Tuesday 30 January 2024

Tchaikovsky - The Maid of Orleans (Düsseldorf, 2023)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - The Maid of Orleans

Deutsche Oper am Rhein, 2023

Vitali Alekseenok, Elisabeth Stöppler, Maria Kataeva, Sami Luttinen, Aleksandr Nesterenko, Sergej Khomov, Luiza Fatyol, Thorsten Grümbel, Evez Abdulla, Richard Šveda, Beniamin Pop, Johannes Preißinger, Žilvinas Miškinis, Mara Guseynova

OperaVision - 20th August 2023

Cinema has shown us that there can be a number of ways of presenting the Joan of Arc story. On the one side you have Carl Theodore Dryer's silent masterpiece of spiritual interiorised conflict The Passion of Joan of Arc and Bresson's austere recounting of the court records of the Trial of Joan of Arc. On the other side you have Luc Besson's actioner The Messenger with Jacques Rivette’s two-partner Jeanne la pucelle divided between 'The Battles' and 'The Prisons' seeking somewhere in-between. The question that all of the films grapple with to one extent or another, or fall to one side or the other on, is whether Joan is a warrior or saint.

When it comes to opera however it's a different story. Although this warrior/saint dichotomy presents great material for an opera, it represents different things to Verdi and Tchaikovsky in their versions of the story. Using Schiller as the source material for both, each find their own particular way into the story which also appeals to the operatic tradition, even if it perhaps takes it a little further off course. For Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco, the father/daughter relationship is emphasised and Joan's ignited passions give expression to the idea of a nation and a people struggling oppressed under wartime conditions and given dramatic force through huge stirring choruses. Tchaikovsky makes use of these musical elements also but with greater focus on the spiritual drive, giving that additional emphasis through the romantic melodrama of a love story.

The force of these feelings of spiritual and emotional conflict can't be ignored in any staging and director Elisabeth Stöppler's 2023 production of The Maid of Orleans for Deutsche Oper am Rhein draws on that right from the dramatic overture. The Virgin/angel appears to Joan as a mirror image of herself in white shift and chainmail dress. At this stage it's just an awareness that she has a calling, but Joan is not yet ready and conflict rages within her (if Tchaikovsky's stirring music is anything to go by). To be fair, she's not getting a lot of support from her father who wants her to be a nice little housewife and arrange a husband for her protection, but the advancing forces on Orléans and Joan's prediction of Salisbury's fall means that this idea is resisted and the urgency of war takes precedence. It at the end of Act 1 that the angel gives voice to her calling to take to the sword and the battlefield.

It's only really then that the urgency of Tchaikovsky music takes flight. Not that it's been anything less than intense up to now, but it's finally given revelation and purpose. Much like Tatiana's ecstatic letter to Onegin, there is a sense of fatalism in this, Joan throwing herself fully and irrevocably into the service of her inner passion and voice. If that perhaps doesn't seem quite as convincing as an expression of whatever it is that drives Joan, it's perhaps less to do with Tchaikovsky's handling of the material than the opera libretto's reliance on rather old-fashioned overly-earnest and solemn declamatory expression. There's a danger that the passion can be subsumed by nationalistic fervour but Tchaikovsky's opera does manage to give expression to the drama and what is at stake at a human level. Verdi faced the same problem with the same mixed results until he found a librettist like Boito who could give him better material to work with.

It still means that a lot of this is declamatory of feelings and conflict and little to support all this fervour in dramatic terms. There's no real action other than reports from the battlefield which are reflected and commented upon in arch terms like "he sleeps the eternal sleep". The libretto is a horror to work with and if it is to succeed on the stage, it's going to need something more than the rather unconvincing passion that is ignited in Joan's impossible love for an enemy soldier, Lionel. The director and singers here try their best to make that work with the rather bombastic expressions, but it just leads to an extraordinary amount of grasping and grappling with each other on the part of Joan and Lionel. It looks ridiculous in the middle of a war, but in terms of giving expression to those inner feelings through the singing, it's given full voice and commitment.

All of the singers are fully committed and impressive - as is the chorus (some members a little more overly enthusiastic than others) - but Maria Kataeva's Joan and Richard Šveda's Lionel in particular have to rise up to the over-the-top demands of Tchaikovsky score. We're on the heavier side of the Tchaikovsky of the 1812 Overture variety, and then some. Lionel's love for Joan truly feels life or death here, but that only leaves the director Stöppler with a challenge to bring a little more realism and humanism to the situation. There's a need to recognise at the same time that Joan of Arc is an uncommon character in a modern age, driven indeed by an internal fire, inspired by god, heaven and the angels as well as nationalistic pride. Playing it as period won't cut it, so Stöppler chooses to give it a more modern-day look and feel. And, considering it's Tchaikovsky, the current situation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine can't be ignored.

The choice of setting all four acts of the opera in the same location of a church serves to at once rein in the excessive elements of the opera, while at the same time attempting to focus it on Joan's experience being an internal transcendental spiritual experience. The same idea perhaps applies to contrasting of the modern day East European dress of the people and their experience of war with the heroic declamation of the choruses and the libretto. The reality of the situation and the reality as we know it from images from present-day Ukraine are there to see without any need to overstate the case or the parallel. King Charles VII here is more like an extravagant wealthy man with Dunois his bodyguard, both Sergej Khomov and Evez Abdulla succeeding also in giving strong performances that support both the work and the stage presentation. 

Updating the work to underplay any nationalistic expression or heroic glorification of war as being a God-given command is perhaps a necessary condition for a director, but the question is whether it doesn't end up undermining what Joan of Arc represents. Can The Maid of Orleans really work without the period Joan of Arc or does it have any more universal quality that allows us to see the same passions and sentiments in the present day? Is it still relatable? Of course it may be possible, but I didn't get too great a sense of it here. The plot too never really adds up to anything meaningful. Joan's crime in this version appears to be falling in love with an enemy and thereby losing the approval of heaven and the people. She is no longer la pucelle.

Rather than being burned at the stake for this, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein production uses the single location of the church finally being destroyed as a symbol for the fire of Joan's passion burning out and becoming an object of pity to the the confused populace. Or something like that. It doesn't really make a lot of sense in the original stage directions or in the stage production here. The single location of the church also reminds me of Tcherniakov recent take on War and Peace, but that was more towards distancing from the militaristic and nationalistic side of Prokofiev’s version of the drama, while here it seems to be harder to put any such distance from the work's romantic heroism, religious and sentimental fervour.

Under Vitali Alekseenok, the conducting and musical performance of the opera is however clearly exceptional. The passion on stage is replicated in the music which works hand-in-hand with the drama. It's a little bombastic with the huge choruses on top, but it's meant to be, Tchaikovsky giving early Verdi a run for his money in the lack of subtlety stakes. All the passion is there however in the music and there too unquestionably in the efforts of the director to get it across somehow on the stage, reaching a conclusion of a kind of ecstatic transcendence. The point of it escapes me, the worthiness of the work remains in question, but it is still marvellous to hear this work and this side of Tchaikovsky given such a full blooded performance.

External links: Deutsche Oper am Rhein, OperaVision

Photos : © Sandra Then

Sunday 14 January 2024

Strauss - Salome (Paris, 2022)

Richard Strauss - Salome

Opéra National de Paris, 2022

Simone Young, Lydia Steier, Elza van den Heever, Iain Paterson, John Daszak, Karita Mattila, Tansel Akzeybek, Katharina Magiera, Matthäus Schmidlechner, Éric Huchet, Maciej Kwaśnikowski, Mathias Vidal, Sava Vemić, Luke Stoker, Yiorgo Ioannou, Dominic Barberi, Bastian Thomas Kohl, Alejandro Baliñas Vieites, Marion Grange

Paris Opera Play - 27th October 2022

There's not a lot of point in comparing one production of an opera with another, or indeed weighing one against another. There are always going to be differences of musical interpretation and evidently different people singing are going to make it sound and play out differently from one production to the next. Depending on the numerous factors involved in live performance, even the same production can differ from one revival to the next, even from one night to the next. It all comes down to personal preferences, and opinions will always vary. When you view two productions of Salome side by side however - one of the most intriguing of all opera works - it's hard not to make direct comparisons. As far as the Paris 2022 production stands against the recent Tcherniakov one at Hamburg, all it confirms is that this extraordinary work is infinitely open to radical ideas and interpretations.

When I reviewed the Hamburg production earlier this month, I suggested that if you go back to the original Oscar Wilde play, the pre-eminent theme of the work is how the darkest human lusts and behaviours can be tolerated as long as they are kept hidden and not spoken about in polite society. Wilde was of course satirising Victorian society and the underlying moral corruption more than retelling a biblical story, but you could certainly see an interpretation of hypocrisy in religion as well. That idea was largely adhered to in the Tcherniakov production, which managed to draw on the dark power of the work while remaining largely bloodless in explicitness. Not so much here in director Lydia Steier's production for the Paris Opera.

One other vital element of Salome is that it it was written with the intention of being shocking, provocative and taboo breaking, and the genius of Richard Strauss is such that he was capable of pushing the accepted conventions of musical language to similarly provide shock and outrage. This is the beauty of the work, or the ugly beauty of the work, if you like. Steier's Paris production definitely tends towards the character of the work to shock and thereby reveal more of the hidden nature of mankind's inherent selfishness and cruelty, rather than dress it up in flowery Symbolist poetry. As far as it applies to Salome in this production, she is not actively involved in the orgy of sex and violence at Herod's party but bored with it, which perhaps suggests a deeper pathology, but I'm not sure this production really gets to what it might be. 

Of course if you have shown Herod indulging in such activities, you can hardly expect him to be shocked when his stepdaughter shows the same tendencies pushed in another direction and thinking of it as 'love'. Herod's hedonistic party is viewed in a high room with wide glass window, showing a slow motion wild drunken orgy where cruel lusts and desires are freely indulged in the beating, murdering and mutilating of slaves. Semi-naked men and women prisoners are brought up from the dungeons, their bloody brutalised and mutilated bodies later carried down the stairs by men in bio-hazard suits to be dumped off into a pit at the side of the stage only to be replaced from the dungeons with a continuous supply of victims.

Very much tending towards darkness, the production uses lighting to soften and darken during Salome's poetic eulogising of the wild beauty of the tortured emaciated caged Jokanaan. It explodes into light when he rejects her advances, although here he seems to be leading her on somewhat (or maybe only in her fevered imagination) before delivering his imprecations, leading her to strike him with a cattle prod. What is critical in the depiction of this scene is capturing its extraordinary dynamic, here more so since the singing of Elza van den Heever and Iain Paterson delivers it so well. It's intense and compelling on every level. Every perversion is permitted, even as far as Salome masturbating over the cover of the cistern as Jokanaan is triumphantly lowered to the climatic music that Strauss composed for this scene.

The production manages to introduce a little lightness or further dynamic into the opera with the outrageous appearance and dress of Herod and Herodias. It does this without altering the grotesque overblown quality of the work, and crucially the quality of the singing is maintained. John Daszak's Herod enters with a feathered headdress, wearing a silk cloak over a see-through top. Sporting a blonde mullet, he looks like a New Romantic video star from the 80s. Herodias is similarly attired, with a dress supported by nipple hooks (Karita Mattila wearing a false boob set). There is something of a blend of 'Girls on Film', 'Wild Boys' and 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' about the look only taken to nightmarish lengths, with plenty of Pete Burns-like characters among the party entourage. Mattila plays up to the part of Herodias marvellously, flirting with the guard, both she and Herod making suggestive use of fruit in a way that Barrie Kosky would be proud of, but it fits with the florid metaphors used by Wilde to such great effect.

In terms of performance, this is one of the most impressive and impactful I can remember, but then it needs to be in order to rise to the challenges set by the production design, stage direction and musical direction. Simone Young's conducting of the Paris orchestra in particular is just outstanding here. It helps that the sound quality on the Paris Opera Play platform is so good. Using headphones, you can hear every little detail and sweep of dynamic orchestration. All of the cast have sufficient force matched with lyricism to deliver the decadent phrases of Lachmann's translation of Wilde's play. It feels like this play was written to be performed in the heightened state of opera, as effective here in Strauss's version as in Antoine Mariotte's Salomé using the original French text. As with Maeterlinck and Debussy in Pelléas et Mélisande, there is something about Symbolist works that seems well-suited to lyrical interpretation.

Whether or not you find the look of the production distasteful - it certainly pushes all the buttons to shock - this is a very well-directed Salome. The characters, their qualities, their flaws are all laid out to see and the singers are given space to express it. There is no confusion about what is going on, the focus is maintained where it needs to be in the marking and choreography. Whether Lydia Steier manages to probe any deeper into the dark psychology of the character of Salome could depend more on how the viewer responds to it. Having watched another Salome recently and found new elements to consider, it might not be fresh enough for me personally this time, but the singing is outstanding and under the musical direction of Simone Young this wonder of the opera repertoire remains as impressive as ever.

They key to how you might respond to the work lies, as it often does, in the depiction and outcome of the Dance of the Seven Veils. There is no oriental exoticism here whatsoever, the 'dance' shown for what it really is. Herod strips, sexually abuses and pleasures himself over a disgusted Salome, who nonetheless allows this to be taken to its brutal conclusion before she is subsequently gang-raped by the rest of the guests stirred up by the night's revelry of violence. Salome here is not gorily glorious (except in her own mind) but reduced to something pitiful, crawling across the floor, while Herod's page takes a gun to the whole rotten lot of them. It's all pretty revolting, but undeniably as dark and brutal as any conventionally staged conclusion of this magnificent opera.

External links: Opéra National de Paris, Paris Opera Play

Monday 1 January 2024

Strauss - Salome (Hamburg, 2023)

Richard Strauss - Salome

Staatsoper Hamburg, 2023

Kent Nagano, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Asmik Grigorian, Kyle Ketelsen, John Daszak, Violeta Urmana, Oleksiy Palchykov, Jana Kurucová

ARTE Concert - 29th October 2023

Dimitri Tcherniakov's opera productions have tended to look very much alike in recent times, all tending towards contemporary upper middle-class settings, looking rather brown and dull. The interpretation or reinterpretation of the works in question has however never been dull. They may rarely accord accurately with the original stage directions but the director's approach at least finds new ways to consider the meaning of the works and what they say about contemporary society and the place of the individual within it, often from a psychoanalytical perspective. So while Tcherniakov's production of Strauss's Salome for Hamburg looks similar to his recent stage productions, you can imagine he will nonetheless find considerable riches in the psychology or psychopathy of this particular work.

It doesn't take too long to identify the little twists to the stage directions in this production and find them intriguing enough to see where he will take them. It's a dinner party for Herod's birthday and the assembled well-to-do guests are arranged around the table, some slightly outlandishly dressed. Narraboth observing the pale beauty of the princess Salome in the moonlight is not one of the waiters standing around the walls as you might expect, but one of the guests. The princess has made a late sullen appearance at the table in a white puffa jacket and Ren & Stimpy T-shirt, rejecting the welcome of her mother Herodias.

The initial proclamation from Jokanaan then does not come from a deep cistern but from the other end of the table, from man in a brown jacket and jeans, sporting glasses and comb-over (his hair definitely not like clusters of black grapes), smoking a cigar and intoning his grave pronouncements from a book he is reading. He seems out of place here, lost in his own world, bearing perhaps an air of disdain or self-righteousness, but possibly just oblivious to the frivolity of the dinner party. This Jokanaan is not a prisoner, but a guest, respected for his wisdom, but evidently seen as a bit eccentric.

You could also describe Tcherniakov's take on this opening scene as eccentric, but bearing in mind what we already know about how this party is going to play out, it's intriguing enough to wonder how this idea is going to be developed. Well, one aspect of Oscar Wilde's play is about social decadence and illicit lusts that are acceptable as long as they remain hidden under a mask of outward respectability, and this suggested openness of those behaviours provides a good opportunity to expose that. Not that any further enticement is needed as the work itself is still for me one of the most daring, provocative and hauntingly beautiful works of opera ever written. With Kent Nagano conducting, it enthralls from the first notes here, drawing you into a unique and very specific mood that never lets up as it progresses unbroken on a real-time path towards its shocking conclusion. Some fine singing from Oleksiy Palchykov as Narraboth certainly invites you to remain into the fascinating sound world of dark psychopathology.

As powerful as the work remains, what is still a challenge is finding a way to bring out is the shock nature of the work's subversive element of Wilde’s marriage of Symbolist poetic imagery with Biblical subject matter and a decadent high society. Removing the mystical status of Jokanaan, and presumably removing the removing of the head is going to make that harder, even if the conclusion might have lost some shock value now (but not much). One way is how the setting of this production attempts to bring what people really think about each other is brought much more into the open. When Salome complains about the lascivious looks of John Daszak's Herod and her mother's tolerance of his attentions, she does it in front of them and the guests, while they try to laugh it off as Salome just being Salome. It really heightens the sense of murderous intent.

Again however, Tcherniakov seems determined at every stage to undercut the familiar set pieces and find other means of bringing out ...well, whatever it is he is attempting to bring out. The failure of Narraboth to kill himself is neither here nor there, the Tetrarch slipping in blood only figuratively as a joke for the uproar that has developed at his party should dissipate the dark Symbolist imagery, but the tension somehow still remains. Salome's reaction and outburst at Jokanaan's rejection of her advances that plays out alongside this and the theological dispute of the Jews is however very strange. Delving through her old suitcase that her outraged mother - an excellent Violeta Urmana - throws at her feet, she dresses up with white face paint as a kind of a mime artist or Pierrot figure and sinks into shocked silence.

Similarly, Tcherniakov refuses to rely on the familiar explicit eroticism of the Dance of the Seven Veils, but tries to move past that and find another way of bringing out the uncomfortable nature of the relationship between Herod and Salome. Rather than strip off layers of clothing, Salome is almost naked already as Herod lasciviously dresses the drained, disconnected, semi-comatose Salome in a bizarre clown-like outfit. The whole scene remains static as the dance winds up to an anti-climatic conclusion. Salome remains impassive up until the moment that Herod refuses her wish, when she smashes a glass and threatens to take it to her throat. Kyle Ketelsen's Jokanaan it has to be said, also remains impassive, observing dispassionately as she calls for his head.

She may not be permitted to express anything to feed the lascivious illicit desires of Herod during her dance, but elsewhere the singing role is more than expressive enough to bring out everything that needs to be said/unsaid, and Asmik Grigorian is expressive enough in her singing and acting performance at the call for execution and the aftermath for this to remain as charged as it can possibly be. I'm not sure anyone can fully explore the madness of Salome's obsession and her corruption, but it's there in the libretto and the writing for the voice waiting to be brought to life in performance. Grigorian is lyrical and forceful in her delivery, not particularly loud or strong to carry over the massed forces of the orchestra, but it's an impressive and compelling performance nonetheless that really brings out the complexity of this character, her nature, her emotions and reactions.

Tcherniakov and Grigorian take this as far as it can go, although with this director you always have to wonder if he doesn't take it so far into absurdity that he sometimes undoes the good that has been established. There is no moon, no blood, no headless corpse, so you have to look elsewhere to find out what drives these characters. What is it that Salome wants that Jokanaan’s existence denies her? Respect? Attention? Love? Death? Self worth? Whatever you think it is, whether Jokanaan lives or dies, it's beyond a spoiled, over-indulged rich girl to understand or obtain. The seed of a sick brood, she is only capable of wreaking destruction. Much as you miss Wilde's haunting imagery, Grigorian's performance is enough to ensure that the power of this extraordinary work - still one of the finest in the whole opera repertoire - still comes through in the Hamburg production.

External links: Staatsoper Hamburg, ARTE Concert