Thursday, 20 October 2016

Mozart - Così fan tutte (Royal Opera House, 2016)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Così fan tutte

Royal Opera House, 2016

Semyon Bychkov, Jan Philipp Gloger, Corinne Winters, Angela Brower, Daniel Behle, Alessio Arduini, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Sabina Puértolas

Cinema Season Live - 17 October 2016

Così fan tutte has never quite been treated with the same love and affection that is given to Mozart's other two collaborations with Lorenzo da Ponte, Le Nozze di Figaro or Don Giovanni. Perhaps it's because Così fan tutte is more overtly a comedy, but there are comic elements in all three operas. Perhaps the same weight of insight into human feelings and behaviour just isn't there or just gets lost amidst the farce, but that depends very much on the choices made in direction. In recent years for example, Michael Haneke and Christophe Honoré - both filmmakers - have explored the very dark side of human behaviour in Così fan tutte to a largely successful degree.

Perhaps all Haneke and Honoré really did with Così fan tutte was find a way to connect the audience to an emotional reality within the opera that the comic side doesn't achieve quite so well, but that raises the question about whether or not this betrays the true intent of the work. Like Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni all sides of human behaviour are explored, and there are also dark and disturbing aspects that are there to be drawn upon in Così fan tutte. The answer would seen to lie in achieving a human balance between the comedy and the darkness and, if nothing else, this search to reveal the true worth of Mozart in Così fan tutte means that the work is always a fascinating challenge.

Jan Philipp Gloger's production for the Royal Opera House takes the challenge head-on by recognising that, perhaps even more than the other two Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations, art and artifice are at the heart of Così fan tutte and part of its very nature. Even if it's entirely in the spirit of the work, placing the emphasis on the artifice in the opera with an openly theatrical presentation is however a risky gamble as it tends to place even more distance between the situation and the truth behind it. The real test of whether the work can reveal its deeper human predicament lies more with the performers here, but despite truly great performances from an impressive young cast, the production does seem to work against them.

By using and emphasising theatrical devices as the basis for the production, Jan Philipp Gloger adheres to the comic principles that are at the heart of the work, and the means by which Mozart and Da Ponte make their case. The subtitle of Così fan tutte - A School for Lovers - tells you of this intent. The plot of the opera, like the opera itself, relies on the artifice of art to get its message across. Art is a means of arriving at a truth about inner sentiments that outside 'realism' might not be capable of reaching. Just as Mozart's music is a means of expressing those feelings in relation to love and fidelity in Così fan tutte, so too the use of theatre has the power to invent situations that put those feelings to the test.

The lesson that Don Alfonso has to impart to his students Ferrando and Guglielmo is not just that all women are by nature inconstant and unfaithful in their love, but rather that love is not some romantic ideal that we can choose to bend to our will. The heart has no master. The meaning and intent of this lesson is a serious one, but presenting it as a comedy does pose some problems that often tend to overshadow the truth of the work. Rather than play it straight with the two men donning stupid disguises as moustachioed Albanians that would fool no-one, there has to be some sort of complicity in going along with the game on the part of both men and their partners, Fiordiligi and Dorabella. It has to be seen as a role-play on some level that delivers the truth.

Gloger's idea of having Don Alfonso as a theatre director then has considerable merit, not least for the conceit of the two men dressing up and behaving out of character as they try and woo their respective fiancées into being unfaithful. As the theatrical sets and situations are levered into place, it is however clearly a high-level concept and not one could bear any realistic scrutiny. Suspension of disbelief is necessary, but at some level surely we must all realise when we go to the theatre or the opera that we are never watching realism on the stage, but just people acting. But acting for a good reason, which is to get to a deeper truth, and, let's not forget, to entertain. This production entertains and impresses and it even gets the all-important human message across through its art, but it does still feel a little too artificial.

It's through no fault of the singing or the musical performance. On every level this is an outstanding performance. While the characters are by no means interchangeable (other than for the necessities of the plot evidently), I often find that it's harder work to distinguish or perhaps care enough to consider what are the defining characteristics of the four main characters. They might not be as multifaceted and complex individuals as those in The Marriage of Figaro, but they can still have depth and personality. Genuine attention to the music and the arias show that this is the case and if it doesn't come across it not as much an issue with Mozart and Da Ponte's depiction but more likely with the direction or the singer's ability to bring something to their role. There is no issue at all with the singers here in the Royal Opera House production, but perhaps the direction doesn't do enough to highlight the contrasts and differences.

As far as singing and characterisation go the performances however are outstanding. Corinne Winters, Angela Brower, Daniel Behle and Alessio Arduini are just delightful as the confused lovers, each of them bearing equal weight, each of them meeting the challenges of the work, all of them bringing considerable youthful personality and sympathy to the roles in their individual arias, in their duets and ensembles. It's marvellous to see such a team interacting, working with each other in a way that illustrates all the points of the music and the drama. Sabina Puértolas too is one of the best Despinas I have seen, her singing performance impressive, bringing a lively fun personality and a sense of pleasure at mixing things up on the stage. The wonderfully versatile Johannes Martin Kränzle is comparatively rather restrained as Don Alfonso, but dressed in period costume as the 'director' (as Lorenzo da Ponte?), it was hard to really grasp his real nature here.

Musically too, there's a good performance here from the orchestra under Semyon Bychkov that keeps the tone deceptively light, but it's this tone that dominates without either connecting meaningfully or contrasting with what is going on up on the stage. While Gloger's sets carry the sense of game play and role play, each of the 'actors' playing their allotted roles, it all feels a little detached and doesn't find a way to carry through to the ambiguous feelings that linger with the revelations made at a very confused resolution. There's an effort made to end on a wistful note, but you never get the sense that there is anything serious at stake here and no one really gets hurt, which, for all the criticisms you could make about it, is not something you could say about Christophe Honoré's devastating conclusion in his production for Aix-en-Provence and Edinburgh.

Links: Royal Opera House

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Munich, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016

Kirill Petrenko, David Bösch, Wolfgang Koch, Martin Gantner, Robert Künzli, Benjamin Bruns, Emma Bell, Claudia Mahnke, Georg Zeppenfeld, Eike Wilm Schulte, Dietmar Kerschbaum, Christian Rieger, Ulrich Reß, Stefan Heibach, Thorsten Scharnke, Friedemann Röhlig, Peter Lobert, Dennis Wilgenhof, Goran Juric 

Staatsoper.TV - 8 October 2016

I wouldn't say that Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is an underrated work, but it's easier to come up with explanations why Tristan und Isolde or Parsifal might be considered above it as the supreme examples of Richard Wagner's craft and arguably even the apex of opera as an art form. Sometimes you just have to trust the evidence of what you are hearing however, particularly when this wondrous piece is played with as great sensitivity and attention to detail as it is here in the Bavarian State Opera's 2016 production in Munich under the direction of Kirill Petrenko.

What is great about the other two works lies primarily in their ambiguity and mystique, elusive qualities which of course are wholly within the intent and craft of the composer. Tristan and Parsifal are works that encompass human potential beyond the common experience, and as such they are works that are endlessly capable of being explored, adapted, reinterpreted and reimagined for new meaning as we continue to attempt to define and understand the conflicts between the physical, the divine and the spiritual aspects of what it means to be human and to aspire to something greater.

 Set alongside those mythical works, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg's historical setting and concerns seem rather mundane, its message abundantly clear in a late opera from Wagner that actually has a story and dramatic interaction rather than long philosophical monologues. On the surface, it's a simple enough story of a young man's who attempts to win over the influential elders of a town so that he can marry the daughter of one of Nuremberg most influential citizens, Veit Pogner. He does this of course by winning a singing contest and becoming a Mastersinger with the help of the town shoemaker, Hans Sachs. It seems a simple enough story of respecting German Art and tradition, of impetuous youth learning from the crafts of their elders before embarking boldly on their own course in life.

There are however many different facets to the work, much more than the relatively singular themes of Tristan und Isolde or Parsifal. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is richer in melody and ideas, it has moments of warmth and humour, melancholy and joy, it has a generosity of spirit and reveals a side to the composer that you won't find in any of his other great works. It has something profound to say about love, music, society, art, tradition and people as a nation in the past and going into the future, and how all these things come together to define who we are. Most importantly, for a work about art and the human spirit, it exhibits all these qualities itself; the music, the drama, the sophisticated human observations and characteristics displayed in the opera themselves testament of the highest achievements of art and humanity.

Although its qualities and the subject it deals with are as relevant now as in the 16th century setting of the work, Meistersinger is not a work one would feel needs any distinctive interpretation by a director, but it's a complex work of interweaving personalities and themes with specific tones in its musical arrangements, and it certainly needs strong controlled direction. It's hard therefore to see much of the hand of David Bösch in the Bayerische Staatsoper production, but it's to the credit of the director that all those elements of the work come across in a way that doesn't feel the need to create shock effects or strive to impress an unwelcome character on a work that largely - I'll come to the tricky bit later - doesn't court controversy or seek to impress. The director nonetheless still manages to find a setting that embodies the essential quality of the work and touches on its deeper meaning in a basic and modern context.

Bösch's production does start out however looking a little like Katharina Wagner's controversial Bayreuth production, with the leather jacket and t-shirt wearing Walther von Stolzing looking like the punk upstart who is going to shake up the deeply reactionary Nuremberg establishment. He even smashes up a bust of the eminent 'master' himself after his first failed effort at mastersinging. While Katharina Wagner perhaps over-emphasised the point that a certain amount of irreverence and healthy disrespect can play, total anarchy is not the answer and not within the better nature of art as an expression of the human spirit. David Bösch's production strikes a much better balance in tone, particularly in how von Stolzing's character is measured against this production's Sixtus Beckmesser and Hans Sachs, whose position is equally as important to the tone of the work as a whole.

All the wealth of characterisation and mood that is inherent within Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (just listen to the music - hear the evidence of your own ears) is all there in this production. Any uncertainty about the direction it might have taken in Act I is banished by the almost overwhelming riches that are revealed in Act II. The set might be more modern - Hans Sachs working out of a mobile workshop in a dark rundown backstreet of a modern German city - but the arrangement is the familiar one and all the playful, romantic episodes and complications play out wonderfully. The graffiti on Sachs' van and street thugs wielding baseball bats only emphasise that this is a town that has stagnated and seen better days, one that is in need of spiritual renewal as much as urban renewal. Beckmesser's mugging is not a racial or antisemetic attack as much as him being a victim of the society that he and his like have fostered, ignoring the people, refusing to hear what they really need, holding on to outdated ideas.

Beckmesser is nicely characterised in this way. He's not overbearing and he's not weak either; he's not a caricature, but just a boring old man who is a bit full of himself and refuses to budge. He's the Marker who is keen to record the faults of others but not recognise them in himself, although his lack of self-confidence is evident and it betrays his true nature in the end. All this is vitally important in the light of how a director approaches the rather more problematic conclusion of this opera, and what one makes of Hans Sachs' 'Honour your German masters' closing speech. One of Wagner's most controversial moments, its tone can strike a wrong note after all that has come before it and remind one a little too much of the sentiments expressed in Wagner's work that would appeal to Hitler and the Nazis. It has to be handled right, and it has to be in the spirit it was intended, seen in the light of the time it was written, but still be acceptable and work - as it essentially must - in a modern context.

If there's truth in the characterisation and adherence to the nature of all that has come before it, it can be made to work. David Bösch's direction of the final act shows the inner meaning of Hans Sachs' speech and its dedication to art. All the solemnity and respect for art is there, there's humour and tolerance and recognition of all the love of beauty and expression of man's finer nature that is in Walther's Prize song. It is about glorifying art, of the supremacy of art as the highest expression of what it means to be human; a creative endeavour that works for the betterment of community. Wagner's great work generously expresses all these qualities and the work itself expresses everything that is wondrous about art and humanity. But it's also important to make the point that it's not for the old to sing the words of the new, as Beckmesser attempts. The old must make way for the new, and that is recognised with a violent conclusion that makes all the necessary impact. 

It's a joyous production then, one which fully embraces the richness and the true intent of this great work. The evidence of your own ears should also tell you this and dispel any prejudices you might have held against the work or misjudgements that it might not be as sophisticated and beautiful as some of Wagner's other mature operas, because Kirill Petrenko's conducting of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester is just phenomenal. The music sparkles with little flourishes and nuances, all of the detail brought out of the characterisation, mood and situation. There's no overemphasis on the Romantic, the melancholic or the dramatic - it merely gives voice to the complexity of those sentiments in relation to one another, with surges of emotion, the little hesitations, self-denials, holding back and letting go to revel in moments of joy and beauty which are often contained within all in those situations that generate contradictory feelings. This opera more than any other Wagner work anticipates Richard Strauss at his finest.

The singing is mostly wonderful, but even where it is lacking the full ability to tackle the demanding roles, the characterisation is strong enough to compensate. It's the opposite though for Wolfgang Koch as Hans Sachs. There's not a great deal of character detail in Koch's interaction with the others, but the role is sung well with a natural warmth in his voice. Martin Gantner likewise gives an unexpected warmth and lightness to Beckmesser without any sense of caricature or over-playing. His fate in the very last scene of this production does give you pause to think about his role in this society. Robert Künzli is a wonderfully lyrical Walther, but rather rushes the Prize song and fails to give it due feeling. Benjamin Bruns gives us a fine lyrical David and consequently brings rather more out of the role than is usually the case. Emma Bell struggled as Eva, I thought, in characterisation and in voice, but there were some good moments there. Claudia Mahnke's Lena and Georg Zeppenfeld's Pogner were noteworthy, as was Eike Wilm Schulte's Fritz Kothner.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Glass - Einstein on the Beach (Châtelet, Paris - 2014)

Philip Glass / Robert Wilson - Einstein on the Beach

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris - 2014

Michael Riesman, Robert Wilson, Helga Davis, Kate Moran, Antoine Silverman, Jasper Newell, Charles Williams

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Although both Philip Glass and Robert Wilson remain major figures in the world of opera, the 2012-13 revival of their groundbreaking collaboration Einstein on the Beach, first performed in 1976, represents an opportunity to see the more radical roots of both the composer and the stage director. Einstein on the Beach seems to have sprung more or less organically from their days as part of a community of experimental artists in downtown New York, a circle also frequented by choreographer Lucinda Childs. The work was never created with the notion of it being an opera. It was just an opportunity for a group of like-minded experimental artists to collaborate together.

The fact that it required a stage big enough to encompass this unusual project led to Einstein on the Beach being performed in opera houses, but in retrospect, the work is clearly a combination of all the key musical and theatrical elements that go into the artform. Einstein on the Beach is a true Gesamtkunstwerk in that respect. There are words, there are stage sets, there's music, there's dancing. There is perhaps however one notable element missing from what we would normally associate with opera. One major element - there's a complete lack of any traditional dramatic narrative in Einstein on the Beach. One would even be hard pressed even to find an overarching theme or a concept in the work, but it very much has a purpose nonetheless.

Einstein on the Beach would later be considered alongside the subsequent Satyagraha (Gandhi) and Akhnaten as the first of Philip Glass's three portraits operas, but there's even less of anything like a conventional portrait of Albert Einstein in the composer's first work. In place of a libretto, the words are seemingly random, repeated, cut-up and recited texts by Christopher Knowles, Samuel M. Johnson and Lucinda Childs, with solfege and numbers reeled out at dizzying speeds according to the changing rhythms of 'Music in Twelve Parts'-era Philip Glass. Rather than employ an orchestra or use traditional string instruments, the music is played by the Philip Glass Ensemble on electronic keyboards, with flutes, clarinets and saxophones. Albert Einstein also appears as a character who plays the violin during the 'Knee-Play' connecting segments of the opera.

To accompany each musical sequence with chanted and recited texts, Robert Wilson transforms the stage with shades of luminous blue lighting, uses geometric shapes for props and has figures strike angular poses as they move around within these scenes. Lucinda Childs' dancers work with the settings, holding poses and shapes, or whirl across and off the stage in response to the wild repetitive rhythms of Glass's music. None of this however adds up to anything like a progressive dramatic arc or character development. In fact, the audience are not even expected to sit through the complete five hours or so of a work without intervals, but are actually encouraged to wander in and out of the theatre whenever they feel like it. It's unlikely anyone taking a short a comfort break will really miss anything here.

Whether Einstein on the Beach is performance art that reflects or perhaps tells us something about order in the modern world, about the place that mathematics and technology play in our lives (in the precise arrangements of the music score even more than in any of the texts) is up to the individual viewer to determine. It is what it is. Music with changing parts, immersive theatre and dance in its purest form - music as music, theatre as theatre, dance as dance. It's left to the viewer to take it in, absorb it, feel it, experience it and make something more of it if they can. It can be hypnotic ('Train'), exhilarating ('Field Dance I') irritatingly dull ('Trial'), haunting ('Bed') and often humorous, but the combination of those experiments and complementary art forms, always progressing and changing, mean that it's an incredibly immersive and involving experience. It's not a "message" opera, it's not a story opera, it's something else, something alive and bursting with energy.

As a means of experiencing Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach is also just about as pure and essential an example of both artists' work as you'll find in the music theatre world. It's a work that only really functions as it ought to in full performance. Critics and audiences reacted favourably when the show played at the Barbican in London, and it's tremendous to have the entire four and a half hour production recorded in High Definition at the 2014 shows at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

It comes across exceptionally well on the small screen, a spellbinding production of propulsive, hypnotic rhythms, voice and movement, with an exceptional cast who have to deal with some highly complex and physically exhausting arrangements. Some of the texts have been revised and replaced from the 1976 original, and the staging is perhaps a little more high-tech, but essentially this is very much in line with the original design and concept and it's a fine reminder of the experimental vitality of early Philip Glass. Robert Wilson's technique on the other hand hasn't changed that much.

The all-region compatible Blu-ray release has the benefit not only of a glorious High Definition presentation of Robert Wilson's exquisite lighting and colouration (the fine gradients of light and colour undoubtedly incredibly difficult to master for a video transfer), but the experience is enhanced through the uncompressed audio mixes. The surround-sound audio track of the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix in particular separates the vocal layering well. The BD comes as a 2-disc set in a hardcover book format case with a cardboard outer slipcase. There are no extra features on the discs, but the booklet contains interview excerpts from Glass, Wilson and Childs that explain how the work came to be created and how it has developed. There's also an essay on just what is unique and extraordinary about the work. There are no subtitles - as most of the texts are meaningless anyway - and there is evidently no synopsis. The chapter names and selection can be found from the pop-up menus while the disc is playing. 

Verdi - Macbeth (La Monnaie, 2016)

Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels 2016

Paolo Carignani, Olivier Fredj, Scott Hendricks, Carlo Colombara, Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Lies Vandewege, Andrew Richards, Julian Hubbard, Justin Hopkins, Gerard Lavalle, Jacques Does, Maria Portela Larisch, Boyan Delattre, Jules Besnard

ARTE Concert - September 2016

One thing you can say about productions at La Monnaie is that their stage designs are always impressively stylish. They never go for the straightforward or obvious locations, striving to find other ways to represent works in a bold, modern setting with unexpected concepts. It's also true however that they don't always fit perfectly and sometimes don't make a whole lot of sense, and that seems to be the case with their season opening production of Verdi's Macbeth. There may be some vague references made here to the upcoming US elections, but those are as vague and uncertain as the nature of what the future holds in store there.

Directed by Olivier Fredj, La Monnaie's Macbeth contains little overt reference to Scotland, and is instead set in a luxury hotel. I don't much fancy what they cook in the cauldrons down in the kitchen, but there are all kinds of schemes being cooked up in the hotel lobby as well. Lady Macbeth looks on at a couple nursing their baby there while she turns to her own dark ambitions on receiving Macbeth's letter of promotion. They will have no children of their own to leave with the fruits of their success, so why not make the most of the opportunities that are open to them and take what is ordained to be their due right now.

Macbeth's moment of decision is prompted by an omen. "Is this a dagger I see before me?" No, it's a piece of cutlery that has fallen off the room service trolley, but it's a good enough sign for Macbeth, and the ringing of a distant bell (on the reception desk) is all the invitation he needs to steel himself to kill the king, Duncan. Well, that and a bit of encouragement from his wife. The hotel locations are used in this way throughout and it's a natural place to have servants and maids in the present day, as well as a large banquet. It's also as good a place as any to show ambition, wealth and privilege, but problems with the purpose of the production go deeper than this.

The production at least retains a token suggestion of its original Scottish roots in the men's costumes. They don't quite go as far as wearing tartan kilts, but instead have a rather fashionable (in some circles I'm sure) powersuit with a long Alexander McQueen kind of overskirt. For her part, Lady Macbeth's style - particularly her hairstyle - becomes more noticeably more First Lady-like, with Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Regan references, settling in the end (somewhat randomly) for a deranged Queen Elizabeth I double-cornet red wig, which is of course dramatically removed during her downfall in Act IV. Macbeth's bouffant quiff and displays of wealth might be considered a reference to Donald Trump. If you want to however, the quotes of a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (which make it through from Shakespeare in a less poetic translation), are perhaps more eloquent on this point.

If the stage production is merely adequate for the purposes of the drama, with neither the direction nor Jean Lecointre's 'digital collage' projections really revealing any new insights or suggesting any real purpose, the singing and musical performance are unfortunately not quite up to the task of matching Verdi's thunderous sound and fury either. Scott Hendricks is surprisingly restrained and subdued in the performance of such a mighty role, not like himself at all. His singing is mostly fine and capable, but he doesn't always produce the most pleasant of sounds in the lower register. It was hard moreover to see any kind of character being established here - although part of the problem might be with Verdi - Macbeth here appearing to be confused and out of his depth the whole time.

There wasn't much to compensate in Béatrice Uria-Monzon taking on the role of Lady Macbeth. Uria-Monzon can be an explosive singer, but Lady Macbeth is not a role for a mezzo-soprano. Her 'La luce langue' just doesn't have the fireworks you would expect for the scene, and there's no sense of urgent over-reaching ambition or cool calculation in the performance. The direction never really permits much in the way of creating mood or atmosphere. 'Patria oppressa' works by taking the chorus out into the audience, but elsewhere they fall back on the now familiar theatrical device of being an audience seated at the back of the stage watching the action.

Paolo Carignani conducted Verdi's original 1847 version with a few revisions, which meant that we got the witches ballet in Act III and Macbeth's 'Mal per me' aria, as well as Lady Macbeth's 'La luce langue' from the '65 version. The compromise didn't lead to a particularly clear conclusion, with Macbeth vanishing after his aria and Malcolm reluctantly or warily approaching to take up his empty robe. Whether it was the performance or the recording, I don't know, but there was a lack of urgency to the musical arrangements. The melody was good, but it lacked rhythm, drive and dramatic engagement. This was a bit of a disappointing start to Carignani's tenure at La Monnaie.

Links: La Monnaie, ARTE Concert

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Bellini - Norma (Royal Opera House, 2016)

Vincenzo Bellini - Norma

Royal Opera House, 2016

Àlex Ollé, Antonio Pappano, Sonya Yoncheva, Joseph Calleja, Sonia Ganassi, Brindley Sherratt, David Junghoon Kim, Vlada Borovko

Cinema Season Live - 26 September 2016

What is a director to do with Norma? Like many bel canto operas, it would seem to be going a bit overboard to invest too much historical realism into a plot that is more concerned with the romantic complications and emotional states of its main characters, and the dramatic contrivances don't really lend themselves all that well to it being applied to a contemporary updating. Àlex Ollé, of the Catalan theatre group La Fura dels Baus, is not wrong however when he considers that there are deeper considerations at play here in Norma that pit individuals and human nature against social, religious and political forces.

Proving the point, the dramatic force of Bellini's setting of these issues is brought to life and fully felt in the musical and the stage direction of this highly charged Royal Opera House production, even if Ollé's Spanish Civil War-inspired setting doesn't really establish a convincing new context for the issues it raises. A production of Norma neither loses nor gains much from its ancient setting that pits the Gauls and their druids against the Roman occupying forces, but it is important and relevant in our own times to consider how religion can be used as a tool to motivate individuals towards actions that otherwise would be inconceivable.

What Norma should have is impact, and visually at least set designer Alfons Flores's forest of dramatically lit crucifixes matches the intensity of where the opera is pitched. Religious iconography is evident also in the priestly costumes, the children's choir, hooded processions and a huge swinging thurible solemnly wafting incense around during Norma's 'Casta Diva', and it's associated here with a fascist movement, Brindley Sherratt's Oroveso styled to look very like Generalissimo Franco. It's debatable that the analogy works - a suit-wearing Pollione hardly matches the image of the Romans as being Republican opposition - but the stage setting at least keeps the overarching theme very present throughout, suitably overblown to match the nature of the dramatic representation.

Such grand gestures are to be expected in Norma, and they serve their function well right through to the dreadful choices between following her heart or her duty that the priestess must weigh up in the second Act. The confused narrative of the production's analogy doesn't allow her sacrifice to appear as anything more than a grand gesture, but it certainly felt like it was a hard-reached decision of someone who has been pushed to the limits of what their conscience will endure. It takes a lot more than grand gestures to make that work: it takes some great singing.

Evidently much of that rests on your Norma. In the case of this production, the early withdrawal of Anna Netrebko proved to be a great opportunity for Sonya Yoncheva to show that she is ready to be catapulted to the same level of international stardom, and she rose to the occasion. This was an outstanding performance that felt like something very special indeed. Yoncheva might not be as studiously perfect in this role as Netrebko might have been had her voice not developed in other directions, but it contained every ounce of emotion required to grapple with the depths of the role, qualities that are very much there to be found in the music that Bellini wrote for this part.

Joseph Calleja was also outstanding alongside her as Pollione. Calleja has a classic romantic lyrical tenor voice, but he shows that he can also bring that vital edge of steely determination that is needed for this role. Pollione is not a straightforward character and not one that you can easily sympathise with, but he likewise has chosen to follow his own heart and risk betraying his own people, and he is prepared to suffer the consequences for it as long as innocent people do not suffer for his actions. Calleja's singing and acting performance grasped the nature of his character's grappling with this position and his voice rang out the truth of it.

Between Yoncheva and Calleja you have the makings of a great Norma here, and the production doesn't let them down on any other front. Adalgisa is a vital component who inadvertently sows the discord that leads to the tumultuous conclusion, but she is also the bridge that links up the dramatic and emotional undercurrents. Sonia Ganassi take this up well, but is particularly strong when she has to rise to Yoncheva's level in their Act I duet, 'Sola, furtiva al tempio', the two women's voices blending beautifully. Antonio Pappano's conducting emphasised the more dramatic side of the score while retaining its melodic qualities, the work as a consequence bristling with life and charged with emotion. The Royal Opera House production is everything that a good Norma should be.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Mascagni / Leoncavallo - Cavalleria rusticana / Pagliacci (Royal Opera House, 2015)

Pietro Mascagni - Cavalleria rusticana
Ruggero Leoncavallo - Pagliacci

Royal Opera House, 2015

Antonio Pappano, Damiano Michieletto, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Elena Zilio, Dimitri Platanias, Martina Belli, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Dimitri Platanias, Carmen Giannattasio, Benjamin Hulett, Dionysios Sourbis

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

It's not normally the first thing you think of when you go to watch a double bill of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, but Damiano Michieletto's 2015 production for the Royal Opera House started me thinking about verismo, what it means and why so little of it has stood the test of time. Post-Wagner and Verdi, verismo seemed to be very much the next step, giving opera the opportunity to explore the lives of ordinary people rather than those of heroes, gods and legends. Aside from Puccini, who never really could be associated closely with verismo post-La Bohème, verismo never really took off and hasn't left a lasting influence. Viewing the two great popular stalwarts of verismo in this production, however, perhaps the style made more of a mark than we think.

The definition of those essential verismo characteristics and perhaps the influence they extend over modern-day opera is highlighted I think by Damiano Michieletto's weaving together of the two genre-defining operas. The popularity of the double bill and their complementary compatibility has long been beyond question, but Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci are still viewed as entirely separate musical and dramatic entities. And for good reason, since for all the commonality in subject matter, Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo adopt very different approaches to musical storytelling. Giving both works a common setting however does provide a very vivid indication of the ground that verismo covered in the short period between 1889 and 1892.

What is particularly enjoyable about the Royal Opera House production is that it fully explores the context of the works and their themes and blends them together successfully, but it's not merely a directorial exercise. While the stage production brings out qualities that might have gone unnoticed before, it does so in a way that also manages to give the works their fullest expression. Damiano Michelietto's production is all about pushing the verismo to its extremes, and that means pushing both works to their extremes by playing to their respective strengths and qualities.

Seen in that context, if there's any single reason why verismo never really established itself as a force and turned out to be (debatably) an operatic dead-end, it's immediately evident in this production's opening for Cavalleria rusticana; too much verismo realism can kill you. Cavalleria rusticana wears its heart on its sleeve. It's an extraordinary work, too often seen as a kind of warm-up opener for Pagliacci, but I don't accept that it's the lesser work for a second - it's just different. In Pagliacci the passions are more internalised and leaning towards modernism, whereas Mascagni's approach looks back to Verdi, to melody aligned to pure melodrama, and does so by making the passions of the people hyper-externalised.

Certainly as far as Antonio Pappano directs the music and as far as Michelietto sets the drama of the music on the stage, this is life lived without restraint and played at full tilt. Passion, religion, sin, guilt, love and jealousy - this slice of Sicilian life is one lived fully and passionately. As far as verismo goes, that's not only opera dealing with real life, but life lived like an opera. There's no clever conceptualisation required here then, Michelietto allowing the singers full expression for the drama as it plays out, Pappano underlining every sweep and crescendo with a flourish. In a work like this, the impact is astonishing, all the more so when Michelietto takes a step like making the statue of the virgin come to life during the Easter parade. Here, religion is living and the pregnant Santuzza's sin feels as real and vivid to her as the ground she walks on.

Pagliacci might be a little more recondite in its play-within-a-play distancing, its clever use of commedia dell'arte themes and Leoncavallo is a little more modern in the musical expression, but the approach adopted here shows that there's merit in how this kind of overemphasis of the real pushes Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana almost into the surreal or hyper-real. Mascagni's extraordinary gift for melody is all the more apparent for this, as well as his ability to weave religious processions, church bells and local folk colour into the whole fabric of the lives of the work's characters. But it's not life lived without restraint. Eva-Maria Westbroek has spoken about the danger of being swept into the passions of the work and having to control her singing in this work, and it is important. All of the passions are channelled towards an inevitably tragic conclusion, and it's arrived at here with remarkable force and impact.

If there was too much overemphasis anywhere, it is perhaps in making a big deal of the imminent arrival of a troupe of actors in the town to put on a performance of Pagliacci and live out their own version of the tragedy mirrored in Cavalleria rusticana. Michelietto's direction makes good use of the Mascagni's inter-scene music to introduce the characters and situations that would play out in Pagliacci without letting them intrude on the importance of Cavalleria rusticana. The screen direction however, the performance filmed for the live cinema broadcast, made rather more of it, the focus of the camera drawing extra attention to the Pagliacci posters and the significant appearances of characters and situations that might otherwise have passed as local background colour. Just another slice of life.

Cavalleria rusticana is all externalised passions, Paolo Fantin's impressive revolving set fully used to show interiors and exteriors and the relationship between them - particularly as they relate to Santuzza's position in the community. By way of contrast, Pagliacci attempts to put a lid on the emotions through its transference of life into 'art' or performance in its play-within-a-play dramatisation. Again, Micheletto's direction of the performers and the build-up established through the previous work serves to be both a commentary on the nature of the work - on opera, on verismo, its origins and its progress - as well as being a slice of life drama in its own right, never failing to address the music and its dramatic function.

Those origins are not just those of the commedia dell'arte but also indeed Cavalleria rusticana. At this stage in the traditional performance of the double bill, the earlier work has been pushed aside and practically forgotten as we become caught up in the latest new drama. Michelietto's production - even bringing back Santuzza for a cameo appearance - doesn't let you forget however that Cavalleria rusticana is important to the whole tone of Pagliacci, and even shows how the two works have developed a kind of co-dependence. Even the "audience" of Pagliacci here have forgotten the "real-life" drama that has just recently taken place in their own town, sitting down to watch a "made-up" drama, and are unable to recognise the truth that lies behind them.

By this stage too many inverted commas in this review suggest that everything is getting a little too post-modern and over-ambitious in Michieletto's production, but Pappano's conducting and the committed performances manage to dial-down any fanciful ideas and sustain the actual drama, which in verismo you would imagine is paramount. Playing characters in both works, Aleksandrs Antonenko (Turiddu and Canio) and Dimitri Platanias (Alfio and Tonio) keep everything grounded in pure dramatic expression without overacting. Eva-Maria Westbroek's Santuzza is pushed further than most, but likewise holds to the line and essential tone established here. Carmen Giannattasio's Nedda has just as complex and dynamic a position to maintain and does so with tremendous personality. These are performances that work with the production to simultaneously hold one dramatically while at the same time suggesting and sparking off numerous other associations and ideas. Seen in this light, and setting it in the late 20th century, might even provide a clue to the significance of the 'missing link' between the past and the direction opera would take post-verismo.

The Blu-ray disc comes as a 2-disc set, which doesn't really seem necessary, as both are single-layer discs. Even less so since with Micheletto's production the two works are even more intertwined as one here. Colour and detail are all strong in the video transfers, but as usual it's the High Definition uncompressed audio tracks that are most impressive, particularly for works as dynamic as these. In addition to the usual LPCM stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio tracks there is also a Dolby True HD Atmos mix which my amplifier picked up as being a 7-channel mix, although it will also work with a 5.1 set-up. I don't know if there's a significant difference between it and the DTS mix, but both distribute the sound exceptionally well. The extra features are slim but the Introductions more than adequately cover the works and the production, and there's a short piece where Antonio Pappano looks at the music for both pieces. There's also a synopsis and a wonderfully detailed essay on the creation of the two work by Helen Greenwald in the enclosed booklet. The Blu-ray discs are region-free. Subtitles are in Engligh, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Royal Opera House

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Stravinsky - Oedipus Rex (Aix-en-Provence, 2016)

Igor Stravinsky - Oedipus Rex/Symphony of Psalms

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2016

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Peter Sellars, Joseph Kaiser, Violeta Urmana, Willard White, Joshua Stewart, Pauline Cheviller, Laurel Jenkins

Culturebox - 17th July 2016

The performance of Stravinsky's Oedpius Rex and Symphony of Psalms at the Aix-en-Provence festival is a perfect example of just what is so important and great about opera as a living artform. You can ponder the implications of Sophocles' Greek drama, you can give attention to where Stravinsky places emphasis in his reading of the material, and you can formulate all kinds of connections between the real-world and how it is presented on the stage. Sometimes however timing and events can add yet another entirely unpredictable and unforeseen element to give a work of art a life entirely of its own.

The event in question at the time of this July 17th 2016 performance of Oedipus Rex at Aix-en-Provence, was the terrorist attack a few days earlier in nearby Nice during the Bastille Day celebrations that resulted in 84 deaths. In the light of such a horrific event it becomes impossible not to look at this production in a different way from how it might have been originally intended, or from how you might have looked at it even a week earlier. If the production however touches on the essence of the questions raised in the ancient Greek drama, it will inevitably make its own truthful associations with those recent events, and Peter Sellars' production does seem to touch at the heart of them.

So while such events were evidently far from the mind of the original Igor Stravinsky/Jean Cocteau presentation of the Sophocles drama, its combination with Peter Sellars' modern dress production opens the drama up enough to allow it to resonate with such events. Suddenly, without it being the intention of anyone involved, you can see the fear and incomprehension of the French nation in the people of Thebes as they are afflicted by a terrible plague. You can see too how they would turn to their leader in this time of mourning to seek reassurance and protection. You can also see the powerlessness felt by that ruler - a man in a suit - who is ignorant of the part he has played in bringing this plague upon his people. In denial, feeling assailed and powerless to do anything else, his natural reaction is to strike out.

Sellars' direction might still be encumbered somewhat by familiar mannerisms and affectations, but there is unquestionably something absolutely right about the method employed if it allows those connections to be made. It's debatable whether the tribal wood carvings and throne add anything other than relating the present to antiquity, suggesting that there is a deeper human truth here that lies outside the surface considerations of time, place and dress costume. The chorus making exaggerated semaphored hand-signals is another affectation that doesn't really seem to add anything, but if without really being aware of it it makes the audience pay more attention to the words being expressed and it helps the chorus think about the importance and urgence of what they are singing, then it undoubtedly serves its purpose here.

I'm sure that the direction and the sense of occasion would have made its way into the singing performances as well. You can certainly get a sense of that in the performance of Joseph Kaiser as Oedipus. The ruler of Thebes is a man of authority and respect for his past actions saving the city, and Kaiser carries all of that in his lyrical tone, but there's an edge there as well as the enormity of his origins starts to become clear. Willard White is also fired up in this performance as Creon, Tiresias and Messenger, delivering messages that no-one wants to hear. In a role that is equally emotional, Violeta Urmana struggles however to contain and control it, her singing sounding rather wayward in a wavering line, but it's an intense performance. The speaking role of the narrator/Antigone shouldn't be underestimated for its importance in relating events and relating to the audience, and Pauline Cheviller gets that across with deep feeling.

Although musically connected, coming from the same period in Stravinsky's neoclassical style, it does seem odd to pair the Greek drama of Oedipus Rex with the Christian sentiments of Symphony of Psalms. Dramatically for the sake of the staging however, Sellers draws very loosely in this short presentation from Sophocles' 'Oedipus at Colonus'. Pauline Cheviller's Antigone is again the narrator who links the two parts together, and Ismene is played by a dancer. In this follow-up, the wandering blind Oedipus in exile is led by his daughter away from Thebes to be welcomed in Colonus near Athens, where he will end his days "with peace divine". Setting the Greek play to Symphony of Psalms does seem tenuous on a rational level, but rationality and suitability are not so much the point here as taking the lessons learned from Oedipus to the next stage on a human level.

The stage accordingly is emptied of any props, reflecting an Oedipus stripped of his former life, his position, his sight. Sellers uses lighting effects to describe his emotional state, some of which is rather Robert Wilson-like in effect, with a small neon square of light to the side of the stage being where Oedipus eventually is led and left to lie down and rest. It looks gorgeous and is a perfect accompaniment and setting for Stravinsky's beautiful music, conducted here wonderfully by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The singers again punch out the choral singing with arms and hands, and some ballet movements all contribute to reflect what is being expressed and how it relates to what is going on in world not so very far away from where this performance took place in Provence.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Culturebox