Wednesday 20 January 2021

Donizetti - Pietro il Grande (Bergamo, 2019)

Gaetano Donizetti - Pietro il Grande

Fondazione Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo, 2019

Rinaldo Alessandrini, Marco Paciotti, Lorenzo Pasquali, Roberto de Candia, Loriana Castellano, Paola Gardina, Nina Solodovnikova, Francisco Brito, Marco Filippo Romano, Tommaso Barea, Marcello Nardis, Stefano Gentili

Dynamic - Blu-ray

There are definitely surprises and even some great underrated and largely unknown works by Donizetti being rediscovered and revived - the best being mainly perhaps his later French operas - but it's hard to imagine that anyone would consider the young composer's second opera Pietro il Grande (Peter the Great) to be a great opera. And yet even lesser Donizetti has much to recommend and enjoy, whether you are interested in exploring the influences on the composer's early work, whether you are interested in seeing how the work can be adapted and brought to modern audience, or whether you just want to be entertained by a pleasant light musical drama. There's definitely a bit of something for everyone in Pietro il Grande.

Although it might sound like a historical epic, Donizetti's opera is no Boris Godunov, more of a light comedy, an opera buffa. In Pietro il Grande, Peter the Great, the Czar of Russia comes to Livonia, thinly disguised as a government official called Menzikoff, arriving at the inn of Madam Fritz. He's looking for someone called Carlo who he believes might be Scavronsky, the lost brother of the Czarina. It's not all good news for Carlo, a humble carpenter, as he is in love with Annetta, who also has a mysterious secret background. Her father is Mazepa, the Ekman of the Cossacks, a traitor to his country and enemy of the Czar. How can this intolerable situation be resolved?

Well, that's the stuff and magic of opera, and somehow Donizetti and his librettist the Marquis Gherardo Bevilacqua Aldobrindini, manage to stretch out this thin plot more with colourful characters and musical situations than with any real dramatic action. They are the kind of character types you expect to find in a Donizetti or Rossini comedy, and often it's the secondary characters who deliver the most entertainment by stirring things up. In this case that's Madam Fritz and the pompous local magistrate Cuccupis, and this production is fortunate to have two excellent singers and performers in those roles; Paola Gardina and Marco Filippo Romano.

As far as musical setting goes, it's fairly conventional early Donizetti, but delivered of course with a variety of situations and melodic flair. There are the inevitable romantic situations and complications involving a great ruler and a lot of recitative which harks back to not so distant opera seria times, but also drinking songs, hunting songs and plenty of choral interludes pointing to what lies ahead. With secret identities and comic revelations Pietro il Grande is all very opéra-comique, and could easily pass for one of Offenbach's playful historical satires. Pompous characters are put in their place and ordinary people are shown to have far more respectable characteristics and more noble ideas of justice.

Like those works, it's not to be taken seriously but it is essential to enter into the spirit of the work, particularly on the part of the singers. Paola Gardina's Madam Fritz and Marco Filippo Romano's Cuccupis are, as I've mentioned, very much the comic driving force behind the work, particularly when playing off one another, with the magistrate even getting some of those Rossini rapid-fire tongue-twisters. The other roles are rather less interesting - even Roberto de Candia's Pietro - but Donizetti nonetheless provides plenty of opportunities to play up the comedy if a director is willing to work with it.

You at least get plenty of colour and spectacle to match the tone in the 2019 Festival Donizetti Opera production at the Teatro Sociale in Bergamo. No stuffy historical period costumes here, the set looks like it was designed by Paul Klee with Wassily Kandinsky helping out with the costume designs. That's a lot of colour! As if that's not enough there are occasional projections of geometric patterns to add to the backgrounds. It's just a little bit over the top, but it does suit the colourful situations of the cartoonish comedy-drama and add a little bit of spectacle to those scenes that tend to drag out what is after all a fairly thin plot.

With Ondadurto Teatro's Marco Paciotti and Lorenzo Pasquali directing, dull moments however are few and far between. At 2 hours and 45 minutes there's plenty of entertainment and some pleasant music to enjoy, with Rinaldo Alessandrini's conducting thoroughly in the spirit of Donizetti. Just as you think the orchestra sound like they might be flagging or losing interest in the routine parts of the score, there's a chorus or an increase in tempo or a Rossini-run to rev things up again.

The 2019 Donizetti Festival production is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Dynamic, who have really upped their game in terms of releasing interesting opera rarities and in the quality of their HD releases. The Blu-ray image here is fantastic, the screen exploding with colour. The soundtracks are in the usual Hi-Res PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 surround, both excellent quality with good clarity. There might not be a lot of nuance and detail in the actual score, but this gets the performance across well. The extras are all in the booklet and are useful and informative, looking at the history of the work and providing a tracklist and synopsis. The BD is all-region, with subtitles in Italian, English, French, German, Korean and Japanese.

Links: Donizetti Opera Festival

Monday 18 January 2021

Korngold - Die Tote Stadt (Brussels, 2020)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold - Die Tote Stadt

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2020

Lothar Koenigs, Mariusz Treliński, Roberto Saccà, Marlis Petersen, Dietrich Henschel, Bernadetta Grabias, Martina Russomanno, Lilly Jørstad, Florian Hoffmann, Nikolay Borchev, Mateusz Zajdel

La Monnaie Streaming - November 2020

As far as the arts are concerned, the Covid pandemic has changed everything over the last year. Those productions that have managed to be performed in the brief gaps between lockdown measures have had to be rethought and reworked for safety, both for the audience and the performers. In the case of Die Tote Stadt at La Monnaie, it's been particularly challenging for a director like Mariusz Treliński, the Polish film director who likes to take a flamboyant hi-tech approach to his opera productions, using movie references and cinematic techniques. Here it's like his toys have been taken away from him, but as I've noted before, this is such a powerful work in its own right that it needs little in the way of theatrical enhancement.

The production, intended to celebrate the centenary of the work, did start out rather differently when it was first produced in Warsaw, and it did indeed originally have all of the director's familiar enhanced theatrical and cinematic visuals. By the time it came to La Monnaie in Brussels - Belgium hit particularly bad by the spread of the virus - it was necessary to have a rethink to involve less technicians and put as much social distancing between the performers, the orchestra and the audience as possible.

I have to admit, as someone who has enjoyed this director's work in the past Manon Lescault, The Fiery Angel, Iolanta, Duke Bluebeard's Castle) I would have loved to see the full-blown production aligned to Korngold's extravagant orchestrations and melodies, but there is no doubt that the Brussels version of this particular work, re-orchestrated for 57 musicians with the runtime reduced to under two hours, benefits from letting the macabre elements of the Symbolist drama and the concentration of Korngold's musical composition speak for itself.

To say nothing of how it speaks a little more directly than ever before of the nature of the times we are living in, where the idea of a dead city is very much a real thing, and where many can undoubtedly identify with the loss of loved ones. Unsurprisingly, since it relates to a living double replacing a dead woman, Treliński relies on Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' as a reference, and the correlation it has with that work is again in these times much more evident and real, the focus turned very much more inward on the mindset of someone who has been disturbed by the death of a loved one.

The revised production design makes use of three boxes that provide some social distancing, but also serve as a way of showing mental distancing from reality and, although neon-lit, may even remind you of coffins. Ghosts reach out and cling to Paul, naked bodies lie under shrouds that he tries to reanimate. Sung with fervour by Roberto Saccà and with Lothar Koenigs ramping up Korngold musical forces with the reduced orchestration scarcely noticeable, you almost think he could do it. Some enhancements in the way of projections are sparingly and effectively used as backgrounds to allude to the location of the dead city being a projection of a disturbed mind rather than specifically Bruges or any real concrete place.

It's appropriate then that much as Paul is unable to see the beauty of the living Marietta as he longs for an impossible ideal of the perfection of the past that is Maria, opera too now has to deal with a much less perfect reality. That comes through in the performances which have been adapted to the new reality, allowing flesh and blood singers to convey everything that is great about Die Tote Stadt and everything that Korngold makes of it. Marlis Petersen embodies that in her singing and in her superb acting performance. Her 'Marietta's Lied' is just phenomenal in this context, and Paul/Roberto Saccà can be seen to be visibly moved by the beauty of life being breathed into music.

The orchestra of La Monnaie also take centre stage here. Almost literally. They are on the stage behind the performers, probably masked. The orchestra pit is used to extend the boundaries of Paul's mind, the singers donning protective face masks when they venture close to the socially distanced audience at the front of the theatre. Rather than be distracting this actually adds a frisson of real world concern and meaning to the subject. There's no happy ending to Paul's grief and delusion in
Mariusz Treliński's take on the story; the nightmare is the reality. Paul remains locked in, in lockdown; there's no escape from the city of death or the madness that descends.

Like in many other areas of our lives, there's clearly a need for opera to adjust to the new reality. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I have to say that La Monnaie have always been creative in their approach to opera, whether it was while holding productions in other locations during the restoration of the theatre a few years ago or in pioneering free live
streamed broadcasts. Working with a director like Treliński on Korngold they prove that it might not be necessarily be a bad thing to rethink approaches to opera and music and get back to basics. The new reality imposed by the pandemic is something that we might have to live with for a much longer time, but when opera and theatre does comes back, as it surely will, there's hope that it can be stronger than before.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt

Friday 8 January 2021

Janáček - Věc Makropulos (Geneva, 2020)

Leoš Janáček - Věc Makropulos

Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2020

Tomáš Netopil, Kornél Mundruczó, Rachel Harnisch, Aleš Briscein, Sam Furness, Anna Schaumlöffel, Michael Kraus, Julien Henric, Karoly Szemeredy, Ludovit Ludha, Rodrigo Garcia, Iulia Surdu

GTG Digital - 20 October 2020

The subject of Janáček's Věc Makropulos is definitely not a traditional one; it's a science fiction story derived from a play by Karel Čapek about a woman who has been blessed/cursed with the secret of eternal life. Science fiction and the fantastical are probably more common than you think in opera and long before the 20th century, not just in such overtly classic SF themes as Haydn's Il Mondo Della Luna, but you could even include the magical fantasy elements of such works as The Magic Flute, and Handel's Orlando and Alcina. As with literature however it's the human element that is essential, the SF or fantasy genre presenting a new prism through which to explore the limits of what makes us human. That, aligned with Janáček's modernist approach to opera offers many possibilities for The Makropulos Affair.

The most obvious theme and clearly one of the principal questions that the story explores is the human relationship to time. In a way this aligns the opera with similar themes in The Cunning Little Vixen; the need to accept the span of a lifetime as being wondrous in itself, but there comes a time when life needs to be renewed, the old making way for the new. It's not unreasonable then, particularly considering Emilia Marty's profession as an opera singer who has lived down through the ages, her origins coinciding with the birth of opera, to see that idea applied to opera itself and the need for the artform to reinvent itself in order for it to have continued relevance and meaning.

In that respect Janáček's Věc Makropulos, created in 1926, is very much a twentieth century opera, the composer also striking out for new musical ground. Here he expands on the psychological music drama of Káťa Kabanová and would take it even further in his final work From the House of the Dead, leaving behind the folk influence and conventions of his earlier works - as fresh and original as his approach to them was - and take opera in a new direction, pushing the idea of singing to follow vocal patterns, rather then vocals following musical rhythms. And yet time and timing is also a factor in Věc Makropulos, compressing a complex story with diverse characters and the relationships between them into a relatively short opera, the music measuring out its own idea of time.

If the Hungarian film director Kornél Mundruczó considers the idea of the work being representative of opera through the years, it's in pretty bad shape by the time Emilia Marty makes her appearance in this Grand Théâtre de Genève production recorded between Covid lockdowns in October 2020, with pre-recorded orchestra and chorus for social distancing reasons. She may impress young admirer Krista with her singing voice, dazzle Albert Gregor with her beauty and drive Janek Prus to distraction and suicide, but this Emilia Marty is noticeably rough around the edges, close to being on her last legs. As she removes layers of clothing, sores, stitches, weeping wounds and bandages are visible, all trying to hold her together, By the time we get to the second Act, she's connected up to an intravenous drip.

That idea of stagnating life (or opera) has been explored in other productions (Robert Carsen's Venice production made more of the theatricality aspect), but Mundruczó chooses to approach the idea of Emilia Marty or Elina Makropulos in a more open and modern context. Choosing androgyny rather than the usual beautiful femme fatale or opera diva, EM here can be seen in Janáček's opera and Čapek's story as the prototype of the enigmatic modern day rock star, like Bowie or Tida Swinton's Marianne Lane in Luca Guadagino's film A Bigger Splash. Her own personality is submerged behind identities and reinventions of herself to such an extent that she loses sense of her true identity and becomes a hollow shell of a person.

Whatever way you want to look at Emilia Marty or Elina Makropulos - whether diva or rock star or movie idol - she is an ideal that can never live up to the reality, as Janek's father Prus finds out when he sleeps with her. She is in fact the personification of everybody's dream and ideal, a cipher that everyone uses as an object onto which they project their own dreams, ideals and insecurities. You can also read into that the fate of the objectification of women, EM doing what she needs to do to get by through the ages, to survive at the hands of men and their laws. For Emilia, that's borne out here also in the struggle she has to get around the ideas of inheritance that favour first-born sons, but it soon becomes clear that she has suffered in other ways through the ages.

While Mundruczó doesn't over-emphasise these themes, he allows them to become more evident by removing the second act from its theatrical setting. Act II takes place in Marty's own apartment, one carefully designed to reflect her true personality, inspired by the modernist design of Hungarian-American architect Marcel Breuer. And what consequently comes out in this production is the strength it takes to face up to who you are. By accepting the reality instead of living the dream. Life only has meaning when it is finite. True immortality, or at least a version of it, is offered to Krista, as a singer, but she refuses take the easy option. It - personality, identity - has to be earned.

As likewise does gaining an understanding of what makes EM tick. Janáček's music goes some way to exploring the unusual psychology of Marty, who turns out to be a surprisingly modern phenomenon. Initially fragile and weak, holding no consistent musical theme or melody but just jagged pieces that do not hold comfortably together, her vocal lines strengthen towards the later part of the work, soaring to a conclusion of release or recognition. Mundruczó follows those rhythms, divesting Marty of her clothing and layers of identity until she re-enters time - the furniture and objects of the room floating in space at the moment of revelation - as she becomes truly human.

The singing performances are good, although there's a little uncertainty at first that Rachel Harnisch could carry off the role of Emilia Marty with the necessary charisma, as she is not made up to look like an ageless, timeless beauty. It's a deceptive impression - one that Janáček indeed writes as such - as she powers through to the conclusion in a state of undress. There are no concerns about Aleš Briscein, soaring and lyrical as Albert. All the performances are impressive, which is quite an achievement because Makropulos is a hugely demanding opera on performers, on musicians and on the audience. Without any intervals, the opera is still challenging and it demands total concentration to follow the implications of the court drama and psycho-drama. The rewards however are great, and with Tomáš Netopil conducting, this production holds you rapt and does lead you to consider the circumstances of the characters, and feel the weight of the challenges time and life present to them.

Links: Grand Théâtre de Genève