Tuesday 14 July 2020

Landi - La Morte d'Orfeo (Amsterdam, 2018)

Stefano Landi - La Morte d'Orfeo

Dutch National Opera, 2018

Christophe Rousset, Pierre Audi, Cecilia Molinari, Renato Dolcini, Alexander Miminoshvili, Gaia Petrone, Rosina Fabius, Magdalena Pluta, Juan Francisco Gatell, Kacper Szelążek, Emiliano Gonzales Toro, Salvo Vitali

Naxos - Blu-ray

The myth of Orpheus has not only been the inspiration to some of the greatest works of opera ever written, it could even be said to have inspired the creation of opera itself. Certainly some of operas most important key works, namely Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (1607) and Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (1774), are works that still carry every bit of their original power, beauty and meaning from several hundred years ago through to the present day. Every new production of these works seems to find endless inspiration in them and it's not difficult to see why since the story of Orpheus is about transforming life into art that lasts through the ages. The moral that there's a high price to be paid for the artist who pours his life into immortal works is however conveniently glossed over somewhat in these early opera versions of the myth. Not so in Stefano Landi's La Morte d'Orfeo.

Orpheus's journey to the Underworld to bring back his dead wife Eurydice is not the whole story, and there is certainly no happy ending of the kind that was imposed by dramatic convention on Gluck's opera, but rather there is more to be learned in the myth that makes its meaning even more tragic and illuminating. The fate of Orpheus is taken up from where Monteverdi left off in La Morte d'Orfeo composed in 1619 by Stefano Landi who, as a Papal composer, was nonetheless likewise adapting the story for his own audience. Orpheus does indeed pay a high price for his infractions against the order of the gods, and not just though his insistence on reviving the dead Eurydice, but for the sins of pride and artistic excess. For the sinning against the purity of women and the sacred bond of marriage, he is ripped apart by the women of the maenads.

Orpheus might have the power to charm the God and the spirits of the Underworld with his music, but there are other stronger forces at work on the artist and Orpheus is torn between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Landi personifies that struggle in the first scene of La Morte d'Orfeo, and Pierre Audi directing this Dutch National Opera production (his last production after 30 years as artistic director there) depicts that simply and directly. Fate has decreed that Orpheus die on his birthday and Orpheus is shown as helpless against the coming of the dawn, Aurora, and the breezes that sidle up against him, waking him to the fate that Fate has in store for him. All of these forces have physical form and are personified, as also is Fury.

Orpheus however is oblivious to his fate, a demigod who perhaps even believes himself exempt from the fate of ordinary mortals. Follow the path of virtue, advises his father, beware of women and their wiles. "He who does not honour love is better off dead". When Orpheus slights Bacchus however, his followers, the maenads call for vengeance. There is something typically anti-women in Laudi's depiction of this situation for his Roman Catholic commissioners, but there are two ways of looking at this and Audi turns it around for the #MeToo age where it becomes a cautionary tale not for the benefit of men to beware of women leading them into sin, but that a reckoning will come for those who mistreat and abuse women.

Up to that point much of the opera is fairly dry, delivered mostly through early opera style recititative and choruses, with little in the way of arias. There's little that Pierre Audi can do to enliven the lack of conventional dramatic action. He keeps the direction simple and doesn't clutter the smaller scale stage of the Muziekgebouw theatre in Amsterdam, restricting expression to costumes of pale colours and blood red lighting for the drama. The design has a few of the familiar Audi aesthetics but nothing that distracts from the purpose of the work, an upside down flowering tree with blood red blooms the only real symbolism on the stage.

If there's a lack of expression in the dramatic action and expression, all the colour is there however in the characters and personification of the forces of nature, and that is very much brought out by Landi's musical composition and the beautiful textures and colours of the baroque instruments. It's assisted considerably in that respect by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques interpreting the score. There's less of the usual rhythmic drive that Rousset brings to this kind of period music, but this is not music for dance as it would be in a French tragédie lyrique. As anyone who has heard William Christie's revelatory Caen production of Landi's Il Sant'Alessio will expect, this is much more in the realm of spiritual or religious music that Landi more frequently worked in.

The greatness of the work then only really becomes evident with the death of Orpheus. Incredibly the dramatic scene of him being ripped apart by the maenads takes place off-stage and is instead recounted vividly in the music and singing of Fileno, who tells Calliope, the mother of Orpheus, how he witnessed her son destroyed even as he tried to appease the furies with his music and singing. It's by far the longest scene in the opera, the centrepiece, the emotional heart of the work and it's particularly impressive here for the lyrical singing and heartfelt delivery of Renato Dolcini. That tone is maintained for the remainder of the work, with organ music piping in behind Orpheus's funeral lament. It truly elevates the work to a thing of great beauty.

The structure and arrangement of the drama is not conventional then, and it doesn't put Orpheus at the centre of the opera - he actually has a lesser role in a small cast that play multiple roles - but rather as the title of the opera makes evident, it puts the death of Orpheus at the centre. Even the idea of Orpheus having some consolation that he might be reunited in death with his lost love Eurydice is taken from him. Charon and Mercury have bad news for him on that score, as Eurydice has taken the waters of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. If the artist is to live on it is through his legacy and Orpheus urged to drink the same waters, leave behind his earthly desires and become a star in the heavenly firmament.

The 2018 DNO production of Stefano Landi's La Morte d'Orfeo is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Naxos. It's a fine production and a good recording that really serves this beautiful rare work well, particularly on the High Definition Blu-ray release with its lossless High Resolution stereo and surround soundtracks. The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 surround in particular gives space to that beautiful open percussive sound of the period instruments. The booklet included contains a full tracklist, a brief synopsis and an informative and insightful commentary on the work by Pierre Audi, who clearly understands the intentions of the work and brings those across wonderfully in this production. The disc includes subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Dutch National Opera

Thursday 9 July 2020

Schreker - Der Schmied von Gent (Antwerp, 2020)

Franz Schreker - Der Schmied von Gent

Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Antwerp - 2020

Alejo Pérez, Ersan Mondtag, Leigh Melrose, Kai Rüütel, Vuvu Mpofu, Daniel Arnaldos, Michael J. Scott, Leon Košavić, Nabil Suliman, Ivan Thirion, Chia-Fen Wu, Justin Hopkins, Thierry Vallier, Simon Schmidt, Onno Pels, Erik Dello

OperaVision - February 2020

From just about every aspect, the Opera Vlaanderen production of Franz Schreker's Der Schmied Von Gent must be one of the highlights of an unfortunately curtailed opera season, but that's something we've come to expect from the adventurous Flanders company, a selection of whose work we've been fortunate enough to see streamed on OperaVision. Aside from the curiosity value of a neglected work by a composer currently enjoying something of a revival and re-appreciation, the fact that there is a local connection with the Flemish city of Ghent makes this an attractive proposition, and it's one that the company treat with great affection and attention to detail.

Schreker's final opera from Der Schmied von Gent is quite unlike the more typical sumptuous orchestrations of the composer's previous works. The irreverent and almost comic tone of the work is very different from the lush extravagant fantasies of Die Gezeichneten, Der Schatzgräber, Irrelohe and a long way from Schreker's first staged opera Der ferne Klang. As a Jewish composer working in a musical medium that would be classed as Degenerate, the opera was however not greatly appreciated when it was first presented in Berlin in 1932 and was all but lost in the ensuing troubled years, Schreker himself dying in 1934. In this Opera Vlaanderen performance it turns out to be not only a worthwhile revival of a Schreker curiosity but simply a wonderful opera.

Der Schmied von Gent may not be as lofty and philosophically searching in its aspirations as Schreker's other works and it does get a little bogged down in the historical period detail of the sixteenth century Eighty Years War between Spain and the Netherlands, but there is certainly more of a down-to-earth human quality in this opera that perhaps arises out of the Faustian pact in its plot. Ghent blacksmith Smee is taken advantage of by a beautiful she-devil Astarte who catches the smith at a low ebb, ready to throw himself in the river after losing business due to the actions of a rival blacksmith Slimbroek. He's promised seven years of prosperity but after that, he belongs body and soul to Astarte. That doesn't seem like a bad deal to Smee, but when the time comes, he tries to find a way to escape from the Hellish pact.

There's not much here that is particularly profound or philosophical, it's not something that touches insightfully on human nature and it's not as if the opera's themes can be endlessly explored and updated for new meaning or contemporary relevance, but like any fairy-tale like story it does have important truths and observations to make. Plunging into history and war, evoking horrors and tyrants, religion, devils, Schreker's opera even brings Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus to the stage. What it certainly has then is the essence of opera, of drama writ large, heightened human emotions and behaviours, expressed with feeling and passion. Schreker's compositional ability and dramatic writing is perfect in terms of pacing and tone, making the whole drama thoroughly engaging.

The Flanders production, visualised and directed with considerable flair by Ersan Mondtag, recognises those characteristics perfectly and confidently expands on it, capturing all the life, colour and magic of the situation in a way that only opera can. The set and costume design is impressive; highly stylised, colourful, cartoonish and playful, completely fitting with the tone of the work. In Act I and II the revolving background set rotates between a simple Ghent street scene with an archway running through it that when turned around reveals a demonic figure devouring a baby towering over the town, the tunnel a gateway to Hell that allows all the devils to arrive. The whole set is used, battlements and towers, tunnels and streets, background and foreground, populated by strange caricature figures. Constantly revolving, it's more than just magically fantastical, but emphasises the two aspects and two sides of the same nature.

It's open for interpretation whether that's two side of human nature, the nature of life in the city of Ghent or the nature of war. On their own however the first two acts provide plentiful colour and entertainment, but there's more to give in Schreker's opera and in the Vlaanderen production. Having deceived the agents of Hell with trickery, they are reluctant to admit Smee when his human time on Earth comes to an end and it appears he's not welcome in heaven either. It's a little superfluous perhaps but Schreker is able to fill this act with majestic heavenly choirs, more colour and humuour. Mondtag uses this act also to consider Der Schmied von Gent as a work that is not just about historical injustice of a long forgotten past but as Smee is revived in the future to witness the liberation of the Congo from Belgian rule and bondage, it's a reminder that the struggle against evil is a constant battle and very real.

The Vlaanderen production and the performances are world class but it's the work itself that most impresses. Kurt Weill and the German music hall are often cited as influences on Schreker's late change of musical direction, but it shows a much wider range of contemporary influences and references, from Hindemith and Zemlinsky to the playful extravagance of the early Strauss of Feuersnot in its satirical tone and irreverent comedy. It consequently has a wonderful down to earth human quality that is missing from Schreker's other works, and although even those are rare enough, only rediscovered properly in recent years, it seems incredible that other than one notable recording on CPO, few have looked seriously at Der Schmied von Gent or given recognition to its qualities.

Alejo Pérez clearly has a ball with the wonderful range and variety of the score, confidently holding all the variations of pace and tone together. Musically, it's an absolute joy. The singing performances can't be faulted either with Leigh Melrose wholly immersed in the glorious character that Smee presents commanding attention throughout with some fine singing and playful acting. Kai Rüütel is also excellent as his wife and Vuvu Mpofu is superb as Astarte, fully convincing as a seductively-voiced she-devil. Unquestionably, Opera Vlaanderen do full justice to the merits of Schreker's final opera, and it's revealed to be something of a marvel.

Links: OperaVision, Opera Ballet Vlaanderen