Monday 29 October 2018

Leoni/Giordano - L’Oracolo/Mala vita (Wexford, 2018)

Franco Leoni - L’Oracolo
Umberto Giordano - Mala vita

Wexford Festival Opera, 2018

Francesco Cilluffo, Rodula Gaitanou, Joo Won Kang, Sergio Escobar, Leon Kim, Benjamin Cho, Elisabetta Farris, Louise Innes, Francesca Tiburzi, Dorothea Spilger, Anna Jeffers

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 25 October 2018

You can always count on some Italian verismo to give Wexford Festival Opera a bit of an edge. Alfano's Risurrezione at last year's festival packed quite a punch, and if anything the impact is even more intense in this year's double-bill of two concise little gems that Wexford with Francesco Cilluffo at the helm once again have rescued from semi-obscurity for the 2018 festival programme. Franco Leoni's L'Oracolo and Umberto Giordano's Mala vita proved to be a fine complementary pairing that doubled-up the verismo impact.

To all appearances the two works don't have that much in common. Leoni's L'Oracolo (The Oracle) is set in San Francisco's Chinatown, a sordid tale of opium dens, kidnapping, betrayal and murder all squeezed into a one-act one-hour package. Giordano's Mala vita is more Italian in its Neapolitan setting of passionate outpourings in the realm of love and betrayal. There are however a few interesting commonalities brought out by the pairing together of the two works.

Essentially, both works are about ordinary human lives where the poverty of their environment has a lot to do with their actions. With nothing left to live for, characters are forced to resort to other means to lift them out of the misery of their situation, with drugs and criminality one indication of this in the backstreets of Chinatown in L'Oracolo. In L'Oracolo however, some turn to superstition in fortune-telling, and in Mala vita others turn to religion - or superstition again, if you like. In both cases however human nature proves to be stronger and it's not the good side of it.

In terms of verismo, L'Oracolo, written in 1905 could probably be most closely associated with Puccini's Il Tabarro (from Il Trittico), not least in its shock conclusion of the fate of the victim of a murder being disguised. Musically however, Leoni is in advance of Puccini in his use of street sounds and noises feeding into the score as atmospherics. Dramatically, it's pure Grand Guignol, involving opium den owner Cim-Fen kidnapping her young brother so that he can impress Ah-Joe when he 'recovers' the child. His efforts are hampered however by a rival for Ah-Joe's affections when San-Lui discovers his plot, forcing Cim-Fen to brutally kill him.

As if this isn't colourful enough L'Oracolo also has a number of busy street scenes set around the beginning of the Chinese New Year, with partying, dancing, a dragon procession, a lantern festival and the fortune-telling scene by the oracle that gives the opera its title, predicting two deaths to come. It also embarks on a revenge killing when San-Lui's father, the owner of a Chinese medicine shop, goes off to exact bloody retribution on the murderer of his son. As if that's not enough, director Rodula Gaitanou piles on the gore in place of the attempt to hide the death from the unfortunate policeman who works on this beat.

If Leoni's score is more impressionistic and dynamic in its balance of light and shade, Giordano's goes for an all-out Italian passions in Mala vita in a manner that takes it closer to Cavalleria Rusticana. Like L'Oracolo however its tale of poverty and the law of honour killings in the countryside, but is set in the poor district of the city of Naples. Religion and community however still play an important part, and in Giordano's three-act short work, Vito who is suffering from tuberculosis is inspired to seek out and help an unfortunate woman on the streets as a way of atonement and a plea to God for a cure for his illness.

Vito pledges to take prostitute Cristina out of the den she works in and promises to marry her, much to the fury of Amalia his mistress who is married to Annetiello, a sleazy character who already 'knows' Chrstina. The fallen woman gratefully accepts Vito's promise of redemption (shades of Alfano's Risurrezione there too) but is ultimately let down by Vito, who finds that his feelings for the spiteful Amalia are greater than his sacred vows to God and to a lowly prostitute. Left destitute once again, Cristina in this production - again rather emphasising the tone of lives in desperation - kills herself.

Musically, Giordano's score is every bit as overpowering as Cavalleria Rusticana, filled with religious processions, singing and dancing and huge choruses that are almost declamatory in delivery. You would almost think it might be taking things a little bit over-the-top, but then you remember Mala vita is set in Naples, so it might even be considered understated in that light. Francesco Cilluffo brings the fire out of both works, with a more appropriate lighter touch for L'Oracolo, while the orchestra is boosted by a larger string section to draw out the darker tones for Mala vita.

The singing performances also exhibit a similar range and appropriateness of tone. Mala vita provides the best opportunities for the lead soloists to shine, particularly for the competitive female leads of Cristina and Amalia, which are sung superbly by Francesca Tiburzi and Dorothea Spilger. Sergio Escobar, also singing San-Lui in L'Oracolo, was really given a chance to let his ringing tenor shine as Vito in Mala vita, fearlessly and impressively hitting all the expressive high notes.

The set designs and costume design (vaguely 1930s backstreet poverty) by Cordelia Chisholm were impressive; a rotating block of tenement flats with lower-floor shops and buildings that moved fluidly form one scene to the next. How the cast managed to keep up with this from one moment to the next and get themselves into position in the crowded stage is another wonder of stage management. All that was required for the change was to turn the shop signs from Chinatown shops to Italian ones, even if it still retained more of a San Francisco feel than an authentic Neapolitan scene. More important however was that it permitted a direct comparison and transference of theme across the two works, and - with those superb musical and singing performances - both accordingly came over with tremendous power.


Links: Wexford Festival Opera

Sunday 28 October 2018

Mercadante - Il Bravo (Wexford, 2018)

Saverio Mercadante - Il Bravo

Wexford Festival Opera, 2018

Jonathan Brandani, André Barbe, Renaud Doucet, Rubens Pelizzari, Alessandro Luciano, Gustavo Castillo, Simon Mechlinski, Ekaterina Bakanova, Yasko Sato, José de Eça, Toni Nežić, Richard Shaffrey, Ioana Constatin-Pipelea

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 24 October 2018

Wexford, if no-where else, continues to make a case for Saverio Mercadante. Falling somewhere between Rossini on one side and Verdi on the other, Mercadante has been overshadowed by two titans of Italian opera and that's a situation that is surely unjust. The world can unfortunately be unjust and essentially that is what Mercadante's Il Bravo is all about. The opera itself, pretty much obscure and forgotten, makes a good case for this sad reality.

The evidence so far in terms of the few opportunities we have had to see Mercadante staged, are that his 'hit rate' as the composer of around 60 operas surely couldn't have been lesser than that of Rossini or Verdi. Il Bravo in fact is musically much more adventurous than much of Rossini and certainly superior to early Verdi, Il Bravo coming in 1839 the same year as Verdi's debut opera Oberto. Or perhaps just a little more adventurous maybe, but certainly far enough away from the strict rules and expectations of the public to worry the critics and his audience of the time.

Where Il Bravo is perhaps a little over-ambitious however is in the nature of the drama and the plotting itself, although perhaps no more so than an audience would be accustomed to from Rossini and Verdi. The plot is perhaps too convoluted to detail, but as it is necessary to understand the impact that Mercadante is striving for, I'll make use of the Wexford Festival Opera's admirably concise early outline summary rather than attempt a full synopsis:

Set in 16th-century Venice, the Bravo of the title is a tormented character who long ago killed his wife in a fit of jealousy; unjustly accused of plotting against the state, he has been forced by the Council of Ten to become their secret hired assassin, while his father is held hostage to compel his obedience. The story also involves Pisani, a young man under sentence of banishment, in love with a girl whom he believes to be immured in Venice; Violetta, the girl in question, who has been under the protection of the Bravo since the murder of her guardian by a would-be abductor; and Teodora, a wealthy foreigner living in Venice, who turns out to be not only Violetta’s mother but also the Bravo’s wife, whom he had not killed after all.

All of the characters in Il Bravo are fighting against injustice done to them, usually by a higher human power or corrupt agency rather than fate or outrageous fortune. They consequently try to put their belief in truth and natural justice and are prepared to stand up for it, but are unjustly rewarded for their efforts. Some of the twists that lead to those conclusions however don't quite adhere to the same sense of reality or human response to situations. The disappearance of Il Bravo/Carlo's wife Violetta and her reappearance as Teodora with a daughter called Violetta is not only confusing, it's not really fully explained either, nor are the motivations clear why she is so glad to be reunited with him.

Dramatic contrivances go with the territory however and there's no denying that they have a tremendous impact. The final twist of Carlo discovering that his father has died, freeing him of his obligations as an assassin comes hot on the heels of Teodora's sacrificial suicide to free Il Bravo from his final unthinkable commission, and it's a real kicker, particularly in its musical delivery. Il Bravo is restrained in its use of big number arias, Mercadante permitting no unnecessary vocal fireworks but remaining rather dramatically attuned to the action musically and in terms of singing, allowing the drama to direct impact, with a few thunderous choruses thrown in for good measure. Rubens Pelizzari certainly lives up to the challenges of the title role of the assassin.

There are no bel canto extravaganzas or melodic flourishes either in the singing, but that doesn't make it any less demanding. Mercadante doesn't waste a scene in the opera and doesn't waste any characters. In another opera of its time Act II could be filler crowd-pleasing material but Mercadante keeps up the tension, scoring each scene for full dramatic impact. Nearly all the performers, with the exception possibly of Ekaterina Bakanova's Violetta, took time to find their feet, either too hesitant or too forced, lacking fluidity and barking our words. Under Jonathan Brandani's musical direction however, they soon warm up and the momentum of the work itself seems to carry them thrillingly along. Sometimes a little over-zealously, as is the nature of the drama where there is a lot going on and a lot of characters competing for attention but Brandini does well to reign them in and manage the powerful dynamic that is impassioned but controlled and alive to the drama.

It's also vital that the stage production goes along with this dynamic and controlled passion to deliver the necessary impacts, and despite a few unnecessary touches, André Barbe's designs and Renaud Doucet's direction for Wexford is sympathetic and in touch with the heart of the work, and it's really quite impressive looking too. It's grand and spectacular in its creative abstraction of classical Venice, with all its pomp ceremonies and splendour. The setting is largely period, the dramatic action is 'operatic' in delivery, frequently in stand and deliver mode, but this may be the best way to present Mercadante, and it would be a mistake to try to make Il Bravo contemporary and 'relevant'.

There is a half-hearted effort made in this direction but it feels contrived and doesn't really add to the themes at all, consisting mainly of tourists walking along the same Venice locations, oblivious to the true history of the place and the nature of the kind of drama that once took place there, taking selfies with the Doge and buying souvenirs. Evidently Barbe and Doucet want to at least make a token effort to bring the drama closer to home in the present day, or at least a reminder of the idea of injustice persisting, which is certainly the case for the neglect of the operas of Saverio Mercadante. The performance on the 27th October was broadcast live and is well worth a view on YouTube or ARTE Concert.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera, RTE/YouTube

Saturday 27 October 2018

Balcom - Dinner at Eight (Wexford, 2018)

William Balcom - Dinner at Eight

Wexford Festival Opera, 2018

Leslie Dala, Tomer Zvulun, Mary Dunleavy, Stephen Powell, Gemma Summerfield, Brenda Harris, Craig Irvin, Susannah Biller, Sharon Carty, Brett Polegato, Richard Cox, Ashley Mercer, Sheldon Baxter, Maria Hughes, Laura Margaret Smith, Gabrielle Dundon, Ranald McCusker, Henry Grant Kerswell

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 23 October 2018

While it's true that few contemporary European composers have yet to make any kind of popular or lasting impact in the world of opera, American contemporary composers have fared a little better. In America, that is; over here in Europe they haven't had the same level of success. Now however, they are getting harder to ignore. There have been quite a few recent efforts to bring more accessible American opera over, and a few more in the centenary of Leonard Bernstein, but still few have made any real impact on this side of the Atlantic.

While the emphasis is on a commitment to reviving rare 19th century opera, with an emphasis on little known bel canto and verismo, Wexford Festival Opera have in recent years also played their part in bringing contemporary American opera to the stage in Europe. Not that there is any comparison or obvious musical connection between them other than the fact the fact that they are rarely performed. It says a lot even that the name William Bolcom means nothing to me, but this year Wexford have picked up Bolcom's Dinner at Eight, a new work by the veteran composer first premiered in Minnesota in 2017 and given its European premiere here.

Which begs the question; just where does William Balcom fit in the world of contemporary opera? Considering the subject of Dinner at Eight, it's American Depression-era setting and its success as a George Cukor movie, it seems obvious that there is going to be some jazz and some Broadway influences in the music, at least in the manner of Gershwin or Bernstein. Balcom however proves to be a little more complicated than that, an admirer of Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez, studying with Olivier Messaien, working closely with Darius Milhaud and even composing in serialism for his early works.

As far as Dinner at Eight is concerned however, while the domestic situation and cinematic flavour of the drama might suggest a kinship with Strauss's Intermezzo, the musical idiom is closer to Bernstein (Trouble in Tahiti), Barber (A Hand of Bridge) - Barber even a mentor of sorts to Balcom - and Menotti (The Telephone), albeit a little bit darker in nature and with some of those European influences there in the background. Essentially however what is important and what American composers can evidently do best (I'll make an exception in the case of Philip Glass's The Perfect American) is deal with particularly American preoccupations.

How successful Dinner at Eight is on this score is debatable. At the heart of the story is evidently a dinner party, but the guests who have been invited and the circumstances in which they have been invited are quite revealing about a number of aspects of American society, past and present. For socialite Millicent Jordan it's a chance to increase her social standing as Lord and Lady Ferncliffe are arriving in New York on the Aquitania have accepted her dinner invitation. For her husband Oliver, the dinner party is a way to entertain a new business client, Dan Packard and his wife Kitty, even though his wife thinks them both vulgar.

Also invited to the dinner party are Dr Talbot and his wife Lucy, former star actress Carlotta Vance, once promising actor Larry Renault and the Jordan's daughter Paula. Dr Talbot we find however has been having an affair with Kitty Packard, and both their partners know about it or at least have suspicions. Paula is engaged, but has been having an affair with Larry, whose youthful looks are fading and his career along with it as he descends into alcoholism. Carlotta meanwhile has sold her stocks in Jordan Shipping Lines and Dan is poised to liquidate Oliver's company. To top it all off, the Ferncliffe's cancel and the lobster in aspic has turned into a disaster. It's going to be quite a dinner party.

The opera however only needs to take us up to the moments before the party, Millicent and Oliver Jordan putting a brave face on things in the face of the impending disaster, but the situations leading up to it leave the viewer in no doubt about how serious things have been. One of the guests even commits suicide before dinner at eight, and there could well be others considering the decline in fortunes of most of the guests here. Dinner at Eight does deal then with some serious issues that still apply to contemporary American society, but whether that comes through coherently, or in any way that the ordinary person can relate to is far from sure. The focus on the arrangements for the dinner party and Millicent's disappointment about things going badly makes it all feel very trivial, despite those dark aspects.

Musically, Dinner at Eight follows a rather conventional format; everyone gets their little showpiece aria, there are Broadway music hall introduction choruses at the beginning of each act and the libretto by Mark Campbell lays out the progression of the plot and the undercurrents in a linear and expositional manner. There is however certainly some complexity and trickiness in those arias and some skillfully arranged ensembles, with discordant musical hints at those darker areas. Despite the variety of musical styles employed nothing feels pastiche or referenced, but well suited to the dramatic content. Under the baton of Leslie Dala (festival director David Agler conducting all the other performances), the twists and turns of the score were an endless source of surprise and fascination.

Alexander Dodge's production designs for Wexford are nothing short of stunning, but it is mostly functional in an Art Deco period style. There are - like the music and the drama - hints of social and financial pressures in the Inception-like fold-over of Manhattan buildings pressing down on everyone, in the huge bed that appears to be Kitty's entire world, but otherwise everything in Tomer Zvulun's direction of the drama is fairly literal, much like the musical drama itself. The quality of the singing is exemplary, Mary Dunleavy's Millicent having the choice moments and displaying an exceptional range. Stephen Powell gave a solid performance as Oliver, Susannah Biller an entertaining Kitty Packard and an under-the-weather Richard Cox coped admirably as the unfortunate Larry Renault.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera

Bernstein - Trouble in Tahiti (Leeds, 2017)

Leonard Bernstein - Trouble in Tahiti

Opera North, Leeds - 2017

Tobias Ringborg, Matthew Eberhardt, Quirijn de Lang, Wallis Giunta, Fflur Wyn, Joseph Shovelton, Nicolas Butterfield, Charlie Southby

OperaVision - August 2018

The Americans are coming, we've been told. While Europe has tended to go in one direction as far as 20th century contemporary music goes, breaking away from conventional diatonic scale, America has largely worked within the more familiar tonal hierarchies, telling us that traditional classical music is not dead yet. There have been a few tentative attempts to bring Europe back into the fold so to speak or at least recognise that there are still areas to explore and rediscover. Barber's Vanessa at this year's Glyndebourne, Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking at the Barbican and Kevin Puts' Silent Night at Wexford and forthcoming at Opera North, have all made minor inroads but few have been as successful as Philip Glass or, in the music theatre world (where I think most edge closer towards), Stephen Sondheim.

Where Leonard Bernstein fits into the landscape of modern American music and opera is rather more complicated and varied, scoring Hollywood and Broadway musicals, a conductor, writer who composed in a number of styles, working in popular song, jazz and classical idioms. I'm not familiar with his opera work at all - it's taken until his centenary this year for any real opportunity to experience any productions this side of the Atlantic - but they keep telling us that the Americans are coming, so the opportunity to see Bernstein's first short opera Trouble in Tahiti is one that perhaps shouldn't be missed.

Whether Trouble in Tahiti is typical of Bernstein I couldn't say, but it certainly conforms to my impression of lying closer to the Broadway musical composer than opera. On the other hand, there's clearly a certain amount of knowingness and satire in the short opera's all-American subject and treatment and certainly a more complex side to the music behind its breezy swinging jazz-influenced score and melodic song arrangements. The problem with satirising American domestic life and attitudes however is that it ends up portraying banality and there's a danger that the music could also be equally banal.

Opera North's heightened all-American production however ensures that the audience is in awe of the superficial attraction while being aware of the observation and commentary on the attitudes promoted by consumerist society that lie beneath it, forcing distinctions between winners and losers, between male and female roles. The opera opens with an all-American couple sitting at the dining table over breakfast. Involved in a petty argument over going to see Junior in a school play, it's obvious that after ten years of marriage the spark has gone from Sam and Dinah's relationship and it might not be so easy to rekindle.

Neither seem particularly interested in making the effort and, to be honest, the consumerist lifestyle and social model doesn't encourage any deeper engagement with each other. Sam sees himself as a little god in the office, making deals and being praised for his sporting prowess, while a three-piece close harmony radio-jazz chorus pay glowing tribute to his own sense of greatness. Dinah meanwhile goes to see a 'South Pacific' style musical called 'Trouble in Tahiti', "a terrible, awful movie" but despite herself, she enjoys the escapism of its songs that take her out of herself for a while, until she has to go back and make Sam's dinner for him coming home.

It's no Von Heute auf Morgen (although it could certainly form a contrasting view of domestic life if the two short works are ever paired), but the swinging, upbeat jazzy arrangements are deceptive, and there is some measure of dissonance between the music and the situation, as well as within the music itself that doesn't offer any optimistic outcome. At the end, Sam and Dinah don't so much make-up or even just put their differences aside as brush them under the carpet, going to see 'Trouble in Tahiti', where they can live the American dream on the screen at least.

Directed by Matthew Eberhardt, Opera North's production is itself a Hollywood musical come to life, a stylised all-American dream whose artificial glamour is cardboard thin, the ideal of the less than ideal sustained by the seductive croon emanating from the voices on the radio, from the poster on the wall, from the image on the screen. The singing is just outstanding, from those jazz harmonies of the trio chorus (Fflur Wyn, Joseph Shovelton and Nicolas Butterfield), to the conflicted self-assurance needed by Sam and Dinah that is brought out in the fine lead performances of Quirijn de Lang and Wallis Giunta. Tobias Ringborg brings a wonderful flow to those smooth arrangements with a hint of trouble (in Tahiti) beneath the surface.

Links: Opera North, OperaVision

Thursday 18 October 2018

Bartók - Bluebeard's Castle (Dublin, 2018)

Béla Bartók - Duke Bluebeard's Castle

Irish National Opera, Dublin - 2018

André de Ridder, Enda Walsh, Joshua Bloom, Paula Murrihy, Elijah O'Sullivan

The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin - 13 October 2018

The new Irish National Opera's inaugural season is promising to be an ambitious and varied one, and not just in terms of repertoire and touring productions; they've also taken the opportunity to draw on Ireland's tremendous singing, musical and theatrical resources. For Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle sung in Hungarian, a work that for all its brevity is no mean challenge, the Irish National Opera have called upon playwright Enda Walsh to direct the production.

Walsh is no stranger to opera, having worked as librettist and director on Donnacha Dennehy's The Last Hotel and The Second Violinist, and he brings some familiar touches to Bartók's darkly fascinating Duke Bluebeard's Castle. The director comes to the work apparently with some preconceptions, but finds that such a work inevitably exerts it own power and meaning, and in a way he manages to deliver on both proposals.

It's not as if the underlying moral of Bluebeard's Castle is difficult to work out. Judith comes to the Castle as the new wife of Duke Bluebeard and wants to know everything about her husband, all his dark secrets, good and bad, and Bluebeard has quite a reputation, not least for the unknown fate of his previous wives. Walsh puts emphasis on the allegorical aspect of Judith wishing to open the seven locked doors of the castle and shed some light into its dark corners, adding sound effects of creaks, groans and eerie noises that suggest something terrifying lying in those inaccessible recesses.

In terms of creating atmosphere and tension, it's highly effective and complementary to Bartók's menacing score, but Walsh also sees the opera as an exploration of a couple who are just getting to know each other, testing out each other's limits and seeking to establish dominant roles. The old-fashioned gender distinctions are still there, but dropping Duke from the opera's title and dressing the couple in modern clothes, Walsh wants to use them consider how this applies to a modern marriage and whether there is indeed any significant difference in who literally holds the keys to the relationship.

Emphasising the allegorical, there's no physical opening of doors in Jamie Vartan's set design other than the fissure that runs down the middle of the formidable solid-looking stone wall at the back of the stage. The revelation of the other rooms, revealing masculine obsessions with power, money and violence, are shown in those abstract terms as projections and shifts of light and colour, putting emphasis not on their allure but on some sense of horror and shame that lies behind their acquisition.

All of this builds up of course to the sinister mystery of what lies behind the seventh door and, as I've said, Enda Walsh - following along with the slow mounting tension and blasts of horror in Bartók's score - builds the tension superbly with great attention to atmosphere. There really is a sense of mounting dread as the wall parts to reveal what is behind the final locked door; and the revelation is chilling (almost literally, as you can feel the cold air rush forward from the back of the stage of the Gaiety Theatre). Bluebeard's three wives emerge, confronting Judith with the knowledge that Bluebeard has also had deep relationships with other women, something that she needs to know, but once she does (and in the light of revelations of Bluebeard's true nature from the other rooms) it forever changes how she sees her husband.

The decision to dress the three gothically pale former wives in dusty faded 18th century ball gowns doesn't really fit with the modern aesthetic elsewhere in the production, but that's almost certainly intentional. If Walsh is applying the allegory of Duke Bluebeard's Castle to a modern relationship, the fate of Judith to similarly accept the old-fashioned attire of the previous wives only emphasises the reality that nothing has changed, that the distinctions and roles remain largely the same as they have been since the dark ages. The allegorical nature of the work allows room to consider the moral as not quite simplistic as all men are domineering aggressive brutes with dark silent desires and women are fatally victim of their own insatiable curiosity and pushiness.

Walsh perhaps can't risk leaving it on that note, so there is another revelation lying deeper within the seventh room, one that explains the significance of the young boy at the start of the opera (padding out the short length of the one-act work) by building a speaker and delivering an additional message in English before the traditional Hungarian prologue. The revelation of abandoned children sitting among ruins could be a reference to the disturbing proclivities of Gilles de Rais, the real-life inspiration for Duke Bluebeard, but it also opens the hermetic relationship drama out to the realities of how those dark urges for power, money and violence can lead to miseries elsewhere in the world.

If this idea was going to work it really needed the full support of the musical and singing forces and there was much to offer and impress on that front. Conductor André de Ridder perfectly controlled the wide dynamic of the work allowing space for the drama to work within it, but also insuring a wide spacial dynamic within and outside the pit for the harp on one side and the booming percussion up at the back of the other side of the stage. Paula Murrihy's Judith was delivered with lyrical and dramatic conviction and Duke Bluebeard was well characterised by Joshua Bloom. His warm timbre was underpinned by a steely defiance that managed not only to be menacing, but seductive and even loving, particularly when describing the qualities of his three previous wives. The results were thrilling and chilling.

Links: Irish National Opera

Tuesday 16 October 2018

Strauss - Salome (London, 2018)

Richard Strauss - Salome

English National Opera, London - 2018

Martyn Brabbins, Adena Jacobs, Allison Cook, David Soar, Michael Colvin, Susan Bickley, Stuart Jackson, Clare Presland, Trevor Eliot Bowes, Ceferina Penny, Simon Shibambu, Ronald Nairne, Daniel Norman, Christopher Turner, Amar Muchhala, Alun Rhys-Jenkins, Jonathan Lemalu, Robert Winslade Anderson, Adam Sullivan

The Coliseum, London - 12 October 2018

The English National Opera has been struggling to establish an identity in recent years (amongst other financial, artistic and personnel problems), so it was interesting to see that the current new season would have a strong female perspective with works that would "explore and examine some of the patriarchal structures, relationships and roles of masculinity within our society." The first production of the season, Richard Strauss's Salome directed by Adena Jacobs, an Australian theatre director working in opera for the first time, might not entirely fulfil the remit, but offers some new outlooks on a surprisingly adaptable text and score.

Oscar Wilde's original play can hardly be seen as a feminist work and hardly presents its female characters in the most flattering light, but it is very much a work that explores sexual desire and power, challenges social attitudes and gives it a very strong female focus. Wilde's concerns would be very much personal ones of course, to do with unspoken and unspeakable lusts and the danger of exposing them to a hypocritical society that is fascinated by but represses such urges, or at least the public expression of them. Coming from a woman, as it does in Salome, is even more challenging and daring.

Given voice through Wilde's decadent poetic reverie and imagery through a woman, Salome can still shock and make an impact 100 years after it was composed and still challenge conventional morality, social inequalities and gender issues, not least in Richard Strauss's extraordinary tone poem score for the work, a score that also pushed the boundaries of musical expression. While Salome's actions are hardly flattering towards the female sex, they have been twisted on one side by exposure to the corruption and vice of the court of Herod, the Tetrarch, and struggle on the other with the condemnation of religious authorities represented by Jokanaan. It's in highlighting how female expression is crushed between such "patriarchal structures" that Jacobs' production is at least partially successful.

Considering that Salome is a one-act opera that takes place in a single location, the production design at least manages to be varied and expressive of more than just the physical location, attempting rather to illustrate the very intense interior drama that takes place in the mind of Salome. Taken on those terms - and Wilde's use of symbolism in his text would certainly tend to lead it in that direction - it might excuse some of the more random and expressionistic touches applied. Herod in particular is rather grotesquely presented in a bathrobe, glittery vest and undershorts and wallows around in the disturbingly large amount of blood spilled by the suicide of Salome's guard and silent admirer Narraboth. As an expression of the corruption and hypocrisy of the court of the Tetrarch, it makes its point.

That's one side of the oppressive force in the society that Salome has been brought up in. The other is the religious moralising of the prophet Jokanaan, whose mystical imagery and phrasing presents an authoritative and attractive alternative, but Salome comes to find it also prohibitive. Disdainful of the earthly treasures promised by Herod, attracted to the condemnation of her despised step-father and his corrupt, vice-ridden world, and aroused by the alluring promises of Jokanaan (something that is very much brought out in the resonant bass register of the role), Salome reacts violently when neither of these patriarchal structures offer her any personal expression or freedom, but rather seek to further enslave her and any like-minded women with their own strong sense of identity and desires.

The imagery that Adena Jacobs uses in the ENO production can be somewhat obvious, but it least it doesn't need to rely on the sometimes obvious symbolism and imagery that Wilde has provided (the moon, blood, ripe fruit). Some of it is more successful than others; the moon inverted into a black hole surrounded by flowers for the concluding scene of Salome with the head of Jokanaan is striking as a visual representation of Salome's dark desire. The backdrop of a woman with a blindfold not so meaningful - blind desire, abused woman kept in the dark or something else, take your choice. Elsewhere the use of live cameras didn't offer anything more to the intensity of the work, one camera affixed to a muzzle over the mouth of Jokanaan, another seemed to be carried by Narraboth watching Salome, but since nothing was shown of the latter, I presume the camera malfunctioned at the performance I attended.

Much, but probably not as much as you think, can rest on the centrepiece of the Dance of the Seven Veils. Here, to be frank, it was a bit of a mess. Salome was presented as a joggers-wearing teenager, the dance performed mostly around the decapitated and spilled guts of a giant pink My Little Pony by a team of twerking backing dancers that you would see for an artist like Beyoncé. Beyoncé may be seen in some circles as the representation of female empowerment, but by others she is nothing more than a money-making product and business woman in a (patriarchal) music industry. If there was any female empowerment done it wasn't here but perhaps more in Salome getting dirty with herself in her earlier encounter with Jokanaan.

Whether Jacobs' production and direction brings anything new out of the work, whether it succeeds in tapping into female desire any more than Wilde and Strauss is debatable, but it was at least someway successful in harnessing the unquestionable power of the work. Far more was done on that front however by Martyn Brabbins conducting of the English National Opera Orchestra, sensitive to the light and shade of the work and its fluid dynamic, a little muddy in places, but breathtakingly thunderous in the impact and punctuation of the thematic motifs that accompany the action.

The musical pleasures were supplemented by some good singing and dramatic performances. Allison Cook wasn't strong all the way across the formidable range of Salome, but her delivery of the high end was chilling and precision powered, particularly in the calling for the head of Jokanaan. David Soar's bass had a persuasive warmth and authoritative allure as Jokanaan (supplemented of course by Strauss's majestic brass fanfares). Michael Colvin has the right kind of fragile seediness as Herod and was perfectly accompanied by Susan Bickley's Herodias. There were fine performances also from Stuart Jackson as Narraboth and Clare Presland's Page. The quality of the singing and the delivery of Strauss's remarkable score went some way to salvaging a rather messy production that nonetheless had some interesting points of character and distinction.

Links: English National Opera

Sunday 7 October 2018

Verdi - Rigoletto (Belfast, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Northern Ireland Opera, Belfast - 2018

Gareth Hancock, Walter Sutcliffe, Sebastian Catana, Nadine Koutcher, Davide Giusti, Fleur Barron, Taras Berezhansky, Simon Thorpe, Ben McAteer, John Porter, David Robertson, Maria McGrann, Ann Jennings, Rebekah Coffey, Malachy Frame

Grand Opera House - 2 October 2018

How much a production design or conceptual approach adds to a work like Verdi's Rigoletto is questionable. Whether it's set as a Las Vegas crime caper, in a circus or in a cardboard box, Verdi is still Verdi, and the themes of Rigoletto are writ large. In fact, large works well in all the above cases, playing up to Verdi's thunderous tale of love and hate, virtue and vice, sacrifice and revenge. There's not a great deal of room for nuance or subtlety in either the music or the themes, but it does hit on those extremes of human nature in a way that is powerful and ever more recognisable in the nature of the world today.

Big is what we were promised by Walter Sutcliffe in his first full-scale opera production as the director of Northern Ireland Opera at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, and big is what we got. The production and Kaspar Glarner's sets were imported from the National Opera of Chile and the commencement of their assembly at the docks over a month ago even made the local press. It certainly proved to be a flexible if somewhat bulky piece of stage craft, flowing from one scene to the next, rooms and alcoves appearing and spinning off with members of the cast still on them as they hit the final notes of their arias. Rigoletto is an opera of momentum and you want to keep it flowing, and this impressive design permitted that.

It was however probably a bit surplus to requirements. I think there were three scene changes in the short overture alone, and I mean major reconfigurations of high walls, shifting and interlocking to establish mood and location, from a dark moonlit alley to the palace of the Duke of Mantua. Act I of Rigoletto is rarely satisfactory in terms of narrative presentation, it can feel heavy handed with the rakish Duke and his wild party, threatening any Counts who oppose his making off with their wives and daughters; the contrast too pronounced between the court jester's cruel evisceration of the nobility and the innocent home life he enjoys keeping his own daughter locked away. His convenient meeting with an assassin in an alley and his observation about Sparafucile killing with a sword while he does it with a word also feels contrived.

Contrived is also an apt description for what follows - all still in Act I - when we find that Gilda is being pursued by the Duke pretending to be a poor student, and that Rigoletto's friends/enemies at the court are planning to abduct the 'woman' the hunchback has hidden away from them. And yet, already Verdi is establishing connections and contrasts to set up in opposition and clash in a hugely melodramatic fashion. He's also capable of putting those sentiments across in an effective way, with hooks of melody, with opportunities in the vocal writing not just for the performers to show off, but to express the depth of those feelings, placing human emotions up against the cruel realities of the world. Act II and Act III confront that brilliantly.

I say that Verdi's music lacks nuance and subtlety and that may be true, but Rigoletto was innovative in many ways in the mid-19th century. It does dare to go to the darker side of human nature, Verdi does tie the music more meaningfully to actions and emotions, but he also conjures up atmospheric effects like the approaching thunderstorm in Act III. Despite the work also containing some of his most popular and well-known arias and melodies ('Questa o quella', 'Caro nome', 'Cortigiani'), Verdi also breaks away from standard number format and presents those opposing sentiments in a series of duets that propel and drive the work forward, culminating in Act III's famous quartet.

Somehow however, while the energy and drive were there, the spark or frisson of danger that should arise out of it never materialised in the Northern Ireland Opera/Ópera Nacional de Chile production. It was through no fault of the Gareth Hancock conducting the Ulster Orchestra, although it did often seem to have more drive than heart. It certainly was through no fault of the singing; Sutcliffe promised world-class singers for this production and, my goodness, he delivered on that. I don't think I've ever heard a live performance sung as well as this.

Making his first UK appearance, Sebastian Catana is a true Verdi baritone, something that is an increasingly rare commodity. The contrast between his delivery of Rigoletto and Plácido Domingo more recently playing a baritone in the same role is enormous. Catana's singing had power, resonance and control, his diction clear, his presence and performance convincing. We also has a Cardiff Singer of the World in Nadine Koutcher who could stop you in your tracks as Gilda, navigating not just the difficult and expressive coloratura, but also finding a place where the innocence of her character could co-exist with her developing sense of personality and self-realisation. Davide Giusti didn't have quite the same power of expression behind his voice, but never faltered and has his own distinctive Italianate style.

As good as all these performances were, there was still an emotional hollowness to the characterisation that suggests a lack of any real direction or interaction. That could be partly due to the set designs not really allowing the characters to engage with each other. Sparafucile for example smacks his hand when slapping Maddalena when she pleas for the life of the handsome Duke, and she flinches from the other side of the stage. Stylistically there's nothing wrong with touches like that - you get the idea well enough - but here and elsewhere it just doesn't make the same visceral connection with the music. Verdi's Rigoletto doesn't need modernisation or the conceptual approaches of those above mentioned productions and it doesn't need huge elaborate sets, but it can sustain them if there's heart and belief in the work. Despite production values and singing of the highest standards that just didn't come across in this Northern Ireland Opera production.

Links: Northern Ireland Opera

Tuesday 2 October 2018

Meyerbeer - Le Prophète (Toulouse, 2017)

Giacomo Meyerbeer - Le Prophète

Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse - 2017

Peter Flor, Stefano Vizioli, John Osborn, Kate Aldrich, Sofia Fomina, Mikeldi Atxalandabaso, Thomas Dear, Dimitry Ivashchenko, Leonardo Estévez


Opportunities to see a Meyerbeer opera are still rare enough, and rarer still the chance to see a Meyerbeer opera treated appropriately and played well. Once considered to be the foremost opera composer of the early-to-mid 19th century, admired by Wagner and Verdi alike, Meyerbeer's operas can now be hard to appreciate as musical dramas of any kind of depth or substance, but as the Toulouse production of Le Prophète bears out, given the right kind of treatment they can still impress and entertain an audience.

One of the issues with Meyerbeer is that his old-fashioned Grand Opéra style doesn't bear up well to modernism or revisionist reworkings, and it seems to sit better in the period and in the manner it was originally composed. Which can be a drawback in that it leaves Meyerbeer behind as a composer only of historical interest and his works as kind of museum curiosities, but perhaps there's a place for that; there's certainly an audience for it. And perhaps done correctly, there might even be some other qualities and depth that can be drawn out of the work. Le Prophète at least has some promising elements to it in that respect.

Thus far however attempts to drag Meyerbeer into the 20th or 21st century haven't been entirely successful. Despite the wonderfully operatic character of their stirring high melodramas, the historical religious conflict of Les Huguenots proved resistant to modernisation, the gothic horror of Robert le Diable gained little if anything from ironic detachment, and high seas adventure of L'Africaine almost sunk under the weight of an exotic love story blown up to epic proportions. Le Prophète is back in the historical religious melodrama of Les Huguenots, but this time Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse play it more closely to the work's strengths and original intentions.

But certainly not play it down or with any kind of ironic detachment. Set in the 16th century in Dordrecht and Munster, Le Prophète has something of an edge in its drama of popular insurrection and religious conflict. The common people working in the fields under the feudal rule of Count Oberthal are growing increasingly dissatisfied with their enslavement and stirred by a group of Anabaptists wanting to overthrow the ruling order, they are ripe for insurrection. What they really need is a strong charismatic leader to spur them into action and the Anabaptists recognise the character of David in Jean de Leyde, a man who even has Joan of Arc like dreams and visions. He could be the prophet who leads the people to their emancipation.

Jean however is unwilling to join them in their cause as he is engaged to be married to Berthe, and his mother Fidès has just given her blessing to the union. It still needs the permission of Count Oberthal, and in true operatic fashion, the bass Count stands between them and their happiness. Outraged, Jean accepts the role the Anabaptists offer, stirs the people to revolution against the nobility, reignites their passion to finally take Munster by force, and becomes prophet-king, ready to ascend to the throne of Emperor. But is this what he really wanted, and what has happened to his beloved Berthe and his mother Fidès? Well, there it gets all operatic again.

It's almost a shame because Le Prophète is actually quite a dark story, and not just in its violent rebellion and overthrowing of the feudal system. Each of the characters also has a personal reason for their actions that is not entirely idealistic or altruistic. One of the Anabaptists who recruits Jean to their number is actually a disgruntled former employee of the Count Oberthal who holds a grudge against his old master. Jean de Leyde too is motivated by vengeance against the Count for taking Berthe from him. The female roles are less motivated by such slights, but in a way they too demand violent retribution, which of course comes at a cost.

There are possibilities, deeper motivations and lessons to explore in the opera, and Stefano Vizioli's production does that exceptionally well. It retains much of the grand historical epic quality of the work in the simple set designs, allowing space for grand crowd scenes, ceremonial arrangements, with an eye towards stylisation that is never intrusive. Bodies are strung up, prisoners are executed, and the image of a disembowelled cow hanging above the inn where Jean works in Act II and other abstract 'crowning' images hint at that darker side. It doesn't try to impose a dark character on the work as much as work along with its dynamic, even if that means lightening the character during some of Meyerbeer's more over-the-top arrangements.

You almost get the impression that Le Prophète is something of a self-defeating opera. One moment it paints a dark and bloody scene of violence, rape and execution, and the next moment you have a ballet followed by a disguised Oberthal indulging in a drinking song with his enemies. That's fine for fitting in with the dining schedule of the Paris Jockey Club, but it does tend to interrupt dramatic progress. On the other hand this is Grand Opéra, this is the light and shade and the dynamic you expect, and it does have its own peculiar character. Vistoli has no problem playing to this, including the ballet and even playing it up as a ballet when others would cut it or try to rework it to fit in with an overall darker tone.

The justification for this is that Le Prophète is indeed 5 Act Grand Opéra at its finest, Meyerbeer pulling out all the stops and mustering all forces, with huge rousing choruses, ecstatic harps, religious chanting, some solo organ playing and blistering arias. There's confirmation here in Toulouse that aside from gravitas, what Meyerbeer and Grand Opera need above all else is specialist singers who can do it justice. That means someone like John Osborn in the title role, and he handles the demands exceptionally well. Kate Aldrich however gets some of the best arias and situations as Jean's despairing mother Fidès, and she is just amazing here. Sofia Fomina ensures there is no weakness at all in the trio of principals, giving an outstanding performance as the enraptured and devastated Berthe. This is an impressive production and if nothing else, impressive is exactly what you expect from Grand Opéra.

Links: Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, Culturebox