Thursday 26 July 2018

Wagner - Lohengrin (Bayreuth, 2018)

Richard Wagner - Lohengrin

Bayreuth Festival, 2018

Christian Thielemann, Yuval Sharon, Georg Zeppenfeld, Piotr Beczala, Anja Harteros, Tomasz Konieczny, Waltraud Meier, Egils Silins

BR-Klassik - 25 July 2018

The premiere of Bayreuth's new production of Lohengrin for their 2018 festival tends to emphasise the colourful fairy-tale qualities of the work, but whether it gets to the mythological qualities that Wagner's opera aspires to is another matter. Whether the values the work puts forward have any meaning or application to the world we live in today is questionable in any case. Dresden's production would seem to think not, retaining the work's medieval legend setting, but Bayreuth usually take a much more adventurous analytical probing of Wagner's works for continued relevance and contemporary meaning, as the previous production by Hans Neuenfels demonstrated. With Lohengrin, there's always the tricky question of its legacy to consider, which Olivier Py's production for La Monnaie recently explored. The intentions of the latest Bayreuth production are a little more difficult to fathom.

Whether you take it at face value or probe deeper and more critically, Lohengrin however is inextricably related to the matter of German nationalism, Wagner seeking through mythology and legend to identify the characteristics that define the German people. Whether it's critical of certain unpleasant and dangerous aspects of that nature or laudatory and idealistic is questionable, but it's possible to see it both ways. Doing so of course risks polarising those aspects into broad definitions of 'good' and 'evil', and the fairy-tale setting does tend towards such a Manichean division at the cost of any finer nuance. There are certainly other elements that suggest other ways of looking at the work, but it has to be said that initially, the symbolism is confusing and difficult to pin down.

Part of the reason for this of course could be down to the fact that the set designers, the artist Neo Rauch and his wife Rosa Loy, worked independently on their conception of the work and then tried to integrate that with director Yuval Sharon's ideas. There's a clear difference of views then on what the intention, purpose and relevance of Lohengrin is, but that can also provide an interesting dialectic that can promote some interesting new thoughts on the work. Even if it's hard to fathom, I have to say I'm more taken with the visual aesthetic in this new Bayreuth production than with the contradictory thoughts that LA Opera director Sharon - the first American director invited to work on a Bayreuth production - entertains on the work.

Visually the production design is stunning, a vision in pale blue. There's nothing naturalistic about the mythological fairy-tale setting of Lohengrin, so there's no need whatsoever to have it in any realistic/idealistic depiction of medieval Brabant. Rauch and Loy's designs do pay lip service to period in the stylised costumes, but they also have more eccentric fairy-tale touches like wings attached to the backs of the main characters; long insect wings mostly, and little bat wings for Ortrud. There no real sign that these are used for flying, although the sword-fight challenge between Telramund and Lohengrin takes place in the air on wires. What does stand out as incongruous but spectacular is the huge wireless electrical generator tower where Lohengrin makes his appearance and the giant Tesla electrical coils that the accused Elsa is tied to in preparation for burning at the stake.

The imagery and the conflict of characterisation in this production does have a tendency then to highlight the divisions between good and evil. Is God on the side of the German people or against them, and is the struggle between Ortrud/Telramund and Lohentrin/Elsa a contest really to determine God's will as a resolution to King Henry's concerns about how to unite the people behind him? Admittedly, this view is probably influenced more by Waltraud Meier's brilliant interpretation in her expression of the word 'God' while she sets out to manipulate Frederic von Telramund. There is however also something about the division between old ways and new ways, between faith and magic that is highlighted in the traditional ceremonial heraldry and the 'magic' of electrical forces, the gods of technology.  There is even some hint of visual reference to Fritz Lang's Metropolis in this, where there is a similar need to reunite heart and mind in order to bring the people together as a nation.

Whether that's relevant to today is of course open to interpretation, but certainly viable in that it can be applicable to all kinds of contemporary issues, and perhaps particularly German ones. Yuval Sharon however takes a somewhat contrary viewpoint to the meaning and contemporary relevance of the work, seeing it as some kind of an expression of #MeToo and women's rights. His questioning in an interview whether "Can real love exist if you aren't allowed to know the partner?" and his view that Elsa and Ortrud are strong women who need to assert their own personality over "corrupt men" (including Lohengrin), since "blindly trusting and obeying someone is not permissible in our society" seems to me to be the complete opposite of the intended view of the opera on questions of faith and trust. There's nothing wrong in challenging or updating that view, and Wagner's views are certainly open to reevaluation, but I don't think that the director makes a convincing case by imposing modern gender politics onto the work when the real issues surely lie deeper than that on placing one's faith and trust in the concept of a nation.

The question is at least relevant in terms of power - if you want to consider the references to electricity simply in those terms - in who has the right to wield it and how they wield it. Nothing of course is that clear cut, and inevitably, by the time we get to the third Act it becomes harder to tie all the different symbols and imagery together into something meaningful. Frederic von Telramund's body isn't brought onto the stage for the last scene, but his detached wings are pinned to a flat piece of scenery that looks like a bush. The people carry flickering moth-shaped lamps, and the concluding return of Godfrey, the heir to the throne of Brabant, turns up not as a swan or a child on a swan but as a fully grown green man who resembles an East Berlin traffic light Ampelmann carrying an illuminated green shoot (the merging of nature and technology - who knows? It's Bayreuth).

Whatever you make of it all, it's a great Lohengrin that looks and sounds terrific and is certainly thought-provoking. Christian Thielemann can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned, conducting this performance with pace and vigour, but never aggressively, allowing the full Romantic flow of the work to dominate. The casting on paper looks close to ideal, but the few concerns you might have are borne out to some extent. Little needs to be said about Georg Zeppenfeld's clear authoritative King Henry; his acting abilities are maybe limited to eyebrow raising, but there's not a lot of room for interpretation in the role. Tomasz Konieczny is a superb Telramund; no cartoon villainy here, he combines a steely formidability in his voice with a weakness towards the machinations of Ortrud. Waltraud Meier is evidently not the force she once was, but her experience and interpretation count for a lot, bringing much to a vital role that deserves more than caricature. I've never been completely convinced with Anja Harteros as a Wagnerian singer, but she is capable of surprising you in the right role. Elsa is not the right role.

The star of the show as far as I was concerned (and the Bayreuth audience as well from the sound of it, although Meier also got a long enthusiastic and respectful ovation) was Piotr Beczala. Drafted into the production at short notice following the departure of the scheduled Roberto Alagna, who found himself not fully prepared for the role, Beczala was a luminous heroic Lohengrin (despite Sharon's misguided attempt to paint this Lohengrin as some kind of cruel authoritarian figure), his voice clear, bright and lyrical, his diction superb, sounding genuinely otherworldly. It's great to hear a different voice from the ubiquitous Klaus Florian Vogt in this role (quite how Alagna might have sounded is anyone's guess, but it might be intriguing to hear that one day) and Beczala, who already demonstrated his capability for the role in the Dresden production in 2016, is even better here, completely in command. There's no question whose side God is on here.

Links: Bayreuth Festival, BR-Klassik

Wednesday 25 July 2018

Verdi - Alzira (Buxton, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Alzira

Buxton Festival, 2018

Stephen Barlow, Elijah Moshinsky, Kate Ladner, James Cleverton, Jung Soo Yun, Graeme Danby, Phil Wilcox, Luke Sinclair, Brian McNamee, Helen Bailey

Buxton Opera House - 20th July 2018

If there's a lesson to be learned from the fate of Verdi's Alzira, it's never offer a negative assessment of your own work. Whether Alzira is a noble failure or potentially redeemable is never really going to be considered when the composer is on record describing it as "proprio brutta" (downright ugly). If you want to consign one of your operas to obscurity that's the way to do it. Even when all of Verdi's early operas have been revived in recent years - successfully or otherwise - most companies still give Alzira a wide berth. Even when compiling a complete Tutto Verdi collection of the composer's work on DVD, the producers could only manage to include a concert version of this opera rather than a fully staged performance.

It's a very pleasant surprise then to discover that Alzira's poor reputation really isn't merited. Far from it, in fact. The only proper way to judge that however is by seeing it in a fully staged performance and thankfully, Buxton Festival were brave enough to take on the challenge (and curse) of Alzira as the third of Stephen Barlow and Elijah Moshinsky's early Verdi revivals (following Giovanna d'Arco in 2016 and Macbeth in 2017) in preference to a more predictable Attila or Il Giorno di Regno, both of which have a lot less to recommend. Moshinsky's production really does pull the work together and proves that, as is often the case, a good production can mitigate against any perceived weaknesses and highlight the strengths of an opera like this.

The weakness of Alzira is that it's an early Verdi opera, which means that it's a bit crash-and-bang and not terrible subtle or original in its plot or characterisation. Based on a play by Voltaire about the assassination of a Spanish governor of Peru by an Inca uprising, Verdi chooses his sources material from a solid literary source but, as is often the case in the earlier works, jettisons any real political questions about the work's attack on colonialism and religion and instead gives the opera audience a romantic drama. The strengths of Alzira lie in the fact that it's still Verdi and he can bang out a great tune, has a strong sense of drama (particularly high drama) and dramatic pacing, and the work never outstays its welcome by trying to make anything more of the plot than is there on the surface.

It's a basic plot to say the least. Gusmano, the son of the Spanish governor Alvaro, wants to marry Alzira, the daughter of one of the Peruvian tribes trying to establish peace with the Spanish authorities. Alzira however is in love with Zamoro, the leader of the Inca tribe in rebellion against the colonial powers. Zamoro has been captured, tortured and has escaped, returning to plead clemency for the governor Alvaro, who has been kidnapped in retaliation by the Incas. He then returns apparently from the dead to the anxious Alzira. When Alvaro steps down and leaves his son to take his place as governor, Gusmano forges ahead with the wedding plans, leading to a further attack by Zamoro and his tribe, where Gusmano is killed.

Setting a complicated impossible romantic love story against the background of political turmoil and revolution is a fairly standard Verdi opera plot that he would carry on with as far as Un ballo in maschera and to some extent, albeit in much more sophisticated compositions, in Don Carlos and Aida. Here, long before Aida, there's an exotic setting - 16th century Peru - but at this stage you wouldn't really know it from the music or characterisation; there's little to distinguish it from Oberto, Ernani, Attila or any one of many early to middle period Verdi works. Verdi nonetheless turns the standard plotting of Alzira into a rousing drama with plenty of action and stirring grand choruses. Like many of the Verdi operas of this period it might seem a little rudimentary, there's a lack of memorable arias and there's no 'Va pensiero' or 'Patria oppressa', but it uses the political charge of the plot to hit all the necessary dramatic points exceptionally well, and even quite thrillingly.

A lot of the credit for it coming across that way has to be down to the spirited musical and singing performances. It would be a mistake to look for any real sophistication in the plot or music, but that doesn't mean Alzira shouldn't be taken completely seriously. Trying to play it ironically or with distancing effects doesn't do such Verdi works any favours. It demands to be played and performed with passion and sincerity, and Stephen Barlow conducts a spirited account of the work that feels fully committed and believing in the drama. The same approach works for the singers as well, with Kate Ladner as Alzira doing well to navigate the considerable challenges that Verdi provides to the soprano in these works, working alongside an impressive Jung Soo Yun as Zamoro, who also shone in last year's Macbeth as Macduff.

That goes some way to making the plot a little easier to swallow, but what brings it all together is Elijah Moshinsky's direction and the excellent production design of Russell Craig. The costumes and set colouration looks more Cuban than Peruvian, or closer to a Central American revolution, but for the purposes of the work - which never really explores the colonial issues - it works even better. TV breaking news reports put the drama into this context and the real-life revolution footage and abuse of the oppressive authorities does contribute to making the drama feel real and present. Projections are also used in a more abstract way also to suggest deeper sentiments than the plot or music really contain, but more than that they ensure that there is plenty of visual interest to engage the audience. Quite simply though, the real strengths are all in just good direction of the performances.

Quite why Verdi didn't believe in the work the same way that the Buxton team do is a mystery, although his reported comments are thought to be disparaging of the libretto more than his own solid musical contribution. I suspect part of the dislike of the work might also have been dissatisfaction with the ending. It's quite unusual for the 'villain' of the piece to be given an almost heroic role at the conclusion that puts the leading romance into the shade. It might not be the most convincing turnaround certainly and there's no Macbeth-like 'Mal per me' to seek or gain audience sympathy. As good as James Cleverton is, even he can't quite carry off this turnaround, but it certainly provides a shock, sudden resolution to the opera that is hammered home with relish by Barlow and a superb Northern Chamber Orchestra. What a delight to see Alzira being rehabilitated in this hugely enjoyable production. Not a lost masterpiece maybe, but a modest gem.

Links: Buxton Festival

Tuesday 24 July 2018

Mozart - Idomeneo (Buxton, 2018)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Idomeneo 

Buxton Festival, 2018

Nicholas Kok, Stephen Medcalf, Paul Nilon, Rebecca Bottone, Heather Lowe, Madeleine Pierard, Ben Thapa, Richard Dowling, Julian Debreuil

Buxton Opera House - 19th July 2018

As well as working on a trilogy of rare early Verdi works over the last couple of years, the Buxton Festival have also been presenting a number of Mozart's early operas that aren't quite as well known and rarely staged. Like early Verdi these can be a mixed bag but very worthwhile if you can find and show the qualities and the promise in the works. La Finta Giardiniera proved to be an absolute delight in Buxton's staging, wonderfully effervescent and playful, but Lucio Silla last year on the other hand came across as rather dour and uneventful. Idomeneo is certainly the best of early Mozart and consequently it is always worth exploring, but in contrast to some exciting and ambitious recent readings of the work elsewhere, Buxton's approach doesn't initially seem to have a great deal to bring to the work.

For an opera that is very much connected to the sea and the curse of Neptune, Stephen Medcalf's production somewhat counter-intuitively sets the whole three acts of Idomeneo within a dry room that is semi-buried in a sand drift. It's a simple enough image that does capture some sense of the domestic drama at the heart of the plot as well as the forces of nature at the heart of the work without having to be overly literal. If Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside could bring all the heart-freezing sentiments of Schubert's Winterreise fully into being earlier in the day during one of the hottest summers on record in the UK, well there's no reason why Buxton can't likewise test the effectiveness of Mozart's setting of Idomeneo. And you wouldn't bet against Mozart winning through.

With the same set designed by Isabella Bywater unchanged for all three acts, and only open doors and windows for the characters and chorus to make their entrances and exits, there was no other apparent concept or original reading applied. If there was any area in which Buxton's Idomeneo differed from other recent productions, it was that Stephen Medcalf took a rather more balanced view of the contrasting forces at work in the opera. This was one of the kindest and most gentle Idomeneos I've seen, particularly in its sympathetic treatment of Electra and Idomeneo, more often seen as the villains in the piece. That does actually place a very different perspective on the work, but you really have to wait a long time in this opera seria for its impact to come through.

In terms of characterisation and relationships and how they are expressed through the opera seria medium, the production is fairly 'dry'. Idomeneo's indecision, vacillation and agonising over his rash promise to Neptune to kill his own son as a sacrificial offering doesn't cut much ice in terms of eliciting sympathy. Idamante and Ilia's romance feels rather wet and unlikely to ever get off the ground, each of them delicately stepping around the subject.  In such a situation where everyone is being 'nice' and non-committal, Electra seems to have the best potential to break through here and shake the opera up, but she too seems to take it rather philosophically, mildly disappointed at her rejection by Idamante rather than filled with righteous vengeance.

How much is down to the direction and how much down to the characterisation adopted by the singers and even how much of it is down to Mozart's music potentially being rather too generous is debatable. The singing is good all around, but little of it seems to express any real personality, particularly when you want and expect an Electra full of fire and fury. But as the opera exerts its own momentum a strong central figure does emerge, and in contrast to the tendency to portray him as weak, indecisive and no longer fit to rule, it's Idomeneo who surprisingly takes centre stage. After all, the opera is named after him, so there is merit in looking more closely at his role in the drama.

And when you're looking towards characterisation in a Mozart opera, the best gauge of that is by listening to the music that Mozart writes for the characters. Mozart at this age may perhaps not have the depth and insight into human nature that is evident in is greater mature works, but he is by no means restricted by the conventions of the opera seria format, and even at this stage shows tremendous ability to create fully rounded characters out of what is a very limited dramatic situation. And it's only fully rounded by the time you get to the end of the work. So as austere as the production and the music might seem, Mozart's personality, his innovations with the form, his undoubted attention to Gluck's reformist agenda and his own sense of melody and dramatic flow still strike you as astounding. Austere it is not, but rich in detail, alive at every moment and never indulgent.

Conducted by Nicholas Kok, the music was allowed to exert its own force and carry the momentum of the accumulated scenes. Stephen Medcalf follows this line also and allows Idomeneo's curse, fate and fall to emerge from it as the true heart of the work. Idamante's love, generosity and humanity are important and Heather Lowe gives voice to that, just as Madeleine Pierard expresses Electra's anger but doesn't allow it to overwhelm and dominate. In line with Mozart's music, it's Paul Nilon who makes every moment of Idomeneo's agony to be truly felt, seemingly possessed by an evil spirit that forces him to enact the promised sacrifice, fighting with himself and his guilt at surviving the sea-wreck. Quite brilliantly supporting this interpretation, Neptune, when he makes his appearance at the end of the opera speaks chillingly through the possessed body of Idomeneo.

If the Buxton production of Idomeneo shows us anything it's that Mozart's writing is capable of supporting other readings and interpretations, but even in its purest and most austere form and despite its serious nature, it's a rich and involving work in its own right. Allowing each of the characters voice (although Arbace is inevitably cut back here, he's far from essential to the overall impact), allowing the set pieces to have their place - the placing of the Act III quartet 'Andrò ramingo e solo' absolutely pivotal and hugely impressive here - allowing the chorus - likewise impressive - to contribute their part, is what really drives this work and makes Idomeneo an endlessly fascinating work if you stick with it and most importantly, give Mozart's music its place.

Links: Buxton Festival

Tuesday 17 July 2018

Strauss - Salome (Amsterdam, 2017)

Richard Strauss - Salome

Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam - 2017

Daniele Gatti, Ivo Van Hove, Malin Byström, Evgeny Nikitin, Lance Ryan, Doris Soffel, Peter Sonn, Hanna Hipp, James Creswell, Roger Smeets

Culturebox - June 2017

It's isn't often obvious to judge what play or opera you are looking at just from a view of the sets alone in an Ivo van Hove production, but the set for the one-act drama of Salome for the Dutch National Opera is unmistakable. It might not be in the obvious Biblical setting, but the tones, contrasts and the basic functional requirements for Strauss's opera, or indeed Wilde's play, are all there. A large frigid moon hangs over the scene where an elegant room bathed in red light set to the back of the stage, and at the front is terrace like a circus arena with a hole at the centre.

Whether it's modern or Biblical, the hole is always more than just an entrance to the cistern where Jokanaan, John the Baptist is imprisoned in Herod's palace. It's a place where Herod and Heriodas want to hide the witness who speaks out about their decadence. It's also a gaping maw of desire, a dark abyss that exerts an irresistible attraction to their daughter Salome, a young woman who has grown up in this house of corruption. Those undercurrents of forbidden lusts are there in Wilde's original 1891 work, a play that still has the capacity to shock. Salome is a play dealing with a taboo subject whose importance still hasn't been fully acknowledged I feel, darker and more daring than the image of corruption and decadence in 'The Portrait of Dorian Gray', both of which now take a back seat to the image of Oscar Wilde as wit represented more often on stage by his Victorian comedies and social satires.

Richard Strauss however clearly recognised the power of the work and its underlying attack on social conformity when he first saw the controversial play in German translation in its first European performances, the original (in French and in English) having been banned in England. It's an outright attack on the hypocrisy of outward respectability covering over darker impulses, and it chimes with a climate of Viennese turn of the century Freudian analysis and exploration of repressed self-destructive impulses and bloodlust festering under a layer of surface respectability; an impulse that would soon be unleashed in the horrors of the Great War.

It was also a time when music was looking for a new expression or outlet for these new modernist views. Strauss retains the post-Wagnerian lush lyrical romanticism and exoticism that reflects the elegant surface of social respectability, but found an extraordinary new musical language to probe beneath the surface, a darker and more violent edge that lies within its unsettling dissonance, sudden shifts of tone and juddering declines and suspensions. As one of the most daring pieces of music written to that point, changing the face of music for a century, or at least pointing the way towards it, it's not only in Strauss's opera that Wilde's Salome is more frequently presented, but it's in it that it really lives.

A staging of the work then should also be radical and have the capacity to shock, or at least find a way that represents the spirit of the original. On the surface, Ivo van Hove's production isn't the most radical, but in the direction of the performers at least, he does find a way of getting to the heart of what remains compelling and shocking about the work. It need hardly be said that the central tension in the drama is between Salome and Jokanaan. How Herod, Herodias and Narraboth interact with Salome is very much contributory to the direction the work does in and its overall impact, but the focus here is very much on the pivotal confrontation between Salome's worldview and the one that Jokanaan both represents and decries.

Salome is the offspring of this corrupt society that hides its true face. In her generation's twisted view of the world, she wants to bend it to satisfy her own desires and at the same time turn her power towards exposing the true nature of this hypocritical society and completely destroy it. Speaking out against that hypocrisy and indulging those desires. This small incidental drama of a Biblical nature sets out to do achieve nothing less than complete annihilation. As Wilde prophetically recognises the fate that would befall him later, such actions and indulgence comes at a cost and ultimately prove to be self-destructive. Somehow Strauss's music carried the same seed of self-destruction in it, a darker abyss that Strauss would soon turn away from himself.

It's asking a lot of a young singer like Malin Byström, but under Ivo van Hove's direction she largely succeeds. There's a youthful innocence there at first, with a dark dirty desire from an abused corrupted childhood that is straining to get out. Jokanaan provides that foil to set herself against and test where the limits lie. She's not sure at first what she wants, but becomes dangerously capable of pushing taboo boundaries. Rejected by Evgeny Nikitin's solemn restrained Jokanaan, Byström handles Salome's transition over from pleading princess to violent murderous intent brilliantly, but it's also underscored well and delivered with jarring intensity from Daniele Gatti in the DNO orchestra pit. She's a dangerous spark waiting to ignite and Herod and her mother supply all the fuel she needs to set the world on fire.

The mechanics of the stage directions are mostly adhered to in Van Hove's production, but with a few varying points of emphasis. The moon gets larger, Narraboth kills himself in full public view looking down at the abyss, not away in some dark corner. Projections play a role, as they often do in the Belgian director's productions. They come into play mainly during the Dance of the Seven Veils, which is danced by Byström, but enhanced to show her dancing not for Herod but Jokanaan. The prophet's head is not delivered on a silver platter, but Jokanaan himself, covered head to foot in gore in a shallow basin that Salome wallows in. He's not entirely dead either, or perhaps moves only in Salome's head, crawling to an illicit and bloody union. If there's any contemporary commentary in Ivo van Hove's production it eludes me, but as an image of how Wilde and Strauss incautiously explored the direction society was going in, the DNO production is immensely powerful.

Links: DNO, Culturebox

Tuesday 10 July 2018

Wagner - Parsifal (Munich, 2018)

Richard Wagner - Parsifal

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2018

Kirill Petrenko, Pierre Audi, Georg Baselitz, Christian Gerhaher, Bálint Szabó, René Pape, Jonas Kaufmann, Wolfgang Koch, Nina Stemme, Kevin Conners, Callum Thorpe, Rachael Wilson, Paula Iancic, Tara Erraught, Manuel Günther, Matthew Grills, Golda Schultz, Selene Zanetti, Noluvuyiso Mpofu

Staatsoper.TV - 08 July 2018

I'm convinced that if I never watched any other opera but Parsifal, I'd still continue to find it an inexhaustible source of wonder, continually offering new insights about life, its purpose and meaning. There aren't many operas that offer as much, particularly from what appears to be so little. Whether it's Wagner's music itself, the director involved in a new production, the conductor, the singers, the staging, it seems that there are infinite ways of exploring this enigmatic work. It seems impossible not to engage with its deeply spiritual content, and each and every new performance and contributor seeming to have something new to bring to it. That's certainly the case with this exceptional 2018 production of Parsifal from the Bayerische Staatsoper.

On a basic narrative level Parsifal seems to be a religious parable or fantasy that bears little connection with real life matters. In Monsalvat, a place outside of space and time, the knights dedicated to a cult of the Holy Grail are falling into despair, their hero Amfortas having been struck by the Holy Spear of Destiny no longer able to endure the pain of performing the ceremony of the unveiling of the the grail that gives strength to its acolytes. They are crying out for someone to resolve the conflict and division in the world since the spear has fallen into the hands of Klingsor. Along comes an innocent fool who doesn't even know his own name. He is moved by what Gurnemanz shows him and determines to do something about it, to learn and understand. That's Act I. In Act II, resisting temptations of the flesh he encounters Kundry, a restless spirit who awakes him to a new awareness not just of the self, but of others. He wrests the spear from Klingsor and, after many years of wandering lost, finds his way to return the lost spear to Monsalvat in Act III.

On another level Parsifal is a story of redemption, the Grail and the Spear symbols of the gifts that God has given which can be used for good or evil. Mankind has taken a wrong step and it needs someone - someone pure who doesn't know the ways of the sinful world - who can heal the divisions and put us back on the right path; a return to innocence through death, rebirth and renewal. Parsifal's journey is not an easy one, the acquiring of learning and knowledge is difficult and painful, but it is through pain and loss that he acquires compassion and, through compassion, purpose. The opera however is not just about Parsifal, but Gurnemanz, Amfortas, Kundry and even Titurel reaching his end, all have their own paths to take towards redemption, resolution, transfiguration and transcendence, but Parsifal is the light that shows them the way.

There are many paths to follow then in Parsifal, and evidently even the above description and reading is greatly simplified. What lifts Parsifal to another level entirely and which can't be put into simple narrative terms is of course Wagner's miraculous music. Noble, dignified, passionate and compassionate, it embodies all the qualities of being human and striving to understand, but there's an abstraction in the flow and blend of melodies and leitmotifs, in the use of instruments and sounds, in the choral and ceremonial aspects of the work that also touches on something deep and spiritual and makes this little fable something more meaningful and endlessly capable of revealing new depths.

So what are we to make of Pierre Audi's new production of Parsifal for the Bavarian State Opera's 2018 summer festival? Well, initially, not a great deal. There's no particular emphasis or vision in display in the first Act, other than the distinctive and unusual set designs by the German artist and sculptor Georg Baselitz. Audi has successfully worked with visual artists before - not so long ago with Anish Kapoor on another production of Parsifal for the Dutch National Opera - and it does succeed in bringing another personal vision of a world that lies between abstraction and reality, a world turned upside down and deflating. Monsalvat appears to be deep in the woods, the knights congregating around a rough hewn structure of stone pillars that come together like a pyramid bundle of sticks sculpture. Kundry is to be found under the skeleton of whatever beast she rode in on. The outdoor-living monks wear heavy robes and tribal paints on their face, stripping down to reveal padded naked suits when Amfortas carries out an act of self-bloodletting within the sacrificial altar of the stone sculpture.

Aside from the eccentricities of the designs - which are nothing more than bringing the style of Georg Baselitz's paintings and designs to life - there's not much in the way of a concept revealed here. It seems to be relying on Kirill Petrenko's conducting of the score to bring out the real depth and mysteries of the work, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Under Petrenko, this is a performance of extraordinary quality by the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, perfectly paced and balanced to allow the emotional depth at the heart of the work infuse the limited dramatic action, and indeed even the otherwise unspectacular 'time becomes space' and unveiling of the grail 'transubstantiation' scenes.

It's only in Act II of this production that the path, intent and purpose of the work becomes evident. The more I see Parsifal, the more it becomes clear that the key figure in the work, the role that is most rewarding in terms of following the progression from lost to found, from self-interest to care for others, is not Parsifal but Kundry. How successful this is may well be down to the singers involved, and Nina Stemme is just astonishingly good here - one of the greatest performances of this role I've ever heard or witnessed. But the characterisation and understanding of who Kundry is important, and Audi and Stemme seem to have paid particular care and attention to this aspect of the work.

It's significant that Kundry is seen awakening out of a long "sleep of death" at the beginning of all three acts. It's her long-suffering moans we hear clearly in each of these scenes as she is called back into the pain of existence. Wild, untamed and confused, seeking redemption for a kind of 'original sin', she struggles with her own nature, unsure of the path to take, helping to ease the pain of Amfortas in one incarnation, forced to act as an agent of Klingsor in another. Tired of being torn, she wants to believe that there is a chance of rest, that someone will bring her struggle to an end. Like all the others, it can't be done by will alone, but in Act II - according to the very direct imagery of Georg Baselitz - a wall is breached.

Pierre Audi also pays particular attention to Parsifal in this Act and Jonas Kaufmann is very much able to make something of this characterisation and his interaction with Stemme's extraordinary Kundry. In a quite different reading of Wagner's exotic music for the Flowermaidens scene, Parsifal is not seduced, but rather the music seems to exude compassion - not love or lust - that he feels for these poor twisted naked bloody creatures of Klingsor (as Baselitz depicts them in lumpy padding). It's not just compassion though, but fear of compassion, unprepared for what it will take out of him. It's a reaction that for the first time made me think of the Flowermaidens scene not as some false Garden of Eden but rather as something closer to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, a religious scene that Wagner would undoubtedly have considered and referenced in relation to compassion, pain and sacrifice.

It's a simply stunning Act II, superlative on every level of execution in concept and performance. Its position as the true pivotal scene in the opera is fully realised here, the single greatest enactment of this Act that I have ever seen. It's not just Stemme, Kaufmann and Koch, it's Audi's direction, Baselitz's simple but meaningful set designs and, essentially, Kirill Petrenko's management of the ebb and flow of Wagner's near miraculous score reaching out and bringing all of this together. When you see it the way it is supposed to be done it's no wonder that Klingsor is so quickly and easily dispatched at the end of the Act. Parsifal has become an unstoppable force that has still to learn to control and come to terms with the knowledge and power he has gained through the medium of Kundry, but at this point he's just burning fire.

By the time we return to an upturned Monsalvat in Act III, it really does feel like a long time has passed, that Parsifal's righteous fire has lost none of its force but Kaufmann's demeanour wields it like a smouldering sun exuding only light and warmth. The tone and intent of this Act remained deeply moving and sincere in its account of redemption, rebirth and a return to innocence but it felt to me that there were understandable signs of tiring in the orchestra and in the performances. It also brought out the one real weak-point in this production, which was Christian Gerhaher's Amfortas. Gerhaher sings one of the most beautiful lyrical Wolframs you will ever hear in Tannhäuser, but he seemed to me ill-suited and lost as Amfortas. Then again, with the focus wholly on how Kundry and Parsifal become the catalyst to change, there is inevitably less attention paid to the other aspects of the work. If Amfortas's pain was at the same level, it would not only present a different balance, it would almost be too much for a viewer to bear in this production.

René Pape's Gurnemanz is also underdeveloped. Pape is left to stand inhabiting his own world, almost invariably poised beatifically with hands clasped in front of himself, focussed on the delivery but visibly wilting under the heat in the theatre as much as under the weight of the role. It has to be said that the delivery is still very good. I have mixed feelings about Jonas Kaufmann's Parsifal. On the one hand he does bring depth and compassion to Parsifal, his singing heartfelt and emotional. On the other hand his range lacks effectiveness as he tires, going from soft and barely audible to full-volume belting at the cost of real emotional feeling. He tries to compensate in his acting and often overcompensates. Without question however he delivers some spine-tingling moments here, particularly in his interaction with Nina Stemme's Kundry. There I'm afraid words are completely inadequate to express the depth of detail, the warmth of tone and expression in Stemme's ability to bring one of the greatest characters in all opera to life. It's just extraordinary and it makes this Parsifal extraordinary as well.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV

Saturday 7 July 2018

Verdi - Macbeth (Berlin, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Staatsoper under den Linden, Berlin - 2018

Harry Kupfer, Daniel Barenboim, Anna Netrebko, Plácido Domingo, Kwangchul Youn, Evelin Novak, Fabio Sartori

ARTE Concert - 21 June 2018

There's definitely an air of a prestige event about the Berlin Staatsoper's star-studded summer spectacular Macbeth, but also in its live open air broadcast, a sense of it being an occasion that can be accessible to a wider audience. Macbeth's recent elevation to becoming one of his most popular operas is deserved, and certainly among the best of the composer's earlier works. As such it has all the requirements of a crowd-pleaser, a showcase for imaginative stage direction, impassioned musical direction and for superstar singing. Verdi, Macbeth, Shakespeare, Kupfer, Barenboim, Netrebko and Domingo; evidently you're in for a treat. While the Berlin production can't fail to impress, there's still a lingering sense that it's more of an event than great opera.

The early indications in the setting of Act I Scene 1 are that Kupfer's production isn't going to shy away from the darkness and the horror that lies at the heart of Macbeth. There are however different ways of presenting the nature of that horror and Shakespeare and Verdi have differences of emphasis on the nature of power and ambition in Macbeth. For Verdi, the centrepiece of the opera is 'Patria opressa', the consequences that the lust for power has on the ordinary people caught up in war. Should a director stick closer to Shakespeare's themes or Verdi's? Well, there's no reason why you can't do both.

Phyllida Lloyd's production of Macbeth for the Royal Opera House found several ways to make the consequences and the reality of the underlying struggles present on a stage littered with the bodies of the dead, and Harry Kupfer's production for Berlin, while it may be a little more elegantly staged, also immediately places us is a world of almost apocalyptic devastation. Thick plumes of smoke rise from explosions of flame and lightning rains down on the scene as Macbeth and Banquo appear in the aftermath of the battle that will determine the future kings of Scotland. The witches dressed in rags scurry around the bodies in the muddy battlefield rags, scavenging over the spoils of war; a scene that tells you all you need to know about what is ahead without any mystic prophesy.

The veteran stage director's sets the scene well and what follows is equally spectacular. Kupfer's current visual aesthetic is for blacks, greys and steely silver, with off-kilter angular background projections of elegant, slightly surreal landscapes, and it works well for the contrasts and tones of Macbeth. The cold luxury of the Macbeth household is in stark contrast to the devastation outside in the real world, but it also captures a sense of the nature of Lord and Lady Macbeth's pretensions and sense of their own importance and ambition to rise. Verdi's music for these scenes, and Lady Macbeth's aria 'Vieni t'affretta' tell you as much, and Kupfer reflects this well.

There's really not much else to say about Kupfer's directorial choices. The remainder of the opera takes place in a series of equally suitable settings that provide variety and yet maintain a consistent tone. Every scene makes an impact - whether it's the ambush of Banquo by the maw of a digger on a building site or Macbeth's apparitions taking place within the crater of an active volcano - even if it doesn't say anything deeper than that. It's not the most insightful reading of Macbeth, but then Verdi's abilities at this stage in his career are far from the level he would attain with his later Shakespeare adaptations of Otello and Falstaff. The sets and direction however present impressive visual effects that match the character of the entertaining and expertly played performances.

Entertaining and expertly played that is, but likewise not with any great insight or depth. Anna Netrebko stamps her authority on the role of Lady Macbeth right from 'Vieni t'affretta' in the second scene of Act I, and her mastery of her character and ability to express her nature has already been capably demonstrated. As you would expect, she demonstrates great technical ability and considerable personality but, whether it's just the influence of the direction and the occasion, the personality is more Netrebko than Lady Macbeth; her 'La luce langue' is a little mannered, with no real sense of evil, menace or engagement with the world around her.

Unfortunately, that lack of engagement might also be down to the casting of Plácido Domingo. It's possible that Macbeth might well have a trophy wife, but it doesn't help that during his mental breakdown - where there is no actual ghost on the stage in this production - he looks more like her doddery old father. There's no chemistry here at all between Netrebko and Domingo. There's also the fact that while Domingo can sing the role well enough he just isn't a baritone. In other roles and even in other Verdi roles it might not matter so much, but the necessary contrast, weight and lyricism that is needed for Macbeth just isn't there. The addition of 'Mal per me' (making the best of both versions) consequently lacks the impact of the more direct ending and in fact it falls rather flat.

The Berlin Staatsoper's Macbeth then is very much a mixed bag. Daniel Barenboim conducts a good account of the score that holds back on bombast and allows the pace, rhythm and melodies to find their own sense of menace and horror. If it feels a little too smooth for early Verdi, that's as much to do with the elegant production that looks lovely, but fails to really follow through on the gritty and bloody drama that the opening scene appeared to promise. It's perhaps churlish to find minor faults with Netrebko and Domingo, who both delivered professional and crowd-pleasing performances, but these was more of a sense of them being opera gala performances than related to true lyric drama.

Links: Berlin Staatsoper, ARTE Concert, YouTube

Friday 6 July 2018

Mozart - Così fan tutte (London, 2016)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Così fan tutte

Royal Opera House, 2016

Semyon Bychkov, Jan Philipp Gloger, Corinne Winters, Angela Brower, Daniel Behle, Alessio Arduini, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Sabina Puértolas

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Purely in terms of the musical and singing performances, the Royal Opera House's 2016 production of Così fan tutte is reasonably good, if not quite exciting or revelatory. Semyon Bychkov conducts an elegant account of the work, but it doesn't particularly fizz with those energised moments of Mozartian brilliance. The singing performances are fresh, bright and vibrant, but don't seem to be able to carry the weightier considerations that are in the opera either. Jan Philipp Gloger's direction has an interesting concept that actually sets out to bridge that gap rather well, providing plenty of visual interest in the sets and situations, but somehow it still never quite coheres the way you might like it.

Making Don Alfonso a theatre director does take the work into a meta-theatrical direction, the opera even opening with the director and the cast of his latest work taking their bows at the start of this performance during the overture. The idea is not just to be clever, but to consider the meaning of Mozart and Da Ponte's opera in the context of art and artifice. It's not real-life, it's an opera. That doesn't mean that it doesn't have a serious point to make, but it can do it through music, theatre and, although it might seem like a contradiction, and is less commonly seen these days in this opera, it can be serious through comedy. As a theatre director then, Don Alfonso uses a number of theatrical situations to put love to the test and illustrate his point about fidelity and constancy to the two unrealistically idealistic young couples.

The Royal Opera House production tries to address the issues of love and fidelity in the opera in a lighter and more playful fashion without having to resort to that darker view of male and female relationships and middle-class ideals that you will find in some other productions (Michael Haneke and Christophe Honoré). It's true that some of the ideas expressed in the opera might be considered rather out of step with modern attitudes towards gender politics and political correctness, but Mozart and Da Ponte's comedy is actually just as challenging of prevailing attitudes. One need only look at their other two collaborations to realise that the same principles are applied to Così fan tutte. The theatricality and forced romanticism of the situations in Gloger's production highlight the fact that Mozart and Da Ponte are satirising such attitudes, regarding the notion of constancy and fidelity as nothing more than an artificial bourgeois construct that prevents us from following the true dictates of the human heart.

And it's true. Don Alfonso and his rather more practical minded co-conspirator from the serving classes Despina are actually correct. Not so much in the idea that it's women who are inconstant (it's taken for granted that men are fickle), but rather what Così fan tutte shows us is that anyone can fall in love, the human heart can be easily swayed and circumstances (or fate if you like) all have a part to play. It's not about fidelity, it's about human nature, and when it comes to exploring the wonder and the mysterious ways of the human heart, there's no-one like Mozart for showing its infinite variety and capacity for love. It might not always work out how we might like it, but in contrast to the cynicism that you can find in some modern productions, Mozart's music actually shows us that rather than leading to disillusionment, he considers this to be something wonderful and something to be celebrated.

Gloger's production then captures both the artifice of romantic ideals where we don disguises and play roles, but in each of the theatrical settings it also shows the wonderful variety of circumstances in which love can work its magic and catch us unawares, breaking down any preconceived ideals. It's a production that is perfectly in tune with the playfulness of the idea and the execution of the original, matching its cleverness, its richness of mood and character. Mozart and Da Ponte tell us to keep an open mind, and the same thing can be applied to this production. Every time you come to a Mozart opera, you can experience and discover something new about this wonderful work, and this one actually extends on some of its themes rather brilliantly, if you have an open mind and no preconceptions.

In execution however, it somehow doesn't quite come together the way it should. It's perhaps the difficulty of maintaining all those levels and trying to provide something for everyone; trying to retain some amount of the familiar with a few new ideas to challenge them. It's also down to the nature of the work itself, which demands young, fresh singers, but expects them to have the experience to maintain those various levels of superficiality and sophistication. Corinne Winters, Angela Brower, Daniel Behle and Alessio Arduini however give engaging individual performances of equal weight that permits them to interact well as a team. Sabina Puértolas is a lively irreverent Despina, and Johannes Martin Kränzle perfect as a generous rather than a cynical Don Alfonso.

The disconnect however appears to be more in the musical performance. Semyon Bychkov keeps the tone deceptively light, and it's this tone that dominates without either connecting meaningfully or contrasting with what is going on up on the stage. While Gloger's sets carry the sense of game play and role play, each of the 'actors' playing their allotted roles, it all feels a little detached and doesn't find a way to carry through to the ambiguous feelings that linger with the revelations made at a very confused resolution. There's an effort made to end on a wistful note, but you never get the sense that there is anything serious at stake here and no one really gets hurt. The ambiguity about Così however is what keeps it fresh and keeps you thinking, and this production does give you plenty to think about.

The Blu-ray presentation of the production also gives it a new lease of life, particularly in the High Resolution audio mixes of the musical performance. The extras on the BD are scant, but the introduction covers the all you need to know about the director's intentions for the concept, the characters and the nature of the work itself.

Links: Royal Opera House YouTube 

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Henze - Das Floß der Medusa (Amsterdam, 2018)

Hans Werner Henze - Das Floß der Medusa

Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam 2018

Ingo Metzmacher, Romeo Castellucci, Dale Duesing, Bo Skovhus, Lenneke Ruiten

ARTE Concert - 26 March 2018

Romeo Castellucci's productions seem to be well-suited to the drawing out the allegorical aspects out of works that have a level of musical and thematic abstraction that can be adapted to address current affairs and contemporary subjects of interest, albeit often somewhat obliquely. Hence we've seen Castellucci bring his unique individual touch to Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, Bach's St Matthew's Passion, to Wagner's Tannhäuser and Parsifal, but also managed to approach and make real mythological themes in Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice. In all those works there is also a very marked struggle between two different and almost diametrically opposed forces, between life and death, the physical and the spiritual, the word and the deed.

There's another world very much concerned with strong divisions, in the space between life and death, but also with a political undercurrent suggested but never made explicit in Hans Werner Henze's Das Floß der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa). Again, the work is not a conventional work; an oratorio rather than an opera, and again Castellucci strives not only to find ways to illustrate the nature of the opposing forces at play and the relationship between them, but find a modern allegorical way to illustrate and give them a relatable contemporary relevance, and also in some way that is difficult to define, turn the focus back on the either self-reflexively on the theatrical nature of opera or even back onto the audience.

The opposing forces in Henze's work appear to be easily identifiable but in reality also hold complex layers which are related to the time it was created in 1968. On a surface level, Das Floß der Medusa is very obviously inspired by and named after Théodore Géricault famous painting "Le Radeau de la Méduse", painted not long after the notorious naval incident it depicts. In 1816, the French naval frigate the Medusa was shipwrecked not far from its destination, but still 108 miles off the coast of Senegal. The governor, the captain and the ships officers took to the available lifeboats, leaving 154 crew to put together a makeshift raft that was initially towed, but then cut off and left to the mercy of the currents. When the raft was picked up 13 days later, only 15 people survived on the raft.

There's a clear commentary on the class divisions between those privileged to be saved and those left to fend for themselves in what turned out to be a horrendous journey, subjected to deprivation, starvation, dehydration and cannibalism that caused an enormous scandal. Théodore Géricault's painting, created in 1819, depicting the moment that the survivors first spy and attempt to attract the attention of the dot of a ship on the horizon, is painted like a glorious memorial to those who suffered, defiantly provocative and unflinching of the reality of what was endured by those on the raft of the Medusa, and of a corrupt regime that allows such inequalities to persist.

Similar political and social implications can be found in Henze's oratorio, written in 1968 in another period of social and political activism to which Henze was very much connected. Das Floß der Medusa however doesn't make any overt reference to then contemporary issues, depicting the journey and fate of those aboard the raft of the Medusa strictly in historical terms. The nature of the struggle between two vast forces is very much evident in the make-up of the roles of the oratorio. Only one person is identified, Jean-Charles, the mulatto at the head of the raft who is seen waving a red shirt at the approaching rescue ship, the other two solo roles being Death and Charon who acts as narrator and as a guide to lead the chorus on board the raft from the side of the living to the dead.

Fairly stark divisions then that draw the lines between the living and the dead, between the privileged and the poor, but also the struggle that each individual on the raft has to make, the "perspective of an end that is separated only by courage or cowardice", which is how I think it is described. Romeo Castellucci's innovative approach, using projection screens, text and symbols, contributes a few other levels that bring out the underlying political subtext of the work and place it in a modern day context where the message is not overt, but hard to miss all the same. Like his Orphée et Eurydice - and indeed his production of Moses und Aron - there's a large screen that places a barrier that highlights the division between the message and the work, between the audience and the performers.

Playing out in parallel to the story of the Raft of the Medusa, Castellucci projects a film made in present-day Senegal, where a Muslim man, Mamadon Ndaye, is brought out to the exact point where the Medusa was shipwrecked and left in the sea for four days. Without having to make it explicit, there is evidently a commentary to be made about the inequality between the prosperous nations of the west and the poorer nations suffering disease, poverty, war and torture, having to take to attempt to migrate and seek asylum on flimsy boats on dangerous seas. It doesn't even have to be explicit, the footage of a man alone out in the middle of an immense sea is powerful enough, particularly when it is projected on top of the story of what happened to the crew of the Medusa some 200 years previously.

But of course, nothing is that simple with Castellucci. You might wonder why Death wears a yellow waterproof jacket and why she operates a movie camera that is trains on the audience (projecting back an empty theatre towards the conclusion). Self referential elements, breaking down the barrier between reality and theatre, also appear in the form of the actual names of the chorus - seen bobbing in the background behind the sea, sometimes as dummies - being projected on the screen, with their date of birth and the date of their 'death' being the 23 March 2018 (the date of the recording of this performance at the Dutch National Opera). Géricault's painting is also referenced in reverse as a geometric framing, while other unusual technological objects, neon poles and circles (see Moses und Aron again) descend from above.

Whatever it all means, it does nonetheless convey in a very abstract fashion the experience of people and reality being pushed to its limits, to minds becoming unhinged, of a world literally turning upside down. Visually striking, very much unconventional and avant-garde in its theatrical presentation with everything appearing immersed in the sea, when combined with Henze's relentless flow, its the rises and falls into violent outbursts meticulously controlled by Ingo Metzmacher, the hypnotic siren-call of the chorus proves irresistible, drawing crew and audience alike into its thrall. Lenneke Ruiten's extraordinary performance singing Death makes the certain end feel just as inescapable, which indeed, despite his rescue is also the fate of Bo Skovhus's determined Jean-Charles. It looks like Mamadon Ndiaye at least makes it out of the water, but you are left in no uncertain terms with as much an indication as it is possible to put on a stage of what must be endured every day for the thousands who take to the seas to endure similar horrors to the crew of the raft of the Medusa.

Links: DNO, ARTE Concert, YouTube