Friday 27 December 2019

Mozart - Idomeneo (Salzburg, 2019)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Idomeneo

Salzburg Festspiele, 2019

Teodor Currentzis, Peter Sellars, Russell Thomas, Paula Murrihy, Ying Fang, Nicole Chevalier, Levy Sekgapane, Issachah Savage, Jonathan Lemalu

Medici streaming - 12 August 2019

After their take on La Clemenza di Tito in the same venue in 2017, there would have been little doubt that the 2019 Salzburg Festival production of Idomeneo would be controversial; the only question being whether it would be Peter Sellars or Teodor Currentzis who would be most wayward in their in interpretation of one of Mozart's most interesting operas. Well, it's a close run thing.

Mozart's operas are so rich in music and multifaceted in their content and themes that they are eminently amenable to deeper exploration, reinterpretation and modern revision; nothing about them has dated. As an early opera seria however, with a baroque libretto written for André Campra, Idomeneo does certainly still have one foot in a bygone age, yet it is already progressive in terms of Mozart's reworking, reinvention and humanistic outlook. Filtered through the young Mozart's sensibility and remarkable talent, all those conventional laments, jealousies, cruel twists of fate and extreme human sentiments feel vivid, alive and real.

It's so powerful an advance on the mannerisms of the past that it demands an equally imaginative, modern and humanistic interpretation in stage performance. Perhaps not everyone wants it to go as far as Dieter Dorn’s at the Munich Bayerische Staatoper or Damiano Michieletto in Vienna, or indeed as Sellas and Currentzis not unexpectedly take it here, but it's hard to argue that they don't bring a sincere response to the musical and dramatic content of Idomeneo, striving to find a way to highlight the richness of its themes and development of its characters.

Initially however, you are definitely thrown a little off-balance by the oddness of the set developed for the very specific demands of the Salzburg Felsenreitschule. Not a single object on the stage is related to the actual Crete settings of the opera, nor are they naturalistic or in most cases even identifiable. The stage on the floor of the Riding School theatre has clear plastic tubes that rise up as columns with coloured lights, the stage littered elsewhere with misshapen plastic containers, tubes and inflatable blob like creatures - perhaps a different kind of monster that is disgorged by the sea in this age of environmental disaster. The costumes of the Greeks and their Trojan prisoners is militaristic, but the coloured camouflage outfits look more like pyjamas.

As unusual as the set looks, the unfamiliar sound, pacing and rhythms that
Teodor Currentzis brings out in the period instrument interpretation of the opera with the Freiburger Barockorchester can be even more unsettling as it sounds very different here from any recording you might be more familiar with. The intention is clearly to push the range of expression that Mozart employs for this opera, marking it out as very different from the baroque works that precede it, exploiting and emphasising the dynamic that Mozart employs for this unique and brilliant work.

At times you get the impression that the intention is also to do everything possible to break away from Mozart as comfortable and easy-listening, perhaps over-emphasising and deliberately pushing against the familiar. It's slow when you expect it to be faster, fast when you expect it to be slower, aggressive when you would expect merely forceful, but it never seems to work against the intent of the work. It hints rather that all might not be as it appears on the surface of the moral, political and romantic dilemmas of each of the characters whose lives have been thrown into turmoil under the curse of Neptune; absolutes and certainties - being saved from the dead, feeling secure in love, family loyalties - are all indeed turned on their head.

What Currentzis and Sellars do however is force you to reconsider the work in new terms, not rest on the certainty of familiarity, but be challenged afresh by every scene, every aria and recitative, every single note, trying to hear what is really being expressed in the melody, the tempo and the instrumentation - the fortepiano notably playing a larger role here than in any version of this work I've heard before.

If you can put up with Peter Sellars's more annoying mannerisms - the choreographic ritualised steps and semaphore arm signals (which are at least better than park and bark performances) - his direction of the internal nature and conflict of the characters is interesting. It's almost what you would expect to find in The Magic Flute: characters out of balance, seeking to find an emotional equilibrium as well as find an accord with the forces of nature and their place in the world, seeking wisdom, seeking answers, seeking peace and willing to endure suffering and trials for it. It does show that Idomeneo is practically a prototype for Die Zauberflöte (With Electra a furious Queen of the Night and Neptune a lesson-giving Sarastro), and in that respect the treatment is thoroughly Mozartian.

Not that some sections of the Salzburg would notice. When it comes down to who upsets them most, the director traditionally gets it in the neck and Currentzis's eccentricities and indulgences are overlooked. In truth, neither are entirely successful and it comes across as a little over-laboured, over-intellectualised, existing in some theatrical vacuum that doesn't entirely connect with Mozart's Idomeneo on a relatable and instinctive human level. It's a fascinating account nonetheless of a magnificent, deeply beautiful work, one that is emphasised by some fine committed singing performances, notably from a sweetly lyrical Ying Fang as Ilya and a fiery Nicole Chevalier as Elektra (almost stealing the show at the finale), but all of the performances impress, including Paula Murrihy as an intensely sincere Idamante and Russell Thomas as a warm and troubled Idomeneo.

Links: Salzburg Festspiele

Friday 20 December 2019

Neuwirth - Orlando (Vienna, 2019)

Olga Neuwirth - Orlando

Wiener Staatsoper, 2019

Matthias Pintscher, Polly Graham, Kate Lindsey, Anna Clementi, Eric Jurenas, Constance Hauman, Agneta Eichenholz, Leigh Melrose, Justin Vivian Bond

Staatsoper Live - 18 December 2019

The subject and content of Olga Neuwirth's new opera Orlando is very much related to the fact that she is the first woman composer not only to write an opera for the Vienna State Opera, but is the first woman composer to ever even have an opera performed there. Neuwirth's choice of Virginia Woolf's influential and highly regarded 1928 novel 'Orlando', which follows the course of a young nobleman who lives through the political changes of the centuries, experiencing it from the viewpoint of a man and then changing sex to become a woman, is clearly a pointed commentary on this fact.

Following in the footsteps of Luigi Nono, a composer that she worked with as an assistant, Austrian born Neuwirth is likewise viewed as a 'political' composer, but rather than just seek to make a well-meaning gesture against the injustice of gender inequality in the world of opera, or even take the route of a superficial commentary on current affairs in the world today, in Orlando Neuwirth extends on Woolf's vision to seek to address a deeper problem that could be seen as having an underlying impact on how the nature of the world we live continually changes, but those changes have been shaped by gender inequality throughout the ages, women reduced to a footnote in history, if considered at all.

It's also notable, if purely coincidental, that the period covered in Orlando aligns very closely with the history of opera, which has also evolved and changed over the years. Even baroque opera however has until relatively recently also been a rarity at the Vienna State opera - a 50 year gap only broken in 2011 coincidentally (isn't it strange how much that word comes up, you'd almost think it telling) with a production of Handel's Alcina, a tale of another Orlando - so the history of change in opera is perhaps not something that many of the more conservative element of the audience in Vienna would recognise. I don't think Olga Neuwirth is going to convince them with her Orlando.

Being a well-educated man from a noble family in 1598, Orlando is well placed to be destined for greatness. He determines to be a poet and a great writer, but although he wins the favour of Queen Elizabeth, his ambitious work 'The Oak Tree' doesn't win favour with critics like Mr Greene. Disappointed in love, when he is betrayed by Sasha, a Russian princess, jaded by the politics of the land and war, Orlando falls into a deep coma and reawakens as a woman in a new age. Her experiences as a woman however bring her to recognise the fact that history is made by men and certainly written by them, meaning much the same thing.

Women don't get a whole lot of a look in and Orlando, now a woman, expected to do little more than make tea and marry, finds it unfair that someone can be rejected solely on the basis of the sex they were born into. Worse comes in the Victorian era, where Orlando encounters women and young girls who are victims of sexual abuse and destined for a life of abject misery. She decides to write and record their experiences from the perspective of woman, but finding a publisher continues to prove elusive, even in the age of eBook publishing.

What is interesting, and perhaps something I failed to appreciate in Woolf or in Sally Potter's filmed version of 'Orlando', is that living now in an era where gender reassignment and gender fluidity is relatively common (if not yet wholly accepted and viewed with suspicion in some quarters), it's now possible to see that Woolf was very much ahead of the game in terms of questions of sexual politics. This of course has a more contemporary application later in Neuwirth's updating of 'Orlando' beyond Woolf's time of 1928 up to the present day, Neuwirth thereby highlighting for a modern audiences how society and attitudes change over time. Significantly however, while that change is brought clearly to the forefront, it also makes evident just how far behind attitudes remain in relation to gender inequality.

It's inevitably a huge task to get all that across in a three hour opera and avoid sounding preachy, particularly when Neuwirth's musical approach to the subject is just as complex and all-encompassing, and modernist and dissonant in the most difficult way for an audience to engage with. Neuwirth doesn't entirely succeed in terms of making the case persuasive from the musical viewpoint, embracing early Tudor music, references to Purcell, religious choral pieces with live electronic layering and use of unconventional instruments in the total opera manner of Stockhausen with its spiritual leanings or Nono's direct political engagement, the conclusion featuring a cabaret band and a transgender singer - Orlando's child - does tend to push towards preachiness.

While it can be difficult to listen to - although I'm certain that it would come across with more detail and much more effectively in a live context rather than via the Wiener Staatsoper's streaming service - it's not hard to appreciate what Neuwirth is trying to do and admire how Matthias Pintscher conducts it, but over an extended period it does head towards sensory overload and cacophony. Certainly for the purposes of how it relates to and reflects the subject of embracing change and diversity however it's essential to employ the richness of musical options open to a composer. It's music that, like Orlando, recognises no distinction between past and present, is male and female all rolled into one, pushing beyond restrictive boundaries of convention.

The musical complexity and what it attempts to bring out only makes the challenges of mixing and blending all the historical scene changes even more difficult for director Polly Graham. Forced into a more linear narrative approach, with the passing years displayed in the background, the production design is perhaps a little more theatrically conventional in how it meets those challenges of keeping up, using moving screens and projections, but unless you employ La Fura dels Baus or Stefan Herheim, it would be near impossible to visually match the textural richness of the music, much less add another level of complexity to the work that in an ideal world the theatrical element should equally contribute.

Neuwirth and co-librettist Catherine Filloux succeed to a large extend in their aims of making Orlando relevant to the modern age, addressing the legacy of the male-dominated, war-hawking, money-making agenda that suppresses any possibility of true change in the world, raising again the spectre of fascism. As persuasive as the central performance of Kate Lindsey's Orlando is to standing up against the ways of the past, whether Neuwirth's Orlando aligned with and updating Virginia Woolf's vision makes an equal or greater historical impression seems unlikely, but it's certainly of the moment, another marker along the way to show that we've still a long way to go.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper, Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home

Thursday 12 December 2019

Attahir - Le Silence des ombres (Brussels, 2019)

Benjamin Attahir - Le Silence des ombres

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2019

Benjamin Attahir, Olivier Lexa, Julia Szproch, Raquel Camarinha, Clémence Poussin, Renaud Delaigue, Morgane Heyse, Gwendoline Blondeel, Sarah Théry, Pierre Derhet, Sébastien Dutrieux, Luc Van Grunderbeeck

La Monnaie MM Channel Streaming - 4th October 2019

If you ever were to compile a list of the greatest opera librettists, the Nobel Prize winning Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck would have to be up there and close to the top, even though in most cases his involvement with opera was more in his works being adapted rather than providing an original libretto. Maeterlinck's dramatic writing however is rare in that it seems to adapt readily and often without any necessary revision as a ready-made opera libretto. Not only that, but his dramas also appear to be perfectly suited in their abstraction, symbolism and ambiguity to sit alongside the music of a composer who can bring out other intangible qualities and moods of the interiorisation of texts that express "the drama of existence itself".

That being the case - and with Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande and Dukas' Ariadne et Barbe-bleu being the most famous adaptations of Maeterlinck - it would seem to be impressionist music that best captures the moods of Maeterlinck's indefinable dramas. French composer and conductor Benjamin Attahir doesn't just follow in the footsteps of Debussy and Dukas in his scoring of Maeterlinck's 'Trois petits drames pour marionnettes' (Three short puppet plays, 1894) as Le Silence des ombres. Comparison is unavoidable, but Attahir brings a modern sensibility that is informed by and attempts to build on the qualities of those other composers to bring out different aspects of Maeterlinck's work.

Not only is musical comparison inevitable, but the three short works that make up Le Silence des ombres do nonetheless all exhibit familiar variations on themes and treatment that you can find in Pelléas et Mélisande and Ariadne et Barbe Bleu. In La Mort de Tintagiles, Ygraine and her siblings have lived their entire lives in a dark castle located a deep in a valley of shadows, much like the eerie Allemonde of Pelléas et Mélisande, Ygraine seeing only passing birds, falling leaves and fleeting images of nature outside her window. She and her sisters live in fear of their grandmother the queen, a monstrous figure who lives alone in a tower and is never seen.

The queen has destroyed most of their family, fearful that someone will supplant her. Suspecting that the queen means to harm their young brother Tintagiles, Ygraine goes to visit her sister Bellangère and her husband Aglovale, seeking protection. The mood of fear and anxiety there is only further heightened by anticipation of the unknown power and desires of the Queen, by the sounds and voices hears whispering outside the door. And then in the night, they come for Tintagiles.

In Intérieur, the second of the three dramas, there is a similar play on building of another aspect of tension and fear. An old man and his companion approach a house where a family are living a life of simple contentment and warmth in each other's company, but they are the bearers of bad news that the family's young daughter has drowned. They hesitate to break the mood of the happy scene until Marthe arrives and presses them to do what needs to be done. There is terrible anticipation leading up to the moment of delivery of a message that will destroy the illusion of happiness.

In both cases is the thing to be feared is death, and the tension that Maeterlinck taps into is that awareness of what we know beneath the surface but refuse to acknowledge; that happiness is temporary and fleeting and depends on blocking out the fact that death will come and destroy everything. Death however takes a thousand forms in Maeterlinck: it can be the death of hope or, as is the case in Pelléas et Mélisande, the death of innocence. That work comes very much to mind in the third part of the trilogy, Alladine et Palomides. Alladine is another woman - she is literally a slave here - who is subject to the forces and the will of men.

Palomides loves her even though he is engaged to Astolaine, whose father Ablamore also has has feelings towards Alladine. Ablamore consequently is very much a Golaud figure, claiming he saw Alladine and Palomides kiss and believing that Palomides has betrayed Astolaine he takes a terrible vengeance against them that sees them trapped in a cavern and dying a fading death rather like Mélisande's fate. Other similarities lie in the moody symbolism of the work, Alladine fearful of the huge symbolic palace that overlooks the sea, where you can get lost in its corridors and rooms. There's a lamb instead of a ring here that falls into a whirlpool, but when Astolaine's sisters turn up and try to get the keys from Albamore, it also puts you in mind of Ariane et Barbe-bleu.

It's not only a challenge for a composer to adapt these pieces and create a distinction between those more famous opera adaptations of Maeterlinck, but also a remarkably high bar to measure up to them. It helps that the three pieces are all fairly concentrated and intense in how they stir deep emotions of fear and anxiety, and Attahir accordingly applies a heavier hand towards those emotions. He balances this however with a reduced orchestration and use of specific instruments, including some Eastern instruments and melodies, particularly in the third piece Alladine et Palomides.

In fact the composer even managed to tailor a distinct sound and approach to each of the three different dramas, the central piece Intérieur being largely intoned/narrated rather than sung, very much in the manner of Arkel's commentary in Pelléas et Mélisande. Attahir also manages to achieve a coherence for them to all work together to as a single opera, even though there is no attempt to link or connect the pieces. Maeterlinck's consistency of themes, symbolism and general abstraction of worldview however probably allow this to be achieved more easily.

The set design successfully contributes towards the same effect, finding a different visual response to the moods of the three pieces, while each also very much inhabit that interiorised Maeterlinck world of shadows of the unknown with undercurrents of tension. As well as using light and darkness, archways and staircases, the use of textures, stone, steel and concrete is also applied to create a timeless, non-specific location. This adds emphasis onto the subtle variations of character and mood of each of the three pieces and the distinct circumstances of the characters in each, with occasional projections adding a further dimension.

While the score (conducted here by the composer), Olivier Lexa's direction and the set designs all play an important part in providing coherence and consistency that brings out the distinct character of Maeterlinck's writing, the lyrical quality of the vocal arrangements that also expands further to the character of the component parts and the work as a whole This aspect is superbly brought out by some terrific singing of a mostly youthful cast that is sweet, haunted and melancholy in expression, occasionally stretching to desperation. All are wonderful, but certainly worthy of note are the leading performances from Raquel Camarinha as Ygraine, Marie and Astolaine, Julia Szproch as Tintagiles and Alladine and Pierre Derhet as Palomides.

Links: La Monnaie

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer (Vienna, 2015)

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer

Theater an der Wien, 2015

Marc Minkowski, Olivier Py, Samuel Youn, Ingela Brimberg, Lars Woldt, Bernard Richter, Manuel Günther, Ann-Beth Solvang

Naxos - Blu-ray

The enduring legacy of Wagner's operas, even as musical fashions and tastes have long moved on, has much to do with his sense of theatre. It's this underrated aspect of the composer's work that can first be seen developing into something greater in Der fliegende Holländer, the composer aligning a sense of theatricality to a subject of mythological drama in a way that would inspire his own distinctive musical ideas and themes. If the language and subject of Der fliegende Holländer is perhaps not convincing on its own terms to a modern audience and its message is by no means a profound or nuanced one, its dramatic and musical-drama strengths are such that the work can still touch upon something deeper.

Olivier Py's opera productions have their problems and taking liberties with the intent of the work can be one of them, but as an actor himself and theatre director (as well as currently being the artistic director and programmer of the prestigious Avignon drama festival) there is no question that Py has a strong sense of theatre. As a director has also developed his own theatrical language and signature in the opera house over recent years, most inspired when dealing with questions of good and evil, light and dark, sacrifice and redemption. His productions have consequently been more successful when applied to works like Hamlet, Dialogues des Carmélites and Ariane et Barbe-bleu, and less so when trying to shoehorn them into something like Aida.

Der fliegende Holländer clearly fits in very well with this vision, but just in case you are in any doubt, Senta walks across the stage early during the overture of this Theater an der Wien production and writes 'Erlösung' (Redemption) on the black boards of the set's representation of the Dutchman's ship. Pierre-André Weitz's dark and imposing set design is familiar from the tone that Py has established in those aforementioned works with similar themes. The black panels not only represent the Dutchman's ship, but also the walls of the house where Senta and Donald live. The rotating set however offers up many more possibilities and configurations, as well as symbolically marking a dividing line between interior worlds and the outside world.

There's a lot of interiority in Der fliegende Holländer and Py manages to represent it well in this production through the sets, but also with simple effective devices that don't stretch the indulgence of the audience. In Act I for example, Py handles the long monologues in archaic verse well by not having the performers stand alone on the stage singing to themselves. When the Steersman sings to his love from his lonely lookout, you actually see her silently walk up and embrace him. Likewise when the Dutchman laments the fate that condemns him to eternally sail the high seas, he sings it to a dancer as Satan who prowls dramatically alongside him on the stage. Py indulges in the theatricality a little by having the dancer cover his face and shoulders in black make-up on the stage during the overture, the dressing room mirror remaining there throughout.

In terms of visualising the force of evil that the captain struggles with it's highly effective and doesn't come to dominate the proceedings the way dancing stage doubles often do. Likewise while Py characteristically brings full-frontal nudity (male and female) into the production, it's to illustrate and bring out the underlying passions that exist in the work. A naked double for Senta lies stretched out on a bed and appears vulnerable while the Dutchman and her father, Duncan (as he is called in this version of the work) barter the terms of his stay at their house with the hand of his daughter thrown in for good measure. The stage and the characterisation elsewhere is filled with little details like that. It's partly updated to the 1940s - for no discernible reason I can see other than it looks very smart for the costume design - but the locations are more symbolic than literal.

Act II consequently abandons any idea of the wives being seamstresses spinning, Mary rather directing them in a choir practice, since what they are really doing is indeed singing. With Senta's recounting of the legend and her first meeting with the Dutchman, all of the elements seeded throughout come together, the stage rotating faster, drawing together their worlds; a much more expansive world than the small house in a boxed in space that Erik/Georg hopes to share with Senta. Symbolism however - a field of black crosses, a huge skull - indicates that the scope of Senta's life with the Dutchman is one determined by its fatalistic nature. She has effectively entered into a death pact.

Py's theatrical interpretation of Wagner's musical-drama is only part of the equation. The singing has a large role in determining whether these ideas (Wagner's and Py's) work on the stage. The principal roles in the Theatre an der Wien's 2015 production are all superb. Samuel Youn is a Bayreuth regular and his characterisation in performance just seems to deepen and gain greater authority. Ingela Brimberg impressively channels all the passion of Senta in a bright timbre with secure delivery. She initially seems more tormented than romantic, but her first scene with the Dutchman shows that she is capable of a softer touch that loses none of its force. Lars Woldt is a superb Donald and Bernard Richter a much more sympathetic and sweetly toned Georg/Erik than is usually the case. Even Manuel Günther's Steersman and Ann-Beth Solvang's Mary are impressive here.

As some of the perhaps confusing references indicate, conductor Marc Minkowski is working with the earliest version of Der fliegende Holländer with its original Scottish setting, with Daland named Duncan and Erik as Georg. This doesn't make any discernible difference as far as Py's non-Scottish specific setting is concerned, although the different ending is very significant for the purposes of the theme of Redemption here. This isn't the usual kind of opera that I would associate Marc Minkowski with either, but there's no question that you get the full impact of Wagner here, the music raging and stormy, moody and dark, lyrical and highly Romantic with all the temperament of a changeable sea.

Py and Minkowski's efforts here all play to the strengths of Der fliegende Holländer not against it, expanding on the characterisation perhaps, but only in a way that tries to get at an essential truth. Whether the Romanticism of the work means anything in an age when the currency of legends and mythology is much devalued, where love and sacrifice are less common, the truth and the beauty of Wagner's vision still comes through in its glorious theatricality.

Py makes a strong case for this vision in a fascinating and informed interview included in the booklet on the Naxos Blu-ray release. The HD transfer presents the darkness of Pierre-André Weitz's hugely impressive and technically accomplished set designs well, and both the DTS HD Master-Audio and LPCM Stereo high resolution soundtracks have detail and impact. The Blu-ray is all-region, BD50, with subtitles in German, English, French, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Theater an der Wien

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Glass - Orphée (London, 2019)

Philip Glass - Orphée

English National Opera, 2019

Geoffrey Paterson, Netia Jones, Nicholas Lester, Sarah Tynan, Jennifer France, Nicky Spence, Anthony Gregory, Clive Bayley, Simon Shibambu, Rachael Lloyd, William Morgan

The Coliseum, London - 18 November 2019

The Orpheus myth has been an inspiration to artists and musicians for centuries and, as the recent English National Opera series that includes Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice and Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus - but going right back to Monteverdi's L'Orfeo - it has often provoked some of the most fascinating and enduring works in the history of opera. Whether you consider Philip Glass's Orphée, based on Jean Cocteau's movie at the same name, is worthy of being considered on the same level, there's no doubt that it's an equally fascinating approach to the same subject, haunting, unconventional and admonitory in its outlook

More than just be inspired by Cocteau's film, having worked on a series of three works based on Cocteau's extraordinary films (Orphée, La Belle et la Bête, Les Enfants Terribles), Glass is clearly attracted to Cocteau's sensibility, having studies in Paris in the 1950s with Nadia Boulanger, immersed in the same bohemian artistic milieu of the Paris left bank that inspired Cocteau. Director Netia Jones alludes to that in the opening scene of the ENO's production where the young poet Cégeste is killed in a road accident, having Glass, Boulanger and early formative dream-like companions from Einstein on the Beach sitting in the cafe where the young man has just caused a disturbance and a fight.

There's a good reason why Glass, Cocteau and many other artists and poets are attracted to the myth of Orpheus as, among other themes, it touches on some fundamental questions about the role of the artist. Glass uses the original text from Cocteau's 1950 film Orphée as libretto, and although Cocteau's contemporary updating of the story departs considerably from the original Orpheus myth - as does The Mask Of Orpheus - in essence the themes are the same, probing the idea of obsession, with questions of mortality and immortality through one's works, with the need to transgress boundaries in order to ask difficult questions and find the inspiration that leads one to be creative.

Glass's music and the visual representation of it on the Coliseum stage captures this alternate view of reality superbly. Glass's usual swirls and arpeggios combine with the projections and overlays of sequences from the Cocteau film, matching the fluid dream-like mood of the subsequent events as Orpheus is led by the Princess into the world through the mirror, a world where the dead can live again. Orpheus struggles to reconciles this vision of another reality with the practicalities and realities of everyday life as a poet and as a husband. His relationship with the Princess however allows him to co-exist in the world of the living and the dead as a poet, without really being conscious of where his gift and muse lies.

Orphée (1991) comes at an interesting stage in Glass's musical development. It's less radical perhaps than his early Portrait Trilogy operas (Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, Akhnaten), but still quite experimental and within the familiar Glass idiom of minimalist music of repetition and changing parts. As well as looking to the influence of Cocteau, Glass would also attempt to tap into the similar creative experimentation from other artists like David Bowie (Low Symphony, 1992) and Allen Ginsberg (Hydrogen Jukebox, 1993), with varying levels of success. All of these projects however would push class into exploring different responses and techniques from symphonic arrangements to chamber opera and song cycles, to even scoring La Belle et la Bête (1994) as a live opera over a real-time projection of the Cocteau movie.

The methods employed in Orphée are perfect for the work, using the full text of the film as a libretto, allowing the music and setting of the text to explore and delve further into Cocteau's creation and vision. It doesn't so much seek to deconstruct the work, as this is a work that requires no deconstruction, nor does it act as pure soundtrack accompaniment. The film casts its own spell and you don't want to lose or negate that, and all Glass does is enhance and present it successfully in a new medium where it can be explored creatively and remain fresh. In a way it renders it in three-dimensions, keeping it alive and open to reinterpretation through the medium of performance.

Musically there might not appear to be a great deal of room for interpretation within the familiar rhythms of Philip Glass's music, but as his recent work with Phelim McDermott and Improbable on Satyagraha and Akhnaten has shown (and to an extent on Tao of Glass), it can be expressive and collaborative in its live interaction with a sympathetic stage production. What it does inspire, certainly in the ENO production is an imaginative response from director Netia Jones and set designer Lizzie Clachan to a visual presentation that does succeed in bringing out another dimension to the film, indeed essentially transforming it into 3D through creative set designs. Frames and props move on simple rope-pulled trolleys, reflecting Cocteau's rudimentary but eerily effective techniques, with projections onto blocks of backdrops make the war-torn cityscapes of the Zone indeed three dimensional.

And of course the live performances add a further dimension and character to the work. Conductor Geoffrey Paterson brings out the musical richness that is on offer in Glass's score for chamber orchestra enhanced with vibraphone and electronic keyboard. Set to Cocteau's text, there is inevitably a lot of 'talky' singing (something that is not greatly improved by the ENO's continued pointless policy that translates the original French text into English with no subtitles, which instead of making it 'accessible' actually manages to render it less intelligible), but there are some beautiful passages of vocal writing that bring stand-out performances from Jennifer France as the Princess, Nicky Spence as Heurtebise, Sarah Tynan as Eurydice and Nicholas Lester as Orphée. Once again, the ENO turn out to be great advocates for the operas of Philip Glass.

Links: English National Opera

Monday 11 November 2019

Rossini - La Cenerentola (Dublin, 2019)

Gioachino Rossini - La Cenerentola

Irish National Opera, 2019

Fergus Sheil, Orpha Phelan, Tara Erraught, Andrew Owens, Rachel Croash, Niamh O'Sullivan, Graeme Danby, Riccardo Novaro, David Oštrek

Bord Gáis Energy Theatre - 11 November 2019

Rossini's La Cenerentola departs from the familiar traditional Cinderella story in a number of key areas. There's no there's no fairy godmother, no magic pumpkin coach and mice coachmen, there's not even a lost slipper, but in no respect could you say that Rossini's opera lacks magic. To state the obvious it's in Rossini's music as well as in the fairy-tale romance, in the tale's moral of kindness and goodness being its own reward. Rossini unquestionably makes this come to life, but that doesn't mean it can't have a helping hand in the stage directions.

Since the moral is timeless, there's no reason however why La Cenerentola needs to be done in fairy-tale period costume. It could work just as well in an adventurous modern day setting (as in Opera North's entertaining production), although perhaps not so much in a "real-world" setting. Orpha Phelan, directing her first production for Irish National Opera, decides to embrace the fairy-tale side of the work, but she does so in a way that plays to the opera and the story's inner life, which is its belief in the power of imagination.

It's by no means an original idea to set a fairy-tale inside a book, but it's a nice effect that works with the nature of Cinderella, the fold-out house set of the first Act attesting to the simplicity and poverty of the situation Cinderella finds herself in; a servant to Don Magnifico and her demanding step-sisters, who despite the grandness of the family name and their pretensions have hit upon hard times. Cinderella however, when she gets a moment's peace from the ministrations imposed on her, finds her escape in her books, sitting in a corner reading classic tales of romance and adventure.

Orpha Phelan uses the opera's overture to give the audience a glimpse into the reasons for her retreating into a dream world by showing us something of the tragic circumstances of her personal background. As I said when I saw the Wexford Festival Opera's production of another Rossini short opera two weeks ago - L'Inganno Felice (featuring another unjustly mistreated young woman in similar circumstances), Rossini's overtures are just too good to waste and Phelan directs a lovely opening that also takes in scenes and figures from all the classic fairy tales that Cinderella escapes into; Sleeping Beauty, Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots.

It's a theme that is expanded on further and impressively when the cardboard book is wheeled off the stage and the Prince's palace is shown to be filled with oversize books of classic stories, many with an Irish connection, from Yeats, Wilde and Joyce to Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Perrault, from Treasure Island to Clara Louise Burnham's The Right Princess. If you thought that the set for Act I was a little basic, it was just so that set designer Nicky Shaw could make an even greater impression in Act II, the glorious set showing that the opera in this production is all about the power of storytelling and the imagination, with characters escaping from the books and running around the stage as Cinderella's ability to realise her dream falls into place.

Cinderella's dream however is not necessarily to marry a prince but to be loved and respected and to be able to feel part of a family, no matter how cruel and mean her own are to her. It's the dream of a better world where kindness and fairness is rewarded or is its own reward. It's not a deep philosophy, a little bit utopian and not entirely realistic about human nature (although to be fair, the Magnificos show no desire to reform or accept Cenerentola as one of their own), but we can dream. What would we do if we couldn't dream or didn't have books (and opera) to make it a better place?

You can't ask for more from La Cenerentola than to get that idea across and it's done wonderfully in the INO production, not least in Fergus Shiels' wonderful elegant run through Rossini's delightful, beautiful score. The stage direction of the performances was superb, never overplaying or exaggerating the comedy, but allowing the essential human side of it to come through. As Cenerentola, Tara Erraught is back home again this season after debuting the INO's inaugural production (The Marriage of Figaro) and we're fortunate to get the opportunity to see her over here when she is in demand in Europe and New York. She handles the demands of a Rossini mezzo-soprano exceptionally well.

It's also a pleasure to welcome American tenor Andrew Owens to Dublin. He is outstanding as the Prince, Don Ramiro, a perfect voice for Rossini and bel canto, lovely Italianate phrasing with real steel and volume behind those top notes. For all the challenges faced by the principals, La Cenerentola is an ensemble piece really with rapid delivery, comic timing and interaction that places demands on Rachel Croash and Niamh O'Sullivan as Clorinde and Thisbe, Graeme Danby as Don Magnifico and particularly Riccardo Novaro as Don Ramiro's squire Dandini who gets a bit above himself and has to take all the attentions of the step sisters. That's hard work. In the context of the literary nature of the production it was also a nice idea to have David Oštrek as the tutor/philosopher Alidoro acting as a kind of author/narrator, directing or scripting the outcome. There's no question that the whole affair of INO's La Cenerentola was very well directed towards a successful outcome.

Links: Irish National Opera

Friday 8 November 2019

Mitchell - Abomination, A DUP Opera (Belfast, 2019)

Conor Mitchell - Abomination, A DUP Opera 

The Belfast Ensemble, 2019

Tom Brady, Conor Mitchell, Rebecca Caine, Tony Flynn, Dawn Burns, Matthew Cavan, Christopher Cull, John Porter, Richard Chappell, James Cooper, Tara Greene, Caolan Keaveney, Helenna Howie

The Lyric Theatre - 7th November 2019

Abomination, A DUP Opera couldn't come at a more opportune moment, although to be fair NI politics present so many that practically any moment would be opportune. As far as this opera is concerned, it comes a month after equal marriage legislation and abortion rights had to be imposed on the province in order to bring it up to the same status as the rest of the UK. The law was passed despite an impotent show of bigoted opposition from the DUP, the largest party in Northern Ireland among whom some members - as the opera notes - regard homosexuality as "an abomination".

Coming just a month before a general election moreover, it's a timely reminder of the party's stance, one that - along with their association with the Tory party and support of Brexit against the will of the majority of voters in Northern Ireland - will hopefully cost them dearly at the ballot box. Ah, if only socially engaged opera and the arts really could change the world! Even if Abomination, A DUP Opera plays out to a mostly sympathetic and progressive audience at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast for the Outburst Queer Arts Festival, Conor Mitchell and the Belfast Ensemble's opera makes enough of an impact that I think it's bound to create ripples outside.

Even from its title and poster image, the opera makes no bones about its subject or target, and that is the former DUP party MP Iris Robinson, the wife of the then NI Assembly First Minister Peter Robinson, in relation to comments she made in public interviews in June 2008 about homosexuality being "an abomination". The day after her comments were made, a young gay man was almost beaten to death on the streets of North Belfast, but rather than row back or tone down her comments, Robinson went further in interviews and on a live phone-in BBC Radio programme hosted by Stephen Nolan, comparing homosexuality to bestiality and describing the AIDS epidemic in Africa as being a curse from God for sodomy.

Her views were shared by other DUP politicians and Abomination makes sure that the voices and ignorant views of repugnance towards homosexuality expressed by Willie McCrea, Jim Wells, Jeffrey Donaldson, Ian Paisley, Ian Paisley Jr, Sammy Wilson and current leader Arlene Foster are all aired in the opera. Rather than invent a scenario around this, composer and director Mitchell uses the politicians' own words for the libretto; the music and lyricism of singing these words aloud and in chorus to an audience them only serving to highlight the absurdity of their homophobic pronouncements being directed and expressed unashamedly in such a way to the general public.

Of course the DUP were only expressing what many of their followers believe, but what is staggering is the arrogance of the DUP politicians believing that the Bible and firmly held Christian beliefs give them the right, the justification and the impunity to share these hateful views in public, Robinson even going as far as to declare that it's the duty of government to uphold God's laws. The tragedy of this position - if you want to see it as a tragedy - is that public opinion progresses faster than the DUP's regressive attitudes, showing them up not only for their bigoted views, but also the hypocrisy of their so-called Christian morals when involved in political scandals, expenses fraud, heating fuel corruption and - in the case of Iris Robinson - the revelation of a favours granted towards a young businessman she was secretly involved with in an affair.

As part of The Belfast Ensemble, a company that is very much concerned with opera, theatre and musicals being relevant to the times and the place we live in, Conor Mitchell then is not wrong in finding this a fascinating subject for an opera. Still, it's unquestionably a challenge to find a way of setting it to music and drama and present it to the public in a way that perhaps serves as some kind of social commentary, but it has to be said that the results are magnificent, and Abomination: A DUP Opera is far and away the biggest and most accomplished piece of work from The Belfast Ensemble to date, genuinely engaging with local matters and social issues with great musical and lyrical finesse.

Since it was indicated beforehand that the opera was using the actual words of Iris Robinson herself for the libretto, I suspected that the Abomination might follow the Ensemble's most recent piece, Lunaria, using actors reading rapid-fire news reports over recent political developments in Northern Ireland, with Mitchell's insistent rhythms matching the flow of projections of newsreel footage. In reality, Mitchell displays a full range of musical pieces in a variety of styles, moods and tempi. Abomination is an opera in the truest sense, with individual singing, some operatic in nature - Rebecca Caine as Iris and Dawn Burns are outstanding - others semi-spoken, with choruses and even a musical dance sequence presenting Iris's illicit affair with an 'angel' lover.

The narrative thread of the work is centred on and continually returns to Robinson's infamous talkshow interview with Stephen Nolan; Nolan here not a singing role but played by an actor, Tony Flynn. Nolan's position is firm on holding Robinson to account for what she says, being careful not to accuse her of being responsible for the beating up of a young gay man, but implicated through words that might have incited or at least given licence to others to similarly express their views. In-between almost anything goes as far as musical arrangements and dramatic enactments are concerned, Mitchell's direction putting the position of the DUP voices in an almost fantastical setting - detached from reality certainly - using projections showing the person in question, with newspaper articles reporting quotes of what they said, while they are sung almost rapturously.

Although it's hugely entertaining there is a serious side to the work and it may lead to accusations of Abomination being nothing more than a DUP bashing, or worse, an invective more directly aimed at Iris Robinson. Mitchell is careful however that there is nothing in the opera that is not actual direct quotes from the people concerned, so he cannot be accused of misrepresentation. Letting the protagonists speak in their own words and make a laughing stock of themselves, and giving them voice in operatic declamation only highlights the absurdity, ignorance and arrogance of their position on matters of homosexuality and gay rights (a mindset that persists within the DUP).

Whether it's fair to treat Iris Robinson as the focal point of the opera or not, she at least is the person who brought these attitudes out into the open with her designation of homosexuality as "an abomination", and she epitomises this sense of belief that their religion gives them divine endorsement or some kind of god-given superiority over others. By the end of the opera however, Abomination, A DUP Opera seems to come around to apply one of the Christian sentiments that appear to be lacking in Robinson's own words and actions, to love the sinner and hate the sin, her own downfall from public office leaving a somewhat tragic figure alone on the stage with a phone and no-one to listen to her any more.

Links: The Belfast Ensemble

Synnott - La Cucina / Rossini - Adina (Wexford, 2019)

Andrew Synnott - La Cucina
Gioachino Rossini - Adina

Wexford Festival Opera, 2019

Michele Spotti, Rosetta Cucchi, Máire Flavin, Manuel Amati, Emmanuel Franco, Sheldon Baxter, Luca Nucera, Rachel Kelly, Levy Sekgapane, Daniele Antonangeli

National Opera House, Wexford - 31 October 2019

With the spotlight is on the older undiscovered works of mostly 19th and early 20th century at Wexford Festival Opera, there was a danger that a new work, the first new Irish opera composition ever presented there, might not get sufficient recognition or attention. La Cucina however turned out to be one of the great surprises of the festival. That's perhaps not entirely unexpected, as Andrew Synnott had demonstrated wonderful dramatic writing for Dubliners at the 2017 ShortWorks programme. Although La Cucina is also a shorter work, modest in its ambition to serve only as a starter for Rossini as the main show, it's a work of great quality in its own right.

Rossini's Adina is the inspiration but so too it appears is the experience of the new director of the festival Rosetta Cucchi who wrote the libretto for La Cucina. In a way, the work is a tribute to opera, as she explains in her programme notes, the challenges of putting on an opera like making a cake, getting all the ingredients and the timing right. What's also apparent however is that the work also serves to bake a cake as a tribute to the departing director of the Wexford Festival Opera David Agler, under whom Cucchi served as assistant for much of that period.

That's very much reflected in the subject, a new apprentice hoping to learn from the master, inevitably makes some mistakes along the way, but the maestro too comes to realise when the time has come to put aside his ways and let his team grow and develop their own ideas and forge their own direction. That could come across as heavy-handed but the piece is scored and staged wonderfully, allowing a lovely variety of events, mishaps and expressions that work on a number of levels. Whether in the workplace, whether in recognition of the situation to a cookery programme fan - the maestro here more fearsome than Gordon Ramsey - or even in everyday situations, there's a recognisable and universal application here.

It's important that we have a meaningful libretto, and with that essential ingredient you have the makings of a wonderful confection. Andrew Synnott's score brings it vividly to life, in the process perhaps even reflecting the Festival's underlying ethos of celebrating the history of opera. In terms of expression, it's very much latter day Puccini in vibrancy, drama and situation, and I'm sure La Cucina would work perfectly alongside one of the parts of Il Trittico, having very much the same tone as that comic masterpiece Gianni Schicchi. There's a touch of Richard Strauss too in the vocal scoring, Máire Flavin gifted with the creation of the role of the sous-chef Bianca that she more than lives up to.

Written as a complementary one-act opera for Rossini's Adina, the connection established here is that the cake being baked in La Cucina is the important wedding cake being baked might well have been for Adina and her forthcoming marriage to the Caliph. La Cucina set Adina up in another vital way and that was the spirit of the production. Adina, it has to be said, is for the most part Rossini by numbers, but as La Cucina notes in its closing observations, quoting Rossini, what matters is that you make the most of life, and if you don't you're crazy.

Wexford played up the exaggeration of life and its crazy idea of a plot in their production of Adina. Essentially there aren't any greater complications or roles or types than you find in L'Inganno Felice (another short given a reduced performance outing at the festival) but Rossini is eminently scalable, reduced or enlarged, and Wexford successfully went for it big time. The previous baking a cake theme also effectively pushes aside any of the dodgy Orientalism that Rossini was fond of using for comic romantic complications in his operas.

Designed by Tiziano Santi, the stage set is a huge cake that contains the lower quarters of the Caliph, the middle section holding Adina's room and the upper level with real life-size wedding cake figures, is used for other purposes, such as the jailing of Selimo when he tries to spirit his love Adina away from a fateful marriage to the Caliph (none of them yet knowing that the Caliph turns out to actually be Adina's father!)

So Adina is pretty much by-the-numbers material, Rossini providing the usual insistent rhythms and rapid-fire singing with some challenging vocal lines for Adina and Selimo, challenges that are capably met by Rachel Kelly and Levy Sekgapane who ring out those high notes beautifully. Musically there's a little more sophistication in the arrangements that is immediately apparent, although there is still some recitative here, Michele Spotti keeping the urgency and lightness of the plotting in place.

Directing both pieces, Rosetta Cucchi's production was certainly impressive in capturing the whole tone of the Rossini philosophy of living life to the full. The stage was filled with extras, all bringing little side-shows of humour, Alfredo the master chef ever present to emphasise the connections between Adina and La Cucina. Perhaps a little too much going on for a relatively simple piece, but life's a big cake and you just have to eat it, and why not add some special icing sugar on top. You can't get too much of that.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera

Thursday 7 November 2019

Bizet - Le Docteur Miracle (Wexford, 2019)

Georges Bizet - Le Docteur Miracle

Wexford Festival Opera, 2019

Andrew Synnott, Roberto Recchia, Lizzie Holmes, Kasia Balejko, Guy Elliott, Simon Mechlinski

Clayton White's Hotel, Wexford - 31 October 2019

The libretto and situation for Doctor Miracle, as you could tell from a cursory glance through the short synopsis of Bizet's one-act opera, is very silly indeed. Silliness however should be no hindrance to producing a clever and skillful comic opera. Offenbach excelled at it, Bizet too by all accounts, but we haven't had the same opportunities to sample them, Bizet remaining basically unknown in the wider opera world outside of the ubiquitous Carmen and, if you're lucky, Les Pecheurs du Perles.

If Doctor Miracle is anything to go by you're not missing any great lost comic masterpiece, but like Offenbach's lesser known works that I've seen, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, Les Brigandes, or Chabrier's L'Etoile, if played right it has considerable potential to be hugely entertaining. Filled with silly situations involving disguises, impersonation and unlikely twists of plot, there's only one way to play such material and that's play up the silliness factor.

In Le Docteur Miracle Laurette is in love with an army captain Silvio but her magistrate father has an objection to her marrying a soldier. Undeterred, Silvio first disguises himself as a quack remedy seller Dr Miracle, selling potions out on the street as a means to surreptitiously (i.e. conspicuously) serenade Laurette. Then he disguises himself as handyman Pasquin and manages to gain a position in the household as a cook among his many duties. The omelette he makes for the family doesn't go down terribly well however, leaving them believing that they have poisoned. Fortunately Dr Miracle just happens to be nearby with a cure, provided he is given the hand of Laurette in exchange.

If Doctor Miracle has any hidden musical qualities that have eluded the attention of the opera world they weren't evident in the reduced piano score of the Wexford Festival Opera production, even when played with a lively spring by Andrew Synnott (whose own short opera La Cucina involving more unfortunate cooking consequences was premiering in Wexford this year). The opéra-comique does have one famous song, the omelette song, which is surely notable for being one of the silliest in opera, not least because the singer in this production makes an omelette live on stage during the course of the song.

And it's the making of the omelette that delivers much of the opera's fun, not only in the mouth-watering anticipation that the magistrate, his wife and daughter have to eat this delicious meal, but for the trouble it causes when it turns out to be poisoned. Not really poisoned of course, but it's enough to cause a lot of fuss and amusement, nay downright hilarity among the audience in the Roberto Recchia directed ShortWorks production of Doctor Miracle for the Wexford Festival Opera at Clayton White's hotel.

I tend to believe that only the French can really do justice to the opéra-comique farce, but quite honestly you couldn't fault the cast here for comic timing and delivery, running around and into the audience, and undoubtedly there was a good hand at work in terms of direction. Simon Mechlinski playing the Magistrate was terrific, Guy Elliott's Silvio sprightly and mischievous, Lizzie Holmes's Laurette bright and playful, Kasia Balejko the magistrate's wife Veronique also providing great comic moments in writing-off her 'poisoned' husband long before he's dead. Sung in English there wasn't anything spectacular in the songs or arrangements, but you'd be hard pushed to find a more entertaining hour at the opera.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera