Friday 25 February 2022

Britten - The Turn of the Screw (Brussels, 2021)

Benjamin Britten - The Turn of the Screw (Brussels, 2021)

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2021

Ben Glassberg, Andrea Breth, Ed Lyon, Sally Matthews, Henri de Beauffort, Katharina Bierweiler, Carole Wilson, Julian Hubbard, Giselle Allen

La Monnaie Streaming/Opera Vision, April 2021

Britten's chamber opera The Turn of the Screw perfectly captures the mood and character of the chillingly sinister original Henry James story, but just as importantly it captures much of the psychological mystery and ambiguity within the ghostly tale. A director can enhance or emphasise certain elements of that ambiguity, but it shouldn't reveal too much. Britten's perfect score and the wonderful writing for the voice are more than enough to bring out the deeper character and suggestion that lies within it. 

Andrea Breth does that quite well in the 2021 La Monnaie production, placing the emphasis more on the expression of the horror deriving from the inner delusions of the impressionable governess, but it's not without suggesting that there is indeed something to her fears. The opera certainly hints at dark events, at the loss of childhood innocence and the corrupting influence of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel and the harmful legacy they have left over the children.

The first thing that strikes you in the opening scene of this production - as it perhaps should more than any obvious input or emphasis of the director - is the effect of the music and the mood it creates right from the outset. That has as much to do with Britten's score as with the meticulous performance of the La Monnaie orchestra under Ben Glassberg and by the singing of Sally Matthews as the Governess and Ed Lyon as the narrator. Both demonstrate a gorgeous tone with beautiful enunciation, but also delivering the content of the libretto with suggestion of the horror to unfold.

In setting, lighting and colouration, it's doesn't vary too much from convention and expectations, looking very much like every production of The Turn of the Screw looks. Dark, monochrome and austere, with cool lighting and plenty of shadow, but here director Andrea Breth allows several other spectral figures to appear on the stage. Even in the opening scene, Miss Jessel and a particularly demented looking Peter Quint already make an appearance, moving in and even taking over some of the narrator and the Governess's vocal lines, their influence over the whole tone of the work and what goes on in Bly already made evident.

It's also evident that Breth intends to extend that mood out and make visible some of the more hidden and suggestive undercurrents. Rather like the 2012-2016 Northern Ireland Opera production - back when we were fortunate to have an adventurous and ambitious artistic director of opera in Oliver Mears - this production uses panels, sliding doors and hidden rooms to open up the dark recesses of Bly or the Governess - take your pick: it's open for interpretation who is driving the psychosis that is rapidly escalating, or tightening like the turn of a screw.

It comes from a place "where things unspoken of can be', and Raimund Orfeo Voigt's sets shows the unspoken lying in wait everywhere to entrap. You can never remove the undercurrents of sexual repression of the Governess running up against the suggestion of sexual abuse of the children or some dark influence that they have been subjected to at the hands of Quint and Jessel, there is less of that made explicit in this production of the work. It's certainly hinted at, but if the emphasis in this production is principally within the mind of Governess, we can see that she doesn't have sufficient knowledge of such evil to imagine it playing out.

In some ways I even wonder if there is an angle there to be explored in The Turn of the Screw, and whether it is also important to retain adherence to the period in order to bring it out. There does seem to be a generational conflict in the changing times and attitudes, the older generation fearing the new, seeing it as decadent and corrupt, overturning traditional values. The Governess seems to be in-between, not comfortable with the past or the present, fearing for what lies ahead for the future generation. The loss of innocence that may already have happened and she feels powerless to intervene, or it may indeed be her misguided attempts at over-protectiveness that result in the tragic conclusion.

On a more general note, one of the policies I like about La Monnaie - aside from their adventurous programming and choice of directors - is how they retain a few strong performers on their books who are versatile and supremely capable in a number of varied roles and styles. Sally Matthews is just superb here as Governess, firm of voice, secure in range, but also capable of bringing real urgency and personality to a fairly complex character. Andrea Breth also fulfills perfectly the La Monnaie policy of modernising with purpose when it is appropriate to do so. Although this looks period in costume and set design - there are no mobile phones here - it uses modern techniques to extend the themes beyond the period, breaking down walls - quite literally - to work more closely with the music, not just the dramatic content of the libretto.

Musically too, the production is of an exceptionally high standard, as beautiful an account of this Britten work as you could hope for. Evidence of the quality of the performance is clear from the superb sound mixing that La Monnaie have captured for this streamed live recording. Every instrument can be heard, every little detail that adds to the character of the work, the voices rising clear above the orchestration with a natural theatrical sounding resonance. Aside from the already mentioned Ed Lyon and Sally Matthews then there is much to enjoy in the singing of Julian Hubbard as Quint and Giselle Allen - the quintessential Miss Jessel. Carole Wilson likewise is a fine Mrs Grose and there are good performances Henri de Beauffort and Katharina Bierweiler as Miles and Flora.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt

Monday 14 February 2022

Puccini - Manon Lescaut (Vienna, 2022)

Giacomo Puccini - Manon Lescaut

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2022

Francesco Ivan Ciampa, Robert Carsen, Asmik Grigorian, Boris Pinkhasovich, Brian Jagde, Josh Lovell, Artyom Wasnetsov, Marcus Pelz, Ilja Kazakov

Wiener Staatsoper Live Stream - 7 February 2022

I'm always hopeful that with the right team it might prove to be a revelation, but thus far I've never been totally convinced by Puccini's Manon Lescaut. The composer never seems to fully invest you in the rather disjointed drama or the opera's emotional journey, nor have I yet seen any director make a convincing case for it on the stage. The opera is not without some of the qualities that would become more refined in La Bohème and beyond, but it's just not quite there. If there's a good reason to make a case for Manon Lescaut, it's got to be in the choice of soprano, as Manon has a fine selection of arias to display her range. Vienna at least have that with Asmik Grigorian, and - for me anyway - that's enough of a reason to give Manon Lescaut another airing, even if the opera still proves unconvincing elsewhere.

Rather disappointingly, if not unexpectedly, the usually capable director Robert Carsen isn't able to find anything new to say about the work or indeed able to find any way of making work as a coherent opera. What he does manage to do is modernise the otherwise old-fashioned Belle Époque setting of the pitfalls that face a young woman of her age looking for fulfillment in life and love. Carsen doesn't vary from the idea that she can have either riches or true love in poverty but not both. As a prototype for Mimi, she rejects her brother's plan to either put her in a convent or marry into a profitable but loveless marriage, and runs away with the handsome but poor Des Grieux. She becomes dissatisfied with her choice however, and discovering that love alone is not enough, she is seduced by the big city glamour of Paris and led into a life of dissolution.

It's perhaps not the most enlightened of views of female emancipation - the third act conclusion makes her pay for it is a drastic way - but there is certainly still some truth in the idea of the seduction of glamour. The emphasis in the set design of the Vienna production is very much aligned to a more modern view of that idea. Manon arrives in Act I against the elegant curve of a mall of designer shops, but rejects all that for the penniless Des Grieux who charms her. Act II takes place in a penthouse city apartment and Act III doesn't end up in the Utah desert either, but back again in the no less soulless location of the mall of designer shops.

As we never see her living in poverty in a room with a tiny table in Puccini's version of the opera, (Massenet has a better choice of scenes from L'Abbé Prévost’s original novel 'L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut in his verion, Manon) there is none of the kind of contrasts that would contribute to the Puccinian colour of La Bohème, albeit in a single milieu there. Here, the composer tries to enliven and add variety with choruses of onlookers and dancers in Act I, and with maids and hangers-on a kind of bohemian world in Act II, but he doesn't invest in it to the same emotional charge as you find in his greater works.

That inevitably feeds into the performances, with there being 'little room' for Des Grieux to show how he has been likewise seduced only by the glamour of Manon and the romance of running away to Paris. A good singer who is well directed can perhaps bring more to it, but while it is sung well here by tenor Brian Jagde, it lacks that emotional investment. Carsen tries to bring a rather more realistic contemporary view to Manon's relationship with Geronte as one now more familiar between an aspiring female actor and a possessive powerful man who wants to control her. Rather than being arrested by the police at the end of Act II for moral corruption or theft of jewellery then, neither of which are convincing in a modern context to justify transportation to America, Manon is instead brutally raped by Geronte in front of her lover Des Grieux at the end of Act II. That ought to bring more of an emotional charge and sympathy for her fate, but it lacks edge you might expect.

Perhaps that's because the opera still feels incomplete, as if there is a whole act or a few scenes missing. It never flows in any way that you can relate to the characters and what they are going through. Carsen doesn't manage to improve on that with the minimal set changes to the three acts. The curve of the stage remains at the port in Act III where Manon is due to deported. Why the soft furnishings of the previous act remain on the stage I'm not sure. The parade of women lining up to take to the prison ship walk out with handcuffs but look bruised and beaten but still hold themselves like glamorous models on a catwalk being photographed by bystanders and press on one side and Geronte's high society friends on the the other.

I suspect that Robert Carsen is trying to say something about consumerism and the commodification of women, which is at least something even if it doesn't fit all that neatly with the characterisation or musical content. Act IV, which is always the strangest scene of the opera, feeling out of step with what has come before, doesn't take place in the American desert of course, but back again in an empty mall. With mannequins in the windows of the designer shops and abandoned shopping bags and cash littering the ground, it does emphasise to some extent the commodification of women, dehumanised for the use and mistreatment of men who hold all the power.

If that idea has any validity and works to some extent in this production, it's almost entirely down to the emotionally charged music that Puccini has written for the finale and Asmik Grigorian's singing of it here. Her rise to leading roles in major European opera houses and festivals is well merited, displaying a strength and wide range that is capable of singing Wagner, Strauss and Janáček. She has no trouble with Puccini, which certainly has its own challenges particularly in Act IV, and Grigorian is fairly stunning here.

There is a lively spring to the score under the musical direction of Francesco Ivan Ciampa; a simmering fire always there, the romantic sweep of the Intermezzo, a crash of danger as love and romance turn to horror. Being Puccini, it's hard not to get swept away by the crescendos of the final Act, particularly when it is sung well. Boris Pinkhasovich, Brian Jagde and Artyom Wasnetsov give capable performances as Lescaut, Des Grieux and Geronte, but none of the roles have opportunities for much development. To be honest, I think I had already long ago given up on Manon Lescaut as a successful opera and it was only the opportunity to see Asmik Grigorian sing the role that held any interest. She doesn't disappoint, but the opera and the production do, yet again.