Saturday 28 September 2019

Verdi - La Traviata (Paris, 2019)

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Opéra National de Paris

Michele Mariotti, Simon Stone, Pretty Yende, Benjamin Bernheim, Jean-François Lapointe, Catherine Trottmann, Marion Lebègue, Julien Dran, Christian Helmer, Marc Labonnette, Thomas Dear, Luca Sannai, Enzo Coro, Olivier Ayault

Paris Cinema Live - 21 September 2019

La Traviata is a great opera and I've heard it and seen it enough times not to need reminded of that nor ever feel the need to rush out and see it again. Yet here I am again watching another production of La Traviata. Really though it's only when a director has no fresh ideas and isn't able to do much with the work, pitching it in a stuffy Belle Époque setting, that it can be a bit of a chore - and even then Verdi's music is always the saving grace. If you get a director who can show the modern relevance of the work, its humanistic outlook, its fire and sense of outrage at social conventions and conservative attitudes, well then La Traviata can still have the power to impress and bring you back to see it again.

So with it being the Paris Opera, with theatre, film and opera director Simon Stone at the helm and the chance to see a much talked about new soprano Pretty Yende singing the role of Violetta Valéry, for the first time in a long while I was actually quite looking forward to my one millionth (approximately) La Traviata. Undeterred by a strike at the Paris Opera cancelling the live performance, the Paris Opera falling back on a pre-recording made a few days ago and fortunate to have turned up early enough to not miss too much when the cinema got its European time zones wrong, it was certainly a La Traviata worth making the effort to see.

Timing evidently is everything, and the issues I had getting to see the cinema broadcast turned out to be appropriate since although it's by no means a major theme in the work, there is a pressing sense of time running down in La Traviata (something made explicit in the Willy Decker production). It's there as a consideration that becomes important to Violetta Valery as she realises that there's more to life than parties and admirers and that she should grasp the opportunity for true love and happiness for the brief moment that it is open to her when she meets Alfredo. Time however is not on her side as we of course - very quickly - find out.

Not only that but Verdi makes the pressing of time very much present in his music and in the pacing of the drama. Really we are only introduced to Violetta and Alfredo and they to each other to enjoy a brief blossoming of love in Act 1, only for it to rapidly vanish and become a victim of social and monetary pressures in Act 2. There are certainly other complex motivations - guilt, a sense of unworthiness perhaps, a consciousness of age difference - that drive Violetta to finish with Alfredo, but principally its pressure from the social gossip and reputation, and there's a simmering anger against those conventions and the underlying hipocrisy of it all the fuels La Traviata.

Director Simon Stone is very good at getting that fluid sense of time in his rotating stage for the Paris production at the Garnier. He's also good at bringing a modem sensibility - a conflicted and contrasted one - to the romantic ideal of Paris and high society in this production. Violetta Valéry is a model here, her image emblasoned on posters and video advertising hoardings for expensive perfume 'Villain'. Her image dominates the stage while the reality is of course not quite as perfect. All the trappings of the lifestyle are there of course and they are indeed trappings that it proves impossible to escape from.

So we see two sides to the glamour. The fancy night club against the more down-to-earth reality of Alfredo declaring his love for Violetta out in the back alley by the bins. A Paris sequare has a grand statue, while a drunk at the foot of the dais, and instead of the florid declarations of love, Alfredo and Violetta communicate via banal instant messages and emoticons as Violetta has an after-party kebab from a Turkish fast food stall, 'Paristanbul'. Then of course, there's the scandal that comes along with the glamour. Again updating events, Violetta is accused of dragging down the name of a Saudi royal family (presumably instead of an old-fashioned baron), the tickertape newspaper headlines updated for a digital world and spreading like wildfire. In that respect it shows that the pressures on famous women who don't behave according to expectations are arguably even greater now than in Verdi's time.

That of course is the important theme of the work and it's one that Stone is able to emphasise and show is still relevant at the same time as he is able to show the personal cost by dispensing with the fake Belle Époque glamour and mannerisms of a traditional production. Visually, it's just spectacular, images blown up on a huge digital screen backdrop, the stage rotating fluidly and impressively to keep sets changing, adding and accumulating a picture of Violetta's lifestyle, how she interacts with those around her and where the conflicts and problems arise within it. It perhaps tries a little too hard, when everything that is really essential is there in the music and can also be found in the performances, but it's an impressive spectacle nonetheless and an intelligent response to the work.

And as magnificent as the production looked, it was the musical and singing performances that contributed to the overall success of the production. The Paris Orchestra sounded terrific under Michele Mariotti's conducting, striking that beautiful balance that the work has between Verdi's lyrical flights and the underlying fury, capturing an Italianate view of Parisian glamour. The young South African soprano Pretty Yende secures her growing reputation here with a very memorable Violetta Valéry. Her singing and interpretation were superb, placing an individual stamp on the work, and her acting performance - so critical here amid the melodrama - was impressive.

Youth belying experience was also of benefit to Benjamin Bernheim's Alfredo, generating a passion with Yende's Violetta that felt real and sincere. Giorgio Germont can be a rather stuffy role just by its nature, and there wasn't much Jean-François Lapointe could do about that, but the role was well sung. Simon Stone's production might have drained a little of the heated melodrama out of La Traviata by undercutting the glamour at key points, but it was an approach that ultimately worked in favour of the work and did indeed leave the heavy lifting principally to Yende and Mariotti who, if the impact of the conclusion is anything to go by, were more than up to the task.

Links: Opéra National de Paris

Thursday 19 September 2019

Strauss - Die Fledermaus (Belfast, 2019)

Johann Strauss - Die Fledermaus

Northern Ireland Opera, 2019 

Walter Sutcliffe, Gareth Hancock, Stephan Loges, Ben McAteer, Maria McGrann, May McFettridge, Denis Lakey, John Porter, Alexandra Lubchansky, Dawn Burns, Conor Breen, Mark Pancek,

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 17th September 2019

It was a bit concerning for any opera fan that the last Northern Ireland Opera production was a Stephen Sondheim musical, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and with advance notice that Belfast's local pantomime dame May McFettridge has been signed up for a role in the Johann Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus, it looked like we'd skipped the opera season and Christmas had come early to the Belfast Grand Opera House this year. Still, the best way to take this this is perhaps not to look at this from a serious operatic viewpoint or as a pantomime either but just as an enjoyable piece of light entertainment, and Walter Sutcliffe's production managed to achieve that. Eventually.

It's easy to be dismissive of musicals and light operetta, but such works bring their own challenges in finding a successful blend of acting and singing, in establishing a comic situation and getting the timing and delivery right. In the hands of specialised practitioners of the opéra-comique, comedy and farce can be hugely entertaining when it is done right on the opera stage. In terms of visual presentation, NI Opera's Die Fledermaus looked the part with Andrea Kaempf's spectacular set designs and superb colourful costumes, but there was a bit of a disconnect between the visuals and the performances that - in the first half at least - failed to engage the audience.

Surprisingly even Strauss's famous overture - jam-packed with the composer's brilliant waltz melodies - failed to raise any applause from the audience, as they looked on baffled wondering what a man in a Batman suit was doing running through a kaleidoscopic visual of art deco city skyscrapers. The man is of course Falke, who has been made the butt of a practical joke, left wandering through the city in a fancy-dress costume, something he isn't ever going to live down until he gets revenge on his friend Eisenstein, but unless you had a programme to read the synopsis, the visuals alone weren't sufficient to let you know the backstory.

The use of a 60s era Adam West Batman costume was a good updating of the Bat costume that gives the opera its title, but it still the overture didn't have the necessary 'Ka-pow!' factor. The English translation maybe could have been looser and wittier, the delivery could have been sharper and it could have had more of a local connection. One reference to the maid Adele's aunt, supposedly at death's door, being seen cycling up the Cave Hill fell a little flat, as it seemed entirely at odds with the high society life of the Eisensteins with their servants and their lavish art deco mansion. I mean, I know the Antrim Road is posh but it's not exactly 19th century Viennese high society.

You can get away with a lot however if you play the comedy to the hilt, particularly when you've got Johann Strauss's melodies behind you and musically Die Fledermaus is a feast that was at least relished by the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Gareth Hancock in the pit. Unfortunately, the Belfast production seemed to lack the confidence and edge to push the boat out and really let it swing, some of the voices weren't always strong enough or had too strong an accent to lift it over the orchestra, and Act I's intermission came around quickly with an indifferent smattering of applause. Still, if we wanted to see things liven up a little more, there was always the promise of May McFettridge in the second half.

As it turned out, May McFettridge's role as the jailer Frosch wasn't really exploited either, but Walter Sutcliffe had a few other surprises that enlivened the second half considerably. We got a drag-queen Prince and his very gender-fluid entourage and servants, the racy exploits of Eisenstein trying to seduce the Hungarian Countess who was actually his wife Rosalinde carried over well, but essentially it was the party scenes - the colour, the costumes, the lighting and the choreography - that established a more unified connection with Strauss's music and its sensibility. It was suddenly much more fun.

And if an entertaining evening was all you were expecting from Die Fledermaus, NI Opera got there in the end. I heard many comments of approval from the audience as I left the theatre, so along with their music-theatre productions at the Lyric, the company are reaching an audience. The failure to produce a single genuine opera this year however is more of a concern for opera goers, and NI Opera could lose out big time to Opera Ireland's much more ambitious progamme south of the border and to the Wexford Festival Opera. Unfortunately, the temporary closure of the Grand Opera House for refurbishment doesn't bode well for next year's programme, but I'm still hoping they might surprise us yet.*

* (Edit: No, looks like I was wrong about that - Kiss Me Kate)

Links: Northern Ireland Opera

Wednesday 18 September 2019

Puccini - Tosca (Aix, 2019)

Giacomo Puccini - Tosca

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2019

Daniele Rustioni, Christophe Honoré, Angel Blue, Catherine Malfitano, Joseph Calleja, Alexey Markov, Simon Shibambu, Leonardo Galeazzi, Jean-Gabriel Saint Martin, Michael Smallwood, Virgile Ancely, Jean-Frédéric Lemoues, Frank Daumas

ARTE Concert - 9 July 2019

You can always rely on the Aix Festival to bring something fresh and original to established opera classics, and it looks like that principle is going to continue under the directorship of Pierre Audi. If anything with Audi, you could expect it to be ever more challenging and idiosyncratic. Christophe Honoré has been here in Aix before, with a stunning and wholly original colonial take on Mozart's Così Fan Tutte in 2016, and this year the French filmmaker takes an even more cinematic departure from the standard opera approach to Puccini's Tosca.

There are a number of surprises throughout the Aix production of Tosca, but perhaps the greatest is the presence of the great American soprano Catherine Malfitano in the opera, a famous Tosca in her day, not least for the on-location 1992 film version alongside Plácido Domingo. She seems to have retired from dramatic performance for a while now, working mainly now as an opera director, so it's delightful that Honoré has found a way to bring her back to the stage, but also manage to do so using her aura and personality meaningfully in service of the opera. I imagine that the movie version must have made as much of an impression on
Honoré as it did on me back then.

It's a lovely idea as a homage then to have Malfitano take on the role of La Prima Donna who is passing on her experience to an up-and-coming new singer in the role of Tosca (and I'm sure there's some blurring of the lines between reality and drama in
Angel Blue being the soprano here), but there's always the risk that while it might sound like a fun idea, it could only detract from the power of the original work. You do get that impression of distancing at the start of Act I, with an additional camera crew on the stage supposedly making a documentary about a great opera diva, who is not in great form for the guests who have been booked in to see her that day.

As it's an opera company putting on a production of Tosca who are hoping to gain a few pointers from one of the greatest singers in the role of Floria Tosca, there's evidently a danger of the opera within an opera distancing the viewer from the true emotion and purpose of the original work -
Malfitano even at one stage calling the conductor to halt proceedings while she coaches Angel Blue - but you do start to see some overlap in the emotions of the company, as Angel Blue or 'Angel Blue', starts to get a little jealous of the attentions and adoration that her Cavaradossi (Joseph Calleja) is displaying over the eyes of the madonna/prima donna, or perhaps it's the opera that is freeing those heightened emotions.

With the documentary camera crew capturing all these little undercurrents and correspondences from multiple angles, which are broadcast live over the big screens at the back of Alban Ho Van's impressive cinematic set designs on the stage of the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, this does come across more like a movie than a 'proper' opera. It's interesting that Ivo Van Hove recently used a similar behind-the-scenes on-stage crew technique for his theatre adaptation of 'All About Eve' and it's clear that there is another film reference here,
Honoré setting Malfitano's prima donna like the silent movie star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's 'Sunset Boulevard', past her prime and in the midst of a personal crisis over her absence from the limelight.

That becomes more evident in Act II, but despite initial misgivings I was already sold on the idea by the end of Act I, since it was clear that there's a recognition here that - to state the obvious - Tosca is an 'operatic' opera, larger than life. Fitting the traditional Napoleonic drama of Act II into this stage version is inevitably going to be a challenge however, but Honoré rises to that challenge brilliantly by looking at Act II as essentially Tosca's dilemma. Here, dressed like Norma Desmond, Malfitano's diva suffers a crisis after having been introduced to these young rising stars, as the after rehearsal party turns into something nightmarish.

The horror of the abuse, torture and murder in Act II of Tosca here becomes blurred in the fevered mind of the diva with the reality of her real life past and present and her opera characters. Brilliantly, Honoré identifies her struggles with the characters of Madama Butterfly, Lucia di Lammermoor and Salome - all notable Malfitano roles. In this context Scarpia here becomes an almost Harvey Weinstein figure (appropriate as the Weinsteins of the opera world are also coming to light now), and Honoré even manages to make the diva something of a dark figure in her seduction (or paying for) the attentions of young men. It's as highly charged and sexualised (and scandalous) as Act II of Tosca ought to be. The 'Vissi d'arte' is also a showstopper, delivered by Angel Blue, but back projections of other famous Toscas over the years show that the struggle goes back a long time.

Where can you take that in Act II, well to be honest you'd go anywhere with the director after that, but Honoré follows through on the premise and still holds a few surprises in reserve. For Act III he puts the orchestra and conductor up on the stage for the concert performance that was being rehearsed in Act I, and this acts as a backdrop for the 'real-life' tragic demise of Malfitano's diva, identifying with Tosca, her illusions shattered. It's a breathtaking conclusion that, by putting the orchestra centre stage, essentially returns the power back over to Puccini's music. Daniele Rustioni, who we've been fortunate to gain as the chief conductor of the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast and have already experienced his passion for Italian composers and opera this summer, shows us that in Act III Puccini's music is everything.

Well, not entirely everything. Considering the difficulties of playing dual-roles in close up to cameras, the performances are also outstanding. Angel Blue is glorious, Joseph Calleja is tragic, Catherine Malfitano incredible just for her presence and acting performance. What is impressive however is that there are no egos involved here, each of them prepared to put in whatever it takes to make this production one of the most moving Toscas I've ever seen. Impressive on any number of levels, it's not about voices, divas and drama, it's not inflated egos and pretentious concepts; Christophe Honoré's production works because it blurs boundaries between life and art, reducing and elevating Puccini's masterpiece to the level of pure emotion, pure opera, pure Tosca

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence

Monday 16 September 2019

Mozart - Requiem (Aix, 2019)


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Requiem

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2019

Raphaël Pichon, Romeo Castellucci, Siobhan Stagg, Sara Mingardo, Martin Mitterrutzner, Luca Tittoto, Ensemble Pygmalion

ARTE Concert - 10 July 2019

Romeo Castellucci's directorial projects are becoming less interested in the traditional narrative aspect of opera direction and more concerned with exploring and representing the spiritual side of humanity within the works. Of course, the works in question have to be capable of possessing this quality, and that's certainly the case for the likes of his La Monnaie Parsifal, his Paris Moses und Aron and his Hamburg Matthew's Passion. More recently he has set about exploring this in other less obviously spiritual works, in Salome for Salzburg and Tannhäuser for Munich, but perhaps the most interesting exploration of the spiritual existing with the physical nature of humanity has been in his stunning La Monnaie production of Die Zauberflöte. Mozart is of course fully open to be explored in this area and nowhere more so than in the Requiem.

Mozart's Requiem however isn't an opera, and the idea of setting it to a manufactured narrative would evidently be presumptuous, if not actually impossible. For the purposes of this Aix-en-Provence production - an ambitious one in Pierre Audi's first season as artistic director of the festival - Castellucci associates the work with a growing awareness of the temporality of human existence as individuals and as a species, as well as the fleeting impermanence of what our relatively brief presence on the planet leaves behind. The best way of looking at this approach to Requiem is that the director is seeking a way to extend the work far beyond its own confines, showing or at least suggesting connections it makes - musical, spiritual and existential - to the condition of being human and being mortal.

To extend the scope of Requiem further for this purpose, Castellucci makes use of several other Mozart sacred pieces and Masonic hymns in including the Kyrie from the Mass in C Minor, O Gottes Lamm, and opens the theatrical presentation of this work with a Gregorian chant. Essentially, this production of Requiem becomes a ritual of song and dance, celebrating life in the face of the certainty of extinction. It's this theme that dominates as, in typical Castellucci fashion, words are projected to the back of the stage, an 'Atlas of Extinction', that enumerates the extinction of creatures that no longer exist, to extinct plants, disappeared lakes, extinct tribes and races, extinct cities, lost languages, religions, buildings and works of art.

It's a fascinating device that really has an impact in conjunction with the performance and the music, showing that as well as being something sad there's also something beautiful in the contemplation of the awareness that all things come to an end. The catalogue however doesn't restrict itself to known extinctions but gnomically reminds us in its list of "present-day extinctions", of the extinction of I, of the extinction even the of the word I, of wind, water, grass, thought, fish in the sea, time, even the extinction of this music. And ultimately of course, an extinction of this day, the 10th July 2019. Indeed, if there is anything that can testify to the glory of human existence over its relatively short presence on Earth, it's Mozart's Requiem. Eternal rest grant unto them.

On the stage meanwhile, Romeo Castellucci makes use of the Pygmalion Vocal Ensemble to enact ritual dances for Mozart's music, placing quite a different character on the work that you would typically get from a solemn concert performance. Moving ever closer towards performance art or art installations, Castellucci has extras representing all the ages of woman (from old age to birth) splatters the stage and bodies with Holi-like coloured power and honey, with soil, spray painting the backdrops, as the chorus move into formations to put on folk dances, a maypole dance and ritualistic representations of life and death, all the while that Mozart's music plays and the backscreen runs through its seemingly endless catalogue of extinction.

Seen in this context it's extraordinarily beautiful, invigorating, thought-provoking and often very moving; but even so, the question remains about whether it is worthy of Mozart's music. I return to that statement at the start of the presumption or impossibility of staging Mozart's Requiem, or believe that it can be elevated to anything greater than it already is. Given that, yes, Romeo Castellucci creates a presentation that is indeed worthy of the piece as a sincere artistic response to this great work. Like Katie Mitchell's and Raphaël Pichon's attempt to do the same for J.S. Bach at the 2014 Aix Festival (Trauernacht), or indeed like Robert Wilson's reworking of Arvo Pärt's sacred music for Adam's Passion, it is of course the music that must be the heart and soul of the production.

That relies of course principally on the musical direction of Raphaël Pichon, the Ensemble Pygmalion Orchestra and Chorus. Even in the open-air conditions of the theatre of the Théâtre de l’Archevêché in Aix in a theatrical presentation, the performances and the singing of the principals Siobhan Stagg (soprano), Sara Mingardo (alto), Martin Mitterrutzner (tenor) and Luca Tittoto (bass) - not to forget the beautiful acapella Kyrie by boy alto Chadi Lazreq - captures all the glory and solemnity of the work. It's not enhanced by the visual representation, but the busy and sometimes strange imagery of the production design doesn't detract from it either. What it does is prompt you to think about not just death but extinction, and as a mass for the death of everything, Mozart's Requiem couldn't be more fitting.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence

Thursday 12 September 2019

Strauss - Salome (Munich, 2019)

Richard Strauss - Salome

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2019

Kirill Petrenko, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Michaela Schuster, Marlis Petersen, Wolfgang Koch, Pavol Breslik, Rachael Wilson, Scott MacAllister, Roman Payer, Kristofer Lundin, Kevin Conners, Peter Lobert, Callum Thorpe, Ulrich Reß

Staatsoper.TV - 6 July 2019

When you come up against a Krzysztof Warlikowski production that appears to be at great variance from what you expect, as in his Munich production of Salome, it can be useful to remind yourself what the work is supposed to be about. A straightforward biblical story it is not, but rather one of Oscar Wilde's most daring works, far more incisive of Victorian morals than any of his society comedies, a confessional work of taboo in Symbolist drama form, exposing the hypocrisy of a decadent order of repressed lusts hiding behind a veneer of respectability. Along with Freud's studies in Vienna at the turn of the century, it was certainly a work that appealed to Strauss as a way of breaking through the mannerisms of old music and expressing an unspeakable truth, ushering in a new millennium in a violent fashion.

That's over one hundred years ago however, so can Salome still have relevance today? Musically it's still an extraordinary piece of music, perfectly and meticulously connected to a subject that still has the power to shock on the stage, and it doesn't have to be tied to a Biblical story either to have a transgressive taboo feel. Warlikowski taps into that power in his Bavarian State Opera production, but appears to turn the focus away from exposing corrupt individual lusts and delves rather into the self-destructive nature of exposing those individual lusts - something Wilde could certainly attest to - and how they feed into a broken society that is collectively heading for self-destruction.

Is that something we can recognise today? Perhaps it's still not that evident, but Warlikowski chooses not to hit the audience who might be blind to the dangers in our own world today over the head with any heavy-handed contemporary associations. Evidently it's not set 2,000 years ago either, but looks closer to the first half of the 20th century, perhaps 1930s, a time when again, that dark desires and will of human nature would push individuals into a collective self-destructive death wish. There's no obvious war references that point to this either it must be said, but the force of Strauss's music and the fact that this production takes place in Munich make it hard not to make those obvious associations.

I've rarely seen the illicit desires of Salome expressed as powerfully as they are here in Krzysztof Warlikowski's production, and I don't just mean the desires of Salome herself, although
Marlis Petersen of course gives a reliably intense performance, nor indeed the rather perverted degeneracy of Herod - likewise an impressive performance from Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke - but it's taken much further than usual also in Pavol Breslik's Narraboth, who clings, gropes and paws desperately at the Princess even as she appeals lasciviously to Jochanaan, and then commits suicide by taking a vial of poison, much to the horror of Rachel Wilson's Page who is clearly in love with Narraboth herself.

All this creates an explosive situation that plunges all of these figures into dangerous ground. That is reflected within Malgorzata Szczesniak's set, the library where Herod has been (strangely) entertaining his guests splits open to reveal a chasm, a gangway downwards to where the prophet Jochanaan, no less wrapped up in his own obsessions, lies in the cistern - but again the chasm isn't one into which Salome alone peers with dark self-destructive desire, but all of Herod's retinue eventually succumb. The contrast between the old world library and the modern gangway to destruction also works with the powerful violence of contrast Strauss's plunge into the development of modernism in his music.

That descent into madness is of course best exemplified in Salome's dance, which is consequently often problematic, particularly in finding a new way to present it. Warlikowski at least keeps it consistent with the central theme here, having Petersen literally engaged in an erotic dance with Death, or a courtier with his face painted in a Death mask, with an animated projection in the background of some kind of heraldic congress (don't ask, I'm not even sure I know what I mean by that). But since Wilde's drama is very much Symbolist in its stylisations this all works well with the text, particularly with the constant references to death heard in the beating of wings.

There's a lot going on, as there often is in Warlikowski productions, and as is also often the case, perhaps even too much. For a work as powerfully focussed as this there's a risk of distraction or spreading it out too thinly. If the dramatic charge consequently isn't always there as it might be, the musical and singing performances achieve everything that is required of them. It's simply a joy to have a conductor like Kirill Petrenko at the helm for a work as dynamic and charged as Salome. I don't think Warlikowski's direction works perfectly in alignment with Petrenko's reading and conducting of the score, but musically in its own right it's as powerful and measured a performance of this music as you can get.

Marlis Petersen as ever gives a committed intense performance. I don't think her voice has the fullness that it once had, but her voice has a perfect lyrical character that is essential for those switches between seductive and dangerous pleas and close-to-shriek utterances of exasperation. But my goodness, this was an exceptionally strong cast across the board, with Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke in particular bringing an other dimension to Herod, Michaela Schuster also avoiding lazy cliche with an almost sympathetic Heriodias, and committed performances from Pavol Breslik as Narraboth and Rachael Wilson as Heriodias's Page.

Wolfgang Koch made less of an impression as Jochanaan, not so much for his singing, which was impeccable, as it seemed that Warlikowski was less interested in the Prophet than in the other depraved characters. This was evident even in the usually gore-filled finale where Jochanaan's head is not presented on a silver platter but in what looks like a safe-deposit box, which doesn't even seem to contain a head since Koch's Jochanaan can be seen sitting to the side of the stage casually smoking a cigarette.

This seems to tie into something of a Liebestod moment here in the Munich production, since not only is Jochanaan alive or resuscitated, but Naraboth is also resurrected so that Warlikowski can provide an alternative twist on the ending of the opera. "The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death", sings Salome as the whole ensemble, with a kind of bunker-like death cult mentality, hand out vials of poison and commit mass suicide. Make of that what you will - and it's good if there remains some element of shock and controversy about Salome - but aligned with Strauss's thunderous juddering final chords, it makes for a hugely effective conclusion that should leave you much to think on.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsopertv

Monday 9 September 2019

Deane - Vagabones (Dublin, 2019)

Raymond Deane - Vagabones

Opera Collective Ireland, 2019

Sinéad Hayes, Ben Barnes, Crash Ensemble, Rory Dunne, Carolyn Holt, Kelli-Ann Masterson, Sarah Power, Rory Musgrave, Ross Scanlon, Fionn Ó hAlmhain

The Civic Theatre, Tallaght - 6 September 2019

Do I detect a certain amount of revived hostility towards the English in recent new Irish opera works? It's not hard to note a growing frustration bordering on disbelief at the handling of Brexit in the UK and the serious collateral damage that this English vanity project might inflict on the people and the economy of Ireland. Old grudges haven't been forgotten, the wounds run deep and it looks like they might be coming back to the surface.

Another new Irish opera premiered in Dublin just a few weeks ago. Donnacha Dennehy's The Hunger dealt with the Irish Famine, and while its focus was on the suffering of the ordinary people, taking the perspective from historical accounts and the roots of suffering in traditional Irish music, it was made clear in the contemporary interviews with academics that it's a historical accepted that the English were certainly not blameless for the severity of the situation. As well as continuing to export grain from Ireland during the famine, it's clear that there was a general indifference to the suffering of the Irish people in favour of a hands-off approach to non-intervention in market forces that contributed to the severity of the resulting famine.

Showing that Irish opera seems to be going through a rich phase at the moment, it's hard not to see similar political undercurrents and contemporary resonance in Opera Collective Ireland's commission of Raymond Deane's new opera Vagabones. Whether it is indeed in reaction to contemporary events, Brexit and border issues being revived by the English is probably too early to say, but it's interesting that Deane also chooses to delve far back into Irish history to another episode where a sense of English entitlement and ruling superiority can be seen as being responsible for the oppression of the Irish way of life in the sowing of hatred and suspicion.

Based on the play 'Trespasses' written in the mid-1990s by Emma Donoghue, Vagabones dates back long enough before the current fiasco and cause of divisions, but it also derives in part from the writer's experience of being Irish and living in England in the period leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. It's based on an account of a witch trial of Florence Newton, which took place in Youghal in Co. Cork in 1661, one of the few witch trails that took place in Ireland. Perhaps, if Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible' is anything to go by, the accusation made against Florence Newton is inspired by jealousy more than any deeper political intent by Mary Longdon, a maid of English origin. Afraid that she won't be able to marry her master John Pyne because she suffers from epileptic fits, Mary blames them on the curse of old Irish woman, accusing her of being a witch.

Ben Barnes's direction of Opera Collective Ireland's world premiere production of Vagabones keeps to the 17th century period setting and doesn't set about introducing any modernisms or revisionism, or indeed anything that would point to any contemporary allegorical or political element. The locations are all based in and around Florence's prison cell and her being brought to trial, those scenes contrasted with the finery of the English landlords and ruling authorities. The sense of injustice is strong, heightened by entitlement of the authorities that even if they know they are wrong they must be seen to be right. Sharing a cell with Donal a young boy jailed for a minor theft, there is a sense of the poor being made to pay for the indulgences of the rich. In the hierarchy here, even an English maid is more important than an indigenous Irish person.

If the historical subject matter and treatment of Irish matters in their new opera works suggests a common purpose when seen in close proximity, Raymond Deane comes from a very different musical background to Donnacha Dennehy. Deane, who studied composition under Stockhausen in Cologne, is more from the European modernist tradition open to experimentation, whereas Dennehy has a strong connection to the peculiarities of Irish trad for rhythm and sensibility and a foot in American minimalism. There are no obvious Irish musical references in Vagabones, although there is some use of accordion and harp, but if there are similarities between Dennehy's The Hunger and Dean's Vagabones it's probably highlighted by in the use of the Crash Ensemble and a similar scale of chamber orchestration, with an ensemble of 13 musicians conducted by Sinéad Hayes.

Deane's music and his development of Vagabones from a play gives the work a more traditional dramatic character with nothing overtly experimental. Deane does develop a technique here, creating a unique voice for each of the six main characters by superimposing scales on a pitch structure to develop a unique voice for each of the characters. Whether that's evident or not, it at least gives the something with which to establish a sense of character and personality. The scoring certainly has mood and impact, the music appropriate in scale and delivery for the intimacy of the subject, supporting the drama and letting its undercurrents come through.

The singing performances are all very good, inevitably somewhat Sprechgesang and traditionally dramatic. It's delivered as such with nothing unconventional or experimental here, and no unnecessary flourishes. Vagabones is a smaller scale chamber work and it might not be particularly ambitious in staging or conception, but it certainly finds an intriguing subject that works well on its own terms as a drama and even in a wider context, presents a interesting bigger picture of where contemporary Irish opera and maybe even Ireland is at the moment.

Links: Opera Collective Ireland

Tuesday 3 September 2019

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande (Zurich, 2016)

Claude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Opernhaus Zurich, 2016

Alain Altinoglu, Dmitri Tchernaikov, Corinne Winters, Kyle Ketelsen, Jacques Imbrailo, Brindley Sherratt, Damien Göritz, Yvonne Naef, Charles Dekeyser, Reinhard Mayr

BelAir - Blu-ray

There's no excuse really for not doing something creative and original with a work as unique and enigmatic as Pelléas et Mélisande. The story is deceptively simple on the surface, but it does have complex undercurrents that don't necessarily translate easily to anything obviously contemporary, so it demands an imaginative response. You would certainly expect a director like Dmitri Tcherniakov to find a new and modern way of looking at the work and for this 2016 Zurich production he employs a similar approach in look and feel that he has employed in other recent productions - in Carmen at Aix-en-Provence, in Les Troyens at the Paris Opera - which is to say an openly psychoanalytical approach.

When I say 'openly' that means that the director doesn't just place emphasis on the overt symbolism that is there throughout Pelléas et Mélisande, but he actually has a therapist up there on the stage, and - as with Don José in Carmen, and Dido in Les Troyens - he uses that figure as a way of drawing a character out of a deep trauma through psychoanalysis. Mélisande is and has always been a fascinating character to explore, very much a damaged figure, and Tcherniakov wouldn't be the first to see Mélisande as an abused female controlled by men (see Katie Mitchell's 2016 Aix-en-Provence production), but there's always the danger of a director (or the therapist) rationalising and explaining too much of the enigmatic mystery of the opera.

So in Dmitri Tcherniakov's production, Mélisande is not found in a forest, but led into a brightly-lit modern office or stylish living room in a state of deep shock. Her therapist, Golaud tries to get her to relive or reveal the deep-rooted cause of her distress, telling her to imagine sitting by a pool of water. A man approaches. How do you feel? ("Ne me touchez-pas!"). Why are you crying? Has someone harmed you? It's a perfect fit that captures the circularity of Mélisande's condition. We don't know what trauma this young woman has experienced, but the suggestion is that it's probably something similar to what she is about to go through again in Allemonde.

Suggestion is the key word here. It doesn't need to be explicitly stated because it's already hinted at in Debussy's score, not least in its ability to almost control, halt, shift and suspend notions of time. The Mélisande we discover at the end of the work is in a similar condition to the one we see at the start. It's almost as if she has been wiped clean by Golaud, by his authoritative 'therapist-like' manner, but the trauma remains buried deep and resurfaces as she experiences what we imagine must be similar conditions of mistreatment, abuse, mistrust, possessiveness and control. Tcherniakov's way into Pelléas et Mélisande respects the enigma of the work, finding - in combination with the music under Alain Altinoglu's direction - that unique and slightly sinister character of the piece.

As a concept it's an interesting proposition, but it still remains a challenge to develop it. Initially, when the therapist marries his patient and brings her home, it looks like Golaud's family are slightly alarmed at the idea, but soon they also start to put other dubious methods of practice into the treatment of Mélisande. Even Pelléas seems to treat her more as an object of curiosity or a case study furthering Golaud's experiments by practicing hypnosis on the young woman, placing her mentally rather than physically in those dark places that Maeterlinck describes in the original work. We already assume these are metaphorical in the work anyway, so whether that is following the idea through or overly spelling it out is debatable.

While it is fascinating to approach the work this way, personally I tend towards the latter view. It's not so much a case of Tchernaikov over-explaining the work as detracting from its mystery. Tcherniakov's approach towards demystification can produce interesting results in works like Dialogues des Carmélites or Macbeth, but it does tend to take away a little from works that have what some would see as more of a spiritual dimension (Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde). While there's no doubt that at heart Pelléas et Mélisande is a domestic drama as much as Macbeth is, those works also have an extraordinary way of describing or suggesting deeper undercurrents and complex emotions, and that is something that you can't afford to lose in this work.

Some mystery and ambiguity remains inevitably, as Tcherniakov can't quite fit the remainder of the work to his psychoanalytical approach, but it does tend toward the view of Mélisande being in an abusive relationship but under a kind of enchantment that prevents her from leaving. Golaud certainly lives up to this reading to a large extent, although Tcherniakov underplays some of the situations, making it more of a game play, which makes it all a little more sinister. Pelléas isn't quite the young innocent here, but controlling also, putting images in Mélisande's head. Mélisande is reduced to a shattered woman, walking around in a horrified troubled daze for most of the opera, which takes away somewhat from a more nuanced and dynamic view of her character.

Fortunately the singing performances are all exceptional, working with this conception of the work but also finding ways to express that more nuanced aspect that is suggested in Debussy's score. I'd go even as far as to say that all the principals are perfect matches for Debussy's score, having a wonderful lyrical enchantment with a darkly sinister or troubled edge. That's always the case with Jacques Imbrailo as Pelléas, but Corinne Winters is also impressive despite having her range of dramatic expression restricted and Kyle Ketelsen is an intriguing Golaud. All of them do find interesting ways of expression that is brought out by Tcherniakov's direction.

If there's some degree of magical enchantment taken out of the work and its dark Allemonde locations, Tcherniakov nonetheless comes up with a very stylish decor for the set that has its own sense of attractive entrapment. It all looks pretty good too in HD in the BelAir Blu-ray release with High Resolution soundtracks in LPCM 2.0 and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. There are no extras other than a booklet notes interview with Dmitri Tcherniakov, a synopsis and a full trackisting. The Blu-ray disc is all-region and has subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Korean and Japanese.

Links: Opernhaus Zurich