Wednesday 30 September 2020

Walshe - Ireland: A Dataset (Dublin, 2020)

Jennifer Walshe - Ireland: A Dataset (Dublin, 2020)

National Concert Hall, Dublin - 2020

Jennifer Walshe, Robbie Blake, Bláthnaid Conroy Murphy, Elizabeth Hilliard, Simon MacHale, Nick Roth

NCH Livestream - 26th September 2020

You couldn't really define what Jennifer Walshe does as opera, but you would find it hard to box her into any neat category other than, in the broadest terms, 'contemporary music'. Certainly her work is primarily vocal, spoken word narrative, conversational fragments and vocalised sounds, but so too are the operas of Robert Ashley. As hard as Walshe is to pin down, her latest work Ireland A Dataset, composed as part of Dublin's National Concert Hall series Imagining Ireland, is as close as she comes to opera in the Ashley style, but perhaps more for the manner in which she explores broader subjects in a very distinctive and deeply personal way.

Even without her own direct participation in the performance Ireland: A Dataset is a typically rich and varied piece - or an assembly of thematically connected smaller pieces - from Jennifer Walshe. Written and directed by the composer, the piece was a winner of the Female Commissioning Scheme created by Sounding the Feminists last year, and it turns out to be an ideal piece for the National Concert Hall to stage in its world premiere performance under lockdown conditions without a physical audience present for their live-streamed Imagining Ireland series. It's partly an essay, a narrative with visual imagery, musical accompaniment and projections, with radio-drama routines performed by a vocal ensemble standing at microphones.

Walshe herself categorises Ireland: A Dataset as a 'radiophonic play', which in reality is no more accurate or fitting a label than opera. What it is - and what it can't be anything else but - is very much in the familiar and distinctive character of a Jennifer Walshe piece. Even in a subject on as grand a scale as considering what we think of as Ireland in the 21st century, the subject can't help but be filtered through her own sensibility, her own 'dataset', if you will. And as such, that's something that always presents interesting, insightful, humourous and slightly disconcerting observations.

Walshe of course recognises not only the unique quality that she has to offer, but also the limitations this presents as well. She is such a self-aware performer and experimental composer that she can even play on this element, and in the case of imagining Ireland, she recognises that any attempt to define Ireland is going to be limited to the material you selectively choose to work with. Or to put it in computer or business terms, the results you get are very much determined by the dataset you employ.

You could go back thousands of years to gather a broad historical set of data, but in terms of where a modern image of Ireland starts, Walshe chooses to open Ireland: A Dataset with something that still appears to still have relevance in terms of exemplifying Ireland or Irish culture; Robert Flaherty's 1934 film Man of Aran. Over elemental radiophonic drama like foley sounds of rubbed rock, scratched wood and breathed winds, her narrative points out that the film is not a documentary as it was originally claimed to be, but a docu-fiction, using real people in staged and over-dubbed scenes. It's a strong image to start out with, one that explains the limitations of source material for her dataset, showing that the modern idea of Ireland is partly a fiction, developed for the gratification of tourists but also to satisfy our own self-image of what we want to believe is Ireland.

Walshe's use of modern technology and experiments with musical composition and AI technology throw up some further amusing and intriguing ideas on the idea of datasets. By feeding relevant material into a computer, the AI programme is able to create "new" generic compositions by Enya, The Dubliners, Riverdance (telling selective dataset choices in themselves) and with the assistance of PRISM (the Centre for Practice and Research in Science and Music organisation at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester), even creating a new piece in the sean-nós traditional music style. These pieces are then performed live on stage by the vocal ensemble Tonnta and saxophonist Nick Roth.

Blending musical, narrative and dramatic artforms could certainly bring this under the umbrella of experimental opera, but I doubt anyone, least of all Walshe is concerned about what label you put on it. Ireland: A Dataset is mainly about ideas, taking into account the limitations of recorded history, art and culture as a reductive measure or indication of national identity. Any such outlook will also inevitably be filtered through one's own experience, memories, education, culture and be subject to limitations imposed by the fictionalisation of ideas, corrupted and shaped to fit preconceived notions, none of which are real, but which once expressed nonetheless become 'real'. How much is Ireland a theme park or World Expo construct? At what point do the iconic landscapes of Westeros from Game of Thrones or the Planet Ahch-To from Star Wars become inseparable from their actual filming locations in the north of Ireland. Both exist and are real and fire the imagination in all kinds of ways.

Ireland: A Dataset doesn't have Walshe's singular delivery but the performance of Tonnta in the live-streamed world premiere broadcast by the NCH is superb, very much capturing everything that is humorous, direct and thought-provoking about Walshe's own gently acerbic and satirical style. The mix of humour and satire reminds one of Robert Ashley mostly in the routine/sketch of American tourists hash-tagging their visit to the Hill of Tara on social media. The piece flows wonderfully from section to section, managing to touch on a range of emotions and ideas, building up an impressive if necessarily limited dataset of all things Irish and perceived as Irish.

Opera, music and live performance has been going through challenging times under the COVID-19 lockdown, but there have been a few creative artistic responses to it and few as timely as this work by Jennifer Walshe. Not only is the consideration of what constitutes national identity highly relevant in these challenging times, but her approach is testament to the kind of progressive and adaptable skill set that musicians and artists are going to need - that Ireland as a nation and other countries are going to need - now that we have a whole new dataset to factor in.

Links: NCH DublinThe Journal of Music

Monday 28 September 2020

Henze - Der Prinz Von Homburg (Stuttgart, 2018)

Hans Werner Henze - Der Prinz Von Homburg

Staatsoper Stuttgart, 2018

Cornelius Meister, Stephan Kimmig, Štefan Margita, Helene Schneiderman, Vera-Lotte Böcker, Robin Adams, Moritz Kallenberg, Michael Ebbecke, Friedemann Röhlig, Johannes Kammler, Ming Jie Lei, Pawel Konik, Michael Nagl, Catriona Smith, Anna Werle, Stine Marie Fischer

Naxos/BelAir - Blu ray

The central theme of Heinrich von Kleist's drama Der Prinz von Homburg is very much tied into late 18th and early 19th century Romantic obsessions with the questions of mortality and heroic sacrifice, where the sentiments of love are often conflated with an attraction to death. Such ideas caused an outbreak of lovers' suicides following the publication of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774, and indeed Kleist himself would die in a double suicide pact at the age of 34, even before publication of this last play. Der Prinz von Homburg however has a much more complex exploration of an individual mindset setting itself against the prevailing order, providing Hans Werner Henze with fascinating material for an opera that could explore and criticise the conservative nature of post-war Germany in 1960.

"No dream can bring fame and love", the Great Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia sternly observes early in Ingeborg Bachmann's libretto for Henze's opera, but the Prince of Homburg is one who dares to dream. Or perhaps not so much dares as much as suffers from a condition, somnambulism, where he is unable to easily distinguish dreams from reality. He is prepared however to believe that his dreams are real or can at least indicate a way to change reality and the reality he faces is a troubling one.

Waking from one of his dreams, the Prince discovers that he holds a glove in his hands belonging to Natalie, Princess of Orange. He sees this as a sign of love, an omen, something to strive to make real. His obsession with his dream of Natalie however leads him to be distracted during the discussions of the High Command on tactics for the Battle of Fehrbellin. Still caught up in a semi-dreamlike state, unaware of the orders not to engage with the enemy, he leads his troops into the fray. Despite his heroic actions leading to a tremendous victory however, the Prince is arrested for acting against orders and condemned to death.

As with Kleist's Romantic drama, sentiments of love are conflated with death, the Prince going into battle with only thoughts of Natalie as his prize, seeing victory only through the prism of her love. Even though his actions win the day, the Prince is guilty of following his own heart, acting outside of accepted rules of military command. He neither accepts his death sentence nor his later reprieve however, but chooses to live or die - or exist in some idealistic dream-state between them - according to his own terms. It's the ultimate expression of freedom, an idea that is reworked towards other ends in Henze and Bachmann's libretto, the word 'Freiheit' given extra prominence in this 2018 Stuttgart production directed by Stephan Kimmig.

In his notes included in the DVD booklet, the director identifies where Henze's own personal circumstances fit an identification with the Prince of Homburg. Reportedly conscripted into the military by his Nazi supporting father during the war, finding the experience of following orders, rules and protocols deeply troubling, Henze could relate to the wider implications of Kleist's play. An extraordinary, intriguing and deeply fascinating psychological exploration of an individual mindset that refuses to abide by strict or authoritarian rules of social conformity that bear no relation to their personal situation, it's a work that deserves to be allowed to exist in a context outside of the ideal of war heroism or indeed a Romantic notion of love and death being connected.

Kimmig's production for Stuttgart is consequently non-representational, seeking rather to find a more abstract or symbolic truthful presentation of the underlying psychology, conditions and situations. That means that it makes sense on some level, even if it is not that easy to decode. The set is dressed to look like an abattoir or an old-fashioned gymnasium (or death camp) shower without any water taps. Here the soldiers and even the Elector do ballet barre exercises wearing tracksuit bottoms and white vests. The soldiers smear blood on in readiness for battle and, rather than mount horses on the orders of the Commander who brandishes a samurai sword, they line up at a long white table.

Although the setting is unfamiliar, it's an attempt to highlight the actions and the underlying complex psychology through other means. Nathalie's glove, for example, is a boxing glove, and there seems to be a struggle of sorts between the Prince of Homburg and the Princess of Orange over their love - whether she might be forced into a more favourable alliance arranged for her - and over the battleground of their love being caught in a state between love and death. There's an interesting and effective use of an identical life-size projection of the Prince on the curtain that suggests a shadow self, a dream self.

Seeking above all to make the drama work on a level that serves the purposes of Henze's adaptation, it's a highly suggestive means to create an unsettling or nightmarish vision rather than a reality. Or, it might even be seen as intermediate conflation of the two since this is indeed the level Prince's dream-like detachment works on, the proximity of certain death by execution pushing the mind even further into a heightened state comparable to the raptures of impossible love.

It has to be said that Henze captures the sense of heightened states in the music brilliantly and without any glorification, either of the notion of heroism or indeed Romantic idealism. Mentions of the Fatherland and glory provoke ominous thunderous chords and loud percussion in a musical performance of great lyrical and dramatic intensity that is superbly managed under the conductor, Cornelius Meister. It's dramatically attuned to hold a suspended tension and fear, with occasional wandering off into the disturbed and dreamlike paths of the Prince's "black world of shadows".

Henze's musical interpretation of Heinrich von Kleist's tense, haunting and enigmatic drama is utterly fascinating and gripping. Whether the direction of the drama and its obscure imagery is to one's taste or not, it does succeed nonetheless in fully conveying all the power and suggestion of the work. So too do the hugely impressive and uniformly excellent cast, with outstanding performances notably from Vera-Lotte Böcker as Natalie and Robin Adams as the Prince.

The 2018 Stuttgart production of Der Prinz von Homburg is presented in High Definition on a fine Blu-ray release from Naxos/BelAir. The image is clear and well-defined, the musical performance powerful and dynamic in its lossless PCM stereo soundtrack (there is no additional DTS surround track on this release). The BD is dual-layer BD50 and all region A/B/C compatible. Subtitles are in German, English, Japanese and Korean.There are no extra features, but a synopsis and tracklisting are provided along with a comprehensive exploration of Henze's intentions in the booklet essay by the director Stephan Kimmig.

Links: Staatsoper Stuttgart

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Nikodijević & Abramović - 7 Deaths of Maria Callas (Munich, 2020)

Marko Nikodijević & Marina Abramović - 7 Deaths of Maria Callas

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2020

Marina Abramović, Lynsey Peisinger, Yoel Gamzou, Willem Dafoe, Hera Hyesang Park, Selene Zanetti, Leah Hawkins, Kiandra Howarth, Nadezhda Karyazina, Adela Zaharia, Lauren Fagan

Bayerische Staatsoper TV - 5 September 2020

The idea of building an opera around seven stage deaths enacted by Maria Callas in her most famous roles is such an extraordinary idea for an opera that it's likely to provoke two immediate and almost contradictory reactions. On the one hand you might think why did no one think of that before, even from the point of view of a gala performance of great arias. And then you realise why you can't do that. The emotional impact of all those tragic bel canto deaths all gathered together in one opera? And aligning them with the tragic circumstances of Maria Callas's death as well? It's going to be overload surely, emotionally overwrought and too much to take in all in one go?

Well, we are talking about the Serbian conceptual and performance artist Marina Abramović, who often uses her self and her body as a provocative vehicle for her ideas, so she's not exactly one for low-key and understatement. This is a performance artist who for her piece "The Artist is Present" sat silently at a table every day at New York's Museum of Modern Art for nearly three months. Some might even see her as a narcissist and self-publicist who sees herself as something as a work of art, and in the case of her Maria Callas project for the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, she has no qualms about identifying closely with an artist in the opera world who was no stranger to making headlines.

In her opera piece, the seven operatic deaths of Maria Callas are enacted in movie sequences (directed by Nabil Elderkin) with Abramović and Willem Dafoe as her lover/killer. Abramović herself is present on the stage, lying silent and unmoving as Maria Callas on her death bed while the film sequences are projected on the walls of her hotel room in Paris, the most famous arias of those works accompanying the extravagant visuals of the re-imagined ways that those characters meet their death. The arias are all sung live by different opera singers who take to the stage like ghosts, none of them however really looking or singing like Callas. Which would be a bit much to ask for really. Abramović however ensures that there is no doubt as to who is the main subject (Callas/herself) and that it's more than just an opera gala of Callas's greatest hits.

In the first of the filmed sequences, Violetta (
Hera Hyesang Park) sings 'Addio del passato' from La Traviata while lying dying of consumption in a bed, nursed and mourned by Willem Dafoe in a dreamscape of coloured mists and clouds. The death of Tosca, to the strains of Selene Zanetti singing 'Vissi d'arte' is enacted as Abramović falling from a New York skyscraper in slow motion to land with a crash on a car roof. She is wrapped in pythons as Desdemona (Leah Hawkins) in Otello, dies while removing her protective suit as Madama Butterfly's Cio-Cio-San (Kiandra Howarth) in a nuclear holocaust wasteland. And so on with Carmen (Nadezhda Karyazina), Adela Zaharia's rendition of the mad scene from Lucia Di Lammermoor and the immolation of Norma (Lauren Fagan) singing 'Casta Diva', all with a twist on the original traditional death scene.

So 7 Deaths of Maria Callas is clearly not an opera in the conventional sense, a cross between opera gala and performance art. Some might see opera as already tending in that direction, particularly if you've seen any of Romeo Castellucci's often even more abstract productions. It might not be quite as high concept as Castellucci, but as you might expect from an artist like Abramović, it's a more deeply personal and distinctive vision where the the artist/director puts herself into the art. It's a work that comes from the heart, in response to Callas and her fame as an opera singer, blending the two in a direct and emotional way. They could hardly be otherwise, the projected mini-movies accompanying the sentiments of these great arias powerful in their visual aesthetic and emotional punch.

It's clearly motivated principally by a love and perhaps even an obsession with Maria Callas, with whom Abramović clearly identifies. It blends the tragedy of Callas's life with that of opera, and that's certainly a subject worthy of an opera. It's surprising indeed that it hasn't been done before as far as I know, although Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna comes close and Franco Zeffirelli, a personal friend of Callas as well as her director, turned his fantasy about Callas into a movie Callas Forever. Evidently, focussing on the deaths of opera heroines, putting them all together like this dying in graphic and violent circumstances often at the hands of men, fits into Abramović's feminist perspective and invites you to think about the fate of women, but perhaps no more so and no more powerfully than say a full presentation of Madama Butterfly or La Traviata.

It's nearly all classic opera arias that are used for the first hour of the opera, with only recorded drone ambient noise in the interludes accompanying the Abramović voice-over of introductory texts of Callas reflecting on the different ways to die. It's a pasticcio of sorts with only an overture by fellow Serbian composer Marko Nikodijević that is new. It's only in the final third of the work that we really hear new music composed by Nikodijević as the focus for the remainder of the opera turns to Abramović as Callas in her bed in her room in Paris on the day that she dies. Dramatically there's not a lot here to grasp as Callas wills herself to get out of bed, wonders where all her former friends and colleagues have gone now, smashes a vase and leaves the room, taking her final exit. While the voice-over thoughts are distracting and scarcely illuminating, the music itself is a powerful requiem of sorts for Callas.

Is this a work of performance art that relies on the original creator? Abramović is on stage throughout and the focus in the mini movies as the tragic heroine who dies seven times in her greatest operas. Can 7 Deaths of Maria Callas have an independent life (or seven deaths) after these performances? I don't see why not. Yes, the personality of Abramović dominates but only in so far as it is she who is breathing life into the character of Callas here. Callas is big enough a personality not to be subsumed by that and there's no reason why - like any opera singer stepping into shoes that Callas once filled - that someone else can't bring their own reinterpretation of this opera performance piece. The concept is strong enough, the music is strong enough (old and new) and the work is open enough to interpretation for another artist with sufficient personality (and love for Callas and Abramović) to bring something new and personal to this. Whether anyone will want to is another matter, and whether Abramović becomes as enduring an artist as Callas worthy of being revived remains to be seen.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper TV

Friday 18 September 2020

Fafchamps - Is This The End? (Brussels, 2020)

Jean-Luc Fafchamps - Is This The End? (Brussels, 2020)

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2020

Patrick Davin, Ouri Bronchti, Ingrid Von Wantoch Rekowski, Sarah Defrise, Amaury Massion, Albane Carrère

La Monnaie Streaming - 12 September 2020

2020 has been a tumultuous year, the consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic likely to have a longer term impact on all of our lives and in ways we can't yet imagine. As far as the arts are concerned there has been an immediate and noticeable impact. The opera world has not been immune from Covid-19 related deaths, but everyone involved in opera, from performer to spectator, has at least been affected by the cancellations and the pause in live performances. It's a pause however that may give time to reflect, to create anew with an eye towards where we are now and how we adapt for the future.

That's probably why the few opera productions that have been able to go ahead in the meantime can’t help but reflect on the challenging situation we find ourselves in. All great art, if there is truth in it, reflects life back at us, revealing new aspects as we change and as the world changes around us. Così fan tutte and Elektra at Salzburg reflected new ways of looking at life, death, mental illness and social distancing, opera in the process proving that great art can touch deeply and be a meaningful and necessary part of our lives, helping us put the world into a context that we can better understand and help us get through challenging times.

Whether Jean-Luc Fafchamps' Is This The End? can aspire to the operatic greatness of Mozart or Strauss is very much debatable, but like Marina Abramović's 7 Deaths of Maria Callas in Munich - conceived before the outbreak and delayed by the lockdown - it can be seen as a valid artistic response to a time when there is much concern in the world, and at the same time question the role that art plays in our lives. Opera can be responsive to contemporary events, explicitly or simply through the nature of the subjects it deals with and death is certainly a subject that is prominent in opera. The untimely death of conductor Patrick Davin, who worked on this project only to die suddenly just days before its premiere can’t help but give it additional poignancy and real-world meaning.

The subject of the Is This The End? ‘A pop requiem in three parts’ by Jean-Luc Fafchamps is one that consequently delves into a difficult area but it’s not one that opera has ever shied away from. From the very first opera compositions 400 years ago, Orpheus and Eurydice have been an inspiration and a model to explore the relationship between art and death, and that is recognised in the opera itself which openly references such works, including Die Walküre, but there's an acknowledgement also with a brief scene with a Jim Morrison lookalike singing an excerpt from 'The End' that it’s also a subject that provokes and inspires artists in many musical and non-musical artforms.

Is This The End? consequently embraces the classical form of the Requiem mass (the first part here with an In Paradisum, a Dies Irae and Communio) as well as rock and pop elements in the use of more modern instruments that include electric guitars and even a steel drum. The three characters that the opera follows are sung by opera singers Sarah Defrise (The Teenager) and Albane Carrère (The Woman) but there is also a role for Belgian folk-pop singer Amaury Massion (LYLAC) as The Man. As a necessary response to Covd-19, where fully staged operas with a full audience appear to still be some way off - Ingrid Von Wantoch Rekowski's direction of the project also embraces technology, presenting the work as a 'live filmed opera'.

In some ways then Is This The End? is a reflection on the necessity of opera to adapt and be able to adapt to what is becoming the new norm. In these exceptional times opera needs to reach out and extend traditional performance through the technology of streaming, using filmed elements and virtual reality if it wants to continue to be relevant and not be a dead artform. The technology has been available for a while now, but - like working from home arrangements - circumstances have somewhat forced the hand and demanded an urgent response. On the question of whether the composer manages to touch the questions of life and death in any meaningful human way - even with the tragic circumstances of the death of its conductor - it's less obvious that it succeeds.

Using various backstage areas of the La Monnaie theatre and auditorium as a stand-in for the in-between world between life and death might be meaningful in an opera context, but it doesn't seem quite like the kind of environment that a dead teenager girl - seemingly from a drug overdose -  would end up in limbo. There’s little that is wrong with the hybrid live/filmed approach though, and indeed a similar approach to an operatic 'underworld' was used for the DVD recording of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice at Český Krumlov Castle. Written and developed in record time under lockdown conditions, the project only started at the beginning of May 2020, here in the world premiere of the Is This The End? the music is performed and broadcast live from the stage of La Monnaie, while the dramatic aspect of the work behind the scenes is enacted in the filmed segments.

Some elements grate. Actually quite a lot grates. First of all, although it is standalone to an extent, it's only the first of an opera in three parts that will be completed Ring Cycle-like in subsequent seasons. Most of the one hour long Part One : Dead Little Girl takes the viewpoint of the Teenage Girl, whose reaction throughout is fairly mundane and unrevealing, constantly wondering along the lines of  "What the fuck!", “Where am I and how do I get back?”, which is nonetheless probably an accurate sentiment that a young person in her no-longer-living condition might at first wonder. There's little evidence that Éric Brucher's libretto opens up any philosophical or contemplative view of mortality, but the teenager's confusion is broken up by the voices of The Man and The Woman who will presumably have their own story to play in subsequent parts. There is some further enrichment of the colour and tone of the work in interludes from an angel voice, a choir, as well as strange camp advertisements for death whose purpose is baffling and not particularly original or funny.

I know it sounds like justification more than genuine evaluation of the musical qualities, but like Georg Friedrich Haas and his use of in-between microtones in a similar hinterland at the moment of death in Morgen und Abend, there is something to be said for the musical technique and its approach fitting the subject. At first there's a resistance to the jumble and patchwork of elements, sound effects, dissonance, rock guitar, the blend of opera singers and pop singer as well as the sweary libretto. Conducted by
Ouri Broncht it can be difficult to find your musical feet, but that a sense of confusion and discomfort may indeed be the effect that the opera is striving to achieve. Gradually you may find that you do grow accustomed to the distinct sound world which does have a consistency and mood of the sonic environment it establishes.

Links: La Monnaie