Wednesday 28 November 2018

Gluck - Orphée et Eurydice (Paris, 2018)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Orphée et Eurydice

Opéra Comique, Paris - 2018

Raphaël Pichon, Aurélien Bory, Marianne Crebassa, Hélène Gilmette, Lea Desandre

ARTE Concert - October 2018

Gluck's original Italian version of Orfeo ed Euridice may already be considered as close to perfection as an opera can get, but you can't really argue that Hector Berlioz's version of the work doesn't respect and have equal value to the original. Well, you could argue the point that it doesn't entirely respect the reformist instrumental minimalism and that it includes a little ornamentation and extensions to suit the taste of a 19th century French audience, but by and large Orphée et Eurydice retains the essential quality of the music being entirely in service to the drama.

You know that because every scene and every note in Gluck's opera is necessary, heartfelt and powerful in conveying the meaning of the work, and the subjects it deals with are the deepest and most heartfelt of human emotions - love, loss, grief and redemption. Although in the latter case, even Gluck might have compromised the qualities of truth for the sake of narrative requirements and audience expectations, even if it remains a work of supreme beauty. Working with Berlioz's 1859 version, Raphaël Pichon attempts his own slight corrective to the 'happy' ending for the Opéra Comique's production, but the purity of Gluck's intentions remain even in their absence.

Directed by Aurélien Bory, the Paris production adheres to those basic principles in Gluck's musical composition and in how best to express the sentiments that lie behind the work in terms of the stage production that achieves maximum impact from minimal means. Berlioz's extended overture permits a way of showing Orpheus's loss of Eurydice, a simple large mirror over the stage giving an overview of the horror of her death. Eurydice falls to the ground, a hole opens up in the stage, a grave, and Eurydice is sucked down into it, the whole backdrop of Orpheus's world dragged down along with her.

The mirror also works effective for the appearance of Amore to inhabit the real world and also be representative of the metaphorical meaning of her presence. Borne aloft by dancing figures dressed in black, she appears in the mirror to float above the stage, achieving maximum impact with minimal means. Another effective use of stage craft is used to represent the Furies as dancers who are appeased by Orpheus, marking his descent into the underworld.

There's nothing old-fashioned in the costume designs, but nothing obtrusively modern about them either, the work inhabiting the same timeless place as the sentiments it is principally concerned with. With his smart suit and clicked back white hair, Orpheus looks less like a businessman and more like a music impresario, and it's in the voice, the musical qualities of that voice, that Orpheus embodies and expresses those qualities that represent humanity in its purest state, vulnerable and yet capable of striving to overcome adversity.

Musically at least, Raphaël Pichon brings out the beauty of this in Gluck's score, even if Berlioz's instrumentation doesn't quite pack the same edge and directness as it would on Gluck's period instruments. A contralto or mezzo-soprano however can bring great range to Orpheus in the Berlioz edition and Marianne Crebassa has tenderness and depth of expression in Orpheus's song of grief. There's a similar purity of expression that is appropriate for Eurydice and Amore in the singing of Hélène Gilmette and Lea Desandre, the overall impact that this gives to the work just breathtaking.

I'm less convinced that you can get away with correcting the limitations imposed on Gluck to provide a happy ending by simply cutting Amore's gift of returning Eurydice to life. I think that this is something that can be redeemed creatively to some extent in the stage directions, as Romeo Castellucci inventively managed in his production of Orphée et Eurydice for La Monnaie, but ending it prematurely by cutting the final scenes just leaves the opera feeling incomplete. Still, the acceptance of loss and bearing grief is perhaps closer to the truth for everyone, and Gluck certainly provides the necessary sombre reflection in that music that still makes for a thoughtful conclusion in this Opéra Comique production.

Links: Opéra Comique, ARTE Concert

Sunday 25 November 2018

Mozart - Die Zauberflöte (La Monnaie, 2018)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2018

Antonello Manacorda, Romeo Castellucci, Ed Lyon, Sabine Devieilhe, Sophie Karthäuser, Georg Nigl, Elina Galitskaya, Gábor Bretz, Dietrich Henschel, Tineke van Ingelgem, Angélique Noldus, Esther Kuiper

ARTE Concert - 27 September 2018

As if you couldn't already guess from the fact that it's Romeo Castellucci at La Monnaie, the opening pre-musical sequence alerts you pretty quickly to the fact that this is not going to be a 'traditional' Magic Flute by any means. A man walks onto the empty stage and throws a steel bar at a glowing glass neon tube until it breaks plunging the stage into darkness. Yeah, you think, it's The Magic Flute, we get it; light/darkness, enlightenment/obscurantism, a lot of ritual and symbolism. If you think Castellucci is going to be that obvious, you quickly realise that you're going to have to think again.

But yes, certainly Castellucci tends to find the big underlying contrasts or forces in conflict within an opera and brings them to the fore to the point where they are what the opera is all about. The actual stage directions and dramatic narrative are soon left behind as Castellucci usually starts to push those ideas even further into god knows where. (See his recent Moses und Aron or Tannhäuser). You might take for granted that Die Zauberflöte is all about masonic rituals with fairy tale characters and situations, but you're not going to see any of that in a Castellucci production. Doesn't that mean you lose something of the essential character of Mozart? Unquestionably yes, but can we trust Castellucci to give back something of equal worth?

Maybe not of equal worth, but there is something here in the La Monnaie production, no matter how obscure it gets, that approaches Mozart's work in a new way and provides a commentary on it as well as interacting and highlighting less familiar aspects of the work. There are perhaps no major new revelations and it might not all fit together in any way that is entirely comprehensible, but Castellucci does relate Mozart's Magic Flute to our experiences of the world today and that is bound to be more meaningful than any play on ancient masonic rituals, magic and obscure symbolism (not that Castellucci doesn't have even more obscure symbolism of his own).

So no, there's no serpent slain by Tamino and there's no traditional depiction of the three ladies. There's actually four here in the first Act and four boys too which totally screws up the numerology which is often considered to be important in the work. But is it really? By changing the numbers, Romeo Castellucci is able to steer the work in a new direction, one where symmetry and mirroring takes its place. There is certainly this contrasting of two sides of one human nature (an important aspect that Castellucci takes pains later to ensure is not neglected) in the divisions of the Königin/Sarastro, Tamino/Pamina, Papageno/Papagena, in male/female, in lightness/darkness, in rationalism/obscurantism, in good/evil.

It's also there in the division and structure of the opera itself and Castellucci contrasts the two Acts in a way that highlights aspects of the opera quite unlike anyone else has done before. Act I is all elegance, beauty, balance and symmetry in a uniform haze of brilliant white; by no means the obvious way to reflect this half of the opera, but if you like you can see it as a visual representation of Mozart's music itself. That's emphasised by the costumes which are period 18th century frock coats and powdered wigs. Papageno is indistinguishable from Tamino in identical elaborate costumes and there isn't a single scene, action or gesture that reflects the familiar course of the opera's dramatic action. You can be damned sure that there's going to be no actual magic flute or glockenspiel.

Instead figures move around in an elaborately choreographed display of symmetrical precision, with rotating patterns of white masked dancers, some topless with feather headdresses and fans like something out of the Crazy Horse in Paris. Architect Michael Hansmeyer's set designs however continue to accumulate detail, building up into an elaborate wedding cake or the stucco interior of some impossibly grand white cathedral. It is an extraordinary display, utterly beautiful, daring to ignore adherence to any traditional depiction of the drama in favour of just highlighting the elegance and beauty and symmetry in Mozart's music. It's something that is enhanced - or works both ways - with the nimble musical performance from the orchestra pit under Antonello Manacorda emphasising the melodic brilliance and effervescence with a wonderful lightness of touch.

As extraordinarily beautiful as it all looks, it's also a very cold and sterile way to approach Mozart and The Magic Flute, but of course that's only half the story. In direct contrast to elaborate representation of the music in Act I, Castellucci brings the work down to earth in Act II with a depiction of the human reality that can also be found in Die Zauberflöte which might otherwise be lost amidst all the comedy, symbolism and ritualism. Similar to his last production at La Monnaie, Orphée et Eurydice, Castellucci brings the experiences of real ordinary people in to highlight the underlying human reality of the questions of the trials endured by Tamino and Papageno. A group of six women talk about their personal experience of blindness and living in darkness, and a group of six men talk about surviving horrific burns in a 'trial of fire'.

In contrast to Act I the second half is depicted in mundane real-world terms in a warehouse environment, the glamorous fairy-tale white period costumes swapped for identical yellow-brown factory worker overalls and yellow-blond wigs. The performances are more dramatically realistic, you can at least sometimes tell characters apart from the labels on their back and there's even an actual flute! Inevitably there's a lot more than this in the production and as is often the case with Castellucci it goes off in all kinds of weird directions. Mirroring/contrasting the opening of the first Act, for example, the second part opens with lactating mothers pumping breast milk - for real - into it bottles that are subsequently emptied into another glass tube by the Queen of the Night, the action accompanied by some obscure text that presents a different perspective on the less than flattering idea of motherhood traditionally represented by Königin der Nacht in the opera.

In this way, Castellucci actually deconstructs Die Zauberflöte entirely, separating the work down into its component parts, none of which on their own are convincing or satisfactory but which when played through to the end do nonetheless still manage to capture the totality of what is in the opera. It's highly doubtful that the work needs to be deconstructed in this manner or even benefits from it in any way when it's all there already in the genius of Mozart's blending of all its elements, but it does highlight aspects that we (or other directors) might neglect though familiarity. The 'real-people's lives' human element while looking initially like a frustrating diversion, turns out to be very moving, so there is a case to be made for it.

Evidently as far as stage direction, concept and interpretation go this is not a Magic Flute for everyone and, despite its fidelity to the themes in the work and its underlying humanity, it can't be said that it respects Mozart's intentions. In terms of musical and singing performances however it's hard to fault. The orchestra highlight that compositional and melodic brilliance in the first half and seem to find the human warm in the opera in the second half. The casting is an outstanding collection of lyrical Mozartian voices with Ed Lyon as Tamino, Sabine Devieilhe a lighter than usual but eminently capable Königin der Nacht, Gábor Bretz a fine Sarastro, Sophie Karthäuser an impressive Pamina, Georg Nigl and Elena Galitskaya fulfilling the roles of Papageno and Papagena well, each of them at least brilliantly distinguishable from their voices if not always in appearance or role-playing.

Links: La Monnaie-DeMunt, ARTE Concert

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Stockhausen - Donnerstag aus Licht (Paris, 2018)

Karlheinz Stockhausen - Donnerstag aus Licht

Le Balcon - Paris, 2018

Maxime Pascal, Benjamin Lazar, Damien Bigourdan, Safir Behloul, Léa Trommenschlager, Elisa Chauvin, Damien Pass, Henri Deléger, Emmanuelle Grach, Iris Zerdoud, Suzanne Meyer, Mathieu Adam, Jamil Attar

Opéra Comique, Salle Favart - 15 November 2018

Stockhausen still remains a bit of a challenge (I can't imagine it ever being anything else) and his Licht cycle of operas must surely be among some of the most challenging of all. You need to have some belief in the composer's underlying philosophy to play it convincingly or really get anything out of it as a listener. The contemporary music ensemble Le Balcon are certainly believers, familiar with the language of the avant-garde, but usually on a smaller scale and the Licht operas are on another level entirely. Even just one part of it, Donnerstag aus Licht is a huge undertaking.

It's difficult because Stockhausen has very exacting, detailed and specific ideas about how the work should be performed and presented. The Stockhausen Institute also zealously safeguard the composer's legacy and aren't at all happy with anyone who doesn't adhere to its guidelines in word or spirit, as was evident from their rather sternly worded note offering certain misgivings on the last production of Donnerstag at Basel in 2016. Le Balcon's production, directed by Benjamin Lazar and conducted by Maxime Pascal for the Opéra Comique in Paris actually takes more liberties with personal interpretation, but make a much more convincing case that the true message of Donnerstag is not so much in the narrative as in the music.

You can have a synopsis sitting in front of you and even have a working familiarity with the work from the previous Basel production which played out at least to the letter of the work, but Act I of this Paris production is still extraordinarily challenging and difficult to follow. Michael's childhood, mirroring some of the composer's own family experiences, shouldn't be that difficult to follow, even though Stockhausen has three characters playing each of the three main roles; as a singer, a musical instrument and a dancer. Michael for example is represented by a tenor singer, a trumpet player and a dancer.

Having an instrument double or a dance double is now a common enough feature employed at least by some modern directors for other operas - although never both - but Stockhausen has other reasons for such divisions. There's the significant use of the trinity that represents different aspects of a complex personality as well as approaches the subject from different time periods. Lazar however doesn't try to make this any easier to follow (and even switches to a second tenor Michael in Act III), but with a back screen projection of a child writing in Act I there is some indication that Michael may be hugely talented but at this stage is still learning his craft, drawing from personal experience and translating it into words and music. At this stage however, the music is not powerful enough to defeat the forces of father/Luzifer's darkness, and it only develops with the extraterrestrial gift from Mondeva (Moon-Eve).

Act I is a struggle, but by Act II it all starts to make sense as Stockhausen takes his ideas of opera in a new direction and beyond its narrative limitations by having no conventional singing at all. Words are no longer needed, music finds its own expression and universal language as Michael travels around the globe to bring his message to the world. Again, the overarching narrative idea is kept simple - the image of a child spinning a globe instead of literal depictions of situations in Cologne, New York, Japan, Bali, India, Central Africa and Jerusalem - but the real meaning is contained in the music, *IS* the music. In Act II it's Michael's trumpet that defeats Luzifer's trombone much more convincingly in a stunningly staged battle scene.

The visual impact is important also, again more important than the narrative, making use of symbols and lights, symbols written in light - but it's in the music that the work gets it truest musical expression and that this production is most successful. The quality of the musical performance is extraordinary and to make sure that you get it and feel its full impact, it's spread all around the Salle Favart auditorium with electronic sounds, with those strange clicking noises that Stockhausen enumerates and in the huge choral arrangements that come at you from all directions. It's not so much putting the audience in the opera as opening up the music for you to experience it in all its beauty, literally filling your world with music to the extent that you forget that it's "difficult" and find yourself enveloped in a new language that is speaking directly to you.

This evidently is the gift that Stockhausen believes he/Michael has to offer the world and Le Balcon marshall all their forces in collaboration with other like-minded musicians and creatives to make this an orchestral, choral and theatrical tour-de-force. Act III's festival for Michael's homecoming was accordingly utterly astounding, truly making Stockhausen's music speak, sounding like nothing earthly. The impact of the visuals was just as impressive, not needing to be as descriptive as the Basel production was perhaps a little inclined to be, but ensuring instead that the audience's attention was riveted towards the music and towards the musicians, who appropriately are all prominently arranged across the stage for the almost overwhelming final Act.

A rarely performed opera, the Opéra Comique's 2018 production of Donnerstag aus Licht was created for just three performances, so this was always going to be a special event and indeed it proved to be an experience that would be impossible to replicate in any other way. Le Balcon made sure that their production in the just about perfect environment of the Opéra Comique's Salle Favart theatre not only lived up to expectations, but delivered what is likely to be considered as one of the major events of the current opera season. Stockhausen's gift to the world has reached Paris, the truth of its message delivered and it was enthusiastically received.

Links: Opéra Comique

Monday 12 November 2018

Muhly - Marnie (New York, 2018)

Nico Muhly - Marnie

The Metropolitan Opera, New York - 2018

Robert Spano, Michael Mayer, Isabel Leonard, Christopher Maltman, Iestyn Davies, Denyse Graves, Janis Kelly, Marie Te Hapuku, Anthony Dean Griffey, Deanna Breiwick, Dísella Lárusdóttir, Rebecca Ringle Kamarei, Peabody Southwell, Gabriel Gurevich, Jane Bunnell, Stacey Tappan, Ian Koziara, Ashley Emerson, Will Liverman, James Courtney

The Met Live in HD - 10 November 2018

Hitchcock's 1964 film Marnie hasn't aged well, nor frankly has Hitchcock's once unassailable reputation over the last decade. A lot has changed with regards to how we view a woman's response to inappropriate advances from aggressive male bosses - particularly in the film world - but it has to be said that regardless of how he was behaving off-screen, Hitchcock was at least one of the few filmmakers willing and daring enough to explore aberrant psychology (including his own) in mainstream popular cinema. Nico Muhly's opera version, world premiered at the English National Opera earlier this year, could be seen as a timely work in that respect, but it's debatable that the source material allows it to probe any deeper or any more successfully than Hitchcock managed in 1964.

Ironically the difference between how the two works approach the subject of how Marnie's childhood trauma manifests itself in later life is where the weakness lies in both, so perhaps it's the source material of Winston Graham's novel is at fault here. Hitchcock, perhaps for his own prurient motives, dared at least to extend the psychological impact into Marnie's sexual relations with men, or rather her lack of them, rather reductively depicting it in terms of 'frigidity'. Muhly's opera perhaps wisely skates around the pseudo-science and psychoanalytical aspects and perhaps lets Marnie's actions speak for themselves without the overblown melodrama. He attempts rather to express the hidden side of Marnie's character and her inner struggles in the music, but it's not entirely successful there either.

In terms of laying out the drama, plotting and pacing, the opera version of Marnie is faultless. It develops and progresses wonderfully, in part due to Nicholas Wright's lean concise adaptation and Muhly's rhythmic musical flow, but director Michael Mayer - last seen at the Met in their visually stunning Las Vegas Rigoletto and the initiator who suggested the idea of Marnie to Muhly - also makes every scene and action count within Julian Crouch's wonderfully stylised production designs. Every effort is made not only to keep the drama moving along and engage the spectator through the visual and musical representation of the drama, but there is also an effort to extend that to the characterisation, finding ways to hint at deeper and darker impulses.

The main manifestations of Marnie's 'issues', which also works well for dramatic tension, are in her criminal behaviours and her changes of identity. Set in England in 1959 - Muhly and director Mayer retaining the period character of the source novel - Marnie (as office secretary Mary Holland) isn't long in making off with the contents of her employer Mr Strutt's office safe, soon after rejecting an awkward advance he makes towards her. She changes her appearance and name and applies for a post far away from Birmingham with a firm in Barnet in London, but is horrified to find that it is run by one of Strutt's clients, Mark Rutland.

Rutland however doesn't appear to remember or recognise her, but when she finds herself fighting off the advances of Terry. Rutland's brother and deputy at the company, Marnie decides it's time to help herself to the company safe and disappear again. She is caught however by Mark who has recognised her and known about the theft at Strutt's, but is in love with her and blackmails her into marrying him. The honeymoon consequently doesn't work out terribly well, there's an attempted rape (toned down here) and the situation leads Marnie to attempt suicide, an action that brings to the surface the truth about the family trauma that lies behind her criminal actions, her changes of identity and her inability to get close to anyone.

Michael Mayer's period stylisations appear initially to draw not so much on Hitchcock as the lushly colourful Technicolor romantic melodramas of Douglas Sirk (where arguably the film's subject matter might have fitted better) with some Saul Bass-like image projections to show Marnie in her various identities. There is some considerably effort however made to get beneath the surface glamour of the period and show the underside of Marnie's working class background, but also to show the various aspects of Marnie's identity beyond the changes of name and appearance. Four women accompany her on stage - singing roles - to reflect those different sides to Marnie, and a team of shady dancers in hats and long coats haunt and swirl around her.

The staging goes some way towards providing a more rounded and psychological portrait of Marnie and Nico Muhly also puts considerable effort into making that characterisation just as rich in musical terms. Muhly places solo instruments behind each of the voices to give them individual character and perhaps also hint at underlying psychology, but how successful this is can be difficult to determine or even audibly detect. (The sound mixing, I have to say though, didn't really give a good account of Robert Spano's conducting at the live cinema screening). Musically, Muhly's score is reminiscent of John Adams, but despite all the efforts in the solo and ensemble instrumentation, it never develops a character of its own for the purpose of the drama, accompanying rather that revealing other depths.

If the work is nonetheless successful in bringing Marnie to life, it certainly has something to do with the composer's writing for the voice. On the surface at least the voice types are carefully chosen; Marnie's mezzo-soprano, Mark's baritone, Terry's countertenor and Marnie mother's contralto all giving a particularly character that works with the music to alternately suggest surface strength and personality weakness. More than anything however it appeared that the real success lay in Isabel Leonard's superb performance. She looks stunning in Arianne Phillips's costume designs, maintaining an edge of cold detachment but one that you can clearly detect from her mannerisms and voice (not just her shadow-Marnies or the musical undercurrents) is hiding powerful emotional forces.

The singing in the other roles is also good, but determined to a large extent by how well the characters were written. It's difficult to sympathise with Mark Rutland's crude way of treating Marnie, but he's also a man of his time and he probably does love her in his own way, and despite the stiffness of character Christopher Maltman holds that balance well. Quite where this fits in with any #MeToo narrative is a connection probably best avoided, particularly considering the Met's own problems with sexual abuse scandals, but there were a few tentative attempts in the commentary to invoke it as relevant. Iestyn Davies was terrifically spiky as Terry Rutland, providing more menace than his brother despite having a lesser role, and Denyse Graves and Janis Kelly make a great impression as the domineering mothers despite the thinness of the characterisation.

Links: Metropolitan Opera

Sunday 11 November 2018

Gounod - Philémon et Baucis (Tours, 2018)

Charles Gounod - Philémon et Baucis

L'Opéra de Tours, 2018

Benjamin Pionnier, Julien Ostini, Norma Nahoun, Sébastien Droy, Alexandre Duhamel, Eric Martin-Bonnet, Marion Grange

Culturebox - February 2018

Composer centenaries are always a good opportunity to revisit some rare and neglected works, and while Charles Gounod is well-represented by Faust if not much else, the 200th anniversary of his birth has at least unearthed (and seen broadcast) two practically unheard works in La nonne sanglante and Philémon et Baucis. If neither of the works proved to be lost masterpieces or give any indication that Gounod might be an underrated composer, they are certainly merit another look and prove to be charming and entertaining stage works.

First performed in 1860 (a year after Faust), Philémon et Baucis was revised in 1876 from its three-act form into a two-act opera. While neither version has been given much attention in the intervening years, the three-act Philémon et Baucis - in its production here in Tours - certainly hasn't been performed since 1860. An adaptation of Jean de la Fontaine's adaptation of the mythological take told in the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses, with a libretto by Jules Barbier et Michel Carré, Philémon et Baucis was intended to capitalise on the success of Offenbach's racy carry-on through classical mythology in his 1858 opéra-comique Orphée aux enfers ("Orpheus in the Underworld"). Gounod's take on the subject however has little in common with Offenbach.

Where Offenbach's approach was satirical and irreverent, Gounod adopts a more gentle tone that relies for humour more in the situational settings of mythological figures intervening in the lives of humans and employing common language, and instead exploits the setting and the characters for different moods and colours in concise little numbers. The opening scene in the original 1860 version, for example, opens with a pastoral scene, showing the poor couple, Philémon and Baucis in their humble little hut, singing of their love for each other, content in their old age. To relive their youth would be lovely, but looking at the wild and drunken antics of the youth of today, Philémon prays to Jupiter to deliver them from such behaviour.

The arrival of Jupiter with the god Vulcan in tow during a storm brings other colours out of the work, not least of which is the humour to be found in the lascivious behaviour of Jupiter already made great fun of in Orphée aux enfers. Gounod takes this awareness for granted then and doesn't try to compete in the sauciness stakes with Offenbach's work - although there is plenty of opportunity - but takes a more measured and dynamic approach that is rather (pre-)biblical in nature. Jupiter and Vulcan, who also has a little (pre-)Rheingold-like fiery forging while bemoaning of the cruelty of Venus towards him, are surprised at the kindness the old people show the two strangers and the fact that they are still very much in love, as this is not their experience of love.

Having gifted them with a self-replenishing jar of wine and the promise of a return to youth, Jupiter then takes vengeance on the other disrespectful Bacchantes who mock the gods and carry on their outrageous orgies, bringing a flood to the land and wiping them all out, and Gounod takes advantage of this opportunity to have a ballet Intermezzo (that is also taken full advantage of in the excellent Tours production). He doesn't wipe out everyone of course, keeping a few choice souls for his amorous purposes, but when he sees Baucis returned to her youthful beauty, he inevitably makes a play for her that doesn't make Philémon a bit happy.

There's plenty of material there for Gounod to play with and he's not so much interested in the comic potential. The arias and numbers are all rather pleasantly melodic and charming, and conducted as such by Benjamin Pionnier, but the work lacks any real edge, even in the spoken dialogue passages. A stage director could be tempted to play it up a little more in the style of Offenbach, but that would seem to be going against the true intentions of the work, and Julien Ostini focuses instead on matching the variety of tones provided by Gounod with an appropriate setting for each situation. That means keeping everything relative simple and uncluttered, but with some visual flair in Bruno de Lavenère's sets and some sympathetic lighting by Simon Trottet.

The necessary charm is there also in the singing performances of Norma Nahoun's sweet lyrical Baucis working wonderfully alongside Sébastien Droy's earnest Philémon. Alexandre Duhamel's self-confident but ultimately repentant skirt-chasing deity Jupiter is likewise well balanced with Eric Martin-Bonnet's bitter and lovelorn Vulcan, and Marion Grange whips up the Bacchantes into a frenzy, or perhaps more of a mild tizzy. Such is the nature of Gounod's Philémon et Baucis and such is the light charm of the account given it in the Tours production that this is a sympathetic and appropriate way to rediscover the true value of another neglected work by Charles Gounod, even if it's not such a masterpiece.

Links: L'Opéra de Tours, Culturebox

Thursday 8 November 2018

Meyerbeer - Les Huguenots (Paris, 2018)

Giacomo Meyerbeer - Les Huguenots

L'Opéra de Paris, 2018

Michele Mariotti, Andreas Kriegenburg, Lisette Oropesa, Yosep Kang, Ermonela Jaho, Karine Deshayes, Nicolas Testé, Paul Gay, Florian Sempey, Julie Robard-Gendre, François Rougier, Cyrille Dubois, Michal Partyka, Patrick Bolleire

Culturebox - 4 October 2018

There's a strong case for keeping Meyerbeer in his own period and, so far, less of a case has been made for updating productions of his works to appeal to the tastes of a modern audience. Giacomo Meyerbeer's grand operas seem to be doomed to be consigned to history (along with so many other forgotten opera composers) as extravagant novelties to impress critics and elaborate entertainments for the rich. At a time when opera is going through a phase of reinvention as it attempts to be more expansive and inclusive, there doesn't seem to be a place for Meyerbeer any longer.

Which, along with the expense of putting on a Meyerbeer opera production, the sheer length of a five-act grand opera and the specialised singing required to sustain it, means that one of the most influential opera composers in its history hasn't been performed much in the 20th century. In the 21st century, there have been a few more adventurous attempts to rehabilitate Meyerbeer, to seek to restore and recognise his importance, or at least explore whether his works are worth reviving. The results have been mixed but tending towards 'problematic' and that's exactly where I think you could categorise Andreas Kriegenburg's new production of Les Huguenots for the Paris Opera.

Les Huguenots is an opera that can't be ignored, but it is in itself problematic. It's Meyerbeer's most famous work, it best displays many of his undoubted skills as a composer and it has a dramatic historical event as its subject - the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572 in which thousands of French Protestants (Huguenots) gathered in Paris for the royal wedding of Marguerite de Valois to Henry of Navarre were slaughtered by Catholics opposed to the Reformation during a period of heightened tensions, but it has to be said that its grand opera mannerisms don't make the subject friendly to modern interpretation. On the other hand, we are going through an age when religious conflict and intolerance to differences is a hot subject again, and what is Les Huguenots if not that?

Andreas Kriegenburg doesn't appear to be particularly concerned with the historical context of Les Huguenots, but choosing to set the work in the future it's questionable whether he thinks the work has anything to say about today either. If not that, then what? Well, it's far from clear, as other than a random piece of text setting the scene in 2063 there is actually nothing 'futuristic' about the production, and - other than costumes and the period - it actually adheres fairly closely to the composer's original intentions for the work, which is (unfortunately) as a romantic melodrama above all else.

Harald B Thor's set designs are very much in the Paris Opera house style; a brightly lit white stage, tasteful bold pastel colouration of costumes and semi-abstract sets that fill the vertical and horizontal space of the Bastille stage. There's a box-like grid construction for the Château of Count Nevers in Act I, there are platforms and tall thin bare bark trees to give an impression of the gardens and river of Marguerite de Valois' Château de Chenonceaux in La Touraine, with pale blue lighting. It's all very tasteful, with tasteful mild nudity, clean and uncluttered and it looks wonderful, but despite the supposedly futuristic sets, it does little for Meyerbeer's rather old-fashioned operatic style.

What it does do at least is highlight the brilliance and complexity of Meyerbeer's arrangements as well perhaps as its unnecessary over-elaboration. The famous Pré aux clercs scene in Act III in particular is impressive, the stage choreography and colouration highlighting the different colouration of the musical arrangements; a sequence that the singing of the Huguenot troops, the celebrations of Catholic students at the tavern, a procession of Sunday worshippers and the dance of a gypsy contingent. Then Meyerbeer brings them all together and the de-cluttered stage arrangements allow you to appreciate the skill involved in this.

The production is just as smooth elsewhere, Act IV sliding one set across to make way for another full stage set, with no over-elaboration or unnecessary detail, just simple elegant minimalism. Unfortunately, it's also just rather bland and non-committal, having nothing to offer in its futuristic setting, giving no reason why Catholics would be murdering Protestant Huguenots in the year 2063. As far as Meyerbeer and Scribe's drama goes, it accurately represents the original intentions with its romantic melodrama at the centre between Raoul and Valentine, but does nothing more than place it in a rather more tastefully decorated and designed setting.

It's a reasonably entertaining production then, which is important, made all the more enjoyable for the strong musical performance and exceptional singing. Marguerite has most of the technical challenges and Lisette Oropesa meets them extraordinarily well. Yosep Kang's Raoul de Nangis however is also very capably handled, the diction clear and lyrical. Ermonela Jaho is pushed into an uncomfortable range as Valentine, but she delivers the high notes impressively and with great expression, and actually comes across as one of the more 'human' characters here when everyone else seems to be playing grand opera. Paris Opera regulars Nicolas Testé, Paul Gay and Karine Deshayes all perform exceptionally well here, and the chorus also delivers.

Musically ...well, it's Meyerbeer so it has its longeurs, but it sounded great under Michele Mariotti. All the big bang conclusions at the end of each act really hit home and were well stage managed for additional effect, but there was also a lightness of touch and delicacy for the variety of sentiments that one finds in Les Huguenots, 'operatic' though they might be (drinking songs, lyrical love duets and romantic confrontations, religious pleas and calls to war with dramatic interventions). I don't usually hold to the view that some operas are better without the visuals, but in this case l found the work stronger and more interesting when just listening to the performance. I don't think that's as much to do with Kriegenburg's direction as the fact that Meyerbeer and Scribe's often ludicrously over-the-top sentiments don't really hold up to being taken seriously. Which is why Meyerbeer remains problematic, but Kriegenburg's direction does nothing to address it.

Links: L'Opéra de Paris, Culturebox