Monday 25 September 2023

Saariaho - Innocence (Aix, 2021)

Kaija Saariaho - Innocence

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2021

Susanna Mälkki, Simon Stone, Magdalena Kožená, Sandrine Piau, Tuomas Pursio, Lilian Farahani, Markus Nykänen, Jukka Rasilainen, Lucy Shelton, Vilma Jää, Beate Mordal, Julie Hega, Simon Kluth,Camilo Delgado Díaz, Marina Dumont

ARTE Concert - 10th July 2021

The loss of Kaija Saariaho in June 2023 came as a shock to those who recognised her as one of the most brilliant of contemporary composers. I saw her twice in person, once at the premiere of her opera Only the Sound Remains in Amsterdam in 2016, where she was present in the foyer posing for press photos. It was a surprise however to walk into a coffee shop in Dundalk in Ireland in June 2019 and see her sitting there with her husband Jean-Baptiste Barrière. Even though I knew she was there as a guest for a performance of her works at the Louth Contemporary Music Society's annual two-day summer festival, and Dundalk has seen many famous modern composers appear in town, it still felt strange to see the composer of such sublime music in such an everyday place. I think I made a brief nod and smile of acknowledgement, unwilling to disturb her. The performance of Terra Memoria that evening by the Meta4 string quartet was extraordinary and thrilling.

I greatly admired her music, even though like most contemporary music, you had to search it out and rarely had the opportunity to have it brought to you. For various reasons I never found the time to watch the streaming of Innocence at the Aix-en-Provence festival in 2021 even though I had read good reports about it. Sadly, now that there won't be another, this final work will remain her last contribution to the world of lyric drama and, belatedly taking the opportunity to view it now, the work is even more poignant now, deeply moving and surely a masterpiece, a fine testament to the wondrous complexity of her musical range. The beauty and power of her music is fully evident here, the restless striving to push her music into new ground through the use of unconventional instruments like the kantele and exploring the range of the voice as an instrument.

Innocence is in almost complete contrast to her previous opera Only the Sound Remains. It exudes menace and sorrow from the outset even as the drama opens on the day of a wedding that is a supposedly happy occasion for the bride, the groom and his family. But not everyone is happy, the celebrations tainted, almost overwhelmed by a greater emotion; the shock and horror of the caterer Tereza who has been asked to provide service at the last moment. To her horror, she has just come to the realisation that the eldest son of the family she is working for killed her daughter Markéta along with a number of other children in a gun rampage through a school ten years previously. As she relives the experience, the family are forced to confront the reality that this event cannot be erased or forgotten about.

Going into the opera without knowing what is to take place, there is nonetheless an evident rawness and complexity in the situation, one that is trying to bring together two contrasting events that do not sit well together. The music tries to encapsulate these conflicting sentiments, as well as find a way to suggest that something has taken place that is almost too deeply disturbing and horrific to depict or even speak out loud. It takes a while before the libretto make that realisation explicit, the present and past playing out at the same time, and when it comes it still feels painful, even if it remains too horrific to show with any kind of dramatic realism. And yet, through the music and the direction, it manages to truly get to the heart of the mixed emotions surrounding it in place and time.

Simon Stone is a good director to bring out the complexity of undercurrents and contrasting viewpoints (see his extraordinary Tristan und Isolde, also performed at Aix in 2021) and he finds a creative way of allowing it to work coherently, but it's Saariaho's music, conducted at the premiere by Susanna Mälkki, that really brings it together. The score gets to the heart of the situation and sentiments without resorting to cinematic techniques or the conventional dramatic orchestration that you might expect, but rather with a delicacy and sensitivity of touch, the music plunging deeply into the interior world rather than the external drama.

That's quite a challenge. For a start there is a large cast of individual figures in Sofi Oksanen's original libretto, each of the children international students, speaking in a mix of languages, who each tell their own story while simultaneously living and reliving their experience. Some are now dead, others express fear blended with survivor guilt, constantly questioning how they reacted at the time, how they could possibly have helped. This plays out at the same time and alongside the parents of the killer feeling concern about bringing an innocent new bride into this family, mixed with guilt about their son's actions, questioning whether they are in some way to blame, whether they failed to notice the warning signs, whether they were complicit to one extent or another in what has happened.

Then there is the challenge of exploring the act of the school shooting itself, trying to present a rounded account of the complex motivations that may have lain behind it; was it inspired by racism? was it a terrorist act? and the impossibility of even being able to fully explaining it. The stage shows commemorations taking place simultaneously with the bloodbath, the occasion contaminated by a sense of anger at the tragedy being used and exploited for political gain, with politicians making fake promises of changes to gun laws. The pain of some has value, the pain endured by others none at all, as one of the victims puts it, words and good intentions replacing any real action; nothing will be done, until the next shooting.

The singing has its own complexity, in a multiplicity of languages, English, Finnish, French, Spanish and German are spoken, and even the singing voices have an uncommon range, from background choral voices used as an instrument, to spoken recitative and folk-inspired arrangements on the part of Markéta, the dead daughter of the catering server at the wedding party. The work also captures Saariaho's fascination for time, how it can be subjective, seeming to stretch out when one is bored and in other moments it can feel like time seems to stop. This feeds into how she composes the music for each overlaid and overlayered scene. Time has stopped for some, it is repeating for others, past and present coexist. The music ambitiously attempts to bring this all together, bringing together the experiences of many into the same period of time.

The opera is superbly directed by Simon Stone for the Aix festival. It's not just the concept of the rotating box of rooms and split levels that keep the continuity flowing and scenes overlapping, but much like how the same idea was applied to his Wozzeck, the clarity with which the complexity of the story is allowed to unfold is impressive. The scene of the shooting is horrific enough without it requiring blazing guns, the testimonies from blood-splattered victims and survivors tells the story in its own horrific fashion, but the scene where Tereza confronts the family and the new bride with the deception they have been carrying out, pouring out all the pain she has had to live with is truly harrowing. Nothing however is as clear cut as we would like it to be when it comes to identifying who is a victim. The performances here from Sandrine Piau and Magdalena Kožená is this scene are extraordinary, but then they are both remarkable throughout. The filming for screen is also superb, the close-ups in this scene showing the intensity of the dramatic performances.

The singing is outstanding, Saariaho writing beautifully for the voice with singers clearly chosen as best for the roles and all of them outstanding. Markus Nykänen as Tuomas, the Finnish groom, and Lilian Farahani, his Romanian bride Stela, both give notable performances of great emotion and intensity at the situation they find themselves in. Saariaho is not afraid to use spoken recitation when it is required for its own effect, for the direct expression of the students, rising into singing under the strain of the experience. Choral arrangements of chants and humming vocalisations underline the ambiguity of the unspoken and the inexplicable. The high pitch yelps of Vilma Jää's Finnish folk singing for the dead Markéta takes getting used to but have their part to play also and work effectively for the dramatic purposes of the opera. Combined, it makes Innocence an almost overwhelming experience, for all it takes in, for all it expresses, for it being a work of unparalleled ambition and genius. 

External links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Verdi - Nabucco (Geneva, 2023)

Verdi - Nabucco

Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2023

Antonino Fogliani, Christiane Jatahy, Nicola Alaimo, Saioa Hernández, Riccardo Zanellato, Davide Giusti, Ena Pongrac, Giulia Bolcato, Omar Mancini, William Meinert

OperaVision - 17th June 2023

At my last count I have written reviews of 100 Verdi opera productions, probably more than necessary on La Traviata, Rigoletto and Aida, although I seem to see Don Carlos, Simon Boccanegra, Otello and Macbeth featuring more regularly now. Nabucco I've covered only once in the last 15 years (at Vienna in 2015), but it doesn't seem to be one quite as often performed these days. Which is surprising in some ways but - having watched this Geneva production - not surprising in others. It's surprising since it is 'pure opera' (which is a bit of a vague claim, but I'll try to clarify that), but also unsurprising in the way that it's hard to do anything with it that will allow it to connect with a modern opera audience - if that's not a contradiction with the assertion that it is pure opera. In any case, it strikes me that at least as far as the Brazilian filmmaker and director Christiane Jatahy handles it, the Geneva production of Nabucco comes across as little more than abstract 'pure opera'.

By pure opera, I of course mean classic Italian opera and Verdi is perhaps the greatest proponent of that form of opera, although claims could also be made for Rossini leading the way before him and Puccini taking it further after him. And in those early works at least, it's pure opera in as far as adherence to the conventions of the Italian opera style, where the tailoring of a familiar arrangement of numbers, arias, cabalettas, choruses were arguably more important - or at least as important - as any narrative coherence, message or personal style. Verdi of course had plenty of substance to say and frequently ran into trouble with the censors for his outspoken attacks on religion, politics and his stance on Italian independence, but the emphasis tends to sit more on the individual personal and familial conflicts within the greater scheme of the abuse of power. You can see this in Aida, La Forza del destino, Simon Boccanegra, I due Foscari and many others. It can also be seen in the shift of emphasis in his Shakespearean adaptations, and even the ambitious Don Carlos doesn't quite overcome those challenges of striking the right balance.

It's a format nonetheless that clearly inspired Verdi and gave the composer great material to work with, even when the plot development, weak libretti and inadequate character development forced to meet the conventions of grand opera numbers and expectations of a conservative opera audience didn't allow for any deep exploration of the human experience. Only latterly in his career would Verdi find strong librettists like Arrigo Boito and be presented with material that could measure up to the quality of his musical talent. Nabucco belongs to the power and passion of his early works, never quite satisfying, never really giving the audience much of a challenge. There is certainly plenty for the composer to get his teeth into however in a charged dramatic situation, but it's a lot of sound and fury, signifying not very much. 'Va, pensiero' notwithstanding.

Having failed to find any enthusiasm to put myself through a streamed viewing of Aida at the Bavarian State Opera, abandoning it after 'Celeste Aida' (never a favourite Verdi opera), I thought it might be better watching a Verdi opera I was less familiar with. The Geneva production of Nabucco up there on the OperaVision site seemed ideal, and even though I've only watched the opera once in the last 15 years, I was sure I could follow it without needing to read the synopsis. It's an early Verdi opera after all - written in 1841, only his third opera - and surely not too difficult to follow, particularly as it looked like this production has no intention of being restricted to a Biblical setting. I was however a little bit lost in the opening scenes, but fully enjoying the performance and presentation for the impact alone. This is what I consider to be pure Verdi opera; a lot of highly charged scenes with expression of high romantic melodrama in a setting of religious, political or national conflict. Without really knowing what is at stake, it's enough just to see how the main characters express their struggle to put across the power of the work.

And in some respects that is largely all that the Geneva production does. Avoiding the Biblical Nebuchadnezzar period, it's the kind of production style I personally enjoy; an abstract and timeless spectacle, finding a fairly unique way of presenting a work, not trying too hard to make a statement. It's early Verdi on fire, it's Nabucco and that's enough, a blockbuster writ large for the big screen. The stage production makes use of a camera for live projection of close-ups, a mirror hangs over the proceedings and a shallow pool of water with spotlights permit filmed footage and other special effects. A large cloth robe is draped over the stage that Abigaille will wrap around her in dramatic and regal fashion. The charged situation spills over from the stage, with chorus members arising out of the audience in the stalls, enveloping the theatre in the full Verdi.

All this is very impressively supported by musical direction of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Antonino Fogliani, who captures the straightforward force of the work, but also its dramatic precision. This is an opera and a production to just give yourself over to, which is often what you have to do with Verdi and the rewards can be great. The musical qualities however shouldn't be underestimated, nor the challenges of the singing roles. When you have the right kind of singers who have strength, force and precision, as well as the ability to emotionally engage with these highly charged arias and scenes, the impact is like nothing else. Nabucco offers many such opportunities, and the are well taken. For the Verdian who has tired of the overplayed main three (La Traviata, Aida, Rigoletto), Nabucco (and Macbeth) offer new life for those who just want to experience the classicism of Italian opera in its purest form.

Maybe it's just lazy to say that the production offers nothing more than this; there has clearly been great effort put into every element, from the set design to the orchestration, casting and the singing. After watching the stream, I went back and checked the synopsis, read some background information, listened to the director's presentation and reconsidered the production in that light, but it didn't enlighten or improve my opinion of what I had seen. I enjoyed this purely as a - for me - not-so-familiar Verdi opera given a thoroughly skilled and entertaining performance and presentation. The nature of the modern production in everyday dress allows others to see contemporary application of the themes brought out by this work if they so want to, but you are not obliged to do so.

That's the nature of opera. It's not just notes on a page, it only lives in the moment it is performed, and a modern audience with greater familiarity of the world of opera and history in the following almost 200 years will have an entirely different response to a work like Nabucco than the audience who first saw it performed. Each individual will also respond to an opera differently, speaking to them in different ways. In fact, often it's more successful when a production allows room for personal identification and connection, rather than imposing a strict idea or over-worked concept. Verdi's full-blooded musical scores for the subjects in his early operas often go for the heart rather than for the head, but dealing with basic human emotions and struggles, they are just as capable of touching as deeply with as the grander concepts and philosophical pursuits in Wagner's operas.

Rather than impose a reading beyond the idea of an oppressed people in the abstract, Christiane Jatahy's cinematic techniques served at least to highlight the impassioned performances of the cast. I particularly liked the character that Saioa Hernández brought to Abigaille, with a performance that could pin you to your seat, fully living up to the challenging role Verdi had composed for Giuseppina Strepponi. Having seen her singing impressively in the otherwise weak Verdi opera Attila, this comes as no surprise. There were solid performances for the reliable Italian Verdian singers Nicola Alaimo as Nabucco and Riccardo Zanellato as Zaccaria. Ena Pongrac made a fine impression as Fenena, and Davide Giusti also delivered with the requisite charged singing performance. An excellent cast all-round and, of course, the all-important chorus impressed with their contribution to this work. 

It was conducted well by Antonino Fogliani, who also composed a brief closing intermezzo before a final repeat acapella version of 'Va, pensiero' from the chorus placed all around the Grand Théâtre de Genève. Perhaps they felt the opera lacked the right kind of impact at the finale - and certainly the final act doesn't measure up to the first half of Nabucco - but if you want the audience to leave the with a lasting impression of what it means to live oppressed but unbowed, with Verdi's stirring composition ringing in your head, this serves very well indeed.

External links: Grand Théâtre de GenèveOperaVision

Friday 15 September 2023

Puccini - Tosca (Belfast, 2023)

Giacomo Puccini - Tosca

Northern Ireland Opera, 2023

Eduardo Strausser, Cameron Menzies, Svetlana Kasyan, Peter Auty, Brendan Collins, Matthew Durkan, Niall Anderson, Aaron O'Hare, Connor Campbell, Paul McQuillan, Mollie Lucas, Alexa Thompson

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 12th September 2023

You can't go wrong with Tosca and not going wrong is important to a company like Northern Ireland Opera, a company trying to get on its feet again after the pandemic, in a time of cuts to arts budgets and with no working Assembly in place in Stormont. Tosca is also a safe bet, like the previous two operas staged by NIO, La Bohème and La Traviata, neither of which inspired me to go and see live opera in my home town. But then it strikes me that NIO are not appealing to an opera audience - which is probably indeed limited here - but, as collaborations with musicals at the Lyric Theatre suggest, aiming to win over a certain class of theatre-going audience. Even then, there is a presumption that even there isn't a large enough audience or budget to put on more than one full scale opera a year. Oliver Mears, who directed the company with a more ambitious programme from 2011 to 2018, might disagree with that, but clearly we are in different times.

Tosca however strikes me as being a good test to judge how successfully an opera company might be able to meet its current challenges. It's a perfectly calibrated drama with music scored for maximum impact on those dramatic points, with carefully placed arias in each act and each act delivering a highly charged emotional climax. The good news is that Cameron Menzies's production rightly went for spectacle and impact and delivered on expectations for this opera. I originally typed 'minimum expectations' there, but I suppose that is subjective and dependent on what you expect from this opera. As far as the majority of the audience are concerned, which is more important, it delivered pure operatic drama. As far as expectations for commercial viability, NIO also delivered four sold out shows. You can't reasonably ask for more than within the current limitations, but there is surely a case for suggesting that four performances of one full-scale opera a year must be considered a bare minimum.

Whatever budget the Northern Ireland Opera had been allocated for Tosca, it was however well used in Niall McKeever's decoration of the elaborate stage set. In the past NIO would take Tosca to site specific locations and a new audience in Derry/Londonderry and bring a meaningful context to the story as a way of illustrating its power. If you're only going to put on one full-length opera a year in Belfast to appeal to a regular theatre-going audience hoping attract future funding, donations and investment, you might as well make it impressive. Act 1 of Tosca does look very impressive, the portrait of the Madonna encased in a huge circular stone frame, looking something like a fresco in the dome of a cathedral. Other than that though, the setting was worryingly unimaginative, sticking close to the original period and stage directions with scaffolding, naves and the Angelotti private chapel. Still, when you have room for the chorus of nuns and altar-boys filling the stage for the Te Deum and the Ulster Orchestra booming it out to the audience, there's no ground for complaint at the effectiveness of the direction here.

Any concerns about this being a staid by-the-book production were put aside as Menzies had more up his sleeve for the sets and continuity between them through Act II and Act III. The surrounding scaffolding remained in place for no meaningful reason other than perhaps for it being difficult to move, but the period is less easily tied down. Scarpia's dining room sits on a raised platform looking like it was fitted by IKEA, with a huge backdrop of a topless woman throwing off what looks like a transparent veil. Visually this worked well, not just to put Scarpa's lust up in the stage (this would hardly be needed considering the expression of the libretto and the score), but it also provided good sightlines so that everyone in the Grand Opera House could get a good view of one if the most powerful scenes in the opera repertoire (not to mention the Act III finale, which is similarly very well staged). This also serves to bring the opera theme to being more contemporary in a post-#MeToo age, and there is after all no reason why it should hark back to the troubled history of the province as the Oliver Mears's production did. Different times, different audience, different requirements to achieve the necessary impact. It's not as if Puccini's Tosca was any kind of commentary on police and politics of its time.

Act III likewise found a novel and effective way to present that all-important Castel St. Angelo finale by having Cavaradossi led onto a raised gallows-like platform for execution, the firing squad taking aim from the surrounding scaffolding. The stone circle is present behind this, looking like a deep void into which the heroine plunges into at the conclusion. It could hardly be more dramatic. Arguably the scene could hardly fail to be, but I have seen productions where it has been less effective than it should be. The audience were suitably impressed here, and from some reactions I heard, taken totally by surprise.

I wasn't totally won over by the singing. Peter Auty singing Cavaradossi has a beautiful dramatic tenor line, but the challenges of hitting and sustaining the high notes showed. He hit them consistently of course but I found myself wincing and willing him on. Russian soprano Svetlana Kasyan had no trouble with the high notes, sustaining them or projecting them to the back of the opera house, but the accuracy of her notes was inconsistent and I'm afraid the clarity of her diction wasn't strong. Floria Tosca is a big challenge however and Kasyan commanded attention as the diva and in a strong 'Vissi d'arte'. Brendan Collins was an effective Scarpia, never resorting to pantomime bad-guy swaggering, but a bigger baritone voice is needed to really deliver that villainous bile.

Tosca is not just all about love, sex, violence, betrayal and murder between the three major roles, and it's not just a showcase for a leading soprano, tenor and baritone, or at least it doesn't have to be. Personally I enjoyed some of the little touches and smaller roles more than the big ones and Puccini adds plenty of other colour and detail in the likes of the scene stealing chorus Te Deum finale to Act I, although that is hardly what you would call a little touch. Niall Anderson's sacristan and the shepherd heard (and seen) on the streets of Rome at the beginning of Act III (either Mollie Lucas or Alexa Thompson) sang well and it's a credit to the casting and direction that attention was paid to these details.

As it was to the orchestration. It's always a pleasure to hear the Ulster Orchestra play and conducted by Eduardo Strausser, Puccini's score wasn't too shabby about delivering its notorious shocks, musical as well as dramatic. Tosca is a great opera and, albeit with minor misgivings, I enjoyed this performance. It was also nice to see opera at the Grand Opera House in Belfast again - even the touring companies have abandoned us. It would be a shame if we have to wait another year for the next one.

External links: Northern Ireland Opera

Saturday 9 September 2023

Prokofiev - War and Peace (Munich, 2023)

Sergei Prokofiev - War and Peace

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2023

Andrei Zhilikhovsky, Olga Kulchynska, Alexandra Yangel, Kevin Conners, Alexander Fedin, Violeta Urmana, Olga Guryakova, Mischa Schelomianski, Arsen Soghomonyan, Victoria Karkacheva, Bekhzod Davronov, Alexei Botnarciuc, Christian Rieger, Emily Sierra, Martin Snell, Christina Bock, Sergei Leiferkus, Alexander Roslavets, Oksana Volkova, Elmira Karakhanova, Roman Chabaranok, Stanislav Kuflyuk, Maxim Paster, Dmitry Cheblykov, Nikita Volkov, Alexander Fedorov, Xenia Vyaznikova

ARTE Concert - March 2023

Neither the Bavarian State Opera nor director Dmitri Tcherniakov really knew what they were letting themselves in for when they chose to present Prokofiev's War and Peace on the 5th March 2023, on the 70th anniversary of the death of Prokofiev (not to mention the 70th anniversary of the death of Stalin). They evidently knew about the challenges of putting on a complex Russian opera with huge orchestral and choral forces and a large number of principal roles, but at the time it was planned they hadn't really counted on the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the 24th February 2022. By the time it came to put stage the opera in 2023, it was even more of a challenge in a climate where some Russian artists were being cancelled and there were second thoughts about programming works by Russian composers. Serge Dorny however believed that the production they had envisioned for this epic work could stand on its own merits and make its own points. The reception it received justified that decision, but looking at it more critically now away from the heat of March 2023, while it's still a powerful piece, it's just a little less impressive.

Lately there have been two sides to the operas directed by Dmitri Tchernaikov, or maybe just two sides of the same coin. On one side is the psychoanalytical, taking a distanced perspective and exploring the undercurrents to familiar stories from a kind of laboratory experiment (Les Troyens, Pelléas et Mélisande, Carmen, Das Rheingold) and on the other a kind of deflating of grand myths and legends (Der Freischütz, Parsifal - most of his Wagner) reducing them down into human terms. You could see them both as the same approach, finding the human element within grand sweeps of history and legend. His approach to Russian giants of Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Borodin and Prokofiev has been a little different, seeing in them something of the history, character and nature of ordinary Russian people, something that perhaps comes more from the original literary sources. There is no greater Russian literary source than Tolstoy's 'War and Peace', but how is a director of Russian origin supposed to approach a Russian opera when there is war in the Ukraine?

Well, as it happens, almost exactly the same way as Tcherniakov has done before. If 'War and Peace' tells us anything, it's how ordinary lives are disrupted by war, how our stories and loves are coloured by war, how our view on life and history is irrevocably transformed by war. That goes for the lives of the high society aristocracy that Tolstoy grew up in and primarily writes about in the novel, and it perhaps brings them down to the same level as everyone else and reminds them of their essential humanity. So, it's a given that there is going to be no glamour in Tchernikov's production of Prokofiev's opera version of War and Peace, but a reminder, as if anyone needed it at the moment, of the nature of life in a time of war.

The director chooses to set the opera not in the grand mansions an ballrooms of Russian high society, nor on the battlefields of Ostrovno or Berezina (and indeed avoids the burning down of Moscow altogether), but instead locates the whole opera in the Hall of Unions in Moscow (which actually survived the burning), where in the past Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev have all lain in state. Here it's become something of a refugee centre, even before the war has started in the opera timeline. The room is filled with camp beds, mattresses, where masses of civilians are dressed in everyday clothes that they have presumably been wearing for days. The whole scope of the high society engagement of Natasha Rostova and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky takes place among this mess of humanity in peacetime, but even as that relationship is thrown into turmoil by the playboy Khuragin's attempt to elope with Natasha, the very real threat of war looms nonetheless.

The love lives of the aristocracy may seems trivial however when compared to the upheaval that is to take place when Napoleon Bonaparte invades, but it's far from trivial in Tolstoy's eyes. He, like Pierre, who although married loves Natasha deeply himself, comes to despise the trappings of wealth and privilege, society, but nonetheless in his search for meaning and value in life, finds the essence of humanity lies at the heart of it. It may be torn apart by war, but love and family are the essence of society or a nation and it is what keeps people going and enduring the hardships they face. Tcherniakov, while not quite going as far as Graham Vick in explicitly reversing the idea of 'War' and 'Peace' in his Mariinsky production, nonetheless similarly opens his production with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky contemplating suicide, and gives more or less equal weight to both sides of the equation.

The second half when war breaks out is however more of a challenge to accept within the limitations of the House of Unions setting that the director has set for himself and the progress of the opera. It's understandable that you would want to downplay any sense of wartime heroics - not that there is much of that in Tolstoy's vision of the horror of Napoleon's 1812 invasion - but it's harder to work it into the context of a room of refugees who indulge in a "Military-patriotic game ‘Battle of Boprodino' ". It risks downplaying the horror of the reality of the war - and by extension the unavoidable comparison to Ukraine. It's a tough balance to strike, but I would like to think he could have done more with this. Even Les Troyens, while succumbing to it being a play-acting of traumatised victims of war, was able to find a way around the traditional and humanise it without trivialising it. It might have had impact in the theatre, but looking at it now, it seems faintly ridiculous and ill-judged alongside a Russia currently at war in Ukraine.

There's certainly a case for ridiculing the world leaders and warmongers, but the scene of Napoleon played out like a comedy act for the entertainment of the assembled, prancing around throwing wine and food around, chewing his tie to hoots and howls of laughter, doesn't really get across the greater loss of life his ambitions and actions cause for ordinary soldiers and citizens. For all those irritating tropes of it looking like a madhouse, there is however more to direction than scene setting, and the fact that it takes place entirely within Moscow does allude to the fact that the war is within and that figures arise out of this mass and horror begins. This is at least borne out fully in the stage directions and acting performances, which do delve into those deep emotional and life upheavals, particularly on the part of Pierre who is central to the whole work. Its also there evidently in the music, which depicts all the inhumanity that war visits on the ordinary people. 

Given Tcherniakov's previous explorations of the nature of the Russian people through their legends, their literature and their composers, his take on Prokofiev's War and Peace could be seen a lament for the state of Russia perhaps, or the Russian people, or their victims. Which is another way to look at war, but hardly insightful either in the light of war in Ukraine or indeed in the depth to which Tolstoy explores the subject. Bearing in mind the challenges that had to be faced at the time of the production however, and the delicate balance that had to be maintained, it's about as much as you could expect, and it certainly hit the mark with the audience in Munich. Tcherniakov, who is more accustomed to facing boos and howls of derision at a curtain-call, is met here with roars of approval from an audience who clearly have been deeply emotionally engaged with what has been shown on the stage.

That may have been partly due to the highly charged atmosphere in a time of war - opera should be 'of the moment' and meaningful to a modern audience and Tcherniakov undoubtedly succeeded in striking a chord with his audience - but the director also did it on his own terms, finding the essential human quality within the work and also finding a way to explore the essential idea of Russian character and nature facing the upheaval of life that lies at the heart of the work ('Russian' in spite of the fact that many of singers are also from former soviet states), taking nothing away from the challenge of striking a balance and finding a universal character to the work. The highest praise in that regard however has to be reserved for the central singing performances: Moldovan Andrei Zhilikhovsky as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Ukrainian Olga Kulchynska as Natasha Rostova as Armenian Arsen Soghomonyan as Count Pierre Besukhov all never anything less than impressive.

The success of how that is put across is also testament to the power of Prokofiev's musical "reduction" of War and Peace, but reduction is hardly the appropriate term for this opera. With its huge cast required for the principal roles, its huge chorus and huge orchestral forces required to play Prokofiev's complex score, no undertaking of War and Peace is taken lightly. Vladimir Jurowski took a measured approach to the score, including some significant cuts, but only in terms of managing sensitivities which could not be ignored or taken lightly in the present climate. It's clear however that he takes on such challenges without losing any of the impact or intent of the score. The decision to go ahead with some judicious cuts was clearly the right one, Tcherniakov's production might not look now like it really addresses the complexities of the work, but it was the right one for the time, the power of the work and its importance enhanced by the reality of current events.

External Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, ARTE Concert