Friday 30 December 2022

Wagner - Die Walküre (Berlin, 2022)

Richard Wagner - Die Walküre

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin - 2022

Christian Thielemann, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Robert Watson, Vida Miknevičiūtė, Mika Kares, Michael Volle, Anja Kampe, Claudia Mahnke, Christiane Kohl, Clara Nadeshdin, Anna Samuil, Michal Doron, Natalia Skrycka, Karis Tucker, Anna Lapkovskaja, Alexandra Ionis

ARTE Concert - October 2022

Das Rheingold didn't offer up too many clues as to the direction it was going to take in the remaining parts of the tetralogy, other than being very much within the familiar operatic worldview and aesthetic of director Dmitri Tcherniakov. Die Walküre is a place where worlds come together, where there is a deeper delving into the past and a relationship established between the present and the future and it's more of a test of whether a director has any ideas that he wants to take forward in the remaining parts of the work. Unfortunately, it appears that if Tcherniakov has anything more to offer, he is still keeping his cards close to his chest at this stage. 

Act I doesn't offer up much in the way of interest, either visually, in concept or in singing performances. Notionally, we are still within the human behavioural experiment laid out in Das Rheingold, the director here applying more relatable imagery to the pursuit of Siegmund as an escaped prisoner. Unfortunately Siegmund has inadvertently and unfortunately sought to seek shelter in the home of Hunding, who is a prison warder. If Das Rheingold went for the familiar Tcherniakov imagery of behavioural science and therapy in an enclosed world of high wooden walls (Carmen, Pelléas et Mélisande, Les Troyens), here the spaces are more open and exposed, like his Lulu, Hunding's home a framework of doorways in a modern house, with no sign of a sword in an ash tree. That's not a security camera though, Notung is buried up to the hilt in the ceiling.

It's not so much the modern setting that is out of place, as much as it's not entirely clear what Tcherniakov is trying to show us. It doesn't seem to relate in any meaningful way with what has come before, nor does it even seem to have any consistency within itself or in relation to the composer's original intentions. The clash with Wagner's sensibilities becomes more pronounced as the act progresses, as Siegmund and Sieglinde become enraptured in their joint destiny. It's not just that it diverges from Wagner's intentions, but it doesn't even fit in with the convict/prison officer concept. Unfortunately, the singing of Robert Watson and Vida Miknevičiūtė doesn't really make this any more convincing or give it the lift it needs.

One theme that is perhaps hinted at however is the wider idea of a surveillance society, of powers reaching into and controlling our everyday lives. This becomes more apparent when we get to Act II, but it's already suggested at the start of the opera where Wotan was seen observing what is going on from his window of office in Valhalla. It also has the benefit of blending the acts together as a way of creating a closer unity between the events in the distinct acts of this opera. Siegmund and Sieglinde run off at the start of Act II, leaving Wotan and Brünnhilde to walk through Hunding's home, unseen by the prison warder, the set rotating through to a Valhalla office room for the scene between Wotan and Fricka. Rotating shows that the actions of gods are not detached or unrelated from what is to play out, but exert control and direction towards consequences that might be unintended.

The folly of Wotan's actions are summed up in his admonishment towards Fricka in this vital Second Act that "You only grasp all that has been, whereas my mind longs to encompass what has not yet come to pass". If anything makes this feel as real, vital and foolhardy as it should be, it's Michael Volle's outstanding singing performance, but he is well matched with Claudia Mahnke's Fricka. Just as convincing is Christian Thielemann's musical direction, capturing the fluctuating moods, the depth of feeling, the import and foreboding at the heart of this act. For me the key to Die Walküre is what you can do with this scene, and there is at least a sense of purpose and urgency that comes across, even in the director's contextual setting of a business deal being hammered out between two high level executives with competing briefs.

Act III unfortunately doesn't find any real way of taking this forward. Returning to the forum of chairs where the Valkyrie are seated like junior executives talking up their gains of gathering dead heroes rather than actually doing anything. But no matter, there are still compensatory touches elsewhere. Vida Miknevičiūtė raises her game, gets in touch with Sieglinde's fate and her condition here and gives a fine performance. Anja Kampe is not quite up to the demands of Brünnhilde, a little light and airy of voice in places but plays the role sympathetically. Michael Volle more than makes up for any shortcomings in the dramaturgy for his Act III finale, conveying the depth of his displeasure with and banishment of his wayward daughter. Thielemann's direction of the Staatskapelle Berlin also lets this Act simmer and soar.

Unfortunately, the direction still feels inadequate, never really nailing down any ideas or extending the experiment concept for this Ring proposed in Das Rheingold. And even for a Die Walküre, viewed as a standalone opera, this just doesn't have the necessary impact. You might miss all the traditional scenes and spectacle of the mythology, not least the mockery of Loge's conflagration at the finale (Tcherniakov has a way of turning the intention of some works upside down - especially Wagner - and I expect more of this to come), but Michael Volle's masterclass Wotan is reason enough to be impressed with this production and still retain some expectations - if not exactly high hopes - for the remaining parts.

Links: Staatsoper unter den LindenARTE Concert

Wednesday 28 December 2022

Wagner - Das Rheingold (Berlin, 2022)

Richard Wagner - Das Rheingold

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin - 2022

Christian Thielemann, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Michael Volle, Claudia Mahnke, Vida Miknevičiūtė, Rolando Villazón, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Lauri Vasar, Siyabonga Maqungo, Stephan Rügamer, Mika Kares, Peter Rose, Anna Kissjudit, Evelin Novak, Natalia Skrycka, Anna Lapkovskaja

ARTE Concert - October 2022

Richard Wagner's use of mythology as a means of exploring the German psyche or defining a national identity has been exploited before, notably in Hans Neuenfels' notorious Bayreuth Lohengrin, but Dmitri Tcherniakov has also used many of his productions as a way of psychoanalysing the works in question and the mindsets behind them in productions like Carmen and Les Troyens). Not everyone likes this kind of approach, but for the most part, if not always fully (see his controversial Dialogues des Carmélites), he does so while at least still respecting the deeper intent of the works. His approach to Wagner varies, often overturning expectations, and judging from the opening prologue opera of Wagner's Das Ring des Nibelungen, it looks like following a very familiar pattern and aesthetic. Whether he continues to adhere to the underlying ideas and philosophy behind the work or not remains to be seen, but I suspect that Tcherniakov will find his own meaning in the tetraology as a whole.

Not unexpectedly then, but still finding a way to surprise, the Staatsoper unter den Linden production of Das Rheingold opens in a scientific research centre, a "Stress Laboratory", where Alberich is the subject of an experiment. The dwarf appears to be undergoing something similar to a virtual reality experience, although the period is 1960s or 70s and the method and equipment is cruder, sending signals directly into the brain. Three lab assistants taking notes play the Rhinemaidens to Alberich, which does reflect in its own way how Alberich is being toyed with. Inevitably it all goes horribly wrong.

If the scientific laboratory of the first scene is unusual, the visual appearance of Valhalla at least conforms to the current Tcherniakov aesthetic of plain boardroom oak wall panelling, the stage rotating or sliding between a sequence of boardrooms, offices and a forum-like arrangement of seating that sets this Wotan up in the manner of a businessman. Or, if not a businessman, someone with a great deal of power and influence, although his power is not infinite and he has to rely on a couple of dubious characters who are less giants than 'heavies' (although they are big as well) to help him maintain an suitable home for a man of his ambition. Wotan conducts them into the marble walled boardroom to conclude, or rather renege on their business agreement.

Loge recounts the tale of the folly of Alberich, who forsook a woman's love for the sake of gold, suggesting that there might be a solution to their current predicament to be found there, not realising that the error is about to be compounded. With that as a set-up it does appear that the anti-capitalist sentiments at the heart of Wagner's major work being the key motivating and destructive force behind the fall of the gods. It's definitely not an original viewpoint, and indeed it would be hard to see how this could be developed any further than it already has been with Frank Castorf's expansive take on the subject in the Bayreuth Ring still fresh in the memory (to the horror of some).

While that does seem to be an angle that can't be ignored, it does only seem to feature as a side element, or underlying theme that is already taken as read while Tcherniakov considers on a deeper level the impact, harm and damage that this has on people (in a scientific experimental way). Perhaps. It's too early at this stage to see where it might go, but it is at least wonderful to see the little subtle powerplays and personal conflicts against others' interests play out between all of the characters in this Das Rheingold. It feels much more meaningfully presented than it might if played straight as nothing more than a dispute between immortal beings. The only thing immortal here is the fact that the behaviours seems to be consistent in human nature throughout history.

The scientific exploration or "investigation of human behavioural models in a test group" continues with the deranged Alberich in Niebelheim exerting his power in a petty manner that leads Wotan and Loge to laugh and make fun at him. They have higher ambitions but at the same time he has something that they want, and they are prepared to exploit and cheat him - again an idea that fits in with Castorf's emphasis on the exploitation of the working classes. Whether you think this all comes together into something coherent  as an allegory (even Castorf's ideas were somewhat scattershot), we perhaps don't need to take it literally. If it's just about the curse of the lust for money and power corrupts those who long for it, it makes a point, if somewhat reductively. It's too early to expect it to express much more than that in the prologue to this huge work.

What seems less in doubt in this Berlin Staatsoper Ring is the quality of the musical and singing interpretation. This Das Rhinegold at least has a mighty performance from Michael Volle as Wotan. Johannes Martin Kränzle - who has already made a great impression as Alberich in the previous Berlin Staatsoper Guy Cassiers Ring cycle (also seen in Milan) - definitely has an interesting spin to take on the character in this production. I was also very impressed with Rolando Villazón moving into the Wagner repertoire, bringing a suitably sprightly mischievousness to the role of Loge.

All the roles here seem capably filled and the music direction undertaken by Christian Thielemann following the departure of the indisposed Daniel Barenboim is fine. There is nothing leaps out in either the concept or the performances here however, it's not entirely clear where it's going, but there are some nice touches in the direction, the musical approach and in the characterisation to suggest that it will be interesting to see where this one goes.

Links: Staatsoper unter den Linden, ARTE Concert

Wednesday 9 November 2022

David - Lalla-Roukh (Wexford, 2022)

Félicien David - Lalla-Roukh

Wexford Festival Opera, 2022

Steven White, Orpha Phelan, Gabrielle Philiponet, Pablo Bemsch, Ben McAteer, Emyr Wyn Jones, Thomas D Hopkinson, Niamh O’Sullivan, Lorcan Cranitch

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 4th November 2022

There was colour and variety in the various approaches that the different directors took to the very different kind of operas offered by Wexford Festival Opera on the mainstage this year, but Orpha Phelan's take on Félicien David's Lalla-Roukh was more colourful and more adventurous than all the others combined. Where it was perhaps more successful was in how the production rose to the meet challenges posed not just in making a rare and largely forgotten opera attractive to a modern audience, but in how it addressed the specific challenges of David's opera without apparently losing any of the essential character of the original. 

On the one hand, it needed a more sensitive approach to cultural diversity in relation to the Middle East that were somewhat lacking in the rather literal approach taken to the production of Armida - in as far as you can take any opera involving magic and dragons literally. On the other hand, the plot of Lalla-Roukh itself, an opéra-comique with long passages of dialogue and exposition between songs, is not the most involved, with not too many twists and a 'surprise' conclusion that will surprise no-one. But it would be a shame all the same to go too far and lose the essential colour and character of the Arabian Nights-like tale.

Director Orpha Phelan went for a local approach, a fantasy approach, a fairy tale approach, basically anything that would work, neglecting no opportunity to add amusing visual jokes and nice little details that might be easily overlooked. It's a risky approach as there is a danger of overloading a light opera entertainment with more that it can withstand, but with good musical direction, the usual high standard of singing and choral support, and Orpha Phelan's unerring sense of taste and balance, Félicien David's opera proved to be an absolute joy.

It was a little disconcerting though for a Middle Eastern fantasy to open in an old-fashioned Bewley's-style café called Leila O'Rourke's Tea Emporium. Outside a homeless person searches through the contents of a modern wheelie bin while inside the shop explodes with the entrance of colourful characters in fancy dress costumes where they appear to have grabbed anything to hand in a mix-and-match without worrying too much about the matching aspect. The homeless man, who finds a few leftovers from the bin, has also retrieved Thomas Moore's book from the dumper and proceeds to relate the story of Lalla Rookh, explaining the unusual nature of the colourful costumed characters as mythical creatures that accompany Lalla-Roukh on her journey to be married to the King.

Although some of the large number of foreign visitors who regularly come to Wexford understandably struggled a little with the man's broad Irish accent loaded with a plenty of colloquialisms, it proved to be an excellent way of avoiding all the talking passages that risk disrupting the flow and character of the drama. It was also very witty, with knowing winks and - still very much in character - a little more direct in the insinuations and suggestions that would seem more obvious to a modern audience. There is even one scene where the illusion being spun breaks down, as the man confronts his own past while relating the story, the look in Lalla's eyes recalling a moment that perhaps sent him on his downward trajectory. It a lovely touch, suggesting that there is a human reality behind the magical fantasy, but there's just not quite enough there to totally carry this off.

That's because for all Phelan's dressing it up, the plot is quite simple. In Act 1, Lalla-Roukh, the daughter of the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb, has been promised in marriage to the King of Bukhara. It's Lord Baskir's job to get Lalla there intacta, which means keeping her away from the troublesome minstrel that has been following the entourage and beguiling the promised wife of the king. The Act is filled with entertaining songs, none of which are necessary to drive any drama forward. That would have been done in the dialogue/recitative in the original and is taken up by the homeless book-finder narrator here.

In Act 2 Phelan reduces the back-and-forth over Lalla's constant struggle with Baskir to get out of her obligation to marry the king, leaving more room for the music and some marvellously choreographed scenes to entertain in their own right, entertainment surely being the entire point of the opera. It slips neatly then to resolution when the king is revealed to be the singer, who followed the travelling retinue in disguise to be sure that Lalla loved him as a person. It might have been a surprise only to anyone who hadn't seen a similar ruse employed a few hours earlier in the same theatre in Alma Deutscher's Cinderella.

The star of the evening in what was definitely the star opera of the Festival, Gabrielle Philiponet sang the role of Lalla-Roukh wonderfully. Having a native French singer helped, but there is a particular kind of enunciation and expression required for this kind of opéra-comique and Philiponet was perfect for this, helping retain much of the original character of Félicien David's opera. The noted Irish actor Lorcan Cranitch also fulfilled the other essential element of the opera in his turn as the narrator in an excellent performance that helped establish a certain wistful storyteller tone on the work that made it feel like something important and meaningful, while preventing it from sounding like an old-fashioned period opera. It was a superb cast all round, Pablo Bemsch excellent as the singer (rather than old-fashioned 'minstrel') Nourreddin, Ben McAteer playing up the role of the hapless Baskir wonderfully, and Niamh O’Sullivan providing fine support as Lalla's lady-in-waiting, Mirza.

Conducted by Steven White, the orchestral performance in the pit was, as ever, a delight, the music filling the lovely acoustics of the O'Reilly Theatre. The chorus did Andrew Synott proud in the ensemble and supporting roles, as well as in performance for the director, who certainly didn't make it easy for them, finding something entertaining for them all to do throughout rather than just standing around. All this was vital to the whole tone of the work, keeping everything entertaining and engaging, never for a moment giving you pause other than to laugh out loud. For me, it was a perfect end to the festival, the kind of ending that will guarantee anticipation for three more fascinating and rarely performed works already announced for the 72nd Wexford Festival 'Women & War' programme.

Tuesday 8 November 2022

Deutscher - Cinderella (Wexford, 2022)

Alma Deutscher - Cinderella (Wexford, 2022)

Wexford Festival Opera, 2022

Andrew Synnott, Davide Gasparro, Megan O’Neill, Corina Ignat, Leah Redmond, Sarah Luttrell, Michael Bell, Peter Lidbetter, Deirdre Arratoon, Peter McCamley, Eoin Foran, William Kyle

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 4th November 2022

It probably shouldn't have come as a surprise considering the quality of the Pocket Opera elements of the Festival (Cellier's The Spectre Knight and Caruso's The Master), but I was impressed with another work that was not 'mainstage' - although it was performed in the main O'Reilly Theatre to a large audience - but part of the Wexford Factory development programme for new talent. Fairy tale operas aren't often the vehicle for greatness, although in the case of Cinderella Rossini and Massenet produced some of their best work with La Cenerentola and Cendrillon, not to mention Mozart's own fairy tale opera The Magic Flute to attest to what can be done in the field by a composer of extraordinary talent, and Alma Deutscher leans towards the latter in this youth work.

Composed at the age of 11, the was no concern about the quality of Deutscher's first opera; it's not as if her Cinderella would be performed in Vienna, Salzburg and indeed Wexford if it wasn't of a high standard, but I was very pleasantly surprised nonetheless by just how accomplished this opera was in musical character and in terms of doing something original with the concept. It's probably indeed her youth, Deutscher drawing from her own nature and character, from her experience and dreams (and talent), that allow her to put a fresh and meaningful spin on the Cinderella story. A fairy tale or a fairy tale opera is nothing without a message, and being young, it's a hopeful, optimistic and uplifting one.

Using what she knows then, Deutscher's version very cleverly couches the story within the world of musical creativity. Her Cinderella is a young composer, given drudgery tasks like copying scores by her stepmother for her two aspiring diva stepsisters to sing. Nonetheless her head is filled with melodies that take shape when she is given a book of poetry by an old lady she helps in the woods. The poetry has been written by the Prince, who handed it over to the woman looking for fuel to heat herself, assuming that he had no further need for them himself. Unusually, the Prince even has motivation in this version, being forced by his father to find a wife and carry on the family line, leaving him no more time for such frivolity.

Aside from the clever idea of matching the words of music to poetry - a much more convincing twist on a shoe fitting just one person as a way of finding the love match, although it doesn't totally reject this convention either - it's a tremendous way to celebrate the magic of opera, of art, creativity and imagination combining to generate something magical, something that has the potential to lift you out of everyday life. The music and English libretto fully live up to this ambition with witty situations and spins on the original, all beautifully arranged and melodic in chamber orchestra form. There's a lot of waltz-time music, light, happy music and romantic music; it's just a joy.

The singing was exceptionally good across every role, particularly from the two leads. The romantic leads can sometimes appear a little bland in fairy take works - even in The Magic Flute - but Cinderella and the Prince have a little more personality and character here and that was brought out with with lovely singing from Megan O’Neill and Michael Bell. Leah Redmond and Sarah Luttrell have plenty of fun with the stepsisters Griselda and Zibaldona - of course - but were almost outdone in the comic stakes by Peter Lidbetter as the King and Peter McCamley in a non-singing role as the Royal Minister. Corina Ignat as the stepmother and Deirdre Arratoon as the old lady/fairy took the remaining roles in this well-cast performance perfectly.

Cinderella is simply a charming opera and it was charmingly directed and performed. Davide Gasparro took a chance on placing it all within the context of a dream rather than a straight fairy tale, but that helped overcome the number of slightly sickly and overlong happy-ever-after scenes, the only real weakness in the opera. A little touch of realism was needed here. Or, depending on what you want from an opera, maybe not. Either way, there was a wonderful lightness of touch to the humour and the comic situations elsewhere and it fitted well with Eleonora Rossi's creative use of an all-purpose bed/stage. In every aspect, from creation to performance, this Wexford Factory production fully merited a place on the main opera stage of the National Opera House.

That lightness of touch was employed also in the musical direction of Andrew Synnott with the chamber orchestra arrangements. Synnott - who has had his own opera work performed at Wexford in recent years (Dubliners, La Cucina) - again making a strong contribution here and elsewhere in the vital choral management of the mainstage operas during the Festival. Everything was kept simple, every note and gesture aiming to engage and entertain. There was some lovely comic interplay, the witty dialogue was delivered well, every character made an impression. If the intention was to demonstrate the power and the beauty of opera through the marriage of music and words, Cinderella made a convincing case for itself.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera

Monday 7 November 2022

Halévy - La Tempesta (Wexford, 2022)

Fromental Halévy - La Tempesta

Wexford Festival Opera, 2022

Francesco Cilluffo, Roberto Catalano, Nikolay Zemlianskikh, Hila Baggio, Giorgi Manoshvili, Giulio Pelligra, Jade Phoenix, Rory Musgrave, Richard Shaffrey, Gianluca Moro, Emma Jüngling, Dan D'Souza

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 3rd November 2022

You never know if you might discover an unknown gem at Wexford and with Fromental Halévy it could go either way. On the one hand he can provide an interesting work like La Juive, on the other hand something like Clari isn't likely to improve with age. His grand opéra version of Shakespeare's The Tempest it has to be said, turns out to be, at best, serviceable. That's not exactly high praise, but then few operatic adaptations of Shakespeare's plays come anywhere near to the level required and an unknown work from Halévy - despite being a fine composer for his time - isn't likely to come up with any musical equivalent for the noises, sounds and sweet airs of Shakespeare's late work on the poetic contemplation on his craft. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be attempted (Wikipedia notes that at least forty-six operas or semi-operas based on The Tempest exist) and often such works can still surprise when revived here at Wexford. La Tempesta is at least given a vigorous shake and a worthy hearing that drops out a few points of interest.

Like most adaptations of Shakespeare to opera, the play itself is shaken up so much that it loses a lot of its original character, purpose and poetry. You basically have to forget Shakespeare or just see his play as a starting point for a fresh interpretation of the story. All the more so since Halévy is working in the field of grand opéra here and restricted to some degree by the conventions of the form. Strangely however, or perhaps mercifully, it is not a five-act grand opera, there are no ballet scenes and the libretto is in Italian - the libretto commissioned as such for London theatre - rather than French as you would have expected. With the drunken Stephano included, there is at least a good excuse for the obligatory drinking song.

There are no new characters added as some opera adaptations have done - it's not wise to mess too much with the Bard on his home soil - but one notable 'addition' is Sycorax or Sicorace, the witch who formerly presided over the island, mother of Caliban. She is not present in Shakespeare's play by the time Prospero has been long exiled there, wresting control and imprisoning the witch in a rock, but she is included in La Tempesta, at least in voice. There is an inventive scene where Sicorace advises her son Caliban to help both of them break free from the power of Prospero and Ariel, directing him to a flower whose petals can grant the owner three wishes. Caliban of course is such a villain that he refuses to help his own mother and rescue her from her captivity, and instead uses the powers for his own pleasure.

Here, as they often do in theatre productions of The Tempest, Caliban and Ariel tend to overshadow the rather dull naive romantic situation between Miranda and Ferdinand, as well as the power games played by Prospero and the older shipwrecked nobles of Naples. Or perhaps not so much overshadow as extend the range, a double act that take high and low contrasting positions on either side of - or perhaps beyond - the familiar scale of human nature. Ariel is a spiritual creature, lyrical and magical, aspiring to higher sense of order and associated musically and singing voice with high notes. Caliban is low and dark, unthinking and uncaring about anything other than his own base instincts.

Other than the voice range however, Halévy doesn't bring quite the same kind of musical creativity to La Tempesta that Shakespeare brings to his poetic imagining and representation of a world where such capabilities exist in all their fearsome richness. Roberto Catalano's presentation of the work as director for this Wexford Festival Opera production attempts to fill that out a little, representing the unseen magic and spirits on the enchanted island as figures in dark clothing that accompany, observe and occasionally intervene in the drama, compensating to some degree for the dearth of musical creativity that should lift the story into other realms.

Having said that, you couldn't ask for a better musical interpretation that draws the full potential out of Halévy's score than you get here from musical director and conductor, Francesco Cilluffo. The score is fairly attacked by the orchestra to play up all the range and impact of the grand opéra, this one all the better for its lack of indulgences. There is also some fine singing to enjoy, Giorgi Manoshvili's Caliban taking honours as far as I was concerned, alongside Jade Phoenix as an excellent Ariel. Nikolay Zemlianskikh is a fine Prospero, although the character is rather bland in Halévy's version. Hila Baggio's singing was a little on the light side, but she shone with some fine coloratura. Giulio Pelligra bravely (hopefully not unwisely) took to the stage as Ferdinand despite being noticeably unwell.

No-one can say that Wexford didn't give La Tempesta a fair hearing and showing. Emanuele Sinisi's sets worked alongside Catalano's direction to enhance the score and libretto as far as possible, finding their own way of getting the magic of the enchanted island setting across. The opening scene of the storm that brings down the King of Naples' ship was dramatic and yet not exactly as you might expect it to be staged, with magical figures of the chorus in black visiting the beds of the King and his crew and wrapping them in black binbags. With bricks and a broken wall with 'Nostalgia' engraved on it, a huge head statue that seemed to just be randomly left there (almost like something parodied in Viva la Diva at Buxton this summer), the production nonetheless captured the grandeur of the score and found its own ways of placing it in a magical setting.

Much as you shouldn't and much as you might try, it's hard not to set Shakespeare's and Halévy's versions of The Tempest side-by-side and La Tempesta inevitably suffers from the comparison. On its own terms, taking into account the changes that have to be employed in adapting any work and operate within the musical conventions of the time, it is possible to enjoy the work and appreciate its message of putting aside our instinctive impulses and embracing nature, reconciliation and balance. There is balance and measure in Halévy's score at least and plenty to enjoy in the singing and musical interpretation, as well as the fine staging of this rare work at Wexford.

Caruso - The Master (Wexford, 2022)

Alberto Caruso - The Master

Wexford Festival Opera, 2022

Alberto Caruso, Conor Hanratty, Thomas Birch, James Wafer, Annabella-Vesela Ellis, Lawrence Gillians, Andrii Kharlamov, Dan D'Souza, Isabel Araujo, Anna Gregg, Zita Syme, Emma Walsh, Arlene Belli, Dominica Williams, Gabriel Seawright, Stephen Walker, Chris Mosz, Emma Jüngling, Deirdre Higgins

Jerome Hynes Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 3rd November 2022

I can't say I had any prior expectations of The Master before attending one of the first performances of the new work at the 71st Wexford Festival Opera. I'm not familiar with Alberto Caruso (despite later discovering that I was sitting beside him at the performance of The Spirit Knight the day before) and I haven't read Colm Tóibín's book - or indeed any of his work - although I have read a lot of Henry James, the subject of his award-winning book of the same name. I had previously read several articles by Tóibín talking about his appreciation of opera and, being a native of this part of the world (just up the road in Enniscorthy), his early visits to this opera festival. Collaborating with Caruso on an adaptation of The Master as a chamber opera, not even a main stage opera at the festival but as one of their 'pocket opera' programme, it was nonetheless something to look forward to, and I was at least assured of the highest quality of performance. We got that, but also a whole lot more than I expected.

Still, I had my doubts that composer and librettist could sustain interest or indeed compress the span of the undoubtedly complex nature of the life of Henry James over a two hour long opera with no intermission. The opening didn't seem promising as the author is visited in Venice in 1899 by the ghost of an old friend Constance Fenimore Woolson. James is still smarting from the abject failure of his misguided attempt at theatre, his play Guy Domville greeted with derision from the London public in 1895, his bitterness intensified by Oscar Wilde enjoying success with what he feels is an inferior comedy An Ideal Husband just around the corner. Grudges and hard feelings between Victorian writers (even as great as James and Wilde) hardly seem to be a hot subject to bring up in a new opera, but in a sense that is what the ghost tells James and goes on to show him; that greater art will endure.

That's still a tricky thing to put into an opera, particularly since James, his private life and his sexuality were for obvious reasons kept hidden and private, with only hints and suspicions that reveal more of the man in his letters. Tóibín points out likely reasons for this, taking up the suggestion of James' supposed homosexual inclinations and taking into consideration what happened to Oscar Wilde around this time. As many writers considered exile to France in the wake of Wilde's trials and imprisonment, with talk circulating of a supposed list of figures being drawn up for investigation for similar crimes against Victorian morality, James felt secure in his celibacy that he had no indiscretions to be found out. As a European at heart, constantly travelling, James needed no further incentive following the failure of his play to continue his travels on the continent.

It's only then that you see the opportunities that open up for the opera, just as they did for a naturalised Englishman of American origin who writes about tragic figures bound by society's manners and rules whose lives are enriched, romantically, culturally and sometimes fatally by the history and diversity of Venice, Rome and Florence. The Master takes those locations in, and the diversity and the impact they have on James is put across beautifully in concise, relevant scenes taken from his life, set against the background of his great works, all set to a rich variety of musical themes by Alberto Caruso.

For a chamber opera, there are a surprising number of diverse scenes, which means that there are also a larger than usual number of principal singing roles. Among them is James' awkward bedroom encounter with Oliver Wendell Holmes, the death of his sister Alice and his meeting with the sculptor Hendrik Andersen. Despite being presented a chamber opera and featuring in the Wexford festival's side programme of 'pocket operas' and despite being performed with piano accompaniment music only (played by the composer), it seemed to me that this had the range and ambition of a full scale opera in conception and in execution. All the ensemble characters and the social situations with chorus who come into contact with James have an important part to play in defining who he is and who he is not, in as far as can be speculated upon. Taking on the difficult challenge of writing a libretto from his own novel, Colm Tóibín makes a convincing case not just for which scenes to include, but in how to make them work in isolation and in terms of the work as a whole.

While I think those choices are superb - every scene having something of interest to impart on James, on art, on love, on friendship, on life in general - Caruso's score, even in piano reduction, brings it all together, making it feel less a series of isolated scenes than something that has that bigger picture in mind. Between them Caruso and Tóibín's familiarity with opera conventions, there is clearly the ambition to use and enrich the work with its distinctive qualities, the creators being consistently creative in overlapping exchanges, quartets, choral arrangements. And they are not used lightly, but in the service of getting to the heart of what is important in each scene and how it contributes to the whole.

Away from the stage, it's hard to convey with words alone how the creators have managed to turn such a story into a compelling opera - and a modern opera that runs to almost two hours - but there is not a dull moment anywhere. Of course, a lot of the success of the work and its performance here is down to the cast and they are superb, not just Thomas Birch as Henry James and Annabella-Vesela Ellis as Constance Fenimore Woolson - whose challenges are considerable considering they are on stage singing for most of the running time - but all the supporting roles were undertaken with great character and thrilling singing. Caruso brought the full character of the score to light in his piano playing. Mostly however, the success is down to how well the creators and performers make use of the unique ability of opera to conjure scenes and bring them to life. Magic & Music is the main theme of this year's Wexford Festival Opera, and The Master created its own kind of magic.

The intimacy of the smaller Jerome Hynes Theatre at the National Opera House undoubtedly helped. There was little required in the way of sets or props, but everything that was needed to draw you in was there in the singing, in the beautiful period costume design, in the excellent choreography and direction by Conor Hanratty that ensured that this flowed through without any need for an interval. I'm sure however that the quality of this work is enough to expand equally successfully to a larger stage and orchestration without losing anything of its heart and intimacy.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera

Sunday 6 November 2022

Dvořák - Armida (Wexford, 2022)

Antonín Dvořák - Armida

Wexford Festival Opera, 2022

Norbert Baxa, Hartmut Schörghofer, Jozef Benci, Jennifer Davis, Stanislav Kuflyuk, Jan Hynk, Rory Dunne, Gerard Schneider, Josef Moravec, Thomas Birch, Andrii Kharlamov, Libuse Santorisova, Chris Mosz, Josef Kovačič

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 2nd November 2022

Harking back to the standard 19th century operatic tensions involving war and love, based on Torquato Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata during the time of the crusades, you would think that it shouldn't be too difficult to make a version of Armida exciting and dramatic. Dvořák's dynamic music in his final opera certainly lives up to the drama, expressing high passions of love and betrayal where the stakes are high between the opposing forces of Christian and Saracen armies. Add in some magic, sorcery and an Act II finale that includes a swooping dragon to stage a dramatic escape at a critical point and this seems tailor-made for the 71st Wexford Festival Opera's Magic & Music theme. Any yet, something is lacking in this production.

It's definitely not Dvořák's music. There is no fake Eastern exoticism here, there are no romantic light arias; it's straight ahead drama and high passion on a war footing. Ismen, ruler of Syria and sorcerer, is however under no illusions as to the limits of his powers to make Princess Armida love him. He knows she loves another, but he and King Hidraot, the father of Armida, believe that she is better placed to infiltrate the enemy camp and use her magic powers against the mighty forces that have already gathered to take the city of Jerusalem. Armida however has other ideas having been bewitched herself by the appearance of the knight Rinald out hunting. There is powerful vocal writing to match these emotions, not least of which is the inexplicable passion that grips Armida and leads her to side with the enemy.

And yet, much of what passes for drama in the first two acts feels detached from the characters and more like symphonic colouring and scene setting as characters define their position and plan their course of action. Director Hartmut Schörghofer doesn't have any great ideas to make it visually more engaging as a human drama, keeping it in a First Crusade (1096 - 1099) setting, using the backdrops for projections of locations with the principals and choruses filling a mainly bare stage, often singing outward. Norbert Baxa's rousing conducting makes this sound terrific and the singing is outstanding, and that proves to be more than enough for a satisfactory presentation of this rarely performed work, but you are left feeling that it could do with a little more action or activity. And contemporary relevance, possibly.

There really isn't much to help the audience engage with the predicament at hand, the festival theme of Magic & Music taken a little too literally here and not enough attention given to the human side, or to the reality and scale of the war being played out. You can hear it ok, not least in the fine singing of Jennifer Davis as Armida and Stanislav Kuflyuk as Ismen, and the impressive choral work certainly suggests the might of the Christian forces on one side and the women of the court of King Hidraot on the other. The set relies on a mirrored background cutting the stage diagonally to visualise the divisions, with screens that open up and supply depth on one side, and computer generated projections of the army camp on the other. A huge dragon on the screen swoops down and explosions of magic do a little to match the content, but it still feels distanced and stage operatic.

You might expect the opera to pick up after this pre-interval magical intervention by Ismen, but the sorcerer for some reason leaves Armida and Rinald to wander and wonder in an enchanted garden in the third act. It doesn't really work musically or dramatically in any sense of taking the opera forward - feeling more like an operatic convention to have a romantic interlude - and here the director also fails to find a way of making this engaging or even capitalise on the visual splendour and magic that such a scene offers. Projected computer graphics are used and, like the movies when they are overused (Avatar came to mind in this scene), it lacks a sense of real substance, a sense of reality. Perhaps if you are seated lower and at a better angle it might have looked more enveloping (the accompanying images seem to testify to that), but from the left of the stage and above, the mirrored effect wasn't visible.

The final act should bring about action and passion, and musically it really did. Down in the orchestra pit Baxa and the Wexford Festival orchestra delivered the rolling punches, the fearsome chorus of Crusaders - superbly managed by Andrew Synnott - even though only a representative handful, completely gave the impression they could overrun Jerusalem themselves. The principal singers raised their game also, striking blow after blow. Partly however because there was little conviction behind the buildup of the previous acts to merit it - in the dramatic content of the opera as much as in the stage direction - it still appeared to fall short of what was needed to make this opera work.

Still, any opportunity to see a rare Dvořák opera performed live is an occasion to relish, and although it is imperfect in conception and with death of composer in 1904 there was no opportunity for revision, it didn't disappoint in a fully orchestrated live performance. The timing was a little bit off between orchestra and chorus in the opening scenes, but there were no issues elsewhere. I was concerned that conductor might be a little heavy-handed and sacrifice melody for overstatement, but it was wholly appropriate for a staged version of Armida, attempting to make those high emotions, passions, conflict and heightened magical content all blend with the intent of the drama, and it sounded terrific in the O'Reilly Theatre of the National Opera House.

The performance certainly revealed some excellent singing. Looking like she hadn't been given a great deal of direction, Armida spent much of it almost looking like she was in a state of trance, but Jennifer Davis sung out those passions impressively. Ismen is a choice role, a rather more interesting figure than Rinald, and it was taken superbly by Stanislav Kuflyuk. Gerard Schneider did what he could with Rinald, but the character is not greatly defined in either the music or the direction. As already noted, but it's worth saying again, the male and female choruses were outstanding, giving the work that extra edge of lyricism and dramatic dynamic where needed.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera

Cellier - The Spectre Knight (Wexford, 2022)

Alfred Cellier - The Spectre Knight

Wexford Festival Opera, 2022

Gioele Muglialdo, Sinéad O'Neill, Thomas Bennett, Monwabisi Lindi, Grace Maria Wain, Erin Fflur, Jennifer Lee, Matthew Nuttall

Wexford Arts Centre - 2nd November 2022

Alfred Cellier's The Spectre Knight proved to be an ideal way for me to start this year's Wexford Festival Opera, the essential place to go every year if you are an opera lover. There you will be guaranteed to see and hear rare works that often haven't been performed in over a century, and almost invariably find that these works are more than worthy of being staged again. Aside from the larger scale works on the main stage, you will find much of interest - and rarity - in the 'pocket opera' performances. And as such we got the opportunity to see Cellier's The Spectre Knight, a 'Fanciful Operetta in One Act', of which no recordings exist, a light and entertaining one-hour piece staged here with much love, care and attention, brightly directed and performed.

Cellier was a contemporary of Gilbert and Sullivan, conducting many of their works and even collaborating later with W.S. Gilbert on The Mountebanks. The Spectre Knight indeed was even first performed as a 'curtain raiser' for Gilbert & Sullivan's Sorceror in 1878, and it plays that part very well. It's not a work that is going to upstage any main act, but within its modest runtime and ambition, it is not unexpectedly filled with bright little melodies and light humorous situations, and even one or two surprising elements, references and allusions that give it a little more character.

The plot of the operetta owes much to Shakespeare, establishing a situation similar to The Tempest, where a Duke banished from his kingdom is living with his daughter in exile, in an enchanted glen supposedly haunted by the Spirit Knight. They aren't entirely alone, the Lord Chamberlain also residing with them and two servants who tend to drink a lot. There are however no young men, much to the disappointment of the Duke's daughter Viola, who has never even seen a young man. Just for added realism, there were no young men in the audience at the Wexford Arts Theatre either. 

It all seems a little bit dubious however when Viola's cousin Otho appears (a 'distant cousin' he hastens to remind us), looking to deceive and take advantage of an innocent young woman who has never met a young man, let alone a handsome one like Otho. He disguises himself first as a friar to put some ideas into her head, grooming the suggestive Viola. Then he disguises himself as the Spectre Knight and, through the telling of his sad fate, manages to win the approval and admiration of all. Viola however is not entirely convinced, even when Otho admits who he is. In truth, Otho has loved Viola for a long time and has come to tell the Duke that his kingdom has been restored. Happy news for everyone.

The Spectre Knight is delightfully played with some updated dialogue and contemporary references by director Sinéad O'Neill, keeping it very much in the spirit of Shakespeare's comedies. There is maybe not a lot that stands out musically in the piano score reduction played here by Gioele Muglialdo, but are certainly plenty of bright tunes that keep everything moving along. A few other melodies from Verdi (Brindisi from La Traviata), and Mozart ('La ci darem la mano' from Don Giovanni) are inserted, although it's not clear if those were there in original or included here for fun, but it's telling that they don't feel out of place. The set was colourfully dressed and creatively directed to make use of the limited space, making this feel fully staged.

Brightly played and brightly sung, played for laughs and played for fun it's hard to fault this on any level. Not only do we get the chance to see and hear some pleasant musical theatre, well-staged and performed, filling in forgotten gaps in musical history, these 'pocket operas' also provide an opportunity for many of the excellent ensemble of young singers who contribute elsewhere to the chorus and supporting roles in the main stage opera to show their singing and performing talent in small principal roles. Jennifer Lee was a charming Viola to Thomas Bennett's Grand Duke and Matthew Nuttall's not at all creepy Otho/Friar/Spectre. Even in the smaller role of the Lord Chamberlan, Monwabisi Lindia managed to confidently deliver Verdi's Brindisi and Grace Maria Wain and Erin Fflur were hugely entertaining as servants/ladies of the court.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera

Saturday 29 October 2022

Cherubini - Medea (New York, 2022)

Luigi Cherubini - Medea

Metropolitan Opera, 2022

Carlo Rizzi, David McVicar, Sondra Radvanovsky, Ekaterina Gubanova, Matthew Polenzani, Janai Brugger, Michele Pertusi, Christopher Job, Brittany Renee, Sarah Larsen, Axel Newville, Magnus Newville

Met Live in HD - 22nd October 2022

Livestreamed opera and opera on DVD are obviously something quite distinct from live opera but the Met live broadcasts with their presenters and backstage interviews during the intervals are something else again. The Metropolitan Opera have of course long been innovators in presenting their opera to the world in live radio and then livestream broadcasts to the cinema, so they're obviously very good at it. They have it down to such a fine art now - with flawless uninterrupted High Definition image and sound - that you do however wonder where the priorities lie; whether the image, presentation and star attractions of big productions take precedence over the actual musical content.

That's maybe just an idle thought, as I have rarely had any doubt about the quality of the performances I have seen streamed from the Met, but the format certainly makes me think differently about how I review such a production. It's not like live opera, or even opera on DVD. I'm sure the primary consideration is a striving for excellence for the audience in the theatre - whether you think they achieve it or nor - but I get the impression that for some productions they do seem to have an eye to how it will look in its cinema broadcast. Those considerations are largely on the camera placements and shots, and Gary Halvarson ensures that the Met Live in HD broadcasts have a very distinctive and impressive look.

Which brings us to the Met production of Luigi Cherubini's Medea. If it merely looked impressive however and didn't also live up to that in performance, you'd have more reason to be critical, but there are few concerns on that front. Throughout the broadcast we were reminded by Joyce DiDonato and Peter Gelb that this was the first time Medea has been performed at the Met, which is incredible, but also welcoming as a sign of the Met striving to expand their range. It's not a minor work by any means, made famous by Maria Callas, but as one of those works belonging to that in-between period between classicism and romanticism, it has perhaps been somewhat left in the shadow of the twin titans of Mozart and Verdi.

Mainly however the stated reason for not performing Medea before now, is that - as a showpiece of Maria Callas demonstrates - it indisputably requires a soprano of tremendous force to deliver it and do justice to the role of Medea. It wasn't until Sondra Radvanovsky suggested that she would love to sing the role that the Met felt it would be worth exploring.

Whether Radvanovsky is good enough to sing it, I have some reservations, but by and large it was a successful account that certainly emphasised and made obvious the attractions of the work. There's no doubting Radvanovsky's comittment to a challenging role, but she didn't totally win me over. There were some weaknesses in her delivery and the strain showed in the demanding third act, but in the moments where it counted, especially in the delivery of the extraordinarily powerful and demanding finale, it was genuinely spine-tingling.

If Sondra Radvanovsky wasn't totally convincing it seemed to me that she was maybe trying too hard. The blame for that falls on director David McVicar who forced her into all kinds of gymnastic writhing on the stage, pacing, ducking, diving, rolling, crawling, stretching. Most of this is completely unnecessary since all the force of the role of Medea is there in the libretto, in the music and in the terrific writing for the voice by Cherubini. All this movement undoubtedly tired Radvanovsky much more than was necessary and clearly affected what is already a challenging vocal performance. That should not happen. It is simply bad direction, and that's the kind of thing that makes me wonder where the priorities in presentation lie.

McVicar's production has its obvious attractions - primarily aesthetic - but it didn't entirely convince on a human emotional level. It looked stunning but was way over the top, going for shock and awe. It didn't adhere to any historical period other than generic operatic past, which works well enough. Classical stone steps lead up to huge tarnished steel doors that resemble stone walls, emphasising just how much Medea is cut off and excluded from the world of Colchis. To make sure you didn't miss a thing in the huge expanse of the Met stage, a huge tilted mirror at the back reflects and expands the area for the drama, permitting the viewer to see the full grandeur of Giasone's wedding to Glaucis' while Medea writhed around in anger, jealousy and rage outside of it.

Halvarson's cinematography captured all this superbly with low angles foregrounding Medea against the beautifully lit backgrounds. Aesthetically it was striking but emotionally it was utterly redundant. With McVicar's stylistic mannerisms and Medea's eye-rolling and writhing around the stage, all amplified by the dramatic camera angles, it overwhelmed the true heart of the musical drama. Act III was the worst offender. Flames flickered earlier than expected, flames of fury presumably since Medea has not yet started to enact her fiery revenge. The gory death of Glauce doesn't need to be shown, nor do the deaths of the children, at least not in the cinematic gore fashion shown here (we had the same problem with Met's Tarantino-meets-Werther). The raging thunderstorms and circles of flame that accompany Medea's final descent into insanity are spectacular, but overly emphatic when you have that vocal finale, which Sondra Radvanovsky delivered superbly.

Musically Carlo Rizzi matched the fireworks on the stage, but I found the busy stage and overacting too much of a distraction, so I can't say say for sure if it really got to grips with Cherubini or whether this was also smothered by McVicar's indulgent production. Matthew Polenzani brought a more sympathetic side to Giasone in a lower tessitura than he is accustomed to. He sang well but didn't make a great overall impression, overshadowed as his character is by the dominance of Medea and by the production. The other roles were well-handled; Ekaterina Gubanova an excellent Neris and Janai Brugger giving a good account of Glauce.

There was a lot to enjoy here, but how much of it was genuine opera and how much was pure stage spectacle is debatable. Even that might not really matter, as spectacle has its place in opera and it was certainly a feature of the opera's original French production in 1797. I enjoy high production values in opera as much as anyone and am certainly in favour of new technology and theatrical techniques being employed, but I was left with the feeling here that as impressive as this was, as much money and effort has been put into impressing you, it just didn't connect on an emotional level. Worse, the production actively hampered the qualities that are there in the opera itself and was detrimental to the delivery of the singing, and that should never happen.