Sunday 19 February 2023

Mazzoli - The Listeners (Oslo, 2022)

Missy Mazzoli - The Listeners

Den Norske Opera & Ballett, Oslo - 2022

Ilan Volkov, Lileana Blain-Cruz, Nicole Heaston, Simon Neal, Tone Kummervold, Eirik Grøtvedt, Johannes Weisser, Frøy Hovland Holtbakk, Håvard Stensvold, Martin Hatlo, Line Tørmoen, Ingunn Kilen, Ørjan Bruskeland Hinna, Megan Gryga, Margaret Newcomb, Jeanette Goldstein, Mathea Kvalvåg-Andersen, Nora Windfeldt, Cecilie C. Ødegården, Mihai Florin Simboteanu, Anne-Marie Andersen

OperaVision - 9th October 2022

When you get right down to it and view it in broad terms, all operas are about life, love and human existence in the face of adversity. That's remained true for all the differences in style and period over the centuries. It applies to L'Orfeo as much as it does to Einstein on the Beach, much as the latter is ostensibly and to all intents about nothing at all. The nature of the adversity faced over the ages changes with society, so it shouldn't really be a surprise when a modern opera deals with modern concerns in a modern way, using situations and the kind of people we see today.

That of course can vary greatly, as much as the problems generated by living in the modern world varies greatly, whether it's climate disaster or the end of the world as we know it from European perspective in Fafchamps' Is This The End?, in Sivan Eldar's Like Flesh, Tom Coult's Violet, or the African-American experience of Terence Blanchard's Fire Shut Up in my Bones. American composer Missy Mazzoli's musical language seems more akin to modern European music of the likes of Louis Andriessen, while the setting of The Listeners is very much in the language and experience of the American lifestyle, where perhaps the human issues it deals with is more pronounced. Essentially however, it deals with matters that are becoming more and more prevalent in modern society and as such a suitable subject for an opera to deal with.

What is at the root of the problems is not entirely pinned down, the opera presenting something of a J.G. Ballard science-fiction social dystopia situation (albeit one based on a real phenomenon), but in itself that difficulty in defining it is part of the issue, as everyone has their own experience. Here it manifests as a low hum that is affecting their mood and sleep of a section of the population of a small American town. It's presumably more serious than tinnitus, which in itself is no minor ailment, of course. The implication of the title perhaps suggests that there are a group of people who might be more alert to something that runs deeper, a malaise that is seeping into our consciousness because of the type of lives we lead, the pressures we face around us, or indeed the constant hum of never ending and seemingly increasingly troubling news horror stories.

That aligns The Listeners very much with a predominant theme in contemporary opera and in literature, a similar "hum" presaging the end days in the diminishing of time in Coult's Violet, a metaphor for the rapidity with which we appear to be heading towards social and climatic breakdown. Another approach is in a new book I read recently by Hanna Jameson, Are You Happy Now?, which takes a particularly Millennial generation view of how society has left young people, or people of an in-between generation with the growing realisation that they have no control over their lives and are ill equipped emotionally, mentally for the society that has been determined for them to live in. This leads to an outbreak of what can be described as an epidemic of catatonic depression.

There's a similar deeply troubling personal response to the persistent low hum that is experienced by Claire Devon, a schoolteacher in the community of Ranchland. It's causing problems for her family who don't hear the noise and think she is going crazy. She confides her problem with one of her students, Kyle, whose studies are suffering because of the low hum and he directs them towards a group of people he has found on the Internet who also hear the hum. Lead by an enigmatic guru, Howard Bard, inevitably their meetings and sharing of experiences lead to the group behaving like a cult. And inevitably that tends to get taken advantage. Does Bard really have answers or is he a liar and a fraud?

It's certainly possible to see a contemporary political dimension in this, in a group of people troubled by society seeking answers and solutions from a populist leader, but the subject could be viewed in any number of ways, from personal to social crisis, mental health to conspiracy theories. I said at the start that all operas touch on the same underlying human questions, and there are wider applications that apply here, but it can often seem like modern operas lack the sophistication or glamour of the classics. That's not necessarily so, particularly as most modern productions also try and bring the high-flown otherworldly elements of gods, kings, wars and mythological classics a little more down to earth and relatable in human terms, but there is no reason either why that idea can't also be somewhat reversed and elevated when it comes to modern opera.

The situations and dialogue in The Listeners however are mainly everyday and domestic with ordinary spoken language, sex scenes and strong language. Some might not like it, but that's how people live and it's more often in those domestic situations, at home, at work, in the talk and gossip of others, that we feel those pressures most acutely. Turning a constant background hum of everyday life into an epidemic does permit the opera to take on a more abstract and dramatic form, and although the goings-on of the cult might be seen to slightly dominate over any message, it's very well put together in terms of characterisation, situation and narrative. The musical construction of the opera is fascinating too, but more of that later.

That is not to say that there are what might be perceived as weaknesses. Who exactly are the Listeners? Is it a conspiracy theory of government surveillance and control? Is it the people who not so much take notice that something is wrong in the world but people who actively listen out for it and can't ignore what they hear. That could also be taken as conspiracy theorists, so there is some ambiguity about how you feel about Claire sharing her experiences with other like-minded people who believe they can see things others don't. I'm not sure where the composer and librettist stand on this, even though obviously the cult is depicted as manipulative, but the message and outcome remains ambiguous. Then again ambiguity isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it allows for the opera to be interpreted and not remained fixed to a single preachy viewpoint.

I not against modern opera using direct modern day language rather than any high-flown poetry. A certain abstraction might serve to draw more out of the complex but specific political content in John Adams's operas like Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic and The Death of Klingfhoffer. Royce Vavrek's libretto may be rather more plain-speaking, but there are surely better ways of expressing deep personal conflict and confusion than in banalities like Claire sharing her feelings with a coyote in the a refrain of "Me and you. We're not so different". Strong language I don't have a problem and I don't expect deep philosophical pondering, but little of whatever you think is confronted here initially appears to be backed up with any strong message in the content or the music.

It's a good idea however to gather the views/confessions of other 'ordinary' people, listeners like Angela and Thom who express and give a wider perspective on the attitudes and experiences that inform their view of the world and their belief in the group. Inevitably it's a sense of feeling isolated, unable to connect and relate to others, their potential suppressed by social order and expectations. It's perhaps there that the idea and warning of The Listeners comes through. People are "notes in the bigger chord" and need validation not dismissal, not letting their fears take over and destroy them, not let the 'dark web' so to speak, take them. Or more relevantly, since there is room for interpretation here, allowing political leaders to feed and exploit their fears. Self empowerment, if you like, but it remains ambiguous how much this should be indulged.

It helps that the opera is well-staged, well-lit and well-directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, avoiding clichés that could be suggested by the smalltown American setting and subject. There is a good use of projections, web chat, TV news broadcasts and live projections of people's confessions to Howard Bard's camera. It captures a sense of the complexities of the world we live in, gaining multiple perspectives and within them the cracks where people can fall. The singing and dramatic performances are good right across the board, making use of these seemingly secondary characters to widen and deepen the perspective. Eirik Grøtvedt stands out in particular as Kyle, and Tone Kummervold brings character and colour as Angela. Howard Bard might be more of a stock cult leader personality, but there is also a good singing here from Simon Neal. All of the 'secondary characters' bring something to the performance.

The highest praise however has to go to Nicole Heaston as Claire. It's a terrific performance that engages all the way through. Her character deals with considerable pressure and consequently has challenging vocal expression. And, true enough, Heaston can make a 'Shut the fuck up!' sound lyrical and cutting at the same time. Some might not like that in an opera, but it's not that far removed from Maria Stuarda's 'Vil bastarda!' written nearly 200 years ago, delivered here to much the same intent and effect.

Musically, I haven't come across the music of Missy Mazzoli before or yet had the chance to see Breaking the Waves, but it strikes me as similar to John Adams with a more European sensibility of Louis Andriessen. There is no harsh dissonance, some Leoš Janáček-like rhythmic pulses, motifs and a richness in instrumentation with sparing use of electronic effects that provide colour and texture. In more than capable hands of conductor Ilan Volkov, there is a lot of interest to find in the score. Considering the subject you might expect some low level electronic drone music, but - tellingly perhaps - none is heard. You can hear the hum of the listeners, a counteractive force to the noise rises to the fore in the chorus at the end of Act. "We harness the hum, we build the harmony", but whether all is as harmonious as that suggests is left tantalisingly open to interpretation.

Links: Den Norske Opera & Ballett, OperaVision

Monday 13 February 2023

Tchaikovsky - The Queen of Spades (Brussels, 2022)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Pikovaya Dama

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2022

Nathalie Stutzmann, David Marton, Dmitry Golovnin, Laurent Naouri, Jacques Imbrailo, Anne Sofie von Otter, Anna Nechaeva, Charlotte Hellekant, Alexander Kravets, Mischa Schelomianski, Maxime Melnik, Justin Hopkins, Mireille Capelle, Emma Posman

OperaVision - 23 September 2022

Although visually it clearly takes place in late Soviet-era USSR, everyone wearing 1970s' costumes in the courtyard exterior and assumed interiors of a Soviet tenement block, it is of course tempting to see something of the current conflict in Ukraine in David Marton's 2022 production of Tchaikovsky's Pikovaya Dama/The Queen of Spades for La Monnaie, the production playing out much at the same time in September 2022 as the Russian invasion was at its height. While the period sets it apart and prevents it from making any ill-fitting and facile commentary on a serious and complex contemporary situation, Tchaikovsky's opera and indeed Pushkin's original ghost story do have something to say about the dangers of myths fuelling nationalistic delusions and war.

That's touched on in the children's chorus of the opening scene which otherwise has apparently little to do with the opera, a scene that would be difficult to imagine playing straight in the current circumstances and an example of how quickly 'innocent' intent can suddenly appear more sinister as times change. With this chorus of schoolboys lining up in a play-acted military march against Russia's enemies, Tchaikovsky could easily be outlawed (and has indeed been in some places) in the current climate where Russian artists and musicians are now viewed with suspicion. Marton however turns this into a more abstract scene, a Russian pianist centre stage, a radio playing the marching song, while a group of mothers listen to the broadcast of their sons with horror for what lies ahead.

It neatly sidesteps any controversy, not that La Monnaie ever work on the basis of playing safe in their productions, but it also sets the tone for what follows. The period and setting emphasise the divide between the rich and the poor, Liza the prize of the Prince that Hermann, hanging out with his chums in the tenement block, gambling, spending his money on black market goods, cannot hope to win. He knows he is a loser, not just in cards but in the game of life, and he feels that despair deeply, in the way that only the tragic figures of Russian literature can. And in a way that only a composer like Tchaikovsky, it his own troubled personal life, can put into music - as demonstrated in Stefan Herheim's 2016 production of this opera.

A creative director can of course delve into many different layers of this work, as Hans Neuenfels also did at Salzburg, using the children's march as a means of emphasising the strict rules of society that Hermann feels he has the right to place himself outside. What gives him the confidence to follow his own path in Marton's production is, like the empowerment of nationalistic exceptionalism expressed in the march, the lie of the myth of the Countess and the three cards that he chooses to believe in. He buys into it, but also buys a gun from a black market dealer to give him a little more power and influence. 

Marton of course doesn't keep it as simple as that and recognises the complexity of Tchaikovsky's music and the fact that art, opera and music have their part to play in exposing or examining the workings of the human mind, and indeed inspiring to go to war. Throughout the opera we see a man writing in a book, a libretto perhaps, and a pianist at the centre of the scene, Marton resisting however the temptation to go down Herheim's use of a Tchaikovsky doppelganger (or many of them, reflecting various sides of the composer). The two come together at the conclusion of the opera to reflect what they have experienced in the preceding episodes.

But art has other means and uses, particularly for ordinary people in the impoverished circumstances depicted in this era and this is also reflected in the setting. While the men are gambling, black market dealing or finding other ways of escape through alcohol, the women are seen looking to escape their surroundings, reading books, gazing into a glass of spirits, trying to catch a radio signal from the outside world. A young girl gazes at a globe, and Polina sings a melancholic song that observes: "What did I find in those enchanting dreams? A grave." Such scenes, as well as Tchaikovsky's pastorale and the arrival of Catherine the Great would feel out of place in this context, a divertissement in the middle of the near-contemporary realism depicted here, but it actually serves as another illusion to keep the peasants dreaming.

With a wealth of such material already provided by Tchaikovsky for a good director to use purposefully, there is no need then to bring any current conflict - which would certainly have been imminent during rehearsals - into the production. It's enough to perhaps just reference it to avoid any controversy of performing a Russian composer and let the opera deliver its own commentary on it, which it does most powerfully by taking things to their inevitable conclusion. Hermann is afflicted by madness to his 'cause', believing the words of an old woman on a payphone as if they are speaking a secret message to him. It means ruin and death and that is all that is left for Liza too. Dragged to her death by the same delusions of escape that had given her comfort.

Christian Friedländer set designs pitch the production into this ambiguous and divided world, somewhere between brutalism and romantic fantasy. The tenement block is stark enough to capture the romanticised view of the opera's ghost story running up against the harsh reality of ordinary people's lives, the contrasts of riches (or dreams of riches), with the impoverishment of their lives. Using the period, contrasting costumes of the real and the imagined, turning reality into art through the dreams of the secondary characters and chorus, in its own way it creates a visual representation of what opera does when art meets reality.

Conducted by Nathalie Stutzmann it's a strong musical performance, the orchestra delivering the high drama, matching the subtleties of Tchaikovsky's score to the underlying romantic sentiments and mad delusions. The singing performances are also a good fit for the roles, for the attack of the music and the intent of the stage direction. The Russian principals are excellent in this capacity, Dmitry Golovnin as Hermann and Anna Nechaeva as Liza both impassioned in their own ways. Jacques Imbrailo is fine as the Prince as is Anne Sofie von Otter, now at that stage in her career where she has the personality and character to take on the role of the Countess. There is good work also from the supporting roles and the chorus. It's not a classic production but one that is necessarily connected to a view of the times we are living under, a time of madness and a reminder that the only thing we can be sure of is death.

Links: La Monnaie streaming, OperaVision