Friday 28 June 2019

Mozart - Don Giovanni (Paris, 2019)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

L'Opéra National de Paris, 2019

Philippe Jordan, Ivo Van Hove, Étienne Dupuis, Ain Anger, Jacquelyn Wagner, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Nicole Car, Philippe Sly, Mikhail Timoshenko, Elsa Dreisig

Paris Cinema Live - 21 June 2019

It's not as if Mozart's operas works aren't already clearly progressive works, in their musical qualities as well as in their expression of the injustices and inequalities within society, and as such they always seem to be capable of revealing other aspects and changing facets that reflect the times we are living in. The 'droit de seigneur' of Le Nozze di Figaro can certainly be applied to contemporary situations, showing that Mozart was already there with #MeToo long before its time and there's also something about Don Giovanni that takes in all the complexities of male and female relationships on a deeper and more universal level.

If we can recognise what is universal and true in Mozart's Don Giovanni, it doesn't need a director like Ivo van Hove to bring it out or add anything new to it. Not that you have to, since attempting to fit those works to contemporary morals and attitudes can still be problematic. Sometimes the best thing you can do is let a work speak for itself and the sign of a good director is knowing when to step back and where to intervene and what to highlight to bring to the attention of the audience. Van Hove's setting of his Paris Opera production consequently aims for the universal, blending modern and period characteristics, but feels almost respectful of Mozart in terms of the plotting, not daring to mess with it too much.

Of course in Don Giovanni, certain choices have to be made by any director that have considerable influence on the tone of the work. One of the first choices any director has to make is whether Don Giovanni is a seducer and a lover of women or an aggressor and an abuser. Even within that you have to determine whether he is a victim of his own desires, incapable of being anything but his nature (and whether the women who are drawn to him are not more than creatures of nature too) and thus deserving of some sympathy.

Some productions in the past have suggested that Donna Anna was leading him on, that the killing of the Commendatore is just an accident or self-defence, that his only real crime is arrogance in believing that he is above the laws of nature, that he is in control of them, that there is no harm or consequence to his behaviours, that he is exempt (whether through nobility, vanity or just arrogant superiority) from paying any price for his actions. While it's valid to explore the many possibilities that this fascinating character and the other fascinating characters play in the opera (and they all have an important part to play), there's no real doubt about how Mozart saw Don Giovanni. It's in the original title; a dissolute punished.

Ivo van Hove clearly wants to stick with that line of thinking, and I'm minded to consider the previous Paris Opera production directed by the filmmaker Michael Haneke in relation to this, Haneke making the original title explicit, taking a political spin on the work and making the punishment very much a case of earthly justice of the people deposing a cruel, thoughtless and arrogant leader. Van Hove's choices are less imposing on the work and not so politically minded, but his outlook on it means that the production unquestionably has a darker colour that doesn't permit the usual comic interplay with Leporello. Van Hove's contribution, if it adds up to anything, is in holding to this consistent tone, in getting the performers all working together to bring that character to the fore and making it feel as deep and real and meaningful as Mozart scores it.

What is also noticeable about this production - although really you should already be aware of this - is that the women in Don Giovanni are amazing. Mozart's enlightened thinking was genuinely far ahead of his time. Without having to expressly evoke any contemporary application, it's evident enough to anyone currently witnessing the rise of the #MeToo movement that these are women in Don Giovanni who are here prepared to stand up against their aggressor, not let society say that they are complicit, nor let it make them doubt their own nature. The may have been naive perhaps in their expectations of someone like Don Giovanni, but nothing more than that, and he has gravely abused their nature, their trust and their person.

That comes out well, and it's a director's job to ensure that that it does, so whether you recognise Ivo Van Hove's hand in this (as with his theatrical work his directing of actors is a lot more subtle than his bold and experimental scenic touches suggest), his choices and directions unquestionably strike an accurate and consistent tone. And it's not just in the casting and performance of Don Giovanni, although Étienne Dupuis is outstanding as a serious, calculating and manipulative noble here, his singing and performance striking a superb balance between charming and utterly deadly, but how the other characters respond to him is vitally important.

I've pondered before when considering Le Nozze di Figaro how important the secondary roles are in Mozart's operas, and concluding that if you give due attention to the casting and character of all the roles, there are greater dividends to be found. There's no such thing as a secondary or minor role in Mozart's operas - in the Da Ponte trilogy of works at least - and that the operas achieve their true greatness when all of them are given serious consideration. I don't think Don Giovanni can be anything but great, but when you give those superbly detailed characters (in terms of personality, as well as in the incredible pieces of music that Mozart writes for them), the true genius of the complexity of people's behaviour and their relationships is apparent.

In that respect, this is a great Don Giovanni. Director intervention might appear minimal, but the coaching of the performers to find the real people within those roles, to bring out what Mozart and Da Ponte put there is evident here. Of course, it's consideration of the fate of the women that is just as important, if not more important than Don Giovanni (although Don Giovanni and Leporello must also be taken seriously in how they display another side of human nature), and when you do that, not only do you get heartfelt, fiery performances from Jacquelyn Wagner as Donna Anna and Nicole Car as Donna Elvira, but you get the whole richness of women's sentiments and personality when you take that attention down to Elsa Dreisig's sincere Zerlina. Superb singing from Philippe Sly as Leporello, Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Don Ottavio, Ain Anger as the Commendatore, and Mikhail Timoshenko as Masetto kept a strong consistent tone across all the relationships in the production of this work.

How much the production design contributed to the overall impact of the work is difficult to determine, but it clearly worked well. The whole opera takes place here outside Don Giovanni's imposing grey castle with little of the usual film references that you associate with an Ivo Van Hove production and instead more of an Escher quality, or Duke Bluebeard's Castle in the sense of the maze like entrapment of the castle's staircases, alleys and doorways. Modern suits are mixed with medieval attitudes. It's uniformly grey, but there are flashes of colour there when the director wants to draw attention to aspects of the drama and the music.

There is little also of the director's customary use of projections, Van Hove keeping those tricks in the bag until later for maximum impact. The use and wielding of guns give an extra edge of danger, of threatening masculinity and abuse of power. The effects are saved for the finale, as you might expect in the descent to hell scene. What you might not expect is the superb handling of the necessary final sextet, often cut in darker interpretations of the opera. Here it is necessary to give a sense that this dark masculine world can be healed and it's women, Mozart's women - the clue already revealed in the seemingly throwaway scene between Zerlina and Masetto - who are the healing force in the opera. I expected something a little more radical from this director doing Don Giovanni, but no it didn't need it. Van Hove sees what is important in the opera, in Mozart's outlook, and he nails it.

L'Opera de Paris, Culturebox

Thursday 20 June 2019

Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Brussels, 2019)

Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Brussels, 2019)

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels 2019

Alain Altinoglu, Ralf Pleger, Alexander Polzin, Bryan Register, Franz-Josef Selig, Ann Petersen, Andrew Foster-Williams, Nora Gubisch, Wiard Witholt, Ed Lyon

La Monnaie Streaming - May 2019

Say what you like about La Monnaie's strict policy on bold and sometimes bizarre modern productions, but they always look fantastic. And with
Alain Altinoglu currently chief musical director, they sound fantastic too. That's good news for something like Tristan und Isolde, a work that operates on an abstract plane that inspires leaps of creativity without the necessity to adhere to any kind of real world naturalism. It certainly makes a leap in this production directed by film director Ralf Pleger with set designs by artist Alexander Polzin, who rise to the challenge that few other works can aspire to with a production that really does look and sound fantastic.

The exploration of the deep mysteries of love, death and human spirituality almost calls out for an art installation presentation and lately opera houses have been turning more and more to creators in the plastic arts (and even architects in some cases) to lend their hand to representations of the human and philosophical content of Wagner operas. Tristan und Isolde has seen interpretations from Bill Viola in Paris and Anish Kapoor at the ENO in London, and there's no doubt that a work that is one of the greatest achievements of the performing arts benefits from the imagination, creativity of this kind of cross-fertilisation with other art disciplines.

There's evidently no sign of anything like a ship then in Act I of La Monnaie's Tristan und Isolde. It least follows a similar abstract approach to Pierre Audi's 2016 production of the opera at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, with a cool green/blue colour scheme, the figures dressed in white ceremonial robes, the sky here decorated with huge icy stalactites that descend down to the stage between the figures and glow. There are a few other abstract props - Isolde appearing on the stage wearing a broken kite-like frame, but it's relatively simple in his adherence to mood, drawing the focus very firmly and effectively onto Isolde's icy fury at her captivity.

Ann Petersen carries the full drama of conflicted anger and mounting madness in that respect, the notion of death already present and associated with love in her recounting of Tristan's murder of her fiancé Morold and his supplanting himself fatally in that disturbed impressionable psyche at being held hostage in marriage to Marke. There's no need for love potions in this production to bring about the magical event of Tristan and Isolde's love, it's something that comes from within, implacably, following no logic or reason but a deep internal yearning and reaction to complex psychological disturbances, and it's enough that the music and singing carry the full weight of its conviction.

Act II is even more impressive in how it captures the complexity of those feelings that Tristan and Isolde feel for each other within a huge Alexander Polzin plaster sculpture that is surprisingly adaptable to the ebb and flow of moods and mounting desire. The sculpture takes the form of a thick mass of twisted truncated tree branches erupting out of the earth, with naked figures of dancers entwined within it. With shifts of light and use of shadows it conforms to the changing moods, primarily lust that ripples across the branches as the naked bodies weave and slide through it. Seen like this, you can't imagine Act II being done in any other way that expresses the sensations, emotions and spiritual content so perfectly.

Again, the apparent simplicity of the Act III backdrop reveals complex patterns of darkness, light and casting of shadows; black holes one minute, shafts of light the next or the suggestion of stars. The use of colour blending with the light offers infinite gradations of expression that aren't so much representational of Wagner's score as offering another dimension to its moods and sentiments. And yes, it is as abstract as that sounds, evoking a hallucinatory 'trip' according to director Ralf Pleger, where love is the drug, but should we not be looking for deeper commentary or interpretation in Tristan und Isolde?

Some directors like Dmitri Tcherniakov at Berlin in 2018 might be more interested in the dramaturgical and psychological than the spiritual and the ineffable, but that's not the case with Pleger and Polzin's vision of the work. The La Monnaie production is as enigmatic and open to personal interpretation as the work itself, operating on a level of pure sensation, caught up in the rapture of the world's greatest lovers; a love that is impossible to grasp without it completely overshadowing life, stretching beyond the boundaries of being, becoming an all-consuming self-contradictory destructive/transcendental force.

The musical and singing performances are supremely up to the greatness of the work and the stage production that has been developed for it. Ann Petersen perfectly meets the requirements of mood and character; urgent, anxious and soaringly rapturous, both human and aspiring to supra-human. Bryan Register is an impressive Tristan, unfaltering, likewise finding a perfect equilibrium between control and abandonment to the discovery of such depth of feeling and the transformative nature of that force. There are flawless performances too from Franz-Josef Selig's Marke, Andrew Foster-Williams's Kuwenal and Nora Gubisch's Brangäne.

Alain Altinoglu's conducting of the La Monnaie is also deeply impressive. I really don't think I've heard the work performed with such sensitivity and attention to detail of pace and mood, never letting the romantic surges overwhelm, but showing how they arise out of the internal and external drama, carrying the singers and the audience along, reminding you what a work of supreme beauty and genius Tristan und Isolde is. This is a spectacle and a performance befitting of one of the greatest artistic creations in any medium. Simply stunning.

Links: La Monnaie - MM Channel

Friday 14 June 2019

Mercadante - Didone Abbandonata (Innsbruck, 2018)

Saverio Mercadante - Didone Abbandonata

Innsbruck Festival of Early Music, 2018

Alessandro De Marchi, Jürgen Flimm, Viktorija Miškūnaitė, Katrin Wundsam, Emilie Renard, Carlo Vincenzo Allemano, Diego Godoy, Pietro Di Bianco

Naxos - Blu-ray

The idea of a 19th century composer working with a very old Pietro Metastasio text set by many baroque composers is an intriguing one. A composer like Verdi however was keen put some distance between the indulgences of a bel canto era which was still indebted to its 18th century past, beyond even Rossini, the most progressive composer of that era. Somewhere in there however, largely overlooked and unjustly neglected is Saverio Mercadante, and yet it is in Mercadante and particularly in a work like Didone Abbandonata, that you can definitely see the building of the bridge that Verdi was later able to cross to take Italian opera decisively into the new century.

That connection between Verdi and Mercadante might be more evident in a later work like Il Bravo, seen recently at Wexford Festival Opera (one of the few champions of Mercadante in the opera world), but Didone Abbandonata from 1823 opens up a whole new way of viewing his place in Italian opera. Taken up by the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music with a care towards historically-informed period instruments and performance - which means tuning down from the 20th century standard - this production aims to give the work an authenticity of sound that has done much in the past to present Handel and other baroque works in a new light.

So to return to that initial thought - how would early 19th century opera working with a Metastasio libretto sound? Well in fairness it sounds a lot like Donizetti; constrained to a certain extent by a structure dictated by Metastasio's libretto towards a standard cavatina, aria and recitative arrangement. Mercadante never lets that get in the way of creativity however, the libretto reworked by Andrea Leone Tottola, finding lovely settings for cavatinas, duets, trios and choruses that place his own stamp on the work. That character is more evident here since the period instruments unquestionably give prominence and space for the voice to be much more expressive.

In Didone Abbandonata, the focus in the cavatinas and duets is on expression rather than ornamentation and there's rather unusually only one brief aria in the whole first half of the opera and it's Araspe, a secondary character, who sings it. In Act II likewise the few brief arias are little more than minor adornments. It's perhaps a bit much then to expect Mercadante to be able to provide a profound examination of human feelings and situations when tied to 18th century operatic mannerisms, improbable twists and lack of naturalism in situations, but dispensing with the longeurs of the da capo, Mercadante drives everything purposefully towards showpiece rondos and the finales at the end of each of the two acts.

Fundamentally, Didone Abbandonata relies - as it did with Purcell in Dido and Aeneas and as it would also with Berlioz in Les Troyens à Carthage - on the human tragedy of a woman's deep love, hopes and fidelity all dashed by a lover's desertion. It's not so much that Dido feels betrayed by Aeneas choosing the duty over love - she's not the first woman and won't be the last one in opera to suffer that fate - as much as it does touch on a deeper psychological experience (one that Dmitri Tcherniakov alluded to a little heavy-handedly in his recent Paris production of Berlioz's Les Troyens) where human sentiments are crushed by a rush towards fate, the will of the gods or whatever you want to call the hand of history.

Mercadante does his bit to create that essential tragedy, but there remains the challenge of finding a suitable stage representation that suits the subject and the musical treatment. Director Jürgen Flimm attempts a kind of half-way house between early 18th century in the military costumes and modern in some of the props - a cement mixer, a fridge, guns, bullet-proof vests - on a rotating stage with a concrete bunker at one corner. There's little that points to the ancient legend, Aeneas even appearing to be preparing for his departure in a canoe with some travelling cases, but yet there is a classical feel to the situation, not striving for naturalism or realism as much as attuning the drama to the varied tones of the work that Mercadante applies.

Some of this is consequently of doubtful character - Flimm for example has Iarbas carry out his sacking of Carthage like he's playing a jazz-hands music-hall song and dance routine - but again the desired impact is very definitely achieved. Iarbas - very well sung by Carlo Vincenzo Allemano, even if the dancing around leaves him a little breathless - does have a greater role to play in this version of Virgil's Aeneid. Flimm's depiction of the wholesale slaughter enacted by Iarbas rampaging through the smoking ruins of Carthage at the conclusion and even involved in the death of Dido, does capture a sense of the complete loss and devastation of the Queen of Carthage's world, abandoned not just by Aeneas, but by everyone. There's nothing left but death.

Whether Mercadante's music has the necessary strength to carry that alone it's hard to say, but Alessandro De Marchi's conducting of the Academia Montis Regalis is authoritative and attuned to the situations and overall pace and rhythm. His interview in the enclosed booklet is highly informative on how a complete edition of the score was assembled and how the authentic early 19th century sound contributes to the character of the work. The singing is also impressive throughout, with a superb performance in particular from mezzo-soprano Katrin Wundsam in the trouser role of Aeneas, demonstrating impeccable control over the complete range with dramatic swoops from high to low. Her Act II rondò is just stunning.

Recorded live at the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music in 2018, Didone Abbandonata comes across well on the Naxos BD50 Blu-ray disc. The HD image is initially quite dark with high contrast due to the lighting, but the clarity is more evident in Act II. The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 soundtracks provide two very different listening experiences. The surround giving more space to the instruments, the stereo giving much more presence to the singing. There are no extras on the disc, but good contextual information and a synopsis in the enclosed booklet. The BD is all-region compatible and there are subtitles in German, English, French, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Innsbruck Festival of Early Music

Thursday 6 June 2019

Korngold - Das Wunder der Heliane (Berlin, 2018)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold - Das Wunder der Heliane

Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2018

Marc Albrecht, Christof Loy, Brian Jagde, Sara Jakubiak, Josef Wagner, Okka von der Damerau, Derek Wetton, Burkhard Ulrich

Naxos - Blu-ray

Like many other German and Austrian works that were categorised as 'degenerate' Entartete music by the Nazis in the 1930s, Korngold's early operas have as a consequence been consigned largely to obscurity. That is undoubtedly unfair, as the banning of such works had little to do with any kind of musical discrimination or value judgement and everything to do with whether a composer was of Jewish origin or had Jewish family connections. The neglect and loss of such works and any legacy they might have had could however also have as much to do with them being out of touch with changing musical tastes and the reality of people's lives on the ground.

The near-eradication of such works from music history may not be so much to do with the labelling of such music as degenerate as much as the operas and their themes being rather too 'decadent' in subject matter at a particular juncture in history when the world was about to plunge once again into war. Korngold's operas would certainly fit in with the decadent fantasies that seemed to flourish around this period. With fairy-tale worlds peopled by ambiguous figures and wrapped in lush chromatic orchestration, Richard Strauss, Franz Schreker and Erich Wolfgang Korngold relished delving freely into a dark core of madness and forbidden lusts that had been unleashed post-war in the new century.

If they don't reveal any great psychological insights, works like Die Frau ohne Schatten, Die Gezeichneten and of course Korngold's Die tote Stadt are nonetheless fascinating and exquisitely beautiful works that are very much the product of their (short-lived) time. So too it transpires is Das Wunder der Heliane (Heliane's Miracle), another Korngold masterpiece that has been largely neglected or deemed irrelevant to the development and progress of 20th century opera. Composed in 1927 with a trial at its centre, there's a sense even that Das Wunder der Heliane challenges itself in response to such conflicts, if only within the world of opera. Are you willing, it seems to ask, to sacrifice the beauty of Romance for a harsh, unyielding, joyless life without magic and love in it?

That seems to be the choice open to the Stranger, imprisoned for bringing a message of joy and light to a land where love and laughter are forbidden. The King, a stern and embittered figure who has never even known the love of the Queen, visits the Stranger in his cell to tell him that he will stand trial and face execution for his frivolity. The Queen, Heliane however proves to be more yielding to the Stranger's outlook, offering him her hair, her feet, her mouth and then her nakedness, but not her body. The King, going back to plead with the man to ask him how to win the love of the Queen, is outraged when he discovers her naked with the Stranger.

That's the first highly charged Act of Das Wunder der Heliane, the subsequent two Acts setting these forces against one another, leading to the death of the Stranger in Act II and his 'resurrection' at the miraculous intervention of Heliane, whose goodness and purity allows them to consummate their love in death in the finale of Act III. There doesn't appear to be much Wagner or Schopenhauer influenced philosophical underpinning to this pseudo-mystical Liebestod, just throwing out the idea of beauty, purity, love and light as the true enduring force in the world, even stronger than death.

If there's any way of making a credible case for this idea, it's in how Korngold smothers any philosophical shortcomings with persuasive swathes of strings, harps, 'seraphic voices' and all manner of celestial instrumentation. Who could resist or deny that there is indeed something miraculous and otherworldly in the music at least? If anyone can convince you of the argument of Das Wunder der Heliane, it's Korngold's orchestration at his most extravagant. It's rather like Strauss in this register - full-on, rich and complex, underscoring high emotion with soaring crescendos.

Like Strauss it also places exceptional demands on the singers, who not only have to be capable of the stamina to handle its technical complexities, keeping up with the continuous augmentation of musical emotions, but also rising above it and making it feel like it comes heroically from the heart. I haven't come across American tenor Brian Jagde before, but he is supremely capable of bringing all that to the role of the Stranger, in thrall to love and beauty. The rush of 'pure' lusts inspire him to soar to incredible heights in his Act I scene with Sara Jakubiak's Heliane that culminates in her revealing herself fully to him. The singing with the orchestration and the charge of the chaste eroticism reaches everything that Korngold could wish to achieve in a scene like this.

Christof Loy's direction doesn't try to compete with the charge that is already there, but his directions certainly help bring it about. It's almost impossible to sustain that kind of charge and tie it into further miraculous associations between love and death (although Tristan und Isolde - clearly the major influence on this work - of course proves otherwise), so Loy aims for a more sober set design, setting the drama in a courtroom inspired by Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution, with dark classical wooden panelled walls and no unnecessary adornment or effects. As is often the case with Loy, he seems to give a problematic work the best possible presentation that highlights its strengths and mitigates against any weaknesses, and he does it with some style too.

Korngold's score also demands a certain flair and Marc Albrecht is an experienced conductor in this field. To judge purely on impact, the whole character of Korngold is there, distinct from Wagner, Strauss or Schreker, using unconventional instruments in an idiosyncratic way to achieve similar effects. The demands are not just on the principals then but the whole cast and there are consequently impressive performances from Josef Wagner as the distraught and furious King, Okka von der Damerau as the king's Messenger, Burkhard Ulrich as the Blind Judge and Derek Wetton suitably otherworldly as the Gatekeeper. This is a hugely impressive and revelatory production in every respect of a neglected Korngold rarity.

Recorded live at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in 2018, Das Wunder der Heliane is given a superb presentation on Blu-ray disc by Naxos. The HD image is good, but evidently the real benefit of the format is in how it gets across the power, complexity and detail of Korngold's majestic score in the high resolution DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 soundtracks. The spread of the surround track gives a more immersive experience, while the 2.0 track is more direct and powerful, particularly on headphones. Korngold specialist Brendan G. Carroll provides an introductory essay in the booklet, and also some items from his own archive on the disc, including an 8-minute recording from 1928 of the Act III Zwischenspiel and a picture gallery of rare photographs, posters and images. The BD is all-region compatible and there are subtitles in German, English, French, Japanese and Korean.