Thursday 27 February 2020

Humperdinck - Hansel and Gretel (Wexford, 2019)

Engelbert Humperdinck - Hansel and Gretel (Wexford, 2019)

Irish National Opera, 2019

Richard Peirson, Muireann Ahern, Louis Lovett, Raphaela Mangan, Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Miriam Murphy, Ben McAteer, Carolyn Dobbin, Emma Nash, Raymond Keane, Amelie Metcalfe, Ronan Millar

National Opera House, Wexford - 22 February 2020

In the last couple of years the Irish National Opera have managed to strike a good balance between creative direction and audience accessibility, fearlessly bringing something new and imaginative even to popular standards like Madama Butterfly, Aida and The Magic Flute. It perhaps takes a bit more nerve however to mess with the traditional storytelling of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel which even for someone who has never been to the opera, has specific expectations as a fairy-tale. The INO's 2020 production turns out to be as adventurous as usual, but it doesn't quite hit the mark here as far as doing justice to Humperdinck, losing much of his work's own inherent value for something less compelling.

Compromises inevitably have to be made when it's a touring production and this production of Hansel and Gretel is admirably heading out to far-flung corners of Ireland that never see anything with this level of production values and quality, even with a reduced orchestration of seven players. On its own terms, this production looks and sounds terrific, setting its own entertaining mood, style and character, and it is indeed refreshing to hear the pureness of the composer's melodies and how successfully they combine to tell the story, neither the music nor the storytelling however are wholly successful in getting across the real character of Humperdinck's opera. Or at least not as successful as some other productions, and for me Opera North set a very high bar there for anyone else to reach.

It's a fairy-tale so there's no requirement for realism in the Irish National Opera production created in collaboration with directors Muireann Ahern and Louis Lovett. Although it's possible to hint at contemporary concerns in Hansel and Gretel, there's no emphasis placed here on the idea of the two children living in poverty, victims of austerity cuts or even neglectful parenting. The family do appear to have lost their home here however, being forced to move around but somehow able to afford to stay at the Forest Edge Hotel, whose sinister appearance is enhanced by the notice that children are welcome.

It's the sinister that the INO production does well, much of it established in Jamie Vartan's superb set design, creating a space that is adaptable for touring but still maximises impact. It doesn't settle for the obvious fairy-tale or Gothic settings, but finds rather a seedy character in the neon signs, the old-fashioned font of the projected signs and notices with their subtle undercurrents of menace. That character is also established early with the use of an extra actor (Raymond Keane) in a silent role playing the part of the Night Watchman, a character who is part illusionist amusing the children with tricks, part Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang tempting them with sweets and treats, and part Sweeney Todd figure serving them up for the witch to bake into pies.

There's nothing too sinister here mind, nothing to scare the children in the audience. I'm sure they could take a little more of the thrill of horror in a fairy tale setting, but that's largely avoided which feels like it is to the detriment of the character of the original work. In its place the directors bring some knowing humour and a play up the rivalry, bossiness and naughtiness in the interaction between Hansel and Gretel, which works well and is entertainingly played by Raphaela Mangan and Amy Ní Fhearraigh, a little broadly pantomime in places but with some lovely details and reactions when called for.

It's also very much a stylised production in that way that sees the starving Hansel and Gretel clean and smartly dressed in grey outfits, the overall look more storybook than social realism. Even the orchestra and Richard Peirson, leading the seven-piece Irish National Orchestra ensemble from the piano, get in on the act wearing incongruous party-hats and taking up position to the stage rather than being confined to a pit, although their movements suggest that they may well have risen from a pit of a different kind. All of this is great, all very much in character of the production as a whole, but none of it seems to add up to a consistent worldview much less one that has anything to say about child poverty, child abuse or warnings of child abduction.

There's no reason why it ought to but it should at least relate to or be on a par with the power of children's imagination and storytelling that lies at the heart of the work. If you're going to jettison the traditional fairy-tale elements in depictions of the gingerbread house, the sandman, the dew fairy and the fourteen guardian angels, and offer stylised characters and projections in their place, it would be nice if it was in service of an alternative take on the story. The fairy-tale can sustain it and indeed its whole purpose is to carry subtext, so Hansel and Gretel surely merits a deeper exploration of its themes. So too does Humperdinck's music.

What we did get from the reduced orchestration was a clearer sense of the folk song melodies and the storytelling character of Humperdinck's compositions, but with the mainly piano-led accompaniment it was all very evenly paced, lacking in colour and variety and not really successful in conveying the different tones and textures that you get in the orchestral arrangements. The dramatic performances were fun, playing for humour more than horror, and the singing was marvellous from all the main performers, particularly the bright Raphaela Mangan and Amy Ní Fhearraigh as Hansel and Gretel.

The other roles were also well sung with plenty of character on the parts of Carolyn Dobbin as the witch, Emma Nash as the Dew Fairy and Sandman and Miriam Murphy as the mother. Only Ben McAteer's proven abilities felt under-exploited here as a rather nondescript father. As entertaining as it was, under-exploited was also the general impression of the production as a whole, looking and sounding marvellous, but lacking in the depth that is there to be found in this rich work.

Links: Irish National Opera

Saturday 15 February 2020

Paer - Agnese (Turin, 2019)

Ferdinando Paer - Agnese

Teatro Regio Torino, 2019

Diego Fasolis, Leo Muscato, María Rey-Joly, Markus Werba, Edgardo Rocha, Filippo Morace, Andrea Giovannini, Lucia Cirillo,Giulia Della Peruta, Federico Benetti

Dynamic Blu-ray

While there have been some wonderful and worthwhile revivals of forgotten works by Donizetti, Bellini and of course Rossini, there's been less attention paid to other little-known works and neglected composers from this period who helped pave the way from the baroque and opera seria of the 18th century to the dominant form of Italian opera that the masters Verdi and Puccini would perfect. The occasional work revives interest in this period now and again with regular efforts to rehabilitate Giacomo Meyerbeer, a Saverio Mercadante here, a very rare Giovanni Simone Mayr there, Giovanni Paccini almost never, all of them nonetheless providing clues to the link and development of opera into its familiar popular mid-to-late 19th century form. Somewhere in there Ferdinando Paer has also been largely forgotten.

And if the Torino production of Agnese is anything to go by, probably unjustly neglected. A tremendous success in its day his 1809 opera Agnese hasn't been performed anywhere in earnest for a couple of hundred years. Following a critical edition of the work made in 2007, the 2019 Turin production does much to make this fascinating work accessible and entertaining. Conducted by early music specialist Diego Fasolis with sympathetic direction by Leo Muscato and a colourful stylised set design that neither makes fun of the work's strange opera semi-seria conventions nor attempts to modernise it into something unsuitable, it's a production that does much to reveal Agnese's undoubted qualities.

Perhaps even more than Meyerbeer's 5-act grand opéras, the opera semi-seria is a tricky proposition to put before a modern audience (Muscato I'm minded to note directing one of the best Meyerbeer productions I've seen, L'Africaine). Characterisation is exaggerated, situations are scarcely credible and plot developments feel contrived. These are often based around a poor innocent country maiden whose reputation has been unjustly impugned in an uneasy blend of comedy and tragedy, the sentimental mixed with buffo elements. Paer's ability to make something more of such material however is laid out impressively in the dramatic storm and chorus opening of Agnese which reminded me of the ominous opening of Bellini's La Straniera (1829). Believed lost in the woods, Agnese is not a maiden but has indeed been unjustly treated and betrayed by her husband Ernesto and has run away taking their young daughter with her.

There is of course a tragic backstory. Having run off to marry Ernesto in the first place, a man who has turned out to be unfaithful, Agnese's father Uberto has been driven out of his mind for the last seven years. Locked away in an asylum he has preferred to believe his daughter dead. On her way to beg forgiveness for her father she runs into him in the woods, the man clearly out of his wits, unable to recognise her but easily upset at talk of fathers and daughters. At the asylum the warden Don Pasquale holds Agnese responsible for the state of her father but isn't unsympathetic to her plight and reluctantly agrees to help her. Uberto however seems beyond reach, the madman obsessively drawing coffins and graves on the wall of his cell.

In terms of the hangover from late opera seria period, Paer's 1809 opera still has a number of generic arias of emotional turmoil expressing tearful laments, outbursts of anger, regret and repentance, the arias and cavatinas separated by accompanied recitative. As is common with the later bel canto style, the plot is fairly straightforward and there's not a great deal of dramatic action but nonetheless it's somewhat needlessly drawn out to close to three hours by incidental numbers that tend to be rather repetitive in their expression, are not particularly revealing and don't always hold attention. They are there more to inject some colour and diversion, but in the vocal expression at least they can go some way to develop characterisation.

The way to make it work on the stage is of course to enter wholly into the spirit of the work and respect its original intentions as much as possible without being slavish to tradition. Offenbach's opéra-comique comedies are a good measure of how to play this, Rossini's entertainments even more so, and the renewed interest in both composers is undoubtedly down to them being treated well in this respect. Leo Muscato's stylised approach works in favour of the character of the opera, using old-fashioned scuffed and rusting medicine tins, that look like classic biscuit, sweet tins or cigar boxes, each opening up storybook-like into whole rooms.

There's no particular significance in this other than other than to package the work up nicely and stylishly, with no unnecessary modernisms to distract from the old-fashioned treatment of a drama that takes place in an asylum populated by raving madmen and women. Having said that the physician in charge of the asylum Don Girolamo might appear to be a bit eccentric but he employs some innovative and humane therapy and treatments here for curing mental illness. There at least, Agnese is somewhat ahead of its time. For the sake of sanity for all involved, Don Pasquale also does his bit to reconcile Ernesto and Agnese.

That makes it sound easy as if that's all there is to it, but as Rossini's sophisticated marriage of music and drama demonstrates, there's a particular lightness of touch that is required to makes it simple and accessible on the surface but with there being a little more depth and melodic sophistication to support the drama. Paer's Agnese might sound conventional now but it's works like this that, for better or worse, set the standard for the century to follow, and that's no small matter. And no small measure of skill is required to sing and play this opera either. Ernesto's range is very much that of pure Rossini tenor and Edgardo Rocha (an experienced Rossinian) meets the challenges well. María Rey-Joly is hugely impressive, ringing out musical top notes and carrying the explosive character of Agnese from despair to hope to joy. Giulia Della Peruta brightens up the drama as the maid Vespina, a role that also has vocal challenges that she handles well.

The Dynamic Blu-ray release of Agnese is an absolute delight. The production itself is beautifully lit and coloured and all the detail is superbly rendered in the High Definition video recording, the image clear and detailed with perfect contrast balance and deep blacks. It looks magnificent. The audio tracks are similarly detailed with lossless PCM 2.0 and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 High Resolution mixes. It's just amazing that we are able to enjoy such a rare work in a format - and a production - that presents it in the best possible light. The Blu-ray is all-region, subtitles are in Italian, English, French, German, Japanese and Korean. An English and Italian language booklet provides essential insights into the place of the work in the history of opera, with a full detailed track-listing and a synopsis.

Links: Teatro Regio Torino

Wednesday 12 February 2020

Schreker - Der ferne Klang (Stockholm, 2019)

Franz Schreker - Der ferne Klang

Royal Swedish Opera, 2019

Stefan Blunier, Christof Loy, Agneta Eichenholz, Daniel Johansson, Johan Rydh, Miriam Treichl, Andreas Lundmark, Jeremy Carpenter, Lars Arvidson, Vivianne Holmberg, Marie-Louise Granström, Madeleine Barringer, Ola Eliasson, Klas Hedlund, Daniel Ohlmann

OperaVision - October 2019

Franz Schreker's first breakthrough opera Der ferne Klang in 1912, like much of the composer's work that followed, has the same sense of a flawed utopian ideal that is common in the composer's later "decadent" works like Die Gezeichneten and Irrelohe. It has something in common then with other post-Wagnerian German and Austrian composers of the early twentieth century (most obviously Korngold's Die Tote Stadt or Das Wunder der Heliane) whose work would later be classified by the Nazi's as "Entartete", "degenerate" because of their Jewish connections.

Like those other works by such composers at the turn of the century the influence of Wagner is inescapable, and Der ferne Klang is very much seeped in Wagnerian romanticism both musically and thematically. If it perhaps doesn't have the same sense of purpose or philosophical rigour of Wagner's best work - few do - it is however considerably more than a pale copy or a mere fantasy aligned to the master's style, and in its own way Schreker's works tap into the concerns of their time at the beginning of the 20th century in the desire to find or create a better world.

Certainly the comparisons with Tannhäuser are immediately obvious in the situation of Fritz, a heroic artist with a pure vision, a composer who sets off on a self-imposed pilgrimage searching for "a distant sound", the otherworldly music of harps that he must pursue: "A noble ambition floats before my eyes and I must be free!". To do this means sacrificing his love for Grete, his obsession with the distant sound causing him to fail to recognise the beauty he already has before him in the young woman's love, until of course it is too late.

While Fritz is off in pursuit his elusive ideal the main part of Der ferne Klang is concerned with the fate of Grete. Left in an unhappy family situation, her drunken father Graumann prepared to gamble her away in a game to the landlord of the drinking den to whom he is heavily in debt, she runs away to try and find Fritz. Along the way she falls into the seductive clutches of a glamorous lady and ends up a high class prostitute in a nightclub on an island in Venice where she is adored by the clientele, and in particular pursued by the Count.

To settle matters Greta promises to marry whoever can tell/sing the best story, meaning that Act II of the opera even has its own version of Tannhäuser's singing contest in Wartburg. Rather than it being an occasion to seek to find ennobling truths and dispel false artistry based on received wisdom rather than hard-won experience and innovative ideas, you get the impression that Schreker uses this occasion more as an opportunity to provide a bit of musical variety, colour and cabaret.

In reality however the Count's relentless pursuit of Greta is in a way a similar pursuit for a 'ferne Klang', one that differs from Fritz's vision in that it has a predetermined outcome - winning Greta - and thus is less pure than Fritz's noble and idealistic journey into unknown realms. In a way then the singing contest does serve a similar purpose to that of the one in Tannhäuser. In Der ferne Klang however the nobility of that outcome is less sure, the dream of a paradise uncertain or maybe even an impossible ideal. Does that make striving for truth any less worthy even if it doesn't reveal what we hope it will?

That conclusion, which comes in Act III, is where Christof Loy has to really do the work in this production for the Swedish National Opera. Up until then it all seems a little lacking in this director's usual modern touches and ideas, keeping to a period setting of classical elegance. As ever, Loy is just seeking to reflect what is there in the music, matching the settings and drama to the lush orchestration of Schreker's score. Since Act III opens with a long musical interlude, Loy has more room here to develop and contrast and blend the reality with the dreams.

And since Schreker also provides the opportunity by setting Act III backstage after the performance of Fritz's great masterpiece, Loy takes advantage of exploring how dreams and reality can be brought together in art, in opera. His re-encounter with Grete brings Fritz great disappointment when he is made aware of her degrading circumstances and his renouncement of her at the end of Act II inspires him to the discovery of the 'far off sound' he has been looking for. Since his opera is considered a failure however, there's some ambiguity around whether life informs great art or whether art is at best only a flawed shadow of life. The chances are that, like Fritz, the only way we can judge whether we've taken the right path and grasped what is important is when it's too late to change anything.

If it doesn't make any grand gestures then or bring about any great revelations, Loy's direction very much explores and enhances the value of Schreker's Der ferne Klang. The same can be said very much for Stefan Blunier's conducting of the Swedish National Orchestra which revels in the lush beauty of Schreker's wonderful flowing orchestration. Like Richard Strauss, there's also considerable beauty and challenges in the vocal writing but when it's done right, as it is here with Agneta Eichenholz's Grete and Daniel Johansson's Fritz, both soaring in their self-delusion, shattered in their clash with reality - the effect is ravishing. How wonderful that the Swedish National Opera treat this beautiful neglected work so well.

Links: OperaVision, Swedish National Opera