Wednesday 26 September 2018

Tchaikovsky - The Queen of Spades (Salzburg, 2018)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - The Queen of Spades

Salzburg Festival, 2018

Mariss Jansons, Hans Neuenfels, Brandon Jovanovich, Vladislav Sulimsky, Igor Golovatenko, Evgenia Muraveva, Oksana Volkova, Hanna Schwarz, Alexander Kravets, Stanislav Trofimov, Gleb Peryazev, Pavel Petrov, Margarita Nekrasova, Oleg Zalytskiy, Vasilisa Berzhanskaya, Yulia Suleimanova, Imola Kacso, Márton Gláser, Juan Aguila Cuevas - 16 August 2018

No matter how familiar you might be with an opera, there is always the potential for a new production to bring something new out of it. Mariss Jansons exploring the richness Tchaikovsky is always a great experience, finding a human warmth in it where other conductors find Russian coldness and stiff formality. Both aspects are actually present in The Queen of Spades and Jansons controls and paces wonderfully to bring that out here in Salzburg, as he has done elsewhere.

A good director can also find something new and surprising to explore in the work of a great composer, and while he can be controversial and somewhat 'out there' at times, the very least you can say about Hans Neuenfels is that he has a unique vision that will be quite unlike any other interpretation of the work. Expectations and conventions must be put aside as you never know what will come next, and it can be very revealing to see a familiar work afresh, as it were, see it from a different perspective. If a work is rich enough, it is capable of endlessly revealing new truths and interpretations.

Even a work that is ostensibly a ghost story? Yes, certainly. Stefan Herheim most recently and convincingly demonstrated how much of Tchaikovsky (it's a lot!) is in The Queen of Spades at the Dutch National Opera (soon to be transferring to the Royal Opera House), again with Mariss Jansons conducting there. Hans Neuenfels not unexpectedly has an entirely different outlook on the opera for the 2018 Salzburg production, but surprisingly, while abstraction holds out over naturalism in the set designs, he sticks fairly closely to the stage directions, finding other ways to delve deeply into the subject and themes of the work.

And to some extent that is determined by the variety of tones, by the hot and cold nature of the work itself that Jansons brings out here, from the heat of passion to the chilling cold-bloodedness of murder and ghostly revenge. As with his Lohengrin for Bayreuth, those divisions are expressed visually in a black-and-white manner, and the chorus also have an important role to play in highlighting those extremes between the darkness of inner torment and the longing for the light of purity and innocence.

That's brought out right upfront in the opening scene of The Queen of Spades, where the children's chorus are subjected to almost militaristic control. It's always been a strange way to open and it doesn't seem to have much direct relevance to anything else that develops in the opera unless you contrast it with other parallel and equivalent scenes. For Hans Neuenfels, that's a matter of setting things in black or white, so the children are all dressed in white, while Liza, Pauline and her 'Circle of Friends', in the following scene quite literally form a circle, dressed in black like some kind of secret society. Pauline's song of life's morning looking towards the grave certainly takes on a different complexion here.

Quite what this contrast is precisely trying to say is hard to pin down and it seems a little reductive - as it often did in his Bayreuth Lohengrin - to mark divisions this way, but it is effective and makes an impression that forces you to reconsider how you look at the opera. What it does clearly mark out however is the contrast between how Hermann (in red) and the Countess dress colourfully in contrast to everyone else. The key to this can perhaps be found in the nurses with the children and with Liza's governess's words to her and her friends, that you must follow the "rules of society", know what is "proper and right" and "observe the conventions". Hermann and the Countess lie outside those strict black and white principles.

The structure of the work and its music also throws up such contrasts, from singing about happy days and enjoyment of life to being besieged by sudden storms, and that is the kind of emotional turmoil that Liza (who wears both black and white) seems to be most susceptible to. Hermann is just another blazing, burning ember on the fire of the confusion, uncertainty and naivety that lies with her, attractive and exciting in how he acts and behaves in a way that lies totally outside those normal rules of acceptable social behaviour.

If Neuenfels breaks the work down into such abstract terms while still holding to the familiar dramatic line, it's supported well by Jansons' elegant and passionate response to the music, alive to the precision of detail within it. The human element is brought out much more effectively by the characterisation and performances of a cast that boasts two exceptional leads in Brandon Jovanovich and Evgenia Muraveva as Hermann and Liza. I've become too used to Misha Didyk monopolising the role recently, but Jovanovich brings a much more lyrical and sympathetic interpretation to the madness of Hermann. Muraveva brings out Liza's innocence likewise in a sympathetic manner and sings marvellously, her Act III aria on the bridge absolutely heart-breaking.

With secondary roles all well cast and sung and a strong chorus that expresses all the variety of colour in the work with its little Pastorale and other diversions, this is an outstanding production at Salzburg that dispenses with operatic mannerisms, touches on its deeper themes and makes the ghost story at the centre of the work feel real and truly tragic.

Links: Salzburg Festspiele

Tuesday 25 September 2018

Monteverdi - L'Incoronazione di Poppea (Salzburg, 2018)

Claudio Monteverdi - L'Incoronazione di Poppea

Salzburg Festival, 2018

William Christie, Les Arts Florissants, Jan Lauwers, Sonya Yoncheva, Kate Lindsey, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Carlo Vistoli, Renato Dolcini, Ana Quintans, Marcel Beekman, Dominique Visse, Lea Desandre, Tamara Banjesevic, Claire Debono, Alessandro Fishe, Davic Webb, Padraic Rowan, Virgile Ancely

Medici.TV - 18 August 2018

The importance of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea in the world of opera lies in its innovation, in extending the boundaries of opera beyond classical myths and bringing real historical figures to the stage. The strength of the work and the reason why it still holds such power almost 400 years later however lies in Monteverdi and librettist Busanello's fearless examination of human nature caught up in a powerplay and tyranny of love. And it's not just the interplay of the central figures competing, gossiping and plotting but the impact that this has on peripheral characters and society as a whole is very much a part of the wider remit of the opera.

Or at least it ought to be. Such is the strength of characterisation and the accumulation of events, plots, murders, suicides and, yes some of the most passionate expressions of love committed to music, that there can be a tendency for the drama to revolve around and turn inwards on the relationship between Nero and Poppea and forget about the devastating impact that their scheming and actions would have on the rest of the world. Directing for the 2018 Salzburg Festival production Jan Lauwers wants to keep that wider context present in the mind and visible, but essentially do it without detracting from the intensity of the musical content of the work.

That would be hard to do and not a wise move to make when you have William Christie conducting Les Arts Florissants, and when you have a cast like the one assembled here, one that combines experienced practitioners of Monteverdi and the Baroque (Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Ana Quintans, Dominique Visse) with a few major stars in the making not often heard in this repertoire (Sonya Yoncheva, Kate Lindsey). It's a tall order for any singer; there are few heroes or noble actions in L'Incoronazione di Poppea, all of them display at the very least meanness, arrogance and self-importance - arguably even Seneca, and certainly the gods of the Prologue.

As such, it's easy to get lost in these characters, and the superb cast make the most of them. Stéphanie d’Oustrac plays a particularly embittered Ottavia and takes it with relish, holding back on grand gestures but putting it all into the voice. Sonya Yoncheva puts everything into her singing and performance, an alluring presence that convincing turns Nero's head, but you don't get the same sense of engagement with her Poppea and I'm not certain she connects with the audience either, which has always been my experience with her at least. Full credit to her however for this ambitious venture out of standard repertoire that she takes well.

Kate Lindsey is a marvellous Nero. It's a stylised performance rather than a naturalistic one, but Nero is and should be seen as a larger than life character, albeit one with deep human feelings and failings. Lindsey navigates between anger and tenderness in a flash as Nero is driven by lust and power. "The heart is a poor counsellor. It hates laws and scorns reason", Seneca tells Nero, who retorts that "Laws are for those who serve". "Those who don't know how to rule gradually lose their power" warns Seneca, incautiously as it turns out, and therein lies the brilliance of what Monteverdi and Busanello observe and achieve in L'Incoronazione di Poppea, daring to put on stage sentiments that had never quite been expressed like this on an early opera stage before.

The challenge is to make the impact of all this visible on the stage and it's too easy to get overpowered by the scandal of powerful people behaving abominably to realise that it has consequences for everyone else. Monteverdi's opera however has many other parallel situations and characters that show that such behaviour is common across all social classes and sexes. Jan Lauwers however not only takes on the challenge of expressing the wild and contradictory facets of larger than life character like Nero or the ambition and ruthless single-mindedness of Poppea, but he extends it out and makes it vivid and real for each of the secondary characters and applicable to the wider world as well.

The quality of the performers in the  supporting roles accounts for the success of this endeavour to some extent - Carlo Vistoli's Ottone, Ana Quintans' Drusilla, Lea Desandre's Amore/Valletto and Marcel Beekman's Nurse all impressive - as does the presence of dancers of BODHI PROJECT and SEAD Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance, who are given more to do than just the typical interpretative double mirroring of characters. A constant presence in the background, spinning and whirling, they occasionally move forward and interact with the characters, deepening relationships, expressing and visualising those contradictory elements as well as helping force the sense of real relationships between characters who could typically and easily be left to express solitary sentiments in individual arias.

That's extended to keeping other main characters on-stage, such as Poppea wandering past when Ottone is expressing his secret feelings for her, and it also extends to some limited interaction with the musicians who are all there in a shallow pit on the stage. There should be a very definite interaction between the music and the performance, more so in the semi-improvised measures and accompaniment of music that is not fully scored. Interpretation is very much a feature of Monteverdi's operas and there's no right or wrong way, but there certainly ways that bring the music to life better so that they connect with the tone of the drama and communicate it to the audience. There's no doubting the ability of William Christie and Les Arts Florissants to do that exceptionally well here.

It's Jan Lauwers however who manages to most successfully focus all those elements of music, dance, characterisation and expression and push them out beyond the stage. The stage itself is covered with images of classical paintings, a mass of bodies that remind you that this is not just a heated drama of consequence only to a little group of self-interested and self-serving people, but that their actions have consequences out in the wider world. That's a lot to take on, and much more than would normally be considered necessary when you have Monteverdi's music to express and enchant, Jan Lauwers' production for Salzburg, with its fine cast, make this ancient work feel as fresh and modern and relevant as many contemporary works, and perhaps even more so.

Links: Salzburg Festspiele

Saturday 22 September 2018

Verdi - Il Trovatore (Royal Opera House, 2017)

Giuseppe Verdi - Il Trovatore

Royal Opera House, 2017

Richard Farnes, David Bösch, Anita Rachvelishvili, Gregory Kunde, Lianna Haroutounian, Vitaliy Bilyy, Francesca Chiejina, Samuel Sakker

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The principal challenge for a director approaching Il Trovatore must be to find a way of making its notoriously implausible plot half-way intelligible and work around its operatic template of mannerisms and numbers. It's a tall order and the best you can do is just attempt to tone things down and let Verdi's overheated orchestration provide all the drama. The other approach is to just let fly, run with it, but you need exceptional Verdi singers to make that convincing. David Bösch's production for the Royal Opera House tries to do both, but the focus on mood doesn't quite make up for the static direction and not all the singing performances are quite good enough to carry it off either. There are however some good points to the production and the performances, certainly enough to ride on Verdi's music and bring this work to its breathless conclusion.

The set designs for David Bösch's production settle for the generic modern day setting of a dark barb-wired landscape of wartime devastation that is now unfortunately quite common at the Royal Opera House. As far as mood goes, the dark gothic minimalism works well to downplay some of the more extravagant drama, which is instead allowed to simmer in the recurring presence and imagery of fire. A simple gesture in the opening scene for example, where Ferrando having given his troops and himself the heebie-jeebies over the curse of the evil wicked witch burnt at the stake who still haunts the Count di Luna's family, tentatively kicks over the remnant of the burning camp fire, expecting it looks to find bone lying there.

There's a similar reliance on mood and suggestion elsewhere. Azucena's caravan at the gypsy camp is decorated with macabre looking dolls pinned to its outside, the scene eerily lit by the orange flames of the camp flickering brazier. In terms of direction however there's little thought or effort made to make the characters or the drama feel real of convincing. It's all rather static, the scenes remain a collection of disconnected dramas with no flow or follow-through that aren't resolved in any way until the conclusion. Like the ROH's controversial 2015 Guillaume Tell, it unimaginatively relies on generic groups of soldiers/thugs threatening captives in bleak war-torn landscapes and subjecting them to brutal beatings, torture and execution.

What counts here and ultimately determines the nature of the production is the quality of the Verdian musical and singing performances. In terms of the musical interpretation, the early indications were that Richard Farnes doesn't seem to have much to offer as far as arrangements and interpretation, but in reality it seems it's more just an indication of good pacing. The delivery matches the early setting of mood, building on the drama, letting Verdi's score for the opera take on its own momentum, and when those moments of thunderous impact are needed, it proves to be a full-blooded account.

The singing however is a mixed bag as far as the division between the male and female roles goes. Although there are some impressive moments in the performances of Lianna Haroutounian's Leonora and Vitaliy Bilyy's Conte di Luna, they aren't totally convincing or always secure in their delivery. Both are a little static and their characters lack personality and direction - a fault as much with Verdi and Cammarano's writing as much as the director's failure to bring them to life. Haroutounian is certainly capable, her 'Tu vedrai che amore in terra' quite impressive in its own right, if still not having a good flow or connection to character and situation.

Anita Rachvelishvili and Gregory Kunde are much better equipped to handle the technical and dramatic challenges of Verdi's writing for the voice, and as Azucena and Manrico, their voices and performances ultimately hold more sway over the outcome and effectiveness of the production. Rachvelishvili comes out on top, taking the role of Azucena with relish, matching Verdi's intensity but not overselling it. Kunde is always a joy to hear, a dramatic rather than a belcanto Rossinian, and that kind of dramatic lyricism serves him well for Verdi. He brings real character and personality to Manrico in his stage presence and singing. When these two are in alignment with the thunderous performance of the Royal Opera Orchestra under Richard Farnes, it's enough to carry this Il Trovatore over the line. That's no mean feat.

The Opus Arte Blu-ray presents the recording of the opera on its dark stage very well throughout to such an extent that you can almost feel the heat of the conflagration in the closing scene. The High Resolution audio stereo and surround mixes are superb, giving clear presence to the voices, and if you can listen to it loud (on headphones maybe) the impact of the Anvil Chorus and the more thunderous parts of the score is just amazing. The extra features are not plentiful, just a snappy 3-minute introduction with soundbites from cast and the creatives and a 3-minute look at the set designs. The booklet however contains a very interesting essay by Flora Willson on the history of the writing of the opera and the working relationship between Verdi and Cammarano revealed in their correspondence.

Links: Royal Opera House

Tuesday 18 September 2018

Offenbach - Tales of Hoffmann (Dublin, 2018)

Jacques Offenbach - Tales of Hoffmann

Irish National Opera, 2018

Andrew Synnott, Tom Creed, Julian Hubbard, Claudia Boyle, Gemma Ní Bhriain, John Molloy, Andrew Gavin, Brendan Collins, Carolyn Holt, Fearghal Curtis, Kevin Neville, Peter O’Reilly, Cormac Lawlor, Robert McAllister

O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin - 14 September 2018

At this rate I could get to like Tales of Hoffmann. Up until fairly recently it's been an opera whose attraction and qualities have mostly eluded me. Part of the problem could be down to the work having been left unfinished, Offenbach dying before his only full opera (as opposed to his numerous operettas) was completed. Subjected to cuts, revisions and additions from sketches left behind by the composer to try to approximate what Offenbach might have had in mind, there's never been any clarity over the intended final shape of the work. But then, I've never been taken with the idea of purpose of the work or find that it has any great insights or truths to reveal.

It's a romance above all, a single troubled one taking shape across four different incarnations, but drawn from stories by the German writer ETA Hoffmann, Offenbach includes Hoffmann as the main character in the work, making a connection between the creator and his creations, the inspiration for them and the suffering an artist has to endure to bring them to life. That's all well and good, but the stories themselves are strange, fantastical and almost hallucinogenic in their obsessions, fuelled by alcohol and tainted with madness, the music likewise somewhat overblown.

There's a lot to work with here and certainly richness in the situations, but a good production should be able to draw it all together, bring some kind of coherence and try to make sense of it all. My experience of Tales of Hoffmann however - until fairly recently - has been that directors similarly tend to go overboard and add another level of complication and distraction. A stripped-down reduced-orchestration production by the English Touring Opera however demonstrated for me that there is much to enjoy in the work, and following a similar policy in their new production, the Irish National Opera have confirmed that impression.

Of course what is true of the approach taken towards Tales of Hoffmann is true of any opera; it can be seen at its best when music, direction and singing all come together in a cohesive production with a strong central theme. The central theme of the varied three related love stories that attest to Hoffmann's unfortunate choice in women is of course his singular love for Stella in all her varied moods and character (and an opera singer to boot!). Offenbach of course makes the connections by having not just Stella in the roles of Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta, but he keeps a thread of adversity in the combined villains of Lindorf's Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, and Dappertutto.

Created as a INO touring production and having to work within the limitations of the O'Reilly Theatre in Dublin, which is not equipped for major scene changes or special effects, director Tom Creed is somewhat limited as far as stage designs go, but in a way this helps consistency and fluency not just between the stories, but with the framing device of Hoffmann the storyteller and the connections the stories have to Stella. The lack of atmosphere in the venue also threatened to work against the efforts of the production which with only a reduced ensemble of seven players felt initially cool and detached, not really engaging with the audience. By the time Claudia Boyle's Olympia took to the stage however, that all changed.

The detached from reality aspect of the stories can still be a problem, but Tom Creed finds suitable modern updates that take some of the old-fashioned eccentricity out of the work. Rather than an automaton or living doll, Creed re-envisions Olympia for this production as a robot AI, Hoffmann dazzled by its brilliance of science but disillusioned by its lack of humanity, immune to the charm of his poetry. In the second story Hoffmann's trust in love is dashed by the inadequacy of medicine to cure Antonia if she sings. Hoffmann is charmed in the third story not by a seductive courtesan who is charged with stealing his reflection, but by a performance artist in the Venice Biennale who attempts to destroy his soul through drug addiction.

Katie Davenport's set designs cleverly provide suitable locations for Creed's updated settings that bring more of a sense of reality to the metaphor, but it still looks magical and just as importantly retains a sense of humour. The consistency and continuity is brilliantly maintained in the three major singing roles, with Claudia Boyle in particular simply outstanding. The ability to sing all the four highly challenging soprano roles is never in doubt, but there's personality and presence there as well, which makes a difference in this opera. Julian Hubbard also sang well but wasn't quite as successful in finding any deeper humanity in his character. The multiple Lindorf villain role posed no difficulties for John Molloy, an expert in this register, but he was perhaps a little too declamatory for the reduced instrumentation. Gemma Ní Bhriain's Nicklausse was exceptional and Andrew Gavin provided good support for Molloy's different incarnations. With fine performances in secondary roles and a fine chorus, the INO clearly have a strong ensemble of singers.

It was in that reduced seven-piece instrumentation, alive to the subtleties of the melodies that I feel that the Irish National Opera's production was truly successful in revealing the qualities of Offenbach's writing for Tales of Hoffmann. Andrew Synnott directing from piano is always strong with this kind of arrangement (his own composition for Dubliners at the 2017 Wexford Festival benefitted from the same treatment). As well as simply being able to appreciate the detail of the instrumentation and quality of the playing, too often lost in larger arrangements, it more than anything else helped bring consistency and cohesion to the work, while still finding plenty of room for colour and expression.

Links: Irish National Opera

Monday 17 September 2018

Barber - Vanessa (Glyndebourne, 2018)

Samuel Barber - Vanessa

Glyndebourne, 2018

Jakub Hrůša, Keith Warner, Emma Bell, Virginie Verrez, Edgaras Montvidas, Rosalind Plowright, Donnie Ray Albert, William Thomas, Romanas Kudriašovas - 14 August 2018

On the surface, Samuel Barber's Vanessa is a simple domestic drama, but inevitably there's much more going on beneath the surface. Written in 1958, Alfred Hitchcock was going something similar with repressed passions around that same time in Vertigo, and Keith Warner has chosen to stage the Glyndebourne production of Vanessa as a Hitchcock-like drama of hidden passions leading to disintegrating minds, and it's not a bad idea, even if it does have the consequence of making an unashamedly old-fashioned work feel rather dated.

But is it really a dated work or, like Hitchcock, does it not actually address something that was more than a little daring for its time in its subject matter and perhaps even taboo? Certainly a more personal reading of the matter of hidden passions and dark unspoken secrets can be detected in the libretto of composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who wrote the original libretto for his lover Samuel Barber, and it can be felt in the dark melancholic tone of the music. Keith Warner's direction doesn't address that directly at all in the Glyndebourne production, but he does delve a little deeper in a way that brings the human element out of the somewhat mannered and stuffy setting.

The sets, the moral attitudes and the class issues in Vanessa are all very much of their time. Vanessa lives with her mother and niece in an isolated mansion in the north of the country. Abandoned 20 years ago by Anatol, Vanessa has remained in Miss Haversham-like seclusion, with all the mirrors of the house covered. She is however expecting Anatol's imminent return, but is shocked to find that it is not Anatol who arrives, but his son, also called Anatol. Unknown to Vanessa, Anatol and her niece Erika spend the night together, but Erika refuses to marry Anatol and he turns his attentions instead to Vanessa.

The drama and the romantic triangle situation becomes rather more heated when it is revealed that Erika is pregnant. Hearing the news of Vanessa's engagement to Anatol, she attempts to throw herself in the lake late on a dark and snowy New Year's Eve. While Barber's lushly romantic score underpins the drama, it doesn't however allow it to tip over into melodrama, since while the revelations are shocking to the audience, they remain mostly hidden, repressed and covered up by the characters in denial; Erika about her feelings for Anatol, Vanessa about her suspicions about Anatol's true nature.

With much going on beneath the surface as above it, Keith Warner's direction finds expression for the multiple levels by highlighting the use of mirrors. Mirrors are referred to explicitly in the libretto, Vanessa has covered them up for 20 years since Anatol's absence, and they are covered up again at the end of the opera, and the significance of covering up and hiding from oneself is obvious. Warner's use of large mirrors that dominate the stage in Act I take on another dimension however when they are uncovered, playing on what is real and what is a reflection.

This is extended in Act II, when more mirrors are added and doubles are used, sometimes showing guests behind the scenes, other times showing younger idealised versions of the protagonists. This is most effective in the scene where the doctor, who has drunk a lot at the party, sees a ghostly younger, more gallant and much more confident idealised version of himself asking a lady to dance, that contrasts with the reality of the older, drunken man. But these levels and contradictions between what is spoken and the reality are all there in the music.

Aside from the Hitchcock references (the period looks much older than Vertigo, going back to Notorious or Suspicion), there are other film influences and effects evident in Warner's production, from the use of mirrors distorting reality and stretching to infinity like Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai, to the use of projections and a twisting set that almost replicates Hitchcock's reverse-zoom effect at the dramatic moment of Erika hearing of Anatol and Vanessa's engagement from the top of the stairs. All of the effects are merited and echoes in the score.

The music for Vanessa is beautiful, the melodies and arias are lovely, and even if there is a little too much talky recitative - which Menotti and Barber tried to avoid not entirely successfully - it is always musically expressive. The dark and moody 'goodbyes' conclusion is just wonderful and all of it is marvellously sung by a good cast. Emma Bell's conflicted and troubled Vanessa could easily have been upstaged by her rather more impetuous dramatic niece Erika, but sung tremendously well by Virginie Verrez, but Bell's interiority suggests more. Edgaras Montvidas is excellent as Anatol, singing the role persuasively, never playing a blatant cad, but rather more subtle than that.

With an elegant and expressive set, excellent singing and dramatic performances, good direction that attempts to dig a little deeper, this is an excellent performance of an entertaining and superbly constructed opera. Unfortunately, despite Glyndebourne's insistence that the time has come for accessible 20th century American opera, Vanessa still feels unadventurous and stuffy. It's a trend that is also becoming increasingly evident at Glyndebourne, but alongside ambitious productions like Barrie Kosky's production of Saul, Claus Guth on La Clemenza di Tito and Brett Dean's Hamlet, at the moment there's still a good balance in the festival and room for testing out lesser known American works like Vanessa.

Links: Glyndebourne,

Tuesday 11 September 2018

Puccini - Madama Butterfly (Glyndebourne, 2018)

Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Glyndebourne, 2018

Omer Meir Wellber, Annilese Miskimmon, Olga Busuioc, Joshua Guerrero, Carlo Bosi, Elizabeth DeShong, Michael Sumuel, Jennifer Witton, Eirlys Myfanwy Davies, Adam Marsden, Oleg Budaratskiy, Simon Mechlinski, Ida Ränzlöv, Shuna Scott Sendall, Michael Mofidian, Jake Muffett

Culturebox - 21 June 2018

Opera houses don't tend to get adventurous when it comes to Madama Butterfly, but there have been some interesting new looks at one of Puccini's most popular works. La Scala in Milan went right back to the original 'failed' 1904 version of the opera that Puccini was forced to rewrite, which was fascinating even if in the end it still played mostly to the conventional locations and imagery. A more abstract Madama Butterfly at La Monnaie in 2017 on the other hand certainly stripped it back of its kitsch Japanese elements and expectations only to prove that most of those elements and the melodrama may be integral to the opera, and it won't work without it. Madama Butterfly almost demands 'safe' by definition, as any attempt to tinker around too much with expectations is unlikely to play well with its target audience.

Madama Butterfly and even the selection of it is surely more a consideration of providing a safe choice for Glyndebourne audiences (and as a touring production) than for any desire to artistically explore the work for new meaning. Annilese Miskimmon's production however makes one or two concessions towards modernisation, placing it in a different period and context that seeks to highlight certain harsh realities and truths of its subject. She tries to strike a balance that attempts to bring it a little more up to date rather than appearing to be a situation so far removed from familiar modern attitudes as to appear as almost fantasy, but there's also clearly a necessity not to throw Butterfly out with the bathwater.

Act I doesn't differ greatly from any traditional representation of the marriage scenes. It's a 50s' setting, where Goro's Marriage Bureau handles matches for US troops with Japanese brides after the war, a situation that is a little more relatable, even if it still carries implications of inequality. Projections are used showing genuine documentary newsreel footage: "Yanks Marry Japanese Maids", with the new brides given instruction on "Learning to be an American Wife". It's perhaps not exactly the same situation as Cio-Cio-San, but even if it's presented in contrast it does highlight the reality. Or if not so much a reality, selling the American dream as a reality. There's no real commentary or emphasis placed on the ethics of it all however, on Pinkerton marrying a 15 year old, collecting her like a butterfly or even commentary on the American imperialism side of things here. It leaves the match it open as if it's something that both parties go into in good faith. The real test of the marriage and the production will come later and there's plenty of opportunity there to feel outrage.

In line with the tone of Puccini's music, Act II does indeed mark a strong contrast to Act I. Butterfly has adopted American lifestyle big time, not just in little details of her manner of western dress, but in her confidence and attitudes as well. Or rather it's more like rather a Japanese view of American life that is influenced by the Technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk, and I can't imagine any film director who is closer to the sentiments of Madama Butterfly than Douglas Sirk (although you could try Mikio Naruse or Kenji Mizoguchi if you were going for a more authentic view of the perspective of a Japanese woman rather than an American director - or even Yasujiro Ozu's later colour films which show the creeping influence of America on Japanese life in the 1950s). So from that point of view, the 1950s' Sirkian setting works perfectly, working with the light, the colour and the seasons, as leaves fall and darkness draws in.

Thereafter it's wiser to just let Puccini do his work, and this production does just that. Conducted by Omer Meir Wellber, it felt like a relative straightforward interpretation of the score, but there were a few nice touches that worked with the mood and the production. I'm not sure what instrument usually plays the melody in the Humming Chorus, but here it has the distant melancholic sound of a harmonica playing that feels appropriate. It may not be inspiring or inspired, but it's certainly successful in getting across the intended impact and message of the opera. You can't work against Puccini without defeating the purpose of the work and to do that would not only be failing the opera and failing the audience, but in many ways you're failing Cio-Cio-San and many like her in real life over the years.

You'd need to be made of stone to get through Act III unmoved here, the trio of Sharpless, Suzuki and Pinkerton, the choking sobs that are the only answer's to Butterfly's question "Quella donna, che vuol da me?", and the recognition that "Tutto è finito". Watch it through a wet blur, which is as it should be. Which is as much to the credit of the singers here as Puccini. It only really carries that urgency if the director can make the characters real and for there to be anguish and sympathy on all sides. Often Pinkerton is made out to be a villain, and that can spur indignation at his treatment of Cio-Cio-San. Some, including Miskimmon, see it more as a human failing, the Pinkerton of three years later not so much regretting his fake marriage as realising that it was never realistic. It doesn't mean that he is blameless, but it helps to see all sides, and that's what this production seems to be able to balance well, finding the true emotional weight of each.

As such, it's easier to admire the heartfelt performance of Joshua Guerrero's Pinkerton here. It's a little 'operatic' but in the context of a Sirkian response to Puccini it's acceptable and effective. Olga Busuioc handles Cio-Cio-San just as well, if rather holding to the conventional mannerisms and gestures. The experienced Carlo Bosi as Goro, Michael Sumuel's Sharpless and Elizabeth DeShong's Suzuki all support the leads well, although the latter may be a little too emotionally overwrought. Again however, it's to be expected, the cast fulfill what we expect of them, the director and conductor giving us the full Puccini, and the resulting impact is not unexpected either.

Links: Glyndebourne, Culturebox

Sunday 9 September 2018

Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice (Budapest, 2018)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice

NorrlandsOperan, Armel Opera Festival 2018

Olof Boman, Åsa Kalmér, Susanna Levonen, Henriikka Gröndahl, Jeanne Gérard

ARTE Concert - 1 July 2018

You can always find ways of bringing a conceptual or modern-day reworking to the Orpheus myth, but what is more important in any performance of Orfeo ed Euridice is that it responds to the beauty, purity and simplicity of Gluck's reformist agenda for opera. The fact that it can easily sustain both modern conceptual (Romeo Castellucci) and more elaborate theatricality (La Fura dels Baus) and that it even has the flexibility to cast Orfeo as a mezzo-soprano, countertenor or even a bass! (Lyon 2015) is testament not only to the robustness of the framework that supports the opera, but that the principles behind it are also enduring.

It's one of the key works of all opera, one that any composer can look back on and learn from, and many of them did. The same goes for any jaded opera-goer (does such a thing exist?) or even anyone who has over-indulged in Strauss, Puccini and Wagner and wants to return right back to the basics. Whether it's the original Italian version Orfeo ed Euridice, Gluck's even more austere stripped back French version Orphée et Eurydice or even Berlioz's edition of the best of both worlds, it's an opera of exquisite beauty that demonstrates what opera is capable of in its blending of music and drama, in its use of myth and in the Orpheus-like magic of breathing new life into it that performance can bring.

The most important aspect then, and it's one that the Swedish NorrlandsOperan company do very well in their production, is that most basic of opera requirements - bringing the drama and the music together perfectly to highlight its essential purpose. Orfeo ed Eurydice is a work that celebrates love and music in its mythological subject, but it also considers death, grief and new beginnings as a necessary part of human existence.

I don't know if you can find any conceptual reading within the NorrlandsOperan production, performed here at the 2018 Armel Opera Festival, but the tilted mirror looking down on the stage somehow opens up the space while at the same time closing it down. The idea of division is important in Orfeo ed Euridice, most evidently in the demarcation between the living and the dead, and this is as effective a way as any of making that idea visual and ever-present. The main difference or unique point of this particular production is that Orpheus is a woman as well as Eurydice.

It's common enough for a woman to sing the role of Orpheus, the role often better suited to the more robust mezzo-soprano voice than the lyrical countertenor (although both have their own distinct qualities), but in the NorrlandsOperan production there is no attempt to make Orpheus look like a man. There's no need to either and it's not just to a concession to modern notions of diversity in relationships. The perfect simplicity of Orfeo ed Euridice and the myth itself is that the idea of love doesn't need to be defined in male/female terms. It's a human experience common to everyone and a woman is quite capable as a man of feeling the same love, grief and feelings for a loved one that takes Orpheus to such depths and yet rise above them.

Sung by Susanna Levonen and brilliantly directed by Åsa Kalmér, the depth of those feelings are beautifully expressed and never more apparent than in the glorious scene where Orpheus finally discovers Eurydice in Elysium with the Blessed Spirits ('Torna, o bella'). For this scene, as elsewhere, the set is simply dressed, kept down to essentials. A snowy veil lifts away from the floor as the lovers are reunited, the ancient pillars that were standing in Thrace now fallen in the Underworld. It's as simple and effective as that, and as simple and effective as Gluck's wondrous scoring of the opera.

It's given a fine musical reading as well, Olof Boman conducting the Armel orchestra through a full account of the work that includes all the dance pieces. I can't say that the dancing is great, but it's good to have these pieces included, particularly in the epilogue scenes. The chorus - a vital character in this work - is outstanding. Henriikka Gröndahl's Eurydice gives her character an equal footing with Orpheus, which is something you don't always get. It's an impressive performance with purity and sincerity of expression that takes into consideration the extreme suffering and exquisite joy that humans are capable of experiencing. Sung by Jeanne Gérard, Amore also has an extended role to play as a punkish - or perhaps Puck-ish - figure in red who observes the journey of Orpheus and permits a breaking of the usual rules.

Links: Armel Opera Festival, ARTE Concert

Wednesday 5 September 2018

Bartók - Duke Bluebeard's Castle / The Magnificent Mandarin (Brussels, 2018)

Béla Bartók - Duke Bluebeard's Castle / The Magnificent Mandarin

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2018

Alain Altinoglu, Christophe Coppens, Ante Jerkunica, Nora Gubisch, Gábor Vass, Vincent Clavaguera-Pratx, Merche Romero, Brigitta Skarpalezos, Dan Mussett, Norbert De Loecker, Amerigo Delli Bove, James Vu Anh Pham

La Monnaie Streaming - June 2018

When you read about the atrocities committed by the real-life inspiration for Bluebeard, it seems a little tasteless to make his story the subject of a fairy tale or an opera. Rather than focus on the horrors of what really took place in the castle of Gilles de Rais, the dark fairy tale story has become more of a cautionary tale on how a woman attempts to break down defensive barriers of masculine power and control in order to engage love and self-awareness but falls victim in the end to her own feminine weaknesses of curiosity and jealousy. That's one interpretation anyway, but there is a certain amount of ambiguity played with there as well as a sense of horror at what can lie in the darker recesses of the human psyche. Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle does actually explore that quite successfully.

It's a beautifully structured and concise piece, gifted with a score from Bartók that is precisely attuned to its moods and darkness, yet, it's not so precise that it can't also convey the ambiguity that allows it to work on a number of levels. That character is very much emphasised by the diabolically-intoned spoken-word introduction which leaves it open whether what take place on the inside or the outside. Are we looking at Duke Bluebeard's Castle as a place of horror or do the seven locked rooms of the castle rather a symbolical representation of the inner life of Duke Bluebeard?

The latter, the symbolical and the allegorical, is very much to the fore in La Monnaie's production directed by Christophe Coppens, the former artist and fashion designer who has returned to his theatrical roots and who was first involved with opera in La Monnaie's version of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen, (which they retitled 'Foxie!'). The castle is a grid of nine rooms, with Bluebeard at its centre unable to move, unreachable, wrapped in the castle constrictor-like grip. Judit's appearance and fearless willingness to explore breaks down this barrier on the opening of the first chamber, but Bluebeard still remains confined to a wheelchair until he is finally freed. Freeing Bluebeard however might not be such a great idea.

The set design highlights that this freedom is one of breaking down barriers to self-awareness or self-reflection by making this a castle of mirrors. Every surface is mirrored, but angled and distorting. It's dark, cold blue, turning to red as Judit recognises that everything in each of the rooms is covered in blood. The chambers themselves are of course symbolic of what lies in the deeper recesses of the male psyche, bathed in violence, avarice and secrecy, closing down human feelings, hiding a lake of tears and sentiments of love in the seventh chamber. It's the idea that Bluebeard might harbour those feelings for other women that proves to be an open door that the woman can never close once she has become aware of it. Some things are better not knowing.

As a staging and representation Coppens' direction and designs are effective enough, if not really spectacular, daring or revealing of any new ideas or insights. It remains a fairly static production, with only Judit moving slowly between one room and the next. The lighting brings emphasis to the music, saving its big moment to chime with Bartók's grand theme for the opening of the fifth chamber. It's in the musical performance really that the work lives, and Alain Altinoglu finds that epic quality in the work, the dark fairy-tale and the dark allegory. It's a work for great singers too, and Ante Jerkunica and Nora Gubisch bring out its chilling stridency.

What is good about the production however is that it doesn't just view the partnering piece as an entirely separate work, but uses Bartók's The Magnificent Mandarin - composed in 1924 - to also to highlight and add further commentary on Bartók's short 1918 opera - his only one - Duke Bluebeard's Castle. It's a welcome change for seeing Duke Bluebeard's Castle paired with another short one-act opera like Iolanta or La Voix Humaine, and even as a ballet-pantomime, The Magnificent Mandarin is a much more complementary piece than you would first imagine, and perhaps even allows both works to gain something in the pairing.

If Duke Bluebeard's Castle is all symbolism of suppressed and internalised emotions, repressed sexual desire and violence, those characteristics are made explicit to some extent in The Magnificent Mandarin, where an unscrupulous brothel manager assaults and robs clients and pays for his crimes when he murders a Chinese Mandarin. Coppens accordingly revisits the dark chambers of the castle as the colourful and brightly lit rooms of a brothel, where we can voyeuristically see those behaviours carried out in the Technicolor style of Hitchcock's Rear Window. This might perhaps account for Bluebeard appearing again at the conclusion in his wheelchair, as otherwise there's no direct overlapping or reference between the two parts of this production.

I say explicit, but it's actually highly stylised, very much in the cartoon come to life quality that Coppens used in Foxie! The Cunning Little Vixen. That doesn't mean however that it can't get across the intent of the piece, the sensuality and the violence that rises to the surface, and it's often quite clever and imaginative in the designs, such as one of the prostitutes wearing a skirt of legs that dissolve into a blur of body parts in her tryst with the Mandarin. Again it's Bartók's music that is highly expressive and it's matched much more precisely to the dancer's movements and actions, delivered with like precision and expression by Alain Altinoglu's conducting of the La Monnaie orchestra.

Links: La Monnaie