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