Monday 28 January 2019

Benjamin - Lessons in Love and Violence (London, 2018)

George Benjamin - Lessons in Love and Violence

Royal Opera House, 2018

George Benjamin, Katie Mitchell, Stéphane Degout, Barbara Hannigan, Gyula Orendt, Peter Hoare, Samuel Boden, Jennifer France, Krisztina Szabó, Andri Björn Róbertsson

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

It's rare for a contemporary opera to quickly become a critical and popular success, although undoubtedly the legacy of Written on Skin will be determined over a longer period, but even as the earlier opera still runs and is given new productions worldwide, the pressure on George Benjamin and Martin Crimp to follow it up must have been considerable. I think it's fair to say that the response towards Lessons in Love and Violence has been cautiously positive, but I suspect its qualities will be more fully recognised in the longer term and it may even stand the test of time as another deeply thoughtful work from what is looking to be a formidable creative team.

Deeply thoughtful and considered however can work both ways, and there remains a slight coldness and calculation about the work in its Royal Opera House world premiere. Whether that's down to overworking the finer details of the structure and composition of the work on the part of Benjamin and Crimp, or whether Katie Mitchell's production doesn't do enough to breathe life into the work is a matter of interpretation, but what comes across with repeated viewing (as it did with Written on Skin) is that what initially might have felt like clinical academic coldness is actually a careful refinement of all the elements that are necessary to strip the work down to its bare essentials.

There's life to be put on old bones (which was also essentially the underlying theme of Written on Skin, opera capable of breathing life into an old historical tale like an illuminated manuscript), and in the case of Lessons in Love and Violence, it's Marlowe's Edward II that serves as the source for Martin Crimp. Lessons in Love and Violence is based on the situation (and violence) that ensues when the king's military advisor Mortimer takes offense at the favour and influence that Edward II's lover Gaveston has over the king, causing a scandal that leaves the queen Isabel in an awkward position and the nation's affairs being neglected as it slips into instability and war.

With numerous interviews in the official programme (reproduced in the DVD booklet) and YouTube videos explaining and detailing the process, there may have been too much talk done around the work, too much attention given to the back and forth labouring over structure and presentation and not enough opportunity to let the work itself breathe. Ultimately however, it's in performance that the quality of the work comes alive, although even there the intense 80 minutes without an interval really didn't give you time to breathe or take in much beyond the opera's considerable impact. The opportunity to view Lessons in Love and Violence again on its Blu-ray and DVD release shows however that its qualities are still very much in evidence and the work can certainly speak for itself on its own musical and dramatic terms.

Whether you are aware of the working methods behind the scenes or not, the resultant compactness and concision of Marlowe's drama (even though the opera uses almost nothing of the actual text of Edward II) is plainly evident in the fact that it demands the utmost attention from beginning to end for how the music and the drama operate, intersect and interact. If it reminds you at times of Pelléas et Mélisande, Wozzeck or The Turn of the Screw, it's because Lessons in Love and Violence has the same close connection between its charged drama and the psychological complexity underpinning it that is heightened by the musical and dramatic presentation.

George Benjamin's musical language might be initially difficult - there's no easy melodic line to follow, but rather fragmentary jabs, feints and punches - but the undeniable power and dramatic rightness of the music should be plainly evident. It's not just descriptive underscoring, but music that seeks to get inside the characters and the drama, filling it out, going beyond mere representation to a fuller expression of all the sentiments of love, conflict and violence on display. Whether you are able to keep up with it or not, by the time you arrive at the final sudden fall of the curtain, you will certainly feel emotionally drained from the charged and exhilarating situations that have just taken place. It needs to be followed through in that way, an intense run through of emotions in juxtaposition with one another, without an interval or pause for breath.

Lessons in Love and Violence is cinematic in that respect, achieving its impact more through the language of montage and editing than the typical stop-start operatic structures of arias, duets and choral arrangements (and accordingly, it's given a cinematic widescreen presentation here on its video recording). The work follows its own narrative drive and Katie Mitchell's production reflects that, ensuring that every single scene is pushed to its limits of expression, but even employing slow-motion effects (as with Written on Skin) when deemed necessary. Everything takes place in a single bedroom - modern opulence rather than medieval royal - that is presented from various angles, as is the drama in its reflection of perspective from each of its characters.

The performances of the cast are exceptional. French baritone Stéphane Degout sounds better than ever as the King (he's never mentioned by title as Edward II), bringing a wonderful soaring lyricism to the complexity of his relationships with Queen, lover, court and country. Barbara Hannigan brings a steely edge to Isabel, delivering barbed inflections to the text that rise to shrill heights of imperiousness and ruthlessness. Peter Hoare is terrific as Mortimer and Samuel Boden impressively assertive as he takes command later in the opera. Mitchell's production also takes account of the fact that there are other undercurrents implied and perpetuated by the 'Lessons' in the title with the presence of the king's young son and daughter visible throughout, even in the short filmed instrumental interludes between scenes.

All of this comes together in a way that is rare in opera outside of Pelléas et Mélisande, Wozzeck and The Turn of the Screw, and Lessons in Love and Violence stands up to being measured alongside those masterpieces. It's impossible not to feel the emotional depth and intensity of the work, how it deals with those traditionally operatic big themes, but in a new and vital way. While the sheer impact is undeniable, the richness of the work's construction and musical features are also likely to become more evident with repeated views and listening. As an extension and development upon their collaboration on Written on Skin, Lessons in Love and Violence will surely endure as another important work of modern opera from this creative team.

Released on Blu-ray, Lessons in Love and Violence comes across just as powerfully on screen as it did in live performance. The High Resolution LPCM and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks permit the detail and rich textures of the music, conducted by George Benjamin himself, to be fully experienced. The video transfer and editing is superb, presenting the 'film' in 'Cinemascope' widescreen, harnessing all the power of the direction and the effectiveness of Vicki Mortimer's production design, the camerawork also revealing the quality of the dramatic performances of the impressive exceptional cast. There's a short 5-minute 'Introduction' to the opera and a Cast Gallery in the extras, and Oliver Mears interviews Benjamin and Crimp in the enclosed booklet.

Links: Royal Opera House

Thursday 17 January 2019

Gotovac - Ero the Joker (Zagreb, 2018)

Jakov Gotovac - Ero the Joker

Croatian National Theatre, Zagreb - 2018

Josip Šego, Krešimir Dolenčić, Valentina Fijačko Kobić, Stjepan Franetović, Dubravka Šeparović Mušović, Siniša Štork, Ljubomir Puškarić, Ana Zebić Kostel, Neven Mrzlečki

OperaVision - 2018

Even in a comic opera - sometimes especially in a comic opera - there is a grain of truth that illuminates the whole work. Ero the Joker by Jakov Gotovac is one of the best known and most performed works in the Croatian repertoire and the reason for it has much to do certainly with the popular folk melodies woven through it, its status as a national symbol of Dalmatian culture and its ability to entertain, but there are also a few essential truths in the work that attest to it power to endure and remain an important work since its premiere in 1935.

The time of Ero the Joker's creation is probably significant, as is the background of the opera's libretto. The work is seeped in the tradition, culture and folklore of the dramatist Milan Begović's home, the little village in Split-Dalmatia of Vrlika. His collaboration with composer Jakov Gotovac on Ero the Joker was a timely one, Gotovac, then director of the Croatian National Theatre was also interested in working with traditional music. Ero the Joker tapped into a particular mood of popular national romanticism popular in Croatia around the mid-1930s, as it was in other parts of Europe at the time, which although short-lived has nonetheless flourished and endured.

And, as it's performed in this long-running production by the Croatian National Teatre in Zagreb, you can see why it remains popular. Ero the Joker is a simple enough pleasure that is filled with the character and tradition of Croatia, not least in the colourful costume designs, the invigorating music with its roots in tradition, and the numerous opportunities it offers for lively dance melodies. There's no need for clever concepts, but the story and its telling retains a warmth and authenticity that has been elevated to the national stage by the composer and his librettist as a national treasure.

There's more than a grain of truth too in the storyline of Mića, the son of a wealthy landowner who assumes the identity of Ero from the Other World in order to win himself a bride. The manner of his disguise is certainly deceitful, but the intentions are good - or so he manages to convince the villagers when his ruse is uncovered by claiming that love must be entered into blindly (I imagine the high spirits of the music, drinking and dancing in Act III might play a part in allowing the villagers to turn a blind eye to his scheming), but he does manage to also connect with their troubles in some way and alleviate them. (Drinking, music and dance playing a part in that as well, no doubt).

It's in that connection with ordinary people and their troubles however that the warmth and truth of Ero the Joker lies. Mića certainly preys on the vulnerabilities of the women of the village, telling fortunes, claiming to bring messages from departed loved ones for Đula and her stepmother Doma in exchange for money and favours, but he also sympathises for the troubles of ordinary people, offering them the assurances they need to find the strength to go on, for the hope that they can makes their lives different and better. The men, led by Master Marko, the husband of Doma and father of Đula are less credulous; seeing him as a vagabond and swindler, they chase him out of town, but Ero is always one step ahead of them.

As a comic opera, Ero the Joker's primary purpose is to entertain and the Croatian National Theatre production certainly achieves that. The plotting isn't particularly complicated, but the humour undoubtedly relies on the national character types and the story's roots in folklore. The production, directed by Krešimir Dolenčić, emphasises this by dressing everyone in national costumes and setting them in the simplicity of the country locations, which is hardly original but certainly effective, particularly when it comes to Act III which is filled with the most wonderful dance music, the original folk melodies elevated though the score to an invigorating finale, and conducted as such by Josip Šego.

Although character evidently counts for much when representing such types in a comic opera, the singing is also good in this 2018 production in Zagreb, and some of the singing challenges are considerable. Most impressive is Valentina Fijačko Kobić as Đula, a singer who has great experience with this role, she sings the challenging range with great clarity and emotional involvement. Emotional involvement seems to be entirely absent unfortunately in the performance of Stjepan Franetović as Mića/Ero, but his singing of the role is sure and steady, again with lovely clarity, timbre and - perhaps more important as far as that element of truth is concerned, as well as winning over the village in the final Act - with sincerity. Sima the Miller, who falls victim to Ero's scheming while escaping from men of the village is sung with great character by Ljubomir Puškarić, and the roles of Doma and Marko are capably taken by Dubravka Šeparović Mušović and Siniša Štork.

Links: OperaVision Croatian National Opera in Zabreb,

Monday 14 January 2019

Cilea - Adriana Lecouvreur (New York, 2019)

Francesco Cilea - Adriana Lecouvreur

Metropolitan Opera, 2019

Gianandrea Noseda, David McVicar, Anna Netrebko, Anita Rachvelishvili, Piotr Beczała, Carlo Bosi, Ambrogio Maestri, Maurizio Muraro

Met Live in HD - 12th January 2019

Personally, I didn't see much in the remainder of the Met's Live in HD series that would get me back to the cinema, although it might be interesting to see how Robert LePage's Die Walküre stands up in revival with a different cast. Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur isn't an opera I've ever seen performed before, but despite being pleasantly surprised by some other more obscure works from the verismo period, this isn't one I would go out of my way to see. The trailer shown during the screening of Nico Muhly's Marnie however was promising, mainly for the casting. Anna Netrebko alone wouldn't have dragged me in, but as a singer's opera with Anita Rachvelishvili and Piotr Beczała on the bill, chances are you weren't going to see the opera done better than this. In the end, as good as the others were, it would have been worth it for Netrebko alone.

The opera itself I still didn't find wholly convincing or interesting. It's not verismo as such, but then verismo is a very fluid concept that for convenience bands together a group of post-Verdi Italian composers with little in common. In reality each of them was trying in their own way to follow Verdi by injecting or placing a greater emphasis on emotional realism, but only Puccini truly succeeded in establishing his own identity and extending on the Italian opera tradition. Despite there being some intrigue around it being based around real-life events, the romantic love-triangle plot of Adriana Lecouvreur doesn't really lend itself to inspired productions either.

Certainly not when it comes to Sir David McVicar who has certainly earned his place in the establishment with his knighthood by playing it very safe indeed, delivering the kind of stodgy 'authentic' traditional productions that are loved by the rather conservative Met Opera in New York. There's some potential in Adriana Lecouvreur being an actress, a diva on the stage of the Comédie-Française, and you would expect a director like McVicar to be able to make something of that, and indeed, if there's nothing spectacularly dramatic about Adriana Lecouvreur or exceptional about David McVicar's production, it is at least theatrical.

Leaving aside Charles Edwards' overly elaborate and literal sets, which are at least attractive and functional for dramatic purposes with its Comédie-Française theatre stage fitted onto the Met stage, McVicar's emphasis is on the theatrics of the piece, pushing each of the characters to the limits of expression, even permitting a fair amount of scenery chewing. It is after all how the roles are scored by Francesco Cilea, and when you've got a cast as exceptional as this, you're going to let them fly and show how far they can take it. Needless to say Anita Rachvelishvili brought fire to the proceedings and Piotr Beczała his usual earnestness an sophistication, but of course no-one was going to upstage the true diva, Anna Netrebko.

I don't want to indulge in hyperbole or try to judge her by the standards of other great sopranos who have sung this role - particularly as I haven't heard them sing this particular opera - but Netrebko really is something exceptional. I don't think there is any other soprano around at the moment who comes anywhere close in terms of charisma, looks, acting ability, professionalism, technique and the sheer quality of voice - the whole package basically; someone who is capable of taking on an opera as romantic and light as Adriana Lecouvreur in a production as unimaginative as this and transforming it into an event. It's not just that it makes you feel it was worthwhile travelling across town on a precious Saturday evening, but you get the impression that you've witnessed something truly special and unforgettable.

Sometimes I get the impression that despite the easy-going attitude, Netrebko can be a little too studious, over-rehearsed, overly-professional and clinical, failing to really find a human character in what are often larger-than-life roles, but not here. She lived the role of Adriana Lecouvreur in as much as it's a theatrical diva, played in character throughout, with little nuances, grimaces and gestures that brought a human realism, showing real feeling in her acting and her singing, investing it with truth and personality; personality that only someone of Anna Netrebko's stature can bring to this role.

While Netrebko is the centre of attention and where the success of a production of this work will stand or fall, one of the secrets to any great opera production is how all the other elements almost invisibly support it. Yes, that certainly shows a good directorial hand, but the strength of each of the other singers can't be underestimated. Neither Anita Rachvelishvili's Princess of Bouillon as her love rival nor Piotr Beczała as Maurizio, the man caught between these feuding divas, were by any means overshadowed by Netrebko, and both give committed performances with exceptional singing that commanded attention. Ambrogio Maestri and Carlo Bosi contributed to the overall quality of the casting, McVicar pushing all of them as far as far as they could go to show Cilea's work for what it is; which isn't much, I still feel, but I can't imagine I'll see it done better.

There was one other example of Anna Netrebko being the consummate professional here in her response to an unfortunate costume malfunction mishap that occurred during the live performance, which becomes even more of a nightmare when it happens during a live worldwide streamed broadcast. It couldn't have come at a worse time either, during in the final emotional moments of Adriana's death by violets scene (I know, that's Adriana Lecouvreur for you). Helping Adriana up from the floor where she has collapsed after being poisoned by Princess de Bouillon, Ambrogio Maestri's cuff button caught in Netrebko's wig just as she is preparing for her big moment, and in a panic he struggled and tugged to get it out. Not only was Netrebko completely unfazed, she used the moment to energise those soaring final lines for an utterly stunning, show-stopping finale.

Links: Metropolitan Opera
Photos credit: Ken Howard 

Sunday 13 January 2019

Janáček - From the House of the Dead (Brussels, 2018)

Leoš Janáček - From the House of the Dead

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2018

Michael Boder, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Willard White, Pascal Charbonneau, Štefan Margita, Nicky Spence, Ivan Ludlow, Alexander Vassiliev, Graham Clark, Ladislav Elgr, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Aleš Jenis, Pavlo Hunka, Florian Hoffmann, Natascha Petrinsky, John Graham-Hall, Peter Hoare, Alexander Kravets, Alejandro Fonte, Maxime Melnik

La Monnaie Streaming - November 2018

Krzysztof Warlikowski's production of Janáček's From the House of the Dead received mixed reviews when it opened at the Royal Opera House early last year. Seen again as a co-production with La Monnaie in Brussels - who would be much more familiar with the director's working methods - it's clear that Warlikowski does try to impose too much onto Janáček's final opera, but even though it has enough going on in its own terms, it's not as if the opera can't take it. As with the Royal Opera House production, if it serves just to get this magnificent work performed - it's not only Warlikowski's debut there but From the House of the Dead that had never before been performed at Covent Garden - then it's job done, and despite the usual reservations and sometimes valid complaints about the director's methods, it's largely a job well done.

As far as trying to do too much, well Warlikowski could probably have done without the theoretical philosophising of Michel Foucault distracting from the strong musical opening scored by Janáček that takes you into a world of masculine power-play and violence that has a heightened malevolence within the confines of a prison. It matters little whether that is a work camp in Siberia, as it is in Dostoevsky's original work - one written about from hard-earned experience as a political prisoner - or in what looks more like an American prison yard. It's a work about observations on the nature of life in the prison camp, the kind of people from all walks of life who end up there and what confinement does to them.

While the philosophical elements add little to the essential meaning of the work, they do at least present an observational view on the nature of justice and imprisonment. Far more successful are the real-life observations in the filmed interviews that give the production a more genuine human touch that is far from theoretical. Projected onto the steel curtain that drops between acts, a prisoner talks about his detachment from the world around him and how it leads to a greater awareness of the presence of death. It adds to the deeper exploration in Janáček's opera of sentiments that are brought out rather than submerged or destroyed by the pervasive violence, anger, hatred, bitterness and regret around them. Women are almost never out of their thoughts or stories - love and family - but even though it is twisted and distorted in this all-male environment, it's a spark that still ignites passions.

That spark needs to be there in a production and From the House of the Dead doesn't have much in the way of action to dramatise. Warlikowski finds other fine ways of expressing those inner underlying sentiments and the complex way they manifest themselves in words and actions, stories acted out with cartoon violence and life in the prison environment with much more realistic brutality. He also avoids what would now appear to be hackneyed imagery in the references to birds, and in particular an injured eagle that is looked after by the inmates and released at the same time as the political prisoner Gorjančikov. Warlikowski finds a more modern and original form of expressing it using two black dancers (dancers often serving a similar function in the director's productions). Cross-dressing and play-acting out the drama in Act II is given perhaps too much emphasis with too much going on that is distracting (another frequent feature in Warlikowski's productions), but it's an attempt find a modern way to relate to those deeper masculine concerns expressed in the work.

From the House of the Dead then is not a conventional work and it doesn't have a central figure much less a hero, as that would go against the intentions of what the work is about. Gorjančikov's narrator becomes an observer, collecting not just stories but also recording the impact these significant incidents have had on the inmates. It's about how hope and the spark of human kindness is never extinguished, even in such a place, even after all they've been through. Each of the characters relate their stories, their fears and complexes, their humanity submerged by the proximity and behaviour of other male characters, of having to get on and live with them, of having to survive not being shafted by them in one way or another, and Warlikowski does this by focussing on the relationships, on little acts of kindness between them, even after acts of appalling violence.

Janáček was always a progressive 20th century musical innovator, a unique voice who had developed a few tricks in his time and never rested on a single simple means of expression but was constantly seeking to innovate. His use of adapting the rhythms of the spoken voice to determine flow and rhythm are expanded further here for the specific challenges of adapting From the House of the Dead. The rhythmic pulse could be seen as representing the monotony and repetition of daily existence, but Janáček - particularly in this new critical edition of the score, a score that Janáček was unable to oversee though to completion - shows subtle shifts under Michael Boder's direction. Never simply repetitive, it's constantly developing and changing, showing how people can adapt to their surroundings and change it by degrees.

Within the score and the world it depicts, human actions, words and behaviours are not negligible and can cause unpredictable shifts as hope turns to despair, the progressive rhythm broken by outbursts of violence, then repaired and finding its rhythm again. It's an incredibly rich work, Janáček also employing harder sounds and unconventional instruments including chains, not as a dramatic element, but as part of the fabric of the world the work operates within. Ultimately however personal interpretation is vital to bring the work to life and it's that investment that is brought to it by an outstanding cast of singers who are given plenty to get their teeth into. Pavlo Hunka in particular makes Šiškov's Act III story heartbreaking and Nicky Spence is a menacing figure in a number of character roles that exhibit a surprising but necessary emotional range for this work. That's all to fit perfectly not with Janáček's score, but with the thoughtful interpretation of this remarkable work by Boder and Warlikowski.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt

Tuesday 8 January 2019

Smetana - The Bartered Bride (Munich, 2019)

Bedřich Smetana - The Bartered Bride

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2019

Tomáš Hanus, David Bösch, Selene Zanetti, Pavol Breslik, Günther Groissböck, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Oliver Zwarg, Helena Zubanovich, Kristof Klorek, Irmgard Vilsmaier, Ulrich Reß, Anna El-Khashem, Ogulcan Yilmaz

Staatsoper.TV - 6 January 2019

Like the few great comic operas that endure across the years, the principal strength of The Bartered Bride is not sophisticated satire or even its comic content, since few opera comedies 'translate' well over time. Like Mozart for example, the comic potential of Smetana's most successful opera lies in its recognition of essential human qualities and in the ability of new performers to continually renew and breathe life into the work. Of course there's another essential element that contributes to the work's success and longevity and that's Smetana's glorious music. Musical and singing performances are well catered for in the new Munich production and under David Bösch's direction it succeeds to a large degree in keeping the whole thing lively and entertaining, and you can't ask for more from a light comic opera than that.

I was unsure however that there would be anything to gain or any subtle commentary to be made from Bösch's decision to switch The Bartered Bride's setting of a bucolic idyll of a Czech country village for a dung heap. That said, there's not much idealisation of life in the countryside in the opera, the villagers resigned from the opening song to the fact that there's no room for sentiments of love when the realities of money are far more important. Wedding and woe go hand in hand unless it's properly managed and love makes fools of those who enter into it without proper consideration for such necessities.

That doesn't leave much hope for the romance between Marie and Hans. Marie's parents Kruschina and Kathinka have called upon the marriage-broker Kezal to formalise the arrangements that have been agreed long ago to advantageously marry Marie to one of the sons of Tobias Micha. Since one of them has disappeared and is believed to be dead (hmmm, I wonder where he might have gone...), that means that Marie is going to be married to Wenzel. It's going to take some quick thinking and scheming on the part of Marie not just to outwit Kezal but also manufacture a circumstance where her marriage to Hans might be acceptable. To Marie's surprise however, Hans seems to have allowed himself to be bought off, signing a contract that makes Marie the bartered bride of "one of the sons of Tobias Micha" (hmmm...).

The Bartered Bride is a simple enough story with a fairly obvious plot twist, but it's the strength of the sentiments of Hans and Marie (and Smetana's scoring of such) that give the work its irrepressible human character. The two lovers are under no illusions or romantic ideals about their situation; they just know that they were meant for each other and are confident enough to believe that they won't be separated by any circumstance arranged by their parents and that they will work something out. It's not so much a case of love conquers all as a battle of cleverness and wit.

Of course the obstacles that have to be overcome have to be serious enough as to make it seem insurmountable, and money is always a familiar reality, even if arranged marriage isn't as much a universal problem. What is of course most important and most successful about how Smetana deals with the subject in The Bartered Bride is that the forces of ideal and reality, or love and opposition are embodied in the characters and in the musical character of the piece. The situation itself is not inherently funny, and how it plays out is merely amusing, but it comes alive in the playing, in its characters, in how they are interpreted and in how the music brings vibrancy and life to it all.

Marie and Hans are the romantic characters, so the majority of the comic potential lies with the marriage facilitator Kezal and in how the lovers seek to outwit him. David Bösch emphasises the disparity between Kezal's flamboyantly over-dressed, bare-chested, arm-wrestling activities and the dung heap village that he has visited, and Günther Groissböck plays it up terrifically, his looming overbearing presence dominating the stage whenever he is on it. For their part, Selene Zanetti and Pavol Breslik have to play the part not just of simple country people with romantic ideas, but show the sincerity of their feeling in the lovely arias that Smetana writes for them, showing the underlying human qualities that are essential to the character of the work. Both are simply outstanding for technical delivery, sweetness of timbre (with a steely determination underpinning it) and for the deftness of the comic playfulness in the delivery elsewhere.

Patrick Bannwart's dung-heap set proves versatile enough to introduce other elements of visual comedy and extravagance such as a tractor that Marie drives over a wedding dress, some live pigs, a beer festival and the requirement to set up a site for the travelling circus in Act III. Another little running visual joke where the prompter - the box buried in a smaller dung pile - is invited to take part in the entertainment provides another light amusing touch that works well. Aside from the circus, where Bösch does his own thing but still provides spectacle and amusement, all of this fits well with the rich folk-influenced dances, choruses played with verve and dynamism under the musical direction of Tomáš Hanus. Plenty of spectacle and light humour, with wonderful music and lovely singing, you really can't ask for more from The Bartered Bride.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV

Friday 4 January 2019

Smetana - Libuše (Prague, 2018)

Bedřich Smetana - Libuše

National Theatre Prague, 2018

Jaroslav Kyzlink, Jan Burian, Iveta Jiříková, Svatopluk Sem, František Zahradníček, Jaroslav Březina, Jiří Sulženko, Jiří Brückler, Petra Alvarez Šimková, Stanislava Jirků, Eva Kývalová, Olessia Baranová, Yvona Škvárová, Václav Lemberk

Opera Vision - 27 October 2018

One of the many not inconsiderable functions of opera can be that of defining and contributing to the idea of a national character. Every country is proud of its most celebrated composers and in many ways they do act as ambassadors for their nations across the world stage. The linking of myths, folk legends and tradition to musical drama is a natural connection and all of them can play a part in establishing cohesion around the idea of a nation as much as any national anthem.

You could even go so far as to say that composers themselves form part of that sense of national identity. The two greatest composers Wagner and Verdi indeed remain in such high standing in the world of opera because of the nationalistic colour of their works, Wagner in particular even going as far as to see opera as vital to the propagation and definition of who a nation and its people are. It's Wagner's influence that would lead Bedřich Smetana to consider preserving and celebrating the idea of a Czech nation in his opera Libuše, written for the opening of the National Theatre in 1881.

In the case of Libuše, the nation defining story is a fairly uncomplicated one, low-key even to any outsider not familiar with the characters and the mythology covered in the opera around the founding of Bohemia in 600AD. The Princess Libuše has been asked to pass judgement on a dispute between two brothers Chrudoš and Štáhlav, who have been fighting over their father's inheritance. Chrudoš as the eldest brother is demanding everything and rejects the verdict of a woman. To give legitimacy to her position say she will marry a man who will be acceptable to the nation, choosing Přemsyl, a peasant ploughman as her husband.

Act I lays out that situation in which everything is resolved and everyone reconciled fairly easily over the next two acts of choruses, ceremony and pageantry. That's the tone established by Act I of Libuše and that's the way that the Prague production is more or less plays out the rest of the opera, with no surprises or directorial intervention or reinterpretation. It's played as a traditional myth, the nobles wearing pale togas of Greek mythology, the peasants a little more colourful costumes. The design and almost ceremonial nature of the spectacle however is in keeping with the occasion, in this case the centenary of the Czechoslovakian proclamation of independence.

There's evidently nothing in the production that distracts in any way from the central purpose of the work, from the simple message of its drama to its relevance as a national myth. It's meant to look impressive and it does, the stage surrounded by a golden picture frame, the effects simple but effective using sliding platforms to parade figures in poses across the stage, with only a few firework effects at appropriate points. Elsewhere, the tone is of a bucolic pageant, with earnest intonations of patriotic sentiments and joyous celebrations of the beauty and honour of hard working on the land.

It's a case of it is what it is, requiring no deep concepts or analysis. It's not Parsifal or The Ring of the Niebelung and despite some superficial similarities it's not even Lohengrin. Libuše is opera as an occasion, a work that speaks to the Czech people, and Smetana fulfills that remit admirably. If it doesn't have anything revelatory to say about human nature to a wider audience, it does give us a little insight into Czech character, Přemsyl citing peace, mercy and working for mutual benefit as characteristics that will bring unity and peace not just in the resolution to the divisions between Chrudoš and Štáhlav but to the nation as a whole. This will be important, Libuše prophesies and warns, when the nation faces threats in the future from the East.

Smetana of course also wants to bring the essential Czech nature out in the music as well, allowing it to be expressive of the national character. Musically the influence of Wagner is there in the mythological grandeur of the nobles, but these are not Gods; the nature of the labour of the peasants in the fields is a celebration of the land itself and their music are celebrated as well in Libuše. It gives the opera a warmer character with individual colours and folk derived that has a more Russian character like Rimsky-Korsakov. There is room however for some lovely individual touches, such as the cello solo that opens Act II Scene II, the singing not so deep and declamatory as warmly baritonal and flowingly lyrical.

Links: National Theatre Prague, OperaVision