Friday 26 June 2020

Korngold - Violanta (Turin, 2020)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold - Violanta (Turin, 2020)

Teatro Regio Torino, 2020

Pinchas Steinberg, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Annemarie Kremer, Michael Kupfer-Radecky, Norman Reinhardt, Peter Sonn, Soula Parassidis, Anna Maria Chiuri, Joan Folqué, Cristiano Olivieri, Gabriel Alexander Wernick, Eugenia Braynova, Claudia De Pian

Dynamic - Blu-ray

As well as the overwhelming and inescapable influence of the legacy left on the world of opera by Richard Wagner, German and particularly Austrian composers like Korngold were certainly under the influence of the intoxicating new ideas and expression that was in the air in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. It's only recently however that we are getting the opportunity to hear and see stage performances of the lush fantasies of composers like Franz Schreker and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose careers were impacted or cut short during the rise of Nazis in the 1930s. The image of a glamourous decadent society in the operatic works of these so-called 'degenerate' composers is inevitably tempered by an awareness of the darkness in the heart of humanity or at least within human society.

Korngold was certainly something of a prodigy, showing remarkable talent in composition and orchestration from a very young age. The evidence of Die Tote Stadt alone, written at the age of 23, clearly shows just how incredibly accomplished his early opera works were before he left Germany under advisement and established himself as a composer in the United States. The recent revival at the Deutsche Oper of Das Wunder von Heliane (1927) was another eye-opening glimpse into those incredible accomplishments, another dreamy and slightly unsettling exploration of Freudian themes as well as revealing something of a debt to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. The even earlier one act opera Violanta, premiered in 1916 and written when Korngold was just 17, is very much within the same decadent fantasy realm of repressed desires, lusts and fantasies, and the musical influence accordingly owes a great deal of debt to Richard Strauss's Salome.

The comparison with Salome strikes you almost immediately from the opening melancholic overture to Violanta in the rather decadent setting of a Renaissance carnival in Venice. Elegant, masked guests arrive at the House of Captain Trovai, indulging in pleasure and milling around while two uniformed guards discuss how the Lady Violanta is in a dark melancholic mood, one young guard teased for being in love with her. "He dreams of her white body, in which the moon plays the lute" certainly adheres to the imagery in Wilde's play that Strauss set so vividly to wild, decadent and powerful music in 1905. Korngold's music is not quite as harsh and dissonant, displaying more of a Puccinian love of melody and romanticism, but by the same token it doesn't have quite the same conviction or philosophical underpinning to push against conventional thought or morality.

The threat to their pleasure comes with the troubling news that the notorious womaniser Alfonso has returned to Venice. Despite the painter Giovanni Bracca's admonition that "Women frequent the shores of adventure" Simone Trovai is sure that his wife Violanta hates Alfonso for his baseness and his offense. Alfonso is certainly no Jochanaan; he seduced Violanta's sister Nerina while she was a novice at a convent and the young woman subsequently killed herself. Since then Lady Violanta has been sad, melancholic and avoided society.

Simone however can't help but be troubled to discover that Violanta has gone to sing and dance for this man with the intention of seducing him as a way to avenge her sister. Inviting him to their home, Violanta demands that Simone must kill Alfonso. Her husband is horrified that such he is being asked to kill a man who commands power and respect, but he is prepared to do it. All he has to do is wait for Violanta to sing a song that will be the cue to act, but when Violanta comes face to face with Alfonso, there is a danger that she too will be seduced by his nature.

There are variances in the situations but the musical cues of foreboding, hidden lusts and lush decadence are very similar to those of Salome, with ecstatic raptures woven around matters of debauchery and death. Which is not to say that Korngold doesn't have a way of making his own mark upon them. Like Strauss, the singing challenges are also considerable, not just for the principal role of Violanta but all of the roles are heavily demanding in the Wagnerian sense. In the 2020 Teatro Regio Torino production Annemarie Kremer is excellent as Violanta, giving a commanding central performance that has to be convincing and maintain force and seductiveness over the course of most of the hour and a half of the opera. Alfonso has to measure up to her, challenge her dominance in the same way as Jochanaan, but here with an almost lyrical Heldentenor Lohengrin-like purity of voice to go with his seductive and secretly vulnerable character and Norman Reinhardt captures that well with a fine performance.

Updating it from the Renaissance period to the 1920s the intention ought to be to highlight or draw on some of the undercurrents in the world of that time feeding into Korngold's composition, but there's no explicit references or obvious parallels made. Director Pier Luigi Pizzi however successfully contours that mood of seductive decadence and death effectively, with a hint of Klimt in the designs and costumes, Violanta wearing a voluptuous figure-hugging sparkling gold sequined dress. The whole of the one-act drama takes place in a room with long red and gold curtain drapes hanging over red velvet couches and there is a wide open circular window at the back like a dark moon showing gondolas gliding by. It creates an appropriately Styx-like quality to the location, spanning the gap between life and death.

Making the whole drama work convincingly, making the characters and the denouement credible and meaningful is a trickier prospect and it needs a little more of the edge of conviction that a director like Christof Loy can bring to this kind of work (Das Wunder von Heliane, Der ferne Klang). With fine singing performances, a strong central performance from Annemarie Kremer, and with Pinchas Steinberg bringing out the youthful musical splendour of Korngold, highlighting the characteristics that would become more familiar in
the Korngold of Die Tote Stadt, the Teatro Regio Torino production give a fine account of this wonderful rarity.

Pizzi's set is dark and shadowy with bold burning reds, so it's a bit tricky to transfer to video accurately and consequently there are some variances in tone depending on the camera angle used, but the Dynamic Blu-ray HD presentation is generally very good at capturing the mood of the piece and the production. The LPCM stereo and surround DTS HD-Master Audio tracks are warmly toned, fully capturing the mood and colour of Korngold, although the recording is perhaps not quite as detailed as you might find on other High Resolution recordings. There are no extra features, but as usual Dynamic provide good information on the work and the production, including an interview with Pier Luigi Pizzi in the enclosed booklet.

Links: Teatro Regio Torino

Thursday 18 June 2020

Verdi - Simon Boccanegra (Salzburg, 2019)

Giuseppe Verdi - Simon Boccanegra

Salzburg Festival, 2019

Valery Gergiev, Andreas Kriegenburg, Luca Salsi, Marina Rebeka, René Pape, Charles Castronovo, André Heyboer, Antonio Di Matteo, Long Long

Unitel Edition - Blu-ray

Whatever the plotting and structural weaknesses of early and mid-period Verdi operas, you have to admire the composer's ability to put every ounce of musical conviction behind them, and none more so than the likes of Don Carlos and Simon Boccanegra. If you can find a conductor willing to push it but not sacrifice character detail for bombast, if you can get a director willing to approach the work on the basis of its deeper underlying themes, and you can get singers of equal conviction and technical ability to deliver it with passion and meaning, then those works can approach true greatness. Getting all those elements lined up however is no small task.

The most obvious area of Simon Boccanegra that needs particular attention - and where it is lacking in this Salzburg production - is the plot. To put it mildly, it's difficult to follow and has issues with credibility, contrivance and coincidence. It doesn't have a particular large cast of principals, but the connections between them have conflicts of duty, position and romantic complications, all of which in a lesser production can tend to obscure or distract from the chief underlying theme of the opera, which was clearly the subject that was most significant for Verdi; the bonds between a father and his daughter.

Falling somewhere between Rigoletto and Don Carlo - and not just chronologically - Simon Boccanegra has a central father/daughter relationship that is threatened by personal vanity and ambition in the former work and the heavyweight political concerns intruding on personal freedom and happiness in the latter, not to mention a tone that is consistently gloomy and pessimistic. It never manages to reconcile these two sides despite Arrigo Boito and Verdi's 1881 revisions to the original 1857 version, but with a creative director who can recognise the qualities of the music and bring strong dramaturgy to a production it is possible to make Simon Boccanegra work.

Calixto Bieito's revelatory Paris production is a rare case where the true genius of the work is brought out, the director recognising that what is missing - on the surface at least, it's not missing in Verdi's music - is the presence of the spirit of Maria. Amelia's mother is very much the connecting tissue, the emotional charge that drives Boccanegra's gloomy despair and Fiesco's desire for revenge, the common factor that links the otherwise disconnected scenes separated by time or off-stage developments.

Unfortunately Andreas Kriegenburg, whose productions have consistently failed to really connect with the works in question as far as my experience goes with this director (Not so keen on his Les Hugenots, Die Walküre or The Snow Queen, although I liked his Wozzeck rather more), doesn't have anything similar to offer that might make the plotting and characterisation credible, much less illuminate the deeper undercurrents that Bieito so successfully explored. Aside from functionality the best thing you can say about the pretty vacant set design (again by Harald B. Thor) is that it fills the huge stage of the Festspielehaus impressively. At a stretch it raises the human struggles to an epic scale, or conversely, it shows that all the family feuding is ultimately pointless in the grander scheme of things.

I'm not sure however that this mixed message is particularly meaningful in the context of Simon Boccanegra. At the very least the director should be attempting to make the plot easier to follow and alert the spectator to the nature of the family tragedy that is about to unfold. Andreas Kriegenburg has nothing to bring to the work other than a stylish modern setting with figures carrying tablets and texting messages on mobile phones, and there's a little bit of theatrical mannerism in recognition of the fact that the operatic drama is itself stylised rather than naturalistic. It neither draws however from the melancholic soul of the work nor succeed in making it feel contemporary and relevant.

It's unfortunate because in other respects the Salzburg production is impressive. Valery Gergiev is often criticised for lack of rehearsal but there's no faulting the measured control of the Wiener Philharmoniker here, harnessing all the power of the work, pinpointing the key scenes, particularly the Council Chamber scene at the close of Act I and the highly charged Act II trio confrontation between Adorno, Boccanegra and Amelia. That probably has as much to do with an almost flawless cast that includes an incandescent Marina Rebeka as Amelia, a heartfelt Charles Castronovo as Adorno and an always reliable René Pape as Fiesco. Luca Salsi's Boccanegra is warmly and capably sung, but perhaps due to a failing of the direction, it doesn't carry the necessary dramatic or melancholic weight here.

The musical performance and singing performances are so strong and well-presented in HD on the Unitel Edition Blu-ray that this is certainly worth a look. If Kriegenburg doesn't really help the plot work, Verdi's remarkable score almost convinces in its own right with performances like this and a strong audio/visual presentation. There are no extra features related to the production on the disc, but the booklet contains a brief overview of the problems Verdi had with the work and some commentary on the Salzburg production.

Links: Salzburger Festspiele

Tuesday 9 June 2020

Mozart - Die Zauberflöte (Glyndebourne, 2019)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Glyndebourne, 2019

Ryan Wigglesworth, André Barbe, Renaud Doucet, David Portillo, Sofia Fomino, Brindley Sherratt, Björn Bürger, Caroline Wettergreen, Michael Kraus, Esther Dierkes, Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Katharina Magiera, Jörg Schneider, Alison Rose, Freddie Jemison, Aman De Silva, Stephan Dyakonov, Thomas Atkins, Martin Snell

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Maybe it's the fact that it's Glyndebourne or maybe the popularity of Downton Abbey has made the idea of the English country estate more romantic and idealised, but there does seem to be a tendency to incorporate such old English period ideas into operas produced there. Some are perfectly appropriate and fit perfectly, such as Verdi's Falstaff, some such as Ariadne auf Naxos are a bit of a stretch but nonetheless wholly successful, and Barber's Vanessa seem perfectly at home there. Mozart's Die Zauberflöte is a work very much open to imaginative reinterpretation that can reveal new facets to the work - none more so than Romeo Castellucci's production for La Monnaie in Brussels - but even so Barbe and Doucet are undoubtedly going to have to take a few liberties to set The Magic Flute in an Edwardian hotel.

But ideas and imagination are exactly what you want for Mozart's delightful, sometimes enigmatic but most purely enjoyable opera. In Barbe and Doucet's hotel, the three ladies are all maids and Papageno seems to be an eccentric guest with a thing for feather pillows and duvets. Coming down into the lobby in his pyjamas, perhaps in the middle of a nightmare, Tamino is attacked by a monster serpent assembled out of new but still primitive technology. The Queen of the Night is the hotel owner who makes her grand appearance to lay down the law in a clanking lift. The three boys are suitably attired in bellhop uniforms. Sarastro is the head chef, his brotherhood the hotel's cooks. Monostatos down in the basement, below even the servants and maids, shovels coal (which accounts for his black skin) to keep the hotel heated, and it's there that he has dragged Pamina.

The theme of this production of is clear enough and the characters all have vaguely appropriate and recognisable roles in the hierarchy of the hotel, even if it doesn't quite match the stratification of Mozart's society. From the Age of Enlightenment to the Age of Progress however, it does at least correlate with a period of progress, the early twentieth century being on the cusp of the modern age, challenging outdated notions of tradition, which of course includes women's suffrage. That's perhaps not necessarily a development that the Age of Enlightenment libretto is quite ready for ("Women do little but chatter a lot", "Without the guidance of men, women tend to rise above their station"), nor perhaps the Masonic traditions and ceremonies celebrated in Mozart's opera. There is something here however that captures the wind of change and an awareness of class and social inequality that is at least partly consistent with the intentions of the opera.

Something else you expect with The Magic Flute is a magical colourful fairy tale or storybook character and you certainly get that in André Barbe's highly stylised Edwardian designs. The sets are all of the cardboard cut-out variety, using Barbe's hand-drawn sketches and blowing them up to give the impression of a set model expanded to life-size. The detail is impressive, creating a storybook-like background that the colourful characters all stand out against. It really looks stunning. Puppeteers provide the magical elements which fit as suitably old-fashioned theatrical effects. The puppetry is sometimes over-used and a little superfluous, but when used for effect - such as with the armoured men - it makes a great impression. The costumes are marvellous, Edwardian elegance with colourful stylistic cartoon flourishes. Unquestionably, the production design is a thing of beauty and style, the period chosen a useful one to explore some of the themes of the work.

Some, but not all. It doesn't really get to grips with the divisions of physical and spiritual needs of mankind, the struggle between enlightenment versus mysticism, on overcoming darkness and despair, the power of music as a transformative force that is open and accessible to everyone as demonstrated in Die Zauberflöte's wonderful blend of high art and comic pantomime. The elegance of the setting in a grand hotel also precludes any deeper commentary on the class struggle and the belief that all men are equal and can aspire to the betterment of individuals and society. Tamino and Pamina's success in the trial by fire and water for example is to become masters of kitchen skills, which is amusingly staged but doesn't really get to the heart of the work.

There's little to complain about in the singing, which is mostly good even if there's nothing to lift this to another level. Among the more notable performances, Björn Bürger's Papageno is strong and entertaining and Brindley Sherratt is superb, giving one of the most assured and controlled performances I've seen as Sarastro. Jörg Schneider's Monostatos is also well sung and played. There's always a risk that Tamino and Pamina can appear a little bland if insufficiently characterised and they can come across as rather bland. Tamino and Pamina are perhaps somewhat over-privileged because of their upbringing and need to experience the realities of the world in order to find the wisdom to mend the inequalities (perhaps not by great cookery though). Although we have two earnest performances from David Portillo and Sofia Fomino that suit the content and treatment here, neither of them are developed enough to compensate for these weaknesses in characterisation.

Conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, there's a fullness of sound in the orchestration and no sign of any period or historically informed instrumentation. The delivery is a little cool in places, working better in the more buoyant and humorous scenes than in the more solemn and emotional scenes, but that could also be an impression informed by the staging, which can inevitably feel a little stuffy and mannered in places. You don't always get a sense of the varied parts of the work coming together in the way that should give Die Zauberflöte a greater sense of completeness and accomplishment, nor is it entirely successful consequently in getting across the deeper character of the work or the application of its many levels of meaning as they relate to all aspects of human nature.

It's a thoroughly entertaining an impressively designed Die Zauberflöte however and it comes across well on the High Definition presentation on the Opus Arte Blu-ray. The disc contains a short Making Of extra feature that focusses on Barbe and Doucet's creation for Glyndebourne, revealing that their Queen of the Night was inspired by a turn of the century lady owner of a Viennese hotel. The feature also covers the challenge of turning the André Barbe's wonderfully detailed sketches into sets. There's also a Cast Gallery and a very informative booklet essay by Nicholas Till on the creation of Die Zauberflöte and the influences that shaped it.

Links: Glyndebourne

Tuesday 2 June 2020

Bartók - Judith/Duke Bluebeard's Castle (Munich, 2020)

Béla Bartók - Judith/Duke Bluebeard's Castle

Concerto for Orchestra (1944), Duke Bluebeard's Castle (1918)

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2020

Oksana Lyniv, Katie Mitchell, Grant Gee, John Lundgren, Nina Stemme

Staatsoper.TV - March 2020

Bartók's one-act opera is often paired with another short work which, whether it's as an accompaniment or integrated to expand on the themes of the work, inevitably colours and has a bearing on the content. And in Duke Bluebeard's Castle themes and undercurrents abound. Rarely however is Bartók paired with one of the composer's own works, mainly because he only composed this one brilliant short opera. La Monnaie in Brussels however managed a fairly successful pairing of Duke Bluebeard's Castle with the composer's 1924 pantomime ballet The Magnificent Mandarin, adding a little commentary on the main short opera, even if there was little obvious connection between the two works.

Katie Mitchell takes a different approach in the Bavarian State Opera's pairing of the Bartók's 1918 Duke Bluebeard's Castle with the much later Concerto for Orchestra, written in the United States in 1944, the two works combining to create a single work, Judith. In Judith the Concerto serves as a musical prelude to the opera, the production using a film by British director Grant Gee that sets the scene for a modern reinterpretation of the opera. Being directed by Katie Mitchell however, you can assume there will be a feminist take on the subject and some might see that as a necessary reading that certainly wouldn't be out of place for this work.

Unfortunately, as far as coming up with a new modern spin on the subject the idea and the execution is again (after Mitchell’s attempt to correct Shakespeare’s chauvinism in The Tempest through Miranda) somewhat lacking. The Concerto for Orchestra is used as the score for a crime-thriller movie, setting the scene of Bluebeard  as a sinister city executive in London, scouring an escort agency site that specialises in more mature women, selecting victims that are picked up and brought to him by his chauffeur. Police detective Anna Barlow (Nina Stemme) finds a clue in photographs uploaded by one of the women and goes undercover posing as 'Judith'.

It’s not a terribly original or complex idea but it takes 40 minutes of the Concerto to lay this out. Grant Gee's film is attractively shot in the Southwark district, an area south of the Thames currently being extensively redeveloped, but there is no sign of any real artistry here. There's nothing that provides any motivation or explores the psychology of a predator of women. The Concerto is lovely to listen to, but it doesn’t particularly match with the drama in the film either. It’s much too long as a prelude which does nothing except provide a reason why a woman would willingly following a path that has led to the disappearance of other women. It could have been covered equally as well with a five minute prologue or with a few title screens.

Once we get to Bluebeard's Castle however it has to be said that the sense of menace, danger and the sinister edge of the environment is well achieved. Judith does have a mission to "warm this icy stone" with its weeping walls, breach its ramparts and expose the nature of Bluebeard. The seven doors are visible on security monitors and, as a police detective, Anna has good reason to want the keys to open those rooms. It's fitting that she finds a torture chamber in the first room and a weapons room in the second. Well, what else would you expect to find in the home of a serial killer? The third room also has a sinister aspect, a strong room with a safe, filled with jewellery, trophies stained with blood that undoubtedly belongs to his victims.

As dark as its origins and underlying psychology might be, doesn't turning Duke Bluebeard's Castle into a banal crime-thriller take away somewhat from the original fairy-tale? Well evidently that's exactly what Katie Mitchell wants to do, to demolish any suggestion that the fairy story is about a weak woman's curiosity about the sexual experience of her husband and her helplessness in the face of the power of his masculinity. There's nothing natural about 'Bluebeard's Castle', it's an artificial construct, the lands of his dominion here nothing more than a VR projection, a trick to impress and instill respect. His power is the abuse, mistreatment and enslavement of women. Like Miranda and Lessons in Love and Violence however I'm not sure putting a gun into the hands of a woman to regain power is quite the image to overturn and correct any imbalance.

Bartók's opera is a powerful work in its own right, impressive in its musical flow and expression, working on abstract and allegorical levels, hinting at dark sinister acts, appalling secrets and twisted desires. It's created for two powerful voices to explore and the Bayerische Staatsoper has two such superb performers here in Nina Stemme and John Lundgren. Not only is the singing top class, but the performances are well-acted with a cat-and-mouse interplay, each hiding something, truths gradually being revealed or realised about each other. Whether you view that on a cop/criminal or male/female level, it does capture a sense of the imbalance of power, or where the balance of power is perceived to be.

Former assistant to Kirill Petrenko, the musical direction by Oksana Lyniv is excellent, maintaining an intensity that matches what is happening on the stage. Alex Eales' set design is also very impressive for a work that relies on establishing the right mood. Coming in from the underground garage the bridges the film with the opera, the set remains below ground one room leading to the next, sliding into place. It creates a sense of an enclosed claustrophobic environment, threatening and entrapping with no windows and no natural light, the castle as a projection of Bluebeard himself. Reservations about viewing it as a crime-thriller movie aside, the performances of Stemme and Lundgren in this environment make this every bit the titanic encounter it ought to be.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper