Thursday 27 May 2021

Alfano - Risurrezione (Florence, 2020)

Franco Alfano - Risurrezione (Florence, 2020)

Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, 2020

Francesco Lanzillotta, Rosetta Cucchi, Anne Sophie Duprels, Matthew Vickers, Leon Kim, Francesca Di Sauro, Romina Tomasoni, Nadia Pirazzini, Ana Victoria Pitts, Barbara Marcacci, Filomena Pericoli, Nadia Sturlese

Dynamic, Blu-ray

Rosetta Cucchi's production of Franco Alfano's Risurrezione was something of a revelation for me when when I first saw it at the Wexford Festival Opera in 2017. Not only did it serve to give much better representation of a composer who is only really known by most for having completed the last Act of Turandot when Puccini died, but it helped illuminate better the idea of opera verismo. More than just being about realism and the misfortunes of ordinary people, it can also be seen in many of its best works (La Bohème, Cavalleria Rusticana) to elevate the lives and suffering of ordinary people to something of a spiritual level.

If you are looking for an author in literature author who is capable of doing precisely that it's Count Leo Tolstoy. To be fair many of the classic Russian writers including Turgenev and particularly Chekhov achieve that in their writing, but no-one else lived their beliefs out quite the same way as Tolstoy. Repudiating even his greatest works and turning his back on the wealthy, dissolute lifestyle of being born into nobility, Tolstoy would choose to dedicate the rest of his life to not only celebrating the spiritual and morally pure existence of a life of hard work and poverty in his writing, but he would live his life according to those values as well.

Tolstoy documented his early life experiences in 'Childhood, Boyhood and Youth', and there's clearly also a semi-autobiographical element to the character of Prince Dmitri and his reckless womanising behaviour in his later work 'Resurrection'. A well-off noble, on a visit to his aunt's country house just before joining the army, Dimitri renews a childhood romance with Katyusha, one of the maids of the household who has now grown into an attractive woman. It's not so much a renewal of an innocent romance as much being aware that he has the power, position and authority to prey on the naivety of the young woman to seduce her.

In Act II we discover that Katyusha is pregnant from that fleeting encounter. Hearing that Dimitri is returning wounded from the front on his way home to St. Petersburg, she goes to the train station to see him and tell him of her predicament. Fearful, hoping he will understand, the bleakness of the conditions don't offer much comfort to Katyusha agonising outside in the cold winter, her fate hanging in the balance. Alfano's opera (not unlike Act III of La Bohème) cleverly interweaves a scene of drinking, gambling and a drunken dispute going on in the station, a scene that also alludes to other vices of the young Tolstoy. 

When Dimitri passes by without seeing her, a beautiful woman on his arm, Katyusha's fate is sealed; vagrancy, destitution, prostitution and a decline that sees her in Act III and IV unjustly condemned to 20 years imprisonment in Siberia. Dimitri however has recognised her, is repentant of his actions, has sought her out and wants to gain forgiveness by trying to save her. Katyusha's feelings about how that can be attained however are quite different and on a different level from Dimitri.

Musically, Alfano's score is wholeheartedly verismo in its range and dynamic, reminding one certainly of Puccini. The situations, the passing of the seasons, the joy of young love and foolishness turning to trials and pain of dealing with the harsh realities of life mirror scenes in La Bohème to an extent. The difference between them is that Puccini's subjects never let him achieve the same kind of of redemptive, soaring spiritual enlightenment that Alfano reaches for in Tolstoy's writing, failing to see - perhaps realistically - any other outcome for his troubled protagonists than death.

Risurrezione strives for a higher purpose, looking beyond death and material concerns towards a spiritual rebirth, and in that respect, Katyusha's journey is perhaps closer to Manon Lescaut in its trajectory and search for redemption for past sins. In the light of Risurrezione I wonder however whether it might be worth looking anew at this lesser and often unsatisfactorily staged Puccini to consider whether he wasn't striving towards a similar transcendental experience in that problematic final act, and whether the opera might be made to work with a staging as sympathetic to it as this one is to Alfano.

In staging Risurrezione it would be enough just to match the emotional content of the music and the drama to the weather conditions of each of the seasons that accompany and heighten the situations and experiences to an almost unbearable level of anguish. The shock of the verismo realism is powerful in its own right, and Rosetta Cucchi's direction doesn't flinch from showing the grim situations to the full. Much more tricky is allowing a sense of hope and meaning for such misery and suffering to take you through to the extraordinary finale of death and rebirth, but the director does that extraordinarily well. Using the image of a young girl seen out of the corner of Katyusha's eye to occasionally wander into each scene, it's a fine way to suggest a sense of the inner woman, the inner child and the necessity to rediscover the innocence of youth.

It's a fantastic idea that works well with the intent of the piece. How much you can hear of that in Alfano's music I'm not so sure, but there is repeated motif reflecting on a photograph of Katyusha taken when she was young in garden of Prince's aunt and the director expands on this to great effect. Conductor Francesco Lanzillotta certainly brings out the fullness of the emotional content of the score, but in order to feel the pain that deeply there must be some sense of human vulnerability there, as well as the human strength to rise out of it. That comes out in all its glory in the finale of the opera and the production's magnificent staging of it.

The human element in opera is of course best expressed through the voice and although Katyusha is evidently a challenging central role to deal with emotionally as well as on a technical level Anne Sophie Duprels reprises her 2017 performance of the role at Wexford here to striking effect. Matthew Vickers is a little bit stiff by comparison, but Dimitri it must be said is a rather more difficult figure to relate to. Vickers nonetheless sings the role well enough to feel some sympathy for this character. Leon Kim sings the baritone role of Simonson, the prisoner who falls in love with Katyusha in Siberia, warmly and with feeling.

This world premiere video recording of Risurrezione, recorded in January 2020 at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Dynamic. Image and sound are marvellous on the Blu-ray capturing the tone of the work and its presentation well in Hi-Res Stereo LPCM and surround DTS HD-Master Audio mixes. The enclosed booklet contains a tracklist, a full detailed synopsis and an informative essay on Alfano's and an analysis of the opera. The booklet is in Italian and English. The Blu-ray is region-free, BD50, and offers subtitles in Italian, English, French, German, Korean and Japanese.

Friday 21 May 2021

Blacher - Romeo und Julia (Duisberg, 2021)

Boris Blacher - Romeo und Julia

Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Duisberg - 2021

Christoph Stöcker, Manuel Schmitt, Florian Simson, Jussi Myllys, Lavinia Dames, Katarzyna Kuncio, Günes Gürle, Andrés Sulbarán, Beniamin Pop, Renée Morloc

OperaVision - 19 March 2021

Adaptations of Shakespeare to opera inevitably involve some level of cutting and reworking, to various extents and to various levels of success. Compromises would have also been made in centuries past - in Verdi, in Thomas and Berlioz - in libretti where the composers were working from less than ideal translations of Shakespeare's text. Some relatively modern adaptations have been much more successful in retaining as much of the poetry of the text and the spirit of the original as possible, notably Aribert Reimann's Lear and Brett Dean's Hamlet, surely two of the most difficult Shakespeare works to imagine being adapted to music.

The narrator at the prologue of Boris Blacher's 1943 chamber opera Romeo und Julia - a German cabaret chansonnier dressed in drag as Queen Elizabeth - suggests that this is not going to be the most faithful of Shakespeare adaptations, and although he promises a two hour telling, the 70 minute running time doesn't really appear to be capable of providing anything more than just a surface retelling of a doomed romance. That's still a lot of Shakespeare to compress down without losing the poetry and essence of the work, so evidently the music is going to have to do some heavy lifting here.

And to some extent, Blacher's opera does so much more successfully than you might imagine - impressively even - particularly since the reduced orchestration consists solely of string quintet, piano, flute, bassoon and trumpet. Secondary characters, including Friar Laurence, are combined in a tightly harmonised eight person chorale singing in oratorio-like fashion. Musically it's surprisingly varied in tone and arrangement, with a Kurt Weill-style cabaret narrator interludes and chamber orchestration that manages to capture the mood of each scene, from the dramatic fight, to the celebratory party, to the famous romantic encounters and the tragic finale.

The abridged and musically reduced version might have been something of a necessity for an opera composed during the war, but Romeo und Julia nonetheless benefits in benefits from this kind of compression and condensing, bringing a tighter focus to the love story. If it is less attentive to the detail of the wars between the Capulet and Montague, the real world outside would have provided plenty of context for that. Which in turn makes this an opera not only eminently suitable for staging in the current lockdown conditions, but one where we can understand the difficulties of people trying to carry on relationships under adverse conditions where circumstances and vast forces beyond their control strive to keep them apart.

Inevitably the drama of Romeo und Julia seems a little rushed and overheated if you are familiar with the play, but in truth, even the original play is overheated in how quickly passions and bloods are ignited in both love and in violence, and in how deeply these experiences cut. It's about young people, impetuous, quick to react, dismissive or even contemptuous of the consequences of not following the rules of their elders. The concision of Blacher's opera works then to the benefit of the headlong rush to abandon oneself to the passions of the moment, and the music does it's best to keep up with them.

Even if you're not all that familiar with the play, the tighter focus, the choice of scenes, the music, the handling of the characters and the use of a chorus makes it relatively easy to follow in this opera version. It helps that the poetry of the original is retained in as much as it can be in German translation, the English subtitles in this recorded version for OperaVision even choosing to adhere directly or much more closely to Shakespeare's original text. And when it has such famous lines, well, why wouldn't you?

Manuel Schmitt's directing for the Deutsche Oper am Rhein production is fairly simple but effective in the way that it contributes to highlight Blacher's take on the work and matches its austere chamber arrangements. The costumes are contemporary but there's nothing here trying too hard to be radical, just enough to be suitable and give a sense of the roles of each character. There is little need for over-decoration of the set either, the main action taking place on simple bare stage surrounded by neon-pipe lighting. Romeo and Juliet and the youths occupy centre stage, while fathers, mothers and other authority figures taken up by the chorus remain above on a surrounding platform.

There is however another level hinted at here, the stage rising to reveal a backstage underworld of sorts. Without getting too meta, it's partly an allusion to a narrative level, since the work has the chansonnier walk-on interludes, but it also hints at those external factors that extend the story outwards. All the world is indeed a stage, and each has their role to play. The distinctions and boundaries between our roles as actors, observers or facilitators is not always clear and that's also perhaps hinted at in the work or the production - particularly with many roles being subsumed into a chorus - or something at least that occurred to me while watching this.

Likewise, it's telling that there is a role for musicians on stage here and for "music with her silver sound", a minor scene in Romeo and Juliet (not one I even remembered, but I checked and it is there), but one which Blacher feels duty bound to include in his opera. The music Blacher writes for the work is indeed lyrical and dramatic for all its minimalism, conducted here by Christoph Stöcker to full heightened effect. The writing for the voices is lyrical too and beautifully sung here by Jussi Myllys and Lavinia Dames as Romeo and Juliet, the chorus also contributing to the overall success of this worthy and fascinating work that Deutsche Oper am Rhein have revived for us.

Links: OperaVision

Wednesday 12 May 2021

Henze - Das verratene Meer (Vienna, 2020)

Hans Werner Henze - Das verratene Meer

Wiener Staatsoper, 2020

Simone Young, Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito, Vera-Lotte Böcker, Josh Lovell, Bo Skovhus, Erik Van Heyningen, Kangmin Justin Kim, Stefan Astakhov, Martin Häßler, Jörg Schneider

Wiener Staatsoper Live - 14 December 2020

Yukio Mishima's novella The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea seems like an unusual work to be adapted to opera, but it's a layered work of unusual psychological complexities that must have been of interest to Hans Werner Henze. Mishima was certainly interested in exploring unusual and taboo behaviours in characters seeking to break out from social restrictions and find an inner sense of order, purpose and meaning. In order to achieve that there is a need for dedication to purity, never showing weakness, seeking to find the spiritual in the physical. That conflict can develop into disillusionment or perhaps even something darker and more dangerous.

Short but densely layered, Henze finds a way in his musical treatment of his 1989 opera Das verratene Meer (The Sea Betrayed) to illustrate and probe those lusts, passions and urges and then attempt to align them with a sense of order that topples over into disorder. There are signs of repression of urges and taboo behaviour in the household of Fusako Kuroda, a widow in the Japanese port of Yokohama, the owner of a clothes shop, who still has sexual urges and seeks out company of sailors. Her 13 year old son Noboru has incestuous thoughts about his mother and spies on her when she undresses at night.

Mrs Kuroda is invited by Ryuji Tsukazaki, the second mate on the freighter Rakuyo Maru which has just come into port, to look around the ship, bringing Noboru with her. Ryuji describes himself as a man of the sea, someone who has a close relationship with the sea that is different from those who live on the land. The sea offered him a sense of excitement exploration and adventures, the sense of something else out there, but it hasn't lived up to its promise. He finds one port very much the same as the other, yet is still drawn towards the sea. When Fusako invites him over to get to know him better however, he sees the possibility of settling down there. 

Noboru isn't sure what to make of this new man in his mother's life. He sees a man conflicted and spies on Ryuji and his mother making love. Lacking a father and fascinated by the sea and adventure he idolises the sailor, wants to ensure that he finds his purpose, a sense of fulfillment, something that proves that there is meaning and order on the world. His friends however are less impressed. Influenced by them Noboru comes to lose faith in the sailor, seeing his infatuation with his mother as a weakness, one that steers him away from his much more important 'pure' relationship with sea.

In some ways the psychology of the work is basic archetypes, a little bit Freudian, but there is definitely an ambiguity to the resulting shock outcome that Mishima and Henze perhaps have different outlooks on. For Mishima its an allegory for the Japanese nation's fall from glory whereas for Hans Werner Henze - without changing a single thing about the work - Das verratene Meer can be seen as something different. Not unlike his version of Der Prinz von Homburg, it undercuts the idealisation of a heroic death, and like Homburg,Henze is undoubtedly drawing on the same personal response to his own country, his father, his experience of the military and his homosexuality.

Henze's music is by no means purely illustrative accompaniment then but seeks to conjoin the drama with the inner forces and the nature of the world. Order is imposed by man and is not only contrary to nature - as the killing of a cat can be said to demonstrate - but it can lead to harmful and dangerous consequences. Inevitably it's tense, driven, dark music that inhabits the same sound world as Benjamin Britten's dark explorations of human conflict and lusts as The Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice, although coming a different musical tradition, that of Alban Berg with a little of the harsh dissonance of Aribert Reimann.

Henze uses a full range of orchestra resources at his disposal to achieve this, with full orchestral blasts as well as reduced instrumentation, punctuated with various percussion sounds. As with the Stuttgart Der Prinz Von Homburg, there is  terrific cast and orchestra here to do justice to the force of Henze's unsettling score, and a sympathetic conductor in Simone Young. The final cymbal claps of the execution of the sailor by the teenage boys coming across not just like killing blows, but like the crashing of waves from the vengeful sea.

Superbly directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito for maximum impact of the unsettling qualities of the work, the production sets the opera in the surroundings of a port of bare concrete. That and the presence of railings that signify the presence of the sea through, remain throughout the fourteen scenes that overlap and draw together the mental as well as physical locations of a bunker, a bedroom and the door of the shop. Brutalist ugliness and poetic reverie are in this way combined in the set design as they are in the music. Most impressive - as she was also in the cast for the 2018 Stuttgart Der Prinz von Homburg - is Vera-Lotte Böcker singing the challenging vocal range of Fusako, but there are excellent performances also from Josh Lovell as Noboru and Bo Skovhus as Ryuji.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper, Wiener Staatsoper Live

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 paints 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 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