Monday 26 July 2021

Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer (Bayreuth, 2021)

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer (Bayreuth, 2021)

Bayreuther Festspiele, 2021

Oksana Lyniv, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Georg Zeppenfeld, Asmik Grigorian, Eric Cutler, Marina Prudenskaya, Attilio Glaser, John Lundgren 

BR-Klassik streaming - 25th July 2021

Is it possible to basically undermine the original spirit and intention of a work and yet somehow get closer to a more universal truth? All great art is alive and constantly open to interpretation and speaks to each of us differently, and certainly in the world of modern productions of opera, that idea is often tested to the limit. Dmitri Tcherniakov certainly applies such standards, but so too do the current administration at Bayreuth. As bizarre as some of the spins are put on productions of his work however, Wagner only seems to come out the stronger for it. I'm not saying that Tcherniakov and Bayreuth brings any great new vision to this new 2021 production of Der fliegende Holländer, but Wagner's early working of his ideas for myth and opera certainly don't suffer from the experience of being brought a little more down to earth.

On the surface Tcherniakov's reworking of legend into reality is perhaps not as radical as his take on Der Freischütz at Munich earlier this year, but there is one major spin spelled out during the Vorspiel that does change the complexion of Der fliegende Holländer considerably. It becomes not a tale of tragic, romantic love and exile as a story of revenge, and perhaps madness. All myths of course have some basis in reality and the stories a human emotional dimension, so as presumptuous and misguided as it might seem, Tcherniakov elaborates a rationale for the Dutchman's fate.

During the Vorspiel we see the Dutchman as a child, witnessing and suffering the trauma of seeing his mother involved in an affair with a married man, subsequently ostracised from society and ending up taking her own life. The married man was Daland and, now an older man, Holländer comes back to the town to wreak his revenge on Daland by taking his daughter. It's not enough to just buy her, being far too easy to dazzle the avaricious man with money and jewels, but he needs to win and destroy the heart of his daughter in order to be satisfied that he has avenged his mother. The romantic myth of the Dutchman - which he himself elaborates to Daland's crew in Act I - is just a means to achieve that objective through the power of the story, the myth. So as a concept, it's not entirely detached from Wagner's own ideals and self-promotion.

One other fundamental difference that the director brings to his production of Der fliegende Holländer is that the sea does not feature at all. Nor ships and not even ports really. The opening scene seems to be a lads night out at the bar, taking advantage of the bad weather as an excuse to stay out drinking all night. The odd man at the other end of the bar however looks like trouble. The complete absence of the sea in this opera must be a first, and again it seems something of a deliberate pose. Since it's not really all that relevant to the underlying idea of the work - as much as the sea could be said to feature prominently in the music - the same story could be true of any small town where prejudice against strangers and foreigners exist, where small mindedness holds sway and refuses to recognise greatness, genius and originality. Again, not a million miles away from deeper themes that are consistent through Wagner's work.

In order to bring this tale to a suitable conclusion - one that doesn't rely on any high-flown romantic scenes of supernatural legend and mythology, Tcherniakov employs Mary to greater use than usual, casting her also as the mother of Senta. Although that means it's mostly a silent role outside of her traditional part as the leader of the spinning ladies in Act II, as Daland's apparently long-suffering wife, now witnessing his selling off of their daughter to a stranger, she ends the horror in a dramatic fashion at the conclusion of the opera. Senta's madness and delusion, brought about with what should have been a cautionary tale, comes crashing down to a state of shock as she understands what her mother has gone though.

If you haven't heard of Asmik Grigorian - and really there have been plenty of online and DVD opportunities in major productions to see what she can do - you will certainly hear more of that name after this production. She gives a phenomenal performance as Senta. Her reach and technical ability is outstanding, throwing herself physically into the role and soaring to those great heights of emotional outpouring. Her acting might be a bit overstated for some, but perhaps not, as Senta is by no means a rational person and is driven some kind of madness. Tcherniakov doesn't give her a background as he does the Dutchman, and it might have helped to understand more of her unhappy dysfunctional family background, but that is certainly hinted at, even in Wagner's depiction of Daland willing to sell her to a stranger, and in her unequal relationship with Erik.

Grigorian is undoubtedly the star of the night, but this is by no means a production that rides on one exceptional performance; the other singing performances are of an equally very high standard. Georg Zeppenfeld is as reliable as ever, currently untouchable in almost every Wagner bass role (and seems to be playing every Wagner bass role at Bayreuth). John Lundgren is superb as the dark, dangerous and menacing Dutchman with a real reason to bemoan and seek release from his fate. Eric Cutler is an Erik who makes a real impression and Marina Prudenskaya makes the most of the extended role for Mary.

There's no doubt however who the Bayreuth audience see as the hero and villain of this production and they make their feelings known quite loudly. Grigorian is subjected to a roar of approval, deservedly bringing the house down. The first female conductor at Bayreuth, Oksana Lyniv also met with widespread approval and it is indeed a fiery muscular performance of interval-less run-through version of the opera. Inevitably Tcherniakov divides the audience, accepts that many in the audience will not like what he does, but there is also cheering from those who appreciate his work here. If the production is alive and elicits such a reaction it has surely done something right, even if it doesn't align with preconceived ideas of what Holländer "ought" to be. Once again however, Wagner - even early Wagner - comes out the stronger for it, and isn't that how it ought to be?

Links: Bayreuther Festpiele, BR-Klassik

Thursday 22 July 2021

Handel - Acis and Galatea (Buxton, 2021)

George Frideric Handel - Acis and Galatea

Buxton International Festival, 2021

Christian Curnyn, Martin Constantine, Anna Dennis, Samuel Boden, Jorge Navarro Colorado, Edward Grint, David de Winter

Buxton Opera House - 18th July 2021

When it comes to Handel, the Baroque music and formality of the libretti can often be a little bit dry, particularly his pastoral dramas and religious oratorios. There's nothing however that a good bit of direction can't fix, and even the love story of a shepherd and a nymph in Acis and Galatea can be enlivened and made relatable, as the Opera Theatre Company demonstrated in their setting of the story as a drunken fracas in an Irish pub. Directed by Martin Constantine, Buxton's production also updates Acis and Galatea, but finds another way to work with the old-fashioned sentiments expressed in the libretto, though not quite so consistently or successfully.

Rather than finding a way into the work to make it come alive, the 2021 Buxton International Festival production takes a distanced half-hearted academic approach to the work, the setting being a Human Sciences International Symposium in 1962 being held to explore the subject of love - worldly and otherworldly - as it is dealt with in Handel's Acis and Galatea. It's not a bad idea as such, introducing the key players and bringing a focus through slides and projections to the key words and sentiments to do with love that librettist John Gay repeats throughout the opera. Hence, joy, pleasure and happiness are highlighted but also wretchedness.

Each of the delegates present their papers on the subject, while a stage hand provides props to put these ideas into the context of the present day. It being 1962, it's the model idea of the happy couple in a domestic setting, an armchair and a table with a pet bird in a cage perhaps symbolic of their love. Slides show the traditional roles of the charming dutiful wife cooking for and looking after her husband after a hard day's work tending his sheep. And then Polyphemus comes along and in a jealous rage crushes their love (the bird) and eventually his rage becomes so great that he strikes down Acis.

This scenario on its own attempts to get across the diversity and extreme nature of emotions engendered by love but can appear rather broad and superficial. Handel's music certainly weaves an elegant and stately path through the trials and vicissitudes of love. It's beautiful, stately, a little old-fashioned and rather French tragédie-lyrique in the formality of its drama dealing with the conflict between mortals and otherworldly creatures and gods, of which Acis becomes one of their number in the tragic conclusion. Musically its a delight although a little pedestrian and unvarying in pace and dynamic, so it can do with a little more oopmh (technical term) from the direction. Unfortunately it doesn't quite get it here.

Not all the actions relate to a conference presentation, but it's not clear either whether fiction becomes blurred with fact over a love affair between colleagues or whether there's an academic disagreement. The actions unfortunately don't really relate to what is going on. One baffling scene has Acis trying on jackets from a rail and ending up putting them on one on top of the other in his upset state, before being calmed down by Damon. Some of the tragedy is inevitably diminished by Acis suffering little more than an admittedly vicious blow to the head by his academic/love rival, but sometimes bringing Handel down to earth isn't a bad thing.

And in a way, the conclusion succeeds in some respect at getting that across. Throwing off their stuffy formal suits, the academics at the conference step down from the platform to enjoying the pleasures that nature has to bring. The reveal of a field behind the curtain and projection screen in the hall is also a little strange, but the idea is at least buoyed along by the music and sentiments of Handel's beautiful score. And by the singing. The quality of the ensemble is as essential in Handel as the individual voices and they were superbly cast here and beautifully delivered.

Anna Dennis was a sincere lyrical Galatea, Samuel Boden a fervent Acis, Edward Grint a suitably raging Polyphemus, Jorge Navarro Colorado combining the roles of Damon and Coridon with a lovely warm timbre, and David de Winter blending in beautifully as Chorus. The complementing of voices for the roles was lovely; Acis and Galatea genuinely sounded like a heavenly match together, contrasting with darkness of Polyphemus, the ensemble of five voices just gorgeous.

Christian Curnyn's direction of the Early Opera Company orchestra didn't always make the music sing, but if anything can make the sentiments of Handel and the potentially stuffy quality of the musical arrangements come alive in the absence of a suitable idea and setting it's the voices and by the conclusion, this Acis and Galatea was soaring.

Links: Buxton International Festival

Wednesday 21 July 2021

Wallen, Purcell - Dido's Ghost (Buxton, 2021)

Errollyn Wallen & Henry Purcell - Dido's Ghost

Buxton International Festival, 2021

John Butt, Frederic Wake-Walker, Idunnu Münch, Matthew Brook, Nardus Williams, Jessica Gillingwater, Timothy Dickinson

Buxton Opera House - 17th July 2021

Although I had read up on it beforehand and was intrigued by the idea of a contemporary addendum that extended Purcell's 1688 opera Dido and Aeneas, I wasn't quite sure how this was supposed to work or how successful it would be. What was clear was that it's a considerable challenge to take on probably the most revered early English opera and dare to rework it. It was all the more remarkable to discover that the composer Errollyn Wallen not only managed to surprise in the manner in which she integrated the new with the old, but quite how successfully she managed to do so in Dido's Ghost.

It's not that Purcell is considered sacred and untouchable in any case. Only the bare bones of Dido and Aeneas have been passed down in terms of musical arrangements, and there are several lost sections. I've seen those compensated for in productions that have inserted other suitable Purcell pieces as well as included complementary music by some of his contemporaries. I've also seen Dido and Aeneas played without any significant additions and it has been none the worse for it, feeling in no way incomplete in its narrative or sentiments. I've also seen Purcell misused, in the case of Katie Mitchell and Raphaël Pichon's Miranda, so the warnings are there that you need to tread very carefully.

That has certainly been taken into account in the choice of Wallen and librettist Wesley Stace to set Dido's Ghost as a kind of sequel that looks back to the events covered in Dido and Aeneas. It's like a flashback but not quite, rather something cleverer than that. Using additional material from Ovid relating to Dido's sister Anna, the opera seamlessly blends past and present, just as the music blends past and present superbly. It doesn't attempt to mimic baroque style but even though it uses more contemporary instruments, including an electric bass guitar, the modern elements don't sharply contrast either but rather extend out on ideas suggested by Purcell and by the narrative itself.

One way of looking at it, as inappropriate and incongruous as it might seem, is the way that a rap song can take a hefty sample of a classic track wholesale as a hook and add something new to it without in any way diminishing what makes the original great. Rather than ruin the original in fact, it often gives it a new sense of life and purpose. Essentially Wallen does that with an entire opera, enfolding Purcell's Dido and Aeneas respectfully into a new context that doesn't just rely on the brilliance of the original or diminish it, but extends on it and - perhaps - makes it even greater.

In narrative terms, Purcell's opera is presented, somewhat in keeping with its style, acted out as a masque, Anna asked to relate for the Trojans in Italy what happened back in Carthage and how Dido came by her fate. It's hard for Anna to revisit those painful events, but harder still for Aeneas's wife Lavinia, jealous of Anna's similarity and connection to her sister. She becomes increasingly troubled the further the story of her husband's first great love is related and, in Hamlet-like fashion identifies with the story. Encouraged by Belinda, the Spirit of the Theatre, she takes her part in the masque as the Spirit of the Sorcerer and, becoming consumed with the role and the events of the story, she plots to kill Anna/Dido.

Rather than Purcell's opera being enfolded as a standalone piece within the bookends of a new opera - which would have been a valid enough idea - Wallen and Stace are much more adventurous, ambitiously weaving the two together. It works brilliantly, drawing additional subtexts out of Dido and Aeneas. It is perhaps a little dry in places and difficult to figure out when past bleeds into the present, but in the back of your mind you know that it's all building towards that incomparable climax of 'Dido's Lament'. That piece can certainly be the recontextualised with losing any of its power and beauty, working even in the Miranda setting, but putting the words in the mouth of Aeneas here, distraught at the realisation of what he has engendered, somehow even deepens the tragedy.

It's a stunning conclusion and the audience at Buxton responded accordingly, with huge cheers and applause when the composer took to the stage for the curtain call at the third and final performance of the work at the festival. Following their previous reworking of baroque opera into a new pasticcio context for Georgiana in 2019, this is another hugely successful and ambitious venture from the BIF, the festival continuing to support new and rare opera while also attempting to extend their range and audience.

The production was also hugely impressive in its musical performance and presentation, which despite the skill of the composer, couldn't have been easy for John Butt and the orchestra to blend the different styles of music and instrumentation. Aside from fine lead performances from Matthew Brook as an authoritative Aeneas and Idunnu Münch an impressive Anna, there was fine support and substantial roles for Nardus Williams, Jessica Gillingwater and Timothy Dickinson. There was excellent use made of a 12 person chorus, some of whom also provided secondary roles.

Director Frederic Wake-Walker would have had a challenge to separate or make evident the slipping between past and present and wisely chose not to, letting dreams, spirits and desires blend into this super-charged enhanced mythical reality. It was very much about establishing mood and character, using simple effects like a net curtain to symbolise Anna's transformation into a river that enfolds Aeneas at the conclusion. It may not become a canonical version of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, but Wallen has nonetheless created a marvellous tapestry out of it, exceeding all expectations, providing a wonderful and thought-provoking evening at the opera.

Links: Buxton International Festival

Tuesday 20 July 2021

Arnold - The Dancing Master (Buxton, 2021)

Malcolm Arnold - The Dancing Master (Buxton, 2021)

Buxton International Festival, 2021

John Andrews, Susan Moore, Eleanor Dennis, David Webb, Catherine Carby, Fiona Kimm, Graeme Broadbent, Mark Wilde

Buxton Opera House - 16th July 2021

You might think after last year's cancellation on account of the pandemic that the Buxton International Festival might be inclined to play it safe this year, both in terms of health measures and in the choice of programme. The former was taken into account as far the wearing of masks and distanced seating, but the latter concession to programming Sondheim's A Little Night Music was already part of a plan to reach out and extend the audience for the festival. The only real programming concession was to select works that could be easier to rehearse and stage should lockdown conditions make things difficult, and the choice of Malcolm Arnold's The Dancing Master could hardly be said to be made as a popular attraction. It turned out however to be a very astute and entertaining selection.

It's not just that Malcolm Arnold is very much under-represented and unappreciated in his own country - reason alone for an English opera company to reassess and revive interest in his work - but The Dancing Master itself is something of a true obscurity, a lost work that failed to get produced when it was composed in 1952 and was quickly forgotten even by the composer who just went on to the next piece of work (Arnold among other commissions always in demand for film scores). Based on a 1671 play by William Wycherley in the classic Restoration comedy style, the submission of the piece as a TV opera was rejected by the BBC who found it rather too bawdy for their audience. Arnold never found a place for it and the opera was never to be performed in his lifetime or indeed, ever fully staged until now. So this would be quite a coup for Buxton if they could pull it off, and they have form in that regard.

Rather than see the likelihood of regulations for mask wearing and social distancing as a potential restriction, the director Susan Moore works with it and, mindful of the opera's troubled past, chooses to stage the production as if it were being produced by the BBC; not as a TV opera, but as a radio opera. Or perhaps more like the standing at microphone recording of a classic 1950s comedy show like The Goons. It's a great idea that plays well enough, although a decision has been made somewhere along the line to have it semi-staged as well - a device used also at Buxton this year (less effectively, I feel) in Acis and Galatea.

This does complicate the idea of it being a stand-up radio recording, but there is limited scope in that idea and it's probably just as important that the intention of the work is not too much removed from its original source material to the extent that it seems like it is being played in a distanced way. The Dancing Master might be a little dated but it deserves better than to be treated ironically, as Arnold's opera and Joe Mendoza's libretto have genuine affection and feeling for the setting and character of the original play. Moore's production for Buxton unquestionably attempts to do justice to that within the uncertain conditions of not even knowing what restrictions might be in place by the time this would come to be staged in July 2021.

The opera itself is well-balanced, almost through-composed to let the drama and humour and farcical situations flow easily, although there is room for some pretty arias and moments of reflection. The characters are likewise balanced, even if individually there are not characters of any great depth. The older people get the plum roles for colour and comedy; the Spanish loving Don Diego, his sister the prim Mistress Caution and her son, Monsieur Caution with his French affectations. The young lovers Miranda and Gerard just want to be free to make their own choices, but are forced into employing schemes to cover their tracks. So when Gerard is caught in Miranda's room, having climbed a ladder in search of a woman who has stolen his heart at first glance, he is forced to pretend that he is a dancing master, even though he has no dancing skills at all.

"Farce ensues" is the outcome and that is usually the sign of great entertainment to be had, particularly when there are ladders at windows and in some cases plenty of doors and wardrobes for hiding involved. This is far from the sophistication of The Marriage of Figaro however and the farce in The Dancing Master is much less complicated, almost entirely built around the fact that the supposed dancing master cannot dance with the only "twist" being that Miranda's father knew this all along. There is however some delightfully silly dialogue and preposterous pomposity. More than the plot or the characterisation, what is most enjoyable about the opera is Arnold's breezy score, which is deceptively light but far most sophisticated than it appears on the surface.

It's also enjoyable for the singing which presents some fine arias for Eleanor Dennis as Miranda, for David Webb's rakish Gerard and for the flirtatious maid Prue played by Catherine Carby, but Mistress Caution has some great moments and is played very well by Fiona Kimm. Graeme Broadbent blusters around marvellously as Miranda's Father Don Diego and Mark Wilde has a great time flouncing around as "Monsieur". Conducted by John Andrews, the Northern Chamber Orchestra brings a lightness of touch to Arnold's score, making this undeservedly lost work a thoroughly enjoyable rediscovery.

Links: Buxton International Festival

Friday 9 July 2021

Stephan - Die ersten Menchen (Amsterdam, 2021)

Rudi Stephan - Die ersten Menchen

Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam - 2021

François-Xavier Roth, Calixto Bieito, Kyle Ketelsen, Leigh Melrose, Annette Dasch, John Osborn

ARTE Concert

Many German and Austrian composers of the late Romantic period had their careers cut short by the wars that scarred the first half of the 20th century, but unlike the composers who fell foul of the Nazi regime, antisemitism and opposition to decadent subject matters in their opera compositions, Rudi Stephan's promising career was brought to an abrupt and tragic end at the age of 28, shot after only 16 days as a conscripted soldier on the Russian front in 1915. His only opera Die ersten Menchen (The First Humans), completed in 1914 at the start of the war and performed for the first time five years after his death, is one of the great 'lost' major works of this period, Stephan's untimely death consequently representing another great loss to the opera world suffered during these years.

It might sound like it has a Biblical subject, but subtitled 'An Erotic Mystery', Die ersten Menchen's story of Adam and Eve taps into the similarly controversial subject of taboo lusts and violent desires that Richard Strauss had recently explored in his extension of the musical language of Salome and Elektra. And since we're effectively dealing with the Garden of Eden, with references to creation and procreation of the human race, with gardens of lush fruits and rising sap, blooming flowers and forbidden fruit, we're evidently dealing with similar archetypal forces and images, likewise brought to vivid and colourful expression in Stephan's music score for the opera.

And indeed the woman, Chawa (Eve) sees the role of procreation and populating the earth as the primary purpose of her nature and being, identifying with the Spring season. Adahm (Adam) on the other hand identifies with Autumn, seeing his work as having ripened and come to fruition, at a stage in a cycle that needs nurturing and renewal. Their sons Kajin (Cain) and Chabel (Abel) each have their own urges and differing natures. It's too much for Kajin to handle, and his mind gets twisted, his head filled with tormenting desires that he is unable to control, lusting for a wild woman, for pleasure and gratification. Chabel on the other hand seeks a higher spiritual purpose in his contemplation of the universe, the infinite and the eternal God.

Adahm and Chawa are swayed by the beauty of Chabel's vision, expressed as much in the soft soaring lyricism of his voice as it is in the beauty of the imagery he evokes. His visions are persuasive, but in their own way as demented as Kajin's, whose lusts eventually drive him towards his own mother. Like any work that deals in archetypes - and they don't come much more significant than Adam and Eve - there are degrees of emphasis and interpretation. Stephan, and the original work, all suggest that there are disturbing elements to any fanaticism, to a singular vision, and that a balance is necessary - and evidently, this reflects to some extent the world in which Stephan was living at the beginning of another war that would engulf Europe and so quickly bring about his own death.

The director Calixto Bieito doesn't need to set this in the Garden of Eden to highlight or give emphasis to the Biblical association of the work or Stephan's treatment of playwright Otto Borngräber's controversial play and libretto. Some of it might seem silly, such as Chabel sacrificing a cuddly toy that spurts blood, but there is something disturbing in this and it is no less effective for its refusal to conform to hackneyed imagery that may no longer hold impact and meaning. Nor, since the strength of the work lies in archetypes, in the psychology, in the pathology, in the music - does it need elaborate set designs and high directorial concepts to make it come alive and speak directly to an audience.

The reconfiguration of the Amsterdam opera house for social distancing presents Bieito with new ways of staging the work. Since this opera calls for a large orchestra that could hardly effectively distance in an orchestra pit, the orchestra are spread out in tiers at the back of the stage behind a transparent screen. The director makes good use - not overuse - of the screen by projecting overhead camera angles and other imagery that works with and intensifies the drama, such as it is. The family unit is suggested by a house-shaped lightbox and a dining table bearing a colourful array of ripened, rotting and crushed fruit juices and seeds. If the intention - borne out by the over-ripe music - is to show an orgiastic descent into decadence and murder, the director gets the messy madness of the first family across, and it doesn't say much for the origins of the whole human race.

Whether - like Wilde's 'Salome' - the libretto actually says anything subversive and meaningful about a corrupt society with violent dangerous lusts that hides behind a facade of respectability, or whether it just strives for similar poetic colour and controversy, Stephan matches the tone of the libretto as successfully as Strauss adapts Wilde with necessary overstatement. What it does clearly get across with some measure of success is the enormity of the very first experience of death, matching that significant first death of a human, slain by his brother with the true horror of the death of so many others to come at a time when war has just broken out, a war that will very soon kill see the composer also killed by his "brother".

Alas! A great red wave is rolling this way!
Human bones float in it, doleful skulls, a quivering heart
The future blood of future humanity!
The thousands of men slain by their human brothers!

The music lives up to the grandeur of the language (exclamation marks aplenty!) as well as the indescribable horror of the setting. François-Xavier Roth conducts the orchestra through the glorious dramatic sweep of Stephan's score, which is truly ravishing. If the significance of the characters and the text of the libretto is a little obscure in places, the musical setting of the voices by Stephan is also impressive, pushing the performers to full expression. John Osborn gets a plum role as the lyrically soaring Chabel, which he delivers superbly, as always. Kyle Ketelsen's Adahm and Leigh Melrose's deeper conflicted Kajin are just as impressive in their respective roles.

Comparisons to Strauss's Elektra are most felt at the start of the second act of Die ersten Menchen, where Chawa feels the isolation of her position, the loss of a family turned inward against itself and lets out her frustrations in a howl of rage. It's consequently similarly challenging on a dramatic soprano vocal level to cut through the vast orchestral forces and Annette Dasch plays it well, certainly pushed at the higher range, but retaining that fine measure of lyrical expression that is characteristic of her voice.

Links: Dutch National Opera, ARTE Concert