Friday 31 August 2018

Adwan, Moody, Van der Harst - Orfeo and Majnun (Aix, 2018)

Moneim Adwan, Howard Moody, Dick van der Harst - Orfeo and Majnun

Festival d'Aix en Provence, 2018

Bassem Akiki, Airan Berg, Martina Winkel, Loay Srouji, Nai Tamish Barghouti, Yoann Dubruque, Judith Fa, Sachli Gholamalizad

OperaVision - 8 July 2018

The Aix-en-Provence Festival is known for its adventurous approach to new opera works and one of the finest and most surprising revelations was bringing Arabic opera to the stage in 2016, with Palestinian composer Moneim Adwan's Kalîla wa Dimna. There's always the danger that such ventures will be seen as cross-cultural tokenism and fail to make a wider impact, but if that's the case it's through no failing of the quality of the pieces. Nor is it any failing of the Aix festival, who I was delighted to see commission a new piece with Adwan, a composer of real talent and musical storytelling ability who brings a colourful and invigorating freshness to the world of contemporary opera.

While the Arabian folk fable character of Adwan's Kalîla wa Dimna is very much present in this new work, Orfeo and Majnun however is a collaborative opera between Moneim Adwan and two other western composers Howard Moody and Dick van der Harst. Whether the collaboration is a genuine attempt to further experiment with form and composition, or whether it's an attempt to make the unconventional Arabian instrumentation more accessible to an opera audience is debatable, but there is at least a sense that the cross-cultural collaboration is compromised towards tokenism in its presentation.

The story itself for example is not just one story but two blended together to show a common theme across cultures. From the Greek tradition there is Orpheus and Eurydice, a popular subject for western opera from its very beginnings, since it puts music and poetry together as an expression of human endeavour and ability to strive to overcome seeming insurmountable challenges, where love sets itself against death with the journey of Orpheus to Hades. There's a similar treatment of those themes in the ancient Arabic story of Layla and Qays. When Layla is forbidden to marry her true love Qays, the young man becomes 'Majnun' (a crazy man), writing poetry that charms the animals, but their love endures and Layla remains faithful to her love until death.

The connection between the two stories lies on a deeper level of two lovers who find a distance between them that cannot be bridged. The commonality is made clear in a number of overlapping scenes, Layla walking a distance behind Qays in one scene while Eurydice follows Orpheus out of the Underworld, but the distance of those few steps is nonetheless a huge gulf. Orpheus's song charms Cerberus, the three-headed guard-dog of Hades, and Qays likewise writes poetry that enchants and draws animals to him. Love, represented in the abstract by music and singing (opera) is the unifying force in both cases that enables man to exceed his human boundaries and be capable of something greater, something written in the stars.

Despite their commonalities, bringing them together creates something of an Ariadne auf Naxos situation, another imperfect matching of life, myth and art that was also part of this year's Aix programme. While the stories should come together naturally, there is however a clear division between the eastern and western traditions in Orfeo and Majnun that is immediately marked by the instrumentation and melody, each composer seeming to work on their own alternating section of the work. If you listen closely however there is some crossover of harmonies in the sections where Layla and Eurydice meet and where the stories overlap, but it rarely does the piece really feel like it has a single voice of its own.

Obviously this is inevitable to some extent, as musical composition is rarely a collaborative process in the opera or classical tradition, but the narrative doesn't help matters. Martina Winkel's libretto does unfortunately tells too much rather than let the story and the music fill in the detail. It goes as far as including a narrator who explains the moral and the message throughout on the common power of myth just in case you don't get it, as well as providing a bridge between the two stories that as a consequence remain largely separate.

Where it might have come together better also is in the stage production. Directed by Airan Berg and Martina Winkel, you can't say that they don't make every effort to provide a strong visual presentation that attempts to integrate the stories. There are abstract projections, giant life-size puppets of the animals, figures with animal masks, puppet shows and shadow plays. The only thing lacking is the character direction and singing, which mainly consists of standing singing with heartfelt expressions and some dance movements/yoga poses that don't really express the underlying sentiments terribly well.

The need to ensure that everyone understands the cross-cultural importance of the work also extends to the make-up of the chorus and the orchestra, which combines traditions as well as amateur and professional singers and musicians. While the chorus is mixed age, the predominance of children's voices does make it sound like a children's story, particularly when aligned with the moralising narrative. The international composition of the Mediterranean Youth Orchestra however are superb, creating a wonderful range of sounds and melodies under the direction of Bassem Akiki, navigating the changing moods and styles well.

I think it's important that the Aix-en-Provence festival (and La Monnaie in Brussels who are one of the co-producers here) continue to support innovation in contemporary opera and seek outreach to a wider international audience of all ages, but the creators of Orfeo and Majnun, Airan Berg and Martina Winkel, seem to feel it is within their remit to make the cross-cultural message what the opera is about and it feels a little patronising. Again however, even if it highlights the contrast in approach more than commonalities, there is much to admire in what Moneim Adwan's Arabic melodies and storytelling have to bring to help diversify the language of contemporary opera.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en Provence, OperaVision

Wednesday 29 August 2018

Prokofiev - The Fiery Angel (Aix, 2018)

Sergei Prokofiev - The Fiery Angel

Festival d'Aix en Provence, 2018

Kazushi Ono, Mariusz Treliński, Aušrinė Stundytė, Scott Hendricks, Agnieszka Rehlis, Andreï Popov, Krzysztof Bączyk, Pavlo Tolstoy, Łukasz Goliński, Bernadetta Grabias, Bożena Bujnicka, Maria Stasiak

Culturebox - 15 July 2018

It's hard to say exactly what the true nature of Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel is, whether it's a satire, an exploration of mental illness, decadent, absurdist, symbolist, but I'm pretty sure it's not a comedy. Any yet it's a work that does push the boundaries of human experience or at least the expression of them, so the absurdity of madness can indeed appear to be strangely comic, a side of the work that Barrie Kosky emphasised in his typically colourful and somewhat camp 2015 Munich production of the work. Director Mariusz Treliński takes it a little more seriously and is more open to alternative interpretations, but The Fiery Angel remains an enigmatic experience.

Written by Valery Bryusov, whose work is associated with Russian Symbolism and the Decadent Movement, The Fiery Angel is intentionally allusive and unconnected to any superficial narrative viewpoint, more concerned with exploring hard to define and even taboo human states and emotions. If there's an edge of absurdity in The Fiery Angel it's because it heads towards those outer reaches, exploring the fragility of the human psyche and human desires, where love turns to obsession and where madness is just one step removed from reality, and it's an easy line to cross.

In The Fiery Angel, Ruprecht a German knight, finds a distressed woman in his lodgings. Renata tells him that she has lost the love of her life, Heinrich, a man she believes to be the human incarnation of the Madiel, the fiery angel. First encountering Madiel as an eight year old child, Renata has followed a chaste and ascetic path towards sainthood, walking barefoot and inflicting wounds on herself. Wishing a more physical communion however angered Madiel and he disappeared in a pillar of fire. Heinrich, although denying he was Madiel, has now left her, and Renata reaches out to Ruprecht, seeing advice and guidance from alchemists, spiritualists and occult practices, in hallucinatory drugs and all manner of strange rituals.

That suggests that there is a dividing line between reality and a world where visions, unconventional thought and even madness takes over, but it's not that clear-cut. Ruprecht's reactions towards Renata's story and her experience, not to mention the physical presence of this vulnerable woman, brings out a side to the knight that is split between chivalry and lust that - when he cannot resist the woman and in this production tries to rape her - is followed by subsequent feelings of guilt. Possibly. There's nothing about those areas of human behaviour that the work explores that can be determined to fit a logical, consistent thought process that makes rational sense. And that's before the work becomes even more complicated.

Although it is set in medieval Germany, there is an autobiographical element to The Fiery Angel in Bryusov's involvement with the poet Nina Petrovskaya who had just ended a relationship with fellow Symbolist writer Andrei Bely - all Russian artists personally known to Prokofiev. Petrovskaya committed suicide in 1927, the same year that Prokofiev finished The Fiery Angel, although the opera was never performed in his lifetime. There is however no correlative map to help you understand what is real, imagined and hallucinated, or what is merely a Symbolist writer's attempt to find a colourful and darkly poetic expression of deep emotional states.

For the Polish director Mariusz Treliński, directing The Fiery Angel for the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2018, Prokofiev's music is very much an expressionistic response to the meteoric decline in rational behaviour that occurs when love turns to obsession and madness, Ruprecht, Renata and Heinrich all coming crashing down to earth. Treliński's working methods often draw on cinema references and techniques; David Lynch's Blue Velvet is always going to be a reference for something like The Fiery Angel, but Treliński also seems to draw on the heightened expressionism in the neon and colour saturated imagery of Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives and Neon Demon.

It's a fluid dream-world then, the sets and locations blending and dissolving into one another. It looks amazing, nightmarishly surreal and hallucinogenic, finding creative ways to represent the intentions of the work, the feelings of the characters and the expression of it all in Prokofiev's music. In his duel with Heinrich, Ruprecht is transformed into a small child with an absurdly large Ruprecht head representing his feelings of inadequacy; the spiritualist Agrippa von Nettesheim appears in multiple forms that may part of his occult persona or just be one of many other visions that assail the Ruprecht in his impressionable drug-induced state.

The Fiery Angel however is not entirely just the subjective impressions of a disturbed mind or minds, but it does place them in the context of other social factors. Renata's behaviour and self-harm also suggests childhood sexual abuse and conflicting feelings for her abuser, but certainly in Prokofiev's version there is confrontation with a patriarchal society, with its institutions and with the repressive influence of religion. It suggests that evil can come in the form of what is perceived to be good, and how it can be difficult to tell the difference. There's a lot to take in here and much that won't make sense, but Treliński illustrates and delves into those mindsets as vigorously, unflinchingly and richly as Prokofiev's highly expressive score, conducted here by Kazushi Ono.

It would be harder to carry off however if you don't have someone like Aušrinė Stundytė singing the role of Renata, and she is simply phenomenal here. It's not enough that she can take on the challenge of the singing, being on stage continuously for most of the two hours of the opera, but director Treliński also expects her to act out Renata's condition as if she were a film actress. Filmed for live broadcast with close-ups that show every gesture and expression, it's a thoroughly convincing performance. The mostly Ukrainian, Polish and Russian cast have the advantage here with the language, which must have made it all the more of a challenge for Scott Hendricks as Ruprecht, but while I can't account for his Russian, it was an excellent performance, perfect for the demands of the role and the production.

Links: Festival d'Aix en Provence, Culturebox

Monday 27 August 2018

Purcell - Dido and Aeneas (Aix, 2018)

Henry Purcell - Dido and Aeneas (Aix, 2018)

Festival d'Aix en Provence, 2018

Václav Luks, Vincent Huguet, Anaïk Morel, Rokia Traoré, Tobias Greenhalgh, Sophia Burgos, Lucile Richardot, Rachel Redmond, Fleur Barron, Majdouline Zerari, Peter Kirk

ARTE Concert - 12 July 2018

The theme of the 70th Aix-en-Provence Festival is based around the power of myths, and each of the operas in the programme in their own way examine deeper truths that would have application for the times they were written, but such is the nature of great art that those words and sentiments can still have contemporary relevance and application. Even Purcell's 1688 treatment of Virgil's story of Dido and Aeneas, two rulers of great kingdoms, is believed to have points to make about the English monarchy and the political situation of its time. As far as the present day is concerned, that historical context is unlikely to provide any meaningful commentary, but there is very much something we can relate to in how it also deals with the controversial subject of refugees.

The original prologue for Dido and Aeneas was lost over the centuries since it was first performed, but it's not uncommon for the one-hour or so of the surviving elements to be filled out with other pieces by Purcell or some of his near contemporaries. There aren't many who would go as far as composing a whole new prologue, and it would be hard to imagine anyone wanting to write in the style of Purcell, but Vincent Huguet's production for the Aix Festival shows that it is possible to write something complementary that supports some of the themes of the work and develops some background, putting it into a context that makes some reference to contemporary matters.

Rather than write a musical prologue, the context for the drama of Dido and Aeneas is developed in a mostly spoken word narration with some traditional North African music, created for this production by the French author Maylis de Kerangal. It describes the journey that Dido herself made, a Princess married to her uncle Acerbas, a rival for her father Pygmalion, the King. Becoming a kind of political refugee after her husband is murdered she leaves the Phoenician city of Tyre and travels to North Africa via Cyprus, but the journey by ship is no glorious affair. Related by a Cypriot woman (Rokia Traoré) who came with many others on those ships carried by the winds to North Africa, it was a particularly difficult journey for the women and prostitutes that were picked up along the way.

The Prologue sets the scene then for greater emphasis to be placed on the hardships endured by refugees and by women, both of which are certainly an underlying feature of the subject, not least in the 'love them and leave them' sentiments expressed by the Trojan sailors and by Aeneas, driven by the Gods to his destiny in Italy. Vincent Huguet, a former assistant to Patrice Chéreau, shows both these matters contributing to create a sense of deep unrest in Carthage, more than just in the unresolved romantic situation between Dido and Aeneas that eventually leads to their all too brief marriage.

What is new about this treatment and given greater emphasis in the current political climate is how the subject of refugees can be used to create political divisions, here setting the common Carthaginian people against the refugees from the war in Troy who seem to be enjoying more favour and benefits that their own people. The witches here become rabble rousers, the Sorceress inciting one of the crowd to take up a gun in a terrorist attack that ends up with her being shot dead by the authorities. Whether you think this has a place in Dido and Aeneas or not, it does tap into the tensions that must exist, the choral work of the common people having a role just as important as that of Dido and Aeneas in Purcell's work.

So that it doesn't appear to be too anachronistic - but at the same time evokes the current refugee crisis in the Mediterranean - Huguet sets the production in a more recognisably North African setting, the cast also featuring a number of singers of African origin. In fact, the South African soprano Kelebogile Pearl Besong was originally cast in the role of Dido, but had to withdraw for health reasons. She's replaced by the French mezzo-soprano Anaïk Morel who doesn't have the ideal clarity of English diction that the role demands, but brings a deeper regal presence to the role that works well alongside the baritone of Tobias Greenhalgh's Aeneas, equally regal, but again not quite ideal in delivery.

There is some impressive singing from the other members of the cast who bring brightness and spirit to the roles, particularly Lucile Richardot as the rabble-rousing Sorceress and her Mercury-impersonating elf. Richardot stood out when I saw her in the fascinating Bratislava production of Vivaldi's Arsilda, Regina di Ponto a production that was also conducted by Václav Luks. Aside from the context that director Huguet brings to the production, it's Purcell's extraordinarily beautiful music that carries the huge emotional force of the work, and Luks's directing of the Ensemble Pygmalion finds that deep resonance within the work. If Dido's Lament, 'Remember me' and the choral finale don't move you to tears, something has gone wrong somewhere. There's nothing wrong with this Dido and Aeneas.

Links: Festival d'Aix en Provence, ARTE Concert

Thursday 23 August 2018

Adámek - Seven Stones (Aix, 2018)

Ondřej Adámek - Seven Stones

Festival d'Aix en Provence, 2018

Ondřej Adámek, Léo Warynski, Éric Oberdorff, Anne-Emmanuelle Davy, Shigeko Hata, Nicolas Simeha, Landy Andriamboavonjy, accentus/axe 21

ARTE Concert - 10 July 2018

The commissioning of new opera work is an important part of Aix-en-Provence Festival, something necessary to keep opera fresh by providing opportunities for established composers to develop new repertoire, but Aix also seek to extend it to encompass and expand the definition of what opera can be and the audience it can reach. In recent years there have been children's operas, opportunities for female composers and works from other parts of the world with a different musical tradition, played on instruments and in a style far removed from the western tradition. Largely these have all proved to be fascinating and innovative works, enriching the programme.

Commissioning a first opera from the Czech composer Ondřej Adámek is a further ambitious outreach into the field of experimental new contemporary music. Adámek's new works, which premiere regularly at the annual Donaueschinger Musiktage Festival of new music, are unconventional to say the least, but there actually is something theatrical about his use of unconventional sounds and the voice as an instrument. There can also be something of a visual spectacle in his presentation, such as in the 2014 Donaueschinger premier of his 'Körper und Seele for air machine, choir and orchestra', which derived sounds from inflating and deflating balloons.

The voice is the primary musical instrument in Adámek's Seven Stones, an "Opera a capella for four soloist singers and twelve chorister singers", but the work also makes use of a variety of percussive sounds and music performed on unconventional instruments, found objects, kitchen utensils and others built in the composer's workshop specifically for the purposes of the opera. In fact, everything about the composer's approach to the opera is a challenge and questioning of its traditional form. It accepts no preconditions but builds anew, from the instruments to the use of the voice, whether it should be an operatic voice, a normal pitch of voice or the voice as an instrument. Neither is it performed by a static orchestra sitting out of sight in the pit, but moving around and up on the stage.

The conductor too has a different role to play in Seven Stones, setting the story off with the recurring image of putting a stone to one's head. The story and libretto is created by Sjón, an Icelandic poet who has worked with Björk, and there is something mythic (fitting with the theme of this year's Aix Festival) about the story of a mineralogist who sets out on a quest to discover 'the first stone', the stone that Jesus Christ prevented from being used in the Biblical story of the woman condemned to death by stoning for adultery ("Let he who is without sin cast the first stone"). A quivering figure found in the snow at the start of the opera, the collector is brought back by the touch of a stone to a Central European pub where his stone collection is kept. There he is minded to recall how his search for stones would take him from Argentina, to Japan and Paris.

The international flavour of the journey is not accidental, as it in many ways reflects both Adámek and Sjón's own journeys of exploration and discovery of music, tradition and storytelling from far-flung places. Seven Stones however is a journey in time and in space, not just appropriating the sounds of other cultures and traditions, but exploring them for resonance, looking into them for deeper relationship to questions of mythology and its importance to the human spirit. It's not Parsifal by any means, but in a similar respect Seven Stones touches on the essence of what opera is for and about, seeking to overturn some of those grand myths and get to the essence of the truth that we seek to hide behind them. In the case of the stone collector, the reality he is hiding from leads to a resolution that is perhaps a little contrived, but the journey to get there has many other things to reveal.

The use of unconventional instruments, household objects and custom built instruments for each scene is another way of breaking down preconceptions and predetermined musical constructions, Adámek seeks to find something that brings us closer to the sentiments and true nature of the subject. Rather than remain in the pit, these constructions that are wheeled out onto the stage, providing a dual function of being played and also being part of the scenery and props. Those instruments include a framework of pipes that are used to create crashes and rhythms, string instruments that evoke a tango sound for the Argentinean sequence and small hammers on stones for the scene in Japan sounding similar to the striking of blocks in Noh theatre. More than just providing exotic colouration, the instruments - particularly stones - are also crucial to the foundation and building blocks of the work itself.

The use of voices, provided by accentus/axe 21 are similarly woven into the framework of the music and the narrative. They start out percussively, stuttering and staccato, sounds and syllables forming words and then sentences, marking time and rhythm as well as meaning. Sung in English - not always the most musical tongue in contemporary opera - Adámek is not afraid of allowing the words to be audible and lyrical, with musical and melodic phrases, rather than letting it slide into dissonance and recitative or stretch out into extravagant virtuosity just for the sake of it. Whether you find anything meaningful in the message of "A stone thrown in anger never returns to the hand", there is certainly more to be gleaned with the symbolism of a stone, a man, a journey, time and associations with mythology, obsession and idealism. Adámek's musical approach adds another dimension that does extend the work's ideas, and indeed the reach and definition of what opera can be.

Links: Festival d'Aix en Provence, ARTE Concert

Tuesday 21 August 2018

Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos (Aix, 2018)

Richard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Festival d'Aix en Provence, 2018

Marc Albrecht, Katie Mitchell, Lise Davidsen, Eric Cutler, Sabine Devieilhe, Angela Brower, Huw Montague Rendall, Jonathan Abernethy, Emilio Pons, David Shipley, Beate Mordal, Andrea Hill, Elena Galitskaya, Josef Wagner, Rupert Charlesworth, Petter Moen, Jean-Gabriel Saint Martin, Maik Solbach, Sava Vemić, Paul Herwig, Julia Wieninger

ARTE Concert - 11 July 2018

For a work that I used to consider a bit of a one-note meta-theatrical joke confected as a compromise to a failed theatrical/operatic crossover, Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos has continued to enjoy popularity and stimulate a variety of interpretations. It shouldn't be that surprising, because at its heart the work is precisely about how art as entertainment (and particularly opera) has a unique way of connecting with people to express and communicate a rich variety of life experiences.

And if that's not enough there's always the music of Richard Strauss, gorgeous and alluring in its own right, as well as forming a bridge between the words and the deeper intentions of the work; like Capriccio, making a clever self-referential commentary at the same time on its working methods and intentions. Director Katie Mitchell is also used to working with divisions between form and content and trying to find ways to bridge them in her stage productions. One other divide you will also find Mitchell tackling is the male/female divide in classic works, seeing to offer a 'corrective' to their traditional male-dominated bias. How will Ariadne auf Naxos stand up to such scrutiny?

A one-note joke or not, there is a certain boldness in how Ariadne auf Naxos turns its gaze on the process of opera and performance, in how it marries popular entertainment with high art, and it's obviously necessary for that marriage to be seen to be successful and mutually beneficial, but certain structural and ideological weaknesses remain that need to be addressed. Regardless of whether you agree with or find musical value in Strauss and Hofmannsthal's somewhat nostalgic neoclassical idealisation of opera's past, and some of the reactionary attitudes towards men and women that persist within it, there is at least the structural disjoint in Ariadne auf Naxos's division between Prologue and Opera.

Forced to adopt this as a fix after the failure to pair the operatic element with Molière's 'Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme' in the original 1912 version, the two parts don't sit perfectly well with one another either in the reworked 1916 version. Once the Prologue is out of the way, the dispute between the artists and the entertainers over how to simultaneously present their different perspectives because of the whim of the Richest Man in Vienna resolved by compromising artistic integrity for commerce, the meta-theatrical framing is largely forgotten about. Even though the contrasting dialectic remains at the heart of the work, it does tend to forget its original audience (the guests of the Richest Man in Vienna) and seems to start taking itself rather seriously presenting itself to the 'real' audience as a neoclassical drama/music theatre revue with a grand Wagnerian ending.

You could look at that as intentional, as the work itself taking on its own artistic life, removing itself from the framework of the craft, from the personalities and problems of its creation to become something that relates directly to an audience without any necessity of explanation or commentary, and if so, it's another level of cleverness. It does tend to make the intention of any director seeking to insert another level of remove or abstraction on the work rather more difficult, but it has been done, most successfully I believe in Katharina Thoma's 2013 Glyndebourne production. Katie Mitchell's response to the work, in collaboration with Martin Crimp, doesn't seem to have quite as much to offer.

The immediate intention of their Aix production seems to be to make that divide between creativity and creation visible again, but also to show how they are brought together through an audience. It's a worthwhile endeavour, certainly central to the premise of opera, and in the process Mitchell and Crimp also find a way to draw the Prologue back once again with the Opera. Rather than remaining invisible in this version of the opera, since they don't have any part to play in Ariadne auf Naxos (or 'Ariadne auf Naxos'), the Richest man in Vienna, his wife and guests remain seated throughout in this production to the left of the stage while the players perform for them on the right. Occasionally, they make comments on the performance (a role they performed in the first version), and in one or two places are drawn in to participate or get closer to the drama. When the opera finishes, it's indoor fireworks that are set off and the performers put on their party hats and take a bow to their on-stage audience. It brings the work full circle in a way that Strauss and Hofmannsthal neglected to do and for which they could be justifiably be criticised.

That's fine as far as it goes, but obviously Katie Mitchell will have other issues with Ariadne auf Naxos as it stands, not least of which is the pomposity that is allowed to remain in the performance of the opera seria part of 'Ariadne auf Naxos'. Whether you agree that Strauss got carried away and forgot about it supposedly being a pastiche, it's clear nonetheless that the musical composition is much more considered than clever, Strauss fully aware of the variety of musical forms and techniques employed and how they interrelate with the drama. What is harder to swallow is how men and women are depicted, where the women are waiting for a man, "a new god", who even though he may be unfaithful is better than nothing and necessary to deliver them from their loneliness and misery. It depends how you play it obviously, and with how much tongue in the cheek.

Katie Mitchell is obviously not going to have any of that, or leave any room for ambiguity. In her version, Ariadne is pregnant, and it's the delivery of the baby - which takes place on-stage - that is the birth of a new god, Bacchus. Where this leaves the real Bacchus in the opera I'm not entirely sure, he could be Theseus returned or Hermes, the messenger from the Gods who delivers her this 'gift'. It's very much one of those feminist twists that Mitchell can employ that seem unnecessary and don't always work terribly well (Miranda, Lucia di Lammermoor), but here I liked how it deflated the grand Wagnerian sweep accompanying the woman finding her man. The playing out of the drama within a dining room instead of a desert island also helps in that regard, reminding you that it all remains a theatrical construct.

Some of it works and some of it doesn't, but what works and what doesn't will obviously depend on the individual viewer. The role reversal dressing of the richest man in Vienna in a dress and his wife in a suit felt gratuitous and unnecessary to me, and I felt that Zerbinetta's role and the risk of her appearing to be a bimbo may have been underplayed, allowing the Ariadne storyline to dominate, but the "discussion" between Zerbinetta and the Composer in the Prologue is touching, all credit to Sabine Devieilhe and Angela Brower. What really makes it come alive here however is the fine musical performance of the Orchestre de Paris under Marc Albrecht, playing down the propensity for the work to seem overblown or just too damn clever, finding instead the incredible variety of expression within it.

That incredible variety also extends to the singing roles in Ariadne auf Naxos, and the cast assembled here are outstanding. Lise Davidsen is not the most natural actress, but less can be more for Strauss, particularly when you can express everything so well through the voice. Davidsen is just superb, carrying gravity and a commanding vocal presence that is just extraordinarily rich and expressive in her hold and control and swelling of a line. Sabine Devieilhe doesn't have quite the same volume but is an appropriately flighty and bird-like Zerbinetta, and always impressive. If her presence isn't given the same stature in Mitchell's production, she remains dignified and 'luminous' in her eye-catching dress. Eric Cutler's Bacchus may also be given shorter shrift here, but his singing is clear and lyrical. Angela Brower also makes a very favourable impression as the Composer.

Links: Festival d'Aix en Provence, ARTE Concert

Sunday 12 August 2018

Verdi - La Traviata (Den Norske, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Den Norske, 2018

Julia Jones, Tatjana Gürbaca, Aurelia Florian, Matteo Lippi, Yngve Søberg, Caroline Wettergreen, Martin Hatlo, Jens-Erik Aasbø, Johanne Højlund, Rolf Conrad, Eivind Kandal, Pietro Simone, Ole Jørgen Kristiansen


I imagine I'm not the only person to get jaded and avoidant of La Traviata, particularly when it's performed in sanitised Belle Époque period. If you've been listening to a lot of early Verdi in the meantime however - which we've had more of an opportunity to explore in recent years - it is interesting to come back to La Traviata and see it in a context that highlights the level of mastery and developing maturity Verdi had reached. At this stage in his career, Verdi is a musician in complete control of the musical and dramatic expression of his medium, pouring all those considerable forces into a subject that he clearly feels strongly about. There's no two ways about it, La Traviata is a remarkable work, a superb example of craft and passion, and perhaps even genius.

While you might have endured numerous stuffy and unimaginative copy-cat productions - which it has to be said are still capable of delivering a devastating emotional impact - there have been other more adventurous productions of La Traviata willing to explore the work's themes further, testifying to the strength of the musical and structural composition and the presence of universal and contemporary themes within it. The need to fit into a social milieu, society's insatiable hunger for gossip and scandal, and the question of women's rights and the cruelty of their treatment is ever more important in our own times.

Other than it being in modern dress in a very stripped back minimalist set, the Den Norske production directed by Tatjana Gürbaca doesn't initially appear to have much more to add to these themes other than emphasis in certain places. This director however was capable of using selective emphasis well in a similarly minimalist production of Parsifal for Antwerp, so there is some promise of looking at La Traviata afresh. There's a silent pantomime during the overture, with men dropping trousers during Violetta's wild party, Alfredo is there in casual dress in contrast to the other formally-dressed guests, Violetta and her maid Annina collect money out of the pockets of the stupefied drunk revellers, but there's not really much here to make anything new of the run though the Brindisi, the 'Sempre libera' etc. It's admirable, but uninspiring.

All this takes place on a platform stage on top of the theatre stage with little in the way of props, and by removing the accoutrements the work is able to work purely on an emotional plane and move swiftly onto Act II with barely a pause. Alfredo brushing away the debris from the party becomes then another way of showing the two of them wanting to make a 'clean sweep' of the past, even as their old friends look on from the sidelines, sceptical and delighting in the unfortunate turns that prevent the wayward couple thinking that they can exist and succeed outside of the orbit of social expectation and its approval.

There are other hints why society's conventions and expectations might drag them down, and they could strike you as a little jarring as this act and the rest of the opera progresses. Alfredo is unexpectedly physically rough with Violetta's maid Annina, but that could be seen as foreshadowing his later abusive treatment of Violetta at Flora's party and hint at an underlying distasteful attitude towards women in general. That is somewhat over-emphasised by the Matador song at Flora's party, which may well be a display of machismo, but using it as an excuse for the guests to physically maul Violetta feels uncomfortable and doesn't seem merited by the situation, particularly as everyone is later appalled at Alfredo's unacceptable behaviour towards her. Outwardly at least.

A similar kind of discrepancy between outward polite behaviours really hiding less pleasant or perhaps just old-fashioned attitudes towards women is not unexpectedly also brought out in the behaviour of Giorgio Germont. During 'Pura siccome un angelo' his daughter is present on the stage, which isn't new, but there's an interesting spin here in how Germont's pleading to Violetta to step aside for the sake of his daughter is played as his daughter taking her place, to be stripped and abused by society. This and a whole family gathering gets across much better the idea of the perpetuation of attitudes towards women and of the hypocrisy that underlies them. By Act III, the stage has fractured, Violetta largely alone on an island of the stage. Violetta's efforts to resist the tide of social attitudes and achieve happiness is doomed to failure and her sacrifice is played up as a kind of martyrdom, which to a large extent it is intended to be.

Such ideas are good at relating the sentiments and the gender politics of the work to the present, but musically there's less room for invention and interpretation under the musical direction of Julia Jones. The effectiveness of Verdi's composition is plainly evident however in how this gains force as the opera progresses. The flow of the work in that regard is impressive here and the singing is effective. Aurelia Florian is challenged by the extravagant high notes and coloratura, but builds on the character of Violetta, as you have no option but follow her course, and she does carry a strong emotional expressiveness throughout. Matteo Lippi is likewise very expressive in the romantic Italianate style that you would expect for Alfredo. Some interesting ideas and meaningful emphasis is applied here in the Den Norske production and Verdi's masterpiece is undeniable, but I don't feel I need to hear La Traviata again for another while yet.

Links: Den Norske Opera, OperaVision

Friday 3 August 2018

Strauss - Salome (Salzburg, 2018)

Richard Strauss - Salome

Salzburg Festival, 2018

Franz Welser-Möst, Romeo Castellucci, John Daszak, Anna Maria Chiuri, Asmik Grigorian, Gábor Bretz, Julian Prégardien, Avery Amereau


There comes a point in a Romeo Castellucci production when you wonder if it's worth the effort trying to make sense of it. It's not that they don't have meaning and value, Castellucci's productions are original, striking and do often find a new way of looking at a familiar work, but there are strange elements within that defy any attempt to pin them down or directly relate them to the works in question. Even when the director provides you with some pointers of where he is coming from, you can't always follow where he is takes it. Ultimately however, it fits or it doesn't, it will work for some and not for others. His Salzburg Festival production of Salome presents the same issues and is likely to similarly split audiences.

Salome for Salzburg is typical Castellucci in that respect at least. Some of the director's familiar techniques and obscure images are in there, but the production is not just a rehash of familiar tricks and tics, and - unlike a director with a singular vision like Robert Wilson for example - he doesn't try to force each opera to fit into their distinct worldview, but rather approaches it on it own terms, even if there is sometimes a similar visual aesthetic. This production is very much a response to Salome, even if inevitably it doesn't entirely match the familiar imagery and stage directions that we are accustomed to expect on some level with this opera, and even if it can appear somewhat obscure and occasionally even baffling.

In fact, rather more than most directors who take a work on its own terms, Castellucci is also known for taking the location into consideration and making it part of the production. Not that you really have much choice when it comes to the Felsenreitschule venue in Salzburg, an open air riding school carved into the very rock of the city. There's a reference here then to a Latin inscription carved above the nearby Sigmundstor or Neutor Tunnel 'Te Saxa Loquuntor' ('The Stones are talking of you') that Castellucci employs as a distinctive way to consider the work in terms of its Salzburg production, but what it means is anyone's guess, and easier to describe than interpret.

The location itself is of course spectacular in its own right, even if it's just for scale and atmosphere. The arcades are actually blocked off here to form a more solid surrounding wall, with openings used occasionally for entrances, exits and props. If nothing else it gives 'presence' to the flow and decadence of Oscar Wilde's original text and the taboo-breaking nature of the content that is in line with the employment of Strauss's musical forces. The detail of the composer's attempts to account for the line-by-line control of mood and subtext is where Castellucci perhaps has more of his own personal views and ways of presenting it.

You expect eccentric touches and they are most obviously there with the lower half of everyone face painted red. Everyone that is except Herodias, who is painted green for some reason and Salome, whose face is not painted, but who is marked out in contrast to everyone else by her virginal white appearance. Virginal is very much suggested by the opening scene before the music starts, showing her as little more than a child - whether it's a flashback or a suggestion of her real age is unknown - who cuts through the veil that presents the Sigmundstor Latin inscription. The back of Salome's dress when she appears in the opera appears to be stained with menstrual blood. If it was any other kind of blood, I think we'd know about it from the production and her protective and vocal mother Herodias might have had something to say about it.

The other significant person in the work of course is Jokanaan, or the prophet John the Baptist, whose voice does indeed appear to talk of you from the stones (Te saxa loquuntor), imprisoned below the floor in a cistern. His face is painted black, making his first encounter with Salome very effective indeed; she slight and delicate in white, eclipsed by the dark, wild, primitive and almost bear-like mass of Jokanaan, a man who had lived in the wilderness. Indeed there is an eclipse of sorts, with a huge black circle that overwhelms and enfolds their first encounter. Reinforcing his wild erotic presence, a live horse can be seen rearing out of the circular pit that holds him. So far so much is mostly just giving emphasis to the forces at work in the opera, forces that are most definitely there in the sinister, sinuous, beautiful and violent music, the Vienna Philharmonica well conducted through that variety of moods and colours by Franz Welser-Möst.

The other strange and confusing touches in the production relate to and contrast with how we expect to see the more iconic scenes of the work. During the Dance of the Seven Veils, Salome doesn't actually dance (heaven forbid that Castellucci should be so literal), but instead she kneels head down semi-naked on a plinth with the word SAXA written on it, while a block of stone is lowered 'crushing' her beneath it. Feel free to interpret that how you like. Instead of Jokanaan's head being presented on a silver charger, we have Jokanaan's naked decapitated full torso, with the head of a horse (presented as a first appeal to Salome to change her mind) left beside it in a shallow pool of white liquid. As far as taboo-breaking goes, you would expect an animal head to have additional shock impact and hint at illicit desires - which you should really be aiming for at the conclusion of this opera - but neither the thunderous cacophony of the closing notes nor the staging really make the necessary impact here.

That perhaps doesn't matter as much when the performances have been intense elsewhere throughout (although I do think that the impact of the conclusion should be viscerally felt). Asmik Grigorian certainly carries the kind of soaring intensity that the opera's Salome ought to have, reaching the luxurious heights and the depraved depths of the work. Herod and Herodias can sometimes be given to older singers just past their prime, but that's not the case here with John Daszak and Anna Maria Chiuri. Daszak isn't ideal but does carry a suitable haunted quality. Chiuri is spectacular, giving this Herodias a lot more input than usual. Gábor Bretz is not the most sonorous Jokanaan, but again his presence is felt. I'm not sure that Castellucci has any great vision for the work or the characters, but he certainly gets to the heart of their natures, working with the opera and the location to bring his usual unique qualities and intensity to this Salzburg production.

Links: Salzburg Festival, Medici.TV