Monday 30 October 2023

Tutino - La ciociara (Wexford, 2023)

Marco Tutino - La ciociara

Wexford Festival Opera, 2023

Francesco Cilluffo, Rosetta Cucchi, Na’ama Goldman, Jade Phoenix, Leonardo Caimi, Devid Cecconi, Alexander Kiechle, Allen Boxer, Carolyn Dobbin, Conor Prendiville, Erin Fflur, Julian Henao Gonzalez, Grace Maria Wain, Meilir Jones, Christian Loizou, Will Searle, Peter McCamley

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House - 26th October 2023

Wexford Festival Opera may be noted for its unearthing of rare works mainly from the 19th century, but the reviving of works as a way of keeping opera alive and vital also extends to programming new and recent 20th and 21st century works. It's in the context of the 72nd festival's Women & War theme that even against some notable historical competition it was a contemporary composer Marco Tutino and his opera La ciociara that proved to be the most musically and dramatically satisfying work in programme. You might think that the task of composing an opera on the subject of war might have been made easier by having the cinematic source material of the master of post-war neo-realism Vittorio de Sica to work with, which in turn is adapted from Alberto Moravia's war time experiences in Italy, but there is clearly much more to making all that into a successful opera. And indeed a challenge to stage it successfully, so we were fortunate that conductor Francesco Cilluffo and director Rosetta Cucchi were key to realising the full dramatic potential of the work for Wexford.

Composed in 2015 where it was premiered at San Francisco Opera, it's a newly revised version of La ciociara that was being performed for the first time at Wexford. For a festival specialising in reviving old and forgotten opera, Wexford manage to rack up a surprising number of premieres, also managing this year to put on the first ever staged production of the original version of a rare Donizetti opera, Zoraida di Granata. La ciociara was however even more of a coup, since in its new form at least it's an extraordinary piece of opera. It has the opera-cinematic quality of Richard Strauss in its huge dramatic and romantic sweeps, matching the dynamic and range of human experience during a time of war, but it is also thoroughly modern in how it adapts to those changes of tone and provides a consistent accompaniment to the dramatic action without ever resorting to film soundtrack backing.

Photo: Clive Barda

It's a work that more fully realises the Women & War theme of the 72nd Wexford Festival Opera. Where Zoraida and L'aube rouge struggled to get a satisfactory balance, La ciociara also has a romantic core but fully humanises it in while placing it in the context of war. And by humanising that also includes the dehumanising effect of war. There is no holding back here on the brutality and the horror that war inflicts on society and the individual. The individuals in question are Cesira and her daughter Rosetta, the 'two women' of the English version of the Moravia book and film, and Michele, the school teacher Cesira meets in the village of Sant'Eufemia when she returns to her home region of Ciociara escaping from the war in Rome.

Another aspect of the impact that war has on individuals comes in the form of Giovanni, a brute who has followed Cesira and Rosetta from Rome who joins a fascist militia. He hears that the two women and Michele have given aid to a wounded American soldier and, in a jealous rage over Cesira's blossoming relationship with Michele, he informs the local Nazi commander Von Bock - a Scarpia-like figure - which leads to a similar anguished confrontation and eventual execution of Michele, not to mention a rape scene. It's hard not to associate the musical connection and heritage of the brutality pushed by Puccini in Tosca in such scenes.

Photo: Clive Barda

You can detect the post-Wagner and post-Verdi approach to opera of Strauss and Puccini in Tutino's music, but the composer nonetheless puts a neo-Romantico spin on ot, the music dramatic, theatrical and emphatic. Musically everything goes hand in hand with the drama, enhancing the narrative and emotional tone of the piece at every stage. Not a moment is wasted, the opera simply flowing from one scene to the next. The director Rosetta Cucchi (also the artistic director of the Wexford Festival Opera) has a hand in that of course, using filmed segments to link the journey of the two women, Tutino helpfully providing linking music to mark the passage of time and distance. 

Cucchi also takes inspiration from Vittorio De Sica (Peter McCamley), the director of the film version of La Ciociara, including him as a silent figure in the drama during preparations for filming, taking in the location and imagining what he will make of each scene. That gives Cucchi licence to include a dancer figure, a representation of his inspiration perhaps, the emotional core of what he wants to capture on film, the essence of woman maybe? Strength? Endurance? It doesn't necessarily need a name or single definition, since it is really something deeper that arises out of the music that can connect on a different level with the personal experience and reaction of each person in the audience.

This is vital to the human aspect of the work, to the connection it makes with the listener and as a reflection of how the experience of war can be different for different people. It can dehumanise and inflict horror, as Zoraida di Granata and L'Aube rouge made clear earlier in the opera festival, but it can also bring out the better human qualities. Cesira in fact was not such a nice person while she was in Rome, using the war as an excuse to inflate prices in her store. Returning to what was known as the Ciociara region south of Rome, in the country, she finds a closer relationship with nature, naming the flowers and trees, finding secret paths in the woods, finding love, the contrast of the war revealing what is truly important.

Photo: Clive Barda

The opera evidently requires a strong central performance in Cesira, and you couldn't ask for better than Na'ama Goldman, or indeed praise her performance enough. She held the work together as its heart, her singing and dramatic performance absolutely exceptional. Just as remarkable was Jade Phoenix as Rosetta, the young soprano giving an amazing performance through some challenging scenes, singing absolutely superbly. The scene where she took to the front of the stage to offer up a song of prayer was a revelation, winning over the audience as she lived through the trauma and post-trauma brilliantly. Leonardo Caimi was excellent as Michele and Devid Cecconi marvellous in the thankless role of the fascist brute, Giovanni, but neither overshadowed the outstanding performances of the "two women" at the heart of the work.

Superbly directed by Rosetta Cucchi with no expense spared on the impressive production design, the staging couldn't have been in better hands. The same goes for the musical direction of Francesco Cilluffo, and the Wexford orchestra were on fire as they tend to be under this conductor. I look forward to the work he directs at Wexford every year in the assurance that it will be among the best of the festival. That was certainly the case this year in a very good main programme, but in terms of being the full package, La ciociara topped the bill and that was recognised by fierce applause and a standing ovation at the curtain call. I don't think there is any such thing as the perfect opera, but when music, drama, performance and presentation come together as well as they do here, this is as good opera gets.

External links: Wexford Festival Opera

Saturday 28 October 2023

Erlanger - L'Aube rouge (Wexford, 2023)

Camille Erlanger - L'Aube rouge

Wexford Festival Opera, 2023

Guillaume Tourniaire, Ella Marchment, Andreea Soare, Andrew Morstein, Emma Jüngling, Ava Dodd, Dominica Williams, Giorgi Manoshvili, Philippe-Nicolas Martin, Rory Musgrave, Thomas Birch, Ami Hewitt, Leah Redmond, Corina Ignat, Judith Le Breuilly, Conor Baiano, Hannah O’Brien, Andrii Kharlamov, Rory Lynch, Gabriel Seawright, Vladimir Sima

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House - 25th October 2023

You would expect things to get a little serous in a festival season based on the theme of Women & War. Without having to emphasise the point, sticking closely to the original 15th century setting, the Wexford Festival Opera production of Donizetti's Zoraida di Granata nonetheless succeeded in bringing out those themes strongly in such a way that you could hardly fail to see it echoed in contemporary real world events. That theme is should be just as effective in L'aube rouge (The Red Dawn), an early 20th century work of verismo character by Camille Erlanger that involves the action of a band of Nihilists in pre-revolutionary Russia plotting the assassination of the Grand Duc. Composed in 1911, not far removed from the historical events it depicts, director Ella Marchment gives the stage production a closer contemporary feel that should also relate to today, but as intriguing as it is to consider this forgotten work and as well performed as it is, it doesn't succeed in making the impact you feel it ought to.

It's an interesting subject for an opera by a French composer of Jewish origin at a time when the divisions caused by the Dreyfuss affair had revealed deep-rooted prejudice and divisions in French society, and when the Russian Revolution was stirring not far around the corner. Much is made of this in the festival programme notes for L'Aube rouge  but other than to provide context and suggest a connection with the Italian verismo movement, neither political element really appears to exert much influence on the opera. Apart from a police raid in the first act on the anarchist group in St Petersburg that is quickly dispersed and the shock finale of Act III when Sergei is shot by a member of his own group, the emphasis in L'Aube rouge appears to be more concerned with setting up the tragic and impossible romance between Olga and Sergei.

Olga is the daughter of General Lovarov, the despised chief of police, so she is immediately distrusted when she appears at a meeting of the anarchist group. Sergei however vouches for her and falls in love with her, but there is no future for their romance in such a place, and so they move to Moscow. Olga's family however have other plans for her that include a marriage to Pierre De Ruys, a surgeon and important establishment figure, but Sergei, who Olga's father has convinced her has died in a Siberian prison camp, shows up at the wedding and the two of them run away together to Paris. 

Sergei however is shot by another member of the Nihilist group when it is believed that he is no longer dedicated to the cause. He is saved only by the intervention of Olga, who convinces the man she deserted at their wedding, Pierre De Ruys, to perform life-saving surgery. Determined to prove himself however Sergei on recovery embarks on a mission that will assure his death, attempting to assassinate the Grand Duc. It's enough to drive Olga herself to madness and death.

It's high melodrama, but as far as the themes go L'Aube rouge undoubtedly emphasises the impact that war has on preventing people living ordinary lives, and as Olga is the central character of the opera (with in Andreea Soare, a gifted soprano capable of really making her the central focus and heart of the opera), the plight of women and any hope of living in peace and love is emphatically shown as being doomed. Certainly all the indications of that are there in the music which, even if the main part of the opera revolves around an impossible romance, has a deep undercurrent of tragedy within it. Even the second Act wedding scene and the fourth Act dances are all powerfully and dramatically scored in a way that suggests that any celebration is fleeting and only a brief respite before the real world crashes in again.

Photo: Clive Barda

It may be powerfully scored by Erlanger, but there is little that stands out as memorable in either the plot development or in any distinct flair of musical expression. Even so, like many neglected opera's from the beginning of the 20th century, it remains fascinating to consider where it fits in and how, along with many other composers, it seeks to find a new voice and a place for opera in a post-Wagner and post-Verdi age. Certainly you can here echoes of the verismo composers, the dramatic writing fitting in well with the darker side of Puccini (Tosca in particular), the overall tone and subject matter reminding one of Alfani's Risurrezione (performed at Wexford in 2017) and Giordano's Siberia.

Two things however stand out in this performance however that make it very much worthwhile, aside from it being an intriguing rare opera. Conducted by Guillaume Tourniaire, the playing of the orchestra was exceptional, the warmth and dynamism of the music enhanced by the beautiful acoustics of Wexford's O'Reilly Theatre. The other stand out was the commanding performance of Andreea Soare as Olga. She demonstrated beautiful clarity, control and lyricism even at the most anguished of moments, but was also capable of dropping to softness and even playfulness in the singing of a Russian song. It was a great, fully rounded performance that is essential to the character of the work. Andrew Morstein as Sergei/Serge also had a lovely tenor voice, but didn't have the volume behind it to carry the dramatic import. Giorgi Manoshvili's Kouragine was also worthy of note.

Much as Ella Marchment's direction and ideas for the Wexford production tries to give it a contemporary feel that aligns with the festival theme of Women & War, the opera's uneven balance of love and war doesn't allow it to have the same impact as the production of Donizetti's Zoraida di Granata the previous evening. The final act here should bring back the dramatic tension of the activities of the Nihilists that end up taking the lives of both Sergei and Olga, but it ends up feeling less of a humanitarian issue than a romantic one. 

The director can only work as best as the material allows however, and the production design strived to keep the drama grounded in concrete reality heading towards inevitable tragedy and not idealise the romantic aspect, using a multi-purpose staircase and a grim concrete background that feels oppressive and inescapable. Even in Paris, the set holds the same basic feel, the frenzied dancing of the final act likewise unable to shake the inevitability that it is leading towards a bleak finale.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera

Donizetti - Zoraida di Granata (Wexford, 2023)

Gaetano Donizetti - Zoraida di Granata

Wexford Festival Opera, 2023

Diego Ceretta, Bruno Ravella, Claudia Boyle, Konu Kim, Matteo Mezzaro, Julian Henao Gonzalez, Rachel Croash, Matteo Guerzè

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House - 24th October 2023

For 72 years, one of the principles of Wexford Festival Opera has been to present rare, lost and forgotten opera that is worthy of a fresh look. With a history of 400 years of opera to look through, there are hundreds of composers, never mind works, that have been neglected over this time. Donizetti is not a composer you would think of as neglected, but surprisingly few of around 75 operas written by the composer are regularly performed, and it is only through the efforts of Wexford and the Donizetti Festival in Bergamo that more of his works have been rediscovered. Thanks to a joint co-production between Wexford and Bergamo it's Zoraida di Granata that has been dusted off this year and given a smartly polished performance in its world premiere at Wexford.

And it is a bit of a coup for Wexford, since it isn't often that you get to see the world premiere stage production of an opera that was written 200 years ago - one by Gaetano Donizetti no less. The original version of Zoraida di Granata composed in 1822 was never performed due to the death of the lead tenor playing the role of Abenamet in an unfortunate accident. The opera had to be rewritten for a contralto and scenes reduced to suit the hastily arranged replacement. Donizetti took the opportunity to revise and extended the work further in 1824, but the original 1822 version for tenor Abenamet has consequently never been fully staged. What is interesting is that this co-production with Bergamo is being performed in two different versions, Wexford putting on the only performances of original 1822 version, Bergamo working with the revised 1824 version. This was an occasion then that was worthy of being greeted with fireworks - as is traditional at the start of the Wexford Festival - and even the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in attendance at the premiere performance.

Photo: Clive Barda

Written in 1822, Zoraida is an early Donizetti, his sixth opera and his first great success that led to greater things. Based on its presentation at Wexford, it's not difficult to see why. The plot is relatively straightforward for a Donizetti opera, not as convoluted as some of his works and it benefits from its directness. While it has short sections of recitative, musically there is no "filler", the writing passionate and lyrical in its setting of a traditional story of three-way romantic conflict in a time of war. There is no mad scene or any such extravagance, each of the three principals having an aria to express their condition, the soprano in particular having a beautiful aria in the second act that hits all the emotional points. The villain Almuzir also has a powerfully written aria in Act 1, expressing his desire for Zoraida, which serves to balance the work and give added poignancy to Zoraida's aria at her fate.

In terms of the plot it's set in the roughly historical period of 1480, with the city of Granada taken by the Moors but still under siege. Almuzir has deposed and killed the king of Granada and is determined to marry his daughter Zoraida. Zoraida however is in love with Abenamet, the head of the army and Almuzir's rival. Unable to 'persuade' Zoraida to marry him, Almuzir instead plots to be rid of Abenamet, sending him out in command of troops to repulse the Spanish counterattack, but warning him on the pain of death that the city's standard must remain safe in his hands. Almuzir of course plans to ensure that even when Abenamet is successful in battle, that the standard is taken from him. It's only when his scheme is undone that Almuzir feels shame for his actions and repents, accepting the union of Abenamet and Zoraida.

Photo: Clive Barda

That unlikely resolution and change of heart amused the audience at Wexford, which is entirely the point of Zoraida di Granata. It's opera as unsophisticated entertainment, or so you might think, but in reality the musical qualities of Donizetti's composition are evident in the flowing lyricism of the score and wonderful melodic invention. It's actually beautifully balanced musically and dramatically, direct in its focus on the romantic drama of the plot, giving equal concision and precision in the expression of the three leads, never letting it turn into a showpiece for the soprano as you might find in later works. That's the case for the 1822 original version, and you would suspect that there is nothing to be gained and much to lose in forced revisions that could hardly improve on this.

If the quality of the work was evident it was wholly down to the production and the performance of the opera at Wexford highlighting its qualities. The playing of the Wexford Festival Orchestra under Diego Ceretta brought out all the colour and dynamic of Donizetti's vivid score. Claudia Boyle as Zoraida was bright, clear and passionate in delivery, the soprano role nonetheless challenging with some coloratura flourishes in repeated lines, but nothing too extravagant. It suited the directness of the director's approach, delving into the emotional core and content of the work that ties it in with the theme of this year's festival, Women & War, and Boyle came into her own impressively in the second act. Matteo Mezzaro was a little bit wavering as Abenamet, but likewise stormed through in the second act, giving the impression that the cast were buoyed by the progression of the music and plot. Rachel Croash was superb as Ines, but it was South Korean tenor Konu Kim as Almuzir who took the honours and the loudest applause at the end of the opera. He didn't have to play the eye-rolling evil villain, but put everything into flashes of anger and lust, letting it roar out with superb control and projection.

Directed by Bruno Ravella, the production design also played to the strengths of the work with no elaborate special effects being required. The set remained largely the same across the two acts/two halves of the opera with a ruined classical structure backdrop and the ground littered with debris. Only the occasional lowering of a pillar and framework of a destroyed stained glass window as required for dramatic purpose. The lighting was just as effective for varying and matching the tone of each scene dramatically. The challenge for the director - for any director doing a Donizetti opera - is to make a 200 year work with old-fashioned opera conventions feel immediate and relevant, as well as serve the demands of the plot and retain the particular balance that makes this one such a successful opera.

Photo: Clive Barda

There was one other element that the director had to consider which fitted perfectly with the Women & War theme of the 72nd Wexford Festival Opera. While work on this production would have been on-going for some time for it to make any meaningful point about current conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, it was hard not to see obvious parallels with the devastation currently being shown on our TV screens and sympathise with the idea of innocent people caught up in it all. And indeed the women who are victims of these atrocities, one of the first scenes you see being a dead woman pulled out of a pile of rubble. It couldn't have been foreseen that such scenes would be playing out at the same time in the real world, but on the other hand not surprising at all really that so little has changed and that war continues to bring nothing but suffering to all those caught up in it.

This performance of Zoraida di Granata has been filmed and will be available to view on OperaVision from 3rd November 2023.

External links: Wexford Festival Opera, OperaVision

Sunday 22 October 2023

Heggie - Dead Man Walking (New York, 2023)

Jake Heggie - Dead Man Walking

The Metropolitan Opera, 2023

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Joyce DiDonato, Ryan McKinny, Susan Graham, Latonia Moore, Rod Gilfry, Krysty Swann, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Chauncey Packer, Helena Brown, Briana Hunter, Magdalena Kuźma, Matteo Omoso Castro, Alexa Jarvis, Justin Austin, Chad Shelton, Raymond Aceto, Regan Sims, Mark Joseph Mitrano, Jonah Mussolino, Christopher Job, John Hancock, Patrick Miller, Jonathan Scott, Earle Patriarco, Ross Benoliel, Tyler Simpson

The Met: Live in HD - 21st October 2023

It's the start of a new Met Live in HD Season, and no longer enjoying the star power of Anna Netrebko since their falling out over the war in Ukraine as a draw for the opening broadcast, the Metropolitan Opera in New York have instead chosen to go down an unexpected route of promoting contemporary American composers, as they did with Terence Blanchard's incendiary Fire Shut Up In My Bones in 2021. It's a risky strategy, but as Peter Gelb acknowledged in the introduction before the cinema relay, perhaps a necessary one for the Met to change and recognise opera as a relevant contemporary creative artform, not just a revival of music composed centuries ago. And presumably, such an approach might be necessary to attract new younger and more diverse audiences.

To that end not only does the 2023/24 season open with the Met premiere of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, but the next two broadcasts are also new or modern works, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X by Anthony Davis and Florencia en el Amazonas by Daniel Catán. That is certainly an appealing line-up for me, at least in as far as having the opportunity to experience unfamiliar works in the next best way to seeing them live (which would be highly unlikely outside of the United States in any case). The Met have their Live in HD broadcasts down to a fine art, and that was certainly the experience with their completely stunning production of Dead Man Walking.

Composed in 2000, and having the distinction of being the most successful or at least most widely performed (in America) new opera of the 21th century (so far), the Met are late catching on to Jake Heggie's first opera, but they certainly make up for it with a production that does the work full justice and which may even consolidate its reputation and popularity. I'm late to the work myself, as American contemporary composers are not particularly fashionable in Europe and rarely get performed here. As if seeking to make that cross-over, the Met chose the Belgian experimental opera and theatre director Ivo van Hove to direct their first production of the work, and that was enough to entice me out to see it in the cinema, when I otherwise might not have. I'm very glad I did, and it will certainly bring me back to see their other new productions this season.

Some of my initial hesitation and doubts about having any interest in Dead Man Walking would have been down to it being made into a film (that admittedly I haven't seen) and the subject matter. Although based n a real life story of a nun, Sister Helen Prejean and her memoir of the friendship she struck up with a man on Death Row in the days leading up to his execution, it not only seemed to me designed to stir emotions and gain Oscar nominations, but I imagined that the opera would have similar intentions and be a little ...well, over-emphatic perhaps if not overly sentiment stirring. And it turns out there is some truth in this, Heggie and his librettist Terrence McNally designing the opera to play out as much like a movie screenplay as an opera follow along similar lines, which is where the choice of Ivo van Hove to direct it comes across as a true masterstroke.

Ivo van Hove is a theatre director who is used to working with cinematic drama. He has adapted Bergman's 'After the Rehearsal' and 'Scenes From a Marriage', Cassavetes' 'Opening Night' and Visconti's 'Ossessione' among many film adaptations for the stage, but he also brings a cinematic quality to his plays, using on-stage cameras and projections. His opera productions have similarly benefitted from these kind of techniques that open up backgrounds and underlying tensions, but his success with opera is as much in his ability to draw marvellous acting performances out of the principals and the secondary singers, using every means to express the maximum impact and insight out of whatever he is working on.

Surprisingly, for Dead Man Walking he is much more restrained in how he presents the work, settling for a minimalist set with lots of open space and limited use of on-stage camera-operators and projections. I thought at first that he might be reining in any excesses for an audience less used to experimental European theatre, but it soon became clear that van Hove was actually just serving the needs of the opera Dead Man Walking. Aside from the filmed opening sequence depicting the murders, the menacing prison scenes with guards and prisoners seeming to erupt out of swirling infernal mists, his direction here allows the drama to focus and bring out what is already well-scripted and scored in the relationship between Sister Helen and Joseph De Rocher, letting the characters come alive through their words and interaction rather than employing and of his usual tricks and techniques.

That is almost certainly the right way to approach Heggie and McNally's Dead Man WalkingIvo van Hove makes what could otherwise be film-like theatrical, as well as theatrical for the big screen in the cinema broadcast. Such is the nature of the subject, the direct way it is handled in the superb libretto and the sometimes heavy-handed score by Heggie, that any further emphasis or extraneous action would be too much. Scene after scene had huge emotional impact, and the director doesn't get in the way of that. The final execution scene, as is surely intended, is almost devastating, the director here choosing to get right in close on the act of delivery of the lethal injection with a hand-held camera projecting the procedure. If the rights or wrongs of capital punishment are largely left to the viewer to decide, the inhumanity of taking another's life is not and the production makes sure you see exactly what it entails.

I'm not sure what I expected from Heggie's score, not being familiar with the composer, but his writing for this opera surprised me. He is stated as being in the American tradition - whatever that is, Bernstein maybe? - but Dead Man Waking reminded me of Poulenc and Dialogues des Carmélites. Perhaps the amount of nuns on stage influenced that idea, but I think emotionally, thematically, structurally and musically it's a close match. It's powerfully composed for maximum impact, if perhaps a little too over-emphatic and bombastic in places under the musical direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, but I'm sure he delivered it the way the composer intended. It certainly achieves the desired impact; invigorating and draining at the same time.

As well as every other element of the production being up to the extremely high standards of the Metropolitan Opera, the casting of the principals, the singing and acting performances are simply beyond reproach. Every role, not just the central relationship between convict and nun, is filled with character, the performances consequently utterly committed to doing them justice and superbly delivered. You couldn't expect more from Joyce DiDonato and Ryan McKinny, both absolutely rivetting, but it's hard to imagine anyone surpassing the deeply felt emotional delivery of Susan Graham as De Rocher's mother. Secondary roles are just as well written and performed, with Rod Gilfry in particular standing out as the father of the murdered girl, but impressive performances also from newer Met singers Latonia Moore, Krysty Swann, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Chauncey Packer all providing notable performances, particularly in the family scenes with overlapping dialogue and raw emotion pouring out.

While I am instinctively suspicious of work that is this emotionally charged and direct, it's almost impossible for any aspect of Dead Man Walking to be "too much" considering the subject and the way it demands to be presented. No one element however overshadows another in the Met's 2023 production, everything comes together to present Jake Heggie's opera in the best possible light, from these incredible singing and acting performances and the perfectly pitched direction. Even the Live in HD presentation is just perfect, engaging the cinema audience with the filming, the close-ups, Ivo van Hove's own on-screen camera and split-screen shots, making this feel like they were sharing something truly remarkable and even momentous. Impressive on big screen, the video capture of this final performance will no doubt continue to resonate and secure the place of Dead Man Walking in the American contemporary opera canon.

Saturday 21 October 2023

Janáček - The Makropoulos Case (Paris, 2023)

Leoš Janáček - The Makropoulos Case

Opéra National de Paris, 2023

Susanna Mälkki, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Karita Mattila, Pavel Černoch, Nicholas Jones, Ilanah Lobel-Torres, Johan Reuter, Cyrille Dubois, Károly Szemerédy, Peter Bronder 

Paris Opera Play - 13th October 2023

I could think of several reasons why the idea of Krzysztof Warlikowski directing a Janáček opera would be an attractive proposition - attractive enough in my case to start a subscription with Paris Opera Play to watch a livestream broadcast. The science-fiction nature of The Makropoulos Case and its modernity lends itself to wild flights of imagination, and the relatively short running time of the opera means that an adventurous director like Warlikowski doesn't have to strive too hard to make it fit with what will undoubtedly push a concept beyond the limits of what the opera can sustain. And the promotional 'King Kong' images it has to be said show that Warlikowski is going to push his own ideas and distinctive view of opera as far as he can.

He can't help himself with this one, such is the richness of the 'script' and the 'soundtrack' he has to work with that he can indulge his love of classic and iconic movies to the extent that even a short opera like Makropoulos is somehow extended to almost 2 hours. Regardless of what you think of the director's style and techniques, you can hardly argue with is his choice of 'Marilyn Monroe' to represent the superstar fame of the opera's ageless icon Emilia Marty and her tragic situation.

The opening section, that this director often fills with filmed movie footage of his own for his productions, this time uses original classic Hollywood footage of 'Sunset Boulevard' and 'King Kong', neither of which feature Monroe of course, but blending these with documentary footage recounting the string of marriages and the tragedy of a legend, the fall of Marilyn Monroe, they tangentially serve to provide an effective link between her life and The Makropoulos Case. Rather than take place within the offices of the lawyer Kolenaty then, this merges into a kind of on-stage reenactment of the unveiling of bound King Kong to a New York audience. No, definitely not the most obvious of connections to the start of The Makropoulos Case.

And yet, there are plenty of references in the libretto to connect the tragedy of Elina Makropoulos with Marilyn Monroe - "Nothing is eternal. 'Vanitas' …ashes to ashes!" "What can you care about a woman of ill repute who lived 100 years ago?". It might not draw anything new out of the opera, but it certainly provides a fresh way to look at the work, a new way to connect to its themes, since the plot is a fairly convoluted one. Warlikowski's production certainly brings out how women have been objectified by men over the years the harm inflicted on Emilia Marty as a woman who has lived through it and seen it all, been abused and mistreated by men trying to mold her in the image of their fantasies. "See this scar on my neck? Another man tried to kill me. I'm not going to undress to show you all the marks men have left on my body". she tells a besotted Albert Gregor, in thrall to the lure of the glamorous image.

It's a gift of a role for any star soprano who is able to project a similar glamorous allure, and Karita Mattila proves to be a good choice for her ability to inhabit the persona of the enigma that is Emilia Marty; a star, diva, a Norma Desmond. Dressed as Marilyn Monroe in a constantly billowing Seven Year Itch dress is a bit more of a stretch, but this is opera and almost every opera has a singer cast in a role that they don't match physically or in age, and Mattila carries it off surprising well. This is after all an opera where we are dealing with a character who is an ageless 337, so anything goes surely? 'Anything goes surely' being the philosophy of Warlikowski as well you could say. What matters is that she can sing the role and inhabit the role with personality. 

Mattila's voice might be a little weaker now in terms of volume, but she delivers a hugely convincing performance and the personality is definitely all there. Her voice sounded a little muffled in places, but it's hard to judge that from a live web broadcast. She still sings with great control, singing in Czech, which is doubtlessly challenging. As is the role itself, which Warlikowski doesn't make any easier, but there is little room for doubt about her ability there, her performance very impressive, genuinely magnetic and charismatic. All the roles are similarly well-cast and performed with notable performances from Pavel Černoch as Albert 'Bertik' Gregor and Ilanah Lobel-Torres as Krista. As often proves to be the case, 'Maxi' Hauck brings a humorous touch to the opera, sung here by Peter Bronder as an ice-cream salesman during the interval at the theatre/movie theatre where Emilia is appearing in a fully-staged reconstruction of Fay Wray being picked up by Kong.

Set designer Małgorzata Szczęśniak provides an impressive set and staging for this scene, a key scene in the work that succeeds in capturing the wonder, humour and the underlying tragedy of life that - like Jenůfa and The Cunning Little Vixen - lies at the heart of the work. Also, since the work does relate to the nature of the artist taking on many roles, exploring human experience, the nature of aging or remaining ageless, it does relate well also to Sunset Boulevard. Maxi becomes Erich von Stroheim's butler to Emilia's Marilyn Monroe/Norma Desmond, the opera finishing with a swimming pool scene that captures the glamour of the lifestyle and the tragedy to unfold there. Ars longa, vita brevis.

It's all there - glamour, spectacle, consideration of the nature of living and being human - all wrapped up in a marvellous entertainment with glorious music conducted here by Susanna Mälkki. That's The Makropoulos Case and there's no question all the glamour, spectacle and full consideration of what the opera has to tell us about the nature of living is fully what you get in Krzysztof Warlikowski's new production for the Paris Opera.

External Links: Opéra National de Paris, Paris Opera Play

Saturday 14 October 2023

Foccroulle - Cassandra (Brussels, 2023)

Bernard Foccroulle - Cassandra

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2023

Kazushi Ono, Marie-Ève Signeyrole, Katarina Bradić, Jessica Niles, Susan Bickley, Sarah Defrise, Paul Appleby, Joshua Hopkins, Gidon Saks, Sandrine Mairesse, Lisa Willems

OperaVision - 14th September 2023

There are any number of Greek dramas and myths that remain applicable to today, with themes that are still capable of inspiring contemporary operas. Matthew Aucoin's Eurydice adapts Sarah Ruhl's original play and libretto to explore deeper feminist and human themes explored by the Orpheus myth, while Aribert Reimann's Medea casts a shadow over a society intolerant of outsiders, its rulers obsessed with wealth and prestige, blind to the danger of failing to respond appropriately to the needs of those seeking asylum and the price that is paid by our children. Cassandra in as far as Bernard Foccroulle's opera presents it, clearly speaks to perhaps the most immediate global crisis facing modern society, one that is being warned about daily and becoming ever more urgent, but it's apparent that again, no one is listening. Climate change is the pre-warned disaster facing us all.

Cursed by Apollo so that her premonitions for the future will fall on deaf ears, the words "Ototoi popoi da” that Cassandra struggles to express at the start of Foccroulle's opera are unintelligible and unheeded until disaster strikes. She emerges here as a ghost of the past brought into the present, the two time periods combined and overlapping through a wall of literature written on the subject. The collapse of Troy with all its classical implications - traditionally well-served in opera as well as in Greek drama - is echoed in a modern disaster, as the wall collapses leaving devastation in its wake. People buried by the disaster emerge cut and bruised and crying over the dead in the rubble, as a camera operator zooms in showing the devastation in all its horror.

It's a familiar scene that we have seen repeatedly on our own screens over the last couple of years. There's really no beating around the bush here. The opening is direct and devastating, a classical style Cassandra in full outburst, carrying a dead bleeding child plucked from the ruins of Troy as a Greek chorus ominously intones the consequences of the failure to listen and the orchestra delivers jagged blocks of chords. It's a powerful opening, the impact heightened by Foccroulle's music, not to mention the reaction of Cassandra, and yet, despite all the power of classical-inspired opera, it's a message that is still likely one to go unheeded. It needs something more to bring that message up to date, and Foccroulle and librettist Matthew Jocelyn choose to find another way to get the message across.

There is an intentionally jarring change of tone as the setting abruptly changes to the present day, where a modern day Cassandra, PhD student and published climatologist Sandra Seymour, conscious that all other attempts to express the imminency of the danger have fallen on deaf ears, chooses to deliver her warning as a comedy routine. Running models and algorithms from her studies, Sandra knows danger is real, but chooses to approach the subject with the audience by blaming 'sex fiends' going under the names of Donald, Jeff and Vladimir raping the earth, as she shatters a block of ice. There's not really any beating around the here bush either (not much comedy either), but there is disagreement about her approach from an environmental activist, Blake, who who takes her message more seriously that she does. They share the same concerns however and end up in a relationship together.

Using such means, Fouccrolle's opera seeks to provide a wider context and every means at his disposal to draw together the classical warnings and the present crisis. There are plenty of 'sex fiends' in history bringing damage to humanity and mythology is full of them, not least Apollo, so the parallels are well-established and the musical language used for each of the scenes is appropriate and effective. The subject is not exactly a new concern expressed in modern opera - Sivan Eldar's Like Flesh, Tom Coult's Violet, Perocco's Aquagranda - but these are a little more allusive towards the subject and Foucrolle's opera strives to be more direct. It's important but difficult to do that without descending into preachiness. Cassandra does do a lot of telling, quoting statistics and figures on the melting of ice caps, but it tries to present these in an accessible way, looking at classical mythology for additional substance, using a modern couple debating with each other as a way of putting fire into their relationship and the best way of putting the message out there. This might work for some observers, not for others.

The classical story however does add another element, or at least it does in the way it is presented here as overlapping with the modern-day story. Priam and Hecuba are also brought back from the books, now able to reflect on what the plays written about the fall of Troy tell us, now fully aware of the consequences of failing to listen to the warnings of Cassandra. These scenes - which flow seamlessly from a dinner party scene with Sandra's well-to do parents who are more focussed on causes that boost their image and profits doubling up the roles of Priam and Hecuba - is as charged and anguished as you would expect, equally if not as much as a classical retelling, such as in Berlioz's Les Troyens for example. We already have the benefit of hindsight to act as foresight, the opera seems to be telling us, and we don't want future generations to look back on our society incredulous that we failed to heed the obvious present warnings of the fall of civilisation.

Belgian composer Bernard Foccroulle is a former director of La Monnaie in Brussels and the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence. This is his first opera composition and it's an ambitious full-scale work, attempting to encompass a number of styles, each effective for the requirements of the libretto and the message. There's Cassandra past blending into Sandra's present, the drama and music serious on one hand, seeming blithe on the other, reflecting two ways of viewing the subject. If we truly knew what is ahead we wouldn't treat it as a joke, but at the same time, most aren't taking it seriously. Foccroulle tries every means, style and views of these conflicting worlds and tries to replicate it in the music, not least in the strong writing for female voices and the short musical interludes, Scene Four and the final scene for example consisting only of a musical depiction of a swarm of bees.

There is inevitably some banality in the modern sections in the domestic relationships, the language, the swearing, the so-called comedy and in the family crises. There is a point to be made about preserving the world for future generations, but whether the opera and its approach hits the mark or is "bullshit" as is loudly heckled by an "audience member", the point isn't convincingly made. Opera has the power to raise a subject to a higher level, elevate the mere words and drama of a libretto, achieve impact through the music and singing, but it's by no means clear that Jocelyn and Foucroulle's approach to Cassandra will be heeded any more than those unheeded warnings of its title character.

Conducted by Kazushi Ono for the premiere of this new opera at La Monnaie, the music and its effectiveness to the subject and libretto can't be faulted, the fascinating and varied score inviting the audience to listen closer to what is being presented. There is much that is equally impressive in the singing and the stage production, so every effort has been made. A new opera, the singers cast are obviously chosen as perfect for the roles. There are singing and performing challenges here but each is outstanding, Katarina Bradić in particular in a gift of a role as Cassandra, but Sandra is also a large role and is impressively sung by Jessica Niles. I also thought the performances of her mother and father, sung by Susan Bickley and Gidon Saks, doubling as Hecuba and Priam were both terrific, contributing superbly to both sides of the work.

The stage production directed by Marie-Ève Signeyrole with sets by Fabien Teigné also plays an important part in maintaining an connection and fluidity between the 'classical' sections and the modern-day sections, as well as bringing out the underlying context of the climate change debate that is drawn between them. Projections and live filming are used, every means that can enhance the central key imagery of nature and devastation. There are blocks of ice, screens of hexagonal blocks, computer-generated swarms of bees, showing life and nature interwoven and in crisis. It's an impressive looking production, serving the subject, the music and the drama well, or as well as it is possible to do considering the limitations of what the arts can really be expected to contribute to the discussion.

Externa links: La Monnaie streaming, La Monnaie, OperaVision

Saturday 7 October 2023

Gounod - Faust (Dublin, 2023)

Charles Gounod - Faust

Irish National Opera, 2023

Elaine Kelly, Jack Furness, Duke Kim, Nick Dunning, Nicholas Brownlee, Jennifer Davis, Gyula Nagy, Mark Nathan, Gemma Ní Bhriain, Colette McGahon

Gaiety Theatre, Dublin - 1st October 2023

Goethe's Faust brings up some essential and always relevant big questions about the nature of humanity and the meaning of life. The quest for knowledge, love versus lust, science versus religion, war and peace, forgiveness versus revenge, all are considered, as well as the consequences to our actions. Gounod's Faust takes up all these into his opera but seems to have little serious consideration or point to make about any of them and instead focusses almost exclusively on the tragic love story at the centre, and using the rest of the material as colour for some admittedly fantastic dramatic set pieces and thrilling music. That can be enough but it doesn't have to be, and an adventurous production can bring all these elements together into something more coherent and thoughtful. Jack Furness's production for the Irish National Opera at best pays lip-service to some of the bigger questions, but it is ultimately more successful in serving those set pieces with strong musical and singing performances.

The INO Faust at least has a very distinctive look and feel and Furness succeeds in putting the drama across very much in its own way, with little of the obvious traditional period settings. It seems to be set against the beginning of the Great War in the costumes and period detail, but not strictly so, which is enough to give this plenty of mood and menace for the work of the devil to be unleashed. Right from the start it makes its mark, finding a unique way of presenting the tricky transformation scene of Faust from an old man - who nonetheless has a soaring tenor voice - into a younger man followed his renouncement of his studies and his soul along with it, and gives it all up to Mephistopheles in exchange for reliving a life filled with true possibilities. The tenor, Duke Kim, appears as a younger shadow version of an actor playing the aged scientist (Nick Dunning), who is eventually freed from the shackles of his old age.

This works well enough without any real distraction, the older Faust reappearing only now and again as if to remind him of the fate that still awaits him. There is a similar adventurous approach to several of the other key scenes, the simple adaptable set designs moving into place to set mood and background more than serving strictly as literal locations. This allows things to similarly move fluidly with all the quality of a nightmarish flow of time and place, all under the control of Mephistopheles. Mainly there are three large chimneys that look like setting the scene of a dark industry of people working in factories. These turn into ovens that are used in the manufacture of armaments for the war that Valentin is off to fight in with his comrades, the largest one eventually revolving downward to present a huge cannon.

The nature of war is a constant theme throughout, the evidence of Mephistopheles at large in the world or perhaps the misadventures of men of science having consequences far beyond the actions of one man, Faust. The contrasts and ambiguities of war are also reflected in the imagery, with a huge cross made of a rocket bomb and crossed rifles in the church scene where Marguerite is condemned, and there are retina-searing explosive incidents elsewhere. You can't deny that the production makes the necessary impact on such scenes, not least in the arrival of Mephistopheles rising up in a blinding red light from beneath the stage, but right through the Act II drinking song and waltz, the Jewel Song, the soldier's chorus, and the hallucinatory Walpurgis night scene. The production looks great and is particularly well-choreographed in those crowd and choral scenes.

But somehow, as a whole, it never seems to amount to a great deal, and ultimately Gounod's focus on Faust's chase, treatment and abandonment of Marguerite which makes up the bulk of the dramatic thread that ties up the work, overshadows any attempt to draw deeper meaning or resonance out of the subject. It doesn't have to be like that and many productions have striven to overcome the dramatic limitations of the opera (Frank Castorf, Vienna 2021 - being one of the most recent and extreme), but Jack Furness doesn't really push those ideas anywhere interesting. The focus appears to be just to ensure that full justice is done to Gounod's music and there at least there is much to enjoy in the performance at the opening performance at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin.

The orchestra was very capably handled by Elaine Kelly, capturing the melodic invention of Gounod's score and its dramatic setting. It was the singing however that really stood out here. Arguably, this is an opera made for showing off great singers and the performances here were simply outstanding. South Korean tenor Duke Kim's Faust soared, delivering one of the best performances I've seen in the role, playing off a fine Mephistopheles from Nicholas Brownlee and Jennifer Davis's sympathetic Marguerite. Gyula Nagy was an impressive Valentin, delivering a terrific "Ecoute-moi bien Marguerite" dire warning to his sister. There were no weaknesses anywhere here, with Mark Nathan as Wagner, Gemma Ní Bhriain as Siébel and Colette McGahon rounding out a great cast. You couldn't fail to entertain an audience with that, which - more than trying to draw anything deeper out of Faust - was clearly the intention and successfully achieved.

External Links: Irish National Opera