Sunday 21 July 2019

Caldara - Lucio Papirio Dittatore (Buxton, 2019)

Antonio Caldara - Lucio Papirio Dittatore

La Serenissima, 2019

Adrian Chandler, Giulia Nuti, Mark Burns, Robert Murray, William Towers, Owen Willetts, Rowan Pierce, Elizabeth Karani, Eleanor Dennis, Gareth Brynmor John

Buxton Opera House - 13th July 2019

As the director Mark Burns observes in the programme notes, there is a challenge about approaching an old forgotten work as a complete blank slate, particularly a work as rare as Antonio Caldara's Lucio Papirio Dittatore, composed in 1719 and almost unheard of since. Composed for the royal court of the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, for which Caldera was Vice-Kapellmeister, it's a work that nonetheless that proves to be deserving of revival and sympathetic treatment. Its qualities are certainly borne out by an outstanding performance from period music specialists La Serenissima and some magnificent fine singing, but the direction proves to be unable to do much to enliven the rather dry long drawn out conventions of the opera seria.

It really needs a little more because in many respects Lucio Papirio Dittatore is to the untrained ear indistinguishable in content and approach from the opera seria of Vivaldi, Scarlatti and even Handel in his dryer works. Others too that I may have forgotten or have failed to register in the memory because aside from the bigger names who have been mined in recent decades, baroque opera has slipped slightly out of the picture as far as I can see. All the more reason to be delighted when a company like La Serenissima are prepared to dig a little deeper into what still remains largely buried treasure. Any one of Caldera's 40 or so surviving operas would be a true rarity and surely deserving of the kind of sympathetic treatment of a period music performance.

A largely static period production of a baroque opera seria won't do it any favours or win over any casual opera goers at the Buxton Festival. It's true that there's not a whole lot you can do with a work that is about the traditional struggle between power, authority and love and make it feel fresh, modern and exciting without shoehorning in a lot of contemporary references. We've had all that already in Buxton with Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and David Cameron all referenced in Orpheus in the Underworld, and in Georgiana too to a less obvious nod-and-a-wink extent. Even in a work where a plebiscite or referendum takes place and is eventually overruled, there's no such highlighting of any obvious parallel, preferring to let the content and treatment of Lucio Papirio Dittatore speak for itself.

To his credit, the director Mark Burns does attempt to modernise the themes with a reference to the building wrapping art installations of the Bulgarian artists Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Marie Denat, the Roman arches and monuments here draped in a fine muslin-like cloth. A casual viewer who hasn't read the programme notes is unlikely to notice this or catch the reference to the artists' background under Soviet Communist rules and its implications of tyranny of the weak. As it stands, with the cloth hangings the same colour as the stone and marble it just makes the arches look a little rough and bumpy, but perhaps on some level it informs the production.

As far as the performances go there appears to be little to the direction other than blocking, moving forward and backward, making entrances and exits. On the other hand it has to be said that the drama, what little of it there is considerably drawn-out, plays out with admirable clarity and holds attention. That is no mean feat in a work of this type, particularly when it appears to be played in full without any cuts, even going as far as to include the coda in praise of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. If you are going to the trouble of reviving a rare work like this you want to do it without compromise, but inevitably that's going to come at the cost of accessibility. I can't fault La Serenissima for their choice and the director has had to work within those constraints, and to be fair, since many like me come to Buxton for the opportunity to experience rare works performed nowhere else, I wouldn't have it any other way.

What provided visual interest on the stage however was the decision to put the orchestra up there with the drama. It's a large ensemble too, occupying a full third of the stage. This was a complete joy to see and it provided the accessibility that that drama didn't, permitting the audience, particularly those with a higher view than the stalls, the opportunity to see how Caldara uses different sections of instruments to vary mood and situation, which part used harpsichord, theorbo and cello continuo, which called on the brass fanfares, which brought in the whole ensemble with percussion and woodwind. Without a conductor, there are two musical directors then for the diverse parts of the work and recitative, Adrian Chandler leading on violin, Giulia Nuti on harpsichord. All the drama is in there and you would miss much of that if it was consigned to the orchestra pit.

Without getting into the technicalities of the plot, like most opera seria works derived from Zeno or Metastasio, Lucio Papirio Dittatore is actually quite simple in outline but needlessly complicated in detail. During the Second Samnite war in 324BC, the Roman army general Quinto Fabio has disobeyed the orders of the dictator Lucio Papirio and launched into battle with the Samnites. No matter that he was victorious and won the day, ending the war almost single-handed; his failure to follow orders amounts to treason and he must be punished. There's only one sentence according to the law and that is death, no matter that Quinto is married to Papirio's daughter, Papiria. Quinto is assured of his actions despite being warned that "Innocence cannot save you from power and envy". In true opera seria fashion, the situation inevitably introduces a lot of lamenting and pleading on the part of Papiria.

That's drawn out to about an hour and a half in the first two Acts, which is tough going. You can see parallels with power and envy clear enough without it having to be spelled out but mainly you see a lot of conventional opera seria. In the second half Papirio shows that he is not actually motivated by envy and is willing to spare Quinto if the people of Rome vote in his favour. Unfortunately the people of Rome, for some reason, decide they want their hero executed. Lucio proves magnanimous and commutes the sentence, forgiving Quinto. The soldier is so overwhelmed with this gesture that he decides he would happily die. And then somehow it's all wrapped up with a happy ending. Don't ask me to make sense out of any of that. There's a fuller synopsis available in the Festival programme, but I'm not sure it's worth the effort, at least not as far making sense of the plot.

What matters is that Caldera's music makes it work, and it is absolutely beautiful music with wonderful sounding period instruments - including a harpsichord, theorbo and chalumeau - delivering vivid exciting rhythms and sounds that are unlike anything else. And it works too because of the singers. Owen Willetts's Quinto Fabio is superb, a countertenor with strength and impressive control, he is able to handle the flights of emotive expression. Rowan Pierce's Papiria too is impressive. Initially saddled with laments for the most part, she nonetheless makes the role sympathetic with an edge of defiance against her father. Eleanor Dennis's Cominio is also excellent in the subplot romance that I've intentionally neglected to include in the plot description for fear of making it any more complicated, but again, the performances make it fit, hold attention and overcome any issues there might have been with the otherwise static stage direction.

Links: Buxton International Festival

Friday 19 July 2019

Linley, Mozart, Paisello, Martín y Soler, Storace, Cavendish - Georgiana (Buxton, 2019)

Thomas Linley, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giovanni Paisiello, Martín y Soler, Stephen Storace, Georgiana Cavendish - Georgiana

Buxton International Festival, 2019

Mark Tatlow, Matthew Richardson, Samantha Clarke, Ben Hulett, Susanna Fairbairn, Olivia Ray, Geoffrey Dolton, Katherine Aitken, Aled Hall, Rhys Thomas

Buxton Opera House - 12th July 2019

"So modern so delightful, so daring so wicked. They'll all go to hell", the playwright Richard Sheridan and politician Charles James Fox observe as the scandal of the Georgiana Cavendish, the 5th Duchess of Devonshire captures the imagination of the gossiping public in 1782, and judging by the reception of Buxton Festival's new opera Georgiana, it still has the capacity of wickedness and daring to delight a modern audience. Particularly as it's a subject that is close to home in Buxton considering the importance of the Cavendish family to the Peak District spa town, making it an ideal subject for a new opera in the 40th year of the Buxton Festival.

Well, sort of new. Unless you want to go down the direction of Thomas Adès and his treatment of the scandal of the Duchess of Argyll in his daring opera Powder her Face, you'd like to keep the music as close to the period as possible. The idea of imitating or creating a pastiche of 18th century music isn't really a credible option, but who needs to when it's all already been written and there is already the convention of the pasticcio opera, making use of existing arias and pieces, cutting and pasting them from a variety of sources, making a patchwork of the best of the best.

The idea of a pasticcio or patchwork opera however gives the impression of something thrown together and nothing could be further from the truth about Georgiana. Instead of simply taking arias expressing generic sentiments and stitching them together with recitative to make a new variation of a typical baroque opera plot, Buxton's new Artistic Director Michael Williams has created a new libretto from a text by playwright Janet Plater and set it to a selection of period and dramatically appropriate music compiled by musical director Mark Tatlow. Rather than go for the obvious and familiar, Tatlow selects lesser known pieces by Thomas Linley (the "English Mozart" who died at the age of 22), Mozart, Giovanni Paisello, Martín y Soler, Stephen Storace and even a piece attributed to Georgiana Cavendish herself.

There's nothing here consequently that feels like it's been patched together. The music has a wonderful musical and dramatic consistency that flows marvellously and feels entirely 'new', perfectly suited to the period and the situations developed in the opera. The libretto too is a delight (modern, daring and wicked indeed enough to satisfy Fox and Sheridan), never feeling for forced or mannered, but clever and witty, capturing the nature of the characters and moving the drama along. There are a few nods and winks to the modern audience, such making fun of the absurd idea of Georgiana's lover Earl Charles Grey having a tea named after him, but there is never any sense of parody or making fun of the pasticcio.

Even the idea of establishing an appropriate tone has been carefully considered, aiming - ambitiously, but why not? - towards a two-act dramma giacoso in the style of Don Giovanni. Goodness knows there's enough scandalous affairs and outrageous behaviour in the life of Georgiana Cavendish, the opera in the first act covering her growing gambling debts kept secret from her husband, the ménage-á-trois relationship that scandalises the Ton High Society when Lady Bess Foster moves in with Georgiana and the Duke, and Georgiana's involvement in the political advancement of Charles Fox and her affair with Earl Grey. The first Act culminates in a typically Mozart farcical ensemble where Georgiana confesses that she is pregnant by Grey while Bess turns out to be pregnant at the same time by the Georgiana's husband the Duke of Devonshire.

The first half of the opera is an absolute delight, perfectly judged in terms of music and drama and superbly played by the musicians of the Northern Chamber Orchestra under Mark Tatlow, acted and sung with verve and flair by an exceptional cast. The handling of the material ensures that there's a perfect balance in the tone between the dramatic content and the characterisation of it, causing scandal on one side, delighting the likes of Fox and Sheridan with enough gossip to keep them in demand in society and in inspiration for plays, but also in the devil-may-care attitude of Georgiana and Bess, and the Duke too when he finds the arrangements rather to his liking.

The second half is no less fun, but the dramatic charge doesn't carry through quite as entertainingly and isn't quite as well-constructed. The idea of the Devonshires and the secrets of the parentage of their children provide more scandal and gossip, but it gets a little repetitive. Georgiana's debts continue to mount and she becomes ill and dies quite suddenly without there being much leading up to it. The variety of musical situations and the singing performances ensure however that interest never flags throughout.

Jon Morrell's set design and Matthew Richardson's direction also contributes to making sure that this is never anything less than marvellous entertainment. Set in the shape that suggests the famous Devonshire Dome, one of the great architectural creations in the town, or perhaps in the shape of the Crescent (currently being painstakingly restored, provoking an in-joke about when it will ever be finished), or made of stone from the town's famous quarries, it definitely resonated with a Buxton audience. It also had a simple beautiful elegance that perfectly matched the musical arrangements, with silhouette cut-outs and suitable props as required.

There was not a single compromise in the conception or execution of Georgiana, this was simply a superb new opera creation. The singing too was wise to the dramma giocoso nature of the work, finding a good balance between good-natured wicked comic caricature of Aled Hall's Fox and Geoffrey Dolton's Sheridan, and the rather more serious nature of Samantha Clarke's Georgiana with her enlightened liberal attitudes and lust for living that would inevitably lead to near-ruin and a tragic end. Ben Hulett's Duke of Devonshire was also notable for some fine singing. Everything about Georgiana just oozes classy, quality opera, and it surely deserves to reach a wider audience after this critically acclaimed opening at the Buxton Festival.

Links: Buxton International Festival

Offenbach - Orpheus in the Underworld (Buxton, 2019)

Jacques Offenbach - Orpheus in the Underworld

Opera della Luna, 2019

Toby Purser, Jeff Clarke, Tristan Stocks, Daire Halpin, Katharine Taylor-Jones, Anthony Flaum, Matthew Siveter, Louise Crane, Paul Featherstone, Lynsey Docherty, Kristy Swift

Buxton Opera House - 11th July 2019

I don't think anyone goes to an Offenbach operetta with high expectations of seeing some great piece of lyric theatre or indeed any cutting edge commentary on society, but you could be surprised and usually are by Orpheus in the Underworld. As far back as 1858, Orphée aux Enfers managed to satirise not only opera conventions in an uproarious way but also managed to throw in some incendiary little comments about contemporary society under the Second Empire of Napoleon III. What may also be surprising is the realisation that things that Offenbach was satirising aren't all that different from the behaviour of politicians and personalities what we see in the news today.

Primarily of course the main intention of Orpheus in the Underworld is to provide some light entertainment and make the audience laugh, and it's packed with good tunes as well, this opera being the origin of the instantly recognisable music of the Cancan. Perfect material then for a matinee show on a warm summer day in July at the Buxton International Festival and Opera della Luna, a company who specialise in light comic opera ensured that their production put a smile on the face of the audience and sent them back out humming the tunes.

If anything however, it was just a little on the light side. With the right translation, Orpheus in the Underworld can still have a bit of bite and be a saucy little piece, making fun of Jupiter's dalliances with mortal women and applying that to present-day leaders' indiscretions and infidelities (funny how that situation never dates). There is some full frontal body padding nudity here which gets some amused laughter, but really not enough advantage taken to apply it to contemporary public figures. Public Opinion can have more of a role to play in this and although her Arts Council persona interruptions were very amusing (Orpheus at the finale getting a grant to complete his concerto when he satisfied all the minority tickboxes got the biggest laugh of the evening) but the production didn't take enough advantage of this character.

Application to today however doesn't need to be overly spelled out. In fact, the references to President Trump and #MeToo seemed a little shoehorned in but obviously were very relevant, recognising that Offenbach was satirising how those in power only put on a show of being lofty while in reality they are even more inclined to indulge their proclivities and abuse their power. The satire worked best however when it was integrated into the singing rather than the dialogue. The characterisation of Pluto's factotum Dave ("Call me Dave") was very clever, confessing to the crime of calling a divisive referendum and then running away when the results came in. His elevated position in the Underworld as personal secretary to Pluto would prove to bear out Donald Tusk's warning that there would be a special place in hell for such people. That got a huge roar of laughter and approval from the audience.

Elsewhere however the comedy was mild and rather tame, relying on the dazzle and glamour and visual humour of Elroy Ashmore's spectacular, colourful set designs. These were perfectly appropriate for the content. The signposted road to 'Theebs' where the incompatible Orpheus and Eurydice have their assignations with their respective lovers in pastures where sheep grazed changed smoothly into the cloud domain of the heavenly but deadly dull Olympus, where the gods temporarily put aside their family quarrels to mount classical plinths naked in order to awe mere mortals. Pluto's living quarters of course looked like a classy 18th century French brothel, a place where you could quite reasonably expect them to dance the Cancan at a wild infernal party.  I love the detail of the skeleton chandeliers.

Wishing to do justice to all Offenbach's dance numbers, Jeff Clarke's production also successfully employed a quartet of acrobatic dancers playing everything from frolicking sheep to demons dancing the Cancan, as well as also providing the love interest for the mismatched feuding couple of Orpheus and Eurydice. And of course that reversal of the traditional situation between the two mythical figures provides plenty amusement of its own. Neither of them are the grand figures of mythology, Offenbach delighting in bringing their relationship down to earth. And a bit below it evidently.

Both Orpheus and Eurydice were well characterised in that respect. Tristan Stocks was rather weak of voice as Orpheus, but this is light comic opera and not Wagner or Verdi. Daire Halpin sings Eurydice with a lovely brightness of timbre and plays the part full of character. Again it's not a big voice and it didn't always carry over the small Opera della Luna ensemble who knocked out Offenbach's rhythms and melodies superbly under Toby Purser's musical direction, showing them to be finer musical compositions than they are usually given credit for being. You don't come to an Offenbach operetta expecting operatic bel canto or sober Gluck (although they do make fun of both here) but to be amused at the relevance of the daring satire of Offenbach and tap your opera programme along to the melodies, and clap along when given the opportunity. Opera della Luna's Orpheus in the Underworld was in that respect the perfect undemanding accompaniment to a lovely afternoon at the Buxton Festival.

Links: Buxton International Festival, Opera della Luna

Thursday 18 July 2019

Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin (Buxton, 2019)

Pyotr Illiych Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin (Buxton, 2019)

Buxton International Festival, 2019

Adrian Kelly, Jamie Manton, Shelley Jackson, Angharad Lyddon, David Webb, George Humphreys, Gaynor Keeble, Ceri Williams, Joshua Bloom, Joe Doody, Christopher Cull, Phil Wilcox

Buxton Opera House - 10th July 2019

The Buxton Festival usually concentrates on presenting rarely heard works, and for their 40th anniversary two or three works that you are unlikely to see performed anywhere else, and a good bit of imagination and variety in the programming too. A work like Eugene Onegin wouldn't normally fit on the bill, but if you are going to put on a more familiar opera to appeal to a wider audience then Tchaikovsky's undisputed masterpiece is a good choice. Buxton put on a fabulous production too, one that didn't strive to impose any extravagant reinterpretation, but rather focussed on the mood and undercurrents that give the work its extraordinary character.

There are any number of ways of portraying that underlying character of doomed romance (not least Tchaikovsky's own horrendous experience of it) or the underlying Russian traits in Pushkin's hugely important work of Russian literature. Buxton's production however isn't interested in going for any deep Stefan Herheim or Krzysztof Warlikowski explorations and deconstructions of the work, but on first glance Justin Nardella's set designs did at least seem to reference Robert Carsen's NY Met production. With a stage strewn with autumnal leaves and back screen glowing with colours, the focus seems to be on the light and the seasons, factors that unquestionably exert an enormous influence on the work.

The luminous back panel might change colour to reflect the seasons and moods, turning green when Lensky quarrels with Onegin in jealousy over his perceived flirtation with Olga, wintry white while they turn up for their duel, and blood red when Lensky is killed, but Buxton's production has more to it than just colour coding and it recognises that there is more to Tchaikovsky's score than fluctuations of mood. There's another dominant character that suffuses the whole work and that's its dark melancholic reflection on romance and the twists of fate and time that swirl people in and out of each other's lives, exerting a huge tug that can disrupt the larger patterns of life and emotional stability.

Or, to put that force into more recognisable terms, it's the power of love, but it's wrong to just see Eugene Onegin as a tragic romantic melodrama or indeed to put the emphasis just on the romance. It is surely one of the most heartrending tragi-romantic works you can imagine, and only Massenet's Werther comes close. Actually Massenet's opera is perhaps the closest comparable work for how it is also tied to the seasons, to love out of time with the seasons. Tatyana and Onegin's love has the potential to be boundless, a love like no other, but perhaps all love has that potential were we not human and subject to other forces, to time, to our own weaknesses, to our own lack of self-awareness and inability to foresee what is ahead, or perhaps allow that potential to be stifled by looking too far ahead in anticipation. Life too has its own rhythms that we only see in retrospect.

Quite how you put that into music - along with all the momentous character of Pushkin's work - is something only the genius and personal experience of Tchaikovsky could have done without unnecessary explanation or elaboration, but those characteristics certainly arose out of the elegant and well-performed Buxton production. Somehow Jamie Marton's direction managed to capture all these moods tied into seasons, the sense of melancholic reflection, the fatality of a doomed romance and the tides of time all within its design and performances. In contrast to the Robert Carsen light-box production, the tone of Justin Nardella's set design is actually very dark, the Larin house all black walls and floor, with mirrors when indoors that only reflected the darkness inward.

With period costumes, it managed to look both elegant and austere, elegant in terms of the outward manners, the means by which characters want to present themselves, while the world around them is much less controllable. Those outside factors are depicted in other ways, Tatyana feeling the presence of dark silent figures watching, pressing in on her, closing her down, Onegin faced with a mirror of self-reflection that he can't see past. With extras and chorus play their part, including sweepers who pushed the leaves and the snow past in choreographed rhythms, all of this feeding into an expression of vast forces at work and clashing in the opera.

Of course nowhere is that more effective than in the music itself. I don't think the Northern Symphony Orchestra's playing was the most sweepingly lush and romantic version of Eugene Onegin I've heard, but while it is nice to hear the glorious elegance of Tchaikovsky's beautiful melancholic melodies and themes, conductor Adrian Kelly made the case that there should be a little tug or barb of rawness behind them. The test of the effectiveness of this is in how the music works hand-in-hand with the production to stir up the deepest feelings in the work that cannot be expressed in words alone. Truly Tchaikovsky finds the heart of Pushkin's narrative and character that connects on a more direct emotional level with the audience.

If there are any caveats to be applied to the production, it's in the understandable necessity to sing the work in English. If you can't get Russian singers or singers experienced in singing Russian, it can be difficult to get the necessary expression in Eugene Onegin. English is not a perfect match, no matter how good the translation and its fitting to the cadences of the music, but on the other hand, it was good to be able to listen and see the detail that the cast brought to performances without the distraction of surtitles. Perhaps surtitles were more necessary for the quartets, ensembles and choruses, but even there the overlapping expressions are conveyed more by the delivery and harmony than what is said in the words.

Even with the libretto translated a little stiffly in English, the singing was excellent. The main roles were handled exceptionally well by Shelley Jackson and George Humphreys above and beyond the vocal delivery. You must feel sympathy for both Tatyana and Onegin. It's not just naive young girl meeting aloof arrogant self-obsessed man, but there is great depth to both, the tragedy being that they both come to recognise this at times when it's too late to do anything about it. The performances however were excellent right across the board, Angharad Lyddon's Olga and David Webb's Lensky bringing another essential character and tone to the work, Gaynor Keeble's Larina and Ceri Williams's Filipyevena bringing another vital perspective on how love is ignited and dies as time and life exert other forces and pressures on it. This was consequently a beautifully moody Eugene Onegin that stirred deeply.

Links: Buxton International Festival

Wednesday 17 July 2019

Glass - Tao of Glass (Manchester, 2019)

Phelim McDermott & Philip Glass - Tao of Glass

Manchester International Festival, 2019

Philip Glass, Phelim McDermott, Kirsty Housley, Chris Vatalaro, David Emmings, Janet Etuk, Jack McNeill, Rakhi Singh, Katherine Tinker, Sarah Wright

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester - 13 June 2019

Struggling to get my head around what exactly Tao of Glass was all about, the only word that came to mind during the interval was 'magical'. That's perhaps a rather unoriginal, overused and not particularly helpful choice of description, but thinking about it further, magical perhaps describes the uniqueness of the work. There's the fact that it's a site-specific piece and that it only has a limited lifespan of a run at the Royal Exchange Theatre during the Manchester International Festival, so it's ephemeral and of the moment as theatre should be (although I suspect that the Glass music may resurface in another guise later). There's also the way that it employs unconventional dramatic and musical elements to create something that is truly unique and deeply personal, related to its creators Philip Glass and Phelim McDermott.

There is also something that you can only describe as magical about the nature of the piece in the idea that the work is in fact the creation of the work. Phelim McDermott himself takes centre-stage - quite literally in the round of the Royal Exchange Theatre - and describes in the first half of the show his long running relationship with Philip Glass's music, first as a fan and later as a collaborator. Tao of Glass came about through the failure of a project they had been planning to work on, to bring to the stage In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak. Sendak died before the project was able to get off the ground, so McDermott and Glass tried to find other ways of continuing their work together, and it's this that becomes Tao of Glass.

When I first heard about Tao of Glass, the outline description was that it seemed to consist of 10 musical pieces that would be staged by McDermott's company Improbable. The work has evidently evolved considerably in its development, still on-going at the time of its performances, the end result never set in stone but arrived at. One of the central images in the piece is that of the Japanese art of Kintsugi; of a perfect jar that is broken to pieces and then put together again with gold bonding. Essentially that becomes the image for the work itself, the dreamed perfection of a longed for project with Sendak dashed and then pieced together into something new and different.

Whether it's Glass's music that bonds the broken fragments of McDermott's script or the other way around isn't the question. What matters it that it creates a perfect new creation that neither could achieve quite the same way on their own. And it really does. It at least gives Philip Glass the opportunity to work outside traditional boundaries again. That's often where his best work is achieved, whether that's in opera, which he redefined by refusing to follow any conventional expectations with Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten, or how he worked in collaboration to redefine the role soundtracks play in films like Koyanisqaatsi and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Lately Glass has been more conventional, even in his Bowie Symphonies, but it's clear that working with McDermott (on Satyagraha, Akhnaten and The Perfect American) has revived a new imaginative, instinctive and improvisational influenced approach to working again.

While there are some new dimensions added to Glass's (some might say limited) musical repertoire, Tao of Glass is very much McDermott's baby. He is the motivational force behind the concept and it's his personal experience that fuels the journey of the piece. Actually it is a collaborative effort even in this since a lot of it has to do with the director's relationship with Philip Glass and his music. Right from the start he talks about the discovery of Glassworks, about recognising Philip Glass walking through London during the opening of Akhnaten at the ENO in 1985 and following him through the streets of Covent Garden.

McDermott's picks up and joins other Kintsugi fragments into the narration, going right back to childhood reminiscence to consider where the fascination for the magic of the theatre came from. Strangely, it's the 'failures', the broken pots, that provide the strongest feelings; imagining the children's theatrical entertainment Billy's Wonderful Kettle that he never got to see, his imagination undoubtedly more wonderful than the actual show. There's even a puppet show 'trailer' outline for how the Sendak project might have looked. There's also the story of McDermott's broken glass coffee table that allegedly provides the title of the work. The piece is filled with seemingly random stories and anecdotes that nonetheless all seem to connect in unusual ways.

The stories may be simple, anecdotal, but they touch on deeper themes, themes that are relevant to many creators and artists. Where does music come from? Where does inspiration come from? McDermott talks about using meditation, flotation tanks, Taoism and the I-Ching to get in touch with and reach other levels of the subconscious, how to reach those other planes that evidently exist that we visit in dreams and perhaps its the same place people go to in a coma. McDermott describes experimenting with Glass, simulating a coma (insert obvious joke about Glass's music and comas here), that does manage to draw out an entirely new improvised sound and voice from the composer in his effort to reach and connect with the person in a coma state. It's reminiscent a little of Max Richter's Sleep, which evidently is a piece that strives to work on a similar plane direct to the subconscious.

That piece is replicated on a Steinway piano that has recorded the actual keystrokes of Philip Glass playing, and there's an eerie quality to the invisible presence of the composer playing over the keys, but the piece is far from disembodied and there's genuine feeling and reaching out in it. Elsewhere the ensemble plays music that is for the most part in the familiar Glass idiom of repetition and small changes, working hand-in-hand with the meditation and reflections of the narrative. Phelim McDermott, sitting in the audience like a regular theatre-goer at the start of the show before taking to the stage, delivers his story in a hugely engaging and entertaining manner by reaching to out the audience and connecting with them.

It's staged in true Improbable style, semi-improvised, using puppets, sheets of paper with musical notation and sellotape. There's nothing elaborate about the effects, but in conjunction with the music and the storytelling it does indeed exploit the capacity of theatre to create worlds. And not just create worlds, but somehow forge a connection from them through to the audience, creating an extra bond in an extension of the Kintsugi manner. If that's not 'magical' I don't know what is.

The real kicker however is the unexpected and unbilled late appearance of Philip Glass himself in person, stepping onto the stage at the conclusion to play the Opening from Glassworks on the piano accompanied by the ensemble. It's a fulfilment of McDermott's dream from many years ago; not just directing a Glass work, but truly collaborating and sharing a stage with him. And that's what Tao of Glass is all about, or one of the many things that it is about; defining our dreams, breaking them and then rebuilding them into something greater.

Links: Manchester International Festival

Saturday 13 July 2019

Casella - La Donna Serpente (Torino, 2016)

Alfredo Casella - La Donna Serpente 

Teatro Regio di Torino, 2016

Gianandrea Noseda, Arturo Cirillo, Pietro Pretti, Carmela Remigio, Erika Grimaldi, Francesca Sassu, Anna Maria Chiuri, Francesco Marsiglia, Marco Filippo Romano, Roberto de Candia, Fabrizio Paesano, Sebastian Catana

Naxos - Blu-ray

Opera was striving to find a new voice and direction in the first half of the twentieth century. The shadow of the titans of Verdi and Wagner still loomed large and the continuation of their legacy had descended - arguably - into the decadence of verismo and post-Romanticism. Exceptions that tried to steer a new course found little foothold, although some would later exert greater influence on the development of new music. Some, like Busoni and Stravinsky, looked backward with an almost reformist agenda to take opera back to its roots, looking to Monteverdi and Mozart, and that is also the direction taken by another composer from this period who has been largely been forgotten; Alfredo Casella.

Forgotten at least as far as the opera world is concerned, Casella composing only one opera, La Donna Serpente ('The Snake Woman') in 1932. Casella didn't have any great love for the opera form, but his only opera certainly makes the most of the musical richness that comes with lyric drama and does extend his musical voice. And it's not just musically that La Donna Serpente looks back on the classic form, but it also returns to classical texts of myths and legends, like Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex (1927). In this case La Donna Serpente is derived from a work by Carlo Gozzi, who would also be the inspiration around this period for Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges (1921) and Puccini's Turandot (unfinished in 1924).

Operating under different circumstances, there's little that is obviously allegorical or deep about the fairy-tale story of La Donna Serpente. Miranda, the daughter of Demogorgòn, the King of the Fairies, wants to marry a mortal, Altidòr, the King of Téflis. Her father isn't pleased and puts a condition on her wishes. She must keep her identity secret for nine years and one day. After that time, Altidòr's love will be tested through great trials and if he curses her for what befalls him, Miranda will be turned into a snake, doomed to slither on the earth for 200 years.

Much like Busoni, who also worked on a Gozzi legend with his own version of Turandot using Mozart-like spoken dialogue, Casella looks back at the classical form as a model while striving to find new ways of expressing and extending it beyond its traditional form with newer elements and experimentation. The fairy tale story of La Donna Serpente might not have any great truths to reveal, but it provides Casella with a whole range of colours to work with. That's something that the Teatro Regio di Torino pick up on in their presentation of the work, the production bursting with magical storybook fairy-tale colour.

Casella might only have composed one opera, and it might not have made any great waves, disappearing after its first performances in 1932 and rarely revived after that, but the composer certainly used the medium to its fullest expression, including instrumental passages, sinfonias, overtures for each acts, perhaps overextending what is a simple enough story. But whether it's the humour of its commedia dell'arte inspired characters, the militaristic marches of the rather bellicose land of Téflis, whether it's exploring the tragedies and limits of human suffering or the magical release from our troubles, La Donna Serpente is rich and varied in expression.

If the fairy-tale subject is far from verismo, Casella's treatment reaches the same heights of darkness and light its dynamic range. The instrumental passages and overtures contain some lovely music (which is used very well to develop themes in the story in the Turin production through the use of dance and movement) and Act I and Act II have their moments, but Act III is the highlight of the work, from the lament of Miranda transformed into the snake woman right through to the triumphant storybook ending. It's perhaps no lost masterpiece, but Casella's La Donna Serpente adds another piece to the puzzle of opera in the first half of the 20th century that is now ripe for rediscovery.

The Turin production certainly makes the most of it under the musical direction of Gianandrea Noseda and some fine singing performances. You can't fault how Carmela Remigio meets the challenges of the role of Miranda, and Pietro Pretti gives a strident dramatic Altidòr, but all the cast are good, even if the characterisation is rather one-dimensional. Above all, Arturo Cirillo's production presents the work exceptionally well. There's not much in the ways of sets or effects, but the combination of brilliant costumes and deeply saturated colours and lighting make it every bit as colourful a spectacle as you would expect. Good use is also made of dancers to bring additional colour and movement that fully exploits the opportunities that the work offers.

In High Definition that blaze of saturated colour comes across spectacularly on the Naxos BD50 Blu-ray disc. The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 soundtracks provide two different options for listening to the work. There are no extras on the disc, but the booklet contains an essay by Ivan Moody that gives a good account of Casella and his approach to his only opera and gives an outline synopsis. There is also a full tracklisting in the booklet, which is very useful. The BD is all-region compatible and there are subtitles in German, English, French, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Teatro Regio di Torino, Naxos Direct

Tuesday 9 July 2019

Barber - Vanessa (Glyndebourne, 2018)

Samuel Barber - Vanessa

Glyndebourne, 2018

Jakub Hrůša, Keith Warner, Emma Bell, Virginie Verrez, Edgaras Montvidas, Rosalind Plowright, Donnie Ray Albert, William Thomas, Romanas Kudriašovas

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

I guess there are two ways of looking at Samuel Barber's Vanessa. On the one hand it's a rather reactionary, stuffy, old-fashioned romantic melodrama, that even in 1958 when it was composed was a backward look at a bygone age, a refusal to accept that music, drama and opera had moved on in a different direction. The other way to look at it is, well, that it's still all those things, but just to accept the work for what it is, an alternative approach that still embraces the traditional form, and respect it for the quality of its composition.

On a second viewing of this production however, I find myself similarly split on the quality and content of the work itself. On the one hand, a second closer listening does demonstrate that the work is not just a lush easy-listening composition in the style of a bygone age, but there are elements of dissonance within it hinting at darker elements that are not make explicit on the surface of the drama. The drama however doesn't stand up to close scrutiny on a second viewing and the observations it makes on love are really little more than banalities.

At its heart, that opera centres on a simple plot where Vanessa is expecting the return of Anatol, a former lover she has not seen in 20 years. It's not Anatol who turns up at their north country mansion however, but his son also called Anatol. Initially shocked, Vanessa however falls for the memory of her Anatol, not realising that the younger Anatol has already had an affair with Vanessa's niece Erika. Erika however has conflicted feelings for Anatol and doubts his love, but when she discovers she is pregnant by Anatol and that he and Vanessa are now engaged to be married, it causes a crisis and an attempted suicide.

What becomes clear is that if there is anything to be made of the suggestion of sinister undercurrents that Samuel Barber brings to Gian Carlo Menotti's libretto, it's all brought out by Keith Warner in his reworking of the drama and his impressive visual interpretation of things that are scarcely hinted at, never mind not explicitly brought out in the drama. Dressing it up as a Hitchcockian mystery really lends the work a lot more interest and intrigue than Vanessa seems to merit.

What prevents Hitchcock's films from appearing old-fashioned is the attention paid to the darker aspects of human nature. Barber and Menotti's characters have none of that depth, there's no insights other than those related to love, jealousy and unspoken, repressed passions. Warner seeks to use those vacancies of true personality and behaviour to hint at deeper mysteries and secrets. He wholly invents a mysterious and possibly taboo origin for Erika, he suggests another forbidden interracial romance affair in the past between the Old Baroness and the doctor as a young servant that is also regarded as taboo in the social order.

As much as Warner's production and reworking of the material works in favour of making Vanessa a little more interesting as a drama, from another point of view the period setting also works against it. The sheer elegance of the costume design, the period detail and the impressive technical approach are impressive, Warner using mirrors and projections to add layers, suggest hidden secrets, show reflections of the past and glimpses of forbidden passions behind the scenes. At the same time however, the period setting also serves to make it all feel horribly mannered and old-fashioned.

There's a scene early in the opera where Erika reads a passage from a romantic novel with little in the way of feeling. Vanessa snatches it and shows her how someone who has known love would express it. Barber appears to do the same with Menotti's libretto, ramping up the melodrama but never finding any true human feeling behind it. It appears that
Keith Warner does much the same in this production for Glyndebourne, and makes the best possible case for what they believe is a neglected work. There is much to admire in the opera, but a second visit only reveals that it's all so much smoke and mirrors, and there's not really much depth to Vanessa at all.

The cast and the creative team would beg to differ and their belief in the work is evident not just from the performances and the high production values of this Glyndebourne 2018 recording, but they all make a strong case for it in the interviews included on the Blu-ray release. The opera also looks and sounds great in the High Definition presentation, with stereo and surround mixes that bring out that greater detail in Jakub Hrůša's conducting of Barber's score.

Links: Glyndebourne

Friday 5 July 2019

Mitchell - The Belfast Ensemble Bash (Belfast, 2019)

Conor Mitchell - The Belfast Ensemble Bash

The House of Usher

The C*** of Queen Catherine
Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance

The Belfast Ensemble, 2019

Conor Mitchell, Tom Brady, Alison Harding, Darren Franklin, Matthew Cavan, Gavin Peden, Rebecca Murphy, Marcella Walsh, Ciara Mackey, Tony Flynn, Abigail McGibbon, Marie Jones

The Lyric Theatre, Belfast - 28th June 2019, 30th June 2019

Founded in 2016 by Northern Irish composer Conor Mitchell, it's difficult to categorise exactly what it is that the Belfast Ensemble do. Music-theatre is the catch-all term that can include everything from opera, operetta, musicals and spoken drama with musical accompaniment, but even that is too restrictive for what Mitchell and The Belfast Ensemble do, as the balance of music and singing to theatrical drama can vary considerably from piece to piece. What remains a more consistent philosophy is that whether it's a new piece or a gala performance of The Pirates of Penzance, the works are performed in a popular medium with an eye on current affairs, keeping the music relevant as a response to the world we live in. And, just as importantly, it's a response from a Belfast perspective. This isn't a company that sits and works in isolation writing little pieces of abstract experimentation but wants to be in the middle of things and finding popular means to connect music to developments outside.

As a birthday celebration and in preparation for a visit to London, bringing some of their works to the Southbank Centre as part of the PRSF New Music Biennial, The Belfast Ensemble put on a weekend Triple Bill Bash! at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, performing two of their extended music theatre pieces - The C*** of Queen Catherine and The House of Usher - along with a new piece Lunaria, to give a collective overview of what they are about and give some clues as to possible future directions. To round it off there was a one-off gala performance of The Pirates of Penzance, partly to keep the audience on their toes guessing, partly to consider a post-Brexit UK as a pirate nation (maybe, maybe not), but mainly to touch base with popular music and its primary purpose to entertain.

Adapted from the famous Edgar Allan Poe story, (with some debt to the equally famous Roger Corman movie) The House of Usher is primarily a study in the nature of fear and madness. That would seem a natural response to the world today, and even if it doesn't make any explicit reference to the fall of the Stormont Executive in Northern Ireland that was happening at the time work was written, it's easy enough to draw parallels should you wish to do so. Or again, maybe not. What is so great about the narration and performance however is that it leaves the work open to whatever is going on that is currently generating fear or concern.

The fear that afflicts Roderick and his sister Madeline comes from within, from a family curse, from an insular existence with no outside perspective, a solipsistic obsession, paranoia and fear of the world outside. There's also a terror of being locked up within oneself, buried in those obsessions, not understanding the world, unsure of one's own reactions, fearing them to being abnormal or judged abnormal.

The primary purpose of the Belfast Ensemble's theatrical approach of The House of Usher is to present the heightened tension of that fear-inducing obsessive insularity as effectively as possible, and the company use more than just traditional musical and theatre techniques, involving movement, rhythm, projections and movie clips that bring in not only clips from the 1960 Corman film, but also footage of 9/11. As an exercise in what can be done with theatre it's effective, but it's more than that. It might only use a voice-over narration and no singing, but it is operatic in terms of its musical dimension and incorporation of multidisciplinary elements, similar to what Philip Glass or Michael Nyman do in this genre - the propulsive downward spiral rhythms of Mitchell's score doing much to establish that connection - with a more experimental element that you can find in Michel Van der Aa or in Donnacha Dennehy's work with playwright Enda Walsh and the Dublin based Crash Ensemble.

The C*** of Queen Catherine tries out a different balance of its theatrical and music elements and, as far as I'm concerned, it isn't quite as successful. It's largely an actor's monologue with occasional musical accompaniment from a string quintet. The circumstances of the Spanish Queen's marriage to Henry VIII is related by Catherine of Aragon in an archaic poetic style and aligns itself with a vague commentary on current affairs in Northern Ireland in relation to the impact of Brexit on NI, “what happens when Europe divides in two, Tudor-style” according to the company, but clearly there are no such overt references and no allegorical element is alluded to in the production design.

Despite a great performance from Abigail McGibbon delivering a difficult 50 minute monologue, the piece is however far too long to sustain interest or connect to the elusive, fragmentary imagery of the words. Mitchell's score again evokes mood and drama well, and the theatrical elements provide another dimension to the work through projections and sound and lighting effects, but the piece is not successful in getting much across.

A new short piece, Lunaria consolidates the approach of the Ensemble, concentrating it really with an approach and delivery that thoroughly matches the subject. Brexit is again to the forefront. It's like it is trying to compress all the madness of the last couple of years down into 15 minutes with rapid fire soundbites. Three actors read overlapping headlines and extracts from speeches with video projections looping clips of the main protagonists (Boris Johnston, Arlene Foster, Theresa May) and victims like Lyra McKee that have dominated the headlines and concerns in Northern Ireland in recent times over Brexit and the backstop. Mitchell's music is again propulsive, urgent and rhythmic, based on repetition and escalation towards madness.

Lunaria concentrates the climate of fear of The House of Usher and its directness has the necessary impact and context that the Catherine of Aragon piece fails to achieve. In terms of presentation, the improvised set-up in the Lyric Theatre's studio, the musicians arranged in a circle around the three performers/newsreaders on tables with video clips projected behind certainly got the full impact of the work across, but you could imagine that the finished theatrical presentation will be further developed and no doubt only enhance the impact of the piece.

The weekend performances of The Belfast Ensemble Bash! Triple Bill were followed by a one-off gala performance of The Pirates of Penzance. Mitchell's justification for doing a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta - not that any is needed - is that he sees it as a good way of touching base again with the roots of popular music theatre. Well that's one reason, another is that he confesses that this was the first music theatre he performed in, but Mitchell also raises an interesting point in the introduction that a survey identified that most people's first experience of live music is in the theatre. And that's true for me too, the first musical performance I saw live was a school production of Man of La Mancha, and it did indeed made a singular unforgettable impression.

Whatever intentions and justifications you want to give - and you'd really be stretching it to impose any contemporary current affairs reading - The Pirates of Penzance was about really was just an excuse for the musicians and performers to enjoy themselves and let the audience enjoy it as well. On that level it certainly succeeded. It wasn't the slickest of Gilbert and Sullivan performances, half the cast were actors singing and half were singers acting, but that's a fair medium and characteristic of The Belfast Ensemble approach to mixing and matching. Of the singing performers Rebecca Murphy's Mabel was superb, but all the female roles were impressive. Actor/singer Matthew Cavan tried to bring a little bit of Captain Jack Sparrow-like fun to the rather slim comedy, but his natural flamboyance was limited by the standing and reading nature of the gala performance. Another notable bit of casting was celebrated Belfast playwright Marie Jones (Stones in their Pockets) taking to the stage herself as Chief of Police.

Musically the expanded Ensemble were delightful, the catchy melodies infectious, the performance sounding fresh and invigorated perfectly suited to the Lyric stage, Conor Mitchell conducting with verve and energy. It's easy to be sniffy about operetta and music theatre (particularly in this opera blog when it starts to become the staple of the local opera company, NI Opera), but being able to experiment, test the limits and extend what is considered to be lyric or dramatic theatre is right there in the ethos of the Belfast Ensemble, showing the range of possibilities open to a musical ensemble who refuse to be pigeon-holed into one category. And it's not just about being able to switch from avant-garde to Gilbert and Sullivan on the same bill, but the enthusiasm, musicianship and production values that they apply to them equally.

What the Belfast Ensemble are doing is great and very worthwhile and not just from a purely creative or music experimentation viewpoint. There's great potential in the music-theatre medium they have chosen to work within that is under-represented not just in Belfast, but anywhere in Europe. The choice of subjects that are responsive to the changing Northern Ireland situation within Europe and the wider world however is another important part of the Ensemble's ethos that ensures that that the works presented should always be it fresh, relevant, progressive and popular, not insular academic works for a small audience. With a huge talent base of artists and creatives in Northern Ireland, there is also plenty of capacity for further growth, expansion and collaboration. Exciting times indeed.

Links: The Belfast Ensemble