Friday 28 August 2020

Handel / Mozart - Der Messias (Salzburg, 2020)

George Frideric Handel / Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Der Messias

Mozartwoche Salzburg, 2020

Marc Minkowski, Robert Wilson, Elena Tsallagova, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Richard Croft, José Coca Loza

Unitel Classica - Blu-ray

Putting aside the sheer beauty of the aesthetic of a visual artist who paints with light and shapes, the success of Robert Wilson's unique style and direction, I find, is down to his ability to touch on the spiritual nature of music in his abstract designs without needing to slavishly serve the conventional narrative form of the drama. Evidently that works well in works that stretch the opera form like Pelléas et Mélisande or Arvo Pärt's Adam's Passion, but even in a work with no apparent ambitions towards spirituality as Einstein on the Beach or in a work as conventionally opera-dramatic as Il Trovatore he sometimes manages it as well - perhaps finding something spiritual in the less familiar French language version in the case of the latter.

There are similar gaps to explore between traditional expectations and boundaries in this less familiar German version of Handel's Messiah. The original work itself of course has a beautiful spiritual dimension, and if the purpose or intent of the oratorio is to embody the essence of godliness, Wilson is well equipped to do that. Intriguingly however the work was arranged with new instruments and in the German language by Mozart, another great composer who also had a deep feeling for the spiritual side of humanity, who would himself contribute a considerable body of his work to religious music, masses and of course in his famous requiem. There's an intriguing crossover there, an exploration and reworking of one great composer's work by another to his own idiom and that presents a fascinating musical world for a conductor to explore, and for a director like Robert Wilson to present.

Quite how you would begin to describe Wilson's approach to Der Messias, much less evaluate it, doesn't seem at all worthwhile. In a light-boxed and light-framed stage he captures transitions in mood, sentiment and meaning in a shifting of light, in the change of a colour tone, a blast of bright godly light or fading light like the setting of the sun, from glory to quiet contemplation. The projections of nature and floating natural objects add another element not always used in the artificial reality and geometric shapes of Wilson productions. A log, a stick, a tree with roots, waves gently rolling, huge shifting and crashing icebergs. And within this figures are precisely posed, Richard Croft dressed up like a Bob Hope music hall entertainer, winking and nodding to the audience, Elena Tsallagova a more angelic presence (and voice), with dancers and other enigmatic figures making appearances.

You might have a problem with this abstraction, but only if you try to apply or impose meaning or interpretation upon it. It can distract from following the expression of Charles Jennens's libretto (although that has a complicating factor in it being sung in German, so is not as 'direct' as you might be familiar with). Not that Jennens's words are transparent or direct in any case, but if they take on renewed meaning here it's because of Mozart's beautiful version of the score, a wonderful blend of Handel's composition and Mozart's musical and instrumental rearrangement. Not that you can find Wilson's contribution indifferent. As is often the case, even if it sounds like a cop out, is that you have to do is let Wilson transport you into his vision and feeling for the piece. It will work for some, not so much for others, but it is beautiful hypnotic and involving in its own way.

Inevitably, there is always a sense of coldness and formality about a Robert Wilson production, which when aligned with the archaic expression of Jennens makes the message of the Messiah feel as if it were something encased in ice. That may sound unkind, but there is something to that view of religious formality and purity that doesn't permit any flaws or imperfections. Wilson embraces this, finds the beauty within it and seeks to almost glorify it and in his own way break through the ice to the message of warmth, of peace and of hope for humanity. Which was perhaps also Mozart's intention in taking the outdated musical style of oratorio and bringing his own human touch to the greatness that lies within Handel's icy perfection.

Whether he succeeds and whether you ascribe to the Wilson view of opera and theatre direction or not is a matter for the individual viewer, but it's unquestionably original. If you go with that (ice) flow however, there's every possibility that you can look at Handel's Messiah in an entirely new way. The contribution of Mozart's Classical Viennese reworking of Handel can't be discounted for the power and majesty of the music alone, and unsurprisingly Handel sounds natural in German. In terms of interpretation it is quite wonderful under Marc Minkowski and his Les Musiciens du Louvre. Elena Tsallagova, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Richard Croft and José Coca Loza all likewise go a considerable way to ensure that even though almost entirely devoid of any religious connotation, the majesty of the work and its uplifting message for humanity comes through clearly.

Any Robert Wilson production in High Definition is always a treat and the image on this Blu-ray release from Unitel Classica of the 2020 Mozart Week Salzburg performance captures the muted blue/grey colour tones and the gradations of light and shadow beautifully. The 48kHz/24 bit High Resolution LPCM and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio tracks are no less impressive a soundstage for the wonderful musical performances and outstanding soloist and choral singing. Other than trailers, there are no extra features on the disc, just some background information in the enclosed booklet on how Mozart's version came into being and some consideration of the ideas employed by Wilson. The region-free Blu-ray has subtitles in German, English, French, Korean and Japanese.

Links: Mozartwoche Salzburg

Wednesday 19 August 2020

Mozart - Così fan tutte (Salzburg, 2020)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Così Fan Tutte

Salzburg Festspiele, 2020

Joana Mallwitz, Christof Loy, Elsa Dreisig, Marianne Crebassa, Andr
é Schuen, Bogdan Volkov, Lea Desandre, Johannes Martin Kränzle

ARTE Concert - 2 August 2020

It was going to have to be different if the Salzburg Festival was going to go ahead in any form this year, but despite a reduced programme and reduced audience on account of the Covid-19 restrictions and despite a characteristically minimalist stage set for a Christof Loy production, there's nothing in the least socially distant or socially distancing about this reworked version of Mozart's Così fan tutte. In fact the 2020 Salzburg production is a very physical, tightly choreographed, condensed in its cuts and in the precision in which it gets to the heart of Mozart's extraordinary and oft misunderstood opera.

It's appropriate in this case for Così fan tutte and exactly how you want it to be, because despite all its buffo comedy elements, Da Ponte's ludicrous plotting and the libretto's seemingly superficial and clichéd characterisation, the opera is actually deeply insightful in its observations about human nature, about love, relationships, men and women, about holding illusions and facing up to reality. Far from being a light comedy, the libretto is beautifully poetic, the music deeply moving and extraordinarily expressive of a wide range of human emotions and experiences that come from heart and the head. Or it can be if it's allowed to be.

Loy's minimalist 'generic' productions tend to work well with such works, where you don't need to be distracted by the mechanics of the plot, the period or the location, and can focus on the characters and the relationships between them. It may seem obvious but that can be done physically and spacially, the distance or closeness between them the characters measured out in their proximity to one another on the stage, whether they look at each other or not, whether they touch or hold. Fiordiligi and Dorabella here are clearly close friends, comfortably tactile in each other's company. The boys Guglielmo and Ferrando are tactile in a little more rough and tumble way, playfully jostling their master, Don Alfonso, showing more eagerness to impress than feel any real feeling for their girlfriends.

Loy, who in my experience usually works with as full an uncut version of an opera as possible, takes the opportunity of working with conductor Joana Mallwitz not just to compress the opera down for health and safety reasons (reducing the time spent in the hall for the audience, with no interval where they can mingle and spread any virus contagion), but to cut back on the more buffo elements, the dialogues that might be more offensive and sexist to a modern audience. That doesn't have to be the case - Christophe Honoré managed to integrate those potentially objectionable views into a rather more questioning view of Così fan tutte and humanity in his 2016 Aix-en-Provence production - and it does occasionally make the opera feel a little too rushed here, losing a nonetheless important element while not really making the plot or motivations feel any more credible or realistic.

Arguably, the plot was never meant to withstand the scrutiny of realism, but the human emotions and experiences in this remarkable work are nonetheless timelessly truthful and insightful. Christof Loy and Joana Mallwitz necessarily put aside some of the more comic interludes and sacrificing this aspect of the human experience, and instead look for those moments of beauty that is brought out by what is patently and intentionally a fake situation. It's faked or contrived by its creators however precisely to evoke specific emotions in order to understand what is important. It's not hard either to see where those moments of truth and beauty are; you need to look no further than the exquisite arias, more beautiful here than any in the far more famous arias of Don Giovanni, and at least on a par with the finer moments of that other Mozart/Da Ponte masterpiece that is Le Nozze di Figaro.

The compression employed here that requires some measure of suspending disbelief actually heightens the necessity of their being a willingness to believe on the part of both sets of lovers. And what Mozart and Da Ponte achieve is indeed a school for lovers, an education on its joys, anxieties and insecurities, its feelings of deep spiritual awakening and devastating fears of betrayal. It's a bit of a crash course, achieved by sleight of hand over an intense period of a day, where you are never really sure how aware the characters are of the game they are playing or at what point reality takes over and it stops being a game.

Seen that way, the opera is actually employs a post-modernist meta-behavioural effect far ahead of its time, one similar to that achieved by the late filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami in Certified Copy (2010). I don't use this example randomly, since Kiarostami directed Così fan tutte in a production at Aix-en-Provence in 2008 (that I saw subsequently at the Coliseum in 2009), which makes me wonder whether, subconsciously or otherwise, he picked up the idea from Mozart and Da Ponte and expanded on it. You can't think of Così as naturalistic - it's ridiculous and silly, and yet everything about it is beautiful, achingly beautiful and right. It's completely authentic and makes perfect sense on a deep emotional and human level, on "how quickly a heart can change".

It's been a tough year for the arts, but there's a reminder here that we can't afford to lose or fail to nurture the kind of talent that is evident on the stages of Salzburg and mirrored on stages across the world. Like the Salzburg Elektra, the talent here is world class, as good as any classic historical performance of these works, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Marianne Crebassa in particular is just outstanding here as Dorabella. Elsa Dreisig brings that dreamy sincere youthful idealism to Flordiligi and there is plenty of youthful enthusiasm in the performances of André Schuen and Bogdan Volkov. Lea Desandre is a bright and entertaining Despina and Johannes Martin Kränzle an ideal Don Alfonso, charmingly mischievous with just a hint of a sinister motive. Much of the secret of making these characters work and come alive is just sheer nerve and enthusiasm, putting cynicism aside and being willing to believe that we can aspire to be better. That's half the battle with the opera as much as in the matters of love it deals with.

August 2020 may have meant a reduced opera programme for Salzburg, with only Elektra and Così fan tutte staged, but the choice of works and their presentation - both premiere performances broadcast live-streaming - showcase everything that is brilliant about opera, about why it is important and why we must find a way to keep it and other performing arts alive through the current crisis. There's a lot we can learn from the arts about dealing with the current times, a lot that Strauss, von Hofmannsthal, Mozart and Da Ponte have to show us. Elektra shows one response to the world, of individuals put through extreme and challenging experiences, mental illness, enforced separation, Così another very different but challenging experience. Both however show that we're only human and capable of making mistakes, but the consequences of not learning from them are too terrible to imagine.

Links: Salzburg Festival, ARTE Concert

Thursday 13 August 2020

Strauss - Elektra (Salzburg, 2020)

Richard Strauss - Elektra

Salzburger Festspiele, 2020

Franz Welser-Möst, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Aušrinė Stundytė, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, Asmik Grigorian, Derek Welton, Michael Laurenz, Tilmann Rönnebeck, Matthäus Schmidlechner, Sonja Sarić, Bonita Hyman, Katie Coventry, Deniz Uzun, Sinead Campbell-Wallace, Natalia Tanasii, Valeriia Savinskaia, Verity Wingate

ARTE Concert - 1 August 2020

Back in 2013, Krzysztof Warlikowski set the Munich production of Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten in an asylum. That's not a particularly original way to deal with such a wonderfully colourful and rich fairy-tale, but it remained largely effective through the power of Strauss and Hofmannsthal's extraordinary vision, with its psychoanalytical undercurrents that Warlikowski was careful not to dilute with too many distractions or modernisms. If there's ever a Strauss opera that deserves to be set in a mental institution though it's Elektra, where the mental disintegration of its lead figure as scored by Strauss is even more extreme than that of the preceding Salome (also recently reworked by this director). Warlikowski doesn't explicitly set this 2020 Salzburg production of Elektra in an asylum, but for all the aberrant behaviour on display in the House of Atreus, it might as well be.

As is often the case it's difficult and usually not particularly instructive to deconstruct Warlikowski's intentions or examine too closely how they align with the themes of the work in question, particularly when he goes overboard in cinematic references such as in the recent production of The Tales of Hoffmann. Some of the director's familiar mannerisms are there in the Salzburg Elektra, but mainly evident only in the set design of his partner and regular collaborator Małgorzata Szczęśniak. They take full measure and width of the Felsenreitschule venue in Salzburg to create a huge (socially distanced) space for the work, much wider than the usual claustrophobic set usually reserved for this intense work. If there's a method to this, it can only be to rise to the scale of the orchestration itself, and in terms of that and Franz Welser-Möst's conducting of the Vienna Philharmonic, it certainly gives full expression to the opera's immense forces.

One side of the stage does indeed have the look of a rundown asylum, with a long narrow communal bath and row of showers with rust stained steel walls on Elektra's side of the House. The water from the shallow pool causes flickering reflections that highlight and suggest the constant uncontrolled agitation of Elekra's mind over the murder of her father Agamemnon and her desire for vengeance upon her mother Clytemnestra. The other side of the stage holds a glass panelled interior room of the palace where Clytemnestra and her maids are bathed in blood red lighting, Warlikowski using video cameras to project what goes on inside. In its totality the set effectively creates an environment that simultaneously reflects the internalised emotions barely controlled by external appearances.

Other than that Warlikowski sticks fairly closely to the ample expression that is already there in the music with few of the distractions or diversions that you usually find with this director. There is an autopsy, a few stray figures who wander dazed onto the stage, some dummies of children, but there are no dancer interludes and no short film introduction, although the scene is set with a recital of backgrounding text before the opera starts. With the spirit of Agamemnon made present, it's clear then that the director wants to bring motivation and characterisation to the fore and, aligned with the score, it's impossible not to feel Elektra's pain on a deep and visceral level which, without taking away from the quality of the poetry and the psychological depths explored, is surely where opera is most successful and notable.

Crucially, you can't really achieve that level of dramatic intensity without an Elekra to match it and, well, there was little doubt that on her recent performances of growing power and intensity, Aušrinė Stundytė would be capable of measuring up to it. It's an outstanding performance, the Lithuanian soprano as ever almost completely immersed in character (to be completely immersed would surely be next to madness). But a damaged Elektra can't work in isolation. Warlikowski takes care not to present Clytemnestra as a domineering caricature and sung by Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, we see a more troubled and not unsympathetic figure who has been a victim of circumstances, but still very dangerous. Asmik Grigorian also permits you to have some sympathy for the usually wet Chrysothemis, the force of her delivery undoubtedly contributing to the success of that characterisation.

Make no mistake however, violence, madness and death are the inevitable outcome, deliriously unravelled in Strauss's extraordinary score and put into words in Hugo von Hofmannsthal's very distinctive and poetically rich spin on Sophocles' version of the Greek tragedy. For all the beauty of the language, it distills the essence of the drama down into the big questions and conflicts of life and death, hatred and love, family bonds and debts of honour, irreconcilable extremes that descend into madness and death. Krzysztof Warlikowski effectively visualises that violent climax with large scale projections of splattered blood and masses of flies. Whether you follow it or just feel it, the Salzburg production as a whole certainly succeeds in doing justice to one of the greatest opera works of the 20th century, still capable of leaving you almost breathless and in shock.

Links: Salzburg Festival, ARTE Concert

Wednesday 5 August 2020

Massenet - Cendrillon (Glyndebourne, 2019)

Jules Massenet - Cendrillon

Glyndebourne 2019

John Wilson, Fiona Shaw, Danielle de Niese, Kate Lindsey, Lionel Lhote, Nina Minasyan, Agnes Zwierko, Eduarda Melo, Julie Pasturaud, Romanas Kudriašovas, Anthony Osborne, Michael Wallace, Adam Marsden

Opus Arte - Blu ray

There are many variations of the Cinderella fairy-tale, each of them with their own twist on the meaning or moral of the story. Composed by Massenet based on the version by Charles Perrault, this Cendrillon inevitably has something of a French flavour but the essential qualities of the subject remain the same and, if handled well, can still be adapted to apply to contemporary matters. Fiona Shaw's production for Glyndebourne makes a fine effort towards achieving that. Whether you can say that Massenet's music still has anything new to say to a modern audience is debatable but conducted here by John Wilson it's certainly light and entertaining, in a very French kind of way.

Differences in the family dynamic can often determine the treatment of the subject and Massenet version varies a little from the operatic treatments of Rossini's La Cenerentola and Pauline Viardot's Cendrillon. Here Cinderella or Cendrillon is called Lucette and her father is not a bad or cruel man. Pandolfe is a widower who feels sorry for his daughter and how she is mistreated by his new wife Madame de la Haltière and her stepsisters who delight in spending his money while his own daughter dresses in rags and is treated like a maid. They are particularly extravagant at the moment as they are on their way to the royal court for a special occasion and well, you usually can pick up the rest of the story from that point.

There's a good balance between modernisation and classical fairy-tale glamour in Fiona Shaw's Glyndebourne production that captures some contemporary relevance as well as the work's comic possibilities. Playing on the consumerist angle, it gets across the moral that expensive clothes, beauty products and the fake glamour loved by Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters are no substitute for the true quality of a beautiful soul. The comedy is all there to be found in the exaggerated characters, and the most colourful character here in Massenet's opera is not so much the traditional cruel stepsisters but Madame de la Haltière, superbly played up here by Agnes Zwierko.

Shaw also plays on the idea of Cendrillon as Papillon. The story is indeed about transformation, and like a butterfly the change in Cinderella comes from within. It's inspired by nature, the stars and the skies, the fairy godmother using moths, midges, honeybees and dragonflies, ladybirds and glowworms, tulips and jasmine to work her magic. Lucette/Cendrillon is a flower ready to bloom. Here she is wrapped in a cocoon before being transformed into an eye-catching beauty to attract the Prince. But she also has to remain true to her better nature; there's to be no staying out late or overnight no matter how much she is enjoying her newfound self. It's this inner purity that will win hearts more than simple superficial attraction.

What's good and original about Massenet's version of Cendrillon comes in Act II where the Prince takes centre stage and has much more of a role and personality than simply being the male love interest. He's someone who is unable to love, feels his despair deeply, seeking a fleeting image or ideal. Even then, making Prince Charming three-dimensionally human is still a challenge and Shaw perhaps tries to be a little bit overly clever by staging this characterisation of the Prince as a projection of Cinderella's. She lies sleeping at the front of the stage while her dream shadow drifts into the Prince's bedroom (in her 'rags' once again rather than in beautiful dress) and 'directs' the drama.

This makes the story seem more like a romantic fantasy, which is fair enough, for what else is Cinderella at heart as we traditionally know it but a romantic fantasy? Musically a romantic fantasy is as deep as Massenet takes it anyway, for the scene at the royal court is of a more opéra-comique lightness with choruses and ballets - Massenet unable to resist the opportunity to score large sections of dance music for the ball - but there are no particularly wonderful or memorable melodies. Cendrillon is workman-like Massenet (or slightly better) rather than the inspired and exotic Massenet of Werther, Don Quixote or Thaïs. Beautiful certainly, lovely arrangements and dramatic purpose, but not in any way that hints at anything deeper or more challenging. Not that it should, it's Cinderella, and it's primary purpose is to capture the fairy tale character, and it does that at least as well as Rimsky-Korsakov, which is certainly not faint praise.

Fiona Shaw however has another trick up her sleeve. More than just modernising for the sake of it with mobile phones and late night takeaways after the party at the palace - all of which are amusing and relatable - Shaw's idea is to make this romantic fantasy of Cinderella's a projection of her confused same-sex feelings about the family's maid. That's not just a modernism for the sake of diversity but a genuine way of dealing with the reality of Cinderella's feelings of being a victim of mistreatment, isolation and social exclusion, of not understanding how to deal with who she is and unsure how that fits into the adult world. I think it successfully taps into this deeper side of Cinderella without imposing on the entertainment, the fairy tale element or Massenet's opera. Playing on the role of Prince Charming being sung by a female and also apparently struggling with finding a partner, it even manages to make this a double Cinderella story.

It takes a little bit of smoke and mirrors - quite literally - to make this fit into the narrative and the production design contributes enormously and impressively with hologram-like box mirror projections of Cinderella that are then turned into a digital clock countdown at the approach of midnight. It does a great job of modernising the story while remaining true to the underlying sentiments and retaining the magic of the fairy tale. 

The performances certainly help. Danielle de Niese is understandably Glyndebourne's first choice soprano for the lighter comic and bel canto works and I think she fares better in this lighter repertoire without the challenge of high coloratura, bringing charm to the role of Cendrillon. There's still a little unsteadiness in places, which is highlighted more by the soaring qualities of the ever impressive Kate Lindsay as Prince Charming. Lionel Lhote and Agnes Zwierko are both excellent, as are the stepsisters Eduarda Melo and Julie Pasturaud, even though they have a lesser role here than more traditional or pantomime versions of Cinderella. Nina Minasyan carries off the role of the Fairy Godmother well.

Technically this is another superb High Definition Blu-ray release from Opus Arte. The transfer does justice to the detail and colouration of the production, even in the darker forest scenes of Act III. There's a little bit of a curious digital wobble at the start of Act IV Scene II, but it's an isolated and barely noticeable glitch. The Hi-Res and lossless audio tracks are just glorious, warmly toned and detailed with individual instruments standing out and real impact in the fuller orchestrated sections. It certainly shows where the qualities of Massenet's score are here. There are no extra features but the enclosed booklet contains a synopsis and an interview with Fiona Shaw on her thoughts on the opera and the fairy-tale.

Links: Glyndebourne