Wednesday 25 August 2021

Mozart - Don Giovanni (Salzburg, 2021)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Salzburger Festspiele, 2021

Teodor Currentzis, Romeo Castellucci, Davide Luciano, Mika Kares, Nadezhda Pavlova, Michael Spyres, Federica Lombardi, Vito Priante, David Steffens, Anna Lucia Richter

ARTE Concert - 8th August 2021

There are many facets to Mozart and Da Ponte's trilogy of operas, many facets of human behaviour that can be explored in them, universal traits that provide no easy answers to questions that on the surface can appear - and be played - as comedies but which underneath touch on some very disturbing subtexts. Don Giovanni can be depicted as villain or a victim of his own lusts - someone who loves too much, as someone who just isn't used to taking no for an answer, or in today's view, as a sexual predator and abuser of women. Don Giovanni is always worth a fresh perspective, but - perhaps more controversially (and it isn't often you can say that there is something more controversial in a production than the stage direction of Romeo Castellucci) - Mozart's score is also worth looking at in new ways. 

Teodor Currentzis has been upsetting those who like their Mozart played in the familiar Classical style for quite a while, but he's certainly not the only conductor finding more interesting facets to Mozart using historically informed direction on period instruments and using reduced ensemble orchestration. With Mozart's opera seria works that might be more palatable - and Salzburg have presented interesting Currentzis directed productions of La Clemenza di Tito in 2017 and Idomeneo in 2019 - but Don Giovanni is a different matter altogether. Rather than simply playing it to a way that has become rote and unadventurous over the years, Currentzis again seeks new ways to explore and express the wealth of character that is within Mozart's music. Forcing the listener to really listen to it. Making it feel fresh, shiny and new again. Like a virgin.

There's a theme that a director like Castellucci would certainly seize upon in a work like Don Giovanni, but there are less obvious ways to approach that. And there's maybe an allusion to stripping away the image of the sanctity of Mozart being forced into accepted conventional interpretations in the opening scene of Salzburg's Don Giovanni. In a white temple like setting, workmen strip away the Christian iconography of a church, leaving the elegant bare white edifice to show its basic underlying structure, ready to be built upon anew. A flame burns away any remaining holiness and indeed, the first person seen on the stage is a naked woman (well, it is Castellucci), one presumably no longer a virgin, since she has evidently been seduced/raped by Don Giovanni.

Rather than keep it simple and minimal, Castellucci then bombards the stage with all manner of effects, symbols and supernumeraries. A car crashes down on to the stage, a wheelchair, basketballs, a broken piano. Don Giovanni, Leporello and the Commendatore are dressed in white, while the avenging Donna Anna comes storming on in black with a retinue of Furies that surround and strive to bring Don Giovanni to justice for his crimes against women. It looks like Don Giovanni has juggled too many basketballs this time. The recitative as Don Giovanni and Leporello make their escape is played out with cartoon eyes on a black screen, Donna Anna mourns the crutch of Commendatore, Don Ottavio pours red powder on his arms and punctures a line of basketballs in his promise of securing revenge.

This is evidently not the Don Giovanni you might be familiar with but neither is it inappropriate to the tone of the work and its treatment by Mozart and da Ponte. It might do something different with the visuals and the pace, the use of instruments and emphasis of the music, but it still engages with the themes and the tone of the work. It's not so much Don Giovanni's debauchery and libidinous lifestyle that are condemned here as much as his failure to accept responsibility for and deal with the consequences of his actions. He leaves death and the destruction of lives behind him (something seized upon with a more political slant in Michael Haneke's version), including a suggestion that he has abandoned a pregnant Donna Elvira (Federica Lombardi doubled with a naked pregnant woman), while a child also pursues Don Giovanni on the stage.

The lightness of the treatment and the heaviness of the underlying implications is borne out in the music. Leporello's 'Madamina, il catalogo è questo' has a lovely lightness, the piano weaving in and out of the musicAeterna arrangement, the beauty of the aria contrasted with the sinister note behind the revelations of conquests. Castellucci provides plenty of contrasting imagery, mixing the absurdity with the comedy, with pointed symbolism and contemporary references that include a photocopier. Likewise he brings Michael Spyres's Don Ottavio on wearing a Danish mountaineer outfit (a familiar inscrutable symbol also used in his Moses und Aron) accompanied by a poodle. It looks ridiculous (several characters have a live animal avatar - Masetto a mouse, Don Giovanni a goat) but takes nothing away from the chilling account of Donna Anna on the recognition of her father's murderer, the scene re-enacted as a Greek tragedy.

Which is something that the legend of Don Giovanni could certainly be said to aspire to, it not being entirely out of place with the opera seria reworkings of mythology that preceded Mozart in the earlier part of the 18th century. Just as Mozart brought a contemporary edge to that genre in his progressive music and Da Ponte in the humanisation of the drama while still retaining the otherworldly elements that elevate it to grand drama - so Castellucci brings a corresponding touch of re-interpretation of an epic myth for a modern age while reflecting and respecting the underlying complexity of the work's blend of surrealism, comedy, tragedy, symbolism and instruction on the consequences of moral dissolution. In an expansive gesture that brings 150 women as extras to the stage, Don Giovanni here is held to account for his crime not by a stone statue, but by the women he has wronged. 

Teodor Currentzis seems to be doing his best to submerge as much as possible any of Mozart's familiar melodic embellishments. Whether this is for the sake of upsetting those who like their Mozart played in a conventionally acceptable way, whether it's out of sheer bloody-mindedness to stake out is reputation for being a fearless re-interpreter of Mozart, or whether he finds it appropriate to reevaluate and strip away the varnish of mannerisms that the work has accrued over the years and present a more historically informed account of the score is something the musicologists can argue over. Aligned with the drama an Castellucci's sensibility, the music however doesn't lose a fraction of its distinctive Mozartian qualities of beauty, sensitivity or dramatic flair.

Think what you might also of Romeo Castellucci's contribution, whether it adds any value or provides any new insights but - much like his stunning Die Zauberflöte for La Monnaie - it's certainly original, often spectacular and rarely dull, always surprising with some new idea that puts emphasis on different aspects of the work. It's also not without the occasional bit of flash/bang showmanship, which Mozart wasn't beyond employing himself. Castellucci has become a stylist in white haze, his productions as distinctive now as Robert Wilson's geometric minimalism in blue, and just as visually arresting in their conception, design and execution. This looks simply stunning and impressively choreographed.

It has to be said however, that it's more of an "interesting" production than a great one. Despite the efforts to bring "real people" onto the stage (see Castellucci's rather more successful Die Zauberföte again) and the impressive efforts to pull it all together into a coherent whole, it doesn't always succeed in finding the human warm within the work where it traditionally should. The idea of making Don Giovanni and Leporello look almost identical is another fine idea that makes the identity confusion more realistic, but it also loses something when the two baritones are practically indistinguishable.

Perhaps just as much at fault as the production, the singing didn't quite measure up or compensate for the lack of human warmth in the production. The singing is generally fine, and of a very high standard, as you would expect, but despite good performances from Davide Luciano as Don Giovanni (stripped fully naked at the finale) and Vito Priante as Leporello, and with perhaps the sole exception of a mighty performance from Nadezhda Pavlova as Donna Anna, the production never allowed you to engage with any of the characters of at least sympathise with their dilemma. Overall, this feels like an admirable production with good ideas and visuals, that despite its controversial trappings, plays out nonetheless in a rather run of the mill fashion.

Links: Salzburg Festival, ARTE Concert

Sunday 15 August 2021

Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Aix-en-Provence, 2021)

Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2021

Simon Rattle, Simon Stone, Stuart Skelton, Nina Stemme, Jamie Barton, Josef Wagner, Franz-Josef Selig, Dominic Sedgwick, Linard Vrielink, Ivan Thirion

ARTE Concert - 8th July 2021

Director Simon Stone typically approaches Tristan und Isolde in his 2021 Aix-en-Provence Festival production with the intention of updating the opera to a more meaningful contemporary age. As wrong-headed as that might seem, since the drama - such as it is - and principal motivating force in Wagner's opera and music score takes place in a realm almost entirely outside of any physical time or place, Stone nonetheless has good form with his modern updates both in the world of opera and in the theatre. There's a complete reworking of the drama and the motivating forces behind it in this production, but Wagner's sublime music proves - as always - to be supremely capable of withstanding and supporting any number of extravagant directorial ideas and concepts. 

If you want to relocate Tristan und Isolde in the present day, minus magic love potions and the forced relocation of the Queen of Ireland by sea to a forced marriage with the King of Cornwall, you do nonetheless need to replace it with something suitable and meaningful. There's a natural division in the opera between the physical reality and an idealised dream-like exploration of powerful forces that extend beyond and transcend material human boundaries. Krzysztof Warlikowski also recently exploited that division in his 2021 Munich production and for the festival at Aix, Stone proposes viewing the heightened reality as a kind of love/vengeance fantasy on the part of the disturbed mind of a wife whose husband has been unfaithful to her.

Much of this is laid out in the Vorspiel and inevitably Wagner's music has a lot of weight to carry in order to establish this as any kind of viable idea to impose upon Tristan und Isolde. Witnessing her husband (Tristan) canoodling with a work colleague or friend at a dinner party in their fancy apartment, Isolde goes to bed in Act I dreaming of stormy sea with ideas of burning revenge and probably divorce raging in her dreams. Rather than drink from some arcane flask of magic potion, here at the conclusion of Act I it's a collection of prescription drugs and a cachet of cocaine in a cardboard shoe box that acts as a drug to heighten the personal turmoil of emotions going on between them.

As ever in this particular work, you need to carry this though to its conclusion to determine whether this domestic arrangement can be sustained, but it has to be said that Stone at least does establish it in spectacular fashion in Act I. You might be less inclined to go along with this idea as it is initially laid out where it not for the power of Wagner's music to scour the depths of human emotional response. It sustains the dramatic and conflicting tensions of love, hatred and desire that exists between Tristan and Isolde through to the release from any inhibiting factors to its expression at the end of the first act. There's still quite a bit to go though, and it's not easy to piece it all together into something coherent in Stone's production.

Act II abruptly takes us to an office where Isolde appears to be the manager, where the staff - in line with present circumstances - observe social distancing and mask wearing in the workplace. The day after the night before, the consequences still reverberating in Wagner's score, Tristan is shown the door with his suitcase. His reappearance in the office however leads - slightly confusingly - to a seamless flashback of the consuming love the two of them once had. To add to the complex layering of the situation and the resonances in Wagner's music, younger Tristans and Isoldes re-enact the beginning of their affair in parallel scenes during 'O sink hernieder'. It's revealed that the affair indeed started as an office romance when Isolde was already married and had a young child, the discovery of the affair breaking up her marriage.

It's not the traditional telling of the story of Tristan und Isolde by any means and it risks undermining the context and intended meaning of the drama, but it certainly touches on the underlying sentiments, if somewhat obliquely. More than that it in fact, with a vision of an elderly Isolde and Tristan in a wheelchair, it attempts to telescope the entirety of sentiments that contribute to a fully rounded and lived relationship, and encapsulate within it the depth of feeling that two people can have for one another. It's not just two people each with the own feelings but something greater that has grown between them, a love that is called Tristan AND Isolde, something that exceeds the boundaries of flesh and blood existence and can only reach its fulfilment in death. And damned if you don't feel that when it is laid out like this.

Laying it out, as simply as possible in all its complexity, is indeed the purpose of a director and Stone achieves that to a remarkable degree. It's no mean feat to match and fuse the sentiments expressed in the music and in the abstract dramatic expression of what love means, and translate that into something relatable. For the most part, Stone makes every moment feel meaningful and prevents anything from dragging - King Marke's monologue excepted, which eludes even Stone's ability, particularly as it's difficult to figure out what this Marke's relationship is with Isolde in the layered timeline. Obviously she's his wife at this point, but after Act I it's not that clear how it has come about. On the other hand, Isolde seeing Tristan wounded by Melot at the end of Act II and attempting to take her own life seems like a thoughtful pertinent touch.

Things perhaps become clearer in Act III, showing how the latter scene was in the main a flashback interlude at a point where Isolde had left Marke for Tristan. There is a murmur in the audience as Act III opens - defying even the wildest expectations of where this might be going - on a moving train running through the Paris underground Metro line. It sure as heck wasn't going to be the usual static scene on Kareol anyway. Closer to the immediate aftermath of the Christmas party, here Tristan and Isolde are on their way to a function - or perhaps an opera  - in formal dress. Or more likely since they are heading out of the city - stopping at each of the stations on the Porte des Lilas line - just back from one. At the conclusion - major spoiler alert - Isolde catches Tristan texting his mistress and Melot defends her honour by stabbing Tristan as the passengers get off at their station.

I don't really care what justification Stone has for this, and I'm not even sure it goes against my previous belief that Tristan und Isolde is stronger when it plays out in the abstract, letting the spirit of the work and the music flow without being tied to any realistic physical realm. A subway train is both as abstract and as real as any a place for Tristan to agonise through his last moments of life, in isolation amidst the oblivious and sometimes concerned glances of the other passengers. It has a suitable air of surrealism about it, being vaguely unsettling or disorientating, as the tube of the train, authentic from the upholstery of the seats down to the graffiti tags on the wall, shuttles alone relentlessly from station to station.

Everything that Act III needs to be however is there most critically in the performances of Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme. While he cuts a less than heroic romantic figure than you would usually expect of a Tristan in Act I, and looks somewhat shamefaced like a naughty schoolboy at being caught out by Marke and Melot in Act II, the true depth of his feeling, his love psychosis, is felt in Skelton's powerful, deeply felt performance throughout. Freshly wounded again on the Paris Metro in Act III, what is essentially put across is a sense of deep loss and the pain of it.

Here Stone takes the liberty of reworking the Liebestod - a daring venture if nothing else for it being one of the most sublime moments ever written in all of opera, and one that really shouldn't be messed with. Replaying the devastating scene of Tristan being caught texting a lover, but this time without the stabbing, the consummation of their love in death might not be exactly the kind Wagner was aiming for, but it's immensely powerful nonetheless. Tristan has lost his Isolde and it feels like the end of the world. Utterly devastating, it manages to evoke the higher spiritual level of the work while simultaneously bringing it down to earth. You can't argue with the sincerity of intent nor the effectiveness with which that is achieved. Stemme and Skelton do their part to bring that about, but there are also tremendous performances from Jamie Barton as Brangäne, Josef Wagner as Kurwenal and Franz-Joseph Selig as Marke. Simon Rattle's conducting and the performance of the orchestra is also hard to fault.

Links: Festival Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert

Tuesday 10 August 2021

Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Munich, 2021)

Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2021

Kirill Petrenko, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Jonas Kaufmann, Mika Kares, Anja Harteros, Wolfgang Koch, Sean Michael Plumb, Okka von der Damerau, Dean Power, Christian Rieger, Manuel Günther

Staatsoper TV Live Stream - 31 July 2021

The final production of Nikolaus Bachler’s exceptional tenure as General Manager of the Bavarian State Opera may not be a perfect send-off, but it's certainly one that typifies his time there. It's a style that is adventurous, takes chances and divides audiences, and putting Krzysztof Warlikowski on Tristan und Isolde is something of a gamble. It's not uncommon to be left confused about what is going on and what the point of a production is, but more often than not, Munich productions manage to find a way to connect with a work in new and interesting ways. Warlikowski production of Tristan und Isolde actually doesn't appear that adventurous or controversial, or at least no more absurd and bizarre than a work with magic love potions, over-fervent raptures and philosophical ideas wrapped up in flowery language.

This time it looks - as with his Don Carlos - as if Warlikowski has again run out of ideas when confronted with the big beasts of opera. On one level, Tristan und Isolde takes place mainly within the ordinary surroundings of a wood-panelled 1920s' hotel room, while on another level, projections show an alternate - perhaps heightened emotional or fantasy - playing out of events. On one level it's Christoph Loy and another it's Bill Viola, whose extraordinary art installation screens for the Paris Tristan und Isolde separated the physical or material with projections of the ecstatic spiritual heights that would otherwise be difficult to translate into purely human actions on the stage. And when music and visuals come together, this opera can certainly achieve that level of transcendence.

Warlikowski's lack of any new ideas to separate those states (and connect them) is most evident in Act II. There's a build-up here that is expressed as the secret lovers meet that demands a corresponding gradual increasing intensity of feeling before they almost dissolve in rapture, but where little happens on a dramatic level other than the inevitable release of tension - a false release - with their discovery by Marke. On the stage in this production, there's not a lot going on and little visual sign of such deep feeling as it is expressed in the music. Warlikowski takes it to the other level in the projections that show the lovers physically separate but tantalisingly close, as water rushes out beneath the bed they lie on and submerges them.

The director emphasises this separation of the world we see and the one we feel right from the start, using people dressed as dummies with no distinguishing features to stand in for Tristan and Isolde during the Vorspiel. Its not so much an idealised form as a negation of one, where the physical characteristics don't matter as much as the interior lives. Without wishing to 'body shame' any performers, there's nothing new about that idea, and opera viewers have had to use their imagination to see less than perfect human forms and shapes aspire to an image of sublime godlike perfection ever since opera was invented.

You can take this idea too far - and Warlikowski inevitably does - bringing the dummies back as a doubles for Tristan and Isolde in Act III, populating Kareol with baby Tristans who, for some obscure reason, sit around a table in the wood-panelled room setting that the director also seems to have settled upon for no discernible reason. It takes more than a few odd references and mannerisms however to hold Tristan und Isolde back from reaching its goal, and it does seem to be the case that there's no need to be hasty in judgements; you need to wait and see where this takes us, and if any work repays delayed gratification, it's surely this one.

Warlikowski, for all his mannerisms and lack of any imaginative response to Tristan und Isolde (compared for example to Simon Stone's recent production at the Aix-en Provence festival that I viewed just a week before this), does however bring out one element of the work that hadn't really struck me before. I'm not quite sure how he does it, since there is little that visually alludes to it, but between him and Jonas Kaufmann, it's possible to see the commonalities of themes in Tristan that are developed further in Parsifal. The pain of the wound, the enlightenment through pain to consider one's origins, birth and mother's suffering on the way to achieving an enlightened state. Kaufmann - and very much Harteros too - at least made it feel that there is something deeper behind the pathology of both characters in their conflation of love and death, and it has nothing to do with a magic love potion. Their love-death union is derived from an awareness of human existence and love as a path to attain spiritual bliss that can only be completely fulfilled in the union of death.

Anja Harteros in fact embodies this much better than Kaufmann. She is a fine singer and a superb actress; you can practically see the music and every emotion it provokes flow through her. Her embodiment and communication of a role I find is always unerringly accurate - or makes you believe it so - but her voice isn't always able to match the same heights, particularly in the Wagnerian range. She's good, a true artist, but just not fully up to the demands of Isolde here right across the board. Kaufmann is also very weak, struggling to gain volume over the surge of the orchestra, but he is also simply unconvincing in a role that demands total and utter commitment. Kaufmann and Harteros have been much more convincing as a duo in Verdi, in Otello, in La Forza del destino and in Giordano's Andea Chenier, but most assuredly not in their role debuts as Tristan and Isolde.

There's no question however that both give it their all and Kaufmann is actually quite impressive in the critical Act III. I thought he might hold back from the exceptional demands placed on Tristan in this Act, and holding back is not something you can do in this opera. As committed as his Act III is, and as well as it is delivered, it still seems to lack the underlying conviction, of someone dying and longing to die, but unwilling to do so while his soulmate is still alive and separated from him - on several planes of existence. It's a lack of connection to his character here that I've felt in some of Kaufmann's performances; in some it might not matter so much in some works, but in Don Carlos and in Tristan und Isolde - two of the pinnacles of opera - half-measures and almost-theres are not good enough. 

With neither Kaufmann, Harteros nor Warlikowski being entirely up to the admittedly huge task of Tristan und Isolde, Kirill Petrenko - another person who has a huge impact in making Munich one of the centres of exciting opera in Europe - has his work cut out for him. In the absence of any kind of real stirring of passion on the stage, he has to make the music do most of the work. He doesn't quite manage it and in fact, judging by the sound purely on the live stream performance, it feels like he is trying too hard. He pushes the orchestra to those extremes, trying to conjure up day and night, light and dark, but there is little on the stage to match the intent, and the work often sounds aggressive. He is of course aware of the dynamic and pace and is able to rein it in and slow it down for 'O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe' in Act II, before building up the rush of emotions (the preparation of lethal injections, the lovers awash in a hotel room) that is shattered by the arrival of Melot and Marke. If it's fury you want to show, this is the way to play it, but it should be disappointment and resignation, shock and disillusionment. And credit where its due, you can see it in Harteros, if nowhere else.

Think what you will of the singing and the production - and there's good support from Wolfgang Koch and Okka von der Damerau as Kurwenal and Brangäne - but there is nothing else in all opera like the Liebestod and the finale of Tristan und Isolde. It's one of the most sublime expressions of human feeling put into music or indeed any form of art, unparalleled in its capacity to reach deep inside and express something wonderfully mysterious and sublime. Despite the imperfections elsewhere, Kaufmann's final utterance of "...Isolde" and Harteros's soaring Liebestod touch on the work's extraordinary and unmatched core of emotions, the essence of life and death, of striving for a love that surpasses human boundaries and attains something spiritual and sublime. Despite the failings of the production as a whole, this moment as ever is worth waiting for. And if it still achieves its purpose, what has come before and the contributions of the performers must have succeeded on some level.