Wednesday 20 March 2019

Krenek - Karl V (Munich, 2019)

Ernst Krenek - Karl V

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2019

Erik Nielsen, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Bo Skovhus,,Okka von der Damerau, Gun-Brit Barkmin, Dean Power, Anne Schwanewilms, Janus Torp, Scott MacAllister, Kevin Conners, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Michael Kraus, Peter Lobert, Mirjam Mesak, Anaïs Mejías, Natalia Kutateladze, Noa Beinart, Mechthild Großmann

Staatsoper.TV - 23 February 2018

Ernst Krenek is one of a small number of composers to compose and actually complete a full opera using the twelve-tone system, a technique that you would think might reduce the musical forces and resources commonly at the disposal of a composer dealing with such a complex historical subject as the life and death of the 16th century Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. One need only look Verdi's Don Carlo, which opens (in some versions) with the death of Charles V and the ascension to the throne of Carlo's father Philip II to see a very different musical and dramatic enactment of the death of the same king.

Like Schoenberg's take on questions of faith and dogma in his only (uncompleted) twelve-tone opera Moses und Aron, the technique however does have a unique ability to explore those issues from an intimate and personal perspective while also considering them in the light of something more vast and infinite. Krenek's Karl V sets about doing just that, the opera taking place on the death bed of the Holy Roman Emperor as he looks back retrospectively on the personal family matters and the childhood experiences that may have had an influence on the actions taken in his more public role.

Karl V is an ambitious work, a difficult work in its subject and musical presentation. Like any work with a historical figure as its subject it inevitably must reduce a life down to a few incidents, but like the best works of this kind - Boris Godunov comes to mind - Karl V somehow captures their importance and power for that period of their lives, but at the same time it reflect them as flawed human beings who ultimately become an irrelevance with death. There's very much a sense in Karl V that Charles is all too aware of that outcome as he lies sick and dying in the monastery of San Jeronimo de Yuste.

The proximity of death focusses the mind to some extent, but the king's illness and his need to justify his actions to his maker also skews his perspective on events. It's far from an impartial, objective or impassive view on the past, but one that, since Karl has believed that he is enacting God's will to unite the world to the faith, is very much the perspective of a self-important, self-pitying, egocentric (or deus-centric if I may coin a word) man faced with his own human weaknesses and mortality. Was this all preordained? What were the signs that set him on this path?

Karl's reflections take in a number of significant events, or events that once appeared significant but now seem to have less or no less importance than his family relationships; and even those have troubling concerns. On his deathbed, he remembers his mother Joanna the Mad, finding an apple in a worm as a child and seeing in it now corruption eating through the heart of the world. That leads him to the Diet of Worms and the rise of Martin Luther, to the defeat of Francis I at the Battle of Pavia, his sister Eleonore's marriage to Francis, as a way of suing for peace, and his enrichment through Pizzaro's plundering of the riches of Central and South America.

"Are these not anecdotes conditioned by the contingent nature of transitory individuals?" his sister accuses. Is that all history amounts to? Krenek's Karl V takes in the complex nature of the individual and their place in history, in the elements of chance, fate and the volition of the individual to effect not change, to make a mark on the world, but without ever being able - up until the last minute of their lives - to know whether they actions were right or how they will be judged by history. That's a tall order, but Krenek bundles those temporal shifts into the musical structure, running line forward and then reverse. Such details might not be obvious to every listener, but - like Schoenberg's Moses und Aron - the form is meaningfully tied to the content.

Like Castellucci's 2015 production of Moses und Aron in Paris, Carlus Padrissa of La Fura dels Baus tries to find an equivalent language to express the intimate and the infinite. Visually it's stunning, as La Fura dels Baus productions usually are, the scale of it incorporating heaven, hell and everything in-between. It captures the ambition of the work and the subject abstractly without being over-elaborate, over-literal or overloading information, and without having to rely too heavily on conventional symbolism other than where it is called for. The worm in the apple that is a globe of the world and Karl's mother Juana with his dead father shown in Pietà pose both attesting to Karl's elevate view of his own importance.

But it's an importance that, notwithstanding its approaching decline into irrelevance through death, is significant and worth reflecting on. Reflections feature heavily with mirrors in the background and even the floor covered in a shallow layer of water. Projections are used, acrobats hang down from the heavens on wires in elaborate formations, every state-of-the-art theatrical effect is employed, but purposefully for a work and a subject that has layers of complexity and ambitions of scope. It's a huge collaborative effort that impresses greatly, from lighting and choreography to the musical direction of Erik Nielsen and the commanding central performance of Bo Skovhus as Karl V. The Munich regular repertory players and the chorus are also impressive, all of it showing due consideration, effort and appreciation for what is clearly a challenging and ambitious opera.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV

Sunday 10 March 2019

Glass - Akhnaten (London, 2019)

Philip Glass - Akhnaten

English National Opera, London - 2019

Karen Kamensek, Phelim McDermott, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Rebecca Bottone, James Cleverton, Colin Judson, Zachary James, Katie Stevenson, Keel Watson, Charlotte Shaw, Hazel McBain, Rosie Lomas, Elizabeth Lynch, Martha Jones, Angharad Lyddon

The Coliseum, London - 2 March 2019

36 years after it was first performed, it's still difficult to place Philip Glass's Akhnaten alongside either traditional or contemporary opera. Where it fits in Glass's repertoire is easier to identify. Akhnaten (1983) is the third part of the composer's Portrait Trilogy of operas, following Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Satyagraha (1980), three works still very much informed by Glass's experiments with minimalism or repetitive music with gradually changing parts. By Akhnaten we also see the composer move gradually away (with changing parts) from the rigid minimalism of his earlier works to incorporate more traditional forms and instrumentation, even if it still remains largely distinct from the classical idiom.

If it's still hard then to pin-down that 'in-between' cross-over period of Glass in the early eighties musically (for me personally his most interesting, creative and indeed even highly influential period, taking in his soundtracks to Mishima and Koyaanisqatsi), the visual presentation and performance aspect of any opera is vital to better assess the quality and nature of a work, and there Akhnaten aligns a little easier with a more traditional medium, albeit still (just about) within that cross-over experimental period that makes it more interesting. Essentially Akhnaten is Grand Opera, or the minimalist equivalent of Grand Opera.

Traces of the philosophy behind the artistic experimentalism of the New York scene of the 70s still remain in Akhnaten, not least Glass's early work with theatre director Robert Wilson and dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs. It's the overall concept or underlying philosophy behind the works in the Portrait Trilogy that are important and the influence that their central figures have over modern views on science (Einstein), politics (Gandhi) and religion (Akhnaten) are too expansive and intangible to be reductively made to fit a narrative.

Einstein on the Beach is the most abstract of the trilogy, Glass, Wilson and Childs collaboratively creating an environment for the music, theatre and dance to interact to create an alternative form of musical/theatrical narrative. Satyagraha is structured very differently, built around distinct real-life incidents in Gandhi's life, tying them to his influence on Tolstoy and Martin Luther-King and setting the whole thing to a libretto sung in Sanskrit and taken from the Bhagavad Gita. By the time we get to Akhnaten, there is still no clear or traditional narrative line to follow, but there is a linear progression of Akhnaten's coronation following the death of his father Amenhotep, his marriage to Nefertiti and his foundation of a new monotheistic religion.

The setting and ceremonial aspect of the situations (funeral, wedding, religion) perhaps makes it unavoidable, but in terms of presentation and performance, Akhnaten has less to do with the experimentation that informed Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha and resembles nothing so much as Aida. There's less of an effort to fit anti-war sentiments into a romantic melodrama narrative, and yet Akhnaten does have those qualities in its own peculiar way, and it certainly achieves an impact that is commensurate with Aida. Anyone who thinks that Glass's repetitive rhythms and arpeggios are mechanical and devoid of emotional content need only listen to the love duet of Act II to see that there is an expression as deeply romantic as any of the love duets and arias of Aida and Radamès.

After his spectacular new production of Satyagraha, it was inevitable that Phelim McDermott would be the director capable of putting a strong visual and thematic stamp upon Akhnaten. It proves to be one that not only matches the setting and period of the work in an otherworldly manner, but it works along with Glass's abstract presentation of the scenes that rely on ancient Egyptian texts and inscriptions, which are used not so much for 'authenticity' as for attaining an almost spiritual or transcendental dimension. In this Akhnaten's repetitive rhythms, marching beats and building crescendos are texturally much richer than the operas that precede it.

Another important quality to the presentation is simply engaging the audience's attention in the absence of any traditional musical or dramatic narrative; the audience still needs something to keep them amused during the long repetitive instrumental or chanted choral scenes that evidently are not subtitled (and wouldn't be all that more meaningful if they were). The idea of having a framing backdrop with posed figures like moving hieroglyphics is an obvious idea, and it does look spectacular. It doesn't strive for 'naturalism' otherwise it would (and indeed has in the past) just look like Aida. McDermott's stylisations, rather like the original English premiere of the work, go for an almost science-fiction world to emphasise the mysterious alien quality of ancient Egypt.

Other tableaux scenes are equally impressive in their lighting, colouration and movement, although for the latter McDermott relies too heavily here on jugglers; it's hypnotic for a few minutes, but nearly three hours of juggling routines is stretching it a bit. Those long building instrumental passages cry out for the kind of dance choreography Lucinda Childs would have provided or the abstract mood that Robert Wilson lighting and spacial geometrics might have produced. A troupe of jugglers throwing balls in the air only goes so far and certainly doesn't engage with the spiritual dimension that the opera aspires towards.

In terms of musical and singing performances however the ENO production is right on the mark. Akhnaten's arrangements have their own challenges and it can't be easy to balance those swirling keyboard runs with brass fanfares, flute and string arrangements, and get the choral and individual singers to weave through it all. Conductor Karen Kamensek however delivered a superbly hypnotic performance that hit the dramatic ceremonial high points and brought out the human emotional undercurrents superbly. Anthony Roth Costanzo really soars, his voice pure and otherworldly in this register to this type of score and Kate Stevenson is no less incredible alongside him. Rebecca Bottone also impresses as Queen Tye, the chorus are superb. With this kind of revival Akhnaten, like the other recently revived works in the Glass Portrait Trilogy, are proving to be special works that still hold a unique place in the world of opera.

Links: English National Opera

Wednesday 6 March 2019

Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice (Dún Laoghaire, 2019)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice

Irish National Opera, 2019

Peter Whelan, Emma Martin, Sharon Carty, Sarah Power, Emma Nash, Dominica Williams, Fearghal Curtis, Matthew Mannion, Robyn Byrne, Stefaniw Dufresne, Javier Ferrer, Sophia Preidel

The Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire - 28 February 2019

The absolute wonder of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, the reason for its reputation as one of the greatest works of opera ever composed and the ability of the work to deeply move audiences some 350 years after it was composed, lies undoubtedly in its simplicity. Or rather its apparent simplicity since it relates to deep human feelings that connect us to myth, Gluck's work fully employing all the artistic musical, theatrical and dance elements that are the essence of opera. Refinement rather than simplicity of all those elements and how they work together was at the heart of Gluck's reformist agenda for opera, and it's in adherence to those principals that the Irish National Opera succeed in their beautifully simple but refined production.

Such indeed is the refinement and unadorned beauty of Orfeo ed Euridice and the deeper sentiments that underlie its purpose, that it can sustain all manner of interpretations. It is mythology after all. At the heart of the work is perhaps the rawest and most relatable of human emotions, those connected to love and loss, Orpheus's desire to bring his beloved wife Eurydice back from the dead practically serving as a model for Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Gluck's ability to make those sentiments behind Orpheus's dramatic/symbolic journey vividly real in musical terms lie at the heart of the work.

Unquestionably then, even though La Fura dels Baus have successfully been let loose on the work with their enhanced stage techniques, they recognised nonetheless that it was essential to forge a connection between the music/musicians and the drama. In rather more stripped back conditions, while still presenting a theatrical presentation of extraordinary beauty, director and choreographer Emma Martin likewise, but through entirely different means, succeeds in making the essence of Gluck's timeless musical moods and melodies visible on the stage in the Irish National Opera's production.

First performed last year for the Galway Festival, but taken this year on a wider provincial tour of Ireland, the venues chosen remain (for the most part) small scale, permitting an intimate closeness with the drama and the production. Indeed, my front row seat at the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire placed me practically in the 'orchestra pit', sharing a ground level space almost between the orchestra ensemble and 'stage'. Immersive theatre is nothing new, nor indeed is immersive opera, but it's quite another thing to be immersed in the same space that Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice occupies, particularly one that in every other way strives to make the work's every sentiment tangible.

Stripping back the orchestra to its essential components, Peter Whelan's arrangement and conducting of the Irish Baroque Orchestra permits the beauty of each of the instruments and the part they play in each of the scenes to stand out all the more vividly. Emma Martin's production likewise reduces the vocal ensemble down to the main roles of Orpheus, Eurydice and Amore, with Amore also part of the four-way harmonised voices of the chorus for the Mourners, Furies and Blessed Spirits. Nothing was lost with this reduction, but rather the refinement of Gluck's musical scoring only even more apparent.

Orfeo ed Euridice was of course originally intended to make use of another element of opera that in the subsequent century after its writing tended to not have such a prominent role, and that's dance. Orfeo ed Euridice is written for movement, it's not the static stand-and-sing solitary aria expressions of the requisite numbers and sentiments of baroque opera, nor is it the stop-start division of singing and ballet of the French tragedie-lyrique, but an essential integration of dance into the whole flow and pace of the work. Orfeo ed Euridice indeed has been staged purely as a dance work, but more often opera productions tend to cut the instrumental/dance passages to suit modern tastes.

As a choreographer Emma Martin however knows the value of dance in Orfeo ed Eurydice adding another dimension to the opera and bring those sentiments to life. The INO production accordingly has a four-person troupe of dancers that symmetrically balance and in a way supplement the four-part chorus, flowing and weaving thought the work like the notes of Gluck's score brought to life. They vividly express all those stages of Orpheus's grief, as much as the impassioned singing of
Sharon Carty's Orpheus himself/herself; the anger and the struggle with the Furies (even transforming into a horrifying multi-limbed creature that stalks Orpheus across the stage, wrapping him in his submission to the Blessed Spirits, standing as a barrier between this world and the unreachable other.

The superb flow and choreography extends its mood and reaches outward to take in the stage itself. It doesn't need much in the way of set dressing but everything is purposefully employed, the lighting effective for the mood, the drapes at the back of the stage and the veils wrapped around the figures drawing everything together. It's not just the choreography or even the impressive technical blocking of the singers with the dancers and the sets, it's the direction of every scene to match and express those deeper human sentiments at the heart of the work.

The qualities of the human voice are essential to that purpose and Sharon Carty (Orpheus), Sarah Power (Eurydice) and Emma Nash (Amore) made them soar with love, anger, fear and regret. The essential moral of the mythological take, which was unfortunately lost under the stage requirement of the period to present a happier ending, must also be taken into consideration. Romeo Castellucci managed to address that brilliantly in his living-death element to his production for La Monnaie, and Emma Martin also takes the reality of the nature of bereavement into account here, consigning the happy ending to a kind of postlude that reminds us that after loss, life still goes on.

Links: Irish National Opera