Monday, 22 December 2014

Verdi - La Traviata (Weiner Staatsoper, 2014 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Weiner Staatsoper, 2014

Myung-Whun Chung, Jean-François Sivadier, Ermonela Jaho, Saimir Pirgu, Vitalij Bilyy, Ilseyar Khayrullova, Donna Ellen, Carlos Osuna, David Pershall, Hans Peter Kammerer, Dan Paul Dumitrescu

Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming - 16 December 2014

There are many considerations that determine the quality of a production of an opera, and the most successful are usually those where all the elements come together well and support each other. La Traviata is no different, but with a work of this stature and of such widespread popularity and familiarity, some elements are more important than others. Whether it's done period traditional or modern abstract doesn't matter as long as the production delivers the very specific requirements of the tragi-romantic nature of the work and Verdi's venomous critique of society. La Traviata however also needs a very strong singer with personality, charisma and the ability to deliver on all points of an intense, dramatic and challenging lead role.

In terms of the staging of the work and the casting of it, the Vienna State Opera production is strong and consistent, but it also recognises the importance of light and shade, the dynamic and the use of contrast that highlights the considerable qualities of La Traviata. That's evident in Myung-Whun Chung's conducting of the orchestra and management of the singers, but it's most notably brought out in the contrast between the two central figures in the work, Violetta and Alfredo. Ermonela Jaho and Saimir Pirgu complement each other well, and it's the character of their on-stage relationship in this revival of the production that determines the overall tone of the work much more so than any other factor.

For her part, Ermonela Jaho brings a surprising theatricality to Act I's Violetta, but it soon becomes clear that this is part of the concept and the characterisation that is part of the dynamic of the whole. If she swaggers around her party like Carmen in Act I, it's because it is an act on the part of Violetta. Moments before, during the overture, we've seen her sitting silently and resignedly with Annina, pulling herself together to get though the evening social functions and conventions (complete with Brindisi) that are expected of her as a host. Something however takes her by surprise this evening and knocks the carefully composed assurance out of her - Alfredo. Her guard drops and Jaho likewise takes us superbly through those swoops of fears and emotions, with light high notes and swooping plunges in her 'Ah fors' è lui'.



Saimir Pirgu's Alfredo is, as you would ideally like him to be at this stage of the work, not the thundering confident tenor that you are accustomed to in a less well-characterised production, but a bit of a soft, love-sick puppy. Pirgu sings his Brindisi like he was indeed performing to a handful of guests, not to a huge auditorium. He doesn't want to disturb others outside or wake anyone up, not that there's any danger of the audience falling asleep in this production. His Alfredo gains more confidence through the love of Violetta in Act II. There's clearly more of a man here - a man in love perhaps for the first time. That of course later turns to steely anger with a drunken swagger at the end of Act II, but throughout, Pirgu's voice still exhibits the underlying delicacy of the emotions Alfredo is experiencing.

The course of emotions that characterise this as one of Verdi's most brilliant and accomplished works is similarly held in perfect balance and contrast throughout, while the production supports those highs and lows. It's hard to determine exactly what the staging for Jean-François Sivadier's direction is meant to represent, but there's no question it fully matches Verdi's intentions and brings considerable colour to the characters. It's not period, more modern, but without introducing anything more jarring to the familiar viewing of the work than a pistol. For me, the staging had something of the feel of a theatrical rehearsal with chairs and a couple of banner-size screens scattered around. Instead of servants, Violetta and Flora have what look more like stage-hands, who help guide the 'actors' through their roles.

The playing of roles is something that is very much a part of La Traviata, and in that respect, Sivadier's direction retains the vital social context of the work. With Alfredo, Violetta sees a chance to break away from the empty life she has led as a courtesan in high society and live a more free life, but obviously society won't let her. Judging by Verdi's own life and his scoring for this work, that's where the force of the work lies, and that accordingly and absolutely correctly is where this production places its strength and its forces. The money shot, so to speak, is in Alfredo's public denunciation of Violetta at Flora's party in Act II, Scene II. It's always a telling moment in any production of La Traviata, and here, despite the anger and violence shown, Alfredo attempts to claw Violetta back, pawing over her prone figure more in pained desperation than anger.



Such moments reveal the consideration of the direction for characterisation and the strength of the individual performances. And in La Traviata, it all comes back to Violetta, and in this case to Ermonela Jaho. The production mirrors her experience, the theatricality dropping, the backgrounds stripped away, leaving a bare wall and a bare stage, with even the scrawled graffiti on the wall erased. Violetta is divested of her outer garments by her maid Annina as Act II slips over into Act III. Everything is gone, only the approach of death remains. Jaho's performance is exemplary throughout, but also personal and distinctive, working with the production, never to some ideal of Violetta. She does the joy and the heartbreak equally well, and as you would expect after all that, the death scene (all of Act III basically) is just gripping, the audience totally there with Violetta, which is a tough place to be.

Conductor Myung-Whun Chung plays to the respective strengths of Verdi's score, the production and the singers. The tempo is slightly slower than usual in Act I, allowing the beauty to be drawn out of every note, and it by the same token 'Ah dite alla giovine' becomes almost a funeral march as Violetta's hopes are crushed by Giorgio Germont (Vitalij Bilyy fine but not particularly distinctive, and unable to make much of an impression alongside Jaho's reactions to his demands). At times, you can see that the conductor is taking his cue from Jaho, allowing her to determine the pace she delivers her 'Ah fors' è lui'. Elsewhere, he holds back on the sweeping string arrangements and allows other individual instruments to carry the emotional weight very effectively with a delicacy of touch. Whether this was the same in the house and a question of mixing for the webcast, I couldn't say for sure though.

There were no big gestures then from the conductor, the orchestra, the singers or the production design aspects, and no attempt to impose any reinterpretation on the work. The Wiener Staatsoper's production was rather a concerted effort to capture the essence of what La Traviata is about, without all the mannerisms but with a few telling touches in all the right places that work with Verdi's music and its intentions. When all that is in place, you can see why La Traviata remains one of the best and most popular works of opera ever composed.

This performance was streamed for live broadcast only. There is however another chance to see the same production from the Wiener Staatsoper on 21 March 2015, but with a different cast. Dan Ettinger conducting, Marina Rebeka plays Violetta, with Stephen Costello as Alfredo and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Giorgio. Details of how to sign up for Vienna Live at Home broadcasts can be found in the links below. There's an impressive line-up to be viewed over the next month, with DIE FLEDERMAUS on 31st Dec, DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE on 4th Jan, David McVicar's production of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE on 18th Jan and SALOME on 23rd Jan.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video

Friday, 19 December 2014

Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Met 2014 - HD-Live)


Richard Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Metropolitan Opera, 2014

James Levine, Otto Schenk, Annette Dasch, Karen Cargill, Johan Botha, Paul Appleby, Michael Volle, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Martin Gantner, Hans-Peter König, Matthew Rose

Met Live in HD - 13 December 2014

There's been quite a contrast between how New York's Metropolitan Opera present a mixture of modern and classic traditional Wagner productions. On the one hand you have the abstract otherworldly modernisations of Parsifal and the high-tech concepts of their Ring cycle, and on the other you have literal realism of the Otto Schenk's twenty year old production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. It demonstrates how opera tastes and approaches to production design and direction have changed over the years, but what hasn't changed (in my view anyway), and specifically in relation to Wagner's operas, is that they each in their own way seek to represent the essence of Wagner's music on the stage, as well as the literal narrative depiction of the drama.

Although the approach is quite different then, and the subjects evidently are as far apart as you can get on the Wagner scale, the Otto Schenk's production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and the Robert Lepage's Ring cycle for the Met both adopt the necessary approaches that they find best convey the qualities of the work. And, inevitably, both in their own way are doomed to fail to cover the totality of what is in each of those respective works, but that's the challenge you face when taking on works of such enormous richness and complexity. It's precisely because there is so much to be gained from those works that Wagner's music-dramas continue to inspire new ideas and radically different approaches and interpretations.


Despite the differences in the content and length, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is indeed a work that is just as rich and expansive in its outlook as the combined works of the Ring cycle. One specific common aspect of the Met's Ring and their Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg that serves as the backbone for each of the productions, is the necessary impression of solidity and firmness of purpose. That of course ought to be there, as it reflects the muscular complexity of the music score, which in turn serves to reflect the enduring universality of the subject - whether that be the nature of the gods in one or the nature of being human in the other. The Met's Machine gives a firm and consistent foundation to explore the Ring, while the detailed wood and stone structures for the set for Schenk's production give a little more of a human presence, one that is perhaps no less enduring, but also subject to change. The period setting for Meistersinger and the universality of the situations within it reminds us of that fact.

Aside from the strictly literal depiction of Nuremburg in the 16th century and the impressive visual impact of seeing whole streets, houses and workshops recreated in meticulously realistic detail and scale, the sets for Schenk's production fulfil another vital aspect of the work - the question of community. Whether you want to see the humanity within the work as Christian in nature - the opera even opening with a mass scene - other elements suggest that it's the community aspect that is what really matters. That's retained in the context of the period here, in the Christian worship and in the religious subjects that are the basis for the Meistersinger's songs. This of course is challenged by the youthful irreverence of Von Stolzing, but he is cautioned and coached by Hans Sachs not just in the rules of being a Meistersinger, but also how to respect the traditions and the values that underpin them. The community and the rules that govern it might seem restrictive, but - as the inclusion of the watchman suggests - it provides order and protection from, well... let's just for the purposes of this review politely call them "outside threats" to our way of life.


The Met's sets hold all this together, as well as being simply perfect for the functional demands of how the stage is used and filled by the huge choruses. Everything that occurs in Die Meistersinger is designed towards bringing about a showpiece conclusion that has real impact and meaning, and everything should lead towards this. The community and the values they hold are all there in the church setting of Act I, in the craft of the Meistersinger's trades, in the whole street scenes of Act II, in the setting of St John's Eve and the twilight evening, and in the honest labour of Hans Sachs' workshop where von Stolzing learns the value of the song. Act III's conclusion then is everything it ought to be, gathering together the youth and experience, the wisdom and folly, the generosity and the mean-spiritedness of the preceding acts into one glorious celebration of life.

If it's difficult to put all that humanity into the production design (even as it remains one of those challenges that will always attract ambitious directors like Stefan Herheim), the direction of the orchestra and the singing performances are there to bring in that very necessary dimension, and the Met's production consequently does that tremendously well. Principally, it's Levine's conducting of the work that brings all the human colour and nuance out of the score and it's representation of so many facets of the human condition that are there in Die Meistersinger. It is a glorious work, expressing a warmth, a humour and a human sensitivity that does not exist in quite the same way in any other Wagner opera. And although it exalts the qualities and capabilities that love brings to human existence, Wagner also recognises - intentionally I believe - the flaws, the meanness, pettiness and the vainglorious side of human nature that is there in Hans Sachs and Walther von Stolzing as much as in Sixtus Beckmesser. Maybe I'm being overly generous in that view.

Levine's conducting brings all those elements out, but not in isolation. He's clearly working with what is depicted on the stage and is sensitive also to the nature and characteristics of the individual singers. You would expect nothing less from James Levine, but in the context of this particular work, it's more important than ever, and the rewards it yields are even greater. The measure and the pacing through Acts I and II are delightful, revealing the beautiful flow of this work through to its epic conclusion, but with wonderful attention to detail in individual instruments - the individual or the artist's contribution in the harmony of the whole being part of what this work is about. Levine's conducting makes this aspect beautifully meaningful and relevant.


The singing is not quite as nuanced as Levine's contribution - I suspect a lack of direction in this revival - but all of the performances supported the work as a whole. There was perhaps not as much warmth and humanity in Michael Volle's Hans Sachs as you might like, and you didn't really get the sense of what he and Eva meant to each other, but he was drafted in at short notice and his singing was nonetheless marvellous. There's brightness and life in the timbre of his voice, his line was assured, and he has all the ability and charisma required to carry such a role. Johan Botha was perhaps not as strong in the role of Walther von Stolzing as he might have been in the past or in other Wagner roles, but if there is any decline in performance it's minor. Annette Dasch might have had one or two moments of unsteadiness but was a good Eva, although again failing to exude any warmth or character. This production's Beckmesser was more of an amiable blustering buffoon, posing no real threat to the "natural order", but whatever way it's played, Johannes Martin Kränzle experience of this role injects it with the good-natured humour and humanity that is lacking elsewhere.

Led by Levine, it was the underlying humanity that shone out of this production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and that's what marks it as one of the greatest operas ever written. It's remarkable that it takes six hours to perform this work, but there's nothing you would have taken out or reduced, nothing that seems too much or unnecessary. The impression you should be left with rather is that everything feels absolutely right. The genius of Wagner's Die Meistersinger is that it leaves you with a sense of wonder and satisfaction that there may indeed be purpose, order and meaning to life that is within our grasp. In Die Meistersinger, art is the force that elevates humanity, demonstrates man's capacity to express and endure their condition and achieve their potential. It's a philosophy that lies at the heart of all Wagner's work, and it's recognised and brought out marvellously in this New York Met production.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Mozart - Mitridate, Re di Ponto (Armel Opera Festival, 2014 - Webcast)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Mitridate, Re di Ponto

Tbilisi State Opera and Ballet, 2014

Davit Kintsurashvili, David Sakvarelidze, Boram Lee, Sébastien Obrecht, Irina Taboridze, Tatia Jibladze, Salome Jicia, Irakli Murjikneli, Nino Chachua

Armel Opera Festival, ARTE Concert - 16 October 2014

Despite their relative conventionality and their adherence to the rigid structures and longeurs of the opera seria, there is still much to admire in Mozart's early operas. Midridate, Re di Ponto, composed in 1770 when Wolfgang was only 14 years old, shows much of the composer's ability to develop a strong and beautiful melodic line and a remarkable facility for a musical setting that accentuates and enhances the sentiments of the libretto.

The libretto for Midridate, Re di Ponto isn't so different from so many Baroque opera seria plots, a typically complex mixture of political intrigue and mismatched couples in unrequited love situations. As is also common, this state of affairs has been foolishly instigated by a king or a ruler with the best of intentions, but having misread the signals and advice given to him, it results in feelings of despair, betrayal and revenge. The raw materials don't matter as much however as the ability and skill of the composer in question to set it to music. Even at this early age, within the restrictions of the opera seria format and with such conventional material, the young Mozart's ability to make it come to life can't be faulted.

It's not exactly inspired, but there's a wonderful sense of order and construction to Mozart's music that just gives it an uncommon balance and coherence. The music itself is mostly straightforward, but blessed with Mozart's gift of melody that you'll also find in his elegant and graceful early symphonies. What's different about the compositions here of course is that Mozart is also writing for the voice. Even in the early Mozart operas we can already see prototypes of characters that he would explore later with considerably more depth and humanity. If the characters don't quite come to life in the same way in Midridate, Re di Ponto, they are nonetheless beautifully coloured by the testing range and coloratura that Mozart writes for them.


This makes Midridate, Re di Ponto a good opera for singers and a good testing ground for a competition entrant in the Armel Opera Festival. Being an opera seria, the emphasis is on the voice and individual expression more than in any kind of collaborative dramatic performance. The drama and interaction is all played out in recitative, with the arias and da capo giving expression to individual responses to the tumultuous events. That doesn't mean that there isn't a dramatic quality to the singing, or genuine collaboration between the singers, and you realise that when you hear a Mozart setting of just such a work. They each have a distinct personality, they each reflect various sides and responses to the drama, and bring it together into a satisfying whole.

The quality of Mozart's writing for the voice only comes out however when you have the right kind of voices in the roles. That's a challenge in itself when Midridate has roles written for two soprano castratos and an alto soprano. With female sopranos and a mezzo-soprano playing those as trouser roles, and light, sweet voices in the tenor and soprano roles, you can however match the qualities that Mozart puts into the music, and those qualities enhance the nature of the characters considerably. That's achieved here particularly well by the Tbilisi State Opera company with Sébastien Obrecht as Midridate and Irina Taboridze as Sifare, but it also provides the best possible environment for the lovely voice of Boram Lee to sing the challenging role of Aspasia. As the woman who comes between the king and his two sons, Sifare and Farnace, all of whom are in love with the same woman, it's a critical role to get right.

It's particularly critical that the right voices are behind these characters and able to express the turmoil it gives rise to because otherwise it would be hard to summon up much interest for the standard developments of the opera's plot. The singing here however supports and gives good expression to the qualities that are there within Mozart's wonderful music. It also helps that the score is conducted by Davit Kintsurashvili with attention to the rhythm of the action and played with a delightful brightness, verve and a completely authentic Mozartian buoyancy by the orchestra. Performed like this, the work can be enjoyed on a purely auditory level, or even on a dramatic-auditory level as it satisfyingly hits all the required points and sentiments.

With this kind of interpretation also, you can quite happily put up with the initial confusion and the latter couldn't-care-less-anyway manner of how the plot of Mitridate, Re di Ponto runs through its standard routines. In terms of the staging, there's not much you can do with the rigidity of the opera seria format either, but director David Sakvarelidze keeps the drama moving along with surprising fluidity. The set comes up with nothing more than the familiar generic ruins of antiquity, but good lighting and stage direction prevent the performance from ever feeling repetitive, static or overlong. Cutting the work down to around two hours might also have helped also in this respect. It might be no masterpiece, but this was an utterly delightful account of an underrated and under-performed (aren't they all?) early Mozart.

Links: ARTE ConcertArmel Opera Festival

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Glass - Spuren der Verirrten - The Lost (Linz, 2013 - DVD)

Philip Glass - Spuren der Verirrten - The Lost

Landestheater Linz, 2013

Dennis Russell Davis, David Pountney, Bram de Beul, Sophy Ribrault, Jacques le Roux, Karen Robertson, Gotho Griesmeier, Martin Achrainer, Martha Hirshcmann, Matthaus Schmidlechner, Dominik Nekel, Elisabeth Bruer

Orange Mountain Music - DVD

The commission of a new opera by Philip Glass to open the new Landestheater at Linz in 2013 was a bold statement of intent. There would certainly have been a lot of expectation placed in the production and undoubtedly many different views about how to best achieve those aims (the Making of feature on this DVD recording of the World Premiere gives just a small indication of the challenges faced in the nerve-racking final days up to the premiere). It's doubtful however that the sprawling and largely incomprehensible Spuren der Verirrten would have been what anyone had in mind, but it has to be said that the work fulfils its remit perfectly and often impressively.

As you're dealing with a Peter Handke script as the origin for the libretto of Spuren der Verirrten (literally 'Footprints of the Lost'), I guess the question 'what is it about?' doesn't really apply. Or perhaps you don't need to look far beyond the title itself to grasp the essential theme of the work. It is indeed about the lost, and the opera takes a kaleidoscopic and somewhat abstract view of where we are as a society today, a lost society that has indeed just blindly followed in the footsteps of those lost before us. Act I broadly deals with a view of the here and now in an Austrian context (weather, borders and war are recurring motifs), with traditional dress worn and even a zither and Alpine horns played on-stage and included in the musical score. Act II draws in 'lost' figures from the Bible and mythology (Moses, Salome, Medea, Oedipus), while Act III attempts to resolve or at least come to an accommodation with the nature of being lost and just getting on with it.



On a more abstract or meta-conceptual level - and one that takes into account the creation of the opera itself as a commission to open a new theatre - you could also consider the theme of the Lost to be reflected in a group of abstract characters (they're only named A, B, C, D etc.) in search of a narrative. "We remain you and me, and me and you" says one lover to another in one of the sections and that is essentially it. That much we can say, but what else is true in the larger picture of where we fit into the world? Lost characters in search of a narrative does indeed reflect the question of art to find a broader sense of underlying meaning and context. "Who today is even worthy of a fate?" questions another character, "Time has become hollow and it has become impossible to play on the world stage" says another. By the end of the opera - one instigated by 'a member of the audience' taking to the stage - the chorus are in the orchestra pit and the orchestra are on the stage. Everyone is lost and we don't know what's going on, but look, isn't it still wonderful?, Spuren Der Verirrten seems to say.

Well yes actually, it is. While this kind of narrative can prove puzzling to an audience, it's perfect for the abstraction of music, and perfect for how Philip Glass traditionally approaches such material. Spuren der Verirrten is really no more abstract a piece than Einstein on the Beach, Glass unconstrained by narrative demands and writing music purely for the beauty of the theatrical experience alone. As such he's at his most lyrical, rhythmic and melodic here. It's almost like a 'Best of Philip Glass', with the flow of Einstein, the choral surges of Satyagraha, the swirling musical melodies of his Dance pieces and the pulsing narrative drive of Powaqqatsi (more so than Koyaanisqatsi). There's also something of The Voyage in the approach to a similar concept, and even some of the film soundtrack Glass of 'The Hours'. It's certainly a much more musically rich piece than the recent The Perfect American, but by the same token, it's not exactly anything new from this composer either.



The reason for the richness of melody and tempo is clearly a response to the variety of Spuren der Verirrten as a theatrical piece that incorporates a variety of short scenes, with occasional solo singing by characters who weave through the work, but more often as couples, and more often still in pure choral arrangements. It's dance however that is the dominant driving force of the work, both dramatically and musically. Connecting all these modes of expression and applying a narrative is partly down to the individual in the audience, but it's also a challenge for the director David Pountney to give a visual representation to abstract fragments of text, keep it flowing and make it all fit under one roof. The artistic, logistical and technical challenges are evident (and alluded to in the Making of feature on the DVD), but even though it inevitably looks a little cluttered in places, it does all come together remarkably well.

So, what's the point of it all?, you still might well ask. Well, getting back to the basics, the point is to put on a work at the Landestheater Linz that stands as a statement of intent, a commitment to the artform that puts everyone (not least the new theatre) through its paces and tests them to their limits. There is however a message of sorts at the conclusion of The Lost. "Being lost brings out the best in a person" and "leads to a fundamentally new beginning ...so they say". It's not an entirely convincing message, but in the context of the subject, it knows that there's no room for certainty. Philip Glass gives this expression the perfect accompaniment and provides Linz with a suitably grand, epic and ambitious work to open their new theatre.  It might not be great, but it's an impressive achievement nonetheless.



There is no High Definition Blu-ray release of Spuren Der Verirrten, but the dual-layer DVD is a perfectly good recording of the world premiere performance on 12th April 2013. The image quality is good, widescreen enhanced, and the audio track is Dolby Digital 5.0. The sound isn't studio quality perfect, and there is a fair amount of on-stage noise, but the recording, mixing and overall tone of the orchestral performance is fairly good.  The 'Making of' feature runs to 40 mins, with bilingual English and German subtitles. Subtitles are in English and German only.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Lens - Shell Shock (La Monnaie, 2014 - Webcast)


Nicholas Lens - Shell Shock

La Monnaie - De Munt, 2014

Koen Kessels, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Claron McFadden, Sara Fulgoni, Gerald Thompson, Ed Lyon, Mark S. Doss, Gabriel Kuti, Eastman, Aimilios Arapoglou, Damien Jalet, Jason Kittelberger, Kazutomi Kozuki, Elias Lazaridis, Johnny Lloyd, Nemo Oeghoede, Shintaro Oue, Guro Nagelhus Schia, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Theo Lally, Gabriel Crozier

La Monnaie Web streaming - November 2014

La Monnaie in Brussels are in my view just about the most consistently impressive opera company in Europe at the moment and at the forefront of presenting opera as a cutting edge artform. Part of the reason for their success is their willingness to involve theatre directors and artists from outside the opera world, who often bring a new and refreshing perspective on the meaning and presentation of very familiar works, but the musical interpretation and the quality of the performers engaged is of a very high standard too. Their commitment to ensuring that opera remains a vital musical and dramatic force is also evident in their commissioning of exciting new creations every season. This year Shell Shock proved to be one of the most impressive new works I've seen for a very long time.

Characteristically, the strength of the work and the key to its success is in how La Monnaie have assembled a strong and imaginative creative team from a variety of disciplines.  As some of these collaborators have little or no previous experience of opera, they often have few preconceptions about what opera ought to be. For this work, commissioned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War, the Belgian composer Nicholas Lens (born in Ypres where the memory of the war remains fresh) was been paired with the Australian singer/songwriter and author Nick Cave, while the direction and staging of the work was placed in the hands of Belgian-Moroccan dance choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. The result is Shell Shock: A Requiem of War, A Dance Oratorio in Twelve Canti.



Evidently then, Shell Shock is not an opera in the traditional sense. It's part choral oratorio, it's part requiem mass, it's a ballet, it's a song cycle, but opera is a good enough description in how it encompasses and blends together these various musical and dramatic art disciplines. Made up of twelve separate cantos that describe the experience of the war from a variety of viewpoints (Canto of the Colonial Soldier, Canto of the Nurse, Canto of the Deserters, Canto of the Orphans etc.), there is however a strong thematic and even a narrative line that runs through the work, connecting the experiences. Even though there is little narrative dialogue within the canto format, the experiences being typically that of a single person or a group of people in a choral piece, there is nonetheless a vital dialogue established with the other elements. Not only is there a strong connection between the words and the music - as you would expect at the very least - but they form an meaningful dialogue and interact very much with the performers and dancers on the set, and with the various other theatrical stage devices, including the unconventional use of props, and projections.

This is an true operatic collaboration then in every sense of the word, where equal weight is given to each of the disciplines and they are informed, heightened and enhanced by their interaction with one another. Musically, Nicholas Lens draws on a variety of styles to match the content, some of it sounding like Vaughan-Williams in less pastoral more wartime music and, inevitably, closer to Britten's War Requiem. There is also a John Adams-like modern rhythmic quality in how the music is attuned to the sung English text, but without the minimalistic repetition. If it's difficult to pin down, the music nonetheless has a consistency and dramatic quality that works perfectly with the tone established by Nick Cave's texts. Unpretentiously called lyrics, they are indeed songs, Cave working to his strengths as a storyteller, expressing all the anger, exasperation, fear and horror of the conditions experienced by the soldiers, the nurses and the families of those caught up in nightmarish situations.



The connection between the words and the music is a strong combination that makes Shell Shock viable and deeply affecting as a concert piece in its own right, but Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's choreographed dances, movements and tableaux-like settings for the scenes really take the work to another level. The dances and movements manage to be strikingly beautiful without for a second glorifying the slaughter, without fitting the horror and confusion of the circumstances into any false sense of dramatic action, and without idealising the senselessness of the sacrifice. "War is reprehensible, not the man", is a line from the lengthy Canto of the Deserters section, but the theme is expanded on elsewhere, with lyrical and musical motifs referring to an Angel of Death and Kratos the God of War drawing together common experiences into a larger narrative.

Cherkaoui's dances, with Eastman leading the troupe, are also strikingly illustrative of these themes. It's a ballet of war where soldiers twitch with shell shock or contort as their bodies are disjointed, mutilated and torn apart by bullet fire and crawl over sandbags to form their own pile of corpse sandbags. The use of common objects found on the battlefield is employed imaginatively elsewhere, guns, bayonets and even stretchers flowing with the dancers into configurations that illustrate the stories and give expression beyond the literal. Bed sheets, for example, are used to capture charging soldiers, their faces and hands pressed against the canvas screen in a silent scream at the point of death. In combination with the music and the lyrics, it manages to be visually striking, expressive and horrific scene at the same time. Eugenio Szwarcer's projections and the stage lighting also come together with all the other elements to create further tableaux vivantes, or tableaux mortes if you can put it that way.

The singers are assigned various roles according to the Colonial Soldiers, Deserters, Survivors and Fallen of the Canti, some of them recurring throughout the opera as a whole. Essentially however, they are unnamed in the respect that each of them can fulfill multiple common designations within this war, and are identified only according to their singing role. The casting of a soprano (Claron McFadden), a mezzo-soprano (Sara Fulgoni), a countertenor (Gerald Thompson), a tenor (Ed Lyon) and a bass (Mark S. Doss) is clearly meant to be representative of the whole range of experiences covered here, but the choice of singers for those roles is also just about perfect. That's no coincidence either, several of these singers having worked with Lens before (Claron McFadden notably on Love Is The Only Master I'll Serve), but it's just another example of how La Monnaie strive for perfection on every level while stretching the capabilities of everyone to their limits. The results of this approach are evident to anyone viewing this remarkable work.

Links: La Monnaie, ARTE Concert

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Mussorgsky - Khovanshchina (Wiener Staatsoper, 2014 - Webcast)

Modest Mussorgsky - Khovanshchina

Wiener Staatsoper, 2014

Semyon Bychkov, Lev Dodin, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Christopher Ventris, Herbert Lippert, Andrzej Dobber, Ain Anger, Elena Maximova, Norbert Ernst

Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming - 21 November 2014

It's not exactly an original observation, but there is some validity in the view that Russia is the main character in Mussorgsky's great unfinished opera Khovanshchina. Mussorgsky himself described the work as a "national music drama" and the scope is indeed wide in the nature of the individuals that take part in the drama and in the institutions they represent. The work moreover has as much to say about the character of Mussorgsky's time as it does about historical events in the late 17th century. Whether it has something to say about the character of Russia today is for others to propose, but as far as director Lev Dodin is concerned, the primary purpose of the Vienna State Opera's production seems to be focus on putting Mussorgsky's Russia up on the stage by highlighting the intricacies of the dramatic action, and that in itself is challenge enough.

Set around in the 1680s, the divisions within the ruling forces in Russian society detailed in Khovanshchina are characterised according to three major factions - the Military, the Church and the State - but even within these factions there are divisions and subtle differences. The military are represented by Prince Ivan Khovansky and the Strelsty militia that he commands. They uphold the Old Russia tradition, but their actions have become disreputable and their behaviour is more recognisably characterised by their drinking and brawling. Another side of the conservative Russian tradition is maintained by the Old Believers who are opposed to Orthodox Church reforms and have broken from the state. The young Tsars Peter and Ivan don't actually appear in Khovanshchina, but the authority of the State can be seen in the Petrovtsy guard, while the conflict within it - the Tsarina Sophia similarly unable to be represented on stage - is there in the figure of the progressive liberal views and the inclusive foreign influence supported by Golitsyn.


That alone represents a complex cross-section of the factions struggling to uphold their own image of Russia, but even within this there are two sides to each of the characters. Mussorgsky's work also gives the common people a voice, mostly in the chorus, a chorus moreover that also variously incorporates the Strelsty, the Petrovtsy and the Old Believers. In addition to broad sweeps and the various nuances within this all-encompassing view of Russia, there is one other significant character in the work that gives the work an even wider perspective and that's Marfa. An Old Believer closely connected with its charismatic leader Dosifei, Marfa's personal situation, her difficulties with the unfaithful lover Andrei Khovansky, her run-in with Golitsyn who orders her put to death, her ultimate fate to die by self-immolation with the Believers after the decree of the Tsar, place her at the heart of the drama and give it a mystical and spiritual dimension.

There's a lot to cover then in Khovanshchina then, and Mussorgsky himself never completely got to grips with it, affected no doubt by the conflicts within his own personality and his struggle with alcoholism, leaving the work unfinished and unorchestrated at the time of his death. The huge ambition of the work and the sketches made for it by Mussorgsky have drawn a number of significant Russian composers to attempt to finish it, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovitch and Stravinsky. The intentions for the exact colour of the work may be impossible to determine - particularly as the finale was left incomplete - but it's clear where the focus of the work lies, that the emphasis should be in the strength of its characterisation, and the success of the work lies in how well it manages to bring those varied elements together into a coherent piece. That's no small challenge for either the conductor or the director, but the Vienna State Opera's production achieves an impressive balance that does indeed have that necessary strong Russian character.

As there's a lot of Russia to get up there within the relatively small confines of the Wiener Staatsoper stage, Lev Dodin's production adopts a vertical approach. Backgrounds indicate some of the interiors and exteriors of Red Square, Quarters of Moscow and the living quarters of several of the characters, but the main body of the foreground of the set consists of a large high framework of steel beams and crosses. Within this structure lifts and platforms raise and drop characters according to their hierarchy (the chorus and people most frequently at the bottom of it all) and variably according to their prominence and importance at different stages of the work. It has a solid and impressive appearance without imposing too much of an abstract or conceptual tone on the work, but most importantly, it serves to help make sense of all the manoeuvring and positioning without drawing too much attention to the device.


There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. It allows all the room necessary for the huge choruses and for the interaction between them and the leading characters, but it also tends to enforce a rather static delivery. Everyone ends up standing on platforms, or within small ditches (depending on their position in relation to one another), declaiming in those flowing Mussorgsky spoken rhythms out towards the audience. It's true however that there isn't a great deal of dramatic action in Khovanshchina, and this is part of the difficult nature of the work and the staging of it, but there are some big set-piece scenes that ought to nearly overwhelm in their impact, and this staging does provide the opportunity to showcase such moments.

The success of any production of Khovanshchina lies in the detail and the interpretation, and Dodin's direction doesn't neglect these important factors. It's vital that we are aware of the visible and the invisible forces at work and that we are aware of the good and the bad side of each of the characters. There's nobility and genuine belief in each of them that their actions are not purely self-motivated, but are driven by a firm belief that their way is for the good of the people and for Russia. It's impossible to separate these intentions however from the personal actions and weaknesses of individual motivations and impulses. One of the key scenes, given due importance here, is Shaklovity's Scene 3 aria, 'Ah how unhappy thy lot, O my native land, Russia! Who then may deliver and lift thee out of thy distress? ... O, let not Russia fall into the hands of ruthless foes!"

This is the same motivation that lies behind each of the characters, but each of them - including Shaklovity in his denunciation of the Khovanshchina, the Khovansky affair - are not beyond conspiring in the downfall of others whose views on how to achieve this aim differ from their own. Others have a sense of pride that gets in the way of them seeing the truth, or personal desires - such as Andrei for Emma, and Marfa for Andrei - that conflict with the sincerity of their endeavours. Dodin's direction brings this out and even hints at other such relationships that are not explicitly stated (the Old Believers Marfa and Dosefei are seen in a state of undress together at one point), and it all ties in extremely well with the bigger picture.

Just as important is the unseen presence of the Tsars, who ultimately wield the strong hand necessary at this point of an historical crossroads, but while there is clemency and reconciliation to find a middle way - the Streltsy spared at the last moment - it results inevitably in some brutal treatment of the extreme fringes. The punishment seems also to merit the "offence" with Golitsyn's progressive liberalism towards foreign influence seeing him banished and the Old Believers' firm religious convictions leading the on the path towards martyrdom.


The visible and the invisible, the spoken and the unspoken find perfect balance and expression in the combination of Lev Dodin's direction and Semyon Bychkov's musical direction of a score (using the Shostakovitch edition) that has numerous possibilities for interpretation. On stage, the smaller sense of detail in the characterisation was taken up by a strong cast, particularly in those vital roles, even though most of them are not Russian. Ferruccio Furlanetto sounded a little hoarse in one or two places, but was the embodiment of the declining Ivan Khovansky. The two other vital roles are Dosefei and Marfa and they were given some amount of personality by Ain Anger and a particularly impressive Elena Maximova. Christopher Ventris showed how important a contribution Andrei Khovansky can make to the work as a whole, as indeed do the other true instigators and activists in the drama, Golitsyn, Shaklovity and the Scribe, all very well played.

December live streaming broadcasts at the Wiener Staatsoper include Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA, Johann Strauss' DIE FLEDERMAUS and Verdi's LA TRAVIATA, but the highlight of the month is likely to be Richard Strauss' sumptuous ARABELLA, which has Ulf Schirmer conducting Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production with Anne Schwanewilms in the title role.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Birtwistle - Punch and Judy (Armel Opera Festival, 2014 - Webcast)

Harrison Birtwistle - Punch and Judy

Neue Oper Wien, 2014

Walter Kobéra, Leonard Prinsloo, Richard Rittelmann, Manuela Leonhartsberger, Till von Orlowsky, Jennifer Yoon, Lorin Wey, Johannes Schwendinger, Evamaria Mayer

Armel Opera Festival, ARTE Concert - 14 October 2014

With its Commedia dell' Arte origins and the violence of its content, the Punch and Judy English seaside puppet show was always a curious subject for a children's entertainment, but it's evident that the sinister nature of the show has inevitably had a marked impression on a generation of children. Much like the adult response now towards clowns, what once seemed like fun in a more innocent age now appears somewhat sinister and unsettling. Harrison Birtwistle's opera Punch and Judy takes advantage of all these connotations related to the origins and the nature of the work as well as what the appeal of it says about the English character.



The work caused a bit of a stir when it was premiered in 1968, with Benjamin Britten reportedly walking out of a performance of the work at Aldeburgh. Since Britten himself had a somewhat conflicted and critical view of the nature of the English society in his opera works, it's hard to imagine that he found the subject of Punch and Judy entirely unappealing, although it does admittedly push violence much further and take what appears to be a more extreme cartoonish view of character than anything in Britten's work. I would think that Britten's difficulty with Birtwistle's opera (if it's even true), may however lie in the unsettling nature of the music.

Even now at the age of 80, with several major celebrations this year to mark the occasion, Harrison Birtwistle has never been an accepted part of the musical establishment. His work can be difficult to listen to and challenging of conventions. Punch and Judy, amongst all the other reasons why the subject might be distasteful and vaguely disturbing, uses musical ideas, structures and dissonance in a way that is similar to, or perhaps even intentionally evokes resonances with Berg's treatments of the dark, violent subjects of Lulu and Wozzeck. With a fine libretto by Stephen Pruslin that perfectly suits Birtwistle's intent and structural methods, the work uses cyclical repetition and subtle subversion of musical and text motifs for impact.

The story of Punch and Judy is a familiar one, although over the years it has evolved its own pantomime conventions and characters. Punch, derived form the Commedia dell' Arte character Pulcinella, is a mean and violent trickster. The story itself has become a by-word for marital strife of a particularly violent nature. In Punch and Judy, Punch, disappointed with family life and attracted to the unattainable beauty of Pretty Polly, casually throws his baby in the fire, and when his wife discovers what he has done he brutally stabs her to death. Punch's efforts to win over Pretty Polly drive him to further crimes and murders of a doctor, a lawyer and his friend Choregos.



A grotesque parody of Commedia dell' Arte archetypes combined with some theatre of the absurd mannerisms; a satire of the English character as exemplified by life in seaside towns; Punch and Judy is a study of misery and malevolence that recognises some very disturbing as well as familiar character traits. Birtwistle's music and Pruslin's libretto don't so much expand on the character of Punch as take it out further into the world and consider it in the greater scheme of things. This Punch is geographically, astrologically, mathematically, musically, seasonally and colourfully located on his journey of destruction and mindless violence, and he wreaks havoc over the whole spectrum of human endeavour.

The only way the work can be any more sinister and disturbing is when it is staged, and the Neue Oper Wien production, performed at the Armel Opera Festival in Budapest, is truly the stuff of nightmares. "The bitterness of this moment is undeniably sweet/ The sweetness of this moment is undeniably bitter" is one of the recurrent phrases and motifs in the work, and that's the tone a staging of the work has to aim for. Leonard Prinsloo's direction for the Neue Oper Wien and Monika Biegler's set and costume design resembles something from Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton's worst nightmares.

That comparison suggests stylisation, but Punch and Judy should be aiming for archetypal rather than realism, and it has that here with an extra bite of grit and shadowy mystery. If you could imagine Burton or Gilliam directing Wozzeck, it might look something like this, but there are other operatic references worth considering in this field including Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges and even Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. Pretty Polly, the unattainable object of Punch's desires, would appear to be very much modelled on Olympia, the mechanical doll of Hoffmann's somewhat disturbing and illicit fascination. Pretty Polly even has the same high-end soprano range - even more exaggerated here - and it's sung marvellously by Jennifer Yoon in the production performed here at the Armel Opera Festival.

All of the roles however call for very specific voice ranges, and the casting elsewhere is impressive. There was an extraordinary power and beauty to mezzo-soprano Manuela Leonhartsberger's Judy/Fortune Teller, and Till von Orlowsky also impressed as Choregos. The principal role however, and the competition role for the festival was Hungarian Richard Rittelmann who handled the high baritone range of Punch very well. There's nothing easy about Birtwistle's writing for the voice and the role is also a physical one in a one-act opera that is almost two hours long, but like the rest of the cast, Rittlemann just threw himself into the madness of it all. That's the way to do it.

Links: ARTE ConcertArmel Opera Festival