Friday 27 December 2019

Mozart - Idomeneo (Salzburg, 2019)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Idomeneo

Salzburg Festspiele, 2019

Teodor Currentzis, Peter Sellars, Russell Thomas, Paula Murrihy, Ying Fang, Nicole Chevalier, Levy Sekgapane, Issachah Savage, Jonathan Lemalu

Medici streaming - 12 August 2019

After their take on La Clemenza di Tito in the same venue in 2017, there would have been little doubt that the 2019 Salzburg Festival production of Idomeneo would be controversial; the only question being whether it would be Peter Sellars or Teodor Currentzis who would be most wayward in their in interpretation of one of Mozart's most interesting operas. Well, it's a close run thing.

Mozart's operas are so rich in music and multifaceted in their content and themes that they are eminently amenable to deeper exploration, reinterpretation and modern revision; nothing about them has dated. As an early opera seria however, with a baroque libretto written for André Campra, Idomeneo does certainly still have one foot in a bygone age, yet it is already progressive in terms of Mozart's reworking, reinvention and humanistic outlook. Filtered through the young Mozart's sensibility and remarkable talent, all those conventional laments, jealousies, cruel twists of fate and extreme human sentiments feel vivid, alive and real.

It's so powerful an advance on the mannerisms of the past that it demands an equally imaginative, modern and humanistic interpretation in stage performance. Perhaps not everyone wants it to go as far as Dieter Dorn’s at the Munich Bayerische Staatoper or Damiano Michieletto in Vienna, or indeed as Sellas and Currentzis not unexpectedly take it here, but it's hard to argue that they don't bring a sincere response to the musical and dramatic content of Idomeneo, striving to find a way to highlight the richness of its themes and development of its characters.

Initially however, you are definitely thrown a little off-balance by the oddness of the set developed for the very specific demands of the Salzburg Felsenreitschule. Not a single object on the stage is related to the actual Crete settings of the opera, nor are they naturalistic or in most cases even identifiable. The stage on the floor of the Riding School theatre has clear plastic tubes that rise up as columns with coloured lights, the stage littered elsewhere with misshapen plastic containers, tubes and inflatable blob like creatures - perhaps a different kind of monster that is disgorged by the sea in this age of environmental disaster. The costumes of the Greeks and their Trojan prisoners is militaristic, but the coloured camouflage outfits look more like pyjamas.

As unusual as the set looks, the unfamiliar sound, pacing and rhythms that
Teodor Currentzis brings out in the period instrument interpretation of the opera with the Freiburger Barockorchester can be even more unsettling as it sounds very different here from any recording you might be more familiar with. The intention is clearly to push the range of expression that Mozart employs for this opera, marking it out as very different from the baroque works that precede it, exploiting and emphasising the dynamic that Mozart employs for this unique and brilliant work.

At times you get the impression that the intention is also to do everything possible to break away from Mozart as comfortable and easy-listening, perhaps over-emphasising and deliberately pushing against the familiar. It's slow when you expect it to be faster, fast when you expect it to be slower, aggressive when you would expect merely forceful, but it never seems to work against the intent of the work. It hints rather that all might not be as it appears on the surface of the moral, political and romantic dilemmas of each of the characters whose lives have been thrown into turmoil under the curse of Neptune; absolutes and certainties - being saved from the dead, feeling secure in love, family loyalties - are all indeed turned on their head.

What Currentzis and Sellars do however is force you to reconsider the work in new terms, not rest on the certainty of familiarity, but be challenged afresh by every scene, every aria and recitative, every single note, trying to hear what is really being expressed in the melody, the tempo and the instrumentation - the fortepiano notably playing a larger role here than in any version of this work I've heard before.

If you can put up with Peter Sellars's more annoying mannerisms - the choreographic ritualised steps and semaphore arm signals (which are at least better than park and bark performances) - his direction of the internal nature and conflict of the characters is interesting. It's almost what you would expect to find in The Magic Flute: characters out of balance, seeking to find an emotional equilibrium as well as find an accord with the forces of nature and their place in the world, seeking wisdom, seeking answers, seeking peace and willing to endure suffering and trials for it. It does show that Idomeneo is practically a prototype for Die Zauberflöte (With Electra a furious Queen of the Night and Neptune a lesson-giving Sarastro), and in that respect the treatment is thoroughly Mozartian.

Not that some sections of the Salzburg would notice. When it comes down to who upsets them most, the director traditionally gets it in the neck and Currentzis's eccentricities and indulgences are overlooked. In truth, neither are entirely successful and it comes across as a little over-laboured, over-intellectualised, existing in some theatrical vacuum that doesn't entirely connect with Mozart's Idomeneo on a relatable and instinctive human level. It's a fascinating account nonetheless of a magnificent, deeply beautiful work, one that is emphasised by some fine committed singing performances, notably from a sweetly lyrical Ying Fang as Ilya and a fiery Nicole Chevalier as Elektra (almost stealing the show at the finale), but all of the performances impress, including Paula Murrihy as an intensely sincere Idamante and Russell Thomas as a warm and troubled Idomeneo.

Links: Salzburg Festspiele

Friday 20 December 2019

Neuwirth - Orlando (Vienna, 2019)

Olga Neuwirth - Orlando

Wiener Staatsoper, 2019

Matthias Pintscher, Polly Graham, Kate Lindsey, Anna Clementi, Eric Jurenas, Constance Hauman, Agneta Eichenholz, Leigh Melrose, Justin Vivian Bond

Staatsoper Live - 18 December 2019

The subject and content of Olga Neuwirth's new opera Orlando is very much related to the fact that she is the first woman composer not only to write an opera for the Vienna State Opera, but is the first woman composer to ever even have an opera performed there. Neuwirth's choice of Virginia Woolf's influential and highly regarded 1928 novel 'Orlando', which follows the course of a young nobleman who lives through the political changes of the centuries, experiencing it from the viewpoint of a man and then changing sex to become a woman, is clearly a pointed commentary on this fact.

Following in the footsteps of Luigi Nono, a composer that she worked with as an assistant, Austrian born Neuwirth is likewise viewed as a 'political' composer, but rather than just seek to make a well-meaning gesture against the injustice of gender inequality in the world of opera, or even take the route of a superficial commentary on current affairs in the world today, in Orlando Neuwirth extends on Woolf's vision to seek to address a deeper problem that could be seen as having an underlying impact on how the nature of the world we live continually changes, but those changes have been shaped by gender inequality throughout the ages, women reduced to a footnote in history, if considered at all.

It's also notable, if purely coincidental, that the period covered in Orlando aligns very closely with the history of opera, which has also evolved and changed over the years. Even baroque opera however has until relatively recently also been a rarity at the Vienna State opera - a 50 year gap only broken in 2011 coincidentally (isn't it strange how much that word comes up, you'd almost think it telling) with a production of Handel's Alcina, a tale of another Orlando - so the history of change in opera is perhaps not something that many of the more conservative element of the audience in Vienna would recognise. I don't think Olga Neuwirth is going to convince them with her Orlando.

Being a well-educated man from a noble family in 1598, Orlando is well placed to be destined for greatness. He determines to be a poet and a great writer, but although he wins the favour of Queen Elizabeth, his ambitious work 'The Oak Tree' doesn't win favour with critics like Mr Greene. Disappointed in love, when he is betrayed by Sasha, a Russian princess, jaded by the politics of the land and war, Orlando falls into a deep coma and reawakens as a woman in a new age. Her experiences as a woman however bring her to recognise the fact that history is made by men and certainly written by them, meaning much the same thing.

Women don't get a whole lot of a look in and Orlando, now a woman, expected to do little more than make tea and marry, finds it unfair that someone can be rejected solely on the basis of the sex they were born into. Worse comes in the Victorian era, where Orlando encounters women and young girls who are victims of sexual abuse and destined for a life of abject misery. She decides to write and record their experiences from the perspective of woman, but finding a publisher continues to prove elusive, even in the age of eBook publishing.

What is interesting, and perhaps something I failed to appreciate in Woolf or in Sally Potter's filmed version of 'Orlando', is that living now in an era where gender reassignment and gender fluidity is relatively common (if not yet wholly accepted and viewed with suspicion in some quarters), it's now possible to see that Woolf was very much ahead of the game in terms of questions of sexual politics. This of course has a more contemporary application later in Neuwirth's updating of 'Orlando' beyond Woolf's time of 1928 up to the present day, Neuwirth thereby highlighting for a modern audiences how society and attitudes change over time. Significantly however, while that change is brought clearly to the forefront, it also makes evident just how far behind attitudes remain in relation to gender inequality.

It's inevitably a huge task to get all that across in a three hour opera and avoid sounding preachy, particularly when Neuwirth's musical approach to the subject is just as complex and all-encompassing, and modernist and dissonant in the most difficult way for an audience to engage with. Neuwirth doesn't entirely succeed in terms of making the case persuasive from the musical viewpoint, embracing early Tudor music, references to Purcell, religious choral pieces with live electronic layering and use of unconventional instruments in the total opera manner of Stockhausen with its spiritual leanings or Nono's direct political engagement, the conclusion featuring a cabaret band and a transgender singer - Orlando's child - does tend to push towards preachiness.

While it can be difficult to listen to - although I'm certain that it would come across with more detail and much more effectively in a live context rather than via the Wiener Staatsoper's streaming service - it's not hard to appreciate what Neuwirth is trying to do and admire how Matthias Pintscher conducts it, but over an extended period it does head towards sensory overload and cacophony. Certainly for the purposes of how it relates to and reflects the subject of embracing change and diversity however it's essential to employ the richness of musical options open to a composer. It's music that, like Orlando, recognises no distinction between past and present, is male and female all rolled into one, pushing beyond restrictive boundaries of convention.

The musical complexity and what it attempts to bring out only makes the challenges of mixing and blending all the historical scene changes even more difficult for director Polly Graham. Forced into a more linear narrative approach, with the passing years displayed in the background, the production design is perhaps a little more theatrically conventional in how it meets those challenges of keeping up, using moving screens and projections, but unless you employ La Fura dels Baus or Stefan Herheim, it would be near impossible to visually match the textural richness of the music, much less add another level of complexity to the work that in an ideal world the theatrical element should equally contribute.

Neuwirth and co-librettist Catherine Filloux succeed to a large extend in their aims of making Orlando relevant to the modern age, addressing the legacy of the male-dominated, war-hawking, money-making agenda that suppresses any possibility of true change in the world, raising again the spectre of fascism. As persuasive as the central performance of Kate Lindsey's Orlando is to standing up against the ways of the past, whether Neuwirth's Orlando aligned with and updating Virginia Woolf's vision makes an equal or greater historical impression seems unlikely, but it's certainly of the moment, another marker along the way to show that we've still a long way to go.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper, Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home

Thursday 12 December 2019

Attahir - Le Silence des ombres (Brussels, 2019)

Benjamin Attahir - Le Silence des ombres

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2019

Benjamin Attahir, Olivier Lexa, Julia Szproch, Raquel Camarinha, Clémence Poussin, Renaud Delaigue, Morgane Heyse, Gwendoline Blondeel, Sarah Théry, Pierre Derhet, Sébastien Dutrieux, Luc Van Grunderbeeck

La Monnaie MM Channel Streaming - 4th October 2019

If you ever were to compile a list of the greatest opera librettists, the Nobel Prize winning Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck would have to be up there and close to the top, even though in most cases his involvement with opera was more in his works being adapted rather than providing an original libretto. Maeterlinck's dramatic writing however is rare in that it seems to adapt readily and often without any necessary revision as a ready-made opera libretto. Not only that, but his dramas also appear to be perfectly suited in their abstraction, symbolism and ambiguity to sit alongside the music of a composer who can bring out other intangible qualities and moods of the interiorisation of texts that express "the drama of existence itself".

That being the case - and with Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande and Dukas' Ariadne et Barbe-bleu being the most famous adaptations of Maeterlinck - it would seem to be impressionist music that best captures the moods of Maeterlinck's indefinable dramas. French composer and conductor Benjamin Attahir doesn't just follow in the footsteps of Debussy and Dukas in his scoring of Maeterlinck's 'Trois petits drames pour marionnettes' (Three short puppet plays, 1894) as Le Silence des ombres. Comparison is unavoidable, but Attahir brings a modern sensibility that is informed by and attempts to build on the qualities of those other composers to bring out different aspects of Maeterlinck's work.

Not only is musical comparison inevitable, but the three short works that make up Le Silence des ombres do nonetheless all exhibit familiar variations on themes and treatment that you can find in Pelléas et Mélisande and Ariadne et Barbe Bleu. In La Mort de Tintagiles, Ygraine and her siblings have lived their entire lives in a dark castle located a deep in a valley of shadows, much like the eerie Allemonde of Pelléas et Mélisande, Ygraine seeing only passing birds, falling leaves and fleeting images of nature outside her window. She and her sisters live in fear of their grandmother the queen, a monstrous figure who lives alone in a tower and is never seen.

The queen has destroyed most of their family, fearful that someone will supplant her. Suspecting that the queen means to harm their young brother Tintagiles, Ygraine goes to visit her sister Bellangère and her husband Aglovale, seeking protection. The mood of fear and anxiety there is only further heightened by anticipation of the unknown power and desires of the Queen, by the sounds and voices hears whispering outside the door. And then in the night, they come for Tintagiles.

In Intérieur, the second of the three dramas, there is a similar play on building of another aspect of tension and fear. An old man and his companion approach a house where a family are living a life of simple contentment and warmth in each other's company, but they are the bearers of bad news that the family's young daughter has drowned. They hesitate to break the mood of the happy scene until Marthe arrives and presses them to do what needs to be done. There is terrible anticipation leading up to the moment of delivery of a message that will destroy the illusion of happiness.

In both cases is the thing to be feared is death, and the tension that Maeterlinck taps into is that awareness of what we know beneath the surface but refuse to acknowledge; that happiness is temporary and fleeting and depends on blocking out the fact that death will come and destroy everything. Death however takes a thousand forms in Maeterlinck: it can be the death of hope or, as is the case in Pelléas et Mélisande, the death of innocence. That work comes very much to mind in the third part of the trilogy, Alladine et Palomides. Alladine is another woman - she is literally a slave here - who is subject to the forces and the will of men.

Palomides loves her even though he is engaged to Astolaine, whose father Ablamore also has has feelings towards Alladine. Ablamore consequently is very much a Golaud figure, claiming he saw Alladine and Palomides kiss and believing that Palomides has betrayed Astolaine he takes a terrible vengeance against them that sees them trapped in a cavern and dying a fading death rather like Mélisande's fate. Other similarities lie in the moody symbolism of the work, Alladine fearful of the huge symbolic palace that overlooks the sea, where you can get lost in its corridors and rooms. There's a lamb instead of a ring here that falls into a whirlpool, but when Astolaine's sisters turn up and try to get the keys from Albamore, it also puts you in mind of Ariane et Barbe-bleu.

It's not only a challenge for a composer to adapt these pieces and create a distinction between those more famous opera adaptations of Maeterlinck, but also a remarkably high bar to measure up to them. It helps that the three pieces are all fairly concentrated and intense in how they stir deep emotions of fear and anxiety, and Attahir accordingly applies a heavier hand towards those emotions. He balances this however with a reduced orchestration and use of specific instruments, including some Eastern instruments and melodies, particularly in the third piece Alladine et Palomides.

In fact the composer even managed to tailor a distinct sound and approach to each of the three different dramas, the central piece Intérieur being largely intoned/narrated rather than sung, very much in the manner of Arkel's commentary in Pelléas et Mélisande. Attahir also manages to achieve a coherence for them to all work together to as a single opera, even though there is no attempt to link or connect the pieces. Maeterlinck's consistency of themes, symbolism and general abstraction of worldview however probably allow this to be achieved more easily.

The set design successfully contributes towards the same effect, finding a different visual response to the moods of the three pieces, while each also very much inhabit that interiorised Maeterlinck world of shadows of the unknown with undercurrents of tension. As well as using light and darkness, archways and staircases, the use of textures, stone, steel and concrete is also applied to create a timeless, non-specific location. This adds emphasis onto the subtle variations of character and mood of each of the three pieces and the distinct circumstances of the characters in each, with occasional projections adding a further dimension.

While the score (conducted here by the composer), Olivier Lexa's direction and the set designs all play an important part in providing coherence and consistency that brings out the distinct character of Maeterlinck's writing, the lyrical quality of the vocal arrangements that also expands further to the character of the component parts and the work as a whole This aspect is superbly brought out by some terrific singing of a mostly youthful cast that is sweet, haunted and melancholy in expression, occasionally stretching to desperation. All are wonderful, but certainly worthy of note are the leading performances from Raquel Camarinha as Ygraine, Marie and Astolaine, Julia Szproch as Tintagiles and Alladine and Pierre Derhet as Palomides.

Links: La Monnaie

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer (Vienna, 2015)

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer

Theater an der Wien, 2015

Marc Minkowski, Olivier Py, Samuel Youn, Ingela Brimberg, Lars Woldt, Bernard Richter, Manuel Günther, Ann-Beth Solvang

Naxos - Blu-ray

The enduring legacy of Wagner's operas, even as musical fashions and tastes have long moved on, has much to do with his sense of theatre. It's this underrated aspect of the composer's work that can first be seen developing into something greater in Der fliegende Holländer, the composer aligning a sense of theatricality to a subject of mythological drama in a way that would inspire his own distinctive musical ideas and themes. If the language and subject of Der fliegende Holländer is perhaps not convincing on its own terms to a modern audience and its message is by no means a profound or nuanced one, its dramatic and musical-drama strengths are such that the work can still touch upon something deeper.

Olivier Py's opera productions have their problems and taking liberties with the intent of the work can be one of them, but as an actor himself and theatre director (as well as currently being the artistic director and programmer of the prestigious Avignon drama festival) there is no question that Py has a strong sense of theatre. As a director has also developed his own theatrical language and signature in the opera house over recent years, most inspired when dealing with questions of good and evil, light and dark, sacrifice and redemption. His productions have consequently been more successful when applied to works like Hamlet, Dialogues des Carmélites and Ariane et Barbe-bleu, and less so when trying to shoehorn them into something like Aida.

Der fliegende Holländer clearly fits in very well with this vision, but just in case you are in any doubt, Senta walks across the stage early during the overture of this Theater an der Wien production and writes 'Erlösung' (Redemption) on the black boards of the set's representation of the Dutchman's ship. Pierre-André Weitz's dark and imposing set design is familiar from the tone that Py has established in those aforementioned works with similar themes. The black panels not only represent the Dutchman's ship, but also the walls of the house where Senta and Donald live. The rotating set however offers up many more possibilities and configurations, as well as symbolically marking a dividing line between interior worlds and the outside world.

There's a lot of interiority in Der fliegende Holländer and Py manages to represent it well in this production through the sets, but also with simple effective devices that don't stretch the indulgence of the audience. In Act I for example, Py handles the long monologues in archaic verse well by not having the performers stand alone on the stage singing to themselves. When the Steersman sings to his love from his lonely lookout, you actually see her silently walk up and embrace him. Likewise when the Dutchman laments the fate that condemns him to eternally sail the high seas, he sings it to a dancer as Satan who prowls dramatically alongside him on the stage. Py indulges in the theatricality a little by having the dancer cover his face and shoulders in black make-up on the stage during the overture, the dressing room mirror remaining there throughout.

In terms of visualising the force of evil that the captain struggles with it's highly effective and doesn't come to dominate the proceedings the way dancing stage doubles often do. Likewise while Py characteristically brings full-frontal nudity (male and female) into the production, it's to illustrate and bring out the underlying passions that exist in the work. A naked double for Senta lies stretched out on a bed and appears vulnerable while the Dutchman and her father, Duncan (as he is called in this version of the work) barter the terms of his stay at their house with the hand of his daughter thrown in for good measure. The stage and the characterisation elsewhere is filled with little details like that. It's partly updated to the 1940s - for no discernible reason I can see other than it looks very smart for the costume design - but the locations are more symbolic than literal.

Act II consequently abandons any idea of the wives being seamstresses spinning, Mary rather directing them in a choir practice, since what they are really doing is indeed singing. With Senta's recounting of the legend and her first meeting with the Dutchman, all of the elements seeded throughout come together, the stage rotating faster, drawing together their worlds; a much more expansive world than the small house in a boxed in space that Erik/Georg hopes to share with Senta. Symbolism however - a field of black crosses, a huge skull - indicates that the scope of Senta's life with the Dutchman is one determined by its fatalistic nature. She has effectively entered into a death pact.

Py's theatrical interpretation of Wagner's musical-drama is only part of the equation. The singing has a large role in determining whether these ideas (Wagner's and Py's) work on the stage. The principal roles in the Theatre an der Wien's 2015 production are all superb. Samuel Youn is a Bayreuth regular and his characterisation in performance just seems to deepen and gain greater authority. Ingela Brimberg impressively channels all the passion of Senta in a bright timbre with secure delivery. She initially seems more tormented than romantic, but her first scene with the Dutchman shows that she is capable of a softer touch that loses none of its force. Lars Woldt is a superb Donald and Bernard Richter a much more sympathetic and sweetly toned Georg/Erik than is usually the case. Even Manuel Günther's Steersman and Ann-Beth Solvang's Mary are impressive here.

As some of the perhaps confusing references indicate, conductor Marc Minkowski is working with the earliest version of Der fliegende Holländer with its original Scottish setting, with Daland named Duncan and Erik as Georg. This doesn't make any discernible difference as far as Py's non-Scottish specific setting is concerned, although the different ending is very significant for the purposes of the theme of Redemption here. This isn't the usual kind of opera that I would associate Marc Minkowski with either, but there's no question that you get the full impact of Wagner here, the music raging and stormy, moody and dark, lyrical and highly Romantic with all the temperament of a changeable sea.

Py and Minkowski's efforts here all play to the strengths of Der fliegende Holländer not against it, expanding on the characterisation perhaps, but only in a way that tries to get at an essential truth. Whether the Romanticism of the work means anything in an age when the currency of legends and mythology is much devalued, where love and sacrifice are less common, the truth and the beauty of Wagner's vision still comes through in its glorious theatricality.

Py makes a strong case for this vision in a fascinating and informed interview included in the booklet on the Naxos Blu-ray release. The HD transfer presents the darkness of Pierre-André Weitz's hugely impressive and technically accomplished set designs well, and both the DTS HD Master-Audio and LPCM Stereo high resolution soundtracks have detail and impact. The Blu-ray is all-region, BD50, with subtitles in German, English, French, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Theater an der Wien