Thursday 25 April 2019

Handel - Xerxes (Duisburg, 2019)

George Frideric Handel - Xerxes

Deutsche Oper am Rhein, 2019

Konrad Junghänel, Stefan Herheim, Valer Sabadus, Terry Wey, Katarina Bradic, Torben Jürgens, Heidi Elisabeth Meier, Anke Krabbe, Hagen Matzeit

OperaVision - January 2019

What is impressive about many of Stefan Herheim's productions is his ability to get deep underneath the driving forces of the works in question, whether it's by transporting the work into a modern context and completely deconstructing it (La Bohème, Rusalka), setting it in the wider context of the time and history surrounding its creation (Eugene Onegin), or even using the creator of the work and its creation to illuminate and provide another way of looking at the works (Parsifal, The Queen of Spades). Ironic distancing has to be maintained however with a respect for the fundamental concerns of the work and sometimes you get the impression on rare occasions that either Herheim's approach is completely ironical or he just doesn't have anything particularly deep or meaningful to say about the work.

Keeping opera seria entertaining and relevant to a modern audience while respecting the musical conventions and intentions of the work is a challenge for any director, and Handel's Xerxes/Serse is not the most dramatic or involving of treatments on a subject that has been covered many times in baroque opera. Sometimes however all you need is a single idea or context to set the work within, and Herheim's idea is a simple one that comes from a reversal of the work's English title; Xerxes becomes Sex Rex, the first century Persian king is actually something of a sex maniac.

That's actually an original and refreshing way of looking at the traditional role of the powerful ruler's involvement in a situation that is common in opera seria. Disrupting the romantic lives of everyone around him when he decides to choose a partner for himself, often it's seen in terms of a ruler being self-absorbed and oblivious to the concerns of others, asserting his will in an abuse of power. Nowadays that kind of behaviour from someone in a position of power and authority is seen differently as a sex pest or sexual predator, but Herheim doesn't attempt to put it in a modern context in the style for example of the 2017 Karlsruhe Semele.

Herheim in fact doesn't appear to choose to delve any more deeply than the simple reversal of the title however in this production of Xerxes, and rather than modernise the production or seek to put it in the context of a framework, he seems instead to just let it play out looking like a period production from 1738 when the opera was composed. Or is it a parody of an old opera seria production? This is where Herheim likes to blur the lines, but he gives little away to indicate any kind of irony or detachment, other than perhaps the fact that the behaviours of the characters are more recognisably human than the rather stiff formalism of roles and characters that you might expect from this.

But what might you reasonably expect from Xerxes? When the opera was first performed it wasn't terribly popular because it broke several of the strict rules of opera seria. For a start, Handel reduced the formality of da capo repetition in arias, reducing most of them down to one-part arias, which doesn't give the singers quite as much leeway for ornamentation. He also introduced an element of buffo comedy into the work, and mixing buffo and seria is a serious misdemeanour that in earlier times in France was known to result in a war, or at least a war of words in the Querelle des Bouffons.

Handel, I imagine, wasn't trying to start any wars, but simply reacting to the practical demands of the storyline, which to be frank was surely a rather tired situation even by Handel's time, and introduce a little more musical colour to the palette. Which he undoubtedly does, but perhaps not to the extent that the work can be staged 'straight' to a modern audience. I've no doubt that Stefan Herheim has thoroughly researched this, but as far as I can see, all he has managed to come up with as a way of tapping into the spirit of the work and presenting it to a modern audience is to exaggerate the other elements or bring them up to the level of Xerxes the Sex Rex.

Elviro as the comic fool for example, is played up to an almost slapstick level where he can hardly move for stumbling or bumping into people. Herheim even has him arguing with the prompter and the conductor in the pit, and Xerxes in annoyance breaks a musician's flute. Atalanta is extra-flirtatious and scheming, Romilda extra-prim and virtuous resulting in Atalanta's plots to remove her rival by attacking her in one scene with a knife, a snake, a gun, a cannon which puts a hole in the back of the scenery through to the backstage, then uses a crossbow and eventually succeeds only in bringing down a doll of Eros. With some dancing sheep thrown in, Herheim himself describes it all as a “baroque Muppet Show”.

There's no doubt that this enlivens the work to some degree, and it's quite clever in a nudge and a wink kind of way that recognises we are all actors playing roles on the stage of life, but there's not a lot more to it than that. There perhaps doesn't need to be for this opera, particularly when the production values are as high as we've come to expect from a Herheim production. If it's not a parody of an 18th century opera, it has all of the old-world spectacle of the stage design, props and costumes. It looks good, it sounds good, it's a bit of fun, and that ought to be enough, but it doesn't really do much to lessen the predictability and conventionality of the drama from feeling very tiring over the three hours it takes to get to a conclusion.

Perhaps that's down to the work itself which, hearing it for the first time, doesn't seem to rate among the most memorable of Handel's works. There's moments to enjoy of course in the musical performance under the direction of Konrad Junghänel who keeps it flowing along quite well. With recitative in German and the principal arias in Italian, the singing performances are good, counter-tenor Valer Sabadus in the castrato role of Xerxes tries hard to inject life and humour into the proceedings, Katarina Bradic as his cross-dressing jilted fiancée Amastre brings a lively verve to her performance. There's much to enjoy also in the complications between Atalanta, Romilda, Arsamene and Elviro, but the singing doesn't always have the necessary fullness and, despite all the efforts and prettiness of the production, it does come across as a disappointingly limp affair.

Links: Deutsche Oper am Rhein, OperaVision, YouTube

Sunday 21 April 2019

Shostakovich - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Paris, 2019)

Dmitri Shostakovich - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

L'Opéra National de Paris, 2019

Ingo Metzmacher, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Dmitry Ulyanov, John Daszak, Aušrinė Stundytė, Pavel Černoch, Sofija Petrovic, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Oksana Volkova, Andrei Popov, Krzysztof Baczyk, Marianne Croux, Alexander Tsymbalyuk

Paris Cinema Live - 16 April 2019

I love the way the Paris Opera site has a warning for this production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk advising that "Certain scenes may be inappropriate for the young and the easily offended". You could almost take it for granted that the conservative contingent of the audience at the Paris Opera are going to find much offensive in a Krzysztof Warlikowski production, and there is much indeed to find offense with. This time however it's not Warlikowski that brings controversy to a production but rather it's a case that this daring opera that Stalin ordered to be banned still has the potential to shock. Warlikowski merely helps realise its potential on stage for a modern audience.

Personally I think Warlikowski is less of a wild card than he typically used to be at La Monnaie in Brussels, the Bayerische Staatsoper in Berlin and the Teatro Real in Madrid where he really pushed buttons by twisting narratives - brilliantly and meaningfully - and imposing his own vision through extended scenes, movie references and even his own film inserts, throwing in glitter, dancers and all manner of bizzareness. Recently, particularly in Paris, he has actually toned down his interpretations a little, as in the recent Don Carlos and also with From The House of the Dead. With Lady Macbeth again the eccentricities are largely eliminated, the changes are still large but of minimal interference only to make the work even more powerful.

The reason for that is of course that Shostakovich's opera, banned in Russia after Stalin viewed it, is a force in itself. I don't think however that I've ever appreciated the full brilliance of the work as it's expressed here in the 2019 Paris Opera production. All the bold, daring satire of the corruption in Russian society and its treatment of women is given full vent in a rich musical arrangement that is dramatically attuned, expressive of sinister intent and murderous violence, but also warmly seductive and downright lewd. Conductor Ingo Metzmacher has a lot to do with that (and large shoes to fill when the current musical director Philippe Jordan leaves), but it's more a combination of efforts and, as it ought to be, a collaboration between composer, conductor and director. Not forgetting the performers, and we definitely won't forget the performers here.

I guess I'm not going to get tired of praising Aušrinė Stundytė for her singing and dramatic interpretations any time soon, but I might have to work on finding new adjectives if she keeps delivering at this level. This is another extraordinary performance, fearless in her complete absorption into difficult and challenging characters. Her choices to date have been good in that respect (most recently at Aix-en-Provence in Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel) and there are few female roles as superbly written from both character and singing viewpoint as Katerina Ismailova. It's a role Stundytė has impressed in before (Lyon) and she brings a great deal of thought, personality and subtle psychology to this performance, to an expression of complex human emotions pushed to extremes.

I would say that Krzysztof Warlikowski plays no small hand in directing and channeling that performance and in giving it an effective and credible context to work within. Of course, working in collaboration with his regular set and costume designer Małgorzata Szczęśniak, it's far from natural realism, but rather attuned to the undercurrents, to internal hopes and dreams, to fierce personal drive and disillusionment that comes when those ideals clash with reality, with the circumstances of life in rural Russia, with the attitudes of an oppressive patriarchal society, with institutions that are riddled with vice and corruption.

Warlikowski's interventions than are fairly expansive in assuming a very distinctive presence on the production design, but they do not interfere with where the real strengths of the work lie. Instead of a grain factory, this production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is situated in an abattoir. That might sound heavy handed, and yes, the handing of bloody sides of cattle is pretty disgusting, but it does capture something of Katerina's distaste for the world she is trapped in, as well as providing a humorous and ironic contrast between her belief that even cows have a purpose, while her life has none. The set where meat is handled also provides a chilling location for the near-rape of Aksinya. If viewers are easily offended by such scenes, they should be.

Rather than wallow in the degradation of society and how it clashes with individual liberties, Warlikowski and Szczęśniak move on and find other ways that illustrate what Shostakovich vividly depicts in his music. A large part of the drama takes place in a long trailer that represents Katerina's room, moved to a central position on the stage where it rotates and can viewed from a number of angles that permit the viewer to see the all sexual positions Katerina is able to perform with her lover Sergei, Warlikowski choreographing the sensual undercurrents and the outright raunchy actions to what is there explicitly in the music. The room later doubles as the trailer where Katarina and Sergei are held with the other prisoners in Act IV, underlining the impression that she has trapped herself.

Most brilliantly of all however is how Warlikowski depicts Katerina and Sergei's marriage as something of a blood wedding, with blood red curtains surrounding it and the bride and groom all in red. Instead of having the guests whisper rumours and asides about the bride and the mysterious disappearance of her husband, it's delivered by a stand-up comedian with a line in edgy humour, with circus acts also capturing brilliantly the absurdity and farce of the situation that is all there in Shostakovich's playful music for this scene. Similarly Shostakovich's music can't disguise the forced comedy of the police-chief and the institutional corruption of the authorities that even Stalin couldn't miss, and that blends superbly into the high farce that this Act descends into with the discovery of the body hung up with the other sides of beef.

Warlikowski also seeks to use a limited amount of projections, some of them barely noticeable as overlays of dripping blood down the red curtains, but always in an effort to get deeper into the psychology that underlies Katarina's behaviour, fears and dreams. Some 3-D computer graphics are created to capture a sense of floating and drowning underwater, and that also blends effectively into the wider considerations of the work.

I've always felt that Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a compelling work but rarely have I felt so absorbed by its dramatic drive as I have here in its telling by the stunning collaboration of Warlikowski, Metzmacher and Stundytė. Stundytė obviously dominates with her tour-de-force singing and acting performance, but the ensemble action and singing all work together tremendously well, with strong performances also from Pavel Černoch as Sergei, an impressive working of Aksinya's role by Sofija Petrovic, with excellent work also from Dmitry Ulyanov as Boris Timofeyevich, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the Village drunk/comedian and Oksana Volkova as Sonyetka.

Links: L'Opéra National de Paris

Wednesday 17 April 2019

Korngold - Die tote Stadt (Dublin, 2019)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold - Die tote Stadt

RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, 2019

Patrik Ringborn, John McKeown, Celine Byrne, Charles Workman, Ben McAteer, Katharine Goeldner, Julian Hubbard, Clare Presland, Susanna Fairbairn, Alan Leech

National Concert Hall, Dublin - 12 April 2019

You don't get many opportunities to see a Korngold opera in Ireland, so when even a concert performance of Die tote Stadt comes up it's an event that can't be missed. In fact, a concert version comes with the additional benefit of putting the orchestra up on the stage with the performers and when you have a master orchestrator like Korngold, even at 23 years old when he composed his most famous opera, you really get a unique chance to experience the intricacy, beauty and power of the work.

Like Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande or Schreker's Die Gezeichneten, the lush orchestration of Korngold's Die tote Stadt has a dreamy seductive quality that when combined with the nightmarish qualities of a Symbolist-influenced text that has undertones of decay and decadence, creates an atmosphere of gathering unease. In Pelléas et Mélisande there's no musical way out of the nightmare and you remain trapped within it, with Die Gezeichneten the illusion eventually comes crumbling down, revealing the true horror underneath.

With Die tote Stadt ('The Dead City'), Korngold's orchestral crescendos are more ambiguous; in some way they seem to break the illusion, but in others, they just seem to enforce how strong the madness lies within Paul's delusion that his dead wife Marie has been revived, reincarnated or reproduced in some way in the form of Marietta.

That certainly came across forcefully in the performance of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the Swedish guest conductor, Patrik Ringborn. Not only did we have the luxury of hearing Die tote Stadt performed in all its glory in concert performance, but the performance was also able to take advantage of the National Concert Hall's pipe organ that emphasise the eerie climactic moments of mad love.

We were also fortunate that Celine Byrne and Julian Hubbard had extended their stay in Dublin after their stint on Madama Butterfly for Irish National Opera a few weeks ago, and having seen thought that both were phenomenal in that, a concert performance of Die tote Stadt was surely going to be a treat. And of course it was.

I hadn't realised how difficult a role Marietta is, or I had forgotten, but Celine Byrne demonstrated the kind of voice needed to not just reach and sustain its tricky heights and German cadences, but how important it is to bring an expressive lyricism to Marietta's predicament and a cool authority to the ghostly spirit and allure of Marie. Whether it's a more challenging role than Madama Butterfly or it's a case of different challenges that depend on voice type I'm no expert, but Byrne grew magnificently into the role, or perhaps it's Marietta who gradually grows and asserts her own personality away from the pull of Paul's dangerous obsession to transform her into a dead woman.

Whether I overlooked it or there was no information on the performers when I booked my ticket for this, I was delighted to find Charles Workman cast in the role of Paul. Workman is one of my favourite tenors in early twentieth-century repertoire of this kind, works like Jenůfa and Die Gezeichneten, and this is a gift of a role for him. With that lyrical voice he could just glide softly and beautifully around such lush orchestration, but he is more than capable of rising above it and against it with expression and force, particularly in the jarring behaviour of Paul. It's marvellous to hear him sing and perform in this context in a concert performance, and particularly when he is a perfect match for Celia Byrne. The duet between Paul and Marietta's (or is she the dead Marie in Paul's dream?) at the end of Act II was one of the highlights of the performance.

Also terrifically impressive in concert performance is Northern Ireland baritone Ben McAteer. His Frank provides a wonderful contrast and balance to the richness of the voices that accompany Korngold's orchestration. There was a wonderful clarity to Julian Hubbard's singing, although that fared better as Victorin from the front of the stage that trying to soar above the orchestra from the back of the choir as Gaston. Katharine Goeldner made Brigitta's role significant, and there was lovely support from Clare Presland, Susanna Fairbairn and Alan Leech as Marietta's lively singing colleagues, all contributing to the richness of the score, the performances and the surreal madness that Die tote Stadt is capable of attaining.

A live stream of this concert was recorded for RTÉ Lyric FM

Links: National Concert Hall

Sunday 7 April 2019

Verdi - La Forza del Destino (London, 2019)

Giuseppe Verdi - La Forza del Destino

Royal Opera House, London - 2019

Antonio Pappano, Christof Loy, Anna Netrebko, Jonas Kaufmann, Ludovic Tézier, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Alessandro Corbelli, Veronica Simeoni, Robert Lloyd, Roberta Alexander, Michael Mofidian, Carlo Bosi

Royal Opera House Cinema Live - 2 April 2019

Recent experiences have shown me that there's no such thing as a Verdi failure; all of his works, even the earliest works like Alzira, have the potential to be much better than their reputation allows and there are ways also to overcome apparent weaknesses in plotting in those flawed later works like Simon Boccanegra. La Forza del Destino is one of those latter works where the traditional operatic mannerisms of the plot often obscures or weakens the more sophisticated musical arrangements that Verdi was starting to deliver and would later more fully achieve with librettos from Arrigo Boito. With Christof Loy directing, the Royal Opera House's production might not entirely make La Forza del Destino work as a stage drama, but it certainly shows the potential greatness in the work.

Whatever its weaknesses in plotting and structure there's no doubting the ambition Verdi shows in this work. There's not a lot you can do with the sprawling plot, but Loy's production shows that Verdi isn't really that concerned with sticking to the superficial arrangements and conventions of a by-the-numbers romantic melodrama, but is keen to look much deeper at people caught up in forces that are greater then themselves. La Forza del Destino is a work of competing forces, each of the characters carried through their lives by their response to a tragic incident in the past that consumes them and destroys any chance they might have of happiness in the future.

This appears to be really what Verdi wants to express, and yes perhaps it does come at the cost of credibility in plot progression. The central incident comes in the prologue with the death of the Marquis of Calatrava, killed in an unfortunate accident at the family home by Don Alvaro, the South American nobleman who was planning to elope with his daughter Leonora. In the chaos following the incident, Don Alvaro and Leonora are separated (chaos being one of those forces that play a major part in the opera, also bringing them together again), each believing the other dead, while Leonora's brother Don Carlo di Vargas thereafter makes it his life's duty to track down Alvaro and kill him.

The incident affects each of the three main protagonists in different ways, totally disrupting and determining the subsequent direction of their lives. Leonora is overcome with remorse and guilt, but still consumed by her love for Alvaro she decides to
become a hermit and devote herself to the Virgin Mary (an icon that Loy shows during the overture as something that imprinted itself on her subconscious from a very early age). Alvaro pours his energy into the army and becomes a war hero, but fighting, drinking and women are still not enough to blot out the loss of Leonora and the crime of her father's death. Don Carlo is single-minded in his desire for revenge, turning to fortune tellers, hoping that they will give him some satisfaction that his efforts will be rewarded.

The plot that brings their lives back together in a dramatic conclusion is perhaps not so important as understanding these forces that drive them, all of them forces beyond their power to control. Fate, fortune, misfortune, destiny, war, religion, vengeance, oaths and curses; all these things sweep them through their lives, batter them from one shore to another with no safe haven. Primarily however there are three other inescapable forces that determine their destiny; love, family and a rush towards death. Religion too plays an important role in how both Leonora and Alvaro cling to it like a life-raft, hoping that submission to God will give their lives a purpose that has been lost. Loy brings this aspect out much clearer than any other production I've seen of this work, but he also brings out exceptionally well Verdi's scepticism of religion in the figures of Fra Melitone and Padre Guardiano.

La Forza is long and disjointed, covering a lifetime because it takes a lifetime to understand what has been important, what has driven that life, and it's difficult to compress all those competing and conflicting forces into a single dramatic storyline, even one that is three hours long. There have have been brave efforts at making La Forza work convincingly, but it certainly helps when you have a director like Christof Loy on board and - something that appears to be the one indispensable element to the potential success of any of Verdi's challenging works that might not have played so well in the past - a stellar cast as capable as the one assembled for this production at the Royal Opera House.

The visual representation is variable in Christof Loy productions and sometimes minimal with little but nominal adherence to libretto directions but there are two important things you can count on in a Loy project. You always get the full-length opera without cuts, which is rarer than you might think, and you get a deeper delving into the characterisation and themes that recognises that there is more to the musical arrangements than simply underscoring the surface drama. Where the drama tends to sprawl in La Forza del Destino, Loy ensures through some early scene setting that the impact of the killing of the Marquis of Calatrava remains to the forefront of what follows, the key event in the force of destiny that connects Leonora, Alvaro and Carlo.

La Forza is indeed present as a theme throughout the opera and Verdi dresses it in various musical guises. Antonio Pappano manages those wonderfully, attuned to character, allowing it to surge forward at those moments of great emotional turmoil in the lives of each of those who were present in the room where the Marquis died. Loy accordingly shows everything taking place within the same room, a room that none of them can escape, the walls war-torn and crumbling, opening up alcoves of escape in religion, but there is no way out for them. Projections blend the past with the present, the event replayed continuously, but there's more to Loy's involvement than having a hand in the set design.

To carry all this off with any kind of conviction the majority of the work has to be done by the singers, and you really need exceptional performers who can act and sing. Having Anna Netrebko, Jonas Kaufmann and Ludovic Tézier in the principal roles certainly gives this a lot more conviction than it otherwise might. It still remains a bit overwrought, but that's Verdi melodrama for you, and these guys can play it well. Tézier isn't the greatest actor, but he has gravitas and a beautiful soulful delivery and - for me personally - his interpretation of Carlo was the most interesting of the three, but perhaps that's just because we know what to expect from Kaufmann and Netrebko.

Since we expect utter professionalism and stunning delivery, that's not a complaint by any means, and if they do come across as a little too polished that's unavoidable for performers of this stature, and they certainly make up for it here with fully committed and heartfelt characterisation. Kaufmann characteristically launches himself full-force at the work, which is essentially the level that Verdi pitches Alvaro, but I'd like to see Kaufmann dial it down a little once in a while. Anna Netrebko is just Anna Netrebko, which is wonderful, but it's still Anna Netrebko. I wouldn't hold that against her though, as there are few who could sing the role of Leonora as well as this, embodying all the pain that Verdi inflicts on this character across a lifetime of suffering.

And as if that's not enough, the Royal Opera House have the luxury casting of Ferruccio Furlanetto and Alessandro Corbelli as Padre Guardiano and Fra Melitone, presenting two very different faces of the church and between them they open up the other dimensions in the work not often given as much attention. I'm sure that's partly because Loy is working from the full-length uncut version of La Forza del Destino, as these characters rarely feel so well developed, but I've no doubt it's got a lot to do with having great singers in these roles. Corbelli in particular is just marvellous. Keeping the work intact, Loy recognises that the power of La Forza del Destino is in its range and variety, with its choruses, its dancing and carnivals and he puts on a spectacular show. This is Verdi on the big scale, and the Royal Opera House give Loy the biggest canvas to work with.

Links: Royal Opera House

Wednesday 3 April 2019

Caccini - La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola di Alcina (Dublin, 2019)

Francesca Caccini - La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola di Alcina

Royal Irish Academy of Music, Lir Academy of Dramatic Art, 2019

David Adams, Hélène Montague, Clodagh Kinsella, Dylan Rooney, Aebh Kelly, Breffni Fitzpatrick, Berus Komarschela, Vladimir Sima, Megan O'Neill, Caroline Behan, Seamus Brady, James Danaswarmy, Ava Dodd, Amie Dyer, Hailey-Rose Lynch

The Abbey Theatre, Peacock Stage, Dublin - 29 March 2019

Even if it's for being the first female opera composer, Francesca Caccini is historically an important figure in the world of music, but her opera La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola di Alcina suggests that she should also be considered as one of the important early influences on the development of opera. Perhaps that lack of recognition is down to the fact that this 1625 opera is the only one of her works that survives, but that just means it should surely be given more attention and fortunately the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin and the Lir Academy of Dramatic Art are good at bringing such works back to life in their Opera Shorts programme.

Composed almost 400 years ago, already the familiar structure and elements of 'modern' opera are in place in La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola di Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from Alcina's Island), and it even shows signs of a style that might even have been more influential in the longer run than either Monteverdi or Cavalli. With a prelude taking place between the gods, with ballet inserts, choruses and merveilleux spectacles, already the basic elements that feature in the French tragédie lyriques of Lully and Rameau and the late baroque operas of Handel are all in place.

The subject of Alcina and Ariosto's Orlando Furioso too is one that is revisited repeatedly in some of the classic works of early and late baroque opera; in Lully's Armide, Handel's Orlando and Alcina, Haydn's Orlando Paladino, and Caccini's arrangements can already be seen to be closer to those works not just in terms of the development of musical theatre and operatic conventions, but in the adherence to mood and variety of situations, blending the worlds of gods and humans, love and sorcery into a richly textured work.

Ideal material then for the students of RIAM and the Lir in Dublin to explore; challenging works too, the Opera Shorts programmes featuring new and contemporary works as well as early music. Directed by Hélène Montague, the production doesn't attempt anything too clever or contemporary with La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola di Alcina, but instead they let the purity of the work speak for itself and find other ways to highlight the beauty of the work's composition.

The set design by Molly O'Cathain is itself fresh and bright, an attractive modern vision of an island that has its own seductive quality rather than a witch's island of horrors. It's more like an elegant landscaped garden, with potted plants and modern white climbing poles, but there is evidently a dark side to it, the poles forming a kind of cage (housing the captive musicians!), the greenery we later discover just the tops of heads of all the poor unfortunates that Alcina has lured to their doom after first having her evil way with them.

Alcina's latest victim, under her charm without even realising that he is her love slave, is Ruggiero. Melissa, a more benevolent sorceress, has arrived on the island and disguising herself as a man she sets out to rescue Ruggiero from the clutches of Alcina and reunite him with his fiancée Bradamante. Moved by the pleas of the captives that Alcina has turned into plants, Melissa also attempts to free Alcina's other victims, but she first has to face down Alcina's monsters and the wrath of the queen of the island Alcina herself.

Although the basic storyline is simple, there are a wide variety of dramatic situations that Caccini sets beautifully to music. The RIAM/Lir production excels in brings both together and finding the appropriate tone, which sometimes means blending the seductive with the sinister, the tragic with a comic element. The attractive/sinister contrasts are also highlighted in the black and white designs of the costumes, but most evidently in the music, the slow and hesitant rhythms of the plucked strings gradually becoming more enveloping and enchanting, casting Alcina's spell over the audience.

The same principle is applied to the voices and the casting perfectly reflects Caccini's intentions. Dylan Rooney's Ruggiero is a light lyrical baritone, his character unable to break the spell that has him held in thrall to Clodagh Kinsella's commanding Alcina. Aebh Kelly's bright soaring performance as Melissa is perfect as someone who cuts through the spell, a spell that holds Ruggiero and audience alike in an even tighter grasp following the appearance of Megan O'Neill's spellbinding Siren. There's a melancholic beauty also to Berus Komarschela's Astolfo, one of the chorus of Enchanted Plants, comically/tragically consigned to a wheelbarrow.

The addition of the Siren, the appearance of Alcina's Monsters and a huge set-piece conclusion of liberation of the Freed Knights and Lovers from Alcina and her Attendants, also provides great opportunities for spectacle, with a storm added for additional merveilleux effects. Under the musical direction of David Adams Caccini's La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola di Alcina still sounds fresh 400 years after it was first performed and, as staged by
Hélène Montague with the performances of the students of RIAM and the Lir, it proves still to be an utterly beguiling work.

Links: RIAM, The Lir, Abbey Theatre

Monday 1 April 2019

Puccini - Madama Butterfly (Dublin, 2019)

Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Irish National Opera, 2019

Timothy Redmond, Ben Barnes, Celine Byrne, Julian Hubbard, Brett Polegato, Doreen Curran, Eamonn Mulhall, John Molloy, Niamh O'Sullivan, Rachel Croash, Brendan Collins, Robert McAllister, Kevin Neville, Cormac Lawlor

Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin - 28 March 2019

In his programme notes, director Ben Barnes quotes Woody Allen, "People marry and die. Pinkerton does not return" and follows it with the personal observation, "Would that he had never come in the first place". It's by no means a new idea to see Madama Butterfly as a condemnation of American political and cultural imperialism rather than just a romantic tragedy; the marriage of an American sailor to a naive Japanese child bride certainly invites that response to a modern audience. The director's observation however is a bold statement of intent all the same and I hoped to see that developed in the Irish National Opera's new production of Madama Butterfly. Barnes certainly followed through on that idea, not as boldly as he might have, but in an opera as popular as Madama Butterfly, it's perhaps wise not to stray too far from audience expectations.

To be fair, taking Madama Butterfly out of Japan is no minor adjustment. I've seen a lot - and I mean a lot - of Madama Butterflys in my time and quite a few updatings, but none have dared to dispense almost entirely with the pretty Japanese imagery of its Nagasaki setting. I say 'almost' however and that's because an Asian element is still apparent and pretty much essential to the purpose of the clash of both the romantic and cultural ideals. Director Ben Barnes sets the INO production to all intents and purposes in Vietnam in the 1950s/60s and makes a few minor modifications to the surtitles to hide the references to Japan and Nagasaki, even though the libretto remains unchanged.

The pan-Asian set design however doesn't depart too far from what you might expect to see on the stage in a production of Madama Butterfly, but it extends the range of the work considerably from the romantic delusions of one couple in Nagasaki. It also makes it easier to see it in terms of a critical look at American imperialism that essentially views Asians as all the same and ripe for exploitation for their own interests.

It's refreshing then to see characters wearing Chinese pointed bamboo hats and robes instead of kimonos and obis, even though the customs referred to in the libretto remain Japanese and the house still very much the traditional shoji style paper panel screens, but every effort is made to not rest on the standard imagery and ceremonial representations that are all too familiar in productions of Madama Butterfly. Credit should go to Libby Seward who shows great inventiveness in the choreography and colour of Act I, finding the flow and mood of the work perfectly and mirroring it in the arranging of the chorus, in little movements and gestures. It's visually splendid and makes the observations of character much more engaging than Act I usually is, particularly as I say, since the production is not terribly bold here with any overt political commentary.

For the most part then we had to make do with the singing, and when I say 'make do' I really mean just be absolutely floored by the quality of the cast and the beauty of the performances. There was more than enough here in the definition of the characterisation to make up for the lack of any apparent deeper purpose in the production. Celine Byrne, an international star only now getting the opportunity to perform back home in Ireland with the creation of INO last year, was simply stunning. She almost made singing Cio-Cio-San look easy, which is no mean feat, but that doesn't mean she coasted at all either. This was a heartfelt performance with intelligent phrasing and technique that let little insights into Butterfly's character show. Combined with a luxurious timbre, no harshness or strain evident, just a clear ringing rounded delivery, everything you could want from Puccini's tragic heroine is present here in an engaging and masterful performance.

There was no slacking or weaknesses anywhere else; it was as if everyone had to up their game to be on the same level as Celine Byrne. Julian Hubbard was a fine Pinkerton, a little neutral in characterisation, but sometimes it's necessary not to overstate Pinkerton as a 'villain' since he doesn't see himself that way (although it's annoying that audiences still insist on treating him as a pantomime character, booing the villain at the curtain call), but just let the work speak for itself. Brett Polegato was a wonderfully sonorous Sharpless and Doreen Curran's Suzuki was perfectly pitched in voice and character to complement Byrne's Cio-Cio San. There was plenty to 'make do' also in Eamonn Mulhall's Goro, John Molloy's Bonze and in the lovely chorus work. The INO really have an impressive pool of talent to draw upon here.

It's only during the Intermezzo between Act II and Act III that Ben Barnes really lets fly and hits home with the impact that up to then had been left to the singers to deliver. Projections onto the closed shoji screens of Butterfly's house show everyday people's lives in Asia being gradually overturned by American involvement in the East; politicians and soldiers seem oblivious to the reality and inhumanity of what takes place in Vietnam as bombs are dropped and villages are burnt. It's dropped in so suddenly without any prior notice that it's a bit jarring and doesn't fit well with what has come before. A few hints might have integrated this better into the production as a whole, but on the other hand the element of shock is just as effective and it actually doesn't seem heavy-handed (or at least not any more heavy-handed than Puccini's score, should you see it that way), and it opens up the work's dramatic scenes of betrayal and death on a much larger scale than it being just an isolated little incident of romantic tragedy.

I must admit that I sometimes get tired of the idea of going to see another Madama Butterfly, but that only lasts up to the moment that I hear the first few bars of the score and I am immediately gripped and transported by Puccini's genius and his ability to make this intimate little story so momentous. That magic works again under the conducting of Timothy Redmond, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra giving a balanced reading that shows no heavy-handedness either. When you get to the Humming Chorus, you know that the spell is working by how this moment commands absolute reverence on a popular and emotional level in a way that few other pieces of music or opera can achieve. The response at the conclusion of this Irish National Opera production shows that they successfully connected the heart of the work with the hearts of the audience in Dublin.

This production can now be viewed steaming on-line on the RTE Player.

Links: Irish National Opera