Sunday 19 December 2021

Aucoin - Eurydice (New York, 2021)

Matthew Aucoin - Eurydice

The Metropolitan Opera, New York - 2021

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Mary Zimmerman, Erin Morley, Joshua Hopkins, Jakub Józef Orliński, Barry Banks, Nathan Berg, Stacey Tappan, Ronnita Miller, Chad Shelton, Lianne Coble-Dispensa

The Met: Live in HD - 4th December 2021

The Met have got off to a good start this year as far as the Live in HD series goes. The rest of the season doesn't seem quite as ambitious but the choice of casts, new productions and interesting directors mean that there is something of interest in most of the remainder of the season. They have chosen well and made some brave choices in the support of new music, seeking to keep opera alive and forging new ground, as seen in the last livestream of Terence Blanchard's brilliant Fire Shut Up In my Bones. I was keen then to see what Matthew Aucoin could deliver, despite having no previous familiarity with his music and despite expecting it to be a little more conventional. That turns out to be true to some extent, but musically and dramatically Eurydice does nonetheless manage to expand on one of the classic works of ancient mythology most closely associated with opera.

The title suggests a feminist reworking of the Orpheus myth, but rather than taking a revisionist spin, Eurydice is actually more of an extension of the myth; a look at it from a different personal, human and modern perspective. Not unlike the extension of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in Errollyn Wallen's Dido's Ghost, it manages to deepen an understanding of the issues the work touches upon, making it more relevant to contemporary concerns without undermining the essence of what makes it universal, timeless and meaningful. There are many questions that the traditional myth provokes and directions to explore - some more relevant than others perhaps, and not all of them need explained  - but certainly it helps to consider how Eurydice might have felt about it all.

There's not a great deal gained however by the rather banal happy opening scene of Orpheus and Eurydice on a beach. It's an engagement scene, Orpheus however slightly distracted and detached from it all by his art. It's probably necessary for setting context and to provide a little more light and shade (unlike the benchmark Gluck version that launches straight into a scene of grief and mourning). But more than just giving Eurydice a life as opposed to being dead throughout, this version also takes time to round out the character and nature of Orpheus as a man of considerable sensitivity, even if his way of expressing his love for Eurydice is a little awkward, reliant upon, distracted by and pretty much secondary to his devotion - an apparently much greater devotion - to music.

That isn't perhaps the whole story and Aucoin finds an interesting way of exploring this for a little more nuance, using a double for Orpheus. The use of doubles is not uncommon in opera productions where there are characters of great complexity with different facets to their personality, conflicts of personal life and duty, facets that are often revealed only in the music. In a stage production that's usually done using a silent mirror actor or a dancer, but here in Eurydice, Orpheus is written as two singing voices. One of the most complex characters of semi-divine nature, Orpheus surely merits such an approach, his duality represented here by a shadow countertenor Orpheus with wings. Described only as a double in the cast list, he could be seen to be Orpheus's ever-present muse, or just simply a personification of his musicality.

This role is however so well-written and performed that it opens up a whole range of other interpretations and possibilities. For me, it seemed that rather than appear detached and distracted by his thoughts constantly turning towards music, that music is rather an expression of his love and that the two really are inseparable. Indeed the warning is frequently made - by the three stones in the Underworld and by Hades himself - that Singing is not welcome in Hell. There can be no better expression of the capacity of music and opera to express the deepest workings and sentiments of the human heart, elevating them into something greater, so it is no surprise that Love - in its personification or expression of Orpheus's music - is banned in Hell. That is brilliantly realised here.

But the opera is called Eurydice and indeed Eurydice is still the principal figure in this opera. The rather banal happy scene on the beach out of the way, Sarah Ruhl's libretto - adapted from her own original play - delves a little deeper into the psychology of Eurydice. That doesn't necessarily need to be represented in any dull naturalistic manner either and there are various imaginative representations evoked in the situation developed by Ruhl. Hades himself tries to lure Eurydice to the Underworld on her wedding day, but although she suspects his motives, the delivery of a from her dead father in the Underworld has turned her thoughts to him. The idea of speaking to him and seeing him once again weakens her resolve and leaves her vulnerable.

As an opera about love, about grief, bereavement and about the unseemly and dangerous transgression of indulging in grief to the neglect of the living, Eurydice hits all the key points, but it deepens and extends those ideas, making them a little more upfront and present to an audience. It does this as I've suggested, in an imaginative way while still holding close to the outline of the original myth, and in a way that touches on a greater range of emotions. With certain surreal elements like three speaking stones and a room made of string (we are dealing after all with experiences outside of normal human experience), and with humour in places, it shares a similar sensibility in its use of imagery and symbolism with Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Musically the shadow of Richard Strauss isn't far away either, particularly evident in the beautiful aria at the close of Act II, 'This is what it means to love an artist'. On a first listen, and not being at all familiar with this relatively young composer, Aucoin's music seems to occupy a space somewhere between Richard Strauss and Philip Glass. There was however a much greater variety of musical styles and references in the use of melodies, themes and rhythms. It doesn't draw attention to itself but with little showiness or reliance on sweeping romanticism it still manages to find an appropriate way to give expression to those deep sentiments, indeed without unseemly indulgence.

You could say the same about the singing. Erin Morley is exceptionally good as Eurydice. Aucoin has developed strong, beautifully lyrical writing for the voice, making it a demanding role for the range and stamina required to be present on stage almost throughout. I loved Barry Banks's performance and singing as Hades, which is likewise challenging, even higher than his usual light tenor range. We had beautifully complementary Orpheuses in Joshua Hopkins and Jakub Józef Orliński as the double/music and a grave sympathetic father in Nathan Berg. Really there was much to enjoy in very performance, including Big Stone, Little Stone and Loud Stone. Yannick Nézet-Séguin clearly relished working with a new and interesting score and it came across exceptionally well in the livestream cinema broadcast. 

First staged by LA Opera in 2020, Mary Zimmerman's production transfers over for the Met's fine decision to bring this worthy work to a wider audience. The sets presented an imaginative response to the situations devised by Ruhl, keeping the Underworld dark, enclosed and detached from everyday reality in a simple and effective way, enhancing it where necessary a little box insert or elevator raised from below the stage for side scenes and as a creative way to evoke the river of forgetfulness Lethe, critical to the tragic conclusion. With superb costume design, the musical, singing, dramatic and visual aspects of the production ensured that this was a thoroughly engaging and thoughtful account of a fine new opera work.

Links: Metropolitan OperaThe Met: Live in HD 2021-22 season

Saturday 11 December 2021

Maxwell Davies - The Lighthouse (Dublin, 2021)

Peter Maxwell Davies - The Lighthouse

Irish National Opera, Dublin - 2021

Elaine Kelly, Edwina Casey, Gavan Ring, Ben McAteer, John Molloy

O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin - 3rd December 2021

Following the cultural wipeout of 2020-21 seasons everywhere, there were clearly still going to be challenges in 2021-22 for the Irish National Opera. As we now approach the end of 2021, the near future still remains unknown and precarious. The INO however seem to have built contingency into their season but - much as they did with their filmed 20 Shots of Opera last year - there was no playing safe in the choice of Peter Maxwell Davies chamber opera The Lighthouse; a challenging work at the best of times.

An ambitious aim also to take it out on tour, but just in case, the production was designed to work as a filmed piece that could also be taken out, somewhat appropriately, to the remotest of locations in Ireland where opera never reaches, subsequently followed by a tour of live performances. Having no remit to take their productions to Northern Ireland (if only), it was still worth the journey to Dublin on the day that an announcement was made of further restrictions to be put into place as concern grows about the potential spread.of the Omicron variant of Covid.

Such is the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on society and the arts that it is inevitable that it is going to affect how we view a performance of any opera now (and probably for years to come). Not that Maxwell Davies's opera needed any assistance to consider the fragility of the human psyche and the detrimental affects that of being locked in isolation while danger lurks outside, but there's no doubt that there was a heightened awareness of the reality. The efforts to put a little space between us and our seated mask-wearing neighbours perhaps brought an added frisson to the work's eerie account of three lighthouse workers living in close proximity who mysteriously disappear or succumb to the horrors of imposed isolation.

Based on a true story, there is however little of anything factual really to go on in consideration of what might have happened to the three lighthouse men. The less you have to work with however the more you have to imagine, and when it comes to the workings of the human mind, anything is possible. Whether you seek to find a rational explanation or probe for something supernatural, there are a whole lot of other factors that you can imagine lie between three men living in close proximity to each other in strained circumstances. The way that Peter Maxwell Davies chooses to explore these tensions in a lyrical setting is certainly imaginative and creative.

The composer takes the first part of the opera to set the scene, placing it in a courtroom, establishing that there is nothing about what the relief wardens encounter when they arrive on the island can definitively be established as fact. The little details and differences in their testimonies might or might not be significant, and that can only contribute to the mystery. Adding to the ambiguity of the work, the same three performers singing the roles of the relief team become the three missing men as the remainder of the opera explores the tensions of three men of very different character living in close quarters with each other.

Sandy, Blazes and Arthur are indeed very different in nature and temperament. Blazes and Arthur are argumentative, one we discover has experienced a violent family life and background, the other a religious fundamentalist. Sandy sets out to describe a more romanticised view of his own background, as each of the men sing a song to describe their lives, but Sandy's song is corrupted by the other men joining in with a cut and mix of the three verses of the song. It's very clever in its wordplay, but in it's musical construction, each man having their own set of instruments associated with them, it's also representative of the way that they conflict in their interaction.

In his pre-performance talk before the Dublin performances, the INO's musical director Fergus Sheil seemed to be just relating a lot of the plot, but there is a good reason for that. The music and the instrumentation employed are deeply intertwined with what takes place in the opera - even more so in a chamber opera than in most traditional opera, or at least in a different way. Maxwell Davies's music here is hugely expressive of character and nuance, as well as atmosphere, creating musical as well as character tensions.

The stage (and film version) director Edwina Casey also sought to highlight the tensions of the situation in the simple but claustrophobic set with occasional flows of eerie dry ice effects to contribute to the sense of isolation and creeping tensions. Sinéad Wallace's lighting also contributed hugely to the mood. The singing of the three roles by Gavan Ring, Ben McAteer and John Molloy was superb. All of these roles have very challenging ranges for a tenor, baritone and bass, and although relatively short, with only three singers singing the whole 70 minutes of the opera, it can be intense and demanding.

Most effective of all was the music and playing of the Irish National Opera Orchestra on a diverse array of chamber orchestra instruments. The playing was outstanding under the conducting of Elaine Kelly, all the more evident when you seeing and hearing the individual players tackling the idiosyncrasies of the score in close quarters. The sound they managed to bring to individual, duo playing and as an ensemble was stunning, creating a cacophony of terror and madness in the confines of the O'Reilly theatre.

Whether it's a ghost story or a character study or a human study, The Lighthouse does have many layers that can be drawn out and explored, suggesting that if there is a mystery there, it's the mystery of the nature of humans and their relationship to their environment and other people. The spoken and musical refrain that "it is all automatic now" perhaps suggests that while it might eliminate some human stresses, technology might bring its own problems with human alienation. There's a balance to be struck there, but as current circumstances show, it's not always something that is within our control.

Links: Irish National Opera

Monday 29 November 2021

Wagner - Die Walküre (London, 2021)

Richard Wagner - The Valkyrie (London, 2021)

English National Opera, 2021

Martyn Brabbins, Richard Jones, Matthew Rose, Rachel Nicholls, Nicky Spence, Emma Bell, Brindley Sherratt, Susan Bickley, Nadine Benjamin, Mari Wyn Williams, Kamilla Dunstan, Fleur Barron, Jennifer Davis, Idunnu Münch, Claire Barnett-Jones, Katie Stevenson

The Coliseum, London - 19th November 2021

The announcement of a new Ring Cycle at the Coliseum was welcome news for many opera goers and followers of the English National Opera. It was a sign that new Artistic Director Annilese Miskimmon had some creative ideas to revive the fortunes of a company that has recently been going through some difficult times. The news was also greeted however with a certain amount of caution and indeed even trepidation by those who had been to see director Richard Jones's previous Ring for Covent Garden, or indeed any of his productions. There was little here to suggest that Jones would be a natural fit for Wagner.

Still, that doesn't have to be an essential quality and sometimes it's useful to get another perspective where the Der Ring des Nibelungen is concerned. While it's perhaps a little too early to look for any distinctive ideas or themes emerging, some of those concerns do appear to be well-founded in this opening opera of the tetralogy; not least the fact that it's opening with Die Walküre - and following the ENO's dated ideals about English language performances it's of course The Valkerie - commercial imperatives perhaps necessarily superceding artistic considerations.

Those are the least of this production's concerns, although commercial considerations may have also been a factor in the set designs looking a little sparse and the ideas at this stage looking a little thin. One would think that being a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York might have provided a few more resources, but considering the expense poured into the Met's last Ring Cycle - and continuing pandemic related problems -  caution may also have been the watchword there. Whether the concept is fully developed or not, and whether it is expanded on at all before it gets to the Met (it is surely too small scale for the Met), Jones's The Valkyrie looks like a work in progress.

There is always going to be something of a feeling of lack of completeness in any production of Die Walküre, and this Ring cycle hasn't even given us a Das Rheingold (or The Rhinegold) yet, but the problems here go deeper than that. Many of the great set pieces of this opera fell flat, with Act III suffering most in this respect. The horses ridden by the green raincoat wearing Valkyrie looked like the front half of a pantomime horse, the scene only saved by the combined singing strengths of the Valkyrie. Brünnhilde's fate to go out in a blaze of disgrace at the finale was scuppered by the Westminster council's refusal to allow naked flames to be lit on the stage of the Coliseum, but even with it I'm not sure that Jones would have pulled off the kind of spectacle needed.

For Richard Jones however it seems the limitations imposed, or self-imposed, is a chance to focus on the nuts and bolts of the drama, on the characters and the relationships between them. The idea of the cast wearing jeans and T-shirt type casuals is otherwise baffling other than it simply being an attempt not to distract or distance through traditional costumes of heroic mythology. With Wagner's music played for all its dramatic and emotional potential and some fine singing, the attention to character more than concept can pay dividends, and to an extent Jones succeeded in bringing in some tweaks to characterisation, but not on any level that would be considered insightful or revelatory.

The sets can best be described as functional and minimal, aligned to mood. A twisted ash breaking through the roof of Hunding's abode - a surprisingly small cabin rather than any kind of manor - was all that sat on the largely empty stage in Act I, with some shadowy figures hovering around to rotate the set now and again. The second scene of Act II consisted of a row of distorted trees and a few troughs of soil for the performers to run through. Each Act however concluded on a mostly bare stage with the concluding drama of the scene enacted in a circle of light. The dead heroes of the start of Act III were borne up to Valhalla on wires, to allow the Valkyrie their moment and clear the stage for the final non-conflagration.

It all played out fairly conventionally then with just little twists of emphasis on characterisation. Not even twists, just minor tweaks or injections of character and personality. Hunding was shown clearly to be an abusive brute to his wife, which enhanced the dangerous and distasteful side of his character and made his comeuppance feel truly merited. We also got excellent singing and performance to go along with this from Brindley Sherratt. Nicky Spence was labouring under a cold but showed little sign of it in another strong and consistent performance as Siegmund. His refusal to be transported to Valhalla without Sieglinde was heartfelt and absolutely heartbreaking. Emma Bell's also sang wonderfully, even if Jones failed to really get across the bond between her Sieglinde and Spence's Siegmund.

A Ring Cycle wouldn't be a Ring Cycle without some serious mishaps and problems and this one looks like having more than its fair share. Susan Bickley, cast as Fricke, was unable to sing at all, and had to walk through her role while it was sung from the wings by Claire Barnett-Jones, who took this on in addition to her role as the Valkyrie Rossweisse. This worked just fine. Matthew Rose was a capable and very demonstrative Wotan, striding onto the stage in Act II punching the air at the success of his plans in Act I, only to see them dashed soon after. This kind of dynamic set Wotan out as somewhat petulant, but a petulant god is still a fearsome thing, even one dressed as a lumberjack with his log cabin Valhalla.

It will be interesting to see why Giants are needed in the construction of a log cabin when it comes to producing
Das Rheingold, but there were at least some promising hints of what could be done in the highly effective use of some eerily lifelike projections of Alberich during Wotan's recounting of the fateful incidents that set this downfall of the Gods into motion. It's an indication that much more could surely have been done to make this production more menacing and visually interesting.

Sung in English, the translation tried to strike a balance between colloquial and rendering of Wagner's old German poetics, so the delivery was inevitably a little awkward in places, although sung passages were such more successful at sounding closer to the familiar German. The perceived and forced limitations of the production and stage design aside - functional but with little in the way of this director's usual flair - this was however an otherwise enjoyable production of Die Walküre at least as far as musical and singing performances go. Martyn Brabbins's conducting drove the drama along purposefully with impact and emotional charge where required. Far from feeling like a complete opera in itself, the ENO's The Valkyrie at least offers hope that there is room for improvement and development by the time we get to performances of a full cycle.

Links: English National Opera

Tuesday 9 November 2021

Beethoven - Fidelio (Dublin, 2021)

Ludwig van Beethoven - Fidelio

Irish National Opera, 2021

Fergus Sheil, Annabelle Comyn, Sinéad Campbell Wallace, Robert Murray, Daniel Sumegi, Brian Mulligan, Kelli-Ann Masterson, Dean Power, David Howes, Jacek Wislocki, Matthew Mannion

The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin - 7th November 2021

Fidelio is very much an opera shaped by the time in which it was written and the difficulties the composer had in bringing it to the stage. The composition of Beethoven's only opera was a notoriously long and difficult process, going through several different versions and an ignominious debut in 1805 that was considered a failure. Little of those initial problems are evident now in whichever version is produced, whether as Fidelio or its earlier incarnation as Leonore. Its reputation as an opera relies on it being Beethoven's only opera to some extent, which is no small matter of course, but there are indisputably greater qualities evident in the work's themes. Those themes are related to the period when Vienna was occupied by French forces, but they can still have powerful resonance and meaning today if you can get over some of the work's problems. I don't think the Irish National Opera were entirely able to do that in their current production.

Fidelio is purest Beethoven, a composition that rates with the very best of his work, but the operatic conventions do age the work somewhat, and as opera was clearly not somewhere the composer was entirely comfortable, it doesn't really strike out any new or original ground. The libretto, one of the main problems with the composition that needing continuous rework and revision over its development, has some opera-comique elements and dry recitative that don't sit well alongside the rather more serious main subject, which is that of a story inspired by French Revolutionary ideals of a prisoner being held captive in secret and treated horrifically in captivity without trial.

There are ways to bring these two stories together. Evidently they are connected in the fact that the main character Fidelio - who is the object of the prison warder's daughter Marzelline's attentions, and consequently the love rival of Jaquino - is actually a woman, Leonore, the wife of the prisoner Florestan. She is seeking to find and rescue her husband from the prison, despite his existence and presence there not being recognised, as he is being kept there is secret as an act of personal revenge by Don Pizarro. With word of the prison governor due to visit, Pizarro wants to cover up his crimes by executing the prisoner being kept in the deepest darkest dungeon, the man already practically dead from starvation.

The element that notionally holds the two parts together in its original incarnation is the theme of married love; of a wife who will go to desperate lengths to save her husband from an unjust fate for the love that lies between them. There are of course many other aspects, both political and humanistic - and even proto-feminist - that can be drawn from this situation, from the tyranny of Pizarro's injustice and the determination of Florestan to suffer the consequences of his belief in truth and freedom, but the rather domestic and conventional rescue opera situations involving a woman disguised as a man leads to some forced comedy in the opening act that really does little for the work. If this were Mozart, those themes can feed though to a more rounded character development and expression of sentiments that deepens the themes. Here in Fidelio, it just seems conventional and perfunctory. 

Or at least in as far as you can ever find anything in Beethoven conventional or perfunctory. There is much to admire even in the opening scenes of the opera, which has some beautiful arias in there amidst the rather stiff recitative and the formality of the musical arrangements and romantic complications. If there is any real purpose to the opera revealed in these scenes aside from the consideration of what is important in a marriage and what is not (and a same-sex marriage would be one thing that would never have been considered in the original), it's in the way that the opera begins to really define what is and what is not important, establishing areas of light and shade, lightness and darkness, captivity and freedom, and viewing them as two sides of the same coin. Even behind the ordinary everyday matters there can be an underlying darkness. Fidelio's great achievement is in showing how even with that, hope can still exist and not be extinguished.

There are clear references to that in several scenes of the first act, not least in the brief release of the prisoner from their dark cells to spend a moment in the sunlight and fresh air. The prisoners chorus is simply a glorious moment, the gross inhumanity of what they have endured overshadowed/enlightened by a small act of kindness that means so much. It's a beautifully expressed sentiment and it is hope that holds it together; the belief and indeed even holding onto the memory that there is something better out there, something that it is not beyond reach.

Directing the Irish National Opera production Annabelle Comyn rightly focusses on light/dark and hope as being the humanistic heart of the work and its importance is no more clearly brought out than at the start of Act II. There is a noticeable shift in Beethoven's music, the heaviness that has been gradually alluded to now becoming inescapable as we are taken to the dark depths of the cell where Florestan is being detained, bound in chains, starving to death, about to be executed. All hope is almost snuffed out and yet we see the almost dead Florestan crawl towards a thin sliver of light that somehow manages to penetrate the utter darkness of this dank hole. It's chilling and a heart soaring moment at the same time.

The greatest expression of this human ability to endure and strive to hold onto hope and the fight for truth and justice is of course in the singing. In Florestan's voice we sense that purpose and determination, much as we have already seen it to a similar extent in the bravery of his wife Leonore's actions. It's interesting that the same qualities were evident in the performance of Satyagraha that I saw in London last week, about how it becomes possible not to submit to despair when you know you have truth and right on your side. Comparing Glass with Beethoven might raise eyebrows, but the same principle applies; the meaning and its ability to reach out to an audience is expressed through the music and through the human voice much more so than the dramatic presentation.

Fortunately, Beethoven's music - long laboured over to achieve just such an effect - and the performance of it under Fergus Sheil manage to get this across superbly at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin on the opening night of this production. So too did the singing, with notably fine performances from Robert Murray as Florestan and Sinéad Campbell Wallace as Leonore. Kelli-Ann Masterson also stood out as Marzelline, but all the singing performances were excellent, finding the truth to their characters situation even if the libretto, the English translation of the recitative and the delivery of it left something to be desired.

This is something that the director never managed to get to grips with. The fact that the opera was sung in German and the recitative spoken in English wasn't really a problem, that was an easy enough switch to make. The way it was delivered however was completely lacking in any naturalistic intonation and it just contributed to the early scenes feeling inauthentic and lacking any real drama or emotion. The set designs didn't particularly help. They were basic and functional in the presentation of a relatively modern prison or containment facility - a computer screen, the prisoners wearing orange jumpsuits - but there could have been much more done to make this relatable and relevant to contemporary struggles for truth, freedom and justice.

Putting aside what it wasn't or what it maybe should have been, the little touches and emphases of light and dark were enough to win over an appreciative Dublin audience to the brilliance of Fidelio as an opera and highlight the important expression of humanistic qualities within it. If the production was lacking and didn't manage to address the dialogue/acting weaknesses that remain hazardous in this particular opera, the musical performances and the singing were nonetheless of the usual high standard we have come to expect from the Irish National Opera.

Links: Irish National Opera

Friday 5 November 2021

Glass - Satyagraha (London, 2021)

Philip Glass - Satyagraha

English National Opera, 2021

Carolyn Kuan, Phelim McDermott, Sean Panikkar, Musa Ngqungwana, William Thomas, Sarah Pring, Verity Wingate, Felicity Buckland, Gabriella Cassidy, James Cleverton, Ross Ramgobin

The London Coliseum - 28th October 2021

There aren't many contemporary operas by living composers that consistently draw audiences, but Philip Glass's Satyagraha is back this year for a third run (unless I've missed any) at the English National Opera, so I guess it must be popular. That's something I can testify to since it's also the third time I've been to see this production at the Coliseum in a well-attended close to sold-out theatre (in 2006/07 and 2009/10 seasons), not to mention even taking the opportunity to see the same production by Phelim McDermott when it was livestreamed from the Met in 2011 where I imagine it will also be regularly revived. 

Indeed it may be McDermott's production that makes this an attractive prospect. There's no question that the colourful and creative set pieces work well with the music, but in an opera that is without a conventional narrative, that is written in Sanskrit and is fairly abstract in its treatment and subject, it is not so easy to say why it works so successfully. It is surely more than just spectacle, although that is evidently part of it, and the manner in which the Improbable team scale up simple ideas made out of paper, cardboard and sellotape to great theatrical effect is definitely impressive.

In some ways the simple grandeur of Satyagraha (as opposed to the busy grandeur for example of McDermott's almost equally excellent work for Akhnaten) aligns perfectly with the purpose of the opera. Ostensibly it's an opera about Gandhi, one of the famous three early Glass portrait operas, but the real purpose of the opera is of course to express an idea, Gandhi's idea of Satyagraha; achieving justice, change and peace through the truth force of nonviolent protest. It's this idea and the expression of it through the opera, through the music of Philip Glass at the peak of his creativity and originality (other opinions on Glass may vary) that are undoubtedly brought out or supported in the stage direction.

It's interesting in the meantime, since my last viewing of this opera production, to have seen McDermott's Tao of Glass at the Theatre Royal in Manchester in 2019. A semi-autobiographical piece, in it the director himself explored his relationship with the music of Philip Glass - in a very "Improbable" way of course - and by staging it as something magical it proved to be much more effective and enlightening than any interview with the director. The music of Philip Glass, despite what some critics might think, can touch deeply and in its hypnotic way perhaps even achieve an almost spiritual awakening. Or that was true at least of McDermott's experience.

The music of Glass for Satyagraha strives to achieve that impact as well, and it is capable of putting forward its theme with no need of any directorial assistance. Without even narrative reference to it in Constance de Jong's libretto - which just takes texts directly from the Bhagavad-Gita, Gandhi's inspiration for Satyagraha - the opera nonetheless chronologically follows the development of this theme and the autobiographical progress of Gandhi's path of non-violent protest in South Africa and India in its outline stage directions. It's also laid out in the actual titles of the three sections of the three acts of the opera also refer to the idea of Satyagraha throughout history, from Tolstoy and Tagore through to Martin Luther King.

Act 1 scene 1 (The Kuru Field of Justice) starts as it means to go on, already putting everything into place. It opens with the solo unaccompanied voice of Mohandas Gandhi, turns into a duet with Prince Arjuna and then a trio with Lord Krishna, and soon involves a whole chorus as the warring families prepare to do battle. From a single lone voice, the message spreads into a whole movement that has purity and strength of purpose to find a better course of action than violence. The music increases accordingly from a simple cello pattern to full orchestration (the limits of the original production leaving no room for brass section with a Glassian keyboard used to fill out the sound). Similar patterns are used for each scene in the other acts, the rhythmic pulse always present, the changes a little more dramatically inclined and more sudden in this opera than the typical repetitive music-with-changing-parts early-period Glass.

Phelim McDermott finds a simple and abstract way to illustrate each scene, while keeping the characters in traditional period costume and Gandhi in his familiar robes. Each scene of Julian Crouch's set is almost like a tableau vivante, with limited movement yet enough to give a sense of the setting for the staging of protests. Like the music, the director takes the time to slowly let the scene build, uses newspapers (the importance of the Indian Opinion newspaper as a channel to Gandhi's spreading of his message with no outside influence over the content), sellotape and corrugated cardboard cutouts. These can expand out match the huge scale and ambition of the work, the subject and the musical progression, with giant puppet figures battling each other, people floating up into the heavens and Tolstoy, Tagore and King present in little mini tableaux high up at the back of the stage.

There is plenty to enjoy in McDermott's staging that makes this worth repeated viewing, and seeing a Glass opera live in a theatre is always a worthwhile experience. It's enough clearly to keep drawing audiences back to see revivals of this work (and I expect back to Akhnaten again in the future). Perhaps more than anything however what is attractive about Satyagraha is the appeal of the subject and the unconventional abstract approach it takes towards getting its message across.

Much has happened in the world since the opera was written in 1980 and indeed much has happened even since the first performances of this production in 2007, but all of it seems to chime with or validate the idea of a 'truth force' or a force for truth against the tyranny of injustice. From the protests in Hong Kong to Black Lives Matter and Climate Change Extinction Rebellion protests, whatever your contemporary reference, Satyagraha has a very persuasive message that change can be achieved through peaceful protest, through "people power". The opera invites you to share in that idea and as an audience feel a part of something noble and perhaps even achievable.

That was very successfully put across on the final night of the current run of Satyagraha at the Coliseum. Carolyn Kuan's handling of the orchestra was excellent, meeting the uniquely challenging and unconventional demands of this work. One other thing that has changed in the meantime since I last saw the opera is that despite ingrained prejudice and fear of a "woke agenda", it is probably no longer sustainable for Caucasian actors to take on roles like Mohandas Gandhi, particularly when a singer of closer and more authentic ethnicity like Sean Panikkar shows what can be done when given the opportunity. He sings the role superbly with a clear, bright lyrical tenor. Aside from Gandhi, while there are defined roles, individual performances are less critical than the role they play in the ensemble, and the power of the work was fully felt through each of the singers and the chorus.

Links: English National Opera

Monday 1 November 2021

Blanchard - Fire Shut Up in My Bones (New York, 2021)

Terence Blanchard - Fire Shut Up in My Bones

The Metropolitan Opera, New York - 2021

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, James Robinson, Camille A. Brown, Will Liverman, Angel Blue, Latonia Moore, Walter Russell III, Ryan Speedo Green, Cheikh M’Baye, Oleode Oshotse, Ejiro Ogodo, Judah Taylor, Norman Garrett, Terrence Chin-Loy, Briana Hunter, Chauncey Packer, Denisha Ballew, Marguerite Mariah Jones

The Met: Live in HD - 23rd October 2021

There are many obvious reasons why Fire Shut Up in My Bones is an important opera. Not only is it the first opera written by a black composer ever to be played at the Met, it was also chosen to be the flagship opera opening the new 2021/22 season. That alone is something to celebrate, never mind the little pleasure that can be taken in the discomfort it will bring to a segment of a certain classical music site's commentariat who live in abject fear of woke-ism encroaching into their sad little world. As important as this is as a historical and a necessary development in the world of opera - it's utterly incredible that black culture has not been represented at the New York opera house until now - the only thing that really matters is whether Fire Shut Up in My Bones is a good opera or not. We can clear up that question right away; it certainly is.

Actually, it's not enough to say it's either an important opera or a good opera; it's much more than that. It's a brilliant opera, tackling a difficult subject boldly and wholly successfully. For a new opera by a black composer to be accepted on its own terms is a considerable challenge, particularly as it could be judged either indulgently or with unreasonable expectations. Terence Blanchard has composed only one opera before, but has considerable musical experience and acclaim as a jazz musician (as a jazz fan, I am familiar with his writing and playing). His talent is abundantly evident here, and it's the fact that he doesn't come from the traditional academic classical position that makes his musical arrangements here far more original than almost any modern opera I've seen in a long time.

The subject of the opera is, as I said, a difficult one and it's well-named; Fire Shut Up in My Bones a biblical reference from Jeremiah to a burning passion that could be love and could be hatred, that simply has to be let out otherwise it will be all-consuming. It's based on the memoir of writer and journalist Charles M. Blow's account of life as a black man in the American South. Race prejudice is certainly an issue that cannot be avoided, but the difficulties experienced by Charles as a child are compounded by him being of a sensitive and delicate disposition. More than anything it's experiencing episodes of sexual abuse by a cousin at the age of 7 that mark the young child and which become something that affects his life thereafter as he struggles to find his place in the world and find a loving relationship.

The construction of the opera as a flashback with a framing device might not seem original but it suffices to grab attention, and once it has you it doesn't let go. Charles has a gun and is on his way back home to kill the man who abused him as a child. Or kill himself. After that however, there is little that is conventional about what also appears to be a difficult coming-of-age story blighted by the horror of living with being sexually abused as a child. What makes this journey extraordinary is not so much the subject - which is of course powerful in its own right - as much as the treatment, and there is nothing about Blanchard's writing that follows any expected musical rule or convention.

It's not just the richness of the musical language used, although again in itself it shifts imperceptibly from sweeping orchestral romantic to swinging jazz, disco, ballet and gospel, but any scene and song arrangement can incorporate a number of those elements blended together or in sequence. Aside from the skillful manner in which this is employed, Blanchard bringing a daring newness and freshness to the Met stage (and credit to the Met for bringing it to the stage also), everything matches and works well with the content. And, since the libretto is so strong, so heartfelt, poetic and meaningful, never sinking to platitudes, each scene brings its own lyrical, emotional and dramatic challenges. What it brilliant is that Blanchard just knocks it out of the park in each scene.

That is immediately apparent in an early scene in Act I in a Louisiana bar where Charles's mother Billie turns up with a gun to settle matters with Charles's no-good womanising father. It's quite classically cinematic, but what is impressive is the concision of it all. Not a line or musical line is wasted. Blanchard uses blues for the playing band, but blends this with music that captures a whole range of situations and characters, capturing a period, place, character and atmosphere to perfection, while at the same time dramatically it just holds you rapt, amused and emotionally connected. It's not just an insert for local colour either but you are aware that this will become a key moment, an important life lesson, without knowing just how vital it will be. And that's only the start. There is not a single superfluous or wasted line or situation that doesn't have a similar purpose and concision that gets the essence of the scene across perfectly.

Only the fraternity scene at the beginning of Act III feels less easy to relate to from a personal perspective and it's a little too coming-of-age making-of-a-man conventional, but even so it's important to the progression of the Charles life. Director Camille A. Brown, working alongside James Robinson, was previously assistant director on last season's Porgy and Bess for the Met, and her experience is principally as a choreographer. That is put to marvellous use in such scenes, bringing a fluidity to the movement that matches the music and progression of the drama. Allen Moyer's sets are simple but effective, using box like constructions that similarly move into place and can be transformed in an instant with projections and lighting without the huge expense for example of Robert LePage's Machine for the Met's Ring Cycle. All this ensures that the opera never feels static.

Blanchard's music is similarly fluid and incremental, each scene building on the previous one, harnessing what has come before and taking it further, creatively, emotionally and lyrically. And this is no relatively short modern opera or music theatre either, but a full length two-and-a-half-hour opera of rich and constantly inventive music with singing that requires real stamina. It's staggering to feel the accumulated impact of it all when streamed live on a cinema screen, but imagine the impact this must have on a member of the audience, seeing the story of a black man presented in this fashion. Imagine the audience that this must bring to the Met for their first experience of an opera, but for anyone, this would simply be an impressive work by any standard. And there is no question that it is wholly operatic in nature.

I've mentioned the qualities of the music and the libretto, but there is so much more than that, and a successful opera demands that equal (not greater or lesser) importance be given to the singing and the stage direction. Needless to say, Fire Shut Up in My Bones got the treatment and cast it deserved. The most demanding role is not Charles or indeed Char'es-Baby, nor even the three important roles that Angel Blue has to carry as Destiny, Loneliness and girlfriend Greta, but the role of Charles's mother. Latonia Moore gave a simply stunning performance as Billie, carrying the full range of emotions that come with a mother's role, and seeing how much she put into every scene in this live stream broadcast was simply phenomenal. It's surely impossible not to be deeply moved by her total engagement with this role and everything it entailed.

Will Liverman as the older Charles had a similar emotional and vocal journey to travel and was thoroughly convincing, working incredibly well with the young Walter Russell III as his younger incarnation. There are not many child roles in opera as extensive as the one written for Char'es Baby. Even Britten's children in Turn of the Screw and those in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel are commonly sung by experienced opera singers. I was absolutely dumbfounded and full of admiration for how well Walter Russell III took such a challenging role on the Met stage. Again no special pleading needs to be made here; the role was sung beautifully, flawlessly with real engagement and understanding of character, situation and emotion. This was no mannered stage-school child performance. Showing the complexity of the writing for all the roles, Angel Blue also had an important part to play throughout the opera in different guises and her role and her voice contributed to the richness and the success of the opera as a whole.

A few of the metaphors and use of repeated refrains seem forced in places, but they prove to be important touchstones for the characters to hold a sense of identity, love and purpose. In the end that is really what the story is about, not a colourful life story, a difficult coming-of-age for a young boy to man, not any special pleading or attachment to black lives movement that it could easily have used to its advantage. It has rather an important universal message of empowerment, of taking control of one's life away from the hold others may have over you. That message is brought home emphatically at the conclusion of this remarkable new opera that will hopefully be followed by more from Blanchard, and inspire others. As Charles sings at the end of the opera, this is not the end, it's a beginning.

Links: Metropolitan OperaThe Met: Live in HD 2021-22 season

Monday 25 October 2021

Goldmark - Ein Wintermärchen (Wexford, 2021)

Karl Goldmark - Ein Wintermärchen

Wexford Festival Opera, 2021

Marcus Bosch, Burkhard Fritz, Sophie Gordeladze, Ava Dodd, Simon Thorpe, Daniel Szeili, Rory Musgrave, Jevan McAuley, Niamh O'Sullivan, Conor Gahan, Ben Knight, Vladimir Sima, Sheldon Baxter, Peter Lidbetter, Fiona Finsbury 

National Opera House, O'Reilly Theatre, Wexford - 21st October 2021

If the other operas in Wexford's 'Shakespeare in the Heart' programme (Edmea, Le Songe d’une nuit d’été) had only a tenuous connection with actual Shakespeare texts, the inclusion of Karl Goldmark's Ein Wintermärchen ('The Winter's Tale') at least promised a more authentic Shakespearean experience. Sadly reduced to concert performance while Covid restrictions are still in place in Ireland, it nonetheless proved to be just that, the rarely performed opera working closely to the plot of Shakespeare's drama with only minor concessions to compressing the extended timeline. Musically too it proved to be in keeping with the mood of Shakespeare's great late romance, much more authentic to the original than most opera adaptations of Shakespeare tend to be.

Musically, not being familiar with Goldmark as an opera composer - his grand opera Die Königin von Saba ('The Queen of Sheba') achieved fame in its day but is not performed now - I wasn't quite sure what musical tradition to place him within. There's his friendship with Mahler and the influence of Wagner - whether positive or as a reaction against it would have been almost impossible for a composer around this time not to acknowledge Wagner - perhaps give some clue to a certain type of sound. Even looking at the musical choices of the cast in the programme and indeed the type of singers cast for this opera all pointed in a similar direction. Perhaps the greatest influence on Goldmark however appears to be his Hungarian born origin and the whole Viennese musical world that he is associated with. There's as much Johann Strauss as Richard Strauss in Ein Wintermärchen, but perhaps even more Dvořák in the melodic richness of the orchestration.

If you had any familiarity with Shakespeare's great late play and indeed Philippe Boesman's fine modern opera version of the work (Wintermärchen, 1999) then there was little need for staging, even though this drama is famous for its unusual stage directions and extravagant magical touches. While those stage effects were missed in concert performance, leaving a few gaps to be filled by the imagination, it's mood more than anything that is essential in Ein Wintermärchen. That was provided by the cool blue lighting and backdrop in this concert performance of the opera, but also evidently in Goldmark's well-calibrated score that was enhanced by the fine acoustics of the magnificent O'Reilly theatre at the National Opera House in Wexford.

Ein Wintermärchen and indeed Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale is not all as cold, dark and gloomy as it suggests, nor is it in the realm of Korngold-like lush fantasy either. Act I is the most plot driven, the warm friendship and pleasantries exchanged between Leontes and Polixenes, the rulers of Sicily and Bohemia, breaking down very quickly as Leontes succumbs to bitter jealousy and suspicion about the relationship between Polixenes and his pregnant wife Hermione. This descends with devastating effect to the next stage of murder plots and shocking deaths. When Hermione dies, the new-born baby of his dead wife is repudiated and abandoned to her fate at sea.

Act II of the opera opens by way of contrast with jaunty folk dance music, as the character of Time puts 16 years distance between those fateful events and the pastoral scenes in Bohemia. The lost child of Hermione has been rescued from where she was abandoned and brought up by a shepherd. The pure beauty of Perdita however sets her apart from her folk and she enjoys the love of the Prince Florizel, the son of Polixenes who has no knowledge of her background. (No one does in fact, the only person who might have known having made their fatal "exit, pursued by a bear"). Despite objections by Polixenes, the marriage takes place and the act closes with the music of Viennese waltzes as preparations are made for a reconciliatory trip to Sicily.

Unlike many adaptations of Shakespeare that struggle to compress and rework a huge complex plot down into lyrical theatre, Goldmark's opera almost seems leisurely in its handling of the play, taking time to revel in mood, character and situation. It feels as if it is genuinely soaking up the character of the work, letting it breathe with musical personality rather than being slavish to the exigencies of the plot. Inevitably there are cuts to secondary characters and scenes, the tighter focus making it more difficult to establish the long passing of time and the weight this places on the regrets, mistakes and longing of the characters. You lose a little more in a concert performance without stage effects, but Goldmark's writing ensures that the concluding Act III still comes across dramatically and effectively.

Again, familiarity with the play and with its dramatic interventions and revelations helps fill in the gaps left by the concert performance, and what we lose in stage representation we gain by way of an opportunity to properly hear Goldmark's orchestral arrangements and be able to focus on the musical qualities of this rare work. It was performed to the usual high standard under the baton of Marcus Bosch in the fine acoustics of Wexford's superb opera house. There was no reduced orchestration this time, as there was with the previous performances of EdmeaLe Songe d’une nuit d’été, so the audience were able to enjoy the full orchestration of this fascinating work.

An excellent cast also gave this work a fine presentation. Burkhard Fritz got the drama off to a suitably intense start in Act II with his troubled Leontes and there was good playing alongside him from Sophie Gordeladze as Hermione and Simon Thorpe's Polixenes. Sheldon Baxter was a warm toned shepherd Valentin, there was powerful projection from tenor Daniel Szeili as Florizel and a bright Perdita in Ava Dodd. Niamh O'Sullivan's Paulina was also notable and well-received by the audience at the curtain call. They all come together wonderfully with the chorus providing strong backing in the third Act (conductor and composer Andrew Synnott managing all the festival chorus duties this year). It would have been lovely to see Ein Wintermärchen staged for full effect, but the qualities were nonetheless clearly apparent in this Wexford Festival Opera concert performance.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera

Sunday 24 October 2021

Thomas - Le Songe d’une nuit d’été (Wexford, 2021)

Ambroise Thomas - Le Songe d’une nuit d’été

Wexford Festival Opera, 2021

Guillaume Tourniaire, Stefania Panighini, Hasmik Torosyan, Valentina Mastrangelo, Sébastien Guèze, Tommaso Barea, Vasyl Solodkyy, Rory Dunne, Kathleen Norchi

National Opera House, O'Reilly Theatre, Wexford - 20th October 2021

As far as this year's Wexford Festival Opera's 'Shakespeare in the Heart' programme is concerned, the opening night opera, Catalani's Edmea, had only a tenuous bordering on non-existent connection with Shakespeare, but if you thought you might get something closer to an adaptation of an original Shakespeare drama with Le Songe d'une nuit d'été, you'd be in for a surprise. Or maybe not considering it is Ambroise Thomas whose Hamlet with a happy ending is somewhat free in its interpretation of that great drama. Le Songe d'une nuit d'été even more so, since in fact it isn't actually an adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream at all. What it is however is a charming and entertaining tribute to Shakespeare with considerable musical and melodic qualities, which is the least that you can expect from Thomas.

Le Songe d'une nuit d'été is kind of like Thomas's version of Upstart Crow or Shakespeare in Love, a playful look at who Shakespeare, the man we know so little about, might have been; a genius certainly but one who from the content and depth of character in his own works, you might have expect to be someone with his own lived through troubles. Thomas doesn't dig too deeply or take that duty terribly seriously; William Shakespeare here is no Macbeth or Hamlet, and an opéra-comique is no place for a character that dark. Thomas's opera depicts Shakespeare as more of a Falstaff, and he even includes Shakespeare's fictional comic character in Le Songe, seen here preparing a feast for the playwright who is going a little bit drunkenly off the rails.

He's not the only person concerned about Shakespeare. Well, concerned is probably not the word to describe Falstaff's preoccupations, the rotund braggart more hopeful that the party might bring some attractive women. And indeed it's the two women who he flirts with who actually have Shakespeare's best interests at heart. Queen Elizabeth I and her lady Olivia have come to the tavern, disguised in masks of course, to see for themselves the current troubling state of the playwright, hoping to find a way to bring the great poet back to his calling. Shakespeare's behaviour however only becomes more unstable with their intervention, as it only introduces feelings of jealousy in his friend Lord Latimer, who is in love with Olivia and suspicious of her being at the tavern. After William passes out in a drunken stupor, a letter from the Queen commands Falstaff to bring him to the palace in Richmond Park.

What passes in Richmond Park then does indeed seem like some kind of Midsummer Night's Dream to the still befuddled Shakespeare, causing only further doubts and insecurities when he suspects that the mysterious genie who claims to be his muse is actually the Queen. And is she actually showing romantic inclination towards him? With all the confusion over identities and intentions caused by all these disguised furtive goings-on in the dark, there is a feeling that this is more of a case of Much Ado about Nothing, even as the jealousies roused have the unfortunate result of provoking a duel between Shakespeare and Latimer.

There's little then for the third act to do than just unravel the whole mystery and get Shakespeare back to his writing desk with his pen. I'm not sure of the timeline used in this fiction, since the references made suggest that most of the great Shakespeare plays have already been written before this crisis, but even if the Queen's intervention only serves to brings out the late romances, then it's a result and we should be thankful of a job well done.

And a job well done as far as Ambroise Thomas is concerned. As charming as they are and although there are excetions, I'm fairly immune or perhaps ambivalent to a lot of 19th century French opera and opéra-comique. Thomas, like Berlioz (Les Troyens excepted), Gounod (Faust excepted), Offenbach and Massenet (Werther and Don Quixote very much excepted) all offer charming but largely inconsequential light opera entertainment. They are enjoyable for as long as you listen to them and can certainly impress when they are well staged, but most touch only fleetingly and superficially on any real human situations and leave little in the way of a lasting impression. They rather seem more concerned with providing skillful musical entertainments to the conventional arrangements and situations to the expectations of the audience of their time. That's not to take away anything from the quality of the musical composition however, and those qualities are evident in Le Songe d'une nuit d'été.

Make no mistake about it, while it has many of the characteristics of an opéra-comique in terms of characterisation, situations and arrangement of musical pieces, Le Songe d'une nuit d'été is of a higher standard altogether. Certainly as far as it is expertly played in Wexford. The Act I tavern scene gives plenty of opportunity for Thomas to shine, with Falstaff's men providing a bright lively chorus for the drinking celebrations. There are also plenty of opportunities given for the singers to show what they can do, particularly the Elizabeth I role which is impressively taken here by Armenian mezzo-soprano Hasmik Torosyan with an almost Queen of the Night authority and coloratura range. It's a terrific cast all around in fact, the soprano role of Olivia (a superb Valentina Mastrangelo) no less brightly and challenging scored, Tommaso Barrea is also notable in his characterisation of Falstaff as a swaggering self-sure peacock rather than the usual overweight butt of everyone's jokes. Sébastien Guèze and Vasyl Solodkyy as William Shakespeare and Lord Latimer also delivered everything that was required here.

The musical interpretation and performance was also of an exceptionally high quality. It was conducted marvellously by Guillaume Tourniaire with an orchestra "reduced to accommodate the COVID-19 safety requirements". Again, as with Edmea, this had no noticeable impact on the performance and managed to completely convey the sheer melodic richness and drive of Thomas's score. The idea of taking advantage of the reduced seating to arrange the chorus in the lower side stalls - female left, male right - also worked to the advantage of the production, boosting the sound out in surround to the O'Reilly theatre, letting the audience in on the playfulness of it all.

The idea employed for the stage design (the production billed as semi-staged) was also simple but effective, director Stefania Panighini seeming to try to encapsulate the production into the period of its composition as the opera is indeed more of its own time than Elizabethan. Playing to the behind the scenes nature of the opera, it however bookended this as a modern day company putting on an 18th century version of the opera, so you could see the cast meeting and greeting, taking a group selfie, the crew making adjustments to sets and costumes during the overture. That might have been taking things to a remove too far, but Panighini didn't over-extend this idea, leaving the work to play to its own strengths. I'm not sure about set designer Tiziano Santi's Rothko backdrops, but the simple sets for each act were also effective and all that was needed to have the pleasure of experiencing another Ambroise Thomas rarity that we might never get the opportunity to see again.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera