Monday 25 April 2022

Wagner - Parsifal (Budapest, 2022)

Richard Wagner - Parsifal

Hungarian State Opera, 2022

Balázs Kocsár, András Almási-Tóth, István Kovácsházi, Andrea Szántó, András Palerdi, Michele Kalmandy, István Rácz, Károly Szemerédy, Eszter Zavaros, Anna Csenge Fürjes, Tivadar Kiss, Barna Bartos, Lilla Horti, Ildikó Megyimórecz, Lusine Sahakyan, Beatrix Fodor, Boglárka Brindás, Melinda Heiter, Bea Egyed, Laura Fehér, Virág Rovó, Judit Németh, József Mukk, András Káldi Kiss, Benjámin Taba, Milos Katonka

OperaVision - 15th April 2022

Parsifal is not like any other opera, and not just because Wagner called it a Bühnenweihfestspiel "A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage" for Good Friday. It operates on a deep level beyond the surface narrative, exploring issues of faith and brotherhood, the common condition of being human in infinite space and time as a physical being and a spiritual one, the condition of living through pain, the desire to seek release and redemption. So all-encompassing is its view of humanity that even that is a poor and inadequate description of a work that I have barely scratched the surface of in many reviews, so evidently it's going to be even more difficult for a director bringing it to the stage and seeking to illuminate a part of the work or even more ambitiously, the whole.

What should be more evident if you can't follow the narrative or probe its underlying meaning, is that the music expresses what Parsifal is about and touches the listener much more directly than any idea a stage director might have. It's always interesting to see what a director chooses, how ambitious he is, how successful he is, and I personally never fail to find something new in this music drama each time someone else works with it. I'm not sure how successful or ambitious the 2022 Good Friday production directed by András Almási-Tóth for Budapest will be seen to be, but it has some ideas that get across the intent of the work, which regardless impresses by the sheer majesty and unparalleled brilliance and beauty of the work itself.

In fact the first idea that this production seems to employ is one similar to the recent Vienna State Opera production. A little confusingly it tells us during the opening scene that the events have already taken place, that the fellowship of the Knights of the Holy Grail has fallen, Amfortas no longer able to sustain them through the painful ritual of revealing the Grail. Using a double actor for the young Parsifal, the older man looks back on the events that took place when he first arrived at Montsalvat with some measure of regret at his foolishness and naivety.

It's an idea that works well enough and a little better than the Vienna production since it doesn't try to extend this division throughout the whole work. It also succeeds in choosing to have the events of the opera take place in a fairly neutral setting. Act I looks like it is set in a car showroom with large windows, not some mythical land or castle of Montsalvat. The knights wear modern dress but retain some of the ceremonial trappings of the knights, some wearing puffer jackets others armoured breastplates.

As far as the key scenes of Act I go within this setting, the director retains some of the formality of the rituals and traditions, the communion the brotherhood of the Knights with the Grail. ​The Verwandlungsmusik scene takes on a Stanley Kubrick 2001: A Space Odyssey-like aspect, going down a wormhole of kaleidoscopic lights. Act I ends with the young Parsifal wandering about the stage lost, moved but unsure what he has witnessed. His eyes have been opened but there is a long journey ahead to understand and fulfil his own role in bringing a message of redemption for mankind.

In Act II the Flowermaidens are dressed in white robes and garlands in a scene of pagan worshipping around trees in the courtyard of Klingsor's castle. Some semi-naked nymphs are draped over branches like forbidden fruit. Adam and Eve figures, looking lost, briefly appear in the moments up to Parsifal's kiss of revelation with Kundry, when he is struck with a deeper understanding of love and compassion. It's at this moment that the young silent actor playing Parsifal disappears and István Kovácsházi's mature singing Parsifal takes his place in the scenic drama.

Act III returns to the Montsalvat that we saw initially, showing the change that has happened in the years of Parsifal's wandering. It's a bare room with a bed on one side and swan in a glass case on the other. Kundry raises the screen to reveal the returned enlightened Parsifal as a knight in black armour holding the spear. The idea of a return to innocence, kindness and redemption is shown in a doubled scene where a second Kundry washes the feet of a child, a motherly gesture that is key to Parsifal's understanding of love and compassion, as well suggesting the Christian ritual washing away of sin through baptism and anointment; an attainment of purity and rebirth. The barren world is also reborn, surrounding the room with projections of green forest that dissolve into bold key leitmotif words and phrases from the opera; 'die Wunde', 'der reine Tor', 'der Speer', 'der Graal'.

Whether any of this adds anything new to the work is debatable, but certain elements come to the fore and, such is the nature of this work, there are a variety of personal interpretations that will depend on the receptiveness of each individual viewer and listener. Kundry, as is often the case, can be the key to the work and stood out for me here. She - moreso than Amfortas - represents humanity's progress, her endurance of suffering, shame and failure throughout the ages, longing for peace and sleep, for release, to be relieved of the weight of knowledge. She is the past that humanity wants to reject or deny, and is scorned by the Knights who aspire to more noble aims. Aspects of her pain and foolishness and attainment of purity are replicated and given other dimensions by the Knights of the Grail, the suffering of Amfortas, the conflict and innocence of Parsifal.

Similarly, no matter how you continually attempt to reduce the work down to narrative, themes and descriptive words, it always fails to adequately convey what Parsifal is about. It's a work that gains in weight and meaning with each passing year, with each new performance and production, accumulating history, connecting humanity with the modern world and what is currently going on. If you want to see the current conflict in Ukraine in it, it's there, so all-encompassing is the work, and it doesn't even need a director to make that explicit. It's there inside the individual to bring their understanding and experience of the world to it. Wagner's Parsifal is a supreme work of art in that respect, living and open to continual re-evaluation, never to be pinned down to one thing or another.

It is nonetheless performance art and interpretation is relevant. Here conducted by Balázs Kocsár at the recently renovated and reopened Ybl Palace in Budapest it came across as powerfully as it should. The strongest performances here I felt were from Michele Kalmandy as Amfortas and Andrea Szántó as Kundry. There was nothing special about the interpretation, but both sung it well. The same could also be said of András Palerdi as Gurnemanz and István Kovácsházi as Parsifal, although both were just a little under-powered, lacking the emotional depth for the expression of compassion. István Rácz was a fine Titurel.

Thursday 21 April 2022

Marschner - Der Vampyr (Hannover, 2022)

Heinrich Marschner - Der Vampyr

Staatsoper Hannover, 2022

Stephan Zilias, Ersan Mondtag, Shavleg Armas, Mercedes Arcuri, Norman Reinhardt, Michael Kupfer-Radecky, Daniel Eggert, Petra Radulovic, Philipp Kapeller, Nikki Treurniet, Pawel Brozek, Peter O'Reilly, Darwin Prakash, Gagik Vardanyan, Markus Suihkonen, Weronika Rabek, Oana Solomon, Benny Claessens, Jonas Grundner-Culemann

OperaVision - 25 March 2022

Science fiction and horror are not unknown subjects for opera but they are quite rare. Two rarities that have a distinctly bloodthirsty edge of horror - Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable and Gounod's La Nonne Sanglante - have however been revived in recent times and proved to be fascinating works, or at least mildly entertaining. Heinrich Marschner's Der Vampyr does get the occasional revival and recording, and thanks to Staatsoper Hannover and OperaVision, a few more of us have the opportunity to see a full performance of the work that - like the aforementioned horror classics - has lately been a little bit out of fashion, but definitely presents an uncommon opera experience. 

Or at least an entertaining one. How horrific it is... well considering its origins, composed by Marschner in 1828, based on Polidori's 'The Vampyre', it's obviously steeped in Romanticism and, despite the archly Gothic libretto, there is little musically to strike fear into its intended audience. It's actually closely linked to the prevailing musical direction taken in Germany at the time, Marschner famously falling into that interesting period of German opera between Carl Maria von Weber and the arrival of Richard Wagner. Der Vampyr certainly exhibits the fascination for the supernatural of Weber's Der Freischütz and it anticipates the the dark mythology and development of leitmotif in Wagner's Die fliegende Höllander.

The opening scenes at least make something of the horror story, the notorious vampire Lord Ruthven being given 24 hours by the Vampire Master to find three virgin brides which will reward him with another year of life. He sets about that in style, making the first victim the daughter of the bishop. Ruthven poetically describes the fatal impulses and attraction of blood, and even though his first bite takes place off stage, there are screams and grotesque creatures aplenty in this Hannover production - where Marschner was Kappelmeister for over 30 years - to make the most of the unusual operatic drama.

After this however, the opera tends to settle down into more familiar patterns, with concerns about marriage arrangements for reasons of wealth and favourable alliances and no less than two drinking songs in Act II. There is not a lot more to the plot and not much tension as the three women are fatally drawn to the vampyr, although the exasperation of Edgar Aubry, who is aware of the nature of the Earl of Marsden who is about to be wedded to his intended third victim, but unable to speak about it, does bring an edge, certainly as it is played here by Norman Reinhardt.

It might not be the most thrilling or chilling in musical or dramatic expression, but Ersan Mondtag's direction for Hannover provides a suitably dark Gothic stage set and costumes to make the most of it. There's a grand castle rising out of darkness, the surrounding rubble of the ruins over centuries inhabited by all sort of creatures, monsters and ghouls. There's little evidence of the original Scottish setting however, the production going for something more stylised and cartoonish - as with Mondtag's colourful production of Schreker's Der Schmeid von Gent - with lots of shiny black plastic outfits, the father of Malwina looking like an Arab oil baron, Malwina wearing a costume with Shell emblems on it.

Mondtag's production may have a strong visual stamp, but as is often the case with revivals of works that are a little too old-fashioned to play straight, this version chooses to err a little on the side of camp. A little too far unfortunately, and the only thing that prevents it from going down the same route as Laurent Pelly's Robert le Diable, is that the Hamburg team can't seem to quite make their mind up on what tone to adopt, whether to wink knowingly at how fun it really is, or to try and give it a little more gravity that just isn't there.

Leaning more towards Weber than Wagner, the recitative presents the opportunity for the director and dramaturgist to put in additional scenes, characters and dialogue in order to give the work some overarching sense of purpose. Hence we have Astarte doubling for the Vampire Master entering into long tedious discussions with the Wandering Jew on social outsiderness and curse of immortality, while Belgian actor Benny Claessens as a pink satin-wearing purple-haired dandy Lord Byron interrupts the proceedings with irrelevant musing and improvised dialogue that breaks the third wall and totally destroys the flow of the drama and any investment you might have in it.

You can understand why they might do that, as aside from the horror setting, much of Der Vampyr is rather conventional early 19th century opera, but the answer to that is surely not to drag it out further with tedious discussions and unnecessary scenes. While I'm sure more creative ideas could have been employed, in this case it would almost certainly have been more enjoyable and tolerable to see this opera played straight as intended. 

If you are able to get past the irritating interruptions, the Hannover Der Vampyr is pleasant enough. Marschner's music has plenty of melody and momentum of its own and it comes cross well under the baton of Stephan Zilias, and the singing performances strike the right tone for the opera. I've only heard a recording of this opera before and found it enjoyable, so I was surprised that opportunities to see it performed on stage are so rare. Seeing it now, that despite being less grandiose and problematic than Meyerbeer, it has similar limitations when it comes to staging. I was glad that Hannover took the opportunity to share this curiosity with the world, but I think I might have enjoyed a little more without the pointless additional scenes and added commentary.

Links: Staatsoper Hamburg, OperaVision

Monday 18 April 2022

Berg - Wozzeck (Vienna, 2022)

Alban Berg - Wozzeck

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2022

Philippe Jordan, Simon Stone, Christian Gerhaher, Sean Panikkar, Jörg Schneider, Dmitry Belosselskiy, Anja Kampe, Josh Lovell, Peter Kellner, Stefan Astakhov, Thomas Ebenstein, Christina Bock

Wierner Staatsoper Live - 31 March 2022

Whether it's the inherent power and meaning of Büchner's original unfinished drama or whether it gains something more from Alban Berg's score, Wozzeck is one of the most powerful and enigmatic statements about the human condition in either form. When it comes to staging it then it almost demands a statement from the director, and Simon Stone is a director with things to say or at least a director with a distinctive vision. His production of Wozzeck for Vienna has some impressive stagecraft and singing, but whether it makes a statement or not, or whether it even needs to, there's no question that the essential qualities of the work are there for all to see.

One thing you can expect from Stone, whether directing opera or drama, is that it's necessary to make it contemporary, something that speaks of now and not of a time in the past. You would certainly expect that when dealing with the themes of Wozzeck, and not unexpectedly, the setting of this production is contemporary (in a gym, in the Underground), minimalist and faithful to the content, letting the work and the music express everything that is essential. Nothing is the different from what you would expect and yet it is at the same time unfamiliar.

The first scene is closest to what you expect to see at the opening of Wozzeck, Franz shaving the Captain, although not as a soldier for his bullying commanding officer, but working apparently at a barbershop. We can presume it doesn't need to be in a military setting for the nature of Franz's belittlement at the hands of others to be meaningful. The scene ends with the throat of the other two customers being slit open by the barbers, creating a feeling of a general sense of the absurdity and hopelessness of life, at least as it is experienced by one man, Franz Wozzeck, but also a premonition perhaps of fate of Marie.

Stone uses a tripartite rotating stage that, for the early part at least, flows continuously in a cycle were one scene flows straight through to the next, despite this being a work made up of distinct scenes that in the unfinished original did not even have a set order. The flow of one scene into the next however captures something of the abstraction of Franz's life, the disconnect between reality and how it appears in his mind, already disturbed by the experiments of the doctor, making it seem even more unreal and disorientating.

The flowing rotation is not even a linear or cyclical approach, Stone collapsing time in the scene of Marie's infidelity with the drum major, showing three versions of the scene at different time points almost simultaneously as Wozzeck puts the pieces together in his mind. The technique was used by Stone also in his remarkable Tristan und Isolde for Aix-en-Provence last year. Here there is a sense that Franz is grasping to restore some kind of sense or order upon the randomness of his life going out of control.

If there is a larger purpose to the rotating and constantly shifting scenes, aside from an incredible sense of stagecraft of Robert Cousins to rapidly change the sets with fluid ease, it is this idea of seeking to impose structure while time and life is moving faster than Wozzek can keep up with it. All his interactions as a soldier, as a father, in a military or family unit seem to be a search for something to grasp onto, guide him and show him the way out of his setbacks and troubles. Marie likewise has the Bible and religion to turn to for order and meaning, but what she reads in it seems to offer no comfort.

Stone's approach is effective then, but it's also open enough that any criticism you might have of the stage setting and his direction within it could also be said to work in its favour. Some might see the plain white walls of basic sets as somewhat cold and sterile - in complete contrast for example to William Kentridge's more elaborate approach (Salzburg, 2017) - but the sterility and emptiness of the white rooms, contrasted with the overgrown scenes of disorder in nature - could also be seen to reflect a world that offers no comfort to Franz. As a statement of futility, the final depiction of the dead body of Franz being lifted on a crane out of a cistern is certainly suitably bleak.

The search for order and the failure to find any comfort in any kind of artificial construct is reflected too in Alban Berg's score. Meticulously and tightly constructed, with historical antecedents, it seems to offer a clearly defined structure, but the atonal, unpredictable progression and enigmatic development hints at the difficulties of comprehending the underlying complexities of a world when we are looking for simplicity. It's a source of constant wonder, but there is nothing comforting in Berg's music.

The Wiener Staatsoper production is conducted by Philippe Jordan and he has a good measure of the detail of Berg as well as the overall impact that it strives to achieve. The opera leaves you dissatisfied that it seems to offer no respite and no sense of resolution. It's an unremittingly bleak view of the human condition and yet at the same time it is beyond impressive that this is capable of being expressed in such musical terms. Simon Stone's production matches that, leaving you feeling that it needs something more, yet impressed at what it has been able to say at the same time.

That inevitably places considerable challenges on the two principal roles, but we have two fine performers here in Christian Gerhaher and Anja Kampe. This seems like an ideal role for Gerhaher and sings it well, bringing character and personality to the role, or humanity maybe, since it's essential to see Wozzeck as such, not as some pitiful figure, but one striving to find a place in a world that seems to be conspiring against him. Anja Kampe is also excellent, not just a foil for Wozzeck but a person in her own right with strength of character, just similarly lost and unfortunately not on a wavelength that can help him.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper, Wiener Staatsoper Live