Thursday, 6 May 2021

Gounod - Faust (Vienna, 2021)

Charles Gounod - Faust

Wiener Staatsoper, 2021

Bertrand de Billy, Frank Castorf, Juan Diego Flórez, Nicole Car, Adam Palka, Étienne Dupuis, Martin Häßler, Kate Lindsey, Monika Bohinec

Wiener Staatsoper Live - 29 April 2021

It doesn't surprise me that some opera lovers would not be too fond of the directorial style of Frank Castorf. He certainly has his own unique approach to opera that is not to everyone's taste. Even if you are open to new ways of presenting opera, there's an awful lot thrown into a Castorf production; some of it obviously related to the work, other elements rather less so. It can be hard work and while you might want to put the effort in for something like Der Ring des Nibelungen, From The House of the Dead or Die Vögel, you might be less inclined to see all the Castorf tricks employed on something as popular as Gounod's Faust.

Opera however is a multi-faceted artform and the best works prove to be adaptable to renovation and reconsideration. Through its very nature Faust should provide not only plenty of entertaining songs, beautiful arias and dramatic situations for singing and dancing, but it should also be able to address other deeper elements in Dr Faustus's search for love, youth and the meaning of life. Entering into a pact with Satan in exchange for such knowledge inevitably brings up questions of morality, religion and war, which means there is plenty for a director like Frank Castorf to get his teeth into.

Castorf's approach is seemingly haphazard and random, a bit of a mess frankly on first viewing, particularly if you are looking for all the familiar situations and signposts. I mean, there are signposts up there pointing to Paris locations, but not the kind that help you find a direction through the drama. Rather than view the opera as a continuous narrative or, in the case of Gounod's opera, a series of separate scenes that build up into an overall work, Castorf goes for the holistic approach and puts everything on the stage all at once. And it's not just the sets all on a revolving platform and even piled on top of one another, but characters and separate incidents, unrelated to the main scene, are all shown simultaneously backstage, projected in live camera shots on screens. It's an awful lot to take in all at once.

So there on Aleksandar Denić's revolving set, you can see a condensed Paris, past and future all piled on top of one another, front and behind, interiors opening onto exteriors, with a cafe, a church, a butcher shop, the Folies Bergère, and residential apartments. It's dressed in typical Castorf fashion, with obscure movie posters, a telephone booth, a Coke machine. There's even a metro station recreated, the Stalingrad station, where Kate Lindsey's Siébel comes out wearing a desert combat military uniform, his feet bloodied.

With police and foreign legion soldiers in kepis, one of Castorf's targets here is at least clear enough. Valentin emerges out of the metro and painting the words "Algeria is French" on the wall, while additional texts and commentary point to a less idealistic view of Valentin's military exploits, De Gaulle and France's colonialist history and atrocities. The devil is indeed in the detail and there's no doubting the nature of Mephistopheles here. He's not some smooth businessman or smart-dressed nobleman. He comes complete with demonic accoutrements, hairy goat legs, horse tail and hooves. He's a voodoo practitioner, using live snakes, he's menacing and seductive. 

Having thrown all that onto the stage with not a great deal of rationale provided, there's little evidence either of much character development or direction of the singers. Juan Diego Flórez is allowed to stand and sing arias out directly to the audience in an arm waving concert performance delivery. Nicole Car likewise delivers arias outward, but makes up for this by appearing to be much more emotionally attuned to Marguerite and her sad fate. Here Marguerite is not the naive waif we are accustomed to, but since this is the 21st century (or 20th maybe) she is more worldly wise. She puffs on opium and has a good time, but is not fool enough to trust Faust and takes responsibility for her own mistakes.

Frank Castorf appears to be more in his element when he can abandon the limitations of the libretto and "surreptitiously" film Faust and Marguerite behind the scenes with handheld cameras in manufactured situations. This can be a little bit 'random' particularly when filming and developing the other characters Marthe and Siébel. If there is anything that helps guide you through Castorf's production, something compelling that holds like an anchoring point in all the madness, it's Nicole Car's performance that places Marguerite at the heart of Gounod's opera. It's an outstanding performance which could prove to be her defining role.

Juan Diego Flórez can hit the notes all right but his voice is a little too lightweight for Faust, when it needs more of an Alagna or Kaufmann. He doesn't make the same kind of impression that Car does, but aside from the operatic gesturing to the non-existent audience (the production here filmed during lockdown in an empty theatre), it's not a bad performance. Adam Palka is an excellent Mephistopheles, fully entering into the demonic nature of this version of the character and proving to be menacing in tone and performance. Bertrand de Billy conducted the work with a fullness of melody and drama.

I'm not so sure that Castorf really connects with Gounod's Faust or has anything insightful to say about it, but he certainly gives you plenty of opportunity to reconsider the work and see it in a new light. You can question the validity of that approach since for the most part that has less to do with the actual work than in the peripheral action, in the additional behind the scenes projections and twists of characterisation. Whether it works or not, whether it's convincing or not isn't the point. You don't have to agree with his choices, but even that allows you to firm up your own convictions about the work. That, as far as I'm concerned, is certainly better than having nothing to contribute.

Links: Vienna State Opera, Wiener Staatsoper Live

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Wagner - Parsifal (Vienna, 2021)

Richard Wagner - Parsifal

Wiener Staatsoper, 2021

Philippe Jordan, Kirill Serebrennikov, Jonas Kaufmann, Georg Zeppenfeld, Elīna Garanča, Ludovic Tézier, Wolfgang Koch, Stefan Cerny, Ileana Tonca, Anna Nekhames, Aurora Marthens

ARTE Concert  - 18 April 2021

With its blend of philosophy, religion, mythology, spirituality and humanism, Wagner's Parsifal can be a tough prospect to make sense of on a narrative level, particularly in translating that to a modern audience in recognisable human terms. Not that it needs a coherent narrative. Almost every production I've seen of this masterpiece has found original endless (and sometimes baffling) ways of presenting it, while at the same time everything that it is about is all there in the music. And when I say music, it not just the notes on the page, the singing or even the interpretation of it but the space and time it occupies in performance. The viewer enters into communion with Parsifal in a way that does not happen quite the same way with any other opera.

High-flown words maybe, but there is truth in this. You could write volumes exploring the work, you could write books alone on productions like Herheim's Bayreuth Parsifal, and yet however the work is dressed up, whatever means are used to explore its themes, it rarely fails to make some kind of impact and it's often a profound one. At heart the theme and message of the work can be said to be relatively simple, but in its simplicity it touches on something vast, the essence of an important aspect of what it means to be human, perhaps the most important. Redemption through Compassion, the understanding of which will put us on the path to our soul's salvation.

Even though there are clear religious and ceremonial overtones in the presentation of these themes in Parsifal's Easter Good Friday message, it certainly doesn't need to be seen through a Christian or religious perspective. Indeed such grave solemnity and reverence in a production can get in the way of letting the music express its deep human qualities. Not to make excuses for the sometimes unclear situations and direction in the current Vienna State Opera production by Kirill Serebrennikov, but even the idea of putting that into a coherent dramatic narrative is ridiculous. Anyone expecting or needing a "story" to get it across is missing the point. Richard Wagner utterly and completely puts it all into musical language, which is even more direct and yet complex in how it manages to achieve that with such incredible impact.

It's difficult to describe convincingly how the Vienna 2021 lockdown production manages to get that across - it would take a long time and a lot of pointless analysis - but it unquestionably does. Serebrennikov's setting certainly looks unlike anything else you might associate with Montsalvat. Here's it's a prison, looking more like Janáček's From The House of the Dead. Gurnemanz is the respected veteran lifer who takes young ones under his wing, shows them the ropes and even does tattoos for them. Unlike any other Gurnemanz, this one even collects packages of contraband drugs from bent wardens for them. He knows they need something else to get them through the misery of their situation, and tells them stories that give hope that some kind of redemption may be possible. Even those living in an eternal hell like the seriously ill Amfortas.

It seems unlikely that the new young man on the cell block is going to be any kind of saviour in this production. Young and foolish, he's forgotten his good upbringing and got into a lot of trouble. Not so innocent, in prison he has even killed a man, a "swan", an albino man with tattoo wings who tried to get close to him naked in the showers and paid the price. Someone however sees his potential; Kundry, a visitor who has been granted permission to photograph inside the prison, gathering images of raw masculinity for a fashion magazine, "Schloss". She however lives within a prison of her own and is seeking a way out, seeing something within this young man that might help her overcome her own demons if they don't swallow him up as well.

Aided by projections, the production plays the long first Act out as if it happens over a number of days, and that works well, in its own way bending time and space, encapsulating the inner world and dreams of the prisoners with the harsh reality of their confinement. The idea of being outside of time in any linear narrative is also put across in the use of flashback, Jonas Kaufmann the older wiser Parsifal looking back with regret on his past mistakes and innocence of his younger self, played by actor Nikolay Sidorenko. If you don't quite understand where it is going however that also turns out to be a good thing, as the whole opera is a process, you need to live through it and experience it in its totality to understand it in any kind of way.

Act II however proves to be pivotal here as it should be but far too often fails to adequately achieve. It opens up some of that in the unlikely setting of the offices of Schloss, a fashion magazine run by the tyrannical Klingsor. The Flowermaidens are fashion journalists, office staff and even cleaning staff, all lusting over the new cover model, which really is no less relatable than having mythical female ciphers float around him. What makes Act II striking is by bringing in what is only alluded to in the original and making it central to the purpose of the work, and that's Parsifal's mother Herzeleide.

Many productions have sought to extend the range of Parsifal far beyond the singing characters - Philipp Stölzl even recreating the crucifixion of Christ in a Deutsche Oper production - and with good reason, as much of what is learned as a process doesn't just extend over a lifetime, but over many lifetimes. The production here finds that the best way of expressing what sparks Parsifal's journey to self-realisation is the image that Kundry evokes of his mother. The director brings not just one but three Herzeleide's to the stage. Parsifal's first true feelings for another person are, appropriately and meaningfully, for his mother. Understanding what she has suffered for him only for him to go off the rails, is a profound revelation. Through this he suddenly realises what Amfortas has been going through, and sets out to find a way of bringing healing to his suffering.

And quite what role Kundry plays in this is also difficult to describe but it's vital, the Flowermaidens likewise presenting him with different aspects of what it means to be a woman, deepening his understanding of his own mother's situation. Somehow the director Serebrennikov - mainly though the medium of an astonishing performance from Elīna Garanča - manages to match up the sense of deep sorrow, regret and loss with a sultry undercurrent that runs through the music in this Act. Act II can often feel disjointed and unfathomable, but at its best it is enigmatic and the key to the work, and the new Vienna production makes the most of it, not least in Philippe Jordan's conducting, pacing and navigation of the dynamics of the score.

Trying to analyse and correlate the production with a predetermined idea of what Parsifal should be and even expecting it to deliver a coherent narrative is however besides the point. It's a metaphor, and it makes no more sense than expecting Wagner's mythology of the Knights of the Holy Grail, the suffering of Amfortas, the killing of a swan, the evil of Klingsor and the revelation in a kiss to make sense on any level of reality that is relatable to our lives. The best that a production can do is perhaps illuminate one aspect of the many themes and ideas expressed in the work and put it into terms that are recognisable to a modern audience. And if you can get across an important message - as this one does about imprisonment of the soul and finding a way to freedom - then it's more than enough. Anyone expecting to make narrative sense of the director's production however is only distracting themselves from the beauty of the sentiments expressed and the performances.

And what performances! It's not just a starry cast with a few experienced and distinguished Wagnerians in key roles, but there are some chances and risks taken in a few of the other casting choices that make it much more interesting and bring a little something extra to the production. Jonas Kaufmann sings the role of Parsifal well, if inevitably a little detached by being doubled with an actor. It's sung in the manner that you may be accustomed to, a manner not to everyone's taste, slightly over-pushed. He can do grave and anguished but personally I felt that he lacks sensitivity for Parsifal, and crucially lacks compassion for the role. Elsewhere however there is little to fault.

As we've come to expect from his other Wagner bass roles, Georg Zeppenfeld is just perfect. Hunding, Heinrich der Vogler and King Marke are one thing, but Gurnemanz is a much more extensive role on another level entirely. If the strain sometimes showed over the four hour running time, there was little evidence of it in his singing, which was faultless throughout, warm and compelling. As mentioned earlier, Elīna Garanča also takes her performance to another level. Kundry does present such opportunities for a singer, and even if this production didn't give her as much of a central role or room for interpretation, Garanča takes it to the level required in her singing and acting performance. I've never seen her sing a role so deeply.

Defining Klingsor as a sleazy office manager abuser of his position and power is more relatable than viewing him simplistically as an evil sorcerer, and Wolfgang Koch is suitably sinister in a typically reliable performance. Ludovic Tézier is one of the world's finest Verdi baritones and that doesn't necessarily translate over to a traditional Amfortas role in Wagner, but it certainly makes for an interesting interpretation. He carries some of the mannerisms of Italian opera across, but nonetheless gives a lyrical, sincere and heartfelt performance here. Avoiding the cliches of the spear healing the wound, he nonetheless finds peace as Parsifal's healing message of love, forgiveness and compassion sees the swan reborn and mankind freed from the pain and prison of their everyday existence to possibility of a better world.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper, ARTE Concert

Monday, 29 March 2021

Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier (Munich, 2021)

Richard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2021

Vladimir Jurowski, Barrie Kosky, Marlis Petersen, Christof Fischesser, Samantha Hankey, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Katharina Konradi, Daniela Köhler, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Ursula Hesse von den Steinen, Martin Snell, Manuel Günther, Caspar Singh, Christian Rieger, Galeano Salas

Staatsoper Live - 21 March 2021

It wouldn't be like director Barrie Kosky to miss out on playing up any obvious sexual references, but he shows rather more subtlety than Richard Strauss during the opening exertions of Der Rosenkavalier in this production at the Bavarian State Opera. When it comes to highlighting the obvious however, he doesn't miss pointing out the thematic references to time by having Marschallin and Octavian carry on their business inside a spinning grandfather clock. In the unlikely event that you miss the implications, the boy servant Mohammed here is a Cupid as Old Father Time who sprinkles magic dust on their union, and the chiming of a clock is heard at the start of each of the three Acts.

But then it's not as if Strauss and Hofmannsthal were adverse to a bit of show-off cleverness either. Der Rosenkavalier one of opera's most extravagant works in terms of plotting, layering and referencing, delighting in combining farce with high art, comedy with contemplation. The opera captures the melancholy of being between one age and the next, the incompatibility of the old with the young, the old ways with the new ways, tradition with the modern age. There's a gradual acceptance of time and the pain it causes when the realisation hits of necessity to let go and let the world move on without you having as significant a role in it.

Wrapped up on a farce and aspiring to Mozart, Der Rosenkavalier doesn't miss the mark, even as far as realising that Mozart is of a past age and ideas need to be reconsidered for the modern era. It's a magnificent work, a work of true beauty and accomplishment, and there's a certain irony in the fact that we can look back at this end-of-an-era work with some regret that it belongs to a past age of opera that can never be recaptured, and undoubtedly there's some cleverness or self-awareness on the part of the creators themselves.

The sensible director then will avoid over-complicating the delicate equilibrium that the creators have established, and while few would normally apply that description to Barrie Kosky, he does indeed usually know when to intervene and when to step back in his role as Artistic Director at the Komische in Berlin. Aside from a little bit of highlighting here and there, he appears to slip into the background and let the glory of Der Rosenkavalier speak for itself, providing sumptuous but superficial surroundings and judging the mood perfectly throughout. Despite appearances, that does not come about by accident.

Kosky's touch of vulgarity for example is well-employed in the middle class aspirations of the Faninals, swept away with the notion of a forthcoming marriage into old money and nobility. Octavian as the Rosenkavalier obliges their notions coming not just with a silver rose, but replete with silver carriage and horses. It's unsurprising then that Sophie's head is turned with the romance of it all. It is a quite stunning coup de théâtre. Old age Cupid again sprinkles the magic dust of Strauss's beautiful music on Sophie and Octavian, while the Baron's satyrs chase the Faninal nymphs around the household. With classical paintings of similar scenes decorating the walls, and the old guard sprouting horns of their own, Kosky captures the essential mood and character of the scene perfectly, even with the classical allusions that Strauss and Hoffmansthal reference.

The singing and musical performances are also just about perfect: not just in interpretation of the score, but with performances that enhance the varied tones and intent of the opera. Marlis Petersen is an ideal Marschallin, with the necessary ability and experience (having once also been a Sophie in her time, the work again showing its relevance, meaning and cleverness), and she truly does the role justice. I haven't come across Samantha Hankey before but the US mezzo-soprano only appears to have been on the scene since 2017 and she makes a tremendous impression here as Octavian; nimble and playful also in the dual role as Mariandl. Christof Fischesser is excellent as the boorish Ochs Von Lerchenau, Johannes Martin Kränzle is luxury casting as Faninal and Katharina Konradi is a fine Sophie. With Vladimir Jurowski conducting the glorious sweep of it all, there's no danger of Act II or the concluding Act III failing to hit its targets and it doesn't need any heavy-handed signposting either, or at least no more than the spirit of Strauss and Hofmannsthal dictates.

So when Petersen's Marschallin utters the words "Don't you realise it's all over?", it really hits home. Privilege, class, a whole era is gone or has turned - in the eyes of the young and the modern - into nothing more than a farce. As such Kosky can be forgiven for falling back on the old theatrical trick of turning the audience around and onto the stage, all the more so since there isn't an actual audience present in Munich during the Covid lockdown. Essentially it's what Strauss and Hofmannsthal do, opening up the theatricality of opera and drama as a device, as a trick, as a way of showing the truth. The Viennese farce can reveal something real truths and Der Rosenkavalier cuts to the quick when the Marschallin takes to the stage in Act III. The concluding scenes of this opera are devastating, tying everything up, bringing her curtain down on the old, opening up the way for the new.

There's no better recommendation that you can give for a production than that it brings out everything that is wonderful about an opera, and in Der Rosenkavalier it's even more important to get the tone and the singing right. The Bayerische Staatsoper, Kosky, Jurowski and Petersen at the head of a strong cast do that superbly. The humour feels weighted and balanced with the seriousness, the originality of the composition is perfectly set alongside the references to older works. It's brought out to perfection and to devastating impact here in a wonderfully played performance and deeply felt production that brought a little tear to the eye and a 'Bravo!' from this viewer.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper TV

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Zandonai - Francesca da Rimini (Berlin, 2021)

Riccardo Zandonai - Francesca da Rimini

Deutsche Oper, Berlin - 2021

Carlo Rizzi, Christof Loy, Sara Jakubiak, Alexandra Hutton, Samuel Dale Johnson, Ivan Inverardi, Jonathan Tetelman, Charles Workman, Meechot Marrero, Mané Galoyan, Arianna Manganello, Karis Tucker, Amira Elmadfa, Andrew Dickinson, Dean Murphy, Patrick Cook, Thomas Lehman streaming

Other than being associated with a group of post-Verdi Italian composers at the beginning of the twentieth century, opera verismo is hard to define in musical or thematic terms. There's an element of social realism in works like Puccini’s La Bohème and Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, but it’s more in considering how the real people deal with personal hardships and difficulties than in any social commentary or criticism. Other works, like Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur or Giordano's Fedora that hardly fit the common idea of verismo. In any case with the enhanced emotional range and the artificial construct of singing one’s troubles, opera hardly seems the ideal way to approach any kind of social realism.

On the other hand, the hard-hitting musical style of verismo, pushing and even perhaps over-extending the emotional content even further than Verdi, perhaps hits on a deeper emotional reality for the troubles of its subject, or perhaps more accurately, it communicates the depth of feeling to an audience. For all the (unjustified) criticism of emotional manipulation and accusations of sentimentality that could be levelled against Puccini, there is no question that he does masterfully express the deep personal dilemmas suffered by his protagonists and communicate it through the medium of music in a way that touches the listener.

It might not have the common people touch of Cavalleria Rusticana, dealing instead with two noble families where an arranged marriage has left a woman in a loveless relationship and unable to be with the person she loves, but Riccardo Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini does nonetheless enter into that realm of enhanced emotional turmoil. Musically, it elaborates and elevates to an extraordinary level (aspiring to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde obviously) the romantic aspect, but sets this against and within the bloodthirsty violence and brutality of the family wars. Whether Zandonai’s opera is successful is debatable, but it has potential that could be realised in a strong theatrical setting. Christoph Loy can usually be relied upon for that, but while he certainly makes Francesca da Rimini 'work', I’m not convinced he finds anything deeper in it.

What is indisputable is that Act I of Francesca da Rimini has one of the greatest build-ups in all opera. Perhaps not quite as prolonged and ultimately sublime as Tristan und Isolde, the origin story of which this opera acknowledges as a model, but it's a good one nonetheless. The arrival of the mysterious Giovanni Malatesta is surrounded in gossip and speculation and, on the part of Francesca at least, some amount of trepidation, as she is to be married to this unknown man. When he finally approaches from the wings, she is told that he's slim, tall, handsome and walks like a king. "You're going to be the happiest woman in the world". And bam! just as described her future husband walks onto the stage and Zandonai accompanies this with the most seductive and romantic of music and heavenly choruses. Albeit with a hint of something awry behind it? Menace? Disappointment? For a trick of bait and switch has been played and it's not Giovanni, but his much better looking brother Paolo il Bello who she sees and immediately falls in love with.

Loy isn't going to let that be a premature climax and ensures that Act II of the opera closes on another dramatic finale that has you gripped to your seats and almost blown away. That effect is of course not achieved in isolation and as usual Loy pays close attention to what the music is telling us and looking for the best way of presenting that. Without swords and doublets, he shows the household of Francesca's Polenta family as thugs in suits, conspiring to trick Francesca into a marriage of convenience. With scattered flowers and a Gothic backdrop in the earlier scenes, there's an air of decadence about it as well, and Loy emphasises the almost ecstatic musical explosion at the violent wars of the conclusion of Act II with the intoxicated Francesca almost revelling in the spilled blood of the Malatesta.

That moment of madness turns into confusion and fear that is extended and developed as she becomes torn between all three Malatesta brothers. The music, and particularly the vocal range, is correspondingly pushed further into heightened expression, which Sara Jakubiak sings superbly in Francesca's confrontation with Smaragdi. If she can appear a little detached and not always have the fullness of voice elsewhere, she does bring a sultry character to Francesca, much as she did previously - in parts fully naked - as the queen in Loy's production of Korngold' s Das Wunder der Heliane. She really shows her ability in the varied tones of the opera's third Act.

Although linking thematically and visually with that previous work at the Deutsche Oper, Christoph Loy here adopts more of the style of the similarly themed feuding family wars of his 2015 production of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi for Zurich or, taking place confined in a wealthy mansion with a window view, it's more simplified like his production of Carl Maria von Weber's Euryanthe at the Theater an der Wien in 2018. If it doesn't measure up to provide any deeper or broader thematic approach, the little details and correspondences with the music do manage to highlight the dramatic qualities of the work, even if it still doesn't seem to hold together as a whole.

Still, Act IV ramps up the drama and the decadence deliciously as Loy insists on showing Francesca flirting dangerously with the third brother, the psychotic Malatestino, fabulously sung and performed with casual menace by the always impressive Charles Workman. The music continues to be filled with ominous motifs building tension and anger that is going to end in tragedy, and it plays out wonderfully under Carlo Rizzi's musical direction. The role of Paolo has a challenging dramatic range to meet and Jonathan Tetelman does it well, all of which adds to a very successful interpretation of Zandonai's opera. The casting is great, the performances convincing, the music compelling, but it's still hard to feel involved in the circumstances or character of D'Annunzio's drama.

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Gluck - Orphée et Eurydice (Zurich, 2021)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Orphée et Eurydice

Opera Zürich, 2021

Stefano Montanari, Christoph Marthaler, Nadezhda Karyazina, Chiara Skerath, Alice Duport-Percier, Sebastian Zuber, Graham F. Valentine, Bérengère Bodin, Marc Bodnar, Liliana Benini, Raphael Clamer, Bernhard Landau

Live Stream - 14th February 2021

There are some operas that seem to exist on another level, tapping into something indefinable and spiritual - Wagner's Tristan und Isolde or Parsifal, Stockhausen's Licht, Glass's Satyagraha, Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande - and many composers strive to reach that state through the power of music. Some of the best productions I have seen also strive to achieve that level of abstraction, not being held strictly to the exigencies of dramatic narrative, but finding a way in visual terms to tap into the same miraculous source that the music comes from.

One work that should certainly attain a level of transcendence beyond mortal matters is Gluck's Orfeo, or indeed in the French arrangement by Berlioz as Orphée et Eurydice. I presume that is also what director Christoph Marthaler is trying to do with his Zurich production, because it's hard otherwise to relate it to much that happens conventionally in any telling of the myth of Orpheus. Whether he actually achieves it is less certain, and indeed what he actually achieves is hard to define, but at the very least Marthaler attempts to bring an individual vision to a great opera.

There are essentially only three singers in Gluck's opera as well as a chorus, but it's more than enough to express everything that Gluck wanted to achieve in his stripped-back reformist version of opera. Really it couldn't be improved, although admittedly Berlioz's version, combining the best parts of Gluck's own Italian and French versions, is wonderful. What it doesn't need then is any additional figures or obscuring narrative imposed unless it can in some way support rather than distract from the beauty of the score and the intent of the original opera.

Christoph Marthaler puts several strange figures on the Zurich stage; a man like a caretaker or mortuary attendant (he has that mortuary pallor) shares a space in some indeterminate and likely otherworldly plane of existence with a number of other figures, one of whom - dressed in an ill-fitting bright woolen yellow tank top - we soon discover is Orpheus. The man, after scolding a loudspeaker that a young schoolgirl invisible to him has brought onto the stage for being mysterious, then paces though the rooms passing a funeral urn to shady figures who walk from room to room, into the lift and back again, each exchanging the urn and keeping it out of the reach of Orpheus. Meanwhile another figure makes jerky dance movements as if having a seizure.

What on earth (or heaven, or hell) this has to do with Gluck's opera is anyone's guess, but since the opening scene is Orpheus's lament for the death of Eurydice, we must presume (and it does fit in a way) that we are seeing an expression of the mind-state of Orpheus in a condition of deep bereavement, himself trapped in death's waiting room. I did say anyone's guess and that's mine. A beatific smile/stupid grin appears on the faces of these actors and dancers when one of the figures/abstractions turns out to be Amore/Love, offering Orpheus a way out of the prison of his disturbed state of mind. He has a few more horrors (interruptions, interventions and strange situations with eccentric characters) to face up to first.

I recall that Marthaler did something similar with his 2009 Bayreuth Tristan und Isolde, setting each of the acts on three levels of a descending room (or figures ascending?) as a way of putting them into an emotional space rather than a physical one. It's frankly a bit bonkers and you can hardly say that it's respectful of the work, but respect is overrated and works shouldn't be sacrosanct, not even Orphée et Eurydice. Whether it just throws random ideas out - lost arias, a recital of T.S. Elliott's 'The Hollow Men', pizzas all around - or whether it finds something new to express through the music and the meaning is up to the individual to interpret. Personally, I thought it entertainingly idiosyncratic and intriguingly unresolved, but far from the most spiritual or enlightening of productions.

Whatever you think about Marthaler's contribution, it's still Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, which means it's still a work of exquisite beauty and delicacy. With its subject of grief, bereavement and the search for peace of mind and for the belief that love can win though times of social distancing and isolation, it's also a work that can have meaning at any time and make a personal connection, not least in these Covid-19 times. Marthaler of course doesn't directly reference the current pandemic, but there's no need to either: the very fact that this production of the opera is even able to take place at all is testament to the power of music and art to soothe and heal the soul in difficult times.

Zurich evidently have to make adjustments in order to put on a live opera performance in February 2021. There are some compromises that have to be made, the orchestra in a separate location, the chorus in another, with even the audience watching it distantly all around the world from a screen, so some disconnect is to be expected. Personally, I didn't find the music as beautiful, soothing and touching as it should be under Stefano Montanari, feeling somewhat disconnected from the stage performance. Whether that's down to the direction, the conducting or the difficulties of performance under current circumstances and blending the elements together is hard to determine, but like the recent Pelléas et Mélisande in Geneva, it feels like there is some vital element missing.

Although the recording and mixing of the live performance in an empty theatre makes it sound a little echoing, it's always a delight nonetheless to hear this work and see its themes explored and challenged. Although it seems like there are more people involved, there are indeed only three singers who carry the whole tormented character of the work and they do so well. Mezzo-soprano Nadezhda Karyazina is a rich lyrical Orpheus, but whether the unusual production played a part in it, I didn't get any sense of real feeling here. Chiara Skerath is not quite so strong vocally, but carried the haunted agnonised aspect of Eurydice better. Musically, I just didn't get the feeling from this that you ought to, and much as I enjoyed Marthaler's eccentric approach, the production didn't really work for me either.

Links: Opernhaus Zurich

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Verdi - Aida (Paris, 2021)

Giuseppe Verdi - Aida

Opéra national de Paris, 2021

Michele Mariotti, Lotte de Beer, Ksenia Dudnikova, Sondra Radvanovsky, Jonas Kaufmann, Roberta Mantegna, Ludovic Tézier, Soloman Howard, Dmitry Belosselskiy, Alessandro Liberatore

ARTE Concert - 18 February 2021

It would be a shame to ever get tired of Aida, as it is undoubtedly a supreme work of opera from a great composer reaching the pinnacle of his craft, but I could do without ever seeing another idealised ancient Egyptian setting and ceremonial procession. There's nothing inherently wrong with that it's just I like to see something that makes you think a little deeper about what the opera is about. And from the last few productions I've seen, the opera is surprisingly adaptable to draw out the work's themes, which are far as Verdi is concerned, is a large scale attack on war and religion and the impact of them on individual human lives.

There's a hint in the period and the museum setting of this Paris production that the director Lotte de Beer wants to draw out the issue of colonialism. The opera is updated here - thank goodness - to the Italian Risorgimento, a more meaningful period at least as far as Verdi was concerned. And there's no question that the underlying force of the work lies in such a context. Much as La Traviata gains its true strength from the sense of burning injustice towards women in society, Aida shows that there's a human reality and cost to war. It diminishes the power of the work if it is merely presented as a glamorous grand opera spectacle.

The Paris production opens with Radamès looking at a mummy-like Aida in a display case at a museum as he reflects on conflicted feelings of love for country and fighting for it in a war. The mummy Aida comes to life then as a guiding spirit - or something like that - in his life. Amneris then acts as the other side of this, his conflicted feelings of betrayal of his obligations to his own country. The other underlying themes and sentiments relating to war, religion and colonialism are similarly brought out in other exhibits from other cultures in glass cases. One of the cases contains a skull, the connotations of which are fairly obvious, even as Radamès as newly elected commander in arms anoints it with blood.

Whether you buy into this idea or not, the change of perspective - to say nothing of the beautiful set and costume design - at least serves to make this an attractive and fresh take on an opera whose themes are too often buried in convention and played purely for grand opera spectacle. The centrepiece victory march - often the most problematic for any director wishing to undercut the triumphalism of war - is presented not without some irony as a series of exhibition tableaux of classic paintings put on at the "museum". It references and recreates scenes of Napoleon, the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, Delacroix's Liberty and other triumphal poses through the ages that could be said to glorify or idealise war.

It's a mark of how good the production is that it hits home effectively not just in the traditional big numbers and famous arias, but in the more human moments that are just as crucial such as the plight of the Ethiopian prisoners and Aida's recognition of her father. What also becomes evident - and Ksenia Dudnikova has much to contribute to this - is the other triumphant victory of Amneris over Aida in gaining the promise of marriage to Radamès. Verdi's ensemble writing for this is astonishing, gathering up all the conflicting desires and combining them with the inhuman treatment of prisoners of war to make this scene as forceful as any other in this work, the work of a complete master.

But why the puppets? This would have been a great production but for the dumb choice of using puppets for Aida and Amonasro. Life size puppets are not uncommon in opera productions, but they are rarely put to any meaningful use. In a Madama Butterfly, you could see some sense of purpose in Cio-Cio San being manipulated and treated like a doll, a plaything. Puppets have been used in Weber's Oberon as an impressive spectacle for a fairy-tale opera, but they can be superfluous to The Magic Flute. Other than to prevent singers 'blacking up' I can't for the life of me understand why Lotte de Beer went with the crude fossilised puppets for Aida. With three operators and Sandra Radvanovsky all on the stage for Aida, it's a terrible distraction. Add another two for Amomasro's half puppet and it over-complicates important direct scenes. Radvanovsky and Tézier don't seem to know whether they should be singing to each other or the puppets, and the camera isn't quite sure who to follow either. Perhaps worse, Jonas Kaufmann even has to endure the embarrassing situation of getting intimate with a puppet, and looks like he is being attacked by a gang.

As a human Aida, Sandra Radvanovsky is good. The high register occasionally pushes her out of comfort zone, thinning out to near inaudibility in some passages, but she brings character and depth of feeling to the work. It's a shame that she has to compete with a puppet and puppet handlers. The Uzbekistan mezzo-soprano Ksenia Dudnikova is just superb as Amneris. She handles the singing requirements more than capably, but just as importantly she captures the weak human side of Amneris as well as her regal imperiousness. Aida is an opera that is there for the taking by an Amneris of sufficient quality - her emotional and musical journey is a fascinating one - and I read somewhere that Verdi even considered calling the opera Amneris at one point. She may not yet be the ideal Amneris but Dudnikova makes her character human and as far as I'm concerned steals the show.

In another time that might have been the case for Jonas Kaufmann, but I have to say he is making less of an impression now with each new performance. Where once he was commanding, he now feels disengaged from the character and looks like he is going through the motions. The voice isn't quite as controlled and stable as it once was either, his diction lacks clarity and despite the loud delivery there's no real strength or volume there. I may be nit-picking and expecting too much because in the moments when he needs to be convincing, he is still very good. Amanasro is not a major role in this opera, but it counts and it's always a joy to hear a great Verdi baritone like Ludovic Tézier, who carries on regardless of the puppet distraction.

Some operas work better with the lack of an audience than others, but it may be something we have to get used to for a while yet. Broadcast live streaming from Paris, conducted by Michele Mariotti, this was as good a performance of Aida as any I've heard. The Paris Opera orchestra sound superb here, and despite the puppets and some weaknesses in the singing - the whole thing is redeemed to a large extent by the musical performance and Ksenia Dudnikova's Amneris - Lotte de Beer's production does succeed in allowing the quality of the opera and the purpose behind it to be brought out, allowing Aida to impress on it's own musical terms rather than as a mere spectacle.

Links: Opéra national de Paris, ARTE Concert

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Weber - Der Freischütz (Munich, 2021)

Carl Maria von Weber - Der Freischütz

Bayerische Staaatsoper, Munich 2021

Antonello Manacorda, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Golda Schultz, Anna Prohaska, Kyle Ketelsen, Pavel Černoch, Boris Prýgl, Bálint Szabó, Tareq Nazm, Milan Siljanov, Eliza Boom, Sarah Gilford, Daria Proszek, Yajie Zhang

StaatsoperTV Live - 13 February 2021

One sure thing you can count on with an opera production by Dmitri Tcherniakov is that it's never going to be short of talking points and in some cases (Dialogues des Carmélites) downright controversy. Tcherniakov is still the only opera director I know to have had one of his works actually banned by the courts on the objection of the estate of the work's original author for subverting the true intentions of the work. You will definitely question whether he is true to the spirit of Romanticism in his setting of Weber's Der Freischütz in the executive room of the owner of a large corporation.

Furthermore, rather than opening the opera with a traditional shooting contest Tcherniakov has the competitors being urged to train a gun on and take down an unsuspecting member of the public from a window vantage point high on the office block of businessman Lord Kuno. Sure, you expect a modern director to find a new way to express the intentions of an old fashioned opera (albeit one of the most important in the history of German opera) but does this really conform to the original intentions and meaning of the original? Is Tcherniakov not again just seeking to be controversial by overturning and subverting a reactionary agenda?

For Tcherniakov, evidently the idea of a work that extols any kind of nationalist sentiment, superstition, romanticism or dealings with magic can't possibly be played straight to a contemporary audience and have the same impact as it might have had for its original audience. On the other hand there are deeper human qualities brought out in Weber's opera, and likewise Tcherniakov's intention is not to subvert the work, but use a similar exaggeration and shock factor to highlight an underlying idea. How far would someone go to impress the boss and marry into an influential family?

Well one thing you don't want to do is strike up a deal with the devil, or in the case of this production, get too friendly with and take the advice of the office weirdo, Kaspar. What he really does is encourages Max to pull the trigger that will open up his future destiny. He seems powerful and in control, but has strange ideas and hears voices and seems to be possessed, conversing with a split personality that he calls Samiel. He's also a bit of a gun freak. Too late, Max worries what he has got himself into and he has good reason to be concerned when he agrees to follow Kaspar to Wolf's Glen.

It does take a little twisting of the narrative to make this work, and where some might have more of an objection is in the director constructing his own narrative to put it into a quite different context from the original. In the gaps between scenes and in instrumental passages, Tcherniakov inserts subtitles that enter into the mind of the people involved and even creates a new narrative that you would think adds little, such as Agathe having previously been in a same-sex relationship with Ännchen, who dresses in a masculine if somewhat dandyish fashion. His take on the shock conclusion of the Hermit's forgiveness being a mere delusion and Agathe indeed being a victim of the magic bullet, is like Carmélites revisionism again, but it's enormously effective and appropriate here.

The more Romantic outlook on Der Freischütz would be the question of how far you would go for love when the path of virtue is the only road to salvation from the dark forces in the world, but Dmitri Tcherniakov's take on it as ambition and social climbing corrupting the soul can sit alongside that. You can debate whether that really gets under the skin of what the opera is all about, but there's no doubt - as is always the case I find - that he fully brings dramatic power and conviction to whatever he works on. If you didn't already know what a masterpiece Der Freischütz is, you would definitely feel it from the treatment here.

It also helps that the opera is played beautifully with Antonello Manacorda conducting the Bayerisches Staastorchester and there are some excellent singing performances. Golda Schultz in particular is impressive as Agathe and Pavel Černoch perfect as the rather unfortunate Max who falls under the spell as a wonderfully deranged Kyle Ketelsen as Kaspar/Samiel. It's also a very handsome production as most of Elena Zaytseva designs are for Dmitri Tcherniakov. In his latest mode of using elegant, tasteful wooden panel lined rooms to satirise middle- and upper-class luxury homes and offices (La Traviata, Tristan und Isolde, Pelléas et Mélisande), they could be showcase exhibits for interior design. In every respect, Tcherniakov's aim is perfect and his shot unerringly finds its true target.

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Wagner - Sonnenflammen (Bayreuth, 2020)

Siegfried Wagner - Sonnenflammen (Bayreuth, 2020)

PPP Music Theatre Ensemble, Munich

Reichshof Kulturbühne Bayreuth - August 2020 

Ulrich Laykam, Peter P. Pachl, Uli Bützer, Rebecca Broberg, Giorgio Valenta, Steven Scheschareg, Dirk Mestmacher, William Wallace, Julia Reznik, Maarja Purga, Robert Fendl, Xenia Galanova, Reuben Scott

Marco Polo - DVD

The recording and release of any of the neglected operas by Siegfried Wagner, the son of Richard Wagner, is certain to be of great interest, and the mere fact that someone has gone to the effort to actually stage one of the works is admirable and makes this worthy of attention. It has to be said however that this Marco Polo DVD release of Sonnenflammen at Bayreuth leaves something, or more than a few things, to be desired. For all that is lacking in this production, it does nonetheless prove to be a worthwhile experience.

That perhaps still sounds a little harsh, but it is necessary to adjust expectations, as this PPP Music Theatre Ensemble production lacks the high production values that we more typically see on the main stage at Bayreuth for one of Siegfried's father's works. And indeed it lacks the production values that we would see on a typical DVD or Blu-ray release. Perhaps what most would see as the most significant shortcoming of this production however is the total absence of a live orchestra.

Needs must in Covid times, and opera houses all over Europe are adjusting to the new reality of live performance in restricted conditions, but I must admit I've never come across a digital orchestra used in a live environment before. The music here is performed by the Bayreuth Digital Orchestra, which is a computer derived reproduction of an orchestra using the Sibelius digital notation software. It doesn't seems to be an ideal way to be introduced to the music of Siegfried Wagner, but it's not entirely without human input and whatever your principled objection might be to the lack of human insight and interpretation brought to performance of the score, in practice it appears to give a reasonably accurate account of the music.

It's not as if the score is fed into a computer and the resulting music fed out, as the programming is managed by conductor and music director Ulrich Laykam, who sets the tempo and adjusts the instruments and sections much I imagine as he would a live orchestra. It creates a reasonable approximation of a full orchestral performance, but personally, with it being very much in the same neo-Romantic style, it produces a sound that for me is similar to that achieved by the symphonic prog rock band The Enid.

It's a comparison that probably does no favours to either The Enid or Siegfried Wagner, the latter's music inevitably closer to the idiom of his father in scope and complexity, or perhaps closer to the post-Wagner school of Austrian and German composers like Walter Braunfels, Franz Schreker and of course, Richard Strauss. Like some of the work of those composers, the drama of Sonnenflammen, Siegfried Wagner's eighth opera, composed around 1912 and first performed just days before the official end of WWI, can be seen to reflect the troubling nature of events in Germany around that time.

Sonnenflammen is set in 13th century Byzantium during the time of the Fourth Crusade, it depicts the fall of the Empire of Alexios as Constantinople is destroyed, set aflame in 1204. The three principal figures in the work are the Emperor Alexios, the knight Fridolin, and Iris the daughter of the court jester Gomella. Like traditional historical operas there is a romantic love triangle situation here that heightens the passions of the drama. Alexios is pursuing Iris, much to the disapproval of Gomella and the Empress Irene, who eventually commits suicide because of it. Iris is also adored by Fridolin, but since he has renounced the violence of the Crusades, she doesn't see him as sufficiently heroic, until it is too late.

Siegfried Wagner's perspective on the romantic hero warrior is quite different from that of his father, and the differences are interesting. I suppose Siegfried (in Richard Wagner's The Ring) was also an imperfect hero in many ways, but Fridolin - certainly as he is depicted in this production - is definitely not the typical image you would have of a heroic knight. He's a dreamer (signified by wearing a VR headset here) who wants peace and love, refusing to join the crusades or take part in the cruel excesses of the court of Alexios. He even chooses the degradation and shame of being made a jester and being disavowed by his father rather than be arrested and executed for carelessly showing a little too much enthusiasm for an assassination attempt on the Emperor.

Despite the low budget nature of the production design giving the impression of being modern or abstract, director Peter P. Pachl actually relates the original story completely faithfully. Or almost completely. While the drama of the court of Emperor Alexios is played out according to the libretto with costumes and togas that approximate the period (with a few quirks like the VR headset) there is a simultaneous projection that pulls the work back to the time of its composition, 1918 early 1920s. The projections make little direct allusion to either contemporaneous or modern events however, merely illustrating or enhancing the idea of the fall of an Empire, including nuclear destruction.

The Marco Polo Standard Definition DVD of Sonnenflammen is adequate for getting the production across, but clearly not at the level of the more typical High Definition opera releases on Blu-ray. The LPCM stereo is effectively mono, capturing the sound in the theatre with no real mixing separation or post-production. It sounds quite echoing but despite the evident limitations, there's a good account of the work here and the DVD certainly gives more than just a flavour the quality of the performances. And indeed the work itself. It's easy to get caught up in its flow and impressive enough to hope that some ambitious opera houses could forego another new production of Lohengrin or Tannhäuser and opt instead for a more adventurous treatment of a lesser known Siegfried.


Monday, 15 February 2021

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande (Geneva, 2021)

Claude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2021

Jonathan Nott, Damien Jalet, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Marina Abramović, Jacques Imbrailo, Mari Eriksmoen, Leigh Melrose, Matthew Best, Yvonne Naef, Marie Lys, Justin Hopkins

GTG Digital - 18 January 2021

We have already seen how it is going to be necessary to adapt our lives post-Covid, if such a time is yet imaginable, and it looks like things might never be quite the same again. Opera however has always been adaptable and open to incorporating a variety of art forms, since music and theatre offer many means of expression, combining the abstract and the concrete. One opera that stands almost unique in its approach is Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, in the way that it sets drama to music, and not just any drama but a Symbolist drama by Maurice Maeterlinck. As such it offers many ways of interpretation of meaning and vision and you imagine that few works are as well suited to expressing social isolation and a sense of lockdown.

The Grand Théâtre de Genève have certainly put together an interesting and unconventional team for their social isolated lockdown version of the work and attempted to use it as a way of exploring another side of Debussy's enigmatic opera. The concept and performance artist Marina Abramović provides the concept for this production, and it's co-directed for the stage and choreographed with dance elements by Damien Jalet and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. With Jonathan Nott conducting the Suisse Romande orchestra in a spread-out fashion around him, you would expect the moody atmospherics to thrive in such an unconventional space, but somehow - too many cooks perhaps? - it doesn't quite live up to expectations. 

It at least approaches the idea of preserving the mystery and enigma of the opera rather than try to pin it down. I once observed in Robert Wilson's production of Pelléas et Mélisande at the Paris Opera that there was a kind of circularity to the work, Mélisande leaving one world and entering into another in much the same state of despair that she entered into it. Wilson's stylisations  - introducing social distancing on the opera stage long before it became necessary - had that haunted quality, of a never-ending story, of ghosts repeating and re-enacting a tragic tale for eternity. As an image of the abstract and enigmatic nature of Debussy's only opera, the circle is a symbol of infinity with no beginning and no end, works well, and it's used as such to similarly haunting effect in Marina Abramović's idea of expanding the work out into the infinite universe.

Space and circular imagery (planets, eyes) are evident throughout the Geneva production, and the circle can even be seen in the shape of the pool, one of infinite depths where Mélisande loses her ring (another circle). The circular image of the moon, reflected in the pool, also represents a cold enigma. In a Symbolist work like Maeterlinck's such ideas evidently work very well, particularly with the added mood that Debussy's music brings to this unique opera. Although it has a Gothic or Medieval character to it, the piece needs no concrete idea of time or place. It's as abstract and internalised a world as Tristan und Isolde, a work of forbidden love and obsession, something both works have in common if approached obviously in entirely different ways.

Approaching the work in an entirely different way is exactly what you expect from a production based on an idea by Abramović (who also recently devised an extraordinary new opera 7 Deaths of Maria Callas for the Bavarian State Opera last year), and choreographed by Jalet and Cherouaki. Rather than rely too much on the usual symbols or place too much emphasis on physical locations or internal dark places, Abramović visualises the work in a much more open environment, but one equally as isolating to the individual; in space. Obelisk monolithic crystals form rocks and grottoes as well as suggest a space ship, as the universe revolves and expands around Pelléas, Mélisande and Golaud. The director(s) also use the symbol of the eye to gaze on them from the emptiness of the infinite abyss of a black hole.

The dance moves are superbly choreographed and performed, the dancers moving fluidly around to 'enhance' the drama. Using some simple Improbable-style effects with reflective tape, they can become the tangled branches of the forest where Golaud is lost at the start, or weave Pelléas into the trap of Mélisande's hair. It sounds simple, but it's incredible how well this needs to be choreographed to be this effective. They can be purely abstract shapes and movement that tap into the undercurrents of the music and the nature of the characters, representing the oppressive qualities of Allemonde in wrestling semi-naked twisting bodies. Golaud's role in particular is magnified and multiplied with a team of dancers who forcefully surround and impress upon Mélisande. Sometimes however they can be a bit of a distraction and often feel unnecessary, intruding on the minimalist beauty of the piece, as well as making additional noise that isn't needed either.

As gorgeous as the Geneva production is, it doesn't manage to penetrate or even bring anything new out of the opera's mysteries. Pelléas et Mélisande can be a cold and detached opera, but it can even thrive on that, and there are few who can do icy detached coolness as well as Robert Wilson. A little bit of humanness doesn't go amiss however and that's largely absent here. Jacques Imbrailo tries to bring some of that in as Pelléas, and it's hard to fault the performances of Mari Eriksmoen's Mélisande or Leigh Melrose's impressive Golaud, but despite everything none of them seem to make any real connection to the people, the place, the space or the music. I don't think it's the fact that the production had to be performed in an empty theatre or the arrangement of the orchestra spread are out into the parterre, but despite all the fine individual talents in place, there's a feeling that there is a connection missing to click it all into place.

Links: Grand Théâtre de Genève

Friday, 5 February 2021

Prokofiev - The Fiery Angel (Rome, 2019)

Sergei Prokofiev - The Fiery Angel

Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, 2019

Alejo Pérez, Emma Dante, Leigh Melrose, Ewa Vestin, Anna Victorova, Mairam Sokolova, Sergey Radchenko, Andrii Ganchuk, Maxim Paster, Goran Jurić, Domingo Pellicola, Petr Sokolov

Naxos - Blu-ray

Composed in 1927 but considered far too extreme to stage, Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel
was never fully performed or staged during the composer's lifetime. It is however an extraordinary opera and is indeed a work of extremes, one that pushes at musical, dramatic and psychological boundaries. There are consequently many different ways of approaching it, but in almost every case you have to wholeheartedly embrace its extremes and its madness. Emma Dante's 2019 production for the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma succeeds in just about every level, perhaps even getting close to illuminating what this strange and almost forgotten masterpiece is all about.

What it is, is what it is about. It's indeed about extremes, about the human experience pushing and being pushed to extremes, to the extent that it borders and almost spills over into madness; and what is madness but humanity pushed to extremes? The troubled Renata is not just schizophrenic who searches to recapture a hallucinatory vision of an angel that visited her as a child, but she is chasing what the angel represents; a growing to sexual awareness as well as the longing for fullness of being. She was able to indulge this burning desire in her marriage to Count Heinrich, but since he has abandoned her, her thirst for and taste of forbidden pleasures has not been sated.

The same can be said about Ruprecht, the travelling knight who hears her torments while staying next door to her in an inn. He doesn't see her the way others do as a wanton madwoman, but having seen much of the world and having visited the new world of America, he finds her state of mind compelling in its willingness to embrace something bigger than itself, her uniqueness and her determination to achieve it, and is consequently filled with lust for her. For this, he is even willing to indulge her journey to Cologne, visiting mages, scientists and philosophers in her quest to rediscover Heinrich - or what he represents for her in her mind - and he too wholeheartedly follows her down some strange paths.

The scientists, religious guides, occultists and the esoteric forbidden texts that they seek out and pore over are just another representation of the human desire to extend and expand knowledge of the capacity of mankind, to experience life fully on all fronts; love and tenderness, hatred and death, body and soul. It's evidently an endless quest, torn between angels on one side and demons on the other. That essentially is what Prokofiev pours into his incredible score for The Fiery Angel and it's what director Emma Dante strives to do justice to in visual and dramatic terms. If you achieve that, you have something remarkable; total opera. That is certainly the impression you get from this production.

It's a busy enough drama, but there is so much going on in the musical expression of the drama and its undercurrents, that it's simply not enough to just tell the story. The director finds some quite brilliant ways to highlight the ideas, the less tangible and the unknowable side of Renata and Ruprecht's restless quest, looking for answers, trying to solve the mysteries that lie on the boundaries of human experience and sexual desire. Setting it mainly in a crypt and in a book filled library to highlight the themes, Dante also employs extras and dancers who whirl and spin around the singers, dancing and moving to the music, a legion of fleeting thoughts and impressions that go through Renata's disturbed mindset. Even her related story of Heinrich and her encounter with Madiel finds visual representation on the stage, as they are very much present in the music.

If you can illustrate what the music is expressing the way Dante does - and it really is vivid, colourful, endlessly creative music - and you have great singers to draw the human side out of it, you have got an opera here that itself pushes the limits of human and artistic expression. The musical performance under the direction of Alejo Pérez is a marvel, perhaps all the more impressive for it being illustrated so well on the stage, but the sound recording on this video release is also just breathtaking, capturing the wild dynamic of the ever changing and evolving sound world, giving a wide soundstage to the instruments in the Blu-ray's High Resolution audio mixes. It sounds as incredible as it looks.

There's only one way to sing The Fiery Angel and that's with total commitment and controlled outpouring of passion. The only other work that I think comes close to this - or that this comes close to perhaps - is Wozzeck. Both take on an ambitious musical exploration of depths of human soul, the challenges of life, subject to misfortune outside of one's control to influence. It's up there with Elektra too in that respect. Like those works - early twentieth century masterpieces all - Prokofiev's piece is incredibly demanding but when done well impressive on a scale that few other operas can match.

The cast here are all excellent, all of which contributes to the overall impact of the opera and the production. Renata can't be anything but remarkable but that shouldn't be taken for granted, and Ewa Vestin has terrific presence, giving an excellent dramatic and singing performance that is controlled in its outpouring of emotions. She is matched by a fine Ruprecht in Leigh Melrose, but there are also excellent performances from Maxim Paster as Mephistopheles and Goran Jurić as the Inquisitor, the two anchoring opposing forces of the opera's extremes. Absolutely faultless in performance, impressive in direction, this is nothing but glorious opera.

The Naxos Blu-ray give this the kind of presentation you could hope for. The A/V quality is superb, the image clear, colourful and detailed, but it's the Hi-Res audio mixes that lift this to another level. The force and detail of the orchestral performance has tremendous presence around the singing voices, spread across the spectrum in both stereo and surround mixes. The enclosed booklet contains an essential detailed synopsis and an interesting interview with Emma Dante. The Blu-ray is all-region (A/B/C), BD50, with subtitles in English, German, Italian, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Teatro dell'Opera di Roma