Sunday 30 January 2022

Vivaldi - Bajazet (Dún Laoghaire, 2022)

Antonio Vivaldi - Bajazet

Irish National Opera, 2022

Peter Whelan, Adele Thomas, James Laing, Gianluca Margheri, Niamh O’Sullivan, Eric Jurenas, Claire Booth, Aoife Miskelly

The Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire - 29 January 2022

The fact that Vivaldi's 1735 opera Bajazet has made it through to us intact through the centuries feels like something of a miracle. That's obviously partly through chance but it's also partly through design. It's by chance that this opera has survived where many, including many by Vivaldi, have not, but it's also by the fact that Vivaldi created Bajazet as a kind of greatest hits, a pasticcio where he would create recitatives to string together famous arias by other composers and add a few of its own - so yes it's bound to be good. What is also great by design as far as claiming it to be something miraculous is that it communicates its brilliance through to today, and that is by design of the director, cast and orchestra of this Irish National Opera production.

Reading the synopsis beforehand for a refresher, even knowing how the plot of baroque operas usually play out and even having seen several productions of Handel's Tamerlano, I despaired of getting my head around the characters and the typically complicated struggle for power and love between each of them. Maybe it was just the long journey down to Dún Laoghaire. Surely there must be a simpler way of getting the plot and characterisation across? Well of course there is, and after abandoning taking in more than the events of Act I, I trusted that it would all become clear in the delivery in the performance. Making the complicated simple is no easy matter of course and it's down to how good the director and the cast are, and well, this was just thrillingly put across.

Baroque opera can be dry, with not much in the way of dramatic action. There are passages of recitative and a lot of arias with flowery metaphors that have little lyrical relation to the drama. Even more so in a pasticcio, where the arias have been lifted almost wholesale from other works and dropped into a new, usually generic, plot. That is true to some extent with Bajazet, including one aria where Idaspe sings of a boat in a storm at sea, despite their being no naval scene in the opera, although evidently you can take that as a metaphor for emotional turmoil. Writing his own linking recitative for Bajazet however, Vivaldi clearly manages to tie things together very well into a tense dramatic situation.

That however is still only as tense and dramatic as it is allowed to be. The underlying sentiments, rather than being just generic expressions of love, anger, revenge and despair need to be wholly and convincingly played without operatic or period mannerisms. Here Adele Thomas has clearly worked hard to ensure that the performances are robust and related realistically to the situation, with the added bonus that every singer here manages to bring individual life and personality to the characters. It's rare that you see the drama of a baroque opera enacted as if it really mattered.

Molly O'Cathain's impressive gold box set design is also robust and it needs to be because Bajazet and Tamerlano fairly bounce off the walls in aggression and there is much slamming and bursting open of side doors. No walk-on-walk-off scenes here. The other performers wisely give the two principal figures a wide berth and when they aren't able to get out of the way, they get caught up in some rough and tumble that is more than just boisterous. There is anger and violence here that is commensurate with the nature of the figures involved and the implications of the historical drama. It's a tense situation, life or death, and you can feel it. We know what Tamerlano's fate will be, but we can't be sure in this production that his will be the only death.

That's another element of danger and unpredictability that Adele Thomas has introduced into the already tense drama. Anyone familiar with Tamerlano or many similarly themed baroque operas like this can usually expect the insensitive, misguided, proud and cruel ruler to eventually come to his senses and resolve matters, at least as far as affairs of the heart are concerned. Not so here, which is fitting as this Tamerlano is particularly cruel and irredeemable. So, while Bajazet nobly sacrifices himself to be spared the humiliation of his daughter Asteria as is traditional, the lame Tamerlano also meets a just fate through a means that has been hinted at throughout but which also feels in keeping with the amount of pent up anger that has built up.

Where do you start with a cast like this who all have significant roles to play? Probably with the two roles that have the most impact in terms of drama and singing. Stalking the stage with menace James Laing made this Tamerlano really a figure to be feared, his countertenor only adding a sinister quality. He's the only person you could imagine capable of subduing this Bajazet and even then he must have employed some dirty tricks to do it, as Gianluca Margheri's muscular bass-baritone Bajazet was only matched by his physique, straining at the bonds like a rabid dog. He practically shook the walls with every fiery utterance. 

We didn't get to hear Claire Booth's Irene until the close of the first Act, but she more than made up for the late appearance with high-flown coloratura expressing her fury - and like Bajazet you could feel that very real fury of a woman scorned and hurt. Niamh O'Sullivan's Asteria was also an impressive ball of coiled anger, spitting imprecations against her faithless lover Andronico as much as against her captor Tamerlano. The conflicted and inconstant Andronico was brilliantly characterised and sung by countertenor Eric Jurenas, skulking and diving from the formidable forces, no match for any of the forces on the stage around him. Aoife Miskelly's Idaspe also had a vital role to play here dramatically and in the delivery of challenging arias. Vital also is the role of the ensemble of voices, the six creating a stunning array of complementary and contrasting timbres and voices. All close together on the stage too, playing off on another, even when they weren't singing, all adding to the hothouse atmosphere.

I had forgotten how powerful it can be to hear live baroque opera played on period instruments. I can't blame Covid entirely for this, although it certainly delayed this production to the extent that it was almost cancelled entirely and was only allowed to play to a full house this week with the lifting of most restrictions in Ireland, but it's just rare enough to get the opportunity to hear rare works like this close up. In fact my last time might indeed have been at the Pavilion in Dún Laoghaire in 2019 when Peter Whelan led the Irish Baroque Orchestra through Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. Once again, they provided a thrilling and revelatory experience, Vivaldi's music (and that of others) just pinging around the hall with crystal clear precision and put to good dramatic use.

This is Irish National Opera doing what it does best, taking on a challenging and wide ranging repertoire. Whether working with familiar standards, new contemporary opera or reviving rare baroque repertoire, they are equally good at bringing opera to life. That's a team effort and when that combines in actual live performance that is ultimately what makes something like Bajazet miraculous, magic or whatever you want to call it. Just 'opera' says it all, I suppose. It's about finding a way to make notes on a page written centuries ago come back to life and this Bajazet makes it into the 21st century alive and kicking.

Thursday 27 January 2022

Janáček - Jenůfa (London, 2021)

Leoš Janáček - Jenůfa

Royal Opera House, London - 2021

Henrik Nánási, Claus Guth, Asmik Grigorian, Karita Mattila, Nicky Spence, Saimir Pirgu, Elena Zilio, David Stout, Jeremy White, Helene Schneiderman, Jacquelyn Stucker, Angela Simkin, April Koyejo-Audiger, Yaritza Véliz

OperaVision streaming - October 2021

The thing I love about Jenůfa - an opera that I would personally rate in my favourite top 10 - is its beauty and simplicity. There is nothing that is typically operatic about it or indeed about any Janáček opera. The heroine here is an ordinary person who suffers a terrible everyday misfortune, a mere accident that leaves her scarred, but also uncertainty about to handle a pregnancy outside of marriage. It's so commonplace that it's the kind of dilemma that has probably played out many times, secretly, in the Moravian community she lives. Janáček's genius is in how he expresses the deeper emotional and social undercurrents of that drama and the community.

The music and drama seems simple enough on the surface, but obviously it's a lot more complex in how this work weaves its particular magic. Even more so than just matching the music together with a sympathetic stage direction, the musical arrangements have a particular drive and rhythm that is absolutely essential to the work, as is the necessity of having a cast capable of handling the speech patterns of the Czech singing lines. Staged by Claus Guth with an irresistible cast, the Royal Opera House's production demonstrates a complete understanding of the rhythms and emotions at the heart of the work, the social context as well as the personal conflicts.

Indeed the first thing you notice about Guth's production is the social context for the individual personal dramas that take place there and which are so intertwined within it. Janáček's austere Moravian background is obviously part of that, but more importantly it's getting across the idea of a small enclosed community where everyone knows everyone, word travels fast, particularly when scandal is involved. In such an environment, passions become heated and anything can happen. It's the verismo of Cavalleria Rusticana without the Latin fire and bloodlust thirst for vengeance. Certainly Janáček's music is on a completely different plane of expression from Mascagni.

Michael Levine's sets depict the monochrome simplicity of the life, the closed and rigid attitudes of the community. In Act I, everyone wears plain black everyday traditional costumes, the surrounding, enclosing walls are wooden and there are no doors. Along the back is a row of identical beds where indistinguishable families where everyone lives side by side, the men get up and dressed for work, a row of women peel potatoes at the bottom of the bed. It's a Lars Von Trier Dogville kind of set, with no walls between the houses, all the community ever present on the stage. Everyone has a uniform life, and there is no room for individual expression, or escape.

Claus Guth is particularly good at recognising the patterns that are evoked in the music and finding a new way to represent that. It's not just the emotional patterns but the idea of time and repetition that Janáček enfolds within his music. Guth aligns that to the patterns of community life, of events, memories and stories from the past being repeated and recurring, never forgotten. Kostelnička's warning to Jenůfa of falling for an unworthy man is mirrored with her own experience, failing to heed her own mother's warnings. Alcoholism is inevitably a problem in places like this and you can be sure that the same events have played out many times before. The stage direction emphasises this with each of the couples in the background having baby cradles. It's the cycle of life, without the promise of renewal of The Cunning Little Vixen.

The visual representation becomes a little more heavy-handed in Act II. The beds from Act I are now upturned, the wire bedframes forming a cage around Kostelnička, Jenůfa and the hidden baby that cuts them off from rest of community. Aligned with the score and the vocal expression however, you certainly get a sense of the overwhelming desperation of the situation. In case that's not enough, there is a huge human-sized black raven perched on the house, the set all contrasted light and shadow, Jenůfa awakening from a nightmare of being crushed by a millstone as the weak no good Števa announces to Kostelnička that he is abandoning Jenůfa and the baby. 

Act III is also closely attuned to the mood of the drama, less to the local colour that you sometimes see in a production of this opera. There's a muted feeling to the wedding of Jenůfa and Laca here, everyone still dressed in black, with even the brightly coloured traditional folk costumes having a dark theme to them. It's certainly a contrast to the brightness of Christoph Loy's Deutsche Oper production or the kaleidoscopic colour of Alvis Hermanis's La Monnaie production each of which however have their own vision to offer and enhance the work. The walls still surround them and there is no exit for Jenůfa in her marriage. In fact her world is going to become even more captive by the past when the drowned baby is found in the ice, the lighting bringing a harsher coldness and darkness to the stage.

You can't fault the passion with which the orchestra performs under Hungarian conductor, Henrik Nánási. Just as critical to the deep emotional undercurrents are the singing and dramatic delivery of Jenůfa and Kostelnička and they are in exceptionally good hands here. Karita Mattila shows that she is still a force to be reckoned with, her open guilt and suffering for her actions truly heartfelt in the humanising of the stepmother. As Jenůfa this is another astounding performance from Asmik Grigorian, her star on the rise, the promise already noted and coming to fruition here in her Covent Garden debut. This is no minor role but it mustn't be an operatic star turn either, one that has a sense of humility and yet inner strength and resolve to deal with the trauma. Grigorian has all that and her performance hits home.

This is a deeply felt production of an opera that approaches the emotional depths of its situation and drama with a sense of beauty and compassion for its characters. Only opera can touch on this level, and Jenůfa is one of the best in how it brings to the surface, expresses and communicates the drama of little lives writ large without operatic over-emphasis. That's down to the talent and humanity of a composer like Janáček, but with Mattila on form and Grigorian utterly compelling, Claus Guth's Royal Opera House production respects and enhances everything that is great and original about the work.