Monday 26 February 2024

Bellini - Beatrice di Tenda (Paris, 2024)

Vincenzo Bellini - Beatrice di Tenda

Opéra National de Paris, 2024

Mark Wigglesworth, Peter Sellars, Tamara Wilson, Quinn Kelsey, Theresa Kronthaler, Pene Pati, Amitai Pati, Taesung Lee

Paris Opera Play - 15th February 2024

It surprises me that Beatrice di Tenda isn't a better known opera. Most of Bellini's works are revived on a semi-regular basis and his significance is hardly underestimated as an important figure in the development of Italian opera, but his works don't seem to get the attention they deserve and this one in particular is largely neglected. Why? Perhaps it's a little old fashioned for modern tastes, or perhaps the challenge of this opera is that it needs skilled singers in all the key soprano, tenor and baritone roles. It's telling the title role is defined by recordings made by the likes of Joan Sutherland, Mirella Freni and Edita Gruberova. If it's a case of needing it to be modernised a little or waiting for the right singers to come along, well, then the Paris Opera get it right with this 2024 production directed by Peter Sellars.

That's not all they get right. There's a lot more to successfully producing an opera like this and it really needs commitment, belief and passion on every level, but it also needs to be carefully pitched. Passion is at the core of the opera, but it is also surrounded in coldness and that is identified and brilliantly reflected in how the production design here contrasts with the delicacy of the playing of the exquisite melodies. It's not that the plot has a lot to offer other than romantic drama, as Italian opera thrives on that, but it's how those passions conflict with power that drive the musical drama. Bellini is masterful in his treatment of such material, no less than Verdi, Donizetti or the opera seria of Rossini, but for me the characteristic that sets Bellini apart is not just the passion, not just the sophistication of the writing, but a sense of refinement. That's fully in evidence in this lovely opera, and I think that's what the director Peter Sellars attempts to retain and reflect it in a modern light.

On the face of it the drama has little to distinguish it from many other Italian operas. Based on a historical figure, Beatrice, the Duchess of Milan, is now married to her second husband Filippo Visconti, a union that has given him great power and influence, but they now have very different ideas about how to use their position. Beatrice wishes to support social programmes, while Filippo wields his authority ruthlessly over the people. Beatrice is horrified at the impact that their marriage has inflicted on the people of the nation and considers ending the marriage, which is not easy for a woman to do. Filippo too is being advised to end the marriage, but in order to cling to the power he finds an excuse to have her reputation destroyed by accusing her of conducting an affair with the minstrel Orombello, and tortures the man into a confession.

There are a lot of familiar elements here that can be found in the historical operas of Donizetti, in Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereaux, but Bellini's opera here has a distinct character and it's the duty of director to bring that out. There is an edge to Beatrice di Tenda in a libretto doesn't hold back on the details of the violence inflicted on the people on Orombello or the cruelty of Filippo's regime, and Sellars strives to make that as hard-hitting as possible. The music might sound beautiful but it doesn't soften the darkness at the heart of the work. There is a nobility in confronting such horrors head on, never bowing, and that's what Bellini's music counters. Even Filippo in the end recognises where real power lies. Well, almost. The second concluding act of the opera consequently is extraordinary and enormously powerful. Evidently however, it's how the subject is sung by the performers is perhaps the most vital element contributing to that impact.

Bel canto is all about the singing. It's in the name and it needs to be done well or not done at all. Italian bel canto opera is not a repertoire that I have been following lately however, so few of these performers are familiar to me, but even so I can't remember hearing bel canto sung so well as it's done here. Singers and performers like this are not just there to show off the beauty of their voices, but also bring out the qualities of the music and the form, and in that respect, this is singing of the highest calibre. It's interesting too that it is American singers who shine in the main roles. Tamara Wilson's Beatrice is just phenomenal, her range impressive, her delivery and performance perfectly judged. Hawaiian born baritone Quinn Kelsey is a strong counterweight that makes Filippo a formidable opponent. No less impressive here are Theresa Kronthaler as Agnese and Pene Pati as Orombello. 

Act I consequently is impressive and immersive despite the conventionality of the plotting, while Act II is just off-the-scale brilliant, the increased intensity and emotional drama between the principal characters and their conflicting worldviews reaching almost fever pitch as they hold firmly to their beliefs and inner nature - for good and for ill. As it's Bellini, the chorus also play a large part in the swaying between these opposing positions. Like La Sonnambula, like La Straniera, they provide commentary and reaction, reflecting confusion and the horror of the people observing the troubles of high society - "Nothing escapes our eyes" -  but they have a participatory role here as well, influencing as well as being affected by what occurs. All of this not only underlines the intensity of the operatic drama, but it gives the plot considerably more weight beyond it being merely a historical royal intrigue.

Director Peter Sellars introduces a clean grand set designed by George Tsypin for La Bastille. All of the action and intrigue takes place in the palace gardens, within a low maze of hedges made of mesh steel and tall conical trees. It has a cool elegance. Costumes are modern, smart, elegant befitting the high society. Evidently there is no need to distance the drama by setting it in the original time period of 1418, but I'm not convinced that introducing laptops and mobile phones is really necessary either. When Filippo confronts Beatrice with evidence of what he sees as plotting to Beatrice's outrage as the violation of her personal secrets, he presents her with a laptop computer as evidence. Agnese can be seen later scrolling on her mobile phone doubtlessly checking how many likes she is getting on social media for her actions. It feels a little heavy-handed and doesn't really make any commentary that is worth making a point about. Window cleaners and hedge trimmers are also a distraction that add nothing to the production design.

Sellers, who incredibly has never directed an Italian opera, not even Verdi, does much more than update the production with modern technological devices. He also has some interesting things to say about the opera in an interview shown during the interval of the Paris Opera Play live broadcast of the opera. He makes a strong case for the effectiveness of the work to really touch on the horror of living under a dictatorship, about the fragility of human beings within such a regime and the possibility of them being broken. It's clearly all laid out in the libretto and in how Bellini scores it, making Beatrice di Tenda really quite revolutionary in terms of Italian opera up to that point in 1833, and unquestionably still relevant as a subject today.

Bellini's penultimate opera, I find this a much more interesting work than his more famous final opera I Puritani, but evidently a lot depends on how well individual productions are directed and sung. Sellars direction makes a strong case for the relevance in the work, Mark Wigglesworth conducts the Paris Opera orchestra with fervour, but it's the quality of the singing performances in this Paris Opera production that truly raise Beatrice di Tenda to a level of greatness.

External links: Opéra National de Paris, Paris Opera Play

Photos : © Franck Ferville/OnP

Sunday 4 February 2024

Eötvös - Valuska (Budapest, 2023)

Péter Eötvös - Valuska

Hungarian State Opera, 2023

Kálmán Szennai, Bence Varga, Zsolt Haja, Tünde Szalontay, Adrienn Miksch, Tünde Szabóki, Mária Farkasréti, András Hábetler, Krisztián Cser, István Horváth, Balázs Papp, Lőrinc Kósa, András Kiss, János Szerekován, Zoltán Bátki Fazekas, Attila Erdős

OperaVision - 17th December 2023

I haven't read the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai, but know of his work through the films of Béla Tarr, the Hungarian director who has adapted three of his works as Damnation (1988), Sátántangó (1995) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), all of them remarkable. The latter is based on the Krasznahorkai's 1989 work The Melancholy of Resistance. The film is a powerful piece of allegorical cinema, almost abstract and surreal, but at the same time finding a way to touch on the everyday experience of people in society in decline or indeed living in fear under a totalitarian regime.

As the preeminent Hungarian composer of the present day and now 80 year old veteran of contemporary music, it falls to Peter Eötvös to bring an opera adaptation of The Melancholy of Resistance to the stage as the opera, Valuska. Although he has composed 12 operas over the years, this is surprisingly his first in Hungarian. Anyone familiar with the composer will know that it is not likely to be a rich musical opera in the traditional style, but what it should be and what it is, like Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies, is a fresh perspective on an enigmatic work that brings a new perspective and insight into what this extraordinary work is all about. And, in the process, lift it out of any specific time period and make it a work that can be endlessly revisited and reconsidered.

Certainly the themes in the film adaptation and the opera are similar, both evidently connecting with the original work's themes. There are differences of approach of course, and whereas Werckmeister Harmonies centred on the perspective of the learning impaired János Valuska, Eötvös - despite the opera's title - at least initially foregrounds the experience of his mother Piroshka Pflaum, sung here by the always wonderful Adrienn Miksch. Catching a train, she is appalled by the behaviour of those around her, feeling threatened by the uncouth behaviour particularly of men, but women also appear to behave in strange ways. She keeps hearing about and reading leaflet and posters advertising a travelling circus that is exhibiting the largest whale in the world and also promises a guest appearance from "the Prince", a mysterious enigmatic figure, who clearly demands respect even if his powers are unknown.

Piroska's friend Tünde (Tünde Szabóki) has been appointed mayor of the town. One of her first actions is to engage circus as part of her campaign to win over the people, but she feels that her "Well-Groomed Garden, Tidy House" movement is in trouble and needs the help of a learned gentleman. That person is her husband the Professor but he cannot be convinced. Tünde will have to rely on Piroska’s son János to convince him, even though the young man is regarded as a half-wit in the town. Even his mother considers her son a degenerate, presumably for spending so much time drinking in the local pub.

He may be considered an idiot but János (Zsolt Haja) has a particular talent for astronomy and a seemingly unique awareness of the position of man within the cosmos. He often demonstrates the movements of heavenly bodies into the phenomenon of a solar eclipse on demand for the drunken revelers in the pub as his party piece. By the same token, János is entranced at the circus by the majesty of the whale, this magnificent creature from nature that perhaps represents God or the centre of the universe, while the other townsfolk are all in thrall to the mystery of the Prince, a circus freak who has taken on a dangerous cult of personality, his presence is rumoured to cause unrest wherever he appears.

In contrast to Béla Tarr's stark monochrome realism, the staging of Valuska by director Bence Varga emphasises a more comic-absurd perspective of the work, with grotesque cartoonish figures with extra padding added. Tarr's film version of the story famously runs to just 39 long entrancing shots, while Eötvös's opera condenses this down to just 12 scenes. The librettist Kinga Keszthelyi introduces a narrator to preserve significant lines from Krasznahorkai's text, but Tarr manages to do just as effectively without. What is common to both works is the emphasis on a world running down, disappearing into absurdity, triviality and imbalance or disregard for what is important. Who needs a Judgement Day, the Professor observes when the world is in terminal decline and order will break down eventually of its own accord? That day may not be far away.

The decline into disorder might be less grandly cinematic in Eötvös's opera, there might have more of an edge of absurd dark humour but Valuska nonetheless captures other qualities of what is clearly a significant work. You can see it as a meditation of our place in an entropic universe or a depiction of people living in fear in Hungarian society during the Communist years, watching everything fall into ruin, being afraid to walk the streets, expecting danger on every corner, waiting for the regime of power to crumble and the next totalitarian leader to take over. Or you take it at face value as the disturbed perspective of a lunatic or an innocent who sees the world around him differently from everyone else, valuing nature and the cosmos above fear and superstition, who becomes a danger for not fitting in.

As the title of the film adaptation suggested, the idea of order in harmonic principles and the question of conforming to those principles or breaking them down and establishing a new order can be seen as central to the themes of the work, and that is presumably of interest to Péter Eötvös in his musical composition. The music here feels more like theatrical music rather than grand opera using a medium chamber ensemble. Although Eötvös provides textures of a wide range of sounds, he rarely makes use of all the instruments at once. The music mostly consists of short phrases of mainly woodwind and percussion, but there are long sinuous lines and string accompaniment for monologues. When combined with the dark absurdity of a corrupt world and a victimised innocent among it, the textural qualities of Valuska combine to have a quality not unlike Berg's Wozzeck. Valuska however has its own disturbing logic and view of the world, the music an essential element that contributes to the sense of underlying menace. The vocal writing for the opera is wonderful and the singing performances at the world premiere here are magnificent.

External links: OperaVision, Hungarian State Opera

Photos: © Nagy Attila