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.

Links: Amazon.uk

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