Thursday 24 October 2019

Birtwistle - The Mask of Orpheus (London, 2019)

Harrison Birtwistle - The Mask of Orpheus

English National Opera, 2019

Martyn Brabbins, James Henshaw, Daniel Kramer, Peter Hoare, Marta Fontanais-Simmons, James Cleverton, Claron McFadden, Daniel Norman, Claire Barnett-Jones, Simon Bailey, Matthew Smith, Alfa Marks, Leo Hedman

The Coliseum, London - 18th October 2019

The Greek myth of Orpheus and his journey to the Underworld to rescue his dead wife Eurydice has been recounted in opera in many different ways, but essentially the story is simple in its telling and in its meaning. It's about love, loss, life, bereavement, endurance, coming to terms with death as a part of life, a theme that can give rise to and be expressed in the highest orders of artistic creativity. Did I say simple? There is of course nothing simple about those themes, neither individually not when combined. It's even more complicated when you add in, as Harrison Birtwistle does in this account of the myth in The Mask of Orpheus, the vagaries of time, the repetition of memory and the unreliability of myth distorting the truth.

Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus is anything but simple, but in comparison to other accounts you have to wonder does it really need to be this complex? This version has three Orpheuses, three Euridices and three Aristeuses, representing the man, the myth, the hero. These splits are further fractured and intertwined through the vagaries of memory, dreams, delusions that result eventually (but by no means clearly) in a coming to terms with reality, or at least with the complexities of reality. The reformist Gluck wouldn't have approved such over-elaboration nor presumably would Monteverdi have countenanced the destruction of the illusion of man aspiring to the gods and coming close to attaining it in the expression of his music.

Musically however, Birtwistle score is just that ambitious and a performance of
The Mask of Orpheus is still a thing of wonder, unlike anything else in opera. At the current ENO production it requires two conductors to manage the vast and unusual arrangement of brass, woodwind and percussion combined with Barry Anderson's IRCAM-derived experimental electronics. It creates an extraordinary sound that fully explores the complexity of situations and moods, the abstraction and repetition, the echo of time and ritual of myth. Peter Zinovieff's libretto is abstract and fragmented, often obscure and unfathomable in vocalised fragments of words. Stockhausen's Licht has nothing on this except length, and even then The Mask of Orpheus is testing at over three and a half hours long.

Inevitably Orpheus's journey in the opera is extremely hard to follow or grasp onto anything concrete. It does however have a very definite form and structure, tri-partite in acts, in its interweaving of three incarnations of the three principal characters. There are three scenes in the first Act and two sets of three allegorical myths interspersed throughout as dance interludes (three 'passing clouds' and three 'allegorical flowers'), but the opera fractures into other directions, Orpheus passing through 17 arches in Act II, Act III divided into eight episodes and an 'Exodos'. The music is just as complex in its composition and form, fractured, episodic, repetitive, interweaving replaying and transforming.

The Mask of Orpheus is evidently an experimental work, an enormous undertaking in an unconventional musical form (with its use of electronics) that Birtwistle hasn't really attempted on this scale anywhere else. Does the experiment yield any great insights into the myth? Should it be possible to grasp some deeper meaning? With the music giving expression, does it even need a narrative? What then should be the role of a director in all this? Should he attempt to make sense of it, to impose a path at least if not a narrative? Paths are important in The Mask of Orpheus and Daniel Kramer's production at least adheres to the unconventional structural path that the opera explores, but it obscures at least distracts when you hope it might illuminate.

Illuminating The Mask of Orpheus is an unenviable challenge admittedly, but Kramer's idea of illuminating doesn't really extend beyond drenching the work in garish day-glo pinks, greens and blues. There's some attempt to encompass the multiple levels of the work up there on the stage, its repetition, its simultaneous echoing of multiple views of past, present, future, myth and reality, but there's also much that is unnecessary. A crass bombardment of colour, projections and quite absurd cabaret or circus-like costumes do little more than fulfil the function of distinguishing one group from another but there's little that appears to connects to the music, to the narrative or themes.

A director like Achim Freyer can get away with that kind of eccentricity in design, but there at least there is an effort towards logic or symbolism even if it can be abstract it the extreme. Here the approach feels completely inappropriate for the subject and the work, over-complicating, making it almost impossible to follow everything that is going on and who is who at any given time. It's not necessarily a case that simplification is required, as it's hard to imagine how you could do that and be true to the structure of the work and music, but the problem seems to be that there appears to be no real feeling for the work or understanding of it in the direction.

The same accusation fortunately can't be levelled at the musical direction. Martyn Brabbins, assisted by James Henshaw, more than met the considerable challenges of this unconventional score and the very high expectations I personally had to hear it performed live. The sound within the Coliseum was incredible, the orchestration opening out the score, creating an enveloping mood that is there within the dynamic of the score and its collision of acoustic and electronic elements. It's been over thirty years since it was performed in full during its original run in 1986 so it's certainly worth taking the opportunity to hear it, and it sounds tremendous in the auditorium of the Coliseum.

While it was hard to follow who was singing what at any stage due to the cut-up and blend nature of the work - not helped at all by the obscure costumes and busy stage - it was clear there were no areas of weakness in the singing either. Peter Hoare as the principal, older Odysseus (The Man) and Claron McFadden as The Oracle of the Dead were identifiable and certainly notable for meeting the singing and performaning challenges of the work. For the musical performance alone this was an extraordinary evening at the opera of a rare and exceptional work, but one unfortunately let down by an ill-considered production design and direction of no discernible artistic merit. 

Links: English National Opera

Monday 7 October 2019

Verdi - Le Trouvère (Parma, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Le Trouvère

Teatro Regio di Parma, 2018

Roberto Abbado, Robert Wilson, Giuseppe Gipaldi, Roberta Mantegna, Franco Vassallo, Nino Surguladze, Marco Spotti, Luca Casalin, Tonia Langella, Nicolò Donini

Dynamic, Blu-ray

Verdi's French operas have remained rare and infrequently performed. Even those originally written for a French audience, Don Carlos and Les Vêpres Siciliennes are better known in their Italian counterparts, Don Carlo and I Vespri Siciliani. Lately however not only have we been able to better assess the relative merits of those works in actual performance, but we've even been able to compare I Lombardi alla prima crociata against Jérusalem, both works rare in either language, but Verdi's French version of Il Trovatore has remained largely overlooked, and perhaps with good reason.

Notwithstanding its popularity and a number of famous choruses, Il Trovatore has pacing and plot credibility issues in its Italian version, and it's hard to imagine that it could be improved with a change of language and the insertion of a long ballet at the beginning of Act III. Any yet, watching the 2018 Verdi Opera Festival production from Parma, it's clear that Verdi's Le Trouvère is Il Trovatore like you've never heard it before. Or, perhaps more pertinently, like you've never seen it before, since Robert Wilson's characteristic direction has a way of placing a very different complexion on any familiar opera.

This is not the best place to consider the merits of Wilson's approach to theatrical presentation (Wilson makes his own arguments for it in the booklet of this BD/DVD release), but arguably they do seem better suited to works that have a more spiritual dimension rather than the full-blooded melodrama of a Verdi opera. I've rarely seen a production so beautiful but unsuited to the music and drama as Wilson's production of Verdi's Aida, and yet Wilson does unquestionably impose a huge presence and influence that colours how you perceive any opera he is involved with.

'Colour' being the operative word here. You know what to expect - a sparse light-box stage lit in shades of teal or aquamarine blue, geometric shapes floating above the stage, figures in stylised costumes contrasted against the light, striking strange static poses, with occasional objects and figures mysteriously floating past or wandering onto the stage. All this is very much present in Wilson's production of Le Trouvère which, in acknowledgement to the history of the venue and its composer, this time has the addition of some period photographs of Parma projected and animated, and one old man, looking very much like an elder Verdi, observing it all with amusement.

Even if you are familiar with Robert Wilson's designs and techniques, it still looks extraordinary, completely unlike anything else. Whether it is appropriate or not for the work - well, it certainly doesn't look like any familiar view of this opera, but it does succeed in establishing a haunting and vaguely sinister quality that suits Il Trovatore, or Le Trouvère, very well. Whether that feeds into the musical performance or whether the French version has its own particular character is harder to determine, but why speculate and attempt to deconstruct? It is what it is, and in its totality it is utterly compelling and beguiling whether as French Verdi or as Wilson doing French Verdi.

In some ways, Wilson's cool approach - while it might not have done much for Aida - suits the overheated melodrama and wild flights of Il Trovatore and works well to tone it down and bring it into focus. It doesn't so much cool it however as show it for its true stylisation - in its own way - as a dramatic piece. The credibility of characterisation or ability to follow the machinations of Azucena the gypsy and the switched identity of Manrico (Manrique here) and his romantic attentions towards Léonore is largely irrelevant. Le Trouvère creates its own universe where anything can happen and Wilson's production makes it possible for the viewer to enter into that world.

But there are a number of clear differences and revisions that do make Le Trouvère a different prospect from Il Trovatore, and it does indeed even have a very different character sung in French instead of Italian, sounding more lyrical and less declamatory. The majority of the actual changes are small tweaks, the excision of a cabaletta here, the addition of an aria there - but there are a couple of significant changes, notably the Act III ballet and the handling of the conclusion. Whether any of these changes are noticeably for the better is doubtful but they are fascinating to hear and see performed. Unfortunately, Wilson, like nearly every other director I've seen faced with a Verdi ballet, doesn't know what to do with it, and 20 minutes or so of extras boxing - not matter how stylised - really tests even the most tolerant Wilson fan.

Despite such additions Le Trouvère thankfully doesn't aspire to grand opéra extravagance, and Wilson's show-paced choreography and direction would never permit it anyway. Conductor Roberto Abbado recognises the more sweeping lyrical flow of the score and takes a varying approach to the pacing, never letting it head off at full-tilt but rather working with Wilson's direction to establish a piece that works on mood rather than dramatic action. Perhaps the French singing also makes a difference on the character of the work, but what matters most here - as it does with any Verdi opera in any language - is that it is superbly sung by the cast. The voices are clear and resonant Roberta Mantegna's Léonore representing that romantic lyrical quality, while Giuseppe Gipaldi's Manrique and Nino Surguladze's Azucena soar above the drama. All remain focussed on vocal character and delivery, never getting submerged by the music or indeed by the extraordinary visual aspect of the production.

It's difficult to transfer that character effectively to the screen, but the Dynamic Blu-ray release looks great. The usual transfer issues of blurring in movement are hardly noticeable in a slow Robert Wilson production, but vitally, the image gets across the subtle graduations of colour tones and lighting, with deep, rich blacks in the shadows that are essential for the contrast and the mood. It looks simply amazing in High Definition. And the audio tracks packs a punch as well. Voices are clear and resonant, there's good presence to the orchestra, although not always full detail. An impressive presentation nonetheless.

The only extra on the Blu-ray disc is a guide to the Teatro Farnese venue in Parma, but the enclosed booklet is wonderfully informative with a look at the history of the French edition of the work, including notes from Robert Wilson on his approach and a synopsis. The disc is BD50 for an almost 3 hour opera, all-region compatible, with subtitles in Italian, English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Teatro Regio di Parma

Thursday 3 October 2019

Weill - Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aix, 2019)

Kurt Weill - Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2019

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Ivo van Hove, Karita Mattila, Alan Oke, Sir Willard White, Annette Dasch, Nikolai Schukoff, Sean Panikkar, Thomas Oliemans, Peixin Chen

ARTE Concert - 11 July 2019

As a satire of capitalism Brecht and Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has surely never felt so relevant and present with the times as it does now with the rise of populism and consumerism escalating towards end days. Never has it been more the case of giving the people what they want as long as you can get into a position of power and make some money out of it. And even if they don't yet know what they need, it's up to the enterprising businessman and leader to manufacture a dreams that they can sell them.

Directing Weill's anti-opera for Aix in 2019, Belgian stage director Ivo van Hove would seem to be in a good position to make this subject contemporary and relevant, but instead he goes for what is almost an anti-production approach. Using his familiar modern stage techniques of a stripped-back stage, using projections and on-stage cameras, it certainly emphasises the idea of capitalism being based on a sense of falsehood, illusion and fake glamour that is very much in the spirit of Bertolt Brecht, but it also turns out to be surprisingly dull and not as effective as it might be.

It's not surprising then that the stage is bare at the start of the opera. Widow Begbick, Fatty and Trinity Moses are literally in the middle of nowhere, three crooks chased out of town so they can't go back, their truck broken down so they can't go forward. Begbick tells them that they are going to build the city of Mahagonny there out of nothing. With the promise of entertainment, a deregulated paradise free from red-tape and restrictions on personal freedoms an unpopular laws and taxes, they're sure that it won't be long before the city and the stage is populated, attracting those with something to sell (like Jenny Smith and her girls, first at the door waiting for the punters to arrive) and those who believe that they can buy anything; everything is for sale, everything is permitted and money talks.

Up to a certain point anyway and it's in the fall of the city of Mahagonny that there ought to be some lessons learned - but only if you see the opera as a cautionary tale and there's nothing to say that it's anything more than a merciless satire on society and a bleak outlook on the darker base impulses of humanity. Certainly Jimmy Mahoney begins to recognise at one point that money can't buy you everything, but all he feels is missing is the urge to hit someone, and - wouldn't you know it - that's a need that can be exploited to make more money. Ultimately it's a self-destructive urge, and essentially the whole system is predicated on just such an outcome, or at least on putting it off for as long as possible while achieving the maximum consumption and profit.

It's all something that we can still recognise in the world today on an even bigger scale, with the urge towards violence and making money fuelling many a war. Even the hurricane and close call with death that Mahagonny narrowly avoids can be seen as a phenomenon brought on by man-made activity, in the accelerated abuse of natural resources and global warming. So perhaps it doesn't need to be overly emphasised or made explicit. We are all very much aware of what is wrong with the world today and the global consequences of what is happening. The real question is why do we still do it?

You would think however that the system should at least be superficially attractive and appealing. You don't need to go down the missing-the-point route of the Royal Opera House's 2015 production to achieve that, but Ivo van Hove doesn't even want to permit any such illusion, and indeed insists on showing us its ugliness and how we are willing to look past it for the sake of it suiting our immediate needs. Updating it for the modern age, van Hove's production incorporates how we have come to accept even digital manipulation as something of worth when it has no material value whatsoever. Everything is acted out for cameras, a selfie generation wanting to be immortalised on reality TV. Even the indulgences of the 'Everything is permitted' section of the opera takes place in a faked green-screen environment. It's a hollow experience and yet we've come to accept this as being enough.

So if Ivo van Hove's production feels very hollow and lacking in any substance, perhaps that the point, but you do get a sense that there is a wasted opportunity here to make something more of the opera and take it to another level. There's more to Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny than that however and its other qualities at least go some way to providing balance and reflection on the work. Musically the performance at Aix is of the highest order under conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. It's a fine interpretation that shows the richness of the work, its dynamism and unexpected sophistication, its ability to use whatever type of musical genre, jazz, classical, cabaret - and match it to drama and character as well as to the subtext it wants to use to undercut them.

In terms of singing, the work does have 'proper' operatic qualities and challenges. Nikolai Schukoff provides the most satisfying performance as Jimmy Mahoney, resolute and dissolute, capturing all the contradictions of the character and singing the role tremendously well. Karita Mattila and Annette Dasch also give good committed performances full of character and fire, if a little unsteady in places. What they also do particularly well is work with the on-stage camera close-ups that van Hove often uses this to bring an edge of intimacy and urgency to the work. That's not so much the case here, where despite the excellent work of the orchestra and some outstanding choral work from Pygmalion - the opera (and Jimmy) gradually fizzles out without it ever feeling like it makes the necessary impact. But maybe that tells us something as well.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence