Thursday 30 September 2021

Gluck - Iphigénie en Tauride (Paris, 2021)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Iphigénie en Tauride

Opéra National de Paris, 2021

Thomas Hengelbrock, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Tara Erraught, Jarrett Ott, Julien Behr, Jean-François Lapointe, Marianne Croux, Jeanne Ireland, Christophe Gay, Agata Buzek

Palais Garnier, Paris - 26 September 2021 

The essence of what is continually great and everlasting in the later works of Christoph Willibald Gluck is that despite the formality of the 18th century musical conventions and the poetic licence of contemporary adaptation, he manages to make the stories and predicaments of the great mythological figures of Greek drama feel completely human. Despite appearing to have a very limited idea for presenting the drama, Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski's production of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride nonetheless similarly strives to find the underlying humanity in his production for the Paris Opera, and perhaps even delve deeper into the mindsets and troubled history of the Atreides family. The success of the production is mainly down to Gluck of course, but Warlikowski knows when to defer to genius.

Essentially, the Orestia deals with the downfall of a great family, a royal family, and assuming that they aren't really lizard people - something I'm prepared to keep an open mind about - even royal families are human too. Hmm. Anyway. Warlikowski has been here before - or rather later - with his Princess Diana influenced production of Alceste, and this production of Iphigénie en Tauride which was first produced in Paris in 2006, opens somewhat obscurely with a title 'Dedicated to Queen Marie Antoinette'. Other than it being about a royal family and it being produced for Paris, I'm not sure what the intention of that is, but it doesn't prove to have any real bearing on the rest of the production.

Warlikowski's setting for Iphigénie en Tauride is, well, it looks very much like most Warlikowski sets designed by Malgorzata Szczesniak, with glass panels, mirrored rooms, a wall of showers on one side and a wall of sinks on the other. Here Tauride is an old people's home where Iphigenia as an old woman in a gold lamé dress looks back at the defining incident in her experience of a troubled family life. Or not so much looks back on it of course as much as relives it, her mind failing, flitting between her current infirmity and mental state in old age and the incident on Tauride that may have helped reduce her to her condition.

This Tauride or old people's home is of course less a physical place than a state of mind, and it's the impact that her experience has on her mind that Warlikowski wants to explore. Within that however, the actual drama plays out much as you would expect, with Orestes and Pylades brought by the priestesses as strangers to be sacrificed at the paranoid King Thoades, who while trying his best not to fall victim to the fate an oracle has decreed for him, inevitably ends up bringing it about.

Warlikowski illustrates a few scenes behind the reflective shield of her mind, showing the now and the past, but it's fragmented and nightmarish in its visualisation and not a narrative illustration. Doubles are used, as they often are in productions of this work  which seems open to such divisions and analysis, (Lukas Hemleb, Geneva 2015), (Claus Guth, Zurich, 2001) More than just use an actor to double Iphigénie past and present, internal and external, the director also doubles or contrasts the past as a mirror of the present. What plays out simultaneously is a kind of shadow nightmare scenario of her experience in Aulide, where it's now Iphigenia the priestess who is to carry out the human sacrifice, with Thoas becoming her surrogate father.

The psychoanalytical approach is quite appropriate, the dysfunctional family issues compounded with Iphigenia's encounter with the stranger who is her brother Orestes, and in Orestes seeing in Iphigenia the image of the mother he has just murdered. It's inevitable then that the familiar influence of the films of David Lynch also plays a part in this Warlikowski production, with scenes and imagery reminiscent of Wild at Heart (another horrific family saga of murder and brutality) and Mulholland Drive (a glamorous life on the surface with hidden horrors surfacing in the moment of death). Mix in a bit of royal scandal and there's plenty to make this visually impressive and troubling while still largely leaving the drama to tell its own tale.

Here, as is often the case, the best a director can do is find a suitable setting for mood and let Gluck's music and the drama speak for itself. Warlikowski does a little more than this, finding a way to bring the audience into the human drama that is playing out in the mind of Iphigenia. There are a few other touches, having the chorus and other players in the Tauride drama placed in the boxes, isolated and pushed off to the sidelines away from the wholly personal interiorised nature of Iphigenia's relationship with the drama. Diana's appearance at the end of Act 4 is appropriately sung from the back of the Palais Garnier up in the gods, all contributing to present as immersive a presence as possible of the drama replaying out in her mind.

Evidently it's Gluck's beautiful music, his attunement to the drama and the understated emotional states that drive the drama forward and it was successfully led from the orchestra under Thomas Hengelbrock. Vocally it was impressive also in the three leading roles. As Iphigenia Tara Erraught was superb, deservedly stepping into major opera house roles like this after a successful career as a repertory singer in Munich. Her musical range is consequently wide and varied, but she can do a leading Mozart role well (The Marriage of Figaro) and is certainly impressive in her French delivery of Gluck. Jarrett Ott was an excellent Orestes and Julien Behr offered strong lyrical support as Pylades.

Wednesday 22 September 2021

Irvine - Least Like the Other (Dublin, 2021)

Brian Irvine & Netia Jones - Least Like the Other

Irish National Opera, 2021

Fergus Sheil, Netia Jones, Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Stephanie Dufresne, Ronan Leahy, Aoife Spillane-Hinks

O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin - 17 September 2021

One thing you could be sure of in an opera by Brian Irvine was that was never going to be anything conventional about it. I've seen the Belfast composer's work performed in a number of ways, in orchestral commissions for the BBC and Ulster Orchestra, in jazz improvisations with his own ensemble and his uncategorisable thrash classical improvisation work 13 Vices with Jennifer Walshe. A short opera piece that he did as part of a NI Opera Shorts commission in 2012 might have suggested the direction of his first full length opera, but the title Least Like the Other seems to apply to just as much to Brian Irvine as the subject of his new opera.

If however there is anyone in contemporary music that Irvine can be compared to, it's maybe Gerald Barry. There same sense of adventure, of a drama delivered at a furious pace, a determination not to accept limitations or conventions, but whereas Barry can appear frivolous - when in fact his operas are highly complex, considered and perfectly attuned to the content - there is at least no sense that there is any room for frivolity in this opera's subject of Rosemary Kennedy. Rosemary is one of the lesser known siblings in the Kennedy family, but there is a good reason for that, and it's the choice of subject that undoubtedly brings out a wide variety of music and theatrical techniques from a composer delving into the dark unknown.

Perhaps the only way Least Like the Other: Searching for Rosemary Kennedy can be compared to classic opera is in the subject being that of a woman at odds with the world around her, at odds through no choice of her own with conventional social expectations in a largely - totally - patriarchal system. And, like the great Italian operas, the end is inevitably a tragic one. Born in 1918, Rosemary Kennedy, the third of the Kennedy siblings and sister of John F. Kennedy, could have been expected to have had a better start in life and more opportunities in the early to mid-twentieth century, but even aside from her being born with a disability, her path through life would still be curtailed and even destroyed by outside factors and social pressures.

Rosemary's troubles and certainly the most damaging factor on her life began at birth and even that can be attributed to the prevailing social and patriarchal order. The doctor was late to arrive at her birth, so her mother Rose was told to hold child in until he arrived otherwise he would not be paid for delivery. Due to a lack of oxygen in birth canal, Rosemary was born intellectually disabled. At the age of 23 she was subjected to a lobotomy, a new technique developed by neurologist Walter Freeman, as an attempted cure for her increasingly difficult behaviour. As a result she was left with capacity of a 2 year old, unable to walk or speak. She would spend the next 57 years of her life in a convent, removed from the Kennedy family.

As that also meant that she was removed from society, there is very little documentary record of Rosemary's life. Irvine's approach to this subject then is defined to some extent by the lack of source material, but it is certainly not limited by it. Working with theatre and opera director Netia Jones, the collaboration manages to bring the full horror of the story to life, as well as casting a critical eye on the kind of society that allows such things to take place. Least Like the Other turns out to be one of those works where music and theatre come together to create a narrative that goes beyond mere dramatic representation.

Essentially, it would be difficult in any case to have a glamorous soprano or mezzo-soprano represent Rosemary Kennedy. There is only one singing voice in the opera but the singer doesn't play Rosemary as much as provides a focal point for the pressures placed on her by the system, her family, religion, social expectations, and as a woman being generally submissive to the needs of men. She is almost a Not-Rosemary, the negation of the personality by those around her, by the social and family pressures around her, which are vividly played out in a number of scenes.

The opera might only have one singer, along with two actors and a voice-over narrator, but it also has music and theatre. The medical texts detailing lobotomy aims and procedures as a cure for the feeble minded and as a tool to control the criminality in the lower classes, the aggrandising speeches by Freeman and the autobiographical extracts from Rosemary's mother all convey the shock and horror for the primitive views on child rearing and treatment of mental illness, but Irvine's music and his writing for the voice - by turns insistent, elegiac and furious - allows you to feel it as it would be experienced by someone going through it; It's not the singer who is Rosemary Kennedy, it's the audience.

Although she lived a long life after the botched and crude surgery she was subjected to, it's at the point where Rosemary is completely deprived of having any control over her faculties or volition that Irvine and Jones close the story. Rummaging through the drawers of her life, everything is strewn across the stage as the music reaches a level of feverish activity, with strobe lighting, and the pre-recorded music by the INO orchestra spread across the theatre in 16-track surround. After that there we are left with an empty stage, with projections showing a body moving gently in a swimming pool to a slow piano accompaniment. Quiet, calm, empty, Rosemary - who loved to swim - is gone, at peace, a mind lost.

First presented at the Galway Festival in 2019 to great critical acclaim, further performances of Least Like the Other planned for 2020 were inevitably cancelled due to the pandemic and lockdown, so it was exciting to have the opportunity to see it in Dublin at the start of the new 2021/22 Irish National Opera season, even in the socially distanced seating of the O'Reilly Theatre. It didn't disappoint. The necessity of a pre-recorded score conducted by Fergus Sheil was used to the advantage of theatrical presentation, and was it played with such intensity, including improvising musicians, that it was virtually impossible to tell that it wasn't being played live.

Soprano Amy Ní Fhearraigh, singing on alternate nights to mezzo-soprano Naomi Louise O'Connell, was certainly singing live and had the technical and emotional range to take on the incredibly challenging role of not just Rosemary, but essentially singing the whole 75 minute opera. That's to take nothing away from the importance of the actors, the delivery of the texts and the whole theatrical presentation in a striking and impressive set design created by director Netia Jones. With Irvine's score, this was a completely immersive and almost gut-wrenching experience, music, singing and dramatic presentation locking together as it should in opera, but even more importantly here with no defined characters and no straightforward dramatic narrative to create a complete, thoughtful and moving operatic experience.

Links: Irish National Opera

Sunday 5 September 2021

Verdi - Aroldo (Rimini, 2021)

Giuseppe Verdi - Aroldo

Teatro Galli di Rimini, 2021

Manilo Benzi, Emilio Sala, Edoardo Sanchi, Antonio Corianò, Lidia Fridman, Michele Govi, Adriano Gramigni, Cristiano Olivieri, Lorenzo Sivelli

Opera Streaming - 27th August 2021

A lot of time has passed since Verdi wrote Aroldo, and a lot of time has passed with Aroldo hardly being performed. A lot of time has passed also since its premiere in 1857 for the inauguration of the Teatro Nuovo in Rimini, so it's fitting that the opera should be performed there again for its reopening. The intervening years since Aroldo was first performed there have also seen a great deal of change and turmoil, including the destruction of the theatre during the war in 1943. Rebuilt after 75 years and now named the Teatro Galli, director Emilio Sala in some ways sees the fate of both theatre and opera intertwined or at least wants to use this production to bring together the shared history of the theatre and the legacy of this rare and by no means minor Verdi opera.

Aroldo may not be an entirely original work by Verdi, being a rework and rewrite of Stiffelio, but the history of the two works nonetheless span a pivotal period in the career of the composer. Stiffelio was written in 1850, just as Verdi was about to embark on his famous trilogy of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata, the work presaging themes and musical developments in these works, not least the protective father/daughter relationship of Rigoletto and with elements even of Germont's appeals to a fallen woman in La Traviata. Aroldo was then developed for Rimini in 1857 after these three masterpieces, with significant changes and a whole extra fourth act.

It's surprising then that Aroldo is not more widely recognised and is even less performed than Stiffelio. Even that work was only rediscovered relatively recently and successfully revived, a 1993 TV broadcast of a Royal Opera House production starring Jose Carreras and Catherine Malfitano a memorable discovery for me personally, remaining a personal favourite Verdi, but despite occasional revivals - usually for complete Verdi festivals - neither version has received due recognition as a strong work in their own right.

Part of the reason at least for Stiffelio's initial failure to gain a foothold in the repertoire is that it's quite different in several respects from the other early to mid-period Verdi works. It opens with wonderful solo trumpet led Sinfonia overture and it's overwrought drama is more of a domestic variety than that of any noble high society or great warrior leader. As a theme, guilt has more of a presence than the typical Verdi subject of revenge, although there's plenty of that too, albeit of a kind that fizzles out rather than end in bloodshed and tragedy. Unfortunately, the drama being based on a German Protestant minister, was also too different for Italian audiences and the censor not best pleased with a religious minister's wife being involved in adultery.

Verdi consequently reworked the opera in 1857, resetting it to England, the librettist Francesco Maria Piave extending and revising the opera with a fourth act, but Aroldo still retains much of the marvellous music and melodic invention of the original. Like most of Verdi's efforts to revise other works with concessions for ballet scenes in the French versions, chorus additions and cabaletta cuts made for the benefit of changing musical fashions, it's not a total success. As far as Aroldo is concerned, the reworking loses much that was fascinatingly different and already perfect in the original, but that doesn't make it the opportunity to compare a rare stage performance of Aroldo any less intriguing or exciting.

In the opening scene of Stiffelio, it is reported to the minister that a man has been seen jumping from the window of his wife Lina, leaving behind evidence that could identify him. The revelation, and the decision of Stiffelio to destroy the evidence without looking at it raises tensions from the outset, while here it's a little more subdued. Drawing from Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Harold: the Last of the Saxon Kings, Aroldo (Harold) returns from the Crusades and notices his wife Mina is not wearing her wedding ring, looking jumpy and guilty. Verdi raises the drama however more gradually and by the time of the slipping of a letter to her lover into a book, the drama has become more highly charged. 'Fatal, fatal mistero quel libro svelerà', buoyed by a chorus of scandalised onlookers is just as overwrought here as the original in Stiffelio. The extension however of the Act I conclusion 'Nol volete' after Mina's father's refusal to hand over the letter rather dissipates the tension that has been raised.

There is a similar picture throughout Aroldo. While the middle part of the work plays out much the same as in Stiffelio, with a duel and other situations for potential bloodshed averted, there is perhaps more of a similar sense of events heating up without ever quite boiling over. The intervening years between the two works that saw the creation of the mature Verdi's great masterpieces does indeed lead to evidence of a greater sophistication in the musical reworking, but Aroldo can also be seen consequently as being a little more conventional in the dramatic action than Stiffelio, with the rough edges that make the earlier work so interesting rather smoothed out even further in Piave's Act IV extension.

Under the direction of Emilio Sala and Edoardo Sanchi the 2021 production in Rimini does its best to reintroduce an edge by bringing the work together with the history of the theatre where it was first performed. It relocates the medieval English setting to the Italian war and colonisation of East Africa, changing references in the libretto from Palestina to Abyssinia and Eritrea. Instead of a storm in the new Act 4, projections and highlighted words align this with the bombardment of Rimini that destroys the town and the Teatro Nuovo on the night of 28th December 1943. The reconstruction of the theatre mirrors the rebirth of love between Aroldo and Mina, and the triumph of the divine. To further break down walls between the drama and real-life, the performers take this occasion to remove their costumes and wear their everyday clothes.

Reopened in 2018 after reconstruction, I imagine that the removal of the stalls seating to accommodate the orchestra was done more for the sake of social distancing. The opera is performed on the stage, the audience in the upper seating balconies. Aroldo is a typically demanding Verdi opera in the leading soprano and tenor roles. Lidia Fridman is quite impressive in the role of Mina, more than technically capable, she passionately throws herself into the role. Antonio Corianò struggles a little in the higher end of the dramatic tenor range, but is a good Aroldo. The performances are full of grand operatic gestures, but it's the nature of this opera and Verdi in general, and the Rimini production certainly matches the requirements at getting the quality of this work across very well indeed.

Links: OperaStreaming, Teatro Galli di Rimini