Monday 11 December 2023

Catán - Florencia en el Amazonas (New York, 2023)

Daniel Catán - Florencia en el Amazonas

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2023

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Mary Zimmerman, Ailyn Pérez, Gabriella Reyes, Mario Chang, Mattia Olivieri, Nancy Fabiola Herrera, Michael Chioldi, Greer Grimsley

The Met Live in HD - 9th December 2023

Regardless of what you think about the artistic merits of the opening productions of the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD Season, there is a clear intent to extend the range of opera and the opera audience and an important part of that is bringing new works to the stage, new works at least as far as being presented at the Met is concerned. Opera deserves this kind of progressive renewal, its means of expression through music and drama meaning that it can be many things, with each composer free to express their own character, culture and ideals. Spanish language composers don't however have much of a tradition of opera, certainly not in comparison with Italian and German language opera. Daniel Catán's 2016 opera Florencia en el Amazonas is therefore a vital work to be put on at the Met, a work that has the opportunity to fully express Latin American passions. It certainly has that, but is passion all opera is about? Does it not need some depth as well? Some truth?

Well, that would be for the individual to determine how successful the opera and the production is at finding and presenting those qualities that the work has to share. Passion is certainly a defining characteristic of Mexican art and drama in my experience, to the extent that it can be a little overwhelming and come at the expense of subtlety and genuine feeling. You only need to see the expression of Rolando Villazón presenting the Met Live in HD presentation of the opera, and the enthusiasm of the singers being interviewed during the interval to get that impression. I realise that this is a broad generalisation informed on my part only by limited experience mainly of Mexican cinema, but it's a view that isn't changed after seeing Catán's Florencia en el Amazonas.

Without wishing to undervalue the skill and beauty of the composition - one thing that is undeniable is that Florencia en el Amazonas is a truly beautiful opera of Straussian musical richness - the impression is that it verges on being a parody of an opera. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, and Strauss and Hofmannsthal flirted with that idea in many of their operas (Capriccio, Ariadne auf Naxos, even Der Rosenkavalier). In some way however Florencia feels like it's more of an opera about opera, or about the power of opera, and not just because the main character of the work is an opera diva, although that is telling in itself.

The setting at least is one that is given to the rich extravagance with which it is treated. It takes place in the early 1900s on a steamboat, El Dorado, that is making its way though the Amazon rainforest on the way to Manaus, where the legendary opera singer Florencia Grimaldo is appearing at the reopening of the famous jungle theatre. Among the passengers are a couple whose marriage has cooled down, Rosalba, a journalist who is writing a biography of Florencia Grimaldi, and - unknown to all on board - the great diva herself, returning to the place where she started out on her career before becoming famous in Europe. She is also harbouring a desire to see Cristóbal, a former lover who was an inspiration to her.

That's the setting. In terms of plot, there really isn't much to talk about other than what transpires between the characters and within them, but that doesn't stop the on-board romance that develops between Rosalba and the captain's nephew Arcadio or the quarrels between the married couple Paula and Alvaro from being pitched at a very high emotional level. As if that is not enough there is also a mystical figure, Riolobo, acting as a commentator and in some way an influence over what transpires between the passengers; a spirit of the river if you like, although there are plenty of other exotic creatures seen as the steamship progresses through the overheated atmosphere of the Amazonian rainforest.

Directed by Mary Zimmerman, the Met's production matches the colourful nature of, well ...nature in the Amazon region, recognising that at heart the work is a celebration of life and nature. There's not too much realism here (none whatsoever in fact), Riccardo Hernández's sets absolutely beautiful to look at, the costumes of the creatures worn by dancers colourful and inventive, with the dancers dressed as waves even spilling over onto the deck of the steamboat a lovely touch, but it's all a little bit kitsch. That's traditionally Mary Zimmerman and the Met for you, but you'd have to extend that description to Daniel Catán, as this suits his opera perfectly. Musically it flows - overflows really - with expression, the heightened pitch constant and rising to such an extent that you would think there is little room for it to go anywhere after the first act. Well hold on to your opera glasses because it continues to soar higher in Act II.

There is nonetheless much to admire in this. The music is exquisite, Straussian in its rich orchestration and melodies, Puccinian in its romanticism, giving the singers some wonderful parts to sing, challenging too since they rarely vary in pitch or intensity. It's like you get one 'un bel dì vedremo' after another. If this sounds like it could become tiring on the listener, imagine how it must be for the singer. Having said that it is clear that the cast relish such an opportunity and the quality of the singing is extraordinarily good. Ailyn Pérez is a revelation singing in her native Spanish language with the arias that Catán has written for the role of Florencia, but Gabriella Reyes’s Rosalba is no less prone to soaring emotions, or indeed Mario Chang as Arcadio. All are hugely impressive in sustaining this and attempting to give it meaning, but it still feels a little hollow and performative, lacking in any real depth.

A great deal was made of the fact that the librettist, Marcela Fuentes-Berain studied under the Nobel Prize winning Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, but I felt that the connection was overstated as a reason for the opera and the production to indulge in magical realism. Here the opera puts forward the idea that life itself is beautiful, magic, and that the experiences and pains we endure are transformative and find expression in art. There is however not a single moment in the opera that feels like it has any connection with truth or reality. One thing I do admire however is its optimism, something that is rare in traditionally tragic opera of this kind. Florencia’s epiphany at the conclusion, finding the meaning of love in the time of cholera is like a validation of 'un bel di vedremo' (or 'un día precioso veremos' here maybe), where she somewhat appropriately becomes a Señora Mariposa. Sadly, that's not a sentiment greatly in accordance with our current troubled times.

It would be unfair to describe such beautiful music and the optimistic outlook in Florencia en el Amazonas as a weakness, since it's not easy to determine whether it's the opera that is at fault or the production which perhaps over-indulges it. Like many 'flawed' opera works I'm sure it could be 'redeemed' by the right kind of production, one that really seeks to explore it and put it through its paces, one that takes the opportunity to examine it in more depth than Zimmerman and the magical realism trappings to see whether there is a germ of truth and realism in there that can be brought out. 

Perhaps at this stage however it's more important that this is even being put on at the Met as a true representative voice for Spanish language or Latin American opera. I recall however that I might have said something similar about Catán's Il Postino over a decade ago, that it was a work that also has the potential to cross-over, to reach and touch a new audience for opera. Opera trends don't move at a great pace, so it might take another generation for that to happen, but while Florencia en el Amazonas might not have made a great impression on me, I have no doubt that is capable of inspiring others.

External links: Metropolitan OperaThe Met Live in HD

Photos: Ken Howard / Met Opera

Saturday 2 December 2023

Puccini - La Bohème (Dublin, 2023)

Giacomo Puccini - La bohème

Irish National Opera, 2023

Sergio Alapont, Orpha Phelan, Celine Byrne, Sarah Brady, Merūnas Vitulskis, Iurii Samoilov, Gyula Nagy, Lukas Jakobski, Eddie Wade, Fearghal Curtis, David Scott, Kevin Neville

Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin - 26th November 2023

If you think there is nothing radical you can do to enhance Puccini's La bohème, then you've probably only seen variations of John Copley's Royal Opera House warhorse or the classic Franco Zeffirelli stage production and haven't seen the extraordinary versions over the last decade by Stefan Herheim and Claus Guth. Whether that is strictly necessary, whether it adds anything to what is already there and more than sufficient on its own in Puccini's score is another matter. Updated to a different time period but not contemporary (or in outer space) you get the feeling that this is the direction taken by Orpha Phelan for the Irish National Opera production. Why risk spoiling what is already perfect by trying to impose a contemporary situation upon it.

It's arguable in any case that Henry Murger's original 1851 novel 'Scènes de la vie de bohème' is very much about a specific time and place, but there is clearly much that can be read in the interrelated story collection that says much about society, poverty and artists. That however is not the main concern of Puccini's La bohème, or perhaps it is but with a shift of emphasis onto the romantic relationships that are also present in Murger. Puccini's La bohème is at heart a love story, two love stories even, supported by some of the most soaring romantic and tragic music composed for an opera. The best thing about Phelan's INO production is that it doesn't get in the way of this, but supports it almost exactly the way an audience expects. The worse thing about is that it gives you exactly what you expect.

Indeed, as the other (extreme) versions mentioned above indicate, since they make such a huge impression, it's a long time since I've seen a La bohème so lacking in surprises or inspiration. Even the current Royal Opera House production from 2018 had a freshness to it. The danger of this is that with familiarity the opera comes across as little more than a series of set pieces, and when it adds up to set pieces there's little sense of true emotion or drama. Well, that's a risk in the first half at least, and no matter what the production does (even in the hands of Guth), it would be hard not to feel almost devastated by the progression of the final two acts as scored by Puccini.

La bohème's enduring appeal as a tragic romantic opera drama needs little critical support or analysis on that front. The balance of the work is masterful, its contrasting of Rodolfo and Mimi's spark of love on a downward trajectory from its moment of ignition contrasted by Musetta and Marcello's relationship heading in the opposite direction. Puccini plays these two troubled relationships out simultaneously to the same music, with superb use of motifs and repeated refrains that play out in contrasting contexts. As familiar as it has become, there is no question that it's still a masterwork.

Whether it has anything deep or important to say depends on the experience of the individual listener. Certainly I've seen little in opera that comes close to the ecstatic experience of discovering love and the agonising pain of losing it (only Shakespeare can match this in Romeo and Juliet and in Othello). More specifically, it's how Puccini's music captures the rush of young love, the sensation of wanting to have it all and have it now, only later having to deal with the realities of life and relationships. And it has to be said that the realities of poverty and its impact on relationships is not underplayed, even if it's often shown in the context of the brevity of happiness grasped by the bohemian artists in Paris in a specific historical period.

Poverty, illness and death impacting on love and relationships is of course not something that only relates to a distant past. Orpha Phelan however is not too ambitious in her setting of this between WWI and WWII apparently, although like the last INO production, the Jack Furness directed Faust, it's somewhat random and non-specific. There are few twists in each of the scenes in the four acts of this La bohème, although they do flow together well, creating the necessary climate, light and conditions you would expect to find in each of those scenes. It all feels rather perfunctory, trying not to impose on it anything beyond what is necessary for those scenes to work, but in consequence, not really inviting you to consider them in a new light. It has a tendency to just wash over.

Indifference to the situation of the bohemians is the last thing you want from this opera, but there is one considerable factor that prevents this from happening (aside from Puccini's score conducted well here by Sergio Alapont) and it's the fact that you have you have everything you expect from a Rodolfo and a Mimi in the casting of Merūnas Vitulskis and Celine Byrne. In fact, you'd be hard pushed to find any better today, not just in terms of their ability to meet the technical challenges, but also in terms of the necessary passion that goes into performing these roles. Unfortunately, that's more down to the professionalism of the singers and their familiarity with the roles, as the stage direction didn't really add a great deal of conviction to dilemma that Rodolfo and Mimi find themselves in. The same can be said for all the main roles, especially the fabulous performances of Sarah Brady as Musetta and Iurii Samoilov as Marcello.

Irish National Opera were I feel a little more adventurous in their first few seasons since they were formed in 2018, even in their approach to the big operatic standards. Orpha Phelan has also been much more adventurous in the past with beautiful interpretations for the INO's La Cenerentola and Lalla Roukh for Wexford. Following the first opera this season Faust, it feels like post-pandemic they are focussing on bringing an audience back and taking them along with them. It might not appeal to those who like their opera productions a little more avant-garde but I'll say this for their La bohème; playing out to full houses at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin with an opera like this, performed to this kind of standard, there are a lot of people who will be back for the next one. And the next one is Salome, and there's no playing safe with that one. 

Links: Irish National Opera

Saturday 25 November 2023

Puccini - Turandot (Paris, 2023)

Giacomo Puccini - Turandot

Opéra National de Paris, 2023

Marco Armiliato, Robert Wilson, Iréne Theorin, Brian Jagde, Ermonela Jaho, Carlo Bosi, Mika Kares, Florent Mbia, Maciej Kwaśnikowski, Nicholas Jones, Guilhem Worms, Hyun-Jong Roh, Pranvera Lehnert, Izabella Wnorowska-Pluchart

Paris Opera Play - 13th November 2023

Such is the very distinct character and experience of a Robert Wilson production that you imagine that it can't be suitable for every kind of opera, but it's not such an easy thing to fit that into clear dividing lines, and where the line does fall is of course going to be be subjective. You would think that it would be better suited to more abstract work like Einstein on the Beach, where he first made his mark in the world of opera as co-creator with Philip Glass, or Pelléas et Mélisande and the spiritual content of Arvo Pärt's Adam's Passion but his style also seems to chime with baroque very well (Gluck and Handel), except when it doesn't (Monteverdi). You couldn't see his coolness work with the beautiful warm humanity of Mozart, but who knows? I would love to see him direct a Die Zauberflöte, and could someone commission a Robert Wilson Ring Cycle please?...

I wasn't convinced either by his work on Verdi's Aida, even though it looked stunning on the stage, and I was surprisingly impressed with his take on the high drama of the French version of Il Trovatore, so it's not so clear cut. Puccini is another that it's hard to imagine Robert Wilson being suited, but we have already seen Madama Butterfly and this Turandot (seen previously in Madrid) prove otherwise. In the case of Turandot, now playing in Paris and available to view in a brief window though their Paris Opera Play service, the reasons are worth exploring again, although Puccini's opera, the cast here and the spectacle of a Wilson production are reason enough to watch this again.

Like any good opera production its success relies on how well it works with the score and the intent of the opera. That doesn't necessarily mean that the direction has to be sympathetic towards the original intentions of the work (few if any productions match to the letter or even closely adhere to stage directions nowadays), nor even in matching or working with the tone of the music score. There can be as much of interest in contrasting the heat and passion of a music score with a coolness in the direction as a means to examine the potential of a work and perhaps illustrate an hitherto unexplored aspect of a work. I'm not saying that Wilson does this in the case of Turandot, but he certainly brings an uncommon and you would think counterintuitive approach to Puccini's final unfinished masterpiece.

There actually is a cold menace at the heart of this dark fairytale with its authoritarian regime ruled with cruel laws, and that is reflected in the sinister undercurrents of Puccini's score. Calixto Bieito showed one way of bringing that aspect out in his production, but Wilson shows that there is more than one way, and it is if course in his own very distinctive way. The restricted highly controlled movements of the cast, the darkness of moving black panels blotting out the light at the back of the stage instead of thunderclouds. The situation is not natural, so Wilson doesn't resort to natural phenomena for this. When something of nature does appear, such as a bird a stork making a flight across the sky during the mourning of the latest victim to lose his pale bloodless head, it's in response to the sorrowful warmth of the score. Even the bird's movements however are Wilson stylised.

Where Wilson best serves Turandot is in the epic fantasy of the fairytale, not making it a colourful exotic drama (like Andrei Serban at the ROH), but a colourful spectacle of a different hue nonetheless, working primarily with light. It's a superb match for the huge orchestration, the limited movements providing counterpoint rather than a conventional illustrative decoration. It also has the effect of simply gluing you the visuals, really connecting with them, even if they seem occasionally jarring and disruptive to the tone at times with bizarre comedy characters (not just Ping, Pang and Pong). It's visually stunning and despite the impression of it being static there is always something happening, even if it's just the fading and brightening of the light adjusting the whole appearance of a scene.

Credit to conductor Marco Armiliato for matching the lushness of the score with the intent of stage production, rather than feeling a need to present a cold and clinical reading, which would be a disservice to Wilson and Puccini. It's majestic. There are serious singing challenges in this Puccini opera without having to adopt unnatural posture and deliver gestures in the Robert Wilson fashion. Although rightly celebrated for her Puccini roles as Madama Butterfly and Suor Angelica, Liù appears to be less comfortable range for Ermonela Jaho. Iréne Theorin is also a little bit strained here. She's an excellent powerhouse Wagnerian, somewhat inconsistent, but is gloriously imperious in the final scene confronting Liù and Calaf. Turandot is not a large role but it is a very challenging one. Brian Jagde is a fine Decent Calaf, and soars through 'Nessun dorma'. Carlo Bosi is very capable for the role of the old man Altoum.

Whether Turandot has something deeper political to say about love being the answer that will topple a totalitarian regime is debatable, although in its unfinished form without resolution Calixto Bieito certainly made a convincing case for it being a powerful critique of the crushing boot of fascism, but the inherent power of the work, whether for its depiction of a reign of terror or its belief in the healing power of love, is undeniable. His mannerisms will irritate some but the power of Robert Wilson's distinctive vision for this and for the world of opera can't be denied. His Turandot is spectacular, unlike anything else, capturing the otherworldly quality of Puccini’s fairy tale opera, its power, its majesty, and its beauty as a final unfinished testament from this composer.

External links: Opéra National de Paris, Paris Opera Play

Photo credits: Agathe Poupeney / Opéra national de Paris

Wednesday 22 November 2023

Davis - X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (New York, 2023)

Anthony Davis - X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2023

Kazem Abdullah, Robert O'Hara, Leah Hawkins, Raehann Bryce-Davis, Victor Ryan Robertson, Will Liverman, Michael Sumuel, Edwin Jhamaal Davis, Jasmine Muhammad, Elliott Paige, Adam Richardson, Tracy Cox, Bryce Christian Thompson, Gregory Warren, Marco Jordão, Ross Benoliel, Tshombe Selby

The Met Live in HD - 18th November 2023

I praised the Metropolitan Opera two years ago for the initiative of bringing the first opera by a black composer to the Met stage, Terence Blanchard's incendiary Fire Shut Up In My Bones, an opera that tackled race issues that still persist in America head-on. It was a significant moment and a great success, showing that opera could be relevant modern and progressive. What was even more important was that it wouldn't be just a token gesture and that it would be followed up, which it was by going back to Blanchard's other neglected opera, Champion. This year, the Met have continued to support not just works by black composers but contemporary works by other composers never before performed there. With Dead Man Walking opening the 2023-24 season, it was clear that not only did these neglected works by contemporary American composers deserve to be seen on the biggest opera platform in the US, but they could also be hugely successful.

Written and first performed in 1986 by a composer better known for his work in jazz (much like Terence Blanchard), it would have it would have been inconceivable that Anthony Davis's X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X would have been performed back then at the Met, but here we are now with it even being live-streamed live across the world via their Live in HD cinema broadcasts. It's a bold initiative for a bold opera that takes on a challenging subject, a controversial figure from recent history and approaches its subject with an uncommon blend of contemporary opera with arias and an orchestra that includes a jazz ensemble. There would have been more chance of an alien spaceship crashing onto the stage of the Met than X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X being performed there.

That's the image that the director Robert O'Hara chooses as a symbol or emblem that hangs over the stage of the newly revised and expanded version of the opera for the 2023 Met production. We are back to the future, or more specifically, thrown into Afrofuturism, an idea that was first envisioned by Marcus Garvey and has since been taken up by many black jazz musicians supporting the idea of an alternative future where black culture, technology and science are progressive and dominant force in society. Here, they have come back in a spaceship to the Met, no less, to celebrate the life of one of the movement's earliest proponents and indeed activist, Malcolm X advocating not only justice and equality that had been denied to his race, but for separatism "a nation within a nation" that would allow black culture to flourish apart from white society.

There is a clear arc to follow in X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, the opera divided up into three acts that cover Malcolm's early life as Malcolm Little, the years when he threw off his 'slave name' for an 'X' under the influence of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, and in the third part where he visits Mecca and converts to Sunni Islam and the civil rights movement as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. The composer also sees this narrative arc of a character arc being one of transformation that can be defined across those three parts as "Fear, hate and love". It's a serious subject but not one that should come across as a dry docu-drama. There's no danger of the opera being that, but at the same time, it doesn't engage the way it should and it does indeed suffer from trying to be too close and literal to the subject matter.

It shouldn't be like that. Every effort is put into the production design and direction to ensure that this is a varied and colourful production that fills the stage with life, movement and passion. O'Hara's direction attempts to add a larger dimension to the subject with his Afrofuturist sets, elaborate colourful costume designs and groups of dancers while history comes forward from a little amateur dramatics stage at the back. It does help to make the staging a little more interesting from a visual perspective, even if it doesn't really hold to the documentary tone of the work. It looks unfortunately more like a circus and seems at odds even with the austere image of the slim, neat fitted, close cropped, bespectacled and deadly serious Malcolm X we see in black-and-white documentary footage. This is opera however and can't compete with naturalistic realism, and considering the lack of dramatic action, it helps fill the large stage of the Met. Perhaps more importantly it needs to keep up with the times and remain relevant. Thematically there is no problem with that, the race issues raised still largely unchanged, the fact that this is now on the Met stage notwithstanding.

Probably the greatest challenge the opera faces and fails to overcome is the same one that is a challenge for biopics in the cinema; time is compressed and you don't really get a sense of all the elements that feed into the life of the subject and inspire them to transform into the famous person they become known for. We get a sense of the impact of his father's death when he is a child, but it is made to sound like an accident. The sense of fear that the creators strive for in Act 1 however is progressed well, fear turning into anger by the end of the act. Dramatically it doesn't have a whole lot to offer, but it shows how deep-rooted prejudice is in American society. At every turn the young Malcolm takes, he runs up against a wall of racism, of being told this is not for black people and that he needs to know your place, boxed into a life of criminality. The aria "You want the story, but you don’t want to know" hits at the right point at end of Act 1. Even though his arrest in Charleston in 1945 looks like a small matter, it's clear that anger has been building up to this breaking point.

The second act has its strengths but suffers from those biopic issues, compressing the lived experience and failing to adequately show on the stage all the elements and conflicts that feed into the various stages of transformation that Malcolm undergoes. His conversion to the cause of the Nation of Islam and to Sunni Islam on a visit to Mecca seems precipitous, and for all its invention Davis's score doesn't fill in the blanks. You could certainly do that for yourself by imagining the experience of injustice and racism experienced by any black person in America during the 1950s and early 1960s, but it doesn't feature strongly in the opera. The action is limited and more focussed on capturing the speeches and sayings of Malcolm X than showing any real world impact that inspires them or that they might inspire. For large parts this is reduced to sloganeering, which although the feelings expressed remain relevant, it's not what great opera is made of. That said, the chorus work is very strong.

Created 40 years ago and revised for this production, Anthony Davis's score is still ahead of the game, certainly more challenging than Heggie's more conventional Dead Man Walking. Not being constrained to any style other than what is required for the purposes of the story, X draws from a whole range of influences and styles, from classical to Wagner and Berg and more contemporary styles, but also incorporates various periods of jazz that reflect the time Malcolm X lived through. That's important as the black origins of jazz come from the same source that is reflected in the feelings that are expressed by Malcolm X in the opera. Davis's music engages with the complexities of the subject, the historical context of the period and the issues with those unconventional musical forms and African rhythms. The main arias hit home effectively and indeed impressively here, but the greater operatic quality or perspective doesn't succeed in lifting this into another dimension.

None of this takes away from the significance of this particular opera being performed on the Met stage. It's a huge advancement for black artists and the vindication of the ideas of Malcolm X. Much like Malcolm X himself, it's the legacy that is important, with a greater proportion of black artists finding their rightful place in the opera world. There can be no denying either that the singing performances are outstanding and truly inspired by the subject and the work. For me, the tenor Victor Ryan Robertson playing two roles as 'Street' and Elijah Muhammad was the most impressive, working in an incredibly high range and sounding just amazing. He might not look at all like Malcolm X, but Will Livermore's grave impassioned and authoritative performance, also in a very challenging range, was utterly convincing. Leah Hawkins playing Malcolm's mother in the first act and his wife thereafter, was also hugely impressive. Her aria "When a man is lost" in Act II before Malcolm's visit to Mecca was breathtaking. There is an incredible talent base of new black American singers filling out the ranks of the Met.

Bringing this together musically would have been quite a challenge for conductor Kazem Abdullah, the jazz elements and drums blended in with the contemporary music creating odd rhythms, but it came across effectively and powerfully in the Met Live in HD screening. There's no question that the subject is also an interesting and a challenging one, and it's to the credit of the Met that they were willing to take it on. If the stage production didn't entirely succeed in enhancing the qualities of the work, it certainly showed that the talent is there in abundance, and that there is a new audience out there for more work like this. 

External links: The Metropolitan Opera, The Met Live in HD

Saturday 18 November 2023

Stano - In Between Silence

Stano - In Between Silence where we really exist

Stano, John Minihan, Aidan Gillen, Paula Meehan, Theo Dorgan, Robert Ballagh, Mary Stokes, Melissa Nolan, Johnny Burke, Marie Howe, Ron Carter, Elizabeth Johnson, Wilson Moran, Brian Keenan

Stano is an avant-garde musician who has been working in the Dublin music scene since the 1980s, but he has never really been a part of any collective genre or scene. His work is not easy to categorise, seeming to incorporate post-punk, post-rock, alternative, indie, but - to generalise somewhat - in the main he works with electronic sonic textures and drones which permits great creative freedom to work across many contemporary music disciplines. Stano discovered a new form of musical expression by accident that has been his main project every since, setting music that had been recorded to a story that was being told by one of his fellow musicians and finding that the two elements supported and enhanced each other. This led to the recording of In Between Silence where we really exist, where he invited other artist and friends to describe "a moment in your life that is significant to you" with no other instructions on theme, subject or length of the story, subsequently adding music to the pieces. So far, that idea has led to a collection of almost 100 stories, 13 of which are presented on this CD.

Many artists have worked with setting poetry to musical backing and song. Philip Glass worked with Allen Ginsburg on making Hydrogen Jukebox into a chamber opera, Robert Ashley's hypnotic operas are almost entirely spoken word, Sinikka Langeland has recently set Jon Fosse's poetry to ambient folk-jazz for the ECM label on Wind and Sun and David Sylvian provided music for the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Franz Wright’s There's a Light That Enters Houses With No Other House In Sight. It's Sylvian’s musical and collaborative improvisations with lyrics and poetry there and on his album Manafon that is perhaps the closest example of what Stano does, but Stano also applies the improvisational approach to the words, taking no control over what is spoken by his guests - with no editing and no second takes - and sets them to musical textures of piano, electric guitar and electronic patterns. It's not backing music or purely drone soundtrack, and in most cases it barely even seems to correlate with the speech patterns or context, but there is no reason why it should. The spoken texts don't need music to emphasise what is being recounted, but they can enhance it in non-specific ways, giving the work another dimension. It's this other dimension, the cross pollination of disciplines, that is the hallmark of opera.

Opera has always been one of the most progressive and experimental of art forms throughout its history. By definition it's a very broad and inclusive artform, taking in music, drama, singing, theatrical production and performance, all of which and none of which are essential. Some operas have no music, just voices singing (Ana Sokolović's Svadba), some have no traditional musical instruments (Ondřej Adámek's Seven Stonesand some people even listen to music on CD detached from its visual and dramatic presentation and still call it opera. If there is one element that can be thought the essence of opera, it's that it has something to communicate to an audience. If this page can bring together work as diverse, unconventional and rule breaking as Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Mahler's Second Symphony (Resurrection), Mozart's Requiem, Marina Abramović's 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, Jennifer Walshe's Ireland: A Dataset and Stockhausen’s Freitag aus Licht, it can cope with an artist working on a new contemporary form of working with words and music.

The most significant aspect of the approach Stano takes to this project that sets it apart from other music/spoken word or poetry artists Kae Tempest, something that gives it a degree of originality and expands the range of what is is capable of, it's the use of multiple voices. The stories and experiences are expressed from a wide range of contributors, some of them are famous writers, artists, musicians, poets probably used to holding forth monologues, others less so. Here however, they are called upon to express themselves in a way that is outside their comfort zone, and yet finds a way into a deeper personal space (where we really exist). The recordings they each make are the inspiration for an appropriate tone and personal response on the part of the composer and musicians. It's not a true collaboration as we know it, but something more experimental. There is an instinctive approach here involving improvisation on the part of the speaker and the musician, many of the talks clearly not scripted, but spoken freeform.

That's the other beauty of In Between Silence; there appears to be no strict formula applied. The music could be written first and fitted to the spoken story, or it could be done the other way around. The story could be related over a recording of the music or it could be brought together in post-production. There are no rules here. Several of the storytellers stumble over words, momentarily can't remember a name, but then move on back to the story and correcting themselves along the way. Others are more comfortable with a prepared script, but even then you get the impression that there is no rehearsal, no second takes, the aim to get something fresh, something told as if almost reliving an experience. The stories are consequently of varied lengths, with no guideline or restrictions imposed. It's about whatever contributors feel like sharing, large or small. Together it adds up to a multiplicity of human experiences, and yet at the dame time a common human experience that we can all share.

It's this unselfconscious and openness that allows the listener to feel like the storyteller is speaking directly to them, and you suspect that it's also what provokes such a personal response on the part of Stano and his musicians. Improvisation is undoubtedly a part of the method of the speaker, and I suspect that there is no music score sitting in front of the musicians. It's the response of the musicians that is important as a contributing factor, but so too is the response of the listener. There is no right or wrong way to listen to this, no meaning you are meant to take away from it. The words are obviously the primary focus but the music behind it is not random and it invites the listener to consider what it is adding to the piece, why such an approach was chosen. It's experimental, which means it's trying out ideas, so the response to the musicians to each piece is entirely different, as it will be to the audience. Choices are important in any creative art form, but a work shouldn't be directing with emphasis to what it believes is important for you to think, and at different times different things will jump out at you.

The instruction to describe "a moment in your life that is significant to you” is all the direction that is given and the reflections are all personal to the storyteller, so it may or may not be surprising that some common themes arise out of them. There's the fact that many of the contributors are Irish-born - the photographer John Minivan, the actor Aidan Gillen, the poets Paula Meehan and Theo Dorgan, the Belfast-born writer Brian Keenan - and it's possible to find their stories connected in one way or another to roots and Irishness. Each of them however seems to want to recognise those roots, but also express a desire to break away from those origins and find some deeper truth that lies inside and through that connect with other people and their experiences, whether though visiting other places, reading books or listening to music. It captures a developing concept of Irishness through the 20th century, breaking away from the past and embracing a newfound sense of freedom, kinship, companionship and liberation. Healing too is an important part of this. In that multiplicity of voices there is an echo of James Joyce's Dubliners, and In Between Silence could be a Dubliners for the 21st century, but the project seeks to find similar experiences in a wider context of time and place.

It is indeed a common subject of interest to explore one's roots and where they take you, so it's unsurprising that similar experiences are important also to Johnny Burke, an American with Irish family origins, to the legendary double-bass jazz musician Ron Carter and his 96-year old aunt Elizabeth Johnson, and Wilson Moran who describes his mother's reconnection with her family history in Sierra Leone, moving from slavery to the freedom to rediscover and reconnect with her roots. Music is a theme that arises in several stories, from Moran's mother's ancient burial song to Robert Ballagh's discovery of rock 'n' roll through Bill Hailey and the Comets, heralding musical and personal change and "revolution". Throughout all these Stano and his musicians provide an appropriate sense of setting, a flicker of Jimi Hendrix in Dorgan's story, a rising beat to the vital ambition of Ballagh's awareness of the expanding “new musical horizons”. Needless to say, some of those stories and the personal experiences related are deeply, deeply touching, filled with poetry and insight, heightened but not altered by the musical element.

As such, applying a label to In Between Silence would fail to do it justice. It's not opera, it's not poetry, it's not spoken word performance; it's all of these, but essentially it's Stano. By refusing to conform to the expectations that being placed within a label or genre would bring, Stano is able to allow explore the unlimited scope that the project offers. These pieces have indeed been presented in a cinema to a blank screen Derek Jarman Blue-like, so it could have a visual element that would invite a different response. Or choose your own colour and you can experience this CD with a visual stimulus of your own choosing. It could certainly be staged by a director, if someone chose to do so. It's with this outlook, and a trust in other people - maybe not just fellow artists, friends, writers and poets but other 'ordinary' people too - that contribute to the unlimited potential of how this remarkable work can be presented and how it can be absorbed by an audience. And when you hear it, you'll want to share it with everyone else you know.

External Links:,

Wednesday 15 November 2023

Stockhausen - Freitag aus Licht (Lille, 2022)

Karlheinz Stockhausen - Freitag aus Licht

Opéra de Lille, 2022

Maxime Pascal, Silvia Costa, Jenny Daviet, Halidou Nombre, Antoin HL Kessel, Charlotte Bletton, Iris Zerdoud, Sarah Kim, Haga Ratovo, Rosabel Huguet Dueñas, Suzanne Meyer, Jean-Baptiste Plumeau, Emmanuelle Monier, Pauline Nachman, Marie Picaut, Michiko Takahashi, Léa Trommenschlager, Ayako Yukawa, Frédéric Albou, Arthur Cady, Bertrand Bontoux, Jean-Christophe Brizard, David Colosio, Florent Martin, Colette Verdier, Marin Rayon, Alexis Mazars, Stéphane Poulet, Edgar Cemin, Arsène Jouet

Philharmonie de Paris streaming

With Freitag aus Licht, Le Balcon, continue their work on what must surely be one of the most ambitious projects in opera; a complete cycle of the seven Licht operas composed by Karlheinz Stockhausen between 1977 and 2003. Totalling 29 hours of music and spectacle unlike anything else, this cycle has understandably never been produced in its entirety by the same opera company. Dealing with the eternal struggle to dominate earth between good and evil, darkness and light, each of the operas has their own distinct character and challenges. Composed between 1991 and 1994 Freitag aus Licht ("Friday from Light") is the opera of temptation, but perhaps not entirely in the way you might think. It's associated with Venus and the colour orange, its spiritual features are knowledge and wisdom, and the temptation is indeed of the body, but also the temptation to change, to use the body as an instrument and turn one sound into another.

This is a consistent theme in Stockhausen's Licht, where the idea of opera itself and what it is capable of is also transformed with an unconventional libretto that turns words into sounds and action into gestures. In terms of plot then, Freitag can't be easily summarised, and even an outline description of the stage direction and actions is unconventional and impossible to subject to analysis or interpretation, much less consider how it fits into the Licht series as a whole, but Le Balcon do their utmost to make it as easy as possible to follow, breaking the work down to its composite parts. What follows might not make a lot of sense, but it will be fun trying to relate it, so here goes...

There are essentially three aspects to the work. The opening section the Weltraum is a suite of electronic music recorded by Stockhausen which, like the other works in Licht, serves as a greeting (Gruss) to the audience on entering the theatre, entering the world of Stockhausen. There are 12 'dance scenes' of dancers dressed as 'everyday objects' who undergo transformation by "hybridisation" over the course of the performance. The third element of the opera is the dramatic action - although 'drama' and 'action' are obviously unconventional - that takes place in the ongoing struggle between good and evil, where on Friday, good yields to temptation, but perhaps something comes of this unnatural union.

Le Balcon's production at Lille in 2022 doesn't make use of dancers, but rather sets up a kind of scientific laboratory were young children in white coats experiment with pairs of household objects and creatures that each make their entrance onto the stage to the electronic music backing. The first pair introduced is male and female, shown in cutaway models of human head and torso, which is then followed by dog and cat puppets, with other seemingly random objects making entrances at each significant stage of the opera.

Before then the dramatic action that relates the story of temptation plays out, Eve - a significant person in the triumvirate that is formed between her, Michael and Lucifer, encounters Lucifer in a new form, as Ludon. The exchange between them uses few recognisable words, Stockhausen moving beyond conventional language vocalisations into sounds clicks with Lufa and Elu (solo flute and basset horn) accompanying Eve. Ludon gives Eve a pearl in a clam shell. This heralds the entrance of a photocopying machine and typewriter in the dance section set at a different level on the stage.

Some time later Eve returns, wearing orange and accompanied by a Children's Orchestra dressed in white. She meets Ludon, who is accompanied by a children's choir dressed in black, again the orchestra and choir forming an extension of their language as they come to play together. Ludon offers his son Kaino in marriage, all of this taking place in slow ritualistic movements, exchanging words and sounds. The Consent section takes place after the entry of the racing car, pinball machine and leg with a football sock, and is celebrated with a rocket around the moon.

Part two of the opera commences with the consummation of Eve and Kaino on a boat, a scene ecstatically vocalised and scored by Stockhausen in a blend of swirling electronic drones, soft industrial clangs, bleeps and acoustic instruments. The union however is not a good one, is lamented by Michael and this causes an unnatural hybridisation between male and female humans and the cat and dog, followed by a hybridisation of photocopier and racing car. Meanwhile other objects make their entrance, a naked arm that is injected by syringe and an electric pencil sharpener. But what about the children? Well, all this leads to a war, a Kinderkrieg, yet another battle in the continuous war waged across many parts of Licht.

(Apparently a flying rhinoceros comes to the rescue of Ludon's children but I must have missed that with so much else going on).

The hybridisations continue between the footballer's leg and the pinball machine, there is the entrance of an ice-cream cone and woman's mouth, the rocket and syringe in naked arm come together, a violin and architect make an entrance, followed by a nest and a crow. As each of the hybridisations occur, other figures turn up on the stage as representations of the hybrid forms. Repentant, Eve begs Michael - the saviour as we have seen in previous days of Licht already presented (Donnerstag, Dienstag, Samstag) - for forgiveness.

So not exactly conventional or even comprehensible for the most part, but Freitag aus Licht is not the hard work that its formidable scale, ambition, reputation and description might suggest. It's not overly serious either, although I suspect Stockhausen took it very seriously indeed. You are free however to see it as you like and in the hands of musical director Maxime Pascal and director Silvia Costa, it's actually a very engaging work, inviting you into its deeply involving world, asking you to think differently or feel perhaps more than think. It's certainly grand, wholly operatic, more than a little bit bonkers, pushing the boundaries of the lyrical and theatrical art form.

I don't believe that the opera places any demands on you to follow and understand everything that is going on other than on the most basic level of good encountering evil and seeking to overcome temptation. Everything else is just part of the audiovisual experience, for you to feel and pick up things that don't fit into coherent language or rational action. Analysis is superfluous, as everything Stockhausen wants to express in this opera is up there on the stage - or as much as possible - so it's up to the viewer what they take from it. Bearing in mind of course that Freitag is just one part of the whole seven opera Licht cycle.

Stockhausen doesn't leave a lot of room for director interpretation, but Costa and Le Balcon have been very creative in how they choose to present the work which, as you can see, has some challenging and precisely detailed stage directions. They appear to try to remain as close as possible to the vital intent of the work, preserving its symmetry, its structure and the esoteric qualities that lie within its ritualistic movements. The hybridisation scenes may test one's patience with distorted cut-up high pitched electronically treated voices, but it's a striking opera performance and presentation. I'm sure they'll come up with something equally creative for the string quartet played from four helicopters in Mittwoch aus Licht ("Wednesday from Light").

Maxime Pascal and Le Balcon once again fully live up to the remarkable character of an extraordinary operatic experience. There is nothing else like Stockhausen's Licht and its originality is replicated yet again here in the spectacle of the stage production, in the musical performances and the singing. Jenny Daviet is extraordinary as an ethereal soaring Eve, interacting with the deep intonations of bass Halidou Nombre as Lucifer and baritone Antoin HL Kessel as Kaino. It demands much more than just conventional singing, as there are few recognisable words and a lot of vocalisations, all of which are notated in detail by the composer with accompanying movements and gestures.

From its Gruss to its Abscheid, Freitag aus Licht is intended as an enveloping surround theatrical experience, Stockhausen not only seeking to transform one sound into another, but to use sound that moves through space. The recording of the 2022 production in Lille, streamed via the Philharmonie de Paris (which is currently hosting the next section in the cycle Sonntag aus Licht), uses a binaural recording to attempt to capture the enveloping soundscape that Stockhausen seeks to place the audience within. It's an experience in itself.

Saturday 11 November 2023

Mitchell - The Headless Soldier (Belfast, 2023)

Conor Mitchell - The Headless Soldier

The Belfast Ensemble, 2023

Tom Deering, Conor Mitchell, Ed Lyon, Sarah Richmond, Christopher Cull, Shea McDonnell

Lyric Theatre, Belfast - 9th November 2023

They weren't giving too much away about the plot or subject matter of the new opera by Conor Mitchell and Mark Ravenhill on the Belfast Ensemble website or on the website of the Lyric Theatre where the world premiere was being performed as part of the Outburst Queer Arts Festival 2023, but you could rely on The Headless Soldier being controversial, provocative and bang-up-to-the-moment contemporary. Provocative and controversial and probably offending a number of people in the process, but never just for the sake of it, and at least for a good reason. Daring to confront what is not something spoken about in polite society is what has made Mitchell and the Belfast Ensemble perhaps the most vital company in Northern Ireland arts scene at the moment.

As it turns out, it is precisely polite society and its unwillingness to speak about and confront issues that is the target of The Headless Soldier. Or one of its targets, for it tackles a number of issues, not in a random fashion, but in a manner that is interconnected in ways that you might not think immediately obvious. Indeed, it is not even a traditional opera with a beginning middle and end, but an opera triptych of three short pieces that each build upon each other thematically and musically to add up to something ...well, something quite frightening.

The outline description of the new opera was simply that it "looks beneath the perfect lives of Helen, her husband, Thomas and their haunted son, Zach – finding a hidden, much closer war." No further plot synopsis is provided and the idea of a plot turns out to not really be the whole story anyway. In the first part of the opera, 'Intolerance', Helen introduces herself on the way to becoming a new and better person. To address the painful stomach cramps she has been suffering she has cut out caffeine from her diet in favour of health drinks, pro-biotic yoghurt, acupuncture and regression therapy, and it's really working. Except it isn't. Her intolerance is not so much in her diet as something else deeper within her that is expressed in a few violent outbursts.

In the second part of The Headless Soldier, 'Fear & Misery', we meet Helen's husband Thomas who is trying to convince his wife of a move into a gated community, partly as evidence of belonging to a select social group, but there is also fear behind this desire. His fears seem to be of external forces and dangers and a sense of protectiveness of their son Zachary, but there is something deeper inside giving rise to his fears that a gated community won't protect him from. In 'War & Peace', Zachary is indeed troubled, drawing disturbing pictures of the headless soldier that haunts him in the dark. His parents blame it on the news, which is filled with images of war, but the tensions between his parents are also clearly contributing to his problems.

It sounds like a psychological study, but written by Mark Ravenhill and with Mitchell's music playing just as important a role in what the opera says, there are other levels explored here. War features prominently, the war within the family collectively as well as individuals, fighting battles with their worst impulses and fears, but these problematic attitudes are extended out into the society we live in where other types of war rage. As is often the case with the works of the Belfast Ensemble, this is so up-to-date and relevant that it feels like Ravenhill and Mitchell have been watching the 6 o'clock news this evening and put it all up on the stage as an opera by 7:30pm. It's that 'now', it's immediate and of the moment, even if such unerring accuracy and contemporary relevance is not so much eerily prescient as depressingly inevitable.

So while the middle-class aspirational family are up there on the stage waging war with their demons and each other, Conor Mitchell's direction shows other on-screen violence projected onto screens. It's incredible to think that they have managed to reflect the current Israel-Hamas war with news footage that is fresh from our TV screens, juxtaposing it with relentless Looney Tunes cartoon violence. The conventional wisdom would suggest that desensitisation to violence through on-screen experience is having an impact on the model modern family, but the impression is that Ravenhill and Mitchell are aiming for perhaps the exact opposite - that it's the deeper human fears and failings found in this type of family unit, passed down from generation to generation, that lead to the kind of pain, suffering, hate and death that we can see taking place on a global scale in wars around the world.

That's not a safe or comforting position to take, but then that's exactly what you expect artists like Ravenhill and Mitchell to do; not pander to their audience, but challenge them. Mitchell's music takes the same line of attack, a fascinating blend of harmony, melody and jarring dissonance that reflects the subject. Everything seems very pleasant and idealised on the surface of The Headless Soldier family, but there are little Michael Nyman-esque or John Adams-like flurries of racing panic to the Turn of the Screw-like underlying menace that would threaten to explode into Béla Bartók Duke Bluebeard's Castle horror were it not for the controlled chamber orchestration of the Belfast Ensemble orchestra. Conducted by Tom Deering however, they delivered all the necessary impact. If the final door of the castle is not opened in The Headless Soldier, the score leaves you with a sense that its contents remain locked inside and festering.

Such is the nature of the score in this respect that even two experienced opera singers like Ed Lyon and Sarah Richmond had to use microphone amplification, although that's probably as much to do with the acoustics of the Lyric Theatre not being ideal for opera. That said, Ed Lyon's mic didn't seem to operate on the first night when he took to the stage as Thomas in the second part of the opera, but his delivery was strong enough that it didn't have any noticeable impact other than being out of balance with Sarah Richmond. And with Richmond's powerful delivery, he had his work cut out there. Her solo monologue performance in part one of the opera was just delightful, delivering Ravenhill's deeply acerbic text - deeply in as much as it was simmering below the surface of genteel amiability - with wonderful inflection and timing that was matched by Mitchell's complementary score. Christopher Cull had considerable challenges too for maintaining that tension throughout the final part as the agonised and terrifying apparition of the blood-soaked headless soldier. There were challenging on-stage situations for Shea McDonnell to deal with, but he was equally as impressive as Zachary.

The final part of the opera triptych might not have revealed any answers or delivered the satisfying conclusion that a theatre audience might expect, but Mitchell and Ravenhill didn't write this piece to send you home in comfortable complacency. Compounding the horror seen through the eyes of a child subjected to a bombardment from all sides, turning it into nightmare dreams of a headless soldier, the nightmare is a live and waking one still lying below the surface and ready to erupt later with the next generation. It's not the most comforting of thoughts to leave the theatre with, but its not up to the creators to tie this up neatly or tell you what to think or do. If anything, what they are doing is pointing your darker side back at you, asking you to ask yourself what it is that is really wrong in the world today, and suggesting that you don't have to look too far to find the answers.

External links: The Belfast Ensemble, Lyric Theatre