Tuesday 27 August 2019

Dennehy - The Hunger (Dublin, 2019)

Donnacha Dennehy - The Hunger

The Abbey Theatre, 2019

Alan Pierson, The Crash Ensemble, Tom Creed, Katherine Manley, Iarla Ó Lionáird

The Abbey Theatre, Dublin - 23 August 2019

The subject of the Great Irish Famine of 1845-52 is a very big subject for any Irish artist, one that touches deep on the most fundamental emotional, social and political levels. For an Irish composer whose roots lie within the idiom of Irish traditional music there's something here then that must be delved into. Irish traditional music is the language of the common people and has its roots in the culture and the community, speaking of suffering, adversity and oppression. It's essentially this that Donnacha Dennehy approaches head-on in The Hunger.

Whether it's opera or a song cycle or something else, like all of Dennehy's forays into the lyric theatre
(The Last Hotel, The Second Violinist), The Hunger doesn't fit into any easy categorisation. The work draws on writings by an American 19th century reformer Asenath Nicholson, who witnessed some of the worst privations in Ireland during the height of the potato famine. Dennehy weaves these observationa and impressions into songs that feature his familiar Steve Reich-like repetitive percussive rhythms built this time even more evidently around Irish traditional melodies and laments. Video clips of interviews with academics on the subject of the Irish Famine are used to present the subject in the wider context of economic market theory and contemporary society.

What isn't there to speak of in The Hunger, or at least not in any traditional operatic sense, is dramatic action. The main figure is Asenath Nicholson, the narrator, who is witness to a number of horrific scenes. She sees a man digging in the ground, not for potatoes but to bury his daughter. He sings a piece based on a keening lament and an old-style (sean-nós) song, 'Na Prátaí Dubha' (The Black Potatoes). Her sense of helplessness, uncertainty about how to help in the face of such abject poverty and suffering is in contrast to the video interview commentary that describes how the English accepted this as a necessary consequence of a market economy and how they felt or admitted to little in the way of guilt for importing product from Ireland at the same time that people were dying of starvation there.

It doesn't take much imagination to see the relevance of The Hunger to what we see today in a world where similar attitudes exist, where inequalities are greater still, where people are dying in the sea to escape poverty and starvation while others fly around in luxury jets and book holidays space, where people are using food banks while politicans and bankers work the market in their own personal favour. It's undoubtedly why the piece is called The Hunger, not The Famine. It's about expressing the underlying reality of one of the most inhumane forms of inaction in letting people die of hunger, and worse, in some cases there's a conscious acceptance that it's a necessary consequence of living in the modern world. It's probably for the same reason that Steve McQueen's film about the 1981 Hunger Strikes is also called Hunger, a film about Ireland again and what some would see as a similar confrontation with English indifference, the idea of someone dying of hunger recognised as an act of ultimate desperation the world over.

Evidently then the subject of The Hunger is potentially miserable and there's no point pretending that there's anything uplifting here, but there is something stoical in the perspective of the man whose laments are observed in contrast to the observations of a witness and academics. Conducted by Alan Pierson, the Crash Ensemble's playing holds a consistent musical narrative structure with an occasional dissonance that expresses a cruelty within the social structure that gives rise to such conditions. It's in the sean-nós and keening lament that gives this a human voice, an authentic voice that comes from within, that touches on the roots of the Irish condition and can't be expressed any other way. Its weaving in and out and repetition has much the same impact as Gavin Bryers' Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet.

The use of amplification was evident, but the singing performances by Katherine Manley and Iarla Ó Lionáird come from those emotional depths. For its stage performance at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, director Tom Creed strives to find a variety of means to add  other levels and dimensions as an alternative to traditional dramatic action. It's not so much the accumulation of individual elements for visual interest - the video clips, the landscapes, the plot of rocky land, the mountains and cloudscapes - it's how they come together to paint a bigger picture that extends out beyond the confines of the Irish Famine to make a point about the deeper human drives that cause hunger and that hunger causes.

Dennehy's music works very much in the same way, adding layers, blending and mixing instruments and songs, striking notes and sounds that reflect the complex and painful situations that are described here and the human feelings behind them. For such an ambitious subject Dennehy covers all the bases, from the outside eye-witness account of Nicholson's texts, the modern perspective that puts it into historical context and highlights the contemporary relevance, but it's Dennehy's music that touches on and expresses the most vital viewpoint of what the Famine means to the Irish, something that has not been lost, but has been preserved in Irish traditional music and still has the power to speak to us today.

Links: The Abbey Theatre

Wednesday 21 August 2019

Puccini - Le Villi (Florence, 2018)

Giacomo Puccini - Le Villi

Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, 2018

Marco Angius, Francesco Saponaro, Maria Teresa Leva, Leonardo Caimi, Elia Fabbian, Tony Laudadio

Dynamic - Blu-ray

Puccini's first opera Le Villi is no lost masterwork but it is probably unjustly neglected. The opera enjoyed limited success after it was first passed over in a one-act opera competition (which seem to be popular around this time in Italy). Revised as a short two-act opera, it had a moderately successful opening at La Scala in 1885, and while it may never have found its way into the repertoire, Le Villi put Puccini firmly onto the opera world map, hinting even at true masterpieces that were to come.

The qualities of Le Villi are perhaps not so much in the actual plotting of the opera, the work developed from a libretto by Ferninando Fontana, who based the work on an old Black Forest legend of the Willis, vengeful figures said to haunt the woods, the ghosts of girls who have died of love waiting on unfaithful lovers who have deserted them. Puccini sets this fantastical tale as an Opera-Ballo (there aren't many of those in Italian opera), running to an hour in length, with as much symphonic moments and dancing as there is singing, but the seeds of the great and familiar Puccini works are already evident here.

With a limited plot and limited time to develop the story, Puccini opens Le Villi with a chorus of celebration that is not unlike the manner in which the Café Momus scene explodes in Act II of La Bohème, celebrating the wedding of Anna and Roberto. Madama Butterfly comes to mind as well, Anna resigned to a separation from her husband, singing of flowers and regret, as Roberto must travel to Mainz to collect an inheritance.

The orchestral writing is beautiful (and brought out well by the Fiorentino orchestra under Marco Angius here in a recognisable Puccini idiom), bringing out all the familiar phrases and sentiments in the music. The libretto and arias are a little superficial and repetitive -'Forget me now', 'Don't doubt my love' - which hardly explore the sentiments in any depth, but it's charming and beautifully melodic. It may involve common people but it's hardly verismo either, romantic to the core with inflated emotions. And of course a fantastical element of ghosts.

Puccini's handling of this element of the story is also unusual and interesting, far from the common operatic treatment. Dividing the two acts with a Parte Sinfonica, a priest/narrator describes how Roberto did in fact wander from the path, taking up with a courtesan in Mainz, causing Anna to die of longing. In anger at the treatment of the poor girl, Anna's father Gugliemlo calls out to the Villi to avenge her death, and the creatures rouse themselves, lying in wait in the Black Forest should Roberto return, writhing and dancing to Puccini's swirling ballet music.

The 2018 Maggio Musicale Fiorentino production stages this well, director Francesco Saponaro not just leaving the dancing for the intermezzo, but using it to enhance the scant dramatic element of the short opera, matching the rhythmic flow of Puccini's score throughout, from the wedding dances at the opening to representations of the flow of time and the flow of sentiments. The simple but stylish production design also reflects the two halves of the work, warm in the first half, cold in the second, the golden trees turning silver. There are only three singing roles, all recognisably challenging Puccini roles, but the singing Maria Teresa Leva as Anna, Leonardo Caimi as Roberto and Elia Fabbian as Guglielmo is good, if inevitably a little strained in places.

Puccini's Le Villi from the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Dynamic. The relatively darkly lit production hasn't been brightened for film recording, so it doesn't look perfectly sharp, but the colouration and tones are good and it captures the stage production well. The LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 soundtracks are both fine, no great difference between them, both mixed well for the balance of music and singing. The BD is all-region and there are subtitles in Italian, English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Wagner - Tannhäuser (Bayreuth, 2019)

Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser (Bayreuth, 2019)

Bayreuther Festspiele, 2019

Valery Gergiev, Tobias Kratzer, Stephen Gould, Lise Davidsen, Elena Zhidkova, Stephen Milling, Markus Eiche, Daniel Behle, Kay Stiefermann, Jorge Rodríguez-Norton, Katharina Konradi

BR-Klassik streaming - 25 July 2019

Not for the first time I'm watching the opening of a new Wagner production at Bayreuth and wondering what the hell has this got to do with the opera. Usually you can at least relate the idea or concept even tenuously to some of the familiar themes of the work, but over the overture Tobias Kratzer's production of Tannhäuser opens with a film of a motley group of wayward circus entertainers doing a runner at a petrol station, running down a police officer in the process. It's this incident, rather than any deep conflict about the nature of his art, that inspires this production's Heinrich to return to that great institution of the musical arts. No, not Wartburg, but Bayreuth.

And therein lies the clue that the production is not so much concerned with the fate and condition of the exiled artist who chooses to set himself up in opposition to conservative notions of musical, social, moral and religious order and instead chooses to explore a personal and profane voyage of the discovery of physical pleasures, but rather it's more of an self-mocking reference to Wagner creating a cult for himself and setting up Bayreuth as a kind of shrine for pilgrims to come in worship every year. There's even a joking reference in the opening film to the closing down of the Biogas plant that was the setting for the last (equally mystifying) Bayreuth production of Tannhäuser that this one is replacing.

It's certainly very much within the Bayreuth ethos - certainly since Katharina Wagner took over the running of the festival - not to treat Wagner's works with sacred reverence, but to continually challenge and question the master's works to see whether they still have contemporary relevance and can withstand a modern outlook. It's rather impressive to see that while some of the ideas, philosophy and nationalistic sentiments can seem outdated, the works always seem to touch on other fundamental matters, not least this central ethos of the role of the artist as a vehicle for challenging and questioning the prevailing social order.

Kratzer's hugely irreverent production doesn't initially seem to have much to offer on that front, and it probably doesn't help that Valery Gergiev's conduction of the overture sounds - in the broadcast performance of the premiere - very erratic in its pacing, rushing through it and smothering melodies. If anything, the crazy bunch careening in a camper van on their way to Bayreuth (their motto from RW - "Frei im Wollen, frei im Thun, frei im Geniessen" - ""Free in your desiring, free in you action, free in enjoying") seems like an open provocation on the nature of the Regietheatre, the team consisting of a dwarf Oskar, a black drag artist Le Gateau Chocolat, with Venus in a sparkly jumpsuit and Tannhäuser dressed as a circus clown. How the pilgrims, seen here in evening dress fanning themselves with programmes on the green hill, are going to react when this mob intrude is at least going to be interesting.

And interesting, rather than anything profound or revelatory, is indeed how it plays out. Act II opens with projected backstage footage of nervous performers preparing for a more traditional, conservative period production in as austere meeting room of Wartburg. The nerves around Heinrich's return seem to be over concern about his abandonment of the sacred tradition for the heresy of the anarchic madness of Regietheater. While the singing contest is going on and going south, Venus and her motley crew - Le Gateau Chocolat in an outrageous yellow puffball outfit - are seen climbing in a window of the Bayreuth theatre to add a further unwelcome intrusion upon the solemn festival proceedings (making fun of portraits of James Levine and Christian Thielemann on the way). Katharina Wagner is forced to call in the police.

It's certainly possible to explore Tannhäuser for more meaningful connections to contemporary situations, so Tobias Kratzer's production feels somewhat self-indulgent, but it's certainly amusing. And, if you consider the true spirit and range of Wagner lies in in something like Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg (essentially a superior reworking of Tannhäuser), where it leavens its solemnity with humour and true human feeling as well as with a spirit of anarchy, then this production does find a way of removing some of the more troublesome outdated principles and sanctimony for 'die holde Kunst' that can often get in the way of the true power and spirit of this work. Act III in particular is beautiful here, the transformation not some religious miracle or glorious sacrifice, but also there in Wolfram learning from Heinrich's inspiration and briefly winning the love and respect of Elisabeth, the conclusion downplaying the transcendence for what is real and human.

The production appears to hit its mark quite successfully. There's huge applause after Act I and Act II, with only audible boos at the conclusion, and most of them appear to be for Valery Gergiev. That's perhaps predictable, Gergiev not the most popular figure internationally for his support of Putin, but it's probably more politically motivated than any commentary on the musical performance. Despite the rather wayward overture - perhaps struggling to keep up with the on-screen visuals - Gergiev's account of the work is well-judged, harnessing the power of the work and not afraid to let its occasional bombast work in favour of the revised perspective. At the same time he captures the contrasting moods of the singing contest well, finding good expression for the deeper conflicts within Heinrich and Tannhäuser, the opera.

Whether you look at it as an in-joke or something celebratory, it's not a particularly thought-provoking Tannhäuser, but it is at least well-performed and entertaining. Elena Zhidkova, apparently standing in at short notice as Venus, gives a spirited performance that is a sheer joy, as is Lise Davidsen's soaring and beautifully controlled Elisabeth. Stephen Gould's Heinrich is generally solid, a little stretched in places, showing some nice interpretation and acting in his performance. Stephen Milling's and Markus Eiche are both reliably good in familiar roles as Landgraf Hermann and Wolfram von Eschenbach.

Bayreuther Festspiele, BR-Klassik

Thursday 15 August 2019

Gounod - La Nonne sanglante (Paris, 2018)

Charles Gounod - La Nonne sanglante

L'Opéra Comique, Paris - 2018

Laurence Equilbey, David Bobée, Michael Spyres, Vannina Santoni, Marion Lebègue, Jérôme Boutillier, Jodie Devos, Jean Teitgen, Luc Bertin-Hugault, Enguerrand De Hys, Olivia Doray, Pierre-Antoine Chaumien, Julien Neyer, Vincent Eveno

Naxos - Blu-ray

Composed in 1854, Gounod's second opera La Nonne sanglante ('The Bloody Nun') is very much a numbers opera, a five-act Gothic horror in the manner of Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable featuring the expected family affairs and romantic complications, all mixed up in war, religion and high drama. Although Gounod takes full advantage of the situations and brings a particular French romantic touch of melody and dynamic to it, for various reasons La Nonne sanglante failed to make an impression or gain a foothold in the repertoire, and it has taken the centenary celebrations of Gounod's birth in 1818 to raise the bloody nun from the dead, so to speak.

The fate of the opera was sealed during its initial run, the profane subject matter of the vengeful ghost of a murdered nun regarded as being distasteful by the new director of the Paris Opéra, the style out of fashion with changing tastes in the theatre. La Nonne sanglante was immediately cancelled and it's been buried ever since. On its own terms however, La Nonne sanglante was far from a failure, Gounod taking advantage of having a much broader canvas to work with, composing marches and choruses, love arias and religious prayers, weddings and drinking songs that he would unquestionably turn into something greater in Faust a few years later.

The setting of the scene for the high drama that follows is established well in the Opéra Comique's production directed by David Bobée. A single murder - which is to have further significance later - is followed by a pitched battle that indeed has the ferocity of one long fought. A feud has been running in Bohemia between the Moldaw and Luddorf armies for many years, and played out in slow motion during the overture, there's a repetition, a constant rising and falling that makes it seem never-ending. A priest however brings the feud to a provisional halt by suggesting that Agnès, the daughter of the Baron of Moldaw marry Théobald, one of the Baron of Luddorf's sons.

Luddorf's other son, Rodolphe isn't best pleased when he hears the news. He's been in love with Agnès, intending to marry her himself. He suggests to Agnès that they meet at midnight and run away together. It won't do much for the peace settlement, but the notion holds more terror for Agnès than that, for it's at midnight that the ghost of the Bloody Nun makes her rounds of Moldow castle. Dismissive of the ghost story, Rodolphe turns up at the appointed hour and swears eternal allegiance to Agnès who he believes has come disguised as the ghost in order to escape but in reality Rodolphe has sealed his union with the Bloody Nun. To be released from her power he must avenge her death, and her killer is revealed to be Rodolphe's own father.

Up to that point, La Nonne Sanglante is tremendously entertaining, but inevitably it runs out of steam as the composer is required to fill in all the usual expected numbers and situations. There's a now unfashionable ballet which is included here, but neither Gounod nor the director really know what to do with it, so there's a lot of standing and shuffling around instead of dancing. We get a requisite love aria as Rodolphe believes his love for Agnès can be rekindled that is beautifully sung but a little bit dull, so dull that Rodolphe's page Arthur falls asleep during it. Add a raucous wedding and a drinking song, and it pads out the next two acts fairly conventionally.

The stage direction begins to run out of ideas too, although it makes the most of the first half of the work. There's not much required or presented in terms of sets, the stage dark and monochromatic, giving a fine Gothic character and more than adequate mood for the appearance of the ghost of the nun in her blood-stained white robes. It's Michael Spyres who has to carry much of the drive and conviction of the work, and his sweet tenor is well suited to the role of Rodolphe, but there are solid performances also from Vannina Santoni as Agnès and Jérôme Boutillier as Luddorf. Jodie Devos is a bright Arthur and Marion Lebègue presents a suitably scary presence as the nun, even though you think a bigger voice could have done more with this role.

If there's any reason for reviving La Nonne sanglante aside from mere curiosity value, it has to be for Gounod's score and how he skillfully and entertainingly brings all those elements together, particularly in the first two acts. Laurence Equilbey and the Insula Orchestra make the most of the drama and the melodic flow of the score, which is not as overblown or overheated as Meyerbeer. Amends are made for the injustice of the nun's fate after 150 years of neglect, but as entertaining as its return from the dead might be, the fate of La Nonne sanglante after the Gounod centenary celebrations could well be burial once again.

At the very least however, it has been given an extended life in a stunning HD presentation on Blu-ray from Naxos. This is a great time to be enjoying opera. Not only are we able to share in the brief revivals of such fascinating rare works on DVD, but the High Resolution audio presentation of works like this is just incredible. The Blu-ray of La Nonne sanglante is all-region compatible, with subtitles in English, German, Japanese and Korean. The clarity of the image and the recording of the live performance is excellent, the performance thankfully not obscured by dry ice. All the atmosphere is there in Gounod's score.

Usually there's little to choose between the stereo and surround mixes other than preference (and individual home system setups); here both are marvellous but the atmospheric surround mix has the edge. The LPCM stereo mix sounds great on headphones, with marvellous clarity to the score and a good balance between the music and the singing. In DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 however the opera really comes alive, the music beautifully distributed to the surrounds, exhibiting all the clarity and detail of the score and the performances, creating a wonderful theatrical ambience. Voices ring out - particularly Spyres lyrical tenor voice - and the big dramatic moments hit home.

Links: L'Opéra Comique

Monday 12 August 2019

Puccini - Madama Butterfly (Glyndebourne, 2018)

Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Glyndebourne, 2018

Omer Meir Wellber, Annilese Miskimmon, Olga Busuioc, Joshua Guerrero, Carlo Bosi, Elizabeth DeShong, Michael Sumuel, Jennifer Witton, Eirlys Myfanwy Davies, Adam Marsden, Oleg Budaratskiy, Simon Mechlinski, Ida Ränzlöv, Shuna Scott Sendall, Michael Mofidian, Jake Muffett

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

I didn't find the 2018 Glyndebourne production of Madama Butterfly to be too adventurous when I first saw it in its streaming broadcast, but in truth few Madama Butterflies can depart with any success from the very specific cultural and historical context that Puccini's opera covers. A bit of emphasis here, a bit of highlighting character traits in one version, playing up or playing down the national stereotypes elsewhere. There's not really a lot of room for manoeuvre. There are however ways that work and ways that don't and
Annilese Miskimmon's production, working well with Omer Meir Wellber's conducting of the score, clearly gets across everything that is great about Puccini's masterpiece.

Miskimmon's production at least makes one or two concessions towards modernisation and a break from familiarity and cliché, placing it in a different period and context that seeks to highlight certain harsh realities and truths of its subject. She tries to strike a balance that attempts to bring it a little more up to date rather than appearing to be a situation so far removed from familiar modern attitudes as to appear as almost fantasy. Set in the 1950s, where there was also a post-war trade in Japanese brides to American servicemen, Miskimmon sets Act I not in the familiar surrounds of the idyllic Japanese house perched on the hills over Nagasaki, but in Goro's Marriage Bureau with a tattoo parlour and a cheap hotel in the alley outside.

Projections are used showing genuine documentary newsreel footage of US troops purchasing Japanese brides after the war: "Yanks Marry Japanese Maids", the titles proclaim, with footage showing new brides given instruction on "Learning to be an American Wife". It's perhaps not exactly the same situation as Cio-Cio-San, but even if it's presented in contrast it does highlight the reality. Or if not so much a reality, selling the American dream as a reality. There's no real commentary or emphasis placed on the ethics of it all however, on Pinkerton marrying a 15 year old, collecting her like a butterfly or even commentary on the American imperialism side of things here. It's a simple business transaction, a trade, but one where the two partners are expecting different things.

Keeping Madama Butterfly relatable, Miskimmon also uses old movie footage and in Act II, develops Butterfly's home decor to look like or be Butterfly's attempt to emulate American life learned only from the Technicolor movies of Douglas Sirk. It marks a strong contrast between the reality of the first act and the attempt by Butterfly to live up to her side of the deal by becoming an American wife. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, Puccini's music is a perfect match for a Sirk melodrama, the fluctuations of tone and the layers of irony matched also in the shifts of light, the falling leaves, the blaze of autumnal colours and the darkness that is drawing in. Miskimmon also makes good use of the discomfort of Suzuki ("Povera Butterfly"!) and Sharpless to measure out the distance between the dream and the reality.

One of the great benefits of being able to revisit this production on Blu-ray s the opportunity it gives to hear the detail of the musical performance in a High Resolution recording, in surround sound or in lossless LPCM stereo. There are a few obvious pieces of 'retouching' the plaintive sound of what sounds like a distant harmonica accompanying the Humming Chorus, but it's much easier in now to also observe how Omer Meir Wellber catches the ebb and flow of the score that create Puccini's magic. Act III really demonstrates those qualities, in the conducting as much as in Puccini's writing, never laying it on thick, but gently pulling back now and again only to strike forward to hit harder next time, and as such it feels much more in tune with real human feelings.

It only really carries that urgency if the director can make the characters real and for there to be anguish and sympathy on all sides. Pinkerton is often made out to be a villain, and that can spur indignation at his treatment of Cio-Cio-San, but indignation isn't what Madama Butterfly is about.
Annilese Miskimmon see it more as a human failing, the Pinkerton of three years later not so much regretting his fake marriage as realising that it was never realistic, as his friend Sharpless repeatedly warned him at the time. It doesn't mean that he is blameless, but it helps to see all sides, and that's what this production seems to be able to balance well, finding the true emotional toll the situation takes on each of them.

Seen that way it's easier to admire the heartfelt performance of Joshua Guerrero's Pinkerton here. It's a little 'operatic' but in the context of a Sirkian response to Puccini it's acceptable and effective. Olga Busuioc's heartfelt Cio-Cio-San also feels deeply human, completely immersed in the role, if rather holding to the conventional mannerisms and gestures. There are the usual reliable performances from Carlo Bosi's Goro and Elizabeth DeShong's Suzuki, regular performers in these roles, but I was more impressed in this viewing by Michael Sumuel's Sharpless. He conveys well the discomfort of this difficult situation, a key sentiment as it is the same one shared by the audience. His singing is is also full of wonderful expression.

Unsurprisingly, the 2018 Glyndebourne Madama Butterfly looks absolutely stunning in the High Definition Blu-ray presentation. The image is clear and sharp, the warm autumnal tones and blue Nagasaki skies glowing off the screen. The DTS HD-Master Audio 5,1 surround gives more ambience to the performance, the LPCM a much more direct punch, but both show off the detail and beauty of the London Philharmonic Orchestra's playing. Extras are limited to a Cast Gallery and an interview with Olga Busuioc on the role and character of Cio-Cio-San, but Annilese Miskimmon also provides some director notes in the enclosed booklet.

Links: Glyndebourne

Thursday 1 August 2019

Goldschmidt - Beatrice Cenci (Bregenz, 2018)

Berthold Goldschmidt - Beatrice Cenci

Bregenz Festival, 2018

Johannes Debus, Johannes Erath, Christoph Pohl, Dshamilja Kaiser, Gal James, Christina Bock, Per Bach Nissen, Michael Laurenz, Wolfgang Stefan Schwaiger, Sebastian Soules, Peter Marsh

C-Major - Blu-ray

One of the complaints that is often made about German and Austrian composers in the immediate post-Wagner era of the first half of the 20th century, is that the music and subject matter had lost any kind of bearing or connection with the reality on the ground. The bizarre decadent fantasies of Franz Schreker's Irrelohe and Die Gezeichneten, Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten or Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane all take place in fantasy worlds with seductive extravagant orchestra arrangements that seemed to bear little relation to what was happening in the world outside, but perhaps in some way they do have relevance, even if it was just an escapist reaction against the growing influence of the National Socialists.

Berthold Goldschmidt, like many other German Jewish composers of this period had to do more than retreat into fantasy worlds but were forced into exile, their works soon banned by the Nazis as Entartete "degenerate music". Like those other composers, one wonders what music was subsequently lost and how it might have developed, Goldschmidt having composed only one opera Der gewaltige Hahnrei (1932) when he fled Germany in 1935 to come to England where he worked as a music director for the BBC. Beatrice Cenci, belatedly coming in 1950 while in exile gives some indication of the kind of opera work Goldschmidt might have developed, and what might otherwise have been lost.

Beatrice Cenci however might well have also been lost, the prize-winning work rejected by Covent Garden in 1950, the music of the such composers (Goldschmidt having studied under Franz Schreker) no longer fashionable at that time. The opera only received its first concert performance in 1988 and its first fully staged performance in 1994. With a renewed interest in rediscovering work from the Entartete school of composition and DVD releases giving them a wider audience (like the recent Naxos release of Korngold's extraordinary Das Wunder der Heliane), it's clear that there still are many fascinating and worthwhile discoveries to be made.

The striking Bregenz Festival production of Beatrice Cenci is certainly something of a revelation in terms of presentation and performance of this rare work. The opera itself takes something of its character from Schreker's Die Gezeichneten in terms of how it presents the decadent court of Count Francesco Cenci like the island of depravity of Alviano Salvago. Cenci likewise enjoys the favour of the Pope, with notable members of the clergy taking part in his outrageous orgies, protecting him from any censure. When Cenci's own daughter Beatrice becomes the innocent victim of his depravity, she asks Orsino, a young novice priest that she is in love with, to intercede on her behalf. Orsino arranges for the murder of Francesco Cenci.

Based on a notorious real-life historical event, Beatrice and her stepmother Lucrezia were condemned to death in 1599 for the murder of Count Cenci - Beatrice's execution by beheading in Rome incidentally witnessed by Caravaggio who may well have relied on the imagery for his gruesome painting Judith Beheading Holofernes. The legend of Beatrice Cenci however has influenced many writers and composers, notably Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose 1819 verse drama The Cenci was adapted by Goldschmidt for the opera.

Johannes Erath's 2018 production for the Bregenz Festival respects the musical approach the Goldschmidt employs, crafting a colourful and stylised drama to match the extravagant Mahler-like orchestration and the bel canto like flourishes that Goldschmidt was striving to achieve. It consequently does come across as a strange blend between Schreker's Die Gezeichneten and Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, which only highlights the delirious dreamlike quality of the chromatically untethered music, a swirling madness gradually enveloping proceedings, whether describing the decadence of Francesco Cenci, or the disturbed mindset of his abused daughter.

In contrast however to other elegant fantasies of the so-called Entartete degenerate composers, Goldschmidt's Beatrice Cenci has a foot in the real-world at the same time as it pays tribute to the beatification of the legend of Beatrice. It's about innocents having to stand up to evil and become victims in order to achieve some kind of redemption later for their sacrifice, and Erath's production also emphasises the tragedy this represents for the powers and institutions, with only a glimmer of fragile light at the end that might prevail. If we can see that in Beatrice Cenci perhaps then we can begin to see similar qualities in other such works from this school of rejected/lost opera that has been too easily dismissed and forgotten.

The performance at Bregenz is fantastic, particularly Gal James who does indeed adopt an otherworldly-like character through her lyrical and dramatic singing and performance as Beatrice, combining bel canto agility with a robust delivery. There are good performances here too from Christoph Pohl as Francesco Cenci and Dshamilja Kaiser as Lucrezia. Johannes Debus conducts the Wiener Symphoniker with a measured delivery that suggests a nightmarish dreamlike quality that is gradually spiralling into madness. Similar visual references can be found in Katrin Connan's impressive set designs.

The colourful production comes across with crisp clarity on the HD Blu-ray release from C-Major. The High Resolution soundtracks in LPCM 2.0 and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 present a powerful and detailed recording of the music and singing performances. Although initially composed with an English libretto, the Bregenz production uses the German version that the composer prepared. There are no extras other than booklet notes and a synopsis. The Blu-ray disc is all-region and has subtitles in English, German, Korean and Japanese.