Thursday 23 January 2020

Britten - The Rape of Lucretia (Glasgow, 2020)

Benjamin Britten - The Rape of Lucretia

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, 2020

Lionel Friend, Jack Furness, Lauren Young, Jolyon Loy, MacArthur Alewel, Oskar McCarthy, Lea Shaw, Karina Bligh, Robin Horgan, Hasmik Harutyunyan

New Athenaeum Theatre, Glasgow - 20 January 2020

Aside from Aldeburgh of course, Britten seems to have all but vanished again from main repertory programming at opera houses, or at least his presence there seems to have returned again to not stretching much beyond the perennial hits The Turn of the Screw, Death in Venice and Peter Grimes. It's nice to be reminded then by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland that one of Britten's lesser performed works, the chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia still rates as one of his best and most interesting pieces.

It may have the reputation of being relatively minor, but there's much of interest in this Britten opera, not least its narrative division between the drama of the rape of Lucretia by the Roman prince Tarquinius and the two person male/female chorus who look on and provide commentary about what is going on. As far at the RCS production is concerned there's room and perhaps need for developing on this structure since its purpose is to provide a Christian outlook on pre-Christian attitudes towards women, war and violence. Clearly looking around at Christian nations today and their behaviour in those areas the idea that there is that much distance between them is certainly something that needs to be challenged.

As a committed pacifist and conscientious objector writing this work during the war, evidently that is a distinction and a discussion that Britten and his librettist Ronald Duncan intended to raise, but a production should always look for ways of bringing that message up to date and reflect the world around us. In matters of war, with the use of modern technology nations and armies are even capable of worse atrocities, taking torture, rape, genocide and destruction to a new and increasingly dehumanised level. The RCS production, as well as seeking to implicate the modern day soldiers in the rape of Lucretia, also seeks to simultaneously show the distancing of emotions where murder and massacre can take place at a physical and emotional distance, flying a drone or pressing a button.

The opening scene in Jack Furness's production finds a good way to highlight this, presenting a triage unit in a military hospital in a contemporary war zone. The army padre staff steps into a side cubicle with a female nurse and begins the story of Tarquinius and Lucretia. Gradually, the walls of the room - with the help of the padre - close in on the Roman story to the point that Lucretia is pressed into a narrow space. The idea of course to implicate the male and female chorus in what happens, but the RCS production takes it a little further than that, with the male chorus beginning to subject the nurse to the same sense of aggression, pride, entitlement, or whatever is that permits Tarquinius to press his attentions on Lucretia.

Just what it is exactly is the other interesting point in Britten's version of The Rape of Lucretia. I'm not sure that the RCS production illuminates that in any way, but it doesn't necessarily need to either. The actions, the war situation, the questions of violence in nature, in the male nature - in this case even a military priest - is unquestionably a factor in what occurs, and the essential point is that it occurs regardless of whether it's in pre-Christian times or in Christian nations. It's connected to the same urge that drives men and nations to go to war, and making you question this is more important than providing answers.

What is also vitally important in this opera is the musical performance. Britten's chamber operas are perfectly pared down, every instrument audible and contributing to the mood and meaning of the work. The thirteen musicians of the RCS orchestra conducted by Lionel Friend were simply superb, every exposed detail of the playing and interaction of the instruments perfectly audible in the New Athenaeum Theatre at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow.

The singing was also perfect, soprano Lauren Young in particular outstanding as Lucretia. Robin Horgan's Male Chorus blessed with that perfect clear English diction and tenor voice so well suited to Britten, forming an intriguing and unsettling pairing in this production with Hasmik Harutyunyan's Female Chorus. There were lovely performances also from a soaring Karina Bligh and Lea Shaw as Lucretia's handmaidens Lucia and Bianca. The three Romans - Oskar McCarthy as Junius, Jolyon Loy as Tarquinius and MacArthur Alewel as Collatinus - all showed distinct qualities that matched Britten's requirements to highlight the characteristics of the three aggressive behaviour.

Links: Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Sunday 19 January 2020

Gomes - Lo Schiavo (Cagliari, 2019)

Antônio Carlos Gomes - Lo Schiavo

Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, 2019

John Neschling, Davide Garattini Raimondi, Svetla Vassileva, Massimiliano Pisapia, Andrea Borghini, Elisa Balbo, Daniele Terenzi, Dongho Kim, Marco Puggioni, Francesco Musinu, Michelangelo Romero

Dynamic - Blu-ray

Some opera subjects don't need adaptation, revisionist reinterpretation and modernisation: some subjects remain equally powerful in any context and traditionally in opera they relate to war, power, love, injustice and freedom. Few treatments of those subjects however deal with those all of those issues in such a way that is immediately abhorrent and emotive to any right thinking individual as when it's tied up in the issue of slavery.

Surprisingly then it's not a subject that has not really been confronted directly in opera, but as a composer of Brazilian origin working at a time when there were places where slavery still hadn't been completely eradicated, it's clearly a subject that was very real for Antônio Carlos Gomes. Viewed from a distance, the 19th century opera treatment of Lo Schiavo (The Slave) is perhaps not particularly innovative for its dramatic treatment of the subject and - forced to set the work in the 16th century rather than closer to his own time - it doesn't appear to tackle the subject any more head-on than Verdi's Aida, but the opera raises an important issue and has merit alone for that.

In reality it has considerable merit elsewhere and deserves to be remembered for more than its subject. Moving to Milan after composing a number of operas in Portuguese, the São Paulo composer Gomes is one of those forgotten composers who were striving in a post-Verdi world to take Italian opera in a new direction. On the evidence of Lo Schiavo, judging by its dramatic orchestration and wonderful melodic flow, Gomes might not have been any more successful than many other Italian composers from this period between Verdi and the verismo composers who failed to make a distinctive mark, but his work clearly deserves to be better known.

In terms of the terrible nature of slavery, Gomes's opera and the Cagliari production make its abuses clear from the outset. The native Brazilian slaves on the estate of Portuguese landowner Count Rodrigo are whipped by their overseer Gianfèra and some are seen in the production hanged. The Count also wants to arrange a marriage between two of the slaves Iber
è and Ilàra without their consent. It's being arranged as a way of breaking up an undesirable affair between Ilàra and his son Américo, who the would rather - for the sake of business as well as propriety - marry the French Countess of Boissy.

The Countess has a more enlightened attitude towards human rights, declaring that she will free all her slaves. It's an attitude that is praised by everyone - well, nearly all - but even the Countess's generosity of spirit is challenged when she discovers - Amneris-like - that it is a slave who is a rival for her intended Américo. Along with stirrings of rebellion against past and present injustices, with Américo a soldier being sent out against his better human nature by his father to put down rebellion, the love triangle situation does put one very much in mind of a similar treatment of these themes in Aida.

While Verdi's intentions for Aida - and even earlier with Nabucco - were perhaps fired by anti-war and anti-religious sentiments, along with his own experience of the people of a nation struggling for freedom against an oppressive regime, Antônio Carlos Gomez does however succeed to some extent in bringing the idea of liberty from enslavement down to more basic human and individual level. Partly that is indeed down to the idea of slavery itself being so abhorrent, but those sentiments are reflected in the music which if not as detailed and sophisticated as late Verdi, is nonetheless capable of packing an emotional punch. The Countess's and chorus's delivery of 'Inno della libertà' on the freeing of the slaves can measure up to the Hebrew slaves chorus of Nabucco.

While the dramatic situations do mix up those humanitarian concerns with romantic passions, it does still carry across the fact that some matters are just intrinsically right and wrong, particularly matters of the human heart which of course has no master. It even hints at other areas that where there is no freedom and where there is inequality there is injustice and enslavement. Lo Schiavo even makes reference to slavery being the condition of a woman's place in marriage. The Countess of Boissy notes that "To be attractive is our main concern" and her only duty is to entrance a man to be her husband. Even the rebellious Iber
è acts like a tyrant husband laying down the law to Ilàra, even though their marriage is a sham.

None of these issues are given any kind of contemporary spin in the Cagliari production. Director Davide Garattini Raimondi and set designer Tiziano Santi place the plantation in a jungle setting with vines and creepers, the slaves - authentically or otherwise I don't know - curiously adorned in headwear with fronds of greenery and grass skirts. The plantation is contrasted well with the French gardens of the Countess of Boissy in Act II, and the whole production is beautifully lit and coloured in a way that reflects the drama and the tenor of the score. In terms of music and its presentation, the Cagliari production with John Neschling at the helm really shows the quality of the piece. There's not a dull moment with plenty of variety in the musical numbers and situations to continually impress.

It impresses very much also in the singing performances. Gomes gives each of the principals a good range of emotions to express and challenges of technique and stamina to contribute individual expression to the roles. Elisa Balbo as the Countess gets perhaps the stand-out piece in 'Inno della libertà' and certainly delivers on it. Baritone Andrea Borghini is superb as Iberè, Svetlana Vassileva manages to capture the spiritual side of Ilàra as well as the joy, despair and anger that comes from her human experience as a female slave. Massimiliano Pisapia is a classic Italian tenor perfect for the role of Américo, well capable of handling the challenges Gomes places on this role.

This 2019 Teatro Lirico di Cagliari production of Antônio Carlos Gomes's Lo Schiavo is evidently a world premiere recording for the Dynamic DVD and Blu-ray. The HD image on the Blu-ray is image is clear and warmly toned, capturing the colourful production and the lighting tones well. There are two lossless audio mixes that when given volume exhibit fine dynamic range and detail, and both are resonant and punchy. The Blu-ray is region-free with subtitles in Italian, English, French, German, Japanese and Korean. A short feature on the disc only covers a reception for this landmark production, but there is more  detail on Gomes and Lo Schiavo in the booklet, along with a synopsis in English and Italian.

Links: Teatro Lirico di Cagliari

Wednesday 15 January 2020

Rimsky-Korsakov - The Tale of Tsar Saltan (Brussels, 2019)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - The Tale of Tsar Saltan

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2019

Alain Altinoglu, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Svetlana Aksenova, Bogdan Volkov, Olga Kulchynska, Ante Jerkunica, Stine Marie Fischer, Bernarda Bobro, Carole Wilson, Vasily Gorshkov, Alexander Vassiliev, Nicky Spence, Alexander Kravets

La Monnaie steaming - June 2019

The Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov has lately been viewing opera in the context of therapy, in productions like Carmen, Pelléas et Mélisande and Les Troyens, the intention always clearly to delve more deeply into the works and explore their underlying themes. The results have been to varying levels of success and suitability for their subjects, but with Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tale of Tsar Saltan, the director is on much more familiar ground, in Russian opera where some of his best work has been achieved.

The idea of exploring the underlying psychology of works actually has a two-fold purpose, perhaps even three in the case of The Tale of Tsar Saltan. One is to bring less familiar Russian classics to the attention of a modern western audience who may be less enamoured of fairy-tales and make them accessible. The second is indeed to delve into the subtext of the fairy tale, and - when considered as being a technique used widely by this director - the third is to show perhaps that opera is indeed a kind of therapy in its own right, reaching out and communicating on a non-verbal level through music and dramatic subtext.

In the La Monnaie production of The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Dmitri Tcherniakov adds a modern-day real-world framing device around the fairy tale that doesn't so much put the magical fantasy at a distance as bring us closer to it. (This is something that Romeo Castellucci has also been doing to powerful effect in the mythology of Orphée et Eurydice and the monumentally fantastical The Magic Flute). Here the fairy story is told to a young boy with autism. He has never seen his father and doesn't understand why his parents are estranged, so his mother tells him The Tale of Tsar Saltan, finding that the only way of reaching him is through the toy soldiers and magical tales that so enchant him, hoping to communicate the truth through the fable, casting herself as the tsarina.

The characteristics of Pushkin's fairy tale are familiar, his mother suffering a kind of Cinderella upbringing, abused by her mother and two wicked sisters. When they are presented to the tsar who is looking for a bride her sisters can only promise extravagant weddings while the youngest girl - a humble seamstress - promises she can deliver a worthy heir for the tsar. And becoming tsarina she does, but on the birth of the child her disgruntled sisters intercept the messenger and the tsar is informed that that the tsarina has given birth to a monster. To the astonishment of the villagers on this occasion for happiness and celebration, a message returns from the tsar saying that his wife and child should be thrown into the sea in a barrel.

Mythology and fairy tales traditionally have an important role to play in putting an important message across to a wide audience in a way that can endure for centuries, and opera can be seen to fulfil the same function. More than just musical drama for entertainment, and certainly more than being a singing contest to debate over who sings roles best, opera at its best and most meaningful - like Die Zauberflöte cited above - communicates something essential about our understanding of the world and of humanity's place within it, along with all the joys and troubles that come with it.

Tcherniakov's production of Tsar Saltan is a way of finding a route back to the underlying meaning of the work and to some extent necessarily reinterpreting it for a new age. The fairy tale and the opera are essentially about the loss of innocence of a child struggling to come to terms with the reality of the world. The realisation that it can be cruel, unfair and unjust needs to be reconciled with an awareness that life itself is a miracle, and that it can still be possible to find good within it. Using an autistic child allows the audience a way of seeing the 'magic' in the fairy tale of existence again.

In fact watching the opera in this way the concept is so good and the performances so impressive that it feels completely natural and authentic, as if this is the only way to see the opera and you couldn't imagine it being done any differently. And it's hard to imagine a more traditional representation being as profoundly moving as the progression and resolution that Tcherniakov devises for it, which - very much in line with truth and reality - doesn't mean that there is necessarily a happy ending to the fairy tale, much as one might wish for it.

There's much more that needs to be done to make this more than just a clever idea and Tcherniakov's production design is perfectly up to the task. It starts with a plain wood panelling background, mother and child playing together enveloped in a dull reality. As the story is related, the narrative magic exerts its influence and begins to take over, first populated by characters in cross-hatched puffy costumes (similar to David Hockney's designs for the famous Glyndebourne production of A Rake's Progress), with sketchy animation gradually drawing the boy/Gvidon into the swan's womb-like world of security. The blending and balance of ugly reality with animated magical fantasy is masterful.

There are of course other benefits to be gained from
Dmitri Tcherniakov introducing a work well-known only in Russia in such an effective manner to western Europe, and primarily that's permitting us to enjoy Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's beautiful orchestration and melodic flair - the Flight of the Bumblebee originating from this work - perfectly attuned to the dramatic and emotional core of the story, overflowing with glorious choruses. These are all very much essential Russian opera characteristics of course and brought out marvellously by Alain Altinoglu conducting the orchestra of La Monnaie.

Just as wondrous are the singing performances since Rimsky-Korsakov's vocal writing can be underestimated in favour of his considerable fame as an orchestrator. Svetlana Aksenova as the mother/tsarina and Bogdan Volkov as the boy/Gvidon are just incredible with the kind of Russian voices needed here; strong in delivery, but filled with warmth and passion and a little bit of an edge of bordering on despair. This is another outstanding, imaginative production from Tcherniakov, Altinoglu and La Monnaie, every element working perfectly in service of the opera, recognising the extraordinary ability of the medium to communicate on so many levels, and using them all brilliantly.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt

Thursday 9 January 2020

Filidei - L'Inondation (Paris, 2019)

Francesco Filidei - L'Inondation

L’Opéra Comique, Paris - 2019

Emilio Pomárico, Joël Pommerat, Chloé Briot, Boris Grappe, Norma Nahoun, Cypriane Gardin, Enguerrand de Hys, Yael Raanan-Vandor, Guilhem Terrail, Vincent Le Texier

ARTE Concert - September 2019

The musical sound world might be unconventional and difficult to decipher, but at its best contemporary opera like traditional opera forges a close bond between music, subject and character, bringing out something that music or drama on its own can't achieve, making it relevant and meaningful for a modern audience. Francesco Filidei managed that with his first opera in 2016, Giordano Bruno - for me one of the best new opera works of recent years - but French playwright Joël Pommerat has also found opera to be an effective way to draw something more from his dramas.

For his first original libretto for a new commission at L’Opéra Comique in Paris, Pommerat has therefore been matched with a composer very capable of exploring the writer's familiar but complex themes relating to family seen in his previous opera adaptations (Thanks to My Eyes, Au Monde, Pinocchio). L'Inondation (The Flood) is an original adaptation of a 1929 story by Yvegeny Zamayatin, a Russian author best known for 'We' a dystopian novel that directly influenced Orwell's writing of 1984.

L'Inondation is nonetheless a contemporary work that explores contemporary issues, or at least issues that have always been relevant and which seem no easier to deal with today. It's about the strain that has developed between a husband and wife who have been married almost 15 years but who have never had a child. They hear the sounds of children in neighbouring apartments and it causes a conflict of emotions, making their life together feel perfunctory and mechanical but with simmering emotions ready to boil over as each try to find ways to deal with the growing distance between them.

Or perhaps the metaphor is not so much that of something boiling over as much as a river filling up and overflowing its banks, which is the one that is evidently used to describe the situation in L'Inondation. When one of the neighbours in their apartment block dies, his young daughter is sent temporarily to stay with the man and the woman. The girl is 14, a significant age since their own child would have been that age if one had quickly followed their marriage. The arrival of a young girl certainly brings something new to their marriage, but as has already been indicated with an early scene showing a murder, it's not going to lead to a happy outcome.

While the nature of what happens is shocking, what leads up to it won't come as a surprise to anyone, but rather like the now well-used metaphors of stormy weather conditions and rising tides leading up to an emotional breaking point, the real challenge in a modern adaptation of the Zamayatin's work is getting underneath the human and social behaviours that lead up to it. Without having read Zamayatin, one suspects that his interest is similar to exploring the social conditions that trigger an extreme female response found also in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, as well as the corruption of the family/social unit that you see hinted at in Gorky's 'Vassa'.

The conditions that lead up to the overflow in L'Inondation are evidently less concerned with a historical examination of Russian society at the beginning of the 20th century than in how this would be seen nowadays in the context of mental illness, how it can develop and the devastating impact it can have. It also of course explores the more universally recognisable conditions of relations between men and women, how society views the roles each has to play, and examines the nature of the family unit.

To do that L'Inondation takes a wider view of life in the St. Petersburg tenement block than just that between the man and the woman and it's here that the opera is able to work on multiple levels, so to speak. Most evidently that's visible in Eric Soyer's three-level set design, with the man and woman on the ground floor, a young married couple with young children and a baby on the way on the second floor, and with the upper floor adding an almost narrative level and backgrounding, with a narrator/policeman making remarks about the case in an attic room with another room showing the young girl hanging out with friends from outside the tenement block.

What is clever about this is that it is not only able to switch from one scene to another fluidly, but it is able to show simultaneous events, leaving it up to the viewer to determine how much of what goes on elsewhere has an impact on what develops on the ground floor, which evidently takes the brunt of the overflow of the river. Certainly there is much hinted in the music and this is where the skills of a composer like Francesco Filidei are evident, the score providing a complex sound world that interlinks and connects sounds, emotions and inner lives between each of the characters, even as far as expressing the reliving of emotions and mental disturbance through the doubling of the young girl.

An additional element of self-identification would probably determine whether you actually gain any greater insight into the development of mental illness and the outcome of murder, with the associations of release, guilt, shame, and therapy that take place post-facto (or whether it's the post-facto is actually the real important aspect of the situation), but what is clear is that all the other elements are well catered for in Joël Pommerat's direction of the work for the Opéra Comique. Much like George Benjamin's work with Martin Crimp, you get a sense of true collaboration between the creators here. Other than the obvious metaphor of the storm nothing is over-explained, the opera is not wordy or expositional, it allows the music and silences to express just as much as the dramatic action.

As far as the music is concerned that appears to be in very safe hands with Emilio Pomárico teasing out all the little details, the conflicts and interconnectivity, the highs, lows and surges of Filidei's score. There is also room left for the performances to bring real human depth to the situations. Chloé Briot has challenges aplenty in balancing the woman's containment of her feelings with her overflow at the conclusion. The singing range is accordingly difficult, but she gives a great performance. There are intense performances also from Boris Grappe as the man and Yael Raanan-Vandor as the female neighbour, but even the acting performances from the children are superb and contribute to the dramatic and emotional situations.

Links: L’Opéra Comique, ARTE Concert

Monday 6 January 2020

Puccini - Turandot (Madrid, 2018)

Giacomo Puccini - Turandot

Teatro Real Madrid, 2018

Robert Wilson, Nicola Luisotti, Iréne Theorin, Raúl Giménez, Andrea Mastroni, Yolanda Auyanet, Gregory Kunde, Joan Martín-Royo, Vicenç Esteve, Juan Antonio Sanabria, Gerardo Bullón

France TV Culturebox

Robert Wilson's very distinctive and largely homogenous approach to set design isn't suited to every opera. Looking right back to Einstein on the Beach in 1976, it's clear that his style tends to work better with abstraction and ritual movements rather than with drama and narrative, but even working with Puccini or Verdi the effect of his unique style can be simply stunning in its use of light and colour and in its sheer visual splendour.

Not relying on any real-world situation but on a fantasy fairy-tale Turandot would seem better suited to the Wilson style, the opening Act alone of Puccini's opera being itself almost an abstract expression of living in fear and terror. In Turandot, Puccini was pushing his craft as a composer, exploring a new progressive direction for Italian opera, an endeavour that was unfortunately cut short with the death of the composer, Turandot itself remaining unfinished, its promise tantaslisingly unfulfilled.

That character is described well in Wilson's direction of that remarkable Act I of Turandot, the familiar luminous gradations of cobalt blue tending to darker shades, towards purple and shadow. The light of the moon casts an eerie light over the executioner and his next victim and over the people of Peking who live in fear of the terrible reign of Princess Turandot. After that build-up, her appearance on the stage is as striking as only Wilson's visual language can achieve, gliding in high above the stage on a platform, imperious, static, a fiery or bloody red against the cool backgrounds.

Wilson's stagecraft then is at once familiar as it is expressive to meet the specific demands of this particular opera. As well as extending the palette of colours considerably, there is also an expansion of the visual language Wilson traditionally employs, using beams of light that mark out the horizontal earthly boundaries of the stage as well as vertical beams that descend from the heavens and have chaotic branch-like formations. Even Turandot arrives floating on a platform bordered with light.

Wilson continues to use a minimum of stage props - almost none - preferring to use moving block of panels to close down or open up the stage to the emotional undercurrents and dramatic actions. Movement too is reduced to minimal actions and ritualised gestures. Like his production of Madama Butterfly, there's no Orientalism other than in the costumes, which have more of a classical ceremonial aspect than anything traditional. Additional expression however is used for characters, an all-gray Calaf sings 'Nessun Dorma' to a network of tangled roots, Turandot characterised by blazing reds and a giant black moon.

Like Nicola Luisotti's musical interpretation, it places emphasis on the moody qualities and character of the work, its sinister oriental refrains adding an edge of discord to the proceedings. And in many ways, Wilson serves the score best by not competing with it or underlining it, reducing any distraction or interpretation and permitting the extraordinary qualities of that powerful music room to be revealed. There are less of the director's usual eccentricities - even Ping, Pang and Pong are rather restrained here - with the strangest twist being Liù's stylised standing death, walking off-stage to the praises of the people of Peking, making it tragic in its own way.

The singing in this Teatro Real production in Madrid is good considering how challenging a work this is for all the main performers, Turandot an opera that requires Italian lyricism with Wagnerian depth and stamina. Gregory Kunde comes out best, unfailing in his efforts and secure in his 'Nessun dorma'. Iréne Theorin's Turandot doesn't have the fullness of voice across the range, but is suitably commanding and impressive in her account. There are good performances also from Yolanda Auyanet's Liù, Andrea Mastroni's Timur and from the opera's Ping, Pang and Pong.

It may not be the greatest performances you've heard of these roles, but opera is not a singing contest and you have to take live dramatic performance into account, particularly when you're dealing with the very specific constraints of a Robert Wilson production. I don't see it as the most insightful interpretation of Turandot either (the completion of the work still never entirely satisfactory), but Wilson's unique vision certainly does justice to Puccini and Alfano's score, as does the full-blooded musical performance under the direction of Nicola Luisotti, creating a unique dialectic with Wilson extraordinary visual imagery.

Links: Teatro Real

Thursday 2 January 2020

Abrahamsen - The Snow Queen (Munich, 2019)

Hans Abrahamsen - The Snow Queen (Munich, 2019)

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2019

Cornelius Meister, Andreas Kriegenburg, Barbara Hannigan, Rachael Wilson, Katarina Dalayman, Peter Rose, Caroline Wettergreen, Dean Power, Kevin Conners, Owen Willetts, Thomas Gräßle

Staatsoper.TV - 28 December 2019

There would appear to be two significant works in Hans Abrahamsen's recent output that have led to the creation of his first opera The Snow Queen, and they also give some advance indication of how the work would sound. One is the musical meditation on the qualities, properties, texture and character of snow, Schnee, the other is the popular success of Abrahamsen's Ophelia song-cycle Let Me Tell You, with Barbara Hannigan adding her light, agile soprano to the composer's delicate compositions and arrangements.

Those two major works are interconnected within the narrative of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Snow Queen. Like all fairy tales, there is a darker edge that lies beneath the surface which has been softened over time and narration and director Andreas Kriegenburg isn't wrong in detecting an undercurrent of what we would now recognise as mental illness in the story, one exacerbated by a sense of loss and loneliness. Unfortunately, the libretto for the work remains superficial and never delves into the depths that Abrahamsen and Kriegenburg attempt to explore in the music in the new
Bavarian State Opera production of this English language version of the opera following Snedronningen's premiere in Denmark in October 2019.

Essentially the narrative of The Snow Queen involves Gerda (Barbara Hannigan) trying to rescue her brother Kay from the clutches of the Snow Queen. Their grandmother has related a story of a magic mirror created by the devil that makes beautiful things appear ugly. The mirror has shattered into thousands of pieces and shards have pierced the eye and heart of Kay, who now longer recognises the beauty in the world and has fallen into a deep depression or despair.

While still seeking to retain some of the qualities of this inner snow world that combines beauty with coldness and bleakness of winter, Kriegenburg also expresses the fairy-tale world in terms of mental illness, Kay not literally abducted by the Snow Queen, but seemingly institutionalised. His sister Gerda is not far off a state of mental instability herself. She wants to help Kay find himself and does so through a kind of dream fantasy, encountering an old woman in a garden where the nurses have faces of flowers (and later reappear as angels), as well as a Castle Crow and a Forest Crow who lead her to the Ice Palace of the Snow Queen.

In theory, Kriegenberg's approach should be a good way of making the nature of mental illness relatable at the same time as fulfilling what appears to be a Bayerische Staatsoper tradition of finding/creating seasonal works beyond the ever popular Hansel and Gretel. In reality it never seems to weave a magical spell of enchantment, and in large part it's because the libretto really never lives up to the mood or emotional undercurrents of chilly despair that is certainly there in Abrahamsen's delicate complex flurries of music. The libretto is mostly based around Gerda's repetitive search for Kay - 'Where is Kay? I have to find Kay', even though he is physically present in the not terribly original setting of a mental institution with nurses and patients taking the roles of fairy tale characters.

The libretto moreover is very wordy without ever saying anything meaningful, the English parlando never particularly musical or scanning well to fit with the musical arrangements. It does develop into a flow, and there are some beautiful passages notably around the end of Act II before the interval, with a combined trio of Gerda, the King and Queen backed by a chorus. Unable to draw any deeper meaning out of the libretto, or express it through the production design. Barbara Hannigan is of course as impressive as ever and bass Peter Rose an interesting choice for the voice of the Snow Queen, but it all comes across as very pretty and not much else.

Harald B. Thor's sets combine and highlight the disparity between the fantasy with the real-world well enough, using simple plastic sheet backdrops that have an icy appearance, with shredded plastic giving an impression of light, fluffy snow, creating an artificial winter world that also captures a sense of the austere cold world of the mind in isolation. The use of costumes also makes the narrative easy to follow who are doubles and younger versions of Gerda and Kay, but neither Hannigan's expression, Cornelius Meister's conducting nor Kriegenburg's conception are able to bring any real sense of drama to this beautiful but rather lifeless production.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper TV Opera Live