Wednesday 25 November 2020

Dvořák - Rusalka (Glyndebourne, 2019)

Antonín Dvořák - Rusalka

Glyndebourne, 2019

Robin Ticciati, Melly Still, Sally Matthews, Evan Leroy Johnson, Alexander Roslavets, Patricia Bardon, Colin Judson, Alix Le Saux, Zoya Tsererina, Vuvu Mpofu, Anna Pennisi, Altona Abramova, Adam Marsden

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Based on a fairy-tale suggestive of some troubling undercurrents, opera productions of Rusalka have consequently seen a wide variety of interpretations and inspired some of the most dark and imaginative stage productions I've ever seen in opera. Unquestionably that approach is very much supported by the fire of Dvořák's music, a glorious melodic concoction that conjures up not just a magical fantasy world or a deeply romantic one of deep emotions, but also hints at a young woman being mistreated and abused. Unlike Martin Kušej (Bavarian State Opera, 2010) or Stefan Herheim (La Monnaie, 2012), there are no bold or radical reinterpretations of the story here in Melly Still's Glyndebourne production, but playing to the sweep of drama, with Robin Ticciati conducting and Sally Matthews singing the title role, the production nonetheless finds a way to unleash the opera's considerable inner forces.

It's so well realised here - musically and visually - that you can see clearly how Dvořák's orchestration of myth and legend corresponds to the Wagnerian method right from the opening Act. With a little more of a reliance on folk and tradition, Dvořák nonetheless uses the same kind of power of music aligned to deep mythological themes in the very Das Rheingold-like opening of Rusalka, the water nymphs here the equivalent of the Rhinemaidens, tryannised by the Alberich-like water goblin Vodnik (Alberich). Rusalka's dream of the redemptive power of love making us human is also as powerful and charged (and as fatal an attraction) as Senta's dream of the Dutchman in Der fliegende Holländer.

Using marvellous theatrical techniques and emphatic drive and musical colouration, director Melly Still and conductor Robin Ticciati hammer home the Wagnerian force of those mythological Romantic sentiments at the key moments. With its lush orchestration and fairy-tale setting, Rusalka begs for just such a magical treatment and Glyndebourne delivers. There's plenty that is impressive in the Das Rheingold inspired gleaming blues and greens of the water world of Rusalka, her mermaid sisters descending with long tails and floating above the stage in an impressive coup de théâtre. And while it has you in its grasp, Rusalka sweeps down on wires to kiss the Prince in a dreamlike scene that almost leaves you breathless.

There's little to fault then in the impact that the Glyndebourne production achieves, where the ideas are kept relatively simple and in service of the musical drama. While you have to give credit to the singers doing acrobatics on wires, there is however not really a great deal of imagination in staging or in illustrating the darker themes of the work. The set retains a pit at the centre, a reminder of the water home that Rusalka can't quite escape, so you could also see that as something of an emotional void that holds the woman in the power of others, manipulated and exploited to some extent. Even the fact that there are dark 'invisible' figures moving Rusalka around in choreographed movements can be seen to highlight this.

The focus however is very much on expressing the deep emotional undercurrents of the work and the central tragedy of the work comes in Act II when Rusalka begins to lose her charm and mystery over the Prince as he becomes distracted by the more obvious attractions of the Foreign Princess in a Brünnhilde/Siegfried way. As if that's not heartbreaking enough, Vodnik rubs it in with his "I told you so". For this to have maximum impact it just needs the musical and singing forces to be in place and Sally Matthews is by no means only one of the cast to impress here, her silence through most of Act II in particular giving the other roles a chance to shine. Evan Leroy Johnson has a lovely heroic tenor quality that invites more sympathy for the Prince than disappointment. Zoya Tsererina is an excellent Foreign Princess who only needs to be glamorous and hit those notes to work, and she does both very well.

If you are focussing on getting to the heart of real human emotions over any kind of concept to illustrate it, Rusalka finding her voice at the end of Act II always has a visceral impact and Sally Matthews makes it count here. Matthews has been an asset to Glyndebourne for a number of years now and impresses here yet again. I can't testify to her Czech but her performance here as Rusalka is lovely, delving into the heart of the character, making her dilemma heartfelt with beautiful singing. Having achieved maximum impact, Act III consolidates what has come before musically and scenically with a reprise of the water nymphs descent, but if the conclusion is truly effective in its tragedy it's down to the touching performances from Sally Matthews and Evan Leroy Johnson that make it feel almost devastating.

It helps of course it the music also pushes the singing to those heights and musically I've never felt the Wagner influence on Dvořák so pronounced as it is here under Robin Ticciati. There's a fullness of the orchestral sound that comes through very well in the Opus Arte Blu-ray's Hi-Res stereo and surround audio tracks. Visually, the High Definition image is also impeccable, capturing the mood of the stage lighting. The usual Glyndebourne behind-the-scenes featurettes has interviews with cast and crew with a look at the descent of the water nymphs scene. An excellent essay in the booklet covers the writer Jaroslav Kvapil's efforts to get Czech composers interested in his libretto with consideration of how other productions have treated the dark subject of the fairy-tale in recent years.

Links: Glyndebourne

Thursday 12 November 2020

Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin (Vienna, 2020)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Wiener Staatsoper, 2020

Tomáš Hanus, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Liubov Orfenova, Helene Schneiderman,
Nicole Car, Anna Goryachova, Larissa Diadkova, Andrè Schuen, Bogdan Volkov, Dimitry Ivashchenko, Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Mykola Erdyk, Johanna Mertinz

Staatsoper Live - 31 October 2020

The perspective that the present gives us on the past should be one of age and wisdom looking back on the foolish acts of youth, but all to often the view from a comfortable distance is just as untrustworthy, leading us to look back fondly and nostalgically on times that were actually painfully difficult to live through and, for better or worse, character forming. Perspective and the passing of time is very much at the heart of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, and that's the focus of Dmitri Tcherniakov's new production for the Vienna State Opera.

Always at his best when directing Russian masterpieces, Dmitri Tcherniakov alerts us to the untrustworthiness of memory and nostalgia right from the outset of this production. There are no peasants and labourers toiling in the fields singing songs that ennoble the nature of working the land. Here in the Vienna production rather we see a large family gathered around a dinner table in a room that is a comforting sea of beige ("a golden dream"), where the guests join in and make fun of Madame Larina's nostalgic reminiscences. The old harvesting songs are also romanticised and sung as a dinner party recital by Tatiana and Olga.

It's a frivolous world, comfortably detached from real world feelings and concerns. Even Lensky's effusive poetry to Olga here seems playful, a fond recognition of the ways of a more innocence age. No doubt the sentiments are genuine, but they are made to look out of place here. Even Madame Larina no longer retains any of the romantic novelistic illusions of her youth. This opening setting proposes diametrically opposed views of the world between the dreamer and the reality, which of course only enforces and emphasises the distance between the impressionable bookish dreamer Tatyana and the aloof, arrogant 'man of the world' Onegin.

Although that delves further into the melancholy of such sentiments expressed in the music than most, it's far from the most original observation to make about Tchaikovsky's masterpiece. The queer interpretation by Krzysztof Warlikowski (Munich 2012), the expansive view of Russian society and culture in Stefan Herheim's production (Amsterdam, 2011), the doubling with dancers in Kasper Holten's production (Royal Opera House, 2013) autumnal moods of light and colour of Robert Carsen (The Met, 2007) all found innovative ways to tap into the many undercurrents that lie within this extraordinary opera. Tcherniakov more recently does seem to rein in indulgences and seem to play a little safer using beige-coloured living-rooms as a way to satirise the middle class, using them as a microcosm of society, but it can still be challenging and appropriate. Here the mood is intensified by the production never leaving the dining room, neither to spend the sleepless night in Tatyana's bedroom, nor even the duel scene.

Evidently then, the more pointed commentary is revealed in other little touches and in the direction of performers, all of them contributing to emphasise the central themes. The utter sincerity of Tatyana's depth of feeling at the conclusion of the letter scene is in heartbreaking contrast to the frivolity of Onegin and all the others around her. It even seems to embody that distinctly paradoxical Russian characteristic of frivolous sincerity and sincere frivolity that lies very much at the heart of the work. Perhaps it's in that character that Tcherniakov dispenses entirely with Monsieur Triquet and instead has Lensky sing the birthday ode to Tatyana (in Russian), the party descending into sheer playful mayhem that is in complete contrast to how Tatyana is feeling. And indeed Lensky.

In this production, it seems that Lensky has an even greater shattering of illusions than Tatyana, or it can certainly seem as such when it is sung and performed with such heartfelt sincerity as it is here by Bogdan Volkov. Lensky's experience proves to be just as critical to the impact and meaning of the work as a whole when it's permitted to be (Warlikowski also for example using the quarrel between him and Onegin as a way of tapping into those deeper sentiments). Here only Tatyana understands how he feels while the others laugh and mock. The duel is no less shocking for taking place in front of all the family and friends in the dining room, reduced to a tussle over a shotgun that accidentally goes off. The impact is every bit as tragic and devastating as it ought to be in the context of this highly charged romantic masterwork.

Considered against Lensky and Tatyana, Onegin is reduced to a mockery in the opera named after him. His return to society in Act III and his self-important tale of his difficult years is met with icy disdain and casual dismissal at the high society function in another elegant dining room, this one a blaze of rich red and formality compared to the easy golden nostalgia of the Larin estate dining room. Onegin finds himself unwelcome, not some tragic romantic figure as he is in Deborah Warner's somewhat misguided 2013 Met production, and certainly not the one he thinks he is. The Russian society here is changed too, now one of ostentatious wealth where outsiders are not made comfortable, detached from their roots and the past.

Tomáš Hanus carried much of Tchaikovsky's romantic melancholy and Russian-ness in his conducting and it was played well; a little bit broad in its sweep I felt, but the music has a lot to cover. Onegin is an inconstant man, difficult to really grasp, particularly when he is played as someone superficial and unsympathetic here. André Schuen never really convinces of any sincerity but that seems to be what Tcherniakov is aiming for here. It's only at the conclusion that he lets go and reveals or becomes aware of his true feelings and expresses everything of the ignominy of a rejected lover. It put one in mind at this time of the level of self-delusion turning to realisation of a populist US President who can't quite believe that he has been rejected by an electorate who used to hang on his every word and tweet. As mentioned earlier, Bogdan Volkov raises Lensky to a new level of importance in this opera with a heartfelt performance that is in complete contrast to Onegin.

The role of Tatyana is a difficult one, needing a singer capable of covering the range of naive youth with a more reflective mature experience. And yet, do we ever really change? Is Tatyana not the same, even after the passing of years? Doesn't she prove to be still capable of making a foolish mistake, still capable of following her heart, following a self-destructive urge and throw caution to the wind. Is she not Russian? No one is immune to such feelings at any age, as Prince Gremlin also testifies in "All men surrender to love's power". Tcherniakov recognises and so does Nicole Car, presenting a consistent vision of the romantic that lies at the heart of anyone who has seen, understood and been moved by the extraordinary beauty and sadness of life through love as its portrayed in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.

Links: Vienna State Opera, Wiener Staatsoper Live

Wednesday 4 November 2020

Braunfels - Die Vögel (Munich, 2020)

Walter Braunfels - Die Vögel (Munich, 2020)

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2020

Ingo Metzmacher, Frank Castorf, Wolfgang Koch, Charles Workman, Michael Nagy, Caroline Wettergreen, Günter Papendell, Bálint Szabó, Emily Pogorelc, Yajie Zhang, Eliza Boom, Theodore Platt, George Vîrban

Staatsoper TV - 31 October 2020

A previous production I saw of Walter Braunfel's Die Vögel for LA Opera in 2009 kept the work fairly neutral in a magical fairy-tale world, but whether you choose to relate the obvious parable in Aristophanes' tale to any contemporary situation or not, it most certainly has something to say about power, social division and inequality. Directed by Frank Castorf (Bayreuth Ring, From the House of the Dead), I think you could pretty much guess beforehand how this was going to be handled in the Bavarian State Opera production. Or broadly guess at least, since while all the more familiar Castorf imagery, symbolism and references are present, it is of course impossible to imagine all the unusual and strange details that the director will throw in.

There is at the very least a case for delving beneath the surface beauty of Braunfels' musical arrangements and trying to get to the root of what the composer might have wanted to say about the underlying themes in the fairy-tale. Braunfels was one of many German and Austrian composers who suffered under the hands of the Nazis because of his Jewish heritage, but his refusal to write an anthem for the Nazi party wouldn't have gone down well either and Braunfels found his music classified as Entartete ("Degenerate"). It's not difficult to see some concerns about the post-first world war divisions in society and where it might lead to in his 1920 opera Die Vögel (The Birds).

In Braunfels' version of the story by Aristophenes, the division is characterised between two men who both have idealistic names, Ratefreund (Loyal Friend) and Hoffegut (Good Hope), who set out to leave behind the world of men, to escape the confines of bourgeois society and culture, and aspire to artistic greatness. They turn to Hoopoe, the Emperor of the birds who was once human, and propose the building of a grand city in the skies, where the birds can reassert their dominion above humans and even the gods. Inevitably the ideal of such a utopia is weakened by the vanity of assuming such power, and Prometheus is there to warn them of where this is all going to lead.

Braunfels started writing Die Vögel before the First World War, and it's not difficult to imagine that the opera might reflect the concerns that the composer could have had about the changes in society during the period of the writing up to its completion in 1919. Castorf's production attempts to reflect those divisions and the human weaknesses that corrupt the idealism of a utopia in harmony with nature. Hoffegut's hope for emotional fulfilment turns into an obsession for the beauty of the nightingale, while Ratefreund's desire for power higher than Zeus leads both to effectively (in this production at least) become Nazis.

It's impossible not to think of Richard Strauss's lushly orchestrated fantasies Die Frau ohne Schatten or Daphne, both musically as well as in the fairy-tale subject matter of Die Vögel. Braunfels composes some ravishing but not particularly challenging music that is at least persuasive of the possibility of a utopia, with bird trills feeding into the score. The second half goes all-out with Hoffegut's wooing of the Nightingale, the long instrumental ballet music for the wedding between Mister Pigeon and Miss Dove, but it's all brought down to earth (literally) with the arrival of Prometheus, and Castorf is determined not to let the fantasy and musical extravagance overshadow the darker message. If anyone can make Die Vögel just that bit edgier it's undoubtedly Frank Castorf.

Inevitably when it comes to this director, it's very much hit and miss. Nothing is going to be presented literally or as a pure allegorical fantasy as in the LA Opera production, and the imagery and the symbolism don't correlate with underlying themes in any obvious way. What works and what doesn't will depend on your perspective, but there's certainly plenty to take in and work with in the set design. For Act I Alexander Denic provides a familiar Castorf 360 degree rotating three-level platform of makeshift rusting scaffolding, steel staircases and plastic sheeting with a wooden hut at the top. The ground floor likewise looks like a refugee camp with shipping containers, wooden fence and chairs.

As you also often find with Castorf there are handheld cameras projecting close-ups and backstage action up onto screens, the set also decorated with little details that reference consumerist society (a Coca-Cola dispenser) as well as more obscure references to the subject of birds in concert posters for The Eagles and one for The Byrds backed by The Flying Burrito Brothers. Running in a similar free-association way, Act II after the interval features a huge billboard of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, with clips from the film showing on an array of satellite dishes as the inevitable horror of this (capitalist?) citadel to man's vanity comes crashing down to earth.

Whether you can make anything clear out of Castorf's production, there's no shortage of ideas and it does look spectacular. The birds' costumes are beautifully extravagant like nightclub showgirls and dancers, with feathers in their hair and plumage on wire harnesses. The arrival of Prometheus amidst the cacophony of life, ideas, references, emotional and political conflict in Castorf's intentionally cluttered stage is extraordinary, capturing the beauty and the ugliness, the mundane and the mysterious, the whole glorious spectacle and the ignominious collapse of it all. Performed in an almost empty theatre, the premiere and final performance of this production before the National Theatre goes into lockdown, certainly lends a strange atmosphere to the piece, where culture is again at the mercy of social upheaval.

The casting and of course the musical performance under Ingo Metzmacher certainly helps contribute to emphasise the contrasts between the lush music and the on-stage furore. I always enjoy Charles Workman's singing and he's very good here as Hoffegut, bringing a suitable little bit of an edge to his usually soft lyrical tenor. It's rather hard for anyone else to be relatable on a human level either - for obvious reasons in this fantasy - but there are songbirds aplenty and excellent performances from Wolfgang Koch as Prometheus, Günter Papendell as Wiedhopf (Hoopoe), Michael Nagy as Ratefreund and Caroline Wettergreen as the Nightingale.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper TV