, Ivan Defabiani, Katarina Dalayman, Lennart Forsén, Alessio Cacciamani, Johan Edholm, Jihan Shin, Jessica Forsell

OperaVision - April 2018

If there's one Verdi opera that needs to be continually reassessed and reconsidered in terms of whether it still has any real relevance or anything to say to a modern audience it's probably La Traviata, but Aida isn't far behind. Both works might have been fuelled by real anger against social institutions, but if they ever did have anything important to say it's easy for it to get lost in the star power and glamour that the operas' settings and subjects inevitably attract. La Traviata however can be immensely powerful and hard-hitting about society's treatment of women when it's allowed to be, and condemnation of the horrors of war in Aida need not necessarily be submerged under the bombast of Verdi's score and the pomp and ceremony of grand opera spectacle.

You do have to question the effectiveness of Verdi's treatment in Aida however, in how it seems to get carried away with its exotic setting and location, in the attention that Verdi pays towards Eastern-influenced melodies, grand religious ceremonies and ceremonial triumphal marches before royalty. With the melodramatic turns of love, family and duty all becoming intertwined, it threatens to overshadow the anti-war, anti-religious sentiments that are there, but there have been some notable attempts (and failures) to move away from the glamour and address the real issues at the heart of the work - if you consider that they were ever really there.

The short overture to Aida certainly reflects a more sombre note, and in Michael Cavanagh's production for the Royal Swedish Opera, that's immediately established as being associatedwith the more intimate story of the individuals whose lives have suffered because of the demands placed on them by the 'state'. We already see Aida and Radamès buried alive in the tomb that descends to show a figure we can presume in Amneris, lying face down in a pool of blood with a knife by her side. The note of melancholy that can also be found in Radamès ode to an impossible love for a slave girl of his nation's enemy ('Celeste Aida') is soon overwhelmed by cries of 'war and death' as the news of Amonasro's advance is brought by the High Priest, Ramfis.

It's in such contrasts however that Aida does effectively present the conflict between the individual's hope and dreams and the necessity of putting them aside for something as monstrous as war. Radamès's personal conflict is mirrored in the situation of Aida later in the opera when she is torn between her love for Radamès and her love for her father, Amanasro, the King of Ethiopia whose armies have been routed and taken captive by the Egyptian commander and his forces. There's also very much a case put of there being no real victors when it comes to war. "Today we are the victims of fate, tomorrow fate may strike you", Amonasro warns Radamès, and history has shown the truth of such turns of fate in the downfalls of the great. 

This aspect is borne out and elaborated upon quite successfully in the Stockholm production even if the focus is very much on the small personal drama. It's hard to criticise the production on those grounds, as this is indeed very much how it is played by Verdi. So yes, Aida has musical and dramatic flaws, or even if you don't consider them flaws - and it's perfectly valid to enjoy the opera for the music and singing for what it is - you still adjust the emphasis at your peril. Olivier Py's scattershot Paris production demonstrated the risks inherent in that whereas the chamber approach as seen more recently in the La Monnaie production, touched much more effectively on the true nature of the work in a way that prevented it from it appearing dated and out of touch with the times.

Magdalena Åberg's set and costume designs for the Royal Swedish Opera production are unimposing, but there is a balance struck between modern military uniforms with AK47 rifles and some nods to the Egyptian heritage of the work with its robes and ceremonies. The production does well to avoid the familiar imagery and processional choreography, presenting a more minimal stage with a gold wall in the background and blue lighting that nonetheless retains an air of a royal palace with notions of strict protocol and order. So there's a fresh modern outlook on the work at the same time as the necessary contrasts between the institutions of the state and the ordinary citizen are marked out well; contrasts that focus on the intimate love story at the heart of the work, one crushed by the weight of those powers that Verdi depicts so dramatically. 

The main issue that has to be dealt in a production of Aida is in how to present it's Triumphal March; whether to make it a glorious spectacle or undercut it with realism. Cavanagh's approach wisely takes a dim view of celebrating slaughter, so while the chorus and trumpets are proclaiming victory and the greatness of their King, we are shown scenes of the reality of the war that Radamès has waged against the Ethiopian tribes. And it is very much that of a large military force, bulked out in combat gear with every precision targeting technology at their disposal, bringing horror to the lives of ordinary citizens. It's very well staged - with curtains blocking off live vignette scenes rather than using projections - and it hammers home the horror of the contrast between the ideal of duty and the reality for Radamès. 

Musically, Pier Giorgio Morandi conducts an excellent performance that plays well to the contrasts of Verdi's melodies and the variety of sentiments within it without letting it get too sentimental. The singing performances, despite some initial reservations with timing and technique, are also quite good, and backed up with a superb chorus. You have to pity any young tenor who has to launch straight into an aria like 'Celeste Aida' with barely time to warm up, but Ivan Defabiani's Radamès really comes through spectacularly later with a performance that builds in character and confidence. Christina Nilsson as Aida also takes a short while to find her feet after 'Ritorna vincitor', but likewise gives a fine performance, the two of them making a convincing young couple whose love is challenged by the scorned Amneris. Katarina Dalayman shows the right kind of imperiousness tinged with regret, although her voice is lacking some of the necessary force. It's in this small scale drama that the bigger picture is reflected, bearing out the words spoken earlier that "Today we are the victims of fate, tomorrow fate may strike you".

Links: Royal Swedish Opera, OperaVision

Wednesday 2 May 2018

Sondheim - Assassins (Dublin, 2018)

Stephen Sondheim - Assassins

The Gate Theatre, 2018

Selina Cartmell, Rory Corcoran, Muiris Crowley, Brian Gilligan, Kate Gilmore, Dan Gordon, Ger Kelly, Andrew Linnie, Aoibhéann McCann, Ruth McGill, Sam McGovern, Helen Norton, Rachel O’Byrne, Mark O’Regan, Nicholas Pound, Matthew Seadon-Young

The Gate Theatre, Dublin - 28 April 2018

Usually there are a few signs around the entrance to the theatre that warn if there are going to be any sudden loud noises, but I think you could take it for granted that there are likely to be a few gunshots heard in Assassins at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. Stephen Sondheim's musical presents accounts of no less than nine people who have plotted to take the life of the incumbent President of the United States of America, and in some cases succeeded. Going out with a bang I guess you could say, and the Gate production makes a bit of an impression as well.

Even as someone unfamiliar with Sondheim and with the musical theatre genre in general, a musical about nine deluded, deranged and dangerous people does strike me as an unusual subject to write songs around. Considering they take place many years apart with no indication that any of them knew one another, I couldn't see how Assassins could be anything more than a series of musical vignettes that possibly delved into the personal backgrounds of each of the nine would-be and actual assassins and the circumstances that led to them pointing a gun at the President. Even though they do indeed take place many years apart, with only Gerald Ford being the target of two different assassins, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman manage nonetheless to weave together 100 years of American history into the production.

The interweaving of separate stories is not purely for dramatic purposes, to provide an overarching narrative rather than a collection of disparate events, but precisely to consider the assassins as a very distinctive and select group of people united by a very singular drive to kill the President of the United States of America. Could there be some common ground? Could they have legitimate grievances about how the USA is governed? Or is the common theme that unites all these individuals merely just mental illness and a sense of self-importance? Even there alone, could that not tell us something deeper about the nature of the where the American Dream meets reality?

Certainly there are on the surface very different motivations between the oldest recorded case here where John Wilkes Booth would shoot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head in a Washington theatre in 1865 and the most recent, John Hinckley Jr, who shot and succeeded in wounding Ronald Reagan in 1981. And yet, there are suspicions that Booth - a stage actor himself - may have been at least in part frustrated by a lack of success and bad press notices and may have seen the shooting of Abraham Lincoln as the ultimate piece of theatre, jumping from the theatre box and shouting 'Sic semper tyrannis!' from the stage straight after the assassination. Hinckley too has some sense of detachment from reality in his obsession with Jodie Foster and her character in the film Taxi Driver, and the shooting of Reagan could also be seen as a theatrical act of attention seeking.

Such little connections creep out also in the lives of Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, the two women who unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford merely weeks apart in 1975. One was a disciple of Charles Manson, the other according to Weidman's book at least, came from the same part of the States as Manson, and knew him from school days. Even though the two women never met in real life as far as we know, Sondheim and Weidman establish this connection between them in an amusing target practice scene. The writers similarly have Booth speak as an 'inspiration' to Lee Harvey Oswald, and many of the other assassins similarly connecting with each other on various levels, whether that be common interests and sentiments, political or personal grievances, or - since such a common aim immediately makes you famous - even just on the level of inspiration or awareness of past assassins.

It's important in a stage production then to both clearly demarcate each of the individuals and their rationale, as well as find a common connection or overarching theme that necessarily draws them together. As if the idea of bringing the nine singing assassins onto the stage weren't a strange enough idea on its own, the concept of bringing them together as part of some kind of macabre carnival game is another inspired touch that the production at the Gate Theatre in Dublin wholeheartedly embrace. Each of the would be assassins are offered a gun and a prize (Shoot the Prez! Win a Prize!) by a rather Pennywise-like clown master of ceremonies - a wonderfully sinister Nicholas Pound as 'The Proprietor' - their efforts marked by a Hit or Miss indicator flashing in lights above the stage. The humour is wonderfully black, Sondheim's songs and music also drawing from carnival themes, country music and a wide variety of styles.

The music and singing performances are a constant delight. Inevitably, working with historical characters of clearly rich colourful backgrounds, each of the individuals is well characterised, but the ensemble playing is also exceptionally good and important to the overall impact and Ruth McGill and Rachel O'Byrne are in fine voice in roles where they have much more to do than just sell sticks of candy. It's the comically incompetent roles of course that get the most laughs, but certainly Aoibhéann McCann shooting at a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken as Sara Jane Moore and Dan Gordon as a Santa-suited Samuel Byck in a Dodgems car strike a wonderfully surreal note and really make the most of characters whose motivations and behaviours strike you as the most unfathomable and deranged. It's a close call though, and - as is at least clear from the account of Lee Harvey Oswald - the nature of the musical and songs is clearly insufficient to delve fully into most complex conspiracies and motivations.

What is clear however is that Assassins brilliantly achieves what it sets out to do, creating a platform that allows the spectator to see this diverse group of individuals as a select group of people and perhaps through that tell us something about the nature of the people and government of the United States. First produced in 1990, the contemporary relevance of Assassins still comes through in 2018, when the question of gun control remains a highly controversial issue. The nine assassins might have very little obviously in common with each other and apparently achieved little of any real political change (much less gun controls), but what happens when a person with mental illness, deranged beliefs and a sense of their own superiority gets their hands on a gun with the promise of a prize of fame and immortality, is still very much a relevant and topical subject.

Links: The Gate Theatre