Sunday 26 June 2022

Stockhausen - Dienstag aus Licht (Paris, 2020)

Karlheinz Stockhausen - Dienstag aus Licht

Le Balcon - Paris, 2020

Maxime Pascal, Richard Wilberforce, Damien Bigourdan, Nieto, Élise Chauvin, Léa Trommenschlager, Hubert Mayer, Damien Pass, Henri Deléger, Mathieu Adam, Sarah Kim

Philharmonie Live streaming, 24th October 2020

There is of course never anything conventional about Stockhausen's approach to music and, from what we've been able to see so far of this new cycle of his epic 7-day, almost 30 hour-long opera series Licht, undertaken over the last few years by Le Balcon (Donnerstag aus Licht, Samstag aus Licht), each section is not short of ideas and challenges. It goes without saying that this an ambitious work of opera like no other and the challenges are undoubtedly for an opera company to rise to the scale of Stockhausen's vision, the challenges of the singing and music and the often near-impossible stage directions. Performed in Paris in October 2020, the unique challenges of presenting Dienstag aus Licht ('Tuesday from Light'), were doubtlessly compounded it being performed during the height of the initial waves of the Covid pandemic, but Maxime Pascal, Le Balcon, director Damien Bigourdan and visual artist Nieto still managed to do full justice to this section of Stockhausen's operatic masterwork. 

First performed in Leipzig in 1993, Dienstag aus Licht indeed opens with one of Stockhausen's unconventional techniques inevitably rarely seen in opera, the Dienstags-Gruss (Tuesday’s Greeting) requiring not just one but two conductors to handle the compositional challenges of the score. I've seen it used since in Harrison Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus, but of course Stockhausen has been here before in 1957 with his piece Gruppen for three orchestras with three conductors. Here it has particular relevance and necessity as the opening of Dienstag, since like much of the themes of the entire Licht cycle as a whole, it involves the eternal battle between the opposing forces of good and evil, with Michael on one side and Lucifer on the other.

And that is how they appear on the stage of the Philharmonie de Paris during the prelude of Tuesday's Greeting, the two pitched against each other in yet another struggle for dominance, light seeking to overcome darkness. On one side Michael's trumpets and celestial chorus are bathed in blue light, sending out blasts of goodness against the red lit deeper intoning of Lucifer's trumpets rejecting God, with voices whispering fragments of words and clicks that are spat out at the other side. Maxime Pascal conducting Lucifer's forces, Richard Wilberforce conducting Michael's separately across each other, follow Stockhausen's detailed directions with precision. A figure appears in the midst of this battle, appealing for calm; Eve, the third person in the triumvirate that Licht revolves around.

In Act I Michael and Lucifer appear on the stage, Lucifer challenging Michael to run the Jahreslauf, the Course of the Year. Visually this is presented as four walking-dancing-rotating-spinning figures moving at different speeds, representing time; one for the millennium, one for the century, one for the decade, and one for the year. Lucifer uses temptations to stop time, and Michael has to start it again using 'incentives'. One of those mentioned in the stage directions is a monkey in the sports car. We didn't quite get that, but there was nonetheless an effective best endeavour for all the situations. When the runners eventually succeed in making it to the year 2020, Lucifer accepts Michael as the winner, but he has another more difficult challenge to offer in the second Act.

Again, a ritualistic aspect is evident in the work, one that has been described by Stockhausen in detail in his directions, right down to the number of tongue clicks and trills uttered by the performers. With an orchestral accompaniment that consists of drums and percussion, flutes, a guitar, a harpsichord, three harmoniums and soprano saxophones, it sometimes feel like we have entered David Lynch's Black Lodge here, some disturbing alternate reality subject to unfamilar laws. If it doesn't feel quite as combative and awe-inspiring as the situations in some of the others days, Act I is definitely unique in its own way and a fascinating part of the whole. But there is a darker side to come.

The possibilities offered by CGI allows Stockhausen's vision for the second part of the opera 'Act II - Invasion - Explosion with Farewell' to be realised more effectively than anyone could ever have imagined, bringing the battlefield out into the auditorium. Fighter planes picked out in spotlights are shot down by laser-guided weapons to crash, burn and smolder on a vast wall of rock projected on the stage. One pilot is plucked from the wreckage by an enormous 3-D hand that appears out of an opening in the cliff face. All the while a synthetic sound drone underpins the menace, the whole thing having the look and feel of the opening of a Pink Floyd concert. The explosion that subsequently takes place as Lucifer and Michael take to the stage with their army of trombones and trumpets truly lives up to the billing, threatening chaos.

The battle eventually seems to collapse under its own weight, leaving a strange absence and air of expectation. This is filled with the arrival of the Synthi-Fou, who brings the opera to a conclusion in an orgy of planes crashing in a kaleidoscopic explosion of colour and light, while he/she plays out a barrage of synthesiser sounds. An ominous choral backing that seems to present a blend of haunting doom and celestial wonder vocalises the chaos that has been left behind. You can truly say - as with every other part of Stockhausen's Licht that Le Balcon have presented thus far - that you have never seen or heard anything quite like Dienstag aus Licht. It also lives up to the ambition of Stockhausen to take opera into another realm beyond music, singing and drama, into a sensory, participatory experience.

It would be ridiculous to review or rate this opera performance in a traditional manner. Stockhausen doesn't leave a lot of room for interpretation in Licht, but if you are looking for as authentic an experience of this extraordinary work - rarely performed for obvious reasons - you can be sure that Maxime Pascal and Le Balcon's production lives up to the extraordinarily challenging standards of music and theatricality that Stockhausen's expansive epic presents. Stockhausen's work invites disciples who like to see his work treated reverentially, and Le Balcon do that here by performing the work with purpose and complete commitment. As they have done with previous sections Donnerstag and Samstag, and as they will no doubt do with the remaining four.

The next section of Licht to be tackled in this complete cycle by Le Balcon is Freitag aus Licht at Lille and Paris in November 2022. Having only seen Donnerstag aus Licht performed live, I hope I get the opportunity to see that or one or two of the remaining sections, and if they manage to keep up this standard of presentation, this cycle will undoubtedly be considered be one of the operatic achievements of the decade.

Links: Le Balcon - Licht, Philharmonie Live

Tuesday 21 June 2022

Strauss - Salome (Helsinki, 2022)

Richard Strauss - Salome

Finnish National Opera, Helsinki - 2022

Heikki Tuuli, Christof Loy, Vida Miknevičiūtė, Mihails Culpajevs, Nikolai Schukoff, Karin Lovelius, Andrew Foster-Williams, Elli Vallinoja

ARTE Concert - April 2022

There's something very familiar about the look and feel of this staging of Salome at Helsinki, which is not a surprise as it's a case of the typical Christof Loy production of performers in formal dress in a minimal classical white room look that he has been doing now for decades. There can be variations on the theme, sometimes it's more minimal than others, sometimes Loy can veer off and do something a little more elaborate. Here, it's the very minimal approach. Not quite the almost concert performance semi-staging look of Theodora, a little closer to the formal tuxedos and bow ties of Le nozze di Figaro For Salome? You have to ask why.

Well, I've seen enough Christof Loy productions to have made enough excuses for that kind of thing, not that the end results need any justification. One argument you can make is that without the more typical exoticism of period costumes it allows the audience to focus intently on the intense drama, and they don't come much more intense than Strauss's Salome. The Tetrarch's palace here is a curved white room with two wide pillars on either side, a single brown leather chair and a large rock at the centre of the room. The elegance of the palace is contrasted not so much with the unkempt appearance of a raving prophet in a cistern as much as a completely naked one. It makes a change from Salome sometimes baring all during her Dance of the Seven Veils, but unfortunately it's poor Andrew Foster-Williams (Euryanthe) who is again called upon to strip completely naked and leave the audience not knowing where to look.

If the intention is to bring back a little of the shock value of the source material and the extraordinary interpretation of the psychological Symbolist underpinning of it in Strauss's score, well it's clearly not necessary. This is one work that is still bold, powerful and transgressive and needs little - if anything - in the way of added... well, nudity frankly. Jochanaan's imprecations against Herodias are usually bellowed from off-stage, so it's not even necessary to bring him onto the stage as soon as Loy does. Again you can look at this as being more directly confrontational, for the impression his chaste nakedness makes on Salome who only knows the decadent court of Herod. It certainly gives you an opportunity to think about it in this context.

Where Loy is usually more successful is in how he manages through his technique as a director to bring acting and conviction to the fore. In a Symbolist work where naturalism is not required, the stylised responses here are perfectly in keeping and suited to a dramatic art form that specialises in enhanced reality. This is much more effective when Salome attempts to strip out of her suit - long before the Dance of the Seven Veils - her wantonness made explicit to a score of courtiers, who are at first angry at her and then stirred up to try to sexually assault her. This spirals into a frenzy of motion in perfect concord with Strauss's score. 

The actual Dance of the Seven Veils is - by way of contrast  - obviously undercut. Instead of traditional eroticism it becomes an exercise in flirtation; a three-day exercise in power and control between Herod, Salome and Jochanaan. Inevitably it similarly draws the testosterone-charged courtiers circle around, creating a kind of dream sequence where even Narraboth is brought back to life. Herod claims his prize, thinking he is victor, but it's Salome who believes she is the one with the power now to fulfil her own desires.

Despite the liberties taken there is no doubt that Loy does successfully tap into the dangerous erotic and taboo undercurrents of Salome in a quite powerful way. He takes on a big challenge by not providing the traditional shock of a demented princess writing in the gore of a decapitated head, choosing instead to give her a fully formally dressed Jochanaan. If it's about the depth of forbidden desires, this is another way to emphasise how the power of her desires is matched by the power of her madness, her delusion as a damaged victim perhaps of sexual abuse. It's all expressed anyway in the singing and the score and Vida Miknevičiūtė, this production's Salome, is just superb.

There is no question that Loy puts Salome firmly at the centre of this production; everything literally revolves around her desires and corrupted upbringing, a creature that has inherited the dark ambition of her mother and the avarice for power of her stepfather. The singing however is just as fine from Nikolai Schukoff as Herod and Karin Lovelius as Herodias. I'm not convinced that Andrew Foster-Williams presents the ideal image of an object of dark desire, or at least, not as Loy chooses to present him here. The contrast that Loy perhaps strives to express between female desire and the male gaze is not really established. I would venture to say however that Loy is perhaps working to a bigger picture of the relations between men, women and desire; some of his other more recent productions (EuryantheCosì fan tutte, Francesca da Rimini, Das Wunder der Heliane) all present different views of the same idea.

Musically this sounded good on the streamed broadcast, but without the benefit of live performance or full uncompressed sound, it's unfair to judge. It's clear enough however that this is still one of the most remarkable scores ever written and with Heikki Tuuli conducting the orchestra of the Finnish National Opera, its force was fully felt. That's where the real power of Salome lies, and often the best a director can do is not to get in the way of that. Loy's stage production might not provide the typical reference points, but he does nonetheless draw out terrific performances that show that this opera is much more than a biblical story, is still relevant to our experience of today and still has the ability to shock and amaze.

Links: Finnish National Opera, ARTE Concert

Wednesday 15 June 2022

Heusinger - Die Zeitreisemaschine (Detmold, 2022)

Detlef Heusinger - Die Zeitreisemaschine

Landestheater Detmold, 2022

Lutz Rademacher, Detlef Heusinger, Anton Grass, Louise Heckel, Emily Dorn, Theodore Browne, Stefan Stoll, Irina Meierding 

Edition Gravis - DVD 

A joint commission between the Landestheater Detmold and the Bregenz Festival, Die Zeitreisemaschine ('The Time Travel Machine') by Detlef Heusinger is subtitled 'A Family Opera', and it lives up to that title not just by being an opera for the family, but also one that in some respects is about family. In any family there are generational differences and one area where those differences are more starkly brought into focus is through musical tastes. Who hasn't looked back nostalgically to the old days in the firm belief that quality of music and music performances were much better than they are today?

The grandfather in Heusinger's new opera is adamant about that point, and he makes it clear to his grandson Felix right from the outset of Die Zeitreisemaschine. And you know what? It just so happens that Felix and his sister Frida have just come across a time machine, so why not put this theory to the test and go back and see if things were really much better in the good old days.

The children end up in 1840's Paris in the apartment of Gioachino Rossini, who has retired prematurely from composing opera and now spends his days in bed. Unwell, eating a lot, Rossini is no longer interested in the hard work of being a composer in his present day, and is unwilling even to leave his room to travel to see a new production of Guillaume Tell. Unsurprisingly, even Rossini looks back on the good old days when life was more simple. Those modern trains are too frightening - it was much better and safer when they used horses and carriages.

Of course, whether things are better now or were better in the past can't be proved empirically, but since we are dealing with the subject in the context of an opera, one would expect that it might be a little easier to judge whether music was better in the past than it is in the present. Putting aside the children's preference for Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, we at least we have the advantage of being able to directly compare Heusinger compositional skills with Rossini, but I'm not even sure that this proves anything. Some I'm sure might find the comparison easier to determine, but all we can say for sure is that axiomatically Rossini was of his time and Heusinger is of his time.

What we can say, and one advantage we have in the present, is that we have the past to look back on. Rossini undoubtedly would have considered the music of Mozart being better than anything composed in the present day, and few would argue with that. So in a way we do possess a time-travel machine. Rossini would also have been influenced by his past, so really, it's all about how well we build on what has come before. As the current director of the SWR Experimental Studio, Detlef Heusinger has the whole history of music (up to now) at his fingertips and shows in Die Zeitreisemaschine that he can work creatively with the knowledge and musical tools at his disposal.

Conducted by Lutz Rademacher, Heusinger's chamber-sized orchestra for this opera is therefore able to mix traditional instruments more modern instruments and techniques, using an electric guitar, electronic keyboards and even a theremin. The wholly accessible musical arrangements of the opera itself play with the range of options available, using recitative, aria and choral arrangements to blend into a rich texture that is of its time and uses it to reflect the nature of the subject matter.

Would Rossini have taken advantage of a theremin and electric guitar if there were at his disposal? Clearly he didn't need to, and we can still hear that Guillaume Tell is no worse off for these instruments not being available to him. Can we say that having to much choice and too much history of music at our disposal places us in the present day at an advantage, or is it a disadvantage? Heusinger just has to be more selective in the choices he makes, but the challenge to progress music forward and not backward is the same that Rossini would have faced with the legacy of Mozart.

It's an interesting choice to use Rossini as a way of reflecting and contrasting common attitudes to the past versus the present. Undoubtedly Rossini must surely have felt the same as any composer faced with the legacy of the illustrious musical history that came before him. Rossini's reasons for retiring early remain a mystery, but he must surely have had doubts about his own legacy as a composer. There would have been no guarantee at the time that Rossini's work would outlive him and indeed, while La Cenerentola, Il barbiere di Siviglia and Guillaume Tell are still popular 200 years later, the majority of his works remained in obscurity and some were even lost for many of those years. There's still no guarantee that even those works will not become victim of changing fashions, and certainly they will mean little to young fans of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga.

Such is the nature of time and inevitably some of these ideas come up directly in the opera. The contrasts and commonalities that the opera explores are brought out in the stage direction, which is undertaken in this Detmold production by the composer himself. In the sharing of roles - the grandfather becoming Rossini and the children's parents becoming Figaro and Isabella - the point is clearly made that as long as we keep looking backwards, we won't change the future. The idea of the opera is not really any more complicated than that, and in fact is very simple in terms of plot development and the playing out of the scenes. It perhaps doesn't always keep one engaged through the scenes with Rossini being berated by his soprano wife and manservant or in the children's recitative passages, but the musical expression is wonderful and contributes to suggesting much more in its wide variety of colours and textures.

There are good performances and strong singing from the dual-role principal singers; Emily Dorn as Rossini's wife Isabella frequently lapsing into Mozart like soprano coloratura, Theodore Browne playing the tenor Figaro/father and Stefan Stoll as grandfather/Rossini are both excellent, as is Irina Meierding playing a variety of minor roles. The children only have spoken roles. Heusinger's stage direction is basic but effective, the set well decorated to present the limited drama. A revolving platform shows the present as if through a TV screen and the Rossini period as if through a proscenium arch. Video imagery is used for the transitions between past and present. It works hand-in-hand with the musical score and the Landestheater Detmold itself, extending out into the theatre boxes for music and chorus, presenting a wider immersive theatrical experience that is enhanced on DVD.

The DVD image is standard definition PAL, not always perfectly sharp or focussed when viewed on a HD screen, but the filming captures the colour and design of Heusinger's production well. The sound quality is excellent with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and 5.1 mixes allowing the voices, detail of the score and the clarity of the varied instruments and SWR Experimentalstudio's live electronics to be enjoyed. Although the DVD is region-free, there are unfortunately no subtitles provided in any language. A DVD-ROM feature contains only a digital copy in 1080i which actually looks much clearer on a smaller screen than the DVD on a HD TV. There is a booklet enclosed in German only, with a tracklist, cast biographies, a synopsis, an essay on the opera and an interview with the composer.

Links: Landestheater Detmold, Edition Gravis