Thursday 31 March 2022

Schreker - Irrelohe (Lyon, 2022)

Franz Schreker - Irrelohe

Opéra de Lyon - 2022

Bernhard Kontarsky, David Bösch, Tobias Hächler, Piotr Micinski, Ambur Braid, Lioba Braun, Julian Orlishausen, Michaël Gniffke, Peter Kirk, Romanas Kudriašovas, Barnaby Rea, Kwang Soun Kim, Paul-Henry Vila, Antoine Saint-Espès, Didier Roussel

Opéra de Lyon - 25th March 2022

It's tempting to consider Franz Schrecker as a product of his time, a brief period of post-Wagnerian bliss between the wars in the first half of the 20th century when music was still able to wallow in extravagant orchestration and decadent subject matter with dubious psychological underpinnings. For some it would be easy to dismiss that as having no place in the modern world of music, still less in the harsh times of the present day. All the more so since those ideas come to fruition and fullest expression in Schreker's 1924 opera Irrelohe, a work that has come to be seen as the natural conclusion of this style of music, which subsequently fell rapidly out of fashion, burning like the castle of Irrelohe in the opera itself in some kind of self-fulfilling prophesy.

In reality, the subject of the opera is timeless. Maybe not much in that it has universal application and relevance, although I'm sure some imaginative director could put such a complexion on it. Rather its universal qualities lie within its wildly Romantic storytelling on the level of... well, maybe not the grand mythology of Wagner or the turn of the century reflection on man's relationship with mythology in the works of Richard Strauss, but perhaps with less ambitiously and with less grandiosity drawing from the classic genre of horror filled folk tales.

No, a mere glance at the synopsis of the plot of Irrelohe reveals that it is not filled with meaning and subtle suggestion, as the composer himself would admit in the face of his critics, but it does deal nonetheless with dark human impulses and history. If a director wished to see it in the context of Schreker's time it could be seen as a reflection on the madness of war, of violent masculine urges that can't be suppressed, resulting in a cycle of horror that can only be redeemed though a cleansing by fire. There are certainly modern equivalences for that, but I'm not sure any of them would add anything to the work.

Schreker however was indeed working to an area of philosophical thought, drawing from the works of Otto Weininger, relating those violent urges to sexual impulses and the roles that men and women play working in dialectic opposition to one another. It was just one of many strange philosophical ideas floating around at this time. Irrelohe wears its subtext openly, borne aloft by the over-heated music, just in case you fail to catch it or be persuaded by the limitations of the libretto. That's hard to imagine however, as it's expressed as a full-blooded Gothic horror, one that nonetheless revels beautifully in the mood of the situation.

Irrelohe immediately establishes that mood of a dark foreboding with a population living in fear of the mysterious castle perched on a hill over the village of Irrelohe. Lola tells her son Peter the story of how the lords of the castle and village live under a curse that drives them to venture forth, ravage young women in the locality and die young. She herself has been a victim to Count Heinrich, and Peter is to discover that he is the fruit of that illicit union. One young woman however, Eva, braves the danger and resolves to marry the current young lord, leaving Peter infuriated. There are however others keen to bring about the downfall of the rotten dynasty of Irrelohe by burning it to the ground.

David Bösch, who previously directed another Schreker opera Die Gezeichneten for Lyon that I was fortunate to see in person in 2015, is happy to play to those qualities in the work and recognise the cinematic qualities in Schreker's score. The opening titles are emblazoned across the screen as if it were a classic black and white horror B-movie, a silent one as it later appears (not that any early silent movie would enjoy such a rich orchestral accompaniment). The movie inserts effectively extend the drama beyond the limitations of the stage sets, if not quite bring any greater depth out of the work.

Not that anything else is needed with Schreker's score sweeping you along in the ludicrous drama of Eva's strange attraction/submission to the quite clearly deranged and dangerous Count Heinrich. They are not the only ones whose behaviour is strange and borderline deranged. Lola's folk-song refrain and devotion to her rapist seems to be slowly pushing her over the edge. Christobald, who once loved Lola, has enlisted a group of minstrels to burn the place to the ground. Peter, with the blood of the Count of Irrelohe in his veins is tortured with deep Freudian complexes that also appear ready to be unleashed in sexual violence.

Falko Herold - who also worked on the sets for this year's Festival Rigoletto for Lyon - again manages to find suitable locations for this drama to play out. Act I has a small tavern for Lola and Peter with the castle ever-present, looming over the village of Irrelohe. Act II, opening with an obligatory lost in the dark woods film sequence, reveals a stage of war-torn burnt-out remains of trees before taking us into the decaying Suddenly Last Summer-like glasshouse that juts from the side of the castle overlooking the village. Act III brings a conflagration to the miniature of the castle that extends its cleansing out over the land.

Rather than the cleansing fire allowing Eva and Heinrich the opportunity to look ahead to a better new world in Schreker's unlikely optimistic conclusion, Bösch sees no redemption, allowing Eva to also perish at her own hand. The ending needs some big statement, but I'm not sure this one works either, but it's hard to make anything about this drama work convincingly. The music is much less of an issue and the veteran conductor Bernhard Kontarsky allowed the whole wondrous beauty of Schreker's musical vision to weave its own magic of fluctuating moods and sinuous lines. No excuses need be made for that and it was truly a long-awaited joy to experience this particular Franz Schreker opera performed on stage. It didn't disappoint.

If anyone could bring a level of conviction to the characters beyond those dubious psychological archetypes, it was Canadian soprano Ambur Braid as Eva. There are limits to what you can do make any of these characters relatable, but in terms of singing this was a standout performance that impressed with the sheer force of her commitment that reflected her character's single-minded determination to see through her belief in bringing about change. I enjoyed Julian Orlishausen's Peter similarly for throwing himself into a character who because of the difficult circumstances of his origin has little redeeming qualities, or perhaps just less hope of redemption. 

Tobias Hächler's gently lyrical Count Heinrich showed, by way of contrast, another slightly effete side to "the masculine curse" or whatever you want to call it. It's in Heinrich that you are tempted to seek that deeper, perhaps subconscious or unwittingly premonitory self-destructive impulse that would see Schreker and many other composers working within this musical idiom or school labelled as degenerate 'Entartete' composers and banned by the Nazis. The subsequent conflagration initiated by the Third Reich would almost erase their music from history in its wake, but with productions like this, the revelatory Opera Vlaanderen production of Der Schmied Von Gent and surely more revivals of Die Gezeichneten and Der Schatzgräber to come, we can't discount the possibility that these works might still have deeper truths to reveal to us yet.

Links: Opéra de Lyon

Wednesday 30 March 2022

Verdi - Rigoletto (Lyon, 2022)

Giuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Opéra de Lyon - 2022

Alexander Joel, Axel Ranisch, Enea Scala, Dalibor Jenis, Nina Minasyan, Stefan Cerny, Agata Schmidt, Daniele Terenzi, Grégoire Mour, Dumitru Madarasan, Roman Chabaranok, Heiko Pinkowksi

Opéra de Lyon - 23rd March 2022

Some people might not like it being played around with and transposed to a more modern period, but the fact is that even Verdi needed to revise Victor Hugo's original setting of Le Roi s'amuse and backdate Rigoletto in order to make it work for his own purposes as an opera. State censorship of course played a part in making things difficult for him, but Verdi was never one for letting that stop him and he certainly made no compromises on what mattered about the subject of Rigoletto; the abuse of power, the dangers of aligning oneself with them, and the strain this places on personal and family life. Those themes are evidently timeless.

Presented as part of their 2022 Festival season alongside the Franz Schreker rarity Irrelohe and the Bach cantatas arranged as Trauernacht, the Lyon production of Rigoletto uses an idea that is familiar to other interpretations, taking it away from the elevated context of kings or dukes behaving badly and putting it in a more relatable modern day context where the power and abuse of it is in the hands of men with money. Here, as with other mafia versions of the opera (see Jonathan Miller's famous production or indeed the Met's Las Vegas version) the Duke is a gangster, but one who presides over the tower block HLMs of Paris or even perhaps the the built-up high rises on the outskirts of suburban Lyon.

There is another level added here in Axel Ranisch's production that attempts to bring it even more into present-day reality; an on-screen movie that shows how anyone - anyone - can relate to the sentiments so powerfully expressed by Verdi in Rigoletto. The movie sequences feature "Hugo", a Verdi fan whose favourite opera is Rigoletto, and, as the overture plays, the projected scenes show him loading up a video cassette performance of an opera. He can identify personally with the plight, the fears and the loss that Rigoletto experiences in his devotion to his family, as he has had difficult experiences with his own, to the extent that he is now about to take his own life.

Most of the new approach to the opera in this production indeed takes place on the screen. Hugo was I believe also meant to be a live presence on the stage as a silent actor - inserting himself into the opera drama - but on the evening I attended Heiko Pinkowksi was indisposed and the two stage and screen stories played out in parallel rather than blended together. It still worked well, particularly effective in a couple of key scenes. The scene where Gilda asks about her mother (Act I, Scene 9 - "Fatte ch'io sappia la madre mia"), a projection shows Hugo's loss of his own wife when pregnant with their daughter. It certainly hits home the reality of what Rigoletto experiences and gives reason for his over-protectiveness of Gilda. It makes it real and it does it perfectly in the context of Verdi's score.

Elsewhere the actual stage production is less creative in its depiction of the excesses of the Duke's behaviour and in the nature of the gang members who follow, aiding and abetting in his crimes. It's a typical depiction of a street mob, a gangland mafia with an arrogant, charismatic boss. Falko Herold's set design however is superb in how effectively it captures the sense of desperation of life in the high rise banlieus. That too feeds into Gilda's hope of escape from the poverty and restrictive circumstances of her situation.

There are actually one or two individual directorial touches that also play neatly into Verdi's feel for the story. Monterone is actually killed in the first Act, and it's his ghost that appears to be being led out to execution in Act II, the bloody apparition emphasising the deep impact that the curse (la maledizione!) has had on Rigoletto's mind. Similarly, Gilda's death scene pushes the idea of self-sacrifice, as Sparfucile holds back when he removes the cloak from the unexpected late-night visitor and recognises Gilda. Or since he hasn't seen her before, he probably hesitates to kill a woman, leaving Gilda to present him with the necessary dead body by killing herself. It's effective but perhaps more so since the underlying sentiments are also mirrored in Hugo's filmed story.

It has to be said that this movie drama no more strives for realism than Verdi's melodrama, but somewhere between the on-stage action and the events played out on the screen, Ranisch's production touches on the essential qualities, the humanity and the emotional force that Verdi brings through in the fantastic score. That is played out in a exemplary fashion by Alexander Joel, standing in on this evening for an indisposed Daniele Rustioni. It's best brought out in performance however by Nina Minasyan's superb Gilda. Holding back a little only in dramatic performance, vocally at least she was outstanding, exhibiting a wonderful purity of voice and a smooth legato that reached up to those high bel canto coloratura notes with precision and often with the requisite emotion.

Enea Scala was also in very fine voice as Il Duca and provided the necessary charisma as well as bringing a bit of additional character to the Duke. The production assisted in this by introducing a Duchess who silently reprimands his actions and indiscretions, but tacitly puts up with them. Scala's delivery of the Duke's arias was excellent, filled with the swagger of one who knows he can get away with it. Dalibor Jenis was a fine Rigoletto, but aside from Leo Nucci, I have seen few who can really bring something special to this role. Stefan Cerny's Sparfucile was also well played. It may be hard to bring anything new to Rigoletto, but there is still life, truth and relevance in the work, and the Lyon production certainly got that across.

Links: Opéra de Lyon